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A House Is Not a Home

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The village wouldn’t allow them back in with the Young in tow, and to be honest Kolivan didn’t look that enthused about this development either, especially with the thick, heavy dog collar around the boy’s neck.

Even Hunk wouldn’t be able to carry the boy all the way back to base camp, and Shiro wouldn’t do that to the poor man anyway; Hunk was already terrified of Splices, and having one in his arms, no matter how small or weak, would probably give him a heart attack. Shiro wasn’t that eager to give him up regardless, but conceded the boy needed more care than they could provide in the field if he was going to make it.

Coran had given him a once over once they’d made camp. Shiro had been right in his initial impressions; a Splice, a boy, a child. The boy had had a rough week, by all accounts – Coran found bullet wounds, scratches and gouges that appeared to be from a fight with another Splice or an animal in the wild, deeper ones from what was probably a knife. Bruises and scrapes from tumbling down the mountain. Dehydrated, malnourished, scarred from whatever the outpost had done to bring him to heel, he was a mess. “His chances aren’t good,” Coran admitted, trying to remain cool about the possibility as he washed his hands. “He either can’t or won’t take water, so our best bet is to get him to the Marmora camp and have him hooked up to an IV. Once we get his fluids churning again, his heart will beat better, his lungs will work harder, and his body can start to heal.”

Shiro looked to Kolivan, who had stood by, watching as Coran did his best with what he had on hand. The boy looked to have bled himself dry, but Coran still cleaned and bandaged what he could, including a deep gouge to one cheek, nearly exposing his teeth.

“What is he?” Kolivan asked, and everyone understood what he was asking.

“I would say canid, going by his cropped ears and dentition,” Coran replied. “I can’t say for certain, or if he’s mixed with anything else, but my guess is primarily dog or wolf. Hard to distinguish between the two without genetic testing.”

Kolivan’s eyes narrowed, and Shiro tried to put himself in the man’s shoes. Remove himself from his emotions. He wanted to argue But he’s just a boy! even as he knew it wasn’t as simple as that. Shiro was responsible for a company of 30, at most, people motivated by money or desperation. Kolivan was responsible for hundreds, women and children among those, unified by culture and need for freedom. It wasn’t as simple as saving a child; he was risking exposing his people to danger. The boy was dying, now, but if he healed him, gave him back his strength…? The boy would either be an asset or absolute chaos.

“I will take the Galra,” Kolivan decided. “I would like you to stay and continue your hunt.”

“We agree that’s the best course of action,” Ulaz spoke on Shiro’s behalf. “If you give us one of your men, and allow Coran to return with you, I think that would be mutually beneficial. He has the most surgical experience and is familiar with Splices.” Kolivan was nodding before Ulaz even finished.

“It’s agreed. We’ll leave now, make the best of the light we have left.” He spoke coarsely to several of his Marmora contingent, gesturing at the still form of the Young and Coran beside him, giving instructions.

As the Marmora prepared for departure, Shiro couldn’t help but keep his eyes on the boy. Who knew how close it would be, if the boy would survive the trip; this may be the last time he laid eyes on the boy. He’d never had a call this close, where he’d been sent to retrieve a body and instead of returning to tears and wailing, returned with hope and new life. So many of the children they found on the field had no future; dead, dying, or else dead on the inside. He had a chance, for the first time, to change the direction of this child’s life, and he wanted it – he wanted just the chance. He wanted to make a real, tangible difference in a life that he could see. Sending him away to the Marmora camp with Coran was the boy’s best shot.

Not a boy. A Splice. A mutant. He’s small, but dangerous enough to survive this long, to have made it on his own on the mountain for a week against all odds.

Shiro knew it. He did. But it didn’t stop him from taking a few covert photos on his phone, or watching after the contingent as they rode away with the boy in restraints, across Coran’s lap. Ulaz said nothing against him, clapping his shoulder then leaving him alone.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Coran radioed as often as possible to keep Shiro updated on the boy’s condition, and the closer they got to the foot of the mountain, the clearer and longer the calls became.

