Long ago, there was a handsome prince who lost his home.
He had been born in a beautiful palace, with a family that loved him immensely. His father was known by his people for being kind and for always watching over them, and his mother, though not a royal, had grown into the hearts of the people from Omashu--for she was a tough but fair woman, the perfect match for the man she loved.
The people of Omashu lived in harmony for many years, keeping trade with other cities around them and honoring the treaties they kept with other nations; but not long after the young prince was born, they were attacked.
A young apprentice ran from the castle with the baby prince in his arms. He took him to Kyoshi Island, where the warriors promised to raise him and keep him safe as a sign of gratitude towards the king, who had always been kind to them.
But there was one issue: over the years, the prince’s true home and family had been completely forgotten.
Lance stared up at the city before him, the wind blowing his hair against his face. He carefully grabbed the hem of the cloak he was wearing and pulled up his hood.
It wasn’t often that he strolled around the Capital, let alone hoping to go unnoticed. He rather liked the attention he was given, liked to greet the people who walked towards him and to give them the charming smile he was known for. But he had promised his father to be silent, to go around the town like a thief in the night.
There was a message he ought to deliver—a letter full of longing and quiet despair, a meeting with the woman who brought him to life below the blue, full moon, and a trade he ought to settle with the people he once knew as his family. It was a mission his father was certain only Lance could accomplish—a mission fit for a boy that belonged to two worlds.
His heart stammered against his chest with thrill at the memory of his father speaking to him, asking him for a favour. He had heard thousands of stories when he was a kid of boys who would be sent on important life missions when they’d grown of age, how they would go on adventures around the world with their father by their side, how they’d prove themselves to their family and the world. But as Lance grew up, he realised an adventure with his father was too far-fetched, living in a palace protected by tall walls and hundreds of guards with only very few moments he could spend on himself.
He had been given the opportunity to visit the city every now and then, but with a carriage and a fair amount of guards that would make sure no harm could reach him. He rather liked the sight of it, the colours that swam around his eyes, the fire that surrounded everything. He remembered the smell of fresh bread, the gentleness with which the people spoke to their neighbours, the sweet smiles they shared with each other. It was warm and welcoming, much like the home Lance had once grown up in.
He welcomed the scent of fresh food as he walked along the streets on his own, his stomach growling and asking for a taste. He looked back at the palace, now far away, and placed a hand to his stomach. He was aware of how long his journey would be, how many weeks it would take for him to set foot again back home, and he thought that perhaps it might be a good idea to gather some food before leaving the city.
He looked around the buildings, his eyes setting on a small market. There was an old lady selling fresh fruit, a warm smile on her face. She took a look at Lance and though her smile reached her eyes, she didn’t curtsy or made any fuss, and he realised that she hadn’t recognised him. He bought an apple from her-- the kind of fruit his mother always fed to him when he was a kid with the excuse that it would help him grow taller than everyone else at the Tribe. He returned the gentle smile she offered him, then his eyes moved towards a tea house hidden between buildings.
He walked inside it curiously, hoping he could find something else to eat while inside. His father had a liking for tea, and every evening before they went to bed, they would dine together, tea always sitting on their table. But despite his father’s passion, Lance had very little knowledge about tea, and he always just settled for whatever his father chose to drink. He sat at a small table hidden away from any windows and took a look at the menu, his stomach twirling at the memory of his father smiling whenever he spoke of the teas Lance could find on the menu.
He noticed a boy around his age walking towards him, black hair tied down in a low ponytail. Lance’s stomach fluttered at the sight, his cheeks flushing with the thought of some boy feeling brave enough not to follow the nation’s latest fashion. Lance offered him a charming smile, which the boy didn’t return.
“Have you decided what to order?” the boy asked, his voice raspy and unamused. He eyed the menu in Lance’s hands. “Seems like you didn’t need my help settling in here.”
“Actually, I’d like to hear your opinion about something,” Lance said, “I don’t know much about the things you offer here, so I wanted to ask: what is your favourite type of tea? I want to try that one.”
The boy blinked at him in surprise, then raised a brow questioningly. “I like Jasmine tea,” he replied sharply, “It takes a little longer to make, but I’m sure you wouldn’t mind waiting.”
Lance grinned. “If you don’t mind, then yes, thank you.”
The boy studied Lance for a moment, his eyes narrowing as though he suspected something, then nodded and took the menu from Lance’s hand. Lance watched him walk away into what he guessed was the kitchens, his heart flopping in disappointment. It was silly for Lance to expect anything from a stranger--expect anything knowing who he was, who his parents were, but he couldn’t help but wish the boy would at least smile at him.
Lance turned to look at the small place before him. The tea house was cozy and warm, and the strong scent of herbs filled his nostrils. The place wasn’t full, but there were enough people to keep it full of noise and chit chat. Lance smiled at a couple sitting across from him, their hands intertwined as they waited for their tea.
After a little while, the boy with the low ponytail returned, carrying a small tray with what Lance suspected to be his tea in his hands. He set it down on Lance’s table, his eyes never shifting away from the teacup to lock with Lance’s. Lance grabbed the teacup with both his hands, his fingers lightly brushing against the other boy’s, and his cheeks warmed.
“You might wanna wait a little bit before you start drinking,” the boy instructed, “It’s too hot and it might burn your tongue.”
Lance looked at him cheekily, a brow raised in challenge. “You don’t know that, I might be tougher than I look. I could be a skilled firebender as far as you’re concerned, and you know fire can hardly cause you any harm when you live all your life with it.”
“I know that you’re Prince Leandro,” the boy replied.
Lance took a sip of his tea, the sweet taste of Jasmine making him smile in delight. He recalled his father making him drink something similar, mentioning that despite being one of his favourite teas, he didn’t drink it often because he lacked the patience needed to heat it.
“You’re very observant,” Lance noted, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. He never thought he would get caught so quickly--so easily, and yet this stranger had managed to do it in only a brief exchange.
“News travel fast in cities like this, especially when it concerns the royal family,” the boy said. Lance smiled at the thought of making the boy stand in front of his table despite his duties--even though he wasn’t there in the way a part of Lance wished him to be, flirting with him and throwing himself at Lance the way many others did. “I hadn’t been awake for long before an old lady came running here telling us that the Blue Phoenix had left the palace. Rumours about his departure spread everywhere like wildfire. Men were asking around if perhaps the royal family would offer money if anyone found him. Rumours were heard everywhere about the royal guard coming after the prince, threatening the city because they thought someone had kidnapped him. And you know, it’s hard to miss a pretty boy with blue eyes around a place like this.”
Lance placed his teacup on the table carefully, his eyes never leaving the boy’s. “You want something, don’t you?”
“I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t really care about your money, or anything in regards to your family,” the boy replied. His eyes locked with Lance’s, hard as rock. There was a fiery passion in them, and a strong determination Lance had never seen before. “If the rumours are true, and the royal guard is searching for you, then they might find you here and formulate their own ideas. My brother and I can’t afford to get in trouble, so I must ask you to leave this place as soon as possible.”
Lance took a deep breath, then took another sip of his tea, his eyes shifting towards the table before him. He took a moment before replying to the boy, but when he did, he made sure to lock eyes with him again, his expression stern but kind, like his father had taught him to act in moments of need. “The royal guard won’t come here searching for me, I promise. And if anything were to happen, I would make sure you and your brother are safe.”
The boy studied him again, his eyes searching for any sort of lie behind Lance’s words, then he nodded in understanding. He walked away in silence, not bothering to look back at Lance. Lance let out a deep sigh, his eyes shifting towards the people around him again. If anyone had eavesdropped on the exchange, or had at least been curious about it, they didn’t show it.
He finished his tea in silence, a certain peace reaching over him as he thought of his father again, and the mission that waited before him. He left the tea house in the same way he drank his tea: his heart yearning to thank the boy with the low ponytail for his service, but his mind telling him that would go against his better judgement. He made a mental note to return one day with his father to thank him.
Keith quietly sat at the table, his eyes roaming around all the food before him. It wasn’t often that Shiro and Adam made such an effort while cooking dinner, but Avatar Ryner had offered to visit them and dine with them while staying at the Capital, and Shiro didn’t want to let her down by offering her a basic dinner. They’d been saving money for almost a month to have enough to create a feast. Keith had offered to help them with the tips he was given while working at Shiro’s tea house as a way to thank them for taking him into their home, and letting him live there as though he was their blood family.
Keith had known Shiro and Avatar Ryner since he was very little. The two of them would go visit Keith at his home every few months, making sure Keith was being raised well--hoping for his health and happiness. Despite not knowing his true family, Keith had grown up with several loving people surrounding him, and he was grateful for every single one of them.
Shiro had once been the avatar’s protegé. He was a skilled airbender, with talent like no other. Keith had heard a million stories about Shiro and all his secret abilities when he was a kid, how despite not being the avatar himself, all the other monks Shiro lived with looked up to him. Avatar Ryner met him when she learned to master airbending skills herself, and they formed a strong bond over years. But the time came for Shiro to find love, and after marrying Adam, he left behind his life as a monk. Nevertheless, the friendship between him and the avatar never disappeared, and once every few months, she would visit Shiro and his husband in their home.
Keith enjoyed Avatar Ryner’s presence. She was gentle and soft-spoken, but also stern and brave whenever needed. He remembered growing up telling his adoptive mother Fei Hong that he wanted to be like the avatar when he grew up--that he longed to fight the bad guys, and to help keep the peace among the four nations. He thought there was nothing quite as honourable or heroic as her job.
“I hope the Fire Nation is behaving well,” Keith said sharply after taking a spoonful of soup. The avatar turned to look at him, a brow raised questioningly. Keith gave her a gentle smile. “It’s not common to see you around in here.”
Avatar Ryner returned his smile. “That’s because I would much rather stay at home, but I believe the firelord keeps all matters at hand well. He has Fire Sages and a wise counsel always around him. I wish I could take you to the palace to meet him, I think you’d like him.”
Keith raised his brows skeptically and took another spoonful of his soup. “Sometimes I’m not sure how much I trust the people from here. There’s so many rumours,” he admitted.
“Didn’t the prince escape from the palace early this morning?” Shiro asked, his eyes shifting from Keith to the avatar, his brows furrowed in confusion.
Keith took a deep breath and nodded, his throat feeling dry at the thought of his encounter with the prince earlier. The boy had promised no guards would search for him there, and that even if they did, he would make sure to protect Keith and Shiro. There was something in his words, a confidence Keith had never expected to hear after how intimidating Keith had been--the way the prince’s eyes had glinted. It made Keith wonder how much truth there was in the rumours running around the city.
His suspicions were confirmed when Avatar Ryner chuckled. “I’m sure it’s nothing anyone should worry about.”
“I’m sure the prince is safe wherever he is,” Adam commented, “He wasn’t raised here in the Capital, and I’m certain that he knows his way outside here better than he knows his way around the markets.”
“But isn’t he the only son the firelord ever had? If he’s the Crown Prince and he never returns, then the nation might fall into trouble,” Shiro said.
Avatar Ryner smiled gently. “I’m sure he won’t be away for long.”
Keith studied her for a moment, his head tilting in curiosity. There was something enigmatic about the woman, a certain air that made people feel as though she knew something many others didn’t. She was wise beyond her years, that much Keith knew, but there were moments in which he could look into her eyes and find the answers to everything in the world--find all the secrets Keith thought unimaginable.
Keith turned his attention to his soup again, his stomach growling and asking for him to eat, his head begging him to stop thinking of the prince. It all appeared to be a strange business of the royal family, one that Keith couldn’t and didn’t want to understand. It all looked almost as though it had been fake, like they were trying to hide a secret and created something to deviate the people’s attention. Keith knew that was probably silly, and the avatar wouldn’t encourage that kind of behaviour, but every time Keith thought about it--thought about the prince’s words, he found himself unable to reach a proper conclusion.
He finished his soup in silence, his head too focused on the food before him to continue following along with everyone else’s conversation. He knew they were discussing the prince; that much Keith could tell from Shiro’s worried expression and Adam’s sudden interjections. Avatar Ryner looked amused, but she just smiled gently and nodded along to Adam’s comments. She seemed happy enough to be dining with them, and that was enough that at least Keith could go to his room satisfied, knowing the dinner had gone well.
He took one last spoonful of his soup when he heard a strange noise outside. Despite building his tea house in a more populated area, Shiro liked the idea of living in a noisy place as much as Keith did, so it wasn’t often that they would be awoken by strange noises in the middle of the night. Keith’s head perked up in curiosity, his eyes shifting to the door, and he excused himself to follow the noise from outside.
His eyes widened at the sight of the prince struggling to move a donkey towards an abandoned wheelbarrow, his arms already failing him from exhaustion. Keith walked towards him, his own arms finding the prince’s shoulders. Prince Leandro’s eyes widened at the sight of Keith, and he quickly tried to push him away. Keith shook his head.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, trying to stop the prince from pushing the donkey again.
“I’m busy doing some business with this guy right here,” the prince replied, exasperated, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.”
“Whoa whoa, hold on,” Keith said as he gently placed a hand on the prince’s shoulders again. The prince locked eyes with him, his expression unreadable. Keith gave him a small smile. “I understand that you have some business to attend, but I don’t think this donkey is willing to help you out. If you explain to me what this whole thing going on with you is, I might be able to help.”
“I thought you just wanted me gone,” the prince muttered, his eyes downcast.
“I… I have no idea what it is that you’re doing, but I’m a much better listener than a speaker.”
Prince Leandro’s expression remained almost the same, but Keith could swore his lips had lifted into a little smile. “This might sound stupid to you, but I’m on a little secret mission. That’s why I left the palace. I promise it’s nothing too weird, and I promise not to cause any harm, especially to you.”
“A mission?” Keith asked curiously, “I’ve never heard of princes going on sudden secret missions before.”
Prince Leandro laughed, his blue eyes sparkling against the dark of the night. Keith’s stomach flopped. “I was asked to make a peace treaty between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe. There’s… a complicated past between us, and there’s been tension for the past few years. It’s a secret mission because not everyone at court approves of it.”
Keith’s eyes widened with realization. Adam had told him stories about Prince Leandro’s mother, how she was forced to leave the Fire Nation because she was merely a lady-in-waiting, not worthy enough to be married to the firelord. How Prince Leandro had been raised away from the palace with his mother, and how he had been forced to move to the Fire Nation along his father when he turned sixteen.
“So you’re trying to find something that could help you get there,” Keith said, his eyes moving towards the donkey standing between them. The prince nodded. “Do you have a map?”
The prince nodded again. “I may look like a silly, unprepared boy to you, but my father has instructed me well. The only thing he missed was a mode of transportation, but I’m sure I can manage to think of something.”
Keith turned to look at Shiro’s house, then turned to Lance, a million thoughts running through his head. He wasn’t sure how much he could trust the prince, but the memory of a woman telling him he would find his destiny in the Earth Kingdom couldn’t leave his head. “I’ll give you a deal. I can find you transportation and take you to the water tribe myself, and keep you protected from any danger, but you’ll help me get to Kyoshi Island before we reach our destination.”
The prince blinked at him twice, his brows furrowed in confusion. “Why would you want to accompany me?” he asked, his tone almost challenging.
Keith sighed. “Believe me when I tell you I’m not comfortable about the idea of travelling the world with a stranger, but there is something I must do in Kyoshi Island, and this is the perfect excuse to get there.”
Prince Leandro nodded, his eyes moving towards the bag he had left on the wheelbarrow. He quickly moved to retrieve it, then he turned to look at Keith again, his eyes brighter. “Do you know of any place where I could spend the night? I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to start moving now, and you still have to pack your things anyway.”
Keith turned to Shiro’s house again, then motioned for the prince to follow him. He thought about Shiro and Adam discussing Prince Leandro’s disappearance while they had dinner, and he thought it might be best if they avoided the main entrance, so he took Lance towards the back of the house. The prince followed eagerly, a grin taking place over his lips. Keith’s heart fluttered. “You can stay in my room for the night,” Keith assured him, “I’ve slept on the floor before, so I don’t mind you taking over my bed.”
The prince smiled at him, his joy reaching his eyes. “Thank you.”
“It’s no problem really, but you have to promise not to be too loud.”
“I promise,” Prince Leandro assured him, then his expression turned into small frown. “By the way, you never told me your name.”
“My name’s Keith,” he said, a confident smile forming on his lips. He motioned for Prince Leandro to follow him into his room and lit up a candle for him to take, his fingers sparking a small fire. “Keith Kogane.”
Lance stared up at the streets before him, his eyes roaming around the different faces greeting each other and wishing each other a good morning. He had already eaten his breakfast before leaving Keith’s house, and wished everyone staying there a good morning. He didn’t stop to wonder if Keith’s brother and his husband had recognised him, too thrilled by the idea of finally leaving the Capital that morning.
He promised Keith he would find a mode of transportation for the two of them while Keith explained to his brother why he would be leaving. They had agreed to tell everyone that they would go on a mission together to retrieve a gem that could only be found in the Northern Water Tribe, and that Keith had agreed to go on this mission because he wanted to explore the world, and perhaps visit old friends. Keith mentioned his brother would probably be reluctant to agree to it, but he would let them go if Lance appeared to be a nice enough guy.
Keith came out of the house after a few minutes, a bag smaller than Lance’s in one hand, and two katanas hanging behind his back. He gave Lance a nod before two other people walked out behind him. Lance offered a smile to Keith’s brother, hoping that Keith already being prepared to travel meant that he was okay with his little brother travelling the world with a stranger.
“You know it might be a good idea to allow Keith to go out and explore the world,” the woman beside Keith’s brother said. She locked eyes with Lance for a short moment, and Lance’s eyes widened, immediately recognising her from the meetings she held with his father. “He might learn a lot more from being out there than he could spending all his days working at a tea house.”
Keith’s brother hesitated before he nodded. He turned to look at Keith and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Promise me you’ll stay out of danger.”
Keith nodded. “I will.”.
Keith walked towards Lance, his eyes downcast. The two of them prepared to leave, their bags in hand, when The avatar stopped them. She offered the two of them a gentle smile, and placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder, where Keith’s brother had done the same before. “There’s a family travelling towards the Black Cliffs in the outskirts of the city, their name is Sato. I’ve travelled along with them before, and I’m sure they’ll have no problem taking the two of you in. Tell them Ryner was the one who told you about them.”
Lance and Keith exchanged a look, then nodded. “Thank you,” Lance muttered.
“Good luck on your mission,” the avatar said, “I’m sure everything will turn out well for the two of you.”
Lance returned her smile and bid her farewell with a little nod. He and Keith walked in silence towards the outskirts of the city, neither of them having enough energy to start a conversation. There was something about Keith that made Lance realize he probably didn’t even want to talk, and with Keith already agreeing to go on this mission with him and help him, Land thought he couldn’t ask any more from him.
They found the little family the avatar told them about, a man, his wife and a little girl no older than five. Lance walked towards them confidently with a charming smile, prepared to greet them. He explained to them how he and Keith were in dire need of transportation as they were heading East, and how their old friend Ryner had mentioned something about them moving towards the Black Cliffs. The couple exchanged a look before they nodded and motioned for Keith and Lance to hop into their little carriage. Lance thanked them and promised to be of service to them in the future.
He turned to look at Keith, who sat next to him. “Well, it seems we’re all set for a little adventure.”
After a few days on the road, and even a couple of days on boat, Keith, Prince Leandro and the Satos arrived at the Black Cliffs. It was a beautiful, natural location, the kind that Keith liked to spend most of his time in. Ever since Shiro got married, the two of them barely had the time to travel around, especially around forest areas. They spent most of their time in cities, working or spending their time at home. Keith had gotten tired of all the noises and the people from the city, and he welcomed his stay at the cliffs with joy.
They had all agreed to spend the night camping at the cliffs, too aggravated by their travelling not to take one night to rest. The Satos had explained to Keith and the prince that they would be heading towards the North by the morning, while Keith and the prince would continue heading East, so they prepared themselves for their last night together.
Keith sat in silence on a log, watching as Prince Leandro started a bonfire to keep everyone warm and to cook dinner with Mr. Sato. They had spent their afternoon fishing, catching as much food as they could to keep something for the rest of their journey. Keith had offered to help Mrs. Sato clean up their old dishes and prepare their tents. He found she was a lovely woman, delicate and kind, and she often offered everyone smiles whenever they spent time together. Their daughter too was a lovely girl, and a part of him wished they could spend more time with the family to get to know them better.
Keith pulled out his katanas as he waited for Mr. Sato and Prince Leandro to finish cooking dinner, quickly grabbing a rock to help him sharpen them. He was aware of how ridiculous he must have looked sharpening his weapons while the family around him was offering the perfect example of domesticity, but he didn’t care. Instead, the thought of it brought a smile to his face--how Mrs. Sato sat there knitting a sweater for her daughter, how the prince and Mr. Sato exchanged laughs and a few jokes as they carefully made sure the dinner was perfect, how little Miss Sato jumped up around the place trying to catch a butterfly, how everything was just perfect for that small moment.
“Can you teach me how to fight?” a high-pitched voice said beside him. Little Miss Sato was standing before him, her brows raised in amazement as she watched Keith sharpening his katana. Keith smiled at her.
“Would you really like to fight?” he asked, incredulous.
The little girl nodded. “I think it’s really cool to fight with a sword,” the girl confessed, “I’d like to be like the Kyoshi Warriors when I grow up. My mom says they’re like the heroines from the books she reads to me before going to bed, but these girls are real.”
Keith laughed. “They’re more amazing than you can think,” he assured her, “Heroines from fairytales pale in comparison.”
“Have you met them?” the girl asked, her eyes widening in surprise. Keith nodded. “Can you teach me how to be like them?”
Keith smiled and nodded. He placed his katana to the side, and looked at the little girl attentively. “If we ever meet again, I promise to teach you how to fight,” he said softly.
She smiled at him and nodded, her eyes glinting with joy against the dark of the night. Keith didn’t realise the prince had walked towards them and took a seat next to Keith. He was smiling as well, a plate with fish in hands. The smell of it made Keith’s stomach churn, and he stood up to grab a plate of his own, but Prince Leandro stopped him and handed him a plate with his dinner.
“How did you learn how to fight?” the prince asked curiously.
Keith took a bite of his dinner, his stomach thanking him for giving it attention, then he shifted his eyes towards the prince. “I grew up on Kyoshi Island,” he confessed, “I knew several of the warriors, and they taught me a few tricks. There’s so much more I wish I could learn, though.”
Prince Leandro smiled. “That’s amazing,” he said softly, “What was it like there?”
Keith took another bite of his food, feeling slightly guilty for ignoring the prince and the little girl who were eagerly waiting to hear more of his story. He took a deep breath and gave them an apologetic smile, but the prince motioned for him to continue eating, and started taking bites of his food himself.
“It was lovely, maybe a little cold during winters compared to the Fire Nation,” Keith continued after leaving half of his plate empty. “The village was small, so there wasn’t much noise, and every afternoon before I went back home, I could sit and watch the warriors train. It was amazing. I really miss it there.”
“I can tell,” Prince Leandro whispered, a small smile forming on his lips. Keith locked eyes with him for a moment, the deep blue shining against the night, and his stomach fluttered.
“I moved to the Fire Nation Capital three years ago, after I turned eighteen,” Keith continued, “While it is beautiful, and I really mean no offence, it’s far too crowded, and there aren’t enough places like this. I like nature.”
The prince snickered and shook his head. “You definitely don’t offend me, I know what you mean,” he said. He took a look at his surroundings, deep in thought. “There are moments in which I feel as though this place isn’t really my home.”
They stood in silence for a long moment, the two of them too enthralled by their own thoughts to continue a conversation. Keith finished eating his dinner and made a mental note to thank the prince and Mr. Sato for it once they finished theirs. It never occurred to Keith that the prince would be such a good cook; he always imagined that he would always be served in the palace with grand feasts that the royal family couldn’t even think of preparing. But one thing Keith had learnt from the week they’d been together was that the prince was certainly more humble than he had imagined, and Keith was grateful for it.
The Satos began to prepare everything to go sleep to their tent, the dark of the night laying down on all of them. Keith sat beside the bonfire Prince Leandro had lit, his body enjoying the warmth that it provided him. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the peace of the moment, the noises from the family moving around him not causing him any bother. Keith smiled gently and thought of his sisters and Fei Hong waiting for him on the island, his stomach yearning with anticipation.
“Are you tired? Do you want me to set up a watch while you sleep?” Prince Leandro interrupted his thoughts.
Keith opened his eyes and looked at him, his brows furrowing. “No, you’re the prince, I should be the one watching over for you.”
The prince chuckled. “That’s not really necessary, I can take care of myself. Really, if you’re tired, I don’t mind.”
Keith’s brows raised in amusement as he watched the prince yawn. He let out a little annoyed groan, and Keith laughed. “I think it might be a better idea if I’m the one keeping watch. You should rest, we have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow.”
The prince turned to look at the tent Keith had set up earlier for them, then turned to Keith again. “I’m not leaving you alone.”
Keith tilted his head in confusion. “What do you mean? Are you really going to stay awake here to keep me company? I really don’t mind keeping guard on my own. It’s better if you rest.”
Prince Leandro laughed. “No, you silly,” he said, then moved towards their tent. It took him a moment to return, but he made sure to carry some sheets the Satos had lent to them, as well as a pillow. He set them on the ground next to Keith, then gave him a smile. “It means I’ll sleep here so you won’t feel alone.”
Keith’s eyes widened, the prince’s words weighting on his chest. He watched as Prince Leandro settled comfortably under the sheets, his long lashes falling gently against his cheeks when he closed his eyes. Keith had always thought him to be good-looking, but he never thought he had ever seen someone look as beautiful as the prince did in that moment. His heart stammered against his chest and he cursed himself for staring at the prince for so long.
“Sleep well,” Keith whispered, his throat feeling tight. He watched as the prince motioned under his sheets.
“You should sleep well too,” Prince Leandro said, his voice muffled from the sheets.
“Maybe I will,” Keith replied with a smile.
Lance stared out at the cliffs behind his back, now growing smaller and smaller every second. He was sitting in the boat the Satos had given that morning for him and Keith to continue their own journey. Lance was aware of the little family being unable to be with them through their entire journey, but he couldn’t help the sadness that swallowed him at the thought. He stared back at Keith and thanked his destiny for leading him to Keith. He couldn’t imagine how he would feel travelling that long journey on his own.
“I’m gonna miss the Satos,” he said out loud. Keith spared him a glance, his arms busy rowing the boat. “It’s not gonna be the same travelling without them around.”
“I guess life’s like that,” Keith said sharply, his eyes lost in the distance.
“No, I know,” Lance admitted, “But I wish we could meet them again one day. I’d like to take them to the palace and offer them all sort of presents and titles to thank them for all their kindness. Besides, didn’t you promise their little girl that you would teach her how to fight? Maybe you could travel all together towards Kyoshi Island one day, who knows?”
Keith raised his eyebrows in amusement. “It might not be a good idea to give away titles just like that.”
Lance tilted his head away and pouted, his eyes moving over to Keith to study him. “And to think I really wanted to name you a member of my personal royal guard.”
Keith laughed, the sound of it sending goosebumps across Lance’s body. Lance had discovered that laughing wasn’t something Keith did often, it was on very specific moments, when he felt more himself. It was something cute, like a little child playing with his friends in the afternoons after a long day from school, when nothing in the world could ever go wrong. “I’ll let you do that just because I think I could do a good job. Working as a waiter can be boring at times.”
“Don’t you always get the latest gossip?” Lance asked, a snarky grin spreading over his lips.
Keith shook his head. “You make it sound like I’m the one seeking for it,” Keith replied. Lance gave him an amused look and Keith laughed again. “I promise I’m not, I rarely ever talk with my neighbours. My brother however, he’s always chatting with everyone who works near us, sometimes even with the customers. It’s a bad habit. And then he goes over to me and tells me all about it.”
Lance smiled, Keith’s laughter upon a memory of his brother making him feel warm. Lance kept several good memories of his own younger siblings, remembered how they would always ask Lance to show them his firebending, how they would slide in the snow for hours to no end. He remembered how one day his mother had walked up to him to explain how she was going to marry another man when he was only four, how when he had turned six her belly had swelled up and she whispered that soon he would have a little sister to play with--how this kept happening time after time for four consecutive years. He remembered the joy he felt every time his mother introduced him to a new member of his family, how delighted he was to see all those beautiful chubby faces. But he hadn’t seen them in four years.
They continued their journey in silence, Lance too caught up in his own sadness and nostalgia to even consider starting a conversation. He was aware of Keith’s personal dislike for small talk, how he would do anything in his power to end those kind of conversations as soon as they started, and in a way Lance himself didn’t have the energy to have them either. He placed a hand on top of the water and watched the small waves kissing his brown skin. The ocean from the Fire Nation was much warmer than the one in his old home, and he liked to visit the beach as often as possible, always making sure to drag his father with him.
After a while, his eyes began to flutter, the dark of the night slowly finding its way into the sky. He stared at the water again, how the stars were beginning to reflect on it. He thought of a time when he was younger, and how he had thrown himself into the water at night to later tell his little brother Marco that he swam among the stars.
“There’s a small village nearby,” Keith interrupted his thoughts, “We should find an inn and spend the night in there. The two of us need to rest.”
Lance nodded and wondered if Keith could remember the conversation they had held the previous night, his stomach twirling. He looked up at the village Keith had mentioned, not many minutes away from them, and he sighed with relief. It had been a while since the last time they’d been able to sleep on a proper bed.
The village seemed to be the kind of place Keith would like to stay in. It was small, and the fields surrounding it were a beautiful masterpiece of colours Lance could only imagine looked more beautiful under the light of the sun. The people living in it were mostly quiet, and only every other would walk towards them to ask them if they were lost. It was the perfect place for peace and tranquility--it was the perfect place for Keith.
Lance and Keith walked inside a small inn with their bags in hands. There was an old lady already waiting for them in the counter, her eyes vivacious and her lips upturned into a welcoming smile. She studied the two boys and their outfits for a short moment, then gave them a nod to greet them.
“So a room for two, I must guess,” she said. She turned to her back and searched around the keys from each of the rooms.
“With separate beds, please,” Lance added. He turned to look at Keith, who stared at him with an amused look on his face, but he shrugged it off.
The lady handed the two of them the keys to their room, then motioned for them to follow her. Their room, as Lance had previously asked, held two separate beds, and was much smaller than Lance had imagined, but he found it rather cozy, and soon enough he found himself grinning as he threw himself onto his bed, his stomach twirling with joy.
“I can’t believe we’ll finally get to sleep on a bed!” Lance exclaimed.
Keith gave him a side glance and continued exploring the little bedroom, his eyes shifting towards the room’s window. Lance couldn’t see him well enough from where he was laying, but he thought there was a little smile forming on his lips. “We shouldn’t stay here for long though. I know you’re tired, but we have to keep going.”
“Don’t be so boring, I’m sure nothing bad would happen to us if we stayed here for one more night,” Lance said, his eyes moving towards the roof. He heard Keith huff and smiled pleasantly. “Don’t lie, I know you like this place.”
He watched as Keith found a seat on his own bed, his eyes downcast. He sat there in silence, their breathing the only noise in the room. Lance wondered for a moment what Keith might be thinking of, everything about the boy an enigma that Lance wanted to uncover. Although Lance knew not to push him, there were several moments in which he hoped he knew enough about Keith to spur an interesting conversation.
“Are you thinking about Kyoshi Island?” Lance asked quietly.
Keith nodded. “I was wondering how much it’s probably changed in all these years,” he said softly, then turned his attention to Lance, “Being in a small village like this kind of reminds me of home.”
Keith’s eyes turned to look at the floor, a few strands of hair falling onto his face. Lance thought of running his hands over them, hiding those strands behind Keith’s ears, then he shook his head. Not now , he thought.
“I’ll make sure you find your way back home safely,” Lance whispered.
Keith turned to him, a brow raised questioningly. There was a certain amusement in his face, and it made Lance’s stomach flop. “I thought that was my job,” he said, “Didn’t you name me your personal royal guard earlier?”
Lance smirked. “I thought you didn’t want the job. Didn’t you say something about how I shouldn’t be giving away titles just like that?”
The two of them laughed in unison, their room filling with an exhilarating joy Lance hadn’t imagine he would feel in a while. He watched as Keith fell onto his bed, his smile still not leaving his face. They stared at each other for a moment, neither of them saying anything, just watching the other laugh. Lance wanted to get lost in the moment forever--wanted to get lost in the beautiful indigo of Keith’s eyes for as long as he could, but he was quickly distracted by thrilling noises coming from outside.
Keith immediately sat up, his body instinctively moving into a protective stance. His hand moved to touch the handle of one of his katanas slowly, his head perked up as he listened to all the noises intently. Lance sat up from his bed, refusing to just sit there and watch as Keith protected him. He felt the warmth of fire spreading through his veins, his eyes staring at the door with extreme attention. They stood there waiting for any sort of danger, but after a few moments they realised nothing was on their way to attack them, and they relaxed.
“Must have been the lady receiving more visitors,” Lance said, his voice slightly raspy. Keith nodded.
Lance sat back on his bed, his eyelids feeling heavy. He huffed when he noticed Keith still standing cautiously, then he motioned for Keith to take a seat too. Keith hesitated before following Lance’s instructions, but the moment he did, he immediately regretted it.
Their quiet moment was quickly interrupted by a couple of soldiers barging into their room, weapons in hand. Keith’s hands swiftly moved to grab his katanas, and he offered the two soldiers the same stance he had given the door only a few minutes earlier. Lance’s hands warmed up as he followed Keith, but all his courage quickly vanished as he noticed the insignia on the soldiers’ uniforms. He realised they were the men who worked for his uncle, the ones who made sure peace remained between the Fire Nation and all the villages from nearby. His eyes widened.
“What are you doing here?” Lance whispered.
“We came here to pick up Prince Leandro and take him back home,” one of the soldiers explained, his eyes strained on Keith. “Hand him to us and we won’t harm you.”
For a flickering moment, Keith looked at him, confusion clear in his face, then he tightened his hold on his katanas and growled loudly. He moved so quickly Lance was barely able to recognise each movement. He attacked each of the soldiers with such a magnificent skill Lance had never seen before in close combat, his hands moving gracefully, hitting every target in ways Lance didn’t doubt caused strong damage. He stood there for a moment, watching in bewilderment before his body made him react.
Lance followed on Keith’s footsteps, his hands immediately forming a small flame he threw at each of the soldiers. Keith looked back at him and smiled. They fought for a moment, the soldiers managing to form their own bolts of flames they would attempt to throw at Keith and Lance. Lance hit one of his targets on a leg, and he yelped as he heard the soldier’s loud cry of pain. Keith took advantage of the soldiers’ distraction, and he quickly grabbed Lance’s hand.
“We need to run, now,” he whispered.
Lance nodded and the two of them grabbed their bags as fast as they could, and before any of the soldiers could react, they threw themselves from the window and ran away.
“How long do you think we should stay here?” Prince Leandro asked, his arm dropping over the small horse they’d been riding for the last five days.
Keith and the prince hadn’t been able to find a good place to rest in since their last encounter with the soldiers, the two men on Keith and Lance’s heels through every single village they found. Keith was aware of Prince Leandro growing more tired every passing day, and his stomach churned.
He looked up at the big city around them, the crowded streets making him uncomfortable. He had been to North Chung-Ling before, that had been the city where Shiro and Adam met three years back. And although the place held sweet memories for Keith and his little family, he hated to spend a long time in places such as this. He sighed in defeat.
“The crowd might help us hide from those soldiers, I suppose,” he admitted, but he couldn’t help the frown that formed on his lips, “But it might be a good idea for us to find disguises in case there’s danger around.”
Prince Leandro turned to look at Keith, his brows furrowing in worry. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it immediately. Keith raised a brow questioningly. “What is it?” he asked.
The prince brushed a hand against the horse’s mane, his eyes distant. “We don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to,” he offered.
