His father shows Tenzin where the flowers grow, wild on the mountain below the temple. Aang tells him their name, but he forgets almost immediately. Using gusts of air, they bound from one bunch to the next, picking as they go. They carry bushels of them up to the entrance where the statue of Monk Gyatso sits. Tenzin finds the statue's gaze unnerving; it's like being watched by a ghost.
His father hands him the mortar and pestle and he begins to grind the petals into a violet paste. As he works, his mind chants a mantra. 'I'm not Air Nomad, I'm Water Tribe. I'm not Air Nomad, I'm Water Tribe. I'm not Air Nomad…'
Tenzin's earliest memory: he was three, or maybe four, and something set him off. He couldn't remember what; he was probably just tired and cranky. When his mother tried to get him to eat, he screamed. When his father put him to bed, he hollered. His yells could be heard all the way to his grandfather's hut. He pounded his fists, kicked his feet, flipped onto his back, and let out his biggest wail. The gust of wind that blew through their igloo startled all three of them.
His mother looked at his father, but Aang was staring at him. Tenzin didn't understand that look, or why no one was angry anymore.
Little by little his father adds water until the paste Tenzin has made becomes a fine blue ink. It's not the rich indigo of the original flowers, but it's still much darker than the midday sky.
"It'll fade," says Aang, and turns to ready the needles.
The cloth had been dyed in Gaoling. "It's not exactly the same, but it's close." Aang said when it arrived on the cargo ship, inspecting the bolts of brown, burnt orange and saffron.
Katara insisted on doing all the sewing herself, even though she wasn't much of a seamstress. The finished result itched and bunched up in places, but his father nodded his approval. "You look just like I did when I was learning airbending."
Tenzin never did like the color yellow.
The needles look impossibly sharp, and Tenzin is suddenly afraid. Don't be stupid, he tells himself. His father reaches down to the bench where they lay next to the ink and some clean rags, but he leaves them alone. Instead he picks up a knife. It glitters in the sun.
"Easiest to do the head first," he says.
When Tenzin's wolf tail falls to the ground, he refuses to cry.
He had been training for a couple of years when his parents sat him down and handed him something long and thin, wrapped in blue cloth. He untied the twine holding it together and let the cloth fall open to reveal a glider.
"I got this when I was at the Northern Air temple last," Aang said. "It's just like mine."
"Thank you," he said. Even at six, he knew not to say that he would rather have had a boat.
It hurts, but it doesn't hurt as bad as he imagined it would. The hardest part is sitting still while his father pricks him in slow lines, wipes away excess ink, pricks him again, wipes, and so on. The forehead arrow alone takes all afternoon.
"You were twelve when you had this done?" Tenzin asks.
"Not even," Aang says. "It was finished just before my birthday." With a clean cloth, he dabs at the tiny droplets of blood that well up on his son's skin, and then covers the area with a bandage. "Be careful not to get it wet," he says.
Tenzin feels a twinge of guilt that he is not as happy as his father sounds.
On nights with a full moon, he sometimes found his mother and uncle outside the village, just staring up at it. One night he asked why.
"It energizes me," she said. "It's like the light enters through my head and flows out," she stretches out her arms, "through the paths of my chi."
"That's not why I come out here," said Sokka, giving his sister a bemused glance.
"We know why you come out here," Katara said. Tenzin remembered the story of the moon spirit. It was one of his uncle's favorite stories to tell.
"Yes, there's that. But even if that hadn't happened, I think I'd come out here anyway. It's like a Water tribe thing, you know?"
Tenzin didn't know. Whenever he stared up at the moon, all he saw was rock.
The next day his father starts on his hands. Tenzin tries to meditate, because what else is he going to do? He finds it difficult to clear his mind. The ability to sit for hours has never come easily to him, except when fishing.
They run out of ink halfway through. This time Aang picks the flowers and mashes them into a pulp. Tenzin looks at the arrows on his hands, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that they will be there for the rest of his life.
His uncle talked them into it. "Airbender or not, he's a boy of the Southern Water tribe and he's at that age."
"Okay," his mother said. "If that's what he wants."
His father just nodded. Tenzin felt his gray eyes follow him as he bolted from the igloo and down to the dock where the boat waited.
