Kolivan fully intended to make use of the boy while he was still in the camp; he freely admitted that though he didn’t trust Galra in general and this Galra in particular, the information Keith would provide could prove useful. Even if Keith didn’t tell the truth, or told an altered version of the truth, it would go towards proving his guilt or innocence.
Instead of Kolivan’s preferred method of interrogation, he agreed to Shiro’s request for something more relaxed, and recommended that instead of asking the boy to confirm information gleaned from the guards and the Young, to instead ask him questions directly to avoid influencing his answers in any way. Shiro didn’t reckon Keith would lie, or else be so gullible or easily swayed, but he knew the boy was eager to please and prove himself especially where Shiro was concerned – and equally ashamed of who he was and what he had done before. He didn’t want the boy downplaying his role at the facility, or admitting to things he didn’t do because it seemed like the answer they wanted.
As it turned out, Shiro needn’t have worried. Keith was self-possessed in situations such as these, calm and direct, all business. He hardly even looked back at Shiro, where he’d deliberately stationed himself behind the boy and by the door, out of sight. Keith sat across the well-worn repurposed kitchen table, across from Kolivan, and met him eye to eye, voice level and shoulders straight – dispassionate, like a soldier debriefing.
For Shiro’s sake, they spoke English, though Keith offered Kolivan the choice of any of the languages he spoke. Kolivan had dismissed the offer, and instead dove directly into questions about the facility, their operations, and their command structures – paying particular attention to the boy’s role there.
Keith confirmed most of the things Shiro already knew through their conversations. Keith estimated himself to be around sixteen, but had no functional way of knowing his exact age, which was to be expected. He readily admitted that combat training had been his primary focus up until the age of twelve, when the researchers at his initial facility had deemed him viable for breeding. At that time, there were no breeding females at that facility, so he had been transferred to this one, where there were other Young of a breedable age – but no real breeding program. Here, he was expected to serve both functions: as an experiment and a sire, but also as a true Galra – to hunt, to kill. It sounded exhausting and bleak, even from the sterile, aloof way Keith described it – the emotional, the physical, the psychological toll it must have taken on him, still just a child, expected to do twice the work of the average Galra.
Shiro wanted more than anything to call the interrogation to a halt, to ask for a break for the boy, give him some time and space; he wanted to pull Keith away from that table and into his arms, or be able to touch him in some way, soothe him. He knew how hard it was for Keith to talk about that aspect of his life, the expectation to breed, to harm someone else, someone innocent – not realizing that he was just the same, a victim, forced to endure something heinous. He wanted to take the hurt away more than anything.
But instead, Shiro held himself back, made himself stick to the wall with his arms crossed over his chest to hide the clenching of his fists, whether in anger or frustration or purely out of the automatic need to touch the boy, protectively or reassuringly. He wouldn’t undermine Keith, here, in front of Kolivan during an interrogation. He didn’t want Keith to be perceived as weak-willed, or broken – to Kolivan or to Keith himself. The boy was holding his own, despite the tension that seeped into his shoulders and the way his hands gripped each other hard under the table, in his lap – but his hands never strayed up, into his hair. His voice and expression remained detached and his back straight, determined, and Shiro wouldn’t take that from him. This was probably the first time Keith was recounting in total what he’d lived through, and Shiro knew from experience that speaking it out loud, making it real again, was a crucial first step in the process.
When Kolivan moved on to the more violent aspects of his purpose, the stress and tension leeched out of Keith’s small body, his shoulders slowly dropping. It was sad, it was disgusting – it was a relief. Nobody, especially not a child, should feel relieved by discussing the violence they’d witnessed – the violence they’d committed.
But Shiro supposed virtually anything would be easier to discuss than that.
“They called you the Volkodav,” Kolivan rumbled. “Why?”
“That’s what they called my breed,” Keith explained. “They wanted to see if it was true. It was.” He said it without pride, without remorse; as a fact.
“You fought wolves,” Kolivan said, half question, maybe with disbelief.
“Yes,” Keith agreed. “Wolves, dogs, bears – anything that would fight back.”
“And what was the purpose of that? Or do you know?”
Keith shrugged. “They wanted to evaluate my abilities without endangering a human or a Galra. That high up in the mountains, there’s a lot of wolves, easy to come by. They wanted to see how animal I was. If I won, I ate. If I lost I slept outside. I tried to win.”
“And humans?” Kolivan drawled, voice low. “Did you earn any meals by those?”
Shiro wanted to object to the phrasing – the way Kolivan had made it seem like the boy was to blame for wanting to survive, but before he could move to intervene, Keith replied.
“Yes,” he answered. “A few. Sometimes not for food.”
“How many?” Kolivan asked. “Do you know their names? Or why?”
Keith did Kolivan the service of not shrugging in the face of what was likely a sensitive topic, but the boy’s dispassionate replies and blank face did the job a shrug would have. “I don’t know how many. Didn’t count. Didn’t think it was important. They sent me out, told me to kill the person and bring back proof. Sometimes they just told me to kill as many as possible. They never told me why. I didn’t ask questions.”
