Shiro’s next order of business was clothes. Pidge and Hunk should be back any day now; they were keeping the comms quiet unless an emergency came up, keeping the task as simple and straight-forward as possible.
The Marmoran camp saw more babies and children than anyone would really want, and religious organizations both locally and overseas frequently sent donations of clothing and toys. For the time being, taking a few pieces of donated clothing would be his best bet in terms of what would fit the boy’s tiny frame; it would also, hopefully, help portray the boy for what he was nowinstead of what he had been. Shiro had no intention of introducing the boy to his new home in blood-stained and threadbare over-sized fatigues.
He wasn’t able to scrounge up much, mostly because of his own standards. Most articles were too large or too small or, and Shiro felt poorly about the decision, far too nice. There were kids here at the camp that may not be getting any other clothes but these, who would need newer things that would last a good year of growing and playing. The boy wouldn’t have to worry about that, in Shiro’s care, and besides that, the boy would likely be working around the unit and would ruin a new pair of jeans or cool t-shirt. It would be better instead, to take clothes he wouldn’t need to really grow into, that had some wear-and-tear. If everything went well, the boy wouldn’t need them anymore once they ordered him a new set of Company issued fatigues.
And if everything went wrong, then they wouldn’t need to worry about clothes anymore, anyway.
Shiro managed to find two decent t-shirts, one black and one red with a pocket, and two pairs of well-loved blue jeans that might have to be cuffed up. He took a few pairs of socks and underthings and called it a success; the boy wouldn’t need any shoes, since the boots they’d found him with were serviceable and again there were others that needed them more, and there were jackets the boy could use back at base camp and those didn’t necessarily have to fit.
Shiro had looked at the little cabinet of donated toys and briefly wondered if the boy would like something like that, but knew even as he looked that the boy wouldn’t have understood the point. Having something for the sake of having, because you were interested, probably even the notion of playtime as a whole would be foreign to someone who had never been a child, only a soldier. There was nothing that would appeal to the more canid aspects of the boy either, and Shiro didn’t even know if he’d be interested in that anyway – if the boy would just have an ingrained appreciation for fetch, or if it would be like playing catch with a regular human boy.
Coran had given the boy another physical this morning, and given him not only the all-clear for travel but a glowing bill of good health in addition. The boy was putting on weight at a decent rate, was eating and drinking regularly on his own, and all his wounds were either closed over or in the process there of. His face was still angular and his eyes were still big, but he had a healthy color to his pale skin and no bruises to mar it; he looked more youthful now than when they’d found him, with the additional softness of puppy fat to his cheeks and jaw.
Clean, hair trimmed, healthy and healing, and in regular civilian clothes, the boy looked normal – like an average child on the cusp of puberty. The only thing that belied that image was the over=sized collar around the boy’s neck, and Shiro was still of two minds about that. He acknowledged the boy may have had a point, where it came to the implication of ownership and his safety, but he also hated looking at the thing. It looked so heavy and uncomfortable, despite the fact that there was plenty of room for the boy to slide a fist between it and his throat, but more than that he hated the constant reminder, to both the boy and to others that he was an animal and fully expected to be treated as such.
He was pondering what to do about it, splitting the promised apple between himself and the boy in comfortable silence when there was a knock on the door of the medical ward. Both their heads popped up and looked around; as Shiro had anticipated, Pidge stood on the other side, looking rough and exhausted but vindicated, if unsmiling. She hitched a thumb over one shoulder as a silent request for him to step outside, and Shiro nodded.
“That’d be Pidge,” Shiro said, getting to his feet. “Just came back from an intelligence op at the facility. Gonna debrief her and then I’ll be right back. Okay?” The boy nodded, looking unbothered, wholly occupied with his apple, and Shiro gave him a brief stroke over his hair in farewell before stepping outside.
“Have fun?” He opened with, wryly taking in the state of her and the smile on her face.
“I see he’s learned Sit and Stay,” she replied with mock cheer. “Congrats, Cesar Millan.”
“Thanks, Roll Over’s next on my list,” Shiro said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest. “I assume you learned some new tricks this week as well?”
