“This is totally unfair!” Lance gripped the iron bars of the cell. “I was trying to stop the thief!”
“And instead you extinguished a holy fire that’s burned for hundreds of years,” a voice drawled. “Well done, hero.”
Lance’s fingers tightened as he shot Rolo a scowl. The Firebender didn’t even look at him from where he was sprawled on a cot in the neighboring cell.
“It was an accident!” Lance snapped. “One that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t stolen the Flame in the first place!”
“Silence!” the guard barked. “Elder Rozel will figure out what to do with you two soon enough, so just sit down and shut up.”
Lance glared, but stepped back to sit on his cot with a heavy sigh.
As the silence reigned, Lance’s restless energy grew. His leg bounced up and down and his fingers began to tap out a staccato rhythm.
Rolo’s brows twitched and a single eye opened to glare at Lance.
“Could you cut that out? It’s annoying.”
Lance sneered back and jiggled the other leg as well.
Their petty battle was cut short when the door to the jail house swung open and a man in traditional Fire Nation garb walked in. He was slightly stooped over from age, and had shaggy white hair, a trimmed mustache, and a short, pointed goatee.
Hands clasped behind his back, the man came to a stop in front of Lance and Rolo’s cells.
“Elder Rozel,” the guard greeted with a sharp salute. “These are the felons responsible for dousing the Sacred Flame.”
The laugh lines around Rozel’s eyes suggested a cheerful nature, joyful from so many years in the tropical paradise that was Uotorī Island. None of that goodwill was present now, replaced by grim determination.
“Why,” the Elder asked, “did you take our Sacred Flame?”
When Rolo simply stared at the ceiling with a bored expression, Rozel turned to Lance. The Waterbender swallowed and stood up to walk closer. The guard lowered his spear in warning but Rozel waved him away, eyes never leaving Lance’s.
“I’m sorry about the Flame,” Lance said. “It was partly my fault that it died. But I was trying to save it, I swear.” He gestured over at Rolo who still laid on the cot, ignoring them. “He’s the one who was trying to steal it! I caught him in the act and went after him. We fought, and well,” Lance grimaced, “the Flame went out.”
Rozel turned to the guard in askance.
“Several witnesses reported the two fighting, sir.”
Lance nodded eagerly. “Yeah, so you see, I was trying to help.”
“Hmm,” Rozel’s eyes landed on Rolo. “And what do you have to say about this?”
Rolo shrugged and remained silent. Rozel turned back to Lance.
“Very well. Based on the witnesses I talked to and your own story, I’m inclined to believe you are telling the truth.”
Lance perked up. “So you’ll let me go?”
Rozel shook his head and Lance’s heart sank.
“I’m afraid you are still guilty of a crime.”
“What do you mean? Like I said, I was just trying to help.”
“Regardless of your intentions,” Rozel said, “you may very well have doomed this island and all the people on it.”
Keith was curled up in bed, nice and cozy, when a cold wet nose snuffled against his cheek and pulled him out of his dream. With a groan, the Avatar blindly reached out to push Kosmo away but the star wolf retaliated by attacking Keith’s face with his tongue.
“Okay, okay, I’m up,” Keith grumbled under the onslaught of canine kisses. He pushed himself upright and rubbed the sand from his eyes. Glancing around, he looked back at Kosmo.
Kosmo tilted his head. With a yawn, Keith got dressed and walked over to the neighboring huts where his friends resided. It was fairly early, so everyone was still asleep. Not wanting to disturb them, Keith decided to head into town. Maybe Lance had gone to find breakfast?
As he walked further inland, Kosmo trotting faithfully beside him, a feeling of dread began to form in Keith’s gut. His intuition rarely led Keith astray, and the large crowd gathered in the town square did little to dissuade it.
“Excuse me,” he walked up to one of the locals, “what’s going on?”
The young woman turned to him, her face stricken with worry.
“The Sacred Flame,” her voice trembled. “It’s gone.”
Keith looked over to the large torch and saw that it was indeed unlit.
“Someone tried to steal it last night. They caught the culprits, but the Flame was extinguished,” the poor girl wrung her hands. “What will we do? The Sacred Flame was a gift from the gods themselves. Without it, we won’t be able to complete the festival properly, and the gods will be angry.”
Keith pursed his lips. “Maybe I can help. Who’s in charge here?”
The girl looked confused but gave Keith directions to the town jail where the village elder had supposedly gone. Outside the building, Keith ran into a familiar face.
Nyma jumped and hastily stepped away from the window she had been peeking through.
