The saddle was crowded, and Sensu was angry that he didn't seize the chance to speak with Zuko privately when he had it. It was kind of them to escort the two former prisoners home, but also unnecessary. A trip home in an airship was not a bad option, and Zuko had a nation to rebuild.
Sensu was not stupid. The Firelord was hiding something.
The small vision appeared on the horizon just before evening the next day. Zuko was no longer nervous. He had done nothing to these people, personally. He had been nothing but helpful. They simply hated him because he was Fire Nation, but surely after all he's done in the past few months that could be overlooked! He taught the Avatar firebending and helped take down Almost-Firelord Azula. That should count for something, Zuko thought.
Back then, his mind had been at war. He was battling memories and flashbacks left and right, although part of that might have had to do with the lack of food and water. He remembered the feeling well— the feelings of confusion and inner-conflict. He had been lost, in more ways than one. But once he finally decided which side he was on, where he stood, he finally felt peace for the first time. The war within him had placed a weight on his heart and his mind, a weight that he had grown used to unconsciously. It was a weight of which he had not noticed the existence until it was suddenly lifted from him.
Appa touched down just outside of the village, near Gansu and Sensu's homestead. The two men dismounted the saddle, and Zuko followed suit.
"Are you sure you don't want us to go with you?" Aang asked.
Zuko shook his head. "No. I need to do this alone. I won't be too long, I promise," he replied. The two men shot him inquisitive looks. "After you left, Gansu, there was a bit of an... altercation. I would like to redeem myself," Zuko explained his actions. The two men nodded and started in the direction of the house.
"I've missed this place," Sensu said softly to himself.
"Dad! Sensu!" All three men looked swiftly in the direction of the barn to their left, which yielded the young boy they all knew to be Lee. His yell held so much joy and surprise that Zuko couldn't help but smile.
The boy sprinted into his brother's arms, holding on for dear life. Tears fell down his face. "You're alive! You're both alive! Mom and I thought for sure..." he trailed off, not needing to finish the sentence.
"Lee! What's going—" Sela yelled out from the front door of their house, panic in her voice. She stopped short, however, when she caught sight of her beloved husband and son, both presumed gone from the world.
The pot she held clattered to the floor, and suddenly she was running.
Zuko looked away from the tearful reunion, feeling as though he was interloping on an extremely private family moment. He tried to force the jealousy from his mind— his father would never cling to him that way— and focus on what truly mattered.
"Young man? Whoever you are, thank you so much. Thank you for bringing my family back to me, I don't know how I could ever repay you, but—" Sela began, but stopped abruptly when he turned to them and she caught sight of the atrocity that was the left side of his face. "You!" she exclaimed, shocked. Zuko greeted them with a bow and a Fire Nation salute.
"I—" Zuko never got to finish his sentence. Lee, who had previously paid Zuko no mind, gasped.
"What are you doing here?" he snarled, interrupting the young firebender.
"Hush, Lee," Sela commanded. Zuko was surprised. He hadn't expected her to be the one defending him.
"But he's Fire Nation!" Lee insisted. Sela shook her head. She didn't know much about the end of the war, but what she did know what that young, banished Prince Zuko joined forces with the Avatar, helped take down the future Firelord, and then was crowned Firelord himself. When she discovered this, she realized that she had severely misjudged the young outcast.
"The war is over. He is not our enemy," Sela insisted.
"He's on our side," Gansu told his youngest son.
"Lee... I am truly sorry for whatever I did to make you hate me so much. I understand why you are so hostile. But I am good now, I promise. I was lost before, confused, conflicted, and I didn't know what to do. Now I know where I stand, which side I am on, and I would be very happy if you could still forgive me after all of this." The speech that Zuko had spent long hours failing to write finally came to him.
Lee frowned as he looked up at the young man before him. His face had been one that appeared many times in the young boy's head since they last saw each other, and never was it in a good light. He felt betrayed— betrayed because Zuko, the young man that he had admired, was in fact Fire Nation and therefore bad. Both his father and brother were gone because of the Fire Nation, and he was quick to expel his anger at an entire nation onto the memory of Zuko.
But now his father and brother were home, and as far as he knew, it was because of Zuko. His parents and Sensu seemed to trust the firebender, and therefore Lee had a hard time remembering what made him so mad at Zuko in the first place. Zuko had gone out of his way and saved him from Gow and returned his family to him.
Could he really be so bad?
"You never did anything wrong," Lee admitted, "You saved my life."
"I only kept my identity a secret because I was a fugitive. If I had told you who I was..." Zuko trailed off. Lee nodded.
"I lied," he admitted, "I never hated you. I hated the Fire Nation, because they tore my family apart."
"Lee, I am s—"
"Don't apologize," Lee cut him off.
"He's right," Sela began, striding towards him and placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, "We should be apologizing to you."
"I don't ask for apologies, just forgiveness," Zuko replied.
"You already have forgiveness. But today isn't about your mistakes. You amended those when you switched sides. Today is about our mistakes. We should have been more accepting of you, Zuko," she admitted.
Zuko smiled, "I'm touched," he replied, "Thank you."
"Will you stay for dinner?" Lee asked. Zuko shook his head.
"I really appreciate the offer, but you just got your family back and my friends are waiting for me to return just over that hill," he declined.
"They can come," Sensu insisted, "And besides, the sun's already beginning to set. You aren't going to get very far on Appa. Just stay the night here."
"Are you sure? There are a lot of us," Zuko reminded them.
"Of course we're sure. It's the least we could do," Sela told him.
Zuko nodded, "Thank you. We appreciate it. If you will excuse me, I am going to go let them know. I'll be back, Lee, I promise. There is someone I think you might like to meet."
When Zuko returned with Appa and the group, Lee's eyes widened in a childish exitement.
"Whoa! What is that?"
"That, Lee, is the Avatar's Sky Bison," Zuko told the boy. Aang hopped down off of Appa and raised his hand in greeting.
"Hi, I'm Aang!"
"Whoa! You're really the Avatar? That's so cool! I'm Lee!"
"It's nice to meet you, Lee. Now check out... this!"
Zuko smiled, happy for more than one reason. For one, Aang finally found someone that was amused by his marbles. And, most importantly...
He was forgiven.