The palace garden was a place where Zuko had often found himself deep in thought. It’s morning breeze that brushed past the ferns and other plant life gave the place a beautiful feeling of serenity. Bright orange catfish often came out from the depths of the pond in the early hours of the day as if to greet Zuko, just waking up from their night’s slumber and expecting a hearty breakfast of leftover bread crumbs. The young fire lord had always fed the fish in the morning, it seemed they were his only friends.
A fire lord, with no friends other than a few fish. How pathetic. he thought to himself.
This morning things seemed to be troubling Zuko. The war had finally ended, with him along side the Avatar Aang and his friends. He had gotten all that he had ever wanted after that, honor, pride, and the throne of the Fire Nation; yet, he was not happy. Zuko felt desperately lonely, and he knew exactly why. He just never wanted to admit it. The truth was something that could ruin his life as the fire lord.
Yet, Zuko wasn’t happy as the fire lord anyway. Perhaps he should reveal the truth and be done with it? Could he be truly happy then, as a reject to the Fire Nation once more? Life seemed much too complicated to Zuko, and he found himself hating almost every moment of it.
Zuko sat in the moist grass, only wearing his royal maroon pajama bottoms. He had often worn these all of the time, too distraught with his life to care more about his appearance. Even as the fire lord, the dark and shaggy mop of hair he had had before the war ended remained the same. He only wore a tunic when sitting at his throne, which he found dreadfully boring. The people of the Fire Nation were talking about him too, and took notice in his lackadaisical ways.
And he was like this only because of the truth. The truth that he was gay.
He felt angry all of a sudden. He was angry that a whole body of people could be so ignorant about who he was. There had been countless stories of people like himself being burned at the stake for something that they were born with. As the fire lord, could he make a change in these people, or would they just get rid of him as well? He had no solution for his problem that seemed to make him happy. He could either hide forever, or risk death for freedom.
Zuko had tried changing the way he was before, with Mai. And yes, Zuko truly had feelings for her, but just not in an intimate or romantic way. That relationship seemed to end quickly enough anyway, but it was enough to prove that he could not fake his way through life. He needed a man.
Just as Zuko was wiping his hand across his tearing eyes, he heard foot steps coming from the rest of the palace, which surrounded the garden as if it were the frame of a painting. There were four entrances to the garden from the palace, each one facing a different direction. The footsteps seemed to come from the southern entrance, which led to the castle’s entrance. It must be one of the guards. They should know that I don’t want to be bothered while in the garden. Zuko fumed to himself. The guard became visible under the doorway of the southern entrance.
“Fire Lord Zuko, you have visitors,” the man proclaimed, slightly nervous. He knew that Zuko did not accept visitors this early in the morning.
Zuko turned to face the guard, obviously showing discontent. “You know I don’t want people here right now, leave.”
“But sir, it is the Avatar and his friends, they say it is very urgent.” What could be so urgent? The war had just ended, and yet there was more to deal with already? Zuko shook his head in annoyance.
“Alright, bring them in,” he stated with a hint of venom on his tongue. The guard simply nodded in response and swiftly turned around, the breeze ruffling the jet black robes underneath his armored plate. In several minutes, the visitors arrived.
First to enter was the earth bender Toph. She was a small, innocent-looking girl, mostly due to her blinded eyes; yet Zuko knew that she was a fearsome fighter, and could sense vibrations through the earth to make up for her blindness. Toph didn’t care much about her appearance, and was dressed in the same old forest green robes, probably still dirty from weeks ago. Her feet were bare as well, and black strands of hair fell from her headband. The earth bender stepped to the side once she reached the dewy grass, turning her head to the right to hack a wad of spit into the grass. Zuko flinched as she did so.
Next came Sokka, the clumsy and immature “warrior”. He was adorned in a simple pair of black shorts along with a white and gold tunic. His hair was the same as ever: shaved at the sides and tied into a pony tail at the back. The guards had taken his sword from him when he entered, as if Sokka could harm Zuko in any way. Zuko rolled his eyes as Sokka tripped over his own footing when he stepped to the side of the entrance, finding himself awkwardly closer to Toph than normal.
Then came Katara, probably the most mature of their group. Her face seemed tense and streaked with worry. Strands of brunette hair fell across her face in an unkempt mess, covering most of her furrowed brow. Today she wore a simple set of blue and white robes, like she usually wore when Zuko had seen her while traveling. The girl silently stepped to the right as well, lining up next to the rest of them. The three turned to face the entrance, awaiting the Avatar.
