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|Masks: Part one|
Aang watched the man in the Blue Spirit mask start to stretch out his arms, looking like he was testing his movement. Had he been injured? Hopefully not. It would suck if someone else got hurt because of him. Again.
That mask was seriously freaky, though pretty effective for making enemies afraid. He had seen firsthand how the dark grey body suit blended into shadows, making the white and blue mask gleam in stark contrast. It almost looked like it was floating.
Aang remembered his days with the other Monks, playing airball and games of chance. He remembered the laughing pats on the head from elder monks and the cold dread curling in his gut when he found out a hundred years had passed.
He remembered the skull and necklace of his teacher, half-buried under snow, bleached from the years exposed to the sun. His chest tightened. Aang watched the older man like an eagle-hawk, searching for that graceful movement that all air monks had, subtly moving with the wind.
The man had a light step, and from the fighting he had been able to see while leaping around and fighting for his own life, the man seemed to favor dodging and moving in quick, tight circles. Not exactly the defensive stance he had learned in the temples, but he had never seen airbending used alongside blades. Maybe it was more effective this way?
His chest tightened again. Another airbender.
Oh spirits, he hoped he had seen right, and it hadn't been a trick of the moonlight and his own exhaustion. If he really wasn't alone any more...
His brows knitted, hand coming up to scrub at his eyes before being placed on his lap, pale grey eyes focusing on the masked man once more.
Airbender or not, this guy saved his life. He was probably being terribly rude, just staring at him. He couldn't help it, though. Seriously! If that guy really was an Airbender... (And Aang really believed he was - Those Fire Nation guys were blasted backwards!) Then he wouldn't have to be alone any more. He took a deep breath, hoping his voice wasn't as shaky as he felt.
"Thank you... For saving me, I mean."
The mask's dark eyes were focused on him, the fearsome fanged grin aimed directly at him. Yeah, definitely good at intimidation. Aang looked away and fidgeted, pressing his fingers together in an attempt to gather up his confidence again. Why did it have to fail now of all times?
The sharp nod from the mask soothed some of his worries. (He had acknowledgment. Acceptance. Spirits, he had approval from an elder.)
He had to impress this guy somehow, to make him confirm for sure, that he was an Airbender. Were his hands trembling? He pressed his forefingers together harder, trying to hide the tremors in his movements.
Aang watched the guy sit down out of the corner of his eye, folding his legs up into a relaxed meditation stance. A sudden flash of inspiration hit and Aang jumped off the root, letting air cushion his steps automatically.
Respect, right? He wanted the guy to teach him. No, he wanted the guy to stay with him. They were the last of their kind, right? His throat tightened again. They needed to stick together.
Yeah. His thoughts were turning in dizzying circles. Was he even thinking clearly? This was important. They had to stick together. So he had to convince the Blue Spirit guy to stay with him, to teach him. To be his mentor, and he'd be Blue's student, and he could learn how to songbend because Gyatso never got around to teaching him, and maybe Blue would tell him about any other airbenders-
Aang broke off his thought, knowing that path only led to heartbreak.
This man... This masked man was an Airbender. They were the last of their kind. Aang needed him. As an Airbender and as a teacher, not as someone obliged to the Avatar. It didn't matter that he was the Avatar, or even that he was a Master Airbender. He still didn't know all of the Air Nomad's history or old stories... and now with the rest of the monks wiped out, those stories seemed so much more important. They were on the verge of being forgotten forever.
How to start?
With the basics, he guessed.
His brain stuttered to a stop, the formal words slipping from his grasp like loose grains of sand. It was supposed to be ceremonial, elegant in verse and promising the loyalty and trust of the student, while returning guardianship and guidance from the teacher. He had preformed it years ago, when he became Monk Gyatso's disciple. His foggy memories of childhood scattering away, leaving only small flashes behind.
He already approached, he already started, He had to go through with it! What were the words! He scratched the back of his head, trying to rein in his self-consciousness. He opened his mouth.
"Um... My name's Aang."
The mask's dark eyes were pinned to him again, mask following him slightly.
His heart skipped a beat and Aang plopped down on the ground, trying to reign in the whirlwind of self-admonition and anxiety coursing through him. How inelegant could he get! That was a terrible introduction! He needed to be calm. Calm! What were the steps?
Introduction, greeting... statement of purpose... Ceremonial exchange of prayer-beads? Oh man, he forgot about that. Too late now. It was the first two steps that mattered most, anyway. He presented himself as an apprentice willing to learn, and if the elder wanted to accept him, he'd repeat the gesture, showing that they were equals, partners in learning.
