“What, again ?” Pidge said in disbelief as Keith started hacking up gunk on the way to breakfast.
“Obv-viously,” Keith coughed irritably, his abdominals still sore from the last time he was sick.
“Did you catch something on that mission yesterday?” Pidge studied Keith with intense scientific interest. He shoved her face away with maybe a little more force than necessary, burying his free hand in his pocket.
“Dude, no offence? But you’ve gotten sick practically every time we’ve visited a planet for weeks now.” Hunk shook his head and Keith shot him a glare.
“Yeah, what’s with that?” Lance chimed in, looking up from inspecting his nails. “Do Galra have shitty immune systems or something like that? Seems kinda off-brand for them.”
“Maybe it’s just half-breeds,” Pidge suggested as they walked into the common room.
“Coran!” Hunk sang out. “Keith needs more Altean Robitussin!”
“Yeah, again ,” Keith growled, not sure who he was more pissed at—everyone being annoying and making his already considerable headache worse or his own body for betraying him.
“I’m starting to get worried about you, Keith.” Shiro’s brow furrowed in concern. “I feel like you haven’t been yourself for a while now.”
Keith rolled his eyes and coughed into his elbow. “Come on Shiro, look at me. I’m more myself than I’ve ever been, apparently.” Keith threw his arms apart to indicate his recent transformation in a dramatic move more suited to Lance than the usually reserved red paladin.
… Maybe Shiro had a point. But Keith wasn’t about to admit that.
Shiro sighed, sounded resigned to Keith’s bad temper. “Alright Keith. Will you at least let Coran run a few more tests to see if we can get to the bottom of this?”
“ More tests? I’m not a fu—a freaking guinea pig, Shiro. I’m sick of frigging tests.”
“I know you are, but—”
“No! I’m fuck—I’m fucking fine , Shiro! Leave me alone!” Keith shouted, ears quivering. Storming out of the dining hall felt good, and had the added benefit of saving him choking down goo he was never hungry for.
Rolling back under the sheets of his bed Keith squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to maybe get a few more minutes of rest before he was inevitably dragged to the medbay.
Keith had always been an insomniac, so he was well used to functioning on too little sleep. But lately what had been a troublesome but manageable condition had worsened into this; barely three hours a night, for weeks and weeks and weeks. Keith was aware that was probably why he kept getting sick, but he knew from experience he could only wait out the insomnia, wait for exhaustion to overwhelm him and settle him back into a healthier rhythm.
Coughing pathetically into his pillow, tears squeezing out of his eyes as he choked on phlegm, Keith prayed it would happen soon.
Coran’s medicine took care of his illness overnight, but that night had been just as shitty as all the others. Keith awoke feeling grey and cloudy, like his head was stuffed with clammy cotton wool. The headache that never seemed to leave him these days beat in his temple like usual, and suddenly Keith wanted to cry. Gasping in a huge breath Keith held it, focusing on the pressure above his heart rather than the squeezing around it. He didn’t even know what he was upset about—did sleep deprivation make you sad? It had never happened to him before.
When the immediacy of his feelings had faded somewhat Keith dragged himself out of bed, feeling overwhelmed surrounded by his own memories. Trudging up to Observation Deck 7Δ Keith struggled to unstick his thoughts from his skull, which was still full of fog.
Slumping down in front of the window Keith tried unsuccessfully to rub some of the everpresent soreness from his neck and shoulders. Heaving a great sigh he raised his eyes to the view, staring for a moment as the sight of the stars brought that feeling crashing back into his gut.
Tearing his gaze from the glass Keith buried his face in his knees, curling up and trying to regulate his gasping breaths. Distantly he wondered at the source of these emotions, seemingly unconnected to any thoughts, but more of his attention was devoted to riding the waves crashing over him.
Keith had no idea how long he sat there, shivering cold despite the moderated conditions, but eventually the sound of footsteps registered in his consciousness.
Curling up tighter Keith wished the person away with all his strength, fear clawing up his throat at the thought of being at the mercy of another in this moment of vulnerability.
