A/N: Sorry for the delayed update, I've had some issues working through the plot. Fair warning, this is a bit gruesome.
Can you guess what Mako and Bolin did to lose their hands/feet? You're about to find out!
And, hm... I wonder what the Other Thing is...
The blanket of night was restless. The nightmares were unmasked, the children weren't even granted the innocence and false security of a good dream then bad, but plunged into sour memories and gruesome recurrences.
"Mako, I'm cold."
"Mako, I'm hungry."
"When will Mommy and Daddy come back?"
The older boy turned from the chalk on the ground to his little brother. They were both too young for this. Too young to be street rats. Too young to be orphans. Too young to be studying human transmutation.
"Soon. I'm working on it."
The little green eyed boy's legs fell underneath him as he plopped onto the asphalt. One hand rubbed his nose and the other held his empty tummy. "How will they come back?"
"With alchemy," Mako said, feigning expertise. "We'll learn it, you and I. We'll learn it and transmute them back to life."
"But, I thought was book said that was bad," Bo pointed out.
The firebender shrugged. "Books lie." Even then, he had the smallest shard of doubt in his tattered heart. Human transmutation was a taboo, but what else was he supposed to do? Where was he supposed to go? He, a nine year old boy, and his brother just teetering over seven, on the streets. Where could they turn to? This time, there was no back alley, no alternate dumpster, no trick or grin that would get them what they wanted. It was all he could do to try.
Still, despite his ambition, he was not an alchemist. He had trouble grasping even the simplest techniques and theories, and even then, performing the movements was another story entirely. But his brother watched from the sidelines as the elder boy scraped his hands with concrete and broken chalk, and Mako knew there wasn't much time before they'd starve, or be put in a home. The sun rose and dipped and Mako's hands bore the scars of practice and limited progress.
She did not remember her parents. She hardly remembered her own childhood. Sometimes, in day dreams or nightmares, old memories were unearthed, dusty and clouded, from the back of her head. Terrible images like from a horrible picture book. She'd run to Gran Gran and ask timidly, hands wringing behind her child's back with anxiety, and horror. The old woman's expression did not falter. "Yours is a long story. Maybe some other time." She'd wave her hand dismissively, closing the conversation.
Most nights, under the freckled stars, this was the extent of her frights. But of course, because the brothers were home, the terror would not stop there. Tonight she'd wrestle and squirm to relive a horrific tale that was not even her own.
"Who are you?" she blinked.
"We already said. I'm Mako; this is my little brother Bolin." He gestured a stump to the boy beside him who was shoveling spoonfuls of stew into his mouth as the stubs of his legs dangled over the edge of his chair.
"I mean ... where're you from? What are you doing here? Where are your hands and his feet?"
The one called Mako swallowed. "Do you have a bathroom?"
"Behind the stairs."
Later, as Korra climbed into bed, Gran Gran folded the covers back, a gesture that seemed natural to anyone, but was really a sign of affection, because who else was going to send you off to a land of monsters and darkness?
"Don't ask too many questions to those two, not yet. Right now, it's important that we get them into some quality automail. Just let them be. Boys don't show up anywhere with no hands or feet without a painful story on their backs."
Young Korra nodded. She had no idea.
As quickly as the days come, the next two years passed under her eyelids, a scrapbook with missing pages and sour mementos.
"Hold still, I can't measure your feet with you squirming around!"
At the click of boots, the brothers left and returned with watches and titles.
Automail. Fourteen months of recovery.
"Leave me alone, I'm reading!"
"Leave me alone, I'm practicing."
"You broke your automail again?"
"We are not going to Rush Valley!"
"Korra, stop being so loud!"
And ... there was that other thing ... But no, she didn't even want to think about that.
But trapped amongst these memories was that one memory. It wasn't automail. It wasn't reading, practicing, or even the Other Thing. It was truly a horror, truly something from a nightmare. But it was worse than a nightmare, because it was one hundred percent real.
The tension at the table was thick in the air.
"We've outfitted you with top-notch automail. We've allowed you to stay here, in our care, in our home. We've not asked you any questions, made no assumptions or judgments. But now, we need answers." Gran Gran sat back in her chair, hands resting on the table. "Tell us everything."
"When I was nine and Bo was seven, our parents were killed. We didn't have any other family members that we could go with, so we lived on the streets."
From the rehearsed tone of his voice, Korra wondered how many times Mako had to tell this terrible story.
"We – we didn't know what to do, we were young, and-"
"Don't make excuses for yourself," Gran Gran said strongly. "Just stick to what happened."
Mako nodded thickly while Bolin stared down at his lap. Were his eyes guilty? "So," Mako continued, "I thought we could use alchemy to return our parents to us."
Korra's mouth made a small oval in shock, but Gran Gran was unflappable as always.
"I tried to study alchemy, but I just didn't get it. I was young-" he caught himself. "I eventually understood the basic movement of transmutation and I was able to replicate a human transmutation array. Bolin and I gathered the necessary elements to account for two adult bodies. But then ... that night I had a dream. There was a higher force that told me: 'Equal exchange: a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.' I thought of it as an omen, or the word of a god. So, thinking that was all we had left to do, we..." He swallowed and stared dead into Gran Gran's eyes. There was hardly any room for shame in his even voice, no space for pity in his hard eyes. "I sawed off Bolin's feet and he my hands. We had the transmutation circle and the elements already set up and all, so we added the hands and feet to the array and performed the clapping movement. I don't know what I, we, expected, but ... nothing happened."
Korra gasped and her mind went white. Bolin's eyes didn't leave his lap, but Gran Gran nodded as if she'd already heard this tale. Like she expected it.
Mako swallowed again. "And ... we worked to improve our bending to stay on the streets, since we'd given up on alchemy and bending was all we had. Then we heard of you, the esteemed automail mechanics in Resembool. We traveled, and now ..." He put his automail palms on the table, as though folding closed a story book. A horrible story book, Korra thought.
The old woman nodded again. The story was not complete. There were still gaps and holes and tears in the binding, but she nodded nonetheless. "Okay. Go to bed." Her tone was not accepting, not even kind, but it was neutral, almost indifferent.
Mako stood and left the room, Bolin the ruffled duckling following closely. Korra sat in shock, jaw slack. They ... they sawed off ...
"What are you still doing there?" Gran Gran called from the doorway. "Go to bed."
Her eyes eased open. She'd dreamt this so many times, it was hardly a shock to her now. The dream itself was not a surprise, but what did send shivers down her spine was simply the thought of those brothers putting a saw to their wrists or ankles.
She could not do much for them, sitting at her workbench. She could repair their automail, wash blood from their shirts and pick potatoes from the garden any day. What really mattered, though, was not her wrench, her workbench, or her blueprints. It was not her washboard or her apron. What mattered was that she could stay in the creaky Resembool house and give the young brothers of saw a place to go home to.