Inside My Mind

Thoughts of a medically incapacitated young adult

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A Misunderstanding of Sides
Zuko
somariel
Title: A Misunderstanding of Sides
Rating: T/PG-13
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Characters: Zuko, Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Suki, OCs
Warnings: Brutal pragmatism on the part of OCs, one use of the F-word
Summary: When the Gaang takes a trip to the Earth Kingdom after EIP, Zuko gets captured by Earth Kingdom soldiers while away from the others.

A/N: Many, many, many thanks are due to my amazing betas, amanda_violet and bother_kupo. Without their help and invaluable advice, this story would not be as good as it is.

Zuko gave a sigh of relief as Appa landed in a pocket canyon near the Earth Kingdom’s west coast. He was tired of flying. When he had suggested a no rules, anything goes sparring session to Aang yesterday afternoon, he had only been hoping to get the airbender’s mind off the horrific performance put on by the Ember Island Players; he had not expected it to turn into such a big affair. The others had latched onto the idea as a chance to hone their own skills for the battle they all knew was coming and it had quickly become clear that having such an all-out brawl at the Fire Nation royals’ summer home, where they were hiding, would give away their location to the rest of the island. That was when Sokka suggested that they take a trip to the Earth Kingdom and have their brawl there.

They had left Ember Island in the pale morning hours, counting on the dim light to conceal Appa from any observers, and they had been flying ever since. They had looked at several possible sites for the fight, rejecting all of them until Suki had spotted the gorge, which had appeared to be the perfect spot for their battle. The river provided plenty of water for Katara and Aang, the ground was solid enough that Toph would be able to “see” well, the numerous pocket canyons meant they could set up their camp where it would not be endangered by the battle, and there was a village they could go to for supplies less than half a day’s walk from the mouth of the gorge. By the time they had finished setting up camp, it was just an hour until midday.

“So,” Sokka said after they had all had a chance to rest, “what’s the plan? Are we going to start sparring today or are we going to wait a day or two?”

“I think we should wait until tomorrow to start sparring,” Katara said. “We didn’t bring a lot of food, so I want to pick up some more supplies in that village.”

“I think we should start today,” Zuko disagreed. “We have enough food to last until tomorrow.”

“What’s wrong with taking the rest of the day off to do other stuff?” Sokka asked.

Zuko shook his head. “It’s not what we came here to do.”

“Come on, Zuko,” Aang said. “It’s just half a day.”

Zuko sighed. “Well, I did want to scout the area for other people. I guess I can do that while you’re buying supplies.”

:-:-:-:-:


Once Katara had left for the village, accompanied by Sokka and Toph, Zuko headed out on his scouting mission. He searched the gorge first before he moved on to the forest at the mouth of the canyon on the far side of the river. He had been in the forest for about half an hour when he started hearing rustling in the underbrush ahead of him. At first he dismissed it as an animal, but then a few minutes later he saw a flash of movement to his left. Turning to get a better look, he saw it again—a patch of dull green against the darker green of the conifers.

I’d better get back to Aang, Zuko thought. I don’t know if I’ve been spotted yet, but whoever’s out there is unlikely to be happy to see me.

Zuko turned and began to run in the direction of the river. He was just starting to pick up speed when he tripped and fell. Picking himself up off the ground, he noticed a hole under his right foot.

Damn, he thought. They have spotted me. There’s no way I could have missed seeing that hole.

About to start running again, he stumbled at the pain that shot up his right leg as he transferred his weight to that foot. Sitting down on the ground, he gently tried to flex his right ankle. The pain wasn’t as bad as when he had broken his arm after falling out of the apple tree in the palace gardens, so it probably wasn’t broken, but it was better to be sure. Although it sent another bolt of pain up his leg, he was able to flex it.

Okay, he thought, it’s just a bad sprain. Still, I do not need this right now. I guess I’d better head for the cliff, since there’s no way I’m going to be able to outrun these guys all the way to our camp with a sprained ankle.

As he limped along, Zuko tried to listen for pursuit over the pounding of his heart. He made it to the cliff that marked the end of the gorge in about a minute. Drawing his swords, he settled into a ready stance and waited for his pursuers to show themselves.

The first attack came right after he began to wonder if his pursuers had lost interest. Turning to his right to block the head-sized rock with his swords, he failed to notice the ripple in the ground in front of him. He was caught by surprise as a pillar of rock slammed into the left side of his chest. The impact sent him flying backward until the back of his head hit an unyielding surface, hard. Then everything went black as he slipped into unconsciousness.

:-:-:-:-:


Sergeant Dai waited after the Fire Nation spy went down to make sure the man was truly unconscious before he began to give orders. Stepping out of the forest toward the spy, he called, “Chen, Yung, bind the prisoner. The rest of you, go get the ostrich-horses and bring them here.”

