A/n: Hello there! Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with Mako. I think his character is super interesting, but that some of his actions in season one of Korra were... regrettable, to say the least. I started this fic after seeing episode three, where Mako said that he did some work for the gangs back in the day. It was supposed to be a oneshot, but then became a character study that covers some major events that take place between the death of the brothers' parents and the end of season one. This fic will be five chapters, uploaded at a relatively quick pace!

The story itself is written in a sort of funky way, with dialogue saved for only the most critical moments. I was afraid that people might not get why I did it that way - I tried to model it after witness testimony, with very factual statements superimposed over the actual message... I may have completely failed at this. But if not, hooray! Let's see how it goes.

Crit and comments are always appreciated. Good luck!

A thousand thanks to wherewulf, my wonderful beta. You're one of a kind, and your comments are always just what I need.

WarningsThis story includes either explicit or implied: Character death, poverty, abuse, child abuse, non-con, dub-con, prostitution, drug use, drug abuse, swearing, sex, underage sex, imprisonment. Note that sex scenes are not described to smut-level, but include before-and-after descriptions that are notable enough to earn a warning. Please feel free to PM me before reading if you have any other questions/concerns!

Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.

Happy Reading!


Arrearage Testimony

Arrearage (noun, \-ij\) – A legal term for the part of a debt that is overdue after missing one or more required payments. The amount of the arrears is the amount accrued from the date on which the first missed payment was due. The term is usually used in relation with periodically recurring payments such as rent, bills, royalties (or other contractual payments), and child support.

xXx

At eight years old, Mako learned a lot more about the world than he cared to know.

Everything before eight years old was a simple, modest life that he did not lament because he never knew any better. Every day his mother dressed in the same jumpsuit and kissed her sons goodbye before going to work in Earthbending construction. Once she had left, Mako's father prepared for the three other family members a small breakfast, then broke the day into intervals of play and homeschooling. Mako could live with this. By nature he was very curious, outspoken, and affectionate, which made him both an excellent student and doting brother. In the rare circumstances where Mako's father found work Lightning Bending in the power plant and had to leave his sons home alone, Mako adopted the role of guardian. He made sure the stove was off, kept Bolin away from sharp objects, and never let strangers into the house. Through the first seven years of his life, Mako learned the basics — how to play nice, a little bit of Firebending (his father said he was a natural), how to read, and even some math, for which he had an affinity.

At eight years old, Mako learned about loss and terror. He learned about police officers. He had thought that police people were mean and scary, but the woman who pried him away from his motionless parents and escorted him to the hospital was very nice. She didn't smile very much, and she had a scar on the side of her face that Mako tried not to look at too much, but she was not upset with him. She was upset, for sure, but not at him. She even let him keep the scarf his father had been wearing when the Firebender attacked them, even though it was far too big and hung down by his knees. Mako saw this lady several times—that first day, and then a few days later when she came to interview him about the man who had hurt his parents, and then when she picked he and Bolin up and brought him to their new home.

Mako learned what an orphanage was, and how it was hard to sleep with so many children around, and how his brother did not understand that they would not see mommy and daddy again. Mako learned about discipline, the means by which the orphanage bosses made sure that nobody took extra food at dinner. Two years later, after the head of house told him that he—and only he—had been adopted, Mako learned to tie knots and escaped out the third-story window with his brother clinging to his back, leaving a long rope of bedsheets as evidence. Mako learned about real estate, when he took his brother and ran away to their house, only to find that someone else was living there.

Then Mako learned what it was like to be hungry. He had been hungry before, if his mother made a small dinner or when the people at the orphanage wouldn't let him eat his fill, but never like this. He was hungry, cripplingly hungry, so that the aching in his belly made him impatient when his brother cried and cried and cried. After rummaging through a restaurant's garbage bins, be and Bolin both learned about food poisoning. Nobody wanted to hire a ten-year-old boy for work, first because he was underage and second because he had neither the strength for hard labor nor the knowledge for skilled labor. For a while he tried to earn money by performing Firebending, but the few yuans he collected were hardly enough to purchase a few mouthfuls of bread and clean water.

