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A House Is Not a Home

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Shiro had been on this assignment for only three months before he’d decided he’d gotten the short end of the stick.

Being discharged from the military, whether honorably or not, didn’t leave a lot of options for one’s future. Add on the amputation of his dominant arm and barely handled PTSD, and his options dwindled yet further. There were programs, there was support, but nothing clicked. Financially he was fine, between his savings, disability and retirement, and he had friends and family at home. The problem was that “home” didn’t feel like “home” anymore.

It felt immensely disassociative to live in an apartment, by himself, in a quiet neighborhood. There was a surreal quality to determining his own hours, sleeping in a soft bed, picking an outfit every day, eating food he prepared himself with the option for further variety if he wanted to. He could leave when he wanted, return when he wanted, mostly because he was on his own. He was alone, and directionless. His daily life held no real purpose, especially no shared purpose.

He saw his therapist regularly, and considered medication. He went to physical therapy, and occupational therapy with his cumbersome new prosthesis. He had lunch with his friends and dinner with his Mom. He went grocery shopping, and he went to the gym. He even saw a movie, once, which wound up being a mistake – alone in the dark with flashing lights and echoing sound. But the point was, he tried. He tried to live as normal a life as possible. He didn’t try to return to who he was before boot camp or before deployment, he knew better than that, at least. He just tried to… adjust, in every way, to only having one hand, to having too much freedom, to living in a quiet, peaceful world in which he contributed nothing.

When he’d been approached in a bar, offered a job, offered a return to the life he’d been forced to leave, he’d been weak. He’d caved, and given in. All it had taken was a few weeks, casual meetings in broad daylight with like-minded people, and the magic words, “Nothing’s changed. Not you, not the job, just the employer.” He’d been sold. The offer of the newest advancements in prosthesis technology, returning him to almost 100% mobility, was just the cherry on top.

The transition hadn’t been easy. He’d had to get trained up again, fighting fit, but he wasn’t alone. He was in a company again, a part of something, with people who understood. People who didn’t look at where his arm should be, at the flat look in his eyes, and see something sad that needed to be fixed. They saw a whole man, a man with worth and purpose, and it did more for him than a soft bed and therapy ever did.

He left his lie of a life and returned to his truth. He’d said goodbye to his mother, and his friends, and left a story spun in his wake. He’d told them he’d found a consulting job overseas where his experience would be invaluable, and he comforted himself with the knowledge that there was some truth to that. He Skyped his Mother nearly every week, and talked to her over the phone more often than that to allay her fears; seeing her son come home a broken, quiet man had done enough damage. He found he didn’t have to fake his cheer as much anymore – he was genuinely content, for the first time in almost a year.

But now, three months in, Shiro was discovering that while he hadn’t changed, the game had.

He was fine with advances in weaponry. That was standard, predictable, a matter of finding the best way to counteract – different armor, moving the placement of trenches, changing camouflage, utilizing new technology. He was even accepting of changes in tactics and strategy; he didn’t always agree with them, but he acknowledged that they were necessary.

What he didn’t agree with, was attempting to alter the soldiers.

It had been an issue even before he was in the service. Rumors about how foreign powers were experimenting with genetic mutations and manipulations – how some countries had succeeded. How his own home country had decided to try it, however many reassurances they gave about informed consent and only experimenting on grown adults and not embryos. They talked about applications outside the military, treating mental and medical conditions by altering people on the genetic level.

At the time, Shiro had disagreed fundamentally. It was wrong. For every life it saved, there were more that were destroyed. People who died. People who were made into something they were never meant to be, whether by accident or by design.

Then they began to work with splicing – taking human DNA and working animal DNA into the gaps. At first, just for cosmetic reasons; eyes like a cat’s, a jaw and teeth like a snake’s, hair like a horse’s. It was like the new plastic surgery: status, celebrity, aesthetics, all the pathetic and superficial things Shiro had never been interested in. It gained traction, it became publicly acceptable, and then, inevitably, it had been weaponized.

The soldiers Shiro fought with weren’t always fully human, now. The majority of his colleagues were human, sure, people who’d left, gone rogue, returned to their roots, rebelled against a system they no longer agreed with. But some of them were the result of something else. Something wrong, something they’d never agreed to, products of a machine that pushed for results too hard, too quick.

And there were more on the other side. Victims turned into aggressors, full of rage, and more often than not, humans who had forgotten their own humanity and the humanity of the victim they now treated as weapon. It didn’t matter that these Spliced humans often looked and sounded and acted like humans; there were people who saw only their genetic make-up, and the advantages they afforded.

He’d seen and even killed men and women in collars and restraints, nearly feral with pain and rage, submitting to their baser animal instincts. Some of them were young… too young. The result of breeding Spliced humans like dogs, trying to merge the best of both combined species. The majority of the time they found these Young, there was no hope for them. They were feral, or they couldn’t survive for long before their bodies failed, but more often than not, the enemy would rather destroy the weapon than allow it to fall into the wrong hands. He’d seen more dead children here, than he’d ever done in the service.

They’d warned him that the assignment would be a long-term one. That it was more complicated than he was used to, even if it seemed superficially simple. Radicals hiding out in the Ural mountains and Caucasus, the steppes of Kazakhstan, hunting down extremists that had turned into terrorists, destroying villages, homes and crops instead of the governments or political parties they’d raged against. It had still sounded like relatively honest work, even without the details, without understanding the conflicts; there were families in danger, families he could protect, lives he could potentially save. He wanted to do that again. He wanted it so badly he’d taken the assignment.

And now, three months in, and he was beginning to realize he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Even his colleagues agreed it was a bad job, probably the worst they’d been on. Out of everybody in his company, he was the only one with a life he could return to; the rest of them had taken the job without being romanced into it. They’d taken the job they knew nobody else would want, the job with an abysmally low opportunity for success, the job with no deadline for extraction. They bit the bullet for the rest with families, with futures, with other chances and opportunities. It looked like a suicide mission, and Shiro was the only idiot who had gone into it optimistically, altruistically. After these three months, that notion of doing good was crippled and beginning to wane.

That wasn’t to say that he never got what he wanted out of it. He got to do what he’d always excelled at, and he had slowly but steadily regained the family he had lost, brothers and sisters in arms, back to back, fighting for the lives of others. He’d seen incredible views, visited places he’d never seen or even heard of, tried foods he’d never even considered. He’d met grandfathers and grandmothers, families, children, and been welcomed into their homes. He’d gotten to know people he never would have met, and save their lives for at least one more day. He’d gotten teary-eyed smiles, and gratitude in languages he didn’t even know. But he was starting to learn. He was starting to get to know these people, their home, their language, their culture. Late at night, unable to sleep for fear or pain, he thought about those people. The people he’d met and helped. Thought of the kids that would grow up with both parents – the kids who would grow up at all.

It was hard, sometimes, to remember his reward. Harder on long nights where the fight seemed interminable, and he wasn’t able to see the changes he’d made in the bigger picture. Harder still when they lost their own and had to learn new faces. He hadn’t missed that.

Still, it was always the little things, the things you never could have anticipated, that changed your life. The things you never recognized as a new beginning until years after the fact. That’s how it always began and today, in a foreign country, three months and ten days into a miserable and very illegal assignment, in the middle of someone else’s war, was going to be no different.

He was in the middle of his lunch when it happened, a normal if not necessarily daily occurrence of Kolivan showing up at his camp with news. Kolivan led a small group of localized rebels from outlying villages that had separated from the extremists a year or so back called the Marmora; they specialized in guerrilla warfare and even nomadic strategies on horseback, using illegally obtained government-grade weapons and sometimes even basic farm equipment solely to protect homesteads and prevent being swallowed by “territories” that attempted to establish themselves. He was an imposing man, tall and broad and perpetually unsmiling, and carried himself with military tension. Shiro never asked if he’d ever served for any side before, and didn’t consider it necessary. It was obvious enough to Shiro.

“Kolivan,” Shiro greeted, setting aside his bowl and getting to his feet, taking Kolivan’s offered hand in one of his own. “Always good to see you alive and kicking. What can we do for you?”

“Walk with me,” Kolivan said without preamble, and turned to stride away. The soldiers eating a few feet away looked up at that, curious, but Shiro just shrugged and waved off their attention, falling into step with Kolivan.

“We took an outpost, two nights ago,” Kolivan began. “High in the mountains, rural. Barely military at all. But they had some of Them… the Galra.” Shiro frowned, understanding Kolivan’s concern. Here Splices were referred to as ‘Galra’, creatures without humanity, and a lot of times they were right; Splices went feral here, more often than not. Abused, neglected, often times restrained and kept in cages like dogs, starved and trained into aggression, it was no wonder. Add active combat to the mix and it was almost a foregone conclusion. But usually these Galra were property of larger groups with greater resources and traction, with access to Splicing facilities. Not rural outposts in the mountains.

“Guard dogs…?” Shiro asked, always reluctant to use the phrase. Kolivan nodded.

“There were some. But there more inside, not guards, not trained… Young. A breeding facility, we think, remote to keep their research classified.”

Shiro swallowed. “Were there any…?” Usually, those outfits with viable Young would rather ‘destroy the sample’ than risk it falling into enemy hands. They would rather execute children in cold-blood than allow anyone even the possibility of the upper hand. Blessedly, Kolivan nodded.

“Our ambush was successful. They did not have the time or the ability to terminate their research, and that includes the Young. The only Galra who died were those that were loose and able to attack. It was unavoidable. We captured many, human and Galra, but some escaped. We’re concerned for the villages in the area… some of the escapees were Galra.”

“So you would like us to participate in a search and retrieve,” Shiro said, already knowing the answer and plotting the logistics. “How many people would I need, what area are we going to need to cover…? What Galra are we looking at, what sort of containment?”

“From what we saw, we shouldn’t have lost many. It was a small operation, and most of the Galra were killed in action. There shouldn’t be more than a handful of humans and Galra still on the loose. The few Galra we encountered showed few distinguishing species markers… a few of them may have been big cats, one roared and another had claws and a long tail. We’re still taking stock of the casualties and the prisoners; you are welcome to question those humans we took, but I think hunting down the escapees while we question them would be the best use of your time and skills. As for manpower, I leave that to you.”

Shiro agreed. They headed back into the camp, and his four most reliable colleagues were already suited up and ready to go. The sight brought an amused tilt to his mouth as Kolivan stalked past him to his mount, and set out ahead of them. “Kolivan just brought us a hunting expedition. Anyone interested?”

“The fuck does it look like?” Asked Pidge, the smallest in their company, as she knuckled her combat goggles up her nose. She was small, but every ounce of her was piss and vinegar. She was their technical engineer and one of their chief strategists, but every person in their company pulled their weight in combat.

“What are we looking at?” Hunk, Pidge’s technical contemporary and enormous shadow, was their heavy weapons expert. He was as huge as Pidge was small, but his nervous disposition made him seem much smaller than his stature implied. He was a ball of anxiety off the field and a perfectionist on top of that, but drop him into an active situation and he was cool as a cucumber and hurtled around like a juggernaut. Shiro had seen him throw down a horse, once, though he’d regretted hurting the animal after the fact.

“A Marmora outfit took out a research facility in the mountains two days ago, but weren’t expecting as many Splices as they found. There were some escapees, Kolivan estimates less than ten total, human and Splice. Says they’re still investigating, but want those escapees off the map and in custody sooner rather than later. They scattered down the mountain, but some of the Splices may have made it to civilization by now. He mentioned some might have been big cat varieties, but no guarantees on the rest. Most of the more aggressive Splices were neutralized on contact, it seems.”

“Research facility?” Pidge asked. “What kind of research are we talking here, if they had big cats as guard dogs?”

“Breeding,” Shiro admitted, jaw clenched. He turned to Ulaz as soon as he said it, knowing how he felt. “Kolivan says the Young are safe, for now. They weren’t able to terminate them before Kolivan took command of the outpost. There’s no guarantee they’ll all survive, but at least none were killed.”

Ulaz’s shoulders visibly relaxed. He didn’t say much about his personal life, but the way he handled children and families spoke volumes. He was confident and respectful, and nothing brought out the fight in him like a threat to a child. The few times they’ve had to deal with dead or dying children or Young, it had been he and Ulaz that saw to their final moments and burial. It had created a bond between them that didn’t require knowing each other personally; what they’d shared out here was enough to cement a friendship and a type of mutual command over their company. If Shiro was absent, Ulaz took command, and the company respected them both.

“Sounds like it should be a nice jaunt,” Coran piped up, eyes squinting and red mustache curling up with a smile. “Nothing like the bracing mountain air to get the blood pumping!” Coran was not only their chief medic and field surgeon but their morale, and served as a sort of father figure to their little company, minding meals and sleep schedules and acting the part of counselor for those that struggled. Everyone in camp knew that if they were struggling, they could always go to Coran for advice or an ear to bend. It had cutdown on their mortality rate, even. Men were less likely to eat a bullet or recklessly abandon their lives with someone who cared close by – and Coran made sure they all knew he cared, in his own raucous way, getting to know everyone by name and interacting with them personally. Shiro wondered, sometimes, where he found the energy after all these years – but someone in their line of business didn’t get to be Coran’s age by luck or accident.

“So while they babysit, we have to clean house,” Pidge said wryly. “Nice of them to give us the work, I guess. Put food on the table.” Shiro shot her a look, and she held her hands up peaceably. “I get it, I get it. Do the job you have the skills for. Wouldn’t want them setting up our satellite arrays either, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Pidge had her own mixed feelings about Splices, undoubtedly stemming from something personal, and she and Shiro had talked about it often enough now that she’d already memorized his reply. Shiro didn’t mind it; it meant familiarity, and no hard feelings. “Food on the table means Hunk’s cooking,” he pointed out with a grin, earning a shy smile from Hunk in return. “Worth it.”

