They had all had a few more cups of wine--between them, Arluk and Inuvik had a seemingly infinite supply--when the wind started to howl outside. "Listen to that," said Arluk. "It'll be a bad one for sure."
"We'll all have to drink double," said Inuvik.
"Because it's so bad?" asked Arluk.
"No, no," said Inuvik, shaking his head for a while as he tried to remember what he meant by his statement. He couldn't hold his drink quite as well as Arluk, who was still fairly coherent. "Because the Moon's full!"
"That's right!" exclaimed Arluk. "It's Stormcoming and Mooncoming! Double drinks for everyone!"
"I don't think you need more reasons to drink," Horuk grumbled, although he had had a few himself.
Zhaoka had had a few too, but he wasn't feeling drunk, although there was a warm burn in his stomach, and his cheeks felt heated. He didn't feel any need to contribute to the conversation, instead letting the other men talk, although it was Inuvik and Arluk who were doing most of the talking. He felt distracted. He kept glancing at the wall of the igloo, against which the wind railed. He found it easier to pay attention to the sound of the wind than the voices of his companions. It was strange. He almost thought he heard a voice in the wind.
When he turned away from the packed snow walls, he noticed Horuk watching him and nodded at the other man. Horuk's answering expression was expectedly unreadable.
"We should go out and look at the Moon," Inuvik was saying.
Arluk punched his arms. "Idiot! You won't be able to see it through the clouds!"
"Don't be so stupid."
"I can at least see her glowing through the clouds," Inuvik insisted stubbornly. "As long as she doesn't go out again!"
Arluk hit his arm again. "And why would the Moon go out? Don't be a fool."
"Both of you talk too much," snapped Horuk, rising to his feet. "I'm going to sleep."
Inuvik rose as well, unsteadily. "I'm going out to look at the Moon." Arluk put out a hand, bracing his brother's leg. He gave Zhaoka an amused but long-suffering look, as if to say, Well, I can't stop him!
But before Horuk could retire to his furs or Inuvik could go out to look at the moon, there was a noise from the entryway to the igloo, and everyone turned in time to see Hahn enter, straighten, and shake the snow from his hair. He glared at Zhaoka, giving no sign that he even realized the three other men were there. "Come with me," he demanded.
Zhaoka glared at the young man, unimpressed. "I'm not going out in the middle of a blizzard," he informed him flatly.
Hahn blew out a breath with an irritated noise loud enough to rival the wind. "You have to."
"No, I don't."
Hahn's mittened hands made fists, and he breathed in deeply. The wind had blown his hair wild, and the strain in his face that aged him was more evident than usual. There was a gleam in his eyes; he seemed more than half mad.
"Why don't you go home?" Zhaoka suggested.
Arluk, Inuvik, and Horuk had been watching this exchange in silence, but now Arluk spoke up. "Zhaoka, have a heart. His home's miles away."
"Let him go somewhere else, then. But he's not staying here, and I'm not going with him." Zhaoka turned away. He was angry. He didn't know why he was so angry. It wasn't that he disliked the young man. Hahn's company had not always been unpleasant. But he disliked the way Hahn felt he could appear without warning and give commands. It was aggravating, to say the least. He didn't enjoy being given orders, especially by a young man who had no power over anything.
Hahn made another noise--this one sounded like an expression of pain, and Zhaoka turned to see, but Hahn had no visible injury. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. For the first time, he seemed to notice the other men in the forge. He examined each one of them in turn, and his gaze finally settled on Arluk, perhaps because he had spoken before. "Help me," he said.
"Hahn," said Arluk gently. "Perhaps you should go. The storm's not too bad yet. I can take you to Arnook."
"I won't go to Arnook!" Hahn was unable to keep still, agitated. He tossed his head. His hair was coming free of its leather tie, and it swung around his shoulders and fell over his face. "It hurts."
Arluk got to his feet. Inuvik and Horuk continued to watch in grave silence, as if it wasn't their place to interfere. Even Arluk seemed reluctant to move towards Hahn. "It's all right. You bore it all those other times, didn't you?"
Hahn was breathing fast. "It's worse now. I shouldn't have--" Hahn paused, gasping for more air. "I shouldn't have talked to him."
"It's all right," Arluk repeated calmly. He took a step towards the boy and put out a hand, like a man approaching an oxwolf that he was not quite sure was tame.
"But he came to see me," Hahn explained, wide eyed. "Why won't he come with me now?"
Arluk sighed and looked to Zhaoka, who was sitting on the floor with his arms folded stubbornly across his chest. "Why don't you go with him?" Arluk asked. "What can it hurt?"
"I'm not going to let him lead me off into the wilderness where we'll both die of exposure."
"He won't do that. Will you, Hahn?"
Hahn's answering expression indicated that he considered this a very stupid question. "No."
"There. You see?" Arluk smiled at Zhaoka. "Go with him."
