Chapter 2: An Inconvenient Truth

Zuko's back faced his uncle as he laid on his futon, shame tightening every muscle to the point of soreness. Not only had he air-bended in front of his uncle but he had relieved his stomach contents on the old man's shoes as well. He hadn't meant for such an action to occur but the world had started to close in on him as his hope was drained away by a single defining moment.

He was not the Avatar. He couldn't be. The Avatar, as proclaimed during the war's beginning, was an enemy of the Fire Nation. It didn't even matter if the Avatar was from the Fire Nation either because, as the Fire Sages had revealed, the old Avatars could voice their opinions from the spirit world and consul the living Avatar.

Avatar Roku was proof enough of that, denying the Fire Nation their rightful claim to the war until after his death.

The prince pulled himself a little more into a ball, trying to do so as discreetly as possible. It didn't matter though, Iroh's body weight shifted at the end of his bed as the old man placed a hand calmly on the prince's leg. The elder fire-bender had been sitting there for the last hour after he had helped Zuko to his bed and cleaned up the mess. Zuko felt ashamed for even having the old General do such a lowly thing. Iroh shouldn't have had to clean up his mess, yet he had.

"Zuko? Is your stomach still bothering you? I can head down to the cook if you need something?" Iroh said calmly, leaving his hand in place on the boy's skin just to let the teenager know that he was there.

Swallowing, the prince stated in a dull tone, "No. I'm fine."

Fine, thought Iroh. Well, it could have been worse. Finding out that one was a tool to the spirit world could not be an easy thing … especially when such a revelation revealed that his last three years of hardship were now inconsequential. It also meant that … Lu Ten's death was meaningless.

Iroh looked away from the teenager that refused to gaze in his direction. No, he would not blame Lu Ten's death on Zuko. Zuko was not at fault for anything.

"Are you sure?" he added wearily. Iroh could just feel the tension in the boy's frame but he did not blame his nephew for feeling that way. In fact, he knew Zuko was not the only one. Right now, he could also feel Lieutenant Jee's inner flame flickering down the hall. The crew needed answers now or he risked there being a mutiny. "I do not want to unsettle you with difficult questions, but I fear it must at least be spoken about, Prince Zuko."

The boy's legs shifted as if he'd rather run away, but slowly the teenager's muscles went slack as he grumbled, "Nothing happened."

Iroh shook his head, a stray gray hair falling downward as he added, "Denying it now will only make it harder later. We must speak of this or risk a mutiny if the crew doesn't have any answers. They are good men but they are also just that, men. They have fears just like …"

"Fears!" yelled the boy as he tried to pull his leg from his caretaker's grasp as he sat up to glare at the old General, tears threatening to spill from his good eye. "Why should they be the one's unsettled. The air-bending hadn't come from them! They are not enemies of their homeland! They're not a freak! I just want this forgotten. I want everyone to pretend it never happened."

A frown pulled at the General's face making him look older than usual, his voice taunt, "Prince Zuko, you and I both know, as well as the other benders on this ship, that a bender cannot deny their bending. Maybe for a few weeks or even a year, but it's like entrapping a part of one's soul … Doing so will only lead to madness."

The prince, unable to retort or even offer any words to refute, looked away in shame, a single tear rolling down his cheek as he swallowed hard.

Sliding a little farther onto the bed, his russet robes blending in with the silk sheets of his nephew's bed, Iroh reached forward and wrapped his arms wearily around the prince. He worried that he would be pushed away like usual. Zuko did not push him away though. So the old man pulled the boy closer, pressing the youth's head into his should so the teenager could weep his tears without the shame of anyone seeing them. And there they sat, a small wetness forming on Iroh's shoulder though not a single sob escaping the proud prince. The General just rubbed Zuko's shoulder knowing that the youth was in indescribable pain.

Zuko had lost everything he thought important in one second, in one false step.

Only after a few moments passed did Zuko pull away. His eyes were puffy but not even a streak of wetness adorned his cheeks, those shameful tears having been buried in the older General's uniform. Zuko could only swallow, unable to look at his comforter.

"Uncle … I can't be the Avatar. I-it's just too much. Is there a way to disprove it? Maybe, I just can use another bending or I was just moving the heat in the air. It doesn't mean I'm the Avatar. Please Uncle," whispered the youth with a desperation Iroh hadn't seen on the boy's face since the day he had receive the scar.

Unable to deny the teenager his pleading want, even though he knew there had never been a documented case of a double-bender or hot-air bending, the General placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder as he met the young man's gaze.

"There is only one way to know for sure, my nephew, and it may place a calmness in the crew as well. Though there are no documented cases of someone that can use a second element, only the Avatar can use the element that is the opposite of his own and for that matter a third. If you cannot water-bend you may not be the Avatar," he stated calmly though he doubted such a test would prove anything.

Swallowing harshly and making his Adam's apple bob, the prince spoke in a tired voice. "Then there is a chance my honor is not gone?"

Iroh tried not to frown, the words tasting bitter in his mouth as he whispered, "Yes, your honor. Now, rest nephew. It will be quite a trip getting the Northern Water Tribe."

