It's a full moon, and so Pakku will be gone half the night, using the power it brings to raise new walls for one of the outlying villages. After sixty years, one might think Kanna would have grown accustomed to an empty bed, but she finds she's lost the taste for it. Instead, she slips out of the village with a nod to the watchmen and goes down to the sea. She loves her tribe down to every last squalling babe, but sometimes it's a relief to find silence, to have no one pestering her to be the memory of the people she now calls hers. Here, nothing disturbs her save the grinding of ice against ice and the shush-shush-shush of waves breaking on the shore.
Further out, light gleams on ice and water alike. The moon is low and bloated on the horizon, barely risen, which is what lets even Kanna's tired old eyes pick out out the tiny boat approaching the village harbor and the single woman silhouetted at its prow.
"Don't do this," Kanna says. She's sitting on her bed in the room they've shared since Hama's parents first agreed to take Kanna in, and even in the light of a single lantern Hama can see the dark hollows beneath her eyes. They're both exhausted, worn to thin ice by months of war. There's no need to be quiet, to avoid waking Hama's parents, with her mother one of the first casualties of the war and her father the last. Hama can still smell him burning.
She wants, more than anything, to sit with her friend, to take her outstretched hand. Instead she turns away and begins, methodically, to lace her boots.
"Hama. Don't go. Not now."
"You know I need to." Hama's fingers don't still. Everyone knows the Fire Nation ships are just beyond the harbor, waiting for tonight's full moon to wane before they sweep in and attack. Now is her only chance to surprise them, to bring some of the power they fear to bear. It's been done before with success; the harbor's floor is littered with the carcasses of Fire Nation ships who thought they could pick their time and found themselves ambushed, boarded in the night by waterbenders who could slip under and over the waves unseen.
Of course, that was when there were teams of waterbenders, working together to flood engines and shatter steel. Now, there is only Hama.
"Do you think you can win?"
Hama turns to Kanna at last, wordless, but intent plain in her expression: How dare you ask that? Do you think it helps me to know that I have no hope of success?
Kanna doesn't flinch, only nods once, her usually full lips pinched tight. "Then what difference does it make if you go tonight or wait and face them with the rest of the tribe tomorrow?"
"No difference," Hama says flatly. "No difference, so why wait?" She has finished with the boots and begins gathering her hair into a tight bun.
"Because." Kanna's lips part again, and she licks them, suddenly hesitant. "Because I. Do you remember the tower?"
Hama drops her hands and closes her eyes. "Of course I remember." She remembers Kanna's cheek against hers, remembers Kanna's hand on her lips later, remembers every time their fingers have brushed reaching for the stewpot.
"And," Kanna says quietly, flatly, "you don't want to."
Hama's eyes fly open. "Of course I want to!" She's rewarded by Kanna's lips forming a perfect "o" of surprise. "You're my best friend, you're my—and it doesn't matter. Tonight or in the morning, I'll be gone. Starting now is like trying to hatch an otter penguin egg in winter. Like planting tundra grass on a glacier. Nothing we do now will ever grow."
"I thought I was supposed to be the practical one," Kanna says. She stands up slowly, as though she's afraid Hama might bolt, and steps toward her, arms reaching out.
Hama lets herself slump into them, lets Kanna's warmth enfold her. "I'm afraid," she whispers. "Not of the Fire Nation. Well, I am," she amends, because of course she is. But it's a fear she's come to terms with; when there are no options, you accept the one remaining. Dreams of heroic victory died before the end of spring. "I'm afraid that if we do this, I won't be able to make myself go."
"You will," Kanna whispers back. Her breath is warm in Hama's ear. "You will, because you're Hama, and you're brave and strong and you will do whatever it takes to save your people."
No, Hama thinks, that's you. Kanna is the one who made it alone from the North Pole to the South, across storm-wracked seas and a continent at war. Hama would never have made it half so far. But she will steal a little of Kanna's courage, if she must; she will let the other woman's faith be what drives her. "Do you ever regret leaving the safety of the north?" she asks quietly.
Kanna shakes her head, sending her hair loops brushing across Hama's face. "No regrets. But I will regret it," she adds, reaching for Hama's face, "if we don't do this."
It's an awkward kiss at best; Kanna is shorter even when she isn't standing in stockings besides Hama in her boots, and though she tugs Hama's head down their lips only half align. It doesn't matter. For months Hama has thought of fire as nothing but destruction; now her lips burn, and she remembers it's also sunlight, the hearth, a lantern in the dark. She drops her comb and pulls Kanna closer.
Her boots and robes join her comb on the floor. In the morning it is Kanna who laces them, Kanna who binds them, Kanna who draws Hama's hair into its bun and sets a final kiss on her forehead.
"Come back to me," Kanna says impulsively, and then claps a hand over her mouth. It is an impossible request. Kanna knows it; Hama knows it.
"I will," she says despite that, and then she steps out into the dawn.
When Hakoda first returned to the Southern Water Tribe, Kanna had thought she could cede her role as de facto chief overnight. Instead, she found her son calling on her at all hours, requesting her advice on this point or that of the village's rebirth.
"You didn't listen to me half so much when you were a child," she told him dryly after one particularly long discussion of how to keep the waters from being overfished.
"That's because I was a child," he protested. "Age brings wisdom. Your age, particularly."
She laughed. "Flatterer, reminding an old woman of her years."
"I've been away a long time," he said, sobering. "I know how to make war. I'm not sure I remember how to guide a village through peace—but it will come to me."
