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A House Is Not a Home

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Shiro snuck back in that night, or as much as one can sneak around in a military encampment. He took a couple books, a few blankets and a pillow, and made the short trek out to the containment cell.

The Marmoran guard allowed him to enter, and there was light enough from the low-wattage bulb in the wall to allow him to see that the boy, food and water were all exactly where he’d left them. He frowned.

“Hey,” Shiro stage-whispered. “I’m back. Sorry if I woke you. Couldn’t sleep, and I thought you might be lonely.” He set his things on the floor, where he’d sat before, shaking out one of the blankets. “I’m gonna toss one of these on you, okay? It’s probably drafty in here, especially with you so skinny, and hardly any water in you.” He fluttered the blanket near the boy so he’d know what was coming without looking, then swirled it over the boy’s shoulders, under the chain. He was careful not to actually touch him. “There, that should be at least a little warmer. You can curl up in it, if you want.”

Shiro went back to his own spot on the cold earthen floor, sitting a little stiffly. He propped up his pillow, threw a blanket over his legs and started to read. He didn’t speak anymore, wanting the boy to get some sleep, if he could. Besides, the point was for Shiro to sleep here, or at least give the appearance of sleeping. To show vulnerability, show the boy that he was being given some sort of power over Shiro – the ability to harm, if he so chose. It was the next best thing to actually exposing his throat or belly, Shiro considered. Despite what Kolivan and Ulaz thought, he didn’t have a death wish, and his stubbornness had limits.

After a few hours, Shiro yawned, not just for theatricality. “Been a long few days. Bet it’s been longer for you. Gonna get some sleep. Good night, buddy.” He patted the floor in lieu of actually touching the boy, set aside his book and rolled up in his blanket. He scooched down onto the floor, pointedly giving the boy his back as he made himself comfortable. As quietly as possible, he unclasped the latch on his knife holster and withdrew it, curling up with the knife in hand under the pillow. Trust, but not too much trust. He was confident he’d hear the chain if the boy moved at all, but better safe than sorry.

Unsurprisingly, he woke up with nothing having changed at all. He hadn’t really expected the boy to do anything, at all, let alone attack him, and he hadn’t been wrong. He was still curled up against the wall, the blanket having slid off one shoulder. At first Shiro thought it was because the boy had shifted, or maybe even gotten hot and shrugged it off himself, but that wasn’t the case. His pose was the same, but instead of deliberately leaning against one wall with his face in the corner, there was a new, unwelcome slackness to his posture that made it look like he’d collapsed.

Shiro felt his heart stutter to a stop with fear, thinking the worst. He wrestled free of his blanket, and went to kneel beside the boy’s body, trying not to feel the déjà vu as he threw caution to the wind and slid a hand around his cold throat and felt for a pulse. It was there, he was breathing, and this time he confirmed with two fingers against the inside of his wrist. He was still alive, but his heart was slow and exhausted, struggling. “Goddamnit. No, no, no-” He rocked back to his feet and went to the door, banging on it until it opened and he was greeted with a wide-eyed Marmoran guard. “Coran, go get Coran,” he gasped. “The boy is dying!” The guard gave a quick nod, and turned to go – but not before locking the cell behind him.

Shiro turned back and dropped to the floor, pulling the boy, blanket and all into his lap. His limbs were already pale and waxy, no color to the boy’s face at all beneath the bandages and superficial wounds. He looked dead already, and this time Shiro couldn’t escape the memory of finding him on the side of road, cradling his body like he did now. “C’mon, c’mon,” he growled, pinching the boy’s jaw, slapping at his cheeks. “Stay with me, stay with me, buddy.” His eyes flickered to the bowl of water he’d tried to share with the boy yesterday, and he shifted the boy into one arm, the scarred face lolling against his shoulder. He fumbled for the bowl, managing to take it in one hand, and tilted it towards the boy’s slack mouth. “Look, it’s just water, you have to drink, c’mon, drink-”

The boy sputtered against the trickle of water, finally moving under his own power to turn his face away, one of his hands coming up to clasp at Shiro’s arm, too weak to push him away. Shiro began to tear up out of desperation and frustration. “Please,” he begged, “It’s safe, you can drink it, you have to drink, you’ll die if you don’t-” The boy moaned, and kept his face averted, hand weakly clinging to Shiro’s arm.

