Title: Surface Tension
Rating: PG - Gen - HURT AND THE COMFORT
Spoilers: General (for all aired episodes)
Summary: Some people don't know how to get lost.
“I’m telling you, Shiro. We’ve BEEN here already!"
“Just do it."
“If you insist! I just think it’s pointless going in circles in the middle of white porcelain nothing!”
Shiro was relying more on instinct now than evidence. The parameters were wide and Keith could cover more ground on his own in a shorter amount of time than all four of them put together. When no energy signature at all turned up within the realm of possibility, Shiro began probing the impossible. He was no longer looking for Keith, no longer desperately scanning the sensors for any faint blip of a bio sign. He was looking for Red.
The lion would not abandon its Paladin.
“Fine. We’ll double back.” Pidge sulked over the intercom. “It would help if there were actually something to SEE around here except glaciers.”
“Keep looking.” Shiro urged them.
“Anyway, Keith is fine,” Hunk grumbled. “I’m sure he probably lost track o’ time, dug himself a shelter somewhere and is planning to Keith his way back to the castle in the middle of the night just to mess with us—“
“No.” Shiro cut him off. “Keith had no clearance and it’s taken way too long for him to respond. Fly your lions to three two mark one and wait for my signal. Watch those hills, my instruments aren't readin' right.” He veered strong to the right over a vast frozen ocean.
The search had turned up nothing.
The distress signal emitted from the planet wasn't a false alarm. Any presence of the Galra would not be easy to find in this snow cover which actually made it a perfect location for a hovel of activity beneath its frozen white surface. Allura had ordered this reconnaissance to clear the planet of any trace of the malevolent empire.
That had been nearly 17 hours ago.
Keith had long gone switched his com off. His link to the others cut. On purpose was the possibility. Shiro knew he worked best alone and the chances of him cutting them off to focus better in this haze of white nothingness were good. But too much time had passed with no echo from him or Red. So far. The collective sigh from Lance, Pidge and Hunk echoed what they were all thinking. This fly and rescue mission now was warranting an ass-kicking much later. Shiro's grip on the throttles tightened as he did a solid 90 degree turn over a mountain and roared over and through the barren valley below. They would know if any of the five were dead. Shiro didn’t need to remind them.
"Anything?" he asked into the com, "...at all?"
Most surprising to Shiro was the silence from Lance’s end. The blue paladin had not uttered so much as a word since they’d re-launched back into the blinding whirl of snowstorm to hunt for Keith. He knew what Shiro knew—every second wasted talking was another second Keith spent out there.
Shiro’s own flare of worry burned in his chest, above the blaring urgency of their mission. If Keith was anything, he was tough and more than an experienced pilot. He didn’t flinch when the lethal charged straight at him, sword drawn and posed. He’d been ready to take on the most powerful evil in the universe solo and walked away from it.
Shiro flexed his cybernetic arm.
How could Keith have messed up this badly? Here in this open white frozen planet.
“It’s not getting any warmer out here, guys.” Pidge’s voice crackled over the interference from the shifting winds. “I don’t think the Lions were designed to take prolonged exposure in these conditions.”
“Yeah well, neither is Keith.” Hunk shot back.
“I know that! My point is, if we don’t turn something up soon, we’ll be in the same situation he is!”
Shiro knew, without seeing the expression on Lance’s face, the lightning fast clarity that breached no argument.
“Pidge is right. We’re running out of time. Hunk, I need you on the outfield. Go ten and five, mark three. Get there at three hundred, watch your altitude, air is cold. Lance, trail me and put out feelers for any of Red’s energy signatures. Pidge, if anything on this ice block has a pulse, I want a report whether it’s Keith or not.”
The barren whiteness of the planet had discouraged them. It was as if they had entered a new dimension where nothing they knew existed. This planet and the only things that breathed were four frustrated explorers. The more he stared out into the vast pale nothingness of this place, the more his focus grew to a burning bright panic. Keith was out there.
