Two years after his father's death, and it still hurts. Some days are better than other days, of course, and it's not like Tenzin has shut himself off from the world completely, but overall, it hurts. The worst are the times when he thinks he can hear his father's booming laugh, and he'll look up eagerly, only to see some happy Air Acolyte stroll by, and then his heart sinks and he'll spend the whole day with that knot of unhappiness in his stomach.
A part of him wishes he had stayed in the South Pole. He had no family in Republic City: neither Bumi nor Kya felt the need to move into the hustle and bustle, and his poor mother is all alone, now. But just as often as he wishes he was home, being taken care of like a child, he thinks of his responsibilities here. His father entrusted him with taking care of the city; Tenzin has the weight of being the Last Airbender on his shoulders, now, and he can't take it lightly. So, despite the hurt, despite the loneliness, Tenzin stays.
On this particular day, the sunshine is streaming, the air is sweet, and the beach has never looked more inviting. The Air Acolytes have taken the day off, and it's just Tenzin holding down the fort (so to speak), locked in his room, pouring over the latest scribes from the Earth Kingdom. He takes no notice of the knock on his door — or at least, he tries not to. The knocking is persistent, louder and louder every passing second, and finally, when he can take it no more, Tenzin looks up and barks out "WHAT?"
The door opens and Akio walks in, looking very pleased with himself. Fond of the man though he is, Tenzin can't help but groan. That kind of smirk on Akio's face usually means doom for Tenzin.
"What?" He asks again, a touch quieter.
Akio beams and plants his hands on Tenzin's desk, leaning in conspiratorially. "We've just gotten three new hopefuls for entry into the Temple, Master Tenzin. I've already gone ahead and given them the once-over -"
"Of course you did."
"- and two of them aren't anything special. But the third!" He purses his lips together and gives a soft whistle. "I think she's perfect."
Tenzin tugs a sheet of paper from underneath Akio's hand and sets in neatly in the pile to his left. "Let me translate. You found a pretty girl who wants to be an Air Acolyte, and you want me to permit you to let her into the Temple so you can try and seduce her. Is that correct?"
Akio adopts a wounded expression, and Tenzin briefly wonders why his parents named the lad something that meant 'bright'. "You wound me, Master Tenzin! You can see for yourself that she's something special! She's waiting in the Meditation Pavilion."
Tenzin wavers. He has work to do: hours of it, in fact. But the sooner he gets rid of this chit, the sooner Akio can stop bringing in distractions and get back to work. And so, with a world-weary sigh, Tenzin rises to his feet and leads the way to the pavilion, with the intention of throwing this newest romance out before there's any fuss or scandal.
When he reaches his destination, Tenzin realizes this 'scandal' was not all all what he expected.
She's pretty. No, more than that. All the girls Akio brings back are pretty, but this one has something else, too. There's laugh lines in her remarkably young face, and her thick brown hair is tied in a neat knot at the base of her neck. Her robe is unadorned and very respectful — a rare treat from a girl Akio favours. Her eyes are a golden brown, and they're fixed on the intricate carvings of the pavilion. She's nothing like Tenzin expected, and he keeps waiting for some deformity to become apparent.
Finally, he realizes he's staring.
He clears his throat, and the girl's head turns. Catching sight of him, she gives a little start, and bows, without a word. Akio is smirking, and Tenzin realizes he has no idea what to say.
"I am Tenzin." He decides finally, and then wishes he didn't sound like an obvious idiot. "And Acolyte Akio tells me that you wish to join us in this temple."
The girl nods, her hands clasped demurely in front of her, head bowed, as completely modest as Akio was wild. What on earth had caught his attention?
"What is your name, child?"
"Pema, sir." The girl says, and her voice, while pitched soft and gentle, carries a hint of laughter, of mischief.
"And why do you come here?"
Finally, Pema raises her eyes, and Tenzin makes the mistake of meeting them. The air is knocked out of his lungs; for a second, they just stare at each other. There's such a warmth and kindness in her gaze; in the way they light up as she takes in the beautiful scenery around her, but also in the way they seem to take in everything at once. It reminds Tenzin, irresistibly, of Aang.
"I have a great respect for the Air Nation and their teachers, sir." Pema says finally, bowing again. "And I grew up hearing stories about the legendary Avatar Aang. I want to dedicate my life to preserving his teachings, his wonderful accomplishments. I am here to learn."
