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A House Is Not a Home

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Benny was just the beginning.

Keith’s curiosity was quiet but insatiable; he wanted to learn about everything in the camp, but made no demands. Instead he remained a silent but watchful presence, no longer just at Shiro’s side, but at everyone else’s too. He worked with Coran, exercising his new-found writing skills by doing the medical inventory; he worked with Ulaz, the only other Russian speaker in the camp, practicing his transcribing skills by writing down whatever rules or instructions Ulaz saw fit to share with him; he worked with Benny, learning everything about vehicles from the inside out. He even learned a bit from Pidge, just from watching her work from his place at Shiro’s side – how to use a keyboard, move a cursor, expand and shrink images, move documents around the screen. When whoever drew post duty returned from picking up packages from the city, he was now the designated delivery boy – he knew everyone by name, now, and which tent was theirs; where to find them if they weren’t in their tent, where they worked or spent their leisure.

After a month, it was like Keith had always been there, had always been some background piece of the machine, keeping it moving in more ways than one. He knew his way around the camp, by now, and moved about largely autonomously; he was given a task and went about it with firm commitment, dedicated to proving himself. Shiro didn’t try to lie to himself, and say that he didn’t miss the constant presence of his smaller shadow – he did. It was still disconcerting, to turn to one side and look down only to realize that Keith was running an errand, or studying, or working – but he couldn’t say he was unhappy about this development either. Keith was growing, faster than he could have ever anticipated, and the satisfaction was just a little bittersweet.

That wasn’t to say that anything had changed between them; they still ate together, and slept virtually side by side in the same tent. They still shared a tray at every meal (which he continued to allow Keith to get, since he didn’t want to make it seem as if Keith wasn’t able to procure food himself now, and since Keith enjoyed it so much) and Shiro still read to him almost every night (he discovered that Keith didn’t care what he read, even instruction manuals – he just enjoyed learning new words and Shiro’s voice). Keith maintained that sixth sense about Shiro’s whereabouts; always, unerringly, his head was already raised in Shiro’s direction, eyes big and hopeful, waiting for him. The warm feeling that put in his chest Shiro wouldn’t give up for all the world.

The only exception, was when Keith was working with Benny, like he was now; halfway inside the hood of a transport vehicle, folded over the lip of the grill and braced on his belly with his legs bent up behind him, crossed at the ankle in midair. Keith’s head only popped up out of the compartment when Shiro was almost upon him, his cheeks smeared with grease and his wild hair tied back into a braid close to his head, and there it was – the expression Shiro looked forward to every time, an almost smile of interest, if not outright joy at Shiro’s arrival.

Keith squirmed down from his perch and dropped to his feet as Shiro came up to the large truck, smiling wryly. “I feel like there might be a better way to do that,” Shiro said, half chastising and half amused as he ran a hand over Keith’s bangs, where they were clipped down to the crown of his head. “Doesn’t that hurt, bud?”

“No,” Keith reassured. “I had to climb in really deep. I’m okay, see?”

He pulled his stained khaki shirt up out of his pants, showing Shiro his ribs and the lines of muscle in his stomach, both still more prominent than Shiro would have liked or expected after weeks of solid meals – but there was no bruising at all, nothing further for him to worry about.

“What do I gotta do to get some more meat on you?” Shiro murmured absently, sighing.

Keith shrugged in reply as he tucked his shirt in the way Shiro had taught him, pinning back the excess fabric. Shiro had intended for Keith to grow into his fatigues, but for all the growing Keith had been doing in other ways, physically he was just as small as he was when he first arrived at the camp. The fatigues were only one size up, closer to Pidge’s, so it wasn’t too bad; they still relied heavily on a belt to keep everything on him, and gathered his shirt in the back and creased his pants into his boots despite the velcro strap at the ankle. It might be worth discussing with Coran at some point – even though he was far from undernourished, Shiro worried.

“He’s fine,” Benny opined dismissively from where she was bent over her desk inside her workshop, adjacent to the open air motorpool. “Leave him alone.”

Shiro isn’t sure he trusted her assessment. He still vividly remembers coming upon her putting Keith’s hair in order – pulling the brush through his hair with short, rough strokes, Keith gripping the stool between his legs to prevent himself from being yanked too far back.

“You’re being too rough with him,” Shiro had protested, concerned on Keith’s behalf.

“If the boy can survive a war, he can survive a hairbrush,” Benny had said offhandedly.

“Benny,” Shiro had started to plead, before she abruptly came to a pause, letting her hands drop to her thighs as she leaned forward to look into Keith’s face.

“Am I hurting you, fofo?” Benny had demanded.

“No,” Keith replied, meeting her gaze, nothing meek or cowed in his expression.

“Are you lying to me?” She had asked next, and Keith carefully shook his head. “Do you want me to stop?” Keith shook his head again. Benny shot a look at Shiro then, as she straightened up and set into Keith’s hair again. “He’s fine,” she said pointedly.

“I’m o-kay,” Keith followed up with, one eye screwed shut and one foot kicking up to keep his balance at another long pull of the brush, his hair gathered up in Benny’s fist. “I’m f-ine.”

Shiro hadn’t been sure he trusted it, but Keith kept coming back – eager, even, and not just for the work. There was no mistaking the way he looked at Benny, with understandable awe and interest. A woman who didn’t fear him or coddle him, a woman who held the knowledge he so desperately wanted – someone who knew his limits and never exceeded them, rough and gentle where he needed it. Shiro wasn’t sure which outweighed which – his gratitude or his jealousy.

“Mind if I borrow him?” Shiro asked now. “Hunk’s understaffed in the kitchen and could use a few hands. If that's okay with you, Keith?” He asked, ducking his head to get a look at Keith’s face. “We can go later if you need to wrap it up.”

Keith shrugged. “I probably won’t finish today,” he admitted.

Benny just grunted in reply, beckoning at Keith without looking up from her work, and Keith obediently went to her side, taking off his over-sized gloves and the clips out of his hair and placing them in her waiting hand. “Thank you,” he said in farewell, as he always did. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Benny agreed.

With that, Keith turned away and went to Shiro’s side, allowing Shiro to pull him into a brief one-sided hug. “So what were you working on today?” Shiro asked, knowing full well he likely wouldn’t understand it all, but wanting to hear Keith talk about it anyway. There was a liveliness in his voice when he talked about his work with Benny; it was understandably more engaging than his book-learning or errand-running by far.

“Benny wants to upgrade the transmission,” Keith said. “That way the truck can move in more directions at different speeds over different, um… types of land? So it can go backwards faster, or climb hills at a higher angle. We have to remove the old one first, so I was getting to it; then she wants us to build the gearbox and install it together.”

Shiro hummed, lilting with genuine interest. At least he knew a little about transmissions, in a limited capacity; only insofar as they applied to motorcycles and dirt bikes, but at least he wasn’t entirely lost. He did miss his bike back home, and missed the soothing repetition that came from routine cleaning and maintenance; missed the little thrill of excitement that came with every modification. Out here, there really wasn’t much use for something that loud that sat one person, two at most – he supposed it could be used in skirmishes, for strafing or routing, but so far it hadn’t proved necessary and they hadn’t scavenged for one, let alone requisitioned one. Even if they did, Shiro sincerely doubted that Benny would let an amateur tinker with it.

“That sounds pretty cool,” Shiro acknowledged. “I’ve never done anything like that, before. How many gears are you adding?”

“Eight in total, I think?” Keith replied. “Benny wants 32 by the time we’re done.”

Shiro’s eyebrows rose, impressed. “That’ll be one Hell of a unimog. We could probably take that thing anywhere in the country.”

“Yes,” Keith agreed with unexpected solemnity, partially turning to meet Shiro’s eyes meaningfully. “It will be safe, too. The suspension will be overhauled, to accommodate the new gears. The cab and the bed will stay level, no matter the angle.”

Shiro’s expression softened as he returned Keith’s gaze, running a hand over his head as they slowed to a stop, overlooking the camp. “I’m sure it will be, bud,” he said gently. “If anyone can do it, it’d be you guys.”

