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

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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.

He needs out. He needs to wake up-

Releasing the healing fire from his face after a moment more, Zuko straightens to end the formalities. A stepped pattern, a prayer to Agni, a bow to a respected opponent, with the additional hand gesture requisite the Fire Lord. A waved arm, to allow and summon the formal witnesses to perform their duty to the downed opponent.

They remain standing for a long moment, as if stunned; Zuko belatedly realizes the absolute silence of the crowd. He also realizes how near he is to collapsing. A pointed eyebrow gets the witnesses moving to their duty, and Zuko takes the chance to bow in respect once more and not-quite-flee the stage. He pulls fresh fire from the hallway wall sconces to hold to his face, tracking unerringly to his preferred reflection ground: the turtleduck pond.

He still doesn't know the name of the bender he just killed.

Habit, court training, and an unfortunate amount of practice see him reach the pond and settle against a tree before reality can set in. The world reduces to breathing, healing, and long-buried pain for an indeterminate eternity.

It looked - it felt - like he had killed his father, just as he nearly did the day of the eclipse all those years ago.

He still doesn't know who was beneath the painful illusion.

...His face is less damaged than he expected.

His swimming mind latches onto that last thought. Something he can work with, act upon. He moves the fire with care, imagining he can even see the light through his closed, damaged eyelid. He tracks over all the skin, preventing the scarring from taking any more of his face than necessary. There is more left of his ear then he expected - more than he remembers there being, really - though the lobe, at least, is mangled as always. He makes a cursory pass at his chest, then a deeper one, verifying that his redirection was flawless. As expected, Azula has given him enough practice that he can now perform the movement in his sleep; he's starting to think that is literal, in this case, and that he'll wake soon. The vision of his father's face never faded, and he is increasingly hoping the whole mess is a nightmare, that he didn't just go a full Agni Kai without ever knowing his opponent.

He only vaguely registers how many degrees the sun has moved in his... absence.

The healing fire in his hand has long since done all it can, and is no longer effective. He flicks it out, leaning farther against his favorite plum-cherry tree - once his mother's preferred spot, as well.

He falls asleep there.