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A House Is Not a Home

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Shiro had been on this assignment for only three months before he’d decided he’d gotten the short end of the stick.

Being discharged from the military, whether honorably or not, didn’t leave a lot of options for one’s future. Add on the amputation of his dominant arm and barely handled PTSD, and his options dwindled yet further. There were programs, there was support, but nothing clicked. Financially he was fine, between his savings, disability and retirement, and he had friends and family at home. The problem was that “home” didn’t feel like “home” anymore.

It felt immensely disassociative to live in an apartment, by himself, in a quiet neighborhood. There was a surreal quality to determining his own hours, sleeping in a soft bed, picking an outfit every day, eating food he prepared himself with the option for further variety if he wanted to. He could leave when he wanted, return when he wanted, mostly because he was on his own. He was alone, and directionless. His daily life held no real purpose, especially no shared purpose.

He saw his therapist regularly, and considered medication. He went to physical therapy, and occupational therapy with his cumbersome new prosthesis. He had lunch with his friends and dinner with his Mom. He went grocery shopping, and he went to the gym. He even saw a movie, once, which wound up being a mistake – alone in the dark with flashing lights and echoing sound. But the point was, he tried. He tried to live as normal a life as possible. He didn’t try to return to who he was before boot camp or before deployment, he knew better than that, at least. He just tried to… adjust, in every way, to only having one hand, to having too much freedom, to living in a quiet, peaceful world in which he contributed nothing.

When he’d been approached in a bar, offered a job, offered a return to the life he’d been forced to leave, he’d been weak. He’d caved, and given in. All it had taken was a few weeks, casual meetings in broad daylight with like-minded people, and the magic words, “Nothing’s changed. Not you, not the job, just the employer.” He’d been sold. The offer of the newest advancements in prosthesis technology, returning him to almost 100% mobility, was just the cherry on top.

The transition hadn’t been easy. He’d had to get trained up again, fighting fit, but he wasn’t alone. He was in a company again, a part of something, with people who understood. People who didn’t look at where his arm should be, at the flat look in his eyes, and see something sad that needed to be fixed. They saw a whole man, a man with worth and purpose, and it did more for him than a soft bed and therapy ever did.

He left his lie of a life and returned to his truth. He’d said goodbye to his mother, and his friends, and left a story spun in his wake. He’d told them he’d found a consulting job overseas where his experience would be invaluable, and he comforted himself with the knowledge that there was some truth to that. He Skyped his Mother nearly every week, and talked to her over the phone more often than that to allay her fears; seeing her son come home a broken, quiet man had done enough damage. He found he didn’t have to fake his cheer as much anymore – he was genuinely content, for the first time in almost a year.

But now, three months in, Shiro was discovering that while he hadn’t changed, the game had.

He was fine with advances in weaponry. That was standard, predictable, a matter of finding the best way to counteract – different armor, moving the placement of trenches, changing camouflage, utilizing new technology. He was even accepting of changes in tactics and strategy; he didn’t always agree with them, but he acknowledged that they were necessary.

What he didn’t agree with, was attempting to alter the soldiers.

It had been an issue even before he was in the service. Rumors about how foreign powers were experimenting with genetic mutations and manipulations – how some countries had succeeded. How his own home country had decided to try it, however many reassurances they gave about informed consent and only experimenting on grown adults and not embryos. They talked about applications outside the military, treating mental and medical conditions by altering people on the genetic level.

At the time, Shiro had disagreed fundamentally. It was wrong. For every life it saved, there were more that were destroyed. People who died. People who were made into something they were never meant to be, whether by accident or by design.

Then they began to work with splicing – taking human DNA and working animal DNA into the gaps. At first, just for cosmetic reasons; eyes like a cat’s, a jaw and teeth like a snake’s, hair like a horse’s. It was like the new plastic surgery: status, celebrity, aesthetics, all the pathetic and superficial things Shiro had never been interested in. It gained traction, it became publicly acceptable, and then, inevitably, it had been weaponized.

The soldiers Shiro fought with weren’t always fully human, now. The majority of his colleagues were human, sure, people who’d left, gone rogue, returned to their roots, rebelled against a system they no longer agreed with. But some of them were the result of something else. Something wrong, something they’d never agreed to, products of a machine that pushed for results too hard, too quick.

