"Status check," I said into my helmet mic. I landed on my feet in the thick, red dirt next to the Black Lion, still wired with the energy of a battle high. "Allura, how do we look from up there?"
"All the Galra who were able to fly have fled, Shiro," Allura said, from her post on the Castle of Lions. "However, some ships have landed and the soldiers are headed into the city. I don't imagine they're up to anything good."
"Probably going to cause as much pain and mayhem as possible," I said grimly. The Galra weren't evil by nature, but the Empire encouraged cruelty in their solders and put their most sadistic subjects where they could do the most damage. I was intimately familiar with the kind of damage a Galra soldier could do.
"Our job's not over, guys," I said. "We've got to help the Shuma protect their city and we can't take the Lions in. Too many civilians could get caught in the crossfire."
"I thought they had an army," Hunk said.
"They've got a bunch of farmers with pitchforks," Keith said. A tightness in my chest eased a little. I had seen the Red Lion land safely, but it was still good to hear Keith's voice and know he was okay.
"Keith's right. They're not experienced soldiers," I said. "But farmers with pitchforks can do a lot of damage, especially defending their homes. We need to rendezvous with their Captain of the Guard so we can help them coordinate their forces."
"We've got bigger issues," Lance said. "I'm in the city square and there's some serious structural damage here. The Shuma are busy pulling people out of the rubble. They're sitting ducks."
Shit. Okay, Takashi. Think. I took in a slow breath, hoping the pause sounded confident as my mind raced through plans. "Okay," I said finally. "Lance, get to high ground so you can take out any attackers from above. See if you can get a count on how many Galra we're dealing with."
"Got it," Lance said.
"Allura, you and Coran try to raise the Captain of the Guard on the radio and keep an eye out for any returning ships," I said. "We don't want to be caught off guard."
"You got it," Coran said.
"Pidge - Pidge, you there?" I asked. The Green Lion had landed safely, but that didn't mean her Paladin was okay.
But Pidge replied quickly. "I'm here, I'm just running some scans. The shockwave had about a three kilometer radius, but the epicenter was outside the city. It doesn't look like the farms are badly affected, so we only need to worry about - here, I'll send a map." A map of the city popped up on my wrist computer and I studied it carefully. "The green areas should be safe to enter. The orange ones are burning and the red areas are structurally unstable, so get people to the green areas as quickly as possible. I've got a life scan going on-" an overlay popped up on the map with tiny purple, blue, and white lights "-and the Shuma have different skull density than us or the Galra, so the scan can tell us all apart. The purple lights are Galra, the blue are Shuma, and the white lights are us."
"Skull density?" Lance gave a low whistle. "Wow. Pidge. You are a huge nerd."
"Look, I've identified the densest person on the map," Pidge said. One of the white lights grew brighter.
"Hey. Wait. Is that me?" Lance asked.
"This is amazing, Pidge. You're a genius," I said. "I want you and Hunk to help with the rescue efforts. Stay alert, though. Don't forget there are hostiles in the area. Keith?"
"Yes, sir," he said. I smiled as the words made something in my chest tingle. We'd been together for months, now, but I would never get tired of hearing his voice.
"You and I will sweep for Galra on foot," I said.
"I'm on top of City Hall," Lance reported. "Your eyes in the sky, reporting for duty."
"I thought we were the eyes in the sky," Allura said, confused.
"Uh, well, I'm the lower eyes in sky," Lance said. "I'm the eyes on the hill"
"You're on a building," Hunk pointed out. "You're the eyes on... what's that, adobe?"
"I'm the eyes!" Lance snapped. I wondered sometimes if Pidge, Hunk, and Lance's natural ability to drop into sibling-like bickering was the result of growing up with siblings of their own.
"You are," I said quickly. "And we're lucky to have you." I'd desperately wanted a brother or sister when I was little. At one point I'd thought Keith could fill that role. It took a while after I crashed back into his life for me to realize my feelings weren't fraternal anymore. It turned out his feelings toward me had never been. "All right, guys, you've got your orders. Let's do this." I switched my mic to a private channel and started jogging toward the city. "Keith?"
"Shiro!" Keith said. I could hear a smile in his voice. "You okay? Black took a pretty bad hit up there."
"Got knocked around a little, but my helmet took the brunt of it. You?"
"I'm fine," Keith said. "Red and I dodged all the big stuff."
"You're a good team," I said.
"So are we," Keith said softly, and I could picture him with reddening cheeks and a small smile as he jogged toward the city, bayard in hand.
"We are," I said. "Next time we're on a planet that's not on fire, I want to take you out to dinner. Somewhere nice."
"I'd like that. As long as we get some time to rest first. Hey," his voice dropped slightly, shyness creeping in. I don't know why. He must know by now that I'll say yes to anything with him. "what do you think about a long, hot bath?"
