Summary: Sometimes, kids don't have the best childhoods. Sometimes, it is all because of bad parents. Sometimes, when those kids become parents themselves, they vow to do anything to break the cycle. Zuko and Mai face one of the first of many challenges as parents.
A/N: Melancholy here, wanting to thank you all for your interest in this fic. It's a oneshot, my first ATLA/LOK-universe fic (which is shocking to me considering I've been a fan since the very beginning back in 2005) and I really want to focus on something brought up in Legend of Korra: the original Gaang as parents. Good...or not. When it was revealed in canon that some of the original Gaang didn't make the best parents, I wanted to explore that aspect for myself. This fic therefore represents through what I know about Mai and Zuko how they would be as parents (assuming Maiko stayed canon). I'll probably write more of these showing how their daughter grows and then eventually move on to some other members of the org. Gaang. Tell me how it goes!
It was a lucky break. She wasn't even supposed to be here…with them. With him. With Mai. But, it had always been apparent to Zuko that he was lucky. Especially now, as he gently touched the soft skin of the small, fragile life in front of him. He and his wife were very lucky indeed.
The baby was sleeping soundly in her crib. It took forever, or more accurately, what Zuko felt was something like years, to put the girl to sleep.
It had been at one point that Zuko and Mai's newborn daughter slept with them at night, nestled in between Zuko's strong chest and somewhere at the meeting point of Mai's nurturing bosom and stomach. The girl was cocooned by strength and love and thus protected by it.
But the time came that their baby girl was released from that cocoon. Or at least, Mai was convinced that it was time. Zuko wasn't so sure. Actually, if it were up to him, their daughter would stay nestled in between them at night, guarded by her parents…forever. Protected forever.
But his title of Firelord was quickly ignored—unlike with nobles and citizens—in the presence of Mai. Her title easily trumped his. And so she declared to him, as she cradled their six month old between her arm and hip, that their daughter would sleep on her own from that point on, lest she be spoiled; lest she not even in her toddler years ever want to sleep on her own. Ever.
"This isn't punishing her," she assured him when he objected, "when she's older you will find many more ways to spoil her anyway."
It wasn't that Zuko wanted to spoil her, in fact, if he were honest with himself, his reluctance was probably more for his benefit than his daughter's. Truth is, he didn't want to become his father. Casting his little girl off so young to be on her own in the dark of night…it scared him. He, somewhere in his mind, felt that love was best felt in close proximity. He felt that putting his daughter in a separate crib was a betrayal to her. If he could not hold her, feel her warm, small body in his arms, her small tufts of hair tickling his palm, she would feel that he did not love her. She would feel a coldness that he had felt his entire life when it came to his own father.
He wanted to rip his heart out and give it to his little girl to sleep with. He had always promised, from the moment she was born, that he would never make her feel as his father made him feel. He would be a better father than Ozai could have ever dreamed of being, just as he had been a better Firelord.
So, letting go was hard.
Zuko and Mai were not the kind of couple that kept things to themselves. They weren't the kind of couple that let one walk over the other. They weren't the kind of couple who kept their problems with each other bottled up. They fought. They fought a lot.
Their daughter was never something they fought over.
"Zuko," Mai hissed, "I'm not going to argue with you about this! I don't care if you don't like it, we need to do this. It's for her benefit. Don't you trust me?"
That last statement almost had him, but, like the hot head he was, he forged on, "Of course I do! But do we really have to do this to her now? She's going to feel so alone!"
"Your insecurities should not get in the way of her healthy growth, Zuko!" Mai snapped, "You think I rejoice in this?"
"No, of course not," Zuko breathed, steam rushing from his nose, "I just…I don't want her to feel…"
Mai sighed when she heard her daughter whimper. Their arguing was scaring her. Mai moved the baby from her hip to her chest. She bounced her lightly and kissed the girl on the cheek, mumbling an apology as she did.
No matter what was going on, Zuko always had to crack a smile when he saw Mai like this. So loving. So motherly. He loved the look in her eyes when she gazed upon their child. A spark like lightening coursed through her gray eyes. A passion.