“And the ones you killed for free,” Kolivan demanded, voice grating.
“Staff at the facility,” Keith said flatly. “They wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. If they hurt me, that’s fine, if they starve me, that’s fine. Then they came for the others to make me do what they wanted – they hurt them, so I killed them. They didn’t do that anymore, after that.”
“So that’s it,” Kolivan murmured. “You killed on command alone, or out of concern for others. Never once did you kill out of anger or from your baser instincts.”
“I tried, once,” Keith admitted. “At my first facility I tried to kill the people who killed my mother. I failed. I know now that it wouldn’t have made a difference – when someone dies, they stay dead. Killing them would not have brought her back. I’ve seen it, now.”
“And that’s the only time,” Kolivan said dryly, glossing over the murder of the boy’s mother.
“Yes,” Keith insisted. “I’m good at killing, but I don’t enjoy it.”
“Then why did you run?” Kolivan demanded. “When we took the outpost, and you were freed. Why not surrender – why not die right then and there, if you wanted to so badly?”
“Because I didn’t know what was going on,” Keith answered, placidly, addressing his suicide attempt as boldly as he did everything else unsavory about himself. “I didn’t know the Marmora even existed until you found me. I didn’t think it was a rescue, I thought it was a coup – I thought we were being stolen by another faction, another project or facility. I couldn’t risk being captured. I figured I would get as far away as I could, and by the time I was ever found, I would be long dead and useless.”
“Yet you left the Young,” Kolivan pointed out. “The Young you were supposedly willing to kill for.”
“They would not have come with me, for that reason,” Keith explained. “They saw me kill, and feel no remorse. They tried to force some of them to fight me or breed with me. They fear me – they fear me more than they fear you. They would not have survived the mountain without me – they are too young, they had never even left the facility.” His fists clenched, then, just once. “I didn’t have a choice – I couldn’t find a way to save them.”
Kolivan looked unconvinced. “You know that we have others, here,” he said, his eyes focused hard and sharp on Keith’s, holding his stare like it was a contest of wills. “Staff, other Galra, Young.”
“I do,” Keith replied, eyes lidded, unintimidated.
“They can confirm or deny the statements you’ve given me here, today,” Kolivan warned. “Do you understand? If you lie, I will know.”
“I understand,” Keith agreed. “I have nothing to hide and no reason to lie. I admitted that I’ve killed and killed on command. I’ve admitted the things I’ve done for the breeding program.”
“Your reasons why have been murky at best,” Kolivan said, sitting up straighter, gathering his things, preparing to draw the interrogation to a close. “Until we have access to the research logs, your word against theirs is all we have to go with, and it doesn’t look promising for you. I’ll be confirming all this with your lead researcher.”
“You won’t,” Keith denied, and Shiro stiffened and Kolivan paused in the act of standing.
“Is that a threat?” Kolivan growled.
“No.” Keith raised his eyes up to meet Kolivan’s narrow glare. “It’s the truth. You cannot confirm anything with my lead researcher, because he’s dead. I killed him myself,” he admitted plainly. “Whoever you have here, they were not the head of operations. The lead researcher was the only one with outside communications, who reported to someone outside the facility – I wanted to make sure his research died here, with him – with us.”
Kolivan’s eyes drifted up to meet Shiro’s, uncertain, concerned. “We confirmed his identity with the Young and others,” Kolivan said, keeping his voice firm, but couldn’t hide that he was affected by this apparent revelation.
“You have to be careful how you ask the Young,” Keith advised. “Most of them can barely speak, or have minds that are more animal than anything else. They probably don’t know the difference between the lead researcher and an assistant, or if they do they can’t find a way to tell you. As far as the staff…” Keith shrugged. “I don’t think this was ever meant to be a breeding or training facility. It was a research outpost that got out of control. The staff here aren’t like the staff at the first facility – they had no oversight, total freedom, and very little guidance. They’re not professionals – they were working above what they were really capable of.”
“How well did you know the staff and the Young?” Shiro asked, this time, coming around to stand beside Keith, leaning on the table insistently. His gut clenched, full of ice, at the possibility of a traitor in their midst – a danger they might have otherwise overlooked.
“I think I know almost everyone,” Keith admitted. “I went back and forth between training and breeding so I’m familiar with most of the facility and the staff and Galra in both departments. I might not know their names, but I know who they are – their purpose.”
Shiro shot a glance at Kolivan, and saw only reluctance and not stubborn refusal. “If you saw the person we thought was the lead researcher, could you tell us who he really is…?”
“Probably,” Keith said.
