It had been a simple thing, really. One night they had both stayed up late, she because she was working on the monthly reports and he because Ayla refused to wind down, and he didn't have the heart to put his foot down unless Koki admonished them both and gave him no other option. Koki finally finished and Ayla finally fell asleep, and they were both simply existing in the same space, kind of exhaustion-dazed until he perked up and offered her hot chocolate.

Normally, she would have refused, since all she wanted to do was drop into bed and sleep, but both the fact that it was midnight, winter in the middle of Antarctica – and therefore somewhat chilly despite the atmosphere provided by Tortuga – as well the fact that he had been avoiding her like the plague lately except when absolutely necessary urged her to accept. She couldn't for the life of her figure out why one moment he was avoiding her gaze and the next he was doting on her like she was his best friend in the whole world, all the while avoiding engaging in any conversation beyond, "Am I doing this 'Daddy' thing right?"

It was a bit of a challenge to figure out what was going on in his head, especially after they had finally fallen into a comfortable rhythm together and she had thought everything was finally working. Even so, she was the kind of person who loved a challenge...at least until its answers eluded her for too long. Then she attacked the challenge with her full focus until she sifted the answer out of the surrounding dirt and placed the gold flecks somewhere they could be of use to her.

Right now, it was simply a minor challenge, trying to figure out what was going on in Martin's mind, but if he continued like this, she was going to have to turn her full focus onto it eventually. It hadn't taken her more than four minutes beyond their first meeting to discern that there was a compassionate depth and sparkling intelligence to Martin that his jubilant exterior outshone occasionally...but just because that particular light seemed brighter didn't mean that the others didn't exist, just as powerful when one came upon them.

So, she accepted, for no other reason than she wanted to take advantage of what little interaction he was giving her to be able to decipher his behavior and perhaps put a stop to it. Because, she told herself, as co-parents they couldn't really have unresolved issues between them. It might reflect badly onto Ayla somehow, and she knew neither of them wanted that.

And if she didn't want to face the fact that his distance had hurt, well, her mind was more than content to let it be.

She had hummed a few bars of 'Annie's Song' – the song Ayla had insisted Martin learn to be able to sing her to sleep – in order to keep her heavy eyelids from slipping downwards to sheath the tired orbs within dark curtains, and then a mug of some of the most chocolate-filled hot chocolates she had ever smelled appeared before her. For a moment, she had been confused – apparently, she had lost her war against dozing off without even noticing – before her eyes trailed up the tanned hand that held the mug to the blue above them, and her lips quirked upwards in a smile out of instinct.

"Thanks," she had murmured, taking the mug and ebbing back into wakefulness, keeping a careful eye on Martin, who seemed once again at ease around her.

"No problem."

She had eyed his mug, full of marshmallows and no doubt extra chocolate, and barely held back a chuckle of amusement. His blue eyes then met hers for the briefest of moments, two little windows to the impressively strong, responsible and compassionate mind behind his deceptively care-free exterior, before, to reasons unknown to her, he pulled up shields between him and her, masking himself behind a smile that she somehow knew wasn't quite completely genuine.

Despite herself, her eyelashes had fluttered over her light brown eyes, a very coy, very feminine gesture, but not meant in that way. She had simply been confused, and both her drowsiness and the wonderful smell of hot cocoa had done away temporarily with the strong, confident woman she projected to the world, leaving just her standing in front of Martin, just Koki, the sometimes lonely single mother who had the weight of her daughter's little world on her shoulders...until, for some reason, along came the strangest form of reprieve. Someone to share the burden, someone to share the quiet moments in a way that Aviva hadn't understood until Kate came along, someone to place a hand on her shoulder and unwittingly give her the strength to make it to the end of the day.

Her eyes had widened at the realization, and she suddenly wondered what it would be like if Martin were to leave them somehow. If he were to stop helping. The strange, little ache in her chest could no longer be ignored, and she was mildly confused at it, batting it away like a pesky fly, some part of her recognizing what it might signal and terrified of it, but mostly she was annoyed. Annoyed that someone had worked his way through her prickly armor of sarcasm, snark, and cynicism. Aviva had grown to be like a sister, and that was one thing – Aviva left her cynicism be – but Martin just...

He had grown, somehow, into her heart, slow and steady, a stalwart oak to stand against the gales of her ever tumultuous emotions and fears, and some part of her quivered at the thought of having him rooted out. Lost in her thoughts and realization, the only reason she realized that he was talking to her was that he let out a soft chuckle, laced with an emotion that she recognized and it cut through her haze easily, grounding her back.

