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A House Is Not a Home

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Shiro lied.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary for him, by any degree. It was a frequent necessity in his life, actually, both out here and back home. He lied to the locals often, largely in a bid to console and reassure them - he let them think he was more powerful than he was, he let them think he kept them safe and that he could be trusted. He let them think their sons and daughters were alive, let them think traumatized and wounded parents would be okay, let them think that the conflict was moving elsewhere; let them have the illusion of peace, at least for one more day.

He lied to his mother once a week when he told her he was on a “job site”, pushing paper all day and acting as a liaison between departments and smaller, more localized groups. He let her think he had an apartment, that he was safe and far away from any potential violence. He let his friends back home think he had adapted, that he was cured. He let them all believe that he was safe and he was happy even on days where he struggled to remember what happiness was, what happiness felt like, where even waking up was painful.

He didn’t enjoy it, and he didn’t go out of his way to do it. He did it because he had to, for his own sake and for the sake of the people he cared about. This report was no different.

It should have been brass tacks: just the honest facts as Shiro knew them, a thorough account of what had occurred and what he’d learned since Kolivan had asked him to retrieve the escaped staff and Splices from the outpost. It should have been straightforward and simple. It wasn’t.

They don’t need to know about Keith, per se…

The report he was supposed to send should have detailed his experiences with Keith, from finding him to the time of the report’s writing. He should have disclosed everything that was all but confirmed; Keith was a sixteen year old dog-mixed Splice, combat trained and combat ready, with a history and a reputation of violence, human passing and surprisingly eloquent not just in the local languages but English too. He should have mentioned everything that Keith had told Kolivan, the breeding and the fighting and the killing. That Keith was never intended for civilian life – he had been born and raised with the sole intention of being used to hurt and kill people, that Keith had lived a life of violence for sixteen years before he’d given up at the first opportunity and decided to lay down and die.

That’s what it should have said, if he were honest. If he wanted to accept the risk of losing Keith to a lab or another assignment, another theatre entirely, maybe. If he was comfortable with the notion of losing Keith at all, he would have lay the facts out, stark and bare as bleached bones and let the Company cast judgment as they would.

He wasn’t. So that’s not what his report read.

He interpreted the truth. He mistranslated the facts. He added details and speculation as though they were just as crucial as the evidence at hand. He gave a not-entirely-false version of Keith and his life before Shiro.

Instead of confirming that Keith was sixteen, Shiro said he looked to be around twelve years of age. Instead of saying that Keith was a purebred Splice, created organically from two Spliced parents and therefore a rare commodity, he implied that Keith had his DNA mixed by man and man alone. Instead of presenting a competent combat asset with years of training, both mentally and physically, he painted the picture of an uncertain and insecure young boy who was prone to displays of distress; scratching, pulling his hair out. Instead of stating Keith’s intelligence and capacity to learn, Shiro mentioned how Keith was unable to read or write or do more than basic math. Instead of presenting the opportunities for Keith to prove useful as a stealth asset, human passing and fluent in multiple local languages, Shiro made note of Keith’s clipped way of speaking and lack of understanding regarding basic human interactions and conversations.

In fact, instead of writing his report from his own experienced yet hopeful perspective, he wrote it in Keith’s hypercritical and self-deprecating point of view. All the things that Keith had said or thought about himself, Shiro shoved to the fore, no matter how much it pained him to essentially endorse the mentality he was hoping he could train out of the boy. His report set the stage for a child who was more animal than human, awkward and ultimately useless outside whatever designated purpose he was given. He removed all independent thought, he stripped away all his strength and conviction, he took away everything that made Keith, Keith and left behind a small and twisted funhouse version of him. Just a young and stupid puppy, sickly but with the potential one day to maybe prove himself useful in an extremely basic capacity. No better than finding a regular dog on the steppes and training it to herd sheep.

It was disgusting. It was heart breaking. It went against everything Shiro believed in; telling the truth, respecting the responsibilities he’d been entrusted with, Keith’s worth. But more than that, more than anything, it was necessary. Just imagining an empty spot beside his bed, a void at his side during meals, an empty hand with no dark hair to reach for made his stomach twist and ache.

It was necessary. Not just for Keith, anymore.

As a final touch, Shiro attached the two photos he’d taken of Keith after his haircut; having to scroll now through a tidy gallery of photos of the boy to find the ones he wanted. Keith’s face looked, superficially, vacant in those two photos, uninterested – especially in amongst the other photos and videos, where he expressed consternation, interest, even excitement in the case of the mess tent. It was Shiro’s hope that the company would look at those almost clinical photos and see the blank expression of a starved and beaten animal, devoid of human expression – instead of the thousand-yard stare of a soldier who seen too much and had suffered even more.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro began to, essentially, drop Keith off at school every morning as an addition to his old routine of filling out paperwork and doing his rounds. He and Keith would wash up and have breakfast, then he’d take Keith to Coran’s tent for a few hours of schooling while Shiro performed his standard duties. It wasn’t a long separation, by any means; a scant two or three hours, typically. Keith was getting more and more comfortable with the notion of being apart for that time, no doubt helped by the fact that Shiro came to retrieve him every time – he hadn’t been a fan, at first, even though he liked Coran and trusted him about as much as anyone else, simply for the fact that Shiro was leaving. He’d been visibly unhappy about it, but hadn’t protested or hesitated – Shiro could just tell by his expression alone that Keith wasn’t sure he liked this new development.