It had. Two years have passed, now, and Kanna is mostly left in peace to teach the young women sewing and mind the children whose parents are working to extend the walls and build new homes for the families that are growing now that the men have returned from war. But there are still moments when her particular expertise is called for—or when her son simply wants the comfort of an agreeable second opinion.
"Why don't you watch the children for a few minutes?" she tells Hama when the messenger comes. The other woman has been Kanna's constant shadow in the days since her tiny boat slipped home through the moon-drenched sea. Kanna still cannot believe the fortune that brought Hama back to her, still wants to reach out every morning at the breakfast table to touch the other woman's face and prove that she is solid, not a spirit. But as much as she wants to revisit the past, there is a future to build as well. "I'll be back when my son has been adequately reassured."
Hama says nothing, but she nods.
When Kanna returns, she finds Hama sitting in the middle of a circle of children, telling a story. Her voice, Kanna thinks fondly, always could make one feel as though legend were real and present; she remembers hearing it whispering from the bed beside hers through long winter nights.
"One day," Hama says, "Ummi was out gathering tundra grass when she met a young man. He was meant to be out hunting, and he had his boomerang at his belt, but though there was a tiger seal in sight he was too busy singing to notice it. Ummi would have thought him foolish, but she fell in love with his voice."
"Was it Kuruk?" young Salak's voice pipes up.
"No," Hama says. "This was before Kuruk."
"But Ummi's first love was Kuruk," Salak insists.
"That's how I tell the story," Kanna agrees, coming to stand at the edge of the circle. It's how she heard the story growing up in the Northern Water Tribe. Kuruk, after all, was of the north. But Ummi was of the south. She has never heard Hama speak of Ummi before; it had never occurred to her that the Southern Water Tribe might tell the story differently. "But stories are like cracks in the glacier; they can splinter in every direction. Wouldn't you like to hear Hama's story?"
"Ummi's first love was Kuruk," Salak says stubbornly.
Kanna gives Hama an apologetic glance. "I'm afraid I seem to have muddled things."
"Who's to say?" Hama says. Her tone is light, but her fingers, Kanna can see, are clenched. Kanna wants to reach out to clasp them, to bring relaxation with her touch, but the circle of children separates them. "Maybe I'm the one who remembers it wrong."
Once, Hama's waterbending classes built tools, studied the weather, learned ways to smooth the labor of the rest of the tribe. Now they practice throwing ice and snow at each other, and for all that her instructor Yanak once dismissed such enterprises as crude, he teaches them with as much focused intensity as he once used to show them how to work with water's natural crystalline form to grow six-petaled ice flowers. It is not well-suited to Hama's talents. She favors precision, not brute force; wants to hurl ice daggers at Fire Nation soldiers, not freeze whole ships in icebergs built from the concentrated effort of a dozen waterbenders.
She grits her teeth and studies anyway, working from sunrise to moonset, coming home for little more than sleep. She resents the need for even that. There are more Fire Nation ships each month, sometimes so many that the snow turns black from smoke, and since the first raid every time she steps through the igloo's door her mother's absence shatters her once more.
"You can't defend us if you pass out from starvation," Kanna says grimly, when she finds Hama sitting dazed just outside the crude ice walls Yanak has thrown up to form a practice arena. She plunks a bucket of leopard octopus stew in front of her. It is, it turns out, one of the few things Kanna can reliably cook, and she's been doing all the cooking since Hama's mother was—lost.
Hama starts, feeling guilty for even the momentary rest she'd allowed herself to recover from being hit in the face by a ball of ice. The rest of her class is still practicing. There is blood trickling down from her split lip, and Kanna wipes it away.
"I know you can't come home," Kanna continues, ladling the stew out into seal-skin bowls as she talks. "So I'll bring home to you. You have to eat, Hama. You have to sleep." She's brought enough stew for the entire class. It wouldn't have been enough last week, but that was before—Hama presses her palm to her eyes, trying to block out the memory of Jakin and Ukara dragged away in steel nets. She can't.
"Hama," Kanna says from somewhere above her. "Hama." Hama opens her eyes to meet Kanna's worried face. "I swear to the spirits, I will spoon this into you if I have to, but you have to eat."
"No," Hama says finally. She takes the spoon, methodically eats the stew. She's sure it would taste wonderful if only she could taste anything but ash-stained snow. "I can feed myself."
Kanna watches her eat for a moment. Hama can tell she wants to say more, but the rest of the class has gathered around for the meal, and Kanna has other duties to tend to. Hama knows, vaguely, that Kanna has been in meetings with the Chief and his advisors more days that not, sharing everything she knows of Fire Nation tactics, everything she's seen of their weapons and ships, and everything she's been told about how the Northern Water Tribe fought them off, years before her birth.
"Not enough," she had said once, bitterly, when both girls were in bed. "Not enough! Those were boy stories. If only—" She had fallen silent then, and Hama had been too tired to do more than whisper, "Stupid. I know," into her pillow. Neither girl smiled.
Now, Kanna smiles, though it's forced. "I see you can. Take care of yourself, okay? I'll send Kika for the dishes later." The blood is beading on Hama's lip again, and Kanna reaches out her fingers once more to brush it away.
They have no time for anything more.
"I thought I'd find you here," Kanna says to Hama. They're in the watchtower; not one of the new ones erected by Pakku and his waterbenders, but the old one, patched and re-patched for decades by nothing but nonbending hands. It's inside the new city walls and serves no purpose, but it carries too many memories for Kanna to let Pakku tear it down or reshape it. They're at the South Pole, after all; it's not like ice is a building material in short supply.