As he got closer to the spy, the sergeant realized that the man appeared to be about the same age as his eighteen year old son, maybe even a year or so younger. Reaching the young man’s feet, he noticed that there was a large area of discolored skin around the boy’s left eye.

It can’t be, he thought. What would he be doing out here?

Kneeling at the boy’s left side, Dai brushed back the thick mop of black hair to take a closer look at the discoloration. It was exactly as the mark had been described to him—a scar covering the left eye, reaching to above the brow ridge and wrapping far enough around the head to include the left ear.

“Well,” he murmured, “this is unexpected.”

“What’s unexpected, sir?” Chen asked, having come over in time to hear his comment.

“Our prisoner appears to be the Firelord’s son,” Dai replied.

“This is Prince Zuko?” Yung asked. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Dai said, getting back to his feet. “As far as I know, he’s the only Fire Nation teenager with a scar like this. Make sure to bind him tightly. I don’t want him to have any chance of getting free.”

:-:-:-:-:


It was the jolting of the animal beneath him that eventually drew Zuko back to consciousness. Each of the animal’s steps sent a burst of agony through the left side of his chest and made him gasp. Focused on trying to breathe with as little pain as possible, he was startled when a voice right behind him said, “I think our prisoner is waking up.”

Prisoner? Zuko thought, confused, before he remembered what had happened. Attempting to flex his wrists, he found his hands to be securely bound behind his back.

Okay, he thought, I am a prisoner. These guys are probably on the Earth Kingdom’s side, but I ought to make sure.

When he tried to open his eyes to take a look at his captors, however, he discovered that he had been blindfolded. Changing tactics, he asked, “Who are you and where are you taking me?”

“Who we are doesn’t matter, your highness,” the man behind him said, a sarcastic inflection turning the respectful title into an insult. “All you need to know is that we’re taking you to the nearest army base.”

At the words “army base”, Zuko went rigid with fear.

Oh, shit, he thought. Oh, shit, shit, shit. This has the potential to turn out really badly for me. If these guys are working for the Fire Nation, I’m as good as dead. They’ll ship me back to Caldera City before Aang and the others can find me. Even if they’re Earth Kingdom, they’re still not likely to be kind to me.

“Which side are you on?” he asked

“The Earth Kingdom’s, of course,” the man behind him said.

Thank Agni, Zuko thought, going limp with relief. They are Earth Kingdom.

:-:-:-:-:


When Katara, Sokka and Toph arrived at the camp an hour or two before sunset that evening, Aang asked them if they had seen any sign of Zuko on their way back from the village.

“I didn’t,” Sokka said, “but I wasn’t really looking, either.”

“My feet haven’t seen him, either,” Toph said.

Katara frowned at the younger boy. “Why did you ask, Aang?”

“Because Suki and I haven’t seen him since he left camp to do that scouting he was talking about,” Aang replied, looking across the river. “He should have been back hours ago.”

“We’re afraid he might have gotten hurt and so was unable to make it back to camp,” Suki said. “Aang and I have already looked up and down both sides of the gorge and there’s no sign of him.”

“What about the forest at the mouth of the gorge?” Sokka asked.

“I did a bit of searching right near the mouth,” Aang said, “but I didn’t want to go too far alone.”

Looking up at the darkening sky, Sokka said, “In that case, I think we should start by searching the forest.”

They had been searching the forest for only a few minutes when Toph discovered something with her earthbending sight. “Hey, guys,” she called. “Check out this weird rock.”

“Weird meaning earthbended?” Aang asked.

“Possibly,” Toph replied. “I won’t be able to tell until I get closer.”

Toph led the others in the direction of the rock formation. When they came out of the forest into the narrow meadow, it was immediately obvious what she was talking about. There was a sharply rising ridge of stone running from a foot or two from the edge of the trees to a bit past the halfway point between the forest and the cliff face.

“That is definitely the result of earthbending,” Sokka said.

“And those are ostrich-horse tracks going up to the cliff,” Suki added, pointing to the markings.

Katara looked toward the river, then back in the other direction. “Let’s see if we can find anything else.”

After a few minutes, they discovered a heavily scuffed area right at the foot of the cliff. It was on a direct line from the ridge back to the rock face and the ostrich-horse tracks led right up to it.

Off to one side while the others inspected the area, Toph jabbed her heel into the ground several times and frowned. “Guys,” she said, “there’s something weird over here.”

“I don’t see anything,” Aang responded, walking over to examine the area.

“It’s below ground.”

“What is it?” Suki asked.

“I’m detecting refined metal a foot or so below the surface.”

Katara frowned. “Refined?”

“That might be Zuko’s swords,” Sokka said excitedly. “Toph, see if you can bring it to the surface.”

“Will do, Snoozles.”

