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Flare and Flow

Chapter Text

“Oh, no you don’t.”

Keith froze, clutching his bowl of food. He glanced around the forest clearing where they had set up camp and, not seeing an obvious escape route, turned to face Lance’s scowl warily.

“What?”

“You are not skulking off somewhere to eat alone in the dark. Not again,” Lance said, grabbing Keith’s bowl despite his protests. “You are eating with the rest of us like a proper traveling buddy should.”

With a sigh, Keith followed Lance to where Pidge and Hunk were already chattering away over their own bowls by the fire. He had been trying his best to avoid interacting with his ‘traveling buddies,’ as Lance put it. He had only joined their little group because they were all headed to Ba Sing Se and it was less conspicuous than going solo.

Not to mention he hadn’t exactly had time to withdraw his life savings before going on the run.

But that didn’t change the fact that he was on the run, and the more distance he kept, the less risk of danger to both them and himself.

That said, despite his best efforts, Keith did actually like his new companions. Hunk was genuinely one of the nicest people he’d ever met, Pidge’s biting wit was as funny as it was clever, and Lance…well, Lance was annoying but also kind, brave, and (though Keith would never admit it out loud) stupidly attractive. And he wouldn’t leave Keith alone. Once they’d gotten past their initial rocky start, the Waterbender had made it his mission to include Keith in all group activities.

Case in point.

If the past several days had taught Keith anything, it was that Lance would just keep pestering him until he gave in, so Keith resigned himself to his fate. At least for tonight.

“Hey guys, whatcha talkin’ about?” Lance asked, plopping down on the soft grass next to the others.

He looked at Keith pointedly until Keith did the same. With a smile, Lance returned Keith’s stolen meal.

“The Avatar,” Pidge replied around a mouthful of stew. “We’re postulating about why they haven’t shown up yet.”

Keith briefly considered just leaving now that he had his food back, but decided it wasn't worth the effort and tucked in.

“Isn’t the government or somebody supposed to announce their identity when they turn sixteen?” asked Lance.

“Traditionally, yes,” Pidge adjusted her glasses. “And that’s exactly the problem. The previous Avatar died almost nineteen years ago. The new one should have debuted by now. My theory is that they perished in some kind of accident as a child and threw the whole cycle off, but the Fire Nation didn’t want to admit the Avatar died on their watch so they kept it hush hush.”

“And I’m telling you that’s awful,” grumbled Hunk.

“It might be awful, but it’s not impossible.”

“The spirits watch over the Avatar, they wouldn’t let that happen!”

“What do you think then?” Pidge challenged.

“I dunno,” Hunk rubbed his chin. “Maybe it just skipped a nation by accident and the new Avatar was born an Airbender, but no one realized ‘cause they weren’t looking for them there.”

“What?!” Pidge threw up her hands. “That’s basically the same idea as mine but makes even less sense! Why would the Avatar cycle just skip an element?”

“It’s better than them dying as a child!”

Lance tapped his spoon against his lips, eyes raised toward the sky.

“Maybe they, like, got frozen in an iceberg and won’t wake up until someone breaks them out in a hundred years.”

Pidge and Hunk paused to stare at the Waterbender, exchanged looks, and immediately started arguing over each other about how ridiculous that was.

Keith ate in silence as the three continued trading theories, each more outlandish than the last. It soon got to the point where Lance claimed one of them could secretly be the Avatar and convinced Hunk to bend small rocks at him that he tried to stop with his brain—“That’s not how Earthbending works, Lance.” “Shut up, Pidge.”—and Lance, in turn, gleefully splashed water at Hunk.

Despite her claims of their stupidity, Keith noticed Pidge subtly trying to copy the gesture he had made earlier to create their campfire.

It was pretty funny seeing Lance get pelted by pebbles, but eventually they gave up and returned to their meals.

“Maaan,” Lance groaned. “I thought for sure I was gonna unlock super cool powers and start my hero’s journey.”

“I told you it couldn’t be one of us,” Pidge rolled her eyes, “If they died as a kid—shut up, Hunk—the new Avatar would be younger than us and an Airbender. And if they didn’t, they would have been born in the Fire Nation.”

After a beat of silence, heads swiveled in unison to look at Keith.

When Keith merely blinked back at them, Lance flapped an impatient hand.

“Well, go on.”

“What?”

“Try bending something that isn’t fire.”

Keith frowned. “You think I’m the Avatar now?”

“Psh, no,” Lance scoffed. “But apparently you’ve got the closest chance out of all of us, so,” he shrugged, “why not give it a shot?”

“Because Pidge is right, it’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid!” Lance got a glint in his eyes that didn’t bode well. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Wha-“

Before Keith could react, Lance bent the water out of his travel flask and threw it directly in Keith’s face.

“What the hell did you do that for?!” Keith sputtered, dropping his thankfully empty bowl to scrub his eyes.

“You were supposed to catch it,” Lance snickered. “Here, try it again.”

Lance quickly bent the water off Keith, who was momentarily distracted by how weird it felt.

That is, until he saw the puddle hovering above his head.

“Lance, c’mon.” Hunk frowned.

“What, we all tried it—don’t think I didn’t see you, Pidge—and now it’s Keith’s turn,” Lance shot Keith a challenging smirk. “And who knows, maybe that terrible haircut will look better wet.”

The water swirled around Keith’s head before shooting towards his hair. Keith, however, was ready this time and dodge-rolled out of the way, causing the water to rain harmlessly on ground where he had been sitting.

It was Keith’s turned to smirk at Lance’s shocked face.

Lance’s eyes narrowed as they sized each other up.

...Before Keith knew it, they were running around the clearing, Lance chasing Keith with the puddle and Keith expertly evading his aquatic attacks.

-----

“Should we stop them,” Hunk muttered to Pidge as Lance straight up tackled a surprised Keith to the ground.

Pidge shrugged, scooping up more stew. “They’ve been dancing around each other for ages. Maybe this will finally get them to figure their shit out. Besides,” she jerked a thumb at the scene, which had now devolved into a full on scuffle, “this is the most I’ve seen either of them smile in days. I didn’t even know Keith could laugh.”

“Huh, good point,” Hunk said.

The two settled in to watch the chaos. 

-----

Keith wasn’t sure how this happened. He was a trained warrior, heralded as a prodigy by all his instructors, and considered one of the best Firebenders in the nation.

Yet, here he was, flat on his back with Lance looming over him, legs straddling his hips, one hand pinning Keith’s wrists above his head and the other swirling the puddle in lazy circles above them.

In Keith’s defense, it wasn’t like fire had a safe state of matter like water did, and he didn’t want to burn Lance, so he was at a bit of a disadvantage.

Also, Lance was a lot stronger than he looked.

Sure, Keith was used to sparring with opponents bigger than he was, and he could probably break free without bending if he really wanted to, but this position was…not totally unpleasant, if a bit embarrassing.

“Got you,” Lance sang teasingly.

Keith rolled his eyes, fighting to keep from blushing more than he already was.

“And how exactly am I supposed to bend water if I can’t move?”

Lance blinked, glancing up at the floating liquid like he had forgotten it was there. His eyes slowly slid back down to where Keith was lying underneath him, apparently realizing the position they were in.

Instead of letting go of Keith’s wrists, however, Lance just sort of…stared down at him, the Waterbender’s face becoming increasingly red.

Which in turn made Keith flush even redder. He tried to cover it up with a scowl, but the end result was probably closer to a pout.

“What?”

“Um,” Lance seemed transfixed by Keith’s face. Not one to look away from a challenge, Keith stared back.

Huh. Were Lance’s eyes always that blue? And were they getting closer? Yeah, they were definitely getting closer. Oh Spirits, this was happening. What should Keith do? Was he supposed to close his eyes? That was what people did, right? When they—

“Get a room!”

Pidge’s shout snapped Keith and Lance out of their stupor, Lance jerking back and letting go of Keith.

Unfortunately his loss of concentration also released the water hovering above them.

Seeing the puddle start to fall as if in slow motion, Keith, still somewhat in a daze and acting purely on instinct, whipped his now free hands over his and Lance’s heads like a shield.

The water stopped.

After a moment of shocked silence, Hunk cleared his throat.

“Uh, Lance? Buddy? Are you doing that?”

“Nooo,” Lance replied slowly, still staring down at Keith with wide blue eyes.

Ok, now was probably a good time for Keith to start panicking.

Sploosh!

And...they were soaked.

“Well,” Pidge said, after a few more seconds of silence. “I guess that answers that question.”

 

Chapter Text

“So I’m guessing this is as much a shock to you as it is to us?” Pidge said more like a statement than a question.

They were all huddled back around the campfire, Lance finally snapping out of it enough to start bending the water off of them.

“I, um...yeah.” Keith still seemed in a bit of a daze, barely reacting as his hair floofed up from having the moisture pulled away. It was cute.

Lance couldn’t blame him for being in shock. When he had suggested they all try to unlock latent Avatar powers, he hadn’t actually expected anything to happen. And when he had baited Keith into joining the fun, the most he hoped for was to get the pretty Firebender to come out of his shell a bit, not discover he was an all-powerful entity.

Like he wasn’t already stupidly perfect at everything anyway. So unfair.

“So, why is that?” Pidge pushed her glasses up her nose. They tended to slide down when she was concentrating on a particularly interesting puzzle. “The Fire Nation didn’t test you? They're supposed to visit every eligible family once a new Avatar is born.”

“I...” Keith hesitated, glancing around uncomfortably. “My parents both died when I was pretty young.”

Lance immediately felt a pang of guilt. For all that he had been trying to get Keith to open up lately, they’d still only known each other a few weeks. This wasn’t exactly the kind of conversation that could be easy to have with people who were acquaintances at best.

Pidge winced, but carried on.

“I’m sorry to hear that. But they would’ve checked orphanages too. It’s not unprecedented.”

Ok, now Keith was definitely avoiding eye contact.

“I, uh, didn’t exactly stay in the orphanage for very long. I ran away as soon as I could and sort of...took care of myself for awhile. I eventually got into the Royal Firebending Academy, but,” he shrugged, “I guess they assumed I had already taken the test. Nobody ever brought it up and I never really thought about it.”

“Hm, I guess that would explain it,” Pidge mused. “They can’t exactly check every random homeless kid—no offense—so you slipped through the cracks. I’m surprised they didn’t keep testing people who were the proper age though.”

“Well now that we know, should we, like, tell somebody?” Hunk asked. “The Avatar’s supposed to keep peace and balance in the world, so people should know he’s not actually dead or missing, right?”

Lance turned back to Keith only to find said Avatar had gone white as a sheet.

“You can’t tell anyone!” he blurted out, wide eyes flitting between the three of them.

“Why not?” Pidge squinted at him suspiciously. “You got something to hide? Are you a criminal or something? I thought it was weird how you never go into town with us.”

“What? No!” Keith swallowed nervously, his breathing becoming more rapid. “I’m not a criminal, but...there are people looking for me. Dangerous people. I have to get to Ba Sing Se and find Shiro. I don’t have time to...to bring balance to the world or whatever that means—!”

“Hey, hey, calm down,” Lance didn’t know what Keith was talking about or who ‘Shiro’ was, but he was all too familiar with the signs of an impending panic attack. Keeping his voice low and soothing, Lance cautiously put his hand over Keith’s where it had been gripping the hem of his red tunic.

Keith flinched but didn’t pull away, his eyes snapping to Lance’s. Lance tried not the let the intensity of that stare deter him, focusing instead on abating the worry and fear in those violet irises.

“It’s ok, man. We’ll figure it out.” Lance felt the tension in Keith’s grip relax slightly and gave his hand an encouraging squeeze. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now, but anyone would feel overwhelmed in this situation. And I know we don’t know each other all that well yet, but I’d like to think we’re friends.”

It was a bit of a stretch. Again, they’d only met a few weeks ago, and, ok, the first two weeks had been mainly Lance pulling on Keith’s proverbial pigtails after Keith had inadvertently snubbed him, which was admittedly not the best first impression. But once they had gotten over that initial hiccup, Lance thought things had been going pretty good, despite Keith’s continued attempts to distance himself.

Pidge and Hunk seemed to agree, judging by their faces when Keith gave them all questioning looks.

“We are?”

The furrow of Keith’s eyebrows suggested uncertainty, but Lance was sure he detected a tentative hope as well.

“Yeah, man,” Lance gave the Firebender a grin, cheering internally when he got a hesitant smile in return. “And friends help each other out! We can even teach you how to bend! I can help you learn Waterbending, and Hunk and Pidge can teach you Earth and Metal!”

At the reminder of his new powers, the furrowed brows returned.

“And hey,” Lance scrambled to add, ”there’s no rush, right? The Avatar’s been missing for this long, and there aren’t any major wars going on right now or anything, so it’s not like you have to go announce who you are to the world right this second. For now, let’s just focus on learning the other elements and stuff, and we can deal with ‘bringing balance’ when the time comes, right guys?”

Hunk nodded.

“Oh yeah, totally. Don’t sweat it, man. I mean, this is kind of a huge deal, and technically, as the Avatar, it’s your responsibility to help people and settle national disputes and—”

“Hunk!” Lance jerked his eyes meaningfully at Keith who was now looking even more overwhelmed than before.

Hunk snapped his mouth shut with an audible click. “Right. Not helping. Sorry.”

“Hunk has a point though,” Pidge said, ignoring Lance’s warning glare. “You will have to consider those kinds of situations in the future. But,” she shrugged, “it’s not like you’re properly equipped to deal with that stuff yet. I think Lance is right. First, you should just focus on learning the other elements. Unless a war breaks out tomorrow, you don’t need to worry about saving the world yet.”

“Thanks, that’s reassuring,” Keith muttered sarcastically.

“Hey, man. We got this.” Lance let go of Keith’s hand so he could bend the water back out of his flask. “We could even start right now! Here, I’ll teach you some basic moves.”

Instead of sharing Lance’s excitement, Keith curled in on himself, crossing his arms and hunching his shoulders.

“Um, thanks but maybe not right now. I’m still kind of processing, and I’m not sure if I can deal with anything else today.”

“It is getting pretty late,” Pidge added.

Lance pouted, but had to admit she had a point. The sun had been setting throughout their conversation and was now almost completely below the horizon. He sadly returned the water to its container.

“Maybe we can try tomorrow,” offered Keith, shyly glancing up through his lashes. Had he noticed Lance’s disappointment? Or was he just starting to come around to the idea? Either way, Lance quickly perked back up.

“Sure! And don’t worry,” Lance sent him an over the top wink. “I’ll make you the best Waterbender on this side of the North Pole. Besides me, of course.”

Keith rolled his eyes, but didn’t try to hide his soft smile.

“Of course.”

-----

Keith, it turned out, was a bit of a natural at learning to bend elements once he knew he could. He had always been considered a prodigy when it came to Firebending. It was a big part of how he survived on the streets for years, and at the Academy he had always received the highest marks in his class for both written and practical assessments.

Finding out he was the Avatar was a shock to say the least, but once he had some time to process it, Keith did what he does best. Adapt to survive. Sure, this wasn’t exactly what he needed on his plate right now, but it never hurt to have more weapons in his arsenal. Plus, training was actually a good distraction from his other issues.

So he threw himself into learning Earthbending with Hunk and Pidge (Pidge insisted Keith at least get the basics down before starting Metalbending) and Waterbending with Lance. Earthbending he picked up surprisingly fast, and he just knew if Shiro was here he’d make a smart remark about Keith’s hardheadedness.

“Earthbending is all about jing,” Hunk explained to Keith, as Pidge and Lance observed from the side. “The key is to be patient and aware of your surroundings.” Hunk lowered himself into a stance, limbs poised to strike. “You have to hold your ground and wait for the perfect moment. And then…” Hunk burst into movement, slicing the air with his fist and scraping his foot across the ground in a wide arc. The dirt underneath Keith shook, causing him to lose his footing and stumble. Hunk helped him back up with a smile.

“Now you try.”

Keith took a deep breath and settled onto the correct pose. “Jing. Right.”

“Remember,” Hunk added. “Patience is important, but you also have to be firm. Earth doesn’t move easily, and sometimes requires more...confrontational methods.”

Keith’s face split into a grin. “Now that, I can do.”

----- 

Waterbending was...slightly more difficult.

“No, no! You have to make your movements flow more! Flow!” Lance snapped. “Like this!”

“I don’t know what that means!” Keith retorted. “I’m doing exactly what you’re doing!”

They were currently standing ankle deep in a small stream, Lance going through basic Waterbending stances with Keith trying to mimic him. The stream itself was surrounded by lush trees that provided shade from the harsh sun while still leaving a clear view of the azure sky. All sorts of wildflowers bloomed in large patches here and there. Keith had even spotted some adorable panda-fox cubs playing nearby. It was truly a beautiful place.

Too bad he wasn’t really in the mood to appreciate it.

Despite their current frustration, Keith had actually been getting the hang of the element pretty quickly. Not as quickly as Earth, but certainly faster than average.

This particular technique, however, was eluding his grasp. He had managed to get the slip of water to weave around him in a figure eight pattern, but unlike Lance’s, which flew smoothly like glass, Keith’s looked more like a jelly during an earthquake.

“Your movements are too harsh,” Lance lectured. “Water is a fluid, graceful element. You have to flow with the current.”

“Graceful?” Keith snorted. “I’ve literally seen you trip on nothing.”

“Ah, but was I Waterbending at the time?” Lance asked with a raised eyebrow and smirk.

Keith paused. “Huh, I guess not.”

Despite this advice, Keith didn’t see much improvement that day, or during the following few lessons. It wasn’t until almost a week later that they had an unexpected breakthrough.

“—ith. Keith, wake up.”

A hand jostled Keith into sudden consciousness and he reacted on instinct.

“Keith, wake u—AHHH, IT’S JUST ME!”

Keith blinked up blearily as Lance came into focus.

“Why do you have that?!” Lance demanded, pointing at the knife glinting dangerously in the rising sunlight.

Rubbing his eyes, Keith lowered the weapon. “Sorry.”

“Do you,“ Lance flailed his long arms. “Do you sleep with that under your pillow?! You do know you can shoot fireballs out of your hands, right? What do you need a knife for?”

Not really wanting to get into his whole tragic past and abandonment issues this early in the morning, Keith merely shrugged.

The group set about their daily routine and Keith quickly forgot about the incident in lieu of helping Hunk make breakfast, followed by practicing Earthbending with Pidge. The four benders then packed up their belongings and returned to the worn traveler's roads. After making decent progress towards the Earth Kingdom’s capital, they set up camp again and Keith followed Lance to a nearby pond.

However, instead of starting their usual Waterbending drills, Lance turned to Keith and started fidgeting. He rubbed the back of his neck nervously, and even in the pale moonlight Keith could see a faint flush on his cheeks.

“Hey, uh. So you know that very sharp dagger you almost killed me with this morning?”

Keith quirked an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?”

“Is it just to like, scare people off, or do you actually know how to use it?”

Any thoughts he might have had about how cute Lance's face was quickly vanished as Keith shot him an affronted scowl.

“Of course I know how to use it! I’m proficient with both knives and swordplay—”

“Can I see?” Lance interrupted.

Caught off guard, Keith merely blinked and said, “Um, ok.”

And so Keith found himself going through some blade exercises as Lance watched, an unusually serious look of concentration on the Waterbender’s face. It was actually making Keith a bit flustered, but he tried his best to ignore it.

The exercises themselves were a mix of moves he learned at the Academy and choreography he had created himself, transitioning smoothly from one to the next. Shiro had once said that Keith’s routine resembled a dance more than combat, and joked that Keith could always join the Ember Island Players if being a soldier fell through.

Once he finished the last move, Keith turned to find Lance staring at him. Keith’s face, already flushed from exertion, reddened further.

“What?” Keith snapped defensively. If Lance was about to make fun of his fighting technique...

To his surprise, a wide grin broke out on the Waterbender’s face.

“That’s it!”

Keith frowned again, but this time it was more confusion than anything else.

“What?”

“The flow!” Lance excitedly grabbed Keith’s shoulders, his face suddenly very close. “That was it! You just need to transfer that into your Waterbending!”

“Uh, ok?” Keith still wasn’t entirely sure what Lance was talking about, but didn’t resist when Lance grabbed his hand to drag him over to the pond.

No longer distracted by the proximity of Lance’s eyes, Keith was able to focus and understand what Lance meant. After an hour of practice, Keith’s slip of water was just as smooth and graceful as Lance’s.

“See?” Lance blinded Keith with a dazzling grin. “Flow.”

Chapter Text

Lance was so screwed.

Sure, he’d be the first to admit he was a bit of a flirt by nature. When Keith had stumbled into their party, looking travel-worn and a bit like he’d been pursued by evil spirits for several days, but still undeniably gorgeous, of course the first thing Lance did was offer a smooth one-liner.

Keith had stared at him blankly for what felt like a month before turning and leaving without a word.

In retrospect, Keith had clearly not been in peak mental condition, and was probably just too tired to appreciate Lance’s charm. At the time, however, Lance had felt inordinately offended and embarrassed by the brushoff and declared it his mission to antagonize Keith every chance he got. Keith, it turned out, was equally hot-headed and stubborn, and met each challenge head on.

The Avatar revealing incident was not their first scuffle.

Luckily, before things could escalate to the point of Keith just up and leaving, Hunk and Pidge intervened. They had probably known Lance was just trying to get Keith’s attention (not that Lance had realized that himself until later) and that if he actually ran Keith out of the group, the Waterbender would be really upset. They convinced (read: tricked) the two boys into having a little heart-to-heart, and from there things got better. Still tense, with Keith continuing to keep them all at arm’s length and Lance continuing to take every opportunity to tease him (albeit with infinitely less malice) but better.

Then they found out Keith was the Avatar.

At first Lance was jealous. It wasn’t enough that Keith was already beautiful, strong, smart, and better than Lance at practically every challenge Lance threw at him. He just had to be some magical all-powerful savior too.

But then he had seen how scared and overwhelmed Keith had looked, and those negative feelings disappeared faster than he thought possible.

And then they had started spending even more time together, practising Waterbending. Lance learned that while Keith was undeniably obstinate and impulsive, he was also hardworking and willing to listen to Lance’s teachings, even when they still butted heads.

He also had a laugh Lance could listen to for hours.

And eyes that were quickly becoming Lance’s favorite color.

And the power and grace with which he moved when he was bending the elements or wielding a blade…

Yeah, Lance was screwed.

-----

Despite how much closer Keith had become to the others over the past several weeks, he still hadn’t told them what exactly he was running from. Lance trusted the Avatar when he said he wasn’t a criminal, but clearly something was up.

Pidge theorized Keith had been a part of a Fire Nation street gang but had betrayed them and now they were out for revenge. Given what little they knew of Keith’s past, it actually wasn’t that far fetched. Certainly more believable than Hunk’s suggestion that Keith was the illegitimate son of the Fire Lord and had to flee the country in fear of assassination.

Both theories admittedly aligned with Keith’s aura of mystery and intrigue, but Lance couldn’t help but notice that whenever the subject was brought up, along with the dark cloud that passed over Keith’s face there was also a faint flush of...embarrassment? The Avatar would scowl and fidget and avoid eye contact, acting less like he was torn up over a tragic past and more like someone reluctant to share an awkward memory from his youth. That small glimmer of insight made Lance want to know his secret even more, but he held himself back. Keith was still learning to trust them, and Lance didn’t want to risk scaring him off. They would find out eventually.

Eventually turned out to be today, and not because Keith had suddenly decided they were all best friends.

They were staying at the Busking Badgermole Inn in Pon Lai Valley, a welcome reprieve from sleeping on the ground in a tent. Their arrival just happened to coincide with the city’s annual spring festival, and Lance was eager to explore the area. Pon Lai Valley wasn’t a huge metropolis by any stretch of the imagination, but it was still pretty big and bustling with life.

Keith was reluctant to go out at first, saying he’d rather just stay in their room at the inn, but Lance managed to convince him otherwise, citing they’d need as many hands as possible to help restock supplies. No one said anything about the dark cloak Keith threw on, hood hiding most of his face from view.

As they strolled through the open market plaza, Keith’s eyes were in constant movement, and Lance would bet money that he had a firm grip on his knife under that cloak.

“Can you please do something about him?” Pidge muttered to Lance. “He’s starting to make me twitchy.” Hunk grimaced in agreement.

Lance looked from their faces over to where Keith was suspiciously eyeing a bird perched in a nearby tree, and shot his friends a grin.

“Don’t worry about it, guys. I got this.” Lance swanned over to grab a surprised Keith’s wrist—thankfully avoiding any sort of stabbing—and waved to them as he pulled the Avatar in another direction.

“We’ll catch you guys later! Don’t wait up!”

Lance managed to drag Keith past six stalls before the Firebender finally snatched his hand back with a scowl.

“What are you doing?” Keith demanded.

Lance shrugged, casually leaning against a nearby vendor’s stand, ignoring the merchant’s stinkeye.

“I figured you could use a break. Pidge and Hunk can take care of getting the supplies while we go do something fun.”

Keith’s glare didn’t lessen.

“If you didn’t need my help, I could’ve just stayed at the inn.”

Lance rolled his eyes.

“It’s not about the supplies, man. You need to loosen up. You were freaking everyone out.”

“I wasn’t—” Keith spluttered for a moment before his expression gave way to guilt. “I ruined everyone’s good mood, didn’t I?”

“No, no!” Lance hastily shook his head. “It’s just that we thought it might be good for you to focus on something else. Get out of your own head, y’know?”

Keith tilted his head curiously. It was unfairly cute.

“Like what?

“Um,” Lance rubbed the back of his neck. He hadn’t really thought that far ahead. “We could, uh, just walk around. Maybe grab something to eat. I hear the steamed buns here are amazing.”

Keith’s ever expressive eyebrows came together in confusion.

“How is that different than what we were doing before?”

“Oh, well, y’know,” Lance desperately grasped for the first thing his mind could think of. “It’ll be...just...the two of us?”

What has he done.

Keith looked at him blankly, just as he had the first time they met. Lance braced himself for the worst.

However, instead of just walking away, this time Keith turned bright red and glanced away shyly.

“You mean,” Keith looked around everywhere except Lance’s face, “like a date?”

Lance dragged himself out of his internal crisis through sheer force of will.

“Y-yeah. A date! I mean, if you want…” Lance trailed off, his own face burning.

Keith finally looked up at him and holy shit. The amount of emotion in those violet depths was unfathomable. Lance didn’t know how he’d ever thought Keith was just a one-dimensional asshole. Fear, uncertainty, hope, trust, all of Keith’s vulnerabilities were laid bare for Lance to see.

“Okay,” Keith said, still looking at Lance with those eyes.

“Okay,” Lance said, taking Keith’s hand and mentally vowing that, if given the chance, he’d protect this boy’s heart if it was the last thing he did.

-----

If Keith had truly made everyone ‘freak out’ earlier, he supposed this was karmic justice, because his brain was currently just one never ending scream.

Why did he say yes? He had no idea what to do in this kind of situation. For most of his life, Keith was more concerned with surviving than any potential for romance. Even after joining the Academy, anyone who might have had any interest steered clear for fear of royal vengeance. And he’d always turned down the one person who did pursue him, so it wasn’t like he’d ever been on an actual date before.

Thankfully, Lance seemed to notice his complete lack of knowing what the fuck to do because he quickly took the lead, dragging them from stall to stall, pointing out anything remotely interesting. After awhile of listening to the Waterbender’s chatter, Keith slowly started to relax enough to banter back, and before he knew it he was actually having a really good time. The two of them explored the Market and tried exotic snacks, all while trading quips at various levels of flirtation.

“Hey, check this out!”

Lance stopped in front of a booth covered in colorful hats, making a show of trying on the most ridiculous ones he could find. Eventually, the merchant realized they weren’t actually going to buy anything and shooed them away, but Keith couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed that hard.

As they continued exploring the festival, Keith found himself drawn to a young woman’s display. She sat cross legged on the ground on top of a large blanket. Scattered in front of her were all sorts of hair accessories, from ornate, pearl encrusted pins to simple cloth ribbons. He gazed at the merchandise, a hand drifting up to brush the ends of his shoulder-length hair almost subconsciously.

One item in particular caught his eye and he picked it up for closer inspection. It was fairly simple, just a small band made of thin braided silk ribbons, but the intertwining red, gold, and black gave him a sudden pang of homesickness.

Keith was just about to put the hairband back down when a brown hand plucked it out of his grasp.

“I’d like to buy this, please!” Lance gave the vendor a grin and a handful of coins.

Keith floundered, “What, no, Lance you don't have to—"

“Too late,” Lance said brightly, accepting his change.

He presented the hairband to Keith with a flourish.

“Here you go. Now you have a souvenir to remind you of our first date.”

Keith’s eyebrows rose.

“‘First’ date? Implying there will be more?”

Keith fought to keep a smile off his face as it was Lance's turn to get flustered.

“Oh, I mean...I wasn't trying to—I didn't mean to presume—”

Keith decided to show him mercy and took the offered accessory, lowering his hood to tie his hair into a small ponytail. He turned around so Lance could see the result.

“How does it look?”

At the lack of response, Keith glanced over his shoulder.

“Lance?”

Lance was staring at Keith with wide eyes, two spots of color painting his cheeks. Seeing Keith looking at him quizzically, the Waterbender cleared his throat, averting his gaze and rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.

“Yeah, it looks good,” he said.

Keith left his hood down for the rest of the day.

-----

About an hour later, Keith and Lance stumbled into a large crowd surrounding what appeared to be some kind of makeshift carnival game.

A portly, middle aged man in bright orange clothes stood next to a contraption resembling an oversized slingshot, loudly challenging anyone in the crowd to test their abilities.

The machine did indeed work similar to a slingshot, firing small clay discs at a speed much faster than any Earthbender would be able to throw them. The goal was to break all the targets before they touched the ground using balls of fire, water, air, or earth. Among the handful of contestants they watched, only one person got close to getting all the discs, the audience letting out a collective breath of disappointment when her fireball just barely grazed the last couple of targets.

Keith was about to suggest they move on when the man noticed Lance’s outfit.

“You there, young man! Yes, you,” the man nodded when Lance pointed to himself in askance. “You’re a Waterbender, are you not? How would you like to see if your bending measures up?”

Keith rolled his eyes and tugged at Lance’s wrist.

“Ignore him, that thing is rigged. He just wants your money.”

Lance hesitated, a familiar glint forming in his eye.

“What, you don’t think I could do it?”

“I think,” Keith frowned, “that that guy’s a charlatan and we’re getting low on funds.”

“So I’ll win the prize money and that won’t be a problem anymore!”

“It’ll be a problem if you lose the rest of our money on a scam!”

“My good sir, I can assure you,” the man interrupted, “there is no scam, merely skill. But, that said, it takes a bender of the highest caliber to succeed. If you don’t think your companion here is up to the task…”

Keith’s eyes narrowed, glancing from the man’s smug grin to the way Lance wilted a bit at the implication. He knew he was being manipulated, and none too subtly at that, but he also couldn’t bare the thought of Lance believing Keith doubted his abilities even for a second.

“Don’t miss,” Keith ordered as he shoved a handful of coins into the man’s outstretched hand. Lance’s grin was blinding.

He didn’t miss.

-----

They celebrated Lance’s victory with the famed steamed buns the Waterbender had mentioned earlier. As the sweet red bean filling burst across Keith’s tongue, Lance tilted his head.

“Hey, do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Keith paused chewing to try to listen. It was difficult to pick up over the crowd, but if he focused he did start to hear what sounded like music.

“It’s coming from over there,” Lance grabbed Keith’s free hand and quickly pulled him along. Keith had to scurry a bit to keep up with the Waterbender’s long stride, and tried not to think too much about how they were now holding hands.

After a few minutes, they arrived at a large open area that probably served as the town square throughout the rest of the year. For the festival, it had been decorated with countless flowers, ribbons, and colorful flags. A handful of workers were setting up paper lanterns, no doubt in preparation of the setting sun.

In the center of the square was the source of the music. A small but lively band played as several people danced around them.

Lance turned to Keith with a grin.

“No,” Keith said before Lance even had a chance to ask.

“Aw, c’mon, Keith,” Lance pleaded. “It’ll be fun.”

“I don’t dance.” No matter what Shiro said.

Lance must have been on a similar wavelength.

“It’s just like bending or doing your fancy knife moves,” he wheedled. “You’d be great at it.”

Keith polished off his bun and crossed his arms.

“They’re not the same. I know the choreography for those. I’ve never seen this dance before in my life.”

Lance shrugged.

“Me neither. Must be an Earth Kingdom dance, or maybe even local to Pon Lai Valley. But I’m sure we could figure it out.”

Keith eyed the other couples dubiously.

“I dunno...”

“Please, Keith?” Lance held out his hand. “For me?”

Keith glanced between the hand and Lance’s hopeful expression before letting out a sigh. He placed his hand into Lance’s.

It was undeniably awkward at first. Neither of them knew the steps, and Keith’s movements were far too stilted, keeping his eyes downward so he didn’t accidently trod on Lance’s toes.

Gentle fingers grasped Keith’s chin, tilting his face up to meet the other boy’s sapphire eyes.

“Hey, it’s ok.” Lance smiled reassuringly. “You don’t have to be so tense, man. It’s just dancing.”

Heat flooded Keith’s face.

“I told you I wasn’t any good at this.”

“Nah, you’re doing fine,” Lance said. “You just have to stop thinking so hard and go with the flow.”

Keith quirked an eyebrow.

“Is that your answer for everything?” he teased. A warm feeling fluttered in his chest when Lance laughed.

“It’s good advice!” Lance defended with a grin.

Keith smiled back, feeling some of his anxiety slip away.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I guess it is.”

They danced for several songs, getting progressively more in sync with each other’s rhythms. Lance grabbed Keith’s hand and spun him out without warning and Keith just followed his lead, caught in the ebb and flow that was Lance. He miscalculated a bit spinning Keith back in and Keith bumped into him, almost tipping them both over. Instead of panicking or getting embarrassed, however, Keith just laughed, and Lance quickly followed suit.

Once his laugh had died down to a soft chuckle, Keith noticed how close they were. Lance still had his arms wrapped around Keith’s waist where he had grabbed him to keep them from falling. Similarly, Keith had steadied himself by clutching onto the front of Lance’s tunic.

Lance’s eyes really were as blue as the element he controlled.

The two barely noticed as the band ended their song and announced a quick intermission, the other dancers dispersing.

Keith couldn’t stop himself from sweeping his gaze over Lance’s face, memorizing every detail, every freckle, every eyelash, the bow of his lips.

Lips that were coming closer.

Lips that were brushing against his own.

Keith froze, unsure of how to respond. After a beat of stillness, Lance withdrew like he’d been burned, mortification flashing in his eyes.

“Oh Spirits, I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

Keith flung his arms around Lance’s neck and pulled him back in, swallowing Lance’s surprised yelp with his own lips. Like most things in life, Keith tackled this new experience head on with reckless abandon. It wasn’t entirely comfortable at first, with their noses squished together and too many teeth, but Lance quickly rectified that once it became obvious how amenable Keith was to the situation. Large hands gently framed the sides of Keith’s jaw, tilting his head so that their mouths slotted together more easily. One hand shifted along Keith’s neck to bury itself in his hair, while the other moved down to press into the small of his back, bringing him impossibly closer.

Tucked securely in Lance’s embrace, Keith watched the soft light of the setting sun fade into a sky full of glittering stars.

He had never felt warmer.

-----

And then, because life hates Keith, everything came crashing down.

Keith and Lance had ducked into a nearby tavern to rest and take refuge from the crowds, which were still going strong even in the late evening, hundreds of paper lanterns lighting the festivities. While holding onto a table as Lance grabbed them drinks, Keith idly listened to snatches of the conversations around him until he heard a name that made his blood freeze.

“—Prince Lotor’s—”

Heart beating three times faster than normal, Keith tried to zero in on the discussion without drawing attention to himself. Glancing out the corner of his eye, he saw a handful of people gathered around a poster pinned to a notice board.

“Think he ran away?” A man with curly brown hair stroked his beard thoughtfully.

His blond companion shrugged.

“S’possible. But I heard rumors that Queen Sanda kidnapped him as an act of war.”

The first man scoffed.

“Please. The Earth Queen might hate Lotor but she’s all talk. Ever since the White Lion disappeared, she’s been holed up in her palace, paranoid that her Lion is next.” He eyed the poster speculatively. “Whatever happened, that's a lot of money the prince is offering.”

“Well, can’t really blame him,” the blond man offered a crooked grin. “If I was Lotor I’d want this pretty thing back too.”

As the men chortled, Keith tried to get a better look at the picture. Seeing it, he felt simultaneously relieved and annoyed. Though much lower quality for the purpose of mass distribution, he recognized the portrait and remembered when it was painted. It was shortly after the engagement was announced and Keith had been forced into lavish robes, fine jewelry and about a pound of makeup. Compared to how he looked now, the portrait didn’t actually resemble him all that well, especially with his current, much shorter hair.

Lance had once sneered, back before they were friends, that Keith’s hair looked like someone had hacked at it with a sword in the dark.

Keith had actually used his knife.

Speaking of Lance…

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

Keith whipped around to find Lance, holding two mugs of ale, using his superior height to peer at the poster.

“Um,” what should Keith do? Try to play it off? The picture didn’t look that much like him at a glance, but the similarities were there if one looked hard enough.

Or if they spent a lot of time admiring Keith’s face.

Lance’s eyebrows rose as he examined the poster. He gave a small chuckle.

“Hey, that kinda looks like—”

“I have to go,” Keith blurted too loudly, startling Lance who spilled some of the ale. Keith didn’t notice though, as he was already hightailing it out of the tavern, ignoring Lance’s confused call of, “Keith?”

Keith burst out the front door and ran into the crowded streets.

Chapter Text

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.

“Keith.”

-----

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.

“Yeah, this.”

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.

“I guess…”

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.

Hunk shrugged.

“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.

Lance scowled.

“Hunk, this is not the time! Keith has been kidnapped, remember?”

Hunk immediately shrank, hunching his shoulders around his ears.

“Right. Sorry.”

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?”

Pidge nodded.

“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.

Chapter Text

Keith regained awareness bit by bit.

The first thing he noticed was that it was dark, even after opening his eyes. Shifting around, he realized he was curled up in some kind of chest or trunk. His cloak had been removed and ropes bound his wrists together behind his back and wrapped around his legs at the ankles and above the knees.

A piece of cloth had been stuffed into his mouth, with another longer strip covering his lips and knotted behind his head to keep him from spitting it out.

The ground was trembling. Most likely, the chest he’d been locked in was being transported in a vehicle of some kind, which meant who knew how far he was from Pon Lai Valley by now.

After allowing himself a moment to panic, Keith tried to assess the situation and formulate a plan. He couldn’t Firebend in such an enclosed space for fear of accidentally burning himself. Earth and water were also out, since he couldn’t conjure those from nothing and the container he was in appeared to be made entirely of wood. Keith highly doubted his kidnappers knew he was the Avatar, yet they’d somehow picked the perfect prison for him.

There was air, of course, but Keith didn’t know the first thing about bending that element, and even if he could figure it out, there was barely enough room to wiggle his fingers, let alone Airbend.

His knife was missing too. Keith didn’t know which was worse, the idea of his mother’s blade in the hands of his captors, or lying forgotten in some random alley.

The rumbling came to a stop and Keith could hear voices coming closer.

“—telling you for the last time, it’s him.”

“Are you sure? He doesn’t look that much like the poster.”

“He cut his hair and changed his wardrobe, but yes. I’m sure of it. Take a closer look, if you must.”

The fumbling of a lock.

“You better be right. I almost got my face burned off grabbing this kid.”

Keith squinted against the harsh light that suddenly flooded into his eyes as the trunk opened. Without warning, a rough hand grabbed a fistfull of Keith’s hair, yanking him upright despite Keith’s muffled protests.

The blonde man’s eyes roamed over Keith’s face as he held up a copy of the wanted poster.

“Huh,” he said, glancing between the two. “I do kinda see it now.”

“Great, so can we keep going? It’ll take weeks to get to the Fire Nation, and the sooner we turn him over, the sooner we get paid.”

“Alright, alright,” the man unceremoniously shoved Keith back into the trunk.

Keith’s eyes widened. He let out an indignant, “Mmph!” but the man ignored him and slammed the lid shut, redoing the lock.

With a scowl, Keith shifted around as best he could in a futile attempt to get comfortable. He tried to think of a way to escape, but all he could really focus on was the swirl of tumultuous emotions raging in the pit of his stomach. Concern about Shiro, resignation that he’d probably never see his new friends again, gratitude that at least they hadn’t been caught in the crossfire.

But mostly, Keith felt anger. Anger at the bounty hunters for kidnapping him, anger at himself for getting caught, and anger at Lotor for putting Keith in this mess to begin with.

At the familiar prickle of frustrated tears, Keith squeezed his eyes shut and curled himself even smaller.

He missed Lance.

-----

Keith stared dubiously at his reflection, tugging at the stiff collar of the Royal Firebending Academy uniform. At fourteen, he was finally old enough to enroll in the prestigious school, and between Shiro’s recommendation and Keith's own performance at the entrance exams, getting into the small percentage of accepted applicants had been easy.

The uniform itself was tasteful. Keith had always looked good in traditional Fire Nation reds and blacks, and the more militaristic cut suited him. It wasn't super comfortable though. Keith hoped the stiffness would lessen as he wore it more often, and was glad they had separate uniforms for physical training made of more practical material.

A soft knock brought his attention to Shiro, who was leaning against his door frame.

“Hey, ready to go?” Shiro’s eyes swept over him. “The uniform looks good on you. It sure takes me back,” Shiro sighed with a fond smile, as if he was an old man reminiscing on his youth rather than a twentysomething who had been wearing the same uniform a few years ago.

Keith might have pulled something, he rolled his eyes so hard.

“Yeah, I'm ready. And you don't have to come with me, you know.”

“Aw, c'mon,” Keith squawked as Shiro ruffled his hair. “It's your first day, not just at the Academy but school, period. I've gotta at least make sure you make it through the front gates.”

It was true, between the orphanage and living on the streets, Keith had never attended an actual school before, and he was a little nervous. Shiro's comment about not making it to the gates had been in jest, but Keith was kind of glad Shiro was here to keep him from bailing. Not that Keith would admit that.

Keith scoffed at his brother as he tried to finger-comb his hair back into submission.

“Please. You're just hoping Adam will be on gate greeting duty today.”

Keith took immense satisfaction in watching Shiro’s entire face turn as red as his uniform. Adam was a former classmate of his from the Academy. Though his skills were commendable, many students had shunned Adam for his physical features, which took after his Earth Kingdom father rather than his Fire Nation mother. Shiro had had no such qualms and immediately sought to befriend him. They had been close ever since. However, where Shiro used his education to jumpstart his military career, Adam had decided to stay at the Academy as an instructor. Keith liked Adam and was looking forward to learning more Firebending from him. And teasing Shiro mercilessly about getting to see Adam every day when Shiro couldn't.

“Shut up, we're gonna be late,” Shiro muttered, moving toward the front of the house. Snickering, Keith followed.

Together they made their way toward the large campus. Keith was glad they lived within walking distance, since that meant he didn't have to stay in the dorms. He wasn't sure how well he'd handle being in a group living situation like that after the orphanage. Plus he loved staying with Shiro and it would be a shame if, after finally regaining a family, Keith could only see him on holidays or the occasional weekend.

Soon they made it to the front gates and Keith's nerves returned at full force. Even Shiro comically drooping when they saw Iverson greeting students didn't help.

“Well, I guess this is it,” Shiro said, as they stopped just outside the large wall that surrounded the campus. He quickly shook off his disappointment at Adam's absence to give Keith an encouraging smile.

“Yeah,” Keith eyed the school with trepidation.

Shiro gave his shoulder a firm squeeze.

“You'll do great, Keith. I know it.”

Keith looked up at Shiro and tried to absorb all the love and pride he saw in his brother's eyes to fortify himself. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders, gave Shiro a sharp nod, and walked through the gate.

-----

School, it turned out, was incredibly boring.

Maybe it came across to others as arrogant, but Keith didn't find any of the classes challenging. Even the subjects he had little previous knowledge in, such as history or politics, he picked up pretty quickly and soon lost interest.

He wasn't having much luck in making friends either.

Almost immediately after the term started, Keith got into a fight with a classmate named James when the boy implied Keith only got in because of his connection to Shiro. Normally Keith would have just brushed off such a comment, but James had also insulted Shiro’s honor. Not only did Keith get in trouble, but now the other students seemed reluctant to so much as make eye contact with him for fear of his temper. They all respected his abilities and some even seemed to admire him from afar, but nobody ever tried to strike up a casual conversation with him.

Shiro pointed out that Keith could be the one to instigate a friendship, but Keith didn’t have the slightest clue how. And even after getting advice from his brother and Adam, whenever Keith tried to approach someone they just ran away. Shiro said it was Keith’s face that drove them off, which didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t his fault that his nervous face was identical to some his more murder-y expressions.

Things improved slightly come his second year.

In a rare stroke of luck, Keith was put in Adam’s class instead of Iverson’s. Unlike Iverson, who would snap at Keith for improvising a Firebending drill to be more to his liking, Adam encouraged his creativity. Not to mention Keith would sometimes fall into a zen like state when bending, the rest of the world falling away as he moved through his stances, and where Iverson would jerk him out of it with a barking command, Adam usually let it run its course, gently breaking him out of it if needed. It didn’t happen often, but he appreciated the change nonetheless.

That was also the year he met Prince Lotor.

He had known of the prince’s existence, of course. Lotor was two years above Keith so they had never interacted before, but it was hard not to notice when the heir to the nation’s throne sat in the same mess hall as you almost every day.

One night, Keith was practising his stances in one of the school’s private training dojos. It was after hours, so he was free to try some of his original choreography without fear of anyone getting upset that he was wasting time on moves that weren’t part of the curriculum.

Keith’s bare feet flew across the smooth wooden floor as fire danced around him. In one swift motion, he unsheathed his mother’s knife from the small of his back and directed the flames to it. The blade seemed to absorb the fire, small flicks of red and orange covering the metal, though the handle stayed cool to the touch.

Keith fluidly shifted into a new form of motion, somewhere between Firebending and blade combat. With feline grace, he spun, kicked, and rolled, all while keeping his dagger ablaze. He hadn’t quite perfected the routine yet, but it was coming along nicely.

Finally, Keith straightened out of his last pose, slightly out of breath, only to be startled by the soft clap of applause. Spinning much less gracefully than he’d been seconds earlier, Keith saw Prince Lotor standing in the entrance.

“That was very beautiful,” complimented the prince.

“Uh, thank you,” Keith registered who he was talking to and hastily bowed, but Lotor waved him off.

“Please, there’s no need for such formality. We’re both students here, after all,” Lotor offered a magnanimous smile.

Keith wasn’t sure how to respond, so he remained silent.

“I’ve never seen that style of fighting before,” Lotor sent Keith a curious look.

“Oh, well I sort of made it myself. It still needs work though,” Keith admitted.

Lotor nodded, making his way further into the room.

“Yes, some parts did look a bit rough, but it was still quite impressive. I’m sure once you’ve perfected it, it will be a sight to behold. I’m surprised you haven’t used it in any of the practice matches though.”

Keith blinked.

“You’ve seen me fight?”

“Of course,” Lotor leaned down to peer at Keith’s face. “You’re one of the Academy’s most promising students. I watched your assessment exam against Griffin the other day, and can see why the instructors won’t stop talking about you. However,” the prince raised an eyebrow, “you didn’t use any moves like that.”

Keith grimaced, glancing away from the other boy’s piercing stare.

“Most of the instructors don’t approve of bending styles outside school regulation.”

“I see,” Lotor’s eyes glittered like he knew something Keith didn’t. “A pity.”

-----

After that, Lotor went out of his way to befriend Keith. He'd often approach Keith was he was studying alone or eating lunch and ask to join him. Keith would awkwardly agree, and they'd just spend time together sitting side by side, each silently working on their own task.

It was kind of nice.

This new behavior didn't go unnoticed, of course, and other students began treating Keith accordingly. Some were envious of the prince’s attentions and made snide remarks when Keith was within earshot. Others tried to get on his good side, but he quickly brushed them off, well aware that their sudden interest wasn’t genuine. He soon started to feel more relieved than anything when in Lotor’s company since no one dared jeer or imply anything with the prince present.

Some of the teachers started treating Keith differently too. They had always praised his abilities, but he now noticed they seemed less inclined to chastise his more insubordinate tendencies. Even Iverson, when Keith experimentally used one of his original moves to win a practice match, turned an interesting shade of purple but didn't reprimand him.

Keith wasn't really sure how to feel.

In the winter of his third year at the academy, now sixteen years old, Keith was approached by his classmate, James Griffin.

Keith was sequestered in the school's library, pouring over a book, when a shadow fell across the pages. Glancing up, he saw James standing there looking oddly nervous.

“Can I help you?” Keith asked, curious at the usually confident boy’s fidgeting.

He and James got along better now, but they still weren't exactly close. James had proclaimed himself to be Keith's rival almost immediately after their fight at the beginning of first year. Keith mostly ignored him, which just made James try even harder. A few months ago, Adam, tired of their petty squabbles (and perfectly aware of the real reason behind James’ behavior) assigned them as partners for an upcoming Firebending exhibition.

It went about as well as you'd expect at first, with constant arguing over their routine. Keith wanted to include his own touch since he knew Adam would approve of the added flair, but James was nearly as rigidly traditional as Iverson, and insisted on sticking to school-approved choreography.

Once it became clear their positions as the top two of their class were in jeopardy, however, they reluctantly found a compromise. And once they started to work with each other instead of against each other, they discovered a mutual respect and things actually went pretty smoothly.

They aced the performance.

After that, they didn't suddenly become best friends or anything, but at least they weren't constantly at each other's throats anymore. Sometimes they even had a civil conversation.

James’ hands fluttered like he wasn't sure what to do with them before he just shoved them in his pockets.

“I...wanted to ask you about something,” he said, staring down at Keith's textbook like it held the answers to the universe.

“Yes?” Keith prompted when he lapsed into silence.

The other Firebender took a deep breath, color burning high on his cheeks.

“Are you going to the Winter Solstice with anyone this year?” James blurted out.

Keith blinked.

“I wasn't planning to, no.”

At Keith's response, something in James seemed to settle. He drew himself up taller.

“Well, would you like to accompany me?”

Oh.

Keith had to admit, this was the last thing he’d expected. Maybe Adam's teasing remarks hadn't been jokes after all.

“Sure,” Keith replied once he'd recovered.

“Really?” James asked in shock. “I mean, okay, great! I'll meet you there? Next to the statue of Ran and Shaw.”

Keith nodded with a shy smile.

“See you there.”

-----

“Do you have any plans for the Solstice, Keith?”

Keith and Lotor were sitting on the floor of a dojo, catching their breath after a quick sparring session. Keith had been pleasantly surprised when the prince asked to train with him. Lotor was widely regarded as the best Firebender in the whole Academy, and sparring with the prince was a fun challenge.

At Lotor's question, Keith felt a bit of heat rush to his face.

“Actually, James invited me to go with him,” he said.

Lotor went still, his cup of water pausing before it reached his lips. After a second, he carried on and took a drink like nothing had happened.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah,” Keith smiled softly. “It was unexpected, but I'm looking forward to it.”

Lotor hummed in acknowledgment but didn't comment after that. He switched topics to suggesting improvements for Keith's technique and Keith quickly forgot they had even discussed the Solstice.

-----

The night of the Winter Solstice, Keith stood in the crowded square by the large statue of the dragons Ran and Shaw, where he and James had agreed to meet.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

-----

Keith never got a proper explanation for why James had stood him up. Every time he tried to confront the other boy, James would turn white and rush in the other direction. Eventually Keith just gave up.

Although he couldn't prove anything, Keith soon formed his own suspicions. Over the past couple of years, Lotor had become something of a companion to Keith while still maintaining his aloof, princely persona. Shortly after the incident with James, however, Lotor became an almost constant presence in Keith's daily school life. Where before they would see each other a few times a week, now the prince seemed to run into Keith every day.

Then came the gifts.

Every time Lotor joined Keith to study or spar, he’d offer Keith a present, usually something small, like chocolate or a new whetstone for his blade. But as time progressed, the gifts became more elaborate, a jeweled hair pin, a silk robe, a new sword.

Keith wasn't stupid. He realized pretty quickly that Lotor was trying to court him, and the timing certainly didn't escape his notice. But Lotor never acted anything less than amicably, and never gave any hint he might have sabotaged a rival suitor, so Keith wasn't given any opportunity to voice his suspicions, and social protocol dictated he couldn't refuse the gifts without reasonable cause.

That said, Keith was still Keith and made it clear by his fierce scowl when he took the gifts that he was none too pleased by Lotor’s advances.

Lotor wasn’t fazed. If anything, Keith's defiant response seemed to amuse him, like he saw the whole thing as a fun game, and he pursued him with renewed vigor every time Keith shot him down, showering Keith with even more attention and gifts.

Any hope Keith had that Lotor’s advances would lessen after the prince graduated and left the Academy were quickly extinguished when he opened his front door to find a courier waiting. A new package arrived every day, each accompanied by a letter of adoration that Keith had to restrain himself from setting on fire.

He didn’t always succeed.

Lotor sending the gifts to Keith’s home instead of giving them to him at school had another unfortunate side effect.

“Keith,” Shiro slowly said, “why is there a small mountain of flowers blocking the hallway?”

Keith scowled, continuing to shove said flora towards the rice paper doors at the back of the house.

“No reason,” he replied petulantly.

“Keith,” Shiro warned.

Keith sighed as he slid the back doors open and began grabbing flowers by the handful, uncaring if the stems snapped or petals fell.

“Lotor sent them,” he said as he threw the plants out into the yard with more force than necessary.

Shiro’s eyebrows rose. “Lotor? Prince Lotor?”

“Do you know of any other Lotors?” Keith snapped.

Shiro crossed his arms, unimpressed by Keith’s temper.

“And why exactly is the heir to our fine nation sending you flowers?”

Keith’s motions slowed to a stop. His head bowed, hair covering his eyes.

“He’s...been courting me for awhile now,” Keith admitted.

“Oh?” A smirk grew on Shiro’s lips. “I never knew you had aspirations of royalty, Keith. And to think you used to be a little street urchin. Guess you're moving up in the world.”

Shiro’s laughter died when Keith didn't respond to the teasing. Concern bloomed across his face as he knelt down beside his brother.

“Keith, what’s wrong?”

He listened as Keith explained what had happened with James and how Lotor refused to leave him alone.

“I don’t know what to do,” Keith angrily gripped at his hair. “Every time I reject him he just comes back stronger. Ignoring him doesn't work either. And he’s the prince, so I can’t just punch him or anything like that.”

Shiro placed a warm hand on Keith’s shoulder.

“We’ll think of something, don’t worry. It sounds like you’ve been handling this well, so for now just keep doing what you’re doing and maybe he’ll lose interest.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before,” Keith said. “You’re under so much stress already, I didn’t want to pile my problems on top too. It's not that big of a deal. It's just frustrating more than anything.”

“You’re my brother, Keith,” Shiro fondly ruffled Keith’s hair. “Your problems are my problems, and I will always be there to help you, just like I know you would be for me.”

-----

As the months passed, Keith fell into a routine of school lessons and Firebending training. Lotor continued sending gifts and letters despite Keith never responding, but didn’t show up in person, no doubt too busy with his royal duties to visit his alma mater.  Keith was glad; it made ignoring him much easier.

Then one day, when Keith was eighteen and in his final year at the Academy, Adam pulled him aside after class, a concerned frown marring his face.

“Keith, I wanted to talk to you about the graduation ceremony,” the Firebending Master said.

It was tradition for graduating students to give a performance during the ceremony, showing off the skills they had learned at the Academy to proud family members and patrons, as well as potential employers for those not going directly into the military.

“Is something wrong with my routine?” Keith was planning an elaborate fire dance that would showcase both his knowledge of bending and his ability as a warrior. He’d been working on it for weeks now.

“No, no,” Adam assured him. “Your routine is a masterpiece. It’s just that,” he retrieved a scroll from his desk drawer and held it out to Keith, “we received this letter yesterday.”

Trepidation broiling in his gut, Keith opened the scroll and scanned its contents. He felt the blood drain from his face.

“Prince Lotor is challenging me to an Agni Kai?” Keith read incredulously. “Why?”

While uncommon, it wasn’t unheard of for students to show their skills in a Firebending dual. It wasn’t exactly like a traditional Agni Kai, as the fight wasn’t about honor so much as ability, so no one had to get burned to end the fight and the loser would still graduate. But Lotor wasn’t a student anymore, so why…?

“I believe I can answer that,” a smooth voice startled the two.

Keith whipped around to see none other than the prince himself saunter into the classroom.

“Prince Lotor,” Adam greeted in surprise, hastily bowing.

Lotor offered the instructor a polite nod before turning his attention back to Keith.

“You look lovely as ever,” he complimented. “Your hair has gotten longer. It suits you.”

Lotor was hardly one to talk, his own snow white hair was almost the same length, falling down his back. He was also taller. Keith bristled.

“What is this?” he shook the scroll in front of Lotor’s face accusingly.

Lotor shrugged, his smile never wavering.

“So far my methods of courting you have fallen upon deaf ears, so I’ve decided to appeal to your better nature.”

“What better nature?” Keith felt as confused as he was angry.

“You never back down from a challenge,” Lotor’s smile turned sharp. “Some might call it foolish, but I’ve always seen it as one of your most admirable traits.”

“I don’t understand,” Keith admitted through clenched teeth.

“I’m offering you a ‘way out,’ so to speak. A wager, if you will.” Lotor took Keith’s hand. “Duel me in a traditional Agni Kai. Should you win, I will stop pursuing you. No hard feelings, no questions asked. You’ll never have to see or hear from me again unless you wish it.”

“And if I lose?” Keith asked warily. He willed himself not to tense up as Lotor brought his knuckles to his lips.

“Then you agree to marry me.” His eyes glittered. “Do we have a deal?”

-----

“And you just agreed to that?” Shiro demanded.

“What was I supposed to do?” Keith jabbed at his noodles like he was holding a knife rather than wooden chopsticks. “Say, ‘No thanks, I’d rather stay in this fucking limbo of courting for another three years’? No. I’m ending this now. Lotor might be annoying, but he honors his word. When I win, he’ll finally leave me alone and I won’t have to worry about him taking his rejection out on you or me.”

“That’s only if you win,” Shiro corrected sternly. “You’re good Keith, but so is Lotor. What are you gonna do if he beats you?”

“I...” Keith gazed down at his food like it had murdered his best friend. “I’ll figure it out if the time comes. What I don’t get is why he wants to do this at the ceremony.”

Shiro gave him a look but allowed the shift in conversation.

“He probably just wants to make a show of it. It’s not exactly a secret he’s been chasing you for so long. At this point, it’s a matter of  pride. Plus, maybe he figures if he wins you over in such an public setting, you’ll have no choice but to accept his proposal.”

Keith snorted.

“Like I care about that.”

Shiro smiled.

“True, you’re not really the type to be trapped by social niceties. Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as he thinks.”

“Clearly,” Keith grumbled.

“Come on,” Shiro said after they’d finished eating. “I’ll show you a few tricks that might come in handy during your duel.”

Keith raised an eyebrow as he followed his brother out to the backyard.

“I thought you’d already taught me all your moves. You been holdin’ out on me?”

Shiro smirked as he shifted into position, body lowered and hands raised. His left wrist rotated palm up and he beckoned to Keith with a taunting curl of his fingers.

With a grin of his own, Keith leapt at his brother, worries temporarily forgotten in the heat of battle.

-----

Shiro was right.

Keith was good, great even. But Lotor was the best, and on the day of the Royal Firebending Academy’s Graduation Ceremony, the prince didn’t hold anything back.

And so, Keith found himself staring numbly at the scroll that certified him as an alumni, barely even hearing the cheers of his fellow classmates as they celebrated around him. Slowly, his eyes drifted up from the diploma in his hand to his new fiance. Lotor offered a smirk in return.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Keith barely recognized the person staring back at him in the mirror.

Lotor had insisted Keith sit for a portrait to commemorate their engagement. Servants pampered Keith with fragrant oils, dressed him in silk robes, painted his face, and wove priceless gems into his long, dark hair.

Keith hated every second of it.

If that wasn't torture enough, Keith then had to sit still on the most uncomfortable chair in the whole Fire Nation and ‘look serene‘ as the painter did his work, while Lotor observed from the other side of the room.

The prince seemed amused by the artist's need to remind Keith every few minutes to stop scowling.

After what felt like decades, Keith was finally allowed to return to his new rooms. He swore if one more person touched him today he'd scream, so he sent the servants away. It was probably a smart decision as he didn't want to take his frustration out on people who were just doing their jobs, but now he was left sitting in front of a large vanity trying to untangle the jewelry from his hair by himself.

Keith was seriously debating the merits of just chopping it all off when he heard a knock at the door.

“Keith? It's me,” Shiro’s voice called out.

“Come in,” Keith answered.

He felt some of the tension he’d been carrying all day relax at the sight of his brother.

“Hey, I—" Shiro glanced between the knife in Keith's hand and his fistful of hair. “What are you doing?”

Keith scowled.

“Losing my mind is what I'm doing. I can't get these stupid things out.”

Shiro gently took the blade away and set it on the vanity’s table.

“Here, let me help.”

Keith sighed and crossed his arms on the table, burying his face in them as Shiro began to meticulously remove the jewelry.

“You were right, Shiro,” he mumbled. “I never should have agreed to fight him. What do I do?”

He peeked up to meet Shiro’s sympathetic reflection with his own miserable gaze.

“That's actually what I came to talk to you about,” Shiro said in a hushed tone that immediately caught Keith's attention.

“Keith,” Shiro said with serious eyes. “Are you sure you don't want to marry Prince Lotor?”

Keith jolted upright, his face flushed in indignation.

“How can you ask that?” he demanded. “Have you not been paying attention to me the last few years?”

Shiro raised his hands placatingly.

“I just want to make sure you've looked at all your choices before doing anything rash. A lot of people would kill to be in your shoes right now.”

“Well, I'd kill to be out of them,” Keith muttered.

At his brother's imploring look, Keith sighed.

“Look, I get it, okay? I was an orphan who lived on the streets and now I'm about to marry a prince. It's a fucking fairytale come true,” he said bitterly. “But it’s not what I want. I wouldn't exactly call myself a romantic, but I don't want to get married just because I was worn down or backed into a corner.”