The locks on the door clanged open, and then Coran was storming into the cell, taking it all in with a practiced eye within a minute. “I need to start him on an IV as soon as possible,” Coran began, dropping to his knees beside them and rummaging through his medical kit. “We’ll get him started here, and then I’ll need you to help me get him to the medical ward. They’re already expecting us, setting up a bed with additional restraints. Once we get him rehydrated again, we can-”

“No.”

It wasn’t Shiro who had spoken, in a broken raspy voice, deeper than anticipated.

“No more. No. No.”

Coran was the first to overcome his shock at not only hearing the boy’s voice, but hearing him speak English. “It’s okay, it’s going to be alright, we’re going to get you fixed up, good as new, just like last time, alright?”

The boy turned his head away, exhausted. “No. No more.” Shiro frowned. Maybe that was all the English he knew? He didn’t seem afraid, but maybe that was just exhaustion…?

“It’s just me, you remember me, right?” Coran soothed, reaching out to stroke the boy’s inner arm, no doubt preparing him for the IV. “It’s just good old Coran, getting you right as rain again! All you’ll feel is a wee pinch-”

No,” the boy said more firmly, struggling sluggishly now to pull away from not only Coran, but Shiro too. “I don’t want that. No more.” So he did know some more English. It was just a shame it was coming out now, when they needed him pliant as before, instead of capable of argument. Was he confused, did he think he was in the breeding facility? Did he think they were going to hurt him?

“Ssshhh, we’re not gonna hurt you,” Shiro tried to soothe, tightening his hold against the boy’s futile squirming. “We want to help you, not hurt you.”

The boy gave an abortive, animal whine, dropping his head back despondently. “I don’t want that, no more,” he pleaded. “Let me die. Just let me go. Please, please, no more, no more…”

Shiro’s blood ran cold, and his already tearful eyes drifted to Coran’s face. This wasn’t a grown man pleading for death on the battlefield, already dying, in agony from injuries sustained – this was a child refusing treatment, denying his future after a past already filled with pain and horror. Shiro realized then, that the boy hadn’t been mistrustful of the food and water – he’d been actively denying himself nourishment in the hope that he would die.

He had been trying to commit suicide under all their noses, with the only means he had available.

“I can’t,” Shiro choked out. “I can’t let you die. I’m so sorry, but we can’t do that. We don’t want you to die, I didn’t bring you back here just to lose you.”

The boy sobbed, then, just once, his face twisted with pain. “I won’t fight anymore, I won’t breed anymore, I’m worth nothing to you, all I have left is to die,” he cried. “You can’t take this from me, my death is mine, it’s not yours to take. Just let me die, no more.”

“I can give him something to relax him,” Coran murmured quietly, shaken. “It’s the only way we’ll be able to get the IV in, stabilize him enough to transport him…”

Shiro looked down at the small boy struggling against them both, in so much pain and so hopeless that he was fully prepared to take his own life before he’d even become a teenager. He’d survived so much, for so many years, only to wind up here in Shiro’s arms. There had to be a reason. It had to be a sign.

Shiro tightened his hold on the boy, changing his grip so that he was clasped against his front, in his lap. “Then let me give you worth,” he growled fiercely. “Let me give you a purpose. Hey, look, look at me.” He jostled the boy until his eyes slitted open, his head cradled against Shiro’s shoulder. “If someone needs to die today, let it be the Volkodav. Not you.” The boy’s brow furrowed, so ill and struggling to comprehend. “Let the person who earned that name die here. No one will miss him. But you… you would be missed. I, would miss you. Don’t waste your death on yourself – let the Volkodav die in your place, and live. Don’t die here, like this. You deserve a better death.”

