Chapter 4 - Confrontation
Tuyen was extremely nervous about the confrontation with the Master and the consequences to Meelo and to her if the boy failed. She wasn't at all sure she should have let him do this, and knew just being with him a second time was trouble enough in direct disobedience to the Master. No matter what happened, Tuyen would face severe punishment, as she was showing interest in a male who was not the Master, not to mention that he was not part of the family.
Her 'sisters' doing chores on the grounds noticed her and Meelo approaching, and some even greeted her. Several observed that Meelo was as handsome as she had told them secretly, but most just stared in silence wondering what terrible thing was going to happen next. They all remembered what happened the last time a nice male stranger came to the monastery. From Meelo's body language, it was clear to everyone this was going to be a challenge. Several girls ran for safety inside the monastery. Others prayed for deliverance by the air bender.
Meelo could sense Tuyen's mounting fear and whispered, "We could just run away now and you'd be free of him forever."
"We can't Meelo. The other girls would be punished because of me. We're supposed to keep each other in check. Those that fail are punished, by the girls who are commanded to be enforcers. They do some cruel things even without the Master's prompting."
Meelo's resolve hardened and he said, pointing to the sky for emphasis, "Then we're going to stop this now. For everyone. Air benders to the rescue!"
Tuyen fretted, "But Meelo, he's a powerful earth bender and others have tried and failed. We don't know what happened to them," she drew a very deep breath, "But a couple I have seen with my own eyes…"
Meelo tried to assure her without bragging too much, "Tuyen, I'm a powerful air bender too. The Master has never encountered anyone like me before and I've sparred and fought plenty of powerful earth benders, including metal and lava benders. And I even kicked the snot out of Equalists. When I was four."
By plenty he meant not just Korra and Bolin who he sparred with all the time, but also Suyin's children, and of the full brunt of Kuvira's military might in the Battle for Republic City with the other air benders. Since earth bending was the opposite bending power to air bending, earth benders often had their hands full when facing an air bender who was knowledgeable of earth bending techniques like Meelo was. There were still only a handful of air benders in the world to practice against.
The Master knew they were coming. He knew they were coming from the minute Meelo landed in the flower fields. The minute Tuyen dared to open up about what really happened here, even in her veiled comments. The Master had an exceptionally sensitive form of Toph's and Lin's and Suyin's echo sense, but at a much higher level of discernment - he could hear conversational vibrations through a person's body transmitted through the ground on virtually any kind of surface whether it had vegetation on it or not. He had used that to his advantage in finding and attracting lost, despondent girls to the orphanage. The Master thought he had a unique edge over the air bender, but the Master had no idea other earth benders had a similar echo sense that Meelo knew about, and had figured out how the Master 'heard' every girl's conversation all the time.
The Master was already angry at Tuyen for even meeting Meelo again and was generally angry at all the flower girls for not telling him that the air bender had been in the village for three days. All the flower sellers would be punished for not telling him the boy was back and looking for Tuyen. What made him more angry was that just when Tuyen was about to spill everything, the conversation got garbled and then abruptly ended, no matter how hard he tried to listen into the vibrations of their vital signs and reverberation of their conversations through the ground. The Master did not know that by sitting by Pepper, his huge heartbeat, digestive noises, and breathing had obscured much of the kids' lunchtime conversation. Thus, the Master was unaware Meelo was Tenzin's child.
Seeing the children arrive by air bison through the windows, the Master immediately understood why he could not hear them anymore, and assumed she had completely confessed about the real story of the 'orphanage'. He had to admit the air bender was persuasive and charming, which is why he hated the boy so, and the others like him who would seek disrupt the perfect order of the orphanage.
The Master thought he had Tuyen better 'conditioned' to reveal nothing, but she had always been trouble since coming into his care. This boy had caused her to be smitten with him, and strongly influenced by the air bender's blasphemous sense of what was right and wrong between boys and girls and adults. With Tuyen, 'love was blind' when it came to this boy.