Shiro studied Keith's face for a moment then took a deep breath and nodded sharply.

“That's all I needed to hear. Now, listen carefully. We're getting you out of here.”

“What? How?” Keith asked.

As Shiro quietly detailed his plan, Keith listened with rapt attention, hope and anxiety swirling in his gut.

“But Shiro,” Keith cut in, “if you go through with this, you'll have to leave too.”

“I know.”

“But,” Keith shook his head, “what what about your career? What about Adam? You guys finally got together after all this time.”

“My brother is more important to me than any job,” Shiro said firmly. “As for Adam...it will be hard, but he'll understand. Some day.”

“You're not going to tell him?”

“It's too dangerous,” Shiro said regretfully. “I don't want to risk getting him involved.”

Over the next few weeks, Keith put up with more wedding preparations by day and met with Shiro in the evenings to finetune their escape. Finally, two weeks before the wedding, they set their plan in motion.

In the dead of night, Keith donned the travel clothes Shiro had snuck him earlier. After wearing nothing but heavy robes for so long, the simplistic apparel was a relief. With nimble fingers, Keith tied his hair into a long braid. He threw on his dark cloak, ironically given to him by Lotor months ago. It was of fine quality, but plain in design, and wouldn't draw attention.

With his mother's knife sheathed at the small of his back, Keith went out to his bedroom balcony and peered down.

Right on schedule, he saw the guards changing shifts, making small talk below him.

Lotor told Keith he had picked these rooms so that Keith could admire the cherry blossom tree that stood right outside his window, the largest of its kind in the kingdom.

Shiro was right, Keith thought as he hoisted himself onto one of the sturdy branches. Lotor didn't know him very well at all.

-----

Keith crept through the palace gardens, hardly daring to breath until he spotted his brother waiting by a large bush cut into the shape of a turtle swan. He scurried over to meet him.

“Keith,” Shiro greeted, relieved. “Are you ready to go? Got everything you need? If all goes according to plan, we won't be coming back.”

Keith nodded.

“Let's go.”

Together they made their way to the nearby wall. It was a thick slab of earth several feet high that surrounded the gardens and separated the royal grounds from the outside. This particular area wasn't as heavily guarded due to the fact that the queen didn't want a bunch of clumsy, fire-happy guards ruining her prized plant sculptures, thus why Keith and Shiro picked it as a rendezvous spot.

Shiro crouched by the wall cupping his hands to make a foothold so he could give Keith a boost. Once Keith was on top, he reached back down to help pull up his brother.

With a soft thump, they landed on the other side.

“And where do you think you're going?”

The two brothers whirled around to find Lotor already waiting for them, surrounded by a handful of guards.

“Really, Keith,” Lotor shook his head mockingly. “I thought you were a man of your word. Yet here you are, trying to break your vows before we've even made it to the altar. And, you,” Lotor’s sharp gaze cut over to meet Shiro's glare. “Well, you can certainly say goodbye to your dreams of becoming the youngest captain in history.”

Before Keith could even think of a snappy retort, Shiro pulled an object from his pouch and threw it at the ground. As it shattered, a cloud of smoke filled the area. He grabbed Keith's wrist and ran, ignoring Lotor's bellowed, “Stop them!”

Shiro and Keith raced through the city, the guards hot on their trail.

“How did he find out?” Keith demanded as he tried to keep up with his brother's long legs.

“I don't know, but we've got bigger things to worry about right now,” Shiro called over his shoulder.

After awhile they managed to shake their pursuers long enough to duck into an alley unseen.

Keith peeked back around the corner. Several guards were scrambling in all directions, barking orders and searching every nook and cranny they came across. A handful were steadily making their way closer.

“There are too many of them,” Keith snarled. “Shiro, what do we do?”

“Quick, over here!”

At the back of the alley, Shiro had discovered a small metal gate embedded in a thick wall, most likely used for drainage. He swung the gate open and ushered Keith through. Keith had to crouch but fit without much difficulty, ending up in a tunnel that presumably led outside the city.

Clang!

Keith twisted around to see Shiro had slammed the gate shut and was blasting a thin but powerful stream of flame along its edge.

With Shiro on the wrong side of it.

Keith rushed back, gripping the iron bars so tightly his knuckles turned white. He frantically tugged but gate didn’t budge.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“You keep going,” Shiro ordered. “I’ll go back and try to draw the guards the other way.”

“What?” Keith stared at his brother in horror. “No! I’m not leaving you!”

“Keith,” Shiro interrupted grimly. “We have no choice. You said it yourself, there are too many of them. Splitting up is our best option. It’ll be okay, we knew this might happen. Do you remember what to do?”

“Get to the National University in Ba Sing Se,” Keith dutifully recited. “Ask for Samuel Holt.”

Shiro nodded. “I’ll meet you there.”

“But Shiro—”

“We don’t have time, Keith!” Shiro pulled his brother into a hug as best as he could manage through the bars. “I love you. Be careful.”

“You too,” Keith squeezed Shiro as hard as he could. Pulling back, he glared at the other Firebender fiercely. “Don’t die. I’ve already lost enough family, I can’t lose you too.”

“I’ll see you in Ba Sing Se,” Shiro promised. “Now go.”

With one last worried glance, Keith turned and fled into the dark.

-----

Lance had always dreamed of flying.

As a child it had been his greatest wish to soar above the clouds. Don’t get him wrong, Waterbending was second nature to Lance and he loved the element with all his heart, but...if one of the ancient lion turtles came to him and offered a trade, he’d be lying if he said he wouldn’t be tempted. Hell, a large part of the reason he wanted to be the Avatar was so that he’d get both water and air.

And so, when Allura led them to meet her sky bison, Platt, he felt a surge of excitement.

“I guess that explains how you got here so fast,” Pidge commented as they stared up at the behemoth.

Coran quickly went over some safety rules using more interpretive dance than necessary and they were in the air.

Even though he was still sick with worry about Keith, Lance couldn’t help but be caught up in the thrill of flying, watching in awe as Pon Lai Valley shrank below them.

Hunk was having a less good time, visibly trying not to throw up. Thankfully the ride was much smoother than that of a ship’s, and he adjusted after a while.

Once an hour or so had passed, Lance reluctantly pulled himself away from the edge of the large saddle. He could easily spend all day watching the clouds fly by and the ground flow beneath them, but there were important matters to discuss first. Glancing to see Allura and Coran were involved in idle conversation up in the driver’s seat, he scooted over to Pidge.

“So,” Lance said, gaining both his friends’ attention. “You still haven’t explained to us how you met Allura and Coran.”

Pidge grimaced.

“It’s a long story?” she offered weakly.

Lance crossed his arms, unimpressed.

“Allura said it would take at least a day to reach Keith. We’ve got time.”

“Okay, fine,” Pidge said. “So, you know how the White Lion disappeared ten years ago?”

Lance raised an eyebrow and nodded. The White Lion of Air was one of the four Lion Spirits that watched over the nations. They were just as important as the Avatar when it came to keeping balance and peace, and when the White Lion vanished, fear and chaos had swept the land. The other three nations became paranoid about protecting their own Lions, keeping them by their ruler’s side at all times and out of the public’s eye. Even Lance, who was distantly related to the chief of the Northern Water Tribe, had only ever caught a glimpse of the Blue Lion of Water once, when visiting the palace with his family.

“Allura and Coran are on a mission to find it,” Pidge revealed. “Well, them and a bunch of other Airbenders, but Allura is sort of the unofficial leader of the search.”

“Okay,” Lance said, “and where do you come in?”

“It’s not so much me, as it is my dad. He’s professor at the National University in Ba Sing Se.”

“Right, and that’s why you said you were going there,” Hunk recalled. “To visit him.”

Pidge shook her head.

“I lied,” she confessed. ”My dad, and my brother, Matt, have been missing for almost a year. Matt was his apprentice.”

Lance and Hunk exchanged surprised glances.

Pidge stared down at her clasped hands, eyebrows furrowed.

“They disappeared out of nowhere, just like the Lion. The authorities opened an investigation, but didn’t find anything. Eventually I decided to go looking on my own. I knew it had to do with Dad and Matt’s research. I spent months tracking down clues, finding dead end after dead end. Then one day, I was following a lead and, well,” she looked over at the Airbenders. “I didn’t find my family, but I did find Allura and Coran. Turns out they were looking for Dad too. According to Allura, he and Matt were actually working with them to figure out what happened to the White Lion. My guess is that Dad must have uncovered something big, but before he could tell anybody, he and Matt vanished too.”

“Oh, man,” Lance said sympathetically. “I’m so sorry, Pidge.”

“It’s okay. I know they’re alive somewhere. I just have to find them,” she said with a determined glint in her eyes. “In the meanwhile, I’ve been trying to continue their work, helping the Airbenders where I can. That’s why I kept ‘sneaking off,’ to give them updates and reports.”

“Well, now you have us too,” Lance set a reassuring hand on Pidge’s back. “We’ll get Keith back, find your family, and save the world.”

Looking from Lance’s fierce grin to Hunk’s firm nod, Pidge drew herself up, a weak smile tugging at her lips.

“You make it sound so simple,” she said with a small chuckle.

Lance shook his head. “It won’t be easy. But we’ll have each other’s backs, and that will make all the difference.”

“Thanks, guys,” Pidge grinned. “Now, let’s go save the Avatar.”

-----

Keith had a plan.

His captors mainly kept him locked inside the wooden chest, but they let him out a few times a day to give him food and water, and let him relieve himself. They shackled his ankle to a stake in the ground and held a blade on him as he ate to discourage him from trying any funny business. As soon as he was done, they threw him back in his prison.

As much as Keith wanted to fight them every time they showed their ugly faces, he forced himself to bide his time, repeating the lessons Shiro had taught him about patience like a mantra in his head.

On the fifth morning, his docile act finally paid off. Keith spooned tasteless porridge into his mouth and glanced up through his bangs to find his captors involved in some kind of argument. They had their weapons drawn as usual and were still close enough to notice if he tried to make a break for it, but they weren’t actually looking at him. Watching them out of the corner of his eye, Keith sharply twisted his heel into the ground. A small pillar of dirt shot up from underneath one of the wagon’s wheels, jostling the carriage and spooking the ostrich horse. The bounty hunters’ heads snapped around at the shrill squawking.

“The hell was that,” demanded the blonde one.

As they both glanced around suspiciously, Keith quickly bent the remaining water from his cup into a small dagger of ice and hid it up his sleeve.

“I’ll check it out,” the bearded man made his way over to the restless mount. “You watch him. Put the gag back on and get him inside. If someone’s nearby, we don’t want him calling for help.”

Keith winced as the bounty hunter shoved the cloth into his mouth and roughly yanked his arms behind him. After Earthbending the heavy stake out of the ground and removing the chain from the boy’s ankle, he grabbed Keith and manhandled him back into the chest. In his haste, he had neglected to bind Keith’s legs together. A small stroke of luck, Keith thought as the wagon started to move again.

Keith waited for a little while to make sure no one was going to come check on him or fix his bindings. When half an hour had passed and the bounty hunters showed no signs of stopping, Keith shimmied the ice blade out and quickly cut the ropes.

Removing the gag with a breath of relief, Keith turned his attention to the lock. Now that his hands were free, he was able to bend the water into the keyhole and manipulate the tumblers inside.

Click.

Keith cracked the lid open and peeked out cautiously. The two bounty hunters were both sitting in the front of the carriage, their backs to Keith. If either turned around, they would see him in an instant.

Heart hammering in his chest, Keith tried to slip out of the trunk as quietly as he could when the wagon hit a large bump in the road, upheaving the carriage and causing Keith to topple to the floor with a loud thump.

“What the—”

The bearded man twisted around and locked eyes with Keith.

Keith leapt out of the wagon, tucking and rolling into a run. He heard the bounty hunter shout behind him as the wagon screeched to a halt, followed by the sound of running footsteps.

The young Avatar veered off the road and into the surrounding forest. He raced through the trees, trying to lose his pursuers. Part of him wanted to turn around and fight, but another part that sounded suspiciously like Shiro argued that he wasn’t in the best physical shape after being crammed in an enclosed space for days with little food or water. If they caught him again the chances of a second escape were slim.

Keith spotted a large, hollowed out tree that had fallen over and rolled midway into a ditch. He dove down underneath it and pressed himself back against the dirt wall.

Seconds later, his captors skidded to a halt just above his hiding place.

“Where did he go?”

“I don’t know, but he can’t be far. You look over there.”

Peering up, Keith saw the blond man stomp away. The bearded man prowled along the edge of the trench, his eyes alert for any sign of movement. His careful footsteps came to a stop mere inches above Keith’s head.

Keith kept still, fervently hoping he couldn’t hear Keith’s rapid heartbeat.

After an eternity, the footsteps moved on.

Just as Keith let out a breath of relief, the long blade of a sword suddenly embedded itself through the log centimeters from his face. Instinctively, Keith lunged away and stumbled out of his hiding spot.

“He’s over here!” the bearded man called, yanking his sword out of the wood.

Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Keith glanced over to see the blond man already making his way towards them. The Avatar turned back just in time to leap out of the bearded man’s reach as he tried to grab Keith.

Keith bent a line of fire on the ground between him and the bounty hunters, forcing them to jump back. He spun and shot off, fully aware that that wouldn’t keep them at bay for very long.

Sure enough, the blond man quickly used Earthbending to smother the flames with dirt and they were in pursuit once more.

It was then that Keith’s luck officially ran out, as the forest abruptly ended to reveal a large ravine. Keith scrambled to a halt to avoid falling down the steep cliff. Spinning around, he faced his captors with a sort of grim horror.

“Nowhere to run,” the blond man taunted.

Keith lowered himself into a fighting stance, weighing his options. He was still pretty weak, but he might be able to take both of them if he used the other elements. Keith really didn’t want to though. Unless he killed them, the bounty hunters would no doubt spread the word that Lotor’s missing fiance was the Avatar, and then even more people would be after him.

Before he could make a decision, an enormous shadow cast over them.

“Keith!”

Keith’s head jerked up and he watched in complete shock as Lance fell down from the sky like an avenging spirit, water whip already soaring to knock over one of the equally stunned bounty hunters. Taking full advantage of his surprise attack, Lance threw the blonde man against a tree, knocking him out cold. The bearded man moved to retaliate only to get beaned in the head by a large metal orb, joining his partner in unconsciousness.

“Bullseye!” Pidge crowed from her seat atop the large sky bison hovering over the ravine.

“Keith!” Lance rushed over to grab Keith’s shoulders. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

Keith just stared at Lance, not fully comprehending what had just happened.

“Keith?” Lance’s eyebrows furrowed in concern.

Finally, Keith’s brain registered that this wasn’t some fever dream he was having while still trapped in the chest, and that Lance and his friends were really here. Keith flung his arms around Lance, gripping as hard as he could.

Lance squeezed back just as tightly. After a moment, he drew back so he could press his forehead against Keith’s.

“You found me,” Keith stared into Lance’s eyes with disbelief and awe.

“Of course I did,” Lance stared back with relief and another emotion Keith was too overwhelmed to interpret. “We’re a team.”

Chapter Text

Keith curled into Lance’s side as they flew across the Earth Kingdom. After sharing in the Waterbender’s excitement of soaring through the air and meeting Allura and Coran, Keith felt like he was ready to sleep for a week. Unfortunately he was still pretty keyed up from his daring escape and subsequent rescue so he settled for leaning against Lance and basking in the other boy’s warmth.

“Hey,” Lance said softly. “This is yours. Sorry I didn’t give it to you earlier but this is kinda the first minute we’ve had to breathe.”

Keith opened his eyes to see Lance holding out his mother’s knife. With a gasp, he took the blade and gripped it close to his chest.

Not sure how convey the emotions bubbling inside of him, Keith merely stared at Lance for a moment before pulling him into a grateful hug, burying his face into the Waterbender’s neck.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I thought I had lost it forever.”

“Oh, uh, no problem,” Lance replied, his voice higher than normal. “It was actually how we found you! Pidge used Metalbending to locate your knife, and then Allura used some kind of spirit power junk to trace your aura or whatever.”

Lance was kind enough to pretend he didn’t see Keith try to subtly wipe his eyes as he pulled away.

“You should actually talk to Allura more about that later,” Lance added. “I bet it would be a useful trick to learn, and since you’re the Avatar you should be super in tune with the spirits, right?”

Keith blinked up at Lance.

“I guess? I never really thought about it.”

“Well, I’m sure Allura would be willing to teach you spiritual stuff in addition to Airbending. Doesn’t hurt to ask, right?”

“I suppose not,” Keith agreed with uncertainty.

“Speaking of important discussions,” Pidge cut in from the other side of the large saddle. “We should really talk about getting you a better disguise.”

-----

Even going back to sleeping on the hard ground couldn’t dampen Lance’s good mood. He’d never felt more relieved than when Keith was back safe in his arms. Even now, so soon after getting him back, Lance felt a bit antsy without the Avatar in sight, even though he knew Keith was just in the nearby tent with Allura putting together his new disguise.

Lance gave himself a mental shake and refocused on helping Hunk prepare dinner, chopping up vegetables for the stew already bubbling over the campfire.

Speaking of Hunk, his best friend had been sending him weird looks for the last ten minutes.

“So,” the Earthbender finally said, “now that things have settled down a bit, what’s going on with you and Keith?”

Lance narrowly avoided adding one of his own fingers as an ingredient.

“What? Nothing is—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lance blustered, crossing his arms with a huff and averting his gaze.

“Come on, man,” Hunk rolled his eyes. “You think I don’t see how you look at him? Even now you’re constantly glancing over there waiting for him to come out. And,” Hunk waggled his eyebrows with a smirk, “you two were getting awfully cozy when we were flying yesterday.”

Heat rose up Lance’s face, but he couldn’t help a soft smile as he remembered how right it felt to hold Keith close.

“See, that right there,” Hunk pointed at Lance’s face. “That look.”

“Before Keith was kidnapped,” Lance confessed, “we might have been on a date.”

“I knew it,” Hunk crowed. “And? How did it go? Also, I’m gonna need those onions in a minute.”

Lance sighed happily as he resumed chopping.

“It was amazing, Hunk. I won this super impossible bending game, and we danced in the square, and Keith looks so cute with a ponytail it should be illegal or something. We had so much fun.”

“I’m happy for you, buddy,” Hunk smiled.

“Thanks, man.”

They continued to chat and cook as Pidge and Coran returned with more firewood.

“They’re still in there?” Pidge jerked her head at the tent as she dropped her bundle haphazardly on the ground.

Hunk nodded.

“I hope they finish up soon, dinner’s almost ready.”

As if on cue, Allura burst out of the tent with a wide grin. Keith followed at a much more sedate pace.

“Ta da!” she clasped her hands in front of her, eyes sparkling. “How does he look? I think I outdid myself, personally.”

Keith fidgeted under everyone’s stares.

“Well, he definitely looks different,” Hunk hesitantly offered.

“Yeah,” Pidge agreed with a raised eyebrow, “but the whole point was to make Keith blend in. White hair isn’t exactly subtle.”

Allura frowned, gripping her own silvery locks self consciously.

“We agreed Keith should masquerade as an Airbender. White hair is very common among Air Nomads, I assure you.”

It was true. After a lengthy discussion about how to best hide Keith’s identity, they had concluded that pretending to be an Air Nomad was the best choice, as it allowed Allura and Coran to teach him the element he knew the least even when in more public locations. Plus, no one thought twice about an Airbender wearing a hooded cloak in the spring heat since they could regulate the temperature of the air around them.

Lance got up and approached Keith, ignoring all the pairs of eyes following him. Keith watched him somewhat warily but didn’t stop Lance when he reached out to touch Keith’s now snow white hair, rubbing it between his fingers and thumb. It felt just as silky as before.

“I like it,” Lance declared, forcing himself to pull away before he started running his fingers through the ivory strands or something equally embarrassing. “What do you think, Keith?”

What could only be described as a pout crossed the Avatar’s face. Spirits, this boy was going to kill him if he didn’t stop being so adorable.

“It reminds me of Lotor,” Keith grumbled.

Lance blinked.

“Prince Lotor has white hair? I thought Allura just said it was an Air Nomad thing.”

“It is. He inherited it from his mother,” Keith explained. “Queen Honerva is an Airbender.”

“Yes, it was quite the scandal when Fire Lord Zarkon asked her to be his bride!” Coran added with his usual chipper enthusiasm.

“Huh...” Lance snorted. “I bet Zarkon was relieved when his son turned out to be a Firebender.”

Keith’s lips quirked.

“I never really thought about it, but yeah, you’re probably right.”

“Okay, so we’ve established Keith’s hair works,” Hunk said, “and he’s wearing traditional Airbender robes, but what about the tattoos? Are you gonna give him some fake ones?”

Allura shook her head.

“I’m afraid we can’t. Only Master Airbenders are allowed such tattoos, and to give them to someone who hasn’t earned them, even fake ones, is forbidden. As the Avatar, Keith can choose whether or not to receive them once he has mastered the element, but until then,” she shrugged apologetically.

“Will it be weird that he doesn’t have them?” Pidge asked.

“Not at all,” Allura assured them. “It’s not uncommon for someone Keith’s age to not have tattoos yet. It just means he’s still in training.”

“Well, that’s not wrong,” Keith said with a weak smile.

“Great,” Hunk grinned. “I guess that means your disguise is officially complete!”

“Actually,” Keith rummaged in his new robe’s pocket. “There’s one last thing missing.” He pulled out the hairband Lance had returned to him earlier and pulled his pale locks into that adorable ponytail.

“There,” he turned to Lance with a satisfied smile.

Lance was helpless to do anything but return it.

“Perfect.”

-----

Despite having to backtrack a ways to rescue Keith, thanks to their new mode of transportation the group was still on track to get to Ba Sing Se on schedule.

It would still take several more days, however, even on a flying bison, so Keith continued his Avatar training, adding Airbending to his repertoire.

Keith was actually really excited to learn Airbending. Like Lance, as a child Keith had envied the ability to fly and the freedom that came with it.

“To master Airbending, one must be willing to relinquish their worldly concerns,” Allura lectured. She and Keith sat cross legged on the ground, facing each other, their eyes closed in meditative focus. “Air Nomads do this by seeking enlightenment, which teaches us to detach ourselves from the physical and tap into the spiritual.”

Keith’s eyebrows furrowed, though he kept his eyes shut.

“You say you detach yourself from the world,” he questioned, “but what about the people you care about? I see you and Coran help others all the time.”

Allura nodded even though Keith couldn’t see it.

“It is a matter of balance. Even if we gain enlightenment, we are still connected to our fellow living beings. Detaching oneself from worldly concerns is not the same as turning a blind eye to those in need.”

“I think I understand,” Keith said hesitantly. “You don’t let yourself worry about material stuff, like money or property, but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about people.”

“Precisely,” Allura opened her eyes. “Shall we begin?”

Learning Airbending, it turned out, was a mixed process.

Some aspects came to Keith easily. Air was all about flexibility and Keith was nothing if not quick on his feet, ready to adapt to any situation at a moment’s notice. However, it also required finding and following the path of least resistance. Keith, having always been the type to fling himself headfirst at his problems, struggled a bit with this concept. He was extremely relieved when Coran lamented that they didn’t have the spinning gates traditionally used for teaching students how to “be the leaf,” whatever that meant.

Meditation helped. Allura and Keith would spend an hour every morning before training to sit and breathe, and try to open their minds to enlightenment.

Keith also brought up the subject of spiritual training, and just as Lance predicted, Allura was more than happy to comply. As the Avatar, Allura insisted that Keith had just as strong a connection to the Spirit World as she did, if not more so, but thus far Keith hadn’t been able to tap into those powers.

Keith kept training in the other elements too, of course. Pidge had finally deemed him ready to start working with metal, which he had an infinitely easier time figuring out than water or air. Pidge claimed it was because she was a better teacher than the others, prompting an argument that somehow turned into a sudden battle of the elements.

“Alright, here are the rules,” Coran said, hands on his hips. “When I give the signal, you all have fifteen minutes to make whatever preparations you might need. Once that time is up, the goal is to capture that flag,” Coran pointed down the large gully at where a bright yellow scrap of cloth was tied to a stick planted in the dirt, “and bring it back to camp. You may only use bending as a weapon, and Keith, you’re only allowed to use fire. On your marks! Go!”

The players all shot off in different directions.

Not really needing much in the way of preparations, since Keith could make fire without having to rely on the environment, the Avatar made his way down the gully to find a strategic spot to wait. Settling in the branches of a large tree, hidden by its foliage, Keith observed the area with a scrutinizing eye.

The bottom of the gully was a wide, open patch of dirt surrounded by trees and other shrubbery. A small but steady trickle of water still flowed through the terrain, no doubt something to watch out for when Lance showed up. Smack dab in the middle of the bare expanse of land was the makeshift flag.

A piercing whistle echoed through the air. The fifteen minutes were up.

Keith sprang into action, leaping down from his perch and running toward the flag, keeping an eye out for hostiles. Surprisingly, he made it all the way to the center and grabbed the cloth before someone intervened.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Lance skated down the small stream, bending the water to freeze Keith’s feet to the ground. “Gotcha!” He reached out to pluck the flag out of Keith’s hand but was forced to abort the action and twist out of the way of Keith’s fireball.

While Lance regained his footing, Keith started to melt the block of ice trapping his feet. Before he could finish, Lance tackled Keith onto his back.

How did this keep happening.

“We really need to stop meeting like this,” Lance winked as he tauntingly waved the flag.

Before Keith could make a snarky retort, an orange and white blur zoomed past them, snatching the flag out Lance’s grasp with a cackle.

“Allura!” Lance leapt up to chase the Air Nomad, bending a trail of ice in front of himself to catch up with her air scooter.

Keith scrambled to melt the remaining ice around his feet and used a blast of fire to propel himself as he joined them.

Allura was riding the ball of air backwards, sticking her tongue out at the two boys when Lance shouted, “Allura, watch out!”

Blinking, she turned around just in time to see a thick wall of earth rise up directly in her path. Allura used a gust of wind to slow herself in time to avoid crashing into the obstacle only for three more walls to shoot up around her, boxing her in. Stone bars grew across the top.

“I’ll take that,” Hunk reached down through the bars and stole the flag from the pouting Airbender. His smile dropped when he turned to find Lance almost upon him with Keith not far behind.

“Uh oh,” Hunk hastily threw up another wall to block the strong blast of water.

Keith and Lance came to a halt in front of Hunk. Exchanging glances in silent agreement, the two charged at the Earthbender in unison.

“Oh, so we’re making alliances now, huh?” Hunk demanded as he fended off their combined attacks. “Well, in that case...Pidge! Now!”

Keith and Lance ceased their actions, tensing in anticipation.

...Only for Hunk to turn around and start running away.

“Just kidding!” he called over his shoulder.

“Hunk!” Lance shrieked in outrage as he gave chase once more. Keith was hot on his heels, as was Allura who had finally escaped her prison.

Hunk was undeniably the slowest of the group and had to make up for it by bending obstacles behind him, which forced the others to dodge and leap over both walls and pits. Even so, they were steadily gaining on him.

Hunk had nearly made it back to camp when a thin metal pole tripped him, causing the Earthbender to fall flat on his face.

Pidge smugly picked up the flag from where he had dropped it as the other three skidded to a halt beside him.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” said Lance, as Hunk picked himself back up.

Pidge grinned.

“I figured I’d let you guys tire each other out a bit before joining the fray.”

The five benders found themselves in a standoff, eyeing each other warily.

Keith wasn’t sure who made the first move, but within moments they were tangled up in one big scuffle, elements seemingly forgotten in favor of old fashioned roughhousing.

“Ow! That was my nose!”

“Lance, stop pulling on my hair!

“I’m not, that was Hunk!”

“No, it wasn’t!”

“Wait, who has the flag?”

“Meow.”

The group went still and looked down.

A tiger bear cub blinked up at them, the flag in its mouth. After a moment of silence, the cub simply turned and trotted away with its prize.

Keith, Lance, Allura, Hunk, and Pidge stared at its retreating figure. In unison, they met each other’s eyes and burst into laughter

-----

“Keith, may I speak to you for a moment?”

Keith set aside the whet stone he’d been using to sharpen his knife and gestured for Allura to take a seat. The Airbender gracefully perched next to him on the large log.

“Now that you have mastered the basics of the four elements, I believe it’s time to start thinking about your responsibilities as the Avatar.”

“Which responsibilities are we talking about, exactly?” Keith asked warily.

Allura squared her shoulders and sat up taller, eyes bright with purpose.

“What do you know about the Elemental Guardians?”

Keith wracked his brain.

“They're four spirits who protect each nation. They take the form of lions, I think?”

“That's correct,” Allura nodded. “The Lions have watched over the world for as long as the four nations have existed.” Allura’s eyes darkened. “Ten years ago, the White Lion of Air disappeared. My fellow Air Nomads and I have been searching for her ever since but have had no success. I was hoping you might be willing to aid us. As the Avatar, you possess a connection to the spirits that the rest of us lack.”

“I dunno,” Keith replied dubiously. “So far I haven't been able to access the Spirit World at all, even with your training.”

“Don't worry, you’ve been making excellent progress. I'm sure you'll figure it out soon,” she smiled gently. “So can we count on your help? Finding the White Lion is of the utmost importance. The world needs all four to keep balance. Without them, things have already started to fall into chaos.”

“I'll do what I can,” promised Keith. “After I find Shiro.”

Allura's relieved smile slipped away.

“Oh, I was actually hoping we could go to the Northern Air Temple tomorrow,” she said. “That way you can meet some of our leaders and learn all you need to know about the Lions.”

“The Northern Air Temple?” Keith repeated in shock. “I thought we were heading to Ba Sing Se?”

“We are,” Allura assured him, “but the temple is close by so I thought we could make a quick detour. This really is very important.”

“So is finding my brother,” Keith growled with narrowed eyes.

Allura pursed her lips.

“It won’t take long, I promise. Besides, I already contacted the monks and told them we were on the way.”

Keith leapt to his feet in outrage.

“You what?! Without even asking me first? What if I didn’t agree to this ‘detour’?”

“I’m asking you now,” Allura argued. She stood as well and placed her hands on her hips. “And I’m sorry, but I didn’t think you’d be opposed. It’s your duty—”

“I don’t care about my duty, I care about Shiro!”

“I’m sure he’s perfectly alright, and this really cannot wait any longer.”

“You don’t know that! He could be in danger!”

“Even if he is, you have an obligation as the Avatar! You cannot place one man’s life above the rest of the world.”

“Watch me,” Keith snarled as he spun on his heel and stormed away.

-----

“Hey, man.”

Lance plopped down next to Keith, dangling his long legs over the edge of the large outcropping of rock. Keith didn’t acknowledge him, curled up with his arms around his knees as he stared out at the horizon.

The two watched in silence as the sun turned the azure sky a dusky pink. It would have been romantic under different circumstances. As it was, Lance forced himself to speak.

“Listen—”

“I know it’s my duty as the Avatar to help people and put the world above my own needs,” Keith interrupted with a scowl, “and I’m okay with that, really. But I can’t abandon Shiro. He’s my brother, and he’s done so much to help me.” Keith sighed, hunching his shoulders to make himself even smaller. “Things would be so much easier if Allura was the Avatar. She’s already so full of purpose and belief in her destiny.”

“Allura would make a pretty good Avatar,” Lance agreed, “but don’t sell yourself short. You’re the most talented bender I know, and you may try to hide it but I’ve seen how much you care about other people. You’re an amazing Avatar, Keith.” Lance slung an arm around Keith, tugging at him gently until the other boy gave in and shuffled closer.

“And I get it, about your brother” Lance added. “Allura will too, she just needs some time. She’s been trying to save the world for nearly a decade, and now that you’re here, that goal is finally within reach. You can’t blame her for getting a little ahead of herself.” He shot the Firebender a look. “You two are more similar than you think.”

Keith glanced up at him, his dark eyelashes looking even longer in contrast to the white hair framing his face.

“We are?”

“Yeah,” Lance finally succumbed to the desire that had been teasing him for days and ran his fingers through Keith’s hair, marveling at how soft it was. “You’re both total badasses who think you know what’s best and are too stubborn for your own good.”

Keith melted closer with a sigh, practically purring under Lance’s touch.

“You sure you’re not just talking about yourself?”

Lance let out a chuckle.

“Trust me, I’ve got nothing on you guys.”

-----

When Keith and Lance finally returned to the camp, long after the sun had gone down, Allura came over to meet them, looking contrite.

“Keith," she greeted. “I want to apologize. I sometimes get so focused on the mission that I forget there are other, equally important factors to take into account. I’m sorry.”

Remembering Lance’s words, Keith offered her a sheepish smile.

“I guess we have that in common. Look,” Keith met her gaze with serious eyes. “I want to help you. I do. And I promise I’ll do everything in my power to find the White Lion. But I have to make sure my brother is safe first.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Allura conceded. “Where is he?”

“The plan was to meet in Ba Sing Se. Shiro has a friend at the University, Samuel Holt. He agreed to provide refuge and help us forge new identities.”

“Wait,” Pidge interjected from her seat by the fire. “That can’t be right.”

Keith turned to her with a frown.

“What do you mean?”

“Samuel Holt is my father.”

Lance blinked, his face scrunching up in confusion.

“I thought you said your dad’s been missing for a year?”

“He has.”

“What? Then who wrote those letters to Shiro?” Keith suddenly turned pale. “That must be how Lotor found us the night we escaped.”

“Which means he also knows you’re going to Ba Sing Se and probably has some kind of trap waiting for you,” Pidge added grimly.

“Well, this is a good thing, right?” Hunk asked. “Now you know.”

“Yes,” Keith’s eyes darkened. “But Shiro doesn’t. If there is a trap, he’ll be walking right into it.”

Chapter Text

Over the last few months, Keith always imagined he’d feel an immense wave of relief once they finally made it to the famed walled city.

Instead, Keith felt like he was marching to the gallows.

He couldn’t stop the thoughts bouncing around frantically in his head. Had Shiro already made it to Ba Sing Se? Had he been captured? Shiro was smart, maybe he figured out it was a trap and was laying low waiting to warn Keith. Oh Spirits, what if he never even made it out of the Fire Nation in the first place? What if this whole time, while Keith had been going to festivals and playing capture the flag, Shiro was wasting away in a prison cell wondering why his brother hadn’t come to break him out?

A warm hand covered his own, stopping the staccato tapping of his fingers and jolting him out of his spiraling panic. Keith raised his head to meet Lance’s concerned eyes.

“You okay?” he asked softly.

“Not really,” Keith admitted. “I’m worried about Shiro.”

Lance squeezed his hand with a smile.

“I’m sure he’s fine. And if he isn’t, we’ll just have to rescue him. No big.”

Keith let out a little huff of laughter.

“I guess you’re right.”

“Usually am,” Lance winked.

Allura turned to let them know they were almost at the city. Keith’s nerves returned with a vengeance, and he gripped Lance’s hand for support. The Waterbender didn’t seem to mind.

“Now remember our cover story,” Pidge said sternly as they began to descend. “Keep it simple. We’re just a group of friends out traveling the world. Hunk and I are thinking about applying for the University, so we dragged you guys along to take a tour. And, of course, Keith can bend air and nothing else.”

“I mean, that is basically why Hunk and I were going,” Lance shrugged.

“It is?”

Now Keith felt a pang of guilt on top of everything else as he realized he had never actually asked for the others’ reasons for going to the metropolis. He’d been pretty distracted by being on the run and then the Avatar business and then getting kidnapped, but still.

Lance didn’t seem fazed though, and broke into a wide grin.

“Yeah! Hunk and I met when we were little but since we lived on different continents, the majority of our friendship has been as pen pals. But we really wanted to do something fun together before our family’s made us settle down and get jobs, and Hunk was thinking about going to the University in Ba Sing Se and wanted to check it out, so I just tagged along,” Lance chuckled bashfully, rubbing the back of his neck. “I know compared to you and Pidge, our reasons must seem kinda boring…”

Keith shook his head with a smile.

“Not at all. If anything, I’m just glad you weren’t about to reveal another dramatic secret. I think I’ve had enough of those for a lifetime. If you told me you were actually the son of the Water Tribe chief on a mission to assassinate the Earth Queen or something, I’d probably jump off this flying bison.”

“Don’t worry,” Lance assured. “I’m just his great nephew.”

Keith snorted but when Lance didn’t join in, Keith paused.

“Wait, are you serious?”

“It’s not a big deal, there are like, fifteen people between me and the throne—Keith, no!”

Lance latched onto Keith as he moved towards the edge of the saddle, Keith trying valiantly to keep his deadpan expression in the face of Lance’s laughter.

-----

They were never going to find Shiro.

Not because something nefarious had befallen him, no. But because Ba Sing Se was fucking huge. The National University alone was nearly as big as the Fire Nation’s whole capital. How were they supposed to track down Shiro without giving themselves away when their only point of contact was a man that hadn’t been seen in months and who, if they asked for, would probably alert all of Lotor’s spies that they were here?

The only good news was that Keith’s disguise appeared to be a success, as no one gave him a second glance despite several more wanted posters plastered around the city. That was one less thing to worry about, but didn’t really help with their main objective. The group split up and spent hours wandering the campus, keeping an eye out for anyone matching Shiro’s description, and an ear to the ground for rumors of Shiro or Lotor.

“Maybe Allura could try that spirit tracking spell,” Lance suggested after the third unsuccessful day of searching. “Like she used to find you.”

When they all turned to the Airbender, she shook her head.

“I’m afraid that would only work if I had something imbued with his aura. And even then, this city is so crowded, it would be extremely difficult to pinpoint an individual soul. Although,” she tapped her cheek, looking skyward in concentration, “if I was already familiar with it, I might have a chance.”

“But you’ve never met Shiro, have you?” Pidge asked.

“No,” Allura replied, “but I imagine Keith is close enough to him that he would be able to recognize it even here.”

“Me?” Keith blinked. “But I still haven’t been able to visit the Spirit World or enter the Avatar state. I doubt I’d be able to do such a complicated technique.”

“It’s up to you, of course,” Allura said. “I’m just not sure what other options we have right now, besides continuing to search on foot.”

Keith furrowed his eyebrows in thought. After a moment he nodded.

“Let’s give it a try.”

-----

Keith sat cross legged on the floor, eyes closed as Allura’s voice washed over him in soothing tones. Twilight shone through the sheer curtains of the room they were staying in.

“Empty your mind,” Allura murmured. “Find that which connects you to the Spirit World. Let the physical fall away.”

Breathing rhythmically, Keith let himself fall into the meditative state that had become familiar after days of practice.

“Now,” Allura continued, “focus on the bond between you and Shiro. Recall how you feel when the two of you are together.”

A picture of his brother came forth in his mind. Emotions welled up inside him. Affection. Trust. Gratitude. Worry. They swirled together like a storm in a bottle.

The more he thought about Shiro, the greater his concern became, chasing the peaceful zen from his grasp. How was he supposed to empty his mind if all he could think about was Shiro being tortured or worse?

With a sigh of frustration, Keith opened his eyes.

“Allura, this isn't working. We’ve been at it for hours, maybe we should try something else.”

Allura didn't respond, deep in meditation. Keith got up and padded over to her.

“Allura?”

The Avatar reached out to touch her shoulder only to gasp when his hand went right through. Glancing around with wide eyes, Keith finally noticed things looked...off. Like the colors weren't quite right. Keith whipped around to look back at where he had been sitting and sure enough, there was his body.

He had done it. Keith stared down at his hands. Looking closer, he could see that they were slightly translucent. Struck with a thought, Keith lifted his feet and grinned when he hovered above the floor.

Keith gave himself a little shake. As exciting as this was, he had a mission. He successfully astral projected, but how to find Shiro?

Suddenly he became aware of a presence behind him. Keith spun around and his eyes widened.

Standing before him was a huge lion, crimson in color and faintly glowing. His large mane flickered around his head like flames. Keith cautiously glided closer to the spirit.

“You're the Red Lion of Fire,” he breathed. “What are you doing here?” He glanced back at Allura. “We've been trying to find the White Lion. Do you know where she is?”

If the Lion could speak, he gave no indication, merely staring back at Keith impassively.

“Okay,” Keith frowned thoughtfully. Maybe he sensed Keith’s worry and came to help him. Allura did say they had a special connection. “I'm looking for my brother. Have you seen him?”

At this, the Lion turned and looked back at Keith. He still didn't speak, but Keith felt an impression of thought push against his mind.

“You...want me to get on?”

The Lion nodded and Keith floated higher in the air, settling down on the beast’s back. Not sure where to hold on, Keith simply gripped the strands of his long crimson mane.

Once Keith was ready, the Red Lion shot off. Keith let out a small yelp at they barreled through the wall of the third floor bedroom.

Oh right, they were in spirit form. Keith could feel the Lion's amusement at his expense, but any embarrassment was quickly forgotten as they ascended higher and higher.

Keith couldn't help the thrill that ran through him. Allura's bison was great, but this was a whole new level of freedom.

The Red Lion's paws raced over an invisible path as they flew across the sky. The setting sun cast a warm glow as it sank below the horizon and bathed the city below in golden hues.

Keith wasn't sure how much time passed but soon they were touching down. Dismounting, Keith kept one hand buried in the Red Lion's mane as they walked through the area.

The Lion had brought him to what appeared to be an abandoned section of the slums just outside the city. Or at least, Keith thought it was abandoned, but as he followed the Lion down the decrepit street, he noticed guards scattered here and there, hidden in alleys and peeking through boarded up windows.

Although no one should be able to see or hear them, Keith remained vigilant as the Lion led him into a house. They passed a few soldiers posted around the entryways and found two more standing in front of a locked door. Keith and the Red Lion phased through the door and walked down the stairs into a large cellar.

Huddled in a makeshift jail cell was a single figure.

“Shiro!”

Keith rushed over to examine his brother. Shiro clutched his arm like it was injured and the bags under his eyes suggested he hadn't slept well in days, but Keith didn't see anything that looked immediately life threatening, thank the Spirits.

Keith kneeled beside his brother, and wished he could communicate with him somehow.

“Don't worry, Shiro. I'll get you out of here, I promise.”

The two Firebenders looked up as the cell door swung open.

“Good evening, Shiro. How are you holding up? You gave the guards quite the run around today.”

Keith's blood ran cold despite not being in his body.

Shiro merely glared.

“Pretty sure they broke my arm so I’d say we’re even.”

“Yes, a pity that happened to you,” Lotor agreed amicably as he walked down the steps. “I'm more than willing to bring a healer in to look at it. All I ask in return is that you tell me where Keith is.”

Shiro bared his teeth.

“Never.”

Keith was reeling. He knew Lotor had sent people after him, but he never expected the prince himself to be here in Ba Sing Se.

Lotor let out a put upon sigh.

“Very well. It really makes little difference to me in the end. Sooner or later, Keith will come to Ba Sing Se looking for you, or someone will recognize him and take him back to the Fire Nation. Either way, the result is the same.”

“Keith is smart, and he has good instincts,” Shiro replied. “He’ll figure out something is wrong.”

“Oh, I'm counting on it,” Lotor smirked. “It wouldn’t be much fun otherwise, now would it?”

“Is that all this is to you?” Shiro demanded. “A game?”

“Of course not. You may not believe me, but I truly care for you brother,” Lotor said. “Though I will confess, his defiance is...refreshing. Keith challenges me like no one ever has.”

“And so you fell for him, is that it? You’re right, I don’t believe you.”

“I need not prove anything to you,” Lotor sneered. “But know this. I do love Keith and he will be mine. He may be reluctant at first, but over time I’m sure he will come to his senses. Now,” with a billowing of his robes, Lotor swept out of the cell, “I suggest you try and get some sleep, and I’ll see about getting someone to come take a look at that arm in the morning. Wouldn’t want Keith to think I’ve been mistreating you, now would we?”

-----

“Lance, cut it out. Staring at him isn’t gonna make Keith come back any faster.”

Lance tore his gaze from where it had been glued to Keith’s lifeless body to glower at Pidge.

“I can’t help it. He looks like a corpse and it’s been hours! Shouldn’t he have woken up by now? What if something happened? What if he’s stuck in the Spirit World?” Lance let out a loud gasp. “What if Keith got eaten by a spirit monster?!”

“I assure you, Keith did not get eaten,” Allura rolled her eyes. She had become much more casual with them over time. Usually Lance was all for that, but he didn’t appreciate her sass right now. “He’s not even technically in the Spirit World. He just astral projected his own spirit into the physical world, so while he might come across other spirits, I highly doubt he’s in any real danger.”

Lance crossed his arms and pouted.

“Well, that’s good, but why isn’t he back yet?”

Allura shrugged, a concerned frown marring her face.

“I’m afraid I don’t know.”

Lance sighed and turned his gaze back to the Avatar. After getting the okay from Allura, they had moved Keith’s body into a more comfortable position laying on the bed. Honestly, it looked more like he was sleeping than dead, as his chest moved with slow breaths and he retained the color in his cheeks. But still. Maybe it was the knowledge that Keith’s spirit was elsewhere, but Lance felt unease looking at him.

No one said anything as Lance moved to perch beside him on the bed. Taking Keith’s limp hand in one of his own, Lance used his other hand to gently brush Keith’s ivory bangs away from his closed eyes.

“Please wake up soon, Keith,” he murmured. “We’re all starting to get pretty worried.”

As if on cue, Keith’s hand gave the tiniest of twitches. Lance squeezed back, leaning forward eagerly with wide eyes.

“Keith?”

As the others gathered around, Keith’s eyes slowly fluttered open to see Lance’s grinning face.

“Lance?”

“Hey, man. Welcome back.”

Keith moved to sit up only to stumble and clutch his head like he had gotten dizzy. Lance scrambled to help prop him up, wrapping an arm around the smaller boy’s shoulders for support.

“Woah, it feels weird to be back in my body,” Keith said.

Allura nodded.

“It can be a bit jarring the first few times. You should re-adjust fairly quickly.”

True to her words, within moments Keith recovered and told them about what he had learned. He didn’t move away from where he was leaning against Lance though, and Lance, in turn, kept his arm around the Avatar.

“So Shiro is here after all,” concluded Pidge. “You didn’t happen to hear anything about my dad, did you?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

Pidge sighed.

“Worth a shot.”

“So what’s the plan?” asked Hunk. “Are we just gonna bust in and rescue him?”

To everyone’s surprise, Keith shook his head.

“Normally I’d say yes, but it turns out Lotor is here too,” he explained, “and as much as I’d like to punch him in his smug face, it would probably be smarter to try and avoid him.”

“Stealth it is, then,” Pidge said. “But how? If this is a trap, that means they’ll be expecting us. They’ve probably got guards around the whole area. It’s gonna be pretty difficult to get in or out.”

After a moment of contemplative silence, Hunk turned to Keith.

“Hey, I know you flew there on a magical lion and everything, but if I showed you a map of Ba Sing Se, do you think you could pinpoint Shiro’s location?”

Keith nodded.

“You have an idea?”

Hunk grinned and outlined his plan.

After some deliberation, the group decided to rescue Shiro the following night, once they’d made the necessary preparations.

‘Just hold on, Shiro,’ Keith thought. ‘We’re coming.’

-----

Keith followed closely behind Hunk as the Earthbender forged a tunnel several feet underground, a small flame in the Avatar’s hand to light their way. Behind them, Lance and Allura walked single file, with Pidge bringing up the rear, ready to Earthbend at any sign of trouble.

Eventually, Hunk slowed to a stop and turned to his companions.

“Okay, if my calculations are right, based on the location Keith showed us, we should be getting pretty close to Shiro’s cell. I’m gonna start tunneling at more of an incline so we’re closer to the surface once we get there. Pidge, see if you can feel where he is.”

Hunk continued his work and Keith could feel the ground beneath his feet start to gently slope upwards. After about fifteen minutes, Pidge halted them.

“There’s someone sitting right above us,” she said. “And a bunch more scattered around the building and surrounding area. I’m pretty sure the one by himself is Shiro.”

Hunk began digging straight up, careful to go slowly and quietly as possible. They didn’t know if Lotor had hired any Earthbenders who might feel the vibrations. Finally, he motioned for Keith to go forward. The Avatar quickly climbed up using the footholds Hunk had cleverly thought to embed in the tunnel’s wall.

At the top, Keith used his own Earthbending to carve an opening in the floor and peaked out. Looking around, he found himself in the same room he had visited as a spirit. Huddled against the wall was Shiro, his arm now in a sling and his eyes closed in fitful slumber.

After double checking no one else was in the cellar, Keith hoisted himself out of the tunnel and padded over to Shiro, vaguely aware of the others climbing out behind him.

Careful not to jostle his injury, Keith gently shook his brother’s shoulder.

“Shiro,” he whispered. “Wake up.”

Shiro’s eyes snapped open, flame gathered in his left palm, his whole body rigid with tension. Upon recognizing Keith, however, the fire went out and Shiro stared in disbelief.

“Keith? How did you...” Shiro’s gaze flitted between Keith and his friends. “Who…”

Keith shook his head.

“I’ll explain everything later, but for now we have to get out of here.”

The older Firebender seemed to get over his shock, and his eyes became serious.

“Keith, you can’t be here,” he warned. “It’s a trap.”

“I know, that’s why we have to leave now, before Lotor realizes we’re here,” Keith pulled his brother’s uninjured arm over his shoulders and helped him to his feet.

Lance scurried to Shiro’s other side to lend support as well.

Shiro shook his head urgently.

“No, Keith, you don’t understand—”

“What your brother is trying to say,” a smooth voice cut in, “is that it’s already far too late.”

Keith froze and his eyes darted up to the cellar door. There stood the prince of the Fire Nation, surrounded by a handful of guards and a couple of men who appeared to be Earthbenders, judging by their clothes. Wearing that charming yet condescending smile Keith was oh so familiar with, Lotor walked down the stairs with an air of casual grace.

“I’m impressed,” he said, “I thought I would catch you when you went looking for your brother at the University, and that there was only a slim chance you’d make it all the way here. But then, you have always exceeded my expectations. That’s why I hired these fine gentlemen to monitor the area. They felt you coming a mile away.” The prince tapped his bottom lip, gazing upward as if in thought. “Well, perhaps not quite a mile, but you get the idea.”

Lotor’s gaze swept over the others.

“I also didn’t expect you to bring guests. Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

“No,” Keith scowled.

Lotor shrugged.

“No matter. Depending on how this goes, they might not be around much longer anyway.”

Keith’s friends all shifted into combat ready positions. Keith himself moved so that he was slightly blocking Shiro, who wasn’t in any condition to fight.

“Is that a threat?” Keith snarled.

Lotor’s lackeys shifted stances as well, but the prince merely sighed and raised his hands in a peaceful gesture.

“Not at all.” His smile was the fakest looking one Keith had seen yet. “I just meant that soon you and I will return to the Fire Nation and I’m afraid your little friends here will not be welcome to join us.”

“Keith isn’t going anywhere with you!” Lance interrupted. His blue eyes were dark as he glared at the prince.

Lotor regarded the Waterbender with cool disinterest for a moment then turned back to Keith.

“Come now, my dear,” he held out his hand, ignoring Lance’s spluttering. “You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to go home.”  

Before Keith could respond, Lance stepped forward, fire in his eyes.

“Why don’t you get it? Keith doesn’t want to go with you! In fact, he hates your guts!”

Like a switch had been flipped, Lotor’s magnanimous smile shattered, replaced by rage. Lance only barely managed to avoid the plume of blue fire by lunging out of the way, though judging by the smell in the air, his clothes had been singed.

Everyone else took this as a sign that the standoff was over and leapt into battle. Elements and weapons of every kind clashed. Lotor didn’t even pause as he rained more strikes upon the Waterbender.

“Lance!” Keith moved to help him but Lance’s shout stopped him in his tracks.

“Get Shiro to safety!” Lance ordered, ducking a fiery kick. “I got this!”

Keith hesitated, reluctant to leave the other boy to fight Lotor one on one, but he knew Lance was right. Judging by the way he still slumped against Keith, his brother was more injured than he let on, so there was no way he could leave Shiro alone in what had become a war zone or let him join the fight.

Keith started to lead Shiro back to the tunnel but quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to escape that way when Lotor had Earthbenders on his side. They could easily follow them or even collapse the tunnel. They would have to find another way out.

“Allura,” Keith shuffled over to the Airbender. “Can you summon Platt? We’re gonna need a ride.”

“I can try,” she answered while deflecting a flying chunk of rock. “He’s back at the inn so it could take awhile for him to get here.”

“Do it,” Keith said.

His gaze swept over the room. The cellar wasn’t that small, but there were quite a few combatants in the limited space. They’d have a better chance out in the open, plus that way it would be easier to get to Platt.

Just as he was trying to think of the best way to get everyone outside short of just running upstairs and hoping they would all follow, the answer came in the form of of Lance and Lotor.

The two had been dueling for the last few minutes, bending their respective elements and dodging each other’s attacks. Suddenly, Lotor blasted a huge fireball at the same time Lance shot a wave of water. The two blue elements collided and instantly filled the room with hot steam. Several startled cries rang out. Not only was it hard to see but Keith could already feel his clothes becoming damp as sweat beaded on his brow.

A tunnel of wind blew across the room clearing a path.

“This way!” Allura’s voice shouted.

Keith tightened his grip on Shiro and hurried into the air tunnel. It was instantly cooler and he could see the exit.

Unfortunately, it also made him a visible target.

Keith didn’t see the shadow reaching out from the cloud of steam but Shiro did.

“Keith, watch out!”

Shiro pushed Keith out of the way just as one of the Fire Nation soldiers attacked with a sword, the air too humid to Firebend. The tip of the blade slashed across his skin and Shiro fell to the ground.

Keith saw red. Without thinking, he bent the moisture out of the air to form a water whip and slammed it against the soldier’s chest, sending him flying into the wall. When the soldier didn’t get back up, Keith spun and dropped down next to his brother.

“Shiro! Are you okay?” Keith asked worriedly.

Shiro grimaced and brought his hand down from where it had been clutching his face. The blade had cut a thin line across the bridge of his nose. It looked painful but thankfully not life threatening.

“I’ll be alright,” he said as Keith slung his arm over his shoulders again. “But did you just...bend water?”

“Oh, um, yeah,” Keith said, helping Shiro up the stairs. “There’s a lot I need to tell you, but long story short, I’m the Avatar?”

Shiro blinked. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then blinked again.

“Oh,” he finally said. “Okay.”

“That’s it?” Keith quirked an eyebrow. “Okay?”

“Oh, we’ll talk more, trust me,” Shiro replied. “Once we’re out of mortal danger and I can freak out without getting us all killed.”

They finally made it out to the blissfully arid surface to find most of the others had already escaped the cellar and resumed their fight. Allura blew into her bison whistle as she traded blows with an enemy Earthbender, and Pidge and Hunk worked together against three Fire Nation soldiers. Lance and Lotor were nowhere to be seen.

Keith brought Shiro into an alley a little ways away and set him down.

“I have to go find Lance,” he said. “You stay here, out of sight. Allura is calling her sky bison, so if it gets here before I get back, get on it, okay?”

“Wha—Keith,” Shiro struggled to get up. “I don’t—”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have time to explain! Lance needs my help!” Keith raced back into the building, ignoring Shiro’s calls.

He raced back down into the cellar. The steam had dissipated somewhat thanks to Allura’s bending, but it was still hard to see anything.

“Lance?” Keith called out. “Are you in here?”

Just as he was debating Airbending the rest of the steam out, Keith heard a low groan. He hurried toward the source and found Lance lying prone on the ground.

“Lance!” Keith kneeled down beside the other boy. “Are you okay?”

Lance gave a weak cough but managed to shoot Keith a crooked smile.

“Think I mighta blacked out there for a minute, but other than that I’m golden.”

Keith gently ran his fingers over Lance’s scalp and Lance winced as he brushed against a large bump. There was a bit of blood on his fingers when he pulled them away.

“You might have a concussion,” Keith bit his lip.

“I bet you could kiss it better,” Lance grinned lopsidedly.

Keith chuckled.

“Maybe later. First, let’s get out of here so you can see a real doctor.”

“And then kisses?”

“We’ll see.”

Keith stood back up and reached down to help Lance to his feet.

Before Lance could take his hand, someone grabbed Keith’s wrist and yanked the Avatar away. His back hit a wall and Keith looked up to see Lotor’s face leering down at him.

“Hello again,” the prince purred. “Looks like I’ve finally caught you. I like you hair, by the way. Did you miss me that much?”

Lotor’s own silvery locks had never been anything less than perfect, even during the Agni Kai. Now, however, they were in disarray, no doubt from the fighting and the steam. The loose hairs around his face, combined with his wide eyes and shortness of breath, gave the prince a rather manic appearance.

Keith scowled. He tried to pull his wrist out of Lotor’s grasp but the prince didn’t budge. Keith brought his other hand up to punch him but Lotor caught that one as well.

“Let me go,” Keith snarled.

“So you can do what?” Lotor replied. “Even if you could Firebend in here, we both know who would win, so why even bother resisting?”

Lotor leaned in closer, crowding Keith back against the wall.

“Or are you that concerned over this pathetic little Waterbender?” Lotor shot Lance a derisive look as Lance struggled to get up off the ground. “Look at him. What could he possibly offer you?”

“Let. Me. Go.” Keith growled.

“Or. What?” Lotor mocked.

“Keith!”

Lance could barely stand but he threw the remains of his water whip at them. Lotor’s condescending sneer became wide-eyed shock as Keith slipped out of his grasp and bent the water to push Lotor against the wall in his place. Before the prince could recover, Keith froze the whip and pulled more moisture from the air to trap him against the wall, though he was careful to leave enough humidity to keep it difficult for Lotor to Firebend his way out.

Keith unsheathed his mother’s knife and held it up to the prince’s throat. Lotor didn’t look scared though. If anything, the way he looked at Keith could only be described as...hungry. Keith decided to ignore how disconcerted that made him feel.

“Call off the engagement,” he demanded. “And the bounty on me.”

“Or what?” Lotor asked casually. “You’ll kill me?”

“You think I won’t?” Keith narrowed his eyes and pressed the blade harder.

“No, I don’t,” Lotor replied. He paused for a long moment. “However, in light of recent...revelations, I’m willing to grant your request.”

“You are?” Keith warily pulled back. “Why the sudden change of heart?”

“On the contrary, my heart remains as it has always been. Yours. But I realize now that taking you back by force will only make you keep trying to get away. So I’ve decided instead I’ll make you want to be with me.”

“That’s never going to happen.”

“We’ll see. But I promise, on my honor, if you let me go now, I’ll call off my men and you and your little friends can leave. And I’ll send word to cancel the bounty,” Lotor added.

Keith regarded the prince for another moment before he bent the ice away. Keeping an eye on him, Keith helped Lance to his feet and slung his arm over Keith’s shoulders.

“You’re just gonna believe him?” Lance glared at Lotor, which the prince returned with a curl of his lip.

“He swore on his honor,” Keith replied. “Trust me when I say that’s a big deal where we come from.”

The rest of the day went by in a surreal haze. They returned above ground to find Allura, Pidge, and Hunk fighting the last two soldiers, having already beaten the rest. Shiro was also helping them, despite Keith’s orders to stay out of harm’s way. They were all understandably confused when Lotor ordered his men to retreat and allowed them to get on Platt without any difficulty, but they seemed to accept Keith’s promise to explain things later.

Before they took off, Lotor called out, “Don’t think this is the end, Keith. We will meet again, and next time you’ll be coming to me of your own volition.”

The prince’s eyes glimmered in that way that always made Keith feel like he knew something Keith didn’t.

“Farewell, Avatar.”

As they flew into the sky, Keith looked back down to where Lotor stood. The prince’s hungry eyes remained locked with his own until he disappeared from sight.

Chapter Text

“Hey, you changed your hair back.”

Keith looked up from his book to see Lance enter the room. His hand drifted up to touch his now black hair.

“Oh, yeah,” Keith replied. “Now that Lotor called off the bounty, there wasn’t much reason to keep the disguise.”

The prince had indeed kept his word and the numerous wanted posters vanished almost over night. Keith still kept his guard up when he went out, but in the past few days since rescuing Shiro, no one had bothered him.

Lance sat down next to Keith. Keith tried not to feel self conscious as the Waterbender’s eyes swept over him. In addition to his hair, Keith had also replaced the Airbender ensemble with his old Fire Nation outfit.

“I gotta say, the white hair was a good look, but,” Lance shot him a grin, “this is definitely more ‘you’. Red is totally your color.”

Keith smiled back.

“It feels more like me,” he said.

The Airbender robes were light and flexible, but Keith felt much more comfortable in his own clothes.

“Still got this, I see,” Lance reached up and playfully tweaked the hairband holding Keith’s ponytail.

Keith smirked.

“Well, it holds sentimental value.”

“Oh?” Lance shifted closer.

“Yeah,” Keith shrugged with feigned nonchalance. “I can’t quite remember why though.”

“Hm,” the hand playing with his ponytail traveled downward, nails lightly scratching against his scalp as Lance’s other hand snaked around his waist. “Maybe I can help you.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Keith scooted closer as well and brought his own hand up to fiddle coyly with a tassel on the front of Lance’s tunic.

“I have a few ideas,” Lance’s lips brushed against his own.

Knock knock.

The two sprang apart as Shiro poked his head through the door.

“Hey Keith, I—oh,” Shiro glanced between the red-faced benders and raised an eyebrow. “Did I interrupt something?”

“Nope,” Lance replied too loudly as he jumped up and walked passed Shiro, avoiding eye contact with everyone. “Good talk, Keith, see you later!”

Shiro watched with bemusement as the Waterbender disappeared down the hall. He turned back to look at his brother.

“Shut up,” Keith scowled, his face still matching the crimson of his tunic.

“I didn’t say anything,” Shiro sat down in the spot Lance had just vacated.

As Keith tried to will away his blush he saw Shiro side-eyeing him out of the corner of his eye.

“He seems nice.”

Keith felt the heat return to his cheeks at full force.

“Shut up,” he repeated.

Shiro chuckled only to cut himself off as he clutched at his side with a wince. All thoughts of his own embarrassment vanished and Keith turned his full attention to his brother.

“Are you okay? Do you need me to get the doctor?” he asked worriedly.

Shiro shook his head.

“Laughing just agitated my ribs a bit is all,” he assured him.

Keith swept his eyes over Shiro assessively. Apart from his arm in a sling and the bandage across his nose, Shiro looked like he was in pretty good condition, but Keith knew he was hiding multiple bruises under his clothes. The doctor had assured them there was no lasting damage though, and that with time and rest, Shiro would make a full recovery. He wouldn’t be able to Firebend very well until his arm healed, but Keith was confident that the rest of them could protect him until then if need be.