"With you?" I grinned. "Absolutely. You still got those bath salts Lance gave you?"
"The raspberry ones? Yeah, I've been saving them for something special," Keith said.
"Is that why you didn't use them?" Lance asked. "I thought you hated my birthday gift!"
"Lance?" I asked, confused. I tapped at the communication controls on my wrist.
"Lance!" Pidge hissed. "Don't interrupt! They were being sweet!"
"Why would you think I hated it?" Keith demanded.
"I thought we were on a private channel," I said. My face was furiously red now. Nice job keeping your personal life private, Takashi. At least if any of the locals saw me, I could blame it on running in full armor. Though probably the locals didn't know what red faces meant on humans.
"I gave it to you six months ago and it's still in your cabinet!" Lance said to Keith.
"Shiro, I'm running a diagnostic and it looks like your comms have a short," Pidge said. "You still have the general channel, so as long as you don't take another blow to your helmet, you should be fine. I can fix it when we're back on the castleship."
"Why were you in my bathroom cabinet?" Keith growled.
"I needed space q-tips!" Lance said.
"The bath salts you gave me were quite lovely," Allura said.
"Aw, man, I want bath salts," Hunk sighed.
"Next time we go to the space mall, I'll get some for everyone," Lance promised.
"All right, guys, back to work." I'd reached the food stalls that bordered the southwest edge of the city. Two Galra soldiers tried to jump me next to a bracha grill, but I took them out easily. "I'm working my way toward the bell tower."
"I'm in the shopping district," Keith said.
"Is that where the big plume of black smoke is coming from?" Lance asked.
"Well, it's on fire," Keith said patiently.
"Thank you, Mr. Obvious. Look, I'm hanging with a couple of the guys here -"
"'Guys'?" I asked.
"Shuma riflemen. Except one's a woman and one's not a woman or a man, they're none of the above. Now that we've got a gender breakdown of the guys, may I continue?" Lance asked.
"Please do." I was more interested in the 'rifle" part than the 'men' part, but it was good to know Lance was standing with allies.
"Right. Keith, do you see that big building to the east of the big smoke plume? Orange brick with blue trim?" Lance asked.
"Hard to miss. It's pretty big," Keith said.
"It's a fuel depot. It's the central fueling station for, like, the whole city. Lotta very, very flammable fuel. Next to a big burning thing. You getting where I'm going with this?" Lance asked.
Yeah, I got it. "Keith, evacuate the area immediately. Do not engage with any Galra unless they hinder the evacuation."
"On it," Keith said.
"The Shuma sent a sweep through, but they don't have the scanners like Pidge's and visibility's low," Lance reported.
"Pidge, can you integrate your maps with the Shuma technology?" I asked.
"Maybe, if they've got the right hardware," Pidge said. "I've never worked with their tech before, though. They don't even have a base 10 numbering system. I mean, it makes sense, they have six fingers, of course they'll have base 6 -"
"Pidge," I said patiently. "Can you do it?" I generally liked hearing her ramble - it reminded me of her brother - but there was a time and a place.
"Thirty minutes," Pidge said. "From when I get access to their tech."
"Make it happen," I said.
"Pidge, I'm with the Captain of the Guard. Find me and we'll get you set up," Hunk said.
"Keith, I'm headed your way," I said. I passed two rescue operations on my way to the shopping district, but both seemed well under control. I did not encounter any Galra soldiers, but I did see a few purple lights headed rapidly out of town. Guess they didn't feel like sticking around for the big fireworks display.
I knew I was getting close when the smoke grew too thick for regular visibility. I pulled up the map on my wrist. Just a few scattered dots. Good. With luck we could get everyone out. There were two blue lights to my right, so I went that way and found two teenagers in the rubble of what had been an elegant metal sculpture. The explosion had twisted it and one of the kids was caught underneath. I took a closer look and saw that the kid wasn't pinned, exactly, but a crossbody strap - some local fashion - was twisted on a pipe. The other kid was frantically sawing at the strap with a scrap of metal he'd picked up. I stepped forward and glass crunched under my boot. The kid spun around and brandished the piece of metal at me. I lifted my hands. "It's okay, I'm here to help." His eyes darted over me. Too short for a Galra, too stocky for a Shuma, and wearing strange armor. He didn't seem to recognize me as a Paladin of Voltron, but after a moment he nodded and lowered his hand.
"Give me some space," I said. I knelt next to the trapped boy and used a mental command to fire up my Galra hand. The boy flinched. "It's okay," I said, in my most soothing voice. "I'm going to get you free." With my human hand, I grabbed the strap. I frowned. Too close to the kid's body to safely burn through it. I examined the metal bar it was caught on. With a quick strike, I sliced through the metal bar, giving the boy an opening to free himself. I stepped back and he wriggled free. His friend flung himself at the boy and they clung to each other. I gave them half a moment, then said, "Go. Get somewhere safe."
