“Are you okay?”
While his head does feel a little bit weird, he's pretty sure he knelt down only a few seconds before. Katara must have kept an eye on him; but he's not surprised she did — she is kind of the mother in this group. He is also not surprised that Katara thought to watch him. She seemed to be able to read him pretty well, since she forgave him.
He decides to be honest. She would be able to tell if he lied.
“No, I'm not okay.”, he tells her and then can't stop speaking. She makes people do that; he noticed it with the other members of the group too. “My uncle hates me, I know it. He loved me and supported me in every way he could. And I still turned against him. How can I even face him?”
But if Zuko's honest with himself: this isn't all of it. Might not even be the most important bit. He's scared. He's honestly so, so scared to go into this tent and face his uncle. He doesn't want to admit, even to himself, why, but: he feels like he's thirteen again and that says everything, doesn't it?
“Zuko, you're sorry for what you did, right?”, asks Katara.
“More sorry than I've been about anything in my entire life.” And that's the truth. He is sorry for a lot of things; hurting the girl next to him and her friends on top of that list. But the disappointment in his uncle's eyes is something that haunts him.
“Then he'll forgive you. He will.”
He does not feel the same confidence as Katara. She could not imagine anything different than forgiveness, and he understands why. Her parents both loved her and her brother. But he knows something different, and he knows what can happen if you beg a parent for forgiveness — and what happens if you not receive it.
He still stands up. He has no other choice but to face his uncle and the consequences of his actions. Aang is still missing, and they need Iroh for even the tiniest chance in this war. And his uncle deserves an apology.
His hand is still shaking when he draws the flaps of the tent to the side.
“Uncle -”, he starts before he's even fully inside. He isn't sure how his uncle will react when he sees him, and he wants to try to say his piece — his apology — before his uncle has too much time to react.
A loud snore interrupts him and Zuko stops, confused for a second, even though he knows that sound by heart.
His uncle's asleep on a sleeping matt on the floor; his back to him.
Zuko thinks about leaving again and coming back later, but he honestly isn't sure if he will be brave enough to walk into here a second time. He might just go hiding and sent Toph in here to convince his uncle to fight.
But he still needs to do this, and so he steps forward and sits himself down on the floor. He can't help but smile, looking at his uncles back and hearing his loud snores.
It's just like old times; like in Ba Sing Se, when his uncle could keep him awake for nights with the ruckus he made.
It's like the calm before the storm. Zuko sits and tries to brace himself.
When his uncle moves Zuko's heart nearly stops. He is frozen, staring at his uncle stretching and yawing, awake. His head moves, and then he stills and Zuko knows that Iroh must have seen him from the corner of his eye.
He swallows and starts speaking; he had thought about what to say, while sitting here and waiting, but his head is empty.
“Uncle. I know you must have mixed feeling about seeing me.”, he says and wants to hit himself. He doesn't think his uncle's feeling are all that mixed; it's pretty clear what one would feel when confronted with their treacherous nephew. But Zuko powers on. "But I want you to know I am so, so sorry, uncle. I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did.”
He's thirteen again, kneeling on the ground, begging for forgiveness. It's not the same person he's begging to, but he swears he can feel the heat on his face; can feel flames licking at his skin and a hand that just won't let go, not matter how much he screams and how much he's hurting — Zukos tries to breathe and keep going. There is still so much he need to say to his uncle. “I don't know how to make it up to you, But I -"
And then his uncle turns so fast that Zuko nearly misses it. Hands grab his collar and Zuko start to instinctively raise his hands to protect his face -
His uncle pulls him in a hug so tight Zuko can't breathe for a moment. And then is breath stops again when he understands what's happening.
“How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me.”, he means that. He doesn't understand.
His eye throbs with phantom pain.
“I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you lost your way.”, his uncle says and Zuko needs a moment to understand what is being said. Not angry with him? After all he did?
“I did lose my way.”, is all he can seem to say. His uncle knows this, right? He was there when it happened; looked him in the eye in Ba Sing Se and must have seen a monster looking back.
His uncle moves his hands to Zukos shoulders and pushes them apart. Zuko's breath stops again. Maybe all his uncle needed was a reminder of what Zuko did — but Iroh's hands stay on his shoulders and when Zuko looks at him, he sees tears on his face and warmth in his eyes. Love even, maybe.
Zuko is abruptly aware of the wetness on his own face; he doesn't know when he started crying but it must have been a while ago.
Ozai would never cry.
“But you have found it again. And you did it by yourself. And I am so happy you found your way here.”, his Uncle sounds so proud, when he says that. And Zuko can't stop looking into his eyes; can't stop looking at the love there, directed at him.
He will not be hurt here. His uncle forgives him.
He is safe here, with the man that was more his father than anybody else ever was.
"It wasn't that hard, uncle. You have a pretty strong scent."