They piled into the convoy truck the next day, saying few goodbyes. Kolivan was just as terse as always, but at least did Keith the service of ignoring his presence instead of looking down his nose at him or eking out any last minute critical remarks. All he did was offer Shiro and Coran stern handshakes and thanks, before turning to leave.
Typically Shiro would either drive or ride in the passenger seat, preferring to take point on the road, both due to his experience and his personal anxiety regarding letting any of his team take up the position. Out here, most IEDs were liable to destruct headfirst, as soon as the front tires bore down, instead of midway or towards the aft of the vehicle. He knew riding in any seat, in any vehicle, was a risk but if he could minimize it in any way, he would – even if that meant putting himself in danger, first.
But today, he made himself climb in the back and take a seat, leaving room for Keith beside him. Keith tucked his bundle of new clothes under one arm and easily launched himself into the back of the truck one-handed, taking up the vacant seat at Shiro’s side. “All good?” Shiro checked, though Keith didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. “You’ve been in a truck before, right?”
Keith nodded. “A couple times. We mostly used carts, but for longer trips we used a truck.”
“The suspension isn’t what she used to be,” Shiro warned. “So it’ll be bumpy for a while until we hit the flatlands again.”
Keith’s brow furrowed, confused. “I’ve lived in the mountains my whole life. I know.”
Shiro couldn’t repress the fond smile the boy’s unapologetic statement brought to his face, or the way his hand automatically came up to smooth back Keith's hair. “Yeah. I guess that’s true. Just didn’t want you to be worried, if the truck jolted. It’s normal, especially when we get closer to the base camp. It’s nothing like the mountains, but the hills are pretty rocky too.”
Keith didn’t say anything in reply to that, staring Shiro down with eerie intensity, like he could see straight through him – his body, his years, his command, right down to his soul. “It’ll be okay,” he said, finally, more softly than his expression would belie. He ducked under Shiro’s hand so that he could sit closer to him, thigh to thigh, straight-backed and chin lifted, alert.
Shiro wondered if he was giving off some sort of scent, a pheromone that Keith was picking up that betrayed his anxiety and fear, or if the boy was just adept at reading people’s tone and expression. Either way, though it didn’t relieve his anxiety, it was a much appreciated and meaningful gesture, to have Keith decide that Shiro needed protection and soothing more than he himself did, and take up the offensive. It was the thought that counts.
The rest of the company piled in, Ulaz last as he secured all personnel and cargo before climbing behind the wheel with Pidge in the passenger seat, her rifle cradled in her arms. Hunk and Coran rode in the back with them, Hunk hunched over and occupied with scribbling in a notebook that was dwarfed in his hands and Coran chattering on as he normally did, about everything and nothing; somehow he always seemed to have a new story to relate, as if he’d lived for centuries instead of mere decades. Shiro half listened, leaning slightly forward to stare out the front windscreen, half aware of Keith’s meager weight swaying into his side with the motion of the truck as they first navigated the narrow, winding dirt roads out of the Marmora encampment, then the smoother terrain of the flatlands, and back into the trails that led through the hillside and down towards the base camp.
Every time Shiro glanced back down at Keith to check on him, he seemed to sense Shiro’s attention and turn his head back towards him at the same time, turning his scrutiny from the road behind them and meeting Shiro’s gaze with watchful blue eyes. Shiro noticed that each time Keith turned towards him, his mouth snapped shut, like he’d decided against saying something; he frowned, concerned, even though Keith didn’t seem distressed. “You doing okay, buddy?” He asked, wondering if Keith was maybe too afraid to voice a concern.
Keith nodded once, then frowned. “Hot,” he explained, not a complaint, just a fact. Shiro puzzled over that for a moment, utterly baffled, trying to figure out how that had anything to do with what he’d assumed the issue was. It was in fact hot in the convoy truck, even with the back open and windows down up front; it was spring time, and on the featureless expanse of the steppes and the desert, the wind was warm and dry, no clouds to shield them from the sun bearing down from overhead. Everyone in the vehicle was dewed with sweat, clothes and hair damp – except for Keith, whose clothes were still mostly dry, and only the lightest sheen of sweat on his forehead. Was he trying to muster up the will to complain to Shiro about the heat…? Was he okay, was this another oncoming bout of dehydration, somehow…?
Instead, Shiro got his answer as Keith turned away, looking out the back of the truck – letting his jaw slacken and mouth hang slightly open, the tip of his tongue barely lolling over his bottom lip. Oh. That’s right – dogs don’t sweat. They cool off by panting. His eyebrows rose, and he turned his surprised expression on Coran, wondering if he’d noticed. Coran just grinned back beneath his mustache, likely having noticed hours ago, if not weeks ago by now.
They made it down to the base camp without issue, and Shiro couldn’t deny the swell of relief it gave him to have the truck pull to a stop and be greeted with ordinary camp life; soldiers working, milling about, tents flapping in the meager breeze, all the sights and sounds that let Shiro know that he was finally home and safe. Even in the middle of a war, this would always ease his heart much more than unlocking his front door in quiet suburbia.