"Why should I?"
"Just go," snapped Horuk suddenly. "And if you don't go, I'll make you go. I'm tired of listening to this."
Zhaoka, Arluk, and Inuvik regarded him with surprise, this outburst was so unexpected, but Horuk's expression was blank, and from the set of his jaw, he seemed unlikely to say anything else. Zhaoka considered his friend. It was rare that Horuk made a demand like this. Zhaoka got to his feet, reluctantly. Perhaps it was because of Horuk's words, or perhaps the alcohol had impaired his judgment. "I'll go," he told Horuk. "But I don't like it."
"I know." Hahn said this with unexpected calm, and when Zhaoka faced the young man again, he found that a good deal of Hahn's agitation had faded now that Zhaoka had agreed to go. His narrowed eyes seemed to suggest that he didn't care what Zhaoka liked, but he didn't say anything along those lines, simply waited as Zhaoka went to fetch his parka and pulled it on over his head.
"It's too cold," Zhaoka complained, leaning forward against wind. He had to raise his voice so he could be heard over the rising voice of the blizzard.
"It's winter," said Hahn, unsympathetic. He was wearing his parka, but he kept the hood down. Zhaoka wondered how he could bear it, but Hahn didn't seem to mind, striding forward unconcerned as the wind whipped his hair back.
True to his word, Hahn was not leading him out into the icy wilds, but followed the path between the forge and the city. Soon enough, the white walls rose up before them. The storm was railing against them as they walked, but it was not quite a full blizzard, and Zhaoka found that if he huddled down inside his parka, the going wasn't too bad, although the cold was bitter--the furs and leathers that covered his body could not keep it from sinking through his skin and into his bones.
The path was still mostly evident, even in the darkness, and fortunately, they had the path markers if they needed them, but Hahn didn't seem to, choosing a path through the snow without hesitation. "Soon you won't be cold anymore," he added cryptically to his previous remark after they'd walked a few more feet.
Zhaoka frowned into the fur lining of his parka. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you shouldn't complain."
Zhaoka almost laughed. The statement was clearly meant as a joke, and that was unexpected. The young man's occasional sudden flashes of humor amused him. They seemed like remnants of the person he had once been, before he'd died. Zhaoka didn't complain again, trudging gamely through the snow until they were at the city walls. As Inuvik had predicted, it was still possible to see the Moon. Its pale glow was strikingly visible even through the thick cover of cloud, as if it was shining even more brightly in order to be seen on such a night.
The Waterbenders who had night duty at the gate seemed surprised to see anyone out in such foul weather, but Hahn raised his hand in greeting, and they lowered the ice to let the two pass through. Within the city, there was an eerie quiet, but for the sound of the wind. Everyone had gone indoors, and the broad streets and narrower footpaths stood empty, the flat surfaces becoming less and less distinct as the snow continued to fall and blew through all the thoroughfares. Not that they would have been very distinct regardless. A few protected lanterns still shone, illuminating small pockets of the city, but otherwise it was dark. Hahn, undaunted, continued to pick his course with unwavering certainty.
"Almost there," Hahn murmured to himself. Zhaoka was barely able to make out the words.
Oddly enough, Hahn lead him into the palace. There was a single, weary guard standing at the door, but he waved them through. Without warning, Zhaoka felt a shudder travel down his spine, accompanied by a turn of his stomach.
It was easier to see inside the palace. The lanterns were lit. Hahn made a series of turns down wide, open corridors until they were standing on the edge of a long, walled courtyard. The shudder moved down Zhaoka's spine again, and he had the feeling that there was something familiar about this place, although he had never been in this part of the palace before. There were no lanterns in the courtyard, but oddly enough, the Moon seemed to be hanging just above it, illuminating the space with its glow.
"Where are we going?" Zhaoka asked. Silently, he asked himself why he was still following Hahn. He could have taken shelter somewhere--in this storm, someone would have taken him in. The tribe's rules of hospitality dictated that they must. Probably they'd give him something warm to drink, perhaps a fur to sleep on. But all this way, he had kept his attention fixed on the young man just ahead of him, so close to him that once or twice he'd had to pull his head back to avoid Hahn's hair, which the wind was still making free with.
Hahn's only response to Zhaoka's question was to grunt as they walked through the fine mist of snow that ghosted through the empty courtyard. It confused him when Hahn turned towards what seemed like a blank wall. It wasn't until the last moment, when they were inches away, that Zhaoka realized there was a small door set into the wall. Hahn opened it, and the actual entrance proved to be even smaller than the door, a circle opening in the center of it. Hahn bent down to pass through it. Although Zhaoka could have balked, he did not so much as hesitate before lowering himself and climbing through as well.
