Chapter 2 - Searching For Tuyen
He'd been gone only a few hours, and was very impatient to get there, but he didn't want to wear out Pepper by flying faster or not taking breaks, so he just swallowed hard and persevered. As the second youngest child in a really big family, and constantly surrounded by the huge extended family that was the Air Nation, he really was not used to long, periods of silence alone. He improvised.
He turned to the little flying lemur flying alongside him catching bugs for snacks, "Poki, does Tuyen like me?"
His squeaks and chirps sounded affirmative.
"Yeah, you're right as always. I think so too."
Meelo needed some more reassurance. And voices.
He rubbed the head of his mount, and asked, "How about you Pepper, what do you think? Does Tuyen wanna be my girlfriend?"
The great animal's pleasant lowing seemed pretty positive about that prospect, too.
"Thank you, Pepper. I think you're right too. And yes, she is pretty!"
But that wasn't enough. He spotted a flock of migrating turtle ducks below them, so they wheeled and descended and flew alongside, co-altitude with the reptile-birds.
He flew near the flock, and introduced himself, "Hi everybody! I'm Meelo. I'm like all of you. I can fly! I'm an air bender."
They all quacked excitedly, but more in surprise than in fear to be sharing the air with a human and a huge beast flying beside them. However they did sense both his and Pepper's air bending and inherent peacefulness, and so were in fact kindred creatures of flight.
He listened to their quacking and even though he had no idea what they were saying, he responded, "Thank you. I'm please to meet all of you, too. I see lots of mates here. You all must have a lot of experience on life and love. Could I trouble you for your advice on my brand new love life?"
He listened intently and sensed no changes in their random quacking. Hearing no objections from the flock, he continued, "So… I met this girl. A human girl, mind you. She's beautiful. We're on this street corner and I'm being all cool and everything. But I only got a couple of minutes with her before I had to leave. My stupid sister made me leave. Do you think she'll go for me if I come back?"
The quacking got louder and sounded very supportive to Meelo, so he went with it. "You drakes – and hens - are the best! I think she likes me too. Thanks!"
Very content with the situation, even if it was totally imagined, Meelo and Pepper slowly banked away from the flock, climbed, and kept going. A couple hours later the spirit animal/human pair rested and snacked along a stream he remembered on their first journey. They both napped awhile, and when they awoke, Pepper lapped up a lot of water. The location seemed almost familiar.
"I'm close," he whispered. His excitement and anxiety were both competing and peaking. The anxiety was winning, fearing Tuyen would reject him, or be fearful of his return.
He told himself, doing the air bender relaxation exercises he knew so well, "Relax Meelo. Be cool. Be calm. She's out there wondering the same thing, 'Will he come back?'"
He tried to smile.
Meelo couldn't be more correct. In the fields outside an ancient earth bending shrine and crumbling monastery, a pre-teen girl with long brown hair labored in the hot sun with little cover. She was denied a broad-brim cane hat as a part of her punishment for daring to do or say anything to anyone but to sell flowers as she was told. But it was worth it. She would have never met 'him'.
She was alone with her thoughts, even arguing with herself, but being careful to not say one word aloud, "He was so handsome. Does he like me? Will he come back to find me and spend more time with me? Air benders travel the world, silly. Of course he'll come back for me. And maybe he'll take me away from here. He has to. If only he can find me. I'm not in town selling flowers."
She dug harder into the fertile soil and grimaced sadly. Even though she wished for his return to happen more than anything, she knew it would never happen. He was important. He was an air bender. He had 'secret missions' to do. He had better things to do than talk to one peasant girl in a tiny village far from Republic City so destitute she sold flowers to make ends meet. She was stuck here, and with each day she got older, she faced an inevitably bleak future.
Meelo landed on the outskirts of the village as before, so as to not cause a big commotion, and sent Pepper to go graze in a field for awhile. He didn't disguise himself. For a moment he remembered his family history that during the 100 Year War, in nearly every town his Grandfather and his friends had to hide and disguise themselves, except in the Earth Kingdom. There Aang could be himself, and in all but a few towns, he was considered a liberator. The Air Nation had been considered liberators again as they, with the new Avatar, had defeated Kuvira and the Earth Empire.
"So be yourself," he reminded himself quietly.
This was definitely the village where he met her. He tried to remember all the streets he and his sisters walked to find the specific street corner that she peddled the flowers. While he searched, he attempted to be nonchalant about it, and waved and smiled at passersby. He made it to the intersection where they met. The tea house sign said "The Old Goat". That was hard to forget. His mother would have been very amused at his father's expense and he snickered.
"This has to be it," he thought.
He stood on the corner for what seemed hours, looking cool, greeting townspeople like he owned the place and was always there on that corner. But as the hours rolled by, he got increasingly impatient, rocking on his feet, leaning against lampposts, and wringing his hands.
The local constable's deputies, making their rounds each day, started to give him greater scrutiny. So he walked a few blocks in either direction before he decided he needed to be less conspicuous. When he returned, he sat at the Old Goat Tea House on the street corner and nursed a tea and fruit tart from an outdoor table where he could see her if she walked up. His parents gave him enough Earth Kingdom currency to get by for a few days, but he had to make sure he didn't use it all up at once. The tart was acceptable, but not as good as his mother's recipe, directly handed down from his Grandfather.
