This story starts off during season one, episode eighteen; The Waterbending Master. This story follows canon up until Zuko's ship blows up and will be AU from that point onward.
Disclaimer: As always I own nothing.
Zuko isn't sure what wakes him. A slight noise on a ship that should be empty. He gets up quickly and begins making his way out of this room. It could be his uncle, returning early from his walk, but somehow he doesn't think so.
"Uncle?" he called "Uncle is that you?" No response, but he wasn't really expecting one. His uncle generally took fairly long walks and he only left a very short while ago. He quickly jumped out of his room, ready for an attack. He didn't see anything so he started making his way through the ship, alert for any signs of an attack, but he finds nothing out of the ordinary.
By the time he reaches the control room of the ship he's starting to think he imagined things or that it had simply been the ship shifting on the water. Groaning quietly he rubbed the back of his head and gave one last look around, planning to head back to his room. But at the last moment, something caught his eye. Just outside one of his windows was a strangely familiar reptile-bird. He frowned as he tried to remember where he'd seen it from and just as it flew away it hit him. The pirates!
He didn't have time to think beyond that before an explosion rocked the boat and caused him to spin around towards the noise. From farther in the ship, flames rushed towards him and his eyes widened in fear. He barely had time to draw flames around himself as a pathetic attempt to protect him from the explosion before it hit and he was knocked flying through the window and out of his ship. A cry of pain and fear escaped him moments before he hit the icy water and everything went black.
Iroh hummed to himself as he made his way along. He knew Zuko was upset about his crew leaving with Zhao and couldn't blame him, but he also couldn't blame the crew. There hadn't been much of a choice unless they wanted to be branded traitors or deserters. Hopefully, Zuko would calm down soon and accept that. He put those thoughts aside for now and simply focused on taking in the sounds of nature around him.
His relaxing thoughts were suddenly interrupted when an explosion went off from behind him, hitting him with a blast of hot air. Alarmed, he spun around and his eyes widened in shocked horror. As the red glow lot up the sky, he knew with icy certainty what had blown up.
"ZUKO!" He barely realized he was yelling as he set off back towards the ship as fast as his old legs could carry him.
His hopes for finding his nephew alive quickly died as he drew closer and got a better view of the ship. The entire thing was burning with heavy flames. Zuko had been resting in his room. There was no way he could have survived this. His breath caught in his chest as he slowly sank to the ground.
"Zuko..." it was closer to a moan than anything else as he bowed his head. Why. Hadn't he lost enough? Was this his punishment for his actions as a general? But why punish his boys in his place? First Lu Ten and now Zuko. Both his boys were gone. Taken from him in their prime. Tears began leaking from his eyes as he bent over, halfway collapsing to the ground as sobs shook through him. Why hadn't he insisted Zuko come with him? Or at least stayed on the boat himself? He may not have been able to save his boy, but at least he would have died with him. Part of him told him he needed to get up and get away from the flames that were starting to catch on the dock, but the majority of him didn't care. Let the flames take him like they'd taken his son.
The first thing Zuko noticed as he came to was that he hurt all over. The second thing he noticed was that he was cold. Groaning, he opened his eyes and tried to take stock of his condition. Sore for certain. Best he could tell he had some severe bruising as well as some minor cuts and burns. And he felt cold water lapping against his legs and torso. What happen-the ship! He sat up quickly but soon realized that was a horrible idea. Pain laced through him at the sudden movement and he doubled over, coughing as his body tried to regulate and clear the water from his lungs.
It took a good minute for the coughing to calm and him to gather himself enough to straighten up some and try and gauge his surroundings. He was a good distance down the bank from his ship, half in the water, so he must have been washed ashore somehow. He could easily see his ship as it burned, entirely consumed by flames by this point. He let out a low growl at that. Zhao was behind this, he was almost certain. He shook his head sharply and got to his feet, carefully making his way back towards his ship along the bank. He knew there was nothing he could do for the ship, but that was his best direction to find his uncle, who had likely come back at the sound of the explosion.
As he drew closer it became obvious that the flames had spread from the ship onto the dock, which generally wasn't good. He hoped they didn't continue spreading past there. He almost turned his attention farther inland when he noticed something strange. There was something laying on the docks. Had someone dropped something? Frowning slightly, but curious he continued closer. Not something, someone! There was a person on the docks, bunched over as if they were on the ground bowing. He was picking up speed even before he realized who it was. Uncle! Had some debry from the explosion hit him? Was he injured? Fear dulled his pain as he moved into an all-out sprint down the bank, and lept up onto the dock as he reached it.
"Uncle!" he called as he drew closer, but his voice was raw and didn't carry far, though even if his uncle was conscious the crackle of the flames closing in might drown out his voice. He slowed as he drew closer, relief hitting him as he saw that his uncle was still breathing. And his posture didn't really indicate that the other man was unconscious. But then why wasn't he moving away from the flames?
"Uncle?" he called again, less frantic and more confused and concerned. He made his way over, walking quickly but no longer running. As he reached the old man's side he suddenly realized what his uncle was doing. Iroh was bent over, fists clenched against his knees, shaking with sobs that had been impossible to hear at a distance due to the sounds from the fire. Something clenched at Zuko's heart and he moved to kneel next to the older man "Uncle?" he tried again, gently touching his shoulder.
