Keith is used to taking care of himself. He’s had no one else to rely on his entire life—or even if he had, he hadn’t trusted them more than he trusted himself. And he supposed that’s the bottom line. He knows he can take care of himself, and no one else can do a better job of it.
That’s why, when earlier that morning a severely sore throat came on suddenly, he quietly took some pain relievers and went about his day without a word to anyone. It’s a rare, quiet day when the castleship is hovering in a quiet corner of space and there are no aliens to fight and no planets to save. Everyone is spending it the way they always do when they find themselves with a bit of free time: Shiro strategizes, cleans his Lion, trains, and does general productive things, Hunk cooks and laughs with whoever feels like talking, Pidge is on their laptop for the majority of the day doing tech things that Keith doesn’t understand, and Lance—well, Lance has taken up new habits recently. A week or two ago he’d be sleeping, probably, or eating Hunk’s food, or looking at god-knows-what on the holopad Pidge calibrated for entertainment. Now, though, he hangs around with Keith. Which is annoying and endearing at the same time.
Today, it’s much more annoying than endearing. As the day drags on, Keith feels steadily worse. His throat is killing him and what started out as a minor headache is now a sharp throbbing behind his eyes and his body is starting to ache. The medicine he choked down earlier isn’t doing jack shit. It isn’t that he doesn’t want Lance around, because he really does, but right now he just wants to be alone more than anything. And Lance’s voice doesn’t really help the headache. He loves him, truly, but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes he’s downright obnoxious.
“Are you sure you don’t want to play Go Fish?” he asks for what must be the seventeenth time.
“Yes,” Keith repeats, and flips to the next page of the Altean book he’s skimming. It’s on a holopad, which translates the writing to English, but he isn’t actually reading it. He picked it up more as an excuse not to talk to anyone. He can’t really focus on anything except the searing, stabbing pain that knifes his throat every time he swallows.
“You’re such a stick in the mud.” Lance is lying on the couch in the rec room upside down, his hair brushing the floor. “I’m boooored.”
Keith doesn’t dignify this with a reply. He just shivers and pulls his jacket tighter around his shoulders.
The door slides open with a hiss and Shiro leans in. “Hey guys, time for lunch.”
“Oh, goodie!” Lance flips himself over easily and hops the back of the couch like it’s nothing.
Keith, on the other hand, has to stifle a groan as he sets the pad aside and hoists himself up with what feels like a herculean effort. He follows them to the mess hall even though the very thought of eating right makes his stomach roil. Maybe he can just choke down a couple mouthfuls of goo or whatever Hunk’s dished up and excuse himself to the training deck. He’s got a long withstanding habit of forgoing meals to disappear, so nobody should have a reason to be suspicious. Except maybe Lance—he gets pissy nowadays if Keith ditches him without a word. Honestly, Keith should’ve known when they decided to start going out that he would be clingy. Usually he doesn’t mind it (no matter how much he pretends otherwise), but there are times when he’d rather be alone. He’s working on getting Lance to understand that.
They’re the last ones to arrive at the table. Keith sits beside Lance and leans back in his chair while Hunk starts bringing out the food. He wraps his arms around himself under the guise of crossing them grumpily and tries not to visibly shiver. Was it always so cold in here?
Lance nudges him, holding out a bowl of…some type of food. He doesn’t recognize hardly anything he eats anymore. This looks especially fancy, though—an orange stew-looking dish with spices and foreign vegetables on top—and Hunk looks proud. Keith almost feels bad about the nausea that rolls through his gut at the sight of it. He takes the plate with shaking hands and wonders if he’ll actually be able to force himself to eat even a few bites.
Everyone’s talking and laughing across the table, and it all goes over his head. Everything sounds strangely loud and he stares longingly at the door, wondering how much time he should wait before taking his leave. He wants out of here, away from the noise and the food and the people. Without even realizing it, he sinks down in his chair, pressing his spine into its tall back. His throat is causing him indescribable agony. He aches all over and a cold sweat has broken out on his brow and his back and he’s shaky and weak and, shit, he doesn’t feel well at all. He should…he should really leave before someone notices.
