Their mother’s favorite thing to do was cook. It was her remedy for everything, and her token celebratory action. Whether it was a birthday or bad news, Li Yuan could be found standing over the stove with several pots steaming at once, filling the kitchen with smoke and heat.
Mako could remember the smells of many spices, even years after she was gone. Sometimes, Li Yuan let him sit on the counter while she cooked, and hand her ingredients when she needed them: garlic, chile, ginger, pepper. The scents made his nose itch, and sometimes when he ate too fast his throat burned. He liked it, the way the food tickled his tongue and left it tingling, like his fire did after he used it.
Once, while they were playing out in the neighborhood, Bolin fell and scraped his knee hard enough that the blood trickled down his leg and into his shoes. Mako had never seen that much blood before. He panicked and lifted his brother onto his back and carried him up to their apartment as best he could. Bolin’s bloody leg dangled at his side, staining both of their threadbare clothing with red. Bolin cried and snuffled against his ear, his tears dripping into Mako’s hair, and Mako kept repeating that everything was all right, because he didn’t know what else to say.
Li Yuan scooped Bolin up right away and set him on the counter, right where Mako usually sat to watch her cook. Mako reached up and held his brother’s hand while their mother picked tiny rocks from his wound and cleaned away the blood. Bolin never stopped crying. By the end of it, he was red-faced and snot-nosed, green eyes shiny and puffy. But Li Yuan dropped a kiss into his hair and smiled, because she knew how to cheer her boys up.
Mako and Bolin sat on the counter together while their mother stirred dandan noodles in a big pot, stirring in ya cai stems, hot pepper, minced pork and scallions. She gave Bolin the largest serving, but Mako got some too, and soon his mouth was stained with dark red sauce and his lips were tingling. Bolin slopped noodles down his front and grinned toothily, scraped knee forgotten. The spices had been enough to make him forget the pain.
Bolin started asking for dandan noodles often, and once he started school, Li Yuan sent them off with little lunch boxes of them, nestled in hot coals to keep them warm. The school that they went to was in another part of town, but by the time Bolin was five, Mako knew the route well enough to get them both there without any trouble. They attended separate classes, but were always able to meet up for lunch.
They didn’t really have any friends. Well, Bolin did – boys from their neighborhood who usually invited him to sit at their table – but he didn’t want Mako to sit alone. Bolin was better at making friends. Mako preferred to keep to himself when he knew exactly why the other kids turned their cheeks to him and whispered about him behind their hands. He simply clenched his jaw and ignored them.
One day, while they were halfway through their plate of noodles, a girl with eyes the color of a robin’s egg came over to their table. Bolin smiled, recognizing her from his class. “Hi, Kanna. Want to sit down?”
The girl nodded, after casting a glance at Mako underneath her eyelashes. “I forgot my lunch today,” she said softly, cheeks flushing.
“That’s okay, I have lots!” said Bolin cheerfully, scooting over to make room for her. Mako remained silent, keeping his eyes on his bowl. “Um, I only have one pair of chopsticks, is that okay?”
Kanna nodded, smiling, and two dimples appeared in her cheeks. Bolin pushed his bowl towards her, and she peered into it curiously. “I’ve never seen noodles like this before.”
“They’re dandan noodles! My mom makes them. They’re the best in the world!”
She giggled. “The noodles my mom makes aren’t all red like that.”
“It’s special sauce. Right, Mako?”
Mako lifted his head, and his amber eyes met Kanna’s across the table. She looked away quickly, and he simply nodded. “Mm.”
Carefully, Kanna twisted the noodles around and around the chopsticks, lifting them dripping to her mouth. A few moments after they slithered past her lips, her eyes widened and she coughed, spitting them right back into the bowl. Bolin gaped at her.
“How can you eat that? It’s too hot! My tongue burns!” she gasped, cheeks flushed anew as she fanned at herself.
“It’s not that hot…I like it,” replied Bolin, staring sadly down at his bowl. Mako imagined that he must think Kanna ruined his meal by regurgitating back into it. He couldn’t say he blamed him.
“It hurts to eat. Ouch! What kind of food is that?” Kanna asked.
