The birth of Ursa's first child went on for days. By the third evening, the royal physician came to inform Fire Lord Azulon that mother and child would most likely die during the night.
Azulon didn't head for the birthing chamber. Men weren't allowed in there anyway, and he would have nothing to do except sit around and wait for Iroh's wife to come out with the grim news. It seemed Ozai had given the guards the slip and somehow managed to sneak out of the royal compound entirely. Azulon couldn't bring himself to blame the boy entirely. He didn't want his last memories of Ursa to be screaming and crying from behind a closed door, either.
He took himself to the palace shrine instead. It was a good place for a vigil, quiet, gently lit by only one small eternal flame. Spiritual business had never been Azulon's forte, but he would be unable to find rest that night. He figured he might as well spend it in prayer for the grandchild he would never meet. He rang the shrine bell, murmured a greeting to Agni's fearsome likeness, and settled down to meditate on the eastward platform where every newborn royal child was presented to the sun.
At some point during the night, weariness and old age got the better of him. He'd never been all that good at meditating anyway.
When he awoke the instant before Agni's disk rose above the edge of the Caldera, like on every normal morning, he was still in the same slumped seating position he'd dozed off in. He ached from the tips of his fingers to the small of his back and couldn't even feel his legs, but his stiff robes had managed to hold his body up.
Someone was calling his name from very close by.
The blurry haze he used to associate only with sleep had become a permanent veil over his eyes a few years ago, but he still tried to blink it away out of pure reflex before he managed to focus somewhat on the person next to him. The thought of an assassin didn't even cross his mind; Azulon spent hours every day with this unmistakable warm and broad-shouldered presence at his right side.
"Iroh," he croaked, coughing to clear his throat.
"Good morning, father."
Iroh didn't sound like a grieving man at all. Azulon turned to really look at him, ignoring the sharp pains in his legs and back. Something wrapped in a bright red blanket lay cradled in Iroh's arms -a moving something. For one instant, Azulon thought he was still asleep and merely remembering instead of seeing. He had been here before. He had sat here, in this place, on a morning exactly like this one, exactly this warm, bathed in the exact same golden light, with Iroh beside him. There had been that exact same blanket, and that exact same expression of strangely tender joy on his firstborn's face.
He had to look more closely at the red bundle itself to confirm that this was indeed a different day. Newborns all looked identical, but there had been only a few wisps of dark hair on Lu Ten's crown. This child had a full head of black fuzz. It stuck up in all directions and refused to lie flat when Iroh's fingers stroked it.
Azulon's eyes widened. "Is that Ursa's child?"
Iroh nodded. "A fine boy. He was born an hour ago."
He adjusted the bundle in his arms so that Azulon had a better view of the child. It was a healthy, ruddy pink, and its limbs twitched irritably as Iroh drew the blanket away from its body.
"I'm sorry for not waking you earlier, father,” Iroh continued. “The physician wanted to examine him to make sure the long delivery didn't harm him. She isn't sure what the problem was, except that Ursa's hips may not be fully grown and our new prince here is quite big."
The child lived. Ursa? "And how is your sister?"
"Amazingly well, under the circumstances. A good long rest and much good food will set her right. Wei Wen is keeping an eye on her." The child made a gurgling sound and began to kick harder. Iroh returned the blanket to its previous position and rubbed the child's cheek with one finger.
"Shhh. I do hope you won't be this much trouble every day of your life, little nephew."
An uncle really shouldn't be the one carrying the child into its sun blessing. Azulon frowned.
"Why are you here? Why is Ozai not presenting his child to Agni?"
Iroh shrugged. "I've sent half of the guards out into the city by now, but we haven't found him yet. Perhaps we could set off the fireworks early? That might lure him back." He sounded even less interested in his brother than usual, which was quite a feat.
"That fool," Azulon snapped. Ozai had a truly remarkable talent for finding new ways to be a disappointment. What kind of man hared off to Agni knew where while his wife lay dying in childbirth?