Keith didn’t look away. “You would be safe,” Keith swore, insistent. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Shiro’s insides twisted, uncertain, exposed; his issues with vehicles weren’t something he discussed or openly acknowledged. He hadn’t even gotten that far with his therapist back home – he’d only given them a brief overview of what he deemed relevant. So far as anyone in the camp knew, he was just a control freak that preferred to be in command behind the wheel, and it didn’t go any deeper than that. He preferred it that way.

But Keith knew. Maybe Keith understood some part of it, on a personal level; Shiro wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Keith struggled with ordinary everyday tasks because of trauma - most especially because Keith had no way of knowing what constituted a normal life. Or maybe it was more superficial, a scent that Shiro gave off that indicated his distress, or some minutiae in his expression that Keith picked up on.

Either way. He wasn’t ready to talk about it. He wasn’t even ready to really think about it. But he tried, any way – to lead by example, for Keith’s sake. To show him it was safe to talk to him about the things that made him vulnerable, that there was no shame in pain, in struggling.

Shiro sucked in a breath, rolling his lips in. “I’m not… it’s not the vehicle itself, that I’m… worried about,” he struggled to explain, grasping at the wording. “It’s the... not knowing, what’s ahead, it’s being inside an enclosed space... but I’m working on it,” he stressed, moving away the too-personal revelation, and into the lesson he wanted Keith to take away from it. “I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can try to manage the past in the present – for the future. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Keith said flatly, brow furrowed as he tried to understand.

“It means that what happened hurt me, and in some ways I’m still feeling that hurt,” he explained, gently. “But I’m finding ways to manage that hurt, today and for tomorrow and even after that. The… fear, is going to be there, it might always be there, but I’m finding ways to live with it, instead of letting it control me.”

Usually when he spoke of ‘hurt’, when he spoke of ‘fear’, people’s attention automatically shifted to where his arm used to be – to the scar across his face. They saw physical wounds, not the ones that ran deeper.

He wasn’t surprised that Keith knew better, and looked at him differently.

“Someone hurt you,” he said, half questioning, his expression darkening from the confusion he’d worn before. Shiro wasn’t sure what to make of that – feeling pleased felt wrong, but so did fear.

“War hurt me,” Shiro corrected. “It wasn’t just one person, one time, it was years of little hurts and a couple big ones. But I lived. I survived, and now I have to keep going – there’s no point in having made it out, if I’m going to let myself stay stuck in the past. Does that make sense?”

Keith nodded, slowly, finally letting his eyes drift away as he considered what that meant – what that might mean for him. Shiro hoped it gave Keith the same sense of acceptance, the same motivation that it gave him.

“C’mon,” Shiro said, letting his hand drift to Keith’s neck and tug him in against his side. “Let’s go see if we can give Hunk a hand.”

When they reached the mess tent, it's a maelstrom of harried personnel, food and cooking utensils with Hunk at the center of it all, looking frazzled but working steadily, reaching up occasionally to blot the sweat from his bandana with the back of his hand. When he spied Shiro and Keith, some of the tension seeped from his shoulders – but not from the small perfunctory smile he offered in greeting. “Hey Shiro,” he said, voice tight with stress. “Any good news for me?”

“We’re all yours,” Shiro said, opening his arms wide. “This is your arena, lead me. Take advantage and boss me around some.”

Hunk’s smile eased, becoming more relieved. Nevertheless, his eyes drifted to Keith, uncertainly. “Is, uh, is Keith going to, uh…?”

“Only if you want him to,” Shiro replied. “He was just the first pair of hands I came across that were free and also allowed in the kitchen,” he said wryly, alluding to the one and only time Coran had been allowed to assist. They’d had MREs for dinner that night.

“No, uh, yeah, no, that’s good, that’s fine, just… uh…” Hunk stammered, hastily averting his gaze in a poor attempt at masking his discomfort.

“I want to help,” Keith said, in his staunch way – his voice more gentle, in the way it only ever was for Hunk. “But I don’t have to. I can leave.”

“No!” Hunk rushed to reassure, and Shiro allowed him to – let it all play out instead of interjecting to assist. They were never going to get any closer, with Shiro and his good intentions constantly standing between them. “No, no, I just… I’m not sure what, what to have you do, I don’t…”

Keith shrugged. “I can wash dishes. Or I can take out the trash. I don’t mind.”

Hunk considered, darting a glance at Shiro – cautious, evaluating. “Sure,” he drawled finally. “I’ll find something for you to do. But first-” He leaned down and gestured to the tent flap they’d just come through. “Go ahead and wash up. It’s… pretty obvious you were working with Benny.”

Keith gave a curt nod and excused himself to do as he asked.

Shiro watched the way Hunk’s gaze followed Keith, unsure, before turning back to the cutting board. His first instinct is to comfort, reassure – to double check, to second guess. He wants to give Hunk the out, he doesn’t want Hunk to be uncomfortable.

He thought about Benny, and how she handled Keith. He’s fine. Leave him alone.

Hunk had made his decision. He was a grown man, a combat-tested professional, in the midst of a conflict in a foreign country, holding his own. Shiro had to acknowledge and trust that – trust Hunk. Questioning him would be expressing doubt in him when he had none, or worse – granting legitimacy to Hunk’s fear that Keith could or would hurt him. He didn’t want to encourage either notion.

It helped that he trusted Keith with Hunk, too. Shiro knew Keith would be patient with the man, give him his space, be understanding and gentle. Keith wouldn’t give Hunk cause to fear, and maybe that was something Hunk needed to learn, something he needed to see and experience for himself.

Once Keith returned, face and arms scrubbed pink in an effort to please, Hunk took two hefty bags of potatoes over his shoulders, and guided them to a table in the mess proper, out of the way of the hustle and bustle of other bodies scampering from counter to counter, oven to stove. Hunk and his staff moved around one another like it was choreographed, turning on a dime with cleavers and hot pots in hand, effortlessly evading one another; Shiro and Keith noticeably less so, clumsily pulling up short or hastening to sidestep.

“Sorry,” Hunk said hastily, “I just… I don’t mean to put you guys in time-out or anything-” He gave Keith especially a pleading glance, like he felt he needed to explain himself. “It’s just a mess in here today and I want to avoid any accidents.” He dropped the potato sacks to the floor as Keith and Shiro took a seat. “You shouldn’t need, uh, aprons – if you want one, I’m sure I can find you one somewhere-”

Shiro held up a hand, stifling a chuckle. “Hunk, it’s fine. You’re already performing miracles in here, we don’t need anything more than that. So what’re we doing today? The old classic?”

Hunk nodded, distracted. “Yeah, sorry, it’s the simplest thing I have left to do but it’s the most time consuming,” he said hurriedly. “I’ll bring over a pot of water and a trash can in a second – once they’re peeled, they’ll need to soak for a bit – um…” Both Shiro and Keith waited him out as he seemed to restlessly deliberate, staring up at him with identical expressions of wide-eyed patience. “Hang on a second,” Hunk finally exhaled in a rush, darting around their table and towards the kitchen. Both dark heads turned to watch him go; when Keith turned back to Shiro questioningly, Shiro only shrugged.

After a brief clatter, Hunk came back at a stiff clip, his gait quick but careful. He drew to a stop before them again, biting his lip before cautiously placing two small black-handled knives on the edge of the table. “You’ll need these,” he explained needlessly. “My peelers are in use right now, but these should be… these should be fine. Uh, they should get the job done, you know.”

Shiro reached for one of knives, their blades short and angular for paring and no doubt lovingly sharpened by Hunk or under Hunk’s explicit supervision. Keith didn’t look at the knives, but up at Hunk, expression passive. “What do you want me to do?” Keith asked.

“I want you to peel,” Hunk said, eyes averted as he gently slid the remaining paring knife before Keith, where he sat inoffensively with his hands in his lap. “With this.”

