Of all the planets they’d visited, Lance thought that Kagella was probably the worst one he’d ever had to stand on with his own two feet. He knew it from the second he stepped out of his lion and the humidity fell over him like an extremely heavy and extremely damp blanket that the whole mission was going to be miserable, and nothing had proven this to be incorrect thus far.
The planet itself was completely marshland, and Lance hated every swampy, soupy inch of it. An alien-equivalent of cypress trees covered most of the marsh they were trekking through, towering high above them. Thick ropes of vines strung between the branches of every tree, often connecting to adjacent trees, and formed a rather shoddy canopy. They provided some shade from the planet’s two suns, but there was no escaping the moisture.
A bead of sweat rolled down the side of Lance’s face and soaked into the collar of his under-suit.
“I hate this,” Lance muttered for third time in as many minutes.
“We know, Lance,” Pidge replied.
“You just don’t seem as miserable as I do.”
Pidge sighed loudly. “We are, we’re just quieter than you.”
He grumbled in response, but said nothing further.
Even Keith, who was the least comfortable with removing any sort of armor during a mission, had tucked his helmet underneath his arm. Every now again, he’d swipe his sticky bangs out of his face, not that Lance was watching.
The fact was, they should’ve just taken a lion. It would’ve shortened the mission significantly. Dismantling the Galra post had taken all of twenty minutes, and on a remote planet like this, it had been a barely stocked post anyway. The Kagellan leadership, along with Allura and Shiro, had been adamant that they walk, to avoid tripping any of the post’s security measures traveling by lion. Lance still thought they could’ve easily flown in, blasted the base to bits, then flown right back out.
But no. They were still walking. Still trampling through marshy, overgrown vegetation that seemed to have an agenda of its own, and that agenda was to trip Lance with every other step.
The mission hadn’t even been considered dangerous enough for the full team: Shiro had remained aboard the castle ship, still recovering from a nasty concussion he’d received the mission prior. That was the only redeeming part of the day for Lance, who knew he wasn’t in his top form for this particular excursion. He’d missed almost as many shots as he landed, and was sulking about it. The heat made it feel as though his brain was melting.
Only a few minutes later, one of the plants was successful in pulling Lance to the ground. He landed hard on his hands and knees, grunting as the pain jolted up his wrists.
Fed up, he shouted, “Fuck! It’s all the worst parts of Florida with none of the Disneyland!”
Keith, who had been leading the pack a few feet ahead of Lance, wheeled around spitefully. “Are you even trying to watch where you’re going?”
“No,” Lance scoffed. “I’m doing this for the attention.”
He stood and brushed off the damp leaves sticking to his legs. Hunk came up from behind Pidge to pat Lance on the shoulder.
“We’re almost back, buddy. Just hang in there.”
Keith had already turned back around with a scoff of his own and started walking again. Lance kicked some water in his direction, but it splashed only a few inches in front of his own foot.
With all the commotion, they’d missed the rustling sounds from the underbrush. Now, as it grew louder, they could all hear the unmistakable sound of something coming towards them. Lance and Hunk shifted back towards Pidge, flanking either side of the smallest Paladin. Keith paused several feet ahead of them with a hand flexing toward the bayard on his hip.
The rustling stopped. Keith was still, but his hand clenched tightly on his bayard.
In a burst of murky water and branches, a large, stringy creature appeared, scampering up the side of the tree closest to Keith and hissing its displeasure. It looked like the lovechild of an overactive vine plant and an absolutely humongous lizard, complete with a spiky face and a long slender body that was all sharp edges and angles. It clung to the trunk at eye-level with four spindly legs that tapered off into clawed feet.
Lance started, shouting a little as he pitched back towards Pidge, who caught him with a grunt. Hunk leapt in front of the two of them but hardly contained his own shout of surprise.
Keith was silent, poised. He unclipped his bayard and activated it in one smooth motion.
Keith was quick, but the creature was quicker. As soon as the bayard ignited, it hissed again and its neck unfurled a colorful collar of frills. A stream erupted from its mouth, spraying Keith in the face and knocking him backwards. He collapsed to the ground as the mutant-lizard took off towards the sky, scrambling up the tree so fast that it tore deep gouges into the trunk.
