This was written for the atla_crackfic comm on LJ.
Song's life had always been rather ordinary. On the day the moon turned red and vanished from the sky, she'd been sleeping and never knew what people were talking about afterwards. On the Day of Black Sun, she'd been inside, trying to save a man who'd been attacked by an upset mama moose lion. On the day of the comet, she'd sat outside with her mother, looking up at the beautiful scarlet sky and thinking it looked the sky was bleeding.
None of these events really changed her life that much. Fewer soldiers passed through, from either side of the conflict. Occasionally, the farmers came to the village hospitals, but more often than not vagabonds and outlaws. However, Song's mother had taught them early on that it was far better to have them as gentle healers generous enough to share their food and medicines than upset herbalists that knew all of the things to feed them to make them piss blood out of their anus and not kill them.
They were remarkably well-behaved after that episode. In fact, the regulars that stopped by could be accused of being downright polite.
So, normally, Song wouldn't be surprised by a bunch of rough-looking, bloody men running up to her while she was hanging the laundry on a line to dry which ran from the back porch of the house to a young sapling, twined around, and tied back to the house, providing double the space. However, when a creature that almost resembled a platypus bear came lumbering out of the woods, she would be more inclined to panic. It walked on, not seeming to notice her. With hands still raised to hang her under dressings, she struggled to think of what the proper thing to do when faced with a wild animal. Should she run or play dead? Should she make loud noises? Weren't they more afraid of her than she was of them?
She didn't know, but if that thing took one step toward her, she would –
It turned and looked at her, and all thought froze. Collapsed forward on its back was a man, and self-preservation fought with her healer's heart. It occurred to her all at once that the bear…thing didn't seem to be threatening her. It might be friendly, only the body on its back…of course, how else could the body get there if the bear thing didn't let it?
Song looked at the animal, and it looked back, waiting. She slowly set the clothes and the pin down. Gathering all of her nerve, she straightened to her full meager height, and took a very small step forward. The animal groaned, and she stopped and put up her hands in the universal sign of 'I'm harmless' and hoped the creature recognized that.
"It's okay. I won't hurt you – not that I could," she muttered aside, "I don't want to and you don't want to hurt me, do you? Oh, I hope you don't!"
It shifted a little, which brought it a little closer to Song who squashed down the impulse to turn and run screaming for her mother. Instead, against all common-sense and better judgment, she walked closer.
She couldn't but think this was either the bravest or the stupidest thing she has ever done.
"Is your, uh, friend hurt? I'm a healer. I can help if you let me."
It didn't move or make a sound. It only watched as she carefully made her way to them, worrying about whether this thing could climb a tree if it came to it. The whole way, she talked to it.
"I really hope this isn't some kind of trick. You know, you just luring me closer so you can eat me with little effort. Of course I'm probably giving you too much credit."
It rumbled in its throat a little, and Song fluttered her hands.
"Not that you probably aren't capable of coming up with something like that! I'm sure you're a very smart bear-creature thing. You wouldn't want to eat me anyway."
It tilted its head, as if asking why not.
"Well, I…um – Oh, I just got finished washing all of these clothes and I probably taste like soap up to my elbows! And soap tastes yucky, you know."
Either because it was taking her so long or it was checking the validity of her statement, it began to walk toward her. It didn't seem as if it was very aggressive so she didn't do too much internal panicking. However, she couldn't her legs to keep walking forward. They simply locked in place, as if refusing to have any part in their death.
To her horror, the bear-thing stopped just in front of her sniffed her. She repressed the scream that was steadily climbing up her throat and forced herself to breathe. It wasn't using its teeth or claws or licking her so she carefully shook the man's shoulder.
"Sir, are you all right? Sir?"
He didn't respond, and her healer instinct overrode the remainder of her fear. She checked his pulse next while the other hand went to his forehead.
"He's burning up. I need to get him to the hospital. Come on, big guy, follow me."
Song trotted off and glanced back to see the animal following her. It was almost like a big puppy. A little, hysterical giggle escaped her. She could just see the look on her mother's face.
"Look what followed me home!"
He was flying, floating on a cloud. A musty smelling rather bumpy cloud. It was somehow terribly comfy though.