"Thank you," said the boy I'd freed.
"We are in debt to you," said the other one.
I never knew what to say when people said that. "Just doing my job," I said jovially and winced internally. You're a big nerd, Takashi, I thought, and then, Yeah, thanks, if you've got any better suggestions feel free to speak up. "If you head that way," I pointed, "past the school, you should be safe. They're setting up tents for evacuees."
"Thank you," they said again, and ran off.
"Keith? How're you doing?" I asked.
"Okay. I just got someone out of a hovercart whose door had fused shut," he said.
"Are they okay?" I asked.
"She's mobile," Keith said wearily. "I'd escort her to medical, but there's others still trapped."
"There are patrol carts doing sweeps outside the red and orange areas," Hunk said. "I'll let them know to look for her."
Keith exhaled and I could picture him nodding. "Thank you," he said.
"Guys, no pressure, but that fire's getting really close to the fuel depot, which is going to explode and take out half the town in about five minutes," Lance said.
"No pressure," Hunk muttered.
"We can work on Lance's motivational speaking later," I said.
"The big building to the west has two people in it," Keith said. I glanced down at my map, then peered through the smoke.
"The one with the red doors?" I asked. My chest tightened. It was right next to the fuel depot.
"It's got people in it," Keith repeated.
"Yeah," I said. I swallowed. You'd think I'd be used to this by now, this little ball of terror that fit in my chest just next to my heart. Keith always came back. I clung to that. "Hunk, can you send a hovercart as soon as he's clear?"
"There's still more-" Keith protested.
"One more, north of the fountain. I'm on it," I said. Northwest, really, two buildings away from the depot, with flames swallowing the front door. Well, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. I did a quick scan of the building and found a side door that wasn't yet on fire. The knob stuck, but I smashed out the center panel of the door with one solid kick and tore the rest of it open with my Galra hand. I was grateful for the helmet that protected me from the worst of the smoke. I hesitated, not knowing where to start searching, but someone called for help above me. I ran up the stairs and towards the voice.
"Help him! Please help him!" I found her in the bedroom. One wall was covered in a floral mural, now orange-gold in the firelight, with curls of paint peeling in the heat. A young Shuma knelt near a closet door and jumped up when she saw me. "Please help!" she begged. She stepped aside so I could see. I saw the eyes first, huge and round and frightened. The creature had fluffy orange fur and six long legs ending in great orange paws. It was trapped behind a fallen beam and was shivering in fear.
"Okay, bud, I got you," I said in my most soothing voice. I cut a u-shaped chunk from the beam to make enough room for the creature to escape. It dashed into the child's arms and tucked its head against her chest. She clung to it, and her sobs of fear turned to sobs of relief. "You can get out safely through the east door, then go north as quickly as you can." I gestured in the relevant direction as I talked. "A patrol cart will be looking after you." She nodded, and tried to speak, but started coughing. "Don't try to speak. Just get to safety," I said. "Both of you." I touched the creature gently and it meeped into her chest. She nodded and ran for the stairs.
"Shiro, I could use your help," Keith said.
"On my way," I said. "Hunk, I've got another one for the patrol carts. She's got a pet."
"Got it," Hunk said.
"Keith?" I paused at the top of the stairs to speak and watched the child run safely away from the building. "What's the situation?"
"They're trapped under an appliance. I'm not strong enough to lift it and my bayard won't cut through it," he said.
"So you need me to lend a hand?" I smiled and flexed my Galra hand.
I could almost hear him rolling his eyes. "Yes, I-" The rest of his words were lost in the explosion.
I didn't actually black out when the wall fell on me, but I took a hell of a blow to the head. Stars spun around my head like I was a cartoon cat. No; not stars. Sparks. Flames. I groaned. I needed to pull my head together and do it fast. Paladin armor gave me some protection from fire but it wouldn't last long.
"Keith, are you okay?" I asked, as I reacquainted myself with what was up and what was down.
"I'm okay," Keith said. "The north wall protected us from the worst of the blast and the shockwave moved the fridge, so I can get these guys free. Shiro, how are you?"
"Not bad," I said, taking stock. "Stuck under a wall, but I'm not badly hurt and I should be able to cut myself free. Seems like we got off easy."
"That wasn't the big one, guys," Lance said. "That was just a fuel pump. They're all shut off so they're not connected to the big tanks, but it means the fire's moving in. Shiro?"
"Same plan, then," I said. "We got our guys free, let's get the hell out."
"Shiro?" Keith echoed. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I can get myself out. Just get yourself to safety." The sooner he was safe, the sooner that ball of terror would ease up.
"Shiro?" Allura spoke up. "Please respond."