He tried fishing, too. He imagined that it would be an efficient means of feeding his family (especially since he could more or less cook his catch), but after his first attempt Mako learned that fishing in Yue Bay and the surrounding bodies of water were only allowed by permit. When he tried fishing late at night, he learned that these areas were patrolled by guards with nothing better to do than threaten to beat potential fishers.

Eventually Mako found a system that worked. In talking to some of the other kids who hung around Republic City Station, Mako learned about a single shelter that was open three days a week and served meals to people in need. Immediately Mako collected his brother, gathered up their few belongings (a few picture books, a stuffed platypus bear, and a knife that he had found discarded in the park water fountain) in their blanket, and headed to the shelter. Three days of the week (every other day, and then two without) they were able to eat enough to sustain them until next time, and slept in a soft cot amidst a group of other people). They even had showers, which saved them the embarrassment of getting caught bathing in the park in the middle of the night.

During the day, Mako took Bolin to the public library. He couldn't get a library card because he didn't have parents to sign the responsibility waver (or identification for that matter), but as long as they stayed in the building, they could use the books all day. Mako taught Bolin to read; not only was this a critical skill (or so his father had always said), but he found that disappearing into other worlds took his thoughts away from the forlorn growling of his stomach. Bolin liked books about animals and refused to leave the children's section, where he would stay and read very basic stories about fire ferrets and flying bison from open to close.

Mako particularly loved stories about the Avatar. He read about Aang and the founding of Republic City, about the war, and about how he brought peace to the world. Avatar Aang was only alive for the first few years of Mako's life, but Mako liked to imagine that if Avatar Aang were still around, he could help him and his little brother and all the other hungry kids find food and people to take care of them. He imagined that the new Avatar might already be learning the elements, and would someday come and help him practice Firebending and teach Bolin Earthbending (the latter's skills had only recently come out). Whenever the brothers were by the bay, Mako would peer across to Avatar Aang Memorial Island and make a silent wish.

But these were fantasies, of course. Mako tried not to let his heart attach to the idea that anyone was ever coming to help him. So far his hopes had lead to disappointment and anger. Instead of dwelling on these stories, Mako forced himself to put down the histories and turned instead to math books. These not only made sense to the young boy, but could also be applied in everyday situations. Once, while buying dumplings, he calculated the tax and realized that the grocer had short changed him half a yuan. The grocer had told Mako that he was wrong, that he couldn't possibly know better than an experienced grocer, and struck him about the ears before chasing him out of the store… but Mako had been right, and vowed never to let an adult outsmart him again.

The library was a safe house during the day, where he could get snacks for little to no money, but during the night the librarian had to kick them out. Mako spoke with the kind old man on my occasions (the old man didn't seem to mind the brothers' excited questions, and he told stories without even eyeing Mako's dirty clothes). The man almost seemed sad to see the brothers totter out at closing time.

In the evening they mingled with the other kids, running about for a game of kickball or gossiping about their latest shenanigans. Bolin, who had an almost startling ability to make friends, often played with the kids until well after dark, conversing with pretty girls without even a hint of embarrassment. Mako, daunted with the constant equation of finding tomorrow's meal, was not quite so outgoing as his little brother; he sat back and watched, sparing conversation only to those who initiated it.

Anyone caught trying to steal food or money from another kid was fair game for fighting. Luckily this only happened to them once, and was not likely to happen again; Mako spotted someone picking a yuan out of Bolin's pocket, jumped him, wrestled it out of his hands, and had to be dragged off of the thief to keep from seriously harming him. Mako tried to keep himself and his brother out of trouble, but sometimes tempers unraveled when food was scarce. Nobody blamed him for protecting his family. Better still, nobody tried to steal from the brothers after that.