The Master grinned, realizing what the perfect punishment for her after this. Tuyen would never stray again or be attracted to boys or be attractive to other boys if she couldn't see. More importantly, the townspeople would take more pity and buy more flowers from a blind girl, helping the orphanage. It was a great plan and wondered the most painful method was to destroy her sight without killing her after this detestable encounter with the air bender, to be conducted in plain view of the other girls to make sure no one ever strayed again.
But first he would deal with the 'do-gooder' air bender. He hated their kind, always butting their heads into other people's private affairs that was no business of theirs. This one was no different, and seemed bolder for one so young.
The Master walked down the three floor stone staircase from his study confidently through the inner courts of the monastery. The girls hard at work with their chores knew something was coming as he strode with purpose past them, some of them having just been outside. He could sense everyone's apprehension. He singled out the air bender boy's heart rate and breathing.
"Overconfident," he observed silently.
The Master, Meelo, and Tuyen stood face to face at the main entrance to the orphanage. To give some semblance of normalcy and to not begin with a direct confrontation, which his father would have strenuously objected to, Meelo smiled, bowed deeply, and gave the universal sign of greeting, "Greetings from the Air Nation. I am Meelo."
"Greetings to you also, Acolyte Meelo," replied the Master returned the sign curtly, "What business do you have with our humble orphanage, air bender?"
"My journey here was originally to find Tuyen and say thanks to her helping us find Avatar Korra. I did that."
The Master tried to get him to leave by asking, "You 'did that'? If your business is complete with us, then you should be on your way, air bender."
Clever word games always challenged Meelo, and he grinned, but this was a very high stakes game of words. He hoped, like his father was such an expert at, to keep it only to a war of words.
"My business isn't finished."
The Master suggested, "And so what is it now? Perhaps you would like some flowers for the Air Temple?"
Meelo politely declined, "Thanks, but no. We have our own gardens. But sir, you do have the most beautiful flowers here at your orphanage."
He glanced at Tuyen and despite herself she blushed. The Master sensed the exchange, and ground his teeth. This boy was treating this like a game.
The rest of the girls were amazed at the Master and the boy's verbal sparring. The boy was so intelligent. Most conversations with outsiders degraded into combat quickly. Thus far the boy had said nothing that could be misconstrued to provoke the Master to strike, despite clear double meanings. Even the Master had rules.
He replied calmly, but challenged Meelo with a darker tone, "Then what could we possibly offer you, young air bender? This is an orphanage. Most of the girls and young women have come to us savaged by violence to their families, perpetrated by men or boys. This is a refuge for them, and I protect them from those with terrible intent. Why do you cause Sister Tuyen to stray from her beliefs by your overt courting of her? Has she not told you the way things are with male outsiders?"
Tuyen was frozen in place. The Master had felt their flirting and affection.
"Indeed she has, headmaster. That is why I am here," Meelo said, with a much more serious tone.
Meelo noticed the Master was moving his feet to get a 'read' on him and Tuyen. Remembering what Tuyen told him while airborne, Meelo understood the Master's talent was more subtle and sensitive than Lin and Toph and Suyin were able to do with their echo sense. He started a small vortex that raised his own feet an inch or so off the ground, breaking the Master's ability to sense him and anticipate.
Seeing this, and breaking lock on the boy's vital signs, the Master seethed but revealed nothing.
"The boy knows. Damn him. I have to move faster," he thought.
The Master knew the boy understood what was going on in the monastery, so it made no sense to cover it up any longer. The boy was clearly another misguided savior of the girls. So many gallant and well-meaning people perished here with that goal, and he sneered, "It seems you're 'sweet' on one flower in particular, Acolyte Meelo."
He pointed at Tuyen for emphasis and she jumped and proclaimed loudly, "This one. Are you here to ask for Sister Tuyen, or do you simply plan to take her over my objections?"
Meelo answered quietly, "If I wanted that, headmaster, then I would have left with her already."