When Shiro stepped into Coran’s tent, Keith was already looking up from his work and facing the entrance, his eyebrows rising with pleasure at seeing Shiro. “Hey buddy,” Shiro greeted with a ready smile, coming up to rustle Keith’s hair. “Working hard?”

“Yes,” Keith said. “We’re doing sentences now.”

“Already?” Shiro asked, his own brows rising, darting a look at Coran.

“I’m not any good at them yet,” Keith admitted, face creasing back down into a frustrated scowl. “But I will be.” He made it sound like a threat.

“You’re doing just fine,” Coran assured. “Any progress is still progress, correct?”

“Yes,” Keith grunted, absently agreeing. “Are we leaving now?”

“Nah, not yet,” Shiro said. “Gotta talk shop with Coran.” At Keith’s confused frown, he elaborated, “Boring camp business.”

“Okay.” Keith turned back to his work determinedly, and Shiro turned his attention to Coran, lifting his chin to indicate that they should step outside.

“I assume you’ve written your report?” Coran asked, once they’d walked far enough away. In reply, Shiro handed over his tablet, his report brought up on the screen. He watched, anxiously, as Coran’s expression remained neutral while he scrolled. “I see you took my advice,” he drawled, finally, not looking up. “About the letter of the law, if not the spirit, and so forth.”

“It seemed the best idea, yes,” Shiro agreed, bashfully. “Thanks for that.”

“Being underhanded isn’t in your nature, my boy,” Coran reassured, “whereas I delight in it.” He gave Shiro a quick smile before turning back to the tablet. “Do you still have the footage and photos from when we made first contact?” He asked, next.

Shiro frowned. “I know I have the photos I took once we made camp with him; might still have the bodycam footage. I didn’t think to make an effort to save it directly to my tablet, but…”

“I would recommend attaching those as well,” Coran suggested, handing back the tablet. “It’ll lend further credence to his lack of physical ability, if they see him half-dead on the side of the road, riddled with bullet holes.”

Shiro took the tablet back, expression stern.

“There is one more thing, if I may?” Coran asked, and at Shiro’s nod, continued. “I’d like to attach my own report, regarding his physical health and efficacy, to help support your own. Is that acceptable?”

Shiro felt himself brighten at that. “Yes, of course, I… yes, that would be great, Coran, thank you,” he said earnestly.

Coran bobbed his head, but his gaze drifted away. “I won’t oversell it, of course, but there is… there will be an element of truth in it, Shiro, and I want you to be prepared for that.” His eyes came back up then, pained. “There’s still so much we don’t know about the offspring of Splices, and from what we’ve learned… the prognosis isn’t always favorable, especially when it comes to longevity.”

Shiro felt his heart sink into his belly, and the blood in his face must have followed, because Coran hurried to reassure him. “If Keith’s correct, and he is in actuality closer to sixteen, then it’s likely he’s passed the threshold for early genetic deterioration,” he said. “Most Young don’t make it to ten or twelve, so sixteen would make him above average in terms of lifespan. So far, in the few exams I’ve been able to conduct, I haven’t discovered any anomalies that would lead me to believe he’s at risk, but I’m not a researcher – I don’t have access to the kinds of tests and equipment they would, I don’t have the knowledge or the experience to know what to look for, and test for it. There’s still a chance, despite passing the early threshold, for mental and physical decline – even if it’s not a statistically significant chance. Do you understand?”

Shiro nodded, slow and deep, and swallowed down the sudden knot in his throat. “I understand the risk,” he said, voice lower than he wanted it to be. He had known there was a risk – he’d never met a Young in their late teens, and never met a fully-grown Splice who had been born instead of made. The research was so thin… they were still in the trial and error stage of Splice development, and Splices had never been intended for breeding; the majority of adult Splices were sterile, anyway. “How… how statistically significant, is he to…?” Shiro made himself ask.

“As I said, not very according to the tests I’ve been able to run,” Coran said cautiously. “By human standards, the only abnormalities I’ve detected are those afforded by his canine DNA. His blood counts are all within acceptable ranges for a human, and his x-rays all appear relatively normal. There’s some anomalous structures around his sinuses and mouth, which are to be expected, and his eyes are more similar to a dogs than a man’s; the amputation of his tail was done surprisingly well, it healed properly and wasn’t complete – his balance isn’t effected by the loss at all. Obviously his ears differ greatly from our own, larger and more muscular, the internal structures again leaning towards canid. There’s other things, like his palms and the soles of his feet, his lack of sweat glands, the hair pattern and texture, all things I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Coran shrugged. “There are some hormonal imbalances, but I’m not sure where those fall – if they’re normal for him, or if they’re the result of prolonged starvation and dehydration, if they’ll level out over time.”