“What?” His head snaps up and Lance is staring at him, and has been for a while now, if his concerned expression is anything to judge by.
“Are you okay?” His voice is low, not meant to be overheard, and there’s a gentleness to it that Keith doesn’t hear very often. “You look like you’re about to hurl.”
“I’m fine,” he grinds out. Fuck, he didn’t know he was that obvious. If his idiot boyfriend picked up on it, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of them notice. The very last thing Keith wants is for anyone to make a big deal over this when he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He hates being the center of attention, anyway.
“You’re not eating.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Lance raises an eyebrow. “You barely ate breakfast. How can you not be hungry?”
“I don’t know,” he snaps. “I’m just not, okay?”
Lance looks mildly offended, and maybe a little bit hurt. Keith would feel worse about it if he wasn’t currently busy battling lightheadedness and nausea. He doesn’t have it in him to worry about Lance’s feelings right now.
“Jeez, chill out. I’m just makin’ sure you’re okay.” The brunette is frowning sharply, disapproval in the downward turn of his mouth but concern shining through his eyes.
Somewhere deep down, Keith is touched that Lance cares so much. But largely, right now, he wants nothing more than to be left alone. After thinking it over for probably a few seconds too long, he decides it’s probably better to comply rather than resist. So he takes a deep breath and scoops some of the orange goop—whatever it is—out of his bowl with a spoon and shoves it into his mouth. Under normal circumstances, it would probably be delicious. It has the consistency of applesauce and tastes vaguely of potatoes, something Keith would usually enjoy, but right now he just wants to gag. It takes a considerable amount of effort to swallow, and to do it without wincing at the fire that burns in his throat. He’s never felt an ache this bad, like someone had run sharp nails down it over and over again. His eyes water, but he looks up at his boyfriend with what he hopes is a triumphant expression. “Happy, mom?”
Lance rolls his eyes, but the smirk at the corners of his mouth tells Keith that he sold it. He doesn’t know why he feels a twinge of disappointment under the relief.
Somehow, he manages three more mouthfuls before the pain get so bad that he knows he’ll retch if he tries to force any more down. So he stands, abruptly, and picks up his bowl. “I’m going to the training deck.” It’s probably pure stubbornness that he’s able to speak normally while stabbing pain knifes through his windpipe with each syllable. “Thanks for the food, Hunk.”
“You hardly touched it!” Lance says.
Keith puts a hand on the back of his chair to steady himself. He’s dizzy and weak, but he thinks he manages a pretty convincing glare. “I’ll finish it later.” And he doesn’t stick around to see if anyone else has protests.
Once he’s out in the corridors, a safe distance away from the dining hall, he stops and leans heavily against a wall. He’s beginning to feel a bit out of breath, which is concerning since he hasn’t done anything remotely strenuous all day, and there’s sweat soaking his back. He inhales deeply, desperate to fill his aching lungs, but all it manages to do is set off a coughing fit that shakes him nearly to the floor. It hurts. His throat feels like it’s shredding and tearing as coughs rip through it over and over, and it stings so badly that tears well up in his eyes. When it’s finally over, he’s bent over at the waist, one hand clinging to a divot in the wall.
He wants to lie down. Bed has honestly never sounded better in his entire life, but if he lies down now he knows he won’t be getting back up anytime soon, and then people will come looking for him and he’s still not ready for that kind of attention. He can wait until tonight when everyone goes to sleep. For now, he needs to get moving. Working out is supposed to help when you’re sick, right? It’s worth a try, anyway.
His head swims as he walks to the training deck. He’s not sure he’s ever felt quite like this before. Sure, he’s caught plenty of colds that knock him out for a few days, but he’s never felt this…this kind of weariness before. His very bones ache and weigh him down like they’re made of cement. His muscles burn and it hurts to move. He’s slick with sweat and yet he’s freezing, shivering at every little draft that makes its way through the corridor. And he can’t find any relief for his throat, no matter how many times he swallows. For a brief second, it occurs to him that something might be very wrong, but he dismisses it quickly. It’s just a bug. He’ll sleep it off, and it’ll be fine.