“Just brushing up on some old ones,” Pidge replied smugly. “Mostly 'fetch' – found myself a tidy little hidden room full of servers and several serviceable hard drives from secondary terminals from which I can extract a truly disgusting amount of information. It’s all in Russian, of course, but I figured Ulaz could assist, or maybe Kolivan might know a guy.”
Shiro chuckled, giving his head a rueful shake. “Leave it to you to go up a mountain for some files and return with the whole damn operation on disk. Great work, Pidge.”
“Well, it’s not everything,” she said, with false humility. “But it might as well be. Whatever gaps there are we can fill with what we have, and input from the researchers and Fido, assuming he can tell the truth as well as he can kill.” She lifted her chin at the boy in the bed.
Shiro shot her a look, mingled disappointment and resignation, knowing any criticism would fall on deaf ears. She heaved her shoulders up dismissively. “Hey. We don’t know anything about him for sure until I start working on the data I retrieved.”
“I know what I know about him,” Shiro said. “It’s been a good week for him – for us. We’ve made progress.”
“So you think,” Pidge said, brushing him off. “You don’t know what’s going through his head.”
“You can’t claim to, either,” Shiro pointed out.
“I know dogs, and I know Splices,” she replied. “You can’t tell me a wolf has the temperament of a rabbit just because you have a good feeling about it. It’s still a wolf, and some things are hard-wired into them. That’s a fact – that’s science.”
“So after these three months, I still haven’t proved myself to you,” Shiro said softly. “You never trusted me so little before.”
“You’ve never done something this stupid before,” she explained. “I still respect you, Shiro, but now… I don’t know about trust off the battlefield. This is a mistake, Shiro. Hunk might cave, Ulaz will probably cave, Coran has probably already caved – but me? I’m gonna wait until I have all the information. The records I have now will give me everything I need, one way or another. You’re gonna thank me for that.”
“I don’t want you to, or expect you to, do anything else,” Shiro said quietly. “I respect that this choice has been hard on you, for your own reasons – and I trust you to handle this right, and make the right choice when it comes down to it. If you expect me to talk you out of this, don’t. Whatever gets you the validation you need, whatever gets us information on the boy for the boy’s sake, whatever helps Kolivan and our own operations, I know you’ll find it. I wouldn’t have anything any other way, and that includes you.” Carefully, he unwound his arms, holding them open for her tentatively, genuinely afraid that she wouldn’t accept – that she would walk away, from him, from everything the’d built these last three months.
It did his heart more good than he would ever admit to have Pidge step into him, under one arm, without any sign of hesitation. “I don’t hate you,” she grumbled. “It’s because I don’t that I’m doing all this, you get me?”
“I got you,” Shiro said, voice softer this time, giving her a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you. No matter what you find, thank you.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Pidge said, pulling away and flapping a hand dismissively. “Go back to training up the runt.”
“Get some rest,” Shiro said, gently, his hand on the door. “I want to head back home as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake. Kolivan wants to go over some intel with the boy, but once that’s done we can be on the road.” Shiro paused where he would have dismissed Pidge, already knowing how she’d feel about what he was going to say next. He turned back to her. “I want to make introductions tomorrow. I want the boy to know who he’ll be working with, to get to know you guys. And I want you guys to have the same opportunity to get to know him.”
As Shiro expected, Pidge sneered. “Sure. Sounds great. Can’t wait. Gonna get all prettied up for the big occasion.” She gave Shiro a little two fingered salute and carried on her way. “I’ll send the boys a Facebook invite.”
Shiro sighed, watching her go, and took the win for what it was. At least she’d agreed to the notion, however sardonically, instead of arguing the point or outright refusing. He knew her feelings hadn’t changed – but hopefully, now, she accepted that his hadn’t either.
Shiro hadn’t been so astutely aware of the height difference between himself and the boy until he was crouched in front of him, tugging fastidiously at him while he stood patiently at the bedside. Superficially, Shiro was aware that one less crease in the boy’s hand-me-down shirt or pushing most of the boy’s hair out of his face wasn’t going to change his team’s impression of the boy; they’d already seen him on the brink of death, they’d heard from Kolivan and the prisoners what the boy was capable of. But that didn’t stop Shiro from treating it like the boy’s first day at school, or picture day.