“So,” Shiro said after the pain had passed. “When you told me about your recent adventures, you neglected to mention you’d gotten a boyfriend,” Shiro waggled his eyebrows a bit.

Keith almost wished Shiro was in pain again. Almost.

“I don’t know if I’d call him my boyfriend,” Keith finally said after a stretch of silence. “We’ve really only been on one date.”

“Do you like him?”

Keith nodded shyly.

“Then that’s all that matters,” Shiro ruffled Keith’s hair, drawing an indignant squawk.

Pouting, Keith tried to pat his hair back into some semblance of order.

“I still can’t believe my little brother is the Avatar.”

“It’s taken some getting used to,” Keith admitted. “Even now, it feels like too much sometimes. Just getting you back was a huge undertaking, and now Allura’s asking me to find the White Lion when no one’s been able to for years. I want to help, of course, but what if I can’t?”

Shiro placed his uninjured hand on Keith’s shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze.

“You can, Keith. I know it. You’ve always been one of the most talented and resourceful people I’ve ever met, and you’ve never been afraid to tackle each new challenge that life throws at you. And this time, you’re not alone. The friends you’ve made will stand with you, and you know I’ll always be there to support you too.”

“I know,” Keith smiled. “Thanks, Shiro. That does actually make me feel a lot better.”

“Anytime.”

The two brothers smiled at each other in companionable silence for a moment before Keith cleared his throat.

“Anyway, enough about me. You still haven’t told me how you ended up as Lotor’s prisoner. What happened after we split up that night we escaped the Fire Nation?”

Shiro shrugged and ran a hand through his hair with a sheepish grin.

“Honestly, there’s not a lot to tell. My trip wasn’t nearly as eventful as yours, at least not until the end. After I managed to lose the guards, I had to lay low for awhile. When I finally escaped the capital, I set off on my own towards Ba Sing Se. From what you’ve told me, you guys took a less direct route than I did, which is probably why I still got there first.”

Keith nodded. Even discounting their detour from when he’d been kidnapped, the group’s travel plan had been slightly more scenic than practical, and Lance frequently insisted they stop to “appreciate the view,” or “enjoy their road trip,” or “check out that mysterious cave, come on guys it’ll be fun.” It had annoyed Keith to no end, but they never went so out of the way to warrant Keith leaving.

“I arrived in Ba Sing Se about a week before you rescued me,” Shiro grimaced. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t in the best condition. I’d been on the road for months and hadn’t seen any sign of Lotor’s men since crossing the border, so I let my guard down. Needless to say, as soon as I stepped foot into Sam’s office, they grabbed me.”

“I’m sorry, Shiro,” Keith said. “If I had just gotten there a couple days earlier…”

Shiro shook his head.

“Don’t blame yourself, Keith. If anything, I’m glad you weren’t there too. Who knows what would have happened,” his brother smirked. “You probably would have blown up the university, and then we’d be at war with the Earth Kingdom.”

Keith rolled his eyes.

“I’m not that bad,” he griped, though his lips quirked with mirth. “Besides, I’m pretty sure as the Avatar I get diplomatic immunity or something.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Eh,” Keith shrugged and the two grinned at each other.

After a moment, Keith reached over to hug his brother. The bridge of his nose prickled and Keith squeezed his eyes shut against the tears.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Shiro,” he mumbled into the fabric of Shiro’s shirt. “I missed you.”

Shiro wrapped his arms around Keith in return.

“Me too,” he said softly.

-----

“You met the Red Lion?” Allura repeated with wide eyes, her noodles temporarily forgotten.

They were all eating dinner together when Keith revealed his news.

“Yeah,” Keith nodded. “When I astral projected the Red Lion helped me. I think I might have summoned him by accident? He seemed to know what I was looking for and took me right to Shiro.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded, though she looked more hurt than angry.

Keith shrugged.

“Sorry, I was pretty preoccupied with rescuing Shiro as soon as possible. I didn’t even think about it until now.”

“I suppose that’s understandable,” that determined spark returned to Allura’s eyes. “But this is wonderful news! If you were able to summon the Red Lion, perhaps you can do so with the White Lion.”

“I’ll give it a shot,” Keith said. “But I think it was more the Lion’s choice to appear than anything I did.”

“Well, it doesn’t hurt to try,” Allura agreed, returning to her food with renewed energy.

“That’s so cool that you met one of the Lions,” Hunk piped up. “I’ve only heard about them in stories. Is it true they’re as big as a sky bison?”

“The Red Lion was bigger than an ostrich horse but much smaller than a sky bison,” Keith shook his head. “It was in spirit form though, so who knows if it’s different in physical form.”

“Nah, that sounds about right,” Lance slurped his broth straight from the bowl, ignoring the disgusted looks Allura shot him. “The Blue Lion is about the size of a polar bear dog.”

“You’ve seen the Blue Lion?” asked Pidge.

Lance nodded.

“Yeah, my great-uncle is the chief of the Northern Water Tribe. We’re not that close since my family lives out in the city, but we visit from time to time. I only got to see the Lion once though. She like, never leaves the inner sanctum.”

Allura nodded sadly.

“There was a time when the Lions would freely roam amongst the people. They were an image of hope, just like the Avatar," she said. "But something happened a few generations ago, and since then the rulers of the four nations have kept a much tighter leash on them, so to speak. It only got worse when the White Lion disappeared. Now anyone is lucky to see one.”

“What happened to make them change like that?” asked Pidge.

“I’m not sure,” Allura admitted. “Much of the written history from that period of time was intentionally erased. All we know is that some great calamity occurred and the Lions were almost destroyed. In order to protect them, the rulers locked them away and ordered the Lions to never leave their side without permission.”

“They can do that?” Shiro asked.

“The Lions have their own wills, but they form a...contract of sorts with the ruler of each nation. A bond, if you will,” the Airbender explained. “The ruler cannot force a Lion to go against its credo. For example the Lions cannot wage war against another nation as it contradicts their instinct to protect, but they can order them to do pretty much anything else.”

“Including hiding away from the very people they watch over,” concluded Pidge.

“Yes. That is why the Avatar is so important,” she turned her gaze to Keith. “Unlike the Lions, you are not bound to a single nation. This means you have more responsibility, but also more freedom. You get to choose where to place your loyalty.”

“Huh. I like the sound of that,” Keith smiled.

Allura returned the smile briefly before it slipped away.

“My father, the current leader of the Air Nomads, was much less strict with the White Lion than his predecessors. He allowed her to interact with our people fairly often. Of course,” her eyes darkened, “when she disappeared, many blamed my father for giving her too much leeway.”

The table grew silent, everyone’s mood dropping in sympathy. After a moment, Hunk interjected once more.

“Hey, I have a question. Why are the Lions lions?”

The others blinked back at the Earthbender.

“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Allura said hesitantly.

“Well, like,” Hunk counted off his fingers, “you’ve got ostrich horses, and Lance just mentioned polar bear dogs, and of course the elements themselves come from the ancient lion turtles, but,” Hunk looked up to meet their baffled expressions. “Why are the Lion Spirits just...lions?”

“I...never really thought about it,” Lance said. “I just assumed it was because they were super special guardian spirits and that made them unique.”

“There is one legend,” Coran offered, “that suggests the Lions were once all part of the same enormous, powerful entity, but split up into four beings to protect the individual groups of people when the four nations formed. The entity was still a lion though, just a really big one, so I suppose that doesn’t actually help all that much.”

“Huh, yeah, that’s pretty cool but doesn’t really answer my question,” Hunk paused. “If anything, it gives me more questions.”

“Well, as fascinating as this is to think about, I believe that for now we should focus on locating the White Lion,” Allura said. “Keith, once you’re done eating we’ll go and meditate.”

“We can go now,” Keith took the last bite of his dinner and got up to follow Allura to their rooms.

-----

Despite his and Allura’s best attempts to recreate that night, Keith was unable to summon the White Lion, or any Lion for that matter.

After a few days of trying different methods, Allura let out a frustrated sigh.

“Are you sure you’re concentrating properly?” she asked.

Keith scowled.

“For the last time, yes!”

“Just focus on what the Red Lion’s aura felt like—”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time!” Keith threw his hands up in the air. “I know you’re some kind of Spirit prodigy but reading auras is new to me! I can’t memorize a sentence in a language I don’t understand!” Keith paused. “Well, I could, but I still wouldn’t know what it means. Look, my point is that a lot was going on that night, and while I’m sure I could recognize a Lion’s aura if I saw it, it’s a lot harder to recreate it in my head out of nothing, okay? I’m sorry.”

To his surprise, Allura’s tired eyes lit up.

“That’s it!” she exclaimed. “Perhaps if you met with one of the other Lions, you could use a physical connection to amplify your spiritual one.”

“You mean, like,” Keith tilted his head, “meditate with one of the Lions in the same room or something?”

“Exactly,” Allura beamed. “I’m sure they’d be willing to help if you asked.”

“But the only Lion close to us is the Green Lion of Earth, and Queen Sanda is notoriously paranoid about letting anyone see him.”

Allura’s smile slipped away.

“Yes, that’s true. But,” she eyed him hesitantly, “she might make an exception for the Avatar.”

Keith stared down at his hands clasped in his lap. His talk with Shiro the other day had helped, but he still wasn’t sure he was ready. He had accepted his role as the Avatar, and was prepared to dedicate his life to helping the world, but going public was a whole different matter. Keith didn’t do well with crowds or speeches or anything like that, and he knew those kinds of things would be expected of him. If protecting the world from the shadows was an option, Keith would take it in a heartbeat.

But Keith knew that wasn’t realistic. The Avatar wasn’t just someone who saved people, but a symbol of peace, and symbols didn’t do any good if no one could see them.

Besides, it was only a matter of time anyway after his battle with Lotor. Between the prince’s men and the hired Earthbenders, there had been plenty of witnesses, and rumors of a new Avatar had already begun to spread. He was thankful for the time his friends had given him to adjust, but he couldn’t hide from the world forever.

Lotor was right about one thing; when presented with a challenge, Keith always prefered to face it head on.

Decision made, Keith raised his eyes to meet Allura’s.

“Let’s go talk to the Earth Queen.”

-----

The next day, Allura and Keith went to the Earth Palace. The others had wanted to tag along, and honestly Keith would have felt a bit more confident with them there to back him up if things went awry, but Allura disagreed. She was the only one who had met Queen Sanda before and was adamant that a larger group would make her less willing to talk.

As a high ranking Airbender, Allura was able to get them access to the palace grounds and led the way to the throne room. Dozens of Earth Kingdom citizens from all different social classes bustled to and fro. Servants attending to their duties, soldiers patrolling the halls, aristocrats strolling through the gardens. Everyone seemed to have somewhere to be, and Keith had to jump out of the way of a frantic busybody more than once.

FInally, Keith and Allura found themselves in front of two large doors with a royal guard posted on either side.

Allura drew herself up to full height.

“I am Airbender Allura, daughter of Alfor. I have important business with Queen Sanda,” she announced with an air of confidence.

The guard didn't budge.

“The Queen isn't seeing anyone today.”

Allura frowned.

“I sent a message earlier this morning to request a meeting. I'm sure she received it.”

“The Queen isn't seeing anyone today,” he repeated.

Allura visibly reigned in her temper.

“Please,” she said calmly but firmly, “just tell her I'm here, and that I've brought the Avatar.”

His stoic expression broke as he and his companion stared at Keith. Keith tried his best to look important.

The guards exchanged glances and one slipped inside the room. After a few excruciating minutes, he returned.

“Queen Sanda has agreed to grant you an audience.”

They moved forward but the guard stopped Allura.

“Not you,” he nodded at Keith. “Just him.”

Keith shot her a mildly panicked look but Allura placed a gentle hand on his arm.

“You can do this,” she assured him quietly. “Just keep in mind what we talked about. And remember, she may be a queen, but you are the Avatar. You have more power than you realize.”

Swallowing, Keith squared his shoulders and walked over the threshold.

The throne room, like seemingly everything in the Earth Kingdom, was enormous. The ceiling was several stories high and it took Keith what felt like an hour just to walk over to the figure seated on the other side.

At a glance, if Keith had to describe Queen Sanda in one word, it would be “stern.” Everything from her rigid posture to the steely focus of her eyes suggested a strict and uncompromising nature.

The rest of the room was empty except for the large green lion that sat next to her throne. Keith took a second to look at him. The Green Lion of Earth was the first Lion Spirit he had seen in person. He was roughly the same size the Red Lion had been, maybe a little bigger, and had an equally impressive mane, though where the Red Lion’s mane resembled a halo of wildfire, the Green Lion’s mane reminded Keith of tall grass gently swaying in the breeze.

As he stared into the Green Lion’s eyes, Keith felt a presence press against his mind, similar to when he met the Red Lion. It was odd, but strangely soothing.

“So,” Sanda barked and Keith snapped his attention back to her, “Airbender Allura claims you are the Avatar?”

Keith swallowed and said, ”Yes, that's correct.”

“Hmm,” she eyed him distrustfully. “And where have you been for the past twenty years?”

“Well, it's kind of a long story, but the Fire Nation royal council didn't find me when I was a kid and I only discovered I was the Avatar recently myself,” Keith explained.

Sanda’s eyes narrowed at the mention of the Fire Nation.

“What is it that you want from me? Allura's letter said something about the White Lion.”

Keith nodded.

“I'm helping the Air Nation look for her. We...I...had hoped that if I could meet one of the other Lions and maybe keep in physical contact with them while I searched the Spirit World, it might enhance our connection.”

“Why my Lion? You are Fire Nation, are you not? Why not use the Red Lion?”

Keith grimaced.

“We were already here in Ba Sing Se when Allura proposed the idea, plus neither of us are really on good terms with the royal family there.”

“How convenient,” she arched an eyebrow.

Keith held in a sigh.

“Please, if I could just spend even an hour with the Green Lion—"

“Out of the question.”

“What?”

Queen Sanda peered down her nose at him like Keith was a bug under her shoe.

“I've always had my suspicions that Zarkon was behind the White Lion's disappearance, and now you're asking me to leave my Lion in the care of one of his citizens? Alone and unprotected? What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“That's not,” Keith gaped. “I'm not trying to steal the Green Lion, I just want to—”

“I don't care,” she interrupted with a curl of her lip. “What happened to the Air Nomads was a tragedy but I refuse to risk my own nation's well being. I won't make any exceptions, not even for the Avatar.”

Keith scowled, all pretenses of politeness forgotten.

“So you won't help?” Keith demanded. “The White Lion may belong to the Air Nation, but all the Lions are important to the whole world. That makes it your problem too. What if the others start to go missing?”

“Is that a threat?” Sanda looked livid.

“No!” Keith threw his hands up in frustration. “I'm just saying the Lions are all connected, and if one disappeared the others could too, so we should try to figure out what happened and fix it before anything else goes wrong! But if you're so scared that you won't even let your Lion out of your sight—”

“Get out!” Sanda shouted. “Guards!”

The doors burst open and several guards rushed in. Keith wrenched out of their hold and stormed towards the entrance. He didn't stop, even after he passed Allura's wide eyed stare.

“Keith? What happened?”

“I'm sorry, Allura,” Keith spat out as the guards escorted them off the grounds. “She refused to help, and I lost my temper. Even if you went back in there to talk to her, I doubt she'd let me interact with the Lion.”

Allura sighed.

“It was a long shot anyway,” she said. “Come on. Let's go back to the inn and think of a new plan.”

-----

Once they'd returned and told everyone what had happened, the group started brainstorming.

“I still think we should go to the Northern Air Temple,” Allura said. “My father can tell you more about the White Lion, and perhaps you can sense something if you visit the Lion's den.”

“Sure,” Keith agreed. “We already talked about going there anyway. But I think you were on the right track about meeting the other Lions. Even though we were only in the same room for a few minutes, I felt something from the Green Lion. I bet if I was able to actually make contact with one, it would lead to some kind of breakthrough.”

“We could go back to the Fire Nation,” Pidge offered wryly. “I know you've still got this weird thing with Lotor, but maybe the Fire Lord would be willing to help you out since you're the Avatar.”

“Yeah, because that worked so well with Queen Sanda,” Keith grimaced. “Let's call that our last resort.”

“Guys!” Lance huffed and crossed his arms. “How are you not seeing the most obvious solution? There's still one other Lion. The Blue Lion. Which my great-uncle takes care of. My great-uncle who I assure you doesn't have a giant stick up his butt like Sanda or Zarkon.”

The rest of them traded glances.

“The North Pole is closer than the Fire Nation,” Pidge said.

“And the Northern Air Temple is on the way,” Allura added.

“And Lance can introduce Keith to his family,” Hunk grinned teasingly.

Lance turned bright red. Conversely, Keith paled in terror.

“Hunk!” Lance screeched. “This is serious!”

“Well I would hope you guys are serious if you're taking him to meet your parents.”

“Hunk!”

Amidst everyone's laughter and Lance's flailing, a renewed spark of hope grew in Keith’s chest.

Chapter Text

Although they had decided to visit the Blue Lion next, Allura insisted they stop by the Northern Air Temple first to update the monks on their progress. It wasn’t really out of the way, and Keith had promised to go there once they found Shiro, so everyone agreed to the detour.

They all stared in awe at the architecture built into the peak of the mountain. Several spires seemed to grow out of the rock itself with no visible access points below. Clearly, the only way in was to fly. The sky was filled with sky bisons and Airbenders gliding on their staffs.

They touched down in a large courtyard to find a figure already waiting.

“Father!” Allura cried joyously.

With a gust of wind she gracefully floated down from the head of Platt’s saddle and into his arms.

“I’ve missed you so much," she said. "How is Mother?”

Alfor laughed. “She’s well, Allura. I missed you too.”

Allura pulled back and shot her friends a smile.

“Everyone, this is my father, Monk Alfor, leader of the Airbenders.”

They all exchanged greetings. Alfor’s gaze, so similar to Allura’s, landed on Keith.

“Avatar Keith,” he pressed a fist into the flat of his palm and gave a small bow. “Thank you for coming and offering your help. I can’t tell you how relieved we all were when we heard the Avatar had been found at last.”

“Oh, um, of course,” Keith hastily bowed back. “I’ll do everything I can to find the White Lion.”

Alfor straightened up with a nod.

“Let’s not delay then. Allura can show you all to where you’ll be sleeping for the duration of your stay, and once you’ve settled in, I’ll take you to the Lion’s Den.”

They followed Allura to their rooms and idly listened to Coran’s history lesson about the temple. The structure itself was quite large, understandable since it hosted several Airbenders, so they were assigned rooms in pairs. Keith would bunk with Shiro, Lance with Hunk, and Pidge with Allura. Coran apparently had his own quarters as this was his home temple.

After dropping off his meager belongings, Keith bid his friends farewell and followed Allura to meet Alfor in the Lion’s Den.

The den itself was a large room, plain except for the murals that decorated every wall. Keith gazed admiringly at the various depictions of the White Lion’s deeds throughout history.

“Since we are a nomadic people, the White Lion has a den in each of the four Air Temples,” Alfor explained. “This was the one she occupied last before her disappearance, so it probably has the best chance of any lingering clues.”

“What exactly happened when the White Lion disappeared?” Keith asked.

His fingers lightly brushed a particularly stunning image of the White Lion roaring a tornado of wind.

Alfor’s eyes darkened.

“It happened without warning. Everything was fine, the White Lion watched over us, the people were happy. And then, she was just gone. Vanished in the night.”

“And you think someone stole her?” Keith asked.

“I don’t see any other explanation,” Alfor replied. “Although there were no signs of any sort of break in, trust me when I say the White Lion would not have abandoned us of her own will.”

“If someone did kidnap the Lion,” Keith said, “do you have any idea who might be responsible?”

Alfor hesitated. Allura opened her mouth but Alfor shot her a look. She closed her mouth and glared at the ground.

Keith watched this exchange with furrowed eyebrows.

“What?” Keith asked.

Alfor sighed.

“Allura has...a theory,” he finally said. “One I am reluctant to agree with.”

“But it makes sense!” Allura blurted out. “Why did Fire Lord Zarkon work so hard to ruin your reputation? So that everyone would think the White Lion left because you gave her too much freedom instead of considering an outside party—”

“That’s enough, Allura,” Alfor said firmly. “We’ve discussed this numerous times. I know you distrust Zarkon but there is no proof he was involved in any way.”

“It’s not just me, even the Earth Queen suspects him!” Allura shot Keith an imploring look.

Keith nodded.

“That’s true. She said so herself.”

Alfor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I know you mean well, Allura,” he said calmly. “But accusing Fire Lord Zarkon without any evidence to back up your claims won’t help us. So until we find some, let’s just focus on the original plan.”

Allura pursed her lips but nodded sullenly.

The head monk led Keith to the middle of the room where a pallet resembling some kind of nest was embedded in the floor.

“This is where the White Lion slept. Perhaps you should sit here to meditate. If nothing else, it’s much softer than the ground,” Alfor chuckled.

Keith nodded and sat down on the mattress in the lotus position. The two Airbenders exited the room with the promise that they’d be right outside if Keith needed anything.

Keith closed his eyes and focused on expanding his senses. Even though the White Lion hadn’t been there in years, the den had been so imbued with her aura that Keith could sense the tiniest amount still present. Latching onto it, Keith threw his awareness out as far as he could, searching for anything that resembled the energy.

What felt like hours passed. Keith was just about to give up when a faint trickle caught his attention. Like something was trying to reach out to him from behind a thick barrier. Keith tried to go towards the energy, but it vanished as quickly as it came, and no matter what Keith did, he couldn’t find it again.

With a sigh, Keith drew himself back into his body and walked out of the den. Judging by the setting sun, he’d been in there for most of the day.

Allura jumped up from her seat on the ground and hurried over to Keith with eager eyes.

“Did you find anything?” she asked.

“Not much,” Keith answered. “All I really got is that the White Lion is still in the physical world, but I don’t know where.”

Allura wilted and Alfor placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“That’s still more than we had,” Alfor smiled. “Thank you, Avatar.”

“I’ll try again tomorrow,” Keith promised.

-----

Keith’s next attempt was no more successful. Alfor remained in high spirits, but Keith still felt like he was failing in his duty. Alfor suggested Keith take a walk around the temple grounds to clear his mind and Keith soon found himself sitting in a lovely zen garden. He tried to let the calming swirls of the rock patterns soothe him, but couldn’t seem to shake the dark cloud hovering over his head.

Keith was still brooding when Lance found him.

“Hey, there you are,” the Waterbender sat down next to him. As he took in Keith’s expression, his grin fell away. “You okay?”

“Not really,” Keith sighed. “I just spent all morning and most of yesterday trying to make some sort of connection to the White Lion. And what do I have to show for it? Nothing.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate, but not really surprising. The White Lion hasn’t been here in a decade, so of course you’re having trouble. But I bet once you meet the Blue Lion, you can use her to establish a connection!”

“Maybe.”

Lance pouted at Keith’s less than enthusiastic response before his eyes suddenly lit up.

“I know what’ll cheer you up,” Lance hopped to his feet and grabbed Keith’s wrist. “Follow me!”

He dragged Keith through the temple and back outside to another area that looked like some sort of courtyard. Sitting on a bench, Hunk chatted with an Airbender with long, blonde hair.

“Hey, Romelle!” Lance waved his free hand.

The Airbender glanced up and waved back. As they drew closer, Keith saw that she was about their age and didn’t have her tattoos yet, though from what he understood that was pretty normal and Allura was an outlier.

“Keith, this is Hunk’s new best friend, Romelle,” Lance said, ignoring Hunk’s “Hey!” as Keith as Romelle exchanged greetings. “Romelle, I was wondering if you could teach Keith to use an Airbender staff to fly. I’d ask Allura, but she looked pretty busy catching up with her dad.”

Keith shot a surprised look at Lance and Romelle smiled.

“Of course! It would be an honor.”

“Great,” Lance grinned and ushered Keith to follow her.

Between Lance’s excitement and Romelle’s rapidfire instructions, Keith barely had time to register what was happening before he was suddenly standing at the edge of a wooden landing, staff in hand.

“Does that all make sense?” Romelle asked.

“Um, I think so.”

“Don’t worry, should you fall, one of the sky bisons will catch you,” she assured him.

Keith peered over the edge. He had never been afraid of heights, in fact he loved them, but even Keith had to admit it was an awfully long way down.

He glanced back at his friends. Hunk and Romelle both gave him an encouraging thumbs up and Lance shot Keith a dazzling grin and a wink.

Keith took a deep breath and leapt off the landing.

He took a second to enjoy the tug of gravity on his gut before pressing the mechanism Romelle had shown him. The staff unfolded two sets of orange, fan-like wings and Keith felt another swoop in his stomach as the air currents pushed him back up.

A wide grin spread across Keith’s face as he soared through the sky. Cheers rang out from below and Keith looked down to see his friends waving happily. Smirking, Keith spun into a barrel roll followed by some loop the loops. His audience oooh-ed and ahhh-ed as he attempted increasingly daring tricks.

Once he felt satisfied, Keith slowed down into a graceful glide, closing his eyes to fully feel the wind and sun on his face.

For the first time, he felt truly happy to be the Avatar.

When Keith finally drifted back down into the courtyard, the others surrounded him excitedly.

“You’re a natural!” Romelle exclaimed. “Most Airbenders take months to learn moves like that. Are you sure you were born in the Fire Nation?”

“Honestly, once I was in the air it just felt...right, y’know?” Keith admitted. “And it definitely did more to clear my head than walking or meditating ever has. Thank you.”

Keith turned to Lance.

“And thank you for thinking of this, Lance,” he said. “It really did help.”

“Any time, man,” Lance’s grin became wistful as he looked back up at the Airbenders still in the sky. “I just wish I could have joined you.”

As Keith glanced between the Waterbender and the flying monks, the spark of an idea started to form.

-----

Keith tracked down Hunk and Romelle the following day to tell them about his plan.

“Do you think it’s possible?” he asked.

The two exchanged looks.

“Theoretically, yes,” Hunk said, rubbing his chin. “But it would take a lot of work, and we’re only here for a few more days. I’m not sure I’d be able to make something like that so quickly.”

“Oh,” Keith tried to quash the disappointment in his chest. Hunk may have been a genius at building stuff, but Keith understood this was asking a lot.

Hunk however, perked up.

“Oh! But I bet if I just tweaked the designs that already exist instead of making new ones from scratch, that’d be way easier and faster,” he turned to Romelle. “Do you think the monks would let me look at the schematics for the staffs?”

Romelle tilted her head thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure the schematics are written down, but I bet if you asked Coran he’d show you how we make them.”

“Even better!” Hunk turned back to Keith. “I’ll see what I can do and let you know.”

Keith smiled.

“Thank you, Hunk.”

“Of course! Anything for Lance.”

Keith felt his face heat up under the knowing looks from not only Hunk but also Romelle. Clearly Lance hadn’t been joking when he said they’d become fast friends.

Still, Keith averted his eyes and said, “How did you know it’s for Lance?”

“You’re not that subtle, dude,” Hunk laughed, not unkindly. “Plus, I’ve known him since we were kids. He’s always wanted to fly, and if you make that happen I’m pretty sure he’ll propose on the spot.”

Keith’s brain shut down after that so he fumbled through a goodbye, thanking them again, and made his way back to his room.

Shiro looked up as Keith flopped face first onto his mattress.

“You okay?”

Keith whined into the pillow.

“Okay, just making sure.”

-----

The day before they were set to leave, Keith nervously approached Lance.

The Waterbender had been playing with some of the younger Airbenders but their game seemed to be over as the children trickled away. Lance raised his arms above his head to stretch and smiled when he saw Keith walking towards him.

“Hey, Keith,” he greeted. “What’s up?”

Lance looked down curiously at Keith’s hand which the Avatar realized was fiddling with the hem of his red tunic. Keith quickly clasped both hands behind his back and cleared his throat.

“Actually, I wanted to show you something,” he said.

Lance grinned.

“Oh yeah? Is this a date?”

Keith flushed and mumbled something under his breath.

“What?”

“I said,” Keith blushed harder. “If you want it to be.”

Lance blinked but quickly nodded.

“Yeah! I mean, yes. I do want...that,” he said awkwardly.

Conversely, Keith felt some of his own shyness dissipate.

“Okay, but on one condition. You have to keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s a surprise,” Keith paused coyly. “Unless you don’t want to go on a date?”

Lance quickly slapped his hands over his eyes.

“...Ow.”

Keith huffed out a small laugh and reached up to gently pry one hand away from Lance’s face. He wove their fingers together so he could lead the other boy to the courtyard where Keith had met Romelle.

“Okay, you can look now.”

Lance opened his eyes and gaped.

Sitting in the middle of the courtyard was a large glider. It resembled an Airbender staff with its wings out, but the cloth was more rectangular shaped and didn’t collapse back into the frame. There was also a bar that hung parallel to the wings that the rider could hold into.

“Hunk made it,” Keith explained. “You can fly it even without Airbending. Isn’t that amazing? Oh, and it’s perfectly safe,” he hastily added when Lance merely stared. “Romelle and I both tried it out, and even if something did go wrong, there are plenty of sky bisons around who would catch you.”

Lance still didn’t respond.

“Lance?” Keith peeked up at him hesitantly. “Are you...crying?”

“No!” Lance whipped around away from Keith to scrub at his eyes.

Keith smiled.

“Do you want to give it a try?”

Lance nodded and Keith explained how the glider worked, positioning the Waterbender so his hands gripped the bar.

“Once you’re in the air, the air currents will kept you aloft. You’ll just have to shift your center of gravity to steer.”

“So what you’re saying,” Lance grinned, “is it’s all about flow.”

Keith rolled his eyes but nodded.

“Ready?”

“Let’s do this.”

Lance’s blue eyes narrowed in focus and he took off at a run. Keith’s heart stopped as Lance plummeted off the landing but started up again when the Waterbender ascended with a joyful whoop.

Grabbing his own borrowed Airbender staff, Keith jumped off the ledge to join him.

They spend some time soaring lazily around as Lance got his bearings. Once he decided he had a handle on the glider, Lance challenged Keith to a race around the temple’s perimeter.

Keith won, of course.

“No fair,” Lance shouted. “You used Airbending!”

“If I don’t use Airbending I can’t fly at all,” Keith retorted.

Lance grumbled but quickly changed the subject by asking Keith to show him how to do a loop the loop.

Lance’s triumphant laughter kindled a warm glow in Keith’s chest.

After awhile they started to get tired and decided to drift back down to the courtyard.

As soon as his boots touched the soft grass, Lance grabbed Keith’s face and crushed their lips together. Keith stiffened in surprise but quickly melted into the touch. Closing his eyes, Keith gripped the front of Lance’s tunic and allowed Lance to tilt his head for a better angle.

Lance didn’t propose that night, but he did kiss the life out of Keith.

-----

The next morning, Keith and his friends packed up their belongings to load onto Platt’s saddle. Alfor, Romelle, and a handful of other Airbenders came to see them off.

“Thank you again for your help, Avatar Keith,” Alfor said.

“I just wish I could have been more useful,” replied Keith.

He had meditated in the Lion’s den every day but never found any other leads.

Alfor shook his head.

“Just knowing the White Lion is still out there somewhere is a comfort. For years, we had found nothing and feared she was beyond our reach, but you have given us new hope,” he offered Keith an encouraging smile. “I have every confidence that you and Allura will find her.”

Unsure how to respond, Keith merely nodded.

“Before you go, there is one more thing,” Alfor gestured and a monk hurried over with an Airbender staff. Alfor presented it to Keith. “Romelle tells me you’re quite good with one of these. Traditionally only Airbender Avatars have wielded them, but I think that’s been more their preference than anything else. You’re under no obligation to use it, of course, but we’d be honored if you accepted it.”

Keith gingerly took the staff with wide eyes. He pressed the small latch to reveal wings of crimson red instead of orange. Folding them back in, Keith clutched the staff close to his chest and gave the head monk a small bow.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I will treasure it always.”

Alfor bowed back and then turned to Hunk, to the Earthbender’s surprise.

“Romelle also told me about your invention. I’ll admit, since all Air Nomads can Airbend, it never even occurred to us to make gliders for those without the ability.”

“Oh!” Hunk wrung his hands anxiously. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was like, a sacred thing—”

“No, no,” Alfor waved his hand with a laugh. “I think it’s grand. In fact, I was wondering if you’d be willing to lend us your blueprints so we might make more. I’m sure they would come in handy.”

“Oh,” Hunk blinked. “Yeah, of course.”

“Thank you.”

Alfor offered Hunk a bow, which the Earthbender returned with a baffled expression.

Everyone said the last of their goodbyes. Allura and Coran understandably had the most, though Lance was trapped in a small ocean of children for awhile. Romelle made Hunk promise to write to her.

Once he finally escaped, Lance settled down in the saddle next to Keith and held out an arm so the Avatar could curl into his side.

Allura flicked the reins with a, “Yip yip!” and they were off.

-----

About halfway to the North Pole, Coran came down with something he called “the slipperies.” He assured them all it wasn’t life threatening, but it was gross so everyone gave their mucus-ridden friend a wide berth.

When Coran’s condition didn’t improve after a few days, he requested they search for a special berry that would help fight the virus.

“It’s a bit rare, but we just happen to be near the Hibura Mountains, one of the few places where these berries are known to grow,” he said through the handkerchief that had become permanently attached to his nose. “They’re quite distinct, so you should be able to spot them easily. The berries themselves are dark purple, but the rest of the plant is a stark white, and the leaves grow in a unique crescent moon shape,” he paused to blow his nose and added, “Watch out for thorns.”

And so, the following morning they left Coran at camp and made their way up the mountain. Hibura was huge and covered in a thin layer of snow, which wasn’t surprising this far north. It would make finding a white plant much more difficult though.

“We should split up,” suggested Pidge. “We’ll cover more ground that way.”

They agreed to regroup around lunch time set off in different directions.

As Keith trekked up his chosen path, he hunched over the small fire cupped in his hands. It was the middle of summer, which was probably why the snow was only a few inches deep rather than a few feet, but it was still cold. Keith made a mental note to get Allura or Coran to teach him the Airbending trick that let them control their body temperature.

He soon came to a more heavily forested area where the crowded trees provided a canopy over the snow-free ground. Seeing the abundance of flora, Keith shuffled in between the trunks, keeping an eye out for purple berries.

His hunch paid off when about fifteen minutes later he spotted what looked like white vines in the distance. Keith hurried over and crouched down to inspect the plant.

Purple berries and crescent moon leaves.

With a smile, Keith began to pluck several of the fruits and placed them in his pouch.

Rustle.

Keith froze.

Rustle rustle.

Eyeing the nearby bush where the sounds were coming from, Keith slowly rose to his feet and reached behind himself to draw his blade from its sheath.

He held his breath as the rustling grew louder.

The leaves finally parted to reveal...a Celestial Wolf?

Keith’s eyes widened. Celestial Wolves were magical creatures akin to the dragons and just as rare. More commonly known as star wolves, they were said to be molded from the night sky itself. And this one wasn’t even a full grown star wolf, but a pup, probably only a few weeks old.

The pup looked up at Keith and tilted its head.

Keith looked back and mirrored the movement with his own head.

It didn’t seem hostile, so Keith put away his knife. Cautiously, he kneeled down.

“Hello,” Keith greeted softly.

The star wolf pup blinked up at him. It was a cute thing, with a dark coat and long, fluffy blue-grey fur that ran along its back and tail. White markings adorned its face and chest, and its eyes glowed bright yellow.

“What are you doing out here all alone?” he asked. “Where’s your family?”

The pup merely tilted its head the other way. Keith dug into his pouch for a small piece of the dried meat he had brought for lunch and held it out.

“Are you hungry?”

The wolf pup padded closer and sniffed the offering curiously. Keith’s worry that it might bite him was quickly assuaged when the pup merely took the treat and hunkered down. Keith watched with a smile as it held the meat under its paws, tearing at it with sharp teeth.

Feeling braver, he slowly reached out a hand. The pup glanced up and Keith paused, worried it might see his movement as a threat, but the pup went back to its meal. Heartened by this, Keith gently pet the wolf pup’s head.

It was so soft.

Keith continued his ministrations as the pup finished eating and lightly scratched behind its ears. The pup nuzzled into his touch and Keith about melted on the spot.

A low growl brought both Keith and the wolf pup to attention.

“That’s not your family, is it?” Keith asked warily.

The pup raised its hackles and bared its fangs. Keith pulled out his own weapon. “Yeah, didn’t think so.”

A large tiger boar leapt out from behind a shrub. Its beady eyes gave the Avatar a considering look before turning to the wolf pup. Apparently deciding the pup would make an easier meal, the tiger boar charged.

The wolf pup stood its ground with a comically tiny snarl of its own. Keith could appreciate the sentiment, but the tiger boar was at least five times bigger than the pup so he snatched it out of harm’s way.

Arms full of confused magic canine, Keith booked it. The tiger boar angrily gave chase and Keith cursed under his breath. It was a lot faster than it looked.

Realizing he couldn’t outrun the beast, Keith hastily set the pup down and spun around to blast a plume of fire. The tiger boar reared back with a screech. It stared at them through the wall of flames for a long moment before turning to slink away.

Keith let out a sigh of relief and looked down at the wolf pup.

“Well, that was fun,” he said dryly.

He glanced up at the sky to gauge the sun’s position. It was almost time to meet up with the others.

Crouching down, he gave the pup one last pat.

“Stay out of trouble, okay? Don’t go picking fights until you get a little bigger.”

When the pup just blinked back up at him, Keith stood and set off. At the sound of rustling, Keith turned to see the wolf pup was still right behind him.

“Um, sorry,” Keith said, “but I have to go now. You should go home too.”

He continued walking and the pup followed. He turned around again.

“I said go home, your family is probably worried about you,” he lectured. The pup sneezed but stayed put.

Keith reached the edge of the forested area and the pup was still there. It gazed up at him, the epitome of puppy dog eyes. With a sigh, Keith crouched down and scratched under its chin.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Do you not have anywhere else to go?”

He had thought it unusual that a star wolf so young was out on its own. They were rare, but it had to come from somewhere. Maybe it had been separated from its pack and didn’t know how to return? If that was the case, leaving it here to fend for itself would be like asking for another predator to eat it.

“Well,” Keith smiled, “let’s hope none of my friends are allergic to dogs.”

-----

Lance supposed there were pros and cons to being the Avatar.

Pro: You get to bend all the elements and have other cool powers.

Con: Everybody expects you to solve all their problems.

Pro: You have power and influence, and the ear of the nations’ leaders.

Con: You might have to fight those leaders to save the world.

And apparently one more pro was that super cool, super adorable magical animals flock to you like you’re a fairytale princess.

To be fair, Keith was definitely pretty enough to be a fairytale princess, but Lance figured it was more the whole Avatar thing that was why Keith had returned to camp with a pouch full of berries and a furry new friend.

And of course, everyone had immediately started fawning over the pup, Lance included, as Keith explained what had transpired. Now they were all huddled around the Avatar who held the pup on his lap, except for Coran who was happily munching his berries back inside the tent. Though the pup had allowed everyone to pet him, so far only Keith had been given the privilege of holding him.

“Who’s the cutest puppy in the whole world,” cooed Pidge. “You are~. Yes, you are.”

“I thought the Celestial Wolves had gone extinct,” Allura said with sparkling eyes. “No one’s seen any in years.”

“I wonder where he came from,” said Keith as he pet the pup absentmindedly. Shortly after meeting the pup, they had determined its gender, something Keith apparently hadn’t even thought of until then. “I didn’t see any sign of his pack, and he latched on to me pretty quickly, like he’d been alone for awhile or something.”

Allura hummed thoughtfully. “It is possible that he was separated from his pack and imprinted on you as the first being to show it kindness,” she paused with a mysterious smile, “but I have another theory.”

“What’s that?” Keith and the wolf pup both tilted their heads at the Airbender. Lance almost combusted from cuteness.

“I think he’s your Animal Guide!” Allura clapped her hands with delight.

“My what?”

“A spiritual guide that helps you on your Avatar’s Journey. Every Avatar has one, and they can be any animal, magical or otherwise. Traditionally, the Avatar meets and bonds with their guide early in life, but then, your circumstances where anything but traditional,” she shrugged. ”It’s also a bit strange that you got a Celestial Wolf, as the animals are usually native to the nation the Avatar was born in. For example, I believe the last Avatar from the Fire Nation had a dragon.”

Keith stared down at the pup in wonder.

“Well, guess that means we’re stuck with the little guy,” Lance said brightly as he ruffled the fur on top of the pup’s head. The pup let out a yip as if in agreement. “So what are you gonna name him?”

Keith blinked.

“Won’t he just...tell me his name when he’s ready?” He pouted at everyone’s snickering. “What?”

“You’re adorable,” Lance told him, only half teasing. “But no, you should probably give him a name.”

Keith looked down thoughtfully at the pup in his lap who returned his gaze with unblinking eyes. Maybe the pup really was communicating with his new master somehow, because after a moment Keith spoke confidently.

“Kosmo,” he said, a soft smile on his face. “His name is Kosmo.”

Chapter Text

Lance had a plan.

Every night, the group would lay out their bedrolls and sleeping bags, and slumber around the dying embers of the campfire.

And every night, Lance placed his bedroll strategically closer to Keith’s, inch by agonizing inch.

Honestly, he probably wasn’t being as subtle as he thought. Lately when he rolled out his blankets, Hunk would give him an encouraging thumbs up and Pidge would roll her eyes. Allura would hide a giggle behind her hand and Coran would twirl his mustache knowingly. He’d been a bit worried that his advances might invite the wrath of an overprotective brother, but Shiro merely smiled and moved on.

The only one who didn’t seem to notice the decreasing space between them was Keith himself. His obliviousness was as cute as it was frustrating.

But all that was going to change tonight, because tonight Lance had finally moved close enough that their bedrolls were side by side. They could probably share a blanket if they wanted to.

In his heart of hearts, Lance fantasized that Keith would get cold in the middle of the night and, feeling Lance’s body heat beside him, would shyly shift closer. Lance, being the gentleman that he is, would then lift up the corner of his blanket in offering. Keith would slide in and be so impressed by Lance’s cuddling skills that he wouldn’t be able to sleep alone ever again.

It was foolproof.

At least, that’s what Lance had thought until he looked over to see the ball of fluff curled up in Keith’s arms.

Dammit. How was Keith supposed to need Lance’s warmth when he already had a wolf pup that Lance knew from experience ran at a higher body temperature? Now his whole plan was ruined, days of preparation wasted. He had a smooth line picked out and everything.

Lance flopped onto his back with a groan.

Keith peeked over a tuft of gray fur.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Lance sighed. “Just tired. It’s been a long day.”

Keith accepted this answer with a hum and closed his eyes after bidding Lance a good night.

Lance turned his head to study the boy and wolf next to him. Despite his irritation, he melted a bit at the sight.

At least he got to drift off to a heartwarming view.

-----

Lance didn’t hate Kosmo.

On the contrary, Lance loved Kosmo. He was adorable and already growing into what was sure to be a badass Animal Guide for the Avatar. And anything that got Keith to smile so much was a good thing in Lance’s book.

But that didn’t change the fact that every time Lance approached Keith for some quality time together or to ask him on another date, Kosmo seemed to get in the way.

Lance tried to tell himself he was being irrational. Kosmo was still technically a puppy and required a lot of Keith’s attention. Not to mention they had a ton of bonding to catch up on since most Avatars met their guide at a young age. So it was perfectly understandable that Keith’s priority right now was Kosmo.

And Lance was definitely not jealous of a dog. That would be very uncool. And Lance was cool. The coolest. So cool he could literally make ice.

Lance looked over at where Keith was unsuccessfully trying to teach Kosmo to fetch a stick and sighed.

-----

They stopped in Suwong Po, a small mountain village on the edge of the Earth Kingdom. Suwong Po was the last town they’d be able to visit before crossing the ocean, so they decided to stay a few days to rest and resupply.

Keith and Lance strolled through the market, Kosmo trotting at their heels. Lance seemed distracted today, and kept almost bumping into Keith or tripping over Kosmo. Keith was a little concerned, but figured that maybe the Waterbender just hadn’t slept well the previous night.

Another concern soon stole Keith’s focus as they interacted with the various townspeople. He wasn’t sure why, but as they went about their errands, a small wave of unease gradually built in his stomach.

As he traded some coins with a vender for a bundle of thick wool blankets, Keith surreptitiously studied her face. On the surface, the merchant seemed open and friendly. But upon closer inspection, Keith noticed the tightness around her eyes and the faint sluggishness of her movements, like she hadn't slept in days. And it wasn't just her. Every person they came across carried an air of tension, like they were just waiting for some terrible calamity to strike at any moment.

“What do you think, Lance?” Keith asked after pointing it out.

Lance looked up at his name in surprise. His hand was stretched out, but Lance quickly snatched it back.

“Huh?”

Keith frowned.

“Did you not hear a word I just said?”

Lance rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

“Sorry, I got distracted.”

“With what?”

“I…” Lance’s eyes flitted down to Keith’s hand hanging loosely at his side, then averted his gaze with a faint blush. “Nothing.”

Keith arched an eyebrow but let it go. As they ambled to the next stall, he repeated his observations.

“Something just doesn’t feel right,” he muttered. “Like the whole town is hiding something.”

Lance nodded, but Keith got the impression that he still wasn’t fully paying attention. He kept glancing over at Keith and then down at Kosmo trotting between them.

“Well, we could ask around, but if they’re really hiding something, I doubt they’d just tell us,” Lance finally said. “For now let’s just keep a lookout for anything suspicious.”

They went around, buying more supplies and making small talk, but as Lance predicted, as soon as Keith tried to casually ask if the town was having problems, people quickly found excuses to leave the conversation.

Keith let out a frustrated huff as yet another person scurried away. He turned back to Lance to complain and blinked.

“What are you doing?”

Lance froze. He had somehow sidled up next to Keith without the Avatar noticing and an outstretched arm hovered over Keith’s shoulders.

Lance not so smoothly raised said arm into a stretch and yawned loudly.

“Well that was a bust,” he said, avoiding Keith’s eyes. “I’m kinda tired. Maybe we should take a break.”

Keith sent him an odd look but shrugged it off.

“It is past lunch time,” he agreed.

Keith reached down to scratch Kosmo’s ears and added, “I bet Kosmo is hungry too.”

Lance’s face did something funny, but it was gone before Keith could figure out what.

The three set off in search of somewhere to eat.

“How about here?” Lance gestured to a small but cheery tea shop. It wasn’t overly crowded but there were enough customers to indicate it was probably good.

Keith, however, frowned.

“I dunno,” he said. “Do you think they would let Kosmo in?”

Lance deflated a bit but quickly regained his bravado.

“Looks like they have outdoor seating too,” he pointed out a patio with a handful of tables.

They made their way over and Keith was relieved when the waitress cooed over the wolf pup rather than kicking them out. After they ordered tea and dumplings, Keith reached into his pouch to pull out some dried meat for Kosmo.

As he stroked Kosmo’s fur, Keith was startled to feel something warm brush against his other hand. He looked over to see Lance’s hand resting on the table next to his.

Two spots of color high on his cheeks, Lance twitched his pinkie like he was going to intertwine it with Keith’s. Keith felt his own face flush as the digit inched closer.

“Here you go!”

The two jumped, hands returning to their sides as the waitress placed their orders on the table. She had also brought a bowl of water for Kosmo, which Keith thanked her for.

As they dug into their meal, Keith snuck a peek at Lance. The Waterbender’s face was bright red as he focused intensely on consuming his lunch. With a small twinge of disappointment, Keith bit into his dumpling.

-----

Hunk whistled cheerfully as he walked through the grocery section of the market. As the self-appointed cook of their group, Hunk had been put in charge of gathering the necessary ingredients for the trip. He stopped by a stall to peruse the large barrels and crates filled with herbs and spices.

“Oooh,” Hunk spotted Dragon’s Breath, a particularly rare herb. It was local to the area and just one sprig would last them until the North Pole.

Reaching out, Hunk’s hand bumped into someone else's as they also tried to grab the plant.

“Oh!” a feminine voice exclaimed. “My apologies, I did not see you.”

Hunk looked over to see a girl about his age with sandy hair cut into a bob, large hoop earrings, and wide, amber eyes. She was tall, taller even than Hunk, and had the sweetest smile he had ever seen.

“Oh, no,” Hunk hastily shook his head. “It was my bad too. I just got so excited when I saw that Dragon’s Breath, it's a pretty rare delicacy where I come from.”

Her eyes lit up.

“Dragon’s Breath is quite delicious,” she agreed. “A pity it only grows in the colder regions. What brings you to Suwong Po?”

Hunk paid for his wares and idled as she did the same.

“My friends and I are just stopping by to restock supplies before heading for the Northern Water Tribe.”

She gasped in delight.

“That is so exciting! I have never even been outside of the village before. Are you going by boat?”

“Sky bison, actually.”

“Wow!”

They continued to chat as they moved through the aisle of stalls. He learned her name was Shay and that she was also an Earthbender. In turn, Hunk told Shay about growing up near the capital and how he was thinking about going to the National University. She also showed him all the best places to get the ingredients he was after, which endeared her to him forever.

Just as they were giggling over a story Hunk had shared about some shenanigans Lance and he got into as children, a sharp voice rang out.

“Shay!”

They turned to see a young man who looked remarkably similar to Shay storm over.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Who is this?”

“This is Hunk,” Shay smiled. “He and his friends are visiting on their way to the Northern Water Tribe. Hunk, this is my brother, Rax.” Shay leaned in to loudly whisper, “You will have to forgive him, he does not take kindly to strangers.”

“And for good reason!” Rax snapped. “We already have enough problems to deal with, interacting with outsiders will only invite more. Now come along, it is time to go home.”

With one last dirty look at Hunk, he turned on his heel and walked away. Shay offered an apologetic smile.

“I had better be going. It was lovely to meet you, Hunk. If you are still in town tomorrow, perhaps we could meet up again.”

Hunk nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, I'd love to. I'm pretty sure we'll be here for a few days.”

They agreed on when and where to meet again and parted ways.

Arms full of goods that were sure to make their meals delicious, Hunk hummed tunelessly and made his way back to camp.

-----

The following day, Hunk waited in the town square. Lance had teased him earlier that morning for taking longer than usual to groom himself, but Hunk didn't think the Waterbender had any room to talk with how much he'd been falling over himself lately to get Keith's attention.

Right on time, Shay spotted him and hurried over.

“Good morning,” she greeted.

They exchanged some polite small talk and meandered through the streets.

“What would you like to do today? I am afraid there is not much to offer. We are a rather small village.”

“Actually, I was wondering if you'd be willing to show me the Balmera Caves,” Hunk said. “I've heard they're really beautiful, and full of rare plants and minerals!”

Shay hesitated, her sweet smile slipping away. Hunk was immediately reminded of what Keith had said at dinner last night. The Avatar had insisted the townsfolk were hiding something, but he didn't know what. Watching Shay’s downcast expression, Hunk wondered if Keith was right.

“I am afraid,” Shay replied, “that is not possible at the moment.”

“Why not?”

“The caves are off limits right now. No one is allowed inside, not even the locals.”

Hunk frowned. The Balmera Caves were the one thing Suwong Po was famous for. It seemed odd that they'd be closed off.

“Did something happen?”

“I...am not really supposed to say…” she admitted.

“Shay,” Hunk halted and looked her in the eyes. Feeling brave, he grasped her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Please. I know we just met, but you can talk to me.”

Shay studied his face and Hunk tried to look as earnest as he felt. Finally she nodded and used their linked hands to lead him away from prying eyes and ears.

“Do you know why they are called the Balmera Caves?” Shay asked as they slowly walked through a wooded area.

Hunk shook his head.

“They are named after the town’s guardian spirit, the Balmera.”

“Guardian spirit? Like the Four Lions?”

“No, no,” Shay said with a tinkling laugh. “The Balmera is a great and ancient soul, but not nearly on the level of the Lions. Still, it has protected our village for centuries and we hold a festival in its honor every year.”

Shay’s smile transformed into a worried frown.

“However, in the past few months, the Balmera has been acting strangely. Normally it is a gentle creature, and welcomes anyone who comes to its caves, but now it attacks all who enter. We cannot even get close enough to find out what is wrong.”

“I'm so sorry, Shay,” Hunk said.

“It weighs heavily on all of us,” she sighed. “Many fear it is a bad omen, or that the Balmera might even attack the village. If we are unable to find a solution soon, we may have to leave. Or worse, some have started to talk about driving the Balmera away.”

“Hmmm,” Hunk rubbed his chin. “Maybe my friends and I can help.”

“How?” Shay asked skeptically. “Forgive me, but if we cannot get close to the Balmera, I do not see how outsiders could.”

Hunk grinned.

“I know a guy.”

-----

As Shay recounted the town’s predicament, Lance tried to ignore the ‘I told you so’ look Keith kept shooting him.

“I see,” said Keith once she finished. “Of course we’ll help you.”

Shay hesitated.

“I do not mean to sound ungrateful, but I do not understand why you are so confident you can solve our problem. Are you all spirit mediums?” She looked around at their eclectic group dubiously.

“Ah, no,” Keith glanced back at his friends who all gave him encouraging looks. When his eyes landed on Lance, the Waterbender offered a firm nod, letting Keith know he would support whatever decision Keith made.

Keith swallowed and stood up taller to look Shay in the eyes.

“I’m the Avatar.”

Shay blinked and her eyes widened.

“Oh! My apologies, I did not realize,” she started to bow but Keith awkwardly waved it away and she straightened up with a smile. “In that case, we would be glad to have your help, Avatar.”

Lance watched the two talk more about the Balmera with a glow of pride in his chest. He knew Keith was still unsure about revealing his identity to the public. This was just a small village, but it was a big step for Keith. Lance had no doubt if they could help Suwong Po, Keith’s confidence as the Avatar would get a well deserved boost too, and Lance would do whatever it took to help make that happen.

-----

Once they were in the caves, Shay recommended they split up.

“The Balmera Caves are quite vast and complex,” she explained. “We will cover more ground in pairs. I strongly recommend each pair has at least one Earthbender so that you do not get lost.”

Lance immediately called Keith as his partner. Everyone rolled their eyes but no one objected. In the end, Hunk went with Shay and Allura, Pidge with Shiro, and Lance with Keith, Kosmo trotting behind the Avatar’s heels.

“Is it just me, or are these caves kinda creepy?” Keith said as they walked down their chosen tunnel.

He eyed the vines that ran over the damp walls like he expected them to come alive at any moment.

Lance smirked and slung an arm around Keith's shoulders.

“Don't worry, babe, I'll protect you.”

Keith stared up at him with a deadpan expression and wordlessly raised his hand, palm up. A large burst of flame flared to life, causing any nearby vermin to scatter in fear. Lance might have jumped a little bit too. Keith smirked as the flame died down to lick the cup of his hand.

Showoff.

They continued down the path and eventually came to a huge cavern.

“Woah.”

While the tunnel had been dark and full of creepy crawlies, the walls of the cavern were embedded with crystals that gave off a faint blue glow, bathing the area in a soft light that reflected off the large pond in the middle of the cavern.

Keith extinguished his flame and looked around in awe.

“It's beautiful,” he breathed.

Lance looked over and stared. The light from the luminous stones turned Keith's skin a flawless porcelain and bounced off the water to create stars in his dark eyes. A draft whispered through his hair and Lance itched to tuck a stray lock behind Keith's ear.

Before he could move, Keith turned to him.

“Do you think the Balmera is in here?”

Lance shrugged as he tried to regain his composure.

“Dunno. Shay said it could be anywhere in the caves, but this does look like where a magical spirit would want to live.”

Keith hummed thoughtfully and gazed into the pool. Kosmo tentatively sniffed at the edge and gave a small snort. Lance crouched down next to him and peered in as well. It looked deep, like it could go down for miles. When Lance reached out with his senses, he couldn't feel where the water ended. There was also something...different about the water itself.

“Do you feel that?”

“Feel what?” Keith asked.

Lance coaxed out a small orb of the water to hover between his hands.

“I dunno. Maybe it's just the minerals, but this water seems...weird.”

“Weird,” Keith repeated skeptically. “Maybe it's got strong spiritual powers or something. If this is where the Balmera sleeps, it would make sense.”

“Huh.”

Suddenly a roar shook the cavern. Keith and Lance leapt to their feet, and Kosmo raised his hackles with a snarl.

The previously still surface of the pond raged as a huge figure shot out of the water. Lance whipped his arms up to shield them from the resulting wave.

The Balmera resembled a creature of the sea more than one of land. It reminded Lance a bit of the giant whale squids that lived deep in the ocean. A large eye glared down at them and the Balmera released another tumultuous roar. Lance, Keith, and Kosmo dove out of the way as liquid sprayed out of the blowhole on top of its head and rained down on them. Steam hissed from where the drops touched the ground.

“I thought the Balmera was an Earth Spirit,” Keith shouted as he protected Kosmo from the boiling hot water.

“Well, Suwong Po is definitely a part of the Earth Kingdom, but we are right next to the ocean,” Lance shrugged. “Maybe it got confused?”

Any reply Keith might have had disappeared when the Balmera landed on the ground with a great thud. It used its large tentacles to move towards them and opened its maw to reveal several rows of pointy teeth.

Lance formed his water whip but Keith held out a hand.

“Wait,” the Avatar stared hard at the beast. “Something’s not right. I think it’s hurt.”

Lance yanked Keith out of the way as a large tentacle took a swipe at them.

“Yeah, well I think it’s gonna hurt us if we don’t do something,” Lance said.

Keith frowned but nodded. They traded glances and after a moment of silent communication, Lance ran left while Keith and Kosmo lunged right.

The Balmera must have decided it would be easier to pick off Lance by himself because it chased after him. Lance fended off its attacks, thankful for the abundant amount of water available as he avoided the tentacles that tried to grab him and countered with his own aquatic attacks.

“Lance!” Keith shouted from behind the Balmera. “Look! On its back!”

Lance rode a wave of water around the Balmera and saw what Keith was talking about. He had wondered why the purple tentacles were a completely different color than the rest of the Balmera’s gray body. Attached to its back was a large growth, gelatinous and gooey, that was the same shade of purple. Looking at it, Lance realized the tentacles grew from the goo and wrapped around the Balmera’s body. Sticking out of the middle of the parasite was a large yellow eyeball with a slitted pupil.

Lance looked over at Keith and could tell from his expression that he was thinking the same thing. Whatever that thing was, they had to get rid of it.

“You distract it and I’ll get the eye,” Lance called out.

Keith shouted an affirmative and launched a series of attacks at the beast, successfully redirecting its attention.

Lance held out a hand and formed a spear made of ice. Still surfing his mini wave, Lance shot towards the Balmera’s back.

Before he could get too close, the yellow eye twisted around and pinned Lance with its gaze. A large tentacle swung towards him and hit Lance across the chest, knocking the air from his lungs. Lance tumbled into the pond with a splash.

“Lance!”

Lance floundered for a moment, not knowing which way was up. Finally getting his bearings, he bent the water around him and propelled himself back to the surface.

Above water, Lance saw that Keith had thrown himself at the Balmera in a fit of rage, using every element to fight the tentacles. One got past him, however, and grabbed the Avatar around his waist. It lifted him up and Keith let out a cry as the tentacle slammed him against the wall.

Lance saw red.

As the tentacle dragged the struggling Avatar towards the Balmera’s hungry maw, Lance used a jet of water to shoot himself into the air. With a roar, Lance thrust his palm out and a stream of water flew directly at the eyeball. At the last second, it transformed into a harpoon of ice and impaled the parasite.

A piercing shriek echoed through the cavern as the purple tentacles writhed in pain before they and the eyeball withered away to nothingness. The Balmera, no longer having anything to support it on land, collapsed.

Right on top of where Keith had been.

“Keith!” Lance raced over in a panic.

“Over here!”

Lance paused and looked toward the source of Keith’s voice on the other side of the cavern. Keith’s face peeked out from behind a large crystal.

The Waterbender hurried over to find Keith sitting on the ground with Kosmo beside him. Lance dropped to his knees and threw his arms around Keith in a tight embrace.

“Not that I’m not relieved you didn’t get turned into an Avatar pancake, but what just happened?” Lance asked.

“I...think it was Kosmo,” Keith replied, looking as bewildered as Lance felt. “The Balmera was about to crush me and I couldn’t move in time, but suddenly Kosmo was there and then bam, we were over here.”

“Huh,” Lance stared down at the star wolf pup.

Kosmo wagged his tail.

“Is the Balmera okay?” Keith asked.

Lanced looked over his shoulder at the behemoth still lying motionless across the room.

“I dunno,” he replied. “We should probably go check on it. Hopefully now that that goo monster is gone, it won’t attack us again.”

Lance stood up and held out a hand for Keith. The Avatar grabbed it but when he tried to move, Keith hissed in pain and collapsed back onto the ground.

Lance quickly kneeled again and with gentle prodding examined Keith’s leg.

“Looks like a fractured ankle,” Lance said. He bent some water out of the pond to wrap around the limb in question. “I can help with the swelling but I doubt you’ll be able to walk on it for a few days.”

Keith grumbled but let out a sigh of relief as the water soothed his injury. Once Lance deemed the ankle healed enough for the time being, he returned the water to its source.

Movement out of the corner of his eye had Lance jumping up to shield Keith. However, the Balmera merely regarded them with its large eyes. After a moment, it slowly shuffled closer. Lance kept a wary eye on it, ready to attack at the first sign of danger, but Keith tugged at the hem of Lance’s tunic. When Lance looked down in askance, Keith shook his head.

The Balmera opened its mouth and Lance tensed again, but instead of the loud roar from earlier, a melodious rumble filled the air. After a few moments, the sound faded and the Balmera slipped back into the pond.

Blinking, Lance turned to Keith to find the Avatar staring after the spirit in awe.

“Did you,” Lance raised an eyebrow, “understand what it said?”

“Kind of,” Keith replied haltingly. “It thanked us for getting rid of the parasite, and asked us to tell the townspeople that it was sorry and that it was safe for them to come back. Also something about letting you keep some of the water from the pond?”

“Really?” Lance peered into the water.

The surface was once again smooth like glass and the Balmera was nowhere in sight. Lance emptied his travel flask and bent some of the Balmera water inside with a pleased smile. If it really did have magical properties, it was sure to come in handy.

But apparently even spirit water couldn’t instantly heal a fractured ankle because Keith was unable to stand under his own power and had to lean heavily on Lance. Lance gave him a considering look before bending down to slip one arm under Keith’s knees and another behind his back.