Tenzin is gaping at her like a fish out of water.
"Will you obey your Master, respect the teachings, honour the Temple and obey your sacred duties as an Air Acolyte?" Akio asks, which should, technically, be Tenzin's question, but he's still momentarily speechless.
"Then you are welcome at this temple, Pupil Pema." Akio bows and gestures for Pema to follow him. As they walk off, Akio turns and gives Tenzin a wide grin, as if to say, "Didn't I tell you?"
Tenzin doesn't trust himself to speak, but then again, his mouth still wasn't working anyways.
It doesn't take long for Akio to tire of his new toy. As he complains later to a fellow Acolyte, Pema isn't interested in being romanced; she politely, but firmly, refused Akio, and Tenzin, who overhears the conversation, can't help but feel a strange sense of relief and pride at the news.
It bothers him, because he shouldn't be so happy to hear that Pema wasn't seduced by some pompous pup.
She takes to her lessons with absolute dedication: the first to arrive, the last to leave. The sense of humor Tenzin suspects is hidden just underneath the surface doesn't show; he suspects she's trying to be the perfect Acolyte. He decides to call her on it one day in meditation. With her brow furrowed and her mouth turned down, she doesn't look peaceful or relaxed.
"You don't need to look so serious, Pema," He says, causing her to start, and the other Acolytes to titter (it's faintly ironic for Tenzin to tell someone not to be serious). "Air is freedom. No matter where you go, there is always air. It carves paths wherever it travels. Let it fill you up."
"I'm trying …" She starts to say, before cutting herself off and looking ashamed.
"Air is not about being something else to control it. Air is being yourself, and seeing where it takes you."
Their eyes meet, and then her brow softens, the frown melts away, and her eyes shine with that mischief. He's feeling fairly pleased with himself, until she points to the ground he's sitting on.
"Then … Master Tenzin, I suggest letting the Air move you to a dryer spot."
He looks down as the Air Acolytes burst into laughter and realizes he's sitting in a puddle.
Now that she's embraced herself, Pema is the delight of the Temple. Her laughter is a constant sound, and it fills the place with cheer. When Tenzin hears it, he can't help but be reminded of his father, once more. Oddly enough, it doesn't hurt so much, now.
He trains her in the martial arts, four times a week, twice in a private session, like all the other Acolytes, and although she is no prodigy, she takes to in and makes it her own, enjoying the challenge of both the work, and the effort to make Tenzin laugh. He enjoys teaching her, but he does his best to keep things respectful. After all, she's twenty years old. He's thirty six, feeling his years creep up on him, and he doesn't want to give anyone any reason to feel like there is an air of impropriety here.
She's practicing her lunges, but she's giving it too much energy: she oversteps her bounds, putting herself out of balance, and Tenzin watches with a critical eye.
"Not so much power." He tells her again, stepping closer to correct her stance. "You don't need to look like you're leaping from a cliff, just a small step -"
His hand brushes against the skin of her arm while the other freezes on her hip; it's not improper, he knows it's not improper, he's done this a thousand times, but there is something odd about her scent, how she feels, the way she looks at him. His pulse thuds wildly in his chest and she exhales, a soft puff of air that stirs the hair on his chin and he moves away, abruptly.
"That's enough for today."
She doesn't protest. She doesn't say anything at all, but she watches him leave and she knows that he's starting to feel, finally, a little of what she does whenever he is near.
He avoids her for a few days, makes excuses and pretends to be busy when it's time for her lessons, and he feels like an idiot. He's a grown man, for Spirit's Sake! Why did he act like a stupid child when he was only instructing a pupil the correct form?
He covers his face with his hands, and wishes, for the millionth time, that his dad was here.
She brings him tea when his avoidance stretches into the second week. He considers sending her away, but that's stupid, and immature, and also he can't think of any reasonable excuse to do so and he's rather thirsty. She's perfectly respectable as she sets the tea in front of him, but when she's finished, she does not excuse herself. She seats herself in the chair before him and fixes him with those lovely eyes of ears and Tenzin can't help but feel like a child, bowing his head in shame for some great mischief.
"Master Tenzin," She says, and her voice is soft, her gaze lowered to the desk, every sign of a quiet, meek woman. "Have I offended you in some way? Has my training been abysmal? Are you angry at me?"
He gapes at her, wondering if he can hide behind this lie. He can't, of course, but it's nice that she gave him an excuse anyways. All he had to do was say Yes, you have displeased me, leave this Island. And she'd be gone forever. Problem solved.
