Chapter 6 - Falling
Despite himself, as he returned to his parents' residence, Tenzin felt freedom rather than broken heartedness. Tenzin was finally released from the guilt he had been experiencing for months as he had constantly suppressed his growing feelings for Pema. But now, Tenzin and Pema felt something else. Because of the missed kiss outside her dorm, their hearts ached for each other terribly. They paced in their rooms, each wringing their hands, each feeling deeply all the new emotions flooding them. Pema couldn't handle the wait for their dinner together on the weekend, nearly four days away. She had to see him again tonight. She whistled to summon a messenger lemur, which alighted on her window. She quickly scribbled a message: 'Meet me in the air bending exercise yard, as soon as you get this. I need help on my attack avoidance routines for an exam tomorrow."
The lemur landed on Tenzin's window frame, and chattered. At first he was puzzled, but read the note, and smiled warmly. He dressed and left the house, walking briskly toward the air bending practice yard.
His departure stirred his parents awake. Aang was having trouble sleeping lately, and he arose, hearing the door click shut. Katara awoke, sensing Aang being awake.
Aang fretted, "Katara, I just heard Tenzin leave."
Katara just smiled from her pillow, "Don't worry, dear. My guess is that he and Pema didn't get enough private time, especially with us here tonight. People were up and about when he took her home, too. You saw them play with each other."
"Yes Katara. They were really cute together. Do you think they be all right?"
Katara reassured him, "I know so. Give them their privacy dear. We had ours."
The two laid back down and snuggled, whispering and giggling about their own early days together, until they drifted off to sleep.
Tenzin walked tentatively in the exercise yard, and waited. He saw a shadow.
They were still cautious to keep all the protocols and formalities of a student/teacher relationship.
"Yes, Master Tenzin. I seek your help in mastering my avoidance moves," said to assuage any prying ears. She bowed to him.
"But it is late, Pupil Pema," He weakly scolded.
They continued their flirting games. But one thing Pema had to be sure of, "Do you have the time, Sifu Tenzin, or do you need to attend to matters with Inspector Bei Fong?"
Without hesitation, Tenzin put her fears to rest, "I assure you, Pupil Pema, that as of tonight, I no longer have any kind of dealings with Inspector Bei Fong other than purely official police business."
She understood and her heart fluttered, but she kept the pretense going by continuing to speak in a businesslike manner, "That is most fortunate Master Tenzin, for I truly need your assistance. I couldn't sleep, Master Tenzin. The exam is tomorrow. The moon is so full. We'll have plenty of light to practice."
"Pupil Pema, you make a compelling case. I will help you practice."
In the secluded and wooded practice area in front of the ancient spinning panels, they stood a few meters apart. They started the routine as always by bowing, and positioned themselves in identical stances. For the beginning exercises, they were in absolute lockstep. Tenzin watched his star student tip toe, bend, flex, and twirl, always keeping balance with her arms in graceful, ever-adapting positions. She was so light on her feet. Her loose hair followed her movements like the wake behind a boat, accentuating every move, and her beauty. It was delectably distracting. He had never noticed before now.
The moves got more complex, and for a non-bender, started to get extremely challenging. Some motions simply required the ability to bend air. She stumbled on one and he made a quick uplifting air burst to keep her from hitting the hard stone of the practice area. She noticed.
"Thank you Master Tenzin," she smiled.
"You're welcome. Pupil Pema, let me show you how to get through that move without air bending to support you."
He approached her to demonstrate, aching to be that close. He placed one hand under her forearm and the other arm and hand over her shoulder on her other arm and showed her how to hold the move. A bead of sweat trickled from his head down his neck. He was almost hugging her. It was like dancing. He could hear her breathe. It was erratic. This was affecting her too. They got out of balance for a moment, and he couldn't break her fall. She plopped unceremoniously on her rear end on the practice area stone.
Instantly, Pema's features scrunched up into a pout, with her lip jutted out. She put an arm on her hip, and wagged her other finger at him.
"You did that on purpose!"
"Actually Pupil Pema, only by accident. I was…um…distracted."
Her heart skipped a beat. He felt the same as her in that near embrace.
"Let's try that again," as he helped her up by both arms. Her expression softened.
Suddenly, she was face to face with him inches apart, but neither distanced themselves.
Pema broke the intense silence, "Master Tenzin, this isn't a standard bending position."
Tenzin whispered, "I know, Pupil Pema. But I have something to tell you."
"OK," She was trembling, and he could feel it.
"You may have been born an Earth Kingdom girl, but you have the heart of an air bender."
She smiled and blushed, "Why thank you Master Tenzin. You know my parents raised me as an Air Nation child."
She began to feel more comfortable being held so close.
"Tenzin. Just Tenzin," he whispered.
