The back of Keith’s head was an easy target for Lance to glare at as they walked in a line. They were all a little high strung at the moment, sure - being on a tight schedule did that to people, even without the current addition of slogging through hot, humid, hazardous alien jungle - but Keith didn’t have to be a dick about it.
“Don’t touch me,” Keith had growled when Lance had put a hand on his back earlier. Lance had intended the gesture to be supportive, since it was Keith’s first time leading the team out on a ground mission like this, and he could tell that the new Black Paladin was a little anxious. But despite all of their recent personal progress, despite Lance thinking they could finally be friends, despite Lance realizing that just maybe the person he admired so much didn’t resent him outright, Keith was still prickly.
Lance wasn’t unfair. He knew people had boundaries, and he expected Keith wasn’t a very touchy-feely guy to begin with. He just didn’t have to snap at him.
Even if Lance had been more than usually friendly lately.
Even if Lance had been making something of an effort to play around with Keith, which might have come across awkwardly.
The last few days, Lance had been excited. Keith had been talking to him like a teammate, like a friend. He’d actually smiled directly at Lance’s face once or twice. Lance hadn’t known how to react. He didn’t know how to transition from their friendly rivalry to a supportive, calm, mature friendship, let alone when he felt the way he did about Keith. The rivalry had helped balance him out. It had given him something childish and playful to hide behind whenever the urge to hold Keith’s hand struck him too hard.
Without it, Lance didn’t know how to behave. He didn’t know what Keith expected of him, which was doubly frustrating when Lance reminded himself that Keith would never like him the same way. But some dark corner of him had still hoped, and so he tried, just a little, to test the waters and see if Keith could like him back.
That had resulted in several pick-up lines wasted on Keith’s lack of imagination (he didn’t even notice that Lance was flirting with him), several instances of Lance nudging Keith’s side or slinging a friendly arm around his shoulders (Keith shrunk away unsurely every time), and one extremely clumsy, extremely embarrassing morning in the training room. Keith had seemed happy at first when Lance offered to spar with him, and Lance was happy to get his ass kicked for the first ten minutes as long as Keith was actually having a good time with him. But then Lance had managed to get the jump on him. He’d managed to turn Keith’s arm aside, shift their weight, and pin him down, sitting across his hips with his hands around Keith’s forearms.
That moment had lasted several seconds too long. They had stared at each other, both of them surprised and panting to catch their breath, and like a complete fucking idiot, Lance had started to say Keith’s name like it meant something to him. As if that had been the time and place to tell Keith what he had been desperately trying to show him the whole time.
The very tips of Keith’s ears had caught fire, and he had twisted his body and shoved Lance off of him before storming out of the training room.
That had been that morning, only hours before this mission. So maybe Lance had his answer as to why Keith wasn’t exactly feeling cuddly.
Lance hadn’t even gotten the words out, hadn’t even been able to explain to Keith how he felt, but that was rejection enough. While he had never really expected anything else, it still hurt. He could respect Keith’s lack of interest in him and still feel miserable about it.
Don’t touch me. The words had such a bite to them that it still stung half an hour after they were delivered. Lance turned his scowl down at the jungle floor. He couldn’t be angry with Keith for how he felt, but he could be mad at himself. He might have ruined one of the best potential friendships of his life because he couldn’t stop seeing Keith with hearts next to his face.
“How close are we to the site now?” Keith asked Pidge, who was walking ahead of him with a handheld scanner.
“Pretty close.” Pidge blew a small raspberry between her lips and tapped the screen of the device. “Only a couple doboshes in this same direction. The Olkari should be able to access it remotely once we activate it.”
The site in question was the equivalent of a security tower. The civilization that had built it was long gone, but there were so many of these towers scattered over different planets that the Olkari had encountered them before and learned to tap into them. Most of them had fallen dormant after thousands of years of disuse. If the Paladins could activate enough of them, they could collaborate with the Olkari to build a working map of the universe, and hopefully much of the Galra activity therein.
“Good,” Hunk sighed from behind Lance. “The sooner we’re back on the ship, the better. This no-taking-your-helmets-off rule is kind of making it hard to stay hydrated.”
“Dude, take a drink,” Lance snorted, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s not like the air itself is toxic.”
Hunk shook his head. “After Coran’s warning about this planet’s ‘heinously toxic flora and fauna,’ I think I can wait. Just to, you know, minimize risk of exposure.”
“The flora are unlikely to disturb you,” Allura said, walking just behind Pidge in the front, “but the animals on this planet tend to be aggressive. If you take off your helmet, they’ll be able to smell you.”
“You’re both right,” Keith was quick to agree. “We’ll be back on the ship in half a varga. Everyone’s helmets stay on.”
Lance shrugged and kept walking. “Alrighty, team leader.” Keith didn’t respond to that.
