Katara ran full tilt down the gangplank and when she put her feet down on the soft snow, she bent it around her in a swirl of white, laughing gaily. With the air of the long suffering, Zuko followed her at a more solemn pace. She glanced at him, swirled it around him and laughed harder at his irritated expression.
"Katara, they'll never take me seriously if you keep this up," he said.
"Oh, nothing you do will ever make them take you seriously," she said, putting the snow down and falling into step next to him.
She smiled sweetly, fluttering her lashes at him. He was not the least bit amused. Days at sea had done its number on its temper.
"If you're nice to me, I'll tell them to be take you seriously," she said.
"Are you flirting with me?" he snorted but his eyes danced. "You're already Fire Lady. What more do you want?"
She looked as though she was considering this carefully and this time he laughed.
They both turned and in a very uncharacteristic move, Zuko broke into a run to meet his daughter halfway. His joyful laughter rang out loudly with Maiko's when he swept her up in his arms. Katara smiled at the picture they made, but then she looked beyond them and saw her family. Her heart was full at the sight of them and looking a lot like Maiko, she started to walk, then run towards her own father. Chief Hakoda strode forward to envelop his own daughter in a bear hug.
"Dad," Katara said, holding on tight.
"I'm so glad you're alright," he said. "I was so afraid for you and never felt so far away."
"He took care of me, Dad," Katara assured him. "I missed you."
"Me, too, Katara."
Sokka let a squirming Lu Zuo go and on steadier feet, the little boy threw himself on Zuko's legs. Zuko picked him up and he held both his children tightly, an expression of perfect happiness on his face.
"My turn, Dad," Sokka said, patting his father on the shoulder.
Sokka picked his sister up off her feet and she laughed, slapping at his back and protesting loudly, but she laughed. When he set her back down, she turned to Toph, who was patiently waiting her turn.
"I haven't stopped being cold for the past two weeks," Toph groused as she shivered.
Katara laughed. She couldn't seem to stop, joy bursting out of her.
"Fire Lord Zuko," Hakoda greeted with a bow.
Zuko put his children down, though they both hung on to the bottom of his cloak, and returned it. It wasn't lost on Hakoda that the Fire Lord stood before him with no retinue, no honor guard. They faced each other as leaders, as equals, and he felt his respect for his daughter's husband grow. The chief's face softened.
"Chief Hakoda," he said. "Thank you for watching over my children."
"It was my pleasure."
Lu Zuo was doing his best to climb back up into Zuko's arms but Katara caught his attention and she held out her arms for him. Happily, he ran into them, the thick blue parka making him look like a cheerful little snowman. Katara grinned and hauled him up.
"Ka," he said, the thickness of his sleeves keeping him from putting his arms around her comfortably.
"I missed you, little prince," she said, squeezing him and then she reached out, cupped Maiko's cheek. "And you too, Maiko. So much."
Maiko, back in Zuko's arms, grinned at Katara.
"I learned how to be an earthbender," she said. "Auntie Toph taught me to be strong like a rock."
Zuko let out an audible sigh, but didn't protest this new development. They were ushered to the waiting sleds and when she saw that they wouldn't all be able to fit into one, Katara reluctantly handed Lu Zuo back to Zuko. She started to go to her family's sled but Hakoda put a hand up.
"You should be with them," he said with a gentle smile. "The children missed you."
"Go, Katara," Sokka said, glancing over her shoulder at Zuko. "The sled's a little crowded anyway. Toph's been hitting the seal jerky a little hard and needs a seat to herself."
He got a punch in the arm from Toph that would probably leave a bruise but a bright smile from Katara.
Katara turned, took Lu Zuo and took the hand Zuko held out. She took her place in the Fire Lord's sled, across from him and Maiko, Lu Zuo on her lap. And belonged.
After a night of celebration and storytelling, Hakoda hadn't expected to find his daughter up, making tea in the kitchen, an hour before sunrise.
She'd been an exuberant celebrant the night before and he'd watched her, soaking in her presence and her spirit before it was time for her to leave again. He had watched her interact with the children, saw how much she loved them and how much they loved her. He had watched her spar with her husband one minute, then smile into his eyes the next, and saw the same emotions there. Somewhere in between the eight months she'd been gone, Katara had grown into a woman and though his heart was sad to let her go, he was also happy that she'd found her place at last.
"Good morning," he said.
Katara smiled. She looked tired, but content.
"Why are you up so early?"
"I promised Zuko I'd show him the sunrise."
As if on cue, the Fire Lord came into the kitchen. In stark contrast to Katara, the man looked as if he'd gotten a full night's sleep, his golden eyes alert, and he looked surprised to see Hakoda there. Hakoda was just as surprised to see him bundled up in a parka and thick blue pants, but somehow, it didn't look as out-of-place on him as Hakoda had expected.
The Fire Lord was reserved and formal with Hakoda, but the Chief had seen pieces of Zuko's personality. He'd seen how the Fire Lord's eyes tracked his son to make sure Lu Zuo kept out of trouble, when he poured sake into Katara's cup without a second thought, and engaged Hakoda into conversation despite his apparent discomfort...or perhaps it nervousness. In any case, Hakoda had liked what he'd seen and knew he wasn't going to see his daughter every four months as she'd planned. Knowing that she would be under the care of a man who would do anything for her made the pain of that truth less sharp.
"Chief Hakoda," Zuko greeted with a small bow. "Good morning."
"I think we're well past titles now," Hakoda said with a smile. "Just Hakoda will be fine."
"Or 'Dad'," Katara suggested, tongue in cheek.
Hakoda laughed at Zuko's uncomfortable expression. Katara turned away to pour tea into a travel container, but her shoulders shook suspiciously.
"One step at a time," Hakoda said, saving the Fire Lord from an international incident. "So you're off to see the sunrise?"
"I promised to show Zuko the sunrise and I always keep my promises," Katara said loftily.
"As much as I appreciate that trait of yours, it would also have been nice to see the sunrise tomorrow morning," Zuko pointed out. "I don't think I want some hungover Waterbender leading me around this ice cube. No offense, Hakoda. I appreciate everything this ice cube has to offer."
"None taken," Hakoda said, biting back a laugh.
"I'd like to remind you that I was raised on this ice cube and could navigate it in my sleep," she retorted with a glare. "If you so much as look at me the wrong way, I could easily leave you in the middle of the nowhere. And I'm not hungover."
Zuko rolled his eyes, but Hakoda was amused to note that he stayed quiet. Katara packed a small bag with food and she turned a sunny smile to her father.
"We'll see you later, Dad."
Together, she and Zuko went out the front door. Hakoda watched them from the window, saw Katara tuck her hand into Zuko's arm, and smiled.
Minutes later, the front door opened and Hakoda went out in the hallway, cup of coffee in hand, expecting Katara with an explanation about forgetting something, but his eyes widened when he saw who it was instead.
"Hi," Aang said sunnily. "What'd I miss?"
Many thanks for sticking around this long and for all the reviews you were kind enough to leave. I think my eyes got a little bit worse and my fingers may fall off soon, but it was totally worth it to get this story out there. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
After I recharge the batteries and take care of some real life things I've neglected, I'm planning on continuing along this plotline so keep your eyes peeled for some one-shots and one more big one to tie up the loose ends. As always, I will depend on your opinions to guide me so I hope you'll be back.
So, until the next time...