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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.

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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.

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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.

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

It's all the little things that prove he's wrong. It's not even his fault this time, it was a reasonable assumption, but... this is definitely not the spirit realm. Beyond that, it seems like he's... in the past? And yet it's real. And he can't see any evidence or motive for it to be a spirit's trick, either, or even an extended hallucination - unless he inherited a lot more of the family madness than the thought. But his imagination could not have conjured all the thousand little details.

It's in the way Azula is eleven again, both in age and bending skill. He even wins that first scrap against her, which would usually be impossible without redirecting lightning at least once. He didn't even need his swords. She gets a facial expression he's never seen on her before, more than just rage - shock, loss, underlying upset sadness, is that almost a tear? - and runs off, then avoids him as long as she can.

It's the way the Fire Palace is so present, every sense confirming its reality. The halls are decorated as intricately as he remembers, and he traces details too fine to be conjured. The kitchens smell like home. His rooms - his rooms as a prince, which he never brought himself to properly return to after his banishment, and which he will again be leaving once the Fire Lord's chambers are cleared for him - his rooms bring up memories he'd thought forgotten, right down to the earrings he'd thought about once, then hidden where Azula would never find them.

They hadn't made it to the Wani with him. By the time he had the chance to reconsider, he'd only had one ear worth piercing, and was constantly consumed with tasks besides. He reconsiders now, and has pair both daringly placed in his right, even getting additional rings to pierce the top of both ears. They remind him this is a different time. Tugging lightly at the metal grounds him, and even when reaches for his left ear instead...

It's in the way he has that ear, almost all of it, having healed far, far better this time around. Bending healing has always surpassed mundane medicine, especially considering he'd once tried to recover on a ship. His golden flames reduce the damage and scarring both, and the whole mess is stably settled in a mere week of treatments. This time, there is no infection, not even much hearing loss, and he can see from his left eye. Not perfectly, but enough that he has to readjust to having natural depth perception after decades without.

Then he has to reconcile, again, that his father had truly crippled him once, and tried to kill him with lightning besides. As a thirteen year old.

It's in the way he feels his age. His body is smaller than he expects, and he spends long mornings regaining the effortless grace of his katas, both dao and bending. Adults around him get a look to them, which he starts to recognize on instinct, an irritating mix of damn this bratty upstart and he thinks he's so grown up how cute. It makes him feel small and young, and he learns to hate it. (Youth was not a good time for him, the first time).

In other ways, he feels old. No one understands his new bending forms, even though he taught them publically for years after meeting the dragons. No one recognizes what he references, and especially not his occasional joke. He feels like Aang must have once, thrown out of his time into an unfamiliar land, in drastic circumstances.

It's in the way there is still a war. This is the first thing he changes, even before the reality sinks in. He is numb through his coronation, (barely noticing Azula seated to the side, fists clenched), but he follows the ceremony. The Fire Lord title grants him power. The way the Fire Nation is still poised, expecting decades more of war, in favorable positions, gives him power. There is no avatar and little hope among the other nations.

He uses this ruthlessly and with little shame.

The fresh regiment that started the whole mess of an Agni Kai is never deployed.

It's in the way the pain of his father's death is fresh, and mixed with a boundless well of fresh horror. No matter how he avoids the thoughts, they invade his nightmares without fail. He killed the man, this time. With his own lightning, sure, but it had hurt when his other father passed in his sleep decades ago. Now, all the unresolved feelings he'd once packed up like a wound are ripped open again, and bleeding besides. He'd never quite managed to stop loving his blood father, no matter that Uncle took up all the responsibilities that mattered.

It's in the way his Iroh is there, yet acts so slightly different than Zuko once knew. His presence is invaluable, a grounding force, always available for a hug when his warm arms are the only thing holding the pieces of Zuko from shattering apart. He even appreciates the damn proverbs and tea this time, and submits himself to playing pai sho, though still never the tsungi horn.