“C’mon kid…” he murmured, tamping down his frustration. “Where the hell are you?”
He shifted Black’s sensors slightly, honing in closer on the landscape beneath him. They had scanned this entire perimeter before. Save for the topographic features of snow-capped mountain range and glacier fields, there was nothing. He swung Black lower, soaring fluidly past the outcrop of cavernous rock formations standing against the storm’s fury like soldiers. No heat emissions. No life signs. He slammed his human hand against his dash. "Dammit--"
The engines slowed.
Black stuttered to a halt without his command, landing to rest on top of a ledge of ice. An ear-splitting roar made his heart pound.
Black always knew more than he did.
As far as he was concerned, he was done with this location. No sign of Keith, no point in staying. But Black would not budge. Her eyes had dimmed, her generators still thrumming in wait, unmoving on her perch.
“Lance? You there?”
“Copy.” Lance responded instantly.
“Meet me at my signal point. I think the trail just got warmer.”
“At least something did!” Lance muttered. “Be right down.”
Black thrummed with roiling energy, urging him out of his pilot seat. Their suits were meant to withstand extremes but even with their protection, he calculated his window of consciousness to be not very wide. But he was getting nowhere sitting on his ass. With a click, he released the lower hatch and ventured into the fray of harsh wind.
This planet made Kerberos look like Santaland. The wind was whipping past his face at a hundred miles an hour, fast and cruel enough to freeze the skin of his cheek had he not had the sense to lower his helmet visor before exiting the craft. Bits of ice sparkled like deadly glass shards, trying to take away at the protective layer of his under armor around his exposed limbs.
“You better be wrong about this, Black.” He growled, sliding down the rocky formation beside his lion’s massive robotic paw.
A strange shudder from within the formation made him pause.
He placed his hand against the snow-covered ledge, expecting to find it yield to the heat emanating from his cyber hand, rapidly melting away the hardness of ice to reveal more ice. His breath caught in his chest when he realized what Black had actually landed on.
He immediately sent an open feed. “Guys, need you here now. I think I found something.”
His uniform did well against the cold, but not like this. Shiro groaned when another gust of ice filled wind slammed him into the side of a snow dune. He shook his hand free, wiping off the emitter that had been tracking Red. It was still steady even though Red was wrecked and half buried in snow about a mile behind him. He righted himself as best as he could with the wind and shook the device like it would help.
To his surprise, it did.
A small alarm went off and started to triangulate a location. Eyes burning with the frigid air, he waited until the allocations stopped. Shiro blinked. He was right on top of it. He was-
Shiro's arm flared bright melting snow a few feet deep, just short of the body that lay under it all. Not for very long either, his readings showed Keith's core temp to be drastically below average but hovering above death. Shiro dug slush and snow away from Keith's white face. He found his arms, his body; his legs were in the deepest--
Now that the gang was all here Shiro felt the urge to get out of here, faster.
Shiro’s instincts kicked in faster than his panic. Keith’s armor had been compromised, his Bayard blipping with energy not far away from where he had collapsed. Why he’d needed it out in the first place was the first reason Shiro wanted the hell outta dodge. Clasping the red bayard in his hand, he stored it and swung his attention back to Keith.
He was unconscious and had been for some time. At least he was breathing.
How long he’d been under was hard to say but it had been long enough for the ice to completely surround him. With his metabolic rate slowed to such extreme, there was some ironic chance of survival.
Analytics is damned. Keith was an idiot. Using his tech hand, he ignited the layer of ice that had formed around Keith’s still body, soaking through the hard edges of the suit and making his panicked movements slick and clumsy. Breaking the rest with his fist until it was raw and cold, he forcefully wrenched Keith’s limp body forward into his arms, leaning him against his heaving chest.
“I gotcha, kid.” He breathed against him. “I’m here now.”
Keith was beyond hearing but it didn’t matter. He could be dead and it wouldn’t matter.
He took a deep breath knowing everyone was waiting on his word.