“Oh, hey,” she greeted a little too cheerily. “Keith, right?”
“Yeah,” Keith eyed her suspiciously. “What are you doing?”
“Me? Oh, I was just looking for Rolo.”
“At the local jail?”
Nyma let out a tinkling laugh.
“It wouldn’t be the first time. Uotorī parties get pretty crazy.”
Keith sent her a dubious look but decided to drop it for now. He opened the door and walked inside. Uotorī was a fairly small community, so the jail only had three cells lined up on one side of the single roomed building. A lone guard stood watch next to someone Keith presumed was the Elder. And on the other side of the bars was….
“Rolo!” Nyma pushed passed Keith to run to her companion’s side. Rolo got up off the cot and they began to speak in hushed tones through the bars.
Keith paid them no mind, too busy staring at the cell’s other occupant.
“Uhhh,” Lance raised a hand. “Hey, babe. What’s up?”
Keith pinched the bridge of his nose. He had really hoped that Lance’s disappearance had nothing to do with the Sacred Flame, but of course that was too much to ask for.
“Lance, what did you do?”
“Why do you assume I did something?” Lance demanded.
“Why else would you be in jail?” Keith scowled.
“It’s Rolo’s fault, not mine!”
Keith looked at Rolo who raised his hands defensively.
“Hey, I may have stolen the Flame, but you’re the one that put it out.”
Keith whipped around back to Lance. “You what?!”
“It was an accident!”
A sudden thud interrupted them when the guard slammed the bottom of his spear against the floor.
“That’s enough,” he growled. “Sir, should I throw them out? Or maybe they should join their friends in confinement.”
“That’s not necessary,” Rozel cast a speculative look at Keith. “You two are together?”
Lance smirked and leaned casually against the bars.
“Well, I don’t wanna brag—”
“He doesn’t mean it that way, Lance,” Keith rolled his eyes and turned to the Elder. “But yes, we’re traveling together with a group of friends.”
“And you are the Avatar?”
The guard, Nyma, and Rolo all stared at Keith. Keith himself blinked in surprise.
“I...yes,” he finally answered. “How did you know?”
Rozel smiled and nodded at Kosmo.
“Few would be able to recognize a Celestial Wolf on sight these days, but even here on Uotorī we’ve heard that the new Avatar has such a creature as his companion.”
“If you know who I am, then you know I’ll do what I can to help your people,” Keith said. “But please, let Lance go. He’s a good man, and I’m sure whatever happened was an accident.”
Rozel shook his head.
“Your friend’s character is not in question, Avatar. His actions are. His water doused the Sacred Flame, and for that he must make amends.”
Keith frowned. “Surely there must be something we can do.”
“Yeah,” Lance piped up. “Can’t you just like, ask the gods for a new one?”
The guards pounded his spear again.
“The insolence!” he spat. “You would invite even more wrath upon us!”
Rozel, however, got a contemplative look in his eye.
“It would be disrespectful to ask the gods for such a boon. But,” he stroked his goatee, “there may be another way.”
“What is it?” Keith asked.
“The place where the gods originally blessed our ancestors with the Sacred Flame was a temple near the highest peak of the island. Over time, the area became too dangerous to inhabit so we took a piece of the flame with us and settled here instead. No one has visited the temple in generations, but the original Sacred Flame might still burn there.”
“Even after all this time?” Keith asked dubiously.
“The Sacred Flame is no ordinary fire. So long as it is not extinguished, it can burn forever.”
Keith frowned in thought before nodding.
“Alright, I’ll go to the temple and bring back a piece of the Flame. Then you can complete the ceremony, the gods won’t be mad, and Lance can go free, right?”
“What?” Lance reached through the iron bars to grab Keith’s wrist. “Keith, no! Didn’t you hear what he said? That place is so dangerous, no one’s been there in years.”
“I heard, Lance,” Keith gently pried Lance’s fingers off of him to instead hold his hand. “But I don’t see any other option. I need to help these people and I need to get you out of jail. This accomplishes both of those things.”
“Not if you’re dead, it won’t!”
“I’ll be fine,” Keith squeezed Lance’s hand. “I’m the Avatar, remember?”
Lance looked at Keith with worried blue eyes. He swallowed, took a breath, and nodded.
“You’ll be fine,” Lance squeezed back. “But not because you’re the Avatar. Because you’re Keith.”
Heat rose to Keith’s cheeks and Lance’s lips twitched into a smile. Before they could get too lost in each other’s eyes, Rozel let out a light cough.