Toph stomped her foot on the ground a few times and a section of earth about three feet away from her began to bulge before falling away to reveal a pair of dao swords and a sheath. Sokka dashed over and picked up the weapons and scabbard.

“Yep, these are Zuko’s,” he said after a quick inspection.

“That still doesn’t tell us where he is,” Katara said, looking off across the river.

“Actually,” Suki interrupted, “I’m beginning to think that he might have been captured by an Earth Kingdom army patrol.”

“What makes you think that?” Katara asked.

“Well, for one thing, it looks like there are tracks from at least six ostrich-horses here. Army patrols always travel in groups of ten.”

Aang twirled his glider in his hands. “But if he was captured, he could just tell them that he’s on our side now.”

“Even if he did tell them, they probably wouldn’t believe him,” Sokka said. “That’s especially true if he was recognized.”

“They would believe me, though,” Aang responded. “He could have told them where our camp is so they could ask me.”

Sokka shook his head. “Aang, following an enemy’s directions is a pretty good way to get yourself ambushed. That wouldn’t have worked.”

“Also, he might not have had a chance to tell them right away,” Suki added.

“What do you mean?” Katara asked.

“It’s possible that Zuko was knocked unconscious,” Suki said, looking thoughtful. “If he didn’t regain consciousness until they had taken him a good distance away from here, he might have decided that it would be better to wait until they reached their destination before saying anything.”

“What would their destination likely be?” Aang asked.

“Probably the nearest army base,” Suki responded. “Local jails generally aren’t equipped to handle firebenders.”

Staring back towards the river, Sokka said, “In that case, I think our next move should be to find the army patrol.”

:-:-:-:-:


After packing up their camp, Team Avatar piled onto Appa and took the bison up to look for the army patrol, flying in an expanding spiral. They had been searching for about half an hour when Katara spotted something.

“Hey, guys,” she said. “I see something moving off to our left.”

Everyone except Toph turned to look at what Katara had seen. A dark blotch was moving away from them on the ground.

“Good job, Katara,” Sokka said. “We may have found the patrol.”

As Appa approached, it became clear that their target was actually a group of five objects.

“Maybe this isn’t the patrol after all,” Aang commented. “Didn’t Suki say that army patrols travel in groups of ten?”

“They normally do,” Suki said, “but it’s still possible that this is the patrol. If they recognized Zuko as the Firelord’s son, they might have decided that he was either dangerous enough or politically valuable enough for them to send extra men with the group bringing him to the army base.”

“That makes sense,” Toph said.

Appa drew closer and they were soon able to see that the objects were indeed men riding ostrich-horses. Within a minute, they were near enough to identify the riders’ clothing as being army uniforms.

As Appa started to descend, Aang and the others saw that the group had stopped and the riders were looking up at the bison. Appa landed a few feet away from the group, and then one of the soldiers approached the bison on his ostrich-horse, dismounted, and bowed.

“Avatar,” he said respectfully, “is there anything we can do to help you?”

“There is,” Aang said. “We’re looking for a friend. We think he may have had an unfriendly encounter with your patrol today as the result of a misunderstanding. We’re hoping you can tell us where to look.”

“I don’t think we can help you with that,” the soldier said. “The only unfriendly encounter we had today was with a person whom our sergeant recognized as the Firelord’s son.”

“Actually,” Sokka interjected, “Prince Zuko is the friend we’re looking for.”

“He is?” the soldier asked, his eyes widening and his eyebrows rising into his hairline.

“Yes, he is,” Aang said. “Zuko is on our side now. He’s even teaching me firebending.” To illustrate his point, Aang summoned a small flame into his cupped hand.

“Are you certain that he’s really changed sides and isn’t just pretending?” the soldier asked.

“We are,” Katara said. “He’s had several opportunities to betray us and he hasn’t acted on any of them.”

“He’s also been completely honest in what he’s told us,” Toph said, idly picking her nose.

“How can you be certain of that?” the soldier asked.

“I can tell if someone’s lying,” Toph said before climbing out of the saddle and sliding to the ground.

The soldier frowned. “How do you do that?”

“Little things, like how a person’s heart rate and breathing change when they lie,” Toph said. “I can detect those changes with my earthbending.”

The soldier’s face took on a thoughtful look.

“Where is the rest of your patrol taking him?” Aang asked.

“They’re taking him to Shanyuan Base,” the soldier said.

“That’s a lie,” Toph stated, pointing her finger at him accusingly. “Where are they really taking him?”