“I can tie my shoes,” the boy offered, even as Shiro was already folding and tucking the boy’s jeans into his boots, regulation style. It felt different, performing the actions that had become second nature to him on someone else, someone much smaller than himself. He still had to wrap the laces around the boy’s ankles before tying them off, even with his pants tucked in.
“I know,” Shiro replied, reaching up to tug at the boy’s shirt next, removing invisible wrinkles in the faded fabric. He looked up at the boy’s placid face, the way he passively left his arms at his sides without the weight of the restraints and let Shiro pull and manipulate him. “This is more for me, than it is for you,” Shiro admitted with a wry smile. “Wanna make sure you look your best.” From Shiro’s position the boy still stood only a few inches taller than him, well within reach as he went to tuck his hair behind his ears as best he could with the boy’s long fringe and the inhuman shape and placement of his ears.
“I don’t think it’ll change anything,” the boy opined. “They already know me.”
“Yes,” Shiro agreed. “I don’t expect a haircut and a new outfit to change their opinions of you. But I like I said, this is mostly just for me – you’ve made progress, and I want that to show. I’m proud of you, that’s all.”
The boy tensed, shoulders hunching and jaw clenching, eyes wide at the mention of pride. Shiro wasn’t sure if the boy could blush, but everything about his posture and expression said everything a blush would. Shiro smiled, gently, and this time stroked a hand through the boy’s hair for pleasure, as a reward, instead of in a half-hearted attempt to tame it. “You’re doing good,” Shiro said. “I’m really happy about how far you’ve come.”
The boy dropped his gaze to the side, caving under the pressure of Shiro’s approval, his mouth curling up shyly, just enough to show a little fang.
There was a soft rap on the door, and Shiro knew just from that that it was Coran. From the look on the boy’s face, once again neutral with his shoulders dropped, he could also tell the rest of the team was here, too.
The boy was well aware that Shiro’s team was, if not afraid of him or disgusted by him, at least wary of him. Shiro wished that weren’t the case, but the boy seemed unfazed by the notion of working with people who didn’t like him. Shiro supposed that was par for the course, for him, and wished that wasn’t the case for him now, with a new team of better people. He almost wished the boy would be shy, or obstinate – be capable of experiencing something negative or painful with something other than resignation.
Shiro got to his feet, the boy once more barely coming up to Shiro’s bicep, and ran one last hand over the boy’s head as he turned to face the door. He nodded, and Coran nodded in turn before opening the door and allowing the rest of the team inside the ward. One by one they filed in, each expression different, to stand by the now vacant bed, before Shiro and the boy.
The boy had met virtually everyone at least once, by now; Ulaz had dropped in several times, to brief Shiro or else just check up on the situation, and it had been the same for Kolivan, though the Marmoran leader had spoken considerably less. Coran the boy probably knew better than he did Shiro at this point, for all the time they’d spent together, and Shiro was glad that at least his first experience with a member of his new team had been with Coran – the man was naturally friendly and nurturing, and Shiro was sure that seeing Coran pour himself into his healing had proved more than Shiro’s words ever could. Hunk had kept himself scarce, at first avoiding the medical ward and Shiro and then taking up the intel operation with Pidge, so he was probably the only new face for the boy. Pidge, at least, if he hadn’t seen, he had heard; she wasn’t shy, and she wasn’t quiet, most especially where her feelings and thoughts on their newest addition were concerned. She was the only one Shiro really worried about, for that reason.
“Buddy, I want to introduce you to your new unit,” Shiro began. “These are the people you’re going to be working with from now on.” The boy gave no response, letting Shiro continue as he looked over the group assembled before him. “You already know Coran,” Shiro indicated the red-haired man, who gave a little wave, his eyes creasing with a smile. “As you found out, he’s our chief medical officer and field surgeon. He keeps us all healthy and in working order. If you ever get hurt or feel sick, you’ll report to either myself or Coran. Understood?” The boy nodded his understanding, but didn’t return Coran’s smile.
Surprisingly, or perhaps less so, Coran didn’t let it slide and instead extended a hand for the boy. “Coran Hieronymus Wimbleton Smythe, a pleasure,” he introduced himself. “It’s a pleasure to have you onboard, my boy.” The boy’s eyes widened, startled at the unexpected gesture, but he put his smaller hand in Coran’s and permitted the man’s brief, hearty shake.