And there were more on the other side. Victims turned into aggressors, full of rage, and more often than not, humans who had forgotten their own humanity and the humanity of the victim they now treated as weapon. It didn’t matter that these Spliced humans often looked and sounded and acted like humans; there were people who saw only their genetic make-up, and the advantages they afforded.

He’d seen and even killed men and women in collars and restraints, nearly feral with pain and rage, submitting to their baser animal instincts. Some of them were young… too young. The result of breeding Spliced humans like dogs, trying to merge the best of both combined species. The majority of the time they found these Young, there was no hope for them. They were feral, or they couldn’t survive for long before their bodies failed, but more often than not, the enemy would rather destroy the weapon than allow it to fall into the wrong hands. He’d seen more dead children here, than he’d ever done in the service.

They’d warned him that the assignment would be a long-term one. That it was more complicated than he was used to, even if it seemed superficially simple. Radicals hiding out in the Ural mountains and Caucasus, the steppes of Kazakhstan, hunting down extremists that had turned into terrorists, destroying villages, homes and crops instead of the governments or political parties they’d raged against. It had still sounded like relatively honest work, even without the details, without understanding the conflicts; there were families in danger, families he could protect, lives he could potentially save. He wanted to do that again. He wanted it so badly he’d taken the assignment.

And now, three months in, and he was beginning to realize he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Even his colleagues agreed it was a bad job, probably the worst they’d been on. Out of everybody in his company, he was the only one with a life he could return to; the rest of them had taken the job without being romanced into it. They’d taken the job they knew nobody else would want, the job with an abysmally low opportunity for success, the job with no deadline for extraction. They bit the bullet for the rest with families, with futures, with other chances and opportunities. It looked like a suicide mission, and Shiro was the only idiot who had gone into it optimistically, altruistically. After these three months, that notion of doing good was crippled and beginning to wane.

That wasn’t to say that he never got what he wanted out of it. He got to do what he’d always excelled at, and he had slowly but steadily regained the family he had lost, brothers and sisters in arms, back to back, fighting for the lives of others. He’d seen incredible views, visited places he’d never seen or even heard of, tried foods he’d never even considered. He’d met grandfathers and grandmothers, families, children, and been welcomed into their homes. He’d gotten to know people he never would have met, and save their lives for at least one more day. He’d gotten teary-eyed smiles, and gratitude in languages he didn’t even know. But he was starting to learn. He was starting to get to know these people, their home, their language, their culture. Late at night, unable to sleep for fear or pain, he thought about those people. The people he’d met and helped. Thought of the kids that would grow up with both parents – the kids who would grow up at all.

It was hard, sometimes, to remember his reward. Harder on long nights where the fight seemed interminable, and he wasn’t able to see the changes he’d made in the bigger picture. Harder still when they lost their own and had to learn new faces. He hadn’t missed that.

Still, it was always the little things, the things you never could have anticipated, that changed your life. The things you never recognized as a new beginning until years after the fact. That’s how it always began and today, in a foreign country, three months and ten days into a miserable and very illegal assignment, in the middle of someone else’s war, was going to be no different.

He was in the middle of his lunch when it happened, a normal if not necessarily daily occurrence of Kolivan showing up at his camp with news. Kolivan led a small group of localized rebels from outlying villages that had separated from the extremists a year or so back called the Marmora; they specialized in guerrilla warfare and even nomadic strategies on horseback, using illegally obtained government-grade weapons and sometimes even basic farm equipment solely to protect homesteads and prevent being swallowed by “territories” that attempted to establish themselves. He was an imposing man, tall and broad and perpetually unsmiling, and carried himself with military tension. Shiro never asked if he’d ever served for any side before, and didn’t consider it necessary. It was obvious enough to Shiro.

“Kolivan,” Shiro greeted, setting aside his bowl and getting to his feet, taking Kolivan’s offered hand in one of his own. “Always good to see you alive and kicking. What can we do for you?”

“Walk with me,” Kolivan said without preamble, and turned to stride away. The soldiers eating a few feet away looked up at that, curious, but Shiro just shrugged and waved off their attention, falling into step with Kolivan.

