Disclaimer: I'm still twitching over the finale. Do you seriously think that I would pull a stunt like that? ...Well, yes. But I didn't, because I don't own it.

AN: SERIOUS SEASON FINALE SPOILERS!!!! DON'T READ IF YOU DIDN'T WATCH!!!!

I hope I made that easy enough to see. I apologize if this is a bit...vague, etc, but it was spawned in a single night, immediately after watching the finale with my friends Kya and Zombie. And Kya and I were just about having seizures the entire time. In the end, during the last ten minutes or so...yeah, we were suffering. And immediately after it was over, I started forming this thesis, which I explained to Kya to calm both of us (Zombie, though an uber awesome person, isn't really an Avatar Fan...). In respect and dedication to Kya, this is my interpretation of what happened.

And as an answer to Khi, I still ship Zutara. Either I'm in denial or I'm right here, but I still think that there is hope. Yes, I'm irritated with what Zuko pulled...but not so much as you are, I don't think.


Zuko could barely discern what his sister and uncle were saying. His focus was on the Dai Lee men, who obeyed Azula as though she was their general. Which, he realized woodenly, she was. She had taken over the Capital of the Earth Kingdom, and he hadn't even noticed. The Avatar had been in the same city for weeks, and he hadn't noticed.

I'm a fool.

But not fool enough to be deceived by his broken hopes. Azula had an entire army behind her, and there was no way that he and Iroh could outfight them all. Escape was impossible.

He approached Iroh after Azula left.

"Zuko, you must--"

"Go back to your tea, Uncle," he said quietly, issuing a kick that shattered the crystal that held Iroh captive. Not looking back, he raced after Azula.

His sister was fighting the Avatar and the peasant. The girl. Katara.

Her name was Katara. And she wasn't just a warrior, or an enemy. She was a girl, not unlike Song or Jin. Just like them, she was kind, though long since accustomed to the cares and hardships of war, to the bitterness of losing loved ones to angry flames. She lacked their sweet purity, but she was as innocent as they had been. A mere victim of circumstance, who had been dealt the dark fortune of befriending the Avatar. It wasn't her fault that she was loyal to someone she cared about. It wasn't her fault that her mother had been killed.

Azula was cornered now, and he realized that there was no more time. He recognized that stance--the one that had nearly slain Iroh a few months before. A single strike and Azula would have killed them both. One blast and Katara would be gone forever.

He issued a powerful burst of flame, and he prayed to Agnii or whoever could hear him that he wasn't too late. The attack seperated the three and broke Azula's stance, and he rejoiced.

His sister glared at him, and again he remembered himself. Azula was too strong to be stopped just yet, and her men would murder Katara and Iroh without a second thought. And so he turned his flames on the Avatar--Aang--proving his loyalty to Azula's cause. Blow after brutal blow followed, the four fighters wove between each other and exchanged opponents as though in some delicate dance, and again he faced Katara.

"I thought you'd changed!" she cried at him.

That was where she surpassed the two other girls. Both of them had been kind, but neither had ever known him for who he really was. Neither of them had ever seen an enemy that wore his face, had feared for their lives at his hands. Neither of them had trained specifically to keep him at bay. With crushing guilt, he remembered his past encounters with the girl. Binding her to a tree, sending volley after volley of flames at her, watching without remorse as her skull struck a stone while he carried the Avatar away, not caring if the blow might kill her.

"I have changed!" he bellowed back, striking with surges of flame, staying just far enough not to strike her. All he needed to do was keep her busy. Keep her away from Azula and her murderous lightning. At this point, he couldn't care less if the Avatar lived or died.

But she does. He issued another blow, this one meant to overwhelm her. It struck short and hurled her back, and she fell. Hopefully, she would remain unconcious.

He was hurting her now, as he had hurt her before. But this time was different, this time he fought for her sake, instead of her destruction. Because she had forgiven him. She, more than anyone else besides perhaps Iroh, had understood him, listened to his grief, his shame, his spite, known the danger of his hands, and still forgiven him. She alone had been strong enough--good enough--to pardon his every crime. She alone had possessed the mercy to erase his shame forever.

When the fighting was over, he would ensure that Katara would only be captured, and he would provide for her release, or at least her escape. She could return to her friends, or perhaps leave the city with Iroh. They could take good care of each other.

The world turned upside down, and he lost control. All Zuko could do anymore was to stay close to Azula and reassure his sister of his support. His focus faltered for only one moment, as she slipped away to murder the Avatar. Reality crumbled as the Avatar died, as Iroh joined the battle, as Katara escaped with her friend's body. All Zuko could do was recoil at the sharp pain he felt, to see someone so pure cry again.

That night, Azula told him of honor and triumph, not knowing that as she spoke, her uncle crept from the catacomb prison into the free night air. She would watch Zuko like a hawk after that, and he would return the favor. She would demand that he not leave her sight for a moment, and he would take full advantage of her distrust. If she ever again tried to strike Katara, if she ever tried to hurt Iroh, Zuko would be in position to stop her.

He didn't think it would be enough to earn back that precious mercy, but for the first time since the battle of the North Pole, he had hope.