At night they slept on the outskirts of the station, in a hidden groove between two tall buildings. Mako had found it while picking through a dumpster at the end of the alley where the backs of three apartment complexes met. At the junction of two, there was a gap between the walls that was sealed off at the far end so that shoppers on the other side of the building needn't look into the dingy alleyway while they ambled from shop to shop. Once Bolinlearned how to put a roof over their heads—his Earthbending training was limited to what he could learn by watching other street kids (and his brother's Firebending)—they turned the gap into a makeshift shelter into a lockable door. Through the thick walls they could sometimes hear the goings-on within the shops, and kept quiet during business hours lest they be forced out of their new home.

Every day was a little different, but each ran along the same general scheme. Some days they ate enough and kept warm and happy, while others were not so successful. Win or no win, Mako said to his brother, every day they were going to try.

This went on for four years, with the brothers educating themselves during the day and hiding from the gangs at night. In wintertime they hid from the cold, in summer from the sun. They were hungry, yes, but the shelter's lukewarm meals kept them fed enough. When Mako hit his growth spurt at twelve, his appetite tripled and the shelter workers began to sneak him extra meals when the managers weren't looking. Soon he had grown out of his clothes and had to spend precious money on a new shirt and pants.

Then there were other distractions, ones he didn't tell his little brother about. Long after Bolin had fallen asleep, Mako lay awake with his mind and body restless. The growth spurt had been a threat to survival, a nuisance that left him hungry even when they had a relatively large meal. After years of scant portions and unpredictable eating patterns, one learned to ignore hunger of the regular sort. The trouble was that, at twelve, he had developed a sort of secondary hunger that was harder to ignore (and almost impossible to explain). At first Mako thought there might be something wrong with him. His mind was distracted from survival, drawn to chasing the skirts of passers-by and blushing over the ideas in his head. To address this problem he returned to the library, sneaking off to the human development section once Bolin had buried himself in a set of Earthbending scrolls.

Mako quickly learned that he wasn't falling apart (as he had feared), and that what he was going through was apparently one of the most normal things in the world. Quite the opposite of his fears, he was moving out of boyhood at last. Unfortunately, nobody had thought to give him this information before he had fallen into a semi-panic, reading through chapter after chapter in a desperate attempt to play catch-up. Suddenly the vulgarities put forth by many of the other orphans made sense. And though Mako found some peace in the fact that these books could fill in the gaps, he wished more than ever that he had someone he could talk to about it. Normally when he needed answers he asked the librarians, or the other kids. But for some reason these matters in particular remained strangely hushed, as if the topic were disgraceful unless discussed with parents (the latter was only an assumption—they had to learn it from somewhere). Even the texts, his makeshift mentors, treated the matter quite clinically, impersonally, with a strange air of forbidding. In the long term these lessons helped, but they did not stop the immediate symptoms.

During one sleepless night a few weeks after his research, Mako slipped out from the alcove and wandered into the station, where he often heard peoples' voices late at night. He had known for years that the "big" kids — usually the older ones, from his age to sixteen or so, who he only recognized from their regular appearances at the shelter — congregated in the late evening to do whatever they wanted while the crowds were away. They smoke and drank and swapped stories, a half dozen of them at a time, sometimes blasting music loud enough to wake Mako and Bolin before the police inevitably chased them off. Tonight they were at ease, lounging around at the feet of Fire Lord Zuko. Mako spent several nights appraising them, usually sitting in the shadow of the nearest building's facade and watching whatever events took place. If the group knew that he was there, they didn't mind very much. They mingled without any of Mako's hesitation, chatting amongst each other, laughing, kissing their partners. They were a bit vulgar at times, using language that Mako didn't dare around adults (in fact he had learned this lesson the hard way, after calling a police officer a rather nasty name and earning himself a kick in the shins).

After a few nights of quiet observation, someone finally decided to approach the kid sitting by himself in the dark.