Instantly, the wind fell away and the temperature rose significantly. Zhaoka found himself standing on one side of a long, wide crevasse. The walls of the crevasse rose far above him, and its bottom was obscured by the water filling it. On the far side of the water was a tiny green island, behind which a waterfall fell in a relatively quiet, mannerly fashion. Oddly enough, although the crevasse was open and the sky was visible, no snow fell here. Zhaoka gazed out across the water. The island on the other side was green with trees and grass--he knew what they were, although he had never seen them before.
"This is the Spirit Oasis?" Zhaoka had heard it mentioned before, but he had never been interested in seeing it.
Hahn didn't answer the question. "I come here when the Moon is full," he said. There were narrow walkways on either side of the crevasse, safely above the water, leading towards the green place. Hahn chose one of them and started down it. Zhaoka followed, a little ways behind. Now that he knew where Hahn was taking him, he could have asked why they were there or what they were going to do, but suddenly there didn't seem any point in such questions. He felt--he didn't know what it was he felt, but it propelled him forward and kept him quiet until he found himself standing on the green, green grass of the Oasis.
The only structure on the island was a blue arch, which stood above the pool of water at the island's center. Zhaoka took the necessary few steps--the island was so small--to reach the pool, then stood at the edge looking down. He frowned. There were two fish swimming in the water, one black and one white. He stared at them for a few long moments. He still couldn't identify what he was feeling. The shudder had come again, this time settling in the base of his spine, shivering there. His skin felt strange, light prickles running over it, and for once, he was warm. Before he knew what he was doing, he was taking his parka off, letting it fall to the ground beside him. He let his mittens fall as well.
When Hahn spoke in his ear, he gave a start. He had almost forgotten the young man was there, he had been so absorbed in the circular movement of the fish. He hadn't heard what Hahn had said, but he didn't wonder long, for Hahn said, presumably repeating himself, "Can you feel it?"
Zhaoka turned to look at him. Hahn's eyes were bright. Zhaoka frowned. He didn't know what to say in reply. He couldn't be experiencing whatever it was Hahn was referring to. He wouldn't believe that. But he was experiencing something. As if he'd been watching the fish for too long--how long had it been?--his head was swimming. "Why did you bring me here?" He had to force the question out, a part of him telling him that it wasn't necessary, that it was foolish, even. Because he already knew the answer, although he didn't have the words to formulate it.
Hahn frowned. The young man was standing close to Zhaoka, and he took another half-step closer. He had thrown off his parka as well. "I wanted you to tell me that you feel it."
"I don't." It was a struggle to say these words as well, and he hated that it was so difficult. They should be easy to say.
Hahn's teeth were gritted, and he bared them, showing a hostility that was almost animal. He spoke through his teeth. "This is your fault."
"My fault," said Zhaoka. "What do you mean? Did I do something to you?"
Hahn held Zhaoka's gaze for a few beats, breathing hard. He wanted to say something, Zhaoka could see that. He waited. Was this his chance to discover who he really was? But Hahn turned away. "I can't tell you."
Zhaoka wouldn't let it go so easily. "Yes, you can. The rules of the tribe don't bind you."
Hahn laughed. "The tribe? I don't care about the tribe." He raised an arm, his hand jabbing skyward as he raised his head. "It's the Moon." Zhaoka looked up, too. There was, unexpectedly, a break in the clouds just above the Oasis, through which the Moon's pale full face was visible. A break in the clouds during a blizzard? It didn't seem natural. And why was no snow falling here? It couldn't have stopped, not already.
"It's your fault that this happened to me!" Hahn said again, raising his voice, although he kept his gaze raised towards the sky. Zhaoka guessed that what he wanted to say was quite different, but the soft light of the Moon fell across his face, and he made a low, wordless noise of frustration. "Let me tell him," he said, and Zhaoka realized that he was talking to the Moon. He was mad.
Yet, when the young man turned towards him again, he didn't seem mad. He certainly appeared calmer and more rational than he had on other occasions Zhaoka could remember. "I feel like I'm only half myself," he said, the volume of his voice at a reasonable level. "But I can remember the way things used to be. I wish you knew what that was like."
"I don't," said Zhaoka, honestly.
Hahn frowned and glanced away, at the water surrounding the island. "There are underground caverns beneath the surface," he said. "The Ocean comes in here."
Zhaoka knew it was true. He could smell the salt. He nodded, newly conscious of Hahn's closeness. The young man had only to lean in where he stood, and they would be touching.
"Do you feel it?" Hahn asked again, quietly.
Yes. Now he could. Somehow, all at once, he was almost painfully aware of the water surrounding them. He felt its flow, felt the low rumble of the waterfall, felt the cold salt seeping in through the underground caverns that Hahn had spoken of. Then, with a widening of his eyes, he could feel the Ocean. So vast and broad and deep, all of it, for a moment, somehow contained within the comparatively tiny space of his head. He gasped. It was overwhelming. He closed his eyes, dizzied by the sheer scope of what he was seeing and feeling. It was stretching his mind out too far. He grimaced. He was only human. He wasn't the Ocean.