“We took an outpost, two nights ago,” Kolivan began. “High in the mountains, rural. Barely military at all. But they had some of Them… the Galra.” Shiro frowned, understanding Kolivan’s concern. Here Splices were referred to as ‘Galra’, creatures without humanity, and a lot of times they were right; Splices went feral here, more often than not. Abused, neglected, often times restrained and kept in cages like dogs, starved and trained into aggression, it was no wonder. Add active combat to the mix and it was almost a foregone conclusion. But usually these Galra were property of larger groups with greater resources and traction, with access to Splicing facilities. Not rural outposts in the mountains.

“Guard dogs…?” Shiro asked, always reluctant to use the phrase. Kolivan nodded.

“There were some. But there more inside, not guards, not trained… Young. A breeding facility, we think, remote to keep their research classified.”

Shiro swallowed. “Were there any…?” Usually, those outfits with viable Young would rather ‘destroy the sample’ than risk it falling into enemy hands. They would rather execute children in cold-blood than allow anyone even the possibility of the upper hand. Blessedly, Kolivan nodded.

“Our ambush was successful. They did not have the time or the ability to terminate their research, and that includes the Young. The only Galra who died were those that were loose and able to attack. It was unavoidable. We captured many, human and Galra, but some escaped. We’re concerned for the villages in the area… some of the escapees were Galra.”

“So you would like us to participate in a search and retrieve,” Shiro said, already knowing the answer and plotting the logistics. “How many people would I need, what area are we going to need to cover…? What Galra are we looking at, what sort of containment?”

“From what we saw, we shouldn’t have lost many. It was a small operation, and most of the Galra were killed in action. There shouldn’t be more than a handful of humans and Galra still on the loose. The few Galra we encountered showed few distinguishing species markers… a few of them may have been big cats, one roared and another had claws and a long tail. We’re still taking stock of the casualties and the prisoners; you are welcome to question those humans we took, but I think hunting down the escapees while we question them would be the best use of your time and skills. As for manpower, I leave that to you.”

Shiro agreed. They headed back into the camp, and his four most reliable colleagues were already suited up and ready to go. The sight brought an amused tilt to his mouth as Kolivan stalked past him to his mount, and set out ahead of them. “Kolivan just brought us a hunting expedition. Anyone interested?”

“The fuck does it look like?” Asked Pidge, the smallest in their company, as she knuckled her combat goggles up her nose. She was small, but every ounce of her was piss and vinegar. She was their technical engineer and one of their chief strategists, but every person in their company pulled their weight in combat.

“What are we looking at?” Hunk, Pidge’s technical contemporary and enormous shadow, was their heavy weapons expert. He was as huge as Pidge was small, but his nervous disposition made him seem much smaller than his stature implied. He was a ball of anxiety off the field and a perfectionist on top of that, but drop him into an active situation and he was cool as a cucumber and hurtled around like a juggernaut. Shiro had seen him throw down a horse, once, though he’d regretted hurting the animal after the fact.

“A Marmora outfit took out a research facility in the mountains two days ago, but weren’t expecting as many Splices as they found. There were some escapees, Kolivan estimates less than ten total, human and Splice. Says they’re still investigating, but want those escapees off the map and in custody sooner rather than later. They scattered down the mountain, but some of the Splices may have made it to civilization by now. He mentioned some might have been big cat varieties, but no guarantees on the rest. Most of the more aggressive Splices were neutralized on contact, it seems.”

“Research facility?” Pidge asked. “What kind of research are we talking here, if they had big cats as guard dogs?”

“Breeding,” Shiro admitted, jaw clenched. He turned to Ulaz as soon as he said it, knowing how he felt. “Kolivan says the Young are safe, for now. They weren’t able to terminate them before Kolivan took command of the outpost. There’s no guarantee they’ll all survive, but at least none were killed.”

Ulaz’s shoulders visibly relaxed. He didn’t say much about his personal life, but the way he handled children and families spoke volumes. He was confident and respectful, and nothing brought out the fight in him like a threat to a child. The few times they’ve had to deal with dead or dying children or Young, it had been he and Ulaz that saw to their final moments and burial. It had created a bond between them that didn’t require knowing each other personally; what they’d shared out here was enough to cement a friendship and a type of mutual command over their company. If Shiro was absent, Ulaz took command, and the company respected them both.

