Chapter 3 - Getting Acquainted
He just smiled, "It's all right. I wanted to run to you, too."
"Really?" she responded with her eyes lighting up.
"Yes really. I missed you, Tuyen," Meelo smiled back.
Both shifted nervously on their feet and fiddled with their hands. He had to touch her somehow. He bowed and signed the standard cultural greeting, but also reached out to shake her hand as some cultures did. She let him conduct a handshake with her. His hand was warm and strong. They lingered in letting each other's hands and fingers go. Tuyen wanted to touch him again.
"I… um… missed you too, Meelo. I'm glad you came back. I didn't think I would ever see you again. Meelo… you… uh… kind of made an impression on me. I've never met someone on a secret mission before. Was it successful? Or can you even tell me, since it was secret?" she giggled.
Meelo decided instantly that he really liked her infectious giggle, and even more the feeling of how the name 'Tuyen' rolled off his tongue.
"Yes, my sisters and I found the Avatar and she kind of saved the world, and I helped her do it."
She mused, "You seem pretty young for a boy on secret mission with the Avatar to help to save the world."
He lifted his head proudly and declared, "Well… I'm nine. That's plenty old enough. Avatar Korra's only 21."
"That's nice Meelo. I'm just 11."
He was grateful she wasn't even older. It appeared that she didn't consider him a little kid like 11 year old Ikki did.
But then he farted, and turned red of embarrassment, and laughed a little, "Oops… I'm so sorry. I kind of do that when I'm nervous around… um… pretty girls."
She covered her mouth and giggled again, but with him, not at him, and he heard her fart too.
She blushed and explained, "Uh-oh. Well, truth be told, I do that too, Meelo. I'm a little nervous too. Excuse me."
Even if she had forced it to set him at ease, everything was just fine. But he was still worried about their two year age difference.
Just to make sure age wasn't an issue, he asked directly, "Is it OK for a nine year old boy to be friends with an 11 year old girl?"
She smiled and complimented him, "It's OK with me. None of my friends have ever met an air bender. And besides you act older than nine. Your uniform makes you look really grown up, too."
"And even more handsome," she thought.
He beamed with pride over that, and remembered to not brag about himself by explaining, "My big sister Jinora and our older friend Opal designed our uniforms. We were all tired of using the old fashioned gliders to fly."
"You have a very talented older sister and friend. I can see why you are so mature."
With the age difference issue clearly settled by her compliments, Meelo asked, "Thank you, Tuyen. Umm…. but… I know this is sort of personal, but why weren't you at the village selling flowers? I've been here for three days."
While Tuyen was very pleased that he'd been searching for her three days already, and hadn't given up and gone home, she displayed considerable discomfort while she admitted vaguely, shifted, and looked at her feet, "Well, I disobeyed the Master, and he made me stay home and work in the fields. It's OK, I guess. I like working with the flowers that me and the other girls sell. It's like the flowers really respond to my care."
Meelo immediately responded with a heartfelt compliment, "That's cool, Tuyen, why wouldn't they? You're so beautiful that if I was a flower I'd want to grow up around you to be more beautiful too."
Feeling the earnestness of his praise, she deeply blushed, "Oh! You are very kind, Meelo. Thank you."
No one had ever told her she was beautiful, and yet Meelo had several times now. The Master criticized her all the time, and she didn't actually think she was pretty because of him. Though lately his staring was making her feel uncomfortable.
The way Tuyen responded to him warmed Meelo's heart. It amazed him that he hadn't said something really stupid or grossed her out.
"There is still plenty of time to blow it," he warned himself silently.
"But Tuyen, why did your Master punish you?" he asked, noting she did not use the term Sifu.
The words had two entirely different connotations. Her particular Earth Kingdom pronunciation and inflection of the word 'Master' denoted a very strong authoritative figure to the point of being a tyrant. He knew the subtle differences in the similar languages of the Four Nations well, and since the Air Nation was composed of people from the other three, it was required in Air Acolyte class to know all the other languages. Plus a number of dialects.
She swallowed hard, "I sold a lot fewer flowers that day than ever before. I… umm… kinda didn't think about much else that day after meeting you, Meelo," she blushed and admitted, "I told him that I met an air bender boy. The Master reminded me we're not supposed to meet strange boys, especially air bender boys. They um… aren't our… uh... religion."