“Huh,” the soldier remarked, a half smile quirking his lips. “I guess you really can tell when someone’s lying. They’re taking him to Qingshan Base. One of us will need to guide you there. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. We’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

:-:-:-:-:


Zuko and his captors arrived at the army base an hour or two past noon on the fifth day after his capture. No longer blindfolded, Zuko looked around at his surroundings and was impressed with what he saw. From the size of the base, it was an important one, with six large, windowed buildings that were probably barracks and a slightly smaller building that had to be the command center. There were also four large, windowless storehouses, an armory, an infirmary, three training areas—one for earthbenders, one for non-benders, and one for mixed training—a mess hall and kitchen, and a small guarded building near the back of the base that had no obvious purpose.

Arriving at the stable, his captors dismounted and he saw one of them retrieve something from a box on the wall before they hauled him off the ostrich-horse. As soon as his feet hit the ground, Zuko’s arms were grabbed just below the elbow. The leather cords binding his hands were removed and replaced by something hard, cool, and smooth. Hearing several clicks, Zuko realized that his hands had been shackled.

The soldiers released Zuko’s arms after a quick tug on the shackles and he was pulled away from the ostrich-horse and spun around to face the base. Four of the soldiers who had captured him formed up around him before looking to their apparent leader, whom Zuko had heard the others call Sergeant Dai.

“All right, men,” Sergeant Dai said. “Take the prisoner to the interrogation room. I’ll go inform the general.”

“Should we prepare him for interrogation?” one of the others asked.

“No,” Sergeant Dai responded. “General Xiang might not be able to come right now, and I’m certain that he’ll want to oversee this interrogation personally.”

Having finished his instructions, the sergeant turned and headed for the command center. Someone shoved Zuko from behind, giving him no choice but to follow the soldiers over to the guarded building near the back of the base. Upon entering, the soldiers stopped and one of them retrieved a pair of shackles on a chain from a nearby room. He then ordered Zuko to kneel. Zuko complied, awkwardly dropping to his knees, and allowing the soldier to lock the chain around his ankles.

“Stand,” the soldier ordered.

His stomach twisting into knots, Zuko got to his feet and followed the soldiers into a room where the sole piece of furniture was a chair with restraints for the occupant’s hands and feet.

“Sit,” one of the soldiers ordered.

Zuko sat down carefully. He and the soldiers waited for ten minutes before the door opened to reveal Sergeant Dai and the general. The general was a tall man, perhaps six feet in height, with black hair and a short beard.

“So this is Prince Zuko, hmm?” the general asked as he stepped into the room.

“He is, sir” Sergeant Dai replied.

Nodding in acknowledgment, the general then simply stood there and studied Zuko for a moment. Zuko stared back at the general, then, tiring of the older man’s scrutiny, he opened his mouth to speak. At that exact moment, the general began to give orders.

“The Avatar-”

“Sergeant-”

Zuko and the general both stopped in surprise. The prince was the first to recover.

“The Avatar will not be pleased when he learns you’ve captured me,” Zuko stated.

Blinking twice, the general shook his head, as if disbelieving what he had just heard. “Oh? And why wouldn’t the Avatar be pleased to learn we’ve captured one of his greatest enemies?”

“Because I’m not his enemy any more,” Zuko replied. “I’ve changed sides and I’m teaching him firebending.” And I should’ve done it earlier. I had the perfect chance back in Ba Sing Se and I threw it away to try and please my father.

“If that’s true, then why weren’t you with the Avatar?” the general asked. “Last I heard, the Avatar was hiding somewhere in the Fire Nation.”

“Actually, sir,” Sergeant Dai said, “we saw the Avatar’s bison in the sky just a few hours before we captured the prince.”

“You did?” the general asked, turning to the sergeant.

“Yes, sir.”

Turning back to Zuko, the general asked, “How did you learn the Avatar was in the Earth Kingdom?”

“I came here with him,” Zuko responded, shifting his weight nervously.

“You mean you followed him here,” the general countered, narrowing his eyes.

“No, I mean I came here with him. I told you, I’m his firebending teacher now.”

“How does the Avatar learning firebending benefit the Firelord?”

“It doesn’t,” Zuko said bluntly.

“Then why are you teaching it to him?”

“Because I’ve changed sides and Aang needs-”

“How did you fool him into believing you’ve changed sides?” the general interrupted, looming over him.

“I didn’t have to fool him,” Zuko said, making an abortive attempt to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I really have changed sides.”

“How does your father benefit from having you change sides?”

Zuko made a frustrated sound. “He doesn’t. I didn’t change sides to help my father.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“I did it to help Aang.”

Over the next hour and a half, Zuko grew even more irritated. Every time it seemed like the general was starting to accept that he was telling the truth, the questioning would restart with maximum suspicion. If Zuko expressed his frustration in any way, he received a punch to his cracked ribs. The one time he had tried to interrupt the general, the soldiers had blacked his good eye and split his lip as well. Finally, after what seemed the hundredth time he’d been ordered to tell the truth, Zuko had had enough.