“Your friend has a point,” he said. “There is a reason no one has ventured there in generations. Like many islands in the Fire Nation, Uotorī is home to an active volcano. We are safe here at sea level, far from the volcano’s base, but there was a time when the volcano was dormant and our people lived much closer to the summit.”
“And that’s where I’ll find the Flame?”
“If it is still there, then yes.”
“Keith, hold on,” Lance frowned. “I know I just said I have total faith in you, and I do, but this isn’t some monster you can fight, it’s a volcano. I don’t know if your Avatar powers can keep you from getting burned alive by lava.”
Keith rolled his eyes.
“Lance, the volcano is active, not erupting. I doubt I’ll run into any lava. It’s the gases you really have to worry about, but with Airbending, I should be fine.”
Keith turned back to Rozel who gazed at him with a serious expression.
“The closing ceremony starts at midnight,” Rozel reminded him. “You must return with the Flame before then.”
Keith gave Lance’s hand one last squeeze and pulled away. He crouched down to scratch Kosmo behind the ears.
“Stay here and watch over Lance, okay?”
In a flash of light, Kosmo teleported into the cell to stand next the Waterbender. If anything went wrong and Lance had to escape quickly, Kosmo would get him out. The guard eyed the star wolf but didn’t protest. Keith doubted he knew Kosmo could teleport passengers too, and if Rozel knew, the Elder didn’t say anything about it.
“I’d better get going if I want to be back before midnight,” Keith said. “I’ll tell the others you’re here so you can fill them in.”
Lance nodded, his eyes still dark with concern.
“I’m sorry, Keith, this is all my fault.”
Keith shook his head. Ignoring how self-conscious he felt with the other people in the room, Keith reached through the bars to cup Lance’s cheek. Lance placed his own hand on top of Keith’s and leaned into the touch.
“You were doing what you thought was right and things went awry. Believe me, I know how that feels,” Keith said quietly. “But I’m gonna fix this, and you’ll get out of here, and we’ll go to the ceremony together, and you can put flowers in my hair, and we can do any sappy romantic stuff you want.”
Keith started to pull away but Lance quickly snatched his hand to place a light kiss on the inside of Keith’s wrist.
“Then I’ll see you at midnight,” Lance winked, a mischievous sparkle in his all too blue eyes. “Don’t be late.”
Keith turned bright red, yanked his hand back, and stomped out of the building, avoiding all eye contact and ignoring Lance’s laughter. He didn’t get very far when a voice called out.
The Avatar turned around to see Nyma chasing after him. He crossed his arms with a frown and stopped so she could catch up.
“Please,” she said, “let me help you. I know this island, I can guide you to the old ruins.”
“Why would I trust you? Your buddy Rolo is the one responsible for this whole mess. For all I know you just want to steal the original Flame now that he’s failed.”
Nyma shook her head. “That’s not it, I swear. I’m not even a Firebender, so I couldn’t take the Flame even if I wanted to.”
“Then what do you want?” Keith narrowed his eyes. “I doubt you’re offering to help out of the goodness of your heart.”
Nyma’s eyebrows pinched together and she nodded.
“I guess I’m hoping that if I help you right the wrongs Rolo committed, maybe I can convince Elder Rozel to let him go too.”
Keith scoffed. “Yeah, well he can rot there for all I care.”
Keith turned to walk away but Nyma reached out and grabbed his sleeve.
“The path up the volcano is long and treacherous,” she warned. “It’s unlikely you’ll make it back before midnight if you don’t know where you’re going.”
“Then I’ll ask someone else to guide me,” Keith jerked out of her grasp and walked away.
“Trust me, no one else is gonna volunteer. All the locals are scared stiff of that place thanks to generations of legends and ghost stories.”
“And you’re not?”
Nyma shrugged. “I’m not a local, remember? I visit often enough to know where to go, but I didn’t grow up hearing the same stories.”
Keith remained silent and Nyma sighed.
“Keith, please,” she said. “I really do just want to help.”
Keith glanced at her ernest expression. After a moment he turned away.
“Fine,” he said. “But I’m keeping an eye on you. Try anything funny and you’re joining Rolo in that cell.”
Nyma happily nodded and followed Keith back through town. As they passed the town’s center, Keith saw the crowd around the unlit torch was even bigger than before. Spotting a familiar shock of long white hair, Keith hurried over.
“Keith,” Allura smiled. “There you are.”
“Hey, Allura,” Keith greeted. “Where is everyone? I need to tell you guys something.”
“We couldn’t find you or Lance this morning so we decided to look for you. Where is Lance anyway?” Allura glanced around expectantly, like she thought Lance would pop up at any moment. “He’s not with you?”