“Holy shit! Keith!” Lance yelled, rushing towards the red paladin. Hunk matched him in speed as they trampled over grass and branch to get to Keith, who was holding a hand to his face but slowly attempting to climb to his feet. Behind them, Pidge was furiously cramming her helmet back on and shouting for assistance from the castle team.
Hunk slung Keith’s arm around his shoulders and helped pull him upright as Lance knocked his hands away from his face to inspect the damage. Keith’s face was wound up in a puckered expression like he’d just bit into a lemon and when he blinked his eyes open, they were completely bloodshot, but his face wasn’t obviously melting or burning or any of the other horrible images Lance’s mind provided. He seemed more pissed off than anything.
“Are you okay?” Lance asks, clasping Keith’s shoulders and shaking him slightly, which probably wasn’t helpful but made Lance feel a little better.
“It just stings a little,” Keith growled. “Now get off me.”
He knocked Lance’s hands away. Lance tried not to feel hurt by the action, but did anyway.
“Dude, we have no idea what that thing was. It could be poisonous! Venomous? Whatever! One of those things!”
Hunk started walking briskly, pulling Keith along with him no matter how much the shorter paladin strained against it.
“Lance is right, we need to get you checked out fast.”
“We’re about two minutes outside of the village. Shiro and Allura are meeting us there with a Kagellan med crew,” Pidge said.
Lance trailed behind Hunk and Keith, barely keeping up and feeling completely useless. Not that there was much for him to do, Keith needed the med crew more than anything, but Lance couldn’t escape the emotions.
The four of them stumbled quickly through the remaining marshland until the tree line opened up into a large clearing filled with a villages-worth of small huts and living structures.
Shiro and Allura stood anxiously at the village perimeter and a few steps behind them, a crew of two Kagellan medical workers waited. They rushed forward as Hunk and Keith appeared. The trek back to the medical hut passed in a blur, with Keith huddled between the two Kagellans at the head of the pack. One of the workers, via translator, asked for a description of the creature, which Pidge promptly recounted.
They all crowded into the same small room and Keith was ushered onto an exam table in the middle. He shifted uncomfortably, most likely because he was the center of attention and hated it, but seem otherwise unaffected.
“How are you feeling?” Shiro asked, stepping up as close as he could get without being in the way of the medical team. The team in question was hovering over Keith and using scanner to check his vitals. The Kagellans, a reptilian race that Lance could only describe as human-shaped crocodiles, were careful to not touch Keith with any part of their spiky hands.
Lance wondered if they knew they were in the presence of a Galra hybrid, or if they would care at all. The Galra occupation on the planet had been rudimentary at best, but the team certainly hadn’t mentioned anything on the way over.
“Annoyed,” Keith replied, “But otherwise I feel fine. I’d like to leave.”
“We have to make sure you’re okay first,” said Shiro sternly. Keith rolled his eyes in an uncharacteristic show of noncompliance toward his adopted brother.
“His vitals look normal,” Allura interjected. Keith’s temperature and heart rate, which were slightly higher than typical humans, were in fact steady and normal.
“Huh,” Hunk said, “Maybe it didn’t do anything. That would be a first for us, right?”
Keith being unaffected was indeed a strange concept. It felt like half of their time in the healing pods was a result of some random space thing interacting negatively with their biology. Pidge got the space-mumps after picking up a cool rock (which she still had somewhere in her labyrinth of a room). Hunk had discovered a new allergy upon eating an alien fruit that caused him to break out in hives. Lance, not that he ever wanted to remember it, took a drink from an unfiltered stream and had glowed a soft purple color for two weeks afterwards.
They’d all had multiple space-related mishaps in their tenure as paladins, basically. So Keith coming out of the unscathed would be a first.
One of the Kagellans, who had small plastic name badge that appeared to say “N’rrok,” started talking so fast that the translator had trouble keeping up with them. Lance nervously pressed the earpiece further into his ear, which had little affect on anything.
“Your paladin was attacked by a spit-salamander,” (Lance highly doubted the name was translated correctly) “which expels a combination of mucus and saliva as a threat response.”
“Gross,” Hunk interjected.
N’rrok continued nonplussed, “For Kagellans, this is a deadly toxin. It would appear that this is not the case for your species, as your Keith appears unaffected.”