Keith frowned then, uncertain – but it’s not Shiro he looks to in his confusion. It’s Hunk. “You want me to use this…?” He asked, confirming.

Hunk bobbed his head, anxious, distracted. “Yeah, yeah, of course, I mean – I wouldn’t have brought two, otherwise, uh. Just… be careful, you know? I don’t… I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

Keith turned his attention back to the knife, taking it in his small hands consideringly – handling it with professional caution, examining the weight and the blade. Satisfied, he looked back up at Hunk, his eyes steely and face solemn. “It’s a good knife. I’ll make sure nobody gets hurt. I only want to help.”

Hunk seemed uncomfortable under the weight of Keith’s earnest commitment, looking away again. He licks his lips, wringing his fingers. “I know,” he mumbles. “I know you do, bud.” He clears his throat, addressing Shiro mostly, now. “I’ll, uh, be back in a little bit to help – I just… I’ve got to make sure everyone else is on top of what they’re doing, and check the rice-”

“I’m sure everyone will understand if it doesn’t work out tonight,” Shiro offered reluctantly. “Both Rolo and Nyma are on leave, you’re short-handed, running yourself ragged…”

“No,” Hunk said, firm in a way that his character belied. “No, I want to do this. I promised everyone curry this week, everyone’s looking forward to it. You’ve been looking forward to it. It’s important. I really want to do this. It’s not just food, it’s morale, Shiro.”

Shiro sighed, but chased it up with an unmistakably fond smile. “My chief engineer and artillery officer is also important,” he impressed. “But I know you thrive on chaos – somehow this makes you happy, and I want that too. We’ll be fine, Hunk, don’t worry. And if you need us to move on to something else – we’ll do that too. Right Keith?”

Keith nodded once, sternly. Hunk’s smile returned, albeit a ghost of it’s former self, worn thin. “Thanks for understanding,” he tells Shiro, soft with appreciation. He hesitates, then turns to Keith. “And… thanks for helping, Keith.”

Keith nods again, holding his gaze. “Anything you need. Whenever you need me.”

Whether it was the words or the serious expression on his face, Hunk’s smile pulled higher, more genuine. He rapped his knuckles on the table in farewell, jogging away, back into the kitchen proper.

Shiro watched him go, a weight he hadn’t recognized easing up off his heart at the interaction. A month ago, Hunk was too wary to even meet Keith’s gaze, shake Keith’s hand; now he’d given him much more than that. He’d put an ounce of trust in him – had felt safe enough, to give him access to what might be considered a weapon, albeit not by much and under Shiro’s supervision.

They hadn’t interacted much, Hunk and Keith, just between errands and in passing in their daily lives. Shiro could see, now, that the fear Hunk had once felt had melted into wariness – whatever he felt now, had less to do with Keith himself and more to do with the knowledge of what Keith was. It wasn’t personal, so much as pragmatic, Shiro thought: cautious not of the dog but of dogs in general and that was fair. Shiro wasn’t going to fault him for that.

He turned back to where Keith was handling the knife again, consideringly, brows furrowed. “You don’t have to use it,” Shiro reassured gently, wary of Keith’s troubled expression. “If you’re not comfortable using a knife again just yet.”

“It’s not the same,” Keith dismissed quietly, setting Shiro at ease. “I don’t mind.” He rolled his bottom lip in, a fang poking out over it. “I’m just… confused. I thought he didn’t trust me.”

Shiro shrugged. “Maybe he’s learning to. Maybe he’s getting to know you better.”

Keith seemed doubtful of the notion, not agreeing or disagreeing. He turned his attention back to Shiro, abandoning whatever thoughts were distracting him. “What are we doing?”

Shiro straightened, turning to tear open the sack Hunk had left resting at his feet. “We’re peeling potatoes,” he replied. “Have you ever done that before? Peeled anything, with a knife?”

“No,” Keith said uncertainly. “…what’s a potato?”

Shiro blinked at him, momentarily stymied. Of course Keith wouldn’t know what a potato was; he wasn’t sure why the concept so surprised him. Maybe it was because Keith asked so few questions in general, content with the knowledge he had or in learning on his own; maybe it was because Keith seemed so self-possessed and confident in everything he did that it just seemed unfathomable that Keith wouldn’t know something so basic. Shiro didn’t know the whole story, he’d never asked for the details, but from what Keith had let slip, he hadn’t been taught anything about food except as a means of control – punishment and reward. Shiro doubted any of his previous researchers or handlers would have taken the time to explain what he was being given, or how it was made. Shiro didn’t want to know what they’d actually fed him, when and if they did.

“It’s a tuber,” Shiro stammered out, hastily cutting the stunned silence short – wary of embarrassing Keith. “It, uh, grows under the ground. They look like this, see?” He took a potato out of the sack and handed it over. “They’re really hard before you cook them, and the skin is really tough, that’s why we peel them and soak them, most of the time. Hunk knows more about it, you can always ask him. I’m better at eating them than cooking them.”

Keith hummed consideringly, turning the potato over and over in one hand, then bringing it up to sniff at it tentatively. His eyebrows rose, eyes widening in recognition. “We’ve eaten this before,” he said, intrigued.

“Yeah, we have. Did you like it?” Shiro asked, not bothering to fight the smile pulling up the corner of his mouth.

Keith grunted, not sounding terribly excited. “Like food,” he reminded. “All kinds of food.” He pulled it away from his face. “So how do I…?”

“Just a minute, lemme spare Hunk the trip and grab us a trash can, at least,” Shiro said, and got to his feet.

Shiro returned to the table with a large trash can, Hunk trailing behind with a pot of water, forearms corded with the effort of carrying the weight but making it seem effortless. Hunk left the pot on the table without another word before hurrying back into the kitchen and leaving Shiro and Keith bent over the bin, methodically whittling away at their sacks of potatoes.

Time passed companionably between the two of them, knives in hand, as they worked in the warm semi-quiet of the dining area, the breeze dried out by the sun occasionally whipping through the tent against the back drop of muffled chatter and the chop and clang of food preparation. After almost two months in each other’s near-constant company, the quiet and lack of personal space was comfortable; Keith had a tendency towards quiet, and Shiro honestly enjoyed being able to let himself be still and silent in a way he wasn’t usually afforded. It was a relief, to have someone, to have a space, where he didn’t feel obliged to smile, to be confident, to be in control or walk the tightrope that was networking in the camp and with the Company. When it was just Keith and himself, he felt comfortable enough to relax his expression, relax his posture, and let his thoughts work themselves out at the back of his mind.

And if the thoughts got too convoluted or began to seep into the dark places, he didn’t have to go far for a distraction.

“Wanna play Dictionary?” Shiro proposed, seemingly apropos of nothing, forcing his voice to lilt cheerfully.

Keith hummed, distracted, and not at all fooled by his tone of voice. “Okay,” he acquiesced.

Shiro phrased it as a game, but he’d made the decision, mostly for Keith’s benefit, to learn at least a little Russian. He’d never really felt the need before, since he had Ulaz and Kolivan at his disposal; he knew some words and phrases, mostly words of reassurance he could use in an emergency like “It’s okay” or “Safe” or “Friend”. He was sure his accent was atrocious, too, barely intelligible – the sounds and cadence of the language were so dissimilar to the languages he knew, it felt virtually impossible for his mouth to shape words that didn’t seem to belong there. He’d always reckoned that he’d learn over time, with practice as he became fully immersed in the language and the culture, but with Keith here, he suddenly had a reason to learn more, sooner than he’d planned and at a faster pace. English would be Keith’s tertiary language; Shiro was still surprised he spoke it so well, essentially fluent, but it wasn’t fair to Keith to keep him constrained to the one language least familiar to him. It should, at the very least, be give and take. Shiro should make the effort to learn Keith’s language, too.

“Let’s do colors this time,” Shiro proposed. “Red.”

Krasnyi,” Keith replied, not looking up from where he was whipping potato skins into the trash can with confident, efficient strokes of his knife, thumb on the side of the blade the way Shiro had shown him.

