While Pidge and Hunk went back up the mountain with a Marmoran guide, Shiro established and maintained a strict schedule with the boy.
Shiro hardly ever left the boy’s side. He brought the boy every meal himself, morning, noon and night, and ate it with him. Every night, after whatever briefings he’d entertained in person or remotely from the boy’s bedside, Shiro slept in a cot beside the boy’s bed. Coran would come in from time to time, as would Ulaz and Kolivan, to assess not just the boy’s health but the situation at large. Coran had removed most of the boy’s bandages, a testament to how quickly the boy could recover with regular meals and rest in addition to whatever went into his genetic make-up. The only physical sign of what had happened during the raid at the outpost and after were the ugly black stitches in the boy’s cheek; they looked tight and painful, but the boy ate and spoke seemingly unhindered. Coran was still concerned over the boy’s size, especially his weight considering how little he resembled his supposed age; he reckoned there was a chance the boy was still growing, but worried that the boy would be permanently stunted by prolonged starvation and torture.
The boy didn’t seem too bothered by the poking and the prodding. He took all of Coran’s tests in stride, allowing the older man to touch him and examine him unclothed, using the scale and letting him take blood samples as required. Then again, living in breeding facilities his whole life as he had, the boy was likely used to not having any agency over his own body, and not having any privacy for that matter either.
No matter what Coran put him through, no matter how uncomfortable Shiro’s lines of questioning became, the boy never displayed aggression. He never bared his teeth, or growled, or made to take a swipe or snap at either one of them. Truth be told, Shiro suspected the boy was just satisfied being in a calm environment, whether he trusted it or not.
More and more, the boy was beginning to actually focus on Shiro instead of simply accepting him as just another fixture in his new life. He was beginning to see Shiro as a constant, reliable; he would turn to him whenever he entered the room, whenever he spoke or interacted with him. When they went to sleep at night, the boy turned to face Shiro and curled up tight as close to the edge of his bed as possible; he didn’t hesitate as long anymore when Shiro brought him food, trusting it when Shiro ate with him.
Shiro wasn’t just the newest authority figure exerting power over the boy’s life; he was the person who provided for him, food and water and safety. He was gentle and he was honest. He didn’t raise his hands to harm, he didn’t raise his voice to invoke terror, he just lived as normally as he could with the boy at his side.
“You know what we need to do,” Shiro said absently, looking over his hand of cards as he deliberated over which to add to the pile on the bed.
“I don’t,” the boy answered honestly, looking over his own hand.
“We need to figure out a name for you,” Shiro said, slapping a card onto the pile and pulling one more from the deck on the bedside table.
The boy looked up from where he was examining the card pile on the bed. “I thought I had a name, now,” he said, uncertain. “You call me Buddy. Isn’t that my name now? Buddy?”
Shiro’s mouth quirked up as he met the boy’s gaze. “It can be,” he offered. “If you want it to be. But ‘buddy’ is more of a nickname, a way to say that you’re my friend. You know? It’s not a real name.”
The boy frowned, his fingers fiddling with the cards in the pile. “What’s your name…?” He asked finally, carefully. The boy knew, of course, what the others called him, what Coran and Kolivan called him – Shiro, Commander, Sir. Shiro suspected the boy was curious about more than just what people called him, but what the boy should call Shiro in turn. Establish their relationship.
“Well, everyone calls me Shiro, but that’s a nickname. My name is kind of long and hard to pronounce for some people, so Shiro is easier,” he explained. “I have two names, one is my family name, and the other is a name just for me. So everyone in my family, my parents and I, our last name is Shirogane, but me, my name is Takashi. That’s my first name.”
“That is a long name,” the boy agreed, and Shiro did his best to stifle his grin at the solemn way the boy said it. “Why Shiro, if Shirogane is your last name and is for everybody? Wouldn’t it be better to call you Takashi, so people know which one…?”
“I think I mentioned before, one time, that I’m Japanese. My family is from a country called Japan, right?” Shiro waited for the boy to nod before continuing. “Right. So in Japan, the last name comes first, because it’s considered more important than the first name. Your first name is who you are, but your last name is who your family is – where you come from, where you belong. So my name is written ‘Shirogane Takashi’ instead of like… Coran’s, where his first name is Coran and his last name is Smythe, so Coran Smythe is his full name. Your name will be written like that, probably.”