"And yet here you are again meeting a strange air bender boy," he grinned.
She smiled back, "But you're very nice. Not strange at all."
Meelo could tell that despite her kindness to him, she was really nervous answering these questions, so he lightened up a bit, "I met a couple of your friends in town. I thought they were you."
"I understand. At the orphanage we have to all dress and look alike. It's the Master's rules."
Wing suits and the traditional acolyte and Air Nomad-style garb did in fact make members of the Air Nation look a lot alike, but her comment meant something different. It gave Meelo the creeps. All the flower girls in town did in fact look nearly exactly alike. He remembered Grandmother Katara's stories of the clone-like, brain-washed multiple Joo Dee's in the worst days of Ba Sing Se. It seemed to Meelo that 'the Master' made a lot of unnecessary rules. And it was even odder that a man ran a girls' orphanage, apparently by himself. At Air Temple Island, like the ancient Temples' monks and nuns, women guided the girl acolytes and men mentored the boys, but nowadays there was no single adult in charge of any of the children all of the time and usually the genders all learned together. The adults and some gifted youth like Jinora took turns as 'head counselors', a good change from the ancient Air Nomad past.
Meelo ran out of questions, and he didn't want to seem like he was interrogating her. It was time for something fun together, which was the original plan, and he asked "So… Tuyen. What would you like to do next?"
That was a perfect invitation to Tuyen to find an excuse for them to hold hands, and she took his hand in hers and swept her free arm in the direction of the vast flower beds, "Let's go for a walk. I'm pretty much done gardening here. I want to show you the fields I tend. The ground is really uneven, so could you help steady me, Meelo?"
Meelo had to admit that was the cleverest excuse to hold hands ever. Even Kai hadn't used that alibi with Jinora. The feeling of her soft hand in his was exciting. They didn't let go. It didn't take long to change from simply holding hands to entwining fingers and they smiled at each other silently when that happened, just to get the mutual assurance that it was OK. It was very OK to Meelo.
They walked for hours. She knew every inch of the fields. She explained every growing condition, wind directions, rainfall, and the health of every flower in the field. At an especially impressive cluster of flowers, they bent down to caress the blooms together and were very close together, with both hands completely touching as they examined the petals. It was a near-perfect situation for both of them. Meelo wasn't entirely sure what was softer and prettier – the petals or her hands in his. She smelled wonderful like the flowers for which she cared. He hoped she didn't mind that he smelled like sweaty bison fur.
As they continued to tour the flowers hand-in-hand, Meelo heard his stomach do a very noticeable growl. It was once again embarrassing. He was angry at himself that his mouth was behaving while courting Tuyen, but his body was not cooperating at all. She giggled again, but not in a criticizing way.
He quickly recovered, "Tuyen, are you hungry?"
"Oh yes, very," she quickly answered, but didn't tell him that the Master forced her to not eat for three days so far. She was amazed her stomach hadn't growled first, and she was willing to take the risk of more punishment to share a meal with Meelo.
"I brought some food. My mom made it. She's the best cook. Sorry, it's vegetarian. That's what we air benders are."
"I would like to try your mom's yummy vegetarian food," she encouraged him.
He whistled and Pepper came right to them. He immediately munched on a few of her flowers. The great beast really amazed her, and she had no fear of it.
Meelo fruitlessly tried to stop the air bison, who found the flowers delicious, "Stop that Pepper! Those aren't yours to eat. You didn't ask!"
Tuyen laughed, "It's OK, Meelo. We can spare a few. There are lots of flowers. Those are actually good for him."
Meelo floated up to Pepper's back on an air vortex, and recovered the food bag, and returned. When he handed her some veggie wraps, they both made sure to touch each others hands again, and she made the touching last longer by asking Meelo to help her unwrap her food and his carefully, to make sure she didn't drop anything. He understood the implication and didn't rush. They sat leaning against Pepper's furry, soft flank. She scooted close enough to brush up against him, using the excuse that she was sitting on a rock. Meelo was ecstatic but played it very calmly. He couldn't believe his good fortune that this older girl wanted to hold his hands and be close to him. He remembered his Grandmother Katara was two years older than Grandpa Aang.
