To Shiro’s delight, when provided with the option of the river or a basin, the boy made a choice for himself with little hesitation, requesting a visit to the bathing tents that were mostly used for younger children and elderly refugees. There would be more privacy there than at the river and wouldn’t require transport, all things Shiro was sure the boy had considered. Shiro had reluctantly reminded him that all his safety measures had to go with them, but the boy didn’t seem to mind nearly as much as Shiro had. He didn’t want the boy paraded through the camp like a criminal – like they’d caught him in the act, instead of discovering what he’d been forced to do. For that reason, Shiro elected they move the bath to sundown, limiting the boy’s interactions with members of the Marmoran camp.
“Ta-da,” Shiro said with a flourish, as they entered the designated tent and he whisked aside the entry flap. “What do you think?”
The boy took it all in, eyes flickering around the enclosure, jaw tight with anticipation. “It’s really big,” he said.
“It’s a big camp,” Shiro shrugged, ushering the boy ahead of him. “I don’t think there should be anyone else in here this late, so go ahead and pick a spot. Most of them have a partition, if you want. Up to you.”
The boy hummed, low in his throat and chest, uncertain. “Can we use that one?” He asked, having to gesture with both hands since they were cuffed together, lacking the long chains attached to the bed. He’d indicated the furthest partition, towards the back and almost in a corner.
“Whichever one you like,” Shiro assured, and held the partition aside for the boy. “I can help you get out of the scrubs and wait outside if you want,” he offered. “I can’t take the cuffs or lead off, though, I’m sorry. It’ll make things awkward washing up, I know, but rules are rules, even for me.”
“Outside?” That seemed to be the only part the boy had caught on to. “Outside the tent…?” He didn’t seem pleased by the prospect, eyes wide and brow furrowed, his hands paused in the midst of tugging at the neck of his tunic.
“I don’t have to leave,” Shiro reminded gently. “I just wanted to give you privacy if you wanted it. If you want me to stay here, I will, you just say the word.”
The boy looked overwhelmed, and after their intense discussion at lunchtime, and the progress made after, Shiro took pity. “How about I stay with you, help you reach whatever the cuffs don’t let you. Is that okay with you?”
The tension in the boy’s shoulders and face eased almost immediately. “Yes, that’s okay.” He hesitated for a minute, then met Shiro’s eyes and said definitively, “I’d like that.” As if it were a bold statement, and Shiro supposed it was, for him. Confessing to have a preference either way meant leaving himself open to having the things he liked taken away – or to be hurt for making the wrong choice. Shiro rewarded him with the warmest smile possible.
“Good to know. C’mon, let’s get you washed up.”
Shiro drew just two buckets from the central well, reckoning they wouldn’t need much more than that for the boy’s small body. Honestly, the basin they were using was like a tub for the undersized Splice, giving him plenty of room to maneuver as opposed to Shiro or even Pidge, and especially Hunk, who had honestly just resorted to standing in the basin whenever they had no other options.
He set out a bar of crude soap and a rag on the painfully short footstool Shiro decided he’d be using as a seat, then started to help the boy out of the old-fashioned tie-shut scrubs. The boy didn’t have any complaints, and didn’t seem upset by the lack of mobility, taking the weight of the restraints in stride. He didn’t seem bothered, either, by Shiro’s hands on him or his presence once he was fully naked and stepping into the tub. As he did, Shiro took in the sad state of the child’s body, still too bony and pale, the scars littered all over his skin even paler and shiny, old. There were pink scars, too, from wounds that had healed badly and from his journey down the mountain, but not all of them seemed violent in nature – some showed signs of stitching, some were too clean to be anything but surgical. But the one that stuck out the most was the large puckered scar at the base of the boy’s spine, sporting a thick tuft of black hair.
“Do you have a tail?” Shiro found himself asking, blurting it out without thought, genuinely shocked, feeling the blood drain from his face. “I mean, did you?” Had they mutilated the boy…?
The boy looked up at Shiro, surprised, then glanced over one shoulder and down his back. “I did when I was little,” he said. “It’s gone now. They docked it - it made it harder for me to pass as human.” He shrugged, turning back to his work with the rag, working on his feet and legs first, as they were the most accessible with his hands cuffed together.
Shiro watched him work in silence, taking in how methodical and thorough the boy was, apparently dedicated to meeting Shiro’s standards as best he could. He worked between his toes, even. Shiro remembered being back in high school and showering for maybe three minutes and only scrubbing what he considered vitally necessary; he didn’t reckon he’d ever been so thorough as a teenager, but then again, he hadn’t fully realized the privilege he’d had, being able to bathe multiple times a day in the comfort of his own home, whenever he chose.
