Dislcaimer: Avatar still isn't mine, and hasn't been since the dawn of time.
A/N: This has been done before, I am sad to report. But I still wanted a go at it.
No real plot here. It's just an exploration of the airbenders.
Aang clasped his hands behind his back and shifted his weight onto his toes, waiting at the entrance of the sanctuary. His stomach growled, not having anything to eat since the day before, and the young airbender sighed heavily. Why did spiritual purity so often have to go along with physical discomfort?
Aang was feeling a rather complex suite of emotions. He was excited, of course. After all, he'd only been waiting for this moment for all eleven years of his life! But he was also nervous. What if the monks decided at the last minute that he wasn't worthy, and kicked him out, or worse, stopped half way? Aang, the half-finished airbender! Or, what if, he thought fearfully, what if something went wrong? He'd heard stories about tattoos becoming corrupted, sickening the recipient of what was supposed to be the highest possible blessing. That was rare, but still… Aang sighed. He wished that this could just be over with already.
The young airbender felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up into the face of his mentor, Monk Gyatso. "Are you ready, Aang?" he said in his soft, lilting voice.
Aang took a deep breath. "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be…"
"You sound uncertain. Tell me, Aang, what's weighing you down?"
"I was just thinking… what if I'm not ready for this? What if I do something wrong, and it all gets messed up?"
Gyatso chuckled. "Aang, do not worry. The monks will tell you what to do. And I will be right outside, waiting for you to come out."
"Even though I'm the youngest monk to be initiated ever?"
"Aang, your youth is no barrier, and you should never see it as such. You are ready. And I am very, very proud of how far you have come." Gyatso gave Aang's shoulder a light squeeze.
Aang gave a small smile, then turned around and gently pushed aside the curtain leading into the sanctuary. Spacious windows lined the walls, illuminating the sacred space and letting the winds pass in and out. The room was small, with a bed, a few chairs, a washbasin, and a table set with needles and inks. Aang recognized the elder monks already inside, and bowed respectfully.
"Rise, Aang, child of the Sky."
It was Monk Kakhra, the Master Tattooer. He looked over his impressive beard at the unusually young initiate in front of him. It was unusual, to pass all the ranks of airbending so quickly, but then again, this was a most unusual child.
"What brings you to our sanctuary, sky wanderer?"
It was a ritual question. They knew why Aang was there. They had been preparing for him all day, in fact.
Aang knew the response. "I am here to honor the sky and the wind, to receive their blessing. The winds have buoyed me and borne me, and I wish to return their favors by bearing their mark on my flesh."
"Your request is granted, Aang of the Sky. Rise and come forward."
Aang stood awkwardly. He knew the prayers and what he was supposed to say, but he wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to do.
There was a moment of silence, then two of the other monks pushed forward a washbasin. Oh, right, more spiritual cleansing.
Aang disrobed, giving his clothes to one of assistant monks, and stepped into the washbasin. It was a fancy one, molded copper instead of wood and with a nice big ladle, but the water was freezing cold. Aang shivered as he picked up the ladle and poured the water over his head, turkeygoose pimples prickling up his arms. He had only barely rinsed himself off when the monks motioned for him to stand up, giving him a bison wool towel to dry himself (it itched).
Kakhra stepped toward Aang and put his hand on the shivering initiate's bald head. "Spirit of the Sky, accept this offering we give you today. Bless this monk with ever-blowing wind, with safe harbor from storm, with kindness and strength. Aum."
Aang recognized his cue, and shivered through his lines. "T-Tian, Sky Spirit, I have no possessions and no milk or honey to lay upon your altar. I come before you with my only offering: myself."
Kakhra removed his hands from Aang's brow and gestured towards the bed, really just a board with a blanket on it. Feeling incredibly exposed and vulnerable without his clothes, Aang gulped and sat down. He knew he shouldn't be afraid. Kakhra had done this hundreds of times. In fact, almost all the monks he knew had been tattooed by Monk Kakhra. But still, Aang couldn't shake the nervousness making his stomach twist. How much would it hurt? What if something went wrong and he ended up with crooked arrows?
Monk Kakhra picked up a thin, sharp needle, almost as long as his arm, and dipped the tip into a small jar of blue ink. The needle was carved out of a bison's leg bone, sharpened to a point and hollowed carefully for this purpose only. The ink was a secret recipe, but had over a dozen different herbs and minerals, soaked, boiled, dried, and ground into a paste before being added to water.
"Blessed be the needle," intoned Kakhra. "Blessed be the ink. Blessed be the bison, blessed be the stone."
Aang nodded, watching the needle with apprehension. The assistant monks put his foot into a small sling, so that Monk Kakhra would have access to his leg from all angles. Kakhra lined the tip of the needle along his fingers and aligned it with the skin on top of Aang's foot. He placed his other hand on the blunt end, and began.
The elder monk's hand moved up and down like a sewing needle, and Aang breathed deeply, thinking of how wonderful it would be when he was done, when he was fully inducted into the Air Monk fold. Yes, it hurt, like a prickle snake was slithering over his skin. But Aang thought of Gyatso's proud face, of how his friends' eyes went wide when they heard (they're going to do what?), of the other initiates he had seen, walking out of the sanctuary with their heads held high, and it didn't seem so bad.
At first, Aang looked away as the needle pricked and scratched, but eventually curiosity compelled him to glance down. In the needle's wake, his skin was stained dark, but also rose up in red welts. "Monk Kakhra…" he started, wondering if his tattoos were supposed to look like that.