“What are you—Hey!” Keith yelped as Lance hoisted him up against his chest. Blushing furiously, Keith scowled. “Put me down!”

Lance tightened his grip and started to walk back to the entrance, Kosmo following happily behind him.

“It’ll take us forever to get back if you have to limp,” he argued. “Plus now your hands are free so you can light our way.”

Keith pouted but obligingly conjured a flame as they moved from the luminous crystals into the dark tunnel.

After a bit of trekking, Lance looked down at Keith’s face. The glow of the fire danced across his features, casting shadows from his long eyelashes.

Lance cleared his throat, drawing the Avatar’s attention. Large, violet eyes met his own, and Lance had to look away. He hoped the darkness hid his blush.

“You know,” his said, “now that we’re out of danger, this is actually kinda nice.”

“Which part?” Keith asked wryly. “The dank cave or me being too injured to walk?”

Lance rolled his eyes.

“I just meant, y’know,” he bit his lip, “being close to you. I’ve been trying to spend time with you all week, but stuff kept getting in the way, and then I’d get embarrassed, and then the moment would be gone, and I dunno. Finally having you in my arms like this...it’s kinda nice,” he finished lamely.

Lance risked a peek at Keith to find the Avatar staring at him with wide eyes. He watched in fascination as Keith’s face gradually turned as red as his Fire Nation tunic.

“Oh,” Keith shyly rested his head on Lance’s shoulder and used his free hand to clutch at the front of Lance’s shirt.

“I guess it isn’t terrible,” he mumbled.

-----

The town was incredibly grateful that the Balmera was back to normal. Even Shay’s grumpy brother Rax took the time to personally thank them all. Several villagers gave them more supplies for free, but eventually they had to politely decline for fear that Platt would be too weighed down to fly.

After Shay promised to visit them again in the morning to say goodbye, the group shuffled back to their campsite.

Hunk paused his soft humming when he noticed Lance looking at him far too smugly.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing,” Lance casually examined the basket of fruit someone had given him.

“Lance.”

“I just couldn’t help but overhear you telling Shay you’d write to her, is all,” Lance grinned slyly as Hunk blushed. “That makes two pretty girls you’re pen pals with now.”

“Shay and Romelle and I are just friends,” Hunk muttered, though he knew it was useless. Lance was a hopeless romantic and a horrible gossip, and part of Hunk was glad neither girl was around long enough for Lance to meddle.

But Hunk also knew Lance had his best interests at heart, despite his attempts at being Hunk’s wingman often ending up more embarrassing than helpful, so when the Waterbender chuckled and bumped Hunk’s shoulder with his own, Hunk returned the gesture goodnaturedly.

“What about you?” Hunk glanced ahead toward Keith. “Looks like you got over that weird slump you were having.”

The Avatar’s ankle still wasn’t fully healed so Lance had insisted on carrying him around all day, much to Keith’s mortification and everyone else’s amusement. Once it was time to return to camp, and Lance had tried to juggle both Keith and their new goods, Keith had put his foot down. Shiro’s arm was finally healed so he was more than happy to give his brother a piggyback ride, and the two Firebenders conversed in low tones the whole way back.

Lance sighed and scrubbed a hand roughly through his hair, the basket of fruit balanced against his hip.

“I guess so. Today was definitely a step in the right direction,” he pursed his lips. “I dunno. I’m ready for more, but I’m happy to go at whatever pace Keith wants. What’s frustrating is I don’t know if he intentionally wants to take things slow or if he’s just oblivious.”

“For what it’s worth, I think Keith wants more too,” Hunk replied. “He might not be the best at social cues, but anyone can tell he cares about you a lot.”

Lance’s frown softened into a smile.

“Thanks man. And hey, I’ll tell Shay all about your brave exploits tomorrow! She’ll fall in love with you for sure!”

“Please don’t.”

-----

That night, as they all got ready for bed, Lance paused and blinked down at the wolf pup curled on the ground by Keith’s feet.

“Kosmo’s not sleeping with you?”

“Hm? Oh, I guess not.” Keith shrugged. “It’s a bit of a relief, honestly. I tend to run a bit hot at night, I think it’s a Firebender thing, and having Kosmo in my sleeping bag with me was kind of like hugging a campfire. I thought I was gonna be cooked alive.”

“Oh,” Lance’s heart sank.

Keith glanced up at him and then averted his eyes with a faint blush.

“Um, but you know, your body temperature is lower than mine, probably because you’re a Waterbender, so maybe we could...cancel each other out?”

Lance blinked. He was almost positive Keith was making that up, but he wasn’t about to question such a golden opportunity.

“Only one way to find out,” Lance patted the ground next to him. Keith moved his blankets the few inches required for their bedrolls to be pressed together.

Come morning, Lance woke up to find Keith wrapped in his arms, head tucked under Lance’s chin as he nuzzled his cheek against Lance’s collarbone.

Even his friends’ merciless teasing couldn’t dampen Lance’s grin.

Chapter Text

Lance practically vibrated with energy as he led his friends through the Northern Water Tribe city. He couldn’t help but preen as Keith, Allura, and Coran stared around in wonder. Lance was probably biased, but if you asked him, the architecture was unparalleled. The city was huge and multi-tiered, built right out of the giant icy cliffs that loomed overhead, and the whole thing glimmered when the sun hit it just right.

The other half of their party seemed less impressed with its beauty, too distracted by the cold.

“I knew we were going to the North Pole, but that somehow didn’t prepare me for how cold it is,” Pidge muttered through chattering teeth. She shot the Airbenders a pleading look. “Are you absolutely sure you can’t bend the air around us too?”

“I’m afraid not,” Allura said apologetically. “We warm ourselves using proper breathing techniques, but I don’t think that can extend to other people.”

Pidge groaned and Lance noticed Keith hide a smirk. The Avatar had demanded Allura teach him that trick as soon as they started getting into colder environments and picked it up incredibly fast.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” Lance assured them. “And it’ll be warmer once we get inside.”

Pidge and Hunk sidled closer to Shiro, who smiled and graciously made the small flame in the palm of his hand a bit larger.

Lance rolled his eyes, but perked up as he came to a stop in front of a large estate.

“We’re here,” he announced with a grin.

The others gaped.

“This is your house?” Keith asked incredulously.

“Well, yeah,” Lance said as he banged a large knocker on the front door. “Our monarchy might not be as uppity as the Fire Nation’s or Earth Kingdom’s, so I don’t have a title or anything, but my family is still technically nobility.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Lance saw Shiro mutter something to Keith who blushed and shoved at his brother with a scowl.

The Waterbender’s attention returned when one of the large doors swung open and a familiar face peeked out. The little girl’s eyes widened and Lance braced himself.

“Uncle Lance!” Nadia shouted joyously as she leapt into his waiting arms. Laughing, Lance lifted her up and twirled around in a circle.

Nadia’s yell must have caught the other inhabitants’ attention because he could hear a sudden commotion from inside.

“Did she say Lance?”

“That does sound like his laugh.”

“Mamá, come quick! Lance is back!”

As Lance set his niece back down, the rest of his family rushed outside to meet him.

“Lance!” his mother cried, sweeping him into her arms. “I missed you so much.”

Lance clung to her tighter than he would admit.

“I’m home, Mamá. Oh, and I’ve brought some friends I’d like you all to meet!”

He was pleased to see that all his immediate family was there: his parents, Lucia and Hector, his siblings, Marco, Luis, Veronica, and Rachel, and his niece and nephew, Nadia and Sylvio. He went around and introduced them all to everyone.

“Allura, Coran, Pidge, Shiro, and you already know Hunk.” When it was Keith’s turn to step forward, Lance cleared his throat a bit and grinned, a slight blush painting his cheeks. “And this is Keith, my boyfriend.”

Keith froze and he glanced between Lance and his family with wide eyes, like he wasn’t quite sure what to do. Oops, maybe they should have talked about this beforehand.

Luckily, Lance’s mother was a literal saint and immediately moved to put Keith at ease.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Keith,” Lucia grasped his hand with a warm smile. “Thank you for taking care of our Lance.”

“Oh, um, the pleasure is all mine,” Keith returned the smile with a somewhat overwhelmed one of his own.

“Not that we’re not happy to see you, Lance,” Veronica interrupted in a wry drawl, “but why are you here? Your trip wasn’t scheduled to end for another two months. I’d ask if you ran out of money, but that doesn’t explain all your guests.”

“Excuse you,” Lance sniffed haughtily, “I still have plenty left, and that’s after we got even more people to feed and house.”

“Okay, so why are you here?” she asked again.

“Well, this visit is actually more of a temporary stop,” he admitted. “Keith wanted to meet the Blue Lion, so I’m taking him to Uncle Baku tomorrow.”

They could have just gone straight to the palace, but Lance missed his family and the others were nice enough to agree to the visit.

Speaking of his family, they were all looking at Lance like he had started breathing fire.

“You’re going to what?!” Veronica demanded. “Uncle doesn’t even let us see the Blue Lion, what makes you think he would let your boyfriend?”

“Oh, didn’t I mention,” Lance asked with faux nonchalance as he pretended to examine his nails and slung his other arm over the smaller boy’s shoulders. “Keith is the Avatar.”

Lance’s friends rolled their eyes at his theatrics as his family stared. Keith buried his blushing face in his hands. Cute.

“I think,” Lucia said faintly, “we should continue this discussion inside.”

-----

“Hey.”

Lance looked up as Veronica joined him sitting on the steps of their back porch.

After the commotion had died down, everyone went inside to gather in the living room. Over piping hot cups of tea, Lance and his friends had regaled his family with their adventures. He had been particularly smug about how impressed they had all been by his dashing rescue of the Avatar, but his favorite moment had come right after, when his brothers started ribbing Keith about his relationship with Lance.

“Tell us the truth,” Marco grinned. “Lance paid you to pretend to be his boyfriend, right?”

He grabbed Lance in a playful chokehold and ruffled his hair, expertly avoiding his little brother’s long, flailing limbs.

Keith laughed.

“Honestly? I didn’t even know Lance had money until today.”

“Well, best of luck to you,” Marco finally released Lance, who stomped away to sit next to Keith and fix his hair with an exaggerated pout. “You’re gonna need it. He can be quite the handful.”

“Oh, believe me, I know,” Keith’s smile turned soft and Lance’s breath hitched slightly. “And I wouldn’t have him any other way.”

His siblings snickered and cooed at his bashful expression, but Lance didn’t notice, too distracted by those gorgeous eyes.

“Well, Lance always said he was gonna marry someone way out of his league,” Veronica smirked. “I guess this is a start.”

Keith blinked.

“What?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Lance said smugly. “Keith turned down the crown prince of the Fire Nation for me.”

That had set everyone off again and soon they were back to explaining about Lotor and the more recent parts of their journey. They talked for hours.

Now it was dusk and everyone was scattered around the large courtyard behind the house. Allura and Pidge were admiring the ice sculptures, Hunk and Shiro were chatting with Lance’s parents, and Coran seemed to be having an enthusiastic conversation with a somewhat baffled Luis.

As for Keith...Lance turned back to where he had been looking before Veronica joined him. Keith was a little ways away with Nadia and Sylvio. When the two children had first approached the Avatar asking to play with his pet wolf, he had been at a complete loss. You’d think he had never interacted with kids before. Then again, from what Lance had gathered of Keith’s childhood, that might have been close to the truth.

Keith adjusted surprisingly quickly though. As far as Lance could tell, Keith decided to just talk to them like they were adults. It was kind of hilarious, but Nadia and Sylvio seemed to appreciate not being patronized for once. Now they were watching with rapt attention as Keith juggled small pieces of the different elements around them, a disgruntled Kosmo still trapped in Nadia’s arms. The whole thing was way more endearing than it had any right to be.

“Uh oh,” Veronica smirked. “I know that look.”

“What look,” Lance frowned, though he had a feeling he knew where this was going.

“You’ve got it bad.”

Instead of getting defensive or flustered like in the past, Lance just turned back to gaze at Keith with a dopey smile.

“Yeah,” he sighed happily. “I think...I think he might be the one, Veronica.”

Veronica’s eyebrows rose and her mirth transformed into something more genuine.

“Then I’m happy you found each other.”

Her eyes regained their mischievous glint, identical to the one Lance often got when he had a terrible idea.

“You know, we all had bets on what kind of person you would bring back with you,” she said.

Lance’s head whipped around.

“You what?!”

“Yeah,” she counted off her fingers gleefully. “Luis thought you’d meet some boy or girl with a dark past but a heart of gold, Rachel thought you’d rescue and subsequently fall for a foreign prince or princess, and Marco thought you’d get tricked by a con artist who was after the family fortune and we’d have to bail you out.”

Lance squinted at his sister, not sure whether to be amused or insulted.

“And what did you think?”

Veronica shrugged.

“I said you’d accidently get mixed up in some kind of big conspiracy and meet your soulmate while saving the world. Or you would just die.” She tapped her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Huh, I guess we were all kinda right. Except for Marco.”

“Did any of you consider I might not meet someone at all?” Lance asked with a small pout.

He tried not to feel too offended by her snort.

“Please. You may have fooled mom and dad with your talk of exploring the world and learning about other cultures, but we know you better than that.”

“I did want to do those things,” he protested.

“But,” he added when she shot him a look, “I won’t deny a part of me was hoping to find love too.”

“You’ve always been a romantic, Lance,” she smiled, “and that’s not a bad thing. I know we like to tease, but all of us are really proud of you.”

Lance swallowed the sudden lump in his throat as warmth burst in his chest.

“Thanks, Ronnie. That means a lot.”

Veronica ruffled his hair fondly.

“We’re here for you, Lance. It sounds like you’ve been in some pretty dangerous situations and probably have more yet to come, so just know that if you ever need our help, all you have to do is ask. But hey, despite the near-death experiences,” she nodded at Keith, “I guess it all worked out.”

As if sensing their stares, Keith glanced up and gave them a little wave. Lance felt that dopey grin return.

“Yeah, it did.”

-----

No matter how much Keith tossed and turned, he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. The bed itself was fine, one of the best Keith had ever been in even, but he just couldn’t relax.

Not only was he somewhat nervous about meeting the Chief in the morning, but Keith had gotten used to sleeping with others these past few months. Kosmo’s presence helped, but it still felt too quiet. Not to mention, he and Lance had shared a bedroll every night since the incident with the Balmera. It always resulted in teasing from their friends, but it was worth it because Keith found he never slept better than when he was in Lance’s arms.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Keith heard a soft knock at his door. Exchanging a curious glance with Kosmo, Keith padded over to open it.

Lance’s charming grin greeted him.

“Hey,” he said in a low whisper. “Can I come in? I, uh, couldn’t sleep.”

Keith quirked an eyebrow.

“Somehow I don’t think your mother would approve of you sneaking into your boyfriend’s room in the middle of the night.”

Despite his words, Keith opened the door further so Lance could enter and quietly shut it behind him. Kosmo wagged his tail in greeting from where he was curled up at the foot of the bed, earning a scratch behind the ears.

“What Mamá doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Besides, if anyone asks, I’ll just say you were cold and I was doing my civic duty to make sure the Avatar doesn’t die of hypothermia.”

Without further ado, Lance flopped down on Keith’s bed like he owned it. Which, in a way, he kind of did. Once he’d made himself comfortable, Lance lifted the corner of the blanket expectantly.

Keith rolled his eyes but obligingly slid under the covers and snuggled in close.

Looping an arm across Lance’s waist, Keith rested his head on the other boy’s chest. Lance brought his own arm up to bury his fingers in Keith’s hair as their legs tangled together.

Keith let out a soft sigh as blunt nails gently scraped down his scalp. He had to admit, between Lance at his side and Kosmo curled at their feet, it was pleasantly warm.

Keith fell asleep to the comforting sound of Lance’s heartbeat.

-----

The next morning, Keith and his friends made their way to the palace.

Lance’s mother had insisted they send word of their arrival last night since the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe might not be quite as lenient about a surprise visit as the rest of his family, so when they arrived at the gates there was a large entourage already waiting.

At the front of the group stood a tall, lean man with dark skin and the blue eyes that seemed to run in Lance’s family. He radiated an energy that belied his age.

“Lance, my boy!” the Chief bellowed as he slapped his nephew on the back a touch too enthusiastically. “It’s been too long!”

“It’s good to see you, Uncle,” Lance replied, visibly trying to hide a wince. “Guys, I’d like you all to meet my great-uncle, Chief Baku.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Baku went around and shook everyone’s hand. When he got to Keith, his eyes lit up. “And you must be Avatar Keith.”

Keith nodded, feeling a bit awkward. He was still getting used to people addressing him by the title.

“It’s an honor to have you here,” the Chief whirled around and led the way into the enormous palace. “Come, come! The servants will show you all to your rooms and then we can discuss things over lunch! It was on short notice, but we’ve prepared a magnificent feast to celebrate your arrival!”

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the older man’s energy, Keith looked at Lance. The taller boy shrugged with a grin and followed his uncle.

After dropping their things off in their new rooms, everyone reconvened in the biggest dining hall Keith had ever been in. The table alone was longer than any of the rooms in the Fire Nation palace, at least as far as Keith had seen.

There weren’t that many people, just Keith and his companions, Chief Baku, and the Chief’s children and grandchildren, Lance’s cousins. They all sat around one end of the table with Chief Baku at the head.

“Fascinating,” said Crown Princess Luxia as Keith finished detailing their journey. She was a beautiful woman around Shiro’s age and was expected to take the throne in the near future. “I can’t believe Prince Lotor would go to such drastic measures. We’d heard news that he was looking for his missing fiance, but the rumors suggested you had been kidnapped, not that you ran away of your own volition.”

Keith opened his mouth to respond, but Chief Baku interrupted with a loud scoff.

“It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” he declared. “Fire Lord Zarkon is no stranger to underhanded tactics. Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

“But everyone says Lotor is not like his father,” Luxia shot Keith a questioning glance.

Keith hesitated, uncomfortable with all the eyes on him, but nodded.

“In terms of leadership and ethics, Lotor opposes many of Zarkon’s beliefs,” Keith agreed. “On a more personal level, though, I couldn’t say. I only met the Fire Lord once, and very briefly.”

Lotor had introduced Keith to his parents shortly after their Agni Kai. It wasn’t an experience Keith wanted to repeat, though he knew that as the Avatar, it was unlikely he’d be able to avoid ever meeting with the royal family again.

“Well, I’ve met Zarkon plenty of times,” Baku said. “And trust me when I say you made the right decision to not get involved with that family.”

Keith tilted his head. “Queen Sanda wasn’t too keen on him either. She thought he wanted to steal the Green Lion.”

Baku paused for a fraction of a second, so quick Keith would have missed it if he wasn’t watching so closely, before taking a sip of wine.

“Sanda is paranoid,” Baku flapped a hand dismissively. “I don’t care for Zarkon, it’s true, but the Earth Queen takes it too far. The Lions are some of the most powerful spirits in existence, and to suggest someone could steal one is ludicrous.”

Keith’s eyes flicked over to Allura. The Airbender’s charming smile had faded and she gazed at the chief with cool eyes.

Baku continued speaking, oblivious to the rapidly souring atmosphere.

“I’m sure the White Lion will return on her own in due time. Perhaps she’ll feel more at ease once the Air Nation has a new leader.”

Allura’s eyes flashed and she started to stand up, drawing everyone’s gaze, but Keith hastily regained Baku’s attention.

“Actually, that’s why we’re here,” he said. “We’re trying to find out what happened to the White Lion and were hoping the Blue Lion might be able to help us.”

Baku blinked as he glanced between Allura, who slowly sat back down, and Keith, who did his best to look polite despite his anger on behalf of his friend.

“We do not usually allow outsiders to visit the Blue Lion,” the chief said hesitantly, “but you are the Avatar, so I suppose we could make an exception.”

Keith let out a breath of relief.

“Thank you.”

Baku nodded.

“I’m afraid she has already retired for the day, but perhaps tomorrow.”

Keith frowned but decided it was best not to push the issue.

Once lunch was over, Chief Baku excused himself to attend to his duties and Princess Luxia offered them a tour around the palace.

It really was impressive. The building was situated on top of the highest tier of the city, and could be seen for miles. The sheer size of it could probably give the Earth Kingdom’s palace a run for its money.

After showing them the collection of giant ice sculptures scattered around the grounds outside, the princess led Keith and his friends to another building with large open windows.

“This is our temple,” she explained. “Those doors in the back lead to the Inner Sanctum, the Blue Lion’s den. Unfortunately, we cannot open it right now, but I’m sure my father will bring you back here tomorrow.”

Luxia beckoned the group toward their next destination. Keith gave the heavy doors one last glance. As he studied the swirling patterns embedded in the stone, Keith tried to reach out with his senses to see if he could feel the Blue Lion’s presence.

Before he could really do anything, however, the touch of a hand jolted him out of his concentration. He turned to find Lance smiling apologetically.

“Sorry,” Lance said. “But everyone’s going to the next location now. Wouldn’t want you to get left behind.”

Keith frowned and looked back at the doors to the Inner Sanctum. Lance sighed and grabbed the Avatar’s hand.

“Come on, I want to show you the hot springs. You’ll love it, the combination of hot water and cold air feels great. And it’s good for your skin!”

Keith smiled at Lance’s enthusiasm and allowed the Waterbender to lace their fingers together. As Lance tugged him out of the temple, Keith shot one last glance behind him.

Tomorrow.

-----

Keith did end up loving the hot springs. Soaking in the steamy water beneath a blanket of stars, Keith had never felt more relaxed in his life. According to Lance, the water was connected to the Spirit Oasis, and offered natural healing power on top of “making your face glow,” whatever that meant.

Unfortunately, any stress Keith shed in the hot springs gradually returned over the next few days as one thing became increasingly obvious.

Chief Baku was avoiding him.

At first Keith was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Baku was the leader of the Northern Water Tribe, and Lance’s uncle, so when Keith brought up visiting the Blue Lion their second day in the palace and Baku stated very apologetically that he was too busy to take Keith to her that day, Keith reluctantly agreed to wait.

He had returned the following morning only to be told that the Chief was locked in an important council meeting and couldn’t be disturbed.

On the third day, Keith discovered Chief Baku wasn’t even in the palace, but had travelled to one of the smaller villages on the outskirts of the city to resolve an issue.

The next few days passed in a similar vein, and the rare times where Keith was able to track the chief down, Baku assured him that tomorrow he’d get to see the Blue Lion.

Keith had to restrain himself from doing something that would probably get him kicked out of the palace. And he wasn’t the only one. Keith could tell all of the his friends were starting to get ansty. Even Lance, who at first had insisted that Baku was simply a busy man with no dark ulterior motives, frowned when he heard the chief’s latest excuse.

But if Keith was irritated, Allura was outright livid, and she and Lance got into an argument when he tried to justify Baku’s behavior. The others mediated and they eventually made up, but dinner was still tense, Allura’s usual cheerful smile replaced by a scowl.

Therefore, Keith really shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked to speak with him privately after they finished eating. Keith followed Allura back to her room, ignoring Lance’s dubious gaze.

“We need to do something,” she declared without preamble as soon as the door shut behind them. “It’s been a week since we got here, and we’ve made no progress whatsoever.”

“I agree,” Keith replied. “But what can we do? I’ve tried everything except threaten Baku, and I doubt we’ll be able to see the Lion if we’re banned from the North Pole.”

“I don’t think violence is the answer,” she agreed. “However, neither is cooperation. Chief Baku has made it clear that he isn’t going to take us to the Lion. So we will have to go ourselves.”

Keith’s eyebrows rose.

“I never thought you’d resort to subterfuge. You’ve always preached open and honest diplomacy.”

Allura’s eyes darkened.

“Sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures.”

-----

For the third time in his life, Keith snuck out of his bedroom in the dead of night.

First though, he had to escape Lance’s grasp. Lance’s arms were wrapped around Keith’s middle with his nose nuzzled against the back of Keith’s neck. Every time Keith tried to gingerly pull away, Lance seemed to hold on tighter, tugging the Avatar close so that his back was firmly pressed against Lance’s chest. Under normal circumstances, Keith would melt into the embrace, but right now he had somewhere he needed to be.

Kosmo watched Keith’s struggle with a nonplussed expression, but thankfully made no noise, and after a few more attempts, Keith finally extricated himself from Lance’s hold. He quickly slipped on a dark blue tunic and black trousers.

The Waterbender shifted in his sleep and Keith froze. He watched with wide eyes as Lance hugged Keith’s abandoned pillow and let out a soft snore. With a breath of relief, Keith finished getting dressed.

He bent down to pat Kosmo’s head and the wolf pup nuzzled into his palm.

“Stay here, alright?” Keith whispered. “I’ll be back soon.”

Double checking that his mother’s knife was sheathed at the small of his back, Keith threw on his cloak and surreptitiously peeked out his door.

The coast was clear. Throwing one last apologetic glance at Lance, Keith gently shut the door behind him.

He didn’t see the bright blue eyes that opened a second later.

Keith quickly but silently made his way through the winding corridors. After a few moments, he caught sight of Allura and hurried over. The Airbender had also donned Water Tribe clothes and hid her hair under a hood to be less conspicuous.

“You’re late,” she whispered.

“Sorry,” Keith said. “Lance is like an octopus shark when he sleeps.”

“Well, no matter. You’re here now, so let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” chirped a third voice.

Keith and Allura jumped and whirled around to find an unimpressed Lance.

“Off for a midnight stroll under the moonlight?” he asked blithely, arms crossed. ”If I didn’t know you both better, I’d be pretty jealous right about now.”

“It’s not—” Keith blinked rapidly. “How did you—”

Lance rolled his eyes.

“Keith. Babe. My Moon and Stars. I know you’re like, a cool ninja assassin when you fight, but when it comes to keeping your own secrets, you are not that subtle. And Allura is a terrible liar. It was pretty obvious you two were up to something.”

Keith and Allura exchanged looks.

“So,” Lance said, “what are you up to?”

Keith glanced at Allura who nodded.

“We’re going to the Inner Sanctum to see the Blue Lion,” he told Lance.

The Waterbender pursed his lips.

“Okay, but why the subterfuge? My uncle told you he’d let you see her tomorrow.”

“He’s said that every day since we got here, Lance,” Keith scowled. “I know you think a lot of him, but he’s hiding something and we’re going to find out what.”

Lance regarded them with cool eyes for a moment before he un-crossed his arms with a sigh.

“You may have a point,” he conceded, to their surprise. “I want to believe the best in him, but I can’t deny he’s been acting...weird lately. So,” he turned his determined eyes on them, “I want to help.”

After some time spent avoiding the guards the three arrived at the temple and Lance ushered them through the large doors. Throwing the entrance a considering look, Lance raised a thick barrier of ice just inside, blocking the doors.

There were no torches burning this late at night, but beams of pale moonlight shone through the tall windows. Lance led his companions toward a second set of doors in the back of the cavernous room and Allura eyed the intricate patterns with open curiosity.

“I wasn’t able to get a good look earlier,” she breathed. “They’re quite beautiful.”

“They’re not just for design,” Lance brushed his fingers over the markings. “See these veins? There’s liquid inside them and you have to Waterbend them in a very specific pattern or the door won’t open. Only members of the royal family know how.” Lance shot them a grin. “Good thing I tagged along, huh?”

“Good thing,” Keith agreed with a smile.

Lance widened his stance and raised his arms. Before he could begin, however, Keith caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye.

Keith’s body moved automatically. Without thought, he threw himself in front of Lance and blocked the descending blade of the naginata with his knife.

The attacker leapt back as Lance and Allura quickly moved into their own battle stances. They were tall and lithe, adorned in Water Tribe clothes a shade of blue so dark it was almost black. Two dark eyes gazed intently over the large scarf that obscured most of their face.

“Who are you,” demanded Lance, as he took in their appearance. “You’re not with the palace guard.”

Instead of answering, the figure readjusted their grip on their long spear-like weapon and lunged once again.

Keith wasn’t one to brag, but it was an undisputed fact that he was one of the best swordsmen in the Fire Nation, a Master Firebender, and, oh yeah, the Avatar. Allura was an Airbending prodigy in her own right, having earned her tattoos at a young age. And Lance was one to brag, but more than had the skills to back it up.

Yet all three of them working together struggled to keep this new enemy at bay. Granted, Keith was sticking to using fire since this was still a secret mission and they wanted to hide their identities if they could help it, but this guy wasn’t even bending any elements!

It felt like no matter what they did, their opponent was always three steps ahead. Keith charged at them but they effortlessly ducked away at the last second to reveal Allura trying to attack from behind them. With a pained yelp, Keith and Allura crashed into each other in a tangle of limbs. Embarrassingly, that was not the sole time that occured.

Keith got the distinct feeling they were being toyed with.

“How is this happening?” Lance yelped as he ducked the naginata’s razor sharp edge.

He immediately retaliated with his water whip but the figure expertly flipped out of the way and in one fluid movement thrust their weapon toward where Allura had been trying to flank them.

“Allura, watch out!”

The Airbender wasn’t able to get out of the way fast enough and the blade sliced a large gash across her arm. With a cry, she fell to the ground.

“Allura!” Lance shouted.

“Go help her,“ Keith ordered. “I’ll hold them off.”

Lance nodded and hurried to their fallen friend. The figure tried to go after him, but Keith distracted them with another stream of flames. Planting himself firmly in front of the others, Keith reengaged the fight, peripherally aware of Lance using Waterbending to heal Allura’s wound. With renewed determination, he fought more offensively than ever, ducking blows and shooting fire to push the assailant back.

Up until now, Keith hadn’t been able to make out much detail in the pale light, but as a large plume of flame passed between them, he finally caught a good look at the attacker’s eyes.

They were the same eyes he saw every time he looked in a mirror.

In his shock, Keith almost didn’t dodge in time to avoid getting decapitated.

“Wait!”

Keith fumbled with the cloth that covered the hilt of his knife as he continued to evade the naginata’s blade. Unable to unravel it quickly enough, he just burned it to ash with a burst of fire. Heart in his throat, Keith held up the insignia for them to see.

“Do you recognize this symbol?”

The figure froze for a moment. Without warning, they burst back into action, and before Keith knew it he was lying face down on the temple’s cold floor, one arm twisted uncomfortably behind his back and his knife in the figure’s hand.

“Where did you get this?” a gruff yet feminine voice demanded.

“Keith!” Lance leapt up from where he had been attending to Allura and started running towards them.

Keith heard a sharp inhale above him as the grip on his arm loosened.

“Keith?” the woman repeated as she stood up and took a step back, her eyes wide with disbelief.

Keeping a wary eye on the woman, Lance helped Keith back to his feet. Giving the Waterbender’s hand a thankful squeeze, Keith turned to her.

They regarded each other for a long moment. Finally, the woman reached up and pulled the scarf down around her neck.

“Is it really you?” she asked in barely more than a whisper.

A low, soothing voice, and scars on both cheeks.

-----

Lance was very confused.

One minute they were battling this insanely good warrior—like, seriously, he thought Keith was a badass, but this was like, an actual ninja assassin—and then Allura got hurt so Lance went to try to heal her as best and quickly as he could, because even Keith would have a hard time fighting that guy alone, and then Lance looked up to see Keith on the ground and his heart had stopped. He leapt up to rush to the Avatar’s aid, ready to raze the temple to the ground if he had to, but then the assailant retreated.

And now they were all just...staring at each other.

More specifically, Lance and Keith stared at the mysterious woman, but her attention was solely on Keith. Countless emotions raced across her face, too fast for Lance to catch.

“What are you doing here?” she looked like she was still struggling to comprehend what was going on.

Lance could relate.

“I could ask you the same question.” Keith still had a death grip on Lance’s hand.

“What’s going on?” Allura asked, slowly walking over to them. The cut on her arm was deep but not as bad as it had looked at the time. Luckily, Lance had been able to heal her enough that the bleeding had stopped. Her arm would probably ache for a while though.

“We’re here to see the Blue Lion,” Keith said, his unwavering gaze on the woman.

At his words, she drew herself up and planted the bottom of her naginata on the ground firmly.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that. The Blue Lion is under my protection.”

“On whose authority?” Lance cut in. “You’re not a royal guard. I’d be surprised if you were Water Tribe at all.”

“That is none of your concern,” she replied. The stern look on her face was somehow familiar.

Keith scowled and let go of Lance’s hand to step closer to the woman. “Look—”

Bang!

All four of them turned to the front entrance. Another bang accompanied by shouting sounded from outside.

“Speaking of the royal guard,” Lance muttered.

They shouldn’t have been surprised, really. That fight hadn’t exactly been silent.

It looked like they were having trouble opening the doors thanks to the blockade Lance had erected earlier, but it wouldn’t hold them for long. He turned back to Keith.

“If we’re gonna do this, we’d better do it now,” he warned. Once they were caught, he doubted his uncle would allow them to see the Lion willingly.

“Open it,” Keith nodded.

Lance moved toward the inner doors but the woman barred his way with the long pole of her weapon.

“I said you’re not allowed,” she growled. “I’m under strict orders not to let anyone in except the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe or the Avatar.”

At their incredulous stares, she raised an eyebrow. “...What?”

Lance’s ice barrier shattered and the front doors burst open, a handful of guards streaming through followed by his furious uncle.

“Lance!” Baku shouted. “What is the meaning of this?!”

Wordlessly, Keith turned and with graceful movements, swiftly raised another wall of ice between them, even thicker than the one before, that spanned the entire room from wall to wall and up to the ceiling. On the other side, the soldiers’ faces ranged from awed to outraged. Even with all of them, bending that big of an obstacle would take several minutes.

The woman looked similarly stunned, staring at Keith with wide eyes.

“Well?” he snapped. “Can we go in now?”

She hastily picked her jaw up off the floor and glanced over at Lance’s uncle yelling muffled obscenities behind the translucent wall. Turning back to Keith, she nodded tightly and withdrew her blade.

Lance hurried over to the doors and started bending the liquid in the intricate pattern he had been taught as a child, all too aware of the other tribesmen working their way through Keith’s barrier. He let out a triumphant shout when the doors began to slide open.

He gestured for Keith to lead the way and followed the Avatar inside only to bump into the smaller boy’s back.

“Keith, what,” Lance leaned over Keith’s shoulder and saw what had brought the Avatar to a sudden halt.

He sucked in a sharp breath as his stomach plummeted to the ground.

The chamber was empty.

Chapter Text

Keith and Lance were still staring into the Inner Sanctum when Lance’s uncle and his guards finally broke through.

“This is an outrage!” Chief Baku spat, storming over to the Avatar.

Lance automatically moved between them like a shield, but Keith placed a hand on Lance’s arm and stepped forward.

“Where is the Blue Lion?” Keith asked and a shiver ran down Lance’s spine.

Normally when Keith lost his temper he became a spitfire, but this time his words were made of chilling ice.

Baku seemed similarly affected, blanching a bit before regaining his fury.

“I don’t see how you have any right to be asking me questions when you are the one trespassing! Avatar or not, this is unacceptable!”

Lance saw Allura and the mysterious woman enter the room out of the corner of his eye.

Keith merely stared back at the Chief coldly.

“Where,” he repeated, “is the Blue Lion?”

Baku drew himself up as his face turned purple.

“If you think I’ll be letting you see her now after all this—”

“Where,” rage seeped into Keith’s voice, “is the Blue Lion?”

“I don’t...” Baku quailed under the fierce glare as his eyes filled with uncertainty. “I...I didn’t mean...it’s just…”

“Uncle,” Lance said in a low voice. His hands shook and his fingernails dug crescents into his palms as he tried to keep his calm. “What have you done?”

Baku’s eyes darted between Lance and the others. He turned to the guards.

“Leave us.”

“But Sire…”

“I said leave us!” he snapped.

The guards reluctantly exited the Sanctum, leaving the Chief alone with Lance, Keith, Allura, and the mysterious woman.

After a long silence, Baku’s shoulders sagged, as if all the fight had been pulled from his body.

“The Blue Lion has been missing for three months.”

Lance squeezed his eyes shut. He had known something was wrong but this was the worst case scenario come true.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Lance growled.

“I didn’t want to start a panic,” his uncle said. “The people were in an uproar when the White Lion vanished, what do you think would happen if they learned our own Lion was gone now too? There would be mass chaos!”

To everyone’s surprise, it was the woman who acted next. She grabbed Chief Baku by the front of his robes and held Keith’s knife up to his neck.

Lance moved forward but a hand on his elbow stopped him. When he glanced back, Keith shook his head slightly.

“Do you mean to tell me,” she snarled as Baku scrabbled to get away, “that I’ve been guarding an empty room for three months?”

“You didn’t know?” Keith asked.

“I’m not a Waterbender, so I couldn’t get inside. I had to settle for making sure no one else did either.” She narrowed her eyes, grip not budging as Baku continued to squirm. “I’ve been keeping watch over this place for nearly five years, and I know for a fact that in all that time, no one has gone in or out except for you. So how could the Lion disappear?”

“I don’t know,” the chief replied shakily. “One day I came in and she was just gone!” A low growl emitted from her throat as she pressed the dagger harder to his skin. “Please, I swear it’s the truth!”

Lance’s muscles tensed as he prepared to intervene, but Keith beat him to it.

“Stop,” he commanded the woman. “I believe him.”

She eyed Baku suspiciously for another moment but released her hold and stepped back.

“What do we do now?” Allura asked softly.

Keith seemed to consider the question for a long moment. Then, to Lance’s surprise, Keith turned to him.

“These are your people,” he said. “You know them best. What do you think we should do, Lance?”

Lance looked from Keith’s trusting gaze to Allura’s kind smile. He glanced over to the other two. The woman still looked understandably upset but didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Finally, Lance’s eyes fell on his great-uncle, who he had looked up to his whole life, and who had lied to everyone Lance cared about.

“We tell them,” he said firmly. “They have the right to know.”

-----

Everyone took the news of the Blue Lion’s disappearance about as well as expected. They told Princess Luxia first, to see how she wanted to handle the situation since she would probably have to immediately take the throne once Baku’s actions came to light.

Lance had been prepared to argue with his cousin should she wish to keep it a secret like her father, but thankfully that wasn’t necessary. Once Luxia had gotten over her initial shock, she tore the Chief a new one and called for a public council meeting to tell the people what had happened.

Despite the circumstances, Lance felt a surge of pride as he watched Luxia address her subjects. Keith, Allura, and Lance stood behind her on the large stage in support. The citizens of the Northern Water Tribe were dismayed at the announcement of the missing Lion and angry that their Chief had lied to everyone, but Luxia assuaged the crowd enough to avoid any violence.

She was gonna make a great leader.

“Please, everyone,” she said over the noise, “I know you are hurting. Believe me, I feel the same. But the best we can do right now is have faith that the Blue Lion will return. I have already started an investigation, and Avatar Keith has promised his assistance as well.”

At her gesture, Keith stepped forward.

“As many of you know, the White Lion vanished from the Air Nation several years ago,” he told the hushed audience. “My companions and I have been searching for her. That’s why we came here, to see if the Blue Lion could help. But now the Blue Lion is gone too. Something big is happening, and I’m going to find out what.” Keith stared out at the crowd, his eyes filled with determination. “I swear to you, I will do everything in my power to find both Lions and bring them home.”

Once the crowd had dispersed, Keith, Lance, and Allura walked off the stage to where the rest of their friends waited. Eyes still hard, Keith stopped in front of the woman they fought in the temple. In all the drama with his uncle and the Lion, Lance had nearly forgotten about her. She had barely said a word since then, other than a terse, “My name is Krolia,” but had stuck with their group.

“I think you owe us some answers,” Keith said, arms crossed.

Krolia regarded him for a moment and nodded. “Is there somewhere more private we can go? The information I have is extremely sensitive.”

Keith exchanged glances with his friends.

“Let’s go back to my rooms,” he decided. “We can hear what you have to say, and then regroup and think of a new plan.”

“Lead the way.”

As they trekked back to the hall where their quarters were located, Lance noticed Keith’s disquieted expression. He gave the Avatar a gentle nudge with his elbow.

“Hey, man,” Lance smiled when Keith looked up, “you did great out there. I know you’re still getting used to being in the public eye, but I think you helped a lot of people feel less scared about the whole thing.”

Keith offered a weak smile in return.

“Thanks, Lance. That’s nice of you to say.”

“Don’t worry, we got this,” Lance slung an arm over his boyfriend’s shoulders, pleased when Keith shuffled closer. “We’re already looking for one Lion, what’s one more, right?”

Keith’s small smile slipped away and his eyes fell to the ground.

“That’s...not the whole reason why I’m upset,” he admitted.

After a moment, his gaze flicked back up to glance behind them.

Lance followed his line of sight to see Krolia already looking back at them. Keith quickly turned away but Lance held her gaze. She didn’t seem angry, like he had initially thought, but more...uncertain. Her eyebrows furrowed like she wanted to say something but wasn’t sure how. Once again, Lance was struck with a sense of deja vu, the expression familiar but he couldn’t place it.

Lance turned back to Keith.

“So, do you guys know each other or something?” Their interaction had been pretty weird once Krolia unmasked herself.

Keith shrugged cagily.

“I’m not really sure,” he said as he opened the door to his rooms. “But I guess I’m about to find out.”

Lance pondered what Keith meant by that as everyone filtered inside. They had all been given nice accommodations, but as the Avatar, Keith’s suite was even bigger than Lance’s (not that Lance really used his anyway since he snuck into Keith’s bed every night) and the common area was more than spacious enough to fit everyone comfortably.

Kosmo, who had apparently been napping on one of the plush armchairs, perked up and jumped into Keith’s arms with an excited bark. The star wolf licked Keith’s frown away, replaced by giggles. Lance watched in delight. Keith rarely laughed, and Lance had never heard him giggle before.

Seeing everyone’s amused grins—even Krolia was hiding a smile—Keith flushed and set Kosmo down.

“So,” he cleared his throat, “let’s get started.” He turned his attention to Krolia. “Why were you guarding the Blue Lion? It obviously wasn’t under Baku’s orders.”

Krolia’s mirth faded and she straightened her shoulders.

“What I’m about to tell you cannot leave this room,” she warned.

She swept her gaze over the room to look everyone in the eyes one by one.

Finally satisfied, she said, “I am part of a secret organization called the Blade of Marmora. We’re an elite force of Firebenders that specialize in covert operations.”

“Spies,” Pidge translated.

“Wait,” Lance frowned. “I didn’t see you bend any fire.”

Krolia nodded again.

“My assignment prohibits me from using Firebending unless absolutely necessary. If my cover was blown and people saw that I was a Firebender, they could use my presence as an excuse for war.”

“If you’re all Fire Nation, does that mean you work for Zarkon?” Allura asked with pursed lips. It was no secret she disliked the Fire Lord.

Krolia adopted a similar pinched expression.

“No,” she said firmly. “The Blade is not affiliated with the monarchy unless we choose to be, which is not the case with Zarkon.”

“What?”

“The Blade has existed for generations, working in the shadows to support of the Fire Nation’s best interests. Sometimes our ideals overlap with the will of the royal family, but not always. Since taking the throne, Zarkon has proven many times over that he cares more about power than the safety of his subjects. The Blade serves the people, not the crown.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lance pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to make sense of all this. “I still don’t get what any of this has to do with the Blue Lion.”

“Though our primary objective is to protect the Fire Nation, a part of that protection extends to the rest of the world, as the Fire Nation is a part of the bigger world. When the White Lion vanished, the Blade assigned agents to watch over the remaining Lions to try and prevent it from happening again. The Lions are integral to keeping balance. Just in the last few years, there has been an uprising of chaos and evil spirits.”

Lance thought back to the parasite that corrupted the Balmera and grimaced.

“That being said,” Krolia added, “more recent sources have suggested Fire Lord Zarkon may have had some involvement with the White Lion’s disappearance. We have yet to confirm anything, however, nor do we have any idea why he might want the other Lions, so for now our mission has remained the same. Or, well,” she scowled, “it was until now.”

Lance crossed his arms with a hum. Allura, Queen Sanda, and now an entire rebel group all suspected Zarkon. Surely that meant something. He turned to ask Keith for his opinion and paused. The Avatar’s head was bowed, his bangs hiding his expression.

“So that’s what you’ve been doing all these years?” Keith asked quietly.

Krolia’s eyes softened.

“Keith,” she said, “I owe you an apology. Please believe me when I say I never wanted to leave you or your father.”

What?

Keith raised his head, his own eyes—which Lance now realized were identical to hers, how did he not notice that earlier—filled with warring apprehension and hope.

“Then you really are…”

“Yes, Keith,” Krolia said. “I’m your mother.”

Holy shit. Somehow this felt like an even bigger revelation than the secret spy thing.

Now that Lance was looking for it, it was obvious. Even without knowing what Keith’s dad had looked like, Lance could tell that Keith clearly took after his mom. They had the same eyes, the same facial features, the same jet black hair. Honestly, the biggest difference apart from age and gender was that Krolia was much taller than average, a trait Keith apparently hadn’t inherited.

Keith lowered his gaze once more, steadfastly avoiding eye contact with his friends. Everyone looked just as freaked out as Lance felt, but appeared equally unsure if they should give the Firebenders privacy or stay to offer support.

Luckily Coran came to the rescue.

“Well, this was certainly an enlightening conversation,” he chirped. “I say we all go have a break over dinner and then pick this back up later.”

He quickly began to corral everyone out of the room except for Keith and Krolia.

“I’m sure you two are quite tired after last night so if you’d prefer, we can have dinner sent up here for you,” he offered.

Lance’s eyes widened a fraction as he realized what Coran was up to. After all, Lance and Allura had been in the battle as well, but Coran was obviously giving Keith and Krolia the option for a private chat if they so choose.

Krolia looked at Keith, deferring the choice to him.

After a moment, Keith nodded.

“That would be great, Coran. Thanks.”

“Of course!”

Coran shooed everyone into the hall, but not before Shiro gave Keith a pat on the shoulder and Lance managed to give Keith’s hand an encouraging squeeze.

Once the door shut, everyone stopped and exchanged glances. Coran once again swooped in.

“Now, now, let’s not dally. The dining hall is this way.”

Lance shot one last wish of good luck at Keith and followed his friends.

-----

Keith gave the door a fondly exasperated look before turning back to Krolia.

A few moments of awkward silence passed, neither quite knowing where to start.

Finally, Keith swallowed dryly and opened his mouth.

“You said you didn’t want to leave.”

“That’s right,” she nodded.

“Why did you?” Keith mumbled. “Leave, I mean.”

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got time.”

Krolia sighed and sat down on the small sofa. Keith sank onto the adjacent arm chair and Kosmo immediately hopped onto his lap. Keith gratefully distracted himself by running his fingers over the wolf pup’s fur in a soothing rhythm.

“I wasn’t much older than you are now when the Blade recruited me. Once I completed my training, they assigned me to the Capital.”

-----

“Hey, I need a refill over here!”

“Coming right up, sir,” Krolia replied brightly.

Spirits, she hated this assignment. She’d been working undercover as a server in the Dancing Dragon for over a month now. The tea shop was nestled in the heart of the capital and a favorite of many soldiers and officials who worked in the palace. Combined with people’s tendency to ignore the working class, it was an ideal place for a spy to gather intel.

It was also horrendously boring.

Still, Krolia was a professional and didn’t let her smile slip even the tiniest bit as she brought a fresh pot to pour into the waiting customer’s cup.

“Thanks, darling,” the man, a royal guard judging by his uniform, leered up at her.

Krolia quashed the urge to punch him in the nose and asked, “Anything else I can do for you?”

“I think that’s all for now,” he glanced at the other soldier sitting across from him. “You need anything, Akira?”

His companion, Akira, gave Krolia a strained but much more polite smile and shook his head.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

Krolia nodded and returned to the back room with their empty dishes. After a moment, she surreptitiously peeked through the curtain.

“Whatchya lookin’ at?”

Krolia glanced down at her coworker, Momo. If Momo had been hoping to startle Krolia by sneaking up on her, she was disappointed, as Krolia didn’t even flinch. At Momo's pout, Krolia decided to humor her.

“That man,” she pointed over at Akira. “This is the seventh time in two weeks he’s visited our shop.”

“So? We have customers that come here every day.”

“Yes, but this one always brings a different coworker with him. I don’t think he even likes the one he’s with today. It’s weird. And he always sits in my section, even when I have a different one than usual.”

Krolia furrowed her eyebrows. Could he somehow know she was a spy? She caught him looking at her an awful lot.

A giggle interrupted her thoughts and she looked down to see Momo hunched over with her hands covering her face to stifle her laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are, Li!” Momo devolved into more snickering at Krolia’s blank expression. “He likes you, dummy.”

Krolia’s gaze snapped back to Akira. Could that really be it? She hadn’t even considered that as a possibility, but it might explain the man’s strange behavior.

Akira looked up and caught her gaze. Krolia watched as a bashful expression crossed over his face and he averted his eyes with a faint blush.

Huh.

“Aw, he’s shy,” Momo cooed. “That’s probably why he keeps bringing people with him.” She shot Krolia a sly glance. “Sooo?”

Krolia blinked back at her. “So what?”

Momo rolled her eyes.

“Are you going to talk to him?”

Krolia frowned as she considered. On one hand, she didn’t really have the time or interest in romance right now. A relationship would be distracting at best and dangerous at worst.

On the other hand, getting close to a royal guard could get her access to more information than what she could gather from working shifts at the Dancing Dragon or her occasional night time reconnaissance.

Krolia’s eyes slipped down to meet Momo's.

“Got any advice?”

-----

“Wait,” Keith interrupted. “You started dating dad to con information out of him?”

“In the beginning, yes,” Krolia admitted. “But things changed once I got to know him.”

-----

Akira, it turned out, had indeed been frequenting the tea shop due to a romantic interest in Krolia, and was amusingly caught off guard when she approached him first.

It started off rather awkwardly. Krolia had never been very inclined towards romance so she didn’t really know how to go about it, and Akira floundered for a bit as well. However, after awhile they fell into an easy routine. Akira would visit her in the tea shop almost every day, alone, and Krolia would take her break so they could chat.

Initially, Krolia thought Akira would be timid or shy based on his previous behavior, but she soon discovered that wasn’t the case. Akira was level headed and patient, but by no means meek. After some prodding, he admitted he only got like that when it came to a new romance, his cheeks aflame under the large hand covering half his face.

Krolia was surprised to find it cute.

-----

“I fell in love,” Krolia smiled wryly. “A few years later, we were married and had you. It was...the happiest I had ever been.”

Keith looked into his mother’s wistful eyes.

“Then why did you leave?”

“There was a mission,” she said. “It went wrong. I was compromised. I think your father about had a heart attack when I returned home so badly injured,” she chuckled.

-----

Krolia stumbled through the window she had left unlocked earlier, her hand clutching the wound on he side.

“Li, is that you?” Akira’s voice grew louder as came into the bedroom. “Where have you been, I’ve been worried sick.”

Krolia heard a sharp intake of breath and a second later Akira was at her side, gingerly examining the large gash across her ribs.

“What happened?” he demanded.

When Krolia merely shook her head, Akira’s eyes hardened and he left the room. For an irrational second, Krolia worried he had left her for good. She had been keeping secrets from him for years now and this was the final straw.

But before she could spiral any further, her husband returned, medical supplies in hand. She let out a breath of relief as he led her to the bed to sit so he could tend to the wound.

Once he was done patching her up, Akira looked at her expectantly.

Krolia sighed.

“My name isn’t Li,” she said. “It’s Krolia. I work for a group called the Blade of Marmora.”

-----

“He took the news surprisingly well,” Krolia mused. “I think a part of him knew. Maybe not that I was a spy, but he knew I was hiding something big. I had always feared that if Akira found out about the Blade, he’d ask me to leave. Instead he did the opposite.”

-----

“Krolia, please. Don’t go,” Akira pleaded. “We can figure something out.”

Krolia shook her head as she stroked her sleeping son’s hair.

“They saw my face, Akira,” she said. “I made sure they didn’t follow me back, but they might recognize me if they come looking. I can’t risk your and Keith’s safety. I won’t.”

“Then we’ll go with you,” he insisted. “We’ll start a new life somewhere else. Together.”

“It would still be too dangerous. And besides, you have a whole life here, a good job. I can’t ask you to give all that up.”

“You’re not asking, I’m offering. All I care about is you and our son.”

“Then think of Keith. Maybe we could support ourselves if we went on the run, but a baby? He needs food, clothes, a warm place to sleep. He needs stability. You can give him all those things here, even without me.”

“Krolia,” Akira implored.

“I’m sorry. I’ve already asked the Blade to reassign me somewhere far away.”

Krolia gently set Keith down into his crib and turned back to her husband. She brought her hand up to cup his face and her heart broke a little more when he placed his own hand over hers and leaned into her palm.

“I’ll come back,” she promised. “As soon as it’s safe, I’ll come back.”

-----

“Where did you go?” Keith asked.

“Ba Sing Se,” Krolia replied. “It’s easy to disappear in such a large city, and there was plenty of work to do. Still, in over ten years, not a day went by that I didn’t think about you or your father. Then, finally, I received word that those looking for me were gone, and it was safe to return to the Fire Nation.” She closed her eyes. “But I was too late.”

-----

Krolia stared uncomprehendingly at the person who had answered the door.

“Can I help you?” he repeated, annoyance tinging his voice.

“I’m sorry,” Krolia said, finally snapping out of it. “I’m looking for someone who used to live here. A father and son.”

“Oh, them?” the man scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the father died about six years ago. Some kind of accident, I think.”

Krolia felt like an icy hand had grasped her heart and squeezed. It couldn’t be true. Akira said he would wait for her. He would never break a promise.

“And his son?” she asked through numb lips.

The man shrugged.

“If he didn’t have any other family, they probably took him to the orphanage. I can give you directions if you’d like.”

Krolia shook her head, still in shock.

“No, I know where it is,” she said and slowly turned away.

A sympathetic look finally crossed the man’s face.

“My condolences for your loss.”

Krolia didn’t answer as she made her way down the street.

-----

“I went to the orphanage but you weren’t there, and no one knew where you’d gone.”

“I ran away a few years before that,” Keith said. He fiddled with the long fluffy fur that ran down Kosmo’s spine. “So, you couldn’t find me and just...left?”

“No, Keith,” Krolia held his gaze. “I would have kept looking for you for the rest of my life if I had to. It took time and many of my connections, but I did manage to track you down.” Her eyes lowered to the ground. “But I was too late. Again.”

-----

Krolia watched from a safe distance away as a thirteen year old Keith chatted amicably with a young man over dinner.

The man, who Krolia had learned was named Takashi Shirogane, poked teasingly at Keith with his chopsticks. Keith scowled and swatted them away, prompting a boisterous laugh from the older Firebender. Keith rolled his eyes, but couldn’t hide the wide grin that spread on his face.

Krolia took a long look at her beautiful son, who had grown up so strong without her, and burned his image into her mind.

Then she turned and walked away.

-----

“You already had a new family,” Krolia said with a sad smile. “And I could tell how happy you were together. I didn’t want to risk ruining that, especially since I was still working with the Blade. So I asked for a new assignment, and they sent me here.”

They lapsed into silence for a moment before Krolia let out a weak chuckle.

“You know,” she said, “the ironic part is that if I had known back then that you were the Avatar, the Blade probably would have ordered me to stay with you, or at least assigned another agent to watch over you.”

Keith wasn’t sure how to respond, so he continued to stroke Kosmo’s fur.

“I know this is a lot to process,” she said gently. “I’m still reeling, myself. I always figured that maybe one day, when my mission was complete, I might return to the Fire Nation and find you again, and maybe, if I was lucky, you’d be willing to let me be a part of your life. I never expected you to find me, and especially not here.”

Krolia tried to catch his eye, but Keith kept his gaze focused on his pet wolf.

“Keith?”

Keith abruptly stood up, setting Kosmo on the ground.

“I think I’m actually gonna,” Keith jerked his thumb at the door, “go get dinner after all.”

“Oh,” Krolia looked disappointed but accepting.

Keith took a step, paused, and turned back.

“We can talk more tomorrow,” he added haltingly. “I just...need some time to think.”

Krolia’s eyes regained a modicum of hope and she nodded.

“Of course,” she said.

They exchanged one last awkward smile and Keith walked out of the room, Kosmo trotting loyally at his heels.

-----

Keith didn’t particularly feel like facing all of his friends yet, so instead of going to the dining hall he made his way to the hot springs.

Kosmo sat at the edge of the pool as Keith sank into the water. Leaning his head back, the Avatar opened his eyes to gaze up the blanket of stars above him. After awhile of letting his mind be blank, movement on the other side of the screen doors caught Keith’s attention. Kosmo’s head perked up, but he didn’t growl, so it probably wasn’t anyone dangerous.

Sure enough, a moment later Shiro walked out into the open air baths.

“Hey, Keith,” he greeted softly. “Lance said you might be here.”

Keith felt a smile tug at his lips.

“He knows me well, I guess.”

“Seems so,” Shiro agreed. “Mind if I join you?”

Keith nodded and moments later Shiro sat next to him with a groan.

“I’m gonna miss this,” he lamented. “The North Pole might be cold, but these healing springs more than make up for it.”

“How are your injuries?” Keith asked.

“My arm’s pretty much back to normal,” Shiro demonstrated by stretching said limb out and bending it back, “as are my other bumps and bruises. The only thing that’s still got a ways to go is this,” Shiro pointed to the red scar across his nose. “It’s still a bit tender.”

“If it makes you feel better, I bet Adam will think it’s sexy,” Keith offered wryly.

Shiro chuckled.

“But enough about me. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Keith.”

“Shiro.”

Shiro shot his brother a look and Keith sighed, sinking further into the water.

“How are you feeling?” Shiro prompted.

“That’s the problem,” Keith muttered. “I’m not. I should be happy, or angry, or something, but I look at Krolia, and I don’t feel...anything. And I think that’s what upsets me most.”

Keith turned to Shiro beseechingly.

“Does that make me a bad person? She clearly feels a lot of turmoil about this, but I can’t reciprocate at all. Is something wrong with me?”

“Oh, Keith, of course not,” Shiro replied. “Your mom left before you could even remember her. It makes sense that you wouldn’t automatically feel a connection like she does. You can’t miss what you didn’t have to begin with.”

“I did miss her, though,” Keith said lowly. “Or at least the idea of her. And a part of me is upset that fate or the universe or whatever took her away, just like it took my father, but now that she’s back...I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Shiro assured him. “There’s no rush. Why don’t you try and get to know her a bit, and then decide whether or not you want her back in your life?”

Keith considered this and nodded.

“Thanks, Shiro,” he smiled. “You always know what to say.”

“It’s a talent of mine.”

Chapter Text

A soft knock on his door interrupted Lance's tossing and turning. He got out of bed and opened it to find Keith standing barefoot in the hall, a look of uncertainty on his face.

“Hey,” Lance said softly. “What's up?”

Keith averted his eyes and muttered something under his breath.

“What?”

Keith flushed and fidgeted a bit but spoke louder.

“You didn't come to my room,” he said. “Usually you sneak in shortly after everyone goes to bed, so when a few hours passed and you didn't show up...” Keith shrugged. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

Realizing they were still standing halfway into the hall, Lance motioned for Keith to come in and quietly shut the door behind him.

“I wasn't sure if I'd be welcome tonight,” Lance rubbed the back of his neck.

“What? Why not?”

“I just, y'know, wanted to give you and Krolia some space. If you two were getting to know each other, I didn't want to get in the way.”

A confused frown marred Keith’s face.

“What does that have to do with you visiting me at night?”

“Keith!” Lance flailed his arms. “I'm not gonna sleep in the same bed as you with your mother present, even if we're just sleeping!”

Keith stared at him.

“Do you,” Keith quirked an eyebrow, “think Krolia is staying in my rooms?”

Lance's limbs paused.

“She's not?”

“Lance,” Keith said slowly, “Krolia has been in the North Pole for five years. She has her own house.”

“Well,” Lance floundered to save face despite the heat crawling up his neck, “that doesn't mean anything! She still might have wanted to stay with you to like, bond with her long lost son!”

Keith grimaced.

“Maybe, but I think it's a little early for sleepovers to be anything but awkward. She said she'd come back tomorrow to help figure out a new plan.”

“Oh,” Lance replied lamely. “That's good.”

“Yeah,” Keith looked up at Lance through his eyelashes. “So, now that we've established that I'm alone tonight, are you coming or not?”

Lance hastily nodded and Keith started to lead the way with a smirk.

“Good,” he said, “because Krolia mentioned she might travel with us for awhile, so we'd better take advantage of her absence now, and hope she doesn't try to assassinate you when she sees us sharing a bedroll.”

“Wait, what?”

Keith smugly slipped into his room and Lance quickly followed.

“Keith!”

-----

Come morning, Lance still wasn't sure where he stood on the Krolia situation. On one hand, she was Keith's mother and while they didn’t need her approval to date, it would be nice to get it.

On the other hand, she had abandoned Keith.

Keith and Lance stayed up late talking, Keith sharing Krolia’s story in hushed tones, so it wasn't like Lance was totally unsympathetic. He understood that she thought she was doing what was best for her family, and maybe it was. Maybe if she had stayed, things would have turned out much worse than they did.

But that didn't change the fact that her choice led to a lot of pain and hardship for Keith. Lance knew the struggles he had gone through, the loneliness he had felt.

Over the course of their relationship, Lance had carefully broken down the walls around Keith's heart, and was still doing so even now. A part of him couldn't forgive Krolia for being the main reason those walls existed in the first place.

Even so, Keith seemed willing to give her a chance, and if he had a shot at reconnecting with his family, Lance would support him wholeheartedly, starting by proving to Krolia that Lance was an excellent boyfriend, one that would stand by Keith no matter what.

Answering Keith's door in his pajamas to find a bemused Krolia was not the first impression he had in mind. He tried not to feel self conscious as her sharp gaze swept from his messy bed head down to the fuzzy slippers on his feet.

Recalling Keith’s comment about assassination, Lance paled a bit and tugged on the belt of his robe to fasten it more securely around his waist.

“Keith,” Lance’s voice cracked as he called out. Blushing, he cleared his throat and tried again. “Keith, your...I mean, um...Krolia is here.”

Lance stepped aside to let the spy into the room. Krolia’s face remained carefully blank, but Lance got the feeling she was laughing at him.

“I’ll be out in a second,” Keith’s voice shouted from the other room.

This left Lance and Krolia standing awkwardly in the common room. The deafening silence made Lance want to fidget like crazy, but he managed to resist.

Just as he was about to excuse himself, Krolia said, “You are Baku’s nephew, yes? Lance, was it?”