Keith tried to protest, tried to make Prince Leandro see that he needed to rest--that the two of them needed to rest. He was sure that the circles under their eyes were growing darker, and the prince wouldn’t be happy to know about it, but he also hated the idea of having to stay there. “Maybe just one night. We can find an inn and spend the night in there. I think we both need it.”
Prince Leandro nodded. “It’s a pretty big city, it might be a good idea for us to get supplies for the rest of our journey too. We need to eat, and we’ve already run out of fish.”
Keith stared at a little market in front of them, his stomach growling, begging him to be fed. He motioned for the prince to follow him. They explored the place together, the two of them picking the kind of food they should carry for the rest of their journey. Prince Leandro offered to cook fish for dinner again that night, his eyes glinting, and two sparks already forming between his fingers. Keith nodded, his stomach unable to deny such an offer.
Keith’s eyes moved towards a tailoring shop across the street while the prince continued to review the selection of fish the market held. He grabbed one of the prince’s hand in his own and motioned for the prince to follow him. Prince Leandro glared at him for a moment, his brows furrowed in confusion. He tried to protest, but his eyes widened the moment he looked at the store.
“It might be better for the two of us to walk around these places with disguises,” Keith explained, “I’m sure there’s been a handful of people who have recognised you on our journey here but haven’t said anything in fear of soldiers coming after you.”
“Are you telling me I haven’t done a good job blending with the crowd?” Prince Leandro asked, his eyes shifting towards his clothes, brows furrowed.
Keith shook his head. “It’s not your clothes. It’s you,” he admitted, his eyes studying the prince for a little too long. He cursed himself. “There’s something about you, it just stands out.”
The prince frowned, but he nodded. He took a look around the little store, his eyes impatiently moving from one piece to another, neither of them proving to be satisfying enough. Keith looked at a red cloak the tailor had folded and tucked on one of the shelves. He wondered for a moment if he could ask for the price of it, but he realised it might be more important to look for a disguise for the prince, and he walked away.
“Have you found anything?” Keith asked.
The prince pointed at a soldier uniform hiding at the corner of the store. “I think it might be a good idea if I disguise myself as one of them.”
Keith snorted. “Do you really think so?”
“I know so,” the prince assured. He moved towards the uniform and took it carefully, then he walked towards the tailor, who was still folding other clothes. “It won’t even occur to them to search for me among people who look like them, Keith, think about it.”
Keith meditated on it for a moment, then shrugged. “I guess.”
Prince Leandro offered a bag of coins to the tailor in exchange for his new clothes, his expression determined and stern, like a true prince. Keith wondered for a moment if what he had said earlier had been true, and if the tailor had been able to figure out she was standing before the Prince of the Fire Nation. She offered the two of them a gentle smile and handed Lance his new clothes. He asked her if there was a place where he could change inside, and she took him behind a screen. Keith eyed the red cloak again.
“Is there anything else I can offer you two?” the tailor asked, her needle prepared in hand to fix anything from Lance’s new clothes.
Keith shook his head. “I was wondering if there are places nearby where we could find masks.”
The lady raised her brows in surprise, and she shook her head. “I’m afraid not, or at least none that I know of.”
Keith nodded, his eyes straining towards the door. He patiently waited for the prince to change into his new clothes; and when Prince Leandro stepped out in his fresh new soldier uniform, Keith’s eyes widened and his breath caught. Keith realised that these clothes made him look more formal than the ones he was formerly wearing--much more like a prince. But Keith couldn’t find it in himself to tell him to wear something else, not when he looked like this , so regal and handsome.
Prince Leandro quickly undid his little ponytail and pulled his hair up into a tighter bun, his eyes moving towards Keith. “What do you think?” he asked, a small, shy smile forming on his lips.
“You look great,” Keith admitted, his cheeks warming. He forced himself to look away.
“Thank you for your service,” Keith heard the prince tell the tailor behind him.
He heard the prince bid the tailor farewell, then the prince moved to stand besides Keith. The two of them returned to the market, now determined to finish buying resources for at least a few days. Neither Keith nor Prince Leandro were sure how long they would be on the road again after staying in North Chung-Ling, and Keith hoped with all his heart that they got enough food to survive.
Keith eyed all the sweets a young man offered at the market, his heart begging him to at least get himself a couple. He wasn’t sure how interested Prince Leandro was in sweets, and Keith considered perhaps he wouldn’t be happy with learning Keith spent his money on sweets instead of something they could have used to properly feed themselves, so he dropped it. He watched as the prince offered kind smiles to all the sellers he bought from, and smiled himself. Despite starting on the wrong foot with him, the prince was really growing on him.
Keith walked towards the prince, not really knowing what else to do. Prince Leandro seemed to have a better sense of what kind of food they would need that they also knew how to cook with, and Keith felt strange trying to decide for himself. The prince gave him a little smile, then continued occupying himself with a few vegetables. Keith offered to help Prince Leandro carry his personal bag, but the prince shook his head. Keith sighed.
He waited behind the prince when he noticed two familiar figures walking around the market, the uniform Lance was now wearing draped across their bodies. Keith tried his best not to panic and cause the prince a commotion, but the closer the two soldiers got to them, the more nervous Keith became.
“Prince Leandro,” Keith whispered. When the prince gave him no response, Keith insisted again, now a little louder, but still low enough for only the prince to hear. “Prince Leandro, we need to go.”
The prince turned to look at Keith, an annoyed expression on his face. He opened his mouth to protest, but then he noticed the two soldiers walking around the market. “Oh no.” He frowned. “Not again.”
Keith offered him a gentle smile and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, we can still stay at the city and rest for a couple of days, I know you’re very tired,” he said softly, “But we should probably find an inn so we can put our things away and stay hidden for as long as possible. Hopefully no one will tell those soldiers they’ve seen us.”
Prince Leandro nodded. “Okay.”
Keith grabbed Prince Leandro’s hand again, his cheeks flushing. He looked ahead of them determinedly, hoping that the buildings would distract him from his own thoughts about the prince. They walked towards an alley away from the markets, and Keith took a deep breath before facing the prince.
“If your father sent you on this mission, then why are there soldiers after you?” he asked, his voice serious, but his brows furrowing with worry.
Prince Leandro sighed. “I told you, not everyone at court agrees with my father, and they don’t want this treaty to take place,” he said, his voice equally stern. He looked back at the streets they had just left behind, his features twisting with confusion. “What I don’t understand though, is why it’s my uncle’s soldiers that are coming after us.”
Keith’s eyes followed Prince Leandro’s and he tried to find an answer to the prince’s confusion, but nothing came, so Keith settled for a little nod in his direction.
“Do you trust me?” Prince Leandro suddenly asked, that same look he had given the tailor lady earlier showing on his face again.
Keith’s head immediately perked up. “I do,” he admitted.
After several days on their feet, Lance decided it was time for them to rest again. The horse they had been riding on had grown tired halfway through their journey, and could no longer carry them. Lance had mentioned to Keith an island they could rest on for several days, but Keith refused and explained that they needed to keep moving for at least a couple of days more before resting again; but eventually Keith himself had grown tired and he agreed to listen to what Lance had to offer.
Lance explained about the little beach he and his father would often visit whenever they wanted to clear their heads and escape from their royal lives, how the place was a secret to most people, and how no one would find them there. At first Keith had been reluctant upon hearing the word beach , but his eyes sparkled when Lance mentioned secret . They hadn’t seen those soldiers again after their encounter in North Chung-Ling, but Lance knew they were right on their heels. He had known his uncle’s soldiers for several years now; they were clever and sly, and they could stalk their prey without making any noise, like lions in the night.
Keith and Lance walked until they reached their destination, the brightness of the day welcoming them with open arms. Lance immediately threw himself into the sand, his eyes closing with joy. He didn’t care what Keith would say about it, he just wanted to relish in the moment. The Sheltered Cove was one of Lance’s favourite places in the Fire Nation, even more than Ember Island. It was where he could be himself more than anywhere else.
“How long do you want us to stay here?” Keith asked from behind him.
Lance opened an eye to give him a look. “How long do you want this vacation to last?”
Keith raised a brow, unamused. “A vacation?”
“We really deserve it, don’t we?” Lance asked, a grin forming on his lips. Keith groaned and rolled his eyes.
“There’s sand all over your hair now,” Keith said, his eyes inspecting their surroundings. He took a look around the place, taking in all the nature around them, and his features softened. “I’ll start setting up our tents,” he added after a long sigh, “Can you help me light a fire?”
Lance sat up and nodded. He gave Keith a wide grin before stepping up to find some logs, which Keith replied to with an eye roll. He thought of the last time they had been able to sleep in a proper bed, and how uncomfortable Keith had been while staying in North Chung-Ling. Lance wasn’t sure if Keith had ever been to the beach, so he wanted to make sure that this little vacation would be perfect for him.
He watched for a moment as Keith set up their tents. The horse who had been travelling with them stood close behind. He wondered for a moment how many places Keith had travelled to in the past, how many places he had seen. There was so much about Keith that Lance wanted to learn, so many mysteries around Keith that Lance wanted to unravel, but he knew better than to ask. Lance stood up again and lit up the fire, his fingers flickering with flames he was now too familiar with.
He sat in front of the little bonfire, his body merging with the warmth the fire and the sun provided him, and he smiled with delight. He thought of his mother, how every winter she and his little siblings would ask for him to light up a fire to stay warm inside their little cabin, how she would bring blankets for everyone to share, and tell Lance how proud of him she was.
Lance realised Keith had been staring at him for a long moment, his eyes hesitant. Keith opened his mouth to say something when he realised Lance was looking back, but he immediately closed it. “What is it?” Lance asked.
Keith hesitated before replying, his expression unsure. “I was just--I was wondering if maybe you could teach me more about firebending,” he replied, his voice cracking slightly. He placed a hand behind his head and looked down at the sand. He was embarrassed, Lance noted. “I lived most of my life in the Earth Kingdom, and I never had anyone there to properly teach me how to do this.”
“You don’t really need to ask,” Lance replied softly. Keith turned to look at him again, and Lance offered him a smile. “I would love to teach you.”
Lance stood up from his seat and walked towards Keith to offer him a hand. Keith inspected it for a short moment before taking it. Lance dragged Keith closer to the ocean, his smile still in place. He explained to Keith how the sun provided more power to them, and how he had chosen the perfect location for them to practice. He placed himself behind Keith and grabbed his arms to show him the most perfect stances, his stomach squirming with delight at the closeness between them. Lance realised he had gotten slightly distracted by the moment, and he shook his head.
“Prince Leandro?” Keith asked, his indigo eyes sparkling against the sunlight. He was tilting his head questioningly, that endearing habit of his.
“Sorry, I got distracted,” Lance said, then he locked eyes with Keith. “You know there’s no need for you to call me that.”
Keith shifted slightly and bumped his shoulder against Lance’s chest. Lance took a deep breath. “What do you want me to call you then?”
Lance watched as Keith produced a long wall of flames that got lost into the ocean, and smiled pleasantly. He pushed himself away from behind Keith, and bowed as a way to congratulate Keith. When he noticed Keith smiling back at him, he opened his mouth to speak again. “You can call me Lance,” he said.
Keith woke up the next morning with his head feeling groggy. He and the prince--Lance had spent several hours training last night; Lance had helped Keith master his firebending, and Keith had tried to teach Lance how to fight with a katana. Keith remembered his stomach jolting with joy by spending such a good time with Lance, how proud of himself he felt whenever the fire flowed through his veins and bursted out in long walls of fire. However, all the training resulted in his body feeling tired, and the heat from the beach was not really helping his case either.
So much for a vacation , Keith thought as he rolled out from under his sheets and moved outside of his tent.
He groaned as he stood up and found his way towards the bonfire, still lit despite Lance not tending to it for hours. He noticed a small plate with fish laying on the sand and he took it. It hadn’t been the first time Lance had left him breakfast as he took his daily morning walk, but it still made him feel warm. He sat on the sand and began eating, a satisfied smile forming on his lips.
It wasn’t until he finished his breakfast that he realised where Lance had been the entire time. Keith looked up at the sound of laughter to see Lance running towards him with a huge grin. Lance had gotten rid of his soldier uniform and had rolled up the pants he had been wearing before to his knees. He had gotten rid of the bun he would usually wear, and his curly hair was hanging against his head, water droplets falling onto his cheeks. He offered Keith a grin, but Keith’s eyes were busy noticing Lance’s toned and bare chest. Keith gulped.
“The water’s really warm this morning, you should come and hang out with me,” Lance offered.
Keith nodded, his brain unable to formulate a word. He stood up from his seat and followed Lance, their hands intertwining for a moment. He watched with care as Lance let go of him to splash into the water again, and Keith immediately missed the feeling of Lance’s warm hands against his own. Keith quickly removed his shirt to follow Lance into the water, and rolled up his pants the same way Lance had. Lance grinned at him again.
“Do you know how to swim?” Lance asked.
Keith rolled his eyes. “I may have grown up in the Earth Kingdom and been unable to learn proper firebending like you did, but that doesn’t make me stupid enough not to know the other elements.”
Lance laughed. “You know, I didn’t really grow up in the Fire Nation either.”
Keith dipped his foot into the water, and when he realised it was warm like Lance had previously mentioned, he dove in, slowly and carefully following Lance. “So I’ve heard.”
“Where I come from is very different from here,” Lance whispered softly. He swam around Keith, every movement slow and well-thought. Keith knew Lance was surrounding him on purpose, but he didn’t push it. “Swimming was hardly an option considering how cold the water always was.”
“Do you miss it there?” Keith asked. He didn’t realise he was swimming and mimicking Lance’s movements until one of Lance’s feet brushed Keith’s shoulder. Keith gasped.
“More than anything,” Lance replied, his head tilting towards the sky. There was a longing look in his eyes, one that Keith easily recognised. He knew that feeling more than anything else--the nostalgia, the longing to find his way back home. “But I also really like it here, and I love spending time with my dad. I just--,” he stopped abruptly, his lips turning into a frown. “I guess it’s normal to just miss a place you’ve known for so many years.”
Keith tilted his head questioningly, his brows furrowing. There was something in Lance’s last sentence that felt out of place, like he was keeping himself from saying something else, but Keith didn’t push it. He kept swimming alongside Lance, the feeling of the warm water bringing life to his body. There was something about swimming--about being surrounded by water that reminded him of Lance, the happy and cheerful Lance that had grown so quickly onto Keith in the span of a month, the Lance that unnerved him at moments and made him laugh at many others; the Lance that made his stomach jolt and brought a flush to his cheeks. Lance was the Prince of Fire, the legendary firebender that had millions of stories told about him, but he was also the Blue Phoenix , the boy born of fire and water, two sides of one coin.
There weren’t enough words to express the fascination Keith felt towards him, everything that Lance was.
“Hey, Keith?” Lance asked softly. Keith turned to look at him expectantly. “How fast are your reflexes?”
Keith opened his mouth to respond, but he was immediately welcomed by a hard splash Lance threw in his direction. Keith pushed his wet hair away from his face and gave Lance a glare, his hands moving inside the water to prepare his own attack, but Lance’s abrupt laughter stopped him. Instead he just stared at Lance, his face full of bewilderment, and his heart thudding loudly against his chest. He cursed himself for being such a fool, but he didn’t move.
“You’re so annoying,” he managed to say. He looked away from Lance, unable to meet Lance’s eyes.
He heard Lance laugh again. “I try my best.”
They continued swimming for the rest of the morning, splashing each other whenever they found convenient. When they’d gotten tired, Lance motioned for Keith to follow him and build a sandcastle with him, Lance’s heart too nostalgic not to follow old traditions. Keith found himself agreeing to everything Lance offered to him; every little idea Lance came up with ended up with Keith just nodding his head, too distracted by Lance’s toned chest and curls falling against his face to formulate a word. He was a fool, he knew he was a fool.
When the time came for the two of them to start preparing dinner, Keith offered to do it himself so Lance would have more time to rest. He knew he was probably not going to do a good job with it the way Lance did, but he hoped it would be decent enough that Lance would go to bed with a smile on his face. He motioned for Lance to walk around the place while Keith cooked, telling Lance that he should explore the place to reminisce about the times he had been there with his dad, and after a few words convincing him, Lance agreed.
Keith continued preparing their dinner, his hands picking ingredients with uncertainty. Lance had given him a few instructions about how to prepare fish the way they both liked it--the way the Satos had taught them. He lit a small fire with his fingers to roast the fish, his eyes carefully studying it to make sure he didn’t overcook it. He waited patiently for the dinner to be ready, but looked up when he noticed Lance running towards him.
“Are you okay?” Keith asked, his brows knitted together with concern.
Lance moved towards Keith and placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder, his grip strong. Keith noticed Lance’s eyes were widened, and his mouth was agape. Keith immediately tensed. “The soldiers,” Lance said, then took a deep breath. “I don’t know how they found us, but they’re here. They’re here, Keith.”
Keith nodded, his face turning stern. “How close are they?”
“About twenty minutes away. I came here running as soon as I noticed them.”
“Let’s pack our things then, I’m sure we can still escape in time,” Keith replied, then his lips turned into a frown. “I’m sorry that they keep ruining all our moments of rest. We need to figure out what to do if we don’t want this to continue happening.”
Lance quickly grabbed his bag and started undoing his tent. He stood in silence for a moment before he turned to look at Keith again. “I know a place they won’t be able to follow us to,” he began saying, “It’s not gonna be easy to get there, but… let’s just say my father will be able to protect us from there.”
Keith nodded. “Take us there then.”
Keith placed a finger against Lance’s lips to keep him quiet, his brows furrowed. Lance felt his heart beating loudly against his chest, and he hoped Keith hadn’t heard him. There was a certain determined look in Keith’s eyes, like when he was about to fight, and Lance couldn’t bring himself to argue against it.
They hid themselves behind a giant rock to wait for the two soldiers to walk away. They had been following Keith and Lance closely for the past couple of days, and although Lance was certain they would soon be able to finally escape from their clutches and get some rest, there was still a small journey by boat for the two of them to get there.
“Do you think they’re away now?” Lance whispered after several minutes passed. He couldn’t hear the soldiers’ footsteps anymore, so he turned to face Keith. “We should probably leave this place soon if we want to arrive at the Crescent Island before night hits.”
Keith nodded, looking towards the ocean in front of them. He stepped out from behind the rock slowly, then motioned for Lance to follow him. The two of them walked towards the water, Lance’s face instantly lighting up. He let out a sigh of relief, thinking he would find his way towards the sea again. He’d gotten tired of all the walking, especially after the horse they’d been carrying with them finally took his step back and left them on their own.
“Is it a long journey?” Keith suddenly asked, looking towards an abandoned boat floating near the shore.
“It would definitely take us several hours to get there,” Lance admitted, “almost half a day. But we still have enough supplies to survive the journey, don’t worry!”
Keith nodded, then fixed his eyes on Lance. “Can you help me row the boat this time?” he asked, his voice firm, like he wouldn’t take a no for an answer. “That way we will be able to arrive there sooner, without having those soldiers on our heels.”
“Oh don’t worry, they can’t get onto the Crescent Island. I don’t even think they know it exists,” Lance assured him. Keith glared at him and Lance laughed. “But yes, I can definitely help you row the boat this time.”
Keith smiled, pleased, and made his way towards the abandoned boat. He strode along the shore determinedly, and Lance ran towards him. He placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder, trying to stop him, but Keith only shrugged him off. He watched as Keith hopped over the side of the boat and took a seat inside. Lance gave him an exasperated look, trying to reason why on Earth was Keith just taking the boat as though it was theirs. Keith gave him an amused look.
“The only way we can keep moving forward is by stealing this boat,” Keith said, “We have no other mode of transportation, especially not for water.”
“Someone could need this boat!” Lance exclaimed, “We don’t know who it belongs to.”
Keith sighed and turned to look at the floor. “I know, but there really is no other way.”
Lance turned to look at the sky, his brows furrowing. He closed his eyes for a short moment and mentally apologised to the owner of the boat, then he turned to look at Keith. “Alright, I’ll lead us there, but you have to promise to help me find the owner of this boat one day to give him a new one as a means to apologise.”
Keith nodded. “I promise.”
Lance hopped onto the boat, his hands immediately taking two of the oars laying on the floor of the boat. He waited for Keith to steady himself, and the two of them began rowing. Lance gave the little island they had been on one last look, then he turned to the ocean with a smile, his heart growing warm at the familiar feeling of being along the water. He felt Keith’s eyes burning on him, but he didn’t turn to look. Instead he just thought of his mother.
Many hours passed while Lance and Keith rowed the boat, the two of them sharing stories every once in a while. After all the time they’d now spent together, Lance realised that Keith was more open to talking, sharing stories about the Kyoshi Warriors or the avatar every once in a while. To Lance, it seemed as though Keith had already seen the whole world, had explored every single place Lance could only dream of, and he had done all of it on his own. Every single story, every single thing about Keith fascinated Lance more and more.
Lance watched as the sun began to set, the sky turning a beautiful palette of pinks and purples. He had seen plenty of twilights like this, but none of them seemed to captivate him the way this one did. This one was a beautiful painting of warm colours, and it reminded him of Keith and even his own dad--their fierceness and passion, and the all warmth that laid beneath.
“I won’t let you down,” Lance had whispered to his dad, and he was welcomed with the kindest of smiles.
“I know you won’t.”
He realised Keith had been watching him, his eyes curious. He offered Keith a little smile and continued watching the sky, how all those warm colours slowly turned into darker and colder ones, how the stars began to appear in the night sky, how the moon welcomed him with open arms. The two boys began to row the boat faster, both in dire need to reach the island early enough to get enough sleep. Lance smiled when he noticed a small volcanic island appear in his line of sight.
“Keith, have you ever met a Fire Sage before?” Lance asked curiously.
Keith shook his head. “Not that I know of,” Keith admitted, “I’ve only lived in the Fire Nation for a few years, and as far as I know, they live secluded from everyone else.”
“Well,” Lance began to say, pointing at the little island in front of them, “You’re about to meet many of them.”
Keith turned to look at the island and his eyes widened, bright stars reflecting against that beautiful indigo. Lance smiled softly, his eyes not leaving Keith. They rowed together in perfect harmony until they reached the shore, then Keith’s hand quickly found its way to Lance’s. Lance looked at their intertwined hands, then at Keith, confusion clear in his face.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Keith asked.
Lance nodded. “The Fire Sages have an allegiance with my father,” Lance began to explain. He walked deeper into the island, his eyes moving upwards. He searched for the temple hidden in between the hills, and his eyes sparkled. “They can offer us a place to stay and keep us protected. I know several of them, and I know they can help us.”
Keith hesitated for a moment before nodding, then he turned to follow Lance. The two of them hiked among the hills, Lance’s feet burning and begging him to rest. He took a deep breath and promised himself he would finally have plenty of rest after a month of moving from place to place. He thought of his father, the promise he had made, how soon he would be able to hug his mother again, and how he would finally do what’s right--how a young man like him would soon help the avatar keep the peace among nations.
When the two of them reached the temple, they were immediately greeted by a fire sage, who took them inside. Several eyes were following them, all questioning and curious, but Lance tried to walk confidently between them. He had been on the Crescent Island once before. His father had taken him there when he first moved to the Fire Nation. The fire sages had offered him guidance, had taught him everything there was to know about his new home, and even taught him more proper bending techniques. Lance had grown very attached to them, and even went so far to consider some of them his friends.
“Prince Leandro, what a pleasure to have you here,” a voice said behind Lance. Lance turned to find his old friend Wang standing behind them and smiled. “It’s been a while.”
“Good to see you too, buddy,” Lance replied. He made his way towards Wang and greeted him with a hug. When the two separated, Wang placed a hand on Lance’s shoulders and began guiding him around the temple.
“So what’s the matter?” Wang asked. He curiously eyed Keith for a moment, then turned his attention back to Lance.
“Well, my father sent me on a mission to the Northern Water Tribe,” Lance began.
“To keep a peace treaty between the two nations,” Wang continued. When Lance raised his eyebrows, Wang offered him a smile, “I’m the one who offered your father the idea, and the one who advised him to send you on this mission. I thought you’d be the perfect fit.”
Lance’s eyes widened, and he noticed Keith shifting slightly. They locked eyes for a moment, and Keith smiled at him, his eyes hiding something from Lance. “Really?” Lance asked, his eyes not yet leaving Keith.
“Yes,” Wang assured him, “Your father and I always say that you’re going to be a fantastic leader to this nation one day.”
Lance turned his attention back to Wang, perplexed. He shyly thanked his old friend, but cast his head down. He knew he was going to be firelord one day; it was the reason why he had been forced to move to the Fire Nation, because his father never married again, and consequently never had other children. But that day seemed so far away, and Lance tried to avoid the thought whenever he could. Was he truly built to be the firelord?
His heart jumped when he realised Keith was still smiling at him reassuringly.
Keith stared at the ceiling of the room he was staying in, a loud sigh escaping from his lips. He turned to look at his side to make sure he hadn’t woken up Lance, who was quietly sleeping in his own bed, his eyelashes falling gently against his cheeks. Keith had learnt by now that Lance liked to sleep with his hair down, his long, luscious curls caressing his forehead and ears. It was a sight to behold, and it made Keith’s heart flutter, but he forced himself to look away.
Despite being in the comfort of a nice bed, he had been unable to catch any sleep, several thoughts going through his head. He knew they were now safe from those two soldiers, that nothing would come to harm them here, but he couldn’t help but think of all the things that could possibly go wrong. He just wanted to make sure that Lance would find his way to the Water Tribe safely. And that he would find his destiny and all the answers he was looking for too. At first he thought the journey would be something easy, but after all those encounters with the soldiers he wasn’t so sure. How many people out there were secretly against Lance? Was Lance’s uncle actually one of them?
He rolled in his bed, exasperated, a small groan escaping his lips. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, telling himself that he needed to rest, that the next day they would continue their journey and they needed to keep as much energy as possible because neither of them was sure when they would be able to sleep on a bed again. But the more he tried, the more difficult the task at hand seemed, and he ended up rolling in his bed for a good fifteen minutes.
He sat up in his bed, giving up the idea of finding sleep that night. He carefully slipped off the bed and moved toward the door, his eyes shifting towards Lance to make sure he hadn’t woken him up. He decided to take a walk outside the island. He needed to clear his head, and their surroundings seemed to be the perfect place for a calm headspace. He thought of how beautiful the island looked when he and Lance had first arrived, how absolutely breathtaking the landscape was. Keith had never been to a volcanic place like this before, but the more time he spent in it, the more he liked the idea of it.
He didn’t walk too far from the resting rooms because he knew he had to get back there in time before sunrise, but he hiked a few small hills to get a better view of the place. He made a mental note to try to visit the place again to meditate with the fire sages, but also to paint the place before him--to record the beauty of it in a place outside his memory.
He smiled to himself for a moment, his eyes still admiring the island before him, when he heard a loud cry emanating from a place near him. His head snapped to the side, quickly trying to find the source of it. He threaded carefully between the hills, making sure he didn’t sprain an ankle in the process, but he tried to move as quickly as he could. Lance had mentioned that the island was mostly uninhabited except for the fire sages who lived in there, and hearing a loud cry in the middle of the night was not something he expected to hear when all the sages were back in their rooms sleeping.
But much to Keith’s surprise, it wasn’t a sage who was crying--not even a human. He found a little dragon sitting in between two hills, her head downcast and her nostrils flaring as she cried audibly. She didn’t look older than a few months, but she seemed to be growing into a big and strong dragon. Keith walked towards her carefully, his hands lifting to show that he didn’t mean any harm. When she noticed him, she didn’t look threatened, and instead she let out another loud cry to beg him to help her. Keith tilted his head curiously.
“Hey little girl,” he said softly, “What’s wrong?”
The dragon replied to him with a little sob, her head motioning for him to take it in his hands. He carefully ran a hand through her head, his fingers enjoying the feeling of her scales. He had heard many stories about dragons, how they became loyal friends to humans and bonded with them for life. He smiled when he noticed her eyes had closed as he was petting her.
“What happened to your mom? Are you looking for her?” he asked, his voice quiet.
The dragon opened her eyes again and let out a loud cry, which he quickly tried to calm by petting her again. “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay,” he assured her, “I’m here, I’ll protect you.”
He took a look around the place, his head perking up in search of any more noises. He looked at the dragon girl again, how lonely and scared she looked, how she had calmed down the moment he went to pet her and comfort her. He figured her mother had abandoned her in the island, and his chest ached. He thought of all the times he’d felt alone and wished for someone to take him in, he thought of all the people who’d been there for him in the absence of his parents, how they’d taken him in and protected him, and he decided to take her with him and protect her too.
However, despite being a little baby, she was much bigger than him, and pushing her back to his bedroom could take him hours, not to mention how dangerous the task at hand would be with all the hills. He took a deep breath and thought about it, when the dragon girl herself held out a wing for him to climb. He hesitated before hopping onto her back, then he asked if she could fly him to the temple, giving her directions whenever needed.
He silently tried to guide her towards the room he shared with Lance, making sure that none of the sages heard them as he walked. He wasn’t sure how allowed it was for him to take a baby dragon into the rooms, but he figured it probably wasn’t something they would approve of. When he reached his door, he tried to push her inside, but she was a little big compared to him, and it took him several minutes to manage to get her in.
“Please stay here, and be quiet,” he instructed lowly enough not to wake up Lance. She gave him a questioning look, then he opened his mouth to speak again. “I’m gonna go and try to find you something to eat, but please be patient.”
The dragon girl nodded and sat on the floor. Keith quietly walked outside of the room, his eyes beginning to feel a little heavy. He found his way into the dining place he and Lance had been to earlier that evening and grabbed a few vegetables he thought the dragon girl might like. He made a mental note to find her some meat the next morning, and to tell Lance they might have to buy extra fish the next time they bought new supplies.
He found his way back into the room, each movement quiet and delicate. He slowly started feeding the dragon girl, frowning when he realised she wasn’t very happy with his feeding choices, but happy enough to notice she was still taking it with no questions. When he finished he began to walk towards his bed, his eyes not leaving the dragon, then he turned to look at Lance.
“There’s a dragon in our room,” Lance whispered, his eyes wide.
Keith’s eyes shifted from Lance to the dragon, who stared at each other in confusion. Keith sat up and moved towards the dragon to show to Lance that she was harmless. He placed a hand on her forehead and softly caressed her scales. She closed her eyes and growled joyously in response. Lance watched the entire scene play out with wonder, eyes growing more curious by the second. Keith turned to look at him, a small grin forming on his lips.
“I couldn’t sleep and I found her while exploring outside. I think she lost her mother, and she kept crying for someone to be with her, so I took her in with us,” Keith explained, “I really wanna make sure she’s okay.”
Lance nodded. “That’s okay, I think she might enjoy travelling with us,” he said, his eyes turning to give the dragon girl a little smile. “Who knows, maybe she might let us fly on her.”
The dragon girl nodded quickly, her eyes sparkling against the dark of the room. She walked towards Lance to give him a little nod of approval, then she nudged her head against Keith affectionately. Keith placed a hand against her scales again, and patted her head. His heart felt full of content.
“We’ll still continue travelling East,” Lance explained, “I know it sounds like a complicated plan, but there’s a spot we have to visit before we start heading North.”
Wang took a bite of his breakfast and nodded. “There’s a spirit in that forest, you know. His name is Hei-Bai. You two must be very careful when you approach him.”
Lance turned to look at Keith, who was playing with the dragon girl. Lance wasn’t sure how Keith had managed to gain the dragon’s confidence so quickly, but it made him smile regardless. She seemed to be a good girl, and she was probably going to grow into a majestic creature. Lance had heard many stories about dragons before, was aware of how common it was for the members of the royal family to bond with them, but he never imagined he would meet one under these circumstances.
“I hope to see you and the royal family at the Capital very soon,” another sage whispered behind Lance--Li Jun, if Lance recalled correctly. Lance turned to him, feeling a little embarrassed for getting distracted. He greeted the new sage who sat with them, and gave him a little smile.
“I didn’t know you were going to the Capital,” Lance said. He took a bite of his breakfast and tilted his head questioningly, “What’s the occasion?”
Li Jun raised his brows amusingly. Lance watched as Keith walked towards them, a huge grin spreading on his lips. The little dragon girl was sitting right before them, waiting patiently as Keith walked back to her, and Keith promised he would catch up with her as soon as he finished his breakfast. Lance felt his heart flutter, but he hoped none of the sages had noticed his sudden change in mood, so he took a sip of his tea.
He was wrong.
“Fire Sages officiate weddings for the royal family,” Li Jun explained, his eyes shifting from Lance to Keith.
Lance started choking on his tea, his eyes widening. He realised how much of a ridiculous sight he must have been in that moment, and he quickly tried to apologise, his cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry,” he said between coughs, “But it’s really not like that. I’m sure there’ll be no weddings any time soon, unless one of my cousins decides to marry. Really, there’s no reason for you to bother.”
Li Jun took a sip of his own tea then, his eyes not leaving Lance’s. “You know, I once had the luck to meet your mother many years ago. She is a lovely woman,” he said, his eyes staring at the horizon with a nostalgic look, “It would mean a lot to me if you greeted her from my part.”
Lance nodded and gave him a little smile. Li Jun had never specified the occasion in which he had met his mother, but Lance thought he had an idea. He remembered the many times his mother had told him stories about the time she lived in the Fire Nation, how she had met his father, and how they fell in love. She told him all the details of their wedding, how the people from the Fire Nation had all gathered to celebrate this wedding, how his father how looked, and how they lived happily forming their little family for the little time they were together. Lance’s stomach churned at the thought of what happened afterwards.
He and Keith finished the rest of their breakfast in silence, Keith not even bothering to spare Lance a glance. Lance felt embarrassed about the little situation they’d gotten themselves caught into, but he hoped Keith would eventually forget it all and continue their journey with no trouble. The Fire Sages offered to hike down the hills with them, and Lance immediately accepted their invitation.
The Sages shared little stories with Lance, some even reminiscing about the last time Lance had been there. Lance noticed Keith shifting when one of the sages mentioned how Lance used to talk to them about his childhood crush, how he had made it in his best effort to become a skilled firebender solely to impress her, but he told himself not to read too much into it. Instead he continued talking to his old friends, smiling as together they reached the shore.
The Sages motioned for Keith and Lance to follow them to a hidden ship they kept for special occasions. Lance had seen it several times before, not only when he had been living in the Crescent Island, but also the few times some of the sages would visit his father to discuss politics and new actions. It was an impressive ship, one built to carry all the sages inside if needed. Lance’s great grandfather built it as a present for his sage friends, and he made sure it was perfectly packed for all their needs. Lance’s stomach flopped the moment he saw it.
“This is all very kind of you,” Keith stated besides Lance, his voice stern, “but I don’t think we’re gonna need this.”
Lance turned to look at him, his brow raising questioningly. Keith gave him an amused look before he motioned for the dragon girl to step before the crowd. She stood there in front of everyone with her head raised hauntingly, and Lance smiled.
“She’s very willing to take us flying to our next location,” Keith explained.
The dragon girl perked up her head with enthusiasm, and Keith placed a hand on her scales. The Sages all turned between each other, some whispering, others tilting their heads to study the dragon. In the end, they all seemed to get to a decision, and they nodded their heads to show their approval to the dragon. Lance’s chest felt warm.
“Thank you all so much for your hospitality,” he said softly, “Everything you’ve done means a lot to me and Keith.”
Wang walked towards the front, a wide smile spreading on his lips. “Good luck to both of you,” he said warmly, “May this journey prove as a great lesson to the two of you, and may you both find your destiny within the sky.”
The two of them nodded and bid the Fire Sages goodbye. Lance’s heart already felt nostalgic to part ways from his old friends. He watched as the dragon girl spread her wings for Keith to hop on her back, and Lance tried to carefully follow behind. It never occurred to him that his seat would be a tad bit uncomfortable due to the scales, and he made a mental note to build a seat for the two of them to travel around more comfortably.