Shiro frowned. “Is that why he’s so small for his age…?”

“It’s likely, but he may also just have a genetic predisposition from either parent for a small stature. His mother may not have been as large as he remembers, or maybe her human DNA wasn’t the part that gave her her size.” Coran shrugged again. “I don’t think it’s important – it could have been much worse for him, all things considered. He won the lottery when it came to not only survival but physical structure: two arms, two legs, a human face, human hands and feet, all in working order, everything within proportion. That includes his brain as well – it’s closer to human than canine, and his teeth and tongue don’t prevent him from speaking. I’m honestly surprised they used him at all for combat – his death would have been a significant loss to their research.”

Shiro’s brows remained furrowed. “Keith did say, that they were an inexperienced operation… that they were never intended to run a breeding program. It seems they weren’t as invested in results as his first facility, or as well-trained or well-run. He specifically mentioned how little oversight there was, and given other things he’s disclosed about his captivity… the staff there seemed to be more interested in entertaining themselves and running combat missions than genuine experimentation.”

Coran nodded, somber. “I could tell that much by what they left behind on his body… all his surgical scars are old. The newer ones… are rough. Violent. Breaks, fractures… bite marks, claw marks, stab wounds. There is, at least, minimal subdermal scar tissue – nothing to inhibit his movement. That is, of course, not something I necessarily have to disclose,” he drawled, pointedly. “Only that he’s suffered trauma with notable amounts of scar tissue. Maybe ponder a while on the effects of repeated breaks to bone, tears to muscle – let them derive their own conclusions. Take your lead, as it were: let them infer rather than inform them.”

Shiro managed to muster up a small smile. “Thanks, Coran. Really. This wasn’t your decision, but you’ve still stepped in more than I really expected, and… it means a lot. I owe you one.”

Coran waved one hand. “I do it because I want to do it, no favors anticipated, my boy. I’ve been graced with the autonomy and funding to do as I please, so I try to do as I please as often as possible. I can’t say I would have had the strength to make the choice you did, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad for it.” He cast a fond glance back at the medical tent, heaving a happy sigh. “He’s a good boy. He deserves the chance you’ve given him. Besides,” he turned back to Shiro. “He breaks up the monotony. Sometimes an old man longs for the things he used to have. He’s good for me, too.”

Shiro’s smile softened and widened then. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear it,” he admitted, knowing Coran wouldn’t misconstrue his meaning. “I worried… I still worry, that the decision was too selfish. I just assumed that, the burden of taking him on would fall solely on me. I didn’t think that anyone else would have to take up some part of it.”

“It’s done willingly, like I said,” Coran said, bobbing his head. “I’m sure that goes for Ulaz as well. I don’t know what happened between the two of them, but he’s attached to the boy; it’s plain as day.”

Shiro shrugged, dropping his gaze back to his tablet, the screen now dark. “They bonded in their own way. They don’t have a shared culture, but they share a language… life experiences. He maybe understands Keith, in a way that I don’t. I think in some ways, Keith’s bonded more easily and more deeply with Ulaz than with me, for that.”

“Only because you showed him it was safe to do so,” Coran comforted. “You led by example. Language, culture, life experiences… you underestimate the value in knowing that you are cared for, looked after. Anyone with eyes can see the bond between you two; it’s strong, Shiro. It’s not perfect, but what is? It’s good, for the both of you. I can tell; something has evened out in you, calmed. I’m happy to see that, too.” His eyes creased, showing his genuine pleasure.

Shiro realized, abruptly, that that was true. He’d slept better than he had in months… maybe in over a year, now. Things had gotten better, eased up once he’d transferred out here – was sleeping in a tent, surrounded by personnel and the possibility of danger. But there was still something missing, or maybe too much of something; something in him stayed coiled up, never fully able to relax, despite the peace he thought he felt, being back in the field and part of a unit. He tried not to think about it too much; he wasn’t really ready to examine it, what he knew was probably the cause and why.

But having something small and vulnerable beside him, a life he was responsible for, a life he had a commitment to… that had altered whatever kept him up at night, or woke him up in a chokehold of terror and sweat and the ache of remorse. Now when he woke up, there was somebody there beside him – not just a friend, not just a soldier, something else. Something different, too early to really define. It had made a difference, that presence – even if they weren’t physically touching, he went to sleep with Keith there, and woke beside him every time – in the middle of the night, in the morning, he was there.

It meant something. Maybe more than he really wanted it to.

“Yeah,” Shiro admitted, softly. “He really does have that kind of effect on me.”