But he was hot, and cold, and hot and cold. His head hurt, and his stomach lurched. Where was Bosco? He'd told him to find an inn and rent a room for them, and that was hours ago. He was still chilly and fevered, and he wanted to get off of this fuzzy cloud.
"It's all right," he heard a beatific voice, "Everything will be fine."
Wide, brown eyes looked out from a lovely face. A beautiful, fuzzy face.
Where were his spectacles?
"Am I dead?"
"No, you're not. You're just a little sick."
"Oh…am I dying then?"
"No. I'll do everything I can to see that you don't."
He lifted his hand weakly, weaving it around her general vicinity. She caught his hand, and sealed the promise.
"Pinkie promise. Now save your strength. We're almost there."
She smiled, and his heart jumped a little, and he thought she just might be wrong since he was having a heart attack. But if she just kept smiling at him, he didn't think he'd mind.
Once they made it to the hospital, it took little coaxing to get the bear to follow her. In fact, she was pretty sure it thought it was people. He cooperated better than most human assistants she'd had. Still, once she had the man settled on the treatment table…
"Uh, I think it'd be best if you waited outside."
It obediently lumbered off to the waiting room, and the man popped up.
"Where ya goin', Bosco?" he slurred.
Song placed a hand on his shoulder and eased him back down.
"Lie down and rest. We're going to get you better now."
"But," he waved his hands in the air, "where's Bosco goin'?"
"He's going to wait right outside while I take care of you."
His fever-bright, green eyes blinked up at her in wonder.
"You're gonna take care of me? You're so nice."
"And you're very ill. Now can you tell me how long you've been sick?"
"I'm sick?" he gasped, sitting back up again. "Quick, feel my forehead!" he grabbed her hand and practically slapped himself with the back of her hand. "Do I have a fever?"
"Yes," she gently pulled her hand away, "you do. This is why you should lay down and rest while I make you some tea."
"Tea? That is so nice. You are so nice."
She knew that he must be delirious from fever. He was not aware of what he was saying. She pretended he did and blushed anyway.
It wasn't hard to get him to drink the tea, and it helped him go back to sleep and rest. That was good, because the fever seemed to have him suffering serious delirium. He kept muttering about scary Kyoshi Warriors and long-fanged Dai, and something about a woman named Joo Dee. She wondered if that was his wife, but he cringed every time he said her name.
Not for the first time, he kicked the sheets off and shivered. She put them back as she crossed the room to put away the herbs she'd used. Aside from the fever, the man had an old cut on his forearm that looked a little infected if the pus was anything to judge by. She'd cleaned it properly and redressed it. Song reached up to set the jar on the shelf, and nearly dropped it when she heard her mother's scream.
Running into the waiting room, she was relieved and amused to see her mother skittering around and holding a basket of berries in front of her, a vain attempt to ward of Bosco as he was only more drawn to her.
"It's all right, Mother. Bosco won't hurt you."
"Bosco? You named that thing? I've told you, don't bring animals into this hospital, and you not only – Aagh!"
Bosco had backed her into a corner and bumped her hand with his nose.
"He's completely friendly! Just give him some berries, Mother, and I'll explain."
Song's mother had stared at Bosco the whole time her daughter spoke and carefully set the basket down then edged along the wall to get away from it. She backed up, hands raised and tensed, toward her daughter. Meanwhile, Bosco ignored her entirely and began to eat like a starved platypus-bear.
Song watched the scene unfold and wondered if she'd looked half as silly during her first encounter.
"Explain," her mother hissed. "Now!"
Song smiled assuredly at her mother and wrapped an arm around her waist to guide her out of the waiting room before she had a heart attack; her mother was a terrible patient.
"Well, while I was hanging the laundry, Bosco came out of the woods with his master unconscious on his back. He seemed to understand that I only meant to help and followed me right here. He's a very clever thing."
"Oh, really," her mother gave her a look. "And you were as calm as all that, were you?"
"I didn't scream," she pointed out, proud that she could at least claim that.
"What's wrong with the man then?" Song's mother asked, taking a look at him.
The man had kicked off the sheets again and started to snore. Song moved to put them back again, handing the jar to her mother.