“That’s kinda what I need to talk to you all about,” Keith grimaced.
Allura arched an eyebrow.
“What’s he done this time?”
“Help me gather everyone and I’ll explain.”
Luckily their friends hadn’t gone far and soon listened to Keith relay Lance’s predicament.
“And you have to get back before midnight?” Shiro eyed the peak of the volcano in the distance. “Is that even possible?”
“You could use Platt,” Pidge suggested.
Allura shook her head. “I’m afraid he’s out of commision at the moment. He somehow got into the stable’s supply of bison-nip and ate too much. He’ll be alright but is in no condition to fly until the...effects wear off.”
“That’s okay, we can just borrow a wagon from someone,” Nyma said. “That should get us to the base of the volcano in about an hour. From there, I’ll lead you up the shortest path to the ruins. So long as we leave soon, I think we can make it.”
Keith nodded. “Then let’s go now.”
“I’ll come with you,” Krolia offered. “It would be useful to have another Firebender in case something happens and you need someone else to carry the Flame.”
“Good idea,” Shiro said. “I’ll go too.”
“We’ll come as well,” Allura said while Coran twirled his mustache behind her. “With more people, you might need us to help bend away any toxic fumes up there.”
Keith nodded again and turned to his remaining friends. Pidge and Hunk exchanged glances.
“I think we’re gonna keep Lance company,” Hunk said.
“You don’t wanna Earthbend too much around volcanoes,” Pidge added.
“Alright,” Keith turned back to Nyma. “Let’s go ask about getting a wagon.”
Lance sat on his tiny cot, one hand absentmindedly petting Kosmo while he gave Rolo the stink eye. Despite his best efforts over the last half hour, the Firebender continued to ignore him, utterly unfazed by the power of Lance’s glare.
The two prisoners jumped when the door suddenly slammed open. The guard leapt to his feet, spear ready.
“Lance!” Hunk rushed in and pressed his face between the metal bars. “Are you okay? Keith told us what happened!”
Hunk’s bottom lip quivered like he was about to cry and Lance hastily flapped his hands.
“I’m fine, buddy,” he assured his best friend.
“Personally, I’m just surprised it took this long for Lance to get arrested,” Pidge snarked as she strode in after the other Earthbender.
Lance crossed his arms with a huff. “Oh, ha ha, very funny.”
Apparently deciding Hunk and Pidge weren’t a threat, the guard returned to his seat. Pidge glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and leaned in closer to Lance.
“But you know,” she muttered quietly, “just say the word and I can totally bend these bars and get you outta here.”
Lance’s pout turned into a smile.
“Thanks, Pidge, but Keith already took care of it,” he patted Kosmo’s head.
Pidge shrugged. “Whatever. Just let me know if you need a plan B.”
Her tone was nonchalant, but Lance got the feeling Pidge was disappointed she couldn’t participate in a jail break.
“What exactly happened, anyway?” Pidge asked. “Keith was a little sparse on the details.”
Lance recounted the events of this morning. By the end of his tale, Hunk looked ready to cry again.
“That’s totally unfair!” Hunk complained. “You were just trying to help!”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Lance agreed.
Pidge, however, didn’t look convinced.
“I dunno. Just because you didn’t mean to commit a crime doesn’t mean you should get off scot-free.” At their betrayed expressions, Pidge raised her hands defensively. “Hey, I’m just saying it makes sense they’d throw you in here after you doused the Flame, even if it was an accident. If you accidentally flooded someone’s house, you’d still be responsible for fixing the damage, right?”
Lance pouted. “Yeah, I guess.”
“That said, something doesn’t make sense” Pidge eyed Rolo who watched them with a bored expression. “Why would you steal the whole Flame? Wouldn’t it have been smarter to just take a bit of it? Everyone’s allowed to take some for their lanterns. That’s the whole reason they don’t guard it.”
The light glinted off Pidge’s glasses as she adjusted them.
“Granted, it’s stupid that they don’t have some kind of protection for the thing that could invite the wrath of the gods upon them, but unless you just wanted to fuck over the whole island, I don’t get why you did what you did.”
Rolo shrugged. “Look kid, I don’t ask questions. I just do what I’m told and get paid.”
“So someone hired you to steal the Flame?” Lance asked. “Why?”
“What did I just say?” Rolo sneered.
Lance casually leaned against the bars and peered down at Rolo.
“You know, the Avatar is my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, you made that disgustingly clear earlier,” Rolo snorted.