Lance swallowed and nodded. “That’s me.”

“We fought in the temple.”

Lance wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement so he just nodded again.

“You are quite skilled.”

Lance blinked.

“Uh, thanks. You too,” he trailed off lamely into more silence.

After another moment, he jerked his thumb toward the bedroom.

“I’m gonna...see what’s taking Keith so long.”

Without waiting for a reply, he scurried through the door. Closing it behind him, Lance turned around and blinked.

“What are you doing?”

Keith poked his head out from under the bed.

“I can’t find my my hair band,” he complained.

“You have others,” Lance pointed out.

Keith’s hair was starting to get longer again so Lance bought the Avatar a new hair accessory in almost every town they visited. Keith called him a sap, but kept every one.

Keith pouted and shuffled back under the bed. “Yeah, but this one is special. It’s the one you got me on our first date.”

“Oh.” Warmth rose in Lance’s chest as he tried to hide his smile. “Here, let me finish getting dressed and then I’ll help you look.”

Lance changed in record time and joined Keith in his search.

“Aha!” Lance said triumphantly a few minutes later, the missing hair band held aloft.

Keith’s eyes lit up and he reached out to take it, but Lance pulled away.

“Ah ah ah,” Lance raised an eyebrow. “Don’t I get a reward?”

Keith rolled his eyes but Lance could see they were filled with mirth.

“What do you want?”

Lance hummed thoughtfully. “How about a kiss for your dashing savior?”

Keith regarded him for a moment before a coy smile graced his lips. Eyes hooded, Keith slipped into Lance’s personal space and trailed his fingers up the front of Lance’s tunic, causing shivers to run down the Waterbender’s spine.

“My hero,” Keith murmured, big violet irises peeking up through long, thick lashes.

Lance swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, and leaned down to brush his lips against Keith’s.

Before they could make contact, Keith plucked the hair band out of Lance’s grasp, pecked him chastely on the nose, and spun around to saunter away.

“See you at breakfast,” Keith said, pulling his hair into a ponytail as he walked out of the room.

Frozen, Lance could only stare as the door shut behind him.

After a moment, he walked over to the bed, flopped down onto the mattress, and tried not to die.

-----

By the time Lance had recovered enough to be reasonably sure he wouldn’t melt the palace walls with his face, the Waterbender made his way to the dining hall to find all of his friends already there.

“Lance! There you are, buddy,” Hunk waved him over.

Keith shot him an apologetic look as both seats next to his were already occupied by Shiro and Krolia, but Lance sent back an understanding smile and sat next to Hunk.

“We were just talking about where to go from here,” Hunk explained. “I think we should go back to Ba Sing Se. Maybe with another Lion gone, Queen Sanda will finally realize how serious this is and let Keith see the Green Lion.”

Allura shook her head.

“That won’t work,” she insisted. “I know Queen Sanda, and the Blue Lion’s disappearance will only make her more paranoid. I doubt she’d even let us in the palace at all.”

“Well, we can’t go to the Red Lion,” Hunk argued. “Zarkon is like, our prime suspect, isn’t he?”

“We might not have a choice,” Shiro said grimly. “If the Earth Queen refuses to cooperate, the Red Lion may be our only lead right now.”

“But if Zarkon is behind this, he won’t let us see the Red Lion either,” Lance pointed out.

“True,” Shiro nodded, “but we don’t know for sure that Zarkon is even involved. All we really have right now is conjecture.”

“So, what,” Keith frowned. “You’re suggesting we go all the way back to the Fire Nation and just hope Zarkon will turn out to be innocent?”

Shiro raised his hands defensively. “I’m just saying we don’t have a whole lot of other options right now. If anyone else has a better idea, I’m more than happy to hear it.”

“Keith could try meditating in the Inner Sanctum,” Lance suggested. “He didn’t find much in the White Lion’s Den, but the Blue Lion was here a lot more recently.”

“That’s a good point,” Allura agreed. “But we should still probably think of a backup plan.”

“Actually,” a voice piped up, “I wanted to ask something.”

Everyone looked at Pidge. Lance was surprised she hadn’t spoken up until now.

Pidge turned to Krolia.

“The Blade of Marmora has agents all over the world, right?”

If it surprised Krolia to suddenly get dragged into the conversation, she didn’t show it.

“That’s correct.”

“Do you know anything about Samuel and Matt Holt? They went missing from Ba Sing Se about a year and a half ago.”

Guilt rose in Lance’s stomach. While he hadn’t forgotten Pidge’s reason for joining their group, Lance admittedly hadn’t given it much thought lately either.

“The names don’t sound familiar, but then I’m not privy to all the Blade’s information,” Krolia replied. “I can send a message to inquire, if you’d like.”

“Please,” Pidge nodded. “My dad was doing research on the Lions when he disappeared. He might know something that could help us.”

“I’ll see what I can find out,” Krolia promised. “It might take a few days.”

Luxia, now the acting ruler of the Northern Water Tribe, smiled and said, “You’re all more than welcome to stay here as long as you’d like.”

Everyone turned to Keith. After a moment of thought, he said, “Let’s wait and see what the Blade knows about Pidge’s dad, and in the meanwhile, I’ll check the Inner Sanctum.”

-----

Despite Keith’s best efforts, the Inner Sanctum yielded no new clues. The Blue Lion’s energy was much stronger than the White Lion’s had been, but Keith still wasn’t able to sense more than the vague certainty that she was somewhere on the physical plane.

Keith tried to distract himself from his sorrows with a book he had borrowed from the palace library when a brown hand invaded his field of view and snatched it away.

“Hey!” Keith looked up to find Lance, Shiro, Hunk, Pidge, and Allura all grinning at him. Keith’s guard immediately went up.

“What?” he asked warily.

Lance exchanged a look with the others and said, “We’ve been talking, and have come to the conclusion that your Avatar training has been lacking.”

Keith frowned, his eyes flitting between each person.

“What do you mean? I train with you guys all the time.”

“Individually, yes,” Lance nodded sagely. “But the whole point of being the Avatar is that you get to bend all the elements.”

“I thought the whole point of being the Avatar was to keep peace and balance in the world.”

“Hupupup,” Lance pressed a finger to Keith’s lips, “the point is, as your esteemed teachers, we’ve decided that every once in a while we should have a joint lesson. And since Krolia said it would take a few days for the Blade to get back to her about Pidge’s dad, Luxia has been kind enough to let us use the royal guard’s training grounds while we wait.”

Without further ado, the group ushered Keith out into the cold daylight.

Once they arrived on the training grounds, Keith looked around. It spanned a large open area surrounded by tall walls of ice, and a thick layer of snow covered the ground.

Word must have gotten out because a large crowd had already gathered to watch. Keith eyed them with discomfort.

Pidge dug her boot into the snow and grimaced.

“There’s earth here, but it’s frozen solid,” she complained.

“If you can’t handle it, Pidge, you’re welcome to sit this one out,” Lance said breezily.

With a deadpan stare, Pidge bent the ground under Lance’s feet so he fell face first into the snow with a yelp.

Once he was done chuckling, Keith asked, “So how are we doing this?”

Everyone looked to Shiro, who stepped forward.

“It’s basically like a regular sparring session, except instead of one on one, you’ll fight all of us at once. But since this is the first time, we’ll let you pick one person to be on your team.”

“Okay,” Keith rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he looked over his friends. His eyes slid from Hunk’s kind smile to Pidge’s mischievous smirk to Lance’s smug swagger to Allura’s excited grin to Shiro’s steady confidence.

“I choose...Kosmo.”

Lance’s face fell.

“Wha—” the Waterbender sputtered. “You can’t pick Kosmo!”

“Why not?”

“Because Shiro said to pick a person!”

Keith narrowed his eyes and stepped closer so they were toe to toe.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lance opened his mouth to retort but Shiro cut him off.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Shiro placed a hand on Keith and Lance’s shoulders to gently pull them apart. “Keith’s made his decision, so let’s go strategize and we’ll start in fifteen minutes.”

The older Firebender dragged Lance away with the rest of the group to huddle together on the other side of the area. Keith huffed and crouched down to scratch Kosmo’s ears.

“You ready, boy?” Keith asked. Kosmo had grown a lot in the weeks since they’d met, and was almost the size of a coyote fox. According to Allura, one day he’d be big enough for Keith to ride on his back, but for now Keith enjoyed being able to hold the pup in his arms.

Seeing his friends break up their circle, Keith gave Kosmo one last pat and stood up.

“Just like we practised,” he said with a grin.

Kosmo barked and wagged his tail.

Keith couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces.

-----

Lance listened to Shiro’s strategy with half an ear, too busy pouting to pay full attention.

When they had agreed to let Keith pick a partner for this exercise, Lance had been reasonably confident the Avatar would choose him. Sure, he might have picked his brother, but Lance figured Keith would realize that as a Waterbender, Lance had the home field advantage and was therefore the smartest choice.

He certainly never considered Keith would choose his stupid dog over his boyfriend. Again.

Lance groaned and ran a hand down his face. He thought he’d gotten over these insecurities after the Balmera, but apparently not.

“Everybody understand the plan?” Shiro asked.

When they all gave the affirmative except for Lance, everyone turned to the Waterbender. Blinking, Lance hastily nodded.

Shiro eyed him skeptically, but didn’t call him out.

“Okay. Positions, everyone.”

The benders broke out of the huddle and moved to their predetermined positions. Lance floundered for a moment, not sure where to go, but luckily Hunk was the best friend in the world and subtly pointed to an area off to the left. Lance shot him a grateful smile and hurried over.

Once everyone was ready, Shiro raised two fingers to his mouth and a piercing whistle signaled the start of the match. Pidge and Allura went first, attacking the Avatar from either side with their respective elements. Keith gracefully twisted out of the way of Pidge’s boulder and used the force of Allura’s mini tornado to send the rock back at her.

Taking advantage of their environment, Keith froze the snow around Pidge’s feet and blasted a fireball. Allura quickly knocked the fireball off course with a gust of wind and distracted him while Pidge broke free.

This went on for a handful of minutes. While Keith and Pidge were locked in some bizzare version of tug-of-war with a large slab of stone and Allura tried to break the Avatar’s concentration with blasts of air, Shiro suddenly leapt into the fray.

Keith’s eyes widened and he abandoned his game with Pidge to dodge the giant plume of fire his brother threw at him.

“Remember, Keith,” Shiro called out. “This is a battle, but it’s also a lesson. Keep focused and try to combine all our teachings into one technique.”

“Easier said than done,” Keith said through gritted teeth. With a grunt, Keith erected his own slab of earth to use as a shield.

Lance watched in awe as Keith adapted to fighting an additional enemy. He had always known Keith was a great fighter, but seeing him hold his own against three elemental masters at the same time was a sight to behold.

But, Lance thought with a smirk, could he handle all four?

Lance and Hunk exchanged nods and Hunk charged into the battle.

Keeping an eye on the fight, Lance bent his way up one of the icy walls. Atop his perch, Lance formed his projectiles and took careful aim.

The snowball smacked the Avatar on the back of his head. Keith shot an agitated glare up at his boyfriend, but quickly had to refocus on the others.

After successfully lobbing a few more snowballs at Keith, Lance shifted gears and turned his attention to the wall underneath him. An idea formed and Lance gleefully began to coax the ice into his desired shape.

Once done, Lance looked back down to see Keith had resorted to bending all four elements simultaneously to keep the others at bay. It was time for Lance to really join the party.

Lance created a slim board to stand on and pushed himself down the steep, curved slope.

“Hey, Keith!” he called out as he gained momentum.

Keith spun around and his eyes widened as Lance launched off his icy ramp and soared straight towards him.

With a triumphant shout, Lance reached out to grab the Avatar.

At the last second, Keith smirked, grabbed Kosmo’s long fur, and vanished in a flash of light.

For the second time that day, Lance fell face first into the snow.

-----

“Kosmo?”

Keith frowned as he wandered around the gardens looking for his errant star wolf. After dinner, Kosmo had quite literally vanished. Keith thought that maybe he was just tired after their spar, but the Animal Guide wasn’t in his rooms either.

Keith turned a corner and spotted a familiar tail wagging in the distance. With a sigh of relief, he hurried over.

“There you are. Oh…” Keith paused when he saw who the wolf was with. “Krolia. Um, hi.”

Krolia smiled and continued to pet Kosmo.

“Hello, Keith. I was just admiring the view when Kosmo showed up,” she nodded at the empty space next to her on the bench. “Would you like to join me?”

Keith hesitated, but remembering Shiro’s words, he took a calming breath and sat down.

Kosmo immediately transferred his head from Krolia’s lap to Keith’s, closing his eyes as the Avatar indulgently stroked his fur.

“He’s quite something,” Krolia said. “I thought Celestial Wolves were extinct.”

“Coran says Kosmo might be the last one left,” Keith replied softly. “I hope that’s not true. Seems pretty lonely.”

“You two have a strong bond. I could tell by the way you worked so well together earlier.”

“You were watching?” Keith asked, surprised. He hadn’t seen Krolia amongst the onlookers.

“Yes, you did very well,” Krolia complimented. “I noticed it a little bit when we fought in the temple, but your technique is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m impressed.”

“Thanks,” Keith ducked his head. “I’ve been developing it my whole life, first with Firebending and then by incorporating the other elements too.”

“You went to the Firebending Academy?”

“Yeah, I, uh, was top of my class,” Keith said. It felt weird to be telling her something that was perfectly normal for most kids to brag to their mothers. Shiro had been proud, of course, but Krolia’s answering smile was something altogether different.

“That’s wonderful. Your father went to the Academy, you know. I don’t think his grades were quite good enough to make him top of his class though,” she chuckled.

“I knew he was a royal guard, but not that he went to the same school as me,” Keith admitted.

“I’d be happy to tell you more about him,” she offered. “And I’d love to learn more about you as well, Keith. If you’ll let me.”

Keith looked into her eyes, so like his own, and saw nothing but a pure earnest intent.

“I’d like that,” he said. “But only if I get to know more about you too. I know you might not be able to tell me everything about your work, being a spy and all, but the rest...I’d like to know.”

Krolia’s face broke out into a smile.

“I want to return something to you.”

She reach behind her back to unsheath a knife, the same knife Keith carried since he was a child, and offered it to him.

“I left you this for a reason. It’s not just any ordinary blade. This knife is unique and proof of membership in the Blade of Marmora. If you’re ever in trouble, you can show it to a member and they will be honorbound to help you.” Krolia’s eyes darkened. “Your father would have explained this to you once you were older, but he never got the chance.”

Keith gripped the handle tighter.

“If this is your proof of membership, shouldn’t you have it back?”

Krolia shook her head.

“It’s yours now. If you want it. Although,” she shot him a sly look out of the corner of her eye, “if you let me hold it for a moment, I can show you something neat.”

Keith handed it over and Krolia stood up.

“This might take a moment,” she narrowed her eyes in concentration. “I haven’t done this technique in nearly twenty years.”

Keith watched as Krolia shifted her grip on the hilt so she was no longer holding it the way one would normally hold a knife, but rather…

Keith gasped as fire roared to life, engulfing the blade and shooting outward until it looked like Krolia was holding a sword made of flames. With a cry, Krolia sliced a nearby ice sculpture cleanly in half. It melted beyond recognition before the pieces even touched the ground.

Satisfied, the flames died down and Krolia held the knife out to Keith.

The Avatar examined it with awe.

“I knew you could cover the blade in fire and the hilt would stay cool,” Keith said, “but I had no idea you could do that. I’ve never even heard of such a thing.”

Krolia sat back down with a wild grin.

“The metal is made of a unique alloy called luxite,” she said. “Only the Blade of Marmora knows how to make such a weapon, and it’s one of our most closely guarded secrets. My naginata has trace amounts as well, so I can do some Firebending with it, but that knife is a pure luxite blade.”

“Wow,” Keith looked up at his mother. “Would you teach me?”

“Of course.”

They sat in companionable silence for a moment before Krolia cleared her throat.

“Do you think Chief Luxia will be mad at me for destroying one of her sculptures?”

-----

When Krolia called everyone to Keith’s chambers, Pidge tried not to let her hopes get too high. She’d followed promising leads before, and it always felt crushing when they went nowhere.

“I asked the Blade if they knew anything about your father and brother,” Krolia said without preamble.

“And?” Pidge bit the inside of her lip.

“They are in the Blade’s custody.”

Pidge stared blankly at her for a second.

“Your spy group kidnapped my family?” she blurted out.

“No,” Krolia denied. “It wasn’t a kidnapping, but a rescue.”

“What?”

“I don’t have all the details, this information was highly confidential. The only reason they gave me anything at all was because I mentioned you and the Avatar. But suffice it to say, the Blade found out your father’s life was in danger, so they took both him and your brother into their protection.”

“Can…” Pidge struggled to get ahold of the thoughts swirling in her brain. “Can I see them?”

To Pidge’s relief, Krolia nodded and swept her gaze over the rest of the group.

“Our leader, Kolivan, actually requested that I bring all of you to the Blade’s headquarters. We’ve been looking for the Avatar for a long time, and from the sound of it, Samuel Holt does have information about the Lions.”

“We’ll do that then,” Keith said. “Where is it?”

Krolia hesitated. “I’m afraid I can’t disclose the exact location right now. You never know who might be listening in. However, we must travel southwest, towards the Fire Nation. I’ll provide more specific instructions once we’re closer.”

-----

After packing their things and saying their goodbyes, Keith and his friends boarded Platt and were off toward the Fire Nation.

“Ugh, finally,” Pidge grumbled. “No offense, Lance, but your home is way too cold.”

“Agree to disagree,” Lance shrugged. “But I will admit, I am looking forward to seeing what tropical weather is like. I hope it’s as sunny as people say.”

Pidge groaned.

“Great, first I almost freeze to death and now I have to worry about getting sunburned. This is why the Earth Kingdom is the best nation.”

“The Fire Nation’s not that bad,” Keith assured her. He paused. “Well, at least not the capital. I’ve heard some of the outer islands get pretty hot.”

“So which one are we going to?” Pidge asked.

Krolia turned back to look at them from where she sat next to Allura.

“The Blade is located on a remote island on the outskirts of the continent,” she said.

“Of course it is,” Pidge sighed.

“Come on, Pidge, cheer up,” Hunk smiled. “At least Lance’s family gave us tons of delicious food to eat on the way.”

“Yay,” she said, deadpan.

“It’ll be awhile before we reach climates that hot,” Shiro added. “The Fire Nation is even further from the North Pole than Ba Sing Se was.”

“Which means there will be plenty of stops in between that’ll be not too hot and not too cold,” Lance teased. “Just perfect for little Metalbenders with sensitive dispositions.”

Keith moved out of the way as Pidge delivered a swift kick to Lance’s shin.

“Ow!”

Chapter Text

“I take it all back,” Lance sighed happily. “The North Pole is no longer my home. I live here now.”

The Waterbender wriggled a bit to get more comfortable. Warmth seeped into his skin from the golden sand beneath his bare back and the rays of sun shining down. Eyes closed and hands tucked behind his head, Lance listened to the soothing sounds of the ocean waves.

“What's your mamá gonna say when she finds out you've defected to the Fire Nation?” an amused voice asked.

Lance shrugged. “Honestly, I doubt she'd be that surprised. She knows I'd move here to be with you if that's what you wanted.”

“...You would?”

Lance cracked one eye open and peeked over to where Keith sat next to him. The Avatar stared at Lance with surprise and more than a little vulnerability.

Lance swallowed, his lighthearted teasing replaced by an answering feeling of nervousness. Pushing himself up into a sitting position, Lance gazed into Keith's eyes.

“Yeah,” Lance said softly. “All you have to do is ask.”

Keith's cheeks, already pink from exposure to the sun, darkened further and he shyly glanced away.

“I'll keep that in mind. But,” Keith eyed the small village further inland, “maybe not this particular island.”

Lance grinned and flopped back down.

“Why not? Uotorī is great.”

“It's tacky.”

“That's part of its charm!”

When their group arrived in Uotorī yesterday, the intention had been to rest for the night and continue their journey the following morning. However, no sooner had they touched down when a small handful of villagers suddenly surrounded them.

“Welcome, travelers!” one man shouted. “Cutting it a bit close, don't you think?”

“Uh,” Lance exchanged looks with his friends. “What?”

“You're here for the festival, right? There are only two days left, you know. You almost missed it.”

“Festival? Wait,” Keith narrowed his eyes. “What island is this?”

“Uotorī!” the man answered with a wide grin.

Keith groaned and Lance looked at the other two Firebenders. Shiro seemed surprised but not nearly as annoyed as Keith, and Krolia looked indifferent.

“Care to fill us in?” Lance asked.

“Uotorī Island is somewhat infamous in the Fire Nation,” Shiro explained. “They have a huge festival every time the seasons change. People from all over the world travel here to participate.”

“It's a tourist trap,” Keith crossed his arms and scowled. “One that we don't have time for.”

“Aw, c’mon, Keith,” Lance said. “It sounds fun!”

Shiro set a placating hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I know you’re eager to get to our destination, but we’ve been traveling nonstop for a few weeks now and could use a break. A couple days won’t hurt.”

Keith turned to Allura and Pidge for support. They exchanged glances.

“I do really want to see my dad and brother soon,” Pidge said, “but now that I know they’re not in immediate danger, I don’t mind waiting a few more days.”

“It would be good for Platt to get some rest too,” Allura added apologetically.

Seeing no one was on his side, Keith sighed.

“Fine, I guess we can stay for the festival. But we leave as soon as it’s over.”

The villager cheerfully guided them into town. Instead of one large inn, there were several small huts visitors could rent that housed two to four guests each. Lance spotted many people wearing clothes from the other nations, no doubt visiting just as Shiro said.

The townspeople had gone all out for the festival. Every surface seemed to be covered in flowers, banners, or food. In the heart of the town, a single ornate torch burned brightly, its flame a deep jewel blue.

“That’s the Sacred Flame,” their guide said. “The gods bestowed it upon the island centuries ago, and we have kept it burning ever since. On the last night of the festival, we will use the Sacred Flame to light our lanterns, which we will then send up to the heavens as thanks.”

They dropped Platt off in a stable to rest and get pampered, then went to their new homes to change into more appropriate attire before reconvening at the beach.

A young woman came up to the group and offered them all strings of colorful flowers. Everyone responded with delight.

Allura wove small pink flowers into her silver hair, Shiro, Hunk, Krolia, and Coran wore their black, yellow, purple, and orange leis like necklaces, and Pidge wrapped a short string of green petals around her wrist.

Lance set a crown of red blossoms on the Avatar’s head to match Lance’s blue one and felt a happy burst of warmth in his chest when a shy smile finally replaced Keith’s frown.

Even Kosmo got a collar of white flowers that he sniffed at curiously.

After that, they all attended a large feast around the bonfire and Lance coaxed Keith into dancing with him again. It was a great night.

Now, laying on the beach with Keith under the midday sun, Lance looked around in wonder, taking in the warm breeze, golden sand, and bright blue sky. It truly was a tropical paradise.

It also smelled delicious.

“What’s that?” Lance asked after tracing the aroma over to a booth set up a little ways down the shore.

Keith looked over and his eyes lit up.

“Fried octopus shark,” Keith said excitedly. He grabbed Lance’s wrist and practically dragged him towards the vendor. “I haven’t had this in years!”

Keith ordered two servings and handed Lance a small plate with a row of round pieces of fried dough. Lance took a bite and instantly understood the pleased smile on Keith’s face.

The two boys leisurely walked down the shoreline as they continued to munch on their snack. They passed Allura and Shiro, who were playing beach volleyball with some locals, Coran, who was entertaining a handful of children with Airbending tricks, and Krolia, who was sunbathing to ‘melt away five years of cold from her bones.’

After awhile, they came across Hunk and a disgruntled Pidge.

“Guys, hey!” Hunk waved them over. “Help me convince Pidge to be my partner in the Sandbending competition!”

“I told you, I hate sand,” she grumbled, adjusting the wide brim of her hat to better protect herself from the sun.

Lance arched an eyebrow. “Uh, isn’t sand just another form of earth?”

“Yeah, but the technique is completely different than bending dirt, metal, or stone,” Pidge said. “I can do it, but it just doesn’t feel natural to me.”

“Ooooh,” Hunk grinned. “Keith, you could be my partner!”

“But I don’t know how to Sandbend,” Keith said.

“I’ll teach you!”

Keith looked at Lance in askance. While they hadn’t made official plans or anything, it was kind of an unspoken agreement that they were on a date today. Lance appreciated that Keith didn’t want to ditch him, even to help Hunk, and smiled encouragingly.

“I don’t mind,” Lance said to Keith’s unspoken question.

He and Pidge watched as Hunk gave the Avatar a crash course on Sandbending. After a little while, Lance went to fetch refreshments for everyone. He returned to find Hunk and Keith taking a break and handed them their drinks.

“Thanks,” Keith eyed the corny half coconut shaped glass with distaste but accepted the beverage.

“How’s it coming?”

“Pretty good, actually. Sandbending feels a lot like Waterbending since you have to make the individual grains flow together.”

“Huh. Makes sense, I guess.”

“Here, watch this.”

Keith handed Lance his beverage and motioned for the Waterbender to step back. Lance did so and Keith dug his foot into the ground and raised his arms. His movements really did resemble Waterbending, smooth and graceful.

A mass of sand rose beneath his guidance, twisting and shifting until it formed a life-size statue of Lance, exactly as he stood now, complete with flower crown and drinks in his hands.

Lance blinked and examined the sand sculpture. It wasn’t a perfect copy, but the details were impressive considering Keith had started learning to bend sand less than an hour ago.

Keith lowered his arms and Sand Lance collapsed into a small misshapen pile.

“I’m still working on keeping it solid once I’m done,” he said sheepishly.

Lance grinned and returned Keith’s drink to him.

“That’s awesome, man! You guys are gonna win for sure!”

“Uh, not if we don’t go sign up right now,” Hunk glanced over at where a crowd gathered nearby. “The contest starts pretty soon.”

Keith bid Lance a hasty goodbye as Hunk dragged him away. Lance and Pidge went to find a good place to watch in the stands that had most likely been bent out of the earth just for this event.

Lance sat down and jumped when something furry brushed against his leg. He looked down to find Kosmo blinking up at him.

“Oh, uh, hey boy,” Lance said. “You didn’t go with Keith?”

Kosmo tilted his head and looked over at where the Avatar was surrounded by several other competitors.

“Yeah, probably a good idea.”

Lance absentmindedly pet the star wolf’s head as the contest began.

-----

Keith glanced at the Earthbenders around him. They worked in pairs to form sculptures of various size and shape. One team was building a large castle, one was making a huge dragon, and one seemed to be creating a detailed miniature version of Ba Sing Se.

After some deliberation, Hunk and Keith decided to combine their skills to make a life-size model of Platt. Hunk had the brute strength to bend something that enormous while Keith found he had a knack for creating fine details, and was therefore in charge of forming the texture of the sky bison’s fur. Hunk also thought of a way to balance the sculpture on the tip of its tail, giving the illusion that the sky bison was taking off in flight.

They worked in companionable silence for awhile before Hunk cleared his throat.

Keith shot him a curious glance, and Hunk said, “I’ve been meaning to ask, but...how are you holding up, man?”

“What do you mean?”

Hunk shrugged. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but you seem stressed lately. We literally had to convince you to take a few days off to relax.”

Keith frowned and Hunk stopped working so he could fully face Keith.

“I totally get it,” Hunk added with earnest eyes. “Being the Avatar must be a lot of pressure, and everyone’s relying on you to find the Lions. I know you know we’re here to support you, but I guess I just wanted to...make sure you were okay.”

Keith’s eyes softened.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said. “It is a lot of pressure, and on top of everything else I’m still in this weird limbo with Krolia.” Keith sighed as he etched patterns into the sand. “I’m a little worried about what we’re gonna find out about the Lions too. What if it turns out I can’t help them after all? Not to mention being back in the Fire Nation is making me kinda paranoid. I feel like Lotor’s gonna pop out from behind a palm tree any minute.”

Hunk gave Keith a pat on the back.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” he said. “If that creep shows up, we’ll be there to help you.”

“Thanks,” Keith smiled. “And you guys were right, we all needed a break. Pretty soon we’ll get to the Blade’s headquarters and hopefully Pidge’s dad can give us a new lead on the Lions.”

“Yeah…”

Seeing Hunk’s smile droop, Keith paused.

“Are...you okay?” he asked hesitantly.

Hunk blinked at him and quickly resumed his work.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine.”

“Hunk…” Keith bite his lip. “I know I’m not the best with words, but...I’m a pretty good listener, if something’s bothering you.”

Hunk didn’t reply and Keith went back to bending the finer details into Sand Platt’s fur. After a few moment, Hunk spoke in a voice so soft Keith had to strain to hear it.

“I guess I just...miss my family, y’know? Lately it feels like everyone else has gotten to see theirs. Lance visited his in the North Pole, Pidge is about to meet her dad and brother, you just found your mom…which is great!” Hunk hastily added. “I’m super happy for all of you, I just...wish I could see mine too. Let them know I’m okay and helping the Avatar save the world. They don’t even know I left the Earth Kingdom.”

“You never told them?”

“We exchange letters, but it’s hard when we move around so much. I’ve only written them twice since this whole thing began, and what was I supposed to say? ‘Hi mom and dad, how are you? I’m doing fine. Been getting plenty of food and rest. Oh, by the way, I know I said I was just going to Ba Sing Se, but I got pulled into a mission to find the missing Lion Guardians and now I’m travelling around the world with the Avatar. Wish me luck.’”

Keith offered Hunk a crooked grin. “That sounds pretty good to me.”

Hunk chuckled but shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong, I do want to tell them. We’ve been through some dangerous stuff, but we’ve also seen so many amazing things, and I wanna share that with my family, but it seems like too much to put in a letter. I wish I could talk to them in person, but I know that’s not likely to happen any time soon.”

Keith nodded sympathetically. To get the the Blade of Marmora they had to travel away from the Earth Kingdom, not towards it.

Hunk turned to Keith and said, “Sorry for unloading on you like that. I know what we’re doing is super important.”

Keith placed a hand on Hunk’s shoulder.

“Finding the Lions is important, but so are your feelings. I can’t promise you’ll see your family soon, but once the opportunity arises we’ll go back to the Earth Kingdom. And,” Keith added, “if you ever feel like you need to go to them, Hunk, I’ll support you. You’re a valuable member of the team, and we rely on you a lot, but know that you always have the option to leave if you need to.”

“Thanks, Keith,” Hunk smiled. “That makes me feel better actually. Not that I would leave you guys, of course! But it’s nice to know you’ve got my back, man.”

“Always,” Keith gave Hunk’s shoulder one last squeeze and turned back to their project. “Now let’s finish this sculpture.”

They threw themselves back into their work and completed the statue well within the time limit. After a moment of consideration, Keith added a Sand Kosmo perched atop Sand Platt’s head. Hunk grinned and gave him a thumbs up.

They won second place.

-----

After celebrating Hunk and Keith’s victory, the four friends parted ways. Hunk and Pidge headed back to their huts to take a break from the sun, while Keith and Lance resumed their stroll down the shoreline, hand in hand.

They’d been together for awhile now, but Keith still got a small thrill when Lance laced their fingers together.

He was soon distracted from his mushy thoughts when Lance suddenly jerked to a halt.

“Lance?” Keith asked as Lance stared out at the ocean.

“Keith,” Lance said in a hushed tone. He turned to the Avatar, his blue eyes sparkling. “What is that?”

Keith looked over to where Lance was pointing to see a handful of people riding the waves on slim boards with sails attached.

“Looks like they’re windsurfing,” Keith answered.  “You’ve never seen it?”

Lance shook his head, eyes still full of wonder.

“Do you,” Keith glanced up at him, “want to try?”

Lance nodded eagerly. After a few inquiries with the locals, they found a small shop from where they could rent boards. Neither of them had ever windsurfed before, but considering their elemental powers and how quickly they had picked up air gliding, Keith wasn’t too worried.

It took a little while to get used to balancing on the boards, but soon enough, the two were out on the open ocean, gliding across the waves so fast it felt like they were flying.

Keith gripped the handle of his sail and tossed Lance a wild grin. Lance responded with a joyful laugh. Sunlight cast a warm glow on Lance’s skin and the spray of water clung to his windswept hair like tiny diamonds. Keith was so caught up staring he almost tipped over into the sea.

“Hey, you wanna race?” Lance asked.

“Still sore over your loss at the Air Temple?” Keith smirked.

“Oh, like you’re any less competitive than me. But that does remind me, if we race you’re not allowed to Airbend. I let it slide last time, but this time it’s definitely cheating.”

“It wasn’t cheating last time either!”

“Whatever! Are you in or not?”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Fine. What are the rules then, if you’re so concerned about it?”

Lance pointed to a large rock jutting out of the water in the distance.

“First one to that sea stack wins. No bending any elements except water, and only to increase your speed. You can’t use it to like, sabotage the other person.”

“Sounds good,” Keith smirked. “What do I get when I win?”

Lance scoffed. “If you win, I’ll buy you as much fried octopus shark as you want.”

“And if you win?”

“Then I…” Lance looked up in thought, “get to do your hair tonight and tomorrow.”

Keith raised an eyebrow but shrugged.

“Deal.”

“On your mark, get set...go!”

The two boys shot off, their speed abnormally fast thanks to Waterbending. A few nearby people let out startled cries but Keith didn’t hear them, too busy concentrating on the feeling of the ocean. Instinct told him to bend wind into his sail to go even faster, but Keith resisted.

Lance and Keith were neck and neck, and steadily getting closer to the sea stack.

“Hey, Keith!”

Against his better judgement, Keith looked over at his boyfriend. Lance tossed him a dazzling grin and an over the top wink.

“I don’t know what’s prettier, the sun, the sea, or your eyes.”

While Keith’s brain screeched to a halt and he tried to fight the heat in his cheeks, Lance pulled ahead and passed the imaginary finish line.

-----

Keith pouted as they returned their boards.

“You cheated.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault my charms are irresistible.”

Keith crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. Before he could retort, another voice cut in.

“Oh hey, are you two the guys that were racing a little while ago?”

Keith and Lance turned to see a young man and woman who also seemed to be returning windsurfboards. They were both tall, blond, and attractive, and seemed right at home in this tropical paradise.

“Uh, yeah,” Lance responded.

“Those were some impressive skills,” the man complimented. “How long have you been windsurfing?”

They exchanged glances.

“About three hours?” Lance said.

The man’s eyebrows disappeared behind his bangs.

“Well now I’m definitely impressed,” he held out his hand. “Name’s Rolo. This is Nyma.”

Lance and Keith introduced themselves and shook both their hands.

“You two visiting for the festival?” Nyma asked.

“Yeah,” Lance said. “Are you guys locals?”

“Not exactly,” Rolo shrugged. “We live on another island not too far away, but come here fairly often.”

“Wow, must be nice.”

“It gets pretty busy during the festivals, but it’s worth it. Especially the closing ceremony,” Nyma gushed. “It’s always so beautiful.”

“The closing ceremony is the thing with the lanterns, right?” Lance asked.

Keith vaguely recalled their tour guide mentioned something about that. Nyma nodded.

“Everyone gets a paper lantern, which we light using the Sacred Flame. Then, at midnight, we release them into the sky, hundreds of lanterns floating among the stars,” she sighed dreamily. “They say if you write a wish on your lantern asking to find true love, the gods will grant it. It’s just a legend, but it’s so romantic.”

Lance hummed and Keith peeked up to see a familiar soft smile directed at him. Heat rose to Keith’s cheeks and he looked away, but allowed Lance to hook their pinkies together.

“And that’s tomorrow night?” Lance asked.

“Yup! Everyone participates, so you can’t miss it!”

“Looking forward to it.”

They said their goodbyes and Lance wrapped an arm around Keith’s waist to bring him closer as they walked back towards their hut.

“So,” Keith said, “are you gonna write a wish on your lantern?”

“Maaaybe,” Lance drawled. “But first there’s something else we need to take care of.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, Keith, I won fair and square.”

“Disagree.”

-----

In the end, Lance bought Keith another serving of fried octopus shark after all. In return, Keith didn’t grumble too much when Lance purchased the necessary items for his plan and dragged him back to their spot on the beach, which was still miraculously unoccupied.

Lance ordered the Avatar to sit down and then sat cross-legged behind him. Setting his basket of goodies aside for the moment, Lance carefully undid Keith’s ponytail and began to run his fingers through the thick curtain of hair, from the top of Keith’s scalp down to his shoulder blades.

Lance wasn’t sure what he loved more, the softness of Keith’s hair or the way Keith melted under his touch.

As the setting sun turned the sky a beautiful orange-pink hue, Lance continued his ministrations, occasionally weaving small flowers from the basket into the dark, silky locks.

“Hey,” Lance said softly, “can I ask you something?”

Keith didn’t turn around, but hummed in acknowledgement.

“Why were you so against staying here?”

Lance felt Keith stiffen a bit, and quickly applied more pressure to his fingers’ movements, massaging the Avatar’s scalp. After a moment, the tension in Keith’s shoulders loosened.

“I just think it’s dumb,” he muttered. “They say these festivals are to celebrate the passing seasons, but the weather here is always the same. There’s barely any difference between summer and winter.”

“So they wanted an excuse to hold a party four times a year,” Lance shrugged. “It’s silly, but I don’t see how that’s a big deal.”

Keith hugged his knees tighter to his chest.

“It’s not just that,” he admitted. “Uotorī has a reputation in the Fire Nation. People make fun of it, but they also act like it’s some kind of paradise, or a completely different world.”

“I can see why,” Lance gazed appreciatively out at the horizon. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as the sea breeze swept over them. “It’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway.”

“...Lotor and I were supposed to come here for our honeymoon.”

Lance’s fingers stilled.

“Oh.”

Keith hunched over more so his crossed arms covered the lower half of his face.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “So you can imagine why this place isn’t bringing back the best memories.”

Lance shifted closer and uncrossed his legs to stretch them out on either side of Keith. He slowly coaxed Keith out of the ball he was curled into so that the Avatar instead leaned back against Lance’s chest. Lance wrapped his arms around Keith’s waist and propped his chin on Keith’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, man,” Lance murmured as they watched the sun disappear behind the ocean waves. Keith’s hum vibrated through Lance’s chest.

“It’s okay. I’m glad I got to come here with you instead,” Keith tilted his head to give Lance a small smile. “I had a lot of fun today.”

Lance hugged Keith a little harder.

“Me too.”

They sat like that, basking in each other’s presence, until the last of the light had left the sky, and the stars came out. Lance reluctantly pulled away.

“We should probably get going. We’re supposed to meet everyone for dinner soon.”

Lance helped Keith to his feet and took a moment to admire his handiwork. He had originally picked the small white flowers thinking they would contrast nicely with Keith’s ebony locks, but now in the pale moonlight they almost looked like they were glowing. This, combined with the stars reflected in Keith’s dark eyes, gave the Avatar an ethereal appearance.

When the silence went on too long, Keith shot him a questioning glance. The Waterbender took Keith’s hands in his and pulled him closer. Keith’s eyes fluttered shut as Lance leaned down to press their lips together. The kiss was chaste, but slow and sweet.

All too soon, they parted, shared a soft smile, and walked hand in hand back into town.

-----

Lance wasn’t sure what woke him up, but awake he was. Blinking slowly, Lance blearily took in his surroundings. After a moment he remembered that they were on Uotorī, which was why Keith and Lance were curled up in a real bed instead of a makeshift sleeping bag.

Lance’s blue eyes swept over the interior of the quaint hut. It was a single room with a bed, two night stands, and a large window. There wasn’t much in the way of decor, but Lance supposed most visitors only used the hut for sleeping. On Keith’s nightstand was the basket of white flowers, Lance having carefully removed them before bed to reuse the next day.

Lance’s gaze finally settled on the boy laying next to him. Keith’s face, usually so guarded, looked open and relaxed in slumber. One of Keith’s hands clutched loosely at Lance’s sleeve, and Lance couldn’t help but reach out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind the Avatar’s ear. Keith stirred at the touch, but merely nuzzled his face deeper into his pillow.

Lance closed his eyes and willed himself to fall back to sleep, but after nearly twenty minutes of feeling increasingly antsy, Lance decided to burn off his restless energy with a walk.

Lance gently pried Keith grip off of his clothing, dropping a feather light kiss to the Firebender’s hand in apology when Keith’s eyebrows twitched into a slight frown. Seeing Kosmo looking at him curiously from the foot of the bed, Lance clicked his tongue. The star wolf eagerly padded over to lay down in Lance’s newly unoccupied space, and Keith subconsciously curled around him.

Once Lance was done commiting the sight to memory, he grabbed a light jacket and exited the hut.

As he walked, the town was silent. Even the biggest party goers had turned in for the night. Lance took a deep breath and let the sea air fill his lungs. He really did love it here. Maybe he could convince Keith to visit again once they had found the Lions.

Lance wandered for a bit, taking in the small village. The edges of the sky began to brighten, and Lance realized it must be close to dawn. The sunsets here were magical, and Lance still felt wide awake, so why not head back to the beach to watch the sunrise?

With this in mind, Lance turned around and walked back the way he came. As he reached the town square however, Lance noticed he wasn’t as alone as he thought.

In the middle of the square was Rolo, walking towards the ornate torch that housed the Sacred Flame. Lance opened his mouth to call out a greeting, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the tension in Rolo’s body, or the shifty look in his eyes. Whatever the reason, Lance found himself hanging back out of sight to observe him.

Lance immediately felt ridiculous. Rolo was probably just out for a stroll like he was. Plenty of people rose with the sun. Sure, Lance hadn’t come across anyone else so far, but that didn’t necessarily mean Rolo was up to no good.

Lance shook his head and was about to take a step forward when Rolo cast a furtive glance around the square and reached into his bag to pull out what looked like a large glass jar.

A glass jar that shimmered with an eerie light.

Rolo raised his hands and bent the blue fire off of the torch and into the jar. The flames licked the glass but didn’t die when Rolo sealed the top. Lance didn’t know if it was because the fire was magic or the jar was enchanted, but there was one thing he knew for sure.

Rolo was stealing the Sacred Flame.

“Hey!” Lance shouted as he jumped out from his hiding place.

Rolo whipped around and locked eyes with Lance, then booked it in the opposite direction.

Cursing, Lance gave chase. He probably shouldn’t have given himself away like that, but it was early and Lance’s brain wasn’t running at full capacity quite yet. Luckily for him, Rolo seemed intent on fleeing toward the beach.

Where the water was.

Lance grinned. Big mistake, buddy.

As they raced down the shoreline, Lance bent a water whip out of the sea and thrust it at Rolo. Rolo was surprisingly nimble for his size and evaded the first few attacks. As he shot a smirk over his shoulder, however, Rolo failed to see the large wave Lance formed ahead of him. The Firebender let out a yelp as it knocked him off his feet.

Lance reached out to grab the jar, but had to jump away when Rolo blasted a stream of fire at him. Lance quickly countered with his water whip and they started trading blows.

Rolo was good, but Lance sparred with Keith and Shiro on a regular basis. That, combined with Lance’s access to the ocean, soon sealed Rolo’s fate.

With a triumphant shout, Lance threw his whip at his opponent. Rolo, perhaps instinctively, raised the jar in front of him like a shield. Whatever magic kept the Sacred Flame alive and the glass cool enough to hold apparently did not extend to making the container indestructible.

Unable to stop it in time, Lance watched as if in slow motion as the stream of water shattered the jar and doused the flame within.

Lance and Rolo stared in horror at the broken remains scattered on the sand.

Rolo looked up at something over Lance’s shoulder and said, “Uh oh.”

Lance turned to see several villagers gathered behind him, their faces ranging from shocked to outraged. A man in the front raised a hand to point accusingly at Rolo and Lance.

“Seize them!”

Chapter Text

“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.

“Where’s Lance?”

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.

“What happened?”

“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?”

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.”

“I understand.”

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.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

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.

“Keith, wait!”

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.

Nyma followed.

“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.”

Keith frowned.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“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?”

Lance chuckled.

“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.

Nyma pouted.

“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.”

Chapter Text

“There it is,” Krolia’s voice rang out as they flew across the sky. “That’s the headquarters for the Blade of Marmora.”

Heart in her throat, Pidge leaned over the edge of Platt’s saddle to look down at where Krolia was pointing.

“Uhhh,” Hunk squinted, “I don’t wanna sound rude, but that’s a volcano. One that we probably shouldn’t go near judging by all the smoke and lava.”

Krolia smirked. “That’s just what we want you to think.”

Following the spy’s instructions, Allura steered Platt closer to the volcano. Everyone stared in amazement as the fall of lava parted to reveal an entrance.

They glided inside and Pidge gasped. The volcano was completely hollow, like someone had scooped out all the magma and built a small city in its place.

“Where does the lava outside come from?” Shiro asked.

Krolia merely gave them a mysterious smile.

As they moved toward the large plaza in the center, Pidge spotted a handful of people already waiting, two of which were achingly familiar.

Platt had barely touched the floor when Pidge jumped down from the saddle.

“Dad! Matt!” Pidge raced toward her family.

“Katie!”

Pidge leapt into their open arms and the three Holts clung to each other. Eyes squeezed shut against the flood of tears, Pidge held them as close as she could.

“I finally found you,” she sobbed. “I missed you so much.”

Sam rested a hand on top of her head with a proud smile.

“We missed you too, Katie.”

-----

Keith watched the Holts with a small smile before a touch on his shoulder pulled his attention over to Krolia.

“Keith, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Krolia led the Avatar to the remaining men gathered nearby. All three wore Fire Nation style clothes in various shades of black, just like she did.

“This is Kolivan, leader of the Blade of Marmora,” Krolia gestured to the man standing in front. “Kolivan, this is my son, Keith.”

Keith tried to stand tall under the weight of Kolivan’s stoic gaze. The Blade leader was huge with long gray hair tied into a braid, and a jagged scar that ran through his right eye and down his face.

“We’ve been searching for the Avatar for nearly two decades,” Kolivan finally said. “It is good to finally meet you.”

Keith nodded. “You as well.”

“I understand you are searching for the White Lion,” Kolivan said. “We have been assisting Professor Holt in the hopes of finding out more ourselves.”

At his name, Sam walked over, Pidge still clutching her father’s shirt like she was afraid he would vanish otherwise.

“Matt and I have continued our research,” Sam added. “The Blade’s library isn’t as big as the one in Ba Sing Se, but they have a plethora of resources we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.”

Allura stepped forward.

“Then have you found out why the Lions are going missing?” she asked.

Sam shook his head.

“We’ve made progress,” he said, “and we’re close, I can feel it. But we haven’t cracked the code quite yet.”

Everyone wilted at his words, but Matt piped up.

“No worries,” he reached over to ruffle Pidge’s hair, “now that we’ve got another Holt genius to help us out, I’m sure we’ll make a breakthrough in no time!”

Pidge smacked his hand away but her irritation was undermined by the wide grin on her face.

“We’ll help too,” Allura said with Coran nodding beside her. “Our knowledge of the White Lion may be of use.”

“Both Krolia and Professor Holt have vouched for you all,” Kolivan said, “so you are granted access to anywhere in the base. We only ask that you don’t wander off by yourselves, or venture outside without permission. Failure to obey these conditions will result in severe punishment.”

His serious gaze swept over the group. Once everyone murmured in agreement, he and his lackeys left without another word.

“Fun guy,” Lance muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

Keith elbowed him.

After Pidge introduced everyone to her family, Krolia led them to the guest quarters. They decided to use the rest of the day to rest and let Pidge catch up with Sam and Matt, and then start their research in ernest tomorrow.

“Honestly, we probably won’t need everyone’s help. At least not right away,” Pidge adjusted her glasses. “Allura, Coran, and I can meet Dad in the library to go over what we know so far. Once we’ve pooled all our knowledge and start looking for new material, the rest of you can join.”

“Sounds good to me,” Lance shrugged. “I’m sure we can find something to keep us occupied while we wait. We are in a super secret spy base, after all.”

“Just try not to get thrown in jail again,” Keith smirked.

“I will make no such promises.”

Everyone chuckled a bit except for Sam and Matt who just looked bemused.

“Kolivan gave you permission to explore, but I would advise against wandering off on your own,” Krolia said. “The base’s structure is rather maze-like and it can be easy to get lost. If you go anywhere, stay in groups of two or more.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for Keith and Lance,” Pidge eyed them slyly.

Her tone was teasing but Keith felt his mirth slip away.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he frowned.

Pidge rolled her eyes.

“Uh, that you two are always together anyway?” she said wryly. “It literally took Lance getting incarcerated to separate you for more than a few hours.”

“We can’t help it if we’re in love, Pidge,” Lance sniffed haughtily. “You’re just jealous. Right, Keith?”

Lance hooked an arm around Keith’s shoulders to press a kiss to the Avatar’s temple, ignoring Pidge’s muttered, “Gross.”

Keith offered Lance a weak smile, and tried to hide the hollow pit starting to form in his stomach.

-----

The next morning after breakfast, Lance returned to his and Keith’s room to find the Avatar curled up with a book.

“Hey babe, Hunk and I are gonna go see if we can figure out where the lava outside comes from,” Lance said. “You in?”

“Oh, um, that’s okay,” Keith replied. “You go without me.”

Lance blinked. He thought Keith would jump at the chance to go on a mini-adventure inside a volcano.

“You sure?”

“Yeah,” Keith fiddled with the end of his sleeve and avoided Lance’s eyes. “I think I’m just gonna stay here and rest for awhile.”

“Oh...alright,” Lance said. “Are you okay?”

“Just a little tired,” Keith assured him.

After an awkward pause, Lance turned to walk out of the room. Hand resting on the door handle, he looked back at Keith.

“Are...we okay?” he asked hesitantly.

Keith’s eyes softened. He stood up and walked over to place a gentle kiss on Lance’s cheek.

“Yeah,” Keith said. “We’re okay. Now go have fun with Hunk, and I expect a full report on all the Blade’s secrets when you get back.”

Lance grinned and swooped in to peck Keith on the lips.

“You got it, babe.”

-----

Once Lance left, Keith took a moment to simply stare at the closed door. He felt guilty about brushing his boyfriend off, but he wasn’t lying when he said he was tired.

He wasn’t telling Lance the whole truth though.

Keith sighed and sat back down on the bed. Kosmo trotted over to lay his head on Keith’s lap and the Avatar obligingly scratched behind his ears.

He didn’t wanted to admit it, but Pidge’s comment earlier had struck a chord. Shiro had said something similar back on Uotorī, and while his brother had been nothing but supportive, Keith couldn’t help the seed of self-doubt growing in his chest.

All his life, Keith had prided himself on being self-reliant, on never needing anyone else. He was alone, and then he had Shiro, and by extension Adam, and that was enough.

Now he had Lance, and Allura, and Hunk, and Pidge, and so many more people than ever before. And he was happy about that, he really was.

But he was also scared.

What if he fucked it up and they left him? What if Lance left him? Did Keith even remember how to be alone anymore? For all their teasing, his friends were right. Lance rarely left Keith’s side.

Keith felt warm and safe and happy when Lance was with him, so he never questioned his constant presence before. Keith wouldn’t say he regretted breaking down his walls for Lance, but now that he was left surrounded by the crumbled remains, Keith wondered if he would even be able to rebuild them if he had to.

...Lance said he loved him.

Keith groaned and buried his face in his hands. A cold, wet nose nudged him and Keith peeked out to see Kosmo glance at the door.

Keith got up and gave the star wolf a pat.

“Good idea, boy. Maybe a walk will help clear my head.”

Kosmo wagged his tail and followed Keith outside.

-----

Krolia walked through the twisting streets with a feeling of contentment. She had spend many of her years as a young adult training with the Blade, and this city nestled into the heart of a volcano was the closest thing she had to a home after she had to leave her husband and son.

For those less familiar, however, the layout could be rather confusing. This was by design, since the city was built as a base for a spy organization hundreds of years old, and it wasn’t uncommon for someone to get lost on the rare occasion they had outsiders staying here.

Thus, Krolia wasn’t too surprised to find Keith wandering around with a pinched expression. Kosmo sat nearby, oblivious to his master’s dilemma. Upon spotting his mother, Keith quickly jogged over.

“Um, hi,” he said, relief tangible in his voice.

“Hello,” she answered with an amused smile.

Keith shuffled in place, a faint blush on his cheeks. “I...think I might be lost.”

“I was just on my way to the mess hall,” Krolia nodded down the correct path. “Would you like to join me?”

Keith agreed, embarrassment slipping away as he kept pace with her steps.

They walked in a silence that was just shy of awkward. They had been making progress in their relationship, but it was slow going. Krolia always preferred to use actions rather than words to express herself, and Keith apparently took after her in that regard, which made it difficult to have any real sort of heart-to-heart.

Still, Krolia knew she had to make an effort or they wouldn’t get anywhere, so she decided to start out simple.

“Where’s Lance?” she asked.

Keith flushed.

“Why do people keep asking me that?” he muttered. “We’re not attached at the hip, you know.”

“No,” Krolia agreed, “but you do spend a lot of time together. Since joining your group, I’ve seen you with him more often than without.”

Keith’s eyebrows drew together. “Is that a bad thing?”

Krolia hummed thoughtfully.

“Does he make you happy?”

Keith’s blush grew but he nodded.

“Then no,” she smiled at him reassuringly. “I don’t think so.”

Keith’s face smoothed out and he ducked his head.

“It’s strange,” he said after a moment of thought. “My whole life, I always preferred being alone. Even with Shiro, there were times when I felt like I had to get away for awhile. Just be by myself. I think that’s why Kosmo and I became so close so quickly,” he shot a smile down at the star wolf, who wagged his tail in response. “Kosmo and I don’t have to talk to understand each other.”

Keith peeked up at Krolia and she gave him an encouraging nod.

“I always preferred the sound of silence,” he continued. “Then I met Lance, and he is anything but silent.”

The two shared a chuckle. Krolia watched as Keith’s wry smirk shifted into something softer.

“We didn’t get along at all at first,” he said. “But then, after all the things we went through together and after we got to know each other more and more…” Keith shrugged helplessly. “I can’t imagine being without him now. I still need silence from time to time, when the noise becomes too much, but...Lance taught me that not all noise is bad.”

“I know what you mean,” Krolia said softly. “We’re very similar. I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf too. But when I met your father, I found myself wanting to be with him all the time. He didn’t change who I was as a person, but he helped me grow.”

“So then,” Keith bit his lip, “you don’t think Lance and I are too codependent?”

Krolia looked at her son curiously.

“Do you think you are?”

Keith hunched his shoulders up around his ears.

“I don’t know. Our friends tease us, and I know they don’t mean anything by it, but I guess it’s made me a little self-conscious. And then both you and Shiro commented on it. I just...I’ve never felt this way about someone before, and I don’t know if it’s normal.”

Krolia studied Keith, taking in the worried features that looked so much like her own.

“I think,” she finally replied, “that you love Lance very much, and it’s alright to want to spend as much time as you can with someone you love.”

“Really?”

“Take it from me, Keith,” Krolia said. “Life is short and full of hardship. You can’t be afraid to accept happiness when it presents itself to you.”

They arrived at their destination. Before Krolia could open the door, a hand on her arm stopped her. Krolia glanced curiously at Keith.

Keith hesitated and then took a step closer to wrap his arms around her. Krolia stilled but once she registered what was happening, she gently returned the hug.

As she held her son for the first time in over fifteen years, something inside of Krolia loosened, ever so slightly. A tension that had been there so long she didn’t even know it existed until he was finally back and safe in her arms.

After a long moment, the two pulled apart, their eyes both suspiciously wet, and shared a small smile. As she opened the door, Krolia knew that things wouldn’t suddenly be perfect between them, but this was a better start than she could have hoped for.

Krolia led Keith into a large mess hall. A handful of Blade members paused their conversations to glance curiously at the duo.

One man stood up and walked over to greet them. Though she hadn’t seen him in years, Krolia recognized him instantly.

“Thace,” Krolia smiled. “It’s good to see you again.”

Thace nodded. “You as well. I heard about what happened in the North Pole. I’m sorry about the Blue Lion.”

“Well, it wasn’t all bad,” Krolia turned her smile to Keith. “The mission failed, but I was reunited with my son, so I can’t say I regret it.”

Keith’s eyes widened a fraction and he looked down bashfully.

Thace turned to Keith with a kind expression.

“We were all rather shocked to hear your son was the Avatar. It’s a shame things happened the way they did, but I suppose better late than never. Will he be taking the Trials?”

Krolia’s smile vanished as her gaze snapped back to Thace.

“No,” she said shortly.

Thace raised his hands in a peaceful gesture and seemed content to leave the matter alone.

Keith, however, looked up with obvious curiosity.

“What are the Trials?”

“Nothing,” Krolia said, her chin raised.

Keith frowned with an equally stubborn glint in his eyes.

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just ask somebody else,” he pointed out.

Thace chuckled. Krolia shot him a look and he shrugged.

“What? He’s your son, alright.”

Krolia huffed but inwardly she felt a small swell of pride. She turned back to Keith’s waiting gaze.

“The Trials of Marmora are a series of tests one must pass to gain membership into the Blade,” Krolia finally said. “They’re extremely dangerous and not something you should attempt without the necessary preparation.”

“Oh,” Keith seemed to consider this. “But I could take them if I wanted to?”

Krolia nodded reluctantly.

“As my son, it is your birthright. Had things gone differently, I would have trained you once you were ready, and if you so chose, you could have taken the Trials and joined the Blade when you turned eighteen.”

Krolia could picture it. Another life, where she didn’t have to leave. Where she raised her son in the way of the Blade. Where they discovered Keith’s identity as the Avatar early on and she was able to support him from the start.

Where Akira was still with them.

Keith looked like he might have been thinking along the same lines, his eyes downcast.

“Since that didn’t happen, you don’t want me to join the Blade?”

Krolia shook her head and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“No, Keith,” she said. “I would be proud to have you follow in my footsteps. But the Avatar is a symbol of peace and must remain in the public eye. It would be somewhat difficult for you to go undercover like we often do.”

Keith’s eyes met her own, and Krolia was once again struck by how similar they were, like looking into a mirror. After a moment, his lips quirked.

“You’ve got a point. People already recognize me sometimes,” he admitted.

“That being said,” Krolia added, “you could still join us one day. You wouldn’t be able to take on certain missions, but we could still work together in other ways.”

“I’d like that. The Lions are my top priority right now, but,” he peeked up at her, “maybe once we find them, you could train me? Like how you would have if I grew up with you.”

Krolia smiled.

“Why wait? We can start now.”

Keith blinked. “But you said…”

“I don’t think you should take the Trials just yet,” Krolia agreed, “but we can start out small. I did promise to teach you how to awaken you luxite blade.”

Keith’s eyes lit up. He opened his mouth but before he could reply, a loud grumble emanated from his stomach. Keith snapped his mouth closed, two spots of color high on his cheeks.

“Perhaps we should eat lunch first,” Krolia suggested lightly.

-----

Lance trudged behind Hunk as they scaled the outer wall of the volcano. Since it hadn’t been active in centuries, Hunk was able to Earthbend a path for them to walk up without having to worry about setting it off. And, you know, there wasn’t any lava inside anyway.

That being said, they hadn’t actually gotten permission to do this so they were still trying to lay low. Hunk’s arms were in constant movement to bend only the area around them and then return it to normal once they passed so as not to leave a trail. His level of concentration was probably why it wasn’t until they were halfway up that he noticed Lance’s gloomy disposition.

“Lance? Buddy?” Hunk shot a concerned look over his shoulder. “You okay?”

Lance’s head shot up from where he had been staring at the smooth rock beneath his feet.

“Huh?”

“You’ve been pretty quiet the past twenty minutes,” Hunk said. “Something on your mind?”

Lance grinned and waved him off.

“I’m fine, man.”

Hunk didn’t look convinced.

“You know you can talk to me about anything,” he said.

Lance’s face softened into a smile.

“I know, Hunk. Thanks.”

They continued their trek for another ten minutes before Lance finally found the words.

“During the closing ceremony on Uotorī, I told Keith I loved him,” he said, “and Keith said he loved me too.”

Hunk gasped.

“Woah, that’s a huge step!” he grinned. “Congratulations! But wait,” his smile faded, “shouldn’t you be like, super gross and happy right now?”

“I was at first,” Lance agreed. “I was over the moon. It was a perfect night, Hunk. The ocean, the lanterns, the stars...I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.”

“And then?”

“And then,” Lance sighed, “morning came. At first I didn’t even notice anything was wrong, but as time went by, Keith started acting...weird. Almost like he was avoiding me.”

“Oh, Lance…”

“What if I fucked it up?” Lance turned his desperate gaze to Hunk. “What if I said it too soon and scared him off? What if Keith was just swept up in the moment when he said he loved me, and once the romantic setting was gone, he realized it was a mistake?”

Hunk frowned.

“That doesn’t sound like Keith,” Hunk said. “You really think he would have told you something that important just because the mood was right?”

Lance scrubbed a frustrated hand through his hair.

“No, I guess not,” he admitted. “But then why is he acting like this?”

“Sorry, man, but I have no idea,” Hunk shook his head. “I think the only one who does is Keith. You should just talk to him.”

“Easier said than done,” Lance scoffed.

“Well, you can at least try,” Hunk reasoned. “I’m sure Keith has a good explanation, but you’ll never find out by just sulking.”

Lance smiled ruefully. “You’re right, Hunk. As usual.”

The two exchanged grins as they arrived at the volcano’s summit. They looked into the crater and their eyes widened.

“Woah…”

“Cool…”

A sharp voice rang out and snapped Lance and Hunk from their reverie.

“Hey! You’re not allowed up here!”

“Uh oh,” Lance saw the Blade member stalking toward them and grabbed Hunk’s arm to usher him back down the path they came from. “Let’s get out of here. I really don’t wanna get thrown in jail again.”

-----

Keith was on his way back to his room when he ran into Lance in the hallway.

“Oh,” Keith blinked. “Um, hi.”

“Hey,” Lance greeted. He looked around. “Where’s Kosmo?”

“He’s with Pidge. She wanted his help in the Blade’s library.”

Lance cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”

Keith shrugged. “Apparently it’s huge and teleporting around makes finding stuff go faster.”

“Huh.”

“So, what did you find out about the lava?”

Lance’s eyes lit up.

“Get this,” he leaned in conspiringly. “There isn’t any. I don’t know exactly how it works since they chased us away pretty fast, but from what we could see, the Blade uses some combination of Firebending and technology to make it look like there’s lava from a distance! Like an optical illusion. Once you get close enough, you can tell it’s really just fire and smoke and mirrors and stuff.”