The boy was faring well, better than Coran had estimated. The IV was doing wonders. They’d cleaned him up head to toe, and Coran had even called him a “handsome little heartbreaker of a lad”. He hadn’t regained full consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time, but so far his reactions had been dazed, or lackluster; taking in his surroundings, his restraints, and then staring at the wall or the ceiling until he lost consciousness again. Coran wasn’t sure if that indicated an issue with his emotional state, mental acuity or physical health. The boy’s wounds were healing well, cleaned and redressed often, and IV antibiotics helping the boy from the inside out as well. He had been undernourished for some time, longer than just a week, and dehydrated on top of that – Coran theorized that food and water had been a means of controlling him, to whatever end.

But the boy was alive. He had that chance that Shiro had wanted for him. Everything else they could deal with. They had the time, now.

It was closing on two weeks, they’d expanded their grid, and they still had yet to find more living escapees, let alone another Splice built anything like a ‘Wolf-Crusher’. Shiro was beginning to fear the creature had gone to ground, waiting them out. If it was intelligent, it may very well have returned to the gutted outpost by now, or else decided on a rotation of villages for resources. They’d found two more dead humans, another dead Splice, but no signs of the one they called Volkodav. If it hadn’t been for corroborating reports from other prisoners, he would have thought the creature a superstitious myth, or a wild goose chase meant to divert their attention and resources.

Shiro was beginning to contemplate returning to the outpost, when a call from Coran came in. “Hey, Coran. Might have some less than pleasant news on my end. Hopefully you have some good news to even it out,” he greeted distractedly, rearranging their grid.

There was an uncharacteristic pause, and Coran’s voice sounded too high, deliberately light-hearted. “Actually, my news might make your news somewhat irrelevant,” he said. Shiro frowned.

“How do you mean?” Shiro asked, and his heart suddenly sank into his gut. Was it the boy, had he taken a turn for the worse, was there now nothing for Shiro to rush back to…? “Is it the Young, is he…?”

“It’s, uh, it’s to do with him, yes,” Coran hemmed, and Shiro could picture him fiddling with his pen the way he always did.

Shiro swallowed, and forced himself to ask, “Is he dead?” His flat, neutral tone made Ulaz look up from across their small camp, Pidge and Hunk exchanging mixed looks.

“No. He’s not dead. But, uh, there’s… there’s some, uh, news, as you put it,” Coran chattered on. “We’ve been gathering intel from the other prisoners, the researchers and the guards and the Young who are capable of communication, you know, getting a feel for their operation, their objectives, breeding methods-”

“Coran,” Shiro growled warningly, and the man began to talk even faster.

“– and Kolivan wasn’t able to get files but he did get the lead researcher to cooperate and basically assemble files from scratch, you know, we won’t have all the medical knowledge like sample sizes or number of trials, but, uh, he’s been taking the man around and having him name each member of his team and most importantly give information regarding the Young that the Marmora have taken into custody and the Splices that we found in the mountains, and uh, it turns out-”

“Coran, spit it out, or I swear to God-”

“We found him,” Coran blurted out. “We found the Volkodav.”

Shiro felt the blood drain from his face, his false hand tightening on his knee. “He… he was at the camp the whole time?” Jesus. How long? Could he pass as human?

“Yes and no,” Coran answered unhelpfully. “I’m sorry, you have to understand, I’m struggling with this too, I-”

“Is he one of the dead?” Shiro interrupted. “Is he… was he one of the humans we saved?”

“No, Shiro,” Coran said, gentle but firm. “It’s the boy. The lead researcher identified him, and so did members of the staff and some of the Young. The boy is the one they called Volkodav.”

“The boy,” Shiro said, blankly, numb. “The boy I found on the side of road.”

“The canid Splice, yes,” Coran reminded, sounding as though the information pained him too. “I’m sorry.”

“Is this a joke,” Shiro growled lowly. “Are we talking about the same scrawny kid we took for dead? The child even Pidge could benchpress twice over?”

“You didn’t see their faces, Shiro,” Coran said, his voice gaining some steel. “They fear him. They don’t seem to care that he’s half your size and weight. They’ve seen some part of him that we haven’t, Shiro. A part we might come face to face with as he heals and regains his strength.”