"I'm here," I said. I looked at my wrist screen, but I was definitely on the general channel. I tapped it anyway, and flipped through the channels as I spoke. "Hello? Can you hear me?"
"He's still on the scanner, but he's not moving," Pidge reported.
"I'm on my way," Keith said, and I could picture the way he was setting his jaw, the way he got when he made a decision and was determined not to let anyone sway him.
"No, bad idea," Lance said quickly. "That road's full of burning debris. You can't get through."
"I'll go around," Keith said.
"Don't. I'll be out of here soon," I said uselessly. I fired up my Galra hand and started cutting through the chunk of wall pinning me down. It looked like I would have to cut it into pieces.
"Going around takes you by the other fuel pumps, a.k.a. bombs in waiting," Lance said. "Bad idea."
"We'll send a hovercart and take you around via the food district," Hunk said.
"Not enough time," Keith said, his voice growing rough and desperate. "I'll go down the road. My armor will protect me."
I leaned forward to look out the house's windows and see how bad the situation was. A wall of flame raged in the streets. Paladin armor was tough, but I didn't know if it was that tough.
"Absolutely not," Allura said fiercely. Good for her. "Rendezvous with the hovercart and we'll bring you around the perimeter."
"I'm not asking permission!" Keith snapped.
"Blue!" Lance said suddenly.
"Huh?" Hunk asked.
"I'll get Blue and lay down some ice. Fire out, problem solved. I should've thought of this half an hour ago," Lance said. I frowned. Dropping a ton of ice on a bunch of structurally unsound buildings sounded like a bad idea. On the other hand, if it kept the fuel depot from exploding, the collateral damage might be worth it.
"Nope," Hunk said. "Bad idea. Don't do that. For one thing, you could knock that house down on Shiro."
"I won't," Lance said. "I'll put out the fires by the fuel pumps and the depot. It'll give us time to get Shiro out."
"Not gonna work," Hunk said. "You ever fry something up on the stove and it catches on fire, so you dump water on it." Yeah, I did that once, back at the Garrison. It ended badly.
"I don't cook, Hunk!" Lance said testily.
"Then listen to me. That's oil out there. Blue's ice beam is water. You dump a ton of water into oil and you know what you get?" Burning curtains and a pissed-off boyfriend. "Burning fuel splashed all over the city, including the evacuation tents." That, too. Yeah, I was with Hunk on this one.
"Where's Keith?" Allura said suddenly. Oh. no. I stopped slicing at the wall on top of me and glanced at my wrist screen. One white dot headed my way through a huge swath of orange.
"I'm getting Shiro!" Keith yelled into his mic, over the roar of flames.
"Shiro's fine!" Lance said. "It's Shiro! He's always fine!" Losing an arm and gaining a severe case of PTSD was fine?
"Keith, Shiro doesn't want you to kill yourself trying to rescue him!" Allura said. Listen to Allura, Keith. I don't, I really don't.
"I'm getting myself out!" I yelled.
"He's not moving," Keith said. "I'm not abandoning him." I tried to force my hand through the wood and metal faster. I hated how useful this hand was. Every time I saved my life or someone else's life with it, a nagging feeling at the back of my mind said I should be grateful to Haggar for it.
I'd said that to Keith once and he was furious. He said I owe her nothing. He pointed out that she and the Empire have done more damage to me and mine than they can ever repay. I looked around at the rubble and flames. All this destruction around me was their doing. They gave me this weapon to kill, but it was my choice to use it to protect.
Right now I needed to protect Keith by keeping him from charging into an inferno to save me. I doubled my effort to hack through the wall trapping me.
"Keith, don't do anything reckless! We're sending someone around to help!" Pidge said.
"Keith's middle name is 'reckless'," Lance muttered. Actually, it's Akira, but the error was understandable. "Look, I'm sure Shiro's going to pop up any minute and say-"
There was a brief silence, and Hunk said, "Say what?"
"I don't know," Lance admitted. "He was supposed to chime in with an ironically timed dry-yet-clever observation." All this and I'm supposed to be clever, too?
"How long until the depot blows?" Keith demanded.
"A couple of minutes, but the fuel pumps are the biggest threat," Pidge said. I tore through a layer of wood and flexed my legs, trying to break free. Not yet. I resumed cutting.
"Keith, retreat and find the hovercart immediately," Allura ordered. There was no response from Keith.
"He's making a rude gesture, isn't he," Pidge said.
"I can't get a good look through the smoke, but I think it's a safe bet," Lance said.
"Lance, can't you stop him?" Hunk asked.
"How?" Lance yelled. "I'm a mile away with a sniper rifle. You want me to kneecap him?"
"Let's everybody stay calm," Allura said. "Pidge, where is Shiro now?"