“And,” Lance continued, “when he comes back with the Flame, he might be able to convince the Elder to let you go too. But only if you give up your buyer.”
Rolo rolled his eyes.
“Nice try, but I’m not gonna sell out my employer. It’s not exactly a good business model.”
“Neither is getting arrested.”
“Hmph, this is nothing. I’ll be outta here in no time,” Rolo shot Lance a smirk. “But since you offered to help, let me return the favor with a bit of advice.”
“What’s that?” Lance asked warily.
“I’d keep an eye on that pet of yours,” Rolo eyed Kosmo in a way that instantly put Lance on guard. “As someone who deals in the acquirement and trade of rare objects, believe me when I say Celestial Wolves are at the top of the list.”
Lance kneeled to wrap his arms around Kosmo protectively.
“Is that a threat?” he demanded.
Rolo chuckled and laid back down on his cot.
“Like I said,” he closed his eyes, “just a bit of friendly advice.”
As they trekked up the volcano’s surface, Keith had to admit it was a good thing Nyma joined them. The trail was old and faded from disuse, and several times Keith couldn’t see it at all.
Nyma, however, led the group with confidence, and they were making pretty good time. By mid-afternoon, they’d already made it up halfway to their destination. Keith only hoped that nothing had extinguished the Flame in the hundreds of years since anyone had laid eyes on it.
Keith felt a prickle on the back of his neck and turned to see Shiro looking at him oddly.
“What?” Keith said.
Shiro shook his head with a sheepish smile.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just kinda strange to see you without Kosmo or Lance.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Shiro,” Keith warned.
“It’s just...growing up you were always kind of a loner, but these days, those two rarely leave your side. And now seeing you without them…” his brother shrugged. “I guess it reminded me of how much things have changed is all.”
Keith studied Shiro curiously.
“Do you think it’s a good change?” he asked.
Shiro smiled and reached out to ruffle Keith’s hair.
“Of course it is,” he said. “I’ve never seen you happier. Not to say you were miserable before, but I’m glad you’ve made some friends, Keith.” Shiro smirked. “And to think, all it took was fleeing the nation and becoming the Avatar.”
Keith rolled his eyes and shoved his chuckling brother.
They walked in companionable silence until the sloped ground suddenly evened out. Nyma slowed to a halt and the others followed suit.
“Here we are,” Nyma gestured.
Keith looked around at the dilapidated remains of buildings hundreds if not thousands of years old. What little remained was covered in ash or burned beyond recognition. Even so, Keith wasn’t sure why the people of Uotorī were so scared of this place. Even the air was more breathable than Keith expected.
When he asked Nyma, she shrugged.
“Like I said before, it’s mostly because of old legends,” she said. “There was a time when coming here was truly dangerous, but that’s long since past. To be fair, unless you’re an Airbender it’s not like people could just come up here to see if the fumes were gone yet. And this is still an active volcano. Even if it hasn’t erupted in a long time, there’s no telling when it will again.”
Keith hummed and Nyma set off through the rubble.
“Come on,” she said, “the temple should be this way.”
After some searching, they came across a building that was surprisingly intact compared to the rest. Parts of the ceiling had caved in and a large chunk of one of the walls seemed to be missing, but other than that the temple stood tall.
It was also much larger inside than Keith expected, with several branching hallways and doors. At Shiro’s suggestion, the group split up to search for the Sacred Flame.
Keith wandered down his chosen path, opening each door he came across. The rooms were mostly desolate, the people of Uotorī having taken what they could when they moved down the mountain. All that remained were large pieces of furniture and other such heavy items, many in poor condition after so many decades.
Keith opened another door and glanced around. A flash of blue caught his eye, and he hurried into the room.
Hope gave way to disappointment when Keith realized it was not the flicker of the Sacred Flame, but rather the shine of a mosaic mural. His eyebrows drew together as the Avatar glared moodily at the image on the wall.
As he stared, it finally dawned on Keith what exactly he was looking at. Eyes wide, he reached out to brush the ash off the mural.
The Blue Lion stared out at him.
Keith stared back, uncomprehending. Why would an ancient Fire Nation temple feature the Lion of Water? The Red Lion, sure, but Blue?
Keith looked around and spotted a splash of crimson on the wall a bit higher up. He cleared away the soot and uncovered the Red Lion. The Lion stood on his back legs and roared, a stream of fire bursting from his mouth. It was quite beautiful.
After a moment of consideration, Keith moved through a stance Allura taught him and used a blast of air to clean the remaining walls in one fell swoop. Once the dirt and dust settled, Keith studied the artwork embedded in the stone.