“I am telling the fucking truth!” he yelled. “Why won’t you believe that?”

Before any of the soldiers could punch his ribs again, the general held up a hand. “Wait,” he said, beckoning to Sergeant Dai. “Sergeant, come with me.”

With that, the general turned and left the room.

:-:-:-:-:


General Xiang wasn’t sure what to think as he left the interrogation room. On the one hand, it would certainly be better for the post-war world if Prince Zuko was telling the truth. On the other hand, he had no reason to believe the boy was being honest, but if the prince was lying, he was doing a very good job of it.

The general turned to Sergeant Dai. “Find Colonel Jianjun and Major Tengfei and bring them with you to my office. We have some matters to discuss.”

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Dai said, bowing.

General Xiang continued walking as the sergeant headed off to carry out his orders. When the general reached his office, he pulled out the latest intelligence report from his spies in the colonies. He had finally received confirmation of the rumor that the Dragon of the West had turned on the Fire Nation. Once, he wouldn’t have thought that to be any more likely than Prince Zuko turning, but just because one improbability had happened, did that really mean the other was just as likely?

His musings were interrupted by the arrival of Sergeant Dai, who was soon followed by the two officers the sergeant had been sent to find. Once the colonel and the major had seated themselves, General Xiang got down to business.

“I need your advice, gentlemen,” he said. “Sergeant Dai’s patrol captured Prince Zuko and arrived here with him today, but the prince is claiming that he has changed sides and is teaching the Avatar firebending.”

“He’s obviously lying, sir,” Colonel Jianjun responded. “The latest report of the Avatar’s location placed him somewhere in the Fire Nation.”

General Xiang nodded. “That was my first reaction as well, but Sergeant Dai says that his patrol saw the Avatar’s bison in the sky a few hours before their capture of the prince.”

“It’s still more likely that the prince was tracking or is fooling the Avatar than that he has actually changed sides,” Colonel Jianjun said bluntly.

“I know,” General Xiang acknowledged, “but in an hour and a half of questioning, he has remained firm that he no longer supports the Firelord.”

And that was a surprise. The general hadn’t expected it to take so long for the boy to show any major cracks in his demeanor.

Realizing that the major had not said anything yet, the general asked, “Major, what is your opinion on the matter?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” Major Tengfei said, frowning. “I do think it is unlikely that the prince is fooling the Avatar, though. Even if the Avatar is naïve enough to be tricked, from everything I’ve heard, his companions are not.” He turned to Sergeant Dai. “Do you think that the prince is telling the truth?”

“I think it is possible that he is telling the truth,” Sergeant Dai admitted, “if only because it would better explain a few things that have been confusing me.”

“And what are those things?” Colonel Jianjun asked, giving the sergeant a skeptical look.

“The first is that, when he regained consciousness after his capture, he asked us which side we were on.” A crease formed on the sergeant’s brow. “His reaction to hearing that we were on the Earth Kingdom’s side was to relax.”

“That is rather strange,” Colonel Jianjun allowed, his eyes widening.

“The second,” Sergeant Dai continued, “is that, overall, he has not acted anything like I would have expected him to behave, especially after being captured by enemies.”

“What do you mean by that?” Major Tengfei asked, watching the other man closely.

“Well, for one thing, although he didn’t explicitly say that he wouldn’t try to escape, he did give us a rather thorough explanation of why he didn’t think he would be able to. For another, he barely seemed worried about what would happen to him when we arrived here.”

“That is rather odd behavior for someone who’s been captured by enemies,” Major Tengfei observed, rubbing his chin in thought.

Sergeant Dai nodded. “On the whole, Prince Zuko’s behavior and his attitude have been so different from the stories I’ve heard about him that, if it weren’t for the scar, I’d be wondering if we were wrong about his identity.”

“How has he been different from what you’ve heard about him?” General Xiang asked, determined to get to the bottom of the matter.

Sergeant Dai met the general’s gaze steadily. “Instead of being rude, angry, impatient, and very much wrapped up in his own superiority, he’s been quiet, calm, polite and restrained.”

:-:-:-:-:


The general and sergeant re-entered the interrogation room fifteen minutes later. Zuko noted that the sergeant was carrying a pair of shackles on a short chain. He hoped that the general had at least managed to accept the most obvious course of action.

“All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” the general said, staring down at the prince. “I’m going to send Sergeant Dai and his men back out in search of the Avatar so that he can come here and confirm or deny your claim. But until that happens, I am going to have to treat you under the protocol for prisoners.”

Zuko snorted. “Because I’m such a great threat, with cracked ribs and a sprained ankle.”

“Don’t annoy me, your highness,” the general responded sharply, “or I might change my mind about sending the base physician to take a look at your injuries. Now stand up.”