"Certainly, Mast-…erm…Tenzin," said Pema unsteadily.
He looked deeply into those green eyes, which got wider and softer, "Perhaps you didn't hear me correctly. You have the heart of an air bender, Pema."
She started to say, "Oh I heard y-!", but Tenzin interrupted.
"The heart of this air bender."
She gave him an absolutely stunned look as the true double meaning of his words sunk in. She smiled broadly, and her eyes sparkled at Tenzin, "Really? I wonder what I might do with it, then..."
She put her fingertip under her chin and feigned serious pondering, deliberately making Tenzin chafe a bit for her answer.
Then she tilted her head coyly, got a mischievous look, and locked eyes with him, "Hmmm. I think I will keep it, and give you mine, too! With all my love, Tenzin."
With that, they could finally close the distance between them, and they kissed for a very long time, caressing and stroking each other as they did, just exploring the wonderful feelings they now shared.
Finally they broke the kiss, breathlessly panting.
She joked, "Funny to see an air bender out of air for the first time."
"You've had that effect on me for some time, Pema. Tonight you finally got to see it," he admitted.
She punched him playfully.
"What are we going to do now, Tenzin? We can't keep this a secret anymore," she asked with great worry.
"We can do this." He reached behind his neck and removed his air bending beaded necklace, and carefully put it around Pema's neck.
Her eyes got as big as saucers, and her mouth opened a little.
He tried to act aloof but couldn't hold back his grin, "A lot is said about the Water Tribe's famous betrothal necklaces. But this is how we do it in the Air Nation."
She felt speechless beyond words, but managed to shout, "Yes Tenzin! Oh yes! Of course I will marry you!"
She jumped up and down and twirled around across the practice area, unconsciously making her dodging and weaving moves.
He snickered as he watched the magic of her graceful dance, "Pema, you're going to 'ace' that air bending avoidance test tomorrow.
She stuck her tongue out at him in feigned annoyance. Then she stopped dead in her tracks.
"But wait, these are your father's beads – a gift to you when you earned your tattoos."
"I don't need them anymore. I have another set." He shrugged.
"Oh, Tenzin, I am the happiest girl in Republic City. I want to shout this to the highest skyscraper. But I think I want to break the secret first with your parents on Saturday night. OK?"
"Perfect," He hugged and kissed her again.
"Is it OK if I take this off when I get back, so my roommate doesn't find out, and keep them safe until then?
"Sure. There is nothing wrong with that."
Neither knew the ancient legend that taking off Air Nomad beads - once offered as a betrothal gift - was bad karma.
The next day was the introduction to the classic air bender glider flying. Tenzin looked up to the sky and was wondering if he shouldn't cancel the demonstration. The winds were gusting and swirling.
This was a new class for Tenzin to teach. His father normally taught it, but said he was somewhat ill. Aang fibbed a bit. He noticed that Pema's group was scheduled first. He wanted to make sure Tenzin taught this lesson to her.
Tenzin began, talking loudly over the swirling wind. "Today, class we learn about the second most useful tool that air benders use to get places fast – the glider staff. The secret to its operation is to move air so swiftly around the wings and tail that fools the glider into generating lift sooner than it would in just normal air. The glider, when used as a staff, can concentrate air bending moves. So it is a defensive weapon as well as a personal transport."
"In fact, it's possible to carry two people, even if one is not a bender. So I am looking for a volunteer."
"I will!" chirped Pema. Everyone else kept their hands in their pockets. As badly as he wanted to fly with her, he was disappointed that this class may be the biggest ever, but no one but Pema ever wanted to try something adventurous first.
The winds were so strong that a huge gust nearly knocked her over just standing in the plaza.
"Pema, are you sure you want to fly?"
"Can you handle these winds?" she asked.
"Yes, I've flown in rougher," he stated.
"Then I can handle it too." she replied with confidence. What an amazing woman Pema was.
So he showed her how to stand and grasp the glider, popped open an extra-large glider that would easily take two people, and instructed her to hold the handle with one hand, and to put her arm around his waist, as he did the same. It felt incredible to hold her firm thin waist. She was equally thrilled to feel the rock hard strength of his abdomen. They almost got lost in their new feelings, but knew they had to keep the secret.
"Are you ready, Pupil Pema?" he encouraged.
She took a deep breath to quell the butterflies in her stomach, and announced, "Absolutely, Master Tenzin."
Across the square at the doorway to their home, Aang and Katara watched intently. Aang reminisced, "Remember?"
Katara put her head on his shoulder, and sighed, "Yeah, sweetie."
Back across the square, Tenzin and Pema crouched and launched into the skies over the Island. They looked great, as Tenzin directed them. High above the Island, out of earshot to everyone, Pema asked, "Have you ever flown with your girlfriends before?"