As they all piled out, a few unoccupied members of their company came up at a jog or a stroll to welcome them back. Naturally as soon as they had approached, a sentry had alerted the camp of their approach, but on it’s own returning from a non-combat assignment was nothing to get excited about – they would have been told before they’d even arrived if they’d lost someone. Having a full convoy leave and a full convoy return was their expected average – having a full convoy leave, and then return with one more was something entirely new.
Shiro didn’t give Keith a hand down from the truck, knowing he didn’t need it, but stood close just in case he was uncomfortable with being swarmed so soon after his arrival. Hunk and Coran climbed out after them, Ulaz and Pidge coming around the back to join them and the small mob assembling.
“Glad to have you back, Shiro,” Olia opened with, stepping forward and offering a solid handshake in greeting. She was closer to Coran’s age, but looked older due to her weathered skin and narrow eyes from years working in desert climes; out of all of them, she seemed to have adapted the best to the weather here. She functioned primarily as base commander but was equally as capable when it came to running skirmishes, and was tough as grit when she had to be. “Preparations for the Splice’s arrival are as you requested.” Her heavily wrinkled eyes drifted around the group that had disembarked from the truck, until they landed on Keith at Shiro’s side. “…huh. Well, that’s… I’m not sure what I expected.”
“Where is it?” Rolo asked next, pushing his way to the front, “I’ve never worked with a Splice before, holy shit.” Rolo was just as new to this outpost as Shiro was, and Shiro got the impression that the man had been a mercenary all his life, more out of convenience than out of any lust for violence or ambition. The man seemed perfectly content to have his boots on the ground and a gun on his hip, utterly uninterested in his assignments or rising in the ranks. He wasn’t a bad sort, just utterly motivated by himself and his own needs.
“Everyone,” Shiro said pointedly, getting everybody’s attention, “this is Keith. He’s a local Splice who’s going to be staying with us for the duration, and working primarily as a tracker and translator on assignments.” Keith confirmed the introduction by giving the assembled company a salute. From the corner of his eye, Shiro could see Ulaz duck his head to hide his proud grin.
“That’s the Splice?” Rolo asked, mouth quirking up like he expected a punchline. “How old is he?”
Keith looked up to Shiro for confirmation, before he replied for himself. “I’m sixteen years old.”
“He can speak,” someone else said from the small crowd.
“He literally just said he’s going to be working as a translator, dumbass,” someone else replied.
“Maybe he’s mute! We had that one guy, what’s his face, that signed-”
“He wasn’t a Splice, he was just a guy-”
“Yes, he can speak,” Shiro interrupted, cautioning himself to be patient. Most members of his company had never technically met a Splice, even if they’d worked with one – most Splices approved for combat were loners, considered more weapon than soldier. They might have worked with one in the field, but in all likelihood they’d never had a conversation with one. “For all intents and purposes, to us, he’s a human. He can do, and does do, all the same things we do. He eats, he sleeps, he speaks, and he works.”
“No offense, but what’s the point of having a Splice be on comms or as a guide? Why not just have him run the perimeter?” Asked a voice from the back of the crowd. Shiro knew they genuinely weren’t trying to upset anyone; it was a valid question, and it was just the opening Shiro needed.
He put a gentle hand on the back of Keith’s head. “While that’s what he was trained to do,” Shiro said softly, “that is not what Keith has chosen to do. He has decided on a better life for himself, here with us, where he won’t be required to kill or to hurt others. He has other, much more valuable traits that we can make use of, and he’s volunteered to perform those tasks instead of what he was made to do previously.”
“He’s killed before…?” Rolo asked, brow furrowing.
“He’s only sixteen,” someone murmured. “Jesus Christ.”
“He has, but that’s no longer his purpose,” Shiro repeated. “He made the choice to take a different path.”
“Can he do that?” Someone else asked. “Like, does he know what that means…? I get that he can speak, but like… how ‘all there’ is he…?”
Shiro tried not to bristle. “As I said, functionally, he’s the same as you or I. You can ask him questions yourself, if you like,” he offered, taking a half-step back from Keith who, to his credit, didn’t look back at him as he moved away.
“Are you really sixteen?” Rolo asked, without hesitation. “You sure as shit don’t look it.”
Keith nodded. “Yes. Pretty sure.”
“What are you mixed with?” Someone asked.
“Not mixed with anything,” Keith replied. “I was born, not made. I’m whatever my mother and father were. I know my mother was dog-mixed, not sure about my father.”
“What kind of dog?” Someone else asked, half-grinning. “Chihuahua? Shih Tzu?”
“I don’t know what those are,” Keith said. “She was big. Bigger than me. Like Commander Shirogane.”
Shiro’s eyebrows rose at that; Keith had never disclosed a relative size for his mother, just that she was ‘big’. To stand at Shiro’s height and width would be quite a feat for a normal human woman; he wondered if the Splicing granted her her size, or if she’d been selected because of it. Either way, it sounded ludicrous, coming from someone as small as Keith.