But there is a barrier, now, that Zuko begrudgingly recognizes from his teenage years travelling with the man. Iroh is expecting a hurt teenager, and so that is what he sees, and whom he speaks to. The long, political conversations they'd grown into - once spending a whole evening debating the economic value of different regions' strains of rice - have become short, one-sided, with Iroh breaking away into pedantic philosophy before ever truly engaging. Worse yet, he catches his uncle looking at him sometimes, with something he's never seen before and can't (refuses to) name. He realizes what it is, after Iroh initiates some probing questions, when he sees the man's face at his father's funeral. Zuko killed a man at thirteen. His uncle is not living one thin ship's wall away to overhear the nightmares it causes him, and his court face has suddenly grown flawless.

It's in the way he is feared. The Agni Kai was only ever going to end one way - a dead crown prince. Instead, his people watched him go from begging forgiveness and accepting a burn one moment, to returning lightning to his own father's heart. They forget how the deadly lightning came from Ozai himself, and instead remember how the young prince bowed flawlessly as Fire Lord only instants after killing the previous. They see his well-practiced court masks, the way his burn (lessened or not) leaves a permanent glare on his face, and see none of the decades making it a necessary practice.

The other nations do not associate him with peace. He is not the Avatar's teacher, valiantly helping to overthrow tyranny and usher in balance and harmony. He is the upstart who wrest the throne from his father too soon, then decided to end a hundred-year war on a whim. Never mind that he has never explicitly or intentionally threatened them; never mind that he brokers a far fairer deal than his position requires. He is the unilateral leader of a nation poised to finish conquering the world, and no one ever quite forgets that.

It's in the crushing loneliness of realizing his friends are gone, and his family not truly returned. Mai and Ty Lee come to visit Azula, and greet him formally as Fire Lord. He can see in the way their eyes flicker, the way they tuck themselves behind his sister, that their main concern is whether he will use his new power to retaliate for the times they joined Azula in pestering him. He stays by his turtleduck pond for hours.

Even if he was able to seek out old friends without his position hanging in between, his once-friends are back as children. The arrival of the Southern Water Tribe delegation drives this home, in that Sokka and Katara are not even present - too young to be brought along, even for learning - and the Chief looks like a younger version of the other Sokka he remembers. Resemblance or no, Hakuda is not his son, and worse, gives that look-down-the-nose that Zuko recently learned to hate. They are still, if barely, able to speak with a veneer of respect, and broker treaties.

In this way, it is all worthwhile. The Southern Raiders are withdrawn, and half the Water Tribe has never lost is benders (none are imprisoned, now, and Zuko prays to La that bloodbending will never come to be). Ba Sing Se stands proud, having repelled the only Fire Nation royal to threaten its walls (only months after Zuko has brokered the other nations' peace do they deign to send a delegation, with yet longer before King Kuei is aware enough to be part of it, and even then only at the Fire Lord's insistence). Yue, whom he recognizes from stories, arrives with the Northern delegation, which must mean the moon stands stronger than ever. A fleet of fire navy ships - ships full of people, if not innocent ones, then at least his people - will never be drowned by a raging ocean spirit. Another fleet's worth will never die repelling an invasion, or falling with their broken airships.

The mediation courts are formed, in a much more thought-out structure than his first fragile attempt. He advocates peaceful resolutions fiercely, and gets far too many knowing looks. They are wrong in their knowing, but at least it helps with the fear. Between this, and the part where he is a spirits-damned teenager, fewer war hawks are able to force him into a full-out Agni Kai.

Beyond annulling deaths, he is able to save lives. Bans are once again lifted from dancing and cultural acts. This takes extra care in the colonies - both former and remaining - to deliberately reintroduce the silenced practices of their suppressed nationality.

Zuko carefully acquires and dedicates a region to support all the nations' cultures, selected in a location to support all their elements. He reassembles practices for a council among all the nations, to perform much like the new courts in preventing another act like Sozin's.

The first meetings are spent sniping about the way he, and he alone, was the initiating force to their creation, and thus held disproportionate power in what should be equal standings. Drawing on decades of political power plays, Zuko politely tells them off, reminding them that he only has more power because they believe so and allow it to him. The next several meetings see them blatantly testing this, once going so far as to suggest the absurd notion of a council with everyone but the Fire Nation. Zuko patiently stocks his office with headache remedies, reminding himself that these are the same delegates he is accustomed to. Often they are literally the same person, albeit younger, and this leaves them less trained, while the young-old Fire Lord has already learned all their tricks. This allows him to subtly manipulate countless meetings to his own ends, pushing toward equity and integration. Iroh, of all the delegates, is the first to notice that Zuko is not only keeping the Fire Nation in good standing, but deliberately pushing the other nations to grow for a more powerful balance.