“Worth it,” the rest of them agreed.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

They met with Kolivan at the Marmora camp, and were briefed again before heading up the mountain, with the promise of information relayed as they discovered it. Pidge saw to the communications relay, with Hunk’s assistance in testing range, and Kolivan adapted as he always seemed to. He sent them off with additional supplies, and wished them luck in the usual way.

“Don’t die. It would be a hassle having to coordinate with someone new.”

They decided to split up and work the mountain in a grid, from the outpost down. They got lucky right out the gate, and found one of the humans had circled back to hole up in the ruins of the outpost. They didn’t gather any new information, just a wild-eyed explanation that he had “freed the Volkodav” and knew it wouldn’t return here. He refused to leave until coerced, convinced that leaving the outpost would mean making himself vulnerable to whatever he had “freed”.

“He says you cannot understand. He has set the Volkodav free, and it’s rage knows no mercy, it fears only this place,” the Marmora guide had translated for them.

“What’s a Volkodav?” Pidge asked.

“It means ‘Wolf-Crusher’,” Ulaz translated quietly. They all shared a look. With a Splice, there was no telling how well it’s DNA was mixed; it was almost always skewed to one side or the other, no matter how many species they tried to add to the mix. They could look human, or look like a monster. With a name like the Wolf-Crusher, it seemed likely it would be closer to the monster end of the spectrum.

They’d sent the man down the mountain with the guide, hearing his defeated wails of fear long after they’d disappeared into the mist. It was a haunting sign of what awaited them on this mission.

It was painstaking tracking work, and agonizing having to rely on Ulaz’s half understanding of the rural mountain languages to get new leads, but in less than a week they’d found four humans and two Splices, one already dead and one almost there, and sent them back to the Marmora camp. There was no hope for the remaining living Splice, and Shiro knew it. They all knew it. It’s legs had been broken in a fall down the mountain, infection had set in. It was already rabid with pain and fever, and who knew how long the miserable creature had been trapped that way. The only solace Shiro could find was in knowing that in their final hours, they’d be treated as human, as what they were meant to be. He hoped, as always, it would set their soul at peace.

“We’ve received word from one of the local farm villages,” Kolivan’s voice muttered gruffly in his earpiece, dropping in and out with the mountain’s interference. “They’ve found a body. They won’t go near it to confirm whether it’s human or Galra. They say it’s been there a few days.”

“Any chance it’s the Volkodav?” Shiro asked, frowning. They’d worked the grid almost to completion, but it was tough to know when the job was done when there was no way of knowing how many people and Splices he was looking for. He, personally, decided he wouldn’t feel he was finished until he’d found the one they’d called Wolf-Crusher. Something with a name like that couldn’t be allowed to roam this mountain.

“No way of knowing,” Kolivan sighed. “The man could barely describe it. He said it was a pale spirit haunting the road, laying in wait for travelers. They weren’t allowing anyone in or out of the village until it left.” Kolivan’s voice gave nothing away to indicate whether he believed in the same superstitions or no; after fighting as long as they had, it either went one way or the other. Either you believed in anything, or nothing.

“Alright, message received. We’ll make that our next stop. Let them know we’re a day out, but we’ll be there to take care of it,” Shiro conceded with a sigh of his own.

Pidge groaned from beside him and threw herself backwards into the dirt. “Another one? How many of these assholes did Kolivan lose up here?”

“It’s on our grid anyway,” Hunk attempted to appease. “Besides, farming villages are the best. They have all the best supplies to barter.”

“We may not even have to barter,” Coran interjected optimistically. “Perhaps just removing the body will be enough! Imagine, chickens… eggs… grain…”

Pidge whined. “You guys know all my weaknesses. Why am I so cheap?”

“The company would probably beg to differ,” Ulaz pointed out wryly. “Bet they pay extra just because you can set up the wifi.”

“False. They get a discount because I’m trial-sized,” Pidge huffed back, throwing a twig at where Ulaz sat across from her. Ulaz didn’t look very impressed.

“Fun-sized,” Hunk encouraged. “Like a little mini Snickers.”

“Oh my God that sounds so good. I’m gonna get someone back home to send me some,” Pidge declared.

Shiro listened in on their good-natured bickering, looking over their grid and thinking about his own people at home. He’d told his mother he’d be out of touch for a week, going camping with some friends from work. Another in a long line of white lies he couldn’t really bring himself to regret.

The sooner he got back to base camp, the sooner he could Skype her and tell her all about how safe and happy he was.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

True to his estimation, they arrived at the opposite side of the farming village in about a day, and were met by an older man who was probably Coran’s age but hard-living and war made him look much older. Kolivan was there beside the man, serving as liaison.

“I took a look myself, from a distance,” Kolivan admitted. “They wouldn’t allow me any closer and still allow me back into the village, for fear of possession. I doubt very much that this is the one you’re looking for, but they’re definitely from the outpost judging by their clothing.” His mouth tightened into a line as they walked through the quiet village, the people hushed by fear. “I will warn you in advance, the body is… small.”

Shiro paled, and both he and Ulaz stumbled to a stop. “You told me you’d gotten all the Young,” Shiro said, trying to keep the accusatory tone from his voice. “Were there children – human children, too?”

Kolivan shook his head, half turning to face the two of them. “No, no children. All the Young had been kept in the nursery, or so we thought. There was nothing to indicate otherwise, but perhaps, one might have…”

Shiro let his breath shudder out of him as his eyes fell shut, feeling a weight in his gut that wasn’t there before. “Dammit. Dammit, okay. Thanks for the head’s up.” When he opened his eyes, his expression was firm. “I’ll go. Ulaz, stay here with the team and Kolivan. I’ll let you know what we’re looking at.”

“Sir yes sir,” Ulaz replied quietly, snapping off a salute, and standing back with their team, now as hushed and somber as the rest of the village. Kolivan stayed behind as well, watching Shiro walk the main road out of the village, towards the tree that served as a marker for the body, his gun unslung from his shoulder and nestled in his arms.

It was a long, quiet walk, and Shiro felt his gut sink with every step. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to do this. A body tally on the field. Retrieving members of his own company. Identifying whatever was left of one of their own. But this, walking down this road to what was almost certainly the body of a child, that had been laying here for days… unnoticed, unmissed, no wailing parents begging him to bring home their baby… it was something else.

No child deserved to die alone like this. No child deserved to be feared and forgotten in their final moments.

Grit crunching under his boots, he finally came up on the body, lain out where it was on the side of the road, like they’d just collapsed mid-stride, and maybe they had. In terms of all the grisly sights war had afforded him, this one wasn’t so bad. They weren’t bloated, despite laying in the sun, and whatever wounds they’d taken weren’t immediately visible, under the loose T-shirt and military surplus trousers; under the dirt from the mountain, caked blood, ants and flies. They still had both their arms, twisted and pinned under their body, and both their legs, sprawled out long with their ankles hooked together like they’d tripped over their own feet. He couldn’t tell their sex right away, they were so thin, their dark hair a long mop surrounding their head, ruffled by the stiff mountain breeze.

Shiro swallowed, listening to the flies buzz around the body, taking in the preternatural stillness of the gnarled fingers. His throat felt tight, and the usual sting was in his eyes. Kolivan was right. The body was small. Too small to be an adult. The laces of their boots were wrapped so many times around the skinny ankles…

He took a deep breath, and slung his weapon back over his shoulder, dropping to a slow crouch by the head and preparing himself to take on the weight of this child’s dead face for the rest of his life. He always remembered. He reached down with his remaining flesh and blood hand, and moved the heavy mass of hair away from their face.

“Oh goddamit,” he choked out, his voice tight and small, agonized. “It’s a kid,” he explained for Ulaz’s sake. Just a kid. Maybe twelve, at most. Despite the gauntness of the face, their cheeks and jaw were softened with puppy fat. Their eyes were mostly shut, thankfully not open and glassy with that vacant stare Shiro had seen so many times in the faces of the dead, worse when they’d clouded over after a few days. It was the face of someone who should be smiling in school photos – not crusted over with blood and dirt on the side of the road. He turned his hand over to smooth his fingers through the thick hair, as if he could do any good here anymore. “Goddamnit, sweetheart. Goddamnit.”

Moving the hair revealed more that Shiro didn’t want to know, exposing the side of their face and the long slope of their neck – his face, his neck, as he could make out an early Adam’s apple protruding above the loose dog collar locked around his throat. His ears were horribly scarred, cropped into points like someone would do with a pit bull.

He was a Young. A child. A product of that disgusting facility on the mountain.

Don’t think about it, Shiro told himself even as his breath gasped out of him. Don’t think about what could have been. He couldn’t help himself, his breath punching out of him as he realized this child had been born and bred to fight, had never known a family. He would never go to school, or get his heart broken by a girl. Even before he’d died all alone in the middle of nowhere, his life had been cut short.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, all he could get out, and gently clasped his hand over the cold throat and the collar around it. “You deserved better, sweetheart. I am so sorry.”

He then almost immediately pissed himself, freezing as he felt a rattle in the boy’s throat.

It could be anything, and Shiro knew this. A death rattle - he could have shifted the body somehow, and the air remaining in his lungs had been forced out. It could be vermin activity, insect activity. The boy had been laying here, in the sun for at least two days. Suffering and struggling down the mountain for days before that, all on his own, unprepared. There was no way…

He flipped the boy’s body onto his back regardless, letting him sprawl as he put his ear over his mouth, and his flesh hand over his bony ribs, over his heart, and waited. There, a slow shallow bump under his palm, a ghost of breath over his ear. He ripped himself back up, putting his hands on the boy’s face, slapping at cold, hollow cheeks as he spoke to Ulaz. “He’s alive, Jesus Christ, he’s alive! C’mon kid, wake up, look at me, look at me!” There was still no reaction, but he didn’t stop, terrified that he’d made the wrong call, the boy was dead, he’d wanted him to live so badly that his mind had given him something when there was nothing there.

There was the pounding of boots and sudden shadows cast over him. “Are you sure?” Coran asked first, getting to his knees beside him, and dropping his field pack.

“I, I don’t know, I’m pretty sure, I felt him breathe-” Shiro stammered, skittering to the side to give Coran room to maneuver.

“That’s a fucking Splice,” Pidge muttered, seeing the collar. “Holy fucking shit, how…”

“He’s just a kid,” Shiro barked.

“Are you sure we should be this close?” Hunk asked. “He’s not restrained, we don’t know if he’s feral…”

“Get him up, let me see his face,” Coran commanded, and Shiro shifted his grip to behind the boy’s neck, hauling the limp, unresponsive body up against his chest. The boy’s head lolled, unresponsive as Coran pressed a stethoscope over his chest, then held two fingers to his wrist. “I have a pulse and heartbeat,” Coran announced without fanfare, then leaned up and pried one of the boy’s eyes open, shining a penlight into it.

The boy gave another shuddering breath, followed by what was almost a whine of fear.

“Fuck!” Pidge exclaimed. “What the fuck!”

“What do we do?” Hunk asked, terrified.

Shiro let Ulaz take command as he cradled the small, bloodied body to his own. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” he murmured soothingly, knowing the boy likely spoke no English if he even spoke at all, hoping the sound of his voice would be enough. He patted the boy’s cheek, wiping ants and blood away. “You did it, you made it, you’re okay, buddy, you’re safe.”

The boy’s eyes were bleary, unfocused and still lidded heavily, but Shiro could see now that they were a deep, deep blue-grey, and there was still life in them. He smiled, hoping it came across as gentle, comforting, but the boy didn’t seem to see it, his eyes slowly falling back shut.

They weren’t burying a child today. Today was a good day.

Chapter Text

The village wouldn’t allow them back in with the Young in tow, and to be honest Kolivan didn’t look that enthused about this development either, especially with the thick, heavy dog collar around the boy’s neck.

Even Hunk wouldn’t be able to carry the boy all the way back to base camp, and Shiro wouldn’t do that to the poor man anyway; Hunk was already terrified of Splices, and having one in his arms, no matter how small or weak, would probably give him a heart attack. Shiro wasn’t that eager to give him up regardless, but conceded the boy needed more care than they could provide in the field if he was going to make it.

Coran had given him a once over once they’d made camp. Shiro had been right in his initial impressions; a Splice, a boy, a child. The boy had had a rough week, by all accounts – Coran found bullet wounds, scratches and gouges that appeared to be from a fight with another Splice or an animal in the wild, deeper ones from what was probably a knife. Bruises and scrapes from tumbling down the mountain. Dehydrated, malnourished, scarred from whatever the outpost had done to bring him to heel, he was a mess. “His chances aren’t good,” Coran admitted, trying to remain cool about the possibility as he washed his hands. “He either can’t or won’t take water, so our best bet is to get him to the Marmora camp and have him hooked up to an IV. Once we get his fluids churning again, his heart will beat better, his lungs will work harder, and his body can start to heal.”

Shiro looked to Kolivan, who had stood by, watching as Coran did his best with what he had on hand. The boy looked to have bled himself dry, but Coran still cleaned and bandaged what he could, including a deep gouge to one cheek, nearly exposing his teeth.

“What is he?” Kolivan asked, and everyone understood what he was asking.

“I would say canid, going by his cropped ears and dentition,” Coran replied. “I can’t say for certain, or if he’s mixed with anything else, but my guess is primarily dog or wolf. Hard to distinguish between the two without genetic testing.”

Kolivan’s eyes narrowed, and Shiro tried to put himself in the man’s shoes. Remove himself from his emotions. He wanted to argue But he’s just a boy! even as he knew it wasn’t as simple as that. Shiro was responsible for a company of 30, at most, people motivated by money or desperation. Kolivan was responsible for hundreds, women and children among those, unified by culture and need for freedom. It wasn’t as simple as saving a child; he was risking exposing his people to danger. The boy was dying, now, but if he healed him, gave him back his strength…? The boy would either be an asset or absolute chaos.