“Are you the runt of the litter?” Someone laughed, and Keith turned towards them with a flat stare.
“No,” he replied. “Just the only one that survived.”
To Shiro’s relief, no one paused to give weight to Keith’s statement, and the gathered soldiers continued to launch question after question, all with harmless curiosity. A few people even left, unimpressed and uninterested; they had jobs to do and Keith’s addition to their ranks didn’t effect them at all, or else they’d already worked with Splices previously and didn’t buy into the fuss anymore. Keith answered all of their questions obediently, holding onto the bundle of clothes in his hands, relaxed and unthreatened. Shiro and Ulaz stayed behind, naturally, to run crowd control if needed, but Hunk and Coran quietly excused themselves to return to their duties. Surprisingly, Pidge stayed behind, leaning back against the truck with her arms crossed and eyes observant.
They asked if he could bark or howl (he could, but didn’t see the point), they asked if he knew any tricks ( “I don’t like deceiving people”, and after Ulaz translated the question back in Russian, “I can drink a beer without opening it and I can make paper birds”), they asked if he liked playing fetch (he again didn’t see the point but staunchly reassured them that he was willing to learn), they asked if he had paws or a tail (he didn’t have either, and he showed everyone his human hands almost proudly, devoid of claws as he’d promised). To Shiro’s relief most seemed to treat him as either side of his mixed DNA; as a very alien human child, or as a talking dog. It was in no way ideal, but it beat any one of the worse alternatives.
The sole exception, as Shiro had anticipated, was Regris. The man didn’t say much, nor did he ever have to – he ran internal security for their unit, both the camp and the soldiers. He kept to himself, and Shiro’s sole interactions with him were when he reported back after securing the perimeter and passing on his watch, or when he debriefed after assignment. Shiro didn’t know much about him, but reckoned he didn’t have to; the man was competent, thorough, and deadly when it came down to it.
So it didn’t surprise Shiro at all, when he finally spoke up, his voice a low rumble. “Can you fight?” He asked Keith.
Keith’s expression tensed, his jaw working. “I can if I have to,” he admitted grudgingly.
“Can you kill?” Regris asked, meeting Keith’s eyes steadily.
“I can,” Keith grit out. “But I won’t.” There was no mistaking the conviction in his voice.
Regris didn’t pursue the line of questioning, shifting his focus to Shiro. “I want to take him with me on patrol,” he said. “He’d be more useful out there than in the camp, waiting to be necessary.”
“That’s up to Keith,” Shiro said, looking down at the boy beside him. “Is that something you would like to do?” He asked, nudging Keith’s arm. Keith still hadn’t looked away from Regris, his expression narrowed and evaluating.
“I won’t kill,” Keith repeated, uncertain that Regris understood. “I said I wouldn’t do that again, and I won’t. I’m a tracker and a translator now, I don’t… I don’t have to do those things anymore.” Shiro’s hand came up to Keith’s nape, letting the weight of his grip express his support and approval.
“You’re right,” Regris agreed. “You don’t. I don’t want you with me to take lives, but because you can and refuse to do so – a man with that mindset is more valuable to me than the alternative.” He turned his attention back to Shiro. “Sir,” he said by way of farewell, and with nothing more said, turned to leave.
Keith looked completely baffled, and finally turned to look up at Shiro, questioning. “Regris has his own way of doing things,” Shiro explained gently. “Almost all of us do. We’re not a standard military unit, but we all work together – we all do our part, in our own ways, to get the job done and keep everyone alive and well. See, you won’t stand out so much after all.” He gave Keith a small smile the boy didn’t return. “Alright, I think that’s enough for the Q&A portion. We can make introductions as they’re needed, going forward. I think it’s time for the grand tour.” He turned away from the dispersing cluster of remaining personnel, to where Pidge was still reclining against the truck. “You coming with?”
Pidge’s eyes lingered on Keith, but ultimately she declined. “No thanks. Got years of data to decrypt and translate… should probably start working on that.” She stood away from the truck, grabbing up her field pack and a duffel from by her feet and moved past the two remaining men and one Splice. “See you ‘round.” She brushed roughly past Ulaz, and his eyes narrowed.
“You’re not too old for me to put in time-out,” Ulaz called after her, but all Pidge did was throw an unimpressed look over one shoulder.
“Don’t threaten me with a good time, sir,” she replied, disappearing down into the encampment.
“She gets it from your side of the family, you know,” Shiro said wryly, moving them away.
“She does,” Ulaz sighed, looking bereaved. “And she knows this.”
Keith looked between the two men, confused, until Shiro caught the look. “We’re joking,” he explained, then after a moment’s consideration he continued. “It’s what human parents do, sometimes – debate over which side their children’s traits stem from, in a friendly way.”
Keith nodded ponderously, accepting the explanation and mulling it over.
