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Returned for a Better Try (to Make a Better Time)

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Zuko comes to while in motion. There is a fight around him, clearly, and his scar is burning with pain – a surprise, it’s been mostly nerveless for decades, but someone must have scored a new wound upon it. A quick assessment reveals he has no other critical wounds, he is falling back from a kneeling position – take that into a tuck, roll, and stand. No familiar weight of his dao, which is a shame. Sounds of people, surely a crowd, but distant, and not hostile. Flames burn proudly at patterned locations, no flames around him feel wild, and that crowd is heavily sprinkled with fellow firebenders. One firebender stands closer than the crowd, and their inner flame is powerful and aggressive in equal measure.

This makes no sense. By the firebenders, I’m in my own country, so there shouldn’t be open hostilities. As Fire Lord, an attacker should be assassinating me as I sleep, not holding some sort of-

Agni Kai. With as much as the de-escalation court talks can resolve, who would still challenge for one – much less that I would accept? And nearly lose to, given how close he feels to unconsciousness.

Fighting dizziness from pain and his backwards roll, Zuko forces his eye to take in the scene. He stands on a stadium, indeed, surrounded by ceremonial torches and shouting crowd, all the dues of a Fire Lord’s challenge. As for his opponent…

Agni. All I can see is Father.

It must be the pain in his scar, dredging up that awful, awful day. He thought he was past this, he’s won Agni Kai before – spirits knew he was challenged enough when struggling to end Sozin’s War. But that was then, and this is now, and perhaps he is out of practice, perhaps he is sick from the thought of killing one of his own people, honorably or not. And perhaps he is simply due the awful vision after his recent stretch without nightmares.

Give up on his sight, then, if it is showing impossibilities. If he’s lucky, his mind is tricking his father’s form to follow his opponent’s motions; if he’s not, he’s stuck working with just his crowd-filled ear and bending. And I’m never lucky. Typical, really. He doesn’t even know what quarrel the opponent has. He doesn’t remember wreaking any recent rudeness, and his policies have been resulting in fewer and fewer challenges as of late. Then again, he doesn’t remember coming to this platform, so it could be any host of recent, forgotten, blunders.

Less thinking, more fighting, foolish Lord.

A breath in. A breath out, gusting steam.

He shifts from an urgent defense stance to a proper dueling one, fist raised to his opponent. A brief nod of appreciation for their honor, in waiting to attack again; they likely could have finished him off in the long moment since that previous attack. Remarkably merciful, for one whom he has – somehow, somewhen – offended enough to declare they cannot live on the same realm. Or perhaps shocked that he is moving at all; his face hurts, and the wound must go deeper than the scar. He needs to keep this brief, before his wound – and likely concussion – drag him under.

He does not want to kill, but he’s learned the hard way that he must. There is no greater dishonor than for an opponent to decide one is not worth killing, once the issue has escalated to a challenge.

The illusion before him brings his arms up into a familiar, impossible form. Zuko's truer senses don't indicate other attacks, so he takes the moment of reprieve while he can. Only two people alive have been able to rediscover lightningbending, and neither of them would possibly be in this ring against him. Hallucinating or not, missing memory or not, Zuko trusts them not to be here. He's tempted to close his lying eye to cut off the distraction, as he feeds a thread of chi into his hearing and redoubles his focus on his fire-sense.

The opponent shoots lightning.

The crackle in his ear is real. The snap of ozone is unmistakable. If his bending is lying to him, well. False vision or not, Zuko's response is reflexive.

In, down, up, out, right back at them! Arms moving in perfect synchrony, the bolt boomerangs back towards its bender.

Just as with Sokka's thrice-damned piece of bone, firebenders never expect attacks to come back around for them. The bolt hits true. The opponent locks in place for an instant, lightning charge shuddering through and halting their very heart. A single, guttural sound, and the bender falls, inner fire failing. Zuko’s mind processes this at the same time it rails against how few of his people can bend lightning, certain that they are both carefully known, trusted, and watched.

This should have been impossible. Unless... whoever this is has become the third to remaster the cold fire?

His stance has frozen in shock. When he moves, he staggers, whiting out for a second, before he pulls fire from one of the ceremonial torches, sparking it golden and bringing it to his face to begin healing himself. It took him 30 years to finally Master Sozin’s style of firebending, yet with outer fire and a mere decade, he’s nearly a Master of the healing flame. Under a facade of calm, he watches impassively as his opponent fights the heart attack. In fits, the opponent's inner fire dims, with a few ineffectual blasts of bent fire in their final throes.

Zuko focuses on healing whatever might be left of his hearing, and boxes up for later the emotions included in watching his father's face contort in death. In minutes, the stage holds only one living fire.