"Fever due to infection on his right forearm. It's not severe so I think I got in time so he won't need an amputation."
"Good. And I suppose in your haste, you didn't finish the laundry?"
"Uh…I'll go do that now," Song turned deliberately so her mother wouldn't be able to read her face, "and you can stay with the patient and Bosco."
Mother merely gave her a look. She glanced toward the door to the waiting room and then went out the opposite door. Song smiled a bit ruefully. That was one way to get out of chores.
Something glinted on the floor, and she bent down to look. Two circles of glass were set in a sturdy frame of metal. She recognized them as eye spectacles and picked them up. They were the ones designed to rest on one's nose. The metal also seemed to be made of gold or a rather good replica of it.
Song glanced at the sleeping man and pocketed the spectacles.
Kuei didn't know where he was. Well, he was on a mat on the floor, that much he knew. The room was unfamiliar and smelled like grass and herbs. His blanket was clean and his pillow fluffy; it must not be prison then. All of the books he'd read described prisons as filthy places with no sun. A place so dark and wretched, it could crush the very spirit of a man. This place was very bright and fresh though.
He rather liked it.
There was an itchy bandage on his arm where he'd scraped his arm when he was running away from that mother hen-pig; a vicious, unforgiving beast. He noted that his head wasn't at all fuzzy anymore. Absently scratching at the bandaged, he noted that the room smelled like what he remembered the infirmary to smell like the few times he'd wandered into it at the palace. It would seem Bosco had found him a healer of some kind.
He was such a clever bear.
A girl walked in, carrying a covered tray.
"Good morning," he said automatically.
"Well, good afternoon," she smiled, and his stomach fluttered a little as she set the tray on a stand and knelt down next to him.
"Afternoon?" he asked, startled. "Did I fall asleep that long?"
"Oh, yes," she came closer and gently swatted his hand away from the bandage, "About sixty-two or so hours."
"Mhmm. Your cut here only gave you a minor infection, and you're terribly malnourished. A couple of days resting with some good food and you'll be fine. My name is Song, by the way."
"I am Lee."
"Of course you are," Song laughed, pulling a roll of bandages out of a pocket to replace the old one
"Why is that funny?"
"No reason. It's just that there are so many Lees running around. A few weeks ago, a Lee and a Mushi stole our ostrich-horse. You wouldn't happen to be that type of Lee, would you?"
"I – ow!"
She'd pulled the dressing tight over the still tender wound.
"Oops. I'm sorry."
"It's all right. And I'm very sorry for your loss. I promise, I would never dream of taking an ostrich-horse from anyone. I don't know what I'd do without Bosco. Where is he?"
Song stepped back to toss the dirty bandages into a bin and over to a bowl of water to wash her hands.
"He's sunbathing, I guess. I hope you don't think it rude if I ask, but what exactly is Bosco?"
"He's a bear."
"A bear…?" she looked at him over her shoulder, rather expectantly.
"Just a bear."
He could have gone on to tell her about how one village thought Bosco a demon spirit and ran them off, or the time a man thought he was some kind of shaman and Bosco was his familiar; but his stomach let out a pathetic whimper, and he blushed.
"Excuse me," he said.
"It's fine. I thought you might be waking up soon, so that soup there is yours," she told him as she dried off her hands. "Once you've eaten, you can join Bosco for a while."
"Why can't I just eat outside with Bosco now?"
"Because you're not completely well, could pass out, and I'd have to get you back inside by myself."
"However, if you want to overexert yourself and relapse, forcing your body to shut down for another day or so and giving the infection a chance to come back in full force due to your weakness, by all means; go on out," she said with a smile.
"…you're a bit of a bully, aren't you?" he asked cautiously.
She only continued to smile and handed him his bowl.
"I'll be back in a little while and I expect that bowl to be half-empty when I come back. Oh, I almost forgot."
Song pulled his spectacles out of her pocket and set them on his nose. He blinked as his vision cleared.
"Thank you. I hadn't even reali – i…"
Now that he could see clearly, he could see Song and amended his earlier description of 'a girl' to a 'pretty beautiful lady'.
"Are you all right?" she asked, her brow puckering a bit.