The training mat looks daunting when he finally gets to it. He really actually doesn’t want to train, but he forces himself to re-lace his boots and summon his bayard anyway. The lights are too bright when he walks out into the middle of the room and calls for the training sequence to start. Sharp pain prickles through his skull, but he just swipes a hand across his eyes and focuses as best he can on the gladiator bot materializing before him.
When he dodges the first strike, he’s still convinced that some exercise will do him good, that he’ll feel better if he can just work up some momentum. But when he lashes out at the bot with his blade for the fifth time and misses again by an embarrassingly large margin, he’s not so sure anymore. He’s feeling worse instead of better. His head isn’t clearing as it normally does when he gets his heart rate up, and his movements are clumsy and uncoordinated. It registers that this is probably dangerous, but he can’t quit. He can’t stop when he hasn’t even made it past the first level.
There’s a tingling under his skin. His head, unlike the rest of his body, feels practically weightless and is spinning like a top. When the gladiator lands a hit on him, followed closely by another, it doesn’t even feel like it’s his body the weapon is striking. He wobbles on his feet, regains some semblance of balance, and lashes forward again. This time, somehow, his blade connects with the robot’s arm. Keith feels the jolt of metal hitting metal all the way up his arm, and it hurts. But he strikes out again, over and over, not giving a thought to form or technique. The gladiator fights back with a mechanical rhythm that he knows by heart, but for some reason he can’t remember it right now. His bayard feels impossibly heavy. The fact that his arm shakes when he raises it is beyond frustrating. If it weren’t for his gloves allowing him to grip the hilt despite his palms being slick with sweat, he wouldn’t be able to hold it at all.
The room is spinning, the floor tilting sickeningly under his feet. He can’t see the gladiator anymore. Is he still moving? With the way the world is rocking wildly around him, he can’t even be sure. A hit from out of nowhere lands on his shoulder. Then he’s struck in the side. Then, suddenly, his feet are no longer on the ground and he’s distantly aware of his back hitting the mat with a solid thud. He can’t breathe. There are white pinpricks of light blooming across his field of vision and his ears are ringing shrilly and he can’t breathe.
The lights spin in fast, blurry circles above his head and his stomach roils. He can’t feel his limbs, only a faraway throbbing and tingling. He can hardly see, but after a few moments of blinking and squinting he’s able to make out a silhouette hovering over him, blocking out the glaring overhead lights. It blurs in and out of focus and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t see any details.
“Keith, hey, answer me! You’re freaking me out, are you okay?”
His breath comes back slowly in short, tortured gasps that wheeze in and out of his throat loudly and painfully. With it, his vision slowly starts to clear and the ringing in his head begins to die down. It takes a worryingly long time until he’s able to comprehend the fact that it’s Lance who’s bent over him, pushing damp hair back from his face and talking urgently.
“Lance…” The name leaves Keith’s mouth in a breathless whisper.
“Keith. Hey, hey.” Lance’s fingers run through his hair over and over. “Are you okay?”
Keith’s chest heaves tremendously as he sucks in lungful after lungful of air, desperate to rid himself of the dizziness that’s making his head spin. Unfortunately, all the air hitting the back of his raw throat throws him into a coughing fit. He coughs and coughs and coughs until he’s gagging violently, and he still can’t breathe and now he’s feeling like he might throw up.
Lance drags him up into a sitting position and rubs his back, but if he’s saying anything, Keith can’t hear it over his own retching. He reaches out until his fingers find Lance’s shirt and he clings to it for dear life as he rides out the fit. When it finally begins to die down, he feels close to death. Any energy he may have had has left him completely. He’s soaked with sweat, shivering, too hot and too cold at the same time. His throat is in unbearable agony and his head throbs with sharp, pulsing pain.
It takes a while to realize he’s being cradled against Lance’s chest and that they’re not alone on the training deck anymore. There are five more faces crowded around, closer than he wants, but right now he feels so terrible that it doesn’t even bother him.
“Keith.” Shiro’s kneeling in front of him, brow knit and intense concern in his eyes. “Hey, can you hear me?”