Shiro stood away from the table, heaving a worried sigh, and Keith stood with him, sensing his urgency. Together, the three of them left the little room, and once they’d stepped out into the hallway, Ulaz, who’d been waiting outside with a Marmoran guard, fell into step with them. He didn’t even have to ask – Shiro immediately filled him in under his breath as they moved through the corridors. “Everything’s fine,” he said first. “We’re keeping Keith. But we ran into a small problem – he says he killed the lead researcher. Whoever we have here maybe isn’t who he said he was – and if that’s the case, we’ll have to start all over again from the beginning. It brings everything we’ve learned into question.”
Ulaz is quiet for a moment, digesting that. “I take it from the whole killing-researcher thing that whatever he may have lied about, doesn’t include Keith,” he said, sounding a little disappointed but not surprised.
“No,” Shiro agreed. “He was right about Keith. I’ll fill you in on that later, but really – it’s nothing we didn’t already know, by now. Keith says he’s familiar with virtually everyone at the facility, so we’re taking him to identify the man we have in custody now.”
There was no more discussion as they headed through the maze of hallways that made up the small headquarters Kolivan had erected that also housed the jail, whenever they would have need of it. They slowed as they approached a single room, larger than would be assumed given the low building’s overall size; there were no bars except for in the small, high windows, much like the containment structure Keith had initially been kept in. From what Shiro could see, there was a group of five men seated within, on beds and chairs, murmuring amongst each other or else otherwise occupying themselves. Keith was too short to look through the window in the door.
“Do you want me to go in?” Keith asked. “Or do I just have to look?”
Surprisingly, Kolivan cocked his head consideringly. “I’d like you to go in,” he drawled finally. “With all of us. I think the reaction to your presence would be worth noting – for everyone involved.” He shot Shiro a pointed look, before turning to unlock the door, opening it wide to allow their entire party to enter. “You first,” Kolivan told Keith.
Shiro frowned, unsettled by Kolivan’s look and demeanor, but Keith merely took a breath, and stepped inside the cell with Shiro right behind him.
Shiro wasn’t sure what he’d expected, following Keith into the room, Kolivan and Ulaz filing in after them, but the surge of panic and fear that rippled through the room at Keith’s entrance wasn’t it. Two of the men had even climbed onto one of the beds, like being a few inches higher would guarantee their safety, like being in a corner would save them from what they feared – a skinny little boy in a t-shirt and blue jeans, with a collar around his neck.
All the assembled prisoners had moved far away, shouting fearful protests, except for one, who remained seated on the bed, taking in the group of three men and one Young – his gaze slowly settling on Keith with a grin. He said something in Russian then, lifting his chin at the boy, seemingly unafraid. Maybe he could already sense the ruse was up – or maybe he’d never pretended to be afraid in the first place.
Keith didn’t react to whatever he’d said, meeting his eyes unwaveringly. Whatever, whoever, this man was, Keith wasn’t afraid of him. “He’s surprised the boy’s alive,” Ulaz translated in Shiro’s ear.
Keith looked away from the man’s taunt dismissively, turning back to Kolivan. “Do you want me to identify them all, or is there one in particular?” At the dismissal, and hearing the boy speak, the man who’d remained seated lost his smile, fingers flexing anxiously; Shiro reckoned he probably didn’t know the boy was capable of speaking more than one language, or maybe even capable of speaking at all.
“All of them,” Kolivan confirmed, and Keith turned back to the men cowering from him in all corners of the room. He indicated the two on the bed. “Those two were lab researchers. Little contact with subjects aside from collecting samples.” He pointed out one braced against the far wall. “Dog trainer. Worked with some Galra too, but mostly full-blooded animals.” He moved on to a man sobbing, crouched in the corner, face turned away. “Security guard, but no threat at all. A coward. He’s the one who freed me when you took the outpost.” His gaze dropped back to the man still seated on the bed, his jaw now working, figuring out what Keith was up to. “Warden. In charge of security, perimeter and internal. Made sure the researchers were safe from us Galra. Made sure we behaved – made sure we did as we were told.” There was a note in Keith’s voice, then, that Shiro couldn’t place, but it made his stomach clench, sick.
The man growled something in Russian then, practically spitting out the words, fists clenching on his knees; he may not have understood what Keith was saying, but he probably grasped that he’d unraveled whatever lies he’d told. “I’m not translating that,” Ulaz muttered, confirming that whatever the man said was an insult.
“A warden,” Kolivan rumbled. “Not a researcher at all, then.”
“No,” Keith agreed. “Though out of everyone here, he’s had the most interaction with the subjects, if that’s what interests you. He won’t have information on our DNA, but he’ll know our abilities, our ages.”
The man didn’t seem pleased by the lack of reaction he was getting, from either Keith or Kolivan, and whatever he said next definitely had something to do with their ethnicity – Shiro could hear the similarity in the word, Kazakhskaya, and even if he hadn’t the narrowed disdainful glares they both gave the man would have said enough. Having gotten the attention he wanted, a smile crept back up the warden’s face. Whatever he said next was smug and acerbic and directed almost entirely at Keith, judging by the way he looked up at him alone, only jerking his head towards Kolivan once.