“Live…? For what…?” The boy murmured softly. “Fighting, killing – breeding?”

“For yourself, whoever that may be,” Shiro swore. “I will give you a purpose, it’s up to you what you do with it. Give me a chance to give you a choice. You can choose to die later, if you want, but please… let me give you a choice.”

The boy stared up at Shiro’s stern face, the hard glint in his eye, and must have seen something there, because he let his gaze fall to the side, and stopped struggling. “For you,” he mumbled. “For now.”

All Shiro could feel was the swell of gratitude in that moment, the wash of relief. He didn’t sense the looming responsibility that was taking on another life – let alone one like this.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“You know with his hearing, whispering probably isn’t doing much good,” Shiro said tiredly, where he stood outside the medical ward, within view of the boy in the bed, now hooked up to an IV and cooperating as mildly as he had before.

“Are you fucking crazy?” Pidge hissed, regardless, her back to the door and the boy behind it, in the midst of the huddle that had developed as soon as the emergency call went out. “Is Coran telling the truth, did you fucking adopt a goddamn dog?”

“He’s not a dog,” Shiro began.

“He’s Galra,” Kolivan growled, his expression stormy. “He’s more dangerous than any dog or human. His age, his health, doesn’t outweigh his reputation. Have you already forgotten why he was in containment?”

“I am well aware of what he is,” Shiro said. “I haven’t forgotten anything. There are still questions that need answering, and precautions that need taking. Those are things we can work on, but from the beginning, my only goal regarding that boy was ensuring his survival. Same as we would any human, any child, any Young or any Splice. You don’t have to be sympathetic towards him, if you don’t want to be. I’m not demanding you feel any particular way about him, but at least acknowledge the fact that he’s an asset. He’s survived longer than ten years, he has full use of his faculties, he’s more than likely bilingual, and he’s strong. He’s strong-willed, and he’s got some strength in that body somewhere, in order to have earned that nickname. He’s human-passing, even, he doesn’t look canid at all until you see his teeth. He can be more help than hindrance, if we’re careful.” He darted a glance through the window in the door, and caught the steady deep-blue gaze of the boy, his stare unwavering. Shiro looked back to his company.

“Then wouldn’t it be better to leave him here...?” Hunk offered hopefully. “With the other Young? Or take him to the Marmoran facility for Splices, so they can care for him? I mean, it doesn’t have to be us, right?”

“I made a promise,” Shiro said, gentle but firm. “He feels his life is without purpose, unless he kills or breeds. I’m not sure we wouldn’t find ourselves back at square one, if we send him to be with the other Splices, or keep him here, under lock and key, with people and Young who fear him. He might just decide it’s not worth it and die anyway, and we wind up losing a valuable resource.”

“Shiro, I don’t think I can sleep with him in the camp,” Hunk said, desperation in his voice, hands wringing one another. “I respect you, I do, on and off the field, but this… I get where you’re coming from, he’s a kid and you feel bad for him and he could be a huge asset in the field but you kind of wound up signing us all up for this, not just yourself. We don’t have a containment unit on base, we don’t handle Splices. Where the Hell are we going to keep him, where is he going to sleep?”

“Maybe it’s best to get what we can from him, and let him die,” Kolivan offered. “It’s callous, but it seems the best option. We’re not wanting for strong men, and we have the lead researcher. We can get information from him while he’s being sustained in the medical ward, and then let him pass, as he wishes.”

“He went days without food and water in a deliberate bid to kill himself. He survived on a mountain all alone and then laid down to die. Do you really think he’ll allow you to extract anything from him he doesn’t want to give?” Shiro demanded lowly, meeting Kolivan’s gaze. “We have a bond, Kolivan. Or at least the beginning of one. Why waste it?”

“I gave you free reign, and the boy nearly died,” Kolivan pointed out.