The footsteps stopped.
“Figured you’d be in here, man.” Lance’s voice filtered in through Keith’s cloudlayer, making him flinch despite the mild tone. “You missed breakfast, which is whatever, but Shiro was hoping to talk with you about something. Doesn’t look like you’d be up for it right now though, huh?”
Keith’s eyes opened and he blinked into the darkness of his arms. Lance... wasn’t going to force him?
Lance let out an exaggerated grunt as he lowered himself beside Keith, somehow managing to keep quiet for a full five minutes before speaking.
“You okay dude?”
Keith swallowed, ears flat to his skull. The time for pretending to be fine had passed several minutes ago when he’d refused to uncurl from the fetal position, but a huge part of his psyche was still demanding he find a way out of this.
“Mn,” was all he managed, barely voiced and muffled by his arms, but a response nonetheless.
“Yeah,” Lance sighed, as if that had made perfect sense. He cleared his throat. “Yo. Not that I like you or anything, but do you want a hug?”
“You don’t like, have to, obviously, but…” There was a quiet sound as Lance rubbed the back of his neck. “Hugging is good when you feel crappy. It’s like, brain chemistry and shit.” Keith sucked in a big breath. “So… you in?”
Keith raised his head and looked out at the stars again. That big greyness inside tripled in size, filling up his lungs, sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Frowning fiercely against it Keith turned to Lance, hands fisted in his sleeves.
He was completely unprepared for the sight of Lance sitting there, expression a little awkward but mostly honest, head tilted in invitation. It blew through Keith like a powerful wind, stirring up the clouds and rattling his shutters. Lance must have seen something in Keith’s face because he raised his eyebrows and unfolded his arms, holding them open with a guileless smile.
Something in Keith snapped. Maybe it was his strings, he thought, because he immediately collapsed forwards, face crashing painfully into Lance’s shoulder, hip banging the floor as he fell against his chest.
Lance let out a quiet oof as he was hit with Keith’s weight, but his arms didn’t hesitate to wrap around him, gathering Keith in and squeezing him just tightly enough, holding him together.
The sensation was almost overwhelming. Keith shuddered as Lance’s cheek came to rest on his hair, his body a burning furnace compared with his own. It felt so good and right Keith felt his eyes burn, his trembling arms coming up to clench in Lance’s shirt, pulling on him, needing him closer.
Lance’s breath was warm in his hair, and Keith’s tears were warm on his neck, and then the darkness was warm when he settled into it.
Keith surfaced from his nap slowly, but it wasn’t the sticky, clinging slowness of the sleep deprived. Rather, he became aware of himself in stages. First the glowing sense of comfort in his belly. Then, the soothing warmth all along his front. Eventually the ache of his hip on the floor made it through and Keith blinked his eyes open, remembering where he was.
His eyelashes brushed Lance’s neck and the other boy made a quiet sound. “You awake?” he murmured softly into Keith’s hair.
“Y… yeah,” Keith said in wonder. It felt a little like a dream, but there was no doubt that he was here, on the floor of the small observation deck, wrapped in Lance’s arms. Sitting up slowly Keith squinted against the light instinctively, but there was no headache shooting through his temple. Turning to face the view Keith felt a familiar awe as he took in the breathtaking sight, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
The smile only grew as he bent backwards in a huge stretch, his muscles feeling pliant and relaxed.
“Feeling better then?” asked Lance, reminding Keith of his presence.
Keith could have sworn he had never felt better in his entire life.
“Yeah,” he declared, beaming at Lance, who looked back in pleased surprise. “A million times.”
“That’s—That’s great, man!”
Keith laughed and nodded. “Yeah. You wanna go eat? I’m starving.”
Grinning Lance leapt to his feet and pulled Keith up with him.
“Let’s do it.”
That day Keith ate five bowls of goo, a record only just shy of Hunk’s. After joining on group training with more enthusiasm that he’d had in weeks Keith crashed for a full thirteen hours, awakening feeling like a new person.