Iroh was lost to the world, unable to hear more than the roaring flames and the pounding of his own heart, clenched with grief. So it caught him completely off guard when a hand touched his shoulder. Sitting up slightly he looked to see who was there. His heart nearly stopped when he caught sight of his nephew, bruised and cut, but blessedly alive, watching him with concern. He froze for a moment before abruptly sitting up and yanking his nephew close. He pressed his face into the young man's shoulder and clutched him to his chest.
"Zuko!" he sobbed "You're alive! I thought-! I thought you were gone! I thought I'd lost you!"
Zuko carefully wrapped his arms around his uncle, clearly feeling rather awkward about the situation, but wanting to comfort the other man.
"I'm alright Uncle," he said hesitantly "Don't worry I'm not going anywhere."
Iroh nodded against his nephew's shoulder, still shuddering with sobs "I can't lose you," he said desperately "I can't lose you Zuko. I can't lose another son. I just can't!"
Zuko stiffened at his uncle's words, staring at him in shock. What?! What did he just say? Something caught in his throat. His uncle called him his son. He couldn't help but thinking that his Father would never react this way if he thought Zuko had died. Swallowing hard he squeezed his uncle reassuringly.
"Everything is ok Uncle," he said, voice strangely tight "We're both alright. But right now we need to get away from these flames ok?" He was relieved when his uncle took a shuddering breath and nodded, visibly gathering himself so he could pull back and nod.
"You're right," Iroh said with a voice that was slightly more steady than before. His eyes were red and his face streaked with tear marks making their way thought the soot that was caking his skin, but his expression was bright and he was smiling "Let's move somewhere safer."
Zuko nodded and stood, using one hand to help his uncle stand, steadying him. He wasn't normally worried about his uncle's age, but right now he felt like his uncle might break if he was bumped wrong, so he kept his hand on his uncle's arm, steadying him as he stood and they started making their way away from the dock and the flames coming towards them. They walked in silence as they made their way along the bank to a couple of larger rocks so they could sit and rest. Zuko was still sore and Iroh was still visibly pale and shaking. They sat on the rocks for a while, watching the boat burn off in the distance while Iroh gathered himself once more. Zuko couldn't help but notice how his uncle kept looking back over at him as if confirming he was still there. But after a while, Iroh seemed to be collected enough to try and get them back on even keel.
"So...I believe we are going to need a new ship," he said, voice sounding much closer to his typical calm. It was an invitation for Zuko to explain, or not, what had happened and for them to start moving forward. But Zuko stayed silent, staring at the ship with a tight frown. He was still trying to process through everything that had happened and what it all entailed. Seeing that Zuko was occupied mentally, Iroh fell silent once more and turned his gaze back out to the water. After a long while, Zuko finally spoke
"Zhao hired the pirates to blow up my ship," he said simply, stating facts. He couldn't think of any other explanation that fit the situation. The quite hum he got from his uncle, told him that Iroh had come to a similar conclusion so Zuko continued, though it almost seemed like he was changing subjects "Zhao has been given control over the mission to capture the Avatar." This wasn't new, it had happened a while back, but the implications were just starting to finally sink it. He was finally willing to think about it.
"My f-the Fire Lord is the only one who could give that kind of authorization." Iroh was watching him, looking both concerned and confused, but not interrupting "He gave Zhao the same mission he'd given me to allow me to regain my honor." Another pause before he seemed to change subjects again "Zhao is power-hungry but loyal. He wouldn't do something he thought the Fire Lord would be angry about. But he tried to have me blown up." He looked at his uncle then, expression softening to one closer to loss than anger "That means the Fire Lord must have at least implied that I was expendable." He waited, watching to see if his Uncle would disagree, hoping he would. But Iroh's expression just grew sad and he reached up to grip Zuko's shoulder in support. Zuko knew his uncle. He thought the same but didn't want to cut off Zuko's train of thought. Zuko looked back at the water and took a shuddering breath, and one hand came up to grip at his uncle's hand, anchoring himself.
"He never wanted me to come home did he?" It wasn't really a question, for all, it was phrased like one "You tried to tell me, even at the beginning." Even Zhao had, in a way.
'If your father really wanted you home, he would have let you return by now. Avatar or no Avatar.' He was right, Zuko just hadn't wanted to accept it. Couldn't accept it. But now, staring at the burning boat, he finally let himself realize the truth. His father didn't want him. He never would. He wasn't supposed to return home. He sucked in a deep breath to try and steady himself, but it broke on a sob. And that's when he realized that tears were running down his face from his good eye.
"Why?" he asked, voice breaking as he looked back at his uncle "Why doesn't he want me? What did I do wrong?" This spurred his uncle into action and within moments he had pulled the young prince to him, wrapping his arms around him as he began to shake in earnest.
"You didn't do anything wrong Zuko," he said firmly "This isn't your fault. You did everything right." And with that Zuko broke, turning to more fully face his uncle as he grabbed onto him and sobbed, allowing his uncle to hold him and mutter reassuring words. They stayed that way until Zuko slipped into sleep, worn from the blast and his own emotions.