You awaken to him sitting in your periphery and you don’t let yourself feel joy, not yet, don’t yet reach to embrace him. (He’s back, he’s here, just an arm’s length away, and you could touch him, could hold him close…but you can’t, not yet, you can’t, however much you long to...)
It is usually best to admit mistakes when they occur and try to restore honor, you said months ago to the children of Ba Sing Se, and it’s a truth you’ve lived, have been living for the past six years since you saw your son’s lifeless eyes in the blood on your hands, in the eyes of every solider and civilian on the other side of the War, a truth you will continue to live—or one you will die for—today when you try to liberate the same city you once tried and killed to conquer.
It’s a truth that, you tell yourself, cannot be forced, cannot be coerced. Zuko needs your silence now to do this, needs to do this on his own. It's for his sake. For his. If he’s been repenting, you tell yourself, he needs to admit his mistake on his own to feel redeemed, to feel forgiven. (You forgave him long ago, but that’s not the point.) He needs your silence now, needs your back, he does, he does…
(This is a lie, you know, as you turn your back to him, as you sit silently. The truth is that you are selfish and you are cowardly and you cannot handle losing your second son twice, need to know he is truly back with you before you embrace him, need to know that you will not have to grieve for him again before you stop grieving him now, because you look strong but you are weak, are not strong enough for that…)
(You might both die today anyway, but that's a potentiality you think you could face, if you can only embrace him one more time. If only he is by your side.)
“Uncle,” he says.
(It is usually best) You close your eyes, hope more than you knew you had in you to do.
“I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me.”
(to admit mistakes when they occur) You hold your breath.
“But I want you to know, that I am so, so sorry, Uncle. I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did.”
(and try to restore honor.) A smile threatens to break through your lips. He is so close, you think. He is almost there.
“I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you, but I—”
And suddenly you feel like you've been reunited with the sun after an eclipse. You heart, your whole body, feels warm, feels almost whole again. You cut him off, snatch him into your arms and pull him close to you.
What you were about to say doesn’t matter, you think. You have made it up to me, because you were willing to do whatever it took to make it right, because you are here, you’re here. Look at everything you’ve done, look how far you’ve come. Look, Zuko, you’ve restored your honor.
(I have always known how honorable you truly are, you think.)
(I knew you could do it, you think.)
(I’m so proud of you, you think.)
You hold him close, and he cries, and you cry, and you feel more relief than you’ve felt since you heard him coughing in the water after his ship exploded, more joy than you’ve felt since Lu Ten first opened his eyes.