"And old tower for an old woman," Hama says agreeably enough. She's sitting cross-legged on the floor. It's a position that makes Kanna's old bones wince in sympathy, but Hama always was more flexible than her. "Both without purpose."
"Don't say that," Kanna says reflexively. "We're old, not dead. The tribe's got plenty of use for us yet." It's been weeks since Hama shadowed her every footstep. She had thought that a good sign; evidence that Hama had finally started to integrate with the Tribe, to find a place for herself in the present. She's beginning to wonder if she misjudged.
Hama laughs at that. It's not a kind laugh. "I'm sorry," she says, though there's no sincerity to the apology. "I've been alone too long, I think. I've forgotten how to be of use to anyone except myself."
"You're the last Southern Water Tribe waterbender," Kanna says. "The last who remembers the old ways. Dekana's youngest will want to study under you when she's old enough, and Jinon is old enough now. And when my granddaughter gets back from wherever she and that boy of hers are, I don't think she'll leave the village until she's sucked every drop of knowledge from you."
Something almost like a smile flickers across Hama's face, there and gone before Kanna can puzzle out what about it makes her uneasy. "I was teaching Jinon. Until he decided he would rather return to studying with your husband instead." She always calls Pakku that. There's no stress to the words, but Kanna hears the accusation anyway.
Pakku had mentioned that, though he had put it differently. Jinon was white as a moose rabbit when your friend was done with him, he'd said. I don't know what tales she's been telling him, but you might tell her to tone it down a bit. That was why she had gone looking for Hama. "He's eight, Hama. He'll come back to you soon enough."
Hama twitches her fingers, and the snow dusting the ice floor eddies, forming a swirling pattern in the air. Another twitch, and half the ice melts, water joining the dance, droplets chasing snowflakes. It spins faster, then collapses into a shower of ice as Hama lowers her hands. "Why should he? Your husband will teach him what he needs to know: how to build walls, how to propel ships caught in a calm, how to bring down an avalanche on a rabid polar bear dog. Those were always the northern arts: all power, no finesse. What do I have to offer beside that? Tricks." A flick of her hand has the water droplets spinning again. "Violence." They coalesce about her fingers as icy claws. "None of what he needs for the peaceful world."
"You could teach him how to hunt. How to fish. How to," she flails, picking through her memories for Hama's proudest accomplishments from their childhood, "shape ice into lenses for a distance glass." She still remembers her first view through the glass Hama built, her silent delight as the glittering stars came into focus.
"The Fire Nation makes those now," Hama says. "Haven't you seen? You can buy them by the dozen every time a trading ship comes through."
"The Fire Nation builds stone walls, too. But we still bend our own from ice. There are things you can teach, Hama."
The not-smile twists Hama's mouth again. "You have too much faith in me."
"I told you to come back to me, and you did," Kanna says. "What's a little lesson next to that?"
"Yes," Hama says, after a long silence that lets Kanna hear the hail that has begun to drum on the tower's roof. "I suppose I did." She is looking at Kanna intently, and for a moment Kanna feels something familiar twist and stir in her chest. She thinks Hama might stand, might reach for her, and she thinks it might not be unwelcome.
Chips of ice patter on the floor between them, knocked from the much-mended ceiling by the impact of the hail outside. Hama leans back, and whatever was in her face is hidden again, like a glacier sunk beneath the sea.
"Pst," Hama calls softly in the silent darkness of the bedroom. "Are you awake?"
"I am now," Kanna says, less than kindly. She has no patience for early risings, and this is beyond early. There are hours yet until sunrise. But the moon is ready to set—Hama can feel it in her bones—and she's been waiting for this moment, too keyed up to sleep.
"Come on. I have something to show you. Outside."
"In the middle of the night?" Kanna sounds incredulous. But she dons her boots and parka anyway and stumbles blearily out of the igloo. If she's prevented from accidentally waking Hama's parents only by Hama hastily melting the doorframe to soft, muffling snow before the door can slam shut against it, neither girl says anything.
Outside, the full moon hangs low and red on the horizon, ready to set.
"It's going to be pitch black soon," Kanna points out.
"I know. I'm counting on it." Hama leads them both to the watchtower, her footsteps soft on the hard-packed snow. Everything around them is silent: no one else is stirring, and there's not even a breath of wind. Their breath leaves clouds that hover in the air until they step through them. This, Hama decides, must be what the spirit world is like. It would be eerie if she didn't have Kanna's warm, gloved hand in hers.
"Did you bring a lantern?" Kanna asks, ever-practical. It's a trait that no doubt served her in good stead in the Earth Kingdom. Sometimes, Hama wonders if she would have survived the self-imposed exile half as well as Kanna did, and shies away from the answer.
"No. We'll stay out until sunrise if we have to. Come on."
The top of the tower is covered in snow from yesterday's storm, soft and undisturbed. Hama gathers it in her hand, patting it into a long, thin cone.
"I'm not playing snowballs with a waterbender." Kanna crosses her arms over her chest. "You'll win."
Hama rolls her eyes. "Not snowballs." She stops talking, stops breathing. This is the tricky bit. With tiny, minute gestures—a straightened wrist, a hooked finger, a twist of the arm that does no more than hint at a rollback—she hardens the cone, hollows it, and finally melts and freezes two tiny, perfect disks of ice. Lenses, Yanak calls them.