“Keith doesn’t have much time. Everyone back to the castle NOW! Lance, you got Red.”
Hoisting Keith’s dead weight against his shoulder, he fought the snow back towards his lion, the frigid air burning his lungs like fire. The Black Lion’s shape materialized through the flurry of snow blinding his line of vision. Had it come to find him? Sought him out as he had done Keith? It didn’t matter now. With a powerful rumble that shook the ground it bent its head and opened wide its cavernous jaws, ready to retrieve its pilot.
Shiro wasted no time.
Away from the din of the elements, Shiro could assess the state of his friend. Keith was unresponsive and hypothermic, that much any rookie could determine. Shiro knew instantly what a scan would already tell him. Keith needed oxygen support and an open airway. Then he would need warmth and lots of it.
Jamming his fist into the nearest storage pack, he located the emergency oxygen every lion stored. Placing the mask over his nose and mouth, he waited until he heard the gentle hiss of air flow before wrenching out one of the trauma blankets. The boy’s blood was like frozen slush in his veins, his heart would have halted to a stop hours ago with nothing left to pump. There was no cardiac activity for their sensors to pick up, no active synapse left for him to breathe on his own. Keith’s body had shut down to preserve it, his armor the only thing keeping his metabolism from failing permanently. Shiro grimly understood how close to the edge Keith was.
“Pull through, Keith.” He grit his teeth. “ I ain’t asking.”
Keith’s head lolled to the side, his body completely still. With a growled curse, Shiro ripped away the protective gloves with his teeth. With fingers still numb from cold, he located the zip at the side of Keith’s own bodysuit, peeling it away to reveal the bare skin of Keith’s abdomen and chest. Though his extremities were blue with frostbite, his upper body was bleached white, the blood having rushed to his vital organs for survival. With bare hands, Shiro rubbed vigorously at Keith’s calves, his feet, moving on to grasp ice cold fingers between his own hands.
Black’s generators emitted a constant heat source but she was cranked up much too high to safely rewarm Keith’s body. Too much heat too fast would result in shock.
Shiro made some fast decisions. Finding the zip at the base of his neck, he stripped down to the waist. Although the blast of cold air inside the cockpit made him shiver slightly, he was many degrees warmer than Keith right now. His heart, pumping fast, would generate enough heat for them both. Tucking Keith securely underneath his bare arm, he cradled the limp paladin with one hand and somehow managed to scramble his way back into the pilot seat. With his cyber prosthetic, he sent an urgent digital message to Black.
Take us home.
Even on autopilot, Shiro knew he would need to keep one hand on the throttle to navigate them away safely. In his other hand, he clung to his teammate’s life. Beneath his bicep, Keith’s skin was hard and cold and it was all he could do to keep his panic from flaring when the mask slipped down on Keith’s face. Once secured, he found the trauma blanket again and threw it over them both. He grit his teeth against the frigid feel of Keith’s frozen skin pressed up to his, bracing himself to fix on the star maps flashing across Black’s navigation unit.
The Black Lion surged upward and out, away from the violence of the storm beneath them, its course headed straight for the castle.
Coran was talking.
Shiro shouldered past him with the heavy body in his arms. The castle was so complicated, he'd read and spent nights looking at maps on his com screen for hours and it still confused him-- He just had to get to the pods.
"This way," Lance stopped him with a light touch on his shoulder. "Down there."
Shiro's breath hitched in effort, and pulled Keith's body closer so he could stand. "Lead the way," he shook his head, his vision was blurred from the intense cold. "I-I can't see very well."
"I got you."
Shiro was hauled up. He could smell Lance's leather jacket, he could feel Lance pulling him forward when he wasn't sure he could take another step.
Coran was still talking, a blur of numbers mixed with orders, and now there were two, not one, set of arms supporting Keith. Shiro’s arms trembled from panic and exhaustion. His sluggish brain was fixed on one goal—get Keith to the Cyropods. It didn’t take them very long to cross the corridor into the medical wing and instantly Coran moved to take Keith’s motionless body.