"He hasn't moved," Pidge said softly. "Princess, what if-"
"There's no 'what if'," Keith snapped. "I'm getting him out." He took a deep breath. "I'm going through the rubble by the fountain. Once I'm clear of that, I'll have nearly a straight shot to Shiro. Hunk, we need a hovercraft over here as soon as I get Shiro free. None of this is up for debate."
"All right," Allura said quietly. "We'll follow your lead." There was a lull in the conversation. I could hear the roar of the fire and the splintering of wood under my hand. Heat pressed in around me and I'd lost nearly all visibility. All I could see through the smoke was the glow of my hand.
"Coran," Pidge asked, after a moment. "How much heat can our suits take?"
"Oh, these things are tough!" Coran said, managing cheerfulness despite the circumstances. "They're built for all kinds of temperatures and conditions. Open space, deep oceans, small suns-" Suns?
"Suns?" Allura asked doubtfully.
"Little ones," Coran said. "Just little ones. But this fire's much cooler than the surface of any sun. A quick dip through a few flames shouldn't hurt our Red Paladin one whit." He was improvising, trying to calm us, and despite my skepticism, it was working. The ball of terror in my chest eased, shrank, and took pressure off my heart. This armor was a thousand times better than any fireman's gear back on Earth. It would let Keith get safely to me, and once we were together, we could handle anything.
"All right," Keith said at last. He was breathing heavily. "I think that's the worst of it. I'm gonna-"
The second fuel pump exploded.
"Keith!" I screamed. "Keith...!" and something hit me in the head.
I did black out that time. I think it was only moments later when I woke up to hear people yelling in my earpiece.
"Keith, please respond immediately."
"Hey, Keith, no napping on the job, buddy!"
My eyes snapped open, though there was still nothing to see but smoke. Something pressed down on me. "Keith!" I said, forgetting my comms weren't working. "Keith, please!" There was no response.
"Lance, what do you see?" Allura asked.
"The row of buildings north of the fountains has been flattened," Lance said. "Allura... the building where Shiro is - it's fallen down." Oh. Was that what was on top of me?
There was a moment of silence. "Let's find Keith," Allura said finally. "He and Hunk can retrieve Shiro. Hunk, are you still on your way?"
"Taking the scenic route, but yeah," Hunk said. "Trying not to drive directly through any fires."
"The scanner says Keith's northwest of the fountain," Pidge reported. "I don't see any movement."
The ball in my chest expanded, stretched, squeezing my heart and constricting my lungs. Keith was pinned down or unconscious (or worse, Takashi, you know it could be worse) and Hunk might not get here before the fuel depot blew. There was no chance of getting a look around in the smoke so I felt my way around instead. Lance was right. The building had fallen down on me. The piece of wall that was trapping my legs had also blocked the wall that fell down in the explosion, forcing it to fall at an angle, giving me a tiny bit of shelter from the rubble. It had protected me, but trapped me at the same time. It could take me hours to safely cut myself out of this place.
Think smart, Takashi. Is there another way out? I fumbled on both sides of me, then over my head. Left, right, up, down, nowhere to go, and Keith out there, maybe injured, maybe worse, definitely not moving in the center of a terrible fire with worse to come. Our suits wouldn't protect us forever.
Down. Wait. I rapped my knuckles on the floor beneath me. Did it sound hollow or was that wishful thinking? Did it matter? I was running out of time and options. The heat was nearly unbearable. I tried to imagine it as a hot summer day back at the Garrison, racing hoverbikes with Keith over the baked red rocks of the desert. But this flight wouldn't end at the little waterfall in the cracks of the north-facing rocks.
"Changed my mind," I said uselessly into the comms. "No hot bath. Cold shower. I'll just lay on the ground and let it soak me. You can lay there with me, Keith. Hunk, do you think you could make us ice cream?" There was no response, of course.
On the comms, Lance described what he could see through his scope. Smoke and rubble, mostly, and no sign of Keith. The place he'd fallen was obscured by the worst of the flames. Go, go, go. I sucked in breath, trying to calm myself. If I got this wrong, I'd bring the house down on myself. Don't rush it, Takashi. Do this right. I fired up my hand again and started cutting through the floor.
"Keith," I said. I didn't have any expectation of being heard, but it was the closest I could come to speaking with him. The boards over my head crackled with fire and ash drifted down like snow. "I don't think I've told you this, but I'm scared, all the time. I'm scared of being recaptured. I'm scared that I'll make the wrong call and the team will be hurt, or killed." It didn't matter that the comms weren't working. I was speaking too softly to be heard over the flames. "Keith, you scare me the most. If Pidge, or Hunk, or Allura, or one of the others died, it would hurt like anything. But I think - I think I'd survive it. Losing you, though..." I could feel that ball in my chest expanding, pressing on my heart and my lungs. I could visualize it, red-orange lines spidering over it, as the fire inside threatened to burst free. "...if I lost you, I don't think there'd be anything left of me. I'd burn from the inside out until I was nothing but a shell. Keith, you're my best friend, my family, and the love of my life. And I need you to do something for me. Please?" I paused, but of course, he didn't respond. "I need you to stay alive until I get to you. Because I swear to you, we both are leaving this planet alive." I slammed my elbow into the floor and the piece I'd been cutting broke free. I expected a long drop to the basement floor, but instead I landed about a foot and a half below where I'd been. Okay. Not a basement, a crawl space. I could work with this. I dropped onto my stomach and shuffled alligator-style toward a grate at the bottom of the outer wall.