It was silent for a beat before the room erupted into a mishmash of voices, each of them shouting different questions.
“I’m sorry, did you say deadly?” Lance’s voice rose an octave as he asked.
“How do you know he’s unaffected?” Shiro demanded.
“What if Keith dies?” That was Hunk, who typically jumped to that conclusion.
“How long does the toxin take to set in?” asked Pidge, logically.
“Do you have any documented cases of Galra being attacked by this creature?” Allura asked, her voice rising above the rest of them.
N’rrok and the second Kagellan exchanged a look as their translators (on loan from the castleship) caught up with the flurry of voices. Once they had processed each question, N’rrok made an “Ahh” sound.
“In fact, we do have records of Galra encounters with the spit-salamander. It is non-deadly to them, but does have the side effect of truth-telling.”
It took a moment for Lance to process the words. “Wait a second.”
Keith groaned and dropped his head into his hands.
“Just to clarify,” Pidge asked, turning towards Allura and Shiro, “They are saying that Keith has essentially been dosed with a truth serum, yes?”
“It would appear so,” Allura answered with a frown.
Keith’s only commentary was an emphatic and muffled: “Fuck.”
Just this once, Shiro let it slide.
It wasn’t until much later on the castleship, once they had briefed the Kagellans on the destruction of the Galra base and then promptly took their leave of the planet, that the team was able to get a full grasp of the toxin’s effects. Lance insisted on calling it “truth spit,” but no one else joined him.
After running a series of tests on a blood sample, and asking a few pointed questions, Coran was able to give them more details.
(“How are you feeling?” Coran asked upon the team’s arrival.
“Sick of that question,” had been Keith’s reply.)
The toxin only forced Keith to tell the truth when he was asked a question, which meant that majority of the time he was a silent as…well, as silent as he normally was. The effects would only last for about a week, but if Keith tried to resist telling the truth, it caused him physical pain.
“Like a knife in my brain,” he had described when prompted, then frowned because the answer had be inadvertent.
“What’s your favorite color?” Pidge immediately asked.
“Orange,” Keith answered. He glared at Pidge, who was smiling gleefully.
“I honestly didn’t expect that,” Lance said.
Keith looked towards Coran rather helplessly. “Will you make them leave?”
The three youngest Paladins were ushered out of the med bay almost instantly.
“So much for one of us being unaffected,” Hunk said as the three started down the hall. “I think I’m gonna go make some of his favorite snacks, to cheer him up. You guys want to help?”
“I’m in the middle of a project, so I’ll see you guys later,” said Pidge.
Lance floundered. “I, uh, also have a thing. An important thing. No baking for me.”
Hunk rolled his eyes, but thankfully didn’t call him on it.
Pidge was on time to dinner that night, for once in her life. Lance assumed, and was proven correct rather quickly, that this was only because she wanted to continue interrogating Keith.
“I don’t know? I really like strawberries.”
“Name of your first crush?”
“Jacob. Why are you doing this?” Keith hunched over his plate of goo (and baked goo chips, his favorite).
“Because you never tell us anything!” Pidge accused.
“Pidge,” Shiro warned.
“They’re innocuous questions,” she said, her face a mask of innocence. “For example, Keith: what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“Not alone.” Keith stood up, his chair scraping against the ground, and fled the dining room.
No one spoke, but Shiro put a hand to his forehead.
“You understand that this is a complete invasion of his privacy, right? You’re just going to drive him away.”
Lance got the distinct impression that Pidge had asked Keith things that he hadn’t even felt comfortable sharing with Shiro.
Pidge had the decency to look ashamed. “You’re right. I’ll apologize.”
No one spoke much for the rest of dinner, and all Lance could picture was the vulnerable, closed-off look on Keith’s face as he ran away.
Lance was sure that Pidge had been completely and totally sincere about apologizing, but it was became clear that she was going to have a bit of trouble actually doing it.
For the next several days, the team only caught brief glimpses of Keith, usually his back as he fled from their very presence. As soon as someone entered a room, Keith was on his feet and running directly out of said room. Once, Lance spotted him in the training room going through his usual drills. He stopped in to say hi, mention something like, “hey man, we’re not going to be dicks about this anymore,” but by the time the doors had opened all the way, Keith was no where to be found. Lance was still trying to figure out how he managed to get away or whatever hiding spot he had crawled into.
