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A House Is Not a Home

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Keith spent the next day in the command tent with Shiro and Ulaz, strategizing; Pidge, Regris and other members of the company occasionally sitting in to contribute their points of view and considerations. The possibility of a mission had become a certainty now, and the more information they had at their disposal, the better.

Their intention wasn’t combat, but instead stealth: the goal solely to ascertain the whereabouts of their operative and his associated group – and if they couldn’t do that much, then to at least assess the threat posed by his disappearance. They had Thace’s last known location, and that would serve as their only destination; there would be no stops between, either to help or hinder. Keith illustrated the terrain as best he could recall, Ulaz assisting where Keith’s vocabulary faltered.

“It’s flat,” Keith explained. “No trees, no… no little trees, only yellow grass. Things grow, but only around the houses… corn, wheat, green grass. Water underground, no lakes. All around are little hills… nowhere to hide. Far away there’s the flat mountains, and the hills at the bottom there are good for cover.”

“Well the houses at least are still there,” Pidge said distractedly, bringing up some low quality images on the tablet they were all hunched over. “These are the best satellite images I could grab.” They were grainy and distant, only vague blocks of color – there was no proof of life amongst the structures and farmland, no vehicles, no animal or human shapes that could be made out – no pillars of smoke, no fire, no scorched earth that would indicate it had seen recent conflict.

Keith cocked his head, taking in the images as Pidge swiped through. “It looks the same. Quiet. Empty.” He darted a nervous glance at Pidge. “Are there more…?”

“More what,” Pidge asked flatly, meeting his stare unwaveringly.

“Photos,” Keith clarified, voice small but insistent. “From around here… the facility?”

“I found no evidence of an existing facility,” Pidge dismissed. “If there ever was one, it’s gone now. Are you sure this is the same place you went?”

Keith nodded. “Yes. I know the name. Some didn’t want to go… they said they would get sick, that this place was sick.”

Shiro and Ulaz shared a glance over Keith’s head, at first confused – then concerned.

“Keith,” Ulaz asked, cautiously. “Did they ever use the word radiatsionnoye…? Or yadernyi…?”

Keith’s brow furrowed, confused. “They sound familiar…? I don’t know what they mean. Only that they were scared… they didn’t want to go.”

“Please tell me that’s not what it sounds like,” Pidge said, voice thin. “Tell me I’m hearing that wrong.”

Ulaz met her gaze across the small table, the warm air in the tent seeming more still and heavy for the solemn look on his face. “It sounds like they had concerns about radiation… the facility might have, at least at one point, had nuclear intentions.”

“We knew that might be a risk out here,” Pidge continued. “Being this far south put us further away from the known sites, the riskier areas, but…” She tsked, masking her fear with irritation as she snatched up her tablet and other gear. “I’ve gotta talk to Coran, see what precautions we can take… see if me and Hunk can find a Geiger counter, or something…” She shoved away from the table, taking long strides out of the tent.

Ulaz took a breath, sitting back from the table. “Well, that… certainly complicates things.”

“If it’s correct,” Shiro posited. “Pidge said no such facility was visible via satellite. It’s possible it’s no longer active, that the site’s been sealed since…” He finished uncertainly.

Keith’s gaze flicked back and forth between Ulaz and Shiro, where he sat between them. “What does that mean…? Those words?” He asked, brow furrowed.

“There is a type of weapon,” Ulaz explained, hesitantly, “that leaves behind a… a poison, in the ground, in the water. Even years later, the poison can still remain. It can be deadly to many creatures, things like you and I especially… it makes us very sick.”

Keith’s frown deepened. “And that is what those words mean… what that facility was? That weapon, that poison?”

Ulaz nodded. “Yadernyi is the word for ‘nuclear’; it’s not a bad thing on it’s own,” he explained. “It’s a part of nature, but sometimes people take the thing, and make it into a weapon. Radiatsionnoye is the word for ‘radiation’ – the type of poison that weapon can leave behind. That’s the part that makes people, makes the earth, sick. It’s probably what those soldiers meant.”

“That might explain why Thace’s group maybe chose that location for a more permanent base,” Shiro offered. “Having access to something like that would be extremely lucrative, even if they couldn’t make use of it themselves. Plenty of parties would be interested in buying whatever they could salvage, even if it wasn’t actual ore or weapons.”

“Maybe their lack of mobility is what’s hampering his ability to send word back,” Ulaz considered. “There might be more scrutiny if their group is pulling in their ranks, establishing a foothold there… he might not have the freedom to leave, to find somewhere isolated to send a communication.”

Shiro nodded contemplatively, resting his chin in the cradle of one hand. “We could bring Kolivan further in… employ the Marmora? There might be refugees from that area who know the risks better than we do. If the community was still there and thriving while a nuclear facility was functioning nearby, that at least bodes well over all… we likely would have heard about a fallout, if there was one.” He turned his gaze to Keith. “I know you were only passing through, but were you able to tell anything else about the houses… the land…?”

Keith’s frown remained fixed on the table, as he considered the question. “It was dark, and it was quiet… I heard animals, horses, cows… I saw farms, and grass; things growing. There were two cars I saw… trucks, older ones, not like the ones we have here.” Not military vehicles, then, Shiro realized. “There were people inside the homes, there were lights on inside but the curtains were closed. They didn’t want to be seen by us.” He turned to Shiro, and his expression softened into one of remorse. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it mattered.”

“That’s fine, it’s okay,” Shiro soothed, his gut twinging with guilt that he’d put Keith in this position. His hand automatically came up to the back of the dark head, stroking his hair. “That’s all good, that’s more information we didn’t have, thank you.”

Keith didn’t seem reassured, dropping his gaze and letting his brow furrow once more. “It smelled safe,” he said, almost puzzled. “There weren’t any dead… no blood or sickness. The only bad smell was from that place with the different researchers.”

No recent conflict, Shiro determined. Either the village wasn’t close enough to the facility to be of value, or the facility was maybe new, not yet discovered or perhaps hidden in some way… For whatever reason, before now, the village was not considered a strategic position, but that had changed. Maybe, after Keith’s visit on behalf of his old facility…?

“I’m sure the people at the Marmora camp will be able to tell us more,” Shiro said, attempting to reassure, letting his hand go around Keith’s shoulder and pull him into his side. “You did good. You told us something really important – something we didn’t know before. You kept us safe,” Shiro pressed, voice low and earnest. “Thank you, for that.”

That did get Keith’s attention, his eyes coming up to meet Shiro’s, big and sad. “I wish I could do more,” he said, resigned – pained.

“You’ve done more than enough,” Ulaz soothed, putting his arm around Keith in turn and giving him a casual squeeze. “You’ve done good today – for yourself, and for us.”

Keith bowed his head, but said nothing more.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

There wasn’t much they could, or really needed to do to prepare for the possibility of encountering their worst case scenario; they had potassium iodide pills and a Geiger counter, and emergency protocols already in place for extraction and decontamination, anyway. They ran through them again, just to jog their memory, while they waited to hear back from Kolivan.