Shiro wrinkled his nose. The dreaded ‘nyi’. He still struggled with that sound, the ‘n’ and ‘yi’ desperately wanting to pull apart from each other in his mouth. Keith glanced up from the corner of his eye, his mouth pulling up slightly at the look on Shiro’s face.

“All of them end that way, with the same letters,” Keith warned. “Aranzhev-yi, zholt-yi, zilion-yi, chorn-yi-

Shiro groaned. “Are there any that don’t?”

“Blue,” Keith offered. “Seenii. Gold, Zalatoi.”

“That’s it?” Shiro pleaded.

“Not all of them have an ‘n’ sound,” Keith tried to reassure. “They just all end in ‘yi’.”

Shiro heaved a sigh. “Alright, let’s get this over with. Krasnnnnyyyyi, red.”

It did Shiro’s heart good to see the small smile of amusement lurking around Keith’s usually stoic mouth, even if it was at his own expense. He’d make a fool of himself any day if it meant seeing any sort of smile on Keith’s face.

They went over the colors, Keith sounding them out and explaining how to make the foreign sounds fit together. Shiro wasn’t surprised at all that Keith was patient, that he took his time to make sure Shiro understood – he likely understood better than anyone here, the frustration of having to learn a language by ear alone, without instruction. Shiro knew the struggle of balancing a bilingual life, but it was made easier for only having to switch back and forth situationally. When he was at home or out with his mother and his extended family, Shiro naturally lapsed back into Japanese; when he was in school, or out with friends, when he was at basic and then on assignment he spoke English. He tried to imagine living like Keith had; tried to imagine living with three people who each spoke a different language. Just the notion threatened him with a headache.

He watched how Keith handled his knife as they worked their way through the words of the rainbow, analyzing his movements from the corner of his eye. Keith had not been trusted with anything that would be considered dangerous since they’d found him, and Keith, as usual, hadn’t seemed bothered by that. He’d been given pencils and wrenches and that was it, items that were useful but presented little threat and seeing the confidence with which Keith handled a knife, even one as small as a paring knife, Shiro guiltily might have been able to see why. Most people unfamiliar with blades tended to exercise unnecessary caution, wary of cutting themselves, but Keith had none of that fear. The blade fit into his hand, and he held it familiarly, unafraid of the sharp edge of the blade even as he worked with proficient speed, close to his opposite hand.

Shiro wondered, not idly, what those hands would look like gripping a knife with the intent to harm or kill. It wasn’t a concept that came easily.

Hunk returned, looking exhausted but well-satisfied as he took a seat at Shiro’s side, further in along the bench and away from their work at Shiro’s insistence – it said something that Hunk accepted the offer to leave the work in inexperienced hands in favor of resting. He pulled the bandana down from his forehead to hang around his neck, running a large hand through his hair as he vented about the production of tonight’s dinner, not really expecting understanding so much as captive and sympathetic ears; Shiro chimed in from time to time, agreeing and advising in equal turns or just humming to show he was listening.

They were almost done, working on filling their third pot of soaking potatoes, when Regris entered the tent, casually flipping the flap open. “Sir,” he said by way of greeting. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Sorry,” Shiro said sheepishly. “Duty called and I answered.” He gestured with his knife and half-skinned potato. “What’s up?”

Regris just nodded his head to the side, indicating the exit. Shiro said nothing to that, getting to his feet and setting aside his work on the tabletop. Regris took the opportunity to turn to Keith. “Hello, Keith.”

“Hello,” Keith returned, brow furrowed, straightening from where he was bent over the full trash can.

“I won’t be long, buddy,” Shiro reassured, stroking a hand over Keith’s head before giving him a pat. “Wait here for me.”

Keith watched them both depart the tent, his hands poised and still. Hunk shifted in his seat across the table, fidgeting but trying not to; this was the first time they’d been left alone together, without Shiro lurking or staff bustling past. There were still staff working in the kitchen, albeit at a much more relaxed pace now, but they were feet away – out of earshot, anyway. While Hunk might’ve been getting more comfortable with Keith, the silence between them was most definitely not; he didn’t seem to know what to say or do, whether to stay or leave.

Keith made the first move, taking the pressure off. He turned away from the exit to face Hunk and neatly flipped the paring knife around so that he was pinching the flat of the blade, offering the handle to Hunk. Hunk couldn’t help pulling back, eyes wide, surprised by the quick and self-assured movement. “Here,” Keith encouraged, meeting Hunk’s eyes steadily. “I can’t leave, but I can move, if you want.”

“What…?” Hunk stammered, confused.

“Commander Shirogane told me to stay,” Keith attempted to explain, still holding the knife level, outstretched for Hunk to take. “But I can go to another table, if you want.”

“I’m… I don’t get what’s going on here,” Hunk admitted, eyes flicking between Keith and the proffered knife. “Why would you…?”

When Hunk still didn’t take the knife, Keith lowered it slowly onto the table, and pushed it across to rest in front of Hunk. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable,” Keith said earnestly, pulling his hands into his lap. “The Commander told me to stay here, so I can’t leave. But I can move, if that’s better for you.”

Hunk’s face fell, some mixture of ashamed and dismayed. “Keith, I don’t… that’s not, I didn’t mean that I…”

Keith watched him struggle for words to explain himself, eyes darting about – his own expression remaining neutral. “It’s okay,” he said finally, voice soft and quiet, putting an end to Hunk’s attempts. “I understand.”

Hunk deflated, shoulders sinking and spine bending, but he didn’t look relieved at all, his brows still furrowed with distress. “… it’s not because… of you,” Hunk said, sounding sorry. “It’s just…”

“What I am,” Keith finished for him. “I know. I’d be scared of me too.”

“It’s not… I’m not scared,” Hunk stammered. He released a measured sigh, settling his nerves. “I’m not scared of you, Keith.”

“It’s okay to be scared of me,” Keith reassured. “Most people are. I know how I look and how people look at me.” Superficially it was an incongruous statement coming from someone so small, so young – big eyes and wild hair, skinny and long-limbed. The worn and heavy collar around his neck made it a little more believable.

Hunk looked more upset at this than Keith did. “I don’t mean to look at you like that,” he said, meekly. “I didn’t… I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, or upset you…” He looked like he wanted to say more, but bit it off before continuing.

“You didn’t,” Keith assured. “I know what I am and I know what that means for you… for others.” Keith shrugged, seemingly unbothered. “Sometimes it helps if you think of me as just a dog instead of Galra. I think people are more comfortable with that.”

Hunk’s expression pulled into one of distress. “Keith, no,” he denied. “I’m not going to… think of you as some animal. You’re not.”

“I’m not human,” Keith pointed out. “I know I look like one, but I know I’m not. You know I’m not.”

“Yes,” Hunk agreed reluctantly. “But some part of you is human. Your parents were humans, right? At some point? Like, they started off as humans, they were born and raised as humans, right?”

Keith shrugged again. “Doesn’t matter. I was not. I was born a dog and raised a dog – I know how to fight, but I also know how to obey.” He met Hunk’s eyes unwaveringly. “I’ll go wherever you put me in this tent, do whatever you want me to, but I cannot leave. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Hunk said in a rush. “There’s nothing to be sorry for, you… Keith, you don’t have to move. You don’t have to leave. I wasn’t even going to ask you to, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

“I know you weren’t,” Keith said, gently. “You’re a nice person, even though I make you nervous. I don’t want you to be afraid of me, but I can’t change that. I thought maybe, I could make you less uncomfortable. If there’s something I can do, to do that… I’ll do it.” He said it with the same earnest gentleness with which he always spoke to Hunk – a mixture of respect not just for his authority, but for Hunk himself, and especially for Hunk’s wariness of him.

