This was the best day of Lance’s life.
Not only had Keith agreed to spend time with him, but their date was going spectacularly well. In the past, Lance felt like he usually messed something up and almost all his attempts at romance had ended with a disgruntled partner and, on more than one occasion, damaged public property, and he had feared this impromptu venture would be the same.
However, when Lance had caught Keith staring so wistfully at those hair accessories, all thoughts about his own insecurities vanished, replaced by the sole desire to chase the melancholy from that beautiful face. In what he considered a pretty smooth move, Lance bought the hairband for Keith and light returned to his violet eyes.
Then Keith put his hair in an adorable ponytail and Lance almost died.
Thankfully, he’d managed to recover in time to win that carnival game. Keith had tried to hide it, but Lance could tell he’d been impressed.
Then Keith had agreed to dance even though he was clearly out of his comfort zone, just because Lance asked him to. Even while self-conscious, Keith had moved with his usual ethereal grace.
Then came that kiss.
It was painfully obvious that that had been Keith’s first kiss, and Lance had to admit the fact that Keith had chosen him for that made him so inexplicably happy he was fit to burst.
Grabbing the two ales he’d ordered, Lance made his way to the Firebender in question, only to find him rather distracted.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Lance followed Keith’s line of sight to see what appeared to be a wanted poster pinned to the tavern’s notice board.
Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a wanted poster at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Scanning the information, Lance determined it was an offering of a hefty reward from Prince Lotor of the Fire Nation for the safe return of his missing betrothed.
Lance peered up at the picture and couldn’t help but stare a little. Though the illustration was fairly simple, there was no denying the young man’s beauty, with large eyes, a slim nose, and full lips. The portrait only showed him from the waist up, but it was clear he wore embroidered silk robes that probably cost more than Lance’s family’s entire house. Jewels dripped off his neck and wrists, and were woven into thick, inky hair that cascaded down past the bottom of the frame, even with a large portion pulled into a traditional Fire Nation top-knot.
Lance narrowed his eyes. Something about the man in the portrait seemed familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it. After a moment it hit him, and he let out a disbelieving chuckle. If you cut the hair and removed all the finery...
“Hey, that kinda looks like—”
“I have to go,” Keith blurted out. Startled, Lance jostled the ale he was still holding, a few drops splashing to the floor. He turned to Keith only to find the Avatar already halfway to the exit.
“Keith?” Lance called out, confused.
Realizing Keith wasn’t stopping, Lance hastily set the drinks onto the abandoned table and took off after him. Shoving his way through the busy tavern, Lance made it out onto the street just in time to see Keith disappear into the crowd.
Keith raced down the empty backstreets of Pon Lai Valley in a blind panic.
What should he do? Where should he go? What few possessions he had left were back at the inn, but if he went there he might run into Pidge or Hunk. Worse yet, that would be one of the first places Lance would look for him.
Could he make it to Ba Sing Se on his own? A stupid question, of course he could. It wouldn’t be the first time he had set out with nothing but his knife and the clothes on his back.
But did he want to? He’d grown fond of Pidge and Hunk, and now this thing with Lance...could he give that up?
Keith shook his head, as if to dispel his thoughts. It wasn’t a matter of want. Now that he knew for sure Lotor had people out looking for him, his presence put them in danger. He couldn’t get them involved.
So distracted by his inner turmoil, Keith didn’t see the figure reaching out to grab him until he was suddenly yanked into a dark alley. A strong hand clamped over his mouth to muffle his startled yelp.
Keith grunted as he was shoved face first against a wall, his attacker trying to pin his arms behind his back.
Snapping out of his shock, Keith’s training kicked in and he shot a blast of fire behind him, forcing the figure to leap back. Spinning around, Keith saw that it was the blond man from the tavern. He must have seen Keith’s reaction to the poster and made the connection. But no matter, Keith thought as he lowered himself into a combative stance. He wasn’t going back without a fight.
He and the blond man sized each other up, waiting for their opponent to make the first move. After a moment, Keith won their little battle of patience, ducking a swift punch.
Shiro would have been proud.