The boy dropped his gaze back to the cards, and Shiro recognized now when the boy was mentally and physically retreating. “Those are people things,” he murmured. “Family things. I only need the one name.”
“You’re a person too,” Shiro reminded. “And you can always make your own family.”
The boy’s expression became even more closed off at that, and one hand reached up to tug anxiously at his overlong, shaggy hair, distressed, before Shiro realized he’d been gravely misunderstood.
“Not… not as in physically,” he hurried to amend. “You don’t have to do that. There’s more than one way to make your own family. Like… me and Pidge. We’re not related, we don’t share parents, but I still think of her as a sister. Same for Hunk and Ulaz and Coran, and a lot of the other people in our unit. We have this place and our work in common, but no parents, no blood relations. Do you understand…?”
The boy frowned, his hand slowly slipping out of the hair at his nape. “But you own them,” he said slowly. “You are their commanding officer. They are your subordinates. You tell them what to do.”
“Human beings don’t own one another,” Shiro corrected, gently. “In our unit, we build relationships based on trust and over time. I have a lot of responsibility, for a lot of people. They do as I ask, because they respect me and the choices I make. Not out of fear, not because I am somehow better than them, but because I have knowledge and experience. The title ‘Commander’ is something for outsiders, really – and for new recruits, sometimes, like you. It means I do the heavy-lifting, it means a lot of stress and responsibility and sometimes heartbreak. I make sure my unit and the people in it run smoothly. I make sure everyone eats and bathes and gets downtime and gets paid – and I do my best to keep everyone alive. That’s what I do, that’s what the position means for me, for us. But it doesn’t mean I own or control anybody.”
“But you do own me,” the boy said. “Right?” Shiro wasn’t expecting the hopeful tone underlying the question, half anxious. The boy’s face remained neutral as he met Shiro’s stare head-on, but his voice betrayed him.
“I don’t, bud,” Shiro said slowly. “I don’t want to own you, I want you to own yourself. To be your own person. I want you to be free.”
“I am Galra,” the boy stressed. “I am sixteen and able-bodied. I am not sterile. I’m combat-trained. I will never be free. I cannot be.”
“Buddy,” Shiro began, inching closer, but the boy shook his head.
“You don’t understand. I am not a person - I am a thing. I am an animal, a dog. If you set me free, I will be in danger. I could be taken, used again. Killed, probably, if they decided I’m not worth the trouble, and you already know that I’ve decided I will not be.” He curled his hands under the heavy leather collar around his neck, tugging on it pointedly. “This… this keeps me safe. As long as I am someone’s property, people think twice about taking me. They think maybe it isn’t worth the trouble to steal me, if someone will come looking for me. The way you want me to be, it will not last. I will die. It will be bad. It’s better to be what I am – what I truly am.” He shook his head again, dropping his hands from his collar. “If you want me to live, that’s the way it has to be. Like eating, like breathing – I need this, to live.”
“That’s not what I want for you,” Shiro said, trying to ease the tension in his throat, pained. “I didn’t save your life to have it be wasted.”
“You promised me it would not be,” the boy said evenly. “You promised me a purpose, a second chance.”
“I wanted you to have the chance to live, to be more than just a weapon, more than just an animal. I want you to be happy – I want you to enjoy being alive, not just live day to day on someone else’s orders. That is never what I wanted for you.”
The boy shrugged, seemingly unbothered. “I am what I am. I can’t be anything else. I have always been, and will always be, a dog on a leash – but if I can be a happy dog on a leash, that would be nice, too. I’d like that.”
“And how do I do that…?” Shiro asked, voice low and resigned, on the verge of despondent. “How do I make a dog on a leash happy?”
“Feed it and call it Buddy,” the boy said. “Card games are nice, too.”
Shiro felt his mouth tug up despite the sinking feeling of failure in his gut. “I think I can do that, bud.”
The boy offered another of his weird, grimacing attempts at a smile, his canines glinting.