Finally, he came, dressed in the same air bender styled outfit. His bald scalp revealed the bright blue arrow on his head, which seemed distorted due to his scrunched up face. He too seemed upset, whatever he had to tell Zuko, it didn’t seem to be anything good. Momo, the white, winged lemur, perched upon the tip of Aang’s staff that hung across his back. He reached the garden, crossed his arms, and greeted Zuko.
“Hi Zuko,” the Avatar stated plainly.
Zuko swung his head to the side to flick his messy black hair out of his face before simply replying. “What?”
“People seem to be upset with you Zuko,” Katara spat out, stepping forward and fiddling with her fingers as she did so. She seemed sorry to say this too him, and Zuko sensed a hint of fear in her voice. Why was she scared? Zuko had been friends with them before the war ended, but now it seemed as if “Team Avatar” could not speak to him in a friendly manner. The fire lord nodded his head for her to continue.
“The people of Ba Sing Se and many other towns and villages of the earth kingdom… well… they are worried about you. They don’t trust you as the fire lord, considering what your father did to them, and fear that you’re going to start up a war again.”
Zuko said nothing. He thought it ridiculous for them to expect such actions from him, as he had been abandoned by his father a long, long time ago! His face began to redden and distort itself as Katara continued.
“The fire nation’s people look upon your current state as unfit for a king as well. Everyone’s heard stories of your lazy and miserable manner, and they wonder if you will be the reason for the fire nation’s downfall.”
Zuko had heard that they were worried about his lack of workmanship, but he didn’t know they suspected him of being able to cause the downfall of the fire nation. The fire lord expected to be left in peace for many years before any conflict sparked up again. The previous war seemed to leave him drained. He knew why he felt miserable though, and his mind returned to the same thought before: I’m gay. And because of his depression, Zuko felt too bothered to deal with the state of the fire nation.
“Well?” Katara begged. “What are you going to do?”
“What do you expect from me?” Zuko murmured.
“Well can’t you take some responsibility? Do something to make these people look at you like they should look upon the fire lord! Remove the remaining troops from the earth kingdom that you were too lazy to ship back here! I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why the earth nation suspects you of starting another war.” Katara seemed angry now, she was waving her arms violently and stepping forward more and more.
Zuko turned his head back to face the pond. The catfish had left once the group had came into the garden, leaving soggy bread crumbs floating at the surface. He didn’t want to deal with this right now, he didn’t want to deal with this ever. Zuko began to wonder why he ever wanted this in the first place.
“I’ll deal with it,” he mumbled, although he had no intention to make that his main priority. “But please, don’t feel the need to watch over my every move. I’m capable of being the fire lord my—“ Zuko stopped. Another interruption? he thought as he groaned. A brown feathered messenger hawk entered the garden squawking rather loudly, Zuko just wanted his quiet time again.
“It’s a message from Smellerbee…” Aang said after he slipped the message from the rope around the bird’s leg. “Jet… he woke up? I thought he was dead!” The avatar smiled widely, showing the letter to Katara and Sokka. The three of them began bouncing excitedly, obviously Jet was a friend of theirs.
“Damn blindness,” Toph murmured as she kicked a field mouse that scurried it’s way past her foot.
“It says here that he’s struggling though, we should go see him, just in case. Just in case… well, you know,” the Avatar said as he folded the letter up. So Jet, the boy from the ferry ride to Ba Sing Se, who had tried to turn Zuko in as a fire bender and ruin his life, who was also a friend of the Avatar, had survived? Despite what the play on Ember Island had told? When Zuko had heard that Jet died he felt somewhat sorry for him. Jet was a loner just like Zuko was, and had spent all of his life just trying to get by. Despite what Jet had tried to do to Zuko, he admired him for his courage in doing so.
“Hey Zuko, maybe you should come along, huh? Then you can talk to the people of Ba Sing Se as well and let them know that you don’t want to start another war.” The fire lord looked up to see that Katara was speaking to him. He supposed he could do that, it would give him something to do at least.
“Alright, Katara. I’ll come.”
And with that, they left. The five of them flew across the oceans upon Appa’s back, which took much too long for Zuko. He felt cramped the entire time and eventually became crankier and more upset than he had been at the palace. They stopped in various places across the Earth Kingdom, giving Zuko some time to have his own personal space again, but he was always reluctant when he got back onto Appa’s back. Then, they finally reached the walls of Ba Sing Se.