“Has anyone actually spoken to Keith?” Lance asked one evening as he, Pidge, and Hunk were all lounging about the common room.
“Nope,” Pidge said, the ‘p’ popping loudly on her lips. She didn’t even look up from her tablet as she continued, “I haven’t even said sorry yet. Every time I try, he runs away.”
“That’s it,” Lance said, throwing down the Altean magazine in his hands. “I’m going to find him right now.”
He did not, in fact, find Keith right away. He searched every known part of the castle and even peeked into a few of the unknown places to no avail. He spent the better part of the evening searching, with nothing to show for his efforts.
Finally, after three frustrating days of Keith evading everyone, Lance cornered him in the Red lion’s hangar. Keith, who had been inspecting some damage on one of Red’s hind legs, attempted to flee into the lion itself, but Lance herded him to the back corner of the room before he could make it far enough. Keith may have been fast, but Lance had grown up with three siblings.
“What is your problem? You won’t even let any of us try to talk to you!”
“I have abandonment and trust issues and I don’t feel comfortable revealing my secrets to anyone.” Keith’s eyes had a crazed look in them, like a cornered animal. Lance realized his mistake instantly.
“Shit, dude, I’m sorry. I was gonna explain that we’re gonna leave you alone, and then I did the one thing you were afraid of us doing. I’m really sorry.”
Keith shifted his weight from one foot to another and eyed Lance warily. “Why did you trap me then?”
Lance huffed and ran a hand through his hair. “To be fair, you didn’t leave us much of a choice. Pidge has been trying to apologize for three days, but you can’t even stand to be in the same room as us!”
Keith blinked. Then he blinked again.
“Yes!” Lance cried, more than a little desperate. “Shiro gave her one of his very disappointed-Shiro looks and guilt-tripped her into stopping. It was the quickest I’ve ever seen her admit that she was wrong about something. It was honestly kind of incredible.”
“He didn’t – why did –“ Keith inhaled and exhaled slowly. “That wasn’t necessary.”
“Uh yeah, it kind of was. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see you until it wore off.”
Keith crossed his arms before responding. “That would be easiest.”
“Dude, we’re teammates. You’re supposed to trust us!” At Keith’s look, Lance backtracked. “Okay, so, we messed up a little, but we’re working on it and we’re gonna do better.”
Keith sighed, then reluctantly nodded. “Alright, I believe you.”
He didn’t exactly say, “I’ll stop running away every time I see another human face,” but it would have to do.
Of course, by the end of the week, Lance still hadn’t seen Keith very much. It felt like instead of avoiding the whole team, he had started to avoid Lance specifically. Which, what the fuck? What had Lance done to deserve that?
As a result, Lance made himself into a shadow of his usual self. He stayed quiet and calm and still – or at least, as calm and quiet as he could be. He was still a chronic fidgeter, there was no helping that. But he thought he was doing a pretty good job of leaving Keith alone during this trying time.
By the time the end of the week had rolled around, however, Lance had only been in a room with Keith like, three times. And that was including that very second, as Lance had joined the rest of the team in the med bay while Coran tested Keith for the toxin.
A blood test would have been more definitive, but they decided to go with the quickest route first. Shiro cleared his throat before saying, “We’re going to ask you question to test if it’s still in your system, is that alright? This is the only time I’ll tell you to lie, if you can.”
Keith nodded once. Pidge raised her hand as volunteer and Shiro, after a moment’s consideration, gestured for her to continue.
“Who’s your favorite out of all the paladins?” she asked, almost bored.
“Lance,” Keith replied. His face turned bright red instantly and within seconds, he was on his feet and running out of the med bay. Nobody had the wherewithal to follow him, all still reeling in shock from his own response to the answer.
Lance was still frozen in place, heart racing. He’d said it so easily, so openly, that Lance’s chest ached just at the thought.
“Well,” Lance started. His voice came scratchy and he had to clear his throat twice before starting again, “I guess that proves it, right? He couldn’t have possibly been telling the truth.”
“Lance,” Hunk said, stepping towards him.
“No,” Lance interrupted, waving his hands at Hunk. “It’s totally fine. I don’t know why he chose me for the joke, but it was certainly effective. I’ll give him that.”