"What?" she inquired, right eyebrow raised.
"Nothing," he mused. He paused and thought carefully over his next words.
"Fine," he said finally, "fine."
Mai smiled, "The crib will be in the room with us anyway. I'm not that terrible as to put her away in a room by herself."
Unfortunately, no one asked the Firelord's daughter what she wanted or thought was best. And so she gave them hell for it.
When it was time to put her to sleep, after drowsiness set in, sand from the sandbender man who weighed down and lidded her eyes, Mai uncurled her daughter's fingers from her long black hair and set her down in the wooden crib. This would be her cocoon now.
"This crib looks like a prison cell," Zuko whined, noting the wooden bars connecting the top of the crib with the bottom, "why in Agni does this crib look like Father's jail cell? Why are we pun—"
"Zuko," Mai interrupted harshly, "shut up and come on." She took his arm and led him away from his flesh and blood.
And, just as the Firelord was about to put his head on a soft pillow, drape his arm around his wife, and drift off into a much needed sleep…the screaming started.
It was a piercing, heartbreaking wail that emanated throughout the room. Their daughter screamed louder than she ever had when she was hungry or fussy from being tired or being tossed into Fire Nation garb that was traditional for a royal baby. Her screams and cries sounded as if they could erode this entire palace, reducing it to nothing but rubble.
The girl huffed and then resumed her screaming and crying, taking ragged breaths intermittently.
Zuko put his robe back on and was rising to comfort the child, when he felt a tug at the chiffon enrobing him. He turned around to be met with Mai's hard gaze.
"No," she mumbled, "Let her cry."
"What?" he said, in part disbelief and part confusion.
"Ignore her," Mai replied, louder and more sure this time.
Zuko sighed as his daughter's wails continued. Great. His worst fears seemed to be coming to pass.
"Do you want to sleep somewhere else?" Mai offered as she moved her hand from his robe and back to underneath her head.
"What?" Zuko snapped, "Why?"
Mai sighed, "You're the Firelord, dummy. I probably won't be getting any sleep tonight and if you stay, neither will you. You have a lot to do tomorrow."
Like hell Zuko would leave. Zuko had put nearly everything—everything but the well-being of the Fire Nation—behind his daughter. Behind Mai, too. He had seen too many families destroyed to do anything that might lend to the destruction of another. Especially his own. His staying in this room would set a precedent for everyone. He had once explained these feelings to his wife, though she never understood them. She thought he didn't have anything to prove, that he was being silly.
But every time he looked at himself in the mirror in the morning after getting dressed, hair tied in a traditional topknot, Firelord hair piece securing it, he could only see his father. He'd always been told as a kid he looked just like Ozai and…
Aww, look guys, it's baby Zuko!
That's not me…that's my father.
So, Zuko knew fuck all about babies and caring for them. (He was too young and too separated from Azula to remember how she was cared for when she was born…not that he probably wanted to remember.) And he knew that his duties as the Fire Nation's ruler should trump all, but from the moment Mai told him against all odds that she was pregnant, he was haunted with the idea that he would not make a good father. He had made so many mistakes in his life he still didn't feel absolved from.
But then he had talked to Aang.
"Zuko, I can't make you forgive yourself," the Airbender had said to him over tea one quiet afternoon. It had been quite a while since their schedules had aligned in such a way where they could meet like this.
"That's only something you can do," he continued, "As you know, or at least I hope you do by now, none of us are angry at you. None of us are embittered towards you…you have nothing to be guilty of anymore. We're your friends. We love you, Zuko."
"That's nice, Aang," Zuko replied, failing to see how that addressed his problem at all. Honestly, Aang reminded him so much of his Uncle Iroh sometimes, "but I…"
"Let me finish," Aang interjected, raising a large hand to halt his friend, "We love you, Zuko. But, like the monks said, that means nothing if you don't love yourself. Forgiveness means nothing if you can't forgive yourself. You think you're doomed to follow your father's path, as if you haven't proven otherwise already. Everything you do Zuko, is a counterpoint. It's proof that you aren't confined to repeat the cycle set by your father, your ancestors. Continue to live this way."