Keith watched them run through the drills, attentive but removed. The team had already been chosen; they kept it small, to better stay covert – just Shiro and two scouts. Shiro had everyone run the drills regardless, even personnel that weren’t in on the mission – if the possibility of radiation exposure panned out, it would be vital to their operation in one form or another.

When Kolivan returned their hail, it was with disappointment. “We have no one here from that village, or who is familiar with it,” he informed them. “Neither do I have soldiers or guides from that neighboring villages. I’m sorry.”

“It was a long shot,” Shiro sighed. “Just hoping to have a little more information going in.”

“I do have one man from the same oblast, who might be able to serve as a guide,” Kolivan offered. “He does not know the village, but he’s at least familiar with the land.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Shiro hedged. “I think we’ve managed to get enough information to keep us on the ground. It was the village and the facility I was most concerned about.”

“May I ask where this information came from?” Kolivan asked. “This is the first I’m hearing of an active facility, in any capacity, within the last few years. I thought we had all the known sites mapped, active and inactive.”

Shiro hesitated. “The answer isn’t one you’d like,” he said.

That was enough for Kolivan. “Commander, please tell me you’re going off more than just his word.”

“We already had intentions on checking the village,” Shiro reassured. “Our destination was already determined, he just voiced concerns based on personal experiences.”

“And he’s aware of nuclear testing sites and mining facilities,” Kolivan said, with potent disbelief. “He knows what radiation is.”

“In a way,” Shiro said, keeping his defensiveness from his tone. “In a basic capacity, he understood something was wrong. He was able to understand that his unit had concerns about visiting the area – about getting sick. That’s enough to warrant extra precautions, for me. I don’t believe that doing so will cost us anything.”

“I see,” Kolivan said, disapproval heavy even across the radio. “If you give me a few days, I can contact other Marmora encampments… see if I can confirm or deny his accounts.”

“I would appreciate that… but I don’t think I can afford to wait to hear back,” Shiro said. “It’s been over a week already without contact. Like I said, all we’re implementing is additional precautions – otherwise, nothing has changed.” He paused, then continued, “If nothing else, consider it a test of the boy’s reliability. A test of his worth in the field.”

Kolivan hummed his reluctant agreement, and Shiro had to stifle the swell of success he felt. “Good luck to you, then, Commander,” Kolivan said. “I hope the Galra is all that you think he is. I look forward to your return.”

“Thank you, Kolivan. I’m looking forward to it myself,” Shiro replied. Now, more than ever.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

All that was left now, was to leave. It had become a question of time, now; the longer they waited, the more opportunities there were for Thace to disappear entirely, without a trace. It was now or never.

At Benny’s recommendation they opted for taking a sandy-colored jeep, just enough to seat the three personnel and the gas cans. They’d have to hike half the trip, anyway, with just their rucksacks, rifles and comms equipment – the vehicle was just to shorten the trip. With the area around the village being so sparsely populated and the terrain affording so little cover, it would serve them better to proceed largely on foot.

They decided to leave at dusk, just after supper. No one came to send them off; objectives like these were routine, and they didn’t do goodbyes at any rate. Hunk and Pidge briefed them again on the use of the Geiger counter and went over the communication protocols one last time: maintain radio silence except for check-ins at arrival and upon starting out on the return trip, barring emergencies. Coran gave them the potassium iodide pills, cheerful instructions for their use and went over all the precautions to take just in case they came into contact with any sort of radioactive materials.

The only ones who didn’t come in a strictly professional capacity, were Ulaz and Keith. They stood side by side, still and silent, as the team loaded up their gear and supplies and took last minute directions from their specialists until finally it was just them and Shiro, the scouts already climbing into the car.

“So I guess this is it,” Shiro said, awkward, unsure. What could he say? What was he supposed to say, that wasn’t the goodbye he refused to utter?

Keith looked up at him, face as impassive as always, and Shiro wished he felt that calm. “I have something for you,” he announced.

“You don’t have to do that,” Shiro started to object, but cut himself off as Keith wriggled his sweatshirt off over his head, leaving him in just his t-shirt and his wild hair in even further disarray as he handed the article over to Shiro’s very confused hands. “Uh…”

“Not to wear,” Keith explained. “For smell. Like me – like dogs. So the wild ones won’t bother you – they don’t like humans, but maybe if you smell like me, they will leave you alone.”

Shiro bunched his hands in the sweatshirt, still warm, and swallowed. “Thank you,” he murmured. “I’ll… I’ll try to keep it safe.”

“It will keep you safe,” Keith refuted. “Try to bring it back. It's a good shirt.”

At Keith's casual adminishment, the words suddenly came easily to Shiro; as if Keith had opened a door, and given him permission.

“I’ll miss you,” Shiro murmured, honest, speaking from the warm, soft place Keith had put in his chest. He stroked a hand over Keith’s hair, smoothing it back down. “Be good while I’m gone… keep studying, make sure you eat enough. Don’t stay up too late.”

“I’ll be good,” Keith assured, holding his gaze. “I promise.” He didn’t say the words, but the look in his eyes, the earnestness in his voice, let Shiro know his sentiment was returned.

Shiro gave him a small smile. “I know you will.” His eyes drifted up to Ulaz, failing to conceal his desperation and heartache.

“We’ll be fine,” Ulaz reassured with easy confidence, one hand drifting up to Keith’s shoulder. “See you soon.” He gave Shiro a short salute, and Keith followed suit.

“I’ll be here,” Keith reminded him, voice soft but steady, his expression resolute. There was no fear there – only stubborn determination that seemed to shore up the places where Shiro faltered.

Keith would be okay. Keith would be just fine – they both would, in spite of the distance, in spite of the danger – Keith wouldn’t accept anything less, and Shiro couldn’t either, in the face of that.

Shiro gave Keith one last pat, then pulled away with a bittersweet smile. He got behind the wheel of the jeep and pulled away from the camp with his heart settled and sure, and refused to look back.

He took all the things he wanted to say, the I’ll be home soon and the I promise and the Everything will be okay, and he buried them in the hope that he wouldn’t need them – wouldn’t need to say the words, as long as they all came true.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

They stood there on the small dune overlooking the camp, watching the plume of dust settle in the Jeep’s wake, dusk darkening into night. Ulaz kept his arm around Keith’s small shoulders, giving his arm a squeeze when there was no more evidence of the party’s – Shiro’s – departure, as if to rouse them from a trance.

“He’s a good soldier,” Ulaz said, in deceptively casual Russian. “A capable commander.”

“I know,” Keith acknowledged, his eyes stuck on the horizon – his expression unreadable to Ulaz. Nobody was yet able to read Keith as easily as Shiro did; nobody spent as much time with him, and both Keith and Shiro seemed alright with that. Ulaz regretted that arrangement, now.

“It’s a reconnaissance mission – the point is to avoid enemy engagement,” Ulaz continued, attempting to reassure; uncertain if Keith even needed it.