“This is Ulaz,” Shiro moved on. “He’s like me, a commanding officer in this company. He speaks Russian as well, and does most of our translating on smaller excursions. He helps me keep the camp running from top to bottom. If you need anything, Ulaz is someone you can go to for help or supplies.”
Ulaz gave the boy a small, tight smile, and similarly offered him a hand, though notably different than Coran’s approach – he didn’t consider the boy a child, but instead a new recruit. “Rad tebya videt',” he offered. The boy nodded, but again didn’t smile or reply, taking the man’s hand in another brief shake.
“This is Kolivan,” Shiro said, darting a wary glance up at the man’s disapproving and intimidating figure. “He’s the leader of the Marmora, and the commander of this camp. He’s the one that liberated the outpost you were at. He’s part of a joint effort with our company, and we work together often; he’s also our best translator. He’s Kazakh too.”
Kolivan’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he continued to look down his nose at the boy before him, offering neither a greeting nor a hand, and the boy didn’t seemed surprised. He met Kolivan’s stare intently, without fear, and said nothing. Shiro moved on.
“This is Hunk, our chief engineer and heavy weapons expert,” Shiro introduced with a small, encouraging smile for the much larger man. Hunk’s body was turned slightly away from the boy, shoulders up and hands nervously fiddling with one another, eyes wide and darting. “He’s probably the nicest guy on the planet. He’s also a really good cook, and makes sure we all get a little taste of home from time to time. You won’t be working with him much, but maybe after a bit you can start helping out in the kitchen.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” the boy said first, surprisingly, voice subdued but maintaining eye contact – he was being gentle, but he still respected the large man before him. “You don’t have to shake hands if you don’t want to. I understand.”
Pidge snorted from Hunk’s side, but nobody glanced her way. Instead, Hunk darted a glance at Shiro, gauging the situation, before clearing his throat. “No, it’s, uh… it’s fine.” Tentatively he offered his hand, awkward for the distance between them that neither was willing to breach, and the boy gently clasped Hunk’s fingertips. “Oh wow, uh, your hands are really… really rough.”
The boy withdrew his hand slowly, making no sudden moves, as if Hunk were the animal that could be startled. “Sorry,” he apologized, sounding sincere even if his face didn’t reflect it. “Dog paws,” he explained.
“I didn’t mean – it’s not, like, bad or anything,” Hunk reassured in a rush. “I was just, uh, surprised, is all. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fine. It’s, uh, it’s nice to meet you too, I guess. I mean. All things considered. You know.”
The boy let Hunk ramble on until he slowed to a stop on his own, his face neutral, saying nothing to stay or reassure him, and Shiro figured it was time for the part he’d been dreading.
“And last but definitely not least, this is Pidge,” he said, letting pride fill his voice. “I’ve mentioned her, once or twice. She’s our comms and tactics expert, as well as intelligence and general field tech. She’s the youngest in our company, and if you’re lucky you might be able to work with her on projects from time to time, especially if a translator is ever needed.”
Pidge huffed, trying not to preen or be swayed by the flattery, and stuck her hand out abruptly.
To Shiro’s utter bemusement, the boy’s reaction to her was far different than to anyone else he’d been introduced to. He kept his gaze lidded and averted as if shy or uninterested, instead of meeting her stare directly like he had with everyone else, his posture shrinking towards Shiro. When Pidge stuck her hand out, he pulled his hands in towards his belly and turned away from her entirely, his face tucked away, towards Shiro. “What the Hell is his problem?” Pidge growled. “I’m trying to be nice to him.”
“I know,” Shiro acknowledged, keeping his voice soft. He brought a hand up to brush over the boy’s hair. “You okay, buddy?” He asked, more a murmur for the boy’s ears alone. “You know Pidge wouldn’t hurt you, right? You don’t have to be afraid of her.” The boy didn’t say anything to explain himself, or otherwise indicate he’d heard or felt one way or the other about Shiro’s statement, but he let his posture open back up some, though he avoided looking at or interacting with Pidge at all. Shiro decided he’d address the issue later, once they’d finished here.
