The first winter without Kya was the hardest season of Hakoda’s life. He thought it might ease in the summer, but the long and steady ache in his chest remained, like a new bone was growing up against his heart.
When Bato asked how he was for the fourth time that week, Hakoda snapped, harsher than he meant to, “I’m fine.”
“Hakoda,” Bato said, voice painfully soft.
He turned away, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I’m fine. Sorry. I’m just—I’m going for a walk.”
Bato tried to stop him, but Kanna placed a hand on his arm. “Let him be,” she murmured.
Hakoda stalked away from the tribe, wind in his ears. Although it was the summer solstice, there were no children playing in the wispy snow banks. No people basking in the midday sun. No laughter echoing out of homes.
It had been quiet ever since the attack. The Fire Nation had taken more than blood from them that day.
Hakoda closed his eyes. He wished, as he always did, that Kya was there with him.
The veil between their world and the spirit world thinned on the summer solstice. It was even said that when the worlds bumped together like this, spirits could push into their world, like shark fins knifing through the ocean surface.
Hakoda tried to pretend that Kya was with him. But those thoughts made him hurt worse, so he stood and breathed in and out and tried to learn how to live with the pain.
There was a distant cry, indistinguishable between a sob and a laugh. For a moment, he thought maybe Kya… But when he glanced around, he was alone. The tribe was several hundreds metres back, and the ice-sheet stretched out for miles in front of him, empty of life.
An indistinct voice called, “I know it was you.”
“You have no proof!” A different voice. High and threaded with laughter.
“Who’s there?” Hakoda called. No one answered him.
He cocked his head, listening intently. The wind whistled back at him. Just as he was about to head back to the tribe, he heard the voices again.
“Aang! Aang, get back here. I don’t need proof to kick your scrawny ass.”
“I’m not scrawny, I’m taller than you now!”
“You want to try that again?”
There was a yelp and footsteps thundered several metres past Hakoda. He jerked back, hand on his knife, but the air was still around him. The ground was undisturbed, no footprints torn into the snow.
Another voice, this one female and clearly amused: “Hey, get your own firebender. This one’s mine.”
The voices grew clearer, as if approaching once more. Hakoda whirled around, scanning the tundra. Nothing. The seas were empty, as they had been for months. They would have seen any ship approaching from miles off.
The sun glinted off the ice-shelf, refracting rainbow light back into his eyes. He squinted, laughter and crunching footsteps still loud in his ears, and when he opened his eyes, he saw the blurry figures of several young adults tumbling through the snow.
He zoned in on a pale young man. He had long black hair braided away from his face, an ugly burn warping his features, and golden eyes.
But he was dressed in reds and blues. His parka was lined with wolf fur and threaded with local designs, clearly made by someone from the Southern Water Tribe. Hakoda couldn’t remember ever seeing a firebender out of armour.
There was a young woman clinging to his back. She was also dressed in a heavy parka, though he could see hints of green poking out from beneath her collar. Her milk-pale eyes were hidden by choppy bangs.
“I called dibs years ago,” said the young woman, smirking. “You snooze, you lose, twinkle toes.”
The firebender laughed and tucked the blind girl closer. The gesture would be sweet if Hakoda hadn’t grown up hearing stories of firebending soldiers stealing away Earth Kingdom girls.
“Do I get a choice here?” asked the firebender. His awkward laugh, totally free of malice, stopped Hakoda from unsheathing his knife.
She snorted, leaning into him. “Nope.”
The next surprise came with a laugh and a strong gust of wind. It was another young man, even taller than the last, clad in thin yellow robes and covered in strange blue tattoos. An Air Nomad?
The airbender choked back his laugh and adopted a pout. “Toph, come on. I’ll tell Katara you’re hogging Zuko again.”
The Arctic air froze in Hakoda’s lungs. Katara?
“Go ahead,” said the Earth Kingdom girl. Toph. “I can take her.”
“Um, Toph?” Zuko said. “We’re surrounded by ice.”
“And what about it?”
Hakoda pressed a hand to his forehead. He wanted to sprint back to the village and check on his children, but he was rooted to the spot by this apparition.
It was a sight Hakoda never thought he would see: a firebender dressed willingly in fur, cradling an Earth Kingdom girl, the both of them laughing with an Air Nomad.
Their thoughtless joy. The easy way they touched each other. Three different benders, laughing in the Southern Water Tribe, as if they belonged there. How could any of it be real?
And then a third man knocked into the airbender. There was something about him… Hakoda thought he was just imagining it, like how he still saw Kya’s face in crowds even though she was gone from this world, but then the young man tilted his chin towards Hakoda. Sokka.
Those shoulders were too broad and his jaw was too sharp, but—that was his son.
“Sokka,” Hakoda rasped, reaching for him.
Sokka shoved the airbender. “You broke my sled, Aang. Do you have any idea how much time I worked on that?”
“It wasn’t me!” The airbender ducked behind Zuko, even as Toph yelled at him to fuck off.