“That means nothing if the enemy chooses to engage,” Keith refuted, however quietly.

Ulaz had forgotten, in their easy-going conversations and lessons, that Keith did not come to them as a child – as a simple local, as a casual resource. It was easy to forget, seeing the small boy in just a t-shirt and jeans, hearing his obstinate objections over contradictory alphabets, watching him eat a sandwich with gusto, that Keith hadn’t always been this boy. He had been a soldier before – a weapon. Keith had known combat; he had killed before, and often. He knew more about a soldier’s life than he knew of a childhood, and no matter how much Ulaz resented it, it was the reality.

“I’ve never said goodbye before,” Keith confessed, unprompted. “I’ve always been the one to leave. I’ve never… I’ve never had to watch someone go, and stay.”

“There will be other times,” Ulaz soothed – not a warning, but a comfort. His way of saying, Shiro will come back, there will be other missions after this one. “You’ll get used to it, the way we have.”

“I can’t keep him safe,” Keith said, and the pained note in his voice was obvious even to Ulaz. It sounded like a confession, guilty. “All I can do is stay, and wait.”

It came to Ulaz then, how he could better set Keith’s mind at ease – assuage his regrets, at not being able to do more. A way to use and acknowledge Keith’s experience, and his life before. “You can do more than that,” he said, earnest. “What you can’t do for Shiro… you can do for us, right here.”

Keith’s gaze finally lifted to Ulaz, away from the dunes, his brow furrowed in confusion. Ulaz met his gaze passively, voice and expression soft. “You can make sure that his home, and his people, are safe and happy. It means making sure that everyone eats, and rests, and takes leisure; it means keeping your eyes and ears out for distress or danger. You don’t have to seek it out – you don’t have to harm anyone, or confront anyone. If you pick up on anything that could endanger the camp, you can tell Regris; if there’s anything hurting morale or issues between personnel, you can tell me.”

“And that would help Commander Shirogane,” Keith said, doubtingly.

“Human beings are able to do what we do, because we have something more to look forward to – to return to,” Ulaz said, gently. “A home, a family, gives what we do, whatever we do, worth – meaning. We can do incredible things, go to extreme lengths for the things we leave behind. Keeping that safe… making sure that the things Shiro values are protected, makes him strong – it means he can keep going, no matter what happens. There is strength in more than just bone and muscle, more than weapons – the heart of a soldier is the strongest part. It needs care, too. Maybe more than anything else.”

Keith’s gaze drifted away again. “A home,” he murmured uncertainly.

“A family,” Ulaz encouraged. “A place to come back to, where you are safe and cared for.” Ulaz hesitated, before pressing forward. “That applies to you, too, Keith. You’re human too – and you are a part of this home.”

Keith rolled his lips in, eyeing the darkening horizon. Uncertain.

“C’mon,” Ulaz said softly, moving his hand to the back of Keith’s neck, above the collar and in his hair. “Let’s get some rest.”

Keith went with him obediently, turning away without hesitation and following him into the camp in comfortable silence.

Ulaz drew them up to Shiro and Keith’s shared tent, coming to pause at the entrance. Shiro’s absence lent the temporary quarters a sad sort of stillness, a pointed silence that he knew they both felt. He didn’t remark upon it; he’d said all he could, all he really wanted to.

“You don’t have to sleep here,” Ulaz offered. “You can sleep in my tent, or really any of the others. I don’t think anyone would mind.”

“No,” Keith replied, his voice and expression once more detached. “I’ll be alright.” He seemed to hesitate, then, looking back up at Ulaz. “Thank you,” he said haltingly, the weight of it alluding to more than the offer. “Good night.”

Ulaz gave him a small smile, huffing a laugh through his nose. “Good night, Keith. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Keith nodded once, disappearing into the tent, and Ulaz lingered, unsure. Was it wise to leave the boy alone like this… to leave an asset unattended, even? The boy was untethered, the one attachment he had gone from him indefinitely… was it too risky, trusting that he’d stay and wait, instead of taking the opportunity to run – whether it be after Shiro, or towards freedom?

Thinking back on Keith's time here at the camp, with them, made his ordinary security concerns seem superficial and far-fetched. Remembering how committed the boy was to his studies, practicing both alphabets even after his lessons were over… remembering how much Keith valued his time spent with Hunk and Benny, the interest he took in the things they did together… his staunch determination to learn and grow in every way, more than anything to make Shiro proud… no, this wasn’t a usual case of a prisoner of war given run of the camp. This was, Keith was, something else and had been from the very beginning.

And if he ran, if he left, Ulaz knew he’d only worry for the boy’s safety. He wouldn’t blame him, and he wouldn’t be able to hold it against him, the desire to be his own man some day.

Ulaz went to sleep easily that night, all but certain that Keith would be there in the morning. When Regris reported to him the next day, explaining that he’d found the boy asleep on the hill they’d watched Shiro depart from, curled up in his bedding and what looked like a few too-big t-shirts, Ulaz’s heart ached – but it stood firm. Keith wanted to be here. He wanted to stay – he wanted Shiro to come back home.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Keith developed a new routine for himself relatively quickly, filling up the hours he usually spent with Shiro. He still did all the things he did before, seemingly unchanged and unaffected; he went to his lessons, he worked with Benny and Hunk, he did errands for different personnel and departments. He showered in the morning and washed up at night and obediently went to the mess tent three times a day.

But now, in addition to all of that, he seemed to take Ulaz’s proffered work to heart. When Ulaz went to check in on Keith, he began to find him in unusual places – he caught him in the canteen, alone, quietly building sandwiches and grabbing pre-packaged snacks, later to be mysteriously found at the work stations of the people who tended to overwork themselves the most. He discovered him by the water pump, with an assortment of water bottles, filling them with filtered drinking water to bring back to those playing sports or working out in their down time.

Keith started to make appearances at leisure activities like basketball or baseball games, or lurking in the back of tents while people played card games or watched movies. When there was a gathering of quiet activities like reading or assembling puzzles he wordlessly took a seat with them and his pencil and notebook. He rarely spoke or engaged with anyone unless they initiated it; he seemed to prefer to watch – removed, his eyes drifting from person to person, ears cocked and twitching as he listened in. He began to do a seemingly aimless circuit of the camp in his free time, wandering in and out and between tents, over the dunes surrounding them – casually observing and doing nothing more.

Ulaz approved. It was good for Keith, he reckoned, to be more present – spend more time with other personnel. Most of them either paid Keith no mind or else doted on him in their own way – talking to him, tempting him with treats, offering him to join whatever they were doing. Some did it the way they’d coax an uninterested stray, and some did it the way they’d cajole a shy child, but either way – Ulaz was pleased. He’d made the right call with him… from the very beginning, all Keith had been offered and all that Keith had seemed to want was a purpose. Ulaz was glad he could give him that, and maybe some comfort in a time of upheaval.

