Quick background: this fic is dedicated to meandcartoon22, who actually won a one-shot but whose constant reviews were and are great motivation for my writing wanderings. So it turned into less of a one-shot and more of a short fic, with a lot less smut than originally intended, but I rather liked the idea. Also, I just gave up on all three of my massive-fics and need a lil ATLA comfort. Enjoi!
Iroh wanted a baby.
Not for himself, of course. His time had passed, long ago. Of course, he would never forget his dear and only biological son, Lu Ten, but a very special bond had been forged between himself and the current ruler of the Fire nation. He had helped Zuko grow from an immature, angry little boy into a strong, honorable man, and he was very proud of his determined nephew's achievements thus far. And yet... there was just one more thing...
"A baby?" Mai echoed in blank surprise. Zuko's dropped jaw and wide eyes mirrored his wife's facial expression. He sat in stunned silence next to her on the divan across from Iroh's rather large and comfortably plush chair.
"Of course!" Iroh insisted jovially, seemingly oblivious to the way Zuko's heart had stopped at the mere mention of becoming a father. "Babies are wonderful! They are life's greatest gift. One could not live a complete, full life without at least once experiencing the joy of parenthood."
Mai quickly recovered her composure and, in fact, did so much faster than her husband. "I just don't think right now is a good time to be thinking about children," she replied coolly, placing her hands in her lap with a calm that nearly fooled the former army general. However, he was not a young boy, and he was much wiser than he may have looked.
"Ah, but you are wrong!" Iroh solidly maintained, pointing a wrinkled, pudgy finger in her direction. "You both are in your early twenties, yes, but you have everything you need to care for a child. Your children would not want for anything in this palace. Would you not like to share that with another human being?"
The flicker across Zuko's face told Iroh that the young Fire Lord was recalling his own childhood in the very same palace, and certainly not in a fond manner. His elbow was resting on the arm of the divan with his hand covering his mouth in a serious, thoughtful pose. "I have to agree with Mai," was his only response.
"I urge you to think about it, at least!" Neither of the stone-cold expressions across from him so much as flinched, and so he changed tactics. "You know," he said, folding his hands on his belly and casting his eyes down at the floor coyly, "I am not so young as I once was. My years are slipping away quickly. With my son gone..." He paused for dramatic effect. "... I no longer have any hope of becoming a grandfather. But perhaps... if I were a great-uncle..."
He peered upwards briefly to gauge his nephew's expression and could not help but be pleased with himself. The result was a cross between guilt, exasperation, and amazement. Guilt – because he knew his uncle was right, and because his uncle was the closest he had ever had to a real father. Exasperation – because he knew his uncle was right, and because he had no good argument against Iroh's statement. And amazement – because he could not believe that his uncle would really pull this card on him. Iroh shrugged meekly and assumed a docile demeanor.
"It's just that... I had always hoped to have the privilege of spoiling young ones as a loving grandfather – though," he added with a pretended quickness, displaying his open palms to the couple seated across from him, "I would just as thoroughly enjoy spoiling great-nieces and -nephews!"
Zuko nodded with more than just a small amount of cynicism. "Yeah, I'm sure you would."
Mai roughly elbowed her husband in his side. "Zuko!" she scolded.
"He's pulling our strings, Mai!"
"I'm telling you, don't fall for it!"
Iroh had heard this voice before, and he recognized it. Zuko obviously did, too, because he immediately clamped his mouth shut and slumped back in the divan, crossing his arms in front of him.
"I mean to cause no argument between you two-" Iroh began to apologize, but Mai interrupted him with a single, slender hand in the air.
"No need," she assured him. "All is well. I appreciate your sentiment, and I assure you that your concerns will be considered and addressed." Zuko groaned, earning himself another elbow in the ribs, which only served to elicit yet another groan from the tortured Fire Lord.
"Fire Lady Mai, you are most gracious," Iroh said, bowing his head respectfully. "That is all I ask."
"Yeah," Zuko huffed. "I bet – ow!"
"You know, you didn't have to agree with him so quickly," Zuko grumbled to his wife as they readied themselves for bed that evening. He picked up his pillow and began to fluff it with an intensity that made Mai wonder if he were imagining his uncle as a pillow.
"With whom?" she replied a bit too casually, shrugging her robe from her shoulders and hanging it on a post near the bed. Zuko tried not to notice the way her thin nightgown clung to her curves.
"With whom!" he scoffed, throwing his pillow back into place violently. "I'm not ready for kids, Mai."
"That's fine," she said defensively, pulling the comforter back. "I never said I was agreeing with him."
Zuko's shoulders slumped with relief. "Oh, good. So you agree with me, then."
She sat down carefully on the edge of the bed before speaking. "I didn't say that," was her flat response.
Zuko stood, frozen in place, staring at his wife's half-exposed, pale back. "You're kidding, right?"
"I am not."
He was at a loss for words and stood for a moment with his mouth flapping like a fish out of water. He was grateful that his wife faced away from him and didn't see his discomfiture, for he had a strong feeling she would only laugh at him. "But – but–" he babbled nervously. "Are you saying...?"
"I'm not saying anything." She paused for a moment and seemed to be studiously analyzing some imprecise point on the floor. "I'm just saying that we're not getting any younger."
"We're not getting that old, either!"
"You are expected to produce an heir, Zuko."
Expected. The expectations of a Fire Lord were beginning to weigh down on him, crushing him like an immense weight, like a tidal wave. Now, of course, he had no argument whatsoever against the actions which might produce an heir. Those were certainly a highlight of married life. However, raising an heir...? The very idea was terrifying. Zuko didn't like to admit to fear, especially when it involved picking at old scabs and discussing... shudder... emotions.
"I just... I don't..."
"We don't have to decide anything tonight," Mai sighed at last, releasing him from the invisible bonds that were beginning to rob him of air. "Just sleep on it."
"Sure. Yeah. Sleep. Sleep on it. I can... I can do that." He slid into bed with less grace than she did, and they both lay on their backs in silence for a long time, staring at the crimson canopy above their heads.
"It wouldn't be so bad, I think," she said at last.
"What?" He wasn't playing dumb; he had really lost himself in his thoughts so deeply that he nearly forgot she was lying next to him.
"Being parents." He didn't immediately respond, and another, shorter silence ensued. "I think..." She took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I think we would be good parents."
"Yeah," he agreed numbly, because there was nothing else he could do. "I guess."
Her cool, slim hand pressed over his under the covers, and he felt the day's anxieties begin to seep from his bones. "Everything will be all right," she promised him, and as he drifted off to sleep, he found himself wanting desperately to believe her.
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