Sokka darted after Aang. Hakoda tried to grab him but, with a flurry of whipped-up snow, Sokka passed straight through him.
Hakoda wiped snow off his face. The wind danced around him, blurring the four young adults into a sludge of rainbow colour. Hakoda blinked, rubbed his eyes.
The young adults were there when he opened his eyes, looking as sharp and solid as any other person in the village.
Hakoda knew this was an apparition. Something created by a wandering spirit, trying to confuse or frighten a mortal man, or else tempt him into the water where he would drown before he realised the danger he was in.
But why would a spirit pick these people—a happy, grown-up Sokka and three strangers Hakoda didn’t think could exist together—to show him?
“Leave Aang alone. I’m the one that tripped over it last night.”
Hakoda turned. At first, he thought the woman was Kya. Alive and happy and young, just as she was in his dreams.
Sokka squawked, letting go off Aang’s robes. “Katara? I trusted you.”
Katara, tall and muscular, a well-made water skin strapped to her hip, laughed and flipped her hair loops out of her face. “Your mistake.”
Barely breathing, Hakoda took in the sight of them. His children, suddenly adults. Three foreign figures, two of them bundled into wolf-fur parkas. All of them laughing. From the colourful beads he glimpsed whenever they raised their arms, he thought they might be wearing matching bracelets too.
Seeing that many colours together, clashing against the blue background of the tundra… It felt wrong. Foreigners never brought anything but war. But there was something about these young adults that felt so natural, as if they were a matching set.
Hakoda took a step toward his kids, hand outstretched. But then as quickly as it came, the vision sputtered into nothing, the voices on the wind shrinking to barely-there whispers.
Hakoda spun on his heels and sprinted back to the village.
When he crashed into their tent, Kanna startled, almost knocking her needlework into the fire. “What is it? Is there another…?”
He shook his head. “I went for a walk and less than a mile from the village there was—I saw—” He crossed to her side and collapsed to his knees. “Mum, I think I saw a vision from the spirits.”
Kanna set down her sewing. “Start from the beginning.”
Hakoda told her, in fits and starts, about the young adults laughing together out on the ice. He described their multicoloured clothes; the matching beads around their wrists, almost identical to the friendship bracelets he shared with Kya and Bato as children; their smiles and echoing laughter; the way they crashed into each other, cradled each other, clutched at each other as though they were baby penguin-seal cubs instead of almost-grown adults.
It felt crazy saying it outloud. An impossibility his grief-stricken mind dreamt up.
When Hakoda was finished, Kanna’s eyes were wide.
“Do you remember what day it is?” she asked.
“The summer solstice. I know. But what kind of spirit would create something like that? Are they trying to taunt me?”
“I don’t think,” Kanna began slowly, a gleam in her eyes that he hadn’t seen for some time, years maybe, “that you saw a vision crafted by a dangerous spirit. Hakoda, I think you glimpsed of the future. Or a possible version of it.”
His mouth was dry. “What?”
“The spirit world contains many things. It’s said that it even holds knowledge of this world--what it once was and what it will become.”
“I saw an Air Nomad,” he said. “They’ve been dead for years. How is that possible?”
“I don’t know.”
They fell silent. He couldn’t hear strange laughter anymore. The village had been quiet since the last raid. Even the tribe’s younger children hadn’t laughed like those young adults had—loud and long and unrestrained, like they’d never known pain.
Those grown up children Hakoda had seen out on the ice were tall and broad-shouldered, but still young. Katara and Sokka had no wrinkles. No grey hairs. Just wide smiles and a light in their eyes that Hakoda almost couldn’t recognise.
It was his children in ten or fifteen years. Twenty, at a stretch.
How could the world change so completely in a decade?
It couldn’t. It couldn’t. But thinking of the gentle firebender carrying the earthbender, the young and alive Air Nomad, the strong version of his adult children, the sheer happiness radiating from them all, as if it was natural for them to be together here, in the Southern Water Tribe, where trading ships barely sailed and foreign faces only brought bloodshed—
Hakoda scrubbed a hand over his face. “What does it mean? What was the point in seeing that?”
“Hope,” Kanna said gently. “Hakoda, it was supposed to give us hope.”
He wanted that to be their future. Desperately. But wishing felt dangerous.
He screwed up his eyes. “I can’t.”
“I know it hurts.” Kanna ran a hand through Hakoda’s hair, like he was a small boy again. He leant into the touch. “But we can’t abandon hope. Not if we want to survive. The war isn’t won yet.”
Hakoda breathed in deeply. Inside their home, the air was warm and thick, briny with the smell of cooking sea prunes.
He didn’t want to leave, but if he wanted that laughing, many-coloured future to come true, he couldn’t stay here. The war raged beyond their waters. The Southern Water Tribe needed to help, before it was too late and the war was lost forever.
Leaving would hurt all of them. But Hakoda would do anything if it meant he could hold onto the future the spirit world had shown him today.
He would do anything if he could see his children like that again.