"Bolin! How could you lose it?!"
"I... I'm sorry! It was an accident!"
His mother once had a jade necklace.
He still remembered the day his father gave it to her. He remembered the stones dripping over her fingers, he remembered her surprise and her refusal at such a lavish gift, he remembered his father's insistence that she keep it, and he remembered the kiss they shared, so full of love and so wrought with hope. They were a beautiful couple.
"Can you please help me put it on, Mako?" she'd asked him sweetly. He stumbled up from the floor and rushed over to her because of course, of course, of course he'd help her. She knelt down to his height, and with his tongue peeking out from between his lips, he latched it behind her neck. His father beamed at him, and his mother kissed his head and pressed her fingertips on the stones that lay so lovely on her skin.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
She never took it off. Not once. She wore it every day: while she cooked, while she slept, while she danced with Bolin at the spring festival. His father liked to kiss the latch in the back when she hadn't realized he was standing right behind her, and Bolin liked to count the stones during breakfast, and Mako liked to run his fingers over it when he couldn't fall asleep and she lay with him, humming lullabies over Bolin's snores.
She was a beautiful woman and it was a beautiful necklace, and she wore it when she died.
So it seemed fitting that since Mako was the one who put it on, Mako would be the one to take it off. He'd hidden behind some trash cans, waiting for the man to finish picking off his spoils. And when the coast was clear (though his ears were still ringing), he struggled toward his parents' bodies, knowing they was no hope for them anymore.
He kneeled first at his father. Mako gulped, terrified, and extinguished the fire that still burned on the end of his father's scarf. His father's eyes were still open, still in shock, and he hoped they would be forgiving. Slowly, he pulled on the tattered end of the scarf. Slowly, he unwound it from his neck and wrapped it around his own. It smelled like smoke and dirt and death and his father's proud hand on Mako's shoulder.
He took a deep breath then because didn't want to look at her. He couldn't. The man had destroyed her face, destroyed her beauty.
And without wanting to, he saw it, still beautiful against the burns, and he was relieved and glad and terrified to see that the mugger had amazingly failed to see the necklace's worth. Trembling, he approached her body, scraping his knees bloody across the stone as he scooted closer. And trembling, he removed it gently from her charred and blistered corpse.
He held the necklace in his hands and they shook.
He stood slowly, spots in his eyes, and tried to walk away without turning back but he allowed one more glance and heaved and wretched and vomited in the alleyway, breathing hard and breathing fast because it was his mother's, his mother's, his mother...
Mako leaned on the brick wall and blinked away the tears, grateful Bolin wasn't there to see, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and pocketed the necklace.
It was warm.
He stood and this time, he did not turn back.
When he finally found Bolin that night, alone on a different street (for he had actually listened when his father had screamed at them to run away), Mako didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. The sun was setting; there wasn't much time. Where would they go? How would they survive? The questions swirled in his head, and the jade necklace was heavy in his pocket.
"Where are Mommy and Daddy?" Bolin asked so innocently. "Why aren't they here too?"
Mako's tongue was thick in his dry, dry mouth, and his lips wouldn't budge, so he reached into his pocket and pulled the necklace out and dropped it into Bolin's pudgy and unsuspecting hands. Bolin stuttered and stammered and screamed, and Mako turned away because he couldn't bear to watch. He almost vomited again, seeing her bubbled, reddened skin in his mind, the feel of it on his shaking fingers.
She never took it off.
Bolin knew this as well.
That first night, they went back to their home and slept together in their parents' bed. Bolin refused to let go of the necklace, and his grip stayed firm, even after he'd cried himself to sleep. Mako stayed awake, haunted by good memories and images of their corpses.
He stroked the jade necklace and hummed to himself.
He did not sleep that night, but he dreamed of his mother anyway.
The morning dawned gray and cold and hard, and Mako insisted that they leave early. If the police were to find them, they would be forced into separate foster homes, and he wasn't going to lose Bolin too. So they packed a bag of food and left before they could see the sun. Bolin held the necklace and Mako wore the scarf and they dreamed of yesterdays as they walked down the middle of the street, Mako leading, Bolin crying.
"We'll be fine, Bo. I promise. We'll be fine."
Mako didn't know that fine meant alive but hungry, that fine meant alive but freezing, that fine meant alive but beaten, bruised, broken. They would be very fine. They would not be happy.
The second night was spent like an adventure.
And the fourth was like a feast.
But they ate their stash of food too fast, and felt hunger on their sixth night and felt Hunger on their eighth. Mako felt it, weakening his limbs, and he felt it eating away at his heart. He felt sick and heaved but nothing came up, and Bolin cried until he was shushed asleep. The moon smiled sadly down on them as they hid under the bridge in the park, and Mako wondered vaguely if they were dying.
The ninth night, barely able to walk (he was so sick, so scared), Mako raided a restaurant dumpster and found some stale buns, half-eaten and slathered in butter. He picked off a few roach-ants and carried them back to the bridge. Bolin almost choked he ate them so fast. But he smiled and thanked him and hugged him and Mako knew that he would have to do a better job of keeping them alive.
Bolin fell asleep easily, soothed by the cool night breeze, warmed by Mako's bending. And when the snoring began, Mako took it from his brother. Clouds hid the stars that night, but Mako stared up to the sky, pressing the jade necklace to his chest. Tears leaked off his face and into his ears. He never wanted to feel Hunger again. He would never let them feel that again. The jade was warm beneath his fingers. They were not going to die. He was going to protect Bolin and do whatever it took to keep them safe and alive.