He dropped back easily into his usual pattern of seven hours a night, making up with Shiro and going planetside without fear for more than a week.
On night eight he had some trouble falling asleep, but that wasn’t unusual for him. If he was a little irritable the next day he blamed it on pre-mission jitters.
Day ten he had some unexplained muscle soreness, and his sleep still hadn’t fallen back into pattern, but Keith wasn’t one to dwell, so he powered through his training despite everyone being completely annoying to him that day. Growling to himself as he lay in bed that night an uncharacteristic tendril of dread had him hoping he wouldn’t fall ill after the mission tomorrow.
“Oh my god!”
“Hold on buddy!”
Keith tried to answer the frantic voices in his ear but only managed a groan, blood bubbling on his lips. He’d taken the Galran commander out, but not before taking a significant amount of damage from his laser sword. He had no idea how close the others were, but he was fairly certain he couldn’t walk.
“Keith!” came his name again, but this time it wasn’t over the coms. Struggling to raise his head Keith caught sight of Lance skidding into the room, scouting for enemies even as he sprinted towards his fallen comrade. “Keith! We’ve got to get you in a healing pod. Can you walk? Shit, it doesn’t look like it.” Still rambling to himself Lance carefully slid his arms under Keith’s shuddering form, lifting him against his chest as gently as he could. Pain still lanced through him as they moved, but something in him relaxed as he rested his head on Lance’s shoulder. “This might hurt, but I’m going to run, okay?” Lance commanded, worry and fear humming just beneath the surface. “Keep the pressure on your wound.”
Closing his eyes against the pain Keith pressed more firmly over his stomach and turned his dirty face into Lance’s neck. Things were starting to grow fuzzy around the edges, only the throbbing of his injury keeping his conscious, but somewhere deep down beneath all that he felt like maybe it was worth getting hurt to feel Lance’s arms around him again.
Keith’s stint in the healing pod was one of the longest yet, but at least this meant Lance had almost gotten over making jokes about cradling Keith in his arms by the time he awoke. Not that Keith would have minded—the healing pod must have helped with his other symptoms as well because he was feeling really good.
It turned out the guy he had killed had been someone really important, and the paladins were flat out for the next several days running defence. By the end of the week everyone was tired and grumpy.
Lying awake in bed in the wee hours of the morning Keith hissed in distress. Throwing himself on his stomach he buried his face roughly his pillow, only to flop onto his back a few moments later, feeling wide awake. With a grunt of frustration Keith slammed his fist down on the mattress again and again. Morning was already so close and he wasn't even close to sleepy, in spite of the exhaustion settling in his bones. Would he ever be able to sleep well again? In that moment it felt like an impossible dream. Feeling tears of frustration prick the backs of his eyes Keith threw himself to his feet, unable to stand the oppressive quiet of his bedroom for a moment longer.
Wandering the halls like a ghost Keith found his feet taking him towards the kitchen. Maybe a hot drink would make him feel better, he reasoned, rolling his tight shoulders and rubbing his stinging eyes.
A surprised yelp made him snap his head up as the door slid open.
“Ah geez, you scared me dude!” Lance grumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. There was a bowl of goo in front of him, but it seemed as though he was merely stirring it endlessly without eating any.
Keith didn’t reply, dragging himself over to the beverage dispenser and trying to remember which button made the tea he liked.
“So why are you awake?” Lance asked, voice appropriately hushed for the early hour.
Keith just grunted and clicked at random, deciding any drink was good enough.
“Have you been sleeping okay? No offence my man, but you have looked like shit for a few days now. You’re not sick again are you?” Lance had walked closer to Keith during this concerned speech, and Keith barely resisted the urge to sock him in the stomach for bothering him.
“I’m fine ,” he growled, chugging the mug of tepid liquid without tasting it and roughly shoving past Lance.