“Are you sure you know how to fly a dragon?” Lance asked, his voice slightly more high-pitched than usual.
Keith gave him a confident look, then took Lance’s hands to place them around his waist. “Just trust me on this.”
Keith and Lance climbed off of the dragon girl the moment they touched land, the two of them setting out to explore the forest. Keith realised Lance’s eyes were wide and curious, and he immediately walked towards him. Despite never having been in this forest before, Keith felt almost as though he knew it like the back of his hand, and his heart thudded against his chest excitedly.
“I think from now on I should be the one guiding us,” Keith said softly. Lance turned to look at him questioningly. “We’re in the Earth Kingdom now.”
“Oh,” Lance whispered, nodding with understanding. Keith watched as Lance took a careful look at his surroundings, his lips upturning. Keith wanted to ask if Lance had truly never been to the Earth Kingdom before, but he was sure he already knew the answer. Why would Fire Nation soldiers bother to reach such a vast land when they could move to the South and find their destination more quickly?
“It feels different,” Lance admitted after a moment, “It’s not as warm as back there.”
“That might also be the fact that it is night and definitely not as warm as the day,” Keith interjected.
Lance glared at him, but continued walking without making any comment. Keith watched quietly as the dragon girl followed them behind, jumping excitedly from one plate to the other. He wondered for a moment how many places she had been to, and where she had actually come from, a little smile forming on his lips. He thought of himself when he was a little boy like her, how curious and full of wonder he had been, how he would jump from one place to another in Kyoshi Island, always looking for new things to learn.
He noticed Lance had pulled out his map and was now studying the sky. He had explained to Keith before how his mother taught him to read constellations when he was little, and how she had taught him to use them whenever he felt lost. Keith walked towards him and placed a reassuring hand over his shoulder. Lance looked at him, surprised, then he allowed for Keith to take the map from him.
“If we continue this path,” Keith said, “We’ll be heading East like we’re supposed to. I think I’ve heard about this forest before. It’s kind of big, if I remember correctly, so it might take us a few days to cross it.”
Lance nodded, his brows furrowing. He studied the map for a little moment, then turned to Keith. “Is there no way we can cross this faster?” he asked. “Now that we have a dragon with us, we might be able to fly and move faster. That way we wouldn’t have to spend so much time camping, and find cities to spend the nights in sooner.”
Keith sighed, his eyes shifting to the dragon girl, who was now moving towards Lance’s side. She perked up her head to listen to their conversation carefully, and Keith smiled again. “I suppose we could do that,” Keith said, “But we need to mark what city we would like to stop in next, especially because we need new supplies and more fitting food for our little dragon.”
Lance nodded absent-mindedly, his eyes strained on the map he had forcefully taken from Keith. He studied the map carefully, then he spoke again. “Have you ever been to Omashu?” he asked, “I think our next stop should be Omashu.”
“I’ve never been to Omashu as far as I remember,” Keith admitted, “but I think it’s the closest city we have from here, and it will lead us on the path towards Kyoshi Island.”
Lance nodded, then pulled carbon out of his bag. He silently began marking their new path with it, his tongue sticking out with concentration. Keith felt his stomach flip, the image of Lance too cute for Keith to look away. He noticed the dragon girl was staring at him, her head tilted as though she was studying him, and he looked towards the trees.
“What are the wedding customs of the Fire Nation?” he asked curiously to distract himself. His eyes widened when he realised his question was probably going to make his head worse, and he mentally hit his head. Lance’s eyes had widened too when he heard Keith’s question, and he looked almost panicked, so Keith forced himself to speak again. “I’m asking because I’ve only been to one wedding in my life, and it was my brother Shiro’s, but he got married here in the Earth Kingdom, so we never got the chance to learn the customs from the Fire Nation.”
"Right,” Lance spoke softly, his eyes not leaving the trees ahead of him, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“So what are they?”
Lance cleared his throat. “Well the Fire Nation is… a little old-fashioned,” he began to explain, “Basically before proposing you have to send a letter to your significant other’s father, and then another one to your significant other. And then to properly propose, you must give them a gold necklace or a gold pendant. There also has to be a red and gold lotus sent with your letters. It’s all a little complicated if you ask me.”
Keith nodded. “Sounds like it.”
“But there’s always a big party taking place after the ceremony,” Lance continued, “Especially if it’s a wedding in the royal family. Usually the whole city celebrates it with us, and it’s like a huge festival. One of my cousins got married a couple of years ago, and the party she had was great, I’m surprised you missed it. I can’t even imagine what it was like when my parents got married. I imagine everyone makes a pretty big deal if it’s the firelord’s wedding.”
“I think Shiro and Adam attended that wedding,” Keith said, “I usually prefer to stay at home for those kind of things. I’m not a fan of big crowds.”
“That makes sense,” Lance said softly.
The two of them stayed in silence for a short moment, Lance taking his carbon again to continue marking their path. Keith’s head perked up after hearing a strange noise emanating from the trees, his hands slowly moving to grab his katanas. He waited silently for a creature to come out, but was caught off guard when a dark creature shoved him towards a tree. Lance stared at Keith in panic before sprinting towards the creature himself, a small flame immediately forming in his hands.
“Who are you two, and what are you doing in my forest?” the creature asked, his voice harsh and rough. Keith noticed the dragon girl was staring at him, terrified, and Keith’s heart sank.
He stood up and immediately went to grab his katanas to threaten the creature. He stood in front of Lance and dragon protectively, his eyes full of fire. The creature stared at him as though Keith was no match for him--almost as though he was about to burst out laughing. Keith’s grip on his katanas tightened and he prepared to lurch forward, but he was immediately stopped by Lance, who grabbed him by the shoulders. He gave Keith a stern look before he turned to the creature, a solemn smile forming on his lips.
“Good evening,” he said firmly, “We’re very sorry if we’ve disturbed you and your forest. I am Prince Leandro from the Fire Nation, and this is my friend Keith. We’re on a journey to Kyoshi Island to visit old friends, and got a little lost in the way. We were planning on heading East towards Omashu, but I’m afraid neither of us has ever visited there. Is there any way you can help us?”
Keith watched with wide eyes as the creature slowly turned into a big and friendly panda. The panda offered the two of them a kind smile, and quickly apologised for his behaviour earlier. “Good evening,” he said softly but firmly, “Thank you for informing me about your journey. I’m the Guardian Spirit of this forest, and it is my duty to make sure no one comes here to harm my forest.” He turned to look at Lance. “The place you are heading to is a little more towards Southeast, like your map indicates”--his paw pointed at a little path full of trees towards their right--“and if you fly towards that way with your dragon, you would be able to reach a cave known as the Cave of Two Lovers in a couple of days. That cave will take you towards Omashu.”
Lance nodded. “Thank you,” he said, his lips forming into a wide grin. “Hei Bai, I believe.”
The Panda nodded. “That is correct,” he said, then he turned to Keith and the dragon girl. “Have a good evening, and good luck on your journey.”
“Goodnight, Hei Bai!”
Keith watched as the panda disappeared into the trees, then he turned to look at Lance, who was smiling at him. Keith felt his stomach jolt and his cheeks warm up, but he ignored it and quickly hopped on the dragon girl’s back, Lance closely following behind. “We better get going then,” he said, then his eyes turned to look down where Lance’s hands clasped tightly against Keith’s chest. He gulped and nudged Lance with his back. “You better get some rest while we fly.”
Keith couldn’t see, but he could imagine Lance’s eyes fluttering close as his head went to rest against Keith’s back. Keith took a deep breath.
“Goodnight, Keith,” Lance whispered.
Lance and Keith landed carefully in the place Hei Bai had indicated, the sunlight greeting them with a beautiful day. Lance had found that although the Earth Kingdom wasn’t as cold as he originally thought, it certainly wasn’t as hot as the places he had been living in for the past five years. He took a look around. It was green and full of all sort of different flowers, the perfect definition of what lance and Keith thought to be beautiful , the same way Keith had described the Earth Kingdom to be. It was places such as this that made Lance realise why Keith was so attached to nature-based places than the big cities in the Fire Nation.
His eyes followed the dragon girl for a moment, noticing she started coughing sparks whenever she went near certain flowers, so he placed himself between her and them. She looked at him and blinked twice, and he hesitated before placing a hand on top of her head. He knew, in theory, that the dragon was with him and Keith, but Lance thought she had bonded with Keith alone and would never see Lance as his companion, so he never bothered trying to pet her or caress her scales.
“I don’t want you to get sick,” Lance explained, and she nodded.
They walked in silence for a moment until Lance started hearing noises near them. He looked up to find a small family gathering outside what Lance imagined was the cave Hei Bai had spoken of, each of them packing their bags and making sure nothing was being left behind. Lance exchanged a look with Keith--the two of them curious about what was happening in front of them. The family seemed friendly enough, so Lance approached them with no problem.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully. The entire family turned to look at him. “My name’s Lance. My friend and I were wondering if maybe you happen to be travelling towards Omashu.”
A girl Lance suspected to be not much younger than he and Keith, but certainly much taller, stepped to the front. She offered Lance a kind smile, then waved at Keith and the dragon. “Hello, my name is Shay,” she said softly. She turned to look at her family, who were standing behind her, waiting for her to continue. “My family’s actually from Omashu, we just came back from a long journey. Are you new travelers?”
Lance nodded. “Neither of us has ever been to Omashu before.”
“Oh.” Shay’s eyes widened. She turned to look at her family, who quickly stood up by her side, all of them offering Keith and Lance a smile. Lance happily returned it to them, and watched as they all whispered comments to each other. When they finally settled on something, they turned to face Lance again.
“The only way to Omashu from here is to go through the Cave of Two Lovers,” an older woman explained--Shay’s grandmother, Lance assumed.
“If you want to you can travel with us, we don’t really mind having more company,” Shay added.
Lance turned to look at Keith, searching for his approval. It had been a while since the last time they’d travelled with someone else, and Shay’s family seemed a little bigger than the Satos, but Keith agreed nonetheless. Lance introduced himself to the family, and together they began walking towards the cave. Shay walked by Lance’s side, and Keith and the dragon girl followed closely behind.
There was something about the cave that intrigued Lance, a certain magic he couldn’t quite describe. He had noticed an engraving in the entrance, but he didn’t really have time to read it when the family he was now travelling with was urgently walking inside. He noticed the place was a little colder than he imagined, and his fingers quickly moved to touch the hem of his cloak. He thought about pulling up his hood, hoping it would make his ears feel a little warmer, but he pushed the thought aside when he noticed Keith walking around with no problem.
“Why is it called the Cave of Two Lovers?” Lance asked with genuine curiosity.
He noticed Keith walking faster ahead of him, the dragon girl walking beside him, but he chose to ignore them. Instead he turned to look at Shay, who was staring at him with amusement, her eyebrows raised and her eyes glinting with joy. “You’ve never heard of the legend?”
Lance shook his head. “Not really.”
Shay eyed his outfit, then nodded with understanding. “It was called this way because this was where Oma and Shu used to meet. They were the first Earthbenders, and the city was named after them. But they were from enemy lands, and their families forbade their love, which is why they met here in secret,” Shay explained, a certain look of longing on her face. “They built this place so that others would never come and find them. It’s so much more than just a cave, it’s also a labyrinth, and only if you believe in true love can you get out of this place.”
Lance tilted his head with curiosity. “Believe? At least it’s not a true love’s kiss that saves you. This seems much easier.”
Keith turned to look at Lance and laughed. “Well, if you can’t believe in a true love’s kiss, what guarantees that you’ll get out?”
“And who says I don’t believe in a true love’s kiss?” Lance challenged.
Keith’s eyes locked with his for a moment, and his lips turned into a small smirk before his eyes shifted to the road ahead of him again. Lance continued chatting with Shay, happy to hear the story about how Shay’s love for her family helped her whenever she went through the cave. She seemed to be a very sweet person, the kind that Lance liked to befriend and hang out with whenever he and his father had tea parties in their lush gardens. He had met several people around his age while attending those, and although he was kind and friendly with everyone, he only considered very few his actual friends.
She kept sharing stories with him for a while as the group got deeper into the cave. He noticed Shay’s older brother discussing a map he had in his hands with an older man Lance assumed to be her father. They seemed to have gotten lost, but Lance tried not to dwell too much into it, otherwise he would feel stuck worrying about how Keith and the dragon were feeling. He took a deep breath and looked at his surroundings, his eyes widening when he noticed a group of wolfbats hanging from the stone walls.
He noticed a pair of hands creep up from behind his back, and he jumped in surprise. When he noticed it was Keith standing behind him, he swatted his arm. “Hey, don’t do that!”
Keith laughed. “I wanted to show you something,” he said, his voice softening as he continued speaking, “I think you might like this.”
He grabbed Lance by the hand and lead him through a small tunnel with a wide grin. Lance stared at him with his mouth agape, still not entirely used to seeing Keith grinning so happily, but always welcoming the sight. Lance’s heart fluttered as they got deeper into the small tunnel, just the two of them again , not even their dragon following behind.
“This is it,” Keith said as they reached their destination.
Lance’s eyes widened again, but now with complete and utter awe. The hidden passage Keith had taken led them to kept two enormous statues in the middle--statues to represent Oma and Shu, the couple from the legend Shay had spoken him about. He carefully pressed a hand against one of them, his eyes still studying every detail from each. He noticed several translucent markings formed all around them, and he grinned.
"I told you you’d like this place,” Keith said, his voice full of emotion.
“This is amazing,” Lance admitted, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“They must have really been a really clever and skilled couple,” Keith whispered, his eyes staring at the distance longingly. He placed a hand on Oma’s statue next to Lance’s, and let out a sigh. “Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to build an entire labyrinth just to be able to see each other?”
“Yeah…” Lance trailed off, his hand slowly moving away from the statue. He gave them one last look before he turned to look at Keith, the markings surrounding them slowly disappearing.
He watched as a small fire started building in Keith’s hand, his heart jolting with pride. Lance knew Keith had been trying to practice his firebending almost every day in the morning before Lance properly woke up, the scent always strong enough to rise Lance from his bed. He congratulated Keith on his achievement, and Keith smiled at him shyly, his eyes turning to the floor. Lance noticed a strand of Keith’s hair had fallen in the process, and Lance immediately went and tucked it behind Keith’s ear, the sudden movement surprising both of them.
They stared at each other for a moment, and Lance’s heart jolted when he noticed Keith’s eyes were sparkling against the darkness of the room, his lips slightly parted. Lance realised his hand was still in Keith’s hair, and fire ran through him. He tilted his head a little and slowly leaned into Keith, Keith’s other hand finding a secure place in Lance’s waist. Lance felt his heart rate increase as Keith’s eyes slowly fluttered closed, his hot breath so close Lance could feel it against his lips. Lance closed his eyes.
“Lance? Keith? Where are you guys?” a high-pitched voice said from nearby. Lance opened his eyes to find Shay walking towards them. “Lance? Keith? Is that you?”
“We’re here!” Lance exclaimed, his hands immediately dropping away from Keith. He turned to look at the floor, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
Shay’s face lit up when she noticed the two of them awkwardly standing in the middle of the passage. “I’m so glad I found you!” she exclaimed. Lance realised she was riding a badgermole, and his eyes widened. “We finally found a way out, you better follow us!”
Keith and Lance nodded and quickly followed her outside of the passage, neither of them daring to look at each other. They found the dragon girl waiting for them right outside, and Lance placed a hand on her head, his fingers enjoying the feeling of her scales against his tips. “Hey, Sparky, I hope we didn’t scare you.”
Keith turned to look at him, an eyebrow quirked in question. “Sparky?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s kind of cute, don’t you think?” he asked as Keith hopped onto her back, Lance following close behind. He hesitated before placing his hands around Keith’s waist, because he knew Keith would be complaining about safety later if he didn’t. “It really fits her.”
Lance couldn’t see, but he could tell Keith was smiling. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
Lance smiled, pleased, and closed his eyes as he waited for Sparky to carefully take them outside. For a moment, the three of them was the only thing that he wanted to think about.
Keith watched with amusement as Lance threw himself over his bed, his eyes closed and a wide grin covering his face. They had arrived to Omashu early in the afternoon, and they had gone with Shay and her family to visit a restaurant and have lunch. Keith found that despite being a rather big city, he enjoyed being there. There was a certain magic--a certain indescribable thing that lured him and captivated him, like the magic inside the cave.
“You know, we agreed to go on a walk around the city with Shay after settling down in our rooms,” Keith said.
Lance groaned but didn’t open his eyes. Instead he just shifted upside down. “We can tell them we got caught up settling down, and ended up arriving slightly late,” he said, his voice muffled.
Keith moved over to Lance’s bed and placed a hand on Lance’s back. “Come on,” he said, “Don’t be lazy. We can’t be late for a walk, especially because we aren’t entirely sure how big this city is. We need to come back here before dinner.”
Lance turned to look at him, his eyes half lidded. Keith stared at the deep blue in his eyes for a moment too long, his heart racing with memories. “Aren’t you tired too?”
“I have all night to sleep.”
Lance groaned again but he nodded before standing up. He made sure to give Keith a small glare before taking a look at his clothes. He was still wearing the soldier uniform he had been wearing since they had been in North Chung-Ling, every detail of it suiting him perfectly. Keith was a brave man, but if he was braver, he would find the guts to tell Lance how handsome he was, and perhaps take the chance to lean into him like in the cave and finally, finally kiss him. But he wasn’t.
The two of them headed out to the entrance of the inn where Shay and her brother Rax were waiting for them. They had agreed to only explore the centre of the city, and perhaps hang around the markets, before they would return to the inn on time for dinner. Both Keith and Lance wanted to go back to bed early and get as much rest as possible, and they wanted Sparky to have enough rest as well after all the time she had spent flying for the past week.
Shay walked alongside them, her brother moving ahead. She offered a few comments every now and then to Keith and Lance about the city, sharing legends and myths about the most important places they visited. She knew every corner of the city like the back of her hand, and Keith thought it would be nice to know a place like that himself. She was passionate and high-spirited, and every single story she told appeared to be as magical as the place that surrounded them.
“Isn’t there a king in Omashu?” Lance asked after they stopped in the market to buy sweets. Keith had been gathering several pastries, but his heart stopped after hearing the question. “I think I heard someone say once that Omashu was one of the cities in the Fire Nation with a king as ruler.”
Shay shook her head. “Not a king, a queen. We might be able to see her around here. She takes walks every afternoon around the city. She’s a very kind woman.”
“That sound nice,” Lance said. He took a look at all the sweets Keith was carrying, and raised a brow questioningly. Keith shrugged.
“Have you ever met her?” Keith asked. He paid for the pastries he was carrying, and began eating one.
“One time,” Shay confessed, “She was really beautiful, and she wore a red dress that impressed everyone around the city. She’s not from here, she’s from the Fire Nation. But all of us here love her.”
Keith’s eyes widened upon hearing the last comment, not really expecting a woman from the Fire Nation to be ruling such an important city in the Earth Kingdom. He had heard stories when he was a child, stories about a mysterious woman ruling in the Earth Kingdom, but it never occurred to him that the woman in question was a firebender. His stomach twisted in curiosity. He ate another pastry, then he turned to look at Shay, wishing to ask more questions about the queen and hoping it wasn’t strange of him to do it.
“Actually, she’s coming this way!” Shay exclaimed. She turned to look at her brother, her eyes wide.
Rax and Shay guided Keith and Lance through the horde of people, Keith’s shoulders bumping against other people’s every now and then. Keith’s eyes scanned the place, landing on various groups of people, so many different faces, some in groups, some on their own--but he never seemed to find the queen in question. He covered his ears as people began to cheer around him loudly, and he felt someone place a hand behind his back reassuringly. Then everything went quiet.
It all happened so quickly, so slowly, so loudly and so quietly at the same time--like Keith was in a trance unable to understand what was going on around him. He watched as a woman walked in the middle of the street, her dress shining against the rest of the city, her dark hair falling onto her shoulders like a cascade. She was beautiful, that was undeniable, and when she locked eyes with Keith, he thought for a moment that he had known her once before.
Her expression immediately changed--from determination and calm, to exasperation. She quickly turned towards Keith, her eyes begging for something Keith couldn’t understand. Two hands went to grab her shoulders, trying to appease her, and they pushed her away from the crowd. Keith stared at the scene before him with his mouth agape, and his brain unable to formulate any coherent thoughts. He just stood there, unable to do anything, waiting for an answer he didn’t even have a question for.
When the whole scene was over and the queen had disappeared, Keith turned to look at Lance, who had already been staring at him--confusion clear in his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but Keith quickly interrupted him. “We should probably go back to the inn now. I think I need to rest.”
Lance stared down at the Earth below them, his eyes scanning for a place where they could land to find more food and supplies. They had been flying for several days now, every second getting closer and closer to Kyoshi Island. He could almost touch the tension between the three of them, how everyone was growing more anxious by the second. But more than anxious, they were also growing hungrier, the change of weather affecting their metabolism.
He noticed a small lake for them to land, and forced himself to look up again, his stomach giving him vertigo for spending so much time staring so many miles below him. He turned to face Keith’s ponytail and gently placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder. When Keith looked back at him, he was surprised. “I think we should land in here,” Lance said softly, “I think there’s a lake or something. We might find more supplies we’re definitely gonna need for our journey.”
Keith meditated on Lance’s idea for a moment, then nodded shortly. He placed a hand against Sparky’s neck and motioned for her to land in there. She immediately raced downwards, her movements slow and tired. She wanted to rest too.
When they touched Earth again, Lance realised his assumptions had been wrong, and that instead of a lake, what his eyes had explored was a swamp. He felt his stomach churn in disgust, and he prepared himself for the disappointment he was sure Keith would express about the place. But instead, Keith just took a look around, and he carefully slipped into the branches that surrounded the swamp. There was a small smile on his face when he turned to look at Lance.
“What do you say if I explore towards the left and you explore towards the right?” he asked, his eyes glinting.
Lance’s eyes roamed around the place before him, his stomach feeling sick by the sight of so much mossy green around him, the water in the swamp an abhorrent shade of brown. “Do you really think we could find something to eat in here?” he asked, disgust clear in his face. “I’m not sure there’s much we can find here that’s actually edible.”
“Hey, don’t be so easily moved by appearances,” Keith replied, his eyes full of amusement. Lance didn’t have to ask to be able to tell Keith was laughing internally at him for acting like a stereotypical prince, and he crossed his arms impatiently. “I think I’ve heard of this place before, and I’m sure people have lived in here, so there definitely has to be some food around.”
“Fine,” Lance finally stated, “Then I guess I’ll explore to my right.”
Keith nodded at him, a smile still on his face. Lance watched as he began to walk away, Sparky following him close behind. It was funny how willing she was to follow him wherever Keith went, but in a way, Lance felt he would do the same. He had followed Keith all the way to this swamp, had followed him through that passage in the labyrinth cave, and Lance thought he would follow him anywhere else if he could because he liked being with Keith-- because he liked Keith .
He walked around the trees and branches carefully, thoughts of Keith fresh in his mind. He found himself climbing over a big tree’s roots and he remembered a story Keith had once shared with him, about how he liked hiding himself between the roots of all the biggest trees in Kyoshi Island to read until the sun began to descend. He thought of that little moment they shared back at the cave, how he was sure they were finally going to kiss, but suddenly it had all been forgotten. He wondered if perhaps Keith had wanted it too, and his stomach twisted.
He took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. It looked like it was about to rain soon, and he told himself to hurry and find something so the three of them could reunite in time to find some shelter. He took a look around the trees, searching for fruit, or just anything that could be edible, but he had no luck. He sighed in frustration, wondering how Keith was doing in his search. Knowing Keith, he had probably found enough provisions for at least two weeks. He always knew where to look, always knew his way around places such as this.
He took a look at the water from the swamp, his stomach twisting again in disgust. He walked closer to it with curiosity; the fact that it didn’t actually stink sparked his interest. He dipped a finger inside the water and smiled when he realised it was rather warm. He hesitated before bringing to his mouth, but he was quickly stopped by a figure sweeping over to him. Lance stared at him with wide eyes, his mouth agape. For a moment he thought maybe his mind was playing tricks on him, that all the travelling and all the running away with less hours of sleep than he was used to had come to really affect him. But then the figure spoke, and his voice was the same.
“Lance, what are you doing trying to drink water from this place?” his grandfather asked, his voice like honey dripping from a jar, sweet as he remembered it.
Lance looked up, too startled to give a proper answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words seemed to come out.
His grandfather kneeled next to him then, placing a hand on Lance’s shoulder reassuringly. He gave Lance a small smile, but his head was tilted questioningly. “What has been bothering you, my child?”
Lance gulped and shook his head. “Nothing really,” he lied. He stared at the water for a moment, thoughts of his mother reaching him. How she would hug him whenever he felt uneasy, how his grandfather later offered him that kind of comfort when he moved to the Fire Nation. His grandfather’s hand tightened against his shoulder. “Just some silly love stuff that I’m sure won’t matter in a few months.” His grandfather remained silent--waiting. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m good enough for someone else, I guess,” he confessed, his voice cracking. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m good enough for anything--” --another crack-- “I know I can do many things, but I’ve never really been special.” His voice was pitched much higher than usual. He cursed himself when he felt a tear run down his cheek. “Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be a good successor to my father, that I’ll just disappoint him and fail the whole family.” He took a deep breath. “Sometimes I wonder how I’m so lucky to be surrounded by so many great people, so lucky to be granted a life that I know so many others deserve much more than I do, when I’m not good enough for anything.”
Lance’s heart sank when he felt his grandfather’s hand disappear from his shoulder. He turned to look around and realised his grandfather was no longer there. Another sob escaped from his throat and he shook his head, his hands quickly moving to cover his face. He felt embarrassed and ashamed. How had he been able to confess something of that magnitude to stupid, thin air?
“You are good enough for everything, Leandro,” his grandfather spoke softly again. Lance looked up to find him staring at him, floating in the air as though he had been an airbender his whole life. “Never forget that.”
Lance watched as his grandfather disappeared into thin air, like the spirits from stories his mother told him and his siblings about every winter solstice before going to bed. Lance’s heart leapt against his chest, not really comprehending what had happened. Had that really been his grandfather? How had his grandfather’s spirit found him in this swamp, if the man in question had lived in the Fire Nation his whole life? Had perhaps all of it been a product of his imagination?
He immediately stood up and ran to search for Keith, his heart beating loudly against his chest. If he had truly seen that spirit, then that must mean the place was haunted, and if the place was haunted, then Keith could be in danger. He searched around the place for two figures to appear near him, his eyes alert. When he finally found Keith climbing between the branches of a tree, with Sparky keeping her place close behind him, he was relieved to find the two of them were okay.
He noticed Keith’s eyes were wide, and he seemed to be in a state of panic too, but he was holding onto several fruits Lance had never seen before, and something Lance thought to be fish. His expression softened when he locked eyes with Lance, but he seemed to be hesitant about walking towards him, almost as though he thought Lance himself was a spirit. Lance awkwardly waved a hand.
“I think this place is haunted,” Lance said, hoping a phrase like that would be enough for Keith to realise this was really him.
“Did you see… weird things as well?” Keith asked, his voice unsure.
“Maybe we should leave this place,” Keith began to say, but Lance immediately cut him off.
“It’s gonna start raining soon, we need to find shelter.”
“But this place could be--”
“It’s not haunted,” a man said behind them. He was sitting in the middle of a boat, at the edge of the swamp. He eyed the two of them curiously but sternly, then he raised a brow questioningly. “Who are you, and what are you doing in here?”
“What do you mean it’s not haunted?” Keith asked, brows furrowed.
“My name is Lance, and this is my friend Keith and our dragon Sparky,” Lance replied. He gave Keith a glare as though reprimanding him, and Keith rolled his eyes. “We come in peace, we just wanted to gather some supplies to feed ourselves through our journey. We’re travelling towards Kyoshi Island.”
The man nodded in understanding, then he turned to look at Keith. “Time is an illusion,” he stated, a small smile forming on his lips. “That’s why you both were able to see your loved ones, and receive the messages they had been longing to tell you, but were unable to outside. This swamp is where all the worlds connect, and it’s alive. It wanted to lead you two towards the paths you must take. Nothing is a coincidence. You are both here for a reason.”
Keith and Lance exchanged a look, both in mid panic but slowly understanding. The man reminded Lance of the Water Tribe’s chief, a man wise beyond his years, the kind to always offer advice in times of need.
The man turned to look at the sky and his brows furrowed, the gray clouds slowly gathering right in front of them.
“It’s about to start raining, you two better hurry,” he said. “There’s a little cave in between two trees towards your left where you can find shelter. I think you should stay in there just for one night, then you can continue your journey.”
Keith and Lance turned to look at the place the man was pointing at, then exchanged a look. Lance knew Keith wanted to arrive to Kyoshi Island as soon as possible, but he seemed to comply after Lance gave him a pleading look. Lance made sure to thank the man for his help before they walked away, and the man offered him a reassuring smile. For a brief moment, Lance thought of his grandfather.
Lance started a fire inside the cave and made sure everyone inside was warm. Keith helped him cook the fish they had been carrying, and together they ate the fruit Keith had collected--something sweet that reminded him of strawberries. They ate together in silence, the only noise around them being Sparky’s loud breathing, matching their own. When they finished, Lance hesitated before sitting next to Keith, his eyes feeling heavy.
“We’re going to get there soon,” Lance assured him, his voice soft. He placed a hand over Keith’s and squeezed it tightly. He didn’t know what Keith had seen earlier in the swamp, but if it was anything like Lance’s, he imagined he would need some comforting.
Keith smiled at him, his eyes glinting against the darkness of the cave. Lance’s heart leapt against his chest. “I know.”
The trip towards Kyoshi Island was long and strenuous, but after what Keith thought to be a couple of months, they finally managed to get there. The weather there was surprisingly warm after all the rain they had gone through for the past few days. The sun rays immediately graced their faces as soon as they landed, keeping them warm and making them feel welcome. It was almost poetic, almost as though the world itself was telling Keith that he indeed needed to be there--needed to find his way back home.
Some of the Kyoshi Warriors immediately ran to welcome them upon hearing the news of their arrival, their arms wrapping around Keith in a cheerful hug. He quickly recognised his older sisters, Acxa, Ezor and Zethrid, the ones he had spent many years of his life hanging out with, the ones he told Lance most stories about. The three of them embraced him for a long moment, memories floating all around Keith’s head. It never occurred to him how much he could miss a person until they were reunited again.
When they separated, the three of them held Keith closely and studied his face. He knew his face had gotten longer since the last time they had seen each other, and he probably looked tired from all the travelling he and Lance had been doing for the past two months, but having the three of them staring at him for so long made him a little uncomfortable, so he quickly shifted his gaze to Lance. Lance had been standing awkwardly behind during all of the commotion, his eyes curious and a loose curl falling to his face. Keith smiled at him, and Lance returned his smile.
It wasn’t until his three sisters snapped their heads towards Lance that Keith realised his mistake. They turned to look at him like hungry hyenas studying their prey, waiting for the right moment to strike. Lance waved at them awkwardly, and a small smirk slowly formed on their faces. They moved towards him in a motion so swift that Keith was unable to stop them, and his heart stammered in his chest.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were travelling with such a handsome boy?” Ezor asked. She wrapped an arm around Lance’s shoulder and pushed him close to her. “Look at those eyes, no wonder why it took you so long to get back here.”
Zethrid laughed. “And he’s wearing a soldier uniform,” she commented, “I see that you learnt your stuff when you got out there. They say men and women in uniforms are the most attractive.”
The three of them laughed in unison. Keith rolled his eyes, but he could feel a flush creeping up his cheeks. He gave Lance an apologetic look and pulled him away from them. His three sisters pouted and tried to follow the two boys, but Keith stepped in front of Lance to stop them.
“It’s good to see all three of you again, and I hope we can spend more time together later to catch up,” he said solemnly, “but I was really hoping to see Fei Hong. She’s the reason why we came here.”
The three girls nodded and quickly stepped ahead of Keith and Lance. They guided the two boys deeper into the island to the core of the village, where the older Kyoshi Warriors lived and continued their lives. Fei Hong had already moved there by the time Keith left the island, but he had only been there to visit her new home for a short time. It was a small house, the kind of humble abode that fit perfectly with a selfless and brave woman like her.
He walked through the streets with his head held high, but his heart stammered in his chest, and his head was a whirlwind of memories and thoughts. He thought of all the children who lived there and had spent time with him on few occasions for the festivals and meetings. He wondered what had become of all the people he had once known. Had more girls he knew joined the Kyoshi Warriors? Had his neighbours gotten married? Had Fei Hong forgotten him? Could she truly have the answers he was seeking for, or had this journey been in vain?
He turned to look at Lance, who walked beside him silently, his expression full of so much peace Keith wished it could be contagious. Lance noticed Keith staring at him and locked eyes with him, then offered Keith a reassuring smile. There was something in that smile, something that made Keith’s heartbeat go faster, and brought him calm at the same time. It was the most beautiful smile Keith had ever seen, and he wished he could keep it with him forever.
Keith ran a hand towards the back of his head, embarrassed, his eyes downcast. “I’m sorry about earlier, by the way.”
Lance blinked at him twice, his eyes full of confusion. He meditated on it for a short moment, then his eyes widened. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
They continued walking in silence, Keith’s anxiety eased a little by Lance’s company. He greeted a few of his old neighbours whenever they came across him, and smiled whenever his other sisters laid a hand on his shoulders before walking away. He noticed Lance was looking happier than usual, and he wondered-- hoped that perhaps it had something to do with Keith and the happiness he was feeling.
When they finally reached Fei Hong’s house, Ezor, Zethrid and Acxa turned to look at Keith and Lance and motioned for them to walk inside. Keith took a deep breath as he stepped inside the house, the fresh scent of cinnamon tea reaching his nostrils as soon as he was inside. The house was almost the same as Keith remembered it, with too many doors and a garden full of colourful flowers. All sorts of weapons and fans hanged from the walls, weapons Fei Hong had earned over the years she worked as a warrior for the kingdom, weapons Keith had studied and learnt to use since he was a kid.
“I never thought I would see you here again,” someone spoke from Keith’s side. His head jerked quickly, his lips turning into a wide grin. A tall and slender woman stood before them, her short, straight hair falling gently onto her shoulders like a cascade. Her brown eyes were stern and warm simultaneously. She opened her arms to welcome Keith into a hug, and he allowed her. “You’ve grown so much,” she whispered against his hair.
He smiled at her gently when they separated, not really finding the words to explain how much he had missed her, but hoping she would understand after all these years of knowing him. She noticed Lance was standing there awkwardly and studied him, her eyes narrowing as she took in every single one of his features. Before Keith was able to speak, she introduced herself to Lance, then turned to look at Keith questioningly.
“So what’s brought you here?” she asked, a smile still on her face.
Keith hesitated before answering. “Actually, there’s a lot we need to tell you.”
She nodded and motioned for everyone to follow her to the little kitchen, then offered everyone a seat. She sat in front of Keith, her eyes shifting from Lance to Keith, brows knitted in curiosity. She realised she hadn’t offered anyone tea, but Lance stopped her and told her there was no need. Lance locked eyes for a moment with Keith, then opened his mouth to speak.
“I think you already know who I am,” he said sharply.
Fei Hong nodded. “It’s not every day that Keith brings a boy to my home, let alone a famous and handsome prince. We may live in the Earth Kingdom, but news about the handsome Prince Leandro and his bright blue eyes travel everywhere.”
Ezor, Zethrid and Acxa erupted in whispers beside him, the three of them discussing Lance’s true identity, making comments about who had been the first one to notice. Keith rolled his eyes, and waited for Lance to continue his story. He mouthed a sorry to him, but Lance shrugged. Instead he just turned to the girls and asked for everyone there to keep his identity a secret.