They would not die. They would not die.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
Mako made sure that they moved around often. They slept in narrow alleys and deserted barges and abandoned warehouses. And he kept them alive, kept them going, moving, strong. He rummaged through garbage for food and stole clothes from unattended stores. He cut off the fronts of their shoes when they outgrew them until he found a pair at the shoe-shiners to swipe. He invented tricks and scams that Bolin loved to perform. And it was fine. They were fine.
But they were always on the edge.
Winters were rough because the Hunger came back then.
"I love you, bro," Bolin would say before he fell asleep, even when he was Hungry, even when he was cold. It scared Mako.
"Can I have it?" Mako asked because he was scared and needed those lullabies in his head. Bolin nodded and searched their bag of possessions, tossing the necklace his way. The jade was warm on those winter nights, and the scarf smelled like smoke.
But Bolin almost didn't wake one morning when the sun was bright and the snow was fresh.
He finally blinked his eyes open but he couldn't move his fingers until Mako warmed them with his bending until they hurt. Afterward, Bolin rubbed his hands together and Mako went to another floor in the warehouse to be alone.
So when the Triple Threats found him days after Bolin's near-death, after he'd scrapped it out with a man who'd threatened Bolin (why did he have to steal that stupid fire ferret?!), he was still a scrawny little fourteen-year-old. But they were impressed. And he proved himself to them because he couldn't be scared anymore. They said he could be doing numbers for them. Numbers meant money and Mako needed money so he agreed to work for them.
They would not die.
Working with a gang left a sour taste in his mouth, but Bolin wasn't hungry anymore, so it was fine. They were fine. And they grew bigger and they grew stronger, and one day when he checked in the mirror, Mako looked so much like his father that he kept the jade necklace in his pocket for three whole days. When he was old enough, Bolin started working for them too, taking over Mako's job.
Mako went out with Shady Shin and a few other guys and watched as they blackmailed and cheated and threatened and saw things he never wanted to see. He saw pain and defeat and an unrecognizable corpse, blistered and burned.
And he remembered his shaking hands as they touched his mother's neck to remove the jade necklace. The guys laughed and clapped him on the back when he puked into the closest trash can.
"I can't do it anymore," Mako confessed to Bolin one day. He was sixteen. "We can't do this. Mom would be furious if she knew. Dad would-"
"...How will we make money?"
"I'll figure something out."
He always figured something out. No matter how many times they teetered over the edge, he figured it out. He wouldn't let them go over. He wouldn't let them die.
So when the Hunger came and ripped through their bodies like a scorned lover, and when Bolin curled up next to Mako under the stars, and when the jade was warm in his hands, he remembered the first time he felt it. And he remembered how he had promised himself.
How he had promised her.
Never again, he'd said. And here they were, years later, still children, lost in the cruel world. Still children, missing their mother's lullabies. His scarf didn't smell like his dad anymore. And when he closed his eyes, he saw his mother in front of him, beautiful and wonderful. Her eyes were greener than green, and the necklace dripped off her neck but Mako couldn't look away from her eyes, her jade eyes.
He hoped they would be forgiving.
The next day, Mako left early and told a groggy Bolin to meet him at the abandoned carriage factory. They were going, moving, strong. Bolin groaned and rolled back over, and Mako left Bolin and all their things under the bridge.
He came to Bolin that evening, worn and weary. The sun was low in the sky and autumn was falling away faster, faster. He pulled his scarf up higher on his face.
"Good, you didn't get lost," Mako said as he walked in, carrying two full bags of food. Bolin looked up, and Mako saw his eyes so full of shame. They brightened when he saw the bags.
"Mako! How did... what did you... fooood." He tore through it, biting into a peach and letting the juices drip down his chin. Pabu scampered over his shoulders and peeked into the bag himself, finding a fig to eat.
"I told you I'd figure something out."
Bolin nodded and took another bite. But this time when he swallowed, he wiped his mouth and looked up. "Mako... there's something I need to talk to you about."
Mako's breath caught in his throat. "Yeah?"
"I... I lost the necklace."
The seconds were cold, and Mako hesitated. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do, and he was eight years old again, tongue thick and mouth dry but the words burst out of him anyway.
"Bolin! How could you lose it?!"
"I... I'm sorry! It was an accident!"
Mako stood, the golden eyes of their father blazing. Bolin knelt at his feet and started to cry.
"I'm so sorry, Mako. I'm so, so sorry," he sobbed, grabbing at Mako's pants. And Mako looked down, and felt it wrenching through him like a knife, the feeling ten times worse than Hunger. He couldn't believe he'd done it... his mother's... his mother's...
He walked away and did not turn back.
"I'm sorry!" Bolin cried, his scream echoing through the warehouse. "Mako, I'm sorry!" And Mako started to run, refusing to let the Guilt overtake him. He had to lie to Bolin. He would never forgive him if he knew the truth and he'd promised. He'd promised that would do whatever it took to keep them alive. He would not feel sorry. He would not feel ashamed. So he ran and ran until the tears prickled his eyes, until he couldn't hear Bolin anymore and he fell to the ground, the sharp pain echoing through his knees.
He took the wad of yuans out of his jacket and held it to his chest.
It was cold.
"Thank you, sweetheart."