“That’s because I misunderstood,” Shiro grit out. “You were right, I was wrong about treating him as a child. He wasn’t afraid, like I thought he was. He was suicidal. If he’d been an adult, we would have seen it for what it was. But there is still something there, Kolivan. There is something worthwhile in that boy, and I’m not giving up on him. That’s final.”

“You’ve lost your goddamn marbles,” Pidge muttered darkly. “You came back too fucking soon. Your head is still back home, it’s not here, in a war, where it needs to be. You’ve lost sight of what’s important.”

“So you don’t see the use in having someone on-site fluent in multiple languages, someone who can patrol the perimeter without a weapon, who can track for a week without food or ready access to water?” Shiro asked her, confronting her anger head on, the only way to combat her arguments. She wanted to debate the point, she didn’t want to be swayed by emotion, she wanted facts. New perspective was the only way to win her around, Shiro knew this.

“I would, if we could trust them,” Pidge countered. “They called him the goddamn Wolf-Crusher, Shiro! His own kind are afraid of him, the people who made him are afraid of him!”

“That’s what makes him an asset,” Shiro said. “Fear and strength. All we have to do is redirect it.”

“How do you recommend we do that?” Ulaz finally spoke up. “I don’t think TLC is going to cut it this time.”

“It’ll be a part of it,” Shiro insisted. “He won’t bite the hand that feeds him, especially if that hand isn’t raised against him. In a way that facility did the hard work for us – they showed him pain and cruelty. Treating him with any sort of kindness will be well received, in comparison.” He winced internally, phrasing it like that. He hoped the boy wasn’t listening too attentively, or else that his hearing wasn’t as overdeveloped as he feared.

He heaved a sigh. “Look. Nothing is set in stone, alright? I’ll tell you what I told him – it’s a chance, and he has a choice to make. He’s not a child, I admit that, at least not in the usual ways. He’s a soldier, he’s dangerous, but he’s capable of making the choice to bond with us. We can’t take him anywhere until he’s healthy again, anyway. Taking him back to camp now would be more of a hassle than is required. We’ll stay until he’s up to snuff, and then we’ll go from there. All of you are more than welcome to weigh in or raise concerns with me, and I’ll do my best to address them. I want to work with you guys, not against you, but I do feel, at this point, that the Splice is worth the risk in the long run.”

Pidge threw her hands in the air in defeat and stalked off, Hunk hesitating before reluctantly following her, and Shiro got the sinking suspicion that he was choosing one over the other. Like he was sacrificing the faith of his unit for the life of a boy, and he wasn’t sure it was the right choice. There was no way to know, as he stood literally between one choice and the other, watching people he’d come to view as family turn their backs on him.

Ulaz’s hand landed on Shiro’s shoulder. “All you can do is give it time,” he murmured. “Wait them out. They’re young yet – all of them. And they all have their personal grievances to get over. For what it’s worth, I do believe that your idea has… merit, to some degree.” He gave Shiro a reassuring squeeze, earning a tight smile from him, before moving after their younger colleagues.

“I don’t envy your position,” Kolivan grumbled. “But I do hope, solely for your sake, that everything works out.” He turned to leave as well, leaving just Shiro and Coran in the corridor.

“What the Hell am I doing,” Shiro groaned, rubbing his hands over his face.

“No idea,” Coran said cheerfully, holding open the door to the boy’s room. “But you’ll figure it out. C’mon, it’s lunch time. A solid meal will do you both some good.”

Shiro spared another smile for Coran, edging past him and heading to sit at the boy’s bedside. The boy was already sitting up, a healthy color to his cheeks and bare arms, bruises and scrapes all but faded. There were chains on his wrists too, now, and the chainlink leash was attached to the bed as well, but at least the cuffs were padded and had enough slack that the boy could conceivably feed himself. Shiro pulled up a chair, scooting as close as possible, trying to decide on how to broach what he wanted to ask before deciding on being direct. It seemed like the boy would appreciate that more. “So. How much of that did you hear?” He asked wryly.