“This isn’t the first time Kyoshi Warriors have helped the crown,” Fei Hong confessed. She placed a hand on the table, her eyes downcast. “And even though Keith isn’t one of us, I’m hoping you’re both here because he’s offered you some kind of help.”
Keith felt a certain warmth engulfing him. Fei Hong’s words reminded him of all the times she had taught him to be obliging to all those kind enough to him and the nation, how her words had influenced his decision to help Lance that night Keith found him behind Shiro’s house.
“He has,” Lance admitted. He turned to look at his own hands laying on his lap and smiled. “I probably wouldn’t have survived such a long journey without him.”
Fei Hong eyed Keith for a moment, a little smirk forming on her lips, but then she quickly looked away. “So you two are on a journey and just happened to pass around here?”
Keith and Lance nodded. “Yes, we’re on a journey towards the Northern Water Tribe, but Keith asked me if we could make a visit here before heading North, and I’ve never been to this place, so I thought it would be nice to get to see it one day, especially when I’m pretending not to be the prince.”
Fei Hong nodded. She stood up from her seat and moved towards the drawers to search for a kettle. She offered everyone tea once again, but when everyone shook their heads, she sighed and continued preparing only one for herself. Keith stood up to help her boil the water, his hands quickly moving over to grab the kettle. He felt Lance’s eyes hot against him, and he felt his cheeks warm up a little. He tried not to look at Fei Hong, he knew exactly what kind of look she was giving him.
“I hope this journey hasn’t been dangerous,” she said as she waited for her cinnamon tea to be ready, her eyes moving towards Lance again. “It’s a good thing Keith has been carrying the katanas I gave to him before he left the island.”
“I can promise you we’re safe,” Lance lied. Keith took a deep breath before he poured the tea down into a teacup Fei Hong had handed to him, refusing to meet either of them in the eye. “And even if we’re in danger, Keith is a really good fighter, and I know no one in their right mind would want to face those katanas. And if anyone tried to hurt Keith, they would have to go through me first.”
Fei Hong took the teacup from Keith’s hands and smiled. She sat down next to Lance and patted his back. “Thank you,” she whispered. Keith watched as Lance returned the gesture, his eyes gentle. Fei Hong turned to look at Keith then. “How long are you two staying in here? I better prepare a guest room for you to stay the night.”
“Oh no, it’s fine,” Keith assured her. “We plan to stay here for a week, so we can stay at an inn if it’s much easier.”
Fei Hong immediately shook her head. “I’m not letting you stay at an inn when you have a home here. I’ll prepare dinner for the two of you tonight.” She then turned to the three girls hanging by the side. “Can you guide Keith and the prince to my guest room? They can start settling down now, and I can help accommodate them after I go get a few supplies for dinner.”
The three girls nodded and stood up. They motioned for Keith and Lance to follow them, a grin creeping up onto their faces. Lance did as he was told and quickly followed them outside of the kitchen, but Keith stayed, waiting for a moment to talk to Fei Hong. When everyone else left the room, she turned to him, an eyebrow quirked questioningly.
“There’s another reason you two came here, isn’t it?” she asked, her head tilting.
Keith nodded. “I wanted to ask you something.”
Fei Hong let out a sigh, her eyes shifting towards a small dagger hanging from the wall. Keith remembered the dagger perfectly; she had taught him how to fight with it first, telling him that he needed to learn to use small weapons first, and with time he could move onto the bigger swords. Keith had grown very fond of the small weapon, but he knew he couldn’t keep it, and eventually he had to say goodbye to it, But Fei Hong decided to name it Akira after his middle name.
“You want to know if I know anything about your real family,” she said, her voice void of emotion. “I knew this day would come.”
“Yes,” Keith replied sharply.
Fei Hong turned to look at him then, her eyes saddened. He remembered how one time he had caught her crying in her room, holding onto a pair of fans that didn’t belong to her. He had sat next to her and attempted to hug her. He remembered how she had tried to laugh for him between her tears, and how she thanked him for everything. Keith hadn’t understood what had happened that drove her to tears when he was young, but when he revisited the memory as he grew older, he understood that she had lost one of her closest friends that night--how she had lost a member of her family.
“Shiro brought you to this island when you were a baby to keep you safe from an attack that had fallen into your city. I believe he was around twelve years old when this happened, back when he started working as Avatar Ryner’s protegé,” she began. “You were very young, which is why you can’t remember anything about your family. The Queen asked us to keep you safe until you became of age, to raise you like a soldier so you’d be able to fight like one of us. We did so willingly, but none of us had the heart to tell you the story about what had happened to your family. Rumours about a war were stirring, making all of us afraid that it could happen again and take both of your parents from this Earth. Then you turned fifteen and left this island to follow Shiro, and we never got a chance to tell you again.”
Keith fell silent, his head processing everything Fei Hong had just told him. Then he turned to look at her curiously. “You mentioned a queen, and I had an encounter with the Queen of Omashu recently. It was very strange, it was almost as though she had recognised me,” he rambled. “Then I saw this man, at the swamp, you know, the one close to here, the one where time doesn’t exist. He said he was my father, and he was wearing a crown. Does that mean I’m--?”
Fei Hong let out a sigh. “Yes, Keith,” she said sadly, “You are the Prince of Omashu.”
Keith took a deep breath, his head filling with a whirlwind of thoughts. He thought of the encounter he had had with the Queen of Omashu--with his mother. How her eyes had widened when she locked eyes with him, how she had desperately tried to run to him, but then her guards had stopped her. How that gentle-looking spirit of a man had told him he was his father, and how he said that despite barely having a chance to know him, he loved him unconditionally and wanted to see him continue to do great things. Keith felt his eyes sting with hot tears, but he shook his head and forced himself to look away.
“I wish you’d told me this sooner,” he muttered, his voice raspy.
“I’m sorry, Keith,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. She looked down at her hands, embarrassed, and Keith placed a hand over hers.
“I’m gonna go take a walk to clear my head,” he said sharply, then turned around to leave. “Please let me know when dinner is ready.”
Lance walked in silence around the shore until he found Keith sitting in front of the sea, his bare feet touching the water, and let out a sigh of relief. He had been searching for Keith everywhere for a couple of hours now, his stomach twisting at the thought of anything happening to Keith, of him just disappearing into the end of the day. He had heard a small discussion between Fei Hong and the three girls Keith referred to as his sisters, and he wondered if perhaps Keith had been the reason behind it.
He went to search for Keith on his own, not knowing if Fei Hong would be okay with him asking her to accompany him. He found himself drawn towards the sea, his heart telling him that he needed to be there, whether it was because Keith was there, or because his mother was out there thinking about him. She had told him many years ago that whenever the water called to him, it was because she thought of him and sent him his love, or because his true flame was hurting and needed Lance to send him his love.
He took a seat next to Keith and removed his shoes to dip his feet into the water, his eyes closing as he relaxed into the calm of the moment. He felt Keith’s hot gaze against him, and he opened his eyes to offer him a gentle smile, which Keith quickly returned. But Lance noticed there was something in his gaze--a hint of sadness and confusion that Lance wanted to wash away.
“This is a beautiful place,” Lance stated as he watched the sky slowly turn a darker shade of blue to welcome the night. He waited patiently for stars to start appearing, and smiled when he noticed the full moon grace them from the sky. “It really suits your personality.”
Keith squirmed after the last comment, his eyes casting down. Lance opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but he quickly closed it when Keith looked up at the sky, the stars reflecting in his eyes--but somehow, someway, there was something nostalgic in them, some kind of sadness Lance couldn’t quite comprehend. Had something happened at some point in the day that upset him? Was there anything Lance could do to help him feel better? He shifted closer to Keith to offer reassurance, and placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder.
Keith took a deep breath, then turned to look at Lance. “I think I’m the Prince of Omashu,” he said, his voice breaking.
Lance’s eyes widened upon hearing those words, then he nodded. He moved his hand from Keith’s back, and his fingers searched for Keith’s hands. He gave Keith a gentle squeeze, and hoped that this little exchange could offer him at least some sort of comfort. Then Keith smiled at him in gratitude.
“I spoke to Fei Hong earlier about it,” Keith continued, “And she told me that I had been brought here by Shiro when I was a baby because Omashu had suffered an unexpected attack, and it had greatly affected my family. And as I grew up, she never found it in herself to tell me because she was afraid another attack could fall into Omashu, and I could lose my entire family.”
Lance hesitated before cradling Keith’s head against his chest. He waited for Keith to push him away, to tell him he was overstepping a boundary, but instead Keith just nudged his head closer to Lance, a little sob escaping from his mouth. Lance carefully ran a hand through Keith’s hair, his fingertips slowly undoing Keith’s ponytail. He sighed as his fingers graced through Keith’s silky hair, and smiled when Keith hummed in response. When he thought Keith had found his inner peace, he spoke again.
“You know, you really look like Queen Krolia,” he said softly, “You have that handsome and regal look that no other boy I’ve ever seen has. No wonder you can pull off a ponytail so effortlessly.”
Keith chuckled, the sound of it muffled against Lance’s chest. He shifted slightly under Lance’s arms, and Lance wondered for a moment if he had made him uncomfortable, but then Keith grabbed one of his hands and traced figures on Lance’s palm.
“Lance?” he asked softly, his voice distracted. Lance hummed in response. “Do you promise not to treat me differently?”
Lance smiled softly and pressed his lips against Keith’s hair, gently gracing the top of Keith’s head, sending butterflies all over Lance’s body. “I promise you I wasn’t even considering it.”
It wasn’t easy for Keith to leave Kyoshi Island again. It felt too rushed--too soon for him to be leaving again. He felt as though he hardly had any time to catch up with all his sisters and Fei Hong, that there hadn’t been enough time for Lance to get to know them too. He wanted to extend all these moments, to make them last forever. He wanted more nights in Fei Hong’s house, sharing stories about Keith’s childhood with Lance, watching him grin whenever Fei Hong told him about all the silly things Keith said and did. But Keith also wanted to see Lance fulfill his mission, and he wasn’t the kind of man to break a promise.
The two of them hopped onto Sparky’s back again, the warmth of the day gracing their faces. They waved Fei Hong and the Kyoshi Warriors goodbye before looking up ahead towards the sky. Much to their luck, the weather continued to be nicer as they flew back North, the wind not hitting them until very late at night. Keith had also found that Lance had grown more used to travelling with minimal rest after staying in Kyoshi Island for a week, where he had the opportunity to sleep on a bed. He was much happier and more cheerful, and more excited than ever about having a chance to visit his old home.
Lance had shared with him a bunch of stories about his mother and his little siblings, as well as stories about his friends, and how he had managed to befriend the princess of the tribe. Keith listened to each of these stories intently, the warmth in Lance’s voice helping him remain steady as he flew with Sparky. He really enjoyed the way Lance held on to him tightly, how his head would lay on Keith’s back every night, and minutes later Keith would be distracted by the little snoring noises emanating from Lance’s mouth. Lance was beginning to feel at home, and Keith liked the feeling of that.
The two of them decided to land in Gaoling, the first city to be in actual land that was nearby. The two of them had heard stories about the place, how some of the richest people in the Earth Kingdom lived there, how several of those families were friends to the crown in all four nations. Lance had had the luck of meeting some of those families during tea parties his father liked to host, and he explained to Keith that they had the tendency to be rather stuck-up, much like the rest of the court in the Fire Nation.
The two of them agreed to spend the night at an inn, neither of them wanting to bother with visiting any of the rich families living there. They walked around the city in silence, admiring all the buildings and all the people walking around. They decided to settle down in an inn towards the centre of the city. The place welcomed them with its cozy exteriors, and an older couple stood patiently at the counter. Keith and Lance were about to inside when another couple stopped them.
Keith watched as a brown-haired woman grabbed Lance by the arm, her eyes widening as she studied him. Lance looked back at Keith in panic, and Keith’s stomach twisted as he began to realise what was going on. He took a step ahead and stood in front of the couple threateningly, but the woman’s features quickly softened.
“Prince Leandro, what a surprise to see you!” she exclaimed. “Never thought I would ever find you here.”
Lance’s hand flew to the back of his head, embarrassed, his eyes downcast. Keith hesitated before standing by his side to offer him some sort of comfort, then Lance turned to smile at him. “I’m on a little vacation with a friend, hopefully I’ll be back home soon. I’ve always wanted to visit the Earth Kingdom, and my father granted me permission to do it right before my birthday came along,” he explained.
The couple nodded with understanding, their eyes quickly shifting to study Keith. Keith felt uncomfortable under their gaze, and quickly turned his head away. “Well, if you’re planning to spend the night in here, you can stay back in our home. I’m sure our children would love to see you again,” the man explained, then pointed at a carriage. “We were on our way back home already. My wife wanted me to take her out to gamble, and what else could I do but agree with her?”
Lance hesitated for a moment, his brows furrowing in distress. He turned to look at Keith questioningly, his eyes begging him to give an answer. Keith knew Lance would feel more comfortable staying the night on a comfortable bed rather than a simple hotel bed, with a perfectly cooked dinner rather than some experiment the two of them could try. But he didn’t want Keith to be uncomfortable, not when he had just found out his true heritage.
“We would love to visit you,” Keith said solemnly. He tried to mimic that regal expression Lance had whenever he met someone new and needed to be proper. “We’ve been travelling for so many days now, I’m sure the prince would love to rest in a lovely house as yours.”
Lance turned to look at him, his eyes wide. Keith offered him a little smile, which Lance immediately returned. They hopped onto Sparky’s back and followed the couple in their carriage. Lance explained to Keith that the couple in question was part of a rich family named Holt, the kind that Lance tried to avoid at his father’s tea parties. They had a couple of children, one girl much younger than Lance, and another boy slightly older than him. He tried to get along with them, but they weren’t the kind of people Lance liked to keep close.
When the two arrived at the Holts’ estate, their eyes widened in awe. Keith had seen many beautiful places in his life, but hardly any of them were households or estates--mostly he liked the outdoors, to spend his afternoons reading under a tree. He had seen the palace where Lance lived from outside many times, and although he liked the architecture, he wasn’t sure how much he would enjoy it if it weren’t for all the lush gardens that surrounded it. But the Holts’ estate was undeniably beautiful, with an enormous garden and flowers from every colour surrounding it.
Keith hesitated for a moment before stepping inside, feeling as though this wasn’t the kind of place he belonged, but then Lance placed a hand in his shoulder reassuringly, and pulled Keith closer to him. A couple of servants quickly approached them and offered them water. They guided all four of them inside the house, and took them towards a dining room where the other children Lance had mentioned were already waiting for them.
The kids eyed the two of them with curiosity, then walked over to introduce themselves to Keith. Keith realised he hadn’t even introduced himself to their parents, and with Lance’s help, the two explained that Keith was a new friend Lance had recently met at court. Keith played with the hem of his shirt nervously when the Holts looked at each other suspiciously, neither of them seeming to believe the story Keith and Lance had conjured.
“Well, if you don’t mind, my wife and I are very hungry and we would like to have dinner now,” Mr. Holt said after introductions had been made. He motioned for Keith and Lance to sit, then the two servants walked over to accommodate them. “If you want to join us, please feel free to do so!”
Keith and Lance sat down at the table, eyeing the family before them reluctantly. The Holts didn’t seem to be the kind of family who liked to chat or share stories like the Satos or Shay’s family. They were cold and distant, and Keith didn’t feel as welcomed by them as he did with other people. But as the dinner started being served, Lance placed a hand over Keith’s under the table, his smile wide as he spoke with the Holts. Keith interlaced their fingers for a moment and squeezed Lance’s hand gently, hoping that none of the members of this family had noticed the warm gesture.
“So what brings you here, Prince Leandro?” the Holt boy--Matthew--asked, his eyes curious. He took a bite of his own dinner, his eyes never leaving Lance’s.
“My friend and I are only visiting here,” Lance explained. “I’ve never been to the Earth Kingdom before, unlike Keith, and he agreed to join me and show me the best places. It’s really beautiful in here, I wish I’d come here before with my father.”
Matthew nodded, a grin spreading in his lips. “I hope you like Gaoling. If you ever decide to come back, I’m sure my parents would love to receive you here.”
Lance nodded and thanked them, his eyes shifting back to his soup. They continued eating in awkward silence, neither of them really sure how to start a conversation. When the dinner was over, Mrs. Holt motioned for one of the servants to take Lance to their guest room, taking one curious look at Keith and Lance. The servants took them to a grand, elegant room with a single bed--the kind Keith imagined to exist only in palaces like the one Lance lived in--smiling as they wished Keith and Lance a good night. Keith and Lance looked at each other with wide eyes.
Lance let out a loud laugh as he studied the bed, then he threw himself to it, grabbing Keith by the arm so they would fall together. “This is all so awkward,” Lance said softly, a hint of joy in his voice. He turned to look at Keith and smiled. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
“You didn’t drag me into this,” Keith said, “I did.”
Lance took a deep breath, his eyes moving towards the ceiling. Keith wondered for a moment if perhaps this room reminded him of his own room back home, with the grand bed and the elegant furniture--a mirror hanging on the left wall with intricate decorations. Keith stared at it and tried to picture Lance waking up in the morning to brush his curly hair in front of the mirror, his lips turning to a grimace whenever he encountered knots. His heart felt warm and he smiled.
“Keith?” Lance asked, his voice unsure.
Keith turned to look at him, his head tilted to the side. He watched the way in which Lance’s chest rose and fell as he breathed deeply, his eyes distant and locked onto the ceiling. Keith tried to move over a hand to offer some sort of comfort if that was what Lance needed, but Lance quickly opened his mouth to speak before Keith had been able to reach out.
“Do you have any plans for when we finish this mission?” he asked, his voice void of emotion. He kept staring at the ceiling, his chest rising and falling.
Keith stared at him, unsure of how to react to the way Lance was behaving--so empty, so unlike him. He took a deep breath and composed himself, then turned his head to the ceiling too. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I mean I know I’d like to properly meet my mother and get to know her better. Maybe she’ll ask me to move to the palace in Omashu, I suppose. I’d like to get to know her better and decide if I’d like to stay.”
Lance nodded absent-mindedly, then sat up in the bed. He offered Keith a small smile, then grabbed a pillow and settled himself on the floor. Keith tried to protest, and for a moment Lance raised a hand to place it on Keith’s chest to stop him, then he quickly drew it back.
“It’s better if we try to rest now,” Lance instructed, his face solemn and tired. He grabbed one of the sheets from their bed, and squirmed under the sheets. He offered Keith another small smile and motioned for Keith to rest in there, but his eyes were still distant. Keith let out a sigh and settled himself into the bed. He looked up at the ceiling trying to find the reason why Lance’s demeanor had changed so much--trying to search into the depth of Lance’s soul to see what Lance was hiding, but he only found a brown wooden ceiling staring at him menacingly.
“I’m sleeping on the floor next time,” Keith stated softly. He tried to search for Lance’s eyes while he settled himself under the sheets, and noticed Lance scoffed, but his smile had turned more genuine. Keith smiled to himself.
“Goodnight, Keith,” Lance whispered as he rolled to his side.
Keith shifted in his own bed uncomfortably, his mind focusing on Lance’s breathing. Keith’s eyes fluttered closed for a moment, his head filling up with thoughts of Lance curling up in the bed next to him, resting on his chest as together they drifted to sleep. He felt his heart rate increase and shook his head, trying to erase the mental image from his memory. He took a deep breath and tried to think of his mother, what would await to him once this journey was over, then he heard someone open the door hurriedly.
Keith and Lance sat up quickly, their eyes studying the dark figure looming over their door. Matthew Holt tried to light up a candle to make himself visible, his eyes wide with worry. He motioned for Keith and Lance to stand up to follow him, then pressed a finger between his lips to tell them not to make any noise. Keith and Lance did as they were instructed.
“I’m so sorry for waking you up,” Matthew whispered, “but I just heard a conversation my father had with my mother. I don’t know what’s going on, or why you two are here, but I know that my parents are friends with your uncle, General Huan,”--he locked eyes with Lance--“and they’re sending some of his guards here to come and take you away.”
Lance’s eyes widened in panic, his hands searching for something to hold onto while he thought about their next move. Keith placed both hands on his shoulders and looked at him. He waited for Lance’s breathing to ease, then he opened his mouth to speak. “I left Sparky near here, I know we can get to her in no time if we escape from the window,” he said softly. “I don’t think the guards are here in Gaoling so it might take them a while to get here, giving us enough time to escape without having them on our heels. I promise to let us land on the nearest city up North to rest.”
Lance nodded, his eyes more focused. They stood in that position for a short moment while Lance composed himself, then he turned to look at Matthew, his expression growing softer, full of gratitude. “Thank you for letting us know about your parents… and my uncle. I won’t forget this.”
Matthew offered them a smile and nodded. “Glad to be of service,” he said, then began walking towards the door. “Good luck doing whatever it is that you’re doing. I know you’re doing the right thing .”
Lance gasped audibly before he turned on his heel to escape with Keith, his hand hovering over to his chest--to his heart. He turned to look at Keith, then grabbed his hand before the two of them jumped away from the window, both determined to forget about this family and this night, but not about the boy who had helped them.
Lance stared up at the inn in front of them, the word spa displaying on the entrance with bright colours. It had been a really long time since the last time he had been able to be in a spa--not since the day before he left the palace to embark on this journey. He eyes widened with surprise, and a wide grin crept up in his lips. He turned to look at Keith pleadingly. The spa was one of his favourite things about living in the palace, and he couldn’t deny that it was one of the things he missed the most after his father.
“You want us to stay in here just because there’s a spa?” Keith asked incredulously. He studied the inn from corner to corner, an eyebrow raised judgingly. He let out a sigh before turning to look at Lance again. “Only because I promised you could pick the next place for us to stay the night after the whole Gaoling fiasco.”
Lance placed both his arms around Keith and jumped excitedly, Sparky closely following them behind, throwing sparks around. When they separated Lance placed a small kiss on her forehead, then patted her head. Keith rolled his eyes at the scene unfolding in front of him, but there was a hint of joy in his eyes, and Lance noticed the corners of his lips lifted slightly.
Keith and Lance took a step inside, the two of them staring in awe at all the plants hanging from the roof. Lance watched as Keith walked towards one of them to study it, his eyes widening as a white lily slowly bloomed in front of his eyes. Lance quickly moved towards him, his chest feeling warm. He knew Keith was very fond of plants, and he wondered how okay it would be for Lance to get him a bag of seeds as a means to thank him for everything Keith had done for him during their journey, but his stomach quickly twisted into a more negative feeling.
He turned towards a young lady looking at them expectantly from behind, her eyes cheerful but curious. Lance walked towards her and offered her a greeting, as well as one of his famous charming smiles. He noticed a small blush creeping into her cheeks, and he chuckled when he noticed Keith quickly finding a place by his side, his arm pressed warmly against Lance’s.
“Are you looking for a room to spend the night in? Because we have several available,” she said, her eyes shifting from Lance to Keith. “We only offer rooms to couples though, it’s part of our policy. We created this spa for couples from everywhere to have a relaxing time during their vacations. Our spas are one of the best ones you can find in the Earth Kingdom. We want to make sure everyone leaves from this place happy as a flying bison.”
Keith and Lance turned to look at each other, and Lance noticed a certain hesitation in Keith’s eyes. He shifted his body to start walking outside the inn, but Lance quickly grasped his wrist to stop him. Keith stared at him, confused, but then Lance turned towards the girl standing in front of them. She quirked an eyebrow, but before she was able to speak again, Lance interrupted her.
“My betrothed and I would love to spend a couple of nights in one of your rooms,” Lance said determinedly. He turned to Keith and offered him a charming smile, but Keith rolled his eyes. “Actually, if there is a special, more expensive room you can offer us we would both greatly appreciate it,” he continued. Keith squinted his eyes in suspicion, and Lance quickly went to grab one of Keith’s hands, their fingers entwining. “You see, we ran away from our homes last night because our parents didn’t approve of our union, so we eloped here hoping the wise leaders from the Earth Kingdom would unite us in loving marriage.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she nodded excitedly. “A special room for the couple to celebrate their honeymoon!” she exclaimed, “I can ask my mother if she can help me find some place for you two to have your small wedding, I’m sure she’d be happy to be of service.”
She turned to search among the keys to find a perfect room for them. Keith turned to glare at Lance. Lance’s hand flew behind his head; he tried to think of a good excuse to give to Keith in regards to the story about their wedding, but the girl distracted him by walking towards them with a new pair of keys for their room to stay.
“There were rumours around about Avatar Ryner being here for a little while. I’ll investigate along with my mother to see if she would be interested in attending your wedding. I’ve heard stories everywhere that she has a bit of a liking for the ceremonies, and I’m sure her presence would make your special day even more memorable.”
Keith and Lance stared at each other in panic, the mention of Avatar Ryner causing the hair on the back of their neck to rise. Lance was surprised to find that Keith was the first one to speak. “We greatly appreciate your offer,” he said softly, his lips twitching into a little smile, “but my betrothed and I wouldn’t mind handling the business of our wedding on our own. We wanted it to be something much more private.”
The girl nodded in understanding, her smile still not leaving her face. She walked towards the rooms and motioned for them to follow her. When they finally reached the room they would be staying in, she grabbed their hands and pushed them together, then offered the two of them a happy stay and a long and happy marriage.
Lance walked through the door excitedly, his eyes roaming from one place to another to admire the room they had been sent to. It was a little similar to the one they had been offered while at the Holts’ estate, full of elegant furniture with golden flowers adorning each of them. The sheets on the bed were made of green silk, the kind of sheets Lance would sleep under back at the palace. The mirror hanging on one of the walls had beautifully sculpted golden lilies adorning each side. But what caught Lance’s attention was a small pond with hot water hiding at the corner of the grand room. His heart stammered with delight.
“I think we should really leave this place, Lance,” Keith said from behind him, his brows furrowed in concern as he took a look at the room. “I know we can afford this, but these people think we’re getting married and spending our honeymoon here.”
Lance turned to him, a grimace finding its place on his lips. He noticed Keith’s cheeks had turned a lovely shade of pink, and he felt warm all over again. “Is there anything I can do to convince you to stay?”
Keith locked eyes with him for a long moment, the indigo turning a little dark against the lighting of the room. Lance basked in the beauty of them as he waited for a response, then Keith opened his mouth to speak. “If you tell me a little about your life at the palace, I might,” he replied.
Lance grinned and moved to grab the bag he had been carrying with him throughout the entire journey. His hands hovered inside, searching for something special, until finally his fingertips touched old leather. He grabbed an old book he had been carrying since that morning. He had stopped at a little market to buy the little book for Keith while Keith fed Sparky. He knew it was nothing too special, just an old romance novel Lance’s mother liked to read to him when he was a kid. He handed the old book to Keith and smiled as the boy’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Are you trying to convince me to spend two nights pretending to be your betrothed in exchange of an old book?” he asked, a hint of humour in his voice. He eyed the pages, his fingers delicately touching the paper, trying not to break it in the process. It was beautiful how a strong warrior like Keith, with impulsive tendencies and a brash mouth, could also take care of a book in the same way a mother would take care of her child. “What’s wrong with telling me a story about your life in the palace?”
Lance stretched a hand to undo his bun, his curls slowly falling towards each side of his head and covering his forehead. He noticed Keith staring at him in awe for a moment before quickly turning his attention back to the book. Lance smiled pleasantly. “I can do both,” he said as he placed a hand on top of the book.
Keith stared at him, his mouth agape, before Lance turned away to stand in front of the pond. He quickly removed his cloak, his armor, his shirt, until he was only wearing pants. He rolled up his pants the same way he had done back at the beach, then he slowly but determinedly dipped into the pond, his eyes closing in delight as he basked into the warmth emanating from the water. He sighed in pure bliss.
Lance watched as Keith had found his way into their bed, his hands gently taking ahold of his new book as his eyes read each word carefully. Lance stared at him for a little moment, his heart fluttering when he realised Keith’s cheeks were still flushed, most likely because of Lance. Lance stared at the way Keith’s eyebrows arched as he read, his eyes focused and curious, his front teeth coming to bite on his lower lip whenever he reached an interesting scene. He was beautiful--the most beautiful, and Lance didn’t know how to take it.
He turned his attention back to the pond, his body relishing with the feeling of water all over him again. He smile pleased as he swam around, his head staring up at the ceiling while he floated on the water. He remembered the first time he learnt to swim. His mother had taken him and his little siblings to a lake near their home. It was the middle of summer, and although still cold, the water was slightly warmer than usual. She had taken them to meet sealfish, taught them to watch the creatures carefully as they swam around the lake. Lance remembered growing fascinated by the sealfish, and he promised himself he would learn how to swim so he could be like one of them when he grew up.
Lance smiled fondly at the memory, his eyes closing as he pictured the sealfish swimming around. He felt a few footsteps moving towards his way, and he opened his eyes immediately, happy to welcome Keith. Keith took a seat in front of the pond, his book laying on the bed away from them.
“Did you suddenly get bored from all the sultry romance?” Lance asked, “Or are you searching for that with me?”
Keith raised an eyebrow questioningly, then shook his head. “You’re the worst.”
Lance let out a laugh and swam closer to Keith, their eyes locking for a moment as Lance looked up. He took one of Keith’s hands in his and dipped it inside the water, his eyes glistening. “It’s really warm here, you should join me,” he said.
Keith stared at him, lips slightly parted. Lance didn’t realise how close to each other they were until Keith cleared his throat, his eyes moving towards the wall behind Lance. He nodded, then walked away to remove his clothes. Lance turned his attention back to the pond, a smile forming on his lips as he thought of the sealfish again, his arms spreading as he swam around.
He turned to find Keith settling into the water, a smile on his face. Lance watched as his eyes closed in delight, the same way Lance had done earlier, his long eyelashes gently touching his cheeks. Lance wanted to move towards him and kiss the water droplets falling from Keith’s eyelashes, but he stopped and forced himself to look away. He thought of Keith’s request from earlier, and how every day he grew more and more curious about Lance’s childhood, or the way he and his father lived in the palace.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my father and I taught my younger cousins how to swim?” Lance asked, his eyes moving towards the ceiling as he started floating on the water. Keith stared at him with furrowed brows, but curious eyes, and he quickly shook his head.
“You told me about the time you and your father had to swim away from a threatening creature while at the beach, but not this one.”
“This one is really fun. It all started because my cousin Jia wanted to impress this girl she liked,” Lance said. He watched as Keith shifted inside the water, then found a rock to sit on inside the pond. His eyes had grown curious, and his cheeks flushed lightly at the mention of a crush. Lance’s heart stammered loudly against his chest. “The girl was from a noble family from one of the northern islands in the Fire Nation, and she had been taught to swim at a very young age, which was why she was really good at it. One day she challenged Jia to a swimming competition, and Jia agreed, hoping that the noble girl would finally start courting her if she won.”
“And did she win?” Keith asked curiously.
“Not her, but I did,” Lance admitted, “Jia chickened out last minute so I took her place, and obviously I beat the noble girl without making any efforts.”
Keith raised a brow in amusement, a little smile playing on his lips. “And what happened to Jia and the noble girl?”
Lance swam closer to Keith, his feet moving to touch the ground. Their eyes locked for a long, intense moment, the beautiful indigo wrapping up Lance in a trance. Lance noticed Keith had undone his ponytail while Lance was telling him the story, and his hands instinctively tried to reach the wavy cascades that fell onto Keith’s shoulders. He noticed Keith’s eyes widened in surprise, and he moved his hand away in embarrassment, but his eyes never left Keith’s.
“I believe your brother and his husband attended their wedding.”
Keith grinned at him, his eyes lighting up. “I’m glad things turned out well for them.”
Lance nodded. “I was very impressed by that noble girl’s efforts to court my cousin. Courting rules in the Fire Nation are ridiculous.”
Keith chuckled. “Sounds like it.”
Lance looked around the pond searching for a rock to sit in, and pushed it next to Keith. He allowed himself to enjoy the moment for a little while, the thermal waters keeping him warm and relaxed, the feeling of Keith’s arm next to his sending a shiver down his spine. For a small moment Lance felt as though he could do anything, that nothing in the world could go wrong if he just sat by Keith’s side.
“I told you spending the night here was a good idea,” Lance said softly, his eyes half lidded. “Jia and that noble girl should have come here to their honeymoon, it really is the perfect place for a vacation.”
Keith chuckled. “Would you like to spend your honeymoon here?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“You wouldn’t?” Lance asked incredulous.
Keith turned to look away, his eyes distant. “I don’t know,” he confessed, “I never really thought about it.”
Lance nodded in understanding, his hand coming to rest on Keith’s shoulder--a force of habit now. The two of them sat in silence for a moment, then Lance left his seat next to Keith to continue swimming around, hoping that Keith would take it as a hint to follow him. He wanted to tell Keith how much being in water meant to him, how it wasn’t just something he liked to do for fun, but it was also a part of himself--despite his bending, despite everything. But no words seemed to be enough when he rehearsed them in their head.
“I wanted to be a sealfish when I was a kid,” he blurted out. “Can’t believe I ended up being a phoenix instead.”
He heard Keith chuckle behind him, his arms moving slowly as he made his way into the pond towards Lance. “Why a sealfish?”
“Because sealfish are the best swimmers,” Lance replied, “And I wanted to be the best swimmer.”
Keith stared at him, his eyes full of so much fondness Lance’s heart could only leap against his chest. He meditated on his reply for a short moment, then he opened his mouth to speak, his lips lifting as he offered Lance a grin. “I thought you already were the best swimmer. That’s why you defeated that noble girl your cousin Jia married,” he said, his voice full of honey. “I think you achieved your childhood dream. Turns out you’re a phoenix and a sealfish.”
Lance’s heart fluttered against his chest, Keith’s words weighing on him and making him feel whole--the clashing in his head not mattering for that little moment. He swam towards Keith and grabbed his hands to drag him around the pond, the two swimming together in a perfect symphony--fingers entwined and grins matching as they splashed around the water in pure joy.
By the time they decided to go to bed, the moon was already set in the sky, the stars welcoming them and embracing them for another peaceful night. Lance was grinning widely as he prepared himself to settle inside the sheets, a certain nostalgia engulfing him as he thought of the palace and the bed that long awaited his return, when he realised Keith was trying to gather some pillows to settle himself on the floor. Lance’s brows furrowed in confusion, and he quickly moved to stop Keith.
“I told you I would get the floor next time we encountered a single bed situation,” Keith said, his voice solemn. “We agreed to this back in Gaoling, and I saw your face when you noticed the bed in here. I’m not gonna let you sacrifice your comfort again for me.”
“There’s two sides on this bed,” Lance protested, his fingers moving to touch the soft silk sheets before them. “These sheets are perfect, and the floor is so cold. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if you slept on the floor. We’ll respect each other’s spaces and both take our place on each side of the bed. By the way, I call dibs on the left because that’s closer to the window.”
Keith opened his mouth to protest, then let out a loud sigh, a small smile forming on his lips. He nodded in defeat, then settled down on the bed next to Lance, his body shifting so his back was facing Lance. The two of them stayed in uncomfortable silence, their hearts beating too loud for their liking. Lance could perfectly hear Keith’s erratic breathing and hoped that this weird tension would dissipate through the night. He closed his eyes and thought of home, of his mother and his little siblings, how soon he would be able to see them all again.
That night he dreamt of Keith, how much he longed for Keith to meet his family. He dreamt of Keith laughing under a cherry blossom, his hair falling to his shoulders in a perfect cascade as he got rid of his ponytail, his eyelashes caressing his cheeks as he closed his eyes in pure bliss. Lance dreamt of running a hand through that long silky hair, of leaving kisses from those eyelashes to those cheeks, to that jawline; Keith’s laughter a melody to his ears.
That next morning Lance woke up with Keith’s arms wrapped around his waist, his head resting on Lance’s chest. Lance’s heart thudded loudly against his chest, and he cursed himself. How much was he allowed to enjoy all this, when he and Keith would only be together for the rest of their journey before taking different paths, and perhaps never see each other again?