She introduced herself as Nikka. Nikka was three years Mako's elder, and one of the night crowd's ring leaders. A non Bender (though born of Waterbending heritage, she pointed out), she picked fights with the other kids and spoke about the world as if she knew it personally. For some reason she took an interest in Mako, having seen him about with his little brother in tow and watched his overlarge scarf trail down by his waist. Nikka pulled him up from his seat, tugged him over to the rest of the group, and soon Mako became a regular member of the group. His first cigarette brought about a good deal of coughing on his part and entertainment for the rest of the group ("Not quite so tough, are ya, new guy?" said one member). Eager to assimilate with the rowdy bunch, Mako joined them late at night when the city slept and crept off to bed in the hours before dawn, feeling only somewhat guilty that he was leaving his brother alone (Bolin was a sound sleeper and likely didn't know the difference). And anyway, he was just a shout away from the sleeping space.

As a group member Mako spoke with Nikka's same authority, though only when he was sure of the topic at hand. In conversation on things he didn't know, he was silent but attentive, listening eagerly for something that might help him conquer poverty. He laughed at crude jokes and teased the other kids when they teased him, sometimes smoked but stubbornly declined the invitation to drink (in case his brother should need help). The others, he felt, had let this life overtake them. They spoke freely of dreams they never intended to chase — one wanted to be a professional Bender, some wanted to get rich, and others wanted to find a place where they fit in. Some of them declared that they enjoyed living the nomadic life. They were free, without materialistic wants and petty obligations weighing them down. Many of the oldest (or those who could pass as older) had found work doing odd jobs or picking pockets and moved on over time. At twelve, Mako learned about the various gangs that ran the city, and how some of the teens associated with them when times were particularly rough. He learned that they employed underage folks for different jobs, and that the jobs could turn out a lot of cash at the personal risk and expense of the employee.

Hanging out at night left him tired during the day, but being around people his age (and older) gave him a strange sort of satisfaction. Nikka had especially captured his attention, with her apparent knowledge of everything from the inner workings of the Triad to how the government ought to alter the stock market. She stood with her back straight and her shoulders squared, and when she walked her long ponytail swayed down the length of her back. There was something strange about her, though. Often she didn't come to their nightly meetings, or arrived late looking like a ruffled mess. Nobody seemed to think twice about her behavior, and Mako began to wonder if everyone knew something that he didn't. He never asked. In due time he would know, but for now he was content to talk and listen.

Yet still the itch remained. It was not until later, after about a month of sneaking around behind his brother's back, that Mako found himself alone at the station. There had been times when there were few to no people present, especially when there were rumors of night work at the factory and the older teens ran for the job. Mako sat at the base of the statue for a while, picking at the blades of grass that had pushed their way up through the concrete. He hadn't been able to sleep anyway. It was the shelter's off night, and Mako had given whatever scraps he could find to his brother under the pretense that he himself had eaten earlier.

The sound of a slamming door roused him out of a semi-trance, and Mako looked up in time to see a satomobile peel down the road. A moment later, Nikka was walking toward him with her sole bag of possessions slung over one shoulder, the lit end of her cigarette casting her face in amber. Once she reached him, she explained that she was supposed to have work but that the job never happened. And though she did not explain further, Mako understood that he would have a partner in hunger come tomorrow. They eyed each other for a few moments, Nikka flicking the butt end of her smoke while Mako looked up from his place on the ground. Then she offered him a hand, hoisted him to his feet, and asked him to walk.

Keeping within running distance to Mako's shelter, they wandered just a little further than normal. Nikka was oddly silent tonight. She smoked her cigarette down to her fingertips and squashed the end into the dirt with her heel. More than once they made sidelong eye contact and broke it, an unusual gesture. Mako, who had been on-guard since recognizing the satomobile to be that of a gang member, finally asked if she worked for the Triple Threat Triad. She said yes. He asked what she did. She replied "stuff". Quietly they walked.

Finally, after an uncharacteristic silence, Nikka stopped and tugged him into an adjacent alleyway. At first he was alarmed and for a crazy moment thought she was going to pull a knife on him (as if he had anything to offer). Instead she did the only thing that could have surprised him more. She pressed his head between her palms and kissed him on the mouth. Mako broke it and stumbled backward until his shoulders bumped the brick wall, throwing his arms up before him in a defensive Firebending stance and stammering in confusion. He demanded to know what she thought she was doing. In turn, Nikka stared blankly at him for almost a half minute. Then she took her bag from her shoulder and dropped it to the ground.