Another shrug. "He's only sixteen, father. He was terrified. Lo told him to his face that he was going to lose Ursa."
Iroh hadn't looked at Azulon since his first greeting. He addressed all his replies to the child instead, and seemed completely wrapped up in rubbing the pads of his fingers over its palms and watching the tiny fingers curl. It had to be a mere reflex, but it did look as if the child was trying to hold on.
"Ozai loves her," Iroh went on, speaking as if he were reciting from a story scroll. "The thought of her coming to harm while he was helpless to do anything about it was just too much for him. You know she'd be the same way if he were the one suffering. They can't be completely rational around each other, like Wei Wen and I."
Azulon snorted. "He'd better learn to keep his head in a crisis, if he really wants to become more than a living piece of palace decoration. Why must he be so strange? You were never this much trouble."
Iroh flashed him a grin. "But I'm perfect."
"And so modest," Azulon said. He leaned one hand on the smooth, warm wood of the floor and settled into a more comfortable position on his seating cushion. Iroh's good cheer was infectious, the dawn breaking in front of them was as stunning as always, and a soft breeze was already picking up to blow away the troubles of the night. He could feel the knots of tension in his back and shoulders unravel.
He had not wanted to lose Ursa. She was such a charming, interesting girl, with her odd opinions and quick smiles and love of pai sho. Far better company than Iroh's Wei Wen, who seemed to dislike Azulon for no reason he could think of.
And to lose a grandchild on top of Ursa would have been little less than a disaster. Lu Ten was only one young boy. If an adult prince or princess was stupid enough to let an assassin get the drop on them, they deserved what they got, but hapless children would cheerfully eat a poisoned tart or try to pet a scorpion-kitten left on their beds. Azulon had been the youngest of four brothers and sisters.
But Ursa was alive, and her child looked strong, well-formed and decently chubby. The girl had done well. For the first time in many days, Azulon smiled.
He turned his face to the child and made an effort to maintain the benevolent expression. The child was looking at him instead of Iroh, now. It clearly didn't like what it was seeing. The little face began to screw itself up in a miniature mask of extreme displeasure, the corners of its little mouth curling down and its nostrils widening. It was such a perfect mimicry of Ursa's most ferocious pout that Azulon couldn't hold back a snort of laughter.
Iroh seemed to recognize the expression as well. He guffawed in the child's outraged face. "Oh, no. Please don't! One of her is enough."
Azulon looked away from the child. He was a little surprised to notice that he was definitely feeling put out. What right did that creature have to judge his appearance? It was true, he was an old and ugly man, but the little thing was hardly more handsome with its sour and wrinkled face.
"I stay up all night to pray for his spirit, and he thanks me with irreverence. How promising," he sighed.
Iroh continued to chuckle, but the child was fussing now, emitting little mewls that even Azulon could recognize as the beginnings of a good cry.
"I believe my nephew has had enough excitement, father. Let us say the blessings so we can all go to bed."
He began to sit up, then shot a quick glance at Azulon. "Oh. Forgive me. Would you prefer to say the blessings?"
If neither of a newborn's parents were available, the duty of saying the sun blessings fell to the head of the family. Iroh had obviously forgotten that in his haze of avuncular bliss. He looked almost giddy at the chance to perform this ceremony again.
Of course, Iroh loved children and had always wanted more of his own. But Wei Wen hadn't conceived until their marriage was almost a decade old, and even then only the once. It was a shame. Of course Iroh could have had more offspring if he'd taken a concubine during the long wait for Lu Ten. Azulon had told him to at least eight times, but he'd always found ways to weasel out of it.
Azulon shook his head. That issue was irrelevant now. And while he was indeed the head of this family and tradition was important, he could grant Iroh this small pleasure. Agni was hardly likely to be offended.
"You do it. He seems to prefer you, and I'm so tired I may forget the words halfway through."