To make it seem like she meant to sit that close, she said, "Pepper's warm and fuzzy. So gentle for something so huge. I've never seen an air bison before. They must be very intelligent."
Meelo confirmed that, "In some ways, they are more intelligent than we are. Most air bison bond with just one air bender for life. Almost every tame bison will let anyone fly them if they trust you, but that's not like bonding. Pepper adopted our whole family."
Letting another compliment sneak into her conversation, she stated, "That's one smart air bison. So how many of you did he adopt?"
"Mom and Dad, my two sisters, and baby brother. He's gonna have to adopt another one soon. My big sister Jinora thinks Mom is pregnant again. She's been getting sick lately in the mornings and not letting Dad know."
"Wow… that's a really big family."
Meelo knew he needed to stop talking about himself, so he asked, "Um, how do I say this, since you're an orphan, Tuyen, but do you have any sisters or brothers with you at the orphanage?"
"It's just me. I don't have any family left. It's OK, Meelo. I'm over it now. It only hurts a little. My parents and big sister died in the bender purge a few years ago. The Equalists here couldn't debend people like Amon could, so they… um… took matters into their own hands."
"Oh… I'm so sorry, Tuyen. Is there anyone else for you?"
"There were for awhile, but they are gone too. That's how I ended up here at the orphanage. My aunt's family was imprisoned by Kuvira's people for fighting in the resistance against the Empire. They haven't returned home yet to look for me. I heard the re-education centers were terrible. I… l don't know if I will ever see them again."
This time she couldn't fight back the tears.
He hugged her to comfort her, and she accepted his embrace willingly, "How have you been surviving?"
"I wandered alone for months, and I was very afraid of bandits and starving, but there was a kindly Earth Bending Master who went around and took in all the surviving orphan girls at an old monastery, and we have been together like sisters ever since with him as our 'father'. We raise and sell flowers in this village and several others to pay for food and supplies. We have a belief that life can rise again from the earth in honor of our dead parents and family. The flowers are a symbol of that."
A distressed look was in her eyes, though, Meelo noticed.
Meelo saw that look and asked, "Tuyen, do you like being in the orphanage?"
She looked around as if someone was watching and dodged the question, "Meelo, what is life like back at your temple?"
"We're a collection of families that live together as a really big family called the Air Nation. People come from all over the Four Nations. We have a couple of orphans like my friend Kai. He's a new air bender when the spirits brought balance to the world. A lot of people come to us now with that gift and we help them learn to use it properly. Most people in the Air Nation aren't air benders or benders of any kind, and they just come because they believe in what we say and how we live."
"That's not really how we live here, but tell me more about your life," she noted carefully.
Catching her nuance again, he explained, "We live and play and study the air bending scrolls and we get to travel the world helping people. For those with the gift, we practice our air bending all the time and we learn to fly in our wing suits instead of the old way with gliders. Family is very important and that's the biggest change from the Air Nomads to the Air Nation. My grandfather was an orphan too. He was the last air bender for awhile. Family and marriage was very important to him. My grandmother Katara and he had three children. One of them is my dad. My uncle is an air bender now too, because of the new balance in the world. My grandpa would have been very proud."
"Your grandfather was Avatar Aang?" she asked incredulously, putting all the pieces of his story together.
He shrugged, "Yes, he was, Tuyen. Does that make a difference?"
She got very nervous, "Yes it does, Meelo. That makes you like… air bending royalty. I… I shouldn't be here with you. I'm nobody. Nothing. I'm not even a bender of any kind."
"No you're not, Tuyen," he almost scolded, "You're every bit as equal to me. Bender or not. That's the one thing the Equalists got right. No one in the Air Nation is better than another. No one dominates. Not even my dad. He's a Sifu – a teacher. Not a king or a ruler. We are all brothers and sisters whether we are benders or not, although my real baby brother and two big sisters can be really pesty at times."
Tuyen settled down from her worry and even giggled, "Your life must be nice."
There was a hidden tone in her voice about something lacking in the way her people lived. Meelo was perceptive enough to pick up that cue, and took her hands in his. They were shaking and clammy, even at midday under a hot sun.