It didn’t take long for Keith to wake up right afterwards, his eyes widening as he realised the state in which they had found themselves in the middle of the night. He quickly tried to apologise to Lance, but Lance interjected him and told him it was all alright, but he couldn’t help but to feel his stomach squirming at the thought of the closeness they had been in. He quickly shook his head and tried to forget about it. They still had a whole day just for themselves before they could continue their journey.
Keith stared at the map for a moment too long before his eyes shifted towards the road in front of him again. After staying in Misty Palms Oasis for two nights, Keith and Lance continued their journey towards the North, both well-rested enough to continue. They knew their journey was now going to be more arduous, since the desert occupied most of the land as they delved deeper into the Earth Kingdom. But no matter how much they thought themselves to be prepared, they never expected the journey to be quite so long.
“I can’t even remember the last time we were able to drink water,” Lance groaned. “Our supplies have been empty for so long.”
“You drank the last bag we had kept just a couple hours ago, Lance,” Keith said, irritated. “There has to be an oasis near somewhere, if the map is correct. If we continue this way, we might be able to get into the library.”
Lance groaned again. “We’re not going to that place, I just got you a book for you to enjoy through the rest of our journey. That should be enough.”
“We’re not going to the library, Lance,” Keith stated solemnly. “As much as I would love to go there, I know getting supplies for us is much more important.”
Lance sighed. “Fine,” he said, “But have you considered maybe flying with Sparky while we find an oasis to get water from? I think that might be more useful, and you know, faster.”
“She’s tired too, Lance. You’re not the only one here that’s been stuck on a desert for days.”
Lance scoffed but didn’t protest. He stared at the desert ahead of them, nothing but a few plants in their plane of sight. Keith thought of the two nights he and Lance spent in that inn, their personal pond, their perfect bed, and how each morning they woke up entangled with each other--almost as though they were truly the couple they were pretending to be. He thought of how happy they were for those two days, and how it had all vanished as they delved into the desert, both too annoyed and tired to even smile at each other. Keith’s stomach twisted.
They continued walking in silence, neither having enough energy to make a comment. Sparky herself was walking slower and had stopped sending sparks their way to try and cheer them up. Keith had saved some spare fish and meat for her to eat in the morning, but there wasn’t enough for the three of them to survive for another night. Keith needed to find something for them, and had to find something fast. They still had to continue flying for at least another couple of weeks before they reached the United Republic of Nations.
Keith looked around, his eyes alert for any sign of an oasis, when he heard a loud cry coming from their left. He turned to Lance, panicked, hoping that Lance had heard the cry as well, but Lance seemed unfazed. Keith shook his head and motioned for Sparky to stay with Lance as he went exploring. He made his way towards the noise, the memory of the night he met Sparky hitting him again. If he could help someone instead of feeling sorry for himself for having no food to keep Lance and Sparky alive, then he would rather be of service.
He found a little boy hiding under a jumping cholla, his hands covering his face as he cried. Keith hesitated before walking over to him, taking a seat next to him to offer some sort of comfort. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.
The boy shook his head. “I--I can’t find my mom,” he said between sobs. “She--she left me a long time ago to search for food for us, but she never came back.”
Keith furrowed his brows in concern, his head tilting. If Keith had learnt something about this desert, it was how scarce it was with food, and how long it could take anyone to find anything remotely edible. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists. He wanted to promise the little boy that he would help him find his mom, but he didn’t know if that was actually a possibility, especially in such a vast desert.
“Keith? Keith, where are you going?” he heard Lance’s voice from nearby. Keith opened his eyes and found Lance running towards him. “Keith? What are you doing?”
Lance studied the little boy sitting next to Keith, his brows furrowing with concern.
“His mom left some time ago to find some food, and I want to help him find her,” Keith said determinedly.
Lance’s eyes widened, but he nodded immediately. “I’ll help you find her too.”
The boy stared at them in awe, his face scarlet from all the crying. Keith noticed Sparky slowly following behind Lance, and he stood up to offer the little boy a hand. The four of them moved away from the jumping cholla, and Keith asked the boy where his mother headed to before they began to walk that way. Keith turned to look at the sun shining brightly against their skin before heading straight, praying that the kid’s mother would be nearby so none of them would grow tired before time.
They walked around the desert for hours, none of them sure if they had started going in circles, or actually continuing ahead. The sun began to set and Keith felt a knot twisting his stomach. He knew how difficult it would be to find the kid’s mother in the middle of the desert, but he hated the idea of leaving him out there all alone with no one to comfort him or offer him a place to stay the night. But he knew he couldn’t bring the kid with them on their journey like he had done with Sparky, not when his mother was still out there, probably searching for him and for food for the two of them to survive.
He let out a frustrated sigh, his hold on the kid’s hand tightening. He went on his knees and looked at the boy solemnly. He didn’t know how to formulate words that could offer any sort of comfort, so he furrowed his brows deep in thought.
“I think there’s an oasis right there,” Lance said all of a sudden, his eyes wide and relieved.
Keith stood up and followed Lance’s gaze. He noticed there was a canal of water not too far from them, with a group of palms surrounding it. He hoped it wasn’t just a mirage. He looked at the sky and thanked the moon that illuminated their path, his lips lifting into a small grin as they ran towards the water.
Keith knew that the boy wouldn’t be able to follow them on their journey, but Keith felt more secure with the idea of him having enough food and water to survive until he heard from his mother, so he squeezed the little kid’s hand tightly and guided him towards the little pond, telling him that the first fish they caught would be for him to dine on.
Lance ran towards the pond and splashed his face with water. He giggled happily and offered everyone around a grin, quickly sending shivers along Keith’s spine. Keith wanted to join him, to drink a bit of water, to stare at Lance’s beautiful face illuminated by the moonlight, but before he was able to move, he heard a woman yelling someone’s name. He stood up and locked eyes with the little boy, his eyes widening as he recognised the name the woman was calling.
“Could this be your mother?” Keith asked, his hands moving over to the little boy’s shoulders--Jiao, if he was correct.
Jiao nodded, a small smile forming on his lips. Keith stood up and offered him a hand to walk around searching for his mother. They found her lurking around the palms, her eyes widening at the sight of her little son. She quickly ran to embrace him, her eyes closing with relief as he wrapped his little arms around her neck. Keith stared at the little scene before him with a little smile, his heart beating loudly against his chest. He had helped a little boy reunite with his mother; despite all the odds he had been able to do it.
“Thank you for bringing Jiao to me,” the woman said, her eyes full of gratitude.
Keith nodded at her, then went on his knees to look at Jiao in the eye. “You have to be more careful next time,” he said softly. “Try to follow your mother everywhere, even if she argues. Stay with her no matter what.”
Jiao nodded, then wrapped his arms around Keith’s neck. Keith gasped in surprise, but he quickly returned the hug and closed his eyes. When Jiao and his mother bid him goodbye, Keith noticed Lance had been staring at him the whole time, a gentle smile playing on his lips. He looked at Keith in an endearing way that made Keith’s heart flutter in his chest, then he walked towards Keith proudly, his head held high as though he was eye to eye with another noble.
"That was very sweet of you, Keith, all that you did for that boy,” Lance said, his voice low and raspy. His eyes locked with Keith’s for a long moment, stars reflecting in his eyes like in the ocean. Keith’s heart jostled in his chest. “You’re gonna be a great king someday.”
“We actually have enough supplies to last for at least a week longer,” Keith said. He placed a hand behind Sparky’s back and motioned for her to follow him. Sparky looked back at Lance.
“We’ve been flying for at least two weeks without any rest,” Lance protested. “We may have enough supplies now, but I think it would be a good idea for us to spend the night here.”
Keith stopped in his tracks and took a look around, his hand not yet leaving Sparky’s back. Lance watched as he let out a loud sigh and nodded in silence, his eyes puffy and tired. Lance walked towards him to comfort him, his eyes shifting towards the bags still hanging from Sparky’s back. He carefully started removing them and motioned for Keith to stay there; this time he wanted to be the one to set up their tents instead.
Lance and Keith had landed in the middle of a forest that morning, the infamous desert in which they had spent so many days now very far behind. Every day Lance was growing more and more thrilled, the idea of seeing his mother and little siblings again making his heart jump. But in the same way he was becoming excited, his heart was slowly filling with dread. He knew that it was only a matter of weeks now before he and Keith would go their separate ways, after nearly three months of being together. And as happy as Lance was for Keith and the new discoveries he had made about his personal life, he wasn’t sure how ready he was to have to say goodbye.
Keith lit a fire as Lance set up their tents, his eyes moving towards Lance every now and then. The two of them worked in silence, neither of them really knowing how to start a proper conversation. It was silly how well they had gotten to know each other, but with all the tension building up between them as time passed, it was becoming more and more difficult to spend time with each other. Lance closed his eyes and wished they were still back in that inn.
“How long do you want us to stay here?” Keith asked out of the blue, his eyes moving around the forest. “I think I’ve been here before.”
“Really?” Lance asked, his eyes not leaving the tents. “It seems nice.”
Keith nodded, a little smile forming in his lips. “Yes. If I recall correctly, there’s a village nearby where Shiro and I stayed for a while before he married Adam. We used to travel a lot around the North when I first left Kyoshi Island.”
Lance chuckled. “Do you think we could have met during that time?”
He heard the sound of rustling leaves as Keith appeared next to him. He looked sad--no, nostalgic, as he took a seat next to Lance. He stared at the tall trees in front of them, a longing look on his face. Lance wished he could just run a hand around his shoulder and pulled him closer, but he wasn’t sure if Keith would be okay with that. Not anymore.
“I’ve never been to a water tribe in my life,” Keith admitted, “but I’ve been to the Northern Air Temple.”
Lance nodded in understanding. Stories about Keith’s brother being a skilled air nomad was one of the first things Lance got to learn about Keith, and also one of Lance’s favourite things to hear about. In a way, Lance admired Shiro despite hardly knowing him. He seemed like a well-put together man, a strong leader everyone would follow without hesitation--the kind of man Lance was sure Keith was growing to be. The kind of man Lance wished he could be.
“That makes sense,” Lance said quietly, his eyes shifting towards the trees as well. “I hope you like it when we get there.”
Keith turned to him then, and offered him a little smile. “I’m sure I will,” he said softly, then his eyes turned towards the floor. “It’s all so near now, huh.”
Lance’s stomach twisted. “It is.”
Keith took a deep breath and stood up. Lance watched as he moved towards a little river crossing their path, Sparky following close behind. He played with her for a while, the two of them splashing each other with water from the river. Lance watched them quietly, his heart beating fast as he longed to be playing, too. He wondered over and over if Keith would be okay with him joining, and as many times as he told himself that Keith would enjoy his presence, there was still a nagging voice in the back of his head telling him it would be best if he forgot all about it.
“Do you wanna train?” Keith asked suddenly, a grin on his lips. He noticed Lance staring at him in confusion, and began to explain. “I know we’ve barely had any time to do it lately, and I’d like to perfect my firebending skills, if that’s okay with you.”
Lance nodded, staring off into the river where Sparky was still running around excitedly. He turned to look at Keith, who stared at him with that same nostalgia he carried earlier, and his stomach twisted. “Right, yeah. We--we can definitely practice a little, before the sun sets.”
“Thank you,” Keith whispered, then took ahold of one of his katanas. “I can teach you a little about how to use these if you want.”
Lance gave him a sly smile then. “That’s hardly fair for me, you know. You’re already a natural firebender, but I’m definitely gonna have to catch up a lot with you to be a skilled swordsman.”
Keith turned to look at the floor, his cheeks turning a lovely shade of pink, and Lance smiled, pleased with himself. He stood in front of Keith and offered a demonstration, a long wall of fire shooting from his hands and circling around him. Sparky watched with excitement, then did the exact same movement, breathing fire out of her mouth. Keith and Lance laughed, and soon enough Keith followed in Lance’s movements, a small heart made of fire following Lance at the end of the tail.
The two of them continued training for a while, Sparky following their movements and copying them whenever she wished. Lance couldn’t help but notice all the fire hearts Keith was sending his way every now and then, and his heart skipped a beat. He wanted to speak up, to at least ask if Keith was doing this on purpose, or if it was just a coincidence, but he couldn’t find the courage to do it. Instead, he just allowed Keith to guide him closer to the river, and accepted the katana Keith placed in his hands.
Lance had carried swords many times in his life before. His father, although not a skilled warrior, often carried a katana himself, and he had taught Lance the basics, like how to balance it as he carried it around. But as regal and beautiful as Lance found them, he hardly knew anything about how to fight with them, the thought of it far too complicated for Lance to follow through. He was a skilled firebender, and that seemed to be enough for him in combat. But as Keith stood up behind him, his fingers gently gracing Lance’s waist as he taught Lance how to work on his posture, Lance thanked his past self for never learning how to properly use a sword.
Lance did everything Keith instructed him to, smiles playing on their lips as they took turns and challenged each other, Lance trying to get the hang of the katana and fight Keith as well as he could. They stood close to the river, laughing and passing their time until the sun began to set. Lance threw himself to the grass, a satisfied smile not yet leaving his lips. He turned to look at Keith, who had followed him behind, and their cheeks flushed.
“We should get enough sleep now after all this training,” Keith said softly, his eyes not leaving Lance’s.
One of the things Lance had learnt from this journey was how beautiful Keith’s eyes looked under the moonlight, stars reflecting in the darkness of them. Lance wanted to place a hand on Keith’s cheek and caress it softly, but he stopped himself. “We should start preparing dinner now,” he said as he sat up, his eyes looking straight ahead.
He began to walk towards their tent when he heard a noise. Keith quickly stood up to run in front of him. They walked around slowly, searching for the source of the noise, and Keith’s hands moved to grab his katanas in that instinctive way Lance had grown so accustomed to. Their heads turned as more noises soon followed, until two figures emerged from the woods. Keith positioned himself to prepare for battle, his brows knitting and his eyes cutting threateningly, but then his expression softened.
“Rolo? Nyma? Is that you?” he asked, his voice almost vulnerable.
“Keith?” a dark skinned girl asked as she stepped in front of the other guy. Her expression softened when she locked eyes with him, and she quickly ran to hug him. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
The other guy quickly followed the girl, and soon enough the two were embracing Keith in a tight hug, much like the one Keith had shared with his sisters back in Kyoshi Island. Lance watched the whole scene unfold before him, his heart warming as he realised how happy Keith looked. He motioned for Sparky to walk closer to them, when Keith broke out of the hug to walk towards Lance. Keith pointed at him, a smile still on his lips as he wrapped an arm around Lance’s shoulders, explaining to his old friends how they were now travelling together around the world.
“This is my friend Lance,” Keith explained, his voice full of warmth. “He means a lot to me, so I would appreciate it if you were kind to him.”
The girl--Nyma--narrowed her eyes to study him, a sly smile playing on her lips. She walked around Lance in circles, like a lioness studying her prey before attacking. Lance stood nervously under her gaze, his eyes shifting to the trees to distract himself, before Keith finally placed a hand on her wrist to stop her.
“You’re Prince Leandro from the Fire Nation,” she finally said. “Why are you hiding your identity?”
“That’s none of your business,” Keith said from behind. He had walked over to introduce Rolo to Sparky, the two newcomers looking at Lance suspiciously.
“I’m hiding from some people,” Lance admitted, his eyes locking with Keith’s as he spoke. He walked over towards the fire Keith had lit earlier, and he sat in front of it, his hands hovering over the flames to keep warm.
He thought of his father, how his brother would often laugh at him for always doing this during the winter despite the fact that he was a firebender, and his body was naturally warm. Lance remembered telling him once that he probably wouldn’t survive a winter in the water tribe, and his father looked down, a small smile forming in his lips, before whispering that he had attempted to once, and it had resulted in his mother making fun of him for it. He looked up at Keith and wondered what kind of weather he preferred. He wanted to ask him, but when he realised Keith was busy chatting with his friends, he decided to stay quiet and ask later.
Lance watched as everyone settled down around the tents, chatting and sharing stories, Keith looking happier than he had in the past three weeks. The five of them dined together, Lance helping Rolo prepare the dinner as Keith and Nyma continued to catch up with their lives. Lance’s eyes moved to them curiously every now and then. When they all finished their dinner, Lance watched as Keith, Rolo and Nyma sat in front of Keith’s tent.
Lance excused himself and began to walk around the forest, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be able to sleep well with all the chatter. He turned around when he heard a noise closely following behind, and he smiled when he realised it was Sparky following him. They walked together in silence, Lance’s eyes sparkling as he noticed the full moon staring at him from the sky, illuminating the woods and guiding him through the dark.
Lance sat after a while on a log, his eyes not leaving the moon as he let out a loud sigh. Sparky cozied up next to him, her eyes fluttering closed as she drifted off to sleep.
“It’s okay,” Lance whispered to the moon and himself. “I’ve never belonged anywhere, or with anyone either way.”
It didn’t take long for the two of them to drift off to sleep, the moon and the stars keeping them company through the night. That night, Lance couldn’t remember what he dreamt of; he only remembered feeling lost and confused, a certain feeling of sadness welling up to him by the time he woke up. He tried not to stir Sparky as he began to realise they had fallen asleep in the middle of the woods, but panic quickly rose him as he heard two soldiers slowly approaching them.
He placed a hand over Sparky’s head to wake her up, then motioned for her not to make any noise. She stared at him in panic, his feelings going through her and giving her the same effect. He wanted to yell in frustration and run towards the tents where Keith, Rolo and Nyma were waiting for them, but he knew he needed to be quiet and to think fast. He pressed his hands over the commissures of Sparky’s lips and softly caressed her cheeks.
“We’ll be safe, I promise,” he whispered, “but you have to let me fly with you so we can go as fast as we can towards the tents. We need to warn the others about these soldiers and fly away from here as soon as possible. We can’t take any risks.”
Sparky looked at him and blinked, her yellow eyes showing confusion. Lance opened his mouth to give her directions again, but stopped when she opened her wings and motioned for him to hop on. Lance hesitated before doing it, his hands hovering over her neck nervously. He looked up at the sky and prayed for the moon to help him in this moment of need, then Sparky lifted herself off the ground in a swift and brash movement.
They flew as quietly as they could, but Lance was sure the soldiers had spotted them at some point in their short journey. When they landed, they noticed Keith, Nyma and Rolo all eating breakfast together. Keith’s smile turned into a frown as he took notice of their arrival. Lance’s stomach twisted.
“Where were you?” Keith asked, his voice low and irritated. He walked towards Lance, his brows furrowed in anger.
“I’m sorry but we need to leave this place immediately--”
“Lance,” Keith asked through gritted teeth, “Where were you? You could have been in danger!”
“There’s soldiers coming this way, Keith. We need to go.”
Nyma walked towards them, too, her eyes narrowing. She studied the woods for a long moment, then looked at Keith in panic, her hands moving to grab his wrists and tug him towards Sparky. “The prince is right, you two need to go immediately.”
Keith stared at her, his expression shifting from anger to panic. He stared into the woods and noticed two small figures coming towards them, their pace increasing as they realised it was Keith and Lance, with their dragon hovering over to protect them. Nyma motioned for Keith to climb up onto Sparky’s back, but he stood still, his eyes shifting from Nyma to Rolo with concern.
“What are you guys gonna do? They’re gonna be here in less than a few minutes,” Keith asked, his voice breaking in defeat. The mere sound of it made Lance’s heart sink.
Rolo handed Keith and Lance each of their bags. Lance grabbed it reluctantly, then looked at Keith again, a small tear falling through his cheek.
“We’ll make it, I promise,” Rolo said solemnly. “But you two need to go now, before they get here.”
Keith climbed onto Sparky’s back, his head falling as he watched Rolo ready himself to attack, with a small dagger in hands. Lance followed close behind, hesitating before placing his hands around Keith’s waist, the anger Keith had expressed at him earlier still fresh in his mind. He looked up at the sky before he felt Nyma quickly press a hand over his arm to get his attention. Lance’s eyes narrowed in confusion, but she offered him a small smile.
“I trust you,” she said right before they set away into the sky. “Please make sure peace is kept within the four nations. I know you two can do it.”
Keith walked through the streets of Makapu alone, memories from the place floating around in his head. He remembered being in the city before, remembered the streets, the inns, and some familiar faces. It was a little village he and Shiro had chosen to stay in after several days of travelling, the people from it welcoming them with open arms and kind smiles. Keith had promised himself he would return to Makapu one day if his fortune turned out to be correct.
He searched around the streets for that little sorceress’s store, waiting for the moment his eyes came across a bunch of stones, as well as old books open for display. He had asked Lance and Sparky to stay at the inn they had settled down in and wait for him in there, and although Keith knew that had been the best decision, he couldn’t help but feel guilty about leaving them behind, especially with all the tension going on between him and Lance.
He let out a loud sigh and tried to distract himself by thinking about the adventure at hand. It had been at least four years since the last time he had been in Makapu, but he remembered the words coming from that old lady’s mouth with extreme clarity. He remembered how he longed to return to Earth Kingdom in all those years to see if her prophecy had been fulfilled, how he hoped every night since this journey had begun that he would indeed find his fate back in the Earth Kingdom. And now that he had, he needed to see her again, to tell her she had been right, and he was in the wrong for questioning her.
He stood in front of the store before walking in, his eyes glinting at the sight of red and purple stones shining against the sunlight. He held one of them in curiosity, wondering about the meaning behind them. He had seen many precious stones in his life before, but none as beautiful as the red one in front of him. He shifted his eyes towards the book as he let go of the stone, his heart hammering loudly against his chest as he thought of a person he could compare to the stone. His hands hovered over the pages of an old book about predictions, and how to read clouds and bones. He was studying it carefully when he noticed a figure moving towards him.
“Are you here for a reading?” a little girl asked.
Keith opened his mouth to speak when he noticed the old woman walking towards them. She studied Keith for a moment, then offered him a smile. “I see you have returned.”
Keith nodded quickly, his hands quickly dropping from the book. He took a step towards the woman, his hands fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “I wanted to apologise for not fully believing you four years ago. Everything you said about me was true, and my brother got married only a few months afterwards.”
The woman nodded solemnly, then turned to the little girl standing beside her. “Ming, would you mind going to prepare us some tea?”
The little girl--Ming--nodded as she walked away, a small smile playing on her lips. The old woman turned to Keith and motioned for him to follow her towards the room where she gave readings. It was a small place, dimly lit and with strange but interesting smells surrounding it. Keith noticed the old woman had changed the colour of the room; it looked like a beautiful emerald green, with purple flowers painted all around. There was something about the atmosphere of the place that made Keith feel welcome; it was cozy and beautiful in its own way.
They waited for Ming to return with his cup of tea. Keith took it with care as he took a little sip, the taste of jasmine making him feel at home. The old woman stared at him then, an eyebrow raised mischievously. Every time he looked at her, he could tell from her eyes that she knew something he didn’t, and it was up to him whether he would find out or not. It was almost as though she knew all the secrets of the universe, and only shared them with few select ones, which drove her to be overly amused. In a way, she reminded him of Avatar Ryner.
“So you’ve discovered your destiny then, or at least have a bigger idea of what it is,” she said as she watched him drink his tea, her eyes full of amusement. “And now you want to know what steps to take next.”
Keith hesitated before nodding, his eyes widening as the woman spoke the last words. He knew he wanted to meet his mother, needed to. He wanted to get to know her well and actually live a proper life as mother and son, his new found title mattering little as long as he got to be with her. He wanted to learn about his family, his real ancestors, what his father was like. Keith was curious at heart, but this was more than just curiosity, this was about himself--his true identity. He wanted to know who he really was, had longed to know for years.
But he also wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Lance just yet.
The woman walked towards the back of the room to grab a piece of bone. She studied it for a little moment before she tore it into pieces, then watched the pieces in front of her carefully, a smile playing on her lips--one more genuine, more full of hope. Keith finished drinking his tea and stood, his eyes curious and his heart prepared to ask another question. He looked at the pieces of bone lying in the woman’s hand and wondered what they could mean. He opened his mouth to speak, but the woman interrupted him.
“There’s no need to worry about following a path. Your heart will always take you to wherever you need to go,” she said softly. He nodded in understanding and opened his mouth to try to speak again, but she placed a finger on her lips, and continued speaking. “The mission will be successful if the two hearts are in tune, and a girl will join your family in many years to restore the peace among the four nations--a notion she will learn from her parents, but that is also part of her identity.”
Keith’s eyes widened, every single word the woman muttered sinking into him. He thought about his future, the mission he and Lance had at hand, and his head felt dizzy. He sat back into his chair and looked at his teacup, the taste of jasmine still fresh in his throat.
“...the wedding will be grand and majestic, a wedding fit for a prince.”
“How can you figure out so many things from a single bone?” Keith asked incredulously, then turned to look at the ceiling.
“I am a very skilled fortune teller, dear,” she said proudly, “and you are more of an open book than you might think.”
Keith sighed and looked at her again, his heart feeling vulnerable. “Did you always know I was a prince?”
“You resemble Queen Krolia a lot,” the old woman admitted. She took a seat in front of him again, offering him a soft smile. “And your fortune has always spoken of royalty and all that it involves.”
Keith nodded, his eyes moving over to the teacup and the beautiful design of flowers it had, some pink, some blue and some yellow. He smiled softly, then stood up from his seat. “Thank you for your services,” he said. “I really appreciate your guidance.”
“You hardly needed it,” she woman said. “You’re a clever boy, Keith Akira Kogane, and you have a wonderful life ahead. You just need to listen to your heart.”
Keith nodded and walked towards the door, his eyes shifting towards that red stone he had admired earlier. He studied it again and smiled, his heart beating faster against his chest. He thought of what the old woman told him earlier, how she had mentioned the mission would be successful as long as the two hearts were in tune. He knew things hadn’t gone right the last time they had landed, with Lance separating himself from the group and nearly getting himself caught. He knew Rolo and Nyma, two of his oldest friends, could have easily been wounded by those soldiers, their fates completely unknown to Keith. Everything had gone wrong, and he wondered how well his relationship with Lance was doing, because it seemed as though neither of them was in tune.
He knew Lance had grown more distant ever since their visit to Gaoling, and although they had grown closer again when they were in Misty Palms Oasis, Lance seemed more reluctant, his eyes hesitant whenever he got near Keith. Keith felt a lump in his throat when he thought of that little moment they had shared, how Lance nearly ran a hand through Keith’s hair, then quickly drew it back; how he had pretended that moment they shared in the Two Lovers Cave never happened; how he shrugged off all of Keith’s attempts to make small hearts of fire and send them his way as a means to express his growing affection. Was Lance trying to tell him something? Was Keith the only one feeling these things?
Keith sighed and shook his head, his feet moving languidly as he stepped into the inn where Lance was waiting for him. He needed to figure out a way to be in tune with Lance again, perhaps by casting those feelings aside, or perhaps merely by conversing, and he needed to think fast. He hesitated before opening the door, his eyes closed as his heart continued beating faster against his chest. He took a deep breath and thought of Lance’s smile, how happy he would be if they finished their mission successfully--how happy he would be to see his mother and siblings again.
Keith walked into the room in silence, his eyes downcast. He didn’t hear any noise as he moved towards his bed, which made him wonder for a moment if Lance was actually there, but then he noticed a bunch of flower petals scattered around in his bed, the words I’m sorry formed by a perfect symphony of purples and blues. Keith looked up to notice Lance staring at him apologetically, his hand moving to his neck in embarrassment.
“I wanted to apologise for what happened in the forest earlier in the week,” he said softly, his eyes moving to the floor. “I know I was kind of a dick for leaving without saying anything, and I know I made you unnecessarily worried. I also need to apologise for… acting so weird around you lately, I know it’s all on me, and I want to make it up to you. We’re only going to be together for a few weeks more, so let’s make the most of it, shall we?”
Keith stared at Lance, the last words he had muttered sinking into his stomach. They would both go their separate ways in only a few weeks, and Keith wasn’t ready for it--and it seemed as though Lance wasn’t either. Keith walked over to him and hesitated before attempting to embrace Lance, his hands shaking as they circled around Lance’s shoulders.
“There’s nothing you need to apologise for. I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you, and I’m sorry,” he said softly, and smiled when he realised Lance’s hold on him had gotten tighter. He thought about what the old lady had said again, about their hearts being in tune, and he sighed softly as the sweet smell of Lance’s hair filled his nostrils, his heart feeling content. “Let’s continue watching each other’s backs and finish this journey as best as we can.”
Lance smiled as he noticed a little girl dancing around in Fire Nation traditional wear, a red mask covering her face. Keith had explained earlier that the new village they had settled in was mostly inhabited by people from the Fire Nation who no longer wished to live back home, but still kept their traditions and lived in similar ways. Keith had been to the village before when he was younger, and although he didn’t know his way around like he did with Makapu, he told everything he knew about it to Lance.
The two walked around the village happily, Sparky walking right behind them. After their little moment in Makapu, Lance resolved to enjoy every single moment he spent with Keith. The thought of the two of them having to go separate ways still bugged the back of his mind and placed a knot in his stomach, but he couldn’t keep being distant with Keith when Keith was nothing but kind to him. It wasn’t fair. Lance needed to cherish all the final moments he got to spend with Keith, and store them in his heart with him forever.
“Do you think we could spend more time in this village?” Lance asked, his eyes hovering over Keith’s ponytail. The temptation of just caressing Keith’s soft hair and kissing Keith’s forehead was still everpresent. “I kind of like the vibe it has.”
“You know, every time one of us says we want to spend more time at a village or a place, something bad happens,” Keith replied, his eyes lost among the people running around with masks and what Lance thought to be puppets. “We should probably just spend one night here. We’re very close to the Northern Air Temple either way. I have friends there, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we spend at least a week there.”
Lance’s eyes widened, a sly smile playing on his lips. “You have so many friends you didn’t tell me about. I feel like I hardly know you after all these discoveries.”
Keith rolled his eyes, but he smiled a little. “All these friends are people I’ve met through Shiro, especially the people I know who are airbenders. Shiro introduced me to Rolo and Nyma before I left Kyoshi Island because he wanted me to know more people around my age that weren’t just Kyoshi Warriors. They travelled around a lot like him, so I guess they met Shiro during one of their travels. I didn’t get along with them at first, but they’re usually nice so eventually I felt more comfortable with them.”
“That’s nice, I’m glad you became friends eventually,” Lance said softly. “It’s interesting how people you travel with can end up having a big effect on your life.”
“Yeah…” Keith trailed off.
The two of them stared at a couple of children running around with their masks on, both of them giggling as they playfully fought each other with wooden swords. Lance noticed the design of their masks was kind of familiar, reminding him of characters from a tale his father had once told him about. The story was of a prince who had fallen in love with a village girl, who was later kidnapped by an evil white dragon who wanted to steal a treasure from her. It was a silly story, one meant to be shared with children, but he found himself rather intrigued by the romance in it.
The two children were quickly stopped by a young woman who told them they needed to get ready to leave soon, and they needed to be well fed if they wanted to endure the festivities. The woman noticed them walking around and Keith and Lance exchanged a look. She grabbed her children by the hand and studied Keith and Lance, her head tilting in confusion. She opened her mouth to speak, when another woman followed them behind.
“Why are you taking so long?” she asked, then noticed Keith and Lance standing awkwardly in the middle of the scene. Her eyes studied their clothes. “Are you not going to the festival?”
Keith and Lance looked at each other then shook their heads, confusion still in the air. “We’ve only just arrived here,” Lance explained.
The woman’s eyes widened and she nodded with understanding. “Well, by the look of your clothes I can tell that you’re from the Fire Nation, so you might as well attend,” she explained. She moved over to hold the other woman’s hand and their children looked at them excitedly, their masks now hanging from their hands. “We’re celebrating Prince Leandro’s birthday. It’s a tradition in this village to throw a festival when a member of the royal family has a birthday, and we like to celebrate it as best as we can.”
Keith turned to look at Lance in panic, his eyes wide and full of questions. Lance turned to him and offered him a calming smile before turning to look at the two women before him. All the children wearing masks and holding puppets now made sense to him. His hand moved over to Keith’s, and he squeezed it gently.
“Maybe we should go to the festival for a little while,” he said, his eyes pleading. “I think it sounds like fun, and we can leave tomorrow morning knowing we had a good time while in this village.”
Keith opened his mouth to speak, but no words seemed to formulate in his head, so the woman interjected. “You must come, I can promise you’ll have the time of your lives.”
“Is it far from here?” Keith asked, still looking dumbstruck.
The woman shook her head. “Not at all! The festival takes place around the centre of the village, which is a few streets away from here. My wife and I can guide you if you’d like.”
Keith and Lance shared a glance before turning to the woman to nod. The women grabbed their children by the hand and motioned for Lance and Keith to follow them, grins spreading across their lips as they walked towards the festival in silence. Lance noticed Keith had been staring at him throughout the way, several questions Lance could only imagine passing through his eyes.
It had never occurred to Lance that his birthday would hit so soon. He had been so preoccupied with his task at hand, and with all these feelings growing for Keith, as well as the worry of never getting a chance to see him again, that he completely forgot his birthday would take place soon. He thought of how he had spent it the last time, his father taking him for a long walk around their lush gardens, the surprise he felt at finding a new waterfall in the middle of one of them making his heart jolt with joy. He wondered for a moment what his father could be doing in that moment, and if he hoped to see Lance in time for his birthday. But that wish seemed far too difficult to fulfill with a small journey still ahead, and so very few days left before his actual birthday.
They stopped in front of a group of dancers who jumped around in a jig that Lance was well acquainted with. He had been in the Fire Nation for long enough to recognise several traditional dances; he was even able to dance to some of them. He watched the dancers, a grin spreading across his lips, his heart bursting with joy when the dancers threw bolts of fire to each other as they swayed around the streets, their bodies moving in fluid motion against the rhythm of the music. Lance noticed a few of the dancers were wearing masks like several people from around the village, and his stomach jolted when he noticed a man wearing a blue phoenix mask in the middle of the dance floor.
“It’s amazing, don’t you think?” Lance’s eyes trained on the dancers before him. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
Keith shook his head, his shoulders slightly bumping with Lance’s. “I’ve never really been to a festival before,” he confessed, “and I have to admit that I kind of regret it.”
Lance smiled, his body swaying to the rhythm of the music. He thought about grabbing Keith’s hand and walking towards the middle of the stage to dance with him, the two getting lost in the moment. He wondered if Keith was a good dancer, or a dancer at all. In the entire time they had spent together, they had never been under circumstances such as this, but Lance figured Keith would probably not be as comfortable dancing as Lance would, so he dropped the idea.
His eyes shifted towards a group of people reuniting in front of a stage, the couple that had guided them towards the festival earlier standing in the crowd with their children in hand. Lance pointed at the stage and motioned for Keith to follow him, his eyes widening as Lance grabbed him by the arm and ran with him to it. Lance’s eyes wandered around curiously, his heart beating fast by the sight of two actors quickly taking up the stage.
It didn’t take long for Lance to recognise the story behind the play. A handsome actor with a blue outfit and darker skin took over to talk about his woes and fears about leaving his home. Lance laughed humorlessly as he watched the young man try to adapt into his new home at the palace, presents and compliments floating around him as he moped around. He turned to look at Keith, who watched the whole scene play out with curiosity, and he smiled.
“Am I really that dramatic?” Lance asked, his voice just loud enough for only Keith to hear.
Keith laughed but shook his head. “Maybe just a little.”
The two of them locked eyes for a moment before Keith’s smile dropped. Lance opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but Keith interrupted him, his expression nervous yet determined. He placed a hand on Lance’s chest to get his attention, the noise around them becoming a little overwhelming.
“There’s something I’d like to try, if you’ll let me,” Keith said softly, his eyes studying Lance’s jawline.
