When Zuko wakes on the boat, banished and scarred, Iroh awaits with a cup of tea and harsh words that grate.
It's abuse, Iroh says, far angrier than Zuko has ever thought he could be, fury on his tongue and poison on his lips as he snarls, your father is dishonourable, he has no right...
"How can I go back?" Zuko asks, voice small and head hung, staring at his hands, at those long, thin fingers that his father had always looked at with disgust firebenders need firm fingers, Zukos look like they'll break off with the slightest touch, "How do I regain my honour?"
"You never lost it," Iroh seethes, "Your father is a liar, he's despicable."
"Uncle," Zuko begs, voice raw and afraid and he sounds like a child and that hurts, but he needs to know, needs to go back and prove to father that he's more than this, that he won't do it again, that he is honourable.
"You're right, Prince Zuko," Iroh lifts his own cup of tea to his lips, and when the cup comes down, he's considerably calmer, more normal, the Uncle that Zuko remembers. "I'm sorry. I should not condemn your father like this in front of you. You are hurting. Shall I call the physician?"
Zuko's hands are shaking now. From what, he cannot tell. "Uncle!" His voice comes out far louder than he expects, a storm, a tidal wave, "Tell me!" His voice is loud, harsh, just like his father's. (That should make him proud. Instead, it just solidifies the sick, twisted feeling in his gut.)
Iroh doesn't flinch. Doesn't cower, like Zuko would have done. (Coward, coward, Azula's voice sings in his head.) He just looks painfully, immeasurably sad. "Your father wants you to find the Avatar," he says. Soft. A little bit angry.
That voice puts Zuko on edge.
"Then I will."
His voice comes out in iron and steel, firm and unmoving as he sits up straighter.
Iroh presses a hand against Zuko's chest and Zuko carefully, deliberately, keeps his breath even, makes sure his chest doesn't betray how uncomfortable the action makes him feel.
"The Avatar is a legend, Prince Zuko."
"The Avatar is my chance at redemption, Uncle," his voice snarls.
Iroh gives him an odd look, something akin to those looks that his mother gave him after training with Father and Azula. He still doesn't quite understand it, even after all these years.
"We can travel the world," Iroh says softly. Hopefully. "I always wanted to see the world."
"You can sightsee while we hunt down the Avatar," Zuko says, and Iroh stares at Zuko's fingers.
Zuko clenches his hands into fists, hiding his fingers, and Iroh looks at his knuckles, smooth and dark, and Zuko tries not to show his shame.
"Prince Zuko," Iroh puts his hands on Zuko's hands. (Hiding them, Zuko thinks, because he can't bear to look at them. But this is Iroh, not his father, and he wouldn't do that, he's not that kind of person.) "Your father..."
"My father gave me a second chance," Zuko says, desperately.
Your father despises you, Iroh wants to say, Zuko can see it on his lips, in the dark flash of his eyes. "You don't have to do this, Prince Zuko," Iroh says.
"You are the most honourable man I know!" Iroh shouts, almost as desperate as Zuko must look.
He pulls his hand out from under Iroh's fingers.
Looks out the circular window above, at the sky and the birds, and the clouds dotted on the sky.
"My father doesn't agree," he whispers. Voice hoarse. He lowers his head. Tries to ignore the prick of Iroh's stare at the back of his neck.
"Your father," Iroh spits the word like it's a curse, tainted by Ozai though he himself was once a father. "Is the most dishonourable man that I know."
Zuko starts in alarm, head whipping to Iroh, "Uncle!" He shouts, "You can't say things like that, it's..."
"Treason?" Iroh snorts, "What's he going to do, banish me?"
Zuko's heart thumps in his chest.
"You can't say such things," he says, and the childishness of those words sink into his skin like the burn on his eye.
"You don't need to try and please your father," Iroh says, "You can do so much more now."
Zuko stares at his hands. "Leave," he whispers.
Please, he thinks, but his lips cannot form the word.
Iroh seems to understand, though. "Promise me that you will do nothing but rest?"
Zuko wants to cry, but Iroh cannot see, Iroh cannot be witness to his weakness, "Leave!" He shouts, loud and angry and once again, a poor imitation of his father.
"Promise me, Prince Zuko," Iroh says, and Zuko buries his face in his knees.
There is a hand on his back, warm and comforting.
"My father..." he says.
He doesn't finish.
He doesn't know what he would have said, anyway.
(It doesn't matter. Not when Iroh is by his side with calloused hands and a warm cup of tea. His father, his terrifying, immovable father, doesn't seem so significant at that moment, and Zuko cannot find himself to care if those thoughts sound treasonous. He has his uncle.)