And Zuko was comforted by that.
"Thank you…Avatar," Zuko said, smiling sheepishly.
"You're welcome, Firelord," Aang returned the smile, grinning from ear to ear as usual. Nothing much had changed in eight years.
Shades of green, brown, orange and gold were interrupted by blotches of white and shades of blue.
Katara walked up to where the duo was sitting and took her place beside Aang. Zuko had noticed her stomach almost immediately. She wasn't showing much, but enough to know that she was…
"You're pregnant?" Zuko inquired, his one good eye widening.
Katara huffed, "No. And hello, by the way."
Zuko turned paler than he normally was; he was mortified at his blunder. He retreated inside of himself, shrinking away from Katara's apt icy glare.
"Katara, I-I'm sorry I didn't—" he stuttered, rushing through his speech as might a quick flowing river.
But then Katara laughed. She roared with giddy and delight and soon, Aang laughed with her. What the hell was so funny?
"I was just joking. Yes, of course I'm pregnant!" she smiled, reassuring the Firelord, "I was so surprised you asked, only because I thought you knew already, but I forgot we haven't seen you in quite a few months."
"But I saw Aang a few weeks ago," Zuko said. He turned to Aang, "Why didn't you say anything then?"
"Oops," Aang said casually, grinning and shrugging his shoulders, "Sorry, Hotman. Although we didn't really have time for small talk. When was I supposed to mention it between all the politics?
'Oh hey Zuko, restoration is going very smoothly. There are still small uprisings in the east and the Earth Kingdom economy is kind of taking a hit—I'm sure Toph will be around with other officials to discuss that with you soon—and we should really handle the situation with the murdered noble before I go back to try and find more air acolytes to restore the air nation. And by the way, Katara and I are going to be parents!'"
"Sounded fine to me," Zuko mumbled.
"Zuko," Katara chastised. She took a sip of her tea, "Yuck! It's cold now!"
"Well yeah," Aang pushed her lightly with his elbow, "you spent forever coming out here. What were you even doing anyway?"
"Excuse me, Aang, we're in the presence of a firelord, I just can't come out looking like anything!" she scanned Aang with her eyes, "Unlike someone…" and elbowed him in the arm.
Zuko chuckled and gestured for Katara's cup, warming up the liquid inside again from flames produced by his finger, and handed it back to her.
"What would I do without you?" she commented, a smile barely hidden behind the cup held at level with her lips.
"Drink cold tea," he said, matter-of-factly.
They all laughed.
"Well," Katara began, "You've had your daughter for a month now. How is it?"
"Zuko's scared he will be like Ozai," Aang whispered in her ear. Zuko knew what she had just been told based on the look on her face. Dread. Worry. Concern. Her face was caked in it.
"Zuko, you're nothing like Ozai. You've struggled, yes, but at your core you were never like him. And I'm sure you will do everything in your power to keep it that way. I know you'll be the father to her that your father never was to you. You must believe that, too."
Zuko sighed. Then, after a moment's stillness, he smiled, "Yeah…you're both right."
"Of course we are, we know you," Katara said, making her way over to Zuko's side of the small outdoor table. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him into a hug. He let himself hug her back, kind of wondering if Aang was still the jealous type.
"Thank you, Katara," he said as they both let go.
"Besides," she said, looking at him with kindhearted blue eyes, "you and Mai are gonna be our guiding light through this process." She instinctively put a hand to her stomach and naturally went back to Aang's side.
"You guys thought of names yet?" Zuko asked, trying to distract from the awkwardness he felt.
"Well, if it's a girl, I want her to have a Water tribe name…something strong but beautiful. Something like…Kya," Katara replied, her head nestled in the crook of Aang's neck.
"And if it's a boy?" Zuko asked.
"I'm letting Aang decide that." And with that, Zuko turned to Aang.