Then Zhaoka felt warm lips against his, and he could think again. He was back in his body, and Hahn was kissing him. Hahn's arms were around his waist, Hahn's body pressed against his. Zhaoka didn't push him away. He could hear his heart beating in his ears, so loud. Some part of him protested, insisting that this was an unwise idea, but he let the young man kiss him, and, after a few heartbeats' time, he returned the kiss, his tongue sliding against Hahn's. It was so warm. He never could seem to shake off the cold anywhere else, but in here, he was finally warm enough.
Hahn's hands began to explore Zhaoka's body through the layers of clothes he was still wearing. Zhaoka let him do it. He had to admit, after so much time without this--he didn't know how long--he enjoyed the feel of hands running over his chest, his waist, a mouth pushing insistently against his. He seemed to have known Hahn before--what if they'd done this before? It wasn't so strange to think that that was possible, not now. Hahn was pushing against him, insistently, and Zhaoka pushed back.
This was easier than he had thought it would be. Something was pulling at him, making it feel effortless. Hahn's kisses were hot, intent, and Zhaoka wanted to kiss him now. When Hahn pulled him down, he didn't resist. The two of them lay down together on the grass beside the pool where the fish were swimming.
Hahn paused to take a breath. "It feels better like this," he said, climbing up to sit on top of Zhaoka, straddling his thighs. He looked down, meeting Zhaoka's gaze, his hair falling forward, framing his face. He closed his eyes for a moment and smiled. The shudder that ran through Hahn then was profound enough to be visible. When he opened his eyes again, he was still smiling. "It's supposed to be this way."
Zhaoka studied the young man's face. He had never seen Hahn wear such a soft expression. "Why?"
"I don't know. But I was waiting for you to come to me, and then you did."
"Do you even want to do this?" Zhaoka asked him.
Hahn's smile lessened. "I don't know," he said again.
Zhaoka sat up. This brought his face close to Hahn's. Hahn placed a hand on his chest and leaned in to kiss him. Zhaoka turned away. He faced the pool. The fish were still circling. Turning and turning. Would they ever stop? The pale one and the dark one. The Moon and the Ocean--he knew what they were without having to be told, just like his body knew how to breathe. Watching the fish move through the water, he felt an eerie sense of having seen them before, like a memory so distant he would never regain it. This was strange. It wasn't how such things should be, no matter what Hahn said. When he concentrated, he could still sense the Ocean, as if it was inside of him, or he was inside of it. That wasn't normal. It wasn't right.
He frowned. In fact, it wasn't possible. He refused to believe it. No--he couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything. He'd let himself get carried away by nothing more than atmospheric conditions and one overexcitable young man.
"Don't," said Hahn quickly, as if he'd guessed Zhaoka's thoughts.
Zhaoka's frown deepened. Spirits. He didn't believe in them, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn't let them guide his actions. He pushed Hahn roughly away.
"Wait," Hahn said, but Zhaoka was already rising to his feet, and then he was leaving. His heart was beating fast. Why was that?
"Don't go," said Hahn urgently. He got to his feet as well, but he didn't try to stop Zhaoka from leaving, his hands at his sides.
Zhaoka kept moving. If Hahn wanted him to stay so badly, he would at least have followed him, but he didn't. Of course not. He was only doing these things because that was what he felt he had to do, because of the ridiculous superstition that had deranged his mind.
It wasn't until Zhaoka was almost at the door that would take him back to the courtyard that Hahn spoke again. "Zhaoka!" He cried out over the water.
Zhaoka turned to look over his shoulder. Hahn was standing at the edge of the green island, watching him. Hahn didn't say anything else, simply stood there, staring. Well, what Hahn did wasn't any of his concern. Zhaoka opened the door.
The instant he stepped outside, he remembered he had left his parka behind. He cursed to himself, but he couldn't go back now. It was too late. He wasn't quite sure now, but it seemed impossible now, as if the door wouldn't open for him again. Not wanting to test this theory, he didn't try to open it. He hurried forward instead of turning back, folding his arms over his chest.
For a brief while, he'd almost forgotten the snow was falling. The Oasis had been like another world, but now it was cold and dark, and the wind blew snow in his face, causing him to squeeze his eyes almost shut. Though moving as quickly as he could, he staggered rather than walked across the courtyard and into the palace proper.
He should have stayed there, waiting for the storm to pass. He should have stopped somewhere--there were so many people who would have taken him in on a night like this, even if they didn't like particularly him. For some reason, he didn't stop. He kept moving, spurred by the sense that he had to get as far from the Oasis as possible. The Ocean was there. It was waiting for him. He shuddered and told himself not to entertain such nonsensical thoughts.