They did a light overview of the relatively small camp – though anything would seem small compared to the sprawling Marmora camp or the rundown maze of the mountain outpost. All told there were only a few handfuls of designated tents – for the mess, for laundry, for bathing, for communications, and so on, while the rest were residential, mostly one to three people to a tent. The residential tents all circled the primary facilities, and weren’t segregated by gender or rank, since neither were really acknowledged in the camp outside of friendly banter or more personal conversations. The larger facilities circled the residential tents and were mostly open air, concealed under makeshift sheds, tents and camouflage netting, like the armory and the motor pool. There wasn’t much to it aside from that; currently they housed a compliment of about thirty people, now, with Keith included. They stopped by the quartermaster’s office to see Olia again, and pick up the items Shiro had requested – mostly regulation bedding and the smallest pair of sweats they had on hand, which were probably intended for someone Pidge’s size. Olia smiled stiffly at Keith, but still looked uncomfortable around him; largely, if Shiro had to guess, because he appeared child-like, and Olia didn’t have a maternal bone in her body. She’d take a bullet for a child before she willingly held one for pleasure’s sake.
As they exited the Quartermaster’s office, Shiro asked Keith, “So. Any questions so far?”
Keith thought it over carefully. “I’m the only Galra – the only Splice, here right now, aren’t I,” he said, less a question than a surprised statement.
“That’s right,” Shiro said. “We don’t usually employ Splices within our company. Humans are generally considered better suited to our assignments, and to be honest… Splices are expensive and humans are not.” Shiro frowned. “Does that bother you…? Being the only one of your kind here…?”
“No,” Keith said, shaking his head. “I didn’t spend much time around my own kind, at the facility, anyway.” He rolled his lips in, considering. “I guess I just assumed since you took me with you, that you had… Splice, facilities here. Like to bathe and sleep.” He looked up between the two men, brows furrowed and eyes wide. “Where do I go, then?”
“With me,” Shiro said softly. “All the places I go, you go. You’ll still eat with me, though in the mess the majority of the time, and you’ll shower in the same tent I do, and sleep in the same tent as me.” A few days ago, it had seemed like a good idea, keeping the boy close, and he’d felt Keith would enjoy the prospect, be reassured by it. Now, he wondered if he should be more cautious – make sure Keith agreed of his own free will. Make sure he consented. “If that’s not okay, we can make other arrangements. There’s other tents, and if you’d rather more freedom or mobility, we can-”
“No,” Keith blurted, then immediately followed it up with, “No. I want to stay with you. I don’t… I'd rather be with you. Please.” He dropped his gaze, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable with his outburst, clutching his new bedding and clothes tighter to his chest.
“Okay,” Shiro drawled, darting a glance at Ulaz. “That’s fine. You can always change your mind later, too, if you don’t like it.” Keith bobbed his head, rushed, and Shiro straightened, out of his personal space, leaving a hand on his shoulder all the same.
They went to Shiro’s tent then, where Olia had followed his instructions and prepared for Keith’s placement in advance, installing a cot beside Shiro’s with plenty of space between them afforded by the tent’s size, complete with a gently used footlocker at the end. They left Keith’s things there on the bed, and decided to wrap things up with Keith’s first meal in the mess hall; Ulaz took his leave then, giving them both a salute each, which Keith staunchly returned.
Keith seemed a little overwhelmed by the size of the mess tent, and the process as a whole – able to, probably for the first time in his life, get his own food for himself. Shiro took a few photos on the sly, Keith standing there with the metal tray clutched to his chest, huge eyes gleaming greedily at the line of steam tables. When it was his turn he practically slapped the tray down, and watched them pour his portions with barely concealed excitement. His whole body gave a small repressed shimmy as they moved down the line, and Shiro wondered if that was his version of a full-body, tailless wag. The cooks looked more amused and fascinated than anything else as Keith took up his tray and waited obediently for Shiro.
Still very aware of Keith’s issues regarding food, he took them to a deserted table in the back that Pidge and Hunk usually claimed so that they could discuss their projects with their mouths full without criticism. Now, Keith took up a seat as close as possible to Shiro’s side, managing to restrain himself until Shiro started eating, and then he dove right in, ravenous, like he hadn’t eaten in days instead of mere hours. His enthusiasm definitely got them a few concerned looks along with the amused ones, but Shiro wasn’t worried; it was normal, he had to keep reminding himself. They didn’t know any better, and they didn’t know Keith at all, yet. Even for a Splice, he stood out – almost entirely human passing, able to think and communicate like a human. It would take time for other people, outsiders, to mesh the two concepts together – that Keith was both an animal and a human, no matter how he seemed at first.
They finished dinner without fanfare, aside from Keith’s insistence on giving his tray a long-tongued once over to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, and Shiro hadn’t chastised him for that. At least not yet; they’d had a big day, a huge transition, and there would be time enough to let Keith know the intricacies of human table etiquette. Instead, they’d retired once more to Shiro’s tent. “Do you want to say good night to Coran or Ulaz…?” Shiro had asked, gently, as they stepped inside.