“Wow, I wish I could have seen it,” Keith said.

“Maybe we can sneak back up there later,” Lance offered with a crooked smile. “Just the two of us.”

“Yeah, maybe…”

Lance’s smile slipped away at Keith’s hesitation, and Keith cringed.

Talking to Krolia had helped a lot, but he still felt somewhat insecure. Not to mention guilty. He knew he had to talk to Lance and explain his recent behavior, but as they continued to stand silently in the hallway, Keith couldn’t bring himself to speak.

Thankfully, Lance came to the rescue.

“You think there are any large bodies of water around here? Besides the ocean, I mean. It’s been awhile since we’ve trained one-on-one.”

The Blade had warned them not to venture too far from the base since the island was supposed to appear uninhabited and having people wandering along the shore would break that illusion if they were spotted. Still, they had to have a source of water somewhere close by, so Keith and Lance set out to find it.

When they asked Krolia, she directed them to a secluded area on the outskirts of the volcano filled with small to medium sized thermal pools. Since the volcano was no longer active, the water itself was tepid, warmed only by the tropical climate.

Keith and Lance settled on a pool that was waist-deep and about ten feet in diameter. After stripping down to their trousers, the boys waded in and began their warm-up routine.

Standing on opposite sides of the pool, they languidly passed a slip of water back and forth. As he watched it glide above the surface, Keith felt the silence build and build until finally he couldn’t take it anymore and opened his mouth.

“I’m sorry I’ve been a little distant lately,” Keith said. “I just...needed time to think about some stuff.”

“It’s okay,” Lance replied softly. “I’ve been thinking too, and I also want to apologize.”

Keith looked up curiously.

“For what?”

Lance shrugged and didn’t meet his eyes.

“For...rushing you, I guess.”

“What do you mean?”

“Keith, you started acting weird almost immediately after I told you I loved you,” Lance stared down at his reflection. “It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection. When you said it back I was so happy, but now I’m worried that it was an ‘in the moment’ kind of thing and after you had some time to think about it you...regretted it or something.”

The slip of water fell with a small splash. Keith waded across the pool as fast as his legs could carry him and grabbed Lance’s hand.

“Lance, no,” Keith tried in vain to catch Lance’s gaze. “I was freaking out a little, I admit, but not because I regretted it.”

Lance finally met Keith’s eyes.

“Really?” he asked in a voice much too small.

Keith nodded.

“Then why?”

It was Keith’s turn to avert his gaze. Almost subconsciously he tried to pull away, but Lance kept a firm grip on his hand.

After a long moment, Keith finally whispered, “I was afraid.”

Lance rubbed soothing circles into the sensitive skin of Keith’s wrist.

“Afraid of what?” he asked in an equally hushed voice.

Keith inhaled and slowly let out a shaky breath.

“I can count the number of people who have said those words to me on one hand,” he finally said, “and all of them have left me at some point.”

Keith finally mustered the courage to look up into Lance’s wide, blue eyes.

“I barely recovered from those, Lance. I don’t know what I would do if you left too.”

“I would never—”

Keith cut him off with a finger to Lance’s lips.

“You might not mean to,” he said, “but neither did they.”

His mother left to protect her family. His father died in an accident. Shiro was captured. None of them abandoned Keith willingly, but the result was still the same. Krolia and Shiro returned eventually, but that didn’t erase the scars already on his heart.

“I like you so much, Lance,” pressure built behind Keith’s eyes and he squeezed them shut, “and it terrifies me.”

Lance reached up to gently pull Keith’s hand away from his lips so he could clasp it between both of his larger ones.

“Keith,” he said softly, “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through so much pain, and as much as I want to, I can’t promise that nothing will happen to me, because I don’t know the future. But I swear to you,” Lance hooked a finger under Keith’s chin so that the Avatar looked up into his eyes, blue orbs burning bright with fierce determination, “I will do everything within my power to stay by your side. I love you, Keith, and the ancient lion turtles themselves couldn’t drag me away from you.”

Keith let out a watery chuckle.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’ve never felt this way about another person before, and I started to worry I was becoming too...clingy, or reliant, I guess.”

“Babe,” Lance rolled his eyes, “you are the most independent person I know. And clingy? Please. I think I would die without your cuddles.”

Keith snorted. “Now you’re just being dramatic.”

The boys smiled at each other. After a moment, Keith cleared his throat and wiped the remaining tears from his eyes.

“Well, that was intense. And a little mortifying.”

“Dealing with feelings usually is,” Lance agreed.

“You got anything you wanna get off your chest?” Keith asked wryly. “Even things out a bit?”

Keith was mostly joking but when Lance hesitated, his smirk dropped.

“Lance?”

“It’s nothing,” he said quickly.

Keith’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Lance.”

“It’s stupid,” Lance insisted.

“If something’s bothering you, it’s not stupid.”

“My thing is nothing compared to yours. It’s miniscule.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Keith,” Lance huffed. “Just drop it, okay?”

“No,” Keith scowled. “You made me feel better about my problem and now I want to help you, so just tell me!”

“Sometimes I feel like you care about Kosmo more than me,” Lance blurted out.

Keith stared at him blankly.

“You...don’t like Kosmo?”

“Wha—No! Nonono!” Lance shook his head frantically. “That’s not it at all! I love Kosmo!”

At Keith’s continued bafflement, Lance scrubbed his hands through his short hair in frustration.

“I told you it was dumb,” he groaned. “It’s irrational and I know that. But it seems like every time you’re given a choice between your Animal Guide and me, you pick Kosmo. And I get it, you share a spiritual bond or whatever, and I wouldn’t dream of coming between you and your destiny, but...I dunno, sometimes it would be nice if you picked me first.”

Keith stared some more.

“Lance,” he said slowly, “Kosmo is a wolf.”

“I know!” Lance threw up his arms. “I know that getting jealous over your pet is stupid, but I just…ugh!”

Lance covered his face with his hands and sank below the water. When he didn’t resurface, Keith sighed and bent his knees to submerge himself as well.

Lance was curled up on the ground, hands still obscuring his face. Keith briefly wondered if he was using some kind of Waterbending technique to breath or was just really good at holding his breath.  

Keith placed a hand under Lance’s elbow to try to coax him back up, but the other boy shook his head and huddled into a tighter ball.

Kneeling in front of Lance, Keith gently wrapped his fingers around the Waterbender’s wrists to pull them away from his face. Lance’s cheeks were red, either from embarrassment or lack of oxygen, and he still refused to meet Keith’s eyes.

Keith studied him before leaning forward to press his lips against Lance’s. Keith’s long hair floated lazily around him, tickling his face and shoulders, but the Avatar ignored it and focused on pouring all of his feelings into the kiss.

He pulled away and this time Lance didn’t resist when Keith tugged him back to the surface.

They took a moment to just look at each other, both dripping wet and more than a little vulnerable.

“So,” Lance licked his lips, “did that kiss mean you don’t hate me?”

“Of course I don’t hate you. Don’t get me wrong,” Keith added, “I would never give up Kosmo, even for you—”

“And I would never ask you to!”

“—but learning you have some weird insecurities is...actually a bit of a relief.”

Lance blinked.

“What?”

Keith blushed and looked away.

“Lance, you’re kind of a perfect boyfriend,” he muttered. “You do so much for me, taking me on dates, supporting me, and I want to return the favor but most of the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I literally just spent all day worrying about how I was gonna screw things up between us.”

A myriad of emotions crossed Lance’s face before he finally settled on a cocky grin.

“You think I’m perfect?”

“Shut up,” Keith rolled his eyes. “My point is, you having this weird thing with Kosmo shows me that maybe you don’t have all your shit together after all, and I dunno...that puts us on more equal footing or something.”

Lance crossed his arms with a hum.

“So what you’re telling me is,” he said, “you thought I was some kind of romance expert, and now I’ve gone and ruined it?”

“Afraid so,” Keith replied dryly.

Lance let out an over dramatic sigh but a smile covered his face.

“Guess I’ll have to work hard to regain that reputation.”

Keith rolled his eyes but couldn’t hide a smile of his own.

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes,” Lance clambered out of the pool and reached down to help Keith. “Next time we go on a date, I’m gonna pull out all the stops. Flowers, chocolate, you name it.”

Keith accepted his hand and Lance pulled him out of the water.

“What?” the Avatar teased. “No ostrich horse-drawn carriage?”

Lance’s eyes lit up.

“Great idea, babe!”

“Lance, I was kidding.”

“Nope, too late! You’ve sealed your fate.”

Keith shook his head with a sigh and pulled on his tunic and shoes. Despite his grumbling, Keith didn’t protest when Lance slipped an arm around his waist as they walked back into the secret passage that led inside the volcano.

As Lance chattered about increasingly elaborate date ideas, Keith smiled and made a mental note to be more aware of his boyfriend’s insecurities.

And to find a way to get Lance and Kosmo to bond.

Chapter Text

Pidge didn’t even try to fight the wide grin on her face.

Not only had she finally reunited with her dad and brother after nearly two whole years of searching, but now they were doing research in a super secret Fire Nation spy base to help save the whole world.

Sure, technically they had already been doing that for several months, but now they were doing it together and that made all the difference. And as a bonus, the Blade’s library was fascinating. Pidge’s dad had been correct in that it was much smaller than the one in Ba Sing Se, but it was still pretty big. And the materials! Everywhere she looked there were books and scrolls Pidge had never even heard of.

Add in the fact that she’d managed to convince Keith to let her borrow Kosmo, and Pidge was having the time of her life.

“Katiiiiie, come on,” Matt whined, “I wanna teleport too!”

Pidge cackled as she reappeared in front of her brother in a flash of light, one hand gripping a tuft of Kosmo’s fur and the other balancing a stack of books against her chest.

“No way,” she smirked. “Kosmo only teleports people he trusts, and he doesn’t know you yet. You don’t wanna end up on top of the volcano or something, do you?”

Matt pouted and crossed his arms.

“If I could teleport it would be worth it,” he muttered.

Sam chuckled as he walked over to join them, arms full of his own collection of research materials.

“It was very kind of the Avatar to let you borrow his Celestial Wolf,” he said, “but perhaps you should give him a break for now. He looks a bit tired.”

Pidge glanced down to see Kosmo did look a little worn out, though he still wagged his tail happily under her attention.

“Oops, sorry, boy,” she patted his head apologetically. This was the first time she’d gotten to use Kosmo’s teleportation powers and she might have gone a bit overboard in her enthusiasm.

Kosmo responded by gently bumping his snout against her with a huff. He’d grown a lot over the past several weeks and now came up to Pidge’s waist. Keith didn’t say anything, but she got the feeling he was sad he couldn’t pick Kosmo up as easily to cuddle him anymore. That didn’t stop the star wolf from flopping down onto the Avatar’s lap all the time, nor did it stop Keith from treating him like an overgrown puppy. It was disgustingly adorable.

Once Kosmo was settled nearby with a large chunk of dried meat Pidge got from the mess hall, the three Holts dumped the rest of their stuff onto a table and got to work. A stranger would probably look at the mess of scrolls, maps, and books strewn haphazardly across the surface and call it a mess, but Pidge, Sam, and Matt were perfectly in sync in their organized chaos.

It felt like home.

After awhile, Pidge looked up from the pages to gaze at her father.

“Hey, Dad?” she said tentatively.

“Yes, Katie?” Sam replied, his eyes still scanning the book under his nose.

“How did you and Matt end up here?” she asked. “As far as Mom and I knew, you guys just vanished. The Airbenders didn’t know anything either.”

Sam finally looked up.

“Well,” he frowned, “it’s a bit of a long story.”

“We have time,” Pidge shrugged.

“As you know by now, the Airbenders came to me several months prior asking for my help.”

Pidge nodded. Her dad was an expert in his field with a focus on history and the Spirit World. It made sense that they would go to him.

“I agreed to look into it, and Matt and I started research on not only the White Lion, but all of the Lions. It was really quite fascinating. The Lions have been a part of our culture since the beginning of recorded history, but we still know so little about them. We really take their presence for granted—”

“Dad,” Matt interrupted, “you’re rambling again.”

“Ah,” Sam cleared his throat. “Right, where was I?”

“You started to research the Lions,” Pidge offered helpfully.

“Yes, yes. Well, months passed and we were no closer to finding answers. We had learned much, but nothing seemed to indicate why the White Lion was gone. Then, Matt started to get a...funny feeling.”

Matt nodded almost frantically. “It was like we were being watched! I could feel eyes on me all the time. Dad said I was paranoid, but look what happened!”

“You were right,” Sam said wearily. Pidge got the impression they’d had this discussion more than once. “One night we were attacked. We still don’t know who the culprit was, but they wanted both of us dead.”

Pidge’s heart squeezed.

“Luckily for us,” Sam continued, “the assassin was not the only one keeping tabs on us. The Blade of Marmora was trying to learn more about the Lions as well, and when the assassin struck, the Blade member assigned to watch us, Thace, intervened. He saved us and brought us here.”

“Why didn’t you take me and Mom with you?” Pidge asked. “Or at least left us a note.”

“We wanted to,” Matt said, “but Thace was adamant that it could endanger you guys. The fact that someone tried to kill us meant we were close to finding out something they didn’t want anyone to know. If they thought we left you information, they might have come after you too.”

Pidge grumbled but didn’t argue further.

“So did you find out what it was they didn’t want you to learn?”

Sam sighed.

“We’ve made significant progress, but we’re still not quite there,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like getting assassinated wouldn’t have made much difference.”

“Aw, c’mon, Dad, don’t say that,” Matt reached over to ruffle Pidge’s hair. “Katie’s here now, so she’ll help us figure it out. Right, Katie?”

“Hey!” Pidge bat his hand away with an irritated scowl.

Sam and Matt laughed and Pidge’s lips couldn’t help but twitch into a smile.

-----

Keith narrowed his eyes in focus as he tried to will his luxite knife to transform into a sword of flames. Krolia revealed early on that while Firebending played a major role in the process, there was more to it than simply learning the right moves. In order to truly “awaken” the blade, Keith must first awaken something within himself.

Unfortunately, he had no idea what that meant, and it showed in his very much not on fire knife.

He let out a frustrated sigh and Krolia placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s alright, Keith,” she said. “Some people take months, or even years, to awaken their blades. You’ve only been training for a few days, and you already have the physical technique down. All that remains is the spiritual, and it will come in due time.”

“I’m not very good with spiritual stuff,” Keith admitted. “It took me forever to access the Spirit World, and I still haven’t unlocked the Avatar State.”

“You’ll get there,” she assured him. “I’ve already seen improvement since yesterday.”

“Thanks,” Keith quirked a small smile. “Same time tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

Keith bid his mother farewell and made his way back to his room. Upon entering, he found Lance sitting on the bed, ankles crossed and back propped against a mountain of pillows. He appeared to be studying a scroll on Waterbending techniques he found in the Blade’s library.

Lance looked up and shot Keith a smile.

“Hey, man,” he greeted, “how did it go?”

Seeing the dejected look on Keith’s face, Lance winced sympathetically.

“That bad, huh?”

Keith crossed his arms and shrugged.

“I just don’t seem to be making any progress,” he grumbled.

“Well, it’s only been a few days,” Lance pointed out. “I know you’re a prodigy or whatever, but believe it or not some things take more than an hour to master.”

“I know that,” Keith snapped. “That isn’t the problem.”

“Then what is?”

“I…” Keith wrapped his arms tighter around himself and looked away. “Nothing. Forget it.”

Lance studied him for a moment. With a sigh, he set the scroll aside and patted the mattress in front of him.

“Come here.”

Keith eyed him warily but padded over to the bed. Once he settled in the space between Lance’s knees, Lance coaxed Keith to lean back against the Waterbender’s chest. Long brown arms wound around Keith’s waist and a pointy chin rested on his shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Lance murmured softly.

Keith shrugged somewhat petulantly. The warmth radiating against his back already started to drive away the restlessness in his gut, but he couldn’t yet bring himself to speak.

Lance seemed to accept this and contented himself with simply holding Keith. As the minutes passed, Lance would silently swipe his thumb across the back of Keith’s hand, or reach up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Keith’s ear, or brush his lips against Keith’s shoulder.

Keith felt the tension in his body loosen inch by inch until finally he had all but melted against the other boy and the words tumbled out.

“This is the first time I’ve really spent with my mom.”

Lance didn’t pause the soothing motion of stroking Keith’s hair.

“And I like it, I think,” Keith quietly continued. “We talk, and she’s actually a pretty decent teacher. But...”

“But?” Lance prompted after Keith lapsed back into silence.

“I don’t know,” Keith but his lip. “Part of me wants to awaken my blade soon and impress her, but another part is...scared, I think. It’s dumb, but I feel like once the lessons are over and there’s no more reason for her to stick around, she might leave again.”

Lance tightened his embrace.

“That’s not dumb,” he said firmly.

“It is!” Keith twisted in the Waterbender’s arms to face him. “I shouldn’t hold myself back because I’m afraid of something like that. Even if she did leave, I know I still have you, and Shiro, and everyone else. I don’t even know her that well yet.”

Crystal blue eyes gazed warmly into his own as Lance cupped Keith’s face.

“It’s not dumb,” he repeated. “You’re right. No matter what happens, the rest of us will be there for you. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t still hurt if she left. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know each other very well yet. She’s still your mom.”

Keith shifted and Lance released his face to allow Keith to curl up against Lance’s chest, head tucked under the Waterbender’s chin.

“That being said,” Lance resumed stroking Keith’s hair, “I don’t think you should be afraid of getting to know her more. I know you want to guard your heart, Keith, but I really don’t think she’ll leave. Not again.”

Keith didn’t answer, but slid his arms around Lance’s waist and held tight.

-----

“Dammit!”

A few days later, Keith walked into the library just in time to see Matt pound his fist on the table with enough force to jostle many of the items scattered across the surface. Pidge, Sam, Allura, and Coran barely even flinched, sour looks on each of their faces.

“Uh,” Keith paused as several pairs of eyes met his own, “sorry, is this a bad time?”

Pidge shook her head, her face pinched in an expression identical to her brother’s.

“No,” she sighed, “we’re just frustrated. We thought we finally figured something out, but it turned out to be another dead end.”

“Oh,” Keith walked over to drop into one of the free chairs. “That sucks.”

“We’re so close,” Sam frowned. “I can feel it. We’re just missing the last piece of the puzzle.”

“In this case literally,” Matt muttered.

“What do you mean?” Keith asked.

Pidge waved a tired hand at the mess on the table. “We found a series of ancient legends about the Lions. At first we thought they were just myths and folklore, and some of it is, but as we cross-referenced them with other materials, we discovered that most of the stories appear to be true.”

Keith cocked his head. “That’s great, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Pidge nodded, “except that it’s incomplete. The last scroll is missing, and judging from the contents of the previous scroll, it’s the one we need.”

“Why is it missing?” Keith frowned.

“According to Thace,” Sam said, “these scrolls are copies of a collection from the Royal Library in the Fire Nation Palace. However, the agent who copied them claimed there were only six of the seven scrolls even amongst the originals. We have no idea where the seventh scroll is. We don’t know if the royal family lost it or hid it intentionally, or if they never had it in the first place.”

“And it’s not like we can just go and ask the Fire Lord about it,” Matt added wryly.

Keith hummed and picked up one of the scrolls laid out on the table. It contained both words and illustrations detailing the Lions’ duties and deeds hundreds of years ago.

“These pictures look like the murals we saw back in Uotorī,” Keith noted.

Allura nodded.

“Yes, that’s actually what led us to these scrolls in the first place,” she said. “I told everyone about the murals, which reminded Coran of an ancient legend about the Lions.”

“I couldn’t remember all of the details, I’m afraid,” Coran cut in, “but I did recall reading it many years ago when visiting the Fire Nation for the royal wedding. We looked around and lo and behold, we found these!”

“We were really excited until we realized the last one wasn’t there,” Pidge said.

“I see,” Keith handed the scroll to Pidge who rolled it back up glumbly.

Keith froze.

“You said these were copies, right?” he asked. “How faithful are they to the originals?”

“They should be identical,” Sam answered. “Why?”

“That symbol on the wax seal,” Keith pointed. “I’ve seen it before.”

“You have? Where?” Matt demanded.

“Before I fled the Fire Nation, I lived in the palace for about a month,” Keith explained. “I mainly stayed in my room, but sometimes I would visit the library. Lotor noticed I liked to read and granted me access to his family’s private study. He said there were books there that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world.”

“And that’s where you saw this symbol?”

Keith nodded. “It stood out because it was easily the oldest thing there. It looked like it would crumble into dust if I touched it so I never did.”

“And there was only one?” Sam asked, his eyes alight. “Not a collection of them?”

“Just one,” Keith confirmed.

“That must be the one taken from the library,” Sam mused. “So they did hide it on purpose, which means there’s an even greater chance it’s what we’re looking for.”

“But how are we supposed to get it?” Pidge crossed her arms. “It sounds like the study is sealed off to pretty much everyone.”

“Maybe the Blade can help,” Sam suggested.

Keith nodded, a determined glint in his eyes.

“Let’s go ask Kolivan.”

-----

“Breaking into the royal family’s private study is infinitely more difficult than the palace library,” Kolivan said after they explained the situation, “but not impossible. I will send word to the agents stationed in the palace.”

Almost a week passed before they heard anything. Keith tried to distract himself by training with Krolia, spending time with Lance, and helping out where he could in the library. They continued their research in case they weren’t able to get the scroll, but seemed to have hit a dead end and frustrations ran high.

Finally, Thace dropped by to announce that an agent would arrive that evening, and if all went according to plan they would bring the scroll with them.

Everyone gathered together in the library to wait, the air thick with anticipation.

The door opened and a man walked in. He wore the dark clothing of the Blade, face obscured by a scarf wrapped over his nose and mouth and a hood hanging low over his eyes. He came to a stop in front of their table but didn’t speak.

Keith glanced around at his friends, all of whom seemed at a loss. Swallowing, Keith stood up and took a step closer.

“I’m Avatar Keith,” he said. “I’m guessing you’re the Blade from the palace? Did you get the scroll?”

The man’s shadowed eyes studied Keith for a moment before he reached into his satchel and pulled out an ancient looking roll of parchment.

Relieved, Keith gingerly took it to pass over to Sam.

“Thank you,” Keith said. “I know how dangerous it must have been to get your hands on this. How can we repay you?”

To Keith’s surprise, the man placed his hands on his hips and said in a familiar voice, “Well you can start by explaining why you left the country without so much as a goodbye.”

Keith’s eyes widened. Behind him, he could hear a chair scrape across the floor as Shiro jumped to his feet.

“Adam?” Shiro breathed.

The man lowered his hood and scarf to reveal sandy brown hair and eyes.

Shiro slowly walked over to him, still looking like he couldn’t quite believe what he saw. He stopped in front of the other Firebender and hesitated.

Adam gazed at him before his face softened.

“Hi, Takashi,” he said quietly.

That seemed to break whatever spell had been cast on Shiro, and he threw his arms around Adam, holding him tight.

Keith glanced away to give them a moment of privacy and saw the others do the same. Sam subtly moved to a table further away and the rest followed. Lance shot Keith a questioning look, but Keith shook his head. He wanted to stay and talk to Adam too.

“I missed you so much,” Shiro said in a voice low enough that Keith barely caught it.

“I missed you too,” Adam replied. “I’m still mad at you though. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me what you and Keith were planning. I had to hear about it from Iverson of all people!”

Shiro let out a watery chuckle as he drew away, though he still kept Adam’s hands in his.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to get you involved. It was too dangerous.”

“I don’t care,” Adam huffed. “You and Keith are my family and I wanted to help you. But since you didn’t give me the option, I had to figure out another way.”

“So you joined the Blade?” Keith walked closer. “How did you even find them?”

“Technically, they found me,” Adam shrugged. “And I’m not really an official member yet, since I haven’t taken the Trials.”

“Why don’t we sit down?” Shiro suggested. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

The three Firebenders moved to the now unoccupied table and Adam told his story. Shortly after Keith and Shiro fled the Fire Nation, Lotor had approached Adam.

“He offered me a position on the royal staff,” Adam said. “I knew he just wanted to use my connection to you guys to get information or keep me close in the hopes that Takashi would come back for me, but I couldn’t exactly refuse.”

“Did he hurt you?” Shiro looked like he wanted to go punch Lotor right then and there. Adam smiled and squeezed his hand.

“No,” Adam assured him. “If anything, he was annoyingly polite.”

“So what happened next?” Keith asked.

“Well, let’s just say Lotor wasn’t the only one who wanted answers,” Adam said wryly. “I tried to figure out where you two had gone, but it was difficult with the prince keeping such a close eye on me. I didn’t want to accidently lead him to you, after all. I was almost ready to give up when Thace approached me with an offer.”

“To join the Blade?”

“Apparently they’d been thinking about recruiting me for awhile, and this pushed them into action. They told me that in exchange for my service I would get access to all kinds of resources that could help me find you guys.” Adam shrugged. “Between that and getting to be a spy, it honestly didn’t take that much convincing.”

Keith sent Shiro a sly smirk. His brother frowned.

“What?” Shiro asked warily.

“It’s official,” Keith said. “Your boyfriend is way cooler than you.”

Shiro rolled his eyes but didn’t argue.

Adam chuckled.

“Since then I’ve spent most of my time working in the palace and training for the Blade,” he continued. “Then a few days ago, Kolivan sent me a message asking me to steal that scroll, and told me I wouldn’t be returning to the capital. I thought it was because they wanted me to take the Trials, but I see now it was so I could stay with you two.”

Shiro sighed and rubbed his face.

“I can’t believe I left you behind to keep you safe, and you went and joined a group of assassins,” he muttered.

“You really should have known better,” Adam agreed. He turned to Keith. “Now, what’s this about you being the Avatar?”

-----

Lance bounced his leg up and down impatiently. Since Adam’s appearance two days ago, everyone had been cooped up in the library pouring over the scroll. Lance helped where he could, but research was so boring and Keith was busy catching up with Adam so Lance couldn’t even distract himself by playing with his hair or getting lost in his eyes.

With a huff, the Waterbender sat down on the floor and flopped onto his back for a well-deserved break. His movement caught Kosmo’s attention and the star wolf padding over to lay down next to Lance and place his head on Lance’s chest.

Lance let out a little, “Oof,” of surprise at the sudden weight, and stared into Kosmo’s big yellow eyes. Kosmo blinked back and Lance patted his head.

“That’s it!” Sam shouted, causing Lance and Kosmo to jump.

Everyone quickly hurried over to surround Sam. Lance scrambled up off the floor to join them.

“Did you figure something out?” Allura asked eagerly.

Sam nodded, looking tired but triumphant.

“We were right,” he said. “The seventh scroll contained the clues we were missing.”

“So?” Lance minutely bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. “What did you find?”

Sam turned the scroll around and placed it on the table for everyone to see.

“This,” he said in an almost reverent tone, “is the Black Lion.”

Lance stared at the illustration. It was drawn identical to the other depictions of the Lions except this one was larger, taking up a huge portion of the parchment. Lance didn’t know if it was the stylistic choice of whoever drew it, but the Lion’s fur looked like the night sky speckled with tiny stars.

“Wait, so…” Hunk knit his eyebrows in confusion, “there’s another Lion?”

“Yes and no,” Sam replied. “Are any of you familiar with the legend of the Lions’ origins?”

“Oh,” Lance snapped his fingers, “Coran told us something about that! Didn’t he say they used to be all part of the same entity?”

“Exactly,” Sam nodded. “There are many stories of how the Lions came into being, but our research points to this one as the truth. The Black Lion was incredibly powerful, maybe even the most powerful of all the Spirits. He watched over the world and protected all life. However, as the human population grew and the people began to split into what would become the four nations, the Black Lion found he could not be in all places at once. To better protect us, he split up into four different beings, each sworn to a nation and element.”

“And what does this have to do with why the Lions are disappearing now?” asked Keith.

“Well you see,” Sam rubbed his chin, “while the existence of the Black Lion isn’t common knowledge, it’s not new knowledge either. The very first scroll talks about him and how he became the four Lions.”

“So then what does the last scroll say?” Lance asked. “That’s the one that had all the important clues, right?”

“Correct. The first scroll talks about the Black Lion splitting up into the other four. But the seventh scroll,” Sam’s eyes glittered, “talks about the four Lions merging back together to form the Black Lion.”

Lance’s eyes widened. Looking around, he saw similarly stunned faces.

“They can do that?” Shiro finally broke the silence.

“That’s what the scroll suggests,” Sam nodded. “It’s still frustratingly vague, but combined with all our other research, I’m positive that is what happened during the great calamity hundreds of years ago. To defeat the evil, the four Lions turned into the Black Lion.”

“But the history books say that the Lions were almost destroyed,” Allura pointed out.

“Well,” Pidge crossed her arms, “I guess technically they stopped existing once they became the Black Lion. Maybe that’s what they meant.”

“Don’t forget most information about what happened was intentionally erased,” Keith added with a scowl. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in what the books say.”

Allura frowned but nodded.

“So,” Lance tapped his bottom lip, “do you think the Lions are disappearing because they’re like, combining one by one to form the Black Lion?”

Sam shook his head. “From what I can tell, forming the Black Lion requires all four to be in the same place so they can merge together simultaneously.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Lance noticed Keith and Allura exchange a significant look. Before he could ponder it too much, Sam’s next words sent a chill down Lance’s spine.

“I think,” the professor said grimly, “someone is gathering the Lions so that they can force them to form the Black Lion.”

“But why?” Shiro asked. “Is the Black Lion really that much more powerful than the others?”

“That is part of it,” Sam agreed, “but there’s another reason someone would want to control him. As you all know, it is impossible to turn the Lions against each other, which has prevented the nations’ leaders from using them as weapons of war. However,” Sam’s eyes darkened, “the Black Lion has no such limitations.”

“So then…” Keith trailed off, his face pale.

“If you can control the Black Lion, you can conquer the world.”

Chapter Text

“Zarkon wants to conquer the world?”

Everyone’s eyes snapped to Hunk, who shrugged nervously.

“What? Everyone was thinking it, right? Not just me?”

Keith frowned and crossed his arms.

“Zarkon is the likeliest suspect right now,” he agreed, “but we still don’t have any real proof.”

As much as the Avatar would like to storm the Fire Nation Palace and demand answers, doing so without concrete evidence would just be asking for trouble. The last thing they needed was to give the Fire Lord an excuse to start a war.

“I’ll speak to Kolivan,” Krolia offered. “Although the Blade disapproves of Zarkon’s ideals, he has yet to really act upon them so our presence in the palace has been fairly passive; more general reconnaissance than anything else. However, now that we have a better understanding of the stakes involved and what to look for, perhaps the agents stationed there can do some deeper investigation.”

“That’s a good idea,” Keith nodded. “In the meantime, I think we should contact the Earth Queen.”

Everyone exchanged surprised looks.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Lance asked dubiously. “She didn’t exactly welcome our help last time.”

“I don’t like her either, or even trust her for that matter,” Keith said, “but this is bigger than that. If nothing else, I’d like confirmation that the Green Lion is still safe.”

“So do you wanna just send her a letter?” Lance asked.

“This information isn’t something I would feeling comfortable putting in a letter that could get intercepted,” Keith said.

“Ask the Blade,” Pidge suggested. “We know there are already members stationed there, and I’m sure they’ve got secret codes they could send that would be safe.”

“The Blade is a secret Fire Nation spy organization,” Shiro pointed out. “In order to get the message to Queen Sanda, they would have to explain how they got their information. She would never trust them. Which means,” he swept his gaze over his friends, “one of us will have to go back to Ba Sing Se in person.”

Murmurs filled the air as the group discussed the issue amongst themselves. Finally, Keith rose from his chair.

“It should be me,” Keith decided. “As the Avatar, I have the best chance of getting an audience with her.”

“Sorry, Keith, but I don’t think it’s wise for you to leave the Fire Nation right now,” Shiro disagreed. “Zarkon is still our prime suspect. If he succeeds in forming the Black Lion, we’ll need the Avatar to stop him. Kind of hard to do if you’re halfway across the world.”

“Perhaps I should go,” Allura offered. “Platt is our fastest way of travel, after all.”

“I dunno,” Pidge frowned skeptically. “Platt’s been flying us all over the world for months. Would he be willing to go all the way back to Ba Sing Se now?”

Allura opened her mouth, paused, then shut it with a frown.

“He...might be a bit hesitant,” she admitted.

“I’ll go.”

Everyone turned to look at Hunk.

At their stunned attention, the Earthbender shrugged with a crooked grin.

“What? I’ve been feeling a little homesick anyway. This is the perfect chance to go see my family. After I talk to the Queen of course,” Hunk gulped. “I have to admit, I’m a little scared to face her alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Adam placed a hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “I would be happy to accompany you. If you want, of course.”

“That’d be great,” Hunk nodded eagerly.

Movement out of the corner of his eye caught Keith’s attention and he glanced over to see Shiro shift in his seat. The Firebender’s gaze moved between Adam and Keith, filled with uncertainty.

“Shiro,” Keith said, deciding to put his brother out of his misery, “you should go with them.”

“Are you sure?” Shiro asked.

His voice gave nothing away, but Keith knew his brother well enough to read the subtleties of his expression. He knew Shiro couldn’t stand the idea of parting with Adam so soon after they had finally reunited, but he also knew why Shiro was hesitating.

“I’ll be fine,” Keith said. “I’ve got this.”

Shiro studied him for a long moment before the crease in his brow smoothed away.

“I know you do,” he said. Shiro turned to Hunk and Adam. “Looks like I’ll be tagging along, if that’s alright with you two.”

Hunk nodded and Adam smiled softly.

-----

“Are you sure about this, man?” Lance asked as he watched Hunk bustle around the small room to pack his meager belongings.

He’d always thought Hunk was a lot braver than most people gave him credit for, but Lance was still surprised when the Earthbender volunteered to meet with Queen Sanda.

Hunk nodded, shoving a pair of pants into his bag.

“I think so,” he said. “I mean, I’m gonna miss you guys like crazy, and I really hope I don’t mess up in front of the queen, but…” he shrugged, “it feels like the right thing to do, you know?”

Lance smiled and clapped Hunk on the shoulder. “We’re gonna miss you too, buddy. But I’m sure you’ll do great. Even the Earth Queen’s no match against your puppy dog bear eyes.”

“I do kinda wish you or Pidge were going with me,” Hunk admitted. “It’s gonna be weird without you guys.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Lance nodded. “Us three have been together since before all this even started. But Shiro is an awesome guy, and Adam seems cool too. You’ll be best friends in no time."

Hunk grinned lopsidedly.

“I already have the two best friends in the world,” he said.

“Aw, buddy,” Lance pressed a hand to his chest.

“But,” Hunk continued, “this would be a good opportunity to get to know them both better,” he paused. “I just hope they’re not gross all the time like you and Keith.”

“Hey!” Lance playfully punched Hunk’s arm, and the two friends laughed.

“But seriously, man,” Lance said. “It’ll be fine. I have total confidence in you.”

“Thanks, Lance,” Hunk grinned.

“At least it’ll be nice to be out there doing something,” Lance added, “instead of just sitting around researching or waiting for intel.”

“Maybe you guys will get another lead on the Lions soon.”

“I hope so,” Lance sighed. “The Blade is really cool, but I’m starting to get antsy after being cooped up in here for so long.”

Hunk hummed sympathetically.

“You could come with us,” he suggested, though from his tone he seemed to know Lance’s answer even before the Waterbender shook his head.

“I can’t leave Keith,” Lance replied. “Especially not with Shiro going too. He needs me.”

Lance paused and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Well, ‘need’ might be an exaggeration,” he admitted, “but I like to think he relies on me at least a little.”

“Dude,” Hunk rolled his eyes, “you’re crazy if you think Keith loves you any less than you love him. He’d be a pining mess without you around. And then when Zarkon or whoever’s behind all this shows up, he wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly due to cuddle deprivation and they’d win and the world would be doomed.”

“Keith would never let something like that happen,” Lance chuckled, “but it’s nice to think the power of my cuddles helps keep the world safe. Thanks, Hunk.”

“Any time, buddy.”

-----

The next morning, Shiro, Adam, and Hunk were ready to go. Coran waited at the front of Platt’s saddle as they loaded their things. The sky bison had indeed been adverse to flying all the way back to the Earth Kingdom, so they decided instead to first visit the much closer Western Air Temple, where Coran assured them they could find another Airbender willing to fly them to the Northern Air Temple. There, Romelle would meet them with her own sky bison and take them the rest of the way to Ba Sing Se.

After saying farewell to the others, Shiro turned to Keith and pulled his brother into a hug.

“I love you, Keith,“ he said. “Take care of yourself, alright?”

“You too,” Keith replied. “Try not to get captured this time.”

Shiro chuckled as he stepped back.

“I’ll do my best,” he promised. “And if anything happens here, send word and I’ll come back as quickly as I can. I’m serious,” he added at Keith’s dubious expression, “I’ll steal a sky bison if I have to.”

Keith grinned. “Don’t let Coran hear you say that. But thanks.”

Shiro fondly ruffled his hair and turned to Lance.

“Watch out for Keith while I’m gone,” he said, ignoring Keith’s scoff. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Lance blinked. Although Shiro had spent time with Lance since reuniting with Keith, they still weren’t very close. In fact, Shiro sometimes got the impression that Lance was a bit intimidated by him. He wasn’t really sure why. Shiro could be protective of Keith, but not overly so. He made a mental note to speak to Lance and try to rectify that once he returned.

“Oh, uh, yeah, of course,” Lance flailed his hands. “I mean, uh, you can count on me.”

Shiro gave the Waterbender’s shoulder a reassuring pat. Next to them, Keith seemed to be caught between amused and annoyed.

“I know I can,” Shiro said. “You’re a good man, Lance, and I’m glad you two found each other.”

Lance’s eyes widened a fraction. His nervous demeanor fell away and he stood tall, giving Shiro a firm nod.

With one last wave to his friends, Shiro climbed up into Platt’s saddle to sit next to Adam and watched wistfully as the Blade of Marmora Headquarters shrank below them. A warm hand rested gently on his arm.

“He’ll be alright,” Adam said.

Shiro smiled and placed his hand over Adam’s.

“I know,” he said, “Keith’s always been one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and he’s grown even more so after all he’s been through recently.”

“Keith can take care of himself,” Adam agreed. “But he’ll always need you, Takashi. No matter how strong he gets, you’re still his big brother.”

Blinking, Shiro’s lips quirked into a small grin.

“You still know how to read me, huh?”

Adam smirked and shifted closer to rest his head on Shiro’s shoulder.

“Always.”

-----

Keith felt restless.

After Shiro, Adam, and Hunk left, the remaining group members decided to return to their research while they waited for any word from the Blade agents in the capital.

“We now know why the Lions are disappearing,” Pidge said, “but we still don’t know how. We should also try to find out as much as we can about the Black Lion and how it’s formed. That way, we’ll have a better idea of how to stop it from forming.”

And so, the Holts and Allura holed themselves up in the library once again. Keith and Lance tried to help, but to no one’s surprise they were about as useful as the first time around. It got to the point where they were more in the way than anything else, and the others politely kicked them out.

On one hand, Keith was relieved to be free of the dusty library, but on the other hand he now had no outlet for his nervous energy. The threat of the Black Lion loomed over them, and Keith wanted to jump into action, to save the Lions and the world, but until they had more information, all he could do was wait.

“There’s gotta be something we can do,” Lance huffed.

His boyfriend was sprawled out on the bed, gazing up at the ceiling. Judging by the frown on his face and the way his leg jiggled, Lance was taking the lack of immediate action just as well as Keith.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Keith shrugged and put his book down. He hadn’t really been reading it anyway.

Lance hummed thoughtfully.

“Maybe we could ask the Blade if they need help with any missions?”

Keith rose from his chair and walked the short distance to the bed. Lance scooted over and Keith tucked himself against the Waterbender’s side.

“I doubt Kolivan would let us get involved with any other Blade business,” he replied. “We’re not members, and you’re not even a Firebender.”

Lance pouted.

“Okay, well if we can’t be spies, then...how about pirates?”

“That seems like the next logical step,” Keith agreed with a smirk.

“We’d be the fiercest pirates on the seas,” Lance’s arm squeezed Keith’s waist. “Whoever has the Lions would get so scared, they’d just let them go.”

Keith rested his head on Lance’s chest.

“Which one of us would be the captain?”

“We’d both be captain!”

“I don’t think you can have more than one captain at a time.”

“We can take turns!”

They continued to trade ideas back and forth, each more outlandish than the last.

“What if we just ditched the Blade and snuck into the Fire Nation palace ourselves?” Lance grinned.

Keith raised an eyebrow.

“And how exactly would we get there?” he asked.

“Uhhh,” Lance rubbed his chin, “we could fly with your Airbender staff?”

“It‘s not built for two people.”

“We could borrow a boat from the Blade?”

“The mainland is leagues away from this island,” Keith reminded him. “Even with Waterbending, it would take awhile.”

“I got it!” Lance snapped his fingers. “Use your Avatar powers to summon a dragon and ask it to fly us to the palace.”

“Sure,” Keith snorted. “I’ll get right on that.”

“Excellent,” Lance nodded sagely. “I knew we’d think of something.”

As he idly traced patterns on the front of Lance’s tunic, Keith’s smile slowly faded away.

“Do you think they’ll be alright?” he asked softly.

Though he couldn’t see Lance’s expression, Keith could feel the air become more somber.

“Do you?” asked Lance.

Keith sighed and grounded himself with the steady heartbeat beneath his cheek.

“I think so,” he replied. “I’m mainly worried about how the Earth Queen will react. I don’t think she’s behind the missing Lions, but I don’t trust her either. What if she just throws them all in prison or worse, and we don’t even know until it’s too late?”

“Shiro, Hunk, and Adam are probably the most level-headed people in our group,” Lance said. “They’ll be okay. If anything, I’m more worried about us.”

“Their absence does increase the chances of one of us doing something stupid,” Keith agreed. “Probably you or me.”

“Nah,” he could hear the grin in Lance’s voice. “I promised Shiro I’d watch out for you, remember? My money’s on Pidge.”

-----

Lance’s wish for something new to happen finally came true a few days later when Kolivan gathered everyone in the library.

“We have received word from one of our agents in the palace,” Kolivan said. “They reexamined the royal family’s private study and discovered an entrance to a secret chamber.”

Pidge’s eyes lit up.

“Was it hidden behind a bookcase?” she asked.

“They did not specify,” Kolivan replied flatly.

“What was inside the room?” Keith asked, ignoring Pidge’s pout.

“That’s the interesting part,” Kolivan said. “The room was sealed with some kind of spirit magic. Our agent could not get inside.”

At his words, everyone turned to Allura. She was by far the most knowledgeable about such things.

The Airbender tapped her chin with a hum.

“That is unusual,” she acknowledged. “Such spells are incredibly complex and often not worth the time or resources when there are other ways to keep people out. Only the most dire of circumstances would make up for the lack of efficiency.”

“So whatever they’re hiding, it’s gotta be big,” Lance concluded.

“Big like the missing Lions?” Keith asked, his piercing gaze steady.

“It’s a very real possibility,” Allura nodded.

“We need to know for sure before we can accuse Zarkon,” Keith frowned. “Is there any way we can get in?”

“That’s the problem,” Allura said. “While the spell is taxing, both physically and spiritually, it does have one huge advantage over any other method. It is virtually unbreakable. Only those granted permission can enter.”

“And who decides that?” Keith asked.

“The spellcaster,” Allura answered, “which is without a doubt Queen Honerva. She’s the only one in the Fire Nation with the spiritual power required. She’s just as gifted as I am and twice as experienced.”

“So then what we need is an ally who can gain the queen’s trust,” Keith said. “Someone who can get close enough to her that she’ll let them in on her and Zarkon’s scheme, and, hopefully, grant them access to that room.”

“What about one of the Blades?” Pidge suggested. “Surely at least a couple of them are high ranking.”

Kolivan shook his head. “Queen Honerva keeps everyone at a distance except for her family. We do have one agent in Zarkon’s inner circle, but even for them it could take months to gain that much favor, perhaps even years.”

“So what should we do?” Lance asked.

Everyone turned to Keith, and the Avatar stared down at the floor in thought. Lance watched as his eyebrows slowly knit together, and a feeling of dread pooled in Lance’s stomach. Keith looked up and met his eyes, wary determination shining in his violet irises,

“I have an idea,” Keith said, “but you’re not gonna like it.”

-----

Keith gripped the wooden handles of his red Airbender staff as he glided through the darkness, nothing but the stars and the pale moon to light his way across the sky.

Finally, he spotted the small island they had agreed upon as a meeting place. Keith circled above, alert for any sign of a trap. Seeing nothing suspicious, he shifted his center of gravity and drifted down to land on the sandy shore.

Remaining vigilant, Keith collapsed the wings and twisted the staff into a more defensive position in his hands. Though he wasn’t nearly as good at wielding it as he was with a blade, Allura had shown him some basic moves.

Keith walked across the sand. His heightened awareness made the ocean waves sound almost deafening as he strained to see or listen for another presence on the beach.

Suddenly, Keith sensed someone behind him.

“I did tell you that next time we met, you would come to me of your own volition.”

He whirled around, staff at the ready, and came face to face with Prince Lotor’s familiar charming smile.

“Hello, Keith.”

Chapter Text

“No,” Lance said firmly. “Nuh uh. No way.”

“Lance.”

“No! Are you crazy? We are not asking Lotor for help,” Lance glared.

Keith scowled back.

“I don’t like it either,” he snapped, “but what other choice do we have? You heard Allura, the only way into that room is through the queen, and the only one who has any chance of doing that is Lotor.”

“The guy’s a jerk who tried to force you into marrying him!” Lance threw his hands up in the air. “And now you want to trust him with our mission to save the world? He’ll probably just stab us in the back and use the Lions to conquer the world himself!”

“Lotor is a self-entitled asshole,” Keith said, “but he’s always spoken against his father’s policies regarding the other nations. If he finds out what Zarkon is up to, he’ll want to stop it.”

“You don’t know that!” Lance insisted.

Keith opened his mouth to argue further, but Allura interrupted him.

“I’m against this plan, too,” she said. “Lotor is a rat snake and we cannot trust him.”

Lance nodded emphatically, but Pidge rubbed her chin.

“I dunno,” the Earthbender mused, “I’m kinda with Keith on this one. If we can get Lotor on our side, the benefits outweigh the risks.”

“No,” Lance repeated. “We’ll find another way.”

“There is no other way, Lance,” Keith sighed. “We’re running out of time. We need to find out what’s in that room.”

“But—”

“No,” Keith said firmly. “I’m the Avatar, and I say we ask Lotor.”

Lance and Keith stared each other down for a long moment before Lance turned away and stormed out of the library.

Keith felt a twinge of guilt but shoved it down to focus on the task at hand.

“Okay,” he turned back to Pidge and Allura, “let’s make a plan.”

-----

“Let me get this straight,” Lotor arched an eyebrow. “You believe my parents have been conspiring for over ten years to kidnap the Lion Spirits so that they can force them to form this ‘Black Lion’ and take over the world?”

“Yes,” Keith nodded.

Lotor sighed and tossed his long hair back against the ocean breeze.

“Really, darling,” the prince tutted, “you’ve been spending too much time with your new friends. Alfor’s daughter has been trying to pin the blame for the White Lion on my family for years and now she’s resorted to using you, the poor delusional girl.”

Keith narrowed his eyes at the pet name and the insult to his friend, but held his tongue. Snapping at the prince would be counterproductive to getting what he wanted. For now, at least.

“You really think your father isn’t capable of doing such a thing?”

“Of course he is,” Lotor shrugged. “Fire Lord Zarkon is a heartless cretin who cares more about power than anything else. However,” he added at Keith’s shocked expression, “I have lived in the palace all my life and have never seen so much as a shred of evidence hinting that he might be behind the Lions’ disappearance.”

“Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

“Ah, yes, perhaps I should look into more things I’ve never seen evidence of. For all I know, my father’s been having a torrid affair with Queen Sanda for years,” Lotor rolled his eyes. “Not your best argument, pet.”

Keith pursed his lips and decided to switch tactics.

“Then let me ask you this,” he said. “Have you seen the Red Lion recently?”

“Of course I have. Father never lets him leave his side,” Lotor answered. “I’d say it was overkill, but just look at what happened to the White Lion when Alfor let her off her leash.”

“How dare you!”

Keith and Lotor looked inland to see Allura jump down from the tree she was hiding in and stalk over to them. Keith sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose as Lotor shot him an unimpressed look.

“I was under the impression that you came alone,” he said archly.

“Last time we met you basically tried to kidnap me,” Keith muttered. “I’m not stupid.”

Lotor’s response was lost when Allura suddenly got in his face, jabbing his chest with her finger.

“You have absolutely no right to speak ill of my father,” she spat, “when all evidence points to your parents as the ones behind all of this!”

Lotor sneered down at Allura and brushed her accusing hand away.

“As I said, I’ve yet to see any of this so called evidence.”

“Because Honerva has been using spirit magic to hide it from you and everyone else!”

“Say what you want about my father,” Lotor’s eyes narrowed, “but my mother would never do that.”

“How do you know?” Allura challenged.

“Because she trusts me,” he replied coolly. “If she were truly plotting something of this scale with my father, she would have told me.”

“Then I suppose you know all about the secret room in the royal study?”

Lotor paused.

Allura crossed her arms with a triumphant smirk.

“Oh, so you don’t know about it?” she asked innocently.

Lotor visibly clenched his jaw.

“Enlighten me.”

Allura opened her mouth but Keith stepped in, tired of watching their back and forth.

“That’s actually the main reason we contacted you,” he said.

The prince shot one last glare at Allura, but listened as the Avatar explained the existence of the room.

“And you want me to find out if the Lions are inside?” Lotor said. “You think my mother will let me in if I just ask nicely?”

“I thought you said she trusted you,” Allura mocked.

“She does,” he replied through gritted teeth.

“Then it shouldn’t be a problem for you.”

“Please, Lotor,” Keith interrupted before the prince could retort, “if we’re right, we could save the Lions and bring balance back to the world. And if we’re wrong, then you’ll prove your parents’ innocence. But we won’t know unless you help us.”

Lotor eyed Keith and Allura for a long moment, a calculating glint in his eyes.

“Very well,” he finally said, “I will do this as a favor to you, Keith, and to show you,” he shot a look at Allura, who sneered back, “that my mother has nothing to do with this conspiracy you’ve invented.”

The Airbender rolled her eyes, but Keith nodded.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Of course.”

Before Keith could react, Lotor took his hand and raised it to his lips.

“I shall meet you here in a week’s time with the information,” he murmured against Keith’s knuckles, his eyes unwavering from Keith’s.

Keith scowled and snatched his hand back.

Lotor merely chuckled and turned away to walk to the small boat waiting further down the shore. The prince used a blast of fire to propel the boat out to sea, never looking back.

When the prince was nothing more than a dot in the distance, Keith turned to Allura.

“Do you think we did the right thing?” he asked.

Arms still crossed, Allura hunched her shoulders, lips pressed into a thin line.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “If Lotor betrays us, Zarkon will know without a doubt that we’re onto him, and we’ll lose any element of surprise.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

She sighed and straightened her back. The rising sun gave light to the fierce spark in her eyes.

“Then victory might finally be within reach.”

-----

After flying back to the Blade’s headquarters, Keith returned to his room to find Lance sitting on the floor with Kosmo’s large head on his lap. The sight warmed his heart even as guilt coiled in his stomach. Keith shut the door behind him and leaned back against it.

“Hey,” he greeted softly.

Lance didn’t look up, his attention seemingly absorbed by petting Kosmo’s fur.

“The, uh, the mission went well,” Keith tried again. “Lotor seemed willing to at least give us a chance. We should hear from him in a week.”

Still no response.

“Lance, please,” Keith sighed. “Talk to me.”

“Why?” Lance muttered sullenly. “Are you gonna listen to me this time?”

“That’s not fair,” Keith pursed his lips. “You wouldn’t listen to me either.”

“That’s because there’s no possible situation where allying with Lotor is a good idea.”

“Well I don’t see you coming up with a better solution,” Keith snapped.

“Have you forgotten what Lotor did to you?” Lance demanded. “To us?”

“Of course not, but—”

“He tricked you into a betrothal, imprisoned your brother, and tried to kill the rest of us!”

“I know that—”

“But, gee, I guess I’m the bad guy for worrying that the love of my life wants to trust someone who should definitely not be trusted,” Lance huffed, turning his attention back to Kosmo.

Keith’s eyes softened and he walked over to sit down next to Lance.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said, “but I’m just trying to do what’s best for the mission. I understand why you’re mad at me—”

“I’m not mad at just you,” Lance interrupted with a scowl. “I’m mad at a lot of people. I’m mad at Lotor. I’m mad at Zarkon. I’m mad at my Uncle Baku.” His shoulders slumped as the fight suddenly seemed to leave his body. “I’m mad at myself.”

“Yourself?” Keith hesitantly scooted a little bit closer.

Lance didn’t seem to mind so the Avatar leaned in to bump their shoulders together. Lance closed his eyes with a sigh, dropping his head back against the bed behind them.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a terrible idea and Lotor is gonna betray us all,” Lance reopened his eyes to stare up at the ceiling, “but you’re right, it’s our only option right now. And instead of storming off, I should’ve, I dunno, stayed and tried to help come up with a plan, think of contingencies, that sort of thing. You went off to meet him, put yourself in danger, and I was here, sulking in my room.”

“I was fine, Lance,” Keith said. “Allura was with me.”

“That’s exactly my point!” Lance turned to pin Keith with his desperate gaze. “Allura didn’t agree with you either, but she put her personal feelings aside so that you would have someone there to back you up. I wasn’t able to do that.”

Lance scrubbed a frustrated hand through his already messy brown hair.

“I made a promise, not just to Shiro, but to myself that I would be your support. And yeah, I was mad at you, and thought you were making the wrong decision, but that’s no excuse.”

Lance turned away, his normally bright eyes hard.

“If anything had happened, it would’ve been my fault for not trying harder to talk you out of it, or being there to protect you.”

Keith studied Lance for a moment before he gently nudged Kosmo out of the Waterbender’s lap. The star wolf snuffled in protest but obediently hopped onto the bed to curl up instead. Keith took his place, straddling Lance’s lap, and cupped his boyfriend’s face so their eyes met.

“Lance,” Keith said seriously, “the only reason I could even consider allying with Lotor is because I knew you were there beside me. If anything did go wrong, if he did betray us, I knew we’d still be okay, because I have you.”

Lance looked away again.

“Guess I disappointed you too, then.”

“That’s not true,” Keith shook his head. “We both made mistakes. I should have tried to talk to you again before Allura and I left to meet him. But the important thing is we’re talking now, and going forward we’ll be a united front.”

Lance looked back up at him and Keith tried to convey the earnestness in his gaze.

“I’ll make more of an effort to hear you out when we don’t see eye to eye,” Keith promised, “if you agree to do the same.”

Blue irises studied him, a bit lighter than before.

“Okay,” Lance finally said.

A small smile broke across the Waterbender’s face and he reached up to wrap his arms around Keith’s waist, drawing him closer. Keith returned the smile and leaned down to brush their lips together, releasing an appreciative hum when Lance deepened the kiss.

Keith knew this didn’t fix everything. He and Lance would need to talk more and figure things out, and there were sure to be more disagreements, especially if Lotor continued to be involved.

But right now, held securely in the safety of Lance’s arms, Keith felt like they could handle anything the future threw at them.

-----

Lotor inwardly seethed as he stalked through the Fire Nation palace.

How dare that girl accuse his mother of such heinous machinations. It was one thing when she kept pointing fingers at Zarkon; Lotor had no love lost for his father and could easily believe the Fire Lord would kidnap another nation’s Lion in his quest for power.

But Honerva was nothing like Zarkon. She was an Airbender, and had raised Lotor to respect all life, especially the spirits.

Alfor’s daughter was clearly wrong, and Lotor would prove it.

Lotor stopped in front of the door to his mother’s private study and stopped to take a breath and try to calm down. Vexed as he was, the trip hadn’t been a total disaster. Keith looked as radiant as ever and had acted much more civil to the prince than he had in a long time.

Perhaps once he found out what was really in his mother’s secret room, Lotor could still use this opportunity to get back into Keith’s good graces and finally show him that marrying the future Fire Lord was his best prospect for the future.

Certainly better than some no-name Water Tribesman.

Lotor knocked on the door and entered at the answering, “Come in.”

“Mother,” he greeted.

Honerva looked up from her research and smiled.

“My son,” she rested her palm against his cheek. “It’s rare for you to come visit me. Something on your mind?”

Lotor arched an eyebrow.

“I visit.”

“Not often, as of late,” Honerva gave his cheek a fond pat and turned back to her work. “You’ve been too busy sulking ever since you returned from your little excursion in Ba Sing Se.”

Lotor flushed.

“I would hardly call it sulking,” he protested.

“Well, no matter. You seem to be over it now. Have you finally given up on that boy? It’s for the best,” she added before Lotor could reply, her eyes still skimming the text of the scroll. “He was an excellent warrior, but had little else to his name. Your father and I accepted your marriage because you seemed so adamant, but perhaps now you can court someone of higher status. Someone who would benefit the Fire Nation.”

Lotor considered telling his mother that Keith was the Avatar and therefore had the highest status possible, but decided against it. Once he won Keith’s heart, they would surprise his parents with the news together.

“Perhaps,” he said in the hopes that would appease her and be the end of it. “However, that is not why I wanted to speak with you.”

“Of course not,” she smiled. “What is it, Lotor?”

Lotor hesitated. Almost immediately, he shook himself out of it. Staring back at his mother’s fond gaze, the prince felt a renewed conviction that she was innocent.

“I was in the family study, researching,” he said, “and I stumbled across something odd.”

“Oh?” Honerva looked at him curiously, her gaze showing no signs of anything amiss.

“Yes,” he nodded. “Kova was with me and knocked over Grandfather’s painting. I went to put it back and sensed some kind of spiritual energy emanating from the wall behind it.”

It wasn’t a total lie. Though Honerva’s pet lemur cat was not present, Lotor did investigate the study to see if Keith’s claims had merit in the first place. Though his spiritual abilities were limited, Lotor was able to just barely make out the magic aura when he removed the portrait.

Honerva briefly studied her son and turned back to her reading.

“You needn’t concern yourself with that, Lotor,” she said.

“Then you know what it is?” Lotor asked as an unsettled feeling rose in his gut.

“If you really must know, it’s where I do certain experiments,” Honerva sighed. “Ones that must be kept from the public eye as a matter of national security.”

“I see,” Lotor frowned. Honerva still wasn’t looking at him. “Might I see this...private research lab of yours?”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” she said shortly.

“Why not?”

Honerva finally glanced up to meet Lotor’s eyes with a sharp look.

“Because I said so,” she snapped, “and I am both your mother and your queen.”

Lotor stared in shock. He couldn’t remember the last time she had denied him anything and she certainly never lashed out at him.

Honerva’s face softened and she rose from her chair to cup Lotor’s cheek.

“Forgive me, my son,” she said. “I merely want what’s best for you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Please believe me when I say you should not step inside that room. It’s too dangerous.”

Lotor’s gaze flitted back and forth between his mother’s own familiar eyes and he saw her love for him, her fondness, and her fear.

“I understand, Mother.”

-----

Allura knocked on Keith and Lance’s bedroom room door and poked her head inside.

“Keith? Would you mind if I spoke with you for a moment?”

Keith looked up from where he and Lance were huddled together on the small sofa, a scroll spread out across their laps. He nodded and untangled himself from the Waterbender, assuaging Lance’s pout with a quick peck on his forehead.

Allura hid a smile. She was glad they seemed to have made up. As much as she enjoyed teasing the couple with the rest of their friends, Allura found their relationship rather sweet.

But she knew Keith was still a bit self-conscious about public displays of affection, so Allura kindly ignored his blush and led him down the hall to her own room.

Once they’d settled on the sofa identical to the one Keith had just occupied, Allura bit her lip.

“Keith,” she said, “I wanted to apologize.”

The Avatar stared at her blankly. “What for?”

“I went against the plan and revealed myself to Lotor,” she frowned. “I let my anger get the best of me. I’m sorry.”

Keith, however, shook his head.

“Allura, I’m not upset about that,” he said. “It honestly never even occurred to me to be. Your response was totally understandable.”

“I could have compromised the mission,” she fiddled with the ends of a long lock of hair. “Lotor might have taken one look at me and left without hearing us out.”

“But he didn’t,” Keith replied. “Everything turned out fine. Besides, it would be kinda hypocritical of me to reprimand someone for losing their temper around Lotor.”

“You have a point,” she and Keith shared a chuckle. “Still, I couldn’t help myself. For years, I’ve heard people speak ill of my father even though I know firsthand how hard he works and how much he loves his people. Hearing that from Zarkon’s son...I snapped.”

Ever since he started those rumors, Allura had wanted nothing more than to storm right up to Zarkon and throw all of his accusations back in his face. Lotor had seemed like an ideal substitute at the time, but afterwards she had felt only more bitterness.

Keith hummed sympathetically and placed his hand over hers.

“I’m sorry for what you and your family have been through,” he said. “But it’ll all be over soon. We’ll find the Lions and uncover the real culprit behind all of this, and then your father’s name will be cleared.”

His words washed away Allura’s self doubt and filled her with renewed purpose.

“Thank you, Keith.”

Allura squeezed his hand and smiled. In the time since she had met him, Keith had become a good friend and a strong leader. He was still learning, and still made mistakes from time to time, but Allura was confident that he would be an excellent Avatar someday.

-----

A few days later, Keith and Allura once again flew to the small island under the cover of moonlight.

Keith quickly spotted a familiar figure waiting on the shore below. He and Allura gracefully landed in front of the prince, the Airbender not bothering to hide this time.

“Lotor,” Keith greeted. “You found something?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Lotor replied. “I talked to my mother and confirmed the existence of her secret room. She claims it’s a research lab for more confidential experiments.”

Allura snorted but Lotor thankfully ignored her.

“What kind of experiments, exactly?” Keith narrowed his eyes.

“I cannot say,” Lotor admitted. “She refused to grant me access.”

“And you can’t convince her?” Keith frowned. “Maybe if you tried another angle? Insisted that as the future Fire Lord you’d need to know.”

“Believe me, I know my mother,” Lotor said. “Once she decides something, that’s the end of it. However, I thought of something else we could try.”