Keith was right. Hunk was uncomfortable around him. He’d been wary of him since they’d found him on the side of that dusty road in the mountains, since seeing the collar and understanding what it meant. He felt stupid for it, but Keith’s age and size made him even more uncertain of him; like rattlers and scorpions, the young tended to be more dangerous. If they’d found a full-grown man out there, a mature Splice, he would have felt more confident about the danger he presented, more confident in his ability to handle him in whatever way, if it came to that. Worse, Keith didn’t act or respond the way a regular child would to trauma; there was a disconnect, like there was a grown man trapped in the body of a child, and in a way Hunk supposed that was true. Hunk was used to the children they found in the field – traumatized stares, tears, clinging, sobbing, nightmares, Hunk knew how to handle that. He was comfortable with cradling a crying child begging for their parents, he was comfortable giving piggyback rides to lift waning spirits, he knew how to be gentle and nurturing with small bodies and wounded hearts.

But Keith never seemed to need any of that. He didn’t want to be held. He didn’t want to be sung to, or rocked to sleep. He didn’t want to hold Hunk’s hand to soothe his terror. In point of fact, Keith never seemed to express much at all, no matter how he might have felt. He never cried, he never screamed, he never seemed petrified, he never stared off in that broken way that children and soldiers alike tended to do after experiencing the horrors of combat. Keith’s stare was frequently blank, revealing nothing, though it was unnervingly direct and focused – like there was nothing going on behind the big blue eyes.

Hunk had started to soften, and felt badly for it, at seeing Keith’s skittish and anxious reaction around first Pidge, and then other women in the camp. It made Keith seem vulnerable, in some way, instead of the monolith of the Volkodav – it was hard to see the soulless killing machine in a boy with his face tucked into his commanding officer’s side, shoulders hunched and hands curled around his middle. He didn’t like that Keith was afraid of women, but it was reassuring to see him react in a way that Hunk understood – a human way, an emotional way. He wanted to take heed of Pidge’s caution, that all of this could be a ploy – but Hunk recognized all too easily the change in Keith’s breathing, the automatic instinct to shrink away and try to disappear when he couldn’t.

The softness hadn’t dissipated when Shiro had explained to him what the reaction meant. The reflex was a blended one, canine and human, in a way that marked most of what Keith did: he wasn’t afraid of women harming him, he was afraid of women perceiving him as a threat. He averted his gaze, drew himself in small, so he wouldn’t appear aggressive or intimidating – so that he’d appear submissive to them. He wasn’t shying away out of his own fear, but out of concern for theirs.

Time helped, too, seeing Keith meander through the camp at Shiro’s side, calm and quiet – like a well-trained hunting dog at the heels of his master. Keith didn’t flinch at loud noises or sudden movements – he’d tense, and peer around, but he’d never reacted violently, never snapped at anyone’s fingers or made a more human gesture of defense like throw a punch. Even when Keith gained more autonomy, and Hunk would see him going about the day on his own at his own pace, going from tent to tent, soldier to soldier, task to task with nothing of note, Hunk couldn’t help but notice that he remained the same even in Shiro’s absence – stern expression, professional mien, watchful gaze, only speaking when spoken too.

He wasn’t sure if his lack of violence and muted expressions made him trust Keith more, or less.

Hunk exhaled, and let some of his tension and anxiety leave with it; tried to find the calm at his center like he did when he was submerged in the whirlwind of the kitchen, or active combat. Now was the time to be decisive, to step forward, even if he didn’t have a clear direction or even guidance.

“I think there’s really only one way for me to be comfortable around you,” he began, as level and cool as he could manage.

“I’ll do it,” Keith volunteered automatically.

“Spend more time with me,” Hunk proposed, plain and bold. Keith frowned.

“I don’t understand,” he said finally, struggling. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I know, what it’s like to be… to have to be in an uncomfortable situation. With people you don't like. I don’t want to do that.” There was a pleading note in his voice that Hunk had never heard before; he didn’t like it, and he was sure he wouldn’t like whatever had put it there.

“No one is forcing me,” he reassured, making his voice low and soft. “No one will force you, either.”

“Aren’t you scared…?” Keith pressed, his voice dropping to match Hunk’s.

“I’m uncertain,” Hunk corrected, and comforted himself with the knowledge that it wasn’t wholly a lie. “The only way I can fix that, is to get to know you.”

Keith’s gaze dropped to one side, his expression melting into one of self-doubt. “There’s nothing to learn about me,” he murmured. “You already know everything there is to know. Commander Shirogane asked the same thing.” He looked disappointed, as if he’d already let Hunk down.

Hunk considered, hands taking up the knife Keith had relinquished. “Do you know what I love about engineering?” He asked, seemingly apropos of nothing.

Keith’s gaze drifted back up to Hunk, though his head didn’t raise with it. He didn’t reply, but Hunk knew he had his full attention.

“Its the pieces,” Hunk said, turning his eyes back onto Keith. “It’s the same with cooking. All those small parts that come together to make up the whole – like a puzzle.” He gave a shrug of his own. “Sometimes the finished product isn’t perfect, but getting there… seeing what you’ve made, is so worth it. Seeing someone enjoy a meal that didn’t follow the recipe – being able to design a structure to keep people safe, even if it isn’t all the time, that’s rewarding. Sometimes it’s more about the journey – finding all the pieces and being able to make them fit together. That’s pretty rewarding too.”

Keith seemed to hesitate, biting his bottom lip. “Like a engine…?” He suggested tentatively.

Hunk bobbed his head just the once, letting a slow smile creep up his face. “Just like an engine. When you work with Benny, sometimes you don’t have all the tools or pieces right away, right? Sometimes you gotta go looking for them.” He took the knife in hand, properly, pinching the blade the way Keith had done and offering him the handle in turn. “Maybe that’s what you need to do. Find all the pieces that make you, you and put them together.”

Keith faltered, his eyes still on Hunk, before finally reaching between them and gently taking the knife in hand. “And if I do that, you will be more comfortable with me?” He asked, not yet taking the knife from Hunk’s grip. “Other people, will be more comfortable with me…?”

“It couldn’t hurt,” Hunk opined, pulling his hand away and leaving Keith sitting across from him, pondering the knife in his hand. “Might make you more comfortable with yourself, too.”

Keith didn’t look up at that, eyes on the small blade he’d been entrusted with, and all that it meant. Hunk gave him a moment to process, taking up Shiro’s abandoned knife and the half-peeled potato he’d left behind; he gave him a moment to shift the weight of the possibility, the realization, onto his shoulders.

“Come on,” Hunk encouraged. “Let’s get peeling. After this, there might be more for you to do in the kitchen.”

Keith’s head shot up at that, and though he didn’t smile, the open uninhibited expression and the little gleam of anticipation in his eye let Hunk know he’d made the right choice.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Regris escorted Shiro in silence to the perimeter of the camp, away from any prying ears, human or otherwise, and Shiro felt ice seep into his core, his shoulders stiffening under the weight of command. Whatever Regris had to impart, Shiro wasn’t about like it.

“Thace missed his check in,” Regris opened with, without preamble.

Shiro slowed to a stop beside him, turning to meet his neutral expression. “Has there been any chatter?”

“None that Kolivan has relayed,” Regris replied. “Either his agents haven’t reported back, or maybe the reports lack context; it’s possible they haven’t mentioned anything of note, because they didn’t realize the importance at the time.”

“Is it possible he had to go to ground?” Shiro asked. “Bury himself?”

“Of course,” Regris nodded. “It’s only been 24 hours. It’s possible that there was a change of plans within his assignment that’s stalled him. It’s just out of character, and knowing the movements his assignment had planned… I thought it best to inform you.”

Regris was right. Thace had been on a deep cover assignment for the entirety of Shiro’s time here and long before that even, acting as a right-hand man to one of the local groups that was striving to gain political and geographic footholds into the more rural and abandoned areas, trying to get those disenfranchised and cut off by the war to join up and surrender their homes and supplies for their cause. Shiro still wasn’t entirely clear on the delineation between factions, but reckoned he didn’t really have to be; he fought who he was told, where he was told, with Kolivan's guidance.