“Sounds like it should be a nice jaunt,” Coran piped up, eyes squinting and red mustache curling up with a smile. “Nothing like the bracing mountain air to get the blood pumping!” Coran was not only their chief medic and field surgeon but their morale, and served as a sort of father figure to their little company, minding meals and sleep schedules and acting the part of counselor for those that struggled. Everyone in camp knew that if they were struggling, they could always go to Coran for advice or an ear to bend. It had cutdown on their mortality rate, even. Men were less likely to eat a bullet or recklessly abandon their lives with someone who cared close by – and Coran made sure they all knew he cared, in his own raucous way, getting to know everyone by name and interacting with them personally. Shiro wondered, sometimes, where he found the energy after all these years – but someone in their line of business didn’t get to be Coran’s age by luck or accident.

“So while they babysit, we have to clean house,” Pidge said wryly. “Nice of them to give us the work, I guess. Put food on the table.” Shiro shot her a look, and she held her hands up peaceably. “I get it, I get it. Do the job you have the skills for. Wouldn’t want them setting up our satellite arrays either, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Pidge had her own mixed feelings about Splices, undoubtedly stemming from something personal, and she and Shiro had talked about it often enough now that she’d already memorized his reply. Shiro didn’t mind it; it meant familiarity, and no hard feelings. “Food on the table means Hunk’s cooking,” he pointed out with a grin, earning a shy smile from Hunk in return. “Worth it.”

“Worth it,” the rest of them agreed.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

They met with Kolivan at the Marmora camp, and were briefed again before heading up the mountain, with the promise of information relayed as they discovered it. Pidge saw to the communications relay, with Hunk’s assistance in testing range, and Kolivan adapted as he always seemed to. He sent them off with additional supplies, and wished them luck in the usual way.

“Don’t die. It would be a hassle having to coordinate with someone new.”

They decided to split up and work the mountain in a grid, from the outpost down. They got lucky right out the gate, and found one of the humans had circled back to hole up in the ruins of the outpost. They didn’t gather any new information, just a wild-eyed explanation that he had “freed the Volkodav” and knew it wouldn’t return here. He refused to leave until coerced, convinced that leaving the outpost would mean making himself vulnerable to whatever he had “freed”.

“He says you cannot understand. He has set the Volkodav free, and it’s rage knows no mercy, it fears only this place,” the Marmora guide had translated for them.

“What’s a Volkodav?” Pidge asked.

“It means ‘Wolf-Crusher’,” Ulaz translated quietly. They all shared a look. With a Splice, there was no telling how well it’s DNA was mixed; it was almost always skewed to one side or the other, no matter how many species they tried to add to the mix. They could look human, or look like a monster. With a name like the Wolf-Crusher, it seemed likely it would be closer to the monster end of the spectrum.

They’d sent the man down the mountain with the guide, hearing his defeated wails of fear long after they’d disappeared into the mist. It was a haunting sign of what awaited them on this mission.

It was painstaking tracking work, and agonizing having to rely on Ulaz’s half understanding of the rural mountain languages to get new leads, but in less than a week they’d found four humans and two Splices, one already dead and one almost there, and sent them back to the Marmora camp. There was no hope for the remaining living Splice, and Shiro knew it. They all knew it. It’s legs had been broken in a fall down the mountain, infection had set in. It was already rabid with pain and fever, and who knew how long the miserable creature had been trapped that way. The only solace Shiro could find was in knowing that in their final hours, they’d be treated as human, as what they were meant to be. He hoped, as always, it would set their soul at peace.

“We’ve received word from one of the local farm villages,” Kolivan’s voice muttered gruffly in his earpiece, dropping in and out with the mountain’s interference. “They’ve found a body. They won’t go near it to confirm whether it’s human or Galra. They say it’s been there a few days.”

“Any chance it’s the Volkodav?” Shiro asked, frowning. They’d worked the grid almost to completion, but it was tough to know when the job was done when there was no way of knowing how many people and Splices he was looking for. He, personally, decided he wouldn’t feel he was finished until he’d found the one they’d called Wolf-Crusher. Something with a name like that couldn’t be allowed to roam this mountain.

“No way of knowing,” Kolivan sighed. “The man could barely describe it. He said it was a pale spirit haunting the road, laying in wait for travelers. They weren’t allowing anyone in or out of the village until it left.” Kolivan’s voice gave nothing away to indicate whether he believed in the same superstitions or no; after fighting as long as they had, it either went one way or the other. Either you believed in anything, or nothing.

“Alright, message received. We’ll make that our next stop. Let them know we’re a day out, but we’ll be there to take care of it,” Shiro conceded with a sigh of his own.