Lance nodded without thinking, too dumbfounded by the idea of Keith’s eyes tracing his lips, and his jawline, and his neck. Keith awkwardly placed an arm around Lance’s shoulders, the warmth of it sending shivers through Lance’s spine. Keith stared straight ahead towards the stage, his eyes refusing to meet Lance’s. Lance looked at the floor and smiled to himself, his body instinctively shifting closer to Keith to welcome the warmth emanating from his body.
The two of them continued watching the play in silence, sharing a few laughs whenever the actor who portrayed Lance did something dramatic. Lance let out a soft sigh, his eyes closing as he enjoyed this little intimate moment with Keith. If he was going to spend his actual birthday like this, he was happy to welcome it.
“Lance, there’s something I want to ask you,” Keith said, interrupting Lance’s thoughts, his voice like honey.
Lance turned to look at him, an eyebrow quirked. He noticed Keith’s cheeks had turned a lovely shade of pink, and his heart jolted with anticipation, several ideas about Keith’s question floating around his mind. Keith opened his mouth to speak, a small smile tugging on his lips, but then his eyes widened and his smile dropped as soon as it had been lifted.
Lance turned to look at what Keith was staring at. He noticed two men pointing at him, mouthing the words Prince Leandro as the two soldiers Lance was now able to easily recognise nodded and followed Lance and Keith with their eyes. The two soldiers quickly moved towards them, but before Keith or Lance were able to react, Sparky flew towards them and placed herself in between them and the soldiers, her eyes fierce and threatening.
Lance gasped loudly as he watched Keith run towards the soldiers, katanas already in hand. Lance made a mental note to thank Sparky later for giving them a moment to prepare themselves to fight and for fiercely protecting them, but for now he ran past her to follow Keith. Lance heard her loud cry as Keith neared the soldiers, his katanas clashing with their swords. Lance closed his eyes and tried to concentrate; the idea of leaving Keith fighting alone when these soldiers were there because of him made his stomach sick. He gave one final look at Sparky before he ran towards Keith, fire spreading through his veins as he prepared himself for battle.
He sent a burst of flames towards one of the soldiers’ way, hoping to cause enough damage for them to stay away from Keith. He was about to celebrate his small victory after hitting the soldier’s leg when he heard a loud cry from Keith. His eyes turned to Keith frantically, and Lance ran towards him without thinking. The other soldier stood before them with a sly grin as Keith’s body fell to the floor in pain. Lance made his way to catch him, his fingers feeling for any trace of damage on Keith’s body. His eyes widened in horror when he realised Keith’s shirt had been torn, and his side had been heavily burnt.
Lance clenched his fists and closed his eyes, hot tears threatening to fall as the image of Keith’s burnt side refused to leave his head. When he opened his eyes, he could hear the loud thunder threatening the village, and he looked at the man who had hurt Keith with fury. The man stared at him in fear, but before he had a chance to run, Lance tucked Keith’s bangs away from his face and placed a kiss on his forehead, then opened his mouth to speak.
“Have you ever wondered why the call me the Blue Phoenix ?” he asked Keith softly, a hot tear running through his cheek. When Keith didn’t answer, Lance placed him on the floor carefully and gave him a little smile. “Well, you’re about to find out.”
He stood up slowly, his eyes refusing to leave Keith, then he clenched his fist against his sides again. The soldiers stared at him, waiting for the moment he would strike, both knowing fully well what was to be their fate.
“You should have caught me instead,” Lance said solemnly, his vision going red with fury.
Lance smirked as thunder rumbled through the sky, rain falling at such a quick pace that the people around them were hardly able to escape it. Lance felt a certain warmth spread through him as lightning bolts began to form in his hands. The two soldiers watched the whole scene unfold, frightened, but before they were able to escape, Lance hit them both with a strong burst of lightning, his bending in that moment more powerful than it had ever been.
Lance turned to look at Keith, who was still lying on the floor, then motioned for Sparky to join them. He carefully tucked Keith onto her back, his stomach twisting as his fingers grazed over the wound the two soldiers had left in his side. Then he hopped over Sparky’s back, his arms wrapping around Keith gently as he whispered for Sparky to take them away to somewhere safe.
Keith opened his eyes to find himself in a dimly lit room, the white from the walls wrapping him up and making him uneasy. He tried to sit up to see if he could remember anything about the place he was in, but an ache at his side stopped him and forced him to stay still. He looked around the room with panic, trying to find an answer in regards to the pain that shot through his body and the place he found himself in, when a girl around his age walked in, her eyes tired and hands hanging at her sides.
Keith was able to recognise her quickly, with her short blond hair hanging in a bob and her eyes shining in the darkness of the room like amethysts. Keith had known Romelle for years now; Shiro’s little foster sister used to follow him around everywhere when Shiro was an air nomad. And although she had always been fond of him, she decided to keep her vows and stay to practice her airbending at the temples. She looked at Keith with a tired expression on her face, then hovered a hand over his shoulder.
“I know you probably don’t like to be in this position, but you shouldn’t try to stand up while you’re in this condition,” she said softly. “It’s gonna take at least a few days for your wound to heal, but I promise to take good care of you.”
Keith closed his eyes and took a deep breath, images from a battle floating in his head, and fire, so much fire. He remembered a couple of soldiers approaching them, their eyes threatening. He remembered the way Sparky stood before Keith and Lance to try to protect them, how Keith had ignored this and threw himself into battle quickly, his katanas cutting through the air as he made sure to wound his enemies. He remembered the fire, the way an unbearable heat had wrapped his body all of a sudden, making him scream in pain. He remembered hearing Lance’s voice in the distance, quiet sobs reaching his ears as he was held. He remembered opening his eyes for a short moment to find Lance fighting the soldiers with lightning, before he fell unconscious.
Keith opened his eyes and took a deep breath, his eyes shifting towards the wooden ceiling before him. From the corner of his eye he could see Romelle shifting on a chair she had placed in front of him, her eyes full of amusement as he looked over her with distress. He noticed she had placed a box full of bandages on her lap, and she began taking them out as she placed a hand on his side to check his wound.
“Did I--did someone take me over here?” Keith asked quietly, his eyes moving over to the ceiling as she took care of his wounds. He hissed in pain when she made a brash movement to wrap his bandages, and rolled his eyes when Romelle laughed quietly. “Was there another guy named Lance when I arrived here?”
Romelle nodded. “He brought you here,” she said dryly. “He arrived here with a dragon and your unconscious body falling from his arms. He asked if there was anyone here who knew you, so I was the first one to respond. He looked really pompous and demanding in my opinion, and he claimed to be the Prince of the Fire Nation, but he seemed to really care about you, so I guess I couldn’t drive him out despite putting you in this condition.”
“Is he still here?” Keith asked, his heart suddenly beating faster.
Romelle narrowed her eyes at him, a suspicious look forming on her features. Then she nodded. “He’s outside telling Shiro about this mission you two got yourselves in. I asked them to stay outside until you woke up, I don’t want either of them to mess with my bandages, or to worry any more than they already are.”
Keith nodded and let out a sigh of relief as Romelle finished taking care of his wounds. “When did Shiro get here? Did you call after him when Lance and I arrived?”
Romelle shook her head. “No, he and Adam have been staying here for the past month. They wanted to go on vacation or something, but I guess Shiro got nostalgic and decided to visit here. Of course everyone here welcomed the two of them with open arms, and offered them a room to stay in. Neither he nor I ever expected you to join our little party here, let alone to do it wounded and unconscious.”
Keith closed his eyes. For a moment he could almost feel the fire that had hit him that night, dangerous and fierce. He remembered his hands warming up to hit back, but by the time he prepared his attack it had been too late.
“How long have I been here?” he asked.
“It’s been three days since the prince brought you here,” Romelle replied, her eyes shifting to the sheets that enveloped him. He made a disgusted face as she looked them over, then she turned to him. “He was beginning to worry you would never wake up.”
“Can I talk to him?” Keith asked, his eyes glinting with an excitement he couldn’t very well hide. She looked at him with curiosity, an eyebrow raised, and he shook his head, trying to hide his feelings from her. “Or Shiro at least.”
She meditated on his request for a moment, then nodded. Keith watched as she stood up from his seat and walked towards the door. He could almost hear the voices emanating from outside the room, some questions being thrown into the air that Keith couldn’t quite understand. It took a moment for Romelle to return, Shiro standing from behind. Keith’s heart sank when he realised Lance wasn’t following them.
“Hey buddy, how are you feeling?” Shiro asked, a small smile forming on his lips as he took a seat in the chair Romelle had left in front of Keith.
He studied Keith carefully, his smile breaking into a frown as he noticed the bandages Romelle had been working on earlier. Keith let out a tired sigh, his eyes moving towards the ceiling helplessly. Usually he would hug Shiro after spending so much time apart; Shiro was his brother, and that’s how the people of Kyoshi had taught Keith to greet his siblings. But he couldn’t move--couldn’t do anything. Shiro noticed his frustration and patted Keith’s head, his smile returning to his lips.
“I hate having to wait for this thing to heal,” Keith confessed. “I’m also a little hungry.”
Shiro let out a laugh and slightly shifted in his seat. Shiro’s ability to remain completely calm despite the current circumstances surprised Keith, and even made him jealous due to his lack of patience . He remembered Romelle mentioned earlier that Lance had been explaining their mission to Shiro when they were outside the room, and he probably revealed his true identity to Shiro too. Keith would have expected Shiro to be angrier, to be mad at him for lying, but instead he just sat there smiling.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about my true identity?” Keith asked, his voice breaking at the end of the sentence. He thought about the day Fei Hong told him the truth, the sad look on her face. He thought of his own mother, who had desperately tried to run to meet him, how she was forced to pull away. He thought of Lance, sitting next to him after the truth had been revealed, how his fingers ran through Keith’s hair, how Lance’s arms had wrapped around him to offer him comfort during such a vulnerable moment. Then he turned to look at Shiro solemnly.
“Avatar Ryner thought it would be best if you didn’t know until you were much older,” Shiro said after a sigh. “Originally I was going to tell you when you turned twenty-one. I had prepared a whole speech and all, but the memory of the attack was still permanent in my head, and I just--I couldn’t. Adam tried to help me many times afterwards but… every time I tried to... all the screams and all the panic we all felt... it hasn’t left my mind.”
Keith nodded in understanding, his eyes glued to the ceiling. He tried to imagine what that must have been like for Shiro, how young Shiro had been when he travelled with the avatar as his protege and ended up getting stuck in the middle of an attack. He thought of his own parents, the fear they must have been through, and his heart sank, hot tears threatening to slip if he didn’t fiercely close his eyes.
“Did they ever find out the reason behind those attacks?” Keith asked softly. “Was my family safe afterwards?”
Shiro shook his head. “No, and that’s part of the reason we never told you when you were younger. No one ever found out why it happened, and we all feared it could happen again. You’ve always been impulsive, Keith, and you could have easily thrown yourself into danger to protect your loved ones.” Shiro’s eyes shifted towards Keith’s bandages. He let out a sigh. “Your mother has worked very hard to restore the peace in Omashu, and she’s very loved by her people. She often sends us letters asking about your well-being. She’s been trying to plan a journey to visit you back at the Fire Nation Capital for the past few years, but she’s been unable to due to her duties as queen in the Earth Kingdom. But your father, he--”
“He died during the attack,” Keith finished. He looked down at his hands, his brows furrowing.
“Yes,” Shiro said quietly, “He was a great man, and a great king.”
Keith nodded. “I saw him when Lance and I visited the swamp. He told me he loved me, and that he knew I would do many great things.” Keith shook his head, his voice breaking. “But I don’t even know how to be a prince.”
Keith closed his eyes, thoughts about his future beginning to sink in. Keith had spent most of his life thinking of small goals to pursue, never anything too concrete. He liked to face his problems when they were right in front of him, but he hardly ever thought ahead. Everything in his life had been changing over the years, and he tried to adapt to it. But now, with him being prince, and possibly his mother’s successor, there was no way back. Now he had to think ahead, had to be a future leader, had to follow so many rules he didn’t even know. He clenched his fists in frustration.
“Hey, don’t belittle yourself. No one expects you to be a king by tomorrow. You have enough time, don’t worry. Avatar Ryner, Queen Krolia and I have great faith in you. Just be patient, for once. You’ll do it right, little buddy.”
Keith opened his eyes to face Shiro, his words feeling oddly familiar and bringing him a little peace. He remembered that time in the desert when he had helped the little boy find his mother again, and his heart fluttered, Lance’s words resonating in his chest. “Prince Leandro too, apparently. He says I’m gonna be a great king someday.”
Shiro offered him a sly smile, the kind he would offer whenever Keith explicitly stated that he found another boy attractive. Keith rolled his eyes. “Does he?” Shiro asked, “He’s a very interesting guy, you know. Very interesting to talk to. He was worried sick about you these past few days. I was worried he might fall ill just from fretting over you and your well-being. Handsome prince follows his other prince buddy through sickness and through health.”
“If I was able to move at least a little, I would throw my pillow at you,” Keith said, his voice serious.
Shiro laughed. “He cares a lot about you, Keith,” he said softly. “And he’s right, you’re gonna be a great king someday. Just give yourself the chance.”
Keith turned to look at him, his eyes fluttering close as he yawned. “What’s my mother like?” he asked, feeling like a little child asking his older brother to tell him a story before bed. Something about the whole idea made him feel warm, and he welcomed the smile Shiro offered him.
“She’s a lot like you,” Shiro replied, “firm and a little impulsive, but kind and fair and very loving. She cares a lot about her people, and is willing to sacrifice her well-being for the people of Omashu. I think you’d get along very well with her. I know she’s looking forward to the prospect of getting to know you now after all these years.”
Keith nodded, the warmth still present in his chest. “I’d like to get to know her too,” he admitted, a small smile tugging over his lips. “Thank you, Shiro, for telling me the truth.”
Shiro patted his head affectionately, a gesture Keith had grown accustomed to over the years. “Of course, buddy.”
Keith slowly opened his eyes, the noise of people’s whispering waking him up. He had been drifting in and out of sleep for the past few days, never staying awake for long periods of time. Despite noticing a change in the pain he had been feeling, Romelle still instructed him to move as little as possible, and it was beginning to become frustrating and boring. There was hardly anything left for him to do in that room, let alone when he could hardly move, so he spent the grand majority of his time sleeping.
He noticed two figures standing in the corner of his dimly lit room, their shadows hovering over Keith’s tired eyes like two monsters in the night. Keith studied them quietly to figure out who the owners of them were, and his eyes widened when he realised Lance was in his room, his heart thudding loudly against his chest.
Ever since Keith had woken up for the first time in his arrival, he had only been able to hear about Lance from either Shiro or Romelle. He hadn’t seen Lance since their attack at Lance’s birthday festival. He had tried to ask Shiro and Romelle if he could see him, even pushed them to bring Lance to his room, but he always either ended up falling asleep, or they had made up excuses about Lance being busy in that moment. He remembered calling out to Lance on the day he was certain was his birthday, hoping Lance would run to his room for Keith to congratulate him, but the day had gone by in silence.
He opened his mouth to talk to Lance, a certain sort of excitement filling his chest. Lance’s hair was falling down to his forehead and ears, the beautiful curls Keith had grown familiar with making Keith’s heart jolt. His eyes were downcast, and his eyelashes slightly touched his cheeks the way they did whenever he tried to sleep, but his eyebrows were furrowed with concern, and there was a frown taking over his lips. He looked outstandingly beautiful, to say the least, but Keith wished he could run over and erase that frown from his lips with a deep kiss.
“You have to get there as soon as possible,” he noticed a high-pitched voice say from beside Lance--Romelle, who had been standing in front of Keith with her arms crossed against her chest. She stared at Lance haughtily, even threateningly, her head held high. “You can’t keep staying here as the days go by, you’re wasting so much time. You could literally get there in one day with that dragon.”
Keith felt his stomach sink after hearing her words, the entire conversation clicking in his head. He turned to look at Lance desperately and found he was still frowning, his eyes glued to the floor. “I can’t leave Keith behind,” he whispered. “I know I’m wasting a lot of time, but I can’t leave him behind.”
“Keith is wounded, your highness,” Romelle said sharply. “No matter how close the Water Tribe is, he can’t travel like this.”
Lance turned to look at her, his eyes pleading. “I know that, but I can’t leave this place without him.”
“Keith’s already been through enough danger. You brought him here unconscious, and he didn’t wake up until after three days,” Romelle insisted, her eyes fierce and determined. “You can’t seriously be thinking about dragging him back into danger just because you can’t travel alone. I know you care a lot about him, and I know you want to make sure he’s alright. But you have to think about your own mission. You can’t just leave the world hanging like this. Peace among nations may depend on you.”
“I can protect Keith,” Lance insisted, his eyes shifting towards Keith’s bed. Keith’s heart jolted against his chest, hoping that they would lock eyes, but they never did. “I brought us here to safety after that last encounter, and I seriously doubt those two guys will try to attack us again after what happened.”
“Your highness,” Romelle took a deep breath, “just think about Keith’s and the world’s well-being.”
Lance’s eyes widened for a short moment, then he cast them towards the floor. Keith wanted to reach out for him, to tell him that he could be ready to travel the next morning, that he wasn’t going to let Lance leave without him, that he had promised to take Lance towards the Water Tribe safely and he wasn’t the kind of man to break a promise. But he knew he couldn’t heal in a single day, and he wasn’t a liar either. He clenched his fists and watched as Lance let out a loud sigh, nodded, and quietly left the room.
Keith turned to look at Romelle, frustrated, angry even. He waited patiently until she turned to him after Lance walked out of the room and closed the door. When she did, her eyes widened in surprise, but she offered him a gentle smile that he didn’t return. She tilted her head and quirked an eyebrow curiously as though she was studying him.
“What?” Keith asked, “Have I lost my ability to make my own decisions too with these injuries?”
Romelle opened her mouth to speak, then turned to look at the floor, embarrassed. “I know you wanna do this thing, Keith, but you can’t walk around like that. You might be able to sit up now, but going from one place to another protecting a prince might not be ideal.”
Keith slowly sat up and turned to look at his hands, a feeling of warmth taking over them as he heard Romelle speak. He thought of all the time he spent training with Lance, how much he longed to use his firebending more, how he wished he had used it to protect Lance and Sparky. He had been injured, but he could live with himself knowing Lance and Sparky were safe, and he would do it all over again as many times as it would take.
“Aren’t waterbenders able to heal wounds?” Keith asked, “I’m sure I’ve read about this before.”
Keith turned to look at her, his eyes pleading. “I can’t just let him go on his own, I promised the two of us would get there together. I can’t break my promise, Romelle.”
Romelle locked eyes with him for a moment, then let out a sigh. She studied Keith’s bandages quietly, then looked at him determined. “Alright, I think I have an idea.”
Keith looked up at the sky before him, the sun rays welcoming him into another lovely morning. He couldn’t remember the last time he was able to look at the sky after spending so many days healing inside that room, but he was grateful for being given an opportunity to finally escape. He held onto Romelle’s arm tightly, and together they slowly walked outside the temple, with Shiro closely following behind.
Keith looked up to find Lance standing at the edge of the hill they were on, with Sparky standing before him. He was feeding her some fish he had prepared for her after waking up, a wide grin on his lips as he played around with her. Keith stopped in his tracks just to watch him, his heart instantly filling with warmth by the sight of the little scene playing before him. It had been so long since the last time he had seen the two of them, so long, and he had missed them so much.
“I hope it doesn’t bother you to travel with more company,” Keith said softly. “I know you were preparing to leave just now.”
Lance turned to look at him, his eyes wide and his mouth agape in confusion. For a moment it was just the two of them staring at each other, their hearts beating faster against their chests. If Keith could run, he would have run over to embrace him, his fingers hovering over to cradle his head. There was something Keith was able to read in Lance’s eyes, so much affection that he was unable to voice, and Keith could only parallel.
Keith watched as Sparky made her way towards him and nudged him affectionately, her yellow eyes sparkling against the sun. He smiled at her gently and patted her head, hoping she would understand how much he had missed her. He noticed Lance hesitantly walking towards them, his brows knitting together in worry, and Keith’s stomach churned.
“It could be dangerous, you know,” Lance whispered, his eyes moving from Keith to Romelle nervously.
Keith shook his head. “You know me, Lance. I won’t give up that easily.”
Lance opened his mouth to speak, then closed it immediately. He gave Romelle a final glance before he walked towards Keith and tucked him in his arms. Keith gasped, not really expecting Lance to do this, but his expression softened quickly, and he wrapped his arms around Lance, his eyes closing as he drifted off into Lance’s beautiful scent. He allowed himself to enjoy this little moment, the two of them close to each other, holding each other tightly. Keith wished he had the words to tell Lance how much he loved him. How grateful he was that he had waited so long for him.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Lance whispered against his ear. When they separated, Keith noticed tears forming in Lance’s eyes, and his stomach twisted.
“I’m glad you’re okay too,” Keith admitted, his hands moving to tuck a strand of hair behind Lance’s ear.
Lance stared at him, dumbfounded, his eyes locking with Keith’s. He leaned towards Keith, his lips parting slightly, and Keith could almost hear his heart thudding loudly against his chest. He wanted to lean towards Lance faster, wanted to just grab his collar and pull Lance towards him to plant a long and passionate kiss against his lips. After all they had been through, it was what they deserved. But Romelle quickly placed herself in between them and pushed Lance away.
“Alright, children,” she said. “We better hop on my sky bison if we want to get to the water tribe before the night arrives. There’s still a long journey far ahead, and we better get ready.”
Lance nodded, quickly turning to look elsewhere. He thanked Romelle and Shiro for all the help they had given him and Keith, and quickly hopped onto Sparky’s back. Keith stared at him, smiling proudly. He had been there when Lance had flown with her when they were in the forest, and he had heard the story about how Lance flew with her to the temple to bring Keith to safety. He didn’t know why, but he had always hoped those two would bond together, he loved to see the love they had for each other. They were his new little family.
“Adam and I will fly over to Omashu to tell your mother you will visit her soon,” Shiro said, distracting Keith from his thoughts.
Keith turned to look at him and noticed Adam had slipped towards them, his hand holding Shiro’s arm tightly. Adam offered him an encouraging smile and waved at him, his round glasses falling to the bridge of his nose in the sudden movement. Keith returned his smile as Adam pushed his glasses back, the familiarity of the moment enveloping him like a little child.
“Don’t listen to anything Romelle tells you about his mission, just follow your heart,” Adam instructed. “The waterbenders will make sure you’re healed in no time, I promise.”
“Thank you, Adam,” Keith said softly. He turned to look at Romelle, who was grabbing his arm and waiting impatiently.
“Good luck to you two, and have fun in the Water Tribe. I’ve heard all sort of great stories from there,” Shiro said. “I’m sure you’ll learn a thing or two.”
Keith nodded and bid the couple goodbye before he and Romelle hopped onto her sky bison. She locked eyes with Lance briefly, the handsome prince offering him a smile before he set himself into the sky to continue his journey, with Keith and Romelle following close behind.
Lance could almost hear his heart jolting with joy the moment he landed into the Northern Water Tribe. He stared at the ground in disbelief, the idea that he had returned home after all those years away in the Fire Nation making his chest warm and bringing tears of joy to his eyes. He fell to his knees and touched the snow surrounding him, his fingers tracing figures as he allowed himself to bask in the cold winds from the north.
He waited as Keith and Romelle hopped off their sky bison to walk towards them and help carry Keith around the tribe, with Sparky following behind. The tribe appeared to be the same as he remembered, with intricate and beautiful buildings made of ice, and rivers crossing all around the city. If Lance was honest, the Northern Water Tribe was the most beautiful city he had ever been to; every corner of it was built with love and extreme dedication, everything seemed like a place taken out of a fairytale, and he loved it with all his heart.
“It’s really cold here,” Keith said, his voice low and breathless.
Lance turned to him, his brows furrowed. He noticed that despite his smile, Keith was slightly shaking beside him, and he exchanged a look with Romelle. She nodded at him as though telling him to go ahead, and he took off his cloak to wrap it around Keith, his arm circling around Keith’s shoulders to keep him warm, hoping that would be enough to stop the shaking. Keith thanked him.
“I’ll ask my mother for any spare clothes to share with you,” Lance said softly.
“After my wound has been fully healed, I’ll use my firebending to keep myself warm, I promise.”
Lance pushed him closer, basking in the warmth emanating now from Keith’s body, his eyes shifting towards Romelle in search for a response, but she only smiled. He didn’t know why, but ever since their arrival towards the Air Temple, he had been seeking for hers and Shiro’s approval in matters related to Keith. He wanted them to accept him, to nod at him and tell him it was okay for him to get closer to Keith, even though they would only be together for a few more days.
They continued walking in silence, Lance’s two companions admiring the architecture and beauty of the city as they delved further. Lance wished they could spend all the time of their lives there, he wished he could have enough time to show Keith around, to take him to all the places he used to spend time in when he was a child. Several memories of himself daydreaming about wooing someone by taking them on a date to the oasis, to later propose there under the moon’s approval, floated through his head.
They were stopped abruptly by a group of people walking around the city, their heads tilting with curiosity by the sight of Keith and Romelle hanging by Lance’s side. They grabbed Lance by the arm, swarming him with questions about his life in the Fire Nation, what it felt like to be a prince. More people quickly approached the group, and soon enough Lance by surrounded by faces he could hardly recognise.
“Hey, could anyone help my friend? He’s been wounded recently, and we were wondering if any waterbenders could heal him,” Lance asked as he slipped around the crowd. Faces quickly turned to each other, all full of questions.
Lance tried to answer all the questions sent his way, his charming smile playing on his lips as he tried to find a way through the crowd. He turned to Keith, who looked at him worriedly, his brows knitting together in a tight line as Lance was overwhelmed by the crowd. Lance watched as a group of women approached Romelle and Keith. One of the women spoke to them, her voice barely audible for Lance to understand a word she said. He watched as Romelle nodded at the woman in approval, and his heart sank when he watched the group of women drag Keith away from him and further into the city.
He tried to walk around the group of people to follow Keith, or at the very least to ask Sparky if she could fly Lance towards him, but he was immediately stopped by two arms wrapping around him. His eyes widened in panic, the sudden gesture taking him by surprise. He knew some of the people around him, but he never expected any of them to share that sort of affection with him. He turned around and his blue eyes locked with blue.
“You’ve always been a fan of surprises,” Lance’s mother whispered.
“Mom!” Lance exclaimed, his heart basking with joy. He wrapped his arms around her again, his head tucking into the crook of her neck like he did when he was a kid. He closed his eyes and felt a little tear slip down his cheek, and for a moment, he didn’t care that anyone else was watching. “I missed you so much.”
“How did you get here?” his mother asked softly. She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the crowd so they could have a little privacy. “You should have sent me a letter telling me you were coming, I would have prepared something special for dinner. It was your birthday just a few days ago, and I’ve already sent an owl to your new home with the present your siblings and I got you.”
Lance shook his head. “You don’t have to worry about that,” he assured her. “I actually have a letter here for you.”
He pulled out the letter from his bag, his fingers gracing over his father’s handwriting. He handed it to her, and watched as she studied it delicately, her expression softening after she recognised the handwriting. Lance remembered how emotional his mother would get whenever his father would send a letter to her when he was a kid, how she would keep each of these letters safe under a box, and he placed a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.
“He sent me here on a mission to make a peace treaty among our nations. He asked me to keep it a secret though, you know how the court can be,” Lance explained, his eyes shifting from the letter to his mother. She nodded in understanding, her knowledge on the Fire nation’s court running even deeper than Lance’s. “But he wanted me to give you that too. He said he hasn’t spoken to you in a while, and wanted to hear from you.”
“Thank you, my darling,” she said, her eyes growing puffy. She took one final look at the letter before turning to Lance. “You want to speak with the chief then,” she stated more than asked. Lance nodded. “Come on, I’ll take you to him.”
Lance gave one final look to the crowd standing behind them, his eyes glinting as he waved goodbye to them. He had been gone for so long, and yet they welcomed him as though he had never left. The thought of that warmed his heart all over again, telling him he was home, finally, after all those years. He walked towards the city in silence, his mother standing before him, and Sparky walking right behind. He thought about Keith, who was taken away from him earlier, and prayed to the moon that he was taken somewhere safe as he closed his eyes.
“It is with utmost joy that I can announce that the Northern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation are now in peace, and will remain so till the end of our days!” Chief Alfor exclaimed.
Lance watched with excitement as the crowd roared with loud cheers, people jumping from one place to another and holding each other with so much happiness Lance thought his heart would burst. He turned to the chief, who was smiling at him proudly, his arm wrapping around Lance’s shoulders as though he was introducing Lance to the crowd.
Lance looked down at the treaty for a moment, his signature standing up among all the others. He smiled, pleased with himself, knowing how happy and proud his father would be upon hearing the news. He turned to look at all the men sitting around him on the table, some sharing hugs and smiles with one another. In his childhood, Lance had never been allowed to hang around with the court even though he and his mother had lived in the palace for a while when she worked as a lady in waiting for the chief’s wife, but he found that the men in it were far more agreeable than the ones back in the Fire Nation.
He sat in silence and watched as a group of dancers began to move in front of them. Lance had memorised the song and the steps to it when he was a kid. He remembered how much his mother loved dancing, and how she would often dance with him around the house. Many times before, he had asked other boys and girls to dance with him during festivals, his heart squirming with joy as he jumped around the dance floor excitedly.
The chief turned to look at him, his expression warm and welcoming. He motioned for a couple of servants to serve him his dinner plate, one that had been craftily prepared to celebrate Lance on his birthday. Lance eyed the plate of fish before him and his stomach jolted, all the memories about him and Keith preparing this exact dish almost every day along their journey hitting his chest.
“Your mother told me it was your birthday recently,” Chief Alfor said. “She’s been a friend of my family for many years now, and it is our duty to honour the prince of a nation that’s now our friend, so I wanted you to have something special. According to my daughter, this is your favourite dish.”
Lance nodded excitedly, his eyes shifting towards the beautiful princess standing now behind her father. Her long white hair fell over her shoulders, and Lance remembered all the times he nagged her by telling her how beautiful she was when he was a kid. He smiled at her, and she quickly returned it. “It is, thank you,” he said happily. “I wasn’t expecting anyone here to remember.”
“How could we not, when you were always so loud about all the things you liked?” Princess Allura asked.
Lance watched as she took a seat next to her father, her eyes shifting from Lance to the food served before her. “All this time I genuinely thought you didn’t even remember me,” he admitted.
Allura shook her head. “You’re my friend, Lance. I don’t forget my friends.”
The three of them continued eating their dinner in silence, sharing smiles with one another every now and then. Lance finished eating the last remnants of his fish with a grin in his face, the sweet, delicious taste of it sending bolts through his body. Even though he had prepared this dish many times by now, he thought he wasn’t quite as good at it as the people from the tribe--especially his own mother. Some of the best food he had ever tasted in his life, he had tasted for the first time while he lived in the tribe.
“Your mother cooked that for you, actually,” Allura said as Lance pushed his empty plate away. He stared at her, his brows quirking in surprise. “She wanted to do something to congratulate you for your birthday since she didn’t know you were coming, and I invited her to our kitchens. I thought you’d be happy with the gesture.”
Lance nodded quickly. “Thank you, princess, you’re always so kind.”
Allura waved her hand dismissively, her eyes glinting. “Don’t worry about it, friend. I’m just glad you came here to visit us after all these years.”
Lance’s eyes shifted towards the dancers, who continued swaying around the dance floor in front of them. He noticed the music had changed into something much more cheerful, and he was happy to find his mother had joined them and began to jump around in front of him, her lips spreading into a wide grin. Lance waved at her happily, and jumped around in joy when he noticed all his little siblings--now much older and taller, had joined her.
Lance ran towards them, his eyes stinging as he made his way into the dance floor to hug them and greet them. When they noticed him, they ran at an equal force as Lance, and together they embraced each other in a long, big hug, their mother quickly following them behind. Lance closed his eyes and basked in the little moment with his family, his heart bursting with joy as all his younger siblings whispered that they were happy to have him back to his ear, each of them taking their time to tell Lance how proud of him they were. When they separated, they realised all eyes had fallen on them, and Lance turned to offer the crowd a sheepish smile.
His little siblings gathered around the dance floor and continued dancing, but his sister Veronica stood by his side, her grin still not leaving her face. She wrapped a hand around Lance’s hand and led him to the dance floor, their mother following them around. The three of them swayed around to the rhythm of the music, Lance’s heart remembering the song as though it hadn’t been years since the last time he had heard it. He couldn’t remember the last time he had so much fun in his life, and he mentally thanked his father for allowing him to return for at least a little while.
They continued dancing for what felt like hours, the darkest point of the night welcoming them as the full moon graced the sky to celebrate Lance’s birthday with him and his family. Lance turned to look at his mother cheerfully, the memory of all the stories she told him about the moon when he was a kid returning to him and making him feel warm. She had always told him the moon and her were one; that’s why her parents had named her Luna.
“There’s something we need to talk about,” his mother said calmly, but her eyes were full of distress. She turned to look at the rest of her children still dancing around excitedly, and she placed a hand over Lance’s. “I know you’re a little busy right now, but when you have the time--”
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” Princess Allura interjected, her hands falling behind her back. Lance and his mother turned to look at her and exchanged a look before his mother nodded at the princess to continue. “I was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk. I thought it’d be nice to reminisce on old times.”
Lance turned to his mother, who smiled at the princess gently. She removed her hand from Lance’s and whispered to his ear. “We’ll talk later,” she said, determined.
Lance turned to the princess, who stared at him expectantly, her eyes glinting with excitement. They walked around in silence, each of them greeting every person who walked towards them like the two royals they were taught to be. It was funny to think how, many years ago whenever they hung out together, Lance had never been treated like a prince, and never expected to be treated as such. Back then he was only the son of a lady in waiting, the young boy who had become friends with the princess by mere luck. Now he was the firelord’s successor, one that wasn’t sure how well he was going to do on the throne.
“Remember when we used to play around the oasis, hoping the moon would come down to play with us?” Allura asked, her voice warm and soft, and her eyes full of nostalgia.
Lance laughed. “We used to debate a lot on whether the moon or the ocean was better. The spirits of Tui and La were probably not very happy knowing we were pinning them against each other.”
“They most certainly weren’t,” Allura said after a chuckle. She turned to look at the sky, as though searching for an answer. Then she turned to look at Lance, embarrassed, her hand quickly moving to play with her hair as she opened her mouth to ask him a question. “I know this is probably not want you want to hear me ask, but I was wondering about your companion.”
“M-My companion?” Lance asked, his eyebrows raising in surprise. He noticed the princess’s cheeks had flushed, and she forced herself to look away. Lance turned to look at the floor, his stomach twisting. “You mean Keith? Well, he’s my friend who offered to help me with this mission. I’m--He’s very kind and very brave, and I’m really glad he came on this journey with me because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have survived this long, or at least I would have been much slower, I think. Anyway, he’s great, yeah.”
Allura looked at him, her face solemn until she bursted out laughing. Lance looked at her, confused, not really understanding what had brought her to hysterics. “You’re talking about the boy that was taken to the healers. He’s good looking, I guess, but not really my type,” she said with amusement. She gave Lance a glance and nudged his side, “Your mother already shared the full gossip about him with me, we both have our theories. But I was actually talking about the blonde girl who came along with you two.”
Lance quirked an eyebrow, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “What do you mean you both have your theories?”
“I asked you a question, Lance. Don’t ignore me.”
“Her name is Romelle,” Lance began to explain. “I’ve only known her for a few days, but I think Keith has known her for years. She’s an airbender, and I met her while we were in the Northern Air Temple, waiting for Keith to heal. She seems to be very fierce and loud and passionate, I think you’d like her.”
“Seems like it,” Allura replied, her eyes turning to the sky. She tried to hide it, but Lance could see the rosy tint spreading through her cheeks and ears.
“Maybe I’ll introduce you to her later tonight when I go visit my friend Keith, if that’s okay with you,” he said softly. Allura nodded immediately.