“I will take the Galra,” Kolivan decided. “I would like you to stay and continue your hunt.”

“We agree that’s the best course of action,” Ulaz spoke on Shiro’s behalf. “If you give us one of your men, and allow Coran to return with you, I think that would be mutually beneficial. He has the most surgical experience and is familiar with Splices.” Kolivan was nodding before Ulaz even finished.

“It’s agreed. We’ll leave now, make the best of the light we have left.” He spoke coarsely to several of his Marmora contingent, gesturing at the still form of the Young and Coran beside him, giving instructions.

As the Marmora prepared for departure, Shiro couldn’t help but keep his eyes on the boy. Who knew how close it would be, if the boy would survive the trip; this may be the last time he laid eyes on the boy. He’d never had a call this close, where he’d been sent to retrieve a body and instead of returning to tears and wailing, returned with hope and new life. So many of the children they found on the field had no future; dead, dying, or else dead on the inside. He had a chance, for the first time, to change the direction of this child’s life, and he wanted it – he wanted just the chance. He wanted to make a real, tangible difference in a life that he could see. Sending him away to the Marmora camp with Coran was the boy’s best shot.

Not a boy. A Splice. A mutant. He’s small, but dangerous enough to survive this long, to have made it on his own on the mountain for a week against all odds.

Shiro knew it. He did. But it didn’t stop him from taking a few covert photos on his phone, or watching after the contingent as they rode away with the boy in restraints, across Coran’s lap. Ulaz said nothing against him, clapping his shoulder then leaving him alone.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Coran radioed as often as possible to keep Shiro updated on the boy’s condition, and the closer they got to the foot of the mountain, the clearer and longer the calls became.

The boy was faring well, better than Coran had estimated. The IV was doing wonders. They’d cleaned him up head to toe, and Coran had even called him a “handsome little heartbreaker of a lad”. He hadn’t regained full consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time, but so far his reactions had been dazed, or lackluster; taking in his surroundings, his restraints, and then staring at the wall or the ceiling until he lost consciousness again. Coran wasn’t sure if that indicated an issue with his emotional state, mental acuity or physical health. The boy’s wounds were healing well, cleaned and redressed often, and IV antibiotics helping the boy from the inside out as well. He had been undernourished for some time, longer than just a week, and dehydrated on top of that – Coran theorized that food and water had been a means of controlling him, to whatever end.

But the boy was alive. He had that chance that Shiro had wanted for him. Everything else they could deal with. They had the time, now.

It was closing on two weeks, they’d expanded their grid, and they still had yet to find more living escapees, let alone another Splice built anything like a ‘Wolf-Crusher’. Shiro was beginning to fear the creature had gone to ground, waiting them out. If it was intelligent, it may very well have returned to the gutted outpost by now, or else decided on a rotation of villages for resources. They’d found two more dead humans, another dead Splice, but no signs of the one they called Volkodav. If it hadn’t been for corroborating reports from other prisoners, he would have thought the creature a superstitious myth, or a wild goose chase meant to divert their attention and resources.

Shiro was beginning to contemplate returning to the outpost, when a call from Coran came in. “Hey, Coran. Might have some less than pleasant news on my end. Hopefully you have some good news to even it out,” he greeted distractedly, rearranging their grid.

There was an uncharacteristic pause, and Coran’s voice sounded too high, deliberately light-hearted. “Actually, my news might make your news somewhat irrelevant,” he said. Shiro frowned.

“How do you mean?” Shiro asked, and his heart suddenly sank into his gut. Was it the boy, had he taken a turn for the worse, was there now nothing for Shiro to rush back to…? “Is it the Young, is he…?”

“It’s, uh, it’s to do with him, yes,” Coran hemmed, and Shiro could picture him fiddling with his pen the way he always did.

Shiro swallowed, and forced himself to ask, “Is he dead?” His flat, neutral tone made Ulaz look up from across their small camp, Pidge and Hunk exchanging mixed looks.

“No. He’s not dead. But, uh, there’s… there’s some, uh, news, as you put it,” Coran chattered on. “We’ve been gathering intel from the other prisoners, the researchers and the guards and the Young who are capable of communication, you know, getting a feel for their operation, their objectives, breeding methods-”

“Coran,” Shiro growled warningly, and the man began to talk even faster.

“– and Kolivan wasn’t able to get files but he did get the lead researcher to cooperate and basically assemble files from scratch, you know, we won’t have all the medical knowledge like sample sizes or number of trials, but, uh, he’s been taking the man around and having him name each member of his team and most importantly give information regarding the Young that the Marmora have taken into custody and the Splices that we found in the mountains, and uh, it turns out-”

“Coran, spit it out, or I swear to God-”

“We found him,” Coran blurted out. “We found the Volkodav.”

Shiro felt the blood drain from his face, his false hand tightening on his knee. “He… he was at the camp the whole time?” Jesus. How long? Could he pass as human?

“Yes and no,” Coran answered unhelpfully. “I’m sorry, you have to understand, I’m struggling with this too, I-”

“Is he one of the dead?” Shiro interrupted. “Is he… was he one of the humans we saved?”

“No, Shiro,” Coran said, gentle but firm. “It’s the boy. The lead researcher identified him, and so did members of the staff and some of the Young. The boy is the one they called Volkodav.”

“The boy,” Shiro said, blankly, numb. “The boy I found on the side of road.”

“The canid Splice, yes,” Coran reminded, sounding as though the information pained him too. “I’m sorry.”

“Is this a joke,” Shiro growled lowly. “Are we talking about the same scrawny kid we took for dead? The child even Pidge could benchpress twice over?”

“You didn’t see their faces, Shiro,” Coran said, his voice gaining some steel. “They fear him. They don’t seem to care that he’s half your size and weight. They’ve seen some part of him that we haven’t, Shiro. A part we might come face to face with as he heals and regains his strength.”

Shiro exhaled heavily, angrily, through his nose. “So that’s it. The search is over. We found him, and it’s the most disappointing find of the century.”

“Yes,” Coran confirmed. “Kolivan would like you to return as soon as you finish the grid, just to be safe, but the choice is yours, of course. I understand… if you’d rather be here.”

Shiro sighed again, this time deflating. “No. We’ll finish here. Shouldn’t be more than a day or two left on the search. Better safe than sorry.”

“I am sorry, Shiro,” Coran said, softly.

“I am too,” Shiro admitted, for more than just the news and his resulting response. “I’ll see you in a couple days, Coran, thank you. You performed a miracle with that Splice. Good work.”

Coran didn’t comment on how quickly ‘the boy’ had become ‘the Splice’. “Thank you, sir. Looking forward to your arrival. Can’t wait to go home, if I’m to be honest.”

Coran didn’t mean where he’d been born or raised, and Shiro understood. “I’ll drink to that. Until tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow.”

____________________________________________________________________________

Coran stopped radioing with updates on the boy’s progress, and Shiro never solicited any after receiving the news. A part of him still didn’t believe that a boy so small could wear a name so heavy. It had to be a false information campaign, to keep them from searching for the real Volkodav. It was ludicrous to think that a child would ever earn a name like that, inspire fear in other children, in grown adults. Stupid, really. Unbelievable.

But Coran wouldn’t have passed it along if he didn’t at least believe it was true, himself. He would have laughed at it, commiserated with Shiro, over this surely implausible theory. Instead he’d tried to soften the blow, knowing how invested Shiro was in the boy’s survival. He’d struggled with telling Shiro.

Shiro felt betrayed. He felt lied to. Even though the boy had never spoken, or indicated what or who he was, Shiro still felt deceived. Like he had saved a life he maybe was never meant to save. Like he had prioritized the survival of a criminal over an innocent citizen – saved the wrong person.

It occupied his mind the entire trip, through the end of the grid, to the foot of the mountain, and back to the Galra base camp. Ulaz had never been a talker, but Pidge and Hunk made sure to keep their conversations private, speaking in low voices as if they didn’t want to interrupt Shiro’s thoughts. He hadn’t exactly been subtle about his interest in the boy and his future. They were trying to be respectful in their own way. He was grateful. He had a good family who cared about him.

Having time and space on the way back to the Marmora encampment helped him come to terms with his emotions, put logic and feeling back in their proper place. It wasn’t fair to blame a child for being bred to become what he was… he was likely just the Young of two Splices who didn’t even know each other at all, only had viable and valuable genes. The boy hadn’t been given a choice, or even a chance at anything else; if the boy was the Volkodav, it wasn’t because he necessarily wanted to be.

Coran and Kolivan were there to greet them, and Kolivan informed them in his usual stern way that a dinner had been planned for them to celebrate their hard work and success. Shiro tried not to wince at the word ‘success’. It didn’t feel like it, anymore.

“You can see him, if you like,” Coran had offered, once Kolivan had excused himself. “He’s well on the mend, and no longer in the medical ward.”

“Where is he being kept?” Shiro made himself ask, trying to be a neutral party. The boy was a captive, an enemy combatant; it was important that he didn’t forget that, again.

Coran’s eyes slid away. “They chose to keep him separate from the rest of the recovered Young and the prisoners, for the obvious reason. He’s been confined to the outskirts of the camp for the time being, until we can better judge his abilities… his character.”

Despite all that had come to light, Shiro’s heart still gave a twinge and faltered. After all was said and done, he was still just a child, no matter his genetic make-up – no matter what he’d done. “How is he adjusting to the move?”

“Not well,” Coran admitted. “He didn’t fight the relocation and he hasn’t tried to escape. He hasn’t done much of anything at all, really. Not even eat, or really drink. I’m not sure what that might indicate exactly, a childish strop, some sort of hunger strike or maybe depression. Without knowing more about him, without being able to communicate, it’s hard to say. We know so little about him outside of his name and reputation.”

“Have we learned anymore about that…?” Shiro asked. “How he got the name and the reputation?”

“Only that he’s a fighter, and that he’s killed before,” Coran said gently. “From what they say, he’s more animal than human, but I’m not wholly certain on that. In combat anyone seems more animal than human, and the way he watched us care for him… he makes eye contact. Most animals, most feral Splices, don’t. So I do think, there’s more to the story, just… I’m not sure that it changes his past, or what he’s capable of.”

Shiro released a gust of breath, staring off over the tents, into the distance. “Has Kolivan made contact with him yet, questioned him yet?”

“No,” Coran said reassuringly. “He waited on you. He felt you’d want to be here when he did. It’s not yet been confirmed whether he can even communicate – none of the prisoners who recognized him had anything to say regarding verbal interactions, which seems understandable. It seems he was given a wide berth.”

Shiro nodded, absently, running his false hand through his hair. “Right, that makes sense. Let me get washed up and get a bite to eat, and if you still have time, maybe I can check up on him.”

Coran gave him a soft smile that creased his eyes, and clasped a hand behind Shiro’s neck, despite their difference in height. “I have all the time in the world for you, Shiro. Take care of yourself, first. Your team is fine, the prisoners are fine – the boy will be fine. You did well on this one, too, you know.”

Shiro couldn’t fight the smile that rose in response, tension dropping from his shoulders at the fatherly reassurance. “Thanks, Coran. I needed that.”

Coran winked, patting his shoulder and turning to head back towards the medical ward. “I know, my boy. I know.”

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro wound up visiting the boy for only a few minutes, and didn’t bother entering the make-shift containment structure. He just stood outside the door, and peered through the bars of the window.

The floor and walls of the single-cell jail were made of salvaged cement blocks and kept occupants cool during summer on the steppes; a single window was mounted high in the wall opposite the door, with bars allowing only air flow and sunlight. The whole unit was recessed into a hillock, reinforcing the far wall with the window and shoring up the walls on either side. It was an ingenious use of the surrounding terrain, but Shiro expected nothing less from Kolivan and the Marmora. This was their home – they knew it like the back of their hand, and Kolivan especially seemed to have a special bond with the earth here.

The boy was curled up loosely against the far wall, back to the door, his head pressed into the corner, hands in his lap. The collar was still around his slender neck, and now there was the addition of a length of sturdy chain attached to a pole in the center of the small room. Knowing it was a necessary precaution didn’t soothe the ache in Shiro’s chest at seeing the way the weight of the chain dragged at the too-big collar.

The ache worsened, realizing how much the boy looked like the body he’d first found on the side of the road. He looked so small, back in the clothes they’d found him in, albeit washed, boots on his feet devoid of laces for safety’s sake. That mop of black hair bowed against the wall, buried in the joinder, hands and feet limp, body seemingly strengthless. The boy didn’t move, didn’t even shuffle around to get more comfortable; his shoulders remained hunched forward, away from the room.

It could be an elaborate ploy, but Shiro couldn’t help but notice his lack of interest, devoid of any personality at all. He turned his back on his captors wholly, refusing to look at or even acknowledge the door and the possibility of people entering his space. He didn’t seem to care at all. What Shiro had taken for physical weakness when he’d first found him on the side road, may have been more than that. Especially considering the whole and untouched bowls of food and water; the gravy on the food was even crusted over, ignored since this morning, probably.

Shiro didn’t know whether he could trust it. If it had been a full-grown man, a full-grown Splice, he would’ve been tempted to wait them out. See how long they’d keep up the hunger strike, how committed they were to the ruse of weakness. But this? This was a narrow line to walk. This boy was dangerous, he was a killer by all accounts, despite his small stature – but for all that, he was still a child of his own kind, a child even by human standards. He had been hurt, been starved, and who knew what else to mold him into what he’d become.