“I don’t think he was lying,” Pidge said, at last recovered from the shock of Keith’s admission.
“C’mon guys,” Lance laughed. “That’d be ridiculous. There’s no way I’d be his favorite.”
The team remained silent, each of them staring at Lance with varying levels of concern and pity. Even Shiro was looking at him like he was in on some sort of joke that Lance wasn’t getting.
“Oh my god,” said Lance.
“Lance, don’t freak out.” Hunk approached slowly, holding his hands out as if Lance was an easily spooked animal.
“Hold on.” Lance held a finger up. “Hold on, I need to process this. Okay. Alright, I’m processing. It’s processed. I think I need to find Keith.”
“I don’t think he wanted to tell you like this,” Shiro said quietly.
“Holy shit, don’t say anything else! Nobody say anything! I need to find Keith first, and then we can all have a family group talk, or whatever, but whatever is being said needs to be said by him.”
And then, taking a page out of Keith’s book, Lance took off running.
“Go easy on him!” Pidge shouted after him.
Lance wasn’t even sure what she meant. Go easy on him? What did they think Lance was going to do? Punch him out with his mouth – wait. They didn’t get it. They didn’t realize. A laugh erupted out of him before he could stop it. Did they think he was going to reject Keith right now?
The first three spots he tried, including the training room, were completely empty. Although it felt too obvious, Lance tried Keith’s room next, banging on the door impatiently. From inside came a muffled noise that might’ve been “go away!”
“Keith, open the door,” Lance insisted. He knocked again to punctuate his request.
There was silence from within the room.
“Keith, I know you’re probably like, embarrassed, or whatever but you really don’t need to be. Listen, I just want to talk. I want to know if you were you just joking or not. It’s okay if you we-“
The door opened before Lance could finish.
“Seriously? You think I was joking?” Keith’s face was still bright red, and his hair was disheveled like he’d been pulling at it. In the hallway lighting, it almost seemed like his eyes were red. “You really think that low of me?”
“No!” Lance said frantically. “I didn’t think you were saying it maliciously, I just meant to say that I understand. I get that I was the most obvious wrong answer, and that I’m not upset!”
Keith scoffed and closed the door between them.
Lance decided that the proper reaction would be to knock obnoxiously on the door in an attempt to annoy Keith into opening it. After what felt like several minutes without this working, Lance sighed and rested his forehead against the door.
“Keeeeeeith,” Lance whined, his voice muffled by the metal. He listened to his own heart beating frantically, the sound pulsing in his ears, and tried to think like Keith. Why was he hiding? What compelled him to run away instead of just communicating with the team? Of course, Lance knew the answer. Keith had told him already, just a few days ago in the hangar. With a deep breath, Lance made a choice:
“My favorite color is blue, but you probably could’ve guessed that. My favorite food is coquitos, although they’re technically a dessert. They’re only good if you like the taste of coconut. I’m afraid of a lot of things, like never going home again or something happening to me out here and my parents never getting any answers about it. My favorite paladin is, well, it’s you. I just…thought I would tell you that.”
The door slid open. Keith grabbed Lance by the front of his jacket and tugged him forward. This time, when the door closed, Lance was on the inside.
“If you’re trying to be funny, it’s not working,” Keith said. From this close, Lance could see that his eyes actually were bloodshot like he’d been crying.
“I’m not joking,” Lance said slowly. “If I could take a truth serum to prove it, I would. In a heartbeat.”
“So you’d believe me.”
“No.” Keith shook his head. He was holding Lance close enough that he could hear the rustling of Keith’s hair against the fabric of his jacket. “Why am I your favorite?”
Lance was nearly shaking with nervous energy. “Why am I yours?”
“I asked first.”
Lance should’ve expected that. He reached up and removed Keith’s hand from his jacket, holding on for just a second to long before he let go and they dropped back to Keith’s sides.
“You’re my favorite because you work the hardest and expect nothing for it. Because you if there’s a problem you can’t fix right away, you always come back to it. You always try to solve it a different way. You don’t freeze up when you’re afraid, like I do. You’re my favorite because when you laugh at my jokes, I feel like I’ve won something. Even if you’ll never admit that you think I’m funny.”