The Red and Blue Lions were part of a large crest with the Green and White Lions. All four Lions stood beside one another, each controlling their element. A symbol of balance.
Below the crest was a series of much smaller images. Keith’s eyes swept over them and he realized they were telling a story. The Lions, a united force. They worked together to fight some indescribable evil. But the evil was too great. Unphased by the Lions’ attacks, it countered. Battleworn and nearly broken, the Lions flew into the sky, flew towards each other and…
Keith stopped and blinked. The last mosaic...was gone. Ruined, warped beyond recognition, like someone had taken a chisel to it then blasted it with fire for hours on end. Nothing left but a charred, jagged smear on the wall.
Keith wanted to punch something.
“Keith?” Allura’s light footsteps appeared behind him. “There you are. We’ve been looking all over for you. Shiro found the—”
Allura cut herself off with a small gasp. Keith turned to see her walk closer to the wall. She hesitantly reached out a hand to brush her fingers against the White Lion’s image, her eyes filled with emotion.
“What is this?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” Keith said. “It looks like some kind of legend, but the last part is missing.”
Allura studied the pictures with intense concentration.
“It’s the great calamity,” she realized. “The Lions almost died, so the leaders of the four nations erased all knowledge of what took place so that it wouldn’t happen again.”
“That’s what made them keep a tighter leash on the Lions, right?” Keith recalled Allura mentioning it back in Ba Sing Se.
The Airbender nodded. She stared at the missing mural as if trying to reconstruct it through sheer force of will.
“If we only knew what happened back then, perhaps we would have a better idea of why the Lions are disappearing now,” she let out a frustrated sigh. “It might not be related, of course, but so much knowledge has been lost. Any new information would help.”
Keith looked back at the story depicted on the wall. There was one part in particular that stood out to him and his instinct told him it was important.
Allura must have noticed his intense scrutiny because she said, “What is it?”
Keith blinked. “What is what?”
“You look like you might have thought of something.”
“I…” Keith glanced between the mural and his friend’s hopeful eyes. “It’s probably nothing.”
“Even if that’s true, there’s no harm,” she shrugged. “Please, Keith, tell me.”
Keith crossed his arms and tried to put his thoughts into words.
“According to this, the Lions were all together when they fought whatever evil threatened the world,” he said slowly. “Maybe part of the reason the leaders never let the Lions leave their side is so they can’t all be in the same place at once.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look here,” Keith gestured at the image of the Lions soaring together in the sky. “They’re obviously about to do something. Something that was powerful enough to defeat this great evil. Something all four rulers of the world agreed to erase from history. They say it was for the Lions’ protection, but what if that was a lie?”
Allura quirked an eyebrow.
“You think they were scared of the Lions?” she said. “That’s ridiculous. The Lions are our guardians. Fearing them would be like fearing the elements themselves.”
“Then why all the secrecy? Why keep the Lions locked up?”
“Even before the calamity, the Lions rarely left their own nations,” Allura pointed out. “I agree that ordering them to stay is unnecessary, and especially keeping them from their own people, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that different from before.”
Keith crossed his arms and frowned. He really thought he was onto something. Allura shrugged apologetically.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” she said, “I just think we need more evidence before jumping on conspiracy theories.”
Keith grumbled but agreed to drop it for now.
“We should probably get back to the others,” Allura said. “We are on a time limit, after all.”
Keith nodded. He started to walk out of the room but paused when he realized Allura hadn’t moved. Turning around, Keith found her still staring at the White Lion’s portrait.
Keith placed a hand on her shoulder and Allura’s eyes glistened.
“We’ll find her,” he said.
Allura nodded, wiped her eyes, and led them out of the room.
They entered a chamber at the very back of the building and Keith let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. On the far side of the large room a stone hearth was built right into the wall. There a crackling fire burned a bright jewel blue.
“There you two are,” Shiro said, relief in his voice. “What took so long?”
Keith exchanged glances with Allura and said, “We found something, but I’ll explain later. Right now there are more important things to worry about.”
“Alright,” Shiro said. “Let’s not waste any more time then. Keith? You wanna do the honors?”
Keith walked over to the Sacred Flame and bent a a bit of the fire towards him. Cupping it with both hands, the Avatar lifted the little flame up for a closer look. Apart from the deep jewel blue color, something about the Sacred Flame did feel different from normal fire. Keith wondered if this was similar to what Lance felt when he bent the water in the Balmera’s cave.