They never returned to the topic of choosing a name for the boy, and Shiro was honestly okay with that. The conversation had given him enough heartache for one day, and he was afraid the boy wouldn’t really care about his name – wouldn’t be invested in choosing his own. He already seemed to know how the world perceived him, and had made some sort of peace with it; Shiro didn’t reckon the boy really cared about names, where himself was concerned. He probably didn’t think it made a difference one way or another, to how he viewed himself or how others would view him, especially in his new company.
That was okay. The name could wait. Shiro had a plan for that.
In terms of how the boy would address Shiro, they’d agreed on either ‘Sir’ or ‘Shiro’, and Shiro suspected he’d be getting called Sir more often than Shiro. The boy was raised to think in certain parameters, everything where it belonged according to his training – his experience. Simply telling the boy that he was to be an equal, to be treated the same as everyone else, wouldn’t be believed and Shiro supposed the boy was right in that, to a degree.
Shiro and Coran saw him as just that, a boy. A boy with skills he was too young to have, a boy who had experienced pain and trauma, a boy who would benefit from being drawn into a tight-knit, familial group like their own. However, like Kolivan, they knew it wasn’t so simple, so straightforward; as much as Shiro disliked acknowledging it, the boy had a primal side, a wild side, a side that was at least capable of violence. Just because the boy didn’t seem interested in acting aggressive didn’t mean he wouldn’t, if put in the wrong situation. It was totally possible that the boy had only a tenuous control over his animal instincts, and they just hadn’t managed to provoke a trigger yet.
Everyone in his team, in his unit, knew what purpose a Splice served out here. It wasn’t a question of healing a disability, or becoming more aesthetically pleasing – it was war. Splices were bred for strength, durability, brutality. They weren’t intended to ever be children, and once an adult had their DNA combined with something else, they surrendered every last shred of their humanity. The people who made these creatures, no matter the process, wanted them to do harm and do nothing else, and that was how the boy was going to be received. The boy knew it, everyone in his team and Kolivan knew it. No one would trust the boy without some thorough vetting – and just Shiro’s word wasn’t going to do.
It would take time, for everyone involved, to adapt to the change. For Shiro, for the boy, for their unit – especially because Shiro had no intention of leaving the boy unattended anytime soon. It would be better to keep the boy close, keep an eye on him, and more than that to establish that a change of scenery didn’t mean a change in Shiro. He wanted to keep the boy’s trust and respect – he didn’t want to lose that by changing too much, too soon. Shiro at least could be one constant in the boy’s life, moving forward.
And if it also proved the boy’s trustworthiness to his unit, then even better.
Shiro intended to really sell the boy to his unit. The more he considered his plan, the more he thought it sounded like a child begging his parents to let him keep the stray dog he’d found, and that wasn’t too far from the truth. Pidge, Hunk, Ulaz, Coran… they’d all heard of the Volkodav first hand, and he was sure that word would get around as it always did in the relatively small camp. But the rest of the camp wouldn’t be hearing terrified gibberish from refugees or military prisoners – they wouldn’t know what the boy first looked like when they’d found him, and Shiro fully intended to take advantage of that. They would never meet the Volkodav – just a boy, and a lot of rumors.
In essence, Shiro fully intended to make a walking adoption advert.
After his discharge, when he’d been home a month or so, a few people had broached the subject of getting a dog, especially a trained service animal. Someone that could handle his PTSD, give his day-to-day life some meaning, something to look forward to. His mother was the biggest proponent; all she knew to do to heal a wound, of any kind, was with love and he cherished that about her, really. But it meant that she threw herself behind her nurturing, whatever form it took, with everything in her and the whole dog idea was no different. She’d sent Shiro page after page of dogs – cute little cuddly dogs, older calmer dogs, trained service animals, and so many, many rescues. The majority of them had had nice photos attached, some of them even had before and after comparisons, and usually a little profile attached. Something about their preferences, and the type of home they needed, their history. It might be a little more complicated when it was a battle-hardened Young versus a one-eyed Pomeranian, but Shiro reckoned rather optimistically that it shouldn’t be all that hard considering he had a decent foundation to work with.