When they did arrive at the beacon, it was nearly unnoticeable. Underneath a tangle of old roots and silt, a small slice of dull metal was visible in the side of a short cliff. Pidge was the one who had memorized the activation protocols, so she was the one to frown and crawl forward over the roots to get to the exposed panel. The other four stood guard in a small sloping space where the trees weren’t so thick, almost a clearing with high grass and more sunlight past the canopy.
Lance watched idly as Pidge worked the panel open. She muttered to it softly, and he couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it sounded more frustrated than technical. As the minutes ticked on, his attention wandered away from the panel and out to the thick of the jungle.
The leaves were green, which looked familiar enough, but so were the tree trunks. In every direction was a stifling, vibrant green, soaking in sunlight and seeming to pour it back out in flowers, fruits, and protrusions of every other color. One flower in particular caught Lance’s eye, twisting around one tree in a strong vine. The petals were the deepest royal purple, and they curled outward, blending the shape of a hibiscus and a lily. The flowers were nearly the size of his head, and he couldn’t help himself when he stepped forward to get a better look.
“Don’t touch it,” Allura reminded him from somewhere behind him. “We’re to disturb as little as possible while we’re here.”
“I know. I’m just looking,” Lance chuckled harmlessly. He tilted his head and stepped closer to see the flower from another angle. It looked very much like a lily from the side.
He heard the crack of motion against the ground in the same instant Keith’s voice shouted his name.
Something hit him hard in the side, and Lance stumbled and fell to his left, landing on his hip. He looked up quickly enough to see Keith standing where he had just been, and a long, muscled tail whipped out from the trees to slam into Keith’s upper chest. Keith fell on his back several yards away with a harsh grunt, and Lance saw his helmet slip off of his head and roll away in the grass.
Lance scrambled to his feet with his bayard in hand, and he put himself between Keith and whatever was in the trees. He saw the movement, yellow- and tan-striped coils, hissing and crawling forward. Snakes shouldn’t be that huge. Snakes shouldn’t have spidery claws like that. Snakes shouldn’t be that close to him, crawling and dragging itself into the clearing. Its neck and tail were thick as a desk, and its mouth opened to reveal the hellish, layered maw of a basking shark, framed by teeth just long enough to grab onto prey. Six blank eyes seemed to focus on Lance, and the creature growled and darted forward.
They wanted to disturb as little as possible. This was just another life form that lived on this planet, and Lance respected that. It was probably just trying to defend its territory.
But it had hit Keith, and it was going to kill them. That was where Lance’s sympathy ran out.
“Keith, you okay?” he shouted even as he started to shoot. He couldn’t not shout, with that thing coming towards him. He aimed for its eyes, and soon six became four, two eyes gone on one side of its head.
“I’m fine,” Keith growled out, and Lance heard the shuffle of him getting off the ground.
“Get your helmet,” Lance snapped at him, but Keith was already running past him to charge the monster with his blade.
Allura and Hunk had their weapons out by then too, and they adjusted well, flanking the giant snake while it tried to chase Lance back into a corner. Hunk raised his voice enough to shout, “Pidge, hurry up!”
“I’m trying!” she grit out, and Lance barely heard her. His heel caught in a root hiding in the grass, and he started to stumble back into a wide tree trunk. He was staring at this monster and its four flat eyes.
Three eyes, after Lance shot another one of them out. The snake snarled and reared back, and Lance was aiming for the inside of its mouth as it opened its jaw.
Instead of shooting, he stopped, frozen. Keith had leapt up onto the creature’s neck from its blind side, and he gripped it by the crest on the back of its head. Of all the stupid, impulsive, hotheaded things he had seen from Keith, Lance had never quite seen the kind of energy Keith committed to in that moment, snarling and screaming and driving his sword into the back of the snake’s neck again and again.
The snake bucked just enough to dislodge Keith’s grip, but he kept hold of the blade, dragging it down and tearing a gash in the side of the creature’s neck as he slipped down to the ground.
Allura’s whip wrapped itself around the snake’s neck, just behind its head. The whip couldn’t be strong enough to really pull the beast anywhere - or so Lance had assumed, before Allura let out a shout and pulled with all her strength, hauling the snake’s head toward her instead. The sheer weight of it was terrifying, and the clumsy crash of the beast on the ground beside her was enough to disorient it.
Hunk took that opportunity to unload his bayard into the creature’s lower jaw. Finally, it went still.
Keith was still holding his bayard in one hand when he marched up to Lance and grabbed him by the front of his suit. His eyes were wide and furious, and Lance could only stand there, stunned and ready for a scolding.
“Are you okay?” Keith demanded.
