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Echoes

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Prince Zuko may have held an impressive title and political role, but the boy was not himself, quite impressive. He was 13, short, a slow learner, incredibly depressed, and lacked any emotional or social skills. He was a hurt and stubborn child, given command over a small vessel of Navy Marines. Most of whom had younger siblings or even children about his age. 

Banishment was not treating him well. Though, given his own father hadn't hesitated to throw a ball of fire at his face, despite the fact that kind of blow at that distance could have very likely killed the prince, well, anyone would be traumatized and an emotional mess. 

The boy had been thrown out of his own home after being shown that his own father was willing to maim him with an audience of hundreds. He had been the victim of horrible burns and still froze up and flinched away from even the smallest of flames. He'd had his life element be used against him and lost his place in the palace as well as his honor and home. Not to mention that his face was almost half gone. Somewhere buried beneath the bandages and burn salves. 

His only chance to regain his status, birthright, and honor was to capture the avatar, missing for almost a century. His only chance to return to his home to track down a bender who had not been seen or heard of since before the Air Temple Genocides. 

It was an obviously impossible task. 

But, one thing about the Prince himself was impressive. 

His stubbornness. His ability to continuously try and try again even if he is sure to fail the task at hand. And even more miraculously, all this trying, it ended in success, eventually. 

His training and meditations, over and over again he failed and humiliated himself. But every time he got up to try again. 

So, he believed that this task he was set out to was meant to be impossible. To keep him an exile forever while his sister took the throne. To cast out the failure of a Fire Prince. But he also believed that he had to do it, that he had to try and give it his all. Because maybe, just maybe, he could accomplish it, maybe it wasn't his father's way of getting rid of him. 

Maybe his father just wanted to push him to accomplish what no one else ever had. 

Even then, doubt lurked throughout the boy's thoughts, like poison in the water, waiting to be ingested and to fester and grow, and turn his whole mind to panic and grief. To make him lose all hope.

Usually when he was in a mood like this --where the poisonous doubt was lurking behind every corner in his mind, along with the idea that perhaps his father never did and never would love him-- he paced. Walking in quick, measured strides, back and forth down the side of the vessel's deck. Always by the starboard railing. 

Habits like this were usually harmless, however, the ship was stuck in a storm. 

A storm that had come out of nowhere. The waters simply turned choppy, the winds howling in anguish, and the rain pelting down upon them. 

Cold, violent rain, with cold, violent winds. That stabbed down, attacking one's inner fire and ripped at their clothing and core. Like the spirits of drowned dead trying to take the living by force, to somehow ease their torment.

The Prince hadn't seen the wave, looming over the port side, seeming as if La himself wanted to swallow the little ship whole. He was the only crew member on deck who hadn't tried himself to the ship. 

So when La brought his fury down on them, crushing Lieutenant Jee and Seok down to the deck floor, neither got a chance to shout a warning to the Prince. 

When the water drained and air returned to their lungs the Prince was gone. 

And try as they might, the crew of the Wani could not spot his shape in the water. Nor could they steer towards starboard where he'd been swept off, as the water was more dangerous there and the wall of the storm was visible, winds funneling up in the violent beauty that only the great spirits could possess in their wonders and horrors of nature. 

He was too far away for them to see him struggling towards the surface, being pushed down before he broke it again and again. They didn’t see the tides rip him further and further away. They didn’t see him wash ashore on an uninhabited island of the southern Fire Nation. 

He was just gone. 

 

 

The first thing that he noticed through the veil of sleep and semi-consciousness was a nudging feeling. Something pushing at his leg. Then it, or another thing, slammed into his shoulder. 

He shouted, eyes flying open. There was something on his face, it was wet and blocking his view of the nudger. He pulled it off, waterlogged bandages. His vision cleared on one side. 

He screamed, scrambling away from the panther as fast as his wobbly legs could carry him. The panther growled and started its pursuit. All thoughts ceased as sheer panic and survival instincts took over.

He ran for his life, pulling and shoving branches out of the way and jumping over stones and overgrown roots. He could barely hear the large cat bounding close behind him, he didn’t need to hear it, he knew it was chasing him. He knew it wanted to kill him. 

He found a wall and swerved to the right, avoiding collision and followed it, taking the first gap in the wall as an entrance. He turned and weaved through the maze of crumbling stone walls filled with overgrown vegetation without a single thought. Only a goal in mind, escape the panther and live. 

He soon found himself cornered, his cold, wet clothing gripped his body as he drew in desperate breaths. The predator was still hunting him. Now he was back in a corner, back pressed against unyielding stone, no chance for escape. 

