He doesn't mean to say it. He doesn't mean to let it slip.
They're having a vacation on Fire Island, camping out in the main room of Zuko's family's vacation house (and it's easier to be here, now, with the bad memories slowly being outweighed by new, happier ones). There's a storm raging outside, but it just makes for soothing background noise, for a good excuse for them all to press closer together around the fire pit.
Zuko isn't sure how the conversation got started, but they're talking about embarrassing stories from their childhoods. They all have dark things in their pasts, but also good things, and sometimes it's good to remember the latter.
"Sokka," Katara is laughing, "remember that crush you had on Aki?"
Sokka tips his head back and groans dramatically. "Katara, please. My pride can't take much more of this."
"No, please, Katara, do go on." Suki says, eyes gleaming.
"So Aki was good at fishing-"
"Aki was good at everything." Sokka says, a touch dreamily.
"And Sokka, being seven, didn't know how else to express his feelings, so he decided he'd win Aki's heart by proving he was the better fisherman."
"In my defense!" Sokka yells, "Fishing is how Dad won over Mom!"
"Dad didn't accidentally jab Mom in the face with his fishing rod!"
The room howls with laughter, Sokka meekly rubbing the back of his neck.
"Aki never talked again to me after that," he admits.
"Don't worry," Suki says, "we've all had embarrassing crushes that ended horrendously."
"Yeah," Zuko laughs. "I'd say you got off pretty easy." It's a testament to how comfortable he is around everyone that it's so easy for it to slip out: "My first crush was a disaster."
"Ooh," Toph croons, "Zuko? A crush? This, I have to hear."
Zuko abruptly hears what he just said, abruptly remembers the events he'd tried so hard to forget.
"It's not that good a story." he says, trying to keep his tone light. He doesn't want to ruin their night with his shitty past.
"I bet you were real awkward, weren't you?" Katara teases. "How old were you?"
He was twelve. "Does it matter?"
"We want to paint the picture." Toph says.
"I bet you were really earnest about it." Aang says brightly.
"I was." Zuko admits quietly, starting to curl in on himself.
"Well? Did you go the whole nine yards?" Sokka asks. "Flowers? Gifts? Did you share fire flakes?"
"Yeah." he answers, even quieter. He sees Katara's smile drop.
"Did you kiss?" Toph asks, giggling.
"Guys-" Katara tries.
Zuko's hands clutch his arms, knuckles whtie. "We did."
"So what happened, then?" Suki asks.
"We got caught." Zuko whispers. He doesn't mean to elaborate, but it comes out anyway: "He and his family were banished."
The room goes quiet. Shame burns on the back of Zuko's neck.
Toph is the one to break the silence.
"What the fuck."
"Sozin outlawed it," Suki says softly. "It makes sense that Ozai would-"
"That's- what?!" Sokka yells. The group continues to clamor, but it turns to white noise in Zuko's ears.
They know. Because he just told them, like an idiot. Despite his uncle's not-so-subtle efforts to get him to accept that part of himself, Zuko knows how the rest of the world views people like him, what they do to people like him. Like his sister. His uncle is the outlier, not the norm.
He jerks to his feet and starts to leave. He has to- he can't- of course he had to ruin this, too. They'll want nothing to do with him now that-
Katara catches him by the sleeve. "Zuko." She says, "Stay." and something in her voice makes him listen.
He doesn't expect her to ask: "Are you okay?" He looks at her in shock.
"Are you okay?" she repeats, her gaze holding his steadily. He has to look away.
"That's what you're asking me?" he says in disbelief.
"Yes." Katara says, perfectly calm. "Why? What do you think I should be asking?"
"I- 'How could you hide this from everyone?' 'How could you think we wouldn't find out?' 'How could you be such a freak?'"
"Zuko," she says, and it's awful, it's torture how gentle her voice is. He doesn't deserve it. "Look at me." It's a command, but a soft one. A kind one. Zuko obeys. Katara's eyes are serious, intent, but also sad. "You are not a freak. None of us will hate you for this." She takes his hand in hers, says, "It's okay, Zuko."
"It's- but I-" he stumbles on the words.
"Dude," Sokka says, "Aki wasn't a girl. I mean, they weren't a boy, either, but they definitely weren't a girl. Besides, I've had a ton of crushes on guys."
"Pretty much every Kyoshi warrior is sapphic." Suki says. "Kyoshi herself was bi! Do you know how many girls I've kissed?"
"The air nomads thought love was a thing to be celebrated." Aang adds. "In all its forms. Most of us didn't even bother to label things. We just were."
Toph throws her hands into the air, exclaiming, "You really thought I was straight?! Me?!"
Katara squeezes his hand, her smile soft. "Zuko, no one in this room is straight. It's okay."
He wishes it were that easy. He wishes he could just forget the years of it being drilled into him that he was wrong. He wishes that Katara's words could remove the tight, horrible knot in his chest.
As it is, the best he can do is let Katara pull him into a tight, bone-crushing hug. He hugs her back, tentatively at first, then sinks against her, hands fisting in her shirt and face buried in her shoulder. More arms wrap around them: Aang, Sokka, Toph, and Suki all pile on until Zuko is surrounded. Zuko is shaking, threatening to fall apart, but his friends hold him steady, hold him together.
Somehow they end up curled up together on a pile of blankets and pillows, with Zuko at the center. Toph tells dirty jokes that she has no business knowing so many of, Suki recounts a year-long prank war her warriors raged on each other, and Aang recalls adventures from a hundred years ago from just about everywhere in the world. All of it is a welcome distraction. Soon, Zuko is the only one left awake.
He stares up at the ceiling, mind reeling. He's having trouble processing this. Whatever the hell this even is. The others are… like him. They found out the truth about him, and instead of rejecting him or treating him with disgust, they… comforted him. It doesn't feel real. There's no way that this can be real, right? There's no way that he could be this lucky, that he could have something this good in his life. It's already so unlikely that they would forgive him for his sins, that they would fold him into their little group like he belongs. How can he possibly ask for any more? And yet…
Katara shifts, lifting her head off Aang's shoulder to peer at Zuko through the dark. The fire in the center of the room has long died down, leaving only glowing embers that just barely outline her face.
"Hey," she says. "You know we all love you, right?"
"Yeah?" Zuko says, but it's weak and unconvinced and they both know it. Katara stares him down, eyes an intense, unwavering blue that reminds him of that devastating display of her waterbending prowess he saw on their trip together. Zuko swallows, his tone a little more certain when he amends, "Yeah. I know." She smiles.
"Good. Now, get that angsty look off your face and go to sleep."
Zuko can't help the small smile that spreads on his face in return. "Yeah, okay." he says. Katara nods, closing her eyes and settling back down. "Hey, Katara?" She doesn't raise her head, instead humming questioningly. "… thanks."
She reaches out, eyes still closed, and finds his hand to take in hers and squeeze. Zuko finally closes his eyes, focusing on his friends around him: Toph resting on his chest, snoring loudly, Sokka and Suki pressed against his left side and Aang and Katara pressed against his right. All of them curled towards him, seeming to rest easier for the fact that Zuko is there. And honestly? When Zuko finally falls asleep, it's the best sleep he's had in years.