He gave Pidge an apologetic look before turning a more uncertain one on the boy, resting his false hand reassuringly on the back of the boy’s head as he turned his attention back to his assembled company. “You probably noticed that he hasn’t introduced himself in turn, and I’m sure you can guess the reason why. We agreed, as part of him joining our unit, that the name Volkodav and the person associated with that name is dead. He is no longer to go by that name. Unfortunately, it’s the only name he’s ever been given - up ‘til now.” He looked meaningfully into the grim and uncertain faces before him. “I want us to give him a name. After that, he will be for all intents and purposes a new person, just a local Splice recruit.”
“How about Little Shit,” Pidge said bitterly, arms folded over her chest, visibly stung by the boy’s reaction to her.
Shiro threw her a pointed look. “I’d really rather not.”
“That’s… Shiro, that’s a lot of responsibility,” Hunk argued. “We can’t just come up with a name, right here, right now, those kinds of things need a lot of thought, I mean…”
“Do you have a preference?” Coran asked the boy directly, his eyes wide and inquisitive, not pitying.
The boy met his gaze and shook his head. “Any name is fine.”
“Perhaps a Kazakh name?” Coran suggested, looking to Kolivan. Kolivan’s expression didn’t change.
“We don’t name Galra,” he said, his voice a disapproving rumble. “We name animals and we name people, but we do not give names to anything in between.”
Again, the boy met his gaze unwaveringly, and didn’t allow anything on his face to express anger or displeasure, if he felt any, at Kolivan’s reply.
“I’ve never even had a pet,” Hunk fretted. “I don’t have kids! How do you… how do you even decide? There’s so many, how do you…”
Shiro turned his gaze to Pidge. “Any ideas?”
“Fido,” she deadpanned. “Spot. Rover. Lassie. Tin Tin.”
“Pidge,” Shiro said sternly.
“How about Keith,” Ulaz spoke up.
“Keith?” Hunk said incredulously, turning towards the older man. “Are you serious? Out of all the names out there, you chose Keith?”
Ulaz shrugged expansively, hands out. “What? It’s a human name, right? I’m not going to give him a Russian name, he can’t have a Kazakh name, Keith is perfectly adequate-”
“Okay, I get that, but there are other English names that are more modern, cooler sounding than Keith, it’s so old-fashioned, nobody calls their kids Keith anymore-”
“It’s hideous,” Pidge said. “I love it. My vote is for Keith.”
“Pidge,” Shiro said again, warningly this time.
“I like it,” the boy said softly, out of the blue. Shiro looked down at the boy at his side, meeting his gaze as the boy looked up at him.
“Are you sure, bud?” Shiro asked. “We don’t have to settle for the first one. We can think of others, there’s a lot of names to choose from.”
“I like this one,” the boy insisted, his voice firm. “Ulaz and Pidge like it, I like it. Keith is good.”
Pidge snorted again, rolling her eyes, but Ulaz’s interest was definitely piqued. “Okay,” Shiro allowed. “Keith it is.” Shiro raised his head, and addressed the boy’s future team. “Everybody, I want you all to meet Keith, our newest recruit. He’s going to be assisting in camp maintenance and light security for the time being, and eventually we hope we can make use of his tracking skills. He’s fluent in English, Russian, and Kazakh, so if you need a translator on the fly, he can help. We’re going to take it slow – let him get acquainted with the unit, the camp, and our way of life. Any questions for Keith?”
“What kind, of, uh… precautions are we gonna take, once we get to camp?” Hunk asked, eyes dropped to the side guiltily. “No offense, uh, Keith.”
“I feel a lead and cuffs would hamper his ability to work about the camp,” Shiro said. “The collar is staying, more for his safety than ours. I don’t intend to use restraints; if necessary we can resort to commands, but I doubt we’ll have to.”
“Well what about a shock collar?” Pidge suggested. “Or a muzzle? Those wouldn’t hamper his mobility.”
Shiro took a breath through his nose, and when he turned his gaze to Pidge, it was hard and cold. “I will not repeat myself, Holt,” he said quietly, military steel in his voice. “He is not a dog, and I will not permit him to be treated like one. Am I understood?”
Pidge shrugged, knuckling her goggles up her nose, and looking away. “Sir yes sir,” she muttered, but Shiro seemed to accept it.