Shiro exhaled heavily, angrily, through his nose. “So that’s it. The search is over. We found him, and it’s the most disappointing find of the century.”

“Yes,” Coran confirmed. “Kolivan would like you to return as soon as you finish the grid, just to be safe, but the choice is yours, of course. I understand… if you’d rather be here.”

Shiro sighed again, this time deflating. “No. We’ll finish here. Shouldn’t be more than a day or two left on the search. Better safe than sorry.”

“I am sorry, Shiro,” Coran said, softly.

“I am too,” Shiro admitted, for more than just the news and his resulting response. “I’ll see you in a couple days, Coran, thank you. You performed a miracle with that Splice. Good work.”

Coran didn’t comment on how quickly ‘the boy’ had become ‘the Splice’. “Thank you, sir. Looking forward to your arrival. Can’t wait to go home, if I’m to be honest.”

Coran didn’t mean where he’d been born or raised, and Shiro understood. “I’ll drink to that. Until tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow.”

____________________________________________________________________________

Coran stopped radioing with updates on the boy’s progress, and Shiro never solicited any after receiving the news. A part of him still didn’t believe that a boy so small could wear a name so heavy. It had to be a false information campaign, to keep them from searching for the real Volkodav. It was ludicrous to think that a child would ever earn a name like that, inspire fear in other children, in grown adults. Stupid, really. Unbelievable.

But Coran wouldn’t have passed it along if he didn’t at least believe it was true, himself. He would have laughed at it, commiserated with Shiro, over this surely implausible theory. Instead he’d tried to soften the blow, knowing how invested Shiro was in the boy’s survival. He’d struggled with telling Shiro.

Shiro felt betrayed. He felt lied to. Even though the boy had never spoken, or indicated what or who he was, Shiro still felt deceived. Like he had saved a life he maybe was never meant to save. Like he had prioritized the survival of a criminal over an innocent citizen – saved the wrong person.

It occupied his mind the entire trip, through the end of the grid, to the foot of the mountain, and back to the Galra base camp. Ulaz had never been a talker, but Pidge and Hunk made sure to keep their conversations private, speaking in low voices as if they didn’t want to interrupt Shiro’s thoughts. He hadn’t exactly been subtle about his interest in the boy and his future. They were trying to be respectful in their own way. He was grateful. He had a good family who cared about him.

Having time and space on the way back to the Marmora encampment helped him come to terms with his emotions, put logic and feeling back in their proper place. It wasn’t fair to blame a child for being bred to become what he was… he was likely just the Young of two Splices who didn’t even know each other at all, only had viable and valuable genes. The boy hadn’t been given a choice, or even a chance at anything else; if the boy was the Volkodav, it wasn’t because he necessarily wanted to be.

Coran and Kolivan were there to greet them, and Kolivan informed them in his usual stern way that a dinner had been planned for them to celebrate their hard work and success. Shiro tried not to wince at the word ‘success’. It didn’t feel like it, anymore.

“You can see him, if you like,” Coran had offered, once Kolivan had excused himself. “He’s well on the mend, and no longer in the medical ward.”

“Where is he being kept?” Shiro made himself ask, trying to be a neutral party. The boy was a captive, an enemy combatant; it was important that he didn’t forget that, again.

Coran’s eyes slid away. “They chose to keep him separate from the rest of the recovered Young and the prisoners, for the obvious reason. He’s been confined to the outskirts of the camp for the time being, until we can better judge his abilities… his character.”

Despite all that had come to light, Shiro’s heart still gave a twinge and faltered. After all was said and done, he was still just a child, no matter his genetic make-up – no matter what he’d done. “How is he adjusting to the move?”

“Not well,” Coran admitted. “He didn’t fight the relocation and he hasn’t tried to escape. He hasn’t done much of anything at all, really. Not even eat, or really drink. I’m not sure what that might indicate exactly, a childish strop, some sort of hunger strike or maybe depression. Without knowing more about him, without being able to communicate, it’s hard to say. We know so little about him outside of his name and reputation.”

“Have we learned anymore about that…?” Shiro asked. “How he got the name and the reputation?”