“Not just you,” Coran assured. “I’m rather enjoying our time together, during the day. It’s a nice break from my real job. He’s smart as a whip, and I have to admit, he’s probably the most well-behaved student in educational history.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Might want to work manners into your own lessons, though. He does have a wee tendency to be blunt.”

Shiro winced, acknowledging the truth in that. “We’re working on it,” he said. “Feelings are gonna take a while, but basic manners are an active work in progress. I promise.”

Coran just chuckled, shaking his head, drawing their conversation to a close by turning on his heel and heading back to his tent. “I remember those days quite fondly, myself,” he said. “Children have a tendency towards honesty; it’s strange how we train them out of it. I enjoy it myself, but I’m sure others mayhap would be less partial to it.”

Shiro’s eyebrows rose, but he hesitated at asking the question broached by Coran’s reminiscing. That wasn’t something they did, here; that was too intimate, it was dangerous to know too much.

Regardless, Coran caught the look on his face. “No, I haven’t any children of my own,” he answered. “But unlike yourself, I wasn’t always a soldier. I lived a different life, a long time ago. Hopefully one day you’ll get to say that, too.”

They walked in contemplative silence back to the tent, and true to form, Keith was already facing the doorway as they came inside, posture meerkat-like, his pencil paused over the steno pad. It brought an immediate smile to Shiro’s face, even though Keith never offered one in turn. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Ready for lunch?” Keith frowned, glancing back at his work reluctantly. “If you’re not, that’s fine. I can wait for you to finish,” Shiro tried to reassure.

Keith’s head snapped up, and he shook it hastily. “No, you don’t have to wait. I’m hungry, I’m finished,” he replied.

“There’s no rush,” Shiro said. “The food will be there for another hour and so will I. Another five minutes won’t make a difference.”

“Do you want me to look over your work?” Coran offered, casually, without coddling; sensing the issue at hand. “Shouldn’t take me more than a moment.”

Keith bit his lip, fangs protruding as he did, and cast another look at Shiro, uncertain – waiting to gauge his response. Worried about putting his wants before Shiro’s – worried about making his wants known, at all. Shiro shrugged. “Fine by me.”

Keith’s eyes lingered on Shiro, as he and Coran turned back to his notepad; checking, he assumed, to see if Shiro looked angry or upset. To better sell the notion that he didn’t care one way or the other, Shiro pointedly turned his attention back to his tablet as the two of them reviewed.

He occupied himself by looking for the bodycam footage Coran had requested, wondering if he’d need to synch the bodycam to his tablet; it should still be available on the device itself, even if it hadn’t immediately uploaded to the shared cloud. Coran had a point – finding Keith the way he had would make a greater impact than any carefully worded report he could fabricate. Keith didn’t look vicious to begin with, but especially not in oversized, bloodied fatigues, too weak to move. He wondered if he should take new photos, for the sake of documenting, maybe… make it a regular thing. There was still a possibility that Keith would maybe have a growth spurt, or his hormones would balance out and he’d grow an inch or two; it would be interesting to have a comparison on hand, anyway, to chart his growth over time. He had to put on weight eventually, the way he put away food and snacks… Shiro had told Olia not to order the boy’s new fatigues true to size, and to order a size up, just in case. They could easily employ a belt until he grew into them, if it came to that…

He never stopped to question how invested he’d become in the boy’s future – how he was planning for it, even now, in the smallest ways. One day Keith would be able to read and write on his own. One day Keith would look his age – one day he would be a man in his own right, in body as well as in mind and experience. One day Keith would move around their camp, around the steppes, around the cities on his own – because he wanted to, because he knew he had a home here to return to, because he had grown into an independent young man.

Shiro couldn’t wait.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Keith became Shiro’s shadow about the camp. Aside from studying with Coran, and now Ulaz whenever he took a break from translating whatever Pidge had managed to decrypt, Keith followed Shiro wherever he went like a very quiet duckling, trailing obediently behind him as he made rounds and attended meals. It had become something of a joke now, almost two weeks into Keith’s time in the camp, and Shiro more than welcomed it – it was never done in a critical way, and Keith was always included in the joke; people were making an effort to acknowledge Keith, make eye contact, smile, say his name. Keith didn’t smile back or express much at all, but he’d learned the importance of greetings, now, and used them often. He didn’t hesitate anymore to say “Hi” or “Hello” or answer inquiries about how he was doing with “I’m okay, how’re you?” He was settling in, adapting to interacting with more people on a daily basis than he was used to; learning their names, even. It helped that no one here really had a rank, or used a formal surname-only system – virtually everyone went by some sort of nickname, which made it more personal. Keith was never introduced to superiors, by that token – just individuals. Shiro had no doubt that Keith still perceived them as his betters, but over time, as he got to work with them, hopefully that would diminish.