Reflexively, Shiro’s grip tightened around the body in his arms.
“Shiro. We’ve got him.” Allura’s calm reached him. “Give him to us.”
Shiro felt his eyes slipping closed before he could stop them.
"WOAH!" That was Lance. Definitely Lance. "He's goin' down-!"
Shiro’s trembling arms dropped to his sides as he slumped forward to his knees, sending whoever was in his way firmly out of his way. He knew it was Lance that was trying to keep him from crashing face first onto the floor, Coran lightening quick seizing hold of Keith’s body before it could even touch the surface.
"Careful! Any more trauma will make it harder—"
Shiro roused, weakly pulling at the hands on him.
"Less talk, more saving Coran!" Lance shouted, now keeping Shiro down on the floor with a grip like iron. Hastily, Coran worked to remove the tattered and cracked casing of armor, stripping it away to fully expose Keith’s skin. Sickly blue and oxygen-starved, the sight made all but the Alteans queasy.
“Princess, I need—“
“On it.” Allura slipped the prepped syringe cannon into his ready hand. Quickly, Coran turned Keith’s head to the side, peering closely.
“Hard to locate a vein, his skin’s frozen solid.” He growled. “Here goes.”
With a hiss, the contents of the syringe emptied directly beneath Keith’s jaw. Coran firmly tapped the unyielding flesh of his throat with two fingers, waiting.
“What the--?” Lance began. Pidge took over, staring glassily at Coran as he hunched over Keith’s prone body. She did not blink.
“Epinephrine. For his heart.” She murmured. “The cyropod tech won’t mean anything without a sinus rhythm.”
“Holy crow…” Hunk breathed. “You mean he’s…?”
“Not anymore! Princess, activate the Pod.” Coran barked, lifting Keith into his arms. The pod’s reflective chamber misted over, opening to receive. Keith, stripped to the waist, appeared more dead than alive behind the glass. His lips were still blue, his chest unmoving. Lance pulled Shiro to his feet as Coran began running the diagnostic.
“The Pod environment is programmed to return anything in it back to stasis. “ He explained breathlessly. “Right now, Keith’s not breathing on his own and that shot of epi got only marginal cardiac activity. The settings are working now to bring his heartbeat and temperature back up gradually at a safe rate. I’ve adjusted it to human calibrations but your biology isn’t too far a cry from ours.”
“Will he make it?” Shiro asked.
The laser display of greenish stats glowed across Coran’s face and the chief steward paused a moment to take them all in before answering.
"We’ll know in a few hours.”
Coran had said a few hours. The numbers told a very different story.
A few hours meant nothing. A few hours to hold onto an exhale from today was practically a second. Time melted away, his own consciousness a distant thing when everything counted on the numbers. He’d heard all the names for this interim a thousand times over. In the field for comrades barely holding on and for those waiting on their last breath. Touch and go. In limbo. Critical. Out of danger. In the clear.
That was fine with him. If Keith could wait, so could he.
“He’s not much to look at now but we’ll have him fixed in a jiffy!” He thought he heard Coran say.
Shiro huffed and looked away.
The others had wandered in and out, each with their own individual methodology of concern. A hand. A glance. A word. Coran had even run a quick scan on him, advised and disappeared unacknowledged. His armor could wait. His body could wait. His lion could wait for those numbers to change.
He could tell when the cup of alien tea at his feet had stopped steaming that a few hours had passed. He had not even realized who had placed it there but his senses shifted at its scent. Hours and only now had Keith’s pulse evened out to a recognizable rhythm. He had begun breathing on his own, according to the oxygen levels within the encasement. His color had improved, the bluish tinge now all but faded except for the tips of his fingers and the edge of his lips. The rest of him was washed out pale, the blood barely stirring beneath the surface of his skin.
Shiro placed a hand on the glass, hovering over Keith’s face. “What happened to you out there, kiddo?”