Kanna goes silent when she realizes Hama is working. Her initial awe of a woman waterbender has faded, but she still sees something precious in Hama's skills that everyone else treats with mere practicality. It's the reason—one of the reasons—Hama wanted to show her this first.
"There. The latest thing we've learned," Hama says, not even trying to keep the pride out of her voice. She squints upward once through the distance glass, making sure the lenses are aligned, and hands it to Kanna. "Look."
Kanna holds it up to her eye and gasps. The moon has set now, and in the darkness the stars are brilliant as cooking fires. Through the glasses the tiny pinpricks become jagged-edged clusters of icicles, each distinct as a snowflake. "That's beautiful."
"I know," Hama says, although she doesn't, really—she has only guessed. They've only just learned to make the glasses today, and have yet to use them to look at anything but neighboring glaciers. But Yanak had mentioned their use at night in passing, and Hama lacks the patience to test by herself before sharing with her friend. She steals the glass back from Kanna and takes a long look herself.
"I'm surprised no one else is out here," Kanna says, peering around the village for any sign of movement among the shadows. "Didn't the rest of your class learn, too?"
"Yes," Hama says, and rolls her eyes. "But they have other plans for testing them. Well, the girls do."
"The polar bear dog dip is tomorrow," Hama explains, and is met with silence. She can't quite make out Kanna’s features in the dark, but she assumes they show equal incomprehension. "It's the first day of spring, right?"
"I suppose." Kanna, Hama knows, still isn't quite used to having the seasons flipped around.
"So every year, the boys gather and go dive naked into the ocean at a cove on the other side of the bay. It's supposed to welcome the season. I guess the Northern Water Tribe doesn't do that?"
"No," Kanna says. She sounds like she's trying to decide if Hama is making the entire thing up. "That's stupid."
Hama joins her on the last word, making it a chorus, and grins. She's pretty sure Kanna is grinning, too. "I know, but they're boys. Anyway, the other girls have picked out a spot up on the glacier that gives a clear view of the cove. They're planning to test out the distance glass there."
"I'm not sure that's any less stupid," Kanna says. "Not when they could be looking at this instead." She reaches toward Hama to take back the glass, her fingers brushing against Hama's as she fumbles in the darkness for a grip.
"Easy for you to say," Hama teases, though privately she agrees. There are reasons she's out here instead of resting for a morning spying expedition, reasons she was grateful when the ocean deposited a stranger on her doorstep despite the stranger's odd obsessions. She hasn't fit in well with her yearmates since they started finding boys more fascinating than their lessons. "You're already engaged."
Kanna's hand stills, still wrapped around Hama's. "No, I'm not."
"But you're wearing a betrothal necklace," Hama points out.
Kanna starts to pull back her hand, probably to touch the necklace, but tightens it on Hama's instead. "My parents arranged a marriage," she says. They have been speaking quietly all along, unwilling to break the peace of the night, but now Kanna's voice is barely a whisper.
"And you didn't like him?" Hama asks. She's always wondered why Kanna left home, but Kanna has never said more than "to see the world." "Was he old? Ugly?"
"No." Kanna sighs. "He was from a good family, very handsome, just my age. An excellent waterbender, too, which I'm sure counts for more with you," she adds.
"Of course," Hama says, trying to match Kanna's tone of forced lightness. "But you didn't want to marry him?"
"He wouldn't have wanted me mending nets," Kanna says after a long silence. "He wouldn't have wanted you making this." She taps the glass they both hold.
"So why are you still wearing the necklace?"
"I suppose because it means no one else will propose."
Hama blinks in the darkness. "What, Southern Water Tribe men not good enough for you?"
"It's not that." Kanna lets out a huff of annoyance. "It's . . . well." Kanna lifts the glass, tightening her fingers around Hama's when Hama tries to cede the glass and pull her own hand away. She leans toward Hama, pressing their cheeks together, holding the glass where they can each see through it with one eye. Hama forgets they're outside in winter; Kanna's skin against hers is warm as sunlight. She turns toward Kanna, pressing her closer, and as she moves the glass swings down, no longer pointed at the stars but at the sea.
At the sea, which is dotted with stars: not reflections, but blazing balls of golden fire that silhouette the angular lines of hard, black ships.
Kanna lets out a muffled cry, and both girls jerk back. The glass bounces off the edge of the parapet, shattering one lens, before landing in the snow. Any warmth Hama felt is gone.
"The Fire Nation," Kanna agrees, so quietly the words might have been anything, and then, "The Fire Nation! The Fire Nation is here!"
Still shouting, they race down the stairs, leaving the glass to melt.
Water Tribe ships travel in all seasons, guided by waterbenders who can break ice at their will, but it's rare for other nations to send trading vessels before summer. That makes a Fire Nation ship in the harbor on the first day of spring a source of great excitement, and half the tribe has crowded the docks to see what marvels it brings.
Kanna thinks the greatest marvel of all is that the Fire Nation comes in peace, but that doesn't mean she's immune to wondering what the ship carries in its hold. Pakku, no doubt, is already there, waiting for the ship to unload so he can pick up some trinket or another for her. She wants to humor his desire to surprise her, which will mean taking even more time to reach the docks than her old bones require, but there's an easy excuse for that.
"There's a Fire Nation ship in the harbor," she tells Hama when she finds her, as expected, in the old watchtower.
"I can see that," Hama agrees.