“No,” Keith said in his usual, uninterested way, moving to his new cot and starting to strip down to change into his new sweatpants and sweatshirt, shoving the oversized sleeves up to his elbows. Shiro didn’t question it, dressing down himself. Normally, he slept in just his briefs and maybe his undershirt, but tonight he decided to play it safe, tugging on a pair of shorts as well. A little bit of discomfort was worth it, if it might set Keith at ease.
Shiro threw himself back into his bed once he’d changed, releasing a long groan as his body settled into the familiar grooves worn into the thin mattress. It was good to finally be home, in his own bed, and not being forced to fold his long body onto the meager space afforded by what was essentially a low-hanging hammock rather than a cot. He rolled over just enough to reach his books on the other side of the bed, giving Keith his back; he was about to ask what Keith was in the mood for, when Keith spoke up first.
“I know Ulaz told you,” he said, voice too soft for the flat tone he was trying for. “About what the warden said. About me – about what I did, for him.”
Shiro paused, looking back over his shoulder. Keith stood at his cot, his head bowed and skinny arms at his sides; he’d made no attempt to get into the bed, the sheets and pillow still stacked on top of it. Shiro frowned, rolling back over to face Keith, dropping his feet to the floor, moving slowly as if he were wary of spooking the boy; confused by where he was going with this. “Keith,” he began, but didn’t know what else to say.
“You’re different with me, now,” Keith said. “Something’s changed.”
“Nothing’s changed, Keith,” Shiro insisted.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Keith said, as if Shiro hadn’t spoke. “You’re strong, and you have power here. I know that. I’ve always known that. But I’m not afraid of you, or what you can do to me.”
Shiro didn’t immediately move to reply, instead thinking over his conversation with Ulaz; remembering what he’d discussed in therapy, what felt like years ago now. People coped in strange ways, ways that might superficially seem healthy and balanced, but weren’t; ways that masked how deep the pain and the fear went, ways that tried to obfuscate the heart of the issue. He wanted to just take Keith’s words and hold them close, to reassure himself – that’s what he wanted to hear, most of all, that Keith was not afraid of him. But more than that, he wanted, needed, the truth – he wanted Keith to be able to heal. He wanted him to have the ability to mend all the wounds he’d been left with and grow. If he left those wounds there, covered up, they’d fester and weaken him, stunt him, and all the lofty plans he had for Keith would crumble into nothing at the first stumble.
“Is that because you expect me to do those things to you, or is it because you know and trust that I won’t?” Shiro asked, softly, knowing his face reflected his own pain, sadness – disappointment, and let it show. “There’s a difference, Keith, between not being afraid of the inevitable, and feeling safe. That’s important.”
“I trust you,” Keith replied, but it wasn’t firm, and his eyes didn’t meet Shiro’s; he wasn’t sure.
“That’s the thing, Keith – you don’t have to, right now; it’s okay not to trust me. It’s okay to be afraid of me. You’ve been through… so much, so much I don’t understand or probably know about, and you’ve survived. For sixteen years, you’ve survived. You did what you had to do, to keep your mind and body in one piece, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it kept you here, it gave you this chance, and that’s a good thing. Fear isn’t bad, Keith. Fear keeps us safe, keeps us alive, keeps us going. I’d understand, if you were afraid of me, after everything you’ve been through; especially after finding out who I am and what I do, here. What I don’t want, is an absence of fear because now you expect the things you used to fear. What I want, eventually, over time, is for you to get to know me, and who I am – and come to trust that I will not hurt you. I will say it as many times as it takes, but I know it can’t undo everything you’ve lived through, and everything you’ve done to protect yourself. Just… please. Give me the same chance I’m giving you.”
Keith’s hands came together, squeezing each other hard, jerking like they wanted to move up, but he viciously repressed the instinct. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in the dark, voice thick.
“I’m not,” Shiro said levelly. After a moment, he continued – speaking for the first time in months about the ghost at his back, the shadow over his right shoulder, however obliquely. “We do what we have to do, to keep ourselves safe – to stay alive. There is nothing, nothing shameful about that.” Surprisingly, he found himself putting more conviction into that than he’d ever had when he’d been talking about himself, and he wondered if maybe, finally, out here in the middle of nowhere, he was experiencing the breakthrough he was supposed to have within the safe confines of suburban civilian life. Maybe this was a little bit more give and take than he’d thought.
Keith’s head rose at that, uncertain, his eyes lambent in the dark, hearing the change in Shiro’s voice. “How do I… how do I fix it?” He asked, earnest, like he believed that Shiro had all the answers. “How do I… stop, doing that – being like this?”
“Time,” Shiro said, gently, knowing how disappointing the answer would be – remembering, how disappointing the answer was. “I wish there was just one way to do it, but there’s not – it’s different for everybody. You’re going to mess it up, you’ll make mistakes but you’ll learn. You just have to remember to be patient with yourself – not just with others. I know you make allowances for other people and how they feel, like Kolivan and Pidge, but you have to do the same thing for yourself. Be patient with yourself, too – just, focus on that. One step at a time, patience and focus.”