They continued walking in silence until they reached the oasis they used to visit so often when they were children. Lance’s heart jolted against his chest when he noticed the two koi fish swimming around the small pond, and he closed his eyes to offer them a little prayer, Allura stopping right beside him. When they finished their prayer, Allura grabbed his hand and led him under a tree.
“Do you remember how when we were seven you knitted a betrothal necklace to me and jokingly asked me to marry you near here?” Allura asked.
“I didn’t know we came here for you to make fun of me,” he said slyly, “I should have stayed back with my mom.”
Allura laughed and shook her head. “I’m not making fun of you, I knew you were joking, even if you did want to give me that necklace as a birthday present. You had a crush on that pretty girl you used to go to school with--Jun, I think was her name,” Allura explained and Lance nodded, his eyes growing curious. “I brought you here, and brought this up because I want to give this necklace back to you.”
“I couldn’t get you a birthday present on time,” she said softly, her hands delicately passing over the old necklace onto his hands. He studied it carefully, his heart warming with memories of his mother teaching him how to knit it. He had been so proud of it back in the day, he had almost sworn he would knit several of these to spread around with everyone he found attractive. He turned to look at Allura and thanked her, his eyes glinting with joy from all the memories. “I think you might need this now much more than I do.”
Lance tilted his head questioningly, his hands holding onto the necklace like his life depended on it, but instead of replying, she quickly spread an arm around his shoulders, her eyes shining with amusement, and a gentle smile spreading through her lips.
“Come on, let’s stop wasting our time in here and go and get your man!” she exclaimed.
She pulled her arm away hurriedly and took him running around the city, just like when they were kids. They ran around playing with the snow, each of them laughing whenever they came across people who gave them confused looks, or old men who glared at them and yelled for them to be more quiet. They laughed and laughed and laughed until they stood in front of the healing huts, and Lance’s heart beat loudly against his chest.
They walked inside in silence, the two of them suddenly forgetting that they were laughing only minutes ago. Romelle and Keith quickly turned their heads towards them, their eyes widening in surprise. Allura waved at the two of them awkwardly, then moved towards Romelle to thank her for taking care of Lance’s friend. Lance and Keith locked eyes.
“Lance has told me that you haven’t had time to see the city well,” Allura said behind him. “Would you like me to show you around? I wouldn’t mind walking around the city with some company.”
Lance didn’t need to turn around to know Romelle had hesitantly nodded, her eyes turning to Keith to ask him if he would be alright.
“I’ll take care of him, don’t worry,” Lance said softly, his eyes moving towards Keith’s hair spreading wildly around his pillow. Lance smiled, the sight of it making his heart jolt.
Romelle narrowed her eyes at him for a little moment, then she nodded more determinedly and walked away from the hut with Allura wrapping a hand around her arm the way she used to do with Lance. Lance watched carefully as they left before he turned to Keith, warmth spreading through him when he noticed the tender look Keith was giving him, a little smile playing on Keith’s lips. Lance hesitated before coming over to sit next to him, his hands instantly flying to lay near Keith’s chest.
“How are you feeling?” Lance asked gently.
“I’ll be fine,” Keith assured him, “I just wish I could do more to help you.”
Lance chuckled. “Of course you would say that,” he said, his eyes moving to Keith’s hand. He hesitated before grabbing it with his own, then he turned to look at Keith with all the love and adoration he could no longer contain in himself. “You don’t need to worry about any of that anymore, it’s all been handled. Of course, none of that would have happened without your help. You’ve done so much for me.”
Keith’s eyes turned to the wall next to him, his cheeks flushing red. “It was nothing.”
Lance smiled and shook his head, the hand that had been caressing Keith’s hand moving over to his silky, long hair. He felt his heart stop for a moment as Keith locked eyes with him, longing and curious. Lance panicked for a moment, trying to make up an excuse.
“Sorry, I just really like your hair,” he blurted out.
Keith’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Lance forced himself to look away, unable to meet Keith’s eyes. He felt his face heat up with embarrassment, and he pushed his hands away from Keith. “Yeah, it’s really nice and pretty,” he tried to say casually, but he was sure he had failed in the process.
Keith grabbed his hand again and hesitantly squeezed it. “Thanks, I really like your hair too.”
Lance turned to him, mouth agape. They stared at each other for a moment, their eyes glinting against the night, then Lance offered him a gentle smile. “If Romelle and you agree, I would like to show you around the city tomorrow. There’s several places I would like for you to see before we leave.”
Keith nodded, the pink in his cheeks spreading to his ears and neck, and he looked down at their entwined hands. “I would love that.”
“Lance!” his mother exclaimed, her hand quickly grabbing his wrist to stop him from walking through the door.
He looked at her, confused, his eyes shifting towards the wrist she held with her hand. He had been preparing to leave from the Water Tribe since early in the morning, packing everything his mother had given for him to travel back to the palace with his father. His stomach kept twisting at the thought of having to leave his home once again, but the longer he spent at the Water Tribe, the more he realised this was no longer his home, and it frightened him.
Where was he supposed to belong to?
“Mom, what is it?” Lance asked, his voice cracking with concern.
His mother took a deep breath and locked eyes with him, her expression solemn. “How did your friend get wounded?”
Lance’s eyes widened, not really expecting that sort of question from her. He knew people were possibly worrying about the reason behind Keith’s injury, and if that placed Lance in danger too. But if they were curious, no one had really asked beyond the information Lance had given them. He had explained to the chief before signing the treaty that his father had sent him on this mission secretly, that the two had agreed to make it look like Lance was escaping from his home so the court wouldn’t try to stop him, and that once the treaty had been signed, there was nothing that the court could do to stop it. Chief Alfor had been reluctant at first, but he trusted Lance, and he trusted Lance’s father.
“There were a couple of soldiers chasing after us while we were on our journey,” Lance answered honestly. “We encountered them many times, but they never really got a chance to get to us until we were at this village near the Air Temple.”
His mother nodded, her face void of emotion. “Is there a chance for these soldiers to be members of your uncle’s personal guard?”
Lance tilted his head curiously. “How did--how did you know?”
“That bastard,” his mother muttered through gritted teeth. Lance’s eyes widened again, not really used to hearing his mother curse. She quickly shook her head to regain her composure. “There’s something about your uncle that you should know.”
Lance stared at her, confusion still clear in his eyes, and she motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen. She offered him a chair for him to sit in, and he hesitantly took it. Lance had always been aware of his mother’s dislike for his uncle, how she her brows would knit together whenever he mentioned him, how her fists clenched against her sides whenever someone barely muttered his name. Lance had to admit he didn’t know him as well as he hoped he would after living for nearly six years under the same roof, but he never really understood his mother’s hatred towards him, or why his soldiers had gone to attack Lance.
“Did your father ever tell you why we got separated?” she asked, her voice cracking towards the end. Lance looked at her and noticed she had been staring down at her hands, her eyes dark and puffy.
He shook his head. “Not really, I know it’s a topic you both constantly avoid, so I never ask.”
His mother nodded, her eyes unable to meet Lance’s, then she took a deep breath. “It all started a few months after we got married. I didn’t know at the time what had happened, I discovered it a while later, but your father received the news from an old friend of his that Omashu had been attacked by unknown forces,” she began. “I always knew your uncle and several other members of the court didn’t like me. They thought I could never be enough to marry your father, since he was the new firelord, and I was merely a lady in waiting for the chief’s wife, but I didn’t know the extents they could reach to.
“After receiving the news from Omashu, I began searching for answers about what could have set off that attack. I wanted to help Queen Krolia after all she had done for me and your father. Without her, we would have been unable to marry in the first place,” Lance’s eyes widened in surprise, but he motioned for her to continue the story. She gave him a little smile before turning serious again. “Before marrying King Ryou, she was a member of the court--a Governor to be exact, the first woman to be in this position. But after bearing her first and only son, she was unable to pay visits to the Fire Nation, and lost all sort of power she had at the court.
“It was by mere chance that I found the truth behind the attacks, and your uncle wasn’t happy with my discoveries. He immediately tried to drive the court against me, saying that a woman like me couldn’t be married to the firelord. They searched through my family history, trying to find criminals and minimal mistakes for your father to have a reason to leave me, until one day I got tired. I told him I was willing to leave your father and return here all as long as he stopped meddling around the other four nations. I told your father that I loved him, but we were placing ourselves and the rest of the world in danger if we remained together. But I never told him the full truth.
“I knew your uncle wanted to dethrone your father, and probably would have been able to, if I hadn’t intervened with his plans. I think he would have found a way to convince the people that your father was unable to rule over the Fire Nation if he couldn’t pick a proper wife, so I still stand by the decision I made, even if it hurts me to this day.”
Lance stared at her, all of her words sinking into his stomach and twisting it. He placed a hand over hers and squeezed it gently, his eyes searching for his mother’s. “Mom, I’m so sorry.”
“Lance, none of this was your fault,” she said quickly. “You’re certainly not the one who should apologise to me.”
Lance opened his mouth to speak, but she quickly stood up and shook her head. “There’s no time for either of us to be crying over the past, there’s still many things left for both of us to do,” she said sharply, “I merely told you this story to warn you. You shouldn’t trust your uncle, not now or ever. You need to protect your friends and your father from him.”
Lance nodded, his expression turning serious. “I will.”
“Now leave before I tackle you into a big hug and stop you from leaving forever,” she said, her expression softening. “Your dragon and your friends are outside waiting for you.”
Lance nodded, his chest warming over her words. He hesitated before stepping outside the door, and walked over to her to give her one last hug. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes while still in her arms, mentally preparing himself to leave this place one last time, to walk into his new life now with all this knowledge and love and appreciation for all that he was parting from. He felt a tear escape through his cheek and separated himself from his mother. “I promise to write to you while I’m there.”
Keith hopped off of Romelle’s sky bison carefully, his eyes drifting towards the palace in front of him. He stared at it in awe, the beautiful architectural design stealing his breath. He had never been inside a palace ever before, but after spending that night in Gaoling with the Holts, he had grown curious. He wondered for a moment if the inside of the palace would be any similar to that estate, and he hoped that at least it would accommodate his own likes and needs.
Keith watched as Romelle walked over to talk to the guards in front of the gates. They had agreed that she would explain the entire situation to them for Keith to have enough time to bid his goodbye to Lance. It had been a long and arduous conversation Keith would have preferred to avoid if it weren’t for the fact that he desperately needed to have one last moment to share with Lance.
“Hey,” he said as Lance hopped off Sparky, a small smile playing on his lips despite all the sadness twisting within him.
“How are you feeling?” Lance asked, his brows knitting with worry.
Keith turned over to look down at the old wound, and patted it. “I told you I’m fine. The waterbenders worked magic over it, it healed almost instantly.”
Lance nodded, his expression softening despite the worried lines over his eyes. He offered Keith a small smile, and they stared at each other awkwardly until Lance opened his mouth to speak again. “By the way, you should probably stay with Sparky. I know your bond is very important to her, and I know how much you love her, so I think it would be best if you kept her.”
Keith shook his head. “No way!” he exclaimed, “You’re bonded to her too, and you still have a long journey ahead. I’m sure she would love to stay with you.”
Lance opened his mouth to argue but immediately closed it, his eyes shifting towards Sparky, who nudged at him playfully before licking his face. Keith laughed at the little scene before him, his heart swelling. He walked over the two of them and planted a kiss on her forehead, his hands moving over to the scales behind her ears to softly caress it.
“She’s really gonna miss you,” Lance said softly.
“I’ll miss her too,” Keith admitted. “But if we flipped places you’d miss her as well, so it’s the same story.”
Sparky looked at them, a little frown forming on her lips. She turned her head down to the floor and cried quietly. Keith and Lance looked at each other and placed a hand over her head, the two of them whispering sweet nothings against her ears. Keith hesitated before wrapping his arms around her neck, his hands cautiously moving around her scales. He closed his eyes and huffed a little air against her body, hoping that she would get the message of how much he loved her and was going to miss her.
“It’ll be okay, little girl. Don’t worry,” he whispered. “We might be able to see each other again, who knows?”
She nodded quietly, then perked up her head to push Keith and Lance together, a little huff escaping her nostrils as she gave them her back. Lance turned to look at him, eyes widened and cheeks flushing. Keith thought about telling Lance about his feelings, determined to finally face them before the two of them bid each other goodbye. He knew he wouldn’t get another chance to do this again, and even though Lance could very easily not return them, he thought it would be best if Lance knew. But as soon as he opened his mouth to speak, Lance interrupted him.
“There’s something I want you to have,” Lance said determinedly, his eyes and hands moving towards the bag he had been carrying all through their journey. He searched around for a little moment, before he turned to Keith, a navy blue necklace in hand.
He handed the necklace to Keith and Keith inspected it carefully. It had been beaded with pieces of bone and what Keith thought to be an animal’s tooth hanging in the middle. His fingers graced over the tooth carefully, and he smiled, his heart instantly feeling warm.
“I knitted this necklace when I was a kid, but I meant for it to be for a woman, so I changed the design on the few days we spent at the Water Tribe. I thought the shark tooth would make it more manly and fit you better,” Lance confessed, his hand moving towards the back of his neck in embarrassment, his cheeks flushing into a lovely crimson red.
“Thank you, Lance. I love it.”
“It’s--it’s a very important tradition from my mother’s culture,” Lance tried to explain with a very panicked expression. Keith turned to him, his head tilted with curiosity. “You see, back in the Water Tribe--”
“The Queen is now waiting for us,” a high-pitched voice interrupted. Keith turned to look at Romelle, who was standing in front of them with an amused expression. She motioned for Keith to follow her inside the palace, the two guards standing by her side with a smile.
Keith turned to look at Lance in panic, his stomach sinking, and his heart clutching at him with an unbelievable sadness. He wanted to reach out to Lance, to tell him how much he loved him and how much he didn’t want to separate from him, but no words seemed to escape his lips. Romelle looked at him insistently, and Keith realised Lance had opened his mouth to speak, but he closed it as quickly as he had opened it.
“I guess this is goodbye,” Lance whispered, his eyes turning to the floor.
Keith could almost feel his chest pressing with pain, and he let out a sigh. “Goodbye, Lance.”
Keith watched as Lance turned away, hot tears threatening to spill from his eyes. It took a long moment for Lance to hop onto Sparky’s back, almost as though he was thinking this through and considering staying there with Keith, but he shook his head and in a matter of seconds, he and Sparky disappeared into the sky, the two of them leaving an empty void in Keith’s chest that he wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to fill.
Keith turned on his heels to meet Romelle and the two guards awaiting him, his heart beating loudly against his chest and making his stomach sick. Despite what Shiro had told him when they were in the Air Temple, Keith still wasn’t sure of what to expect from his mother, or the new life before him. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to be a prince or a future ruler for this city--how he even was supposed to behave? He wished for a moment that Lance was there with him to teach him everything he was supposed to know, but it was too late now.
Keith let out a loud sigh of relief when he noticed Shiro and Adam were standing there inside the palace, waiting for their arrival. They took the place of the two guards once inside, and guided Keith and Romelle inside the thick walls, the two of them offering reassuring smiles to Keith as they made their way towards the throne room where Queen Krolia waited for them.
Keith marvelled at the beauty of the place, his eyes shifting from one place to another curiously. He didn’t think he had ever seen so much emerald green in his life, not even when he had found his way to Ba Sing Se with Shiro by his side. He tried to touch one of the tall green walls in front of him, but his head perked up quickly when he heard a noise in front of him.
He turned to look at the black haired woman sitting in the middle of the throne room, his eyes widening at the realisation that he was now actually standing before his mother. He watched as everyone around him made curtsies for her, and his feet moved slowly towards her, his eyes unblinking. He felt his heartbeat quicken when he noticed she was doing the same, until the two of them stood in front of each other, eye to eye.
They studied each other for a long moment, Keith’s eyes searching through her eyes. The comments Lance had made in the past about how much they resemble each other pierced through Keith’s chest and opened his eyes. It was ridiculous how much like her he looked--the dark, long brown hair, the indigo eyes, the solemn expression that hid so much warmth and affection. Keith wondered how he had managed to go so long in his life without anyone making a comment about his mother.
She opened her mouth to speak, her eyes searching for an answer from Keith that Keith couldn’t quite understand. She looked at the group of people behind her as though she was asking them for permission, then she locked eyes with Keith again, her face determined. She hesitantly opened her arms, and before Keith was able to move, she wrapped them around his body and enveloped him into a warm hug, the kind Keith had been waiting his entire life to receive. Keith closed his eyes and allowed a tear to make its way through his cheek.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Keith,” she whispered against his ear.
Lance walked inside the palace quietly, a certain feeling of nostalgia filling his chest. He didn’t know how long he had been gone, three-four months perhaps. He had lost all notion of time after his birthday, when Keith was injured. He knew it had taken him and Sparky a while to get to Caldera City after leaving Omashu, but he imagined it hadn’t been half as long as it had taken them to get from the Capital to the Northern Water Tribe.
He thought about the last few days he had spent in there with his father before he left for his journey, how his father had agreed to spend more time at the spa with Lance as long as Lance agreed to walk around the lush gardens with him (to work out ). He remembered sharing a bunch of jokes with him, how the two of them had laughed audibly before his father asked him to help him on a mission. He smiled a little, the idea of having a chance to see his dad again bringing him joy after all the sadness he had gone through when he left Omashu. There was one good thing, after all.
Lance walked towards the throne room, Sparky following him behind. He smiled as he watched her looking around with a curious expression, her liveliness surprising him after all the two of them had gone through. She nudged at him when she noticed he was staring, knocking down the sword hanging from his back. He quickly tried to grab it and stop it from falling, his mouth agape and his eyes moving to reprimand her. He had gotten the sword on their way back after Sparky nudged at him to get it--the perfect weapon to remind the two of them of Keith.
They walked into the throne room in silence, greeting some of the servants that came across them. Lance’s eyes widened when he noticed the throne was empty, not a soul in place. He knew his father had a liking for taking walks around the palace in the mornings to make sure everything was functioning as it should, and if Lance were honest, he wasn’t sure what time it was when he arrived. But somehow, seeing the palace so empty, and his father not being the first person he got to meet upon his arrival, made his stomach twist.
He let out a sigh and was about to leave towards his room with Sparky when he heard a little noise behind him. He turned around to look, and the little smile that had quickly formed immediately dropped, a frown quickly replacing it, his eyes turning to a glare.
His uncle stood before him, a sly smile playing on his lips as he slowly clapped behind Lance. He opened his mouth to speak, and Lance could almost feel the venom dropping from his mouth. “Congratulations, nephew,” he said shrewdly, “You finished your mission. I can’t believe I doubted you for a single moment, when you’re so much like your father.”
Lance’s hands quickly went to grab the sword hanging from his back, and he prayed to the moon that he could actually handle it well enough to face his uncle without causing any damage to the palace. He noticed Sparky stood defensively beside him, and he felt more encouraged. “Drop your act. I know you’re not the man you pretend to be.”
His uncle laughed, his eyes moving to the sword in Lance’s hands as though it was nothing but a toy. When Lance moved towards him, prepared for battle, his uncle made a motion with his hands, the words arrest him falling from his lips as Lance’s eyes widened in realisation. Lance let out a gasp when he noticed two men running towards him, quickly grabbing his arms to stop him from moving. The sword he had in his hands slowly dropped to the floor. Lance struggled to rid himself from his two captors, but they were much bigger and stronger than him.
They took Lance to a tower outside of the palace, the one that had been used in the past to capture traitors to the crown--the kind of traitors that lived within the palace’s walls. Lance tried to bite the hands of one of his captors to see if that would help him get rid of at least one of them, but the big guard only laughed and violently nudged his side. He closed his eyes and prayed for Sparky’s safety, but he figured his uncle would try to harm her if he knew she was bonded to him.
The two guards threw him into the cell and made sure to close it quickly before he could escape. His uncle walked before him, that same sly smile from earlier still playing on his lips. Lance cursed at him.
“There, there, sweet nephew,” he said dryly. “This could have been much worse. I’m keeping you locked in this tower because I love you.”
“You’re scum,” Lance muttered through gritted teeth. “My mother told me what you did to Omashu, and what you and the court did to her so you could get rid of her more easily.”
His uncle’s smile turned into a scowl. “Your mother shouldn’t have meddled with my plans, the same way you shouldn’t have taken that treaty to the Water Tribe.”
Lance smiled slyly then, fire running through his veins. “I would do it all over again if it meant stopping you,” he spat, “and I would do it with any other nation without hesitating.”
His uncle let out a laugh, the kind that made Lance’s spine shiver, but Lance stood still with his head held high, his eyes narrowed threateningly. He noticed the two guards shivered behind his uncle, and he bit his cheek to hold back a laugh.
“Good luck, nephew,” his uncle muttered. “I’d like to see you try to stop me now.”
Lance shivered as he sat quietly in the corner of his cell, the wrinklings of autumn beginning to fall upon the nation, making his days alone much colder than usual. He had been in that cell for two weeks now, with hardly any company and with only a few slices of bread to keep him alive. There was a boy around his age who brought him food every morning and every night, but aside from him, he didn’t have any visitors coming to see him at his cell.
He wondered about his father and Sparky, what could have happened to them after he was taken prisoner. He prayed for Sparky to have flown away after his uncle’s guards had grabbed him, that she was safe somewhere around the city, or even better--that she had flown towards Omashu to reunite with Keith, where she would be happy and safe, and making sure that Keith knew he was loved. He thought that his father wasn’t in as much danger as himself or Sparky, but now that he knew the truth about his uncle, he wasn’t so sure, and he prayed to the moon for him to be safe.
His head perked up when he heard footsteps approaching his cell, and he tried to smile a little when he realised it was just the boy bringing him dinner once again before the day ended. The boy returned his smile and slipped the plate of bread he was given by his uncle every day onto his cell, his face apologetic as Lance scowled at the unchanging menu.
The boy sat in front of Lance to chat, the same way he had done for the past week. He took a bag of sweets from under the jacket he was wearing, and he handed it to Lance, a little grin playing on his lips as he watched Lance’s eyes widen in surprise. Lance wished he could get out of his cell just to hug the boy, but he settled down for a loud thank you and hoped his own grin was enough to let the boy know how happy he was to receive this.
“I know it’s awfully lonely here, and I can tell you’re losing weight already just by being here two weeks, so I thought it would be nice to try and slip some other things for you to eat,” the boy explained. “My mother taught me how to bake cakes and cook fish, so I might slip some of that for you for the remainder of the week.”
“Thank you,” Lance whispered, his hands quickly going to grab one of the sweets from the bag. It tasted like strawberries, Lance’s favourite fruit.
The boy nodded as he shifted into a more comfortable position. Lance continued eating everything in the bag of sweets, then took a bite from the stale bread he had been given, his nose scrunching up in disgust as he forced himself to finish it. If he ever managed to escape from that prison, he was going to make sure his uncle got a well deserved punishment, both for attacking Omashu and attempting to overtake his dad, and for feeding him miserable bread as he was kept prisoner.
“How are you feeling?” the boy asked him gently once he finished eating.
Lance turned to him, his head tilting a little. “Well, I’m starting to come to terms with the idea that I might rot in this cell, so I’ve definitely been better.”
The boy shook his head, a frown forming in his lips. “Hey, don’t say that,” the boy protested. “I know--actually I don’t know what it feels like to be there, and I imagine it must be pretty scary, but I really hope it’s not always like this for you, and that you get to escape.”
Lance chuckled and turned to look at the wall in front of him, his eyes void of emotion. “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”
They fell into silence for a long moment, a certain air of awkwardness fallen upon them. Lance sighed loudly and reclined against the wall behind him, his eyes closing for a moment. He thought of Keith, his long black hair, the way his indigo eyes lit up whenever he was curious about something, the beautiful curve that was his smile. He felt hot tears prickle against his eyes, the idea of never getting to see him again tugging at his chest and breaking it into a million pieces. He clenched his fists against his sides and forced himself not to cry--not in that moment, not in front of the boy who brought him food.
“If you were in my place, and you were given a single day to spend it however you wish, what would you do?” Lance asked suddenly.
The boy looked at him, eyes wide in surprise, then he turned to look at the floor, deep in thought. “I don’t know, man. I don’t think I’d do anything out of the ordinary, to be honest. I’d like to spend it with my family,” he replied, then he stopped in his tracks. Lance noticed his brows had knitted together, as though he was trying to remember something that had slipped from his mind. “Actually, I think I’d like to visit Omashu. There’s this girl… she’s amazing. We met a few years back, and I try to visit her at least once a year. If I could, I would spend an entire day with her, just the two of us.”
Lance smiled softly at the mention of the beautiful desert city he had been to only a few months back. “I’d spend my day visiting someone from there too,” Lance said absentmindedly, “and I would tell my parents that I love them.”
The boy nodded with understanding, a small smile tugging on his lips. The two remained in comfortable silence for a few moments, the sound of rain thundering outside of his cell. Lance closed his eyes, imagining what it would be like to be free and running around outside in the rain. He could almost feel his father trying to tell him to get back inside, then shaking his head to himself and joining Lance with mirth.
Lance got lost in his own thoughts until he heard someone clear their throat. Lance found the boy staring at him curiously, but before he could ask anything in regards to Lance’s thoughts, he stared out at the window in the corner of Lance’s cell.
“I think it might be time for me to leave,” the boy said, his brows knitting with worry. “If I don’t get back home in time, my siblings might try to steal my dinner.”
Lance chuckled but nodded, his eyes already flying over to the wall in front of him, his new friend amidst all loneliness. When he heard the boy’s footsteps starting to be distant, he turned to him again. “Hey, you’ve never told me your name!” Lance exclaimed.
The boy turned to him and offered him a little smile before he walked away. “My name’s Hunk, your highness.”
“Until next time, Hunk,” Lance muttered a moment too late, his voice getting lost among the emptiness of his own cell.
He let out a loud sigh and shifted around against the wall. Sleeping in that cell didn’t come to him easily, and he had given up the idea of trying to do it several days ago. He didn’t even want to imagine how terribly he looked and smelled. He was sure there were dark bags under his eyes by now, the kind Lance spent his entire life trying to avoid. He thought of all the times Keith offered to land for a few days so Lance would get enough sleep, or the times he offered his shoulders and back for Lance to lay his head, and his stomach jolted. He wished he could go back in time.
He settled for watching the rain from the window in his cell, his heart feeling nostalgic. He wished he had been much faster on the day he faced his uncle; now he felt as though he had failed both his mother and his father. All she wanted the last day they spent together was to warn him about his uncle, to stop any of this from happening, and all he did was get himself caught inside of a cell from which he thought he could never escape. How was he supposed to be his father’s successor if he couldn’t even protect himself?
He closed his eyes and let out a sigh, his chest feeling heavy. He tried not to think of anything; every thought that came to his mind was making him feel inevitably sadder, and pressing those thoughts further wasn’t going to help if he was going to stay stuck in that cell for however long. He considered trying to drift off to sleep, even if the cold from outside made him shiver and unable to stay still; but as soon as he laid his head against the wall, he heard a strange noise coming from outside.
His head perked up quickly, his eyes searching for anything that could tell him what the source of all the noise was, but he was unable to find any answers while locked in the cell. He clenched his fists in frustration, then heard footsteps coming his way. He stood up quickly to find out who was there, his head tilting curiously, and his fists preparing in case he needed to fight.
There was a moment of silence after all the noise, and Lance began to walk towards the corner of his cell again when two familiar faces appeared in his line of sight. His eyes widened when he realised it was Rolo and Nyma standing before him, a pack of keys hanging from Nyma’s hands. The two of them offered Lance a little smile and quickly opened his cell to free him. Tears threatened to prickle from Lance’s eyes in disbelief as he finally walked outside of the cell.
“What are you guys doing here?” Lance asked, still shocked. “How did you get here? Did you know I was here?”
Nyma and Rolo exchanged a look, then Nyma opened her mouth to speak. “After that attack we received in the forest, we managed to injure one of them and kept them hostage for a little while, until one of them confessed that they had been sent after you by your uncle to stop you from taking that treaty to the Water Tribe,” she explained. Lance’s eyes widened at the latter confession, but he tried not to dwell on it much. “Then we came here to protect you in case your uncle tried to harm you, but a really long time passed and there was no sign of you.”
“We snuck into the palace as servants to see if we could find anything in regards to your whereabouts, and one of the servants made a comment about how they swore they had seen you arrive at the palace with a dragon behind you, and we thought your sudden disappearance was iffy,” Rolo continued. “Then we found Sparky hiding under some bushes. We fed her and asked her if she had any idea of where you could be, and she started sniffing all over the place, until the three of us got here.”
“We know this prison has its own history.”
Lance let out a sigh of relief, the thought of Sparky being safe and with people she had already met making his heart warm all over again. He looked at Rolo and Nyma and offered them a warm smile, his arms quickly spreading around them and holding them close for a moment as a tear ran through his cheek.
“Thank you so much,” he whispered, then quickly wiped the tears that had fallen to his cheeks. He looked at the two of them determinedly, his head held high, with an expression almost haughty. “Now it’s time for me to do what’s right.”
Keith walked through the green corridors as he made his way to the dining hall. It had become a custom for him and his mother to have breakfast together every morning before each of them carried on with their duties. It didn’t take long for him to get used to it; they had something similar back home when Keith lived with Shiro and Adam, where every morning Keith would happily wake up to breakfast before he left for work.
Life at the palace wasn’t as terrible as he had originally believed. Despite living in an actual city with a big enough population, Keith had found he rather liked the desertic and beautiful architecture of Omashu. Every day he received lessons on the history of the city, on every royal and every battle Omashu had been through, and he was growing to like it more and more. His teachers were all wise and charismatic, and although sometimes he wanted to escape from his lessons to sneak into the library, or spend time with his mother, he didn’t really mind having to sit through his lessons because his moments of freedom were always well spent.
Even though Shiro and Adam had their own home back in the Fire Nation Capital, they had decided to stay for at least a while in Omashu as Keith slowly adapted to his new home. Avatar Ryner too had taken it upon herself to visit them, and together, all three of them offered Keith royal lessons, or history lessons as they spent their time there. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone at the palace that they would often have breakfast with Keith and his mother too during their time there.
“Good morning, Keith,” his mother said cheerfully, her eyes bright as he took a seat in front of her at the table. Shiro and Adam were sitting beside them, both discussing something quietly.
“Good morning, mom,” Keith returned his mother’s smile and awaited for her instructions about his duties for that day, but she stood in silence until the servants returned to them with each of their plates.
Keith began to chew on his breakfast cheerfully--a plate of fresh fish, the way Lance had taught him to prepare it, and a cup of Jasmine tea to accompany it. Many times before had his mother mentioned that it was a rather strange combination of food, and although he knew it definitely wasn’t what was expected for a prince to eat, his heart begged him to order it when his mother asked him what he would want to have as a meal in his new home.
“Did you sleep well?” Keith’s mother asked, her hands moving over to grab a piece of bread to accompany her dish, her eyes curious. “I know you stayed awake reading at the library, but I hope you went to bed earlier this time.”
“I’ve been trying to finish reading a book I’ve been dragging on for a few months,” he confessed, “but I did go to bed earlier last night, and I slept very well. I hope you did too.”
His mother smiled warmly and hesitated before placing a hand over his, but he nodded to her as though telling her she was allowed to do it. They smiled at each other and she mouthed a thank you before they continued eating their breakfast in silence.
“How were you able to drag on that book for a few months if you spent like three months travelling around with Prince Leandro?” Shiro asked all of a sudden. “Or did you start reading it when you were back home? I don’t remember.”
“I started reading the book while I was on that journey,” Keith replied, his cheeks and ears turning slightly pink as he spoke. “Lance gave it to me as a gift.”
Keith watched as Shiro and Adam exchanged an amused look then nodded, the two of them suppressing a little smile as they continued eating their breakfast. Keith narrowed his eyes at them, hoping his glare was threatening enough to make them stop, but instead Shiro let out a snort and nearly choked on his tea. Keith shook his head and hoped his mother hadn’t gotten any ideas from the little exchange, but he found she was suppressing a little smile herself.
“Never would have I imagined you would end up becoming a close friend of Firelord Lin’s son, let alone go on a long journey with him,” Keith’s mother said, delighted. “I never expected you to meet considering the current circumstances, but I suppose some things are meant to be. Both of his parents are good friends of mine, and were good friends with your father too after we married. I still exchange letters with them every once in a while, especially with his mother Luna.”
Keith’s eyes widened in surprise. “Really?”
Krolia nodded happily. “I met Firelord Lin when we were only kids. Before marrying your father I was a Governor in the Fire Nation, and it was actually thanks to Firelord Lin that I met your father. He introduced us to each other at a tea party he hosted. Afterwards, I helped him and Luna get married. She’s a lovely woman; I imagine her son is wonderful too.”
Keith looked down at the floor, his cheeks warming up, but this time he didn’t care what Shiro and Adam would say about the matter. “He is.”
He noticed a small smile tugging at his mother’s lips and wondered what she would think about him and Lance getting together. He wondered for a moment how Lance and Sparky were doing, how they would feel if one day Keith flew to the Fire Nation to visit them, how long he would go without seeing them, and his stomach twisted. He tried to push the thoughts away, knowing he wouldn’t be able to make any sort of harsh decisions like leaving to visit someone until he was well-adapted into his new home, and he tried to finish eating his breakfast with a little frown.
He searched his mother’s eyes as he stood up to take his plate away to the kitchen, and she quickly followed him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Were you planning on doing something special today?” she asked gently.
“I was actually about to ask you if there were any duties I have to attend to.”
Krolia shook her head. “I wanted to give you a free day today,” she said, “and if you let me, I’d like to spend today with you. Maybe we can go to the library for a little while so you can finish reading that book of yours. I haven’t read anything in a while, so it might be time I catch up to you.”
Keith’s eyes widened, but a little smile formed in his lips and he nodded quickly. “I would love that, yeah.” he looked down at the plate in his hands, then turned to his mother again. “I’ll go clean this up and catch up to you at the library.”
He moved towards the kitchens, where servants were moving around from one place to another, all of them bustling around without even noticing Keith’s presence. It had been weird for him to step inside the kitchens the first few weeks he had lived in the palace because everyone there had given him confused looks, some even walking up to him to take his plate from his hands and tell him they could clean it up for him. But Keith had stood up straight and said they were already too busy, and he didn’t want to create more work for them.
He finished cleaning up his plate and walked outside towards the library. It was a small room, one that had been built not too many years back for his father when he was a teenager. Keith had taken a liking to it immediately, the mint green walls and emerald shelves catching his breath as he took a look around and inspected each of the books. There were so many stories in there left for him to explore, and he was looking forward to it.
His mother had taken a seat in front of one of the shelves, the morning light emanating from the window next to her glistening her skin. He smiled and searched around the shelves for the book Lance had given to him, his heart thudding against his chest as he remembered the last bit he got to read. The romance between the two protagonists had clutched at his chest and made his heart flutter on multiple occasions. But the last pages he read made him feel torn, when the two protagonists separated from each other to move on with their lives.
He took a seat next to the window and close to his mother, the book in his hands. His mother glanced at him before continuing her own reading. He really liked this, being able to spend time with his mother without all the noise and the fuss of the palace. He had learned about her in the time he had been living there, how she liked taking walks around the city, how she liked to keep a garden inside the palace because she enjoyed gardening and loved flowers, what kind of food she enjoyed. But he thought he could learn more from her in simple and quiet moments like these, because at the end of the day, it was these things that made them so much like each other.
He flipped a page of his book and continued basking in his story, his heart fluttering when one of the main protagonists had moved to grab the necklace her lover had given her before they parted ways. It was a silly thing, but to Wen it had meant the world to give Fen that necklace. Wen had explained to her lover it was a tradition among her Tribe to give each other necklaces as a way of betrothal, and Fen had accepted it with open arms. Keith shifted in his seat and grabbed his own necklace, his fingers grazing over the shark tooth hanging from the middle as his heart thudded loudly against his chest.