Uncle takes him aside, then, and over a game of pai sho offers a brand new lotus tile and an explanation. Zuko remember how this discovery went in his past life, and puts on a smirk. He takes the tile, and in a petty but vindicating move, he spouts several of the secret phrases his uncle once taught him, including one known only by the Grand Lotus and his most trusted circle. He lies that he learned them from his mother, and if Iroh sees through it, for once he is the one left to wonder. At the very least, Zuko does assure his uncle that their goals align.

Aang awakens to a world no longer desperate for a savior. Knowing the timeline has inevitably changed, and remembering the coincidence of the original story, Zuko places a diplomatic discussion in the appropriate time and area. Any skepticism of the odd meeting is quickly forgotten in the excitement of the airbender's sheer existence, and even once it dies down only Uncle remembers well enough - and believes enough in spirit-tales - to offer a raised eyebrow. Aang is offered lodging in the all-nations region, where he swiftly outs himself as the Avatar, and is subsequently offered a place in either the Airbending delegation to the grand council, or a neutral one. Zuko himself is careful to lower the pressure to take such a position, having known a young Aang for years, not to mention his own experience with the constant demands as an underage leader (twice over).

The airbender accepts anyway, wanting to do right by his role. The Fire Lord takes care to support him, and Zuko find himself befriending the child version of his once-student. Even as an adult, Aang didn't lose much of his childish streak, making the new relationship more comfortable than expected. This gives him the courage to seek out his other former friends, starting with Team Avatar (and as appalled as ever with himself for actually using the ridiculously childish title).

Perhaps less subtly than he intends, he convinces Hakoda to allow his heirs to meet the young Lord. Katara meets him with at least less hostility than the last time he introduced himself as an ally, though still a healthy dose of suspicion. Zuko distracts her by asking about her bending training, and she rapidly descends into excited gestures, watery demonstrations included. He makes jokes with Sokka, duly shattering any barriers there. It feels manipulative, knowing his former friends' interests and weaknesses, but he convinces himself it's worth it to gain their smiles and budding friendship. They begin visiting each other any time the Fire and Southern Water delegations meet, and exchange letters the rest of the time. He introduces them to Aang, who develops the predictable teenage crush on Katara. While he eventually manages, bringing Toph into the group takes more convincing - mostly on her parent's part.

He creates contracts with the Bei Fong merchants, and 'accidentally' meets the hidden daughter of the house in a courtyard. They strike off better than Toph's parents have ever seen. Once, the Bei Fong patriarch offers the Fire Lord his daughter's hand in marriage, which leaves Zuko flustered and sours their relationship for a time. Remembering this issue, Zuko spends time to reassure Toph he knows she's not helpless, which seems to sink in when she feels him in the stands of an Earth Rumble. Together, they discover that he can emulate her earth-sense with the heat around him, though to a much less accurate degree. He'd never considered this last time, and Zuko makes doubly sure to prod her toward metalbending.

Like the other Toph, she's never afraid to sock him playfully. She trusts him, too, perhaps even more than Uncle, since she can verify his heartbeat. She's still able to call him out on his lies, no matter how much better (how much practice) he's gotten.

Because of this, he inevitably slips. Beyond the old memory of her other self, Toph is comfortable to spend time with. Zuko lets down his guard farther than he realizes, losing filters he'd forgotten to need. She catches him in an impossible truth, rather than a lie. Denying it makes it worse; she sets in with all the stubbornness of the World's Greatest Earthbender. The firebender makes a decent showing, but loses the out-stubborning contest.

Toph is the first person Zuko tells about his not-future.

She listens. She feels his heart cry truth. She boggles at him incredulously, she makes him lie to double-check her senses. She yells at him for hiding secrets, stomps away, avoids him. She comes back. She believes him.

She pats him on the head and tells him he did a good job making things better this time around. It means everything to hear those words, to know someone else believes he's worked for good, not just his own selfish wishes, to hear he hasn't made things worse. He breaks down on her shoulder and cries grateful, happy tears for the first time since he realized he had a second chance.

It's been a better one, so far.