Notes: ... this was supposed to be a set of drabbles but, uh, it got away from me. Like, really got away from me. This is mostly because my definition of 'love at first sight' doesn't necessarily involve sight, and doesn't negate the need for establishing common ground between characters.
1. voice in the dark
When Inferno finally realises that he's not getting out of this one alive, it comes as less of a shock than he would've expected. Maybe it's how achingly tired he is, or the heat, or maybe, when you know it's your time to go, Primus just reaches in and makes it easy for you by turning off that fight-or-flight subroutine.
He stops trying to lift the twisted mass that used to be a girder, works his hands free, and slumps down with his back to the wall. Even that's heating up now – the flames must have reached the fourth side of the room at last.
"I'm done," he says. "I ain't never movin' that scrap, not if I try a thousand vorns."
There is a pause before he gets the reply over his comm.
"Yeah." Inferno rubs a thumb wearily over his optics, trying to shift the layer of grease and smoke-grime that's clouding his vision. Internal diagnostics tell him that his air filters need changing; he shuts down the alarm without a second thought. "Guess this is it."
The co-ordinator doesn't respond, and that scares Inferno more than his own impending death – the light, clear voice has been with him all through the last few hours, was what woke him from near-stasis after his fall, has been suggesting solution after solution in quick, precise tones, and hasn't even reprimanded Inferno for his less than professional language when each one has failed. He's probably the best co-ordinator Inferno's ever worked with: just the Pit's own luck that this should be the mission he checks out on.
"You still there, base?"
"I'm still here, Inferno," comes the response. "I'm just working on another possibility."
This time, Inferno doesn't feel the quick spike of hope, but it pleases him nonetheless that they haven't given up on him out there. An idea occurs to him, and he toys with it briefly before deciding that if there's a time to break protocol, this is probably it.
"What's your name?"
A startled silence.
"I was on downtime when y'all rolled in," Inferno goes on, regretful – he's been looking forward to meeting the new squad for weeks, so of course every firefighter in Iacon gets called out, to the biggest blaze of the vorn, just as they arrive. "Didn't catch any of your designations."
"This is hardly the time," protests the co-ordinator, but his spark isn't in it, and after a moment he capitulates. "My name is Red Alert."
"Nice to meet you, Red. I'm Inferno." Inferno chuckles, amused for no reason. "But you knew that."
"Is the heat affecting your processor? What's your internal temperature?"
"Easy, Red, I'm fine. Just... resignin' myself to the situation, I guess."
"It's Red Alert, not Red."
"Sorry." Inferno tilts his head back and stares at the ceiling, warped and torn from the structural collapse that followed the explosion. "Listen, Red – Red Alert – this ain't your fault, you hear me?"
There is another silence, and Red Alert's voice is quieter when he responds.
"What are you talking about?"
"I ain't gonna make it out of here," Inferno says, and even though he's accepted it, putting words around the hopelessness of the situation sends a shudder right to his spark. "But it ain't your fault, so don't you dare go blamin' yourself, you hear me? It's been," he adds, trying to find words to put around something he can't even explain to himself, a deep regret aching in his processor, "a privilege workin' with you."
"I won't blame myself," replies Red Alert sharply, and despite himself Inferno flinches, because noble intentions or not, that's not something a body wants to hear. But the co-ordinator goes on without pausing, "I won't blame myself, because we will get out of this."
And that's why it's taken this long for Inferno to give up, that's why he doesn't feel so bad even now – because from the moment he got into trouble, the moment Red Alert came on the line and stayed, it's been we, and there's nothing – really nothing – that could mean as much.
He starts to try and explain that, tripping over the words – he's never been so good with these things – but Red Alert cuts him off.
"I think you must be on level sixteen."
It doesn't matter – he could be up in the thousands or somewhere down in the basements, it wouldn't alter the impossibility of rescue – but still, it's good to know that Red Alert has some idea of where he is, that he hasn't vanished from the living world completely.
"How'd you figure?"
"Based on your description of the room you fell into, there were five strong possibilities for your location. Three of them are now showing sufficiently high temperatures on my readouts that you would not still be functional if you were in one of them, and the fourth seems to have suffered further structural collapse in the last few minutes, which you have not reported."
"Naw, everythin's stable in here."
"Then you must, I deduce, be in the sixteenth level service hub." Red Alert's voice has risen slightly with suppressed excitement. "Can you see anything through the window in the north door?"
"Not from here."
"Then go over there! Hurry!"
Inferno doesn't really want to move, but he can't say no to that urgency, so he staggers to his feet and crosses the room. Waves of heat assault him as he approaches the northern side of the space. The walls are starting to warp inwards, and his thermal sensors are screeching warnings at him. He peers through the transparent window – must be double-reinforced to withstand this heat – into the chaos beyond.
"Nothin' but fire this way, Red."
