One of them should move, Katara realizes, or at least say something; but Zuko is staring at her and she's staring at him and the first one to do anything is Hassan, who stops reaching for the Fire prince and tugs on his mother's hair with a sniffle.
"You're upsetting him," Kana chastises and both water and firebender apologize at the same time - in the time it takes them to blink at each other, the old woman has her great-grandson in her arms and is shooing the other children from the hut, leaving them alone for the first time in four years.
It's been so long, he knows, but she wears time well - it never occurs to Zuko that they were children four years ago, or that they still are now.
She breaks the silence first with a puff of air that may have been a sigh, waving him over to the furs that will serve as seats and doing something surprising - signaling to him with a gesture that he should be the one to light the fire.
She wonders how she ever could have thought she hated him, when Zuko looks so unsure, so hurt and bewildered in her hut; she remembers when he glances to her and asks the dumbest question she's heard in years: "Is he really mine?"
"I don't know, I haven't heard back from all the other Fire Nation men I jumped into bed with four years ag--" " i Katara /i --" " i Yes, he's yours /i !"
He came here to see a girl, to see if the comfort and ease that came with her company in a pavilion was entirely made of drink - Zuko did not travel for weeks to get to the Southern Water Tribe, just to sit in a hut and listen to a story told by a guilty woman.
" i Four years /i , and you never said a word!" he snaps, but he doesn't glory in her flinch - he flinches with her, miles away from the boy who tied her to a tree.
Zuko says words like 'prince' and 'heir'; Katara listens but doesn't really hear, stuck on words like 'Fire' and 'Nation.'
She tells him she's weary of fighting, and he's surprised to see that it's true, the Master Waterbender, the Great Katara - she suggests he go sit with the child with gold eyes and he doesn't tell her he'd rather be frozen to the wall again.
Katara watches from the doorway as Zuko's heavy black boots crunch in the snow; Hassan sees him coming and grins, alerting Kana - but no one alerts Zuko to the boundless adoration in his son, who leaps to his feet to greet strangers and begs to be held.
"An' Unca Sokka went onna boat yest'day and Mama an' me walked him there but we didn' go an' Mama brought me back an' we went fishin' an' I caught a bunch but Mama said they were too little, do you fish, Daddy, everyone here fishes, but Mama said you dunno how an' what does 'prissy' mean and how come you never vis'ted before and where's your big ship and how come you didn' make fire and wh--" " i Breathe /i ."
Katara stands still as Zuko approaches, Hassan carried off by his great-grandmother - she looks unsure and knows it, silent when he stands before her, caught off-guard when he smiles, slow as it is to appear.
"We'll stay, at least a week," he informs Jee before catching the gaze of amused blue eyes and adding, quiet and gruff and ignoring his lieutenant's smirk, "...if that's all right."
He is a guest in her hut, despite all smirks from her grandmother, and Katara tries not to stare as she packs leftovers from the night's dinner - Zuko is kneeling near Hassan's bedroll and it takes her a moment to notice the pale hand over brown hair.
"What kind of favor?" he asks softly, but there's no ire in his tone; Katara is grateful for the warmth he offers, sitting so close to her, but keeps her eyes on her son when she speaks in a raw voice, "He can't stay here."
She's sitting on his left but she can't know he's completely blind in that eye now; he compensates in other ways, feeling her deflate at his side, hearing the catch in her throat when she speaks, and slides an arm around her shoulders without speaking.
He makes an observation that has her eyeing him in warning ("He has ears like your brother") but Zuko doesn't try to hide his smirk, nor the fondness in his tone as he looks at the bundle of blankets in the corner ("They look like open carriage doors") and grins when the punch comes.
They don't fall asleep together - another bedroll was brought in, but they are side-by-side, talking quietly as the fire dies down - Katara reflects on a time where only sweet wine could stop them from fighting, Zuko reflects on a time when he never would have been hopeful about bringing a Water Tribe peasant and her spawn to the palace with him.
Hassan takes him fishing in the morning, standing over a tiny hole with hooks on string, Kana nearby to babysit; the boy babbles excitedly about technique while Zuko frowns thoughtfully at his head - and is bright enough to stop when Kana suddenly speaks up ("His grandfather and uncle wear braids and he will, too - he's as much Water as he is Fire, prince!").
He describes the Fire Nation to Katara as she packs for herself and her son, watching her nod absently to everything he says - 'wife' rolls easily off the tongue, but he wishes it would roll back when she looks at him like he just slapped her grandmother... again.
"Are you insane?!" she demands; "We'd kill each other!" she adds; "We have a child," he protests but has no answer for her snap of, "So you think we should i marry /i ?!"
It probably didn't hurt very much, but Hassan is young - he screams like a banshee and sends half the tribe running to his side in terror; Kana watches a pale-faced mother grab a bucket of water while a paler-faced father holds his son carefully in his arms, hardly logical while they treat a scraped knee like a knife wound.
Hassan is bandaged and sniffling in Zuko's arms, curling into the man's chest and grabbing a fistful of dyed-red leather to bury his face in - Zuko meets worried blue eyes and hesitantly offers the arm not beneath the boy; if she won't make them a family by law, then blood will have to do.
The ironclad is massive, though not as large as she remembers it; Hassan is impressed, "Ooooh"ing in her arms, large gold eyes on the ship - none of this is able to quell the unease in Katara's belly as she steps onto the plank she watched Aang walk himself years ago.