“Only that he’s a fighter, and that he’s killed before,” Coran said gently. “From what they say, he’s more animal than human, but I’m not wholly certain on that. In combat anyone seems more animal than human, and the way he watched us care for him… he makes eye contact. Most animals, most feral Splices, don’t. So I do think, there’s more to the story, just… I’m not sure that it changes his past, or what he’s capable of.”

Shiro released a gust of breath, staring off over the tents, into the distance. “Has Kolivan made contact with him yet, questioned him yet?”

“No,” Coran said reassuringly. “He waited on you. He felt you’d want to be here when he did. It’s not yet been confirmed whether he can even communicate – none of the prisoners who recognized him had anything to say regarding verbal interactions, which seems understandable. It seems he was given a wide berth.”

Shiro nodded, absently, running his false hand through his hair. “Right, that makes sense. Let me get washed up and get a bite to eat, and if you still have time, maybe I can check up on him.”

Coran gave him a soft smile that creased his eyes, and clasped a hand behind Shiro’s neck, despite their difference in height. “I have all the time in the world for you, Shiro. Take care of yourself, first. Your team is fine, the prisoners are fine – the boy will be fine. You did well on this one, too, you know.”

Shiro couldn’t fight the smile that rose in response, tension dropping from his shoulders at the fatherly reassurance. “Thanks, Coran. I needed that.”

Coran winked, patting his shoulder and turning to head back towards the medical ward. “I know, my boy. I know.”

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro wound up visiting the boy for only a few minutes, and didn’t bother entering the make-shift containment structure. He just stood outside the door, and peered through the bars of the window.

The floor and walls of the single-cell jail were made of salvaged cement blocks and kept occupants cool during summer on the steppes; a single window was mounted high in the wall opposite the door, with bars allowing only air flow and sunlight. The whole unit was recessed into a hillock, reinforcing the far wall with the window and shoring up the walls on either side. It was an ingenious use of the surrounding terrain, but Shiro expected nothing less from Kolivan and the Marmora. This was their home – they knew it like the back of their hand, and Kolivan especially seemed to have a special bond with the earth here.

The boy was curled up loosely against the far wall, back to the door, his head pressed into the corner, hands in his lap. The collar was still around his slender neck, and now there was the addition of a length of sturdy chain attached to a pole in the center of the small room. Knowing it was a necessary precaution didn’t soothe the ache in Shiro’s chest at seeing the way the weight of the chain dragged at the too-big collar.

The ache worsened, realizing how much the boy looked like the body he’d first found on the side of the road. He looked so small, back in the clothes they’d found him in, albeit washed, boots on his feet devoid of laces for safety’s sake. That mop of black hair bowed against the wall, buried in the joinder, hands and feet limp, body seemingly strengthless. The boy didn’t move, didn’t even shuffle around to get more comfortable; his shoulders remained hunched forward, away from the room.

It could be an elaborate ploy, but Shiro couldn’t help but notice his lack of interest, devoid of any personality at all. He turned his back on his captors wholly, refusing to look at or even acknowledge the door and the possibility of people entering his space. He didn’t seem to care at all. What Shiro had taken for physical weakness when he’d first found him on the side road, may have been more than that. Especially considering the whole and untouched bowls of food and water; the gravy on the food was even crusted over, ignored since this morning, probably.

Shiro didn’t know whether he could trust it. If it had been a full-grown man, a full-grown Splice, he would’ve been tempted to wait them out. See how long they’d keep up the hunger strike, how committed they were to the ruse of weakness. But this? This was a narrow line to walk. This boy was dangerous, he was a killer by all accounts, despite his small stature – but for all that, he was still a child of his own kind, a child even by human standards. He had been hurt, been starved, and who knew what else to mold him into what he’d become.

Looking at the chain dragging down the collar, at the hands curled limply in his lap, Shiro couldn’t help but lose traction on his previous commitment to treat the boy as a threat, as an enemy combatant. Not when he could so clearly remember those same hands covered in dirt and dried blood, curled on the side of road.

If the boy was trying to break his heart, it was working. And if he wasn’t, then the heartbreak was even worse.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“He hasn’t eaten since I took him off the IV,” Coran sighed over breakfast the next day. “It’s been four days, now. He stopped drinking about that long ago, too. He hasn’t so much as moved a muscle that anyone can see, since he was relocated.”