Keith blinks a few times. No matter how hard he squints, his vision refuses to focus. “Y…yeah.” And wow, is voice a mess.
Even with his swimming vision, he can tell how relieved Shiro is at his reply. “Good, okay. How are you feeling?”
Keith lets his eyes close. “Bad.”
Lance’s fingers are in his hair again. It’s calming.
Shiro huffs out a breath that’s probably meant to be close to a laugh. “I’ll bet. Are you nauseous? Think you’re gonna throw up again?”
At that, he opens his eyes. Again? His gaze flicks down and he notices the puddle of vomit on the floor in between his legs. His stomach turns in his gut at the sight, but he’s coherent enough to know that he’s not sickeningly nauseous anymore, so he shakes his head.
“Can you tell me what you are feeling?”
“My throat hurts,” he croaks. “I’m cold. Dizzy.” At this, Lance’s arm tightens around his shoulders a little bit more.
Shiro hums, a frown deepening the creases between his brows. “Well, you’ve got one heck of a fever. Let’s get you to bed, okay?”
Lance and Shiro work together to get him to his feet, but the white dots immediately cloud his vision again and his knees buckle.
“Whoa!” A pair of arms immediately scoop him up and off the ground. Shiro’s, he realizes dully. His stomach flips at the sudden change in orientation.
“Is he okay?” Pidge’s voice asks from somewhere behind them, sounding startlingly alarmed.
“I think he will be, with a lot of rest.” He can feel Shiro’s voice rumbling in his chest.
“Wait, so we can’t just stick him in a pod and wait for him to heal?” Hunk says.
“It doesn’t work quite like that, I’m afraid,” Coran says. “The pods can heal damage done directly to the body, but they can’t rid it of viruses or other intruders. I’m afraid illnesses have to be cured the old fashioned way.”
A cool, slender hand comes to cradle Keith’s cheek. “Don’t worry, Keith,” Allura says gently. “We’ll see to it that you get better soon.”
Keith is vaguely aware that he’s lucky he feels so out of it right now. Otherwise all this attention would be completely mortifying. Right now, though, the care and concern being heaped on him is…kind of nice.
Shiro and Lance are the only ones to take him into his room. They help him get out of his sweaty clothes and into something more comfortable. The shirt that’s slipped over his head is soft and smells kind of like Lance.
When he’s laid down in his bed, he would have fallen asleep instantly if not for the rough palm that smooths tenderly over his forehead.
“You scared the shit outta me.”
Keith’s eyes blink open in alarm. Lance’s voice sounds wrong. It’s breathy and serious and quivers slightly, almost like he’s choking back tears. It doesn’t sound like Lance at all. Keith feels a tug of worry in his chest. He hadn’t meant to make him so worried. “I—M’sorry.” He wants to say more, but he can’t manage it right now.
Lance sighs. “Just…just rest, okay? I’ll yell at you later.”
Keith only has the energy to nod. Lance presses his lips to his fevered brow, and he falls asleep to the feeling of long fingers combing through his hair.
When he wakes, he only feels marginally better. He’s not quite so dizzy and a little bit of strength has come back to his limbs, but his head is still pounding and his throat is still killing him and he doesn’t even want to think about moving.
His room is dark, but he can make out Lance’s form at the end of the bed. He’s sitting in a chair, upper body splayed out on the mattress, snoring softly. Keith grins faintly. He looks cute like that, with his head pillowed in his arms.
He nudges the taller boy with his knee. “Lance.” His voice is nothing more than a ragged whisper and talking hurts, but he knows how hard Lance is to wake.
It takes a few more nudges before Lance is blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Huh…?” He sits up slowly and yawns before his gaze falls on Keith, and suddenly he’s wide awake and throwing himself to Keith’s side. “Keith! Hey, babe, hey.” His voice is uncharacteristically soft as he smooths dark locks of hair away from Keith’s face. He’s been doing that a lot, lately. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I just went ten rounds with Zarkon,” he rasps.
Lance winces. “You sound awful.” He leans over to the bedside table and picks up some device Keith doesn’t recognize. “I’m gonna take your temperature, okay?”