"Hush, Aang," said one of the assistants. "All is well."
As time wore on, the excitement and nervousness began to fade, replaced by tedium and the discomfort of laying so still and being poked with a needle again and again. As the hours passed, the arrow crept up Aang's leg and around to the back of his thigh, leaving sharp stinging in its wake. Then Kakhra started on the other leg. Sitting so still was uncomfortable, and Aang was terribly hungry. He was offered water, but nothing else.
To distract himself, Aang listened to the assistant monk's chanting. It was a beautiful sound, low and groaning like the calls of bison, or the creaking of ancient wood. The chants were of an ancient language, one Aang knew a few prayers in but little else. Still, they calmed him, especially as the pricking pain became more severe along the backs of his thighs.
After a quick break to stretch, Aang was told to sit up, and Kakhra would start on his arms. It wasn't terribly much worse than his legs, but the initiate still had to look away as the needle pierced him again and again, drawing beads of blood along his limb.
Then, as the sky began to dim, the monks told Aang to lay on his stomach, and they would tattoo his back. This part was more painful than the legs, and Aang had to bite his lip and clench his fist. Still, he whimpered a little, and tears leapt unbidden to his eyes. I must be crazy, he thought. Why am I even doing this?
One of the assistants was rubbing herb-infused oil on Aang's arms and legs, helping the ink to set and the skin to heal. The young airbender tried to focus his awareness on the soothing, cool feeling of the salve and not on the continued spinal torture, but it was difficult, and the two conflicting sensations were making it difficult for him to think straight.
One of the monks must have seen Aang's distress, for someone said, "Aang, do you remember the prayer for the bearing of burdens? Try reciting it."
Oh, thought Aang. Right. And said: "Spirits of the Sky, you see all the world, all the pain, the fear, the hardship. Too many of our people forget the reality of being, and live on the ground, unable to even look up. Give my soul lightness, give it grace, so that it can bear the world and still fly."
Amazingly, the pain seemed to dim as Aang recited, and he said the Prayer of Thanks in gratitude, then, for good measure, the Prayer of Harvest, the Prayer of Passing, the Prayer of Love, the Prayer for Planting, The Solstice Prayer, and the Prayer for Bison. It was funny, but he'd never realized how many prayers he actually knew until now. And he wasn't sure if it was the spirits answering his prayers or just the opportunity to concentrate on something else, but the ancient words really did help. Cheekily, Aang tried inserting a few non-prayer poems and songs he knew, and they helped as well. Aang concentrated on his recitations, watching out the window as each star come out in the sky, and soon his back was done with.
The last part, so the rumor went, was the worst. Why save it until last? wondered Aang as Kakhra came to kneel by his head. Wouldn't it be better just to get it over with at the beginning? But tradition was tradition. This was the way it had always been done, the ink, the washing, the prayers, the fasting. It was the way it would always be.
Aang flinched as he saw the needle going for his forehead, even though he had been enduring it all day. He couldn't move a muscle, only grind his teeth and say the Prayer for Basketweaving for the twentieth time.
The needle went in, came out, went in, came out. Blood dribbled into Aang's eye, and an assistant wiped it away. They were still chanting, over Aang's litany of repeated, unrelated prayers. Had they stopped at any point, or did the assistants switch out, taking shifts to ensure the sound continued? Aang wasn't sure.
Then, very suddenly, it was over. Kakhra didn't say anything, simply stopped, washed his hands and the needle, and left. He had been fasting too, and must have been even more tired than Aang, having had to concentrate on his handiwork all day.
Aang wasn't sure what time it was. But it was night now, and they had started in the morning. He tried to hold in a groan. He was so hungry, he just felt empty. The assistant monks were still rubbing oil on his back, and it felt so nice, Aang wanted to go to sleep right there.
Suddenly, the most wonderful smell in the world hit his nose. Food? Aang tried to sit up, but his whole body ached like he had been pummeled by a landslide. The assistant monks helped him up, and gave him a bowl of congee. It was simple food, but just then it was the most delicious thing Aang had ever eaten.
The assistants wrapped bandages around Aang's limbs and torso, until he looked like a walking pile of rags. Then, finally, they led him to a proper bed, and let him sleep.
Aang stayed within the sanctuary for several days, until the swelling had gone down. When the monks finally removed Aang's bandages, he looked at himself in the mirror, awed. The arrow started on his brow, then stretched down his back to his legs and all the way to his feet. Two more arrows wound around his arms, ending on his hands. He looked… adult. Grown up. Like a real master. He felt almost giddy, looking at it.
He felt like he could do anything.
Hearing someone come in behind him, Aang turned around. It was Gyatso.
Aang beamed up at his mentor, who beamed back. "I am so very proud of you, Aang," said the elder monk and placed his hand gently on his pupil's head. "So very, very proud."
Aang couldn't keep his excitement in anymore. "Look at me, Gyatso! I'm a real airbender! I mean, I know I've always been a real airbender, but not a real airbender!"
Gyatso smiled. "It is wonderful, isn't it? Come with me. We must show all our friends how far you've come."
Aang laughed. "I can't wait to show Harik! He'll be so jealous!"
Gyatso smiled with sad eyes as he watched the twelve-year-old run out of the sanctum and out into the sun. He'd been speaking with the elders while his pupil had been undergoing his ordeal. Twelve, and already a master… the time, he knew, was coming soon.