A/N: All right, so I teared up a little writing this one...this is the Zuko/Ursa version of the previous chapter. The difference between the two fathers and daughters and their relationship is significant. I'm quite happy with how this one turned out-but also sad. This is the second-to-last chapter. The next one will be it. Look for that real soon...I've got some more ideas I'd like to bring to life once this is put to rest.
As always, enjoy, and thanks for reading and reviewing!
Right from the very start, Zuko had wanted a daughter.
The minute Mai took his hand and rested it on her belly, still flat and smooth, and whispered to him that she was pregnant, his mind had flashed to a little girl; to a perfect, tiny Mai he could cradle in his arms and watch grow up, her lovely mother in miniature.
To him, it only made logical sense. He loved Mai so much, why in the world wouldn't he want another one of her around?
"Zuko," Mai explained to him patiently when he swung this notion of his by her. "Even if we have a girl, she isn't going to be a perfect copy of me. She'll be her own person."
"As long as she looks like you…" Zuko insisted, nuzzling the curve of his wife's swollen stomach.
Mai sighed but smiled faintly, playing with his dark hair. Secretly, she hoped for a little boy who looked like Zuko. The idea of having a beautiful son with his father's gold eyes and unruly dark hair was a wonderful one, and sometimes she would sit, hand resting on her belly, and let herself get lost in a daydream about that very notion.
Mai was the one who got her wish—not only was their child a boy, but he quickly grew into a small, near-perfect copy of his father, something that inwardly thrilled her to no extent. Together, they produced two more son, Ryu and Teyaki, neither of whom looked as much like Zuko as their elder brother Kozu did, but were close enough. The resemblance was definitely a strong one.
Zuko loved his sons deeply. He didn't treat Ryu and Tey any differently from their brother because they were younger (in all honesty, they were much easier to handle than Kozu was), and each of his sons grew up to have a very different relationship with him than he had held with his own father, something that he had sworn to himself would be the case.
Still, he continued to hope and pray for a girl. The thought never left him. After the birth of his third son, it seemed like he was incompetent of siring anything but males, something that actually concerned him and that he made the mistake of questioning Katara about.
She shot him a withering look over the crown of Tenzin's head (he was only a few months old, and just as hairless as his father) and said, "Zuko, just because you've only had sons so far doesn't guarantee that any of the future ones will be too. It's a fifty-fifty chance of either every time. And furthermore, just how many more kids are you going to have before you're happy? Three seems plenty enough."
Yes, three was more than enough. Even Zuko had to admit that. He loved his sons. The thought of not having a daughter stung slightly, but he had three beautiful, wonderful boys. There was no reason he should complain, or hope for any more.
He didn't expect Mai to take it the way she did when he informed her of this.
"No." She seized ahold of his hand and pressed it to her cheek, kissing the palm of it as she insisted in a fierce tone, "Three isn't enough. I'm giving you a little girl, if it's the last thing I do."
He kissed her for that, long and hard, and tried not to think too much about the last part of her statement. Though there was always, always the chance that Mai might be lost to him in childbirth…it didn't seem likely anymore, not when she had already given birth to three such strong boys.
They tried again—and four was the lucky number. Princess Ursa was born on a blustery fall day, the atmosphere outside shifting and changing just about every five minutes. Zuko was, of course, over the moon. At the same time though, there it was nagging away at his gut—the insuppressible fear that he would not be a good father, that he would fail somehow, someway.
He felt this way before the birth of his first child, but scarcely at all after his second and third. By that time, he felt better—more confident, and ready to be a parent to two little ones (if he could handle Kozu, he could handle anything). But this case was different.
This was a little girl, a daughter, the one thing he had always wanted…and was as unalike her brothers as day is to night. Raising a boy and raising a girl seemed to Zuko like two very opposite things—with his sons, he could be a little brusque, could lose his temper a little bit and knew how to beat them into submission in just the right way—tough, but not too touch.
A daughter was different.
"Zuko…" Mai said to him one night shortly after she had just fed their daughter, now cradling her against her chest. "Can you hold Ursa for a little bit? I'd like to go take a bath."
Zuko froze—Ursa was barely two weeks old, and in her short lifetime so far, he had only held her a few times. He hardly dared to touch her little face or body. He had never told anyone why, but Zuko had a feeling it came from the fact that he was scared to break her, scared of hurting her in same way. A baby girl was very different from a baby boy.
Mai frowned slightly, watching her husband tense.
"I…" Zuko shot his wife a halfway nervous, halfway desperate look, which Mai promptly ignored.
"I won't be long," She promised him, carefully depositing their daughter into his arms. "Hold her the right way. You know how to."
Zuko gave her another pleading glance, but Mai turned and headed into the bathroom, shooting one last edgy look over her shoulder as she did so. Zuko sat on the edge of their bed, Ursa in his arms, looking like a man stranded on a desert island with only one last precious canteen of water left with him.
Shaking her head, Mai entered the bathroom—she knew well enough what was she doing.
Zuko glanced down towards the baby in his arms, and nearly lost his breath. He couldn't believe that she was here, really here, the thing he had been hoping and praying for for years now. She was even more perfect than he had ever imagined.
Though in actuality, Ryu had weighed less than his new little sister during his first weeks of life, Zuko felt that Ursa was lighter than he had been. He couldn't help but admire the tiny pink shells of her fingernails, the way her bitty fingers curled into tiny fists that she held up against her chubby cheeks, gold eyes screwed shut as she slept. Like her brothers, Ursa had been born with hair, an already fairly good swatch of downy black fuzz crowning her head.
Zuko could feel it, almost physically feel it—his heart melting in his chest.