The Master was becoming more upset, "Then what do you want, boy?"
Meelo stated calmly, "I wish to make her safe from harm, as well as all the others."
The Master was growing tired of the word play, which the boy was better at than he was, "Safe from who? This orphanage has seen no attacks from the outside since its founding."
Even Meelo knew that was a lie.
Meelo nearly whispered, "Safe from you, sir."
From hidden positions, with those words, all of the girls not locked up who were watching or listening tensed up and looked for cover. This young man was very different than any other who would seek to save them, but feared it would all end the same. For the older girls who knew air benders defended, dodged, and avoided attacks, they were impressed that applied to their negotiation skills as well. The air bender youth was trying his best to avoid a conflict, and they admired Tuyen's boyfriend.
The Master chuckled chillingly, dismissing Meelo's accusation, trying to cast doubt on Meelo's opinion of Tuyen, "Well Acolyte Meelo, it seems Sister Tuyen has been telling you tall tales and stories about me, because of her own misbehavior. She is very prone to such things. She is a chronic liar and would do or say anything to leave. Especially by telling believable stories to gullible young men like you. I bet you didn't know that about her, did you? Perhaps it is best for you to leave now air bender, and we will forget this conversation ever happened. You and your people have better things to do to serve humanity. Rest assured that people like me and institutions like this are dedicated to the very same thing you people do. Air benders don't have an exclusive life's calling on helping others."
Meelo turned to Tuyen and saw absolute fear in her eyes that he might abandon her and what punishment was coming. She shook her head indicating everything the Master said about her was a lie itself.
Meelo had to admit this man made a compelling argument that Tuyen was not telling the truth. It almost made him doubt the story she told him aloft. Almost. Her bruises and cuts belied the Master's words, and imagined the others had the same kind of damage. Meelo concentrated on what had to do.
The young air bender was insistent, "Taking her from here is precisely what I plan to do. With or without your permission. As well as the others. I won't let you hurt these girls anymore."
The Master startled. It was very clear he knew everything. It was time to drop the veil. The boy wouldn't live long enough to tell his fellow air benders or do anything about it. Just like all the others. Even if he was only a boy, acting far too much like an adult.
The Master cackled, "Sorry… no can do. Tuyen and all the others are mine for the taking. Whenever and however I want."
Meelo could see now the true horrific nature of the man unveiled. This man was particularly nasty and flaunted his ownership of the young women. No wonder they all lived in fear.
"Let her go. Let them all go. I'm on to you, Mister."
The man hated that the boy disrespected him and flippantly defied his authority, and that the girls could hear the challenge. He had to crush this boy. Literally. To show them that anything less than total respect and obedience to him had the ultimate price.
The evil man explained angrily, "That's Master. You know from her I can't do that. It's against our beliefs. We're one family here. Forever. They are all staying here. They are each other's family and I am their Father."
Meelo replied, "This is not a family she wants to be part of any more. I don't call my father 'Master'. What's wrong with that picture?"
The Master ignored him and threatened, "You know that you just being with her means she's in a lot of trouble. Worse since she's obviously told you the way things are around her."
He talked past Meelo for a moment and looked directly at Tuyen with furious eyes, "We don't talk about our family to outsiders, do we Tuyen? How much did you tell him, Tuyen?"
She couldn't look at him but stammered defiantly, "I won't tell you."
"Yes you will. I will make you after I am done with him. By going for help, once I deal with this boy, I will make you one of my special girls. I've wanted you for awhile anyway. And I have something else special in mind for you after that."
She collapsed to her knees sobbing in great fear. Meelo put his arm around her for comfort.
The man's voice was hypnotic. Meelo had to shake off the false soothing and compelling nature of it himself even with the threats. No wonder the Master had such control over them.
"No, you won't!" Meelo was ready for a strike from the Master but had yet to take any combat or defensive position. The boy would not start this, but he was losing control of the escalating argument.