He was so cold, and tired, and everything hurt. Like his body was giving up the fight. 

His left eye hurt. And he couldn’t see out of it. 

And he was scared, terrified, watching the panther draw closer. He didn’t want to die. 

He threw a fist foreword, in the hopes of delaying his fate with a bluff. 

Fire blossomed forth in front of his fist and he screamed. 

The panther jumped back, narrowly avoiding burns. Its eyes narrowed into slits, but he wasn’t paying attention to that. 

Fire. Fire burns. 

He screamed.

The heat the hurt! The sound of it! The smell of burning flesh!

The knowledge that it was your own. 

He knew why he couldn’t see right. 

Half of his face had been burned off. He could remember the light, the pain, the smell. 

And then he remembered the panther, throwing more destructive, hurling fire at the predator. 

He screamed and screamed, feeling the burn of tears in his undamaged eye. 

He screamed and wheezed and gasped, throwing weaker and weaker blasts of fire each time. 

He needed to breathe.

But he couldn’t, he remembered what fire did to him, and it was so close, and the panther was close too. And he was sure he was going to die and he was also sure that he didn’t want to. 

Each blast was draining him, emotionally and physically, he couldn’t scream anymore, only gasp in and out sobs. 

He wasn’t ready to give in. He couldn’t give up. He couldn’t give up without a fight. But with the fire, the fight was leaving him. 

Then it was only smoke, hot smoke curling up from his fists. The cat almost seemed to grin in victory. Then, it pounced. 

Claws ripped into the right side of his jaw and sliced down across his neck, then drew back and tore gashes into his chest. All the while, he screamed. 

He clenched his one good eye shut as the cat readied its jaws to snap his neck.

He waited for the pain and inevitable death. Instead, red light bloomed behind his eyelids. There was a howl in surprise and pain, from the panther, and that pained screech turned into a faint whimper.

Then it was quiet. 

He didn’t move, his eyes still shut, his body still trembling against the stone wall. 

A hand gripped his shoulder, he was too afraid to scream again. 

He could feel the blood trickling down his neck and chest. It was hot, warm like fire. 

“Are you alright?” a voice asked.

“He’s bleeding out and half-drowned! How could he possibly be alright?!” Another shouted. 

He opened his eyes, he could make out several people, all wearing garments of a similar sort. After they ensured the panther was gone then huddled around the boy. He looked pitiful, with one hand clamped over his left eye and the other trying to stop the blood flowing from his neck, leaving the portion on his jaw to bleed freely.

 

 

He didn't really remember how he got there, but he was sitting, shirtless, in front of a woman as she tended to his wounds. First, the gashes across his chest, then the ones on his neck with a quick but not rushed pace.

"I am Kohsoom" a woman spoke, a soft smile could be heard in her voice, "What is your name?" she was wearing a piece of thick fabric wrapped about her bosom and hooking over one shoulder, and the same strange pant-like article that everyone else had been wearing. Both were deep red, matching. 

Her words were gentle, they really shouldn't have inflicted the shock and horror that they did on the boy.

He...he was...his name...he didn't know. He didn't know. How could he not know? How could he not know his own name?

He dug into his mind, forcefully trying to recall anything.

No names. No faces. There was nothing before the panther.

"I... I don't know,"

"Well, do you have any idea how old you are?"

"Thirteen." the number left his lips before he understood what it meant. How could he remember how old he was but not his own name or where he was from? He remembered spicy food and red, fire like his rescuers. 

Kohsoom was gentle, even when removing the last of the sea-soaked bandages from his face. Only a small frown as she looked at the mark. And he may not have remembered what it looked like but he did remember the pain and the smell of burning flesh.

Chapter Text

 

"Should we really trust him? How do we know that his amnesia story is true?" He was listening through the tent’s fabric wall. It wasn’t too hard, even if he couldn’t hear well on his left side, the people were being pretty loud. 

"He is a boy, still a child, and he has already seen our culture thriving, he must stay." one reasoned.

"And who'll take care of him?" Another voice quipped in response.

"I will." Kohsoom interrupted, a few murmurs went about. 

"Do you know how?" a condescending male voice asked, the boy decided he didn’t like that man. 

"Yes, I can care for him, he's hardly an infant." Kohsoom bristled. The meeting was much of the same after that.

