Zuko thought they should practice what they would say. Mai agreed, because what else was there to do. He went first. By the time he was done struggling through it, she decided it wasn't the worst speech she'd ever heard.
"Well?" he asked with this sad, little hopeful expression on his face.
Mai exchanged a look with the badger frog on the log next to her.
"Would you like to take this one?"
The frog croaked then hopped onto Zuko's head and away. He groaned and scrubbed a hand over his face.
"Well, I didn't think it was that bad," Mai mused.
"I thought you came to help me."
"Yeah, yeah. What would your uncle tell you then?"
He paused for a minute, looking thoughtful.
"Zuko," he said, starting to pace and stroke a beard that wasn't there, "you have to look within yourself, to save yourself from your other self. Only then will your true self reveal itself."
"What does –"
"I have no idea."
He may not, and she didn't really get it either. Yet it was somewhat amusing.
"Huh. Do Azula."
He obeyed, raising his voice to match Azula's and propping a hand on his hip.
"Listen, Avatar, I can join your group or I can do something unspeakably horrible to you and your friends. Your choice."
Mai began a slow clap.
"Would you be serious?" Zuko yelled in frustration. "How are we supposed to convince these people that we're on their side?"
She pushed herself off of the rock she'd been resting on, dusting of the back of her clothes. Her hands came away with some kind of nature on it, and she shuddered. Overcoming that, she walked to Zuko and wrapped him in a hug, subtly wiping her hands on the back of his shirt.
"Stop freaking out. I'll work something out for you, since your diplomacy skills suck."
"Oh, wow, thanks for that."
"Although, skills might be too nice…"
"Was it really that bad?"
The badger frog hopped next to them and croaked.
The forest stopped. A short expanse of grass and shrubs began for only a quarter mile before it ended in an abrupt drop. The cliff face housed a temple, more a city really. The original inhabitants had long since passed, but there was life in the old ruins.
This is where the Avatar and his friends were hiding. Even if Zuko hadn't been following them, it would have been simple to track them here. The Avatar thought this place was safe, that the Fire Nation wouldn't know about it. He was halfway right; most didn't. Zuko, however, had experience and knowledge of such places.
He and Mai were scaling down the side of the mountain for the outcrop of rock below. From above, it looked no different than any other jutting orifice. But Zuko had been here before nearly three years ago. Last time, it had been empty. The only thing that could hurt him had been the thoughts and imaginations in his own head. This time, he'd have to deal with the Avatar, a master waterbender, a Water Tribe warrior, a master earthbender, and whoever else they'd picked up. He wasn't altogether certain if he should count the lemur and the bison.
What also made this different was the company. Zuko glanced to his left. Mai's eyes were fixated on the area around her. He couldn't get over the fact that she was actually here with him. She would have been perfectly safe back in the Fire Nation. Bringing her had just put her in danger; and she'd known that. He knew Mai cared for him but to do this…now was not the time to think about it. He'd do that later. He thought of the group below. If there was a later, he thought with a grimace.
Katara, Aang, and Sokka formed a semi-circle around Toph who was seated on the stone fountain, her feet dangling in the water. They'd basically just arrived at the Western Air Temple. Teo, the Duke, and Haku had run off to explore and Aang had been about to follow until Katara called him back. They needed to come up with a new plan to beat the Fire Lord.
"It's simple," Sokka told them. "The new plan is the old plan!"
The old plan that Aang learn firebending had a problem. Two, actually. Aang's hesitancy to learn firebending because of his fear of hurting someone again. Also, who for the love of Guanyin were they going to get to teach Aang?
"We could track down Jeong Jeong again," Katara suggested.
"Yeah, but we didn't actually find him the first time. When that guy wants to disappear, he's gone," Sokka said.
"Who's J – nevermind. If it's important, I'll find out later," Toph rolled unseeing eyes.
They were always talking about people she didn't know. One guy, Bumi, was supposed to be this really great earthbender. This was a man she wanted to meet…and put down. Hard. With the way Aang went on, and how uneasy Sokka and Katara were about him, it hinted that Bumi was the real deal.
Toph suddenly straightened up and planted her feet firmly on the base of the fountain.
"Guys?" she spoke up but went unheeded as the siblings and Aang continued their debate.
She felt a prick of annoyance as she stomped her foot and the earth underneath her friends jumped.
"Toph!" Sokka whined from his new position on the ground. Aang, of course, landed fine, and caught Katara too.
"What?" Katara asked with a frown.
Toph merely pointed behind them. They turned to see Zuko and the scary girl with knives and immediately took battle stances except for Toph who merely rolled her eyes.
"Hello," Zuko waved.