As soon as Zuko obeyed, two of the soldiers grabbed his arms right below the elbow, like they had earlier, and a third soldier removed the shackles. The soldiers holding his arms brought his hands around to his front and Sergeant Dai locked the new chain and shackles he was holding around Zuko’s wrists. The sergeant gave a brief tug on each end of the chain and, once satisfied, the soldiers released Zuko’s arms.

The general turned to the sergeant and handed him a key. “Put the prince in high security number three. I’ll be sending Doctor Yao down immediately, so wait for him to finish before you leave.”

:-:-:-:-:


Once the base physician had left after bandaging Zuko’s ribs and ankle, the sergeant exited the cell and locked it, leaving Zuko alone. The prince settled himself in the beam of sunlight coming through the cell’s narrow window and began his usual morning meditation exercises. When he had finished that, he moved on to a more complex routine, one that his uncle had taught him while they were living in Ba Sing Se. Running through all the meditation sets he knew would at least give him something to do while he waited for Aang to arrive.

Later, drawn back into awareness by the sound of metal scraping on metal, Zuko was surprised to see how much the angle of the sunlight had changed.

It must be nearly sunset, he thought. I guess I fell asleep while I was meditating.

Unfolding himself from his seated position, he stretched as much as the chains would allow, making sure not to put too much stress on his left side, and looked around the cell. Just inside the door, there was a metal tray holding a metal cup, a pair of chopsticks, and a still steaming bowl of rice and vegetables.

I bet the delivery of that is what woke me up.

Retrieving the tray, he took it over to the cell’s thin mattress, sat down, and began to eat. He had just finished his meal when the door to the cell opened and the general entered. Zuko tensed up slightly, wondering why the general had come to see him.

“Don’t worry,” the general said as he closed the door, “nothing’s wrong. I just have some questions I want to ask you. Nothing formal, either. I’m just curious.”

Zuko relaxed at the general’s last statement. “What do you want to know?”

“I suppose the first thing I’d like to know is what made you decide to join the Avatar.”

“It’s sort of complicated,” Zuko confessed, “but the decision came after I realized that the person my father wanted me to be is not who I really am.”

“And who are you, if you’re not the person your father wanted you to be?” the general asked, curiosity clear on his face.

Zuko had expected that question. “I am my mother’s son.”

“Does your father know that you’ve changed sides?”

“I told him, right before I left.”

“I can’t imagine he took the news well,” the general commented.

Zuko let out a small breath, thinking of the lightning attack he had been forced to redirect. “No, he didn’t.”

:-:-:-:-:


Around mid-morning, on the sixth day of their trip to Qingshan Base, Team Avatar and their guide encountered the other half of the patrol. Sokka spotted the group first and quickly alerted the others to the soldiers’ presence. By the time Aang had brought Appa down, the soldiers had come close enough for individual members to be identified.

“That’s Sergeant Dai in the lead,” their guide, Jian, exclaimed.

As the returning group came within easy hailing distance, Sergeant Dai called out, “Jian, is that you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I see that the Avatar is with you,” Sergeant Dai observed, shifting his attention to the bald monk. “That makes things much simpler.”

“How so, sir?” Jian asked.

“It means we don’t have to look for him,” Sergeant Dai said, smiling in a slightly amused manner.

“You were looking for me?” Aang asked, frowning at the older man.

“Yes,” Sergeant Dai responded. “General Xiang sent us to find you so that you could confirm or deny Prince Zuko’s claim that he has changed sides and become your firebending teacher.”

“It’s true,” Aang said with a grin. “Zuko has changed sides and he is teaching me firebending.”

Sergeant Dai nodded. “I had guessed as much from seeing that you were with Jian. However, you are going to have to come to the base and tell the general in person to secure Prince Zuko’s release.”

:-:-:-:-:


When Appa was in the air again after they changed guides, Suki took on a pensive look as she stared down at the soldier guiding them.

“What’s wrong, Suki?” Sokka asked, noticing the look.

“Nothing’s wrong, exactly,” Suki replied. “I’m just worried about how well Zuko is holding up.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Aang said, chiming in from Appa’s head.

“I wouldn’t be so certain of that,” Sokka said. “He was captured six days ago and we have no idea how they’ve been treating him.”

“They wouldn’t have done anything to him after he told them he had changed sides and was teaching me,” Aang said.

“Aang, that would only be true if they believed him,” Katara said. “It’s pretty clear they don’t believe him, or they wouldn’t be asking you to confirm it.”

“Face it, Twinkletoes, not everyone is as willing to forgive as you are.”

At Toph’s comment, Aang’s face fell and he started curling in on himself. Katara immediately realized how worried the earthbender’s response had made Aang and rushed to comfort him.

“I’m sure they wouldn’t have actually hurt him,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. “At the worst, he’s probably just uncomfortable. And he won’t have to endure it much longer—we’ll be there tomorrow.”