Keith nodded, slowly, absorbing the tidal wave of new information – a totally new and different perspective. Shiro didn’t expect him to be able to change anything right away, he knew that; Keith didn’t have the tools, yet, but maybe Shiro did, at least to some degree. Maybe therapy wasn’t a total bust, after all – it just took a change of scenery, for it to finally make some sense. At the very least, Keith was aware now. He wasn’t on autopilot, he wasn’t constantly on high-alert, exhausting himself mentally and physically, waiting and waiting and waiting for the pain he thought he knew would come. He couldn’t stop, not just yet, but maybe he could take a step back and rest; take a real, hard look at all the memories, the emotions he’d been avoiding, shoving aside, numbing himself to. It was a start, and that was all Shiro could give him; as much as he wished he could, he couldn’t do this for Keith.
Keith’s hands unwound, one coasting up his bare forearm, before he finally spoke. “Then,” he started ponderously. “Do I still have to sleep all the way over here…?” He asked.
“No, you don’t,” Shiro said, the tight knot in his middle easing up at the question, at the tension seeping out of the boy’s posture. “It’s up to you. All you have to do is ask.”
Keith stooped then, swooping in on his cot, and Shiro expected him to start lugging the whole bed over, closer to his own. Instead, Keith gathered up his pillow and bedding, and came around to Shiro’s bed, dropping everything by his feet and following it all down. “Uh, bud?” Shiro asked, startled. “You can just move the bed over, if you want to be closer.”
“I don’t like it,” Keith said, and there was that staunchness Shiro so enjoyed, firm in his opinion and unapologetic. “Only did it back with the Marmora because I had to. It’s too high up. This is better.” He sounded very satisfied with himself, shoving the sheets and blanket around the packed earth of the floor.
“I’m gonna step on you,” Shiro said, attempting to dissuade him.
“I’ll hear when you wake up,” Keith absently reassured. “I’ll move, don’t worry.” He grabbed up his pillow, clutching it in his hands as he determined where best to situate it in the small flat nest he’d made for himself.
Shiro heaved a sigh, and surrendered. He supposed, if this was going to become an every day thing, that he could get out on the other side of his bed, once he’d rearranged some things. He picked his feet back up, curling back up in his bed and watched Keith tug and drag his bedding around to make sure his newly designed bed was just right. Finally, he smooshed his pillow down as flat as he could make it, more than it already was, and threw himself down onto it almost violently. Keith squirmed a few times, booted feet kicking at the sheets and blanket, before he finally went entirely boneless with a sigh. Shiro couldn’t help a snort of laughter, mouth quirking up.
“All good, buddy?” Shiro asked, wryly.
“All good,” Keith groaned into his pillow, face buried in it the way he’d slept face-planted in Shiro’s shoulder the night before.
“You want me to read a little bit?” Shiro offered, letting his hand drift down to the wealth of black hair, running his fingers through it; the habit soothing the both of them. Keith just gave a muffled, satisfied rumble, and Shiro’s smile softened. “Good night, buddy.”
“Good night,” Keith replied, already sounding well on his way to sleep. Shiro let his hand coast over his hair, over and over again, until eventually he followed him down into sleep, his hand hanging over the side of the bed.
The next day was set to be the template for Keith’s life at the camp. They hit the showers first, Shiro with his caddy of soaps from home and Keith with his company-issued items, and washed up side by side in the stalls; Shiro showed him how to conserve water and water pressure by only using the showerhead twice, once to get wet and once to rinse off. Keith seemed to be more than okay with this, fascinated by the shower mechanism but respectfully keeping to the time allotted. Shiro let him shake himself off to his heart’s content, but warned that if there were other people in the showers they might not appreciate it. He didn’t anticipate that Keith would be independent enough, just yet, to shower or eat on his own, but he had hopes that it would be sooner rather than later.
Showered and dressed, they went next to the mess hall, and Keith’s enthusiasm had not waned in the slightest, still just as excited to get his own tray and solicit his servings from the cooks. Keith hadn’t yet reacted to anything else the way he did the concept of the mess tent – he was always interested in food of any kind at any time of day, but Shiro reckoned the notion of being able to secure food for himself, three times a day, regardless of behavior or performance was probably a sad sort of novelty. Then again, Keith hadn’t yet been assigned any duties yet at the camp, as far as the day-to-day work required to keep the camp and it’s personnel running; Shiro might yet find something Keith could be interested in of it’s own accord.