Looking at the chain dragging down the collar, at the hands curled limply in his lap, Shiro couldn’t help but lose traction on his previous commitment to treat the boy as a threat, as an enemy combatant. Not when he could so clearly remember those same hands covered in dirt and dried blood, curled on the side of road.

If the boy was trying to break his heart, it was working. And if he wasn’t, then the heartbreak was even worse.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“He hasn’t eaten since I took him off the IV,” Coran sighed over breakfast the next day. “It’s been four days, now. He stopped drinking about that long ago, too. He hasn’t so much as moved a muscle that anyone can see, since he was relocated.”

“Maybe it’s a hunger strike,” Pidge offered, mouth full. “Maybe he’s hoping to get leniency by being as pathetic as possible.”

“Leniency for what, though?” Hunk argued. “It’s not like he’s going to jail, or the Marmora will punish him.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know that,” Pidge said. “Maybe he thinks the Marmora are like whoever ran the facility. Or maybe he thinks the Marmora are softer, and will treat him like the other Young if he’s miserable enough. I mean, for all we know, maybe that’s his, like… his thing. He takes advantage of being small to lure people in.”

“Speaking from experience?” Ulaz asked dryly, not even bothering to look at her as he reached across the table for the water pitcher, for all appearances uninvested in the conversation at hand. Pidge shot him a narrow look.

“I’m just saying there might be more to the picture,” she said.

“We’re well-aware,” Shiro replied, sounding exhausted as he worked over his breakfast. “But we can’t afford to wait him out. Whatever he’s doing or trying to do, it can’t be allowed to continue. Besides, the sooner we make contact, the sooner we attempt communication, the sooner we’ll get answers. Speculation isn’t doing anything but giving Hunk indigestion.” He gestured at where Hunk was looking vaguely queasy, a large hand over his stomach. “We’re going to start this afternoon.”

Coran looked as uncertain as Shiro felt, and a quick glance at Ulaz showed tension in his usually expressionless face. At least, Shiro wasn’t the only one struggling between the responsibility for innocents, and the need to defend against if not evil, then those that would do no good.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

When Shiro returned to the cell with Coran and Ulaz, in addition to Kolivan and two of his armed Marmoran guards, the boy did not appear to have moved at all. The fresh food he’d been given in the morning still looked full, and the water in the bowl still looked high. When Kolivan unlocked the door, and he and Shiro stepped inside, the boy didn’t even flinch, refusing to even raise his head.

“Volkodav,” Kolivan began, voice booming in the structure. The boy didn’t reply, or even move.

“Is that your name…?” Shiro asked, and Kolivan translated, three times as he ran through different languages in an attempt to get a response. They received none. Not even as much as a glance, and Shiro cast a concerned look over his shoulder towards Coran. Obediently, Coran ducked through the doorway followed by one of the guards, both of whom now had their guns raised and aimed at the boy in the corner. Coran approached the boy seemingly without fear, but still kept as much distance as possible as he came around the boy, and moved to put his hands on the boy’s neck, then his head, turning him to look into his face. From this angle, Shiro could see the boy in profile, his painfully chapped lips and lidded, but open and aware, blue eyes. The boy didn’t fight the touch, in fact didn’t even acknowledge it, his hands remaining limp in his lap.

“There we are,” Coran murmured quietly, smiling gently. “There’s that handsome face. Just checking up on you.” He let go his grip on the boy’s face, and the boy let his head fall back against the wall, turning his face away again. Coran stepped away, back towards Shiro and Kolivan. “He’s conscious,” he whispered. “He doesn’t have a fever, either. His eyes are tracking and focused, so we’re not looking at a brain injury or cognitive issue, either.”

Shiro’s brow furrowed, and he turned back to the boy. “Is it possible he’s deaf…?” Shiro asked, voice low. “Or maybe mute?” Occasionally Splices developed disabilities, either from mutations incompatible with human physiology, overly selective breeding resulting in crippled genetic structures, or just simply because it was hereditary.

Coran shook his head. “The structures of his ears are fully functional, and I’ve witnessed him responding to sound, if not necessarily speech. His tongue and throat structures are fully intact, and his dentition would not prevent speech. Physically, he’s able to hear and speak. I can’t speak towards a mental or psychological issue that would prevent speech, however. Not my area of expertise,” he said apologetically.

“We could consult with the lead researcher,” Kolivan suggested. “Question him more intensively about his interactions with the Volkodav. Otherwise, I don’t foresee questioning the Galra as having any point, if he will not respond. The best we could do, is hope persistence breaks him.”

“Whatever you decide on, do it soon,” Coran urged. “Otherwise I’ll have to take him back to the medical ward and introduce an IV again or maybe even a feeding tube. His skin is already clammy to the touch. If we don’t do something soon, we’ll lose him altogether.”

Shiro’s heart plummeted, his gaze jerking back to the boy slumped against the wall. No. No. We saved a life. I’m not burying a child this time. Not when we can prevent it. I can do this. I have to do this.

“Let me try,” Shiro blurted, getting everyone’s attention but the boy. Even Ulaz looked shocked at his outburst. “Just… let me try something.”

“Try what, exactly,” Kolivan asked, eyes already narrowed, anticipating what Shiro was going to say.

“I know you’ll think I’m letting my feelings get in the way,” Shiro rushed to say, “but maybe we’re going about this all wrong. We’re treating him like a man, like a full-grown Galra when he’s not. He’s still just a child – maybe we need to approach him like one.”

“He is a Galra,” Kolivan growled. “He is a soldier, he has fought and killed. You are assuming an innocence he does not possess.”

“Nothing else we have tried has worked,” Shiro hissed. “Methods we would use on an adult will not work here! Look, nothing will be lost from my trying a different approach, alright? You can still question the researcher, you can look into anything else you like. Just give me a chance to try, that’s all I’m asking for.”

“He will not understand you,” Kolivan reminded. “How could he possibly? It took me years of working with your people to know the language, he will not comprehend whatever you’re attempting to do.”

“I’m not going to try to talk to him,” Shiro reassured. “At least not at first. I just want to show him that he’s safe – that we’re not going to hurt him.”

Kolivan scoffed. “And how do you intend to do that?”

“Look, he’s a canid, right?” He said, dropping his voice, aware of how dehumanizing his theory sounded. “It’s the same as approaching a scared, abused dog. You show trust, even if it’s not there yet.”

Kolivan raised an eyebrow. “So, this death wish, is this something new or something you’ve been sitting on for a while?” He asked.

Shiro heaved a frustrated sigh. “Please,” he grit out. “I’ve given you everything you’ve asked. I took on the mission. He’s as much my prisoner as he is yours, if not more so. Don’t force me to make this about authority. I respect you, Kolivan. At least afford me the same respect.” Pulling rank left the same disgusting taste in his mouth it always had, but it was worth it to get his way, just this once. If it meant a life, this boy’s life.

Kolivan bristled more at the perceived insult to his hospitality, than his authority. “Of course I respect you, and you are as much a leader here as I. It is only out of concern for your well-being that I resist the idea… you are well regarded amongst your company. They would be most displeased if I allowed harm to come to you.”

Shiro breathed a sigh of relief, and let his shoulders and expression relax. “Thank you, Kolivan. Please know that I appreciate that, as do my people.”

Kolivan huffed, caving, and turning to leave. “I’ll look into him further. You… do whatever you think you have to, to get through to him. Just… be careful. We’ll report back as soon as we have something.”

“We’ll do the same,” Shiro promised Kolivan’s retreating back, leaving behind one of the Marmoran guards.

There was silence in the cell as Shiro, Coran, and Ulaz all shared a look.

“So is the death wish thing true?” Ulaz drawled. “Asking for a friend.”

Shiro gave him a wry look, mouth quirking up. “Believe me, I know how it sounds, how it looks. It’s just a hunch, it might not even work. But it’s worth a shot, right?”

“You can’t do this simply because you perceive him as weak, or vulnerable,” Coran cautioned, his eyes steely in a way they rarely were. “Sometimes that makes things even worse. I know you hate to admit it, but Splices are animal in some way… his physical state may make him more dangerous, not less.”

“I fully intend to take this as slow as possible, Coran,” Shiro reassured, meeting his gaze levelly. “I’m not going to risk myself anymore than I have to. I knew he was a Splice when I found him, I knew he would be dangerous in some way. All that’s changed is that we now know how dangerous he can be. I’m more cautious for knowing that, not less. No matter how it looks.”

“It looks bad,” Ulaz said baldly. “It looks weak and unprofessional. What am I supposed to tell Hunk and Pidge? We all know your heart is softer than most, but this is worse than usual.”

“Ulaz, I’m not asking for permission,” Shiro said gently. “I’m doing this. I’m committing. I’m not placing anyone’s worth above anyone else’s, I’m not abandoning my duties as a commander. I’m just going to do what I can as a man, to try to save a life. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. If he dies… then at least I’ll know I tried. I’ll know I did everything I could.”

Ulaz’s jaw worked. “Will you, at least, permit me to stay with you? If for no other reason, in case he decides to speak up and you need a translator, even a bad one.”

“I’d like that,” Shiro agreed.

Coran sighed, caving to the inevitable. “You are more stubborn than a mule in molasses,” he said. “A part of me is proud, but a greater part of me wishes you were more selfish.” He turned to leave. “Send for me if you have need. Good luck… you’re going to need more of that than anything else.”

“Thanks,” Shiro said wryly. “Hopefully I won’t have to call for you any time soon.”

“If he doesn’t drink anything soon, you’ll need to,” Coran cautioned seriously, waving goodbye over one shoulder.

Shiro turned back to the boy in the corner, who didn’t seem to have moved at all during the exchanges, and pondered how to move forward.

“I’m not waiting outside,” Ulaz warned. “But if you want me out of the way, I can do that.”

Shiro nodded, shooting him a grateful look, and Ulaz moved to the opposite corner, leaning against the wall with one leg crossed over the other, deceptively casual. Shiro moved forward with slow, cautious steps, hands splayed out in front of him, making no effort to be quiet, preferring to telegraph his approach.

“Hey buddy,” he murmured. “Do you mind if I sit down over here?” He asked, indicating a point against the far wall the boy was curled against. He could sense Ulaz’s displeasure with his choice, since it was well within range of the leash, but the man said nothing. Neither did the boy. Not even a warning growl, to prevent a stranger from getting close.

Shiro sank to a slow, careful seat, one leg outstretched, and continued talking. “Do you remember me?” He asked. “I found you on the side of road, when you were really sick. Really hurt. I’m glad you’re getting better.” He looked away, towards the bowls of food and water. “You know that guy with the red hair, Coran? The one who helped fix you up? He’s real worried about you. He says you’re going to get worse without food and water.”

He leaned forward, over his knees, keeping his eyes on the boy for any sudden movements, but there weren’t any. He was able to grasp both bowls, and brought them closer. “Mmmm, stew and fried bread. Smells real good.” He took a noisy inhale to illustrate the point. “The water here is pretty good, too. They have a well and everything. You mind if I have some?” As expected, he got no response, but made a show of eating and drinking from the bowls – proving it was safe, that he wasn’t afraid to eat and drink what the boy had been given. “Ugh. I’m still full from lunch. Well, there’s plenty left for you, if you want it.” He risked putting the bowls on the ground, at the boy’s knees, but got no reaction, not even a glance in his direction as far as he could tell. The boy’s hair was so long and thick it was hard to see his face, let alone those strangely blue eyes.

All the same, Shiro waited him out. He sat beside him, just a little out of arm’s reach, and talked about nothing much at all. He talked with Ulaz, sometimes, removing his attention to see if the boy would at least try to sneak food and water, but he didn’t. He gave the boy plenty of silence, too, chances to speak up if he wanted to, but he remained as still and silent as the body he’d found on the road.

Finally, the sky began to darken, and the one caged lightbulb by the door flickered on as night descended. The boy still hadn’t given any sign that Shiro had gotten through to him at all; there was no change whatsoever. Shiro tried not to be disheartened – it would likely take more than a few hours to break down years of conditioned fear and trust issues.

“We should go,” Ulaz said quietly. “Get some dinner with Hunk and Pidge, and get some rest. We can try again tomorrow.”

Shiro sighed. “You’re probably right.” He turned to the boy beside him. “I’ve got to go. My friends are probably worried about me, and I should eat something that isn’t yours. I’ll be back tomorrow, okay, buddy?” He almost raised a hand to pat the boy, but at the last minute decided against it. It would probably not be well-received.

He got to his feet, and left the cell with Ulaz, glancing back only once.

The boy still hadn’t looked up.

Chapter Text

Shiro snuck back in that night, or as much as one can sneak around in a military encampment. He took a couple books, a few blankets and a pillow, and made the short trek out to the containment cell.

The Marmoran guard allowed him to enter, and there was light enough from the low-wattage bulb in the wall to allow him to see that the boy, food and water were all exactly where he’d left them. He frowned.

“Hey,” Shiro stage-whispered. “I’m back. Sorry if I woke you. Couldn’t sleep, and I thought you might be lonely.” He set his things on the floor, where he’d sat before, shaking out one of the blankets. “I’m gonna toss one of these on you, okay? It’s probably drafty in here, especially with you so skinny, and hardly any water in you.” He fluttered the blanket near the boy so he’d know what was coming without looking, then swirled it over the boy’s shoulders, under the chain. He was careful not to actually touch him. “There, that should be at least a little warmer. You can curl up in it, if you want.”

Shiro went back to his own spot on the cold earthen floor, sitting a little stiffly. He propped up his pillow, threw a blanket over his legs and started to read. He didn’t speak anymore, wanting the boy to get some sleep, if he could. Besides, the point was for Shiro to sleep here, or at least give the appearance of sleeping. To show vulnerability, show the boy that he was being given some sort of power over Shiro – the ability to harm, if he so chose. It was the next best thing to actually exposing his throat or belly, Shiro considered. Despite what Kolivan and Ulaz thought, he didn’t have a death wish, and his stubbornness had limits.