The Master snapped with derision, "Who is going to make me, air bender? Certainly not you. You're a little boy. The bones of many would-be rescuers, including parents and brothers and boyfriends, fertilize these gardens, boy. My bending powers are supreme here."
"Until I walked in the door, pervert. Attack me and I assure you that it's earth bender butt whoopin' time!"
Meelo's verbal goading infuriated him, and he screamed, "Enough talk!"
It was the Master who struck first. The man lashed out at Meelo, directing a half dozen boulders and chunks of earth from the entrance grounds and gardens directly at him.
The girls scattered for safety in all directions. Meelo immediately defended himself and with strong air columns. He dodged and flipped away from the flying debris, all the while deflecting the objects, and blew Tuyen in a protective vortex over to Pepper who immediately hid her behind his flanks. The bison growled at the earth bender.
The Master was indeed a formidable fighter, moving quickly and blowing chunks of stone from collapsed sections of the decaying monastery, and trying to erect blocking slabs of rock to limit Meelo's movements. But the the boy was faster. Each time Meelo dodged the walls that threatened to surround him, deflected flying rocks them with air blasts, or even smashed them with air hammers and shock pulses. The fight went on for minutes and with each attack of the Master, Meelo countered with constant dodge and feint and deflection moves. More frustrating to the Master was that Meelo was a smaller target than the adults he had vanquished. Meelo was starting to get through to the Master with some blows of his own. And the boy's stamina was better than the older man, and was lightning fast in his leaps and bounds, flips, rolls, twists and turns to avoid being hit.
The Master got more and more frustrated with the boy, who managed to get some very painful two-fisted air thrusts to him like Korra taught him, knocking the man off his feet and backwards for yards several times, smashing him painfully against his own rocks, but the man relentlessly got up, set his feet, and sent more earthen volleys back at the boy. The Master barely dodged a supersonic concentrated air slice that ripped the sleeve off his robe, and it gashed his arm deeply. The Master had no idea air could do that, and groaned. Another blast by Meelo was directed at the sharp gravel path to the monastery, stirring up a dust storm of rock at the Master that peppered and cut him in multiple places. He yelled in pain and anger. Air benders weren't supposed to have offensive moves.
The Master knew that one on one it was a stalemate and he would wear out long before this boy, so he thought of a different strategy. He turned and directed a huge boulder directly at Pepper, who was huddled around Tuyen and could not use his powerful tail to deflect the massive rock without injuring her.
"No!" Meelo screamed.
Meelo leaped into the air and pushed a huge column of air at the gigantic rock with all his might with both arms and both feet. A monstrous air slice emanated from his hands and feet. The rock was smashed in half by the shock wave and each half deflected around Tuyen and Pepper rolling far into the forest, taking down several 100 foot oaks, splintering them into matchsticks. Unfortunately a crumbling portion of the boulder hit Pepper in the head hard, knocking him unconscious.
Tuyen clutched her face with her hands at Meelo's saving her, but was very worried that his bison was injured.
It was everything Meelo could do to deflect the boulder and he collapsed to the ground, spent, with a bounce and a grunt. In that moment of defenselessness, the Master caused rocks to rise up and encase the boy in rock, immobilizing him up to his shoulders. Meelo squirmed fruitlessly to free some part of himself to bend again. The Master, to feed his ego and grip on power over the girls, wanted the air bender boy to witness the helpless horror of own demise.
For the first time, Meelo felt the same fear as when Amon was about to debend his entire family.
Tuyen screamed as the Master rubbed his palms together in gleeful satisfaction and chuckled, approaching the immobilized Meelo, "It's the end boy. Prepare to meet the other do gooders like you."
The Master took a stance to prepare to crush the boy in his stone restraints, but slowly to increase the air bender's – and Tuyen's - pain. The girls would see the bloody end. He knew they were all watching. And hoping. But the Master also knew that by crushing this boy, he would crush their hope.
Then he could deal with the bison, whose meat would feed them all for months.
And after that, Tuyen.