So far, until Keith settled in and got used to life with his new company, all Shiro had planned for the boy was book-learning and self-care like showering and eating. He wanted to give Keith the chance to get to know the layout of the camp, their hours and schedules and the rhythm of their assignments; he wanted Keith to get to know every last member of their company and feel comfortable with them. He knew, of course, that Keith was likely to adapt to anything with relative ease, but he wanted Keith to be a part of the camp, a part of their unit – he didn’t want Keith to be relegated to the role he’d had before, present but kept separate, only called upon to be used, like a tool or a weapon. He wanted Keith to be vital to the camp in the little, unimportant ways they all were, outside of their abilities and capacity for violence, but because they helped cook, helped clean, participated in drills and down-time activities. He wanted there to be a noticeable void if Keith was absent; he didn’t expect emotional attachments, though he of course wanted there to be some, but just the average reliance upon another capable being to pull their weight and sustain their lifestyle.
He was looking forward to that; Keith having a life, flourishing, developing interests and friendships. It was a bittersweet hope, knowing that Keith would grow apart from him, not rely on him as much, maybe not be so attached to him anymore… but it was what he wanted. For Keith to really, truly become Keith, not just a weapon or an animal, but a person. He was half human, his mother, his father had started out as humans; Shiro was sure that that was what they would have wanted, for their boy. A normal life, without fear, without pain, nice and boring, safe, where their son could experience joy and excitement and happiness, sadness and grief too because it was a part of living life – loss and the pain of it. Whatever concerns he had, worries for his investment in the life of a Splice, worries for the future, he soothed himself with that – wherever Keith’s parents were, whatever afterlife, they could look down on their boy and know that he was safe. There was somebody there, now, to take care of him… protect him, even love him. Their son wasn’t alone anymore, and the notion of doing right by Keith’s parents made it just that much more rewarding.
He took Keith to the medical tent next, to meet up with Coran. It was decided early on that Coran had the most time and patience out of everyone in the camp, and more than that was deeply familiar with and to Keith, and so would be the natural choice for teaching Keith to read and write in English. Ulaz had volunteered to work with Keith on the Cyrillic alphabet, though they’d yet to decide on how and when to start on his Russian education. Judging by Keith’s conviction, nobody really worried whether Keith would take to it at all; Keith was committed to success, whatever it took, and for once Shiro was pleased by that learned, mission-oriented mindset.
He watched Coran get Keith set up at his own desk, pulling up a chair beside him. There was a yellow steno pad and a pencil already prepared, as well as an obviously handmade alphabet chart. Shiro should have considered, lacking any experience in reading or writing, that the boy wouldn’t automatically know how to hold a pencil, but it still surprised him to see Keith clumsily grasp it with Coran’s help, figuring out how and where to set his fist on the paper, his fingers flexing on it at different angles, uncomfortably.
“Which hand is your dominant hand?” Coran asked, patiently as ever. Keith frowned, confused. “Which hand do you use the most?” Keith’s expression worsened, one eyebrow rising.
“I use both,” Keith tried to explain. Coran shook his head.
“Which hand do you use for your fork or spoon?” Coran again attempted to explain.
“Commander Shirogane uses this one,” Keith said, lifting the hand already holding the pencil, still visibly baffled. “So I use this one. Should I not do that…? I can use the other one.” He shifted the pencil to his other hand, his grasp still just as careful and uncertain.
Both Coran and Shiro’s eyebrows rose at that, but Shiro was the one to ask first. “When you fight with a knife, Keith, which hand do you prefer?”
Keith shrugged. “Whichever one is free.” Coran and Shiro shared a surprised look, and Keith prickled. “Is that bad? Am I doing this wrong?” He asked, shoulders rising and the hand with the pencil starting to drop, losing confidence.
“No, no,” Coran rushed to reassure. “Quite the opposite, my boy. That’s a very good thing. It’s a talent, being able to use either hand; it’s called being ‘ambidextrous’. Nothing wrong with that. Just choose whichever hand you’d like to start with, and we can begin.”
Keith didn’t seem very comforted by the explanation, but put the pencil back in his right hand and set his fist back on the lined paper, pencil poised gracelessly and a more determined frown on his face. Coran gave an overview on the alphabet, explaining how each letter represented a verbal sound, and how the sounds could construct a word, and that was how reading largely worked; determining what sounds were being constructed and finding the word they were intended to make. Keith perked up at that, grasping the information with relative ease. Coran didn’t jump just yet into silent letters or letters that changed sound, keeping it simple to start, and it seemed to work. He gave examples for every letter in the alphabet, common ones, like ‘A begins Apple’ and ‘Z begins Zoo’, and Keith paid rapt attention.
Towards the end of that lesson, Keith’s face once more narrowed into a frown. “Sounds familiar,” he remarked, unsolicited. He looked up at Coran. “Is there a song with these in it?”
“Yes,” Coran said, startled. “There is. A very common one. Most English-speaking children learn it very early on.”
Keith cocked his head, humming interestedly, turning his attention back to the letters assembled on the chart Coran had made. Using his pencil, he slowly read out each letter, tone rising and dipping to the tune, until he got around to H, drifting off. “I don’t remember the rest,” he admitted, sounding frustrated. “My old researcher taught me that, when I was little… that was a long time ago.” The statement should have been more amusing, considering Keith was still young and still small, but his weary tone made him sound bereaved, instead.