“I’ve been trained with both,” the boy, Keith, offered. “If people would feel safer with me in one of those, I could do that.”
Shiro cast a kinder glance down at the boy. “Part of the issue is that it wouldn’t make people feel safer,” he explained, looking back up at Pidge. “When people see things like that, they think they’re necessary – they assume that you’re a danger to them, that you cannot control yourself. I know that’s not the case.”
“What about schooling?” Ulaz said, redirecting the conversation. “You mentioned learning to read and write?” Shiro nodded, and Ulaz turned to Keith. “What about math?”
“I can count,” he replied. “Do simple things – add, subtract. But I can learn whatever you want me to.” His stern expression and voice made it sound more like he was accepting a mission instead of agreeing to a basic education.
Ulaz gave Keith a small smile. “Good answer.” Turning to Shiro next, he offered, “I know a few people back home that can supply English textbooks. Everything else we might be able to score in town - books in English and Russian, notebook paper, pencils.”
“Thank you,” Shiro said in earnest. “I hadn’t even decided on a curriculum yet, but those are all things we’ll need.”
“What about foods?” Hunk asked, surprisingly, sounding more curious than concerned. “I mean – can he have things like chocolate, or grapes? Can he have bones?”
Shiro’s gut clenched as he realized he’d failed to look into that – he’d just assumed Keith’s digestive system was the same as a human’s. It was a question he’d never even considered, and if Hunk hadn’t broached the subject, he might have unwittingly put the boy’s health in jeopardy. He glanced down at Keith, expression concerned. “Are there things you can’t eat?” Shiro asked. “Things that make you sick, or hurt you…?”
“I don’t know,” Keith replied, perplexed. “Usually just had the same thing every day. Raw meat is okay too, and I’ve eaten bones, before. Beer is okay, but it makes me dizzy after a while. Don’t know what chocolate or grapes are.”
“Beer?” Hunk gasped, scandalized. “He’s twelve!”
“Sixteen,” Keith corrected.
“There are some foods that might not be good for you,” Shiro said, steering the conversation back to the problem at hand. “Foods that dogs can’t eat, that will hurt them or make them sick. Humans can eat them, but dogs can’t, and until Pidge can decrypt the logs from the facility, we won’t know for sure how mixed you are. We just want to avoid making you sick by accident.” Shiro looked up to Hunk, and didn’t even have to try to appear grateful. “Thank you, Hunk, I hadn’t even considered any of that.”
“Thank you,” Keith said as well, following Shiro’s lead, and Hunk seemed to get flustered by the praise.
“Oh, uh, no problem, you know me, food is kind of my thing, so… just, just glad I could help, um…”
“May I be dismissed?” Pidge asked flatly, interrupting.
“I’d prefer that you stay,” Shiro said honestly. “But I understand if you’d rather go.”
“Don’t have anything else to contribute, and Keith doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, so I really don’t see the point,” she said. “I’m gonna take some leisure until tomorrow.” She gave Shiro a short two-fingered salute. “Nice meeting you, Keith.” She turned to leave, not giving anyone a chance to reply; Keith didn’t look like he would anyway, his gaze averted entirely, seemingly ignoring her.
Shiro watched her go, brow creased. There was nothing he could do to change the situation at hand without compromising one or the other – satisfying Pidge meant abandoning Keith, and keeping Keith meant upsetting Pidge. All he could do was give it time and try to manage what was in his control, and he knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. He wished more than anything for a sign that he was doing the right thing – that he wasn’t becoming invested in a lost cause, but if he were being honest, it was too late.
He was already invested. The boy had a name, now, to go with the little piece of Shiro’s heart he’d already taken.
That night the boy sat in his bed, cross-legged and unrestrained, across from Shiro who sat similarly at foot of the bed as they carefully folded paper cranes.
“Told you it would be fun paperwork,” Shiro grinned. “Way more fun than filling out eight hundred pages of forms, right?”
Keith hummed his agreement, focused entirely on the creases in his square of paper. Beside him was a pile of crumpled paper that had the general features of cranes – a few lopsided heads, an odd number of wings, some tails at weird angles.