To Shiro’s shock, Keith began to growl at his side, lips pulled back from his teeth, his body tensed and vibrating with a low snarl. It was the first time Shiro had ever heard him make such an entirely animal noise – there was no human aspect to his posture, his expression, his voice. Everything about Keith in that moment warned of imminent attack, hackles raised. Whatever the man had said was sufficient enough to strike home, and Shiro had a feeling it was something about Keith’s mother – the only thing that really seemed to garner an emotional response from him was her.
Keith made no move to lunge or otherwise attack, but Shiro didn’t like the way he leaned forward, teeth chittering anxiously, furious. Without stopping to really consider it, the implications or the ramifications, Shiro snapped, “Keith, no. Down.”
He wasn’t sure if it was the authoritative note in his voice, something that brooked no argument or maybe appeared hard and threatening, or if it was perhaps the sound of the sharp commands that got through, but Keith obeyed like Shiro had flipped a switch. That wasn’t really what he’d wanted to do – the snarling, the bared teeth had overridden Shiro’s normal perception of the boy. He hadn’t seen a child, then – he’d seen an animal untethered, uncontrolled, and sought to bring him to heel. He hated himself for that.
All the same, Keith’s mouth slackened, his posture relaxing; his breathing was still heavy, he was still rumbling angrily, but he was no longer poised to harm. Shiro clenched his hands at his sides, fighting the urge to drag the boy backwards, into the apologetic protection of his body. He didn’t want the boy in here, he didn’t like the effect it had on him – it wasn’t good for Keith to be stuck in a room with people who had hurt him, were complicit or even just turned a blind eye. The warden, Shiro was sure, was definitely someone who would have caused Keith harm in more ways than he cared to fathom.
The warden didn’t seem fazed by Keith’s feral response, and to Shiro’s disgust he seemed more amused than anything, his smile turning sly. He asked a question next, voice lilting and saccharine. When Keith didn’t answer or give him the snarl he’d gotten the first time, the warden asked something else, darting a look at Shiro, knowing. Whatever he said after that wasn’t a question, and made Ulaz stiffen beside him. Keith especially objected, eyes narrowing and biting out a curt, heated reply that was mostly growl.
“Dostatochnaya!” Ulaz barked with all the immovable strength of a commanding officer, issuing the command to all assembled. Even though Shiro was technically Ulaz’s commander, his spine still stiffened, shoulders back at the sound of his voice. He didn’t even get a chance to intervene or grab for the boy’s tensed shoulders before Ulaz’s hand was clasping the back of Keith’s neck, though it looked more reassuring, protective, than punishing or restraining.
“We’re done here,” Ulaz said, reigning in the situation. The glare he left Kolivan with was venomous. “Permission to remove the asset from a hostile situation, sir?” He grit out.
Kolivan’s jaw worked, eyes narrowed. “I’ll allow it,” he murmured. “But keep in mind this changes nothing. I’m not finished with him.”
“Then would you mind stepping outside to discuss it?” Ulaz asked, voice neutral. “I don’t see anything to be gained from staying here.” His hand never left Keith’s neck, buried in his hair, but it was worth noting that Keith didn’t bow his head – just followed obediently as Ulaz steered them out of the cell.
Kolivan opened the door for them, allowing Ulaz with Keith in tow and Shiro to leave first, bellowing a warning into the cell before closing it behind him and locking it.
“Let me clarify,” Ulaz said, flatly. “The hostile situation was more than just that room and that disgusting beast. It’s you, too, and I’m removing him from you, too.”
“Ulaz,” Shiro hissed, stepping into the man’s side. “Just what the Hell did I miss in there?”
“You let that man attack a sixteen year old boy,” Ulaz said, his focus trained entirely on Kolivan. “You let him call him disgusting names, humiliate him, and said nothing, did nothing. You didn’t have to defend him, but you could have stopped it and you chose to let it continue.”
“You saw what he did, what he became when provoked,” Kolivan said, not arguing the point. “There was a reason I allowed it.”
“The man called his dead mother a whore,” Ulaz snapped. “Anyone would be incited to violence if someone did that – especially a child!”
“I don’t know what will make the two of you come to your senses, but I’ll say it again – he is not a boy. He is a weapon at worst, and an animal at best. Giving him a name, treating him with kid gloves, won’t change his nature. You would not take this sort of care for any other enemy combatant – I think you’re confusing his ability to speak for some form of humanity. He is a dog, an asset, and nothing more or less.”
Throughout the heated exchange, though they kept their voices relatively low, Keith looked stressed, uncomfortable – unable or maybe just unwilling to speak up or to intervene in any way, uncertain of who to reassure. In the interrogation, in the cell, under Ulaz’s hand Keith had been straight-backed and composed, but now his head was slowly bowing as volley after volley of accusations were hurled, back and forth – powerless to stop it. When Keith’s hands reached up and grasped the long ends of his hair and began to pull, Shiro made the decision to put a stop to it.