"-I mean, she's not going to be little forever, is she?" Martin had sighed, a bittersweet smile on his lips. Koki had glanced at the board of wood against the wall, staring at the new mark she had made this morning, signaling Ayla's growth for the last year. Her baby was losing some of her roundness, slowly taking on a slightly lankier form, slowly growing into a child too big for her to pretend that the girl was a baby anymore. It had made her heart clench to see how much the twerp had grown, and now, looking at Martin's soft, slightly confused and sad expression, she knew he felt the same. Despite herself, she chuckled.

It had been a simple thing. She reached out to ruffle his hair, words on her lips, playful admonishments and a gentle reprimand to not be so silly, a core of understanding and gentle compassion under the superficial yet supportive sentences, but the moment her hand came in contact with him – she accidentally miscalculated, and her dark fingers brushed ever so lightly over the side of his neck before they found his sandy, fawn-colored hair – he jumped away as if burned, making confusion and just the slightest bit of embarrassment come into her.

She had no way of knowing that she had rekindled a fire in him that he had thought to have finally put out. She had no way of knowing that the wide-eyed look he had fixated on his mug was one of self-recrimination and worry. She had no way of knowing that he felt guilty that the touch of her skin against his had ignited fiery butterflies under his skin that were flitting around in a frantic dance for his attention – for her attention, to be honest – all against his silent resolution to keep firmly away from...well, whatever it was that he felt building persistently against his chest whenever he was near her.

She had no way of knowing, when he turned and left her with two quiet mugs of hot chocolate for company in a room that suddenly felt cold and lonely, that he thought he was doing it for her own good, because the welling of emotions he felt whenever she looked at him and saw past his admittedly poorly built facade to the true person beneath, those emotions would not leave him be until he wiped every bit of that exhaustion and weight from her shoulders and let her know how truly treasured and amazing and strong she was. She had no way of knowing that he had never in his life wanted to kiss someone so badly as in that moment.

It had been a simple thing, but in doing it, she had unwittingly ripped the fragile covers off the tenuous emotions just beginning to form within both of their hearts.


He fell slowly at first, without even noticing. Like that moment when you're standing on the edge of a step, unaware you're losing your balance until you notice, flailing around a bit before you reach a very precarious balance and think you're safe for a slice of a second. Only to then plummet much faster than before and crash hard.

It started when began to realize that when he helped her it went beyond his natural need to help anyone who needed it, he began to notice the toll motherhood had taken on her, began to feel a heady rush of excitement when she would look at him with the same gentler look she usually reserved for her little girl.

Fighting it only made it worse, it seemed. Once he realized what was happening, he flailed and floundered, trying to find his balance, trying to pull away while not at the same time. It seemed impossible and he only found himself falling faster and faster. Taking care of Ayla together opened his eyes to her struggles, struggles that she had been tackling and hiding very successfully without him ever knowing, he who secretly prided himself on knowing the people around him inside and out.

He had known about her pride and the way she meticulously strove for both accuracy and organization, but he never realized how deeply it ran. He hadn't known how she fought every day to do things right for Ayla, hadn't known how very tender she was with the girl. He had seen her be a mother, of course, and he had never doubted her love for Ayla, but all those moments where she would stop everything she was doing and simply set her full attention on her daughter with a gentle softness he hadn't seen in her until he stopped to look were suddenly juxtaposed sharply against the person he had seen her as before.

He fell harder. She stopped one day after Ayla ran to him for comfort instead of her, and looked so lost for a moment that it nearly broke his heart.

"I guess you're doing something right, Martin."

It was only then that he realized why she was so sharp with her words, so outwardly self-assured, why she kept everyone only within reach as opposed to him, who pulled everyone in close to his heart. While many things could hurt him, prick his heart, such pains passed quickly for him, but while less things hurt her, what did hurt her hurt her deeply, much more deeply than it hurt him.

The realization of this didn't make it any easier. He teetered on the edge, and for a moment, found his balance. They were polar opposites. It didn't matter how easy it was to talk to her, didn't matter how badly he wished he could soothe the aches in her heart. It wouldn't work anyway. He'd probably just aggravate her or something; she hadn't given him the right. He would jeapordize the delicate balance they had found with each other and Ayla.

And he would never do anything to hurt either of them.

And then he got overconfident. He thought he had it under control, thought he could stand straight once more, thought he could talk with her without wondering at how easily they conversed, how every insecurity he had regarding Ayla, she could wipe away with a few well placed words and playful teasing. He had forgotten how easily she could see past his smiles to what he actually felt, miscalculated how she would respond. He was smart, yes, but it seemed that he couldn't calculate that many steps ahead.

