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His chin rests on the rim of the canoe as he watches his brother leave. "Bye, Mako," Bolin yells after him, waving his arm, but the firebender doesn't answer, vanishing into the crowd. "Good luck!" With a sniffle the earthbender slides into the canoe bottom, his left hand touching the still stinging cheek. Raising himself up over the side, he gazes at his own reflection in the sparkling waters of the bay: A red mark shows clearly against his skin. But beyond that, he can see his bright green eyes, Mommy's eyes, and a cattish grin. Blinking at himself, Bolin reaches out a hand and plinks the surface of the water with a finger, laughing out loud at the ripping wave. As he leans even further, Bolin suddenly senses the canoe tipping under him, and next thing he knows his entire world is water.
His limbs flail of his own accord, churning through the bay, pain exploding in his eyes, his throat, his chest. Somehow the combination of his motions catapults him above the surface. "Mako! Mako, help!" He gasps for breath, his lungs burning, and feels wildly for earth. It sings to him with Mommy's voice. The earthbender grasps it with his fingertips, then kicks upwards towards it, needing to reach it before the water sucks him away entirely. Out of nowhere the wooden dock smashes him on the forehead, but Bolin grabs hold of it, pulls himself up.
Faintly he calls his brother's name. A spurt of water erupts from his throat, spraying the dock. Collapsing, Bolin silently waits for Mako's embrace.
Though he doesn't entirely understand why, his brother never comes.
After a time, the agony in his lungs drains away. Involuntarily Bolin coughs several times more prior to scrambling to his feet, the midmorning sun shining into his eyes.
On his right side, a few boats bob innocently on the bay, characters festooning the sides, some of which he can't read. On his left, a giant fishing barge is setting off, the waterbenders on deck propelling it to carve through the waves more rapidly than propellers.
Yet the canoe is nowhere to be seen.
Bolin gulps another breath of air, unspeakably grateful to whatever spirits opted to pull him out of the water, and rubs his eyes. "Mako?" he tries, aware that his brother has gone to the market. "Canoe? Canoe, where are you?"
The bay is quiet.
The earthbender rubs his nose on his wrist, sniffling again and sitting down on the harbour. His mind tracks steadily through his choices, centring mostly on following Mako to the marketplace after all to meet him. Beaming at his brilliant idea, Bolin springs up and bounds across the dock, relishing the sound of his heels slapping against the wood. He hums a tuneless ditty as he skips through the street, smiling at the passers-by and tipping imaginary hats to them while he searches for the market. Turning the corner on a street he swears he recalls from last time his brother took him to the market, the earthbender hears a noise coming from an alleyway. A mewling.
Bolin pauses and ducks into the alley, dodging a tall lady with a dress seemingly made entirely of green feathers. The temperature is cooler here, vestiges of last night's snow hidden away on the edges, and his exhalation puffs out into a cloud. When he inhales, he's hit with a rank scent. Before Bolin can investigate, the mewling sounds again; the earthbender cocks his head and notices an inconspicuous black box waiting expectantly to his right complete with a crudely hand-written sign faded by time and weather: For free. Squeezing his hand underneath the lid, he flips it up, his eyes adjusting to the darkness in time to see an entire miniature pile of furry red things.
"Kittens!" Bolin squeals, clapping eagerly and clutching the rim of the dumpster to launch himself into it, feeling the warmth radiating from the tiny bodies. He can't remember the last time he's seen kittens of any kind, and he hopes these are hamster cats kittens, their pudgy forms so fun to hug. One near his head mewls and squeaks. Laughing, the earthbender pulls that one out from the pile and embraces it, giggling when the tiny creature licks his cheeks and nose with a rough little tongue. The kitten's ears twitch, its tail curling up against his arm. Bolin glances down at the animal and finds himself reflection in a pair of liquid amber-brown eyes, the creature's face a pattern of red and white.
"You're not a kitten," Bolin says as if chastising his new friend. "You're a silly widdle fire ferret."
The fire ferret sneezes; its fur poofs out, standing on end, and the earthbender cries out with delight at the red puffball in his arms. A memory of Mommy—talking about the pets she had when she was little—pops to mind. "Pabu," he decides firmly, then frowns. "But what am I going to name all your brothers and sisters?"
Pabu chirps and pokes his snout into Bolin's pocket. The earthbender hears the crunch of fire flakes and giggles. "You like 'em?" Digging his hand into his other pocket, he grabs as many as he can and drops them onto his stomach, nudging the other fire ferrets. "You guys want some, too?"
None of them move.
Eyes narrowing, he strokes one of the other red puffballs and is abruptly surprised to feel how cold it is compared to Pabu. A fire ferret topples from the top of the pile, and the rank scent grows worse.
Bolin gasps and clutches Pabu close to him. For a heart-pounding few seconds he can't feel the edge of the box, but at last he finds it and hooks his arm over it to climb up and tumble out, his side hitting the ground hard enough to make him pant heavily.
Without looking back, the earthbender takes off, arms clasped around Pabu's warm body, begging the spirits to guide him to Mako.
And then he hears his brother's voice.
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