It's true; though the old tower has very little in the way of a view, the smokestack on the ship is tall enough to be seen over the village walls, beneath a full moon pale in the bright blue sky. The snow by the dock will be grey with ash before the day is out. Kanna suppresses a shiver. "And can you see the tribe gathering?" she asks, determined to forget other days of ash-stained snow. "It's like a festival, Hama. Come down with me."
"A festival," Hama says flatly. "I have seen enough of the Fire Nation, Kanna."
"You've seen the Fire Nation at war," Kanna says gently. "Have you seen it at peace? It's been years, Hama."
"Two years," Hama stresses. "How can you forget it so easily? You never forgot a moment of your days in the Earth Kingdom, as a girl."
"I knew what I saw in the Earth Kingdom could—would—reach our doorstep one day," Kanna says. "But the war is over, now. I haven't forgotten it. I can't." She doesn't know how to make Hama understand. "But memories of the past can't be all that I am."
"Oh, I know," Hama says. She's smiling as she says it, a small, twisted thing that makes Kanna flinch.
"No one below will hurt you," Kanna says, steering for safer waters.
"Won't they?" Hama asks, still smiling, her tone as calm as though she'd asked if Kanna cared for a second glass of seaweed tea. "You never asked me where I've been, these past few years."
"You never pestered me for my memories of war either, when I first came here," Kanna says. "I know—no. I cannot imagine what you've been through. But I know how hard it can be to speak. I will listen, but I would never demand your story." She settles back against the wall, hip aching, trying to find a posture she can hold. She came here to draw Hama out, after all; the Fire Nation ship was only one means to that end.
"Very kind of you," Hama says. "Very trusting. But I didn't mention the war. It ended two years ago, as you reminded me. Did you think it took me two years to sail from the Fire Nation to here?"
"I thought it might have taken them time to release you." Kanna knows, from her granddaughter, that the new Fire Lord means well; she knows, also, the troubles he has had finding counselors who share his sentiments, the disarray his government is in. Having managed a small village, she can only cringe at the thought of delegating an entire nation's worth of work.
"Release—" Hama sucks in a breath. "They threw us in prison when they captured us, Kanna. It was a dry and terrible place. No one escaped—no one except me."
Hama nods, her eyes focused at something far beyond Kanna. "I wanted to come home, of course. But how could I? The seas were thick with Fire Nation ships, and for all I knew our village was no more. So I dressed in reds and browns and set up a home among them. They could seem kind, if you did not look closely. They could offer aid, and comfort, and welcome—and I would almost be fooled, until they spoke of the war. Oh, they loved their war, did the people of the Fire Nation. They loved knowing that the world would burn. And I could do nothing, poor and hidden as I was. Nothing, unless I caught one alone."
Kanna shivers and pulls her parka closer around herself. "Hama, what did you do?" she asks, before she can stop herself.
Hama's eyes focus on her abruptly, bright as an anglerfish's lure. There is nothing in that expression of the woman Kanna once loved. "Nothing they didn't do to me. Nothing but shut them away in the cold, cold stone, with no one to hear them scream but each other. Fair enough, don't you think? Oh, but your granddaughter didn't think so."
"What does Katara have to do with this?" Kanna asks sharply.
"She found me," Hama says simply. "She found me, and she betrayed me, and back into prison I went. It took me two years to escape again, and I think you will learn the Fire Nation still wants to hurt me very badly indeed, if they find me." She spreads her arms wide, palms up. "So what will it be, Kanna? Will you help them, like your granddaughter?"
"I don't believe Katara would hurt a tribesman," Kanna says, struggling to keep up with the stream of words. Individually, they make sense; together, they are all but incomprehensible.
"But you believe I would torture the people of the Fire Nation?" Hama asks softly.
Kanna closes her eyes, opens them again. Hama is still standing in front of her, arms spread, the picture of a helpless old woman. "I don't know what I believe, Hama. I missed you. I thought your return was a gift from the spirits. I thought you were finding a place for yourself with the tribe—but you haven't, have you? When was the last time you offered Jinon a lesson?"
Hama laughs, short and sharp. "No one wants my lessons. Perhaps you should ask your granddaughter before you press me for more; I taught her everything I knew, and she spat in my face."
"Why?" Kanna asks. She's clutching her parka as tight as she can, but it doesn't stop her from shivering. She's not sure what she means: why would Hama do the things she's hinted at, why would Katara turn from her lessons, why can't Hama be the woman she once was. Memories of the past can't be all that I am, she remembers herself saying, and feels her own hysterical laugh starting to surface. She swallows it back, nearly choking.
"She didn't like the lesson. She didn't like knowing that when the power of the moon was strong enough, I could do this."
Hama brings her arms in, the gesture slow and steady, and Kanna feels her aching hip shift and drag her, stumbling, forward. One step, two. She is no longer watching Hama's gestures; she can see nothing but her own reflection in Hama's wide-pupilled eyes. Then, abruptly, the jerking motion stops. Kanna stumbles forward, and Hama catches her, not with bending but with her own warm, sinewy arms. Their faces are nearly touching, and for one long moment Kanna thinks Hama means to kiss her. She can feel her stomach fluttering at the thought despite all that she's heard, and she wonders, wildly, whether Hama still controls her body.
"She didn't like knowing she could do it, either," Hama says conversationally, and she turns away toward the window, leaving Kanna to find her own balance. She staggers back to the wall, the floor as unsteady beneath her feet as a storm-tossed ship.