He sat there long after the third cup of tea and the second tart disappeared. The waitress urged politely, "If you are done, air bender, you'll have to move along, please. We need your table for other customers. This is our busy time."
"OK," he said with no argument. He paid his bill and walked away.
He went back to the edge of the forest where Pepper was, ate the wrapped dinner his mother prepared, and slept. He repeated his search of the streets of the village not one day, but two, and a third.
On the third day, the constable himself confronted him, "Son, I know you air benders help with problems, but there aren't any problems in this village anymore thanks to your kind, so what are you doing here?"
"Well, sir. I'm looking for one of your citizens. I want to repay her for her kindness in our search for Avatar Korra a few months ago," he replied and showed the man Tuyen's image on the poster. He'd followed his mother's advice and not plastered the town with posters, but was beginning to regret that decision.
"Yep. I've seen her, but not for a few weeks. She sells flowers once a week to make ends meet. Like the others. They don't talk much to people. They're no trouble, though. Good luck in finding her, young man. That one is especially pretty. She reminds me of my daughter."
"The others?" he thought, but didn't press what the lawman meant, but he did say, "Thank you officer. I don't intend to cause any trouble either, sir. I just want to find her and then be gone."
The middle-aged man smiled at the polite young man, and offered, "I'll let my deputies know that, and perhaps they can point her out to you."
"Thank you sir," Meelo noted and they departed.
So, the constable confirmed she was there regularly, but now she was gone. At least she wasn't a dream. He had to admit it was unusual for a little girl to be selling flowers all by herself. There were so many unanswered questions, and he contemplated, "Who was she? Where were her parents? What was she? Who are 'the others'?"Is she a drifter, someone in a group, with no home in the village, or a girl with a family?"
But apparently his thoroughness and patience paid off. On a corner a few blocks away from his chat with the constable, he noticed a long-haired girl dressed in green with a basket of flowers. He was instantly excited and thought, "There she is!"
He rushed up to the girl, but was quickly disappointed. It was different girl selling flowers.
He was very polite, "Hello, Miss. May I ask you a question?"
She didn't want to talk, and turned her back on him, "I don't talk to strangers. I just sell flowers. If you don't want to buy one, please go away."
That happened several more times with other young women. They all dressed like her and all had long tresses like her. He was rebuffed each time.
But there was one more. He was more impatient and he pulled out his poster of Tuyen, "Excuse me please, but have you seen this girl?"
The girl got a very surprised look, scanned around her nervously and answered in a whisper, "Yes. That's my 'sister' Tuyen. You're that air bender boy she likes, aren't you? She's back at the monastery orphanage working off her punishment. She got in big trouble over you."
Her statement said so much in few words. It startled him in a variety of ways, and he blurted to the girl, "Trouble? Punishment? A monastery? An orphanage? Where is it?"
And the most important part, he thought, stifling his joy and desire to shout out loud, "She likes me?"
The young teenage girl was very nervous and brushed him off, "That's all I can say. Please buy a flower from me or I will get in trouble like her."
He did, and thanked her twice. For the flower and for the information.
She turned away from Meelo quickly and continued to sell her flowers to other people. He tried to engage her again about the location of the orphanage but she simply ignored him.
Meelo thought all the girls had acted very strangely, but he could understand that an orphanage headmaster would want his girls to be wary of any strangers. There had been many awful things happen in the Earth Kingdom for some time. A refuge for orphaned girls, however strict, would be a good thing for girls' safety in an often lawless land.
"Well so be it. I will find the place myself," he thought, a little perturbed at the girl.
He walked out of the village and climbed up on Pepper, who was finishing a snack, and they flew back into the air in the rural areas surrounding the town. They reconnoitered locations all around the village at medium altitude to get a wider vista of the area around the settlement.
He had nearly exhausted the most likely areas to search, when he saw a vast field of yellow orange flowers. There was a single green dot in the middle of it. It was a human laborer. His heart skipped a beat. The dot had long hair and a long green dress. He suppressed his expectations though, as all the other girls from the monastery orphanage had been dressed and coiffed the same.
He landed softly and silently in a clearing adjacent to the fields, next to a pile of gardening tools. The girl had her head down tilling the land, and did not see him land.
He floated to the ground, and strained to see her. She was too far out in the field to be certain. But he had to know. So he took a deep breath to slow his heartbeat down, and took a chance.
He called, "Tuyen?"
In total shock, the girl startled and dropped her garden tool, stood, and turned to his voice. He could see her surprised face. Meelo's heart skipped a beat as he thought, "It's really her!"
She thought, "It's really him!"
"Meelo!" she exclaimed.
She ran to him, but stopped short a few feet in front of him. She stood completely out of breath like a giddy schoolgirl, but in point of fact she was a giddy schoolgirl in his unexpected presence. She had no idea what to do with her hands. It was very clear that each one wanted to hug the other, but they each hesitated. Their eyes certainly met and locked and communicated how happy they were to be near each other again.
Tuyen was brave enough to begin, "Hello Meelo. It's so good to see you again."
Meelo gave her a nervous happy smile and fidgeted, as he replied cheerfully, "Hello Tuyen. It's good to see you too."
They were awkward but charming at the same time. They weren't really sure quite where to take the conversation beyond 'hello'.
But at least they were together again and they'd think of something.