"Of course you haven't." Tenzin says finally, and he's glad his voice is strong, at least.
"Then why have you been avoiding me?"
He should have just banished her.
"I haven't been -" He blusters, turning a deep red, and pulling on his beard in an agitated way. "That's absurd, I just -"
"You're not displeased with me? And you aren't ill?"
"No, of course not -"
"Then I'll see you at meditation tomorrow." She says simply, and rises to her feet.
He's trapped, and he can't help but admire her for that, however much it irks him. "I … Pema!"
She turns. "Yes, Master Tenzin?"
"I'm thirty-six years old." He says, and he hates himself for saying it. "And I don't … I don't want to give anyone any reason for disgracing you -"
"No one will find anything disgraceful about a Master teaching their student." Pema says, gently, and she bows and exits the room.
It's only when he's lying in his bed that night that he realizes she didn't say his student.
When he gets to the Pavilion early the next morning, Pema is the only student there. She's deep in meditation, eyes closed, and breathing even, and he briefly considers sneaking away. But then her eyes open and she turns to face him and smiles that lovely smile and says "Good morning, Master Tenzin."
"Good morning." He replies, because what else can he say? He seats himself before her and readies for meditation.
He keeps expecting something: what, he's not sure. But she's quiet throughout the whole meditation, and when he opens his eyes, she's still sitting there, silent and tranquil. He wonders if she misses her family. He wonders if she wants one of her own. He wonders why the sight of her bothers him so much.
He rises to his feet and stretches out his hand for her to take, saying her name softly to remind her that the meditation is done, and she opens her eyes and takes his hand. Her skin is soft and firm; just like the day in training, the feeling enflames him, but he holds on, and so does she. They stand there, hand-clasped for a moment, before Pema stands on tiptoe and kisses him.
She tastes like jasmine tea and ocean spray; in the years after, he'll ask her if she had been swimming before meditation on that fateful day, and she'll just laugh. Her lips are as soft as her skin and they mould so easily to his that it sends his pulse leaping. He has been kissed before: once, long ago, back home, when he had just received his Air Master tattoos, and once, on the day he left for Republic City, but none of them come close to how he feels now. His heart is hammering in his chest, but he feels oddly calm, and one hand cups her face, holding the lovely visage in his hand as he presses more firmly against her.
Her freehand slides up his chest, and although he is clothed, it's like she's electrocuting his bare skin, but it's pleasant, more than pleasant. He's just wondering if it would be odd if he proposes marriage on the spot when a sound — a bird, perhaps, the crash of the waves? — and realizes what he's doing, and leaps back until his back hits the railing on the other side of the pavilion.
She's looking at him, with her cheeks flushed so beautifully and her lips red, because of his kisses, and one hand is slightly outstretched, and he wants to take her and crush his lips against hers, tear the cloak from around her shoulders, love her until all she can cry is his name. But he can't. He's Master Tenzin, the Last Airbender, son of Avatar Aang, he's too old for her, she's so young, she has her whole life ahead of her, he can't be some pervert that seduces his charge —
"I'm … I'm sorry …" He stutters, and the look on her face is both hurt and defiant.
He avoids her for a week, and this time, she does not come to seek him out.
He even asks for tea from the kitchen, in the vain hopes that she will deliver it, but it's Akio who brings him his drink, and Tenzin doesn't even bother opening the door.
He wonders if his parents ever went through this, or if he's just the failure of the family.
He can't even look at the statue of Aang, so close to the Island.
The Acolytes have all gone out for the day, and with Tenzin's blessing. If they're gone, so is Pema, and if Pema is gone, he can't be distracted. There's work to do, so much work, and he needs to get it done.
Two hours later, it's not getting done. He's tired, he's frustrated, he's hopeless. He needs to meditate.
He enters the pavilion with a weary hopelessness, wondering why he didn't just send her home when Akio first brought her here. Worried about scandal from them. It's an irony that should make him laugh, if it didn't depress him so much.
He hears footsteps behind him, and when he turns around, Pema is taking her seat beside him.
He can't breathe.
"I owe you an apology." She says finally, without looking at him. "I've acted shamefully, Master Tenzin. I entered this Temple with pure intentions, but I have dishonoured myself. I've fallen in love with my Master, and now that I know he is an honourable man, there is no point in hurting him anymore. I would like your permission to go home."