Shiro watched him work, his fingers fiddling with his own finished crane. The introductions had gone well, and he’d been happy to see his team get even a little involved in what Keith’s new life would entail. He still couldn’t get over the fact that the boy was now going to be called Keith. On purpose. His choice, Keith’s choice. It hadn’t been what he’d imagined for someone who looked and acted the way he did – but Shiro had made the deliberate decision to have his team choose a name for the boy. He wanted them to form that attachment, however unwittingly, and Keith wouldn’t have ever chosen a name for himself. This way, everyone felt some attachment to the name; it wasn’t wholly arbitrary. They all owned the name, in some way – they had that bond, now, no matter how seemingly insignificant or tenuous.
“So,” Shiro sighed. “Keith, huh?”
“Yes,” Keith agreed, his attention still on his work. “Ulaz and Pidge chose it.”
“They could choose another name, if you don’t like it,” Shiro said. “Doesn’t have to be the first one we said out loud. There’s lots of names to choose from.”
Keith shrugged. “I like Keith. Keith doesn’t mean anything, it’s just Keith. I’m Keith,” he said, with a pleased, insistent note, still not looking up.
That brought a smile to Shiro’s face. “That’s right, you are. I’m glad you like it, buddy.”
The boy hummed, this time sounding satisfied, relaxed. Shiro considered carefully whether he wanted to disturb Keith’s peaceful mood, but decided the need for answers was pressing, and the sooner the better.
“What do you think about your new unit?” He asked. “They seem okay?”
“Yes,” Keith agreed. “They’re your unit. They’re probably really good at their jobs, and you like them.”
“Yes,” Shiro drawled. “But that’s how I feel, not how you feel. How do you feel about them – about working with them?”
Keith frowned, his fingers pausing as he considered. “They’re good people,” he said carefully. “I can tell that, smell that on them. They seem very smart and have a lot of experience… I can tell they’re all good fighters. They all like and respect you, and I like that.” He hesitated then shrugged. “I know that Kolivan and Pidge don’t like me, but that’s okay. I understand.”
“Does that bother you?” Shiro pressed gently.
“Not really,” Keith admitted with another shrug. “I would like it better if they did, but I know why they don’t. Most people don’t like me. I am a Galra, and Galra are dangerous – we hurt, we kill. Galra do not do good things, we are not good animals.” He looked up at Shiro. “You’re the weird one, for liking me. Not them.”
Shiro’s smile was sad, then. “They would never hurt you,” he reassured.
“I know,” Keith said. “They’re not bad people. They’re just normal people, afraid of things they should be.”
“Are you afraid of them?” Shiro asked.
“No?” Keith said, confused. “Why would I be? I know what people can do. Whatever they want to do, they will do, there’s nothing I can do to stop them. If they want to hurt me, they will, and if they try to make me hurt others, then I won’t. But they’re your people – they won’t do those things. They’re good people.”
Shiro frowned, confused. “Then can I ask why you didn’t like Pidge…?” He asked. “It’s okay if you don’t, and I’d understand why, all things considered, but you’ll be working with her – living with her, every day, and I want to make sure you two get along.”
Keith frowned in return. “But I do like Pidge,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” Shiro said, slowly, wondering how he could have possibly misconstrued Keith’s reaction to Pidge. “You weren’t bothered at all by Kolivan, had no problem with him, but when it came to Pidge you wouldn’t even look at her. You said you’re not afraid of her, and that you do like her – but you acted as if she were a threat, or invisible.” Shiro leaned in. “I won’t lie to you and say that she does like you, or that she’s an open-minded person, but she did try, today, to be nice. I can at least tell you that – that she’s trying. Can you just… explain to me, what’s going on, so we can work on it? Like before?”
Keith looked away, jaw working. “I do like Pidge,” he muttered. “I just don’t… I don’t like girls.”