Sokka handled the sail, while Tenzin steered. Deftly they avoided the ice floes, dodging and careening smoothly through the water. An hour later they reached the open ocean. He laughed, and his uncle joined him.
At home, just as they were about to disembark, Sokka put a hand on his shoulder. "You didn't use any airbending, did you?" At his nephew's look he quickly said, "Of course you didn't. Forget I said that."
The taste of success turned bitter in Tenzin's mouth.
The stripes of blue down his neck, back and legs take a couple of days to complete. He spends most of it on his stomach. The breeze creeps under the bandages and stings the raw areas. The second night, too uncomfortable to sleep, he rises. Although it is summer, it is chilly this far up, so he eases robes over his limbs and back and pads out into the hallway. Branching off are several other rooms like the one he is using, small rooms that housed young airbenders over a hundred and twenty-five years ago. Despite his father's efforts to keep them clean, they are still eerie. 'It's the silence,' he thinks. 'A place with no sounds remains dead no matter how nice you make it look.'
Outside in the courtyard in front of the statue, he begins going through the basic airbending forms. The motions relax him. A few minutes later, he notices his father in the doorway. Spontaneously he forms a ball of air and tosses it. Quickly Aang reacts, catching it and keeping it spinning, then throws it back. They do this as long as they can before the air loses cohesion and dissipates.
"Why couldn't I be a waterbender like you?" he asked his mother.
She paused in the middle of her forms. "Being able to bend an element is partially a matter of who your ancestors are, but partially a matter of your mindset and your inner spirit."
"How can I possibly have an airbender's spirit?" he scoffed. "I love meat, I hate meditating, and I'd rather go sailing than fly."
"That's just it, Tenzin," Katara said. "You are like the wind. You refuse to flow down a set path, like water in a river bed. Instead you go your own way." Even though he is fifteen and a man in the eyes of the tribe, she tousles his hair like she did when he was small. "What is a sailboat without the wind?"
His father finishes filling in the arrow on his left foot. "Done." He begins to clean the needles for the last time. Tenzin wiggles his toes, then wraps his feet and calves up and gets dressed. The rest of him is mostly healed.
"There's enough time to get home today, if you want," Aang says.
Tenzin thinks about it. He does miss the village. But as he watches his father putting the tattoo implements away, he decides another night might not be so bad.
"Am I allowed to play airball?"
The corners of Aang's mouth turn up a little, crinkling the soft laugh lines around his eyes. "If you're careful, sure."
"Then let's go."
The first game Aang wins, but the second and third games, Tenzin beats him.
"You are now a master." His father told this to him a week ago on his sixteenth birthday. That morning Tenzin had demonstrated all thirty six levels of airbending, then showed off the technique he had developed himself, air fishing. The sight of the fish flopping on the ice after the swirl of wind sucked them out of the sea had his father turning slightly pale, but he had approved it. Then he rubbed his bald head. "When one of the Air Nomads mastered airbending, they got tattoos."
"I'm not an Air Nomad," Tenzin said.
"I know." Sorrow appeared on his father's face, though he turned his head to hide it.
After the presents and the embarrassing singing, Katara pulled her son aside. "I'm proud of you," she said, hugging him. "May I ask you a question?"
"What?" He had a feeling he knew where this was going.
"Will you consider getting the tattoos?"
"And have a permanent reminder that I'm different stamped on my face?" he said, pointing to his forehead.
"I understand." She cupped his face in her hands. "No one is going to make you do it. It's just…it would mean a lot to your father. He's been alone a long time."
"He's not alone. He's the Avatar."
"Tenzin," she said, "it's not the same."
He turned from her and went back to the others.
Later, Tenzin walked down to where the ice met the ocean. The moon was a crescent in the sky, like a sail. The smell of saltwater filled his nose, a scent he didn't think he could ever live without. But when he closed his eyes, it wasn't the water that sang to him, but the wind. When he breathed in, it was like welcoming home an old friend. To lose that connection would be to die inside.
He went back to his igloo. Everyone else had gone to bed, but his father still sat up, staring into the embers of the fire. Aang looked up as his son approached.
"Okay," Tenzin said. "I'll get the tattoos."