Keith merely watches as he positions the device over his head and presses a button. It emits a ray of green light that scans all the way down his face and neck before beeping twice.
Lance looks at the reading and frowns. “102.7. I guess that’s better than yesterday.”
“Yesterday…?” Keith’s brow wrinkles. Everything that happened before he passed out is fuzzy at best. “What happened?”
“I went to find you on the training deck after you ditched lunch to make sure you were okay and found you half dead on the ground.” Lance glares, and Keith is reminded of how intimidating he can look when he’s serious about something. “Why didn’t you tell me you were sick, Keith?”
He looks away from Lance’s intense gaze. “I didn’t think it was…serious or anything.”
Somehow, Lance’s frown deepens. “You were training with nearly a 104 degree fever. How do you not think that’s serious?”
Keith shrugs. “I didn’t want anyone making a big deal out of it. I can take care of myself.”
Lance balks. “Are you serious? Your idea of taking care of yourself when you’re sick is to spar until you throw up? The gladiator could’ve killed you.”
“Wouldn’t’ve killed me.”
“Yeah, because I got there just in time to see you get your ass handed to you.”
Keith tries to glare, but promptly decides that it takes too much energy and closes his eyes instead.
Lance sighs loudly. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You do everything else on your own anyway. I don’t know why I thought you might tell me when something’s wrong.”
Keith winces at the hurt in his boyfriend’s voice. He doesn’t…he doesn’t mean to alienate anyone, but it’s hard to shake old habits. Keeping things like his own personal suffering to himself is as natural as breathing. He doesn’t know how to make Lance understand.
“I’m sorry,” he says, hoping that the genuineness of the statement comes through. “I didn’t mean to—to worry anyone. I thought I could get through it.”
Something in Lance’s gaze softens. “You’re lucky you’re so sick. Otherwise I’d tear you a new asshole right now.”
Keith laughs softly. It quickly turns into coughing, and suddenly the worry that Keith is starting to really hate is back in Lance’s expression. The taller boy coaxes him onto his side and rubs his back.
Keith nods when the coughing tapers off.
Keith shakes his head. It’s very strange to see Lance being so soft and attentive, but he can’t say he doesn’t like it.
“Here.” Lance grabs something else off the table, and this time Keith recognizes it as an Altean cooling pack, usually used to keep food cold. Lance places it on his forehead and Keith shivers.
“It’s bringing your fever down. Leave it on.” Lance gets to his feet and makes for the door. “Hang on for a second.”
Keith can’t explain the intense panic that suddenly floods his chest. “Where are you going?”
His boyfriend gives him an odd look. “To grab you some food and water. Coran has this special soup he says you need to eat. I’ll be right back.” He lingers, staring at Keith’s face with one hand on the doorframe. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t…” Keith chokes, and tries to pass it off as a cough. “I don’t want to be alone.” It’s strange when he realizes how true it is. But he feels awful and he’s a little scared and for the first time in his life, he acknowledges the fact that, right now, he’s craving company. Specifically Lance’s company.
The look that comes over Lance’s face is probably one he’ll never see again. It’s full of love and tenderness and maybe a little bit of concern. He immediately crosses the room again and sits on the side of the bed, hand coming up again to touch Keith’s face. “Okay. I won’t go anywhere.”
The amount of sheer relief that Keith feels is kind of alarming.
Lance uses a comm link to ask if someone else could bring some food to the room, and once he gets confirmation, he kicks off his shoes and crawls into the bed to lie at Keith’s side.
There’s a fluttering in Keith’s stomach. “What are you doing?”
“You said you’re cold.” Lance snuggles up to him, worming one arm under his neck and resting his chin on the top of Keith’s head. “Is this okay?”
Keith is tempted to roll his eyes. If he wasn’t suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of safety and comfort that being held like this evokes, he definitely would have. Lance has always been the biggest cuddler Keith’s ever met. Now, though, he shimmies a little closer to Lance’s lean body and revels in the warmth he provides. “Yeah. It’s fine.”
Neither of them mean to fall asleep, but they do. When Shiro arrives at the room, he doesn’t have the heart to wake them and quietly puts the food back in the fridge.