“You’re not,” he interjected.
Lance grinned “I’m hilarious, and you know it. But I’m not done, so shush. You’re my favorite because you always enjoy Hunk’s cooking even though there are only so many things someone can do with space goo. You never get our memes or references, and when you’re confused, you scrunch your nose up. You’re my favorite for a lot of reasons. I even like your stupid hair.”
Lance took a deep breath, prepared to continue, but Keith was blushing harder than he’d ever seen someone blush before and held up a hand to stop him.
“No more, I get it. I believe you.”
They were both silent for a moment while Keith audibly hyperventilated.
“Sooo, you’re not gonna leave me hanging right? You’re gonna tell me why I’m your favorite now?” Lance tried to chuckle and play it off like a joke, but on the inside he was a bundle of nerves.
Instead of listing anything, Keith gripped his jacket again and pulled him forward. As far as first kisses went, this one was a bit clumsy and unpracticed. Lance was frozen in shock long enough that Keith started to pull away. That kicked his brain into gear: he gripped the fabric of Keith’s shirt tightly in his fists and pulled him right back in. Keith made a surprised noise against his mouth that made Lance’s knees feel a little wobbly.
Keith’s lips were chapped, which was almost comforting. It was such a predictable thing, and Lance had imagined the feeling more than a few times. As they kissed, Keith’s hands released Lance’s jacket from their death grip until his palms were laying flat against his chest. It felt far too soon when Keith took a step back, putting a few inches of space between them.
“I’ve tried to imagine what your face might look like if I ever did that,” he murmured. His fingers trembled where they still lay pressed against Lance.
He looked thoughtful. “Never got it right. It’s better.”
And then, while Lance was stunned silent, he said: “You said sorry.”
“Uh,” Lance said. “What?”
“You apologized. In the hangar. That’s why you’re my favorite. You care about all of us. You’re not perfect, but you always say sorry when you push my boundaries.”
All Lance could say was, “Oh.”
“There’s more,” Keith said, floundering slightly. “There’s a lot more. I’m just – well, I’m not good with words. I can try –“
“No, no, it’s okay. That wasn’t me being disappointed.” Lance took Keith’s hands in his own. “I know you’re not good with words. I’m not asking for a speech. That’s not you, and it’s okay. I just want to make sure that we’re on the same page, y’know?”
Keith relaxed. “Okay. I – thanks. We are, on the same page, that is.”
“I know,” Lance grinned. “Thank God for that. Otherwise this would’ve been really awkward.”
He pulled Keith in for another kiss and felt the other boy go limp in his hands. Keith melted into him, his hands coming up to rest awkwardly on Lance’s shoulders. It would take some practice, Lance thought, for him to really get used to this. Luckily, Lance was totally down for lots of practice.
Lance could tell when Keith got a little too overwhelmed when he pulled away completely and took a few steps back towards his bed. It was a clear line in the sand, and Lance wasn’t looking to cross it. He just hoped that someday, he and Keith would be able to move it together.
“Is it alright if I stay? I’ll be quiet and I won’t touch you. I just want to sit with you for a little longer.” Lance’s voice felt weak.
But then Keith smiled just a little and nodded. Lance clambered onto one end of his bed and watched as Keith sat down slowly one the opposite.
That quiet moment, just between the two of them, was all Lance needed. The rest they could figure out later.
Except for one thing. “Hey, is it alright if I ask one last question?”
“Yes,” Keith said, squinting at Lance warily.
“Why did you say me, earlier? I mean, it’s clear that the toxin is all gone. You could’ve lied.”
“I, uh.” Keith’s shoulders bunched up. “I honestly forgot. I got so used to telling the truth, and it just slipped out.”
Lance watched his face carefully before asking his next question. “Are you sorry that it did?”
“No.” Keith answered firmly, leaving no room for doubt. “It seemed to work out well for me, in the end.”
His next smile was shy and Lance’s chest clenched a little at the sight of it.
“Yeah,” Lance replied with a small smile of his own. “I think it did.”
He reached his hand across the bed, palm up to the ceiling. Not demanding or anything. Open. An invitation. Keith crossed the distance and lightly tangled his fingers with Lance’s.
And if they both blushed a bit at the newness of it all, nobody had to know the truth.