"You asked what I do," she said. "Would you like me to show you?"

Astounded, Mako looked at her again. Since he first met her, he had thought her more beautiful than all the other girls around. But now that she was up close, he realized that she was just like him. Her skin stretched taut over her collar bones, her dirty hair hung limply across her face. He caught the smell of smoke on her breath as she stepped forward again. In the dim light the circles beneath her eyes were as dark as bruises, as dark as his.

Her hands sought the tie on his waistband, and as twelve-year-old Mako felt his limbs begin to tremble, he whispered an earnest, "Yes."

This relationship continued for almost a year, Mako serving as an attentive ear to Nikka's stories while she served him in other ways. First he felt immensely guilty and resisted her advances, consenting only when she insisted that she was acting of her own accord. Limited time and privacy meant that their secluded meetings were usually quick, but they kept the itch at bay and solved Mako's hunger-driven insomnia. Mostly he thought that Nikka was just looking for a gentle touch. Often times her torso was blotched with black and blue. One time he noticed a hand-shaped mark on her upper arm, but he kept this mouth shut. It was neither his place to speak nor to judge.

Aside from his escapades with Nikka, little else had changed. Mako turned thirteen, and Bolin surprised him on his birthday with a gift — the first he had received in years. The younger brother explained that, while Mako was looking for work one day, a shopkeeper had pulled up in a truck and offered Bolin a sizeable sum in exchange for helping him unload an order of fruit. Bolin had agreed, assisted, and with the earnings bought a small cake from the bakery and a book of math problems from the library's discounted sale bin. He hadn't wrapped the book, but understood by Mako's startled silence that its recipient was deeply touched. Mako scolded his brother for spending money on unnecessary things, pulled him into a tight hug, and then helped him devour the cake.

The months following Mako's thirteenth birthday marked a significant high point in his life thus far. That month Hiroshi Sato opened his second satomobile factory, and civilians from all over flocked to pick up shifts. Even Mako, whose ankles now stuck out from the hems of his pants, was able to convince the manager that he was sixteen and old enough to work. During the day he sent Bolin to the library (though he knew that Bolin often left and wandered around the old station with his pals) and went to work for a meager wage, shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the flames lit.

At night, after he had spent the day's earnings on dinner and sent his brother to bed, he met Nikka at the usual place. It was a secret strictly between the two of them, held under the noses of the other kids without attracting any suspicion. Together they would walk along the darkened path, Mako listening as Nikka told him all about her latest plot. Tonight in particular, as the year was closing in on him, turned out to be significant. Evidently the satomobile industry affected Nikka's work as well, for she had almost saved enough to purchase a ticket to the Northern Water Tribe. Her mother had emigrated from there, she explained, and her best plan for starting over was to move back. Apparently there things were different. The tribe's people looked after one another up north.

Her excited voice drifted as they reached their sacred spot. The apprehension that he used to feel upon their arrival had long since faded, replaced by anticipation and a hyper-awareness of all his senses. Tonight Nikka took her time. She lingered where she generally sped, grabbing tufts of Mako's hair in each hand, biting a quiet murmur into the shoulder of his tunic. He was painfully gentle, almost reverent in his touches, too scared of triggering some terrible memory in her to force her closer. But it didn't matter. Nikka took advantage of her control, as if Mako was her only opportunity to seize it back, and by the time it was over neither of them could speak.

He should have known that this was the last time they would meet, but he didn't. And when Nikka didn't come back the night after, or the night after that, he began to worry that maybe the Triad had gotten sick of her. It wasn't until years later, after the late night crew had all disappeared or moved on, that he ran into one of the kids who had been closest to her (now grown up, though hardly in better shape than he had been in his teens) and asked if he ever heard from her. The man blotted his cigarette on the park bench and blew a breath of smoke into the air.

