He found her in the forest. The fires raged around them, intermittently sending showers of sparks into the air. Occasionally, she bent water to put out the flames, but mostly the other benders smothered the flames with the endless mounds of earth around them. Azula had been tracking them for days. It had really only been a matter of time.
He pushed her up against a tree. "We always seem to be meeting like this," he said, almost smiling at her. He had been hoping to see her, hoping desperately she had survived the attack.
Katara whirled Zuko around so that now she was pressing him into the tree. She had been in training since he had last seen her. "You were saying?" she asked, eyebrow quirked.
His smile took her breath away.
"I had a birthday," he said, voice soft.
"Happy birthday," Katara murmured. She leaned in for a kiss. It was like electricity along her lips, and he tasted like honey tea. His arms snaked around her, holding her desperately. He deepened the kiss. When the kiss broke, she looked into his eyes. "Did you get everything you wished for?" she asked, voice light and teasing.
Zuko's gaze grew pained. "No. Azula killed Uncle." Katara gasped, her hand clutching his arm. Zuko pushed on ahead, just avoiding her eyes. "She used lightning when she caught us. He... He taught me how to defend myself, but wouldn't allow it. He saved me. He let himself die and he saved me. I couldn't stop it from happening and now he's gone."
Katara slid her hand to cover his heart as the arm around her waist tightened. "No, Zuko. As long as you remember him, your uncle will always be with you. He'll be right here."
Zuko blinked. "I... I never told him..."
"He knew. He must have known. You were a son to him. He loved you very much."
Zuko's other hand clutched at her arm. "She'll kill us all. She killed Uncle, she almost killed me. I... I wanted to make sure you were safe. I couldn't bear it if you were gone."
Katara touched his face with her other hand, caressing his cheek. He leaned into her touch, eyes closing. "Come with us," she said softly, feeling something like static between them. "You don't have to be alone anymore."
"I can't. They'll never accept me."
"I already do," Katara said, voice gentle.
Zuko's eyes snapped open. "But..."
"Come with us," Katara whispered. Her lips were only inches from his, and her hand was heavy over his heart. "We can help you."
"I hunted him."
"Not anymore. We can help you."
As Katara leaned in for another kiss, he almost allowed himself to believe. Zuko closed his eyes, his arms tight around her. She felt real; the memory of her lips beneath his had haunted him for months. He had wondered if he would see her again, if she had survived the battles that Azula had begun. He hadn't stopped to question his worry, because then he would have had to admit that he had long since stopped believing that he would be welcomed home.
When the kiss ended, Zuko left his arm wrapped around Katara's waist. She felt comfortable in his arms, and Zuko pressed his face against her neck. She pressed a kiss to his scar, and he shuddered in her embrace. "I don't know if I can," he whispered hoarsely against her skin.
"I'll help you," Katara murmured, "however I can."
"They won't believe me and they'll hate you. Why would you do that for me?" he asked, pulling back. He locked eyes with her, and she met his gaze unflinchingly. "Why?"
"You deserve the chance for peace," Katara murmured. "I believe in you, Zuko. You can make it through the war. I know you can. You'll be okay."
"But how can you be sure?" he asked, agitated.
Katara's hand on his chest was a calming influence, and she cupped his cheek with her other hand. "Because I believe in you," Katara said softly. Her thumb grazed the line of his jaw. "Just like I believe in Aang, Sokka and Toph. We'll get through this, all of us."
He held onto her bleakly. "I don't know if I can believe like you."
Katara pressed a kiss to his neck. "It's okay, Zuko. I'll believe for the both of us."
"I don't understand" Sokka screeched. "She was right behind you!"
"I'm blind," Toph yelled back. "All those feet confused me! Don't go yelling at me! She can take care of herself, Sokka. She's not a baby."
"She's my sister! She's my responsibility, and now she could be dead," Sokka yelled. "You were the last one with her."
"I'm not her keeper!" Toph cried, pushing Sokka away from her. "Nobody is!"
"Stop it!" Aang cried, coming between them. "This doesn't help anything. The fires are being put out. They'll find her or she'll find us. I'm sure she's okay. We're not losing anyone, not ever." Aang was quiet and calm, his voice like steel.
They sat down on the charred stones. Their shoulders were slumped. Their victory against Azula's army was tainted now. If they lost Katara...
Sokka was the first to look up at the sound of crunching debris. He leapt to his feet, shouting "Katara!" at the top of his lungs.
She gave them a weary smile. "I'm sorry I'm late."
Aang raced up. "Katara! You're all right!" He grinned at her. "We were worried."
"I knew she was all right," Toph groused, arms crossed in front of her chest. "I told you all so!"
Sokka stopped short when he saw Katara's companion. His eyes narrowed at Zuko, and he reached for his boomerang. "What's he doing with you?"
"Who?" Toph asked, uncrossing her arms. There was too much debris to really tell who was coming in with Katara. Her vision was too fuzzy.
"Prince Zuko," Aang said, coming up beside Sokka.
Zuko remained standing beside Katara, arms at his sides. "Yes," he said, no inflection to his voice. "I am."
"He's here to help us," Katara said, her voice overly forceful. Zuko could tell it was covering up her anxiety. He did the same thing when he was nervous.
"How? Torching us so you can take Aang to your father?" Sokka cried. He lifted his boomerang into a threatening position. "I won't let you!"
"Sokka! Stop it!" Katara cried. She jumped in front of Zuko, arms spread. The move surprised everyone. "Don't you dare!"
"He's the enemy!" Sokka cried.
"Not anymore!" Katara yelled back, hands balled into fists.
