Reluctant Hero: It had been an accident. That was what Zuko had said to his shipmen when he used an element he hadn't been meant to. He wasn't the Avatar. The newest Avatar was supposed to be in the Earth Kingdom hidden by its walls. Unless the old Avatar had died long ago ... and had already been replaced sixteen years ago. AU.

Disclaimer: Not mine. I own nothing but the OCs and plot line.

Rating: Teen for violence, sexual undertones, and slight swearing.

Image: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Prince' by Greenapplefreak.

Chapter Betas: BlueLucied and VickyVicarious.

….

Of flame and fire and blood and hate

Arose a monster at the world's gate,

But lost in his musings he did not see

A hero rise from the ashes like an epiphany;

Though afraid of himself and afraid of his goals

Our dear reluctant hero is alone in the cold.

"It was an accident."

That was what he said, his traditional pony tail whipping in the salty air; his one good eye so wide that it made his scarred eye seem like the normal one. He was so scared, terrified, that he froze up as if a water-bender had attacked him from the inside, chilling his blood. Agni, nearly the whole crew was on deck, pulling in a collective breath and holding onto it after those words; he could feel heartbeats through the metal deck. Though, how bending could be accidental (a folly of an unknown stance and a concealed chi) was beyond everyone that had witnessed it, including the prince who had performed the act.

… But it had happened.

And there was no taking it back or denying the fate that came with it, not with his two crewmates spread on the deck as proof.

So Zuko continued to stand there, eye wide, inner world crashing down as if the ship was sinking with only him on it. His sparring partners, Shen and Keiji, could only stare in a flabbergasted manner as their helmets rolled across the deck. The two of them had been catapulted across the deck by what could only be discerned to be air-bending - their bodies were actually in the air for a good half a minute before they collapsed on the deck in a heap.

At least they thought it was air-bending. It was impossible to be sure; none of them had ever seen that specific art in action, as the Air Nomads had been wiped out almost a century ago.

Iroh, who had been enjoying his second cup of tea during Zuko's morning practice, actually dropped his cup at the sight, staining his lotus tile while the rest of the brown liquid dripped off the small table and to the metal decking below. He had to blink once before the shock wore off. He hadn't just seen that, had he? Slowly, the old Master rose to his feet, ancient joints feeling numb as he walked up to his nephew, warily placing a hand on the prince's shoulder. He could feel Zuko trembling.

"Prince Zuko, what just happened?"

"Nothing," the young man retorted in a rush as he turned to face his uncle. His voice hitched as he struggled to keep separate from the situation, from what he had just done. He was of royal blood. He did not air-bend! His father was already ashamed of him. He had scarcely been given the chance to try and retrieve his honor by either defeating a dragon or by discovering if there was any truth to the rumor of surviving Air Nomads. Air-bending would nullify that, along with whatever honor he had left.

Swallowing and trying to gather his self-control, the prince repeated, "Nothing happened, uncle."

The old man smelled the flavor of panic as if it were the sweat which was beading off his nephew's muscles. He tightened his grip near Zuko's collarbone, his intuition gripping the situation a little more efficiently now that his heart had dropped back into his ribcage. He had seen that, hadn't he? Yes. He would not deny this and he couldn't let Zuko either. Iroh's mind and body might have been allowed to fallow for the past few years but not to the extent that he didn't perceive what had just happened. He knew what had just happened.

The spirits were never subtle when it came to fate.

But how could this be? Iroh had laid siege to Ba Sing Se for three-hundred days trying to get to the Earth-bending Avatar. A horrendous battle had ensued when he'd finally broken down the wall. The same wall where Lu Ten - brave, brilliant, foolhardy Lu Ten - had died a decade later at as they gave it a second try. The Dragon of the West had failed not only himself and his nation, but his son as well.

Had the death of his son been for nothing? Had the Earth Avatar been dead this whole time?

Then again, the time period fit down to a shivering splinter - give or take a week. The Earth Avatar had probably died of the burn wounds he had received from the fierce battle with dozens of fire-benders. Then who was pretending to be the Earth Avatar right now? Who were the walls of Ba Sing Se guarding in a stubborn show of defiance? Who was playing the part of false prophet, keeping the Earth Kingdom full of artificial hope?