“It’s Fire Nation,” Mako snapped suddenly, and she jerked her dark head up, going still.
“Our mom made it,” Bolin added, his voice a mumble.
Kanna looked back and forth between them. “Is he your brother?” she asked Bolin, jerking her thumb at Mako, who couldn’t help raising his eyebrows in surprise. He and Bolin looked rather different, that much was true, but he thought it was fairly obvious that they were related.
“Yeah, why?” Bolin answered.
She lowered her voice. “Everyone says he’s a firebender.”
“He is,” said Bolin, proudly. “Like my dad.”
“I thought you were from the Earth Kingdom,” Kanna said.
“My mom is. She used to live in Ba Sing Se, with the big walls!” Bolin held his arms up high over his head. “Then she came here, where my dad was.”
The girl was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was much softer. “A firebender is mean to my daddy all the time. My daddy just tries to sell things in his shop, and the firebender man comes and smashes everything up. My mom says firebenders are bad. They caused that whole long war.”
“They’re not bad,” Bolin defended. “The firelord’s not bad. My brother’s not bad.”
“My mom doesn’t like the firelord,” said Kanna.
“Maybe your mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Mako snarled. Beneath the table, he could feel his hands getting hot. Bolin looked at him with big eyes, but the girl wouldn’t lift her head.
“I’m gonna go. Bye, Bolin.” With that, she got up and quickly skittered away, long ponytail waving behind her. Bolin stared after her with a dumbfounded expression.
“Mako, why would Kanna think firebenders are bad?”
His brother just shook his head and pushed his own bowl of noodles across the table. “Here, Bo. You can finish mine.”
When Bolin woke up one morning and saw his brother standing on a stool in front of the stove, he knew something was wrong.
“’S early,” he mumbled, scrubbing the sleep away from his eyes. “What are you doin’, Mako?”
Mako didn’t answer. He stared down at the pot of water he had put over the burner, trying to remember what their mother did to make their breakfast in the morning. He couldn’t think of anything. His mind was completely empty, like the accident had scrubbed everything clean. He could almost convince himself that it hadn’t been real, if it weren’t for the strange weight of the scarf around his neck.
“Mako,” said Bolin again; impatient, small, helpless.
“What do you want for breakfast?” asked Mako, turning to look down at his brother. His voice didn’t sound like his own – too bright, too high. “I got out some rice. I could make us some rice, and there’s rolls in the pantry.”
“Mom’s s’posed to make breakfast. She’s gonna kill you when she sees you.”
“Mom’s not here. I have to do it.”
“He’s not here either.” The fabric of the scarf brushed his nose, and suddenly he smelled blood, thick and metallic. Mako sucked in a ragged breath and raised his head, grabbing at the sack of rice beside him. Tiny grains of rice spilled over the counter and onto the floor.
“Where are they?” Bolin asked through a yawn. He wandered over to the stool and tugged on his brother’s pants leg.
Mako glanced down at him, taking in his brother’s sleep-rumpled hair, that one stubborn curl still falling over his eyes; his bright green eyes, their distinctive color visible even in the dim light of the kitchen; his patchy, too-big clothing, old hand-me-downs from Mako. Mako didn’t think he’d ever noticed how much Bolin looked like their mother before this moment.
Climbing down from the stool, he smiled.
“Come on, what do you want for breakfast? I’m not a good cook like Mom, but I think I could make something that wouldn’t kill us.”
Bolin laughed a little. “Can I help?”
“Yeah, sure you can. Want to get the sauce out of the pantry?”
For a moment, Mako thought he had successfully distracted his brother, that he would have more time to collect his thoughts and figure out how he was going to tell Bolin that their parents were never coming back, because they were dead in the street twelve blocks away and not even the Avatar could resurrect the dead. They laughed and made a mess as they boiled the rice on the stove, burning it slightly, but managing to make a decent meal. Mako didn’t use his firebending. They poured dark, sticky-sweet sauce over the rice and got the slightly stale rolls from the pantry, and sat down at the table to eat.
It turned out that Mako didn’t have to tell Bolin anything, because the police showed up at the apartment before they could even finish their breakfast.