"Hm. Oh, yes! I'm fine. Just, uh, hungry. Very hungry!" he picked up the bowl and began to eat.
Song gave him a funny look before shrugging and standing to go.
He'd seen ladies at court. He knew he had been expected to pick one for his wife. The women had always seemed a bit odd, or the ones he'd mustered up the courage to speak to. They'd behaved differently than Song. They'd twittered over every little thing he'd said, even when he hadn't been making a joke. He'd thought that was just the odd way of women, but Song didn't seem to be anything like them.
He rather liked that.
After several days, Song allowed him to move about freely. He proved to be a much more sociable, if not more awkward guest than the other Lee, actively seeking out ways to help out. This Lee helped her gather eggs from the hen pigs, although he never actually approached them after one of them tried to take out his eye; but he insisted on carrying the basket for her. This Lee helped milk the hippo cows, not really all that well. He insisted on cleaning the dishes after meals, and Song was never one to refuse a willing service.
This Lee was clever and quick to understand things, although one would wonder why he didn't already know something so simple. He asked questions about everything – common little things, like if he was sweeping the right way, why she didn't have other people to do it for her, why there was practically no one living in the village.
And all the while, his bear hardly moved from his spot on the porch, only to find another patch of sun as the days wore on.
This Lee was rather odd, but he was also very kind. He was easily impressed, even easier to fluster, and quick to smile.
Song liked him more than the other Lee.
"I think – that is, you are very…uh…"
She looked at him, wearing a patiently amused smile. His heart thundered and fluttered at the same time. What should he say? Pretty? No, beautiful. Intelligent and kind. Gentle and strong.
"Symmetrical," he finally blurted.
Song looked surprised for a moment, and Kuei felt his ears burn red. If there had been a wall nearby, Kuei would have been slamming his head against it. If he'd been an earthbender, he'd raise one for that sole purpose before making the earth open up and swallow him.
Then she giggled. She pressed her fingers to her mouth to try and stop herself.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't laughing at you. It's just that I don't ever think anyone has ever called me that before."
"It was a stupid thing to say," he said, feeling like a foolish child.
"No, it wasn't. Symmetrical," she said musingly. "You meant to say that I'm a balanced person, in harmony with myself and life. Right?"
He nodded, hardly trusting himself to try and say anything. He should have said something else.
"And I'll tell you what," she went on.
He looked her sheepishly, not daring to open his mouth.
"It's the best compliment anyone's ever given me. Thank you."
Mollified by her assurance, he answered her smile with one of her own.
"And you, Lee, are very intellectual."
"Ah…I must apologize to you. Lee is not my real name."
"I – you do?"
"There are thousands of Lees. Probably only a hundred were actually born with the name."
"I didn't mean to lie to you. Well, no I suppose I actually did, but I didn't want – or rather I don't want to now…I don't know what I'm saying."
Song offered him her hand.
"Hello, sir. My name is Song."
He shyly took it.
"My name is Kuei."
"Pleasure to meet you, Kuei. See, that wasn't so hard now. Kuei. That's a much nicer name than Lee."
"Thank you, Song. You've been so wonderful to me."
"It's what I do."
"Oh, no, you've done so much more for me than just helping me recover. I will see your kindness repaid double – no, ten times over!"
Her smile sweetly patient, she murmured, "I'm sure you would like to, but that's not necessary."
"I would like to. That's why I will. Once I get back to Bah Sing Se, I'll speak with my treasures, and they will –"
"Yes, I know. Lord Nyugan is sometimes a bit…grumpy, but I believe that I can handle him now."
"Can you now?"
She was almost amused and growing somewhat concerned. Kuei seemed delusional, and several ways of how that could come about flitted through her mind.
"I…I think so. I realize now, after seeing how things really are for my people, that I haven't been doing exactly as I ought. But that's going to change now…er, rather when I get back home."
"What do you mean, your people?
"The Earth Kingdom people, of course."
"Kuei, you're not making any sense."
"In what way? As king, I have responsibilities to the people of my kingdom, and you are one of them. You have done your king a great kindness, even when you didn't know for whom you cared. This should be rewarded, and it will."