The boy in question sat quietly hidden away from all the ruckus, attempting to shove away the ache of somewhat familiarity. It was a bad feeling, like a stone sitting heavily in his stomach, pressing against his lungs and making the act of breathing uncomfortable. He nervously stretched and wiggled his toes, not wanting to make any noise or alert the adult watching him in the tent. The uneasiness in his stomach only lessened when the deep voice leader had decided that Kohsoom would indeed be his caretaker.

A week later they had chosen a name for him. Hibiki. He was named echo . As a tribute to the only reason he was alive, found by the sun warriors was because they heard the echoes of his cries for help. Or maybe because he was an echo of a person, trying to figure out who he was before.

Either way, it stuck.

Weeks turned to months, which turned to two and a half years.

He was Kohsoom’s apprentice, helping regulate the temperature of the forge and with the metalwork. She was a strict but caring mother, with just enough stubborn nature to put up with him and his ridiculously bad luck.

She was strong, like the big logs he sometimes helped gather for the communal dinner fire. 

Whenever he needed a hug she was there, and when he needed to get whacked over the head she was also there to snap him out of whatever sorry state of mind he was in. 

He may not have been the fastest learner but he was diligent, and would not stop until he'd accomplished his goal or the universe made it clear that it was impossible. A mindset to pleasing others, straining himself for approval. His bending forms were strong and he mastered dual broadswords after picking up an unwanted pair and devoting all spare time to meditation and knife craft.

He also ended up helping in needlecraft as well despite pricking his fingers more than any of the other young helpers. Hibiki suspected it was because Chun Hei liked the little flame pattern he’d embroidered onto the center of one kemban he’d been tasked with his third day. Ever since she had insisted that every piece he’d been given had to have that little flame sewn into it somewhere, whether it was for a tent, kemban, or sarong. (Chun Hei also had a habit of pinching his unmarred cheek, though it seemed that every young man and boy in the village received the same treatment).

Hibiki may have had handicapped hearing and sight on his left but through sheer willpower, he found ways around it. Now that he was just as capable if not more so than any perfectly healthy and able-bodied opponent. 

Bakti and he often sparred after their chores and work were done for the day, or even a bit just after sunrise. He was a fisher’s apprentice, and his fingers could untangle any knot. 

Hibiki learned of the war that plagued the world for almost a hundred years, and understood why his village wanted nothing to do with their nation. 

He learned how Firelord Sozin had started it, slaughtering a peaceful people to do so, and started to understand the horrible imbalance of the world.  

And the slaughtering of dragons, he learned of Sozin’s crimes and grieved for the masters’ loss as if it were his own. Each solstice there was a memorial for the dragons lost, and prayers to Agni to allow the masters to live long enough to help nurture what may be the last of their kind, the golden egg kept in the solstice’s temple. One day it would hatch and it was their duty as Sun Warriors to keep it safe from the war and Sozin’s cruel legacy. 

Bakti was the one who told him of the air-avatar, missing since the genocide against their people. And Hibiki understood the grief that avatar must face but agreed that it was no reason to abandon the world they were meant to protect. 

He fell ill sometime in his first few months in the village, a spiritual illness, and when he woke Kohsoom was smiling over him, “Welcome home, son” she’d said. And for the first time, she really was his mother. 

Hibiki was safe, he was well. With a small family, and a few friends.

 

But Prince Zuko was missing.

Some declared him dead, but the small ship he fell off of still scoured every crevice and shadow for any sign of the boy. They had covered a radius of twenty miles in every direction. They had journeyed into ports and cities searching for a sign of the Prince.

It was a wild goose chase after a leaf, fluttering away in the wind. It was hopeless.

But the crew kept it up, they had owed Iroh a great debt. He was a good man, and after the tragic loss of his son, how could the other fathers, grandfathers, and brothers on the ship deny a poor old man the search for some of the only family he had left? 

So, they kept at their fruitless mission to find a boy most were sure had drowned those two and a half years ago.

Then, when the ship had cruised much farther south, a mysterious blue light appeared.

Chapter Text

The light had been impossible to miss, a large beam of blue brighter than the southern sky. Kanna hoped that it had nothing to do with her adolescent grandchildren, though the light certainly seemed to be from the direction Sokka and Katara had set out to fish. 

She prayed that whatever the light may be that Tui and La were with her family and would guide them away from trouble. She'd already lost a husband, and a daughter-by-marriage, she did not want to lose her son's children too.

Kanna sighed, muttering another prayer to Tui for her blessed granddaughter and stubborn grandson as she shuffled back inside to assure that the seal jerky was curing properly. 