"Can you see another set of doors straight ahead – approximately twenty metres from your position?"
Inferno swipes a finger across his optics again, clearing them as best he can, then turns up the sensitivity as far as he can bear it, and peers into the flames. Brightly coloured flashes warn him that he's risking burnout, but he catches a bare glimpse of the doors, and radios a confirmation.
"Good," mutters Red Alert. "Good. Okay. Inferno, I need you to get to those doors."
"What?" Inferno offlines his optics as much from shock as to give them a chance to recover. "Are you crazy? I'll melt down before I get three steps!"
"Not if you reroute your primary coolant lines to your sub-dermal network."
"I'm no medic!" Inferno protests, taking a step back from the heat and shaking his head, even though Red Alert can't see him over the comm link. "I got not a clue how to pull that sorta stunt!"
"I'll talk you through it." Red Alert's voice is louder, insistent. "It's your only chance, Inferno!"
"It's no chance at all! Even if I don't wind up cuttin' my own lines by mistake, if my core processor overheats while I'm in there I'll be dead before I hit the ground!"
"Your processor won't overheat. According to my calculations, with the correct modifications you should be able to survive eleven point five seven three seconds of those temperatures."
"It's crazy," Inferno repeats.
"It's better than--" and Red Alert falters, for the first time. After a moment, he says, "I wouldn't be telling you to do this if I thought there were no chance of success. Through that set of doors ahead of you is an area where the temperature gradient drops again. There is an open-shaft elevator system just beyond. It's acting to circulate cool air from the lower levels. If you can get into it, you can get down below the fire and I can navigate you to an exit we can recover you from."
"If those doors're sealed like this one, I'll never get 'em open in time."
"You'll have to shoot the hinges out as you run."
"That's... Primus, Red, it's a one in a million chance – if my core overheats 'fore I get there – if I can't get it open in time – if the backdraft from openin' the door sparks a flashover..."
"I calculate a less than thirty percent chance of that happening – there is sufficient ventilation in the intervening space that the volatiles have mostly escaped."
Inferno scrubs uselessly at his optics again. His ventilators are starting to creak and rattle; the filters are now so clogged with smoke particles they're barely functional. If they don't give out and plunge him into a slow systems failure, the heat in this room will gradually rise until his circuits start to melt one by one. Either would be a slow, painful way to go... but even so, the thought of plunging into that blaze, willingly, makes his spark quail.
I wouldn't be telling you to do this if I thought there were no chance of success.
We will get out of this.
"Alright," Inferno says before he can think about it any more. "Alright. What do I do?"
He doesn't understand everything Red Alert has him do – a terrifying sensation when he's mucking about with his own systems, especially as time is creeping away from him, the temperature climbing, his ventilation system rasping harsher and harsher – but Red's voice is controlled, only the barest hints of tension creeping around the words, and his instructions are clear. Inferno just lets his hands obey Red's commands, just focuses on his voice. The worst part is coding the subroutine that will temporarily rewire his regulators to flood coolant through his peripheral systems; on-the-fly coding has never been his strong point. He'd rather take a download from a mech who knows what he's doing, double and triple checked, any day, thanks. Red Alert talks him through that, too, having him go over the program twice to check for hidden bugs and infinite loops, before the co-ordinator is satisfied that it's safe to run. Once everything is prepared, Red Alert feeds him instructions on how to weaken the seal on the door in front of him without opening it. The metal is so hot under his hands that the dermal plating of his palms begins to melt before he's done.
"That's everything." Red Alert's voice is strained. "Next, you have to activate the subroutine, then open the door and... and run."
Inferno runs his smarting fingers over his scorched palms, looks through the window into the flames, can't even see the other door beyond them. He says nothing, but apparently he doesn't need to.
"Trust me," whispers Red Alert, pleading, commanding. "I'll be with you every step of the way."
He doesn't even stop to take a deep breath, to steel himself – doing so would give him too much time to balk – he activates the subroutine, and, with a yell so loud he feels it reverberating through his body, he throws himself at the door.
It bursts open and he's through – for a second he feels cold as he plunges into the flames, the first wash of coolant hitting his sensor relays – but it lasts a fraction of a second as fire licks up his calves, lashes into his face – he is running, straight ahead, not a second lost, even as he feels his plating starting to heat – starting to smoke – his core temperature is rising, panicked alarms shrieking in his audio receptors, in his head – he has never been inside a fire this hot, and even as he runs, there is a tiny part of him that marvels at the colours, the light, the purity of it – he doesn't remember raising his gun, but he's firing at where the hinges should be, hinges on the invisible door, lost in the fire – his optics have offlined in self-defence and he isn't sure if he's even running straight any more – a sheet of plating on his arm peels up with a shriek of tortured metal, and agony shoots into the circuits below--
He hits the door shoulder-first. It gives instantly under his weight. Blind, pained, burning, Inferno hits the floor and rolls to the side, just the way Red Alert told him to. Just the way... Red...
