The air is thick with dust. It hangs in the cloying flight compartment like gritty red mist, coating every surface in a fine layer of sediment. The black lion is mired in it. Her delicate systems completely blocked with grit. She lays inert and half-buried amid a growing mountain of drifting sand. Nearby, the red lion lays almost completely buried. Only the top of her head is visible on the rippling surface of the drifting sand. Her inactive eyes glare defiantly into the perpetually raging sandstorm beating against both lions lacerated hulls.
Shiro coughs and rubs his gritty eyes, his tight chest laboring in the abrasive air. The oxygen mask in his flight suit failed three days ago when the circuitry became hopelessly clogged with red dust. His artificial arm has been slowly losing functionality as well. The cyber components that regulate balance and temperature are steadily failing, turning his arm into a shoulder wrenching dead weight.
The old scars bordering the graft site have also become blistered and swollen from the constant friction of heated metal rubbing against his damaged skin. He was finally able to get some relief by fashioning a makeshift sling out of the gauze padding and medical tape he found in Coran’s emergency supply pack, better to immobilize his arm completely than risk a dislocated shoulder from the paralyzed weight of it.
He coughs again, hacking up a clod of brick colored dust. He grimaces, wiping his hand on the grimy chest plate of his armor as he struggles to catch his breath. He’s not wearing his helmet. He knows it’s stupid, but it’s far too hot inside the black lion’s flight compartment. Through the sandstorm raging outside, a white-hot sun beats down on her like the baleful eye of a demon. The sweltering compartment feels like an oven, slowly roasting Shiro from the inside out. The need to escape it is overwhelming, but there’s literally no where to run.
He scrubs his sweaty face, smearing it with grime. He’s covered in the stuff. His hair is caked with it and his black flight suit is fraying in the exposed spaces between his armor from the abrasive film of grit covering it. He swallows, his throat scraped raw from breathing in caustic dust and hacking it up again. His head is splitting. Dehydration is making him dizzy and nauseous, but even with careful rationing, supplies are running low. Focus, he tells himself.
He grits his teeth and sits back on his heels, eyeing the two remaining foil packs of water. There isn’t enough to ration between them anymore. Shiro will have to start doing without. Keith needs the water more than he does.
He grabs the already opened pouch, the one that’s half-full, and unsteadily makes his way over to Keith laying curled up on his side in the coolest corner of the flight compartment Shiro could find. His arms and legs are pulled up tightly to his chest, as if making himself as small as possible might somehow make him disappear from this hellish place all together. He’s pulled off his helmet again. Shiro supposes it doesn’t really matter at this point. He listens to Keith struggling to breathe. An audible crackle and reed like railing accompanies each breath, a sure sign that his lungs are filling with fluid, and Shiro knows the damage is already done.
“Keith,” he rasps hoarsely and coughs, his voice sounds like it’s been shredded with sandpaper, he supposes in a way it has. “Keith,” he says again after catching his breath. He gently lays a hand on Keith’s mottled cheek and Keith flinches away from him, his breath hitching as if the slightest pressure on his inflamed skin is pure agony. Shiro guiltily snatches his hand away. “I’m sorry,” he whispers sheepishly.
Not long after they’d crashed, it became apparent that some element of the red dust was especially toxic to Keith. Shiro suspects it has something to do with his Galra DNA. He’d pulled Keith out of the red lion just before she’d been buried, but those few minutes of exposure to the storm as they’d retreated inside the black lion had taken a toll.
The dust they brought back in with them has only added to their misery. It’s settled over everything like a corrosive blanket. It’s impossible to remove or escape, and is relentlessly packing Keith’s lungs with noxious grit. He’s burning up and the skin around his eyes, nose and mouth is red and swollen as if it were burned with a particularly caustic poison.
Keith’s swollen eyes open to bleary violet slits. It takes a while, but eventually they settle on Shiro’s grime smeared face. “Hey,” Shiro says softly, a wan smile creasing his lips, “how’re you feeling?” Stupid question he knows. Keith doesn’t answer. He stopped talking a couple of days ago, as if both breathing and talking was too much to concentrate on at once. “You think you can try to drink some water for me?” Shiro asks.
Keith starts to nod then closes his eyes and coughs instead. It’s wet and painful sounding. His entire body seizes up as Shiro rubs his back and he finally hacks up a glob of gritty rust colored sputum onto the metal floor. He gasps a few times, as if his lungs have momentarily stopped working and he’s waiting for them to reset. Finally he draws in a shaky wheezing breath and Shiro starts breathing again himself.
Shiro brushes the plastered hair from Keith’s swollen eyes then grips the edge of the foil pack between his teeth and gingerly wraps his one functioning arm around Keith’s shoulders to ease him up into a sitting position. He kneels up on one knee and props Keith’s listless body between his other leg and his chest.
He plucks the foil pouch from his mouth and offers it to Keith. Keith’s heavy head lolls against Shiro’s chest. He squints at the attached plastic straw as Shiro guides it to his mouth. He’s pretty out of it. Shiro isn’t really sure Keith even understands what he’s saying, but he still makes a valiant effort to drink from the straw wedged between his swollen lips. He manages a few sluggish sips before he starts coughing again. Nothing comes up this time. Shiro doesn’t know whether that’s good or bad.