After a few hours, Shiro yawned, not just for theatricality. “Been a long few days. Bet it’s been longer for you. Gonna get some sleep. Good night, buddy.” He patted the floor in lieu of actually touching the boy, set aside his book and rolled up in his blanket. He scooched down onto the floor, pointedly giving the boy his back as he made himself comfortable. As quietly as possible, he unclasped the latch on his knife holster and withdrew it, curling up with the knife in hand under the pillow. Trust, but not too much trust. He was confident he’d hear the chain if the boy moved at all, but better safe than sorry.

Unsurprisingly, he woke up with nothing having changed at all. He hadn’t really expected the boy to do anything, at all, let alone attack him, and he hadn’t been wrong. He was still curled up against the wall, the blanket having slid off one shoulder. At first Shiro thought it was because the boy had shifted, or maybe even gotten hot and shrugged it off himself, but that wasn’t the case. His pose was the same, but instead of deliberately leaning against one wall with his face in the corner, there was a new, unwelcome slackness to his posture that made it look like he’d collapsed.

Shiro felt his heart stutter to a stop with fear, thinking the worst. He wrestled free of his blanket, and went to kneel beside the boy’s body, trying not to feel the déjà vu as he threw caution to the wind and slid a hand around his cold throat and felt for a pulse. It was there, he was breathing, and this time he confirmed with two fingers against the inside of his wrist. He was still alive, but his heart was slow and exhausted, struggling. “Goddamnit. No, no, no-” He rocked back to his feet and went to the door, banging on it until it opened and he was greeted with a wide-eyed Marmoran guard. “Coran, go get Coran,” he gasped. “The boy is dying!” The guard gave a quick nod, and turned to go – but not before locking the cell behind him.

Shiro turned back and dropped to the floor, pulling the boy, blanket and all into his lap. His limbs were already pale and waxy, no color to the boy’s face at all beneath the bandages and superficial wounds. He looked dead already, and this time Shiro couldn’t escape the memory of finding him on the side of road, cradling his body like he did now. “C’mon, c’mon,” he growled, pinching the boy’s jaw, slapping at his cheeks. “Stay with me, stay with me, buddy.” His eyes flickered to the bowl of water he’d tried to share with the boy yesterday, and he shifted the boy into one arm, the scarred face lolling against his shoulder. He fumbled for the bowl, managing to take it in one hand, and tilted it towards the boy’s slack mouth. “Look, it’s just water, you have to drink, c’mon, drink-”

The boy sputtered against the trickle of water, finally moving under his own power to turn his face away, one of his hands coming up to clasp at Shiro’s arm, too weak to push him away. Shiro began to tear up out of desperation and frustration. “Please,” he begged, “It’s safe, you can drink it, you have to drink, you’ll die if you don’t-” The boy moaned, and kept his face averted, hand weakly clinging to Shiro’s arm.

The locks on the door clanged open, and then Coran was storming into the cell, taking it all in with a practiced eye within a minute. “I need to start him on an IV as soon as possible,” Coran began, dropping to his knees beside them and rummaging through his medical kit. “We’ll get him started here, and then I’ll need you to help me get him to the medical ward. They’re already expecting us, setting up a bed with additional restraints. Once we get him rehydrated again, we can-”

“No.”

It wasn’t Shiro who had spoken, in a broken raspy voice, deeper than anticipated.

“No more. No. No.”

Coran was the first to overcome his shock at not only hearing the boy’s voice, but hearing him speak English. “It’s okay, it’s going to be alright, we’re going to get you fixed up, good as new, just like last time, alright?”

The boy turned his head away, exhausted. “No. No more.” Shiro frowned. Maybe that was all the English he knew? He didn’t seem afraid, but maybe that was just exhaustion…?

“It’s just me, you remember me, right?” Coran soothed, reaching out to stroke the boy’s inner arm, no doubt preparing him for the IV. “It’s just good old Coran, getting you right as rain again! All you’ll feel is a wee pinch-”

No,” the boy said more firmly, struggling sluggishly now to pull away from not only Coran, but Shiro too. “I don’t want that. No more.” So he did know some more English. It was just a shame it was coming out now, when they needed him pliant as before, instead of capable of argument. Was he confused, did he think he was in the breeding facility? Did he think they were going to hurt him?

“Ssshhh, we’re not gonna hurt you,” Shiro tried to soothe, tightening his hold against the boy’s futile squirming. “We want to help you, not hurt you.”

The boy gave an abortive, animal whine, dropping his head back despondently. “I don’t want that, no more,” he pleaded. “Let me die. Just let me go. Please, please, no more, no more…”

Shiro’s blood ran cold, and his already tearful eyes drifted to Coran’s face. This wasn’t a grown man pleading for death on the battlefield, already dying, in agony from injuries sustained – this was a child refusing treatment, denying his future after a past already filled with pain and horror. Shiro realized then, that the boy hadn’t been mistrustful of the food and water – he’d been actively denying himself nourishment in the hope that he would die.

He had been trying to commit suicide under all their noses, with the only means he had available.

“I can’t,” Shiro choked out. “I can’t let you die. I’m so sorry, but we can’t do that. We don’t want you to die, I didn’t bring you back here just to lose you.”

The boy sobbed, then, just once, his face twisted with pain. “I won’t fight anymore, I won’t breed anymore, I’m worth nothing to you, all I have left is to die,” he cried. “You can’t take this from me, my death is mine, it’s not yours to take. Just let me die, no more.”

“I can give him something to relax him,” Coran murmured quietly, shaken. “It’s the only way we’ll be able to get the IV in, stabilize him enough to transport him…”

Shiro looked down at the small boy struggling against them both, in so much pain and so hopeless that he was fully prepared to take his own life before he’d even become a teenager. He’d survived so much, for so many years, only to wind up here in Shiro’s arms. There had to be a reason. It had to be a sign.

Shiro tightened his hold on the boy, changing his grip so that he was clasped against his front, in his lap. “Then let me give you worth,” he growled fiercely. “Let me give you a purpose. Hey, look, look at me.” He jostled the boy until his eyes slitted open, his head cradled against Shiro’s shoulder. “If someone needs to die today, let it be the Volkodav. Not you.” The boy’s brow furrowed, so ill and struggling to comprehend. “Let the person who earned that name die here. No one will miss him. But you… you would be missed. I, would miss you. Don’t waste your death on yourself – let the Volkodav die in your place, and live. Don’t die here, like this. You deserve a better death.”

“Live…? For what…?” The boy murmured softly. “Fighting, killing – breeding?”

“For yourself, whoever that may be,” Shiro swore. “I will give you a purpose, it’s up to you what you do with it. Give me a chance to give you a choice. You can choose to die later, if you want, but please… let me give you a choice.”

The boy stared up at Shiro’s stern face, the hard glint in his eye, and must have seen something there, because he let his gaze fall to the side, and stopped struggling. “For you,” he mumbled. “For now.”

All Shiro could feel was the swell of gratitude in that moment, the wash of relief. He didn’t sense the looming responsibility that was taking on another life – let alone one like this.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“You know with his hearing, whispering probably isn’t doing much good,” Shiro said tiredly, where he stood outside the medical ward, within view of the boy in the bed, now hooked up to an IV and cooperating as mildly as he had before.

“Are you fucking crazy?” Pidge hissed, regardless, her back to the door and the boy behind it, in the midst of the huddle that had developed as soon as the emergency call went out. “Is Coran telling the truth, did you fucking adopt a goddamn dog?”

“He’s not a dog,” Shiro began.

“He’s Galra,” Kolivan growled, his expression stormy. “He’s more dangerous than any dog or human. His age, his health, doesn’t outweigh his reputation. Have you already forgotten why he was in containment?”

“I am well aware of what he is,” Shiro said. “I haven’t forgotten anything. There are still questions that need answering, and precautions that need taking. Those are things we can work on, but from the beginning, my only goal regarding that boy was ensuring his survival. Same as we would any human, any child, any Young or any Splice. You don’t have to be sympathetic towards him, if you don’t want to be. I’m not demanding you feel any particular way about him, but at least acknowledge the fact that he’s an asset. He’s survived longer than ten years, he has full use of his faculties, he’s more than likely bilingual, and he’s strong. He’s strong-willed, and he’s got some strength in that body somewhere, in order to have earned that nickname. He’s human-passing, even, he doesn’t look canid at all until you see his teeth. He can be more help than hindrance, if we’re careful.” He darted a glance through the window in the door, and caught the steady deep-blue gaze of the boy, his stare unwavering. Shiro looked back to his company.

“Then wouldn’t it be better to leave him here...?” Hunk offered hopefully. “With the other Young? Or take him to the Marmoran facility for Splices, so they can care for him? I mean, it doesn’t have to be us, right?”

“I made a promise,” Shiro said, gentle but firm. “He feels his life is without purpose, unless he kills or breeds. I’m not sure we wouldn’t find ourselves back at square one, if we send him to be with the other Splices, or keep him here, under lock and key, with people and Young who fear him. He might just decide it’s not worth it and die anyway, and we wind up losing a valuable resource.”

“Shiro, I don’t think I can sleep with him in the camp,” Hunk said, desperation in his voice, hands wringing one another. “I respect you, I do, on and off the field, but this… I get where you’re coming from, he’s a kid and you feel bad for him and he could be a huge asset in the field but you kind of wound up signing us all up for this, not just yourself. We don’t have a containment unit on base, we don’t handle Splices. Where the Hell are we going to keep him, where is he going to sleep?”

“Maybe it’s best to get what we can from him, and let him die,” Kolivan offered. “It’s callous, but it seems the best option. We’re not wanting for strong men, and we have the lead researcher. We can get information from him while he’s being sustained in the medical ward, and then let him pass, as he wishes.”

“He went days without food and water in a deliberate bid to kill himself. He survived on a mountain all alone and then laid down to die. Do you really think he’ll allow you to extract anything from him he doesn’t want to give?” Shiro demanded lowly, meeting Kolivan’s gaze. “We have a bond, Kolivan. Or at least the beginning of one. Why waste it?”

“I gave you free reign, and the boy nearly died,” Kolivan pointed out.

“That’s because I misunderstood,” Shiro grit out. “You were right, I was wrong about treating him as a child. He wasn’t afraid, like I thought he was. He was suicidal. If he’d been an adult, we would have seen it for what it was. But there is still something there, Kolivan. There is something worthwhile in that boy, and I’m not giving up on him. That’s final.”

“You’ve lost your goddamn marbles,” Pidge muttered darkly. “You came back too fucking soon. Your head is still back home, it’s not here, in a war, where it needs to be. You’ve lost sight of what’s important.”

“So you don’t see the use in having someone on-site fluent in multiple languages, someone who can patrol the perimeter without a weapon, who can track for a week without food or ready access to water?” Shiro asked her, confronting her anger head on, the only way to combat her arguments. She wanted to debate the point, she didn’t want to be swayed by emotion, she wanted facts. New perspective was the only way to win her around, Shiro knew this.

“I would, if we could trust them,” Pidge countered. “They called him the goddamn Wolf-Crusher, Shiro! His own kind are afraid of him, the people who made him are afraid of him!”

“That’s what makes him an asset,” Shiro said. “Fear and strength. All we have to do is redirect it.”

“How do you recommend we do that?” Ulaz finally spoke up. “I don’t think TLC is going to cut it this time.”

“It’ll be a part of it,” Shiro insisted. “He won’t bite the hand that feeds him, especially if that hand isn’t raised against him. In a way that facility did the hard work for us – they showed him pain and cruelty. Treating him with any sort of kindness will be well received, in comparison.” He winced internally, phrasing it like that. He hoped the boy wasn’t listening too attentively, or else that his hearing wasn’t as overdeveloped as he feared.

He heaved a sigh. “Look. Nothing is set in stone, alright? I’ll tell you what I told him – it’s a chance, and he has a choice to make. He’s not a child, I admit that, at least not in the usual ways. He’s a soldier, he’s dangerous, but he’s capable of making the choice to bond with us. We can’t take him anywhere until he’s healthy again, anyway. Taking him back to camp now would be more of a hassle than is required. We’ll stay until he’s up to snuff, and then we’ll go from there. All of you are more than welcome to weigh in or raise concerns with me, and I’ll do my best to address them. I want to work with you guys, not against you, but I do feel, at this point, that the Splice is worth the risk in the long run.”

Pidge threw her hands in the air in defeat and stalked off, Hunk hesitating before reluctantly following her, and Shiro got the sinking suspicion that he was choosing one over the other. Like he was sacrificing the faith of his unit for the life of a boy, and he wasn’t sure it was the right choice. There was no way to know, as he stood literally between one choice and the other, watching people he’d come to view as family turn their backs on him.

Ulaz’s hand landed on Shiro’s shoulder. “All you can do is give it time,” he murmured. “Wait them out. They’re young yet – all of them. And they all have their personal grievances to get over. For what it’s worth, I do believe that your idea has… merit, to some degree.” He gave Shiro a reassuring squeeze, earning a tight smile from him, before moving after their younger colleagues.

“I don’t envy your position,” Kolivan grumbled. “But I do hope, solely for your sake, that everything works out.” He turned to leave as well, leaving just Shiro and Coran in the corridor.

“What the Hell am I doing,” Shiro groaned, rubbing his hands over his face.

“No idea,” Coran said cheerfully, holding open the door to the boy’s room. “But you’ll figure it out. C’mon, it’s lunch time. A solid meal will do you both some good.”