“Both of you will stand down,” Shiro hissed, taking a step forward. “This isn’t what’s needed right now, for anybody involved. Kolivan, you got what you wanted from the boy, and then some. I understand how you feel about him, and you’re right about exercising caution. And Ulaz, we’re already gone – we leave tomorrow, there’s no need to make a scene, we all know how you and I feel about Keith, as well. None of us are changing our minds any time soon.”
“You didn’t hear what that man said,” Ulaz growled. “What he allowed him to say. That sonuvabitch degraded him in front of all of us, and I was the only one who could say anything and would say anything! That’s going too far even for-”
“Ulaz,” Shiro snapped, dropping a pointed glance to where Keith’s hands were tugging at his hair, pulling it out, stressed beyond coping. “Find another way,” he said, softly this time. “This… this isn’t helping him.”
Ulaz’s face went slack with shock and regret as he took in the boy’s bowed posture and fists full of hair, and then to virtually everyone’s surprise, and with no hesitation, Ulaz stooped and hefted the boy into one arm, against his chest. “C’mon Keith,” he muttered, meeting Kolivan’s gaze. “Let’s go home.” He turned then to Shiro, saluting with his free hand. “Permission to return to the medical ward for the duration?”
Shiro took in Keith’s demeanor in a glance, the way his hands had been forced down to Ulaz’s broad shoulders, his expression surprised but not upset. He wasn’t struggling to get down, he didn’t look uncomfortable at all in the taller man’s hold, though he was a little too big for such a carry. Keith glanced at Ulaz, and then slowly back to Shiro, one hand coming up to mimic Ulaz’s salute, uncertainly.
“Permission granted,” Shiro said, voice soft with exasperation and exhaustion, a small smile lingering around his mouth. “Dismissed. I’ll see you two later.”
Ulaz dropped his hand to shore up his grip on Keith, and Keith went with him without complaint.
“I had hoped that your second would be a voice of reason in all this,” Kolivan said. “But I see now that I was mistaken.”
“His reasons are just different than yours – than even my own,” Shiro said levelly. “I meant what I said. I don’t expect anything but time to prove Keith’s worth and loyalty, and I fully understand your reluctance. But as of now, despite how we may treat him, he’s an asset – to the both of us. He will be treated as such – protected, kept safe and comfortable. There’s nothing to be gained from antagonizing him.”
“I’m not attempting to antagonize him,” Kolivan said flatly. “I’m attempting to keep you objective. I worry that your concern for what you deem a child will cause you or your company harm that is entirely avoidable. Put yourself in my position – I’m trying to keep you safe from a very real danger.”
“I know, and I appreciate that more than you will ever know,” Shiro said earnestly, honestly. “I’ve never had the type of relationship I’ve had with you and the Marmora, and I won’t jeopardize that. I’ll tell you what I told Pidge – I’m fully prepared to put him down if it comes to that. There won’t be any hesitation, or a second or third strike; at the first sign of violence or betrayal, I’ll end his life. Will I suffer for it, after becoming attached? Absolutely,” he admitted. “But I see an opportunity, and I’m not giving it up, Kolivan. The boy is staying – Keith, is staying.”
Kolivan drew in a deep breath through his nose, and heaved it back out in a sigh. “There’s no arguing with you. I can see that. All I ask, at the very least, is constant contact between you and I, and to be granted full access to the boy when needed. Are those terms, at least, acceptable?”
“That’s doable,” Shiro replied, gentling. “And if there’s anything else I can do to set your mind at ease, aside from abandoning the boy here and now, tell me. I’ll do it, to the best of my ability.”
“I think, for now, that will be enough,” Kolivan said. He stuck out a large hand. “Good luck, as always, and especially now.”
“I’m always in need of that,” Shiro said, shaking on it.
Shiro wanted more than anything to immediately return to Keith, talk with him, pet his hair – confirm for himself that he was alright, that the stress had ebbed. But he had other responsibilities to tend to – especially where their return trip was concerned, with their newest recruit in tow.
Besides, having seen the way Ulaz had swept the boy up so protectively, eased his worries. Keith was safe, Ulaz would make sure of that, and keep him as happy as they knew how.
He was still surprised by Ulaz’s reaction, though he really shouldn’t have been. The man was a natural with children, he knew when to hold them and how to soothe them and make them laugh, and kids always seemed to love him in turn. Shiro never asked if he had children of his own, but assumed he must and if he didn’t, then maybe he was the oldest sibling of a large family. He wasn’t cautious, like Shiro or like Hunk, when it came to picking up or carrying babies or children, and Ulaz always seemed to know what to say or do to allay fussing or fear.
He just hadn’t imagined that Ulaz would take to Keith so quickly, would become so protective of the boy so soon. He knew Ulaz would come around, but maybe seeing someone so young so distressed, or hearing whatever had been said in that cell, had weakened his resolve. Shiro did wonder about that, and hoped he could get answers from Ulaz sooner rather than later – he didn’t necessarily want the answers, which were doomed to be ugly, but more the understanding that they would bring. He really, really, didn’t want to know anymore about Keith’s life at the facility – there were no happy memories there, his mother had passed before he’d come here, and after that… there had been no one to love him, to protect him. There had only been pain and degradation, and it hurt Shiro like a physical wound to even imagine the boy he knew now trapped in that place.