"Oh, come on!" Sokka cried from where he was still sprawled on the ground. "Can't we ever get a break?"
The girl stood silently as Zuko nervously rubbed the back of his head. Toph noticed there was something off about her weight. Usually, she was heavier. Not with fat, but with metal. She tapped the heel of her foot against the ground to get a better feel. Huh. She was unarmed. Well, that was interesting.
"What are you doing here?" Aang asked, sinking into a defensive position.
"What he's always doing. Except this time he brought a friend," Katara settled into a stance of her own, waiting for him to even twitch wrong.
"That's not why we're here," Zuko started hesitantly as he eyed the glaring waterbender. He took a deep breath and tried again with a little more confidence. "I know that I've made mistakes with dealing you guys in the past."
"Understatement of the century," Katara grumbled.
"And I know that a lot of it is completely unforgivable. I know I don't deserve your forgiveness, and I'm not asking for it. I know you have no reason to trust me, but I swear I'll do everything I can to earn it. I just want the chance to teach the Avatar firebending because I know that it's my destiny to teach you and help you end this war."
They stared at him dumbly for a moment. That didn't last long.
"You want to what now?" Sokka asked.
"Are you crazy?" Katara finished. "Do you think we're that stupid? That we would actually trust you after everything you've done to us?"
Zuko opened his mouth to speak, but Toph cut him off.
"Katara, get real."
"No, I don't think I will. Here you guys were, all freaking out about Aang learning firebending, and a Jeong-Jeong person, and then this guy shows up, begging to be the guy to teach Aang firebending! And you tell him no."
"Toph, it's Zuko!"
"Oh, really? I thought it was some other firebender who appeared out of nowhere to teach Aang? How silly of me. We have plenty of options, and it's not like time matters or anything."
"You're being ridiculous. You can't honestly expect –"
"For you to grow up and get over your petty little differences-" Toph abruptly pointed at her.
"And accept that we need Zuko whether you like him or not," Toph turned her sightless eyes on Katara.
Everyone else had wisely not spoken during the confrontation. Aang wasn't even too sure he should be breathing right now. Katara glared at Toph even though the blind girl couldn't see it before her gaze swung to Mai. Toph was absently aware that Teo and the others were standing somewhere behind them. This couldn't be a trap. Zuko was sincere and not stupid. He knew they could take him and his girl.
"Trust him? And just what do you say about her?"
All eyes turned to Zuko for explanation.
"She's with me," he said simply, reaching absently for her hand.
"What more do you need?" Toph asked. "It's not even like she's a threat right now."
"What?" Sokka questioned.
"I mean, she's weaponless as far as I can tell."
"She's right," the Fire Nation girl spoke up. "We thought lowering the threat level would help with this."
"Why are you even here? Did you get bored being Azula's little lackey?" Katara asked, sending the other girl a death glare that made Aang and Sokka flinch.
"That covers the gist of it."
To her credit, the pale girl didn't even blink. Toph decided she liked her.
"That's so reassuring," Sokka muttered.
"Katara," Aang said, "I think Toph has a point. Maybe we should?"
"You have got to be kidding me."
"I've done some good things too!" he defended. "In Bah Sing Se, I could have stolen bison, but I let him go."
Appa seemed to be backing up his claim, lumbering over and running his huge tongue up his back. The girl shuddered delicately, outright revulsion rolling off of her.
"He probably just covered himself in honey or something," Sokka declared stubbornly. "I don't buy it, and I don't trust you. One supposed good deed doesn't change the fact that you attacked our village and chased us all over the world."
"Or how about the time you stole my mother's necklace and sent that crazy woman after us?"
Zuko shifted to look at Aang.
"Why aren't you saying anything? You once said that you thought we could be friends. You know that I have good in me."
"That really wasn't that long ago, was it?" he shook his head though. "There's no way we can trust you after everything you done."
"I'm trying to explain that I'm not that person anymore!"
No matter how earnest he sounded, the group didn't show any empathy.
He sighed, swallowing all pride he had left. Zuko dropped to his knees, and Mai followed his example, though with some hesitation.
"If you won't take us as friends, then accept us as prisoners."
"You guys," Toph said, "they've been telling the truth this whole time."
"Or maybe he's just as good a liar as his sister," Katara put in.
"Can I just say," Mai added, head still bowed over her hands, "that Zuko cannot lie to save his life?"
"Is this supposed to be you helping?" Zuko whispered not so quietly to her.
She shrugged. "I couldn't possibly make it any worse."
A/N: Huh. I totally messed that up last chapter. But hey, if no one didn't spot it and didn't call me on it, I see no reason to address it any longer . Points to anyone who knows what it is though.