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

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He falls asleep there.

The sun eventually rises, and its benders rise with it.

When Zuko stirs, he finds a light cloak has been draped across his shoulders, doubtless by Ja Min, his tireless maidservant. Sure enough, when he convinces his eyes to open, there is a figure seated near his side, resolutely ignoring the young turtleducks exploring her warm presence. Zuko feels another of the feathered menaces tucked up to his cloak, and blearily reaches out to stroke its shell.

"Awake, my Lord?"

That's not Ja Min's voice.

Zuko turns faster than he intended to, startling away his turtleduck, but it escapes his notice as he stares at the revealed figure. Koin, who was his old manservant as a child, up until - until. And by the time he returned, the man had passed to Agni.

But he just woke up from dreaming, from that nightmare of his long-dead father. So seeing Koin here can only mean-

"I finally passed, then?" He muses. "I didn't expect you would be the one to welcome me to the spirit world." No, he'd figured it would be Azula, greeting him with a blow. At least it would have been without flame, here in the spirit world. He should find her. Take his hits, and chew her out for passing before him.

Before him. Agni. Uncle would be here. Mother, even. A handful of his friends, though not yet Mai, and hopefully none of the Avatar's cohort, what with their longevity as powerful benders - or in Sokka's case, as a stubborn fool. Last he'd heard, they were all alive and hale.

He stands. Azula first, then Uncle, and then...

"...My lord?" He'd nearly forgotten Koin.

"You don't need to call me that anymore. Not here." Titles mean nothing to spirits. He hopes? He's pretty sure. He hasn't been dead long yet, though, he'll have to learn how this works.

(Koin has never called him "lord" before. From him, it had always been "young prince." The strange combination of childhood memory and present titles is unsettling. Zuko sets this aside.)

"Not here, my lord? Forgive my insolence, but I must respectfully disagree. The honored Fire Palace is perhaps the place where the respect your new position deserves matters most, especially until you are confirmed by the Sages."

Zuko blinks at the formal language that he's spent years persuading his recent servants out of. He begrudgingly unearths his courtly face to respond in kind, at first. "...Fire Palace or no, I was under the impression that human titles lost meaning once their holders entered into the spirit realm."

"...this is hardly the spirit realm, my lord. In spite of-" Koin's eyes flick to, then awkwardly away from, the massive facial scar. Zuko knew the pattern, and had decidedly not missed it when his people had acclimated to the sight and stopped doing that. "You were the victor of the Agni Kai, my lord. Forgive our impudence, but a healer came to see you while you were... indisposed. Burned you may be, but your... reflection technique was most effective. If I may speak plainly, my lord, you are not the one who passed to the spirit realm. You are not dead, my lord."

"Of course I am. None of the past hours make any sense otherwise, and besides, if Aang has taught me anything, it's that spirits are always involved when things stop making sense. World is nonsense, so spirit world." With that, Zuko clambers to his feet. "Do you know where Azula is?"

Koin stares at him, nonplussed, and decides ignorance is the better part of valor. "...the practice grounds, if you'd follow me, my lord."

He does. Reportedly, his sister is going through her katas and target practice, and has demanded the practice grounds remain emptied for her to do so. Servants bow deeply as they walk, including the two guards continuing to warn people away at the entrance to the grounds.

Sure enough, Azula greets him with a blow.

It's a jet of blazing blue flame. Zuko is so stunned he nearly takes it right in the chest.

There is no bending in the spirit realm.

Azula looks so young, too.

Something is severely wrong here.

...Knowing his luck, it's probably Zuko himself that's wrong.