Never again. He and Ulaz, at least, would make sure of that.
Keith hadn’t seemed bothered, either, by Ulaz’s command of him or the way he’d handled his body without telegraphing his intentions or asking permission, though Shiro supposed that was to be expected from his life before. But he hadn’t been afraid, he hadn’t looked uncomfortable, he’d allowed Ulaz to pick him up and take him away from the situation, from Shiro, without a fight. Shiro wasn’t sure if that was due to Ulaz’s paternal airs, or if Keith just felt safe enough with Shiro’s second in command, but it gave him a mixture of relief and jealousy. He felt like he was being usurped, even though he knew that wasn’t the case, but more than that he was just glad that Keith had someone else to turn to.
By the time he’d finalized their departure and travel plans and confirmed their arrival with the base camp, several hours had passed and he found his anxiety steadily building the longer he was away from Keith; it hadn’t been an easy day for anybody, but especially not for a traumatized sixteen year old boy who’d been through a relentless military interrogation. He hoped Ulaz had brought him dinner. He hoped Keith had eaten it.
When he finally stepped foot into the medical ward with food in hand, just in case, Ulaz was still there, in Shiro’s usual chair at Keith’s bedside and the two of them were playing a card game in total silence. The both of them seemed completely relaxed, content with each other’s company in the quiet, no sign of the distress of earlier. Shiro noticed that there were no bowls on either the bedside table or the bench over the bed and couldn't help but feel a guilty swell of relief - mealtimes were still his and Keith's.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt,” Shiro announced. “I brought dinner.”
Keith’s head had shot up once Shiro had entered the room, his neutral expression easing into something more interested – not smiling, but genuinely pleased to see Shiro nonetheless. The card game was almost immediately forgotten as he shoved the bench further down the bed and scooted back against the pillow, folding his legs up to presumably make room for Shiro. “Hi,” Keith offered, a first – and Shiro realized that today was the longest they’d gone without each other since Keith had left containment. Obviously Shiro wasn’t the only one who had felt the loss.
He gave Keith a soft smile as he stooped to hand out the bowls. “Hey, buddy. How’re you doing?”
“Good,” Keith said, taking his bowl and holding it in his lap. “Ulaz is teaching me durak.”
“Russian card game,” Ulaz explained. “It’s more fun with more people, so we’ll definitely have to let Shiro play some time, or teach somebody else.”
“Sounds fun,” Shiro agreed, taking a seat at the end of the bed the way Keith had wanted him to. “Sorry it took me so long, I was setting up our return home tomorrow. Nailing down the details, letting them know we’d have company on the return trip.” He gave Keith another small smile, and started to eat, and true to habit Keith started to eat once Shiro did, whether consciously or not.
They spoke back and forth, mostly Shiro and Ulaz discussing the trip details and camp life that they’d be returning to; the camp didn’t stop running just because their own lives had been turned upside down on assignment. They talked about people Keith had yet to meet, ordinary boring matters pertaining to the running of the camp like picking up the post and running the laundry service, about the little things they’d have to do to set Keith up upon their return home. Keith remained mostly quiet, only answering what was asked of him, not interjecting much; content to listen and eat his dinner.
Ulaz finished first, stretching hard in the chair, before scooping up the cards and stowing them and grabbing his empty bowl. “Think I’ll go ahead and sack out for tonight,” he grunted. “Long day today, longer day tomorrow. Good night, Shiro. Dobroy nochi, Keith.” He spared a hand to ruffle the boy’s hair affectionately, and Keith allowed the contact though he seemed uninterested in it.
“Dobroy nochi, ser,” Keith replied. “Spasibo.”
Ulaz bobbed his head in acknowledgment, already turning to leave. Shiro decided to take the opportunity presented.
“Hey, Ulaz, mind if I walk with you for a bit?” He asked, then turned to Keith to ask him as well. “Mind if I dip out with Ulaz for a couple minutes? I’ll be right back after.”
Keith’s brows dipped in at that, but it wasn’t a frown per se, and the expression soon dissolved entirely. “That’s fine,” he said finally. “I don’t mind.”
“Great,” Shiro said cheerfully, getting to his feet. “Keep eating, I’ll see if I can scrounge up some dessert while I’m out.”
Keith obediently continued to eat his dinner, even as Ulaz and Shiro left the medical ward, and continued down the hall, towards the doors that led outside to the cool night air – far enough away, that certain heightened senses wouldn’t be able to glean what was being discussed.
“Am I correct in assuming that you’d like to talk about what happened in that cell today,” Ulaz began, mildly enough.