"Because," Kanna says, "because it's—" She realizes, a moment later, that Hama isn't listening to her—she's listening to the cries coming up from the harbor, which have changed in pitch and volume. For a moment, Kanna's pulse pounds, remembering screams on the docks from other, darker times. But there's no alarm to these cries, only joy. She can make out, over the general clamor, one shouted name, then two. They are names she has not heard in many, many years. She knows, suddenly, why the Fire Nation ship has come so early this year. I thought it might have taken them time to release you, she had said, and she had been right—right in everything but the particular.
"I wonder," Hama says, standing very still, "I wonder what would have happened, if I'd stayed. Go look at your ship," she says, and Kanna does, hobbling down the stairs as fast as her hip will allow, leaving Hama behind.
Freezing rain has been falling steadily since sunrise, but that should be no concern for a waterbender, or so Yanak informs them.
"In fact," he says, while they stand beneath the deluge with icicles growing on their eyelashes, "this is an excellent opportunity to study the transition between water and ice and improve your control shifting from one to the other."
In theory, Hama agrees. She's always had a passion for understanding the details of what they do, for working with delicacy rather than acting like earthbenders tossing snowballs in place of boulders. In practice, she is devoutly grateful when Yanak dismisses them to their families for lunch. She jogs home, then pauses just outside the doorway and, with a gesture, sends the glaze of ice sheeting off her parka.
Inside the igloo, the air is warmer, heated by the cheerful cooking fire in the hearth. What little ice remains on Hama's eyelashes melts immediately, dripping into her eyes. She rubs at them and squints around the room. Her mother and father are both there, and until last week that would have been all she searched for. But that was before Hama found the younger girl on the beach and persuaded her parents to take her in.
"Where's Kanna?" she asks.
"I don't know, dear," her mother says, though her attention is focused on stirring the pot on the hearth with long, smooth gestures that set the water spinning. "She was mending nets with the children this morning, but they've all come in."
Hama sighs, casts a longing look at the pot of stewed sea prunes, and pushes her hood back up. "I'll find her. Try not to eat all the food."
Outside, the freezing rain has turned to hail, which is an improvement only because the pellets are still tiny as bladderwrack seeds. Something in the air tells Hama they'll grow quickly. She can't imagine Kanna wanting to be out in this weather, which leaves—where? The watchtower, Hama decides. Most days someone is stationed there to watch for boats and send out the call to the village when one comes in with catch to be unloaded, but in weather this foul no one is out fishing.
She finds Kanna on the tower's third floor, elbows on the windowsill and chin propped in her hands, staring at the hail-struck sea.
"Someone should be watching," Kanna says without turning around.
Hama is momentarily thrown by the realization that after only a week Kanna can recognize her by the sound of her footsteps—or, more likely, by the huff of frustration she lets out. "For what?" she asks. "No one's out today."
"For the Fire Nation."
Hama sighs, not quite as silently as she intends. Kanna was silent for days about how she found her way to their village, but since the Chief interviewed her about her origins and intentions a floodgate has broken loose. Kanna claims that the war rages beyond their shores, that the Fire Nation continues to send troops pouring into the Earth Kingdom. She describes battles she's watched, crouched behind rocks or perched in trees. Her stories are vivid, and no one is quite willing to claim them as fabrications. The Earth Kingdom is vast, the Fire Nation confined to a tiny string of islands. It's no great surprise that the Fire Nation might want to seize more territory.
But when Kanna claims that the Fire Nation will come for them next—that the men of the South Pole need to ready their weapons and look to their borders—even Hama has her doubts. They aren't the Air Nomads, prone to wandering through others' territory uninvited. They aren't the Earth Kingdom, rich with resources. What could the Fire Nation possibly want with a place as inimical to its very nature as the South Pole?
"Were you talking about the Fire Nation while you were mending nets?" Hama asks delicately. It wouldn't be the first time Kanna was mocked for her obsession, or the first time she sought solitude because of it.
"What? No." Kanna turns at last and slumps back against the window. "I wasn't mending nets."
"Oh. But Mom said you were with the children."
"I was. They were mending nets," Kanna agrees, her voice tight.
"But you weren't?"
"I'm not good enough." Kanna slumps lower and presses her palm to her face. Muffled by her fingers, she says, in her best imitation of Hasuki, the elderly woman who often minds the children, "'It's very easy! Just twist the rope—no, not that way—and then pull—no, not that tight—and then tie—no, not there—oh, why don't you just let Kika do it?' Kika is four," Kanna says, as though Hama weren't perfectly well aware of the age of her own younger cousin. "A four-year-old can mend nets better than I can."
Hama can appreciate the frustration of not being able to contribute, though privately she's grateful that her waterbending gives her a different way to serve the tribe than days spent mending nets. "Do they weave them differently in the Northern Tribe?"
Kanna nods, lips twisted in a grimace. "Yes. If by 'differently' you mean 'only men weave nets.'"
Hama stares at her. "Why?"
"Nets are coarse," Kanna says, as though the answer were obvious. "Crude. They tear at your hands. Men make nets. Ladies sew parkas. Embroidery," she says, gesturing at the delicate bands at her cuffs and waist, "there's a proper pastime for a woman. It might ruin your eyes, but your hands will be smooth as a tiger seal."
Hama gives this the consideration it deserves. She's never been more grateful to have been born in the south. "That's stupid."
"I know." Kanna grins at her, a startlingly sweet expression that lights up her entire face. "Why do you think I ran away from home?"
"Because you wanted to weave nets," Hama says, and is rewarded with another flash of a smile. She likes this Kanna: the one who shares her jokes, not the one whose eyes are haunted by war. "I'll show you how to mend nets if you teach me how to cook the leopard octopus stew you made last night. I can never keep it from going all rubbery."