“You’re right,” Aang said, brightening. “Everything will be fine once we get Zuko back.”

:-:-:-:-:


Team Avatar, now guided by Sergeant Dai, arrived at Qingshan Base early in the morning the next day. Landing Appa by the stables, Aang and the others found Sergeant Dai waiting for them when they dismounted.

“Follow me,” the sergeant said before turning and heading for the central building.

Upon entering the building, Sergeant Dai led them to the end of the main hallway, where he then knocked on the last door on the left. From the other side of the door, a voice replied, “Who is it?”

“It’s Sergeant Dai, sir,” the sergeant answered. “I’ve brought the Avatar and his friends to see you.”

“Come in, then,” the voice said.

Sergeant Dai opened the door and Aang and the others followed him into the room. Sitting at a desk in front of a large window was a tall man with dark hair and a short beard.

“Avatar Aang, welcome,” the man said. “I am General Xiang. Please, take a seat.” He gestured to a pair of chairs in front of the desk. “Has Sergeant Dai told you why I wanted to see you?”

“He has,” Aang responded, sitting down in the right-hand chair while Katara took the other. “Zuko is telling the truth. He has changed sides and he is teaching me firebending.”

“And you are certain that he is not simply pretending to have changed sides?” the general asked.

“Completely certain,” Toph stated bluntly. “Zuko is the worst liar I’ve ever encountered.”

“Very well, then,” General Xiang said, as if they had just confirmed to him what he already knew. “Since he is telling the truth, if you will wait here, I will go get him so you may leave.” Standing up, the general then walked around the desk and left the room.

:-:-:-:-:


Zuko was going through his fourth meditation set when he was interrupted by the sound of the cell door opening. Opening his eyes, he was surprised to see that General Xiang had entered the cell.

I hope nothing’s wrong, Zuko thought.

“The Avatar has arrived,” General Xiang said by way of greeting.

“He has?” Zuko asked, surprised that Aang could have gotten there so quickly, even on a flying bison.

“Yes,” the general responded. “He’s confirmed that you’re telling the truth.”

Zuko gave a relieved smile. “So I’m free to go?”

“You are,” General Xiang replied, smiling a little. “The Avatar and your other friends are waiting for you in my office.”

Zuko nodded and got on his knees for the removal of the chains. The two men spent the walk to the general’s office in silence. Right before they entered through the door, General Xiang stopped and faced the prince.

“I hope you realize that the actions I took in regard to you were in no way personal,” he said, softening his voice.

“Don’t worry,” Zuko responded with a shrug. “I would have done the same thing in your position.”

“I just wanted to make sure,” General Xiang said, and then he straightened and his voice returned to its usual brusque tone. “Now go on in. Your friends are waiting for you.”

Zuko opened the door and stepped into the office to find Aang and the others smiling at him.

“Hey, Sifu Hotman!” Aang called, bounding to his feet. “Are you okay?”

Zuko groaned at the nickname but smiled at Aang all the same. “For the most part,” he said. “And, Aang, I swear, the next time you call me that…”

“You’ll do what, Sifu Hotman?” Aang asked cheekily.

“I’m giving you double training drills when we get back to the Fire Nation, that’s what.”

“Can we get on with things?” Toph asked, idly picking her nose. “We have Zuko back, so now it’s time to leave.”

“I would also urge you to leave quickly,” General Xiang said. “Several of the young hotheads on the base have been doing quite a bit of grumbling about Prince Zuko over the last few days. The sooner you leave, the sooner they’ll settle down.”

Heeding the unspoken concern in the general’s comment, they said farewell and took their leave of him. They had barely taken a few steps before Sokka pulled them toward the hall’s dead end.

“Sokka, what are you doing?” Katara asked. “The exit is in the other direction.”

“I know,” Sokka said. “I just think we need to do some planning before we leave the building, given that the general mentioned that some of the soldiers have been grumbling about Zuko.”

“You don’t really think they’d cause trouble for us, do you?” Aang asked, biting his lip in worry.

“I think it’s better to have a plan and not use it than to need a plan and not have one,” Sokka responded grimly.

“I agree with Sokka,” Zuko said, thinking of Lee, Jet and even the general’s initial stubborn refusal to believe the truth. He turned to the Water Tribe boy. “So what do you think we should do?”

“Can you run with the limp you have right now?” Sokka asked, gesturing to the prince’s bandaged ankle.

“Not really,” Zuko admitted.

“Damn,” Sokka muttered. “That shoots down the easiest plan.”

Tapping his chin, he let his gaze wander as if searching for inspiration. It finally settled on the arm on which Toph wore her meteor bracelet. Sokka’s face lit up with a grin.