“What’s that?” Keith asked warily.

To his surprise, Lotor turned to Allura.

“It’s true that a sealing spell is unbreakable,” he said. “But there is one thing that might be able to trick it into thinking a person is the caster. Blood.”

Allura’s eyes widened. “You know spirit magic?”

“My mother taught me,” he nodded. “My own spiritual powers are limited, but I’m well-versed in the subject. A sealing spell uses the caster’s blood as an anchor to support it and to identify its master. Honerva’s blood runs through my veins, and with some finessing, it might mistake me for her. Theoretically, I think it could work.”

Keith turned to Allura in question. The Airbender held her chin as she stared down at the sand.

“It might be possible,” she said hesitantly. “But you would need additional magic to hinder the spell’s other safeguards.”

“Yes,” Lotor nodded. “Which is why I wanted to speak with you. As much as I hate to admit it, you are one of the best users of spiritual magic in the world. I hoped that you could give me some kind of sigil or instruction.”

Allura, however, shook her head grimly.

“I’m afraid that won’t do,” she said. “Sealing spells are incredibly powerful and complex. To trick one as you’re suggesting will require a level of intricacy and sheer spiritual strength you do not possess.” She looked up at them with steely determination. “I’ll have to go with you.”

Lotor sighed. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

Keith was a little more upset.

“Hold on,” he said. “You want to go to the Fire Nation Palace? Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to avoid?”

“We haven’t stormed the palace because we don’t want to start a war,” Allura replied. “But I’m suggesting a covert operation. I’m sure Lotor can sneak me in with none the wiser, and we’ll be back before the Fire Lord even knows I was there.”

“I don’t know,” Keith said dubiously.

“I’m just as against this as you are,” Lotor cut in, “but it seems like the best option we have right now. If you’re still determined to get into that room, anyway.”

Keith looked at Allura who gave him a firm nod. The Avatar took a deep breath.

“Okay,” he turned to Lotor and jabbed a warning finger at him, “but if anything happens to her, you’ll have to deal with me, and my Avatar training has come a long way since we last fought.”

“I’m sure it has,” Lotor smiled. “Don’t worry, darling, I’ll take good care of you little friend.”

Keith eyed him and moved closer to Allura.

“If anything happens, just hang tight and we’ll come get you, war or not.”

Allura smiled.

“I hope that won’t be necessary, but thank you, Keith,” she said. “We’ll meet you back here tomorrow night.”

Keith nodded and Allura followed Lotor to his boat. The Avatar watched as the two sailed away, anxiety swirling inside of him.

“Good luck, Allura,” he said softly.

The Avatar uncollapsed his Airbender staff and rode the currents into the sky.

His friends were not gonna like this.

-----

The journey to the palace was silent, which suited Lotor just fine. He didn’t particularly care to engage in small talk in the first place, and it didn’t help that Allura kept shooting sour glances his way.

It did make the trip rather boring though, and he was glad when they finally made it to the capital a few hours later. The streets were still mostly empty, but as dawn broke over the horizon, more and more people began to leave their houses to start the day.

Lotor glanced at the rising sun and back down at Allura. Wordlessly, he unclasped his cloak and held it out.

Allura eyed it like it was a venomous tarantula viper rather than an article of clothing.

“What?” she asked.

Lotor resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“We will reach the palace in less than an hour and no longer have the cover of night,” he said. “I don’t want to have to explain to anyone why I’m sneaking around with Alfor’s daughter.”

Allura’s lip curled but she accepted the garment and slipped it on, her displeased expression worsening when Lotor reached out to adjust the angle of the cloak’s hood.

Satisfied that her Airbender clothes and white hair were sufficiently covered, he confidently led the way to the palace. They soon arrived, as predicted, and wound through the halls. Any servants who glanced curiously at the prince and his mysterious guest quickly averted their eyes at his sharp gaze.

After checking to make sure it was empty, Lotor held the royal study’s door open for Allura with a mocking bow. The Airbender rolled her eyes and walked past him.

“This is it,” he took his grandfather’s painting from the wall and set it aside.

Allura examined the empty space, her eyes bright with concentration.

“Yes, I can feel it,” she said. “I’ve never seen a spell of this magnitude in person before. It’s quite fascinating.”

“Can you get around it?”

“I think so.”

Allura looked around the study and picked up a gold letter opener from the writing desk. She held out her hand expectantly.

Lotor arched an eyebrow and placed his hand in hers. Allura turned it over and used the letter opener to prick his thumb.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Lotor snapped, snatching his hand back.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Allura rolled her eyes. “That was barely a papercut. You’re the one who suggested using your blood.”

“A little warning would have been nice,” he muttered.

Allura ignored him and turned back to the wall. Closing her eyes, she raised the small blade and held her other hand over it. After a moment, the drop of blood on the tip began to glow and floated off the blade. Allura guided it to the wall, and when it touched the seal, an elaborate sigil materialized.

“...Is that it?” Lotor asked after a few seconds of silence. “Did you do it?”

Allura’s eyebrows furrowed, though she didn’t open her eyes.

“Not yet,” she replied. “This spell is complicated. I have to work through the layers.”

“Alright, but do hurry,” Lotor glanced behind them at the door.

“This is delicate work,” she said through gritted teeth. “Rushing could quite literally blow up in our faces.”

“Ah,” Lotor paused. “Do take your time then. I’ll guard the door.”

The prince retreated back to the entrance and cracked the door open to peek out. The hallway was still empty, though that was hardly surprising. The royal study was located near the Fire Lord’s chambers after all, and Zarkon valued his privacy.

Lotor wasn’t too worried about random servants spotting them, and both his parents were busy with their own duties, but he still felt the creeping sensation that he was being watched. 

Dismissing it as paranoia, he moved to close the door when a flash of movement caught Lotor’s eye. He looked up and locked eyes with Kova, his mother’s pet lemur cat, perched on one of the ceiling rafters.

Lotor froze. Kova blinked down at him before turning around and disappearing into the shadows. The prince snapped out of his stupor and shut the door with a curse. He locked it too, for good measure. His parents both had keys, but it would at least buy them a few more seconds.

“I don’t suppose you’re almost done?” he asked, returning to the Airbender’s side.

“About halfway there,” Allura said. “Why?”

“We may have company soon,” he grimaced. “So I suggest you work as fast as you can without getting us killed.”

Allura’s lips thinned and her hands began to glow brighter.

A few more minutes passed in tense silence before the door handle suddenly jiggled, followed by a sharp knock.

“Lotor?” Honerva voice called. “I know you’re in there. Open this door immediately.”

“We’re out of time,” Lotor muttered.

“I still need a few more minutes,” Allura said as sweat beaded on her brow.

Lotor heard the telltale sound of a key turning the lock. He flew across the room and grabbed the edge of the door before it could open too far, using his body to block his mother’s view.

“Mother,” he greeted. “Is something the matter?”

Honerva eyed him suspiciously.

“Why didn’t you answer me a moment ago?” she asked. “And why was this door locked?”

“My apologies,” he replied, “I was caught up in a text on the siege of the Earth Kingdom colonies, and didn’t hear you.”

His mother narrowed her eyes.

“And the lock?”

“Ah,” Lotor glanced away, allowing a faint look of embarrassment to cross his features. “Dayak has been on the warpath ever since I skipped an etiquette lesson last week.”

To his relief, amusement replaced the doubt on Honerva’s face.

“Stunts like that are exactly why Dayak insists you still need those lessons,” she said.

“You may be right,” Lotor chuckled.

“I’ll leave you to your reading, but you must promise to stop hiding and apologize to Dayak tomorrow,” Honerva tapped Lotor on the cheek, equal parts fond and chastising. “She just wants you to be a great Fire Lord, as do I.”

“Of course, Mother.”

Honerva smiled and turned to leave. Just as Lotor started to relax, a loud yowl resonated  from behind him.

Lotor’s head whipped around to see Kova standing at Allura’s feet, hissing and screeching at the Airbender. He must have slipped in past Lotor while he was distracted with his mother.

Lotor turned back to Honerva and his stomach plummeted at her dark expression.

“Move aside, Lotor.”

“Mother, please—”

The prince stumbled back as a gust of wind shoved him away from the door. Honerva stalked into the study and her eyes locked onto Allura, who was still trying to break the barrier.

With a thunderous expression, the queen whistled sharply. Kova leapt at Allura, fangs and claws bared. The younger Airbender cried out in pain as the lemur cat latched onto her leg, and she tore herself away from the wall to fend off the attack.

The glowing sigil flashed briefly and then disappeared.

“No!” Allura cursed and held up her hands again. When nothing happened, she balled them into fists with a growl.

Job done, Kova returned to his mistress’ side and jumped up to perch on Honerva’s shoulder. The queen ran a hand down his back, his pleased purr starkly juxtaposed against the harsh shadows in her eyes.

“How dare you,” she said lowly, “trespass into my home.”

“Mother,” Lotor started, but Allura quickly cut him off.

“How dare I?” she repeated incredulously. “You are the one who betrayed us, your own people, by taking the White Lion!”

“Of course that’s why you’re here,” Honerva’s lip curled. “Are you so desperate that you’ve even led my son astray with your lies?”

“They’re not lies,” Allura spat. “The Lions are here, I know it!”

Honerva turned her gaze to her son.

“Lotor,” she said, “I don’t know what she said or did to trick you into helping her, but it ends now. Surely you can see the girl’s delusional.”

Lotor looked from his mother’s cool eyes to Allura’s wild ones.

“I do want to believe you, Mother,” he said, “but you cannot deny that your secrecy on this matter is...concerning.”

“It is necessary,” she corrected. “That room is dangerous. But I assure you, the Lions are not in there.”

“Then please,” Lotor said, “just show me what’s inside. Whatever it is, surely it would at least prove that you and Father did not kidnap the Lions.”

“I cannot do that.”

“Why not?”

“Lotor,” she warned. “Enough.”

“No, I refuse to let this go until you give me some kind of explanation,” he said. “Why won’t you just tell me?”

“I am trying to protect you.”

“From what?” he demanded.

Suddenly, the door slammed open and a large figure stepped into the study. The three occupants froze as a deep voice rumbled through the air.

“What is going on here?”

When no one answered immediately, Fire Lord Zarkon swept his gaze over the room, taking in Honerva’s frown, Allura’s wide eyes, and Lotor’s pale complexion. He slowly walked further into the study, the Red Lion a silent shadow behind him, and came to a halt in front of the blank space where the portrait used to be.

“So,” he turned to Lotor, “you’ve finally betrayed me.”

Lotor’s stomach plummeted once again.

“No,” he protested, “that’s not—”

“You brought someone who has actively worked against our family into our home, into your mother’s most secret location, and you expect me to believe this is anything but treason?”

“I,” Lotor swallowed dryly, “if you’d just let me explain—”

Zarkon stared down at Lotor, unflinching.

“You’ve spoken out against me for far too long,” he said. “I showed you mercy for your mother’s sake, but this act of treachery is the final straw, Lotor. I hereby strip you of your title and banish you from the Fire Nation.”

Ice gripped Lotor’s heart. Zarkon had punished him for rebelling in the past, and had even threatened to disown him multiple times, but he had never followed through.

Looking into the Fire Lord’s cold eyes, Lotor realized that this time was different.

The prince took a shaky breath and turned to Honerva.

“Mother, please,” he said, “you can’t let him do this.”

The queen looked at her son and her closed off expression shattered his last modicum of hope.

“I told you to forget about that room,” she said quietly. “I told you it was dangerous. I cannot protect you now.”

She turned away and Lotor’s heart sank further still. He took a step toward her, hand outstretched, but before he could say anything, Zarkon spoke.

“Be thankful your punishment isn’t execution,” he said. “Now get out of my sight before I change my mind.”

Lotor felt numb as he stared between them. Honerva still refused to look at him, and Zarkon’s stoic demeanor didn’t falter. He knew he should do something, protest, fight, beg, anything, but his mind was blank.

Firm but surprisingly gentle hands ushered the prince out of the room, but Lotor barely noticed. His eyes remained glued to what little he could see of his mother’s face until the study door slammed shut, blocking his line of sight.

Lotor stopped and the hands tugged more insistently.

“I’m sorry, but we have to go,” Allura urged. “He’ll call the guards soon, and you can’t do anything if you’re in prison or dead.”

Wordlessly, Lotor allowed her to pull him down the hall and away from everything he had ever known.

-----

Keith paced nervously as he waited on the beach. He’d had a bad feeling ever since Allura left with the prince and their being late wasn’t doing anything to abate it.

Finally, a familiar boat appeared on the horizon, carrying the two white-haired benders to shore. Keith let out a relieved breath as Allura hopped out of the boat.

“There you are,” he said, “I was getting worried. What took you?”

The Avatar paused, finally noticing Allura’s pinched expression and the way Lotor stayed huddled in the boat.

“Did something happen?” Keith asked. The feeling of dread in his stomach grew.

Allura straightened her shoulders and faced Keith with dark eyes.

“We have a problem.”

Chapter Text

“So what do we do now?” Lance asked.

They were all gathered together in the common room of a moderately sized house. When Keith returned to the Blade’s headquarters with news about what had happened, the spy group was understandably reluctant to let Lotor anywhere near their base. Instead, they had given Keith and his friends temporary ownership of one of their many safe houses. It was located on an island much closer to the mainland, but still remote enough that they didn’t have to worry too much about the banished prince being spotted.

Said prince currently sat slumped against the wall a little ways away from everyone else, his face stoic as he stared out the open paper doors at the setting sun.

For the most part they all tried to ignore him, but Keith noticed that everyone, including himself, would glance over every now and then with varying levels of curiosity and animosity. Lance in particular kept shooting the prince looks of narrow-eyed suspicion.

“Keith?”

Keith tore his gaze away from where it had drifted to Lotor to look back at Lance.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Keith crossed his arms. “We confront Zarkon.”

Lance’s eyebrows knit together.

“Look, I’m as sick of waiting around as you are,” he said, “but we still don’t have proof Zarkon has the Lions. Allura wasn’t able to get into the room.”

“What else could they possibly be hiding in there?” Keith demanded.

“I don’t know. But Keith,” Lance shook his head, “we have to be smart about this. With Hunk, Shiro, and Adam gone, our group is smaller than ever. Zarkon has an entire army. If we just barge in, we’ll be easily overpowered.”

As much as Keith hated to admit it, Lance had a point. Although the Blade offered what help they could with gathering information, Kolivan outright refused to get involved in a coup that could throw the Fire Nation into chaos until he had indisputable proof that Zarkon was behind everything. For the time being, they couldn’t rely on them for numbers.

“Even if we got past Zarkon’s defenses, what then?” Lance continued. “We still can’t get into the secret room, right?”

“Allura can get us in. She almost broke the seal before Honerva showed up,” Keith glanced over at the Airbender in question. “Right?”

“Yes, but that was when we had the element of surprise,” Allura bit her lip. “I’ve no doubt Honerva and Zarkon will increase their security now, and in order to break the seal, I’ll need at least half an hour to work without interruption.”

“Kinda hard with guards swarming the place,” Lance added.

“Well then, we’ll figure out another way,” Keith said, “but we have to get into that room.”

The group lapsed into silence for a long moment as everyone tried to think up a plan. Finally, Pidge spoke up.

“There’s something that’s been bothering me,” she turned to Allura. “Why did Zarkon just let you guys go? I mean, I know he banished Lotor, and I’m obviously glad you’re not in prison or dead, but I don’t get it.”

Allura frowned and looked at Lotor, prompting everyone else to follow suit.

Under the weight of their stares, Lotor sighed but didn’t lift his head from where it leaned against the wall.

“I imagine he didn’t consider either of us a real threat,” he drawled. “Even if we went and told the whole world about their secret laboratory, who would listen? Few of consequence would believe Alfor’s daughter, who’s held a known grudge against my family for years, and even fewer would believe a disgraced prince.”

The others exchanged grim expressions.

“But Keith is the Avatar,” Pidge pointed out. “People would believe him if he backs up your claim.”

“Perhaps,” Lotor shrugged one shoulder, “but my parents don’t know that, do they?”

“You never told them?” Keith asked, surprised. He thought for sure that his identity had been blown after their fight in Ba Sing Se.

“No,” Lotor said, “but I imagine it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out. Rumors of the Avatar have already spread across the capital. Keith isn’t an uncommon name, but given our history and your quest to find the Lions, I’m sure my mother will make the connection.”

Keith hummed. “So if I corroborate with what Allura says, people will believe us?”

“They might, but what would you tell them? As the Waterbender pointed out,” his eyes finally moved from the horizon to stare back listlessly at his audience, “it’s not as if we saw the Lions. Saying the Fire Lord has a secret room but we have no idea what’s inside is hardly a call to arms.”

“There’s also the question of who we could tell that would be useful,” Pidge added sourly. “The Blade already turned us down, Queen Sanda’s not likely to help either, and the Air Nomads are pacifists so they’re not about to storm the palace with us, no offense Allura. The Water Tribe might be willing to send support, but it could take weeks for them to get here.”

Keith sighed and dropped his head into his hands. As he rubbed his temples, the familiar warmth of Lance’s hand rested on Keith’s back.

“We’ll figure it out,” Lance said. “We always do. For now, let’s send a message to the North Pole. The sooner Chief Luxia sends backup, the better. We should probably also write to Hunk and Shiro to update them, and while we wait for a reply, we’ll keep thinking of a plan.”

“Yeah, okay,” Keith took a deep breath and straightened back up. “I just hope they’re having more luck than we are.”

-----

Hunk hadn’t been sure what to expect when he set off with Shiro and Adam, but so far he was having a pretty good time. He loved Lance, Pidge, and Keith like crazy, but all three of them seemed to thrive on chaos of some sort, and it was nice to have a break from that.

It was a little awkward at first. Adam was basically a stranger, and Hunk and Shiro weren’t super close either, plus Hunk wanted to give Shiro and Adam some space to get reacquainted after being separated for so long.

However, the two Firebenders made an effort to include Hunk in most conversations, and they all became friends surprisingly quickly.

Hunk already knew that Shiro was competent and a good leader from their time traveling together, but over the last few weeks he also discovered a dorkier side to Shiro that made him seem less intimidating and more human.

Adam was a little harder to get a read on, but proved himself to be level-headed and reliable, and Hunk felt relieved to no longer be the sole voice of reason in the group. Adam also had an odd sense of humor that would probably resonate with Pidge.

Overall, Hunk was glad to have their company, even if they did tease him when they met up with Romelle at the Northern Air Temple.

“We should cross the Earth Kingdom’s border in about an hour,” Romelle informed them from her perch at the front of the sky bison’s saddle. “From there it should only take a few more days to reach Ba Sing Se.”

Romelle’s long blonde hair flowed behind her like a golden curtain of silk, and the sunlight made her purple eyes sparkle.

Fighting a small blush, Hunk thanked her and turned back to where Shiro and Adam sat across from him. They both wore sly smiles that reminded Hunk a little too much of Lance, and Hunk hastened to divert their attention.

“So I realize it’s kinda dumb that I haven’t asked this until now, but how exactly are we gonna get an audience with the Earth Queen?” Hunk readjusted his headband against the wind. “Are you just gonna tell her you’re the Avatar’s brother, or…?”

“We could try that,” Shiro answered, “but based on how Keith described their last interaction, I doubt she’d be willing to see me.”

“Then what’s the plan? Please don’t tell me we’re gonna sneak in. Stealth is not my strong suit.”

The two Firebenders exchanged glances.

“Actually,” Shiro said slowly, “Adam’s going to get us in.”

Hunk blinked. “Really? Are you gonna use one of your Blade contacts?”

“I wish it were that easy,” Adam grimaced. “But no, Queen Sanda is notoriously strict about who gets to see her. The Blade has agents planted in the palace, but none of them are high ranking enough to have that much pull.”

“So what are you gonna do?”

Adam sighed and Shiro rubbed a soothing hand up and down his arm. Hunk’s curiosity grew.

“Have you ever heard of the Winterstone family?”

Hunk nodded. “Of course.”

The Winterstone clan was famous across the Earth Kingdom for pioneering all sorts of businesses in different areas of industry. They weren’t nobility, but they had something of perhaps even greater influence.

Money.

“The current matriarch, Mira Winterstone,” Adam said, “is my grandmother.”

“Wha...really?” Hunk gaped. “But you’re a Firebender! Uh...no offense.”

“None taken,” Adam chuckled. “It’s kind of a long story, but the Winterstone clan has lived in Ba Sing Se since the city was founded, and they’re quite proud of that fact. Loyal to the Earth Kingdom until the end. So it was a pretty big scandal when my dad eloped with a commoner from the Fire Nation.”

“Woah,” Hunk breathed. Despite his claims that Lance was the gossip, Hunk found himself leaning closer to Adam, eager for more juicy details. “Your grandma must have been upset.”

“She immediately disowned him, so yeah, you could say that,” he replied wryly. “My dad didn’t care though. He was never really happy growing up, and he and my mom loved each other. They made do.”

Hunk frowned thoughtfully. “But wait, if your dad was disowned, will you be able to ask the family for a favor? That’s where you were going with this, right?”

Adam nodded.

“He may have ‘disgraced’ the family name, but my dad was Mira’s only child,” Adam’s lips twisted in distaste. “Blood is important to the Winterstones, even if it’s tainted.”

“Stop that,” Shiro cut in, the scowl on his face unfamiliar to Hunk. “You’re not tainted. That way of thinking is outdated and just plain wrong. Plenty of people court and marry people from other nations.”

Adam’s eyes softened.

“I know,” he assured Shiro, squeezing his hand. “Thank you, Takashi. But,” he added lightly, “you know you can’t say anything like that in front of them or this plan won’t work.”

Shiro’s shoulders slumped and Hunk glanced between them.

“And the plan is...what exactly?”

Adam turned back to Hunk.

“I might be half Fire Nation, but I’m still a Winterstone,” he said. “If I can get on Mira’s good side, she might be willing to set up a meeting with the queen.”

“Sanda might not grant the Avatar’s brother an audience,” Shiro said, “but she’ll welcome a Winterstone into her throne room with open arms.”

Hunk frowned. “But will your grandma do that? It doesn’t sound like she’ll just do what we want without asking for something in return.”

“We’ll probably owe her some kind of favor,” Shiro nodded grimly.

“I’ll do what I have to,” Adam said. “Even if that means kowtowing to my bigoted grandmother, it’s worth it if it helps us find the Lions.”

He leaned against Shiro’s side with a sigh. Shiro looped a supportive arm around Adam’s shoulders.

Hunk hummed. Almost subconsciously, his eyes wandered over to Romelle who still sat up front, oblivious to their conversation. Hunk had never really thought much about the politics and prejudices of the upper class. His family wasn’t poor by any means, but they weren’t rich either, and most of Hunk’s experience with that sort of lifestyle came from his friendship with Lance, whose family seemed pretty down to earth for royalty.

Hunk’s parents had always told him that they didn’t care who he loved as long as he was happy, and hearing about Adam’s past and seeing his trepidation about visiting a family that viewed him as lesser for his mixed blood, Hunk was more grateful than ever.

As if sensing his gaze, Romelle turned her head and shot him a grin.

Hunk smiled back, and if anyone asked, he would blame his pink cheeks on the cold wind.

-----

From the moment it became clear that Lotor would join their group, Lance had been on edge. He was certain that this was all some elaborate ruse to get past their defenses, gain their trust, and then stab them in the back. He expected Lotor to saunter around and worm his way onto everyone’s good side, and Lance was fully prepared to intervene at the first hint of trouble.

However, as far as Lance could tell, the prince didn’t even talk to anyone unless asked a direct question. He just sat around and brooded like a moody teenager, eyes unfocused as he stared into the distance at something only he could see.

It was kind of pathetic.

Still, Lance wasn’t about to let his guard down. For all he knew, this was part of Lotor’s plan, a way to gain sympathy from them and make them forget he was a threat. Such an undignified tactic didn’t really fit Lance’s image of the prince, but then again neither did the moping.

Of course, Lance wasn’t the only one suspicious. When they decided to let the prince stay with them, the group first agreed on some ground rules.

First, they made sure Keith was never alone with Lotor. The Avatar had grumbled, insisting that he could take care of himself, but Lance was adamant. The last thing they wanted was for Lotor to grab Keith when they weren’t looking and disappear.

Second, while they didn’t keep Lotor confined to his room, they still kept a close eye on him, taking shifts so that he wasn’t left to his own devices to potentially brew up trouble.

It was necessary, and Lance stood by it, but it also meant that Lance had been sitting in the same room as Lotor for over an hour, silently burning a hole into the back of the prince’s skull as said prince ignored him.

“Would you stop that?” Lotor suddenly asked.

Startled, Lance froze and squinted at the prince.

“Stop what?”

“That incessant tapping,” the prince turned his head just enough to glare at Lance out of the corner of his eye. “You’ve been doing it for ten minutes straight and I can’t hear myself think.”

Lance blinked and realized he’d been subconsciously drumming his fingers against the table.

He looked Lotor dead in the eye and resumed tapping.

The prince scoffed and turned away to stare out the window again.

“How immature,” he muttered under his breath. “Don’t know what Keith sees in you.”

Lance’s fingers stilled and he clenched his hand into a fist.

“Excuse me?” he said incredulously. “Uh, I’m not the one sitting around pouting all day because mommy and daddy kicked me out.”

“I hardly think you’re qualified to judge me,” Lotor growled. “I’ve been here less than a week, but I’ve already got your little group figured out. Keith is the Avatar, Alfor’s daughter is a master of Airbending and Spirit magic, and even that short Earthbender girl is highly intelligent. You, on the other hand, I’ve yet to see prove useful.”

Fire burned deep in Lance’s stomach as the prince’s words fanned the flames of his insecurities, but no way was Lance going to let Lotor see any sign of weakness.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Lance said, “but my friends rely on me a lot. Keith relies on me.”

Lotor rolled his eyes and turned away dismissively.

“Oh, please,” Lotor said. “You hold him back, and you know it.”

Face flushed with anger, Lance snapped, “Well, at least I genuinely care about him! All you wanted was something pretty to hang off your arm.”

Lotor’s eyes flashed and he swiftly stood up to sneer down his nose at Lance.

“My feelings for Keith are real,” he snarled.

It was the first spark of life Lance had seen in the prince since they got there. As an answering wave of antagonism rose in Lance’s chest, he also felt a tiny bit of relief. Not out of concern for Lotor, but rather relief that the tension Lance had carried for days, just waiting for the other shoe to drop, might finally have an outlet.

Vindication that he was right all along, that Lotor had simply been biding his time, waiting to show his true colors, filled Lance with confidence as he rose from his chair to meet the prince’s scathing eyes head on.

“Yeah? Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” Lance cocked his hip to the side and crossed his arms. “From what I hear, you pursued Keith for years but never once listened to what he wanted. You only cared about yourself. It’s no wonder he became a refugee just to get away from you.”

Lotor took a step closer, using his height to try to intimidate Lance, but Lance didn’t waver.

“Don’t talk about what you don’t understand,” Lotor said.

“Oh, I understand perfectly,” Lance raised his chin. “Keith is easy to fall in love with. He’s brave and smart and beautiful. But he’s also a person, with feelings and flaws and desires. You only ever saw him as a conquest.”

“That’s not true,” Lotor said lowly.

“You treated your so-called courtship like some kind of game,” Lance continued, heedless of the building fury in the prince’s eyes, “and you didn’t give one second of thought to how your actions made other people suffer. How it made Keith suffer.”

Lance squared his shoulders and stood tall.

“You say you have us all figured out?” he asked mockingly. “Well, guess what, buddy? I’ve seen through you too, and you know what? You’re not some cool, powerful, all-knowing prince,” Lance narrowed his eyes. “You’re just a spoiled, entitled, little brat.”

Lotor swiped at Lance with a strangled roar, nearly cracking the table behind him in half when Lance jumped out of the way. The prince didn’t relent, punching and kicking at Lance in a flurry so fast, the Waterbender struggled to defend himself.

Lance hastily backed away as he blocked and dodged Lotor’s blows. Unable to see where he was going, Lance crashed through the rice paper doors and fell outside onto the sand.

Lotor jumped through the opening made by Lance’s body, leg extended to land a kick, but Lance quickly rolled to the side and sprang to his feet.

Lotor resumed his assault, but this time Lance moved in a specific direction as he held his guard. Steadily, he guided their fight further away from the house and closer to the sound of the ocean waves.

In his blind rage, Lotor realised Lance’s plan too late, and his eyes widened when the water whip sent him flying. The prince jumped back up immediately, but didn’t rush to attack again.

Lance and Lotor stood on the shoreline, staring each other down.

The tide lapped at Lance’s bare feet, a soothing balm that grounded him as he lowered himself into a Waterbending stance.

A few yards away, Lotor shifted into a position Lance vaguely recognized from watching Keith and Shiro spar.

Lance wasn’t sure who moved first. All he knew was the clash of his water whip against Lotor’s stream of blue flame, as his mind entered that blank state of concentration.

He ducked a fiery punch and dodgerolled to the side to catch Lotor off guard with a blast of water, knocking the prince off balance.

Lotor recovered quickly, and used his momentum to counter with a spinning kick.

Lance managed to avoid the brunt of the attack, but a hot line seared across his cheekbone. Ignoring the pain, he used his water whip to grab Lotor’s ankle and yanked, causing the prince to land on his back in an undignified heap.

Before Lance could celebrate too much, Lotor leapt back up with a surprising amount of grace, fire already burning in both hands. Lance would never admit it, but the cold fury on Lotor’s face nearly made him take a step back.

Lance quashed that reaction down and narrowed his eyes at the prince. He and Lotor sized each other up again, ready for round two.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”

Lance’s water whip fell to the sand with a wet whap and Lotor’s fireballs vanished into puffs of smoke as they both turned to look at Keith. Anger painting his face, the Avatar stalked towards them from the house.

“Are you crazy?” he demanded. “Lotor is a fugitive! We might be the only people on this island, but it’s not invisible. Fighting out here is just asking someone to notice.” Keith placed his hands on his hips and gave them a withering glare. “Lance, you know that! What were you thinking?”

Lance winced. He started to reply, but a scoff snapped his gaze back to Lotor. It must have caught Keith’s attention too, because the Avatar suddenly whipped around to jab an accusing finger at the prince.

“And you!” Keith’s expression somehow grew even scarier. Lance was glad to no longer be the focus of his wrath. “I don’t expect you to thank us for taking you in, but the least you could do is try not to bring the entire Fire Nation army to our doorstep.”

Lotor’s smarmy smile vanished as his eyes became cold once again.

“Thank you?” he repeated mockingly. “If it wasn’t for you lot, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Keith pursed his lips but didn’t wither under Lotor’s gaze.

“It was partly our fault that you were banished,” he acknowledged, “which is why we’re trying to take some responsibility. We gave you a place to stay, and if you help us find the Lions there’s a chance you can get your crown back. But you’re not exactly innocent here, so don’t act like the victim and put all the blame on us.” Keith squared his shoulders and stood tall. “You gave us a chance so now we’re giving you one. But if you try to hurt any of my friends again, you’ll regret it.”

Lotor narrowed his eyes and the two of them stared each other down. Finally, Lotor broke away with a sharp, “tch,” and marched back to the house.

Keith glared after him before turning back to Lance. His expression softened and he reached up to gently brush his fingers against the shallow burn on Lance’s cheek.

“Are you okay?” Keith asked. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

Lance shook his head and clasped Keith’s hand.

“Don’t be, you were right,” he said. “I got so upset at Lotor that I didn’t think.”

Keith bent some of the water from Lance’s whip out of the sand and brought it up to Lance’s face. He wasn’t very adept at healing with Waterbending yet, but Lance had taught him enough to soothe a small wound like this. After a moment, the glow faded and Keith let the water fall to soak back into the sand.

“Thanks,” Lance said.

Keith smiled and pressed a light kiss to Lance’s now healed skin.

“Come on,” he took Lance’s hand. “Dinner is almost ready.”

As Keith led him back into the house, Lance tried to ignore the unsatisfied hollow feeling in his gut.

-----

Lotor didn’t acknowledge the approaching footsteps until they came to a stop before him.

“What?” he muttered, not looking up. “Have you come to chastise me as well?”

“Keith has a point, you know,” Allura huffed. “I know what it’s like to have your life turned upside down, but wallowing in self-pity won’t solve anything. We’re going to save the Lions with or without your help, but if you want to reclaim your title as prince, your best shot is to work with us.”

Lotor didn’t reply and Allura left without another word.

The prince sat there for a long while, until after the sun disappeared below the horizon and the stars blanketed the sky.

Finally, he got up and walked down the hallway to knock politely on a door. It opened and violet eyes looked up at him.

“Yes?” Keith asked warily.

“I understand that your brother is away and you are without a proper Firebending teacher,” Lotor said. “I would like to offer my services.”

Dark eyebrows knit together.

“I’ve already mastered Firebending.”

“So you don’t still train with your brother?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“Then it’s settled,” Lotor interrupted. “Besides, I dare say I have skills neither of you possess. No one’s ever taught you to bend lightning, correct?”

Those gorgeous eyes widened.

Before Keith could reply, Lotor spun on his heel to walk back to his room.

“We start at dawn,” he called over his shoulder.

As he heard Keith’s door click shut, a smile graced Lotor’s lips, and he finally started to feel a bit like himself again.

Chapter Text

Keith had faced many challenges in his life. He fended for himself on the streets, fled his home country, fought monsters, saved people, mastered all four elements, and even took on a quest that no one had been able to complete in over a decade. Through it all, Keith stayed strong, and never wavered in the face of adversity.

Now, as he stared down this newest test, Keith felt his resolve begin to crumble.

“No,” he said firmly.

Large eyes stared back at him.

“I said no,” he repeated, gritting his teeth.

The eyes seemed to grow even bigger.

“You’re too big,” Keith said. “You can’t sleep here anymore.”

Kosmo whined.

Keith bit his lip and turned to Lance, who gave him a pointed look. While the bed they shared in what Lance and Pidge referred to as their “new home base” wasn’t small, it was just barely big enough for two adult men to sleep in comfortably, let alone two men and a star wolf that was now nearly the size of a polar bear dog.

The Blade was nice enough to provide them with a large cushion for Kosmo, which Krolia brought over earlier that day. Unfortunately, Keith had to convince Kosmo to actually use it.

And it was killing him.

“Just try it, Kosmo,” Keith pleaded. “I’m sure it’s comfy. Look.”

Keith walked over to the cushion and plopped down onto the floor next to it. He patted the soft material and beckoned the star wolf closer.

Kosmo obediently padded over and sniffed curiously at the cushion. Glancing at Keith, he cautiously hopped onto it and sat down.

“There, see?” Keith stood up and ruffled the fur on top of Kosmo’s head. “You’ll get used to it in no time.”

The Avatar started to walk back to his bed only to stop at a tug on his clothes. He looked down to find Kosmo with the hem of Keith’s tunic in his mouth, staring up at him with sad eyes.

The tenuous remains of Keith’s resolve shattered like glass. Dropping to his knees, Keith threw his arms around Kosmo’s neck.

“I can’t do it, Lance,” he wailed into Kosmo’s thick coat.

Keith heard a sigh followed by the sound of footsteps. A warm hand settled on his back and Keith loosened his grip on Kosmo enough to turn his head and see Lance crouched down beside him.

“I know it’s hard, but we have to. We can’t keep waking up with numb legs, babe.”

Keith pouted but he knew Lance was right. With the limited space, Kosmo had to lay partly across them, and he was heavy.

Lance hummed thoughtfully. “Here, let me try something.”

He had Keith lead Kosmo off of the cushion. Avatar and Animal Guide watched as Lance dragged the cushion from its spot by the wall over to press it against the foot of the bed so that it almost looked like a lower extension of the mattress. Lance turned back to them and whistled.

Kosmo’s ears perked up and he trotted over to the cushion. After another scrutinizing sniff, the star wolf climbed onto it, circled around a few times, and laid down to curl into a ball.

Keith could only stare as Lance shot him a grin.

“He just wanted to be closer to you,” Lance said.

Feeling a familiar prickle behind his eyes, Keith flung himself into Lance’s arms and buried his face into Lance’s shirt. A chuckle rumbled through the Waterbender’s chest.

“Better be careful not to let anyone find out Kosmo’s puppy eyes are your only weakness,” Lance teased.

Keith pulled back just enough to glance coyly up at his boyfriend.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Keith said softly. “I can think of another pair of eyes I’m pretty weak to.”

Lance’s cheeks turned pink. Keith slid his hands up from Lance’s chest to wrap his arms around Lance’s neck and pull him in for a kiss. Lance followed eagerly, tightening his embrace as he proceeded to turn Keith’s legs into jelly.

Just as things started to get a little more heated, a soft knock on the door interrupted them.

Keith pulled away, placating Lance’s protesting grumble with another quick peck, and went to answer it, idly wondering who wanted something this late at night.

He opened the door, but instead of Allura or Pidge, Keith found Prince Lotor waiting.

“Yes?” Keith asked warily.

“I understand that your brother is away and you are without a proper Firebending teacher,” Lotor said. “I would like to offer my services.”

-----

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Keith met Lotor in the large open area behind the house that he and his friends had dubbed their new training ground.

A little ways away, Lance sat on the back porch to observe, though Keith wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to watch with his eyes half shut and his body slumped against Kosmo like the star wolf was a big pillow. When Lance had groused about the early hour, Keith told him he didn’t need to join them, but Lance insisted and Keith knew better than to argue.

Lotor sent the Waterbender an annoyed glance, but otherwise ignored his presence.

“Good morning, Keith,” Lotor said. “Ready to begin?”

“Yeah,” Keith nodded. “I gotta say though, I was surprised by your offer. I’ve never seen you bend lightning before.”

“I suppose you could call it a secret weapon of sorts. A trump card I only use in the direst of circumstances,” Lotor said. “I’ve rarely ever faced an opponent powerful enough to warrant it.”

At the prince’s arrogant tone, a twinge of annoyance flashed through Keith, but he quashed it down. In all honesty, Keith really did want to learn Lightningbending. It was an incredibly rare and powerful technique, and Keith didn’t know anyone else who could do it, not even Shiro.

“Why don’t we start with a demonstration?” Lotor said.

Keith agreed and Lotor motioned for him to step back. Once the Avatar was a safe distance away, Lotor closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Slowly exhaling, Lotor’s face transformed from smug pretentiousness to a cool concentration.

“Generating lightning requires a separation of yin and yang energy,” Lotor said. Widening his stance, the prince adjusted his hands so that only his pointer and middle fingers were extended and moved his arms in a circular motion. “You must clear your mind of all emotion and enter a state of inner peace.”

The tips of Lotor’s fingers lit up as sparks of energy crackled around him.

“And then when the positive and negative energies collide back together, it creates lightning, which you can direct to your desired target.”

Lotor thrust his arm at a nearby tree. Electricity shot from his fingers to strike it, instantly splintering a long strip of bark from the trunk.

Keith’s eyes went wide at the sheer speed and destruction of the lightning bolt. Over on the porch, Lance jerked awake, all traces of sluggishness gone, and Kosmo’s fur stood on end.

Lotor shifted out of his stance with a self-satisfied expression.

“Due to the dual nature of this technique, we will focus on the physical and mental aspects separately, and combine them once you have mastered both,” he said. “Anything less than perfection in either can result in rather explosive results.”

Keith nodded, heart still pounding, and Lotor’s smile grew.

“Let’s start with the physical.”

-----

Lance glared as he watched Lotor continue the lesson. Every now and then, the prince would adjust Keith’s stance with a light touch to his wrist or a hand on his back. Keith didn’t seem to mind but Lance certainly did.

And not because Lance sometimes did that during their Waterbending sessions too.

Grumbling under his breath, Lance tried to calm himself down by petting Kosmo’s soft fur.

“So that’s Prince Lotor, huh?”

Lance jumped and tore his gaze away from them to see Krolia standing beside him. Spirits, how long had she been there?

“Uh, yeah,” Lance cleared his throat. “He said he’d teach Keith to bend lightning.”

Krolia hummed and dropped down to sit next to Lance.

“Keith wouldn’t give me all the details about their courtship. I think he was embarrassed about it, but I know enough,” she said. “I don’t trust him.”

Lance snorted. “Join the club. He said it’s to help our cause, but I’m pretty sure that jerk has an ulterior motive. Probably trying to seduce Keith with his jerkbending.”

Lance remembered who he was talking to and immediately felt a little awkward, but to his relief, Krolia sent him a small smile.

“Good thing Keith has you to look out for him then,” she said.

Lance hesitantly smiled back and the two watched the rest of the lesson together.

He was once again amazed at how quickly Keith picked up bending. Already, his form looked almost identical to Lotor’s as they mirrored each other’s movements. If it were anyone else, Lance might feel a bit envious, but instead he only felt pride in his talented boyfriend.

It didn’t hurt that Keith’s quick mastery meant Lotor had less of an excuse to touch him.

Finally, the training ended and Keith walked over to them. Lance quickly jumped to his feet so he could wrap a protective arm around Keith’s shoulders. Keith rolled his eyes but leaned some of his weight against Lance.

“How did it go?” Lance asked.

“Good,” Keith’s eyes had that familiar sparkle he got when learning a new bending skill. “The physical motions of Lightningbending are weirdly soothing for such a volatile element.”

“It’s fascinating to watch,” Krolia said, standing up in a much more dignified manner. “I’ve never seen the stances up close before.”

“Really?” Keith blinked.

Lance was surprised too. After all, Krolia was a Firebending combat expert and a member of a group filled with other Firebending combat experts.

“Lightningbending is usually reserved for nobility,” she explained, eyeing Lotor as he casually sauntered over to join them. “The royal family goes to great lengths to keep the technique a secret from the public.”

“I think we can make an exception for the Avatar,” Lotor said smoothly. “Besides, what’s the point of being banished if I can’t break some family rules?”

Keith rolled his eyes again, but his lips twitched slightly in mirth. Lance frowned and pulled Keith a bit closer.

Lotor flicked a glance at them before turning his attention to Krolia. Lance saw the irritation in his eyes and had to hide a smug, if somewhat petty, smirk.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Lotor said. “Prince Lotor, at your service.”

“Krolia,” she crossed her arms in a very Keith-like manner and somehow managed to peer down her nose at Lotor despite being slightly shorter than him. “And I’m well aware of who you are.”

Lotor’s eyebrows rose.

“I see my reputation precedes me.”

“Oh yes,” Krolia’s eyes narrowed. “Keith has told me all about you.”

“Ah,” Lotor replied with a wry twist to his lips. “Only good things, I’m sure.”

Krolia’s gaze remained flat, clearly unwilling to play along with Lotor’s attempt at banter.

“When Keith and Allura suggested giving you sanctuary, I was against it.”

“Is that so?” Lotor’s sarcastic smile sharpened. “Well, I hope to prove to you that I’ve turned over a new leaf.”

“I hope for your sake that’s true,” Krolia stared him down unflinchingly, “because if you hurt Keith again, banishment will be the least of your worries.

“You seem to care for him a lot,” Lotor observed.

“He’s my son.”

Lotor blanched. All pretenses of aloof superiority vanished as his wide eyes flitted between the two Firebenders.

Keith sighed and dropped his head in his hands while Lance had to duck his face into Keith shoulder to hide his snickering. Judging by the look Lotor shot them, he wasn’t very successful.

“Come on, Keith,” Krolia turned on her heel and walked back into the house. “Eat some breakfast and then we’ll work on you Blade training.”

“Coming,” Keith jabbed an elbow into Lance’s side and followed his mother with one last warning glance at the two remaining benders. “You guys should eat, too. No more fighting.”

Lance and Lotor watched his retreating back and exchanged a look. Lance shrugged and walked into the house. After a brief pause, footsteps followed.

-----

Before they left the Blade’s headquarters, Keith had taken Pidge aside and told her she could stay if she really wanted to.

“I know your main reason for going on this journey was to find your family,” Keith said, “and I want you to know that no one will blame you if you want to stay here with them.”

Sam and Matt were still in danger, so the Blade was reluctant to let them leave, even to go to a safe house. Matt had been disappointed, but Sam said they still had more work to do in the Blade’s library anyway.

Pidge studied Keith for a moment and then shook her head.

“I appreciate that, Keith, but I already decided,” she said. “I’m coming with you guys. I mean, sure, a part of me never wants to let Dad or Matt out of my sight ever again, and I’ll have to travel back and forth if I want more research materials, which is a pain, but I want to help you guys like you helped me. You’re all my family too, you know.”

“Oh,” Keith replied, a warm feeling in his chest.

Pidge smirked and lightly punched him in the arm.

“Besides, good luck rescuing the Lions without me.”

Keith chuckled and retaliated by reaching out to mess up her hair like Shiro sometimes did to him. Pidge squawked and smacked his hand away. The two battled valiantly until Lance found them and decided to show off his superior skills gained by having freakishly long limbs and too many siblings.

Keith and Pidge exchanged a look and immediately teamed up against him.

It was a victory for the ages.

They were eating dinner in their new home base, Keith tired but pleased with how his first Lightningbending lesson had gone, as well as the progress he’d made with Krolia, when Pidge made an announcement.

“As you all know, I’ve been researching to try and find out how the Lions merge back into the Black Lion,” Pidge said between bites of rice.

Lance frowned. “Uh, don’t they just all fly towards each other and kinda…” He made a motion with his hands and smooshed them together.

Across from him, Allura shook her head.

“I highly doubt it’s that simple,” she said. “The Black Lion is the most powerful spirit in existence. Even if the Lions were originally a part of him, recreating an entity of that magnitude would require unimaginable spiritual power.”

Pidge nodded. “That’s probably why Honerva and Zarkon haven’t formed the Black Lion yet. My guess is they’re preparing some kind of ritual, or maybe waiting for a special event like an eclipse or solstice.”

Keith hummed, his mind racing. If that was the case, it might explain why there was such a long period of time between the White and Blue Lion’s disappearances.

“I’m still trying to pinpoint what exactly is required for the Lions to merge into one,” Pidge said. “But after wading through a lot, and I mean a lot, of cryptic lore and vague legends, I think I’ve found someone who can give us the answers that the texts lack.”

“That’s great, Pidge,” Keith said. “Who is it?”

“You.”

Everyone stared at her.

“...Huh?”

“Well, not you you,” Pidge amended. “One of your past lives.”

Keith opened his mouth but no sound came out.

“A lot of the texts about the Lion Spirits mention the Avatar,” Pidge quickly explained. “Whenever one of the Lions performed some great deed and saved their nation, the Avatar was almost always involved.”

Keith wasn’t surprised. People had been telling him practically since this whole thing started that he had a special connection to the Lions, so it made sense that the Avatar had a strong presence in the Lions’ history.

“Which means,” Pidge continued, her eyes bright with excitement, “your past lives must have way more knowledge about the Lions than any scroll. If you can communicate with them, or tap into those memories, I bet you could find out how to form the Black Lion!”

Keith gazed down at his half-eaten dinner, appetite suddenly gone.

“I mean, I’ll give it a shot,” he said hesitantly, “but I’ve never accessed my past lives before.”

Allura sent Keith an encouraging smile.

“You’ve never actively tried connecting with them before,” she reminded him. “I know you lack confidence when it comes to the Spiritual, Keith, but you’re improving.”

“Really?” Keith asked dubiously. “It sure doesn’t feel like it. I still haven’t entered the Avatar State even once.”

“The Avatar State is a defense mechanism, usually triggered by danger or emotional trauma,” Allura shook her head. “It’s not something you can turn on and off at will, at least not until you master it. Connecting with your past lives is another matter entirely. I’m sure you can do it if you try.”

Keith considered this for a moment and looked back up at Allura with determined eyes.

“What do I need to do?”

-----

Keith sat cross-legged in the lotus position, his hands curled into fists and knuckles pressed lightly together in front of him. It was the same form he used most mornings when meditating with Allura.

Now, however, Keith was alone, perched on a large outcropping of rock, breathing in time with the ocean waves under the light of the full moon. Allura had suggested that being closer to the elements might give Keith’s powers a small boost. If nothing else, it was calming and helped him focus.

Unlike the times he had tried to locate the Lions, or when he had astral projected to find Shiro, Keith didn’t send his awareness outward, but inward. He reached into the depths of his own spirit to try and find the connection that tied Keith to his predecessors.

Slowly, he began to feel weightless. Keith opened his eyes and the moonlit beach was gone, replaced by an empty space with no floor and an endless black sky filled with weaving colors. It was strangely beautiful, like an aurora borealis made of reds, purples, and blues.

Keith floated around the colorful void, desperately looking for any sign of his past lives.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone there?”

No answer.

“Please,” Keith continued, “The Lions are in danger. The whole world is in danger! I need to know more about the Black Lion so I can save everyone.”

More silence.

Keith sighed and continued to glide through the strange empty space. Suddenly, he felt a burst of warmth against his back, like the sun breaking out from behind the clouds.

He spun around to see a speck of light in the distance. It grew larger and brighter until Keith had to shield his eyes for fear of being blinded.

Finally, the light faded away. Keith opened his eyes and found himself standing in the middle of a beautiful meadow. Tall grass swayed as the breeze carried the scent of flowers through the air, and the sun shined down from the clear blue sky.

Looking around, Keith spotted a small hill a short distance away. On top of that hill rested a huge lion, black as night.

Heart pounding, Keith walked towards the spirit. He was easily the size of a sky bison, with a thick mane and golden eyes. His coat looked otherworldly; stars and galaxies moved across the inky expanse of the Black Lion’s flank with every breath.

Keith finally made it up the hill to stand next to the Lion, but the spirit gave no acknowledgement of his presence. His gaze remained locked onto the horizon, as if lost in thought or seeing something no mortals could. Keith followed his gaze but saw only endless nature filled with trees and flowers and what looked like a river in the distance.

A sudden sound caught Keith’s attention. He turned to see a young girl running towards them, small enough that the tall grass came up to her waist. With a large grin and bright eyes, the girl scaled the hill.

“Black Lion!” she called. “I’ve come to play!”

She came to a halt in front of the Lion. Now that he had a closer look, Keith guessed she was probably around twelve or thirteen, and had long black hair pulled into a braid and big amber eyes.

Looking at her, some part of Keith instinctively knew that this was one of his past lives.

He did it. This must be some kind of memory that this previous Avatar wanted him to see.

Eager for answers, Keith watched the two with rapt attention, only for his jaw to drop when the young girl clambered up the Black Lion’s side with no sense of propriety whatsoever, as if he was a common mount rather than the most powerful spirit in existence.

The girl flopped down onto the Black Lion’s head, his fluffy mane cushioning her body as she started to ramble about her day, sharing gossip from her village and complaining about her Waterbending instructor.

“And then she said I’d never master water because I lack discipline, but that just doesn't make sense to me! Water’s all about flowing with the current, so why should I have to be a stick-in-the-mud like her?”

The young girl paused. When Black Lion didn’t respond, she peered down to meet his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You seem grumpier than usual today.”

The Black Lion’s gaze finally left the horizon to glance up at her. Though his mouth didn’t move, a deep voice rumbled inside Keith’s head, and presumably the girl’s as well.

“Apologies, young Avatar,” he said. “I merely have much on my mind as of late.”

The girl cocked her head.

“Like what?”

The Lion heaved a powerful sigh that blew the tall grass in front of him.

“Human civilization grows more and more each day,” he replied. “Soon the four tribes will cover the entire world. I made a promise to protect your kind, but even my reach extends only so far.”

The girl hummed. “So what will you do?”

“I have thought of a possible solution,” he said, “but I am hesitant to act upon it.”

“How come?”

“This method would allow me to be in four places at once, and protect those who require it, but it could also lead to great peril, not only for me but for those in my care. I cannot decide if it is worth the risk.”

“Maybe I can help,” the girl offered. “Tell me your idea.”

“I will split myself into four beings,” he explained. “One for each elemental tribe. However, their power will be a fraction of my own. While still enough to protect humankind from most threats, I fear one day there may be a danger too great for them to handle.”

“If that happens, can’t you just merge back into one?” the girl asked.

“Not on my own,” he said. “Splitting myself up will take much energy and magic. Merging back would require even more. I would also need a catalyst.”

“Catalyst?”

“Something to trigger the merge. A key, if you will. But I cannot trust such a thing to the hands of man. Though I am sworn to protect them, I know all too well how humankind would abuse such power.”

The girl frowned in thought.

“Well,” she said slowly, “why don’t you entrust it to me? I know I’m human, but I’m also the Avatar, and bound to protect both the physical world and the spirit world just like you.”

The Black Lion paused and seemed to consider it.

“It would be a great responsibility,” he warned.

The girl grinned. “People already expect me to bring balance to the world, what’s a little more responsibility?”

“Your reincarnations will have to bear this burden as well.”

“The Avatar’s duty is to help humans and spirits alike. You might be powerful, but you’re still a spirit, so it’s my job to help you too. The other Avatars will understand,” she replied confidently.

A chuckled rumbled deep in the Lion’s chest.

“Very well.”

The girl hopped down from her perch to stand in front of the Black Lion.

“Does this mean this is goodbye?” she asked softly.

“Do not mourn, young Avatar,” he lowered his enormous head so she could press her hand to his snout. “We will meet again in another lifetime.”

The girl nodded and took a step back.

The Black Lion stood up and closed his eyes. After a moment, they snapped open, glowing a bright gold that pierced Keith’s soul.

A powerful wind picked up around them, blowing the grass and trees. The ground shook and the river churned. Bolts of lightning flashed across the clear blue sky.

The Lion’s body started to glow as well, shining brighter and brighter until Keith had could only squint through the gaps of his fingers to see the Lion’s huge form shrink into the light. That light hovered for a moment, like a small sun that Keith could reach out and touch, before it split into five smaller stars.

The red, blue, green, and white stars flew back to the ground, and in bursts of light, the four Lions appeared.

The remaining star, somehow made of all colors at once while simultaneously black as night, floated down to hover in front of the young girl.

With a gentle smile, she opened her arms in welcome, and the light went into her embrace. It disappeared into her chest and the girl gasped, her eyes wide with the light of the Avatar State as the four elements danced around her.

Finally, the earth stopped shaking and the sky became calm once more. The girl’s eyes faded back to amber and she collapsed to her knees, exhausted.

Movement caught her attention and she looked up to find the four Lions surrounding her. The girl smiled and got back to her feet.

“Hello,” she reached out to pet the Red Lion’s snout. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Chapter Text

“Clear your thoughts,” Lotor said. “Balancing yin and yang is a delicate process, and requires equilibrium of the mind, body, and spirit.”

Lotor and Keith sat on the floor in one of the safe house’s empty rooms, facing each other in the lotus position. It was similar to how Keith meditated with Allura, except instead of early morning, it was late afternoon.

“To have control of lightning is to have complete control over one’s emotions.”

Keith nodded and closed his eyes. Understanding Lotor’s instructions came naturally, though Keith probably shouldn’t have been surprised. They had trained together often back at the Firebending Academy, and had shared an easy comradery before Lotor started to court him.

Although he still hadn’t fully forgiven the prince for what he put Keith and his friends through, in an odd way Keith almost liked this new version of Lotor. He had seen many sides of the prince in the past: the cool, aloof student, the charming yet patronizing friend, the manic, possessive suitor.

All were masks that kept Keith at arm’s length, and Keith in turn never bothered to try to get closer. Lotor had been afraid to show anyone his flaws, that he was anything less than perfect.

Then he got banished and spent a week moping around like a moody teenager. It was kind of annoying, but it was also the most human Keith had ever seen him.

This trend continued into their Lightningbending training. Lotor seemed to have realized that since Keith and his friends had already seen him at his lowest point, there was no point in trying to maintain a princely image in front of them, and so he no longer bothered with his usual fake passive-aggressive niceties. This meant he instead unleashed the full bite of his sarcasm and wit on them, but again, it was an improvement in Keith’s book.

That said, understanding Lotor’s instructions and actually doing them were two different things. As usual, Keith mastered the physical aspects of the new technique in a matter of days. Lotor insisted they continue practicing the stance until Keith had it down perfectly, but he still approved moving on after just two weeks.

Now they were starting the mental side of Lightningbending, and Keith was having...slightly less success.

Keith tried his best to clear his mind, but every time he got close to that zen-like state, intrusive thoughts suddenly ripped at his concentration.

Learning about his connection to the Black Lion had given him more questions than answers. The Avatar State was the key to forming the Black Lion, but how? Did Keith have to be present for the Lions to merge? Did they need his permission? If they couldn't merge without Keith's help, then the obvious solution would be to stay away, but how was he supposed to rescue the Lions if he couldn't get close to them?

Keith rubbed his hands over his face and tipped sideways to lay on the floor with a groan. Lotor opened one eye and glared at him.

"What are you doing?"

"I can't focus right now," Keith mumbled. "My head's too full."

"Well, giving up isn't going to make it better," Lotor said archly.

Keith dropped his hands to scowl up at the prince.

"I'm not giving up," he said, "but this isn't working."

"We've been at it for less than an hour," Lotor pointed out. "It can take years to learn to control yin and yang."

"We don't have years," Keith snapped.

"Then I suggest you try harder." The prince closed his eyes and fell back into meditation.

Grumbling, Keith followed suit, but now he was irritated on top of already being frustrated, and had even less success than before.

After awhile, Lotor sighed.

"Very well," he said, "it seems we're not going to make much progress today. We'll try again tomorrow."

Keith was up and out the door before Lotor even finished speaking.

-----

Lance was lounging in the living room when Keith suddenly plopped down next to him. He took one look at the Avatar’s face and wordlessly set his scroll aside to open his arms in invitation. Keith immediately sank against him, wrapping his arms around Lance with a sigh.

“What’s wrong, babe?” Lance asked.

Keith shook his head and burrowed deeper into Lance’s embrace. Lance stroked Keith’s hair and waited patiently. He knew Keith would open up when he was ready.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Keith mumbled, “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“How come I can master some aspects of my training without even trying, yet completely fail at others?”

“We talking about Lightningbending?”

Keith shook his head and pulled away slightly so they could talk face-to-face.

“It’s not just that,” he said. “I ran into the same problem with awakening my Marmora Blade, and now that we know it’s connected to the Lions, Allura is trying to help me access the Avatar State, but I’m not making any progress there either.”

“Well,” Lance hummed thoughtfully, “from the sound of it, your issue is with connecting to your spiritual side.”

“Yeah, and that’s the problem,” Keith threw his arms into the air. “I’m the Avatar, Lance! I’m supposed to be more in tune with the Spirit World than anyone. So what’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing’s wrong with you,” Lance rubbed Keith’s back soothingly. “You’ll get it, I know you will. It just takes time.”

Keith dropped his arms with a sigh and leaned against Lance.

“You really think so?”

“I do,” Lance said firmly.

Keith offered him a weak smile. “Thanks.”

“Anything I can do to help?” Lance asked.

Keith shook his head. “I think it’s something I need to figure out on my own. Talking helped though.”

“I’m glad,” Lance’s eyes lit up. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Maybe what you need is a break to get your mind off of all this.”

“A break?” Keith repeated dubiously.

“Yeah!” Lance nodded as excitement built in his chest. “We can go visit the mainland. Grab a bite to eat, maybe do a little shopping?”

The Avatar tilted his head, apparently considering the idea.

“You don’t think it would be too dangerous?”

“Nah, we’d just be going to a little harbor town or something,” Lance flapped a hand. “We won’t be near the capital or Zarkon or anything like that.”

“You’re going to the mainland?”

Lance and Keith turned their heads to see Allura walk into the room. She clasped her hands in front of her with a dazzling grin.

“May I come with you?” she asked. “It’s been so long since I’ve had the chance to visit any towns, and I’ve been wanting to buy something sparkly.”

“Oh, uh,” Lance glanced between Allura and Keith, his heart sinking. He didn’t want to say no to Allura, but…

Keith quirked an eyebrow. “I thought Airbenders didn’t care about material possessions.”

Allura sniffed and crossed her arms, nose in the air. “I have no qualms giving my possessions to those who need them more than I, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate having pretty things sometimes.”

Keith chuckled and said, “Well, alright, you’re more than welcome to join us. RIght, Lance?”

He turned to look at Lance, and the Waterbender didn’t stand a chance. There was no way he could refuse that face, dammit.

“Sure,” Lance said weakly. “The more, the merrier.”

“Oh good, then you don’t mind if I tag along too?” Pidge poked her head out from behind Allura, causing the Airbender to jump in surprise. “I’ve been wanting to check out the Fire Nation for awhile now, and quite frankly, I’m sick of being stuck in this house.”

Lance’s shoulders dropped further still.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “Sure.”

“Where are we going?” Lotor asked, apparently wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

“Okay, no. No way,” Lance jabbed his finger at the prince. “Allura and Pidge can come, but not him.”

“Lance has a point,” Keith frowned. “Lotor was banished from the Fire Nation. If anyone recognizes him, there’ll be trouble.”

“Well we can’t leave him here unsupervised,” Pidge said.

“He won’t be unsupervised, Coran can watch him,” Lance replied. “And Kosmo too, since we can’t bring him with us if we wanna lay low. Sorry, babe.”

Keith pouted but didn’t protest.

Lotor, however, did.

“I refuse to stay in this hovel with no one for company except a dog and Allura’s nanny,” he sneered. The others immediately started yelling over each other.

“Coran’s not my nanny!”

“And Kosmo isn’t a dog!”

“Gee, I’m sorry this perfectly normal house isn’t up to your standards, your majesty!”

“Hey! Hey!” Pidge shouted, getting everyone’s attention. “Everybody calm down! We can just have Lotor wear a disguise. Honestly, we should probably all wear disguises, just to be safe.”

After some more arguing and a lot of grumbling, they all agreed to Pidge’s plan. The next morning, donned in Fire Nation commoners clothes, the four got into a small boat borrowed from the Blade. Whatever magic concoction Allura used all those months ago to turn Keith’s hair white, she must have used again; both she and Lotor sported long black locks gathered up into traditional Fire Nation top-knots, with a stylish headband for Allura to hide her arrow tattoo. Coran sent them off with a cheerful wave, assuring the group that he and Kosmo would hold down the fort until they got back.

With Lance and Keith taking turns Waterbending to increase their speed, they made it to the mainland in less than an hour. They arrived at a harbor town called Akaryuu. The town wasn’t huge, but it was bustling with life, merchants selling their wares, sailors loading and unloading cargo, and citizens going about their daily lives. A handful of travellers such as themselves wouldn’t draw anyone’s attention.

It was perfect.

Pidge almost immediately slipped away, only stopping to confirm a time and place to meet back up later before disappearing into the crowd.