Hama's stomach chooses that moment to growl. "But before we talk any more about food, maybe we could go eat lunch?"
Kanna giggles. The tension has gone out of her, and she no longer slouches. But Hama can't help but notice that she looks back over her shoulder, out the window, before they exit the tower room.
There are five waterbenders on the Fire Nation ship, five survivors of the scores who were captured. It is five more, Kanna thinks, than the Southern Water Tribe ever expected would return.
Six more, a quiet thought intrudes, but she has not seen Hama since the day the Fire Nation ship arrived. The pole is a vast place, and it is easy for a waterbender to vanish among the trackless stretches of ice and snow. In Hama's absence it is—almost—easy to forget that final day, to remember Hama as she was in her first few weeks among the tribe, lost and a little sharp-tongued but still a source of joy and wonder. Kanna remembers hugging her friend in greeting on the shore, her arms sliding beneath Hama's parka to wrap more tightly around her. She tries to forget what it felt like to have her legs move at another's control.
She doesn't succeed. Twice, now, she has woken Pakku with her nightmares, and twice she has refused to explain her dreams.
Most nights, Kanna is too tired for dreaming. She has found homes for the three waterbenders with no living family, sorted through the village stores for suitable clothing to lend them until fresh robes and parkas can be sewn, and sat with them for long hours by the fire trading stories of their younger days and listening, when the fire cools to embers, to their stories of the Fire Nation. They speak elliptically around the cruelties, shying away from their own memories, but they build a clear enough picture to make Kanna shiver even when her back is nearly pressed against the fire.
She asks once, quietly, about Hama. Mikka, who knows they were close, pats her arm.
"I'm sorry, dear. We woke up one morning and she was gone. It happened sometimes, especially to—well. We didn't ask questions. But I'm sorry. I wish more than anything for your sake that she had come home, too."
But she did, Kanna thinks, and knows that she is lying. Hama had come back to her, but the village was no longer Hama's home. She had stayed so far on its fringes that her absence has passed without comment; Mikka thinks Hama still lost, because none of the tribespeople have mentioned her name. Kanna nods slowly to the fire and does not correct Mikka, letting the conversation pass to other things.
She does not mention Hama's name again, joining the rest of the tribe in its silence, but every meal Kanna leaves an extra serving of stew in the pot, just in case an extra mouth needs to be fed.
Hama has always hung back at the end of waterbending class, preferring to practice the moves they've learned one final time than to watch, wistfully, as the other students leave.
It's not that she isn't friendly with them. They work together well in waterbending class, exchanging cautions and encouragement under Yanak's watchful eye, and she can make small talk with them when it comes time for the whole tribe to gather to unload a big catch or cook a holiday feast. She knows Mikka's older sister is expecting a baby next moon and that Sona's younger brother broke his leg last week showing off while hunting. When they were younger, they all played together under their grandmothers' watchful eyes, and she has a store of embarrassing childhood stories about each of them, matched no doubt by their stories of her.
But those days when they all skidded through the village together, building forts and making spirits in the snow, are over. Now, after class, the boys head in one direction while the other girls go off in twos and threes, giggling and whispering with their closest friends.
Hama is friendly with everyone, but she has never been anyone's closest confidant. She has always wondered, a little, what it would be like.
She is beginning to regret that curiosity.
For the three days since Hama found Kanna sailing into the village harbor and brought her home, the other girl has clung closer than a barnacle, never leaving her side. She even comes to waterbending class and watches—always far enough way to be safe from mis-directed balls of ice and snow, but close enough that Hama scarcely makes it two steps after bowing farewell to Yanak before her shadow rejoins her. It was novel at first; it has become exhausting.
"Look," Hama says in a rush as she laces her parka on the fourth day and Kanna prepares to follow suit, "I'm not an otter penguin. I'm not going to disappear as soon as your back is turned. It can't be that interesting for you, watching me drill for hours. Why don't you stay in the village?"
Kanna looks blank for a moment, and mentally Hama curses herself. She hadn't meant to hurt the other girl's feelings; she just wants a little time to herself. This, she thinks bitterly, is why she always leaves class alone.
But what Kanna says, when she finally opens her mouth, is, "What's an otter penguin?"
It's Hama's turn to look blank. "You don't have otter penguins on the North Pole? They're black and white birds."
Kanna shakes her head. "They . . . disappear?"
Hama laughs. "Not exactly. But there's a legend that says they used to be all white, and every time there was the slightest flurry, they'd lose each other in the storm." She gets into the spirit of the story, using the cadences her grandmother had once used. "The wind spirit took pity on them, and the next time there was a storm he sent black snow—black snow that stained their feathers dark as night, so they would always be able to spot each other. They thought their problems were solved—until the children of the watertribe took up the fine sport of penguin sledding, and wore all the black off the penguin's fronts. So now the otter penguins always walk together in a line, keeping a close eye on each other's backs—because the moment they turn around, they might lose each other again. Or that's the story," she adds. "It's something mothers tell their children when they want them to come in and do their chores. 'If you keep sledding on those penguins, they might lose the black on their back as well, and then where will they be?'"
Kanna, if anything, looks more confused. "How do you sled on a bird?"