I tore the grate out of the wall and squeezed through it. I'd expected it to be cooler outside, but as I drew myself to my feet, I saw the flames raging around me. Everything in me wanted to run away. Nearly everything. I checked my wrist map and walked toward the flames.
"Shiro!" Lance yelled suddenly.
I jerked my head up.
"Shiro? What?" Hunk asked.
"Where?" Pidge demanded.
"By the house that fell on him!" Lance said. "I mean, he's mostly ash and red dirt, but it's Shiro. He walks like Shiro." I have a walk?
"You can tell his walk?" Pidge echoed me.
"Yeah, he's like-" Lance said, and I could faintly hear his footsteps.
"You know we can't see you, right?" Pidge asked.
"Oh, I know what you mean!" Allura said suddenly. "It's in the shoulders."
"See?" Lance said. "It's Shiro. He's limping a little, but he's mobile." Who was limping? I was limping? I glanced down at my legs and realized I was favoring the left one. It didn't hurt, really. Maybe a dull ache. Something to get looked at when Keith was safe.
"Do you think he can hear us?" Hunk asked. "Yo, Shiro, wave for us!" I blinked, then threw up my hand.
"He waved!" Lance crowed. "Shiro's okay! Keith, dude, Shiro's okay!"
"I see him!" Pidge exclaimed. "His dot is moving."
"Hunk, help him to the cart as soon as you can," Allura said. "Until we know how badly he's hurt, it's best to assume he needs assistance."
"He's not going towards the cart," Pidge said.
Allura sighed deeply. "All right. Hunk, when you get there, bring the cart as close as you can and be ready to extract Keith and Shiro once they're free."
"On my way," Hunk said.
"The rifle guys say everyone else is clear of the blast zone, but us," Lance said.
"It's on Shiro now," Hunk said.
I didn't have time to wait for Hunk. I pinned Keith's dot on the map, set my wrist computer to audio guidance and plunged into the flames. Visibility was nil, unsurprisingly. I called up the sonic mapping on my helmet screen, which showed me a thin white outline of the objects around me.
"Blockage ahead," the audio guidance recited. "Proceed left or right." I shuffled left, trying to feel the ground for obstacles as I moved. I couldn't spot any breaks in the barrier in front of me. "Blockage ahead," the audio guidance repeated. "Proceed left or right."
"Shiro," Pidge said. "I'm going to assume you can hear me, cause otherwise I guess you're on your own. The Shuma use the town square for broadcast performances often enough that they've build cameras and sensors into the square. The cameras are offline - probably destroyed - but the multidimensional imaging scanners are still there."
"Pidge. Translate," Lance said.
"They do live 4D holographic shows by scanning the performers and combining the scans with camera images," Pidge said. "No luck with images, but I can get the - oh, hold on." I could picture her hunched over her keyboard, squinting at the screen as she concentrated. "There!" she said triumphantly. The thin white lines flicked and returned with a white mesh that covered everything, showing every corner and every groove. The barrier in front of me was a low wall, higher than my waist, but easy enough to cross now that I could see where to put my hands and feet.
I exhaled and said softly, "Pidge, you're amazing."
"Nice!" Hunk said.
"Shiro and Hunk, you've got imaging when you're in the town square," Pidge said. "I've sent the feeds to the castleship-"
"Got them," Allura said. "I'm pulling you up on screen now."
"So behave yourself, Shiro," Lance said sternly. The great thing about being on fire is that nobody can see you blush.
I switched off the audio guidance and picked a spot to start climbing through the wreckage. My foot slipped on the fifth step, when my foot went through a piece of wood that as barely more than ash. But I kept my balance and stepped more carefully after that, prodding each spot with the toe of my boot. I hated wasting even a fraction of a second, but I was no good to Keith if I broke my leg or worse.
"There!" Allura exclaimed. "To your left, Shiro." I glanced at my wrist map and turned to my left. The ball in my chest swelled and my lungs didn't have room for air. I could have walked over it and not known anyone was there if Pidge's tech hadn't picked up the shape of a body - of a person underneath it.