 

The light ripped open the sky, if the retired general had not killed the last dragon, well, the crew would have sworn it was one of Agni’s great beasts. Since there were no more dragons, that left one possibility for such a strange phenomenon, the avatar. But without the prince aboard it would not matter if they actually captured the master of all four elements, they could not go home unless he was in charge of the vessel while the avatar was captured. The second option would not happen, it would require the poor retired old general to admit that his nephew was dead. 

 

Katara didn’t want to be rude to the boy she just broke out of an iceberg, but there was no way he could have been alive in the iceberg, she just meant to break it so that the tribe could give him a proper oceanic funeral. 

But she was pretty sure he wasn’t Water Tribe, based on his thin orange and yellow clothing. How was he not freezing? He wasn’t wearing any fur or pelts. Though why he hadn’t frozen to death inside an iceberg was also a very good question. 

“Are you a spirit?” she asked, and the bald boy tilted his head. 

“No, I’m Aang.” He sounded like a normal boy, as much as he didn’t look like one. 

“How are you not dead?!” Sokka demanded, beating her to it. 

“What do you mean?” The bald boy, Aang asked, tilting his head the other way. Her life was really starting to seem like one of the spirit tales that Gran Gran told over the fire after dinner. It was just too strange

 

Hibiki was untangling nets with Bakti, just outside his home, when the news came. The dragon egg was stolen. 

Their most precious artifact, one of the few who would be the next generation of dragons, gone. 

No one outside the Sun Warriors could have known about it, so, Chun Hei said "the elders think one of us did it," 

Hibiki was a wary young man, no memory but still knowing that he had to stay alert and on edge for unseen danger. (Who was he before that was so scared and sure that a threat could come from anywhere at any time?) So, he had a bad feeling about why Chun Hei had come to tell him this herself, she had duties to attend to, after all.

"They think I did it, don't they?" Hibiki asked, feeling that he already knew the answer from the sadness in the women's eyes. 

"No! That's ridiculous! Anyone who knows you knows you wouldn't," Bakti looks and sounds like a defensive owlcat. 

"I'm sorry boys, but you know how much they distrust anything from the outside world, it's easier for them to think this way,"

"Otherwise it would be a real betrayal of loyalty from one of their own," Hibiki finished, grim. 

Chun Hei nodded, silent. Then she left, presumably to find Kohsoom at the forge. 

"Don't listen to those old farts, got it, Hibiki? You're one of us, I swear on Agni , you're one of his warriors, and you belong here." Bakti said, his eyes wide and sincere. 

"Thanks," Hibiki put his hand over the one on his shoulder. 

 

Kanna could have marched right up the north pole to Tui and La's mortal forms in the northern oasis by herself. This was not what she meant in her prayer to keep them out of harm's way. 

The supposed boy they found was strange, far too strange to seem of their world. Kanna wasn't so sure the "boy" her grandchildren had found frozen solid was a real human child. 

Much less an airbender. They'd all been dead a hundred years now, and if he were one there was still no way a child in such thin clothes could survive the climate of the south pole. Much less being frozen alive in an iceberg for a century. 

She was desperately realizing that her grandchildren were being swept up in a spirit tale and there was nothing she could do about it. 

Things were turning out just sea-pruney. 

The elder woman huffed and instructed Sokka to fetch one of his older parkas for the boy. (How her grandson thought a bald and tattooed child was a Fire Nation spy was beyond her, but his instincts of suspicion were well placed). (He would grow to be such a good leader someday, like his father, her son's boy.) 

Katara seemed wary but attached to the boy, like he was a baby killer seal, round-faced and cute, and very likely hiding sharp teeth behind his goofy smile. 

 

Lieutenant Jee could not understand the retired General’s mourning in the empathetic sense but he could understand the idea of it. The man had lost his wife, then his son, losing his thirteen-year-old nephew had just been one too many too soon. 

Jee loved his daughter and knew that he would not be able to handle losing her, Lian, now a strong and stubborn woman of nineteen. He could understand how fresh grief could be too much for an older man who’d already lost so much. 

And it wasn’t like he could return home after pretending that a dead boy-prince was alive for two and a half years. He and his crew were tasked with escorting the Prince on his mission as a disciplinary measure, none of them were meant to return. 

Jee did not want to think about what that meant about the Prince and his father’s relationship, or about how that reflected on the Firelord himself. (Who banishes their own son? And never sends the boy letters? And doesn’t investigate the fact that his firstborn hasn’t written to him since his first few weeks of the two and a half years he’d supposedly been on this ship?)

He had to banish those thoughts, he may not be able to go home but he still should not think of things that would make treason seem… agreeable.