Some even had personal greetings for Keith, and Keith alone. Even Hunk put in the effort, whenever they stopped by the armory or the kitchen; it was just a nervous, “Uh, hey, buddy, how’s it going?” but it was abundantly obvious that it was intended for Keith and not Shiro at all. Rolo and one of their scouts decided to teach Keith the concept of a high five, and greeted him with a casual, “Yo, Keith!” Keith knew to put a palm out now when he saw them for the expected high five, even though he had to reach or else they had to stoop slightly. He still struggled with greeting women, especially in terms of eye-contact or physical contact; he still tried to make himself seem smaller, to avoid coming off as ‘scary’ or ‘intimidating’ – nevermind the fact that these women had likely encountered much worse in their years of combat than an unarmed boy nearly a foot shorter than them. The only exception, of course, was Pidge – the only one Keith made a concerted effort to make contact with. He called her Pidge, as she requested, and forced himself to meet her perpetually lidded and disdainful stare for him every time – even if his jaw was clenched, shoulders up and tensed, he met her eyes unwaveringly and to her credit, she didn’t test their boundaries. Shiro could see it in her eyes, her expression, the calculating way she evaluated him and pondered provoking him – but she refrained, every time. She made eye-contact, said only his name, and then moved on, and Shiro never argued it for the simple fact that Keith seemed more relieved by the dismissal than upset. Progress was progress, as Coran continued to remind them both.

Keith had yet to meet everyone at the camp; some had been, or still were, on assignment or else had simply not spoken with Shiro personally after his return. They hadn’t run into Regris again, for the sole factor of opposing schedules – Regris was active almost exclusively at night, versus the average six to eight schedule most of them had around the camp. There were exceptions, of course; there was no mandatory schedule, as long as the work got done and there were no drills or debriefs. Plenty of people woke up early or slept in, some worked late like Hunk in the kitchen or the armory, or Pidge who basically believed in sleeping every other day. They were allowed leisure, and personnel frequently drove out to one of the major cities to party or see the sights.

In fact the next time they saw Regris, was when he reported in over breakfast in the mess. “Sir,” he greeted. “Keith.” Keith seemed to pick up on Regris’ reticent nature, and said nothing in reply, fork paused halfway to his mouth as he kept watchful eyes on the man. “Thought you’d like to know Benny’s back on base. Came in late last night.”

Shiro hummed, pleased. “Great,” he said around his mouthful, behind one hand. “Thanks for the head’s up. I’ll check in with her today.”

Regris nodded once, and left at a leisurely stroll, no doubt on his way to bed. Once he was gone, Keith immediately returned to his ravenous routine of ensuring his tray was sparkling clean after every meal.

Instead of blithely ignoring Keith’s behavior and returning to his own breakfast, Shiro let his attention linger on Keith. For all the composure Keith could exude in every other aspect of his life, it all fell apart when it came to meals. He always wrapped an arm around or in front of his food, hunching far over it, and shoveling it into his mouth not with enthusiasm but out of desperation; he hardly even chewed, and when he had to, he put as much food in his mouth as possible first. Shiro knew without Keith having to spell it out the reasons why he ate so defensively; he was sure food was used as a means of control, punishment and reward. He’d seen it back home, in regular dogs – displaying aggression towards threats to their food, snarling, snapping, even biting.

He wasn’t sure that Keith would go quite so far, but he couldn’t rule it out, either. He growled as he ate, low and rumbling in his chest, and Shiro wasn’t sure how to interpret that; if it was a warning, or an absent sound of pleasure. He’d never acted aggressively towards anyone familiar to him; not even towards the Marmoran guards that had kept him as a prisoner. When Coran drew blood, when he’d removed his stitches, done exams, Keith had allowed it all passively, despite any possible discomfort he experienced. He let Shiro touch him from the very first without expressing fear or pain, without hesitation he’d allowed Shiro to pull him in against his side, ruffle his hair – approach his neck and face with scissors.

But something like eating might be more instinctual. It might be a conditioned response Keith had no control over. Despite Keith’s fervent statements to abandoning violence, he was still very much capable; the reaction of those prisoners at the Marmora camp was still very real and vivid in Shiro’s memory.

He knew all that, and he still reached out and tentatively touched his knuckles to Keith’s elbow where it rested on the table.

Keith jolted like he’d been electrocuted, immediately tucking his arms in close to his body and yanking his tray out of reach with a growl – and then just as quickly seemed to realize what he’d done, going completely still with wide eyes trained on Shiro. It was plain on his face, the sinking realization that he’d done something wrong and the tense anticipation of punishment.

“Sorry,” Shiro said softly, coaxingly; grateful for how relatively empty the mess tent was at this hour. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Keith said nothing, not daring to look away from Shiro. His chest heaved under the buckle on his collar, breathing hard through his nose – on high alert, ready to run, ready to brace himself, but not ready to fight. His hands remained fisted on the tray, jaw clenched shut; he wasn’t growling now, his canines were no longer exposed.