I crossed the last few meters in just a couple of steps and knelt next to the wreckage. "Keith!" I called urgently. I grabbed chunks of wall and roof in both hands. "Keith, please answer, baby, please, Keith." I pitched the chunks of rubble into what might have been a vendor's stall. "Keith, please." I tore the rubble off him, bit by bit, hoping to see the red of his armor beneath each stone. There was no red, here, though, nothing but orange and ash, so it took me a moment to realize that I'd uncovered his arm. I paused for a moment. "Keith?" I asked, covering his hand with mine.
"You haven't time to waste, Shiro," Allura said, and I remembered they could see me now. I nodded and kept digging.
He was out cold. I got him free of the rubble and I could see several deep gashes where something had shattered and sent the pieces flying into his legs. His left wrist might be broken, but I didn't see any indication of spinal injuries. Not that I had any choice about moving him.
I scooped him up in my arms and staggered forward, back the way I came. Flames roared around me. I couldn't hear the gravel under my feet and I couldn't see anything more than a foot away.
"Shiro, you're heading too far west. You need to go the right," Allura said. I turned to the right and took few steps. "No, you've overcorrected. Is your map working?" I couldn't look at my wrist with Keith in my arms. His head was tucked against my neck, I had my arm around his body and the other arm - the Galra arm - hooked under his knees. I couldn't read a map without tossing him to the side. I hugged Keith against my chest and stepped a little to my left.
"Hang on, I have an idea," Pidge said. A moment later, a white star popped on my helmet screen. "Shiro, that's tuned to Hunk's signal, so if you keep heading towards it, you should find him."
"Quickly," Lance said. "You remember, imminent explosion?"
"I think he knows, Lance," Allura said.
"Sorry," I said to Keith. "I may have to jostle you a bit." I took a tight grip on him and started to run. Speed-wise, well, I've done better. I did the Garrison annual half-marathon with a fractured ankle once and I was faster than this. But given the terrain and the circumstances, I was moving pretty quickly. I was so focused on moving forward and following Hunk's marker that I ran right into the hovercart.
"Oh, sorry, Shiro!" Hunk said quickly, running around from the other side. He helped me hoist Keith into the back of the cart. I laid Keith out on the seat and cradled his head in my lap, while Hunk turned the cart to the right and tore out of there at top speed. Which was faster than I'd expected it to be for a little municipal vehicle. Hunk piloted best when he was too distracted to think about it. "Allura, we're loaded and on the way to the nearest medical tent!"
"How bad is it?" Allura asked.
"Shiro's moving, but Keith's not conscious," Hunk said.
"I'll prep two healing pods," Coran said.
"I'll be fine!" I yelled to be heard over the fire and the hovercart.
"Uh, Shiro says he'll be fine," Hunk said.
"Coran, please prepare two just in case," Allura said. "Shiro, the doctor at the medical station can give us more information when they have the chance to examine-"
The ground rippled when the explosion hit. The force of the blast threw the hovercart into a spin and it flipped sideways. Hunk, Keith and I slid out and landed unceremoniously on the ground. I caught Keith in my arms before he could take any more damage.
"Ok, so, good news," Lance said, with forced cheerfulness. "There is nothing currently in danger of exploding."
"The other two fuel pumps-?" Allura asked.
"Went up with the fuel depot," Lance said.
I twisted so I could look back at the city. I wish I could have visited before the Galra arrived. All those lovely buildings I'd crawled over had been standing just yesterday. Vendors had sold food and trinkets in the town square. Children had played with their pets, maybe splashed in the fountain and got yelled at by the adults. Now flames roared through the city, eating anything the Galra and the explosions hadn't touched.
Hunk and I got the cart righted, lifted Keith back onto the seat, and flew on to the refugee tents.
A Shuma with a green sash over a white shirt took one look at Keith and grabbed a younger Shuma with a green sash over a blue shirt, who tried to take Keith from my arms. I clung to him.
"Shiro." Hunk rested a hand gently on my arm. "They'll take care of him."
Both green-slashed Shuma twitched their heads in an odd movement that I belatedly remembered was a gesture of respect. "You must get care for yourself," the white-shirt said.
"I'm fine," I said. "Where do I put Keith?" The blue-shirt guided me to a sturdy cot and I laid him down. I knelt next to him, ignoring a stab of pain in my leg, and removed his helmet. His dark hair clung to his forehead and cheeks in thick, damp tendrils. I took off my glove and touched his cheek with my left hand. His skin was warm, almost hot. I pressed my lips against his.
"Shiro," Hunk said. I nodded and stepped back to let the healers work. The white-shirt hovered by his shoulder. "No, seriously, Shiro." He pointed down at my leg.