“All of it,” the boy admitted easily. With his voice stronger, and throat better lubricated, Shiro could hear his accent, but he wasn’t well-versed enough in the lingua franca that he could tell where he was from. Definitely local, Russia or Central Asia like Kolivan. “They are afraid of me.”

“Yeah,” Shiro admitted, reaching for one of the bowls of loose stew and gruel on the bench over the boy’s legs. “But they’ll come around.”

The boy shrugged, not touching his own bowl. “They don’t have to. They’re right to be afraid.”

“You’re right, they don’t have to,” Shiro said around a mouthful. “I don’t tell people how to feel or how to treat others because I don’t need to. They’re good people.”

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” The boy pressed, brow furrowing. “You know my name. You know what I did, what I can do.”

“First of all, I knew your name. We agreed Volkodav is dead now. He died in that cell and he’s not coming back. Second of all, I am afraid of you,” he admitted easily, as he ate. “If I didn’t know any of the people in my unit personally, I’d be afraid of them too. They’re all strong and deadly in their own ways, all just as capable of good or bad. But I know them, I trust them, I know they have my back.”

“But you don’t know anything about me,” the boy murmured. “Nothing good, anyway.”

“So then tell me something good about yourself,” Shiro said.

The boy frowned at the bench across his lap, thinking, his jaw working. “… I don’t think there is anything good about me,” he whispered. “I don’t think… I can do good things. I wasn’t made to do good things.”

Shiro hummed, thumbing gravy from his mouth thoughtfully. “Okay, well, how many languages can you speak?”

The boy’s frown turned to one of confusion. “Three…?”

“And they are…?”

“Kazakh, Russian and English,” the boy said.

“That’s one more than me and Ulaz, and two more than most of my company,” Shiro pointed out. “Plus, those languages are useful out here, as opposed to any others. I’d call that a good thing. Can you read or write?”

“I can read some, but not a lot,” the boy stammered. “I can’t write.”

“Are you willing to learn?” Shiro asked.

“Yes,” the boy said readily. “I would like to learn. I’ll learn whatever you want me to.”

Shiro gave him an encouraging smile. “That’s probably the best thing. I like to hear that.”

The boy’s lip curled on one side, a strange grimacing attempt at a smile, uncertain. Shiro tried not to find it as endearing as he did.

“How about we make this easier?” Shiro offered, setting his finished bowl aside on the bedside table. “Tell me about yourself.”

“About… how I fight?” The boy asked, uncertainly. “My skills…?”

“We’ll get to that,” Shiro dismissed, waving it away with one hand. “How about we start with your name, first.”

The boy’s frown returned. “It is dead. You said so.”

This time, Shiro frowned too. “What, Volkodav? I thought that was a nickname, like a title – didn’t you have a name before that, when you were younger?”

“No,” the boy said slowly. “I was never given a name. They didn’t think I’d live. Then I did, and I became… what I was. Then I was the Volkodav.”

“So you don’t have a name, at all?” Shiro confirmed, unable to hide the sad set of his eyebrows. “Your mother or father never gave you a name, called you anything in particular…?”

The boy gave him an uncertain look. “I was made in a breeding facility. Galra do not know the one that fathers them, only their mother, if she lives. I lived with my mother, for some time… she called me only nice things, like ‘my heart’ or ‘beloved’,” he confided, voice soft and pained. “Then she died. And I came here.”

Shiro’s heart broke at the picture painted of a lonely, sterile life devoid of family, of tenderness, of tradition, but at least, for a while, not devoid of love. At least the boy knew at some point that he was loved; he’d been wanted by someone that mattered. “Came here…?” He prodded gently. “You mean here, to the Marmora?”

The boy shook his head. “I was made at another facility. When I’d lived long enough, and became old enough to breed, they moved me here, to this place.” He frowned hard at the remaining bowl of stew, jaw working. “I would kill again before I will ever do that. I will never breed again, or do the things they made me do there. I’ll ruin myself first.” He brought his stern gaze up to Shiro, his eyes burning with conviction.