Keith and his friends started the long walk down the volcano’s side, Keith hyper vigilant of keeping the Flame alive the whole way back. The other Firebenders offered to carry it for awhile, but he waved them off. Only when the group stopped to rest every so often did Keith hand the Flame over to Shiro or Krolia so he could drink some water, but he took the Flame back once they were on their way again.
Keith couldn’t explain why it felt important that he be the one to bring the Flame back to Uotorī. Maybe as the Avatar he felt a connection to this spiritual fire. Whatever the case, he held onto it and neither his brother nor his mother tried to argue.
By the time they reached the base of the volcano, the sun had already set. Thankfully there were still a few of hours left until midnight, and Keith felt a huge weight lift from his chest as they drove their borrowed wagon back into the village.
As he walked towards the center of town, Keith caught the attention of several people. They all stared in disbelief at the blue fire cupped in his hands and followed the Avatar as if in a daze. By the time he reached the plaza where the torch stood, Keith had attracted a rather large crowd, many of whom now realized they were saved and watched in hushed silence.
Someone must have run ahead and told Elder Rozel because the old man was already waiting. When Keith halted in front of him, Rozel gestured to the torch with a smile.
Keith lifted his hands and coaxed the Sacred Flame onto the torch. In an instant the small flame flared to life and grew to the large fire it was before.
“Thank you, Avatar,” Rozel turned to Keith and bowed low. “You have saved us all.”
Lance and his friends looked up as the jail house entrance swung open. Seeing his boyfriend walk inside, Lance leapt to his feet.
“Keith!” Lance said happily. “You’re back!”
“Did you find the Flame?” Hunk asked.
Keith grinned and nodded.
“You’re free to go,” he told Lance.
As soon as the guards open the cell door, Lance flew to Keith’s side and wrapped his arms around the Avatar.
“I knew you could do it,” Lance pressed a kiss to Keith’s forehead and held him tight.
Keith blushed but looped his arms around Lance’s middle in return.
“It wasn’t just me,” he mumbled. “The other helped, and we never would have made it back in time without Nyma.”
Lance finally noticed the other person who had come in with Keith. The Waterbender narrowed his eyes.
“She helped you? Why?”
“We made a deal.”
Keith pulled himself out of Lance’s hold and walked over to Rolo’s cell.
“I’ve talked to Elder Rozel and he agreed to let you go,” he told Rolo, “on the condition that you tell us who hired you.”
Rolo remained silent.
After a moment of him and Keith staring each other down, Nyma stepped forward.
“Rolo, please,” she said. “If we just tell them—”
“Quiet, Nyma,” Rolo snapped.
Nyma scowled but pressed her lips together.
Rolo turned back to Keith.
“I’m not telling you anything,” he said, “so you might as well leave. You’re just wasting your time.”
Keith studied Rolo and then shrugged.
“Fine, I don’t particularly care either way. I was trying to do Nyma a favor since she helped us out, but if you wanna rot in here it’s no concern of mine.”
Keith spun on his heel and walked towards the door.
“Come on guys.”
With one last glance at Rolo and Nyma, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge followed the Avatar out.
In return for their help, the people of Uotorī showered Keith and his friends with all sorts of gifts, from flowers to free food. They even gave each of them traditional robes to wear for the closing ceremony.
Keith slipped on the silks of red, gold, and black, and tied the long sash around his waist. The robe was long, but lightweight, with stylized patterns of flowers and dragons embroidered on the fabric.
He allowed Lance to carefully place the small white flowers from yesterday into his hair. The Waterbender’s robe was similar in style, but a deep blue with little fish and moon patterns.
They met with their friends, all dressed in robes their own nation’s colors, and went to the town square. Beneath the light of the full moon, Elder Rozel addressed the crowd.
“And so marks the end of another grand festival,” his voice rang out, surprisingly strong for his age. “Our heartfelt thanks to all who travelled here to join us as we celebrate the many blessings granted to us by the gods. As is tradition, we will now use the Sacred Flame to light our lanterns and send them to the heavens as a symbol of our gratitude.”
Rozel made eye contact with Keith and gestured to the torch.
“Avatar Keith, we would be honored if you started the ceremony.”
Keith froze, wide-eyed. Lance and Shiro nudged him forward and he snapped out of it. Hyper aware of the dozens of eyes on him, Keith walked up to the Flame. He looked at Rozel who offered an encouraging smile.
Keith clutched his paper lantern in one hand and lifted the other to bend a small bit of the Flame to the wick inside. The lantern glowed a warm blue.