At night, Keith continued to unashamedly leave the tent he shared with Shiro, arms full of bedding, and head up to the dunes overlooking the camp – facing the way Shiro had left. Both Ulaz and Regris had found him there, curled up with a book or half asleep in his mess of blankets and what was undoubtedly at least one of Shiro’s shirts. Once, when Ulaz had gone to check on Keith before turning in for the night, he’d found Regris standing beside Keith with his arms folded over the rifle slung against his front, where Keith sat in his makeshift bed – the both of them staring straight ahead in silence, their thoughts likely in the same place.

Days passed, one after the other, a steady procession with no interruptions. They’d received the anticipated check-in upon arrival a few days after leaving the camp, letting them know they’d stowed the Jeep, and were proceeding to the destination on foot. Their next check-in would be upon their departure, and hopefully there would be no reason to hear from them between then, or after.

Ulaz was used to the uncertainty – the silence. Used to waiting, used to being patient, used to being kept in the dark by necessity. In Shiro's absence, he started to think Keith was too. He never displayed any signs of distress that he could discern, nor did he ask, let alone pester anyone for news. It made sense, Ulaz considered; Keith was never considered a soldier, just a weapon. He’d never had a unit or a commanding officer – there had likely never been a reason to keep him informed, there had never been a loop to keep him in. Keith wasn’t stupid by any means, but he’d only ever been given the barest information pertaining to whatever atrocity they wanted him to commit – there was a reason Keith didn’t understand the conflict, wasn’t aware that there were even “sides”, good and bad and so, so many more in between. The very notion of separate nations, different peoples with different languages was still a foreign concept to him, albeit one he was beginning to learn.

The war here had been brewing and secretive for so long, the threads tangled and convoluted and crossing so many geopolitical borders it was impossible and probably pointless to unravel it. There was never just one culprit, a sole event; whatever powder keg had ignited and been bowled over was likely years in the making and had help from more parties than anybody knew.

It didn’t matter to them, this camp of strangers on the steppe. It hadn’t mattered in a long time. It was just a job now. The burden of morality was no longer on their shoulders. That, at least, probably came easy to Keith.

Ulaz kept the camp running smooth as butter and strict as clockwork in Shiro’s absence – he was better at that aspect, had more experience in the mundane details than in combat leadership or morale. He ran the drills, he checked in on his departments and his soldiers, he stayed in contact with their resources. Honestly the camp ran autonomously about 75 percent of the time; it was just the nature of their organization and the people within it that needed occasional reigning in. Theirs wasn’t a strictly military structure – they didn’t have formal ranks, they didn’t have that tight, punishing daily regimen to keep everyone in line and focused on their purpose. They were fortunate that most of the camp were veterans, able to buckle down when needed, but there were still a few that were on their first tour of any type, who lacked the discipline and respect expected from completing boot camp – people who had been hired on not for their experience and insight, but for their skills, their raw talent alone.

Pidge was one of those. Ulaz doted on her in his own quiet but firm way, and appreciated her proficiency in communications and data retrieval just as much as her skill in combat, but she really was irreverent and seemingly immune to authority.

“I noticed you weren’t at drills today,” Ulaz drawled, as he came within Pidge’s tent.

“Nope,” Pidge agreed, eyes fixed on her laptop screen, the glow illuminating the soft angles of her face in the artificial dark of her tent.

“You know when I say ‘Drills are at eight’, that’s my way of saying I expect to see you there,” Ulaz said.

“Got distracted,” she responded, unbothered. “Found a couple trees and diagrams… been trying to translate them. Didn’t want to bug you or Kolivan.”

Ulaz’s brow furrowed, coming deeper into the tent, craning over Pidge’s shoulder to squint at her screen. “Are these them?” He asked.

“Some of them,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they’re genealogy trees.”

“May I?” Ulaz asked, already moving to grasp the mouse. Pidge made a dismissive gesture for him to go ahead and leaned back in her seat, knuckling at her eyes.

Ulaz clicked and scrolled through the small folder of bare bones diagrams, eyes scanning over the block text. “You’re right,” he mumbled as he read. “They’re genealogy trees – or at least trying to be. There’s case numbers and breeds…” His frown deepened. “It’s a record of breeding attempts, best I can tell. Breeds, ages, sex, outcome…” His heart clenched, blood running cold at how many times he saw the same phrase culminating virtually every branch – FAILURE. FAILURE. FAILURE.

The further he read, Ulaz began to notice that these were solely breeding grids – there was no mention of manual genetic Splicing. No lists of humans and the DNA that went into creating them, instead the Splices were treated solely as their animal DNA – listed as reptiles, felines, canines, avians, bovines. “Is this all of them...?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” Pidge admitted irritably. “This is just what I’ve found so far. I’m honestly just cracking the easy ones and working my way up – for a relatively small operation, their encryptions are tighter than I expected. I was honestly hoping I could narrow my scope more than I’ve been able to thus far – I’m not even sure how I can, at this point. I mean, what am I supposed to do, just search for ‘dog’ and hope whatever I find relates to our little mascot?” She scoffed, flipping a hand towards her screen.

Ulaz froze as he came to the abrupt realization that somewhere in these grids, was Keith. One of these neat little labels was meant to represent the quiet boy they’d found on the side of the road – the boy with his hair in little braids, the boy in the kitchen studiously learning the names for all the vegetables, the boy kneeling on a chair in the recreation tent with his elbows on the table and his face hidden behind a hand of cards; the boy who slept on the hill, curled up with a book and one of his commander’s shirts, waiting for him to come back.

He felt his expression melt into one of desperate heartbreak as his stomach dropped, and he scrolled back through the grids, searching.

There were so many. So many Young, so many Splices, so many failures, so many breeds, but over and over again he saw it. Not a name, but a label.

0021XX1023-Ovcharka
14-18
Black
Blue
Kazakh-Unknown

Boiled down to nothing but a body and blood. Without name or worth or purpose – less than a tool, just an ingredient in a horrible recipe, a chemical reaction. Not human, barely even animal. It had disgusted Ulaz before, the very notion, the vague awareness of the cruelty… but now it was here, it was real and it had a name – a name he’d given him.

“I found him,” Ulaz croaked. “He’s… God. He’s in here so many times.”

“Where,” Pidge demanded, suddenly all business and laser-focused. Ulaz put a finger to the label. “What does it say?”

“Nothing we didn’t know,” Ulaz said, voice quiet. “General age and appearance, breed and ethnicity.”

Pidge typed away at a smaller, in-set window on her screen, entering information. “What do they have him listed as? Dog, wolf, hybrid?”

Ovcharka,” Ulaz said, then clarified, “a sheep dog.” He frowned. “Large, sheep dogs.”

Pidge paused. “… how large are we talking, here,” she asked.

“Big,” Ulaz said with emphasis. “Very big. There's a reason they're called wolf-crushers.”

Pidge brings up yet another window, a browser this time, and ran a quick search. When the image results crop up, she gives an abrupt, incredulous laugh. “This? He’s supposed to be Spliced with this? These things look like bears, Ulaz, and he’s what? A hundred pounds, soaking wet? He’s shorter than I am!” She snorted. “He really is a runt.”