“You are,” Shiro nodded. “I think I missed out on something important, both to him and to you. From my perspective, I’d have to agree with Kolivan – it looks like he snapped, like he’s capable of being provoked, and that has me worried.”
Ulaz nodded sagely, keeping their pace at a ponderous stroll. “He can be,” Ulaz confirmed, sounding reluctant, “but I doubt it’s something that will come up often – or at least, not to our detriment. The two things he responded to were an insult about his mother, and an insult about you.”
“Me?” Shiro said, recalling how the former warden had looked up at him, smug and sly, that once as he had spoke.
“He called Keith’s mother a whore, then asked if Kolivan was his father – the, and I quote, ‘dog-fucker’,” Ulaz said, tone too polite for the coarse words used. “He also called the boy a few names, threatened to expose Keith and his past, and when it didn’t garner a reaction, he went after you.” Ulaz’s jaw worked. “He… insinuated, that you were interested in children, and not in the family way. Keith didn’t… exactly defend you, but I think that was his intention.”
Shiro frowned at that, processing. “What did he say, last? The warden? I saw the way you reacted, Ulaz – you withdrew Keith almost immediately after that. You literally dragged him out of there. If it’s not important, then that’s fine, I don’t need to know word for word what was said. It just seems to me, like maybe there’s something I should know, something that made an impact on you, at least.”
“It is,” Ulaz agreed quietly. “It is important, I just…” He exhaled heavily, eyes closing as he slowed to a stop, gathering himself. “I’m sorry, this has never been easy for me to talk about, especially not where kids are involved, just…” He finally turned his gaze to Shiro’s, in the dark, forcing himself to report on the situation, attempting to be detached. “The warden didn’t insult you outright,” he explained. “What he asked, was if we knew what Keith could do, what Keith was capable of. When Keith didn’t answer, he asked if we knew but were using him for... for something else. Then he told him that he’d always… always made a better bitch than a sire or a soldier.” Ulaz swallowed, as if stifling the urge to vomit, the urge to look away, to stop. “What Keith said, essentially was that he’d rather be anything to you than be anything for him.” He finally dropped his gaze, hands clenching on his empty bowl. “And Kolivan allowed it. Kolivan let that man throw that boy’s suffering, his humiliation in his face. He let that man degrade him, again, right in front of us and the other prisoners. He said nothing.”
Shiro’s mouth was suddenly dry and full of cotton, his throat choked by it. He should have known, objectively, what the people at that facility were capable of. He should have known the kind of tactics they would use to bring a soldier, a Galra, to heel – to force him to obey, to have him lose all sense of self, of worth. It was common, in any war it was common, but it was worse, so much worse, when a child was involved. A child couldn’t understand the intent, the purpose – they couldn’t differentiate later on, the difference between sex and humiliation, pain. Even someone like Keith, bred for war and killing, would have no way of knowing that the design behind something like that wasn’t sexual – it was power, it was control, it was a desire to destroy another living being from the inside out.
He shouldn’t have asked. He shouldn’t have confirmed what he’d suspected, deep down, all along. He didn’t want to know, he didn’t want this knowledge, he didn’t want any of this – he never asked for all this heartache, for this sick feeling in his gut and chest. He’d wanted to save a life, he’d wanted to provide a future, and he’d willfully forgotten that no matter where they were now or a year from now, the past had brought them here. Made them who they were. All it’s ugliness, all it’s pain and suffering and loss, would always be there somewhere, lurking, waiting to slither out into the light when it was least expected.
He knew that better than most.
He rubbed both hands over his face, brusque, punishing, trying to force back the strain in his throat and the sting in his eyes. “Thank you for telling me,” he told Ulaz, voice quiet and tense. “I… I needed to hear that. I needed to know. He needed me to know, too.”
“I’m sorry,” Ulaz replied, and Shiro knew that it was genuine. “I wish I didn’t have to say it, as much as you wish you didn’t have to hear it. But we should… we should know. Even if he’s not afraid of us now, even if he doesn’t seem scared of men or triggered by them… we should be careful, in future, what we say, what we do. I don’t want him to think that we… that we would ever…”
It sounded too much like the way Keith had phrased his struggles with girls. It sounded too much like Keith likened himself to the type of man that did what they had done to him. As if they were the same by virtue of action, motivation irrelevant, when it was that motivation that made all the difference – between a monster, and a victim.
“I don’t think he… views it the way we do,” Shiro said, strained. “I don’t think he knows the difference between different types of violence, or what they mean. He never mentions what they did to him, only what he’s done, himself. I think he just… expects it, now.” He swallowed. “I think he already expects us to hurt him, and maybe that’s how he copes. He just stays on alert, waiting for it, instead of fearing if or when it’ll come.”
“How do we even disprove something like that,” Ulaz murmured, pained. “How can we prove we’re trustworthy? We’re out here for the same reasons he is, Shiro. We might not do the things those facilities did, but we kill – we capture and interrogate people. How the Hell are we supposed to make him feel safe?”
