Warning! This fanfiction contains spoilers for most of Book 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you haven't seen that far and don't want any major spoilers, please don't read this fic.
The Stowaway and the General
If Iroh hadn’t found Zuko after their ship was blown up by pirates.
[ Part 1/3 ]
Zuko always tried to follow in his father's footsteps. He couldn't do it as well as Azula could; it was obvious to everyone which of Fire Lord Ozai's children took after him the most. But Zuko tried his best to think of what would make his father the most proud of him, even after he was banished and told to search for the Avatar.
Usually, that meant keeping order on his ship. It meant steadily going forward - and sometimes rushing - towards where the Avatar had to be lurking. It meant firebending against a boy who thankfully only had mastery over a single element, even when a little voice in the back of his mind kept reminding him that he'd never be as good as his sister.
(A voice that, notably, sounded a lot like his father.)
Zuko felt like his father even less now. No one would dare to go against his father; the scar on Zuko's face was a reminder of that. The fire lord would have never let Zhao take his men. And even if someone had taken his men, his father wouldn't be laying on his bed with a pillow on his face.
Zuko had been angry, at first. He always was. He knew some of his temper was his father's; that was the one thing he had in common with him. But the anger had faded, especially after his uncle had left him to go for a walk. Maybe he should have gone with him. It just felt depressing laying on his bed in his cabin, waiting for some magical change in his fate. He was supposed to be restoring his honor, not mourning something that, in retrospect, should have probably been expected.
Then he heard a noise.
Zuko sat up.
"Uncle?" he asked. That was strange. His uncle always announced when he returned to the ship, and he couldn't have been gone for that long, either. It was hard keeping track of time while laying in his room, but it hadn't felt all that long.
He got to his feet.
The halls were silent as he climbed up to the highest peak of the ship.
Something felt off. Wrong, even. His body was screaming at him like it had right before he turned and saw his father in the Agni Kai. Right before his face was set alight. Right before those Water Tribe siblings showed up and rescued the Avatar what felt like an eternity ago. It was the feeling he got every time something was about to go horribly, terribly wrong, and that alone made him wary.
Then he saw the green bird flit in front of the window.
A bird, he realized, that had belonged to the pirates who had stolen his little boat.
His eyes widened in horror.
Zuko barely had any time to react before the explosions went off.
The last things he remembered were fire, pain, and water pulling him into its icy depths.
Iroh was thinking.
He always was, to some extent. People had a tendency to think he was lazy for the way he took his breaks and time, but they always underestimated the power of a good walk or a nice, relaxing bath. And now, more than ever, he needed to think.
Trying to break through the walls of Ba Sing Se felt easier than the task ahead of him. Admiral Zhao had taken their crew. He knew his nephew would want to keep chasing after the Avatar; he would man the ship himself if he had to. As it was, Zuko was probably planning on heading straight after Zhao's fleet - even if that meant facing the consequences of defying someone so high up in Ozai's ranks.
Iroh let out a quiet sigh.
It was hard, picking up the pieces of what his brother had done a little less than three years ago. His brother hadn't just burned Zuko's heart. He had burned his heart, too - his very spirit. Zuko was the one who had decided to chase after the Avatar, but Iroh had encouraged it. His nephew had only been twelve at the time; what else was he supposed to do? Even though the Avatar hadn't been seen for a hundred years, he was Zuko's hope. He inspired him to get out of bed each morning.
Maybe Zuko knew, somewhere, that his father wouldn't take him back if he really did capture the Avatar. That Ozai had never seen his son and daughter as anything other than means to an end. Iroh didn't dare broach the subject, especially now that the Avatar was a tangbile person and not an intangible ideal.
But in a single night, the Avatar had become just as out of reach as before - the admiral had taken his nephew's hope from him.
And Iroh didn't know how he would ever return it.
He studied the ground underneath his feet.
That was when he smelled the smoke.
The muffled blast came just a handful of seconds later, but by then a dark, heavy ball had settled in the depths of Iroh's stomach. He felt like he had back at Ba Sing Se when his son's commanding officer came to tell him the news of his death - he just knew that something horrible had happened.
The flames leaping off of the entirety of his nephew's ship lit up the dark night sky.
"Zuko," he managed to get out.
By the time he reached the ship, it no longer looked like the majestic vessel it had been before. Flames had crushed seemingly impenetrable steel. To an onlooker, the only hint that it had once been a Fire Nation ship was the burning flag that had landed on the dock - but even that was a pale imitation of what it had once been.
Iroh fell to his knees.
For the first moment, he didn't say anything. He didn't do anything. His mind could barely accept the sight before him - and its implications. The grief was the same, overwhelming grief he had felt when he lost Lu Ten. Because, Iroh had realized a long time ago, Zuko was like a son to him.
...Had been like a son to him.
He wasn't sure how long he sat there on the edge of the dock. He wasn't sure how long he cried when the tears finally started to fall, either. But when he saw the same bird his nephew - though he didn't know it - had seen moments before the ship exploded flying off towards a boat filled with people, he knew exactly who had destroyed his nephew's ship and life.
For a moment, Iroh wanted the pirates to pay the price. He was too far away, but he wanted to wrap their ship in a fiery inferno - just like the inferno his unlucky, poor nephew had seen in his last moments.
But Iroh knew it would be pointless.
The pirates gained nothing from killing Zuko; there were so many other ways someone could take revenge. As Iroh wiped his tears with his sleeve and stared into the deep, dark depths of the water, he tried to think of who would gain the most from this. Not Zuko's father; banishment was enough for that. And it certainly wasn't something the Avatar or his companions would do - those children were Zuko's age and even younger. They could never do something horrible like this.
He took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
Then he rose to his feet.
There was one man responsible for this. One man who desperately wanted Iroh by his side as an advisor, even though Iroh knew fully well that he would never listen to a word Iroh suggested. And if Zuko was out of the way - that man had surely thought in his cruel, ambitious mind - then Iroh would only have one duty left to perform for the Fire Nation.
To join Admiral Zhao in raiding the Northern Water Tribe.
Lu Ten's death had made him passive.
But Zuko's death would hone that passiveness into a sharply cut blade.