And not once does she look at him.
He remembers the look on his father's face, when his mother would say I love you. A goofy expression that made his children retch and squeal, and Bumi used to swear real men would never make that face. Tenzin is pretty sure he's making it now.
Finally, he summons his courage, and he says "No."
When she turns to look at him, he kisses her.
At once, her arms twine around his neck and his hands settle on her waist, and it's like the past week has never happened. She tears her lips from his and presses soft kisses to the tender skin of his throat and neck, and then her hands cup his face and she asks, "What about my honour?"
He knows that she's teasing, but now is really not the time for this kind of thing. His hand tugs on the knot on her shoulder that keeps her tunic in place and undoes it in a moment; it slides down, revealing her underwrappings. "We don't have to tell anyone about this part."
Her lips capture his and then she pulls away again, grinning. "What part?"
He can't help but grin despite himself. "The … part where I disrobe your honour and love you every way I can?"
"In the pavilion, Master Tenzin?" She adopts the lofty voice he's been known to use on occasion when scolding misbehaving Acolytes.
"I don't think the Spirits will mind too much." His hand tangles in her hair, undoing it from its knot so he can run his fingers through it. After that, there is no more talking.
Pema moves to his belt, tugging it off without much problem, before moving to the clasp of his cloak. Her fingers are deft, skimming over his skin like air, and Tenzin has to close his eyes and even his breathing before he passes out. When she's gotten to his shirt, he decides that he's been still for long enough. Air is peaceful, air is freedom … and air can get going faster than almost anything in the world. He kisses the exposed skin of her chest as he works on her underfastenings; with each inch of skin he exposes, he presses hot, needy kisses, nipping occasionally before running his tongue over the bites. Finally, like a man unwrapping a present, he unveils her, in all her glory, and Tenzin's last, coherent thought us that Akio would never be able to appreciate this treasure.
His thumb gently brushes over the nipple of her right breast before he lowers his mouth to it, tugging gently with his teeth as his free-hand works on her lower fastenings. At first contact, Pema gasps, eyes fluttering shut as she gives herself up to pleasure, but she's not a girl who can sit still for long; she needs to touch. Her hands skim along his back, reaching for the fastenings that keep his jerkin in place, and she tugs, pulling it down; Tenzin lifts his head long enough to lift the skirt over his head and discarding it before turning his attention to her neglected breast. Together, they move as one so that Pema is lying on her back on the pavilion ground, with Tenzin holding her from above, lavishing her with sensation. His hands slide up the exposed skin of her thigh, and she whimpers, causing him to chuckle slightly as his free hand skims so close to her moist curls. After a minute, he pulls away, and Pema lets out a heartbreaking sound.
"Who says you don't have a sense of humor?" She says, giving him a pout, and Tenzin laughs, moving to rid himself of his pants. She sits up a bit to help him, accidentally pressing against his length, and he lets out a strangled groan, causing Pema to giggle unrepentantly. "Oops."
"You're evil," He accuses her, gaining control of himself, and he discards his pants, kicking his boots off alongside them.
She trails her fingers along the beautiful expanse of skin on his chest, following the lines of defined muscle before sliding her palm along the arrow that leads downward. He kisses her again, as her fingers curl in the waist of his underwear, and, with one fluid movement, pulls them away.
He's never been this naked before. He's never been with anyone before. He scans her face, wondering if she's disappointed, if she's changed her mind, if if if — but she's kissing him again, and she's sitting up, pressing him onto his back, before straddling him, giving him a lovely view of her body, framed by the sun that streams like gold on her back.
She leans down to kiss him, whispering, "I love you," against his mouth before she lowers herself onto him, sheathing him completely in her heat, and two become one.
He doesn't remember the fine details of that morning. He knows he was her first, and she was his; he knows that there was an unbelievable pleasure that nearly gave him a stroke, and, so Pema tells him, instead of her name, he called her his 'Forever Girl'.
He also remembers her laugh, when the go to collect their clothes and find them scattered so haphazardly about. The sound makes him love her all the more.
When Jinora is born, five years later, Akio tells him that this has to be justification for a raise. Tenzin laughs.
His daughters are at an age where they want to know about true love. They ask all kinds of questions, which he normally demurs to their mother. It's when Jinora asks how the two fell in love that Tenzin finally answers.
"It was all your mother's fault, Jinora. And I couldn't be happier about it."