Shiro spared another smile for Coran, edging past him and heading to sit at the boy’s bedside. The boy was already sitting up, a healthy color to his cheeks and bare arms, bruises and scrapes all but faded. There were chains on his wrists too, now, and the chainlink leash was attached to the bed as well, but at least the cuffs were padded and had enough slack that the boy could conceivably feed himself. Shiro pulled up a chair, scooting as close as possible, trying to decide on how to broach what he wanted to ask before deciding on being direct. It seemed like the boy would appreciate that more. “So. How much of that did you hear?” He asked wryly.

“All of it,” the boy admitted easily. With his voice stronger, and throat better lubricated, Shiro could hear his accent, but he wasn’t well-versed enough in the lingua franca that he could tell where he was from. Definitely local, Russia or Central Asia like Kolivan. “They are afraid of me.”

“Yeah,” Shiro admitted, reaching for one of the bowls of loose stew and gruel on the bench over the boy’s legs. “But they’ll come around.”

The boy shrugged, not touching his own bowl. “They don’t have to. They’re right to be afraid.”

“You’re right, they don’t have to,” Shiro said around a mouthful. “I don’t tell people how to feel or how to treat others because I don’t need to. They’re good people.”

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” The boy pressed, brow furrowing. “You know my name. You know what I did, what I can do.”

“First of all, I knew your name. We agreed Volkodav is dead now. He died in that cell and he’s not coming back. Second of all, I am afraid of you,” he admitted easily, as he ate. “If I didn’t know any of the people in my unit personally, I’d be afraid of them too. They’re all strong and deadly in their own ways, all just as capable of good or bad. But I know them, I trust them, I know they have my back.”

“But you don’t know anything about me,” the boy murmured. “Nothing good, anyway.”

“So then tell me something good about yourself,” Shiro said.

The boy frowned at the bench across his lap, thinking, his jaw working. “… I don’t think there is anything good about me,” he whispered. “I don’t think… I can do good things. I wasn’t made to do good things.”

Shiro hummed, thumbing gravy from his mouth thoughtfully. “Okay, well, how many languages can you speak?”

The boy’s frown turned to one of confusion. “Three…?”

“And they are…?”

“Kazakh, Russian and English,” the boy said.

“That’s one more than me and Ulaz, and two more than most of my company,” Shiro pointed out. “Plus, those languages are useful out here, as opposed to any others. I’d call that a good thing. Can you read or write?”

“I can read some, but not a lot,” the boy stammered. “I can’t write.”

“Are you willing to learn?” Shiro asked.

“Yes,” the boy said readily. “I would like to learn. I’ll learn whatever you want me to.”

Shiro gave him an encouraging smile. “That’s probably the best thing. I like to hear that.”

The boy’s lip curled on one side, a strange grimacing attempt at a smile, uncertain. Shiro tried not to find it as endearing as he did.

“How about we make this easier?” Shiro offered, setting his finished bowl aside on the bedside table. “Tell me about yourself.”

“About… how I fight?” The boy asked, uncertainly. “My skills…?”

“We’ll get to that,” Shiro dismissed, waving it away with one hand. “How about we start with your name, first.”

The boy’s frown returned. “It is dead. You said so.”

This time, Shiro frowned too. “What, Volkodav? I thought that was a nickname, like a title – didn’t you have a name before that, when you were younger?”

“No,” the boy said slowly. “I was never given a name. They didn’t think I’d live. Then I did, and I became… what I was. Then I was the Volkodav.”

“So you don’t have a name, at all?” Shiro confirmed, unable to hide the sad set of his eyebrows. “Your mother or father never gave you a name, called you anything in particular…?”

The boy gave him an uncertain look. “I was made in a breeding facility. Galra do not know the one that fathers them, only their mother, if she lives. I lived with my mother, for some time… she called me only nice things, like ‘my heart’ or ‘beloved’,” he confided, voice soft and pained. “Then she died. And I came here.”

Shiro’s heart broke at the picture painted of a lonely, sterile life devoid of family, of tenderness, of tradition, but at least, for a while, not devoid of love. At least the boy knew at some point that he was loved; he’d been wanted by someone that mattered. “Came here…?” He prodded gently. “You mean here, to the Marmora?”

The boy shook his head. “I was made at another facility. When I’d lived long enough, and became old enough to breed, they moved me here, to this place.” He frowned hard at the remaining bowl of stew, jaw working. “I would kill again before I will ever do that. I will never breed again, or do the things they made me do there. I’ll ruin myself first.” He brought his stern gaze up to Shiro, his eyes burning with conviction.

That immediately made Shiro’s stomach turn cold and heavy, and he had to fight down his nausea and the sudden swell of rage. He refused to think on that any more than he had to – the knowledge alone made him sick, made him want to do something stupid, something violent. Made him crave revenge. Rape was nothing new to war, but it was the only part that was unnecessary and served no purpose; it was a power play, a way to establish dominance, fear, to humiliate and degrade someone. Breeding was no different. There was no real consent, just terrified submission.

“You will not,” Shiro grit out, lowly, “ever be asked to do that. In any capacity. Especially, especially not at your age.”

“I am already at maturity,” the boy explained, confused. “I am sixteen years old. I am older than any other birthed Galra I have met. That’s why I’m here.”

“Sixteen?” Shiro choked out. That was a good four years older than he’d thought, given how small the boy looked. It would explain how adult he seemed, and how he was even capable of earning a name and reputation like he had. It also meant he’d spent more time under their thumb, under their command, than he’d assumed. “I’m sorry, I just…”

“I know I’m small,” the boy said, for the first time sounding defensive. “My mother was bigger, and I’m still growing. I might… might still get bigger.”

Shiro shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. There’s nothing wrong with being small; one of my best is only slightly taller than you are, actually, and she’s 21. Sixteen is still plenty young enough to be able to grow – and it’s far, far too young for anything like… like breeding. That will never be something you are asked or required to do. When you’re old enough, if you decide you want to, want to pursue a relationship,” Shiro stumbled awkwardly, “then you can. There’s no rush.”

The boy stared at him, confusion persisting. “Okay,” he drawled.

“Okay,” Shiro confirmed, mentally shoring himself back up. “So. You don’t have a name. You’re sixteen years old. What else?”

“I’m a good tracker,” the boy offered. “I can be very quiet, and I can be on my own for a few weeks. I can smell really well, smell things others can’t. You know my hearing is good. My eyesight is good, too. I can follow a trail for days, for dozens of kilometers. I’m good with hand-to-hand combat, but I can use a knife, too. I’m good with a knife. I’m not… good with guns. It feels wrong. I’m better… up close. I was a camp guard, a few times, but the camps were small. Not like this. But I don’t get tired very easy.”

Shiro nodded slowly. “That’s all good to know, that’s information I needed, but I was wondering more about you. The things you like, the things you don’t like – the little things that make you who you are. Like you know that I like to read, right? Well, I also don’t like sugary sweet things, like candy. Those are things that people get to know about me, that give them an idea of who I am.”

The boy shrugged. “I like food. Like to eat. Don’t like hurting people, if they don’t hurt me first. Like to train and go for walks, but mostly like food. There’s nothing else. All I do is eat, sleep, work… whatever work.”

It was Shiro’s turn to frown, but this time he tried to explain a little better. “You know that you’re human, right? That the largest part of you is the human part.”

“I am Galra,” the boy said slowly. “Not human. I am a dog.”

Shiro shook his head, scooting his chair closer and daring to lean his elbows on the bed. “You are not an animal. You are human, human in all the ways that matter. There is more between us, between you and me, that is similar than there is different. You think and feel like a human does. How you look is only a part of that. What matters most are the parts you cannot see, except in how you act. Buddy, you are human. As much as me or anyone else in my unit. You just have a little something extra, okay?”

The boy’s head gradually tilted to one side, as he slowly pondered what Shiro was telling him, absorbing the new information, trying to see the new perspective Shiro was attempting to show him. Shiro couldn’t tell if the boy believed him, or whether he even understood the concept after sixteen years of being told he was different, being treated and trained as an other. The physical similarities had to be obvious, but the important ones he may not have been allowed to see or acknowledge – things like developing a personality, being an individual, having thoughts and wants and interests.

“As a human, it’s important to do more than survive. It’s important to be happy, in little ways and big ways. That’s something that, if you choose to stay with me, I’ll want you to do. Everyone in my unit has down time, leisure time, where they’re not expected to patrol or go on a mission or train. They do the things that bring them joy, in non-combat-related ways, like reading or drawing or finishing puzzles. Okay?” The boy nodded, slowly, and Shiro rewarded him with a smile and a pat to the bed beside his bent knee as he sat up again.

“Okay, sorry for keeping you from your lunch,” Shiro said with a wry smile, and gestured at the bowl of stew remaining on the little bench across the boy’s knees.

“I can eat it?” He asked, keeping wary eyes on Shiro, not even reaching for it. His hands stayed in his lap, clenching and unclenching in anxious anticipation.

“Of course you can,” Shiro said, confused. “I just got caught up talking with you. It’s your food, buddy. You can eat it whenever you’re ready. You don’t need my permission.”

The boy narrowed his eyes, keeping them trained on Shiro as he carefully reached for the bowl, testing the waters. Shiro didn’t move at all, keeping his expression pleasantly neutral, his hands in his lap. Letting him acclimate on his own to Shiro’s presence during a meal, learn for himself that Shiro was not a threat even when he was most vulnerable. The boy put his hands on the bowl, then the spoon, eyes flicking from Shiro’s face to his hands, and when there was no change, he pulled the bowl closer and closer until it was cradled against his chest. When Shiro still made no move, the boy decided to risk it and quickly turned away to hunch over the bowl and shovel the food into his mouth as fast as possible.

The part of Shiro that still saw the boy as a human child wanted to immediately launch himself up and chastise the boy against eating so fast, lay hands on the boy to ease the defensive set of his shoulders, pull the bowl away. The growls emanating from the small hunched figure and the tug of the chain against the boy’s collar brought that instinct to a near immediate halt – this wasn’t just a neglected child, it was also an abused animal trained to be wary of safety and strangers both. Food aggression would be expected, and any attempts to interact with the boy at all while he ate wouldn’t be well-received.

All Shiro could do was be patient, while his heart ached in his chest.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro was surprised when the first to approach him after their less than successful huddle was Pidge. He was trying to give her space and time to come to terms with the change, with the addition of another to their unit. She adapted well in the field, but drastic changes to her day-to-day life, especially where it regarded their little family, made her irrationally irritable. She’d snap at anybody for anything, and the only one who took it in stride or even chided her was Hunk – even if that put himself in the path of her anger.

Shiro also knew without being told that she had her own feelings regarding Splices, and that they were personal. He didn’t ask. It was common courtesy, here, in their unit. The only thing they had in common was being here and doing the same job, and that was for the best. Prevented deeper attachments, when most assignments were brief by design or by terrible accident. Better not to know that the person you’d worked beside for six months who’d just gotten violently ripped apart by a landmine had a wife and kids at home that wouldn’t see him again, and so on.

So he never asked about how jealously she guarded their little clique, or why she felt the way she did about Splices. He just allowed her to do what she had to do to work and survive out here – to remain motivated.

“I want to go back to the outpost,” she said, her tone stiff with him, still angry. “We never got a chance to run an intelligence op while we were up there. I think there’s a chance we’d be able to learn something from whatever they left behind – help verify the information we’ve been getting from the prisoners.”

Shiro set his tablet aside, and leaned over his knees where he sat on his cot. “Have you spoken to Kolivan?”

Pidge’s jaw worked. “I chose to come to you first. God knows why.”

Shiro’s expression softened, even if he didn’t necessarily smile. “I appreciate that,” he said. “I think you’re right, in that there’s a chance to get more information from the outpost. My only concerns are about time and manpower.”

“Coran says we can’t move the Splice out for another week or so,” Pidge said, her voice becoming low as she referenced the reason for the tension between them. “It shouldn’t take us that long for a simple information recovery. Especially if it’s just me and Hunk. The smaller the party the better, we’ll move faster, be less of a risk.”

“It’s still Kolivan’s operation,” Shiro offered reluctantly. “I think you should take him, or at least one of his lieutenants to keep the Marmora in the loop, and as a guide if nothing else.”

“I fully intend to,” she replied. “I just wanted to keep you in the loop. It’s nice to be informed and included when decisions are made, from time to time.”

Shiro heaved a sigh, resigned. “Is there, by any chance, something you’d like to get off your chest?” He asked wearily.

“Just giving you a different perspective, I know you’re keen on those,” Pidge said flatly. “At least where it comes to the opinions of others.”

“Do you feel that I failed to consider you and the team when I chose to bond with the Splice?” He asked, keeping his voice gentle.

“I think you let your soft heart dictate a decision that should’ve been purely strategic,” she said, meeting his gaze with her own steely one. “Even Ulaz has reservations, even Coran. You’re the only one who seems to be wearing blinders where it comes to this kid.”

Shiro clasped his hands between his knees. “And what do you feel would have been the better option?” He asked levelly. “Allowing him to die here, losing whatever advantages he might afford us? Or allowing him to die here but later on, once the isolation and loss of purpose drags him back to square one? Or maybe allowing him to die at the Marmoran Splice facility, where nothing will have changed for him – back under the control of scientists, kept separate from his kind, devoid again of purpose?”

Pidge shrugged. “He’s not that much of an asset. If he dies, he dies. It’ll be no different than putting down any other animal. Doesn’t matter how well that animal performs it’s job, if it’s dangerous to those around them. If what he says is true, he’s lived a shit life anyway; it might be kinder in the end.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Shiro said flatly.

