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Zuko sighed as he reached up to undo his royal topknot. He laid his crown on the dark wood dresser in front of him and let his brown hair drop down into his eyes. It was growing long again, the bangs brushing the bridge of his nose and the back creeping down his neck. He didn't mind. He thought it looked better; it hid most of his scar, at least.
Zuko lifted his formal mantle over his head and placed it next to the crown, relaxing as the big ornament's weight left his shoulders, and then he undid the clasps of his outer robes and pulled his arms from the voluminous sleeves. He hung the garment in its place and went to the window beside his bed.
Outside, the sun had already gone down, the only light left on the horizon a pale blue glow. The city activity was slowing down for the night; only a few buildings still had their lights on, and just a handful of people still walked the streets. Zuko leaned out the window and looked to either side, where the massive palace walls stretched many lengths in both directions. He could see one of the guard towers from his position, and was comforted by the sight of the five soldiers standing alert there.
He straightened and closed the red and gold shutters. Zuko sighed. It was late; he should try and sleep. In a random moment of immaturity Zuko jumped and flopped facedown onto his four-poster bed. Then he rolled over, extinguished his lamp with a wave of his hand, and went to sleep.
At exactly five minutes until midnight that night, the Fire Nation Royal Palace received an unexpected visitor.
The black-clothed figure silently leaped from windowsill to loose brick to decorative dragon statue, making his way up the wall of the palace, staying out of the guard tower's line of sight. The person climbed steadily up the face of the wall, sure of his hand and footholds save for the one fearful instance when a brick came loose and nearly sent him tumbling to his doom.
As the midnight bell rang from the palace tower, the mysterious figure reached the Fire Lord's window and silently eased open the shutters. With feather-light steps, the person climbed into the room and closed the shutters once more, plunging Zuko's quarters into complete darkness. Without a sound, he crept up next to the bed and closed one gloved hand around the hilt of the knife at his belt, drawing it free with only a slight metallic scrape.
That small noise was what alerted Zuko to the person's unwanted presence. He snapped awake and rolled from his bed just as the dark figure's knife whistled toward his neck.
The blade only struck mattress.
Zuko found his footing on the far side of his bed, across from the black-clad intruder, and lit his bedside lamp with a jet of flame from his fingers. Its warm yellow light illuminated the room and flashed along the person's thin blade. "Who are you?" Zuko demanded.
In response, the intruder flipped over the bed and brought his leg down for a kick at Zuko's head.
The Fire Lord hopped out of the way and sent a ball of flame at his attacker, who twisted to the side and retaliated with a punch to the gut. The air rushed out of Zuko's lungs and he dropped to one knee, gasping helplessly. The dark-clothed man took the opportunity to thrust his knife at Zuko's chest. Zuko caught the man's wrist inches from striking him and wrenched him to the floor. Pinning the intruder's arm behind his back, Zuko ignited a flame in his palm and held it threateningly near the person's face. "Who sent you?"
The person stayed silent, but his quick, shallow breaths betrayed his fear. Zuko flipped the man onto his back and reached to pull off the black cloth over his face. Before he could, though, the intruder thrust out his hand to extinguish the lamp.
In the sudden blackness, he struck out wildly at Zuko, catching him in the jaw, and scrambled for the window while the Fire Lord was reeling back. "Stop!" Zuko shouted, but the shutters banged open and his would-be assassin was gone.
Zuko sat back on his heels with a sigh. There hadn't been an attempt on his life for quite a while, but the peace couldn't last forever, he figured.
There was no chance he would fall back to sleep now, so Zuko pushed himself up, closed the shutters, and moved to the door.
There was someone he had to talk to, someone who could offer him the comfort he needed. He opened the door and padded barefoot down the hall, noting that his bodyguards were nowhere in sight. Where had they gone? Had the assassin brought some accomplices with him and somehow subdued them? His guards wouldn't have left him under normal circumstances. They were his most trusted warriors, who'd stood loyal to him since his first day as Fire Lord.
Zuko shook off the dark feeling that plagued him and turned down the side corridor that led to the highest-ranking officials' quarters, then on to his mother's room.
He knocked softly on the door, and within a minute it opened a crack. Ursa's shadowed face appeared through the opening. She took in his frazzled and barefoot appearance in a single glance. "Zuko?" she whispered, ignoring all formalities. She pulled open the door, and the torchlight from the hall illuminated her concerned visage. "What's happened?"
Zuko lowered his gaze to the floor. "I—someone broke into my quarters. An assassin."
Ursa covered her mouth with a hand. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine. Can I come in?"
She held the door open wider for him. "Yes, of course. Sit down. Tell me what happened. I think I'll be having a stern discussion with your new bodyguards in the morning."
Zuko stepped past her and took a seat on the edge of her bed. Ursa peered cautiously down the hall, then closed the door and came over to join him. "Now, tell me what happened. From the beginning," she said, taking his hand in both of hers.
Zuko took a deep breath. Just being in his mother's presence made him feel more secure, as if he were still a young child cradled in her arms. He let out his breath and began, "It was midnight. A man in black climbed in through the window..."
Zuko awoke to a bright, pale light shining in his eyes. He groggily lifted a hand to shield his face, blinking in the sudden light until his eyes adjusted. "Good morning, Zuko." The sound of his mother's voice confused him. He didn't remember falling asleep. He sat up and looked around.
Ursa stood at the window, having just pushed open the red and gold shutters. He was sitting on her luxurious bed, and on the lounge across from him he saw a second pillow and blanket. "You slept over there?" he inquired.
Ursa replied, "Well, yes."
"Why didn't you wake me? I could've gone back to my own quarters."
"You're my son, Zuko. And the Fire Lord. What's mine is yours." She gave him a teasing wink, "And you looked more peaceful than you've been in a long time. I didn't want to disturb you."
Zuko rubbed a hand across his face, then looked over at her and smiled. "Thank you."
Ursa simply smiled back. Zuko stood and straightened his tunic, then bowed to her respectfully. It was the act of a humble son, not a Fire Lord. "I have to get back to my duties. Thank you again, mother," he said, and then left the room.
He closed the door with a sigh and started down the hall, a ghost of a smile still on his lips.
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