That immediately made Shiro’s stomach turn cold and heavy, and he had to fight down his nausea and the sudden swell of rage. He refused to think on that any more than he had to – the knowledge alone made him sick, made him want to do something stupid, something violent. Made him crave revenge. Rape was nothing new to war, but it was the only part that was unnecessary and served no purpose; it was a power play, a way to establish dominance, fear, to humiliate and degrade someone. Breeding was no different. There was no real consent, just terrified submission.

“You will not,” Shiro grit out, lowly, “ever be asked to do that. In any capacity. Especially, especially not at your age.”

“I am already at maturity,” the boy explained, confused. “I am sixteen years old. I am older than any other birthed Galra I have met. That’s why I’m here.”

“Sixteen?” Shiro choked out. That was a good four years older than he’d thought, given how small the boy looked. It would explain how adult he seemed, and how he was even capable of earning a name and reputation like he had. It also meant he’d spent more time under their thumb, under their command, than he’d assumed. “I’m sorry, I just…”

“I know I’m small,” the boy said, for the first time sounding defensive. “My mother was bigger, and I’m still growing. I might… might still get bigger.”

Shiro shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. There’s nothing wrong with being small; one of my best is only slightly taller than you are, actually, and she’s 21. Sixteen is still plenty young enough to be able to grow – and it’s far, far too young for anything like… like breeding. That will never be something you are asked or required to do. When you’re old enough, if you decide you want to, want to pursue a relationship,” Shiro stumbled awkwardly, “then you can. There’s no rush.”

The boy stared at him, confusion persisting. “Okay,” he drawled.

“Okay,” Shiro confirmed, mentally shoring himself back up. “So. You don’t have a name. You’re sixteen years old. What else?”

“I’m a good tracker,” the boy offered. “I can be very quiet, and I can be on my own for a few weeks. I can smell really well, smell things others can’t. You know my hearing is good. My eyesight is good, too. I can follow a trail for days, for dozens of kilometers. I’m good with hand-to-hand combat, but I can use a knife, too. I’m good with a knife. I’m not… good with guns. It feels wrong. I’m better… up close. I was a camp guard, a few times, but the camps were small. Not like this. But I don’t get tired very easy.”

Shiro nodded slowly. “That’s all good to know, that’s information I needed, but I was wondering more about you. The things you like, the things you don’t like – the little things that make you who you are. Like you know that I like to read, right? Well, I also don’t like sugary sweet things, like candy. Those are things that people get to know about me, that give them an idea of who I am.”

The boy shrugged. “I like food. Like to eat. Don’t like hurting people, if they don’t hurt me first. Like to train and go for walks, but mostly like food. There’s nothing else. All I do is eat, sleep, work… whatever work.”

It was Shiro’s turn to frown, but this time he tried to explain a little better. “You know that you’re human, right? That the largest part of you is the human part.”

“I am Galra,” the boy said slowly. “Not human. I am a dog.”

Shiro shook his head, scooting his chair closer and daring to lean his elbows on the bed. “You are not an animal. You are human, human in all the ways that matter. There is more between us, between you and me, that is similar than there is different. You think and feel like a human does. How you look is only a part of that. What matters most are the parts you cannot see, except in how you act. Buddy, you are human. As much as me or anyone else in my unit. You just have a little something extra, okay?”

The boy’s head gradually tilted to one side, as he slowly pondered what Shiro was telling him, absorbing the new information, trying to see the new perspective Shiro was attempting to show him. Shiro couldn’t tell if the boy believed him, or whether he even understood the concept after sixteen years of being told he was different, being treated and trained as an other. The physical similarities had to be obvious, but the important ones he may not have been allowed to see or acknowledge – things like developing a personality, being an individual, having thoughts and wants and interests.