"There's nothin' to hear," he said. "Goro — remember him? Scrawny little guy — anyway, he tells me she got knocked up and tried to run off to the homeland. Paid the captain of a merchant ship to take her on their trip north. But then I guess they had a run-in with some pirates and the whole boat was burned down. No survivors. Real shame."

So Nikka, too, had lost her fight against the City. Mako walked. Sometimes it was better not to ask.

The market dipped again about six months after Mako last saw Nikka. This time it was a supply-and-demand issue — everyone who wanted a satomobile owned one, which put a freeze on production and set a mass of people out of work. The lack of spending meant that the government imposed a funding cut, and one day Mako and Bolin arrived at the shelter to find that it had closed. Mako stopped hanging out with the night crew. With Nikka gone, he found that he couldn't deal with their hijinks anymore; it simply stopped being worth the time.

There was literally nothing either of the brothers could do to make an honest yuan. Both tried their hand at pick-pocketing, but Mako was no good at it and Bolin couldn't bear to take advantage of other people. Bolin had hit his growth spurt, and just as hunger had stricken Mako, so too it struck Bolin. Neither of them could get enough to eat, and the cold season had sent them shivering into the backmost corner of their shelter. Mako could only keep a hand-lit fire going for so long before he became too exhausted to Bend, and lighting a fire out of tinder almost surely meant attracting the police and losing their only shelter.

Mako turned fourteen. This year there was no celebration, no dinner, and certainly no cake. Instead the boys huddled up together under the Earthbended overhang, covered their ears with the red scarf, and willed themselves to sleep. A month passed in this fashion, and then another. Mako got caught stealing raw meat from the butcher and had narrowly escaped arrest. Each day became a worse fight than the previous, coupled up with the boys' growing exhaustion to leave them more helpless than ever. After three months of living on pilfered scraps, Mako realized that neither of them was going to make it through the season unless he did something. Both of them had withered down to the bones. Bolin had contracted a fluid cough that he could not shake. No manner of panhandling the tourists was going to bring them back to life.

Mako thought back to the night crew, to the kids who did shady jobs for the big gangs. Some of them had struck luck and moved up in the ranks. Others had called it a death sentence. Either way, Mako knew that he had run out of options. He left early one evening after sharing a dumpling with Bolin and putting him to sleep.

It took him a half hour to walk across town, into the Triad's territory, where he finally found the headquarters—a small, dingy-looking bar with a pair of bouncers posted out front. After a quick discussion, during which Mako stonily asked the bouncers if they knew of any odd jobs, one of the men nodded and disappeared through the door. When he returned, he beckoned Mako forward and the latter, unable to believe his luck, crossed the threshold to the headquarters. Inside, the place lost some of its bar-like semblance. There was a bar counter with a tall liquor rack in front of it. Around the wooden tables sat small clusters of people playing cards over drinks. Cigar and cigarette smoke hung around their heads like gray halos, but something about this bar stood far apart from those Mako saw around the city. Unlike those places, people glanced over their shoulders when someone unknown came through the door, and tonight they bored straight through Mako as if they knew he was no good.

The leader of the Triad, a middle-aged and impeccably-dressed man called Lightning Bolt Zolt, peered down at Mako over the bar counter and asked what kind of job he was looking for. Mako responded that he would do anything that paid. Zolt asked how old he was. Mako answered that he was eighteen. At this statement, Zolt's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He glanced over to a broad-shouldered man at a nearby table, who shrugged and nodded, and then Zolt turned back to the boy.

"You've got perfect timing, kid. Taro's got a quick job for ya," he said. "Fifty yuans. What do you say?"

Mako was too taken aback to reply at first. Fifty yuans. He had never so much as held that much in his hand at one time. Hastily he agreed, and after sending someone off to relay a message Taro appeared at his side. They left together, Mako all but trembling at the prospect of making this much money. Fifty yuans! He and his brother could live for over a month with that kind of cash. When he asked the man what kind of work he'd be doing, the man assured him that it was easy enough and that they'd explain it when he got there.