They continued to fight for a while, dodging and trading blows. The blond man briefly caught Keith off guard when he revealed himself to be an Earthbender by splitting the ground beneath Keith’s feet, but Keith was quick to adapt.
Keith alternated between attacking with fire and slashing his knife, and was slowly gaining the upper hand.
The blond man switched tactics and rushed at Keith, surprising him. He grappled with the Firebender, using his superior size to try and pin Keith’s arms and limit his mobility. He managed to catch Keith’s wrist that was holding his blade in one hand and trapped Keith’s other arm between their bodies. The attacker’s free hand roughly gripped a fistful of Keith’s hair, pulling it out of its ponytail.
“What’s the matter,” he taunted. “All out of tricks?”
Keith opened his mouth and spat out a stream of fire.
As the man stumbled away clutching his face, Keith rushed to the alley’s entrance to escape, only to find it blocked by another man with curly brown hair and a beard. The bearded man smiled and raised a narrow tube to his lips, sharply blowing through it. At the pinch of pain in his upper arm, Keith looked down to see he’d been shot with a dart. Almost immediately, a wave of exhaustion came over him.
That was right, Keith thought blearily, as his knife slipped from his rapidly weakening grasp and clattered to the ground. There had been two men in the tavern.
The world faded to black.
When Keith was six, his father died.
He only had the vaguest memories of his mother. A low, soothing voice and scars on both cheeks. His father never told him where she had gone, or if she was even still alive. Her absence saddened Keith, but he was content with just the two of them.
Then the accident happened, and Keith was alone.
Well, he wasn’t literally alone. If anything, the orphanage had too many people in it, crowding Keith to a point that made him snappish and withdrawn. He didn’t get along with the other children and was often the target of bullying. One day, a handful of older boys locked Keith in a storage closet and no one even noticed. It took him hours to pick the lock, but when he did he actually felt pretty proud of himself.
Little did he know that while Keith was involuntarily teaching himself a new skill, the other children were being brought before a group of robed officials for questioning.
A year later, Keith decided he had finally had enough and snuck out of the orphanage in the dead of night.
The officials returned the very next day.
Over the next few years, Keith fended for himself. It was hard, but he got by, and he never once considered returning to the children’s home. He got money for food by pickpocketing and occasionally performing little Firebending tricks on the street. He had never received any professional training, but the passersby seemed impressed nonetheless.
Shortly after Keith’s eleventh birthday, he made the best mistake of his life by pickpocketing Takashi Shirogane.
Shiro had just graduated from the Royal Firebending Academy with top honors and was being stationed at the palace. Having grown up in the outskirts of the Fire Nation and then living in the Academy dorms, Shiro was excited by the prospect of having a place of his own in the capital. Shishikuro wasn’t the fanciest district, but it was close enough to the palace to be considered well off, and relatively crime free.
So he thought nothing of it when a kid roughly brushed past him as he was on his way back to his new home from work. That is, until he realized his money was gone.
Luckily he noticed its absence pretty quickly and was able to spot the boy before he got too far. Rather than call the authorities or rush after the thief himself, however, Shiro followed him at a sedated pace, ducking into alleys and behind buildings whenever the boy glanced back.
Eventually he arrived at the thief's ‘hideout,’ an abandoned shack on the outskirts of the district, where the nicer residential area had long since given way to less savory inhabitants.
Shiro snuck up behind where the kid sat cross legged on the floor counting his loot, and he loudly cleared his throat.
The thief jumped about a foot in the air like a startled cat.
He took one look at Shiro and before the soldier could so much as say a word, the kid leapt out of the nearby open window.
Shiro pinched his nose. This was exactly what he had been hoping to avoid, but it looked like he had no choice. He gave chase.
The kid led Shiro through a winding maze of buildings, almost managing to lose him more than once. Shiro thought the thief finally made a mistake when they wound up in a dead end alley, but instead of stopping, the kid actually increased his speed to leap off one wall so he could grab at the railing of a high balcony on the opposite building, clambering up and through the large glass doors.
Skidding to a halt, Shiro stared up at the thief’s smug face. The smirk died, however, when instead of giving up, Shiro used a blast of fire to propel himself to the boy’s level. The thief hastily jumped out of the way to avoid Shiro crashing into him as he landed on the balcony.