“He might grow,” Ulaz said off-handedly, eyes flicking over the search results.

“You better hope he doesn’t,” Pidge said warningly. “You really want us to be looking at a Clifford situation? Have him grow as big as a house?”

“God I hope not,” Ulaz sighed distractedly. “Imagine how much he’d eat. Worse than your usual teenage boy. Hopefully it doesn’t get to be quite so bad, but… without information on either of his parents, there’s just no way of knowing how big he’ll get, if he ever does.”

“I’m still working on it,” Pidge reminded. “They might have information from other facilities, if they maintained some sort of network… if they did transfer him, like he says, it’d make sense that they’d have some sort of dossier on him, and on the others.” She glanced up at Ulaz with a smug smirk. “So am I forgiven for missing out on drills?”

“No,” Ulaz said flatly, leaning up and away from the computer and Pidge’s sulky scowl. “You could have just as easily worked on this afterwards. This is still, first and foremost a combat operation – the drills are for you, not me.”

“Never have I ever endangered my people,” Pidge said lowly, defensive. “You know that.”

“I know,” Ulaz said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “But it would set my mind at ease to see you honing those skills and bonding with your unit.”

The spike of indignation and irritation faded just as swiftly as it arrived, her shoulders slumping under Ulaz’s grip. “You know what I’m trying to do here, right,” she murmured. “Why I’m so invested?”

“I do,” Ulaz soothed.

“Sometimes… sometimes I don’t think Shiro does,” she confessed, softly, looking down at her keyboard. “I don’t think he knows what they’re like, the… the Galra. Not just them, but the people who make them, the facilities. I don’t think he understands the dangers, getting yourself involved with them, with any part of them.”

“I don’t think he knows it as well as say, you do,” Ulaz acknowledged, feeling her stiffen. Nobody ever questioned why she felt the way she did about Splices, nor why she was here. That wasn’t how their company worked, and even if it was, there was a lot about herself that she kept locked away. Family wasn’t a concept she was comfortable with, or open to discuss; she never said much about her life before, as a civilian, or why she was even here. Everyone was smart enough to accept that, and grew to like her in spite of how reserved and secretive she seemed. “But I do think that Keith is helping in that way. Shiro is learning more than he ever would have, and maybe becoming more invested, because Keith is involved. Something to maybe think about...?”

Ulaz saw her jaw clench, but she didn’t argue; in fact she said nothing, keeping her head bowed. Ulaz gently patted her shoulder, deciding he’d been dismissed. She wasn’t ready to hear what he had to say. “It’s good work, Pidge,” he said, rare open praise from him. “Keep it up, but don’t forget to get something to eat and to get some sleep – you have to decompress, same as any other program you run. Take care of your code, too.”

That at least got him a wry grin and a roll of her eyes. “Thanks, sir. Message received.”

Ulaz left the tent with a small smile of his own, satisfied, as he headed down into the camp, but inevitably, his mind drifted back to Keith and he found his boots taking him away from the main tents and to the outskirts, the motorpool and the recreation areas. Ordinarily, Keith would be with Coran, studiously pouring over the exercises the medic had crafted for him, but Coran had gone into town on business, leaving Keith largely to his own devices.

He stopped by the armory first, hoping to catch Hunk and succeeding. “Hey,” Ulaz said, ducking his head through the flaps but not daring to come inside. “How’s it going?”

Hunk grunted, bent over his workbench, dwarfing it as always. “It’s going,” he answered thoughtlessly, before darting a glance up at Ulaz. “What’s up?”

“Have you seen Keith?”

Hunk frowned. “Not recently,” Hunk said. “But I haven’t been in the mess much lately, or gone to see Benny. Think I saw him at breakfast. Everything okay?”

Ulaz couldn’t help a small smile at Hunk’s concern; the way his worry had changed course, focused more on Keith’s well-being than the danger he might pose unattended. “Everything’s fine,” Ulaz reassured. “Just wanted to check in on him.”

Hunk nodded, turning back to his work. “He might be out with Rolo,” he suggested. “He usually goes out with him whenever they decide to throw a ball around. Tell him I said Hi when you find him.”

Ulaz’s smile turned wry at Hunk’s disdain for sports, but gave a little nod of acknowledgment all the same. “Will do. Thanks, Hunk.”

He left Hunk to his schematics and headed out to what passed for a playing field; a mostly flat expanse of packed earth devoid of scrub and grasses, semi-sheltered by an outcropping that made it ideal for a makeshift baseball diamond, basketball court or football field. As he came up on it, he could make out a few of his people darting around between two poles with hoops – basketball today, then. There were a few spectators as well – Keith was one of them, standing out for his small size where he sat apart, legs crossed and hands in his lap, focused on the game.

From his vantage point, Ulaz could see how Keith’s posture hinted at what his body might become, if he grew, and despite what Ulaz had told Pidge, he did hope Keith would. He could see how strong his neck was, the breadth of his still slight shoulders compared to his waist. He wondered if Keith would be gawky, like he himself had been around that age; clumsy in a body that had grown too fast, and the notion endeared him.

Ulaz did want that. He did want Keith to grow, in every way. He hoped he’d get to see it.

Ulaz was less an idealist than Shiro. He hoped for the best, but still prepared for the worst, and had the years and the experience to not fight the inevitable. This was still a war, there were still conflicts, and there was no way to know how long it would last, where it would take them – and who would make it to the end. Ultimately they were all soldiers, even Keith, even here, even now – even in moments like this, playing basketball in the afternoon, they were in danger and trained and prepared to encounter it. It was best to acknowledge that, best not to forget.

Ulaz could see it now, in the easy confidence with which Keith held himself, even in stillness and in silence. His expression aged his face by years – the only part of him that looked his age, his body small and face soft, but the set of his jaw and the steeliness of his gaze belied his childish looks. Keith was calculating even now, alert, focused, aware of his surroundings – taking in the placement of the players, the terrain, the spectators, ears flicking under his hair as he listened in.

A part of him couldn’t help but wonder if this was an improvement on how Keith might have been before… when he was caged in that place, used by those people. Ulaz knew it was in the past, and that there was no use dwelling on it; they couldn’t change it, none of them, and worrying over it brought nothing but anxiety. But speaking with Pidge, looking over those breeding grids had brought it all into focus, had made it more real than general knowledge could. He knew it as a fact, what Keith had done, what he’d survived, how he’d lived, but seeing it for himself, in some way, made it feel present. Made it a part of the here and now – erased some of the distance between the vague concept, and the reality.

Had Keith been this flat, this blank before – in that place, with those people? Constantly under threat to himself, his mother – the other Young? Had he been so stoic, so detached, when he’d been faced over and over and over again with the violation of himself and others…? When he’d been told of the failures, was he distraught? Or was he relieved? Did he even know at all…?