The boy took a deep breath and then dunked his head into the shallow water in the basin between his legs, and surfaced with a satisfied gasp – and Shiro couldn’t have restrained his sudden burst of laughter if he had tried. The boy in virtually no way resembled a dog – except for when soaking wet, his jet black hair plastered to his face and collar, eyes completely obscured and the points of his cropped ears much more prominent. He looked like a drowned rat and Shiro was absolutely delighted.
“What?” The boy asked, raising his chin and shifting his attention around blindly. “What, what?” Shiro could even see, now, the way the boy’s ears twitched around, listening.
“Oh my god. Hold on, hold still, don’t move, just-” Shiro stood and frantically fumbled his phone out of his pocket, hurrying to take at least one photo. The boy looked like a wet Yorkie, with his ears out and everything but his mouth slathered with black hair. “Oh man. That’s one for the books. Wow.”
“What books?” The boy finally asked, swiping hair out of his face. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, just, uh… your hair,” Shiro said, still half-chuckling as he resumed his seat. “I never get to see your ears, either, since there’s so much of it. They’re cute.”
The boy wrinkled his nose, and his ears flicked back and flat, probably disagreeing, but he turned back to scrubbing at his hair with the soap.
“Your hair’s pretty long, bud,” Shiro commented, watching him work at his scalp. “Didn’t realize there was so much of it until I saw it wet. Don’t reckon you’d let me cut it…?” He asked, not really expecting any answer in the affirmative.
“You can if you want to,” the boy said, surprisingly. “But it grows back really quickly. The researchers here think I’m a long-haired breed. They shaved me down about a month ago, and it’s already almost as long as it used to be.”
“In a month?” Shiro said incredulously. The boy just shrugged.
“If you want me to keep it like yours, I’ll need a lot of haircuts. The first facility gave up and just left it long.” He dunked his head again, staying under to get the soap out, and this time came back up with his fingers raking his hair back down his head, not giving Shiro another chance to laugh.
“How long did it used to be?” Shiro asked.
“Not much longer than this,” the boy admitted. “It stops growing around here.” He clumsily indicated a spot on his side with his cuffed hands, just under where his shoulder blades would normally rest.
“Do you like having it that long?” Shiro asked, motioning for the boy to hand him the soap and rag, and to turn around. “We could do a lot of haircuts, if that’s what you wanted. Especially if you don’t care how it looks.” He thought of Pidge, and her own brand of haircut, which entailed clippers to her nape, bundling everything else in a high ponytail and then just chopping off the ponytail. It was definitely… it was definitely a look.
The boy obediently turned about in the bath, giving Shiro his back and folding his hair up against the back of his head. “Don’t care how it looks. Long is good.” He didn’t go into his reasons why, and Shiro didn’t pry; he didn’t figure it was important.
“That’s fine by me. Plenty of people in our unit with long hair, so you won’t stick out at all.” Shiro opined as he lathered up the rag, working it under the loose collar and over the raised vertebrae and ribs. “So. Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” the boy said, his head drooping a little as Shiro worked at his back, arms and sides.
“How did you learn so many languages…?” Shiro asked. “Your English is really good and it keeps surprising me, is all. Did you get any schooling?”
“No,” the boy grunted. “Galra are not educated. It’s not our purpose. The only ones who are, are adult Galra who were created, not birthed like me. We don’t need to read or write or even speak to do as we are intended, to kill or breed. They don’t expect us to live long, anyway. The only way I learned was because my mother taught me, or I listened. My mother was Kazakh, but the research team where I was born were mostly English-speaking, with a few Russian assistants. At this facility, they were all Russian, or at least that’s all they spoke.”
Shiro absorbed that information, sluicing water down the boy’s back. This revelation was concerning – English speakers were not native to this part of the continent, and English wasn’t even an educational requirement for any of the countries involved in the conflict or even their bordering countries. Yet somehow, English-speaking researchers had wound up out here, assisting in Splice research. It could mean treason, a double-cross – or it could mean a country benefiting from the lawless operations being run in this war.
Shiro had asked the boy questions in this vein before, but they’d never gone into detail and Shiro had never really felt the need. Most things the boy didn’t know anyway; he fought who they told him to, killed who they told him to, and obeyed their every command as it didn’t pertain to breeding or harming his fellow Young. He wasn’t even a cog in the machine – he was just a tool, an outside element, to be used to keep the machine running but otherwise uninvolved.
“Those English-speaking researchers,” Shiro said, trying for nonchalance, “did they sound like me, or like Ulaz, or Coran…? Did they have accents like ours?”
