Thanks for the reviews... and yes this will be a short-ish fic. Not a one-shot. Carry on!
Zuko was just twenty-three. True, men had become fathers even before their twenties, marrying as soon as they turned sixteen and rushing headfirst into the adventure of fatherhood immediately after. But Zuko liked to think of himself as an exception.
He hadn't even proposed to Mai until he was twenty-one, and they had only been married for a little over a year now. He wanted some time alone together before bringing a family into the picture. They had all of the rest of their lives to enjoy a family, but they had only now to enjoy true solitude and peace!
He drummed his fingers on the table nervously, not even bothering to appear interested in the financial report his many advisers were presenting for his information. In the back of his mind, he knew he would probably pay for this later, but his thoughts lay somewhere else entirely. He could not be expected to focus on such menial tasks when the weight of the entire world pressed down upon his shoulders... could he?
One of the older advisers - Fuzak, Zuko thought his name was - droned on and on, reading from a scroll in his low, dry voice, absolutely oblivious to the turmoil in the Fire Lord's head and heart. In the dark recesses of his mind, Zuko found himself wishing the man had an off button.
If he were totally, completely, one hundred percent honest with himself... he was absolutely terrified.
How could he know how to be a good father when his own had been such a cruel and overbearing tyrant? What would prevent him from turning into the very person he hated, and yet loved - in his own, odd way?
He shuddered involuntarily at the thought. Mai was capable of keeping him grounded and sane, for the most part. Yet his mother was such a loving, caring, sensitive person... Why had even she not been able to soften his father's calloused heart? Fear crept up in his throat like sour bile, cutting off his air supply.
"This meeting is adjourned," he interrupted abruptly, slamming his flat palm on the table a bit harder than he had intended. His advisers glanced up at him in solemn shock, unable to form any sort of intelligible response to the young Fire Lord's sudden - and quite out of character - outburst. "We'll resume tomorrow," he added quickly before getting to his feet and charging out of the room. Perhaps he owed them an explanation for his rude behavior. Perhaps he didn't. He knew, however, if he had stayed in that room any longer, the walls would have kept closing in, and eventually he would have been swallowed up by his own trepidation and apprehension.
She was not at all surprised to find him seated casually in front of the duck pond, one leg curled beneath him with his elbow resting on his other bent knee. She knew he must have heard or sensed her approach, though he said nothing at all until she gracefully knelt down next to him.
"I don't think I can do it," he choked out hoarsely.
"Do what?" she prompted softly, though she already knew the answer.
"I can't be a father, Mai."
She tilted her head to the side and peered up at him, keeping her expression calm and neutral. "Why do you believe that, Zuko?"
"I..." He frowned in hesitation. She had a fairly good idea of what he might have to say, but she intended to let him work it out for himself. Whether he realized it or not, the strength of their marriage was based on open communication - communication which she usually provoked with her probing, pointed questions and subtle encouragement.
He sighed deeply and let his head hang. "I don't want to become my father," he confessed at last.
She allowed a brief pause before answering him. "What makes you think you will be like him?"
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," he quoted automatically, continuing to avoid her eyes.
"Zuko." She saw the flicker in his eyes and knew she had his full attention. "You have more than proven that you are a much more gracious and fairer leader than your father was. Your people adore you. You opened their eyes to the monster the Fire nation had become, and you helped them heal."
Zuko had never been very good at taking comments, and this time was no different. "Maybe," he blew her off a bit too casually.
"Besides," she added carefully, "you have me to support you and center you and keep you strong."
His eyes dimmed at her words, but she didn't have long to speculate why. "I thought my mother could do the same, too," he whispered at the ground.
She didn't want to say that his mother had been a spineless woman, even if that was her first inclination. She remembered the way Ursa had bowed submissively to her husband and let him have his way in whatever matter he chose to pursue. She had run away and left Zuko behind, but she had also saved his life - and risked hers in the process. And yet despite that bravery and strength, she had been unable to quench the fire that burned so violently inside Ozai. She chose her next words with great caution.
"Your mother did the best she could with the situation at hand," she began. "She was full of love and caring, but those are not qualities that can tame the sort of man your father was."
"And what qualities might?" he demanded tersely.
"Boldness. Persistence. Stubbornness."
"And these are qualities you possess, I take it."
"Yes," she agreed without hesitation. She watched him mull it over and consider her words for a brief moment, turning it over and over in his mind. "Especially stubbornness," she added with a frankness that sent his eyes darting in her direction.
His stone cold demeanor broke into a weak smile at her attempt to lighten the conversation. "Stubbornness that could match mine?"
"Stubbornness that could best yours," she clarified with the traces of a smile tugging at the corners of her own lips.
He rolled his head from side to side, loosening the muscles in his shoulders as she had seen him do all too often. "I suppose you may be right."
"And you're surprised?" she said casually, pretending to be very interested in her fingernails.
A strong arm tugged her into his lap, and she found herself staring up into his golden eyes. "I love you," he said, his voice thick with sincerity. Her breath caught in her throat, but before she could respond, he silenced her with a deep, meaningful kiss. When they separated, a strange smile had stretched itself across his features. "What say we go work on making that baby right now."
Mai found that she had no good argument against that proposition.
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