“I do,” she argued behind grit teeth, taking a step in towards Shiro. “But that doesn’t matter because you’ve already decided that me, that Hunk, that the rest of our team and our unit will be adopting this… this thing too. You made the choice to jeopardize us, you made the choice to bring danger into our home. That’s the one place we’re meant to be safe here, Shiro. And you expected no argument, no concerns? This isn’t like adopting a regular dog, Shiro, he’s something else, he was only ever put on this earth to do one thing, and he’s been doing it really, really well. You might not be able to train that out of him, and you’re risking more than just your own heartbreak in trying.” She finished with a sharp breath, trying to reign herself back in.

Shiro’s expression didn’t turn to anger, but turned sad instead, reading between the lines. “I’m not giving you up,” he said softly. “Any of you. I’m not turning my back on you. I’m not choosing the Splice over you, I’m not choosing a military advantage over you.”

“This isn’t about me-”

“It is,” Shiro said firmly. “It’s about you and it’s about the rest of our team, because we are a family. What one of us does affects the others, and I know that better than most. I want you to know that any choice I make here, I don’t just make for myself. I try to think about all of us – about our futures, here and after. I would never, ever, take on anything that I perceived to be a threat to you. To our family,” he said, holding Pidge’s gaze. “You’re right, he’s not just a stray dog we found and we can nurse back to health. In some ways, he is human. He can think, he can interact – he can learn. He’s already made it to sixteen, who knows how long he even has left, but I believe he can be trained. I believe that he can adapt, he can overcome whatever training they put him through. I believe he can change in ways a true animal could not.”

“And if he can’t?” Pidge murmured, fists clenching at her sides. “If I find something damning up there, if he turns out to be more animal than human?”

“Then I’ll put him down myself,” Shiro said tersely. “And that will be the end of it.”

Pidge brought her gaze back up to meet Shiro’s, and heaved a breath through her nose. She nodded, and snapped off a salute. “I’ll run the mission past Kolivan. See what he has to say about it. I’ll report back with his decision.”

“Thank you, Pidge,” Shiro said, genuinely. “For taking on the mission, and everything else. Thank you for letting me know.”

“It’s for us,” she said, resigned. “If the runt’s going to be coming home with us, we should know what we’re getting into.” With that, she turned her back and left, and Shiro tried not to let uncertainty start to weigh at his shoulders.

Chapter Text

While Pidge and Hunk went back up the mountain with a Marmoran guide, Shiro established and maintained a strict schedule with the boy.

Shiro hardly ever left the boy’s side. He brought the boy every meal himself, morning, noon and night, and ate it with him. Every night, after whatever briefings he’d entertained in person or remotely from the boy’s bedside, Shiro slept in a cot beside the boy’s bed. Coran would come in from time to time, as would Ulaz and Kolivan, to assess not just the boy’s health but the situation at large. Coran had removed most of the boy’s bandages, a testament to how quickly the boy could recover with regular meals and rest in addition to whatever went into his genetic make-up. The only physical sign of what had happened during the raid at the outpost and after were the ugly black stitches in the boy’s cheek; they looked tight and painful, but the boy ate and spoke seemingly unhindered. Coran was still concerned over the boy’s size, especially his weight considering how little he resembled his supposed age; he reckoned there was a chance the boy was still growing, but worried that the boy would be permanently stunted by prolonged starvation and torture.

The boy didn’t seem too bothered by the poking and the prodding. He took all of Coran’s tests in stride, allowing the older man to touch him and examine him unclothed, using the scale and letting him take blood samples as required. Then again, living in breeding facilities his whole life as he had, the boy was likely used to not having any agency over his own body, and not having any privacy for that matter either.

No matter what Coran put him through, no matter how uncomfortable Shiro’s lines of questioning became, the boy never displayed aggression. He never bared his teeth, or growled, or made to take a swipe or snap at either one of them. Truth be told, Shiro suspected the boy was just satisfied being in a calm environment, whether he trusted it or not.

More and more, the boy was beginning to actually focus on Shiro instead of simply accepting him as just another fixture in his new life. He was beginning to see Shiro as a constant, reliable; he would turn to him whenever he entered the room, whenever he spoke or interacted with him. When they went to sleep at night, the boy turned to face Shiro and curled up tight as close to the edge of his bed as possible; he didn’t hesitate as long anymore when Shiro brought him food, trusting it when Shiro ate with him.

Shiro wasn’t just the newest authority figure exerting power over the boy’s life; he was the person who provided for him, food and water and safety. He was gentle and he was honest. He didn’t raise his hands to harm, he didn’t raise his voice to invoke terror, he just lived as normally as he could with the boy at his side.

“You know what we need to do,” Shiro said absently, looking over his hand of cards as he deliberated over which to add to the pile on the bed.

“I don’t,” the boy answered honestly, looking over his own hand.

“We need to figure out a name for you,” Shiro said, slapping a card onto the pile and pulling one more from the deck on the bedside table.

The boy looked up from where he was examining the card pile on the bed. “I thought I had a name, now,” he said, uncertain. “You call me Buddy. Isn’t that my name now? Buddy?”

Shiro’s mouth quirked up as he met the boy’s gaze. “It can be,” he offered. “If you want it to be. But ‘buddy’ is more of a nickname, a way to say that you’re my friend. You know? It’s not a real name.”

The boy frowned, his fingers fiddling with the cards in the pile. “What’s your name…?” He asked finally, carefully. The boy knew, of course, what the others called him, what Coran and Kolivan called him – Shiro, Commander, Sir. Shiro suspected the boy was curious about more than just what people called him, but what the boy should call Shiro in turn. Establish their relationship.

“Well, everyone calls me Shiro, but that’s a nickname. My name is kind of long and hard to pronounce for some people, so Shiro is easier,” he explained. “I have two names, one is my family name, and the other is a name just for me. So everyone in my family, my parents and I, our last name is Shirogane, but me, my name is Takashi. That’s my first name.”

“That is a long name,” the boy agreed, and Shiro did his best to stifle his grin at the solemn way the boy said it. “Why Shiro, if Shirogane is your last name and is for everybody? Wouldn’t it be better to call you Takashi, so people know which one…?”

“I think I mentioned before, one time, that I’m Japanese. My family is from a country called Japan, right?” Shiro waited for the boy to nod before continuing. “Right. So in Japan, the last name comes first, because it’s considered more important than the first name. Your first name is who you are, but your last name is who your family is – where you come from, where you belong. So my name is written ‘Shirogane Takashi’ instead of like… Coran’s, where his first name is Coran and his last name is Smythe, so Coran Smythe is his full name. Your name will be written like that, probably.”

The boy dropped his gaze back to the cards, and Shiro recognized now when the boy was mentally and physically retreating. “Those are people things,” he murmured. “Family things. I only need the one name.”

“You’re a person too,” Shiro reminded. “And you can always make your own family.”

The boy’s expression became even more closed off at that, and one hand reached up to tug anxiously at his overlong, shaggy hair, distressed, before Shiro realized he’d been gravely misunderstood.

“Not… not as in physically,” he hurried to amend. “You don’t have to do that. There’s more than one way to make your own family. Like… me and Pidge. We’re not related, we don’t share parents, but I still think of her as a sister. Same for Hunk and Ulaz and Coran, and a lot of the other people in our unit. We have this place and our work in common, but no parents, no blood relations. Do you understand…?”

The boy frowned, his hand slowly slipping out of the hair at his nape. “But you own them,” he said slowly. “You are their commanding officer. They are your subordinates. You tell them what to do.”

“Human beings don’t own one another,” Shiro corrected, gently. “In our unit, we build relationships based on trust and over time. I have a lot of responsibility, for a lot of people. They do as I ask, because they respect me and the choices I make. Not out of fear, not because I am somehow better than them, but because I have knowledge and experience. The title ‘Commander’ is something for outsiders, really – and for new recruits, sometimes, like you. It means I do the heavy-lifting, it means a lot of stress and responsibility and sometimes heartbreak. I make sure my unit and the people in it run smoothly. I make sure everyone eats and bathes and gets downtime and gets paid – and I do my best to keep everyone alive. That’s what I do, that’s what the position means for me, for us. But it doesn’t mean I own or control anybody.”

“But you do own me,” the boy said. “Right?” Shiro wasn’t expecting the hopeful tone underlying the question, half anxious. The boy’s face remained neutral as he met Shiro’s stare head-on, but his voice betrayed him.

“I don’t, bud,” Shiro said slowly. “I don’t want to own you, I want you to own yourself. To be your own person. I want you to be free.”

“I am Galra,” the boy stressed. “I am sixteen and able-bodied. I am not sterile. I’m combat-trained. I will never be free. I cannot be.”

“Buddy,” Shiro began, inching closer, but the boy shook his head.

“You don’t understand. I am not a person - I am a thing. I am an animal, a dog. If you set me free, I will be in danger. I could be taken, used again. Killed, probably, if they decided I’m not worth the trouble, and you already know that I’ve decided I will not be.” He curled his hands under the heavy leather collar around his neck, tugging on it pointedly. “This… this keeps me safe. As long as I am someone’s property, people think twice about taking me. They think maybe it isn’t worth the trouble to steal me, if someone will come looking for me. The way you want me to be, it will not last. I will die. It will be bad. It’s better to be what I am – what I truly am.” He shook his head again, dropping his hands from his collar. “If you want me to live, that’s the way it has to be. Like eating, like breathing – I need this, to live.”

“That’s not what I want for you,” Shiro said, trying to ease the tension in his throat, pained. “I didn’t save your life to have it be wasted.”

“You promised me it would not be,” the boy said evenly. “You promised me a purpose, a second chance.”

“I wanted you to have the chance to live, to be more than just a weapon, more than just an animal. I want you to be happy – I want you to enjoy being alive, not just live day to day on someone else’s orders. That is never what I wanted for you.”

The boy shrugged, seemingly unbothered. “I am what I am. I can’t be anything else. I have always been, and will always be, a dog on a leash – but if I can be a happy dog on a leash, that would be nice, too. I’d like that.”

“And how do I do that…?” Shiro asked, voice low and resigned, on the verge of despondent. “How do I make a dog on a leash happy?”

“Feed it and call it Buddy,” the boy said. “Card games are nice, too.”

Shiro felt his mouth tug up despite the sinking feeling of failure in his gut. “I think I can do that, bud.”

The boy offered another of his weird, grimacing attempts at a smile, his canines glinting.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

They never returned to the topic of choosing a name for the boy, and Shiro was honestly okay with that. The conversation had given him enough heartache for one day, and he was afraid the boy wouldn’t really care about his name – wouldn’t be invested in choosing his own. He already seemed to know how the world perceived him, and had made some sort of peace with it; Shiro didn’t reckon the boy really cared about names, where himself was concerned. He probably didn’t think it made a difference one way or another, to how he viewed himself or how others would view him, especially in his new company.

That was okay. The name could wait. Shiro had a plan for that.

In terms of how the boy would address Shiro, they’d agreed on either ‘Sir’ or ‘Shiro’, and Shiro suspected he’d be getting called Sir more often than Shiro. The boy was raised to think in certain parameters, everything where it belonged according to his training – his experience. Simply telling the boy that he was to be an equal, to be treated the same as everyone else, wouldn’t be believed and Shiro supposed the boy was right in that, to a degree.

Shiro and Coran saw him as just that, a boy. A boy with skills he was too young to have, a boy who had experienced pain and trauma, a boy who would benefit from being drawn into a tight-knit, familial group like their own. However, like Kolivan, they knew it wasn’t so simple, so straightforward; as much as Shiro disliked acknowledging it, the boy had a primal side, a wild side, a side that was at least capable of violence. Just because the boy didn’t seem interested in acting aggressive didn’t mean he wouldn’t, if put in the wrong situation. It was totally possible that the boy had only a tenuous control over his animal instincts, and they just hadn’t managed to provoke a trigger yet.

Everyone in his team, in his unit, knew what purpose a Splice served out here. It wasn’t a question of healing a disability, or becoming more aesthetically pleasing – it was war. Splices were bred for strength, durability, brutality. They weren’t intended to ever be children, and once an adult had their DNA combined with something else, they surrendered every last shred of their humanity. The people who made these creatures, no matter the process, wanted them to do harm and do nothing else, and that was how the boy was going to be received. The boy knew it, everyone in his team and Kolivan knew it. No one would trust the boy without some thorough vetting – and just Shiro’s word wasn’t going to do.

It would take time, for everyone involved, to adapt to the change. For Shiro, for the boy, for their unit – especially because Shiro had no intention of leaving the boy unattended anytime soon. It would be better to keep the boy close, keep an eye on him, and more than that to establish that a change of scenery didn’t mean a change in Shiro. He wanted to keep the boy’s trust and respect – he didn’t want to lose that by changing too much, too soon. Shiro at least could be one constant in the boy’s life, moving forward.

And if it also proved the boy’s trustworthiness to his unit, then even better.

Shiro intended to really sell the boy to his unit. The more he considered his plan, the more he thought it sounded like a child begging his parents to let him keep the stray dog he’d found, and that wasn’t too far from the truth. Pidge, Hunk, Ulaz, Coran… they’d all heard of the Volkodav first hand, and he was sure that word would get around as it always did in the relatively small camp. But the rest of the camp wouldn’t be hearing terrified gibberish from refugees or military prisoners – they wouldn’t know what the boy first looked like when they’d found him, and Shiro fully intended to take advantage of that. They would never meet the Volkodav – just a boy, and a lot of rumors.

In essence, Shiro fully intended to make a walking adoption advert.

After his discharge, when he’d been home a month or so, a few people had broached the subject of getting a dog, especially a trained service animal. Someone that could handle his PTSD, give his day-to-day life some meaning, something to look forward to. His mother was the biggest proponent; all she knew to do to heal a wound, of any kind, was with love and he cherished that about her, really. But it meant that she threw herself behind her nurturing, whatever form it took, with everything in her and the whole dog idea was no different. She’d sent Shiro page after page of dogs – cute little cuddly dogs, older calmer dogs, trained service animals, and so many, many rescues. The majority of them had had nice photos attached, some of them even had before and after comparisons, and usually a little profile attached. Something about their preferences, and the type of home they needed, their history. It might be a little more complicated when it was a battle-hardened Young versus a one-eyed Pomeranian, but Shiro reckoned rather optimistically that it shouldn’t be all that hard considering he had a decent foundation to work with.

