Who Knew That Happiness Was Only A Victory Away?
Despite his exhaustion and no matter how deep his rest, Zuko tended to wake up with a start at least four times a week, half-expecting to find himself staring at the business end of a spear or surrounded by fire. Fortunately, none of those things have happened so far and he'd woken up to the familiar walls of his chambers, to the relative safety of his palace, and secure in the knowledge that he wasn't going to take his good fortune for granted ever again.
He wasn't the youngest Fire Lord in history—that distinction went to his great to the ninth power grandfather who came to the throne at the tender age of five—but he did hold the title of being one of two Fire Lords who had the opportunity to rebuild a Fire Nation torn apart by war. He wasn't proud of it, but it was a mantle he was going to bear without complaint. Every day brought new problems he hadn't expected and he often had to make important decisions about issues that he barely knew anything about in the space of a heartbeat.
Yet, the crown he wore did not burden him and he kept his head up when he looked into the faces of men who had fought for his father and continued to work against him. His uncle no longer had to chide him to hold his temper as he observed on his own how reason and fairness moved people more than his anger or his Firebending ever could. Slowly, more councilors, more generals began to line up behind the new Fire Lord, so Zuko patiently waited until he no longer faced an opposition that outnumbered than his supporters. And he kept his head up.
The arrival of the Avatar and his Water Tribe sidekicks had earned little more than a nod from Lord Zuko. He sat and spoke with them with hardly a snide remark and devoid of the dirty looks, the sort they had gotten accustomed to during the short time they had traveled together. Even his uncle noted his lack of reaction and questioned him about it, but Zuko was unable to provide a satisfactory answer—though he, too, silently wondered where he'd found this new well of patience. It was a long time coming and would be useful, considering the Avatar and his friends planned to stay until the Spring at his uncle's invitation.
During one particular rare moment of quiet, Zuko sat in the library, alone with nothing but his thoughts and an open book, forgotten on his lap. His golden eyes reflected the flickering light of the lamp at his side, whose flames in turn mirrored the pattern that trimmed his sleeves. The palace was still at this time of night and he should have been in bed, but he wasn't tired enough to lay his head down.
The doors slid open and he sat still, his eyes tracking the newcomer. His position allowed him to see whoever entered, but remain unnoticed where he sat. The Water Tribe girl had a slightly guilty look about her as she entered the vast library, and her footsteps were quiet as she moved towards the endless shelves of books. The guilt was replaced with a greedy awe as she took it in...
Her shriek made Zuko start and his book fell to the floor with a loud bang. They stared at each other for several shocked seconds before the girl found her voice. He'd noticed she'd been slightly nervous in his presence since her arrival, which puzzled him, for in the past she'd treated him with an openness that bordered on a breach of etiquette. It had irritated him then, but in retrospect, it really hadn't been so unappealing.
"I'm sorry," she stammered, one hand on her chest. "I didn't know you were here..."
"It's alright," he said evenly, picking up his book. "You didn't have to come in here like a criminal. You're free to use this library as you wish."
"Thank you," she said, sounding a little surprised. "I hope I'm not bothering you. It's late and I know you don't get a lot of time to yourself."
"It's alright," he said with a slight bow. "I was just reading, and I can do that with other people present—given that they not speak."
Katara tilted her head to one side so she could read the spine of the book he held.
"'The Adventures of Lord Murakami'," she said. "Is it good?"
Zuko looked down at the book as if he hadn't seen it before. His lips curved down in a familiar expression as he considered her question.
"It used to be a favorite of mine when I was a child," he answered. "It just seems like foolishness now."
To his surprise, she walked up to him and took the book from his hands, opening it up to the first page. Her eyebrows arched with amusement at the first few lines, and her bright blue eyes danced when she looked back up at him.
"It might be a little foolish," she said. "But interesting."
"Feel free to borrow it then," he said, though he couldn't help thinking that she'd already done so without his permission.
"Let's make this a trade," she said. "Hold on a second."
Curious, Zuko watched her look at the shelves near them, then make her way down to the other end and up an aisle. He heard her steps stop and start several times before she broke out into a jog, and appeared behind him, two books in her hands.
"These were my favorite when I was a child," she told him. "'Snow Falling on Izu' and its sequel, 'Sun shining on Izu'."
"They sound very...romantic."
"You'll like them," she assured him, settling herself down on the seat next to his.
Trapped, Zuko followed suit and opened up the first book. He'd barely gotten past the first page when his mind began to drift, and he sat back, his legs stretched out in front of him and his eyes fixed on the dancing flames of the lamps.
It took him a moment to realize that Katara's attention was no longer on her book but on him, and he turned his head to look at her.
"Are you alright, Lord Zuko?" she asked gently. "We, Aang, Sokka, and I, noticed that you're very...different now."
"I'm fine," he said.
She tilted her head again, studying him in a way that would have earned her a sharp comment before, but he merely looked back at her now. She seemed to find something on his face that satisfied her because she smiled, the expression lighting up her face prettily.
"Yes," she said. "You really are fine."
Zuko leaned forward in his seat, and though he frowned, there was no venom on his face. His eyes were calm and his hands weren't curled into fists.
"What is it?" he asked curiously. "What's so different about me?"
"You can sit here in the dark, in the quiet, and you're not restless," Katara answered. "You can sit and listen to Aang talk about penguin sledding without making fun of him once. You can have a conversation with Sokka and not rise to him baiting you...well, maybe most of the time. And now you're here, sitting next to me, listening to me talk even though you'd come here to be alone. You're not the boy we knew anymore, Zuko. I mean, Lord Zuko.
"Happier than I've ever seen you...though that's not saying much," she said.
"I'm happy..." he repeated.
He glanced at Katara, a bemused expression on his face.
"Yeah, I guess I am," he remarked.
"How about that," she said dryly.
They exchanged a look and without another word, picked up their books, and continued to read.