No, that wasn't important right now. Zuko was. The boy looked scared; the crew was petrified, everyone was uncertain and confused. A tactical General knows he must gather his men when the line is broken or risk losing the battle.

Calmly looking over the Navy men, Iroh spoke, waving his free hand, "I think we are done with training today, gentlemen. Return to your usual duties. I must have a talk with my nephew."

The prince quickly shook off the old man's touch, growling like a dragon that had just been threatened. "There's nothing to talk about, Uncle. Nothing happened! I'm going to my room to meditate. Don't disturb me."

Zuko's legs couldn't keep pace with his heart as he all but ran to his quarters once he was out of the older man's sight. He slammed the door shut behind him and allowed his body to slide down the metal surface, struggling to control his breathing. Eyes closed, he fought to regain his composure - only to curse inwardly when his mind betrayed him by replaying the scene over and over again. He had air-bended and there was only one plausible answer to how.

He was the Ava-Avat…

No.

The current Avatar was alive and well, hidden in the walls of Ba Sing Se as a cripple. It was stress. He had been placing energies so often into thoughts of the Air Nomads that he had actually believed he had performed one of their arts. Nodding to himself, Zuko rose to his feet. He'd prove that it had been a fluke, a stirring moment of sea-madness. Nothing more.

Striding across the room to the tapestry bearing the emblem of the home he had been banished from, the young man closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, trying to recall the feeling that had come over him on the deck. Gradually becoming aware of a feeling almost like a current of air crawling under a door, Zuko opened his eyes. Expecting to see nothing, or at least for the fabric to be up in flames, the air caught in his throat at the sight of the tapestry flapping against the wall in time with his breaths. As soon as he stopped breathing, the heavy fabric flopped limply back against the wall.

Horror captured him as if a spirit had wrapped its claws around his throat, his father's whispers of disgrace echoing through his mind. Stumbling back from the tapestry, as if to escape the truth, Zuko unexpectedly slammed into something that was decidedly real.

His head couldn't turn fast enough, his heart seeming to sink into the frozen ocean as steady hands rested on his shoulders, keeping him on his feet and facing weary golden eyes - eyes which were saying the thing he needed to be a lie: Avatar.

Iroh sighed, whispering, "My nephew… We need to talk."

Before the young prince could stop himself, the proud and immovable royal dropped to his knees, losing the contents of his stomach as the truth hit him hard like a punch to the gut. His mind teetered on the edge of oblivion as he realized what he had just lost by gaining this curse: his honor, his country, his throne, his home, and himself.

Zuko retched again, revolted by his own skin.

XXX

Paw07: I can hear some people hissing, be it because they don't think the time line makes sense or because they think that I won't have any Aang in this story. Well, duckies, worry not because you are wrong on both accounts. Aang will make an appearance and not as a ghost. How? Well, you'll just have to wait and see. Secondly, for those of you that are putting too much thought into this, I shall indulge you with some simple math. The war has been going on for about a hundred years and Roku was the last fully trained Avatar (the Air-benders apparently dead, Aang having died in the raid before training even really started, and all Fire-benders unwilling to train the new Avatar leaving the current Avatar weak; furthermore, the toys/objects to detect the last Avatar were lost with the Air-nomad's temples which leads to problems in even finding the Avatar). So, minus Zuko's birth which is fifteen years, you are left with about eighty-five years. Divide that however you want between an Earth and Water Avatar and then leave the Fire Nation thinking that the last Earth Avatar is still alive … well, no one's going to know there is a Fire Nation Avatar until it's too late, right? Too late for who? Well, what fun would it be if I came out and told you? But … there is also a timeline if you like:

Official Timeline courtesy of BlueLucied:

Year 0 - Avatar Aang's death. Start of the War. Birth of unnamed Water Nation Avatar.

Year 20-30- The Water Tribe Avatar is unknowingly (or knowingly) captured and killed by the Southern Raiders. Avatar Quiang is born.

Year 83- First siege of Ba Sing Se, Avatar Qiang dies, but his death is hidden by Long Feng and the Dai Li. Zuko is born.

Year 87- Aang is reborn.

Year 93-95 - Second siege of Ba Sing Se. Lu Ten's death.

Year 97- Zuko's banishment.

Year 99- Year of story.

(Revisions September 2013)