When Bolin found out what had happened, he burst into tears and buried his face in Mako’s shoulder, soaking the scarf that was already spotted with their father’s blood. He cried the whole way to the police station and the whole time they were forced to sit on the hard, uncomfortable chairs while someone decided what to do with them. And then he cried the whole way to the orphanage. He cried until Mako was sure that it wasn’t possible for him to have any more tears inside his body.
He cried all the tears that Mako could not.
Like Bolin, Toza and his wife were solid, strong people, in spite of their ages. Mako knew it was Bolin's big green eyes and charming smile that helped convince them to take the brothers in; it certainly wasn't their talent alone. Mako and Bolin had spent six years on the streets learning how to fight for themselves, but they were sloppy and untrained and certainly not fit for the arena. And Toza took them in despite the fact they had nothing to give him in return. He promised, almost conspiratorially, that they'd be able to pay him back in due time.
Mako spent his fourteenth birthday trying to make lightning fly from his fingers, which only lands him with singed eyebrows and stiffness in his limbs from overexertion. Toza barked things at him about how firebending comes from the stomach and lightning comes from channeling your chi paths and stop sulking, boy, get up and try again - and it was only when they finally finished training that day that Mako wondered where Toza had learned so much about firebending. He was every bit an earthbender, right down to the emerald eyes he shared with Bolin and their mother. As he smoothed his fingers over the missing hair on his brows, he asked about it.
"You don't become a powerful bender just by studying your own element, you know," was all Toza would say.
Mako wasn't used to being around people who were so wise. Toza didn't just know things about earthbending and firebending - he understood things about the elements that Mako often had a hard time comprehending himself.
Toza told him many things about the Avatar Cycle.
"In the mountains, the airbenders have temples which contain statues of every Avatar there's ever been," he said once, while Mako and Bolin helped his wife roll strips of green and black seaweed around rice. "All of them are arranged in the pattern of the cycle: earth, air, fire, water. And all of them are connected to the Avatar, no matter who he or she is."
"How?" asked Bolin, as Toza's wife brushed a piece of sticky rice from his nose.
"No one really knows for sure. But the airbending temples have always been very spiritual places. Airbending Avatars effortlessly moved between the spiritual and physical worlds, through focus and meditation. They say the spirits must favor the new Avatar, because the statues in the temples glowed for days before she was found."
"Well, she's a bending prodigy, from what I hear," said his wife. Her name was Elza. Her weathered hands were busy chopping leeks as the boys made rice balls. "They found her when she was, what, four? And already bending three elements."
Mako's mind, still trying to picture the temples where the airbenders had lived, suddenly started to imagine the Avatar, a little girl who lived far away in one of the water tribes. She wasn't so little now, probably, but the only image he could form of her came from the yellowed newspaper clipping Toza still had, folded into a book, from nine years previously. He looked down at the seaweed in his hands and wondered what it would be like to live in a place surrounded by water and ice and snow. Somehow, the dried plant made him feel connected to her, this girl who was supposed to save the world someday. It was a strange feeling, and he wasn't sure why it made his belly feel warm.
"I wish I could be a waterbender," said Bolin, a bit mournfully.
Mako jerked his head around. "Why?" he asked, surprised by the admission.
"Cause then I could just eat seaweed noodles all the time!"
Elza laughed and tapped her hand lightly under his chin. "You don't need to be a waterbender to do that, my boy."
The first date that he and Korra had was not really a date at all, but he suspected she really didn't know what a typical date consisted of.
It was after a game – their last game, the last time they would ever be called Fire Ferrets – and though they had already been to have celebratory drinks with Bolin, both of them were still sweaty and smelled like the inside of a gym locker. He blamed the summer heat, but Korra didn’t seem to mind as she grasped his hand in hers and walked with him through the crowded streets. The sun had gone down long ago, but the ongoing Fire Festival kept the crowds out well into the night.
“I can’t believe you won’t be probending anymore,” said Korra as they walked through clouds of steam that were drifting out from the dozens of food vendors lining the street. “I first learned your name by hearing you play on the radio, you know? And now you’re done.”
“You’re done too,” Mako pointed out, shifting his grip on her hand. He wanted to keep holding it, but his palm was getting sweaty. “And you’re leaving.”
