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Midnight and Daybreak

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But it wasn't to be.

Zuko was lying in bed, his eyes wide open in the dark. He couldn't sleep. All he could think about was Lu-Ten dead, lying somewhere that wasn't here, no longer Lu-Ten but a body. The thoughts made him tremble, kept his eyes open, kept his fists clenched and to his chest. The tears were there, deep in his chest and throat, but they would not come out. He wished they would; he didn't want to hurt anymore.

His hand went to his chest, a palm pressing close to what lay beneath his shirt. He finally closed his eyes, feeling the outline of Mai's medallion and taking comfort in it. With a long sigh, he tried to sleep, thinking of her. Images of how she looked banished the nightmarish imaginings of what Lu-Ten's death had been like, and the memories of Mai's blush, her smiles and low teasing, the feel of her hands on his, lulled him into a light sleep.

He woke with a start, his heart racing. He jerked up, finding his brother standing there in the doorway, his arms crossed and a smile playing on his lips. Zuko struggled to calm down, trying to keep the adrenaline from flooding his system, but he failed miserably.

"What are you-," he began, but Kohaku cut him off.

"Dad's going to kill you." His dark eyes glinted in the dim lighting, turning his face towards Zuko's. It allowed Zuko to see just how wide and triumphant his smile was. "Seriously. He is."

Zuko shrank back, as was his usual reaction. "What are you talking about?" he said shakily, hating how his voice trembled.

"When you ran away with Mommy like the weakling you are, Azula and I went back to hear what Father was going to say." As he spoke, Kohaku edged closer, his moves lazy, as if he had all of the time in the world to kill, and he preferred to kill it by making Zuko afraid. "And you won't believe what he said."

Zuko looked up, his hand clutching at his chest closely. With narrowed eyes, he grated out, "Something about Dad being Crown Prince, right?"

Kohaku stopped in mid-stride, surprise lighting his features. "Well, well," he said. "Seems like you're not as oblivious as you'd like us all to believe, huh?"

"Shut up," Zuko snapped, his face burning.

Kohaku shook his head, the smile returning. He walked over and jumped onto Zuko's bed, sitting himself into a kneel at the foot of it. Zuko wondered what would happen if he kicked him, but stopped himself from doing it - he would probably get burned. "Trust me, little brother, you don't want me to shut up about this. I'm serious - dead serious."

Zuko raised his head. The tone of his twin's voice had changed, from a sick sing-song to something sombre, more level. He listened.

"Father began by stating the obvious - that Iroh was now useless with an abandoned campaign and a lack of an heir," Kohaku went on casually. "He told the truth: that with three - well, two - strong heirs of his own and his own youth, Father was definitely the better choice for an heir."

Zuko felt his insides writhe like rat-snakes. I don't want to hear this. I don't want to hear this...

But he listened. He had to.

"Of course, Grandfather blew up about it, making a show of being offended by it," Kohaku rolled his eyes. "But then he did a complete reversal and instead went on with, 'If you knew the pain of losing a first-born, you wouldn't be so quick to dismiss your brother.'"

"But that's you," Zuko blurted. "You're the first-born son."

"And believe me, this occurred to me," Kohaku agreed. "Especially when Father said that he would prove he could be strong - stronger - by killing his 'own son and taking the pain like a real prince should.'"

Zuko said nothing, utterly confused by this.

"And you know something? Dear old Granddaddy agreed," Kohaku laughed shortly, the sound completely void of any real mirth.

"But..." Zuko looked at his brother in the eyes, something he hated doing, but knew that - this time - he had to. "That's you!"

Kohaku grinned, the gesture making the blood in Zuko's veins turn to ice. "Dad didn't say first-born son. Nor did Azulon agree to it. Dad said 'son'. Dad is going to kill you, the worthless stain on the family. You're dead, Zuko!"

"No!" Zuko snapped, shrinking back further from his brother, as if the distance would protect him from the truth. "You're lying again! You're just doing this to hurt me!"

"Doing what to hurt you?"

Ursa's voice was sharp. Zuko looked up in sudden relief, for if she were here, nothing bad could ever happen to him. Kohaku blinked, affecting the look of the innocent. "I don't know," he lied, shrugging his shoulders.

"Yes you do," Ursa answered, closing the distance between them and grabbing onto his arm. "You and I are going to have a talk, Kohaku. Now."

Kohaku let her drag him away, but over his shoulder, he grinned at Zuko - the gesture of someone who was still winning.

Zuko curled up on himself, hugging his folded legs to his chest and squeezing his eyes shut. "He's lying," he whispered. "He always lies."

But it wasn't true. Kohaku wasn't always a liar - especially when the truth benefited him. He was telling the truth this time.

And there was nowhere to run.

Azula was the one to confessed it to Ursa. She wasn't sure why she did - just that she felt it was something that had to be said.

Ursa sat there like a doll, unmoving, her face blank. Azula blinked, honestly expecting a different reaction - rage, maybe. Wouldn't that usually be the reaction when you learn that your husband was going to kill your youngest son?

"And you're certain?" Ursa said finally, her voice flat.

"Yes," Azula admitted, looking away. She knew that if Kohaku found out, she wouldn't hear the end of it. He had been practically singing with his happiness over hearing the intense exchange in the throne room. Maybe it was the way he laughed that worried her. Or maybe it was because she, deep down, didn't really want to see Zuko die.

She didn't know.

"Thank you," Ursa said, in that same voice. "You can go now."

