They met in a bar

They met in a bar. He'd seen a man mugged, and was trying to drink away the memory of the blood. She'd just finished a job, and was trying to find another.

She recognized him - wondered for a moment what a king without a country was doing in a bar, then went up and asked him. He slurred an answer she couldn't make out. She sat down next to him with a wry smile, and pulled away his drink, downing it in one gulp. Her mind was working a mile a minute, analyzing a potential contact list, asking price, bartering rates, and which side would pay more for him. There was more gold in Ozai's vault, but he would see little threat the former king. The ragged rebels could barely pay for their own food, but just might be desperate enough to gather what silver they could.

He was crying now, blubbering on about blood and servants and war. Over his left eye was a barely healed scar. She wondered where he'd gotten it, and how he'd survived the encounter. His clothes were covered in hair. He was barefoot, the remaining tatters of his sandals still strapped around his ankles.

He reminded her of her brother.

Roughly, she grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and hauled him out of the bar. He didn't fight, merely pausing in his ruminations about gangs long enough to tell her she had pretty eyes.

Most men didn't look at her eyes.

Arms full of unwieldy drunkard, she kicked open the door to her room. He was unceremoniously dumped on her bed as she made her way to the desk, pulled out a scroll and began composing a letter to potential clients.

The sound of soft snoring made her turn around. He was sprawled over her pillows, drooling slightly. The man was an idiot not to have been on his guard. She'd been in the business long enough to have developed a sufficiently dangerous aura, and it was a testament to his drunkeness that he hadn't tried to fight her off.

Drunkeness or innocence.

It had been a long time since she'd seen an innocent person.

Snorting, she blew out the candles and climbed into the bed, elbowing him out of her way. Sleep took her, more restful than she'd had in years.

She woke to the sound of the mildest cursing she'd ever heard, and the sight of a man so hung-over and desperate to apologize for whatever "nefarious" actions he'd committed against her honor that he failed to notice that they were fully clothed.

It was around the time he skinned his shin trying to kneel down and offer his life to her that she decided she wasn't going to turn him in.

Three weeks later they sat together in another bar, talking. He'd insisted on accompanying her in her journeys, his sense of honor unable to let a woman travel alone. She hadn't objected too hard, for some reason she couldn't fathom.

His green eyes always twinkled when he brought her the (burnt) breakfast he insisted on preparing with his own two hands.

He talked about the war, growing up in a palace, the Dai Lee, and his pet bear (who stole food from her Shirshu). She never volunteered information about herself, content to let his chatter drown out the singing a group of off-duty soldiers in the corner provided.

Jun was younger than she looked. The war had aged everyone, brought them down to their knees, taken the humanity from them. Except Kuei. In his eyes she saw no darkness, just the bright hope for a future of peace. He constantly (annoyingly) affirmed (to everyone they met) that the Avatar was alive and would save them all. He told stories of the Avatar and his companion's bravery, of their integrity, of their ability to be heroes.

A part of Jun marveled at him, because in all his talks of the bright future, he never once mentioned regaining his throne. He never spoke of revenge against those who had betrayed him, never demanded loyalty from the people who had formerly been his citizens. In fact, he spoke of unifying the nations, a world order of peace, led by the Avatar, and a council of elements, both benders and non, male and female, young and old to represent the people.

He made something stir in her chest, something she had thought long dead, killed at the sight of her mother's corpse, her father's sword, and a soldier's leer. After he fell asleep each night she lay awake, remembering the stories her Aunt had told her of days long past, adventures and heroes she had loved to dream about as a child.

When he broke his nose defending her from a leering salesman she decided to take him to her bed.

He was hesitant at first, but she let him know in no uncertain terms that she wanted him. Once convinced, he was enthusiastic, bumbling in his inexperience and determination to make her enjoy it. It was long and slow, and she cried from the sweetness of it, while he held her and apologized for whatever he had done to hurt her.

That night, she let him see her as no one had seen her before. She told no stories, gave him no verbal information, but she cried on his shoulder, and let her emotions show on her face for the first time in living memory. And, for the first time since she had met him, she fell asleep first, cradled in his arms.

Over the next few weeks she began dropping tidbits of information to him. Harmless things at first - her age, where she was born, how many siblings she had. He never pressed for more, and each night was just as gentle as the first. She tried to make it rough, but he insisted that the bed was no place for harshness, and would roll away if she pressed him.

She saw the love in his eyes, never spoken, and wondered at it.

Under the full moon she told him of her mother's death, her father's grave marker, her brother's laugh as he swung her into his arms. He sat silently, holding her, never speaking, no matter how long the silence stretched between them while she tried to find words. His thumbs were gentle as they wiped away her tears, and when she was done speaking he tucked her into her sleeping bag, pressing a kiss to her forehead before turning to feed the animals. She watched him move in the firelight and wondered at this man so full of goodness.

She said it first, in a rush as her tongue tripped over the unfamiliar words. His smile was gentle, as was his reply.

"I love you too."