He drops the water pouch and eases Keith back down onto his side. “The others will find us soon.” Please let it be true, he thinks even as he’s saying the words. Keith shudders and coughs wetly. Shiro rubs his back, but nothing comes up. “I just need you to stay with me until they get here okay?” he says, impulsively running his fingers through Keith’s grime encrusted hair. Keith pulls his knees up to his chest, hugging himself in the abrasive air. He closes his eyes and Shiro lays down behind him, draping his arm over Keith’s railing chest. Keith curls up against him and Shiro grips one of his clammy hands in his. “Please, just stay with me,” he murmurs plaintively.
Shiro wakes with a start some time later, immediately sensing that something is wrong. He blinks trying to get his bearings. His headache is worse and has spread to his eyes. They’re so sore and dry, it feels like they’re pulsing inside their sockets in time with the throbbing inside his head. It’s noticeably darker inside the flight compartment. The sun must be at it’s lowest point in the sky. It never fully sets, just bakes the black lion from different angles. He can still hear the dust storm raging outside, but inside it’s eerily quiet. That’s what woke him. Keith isn’t breathing.
Shiro grabs him, his heart leaping into his throat as he rolls Keith onto his back. Keith’s eyes are wide open. His skin is ashen. He writhes on the floor struggling for air. His eyes focus on Shiro’s panicked face, silently pleading with him to do something as his grimy fingers scrabble at the armor covering Shiro’s chest. Shiro thinks there may be a plug of mucous blocking his airway, like a cork in a wine bottle. Rust colored tears start leaking from Keith’s eyes as they begin to lose focus. His lips are turning blue.
Shiro sits back on his heels and hauls Keith onto his lap one handed. It isn’t hard, Keith is small and light. He drapes Keith over his knees, laying him out on his stomach and extending his arms in front of him. He cups his hand and starts slapping Keith’s back. “Come on,” he begs him, “cough it up. Breathe Keith, breathe.”
Keith continues to struggle, his fingers scratching at the metal floor plates as Shiro thumps his back. Keith’s movements start to turn sluggish. His body grows heavier as his strength begins to drain. Shiro’s sharp slaps to his back turn more desperate. Keith’s feeble movements cease all together, his body going limp in Shiro’s lap. Please no, Shiro silently begs whatever gods may be listening.
Keith twitches suddenly, his entire body shuddering with a deep hacking cough. “That’s it,” Shiro cries, weak with relief. He rubs Keith’s back, “Get it all out.” Keith sucks in a long wheezing breath and Shiro thinks it’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. Keith sucks in another railing breath then another one after that. Shiro lifts him from his lap and cradles him against his chest, his reedy breaths becoming more shallow.
There’s blood on his face, slowly welling up from his mouth. “Shit,” Shiro whispers, eyeing the smear of blood and mucous staining the floor beside him. “Shit, no, please,” he pleads, screwing his aching eyes shut. He caresses Keith’s heavy head against his chest and plants a soft kiss on his sweaty forehead. “I’m so sorry Keith,” he says as sluggish tears begin to track greasy trails down his grubby cheeks, “I… this, thing we’re doing with Voltron, it’s my penance. This is where I have to be, but you don’t. You never asked for this. None of you did. I never should’ve dragged you into it.”
He opens his eyes when Keith’s clammy hand caresses his face. Shiro sniffs and tries to smile at him. “Takashi,” Keith whispers, then his eyes close. He sags in Shiro’s grip, his trembling hand slipping bonelessly from Shiro’s cheek.
Shiro swallows past the painful lump in his throat and presses his fingers to the pulse at Keith’s throat. It’s still beating, but it’s getting weaker. He’s going to die, and Shiro will watch it happen. There’s nothing he can do to stop it. Shiro will live though, because that’s what he does. He lives no matter the cost, no matter what he has to do to make sure he survives. He lives, even when there’s nothing left to live for.
The black lion shifts beneath him and Shiro startles, thinking it’s some sort of earthquake and they’re about to be swallowed up in an avalanche of sinking sand. She wobbles again. Shiro wraps his arm more tightly around Keith’s sagging body, drawing him in close. Keith remains unconscious. His shallow breathing hitches, turning even more irregular.
The black lion steadies and Shiro’s empty stomach bottoms out. The endless howling of the dust storm falls away as she slowly begins to rise through the planet’s atmosphere. The view screen is offline, so they’re flying blind, but Shiro thinks she may be in the grip of an extraction beam. The communications grid flickers and a static distorted voice murmurs something unintelligible before it goes dead again. Shiro can’t make out the words, but he recognizes the voice. Allura.The Castle has found them.
Shiro sags in exhausted relief. His arm is suddenly shaking. He shudders and hacks up more red dust as errant tears sting his gritty eyes. “Thank you,” he whispers. He’s so tired. He’s barely slept at all in the last seventy-two hours and his head is pounding. He lays down, still cradling Keith in the crook of his arm. Honestly, he’s afraid to let him go. He just lays there, listening to Keith’s unsteady breathing. “Just hang on for me for a few more minutes,” he tells him softly, caressing his pale face. “We’re almost home.” He closes his eyes…