“That’s fine,” Coran reassured, his mustache lifting in a small smile. “You can relearn it, if you like. It makes things easier to remember, and some systems are organized alphabetically – in order of where the letters appear in the alphabet.” Keith nodded, absently, more focused on the forgetting than the relearning. “Do you want to know what your name looks like?” Coran offered, half as a distraction, and Keith seemed to brighten at that.
While Coran showed Keith how to write out his name, Shiro pondered that revelation. Keith had told him he was never intended to learn how to read or write or even speak at all, yet the English-speaking researcher had gone through the trouble of teaching him that song… why? Was it an evaluation, and if so, of what? His memory retention skills, his language skills…? What purpose would it serve…?
Shiro’s attention was drawn back to Keith in the present, as the boy turned in his seat to look up at him with the steno pad held up. “Look,” Keith insisted. “That’s me.” He pointed to the painstakingly written though still shaky and fully capitalized letters of his own name. “And that’s you.” He moved his finger down the page, to where he’d carefully written ‘SHIROGANE’. He looked away from the page, back to Shiro, eyes big and bright with interest – wanting Shiro’s approval.
“Yep,” Shiro managed to say, offering a small smile. “That’s you and me, buddy. That’s what our names look like.”
Keith turned his attention back to the steno pad, looking more than satisfied, but actually pleased with himself as he looked over his work. He looked especially delighted with his name, seeing it for the first time – and maybe coming to realize that he was learning, that he could learn. Things really were changing; Keith, was really changing.
Coran set Keith up, and left him largely to his own devices, letting him copy the alphabet to his heart’s content. He excused himself from Keith’s side, and Keith didn’t seem to really mind, but as soon as Coran approached Shiro and asked him to step outside, they had his full attention.
“I’ll be right outside, bud,” Shiro reassured. “Keep going.”
Keith reluctantly turned back to his work, hunched over the desk, and both men stepped outside the tent. “I wanted to discuss something with you,” Coran said, folding his hands at the small of his back as they strolled out of Keith’s earshot. “Regarding the boy.”
“Alright,” Shiro drawled, uncertainly.
“Have you sent in your report yet?” Coran prodded, delicately, meeting Shiro’s eyes directly and refusing to let go his gaze. Shiro froze.
“No,” confessed, awkwardly. “Not yet.”
“You have to let them know,” Coran goaded, however compassionately. “The longer you hold off, the worse it’ll be when it gets back to the Company. They won’t understand your concerns – our concerns. All they’ll see is withheld information about a potential asset. That won’t help you, and it certainly won’t help Keith.”
“I know,” Shiro grit out, more frustrated with himself than Coran. He ran his false hand through his hair, agitated. “I just… I’m not sure how they’ll take it. If they’ll allow it.” He glanced back at the medical tent, where he could just barely glimpse the red of Keith’s shirt. “What if they decide he’s worth more off the field and in a lab…? What if they decide to take him away…?”
“It’s a risk,” Coran agreed. “But it’s one you absolutely have to take. If you don’t report on Keith, you will almost definitely be removed from the theatre, entirely, and there won’t be a way for you to come back. They’ll take Keith, either way, and find a use for him – and we can agree that whatever purpose they find for him won’t be as altruistic as yours or mine. Just because they don’t manufacture or invest in Splices doesn’t mean they won’t take advantage of an opportunity. We know that. If they find out through Kolivan, through another member of our unit, imagine how that will look, for you – for any one of us involved. They might just pull the lot of us, and then what? What will happen to Keith, then?”
Shiro heaved a sigh, and turned desperate eyes back on Coran. “What am I supposed to do?” He pleaded. “What am I supposed to say? How the Hell am I supposed to keep him safe – keep him here, with us?”
“Report back,” Coran insisted. “They don’t need to know about Keith, per se, but they do need to learn about the existence of a Splice within the camp, on the Company dime and on Company land. They need to know – we, need them to know. I trust that you’ll figure out how to get it done; you have, at least, the support of myself and Ulaz.” He offered Shiro a last, wan smile, clasping his shoulder reassuringly – but his eyes were pitying, sympathetic as he turned back to return to Keith’s side, leaving Shiro mired in the decisions he had to make.
Shiro had been in tough situations before; life and death, rock and a hard place. He’d even been in them with others, lives he was responsible for. It was part of what had landed him here in the first place, in many ways. But this was the first time a child was involved, outside of combat. Ensuring the survival of a child was one thing, rescuing them from captivity or from being pinned down by heavy fire another, but determining that child’s future for himself? Deciding how he lived and where and with whom and for how long…? That was something he’d never prepared for nor ever thought he would have to. One false step, a badly worded phrase, and Keith would be gone – relocated, or in the worst case, ‘destroyed’.
That night, while Keith slept beside him on the dirt floor small and warm, Shiro typed up his report.
He didn’t send it.