The boy picked his jaw up from the ground and dashed to the empty apartment’s front door only to find it wouldn’t budge.
“Looks like you’re out of places to run,” Shiro said as he watched him jiggle the handle forcefully. The thief spun back around with a hilariously put out scowl on his face.
Less funny was the knife he whipped out.
“Woah, easy,” Shiro held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “I’m not here to hurt you. You just have something of mine and I need it back.”
The boy eyed him warily.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Shiro cocked an eyebrow and pointed at the contraband still clutched in his grip.
“So that isn’t the wallet you stole from me earlier?”
The kid flushed but remained stubbornly silent.
Shiro sighed. “Look, you can keep the money, ok? You obviously need it more than I do. But there are some important documents in there that I need.”
Namely his identification card that proved his rank as an officer in the palace guard. He could technically get a new one, but he had literally just been issued this one and Adam would never let him live it down if he had to get a replacement within the same week.
The boy’s eyes flitted from Shiro’s face, to his empty hands, to the wallet, and back.
After a moment, the boy slowly sheathed his weapon and dug around in the wallet, eyes never leaving Shiro’s face for more than a second. He stuffed the money into his pocket before tossing the wallet to Shiro.
“There. Now will you leave me alone?”
“Hey, you’re the one who started all this,” Shiro said, checking to make sure his ID was there with a breath of relief. “But yeah, I’m going. But before I do,” Shiro turned back to the boy who immediately tensed up. “You’re pretty skilled for someone your age. I’m impressed.”
Confusion joined the wariness on the boy’s face. “Um, thanks?”
Shiro smiled and sent a wave over his shoulder as he moved back out to the balcony.
“Try to stay out of trouble. Maybe we’ll meet again someday.”
The boy watched with his mouth agape as Shiro used more Firebending to slow his descent down to the street. Shiro whistled a tune as he strolled back home. That was the most fun he’d had in months.
Despite his parting words, Shiro honestly didn’t expect to see the boy again, and certainly not so soon. However, less than two weeks later, he returned home to find the kid waiting outside his door.
He looked incredibly nervous in spite of his obvious attempts to hide it, but Shiro also saw determination in his eyes.
“Hey,” Shiro greeted amicably. “This is a surprise—”
“How did you do that?” the kid blurted out. Realizing he’d interrupted Shiro, the boy flushed but didn’t apologize.
Unlocking his door, Shiro quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Do what?” Shiro asked, though he had his suspicions as to what the boy was talking about.
“The Firebending,” the boy confirmed. “You flew. I’ve never seen someone use bending like that before.”
Shiro smiled, opening the door and waving a hand inside.
“Why don’t you come in? My name’s Shiro, by the way.”
Shiro watched as the boy had some kind of internal debate with himself, emotions flashing across his face faster than Shiro could catch. After a moment, he squared his small shoulders.
Over the next several months, Keith visited Shiro with increasing regularity. Keith wasn’t sure why he had decided to reach out initially. Maybe something about Shiro had reminded him of his father. Or maybe he just wanted to steal Shiro’s Firebending techniques as well as his money.
Whatever the case, over time Keith found himself trusting Shiro like he hadn’t trusted anyone in a long time. Shiro taught him a lot about bending, apparently being some kind of famous Firebending Master, but they also just talked and got to know each other, Shiro slowly but surely getting Keith to open up.
After a year had passed and Keith was spending more time at Shiro’s house than his own shack, Shiro brought up the idea of officially adopting Keith as his brother.
Keith was hesitant at first. He didn’t need charity, nor did he want to be a burden to Shiro. Sure he practically lived with him already, but this would mean he was actually stuck with Keith. Legally. No take backs.
Shiro assured Keith that it was what he wanted, but only if Keith was comfortable with it too.
A week later, Keith had a family again.
Pidge was in the process of beating Hunk at Pai Sho when Lance burst into their room.
“Oh, hey buddy,” Hunk greeted, his eyes glued to the board as he tried to figure out his next move. “We were starting to wonder where you guys were—"
“Have you seen Keith?” Lance demanded.
The two finally looked up at their friend. Lance had a sort of manic air about him—more than usual, that is—and was breathing like he'd ran here all the way from his home in the Northern Water Tribe.