Mai returned a little bit later, wearing only a thin, simple red robe, her hair still damp and hanging down her back like a sleek black waterfall. She couldn't stop the smile on her face when she caught sight of the scene she had her hopes she might—Zuko, cradling their little daughter and looking at her like nothing else in the world existed, like he had never seen anything more wonderful.
She moved to sit beside him, curling her legs up as she propped her chin on his broad shoulder to look down at Ursa as well.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" Mai whispered into his ear, her voice soft and warm, very unusual for her—except in times like this.
"She is…" Zuko breathed, lowering his head to plant a kiss to his daughter's forehead. "Just like her mother…"
Mai smiled and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
Mai had heard of overprotective fathers. She didn't know what exactly having one was like—she and her own father had a somewhat affectionate, albeit slightly awkward relationship, but the notion of actually being close enough to the man that fathered you, close enough for him to want to shield you from anyone and anything was an abstract concept to her.
That is, until she and Zuko had their own daughter.
Zuko wasn't troubled too much when his boys fought. Unless things get out of hand, or the subject they were quarreling over was serious, he abided by his uncle's jaunty chuckle of "let boys be boys." However, if one of his sons even thought about dragging Ursa into a fight, there would be problems.
If Ursa tripped, Zuko was usually the first to flap over to her, demanding to know if she was all right. When Ursa bashfully confessed in her mother that she a crush on a little boy in the public school that she went to (Mai later made the mistake of telling Zuko), he sat up straight and stared, like he was watching the world fall to pieces before his very eyes.
That was nothing, however, compared to when she brought an actual living, breathing boy home to meet her parents for the first time.
Ursa, at age sixteen, was a beauty. She looked not unalike a combination of her mother and her Aunt Azula, which all together made for quite a pretty young woman. Lots of noble men's sons were beginning to show interest in her, pursuing her sometimes to the point where Zuko nearly lost his temper, and Mai had to intervene.
Sen was a nice enough young man. His father was wealthy, a nobleman that Zuko knew fairly well and generally liked. His son was a few years older than Ursa, a tad bit of a stuff-shirt and maybe a notch too polite. The whole time Ursa and he were speaking to him, his eyes were narrowed. Mai kept her hand on knee, giving it a warning squeeze whenever he hotly opened his mouth or suppressed a growl in his throat.
"I don't like him," Zuko informed Mai later once they were alone in the sanctuary of their bedroom, his voice a low snarl.
"Now there's a big surprise," Mai remarked dryly from where she was sitting in front of her mirror, brushing her long hair out before bed, a habit of her's.
"Don't joke about this," Zuko grumbled, moving to stand beside her. She turned slightly, just enough to look at him, eyebrows raised.
"I'm serious," He insisted.
"So am I." Mai handed him the hair brush without another sound—he knew what he had to do.
Zuko heaved a sigh, but obediently ran the brush through her hair for a few strokes in silence, before setting it down and replacing it with his fingers instead.
"Ursa seems to like him," Mai pointed out, closing her eyes at her husband's ministrations.
"Yes…" Zuko grudgingly admitted, though he did find that stroking Mai's hair was, oddly enough, relaxing and calming him down a notch. "But she's only sixteen. Her judgment isn't the best."
"I was younger than that when I fell for you," Mai couldn't help but smirk. "Are you saying that my judgment wasn't the best then?"
Zuko opened and closed his mouth furiously a few times, before spluttering out, "That's completely different."
"How so?" Mai pulled away from him and got to her feet, turning to face him.
"You weren't…it's not…Ursa's…." Zuko was attempting to find the right words—and failing hopelessly.
Mai simply encircled her arms around him, pulling him into a hug. "I know," was all she said, holding him as he sighed into her shoulder. "I know."
"Hello, Dad! What are you doing here? The ceremony's about to begin!"
"I know, I know….I just….wanted to see you….before."
"Of course. Is…anything the matter?"
"No…no. I just…"
"Awww Dad. You're not crying, are you?"
"No. Whatever made you think that?"
"Here, it's all right…"
Her arms went around him. They were long and slender now. He could still feel them, tiny and stubby, trying desperately to encircle his waist as she begged for him to come play with her.
"I just can't believe how old you are…how much has changed….that we're even here now."
"Well Dad, I'm not a little girl anymore! People grow up, get married….that's just how it is."
"Ursa!" His wife stuck her head into the room, murder in her eyes. "The ceremony's about to get started! What are you doing?"
"Sorry, Mom!" She turned back to her father and said in a voice barely containing her excitement, "I'll see you after the wedding! Love you, Daddy!" She pecked him on the cheek, and then tore off after her mother.
He watched her go. Mai never would have bolted out like that, like a stallion just released from a pen. Mai wouldn't have tripped on the hem of her dress as his daughter had, and made a wild attempt to cover it.
He watched the beautiful young woman with the shining black hair and radiant look on her face chase after her mother, more than ready to charge ahead. But what he actually saw was a little girl with mud all over her, coming inside from a rainstorm and promptly crawling into his lap for warmth, ignoring the trail of filth behind her.
What he actually heard was high, hysterical laughter coming from a tiny mouth as he tickled her before bed, her shrieks of mirth loud enough to startle her brother Ryu down the hall.
What he actually felt was a small, soft hand slipped inside his own as he walked around the palace gardens, a warm, adoring smile turned up to him, and an impossibly minute body cradled in his arms, shielding her from not only her nightmares, but anything else that could do her harm as well.
"I'm not a little girl anymore."
"Yes…" Zuko couldn't help but murmur out loud. "You are. You always will be."
With that, he followed his daughter into her future—ready to catch her should she fall.