In retrospect, he could have just run off to bed. Quickly. Instead of remaining with her in isolation and give whatever it was he felt room to grow. He could only meet her eyes for brief moments, but hey, no heady rush of excitement and yearning for more, so that was good. How silly it seemed now, after she reached out and touched him and woke everything he had thought he was slowly smothering, woke it like a dragon, letting it run wild in his heart and body, setting everything on fire. He realized then that he couldn't control it, not the way he had started off controlling it anyway.

Martin paced, back and forth, in a tight circle under Tortuga, shivering despite his constant movement and thick layers of insulating clothing. Then again, little could buffer against a cold Arctic night in the winter. He'd just have to put up with the shivering unless he wanted to go back inside. He realized that he hadn't finished his hot chocolate, but he didn't really care. His stomach was tied up in so many knots that what little he had swallowed was threatening to come back up.

He hit bottom.

What did she think of what had happened in there? What would she make of his actions? Did she know? Did she know how hard he had fallen, how much he simply yearned? He hugged himself for lack of anything else to do for comfort and felt a deep sense of shame envelop him. His cheeks stung, and not because of the wind rushing under Tortuga and occasionally buffeting him. He had forgotten his hat, he realized, and instead pulled his scarf up like an old lady and covered his head, returning to his personal well of misery, jerking with a start as he wondered if she might feel obligated to feel something back if she knew.

Oh, no. No. That was the last thing he wanted. He didn't want Koki to feel in the least that she needed to do anything at all, didn't want her to feel as if he was only taking care of Ayla to get something out of her. That wasn't the case in the least. He truly loved Ayla, just for being the stubborn, rambunctious little sweetheart she was. He didn't need an ulterior motive to love or take care of the child. No. Whatever it was he felt for Koki, while it was joined to his love of Ayla, wasn't really because or for the little girl. Ayla had simply been the window he had managed to glimpse Koki through, and what he had seen had drawn him like no one had ever drawn him before.

But now what?

He looked up at the Tortuga's belly, shivering as he tried to picture what to do next. Should he ignore it? Pretend it didn't happen? Find some excuse or lie about what had set him running from her?

No. Martin Kratt was many things, but coward was not one of them.

He sighed, breath cold and air biting at his skin. Lies did not become him; only under the pressure of survival could he really justify it, and survival didn't lie at stake here. Simply his pride...and his friendship with Koki.

What could he tell her? How could he explain his feelings without making it seem that he expected reciprocation, or worse, without her pitying him? Perhaps that wasn't the worst. The worst would be for Koki to become uncomfortable around him, afraid of 'leading' him on or something. Martin wasn't inexperienced in these sort of things; he knew why someone might be uncomfortable.

But clearing the air would be much better than letting the awkwardness lie, especially after his rather dramatic and abrupt way of taking off just a minute ago.

"Oh, well," he muttered to himself as he turned back, "I don't run from things unless they're about to kill me and this definitely won't kill me."

The snow crunched under his feet, and then melted slowly from his boots onto the Tortuga floor as he escaped back to the warmth of the ship, lingering a moment before opening the door to the main room, shedding his coat onto Jimmy's seat for the moment being.

Koki had collected both the mugs by now, frowning down into hers after she set Martin's into the microwave, eyes sharp with unwavering observation as Martin came back in.

"That was dramatic," she noted evenly. "Even for you, Martin."

His neck still tingled from her fingers, and he brushed his hand over the feeling sheepishly, offering her an apologetic smile before glancing away.

"Yeah," he said, before chuckling, "It felt like it. I, uh...first off, I'm sorry about that."

Koki didn't face him fully, still half-turned toward the kitchen portion of the Tortuga, her eyes skimming his expression with some fierce, unreadable expression on her face.

"Are you okay?" she asked, hands holding the mug he'd given her, and honestly, Martin wants to cup his hands over hers, wished he knew how to put the admiration and longing he felt into words so that she could understand.

He could try, at least.

"A little chilled but that is my own fault," he grinned and then, sheepishly, walked up to her so that they weren't separated by meters of floor space, so that he could speak to her face to face. "I do want to explain though."

Martin's chest tightened involuntarily; even for him, vulnerability could sometimes be difficult. Koki softened, her scrutinizing gaze turning to one of quiet listening as she nodded. Did she know? He wondered.

"I took off because I needed a moment to clear my head," Martin said, voice quiet as he rubbed his cold hands together, "Being around you sometimes makes it kind of hard to think and yet easier other times."

Koki's lips parted and clear confusion flickered across her face as she let one hand drop from her mug to her hip.