Lance stared at him before managing a shaky nod. “Yeah, yeah, man, I think so.” Keith’s face was flushed with exertion, dripping with sweat mostly from the long walk. His hair clung to his forehead, cheeks, and the sides of his neck, naked to the world around him. His dark eyes seemed harsher than usual, and his breath was steeped in adrenaline as he caught it.
He was completely beautiful. Raw and intense and heroic.
This was one of those awful moments where Lance wanted to take off his own helmet and kiss him.
“You look like shit,” Lance said instead. “Let’s find your helmet.” He patted Keith’s hand on his chest, and Keith took a second before letting go. He nodded, turning to look in the grass, and that was when Lance saw the bright red spot on the back of Keith’s neck.
Lance let out a short, horrified cry, and he grabbed Keith’s wrist. “Dude-- Don’t move.”
“What?” Keith froze in place, but his eyes darted up to Lance’s face. “Why?”
The bright red spot was a bug, just smaller than Lance’s thumb with thin legs to support it. Lance couldn’t say whether it resembled a beetle or a wasp more, but it didn’t matter. In all likelihood, it was heinously toxic.
Lance raised a hand to get it off of Keith, but just as he started to say, “Bug,” by way of explanation, Keith flinched and cried out. He jerked and swatted at the bug on his neck by himself.
It had stung him. Lance’s body stiffened, and he grabbed Keith’s hand to make sure the bug was dead. Keith’s hand was shaking. His dark eyes were wide, startled, and he reached back with his free hand to feel at the site of the sting.
“Where’s his helmet?” Lance barked out over Keith’s shoulder. Hunk came running back with it, having only just found it, and Lance shoved it back over Keith’s head. “Something bit him. We have to get back to the ship. Pidge?”
“Almost…” Pidge grit her teeth, tapped a few more sliding pieces on the panel, and shut it. The ground hummed and then growled beneath them, and something appeared above the cliffside, stretching skyward. It could have been mistaken for a tree minutes ago, tall and slender, but once the beacon activated, the tower pushed itself toward the clouds and showed itself as the ancient mechanical structure that it was. Lance barely glanced at the marvel before them, and he watched Keith’s face.
“Mission successful,” he told him, trying to reassure him. “The lions are coming back, okay? How do you feel?”
Keith’s fingers trembled and gripped Lance’s harder. His face was grey. “I’m fine.”
“Liar.” Lance frowned, and Hunk came to support Keith with him. Allura called for the castle, and Pidge scrambled back over the roots to join them. “Come on. If it’s bad, we’ll just stick you in a healing pod. This is why you shouldn’t play the hero,” he teased him gently.
Keith clenched his jaw and glanced upward, into Lance’s eyes. “It could’ve been you otherwise.”
Lance’s breath stuck in his chest. He didn’t have any room for that kind of sentiment, that it might have possibly been better for Keith to get hurt than himself. It was never the better option for Keith to get hurt.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Lance chuckled, and he looked up as Red and Green dropped down close by.
Pidge flew back with Allura and Keith, and Lance took himself and Hunk back in Red. By the time the two of them caught up with the other three in one of the central hallways, Keith was leaning heavily into a very startled Shiro, buckling into himself and screaming. Coran was on Keith’s other side, trying to help guide him to the medbay.
“What stung him?” Coran demanded as soon as he saw Lance down the hall, loud enough for his voice to carry. Lance was running toward them by then.
“Red bug, about this big.” Lance held his fingers up to show the distance. “It was just solid red. Really shiny wings, and a stinger, but it looked kind of flat. Do we have an antidote?”
There were tears on Keith’s face. He couldn’t seem to keep himself quiet, whimpering even when he choked down the screams, and his nails were digging into his arms. His knees were unsteady and useless, and Shiro and Coran were the only things keeping him standing.
“Hurts,” Keith rasped. “Hurts so much, make it stop, make it stop.”
Keith was dying. He was in agony, and he was dying, and it was all his fault, and that was the only thing Lance could think.
Impulsively, Lance dropped both of his gloves on the floor, and he cupped Keith’s face in his hands. He couldn’t even be sure what he was murmuring to him, but he hoped it was comforting or distracting. He couldn’t leave Keith alone when he was hurting like this.
“Hey, buddy, you’re okay. Look at me. You’re okay,” Lance heard himself whisper.
Keith sighed thickly and sagged in Shiro’s arms, but not in weakness. Lance jerked his hand back, widening his eyes, and he watched Keith look up at him, suddenly relaxed. A moment later, the pain returned to his eyes, and Keith’s gaze fell to Lance’s hand.
Coran understood before anyone else. He pulled Keith up out of Shiro’s worried arms, and he guided him closer to Lance. “Hold him,” he instructed, and Lance caught on after a second of stunned delay. He slipped his arms around Keith to hold him up.