“You’re not in trouble,” Shiro tried, sad and resigned – he already knew Keith wouldn’t believe him. “It’s just me. It’s just Shiro. Okay? You’re safe, you’re okay.”

Keith didn’t move. He didn’t look away. He just watched – and he waited, for whatever he knew was inevitable. Shiro took a deep breath, and carefully considered. He couldn’t convince Keith that sixteen years of experience was going to be proved wrong; words alone were going to do less than nothing. He didn’t want to tell him, either, that he would never hurt him, would never raise a hand against him; a concept like that would be unbelievable to someone who had learned that pain was an expected part of life, and might take them in the opposite direction – make Shiro appear deceitful, untrustworthy. How was he supposed to undo all the pain and fear of his lived experiences, where did he even start…?

Shiro rolled his lips in, sitting straighter, and pushed his tray away, his utensils with it, before turning to Keith. He held out his hand. “Can I see your tray, please?”

Keith’s eyes finally dropped away, back to what was left of his breakfast, his shoulders slumping in defeat as his hands uncurled, pushing his tray over to Shiro. He looked on the verge of tears, eyes big and wet as he watched his food get taken away with his lips rolled in. He didn’t fight it, or argue, just submitted to what he perceived as his expected punishment. “Sozhaleyu,” he murmured, voice thin and reedy, before wincing and trying again. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It wasn’t a plea, he wasn’t begging in a bid to get his food back, it was just a sad, weary apology.

“What are you sorry for?” Shiro asked, then, trying to sound reasonable.

“For the way I acted,” Keith replied quietly, eyes on the table and hands in his lap. “For disobeying.”

“What did you disobey?” Shiro pressed. “I didn’t say anything, I didn’t give you an order.”

“I shouldn’t have… if you wanted my food then I should have given it to you,” Keith explained, and it sounded worn out – like he’d said it a hundred times before, even if it wasn’t in English. “What’s mine is yours, I don’t… I don’t have the right, to argue.”

“I wasn’t trying to take your food,” Shiro said levelly. “I have my own – I gain nothing from having yours. If I really wanted more, I can go and get it without having to take yours.”

Keith said nothing, his eyes sliding to where Shiro still had his tray in his hands, as if to point out the fallacy in Shiro’s argument. He let his eyes slide back away, his expression smoothing over, becoming distant – burying the hurt, the fear, the betrayal of trust.

Instead of pressing his point, Shiro turned his attention back to the two trays, and without ceremony, took his own and scraped the remnants of his breakfast onto Keith’s tray. That done, he pushed the tray between the two of them, moving to sit flush up against Keith’s side. “Pick up your fork.”

Keith watched him with wide eyes, uncertain, and hesitantly obeyed.

“We’re gonna eat together, from here on out,” Shiro declared, digging in. “One plate, one bowl, one tray. Am I understood?”

Keith’s brow furrowed, deeply perplexed, fork poised over the tray.

“What’s mine is yours, too,” Shiro said. “All I wanted to do was get your attention, Keith. I didn’t want to take anything from you… I don’t, want to take anything from you. I want to give, not take – I want to share. Okay?”

Keith didn’t look like he understood at all, but he held Shiro’s gaze as he nodded, slow and ponderous, letting his fork drop to the tray.

“Eat slowly,” Shiro cautioned. “You gotta leave some for me too, alright?”

Looking duly chastised, Keith nodded again, and turned his attention back to their commingled breakfast. He paced himself, now, eyes on Shiro and trying to time his bites counter to Shiro’s so that they could take turns grabbing a mouthful. With Shiro flush up against his side and sharing his tray, there was no way for Keith to defend it or hunch over it; he had to trust that Shiro’s imposing figure was deterrent enough for anyone who would chance it. And it seemed that he did, and then some – his shoulders more relaxed and bites slower and more thorough, feeling reassured enough by Shiro’s proximity, maybe, to actually chew instead of trying to eat as much as possible as quickly as possible. More than that, he was conscientious, keeping Shiro in mind as he ate, watching, waiting – he even let Shiro have the last bite, and Shiro repaid the favor by letting Keith lick over both trays.

It wasn’t perfect, but it worked, and that seemed to sum them up neatly.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Their company had two available motorpools; one on base with their military vehicles like jeeps and convoys, and one part way between their camp and the city outskirts with civilian vehicles that would draw less attention out on the road. Virtually everything was of Russian or Chinese make, or occasionally Caucasian, to remain inconspicuous and also to keep their overhead low – it was easier get salvage for vehicles locally, than to pay to ship in expensive foreign parts that people might notice.

They didn’t really have use for anything heavy, like tanks or amphibious vehicles out here in the dry land of the steppes and canyons; they mostly just employed trucks and jeeps of varying types for personnel transport, evacuations or heavy artillery. The vehicles they used for trips into the city were equally as nondescript – older model four-door sedans, mostly, some newer SUVs for group excursions, ancient trucks from the Soviet era when they needed larger or bulkier supplies that would look out of place loaded into an SUV, but no flashy trucks or motorcycles that would catch anyone’s eye.