“Not for good,” she said quickly, her eyes falling towards the ground. “I’m just going to train with my uncle for a little while. Tenzin thinks it’ll be good for me.”
“I’m starting work with Beifong next week,” Mako said absently, as though reminding himself. What in the spirits’ name was he doing? Leaving his brother for the first time, acting independently, doing real and honest good. It still didn’t seem possible that this was his life now.
“I don’t want to talk about leaving,” said Korra. “Hey, smell that? Roast duck, right?”
They were standing outside of a Fire Nation restaurant. Red flags splashed with white characters hung over their heads, under which floated a scent that was unmistakably roast duck. But Mako could smell something else, too: dandan noodles. He felt an uncomfortable pinch in his stomach.
“I’m starving,” she continued. “Those drinks didn’t do much for me. Want to eat here?”
“Ah, sure,” Mako replied, and she eagerly pulled him inside and got them a table in no time. The place was crowded, but the staff nearly fell over themselves when they realized the Avatar had wandered into their midst. Of course, Korra smirked and held her head slightly higher, which made Mako smile to himself and shake his head. If they were still living with Toza, he would say that a prideful Avatar was a dangerous one. Avatar Kyoshi had been prideful, and the years had turned her into a ruthless killer. But it was hard to imagine Korra - who could simultaneously be vulnerable and strong, hotheaded and caring, stubborn and changeable as water – as a danger to anyone.
They were given a fairly private table, shrouded by thick red curtains and lit by soft orange lanterns, and the light made Korra’s skin glow almost golden. The noise of the other patrons seemed to fade away as they sat down opposite from one another, and amber eyes met robin’s egg blue for the first time directly since they finished the match.
“Bolin told me I should write you letters while we’re apart,” she said, fiddling with the menu. “You know, sappy romantic ones to let you know how much I miss you and stuff.”
Mako raised an eyebrow. “Bolin suggested that?”
“Yeah. I think he’s afraid you’re going to get lonely.” Suddenly her eyes became softer around the edges, in a way that makes his heart beat just a little faster. “You’re not going to, are you?”
He started scanning the menu himself to avoid her eyes for a moment. “I’ll be busy. I think I’ll manage.”
She began to grin again. “Because I will write you sappy romantic letters if you want me to.”
Now his lips began to curl up in response. “Somehow, I’m having a hard time picturing you being sappy and romantic.”
She looked at him like he had just issued a challenge, and maybe he had. “I’ll show you, city boy. My letters are gonna make you cry.”
The waiter came to take their order, and before Mako could open his mouth, Korra ordered a large bowl of dandan noodles for them to share. He blinked at her in surprise as the waiter took up their menus and left. “Why did you –“
“Relax, I know you like them. Bolin said you make them at home all the time.”
He nodded. “Do you like them?”
“My firebending teacher used to make them for me. Specifically, he made them every time he had to leave after training me for several weeks.” She rested her arms on the table top, leaning towards him a little. “He said his wife used to make them for him, and she died before their first child could be born. He lost them both.” Korra let out a breath. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you that. I guess because it kind of feels like a goodbye meal for me.”
Mako’s breath caught a little painfully. “You don’t have to say it like that. It sounds worse than it actually is.”
“I know,” Korra replied with a little smile, which made him wonder if those letters she promised were going to be rather less sarcastic than she had made them sound.
Their conversation turned lighter when the food showed up and they both dove into it, and Mako discovered that Korra loved spicy food. She also didn’t really have a clear idea of what public table manners were, but he found he could only laugh as she talked to him through a mouthful of noodles and burped surprisingly loudly when they were finished. He scrounged through his pockets, for a moment terrified he wouldn’t be able to pay for the meal, and finally came up with four yuans and a sigh of relief. Korra took his hand again as they wandered back into the night.
When they reached his and Bolin’s apartment, he took her face in his hands and kissed her, the first real kiss they had gotten to share since he found her in the snow at the South Pole. Her lips were warm and she smelled musky, and her hands found his waist and held him tight against her.
“I’m going to miss you too, you know,” he murmured against her lips. “And stuff.”