“None like Ulaz,” the boy said, narrowing it down. “A few like you, and a few that sounded like Coran, but not exactly.” The boy twisted in the basin to face Shiro, expression intent, all business. “I don’t know where they were from, or even their names. But if I heard others, I might be able to figure out where the Coran voices were from. I could also give descriptions, if that would be helpful.”
Right. Shiro had forgotten. The boy was sixteen and looked adorable soaking wet in a bathtub, but he was no child. He was a man in all but years, and battle-scarred on top of that. He’d killed before – and could still, the reason his hands were still cuffed. For a second, things had felt different between them, but the fundamentals would not and could not change: the boy was an asset and Shiro his handler.
But against better advice, logic and common sense, Shiro stuck to his instincts and gave the boy another smile. “Maybe one day,” he said dismissively. “Alright, let’s get you out of there before you start looking pruney.”
Shiro stood, holding open a ratty towel for the boy to step into, but instead of taking the towel, the boy stood, dropped his head and hunched his shoulders, and Shiro suddenly had a sinking feeling. “No no no, wait, I have a tow-” The rest was lost in a shout as the boy did exactly what Shiro had been afraid of and gave himself a hearty shake from his head to his toes, flinging water around their little partition. Only Shiro’s fast reflexes saved him, jerking the towel up to protect his head and face.
He got the boy as dry as he could with the thin fabric of the towel, giving him a brisk rub down before helping him back into the scrubs. Surprisingly, all that hair dried relatively quickly, fluffing up after the wash and quick once-over with the towel. Looking at the boy’s very delineated hairline, and the way his hair grew in a steep vee down his neck, combined with the odd texture of his hair, Shiro was beginning to think it wasn’t hair so much as fur, or maybe a combination of the two. Either way, it was much more flattering when freshly washed, and Shiro reckoned with a little attention, it would look even better – much less like an abandoned scrapyard dog and more like a human boy. Maybe he wouldn’t cut it all that short, since the boy preferred it long – and especially because he didn’t want to cut it again every single week. Depending on how he wore it, it wouldn’t be an issue, and he didn’t intend on putting the boy in any combat situations, anyway.
He wanted more than anything to impress upon the boy that he had worth outside of the physical. He was more than his genetics, he had value on his own – he was smart, too, and dedicated, and with time Shiro was certain he’d be loyal as well. He could already see it in the way the boy was so eager to please where Shiro was concerned, and how much the boy valued Shiro’s steady presence and reassurance. He almost felt bad, encouraging the boy to rely on him so heavily, but tempered it with the knowledge that it was for the boy’s own good – he was just a crutch until the boy could stand on his own some day.
“So I think we agreed on no haircut,” Shiro said, as they returned to the medical ward, but didn’t immediately reinstate the lead and the chains for the cuffs. The boy sat on the edge of the bed regardless, waiting, as Shiro sat in his usual chair facing him. “But would you be okay with me cutting off a little bit, while it’s still a little wet? Just to even it out and get a little bit out of your face.”
As Shiro predicted, the boy shrugged. “I’ll need to use scissors and a comb,” Shiro warned. “Would that bother you, if it’s close to your face?” Again, the boy shrugged, and Shiro gave him a little smile. “Okay. But remember the rules, okay? If you’re in pain and afraid…”
“Say something,” the boy finished dutifully. “I will.”
Shiro nodded, and couldn’t help but feel a little tug on his heartstrings. The way he reiterated Shiro’s lecture was so similar to the way Pidge did… in a perfect world, they would be best friends, the babies of the company, the smallest and the youngest. They would be so close that even mild-mannered and loving Hunk would be jealous.
Then again, in a perfect world none of them would have ever met. None of them would be out here – and the boy wouldn’t have ever existed in the first place.
Shiro left to fetch the scissors, a comb, and a larger rag to tie about the boy’s neck and returned to find the boy exactly as he’d left him, waiting for him on the bed even though he was no longer chained there. Shiro hadn’t really feared the boy’s escape; yes, it had been a test, but one in which Shiro was already sure of the results. The boy had no reason to leave and every reason to stay. Even if he’d been a spy, a plant meant to infiltrate the Marmora or Shiro’s contingent, the boy’s body didn’t lie – he’d suffered at someone’s hands, and it wasn’t Shiro’s. Shiro treated him with kindness, generosity, and dignity – anyone would be swayed to switch sides if given a choice between the two. And seeing the boy’s gaze come up and fix unerringly on Shiro as he returned to the room, Shiro knew the boy stayed for more than just the opportunity for an easy life.
“It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” Shiro admitted. “Especially with just scissors, so don’t be too judgmental if I butcher your hair.”