Shiro’s first step was getting the boy cleaned up, reveal the “handsome little heartbreaker” Coran had first told him about. The boy was already on his way to filling out and regaining his strength after a week of three square meals a day, which did most of his work for him. The boy’s eyes were no longer sunken and flat, his cheeks had color and a little roundness to them; his wrists and knees were still knobby and protruded, his arms and legs gangly at best. The boy’s hair had a unique quality to it, ultra fine and thick, long down his neck and edging past his shoulders with an overgrown fringe that mostly fell into his face. His almond eyes were big and blue and when you had him engaged they were intent and emotive, his facial expressions almost invariably settled into a gentle uncertainty or confusion - especially when he cocked his head to one side. He was plenty cute, Shiro thought, or at least could be if given time and space to grow – and a bath. Definitely one of those.
“I have a proposition for you,” Shiro stated, apropos of nothing as they wrapped up their lunch.
“Okay,” the boy said placidly. There was at least enough trust between them now, that the boy didn’t suspect Shiro of anything underhanded.
“You need a bath, and I need someone to help me with some paperwork. How does that sound?”
The boy looked uncertain, expression shuttered as he dropped his eyes to the bed, thinking it over. Shiro was starting to become acquainted with that look – it meant remembering, and rarely anything good.
“It’s fun paperwork, I promise,” Shiro cajoled. “There might even be an apple in it for you.” Little by little, Shiro was gathering information on the boy – just small things that didn’t pertain to his worth as an asset. Things he seemed to enjoy eating, books he enjoyed listening to as Shiro read, what card games the boy liked or excelled at. Fruit was understandably rare and hard to come by at the camp, and apples were what they received the most of in barters; they were smaller and firmer than what Shiro was used to getting at home, but still just as sweet. The two times Shiro had split an apple with the boy, his eyes had lit up and he’d been more careful eating it than his usual meals, taking smaller bites and working it around to enjoy the sweetness.
The possibility of apples got the boy’s attention, but he was still reluctant. “I can’t read or write,” he argued, one last ditch effort to avoid what he knew was inevitable.
“Won’t have to,” Shiro reassured cheerfully. “What do you say? Bath, apples, paperwork?”
The boy licked at his teeth, anxious. He nodded, stiltedly, like he was forcing himself, and kept his gaze averted.
Instead of taking the agreement at face value, Shiro took a moment to analyze the boy’s body language and replies. The boy wasn’t scratching at his nape or pulling at his hair, so it probably wasn’t stress, or feelings of humiliation like there was when his initial purpose at the last facility was broached. He wasn’t scowling or tensed like when fighting or violence was discussed. He didn’t seem sad, his eyes weren’t soft and distant the way they’d been when he discussed his mother or his life at the first facility. Instead, from what Shiro could gather, he seemed resigned, obligated to obey, reluctant to argue or at least bring up whatever he feared.
“Do you understand why I’m asking you about taking a bath?” Shiro pressed, gently, emphasizing that he was asking, not issuing a command.
The boy nodded. “Because I need one. Being clean is important.”
Shiro nodded. “Do you want that…?” He asked.
The boy nodded again, as if he were being forced. Shiro tried not to express his frustration.
“Buddy. I need you to be honest with me. I need to know the truth. Always. That’s important to me,” he said, only feeling a twinge of guilt at the manipulation. “Not as your commander, but for myself, as Shiro. I want to trust you, but I can’t do that if you lie.”
The boy’s hands twisted in the sheets in his lap, then sure enough, like clockwork, one hand came up to scratch through the hair at his nape – distressed. “You want me to take a bath,” he said, voice tight. “I can… I can do that. I can be good.”
“That’s not what I asked, bud,” Shiro pressed gently. “Answer me honestly. Do you want to take a bath?”
“No…?” The boy replied, his voice higher, lilting questioningly. His gaze darted to Shiro, avoiding his eyes, taking in his posture, the set of his shoulders, the location of his hands. The hand at the back of his neck curled, raking instead of scratching and Shiro refrained from admonishing him or physically stopping him for the moment. He knew a coping mechanism when he saw one, and right now, anything that kept the boy’s anxiety relatively level was welcome.
“Okay,” Shiro said peaceably, not changing his tone or the relaxed set of his body. “Can you tell me why?”