Or at least, he tried to. As soon as their shoulders brushed Keith felt something uncurl from his rigid spine and his ears twitch up. Ignoring this reaction—would his body ever stop being weird?—Keith took another step, but then Lance’s hand was on his shoulder, his pinky brushing the bare skin of his neck, and that tiny point of contact held Keith frozen.
“Are you sure? I’m just trying to help, man.”
Keith swallowed. He still couldn’t make himself move away. “Why are you up?” he snapped defensively.
“Had a nightmare.” Lance shrugged. “Happens occasionally. Is that what’s up with you? Bad dreams?”
“Have to sleep to have bad dreams,” Keith muttered, too distracted by skin-on-skin to watch his words.
But rather than jumping on his confession Lance simply hummed sympathetically and squeezed his shoulder. As the gesture fizzed through Keith’s body he remembered the last time he and Lance had been alone together. Lance hadn’t made fun of him then, he remembered. In fact…. he’d hugged him… and Keith had had the best sleep of his life.
“Does this happen to you a lot? Is there something you do that helps?” Lance asked, thumb sweeping back and forth on Keith’s scapula, warm even through the fabric of his shirt. He tilted his head, expression concerned, waiting for a reply like he wasn’t slowly unravelling Keith with every swipe of his thumb.
Keith tried to swallow, but his throat was too tight. Looking down and away he felt his ears flatten. Huffing out a breath Keith steeled himself to pull away and leave, but the thought to where he was leaving to , of returning to his silent bedroom to lie awake for another four hours, stopped his breath. Flicking his eyes to the side to peer at Lance he found only concern and pity—or was it empathy? The dark smudges under Lance’s eyes were almost a match to his own. Squeezing his eyes shut Keith tried to make himself go—and then he was leaning into Lance, shoulder against his chest, burrowing his head under his chin and gripping the fabric of his sleeve so tightly it should have ripped under his claws.
“Oh,” Lance said, voice tinted with mild surprise, arms coming up to wrap around him without hesitation. “Does this help?”
Keith shook his head, nose dragging against the warm skin of Lance’s throat, but it wasn’t a denial. Freeing his arm from between them Keith turned fully into the embrace, wrapping an arm around Lance’s waist and squeezing desperately. Lance responded by holding him tighter and Keith realised he was shaking, almost too badly to stand, clinging to Lance like a lifeline.
After a few minutes in the silent kitchen Lance yawned wide enough to make his jaw crack and Keith bit his lip in preparation to let go.
“Mmn. Mind if we take this back to my room?” Lance hummed, voice thick with sleep.
Keith tensed, unsure, but Lance’s hand against his back started dragging up and down in a soothing wave, and he yawned again, seemingly not even aware of the way he was touching Keith. It all presented a very non-threatening picture, and when Keith allowed himself to imagine it—lying in Lance’s bed, his arms around him, the soft cadence of his sleeping breath in his hair—he found he wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.
“Okay,” he whispered, lips moving against Lance’s collarbone.
“Okay,” Lance mumbled, sounding half asleep already. Shuffling back a half step Lance released Keith, one hand sliding down to curl gently around his forearm, and then he was leading Keith back down the hall, rubbing sleepy tears from his eyes.
“Mn, come on,” he said as they entered his room, finally letting go of Keith to crawl under the sheets. Standing awkwardly by the bed Keith stared down at Lance, perfectly visible in Keith’s improved night vision, lashes fluttering softly against his cheek. Sighing as he sensed his hesitation Lance rolled onto his side and held the blanket open, not bothering to open his eyes. Heart in his mouth Keith gently slipped in beside him, barely suppressing a gasp as Lance snuggled against his side and wrapped a strong arm around him.
Judging by his breathing Lance fell asleep mere moments after that. Keith tried to stay awake a little longer—to take stock of this strange position he found himself in, to savour the feeling of another person’s warmth wrapped around him—but he had no chance. Not even two minutes after getting into bed Keith felt his thoughts slip away, lulled by the rhythm of Lance’s heartbeat.
Blinking awake to the sound of a groan and movement beside him Keith turned his head to find Lance mid-stretch, hair ruffled and eye-bags all but vanished.