Yes. That was it. And if the guy didn't repeat the gesture, either he though Aang was a total idiot, not worthy of learning, or he wasn't an airbender.
Aang pressed his fists together, the knuckles interlocking in a way that, although it would not stop a determined bender with a sharp breath, would still stop most of the more deadly attacks. He bowed his head, offering himself to the elder with respect. Although...
He glanced up through his eyelashes, watching the man's posture straighten slightly, the mask still pinning him down with its dark gaze.
Why was he even wearing it? To hide from the soldiers was a good bet, but why hadn't he taken it off, even when stretching and tending his wounds? What if he didn't accept him?
What if he just walked away, and went on living as an Airbender all alone, and they would both be alone forever...
But what if he accepted?
The wait seemed to sing through his muscles, anxiety curling thicker in his stomach with every moment the mask just stared at him without moving. Did the guy even know this ceremony? It was pretty common at the temples, for boys who showed promise, or needed more guided discipline.
Suddenly, the man was moving, hands placed together and knuckles interlocking in the proper gesture of acceptance.
Aang's mind stuttered to a halt for a split second before roaring back to life, Joy crashing through his body. He let out a shout, leaping up and twisting with the winds, enjoying the feeling of flight and overwhelming happiness. He wasn't alone! He was accepted, He had a teacher, an elder to guide him!
He had a partner, a fellow airbender.
He wasn't alone.
His heart threatening to burst from his chest, he lunged forward, pulling the wind through his fingers like delicate spiderwebs reaching forward and twisting just so. Aang landed with a thump against the man's midsection, faintly surprised he hadn't bowled the man over. He started talking, spitting out the thanks that was required by ceremony, mixed with his personal thoughts and worries. This was an Airbender and an Elder. He could fix everything.
Well, maybe not fix everything, but he could definitely help, and Aang wouldn't have to do this alone, with the death of the Air Nomads on his shoulders. They weren't all dead.
He hadn't failed so completely.
He wasn't alone.
Aang continued talking, despite feeling his throat tighten and his words harder to pronounce. Tears welled up, blurring his vision and spilling down his cheeks in warm rivers. He choked on his last word, feeling embarrassed that he was losing composure so easily in front of this stranger. (But he was an airbender.)
Aang pressed his forehead into the man's chest, trying to hide his tears and take comfort at the same time, willing back the sobs that threatened to overtake him.
He felt a gloved hand on the back of his head, comforting.
He remembered Monk Gyatso patting the top of his head, a game of Pai Sho, bright sunlight warming his cheeks with the sound of his peers playing in the background.
They were gone.
They were all gone, but he still had one left.
Still, he had someone.
He felt slightly betrayed, though he knew his friends didn't know any better. They didn't know there was still another airbender wandering the land.
"Everyone said I was the only one left."
Aang's voice was raw from his smothered sobs, his shoulders shaking as he choked down another one. The glove on his head pressed down slightly, offering sympathy. He wasn't pushed away, or admonished for showing weakness.
He reached forward, grasping the dark shirt of his elder and butting his head harder into the chest.
Breathing out, Aang tried to rein himself back into some sort of composure. He took a deep breath, leaning back and releasing the man's shirt, though he was loath to shake off the warm hand. It was comforting.
He took a deep breath again, reaching his arm up to wipe away the tears with his forearm (Oh man, his shirt was totally dirty. He probably looked like a wreck.)
The man in the mask still hadn't said anything... in fact, he hadn't heard any sounds this entire time. Was he even able to talk? He saw the mask with greater clarity than before, sunlight streaming down, casting dappled shadows against the white and blue painted wood.
His friends! Frozen Wood Frogs! They were probably dying of those horrible coughs and he was sitting around crying his eyes out! A jolt of energy shot through him once more, and he jumped slightly with his realization, looking around wildly before focusing back on the masked man (His elder, his airbender.)
"Hey, um... so I'm sorry to be demanding this early, but I really need to find some frozen frogs for my friends. They're sick, and this old lady said they needed to suck on them."
He waited anxiously for approval, not entirely sure what he would do if he was denied.
These were his friends. They trusted him, put their lives in his hands.
But this was an airbender, the last of his people! The only thing standing between him and the total genocide of his race. The destruction of his history!
If he refused...
Aang wasn't sure what he'd do.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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