"I guess if you didn't have then in the north, you wouldn't know." Penguin sledding is kid stuff, and at sixteen Hama is far too old. But it seems a shame that Kanna has never experienced the rush of sliding down the glacier with warm feathers between you and the ice. "Look, I'll tell you what. After my class, I'll find you, and we can go have a genuine Southern Water Tribe penguin-sledding experience." She grins encouragingly, and gets the hint of a smile in return. She thinks it might be the first genuinely happy smile she's seen Kanna give.
"That sounds fun," Kanna admits. "But I'm not sure what to do the rest of the day."
Hama fiddles with her hood to hide her flush of guilt. It hadn't really occurred to her how lost Kanna—who didn't even know what an otter penguin was or how to go penguin-sledding—must feel in the village. "We can ask my mom. There's always chores around the village that need a hand or six. Or you could go speak to the Chief. I know he wants to interview you about the Northern Water Tribe, and whether it's safe to start sending out trading ships again." None of the tribesmen have sailed to the other nations, or even their sister tribe, since the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads. But that was decades ago, before Hama was even born.
Kanna's eyes grow very wide. "It's not."
"Well, you made it here," Hama points out reasonably enough. Kanna has shied away from questions about her journey, but if one girl managed the trip south, surely a whole trade ship can trace her route back north again.
"That doesn't—" Kanna's expression goes pinched, then resolute. "I'll talk to the Chief."
Hama isn't sure what to make of the change in Kanna's bearing, but she misses the smile. "And then we'll go penguin sledding? You came all the way here; the least you deserve is to experience some of our best traditions."
Kanna blinks, and for a moment Hama thinks she's going to refuse. Instead, she says, "If you don't turn around so I can't find you."
Hama laughs, delighted to have her joke returned, and rushes to class.
Kanna enters her home humming, pleased with the quality of sea prunes she's found for dinner. She could barely keep a tune even as a girl, and now, with her hearing beginning to fade, she's missing more notes than she hits. But it's an old song, too old for her anyone but her to hear and correct—or so she thinks until Hama's voice joins in. The woman is sitting in the chair furthest from the fire, so lost in shadow that she seems almost a part of it.
"There are leftovers from lunch still on the hearth," Kanna says as calmly as she can. Her heart is hammering in her chest. She sets the sea prunes down as carefully as she can, but the bucket still clatters against the floor when her hand trembles.
"Leopard octopus stew," Hama agrees, and raises the bowl that was hidden in the curve of her lap. "I served myself. I hope you don't mind."
"No," Kanna says, and having said it finds herself at loss for words. She sits down, and the chair creaks beneath her sudden weight.
"I'm leaving," Hama says simply. "I wanted to wait until moondark to tell you. To talk when you weren't afraid I would—"
"Don't," Kanna says. Her throat is dry. "Don't say it."
Hama looks, for a moment, like she intends to argue. Kanna's eyes have adjusted to the gloom, and she can see Hama studying her, can see the moment when her face relaxes into acquiescence.
"I wanted to say goodbye," Hama continues instead. "I thought I could find peace here, but I've brought more of the Fire Nation in my heart than all the trading ships of summer. You can leave the past behind, Kanna. You can grow." She looks away, an incongruous smile on her lips that quickly fades. "I remember when you first arrived, always following me like a shadow. The war is what helped you find a place for yourself, gave you courage. It gave me—something else."
"You had courage, too," Kanna says.
"I borrowed your courage," Hama corrects. "I borrowed so many things from you. Do you know how lonely I was, before you came?"
"No," Kanna says, startled. She has always thought of Hama as centered in her people, has always striven to emulate her as she built connections to her new home.
"No," Hama agrees. "I was good at hiding it, I suppose. You see me hanging back, always on the edge of the crowd, and you think you can repair it—but that's not the part that's broken, Kanna. That's who I always was."
Kanna can feel the words gathering in her throat: I loved who you were. There is nothing to be gained in saying them now—not the least because, from Hama's slight nod, she knows that even unspoken they are heard.
"You loved who you thought I was," Hama says softly. "And maybe there was truth in that. But you don't love who I am today."
Kanna wants to claim otherwise. But she can still feel a phantom heaviness in her legs, and Pakku's choker is tight around her throat. She misses, suddenly and for the only time in her life, the war—misses the way its all-consuming nature had stripped everything away, leaving only need.
"I can't blame you for that," Hama continues as lightly as she can. "I don't love myself, these days. Perhaps that can change. Perhaps I, too, can grow. But not if I stay here, where I still see my father dying every time I walk through the harbor, where you still want to shape me to match your memories."
"They were good memories," Kanna says.
"They were," Hama agrees. "But you can't live in the past, Kanna, as you've told me every chance you can. You don't need me here to keep tradition alive; Mikka will be a better teacher than I ever was. And you can't pretend we fit together just the same when you've built a life here: a husband, children, grandchildren."
She is looking at Kanna steadily. One word of denial from her, Kanna realizes, and Hama will—what? She is right; there is no place for her here. She cannot tell Hama to come back.
Kanna swallows, leans forward, and takes Hama's hands in hers. Her skin is thin and dry and so, so warm. Kanna wants to clutch at them. Instead, she squeezes once and then lets go.
"Go in peace," she says quietly, and closes her eyes. When she opens them, Hama is gone.
It's pure chance that Hama happens to be walking along the harbor that night. It's moon-dark; a wiser waterbender than she would be abed, not squinting in the shadows for the comb she dropped that evening in her rush to unsnarl her hair between practice and dinner. Even reflected off the ice, the stars offer little aid for her search.
But the darkness is what lets her see, far on the horizon, the growing gleam of lantern light that indicates a boat moving steadily toward shore.