“Morning sunshine!” he grinned, poking Keith in the side until he let him up.
Keith didn’t have the wherewithal to respond before Lance had disappeared into the adjoining bathroom, leaving Keith with just his fading warmth in the sheets.
Swallowing thickly Keith sat up, hand coming up to soothe a headache that wasn’t there. He felt like a million dollars, better than he’d felt since—Keith bit his lip. Since the last time he and Lance had hugged.
Could touching really cure illnesses? Was this some weird Galra thing? Keith felt stupid just for thinking it, but three times made a pattern and there was no denying that he felt happier and healthier than he had in a long time.
“You look better!” Lance chirped as he exited the bathroom, hair sitting properly once again. “Did you sleep well?”
“Uh… yeah.” Keith’s voice cracked a little. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, really well. Um, thank you.”
“You’re welcome! Having someone there helped me as well!” Lance grinned at him, and Keith had never been more glad their ‘rivalry’ had waned somewhat in the past few months. But then his sunny expression dropped into something more serious and Keith felt his stomach clench. “So, did you want to talk about it? You were kind of a mess last night—and it’s actually not the first time I’ve seen you like that, man. Are you really okay?”
Keith looked away. His instincts were screaming at him not to let anyone know of his weaknesses, but the larger part of him understood that if his hypothesis was true he was going to need to tell someone , or else he wouldn’t be able to continue being an effective paladin.
“I... about that…” Keith’s mouth twisted as he fought to put his thoughts into words. Seeming to sense his discomfort Lance sat down beside Keith and smiled at him encouragingly. “For a couple months now I’ve been... unwell? I don’t know. I get sick really easily, I can’t sleep , my body hurts and have no energy…”
“And you’re about a thousand times more grumpy than usual,” Lance prompted with a grin.
Keith frowned. “I… guess so. Um, but the other day after you… you know. Hugged me or whatever. I felt better.” Keith swallowed and glanced quickly at Lance. “A lot better.”
Lance frowned. “You mean, on the observation deck?”
“Yeah. And then, after I was injured and you—”
“Cradled you in my arms.”
“— carried me back it happened again. I thought maybe it was the healing pod but…”
“...now you think it was the cuddling,” Lance finished with a confused tilt of his head, making Keith wince at his choice of words.
“...Yeah. You remember what you said that one time, about brain chemistry...?”
Lance’s eyes widened. “Oh! You mean—? You think you’re so touch-starved it’s making you sick? Is that a Galra thing?”
Keith shrugged and looked away, feeling his cheeks heat. Of all the weird alien attributes to have he had to get one this humiliating.
“Well that’s awesome! We can fix that easy!” Keith’s breath stuttered and he felt something like hope flutter to life in his chest. “The team will be happy to cuddle the crap out of you, man,” Lance continued, and Keith felt that hope get crushed out.
“N-No! You can’t tell the team!” Keith blurted, ears flat to his skull.
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t want them to know! It’s bad enough that I’m all purple and furry. My Galra side nearly broke the team up once, I don’t want them to see any more of it.”
“But you aren’t—”
“I said no , Lance! Promise me you won’t tell them!”
Lance looked shocked, but he swallowed, searching Keith’s eyes for something.
Whatever it was he must have found it, because his shoulders slumped and he looked away. “Alright,” he said quietly. “I won’t tell.”
Keith relaxed and blew out a breath. “Thank you.”
Lance nodded glumly and then straightened up. “So I guess you’ll be needing all you cuddles from me then.” He smiled and flexed an arm. “Excellent choice. I’ll have you know I’m the best cuddler in this quadrant—as far as anyone knows.”
Keith huffed, caught between burning relief that Lance was going to help him and shivery embarrassment. “Don’t call it that, asshole.”
“What? Cuddling? But isn’t that what it is?”
“Shut up. Just say ‘hugging’ or whatever, Lance.” Keith shoved his shoulder lightly, but couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face and down into his stomach.