Title: In His Father's Shadow Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender Author: devilinthedetails Genre: Family; Drama. Characters: Zuko; Mai; Iroh; Ozai. Summary: Zuko learns Mai is pregnant and worries about the father he will be. In His Father’s Shadow When Mai first told him that she was pregnant and expecting a child when the cherry blossoms bloomed in spring, Zuko had been delighted. Overcome by an unspeakable joy, he had lifted her and the unborn child growing in her womb up in his arms and twirled her around until he was dizzy. It was only after he had set her back down on the luxuriant flaming red carpet with golden phoenixes that it occurred to him that his excitement might have endangered his wife or his child. He had wanted so much to be a father, and he was already making a mess of things, threatening the health and safety of his wife and the child she carried with the sheer ferocity of his emotions. He always blazed too hot, burning everything and reducing all his happiness to ashes. “I didn’t harm you or the baby?” he asked worriedly, curling a concerned arm about her waist. “Of course not.” Mai swatted his arm away with an impatient palm as if it were a pesky mosquito determined to bite her flesh and suck her blood. “I don’t damage so easily, and neither does any child of mine. I’m not spun from glass, and neither is our baby.” Despite Mai’s dismissive words, the gnawing fear that he would be a terrible abusive father like his own had entered Zuko and refused to leave him. It was as if the shadow of his father hung over him, darkening his destiny and all his hopes for the future of his family. Even locked in a prison cell, his father found a way to torture and torment him. Zuko had never been able to resist pulling and fretting at scabs until they broke and bled. That was the only explanation, he was certain, for why he ventured into the dank darkness of the prison where his father was held and asked the man who had once dreamed of wielding absolute power over the entire world, “Were you happy when you learned I would be born?” For some compelling reason he couldn’t understand or articulate even to himself, Zuko had to know if his father had once felt the overwhelming joy he had when Mai had informed him that she was pregnant with their child and he had danced her through the air in unfettered ecstasy. Had his father’s joy and love once been that pure and become corrupted? Or had it never been pure or even present at all? Zuko couldn’t comprehend and found it hard to fathom why he even wanted to–why he kept trying to unravel the knotted mystery that was his father. “I suppose I was happy to think I would have an heir.” His father’s tone was hot as the searing contempt in his gaze as he glared at Zuko. “Every Fire Nation father longs for an heir to continue his legacy, but what a perpetual disappointment to me you proved to be, Zuko. You never had the stomach for cruelty that is needed for greatness. I thought you might be the one to destroy the Avatar and conquer the world by my side, but instead you chose to join the Fire Nation’s worst enemy and seek balance and peace between nations rather than the Fire Nation’s glory. You proved yourself to be a coward and a weakling who was too afraid to even seek strength.” His father finished this speech with a wad of spit lobbed at the hard, unforgiving flagstones of his prison cell, and Zuko felt the cold, iron bars between them as a gap that could never be breached no matter how he tried. Not knowing why he still bothered trying to close the chasm between himself and his hateful father, Zuko rose and said with quiet defiance, “Not as weak as you, Father. You can only rot in your cell and spout bitterness.” Trying to convince himself that this would be the last time that he sought out his father’s bitterness, Zuko left his father and as the prison doors slammed shut behind him, he decided that it was his Uncle Iroh that he needed to see. He explained this to Mai, leaving her to rule the Fire Nation alone in his absence, and flew Druk across the azure ocean and the verdant green ground of the Earth Kingdom to Ba Sing Se. Druk came to a smooth landing in courtyard of his uncle’s teashop. The teahouse smelled of jasmine, mint, and a thousand other herbs and spices Uncle Iroh no doubt blended and brewed into his fresh teas. “Why, if it isn’t my nephew visiting after too long away!” Uncle Iroh emerged from his teahouse with a white apron tied around the broad expanse of his belly, his arms spread wide in welcome. “You could always come visit me in my palace,” Zuko pointed out as he fell into his uncle’s warm embrace. “A teahouse owner can more easily escape his duties than a Fire Lord can.” “A teahouse owner doesn’t want to escape his duties.” Uncle Iroh smiled as he waved Zuko into his shop which smelled of mingled ginseng and honey. Low wooden tables lined the floor that was softened with rich carpets of emerald and fluffed pillows of jade. The low tables were filled with chatting and laughing customers in the flowing green silks of the Earth Kingdom. These guests glanced up as the Fire Lord stepped into the shop accompanied by the proprietor and then returned to munching on their dumplings and sipping their tea in dainty Earth Kingdom fashion. “Owning a teahouse is a joy, not a burden.” Beaming from ear to ear, Uncle Iroh ushered Zuko to an empty table, and Zuko sank, cross-legged, onto a pillow. Uncle Iroh placed a pot of steaming tea on the table and then settled across from Zuko. “What brings my nephew to my teahouse?” Uncle Iroh inquired once he had poured them both cups of tea scented with jasmine. “Mai is pregnant.” Zuko stared into the dark depths of his teacup. “I’m going to be a father.” “But that is wonderful news!” exclaimed Uncle Iroh, looking as if he might have enfolded Zuko in another crushing embrace if it weren’t for the table of tea separating them. His uncle would never have risked spilling tea as to him there could be no crime more horrible than spilling tea. He settled for reaching across the table and ruffling Zuko’s hair without any regard for the dignity Zuko strove to cultivate as Fire Lord. “You’re going to be a father and me a grand-uncle!” “I don’t know how to be a father.” Zuko watched the gray steam rising and dancing like memories from his teacup. He would’ve torn at his hair if his uncle hadn’t already ruined it. “What if I end up like my father even though I want so much to be different from him? What if I’m doomed to be like my father?” Could a son be doomed to live in his father’s shadow forever? Zuko wondered. Sometimes it seemed as if that was his fate. “You’re nothing like your father.” All serenity,, Uncle Iroh blew on his tea and sipped at it. “If you were anything like your father, you’d never want to be different from him, because my brother never wanted to be different than he was. By wanting to be different from your father, you prove yourself to be very different from him.” That was the sort of backward, riddle logic that Zuko had once hated hearing from his uncle but now that convoluted advice was clear to him, and he felt the teahouse’s tranquility and the mellow wisdom his uncle so effortlessly embodied settle over him like a blanket, soothing him body and soul. Warmth trickled through him like blood traveling through his veins as he followed his uncle’s lead and sipped at his tea, tasting sweet jasmine.