Seeing Keith react, the one and only time, to he and Kolivan arguing even in low voices, face lined with anxiety and hands yanking out fistfuls of hair… he doubted Keith had been so stoic, so calm, back then. Just remembering it made his heart clench and stomach drop as abruptly as when it’d happened, the immediate instinct to protect and soothe overwhelming him.

Was he a bad a person, for wishing Keith would do it again?

Wishing Keith would cry, wishing he would have nightmares, wishing he would show fear, pain, sadness…? Wishing he would scream, rage, show anger and grief over what was done to him, over all he lost, all he suffered? Wishing all that pain were closer to the surface, within distance of him…? How was he supposed to soothe hurts he couldn’t reach – how could be possibly heal any of those carefully guarded wounds, if they weren’t shown to him?

It wasn’t his job. It wasn’t his responsibility, Ulaz knew that. But it was still, intrinsically, his place.

And Ulaz knew – even if you cannot heal the wound, you can still soothe the pain of it.

He strolled down to where Keith was seated on the edge of the shade afforded by the overhang, and folded himself to sit close to Keith’s side. Keith didn’t look up, not startled in the slightest by Ulaz’s appearance or proximity; he probably heard or somehow sensed his arrival long before he approached.

“Hey,” Ulaz opened with.

“Hello,” Keith replied, as he knew he was meant to.

“Having fun?” Ulaz asked.

Keith just grunted, unsure of how to reply.

Instead of pressing for more conversation, Ulaz looked back out over the makeshift court and eased an arm around Keith’s shoulders and tightened, drawing him in against his side, disrupting his posture. Keith didn’t fight it, just rearranged himself more comfortably against Ulaz’s side, in his arm. “Hey,” Ulaz said again, much more quietly, voice soft and private, still squinting into the distance.

“Hello…?” Keith offered again, confused, finally tilting his head back to look up at Ulaz, like a spell had been broken and he was just a boy again – that narrow-eyed, vigilant gaze wiped away.

“You’re a good boy,” Ulaz murmured, feeling Keith’s shoulders abruptly hitch up at the unexpected praise. He turned his gaze down to meet Keith’s, the boy’s eyes wide and mouth tight, surprised – vulnerable. “You’re strong, and you’re brave, and I’m proud of you.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Keith muttered, uncertainly.

“You lived,” Ulaz explained, earnestly. “You’re here. After everything, you’re still here.”

Keith didn’t look like he understood at all, searching Ulaz’s face for the answers he didn’t find in his words. Ulaz let him look for as along as he needed to, meeting his stare unwaveringly – absolute and unshakable in what he’d said, and letting Keith see that for himself. Finally, Keith looked away, brow still furrowed, his attention going back to the game – one small, rough hand coming up to gently clasp the arm around his neck.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

It had officially been a week since Shiro’s check-in upon arrival, and things remained quiet at the camp. The days passed the same as they did when Shiro was here, and Ulaz took it as a good thing. No news from inside or outside the camp, not even a murmur of movement, and he was okay with that; more than okay, with a quiet and steady routine. It kept his mind and body busy without the rush of adrenaline, and he was grateful for that.

Keith helped with that quite a bit, even if that wasn’t his intention. Being a target for Ulaz’s own brand of doting was enough. It was comforting to use a lull in business to go check on the boy, see what he was up to, and inevitably find him in someone’s company, diligently working and learning. Watching Hunk work through complex mathematics Keith couldn’t possibly understand but attentive all the same; working side by side with Benny like he’d been doing it for years, their communications unspoken, moving together like two well-oiled gears in one of their machines; walking the perimeter with Regris, hands empty, simply trailing behind the man like a comet, his eyes on the horizon.

And he had his time with Keith, too. With Coran still in town gathering supplies and meeting with contacts, Ulaz went back and forth between English and Russian exercises with Keith, marveling as always at the speed and ease with which Keith could alternate between the two – certainly more than Ulaz himself had, at the beginning, even having been raised in a similarly bilingual environment. Then again, being raised in total isolation, versus a majority monolingual society, would make quite a bit of difference.

They were working in Coran’s tent, the only space with an actual desk they could both work at, when they received an unexpected guest.

“Pidge,” Ulaz said in greeting, eyebrows rising with surprise. “What’s up?” Keith said nothing, fixing his gaze on her.

Pidge crossed her wiry arms over her chest, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. “Picked up a broadcast over night,” she said, looking uncertain. “I need a translation.”

Ulaz frowned; that was the furthest thing from uncommon. Russian was the predominant language here, naturally the majority of the broadcasts and transmissions would require a translation. There was no reason for Pidge to hedge, he’d translated dozens of calls and messages for them.

“Okay,” Ulaz drawled, sitting back from the desk and moving to stand.

“It’s not in Russian,” Pidge said, abrupt and awkward, her gaze darting away and to the side. Ulaz paused, halfway out of his seat with his hands on the desk. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not Russian. I can tell that much.”

“Turkic, then…?” Ulaz asked, his blood rushing with the anticipation of danger, mind racing to formulate plans and enact protocols, readying him for immediate action.

Pidge nodded grudgingly. “Can’t tell which, but it’s native.” That did nothing to soothe his jangling nerves; less so, when he looked down to Keith, and found his eyes already on him, calm and accepting – ready.

Keith looked away first, turning to Pidge. “Do you want me to translate?” He asked smally.

“If you can,” Pidge agreed, her tone and gaze colder when turned on Keith. “That’s the whole point of you being here, right?”

Keith didn’t nod, simply setting aside his pencil on the desk and rising from his seat. Ulaz straightened at Keith’s back in turn, and gestured for Pidge to lead the way.

The communications tent was set up on a small summit overlooking the camp, and that’s where they headed. Regris was standing outside the open flap, arms as always folded over the rifle hanging from his shoulder – his expression grim. He met Ulaz’s gaze as they came abreast of him and gave him a curt, acknowledging nod; letting him know that he was ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Ulaz nodded in return, tensed and distracted, as they entered the tent.

Their communications array wasn’t as large and expansive as Ulaz was used to, but that was to be expected; technology had advanced by leaps and bounds since his days in service, and there was Pidge’s expertise on top of that – he doubted anybody had communications as fine-tuned and progressive as what she’d built for their unit. The majority of it was digital and satellite now, less reliant on radio, and it showed the in the streamlined set-up Pidge brought them to.

Pidge pulled the single chair out, and pointed at the seat. “Sit,” she commanded, not even looking at the boy, and Keith obeyed. Ulaz clenched his jaw against her brusqueness; now was not the time, and besides that, he couldn’t tell whether she was speaking through nerves or simply being her usual spiteful self where it came to Keith.

“It came in around oh-three-hundred,” Pidge began to explain as she leaned in around Keith, setting up the playback. “Picked it up over broadband, if you can believe it. It’s on the short side and sounds recitative - might be code, or transmission of coordinates – definitely doesn’t sound like normal speech. It’s an open transmission, not encrypted at all – virtually anyone could pick it up, but maybe if they’re using a code they consider it secure enough.”

“Have you been able to source the transmission?” Ulaz asked, tersely.