Zuko deliberately stepped out from behind Katara and faced Aang. "I don't hide myself behind women," he said.
"Only masks," Aang said, voice sounding almost sad.
He nodded, not even contesting it. "My intentions are honorable."
Sokka snortd. "You don't know honor."
"Everything I have ever done is for honor!" Zuko cried, raising his fists at Sokka. "What do you know of this? You know nothing!"
Toph had come up behind Aang and Sokka. "I've met your uncle, I think," she said. It was so completely non sequitur that it de-escalated the anger. "He's a good man. He gave me tea and talked to me."
Zuko smiled almost sadly at Toph. "He was a good man."
Toph started, her face turned toward Zuko. He could clearly see her blind eyes now, and wondered how she moved so unerringly. "What?"
Sokka's eyes narrowed when he noted Katara's hand touching Zuko's arm. "Azula... He saved my life," Zuko said simply. The pain in his voice was palpable.
"This doesn't change the fact that you've chased us," Sokka hissed. "You can't expect us to just forget about that."
"If I had brought the Avatar to my father, my honor could be restored. I would have been put back into place to take the throne. He will not accept me now, Avatar or no Avatar. He has placed his faith in my sister Azula. My sister cannot take the throne. She cannot be allowed to rule as the Fire Lord. This war will never end if she does."
"And with you in charge?" Sokka asked, suspicious.
"I care about my country," Zuko hissed. "I cannot allow my father to continue in this dishonorable manner. I can't allow Azula to rule. They will destroy the Fire Nation." He turned to Aang and inclined his head deeply. "All I ever did was done for my people. I didn't have anything personal against you, Avatar."
"I believe that," Aang replied with a nod. "So now what?"
Zuko looked between Aang and Sokka. "Katara said you need to learn firebending."
"I do..." Aang began. He looked to Katara's hopeful face.
"Uncle was a good teacher," Zuko said softly. Sokka nearly growled at Katara's hand landing on Zuko's arm again. "He taught me many things, though I could not master them all." Zuko looked into Aang's eyes. "But I know how to do the techniques, even if I haven't mastered them myself yet."
"You mean her blue fire?" Aang asked eagerly.
Zuko nodded at him grimly. "And lightning. My uncle taught me... He invented a means to survive it," Zuko finished, his voice catching at the mention of his uncle. In his mind's eye, he could feel his uncle's body falling over him, the sound of Azula's cruel laughter filling his ears. He willing himself to remain impassive, to keep from displaying weakness. The others didn't know him, and Sokka would definitely love to exploit any disadvantage he could get. Zuko didn't blame him; he would have done the same if their positions were reversed.
Katara's hand remained on Zuko's arm. "He's willing to help us," she said. "We could use the help," she reminded them.
"No, we d–"
"Can't possibly refuse," Aang said, cutting off Sokka. He sent a glare in Sokka's direction. "We could use a gifted firebender."
"Now we've got one of each," Toph said, voice cheerful. "I think that's pretty good."
Outvoted, Sokka stomped back to their burned-out campsite. The others could hear him grumbling to himself. He kicked at a stone, sending a flurry of ash into the air. He tried to hold his breath, but he wound up coughing from the ash cloud.
"I'm sorry," Katara murmured.
Zuko shook his head. "If you all accepted me without any questions, I'd think you were all stupid or setting a trap."
"Well, we'll have to go," Toph said, voice brisk. "That army will come back looking for us. Is there anything you have to go back for?"
Katara's hand slid down Zuko's arm. He caught her hand in his, and he found himself thinking of the empty caves he had hidden in since Uncle Iroh's death. He had lost every last possession of his uncle's, but it no longer hurt as much. "I don't have anything else."
Aang grinned. "All right then. Let's go back to Appa. We'll put some distance between us and start to train."
"Appa?" Zuko asked, confused.
"You'll see," Aang chirped happily, running up ahead.
Zuko watched Toph run back to where Sokka had stomped off to. He then turned to Katara. "Are you sure this will be all right?" he asked nervously.
She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. "You'll be fine. I'll be with you."
He looked at her. "If you think so."
Katara's smile looked even brighter. "I do."
The stone that had rolled over Zuko's heart at Iroh's death seemed to be lifting. Zuko touched Katara's cheek. "You're covered in ashes."
She squeezed his hand and looked around their abandoned campsite. "Everything's covered in ashes. They're flying around like summer flies." She stepped forward. Her gaze was intense, but it didn't frighten Zuko at all. If anything, he was entranced by it. He had never seen her look that way before. "But you know what happens with ashes?"
"It becomes earth." Katara pointed at the ground, her smile a gentle one. "It allows life to grow again. It's not the ending of things, but the beginning."
"You're always hopeful, aren't you?" Zuko asked, amazed.
She grinned at him, and his heart squeezed almost painfully at the sight of it. "I try." She tugged o his hand almost playfully. "Come on, let's go. You'll see. Things will work themselves out."
Zuko allowed himself to be pulled toward the rest of the group. He allowed them to point to the flying bison, who he discovered was Appa. He allowed the flying lemur to climb on top of his head and touch his scar. He allowed Aang to ask about his uncle, and he even answered. He almost felt as if he could feel again, as though the numbness that had settled into him after Iroh's death was gone. He was one of them now, truly a traitor against his father. But as he mulled it over, he couldn't regret a thing. He sat across from Katara on Appa's back, the wind whipping past his scarred face. She smiled at him, and his heart warmed immediately. Even Sokka's glare seemed almost comfortable.
No, he couldn't regret a thing.