“We can’t,” Shiro said. “We can’t force him to feel anything. All we can do is just… take the opportunities afforded us, and keep him safe from others, with us. We can protect him, like you did today.” He managed to muster up a weak smile. “He wasn’t afraid of you then, Ulaz. I think it meant more to him than we’ll ever understand that you took him away from all that, and stayed with him. You kept him safe, even if you and I know he wasn’t in any danger, maybe he saw it differently. He sees you differently, now.”
Ulaz didn’t look reassured. “I hope so. God, I hope he doesn’t see me like that. I hope no one ever sees me like that, but especially not him. Especially not a kid.” He sucked in a breath, and brought his eyes back up to Shiro. “I’m gonna… I gotta decompress for a bit. Being with him for a while helped, but I…”
“No, no, I understand,” Shiro said. “We don’t leave until late tomorrow anyway. Do what keeps you sane. And thank you, for doing what you did for him today. I didn’t get a chance to say it, and I’m not sure Keith knows how to, but I’m sure he’s thankful too. You did the right thing, taking him away and keeping me informed. Thank you.”
Ulaz gave him a weak smile. “It’s what anyone with a half a heart would do. It’s just a shame he was surrounded by heartless people.” With that, he turned and walked away into the maze of tents in the darkness.
Shiro watched him go, then went to one of the larders and grabbed an apple, his body on autopilot as his mind and heart tried to wrangle down the mess of his emotions to a tolerable level. He had to get himself in check before he went back; if Keith saw him the way he was now, he’d be upset, he’d feel guilty, and Shiro never wanted that to be Keith’s reaction to seeing him. The only way he wanted Keith to look at him was with joy, with interest – not fear or resignation or self-hatred.
When he returned to the medical ward, that’s exactly what he got. Keith’s hands paused in the middle of sealing a crease in a paper crane, his head popping up and big blue eyes on Shiro, his expression open and relaxed – happy to see him, unafraid.
He had promised Kolivan, he had promised Pidge, that he could remain objective. That he was willing to end the boy’s life if he presented a threat.
That was a lie, now.
“Hey buddy,” he made himself say. “You finish dinner?”
“Yes,” Keith said, but his brows began to furrow. “Is everything okay? You don’t smell right.”
Of course. He should have known that just fixing his expression and relaxing his voice wouldn’t prevent the boy from picking up on his distress. “I’m okay,” Shiro said, and it wasn’t a lie. “I’m just… worried about you.”
“Why?” Keith asked, confused. “Coran said I’m good to go. I ate everything. I played durak with Ulaz. And now we can go to sleep.” His eyes drifted to the apple in Shiro’s hand wantingly, but he didn’t ask for it or point it out. His gaze came back up to Shiro’s. “I’m okay.”
“Today was kind of rough,” Shiro explained. “It was a lot, even for me.” He approached the bed, but instead of taking his usual seat, he moved the bench further down and took a seat beside the boy in the bed itself. He took out his knife, and started to carefully and methodically slice up the apple, focusing on that instead of all the dark truths he'd learned today.
Keith shrugged, as usual. “It’s okay. It’s over now. I told Kolivan everything I know, and I identified the prisoners. So now we can leave, and that’s good. Like that.”
“Yeah we can,” Shiro agreed with a small smile, offering Keith a slice of apple. “Starting tomorrow we leave it all in the past. Get a fresh start.” Keith grunted, more interested in the apple for the time being. Shiro hesitated, pondering his own selfishness, before he asked, “Would it bother you if I slept here tonight…?”
Keith glanced up at him, confused. “You always sleep here.”
“I meant with you,” Shiro explained. “Here in the bed. Would that make you uncomfortable?”
“No,” Keith said, unbothered. “It’s a big bed. Lots of room for you.”
“I meant more, would you be uncomfortable with me being that close to you?” Shiro stammered, unable to look at Keith. “While you slept?”
“No? Is it supposed to?” Keith looked even more confused, and Shiro wasn’t sure how else to get his point across.
“I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” Shiro finally blurted. “I don’t want you to think I’m going to… try to take advantage of you.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Keith answered, finally meeting Shiro’s eyes. “I respect you and that’s different. I know the difference between good people and bad people. I know you won’t hurt me without reason. You told me – no more fighting, no more breeding. I’m Keith and I’m just Keith, now. I’m a tracker and a translator, and I’m my mother’s son. That’s all I have to be. I remember.” Having said what he’d wanted to, he held his hand out for another piece of apple.
“I just… we were apart a lot today,” Shiro said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I missed you. I was worried about you. I just… want to be close to you for a little while. I’d feel a little better if I did that.” He acquiesced, carving off another slice of apple and handing it over. “Just want to know you’re safe tonight.”
“I’m okay with that,” Keith agreed, seemingly uninterested in the prospect at all. But when they stretched out in the bed that night, Shiro’s prosthetic arm open for Keith, he curled right up against his side without an inch of space between them, his face buried in Shiro’s shoulder and one leg folded over Shiro’s.