“As a human, it’s important to do more than survive. It’s important to be happy, in little ways and big ways. That’s something that, if you choose to stay with me, I’ll want you to do. Everyone in my unit has down time, leisure time, where they’re not expected to patrol or go on a mission or train. They do the things that bring them joy, in non-combat-related ways, like reading or drawing or finishing puzzles. Okay?” The boy nodded, slowly, and Shiro rewarded him with a smile and a pat to the bed beside his bent knee as he sat up again.

“Okay, sorry for keeping you from your lunch,” Shiro said with a wry smile, and gestured at the bowl of stew remaining on the little bench across the boy’s knees.

“I can eat it?” He asked, keeping wary eyes on Shiro, not even reaching for it. His hands stayed in his lap, clenching and unclenching in anxious anticipation.

“Of course you can,” Shiro said, confused. “I just got caught up talking with you. It’s your food, buddy. You can eat it whenever you’re ready. You don’t need my permission.”

The boy narrowed his eyes, keeping them trained on Shiro as he carefully reached for the bowl, testing the waters. Shiro didn’t move at all, keeping his expression pleasantly neutral, his hands in his lap. Letting him acclimate on his own to Shiro’s presence during a meal, learn for himself that Shiro was not a threat even when he was most vulnerable. The boy put his hands on the bowl, then the spoon, eyes flicking from Shiro’s face to his hands, and when there was no change, he pulled the bowl closer and closer until it was cradled against his chest. When Shiro still made no move, the boy decided to risk it and quickly turned away to hunch over the bowl and shovel the food into his mouth as fast as possible.

The part of Shiro that still saw the boy as a human child wanted to immediately launch himself up and chastise the boy against eating so fast, lay hands on the boy to ease the defensive set of his shoulders, pull the bowl away. The growls emanating from the small hunched figure and the tug of the chain against the boy’s collar brought that instinct to a near immediate halt – this wasn’t just a neglected child, it was also an abused animal trained to be wary of safety and strangers both. Food aggression would be expected, and any attempts to interact with the boy at all while he ate wouldn’t be well-received.

All Shiro could do was be patient, while his heart ached in his chest.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro was surprised when the first to approach him after their less than successful huddle was Pidge. He was trying to give her space and time to come to terms with the change, with the addition of another to their unit. She adapted well in the field, but drastic changes to her day-to-day life, especially where it regarded their little family, made her irrationally irritable. She’d snap at anybody for anything, and the only one who took it in stride or even chided her was Hunk – even if that put himself in the path of her anger.

Shiro also knew without being told that she had her own feelings regarding Splices, and that they were personal. He didn’t ask. It was common courtesy, here, in their unit. The only thing they had in common was being here and doing the same job, and that was for the best. Prevented deeper attachments, when most assignments were brief by design or by terrible accident. Better not to know that the person you’d worked beside for six months who’d just gotten violently ripped apart by a landmine had a wife and kids at home that wouldn’t see him again, and so on.

So he never asked about how jealously she guarded their little clique, or why she felt the way she did about Splices. He just allowed her to do what she had to do to work and survive out here – to remain motivated.

“I want to go back to the outpost,” she said, her tone stiff with him, still angry. “We never got a chance to run an intelligence op while we were up there. I think there’s a chance we’d be able to learn something from whatever they left behind – help verify the information we’ve been getting from the prisoners.”

Shiro set his tablet aside, and leaned over his knees where he sat on his cot. “Have you spoken to Kolivan?”

Pidge’s jaw worked. “I chose to come to you first. God knows why.”

Shiro’s expression softened, even if he didn’t necessarily smile. “I appreciate that,” he said. “I think you’re right, in that there’s a chance to get more information from the outpost. My only concerns are about time and manpower.”

“Coran says we can’t move the Splice out for another week or so,” Pidge said, her voice becoming low as she referenced the reason for the tension between them. “It shouldn’t take us that long for a simple information recovery. Especially if it’s just me and Hunk. The smaller the party the better, we’ll move faster, be less of a risk.”