He didn't know where he was going; he wasn't as sure about navigating the streets at night as Hahn was. But something of the young man's madness must have rubbed off on him, and when he found himself at an unguarded gate in the city wall, he went through it. The guards must have gone home, since no one would be out in this--no one except Zhaoka, apparently.
This is your fault, Hahn had said--that could have meant anything. He hadn't done anything to the young man. But could he say that with assurance? No, because he couldn't remember any part of his life from childhood to the time he'd lost his memory, such a relatively short time ago. It was like a part of himself was missing. He wasn't himself anymore. So who was he?
Apparently, he was a madman stumbling through the snow in a blizzard without a coat. Too late, he realized that something, perhaps the Spirit Oasis or Hahn's kisses or the quantity of rice wine he'd imbibed, had impaired his judgment. When he came to himself again, wondering what he had been thinking, he had already lost his way in the snow. The sleeves of the layers of shirts he was still wearing weren't enough to keep him warm. He shivered violently. What was he doing? What had happened to him? He would have said he felt fevered, if it wasn't so cold.
Trying not to panic, Zhaoka reached down into the snow and felt for one of the path markers. But his hands were bare. He'd forgotten his mittens too, like the worst kind of fool. They were lying on the ground at the Spirit Oasis. He knew he should go back for them. But at the very thought, the endless, dark water of the Ocean welled up in his mind again, and he fought it back down. He couldn't go back. He kept feeling in the snow for a path marker, but his fingers were numb. Would he have known if he managed to touch one?
It was no good. The snow was too deep, and he didn't know how far he'd diverged from the path. He tried to turn around and head back towards the city, but, squinting through the driving snow, he couldn't see anything. Everything was the same in every direction: bitter and unwelcoming. He might have had only a few years of memories, but he knew very well how dangerous blizzards were, how easy it was to get lost in the thick of them. Each winter the tribe lost a few members to storms like these. Usually the young and foolish or the old and sick who welcomed death. Zhaoka wasn't young or old, so he must have been one of the fools.
But he couldn't die out here. It was so unfair. He hadn't managed to remember anything yet. No, he wouldn't die. He refused. Even though he didn't know what direction he was heading, he kept fighting his way through the snow. One step at a time, but each step was more difficult than the one before. His limbs felt heavy, and the snow was so thick. He looked up. He couldn't see the sky. He couldn't see anything. He was on his knees. He must have fallen, although he couldn't recall having done so. He tried to crawl forward, but his hands were so cold that they hurt. Still, he managed to make it a few more yards before his body refused to go any farther. He lay down in the snow. For an odd moment, he felt almost peaceful. The wind seemed to quiet, and the snow fell softly on his face.
He knew he had to keep his eyes open, but his his eyelids felt so heavy. Usually he couldn't sleep when it was cold, but although he had never been colder than in this moment, all at once he felt so tired. He fought against it, although he wasn't sure what reason he had to stay awake. No one would find him here. But he didn't want to close his eyes. If he closed his eyes he would die, and he couldn't. It wasn't fair. Not like this.
He tried to move forward again. He couldn't. But he could still move his head, just enough to look up. How strange--the wind had stopped completely. The snow had stopped, too, and the clouds must have broken, because he could see the Moon. Such bright pale light. He amazed himself. Even at a time like this, he could think the Moon was beautiful. He must have been delirious. The light seemed to fill his vision, and was the last thing he saw. He couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so he let his eyelids fall.
The smell of cooking food awakened him. He groaned softly. It smelled like Arluk's cooking. He hoped that he wouldn't be expected to eat that rubbish in the Spirit World as well as in the living world. He opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Horuk: hardly a welcoming sight. He grunted.
Horuk looked over at him but didn't say a word. He acknowledged Zhaoka's grunt with a nod.
"What are you doing here?" asked Zhaoka crossly. This wasn't the afterlife. He was wrapped up in furs and lying on the floor of the forge. "I thought I was dead."
"You almost were," said Horuk sternly.
Zhaoka ignored his chastising tone. He wasn't a child, to be scolded by the other man. "What happened?"
As ever, Horuk didn't provide any unnecessary information. "Hahn brought you back."
"Hahn?" Zhaoka tried to sit up. He found the action an unexpected struggle.
"Lie down," snapped Horuk. "You know what the snow can do to a man."
"Where is he?" Zhaoka demanded.
Horuk sniffed. "He isn't here. Left a few hours ago."
"In the middle of a blizzard?"
"The blizzard's over."
"What happened?" Zhaoka asked again.
Horuk's answering expression clearly indicated that he had preferred it when Zhaoka was unconscious. "I told you."
"He couldn't have carried me back in the middle of the blizzard. Not all that way. I wasn't anywhere near the forge."
Horuk was unimpressed by Zhaoka's logic. "But he did."
"That's impossible. How could he?"
