He can barely stay upright, Iroh thinks as he watches Zuko pace up and down the floor of his cabin. Bandages are still wrapped around his face, covering the horrible burns, and he should really still be in a bed, attended by healers, not on a ship in the middle of nowhere with only Iroh and a half-trained medic. If Zuko doesn't survive this, Iroh will never forgive his brother.
"We need to keep moving," Zuko says as he paces, his steps wavering and unsure. They're only a day's travel away from the Western Air Temple, on their way the Northern Temple. "We need to find the Avatar."
"We need to stop for supplies, Prince Zuko," Iroh says, as he's been saying repeatedly. Zuko's singleminded focus is far more extreme than he thinks is healthy. Iroh blames Ozai. "It won't be a long stop, but it is necessary."
"We have to keep moving," Zuko says again, facing away from Iroh. "The faster we find the Avatar, the faster I can go home."
Iroh's heart breaks a little bit more every time Zuko says that. Finding the Avatar is an impossible task. Ozai knew it when he set it, Iroh knew it when he heard it, everyone knows it but Zuko. Zuko still clings to hope, and Iroh doesn't want to be the one to tear that away from him, but he needs to know that his chances of ever going home are very slim.
"We will not find the Avatar if our ship has no supplies," Iroh says calmly. It's not the time to tell Zuko the truth, not when he's still so weak. Even while Zuko has his back to him, Iroh can see the unsteadiness of his stance, the slight trembling in his hands. "We need to stop."
"Zuko!" Iroh snaps, his voice sharper than he means for it to be.
Zuko goes still, his protest stopping abruptly. Iroh thinks he's finally listening. He didn't mean to raise his voice, but perhaps that's what he needs to do with Zuko. "Listen, Prince Zuko," he says gently. "We will continue searching for the Avatar, I promise, but first we must retrieve more supplies. Do you understand?"
He lays a hand on Zuko's shoulder and Zuko flinches violently. A pit opens in Iroh's stomach. Oh no. Oh no, he can't think-
"I'm sorry!" Zuko gasps out. He's so incredibly young. "I'm sorry, I won't- I'm sorry, I'll behave better, I promise-"
"Zuko…" Iroh breathes, but Zuko flinches again at the sound. Iroh wants to drag the boy into his arms, but considering how Zuko reacted to a hand on his shoulder, Iroh doesn't even want to think about what his reaction to being grabbed, even just for a hug, would be.
"Prince Zuko," he says quietly, noting that using his title provokes less of a reaction, "I need you to listen to me. I am going to tell you something very important. Can you look at me?"
Zuko twists around and looks up at Iroh immediately, his good eye glassy. Iroh's heart shatters in his chest. This boy is just a child, he should never be this afraid, especially not of someone he should be able to trust. Iroh doesn't think he's ever hated anyone as much as he hates his brother now.
"Prince Zuko. I will never raise my hand against you. Never, do you hear me?"
"No man should ever raise a hand against a child," Iroh adds.
Panic sparks in Zuko's eye. "My father- I was disobedient- He had to do it, I gave him no choice-"
Fury burns hot in Iroh's stomach, but he forces it down. He'll rage later, but for now, Zuko needs him. By all the spirits, Zuko is a child, barely thirteen, and Ozai has made him think that his beatings are his own fault. Iroh can hear Ozai's voice behind Zuko's words. For a moment, he thinks that, if he were given the chance, he might kill his brother.
"Prince Zuko," Iroh says gently, cutting through Zuko's anxious babble. "I will never hurt you like that. I give you my solemn word. I swear it on Agni himself."
Zuko's eye is wide. "Not even- But what if I'm… bad?"
Iroh thinks he might cry. "You are not bad, Prince Zuko, and I do not believe you ever will be. You have the potential to do much good for the world." After all, his blood burns with the power of Avatar Roku as well as Fire Lord Sozin. Iroh only hopes Roku's influence is stronger. "And no matter what you do" - I will always love you - "I will never raise a hand against you. There is nothing you could do to change that."
Zuko's lower lip is trembling. He's so heartbreakingly young, just a boy, and all Iroh wants to do is protect him from all the evils of the world. The bandages on Zuko's face tell him he's too late.
A tear slips out of Zuko's good eye, and then he starts sobbing, collapsing to his knees. Iroh kneels next to him quickly and holds his arms out, hoping Zuko will accept the offer. He does, diving into Iroh's embrace and sobbing against his chest.
"It's alright, Prince Zuko," Iroh whispers, rubbing his back. It's not, and both of them know it, but the lie might bring a little comfort. "It's going to be alright."
It doesn't take long for Zuko to go limp in Iroh's arms, his exhaustion finally getting the better of him as he drifts off to sleep. Iroh should put him in the bed, but he holds him a little longer, cradling Zuko in his arms. He's not foolish enough to think this is over - the scar Ozai left on Zuko's face is the most obvious, but not the deepest - but he hopes he managed to help in some little way. Zuko shouldn't have to suffer like this, but Iroh can do nothing to change the past. He should have done something before, should have pressed when Zuko told him his bruises and burns were from mishaps at practice and avoided his eyes, but he didn't. He looked away, just as he did when Ozai's flames hit Zuko's face.
He promises himself, as he presses a kiss to the top of Zuko's head, that he will never look away again.