Iroh sat there for a long while after his nephew had fallen asleep against him. He did take the time to shift the young man to have him laying with his head in Iroh's lap, but otherwise didn't really move. It spoke a great deal of Zuko's exhaustion when he didn't do more than stir slightly at the moment and that Iroh was able to calm him again with a few quiet words. Once they were settled Iroh turned his gaze back out to the waters while one hand stroked through his nephew's hair in a soothing fashion. He was honest enough with himself to know that he was trying to soothe himself as much as he was Zuko.
This day had been...a lot. First, their crew was taken away, under threat of being labeled deserters, then for several horrible minutes he'd thought Zuko dead, and now it seemed Zuko had finally come to understand the truth about his father, Iroh's brother. Iroh wasn't entirely certain how he felt about that last part. A part of him was relieved that his nephew had realized the truth and would likely stop striving for the impossible, but a larger part worried about what Zuko would choose to do next. The last thing he wanted was for him to lose purpose entirely. Thinking the boy he considered his son was dead once was more than enough. He certainly didn't want to risk Zuko giving up on life due to this. Iroh had a couple of thoughts on where they could go from here, but he would wait for Zuko to wake again and see if he has any plans.
Zuko stirred awake to the feeling of someone gently shaking his shoulder and the sound of his uncle's voice calling his name. He groaned and reached to try and grab his pillow so he could pull it over his head, but winced as pain flared at the movement. Why did he hurt? With another, more pained groan he opened his eyes and blinked several times in confusion. Above him was his uncle, frowning in concern. The angle was wrong though. He wasn't standing, he seemed to be sitting overly close. And past him, he could see the night sky. Then the memories hit him and he bit back another groan, reaching you to rub his face. Lowering his hand he answered the question on his uncle's face.
"I'm fine Uncle," he said as he sat up "Just sore." Iroh looked uncertain for a moment, but smoothed his expression out and nodded.
"Alright Nephew," he replied, "I apologize for waking you, but we should probably make plans before the sun rises."
Zuko nodded slowly, turning to look out at the water, frowning in thought. His mind whirled for a while before he glanced at his uncle hesitantly. Seeing the calm, encouraging expression on his uncle's face allowed him to gather himself.
"Did you...mean what you said earlier?" he asked after a moment, voice faltering slightly.
"I very rarely say things I don't mean," his uncle asked, frowning slightly "But which instance are you referring to?"
Zuko grimaced and turned to look back at the water uncomfortably. He wanted to change subjects, but he needed to know. So, face flushing in embarrassment, he pressed on, not looking at his uncle.
"You said you couldn't lose another son," his voice was quiet and he easily heard how his uncle's breath caught slightly but made himself finish "You...consider me your son?" There was a pause and his shoulders hitched up protectively "Sorry. That was stupid. Forg-" He cut off as a gentle hand touched his shoulder firmly.
"Zuko," his uncle's voice was fond, but firm "Look at me." Zuko hesitated, but slowly did as he was told. His breath hitched slightly as he met his uncle's gentle, reassuring gaze.
Iroh's heart broke at the guarded hurt on his nephew's face, mentally scolding himself for the brief hesitation he'd created by gathering himself to respond. So once he was certain his nephew was really looking at him he did his best to put all his sincerity into his voice and expression.
"Zuko you have held an important place in my heart since the day you were born. You were a kind and wonderful boy and always a joy to be around. I don't know if you are aware, you were very young, but when," he faulted here before forcing himself to continue "when Lu Ten died I came very close to following him." He saw the horror in his nephew's eyes then but pressed on "I went to the spirit world in an attempt to bring him home, but it was impossible. I very nearly stayed there as well, but the spirits showed me something." His free hand came up to lay on his nephew's other shoulder, wanting to be sure he understood "They showed me you. Back at the palace, alone and hurting. Your mother was gone and Ozai was crueler than ever and Azula was growing to be the same. I could not abandon you to that. I would not. So I returned to the mortal realm and to the palace. To you."
"Uncle I-" There was something akin to wonder in Zuko's tone, but Iroh shook his head, determined to finish, so Zuko fell silent once more.
"I can't really say when my affection, my love for you shifted from that of an uncle to a beloved nephew to that of a father to a beloved son, but it did." He met his nephew's hauntingly open gaze and smiled warmly "I love you Zuko. Just as much as I ever did Lu Ten. And nothing will ever change that. Do you understand?" Zuko's nod was shaky, but there and moments later Iroh pulled the boy to him in a tight hug, ignoring how wetness grew on his shoulder where Zuko pressed his face for several long moments, drawing deep breaths. It wasn't like Iroh wasn't crying a little himself. It felt good to say that all openly. To have his nephew, his boy, actually listen and accept the words. After a while Zuko pulled back, visibly flushing as he quickly tried to scrub his face, not meeting Iroh's gaze. Once he had finished he glanced at Iroh for a moment before flushing again and averting his gaze.
"Thank you, Uncle," he said, voice rough with emotion "I." He cleared his throat awkwardly "I care a great deal for you as well." Iroh beamed at that and patted Zuko's arm.
"I know Nephew," he said, smiling warmly. The answering smile he got was small and looked awkward and almost painful as if Zuko had forgotten how to do so, but it filled Iroh to the brim with warmth. It was the first time he'd seen his nephew smile in almost a year. Knowing that saying anything else would likely make Zuko close back up he simply squeezed his arm warmly before sitting back and watched the young man in front of him.
"So, now what?" He asked, spreading his arms out in front of him to indicate he would follow Zuko's lead on this.
Zuko was surprised by the warm feeling that filled him, chasing away the residual chill from the frigid waters. His uncle loved him. Like a son. He'd given up following Lu Ten for him. And that wasn't counting how his uncle had gone with him into banishment and put up with him for almost three years now. Zuko could never repay him, but he could try. Starting now. Gathering his thoughts he looked back over to where his boat had been and then to where he knew Zhao's ships were. Several thoughts swirled in his mind so he started off slowly, testing the waters and his uncle's thoughts.
"I think..." he paused, glancing at his uncle to judge his reaction, "I think I'm done chasing The Avatar." He was gratified to see what looked like a flash of hope and relief under the surprise on his uncle's face. That likely meant he was on the right track, so he refocused his gaze on the water "Even if I had managed it I'm uncertain if Fa-...if the Fire Lord would have actually accepted me back." He shook his head "I'm not sure where we can go, somewhere in the Earth Kingdom probably. Try and start over." He flashed his uncle a wry smile "I know you've mentioned wanting to open area shop before. Perhaps we could do that. Or not." He shook his head "There will be time to plan for all of that later. Right now we have more important issues to attend to." He hesitated and looked more fully back at his uncle "If we offered them a chance...do you think our crew would follow us away from the Fire Nation? I fear that Zhao intends them to die in the battle against the Northern Water Tribe." He felt a great deal of relief when his uncle beamed at him and patted his arm.
"I believe most of them would, yes. We just need to give them a chance. We can't do it right away. Zhao will be watching. This will take careful planning." His smile grew slightly sharper "I believe I have a plan." Zuko nodded and sat back to listen, but before his uncle started explaining he paused and gave Zuko a smile like he hadn't seen in a long time.
"I am very proud of you, Nephew." And in the end that meant everything.