"It happened." Horuk got to his feet, clearly through with this line of questioning. "I'll get you some soup."
Zhaoka almost protested that he didn't want any soup, but his stomach growled, and he shut his mouth. Once he had some of Horuk's inelegant but satisfactory soup inside him, he tried to puzzle out what had happened. He'd fallen down in the snow, then he'd seen the Moon--or had he? That could have been a hallucination. He'd been drunk and quite possibly dying from the cold.
"Did he say anything?" Zhaoka asked, turning to Horuk.
Horuk, who had ceased paying attention to him, turned and raised his eyebrows.
"Hahn," said Zhaoka. "Did he say anything?"
"He did say something," Horuk admitted. "Before he left."
"What?" Zhaoka leaned in closer, as if that would help him to hear Horuk's reply better, not that it was difficult to hear Horuk's deep voice. Had Hahn said something about what had happened at the Spirit Oasis? Or had he made some remark that might have elucidated exactly what had occurred afterwards?
"He said to keep you warm."
Zhaoka frowned at that, but he didn't ask any more questions, instead spooning the rest of the hot soup into his mouth.
The next day, he happened across the wooden fish that Hahn had carved for him. He recoiled at the sight of it. It was, he realized now, a carving of one of the fish that swam in the pool at the Spirit Oasis. He took the thing outside and threw it in a snowbank. The day after that, he almost regretted the action, but when he went to look for the fish in the snowbank, he couldn't find it.
And that--oddly enough--was that. Hahn didn't approach him again. It was as if his choice had been made, and now it was irrevocable. Once, on the day of the next Full Moon, he thought he glimpsed the young man watching him from a distance. But it could have been someone else, someone else who turned away and didn't approach him. Zhaoka found himself wondering what would have happened if he had stayed at the Spirit Oasis. He would never know, he supposed. Of course, he didn't want to know, but that didn't stop him from wondering--not often, but every once in a while, when he saw the Moon in the sky or stood near the shore and watched the tide come in.
Finally, he discovered who he was, and it was Chief Arnook who told him, not Hahn. His name was Zhao, and he had been an admiral in the Fire Navy. He had had nothing to do with Hahn, had never known the young man. Still, as the Earth Kingdom ship leaving the harbor took him away from the Water Tribe, most likely for good, his gaze lingered on the docks, and he found himself looking for the young man, but he didn't find him. That didn't mean he wasn't there, as the docks were busy at that time of year. Hahn must have known he was leaving, no matter how much he isolated himself from the rest of the world.
Zhaoka turned away from the stern of the ship, faced the bow. It was no concern or care of his what Hahn did or did not do. All that was behind him now.
Years later, he was standing on quite another ship: its hull the dark metal of a Fire Nation vessel. It was a clear night, the Moon nearly full, its white face starkly pale against the black sky. He was gazing out over the water when a younger officer asked him, "Can you feel it?"
He gave a start and turned towards the officer, demanding angrily, "What do you mean?"
"Just that the wind's picking up," the man replied sheepishly after a moment of wide-eyed hesitation. "I think there's a storm coming."
"I don't feel anything," Zhao insisted, although the wind was cool against his face.
It had been a long time, but he hadn't forgotten the way the cold gathered in his bones and made them ache. Was it worse than it had been before? He was an older man, after all. Perhaps age made him nostalgic, because when he decided to take a walk away from the city, away from the forge, it wasn't for any particular reason. He was simply remembering another time. A time that, in some ways, had never existed.
He heard the footsteps approaching behind him, crunching over the thin, iced-over crust of the snow, but something told him--in defiance of all his military training--not to turn. For some reason, he followed his impulse instead of his training. It wasn't until the other person fell into step beside him that he turned his head.
At first he didn't recognize the man walking beside him. His hair was as white as the snow. But the unsmiling mouth and the slightly imperious expression were familiar enough, and in a moment Zhao had identified him. The man looked straight ahead as he walked beside him. He didn't say a word, but he took a step every time Zhao took a step.
Walking beside him in silence was too odd, so at last Zhao spoke. "Hello, Hahn."
Hahn turned his head as if he hadn't known Zhao was there. His eyes were as blue as ever, although there were more lines around them than there had been. "Hello," he said.
"What happened to your hair?" Zhao asked. "You look like an old man."
Hahn narrowed his eyes, and his irritated expression made him look just as Zhao remembered him. "The Moon did it."
This answer, strange as it was, fulfilled his expectations, and he didn't frown, although he didn't smile either.
Hahn didn't ask him about where he had been or what he had done. He didn't so much as mention that Zhao had been gone. He simply walked beside him, as if he had done the same every day for the past--how many years had it been? Years.
"Did you ever find yourself a wife?" Zhao asked.
"I suppose no woman would take you," said Zhao, only half in earnest.
"No woman would take you," Hahn retorted. "I don't have time for a wife."