Song was staring at him, lips pursed. She pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. He frowned, puzzled and not altogether comfortable as she gently began working her fingers through his scalp, cheeks reddening,
"Um…what are you doing?"
"Just checking to see if you have a bump up here. Do you remember hitting your head? Eating or drinking anything strange?"
"Well, I don't remember anything like that happening, but if I did, I suppose I wouldn't remember anyway?"
"I guess not. We'll get back to scrubbing the floors, but if you begin to feel fatigued or nauseous, let me know."
"All right, Song, but I really am fine."
She wasn't a completely ignorant country bumpkin. Song knew that the Earth King's name was Kuei. She knew that Bah Sing Se had fallen, and he'd fled.
But of course she didn't believe that her Kuei was the Kuei though.
Because that was too much. That was a childish, silly fantasy. Obviously, Kuei or Lee or whatever wasn't completely recovered in the head. He wasn't the king, and she wasn't the girl in the stories that got swept away to live in a palace. She was the girl who got her ostrich horse stolen by mysterious boys with scars. She was the girl who sewed people back together, and snapped bones back into place, and had other people's blood under her nails.
Crazy or a king, Kuei was the absolute sweetest guy she'd ever met.
Song was behind the house, taking clothes down from the laundry line. Her mother had gone to check on Old Man Nan-Ren, who'd contracted a bit of a cough. Kuei was just inside, trying to surprise her by making her guo tie. He'd never made it without her help though, and while she was a little concerned with the coming disaster zone her kitchen would be in, she was moved by his attempt.
In the weeks that Kuei had been with them, everything had become settled again. It was nice, having him around. It was nice, that he apparently wanted to still be around. There were little to no attractions, nothing keeping him here.
Nothing except her mother's cooking and Song herself. While her mom was a great cook, Song flattered herself into thinking that maybe he was staying around for her. He'd told her of his adventures, and he'd really seemed to have enjoyed them. Maybe he was giving up his wandering lifestyle. While not fool enough to think herself worthy of a king, corralling a kind-hearted drifter suited her romantic fancy enough.
Yet once again, her quiet life was disturbed by another crazy animal. A fanged creature burst through the trees. She wasn't comforted by the sight of its rider, because the woman looked twice as mean as her monster. Song still didn't scream; she instead let out a helpless, little squeak. The animal trotted over to her, towering over the clothes and dripping drool onto the clean clothes."
"Well, well," the woman drawled, "it seems like his highness found himself a little consort. Bring him out here, would you?"
Surprise shot through Song when she realized she was the one who said that. But she wasn't about to parade Kuei out for this obviously dangerous woman to get him.
"You'll have to go through me first."
That was funny, because to look at them both side by side, even from a kilometer away, most people would be able to call a winner to that embarrassingly short fight.
The woman arched a brow, as if asking her if she really wanted to do this. Song wanted to tell her that she did not, but apparently her body and her common sense were having this huge argument and were completely not talking to each other at all, leaving Song kind of just there in the middle.
However, Kuei, flour covering his clothes and streaked in his hair, chose that moment before the woman dismounted her beast to save her life. Or at least, her dignity.
"Song, I don't think I'm doing this right. There are bubbles a – oh, wow, that's a big shirshu. What is its name?"
"Her name is Nyla, your highness, and I am June. Your council has sent me to find you, majesty, and return you to Bah Sing Se. The Avatar has won the war and brought peace, your people need you and…something else I forgot. I told them I wasn't going to remember that crap."
"I see," he said, suddenly serious and in total contradiction with his current appearance. "How long has the war been won?"
"'Bout three weeks, more or less. Your majesty."
"Three weeks? I will need to have a word with my council about responding to situations in a timely manner."
"That's what I said."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Song threw her hands out, as if that would slow the pace of things long enough for her to catch up. Wide, brown eyes looked between Kuei and the woman who both stared at her like the hysterical, young woman she currently was. "He – you are really the Earth King?"
"Yes," he repeated again, losing some of usual cheer. "Are you all right, Song? You look a little pale."
All right? Why wouldn't she be all right? She's only had the Earth King under her roof for the past few weeks, halfway treating him like an escaped mental patient, fancying him as a possible suitor, and making him do chores.