“Uh, no.” Pidge raised a questioning eyebrow. “I thought he was with you?”
“He was,” Lance flailed his gangly arms, “but then he suddenly ran off and now I can't find him anywhere!”
Of course. “Lance, what did you do?” If Lance had driven off the Avatar…
“I didn't do anything!” Lance protested, a comically affronted expression on his face. “We were having a great time! We even—" Lance abruptly cut himself off, flushing. “Uh, never mind, that's not important. What's important is, we were hanging out in this tavern when Keith just freaked out and disappeared!”
“Well, do you have any idea why he freaked out?” Hunk asked.
Lance nodded, pulling a scroll out of his tunic and unrolling it.
Pidge peered over Hunk’s shoulder as he took the poster. At first she didn't understand what some missing rich kid had to do with anything, but then she looked closer at the picture’s face and her eyes went wide.
Hunk apparently came to the same conclusion and his jaw dropped.
“Is that Keith?”
“It kinda looks like him, right?!” Lance’s limbs were flailing again. “And judging by how he reacted when he saw this...” The energetic movements died as Lance curled in on himself. “What if he's gone?”
“His stuff is still here,” offered Hunk. “So I doubt he left the city or anything. He’ll probably come back later tonight.”
Lance looked over at where Keith's pack was laying with the others and frowned.
An hour passed. Pidge won their game, but couldn't really enjoy it over the anxiety building in her gut. It didn't help that Lance hadn't stopped pacing the entire time.
There was still no sign of Keith.
“Okay,” Hunk admitted, concern crossing his features. “Maybe we should go out and look for him.”
Lance leapt into action, leading the way to where he had last seen the Avatar. They wandered the nearby areas calling out for Keith, but no one answered.
After awhile, Pidge had an idea.
“Keith's knife is made of an incredibly unusual alloy,” she explained. “I've actually been meaning to ask him about it, but haven't had the chance. It feels unlike any metal I've ever come across.”
“Okay, so Keith is even more mysterious and cool than I thought,” Lance frowned. “How does that help us?”
Pidge shot him a withering look. “Hunk and I are Earthbenders. We can sense our surroundings just like you can tell if there's water nearby. If we focus, we might be able to locate the knife’s unique properties, provided it's not too far away.”
“I mean,” Hunk shrugged, “I can try, but metal is more your thing.”
Closing her eyes, Pidge stomped on the ground, using her bending to feel the area around her. Not finding what she was looking for, they continued on, periodically stopping to try within a new search radius.
On the fourth try, Pidge’s eyes snapped open. Without a word she raced down the twisting streets, Lance and Hunk hot on her heels. They ended up in a dark alley, but Pidge didn't need to see well to locate the knife laying on the ground.
She held the weapon up for inspection. It was definitely Keith's.
Hearing a strangled sound, Pidge turned to see Lance scoop up what appeared to be some kind of ribbon.
“This was Keith's,” Lance stared down at it numbly. “I bought it for him earlier today.”
“Maybe he just lost it,” Hunk suggested, though even he didn't seem very hopeful.
“I highly doubt that,” Pidge grimaced, showing them the what she had found. Horror dawned on the boys’ faces.
There was blood on the blade.
Lance was pacing again but for once Pidge couldn't find it in herself to be annoyed. Now that it was obvious something bad had befallen Keith, all three of them were on edge.
After searching for more clues and coming up empty handed, the trio had returned to their room at the inn to try and plan their next move.
“At least he’s probably not in any real danger, right? I mean," Hunk hastily flapped a hand at their incredulous looks, “the poster said ‘the safe return,’ so they're not gonna, like, kill him or anything. Right?”
“I suppose,” Pidge agreed dubiously.
Hunk absently scratched his cheek in thought.
“Man, I can't believe Keith is a prince.”
“He's getting married to a prince,” Pidge corrected.
“Okay, so I can't believe Keith's gonna be a prince.”
“He's not gonna marry a prince!” Lance snapped. “He was obviously running away from that jerk! If Keith had feelings for someone else, he never would have—"
Lance shut his mouth with a click and averted his eyes, blushing.