At first, Keith was tense, one single nerve of pain. Gradually, he eased up, and then he curled his arms experimentally around Lance in return.
“Does it still hurt, Keith?” Coran asked.
Keith trembled once. Lance felt that acutely, intimately, against his chest. He stared wide-eyed over Keith’s shoulder and simply held him, unable to move while Keith pressed his face into Lance’s neck, both of them still sweaty.
“No,” Keith breathed, surprised. “What’s happening?”
The whole crew was as silent as death. Hunk and Pidge stared at Keith with worry. Allura’s eyes darted to Coran with sudden anxious understanding. Shiro’s jaw was tense, concerned and frustrated that he didn’t know how to help. Lance stood there with Keith in his arms, stock still, ashen-faced while Keith clung to him.
Coran sucked in a breath and rubbed his cheekbones before starting in on the details.
“Keith’s been stung by a red ignis, also known in some more irreverent circles as a love bug. Contrary to the name, it’s not all fun and games, though it is the least lethal thing you could’ve been bitten by on that planet.”
“A love bug?” Lance realized that Keith had spat out the name at the same time he had, and both of them started to recoil from each other. As soon as they weren’t touching, a muscle in Keith’s jaw jumped, and he reached for Lance’s hand. For the moment, he seemed content to stand on his own as long as he had some kind of contact with Lance.
“The effects will last between one to two movements,” Coran explained gravely. “When stung by the ignis, the victim becomes very attached to the person closest to them at the time. Every moment without some kind of physical contact is painful, and that pain only seems to get worse the further the victim is from the other person, or the longer they haven’t touched them. As we’ve seen, it’s... quite excruciating.”
Lance and Keith processed that side by side.
Keith had to be in nearly constant physical contact with Lance for a week or two.
Lance had nearly confessed his feelings, and then Keith had told him not to touch him. This was exactly the wrong day for this. Suddenly, Lance’s guilt for being a touchy, cuddly idiot for the past week weighed down on him twice as much.
“Can’t we just put him in a healing pod?” Lance croaked out. In the corner of his eye, he noticed Keith glancing up at him.
“Unless you want to be stuck in there with him, no,” Coran sighed. “Technically, he’s not injured. Even the pod won’t be able to process the venom more than his own body can, and it won’t keep him completely sedated when the pain gets worse. He’s fully functional and healthy. It’s just that any prolonged distance from you will pain him. Touching you will actually help him work through the venom faster. While he works it out of his system, Lance, you’re the only antidote he has.”
“So…” A frown started to darken Keith’s face, and he watched Coran cautiously. “What, we’re supposed to just be joined at the hip for the next couple weeks? Can’t I take something to dull the edge and just, I don’t know, deal with it?”
Ouch. Lance kept his face blank, but as guilty as he felt for making Keith feel weird before, it couldn’t be that bad to be close to him for a while.
Coran sucked in a breath through his teeth, unsure. “You could certainly try, but... I doubt it would work for long. Remember that this kind of pain is stressful on your body. That could make you sick for even longer, long after the venom wears off. It’ll be much easier for you two to stick together.”
“Is that why they call it a love bug?” Keith asked dryly. “Because we’re basically forced to snuggle for a week?”
Keith sounded so baleful that Lance’s hand was starting to sweat.
“Yes and no,” Coran answered, only more uneasy. “As long as you do remain in contact, you should start to feel more positive than negative. Mostly, the reports are feelings of contentment. So when a victim of a sting and their ‘antidote’ relax, it can actually be quite nice.”
Keith scoffed and took his hand out of Lance’s. Whatever discomfort that put him through, he worked through it.
“This is stupid,” Keith growled. “We have work to do. I can’t just hold someone’s hand while I’m fighting and showering and sleeping and eating.”
So this was how badly Keith didn’t want to be close to Lance. He had tears drying on his cheeks, and he refused to just hold Lance’s hand to keep it from getting worse again.
That’s fair, Lance thought, even though it stung. He wouldn’t want Keith to touch him unless he really wanted to, anyway.
Keith stalked off down the hallway, and Lance stared at his hand for a long, dumbstruck second.
Pidge whispered an astonished curse under her breath. Hunk looked to Lance, worried, and Allura fidgeted with her hands. Shiro sighed heavily. No one was in the mood to make light of this.
Coran put a hand on Lance’s shoulder, making him start.
“Lance, you might want to be close by to him,” Coran suggested gently. “In case he changes his mind.”
“He clearly doesn’t want me close by,” Lance mumbled.
“It's not like that. He needs you right now.”
Lance glared weakly at the floor, and as the situation soaked in, he couldn't keep back the small, humiliated warmth touching his cheeks. He had hoped to hold Keith's hand under less drastic circumstances. More willing circumstances.
‘Don't touch me' kept ringing through his head.