The boy nodded then, hasty, like he was eager to appease, but when he opened his mouth, the words seem to get caught. His jaw worked multiple times, figuring out what to say, fighting the urge to lie, his expression reflecting his struggle; it took all of Shiro’s willpower not to back down, to just take the boy’s obedience. He wanted to do more than lead by example – he wanted communication between them, man to man, regardless of what the boy thought was possible or acceptable.
“Hurts,” the boy finally forced out, his voice low, pained. “Water’s too hard, too hot – too cold. Scrub really hard and the brush is really hard – everything is hard. But I can do it. I can. I’ll be good.”
Just hearing that first, pained whine in the boy’s voice made a knot rise in Shiro’s throat. He’d suspected, he had, that the experience had been painful, whether by design or through negligence. That was the only conclusion to be drawn from the boy’s reluctance, considering his history. But it was something else, to hear him discuss it, in detail, when Shiro in all honesty didn’t want to know – he wanted to be ignorant, to be aware of the boy's past in terms of the bare bones, something long dead and buried and without feeling. He hated being confronted with the bloody truth, the gore, the viscera of what had really happened… that the past was dead but not gone, still haunting this boy. Begging Shiro to let him go through it all again, whether or not the boy realized that what he’d survived would no longer be his reality, in an attempt to prove his worth only made things harder to swallow.
“Okay,” Shiro answered, his voice as even as before if not made rougher by emotion. “Thank you, bud. I’m really glad you told me that. I know that was hard for you, but I’m glad you were honest with me, because we can work to make that better, going forward. Now I want you to listen to me, alright? Can you do that?”
The boy nodded, still not meeting Shiro’s eyes.
“That’s good, thank you. I haven’t really addressed this before, but I think maybe I should explain this to you. You don’t have to believe me right now, and I know it’s a lot to take in, especially with everything else going on. Things are going to be different with me and your new unit,” Shiro began. “The things you did before, the way you were treated before – that’s not going to happen with me. I don’t enjoy causing pain or fear for anybody, and I do my best at all times to avoid that. I don’t enjoy, or see the point, in harming you in any way. You are just fine as you are, and if anything needs to change between you and me, it won’t be done with violence or by hurting you. I told you before that all I want is your happiness, and keeping you safe from any and all harm is a part of that. If anyone does anything that hurts or scares you, you either tell them or you tell me. Am I understood?” He said, allowing it to come across as authoritative so the boy understood that he was firm on this, and not using it as a platitude or empty promise. When the boy nodded again, Shiro did as well, but didn’t let him off so easily. “Repeat it back to me. Explain what it means, so I know you understand.”
“No more pain,” the boy murmured, uncertain. “No more being afraid.”
“No more pain, because…?” Shiro goaded. “No more fear, because…?”
“No one will hurt me,” the boy continued, voice shrinking. “You, will not hurt me.”
“And if you feel pain, or feel fear, what do you do?”
“I… I say something,” the boy stammered. “I tell you.”
Shiro gave another slow, deep nod, and the boy’s eyes finally glanced back up to Shiro’s face, however briefly, the fingers in his hair easing up again. “That’s good. I’m glad you understand the new rules. That’s how we’re going to get things done, now – by talking them out. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll let you know, and if there’s something you don’t like, you let me know. Like the bath, for example. Baths here, and back at our own camp, don’t hurt for anybody. We don’t do hoses, and we don’t have much control over temperature or pressure. Here with the Marmora, people mostly use the local river or draw water and bathe in a basin. Back home, at our camp, we use showers. Nobody scrubs anybody, with anything, and everyone is given their privacy – everyone. Does that sound okay with you? Would you be comfortable with that…?”
This time, the boy hesitated, thinking it over, and Shiro hoped it was because he was considering telling the truth instead of obeying for obedience’s sake. Finally the boy nodded, slowly, and brought his eyes back up to Shiro’s and kept them there. “Yes,” he said, almost shy. “That sounds… that sounds okay. I would be okay with that.”
Shiro rewarded him with a smile, the satisfaction warming his heart twice as much when the boy tried to return it, however small. It was progress. It was shaky, it was hard-won, but it was progress.
Baby steps. He had to be satisfied with that.