In time Mako will find he only has dim recollections of what their mother was like. She seems less like a person and more like the impression of one, indistinct silhouette and flashes of memory wrapped in his own bias. Her hair was long and he remembers it brushing his cheek when she leant down to hug him- her voice was quiet and hoarse, even if he can't recall exactly how it sounded- she was tall and thin to the point of exhaustion. He doesn't remember what colour her eyes were, but remembers that they always looked tired, skin underneath deep purple to the point of looking bruised.
Bolin recalls both more and less. He was younger when she died and struggles to draw up any concrete memories, but this somehow left blanks his mind has filled in. Mako knows that his brother has a very soft view of their mother, that his memories have rounded out her edges. It isn't that she wasn't kind, but Mako recalls enough to remember her irritation and her hopelessness and her desperation. On the edge of his memory he thinks of her sat by the window one afternoon, or perhaps many afternoons, or perhaps the whole thing is just some kind of amalgamation- at any rate, he thinks of her sat by the window staring out, apathetic and ignoring them both.
Now that they're both older they understand that she must have been ill for as long as they can remember. It wasn't sudden, even if it seemed the way at the time. They never knew what it was that killed her; all they remember in the way of possible symptoms was the exhaustion and the impression of being brittle and anyway, they aren't doctors.
It doesn't matter much in the end. She died regardless of the cause, and Mako had held Bolin's hand and led him out their tiny house just to get away from the body, which was cold and white and stiff in a way that made his skin crawl and confused Bolin, no matter how many times Mako tried to explain 'dead' without making his brother panic. They'd walked and walked until Bolin began to complain about his feet hurting, and so then they found a bench and sat until the sun started to set and the air gained a chill. Their flesh broke out in goosebumps. It was spring, but only just.
"Don't we have to go home?" Bolin asked, fidgeting. He'd been quiet most of the time, uncharacteristically so, and Mako was too grateful to be worried about it, but he was clearly at breaking point. Mako hesitated. It was very dark now, as well as still, and Mako knew it would be the same in their house.
"I think we should stay out."
"Why? I'm tired," said Bolin, a whine creeping into his voice. Mako knew it was a bad idea, but if they went back they'd have to either move the body or sleep with it, and Bolin didn't even understand and he'd have to try and explain over and over, maybe all night. The thought made him cringe.
"We can sleep outside. Like camping," he said, and drew his coat around him tightly. "Mom... won't mind."
Just one night.
Their father never answered any questions about Mako and Bolin's mother. Rather than someone who had left, or someone who had died, she was always just 'gone'. She must have done either one, left or died, not long after Bolin was born; Mako doesn't remember her at all. There's always just been their Dad. Bolin thinks he's the best Dad in the world, because he picks Bolin up and spins him around whenever he asks, and never shouts when Bolin knocks something over or wants to stay up later than is strictly wise. Mako loves his father too, of course he does. But loving his father doesn't change the fact that he never notices when Bolin's fallen and hurt himself, or that they haven't bought any food in a week and what they have left has gone bad.
Their father is a good man. Mako knows that. He just sometimes selfishly wishes he were better at being a father. It's not a fair thought, but it is a recurring one, a little seed in his head that refuses to die off. Dad never raises his hand to them and lets Mako sleep with him if he has nightmares, always tries to be patient with them, and, Mako reminds himself, has to do it alone. But it's Mako who has to make sure the shopping is done and Bolin is clean and that they both have untorn clothes. Sometimes he just wants to not have to.
But he does, and he knows it won't change. So he teaches himself to stitch their clothing, and he can cook things without burning them, and sometimes Dad ruffles his hair and laughs. "What would we do without you, little man," he says, and underneath the resentment Mako finds a little pride. Dad is definitely proud of him, is proud of them both, and says so all the time.
"You're good boys," he'll say. Bolin always laughs and hugs him, but Mako just smiles and pretends to squirm when a hand comes down on his head.
Then one day, Dad doesn't come home.
It's not completely unheard of for this to happen. He works odd jobs where he can get them, and sometimes one will pop up at an inconvenient time that he can't afford to turn down. So Mako nags Bolin until he gets into bed and makes sure he stays there. There's nothing better to do, so even though he's older and doesn't need to go to bed as early Mako follows.
The sunrise wakes him up like it always does and Mako crawls out carefully, making sure not to wake Bolin. His bare feet pad through the house quietly. Reaching the kitchen, he glances at the door- Dad's boots are still absent, but Mako thinks, maybe he went straight to bed without taking them off and goes to see. The bed is unslept in, haphazardly made but still clearly untouched.
A little prickling sensation settles in Mako's stomach, worse than worry.
"Is he home yet?" Bolin asks later at breakfast, hair unbrushed and eyes still half-closed with sleep.
"No," Mako says, "but he won't be long."