"I tried, but they never wanted to. You are the first," they both fought the urge to kiss, but knew every eye was on them from below, and so resisted. He liked the sound of 'girlfriend', even though they were more than that as fiancés now.
In their moment of distraction for each other, a massive gust caught them, ripped Pema from Tenzin's grasp, and she plummeted to the earth below.
She screamed as she desperately reached for Tenzin.
Horrified, Tenzin banked over instantly and dove after her. He accelerated to unimaginable speed, pushing the limits of his abilities. He went faster and faster, until vapor trails started to form on him and the glider. He closed the distance between them rapidly, but she was hurtling so close to the ground.
Katara screamed, "Aang, do something!"
He ran for his glider but feared he would not reach her in time. He found it and popped it open. He was about to launch when Tenzin made contact with Pema. He had never seen Tenzin fly so fast.
Tenzin reached with all his strength, successfully grabbing her from her fall, and clutched her tightly as he started to break their descent. Aang could hear the glider coming apart, with stress fractures popping and snapping inside the glider structure. Tenzin strained with all his air bending might to stop them from smashing into the ground. They steadily decelerated, but they were only a few feet from the ground, and they still seemed to be dropping too fast. The pair impacted on Tenzin's shoulder, and everyone heard a sickening crunch. Tenzin wrapped Pema in his arms to protect her, and they rolled out on the square. They stopped, tangled together, but were as still as death.
The entire Temple population, who had witnessed everything, held their breath as the Avatar and his water bender rushed to tend to their youngest child and his adventurous student. The glider was in pieces around them, but would the pair emerge in one piece?
Katara tended to them feverishly. They were barely conscious. The ugly snap was only a shoulder dislocation and a couple of broken ribs and bones, not their vertebrae or skulls, which Katara swiftly healed, along with the many scrapes and bruises. Nothing was damaged internally. They started to come around, and were still entwined in each other. Katara was too afraid to move them much for fear of creating more damage.
They awoke simultaneously, and stared into each other's eyes. Katara was silent.
"Are you all right, Pema?" Tenzin asked.
"You…you saved me, Tenzin," she said with immense gratitude and a weak smile.
"Pema, I can't afford to lose you. I love you."
Pema's eyes shone at Tenzin, as she shakily touched his cheek, "'Love you, too."
They sat up slowly.
Tenzin spoke tentatively as he stretched, "Mother? Thank you. Whatever was damaged is working again, sort of."
But then he realized that his mother had heard everything Pema and he had just said to each other.
Before Pema or Tenzin could say anything, Katara smiled at both of them, and promised, "Children, your secret is safe with me."
Aang and Katara helped them walk carefully back home and refused any visitors. They rested, locked in each others' arms, the rest of the day and evening nearly silently, kissing on occasion. They were so distressed they ate nothing, and drank Katara's medicinal teas only because she insisted on it.
Otherwise, Aang and Katara gave them their space. They remembered the incident of their own when they were nearly torn permanently from each other.
Finally, late, knowing too many questions would be asked if Pema stayed overnight - even with the excuse of the near-fatal accident - Tenzin escorted her to her dorm, and kissed her softly goodnight. They each had a fitful sleep, preferring to remain nestled in each other's arms all night. They had been too close to death, but the accident drew them even more closely to each other.
But life returned to normal. They did have each other. The rest of the week during the daytime they treated each other as Master and Acolyte. Tenzin wore more casual clothes that didn't require him to wear his beads. She was in fact wearing his beads, but had hidden them inside her tunic, and in private moments, let him sneak a peak during the day, and they smiled at each other. It was another a little game just between them. At night, they managed to take advantage of several stolen moments between events and classes to give each other some deep kisses. They knew they were on the ragged edge of being discovered.
On Saturday night, Katara heard but didn't see Pema as she came for dinner again. She was too busy in the kitchen. It was cold and Pema had a heavy coat on, which Tenzin removed. They smiled knowingly.
Aang and Katara had every intention of leaving them alone after dinner.
But as they sat together at the dinner table, Aang noticed Tenzin's air bending beads were missing, and asked, "Son, you aren't properly dressed for dinner. Where are your-…? Oh!"
And then he and Katara both noticed them around Pema's neck. Even though Katara heard their admitted love for each other in the near fatal glider crash, and Aang had pretty much figured out their relationship, neither parent knew they were engaged.
Katara and Aang cheered with delight, jumped to their feet, and rushed to Tenzin and Pema. They all hugged together for the first time as family. Every bite of food disappeared, including a couple of toasts of saké to the future bride and groom. Everyone talked excitedly all at once about everything for hours, and soon the night was gone in a frenzy of happy thoughts.