"I don't know," he responded to Zuko's gaze. "I'll know…I'll know it when I see him. I just hope…I hope he's an airbender."
That last statement brought a frown to everyone's face. The mood turned downcast.
Zuko raised his cup, "To hope."
Katara was the next to raise hers, "And to good parenting."
Aang perked up, his iconic goofy smile painting his face. He raised his cup with the others, "Hear, hear."
Only later would Zuko realize that was Aang's own way of asking for advice on this father thing, too.
Zuko knew fuck all about babies and caring for them, but, he would learn. He would do anything it took to be a good father to his daughter, and that started with looking in the mirror and seeing Firelord Zuko, not Firelord Ozai. He needed to be able to see a father, and not a monster.
His hand drifted towards his scar whenever he thought about his father. The permanent mark of a failed, terrible father-son relationship. No doubt Ozai scared Azula in similar, invisible ways though she was always Ozai's favorite child.
Ozai had snuffed out Zuko's weakness early on and had punished the boy for it. To Ozai, kindness and caring for others, the things Zuko had always been good at, were weaknesses that need to be extinguished, lest a firebender's strength—his fire—be put out instead.
My father decided to teach me a lesson…on my face!
…his own father burned and disowned him!
So, no, Zuko refused to leave. Everything Zuko did from the Day of Black Sun on was to prove his father wrong. Zuko cursed Ozai with every action. Every word in his mouth that did not drip with venom and malice. Every breath of fire in his lungs that did not come from hate. No matter how tough things got, no matter his responsibilities as leader of the Fire Nation, he would stay by his family's side.
And so he stayed through the screaming.
He removed his robe, put his head on the pillow, and shifted underneath slippery sheets to face Mai. Only then did he see the small line of tears that brimmed her lower eyelids. Only then did he truly understand that this hurt her as much as it hurt him.
And why wouldn't it? She was the girl's mother after all. She had carried her for 8 months inside her womb and was the first to hold her when she came out. But it was deeper than that. Much deeper.
One thing that held Mai and Zuko together all these years, through war and strife and a brief break up, was their mutual experience with terrible parents. Growing up in a political family, Mai was always neglected as a child. She was never allowed to be anything more than decoration that other nobles and noblewomen would comment on briefly and continue the tour of the house, as if she were exotic art or an architectural feature in the home. She was nothing more than furniture. (Except furniture doesn't get rewarded for their silence.) Mai and Zuko were bonded in this way. And even though Mai was never vocal about it like Zuko was, her fear of becoming like her parents guided her decisions with their baby girl as well.
Mai was always with their daughter, unlike Zuko who couldn't always be with her. She never allowed anyone to take care of the girl but her and Zuko. She refused nannies and took the girl everywhere. She would be damned before she let a servant of the palace become more of a mother to her little girl than she was.
"Doctor's said it would be a miracle if I conceived," Mai would say, "Well, my daughter is a miracle and I will not hand miracles off to be appreciated by someone else."
Zuko wiped a tear from Mai's eye. He slid that hand down her frame and found his way to her hand. He squeezed it.
"We will all be okay," he whispered, "we're good parents."
Mai nodded, "Yeah."
"She just wants our attention. You're right, I spoil her and now she's gotten too used it."
"I spoil her, too," Mai replies, leaning closer to Zuko.
"Yeah," he murmurs as their daughter screams on into the night.
Soon, after minutes turn into an hour, Zuko and Mai took turns getting up to make sure their daughter's screams weren't something more serious. She'd been trying to break out of her crib all night.
Eventually, either after the girl realized it's useless to continue or was too tired to, screams turned into cries and cries turn into soft whimpers as she falls into a much needed sleep. Her parents followed suit.
Despite the late night, Zuko rose early, as usual, and took a peak at the beautiful baby in the crib. She was sound asleep and hopefully she had dreamed beautiful dreams.
He put a finger lightly to the girl's cheek and smiled to himself, safe in the knowledge that he is nothing like Ozai.
"Sleep tight," he mumbled as he left the room. Slowly and quietly he shut the door behind him.