The prince blinked, his body already sagging in relief and emotional exhaustion. "The Northern Tribe, but the Southern Tribe is only a few days' time away?"

The General nodded, a sadness creeping into his eyes. "Yes, that is true, but there are no more water-benders in the Southern Tribe. Our people made sure of that, my nephew. Now, I must go speak to the crew."

Lieutenant Jee hadn't exactly seen what the prince had done being that he had been speaking to the helmsman, but he had noted the two fire-benders' bodies that had rushed up into the air only to fall with a sickening crunch. Thankfully, there weren't any broken bones but some large bruises did prove that the situation did, indeed, occur. His crew might have been small but at least that allowed him to read them well. Uncertainty was filing down the ranks and there'd be a mutiny if some qualms were not answered quickly.

It seemed as if General Iroh knew this as well. His conversation, though seeming to drag in the beginning, was over quickly with the Fire Nation prince. Now came the moment of truth.

As Iroh walked up to him, Jee wasn't sure if he wanted the truth. For if Zuko was the Avatar what would he do? Kill the boy? Remove him from the ship? Join him and follow him faithfully as he had done for the past three years? He really didn't get to dwell on it though when Iroh stalled in front of him, the faint odor of tea and sickness coming off his person. Had the young prince expelled his worries in more than one way? Probably, if the wet spot on the General's shoulder was any indication.

"Lieutenant Jee, I see that you have been waiting for me," Iroh stated in a serious tone, his hands going behind his back.

The navy man nodded, showing a quick bow of respect before he continued, "The crew is growing rebellious. I need answers Prince Iroh, or I might not be able to keep the crew under control."

His next words were hard, harder than the Lieutenant ever thought they would be for him to say. He had, at first, pitied the boy and detested him for his quick temper, but now he worried for Zuko. He did not want to have to abandon the scarred prince. Swallowing, Jee decided promptly to leave the boy live if it were true instead of killing him, "Tell me … Is he the Avatar?"

The Dragon of the West suddenly looked tired, a frown forming as he dissected the best course in answering this question. Finally, choosing his focal point, he looked Jee dead in the eye and stated, "Zuko does not know and I do not either. The only way we can truly tell is if he can bend his opposite element, water."

"Water-bending," stated the other in a surprised hiccup. "But what about the air-bending?"

"My nephew denies it. He claims it must have been something else, maybe heat in the air. Water-bending, the exact opposite of fire-bending, is the truest way to tell if Avatar Qiang really died that day at the walls of Ba Sing Se."

The old navy man swallowed as he counted the number of years since Avatar Qiang's long disappearance behind the city's walls, recalling the claims of him now being a cripple. Had those rumors been planted so the new Avatar could be born and survive? If so … Zuko's birth fit, almost perfectly. Jee actually felt his stomach drop, his lips feeling dry as he spoke, "The timing is almost perfect, but Prince Zuko could be right about the air being hot. He had been practicing all morning."

"That he had," added the tea drinker as he nodded his head.

"So, what should we do? Get a bucket of water?" Jee said, not knowing what else to say.

Shaking his head, Iroh looked up at the sky. The days were short in the poles and the moon was already being revealed in the dusk. The royal's words were heavy, "He needs to see water-bending so he can try and reenact it. To do that, we must go to the Northern Water Tribe. Even if I had scrolls currently with me, it would still not have the fluidity that is needed for a water-bender and that is something that can only be witnessed."

Jee's knees nearly gave out, "W-what? You want us, alone, to attack a whole nation?"

Despite the nature of the conversation, Iroh chuckled and patted the other man in the shoulder, "No, no, old friend. We merely need to observe one water-bender. Remember that the water tribes depend on fishing for a large amount of their diets. We merely must find one ship with a water-bender."

Lieutenant Jee, not knowing what else to say, merely nodded, "That seems easy enough. I'll tell the helmsman to change course."

Once out of Iroh's line of sight, the sea man groaned. There was no way this was going to work, for that matter be easy. They'd probably have to start a small war.

XXX

Paw07: Dang… we missed Katara in the Southern Water Tribe. Anyway, I love that lame-ass chapter title. This was a short chapter, but I update faster when it comes to short chapters. Besides, the more in depth I get into the story, the longer the chapters get. For now they'll be around two thousand words and will steadily grow into larger chapters unless I feel supremely lazy. Not much happened in this chapter except for some Zuko/Iroh bonding which I love, and Lieutenant Jee got some story time. I have a strange obsession with the crew actually. I mean, really, Zuko and Iroh have been with these people for three years. Certainly some personal ties have formed. I will try to dissect that in this story later.

And for those of you that think this is turning into Aang's adventure without the Aang, just see how far south this situation goes and how quickly. Zuko could care less about Avatar duties. He just wants his honor. Not that Northern Water Tribe understands that. Was that just foreshadowing? I don't know, but I can tell you this, since I have a few chapters typed up there will be an update every week probably on Mondays until I run out of my previously seven typed chapters. See you then.

(Revisions March 2015)