Shiro and Thace had never met; they’d never even been introduced. All that Shiro knew about the man was through their relays – the man was blunt, to the point, dedicated and punctual, but he very noticeably cared about his work. His reports frequently mentioned the risk and damage done to the villages his group moved through or took; he noted the death toll, the torture, the coercion. Thace never explicitly mentioned his thoughts or feelings regarding the events, but that he’d relayed them at all spoke volumes – this wasn’t just work. This had become Thace’s life.

The last transmission he’d received was that Thace and his faction were in the midst of a transformation. His faction’s goals had shifted away from day-to-day funding and conscription and were instead looking towards the future – towards war, instead of village skirmishes. The small faction that Thace had initially joined up with had grown, and with it their power and ambition. They were no longer satisfied with ownership – they wanted respect along with it. They wanted to stand on equal footing with groups that had existed years, even decades before, even those who had crossed borders.

They were moving away from operating under someone else’s orders and coming into their own, specializing in what had gained them so many smaller victories – weapons. Manpower.

Splices.

Thace hadn’t indicated any great success in how his group was regarded, or how they’d planned to obtain the weapons – most especially those that were once human. He just knew that they’d slowed down, become stationary; they were no longer so focused on staying on the move, swallowing territory and absorbing men and children into their forces. They’d been settled at Thace’s current location for a month now, and there were no murmurs of moving out any time soon – instead they were draining the village dry, destroying it from the inside out – starting with the people, before they took the land and everything it had to offer.

Shiro didn’t know how Thace did it. How he was capable of siting by and enduring what the enemy did all around him – how thoroughly they exterminated the very people they claimed to fight for. Women and the elderly and young children murdered for their uselessness; if they were lucky, before the soldiers found a use for them. Older children and able-bodied men taken, broken, bent to their purpose. Thace watched, and endured, and reported back. He stayed on the path he’d been given, regardless of the bodies on the wayside, and Shiro didn’t know if he feared or respected that ability; being given an assignment like Thace’s would have broken Shiro down to nothing, not even dust.

Thace had been given regular check-ins, to give proof of life. All he had to utter was the simple phrase: Knowledge or Death. They would know he was still learning; that he hadn’t succumbed to the latter. He hadn’t missed a single check-in in Shiro’s time here, and knowing Thace, not even before Shiro’s arrival to the theatre. It meant something, that he had; Shiro just wasn’t sure what.

“Have you contacted Kolivan?” Shiro asked.

“I haven’t,” Regris said. “I wanted your approval, first. I checked in with Pidge and Ulaz, and they both confirmed that they haven’t picked up any relevant chatter. I didn’t give them details, of course; that’s your prerogative.”

Shiro bobbed his head, crossing his arms and directing his gaze to the dirt beneath his boots, burnished by sunset, as he thought.

“Go ahead and make contact,” Shiro said finally. “Kolivan knows we have a deep cover operative in the field. Give him Thace’s last known location so he can direct whatever ears he has out there. I’ll review the last reports Thace sent, see if I can’t parse something out.”

Regris nodded, making it look like a salute, but he didn’t immediately leave. “Sir, if this is as serious as it seems… I assume you understand what will be required.”

Shiro’s detached and clinical forward momentum shuddered to a halt, as he slowly understood the implication of Regris' report.

If Thace disappeared, if he’d been discovered or killed or both, it would require action. Chances were, they wouldn’t be sent in to the retrieve the asset, so much as silence it – if he hadn’t been already. Steps would have to be taken to ensure that the Company’s involvement was not discovered – that their base and their movements be kept under wraps. It would mean putting together a sortier, as that would no doubt be what it came to, though he’d naturally avoid it if he could. Heading up a hand-picked team, estimating as best he could what skills he’d need most in the field – what his objective out there would mostly be. Infiltrate, extract, exterminate – whatever was required. That wasn’t new by any means, and Shiro had long made his peace with the ugliness and the death he’d be trading in out here. That wasn’t what made Shiro freeze stiff. That wasn’t what Regris meant.

It meant leaving. Leaving the camp. Leaving Keith. The very real possibility of not making it back – of leaving Keith alone, forever.

He had considered that, he had, but only early on; when he thought Keith could handle the field. When he was still considering Keith as an asset – before Keith had started to sleep at his side, share his meals, listen as he read to him. Before Shiro had learned what joy and fascination looked like on his scarred face. Before he’d seen the way Keith was becoming himself; interacting with the people he lived with, learning to read and write with gusto, knee deep in truck guts and covered in grease.

Now he was faced with the very real threat of having to leave that behind, without knowing for how long. What would happen to him, to the both of them, with Shiro in the field – in danger?

Regris nodded again, slow and resigned. “I thought so. I’ll get in contact with Kolivan and put Pidge on alert.” He left without a farewell, heading back down into the camp, leaving Shiro to the sudden downward spiral of his thoughts.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Death was not a new notion for Shiro. He’d learned years ago to make his peace with it; accept it as an inevitability.

Even before he’d entered the military or even entertained the thought, there had been the loss of his father. Years later, he could barely remember the man. He was told frequently by his friends and family that he looked a lot like him; that he didn’t much resemble his mother save for in attitude and expression, the way he spoke – all the things he’d learned instead of been given. He could remember the way his father smiled, and the rough texture of his large hands, both taken from seemingly the one clear memory he had of him. He didn’t remember ever saying goodbye, or telling him he loved him.

And then he was gone. That smile and those hands no longer existed. They never came home.

He’d been so young, it had been such a difficult concept to comprehend. His mother tried to explain, through her own grief, how good things that were loved, good things that we appreciated and needed, sometimes came to an end. That it was natural, and inevitable, and though it was sad and sometimes painful, there was no way to avoid it. Like eating a really good meal, or having a really great day, eventually the food would all be gone – day would turn into night. No matter how much love or time you packed into the meal or that day, it would eventually be over – you couldn’t stop it, and trying to just meant you wouldn’t finish the meal or enjoy that really good day.

For a while, it didn’t make sense. He didn’t understand. Where did his father go? When he left, he always came home eventually. If he wasn’t at work, if he wasn’t at home, if he wasn’t with them – then where was he? It was a purely physical conundrum. It wasn’t until they buried him, until his mother explained that his father was in the box that was being lowered into the ground, that he began to understand that his father wasn’t coming back. That they were putting his father in the ground because he was gone; he wouldn’t be coming through the door, he would never say his name again with that warmth and love he always seemed to.

The meal had come to an end. The good day had turned to night.

Shiro’s mother had done her best, every day after that, despite her own pain and her own loss, to show Shiro that the end to one thing wasn’t the end to all things. When dinner was done, there was always breakfast; when one day ended there was always another to follow it. Shiro knew she cried in her once-shared bed, every night for a long, long time – but in the morning she was always there in the kitchen to greet him with a soft smile and a hot breakfast. She gave him the beginnings so he wouldn’t feel the endings as much as she did; she opened the doors on possibilities so he wouldn’t keep them shut against the pain of loss.

At every turn, she impressed upon him the importance of loss, and what it meant to the life that remained – the life that carried on after. Loss was painful, and sometimes it lingered – but it could be a gift, too. It could make you strong, if you let it. You could succumb to your failures, to the pain of loss, to the loss of face – or you could learn from it, and grow. It was important to feel it, to let it have meaning; the pain was what gave the lesson weight. Avoiding the pain, distancing yourself, meant you took nothing away from the encounter, and it became another loss on top of another.

Instead, she wanted him to push through to the other side – to the next great thing, stronger and smarter than he was before, and that applied to everything he put his mind to. When he failed, she helped him back up and told him to try again – that there was always tomorrow, there was always another chance to do it differently. She always told him the same thing, every time he stumbled: Get up, learn your lesson and move on. She wanted him to stay in motion – she refused to let him be mired in place by pain or loss or shame. She let him stumble, she let him fall, but every time, she was there to help him get back on his feet and push ahead, patient and full of love. That was her own lesson, learned through her own loss – to keep going, to take the pain but never let it hold her down or hold her back.