“Not yet, but I’m still on the hunt. Reckoned the translation took priority.” She looked down at Keith where he sat beside her, hands in his lap. “Do you need something to write with?”

Keith shook his head, looking apologetic. “I don’t think I can write that fast,” he admitted.

Pidge didn’t reassure him, but she didn’t chastise him either. “Then are you ready?” She asked instead. When Keith nodded, shuffling forward in his seat and expression turning intent, she played the recording.

The speakers were turned low enough to not let sound be easily discernible outside the tent, but the voice was clear enough, and Ulaz immediately confirmed Pidge’s assessment – it wasn’t Russian, not in the slightest. The words trilled and rolled, glottal in parts, sharper than what Ulaz associated with Russian, even the softer sounds leaning harder on the ‘z’ than the full ‘zsh’. Like Pidge said, there was a strange cadence to the words, like the words or sentences had predetermined ends – reading off a script, maybe, or repeating back in code like she’d surmised. The language was lilting and quick, unfamiliar, but seemed all too familiar to Keith.

He was frozen in his seat, eyes wide and jaw slack, his hands clenched in his pant legs as he listened. He looked all at once rapt and distant as the voice continued, like he were being held in some horrible thrall, and Ulaz for the life of him couldn’t read his reaction at all. It wasn’t quite distress, or fear, but something else he couldn’t begin to understand. Keith’s gaze jerked up to Pidge, big and blue and glazed over with what could have been tears, staring up at her in shock and confusion. She stiffened, affronted and unsettled by the expression turned on her – but she didn’t pause, she didn’t stop, letting the recording end on it’s own.

“Keith?” Ulaz asked urgently, dropping to a crouch at Keith’s side but careful not to touch him. “What is it?”

Ulaz’s voice seemed to jolt Keith from whatever had taken hold of him, making him drop his gaze towards the ground and turning back to face the display. He swallowed, loud in the quiet, and seemed to gather himself. “It is Kazakh,” he confirmed, voice sounding taut and rough. “It might be a code, but if it is... I don't understand the message.”

“Then if it's not a code or a message, what is it,” Pidge pressed, impatiently. “What did it say?”

“It’s a song,” Keith replied, expression and voice tight with quiet hurt. “I know it.” He hesitated, then explained, “My mother used to sing it, to me.”

Pidge’s face pinched with what might have been pain, or regret, then, but Ulaz couldn’t find it in himself to feel vindicated. He fought instead his immediate instinct to soothe, to comfort, to console and did what he had to do, as the commander of this unit, as a soldier. “A song…?” He frowned, turning over the revelation. “You’re sure, it’s the exact one, word for word? They didn’t change anything?”

Keith didn’t look up. “I’m sure,” he said softly. “I remember.”

“Okay,” Ulaz acquiesced, gentle. “Do you think you’d be able to write out the words for us, so we can look them over?”

Keith nodded. “Yes. I can do that.” He looked up, holding out his hands, almost in supplication – his head still mostly bowed.

“Oh, shit – right, um,” Pidge muttered, casting about herself for a pen and a notebook – unused to taking handwritten notation – and handing them over into Keith’s waiting hands. Keith took both, and hunched over his knees as he began the tedious process of translating.

Ulaz looked up to meet Pidge’s gaze, getting to his feet, and they took a few paces away to give Keith room to focus on his work.

“I didn’t know,” Pidge stammered in a whisper. “I just thought-”

“There was no way to know he would react this way,” Ulaz said evenly. “And you’re right, that’s what he’s here for.”

Pidge glanced over her shoulder at where Keith was scribbling, expression conflicted, but moved the conversation forward in a more professional capacity. “What do you think it means? What’s the point? The way it was broadcast, it wasn’t intended to be easy listening music – it wasn’t sung, and it wasn’t on a public channel. It was just… left there, for anyone to hear and interpret… I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

Ulaz nodded. “It’s been done occasionally, when resources are limited and encryptions aren’t an option. But this is the first I’ve encountered it here, and it’s an odd choice… who would be the intended recipient of something like this…?” He sighed, similarly looking back at Keith. “If you can, if he’s available, send the transmission and Keith’s translation to Kolivan, see if he has any insight, something we might overlook.”

Pidge nodded, letting silence fall between them. “Sorry I said ‘shit’ in front of the runt,” she offered, awkwardly.

That startled a chuckle from Ulaz, however brief.

It wasn’t long before Keith rose from his seat, approaching them with notebook outstretched. “Here,” he said quietly. “I think I spelled some things wrong. I can do it again, if it’s too bad.”

Ulaz took it, flipping through the pages of large, clumsy handwriting, brow furrowing as he read through it. “It’s fine,” he said, hesitantly. “I can understand what you’re getting at, but I do think bringing Kolivan in is still a good idea, help translate some of the phrasing… 'black of my eye'?" He asked, brow furrowing.

"Yes," Keith confirmed. "This." He tapped a finger under one eye. "The black, the center - all that you see. Your world. Your everything."

Ulaz smiled as if he was choking back bile, sick at hearing the subdued explanation. He had to have learned that phrase - been taught it, by someone who loved him, very much. Had his mother told him that, called him that...? Had she told him that he was the black of her eyes? “It’s good work, Keith," he said finally, respectful and earnest. "Thank you, for telling me. You did great.”

Keith didn’t return the smile. “Can I be dismissed?” He asked instead, face and voice once again carefully neutral, meeting Ulaz’s gaze directly with eyes that were now hooded, no longer round with emotion. Whatever he’d felt in that moment, had been left in that moment – buried, no longer so close to the surface.

No longer within reach.

Ulaz’s smile faded. “Of course,” he said, quiet and disappointed. “Do you want to go back to Coran’s tent?” Please say yes. Please cry. Please reach out for me. Please let me ease the pain. Please, please.

“No,” Keith said flatly, and nothing more. Ulaz's heart sank, even though it shouldn't have.

“Okay,” Ulaz accepted, struggling against guilt and a feeling of defeat – failure, failure, failure. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Yes, sir,” Keith confirmed, giving him a small salute before exiting the tent – leaving in his wake a tense silence, fraught with regret and uncertainty.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Pidge found Keith in his makeshift bed on the hill, sitting in his nest of shirts and blankets with his back to the camp and his eyes trained on the fall of night along the horizon. Alone and still in the fading daylight, gaze fixed, he seemed immovable, timeless - as his breed was intended to be, patient and watchful.

She’d thought about what to say. What to do. When to say it, when to do it; how. But there wasn’t a formula to this – too many variables, too many unknowns. She couldn’t quantify either of them, or their reactions. Couldn’t extrapolate predictions.

It shouldn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, the way one Splice and one human felt about one another couldn’t realistically amount to a lick of difference in terms of outcomes, efficacy.

And yet she was still here, poised ten feet away from him, unsure but dedicated.

As she took the last few steps to approach, Keith turned towards her, his gaze dragging up to meet hers in that peculiar way of his; like he had to muster up the gumption to look at her, and she supposed that was probably the case. “Hello, Pidge,” he offered.