Hunk’s worried gaze shifted into something sly.
“Oooh? He wouldn't have what?” he asked.
“Hunk, this is not the time! Keith has been kidnapped, remember?”
Hunk immediately shrank, hunching his shoulders around his ears.
Desperately, Lance turned to Pidge.
“Pidge, you have a bunch of shady contacts, right? Could you get one of them to find Keith?”
“What,” Pidge said flatly.
Lance placed his hands on his hips, using his superior height to look down his nose at her.
“Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about! You're always sneaking off to send mysterious letters and, I dunno, attend secret spy meetings or something. It's your business so I wasn't gonna say anything, but this is an emergency. If you know someone who can help us, please, Pidge,” the bravado fizzled out, leaving Lance smaller than Pidge had ever seen him. “We have to get him back,” he pleaded softly.
Pidge pursed her lips. She was actually surprised Lance had noticed the letters. She'd thought she had been pretty subtle.
Pidge rubbed her chin pensively. It honestly hadn't even occurred to her to ask her contacts for help, but it was actually a pretty good idea. She'd have to reveal Keith's identity as the Avatar to them. Pidge had kept that little detail a secret out of respect for his desire to get more training before meeting anyone who might ask him to save the world, but given the situation he’d probably forgive her.
Decision made, Pidge looked back up at Lance with a nod.
“I can't make any promises, but I'll give it a shot.”
The next few days were torture for Lance. Pidge had sent her letter that night, and received instructions the very next day to wait for someone to meet them at the Busking Badgermole. Lance used the prize money he won to keep their room in the interim.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, a knock at their door revealed two figures in dark tan robes, a cheerful older man with orange hair and a large mustache, and the most beautiful woman Lance had ever seen. If his heart wasn’t already so gone on Keith, Lance would have flirted with her in an instant. As it was, he could only muster up a vague appreciation. They both had blue arrow tattoos peeking out from their hairlines and on the backs of their hands.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Lance realized that the woman must have earned her tattoos at a young age to have since regrown her hair down to her waist. She didn't look much older than him despite her snow white hair.
Pidge stepped forward to greet them.
“Thanks for coming,” she gave a small bow. “These are my friends, Lance and Hunk. Guys, this is Allura and Coran.”
The Airbenders returned the gesture.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. Now,” straightening up, Allura’s bright eyes swept over the room. “Where is the Avatar? There is much we must discuss.”
Pidge bit her lip.
“Uh, yeah, about that. That’s kinda why we need your help.”
“I see,” Allura studied the wanted poster with a thoughtful frown. “And you’re certain this ‘Keith’ is the Avatar?”
“Positive. We’ve been helping him learn to bend the other elements. I was actually going to ask you to teach him air when he was ready, but well, then this happened.”
Allura set the paper down and turned to the others, her gaze sharp.
“Well, though the circumstances are dire, I’m glad you called us. I think we can help.”
“Really?” For the first time in days, Lance felt a ray of hope. “How?”
“Do you have anything of his?” Allura asked. “Preferably an item of great emotional value. Something he kept with him at all times.”
Wordlessly, Lance offered her Keith’s knife. After scrutinizing it for a moment, Allura smiled.
“Yes,” she said, “this should work quite well.”
The others watched nonplussed as Allura sat on the floor, placing the knife in front of her. She curled both hands into fists, bringing them together, and closed her eyes. Her breathing evened out as she fell into a meditative state.
“Allura is incredibly gifted with anything involving the Spirit World,” Coran cheerfully explained in a hushed whisper. “She can astral project at a moment’s notice and communicate with the spirits!”
“Is that what she’s doing now? Asking the spirits if they know where Keith is?” Pidge eyed the prone Airbender.
Coran twirled his mustache thoughtfully. “Possibly, but it’s more likely she’s using his dagger to read and locate his spiritual aura. We should leave her to it. In the meantime, why don’t you pack your things? If Allura manages to find him, we’d best be ready to go.”
The trio exchanged skeptical glances but did as Coran suggested, trying to gather their things while taking care not to disturb Allura’s concentration.
After nearly an hour had passed, Allura’s eyes fluttered open, triumph in her steely gaze.
They left immediately.