The one and only time they struggled to find the value in the loss, was when Shiro returned home from his discharge. The losses that time had been so multi-faceted, so painful in so many ways, it had all happened so quickly, one on top of the other, that they struggled to find the meaning in it; struggled to find the lesson that would help him move on, and push past it. Guiltily, and Shiro would never confess it to her, he didn’t feel he had the right to find any positivity in this loss. It had felt disrespectful to look at what he’d gone through, what he’d lost – who he’d lost, and find strength there for himself. It had seemed right, in the moment, to feel only the pain; it felt like an honest testament to what he’d endured and lost, to suffer. The physical pain, the emotional agony, his inability to find peace or even an equilibrium were his way of atoning for making it out... for being the only one to come home.

Most days, he still felt that way, to varying degrees. Felt the guilt, the shame, like everyone knew somehow that he’d weaseled his way out of the same fate; that he’d been selfish in pushing to survive, in not giving in and dying with the rest. He’d lost his arm, he’d lost his unit, his friends, his brothers and sisters in arms…. he’d lost his future with the man he loved. He’d lost an arm, he’d lost a home, he’d lost a family, and once he was discharged, he’d lost almost a full year of his life. He’d lost himself, and trying to find the worth, the purpose for that, for losing everything that mattered to him, was the hardest thing he’d endured – harder than learning to walk again, harder than learning to use an appendage that wasn’t his own, harder than the therapy and the support groups and the frantic scrabble to keep his head above water in the easy life of a civilian.

He was still struggling to find the worth in that loss. Still struggling desperately, every day, to find purpose and meaning in what had torn him apart, literally limb from limb. He had kept moving, but he wasn’t moving forward. He was just… staying in motion, maintaining momentum, until he found a place to rest. Until now.

He had made his peace with death, and it’s inevitability. He knew now that he could and would survive it – whether he liked it or not. He’d met loss of all kinds head-on, over and over and over again, and he’d let himself grow strong. He’d looked his own death in the face and walked away, and he knew it’d be back for him any day, at any given time, when he least expected it, and he’d found more comfort than fear in that; an end, a goalpost, that did not waver, always on the horizon, some days closer than others. He wasn’t afraid anymore; he welcomed it.

What he didn’t welcome, was leaving Keith.

Keith’s whole life seemed to be built on loss after loss, one after another; never knowing his father, the murder of his mother… not just the loss but the utter annihilation of his innocence, his childhood - all exits destroyed, trapped in an endless loop of killing and harming, shame and regret and pain. For someone like Keith… for something like Keith, there was no morality to the life that had been decided for him. He didn’t know or understand what he was fighting for, who he was fighting for; he didn’t know the people involved – the very notion of separate countries was new to him. All he’d had in his whole life was basic necessities like food, water, sleep, shelter – and he’d lived in constant fear of losing those, literally fighting tooth and nail to earn them.

Shiro suspected that Keith hadn’t processed much of what he had endured. He seemed to have buried it all down deep, where he couldn’t feel it anymore, under layer after layer of additional pain, additional fear until that was his entire foundation and all he knew. Keith internalized and normalized the trauma of his upbringing to the point where it seemed expected, and Shiro had no way of arguing that. There had never been something like Keith before; Keith was one of a kind, in many ways. Shiro couldn’t point to a culture of raising naturally-born child Splices, and say, “This is the expected norm. This is how you’re supposed to have been raised.” Splices were never intended to breed; more often than not, the process sterilized most and where it didn’t the chances of survival for the Young was staggeringly low. Keith wasn’t supposed to exist. He wasn’t supposed to make it to eight or ten, let alone sixteen. Adding onto that the strain of his forced participation in a breeding program on top of acting as a trained and active combatant, and it was a miracle he’d even made it this far.

If Shiro became another loss… how would Keith cope? Would he cope? Could he cope…?

He’d given him some of the tools, but they just… what they needed most was time. They needed experiences they could build and learn from. He’d only had Keith for two months now, all told, and it just wasn’t enough.

He had given Keith a place to belong, he’d given Keith a purpose; Shiro had done what he’d promised, and they were already well on their way to building on the thin foundation they’d established. Without Shiro, that foundation would remain, he knew. There were people now, more than Shiro and Coran, that were invested in Keith – genuinely cared about him, in their own way. He could see it in the paternal way Ulaz handled Keith, the warm and bright way he spoke to him, the ease with which he drew Keith into a casual embrace with one hand at the back of his head. He could see it in the way Coran joked and played around with Keith, even though the boy struggled to understand the point of it all, wearing an expression of surprise and confusion every time, but he always tried to understand the value of humor. He saw it in the way Rolo said Keith’s name so casually, including him in the little things Shiro had never considered – inviting him to impromptu basketball games, giving him high-fives and asking him, genuinely, how his day was going. He saw it in the easy companionship Regris had developed with Keith; he was likely the only one who looked past Keith’s size and age, and treated him with the respect of another soldier, one with the same heart and commitment he had himself. He saw it most especially with Benny, in the quiet way the two of them seemed to fit together, cut from the same cloth; Benny seemed to understand Keith in a way no one else could, and he wondered, often, if there was a maternal component between them, in the way she cared for him and silently encouraged his curiosity – in the way Keith looked at her, so rapt no matter what she said or did, in the way he seemed so comfortable with her touch and her presence. He even saw it now in Hunk’s gentle and cautious interactions with Keith, the way he invited Keith into the kitchen every shift he had in there, teaching him the names for all the things he ate, how to cut and prepare and cook them, letting him taste-test his meals and get his personal opinions – goading him into developing preferences, into becoming comfortable with a part of human life he’d never encountered before.

That would be enough, wouldn’t it? That be enough of a life to start with, a stable enough support structure, if Shiro never came back, wouldn't it…? Surely, that would mitigate the loss of him… right? Even if he didn’t have to head out this time – if he did, but it wound up being simple reconnaissance – he’d have to leave again, and again, with the same risks. It had to be enough now – they didn’t have a choice.

With every day that went by without word from Thace, the possibility of mobilizing became more of a certainty. He was already drawing up a roster, considering logistics and arms. Word from Kolivan was sparse, and any chatter Pidge and Ulaz were able to detect and translate was even more so. The conflict here was long and enduring; word of a skirmish, of a village being razed to the ground, of whole groups of people being kidnapped was no longer news. They had to read between the lines, narrow their focus, and compile whatever scraps they found. It was looking like they’d be needing a more hands-on approach to answers – a more physical presence.

Shiro knew Keith could sense the change in him; the tension. He could see it in the way he stared at him more than he had been, expression neutral but his gaze intense, watchful; waiting for an indication of danger, a signal for action. Keith still attended his studies, he still went every day to work with Benny, he still ran his errands around the camp, but now he didn’t wait for Shiro – he came to him, instead. He walked closer to him, bumping against his side; sat right up against him at mealtimes. If Keith had nowhere else he was required to be, he went with Shiro – even to briefings with Regris, where he had to stand out of earshot, he stood stock-still and watched them unwaveringly. Shiro wasn’t sure if it was because Keith wanted protection from the implied threat, or if it was because Keith wanted to protect him from the threat.

Shiro wasn’t sure, but he suspected which it was. It made his heart twist hard, each time he considered it.

_______________________________________________________________________

 

Keith never did make use of the cot he’d been given, remaining at Shiro’s side even as they slept, curled up in a loose pile of lanky limbs just underneath Shiro’s right side. When Shiro read aloud, he did it laying on his back with one hand dangling to be in contact with some part of Keith – a shoulder, his head – or on one side so that he could see the unnerving reflection of Keith’s eyes in the dark when they flickered up to meet his. They didn’t read every night; some nights either one or both of them were too exhausted to stay awake, or else they’d occupy themselves, Shiro reading silently or wrapping up work-related communications and Keith murmuring softly to himself as he read a book in English or a manual in Russian; sometimes the murmuring was accompanied by the soft scratch of a pencil as he filled the legal pad Coran had gifted him. Shiro had hoped wistfully that Keith was keeping some sort of journal or diary; had intuited a safe means of coping and working out what he’d been through, somehow. The lilting cadence of his voice as he sounded out words made him think that wasn’t the case, and from the English words he’d seen scribbled across the lined pages, he was probably just working out the spelling of unfamiliar words like pizza (“petsa?”) and combustion (“kumbustyun?”)

