Prologue: Before Day of Black Sun
Zuko woke to the sound of muffled whimpers. A glance towards the window told him it was early morning, too early for even the songbirds to be up, and he groaned. It was the fourth time this week his precious sleep time had been disrupted by her but better tears than screams. For a moment, he considered staying in bed. Maybe she'd be okay…or maybe she'd set fire to the sheets like last time.
"Why," he muttered, "are these walls so damned thin?" Not bothering to throw on a shirt, he hurried to the room beside his and knocked lightly on the door. "You okay?" A muffled response. Definitely an improvement from the lightning that greeted him the other night. "I'm coming in." He pushed the door open, and his eyes fell on an eerily moonlit silhouette.
"Zuzu?" Voice raspy and hair falling in an uncharacteristic mess around the sharp angles of her face, Azula looked painfully frail without all that armour protecting her. He could barely recognise that gaunt body swallowed up by the massive bed and lush blankets. Hadn't she looked so terrifying just a month or two ago? Didn't she glow like some deadly, beautiful forest fire as she stood triumphant while the Avatar plummeted to the earth?
And yet here she sat, trembling with eyes still a little damp. She didn't look like the prodigy daughter of Ozai or like the monster everyone whispered about when they thought she couldn't hear. This was his baby sister, and he edged closer, thinking back to when she was still too young to talk properly, back to when she used to waddle after him with arms outstretched.
"Another nightmare? It's okay, I'm here now. Just go back to sleep."
"Try anyway." Zuko tucked her in before awkwardly kissing her forehead, hoping desperately it was the right thing to do. Apparently it was, and she let out a soft sigh.
"Stay until I fall asleep okay?"
"Yeah," he sat down patiently on the edge of the bed, "okay."
The next morning, Zuko tried his best to hide the disgust boiling in his stomach. Ozai sat eating calmly at the head of the table while Azula merely pushed her food around. There was no mention of last night except for the tell-tale rings rimming her eyes. It was so obvious to Zuko that she was deteriorating under all the stress. It should have been obvious to Ozai too, thought Zuko, yet their father didn't seem to notice at all. Or maybe he simply didn't care.
"You should eat."
"I'm fine." Azula replied curtly.
The Fire Lord glanced over at his children impassively. "Leave her be, Zuko. As long as she thinks she can carry out her task on an empty stomach, there is no reason for you to be concerned." Turning his head pointedly to her, he added, "And you will act as planned."
She blanched slightly, but her words came out strong and steady as ever. "Of course father."
"Be careful, Azula," her brother murmured softly.
"I'm always careful, Zuzu."