Her voice wavered as her legs no longer felt like supporting her. Before she could pitch forward, Kuei made a valiant effort to keep her upright that ended with both of them falling over.
"Your majesty," the woman called, her voice holding more irritation than reverence, "Your council made it clear that they want me to bring you as soon as possible. We don't have time for –"
"I suggest," he snapped, leveling a hard look her way, "that you make time, as I will not leave here until tomorrow at the least."
The woman stared at him stubbornly for a moment, the beast under her twitching anxiously. Then she slipped down from the saddle and bowed lazily.
"As you wish, my king," she straightened and addressed Song. "Be sure to pack some food for us."
"What about Bosco?"
The king pointed to the mass of brown fluff, rolling around on the grass in pure bliss. He seemed to notice that he was under scrutiny, abruptly halting and turning to gaze back at the newcomers, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
"What is that?"
"Bosco is a bear."
The black-clad woman pulled a face and muttered something about 'Bah Sing Se', 'crazy nobles', and 'charging them extra'. Shaking her head, she led her animal aside to tend to its saddle gear and such.
Song realized her position in his arms and scooted away with some little reluctance. She felt incredibly foolish. The last time she'd fainted like that was when she'd been told her father wasn't coming back. And now Kuei – that is, King Kuei was leaving. Like her father, like Lee…
Why did all of the men in her life always leave? And why, unlike when Lee left, didn't she just feel disappointed about it? Why did she feel like she was going to cry any minute?
Kuei was hovering, watching to make sure she didn't fall out again. They were already on the ground so it wasn't as if it would be much of a fall.
"So…" she began nervously. "I should apologize to you."
"Apologize to me? Why?"
"I – I'm…I made you do all of those chores! You told me who you were, and I didn't believe you. Forgive me, your highness, I am –"
"Please, you don't have to call me that. I always want you to just call me Kuei. And there's nothing to forgive."
"But I –"
"Didn't believe the claims of a fevered man who wandered into your hospital. It's really all right, Song." He laughed a little, looking her right in the eye. "I wouldn't have believed me either."
Relieved, Song smiled. It dropped a little though.
What was the most obvious thing?
"Yes, I am. My travels have opened my eyes to the world. I'd always lived in the palace, not even going to the Upper Ring. I never knew what my people or my kingdom was like. I never knew how they really lived or how they'd suffering. I've been a terrible king. Now, I have hopes to fix that."
"That's great. I know you'll do everything you set out to do."
"Thank you. And I was wondering for a while actually. Well, I wouldn't mind if – that is to say, I would like very much for you to, um, please…come with me?"
"You want me to…what?"
"Yes, because you see, I've been thinking recently – about you actually, and the way you make me feel. It's like there are giant birds flapping around in my stomach when you're around sometimes and it's terrible, but wonderful at the same time. It's even better that you didn't believe me when I told you who I was because you didn't even care about that! And I – I just…I'm –"
"I love you!" he blurted out, immediately squeezing his eyes shut.
What in the world was wrong with him? Why was he always blurting out things like this? Well, he knew why, but he wished that he didn't. He wished he could handle it with some kind of poise or smoothness instead of just letting it spew out of his mouth.
And why wasn't she saying anything?
Slowly, cautiously, Kuei opened his eyes. Song was beaming at him, not like she'd thought he'd made a joke. Not like she was about to gently tell him some awful news. She looked completely radiant.
"Do you really mean that?" she asked.
"Well, good. Because I'm pretty sure I'm in love with you too."
"That is more than good, Song," he took her hand in his. "Much more."
With the doubt removed, Song leaned toward him. Kuei's eyes widened when he felt her soft, warm lips on his. Closing his eyes, he gently kissed her back.
When June rounded the corner of the house and saw them, she thought that it had to be the most chaste thing she'd ever seen in her life. She didn't interrupt the turtledoves but merely invited herself into the house. Her nose led her to the kitchen, and she paused at seeing the…interesting state of things. She walked around the obvious danger area and opened a window.
"Hey. People? Yo!"
June felt very much ignored as the couple continued their little kiss.
"Fine," she huffed, slamming the window shut and turning around to walk right by the fire. "If you don't care that your house is on fire…"