“Uh, yeah, hey,” she stammered, dropping her gaze first, shifting her weight around uneasily, trying to buy herself some time even though she’d already had plenty to try and find the words she wanted.

Keith waited her out mildly, the weight of his stare seeming to lend pressure, making her aware of every second passed in silence.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, arms once again folded over her chest, hands tucked up under them defensively.

Keith frowned up at her, confused. “For what?” He asked.

“If I hurt you,” Pidge explained, struggling. “You know. Your, uh, your feelings. I’m sorry.”

Keith’s frown persisted. “I’m not hurt,” he reassured cautiously. “I don’t… feel hurt.”

Pidge heaved a sigh, somewhere between frustrated and aggrieved. “I mean, if you’re sad, or mad, I didn’t… mean… to make you feel those things,” she said lamely.

Keith’s expression eased some, though he still seemed uncertain – wary. “You don’t have to apologize to me,” he excused. “You did your job, and I did my job. That’s what matters.”

Pidge supposed it was his attempt at being reassuring, but it really wasn’t. It didn’t feel right… it was too dismissive, too easy.

She could have left it at that, accepted whatever passed for his forgiveness and moved on. That’s really all she’d come here to do, apologize, find some way to cleanse herself of the gross guilty feeling that had lingered in her gut. She knew he was right, that they’d both done their jobs and anything else was irrelevant, but she was just so fixated on the way he had looked at her, then, when he heard the first words of the transmission. She couldn’t describe it then, but the more she thought about it, the more she began to believe she had an ugly word for it.

Betrayal. Despite the indifference with which she’d treated him, the occasional hostility, he had still come to trust her in some capacity – look up to her in some way, and something she had done had inadvertently hurt him. She wasn’t out to borrow misery, she hadn’t done what she’d done out of malice and she knew that – but she wasn’t sure Keith knew it as well as she did.

“It does matter,” she insisted with uncharacteristic softness. “It matters to me, and it should matter to you. I didn’t mean to upset you, but it’s okay if you are… if you’re upset about the situation, or with me, or just whatever. I’d understand.”

Keith’s frown returned, but this time it looked more thoughtful. “I don’t understand,” he said cautiously, and she could understand that; this was probably more words than they’d ever exchanged period, let alone in one sitting, and Pidge was… well, she was trying to be comforting. Nice. “How does it matter, if I’m upset?” He seems to work his way through the notion, before asking, “… did I do something wrong?”

Pidge wanted to groan with frustration, but held back. “No,” she said. “You know I would tell you if you did. It matters, because it sucks to feel bad, and it’s important to not feel bad. You know? It’s better to feel good, than to feel bad. Just in general, as a person.”

“As a person,” Keith repeated, dropping his gaze back to the horizon, and Pidge winced. She wasn’t sure how she could have worded that better, but she couldn’t lie about what he was either – Keith knew as well as she did, he wasn’t a human being. He was something else, something different. Something bad.

But maybe he was more than that, too.

Keith shrugged. “I don’t think I feel bad,” he said, his face relaxing as Pidge’s pinched into a frown.

“Aren’t you sad…?” She pressed, confused. “Don’t you… I don’t know, don’t you miss her? Your mom?”

Keith shrugged again, looking away, dismissive. “I don’t think I do,” he admitted. “I don’t think I can. Not the way I’m maybe supposed to miss her.”

“Keith, you’re allowed to miss your mother,” Pidge breathed, horrified. “No matter what you are, all creatures feel grief… feel sad, over missing someone who’s gone.”

Keith just shook his head. “I’m sad she’s gone. I wish she was still here, but I…” His jaw worked. “I don’t remember her so well, anymore,” he confessed in a whisper. “It’s been a long time, and a lot has happened… a lot, a lot of bad things. Things that are hard to remember, so I try to forget. I think I’ve forgotten her too. So maybe I don’t miss her the right way,” he murmured. “How can you miss a person you don’t even remember.”

She didn’t want this, but she’d invited it. She’d asked, she’d prodded, like she always did and now there was this tightness in her chest and throat, and she didn’t want it. She wanted to see the mongrel little dog-boy from the mountains, not this – not a child, suffering and in pain over the worst loss a child can ever experience.

The loss of a parent. She would know better than most… maybe understand, better than most what it was like to lose a parent so violently, so abruptly.

The thought wasn’t welcome. She wasn’t cut out for this – this was Shiro’s place, or Ulaz’s, not hers. It should be them, but it wasn’t; right here, right now, it was just her and it was just Keith alone in the silence and the twilight. Two children forced to grow up before they ever should have, who knew pain and loss and struggle; children who were doing their best to find their purpose in the wake of that trauma. And how often had she wished, when the loss had been fresh, when the heartache was tearing her apart from the inside out, that she wasn’t so alone…?

Pidge heaved a sigh of resignation, uncrossing her arms and dropping to an inelegant seat in the dirt at Keith’s side, letting her legs sprawl out in front of her. “I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to miss somebody,” she said. “If there’s a part of them that’s gone, that you wish more than anything was here… then you miss them. There’s no other way to do that.”

Keith turned to look at her then, seemingly unbothered by her closeness. “Is that normal?” He whispered. “To feel that way?”

“Yeah,” Pidge whispered back sadly. “When we love somebody a lot, a whole lot, it hurts when they go away. Even if it’s just for a little while. So when they go away forever… it hurts even more.”

“… even for something like me?” Keith asked, voice dropping even lower.

Pidge shrugged, honest. “I don’t know if other Splices… Galra, can feel things the way you do. But I think it’s normal for you. You know?” She didn’t wait for a reply, looking out over the dunes. “I think that’s mostly universal, across most animals, sadness. Especially… especially something like losing your Mom. I think it’d be weirder if you weren’t sad, honestly.”

When she turned to look at Keith, she found herself pinned by the intensity of his blue eyes in the dark, lambent in an unnatural way in such a human face. She tried not to be unnerved by the yellow sheen, and looked instead at the way he looked at her with such hope, as if she were offering him redemption. Humanity.

“I miss my Mom all the time,” Pidge found herself confessing, without meaning to. “She’s still alive, but she’s far away, and I… I know she’s hurting. I know she misses me too. That hurts, and it makes me sad, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Keith says cautiously, trying it out. “If your feelings are hurt, too.”

Pidge hated the way the corners of her mouth tightened, like she wanted to smile at the gesture. She didn’t. She didn’t-

“C’mere,” she said, opening one arm. “Let’s hug it out.” When Keith stiffened, uncertain, Pidge didn’t revoke her offer. “Only if you’re cool with it, though. No worries.”

It took a minute, her arm starting to droop, but slowly, he inched within reach, letting her arm fold around him. She heaved a sigh. “What a fucking mess,” she mumbled into the head of coarse, dark hair as she brought her other arm up for a proper embrace.

“Sometimes,” Keith mumbled into her shoulder, one hand gently touching her side. “But it’ll be okay.”