Because the Earth King is irresistably adorable, and you know it. Again, many thanks to my wonderful beta, Pattie Mayonnaise.
3. Blush (Junei)
Kuei. He still couldn't get used to the fact that his own name sounded foreign to him. To be fair, no one had called him Kuei since he was four years old. It was a terrifying feeling, though, when one's own name sounded strange. However, it was no worse than finding that the country he had ruled for so long was unfamiliar. Everything he'd heard, everything he'd read, everything he'd learned was rendered useless in this strange new world. The Grand Archive of Ba Sing Se had never mentioned, for instance, that inns did not allow bears indoors, trained or not; nor, apparently, did they supply foot massages (and he still had the bruise to prove it). He wasn't completely alone, though. He'd be fine as long as he had…
"Bosco?" Kuei spun in a circle, wildly searching his surroundings. "Bosco!" He finally spotted his friend by the hitch posts of a tavern, nose-to-nose with a very dangerous-looking animal. He raced over, aware that the probable owner of the other animal was doing the same from the entrance of the tavern, and pulled the bear back. "Sorry," he said to the owner, who was now stroking her animal's side. Then he finally looked at the creature Bosco had introduced himself to. "Wow!" He pushed his spectacles up. "What a magnificent Shirshu!"
"Thanks, kid," replied the owner, and she stepped out of the shadow of the giant Shirshu.
Kuei began to mumble, "I'm twenty-two," but instead his eyes widened and he fell silent. He had never seen a woman like this in Ba Sing Se. Flowing black hair covered almost half her pale face and spilled over her shoulders. Full lips, colored a deep crimson, curved up in a slight smirk. Sharp, dark gray eyes were partially shaded by thick lashes. Her outfit was very… snug. He quickly pried his eyes over to the Shirshu, if only to stop his face from heating up.
"The name's Jun," she said. She sounded decidedly amused.
He risked looking directly at her. Yes, she was definitely trying not to laugh at him. "I'm…" he stumbled over the name, still new, "Kuei. My name is Kuei. It's nice to meet you." He scratched between Bosco's shoulders. "This is Bosco, my bear," he added.
Her visible eyebrow ascended. "Not a platypus bear, or…?" He shook his head emphatically. "A bear, huh? Nice. This is Nyla, my baby." She stroked the Shirshu's muzzle, cooing.
"Is she friendly?" Kuei asked hesitantly.
Jun smirked menacingly at him. "Do you want to find out?"
"Certainly, if it's okay with you."
She blinked, but stepped aside. Nyla eyed him as he slowly approached. He cautiously reached up and rubbed the creature behind its ears. The Shirshu made a happy rumbling noise and lowered its head for easier reach. Jun smiled; one point to Kuei.
"She likes me!" he exclaimed, beaming. Nyla further proved this by trying to nuzzle him, which only caused him to fall over. However, he was soon back on his feet, and still grinning. Kuei, she noted, had the kind of truly happy smile that would not be allowed in the kind of places she frequented; it might blind the patrons.
She felt something cold and wet and looked down to find Bosco nosing her hand. "Jealous, are you?" she asked, and ruffled his ears. Bosco rumbled amiably and leaned against her side.
After a while, Jun interrupted the comfortable silence. "So, what's a guy like you doing in a place like this?" she asked, giving Bosco one last firm pat before moving to the saddlebags.
Kuei stood up straighter. "Well," he announced, very meaningfully, "our intention is to see the world!"
Jun spared him a single critical glance before reaching to unhook a particular bag. "You do realize that there's a war on," she pointed out scathingly.
He deflated. "Well, yes, I suppose."
She smirked. "But I guess you're not the kind of man who'd let that stop him."
Kuei stammered incoherently for a few moments, struggling to work out whether replying in the affirmative or the negative would impress her more. "Nuh… I… well, actually…" He pushed his spectacles up frantically and glanced at Bosco. "That is… er, no. No, I'm not?" he managed at last.
Jun turned around and poured Nyla some food to hide her inexorable grin. The Shirshu watched her dubiously as she fought to regain her normal condescending expression. "Off to see the world in the middle of a war, huh?" she asked, finally feeling composed enough to face Kuei. "By yourself?"
"Oh, no!" He waved his hands in the air to emphasize the negative and pointed at the bear. "Bosco's coming with me." An idea suddenly occurred to him, leaving him hastily trying to rearrange the conversation. "I mean, it's just me and Bosco right now. But we would be more than willing to travel with someone. In fact, one could say that would be preferable, seeing as… well, with how things are," he finished lamely, unwilling to admit to Jun that he badly needed a guide in his own kingdom.
Jun narrowed her eyes. It wasn't hard to see where this was going. "I work alone, kid," she said flatly.
"Of course!" He adjusted his spectacles, slightly flustered. "I was merely extending an invitation. Perhaps… if you were going somewhere… I thought the journey would be more enjoyable with company." He didn't quite meet her eye as he added, "At least, I would find it more enjoyable."
She felt her resistance begin to give, and that scared her. "I wouldn't," she retorted, more harshly than she had intended to.
To her dismay, Kuei looked as though she'd slapped him. "Oh." He glanced down at Bosco, who offered a sympathetic growl. "Well... we'd best be going, then. Goodbye, Jun." He started off toward the road, shoulders hunched and head down. Bosco seemed to glower at her for a moment before lumbering off after Kuei.
Jun watched Kuei go, scowling. It had been fun to make him flush and squirm, but she didn't need some naïve kid following her around. She had an image to uphold: the fierce, dangerous bounty hunter. She was better off without him.
When Kuei was out of sight, Jun turned around to find Nyla glaring at her accusingly. "What?" she snapped.
Nyla snorted. Her meaning was clear.
"Yeah, I know you liked him." At Nyla's impatient growl, she added, "Fine. I didn't mind him, either." Maybe she had found his awkward sincerity an entertaining and pleasant change from her usual company. Maybe she had enjoyed being complimented and not flattered. Maybe he had been ingenuously charming, something unheard-of in this sleazy little town, and maybe she had liked that. It didn't mean she had to go follow him on his little jaunt around the world. Jun stared defiantly at Nyla. There was no way she was going after him. She didn't care what happened to him or his bear, no matter how nervously he fumbled for words or how brightly he smiled… or how happy or trusting or genuine he was.
Nyla nudged her gently, whining softly.
Jun gave in.
"Son of a toe-sucking slug-snake," she cursed, and hoisted herself onto the Shirshu's saddle.
Kuei shuffled down the road, brow crinkled in thought. He couldn't fathom the reason for his dismissal. Admittedly, he was very unused to such things, as a recent monarch. Actually, he hadn't gotten around to much human interaction at all. He preferred his bear. People – another category to add to the list of things of which he was ignorant. He must have done something wrong, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out what. After a while, he jumped, as though a thought had literally struck him. "I wasn't presumptuous, was I?" he asked Bosco worriedly.
Bosco stared at him blankly.
"Oh," Kuei sighed. "I don't suppose a bear would know much about social graces." He patted his friend on the head. "That's all right."
It took Kuei a moment to realize that that was his name and he should respond. He spun around belatedly – and broke into a grin. "Jun!" His smile faltered. "Are you…?"
From atop her Shirshu, Jun smirked down at him. "Someone's gotta make sure you don't get yourself killed," she drawled, "and I'm bored of this place. I might as well tag along."
Kuei beamed with unrestrained delight, and for the first time in a long while, Jun felt herself blush.