Pidge groaned from beside him and threw herself backwards into the dirt. “Another one? How many of these assholes did Kolivan lose up here?”

“It’s on our grid anyway,” Hunk attempted to appease. “Besides, farming villages are the best. They have all the best supplies to barter.”

“We may not even have to barter,” Coran interjected optimistically. “Perhaps just removing the body will be enough! Imagine, chickens… eggs… grain…”

Pidge whined. “You guys know all my weaknesses. Why am I so cheap?”

“The company would probably beg to differ,” Ulaz pointed out wryly. “Bet they pay extra just because you can set up the wifi.”

“False. They get a discount because I’m trial-sized,” Pidge huffed back, throwing a twig at where Ulaz sat across from her. Ulaz didn’t look very impressed.

“Fun-sized,” Hunk encouraged. “Like a little mini Snickers.”

“Oh my God that sounds so good. I’m gonna get someone back home to send me some,” Pidge declared.

Shiro listened in on their good-natured bickering, looking over their grid and thinking about his own people at home. He’d told his mother he’d be out of touch for a week, going camping with some friends from work. Another in a long line of white lies he couldn’t really bring himself to regret.

The sooner he got back to base camp, the sooner he could Skype her and tell her all about how safe and happy he was.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

True to his estimation, they arrived at the opposite side of the farming village in about a day, and were met by an older man who was probably Coran’s age but hard-living and war made him look much older. Kolivan was there beside the man, serving as liaison.

“I took a look myself, from a distance,” Kolivan admitted. “They wouldn’t allow me any closer and still allow me back into the village, for fear of possession. I doubt very much that this is the one you’re looking for, but they’re definitely from the outpost judging by their clothing.” His mouth tightened into a line as they walked through the quiet village, the people hushed by fear. “I will warn you in advance, the body is… small.”

Shiro paled, and both he and Ulaz stumbled to a stop. “You told me you’d gotten all the Young,” Shiro said, trying to keep the accusatory tone from his voice. “Were there children – human children, too?”

Kolivan shook his head, half turning to face the two of them. “No, no children. All the Young had been kept in the nursery, or so we thought. There was nothing to indicate otherwise, but perhaps, one might have…”

Shiro let his breath shudder out of him as his eyes fell shut, feeling a weight in his gut that wasn’t there before. “Dammit. Dammit, okay. Thanks for the head’s up.” When he opened his eyes, his expression was firm. “I’ll go. Ulaz, stay here with the team and Kolivan. I’ll let you know what we’re looking at.”

“Sir yes sir,” Ulaz replied quietly, snapping off a salute, and standing back with their team, now as hushed and somber as the rest of the village. Kolivan stayed behind as well, watching Shiro walk the main road out of the village, towards the tree that served as a marker for the body, his gun unslung from his shoulder and nestled in his arms.

It was a long, quiet walk, and Shiro felt his gut sink with every step. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to do this. A body tally on the field. Retrieving members of his own company. Identifying whatever was left of one of their own. But this, walking down this road to what was almost certainly the body of a child, that had been laying here for days… unnoticed, unmissed, no wailing parents begging him to bring home their baby… it was something else.

No child deserved to die alone like this. No child deserved to be feared and forgotten in their final moments.

Grit crunching under his boots, he finally came up on the body, lain out where it was on the side of the road, like they’d just collapsed mid-stride, and maybe they had. In terms of all the grisly sights war had afforded him, this one wasn’t so bad. They weren’t bloated, despite laying in the sun, and whatever wounds they’d taken weren’t immediately visible, under the loose T-shirt and military surplus trousers; under the dirt from the mountain, caked blood, ants and flies. They still had both their arms, twisted and pinned under their body, and both their legs, sprawled out long with their ankles hooked together like they’d tripped over their own feet. He couldn’t tell their sex right away, they were so thin, their dark hair a long mop surrounding their head, ruffled by the stiff mountain breeze.

Shiro swallowed, listening to the flies buzz around the body, taking in the preternatural stillness of the gnarled fingers. His throat felt tight, and the usual sting was in his eyes. Kolivan was right. The body was small. Too small to be an adult. The laces of their boots were wrapped so many times around the skinny ankles…

He took a deep breath, and slung his weapon back over his shoulder, dropping to a slow crouch by the head and preparing himself to take on the weight of this child’s dead face for the rest of his life. He always remembered. He reached down with his remaining flesh and blood hand, and moved the heavy mass of hair away from their face.