“Maybe it’s a hunger strike,” Pidge offered, mouth full. “Maybe he’s hoping to get leniency by being as pathetic as possible.”

“Leniency for what, though?” Hunk argued. “It’s not like he’s going to jail, or the Marmora will punish him.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that,” Pidge said. “Maybe he thinks the Marmora are like whoever ran the facility. Or maybe he thinks the Marmora are softer, and will treat him like the other Young if he’s miserable enough. I mean, for all we know, maybe that’s his, like… his thing. He takes advantage of being small to lure people in.”

“Speaking from experience?” Ulaz asked dryly, not even bothering to look at her as he reached across the table for the water pitcher, for all appearances uninvested in the conversation at hand. Pidge shot him a narrow look.

“I’m just saying there might be more to the picture,” she said.

“We’re well-aware,” Shiro replied, sounding exhausted as he worked over his breakfast. “But we can’t afford to wait him out. Whatever he’s doing or trying to do, it can’t be allowed to continue. Besides, the sooner we make contact, the sooner we attempt communication, the sooner we’ll get answers. Speculation isn’t doing anything but giving Hunk indigestion.” He gestured at where Hunk was looking vaguely queasy, a large hand over his stomach. “We’re going to start this afternoon.”

Coran looked as uncertain as Shiro felt, and a quick glance at Ulaz showed tension in his usually expressionless face. At least, Shiro wasn’t the only one struggling between the responsibility for innocents, and the need to defend against if not evil, then those that would do no good.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

When Shiro returned to the cell with Coran and Ulaz, in addition to Kolivan and two of his armed Marmoran guards, the boy did not appear to have moved at all. The fresh food he’d been given in the morning still looked full, and the water in the bowl still looked high. When Kolivan unlocked the door, and he and Shiro stepped inside, the boy didn’t even flinch, refusing to even raise his head.

“Volkodav,” Kolivan began, voice booming in the structure. The boy didn’t reply, or even move.

“Is that your name…?” Shiro asked, and Kolivan translated, three times as he ran through different languages in an attempt to get a response. They received none. Not even as much as a glance, and Shiro cast a concerned look over his shoulder towards Coran. Obediently, Coran ducked through the doorway followed by one of the guards, both of whom now had their guns raised and aimed at the boy in the corner. Coran approached the boy seemingly without fear, but still kept as much distance as possible as he came around the boy, and moved to put his hands on the boy’s neck, then his head, turning him to look into his face. From this angle, Shiro could see the boy in profile, his painfully chapped lips and lidded, but open and aware, blue eyes. The boy didn’t fight the touch, in fact didn’t even acknowledge it, his hands remaining limp in his lap.

“There we are,” Coran murmured quietly, smiling gently. “There’s that handsome face. Just checking up on you.” He let go his grip on the boy’s face, and the boy let his head fall back against the wall, turning his face away again. Coran stepped away, back towards Shiro and Kolivan. “He’s conscious,” he whispered. “He doesn’t have a fever, either. His eyes are tracking and focused, so we’re not looking at a brain injury or cognitive issue, either.”

Shiro’s brow furrowed, and he turned back to the boy. “Is it possible he’s deaf…?” Shiro asked, voice low. “Or maybe mute?” Occasionally Splices developed disabilities, either from mutations incompatible with human physiology, overly selective breeding resulting in crippled genetic structures, or just simply because it was hereditary.

Coran shook his head. “The structures of his ears are fully functional, and I’ve witnessed him responding to sound, if not necessarily speech. His tongue and throat structures are fully intact, and his dentition would not prevent speech. Physically, he’s able to hear and speak. I can’t speak towards a mental or psychological issue that would prevent speech, however. Not my area of expertise,” he said apologetically.

“We could consult with the lead researcher,” Kolivan suggested. “Question him more intensively about his interactions with the Volkodav. Otherwise, I don’t foresee questioning the Galra as having any point, if he will not respond. The best we could do, is hope persistence breaks him.”