"If he's not home tonight, can I stay up late?" Bolin asks, and Mako feels himself start to panic at the idea he won't come home again, because the rent for the month is nearly due and the box Dad usually puts money in is almost empty- there have been arguments over the rent before, and Mako doesn't think the landlord will be happy if he doesn't get paid this time. Last month they'd been nearly a week late and there had been 'words exchanged', as their father had called it, which seemed to mean a lot of threats on both sides and Dad's cheek being conspicuously bruised the next morning.
"No," is all Mako says in response, aware he's been quiet too long.
Mako spends all day near the front door, at first finding excuses- he washes the floor and then the windows, over and over until his fingers shrivel- then just sitting, watching the light outside dim. It stays closed. Bolin comes through and sits against him after a while, a heavy weight leaning on his side, warm and reassuring. They're quiet, which is an oddity with Bolin, and then it's dark and Mako drags him off to bed amid a barrage of protests.
It takes another two days until Mako accepts that he isn't coming back. In the interim he goes and spends the last of the money on fresh bread and overhears a couple talking about an accident down at the docks, terrible thing, ten men dead I heard, and even though it's nothing like confirmation Mako remembers that Dad had found work there once or twice and decides to pretend it is after those two days are up. It gives him the strength to go and shake Bolin awake from where he's napping, bored from lack of entertainment.
"We need to leave," he says without thinking, then winces at how urgent he sounds. He lowers his voice. "Come on, get up."
"Is Dad back?"
"No, but we need to go." The landlord was due tomorrow and Mako won't take any chances with Bolin there. Even if he didn't do anything, they wouldn't be allowed to stay. Mako can already hear the assumption that their Dad left them being voiced, too, and he can't stand the idea of someone sat there insisting it. "Get all your warm clothes and put them on."
"But it's not cold," Bolin whines, "And why do we have to go?"
Mako shrugs a threadbare coat on and reaches for his gloves. "It'll be cold later on. And it's easier than carrying them."
"Why do we have to go?" Bolin repeats, but Mako's firm tone seems to be getting through and he struggles to untangle his own coat. Mako reaches across and takes it, turning the sleeves the right way and holding it out for Bolin to put on."Are we going to look for Dad?"
Mako doesn't answer, and Bolin seems to take that as a 'yes'. At the very least, he stops asking, and Mako is left in quiet with his thoughts. Most of them are worrying.
He tries to look like he knows where they're going as he leads Bolin outside.
Korra is one of those people who could be tactfully called 'naturally inquisitive'. On the other hand, she isn't a person who seems prone to introspection, and she never pries about their past. It doesn't seem to strike her as odd that they live in the arena, and Mako breathes a silent breath of relief when he realises that she really isn't going to ask, after two weeks of incessant chatter and enthusiasm.
Until, of course, she manages to make it about herself.
"I just really miss them," she says, and the way she says it makes him want to be less uncharitable, because he can hear how true it is. She'd mentioned once that even when she'd lived at home, they'd only visited a couple of times a month, and he supposes that probably makes it harder. She's turning over a little wooden trinket in her hands- Dad made it for me last birthday, she'd said earlier, full of pride. "What about yours?" she adds suddenly, seeming to wrench herself out of her thoughts. His stomach doesn't sink so much as enter freefall.
"They're not around," he says shortly, hoping his tone will communicate that he doesn't want to talk about it- and realises that this is the worst way to stop her needling the moment it leaves his mouth. Her eyes narrow and her nostrils flare, immediately on the defensive. But even so, she's not cruel enough to ignore that there's nothing that could be nice about that statement, so she visibly reigns it in.
"Well, yeah, that's normally when you miss people."
He could lie, or just refuse to answer, but then she might go to Bolin and his brother tried not to do either of those things when it didn't involve pranking someone. If he tells her, she'll go away. Probably.
"They weren't ever around. Hard to miss what you don't have."
"Oh," she says, and she sounds surprisingly... not guilty. Which is refreshing, really, and better than pity. "Whoever you grew up with, then?"
"Bolin's right here," he mutters, and turns away. Korra audibly stops herself from retorting, which surprises him, and for a second he thinks she's going to drop it. Then he hears her make a noise of understanding. He wonders if she's put together all those comments the announcers make, diamond in the rough and other phrases, and the part where they live in the attic, and all the other little details. Toza had said that they may as well use what they got and that it made for a good story- people like an underdog, and they like a story that makes them feel good. Street orphans who cleaned up their act does the job. It's not that Mako minds, if it means people pay attention. But he certainly doesn't like it.
There's not much of a story there. He doesn't remember anything before a certain point, and everything after is just them on the streets. It's a miracle, really, that they managed alone when they were so young. They lived, and they scraped by, and then Toza found them and things became a lot easier. It gave them a goal to aim for as well as a roof to live under, the hope of an end point. Anything else is just window dressing.
"You're lucky to have him," she says, then because she seems to hate any prolonged stretch of serious discussion, adds jokingly, "I'd have left ages ago. I don't know how he puts up with you."
Mako smiles, against his own expectations. "I am."