He scrutinized her and asked seriously, "Tuyen. What's your Master really like?
She looked away and whispered, "I'd rather not talk about that."
She couldn't resist talking to someone she knew she could trust. She hesitated but kept it simple, "Well… he gives us everything we need to live. Clothes. Food. A place to sleep. Something to believe in. A routine and discipline. We tend the fields and do our chores, and if we mind we get to go into the village to sell."
"And that's all?" he asked.
She whispered, "Yes. As long as we obey him."
Meelo concluded, "Sounds like it's pretty boring. All you know is the monastery, the fields, and the village."
He realized he just criticized her way of life.
She just shrugged, "Pretty much yes. It's good enough life, even if it isn't as exciting as yours."
He looked into her eyes and apologized, "I'm sorry I said that Tuyen. But if you could, would you like to travel?"
She was excited at the prospect, and encouraged him, "Oh yes, I would. I want to know what the rest of the Earth Kingdom is like. Even the other Nations."
Meelo saw his opening, as he said, "Would you like to go to the Air Temple with me?"
He said exactly the right words she wanted to hear, but she denied it, saying exactly the right words someone else needed to hear, "Yes… but I can't. Ever. The Master would not approve me leaving the monastery."
Cheerily, Meelo suggested, "So let's go meet the Master. I bet I could convince him to let you travel. This is an orphanage, not a prison."
She flinched, but he didn't notice.
Meelo continued, "It would be only for a few weeks, and then I would bring you right back. You could stay with Ikki. She's your age."
"I remember her being with you," she said to encourage his offer, and also remembered Ikki was the one who cut their conversation short the first time, just when it was getting interesting.
Meelo continued but forgot himself and bragged a little, "It would be like a little family vacation. I'm pretty good at that kind of thing. I talk my Dad into doing stuff he doesn't want me to do all the time. You just have to know what makes adults tick and make them feel good about letting you do the one thing they don't want you to do at all."
She laughed at his joke. Meelo was so funny. She wanted to do what the air bending boy suggested in the worst way - only never come back again - but she made excuses, "It all sounds so wonderful, Meelo. But… uh… I'm not sure that would be a good idea. The Master doesn't like outsiders trying to persuade him. And he doesn't like others' way of living, doesn't want us to mingle with the other races, especially other benders, and wants us to live only the way we believe."
Meelo heard the sadness in every word she said and inquired, "What's actually going on here, Tuyen?"
He was too persistent and she was really worried about the consequences of saying too much. She stiffened in her tone and attitude, and removed her hands from his, "I am not permitted to say. Perhaps it is best for you to leave now, air bender."
The way she was looking around made it seem that the woods behind them had ears. It was clear to Meelo what she was saying was not how she really felt. Her eyes and expressions betrayed her.
Meelo thought of a solution. He knew she really didn't want him to leave, "I have an idea, Tuyen. Pepper, come here."
The big animal prepared for flight. It was clear without saying a word that Meelo was going to take her up in the air. Tuyen had the look of relief in her eyes but said nothing.
Meelo reached to put his hands and arms around her waist, but stopped, knowing it required a very personal touch, and sought her permission, "I need to help you up."
"You may, Meelo."
He grasped her around her waist and they air bent up in a swirl on Pepper's back. She was thrilled by his strong grasp around her, and the gentle breeze that blew her long hair around.
She giggled, they sat next to each other on Pepper's soft head, and Meelo snapped the reins. He ordered, "Yip, yip, Pepper!"
They were soon in the air. Meelo started to let go of her waist and she encouraged him not to release his grip with a big smile and a believable excuse, "No, Meelo. Keep hold of me. I don't want to fall off. His fur is slippery."
In point of fact Pepper's fur was not slippery, but Meelo didn't let go. He was excited and added his other arm around her still holding the reins, which was exactly what she wanted. She smiled at him as she sat contentedly with his arms around her while flying and leaning against him. For the first time in a very long time, she felt safe. This was too good to be true for Meelo. This was just like Kai and Jinora did. Only better because it was Tuyen and him doing it.
Soon, they were very far up in the air.
As they ascended she looked all around them and exclaimed, "This is amazing. What a view of the fields!"