“Mom?” he asked gently, his eyes still trained on the book before him.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed his mother shifting slightly and humming in response.
He turned to look at her. “Do you miss dad?”
His mother’s eyes widened for a brief moment, then she nodded gently. “I miss him. I miss him through every waking moment of my life,” she said, her eyes looking down. “Some moments, when I miss him the most, I reread all the letters he sent me before we got married, and the ones he wrote after we did, so that I’ll never forget his voice.”
“He sounds like he was a really amazing guy.”
Keith nodded, his chest tightening as he took ahold of his necklace again, his eyes shifting towards the window uncomfortably. He thought of that man he had seen at the swamp, how he had told Keith he loved him despite hardly knowing him. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how much the man loved his mother. He closed his eyes and thought of Lance, his heart tugging at him with longing and nostalgia, and he shook his head when he felt his eyes stinging a little.
He offered his mother a reassuring smile before the two of them shifted their eyes back to their books.
Lance walked towards the throne room determinedly, his head held high. Rolo, Nyma and Sparky were all walking behind him, each of them trying to hide their nerves from him, but failing. He had prepared himself to do this all night, told himself that if he didn’t do this, he would never be enough for his father, or his mother, or even Keith. He had had enough time to be nervous, to think twice, to analyse all the possible things that could go wrong, but now was the moment for action.
He searched around the room for his uncle, and his eyes narrowed when he noticed he was standing behind his father, his mouth agape. Lance moved towards the middle of the room where he could stand right in front of them, and his eyes locked with his uncle threateningly. He opened his mouth to speak, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray him in the middle of the moment, when he realised his father had shifted from his seat.
“Lance, you’re back home--”
“I challenge you to an agni kai,” he said sharply, the words falling into the air like poison dropping from his mouth. “Right here, right now.”
His father ran towards him as he spoke, his arms wrapping around him and making him look like a fool in front of his uncle, but for a brief moment he didn’t care. He hid his face in the crook of his father’s neck, a little sob escaping from his lips as he returned his father’s hug. They stood still for a moment, before Lance broke the embrace to face his uncle again. A sly smile formed in his lips when he realised how utterly infuriated his uncle looked.
“My challenge stands,” Lance muttered through gritted teeth
“I accept your challenge honorably, your highness,” his uncle replied, his eyes narrowing in a snake-like manner.
Lance watched as his uncle walked away from the throne room and towards the agni kai chamber in the palace. From that moment onwards, Lance was prepared to watch his uncle’s every move, ready to make sure he would never hurt anyone ever again. Lance moved to follow him when his father took Lance’s arm to stop him, his eyes moving desperately from Lance, to Rolo, to Nyma and Sparky, who were standing behind them in complete horror.
“Lance, what’s going on?”
Lance stared at his father, his eyes desperate. “Dad, I--there’s no time to explain any of this right now. I have to go do this,” he said fiercely, then jerked his head to walk away, but his father stopped him again.
“Your uncle isn’t going anywhere,” his father said softly, “And I’m a very good listener. Especially when my son arrives home after months away and challenges my brother to an agni kai. Those things don’t happen just any day, and I’m a very curious man.”
Lance let out a sigh. “Your brother isn’t a good person.”
Has father considered his words for a moment, his eyes downcast, deep in thought. “That makes sense,” he finally admitted, “but has he done anything to you? Has he harmed you?”
Lance knitted his eyebrows in amusement, the simplicity with which his father had responded to his claims about his uncle not being a good person taking him by surprise. He studied his father for a moment, then opened his mouth to reply. “He didn’t harm me,” he replied, “I mean, he imprisoned me and sent a couple of his guards after me to stop me from taking this treaty to the Water Tribe, and one of them harmed my friend. But he hasn’t been direct. But how much--how much do you know?”
His father’s eyes widened after Lance’s explanation, then he nodded at himself to go on. “Well, he was always kind of cruel since we were kids,” his father explained, “He was always scheming or planning ways in which he would overthrow me and my younger sister when we were little. And then, after your mother and I got married, he was always cruel to her, planning with the rest of the court to take her away behind our backs. There was also that Omashu attack, Luna always thought he had something to do with it. But I never thought he would actually try to stop you from delivering the treaty. I guess I underestimated him.”
Lance nodded quickly, his eyes briefly shifting towards Nyma, Rolo and Sparky, who had slowly walked up beside him. “Mom told me she never told you the full truth, but he was definitely the one who instigated that Omashu attack,” Lance replied. “But if you knew he wasn’t good, and had your suspicions, why didn’t you try to stop him?”
His father shook his head. “I didn’t know he was planning on attacking Omashu before he did it, or that he would actually send guards after you, or that he would imprison you. I thought sending you secretly, and spreading a rumour that you had run away would be enough to stop him,” his father replied.
“Well,” Lance said determinedly, “Then I should be the one to do what’s right.”
“Lance--” Nyma began to say, but she was cut off shortly by Lance’s father.
“I know you want to stop your uncle from furthering his schemes, and maybe attempt to do worse things, but we can do it all together. You don’t have to place yourself in danger like this, son.”
Lance looked up at his father, the way the lines in his forehead were creased with age and worry, how his eyebrows were knitted together. To anyone else he would have appeared calm and collected, almost as always, but Lance could tell how desperate he was to stop him. “Dad, I know it’s dangerous, and I know the consequences this could have. But if I don’t do this--if I don’t stop my uncle from causing any more damage--then how am I going to be worthy of being your successor? It’s bad enough that I’m not even from here, or that I’m not like the typical Fire Prince. I can’t disappoint any more people.”
His father turned to look at Nyma, Rolo and Sparky, who were still standing beside them nervously, his face serious. “Can you give us a minute?” he asked.
The three of them nodded in unison, Sparky stealing a glance from Lance right before she walked away with the rest. Her head fell afterwards. Lance turned to his father and expected a solemn expression, but instead he found his father’s eyebrows were knitted together in worry, his eyes almost sad. Lance opened his mouth to speak, but his father quickly interrupted him.
“You don’t need to win an agni kai to be worthy of being my successor, or win a war with a perfect army, or even do anything out of the ordinary to prove yourself to me,” his father explained. “Ever since you arrived here when you were only fifteen, I knew--I knew you would be the best firelord to ever sit in that throne over there. Because not being from here--being raised into two cultures doesn’t make you any less or any weaker than all the firelords before me. Being a water boy and a fire boy is part of who you are, and growing and accepting it will only make you stronger. So no, you don’t have to prove yourself to the world or to me. You’re kind, and selfless, and brave, and skilled in so many things. I already know you’ll be the best firelord there’ll ever be.”
“Dad,” Lance breathed out, his eyes stinging with hot tears threatening to fall. He wrapped his father around his arms in a swift movement, his face hiding in his father’s chest the way he used to do with his mother when he was a child. His father returned his hug as he allowed himself to cry for a brief moment, his chest feeling as though he had removed a huge boulder off it. When they separated, his father offered him a gentle smile and mouthed I’m proud of you , the words sinking into Lance’s chest with an intense feeling of relief.
“If you ever feel like this again, like you’re not good enough, you know you can talk to me, son,” his father said softly. “There’s no need to start an agni kai that could potentially place you in great danger. I’m sure I’ll manage to do something in regards to your uncle.”
Lance nodded, but he stared at his father fiercely--determined. “He’s your brother, dad. You don’t need to do anything,” he said, “Maybe I won’t do this to prove myself, but I need to do this for my people who could be in danger, for the four nations, for my mother, for what he did to Omashu, even for myself and all he made me go through.”
His father contemplated Lance’s words for a long moment, then let out a sigh. “Fine, but if anything--even a slight wound, happens to you, you’ll be grounded. I don’t care if you’re twenty-one. We’ll move your birthday celebrations until the end of the month, when I’m no longer angry.”
Lance smiled and nodded softly, the same determination running through his head and moving over every inch of his body, his hands immediately warming up, impatient for the moment they could strike once again. He walked towards the agni kai chamber where his uncle was waiting for him, with his father, Rolo, Nyma and Sparky walking right behind him. He locked eyes with his uncle as he moved towards the middle of the arena, his eyes refusing to look at his father or Sparky or his friends. He knew how scared they must have looked in that moment, and he didn’t want their anxiety to pass onto him.
He watched as a long line of flames emanated from his uncle’s hand, red, hot and threatening. Lance moved to the side carefully, his eyes not yet leaving his uncle’s. He had seen many duels like this before. His uncle was fascinated by agni kais; he would speak of them vividly, had said more than once that it was the highest form of honour and skill firebenders could ever show, and on more than one occasion, he would drag everyone in the family to watch them whenever one took place.
His uncle, much like everyone in his father’s side of the family, was a very skilled firebender. He practiced almost every day, fought with men rumoured to be unbeatable, threatened people left and right to make sure they listened to him. Lance knew his uncle was feared by people, that was something he had always known despite everything. He knew how much of a contrast his father and his uncle were, how grateful the people from the nation had been when his own father had taken the title of firelord instead of General Huan. Lance’s uncle had learned so much from the agni kais he had been to, and he was ready to use all his knowledge, all his skill, against Lance.
Lance threw a burst of flames towards his uncle’s side, the warmth emanating from his hands, making him feel powerful and reckless--but it wasn’t enough, not against an opponent like this. His uncle gave Lance a little sly smile before he lurched himself forward, a long, violent tower of flame moving towards Lance at an incredibly fast rate, the head of a dragon forming on its tips. Lance was able to dodge the attack just in time, but the embers singed his arms and made him wince in pain.
Lance shook his head and sent another attack his uncle’s way, long but vigorous bursts of flames flying from each of his hands. Lance watched as his uncle efficiently dodged each of them, and his stomach began to churn with anxiety. He finally allowed himself to turn to the side to watch his father, the way his face contorted with worry. Lance noticed his father was holding Sparky back from running over to try and protect him, and he lowered his head. Sparky had already been through so much in just the past month, and Lance couldn’t bring himself to cause her more worry.
His head jerked up to look at the wall of flames his uncle had thrown his way while he was distracted, and his eyes widened in horror. He tried to move away from the red flames as quickly as he could, the sly smile his uncle had been wearing earlier haunting him. He felt an itching pain on his left arm as he lay on the floor, helpless, but he tried to ignore it and quickly stood up to face his opponent once again.
His vision turned red and he clenched his fists when he heard his uncle’s laughter echoing in the room, the memory of that moment when he locked Lance in that stupid cell nagging at his head. Lance breathed heavily as he prepared himself for his next attack, a roll of thunder echoing the room as he moved towards the center of the arena determinedly. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, the feeling of droplets falling onto his face filling him with energy and confidence.
He sent several bursts of lightning towards his uncle’s side, each of them strong and lethal. He watched as his uncle’s eyes widened in horror, mimicking Lance from a few minutes earlier. He dodged several of Lance’s hits, but Lance knew from the look on his uncle’s face that his uncle had been wounded. His uncle turned to look at the sky, and his brows knitted with worry when he realised the sun had been covered by the grey clouds raining on them. He turned to look at Lance with fear, but Lance smiled at him gently.
“I won’t end your life,” Lance said solemnly, his head held high, and his expression stern and regal. “But I warn you, if you ever try to attack another nation again, I won’t hesitate to send another burst of lightning your way. My father and I have decided to banish you from the Fire Nation. You’ll be stripped from your title, your position in this family, and the personal guards you keep for yourself. They’ll be part of the nation’s royal guard now. Is that clear?”
Lance’s uncle turned up to look at him, his hand moving over a leg to cover it, then he nodded slowly.
Lance’s heart jolted against his chest as the room erupted in a thunderous applause.
Keith tucked a bag into the wheelbarrow he had taken from the garden at the palace, his eyes slowly moving towards the little dog who had followed him all the way from his room. Keith motioned for the dog to be quiet as he tried to sneak away into the night, and promised the dog he might take him with him if he behaved well while Keith prepared himself for his journey.
Cosmo--as Keith had named the dog, wiggled his tail happily as Keith softly spoke to him. Keith rolled his eyes, but immediately placed a hand on top of Cosmo’s head to pet him. He smiled when the devious puppy folded his ears against his head, begging Keith to pet him a little more, and Keith indulged him for a little moment as the crescent moon stared at them from the top of the sky. Keith let out a sigh and stood up again to continue preparing the wheelbarrow with everything he was carrying with him, his two katanas now laying in the middle of it.
He adjusted the cloak his mother had lent him to wear now that autumn was close upon them, a little smile forming on his lips as he thought of the cloak he had wanted to get when he and Lance were in North Chung-Ling. Back then he thought he would never get to wear one, but he was grateful when his mother proved him wrong. He let out a sigh as he thought of the long journey now ahead of him, then he heard a few footsteps soon approaching him.
He turned to look at the source of all the noise, and noticed Shiro and Romelle were now walking towards him, their brows knitted and heads tilted in confusion. Keith took a deep breath, preparing himself for the series of questions he was sure he was about to receive, and closed his eyes as his brother’s voice started filling up his head.
“Where are you going?”
Keith opened his eyes and turned to look at the dog wiggling his tail between the three of them, his head perked up, expecting someone to pet him. Keith did it without hesitation. “I wrote a letter to my mom explaining everything to her. I know this seems very sudden, and you’re gonna tell me that you don’t approve, but I’m sure my mother won’t oppose when she knows.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Shiro said with amusement. “Don’t avoid it, Keith.”
Keith let out a sigh. “I’m gonna go to the Fire Nation Capital to try to visit Lance. I wanna catch up with him and talk to him, and just see him. I haven’t heard from him in nearly two months, and I wanna make sure he’s okay. And I also wanna...give him something.”
Shiro and Romelle exchanged a look, both of them meditating on everything Keith had just told them. Keith expected them to start laughing at him, or tease him for bringing up Lance and saying he wanted to see him, but instead he found the two of them nodding in his direction, a warm smile playing on their faces and reaching their eyes.
“Neither of us will stop you,” Romelle said softly, “but do you think it’s a good idea to travel on a wheelbarrow? It might take you months to get there, and you won’t be able to travel in that once you get to the Fire Nation and all its islands. I can take you there if you want. Flying will be much faster.”
Keith turned to look at her, his eyes glinting. “Would you really help me?”
“To go visit Prince Leandro?” she asked, a wide grin spreading through her lips. “Absolutely. Go get him, tiger.”
Keith’s heart stammered in his chest. “Let’s go then.”
Lance looked up at the mirror before him, his eyes glinting as he pulled his hair up in a ponytail. His hands hesitated for a moment before he grabbed the golden crown his father had left on top of his cabinets that morning. He had worn the crown before, his father asked him to wear it whenever there was a special occasion, or whenever they had to receive special guests, but Lance had never felt comfortable enough wearing it until that night.
Lance looked down at his attire and smoothed over any wrinkles it might have. He had chosen one of his favorite outfits for the night, one that his father had given to him on his last birthday. It was polished and regal, and it reminded Lance a little of that soldier outfit he wore during the time he spent travelling with Keith. He remembered the look Keith had given him when he saw Lance step out with that outfit for the first time, how he had muttered that Lance looked great, and his stomach squirmed.
He shook his head and prepared to step outside of his room and walk into the party to greet all the guests he was sure were already waiting for him, but he was stopped by his father, who quietly slipped into his room, a wide grin spreading on his lips.
“Did you have any wild romances while you were on that journey?” his father asked with amusement, his eyes travelling around Lance’s room, hoping to find an answer. He sat down on Lance’s bed, the sly smile he had been carrying not yet leaving his lips. Lance looked at him in horror.
“Wild romances?” Lance asked, his voice higher-pitched than usual. “No, no, why would you think that? No.”
His father studied him for a moment, his eyes searching Lance’s, and Lance felt as though his father was able to see through him. He gulped. “Someone sent a red and golden lotus to the palace this afternoon for you while you were attending a meeting with our guests,” he explained, “At first I thought maybe someone wanted to send you a present for your birthday since your celebration is taking a place today, and they didn’t know the real date of your birthday, but then I noticed the lotus came with a letter addressed to me.”
“A letter?” Lance asked, “Like a marriage proposal?”
His father nodded. “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought it was, which is why I asked,” he replied, “If you didn’t have any wild romances out there, it might just be an admirer or something. Though I must say, that letter this secret admirer sent was very romantic. They must really really like you.”
Lance’s stomach jolted, and he knitted his eyebrows as he sat down next to his father to think. “What did the letter say?”
“The secret admirer kept complimenting you over and over again, and some of these compliments sounded almost like they knew you very well,” his father replied. “It was very poetic, the person in question is a very eloquent writer. They said something about how your blue eyes are like jewels and beautiful oceans they wanted to get lost in, or something cheesy like that. Honestly I’m just amused that someone actually took the time to do all these things to win your heart.”
Lance looked down at the floor, thoughts of Keith invading his head one by one until there was nothing else he could possibly think about. He remembered how Keith had asked Lance about betrothal and wedding traditions when they were on their journey, how his eyes had glinted with curiosity as Lance explained everything to him. He thought about the possibility of Keith sending him that red and golden lotus, and that letter addressed to his father to accompany it, and his heart jolted foolishly against his chest.
Lance was aware of how much had passed since the last time he and Keith got to see each other, and how easily Keith could have forgotten him by now, but his heart was yearning with hope and joy at the thought of Keith doing all these things for him. Lance made a mental note to write a letter for Keith later that evening, after all the celebrations were over. The thought of getting to talk to him once again was making him squirm with delight.
“I also received a letter from Queen Krolia earlier this week,” his father commented out of the blue. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you before, but why didn’t you tell me you’re a friend of her son? Maybe we could invite them over to a tea party one of these days. She’s a very close friend of mine.”
“I know. Mom told me,” Lance said, his eyes widening upon hearing his father’s offer. He took a deep breath and turned to look at his dad, his own eyes glinting. “I would love to invite them. Prince Keith helped me on that journey. I couldn’t have done it without him. He means a lot to me.”
His father blinked at him, then nodded with understanding. Lance watched as he slowly stood up from his seat and walked over towards the door, the same grin he had been wearing as he had entered the room playing over his lips once again. “Well, we better get going then,” he chimed. “There’s over a thousand people waiting outside for you.”
Lance nodded, thoughts of Keith still not leaving his head.
Lance swirled around with a noble girl in his arms, the lights and sparks emanating from around them making him feel joyous and agitated altogether. He turned to look at his father, who was sitting right in front of the palace, his hands folded together as he engaged in a conversation with an important couple who had walked over to greet him. He spared Lance a little glance while he danced, and a small smile played on his lips.
Lance continued to dance around with the girl, her name almost unfamiliar to him, but he knew he had seen her at least a couple of times before during festivities or his father’s tea parties. She was pretty, with long black hair and golden eyes that could steal anyone’s breath if she ever so much as spared them a glance. But from what Lance had gathered at his birthday celebration, she was in a similar position to him, where she longed to be with someone else instead of engaging into stupid traditions nobles thought fitting.
Lance waited for the song to be over before he curtsied for her as a thank you, a charming smile forming on his lips as a blush crept up to her cheeks. She quickly returned his smile, but her eyes flew over to a brown haired girl standing right next to him. Lance motioned for the two of them to continue dancing together for the next song, and the two girls did so eagerly. Lance turned to look at his father, who stared at him approvingly, and his father mouthed that he would explain the whole story of the girls later when the celebration was over.
Lance turned on his heel, searching for another partner to dance with as a new song began, but he was quickly stopped by a hooded figure who stumbled upon him as they searched for something. Lance’s eyes widened and he quickly apologised, his hands hovering over to help the hooded person compose themselves. He noticed their entire face was covered by a red and golden mask, their eyes dark against the night. Lance tilted his head and opened his mouth to ask them for their name, but the masked person quickly stopped him by offering a hand for the two of them to dance together.
Lance hesitated before taking it, his eyes curiously searching his new companion’s. For a moment, Lance felt as though he had seen those eyes before, and even though he could hardly recognise their colour with the darkness from around them, he thought he could see a familiar indigo as a small flame thrown by other dancers floated in between them. Lance shook his head and tried to convince himself it had all been his imagination, but the more he stared at the mask, the more curious he grew.
“Are you from around here? I feel like I’ve seen you before. Your eyes look familiar,” Lance commented, the two of them jumping around the group of people spread throughout the arena.
The hooded figure shook their head and took Lance’s hand again, their eyes locked with Lance’s through every moment of the song. Lance noticed they weren’t as skillful in this as his prior partners, but the way in which their feet stepped onto each other as they took new steps was a little cute and endearing . Lance let out a sigh as he held onto the stranger’s hand tightly and guided them around the arena, his eyes hesitant as he placed a hand around the stranger’s waist.
“I like your cloak, it’s very beautiful,” Lance said. “I wonder what kind of fabric it was made of, it looks very soft. Are you a member of the court? My father and other members of it have another one that looks similar to it. I think it’s a membership sort of thing, like they’re part of a secret society between friends. I want to have something like that with my friends too.”
The hooded figure hesitated before shaking their head again, their eyes searching for something in Lance’s. They separated for a moment as they jumped around amongst the other couples again, their eyes interlocked during the entire exchange. Lance walked over to the hooded figure to grab their hand again, but the music suddenly stopped. Lance made a little curtsy and opened his mouth to speak, but the stranger stopped him once again to hand him a letter.
Lance looked down at it and studied it carefully, his eyes widening as he noticed the Earth Kingdom royal symbol engraved in the wax seal--a red and golden lotus drawn in the back of the envelope. Lance looked up to talk to the hooded figure, but when his eyes searched for them, they were already gone, so Lance continued inspecting the letter.
He walked towards the palace, where his father was still engaging in chit chat with other members of the court, then hid behind one of the long columns right at the entrance. He pulled the letter out of the envelope to read it privately, his heart racing against his chest in both excitement and trepidation. He had received several letters throughout his life, but there was something about this one that sparked his curiosity. No one had ever written a love letter for him in all his twenty-one years of life.
He inspected the letter now in his hands, his eyes curiously studying the handwriting as though he could recognise it (he didn’t). He thought of the symbol on the wax seal, how the author of this letter had taken so much time carefully drawing the lotus flower on the back of the envelope, and his heart jolted against his chest with a million ideas. But it wasn’t until he actually started reading it that his eyes widened in confirmation, his cheeks flushing as all the words of love sank into his chest, making him feel warm in the airy autumn night.
I know it’s been a long time since the last time we’ve seen each other, but I’m writing you this letter hoping that might change for us very soon. Things at home have been very well, I think I really like my mom and this city overall. I get to see Shay and her family very often, and we’ve become very good friends. Romelle, Shiro and Adam really seem to like it here too, and Avatar Ryner herself has paid us a few visits at the palace as well. She wanted me to tell you she’s very proud of you, and how well you executed the mission she, the fire sages, and your father put you through.
I also wanted to write you this because--well, because I’ve really missed you. I was so used to waking up every morning with your face lighting up and shining as bright as the sun as I found my composure again. I like it here, but it’s not the same without you or your quirky remarks, or your jokes, or your bright blue eyes, or your casual hugs, or the way you used to play with my hair whenever I let you, or the way the curls of your hair fell onto your face whenever you let your hair down, or your beautiful, beautiful smile making every day better than the other. I started fearing that over time I would forget the sound of your voice, the shape of your nose, the ways your eyes glinted whenever there was a full moon.
I didn’t get the chance to tell you this before we parted ways, but you mean so much to me--so much more than you may realise. I needed to see you again soon to tell you all this, so I came here as soon as I could.
I know this may be a lot to ask, especially since you’re celebrating your birthday; but if you find a moment of solitude, where you would rather be with an old friend, I’ll be waiting for you at the western lush gardens.
I love you, and I hope you’ve been well.
Another kid from two nations
Lance looked up at the starry night before him, the big, full moon gracing the sky and staring down at him as though she was congratulating him for his birthday, like the rest of the people did. He smiled at his own thoughts, how poetic it all appeared when he had been born under a full moon too--and even though it was certainly not his birthday anymore, it finally felt as though it was, considering all the things he had to go through during the time span from late July to that day.
He walked around the lush gardens in silence, his fingertips reaching over to touch all the flowers around them. He had never been to these places at night, since every time he and his father would return to the palace right before dusk--but now that he had seen it, the way the moonlight reflected on the flowers, all the peace and tranquility that surrounded it, he wanted to come back every night.
After walking for a while he realised he was probably alone in the place, so he walked over to the little bridge in front of a little waterfall his father had specifically built for him to feel more at home. His heart warmed over the sound of water falling, his eyes marvelling as he noticed something similar to fairy lights floating around the waterfall and the little pond that had formed at the bottom of it. He thought of all those love stories his mother told him about when he was little, how the heroes and heroines would kiss with their loved ones in magical places like this at the end the story.
He smiled absent-mindedly as he stared at the waterfall, how translucent it looked with the moonlight and the fairy lights falling into it. He stretched out a hand to try to touch one of the lights, when he heard rustling coming from behind him. His head turned to find the hooded figure walking towards the bridge, their face still covered by a mask--but Lance noticed a new detail, a betrothal necklace from the Water Tribe adorning their long neck, a shark tooth hanging from the middle in a beautiful but menacing way.
Lance watched with wide eyes as the man in front of him quickly removed his mask to reveal Keith’s handsome face. Lance hesitated before walking towards him, but Keith did it for him. Keith stared at him with so much awe, so much adoration--like he was staring at an otherworldly creature that only existed in fictional places none of them could ever belong to. Lance’s heart stammered loudly against his chest, every step Keith took in his direction making his heart wilder.
“I never thought I would see you again,” Lance admitted, his voice breathless.
Keith tilted his head curiously, his eyes seemingly studying Lance for a brief moment. Lance had forgotten what it felt like to have Keith’s gaze so focused on him, and he felt a little blush creeping up his cheeks. “I thought the same too for a while. Living in the castle is fun, but I thought I would be trapped there for months without having a chance to visit other places for a while. But every day I spent away from you became more and more unbearable.”
“But do you like it there?” Lance asked, his eyebrows knitting with worry. “I know you said you did in your letter, but I would hate to see you living somewhere you’re not happy in. I know you didn’t like it that much back here, even if you tried to bear it for your brother and his husband.”
“I think I might have changed my mind after visiting this place,” Keith confessed, his eyes roaming over all the trees and flowers around them, his eyes stopping to study the little waterfall for a long moment. “These gardens are so beautiful, and according to my mother, each of them is unique and special.” he locked eyes with Lance again. “And I like my own home too. Classes may not always be fun, but there’s so many beautiful things and a garden and a library where I spend most of my free time.”
“That’s good, I’m glad you’re adapting well into your new home.”
Keith nodded, an excited smile playing over his lips, then Lance’s heart skipped a bit when he noticed Keith’s hand slowly had gone over to touch the necklace Lance had given him the day they parted ways. If Lance had been honest, he never expected Keith to actually wear it, let alone to arrive to his birthday celebrations to give him a letter, send one to his father, and send a red and golden lotus as though he was asking for his hand in marriage the same way, in theory, Lance had done too.
“I finished reading that book you gave to me while I was in the palace,” Keith said, his expression turning more serious. “I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the romance was fantastic. And there was a scene where one of the girls handed a necklace like one of these to the other girl, and she explained that it was a tradition from her tribe to give these as a means of betrothal, and that’s how I knew.”
Lance’s hand quickly went over the back of his head with embarrassment, but he felt a burst of courage when he noticed the way in which Keith was looking at him, his fingers playing with the tooth hanging from his own necklace. “I wanted to explain that to you because I knew you might feel more comfortable knowing the truth and tossing it aside, instead of wearing it blindly, but then Romelle interrupted us.”
“I know, but I wouldn’t have tossed it no matter the circumstances,” Keith admitted. “Knowing what it truly meant made me feel--I don’t know how to explain it, I just felt so happy, and I needed to see you again and tell you how I feel. I know I’m much more eloquent when I write, but there’s something--I have something for you.”
Lance’s head tilted curiously as he waited for Keith to explain. Keith opened his mouth to speak, then quickly closed it, a frustrated huff emanating from his mouth as he rummaged around the bag he was carrying from the side. Lance noticed he wasn’t carrying his katanas, or any sort of weapon he would usually carry for protection, and he felt a strange sensation twisting in his stomach. He also realised Keith was wearing different clothes, still dark brown, but much more polished and elegant--clothes fit for a handsome prince like him.
“Close your eyes,” Keith instructed, his voice firm and determined.
Lance looked at him in surprise, but he quickly nodded and closed his eyes, a smile creeping over his lips as he thought of how regal Keith had looked. He waited patiently and in complete silence as Keith walked closer to him, the warmth emanating from Keith’s body now sending chills all over his spine. He wondered what Keith was doing so close to him. He felt Keith’s hands struggling at the back of his neck for a moment, then he noticed a cold thing around his neck and his breath hitched.
When Keith asked him to open his eyes, he noticed a golden pendant hanging from his neck, the symbol of the Fire Nation engraved right in the middle of it. He turned to look at Keith, who was giving him the softest smile he had ever given him, his eyes full of so much love and adoration Lance didn’t know how to take it. He felt butterflies flying around his stomach in anticipation, his heart stammering so loudly against his chest Keith was probably able to hear it.
“This is beautiful,” Lance said, his voice slightly cracking. His fingers had hovered over to touch the pendant hanging from his neck, and he hoped his words had been enough for Keith to realise how much this meant to him.
“I thought you might like it. Romelle helped me pick it, her taste is much more refined, but I know you a little better,” Keith admitted, his voice slightly nervous. “You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to, I know the denotations all these things have, and I know it might be too soon, but--”
"But--but if I could spend the rest of my life together with you, I would without hesitating. Because I’m--I’m in love with you, Lance. I love everything that you are, and you make me happy, and all the romance novels I’ve read say I should be with someone who makes me happy. This took me a while to realise, but I think you’re my--”
“My true flame ,” Lance interjected, “Two people meant to be.”
“I think I’ve known you were my true flame for a while, but I thought maybe I was being a little superstitious,” Lance admitted, then his eyes locked with Keith’s, his heart beating louder as he walked closer to him, their faces only inches apart. “And I’m in love with you too, you know. I’ve been in love with you for a while. Otherwise I wouldn’t have given you that necklace.”
“I know that, but I also know this may be a little rushed, so you might say no and--”
“Keith!” Lance exclaimed as he pressed a finger over Keith’s lips. “I should be the one who rambles, not you.”
Keith quickly nodded and took a deep breath, the space separating them becoming more and more difficult to deal with as moments passed. Lance watched as one of the fairy lights passed over them, its movement surprising him and making his heart jolt in delight, when he realised Keith was tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. Lance’s eyes widened over the gesture, and before he was able to properly react, Keith quickly pressed a kiss against his lips.
The kiss was quick and chaste, almost impossible to miss, but the ghost of Keith’s lips lingered against his own for a moment, and Lance’s heart jolted with delight as he thought of it. Keith’s eyes widened before he tilted his head again, his eyes asking for permission to kiss Lance another time, and Lance leaned towards Keith to grant it.
The moment before their lips touched again was slow and painful, the short distance between them seeming miles as they leaned into each other slowly, their breaths pressing on each other’s lips and filling them with longing, their eyes closing as memories of all the times they had been close to this floated in their heads. Lance felt his stomach squirm with delight when he felt Keith’s lips pressed against his, all the longing--all the moments he had dreamed of this--finally coming into fruition as Keith gently placed a hand on his jaw to pull him closer to him.
Their kiss was fierce and passionate, like standing under the rain with bursts of lightning running through Lance’s hands--the feeling of fearlessness, that nothing could go wrong as fire ran through him overtaking him and settling into his chest like sparks flying under the starry sky. Their lips searched for each other hungrily, hoping to make up for all the moments lost. Lance felt his hands slowly moving from Keith’s lower back to his waist, his fingers lingering as Keith moved a hand towards his head. Lance let out a soft sigh as he felt Keith’s fingers slide into his ponytail to play with his hair, his body melting into the contact as Keith slid his tongue into Lance’s mouth gently. The two of them held into each other tightly, trying to push the other closer in shy desperation, causing their kiss to turn into an awkward, heated mess.
Lance basked in the taste of Jasmine tea against his mouth before they separated, the two of them erupting with laugher, their cheeks flushed in both joy and embarrassment. Lance looked at the way in which the stars reflected in Keith’s indigo eyes as they happily took each other’s hands, and Lance planted another sweet and chaste kiss against Keith’s lips. In that moment, Lance thought that if he had to spend his whole life doing this with anyone, he would happily do it with Keith.
Keith’s eyes turned to look at all the guests who have gathered around on Ember Island to celebrate Keith and Lance’s betrothal, and his stomach twisted. Firelord Lin had invited all sorts of people over, promising to offer them the best kind of Jasmine tea they could ever find in the Fire Nation. People from all four nations walked around the dining room, some greeting Keith and congratulating him, others passing over to greet the firelord and give him and his new family best wishes. Keith noticed Romelle and Allura sitting in the corner of the room holding hands and he smiled, then his eyes shifted to Avatar Ryner, who stood happily in the middle of the room, chatting with Lance’s mother and siblings.
He noticed Lance happily conversing with their guests, exchanging smiles and thank yous whenever one of them gave him their blessing. Keith smiled proudly, his heart warming up at the thought of all these people wishing them their best and hoping to see the wedding that would take place months afterward. He thought of the words Firelord Lin had given to him specifically when he and Lance announced their plans to him, the two of them explaining that they didn’t want to marry immediately, but they wanted to visit each other as often as they could.
Keith still spent several months settling down at the palace with his mother and exchanging letters with Lance every week. But now that the friendship between their parents had been cleared, and there was no danger hovering over Omashu, the two of them visited Lance and his father at Caldera City every month. It had been the happiest months of Keith’s life, and every time Keith got to share moments of his own life with Lance in his own home, he cherished them with all his heart.
“You’re handling this very well,” a voice said from behind him, and Keith noticed his mother Krolia and Fei Hong staring at him happily. Fei Hong hesitantly walked towards him and opened her mouth to speak again. “We’re both very proud of you.”
Krolia offered him a little smile as she nodded after Fei Hong’s words. “You’re both going to be great kings one day.”
Keith thanked them both for their kind words and turned over to greet two new visitors who wanted to congratulate him and send a blessing to him and Lance and their sacred marriage. Keith noticed the fire sages who had commented about Keith and Lance marrying a year ago from now giggling in the corner of the room, and his stomach squirmed. He wondered how many diviners he had met along in all his journeys, if so many seemed to have predicted his and Lance’s wedding. He laughed to himself and shook his head.
When everyone at the party seemed to settle down more, and had gathered into their own groups of friends to chat, Lance walked over to him, his eyes sparkling and determined. He took one of Keith’s hands in his and placed a gentle kiss on Keith’s knuckles, his eyes closing as he did the gesture and sending a rush of goosebumps through Keith’s skin.
“Can I have a moment with my betrothed?” Lance asked gently, his voice sweet like honey.
Keith rolled his eyes. “Do you even have to ask?”
Lance laughed and entwined their fingers, his eyes moving over to the door that lead towards the beach. Lance leaned into Keith to kiss him as they two of them stepped outside, hoping that none of their guests had noticed their departure. Bursts of laughter erupted from their mouths as their lips locked over and over again. When they were finally outside and stood apart from each other, Keith noticed Sparky was playing around in the sand, her body squirming in delight as she destroyed all the sandcastles people had left there in the past, and Keith let out a laugh.
Lance walked over to her, distracting her from her games and placing a hand on top of her head to pet her, then he turned to look at Keith, a sly smile playing over his lips. “Would you like to go for a ride?” he asked.
Keith walked over to Sparky, her wings instantly parting to allow the two of them to climb up. Keith did so without hesitation, Lance quickly following behind to spread his arms around Keith’s waist. Lance had done this countless of times now, but it still sent a thrill through Keith’s heart whenever it happened.
“Where would you like to go?” Lance asked gently, his head resting on Keith’s back.
“Anywhere,” Keith replied. “I would go anywhere with you.”