“How good are you at acting?” he asked, turning back to Zuko.

:-:-:-:-:


When Team Avatar left the command center, it was in formation around Zuko, with Aang at the front, Katara and Toph to either side, and Sokka and Suki at the back. They had crossed maybe half the distance between the command center and the stables when Toph muttered “Incoming” in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the rest of the group. Before the team had traveled more than a dozen more feet, they were stopped by a group of ten soldiers.

“What are you doing with Prince Zuko?” the soldier at the front asked loudly, standing in front of Aang.

“He’s been turned over to our custody,” Aang said.

“Why?” the lead soldier asked. “He should stay here to face Earth Kingdom justice.”

Stepping forward until he was less than a foot away from the soldier, Aang answered in a low voice, “It’s so we can pick his brains about his father.”

“And why can’t you do that here?”

“Because we’re already running late for the meeting that we came to the Earth Kingdom for,” Sokka interjected, “and we won’t be able to come back here afterward.”

“Why won’t you be able to come back here?”

“Because if things work out right, this meeting will gain Aang a firebending teacher,” Katara said, “and they are unlikely to be willing to come to an Earth Kingdom army base.”

“Plus, once Aang has a firebending teacher, we won’t have time for anything but training,” Sokka added.

The soldier who had been speaking turned back to the other soldiers with him and started a whispered conversation. After a minute or two, he turned back to Aang and the others and said, “Very well, then. Allow us to escort you and your prisoner to your bison.”

“Thank you,” Sokka said. “We accept your offer.”

The soldiers parted for Team Avatar to pass, then formed a semi-circle behind them and followed them the rest of the way over to the stables and Appa.

Looking up at the saddle on Appa’s back, one of the soldiers asked, “Do you need assistance in getting the prince up there?”

“Nah, we’ve got it,” Toph said before climbing into the saddle. Once she had settled herself, she said, “Okay, Aang, send him up now.”

Aang carefully raised the ground beneath Zuko until it reached a height where the prince could easily step into the saddle.

Zuko hesitated until Toph said, “Get in or I’ll bend you in,” at which point he cautiously stepped over the edge of the saddle and sat down beside Toph. As soon as the prince was seated, Toph grabbed his hands and fastened the meteor rock binding his hands to one of the saddle’s handles.

Once Toph had finished securing Zuko, Aang wafted himself onto Appa’s head while Katara, Sokka and Suki climbed into the saddle. When the others were settled, Aang called “Yip yip,” and Appa took off.

:-:-:-:-:


After the base was safely out of sight, Toph undid the meteor rock and freed Zuko’s hands.

“Thanks, Toph,” he said, rubbing his wrists gently. “That was beginning to get uncomfortable.” He turned to the others. “Are we still going to go ahead with the mock battle?”

“We were discussing that last night,” Sokka replied, “and the consensus was that it would be better not to, at least for now.”

“It’s definitely something to keep in mind for the future,” Suki said, “but given how complicated things got with your capture, we all feel now that the Earth Kingdom is not the best place to have it.”

“Fair enough,” Zuko said. “I’d rather not find out what would happen if someone came across us in the middle of the fight.”

And I really didn’t expect my simple suggestion to turn into such a big affair, he thought. I certainly wasn’t expecting to have to defend my place at Aang’s side, much less have to do so to Earth Kingdom soldiers. And…for Aang and the others to have arrived at the base so quickly, they must have gone looking for me and found the signs of my capture that same day.

He looked at his companions and smiled. They really had accepted him as part of their group.

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That was enjoyable. It's nice to know the Gaang can have adventures that fit in between the episodes. I like how you managed to fit this in between EIP and Sozin's Comet. Poor Zuko, but I was amused at his relaxed reaction to being captured by the EK and it's nice to know how quickly his friends came to rescue him. I like it when you write longer fics like this.

With regards to fitting this in between EIP and Sozin's Comet, my headcanon timeline places EIP about six weeks before the day of Sozin's Comet, so that leaves plenty of time for other adventures. For this story, I see Zuko as having made the suggestion that started it the day after EIP and the story itself starting two days after EIP.

As for Zuko's relaxed reaction to being captured by the Earth Kingdom, he's thinking logically. He knows they've recognized him as the Firelord's son, which means that they likely think he has value as a political bargaining chip. Even if they aren't thinking of that, they're unlikely to kill someone who could provide valuable information about the Fire Nation's plans. And once he tells them that he's changed sides and is teaching Aang, he has a further layer of insulation from serious harm.

In contrast, my headcanon for Zuko's status in the Fire Nation post-DOBS is that he's wanted alive or dead and the primary incentive for keeping him alive is that the reward for turning him in alive is substantially higher than the reward for his corpse. Zuko also knows that the only reason he's wanted alive is because Ozai wants to kill him himself.

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