Lance looked over at Keith and his mood soured. Lotor stood next to the Avatar, much too close in Lance’s opinion, muttering something into Keith’s ear. Keith glanced to where Lotor was pointing and let out a small laugh.

As if sensing Lance’s stare, Lotor locked eyes with the Waterbender and smirked.

Lance stormed over to where Allura was admiring a merchant’s wares nearby and dragged her away.

“Lance,” she protested, “I wasn’t done looking at those.”

“You can come back later,” Lance said. “I need to talk to you.”

“Alright,” Allura frowned, crossing her arms when they came to a halt in an alleyway that gave them some privacy, but still kept Keith and Lotor in sight. “What is it?”

“I need you to distract Lotor today.”

“What?” she wrinkled her nose. It would be cute if Lance was in a better mood. “Why me?”

“Because Pidge already left and I want to be alone with Keith.”

“If you wanted to be alone, you shouldn’t have invited us.”

“I didn’t,” Lance said flatly.

Allura opened her mouth and paused. Realization slowly dawned on her.

“Oh,” she bit her lip guiltily. “I ruined your date, didn’t I?”

“It’s not your fault,” Lance sighed. “If it was just you and Pidge, that wouldn’t be so bad. But Lotor is like, the worst third wheel imaginable.”

Allura drew herself up and placed a firm hand on Lance’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I promise I’ll fix this.”

The Airbender turned on her heel and marched over to the two Firebenders. Lance couldn’t hear what she said, but a moment later she was dragging a bewildered Lotor down the street. Lance walked over to Keith.

“What was that all about” Lance nodded at their retreating backs.

Keith shrugged. “I’m not sure. Allura said something about needing someone tall to help her with something?”

“Huh, weird.”

They fell into silence, content to watch the bustle of the docks. Lance turned to Keith, sniffing the air.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

“All I smell is fish,” Keith wrinkled his nose. Lance was probably biased, but it was even cuter than when Allura did it.

“No, no, it’s definitely something else,” Lance said. “Kinda reminds me of Uotorī.”

Keith’s eyes lit up.

“Akaryuu is a harbor town, maybe there’s a stand or restaurant nearby that sells fried octopus shark,” he grabbed Lance’s hand to drag him down the street. “Let’s go find out.”

“Right behind you,” Lance grinned.

-----

Pidge meandered through the marketplace. Although she usually disliked crowds, Pidge was honestly just happy to be out and about. Sure, she could hoard herself away in her room or a library for days on end, but even Pidge got to a point where she needed some fresh air and sunshine now and then.

As her gaze roamed over the various stalls, a small crowd caught Pidge’s eye. She elbowed her way to the front to find a middle-aged man gesticulating at various animals for sale.

“Our messenger hawks are the finest in all the Fire Nation!” the merchant loudly boasted. “They can take a letter to anyone, within reason, of course. You wanna write to your friends in Ba Sing Se? No problem! Your Gran Gran in the South Pole? That might be a little harder,” he winked and the audience chuckled. “But don’t let that deter you! These hawks are the best companions anyone could ask for. They hunt on their own and are very low maintenance! On sale today only for just five silver pieces!”

Pidge hummed. Having her own messenger hawk would mean they’d be able to exchange letters with Hunk much more easily, and she might even be able to use it to keep in contact with her family, so long as she was careful. Digging through her coin purse, Pidge found she had just enough, and purchased one of the birds from the cheerful merchant.

The hawk perched on her shoulder as she continued down the street.

“I’m gonna call you Rover,” Pidge said.

Rover chirped.

“Hey, you’re lucky I bought you and not Lance. He probably would’ve called you Hawky or something.”

Rover cocked his head.

“Yeah,” Pidge nodded, “he’s a good guy, but kinda dumb sometimes.”

Suddenly, someone crashed hard against Pidge, nearly knocking her over. Rover screeched, flapping his wings, but managed to stay on Pidge’s shoulder.

“Hey!” Pidge snapped. “Watch where you’re going!”

“I’m sorry!” the person said.

She was a young woman not much older than Pidge. She wore a dark red cloak with the hood pulled up, though it did little to hide her terrified expression.

“Woah,” Pidge frowned. “Are you okay?”

The girl opened her mouth to reply when a commotion down the street interrupted them. People stepped aside as a group of Fire Nation soldiers marched forward, probably out on patrol. The girl paled and before Pidge could protest, she grabbed Pidge’s wrist and dragged her into the shadows of an alleyway.

“Hey!”

The girl shushed her. Pidge scowled but decided to play along for now. They stood still as the platoon passed, and the girl let out a sigh of relief.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “I didn’t mean to drag you along. I just saw those guys and panicked.”

“Why did you have to hide?” Pidge asked curiously. “You a criminal?”

“No!” she exclaimed. Realizing how loud her shout was, the girl flushed and said quietly, “I’m not a criminal, but...there are some people after me.”

Pidge was getting a serious case of deja vu.  

“You’re not running away from an arranged marriage, are you?”

“What?” the girl gave her a funny look. “No.”

“Okay, good. I do not want to get involved with that again,” Pidge said. “So, what are you running from?”

The girl bit her lip, clearing debating if she could trust someone she just met. After a long moment, she glanced toward the street to make sure no one else was paying any attention, and then looked back at Pidge. Wordlessly, she unclasped her robe and held it open to reveal a beautiful kimono.

Pidge didn’t know or care much about fashion, but even she could tell the dress was extraordinary. The fabric was a rich and vibrant red, and intricate gold embroidery covered every inch of it. Although it looked recently made, the kimono still somehow gave off a sense of antiquity, like a treasured heirloom that had been painstakingly cared for for hundreds of years.

Of course, all this meant nothing to Pidge, and she merely stared at the girl blankly.

“Uhhh, nice dress?”

The girl closed her cloak with a crooked smile.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said.

Pidge shook her head.

The girl began to tell her tale and Pidge’s heart sank.

And this day had been going so well.

-----

Lance watched fondly as Keith shoved more fried octopus shark into his mouth with gusto. If it were anyone else, he might have found it kinda gross, but instead Lance just wanted to kiss the sweet sauce off of Keith's face.

He was so fucked.

"I never even realized how much I missed Fire Nation food," Keith said between bites. "These noodles are so good."

"Yeah, everything's delicious," Lance agreed.

They had followed the scent of food to a spacious restaurant. The place was busy, clearly a local favorite, but they managed to snag a little table by the window overlooking the sea. When the waitress came over with their extensive menu, Keith's eyes had lit up. Lance also wanted to try out authentic Fire Nation cuisine, since the stuff on Uotorī had been catered more towards tourists, so they ended up ordering several small dishes to share, including, of course, fried octopus shark.

Biting into a dumpling, Lance noticed Keith kept sneaking little glances at him. When he did it again, Lance grinned crookedly.

"What?" Lance asked.

Caught, Keith flushed and looked away. "Nothing."

"No, seriously, what is it?" Lance said. "I got something on my face?"

Keith shook his head. "No, it's just, um," his blush darkened. "You look really nice. Red suits you."

Heat rose to Lance's cheeks now too, but he steadied his heart and leaned forward with a roguish grin.

"Why, thank you," Lance winked. "You're looking pretty gorgeous today, too."

"I always look like this," Keith said, confused. Unlike the others, who had to find new outfits, including Lotor because his clothes were a bit too fancy to blend in, Keith just wore his usual ensemble.

Lance shrugged. "Then I guess that means you're always gorgeous."

Keith blinked and he quickly turned away in a futile attempt to hide his bright red face. Lance grinned to himself and graciously returned to his meal to let the Avatar recover.

In addition to making Lance feel all gooey inside, Keith's words made him think. It was a pity he never got to see Keith in Water Tribe clothes. Since Allura taught him to control his own body temperature, Keith had worn his normal outfit in the North Pole. The only time he changed was when he and Allura disguised themselves to sneak into the Blue Lion's chamber, but it was dark and Lance hadn't been able to appreciate the sight under the stressful circumstances.

Maybe someday they'd go back, and he could see Keith in blue. He bet Keith would look beautiful in traditional Water Tribe wedding robes.

The clatter of chopsticks falling on the table drew Lance's attention. Keith stared at him with wide eyes, one hand still poised like it was holding the utensils.

Lance blinked. Why was Keith looking at him like that?

The blood drained from Lance's face.

"Uh," Lance swallowed and licked his suddenly dry lips. "Did I say that last bit out loud?"

Keith slowly nodded.

Fuck.

"I'm not asking you to marry me," Lance said hastily. Hurt flashed in Keith's eyes and Lance scrambled to backpedal. "I mean, not right now! Maybe someday, sure, if you want, but right now I'm not ready! Veronica is the oldest daughter, so she gets Mamà's necklace, which means I'd have to make you one from scratch. And okay, I've maybe given a little thought to the design, but I'd need time to gather all the materials and actually engrave it, and...and…"

While Lance rambled, Keith's shocked face melted into a fond, if slightly exasperated smile. He cut Lance off by gently pressing a fingertip to Lance's lips.

"Slow down," Keith chuckled. "Now, what's this about a necklace?"

Lance swallowed again and took Keith's hand from his mouth, though he held onto it. Keith wove their fingers together, giving Lance the courage to speak.

"The, uh, the way to ask for someone's hand in marriage in our tribe is by giving them a betrothal necklace," Lance explained, looking anywhere but Keith.

"And you've thought about this before?" Keith asked, no judgment in his voice, only curiosity. "Marriage?"

"I mean, in a vague sense, sure." Lance kind of wanted to spontaneously learn Earthbending so he could sink into the ground, but that would mean letting go of Keith's hand. "It's always been a dream of mine to marry someone I love and spend the rest of my life with them."

Keith smiled and squeezed Lance's hand. "That sounds nice."

"Yeah," Lance smiled back. "But, y'know, I don't expect that to happen any time soon! We're both still pretty young, and we've already got a lot going on with the Lions and everything."

"We are young," Keith agreed. "And I don't think I'm ready for something like that yet either. But," Keith glanced at him shyly through his lashes, "if you wanted to make me a necklace someday...I wouldn't be opposed to it."

Lance's heart stopped. Keith bit his lip, like he was worried he said the wrong thing, and Lance quickly nodded.

"Yeah, I...I'll keep that in mind," he said lamely.

Keith brightened. He gave Lance a small kiss and let go if his hand so he could pick his chopsticks back up.

They returned to their meal, the atmosphere different than before, but not unpleasantly so. It was an air of low-burning excitement, shyness, and hope.

Lance cleared his throat and asked, "So, how do you propose in the Fire Nation?"

Keith shrugged, slurping up another noodle.

"It's not anything grand," he said. "After an appropriate amount of time courting, you kinda just ask. You usually get approval from their family first, but that's about it."

"How do you court?" Lance asked. "I wanna woo you in the ways of your culture, too."

Keith ducked his head bashfully.

"You, uh, sorta already have," he said. "It's basically the same as normal dating, with the added element of giving the other person gifts."

Keith raised a hand to touch his hair ribbon, one of the many accessories Lance had bought for him on their travels.

A grin spread across Lance's face.

"Well, what do you know." He sprawled back across his chair with a cocky attitude. "Guess I am a master at romance after all."

Keith rolled his eyes, but his smile was genuine and did funny things to Lance's insides.

"Yeah," Keith said softly. "I guess you are."

Once they were done eating, Lance and Keith wandered through the large open market, and Lance made a point to buy Keith a glittering jeweled hairpin. He knew that normally Keith preferred more subtle ornaments, but after their talk, Lance wanted to treat him. Keith accepted the gift with a pleased smile.

He pulled his hair into a higher ponytail and tucked the pin securely into the ribbon. As they walked down the busy streets, the strings of glass beads jingled and the tiny gems sparkled in the sun.

-----

“So why exactly did you need me to come with you?” Lotor asked irritably.

“Uhhh…” Allura cast her gaze around for something to give her an idea. When she had initially made an excuse to drag the prince away, she simply said the first thing that came to mind.

The sound of breaking pottery saved Allura from answering, but her relief quickly died at the sight before them.

“Oh dear,” Allura rushed forward to kneel by the sobbing child’s side. “Are you alright?”

"Lee!" An older man, presumably the boy's father, hurried over. He helped Lee to his feet, checking him over for injuries. "I told you to be careful! Help me clean this up, we don't have much time left."

Sniffling, the little boy nodded and started gathering the broken pieces. Allura helped too and they finished within a few minutes.

"Thank you," the man said.

"It's no problem," she replied. "Are you moving?"

From what she could see, the man and his family were trying to put all their belongings into a small carriage. In his haste, Lee had tripped and broken the pot.

The man grimaced.

"Yes, but not by choice," he said, hauling a large crate. "Our landlord suddenly raised our rent, and we were barely making ends meet before. Today he told us that if we weren't gone by sundown, he would bring the town guards to make us leave by force."

"That's awful," Allura said. Lotor came up next to her and she asked him, "Can't we do anything to help?"

Lotor shrugged, a bored look on his face. "The landlord is within his rights to raise the rent and to evict them if they can't pay."

Allura frowned and turned back to the man.

"Where will you go?"

"For now we'll just have to stay with my parents until we can find a new home," he said. "But they live on the other side of Akaryuu, and I can only fit so much in our carriage. I don't know if we have enough time to travel back-and-forth to take all of our things."

"We'll help you," Allura offered. "If nothing else, more hands will speed things up a bit."

"What do you mean 'we'?" Lotor asked.

Allura spun to glare at him.

"What, afraid of a little hard work?" she demanded.

"Not at all," his lip curled, "I just don't see why I have to do manual labor for someone I don't even know."

"It's called basic human decency."

"Never heard of it."

Allura huffed and rolled her eyes.

"Fine," she turned back to the man, pinning him with her fiery gaze. "I'll help you."

The man blinked, glancing between the two of them with uncertainty. "Uh, thank you, miss, my family appreciates it."

Allura got to work, picking up any items the man, Gansu, requested and carrying them to the carriage. She was determined to try and keep the family in high spirits, chatting with Lee and his mother, Sela, while they worked, and keeping them company as they waited for Gansu to return from taking the first load across town.

She very pointedly ignored Lotor's gaze from where he silently watched, leaning against the wall of their house.

Unfortunately, Lee didn't read the atmosphere quite well enough and wandered over to the prince.

"Hey, mister," the young boy tugged on Lotor's sleeve, "are you a Firebender?"

He had asked Allura the same thing earlier, and was disappointed when she said no.

Lotor arched an eyebrow and nodded. Lee gasped in delight.

"Me too! Look!"

Lee took a step back, his face scrunched up in concentration. He punched his arms outward and small bursts of fire leapt from his fists, more smoke than flame.

Lotor regarded Lee in cool silence for a long moment before saying, "Your stance is atrocious."

Lee wilted. Allura was about to step in, when Lotor pushed himself off the wall to walk closer to the boy.

"You should hold yourself more upright, like this," the prince demonstrated and Lee quickly tried to copy him. "Straighten your shoulders and lower you center of gravity. Yes, that's better. Try it now."

Lee punched the air and this time his fireball was much bigger. He beamed.

Allura watched Lotor adjust Lee's posture again, and she wasn't quite sure what to think.

They continued practicing until Gansu returned. As they started loading more things, Lee excitedly told his father about the impromptu lesson.

Gansu's eyebrows rose as he looked over to where Lotor was once again leaning against the wall. "That's kind of you, sir. Neither my wife nor I are Firebenders, so Lee has had trouble finding someone to teach him."

"Surely there's a school he can attend?" Lotor drawled.

"There is, but it's too far away for him to go to every day," Gansu replied. "Though I suppose now that we have to move anyway, perhaps we can find a new home that's closer."

This idea seemed the cheer Lee up, and they continued to carry things out of the house.

Balancing a stack of boxes, Allura’s foot tripped over a small rock. Before she fell, a pair of arms caught her.

"Honestly," Lotor sniffed. "I know you're trying to work quickly, but carrying this much at once is inefficient."

Before she could reply, Lotor took the top two boxes and carried them to the carriage. Allura blinked, frozen in place until the prince glanced back and raised an eyebrow. Allura pursed her lips and brought her half over as well.

With another pair of hands, they loaded the carriage faster than the first time. It also helped that Lotor was much taller than the rest of them, and didn't have to waste time getting a ladder to reach certain items.

The family was in much higher spirits when a shadow fell across their door. Gansu paled.

"Gow," he said. "What are you doing here?"

The man, Gow, cocked an eyebrow. He was large, with a barrel chest and a pointed goatee. Two Fire Nation soldiers stood on either side of him.

"These fine gentlemen and myself wanted to stop by and make sure you were gone," he said. "Which you're obviously not."

Gansu frowned. "You said we had until sundown. That's not for at least a few more hours."

"Did I?" Gow examined his nails. "Well, there's been a change of plans. I need you out of here. Now."

"Please," Gansu protested. "Just give us a few more hours. We haven't finished moving our things."

"Then I guess whatever's left belongs to me now," he shrugged. "Either way, get off my property."

He snapped his fingers and the soldiers drew their swords.

"You can't do this!" Allura said furiously.

"She's right, you know," Lotor said.

She turned to him in surprise. Lotor’s expression remained blasé as Gow glared at him.

"You originally gave this family until sundown to gather their belongings," Lotor continued. "Legally, you're supposed to give them three days, but they agreed to sundown so I suppose you can get away with it. However, you cannot then shorten the time limit further without prior notice. Isn't that right, gentlemen?" Lotor addressed the soldiers, who exchanged looks.

Gow sputtered in outrage.

"And just who are you?" he demanded.

"Me?" Lotor shrugged. "Merely a concerned Fire Nation citizen. I am, however, rather familiar with our country’s laws."

“You some kind of lawyer?” Gow asked.

“Something like that,” Lotor said mildly.

Gow glanced nervously at the two soldiers. One remained stoic, while the other shrugged. Apparently not willing to call Lotor’s bluff, Gow threw up his hands.

“Fine,” he spat. “You have until sundown, and not a moment more!”

He spun on his heels and stormed away, the soldiers in tow.

Lotor waved away the family’s thanks.

“If you truly want to show your gratitude, I suggest getting back to work,” he said. “I only bought you a few more hours, after all.”

It took two more trips, but they managed to get everything out of the house before sundown. Gansu, Sela, and Lee bid Allura and Lotor farewell, and told them to visit their new home should they ever need a favor.

The carriage drove away, Lee waving until they were out of sight.

“That was a kind thing you did,” Allura said, waving back. “I didn’t know you were even capable of it.”

Lotor scoffed.

“I didn’t do it out of some misguided desire to help others,” he sneered. “I just don’t like it when greasy charlatans like that Gow fellow get their way.”

Allura smiled and patted Lotor’s arm. “Whatever you say, Lotor.”

The prince eyed her hand like it was a venomous tarantula snake. Nose in the air, he started walking back toward the docks. Allura blinked.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Not stopping, Lotor said, “We have some time before we have to meet with the others. Didn’t you say you wanted to buy something sparkly? The market’s this way.”

Allura’s eyes widened. A small smile grew on her face and she quickly caught up with Lotor, a bounce in her step.

-----

Lance and Keith sat on the edge of a large fountain in the town square. The last rays of sunlight filtered through the tree leaves, casting a pattern on Keith’s cheek that Lance couldn’t help but lean forward and brush his lips against. Keith smiled and turned his head so they could kiss properly. They were still in public, so they kept things chaste, but Lance didn’t mind. He quickly got lost in the sweet press of Keith’s lips against his own, and the feeling of Keith’s strong arms looped around his shoulders as he melted against Lance.

A quiet cough broke them apart. Blinking out of his pleasant haze, Lance looked up to find Allura and Lotor had arrived. Allura looked pleased, her teasing eyes matched perfectly with the twinkling pendant around her neck.

Lotor looked decidedly less happy, his lip curled as he eyed Lance’s arm wrapped around Keith’s waist like he wanted to chop it off. Lance’s good mood elevated even further and he smugly pulled Keith closer.

Looking a bit embarrassed, Keith cleared his throat.

“Oh, hey guys,” he said. “Ready to head back?”

“I think so, yes,” Allura looked around the courtyard. “Where’s Pidge?”

“I don’t—” Lance spotted a familiar mop of blonde hair and glasses searching through the crowd. “Oh, there she is!” Lance waved his arm high in the air. “Pidge! Over here!”

Lance thought her pinched expression was due to her having trouble locating them, but it didn’t fade even as she jogged over.

Judging by his frown, Keith must have noticed too.

“Pidge?” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“Also, why do you have a bird?” Lance asked.

“That’s not important right now,” Pidge glanced around warily, and Lance’s curiosity grew. She beckoned them all closer and spoke in a low voice.

“We can’t leave yet,” she said. “There’s something you guys need to see.”

They all exchanged looks and followed Pidge through the winding streets of Akaryuu. Eventually, they came to a stop in front of a nondescript house.

Pidge knocked on the door and it cracked open just enough for a single eye to peer out at them.

“Hey, it’s me,” Pidge said. “I brought my friends. You can trust them.”

The door opened wider and the group filtered in. It was a modest home, and Lance didn’t spot any occupants besides the young woman who let them in.

“This is Merla,” Pidge said. “We met earlier today.”

Merla was a pretty girl around their age. She had short, dusky red hair with a small braid that fell down one side of her face, and the amber eyes common to Fire Nation citizens.

“She needs our help,” Pidge added. “Tell them what you told me.”

Merla hesitated, but after an encouraging nod from Pidge, she spoke.

“Every year, Akaryuu sends a young woman to the home of our town’s guardian spirit, Lord Din Raa, to perform a traditional dance that will revitalize his powers,” Merla explained. “Usually, it’s a great honor, something to wear with pride for the rest of your life. But,” her eyes lowered in grief, “in the last few years, none of the girls have come back.”

Lance sucked in a sharp breath. He looked over at Keith and saw a dark expression on the Avatar’s face.

“Do you think this Din Raa is responsible?” Keith asked.

“I don’t know,” Merla admitted. “Din Raa has saved Akaryuu many times, so no one wants to suspect him. Unfortunately, he’s very reclusive, and keeps a magic barrier on the entrance to his cave, so no one’s been able to ask if he knows what happened to the other girls.”

“He hasn’t left his cave at all?”

Merla shook her head sadly. “We haven’t seen him since the first girl disappeared.”

“So why don’t you just stop sending girls?” Lance asked.

“The council believes that if we don’t continue the ritual, it could invite great danger to Akaryuu. The dance ensures Lord Din Raa’s protection. Without it, monsters could attack our town.” Merla frowned. “I don’t know what to do. At first, I was going to run away, but then I realized they’d just get another poor girl to take my place. I took the ceremonial robes, but if they get desperate enough, they might just try to do the ritual without them.”

Keith glanced over at Lance. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Lance nodded.

“A guardian spirit that’s not acting like itself?” he said. “Sounds an awful lot like the Balmera.”

“If the same kind of parasite is responsible, we should be able to kill it,” Keith said, “but we’d need to get close to know for sure.” Keith turned back to Merla. “Is there any way we can get into the cave?”

She shook her head.

“Like I said, there’s a magic barrier,” she said. “Only the ceremonial dancer is allowed through.”

“Perhaps one of us could take your place,” Allura suggested. “And once inside, deal with the parasite.”

“Maybe,” Merla looked around at them dubiously. “You’d need to be able to perform the sacred dance. Are any of you Firebenders?”

After a moment’s pause, they all looked at Keith.

Well, Lance thought as Keith’s expression grew even darker, the vacation was nice while it lasted.

Chapter Text

Dear Shay,

Thanks for your last letter! I’m glad the Balmera is still doing well. 

Shiro, Adam, Romelle, and I arrived safely at the Winterstone estate a couple of days ago. You know, we’ve stayed at a lot of fancy places this past year, including a literal royal palace, but this is somehow even fancier. I’m honestly glad we’re not gonna be here long. Every time I walk down the hall I’m scared I’ll accidentally knock over one of the antique decorations and throw myself into massive debt. 

But enough about me. How are you? I can’t wait to see you again! Adam and Romelle are excited to meet you. Especially Romelle, haha.

Are you sure you still want to come back with us to the Fire Nation? I mean, we can use all the help we can get, but it’s gonna be dangerous and I

“Hunk?” A knock sounded on Hunk’s door and Romelle poked her head inside. “Are you ready? We’ll be late if we don’t get going soon.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Hunk set down his brush, careful not to drip ink anywhere. “I was just writing a letter to Shay.”

Romelle’s eyes lit up as she hurried over on light feet. Shiro and Adam followed behind at a more sedate pace.

“Can I add a few words when you’re done?” Romelle asked. “She mentioned something interesting about the Balmera last time and I want to ask more about it.”

Hunk smiled, gesturing to the paper as he moved out of the way. “Go ahead.”

Romelle dipped the brush into the small pot of ink and began writing what was clearly quite a bit more than a few words. Adam shot Hunk a questioning look, to which Hunk shrugged. 

While he wasn’t officially courting Shay or Romelle, Hunk hadn’t been sure how either would take learning that he was close to the other. However, Hunk knew that trying to keep them a secret from each other was stupid and would only blow up in his face, so he forced himself to be upfront about the matter despite his fears. 

To his surprise, instead of getting jealous or upset, Shay and Romelle began adding their own conversations onto Hunk’s letters and became fast friends. He could only hope that their newfound raport continued once they met in person.

While Romelle continued to cover the remaining blank space on Hunk’s letter, Hunk turned to Shiro and Adam.

“You guys look nice,” Hunk said. “And you look beautiful too, Romelle.”

Shiro grimaced, but Adam returned Hunk’s smile.

“You don’t look half bad yourself,” Adam said. “I think the Earth Kingdom colors suit you best out of all of us.”

Hunk scratched his cheek bashfully. Romelle finally looked up from the letter with a pout.

“They might look nice, but these clothes are awfully uncomfortable,” she complained. “They’re so stiff, I doubt I could Airbend even if I tried. Do we really need to wear them all night?”

“I’m afraid so,” Adam said apologetically. 

Adam’s grandmother, Mira Winterstone, the matriarch of the family, was holding a fancy dinner to celebrate Adam’s return.The dress code was apparently quite strict, even though the only people in attendance were the four of them and Mira herself. They’d spent all day yesterday at a tailor’s shop in the most affluent part of Ba Sing Se as Adam picked out traditional Earth Kingdom outfits.

Hunk didn’t mind too much. Apart from the high quality, they weren’t that different from the clothes Hunk’s family wore for festivals and other special events. Adam looked relatively at ease too, but Shiro and Romelle both kept shifting and readjusting the many layers.

“We’d better get going,” Shiro said, his mouth pressed into a firm line. 

“Alright. Don’t forget what I told you,” Adam warned.

He’d spent the better part of an hour lecturing them on proper Earth Kingdom etiquette. Apparently, despite Adam being raised in the Fire Nation, his father had taught him everything he needed to know in case Adam ever decided to connect to that side of his family. Even Hunk didn’t know half the things Adam went over, though to be fair he never dined with rich people growing up.

The four of them made their way through the winding halls. It was almost funny how different everyone’s faces looked. Adam seemed nervous but determined. Shiro was tenser than Hunk had ever seen, though his posture remained steady and confidant. Romelle seemed to have absorbed some of the nervous energy, practically bouncing in place. Her eyes locked with Hunk’s and she shot him a smile.

Hunk felt equally on edge. Though they had been here for a couple of days, this would be their first time meeting Mira Winterstone face-to-face. Up until now the only people they had interacted with were the many servants that kept the estate running.

Finally, they made it to the dining hall. Mansions and palaces were impressive, but they seemed awfully inconvenient. Hunk couldn’t imagine having to walk for several minutes every time you wanted something to eat.

Adam paused before the ornate doors. He looked back at them, and Hunk tried to offer his most encouraging smile. Romelle did the same, and Shiro reached out to give Adam’s hand a small squeeze.

Adam’s shoulders seemed to relax a bit. He straightened his back, adjusted his glasses, and pushed open the doors.

The dining hall was just as grand as the rest of the estate. It had a high ceiling, tall windows that looked out into a perfectly manicured garden, and a table made of rich, heavy wood that looked long enough to sit fifty people.

An older woman sat on the far end, at the head of the table. Her blonde hair was pale with age, and a few wrinkles adorned her stern face, but her eyes were incredibly sharp.

Following Adam’s lead, the group stopped in front of her and bowed.

“Madame Winterstone,” Adam greeted. “Thank you for granting us your hospitality. It’s an honor to dine with you this evening.”

The matriarch studied Adam for a long moment before nodding. “The honor is mine.”

The four took their seats and dinner began.

Hunk took it all back. Walking so far every day was worth it if it meant you got to eat food this delicious. It was almost good enough to distract him from the stiff, awkward silence.

Almost.

Amidst the clinking of lacquered chopsticks, Hunk glanced up from his bowl to catch Romelle’s gaze. The Airbender looked as uncomfortable as Hunk felt, offering him a weak smile and a shrug.

The next two courses passed in the same fashion, no one seeming to want to make the first move toward conversation. The only one who looked unaffected was Madame Winterstone as she continued to eat her food in small, elegant bites.

Finally, about midway through the main course, Madame Winterstone spoke.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” she said. “What do you want?”

Adam paused, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. He hastily set them back down. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“I may be old, but I’m not senile,” her upper lip curled. “You’ve never showed interest in your heritage before, and now you suddenly show up? Clearly you want something. What is it?”

Adam’s face shifted into something more serious.

“You’re right,” he said. “We need an audience with Queen Sanda.”

“Why?”

“Our reasons are confidential,” he said, “but it is a matter of life or death.”

Judging by her expression, the answer didn’t satisfy Madame Winterstone.

“You expect me to get you a meeting with our nation’s ruler without an explanation?” she said. “For all I know, you and your little friends want to assassinate her.”

“That’s not-” Adam cut himself off with a resigned grimace. “We’re here on behalf of the Avatar. We need to speak to the queen about new information regarding the four Lion Spirits.”

Madame Winterstone’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of information?”

“I can’t tell you that,” Adam said firmly. “It’s for the queen’s ears only.”

The matriarch studied her grandson for a long moment. Finally, she picked her chopsticks back up and turned back to her meal.

“I can get you an audience,” she said. “Sanda is a close friend of mine.”

The thick tension loosened as the four exchanged relieved glances.

“Thank you, Madame,” Adam smiled.

“However,” she added, “you must do something in return.”

Hunk stiffened again, and by the looks on his friends’ faces, he wasn’t the only one.

Adam nodded. They’d expected from the start that Madame Winterstone would want some kind of payment for her favor, and now they would find out what.

“I will convince Sanda to meet with you,” she said, “if you agree to remain here in Ba Sing Se and take over the family business once I retire.”

Hunk’s eyes widened as he looked over at Adam. Adam’s lips were pressed into a thin line, but he didn’t look surprised. Shiro didn’t look surprised either, though he was gripping his chopsticks so tightly that Hunk was amazed they hadn’t snapped in two.

Not breaking eye contact with Madame Winterstone, Adam nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “I agree to these terms.”

Hunk exchanged shocked glances with Romelle. Shiro bowed his head, hiding his expression from view.

Madame Winterstone smiled.

“Excellent,” she said. “I’ll admit, I started to grow worried these past few years, what with no heir to carry on the family name. I even offered to bring your father back into the fold. I’m glad to see you have more sense than he does.”

“Yes, grandmother,” Adam replied woodenly.

“We’ll need to start your lessons right away,” she continued. “You have much to learn to make up for your...unfortunate upbringing.”

“Yes, grandmother.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Hunk saw Shiro’s hands begin to tremble, though he still couldn’t glimpse the Firebender’s face.

“It’s a pity you didn’t inherit your father’s bending abilities, but at least you got his looks. We’ll make do.”

Hunk stared down at his half-eaten plate, appetite gone. Romelle looked like she was about to cry.

“And, of course, you’ll be expected to find a suitable match that will benefit the family. An Earthbender, to minimize the chances of further tainting the bloodline.”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Hunk slammed his hands down onto the table as he leapt to his feet, glaring at Madame Winterstone. “How can you say such horrible things to your own grandson?!”

The old woman gaped. Flushing with anger, she opened her mouth, but Hunk cut her off.

“No, you know what?” he said. “We don’t need your help. We’ll find another way.”

“Hunk,” Adam held out a placating hand. “It’s okay-”

“No, it’s not okay!” Hunk scowled. “I know we need to help the Lions, but you shouldn’t have to give up your happiness!”

Adam stared. “Hunk…”

Shiro suddenly stood up, his expression firm.

“Hunk is right,” he said. “I know I promised not to interfere, but I can’t stand one more second of this. We’ll figure out another way to meet with the queen.”

Adam’s wide eyes moved from Shiro to Hunk to Romelle before finally settling on Madame Winterstone. His grandmother’s expression grew cold.

“If you leave now,” she warned, “you will not be welcomed back.”

Adam’s face finally settled into a calm smile.

“Good,” he said.

Adam stood up and walked out of the dining hall, ignoring Madame Winterstone’s indignant sputtering. The others quickly followed after him, and Shiro closed the large doors with a satisfying bang.

Hunk felt the adrenaline suddenly disappear from his body, leaving him exhausted and more than a little horrified.

“Oh no,” he said numbly. “What have I done? Keith gave me one job and I ruined it.”

“No,” Shiro shook his head, resting his hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “You made the right call. The price she was asking was too great.”

Adam nodded. “Thank you for standing up for me, Hunk. It means a lot.”

“You were wonderful in there, Hunk,” Romelle stood on her tiptoes to kiss Hunk’s cheek. “I’m so proud of you.”

Hunk blushed bright red. “Oh, um, thanks.”

As they started back towards their rooms to collect their things, Romelle shot the two Firebenders a questioning look.

“I must admit,” Romelle tilted her head, “I’m surprised Shiro didn’t speak up earlier. He looked ready to set Madame Winterstone’s hair on fire from the moment we sat down.”

Shiro and Adam exchanged a look.

“Well, we...sort of had a plan,” Shiro admitted.

Hunk’s smile dropped. “So I really did mess things up?”

“No, no. It was more a vague concept than an actual plan,” Adam assured him. “I was going to agree to whatever she wanted, tough it out until we met with Sanda, and then run away once everything was done.”

Hunk and Romelle blinked.

“So you were just going to...lie?”

“Essentially,” Adam shrugged. “I am training to be a spy, you know. Besides, my father ran off with a cute Firebender. Why can’t I?” He winked at Shiro who smiled.

“Oh man,” Hunk’s shoulders drooped. “That would have been way easier. Now we’ll have to think of another plan.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you,” Shiro said, “but I still think this turned out for the best. I never liked the idea of Adam forcing himself to obey that woman, even temporarily.”

“I could have handled it,” Adam reached out to take Shiro’s hand, “but thanks, Takashi.”

“So what do we do now?” Romelle asked.

“Now we pack up and find somewhere to stay while we figure out our next move,” Shiro said.

Hunk’s eyes lit up as an idea suddenly came to him. “I think I know I place.”

-----

Hunk led his friends through the familiar streets on the outskirts of Ba Sing Se. As he took in the houses and friendly faces, Hunk couldn’t stop the smile growing on his face.

Finally, they stopped in front of one house in particular. It didn’t stand out much from the others, but Hunk’s heart ached just looking at it.

He knocked on the door. After a moment, it opened to reveal a man and a woman, both with dark skin and hair just like his.

“Hunk?” the woman said softly, her warm eyes wide and filled with unshed tears.

“Hi, mom. Hi, dad,” Hunk felt his own eyes become wet as he stepped into their embrace. “I’m home.”

-----

Lance sat on the sofa, bouncing his leg with nervous anticipation.

“Do I really have to do this?” Keith’s voice asked from the other room.

“It’s you or Lotor, and he’s too big to wear the kimono,” Pidge called back. “Hurry up, we don’t have much time left.”

They were all waiting in the living room as Keith finished changing. Merla, already dressed in casual clothes she’d presumably gotten from somewhere in the house, shot an apologetic look towards the door, even though Keith couldn’t see it.

“The kimono is an essential part of the ritual,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s not optional.”

Lance heard Keith sigh. After a few more minutes, the door opened and the Avatar stepped out.

Lance’s jaw dropped.

Keith always looked pretty in Lance’s eyes, but the kimono enhanced his beauty to a point that was probably dangerous for Lance’s health. The red and gold silk complemented his complexion, hugging Keith’s slim frame. Long, wide sleeves draped gracefully from his arms, and another swath of fabric wrapped around his waist, looping into a large bow at the small of his back. The costume was completed with a pair of slippers made from the same embroidered silk, and an elaborate hairpin tucked into his Fire Nation topknot. Lance noted that only the upper half of Keith’s hair was pulled up, leaving the rest to fall down his shoulders. It was a good look.

Keith, it seemed, didn’t agree. He avoided looking at anyone with a determined scowl, 

“I feel ridiculous,” he muttered.

“Aw, come one, you’re the Avatar,” Pidge rolled her eyes. “You can’t let a little thing like crossdressing stop you from helping people.”

“What?” Keith blinked at her. “That’s not...We don’t care about that kind of thing in the Fire Nation.”

“Oh,” Pidge said. “Good for you guys. Very progessive. So what’s the problem?”

Keith hesitated. He glanced over at Lance, who offered what he hoped was a supportive smile. To his surprise, Keith’s blush only got worse, as the Avatar quickly looked away again.

A smooth voice chuckled, drawing everyone’s attention.

“This,” Lotor said, eyeing Keith in a way that raised Lance’s hackles, “is no ordinary dress. It’s a bridal kimono.”

Everyone’s eyes snapped back to Keith, who looked like he wanted to Earthbend himself into the floor.

“It’s true,” Merla added with a sheepish smile. “The ceremony is designed to mimic a traditional Fire Nation wedding.”

“Weird,” Pidge muttered under her breath. Allura elbowed her.

“Looks like it fits,” Merla continued, circling Keith with a critical gaze. “Good thing we’re about the same size.”

“Yeah,” Keith said miserably. “Good thing.”

“Now that we know you can pass as a ceremonial dancer, let me teach you the choreography.”

Keith straightened up and nodded, a spark of determination returning to his eyes. Once everyone had gathered on one side of the room to give the two Firebenders space, Merla began her lesson.

To no one’s surprise, Keith picked it up incredibly fast. Lance watched Keith’s graceful movements, captivated by how the kimono’s long sleeves flowed through the air, firelight shimmering off the gold embroidery. 

“Wow, you’re better at that than I am,” Merla said with a raised eyebrow.

Keith continued to dance, a faint blush on his cheeks. 

“Firedancing was kinda my thing back in school. I was even going to perform a firedance for the graduation ceremony until someone,” Keith shot Lotor a dirty look, “challenged me to an Agni Kai.”

Lotor shrugged, looking unapologetic. Jerk.

“Well, I think you’re ready,” Merla said. “We should go talk to the council right away, before they try to drag another girl into it.”

“Should we come with you?” Allura asked.

Keith shook his head. “If things go south, it’ll be easier for you guys to help without the village elders keeping an eye on you.”

Everyone seemed to accept this answer, and took a moment to say goodbye and wish Keith and Merla good luck.

When it was Lance’s turn, he took Keith’s hands into his own. 

“Be careful,” Lance said softly. 

“Careful is my middle name,” Keith smirked.

“I’m serious,” Lance said. “If you’re not back by morning, I’m going in there after you, barrier or no barrier.”

Keith’s eyes softened and he leaned in to kiss Lance. “That’s sweet, but I’ll be fine. I’m getting pretty good at this Avatar thing.”

He started to pull back, only for Lance to swoop in for another kiss, deeper and longer than the first one. He let go of Keith’s hands to gently cup the Avatar’s face.

“You’re an amazing Avatar, Keith,” Lance said when he finally let Keith breathe again. “You could defeat a hundred dark spirits if you wanted. But that doesn’t change how I feel. I need you to know that no matter what happens, I’ll always have your back. If things don’t go as planned, or if you ever make a mistake, you don’t have to worry because I’ll be there to protect you. Now and always.”

Keith stared back at Lance, his violet eyes wide and a faint blush on his cheeks.

“By the way,” Lance winked, “you look super hot in this kimono.”

Keith’s awed expression broke as he rolled his eyes, smacking Lance’s arm with a smile. Lance seized the offending limb and pressed a kiss to Keith’s knuckles.

“Now go kick that evil spirit’s ass.”

-----

Surprisingly, Keith and Merla didn’t have much issue with the town council. At first they were hesitant to use a boy, since it was against tradition, but once Keith proved he could do the dance they agreed to let him participate. Technically speaking, there was no rule that the dancer had to be female, and with the deadline for the ceremony fast approaching, Keith was a better choice than trying to force some other poor girl into the role.

With one last farewell to Merla, Keith stepped into the waiting palanquin. The litter was just big enough for one person, with sheer curtains draped over the square frame. Keith sat down on the cushioned bottom, legs tucked neatly beneath him. He watched as four silhouettes walked to each corner of the palanquin, his stomach jolting slightly as Keith was suddenly lifted into the air.

As they travelled to Din Raa’s cave, Keith cursed the walls of fabric that surrounded him. They made for a pretty image, but he couldn’t make out anything other than vague shapes. He would just have to hope that if he was able to rescue the missing girls, one of them would know how to get back to Akaryuu.

After what felt like a couple of hours, the people carrying Keith’s palanquin finally stopped and lowered it to the ground. The Avatar waited for them to leave the area, as he’d been instructed, before sweeping aside the red cloth to finally get a look outside.

They’d dropped Keith off at the base of a large mountain. Stepping out of the litter, Keith raised a hand to shade his eyes from the bright sun and squinted up. Someone had carved a winding pathway up the mountain’s surface that lead to what looked like the entrance to a cave about halfway up.

Taking a deep breath, Keith began his ascent. As he climbed, the Avatar found a new respect for the girls who did this. Even with his Airbending trick to regulate his body temperature, Keith had difficulty walking under the blazing sun in the silken kimono, not to mention how the somewhat narrow skirt prevented him from moving his legs too far apart.

Finally, he made it to the cave. Taking a moment to catch his breath, Keith inspected the large jagged opening. Though nothing looked amiss, he could sense the magical barrier Merla had spoken of. 

Keith tentatively reached out. His hand touched an invisible force unlike anything he’d ever felt before, somehow simultaneously solid and liquid. 

The barrier must have recognized Keith’s role, or at least recognized the kimono he wore, because as he pressed against it it gave way, allowing Keith to push through to the other side.

Once the odd sensation dissipated, Keith glanced around to get his bearings. He found himself in a large tunnel, gently lit by glowing gems that protruded from the earthen walls. They reminded him a bit of the luminous stones in the Balmera Caves. 

Keith followed the tunnel, careful to keep his guard up. Soon enough, it opened into a cavern big enough to fit a palace. Waiting in the center of the cavern was Din Raa.

Keith’s heart stopped. For some reason it had never occurred to him to ask Merla what kind of spirit Din Raa was, but now that they were face-to-face, Keith wished he’d gotten some kind of warning.

Din Raa was a dragon.

A huge dragon with red scales, long horns, and a mane that looked like it was made of fire itself. Keith stared up in awe. He’d always wanted to see a dragon, but they were incredibly rare. Din Raa must have been one of only a handful left.

Din Raa cocked his head at Keith, snapping the Avatar from his stupor. Scrambling to remember Merla’s instructions, Keith bowed to the dragon.

Din Raa bowed his head in return, and the ceremony began.

As Keith danced, he studied Din Raa from the corner of his eye, looking for any trace of a malevolent spirit like the one that corrupted the Balmera. As far as he could tell, however, the dragon looked normal. Or, well, as normal as a dragon could be.

Keith spun in an elegant twirl, his long sleeves billowing gracefully as fire danced around him. Despite the gravity of the situation, it was kind of fun. Keith loved bending every element, but fire would always hold a special place in his heart.

Keith dropped down into the final pose, kneeling before Din Raa with his arms outstretched as if making an offering to the dragon.

Keith quickly realized the stance wasn’t just for show, as he felt a large portion of his spiritual energy leave his body. Feeling somewhat wobbly, Keith got back to his feet and stared up at the dragon. Din Raa’s scales seemed to shine brighter and his fiery mane looked fuller. 

“Thank you, young Firebender,” a voice rumbled inside Keith’s mind, “for restoring my vitality.”

Keith’s jaw dropped. Though he knew dragons were highly intelligent, he had no idea they could talk.

Realizing Din Raa was still waiting for a response, Keith hastily nodded.

“You’re welcome,” he said lamely.

The dragon cocked his head. “You do not smell of Akaryuu.”

“Uh, no,” Keith agreed. “I grew up in the capital.”

“I see. You performed admirably, so I mean no offense, but why did the people not send a native dancer? The ceremony is meant to protect this domain, after all.”

Keith bit his lip, debating on how much to reveal. 

“They were going to, but she got scared,” Keith said. “None of the dancers from the past few years came home.”

“So you volunteered to go in her stead? How commendable.”

“You don’t sound surprised to hear they went missing,” Keith noted cautiously.

“Of course not,” Din Raa replied. “I know exactly where they are. And soon, so will you.”

Suddenly, something long and thin lunged at Keith from behind, wrapping around his waist and pinning his arms to his sides.

“Hey!” Keith yelped as it lifted him into the air. Looking down, he realized the purple tentacle looked almost exactly like the ones that belonged to the dark spirit in the Balmera Caves, except thinner and more vine-like. “Let me go!”

The appendage brought Keith up to Din Raa’s eye level. Eyes which upon closer inspection looked oddly blank.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” said the voice, transforming from a low rumble to a nasally hiss. “Your spiritual powers are exponentially greater than the others’. I haven’t felt this strong in years.”

Keith watched in horror as a large yellow eyeball with a slitted pupil slithered out from beneath Din Raa’s mane to leer down at Keith.

“And I’m not about to give that up.”

Chuckling, the evil spirit directed Din Raa to take Keith down one of the many tunnels. Keith continued to struggle. He knew fire wouldn’t hurt a dragon, and judging by how the eyeball was nestled in Din Raa’s mane, it too was immune. It didn’t seem to have realized that Keith was the Avatar yet, and Keith wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. The element of surprise was often a solid strategy.

With this in mind, Keith strained for his Marmora knife. Finally grasping it, he unsheathed the blade from the small of his back, flipped it in his grip, and swiped at the purple tentacle.

The spirit released him with a shriek. Dropping to the ground, Keith tucked and rolled into a run as more tentacles shot after him.

Spotting another tunnel that was much too small for a dragon but the perfect size for a human, Keith raced inside. The tentacles followed, but about thirty feet in, they suddenly stopped.

Cautiously, Keith slowed down to look back at them. They strained towards him, but couldn’t seem to go any further. Keith realized the evil spirit must not be able to separate from Din Raa.

After a moment, the tentacles slithered back. Keith let out a breath of relief, though he knew better than to let his guard down. The spirit probably decided to find another route.

Keith considered his next step. So far, the tunnel didn’t seem to have any branching pathways, and he wasn’t about to go back toward the dragon, so really the only way to go was forward. He could Earthbend a new path, but without a clear direction, there wasn’t much point. First, however, there was something he needed to take care of.

Knife in hand, Keith cut a long slit down either side of the kimono’s skirt. 

Now able to maneuver properly, Keith made his way down the tunnel. The glowing rocks were sparse, so he conjured a small flame in his palm to see. 

He couldn’t tell how much time passed as he traversed the tunnel. An hour? Maybe two? Every now and then, Keith heard a noise and froze, worried that the tentacles had found a way in. The sounds soon passed, and he continued his journey.

Keith soon noticed a faint glowing in the distance. At first he thought it was more of the luminous stones, but as he got closer, the Avatar realized the glow was a bit too bright.

The tunnel opened up into a cavern. It wasn’t as big as the one where he performed the firedance, but it was still huge. Keith immediately spotted the source of the light and froze.

Four large, semi-translucent crystals grew from the ground, all lined up in a neat row. 

Swallowing, the Avatar stopped in front of the nearest crystal. A young woman rested inside, her eyes closed in what Keith desperately hoped was slumber. She wore a beautiful red kimono with gold embroidery.

Keith checked the other crystals. Each one contained a young woman, all wearing kimonos similar to Keith’s. There was no doubt. These were the missing ceremonial dancers.

With a deep breath, Keith widened his stance and raised his arms. It was tough, Din Raa must have taken more spiritual energy than Keith realized, but after a moment the crystal closest to him cracked wide open.

Catching his breath, Keith hurried over and let out a sigh of relief when the girl stirred awake. 

“What?” her confused gaze flitted around before settling on Keith. “Who are you?”

Keith opened his mouth to answer when a roar suddenly echoed through the cavern. The girl gasped, turning white.

“He’s back,” she said.

Keith grimaced and grabbed her hand, pulling her out of the crystal.

“Come on,” he said, “we’ve gotta get out of here.”

The girl glanced back at the other crystals.

“What about-”

“We’ll come back for them,” Keith promised, “but we can’t help them if we get captured too.”

The girl nodded and followed Keith into the tunnel. Hiding in the shadows, they watched as Din Raa and the evil spirit controlling him entered the cavern. The eyeball took one look at the broken crystal and Din Raa released a furious roar.

“I know you’re in here, boy,” the voice hissed. “You will regret what you’ve done.”

Din Raa stomped around the cavern, his eyes sharp as he searched for them. Keith grabbed the girl’s wrist, holding a finger to his lips when she gave him a startled look. Silently, he led her down the tunnel and away from the rampaging dragon.

After several tense minutes, the girl pulled them both to a stop.

“Who are you?” she demanded again, snatching her arm away. 

They hadn’t seen or heard any sign of Din Raa for awhile, so Keith figured they were safe enough for the moment. Besides, between the dance and breaking the crystal, he was feeling pretty worn out. Keith leaned back against the tunnel wall with a sigh.

“My name is Keith,” he said. “I’m here to help you and the others escape.”

“Did the council send you?” she asked skeptically.

Keith shook his head. “This year’s dancer, Merla, asked me to do it.”

“Merla?” Recognition sparked in her eyes, followed by exasperated fondness. “That idiot. What was she thinking?”

“You know her?” Keith asked.

“Yes,” the girl said. She seemed to be deep in thought for a moment before she crossed her arms and nodded. “If you’re friends with Merla, I guess I’ll trust you for now. I’m Luka.”

A bit surprised by her sudden change in attitude, Keith nodded back. Luka looked around Keith’s age and had long pale red hair and golden eyes. Her kimono appeared to be similar to Keith’s before he ripped it, though the cut was slightly different.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked. “I’m guessing since you came alone the barrier is still up.”

“Afraid so,” Keith answered as they started to walk again. “We’ll have to rescue the others on our own.”

Luka frowned. “I’ll do what I can, but we’re just two people. Din Raa is a dragon.”

“That’s true,” Keith said, “but I do have one small advantage.”

Widening his stance, Keith thrust out his arms to Earthbend a new tunnel into the wall.

“...I wouldn’t exactly call that small,” Luka said faintly. She shook her head and looked at Keith with newly determined eyes. “What do we do?”

Keith frowned as his mind raced.

“Our first priority is freeing the others,” he said. “I can use Earthbending to break their crystals like I did with yours, but I need time. Do you think if I connected some of these tunnels, you’d be able to distract Din Raa?”

“As long as I can move far enough back that those weird tentacle things don’t grab me,” Luka nodded. 

They took a few minutes to hammer out their plan, then got to work. As Keith created more tunnels, Luka quietly explained what she knew about the evil spirit. Usually, Din Raa was able to thrive on the spiritual energy he received from the firedance until the next ceremony. The thing now controlling him, however, apparently wasn’t satisfied with that. It captured the dancers, putting them in some kind of magical stasis within the crystals, and waking them to dance again once their energy had recovered. This way, Din Raa could replenish his power several times a year, making him, and by proxy the dark spirit, that much stronger. 

Keith frowned. As he’d thought, it was a similar situation to the Balmera, except while the Balmera had only been corrupted for a few months, this evil spirit had controlled Din Raa for years. That combined with a dragon being inherently more dangerous than the Balmera meant it would probably be harder to kill.

After their preparations were complete, the two Firebenders returned to the cavern. Din Raa still stood there, seemingly guarding the remaining dancers. 

Keith watched from the shadows as Luka poked her head out of one of the tunnels on the other side of the cavern. She “accidentally” kicked a loose rock, and the echoing sound immediately caught the dragon’s attention.

Luka ran back into the tunnel with a curse as Din Raa hurried after her. Farther down, she would use a much smaller tunnel that Keith created to lose the dragon, and periodically reappear to keep him distracted.

Keith sent her another mental wish of good luck and crept over to the nearest crystal.

He grit his teeth as he tried to break it open. It was harder to manipulate than stone, and his energy still hadn’t fully recovered from the firedance ritual. What felt like several minutes passed with no results.

A thin crack finally began to form down the middle when Keith suddenly sensed a presence behind him. Instinctively, he lunged to the side just in time to avoid being grabbed by a long purple tentacle. 

Keith spun around to see Din Raa re-enter the cavern. One of the tentacles held Luka up in the air, pinning her arms to her side and wrapping around her mouth to muffle her yells.

The large yellow eyeball slithered from Din Raa’s mane to leer down at Keith.

“I see now why your spiritual energy is so potent,” it hissed, glancing over at the cracked crystal, “Avatar.”

Keith glared. Since he no longer had that card hidden up his sleeve, Keith dug his heels into the ground, thrust out his arms, and sent a jagged chunk of rock flying at the eyeball.

Din Raa knocked the projectile away with a powerful swipe of his paw. Another thin tentacle lashed out at Keith, only to recoil at the sharp bite of his knife.

More purple tendrils began to attack Keith. He kept them at bay with his blade and the elements at his disposal, but one finally slipped through his defences. It wrapped around Keith’s wrist and squeezed, forcing him to drop his Marmora blade with a pained cry. Keith grabbed the vine-like appendage with his other hand to try to pull it off, only for it to seize that wrist too.

The spirit used its grip to lift Keith high into the air so he was level with Din Raa and the eyeball. 

“I have you now, Avatar,” the spirit taunted.

Growling, Keith kicked out an arc of fire from his feet. Din Raa was unaffected, but the eyeball lurched out of the way. Maybe it wasn’t quite as immune to fire as Keith originally thought.

Hoping that was the case, Keith opened his mouth and release a stream of flame, distantly aware of the irony of breathing fire at a dragon.

The scorching heat seared part of the dark spirit’s body. As it screeched and writhed in agony, the tentacle’s grip on Keith loosened, allowing him to wrestle free and drop back down to the ground.

However, he didn’t get far before an enormous paw shot out, knocking Keith onto his back. Huge, sharp claws dug into the earth on either side of Keith as the dragon pinned him to the ground. Keith gasped for air as the impossibly heavy weight threatened to crush him.

“You will pay for that,” the evil spirit said. “With the amount of energy you gave me, I won’t need you again for decades. By the time you wake up to dance for me again, everything you love will be gone.”

Terror gripped Keith’s heart like none he had ever felt before. Faces flashed in his mind’s eye. Shiro and Adam and Kosmo and Krolia. Allura, Hunk, Pidge, Coran, even Lotor.

Lance. 

In a final act of desperation, Keith kicked his legs into the air. Spikes of earth shot towards the dragon like living stalagmites, but they were no match for his tough hide and crumbled against the blood red scales.

Din Raa pressed down on Keith, making it even harder to breathe. Black spots swam across his vision as Keith’s body grew limp, and he felt his consciousness start to fade away.

“Sleep, Avatar.”

Keith’s eyes fell shut.

And Their eyes snapped open.

With a sonorous roar, They bent the earth around Them to lift Din Raa’s paw, allowing Them to break free. Din Raa reached for Them again, but the earth grabbed him instead, swallowing all four of his paws to trap his limbs in place.

Eyes glowing a bright white, They pulled water from the air and wrapped it around Din Raa’s snout, freezing it into a muzzle. Din Raa’s fire would melt it in a matter of seconds, but that was all the time They needed.

With the dragon incapacitated, They turned Their attention to the foul creature that tried to harm Them. The air guided Them up to hover before it. Thin, purple tendrils shot at Them from all directions, but They easily knocked them away. The few that managed to get close were destroyed by the storm of elements that raged around Them.

The yellow eye stared at Them in fear. It unattached itself from Din Raa and slid to the ground, racing towards the tunnels in a last ditch attempt to flee.

Calmly, They raised a hand. A long, thin piece of crystal broke free from the shattered remains of Luka’s prison, jagged and sharp like glass. With a sweep of Their arm, the crystal flew across the cavern to impale the evil spirit.

The eyeball release a shriek, its tentacles writhing in pain as the spirit crumbled into nothingness.

The air gently set Them back down onto the earth. No longer able to sense the dark energy, They closed Their eyes and let go.

-----

“-eith. Keith. Wake up, Keith.”

Keith released a pained groan.

“Oh, thank the Spirits,” the arms around him tightened.

Keith forced himself to open his eyes.

“Lance?” he said, staring up at his boyfriend's familiar face. 

“Hey, man,” Lance smiled softly. “I’m so glad you’re awake. We were getting pretty worried.”

“We?” Keith turned his head to take in his surroundings.

He was still in the cavern where Luka and the others had been held prisoner. Lance sat kneeled on the ground with Keith propped against his chest. Allura and Lotor stood nearby, their expressions both worried and relieved, while Pidge appeared to be working with Luka and Merla on the other side of the cavern to break open the remaining crystals.

Keith looked back up at Lance.

“How did you guys get here?” he asked.

Lance shrugged. 

“We’ve been right outside the cave for hours,” he said. “We wanted to help you somehow, but no matter what we tried, we couldn’t get in. Then, a little while ago, Allura suddenly felt the barrier disappear. We ran inside and found...well, this.” 

Lance waved a hand at the general chaotic state of the cavern. Huge chunks of debris littered the floor, scorch marks covered the walls, and were those pieces of ice over there?

“What happened, anyway?” Lance asked.

Keith frowned. He could remember Din Raa crushing him, and passing out, but after that, it was blank.

Keith shook his head. “I don’t-”

Movement in the corner of his eye caught Keith’s attention and his head snapped around to see Din Raa walk into the cavern. Keith scrambled to his feet, only for his legs to immediately give out. Lance quickly caught him, allowing Keith to lean on his arm for support as they walked closer to the dragon.

“You’re okay,” Keith breathed.

Din Raa rumbled low in his chest. He brought his head down so that Keith could place his hand on the dragon’s snout, marveling at the warm scales. Feelings that were not his own pressed upon Keith’s mind. Gratitude. Pride. A deep fondness that made Keith wonder if he knew Din Raa in a past life.

Keith gasped as he felt a rush of spiritual energy flow into him, filling what had been depleted by the firedance and then some. Din Raa raised his head and Keith stared up at him in awe.

“Thank you,” he said.

Another rumble echoed through the chamber. Seemingly satisfied, Din Raa turned and disappeared down one of the many tunnels.

Everyone watched the dragon go in quiet wonder. Even Lotor looked amazed by the beast’s majesty. Once the sound of Din Raa’s heavy steps faded away, Keith turned toward the young women who were climbing out of the crystals.

Though Keith’s spiritual power had been restored, his physical body still felt exhausted, so it took some effort to walk across the large cavern. Lance looked like he was debating picking Keith up, but Keith shot him a warning glance. He was tired, not an invalid.

Seeing them come closer, Luka turned around with a grin.

“Keith!” she said happily. “Thank goodness you’re alright. I was worried when you passed out.”

“I’m glad you’re okay too,” Keith said. Apart from a few minor bumps and bruises, Luka looked unharmed. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Luka asked, her eyebrows shooting up.

Keith shook his head.

“Well, it looked like Din Raa was about to win when you suddenly turned the tables on him.” Luka’s face lit up in excitement. “It was amazing! Your eyes glowed and you were bending all the elements at once without barely moving!”

“I was?”

Allura gasped, drawing everyone’s attention.

“The Avatar State!” she sent Keith a dazzling grin. “That must be it! You finally tapped into it!”

“Aw, man,” Lance pouted. “Did you have to do it while we weren’t here? I wanna see it.”

“Lance,” Allura glared, “the Avatar State is the most powerful ability the Avatar can invoke. It allows Keith to channel vast cosmic energies and the knowledge of his past lives. It’s not a trick for you to gawp at.”

Silence reigned as everyone processed the weight of her words.

“...It was pretty cool though,” Luka added.

Lance grinned while Allura sighed.

-----

The people of Akaryuu were shocked when Keith not only returned alive, but brought back the other dancers who had long since been presumed dead. 

The council offered Keith a reward, but the Avatar waved it away. Though it may be a moot point by now, Keith still wanted to keep a low profile. Merla, Luka, and the other girls had already promised not to share his true identity, so with luck if the Fire Lord heard about this incident, he wouldn’t make the connection.

Keith, Lance, Allura, Pidge, and Lotor said their goodbyes and sailed back to the safehouse. While the others gave Coran and Krolia a briefing on what happened, Keith silently grabbed Lance’s hand to drag him to their room.

Barely able to keep his eyes open, Keith crawled into bed and collapsed. A wet nose brushed against his cheek and Keith blindly reached out to give Kosmo a reassuring pat.

“M’okay, boy,” he mumbled. “Just tired.”

“Can’t blame you,” Lance's voice said. The mattress dipped behind Keith and long arms slipped around his waist. “From what Allura said, you pulled off some cosmic level moves in there.”

Keith hummed. Rolling around to face Lance, he tucked his head under Lance’s chin and happily burrowed further into Lance’s embrace.

“I can’t believe we got to meet a dragon!” Lance said. “How cool is that?”

“Mmhm,” Keith agreed sleepily.

There was a beat of silence before Lance’s arms tightened slightly around him.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Lance murmured. “You were in that cave for hours, and we had no way of knowing if you were even alive. Pidge tried to Earthbend in from underground, but the barrier covered the entire mountain.”

At his somber tone, Keith forced himself to fight harder against the call of sleep. He pulled back to look up into Lance’s troubled eyes.

“I wish I could have been there to help you,” Lance said.

Keith raised his hand to cup Lance’s cheek.

“Me too,” Keith said softly. “The dark spirit said it would keep me in stasis for years and years, until everyone I loved was gone. In those last few seconds before I lost consciousness, I was so scared. Not that I might die, but that I wouldn’t see you guys again.” Keith’s eyes fell shut as a single tear ran down his cheek. “That I wouldn’t see you again.”

Lance wiped away the tear. He shifted closer to press a kiss to Keith’s cheek. Then one to his nose. Another to each eyelid. Finally, Lance’s lips met Keith’s, slow and gentle. 

I’m right here, the kiss seemed to say, from both of them. I’ll never leave you.

Exhausted, and warm, and filled with love, Keith finally let himself drift off to slumber.