“It’s still Kolivan’s operation,” Shiro offered reluctantly. “I think you should take him, or at least one of his lieutenants to keep the Marmora in the loop, and as a guide if nothing else.”

“I fully intend to,” she replied. “I just wanted to keep you in the loop. It’s nice to be informed and included when decisions are made, from time to time.”

Shiro heaved a sigh, resigned. “Is there, by any chance, something you’d like to get off your chest?” He asked wearily.

“Just giving you a different perspective, I know you’re keen on those,” Pidge said flatly. “At least where it comes to the opinions of others.”

“Do you feel that I failed to consider you and the team when I chose to bond with the Splice?” He asked, keeping his voice gentle.

“I think you let your soft heart dictate a decision that should’ve been purely strategic,” she said, meeting his gaze with her own steely one. “Even Ulaz has reservations, even Coran. You’re the only one who seems to be wearing blinders where it comes to this kid.”

Shiro clasped his hands between his knees. “And what do you feel would have been the better option?” He asked levelly. “Allowing him to die here, losing whatever advantages he might afford us? Or allowing him to die here but later on, once the isolation and loss of purpose drags him back to square one? Or maybe allowing him to die at the Marmoran Splice facility, where nothing will have changed for him – back under the control of scientists, kept separate from his kind, devoid again of purpose?”

Pidge shrugged. “He’s not that much of an asset. If he dies, he dies. It’ll be no different than putting down any other animal. Doesn’t matter how well that animal performs it’s job, if it’s dangerous to those around them. If what he says is true, he’s lived a shit life anyway; it might be kinder in the end.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Shiro said flatly.

“I do,” she argued behind grit teeth, taking a step in towards Shiro. “But that doesn’t matter because you’ve already decided that me, that Hunk, that the rest of our team and our unit will be adopting this… this thing too. You made the choice to jeopardize us, you made the choice to bring danger into our home. That’s the one place we’re meant to be safe here, Shiro. And you expected no argument, no concerns? This isn’t like adopting a regular dog, Shiro, he’s something else, he was only ever put on this earth to do one thing, and he’s been doing it really, really well. You might not be able to train that out of him, and you’re risking more than just your own heartbreak in trying.” She finished with a sharp breath, trying to reign herself back in.

Shiro’s expression didn’t turn to anger, but turned sad instead, reading between the lines. “I’m not giving you up,” he said softly. “Any of you. I’m not turning my back on you. I’m not choosing the Splice over you, I’m not choosing a military advantage over you.”

“This isn’t about me-”

“It is,” Shiro said firmly. “It’s about you and it’s about the rest of our team, because we are a family. What one of us does affects the others, and I know that better than most. I want you to know that any choice I make here, I don’t just make for myself. I try to think about all of us – about our futures, here and after. I would never, ever, take on anything that I perceived to be a threat to you. To our family,” he said, holding Pidge’s gaze. “You’re right, he’s not just a stray dog we found and we can nurse back to health. In some ways, he is human. He can think, he can interact – he can learn. He’s already made it to sixteen, who knows how long he even has left, but I believe he can be trained. I believe that he can adapt, he can overcome whatever training they put him through. I believe he can change in ways a true animal could not.”

“And if he can’t?” Pidge murmured, fists clenching at her sides. “If I find something damning up there, if he turns out to be more animal than human?”

“Then I’ll put him down myself,” Shiro said tersely. “And that will be the end of it.”

Pidge brought her gaze back up to meet Shiro’s, and heaved a breath through her nose. She nodded, and snapped off a salute. “I’ll run the mission past Kolivan. See what he has to say about it. I’ll report back with his decision.”

“Thank you, Pidge,” Shiro said, genuinely. “For taking on the mission, and everything else. Thank you for letting me know.”

“It’s for us,” she said, resigned. “If the runt’s going to be coming home with us, we should know what we’re getting into.” With that, she turned her back and left, and Shiro tried not to let uncertainty start to weigh at his shoulders.