Unsure what to do next, Keith turned back to his friends. Lance strode up to him and held out his own lantern. Keith smiled and bent some of the Flame into it. One by one, people approached the Avatar and thanked him when he lit their lanterns. After awhile, a couple of other Firebenders took over, relieving Keith of the duty.
Before he could look for his friends, a familiar hand slipped into his and tugged.
“Follow me,” Lance said with a secret smile.
Keith was helpless to do anything but obey.
Lance led him away from the bustling town and up one of the cliffs that jutted out over the ocean. They sat down, legs dangling over the edge and hands still clasped.
Many had already set their lanterns loose and they floated lazily on the breeze, softly glowing against the inky canvas of the night sky.
“You ready?” Lance asked.
Keith nodded and picked up his lantern from the ground beside him. The two exchanged smiles and released their lanterns into the sky. Keith used a little bit of Airbending to gently blow them higher.
After a moment of peaceful silence, Keith looked at Lance.
“So,” he said. “Did you write a wish on your lantern to ask for true love?”
“Nah, I didn’t need to,” he turned to gaze softly at Keith. “I’ve already found it.”
Keith’s teasing grin faded as his heart stuttered.
“What?” Keith breathed, his eyes wide.
Lance’s smile didn’t waver.
“I love you, Keith.”
Keith stared, cheeks painted red. Lance had never said those words to him before. Keith swallowed and opened his mouth but no sound came out.
Lance took both of Keith’s hands in his.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to say it back if you’re not ready,” he murmured. “I just wanted you to know.”
Keith shook his head and squeezed Lance’s hands. His vision blurred and Lance made a concerned noise as he let go of one of Keith’s hands to wipe away the warm tears rolling down Keith’s cheeks.
“No,” Keith said. “I mean, I am ready, I just...this isn’t something I’m used to, and you caught me by surprise and...I just need a minute, okay?”
Lance nodded and waited patiently as Keith composed himself. Once he was reasonably sure he wouldn’t become a blubbering mess, Keith inhaled deeply and looked Lance in the eyes.
“I love you too, Lance.”
He watched in awe as Lance’s entire being seemed to light up. Hands cupped Keith’s face and pulled him in for a long, deep kiss. Keith clutched the back of Lance’s robe and got lost in the feeling of loving someone and being loved in return.
High above them, their paper lanterns drifted together in a sea of stars.
A few hours later, Rolo dozed on the thin cot.
Tap tap tap.
He got up and peered out the barred window to see Nyma.
“Is the guard asleep?” she whispered.
Rolo looked over his shoulder.
“Out like a light,” he answered. “How much sleeping powder did you slip into his drink anyway?”
“Enough, obviously,” she grinned. “Now stand back.”
Rolo obeyed and watched as the iron bars bent out of shape to form an opening just big enough for him to squeeze through. Once he was on the other side, Nyma returned the bars to their original shape and wiped the sweat off her brow.
“Metalbending is so much harder than Sandbending,” she complained.
“Think of it as good practise,” Rolo smirked.
“It wouldn’t have been necessary if we just told them who our employer is.”
“You know why we can’t do that, Nyma,” Rolo said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“But Keith is the Avatar,” she argued. “Maybe he could—”
“Just drop it, okay?” Rolo shot her a sharp look. “Now, did you get it like I asked?”
Nyma sighed and reached into her bag. She pulled out a jar much like the one Rolo had that that dumb Waterbender broke, except smaller. Inside was a flicker of blue, no bigger than a candle’s flame.
“I don’t see why I had to get this directly from the source instead of just stealing somebody’s lantern,” she handed him the glass bottle. “That Airbender with the orange mustache almost caught me when I was trying to scoop it inside.”
“Same reason I had to steal the whole Flame yesterday,” Rolo held the bottle up to inspect it. “Power. The Flame Uotorī had before was hundreds of years old, and people were constantly taking pieces of it for the festivals, so to get enough spiritual power from it, I needed to take the whole thing. This, however, is directly from the source, so even a small amount will pack a punch.”
“Okay,” Nyma eyed the tiny Flame dubiously. “But then I still don’t see why I couldn’t have just stolen someone’s lantern since they used the Flame Keith brought back.”
“Because we didn’t know for sure if he would succeed,” Rolo took Nyma’s bag and carefully tucked the bottle back inside. “It was safer for you to just get some up in the temple. Besides, you really think anyone would let you get close to their lanterns after what happened?”
“Hmm,” Nyma shrugged. “I guess not.”
“Let’s go,” Rolo slung the bag over his shoulder and started walking, Nyma in tow. “It’s a long way to the capital, and we don’t want to keep the Fire Lord waiting.”