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Chapter 21: Betrayal is a Knife in the Heart
It was startling how similar Zuko and Azula's eyes were. Both were narrow, graceful, and golden, Agni's fire shining in their depths. Perhaps Azula's lashes were thicker, and the honey-colored irises were slightly darker on Zuko's eyes, but even so they were remarkably alike. But as Zuko, the traitor, the outcast, stared up at Azula, the conqueror, the huntress, they had never looked so different.
Azula's eyes shone with a maniac hunger, a sort of frenzied rage as she cornered her prey. The chestnut-brown flecks buried in the gold gleamed in the sunlight until they appeared red as blood. A cruel smile curved her lips.
Zuko struggled to his feet, the shackles clinking as he moved. His face was frozen in a look mixed between anger and terror, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, revealing his bared teeth.
"Unchain him," Azula ordered, her face still shining with a sort of insane joy.
"What?" Shallon didn't reach for the key. "Are you mad?"
"I said to unchain him!" Azula snarled. "You will obey me!" She stretched out one long finger and stroked Zuko's cheek, her pointed nail scratching his pale flesh. "Is there any triumph in killing a trapped bird? I've wasted so much time on this foolish mission. I will have satisfaction!" She turned her cruel gaze on Shallon. "What are you waiting for, fool?"
Hands shaking, Shallon reached for Zuko's chains. Sweat dripped into his eyes as he tried to fit the key into the lock. It slipped on the smooth iron, missing the hole. He was all too aware of Azula's eyes following his every movement. Two more tries, and the catch released. Zuko pulled his hands from the shackles, jumping away from Azula like a startled animal.
"You know it's no good to run, Zuzu," Azula laughed. "Come, brother, you know this is how it was always meant to end. You against me, one of us shall not live to see the end of this day."
Zuko snarled at her, but he was shaking. He couldn't do this…he couldn't bend. His eyes darted from Azula's face, to her hands, already placed in a firebending position. Was this how it was going to end? Was she going to slaughter him as he refused to fight back, too cowardly to stand his own flames?
"I'm tired of waiting, Zuzu," she taunted.
Hesitatingly, Zuko raised his hands in front of his face and closed his eyes. His only hope was that death would be quick.
Mai didn't know why Zuko was refusing to fight. She didn't know why he didn't bend. All she knew was that Azula was going to kill him, and he wouldn't even defend himself. Mai's only hope had been that at the last stand, when Zuko faced Azula, he would somehow be able to defeat her. She had always known that it was a futile hope, that Azula was by far the stronger bender. But she had never suspected that Zuko would give up, and refuse to even stand against her. She didn't know why, and she might never know.
But there were three facts she did know. She knew she loved Zuko, she knew she didn't want him to die, and suddenly, she knew that she couldn't let him. Mind steeled, she reached into her sleeve.
The first knife caught Azula's arm, knocking her to the side, and throwing her completely off balance. She gasped, stumbling to the side as the piece of metal used its momentum to pull her to her knees, and buried its sharp tip in the soft dirt.
Azula wrenched her arm free. For one moment she stared at the knife still tangled in the fabric of her uniform. It was so familiar, but she couldn't believe it…Mai wouldn't…not like this. But the elegant, lethal weapon was unmistakable. It glinted there, bright steel speaking only one word; betrayal.
With a cry of anger, Azula whirled around, a wide disc of fire shooting from her fingertips. Shallon and Jaron fled, casting fleeting glances over their shoulders at their abandoned property as they ran. Mai, however, rolled neatly under the flame, coming up gracefully into a kneeling position. Three knives were already in her hand tucked between her fingers. She threw them, two more ready the moment the first few began their flight.
Azula raised her arms, skillful fingers creating a shield of blue fire. The first three knives melted in the heat of the flames. The fire rolled forward then, pushed towards Mai by Azula's smooth movements. Mai jumped to the side, and flung her hand forward, releasing her knives.
Azula ducked between them, her lithe body twisting seemingly effortlessly to avoid the weapons. She rolled into a back-flip, fire shooting from her feet. Mai dropped to the ground, gritting her teeth as the hot tongues of flame almost grazed her sleek black hair.
A blade in each hand, she ran straight towards Azula, amber eyes narrowed in determined slits. A spear of fire shot towards her, the air around the blue flames shimmering with its heat. Dodge, roll, up, release. Two knives sped through the air, one aimed at Azula heart, the other at her legs. Azula jumped, cleanly avoiding the low knife. Bending back, she moved with lightning speed into a handstand, folding onto a backward somersault, and finally landing in a crouch. A thin trail of blood marked her cheek, evidence that she had not altogether succeeded in evading Mai's assault.
"What the hell are you doing?" Zuko's low quiet voice sounded near Mai's ear. She jumped, her next blade flying wide. She had forgotten how she missed that sound, even if he was swearing at her. But she needed to concentrate.
"Saving the jerk who dumped me," she whispered out of the corner of her mouth, a faint smile lightening her words. "A note? Seriously?"
A heartbeat of silence.
"I'm not leaving you," Zuko whispered. "She'll kill you. I'm not worth that."
Mai examined him, taking in his passionate eyes, and his face, thinner than it had been the last time she had seen him. She saw the haunted, hollow look in his face, and his emaciated form, stripped of the strength he had possessed before.
"You're worth it to me."
A blast of blue flame forced him to jump away from her, and Mai wondered why he didn't just bend it out of the way. The next second he was back at her side.
He shook his head, his dark hair falling in his face. "I won't leave."