“Whatever you decide on, do it soon,” Coran urged. “Otherwise I’ll have to take him back to the medical ward and introduce an IV again or maybe even a feeding tube. His skin is already clammy to the touch. If we don’t do something soon, we’ll lose him altogether.”

Shiro’s heart plummeted, his gaze jerking back to the boy slumped against the wall. No. No. We saved a life. I’m not burying a child this time. Not when we can prevent it. I can do this. I have to do this.

“Let me try,” Shiro blurted, getting everyone’s attention but the boy. Even Ulaz looked shocked at his outburst. “Just… let me try something.”

“Try what, exactly,” Kolivan asked, eyes already narrowed, anticipating what Shiro was going to say.

“I know you’ll think I’m letting my feelings get in the way,” Shiro rushed to say, “but maybe we’re going about this all wrong. We’re treating him like a man, like a full-grown Galra when he’s not. He’s still just a child – maybe we need to approach him like one.”

“He is a Galra,” Kolivan growled. “He is a soldier, he has fought and killed. You are assuming an innocence he does not possess.”

“Nothing else we have tried has worked,” Shiro hissed. “Methods we would use on an adult will not work here! Look, nothing will be lost from my trying a different approach, alright? You can still question the researcher, you can look into anything else you like. Just give me a chance to try, that’s all I’m asking for.”

“He will not understand you,” Kolivan reminded. “How could he possibly? It took me years of working with your people to know the language, he will not comprehend whatever you’re attempting to do.”

“I’m not going to try to talk to him,” Shiro reassured. “At least not at first. I just want to show him that he’s safe – that we’re not going to hurt him.”

Kolivan scoffed. “And how do you intend to do that?”

“Look, he’s a canid, right?” He said, dropping his voice, aware of how dehumanizing his theory sounded. “It’s the same as approaching a scared, abused dog. You show trust, even if it’s not there yet.”

Kolivan raised an eyebrow. “So, this death wish, is this something new or something you’ve been sitting on for a while?” He asked.

Shiro heaved a frustrated sigh. “Please,” he grit out. “I’ve given you everything you’ve asked. I took on the mission. He’s as much my prisoner as he is yours, if not more so. Don’t force me to make this about authority. I respect you, Kolivan. At least afford me the same respect.” Pulling rank left the same disgusting taste in his mouth it always had, but it was worth it to get his way, just this once. If it meant a life, this boy’s life.

Kolivan bristled more at the perceived insult to his hospitality, than his authority. “Of course I respect you, and you are as much a leader here as I. It is only out of concern for your well-being that I resist the idea… you are well regarded amongst your company. They would be most displeased if I allowed harm to come to you.”

Shiro breathed a sigh of relief, and let his shoulders and expression relax. “Thank you, Kolivan. Please know that I appreciate that, as do my people.”

Kolivan huffed, caving, and turning to leave. “I’ll look into him further. You… do whatever you think you have to, to get through to him. Just… be careful. We’ll report back as soon as we have something.”

“We’ll do the same,” Shiro promised Kolivan’s retreating back, leaving behind one of the Marmoran guards.

There was silence in the cell as Shiro, Coran, and Ulaz all shared a look.

“So is the death wish thing true?” Ulaz drawled. “Asking for a friend.”

Shiro gave him a wry look, mouth quirking up. “Believe me, I know how it sounds, how it looks. It’s just a hunch, it might not even work. But it’s worth a shot, right?”

“You can’t do this simply because you perceive him as weak, or vulnerable,” Coran cautioned, his eyes steely in a way they rarely were. “Sometimes that makes things even worse. I know you hate to admit it, but Splices are animal in some way… his physical state may make him more dangerous, not less.”

“I fully intend to take this as slow as possible, Coran,” Shiro reassured, meeting his gaze levelly. “I’m not going to risk myself anymore than I have to. I knew he was a Splice when I found him, I knew he would be dangerous in some way. All that’s changed is that we now know how dangerous he can be. I’m more cautious for knowing that, not less. No matter how it looks.”

“It looks bad,” Ulaz said baldly. “It looks weak and unprofessional. What am I supposed to tell Hunk and Pidge? We all know your heart is softer than most, but this is worse than usual.”