He can't turn off these alarms: they're too fundamental, their warning too critical. He can feel the smarting of melted plates, the sharp pain in his arm, the ping and crack of heated metal –
– but it's the fire inside him that's killing him, as his core temperature rockets up to lethal levels, as his processor fans start to fail, as his memory blocks start to succumb to corruption –
– it's too hard to think, to move, to do anything but lie there, hearing a muted roaring – is that the fire, or just his audios shorting out with the rest of his systems? He can't even feel fear, or regret, or...
"Shut down the subroutine!" His radio's still working; he can still hear Red Alert, frantic beyond all pretence of detachment. "Shut it down now! Can you hear me? INFERNO!"
Somehow he calls up the command code, activates it, lies there on the floor, listening to Red Alert's voice, unable to follow the words any more. Heat rushes over his plating and he thinks he must have messed up: he's too close to the flames, he's going to burn up anyway...
Then the alarms start to quiet, one by one. Inferno finds he can bring his optics back online, and does so. There's smoke above and around him, heat too uncomfortably close, flames licking through the open door – but he is not on fire, and his processor is functioning within an acceptable thermal range.
"Red?" he manages.
"Inferno!" Red Alert's voice, so controlled before, wavers and cracks, words tumbling over each other, "Oh, Primus, I thought you'd offlined – I thought– I thought–"
"Hush now, Red," Inferno gets out as he slowly, painfully struggles to his knees. "I'm okay. I'm okay. Just a mite scorched. You gotta calm down and talk me outta here, you got that?"
"I... of course, I'll... you need to get to the elevator system – it should be directly to your right, down a short passage."
Inferno can't walk, not right now, but he can crawl, and he does, down the passage, until he reaches the doors that Red Alert said would be there.
"There's an access panel... to the left and around the curve of the shaft... you won't get through the doors unless you trigger the emergency override... I'll guide you to the wires..."
He almost doesn't listen to what Red's saying, now; it's like he's found a way to let the instructions right into his processor so that his hands move according to Red's will instead of his own. Inferno watches with a vague sort of detachment as he sparks the correct wires, gets a shoulder into the newly-opened gap in the elevator doors, peers over into darkness.
It's a long way down. Inferno is tired, hurt, dizzy – but he is no longer trapped. There is a way out of here, so long as he keeps following Red's voice – and he's never been a quitter. He hauls himself over the edge and begins the climb down.
Later, he won't remember much of that hellish journey – won't remember climbing for what feels like miles in the darkness, won't remember keeping up a steady count of each floor he passes so that Red can gauge how far he's gone, won't remember hanging on with one hand as he fumbles for another access panel and forces another door. He'll have a vague impression of the dark, blessedly cool corridors he stumbles through – of the way every scrap of surface on his body stings and smokes, of the way he can feel plating melted out of shape on his back and legs – and he'll remember that he starts humming a stupid little tune towards the end of it, some part of him, through the exhaustion and the hurt, soaring with the joy of renewed hope.
What stays with him is Red Alert's voice, loud and quiet by turns – soothing, cajoling, commanding, demanding – keeping him going when he's on the verge of falling into stasis mid-step, directing him through turns and detours too dizzying to comprehend – and finally, finally, bringing him back to the light.
They're waiting for him when he reaches the exit – hands grab him and he yelps as they send more pain shooting through his damaged plating – voices, and someone claps a pain dampener on his wrist, and the relief is enough to bring him back to clarity. He's a block away from the burning tower – the flames are shooting ever higher, still, and he can see the network of firefighters working from the neighbouring buildings, struggling to contain it. If they're lucky, Iacon won't lose this whole suburb.
The medics are pushing him towards an evacuation vehicle, but Inferno shakes his head and breaks away, peering through smoke-dark optics until he spots the communications trailer. He waves aside the concern of his team-mates, pressing on until he's near enough to see the mech who's staring at him from the doorway.
The look on Red Alert's face will stay with him a long time after – relief, amazement, and a spark-shaking joy – and when Inferno finds out that this was his first assignment, he'll take that memory out and look at it again and thank Primus that he didn't give up, lie down and die back there in the fire.
Inferno stops in front of Red Alert – taking in that the other is smaller than him, uncertain in stance, the colours of the fire brigade still new on him – and then he thinks about how he must look, half-melted, covered in soot – and he can't help it, he's laughing aloud. Red Alert jumps, looks almost affronted, and that is just too impossibly endearing. Inferno stifles his laughter and steps in close.
"Anyone ever tell you, you got a beautiful voice?"
Without waiting for a reply, Inferno catches hold of him, lifts him up, kisses him. He kisses Red Alert until he feels like his processor is overheating again; until Red is kissing back wildly, sounds that are half sobs escaping his vocaliser; until Inferno is sure, absolutely sure, that he is alive.