Mai frowned. He was so stubborn…and so loyal.
"I saw your uncle." She threw another knife, avoided another burst of fire. Even while concentrating on Azula, she saw the startled jerk of his head, the widening of his eyes. "He's close behind us, looking for you. Go. Find him."
He wanted to, she could see it in his eyes. But he shook his head again. He thinks if he leaves he'll be abandoning me.
"Please," she begged, ducking under Azula's next frenzied blast. "I'm not risking my life for you so that you can die from your own stupidity and stubbornness."
Flames rushed past them, barely missing Zuko as he rolled to the side. She could hear the sharp intake of his breath, his barely restrained cry.
"GO!" she yelled, one eye on Azula as she took aim and flung a knife in the princess' direction. Her next blade was aimed at Shallon's cart. The sharp metal cut cleanly through the traces. Wild eyed, the ostrich horse tossed its head and made a break for freedom, desperate to escape the battle scene.
Zuko finally gave in. Long legs carrying him surprisingly fast as he raced after the ostrich horse. Pushing off from the ground, his foot settled for one moment on the rim of the cart; for a moment he was suspended in empty air, making a desperate leap toward the fleeing animal.
For one second, Zuko thought he wouldn't make it. Then, his arms closed around its warm neck. Zuko swung his legs up in a wide arc, the momentum from his leap making it possible for him to struggle astride the frightened animal.
Azula's scream of rage and blast of fire only served to spur the creature to greater speeds. It ran, dust rising in a thick cloud behind it, obscuring it from sight. Zuko buried his face in its neck, soft feathers rubbing against his cheeks. Suddenly, he felt so tired, so exhausted that it seemed like a miracle he was even holding on. His mind felt heavy with so many emotions that they blended together, weighing on him like a crushing force. Fear that Azula was right behind him, amazement that he was alive, worry for Mai, shame that he had run when she was risking her very life for him, hope, because he knew that Iroh was close, still searching.
Mai's whole body felt like lead. Her breath came in gasps as breathing became a struggle. Her sides hurt, and her head felt light. But Zuko had escaped. Now I can only hope that I get so lucky, Mai thought. Her reflexes were too slow, numbed by fatigue, and the blazing flame licked across her arm, leaving her skin red and blistering in its wake. She tried to scream, but couldn't draw the breath.
Azula's face had changed to a look of cold determination as she approached, her fire still strong and easily countering Mai's increasingly weak throws. Steadily, she beat down the knife-thrower, the girl who had betrayed her and chosen Zuko. Two of her guards had joined her, their attention drawn to the area by the smoke rising into the air. They circled behind Mai, enclosing her in a trap.
Mai's face was once again emotionless and detached. Deftly, she parried the fire with her blades, spinning and twirling as she hurled her weapons at her opponents. Once, she felt a hand close about her forearm. Still with a blade in her hand, she struck, feeling the metal sink into skin and her enemy's blood spatter her fingers. The hand jerked and released her.
Mai could see Ty Lee standing on the sidelines, completely motionless, her hands pressed to her mouth. She still hasn't decided where her loyalty lies. Mai felt no anger, no resentment, only a vague sort of pity. Ty Lee had never been able to quickly make up her mind. She was used to being a follower, having someone guide her through her decisions. But Mai had made her choice.
It wasn't much longer before Mai was forced to her knees by two guards, one on either side. She didn't have any strength left to resist, and crumpled weakly to the ground. She could see Azula standing in front of her, dirty and disheveled, but ready to strike. Her face hard and cold, Mai forced her eyes defiantly to the ground. Let it be quick.
Mai looked up. It was not the question that surprised her as much as the tone. Azula sounded…almost hurt. There was barely any anger in the word, only a sort of empty betrayal. But…Azula had never cared…had never loved Mai…had she?
"You knew I would kill you." Azula's voice was stronger this time, and less emotional.
Mai kept her voice empty, saying the words like they were lines memorized for a play, but rehearsed without feeling. She wouldn't show Azula how much she cared. "I guess you don't know people as well as you think you do. I love Zuko more than I fear you."
"You should have feared me more!" This time, anger flowed from Azula's voice like wildfire. "Look where love has brought you!" She gestured wildly towards Mai, held firmly to the ground. "Love can't save you anymore." Her voice was bitter and hollow as she brought her arms up, weaving her hands thought the air to summon lighting. Mai refused to look away. She knew the punishment, and she was not afraid.
The first sparks of electricity crackled around Azula's fingers as she pointed them towards Mai, and Ty Lee struck.
Her hands moved quickly and smoothly as a river, jabbing sharply into the various pressure points on Azula's body. Seven hits connected, in such quick succession that it was almost impossible to count them.
Azula gasped as her arms dropped limply to her sides, and she fell, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Her eyes were filled with shock as she glared at Ty Lee. The acrobat's hands were still closed in fists as she gazed down at Azula, her face frozen with fear and disbelief at what she had just done, as if she had acted without quite meaning to.
"I'm sorry, Azula!" she whimpered.
"Princess!" The guard who was not holding Mai rushed forward, pulling Azula into a sitting position. "Are you alright, princess?"
"Arrest them!" Azula gasped.
As one of her men released Mai and rushed at Ty Lee, Azula closed her eyes, trying to block the tear that was threatening to fall. She didn't think she had cared, didn't know she had felt anything for Mai and Ty Lee beyond satisfaction that she could use them as her servants. She had worried briefly about them betraying her before, but she had never thought it would hurt nearly as much as it did.
Why does it hurt?
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