“Ulaz, I’m not asking for permission,” Shiro said gently. “I’m doing this. I’m committing. I’m not placing anyone’s worth above anyone else’s, I’m not abandoning my duties as a commander. I’m just going to do what I can as a man, to try to save a life. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. If he dies… then at least I’ll know I tried. I’ll know I did everything I could.”

Ulaz’s jaw worked. “Will you, at least, permit me to stay with you? If for no other reason, in case he decides to speak up and you need a translator, even a bad one.”

“I’d like that,” Shiro agreed.

Coran sighed, caving to the inevitable. “You are more stubborn than a mule in molasses,” he said. “A part of me is proud, but a greater part of me wishes you were more selfish.” He turned to leave. “Send for me if you have need. Good luck… you’re going to need more of that than anything else.”

“Thanks,” Shiro said wryly. “Hopefully I won’t have to call for you any time soon.”

“If he doesn’t drink anything soon, you’ll need to,” Coran cautioned seriously, waving goodbye over one shoulder.

Shiro turned back to the boy in the corner, who didn’t seem to have moved at all during the exchanges, and pondered how to move forward.

“I’m not waiting outside,” Ulaz warned. “But if you want me out of the way, I can do that.”

Shiro nodded, shooting him a grateful look, and Ulaz moved to the opposite corner, leaning against the wall with one leg crossed over the other, deceptively casual. Shiro moved forward with slow, cautious steps, hands splayed out in front of him, making no effort to be quiet, preferring to telegraph his approach.

“Hey buddy,” he murmured. “Do you mind if I sit down over here?” He asked, indicating a point against the far wall the boy was curled against. He could sense Ulaz’s displeasure with his choice, since it was well within range of the leash, but the man said nothing. Neither did the boy. Not even a warning growl, to prevent a stranger from getting close.

Shiro sank to a slow, careful seat, one leg outstretched, and continued talking. “Do you remember me?” He asked. “I found you on the side of road, when you were really sick. Really hurt. I’m glad you’re getting better.” He looked away, towards the bowls of food and water. “You know that guy with the red hair, Coran? The one who helped fix you up? He’s real worried about you. He says you’re going to get worse without food and water.”

He leaned forward, over his knees, keeping his eyes on the boy for any sudden movements, but there weren’t any. He was able to grasp both bowls, and brought them closer. “Mmmm, stew and fried bread. Smells real good.” He took a noisy inhale to illustrate the point. “The water here is pretty good, too. They have a well and everything. You mind if I have some?” As expected, he got no response, but made a show of eating and drinking from the bowls – proving it was safe, that he wasn’t afraid to eat and drink what the boy had been given. “Ugh. I’m still full from lunch. Well, there’s plenty left for you, if you want it.” He risked putting the bowls on the ground, at the boy’s knees, but got no reaction, not even a glance in his direction as far as he could tell. The boy’s hair was so long and thick it was hard to see his face, let alone those strangely blue eyes.

All the same, Shiro waited him out. He sat beside him, just a little out of arm’s reach, and talked about nothing much at all. He talked with Ulaz, sometimes, removing his attention to see if the boy would at least try to sneak food and water, but he didn’t. He gave the boy plenty of silence, too, chances to speak up if he wanted to, but he remained as still and silent as the body he’d found on the road.

Finally, the sky began to darken, and the one caged lightbulb by the door flickered on as night descended. The boy still hadn’t given any sign that Shiro had gotten through to him at all; there was no change whatsoever. Shiro tried not to be disheartened – it would likely take more than a few hours to break down years of conditioned fear and trust issues.

“We should go,” Ulaz said quietly. “Get some dinner with Hunk and Pidge, and get some rest. We can try again tomorrow.”

Shiro sighed. “You’re probably right.” He turned to the boy beside him. “I’ve got to go. My friends are probably worried about me, and I should eat something that isn’t yours. I’ll be back tomorrow, okay, buddy?” He almost raised a hand to pat the boy, but at the last minute decided against it. It would probably not be well-received.

He got to his feet, and left the cell with Ulaz, glancing back only once.

The boy still hadn’t looked up.