Azula did, bemused. She went straight to her room and curled up on her bed, wondering what would become of this. Wondering if she had been worried for nothing.

Somehow, Zuko had managed to fall asleep. Whether it had been from exhaustion or as a defence mechanism, he didn't know - all that he knew was that at one moment, he was vowing to stay awake all night, and then next, he was suddenly being shaken awake.


He struggled to open his eyes. When he managed, all he could make out was a dim outline. A flash of fear so potent filled him, rendering him frozen to the spot. Suddenly he knew that it was Ozai, and his death was here.


And suddenly, an embrace. A warm, comforting embrace. "Mom," he murmured, burrowing closer to her, his body trying to shake the fear from his system. "I thought you were..."

Ursa kissed the top of his head gently. "Stay awake, Zuko. Listen to me closely."

He did.

"I know that things have been hard for you. I know that you have always been the last in line." She said it gently, but with an honestly that touched him - after all, she had never lied to him. "Things are hard for you, and after tonight, things will be hard, still. But Zuko..."

And she pulled away, holding him up by his shoulders. She looked right into his eyes, and he stared back, transfixed. She looked so sad. Why was she so sad?

"Never forget who you are," she continued, her voice hard, her eyes flashing. "You are a prince. You are my son. You are good, and worthy, and you are not weak. No matter what happens, no matter what life throws at you, never forget what I have said to you tonight. Do you understand me?"

He did. He was wide awake now, his whole body trembling - not from fear, but from dread. "Yes," he said softly. "I understand. But Mom-,"

The sound of footsteps made them both jump. Ursa turned towards the door, an expression of pure fury gracing her face - for an instant. When she turned back to him, she was his gentle mother once more. She pulled him into a tight hug, stroking his hair gently. "Never forget, Zuko," she whispered.

She pulled away, rising to her feet and pulling the hood of her cloak over her head. With a final smile, she turned and walked out of his room.

When the door closed behind her, Zuko whispered, "Mom?" His voice was rich with his disbelief.

He sat up in bed all night, waiting for her to come back.

She never returned.

When the sun rose and painted a faded yellow pattern on his floor, Zuko slid out of his bed, his body shaking from lack of sleep. He stood in the sunbeam, letting the heat fill his body and wake him up a bit more. He felt like he was still half-asleep, the events of the previous day playing in his mind over and over again.

Slowly, he left his room as though sleepwalking, walking down the hallways in that same pace and jumping at every movement around him. He wasn't sure where he was going, or what he was doing - he just walked.

Quite suddenly, as if from nowhere, Azula veered around the corner and cut him off. He jumped back, already ready to run before registering that it was his sister. She stared at him with an expression he didn't quite understand.

"Zuzu," she said finally, "Grandpa died last night."

Zuko opened his mouth, then closed it. Somehow, he realised that he wasn't surprised. He wasn't sure why, but there was no shock in him at all.

"There's more," she added.

He nodded, unable to speak.

"Mom's gone. She disappeared last night." Azula looked at him closely, and suddenly he realised why he didn't recognise the expression on her face - it was because she looked scared. "And Dad's been in the throne room with Grandpa's men for hours, since before dawn."

"And Kohaku?" Zuko suddenly asked.

Azula frowned. "With Dad."

"Of course," he answered, shutting his eyes tight. "Of course."

"What's going on?" Azula asked softly. "What's going to happen?"

"I don't know. But..." And he swallowed hard, feeling the blood leave his face. "It's all my fault."

Azula's face suddenly went dark. She glared at him with a new kind of fury, her teeth bared and her hands clenched into fists. Without saying a word, she turned and ran away from him, her footsteps echoing long in his mind.

What he didn't know was that she wasn't angry at him, but at herself.

The funeral clothes were itchy and annoying, but Kohaku put up with it. He would put up with anything at this point.

After all, everything was lining up for him. Not the way he had thought they would - after all, Zuko was still alive, still at his side - but lining up all the same. He didn't know where Ursa was, as it was something that Ozai refused to disclose, but he figured she was probably dead with Azulon, just not granted a royal funeral.

As the Sage droned on about Azulon, Kohaku watched his family. Dressed in mourning white, his father cut an impressive figure, tall and sleek in his supposed grief. Kohaku admired his ability to put on such a mask.

At his side, Zuko was small, his face lacking any sort of mask at all. He openly wept, his face crumpled in grief, though for whom and what Kohaku wasn't quite sure. Everyone knew that Zuko had been afraid of Azulon, so the tears weren't for him. Kohaku figured that they were for Ursa - or more likely, himself.

Azula was listening to everything with an expression of anticipation. While she didn't smile, something in her stance suggested that she was waiting for something. Kohaku marvelled at her ability to inherently sense major changes and just flow with them. She was nothing like Zuko, who railed against the changes and simpered when he lost.

Finally, the Sage was getting to the point. Kohaku listened with interest, watching as the two lesser sages lit the funeral pyre. The Sage declared that in accordance to Azulon's wishes, it would be the second son, Ozai, that would take his place. Ozai knelt, and the headpiece was placed in his topknot.

Kohaku remembered that this was all Ozai's doing, coupling the funeral with his own coronation.

"It will make sure that anyone would not be allowed to question it," Ozai had said casually. "They will not have time to wonder, nor will they have time to counter it."

Only Kohaku had known in advance that Ozai would be crowned that day. Zuko jumped with shock, his eyes huge. Azula stared in surprise, but slowly, she smiled. It was a gesture that made her elder brother proud.