In charge of both these expansive ventures and every vehicle housed within, was Benny. Out of all of them, she had the truest spirit of an “independent contractor”, and the only time she saw combat was from behind the wheel. She was a top-notch mechanic with a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of anything with two to sixteen wheels and had all the skill of a stunt driver, and was fully aware of her genius. She carried herself with quiet confidence, and kept largely to herself, typically preoccupied with work instead of social conventions. She came around for meals, and sometimes for group leisure events, but never went out of her way to get to know the people she worked with. Out of everyone he’d met in the nearly five months he’d been here, Benny was the one he knew the least about – but he enjoyed her company, truthfully. Companionable quiet made all the difference during long days and longer nights, sometimes – a reminder that someone was there, without having to talk about why he needed it.

He didn’t expect Benny to check in with him the way he expected everyone else to, for the simple fact that she kept herself so separate and because that was just the way she was. She did things in her own way, at her own pace and didn’t alter for anyone or anything. In a lot of ways, she reminded Shiro of Regris, though she didn’t have that sort of sheathed sharpness that he did.

Besides, Benny knew Shiro would come to her eventually; she seemed to tolerate his company more than others, even when his interest was more on the friendly side instead of strictly professional. It’s not like she went out alone on assignments or missions anyway – when she left for combat, it was as part of a skirmish, a group who would all report in. This time she was just returning from running salvage, looking for parts, paint and anything else she felt they’d need or found interesting. Sometimes she’d bring back little things for Hunk, parts she thought he’d find useful, but never made a big deal out of it. Half the time she’d just walk into the armory, set the piece on his desk in front of him, and then leave.

That quietness, that sort of deep settled calm is what made Shiro take Keith with him when he went to check in with her. He wanted Keith to work on his relationships of course, especially with women, but wasn’t going to force him to interact; he felt it might be too similar to his interactions with women in the past, confrontational, fearful encounters against his will. Keith would have come with him regardless, probably, following one step behind him as he always did – Shiro wasn’t sure if that was due to training, or just simply because his legs were shorter than Shiro's. He didn’t want to ask, and make Keith hyperaware of it; he reckoned it didn’t do any harm, all things considered.

Keith hadn’t yet had the chance to meet Benny, who’d been absent the majority of his time here; she was there when they’d arrived, but hadn’t made the effort to ogle their newest addition. Knowing her, she probably hadn’t considered it important. Keith wasn’t a mechanic, he wasn’t a vehicle or a part, he wasn’t even a combatant she’d have to ferry around – he didn’t mean anything to her, and Shiro was honestly okay with that. He thought, he hoped, Keith might be okay with that too.

“Hey, Benny,” Shiro said in greeting as they entered the dappled shade of the canopy over the motorpool. She was exactly where Shiro expected to find her, dusky skin sheened with sweat and her dark hair knotted up under a backwards flat cap, bent over and half inside the open hood of one of their trucks.

She didn’t look up at his greeting, preoccupied. “Hey,” she replied all the same, continuing to work.

Shiro took the opportunity to reach back and put a hand between Keith’s tensed shoulders, drawing him forward. “Keith, this is Benny. She’s our chief mechanic, and runs everything on wheels in our outfit.”

Keith kept his shoulders hunched, hands pressed flat to his thighs. “Hi,” he murmured, gaze averted.

Benny’s head lifted at the introduction, her eyes squinting. “This the Splice?” She asked, pausing in what she was doing.

Shiro nodded, honestly not having expected her undivided attention. “This is Keith – he’s going to be working as a tracker and translator for our unit. He’s a local.” He didn’t move his hand from Keith’s back, feeling the tension lingering there; Keith didn’t say anything else.

Surprisingly, she stepped down and away from the truck, tugging off her big gloves. “He’s small,” she said, but her flat tone didn’t convey criticism and the angle of her head expressed interest more than anything. Without stooping, she offered Keith one of her calloused hands in greeting. Keith stiffened, his feet shuffling back and hands coming up and in, towards his stomach, eyes darting anywhere but Benny. Benny’s eyebrows rose, confused.

“He’s… shy, around the ladies,” Shiro attempted to explain.

“Why?” She demanded, brow creasing; Shiro wondered if she was maybe offended, that Keith saw her as a woman first instead of a highly qualified specialist.

“He’s worried that you’ll be afraid of him,” Shiro clarified gently. “Where he came from, they were.”

Benny didn’t scoff. She didn’t sneer. She didn’t press for details. Instead she crouched to be eye-level with Keith. “Look at me,” she insisted, voice firm, brooking no argument, but still gentle.

Keith’s eyes drifted up to meet hers, uncertainly at first, but once they met, he couldn’t seem to turn away.

Benny held up two fingers. “There are only two things in all this world that I fear: Deus e minha mãe. God and my mother. Are you either of those?”