Iroh smiled and barely inclined his head before he went back to to bothering the defenseless child in his arms, completely unconcerned with the fact that it had clearly had enough of being prodded and tickled. It opened its toothless mouth and began to wail in earnest. The sound pierced the quiet air of the shrine with shocking loudness, and Azulon winced. Ah, yes. He knew there was a reason why he preferred to postpone interaction with his descendants until they could speak in full sentences.
Iroh laughed and made shushing noises, but they only seemed to encourage the child. "You have excellent lungs, my nephew. I should take you along on my next campaign to the Earth Kingdom and let you do my bellowing for me. You will be the great General Zuko. What do you say?"
Azulon would never see the logic behind Iroh's habit of talking to infants and animals as if they could understand him. He himself had tried it only once, when Iroh was an infant, and promptly been vomited upon.
"Zuko? Ozai mentioned that he wanted to name the child Azul. Mentioned it repeatedly." Really, he wouldn't mind Ozai's attempts at ingratiating himself so much if he could just do it with a little more subtlety. Perhaps he'd improve with age.
Iroh sighed, looking truly tired all of a sudden. "Ursa never liked the sound of it, and she made me swear on Lu Ten's head just now that I'd name the child after her favorite uncle. I believe she's trying to do as many irreversible things as possible that Ozai will hate before he comes back. She's not happy with him at the moment."
He patted the crying child's belly as if to commiserate with its ill luck in parents. "Do you wish to postpone the ceremony to tomorrow so they can discuss it, father? I can't say the blessings without a name."
Agni's disk was almost halfway visible over the edge of the Caldera now, dissolving the pink and orange tendrils of dawn with its blinding white. There was definitely no more time to find Ozai before the sun broke free entirely, and it would hardly do to deny the child a proper and early blessing just because his father was having a sulk.
"No. Let this be a lesson to Ozai. If he leaves others to do his work, he doesn't get to complain about how they do it." Azulon got to his feet, with considerable difficulty and a great deal of what could safely be called agony after a whole night of sitting up, but that was hardly new. He moved out of the way so that Iroh would have enough room to kneel in the center of the platform and present the child to Agni properly.
"Zuko is an old and noble name. It will do. We will use the first character of "Sozin" for the "Zu". Would Ursa object to that?"
Not that she had any real say in the matter, of course. Azulon could name his grandchildren after the hogpuppies Ilah used to keep as pets if he was so inclined. But Ursa was one of the very few people Azulon never enjoyed using his full authority on -whom he preferred to see happy and content. She wasn't afraid to talk back at him if he made a decision she disliked, and it was so pleasant sometimes to just debate an issue with another intelligent person instead of being toadied to all the time. He didn't want her to ever feel as if she couldn't speak her mind to him anymore. If she hadn't been so young and he so old, they would probably have been friends.
"If it's you asking it, probably not. She's only angry at Ozai," Iroh said.
"Excellent. Proceed, Prince Iroh."
His firstborn son and heir smiled, and Azulon smiled back before he realized he was doing it. Iroh was another of those very few people. "Yes, My Lord."
Azulon took a moment to soak in the sun's presence and let it soothe his aching limbs before he settled into a seated position again. It was truly a good morning. Azulon had done most of his growing up without siblings, and he remembered the crushing awareness that he was alone, the only one, the single pair of shoulders on which the future of the whole nation rested. It was good that Lu Ten had acquired a cousin before he was old enough to come to the same realization. From now on he could exist as one half of Lu Ten and Zuko, and he would be stronger for it. They all would be.
Iroh had knelt down on the cushion Azulon had been occupying. He turned the child fully towards the sun, his broad palm almost engulfing the little head, and began to chant the names of its ancestors and all their titles and glorious deeds. Zuko gave another piercing shriek of outrage at "Ozai", fell into a very sudden and thoughtful silence at "Azulon", and resumed his tirade at "Sozin".
Iroh managed to keep from laughing out loud until the brief ceremony was done, but it was obviously a near thing.