Author's Note: This is a story of memories and of an event that was defining. I've always been fascinated with rituals and ceremonies. So writing this appealed to me.
"Suji" from what I have researched is Japanese for "line." It sort of fit well in this story.
Text in italics are flashbacks.
"Did it hurt?" Toph asked, settling herself down next to the young Avatar.
They had just finished an earthbending lesson and were resting under the shade of a tree. It was times like these when Aang liked Toph's company. She was much like the girl who took a walk with him in the garden of her parents' estate, who proudly explained how her blindness never stopped her from being the great earthbender she knew she was. It was a far cry from the girl who had just spent the past hour yelling at him.
"Did what hurt?"
"Your tattoos. Katara said they are all over your body." The girl knew what saying Katara's name would do to the airbender and she chuckled at the image her mind was pulling up of a blushing Aang. Shehad only been with the group for a few weeks, but she had guessed Aang's feelings for the water tribe girl almost immediately. She may have born blind, but she wasn't born dense.
Aang cleared his throat nervously. The idea that the waterbender had been noticing his body did in fact make the boy blush with a mixture of embarrassment and delight.
"Not all over. Just on my arms, legs, back, and head."
"That sounds like all over to me." Toph smiled wryly. They were silent for a few moments. "You never answered my question. Did it hurt?"
Aang sighed heavily. His past was not something he readily talked about and he wasn't sure if he was ready to share the story. It was the one thing he had left of his life in the temple that was still sacred. He could remember asking other monks what the ceremony was like, what being tattooed felt like, what was said, who was there, and each time he was shooed away.
"It's sacred, Aang. Becoming a master is intense and personal. You won't find anyone that will share it with you." Gyatso had told him when the boy confronted him about the lack of response to the questions. The elder monk's answer had frustrated Aang. Here he was, about to go through the same ceremony, and no one would tell him anything about it. But it was like many things at the temple, shrouded in mystery and secrecy. It was just one of the traditions, Gyatso had said.
As silly as it probably was, he somehow felt it was important to keep the tradition. And besides, why would she want to know about his tattoos anyway and why now? Just one more thing to use as ammunition against him if he failed he figured.
Aang curled his knees into his chest and wrapped his arms around them as his mind pulled up vivid images of that long-ago important day. It was painful for him, as remembering his past often was and he silently cursed Toph for making him think of it.
One hundred and three years ago…
"Now Aang, don't be afraid. We all go through this when we achieve the rank of 'Master.'" The elderly monk patted his shoulder reassuringly, but it did nothing to calm the fear that was churning the boy's stomach like a storm.
He was only a few weeks away from his tenth birthday and already he was facing something that so far had been reserved only for initiates at least fourteen or fifteen years of age. Aang had scored well on his examinations, in fact he had the highest scores of any initiate in over one hundred years. His teachers knew why of course, but they had allowed him to believe that his abilities were due to him being something of a prodigy and they congratulated him as such. Now was not the time to tell him of his destiny.
Monk Gyatso pushed open the door to one of the temple's prayer rooms and the heavy smell of burning incense and candles filled Aang's nose, causing a tingling sensation to travel up into his head. He sneezed as quietly as he could, but it still earned him a disapproving frown from the temple's head monk, Shiatu, who was waiting for him inside.
Aang's guardian led him into the room, the boy nervously clutching onto his hand. The monk Suji, a rather thin, bony looking man with a short gray beard, was already waiting for them. He was revered for his abilities in tattooing and it was the Southern Air temple's good fortune that he was a resident. The tatoo artist sat on cross-legged on a cushion, his eyes closed and fists together, meditating. He had to be properly prepared to do the task ahead of him. Tattooing was difficult not only for the initiate, but for the artist as well, requiring a steady and quick hand.
The boy looked around the room, eyeing everything with a mixture of fear and curiosity. A soft pallet had been set up, a pillow was at one end and a thin folded blanket was at the other. Two cushions were next to the pallet and the boy assumed they were for the two older monks. A few earthenware bowls were stacked next to the pallet, folded cloths sat in a pile next to the bowls, and a few jugs of what Aang guessed was water sat in the corner of the room. A wooden chest with the symbols of the air nation and the temple carved on it sat next to Suji's cushion.
"Bring the boy here, Gyatso." Shiatu gently ordered.
Feeling the pressure on his back from Gyatso's hand, Aang slowly moved towards the head monk. His small hands trembled as he curled one into a fist and clasped the other around it. The boy bowed respectfully and then clasped his pale hands in front of him, eyes cast downward. An initiate was never supposed to raise their eyes to an elder unless given permission and Aang was doing his best to show he held the revered monks in high regard. He wanted to show that he was worthy of the high honor they were about to bestow on him.
"You have earned this great honor, Aang, through your hard work and dedication to the temple. Becoming a master airbender requires much sacrifice and is reserved for only those willing to make the promise to remain dedicated to airbending and to the temple." The head monk smiled at the boy, who was still looking at his small feet. "Congratulations, my boy.
His guardian helped him undress and neatly fold his clothing. The nervousness once again gripped the child's stomach and twisted it into a knot. Aang shivered uncontrollably as the air crept over his skin; the little initiate now clothed in nothing but his underwear. Suji held a hand out to the boy to help him onto the pallet and Aang shrank back against Gyatso, clinging very much like the frightened child he was to the elder monk's robes, tears staining his young face. He knew he should be brave, he had earned this honor, he was worthy of it. Aang wanted to show the elder monks that he could be as grown up and mature as the older initiates, but his fear of the unknown got the best of him and he buried his face in Gyatso's robes.
Suji was patient, watching as Gyatso knelt down to the Aang's level and brushed the tears from the boy's cheeks. After all, this boy was far younger than any initiate before him and extra care needed to be taken. Gyatso whispered something in Aang's ear and the child's round face broke into a smile.
"Really!" Aang exclaimed, his gray eyes shining with excitement. The monk nodded, returning the boy's smile.
"It is your reward for passing all of your examinations. We were going to tell you after your induction ceremony that we are allowing you to adopt one of the bison in a few weeks…" Gyatso paused and squeezed Aang's shoulder affectionately. "…but somehow I think this is the more appropriate time."
The boy could hardly contain his jubilation, his fear subsiding just a bit. A bison! Only the older boys got to adopt one of the bison and they even had to pass a course in caring for a bison before they could adopt one. Aang knew exactly which bison he wanted. It was the one that gave him sloppy drool-saturated bison kisses whenever the child brought it a treat.
The boy smiled at the thought. Some memories weren't all painful. Finding out he was going to be able to adopt Appa certainly wasn't. Appa had meant freedom of a sort for him and once he had Appa there was no grounding him. He developed a taste for travel after adopting the large fluffy creature and it was on his travels that he met his friends from all the nations. Friends he now missed terribly.
Appa had been a special gift. Of course now he realized why and had he known at the time that he was the Avatar it would have all made sense, but to a nearly ten year old boy, this wasn't a gift to be questioned. He would have accepted it and thought it was the greatest thing ever. He wouldn't have thought that it singled him out or that it was done with a reason. He would have seen it as something purely for his enjoyment and as a reward for his hard work. And at times it was the state of ignorance the monks had kept him in that now made Aang at times angry and resentful. He would have understood the resentment that had been directed at him by some of the other initiates, he would have understood why he was so gifted, and he would have understood why others were given choices he himself was denied.
Chapter Two is Coming Soon...