"Oh? What is it you do? Carve rocks?"
It was meant as a jibe, but Hahn ignored the irony. "I don't do that anymore," he said impatiently, as if Zhao should have known that already. "I advise the chief."
"At least you're finally making yourself useful."
"I'm always useful. You're the one who isn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?" He had been doing something with himself all these years. He'd seen the world. He'd risen through the ranks in the navy once again. He hadn't just stayed home "advising" the chief, a job that Arnook had probably given him out of pity. Zhao frowned as he realized he'd thought of the Water Tribe as home. It must have been the surroundings that made him think that way.
Hahn didn't answer his question. Instead, he asked a question of his own. "Do you want to go hunting?"
"Hunting?" Zhao hadn't expected that. "With you?"
"Yes, with me. I wouldn't ask you to go hunting with someone else."
Hahn was behaving as if nothing had changed, as if they were back at the time before that night at the Spirit Oasis. It was more than a little infuriating. "I have better things to do than go hunting with you."
"No you don't," said Hahn simply. "Come with me. Tomorrow."
Zhao sighed. He hoped that Hahn didn't think he could start up his nonsense again. He wouldn't stand for it. "If you think I'm going to--"
Hahn reached out and took hold of his wrist, then stood fast. Zhao turned on him angrily, and in the process found himself standing face to face with the other man for the first time since the last time they had talked. His face, which was by no means an old man's face, looked odd framed by such perfectly white, bright hair. That hair reflected the light much as the snow did. Hahn's face was calm, his mouth relaxed, his eyes clear. This was not an aspect of Hahn that he remembered. Hahn's presence, suddenly, was almost commanding, although when he spoke, there was humility in his voice. "Please," he said. "I want you to do this for me. This one thing."
"Fine," Zhao found himself saying before he could stop the word from falling out of his mouth. "But just this once. And I'm not hunting any more mole bears."
Having attained Zhao's acquiescence, Hahn released his wrist. "Mole bears?" He gave a shake of his head. "I don't hunt mole bears."
"What do you hunt?" Zhao asked him.
Hahn was apparently fond of ignoring questions. Either that, or he'd become hard of hearing as well as white-haired. "Tomorrow," he said. "Before dawn. I'll come to you."
"Wait--tomorrow's too soon," Zhao protested, but Hahn turned his back on him.
He began to walk away. "Tomorrow," he said again.
Zhao didn't protest again. He stood watching bemusedly as the younger man walked away, his gait proud and steady.
The next morning, Zhao awoke before Hahn arrived. The sky was still dark. He struggled into his parka. He still wasn't entirely used to wearing these clothes again. So thick; they made him feel like he was walking through water--only less wet, thankfully. He had gathered his things together the night before. Hahn had not told him what they were hunting or how long they would be gone, so he had tried to provide for as many likely possibilities as he could, asking himself all the while why he was going through with this.
When Hahn arrived, he entered Zhao's home without asking permission or announcing himself. Suddenly he was simply standing in the doorway. "Are you ready?" he asked.
Zhao shouldered his pack. He was as ready as he could be. He nodded.
Hahn had a pack of his own, so it seemed they would be gone for at least one night. He still wasn't quite sure why he had agreed to this: a hunting trip with a man he hadn't seen in years. It wasn't as if they had been friends.
The idea made him thoughtful. Horuk and Arluk had spent time with him because their chief had ordered them to. Whereas Hahn--he claimed to be under the influence of a spirit, but Zhao doubted the Moon had commanded that Hahn go fishing with him, or keep him company at odd hours of the day, as Hahn had for that relatively brief span of time. If the situation had been different, perhaps they might have been--
No. What was he thinking? The early hour was affecting his mind. He followed Hahn out into the early morning silence. Hahn seemed to know where he was going, so Zhao let him lead. Hahn was the one who wanted to do this.
Zhao soon found that Hahn's idea of a hunting trip vastly differed from his own. He didn't seem interested in actually hunting anything. First, they traveled for miles only to gather a handful of dark blue stones that Hahn said were rare. They seemed unremarkable to Zhao, but when he said as much, Hahn yet again pretended not to hear him. After Hahn had tucked the stones safely away in a pouch at his belt, he set off in another direction, stopping only when they came across a herd of rabbit caribou, loping across the plain in great bounds, but as Zhao readied himself for the hunt, Hahn elbowed him. "Don't do that."
"We don't hunt them at this time of year."
"Then why are we here?"
Hahn shrugged. "I wanted to see them." He crouched watching the animals for a few minutes, and Zhao stared at him in wonder. They had come all this way to watch a few herd animals run around? What was the point in that?
They had gone too far to go back before dark, so they set up camp that night. Hahn started a fire for them. As Hahn made the fire, Zhao was aware of the younger man watching him, but Zhao offered neither assistance nor comment. Instead of a proper hunt, they killed two fat snowbirds for their dinner, without any pomp or fanfare. Hahn prepared and cooked the birds without asking for help. He gave one to Zhao and took the other one for himself, picking it apart with his hands before he ate it.