Shiro’s eyebrows rose. He hadn’t expected that at all. As far as his experiences went, male and female Splices were equal on the battlefield. There were no ranks for Splices, and strength was determined entirely on genetics and performance – no one judged a female Splice to be weaker than a male on sex alone. A soldier was a soldier – a weapon was a weapon, judged solely on it’s execution. More than that, Keith hadn’t seemed invested in gender roles at all – the only distinction he ever drew in conversation was between humans and Splices. He was genuinely surprised, and honestly a little disappointed, though maybe he shouldn’t have been; considering his training, his upbringing, his intended purpose…
As the realization began to form, Keith confirmed Shiro’s fears. “Don’t like being around girls. Not allowed near them, unless they want… want me to, uh…” Keith sucked in a shuddering breath, and this time both hands came up to the back of his neck and grabbed fistfuls of hair. He swallowed, over and over again, fighting for words or fighting back the urge to be sick, Shiro wasn’t sure and it was painful to watch either way. Before Shiro could lay hands on him to soothe, Keith squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to finish. “They’re so afraid of me, girls look at me and they know, they know what’s going to happen, what I’m there for, and I hate… I hate that they’re afraid of me. I don’t want her to look… look at me like that, don't want her to be afraid of me.”
Shiro wanted more than anything to grab the boy up, like he would a human child, hug him hard and rock him, reassure him that it was over – but Keith was not a human boy, these were not human traumas, and he was in uncharted territory. His heart ached, but he forced himself to instead put his hands on the boy’s elbows, and squeeze gently.
“Keith. I know it’s hard, but I need you to look at me, okay? Look at me, Keith.” Shiro waited him out, letting him get his breathing back under control, before bringing those big blue eyes up to meet Shiro’s. “Keith. We don’t do those things, here. I've told you before. We don’t make our people hurt others – especially, especially not in the way you mean. Humans don’t use each other for that purpose, and no one in my company is expected to… to perform, in that way. What they did was wrong. To you, to those girls. It isnot okay and it is not normal - and it is also not your fault. Pidge does not, and will never, view you in that way. She sees you as a fighter, an animal – but not like that. Am I understood, do you understand?”
“I don’t want her to be afraid of me,” Keith whispered, pained. “I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t hurt her like that. I don’t want to, I never wanted to. I hated it, I still hate it, I don’t want to.”
“You’re not listening to me,” Shiro chastised softly. “Keith. That is over. It is done and it is over. That will never, ever happen again. You will never be put in that situation, you will never be… used for that purpose. No one expects you to be, especially not Pidge. You’re safe. She’s safe. I personally guarantee that. I already promised you – you’re not here to fight, you’re not here to breed. Repeat it back to me.”
“I’m,” Keith gulped. “I’m not here to fight. I’m not here to breed.”
Shiro took a deep breath, exaggerated for Keith to emulate. He continued, holding Keith's stare and forcing conviction into his voice. "My name is Keith. I’m a tracker and a translator. My mother was a Kazakh and looked just like me. I am sixteen years old. Again.”
“My name is Keith,” Keith repeated obediently, his voice softening as panic loosened it’s grip on his throat. “I’m a tracker and a translator. My mother was a Kazakh and looked just like me. I am sixteen years old.”
“And when I’m hurt and afraid, I…?” Shiro pressed.
“I tell you,” Keith replied in an exhale, all the anxious tension in his body leeching out as he kept his eyes on Shiro’s. “I tell Shiro.”
“You’re damn right," Shiro growled. "Come here.” He gave the boy’s arms a light tug, and Keith went easily, dropping his hands and unfolding his legs so he could move closer to Shiro. Shiro pulled him in against his side with an arm around his shoulders, moving his hand to run through Keith’s hair. “I need you to remember something, okay buddy? It’s important. The most important thing you will ever need to remember, okay?” Keith nodded, obediently. “Your name is more than just a name. Keith isn’t just what people are going to call you – Keith is also your second chance. Keith is a new person in a new life – those things that came before, they matter. They hurt, but they matter, because they brought you here, to where you are now – but you are not the same person, anymore. You are Keith, and you can make Keith whoever you want to be.”
Keith nodded again, slower this time, ponderous, against Shiro’s shoulder. “… should I apologize to Pidge?”
“I don’t think you need to apologize, I think an explanation would be better, but… what does Keith think?” Shiro asked. “What does Keith want to do?”
“I want to apologize,” he said. “I want her to like me, if she can.”
“It was pretty easy for me,” Shiro encouraged, giving the boy a friendly jostle. Keith didn’t smile or return the embrace, but he allowed it – and Shiro would take whatever he could get.