Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or any of its characters. If I did, Zutara probably would've been canon. :P
A/N: I actually wrote this right after seeing the finale episode. Yes, I was holding out for Zutara until the end… and this scene really jumped out at me in the midst of my disappointment. (I have to say, though, I don't think Zuko/Mai is such a bad pairing to have to settle for… though it could've been developed more. Anyway, Mai seems pretty awesome.)
Not Meant to Be
Azula was overconfident, as usual. Even in the insanity that gripped her now, Zuko could see that part of his sister's personality as still intact: that insufferable arrogance that had always irked him. Of course, it had not only been taught by their father, but also encouraged. She was royalty, after all, and she had to act like it.
Zuko had to exert effort not to laugh bitterly, now. All that pride, and where had it gotten them? His father, a one-on-one battle with the Avatar for the fate of the world. And his sister, a level of mental instability that could rival the Fire Lord's.
As for Zuko, he was just glad it wasn't genetic.
He had certainly spoken the truth when he had observed that Azula was "off." Actually, that was an understatement. Her attacks were wild and fierce, but easily predictable. Normally, she would have been much harder to read, and much harder to counteract. It was almost as if he were fighting a completely different person.
And it frustrated Azula, that he could read her so well. Zuko could see it in her eyes, that hatred for him and for her own weakness. Even that part of her was fading, though. Even the ruthless ferocity that propelled her thoughts and actions was giving way to the madness that seemed to be consuming her from the inside out.
Zuko had never imagined that he might actually some day feel sorry for his sister.
Then Azula laughed crazily, nearly catching him off guard with a blast of flame because he had been too busy thinking, and Zuko didn't feel so sorry for her, anymore.
Of course, it was stupid of him to taunt her, and he knew it. But he was prepared for anything she could throw at him -- particularly in the rather sorry state she was in at the moment. He didn't count on quite the level of madness that Azula was in, however.
He didn't count on her breaking the rules of the Agni Kai.
For one second that seemed to stretch on for eternity, Zuko watched the lightning issue forth from Azula's core. She was pulling no punches; this was as strong a lightning bolt as she could muster, and it was headed straight for Katara. Katara, the Waterbender. Katara, who had no defense against the lightning. Katara, who was probably most vulnerable of all against it.
Whatever had been said about him over the years, Zuko had no heart of stone. It was his fault that Katara was here, his fault that she was in danger. He had left her wide open for an attack, not even thinking of the possibility that one might come.
Zuko was fully aware that, if he took he force of Azula's lightning, it would at the very least incapacitate him. He would be unable to continue the Agni Kai. He would lose, possibly even die. And even if he didn't die on he spot, Azula would see to it that he died later.
Yet all of this was going through his head as he leapt between Azula and Katara. Between Katara and the bolt of energy that he knew carried the murderous intent of its originator. And he knew that he would have no time now to redirect the lightning, because he would barely have time to make it into position to shield the Waterbender.
A moment's thought would have been all that was necessary for the lightning bolt to get past him and strike its target. And yet a moment's thought wasn't required because, whether he realized it or not, Zuko's mind had been made up long before.
It was hard to say just when that was, however. Even before he had openly converted to the Avatar's 'side of the war,' Zuko had had a soft spot for Katara. She had represented to him what was good and pure, the only one who had been willing to give him a chance. A chance that he hadn't deserved at the time, but a chance that he often longed to have extended to him again.
Of course, he would never have admitted that, not least of all because it would have been seen as a weakness. And preying on weaknesses was Azula's specialty. Maybe that part of her was still intact, too, not yet consumed by the madness.
Saying that it hurt when the crackling current ripped through his body would have been such a tremendous understatement that Zuko might have laughed, were he in better shape. The feeling of the skin at the entry point sizzling as the smell of burned flesh and clothing permeated the air won it a rank among the most painful wounds of his life. The place on his chest numbed from the electricity, but the shock carried on through his body, reverberating and relaying until it felt like every nerve ending was on fire.
Even if he had been on his feet when the bolt had struck, he would never have remained standing. As it was, it was probably better that he was already in the process of leaping and so was more braced for the impact as he crashed into the ground.
The pain didn't stop with contact with the dirt. However, the numbness did begin to spread. That, he decided, was probably the worst part of it: having to lie there, helpless, and know that it was down to Katara now. Katara, the Waterbender, who would have to face Azula alone.
It was agony, to have to be still with no idea of what was going on and no way to help. But he had saved Katara. She would have a chance now, now that she knew to expect attack. And she was as strong as she was good and beautiful and kind.
All the things that Zuko wasn't, but wished he could be. All the things that he wanted, but were not meant to be.
It was in Katara's own best interests that she never know how he felt about her. She would be safe and happy and loved, and not accosted because the man who loved her had nearly helped the Fire Nation destroy the world.
Whether she cared for him or not, Zuko did not know. But he loved her enough to want better for her than anything he could ever hope to give.