Keith shook his head, not daring to look away from her placid gaze.

“Then I have nothing to be afraid of,” Benny said with finality, and straightened back up. “Now, again.” She offered her hand, and this time, however hesitantly, Keith put his hand in hers. She gripped it tight and shook it just once before letting him go, dismissively. “Call me Benny. What do I call you?”

“Keith,” he replied quietly, but he didn’t seem to struggle as much with keeping his eyes on her, now.

Benny’s face drew into a frown; obviously not a fan of the name. Shiro decided he wasn’t going to tell Ulaz there was somebody else in the ‘anti-Keith’ camp now. The name kind of grew on you after a while, anyway.

“Keith,” Benny drawled, as though it pained her. “Come.” She coaxed him with an open hand, and Keith seemed to understand, putting his hand back in hers. She didn’t pause to acknowledge it, or the coarseness of his hands – likely just as rough as her own – and abruptly turned away from Shiro, leading Keith back to the truck she’d been working on. “We’re going to finish installing these gaskets.”

Shiro hated the way his heart ached at seeing Keith walk away, at someone else’s side – and hated even more the guilty relief that unwound in his chest at the way Keith looked back over his shoulder, to make sure Shiro was still nearby. Shiro offered him an almost sad, but reassuring smile – he was safe here, he was safe with Benny.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Benny reassured in a grunt, letting go Keith’s hand so she could grip him under his arms and lift him up, easily, to stand on the wheel well beside her. “He still wants to talk to me, but he can do that while we work.” She darted a pointed glance at Shiro, before turning her attention back to Keith and the engine. “Here, put these on,” she said, handing over her gloves. “You’ll scratch your hands.” She made a beckoning motion at Shiro, not looking away from their work, inviting him to come closer and continue.

Shiro did, his eyes stuck on Keith, marveling at the magic Benny had just performed without effort – without even really realizing it. Keith had touched her – let her touch him. He’d made eye contact with someone of the opposite sex without looking petrified, almost without struggle. He’d let her manipulate him, lift him up without warning, and now there they were, shoulder to shoulder, both dark heads bent over an engine – and Keith looked rapt. He looked interested. He was still off-balance, not as confident as he was around men, around Shiro or Ulaz or Coran, but there was something new, there, too… something that didn’t come from a place of obedience, or fear. Something pure and good and solely Keith.

He had hoped, that in introducing the two of them, Keith would have a sort of 'starter' friend – someone aloof, quiet, who wouldn’t press or talk too much, who didn’t see him as damaged or as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. He had thought that Benny would be a good choice to help get Keith comfortable around others, around women – around people whom he hadn’t had to form a dependence upon, like Shiro, like Coran, who’d known him initially as weak, as a reformed beast, a dog, a child. He wanted Keith to get to know people as just Keith, and have people get to know him in turn.

Instead he’d gotten a tiny blessing – a minuscule miracle. A moment unblemished by hard memories, untouched by pain or fear; untouched by the past at all. A moment purely in the present, for the future.

He'd gotten that fresh start that he had always for Keith, delivered right into his hands.

“Bring him back tomorrow,” Benny said, as the shadows began to lengthen and their largely one-sided conversation drew to a close. She set Keith back on his feet, stripping her too-large gloves from his hands. “Early, so I can do something with… this,” she sneered, flapping a hand through Keith’s hair. Keith screwed up an eye, but didn’t flinch.

“He has lessons with Coran first thing,” Shiro cautioned. “But after that… what do you think, Keith?”

“I’d like that,” Keith said, not as bluntly as usual. His eyes drifted back up to Benny. “Thank you,” he offered, entirely unprompted. He gave her his usual salute, and to Shiro’s surprise Benny gave him a little two-fingered salute in return, her mouth pulling up at one corner in a smile Shiro couldn’t ever remember seeing before. Keith seemed to have that effect on people – Shiro hoped he saw that.

“Thanks for everything today, Benny,” Shiro said in earnest, as Keith rejoined him, close to his side. “You have no idea-”

Benny rolled her eyes and turned away, flapping a hand. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said gruffly. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Shiro confirmed with exasperated fondness, and led them back into the heart of the camp, towards the mess tent.

“So what do you think,” Shiro asked.

“About what?” Keith replied, walking at Shiro’s side now.

“Benny,” Shiro clarified. “Or cars, or both.”

“Like Benny,” Keith said staunchly. “Really, really like cars,” he finished more emphatically.

“Yeah?” Shiro asked fondly.

“Yes,” Keith agreed. “All the little parts, making the big parts, and then it can pull a truck? Keremet.” He sounded completely preoccupied by the notion – delighted, in a way Shiro had never heard him.

“I’m really happy to hear that, buddy,” Shiro said earnestly, his expression soft in the bruised light as the sun began to set.

Keith seemed to think on that, before replying. “I think I am, too,” he confessed.