“Oh goddamit,” he choked out, his voice tight and small, agonized. “It’s a kid,” he explained for Ulaz’s sake. Just a kid. Maybe twelve, at most. Despite the gauntness of the face, their cheeks and jaw were softened with puppy fat. Their eyes were mostly shut, thankfully not open and glassy with that vacant stare Shiro had seen so many times in the faces of the dead, worse when they’d clouded over after a few days. It was the face of someone who should be smiling in school photos – not crusted over with blood and dirt on the side of the road. He turned his hand over to smooth his fingers through the thick hair, as if he could do any good here anymore. “Goddamnit, sweetheart. Goddamnit.”

Moving the hair revealed more that Shiro didn’t want to know, exposing the side of their face and the long slope of their neck – his face, his neck, as he could make out an early Adam’s apple protruding above the loose dog collar locked around his throat. His ears were horribly scarred, cropped into points like someone would do with a pit bull.

He was a Young. A child. A product of that disgusting facility on the mountain.

Don’t think about it, Shiro told himself even as his breath gasped out of him. Don’t think about what could have been. He couldn’t help himself, his breath punching out of him as he realized this child had been born and bred to fight, had never known a family. He would never go to school, or get his heart broken by a girl. Even before he’d died all alone in the middle of nowhere, his life had been cut short.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, all he could get out, and gently clasped his hand over the cold throat and the collar around it. “You deserved better, sweetheart. I am so sorry.”

He then almost immediately pissed himself, freezing as he felt a rattle in the boy’s throat.

It could be anything, and Shiro knew this. A death rattle - he could have shifted the body somehow, and the air remaining in his lungs had been forced out. It could be vermin activity, insect activity. The boy had been laying here, in the sun for at least two days. Suffering and struggling down the mountain for days before that, all on his own, unprepared. There was no way…

He flipped the boy’s body onto his back regardless, letting him sprawl as he put his ear over his mouth, and his flesh hand over his bony ribs, over his heart, and waited. There, a slow shallow bump under his palm, a ghost of breath over his ear. He ripped himself back up, putting his hands on the boy’s face, slapping at cold, hollow cheeks as he spoke to Ulaz. “He’s alive, Jesus Christ, he’s alive! C’mon kid, wake up, look at me, look at me!” There was still no reaction, but he didn’t stop, terrified that he’d made the wrong call, the boy was dead, he’d wanted him to live so badly that his mind had given him something when there was nothing there.

There was the pounding of boots and sudden shadows cast over him. “Are you sure?” Coran asked first, getting to his knees beside him, and dropping his field pack.

“I, I don’t know, I’m pretty sure, I felt him breathe-” Shiro stammered, skittering to the side to give Coran room to maneuver.

“That’s a fucking Splice,” Pidge muttered, seeing the collar. “Holy fucking shit, how…”

“He’s just a kid,” Shiro barked.

“Are you sure we should be this close?” Hunk asked. “He’s not restrained, we don’t know if he’s feral…”

“Get him up, let me see his face,” Coran commanded, and Shiro shifted his grip to behind the boy’s neck, hauling the limp, unresponsive body up against his chest. The boy’s head lolled, unresponsive as Coran pressed a stethoscope over his chest, then held two fingers to his wrist. “I have a pulse and heartbeat,” Coran announced without fanfare, then leaned up and pried one of the boy’s eyes open, shining a penlight into it.

The boy gave another shuddering breath, followed by what was almost a whine of fear.

“Fuck!” Pidge exclaimed. “What the fuck!”

“What do we do?” Hunk asked, terrified.

Shiro let Ulaz take command as he cradled the small, bloodied body to his own. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” he murmured soothingly, knowing the boy likely spoke no English if he even spoke at all, hoping the sound of his voice would be enough. He patted the boy’s cheek, wiping ants and blood away. “You did it, you made it, you’re okay, buddy, you’re safe.”

The boy’s eyes were bleary, unfocused and still lidded heavily, but Shiro could see now that they were a deep, deep blue-grey, and there was still life in them. He smiled, hoping it came across as gentle, comforting, but the boy didn’t seem to see it, his eyes slowly falling back shut.

They weren’t burying a child today. Today was a good day.