It might have been his imagination, strained and exhausted to the point of contortion, but he could have sworn he saw Keith’s eyelids twitch.
The floor of the infirmary was hard and the ache in his muscles had begun to cut bone deep. He named the gait of the approaching footsteps long before their voice came. Lance threw a blanket over his shoulders, glancing with disdain down at the untouched tea.
“Hey, I made that for ya myself.”
Shiro mumbled what might have been an apology.
Lance crouched down beside him with a heavy sigh. He’d changed back into civilian clothes. There was a prolonged pause as Shiro felt him think of something to say.
“You….thinking about leaving the floor anytime soon?”
Shiro did not dignify that with a response. Lance shrugged.
“Uh…he looks better.” Lance offered.
“Coran says he’s in the clear. Close shave, right? His levels are all responding to the—“
“Lance.” Shiro cut him off, his eyes finally shifting from the cyropod to the Blue Paladin. “You should get some rest.”
“Nope. Not getting rid of me that easy.” Lance plopped himself down comfortably as he could manage on the cold hard floor. Shiro didn’t flinch but he did not push him away either. If Shiro really needed him gone, he could make that happen and they both understood that. A beat passed. Then another. The soft whir of the cyropod and the intermittent blip of updated vitals was the only sound for a time.
“Hey…” Lance began uncertainly. “Pidge pulled the data from Keith’s helmet.”
Shiro’s eyes glazed over.
“We’re not 100% sure but it looks like Keith might’ve made a bad judgment call on the visibility and strayed too far outta parameter. Guess hotshot lost control out there and Red stopped him.”
Shiro exhaled audibly, something between a sigh and a laugh.
“Leave it to Keith,” Lance muttered. “The only one not to call for help if he caught fire.”
Hesitantly, Lance placed an arm around Shiro’s shoulder and leaned into him. “S’not your fault. You know that, right?” He whispered.
Shiro just continued to breathe.
A cycle came and went before Coran officially cleared Keith from the Cyropod. His weak vitals eventually stabilized and his temperature was steady on the rise according to the data feed but Shiro wasn’t convinced until the bio shield lowered and he could hold him. Keith’s senseless body collapsed pliant and shuddering in his arms. He was lethargic and barely awake, but he was definitely alive as Shiro transferred him to one of the observation beds.
He would not stop shivering.
They'd put him in those blankets.
Coran assured this was a normal reaction to the healing process. It would take days for him to recover, perhaps weeks until he was fit enough to bond with his lion again. To assist recovery, Coran had him on a warm saline drip taped to the inside of his elbow, a telemetry monitor recording his vitals.
Shiro lowered his head almost between his knees. Blankets didn't look like foil. They were doing everything to regulate Keith's heat. He was the color of chalk, eyes half open in a half dead state. Looking down at his own arm, Shiro watched the alien metal pulse and glow; he flexed his grip and went to sit on the side of Keith's bed.
He dragged a hand across his face with a heavy sigh. Man, he was tired.
"Hey," he said, his glowing hand touching black hair. "You’re okay."
Keith blinked at the sound of his voice. Eyes desperately refocusing, looking until he saw him. He couldn’t quite catch his breath between words half-formed in his half conscious brain.
"I was- I was- Shiro I was-"
Shiro put his hand gently on Keith's chest. Keith wasted a lot of energy. Mostly on being angry. At himself.
Keith was still looking at him, his body shaking, his blue eyes locked and wavering. His voice was barely above a whisper. "I didn't mean to-"
Shiro silenced him with his mouth, lips pressed firmly against Keith's in a panting sigh of relief. The body underneath him stilled, and then complied in a soft collapse.
When Keith started breathing in steady shallow breaths of sleep, Shiro carefully placed himself behind him, his back against the wall. With a deep breath he even pulled up the foil 'blanket' up over Keith's face. He flexed his cyber arm and hand, willing it to the temperature he wanted. He laid it down over his red paladin.
He laughed a little to himself, feeling suddenly incredibly tired.
They were all His.