They called the place "the clubhouse", but Mako realized soon after entering and hiking up to the second floor that this was no casual bar. It was, in fact, a several-room office space in the middle of an abandoned factory. The man ushered Mako to one of the first office rooms, where he said there was a storage of old vehicle parts that needed sorting and counting, but the truth had just clicked and Mako found himself in the midst of a new panic attack. When the man noticed that Mako had turned a queasy shade of green, he quickly grabbed the boy by his collar and hurtled him into the room. There were no vehicle parts, of course. Just a tiny, windowless room lit by a wall bulb and furnished with a wooden chair and thin mattress.

Mako came-to as the door closed behind him and the bolt slid definitively into place. He contemplated his options. He could set the room aflame and cause a panic, but then the man might let him die in here, too. The plaza was deserted and the room built with thick metal panels. Mako had just decided to charge the door when an unfamiliar voice reached his ears. He craned his head to listen, catching only blurred murmurs. Then the lock was unlatched, and Mako barely heard the Taro mutter "twenty minutes" before a stranger had slipped into the room.

"Hello," said the man.

Mako thought of Nikka, thought of the hand-shaped bruises across her body, and held his breath.

It was sometime later that he awoke face-down on the mattress and realized that he was quivering. At some point he had either passed out or blacked out — it didn't matter — but he was ready to pass the memory off as a nightmare until he tried to sit himself up. He became aware of things in fragments, as if his brain could not stand to piece it together all at once. For one, there was someone standing in the doorway. Mako lifted his head, focusing all his energy to his eyes until he recognized Taro. Then in his ears he registered a faint "Let's go, get up", and a moment after that he was being hoisted up by his hair. It was this shock that brought Mako reeling back to life. With a shout, he scrambled upright only to realize that his legs would not hold him. His knees buckled as pain tore through him, worse than he could have predicted, sending him back down.

He took three tries to stand, one hand gripping his pants up around his waist while the other sought and failed to find a steady surface for balance. All the while, the man eyed him with unveiled disgust, tapping his foot as if Mako were causing him to miss his favorite radio show. Eventually Mako did stand up, gingerly poised on the balls of his feet. He tied off the knot in his belt, turned to face the man, and held up a hand.

"Fifty yuans," he said.

With a gruff laugh, the man reached into his pocket and withdrew a thick wad of money. He counted off a few, barely scraping into the pile, and slapped these bills into Mako's palm.

"Here's ten. Now scram."

Mako stared aghast at the ten yuans in his outstretched palm, unwilling to believe that he had been so doubly duped by this mobster scum. But when he demanded the remainder of his payment, Taro just laughed. Anger flared up in his chest, overpowering his exhaustion. Mako's hands balled up, and before he could stop himself he had Firebended directly at his superior. The man, being of course well nourished and in top shape, deflected the blow with a bored wave and struck Mako across his face. Gasping, he collapsed. The ten yuans went flying into the air before slowly raining back down to where he lay, sprawled across the metal floorboards. It was only when the man threatened to take back the payment did Mako gather up his money, pocket it, and retreat.

Clutching his bleeding nose, Mako stumbled into the first alley that he recognized and fell to his knees. He couldn't go home tonight, he couldn't face his brother, not like this. The night itself was balmy but chilled. Mako couldn't tell if he was trembling from the weather, but his muscles had set themselves into hyperdrive. One wave of nausea overcame him at once, and then another, and Mako barely made it to the storm drain before his stomach was heaving acid and blood. Panting, he slumped sideways against the wall. He reached into his pocket and examined the money, checking to make sure that it was real. Sure enough, they were. Each bill was crisp and new, on its first adventure from the minting press. Mako took in every detail of it, from the golden seal to the numbers printed on the back.

When finally he let his eyes fall on Avatar Aang, Mako lasted just a moment before his breaths melted into sobs.

xXx

TBC