Tonight was one of the quiet nights, no reading aloud, and no murmuring as Shiro read over the reports on Thace, his operation and the area for the thousandth time, his hand dangling to mesh itself into Keith’s hair distractedly. Keith seemed to be out cold, still beneath his hand, curled up the way he did when he was ready to sleep, but he ruined the illusion by heaving a very awake and exasperated sigh, moving to sit up. Shiro craned his neck down, letting the tablet dip slightly as he turned to look in Keith’s direction. “Everything okay, buddy?” He asked in a whisper.

Keith didn’t reply. Instead he pulled himself to a seat on the edge of Shiro’s cot, at his knee, and unlaced and tugged off his boots, dropping them to the ground. He turned around then, towards Shiro, and pulled his socked feet onto the cot, and Shiro started to get the picture – lifting his arms accommodatingly and looking down his body as Keith dropped himself unceremoniously into his personal space, squirming into his side. Shiro frowned, concerned, as Keith dropped his head into the juncture of his chest and shoulder and gave a final huff as he settled in, warm and heavy and unashamed against his side.

“You okay?” Shiro tried again, his arms lowering even further, the recently constant furrow in his brow deepening at the unusual behavior. Keith didn’t seem distressed at all, but Shiro’s hand automatically came away from his tablet to rub up the length of Keith’s arm, concerned.

“Fine,” Keith replied, in his usual short way, not sounding sleepy or upset at all. “Are you?”

“Me?” Shiro asked, eyebrows rising, letting his tablet rest in his lap.

“You’re upset,” Keith explained, not a question. “I know.”

Shiro’s first instinct was to deny it, for his own sake and to guard Keith against anything that might distress him – but if he were honest, he knew that it wouldn’t bother Keith as much as Shiro wanted it to. He’d impressed the importance of honesty at every turn; emotionally and factually, he wanted them to have open communication. This would have to be part and parcel of that, he knew.

He drew in a steadying breath, and released it in a heavy sigh. “Not upset,” Shiro corrected, keeping his voice low and even. “Just worried.”

Keith was quiet for a moment, unmoving against Shiro’s side. “… afraid?” He ventured.

“A little,” Shiro admitted. “There’s… a situation. It looks like I’ll have to deal with it myself, and it’s… made me think about things I don’t… really want to think about.”

Keith mulled that over. “You’re going back into the field,” he murmured, and Shiro realized he’d forgotten, again, that the boy pressed against his side was just as much a soldier as he was. There would be no soft-handed explanations about bad guys doing bad things. Keith had been those bad guys, done those bad things.

So Shiro bit the bullet, and did something he maybe should not have. “We lost contact with a long-term deep cover operative,” he confessed. “He missed his last check-in by a week, now. We know the group he was with was in the middle of some sort of upset; last we heard, they’d taken a village but had not yet left, which is unlike them. They tend to stay mobile, but something there made them stay, either issues within the group, or maybe a resource they found there… maybe the location itself is too ideal to leave without establishing a stronghold.”

“Where?” Keith asked, unexpectedly. Shiro hadn’t expected participation, hadn’t been pressing for it, but Keith had volunteered all the same. Shiro lifted his tablet, switching between tabs to bring up the map he’d been given, zooming in on the marker that indicated the vague whereabouts of Thace’s last known location and handing it over to Keith. He took it with unanticipated familiarity, using one finger to move the image in different directions so he could get a feel for the topography, maybe even the names of certain towns and provinces now. He hummed over the image as he went. “We passed through here once. It was very quiet, they let us go through the towns directly. We didn’t have to go around. I think they had a deal with my facility, maybe. Not a lot of people, but a lot of land. They’re close to what used to be another type of facility, from a long time ago… I didn’t understand what it was, but there were not a lot of people there. There were Galra at the gates, but no place to train or breed. No researchers.” He handed the tablet back to Shiro, casual.

Shiro’s brows rose yet again, as he took the tablet back. “Did you go inside?”

“Yes,” Keith admitted. “I didn’t recognize anything inside. The outside was different from my facility.” He seemed to be sorting through the memory as he spoke. “… they spoke Russian, but with an accent I didn’t know. They used a lot of words I didn’t understand. It smelled bad in there. Not rotten bad, but… it smelled wrong. Like nothing I’ve smelled before.”

“Was that where you were going - to that facility? Is that why you passed through those towns?” Shiro asked, a thrill of excitement sparking in his chest.

“Yes,” Keith confirmed. “The people in charge of my facility… not the researchers, the other people who never came, the people they got the results for, wanted something from there. Access, I think, maybe. Or research.”

Shiro frowned. “Did they get what they came for…?” He asked, uncertainly.

“Yes.” Keith paused, the silence between them heavy in a way Shiro couldn’t decipher. “I killed two men. I don’t know who or what they were. After that, they obeyed.” The regret was unspoken, but laced into every word nonetheless – it was in the soft shame in his voice.

Shiro’s arm tightened on Keith, squeezing him less in an attempt to comfort Keith and more to reassure himself that Keith was no longer in that place – in that position. He was here, at his side, in too-big sweats, with three meals in his belly and his own steadily growing pile of books. He wasn’t a weapon, he was a boy, and God… Shiro wanted to keep it that way.

“In the morning, would you be willing to talk more about it with me and Ulaz, maybe Regris?” Shiro asked gently.

“Yes,” Keith agreed. “I will.” He deliberated, then continued. “I would do anything to keep you safe,” he confessed quietly.

Shiro’s throat tightened to the point of squeezing forth tears; he frantically swallowed against it, so he could at least try to force out words. Keith was making this so much harder for him. “I know you would,” he said, voice coarse and low.

“Is that what you’re afraid of…?” Keith asked, voice hushed. “The danger…?”

Shiro swallowed again. “No, buddy. Not really. I’ve been doing this for a long time… I’m used to that part.”

Keith considered, then tried again. “… is it like being in the truck?” He asked, timidly, as if he feared a rebuke for broaching the subject.

“No,” Shiro said, letting the calm tone of his voice reassure Keith that the question was allowed, and encouraged. “It’s not like the truck. It’s something else.”

Keith went quiet then, and there was a patience implied in the silence – like he was waiting Shiro out, like he still expected answers, just at Shiro’s pace. The air in the tent was so still and so quiet, so warm and heavy; Keith’s weight was the same, a comfort that felt grounding and stabilizing, the anxious thrum of his veins settling into a mild vibration, his heartbeat slowing. I would miss this, Shiro thought and immediately wished he hadn’t. He didn’t want to stare straight into the abyss that had been looming at his feet this past week, but maybe… maybe he should.

“I’m worried about you,” Shiro murmured, a whispered confession into the dark, pained. “When I go.”

“I will be here,” Keith said plainly, quietly; a fact, a truth, something unalterable. It brought the strain back to Shiro’s throat, behind his eyes. He let his eyes fall shut, his breathing stuttering.

“If I die,” Shiro clarified, his voice getting rougher. “If I don’t come back.”

“Then I will find you,” Keith said, in that same certain tone. “I will bring you home.”

Shiro couldn’t take any more. He couldn’t say anything else. He let the tablet slide from his grip, rolling towards Keith so he could pull him into a gentler, genuine embrace, Keith's small body reassuringly pliant against his.

“Where you go I will go,” Keith swore, like it was something Shiro had always known, a reminder. “Maybe not right away. But I will go, every time. As many times at it takes, I will go.”

Something settled in Shiro’s heart then, a tidal wave suddenly crashing and then dissipating – violent, painful, terrifying, and then abruptly calm, the horizon clear. He could suddenly breathe again, he could see what lie ahead, sure as the sun rises.

Death wasn’t the only fixed, inevitable thing in his life. Not anymore.