She loved the feeling of the wind through her long hair and closed her eyes to just feel it. Meelo liked the sight of it trailing out behind her, and being so close to her. The strands tickled his cheek and neck and nose. She savored the coolness of the high altitude air.
They turned to each other barely inches apart.
Meelo let Pepper more or less take them where he wanted in the air above the village and challenged her, "Tuyen, now you can talk. Whoever was listening is 2500 feet below us."
Her relief was palpable, and she was thankful that Meelo was so perceptive of the constraints in talking on the ground. Her words came rapidly as she could speak, like she was completely out of time to do so, "Oh Meelo, thank you for noticing. We are watched all the time. Somehow the Master can hear everything we say. It's like he feels it somehow through the ground. Thank you for getting me away so I could tell you. We can't stay long. He will punish me again. This time worse. If he can't hear me for long in the fields he sends someone to look for me. If I ever ran away he'd hear my footsteps and track me down. Several other girls tried that. A couple have disappeared. Some of the girls enforce what he commands."
Meelo keyed on her punishments, "How much worse, Tuyen, than working in the fields?
She sniffed, "The last time I was locked in a windowless cell for a month, and fed me awful spoiled food. I was sick for weeks. And lost a dozen pounds."
Meelo was horrified, "That's awful, Tuyen."
"And this…" she stammered as she pulled up her pant legs and blouse sleeves. Her limbs were beautifully shaped. But they were covered with bruises and cuts. And even burns.
"He does this. Some of them are left over from when he hit me the day we met. The older girls hold us down while he punishes us. I think some of them like it when he punishes us."
He couldn't belief what he was seeing, "Oh dear. Is everyone under the same threat, Tuyen?"
Tuyen confessed, "Yes, Meelo. All girls of all ages. The Master gives 'special treatment' to all the older girls. I hear them crying in the night. I'm almost that age, Meelo. I've just started my cycle. I'm afraid."
"Uh, what does he… oh…" Meelo started to ask innocently, and then he immediately understood.
Meelo was furious at the Master for his treatment of Tuyen and her 'sisters' and vowed, "This can't go on a single day longer, Tuyen. This is really really bad."
"What are you going to do? What can you do?" she asked fretfully.
"I'm going to free you all from the Master," he stood proudly and flexed his muscles, "It's time for the Air Nation to save the day again," he stated and ordered instantly, "Poki, go get Dad and Uncle Bumi and Kai and the girls. We need help. Right now!"
The lemur moved faster than he had ever seen him fly.
While she had hope for the first time in years, she was very worried, "I'm sorry Meelo, but you're just a boy."
Meelo confided, "I'm the boy who helped take down Kuvira's giant mecha suit. I personally blinded its windows. That slowed it down enough for Korra and her friends to take it down."
"Oh? You did that?"
"And all the people in my family I just called for help," he replied and remembered to be humble.
Her spirits soared. This amazing boy could do it, but she started to panic, caused by the lasting effect of being captive for years and totally dependent on a deranged man, "What will we do Meelo? He's terrible, but we're all alive because of him. We owe him our lives."
"No you don't. Not one little bit, Tuyen. Not at that price you just told me and showed me that he wants for your 'protection'."
"But he saved us…" she cried. There was no term for 'Stockholm Syndrome' in the Avatar world, but she was clearly suffering from it.
"No he didn't. Piece by piece he's taking your lives away. Your freedom. Your privacy. Your bodies. There is always room in the Air Temple for twenty new Air Acolytes. You will be safe there."
She began to see the way out she so desperately wanted since they met, "You'd do that for all of us?"
"Yes. That's what air benders do. That's what I do. For you, my friend Tuyen."
The sound of the appellation 'friend Tuyen' felt really good to her. She'd never been friends with a boy. The only other male in her life terrified her. She wanted so much to be friends with this boy. This wonderful, handsome, kind, friendly, strong, and funny boy. Emotion overwhelmed her.
She pressed against him with a hug. An incredible thrill coursed through him with her in his arms, and she felt it too. This was an entirely different hug that earlier when he comforted her in her grief. This was a boy/girl affection hug.
Her words came out in great, heaving sobs as they embraced, "Thank you for coming back, Meelo. Somehow I knew you would save me. And save us."