“It’ll be fine,” the boy assured. “It’s just hair.” He thought for a moment, then said in an attempt at further reassurance and to adhere to Shiro’s new rules, “It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like or dislike it.”
“Thanks, bud,” Shiro said with a somewhat wry smile, and reached out to gently pat the boy’s shoulder. The boy took it in stride, not reacting either way, and let Shiro come around behind him.
Shiro’s mother had almost always cut his hair growing up; it hadn’t always been good or flattering, but it was almost always the same, neat style. She’d always said that since he was her one and only child that she wanted to experience the most with him, everything she possibly could. She wanted to cook and clean with him, and sew with him, she wanted to go shopping and cut his hair and teach him how to shave and tie a Windsor knot and tuck a dress shirt in properly. He’d learned almost everything he knew by watching her, including the way she treated others. Her first instinct was to love and nurture, especially where it came to other children and animals, but if she for one moment thought there was danger, she seemed to tower over the threat, hard and immovable, with a fire within her that couldn’t be extinguished. In a lot of ways and with a great deal of pride, Shiro considered himself a larger replica of her.
He thought of her as he set to the boy’s hair, trying not to cut too much, starting off small and working his way up. How many times had his mother done this for him in their upstairs bathroom, as Shiro chattered away about what he’d learned in school, teaching her as much as she taught him? How often had he looked up into the mirror and seen her small figure first hunched over his head and then later reaching up, even though she was on a stepstool and he was seated? In college and then boot camp that tiny figure in the mirror had morphed into his own, trimming his own hair and then trimming his friends’ hair.
But he’d never once felt the way he did now, the need to be careful and cautious around the little ears, the long nape, the soft face; grateful, not for the first time, for the dexterity of his new prosthesis. Was this what his mother had felt, all those years ago with Shiro in a kitchen chair across from the sink…? Pouring herself into every stroke of the comb, every snip of the scissors – wanting to do her very best to care for something precious…? How often did she do as Shiro did now, and run her fingers through his fringe with pride not just at her work, but pride in her boy…?
“There,” Shiro forced himself to say, pulling his hand away from fussing with the newly trimmed hair around the boy’s angular face. “Like new. Back home, I’d probably get top dollar for a cut like that, and you got it for free. Lucky you.”
The boy opened his eyes as Shiro bent to remove the cloth from his neck, shaking it out. “Is that what you did before?” He asked. “Or is that classified.”
“Nope,” Shiro said in reply to both questions. “Just had a really great teacher. Here, look.” He took out his phone, and crouched to snap a decent picture of the boy first head-on, and then from the side, before handing it over to the boy. “Not too shabby, huh?”
The boy took the phone in his hands nonchalantly, but the instant his eyes settled on the picture of himself on the screen, they went huge, and he froze. “This… this is me…?” He murmured. His wide eyes drifted up to meet Shiro’s, slow with shock. “This is me?”
Shiro’s brow furrowed in confusion. The boy hadn’t seemed confused or uncertain about having his photo taken by phone, and seemed to expect nothing less when Shiro had handed it to him. “Yes,” he confirmed, gently. “Haven’t you seen photos of yourself before…? Or your reflection?”
“Not… not like this,” the boy whispered, dropping his eyes back down and clutching the phone reverently. He brought his fingers up to touch the stitches in his cheek, where they matched the photo. “This is really me, right now?”
“Yeah,” Shiro confirmed, and just to prove the point gently eased the phone out of the boy’s hands and took a seat beside him on the bed, one leg dangling. He closed the gallery and brought up the camera, changing it to front-facing, and held it in front of them both. “See? This is us, the both of us, right now.” He waved a hand so it would be reflected on the screen.
The boy reached up tentatively and Shiro allowed him to take the phone, to study his own reflection. “This is how I really look,” the boy said, numb with wonder. “This is really me. I’m not… I’m not as ugly as I thought. I'm not… I don’t look scary.” He touched the stitches again, and the look of surprise melted into one of pained realization as he turned to Shiro. “I look just like her. I look like my mother.”
Shiro did his best to swallow down enough heartbreak that he could speak. The words came out low and hoarse anyway. “You’re not ugly,” Shiro confirmed. “You’re not a monster.” He reached up carefully and put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, giving him a gentle tug against his side. “You’re your mother’s son, and that is all you will ever have to be from now on.”
The boy more than allowed the embrace, losing tension and molding himself to Shiro’s side. He didn’t reciprocate, his wide eyes still on the open screen, rediscovering his own face. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be baby steps, Shiro considered. Maybe we can do this at our own pace. Maybe we can run if we want to.