I expected that my leg would be battered and bruised under my suit. It was much worse. I'd gotten caught on something, probably while I was crawling under the house, and it had ripped through my suit and into my flesh. The gash alone was bad enough, but without the protection of the suit, the skin had burned. Only adrenaline and the fear of losing Keith had kept the pain at bay and now, in the safety of the healer's tent, it surged up my leg. Nausea roiled in my stomach and my head spun. Hunk caught me as I staggered forward and he and the white-shirt Shuma helped me to a bed.
Things blurred for a little while. First the hot-red blur of pain, then the fuzzy-green blur of narcotics. Hunk helped the healer remove what was left of my leg armor (another one for Coran's scrap pile) and the healer bandaged it neatly. Someone stuffed a bottle of water in my hand and I sipped it carefully. Would I lose the leg? I clenched my Galra hand as a faint wave of nausea returned. I'd seen similar wounds in the gladiator rings. If the Galra couldn't repair them, how could the Altean tech do it? But then, the Galra weren't wasting their finest healers on ring fodder. Well, no point in worrying about that now. Tons of time to worry about it later. The whole rest of my life, even. I gulped down some more water. I would have loved to down the whole thing at once, but that would almost certainly make me sick.
"Shiro!" Keith's voice. I was on my feet without thinking. "Shiro! I have to save Shiro!" I limped-ran to Keith's side of the tent.
"I'm here, Keith, I'm here," I said. I grabbed a nearby stool so I could sit beside him. His undersuit was partly cut away. The healers had been removing the shrapnel from his leg when he woke. The blue-shirt Shuma hovered over Keith's leg with medical pliers, but wasn't currently touching Keith. I took Keith's hand in mine. "I'm fine."
Keith peered hazily up at me, and I suspected he'd gotten the fuzzy-green blur narcotics as well. "No," he said, his voice hoarse. "No, you were in the house. You died in the house."
"I'm alive, Keith," I said. I lifted his hand to my lips and kissed his knuckles. "I got stuck for a bit, but I got out of the house. We're both safe."
"No," he protested. "A man came to my school in a uniform and took me to the office and said there'd been a fire-" He frowned.
His dad. The ball in my chest grew spikes and stabbed me from the inside. "You're confused, Keith. You're on a lot of painkillers. I'm okay. I survived."
Keith's frown deepened. "A man came into my class in a uniform," he said, trying to form thoughts out of mental fog. "He took me out to the hallway and said there was a pilot error-"
The pain on his face. That was my fault. "Keith," I said softly.
"You went into the fire." He lifted his chin to glare at me. "You went into the fire. I already lost you once. I can't keep losing the people I love to the fire!"
I touched his cheek with my human hand. "Yeah, well, same," I said. "You're the only family I have left, Keith. No more taking stupid chances, okay? You gotta listen to people when they say things aren't safe."
Keith snorted weakly.
"We'll work on it," I sighed. I kissed his forehead gently. The heat had faded a little. "Now these guys are going to patch you up, so think you can hold still for a few minutes?" Keith nodded and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back. "I'll be right here."
The Shuma removed the shrapnel and bandaged Keith gently and efficiently, so by the time Lance arrived with Blue and a couple of medical transport pods, Keith was ready to go. I refused to go into a transport pod and I stayed with Keith's pod all the way back to the castleship's medical bay. I helped Keith into a healing pod and, at the team's insistence, I got in one as well.
I was out first and I was relieved to see that my leg had healed completely. The only sign of the injury was the pink tone of fresh-healed skin. I refused to leave Keith even to go to the kitchen, so Hunk brought me some snacks and promised to make dinner as soon as we were both awake.
Then he brought me another meal and promised us a late night snack.
Then he brought me another meal and promised us a hearty breakfast.
Allura brought me a pillow and a blanket and sometime after midnight, by the castleship's clock, I dozed off. I woke to find Keith kneeling next to me.
"Hi!" I said, sitting up abruptly. Keith just wrapped his arms around me and we clung to each other. I cradled the back of his head in my hand and pressed my face against his shoulder, smelling the clear antiseptic scent of the healing pod on his skin. Then he kissed me, and I kissed him back, as if it was the first and last time we'd ever touch.
"There's food," I said, finally. "Hunk said he'd cook for us."
"Why don't we just go back to my room?" Keith suggested. He pressed his palm against my chest, just over the spot where that ball of terror lived. It was tiny now, with both of us safe and healed. It would grow again, but for now, I couldn't feel it. "When we couldn't hear from you and your map marker wasn't moving, Shiro, you have no idea how terrified I was."
"As terrified as I was when you ran into the flames and the fuel pump exploded and we couldn't hear from you?" I kissed him. "Keith, don't you know that I would miss you as much as you'd miss me?"
Keith shook his head. "No-"
"I've lost family, too, and Keith, you are my family. I don't want to ever go through that kind of pain again, so you've got to stay alive, okay? For me?" I asked.
Keith rested his forehead against mine, his hand still pressed against my chest. "For you," he said quietly.