"Martin, that makes no-"

"No sense," he said with her, smiling one of those bashful schoolboy smiles at her (the kind he didn't know made her want to cup his face cause a grown man had no right looking so innocent) and shrugging, "Well, it...ah, okay. I just want you to know I value our friendship more than anything right now, okay? And I'd like to think we've been friends these last...wow, six years we've known each other? That's a long time."

"Depends on how you look at it," she said, but there was something knowing in her eyes as she bit her lip, her hands back to cupping the mug of now lukewarm chocolate, "But yes."

"Right! And yet, somehow, I feel like I've only recently gotten to know you. The real you. The one that will do anything for all of us, but especially Ayla. The one that's strong and gentle, stubborn and giving, smart and beautiful."

Martin paused to suck in a breath and carefully gauge Koki's reaction, which seemed surprised, but not...well, not appalled.

"What I'm trying to say is, I've gotten to know you a little better now that we spend more time together because of Ayla, and...I really like you. Differently than I'd like a friend."

Even Martin knew how corny he sounded but his heartbeat racing made it hard to feel embarrassment over his jitters and nerves.

Koki inhaled as well, mouth open for a moment, waiting for the words she wanted to form before she closed it and lifted a bent finger to her lips. Martin teetered, again, this time between an apology and silence, but Koki mercifully stilled him when she answered.

"I...Even though I have Ayla?"

Martin's blue eyes widened, disbelief coloring his expression before he reached out to gently grasp Koki's shoulders and shake his head, even as he saw her clearly hear her own words, and dismiss them herself. She didn't need him to dispel the idea that she was harder to date or be with because of her daughter, and he knew it, seeing her stance straighten, but he said it anyway.

"Koki, you and Ayla are both some of the people I treasure most in my life. And if anyone were to overlook you because of outdated ideas of what a family should look like or because they think...whatever they think, then they would be fools, and you deserve better."

Koki smiled at him, not shy in the least, but there was something softer about it that he wasn't used to seeing. She nodded and lifted a hand to pet his.

"I know."

"I know you know. I'm still saying it."

Koki laughed, warm and rich, her laughter washing over Martin in waves of relief.

"Well, thank you. And I...Martin, I feel the same way."

Martin, for once, was left shocked into silence as Koki lifted his hand from her shoulder to hold, putting down the mug to encapsulate his larger hand in both of hers.

Despite himself, his heart fluttered.

Like a schoolboy. Oh man.

"You have," she paused to chuckle, "found a way into both Ayla's heart and mine. She trusts you as a father and I...I trust you as a companion. I trust you with Ayla, which is hard for a mother to do sometimes. And I trust you as more."

Martin breathlessly smiled.

"Yeah?"

His chest tightened again, though now in excitement as Koki nodded. Martin shifted his weight from foot to foot, suddenly energized (in the middle of the night no less); he felt he could run a marathon, or fight a bear.

He wouldn't fight a bear, it was against his principles, and yet, he felt he could, and that was what mattered.

"Yes, Martin," Koki squeezed his hand and smiled again, and he nodded back, his free hand cupping on Koki's.

"Oh man. I...I didn't think we'd get this far," he admitted, laughing softly and lifting their joint hands so he could press his forehead to them for a moment, before lowering them and grinning, "Just to be clear, this means I can ask you out on a date?"

"I should sure hope so," she said, sarcastic, playful glint returning to Koki's eye as she laughed, "I don't know what else it could mean."

"Oh I don't know, you said companion, maybe you mean your loyal co-parent in crime in a platonic, life-partner kind of way, I'm not one to assume, after all-"

"Martin," Koki shook her head and laughed, "You're over thinking it."

He grinned back and squeezed her hands.

"I know."

"I know you know. I'm still saying it."


A.N.

Oh hello everyone, tis I, the writer. Man it's been a minute. I did have my fanfics up a while back, but out of a dark place in my life and boo-hoo stuff I won't go into, I took everything down. This was a fic I had up but hadn't finished, and it's...mm...probably three years old now! So if there is a big style shift at any point, you know that's where I must have thrown myself back in three years after the last time I wrote, hahaha.

I feel like I'm a slightly better writer now it terms of getting into the body language of people, but I've lost so much of my prose and flow and plot? Who is she? do I know her? nah fam. But in any case I hope you guys enjoy me dipping my toes back into the world of fanfic and writing and the last part of this isn't horribly atrocious! And with that, I leave you, dear reader, with the humble request for a review, even if its as senseless as "sdhfjlkahsdf nice" or "not my ship but cool fic", any and all reviews are welcome.