He doesn't know what to say to her - Jee has already stolen Hassan to raid the kitchens for sweets and Zuko is left to watch the Water Tribe warrior stand on the deck of his ship, trying to decide if he should address or ignore her tears.
She's been a single mother for years but has never actually been alone - the tribe was always there, her grandmother and her brother - it's strange for Katara to seek solace from her son and the people around her... and actually be able to find it.
Peeking into the prince's room, Katara finds 'her' boys sitting cross-legged on the floor, one deep in meditative breathing exercises, the other sneaking peeks at his father and trying not to giggle.
"Don't worry about it," Zuko says, smirking as he stamps out the blaze of scrolls on the floor of his study, "Uncle made sure there were copies of these years ago, after Azula and I destroyed an entire library."
He shouldn't have mentioned her name - Katara goes quiet and looks away and Hassan's questions on Azula are impossible to answer with Zuko's suddenly-dry throat.
They are on deck, ignoring the sailors who have abandoned their work just to watch: Mother, Father, and Child are running through their paces, two bursts of flame to go with one torrent of water.
"You can't see out of that, can you?" she asks and he doesn't flinch from the question; he does give her a warning glance and Katara promises herself to think of a more tactful way to offer to heal it-- later.
"Daddy, did you and Mommy ever train t'gether?" is a question that comes during dinner, making Zuko catch Katara's gaze and smirk as he answers with, "Sometimes."
Hassan is delighted with Music Night, gleefully (and surprisingly skillfully) banging on his drum; multiple requests from the men and the boy embarrass Katara into lending her voice to the song, but no amount of prodding can get Zuko to retrieve his flute.
He doesn't expect the kiss to his cheek outside his bedroom anymore than he expects her thanks - then again, Katara doesn't expect him to lean in and kiss her lips, nor the retort four years in the making of, "Now we're even."
Blinking led to smirking, led to quiet laughter, led to the realization that neither of them had backed away, led to another kiss and then another-- an officer walks by, making his rounds of the halls, and they spring apart like naughty children caught with hands in a cookie jar.
She'd forgotten just how red a pale face could get and has trouble not giggling again; they look at each other with secret smiles, but she can see his disappointment when she backs away with a quiet, "Goodnight" - she has to get back to her son.
"Hassan!" is snapped in the morning, finding the boy in the kitchens with sugar surrounding his mouth; "Zuko!" is snapped a moment later, finding him holding the plate with the leftovers of last night's sweet fry bread.
"But it's good!" he protests; "Not for breakfast!" is her reply; they argue back and forth, and, while they're occupied, Hassan finishes the bread.
Hassan is too young to read by himself, Zuko too busy to repeat the thousands of stories Iroh told him from his youth; he pulls his son onto his lap and spreads the scroll for both of them to look at, the Fire prince reading the description of The Battle of Avatar Roku at Nanchiang in as many funny voices as he can.
She practices on the deck while Zuko watches Hassan; the men are hesitant to approach her, but when she gets exasperated enough to ask why they gawk at her, Katara finds herself trading technique with a group of Firebenders.
They're only a few days from shore now, standing in the bridge and watching the land approach; Katara idly mentions that Sokka will be waiting for them there; Zuko startles, blinking at her with sudden suspicion and asks if Sokka knows about Hassan - she's aware he's thinking of the last few years of companionship with her brother, but can't stop the look she gives him or the way she pats his cheek and adds, "It's a good thing you're handsome."
He is trying to teach Hassan to meditate but it's difficult; though his room is sparse, the boy always finds some object or another to start a discussion on and distract them both - Zuko finds himself sighing as his son picks the piece off the wall, quietly describing the importance of a blue and white mask and the dao swords that accompany it.
Katara came in at the middle of the story, listened silently but with wide, startled eyes - Zuko waits until Hassan has rushed from his room to clean up for dinner before approaching her, meeting her startled eyes with his resigned ones.
"You never-- but he talked about you, said the Blue Spirit was-- that he'd helped him once t--" "I was and I did, Katara, but-- what I did that night doesn't change what I did on every other."
They'll reach the Fire Nation by the morning - Katara is holding onto her son as he stands on the railing, laughing with the wind and spray in his face; she knows Zuko stands behind her and blames the hand that settles at the small of her back on the lurch of the ironclad-- and doesn't protest when it stays.
"Is your brother going to murder me?" he asks quietly from the doorway as Hassan is tucked in; Katara chuckles softly as she stands, reaches out and carefully links her fingers with his, "No, but I might be in trouble."
He drops his gaze to their joined hands and she wonders if she should let go; he hands her one of the leather strips she used to wear to hold her braid in place, smirking when she looks up at him in shocked recognition.
Zuko finds a certain irony in it - he is kissing her, sober and fully conscious of his actions, his hands on her hips and hers at his shoulders, mouths wet and fully willing-- but again, it is his i son /i that makes them stop, stirring in his sleep and distracting both parents from more carnal pleasures.
"What's it going to be like?" she asks him quietly in the light of the morning, the palace glittering in the sunlight as the ironclad docks - he glances to her, at the apprehension and unease in her stance and smiles slightly, his hand at her back, "Better than you think."
(Bonus!) 51. Oops
She was expecting this - walking down the plank to the dock, the Fire Lord himself is there to greet them-- as well as her brother, whose irritation is only eased by the armful of nephew that leaps to great him with a cry of, "Unca Sokka!" while the other pair of uncle and nephew greet each other with bows and smug smiles.