Zhao raised his head to look at the sky. There was nothing but the two of them and that sky for miles. They were so alone. Even the Moon was only a pale sliver. When he lowered his gaze, he saw nothing but Hahn. Hahn had seated himself next to Zhao rather than on the other side of the fire. Hahn was pulling meat from a bird bone with his teeth. The firelight flickering across his face made gentle shadows. "It's good," said Hahn, meaning the bird. He had finished his meal. He threw the last bones aside, smiled, and licked at his fingers.
It was odd to see him like this. Odd to see him at all, but especially with his white hair, which seemed bright even in the dark.
"I'm tired," Hahn said, licking at his fingers again as he got to his feet. "I'm going to bed." He disappeared inside the tent.
There was only one tent, and Zhao eyed it speculatively. In front of him, the fire crackled, flames leaping up towards a sky they couldn't reach. Before Zhao did anything else, he leaned forward to bank the fire. The ashes covered the embers, but the fire glowed beneath. He sat back on his heels, watching that redness, no less vivid for the small, quiet form it took now. It was still alive. Zhao rose and followed Hahn into the tent.
Hahn was already lying down, and Zhao joined him. It was foolish to be squeamish about such things, here in the Water Tribe. It was cold, so people slept together. Besides, there wasn't much room in the tent. As he lay down, Zhao could feel the warmth of the other man's body, so close to his. Hahn's back was to him. Zhao could hear him breathing. At last he asked, "Are you sleeping?" The question made him feel foolish.
Hahn didn't ignore this question. He spoke at once. "No."
"Why did you want to go hunting?" He used Hahn's own term for the day's activities, although he didn't think that was what they had been doing. It had been more like one long walk.
This question remained unanswered. Instead, Hahn asked, "Did you go hunting in the Fire Nation?" It was the first time he had mentioned the Fire Nation.
"I didn't have time for idle pursuits," said Zhao. "I was busy." He had been so driven to accomplish his goals. Yet for all his efforts, he had only ended up here again, as if, no matter how he had struggled, something had simply pulled him back--
In the dark, Zhao's eyes widened.
Hahn rolled over to face him, although Zhao couldn't see his face or even his bright hair now. "I live with Chief Arnook now," he said. "I moved into the city."
"Why did you do that?"
Zhao could feel rather than see Hahn's shrug. "They made me."
There must have been a story in that, but Zhao didn't ask to hear it. There must have been many stories he didn't know, as much as he hated to admit it to himself. "Hahn."
He hadn't forgotten that night at the Spirit Oasis, as much as he might have liked to. "Once you said that it was my fault. What did you mean?"
Hahn was silent for so long that Zhao thought the man was ignoring his question as he had so many other questions. But then, to Zhao's surprise, he laughed. "They didn't tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"You killed me." Hahn's voice was low and completely devoid of any emotion Zhao might have expected to accompany those words: no anger, no resentment, no regret.
At first, he didn't know how to reply. Who would know what to say to that? "I don't remember."
It was perhaps an insulting remark, but Hahn was unoffended. "You didn't know me then," he said, as if that explained everything, as if Admiral Zhao would not have killed Hahn if he had simply had the chance to get to know him, which was such an absurd idea that Zhao couldn't even refute it.
"I didn't," Zhao agreed.
"But it's all right. I'm not dead anymore." Hahn had changed. Time had softened him. He was still the same in some ways, still strange, but his pain and anger seemed to have faded, leaving him along with the dark of his hair.
That was something Zhao didn't understand. "The Moon took the color from your hair? Why would it do a thing like that?" As he spoke, he had an impulse. He wanted to touch Hahn's hair. So he reached out and let his fingers brush the top of Hahn's head. The man's hair was thick and slightly coarse, but certainly not unpleasant to the touch. It was not without a certain softness.
Hahn didn't pull away. "It does what it wants to. I don't know why."
"Doesn't it ever do anything for you?"
Hahn was silent for a few moments, then said, "It gave me my life."
Zhao considered that statement. The same thing had happened to him, more or less. The Ocean Spirit had taken his memories, his power, years' worth of time. But it had given him his life. He couldn't deny that. "But doesn't it bother you? The Moon telling you what to do? You can't choose anything for yourself."
Hahn began to laugh, softly.
Zhao waited for him to say something else, but when the laughter faded away with no explanation from Hahn, Zhao asked, "What?"
Hahn laughed again, but this time he spoke as well. "Do you think it's different for anyone else?" He laid his head on Zhao's chest. He put his arm around Zhao's waist.
Zhao, after a moment's hesitation, reached out and began to stroke Hahn's hair.
"It isn't any different," Hahn said.