Shiro’s first step was getting the boy cleaned up, reveal the “handsome little heartbreaker” Coran had first told him about. The boy was already on his way to filling out and regaining his strength after a week of three square meals a day, which did most of his work for him. The boy’s eyes were no longer sunken and flat, his cheeks had color and a little roundness to them; his wrists and knees were still knobby and protruded, his arms and legs gangly at best. The boy’s hair had a unique quality to it, ultra fine and thick, long down his neck and edging past his shoulders with an overgrown fringe that mostly fell into his face. His almond eyes were big and blue and when you had him engaged they were intent and emotive, his facial expressions almost invariably settled into a gentle uncertainty or confusion - especially when he cocked his head to one side. He was plenty cute, Shiro thought, or at least could be if given time and space to grow – and a bath. Definitely one of those.

“I have a proposition for you,” Shiro stated, apropos of nothing as they wrapped up their lunch.

“Okay,” the boy said placidly. There was at least enough trust between them now, that the boy didn’t suspect Shiro of anything underhanded.

“You need a bath, and I need someone to help me with some paperwork. How does that sound?”

The boy looked uncertain, expression shuttered as he dropped his eyes to the bed, thinking it over. Shiro was starting to become acquainted with that look – it meant remembering, and rarely anything good.

“It’s fun paperwork, I promise,” Shiro cajoled. “There might even be an apple in it for you.” Little by little, Shiro was gathering information on the boy – just small things that didn’t pertain to his worth as an asset. Things he seemed to enjoy eating, books he enjoyed listening to as Shiro read, what card games the boy liked or excelled at. Fruit was understandably rare and hard to come by at the camp, and apples were what they received the most of in barters; they were smaller and firmer than what Shiro was used to getting at home, but still just as sweet. The two times Shiro had split an apple with the boy, his eyes had lit up and he’d been more careful eating it than his usual meals, taking smaller bites and working it around to enjoy the sweetness.

The possibility of apples got the boy’s attention, but he was still reluctant. “I can’t read or write,” he argued, one last ditch effort to avoid what he knew was inevitable.

“Won’t have to,” Shiro reassured cheerfully. “What do you say? Bath, apples, paperwork?”

The boy licked at his teeth, anxious. He nodded, stiltedly, like he was forcing himself, and kept his gaze averted.

Instead of taking the agreement at face value, Shiro took a moment to analyze the boy’s body language and replies. The boy wasn’t scratching at his nape or pulling at his hair, so it probably wasn’t stress, or feelings of humiliation like there was when his initial purpose at the last facility was broached. He wasn’t scowling or tensed like when fighting or violence was discussed. He didn’t seem sad, his eyes weren’t soft and distant the way they’d been when he discussed his mother or his life at the first facility. Instead, from what Shiro could gather, he seemed resigned, obligated to obey, reluctant to argue or at least bring up whatever he feared.

“Do you understand why I’m asking you about taking a bath?” Shiro pressed, gently, emphasizing that he was asking, not issuing a command.

The boy nodded. “Because I need one. Being clean is important.”

Shiro nodded. “Do you want that…?” He asked.

The boy nodded again, as if he were being forced. Shiro tried not to express his frustration.

“Buddy. I need you to be honest with me. I need to know the truth. Always. That’s important to me,” he said, only feeling a twinge of guilt at the manipulation. “Not as your commander, but for myself, as Shiro. I want to trust you, but I can’t do that if you lie.”

The boy’s hands twisted in the sheets in his lap, then sure enough, like clockwork, one hand came up to scratch through the hair at his nape – distressed. “You want me to take a bath,” he said, voice tight. “I can… I can do that. I can be good.”

“That’s not what I asked, bud,” Shiro pressed gently. “Answer me honestly. Do you want to take a bath?”

“No…?” The boy replied, his voice higher, lilting questioningly. His gaze darted to Shiro, avoiding his eyes, taking in his posture, the set of his shoulders, the location of his hands. The hand at the back of his neck curled, raking instead of scratching and Shiro refrained from admonishing him or physically stopping him for the moment. He knew a coping mechanism when he saw one, and right now, anything that kept the boy’s anxiety relatively level was welcome.

“Okay,” Shiro said peaceably, not changing his tone or the relaxed set of his body. “Can you tell me why?”

The boy nodded then, hasty, like he was eager to appease, but when he opened his mouth, the words seem to get caught. His jaw worked multiple times, figuring out what to say, fighting the urge to lie, his expression reflecting his struggle; it took all of Shiro’s willpower not to back down, to just take the boy’s obedience. He wanted to do more than lead by example – he wanted communication between them, man to man, regardless of what the boy thought was possible or acceptable.

Hurts,” the boy finally forced out, his voice low, pained. “Water’s too hard, too hot – too cold. Scrub really hard and the brush is really hard – everything is hard. But I can do it. I can. I’ll be good.”

Just hearing that first, pained whine in the boy’s voice made a knot rise in Shiro’s throat. He’d suspected, he had, that the experience had been painful, whether by design or through negligence. That was the only conclusion to be drawn from the boy’s reluctance, considering his history. But it was something else, to hear him discuss it, in detail, when Shiro in all honesty didn’t want to know – he wanted to be ignorant, to be aware of the boy's past in terms of the bare bones, something long dead and buried and without feeling. He hated being confronted with the bloody truth, the gore, the viscera of what had really happened… that the past was dead but not gone, still haunting this boy. Begging Shiro to let him go through it all again, whether or not the boy realized that what he’d survived would no longer be his reality, in an attempt to prove his worth only made things harder to swallow.

“Okay,” Shiro answered, his voice as even as before if not made rougher by emotion. “Thank you, bud. I’m really glad you told me that. I know that was hard for you, but I’m glad you were honest with me, because we can work to make that better, going forward. Now I want you to listen to me, alright? Can you do that?”

The boy nodded, still not meeting Shiro’s eyes.

“That’s good, thank you. I haven’t really addressed this before, but I think maybe I should explain this to you. You don’t have to believe me right now, and I know it’s a lot to take in, especially with everything else going on. Things are going to be different with me and your new unit,” Shiro began. “The things you did before, the way you were treated before – that’s not going to happen with me. I don’t enjoy causing pain or fear for anybody, and I do my best at all times to avoid that. I don’t enjoy, or see the point, in harming you in any way. You are just fine as you are, and if anything needs to change between you and me, it won’t be done with violence or by hurting you. I told you before that all I want is your happiness, and keeping you safe from any and all harm is a part of that. If anyone does anything that hurts or scares you, you either tell them or you tell me. Am I understood?” He said, allowing it to come across as authoritative so the boy understood that he was firm on this, and not using it as a platitude or empty promise. When the boy nodded again, Shiro did as well, but didn’t let him off so easily. “Repeat it back to me. Explain what it means, so I know you understand.”

“No more pain,” the boy murmured, uncertain. “No more being afraid.”

“No more pain, because…?” Shiro goaded. “No more fear, because…?”

“No one will hurt me,” the boy continued, voice shrinking. “You, will not hurt me.”

“And if you feel pain, or feel fear, what do you do?”

“I… I say something,” the boy stammered. “I tell you.”

Shiro gave another slow, deep nod, and the boy’s eyes finally glanced back up to Shiro’s face, however briefly, the fingers in his hair easing up again. “That’s good. I’m glad you understand the new rules. That’s how we’re going to get things done, now – by talking them out. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll let you know, and if there’s something you don’t like, you let me know. Like the bath, for example. Baths here, and back at our own camp, don’t hurt for anybody. We don’t do hoses, and we don’t have much control over temperature or pressure. Here with the Marmora, people mostly use the local river or draw water and bathe in a basin. Back home, at our camp, we use showers. Nobody scrubs anybody, with anything, and everyone is given their privacy – everyone. Does that sound okay with you? Would you be comfortable with that…?”

This time, the boy hesitated, thinking it over, and Shiro hoped it was because he was considering telling the truth instead of obeying for obedience’s sake. Finally the boy nodded, slowly, and brought his eyes back up to Shiro’s and kept them there. “Yes,” he said, almost shy. “That sounds… that sounds okay. I would be okay with that.”

Shiro rewarded him with a smile, the satisfaction warming his heart twice as much when the boy tried to return it, however small. It was progress. It was shaky, it was hard-won, but it was progress.

Baby steps. He had to be satisfied with that.

Chapter Text

To Shiro’s delight, when provided with the option of the river or a basin, the boy made a choice for himself with little hesitation, requesting a visit to the bathing tents that were mostly used for younger children and elderly refugees. There would be more privacy there than at the river and wouldn’t require transport, all things Shiro was sure the boy had considered. Shiro had reluctantly reminded him that all his safety measures had to go with them, but the boy didn’t seem to mind nearly as much as Shiro had. He didn’t want the boy paraded through the camp like a criminal – like they’d caught him in the act, instead of discovering what he’d been forced to do. For that reason, Shiro elected they move the bath to sundown, limiting the boy’s interactions with members of the Marmoran camp.

“Ta-da,” Shiro said with a flourish, as they entered the designated tent and he whisked aside the entry flap. “What do you think?”

The boy took it all in, eyes flickering around the enclosure, jaw tight with anticipation. “It’s really big,” he said.

“It’s a big camp,” Shiro shrugged, ushering the boy ahead of him. “I don’t think there should be anyone else in here this late, so go ahead and pick a spot. Most of them have a partition, if you want. Up to you.”

The boy hummed, low in his throat and chest, uncertain. “Can we use that one?” He asked, having to gesture with both hands since they were cuffed together, lacking the long chains attached to the bed. He’d indicated the furthest partition, towards the back and almost in a corner.

“Whichever one you like,” Shiro assured, and held the partition aside for the boy. “I can help you get out of the scrubs and wait outside if you want,” he offered. “I can’t take the cuffs or lead off, though, I’m sorry. It’ll make things awkward washing up, I know, but rules are rules, even for me.”

“Outside?” That seemed to be the only part the boy had caught on to. “Outside the tent…?” He didn’t seem pleased by the prospect, eyes wide and brow furrowed, his hands paused in the midst of tugging at the neck of his tunic.

“I don’t have to leave,” Shiro reminded gently. “I just wanted to give you privacy if you wanted it. If you want me to stay here, I will, you just say the word.”

The boy looked overwhelmed, and after their intense discussion at lunchtime, and the progress made after, Shiro took pity. “How about I stay with you, help you reach whatever the cuffs don’t let you. Is that okay with you?”

The tension in the boy’s shoulders and face eased almost immediately. “Yes, that’s okay.” He hesitated for a minute, then met Shiro’s eyes and said definitively, “I’d like that.” As if it were a bold statement, and Shiro supposed it was, for him. Confessing to have a preference either way meant leaving himself open to having the things he liked taken away – or to be hurt for making the wrong choice. Shiro rewarded him with the warmest smile possible.

“Good to know. C’mon, let’s get you washed up.”

Shiro drew just two buckets from the central well, reckoning they wouldn’t need much more than that for the boy’s small body. Honestly, the basin they were using was like a tub for the undersized Splice, giving him plenty of room to maneuver as opposed to Shiro or even Pidge, and especially Hunk, who had honestly just resorted to standing in the basin whenever they had no other options.

He set out a bar of crude soap and a rag on the painfully short footstool Shiro decided he’d be using as a seat, then started to help the boy out of the old-fashioned tie-shut scrubs. The boy didn’t have any complaints, and didn’t seem upset by the lack of mobility, taking the weight of the restraints in stride. He didn’t seem bothered, either, by Shiro’s hands on him or his presence once he was fully naked and stepping into the tub. As he did, Shiro took in the sad state of the child’s body, still too bony and pale, the scars littered all over his skin even paler and shiny, old. There were pink scars, too, from wounds that had healed badly and from his journey down the mountain, but not all of them seemed violent in nature – some showed signs of stitching, some were too clean to be anything but surgical. But the one that stuck out the most was the large puckered scar at the base of the boy’s spine, sporting a thick tuft of black hair.

“Do you have a tail?” Shiro found himself asking, blurting it out without thought, genuinely shocked, feeling the blood drain from his face. “I mean, did you?” Had they mutilated the boy…?

The boy looked up at Shiro, surprised, then glanced over one shoulder and down his back. “I did when I was little,” he said. “It’s gone now. They docked it - it made it harder for me to pass as human.” He shrugged, turning back to his work with the rag, working on his feet and legs first, as they were the most accessible with his hands cuffed together.

Shiro watched him work in silence, taking in how methodical and thorough the boy was, apparently dedicated to meeting Shiro’s standards as best he could. He worked between his toes, even. Shiro remembered being back in high school and showering for maybe three minutes and only scrubbing what he considered vitally necessary; he didn’t reckon he’d ever been so thorough as a teenager, but then again, he hadn’t fully realized the privilege he’d had, being able to bathe multiple times a day in the comfort of his own home, whenever he chose.

The boy took a deep breath and then dunked his head into the shallow water in the basin between his legs, and surfaced with a satisfied gasp – and Shiro couldn’t have restrained his sudden burst of laughter if he had tried. The boy in virtually no way resembled a dog – except for when soaking wet, his jet black hair plastered to his face and collar, eyes completely obscured and the points of his cropped ears much more prominent. He looked like a drowned rat and Shiro was absolutely delighted.

“What?” The boy asked, raising his chin and shifting his attention around blindly. “What, what?” Shiro could even see, now, the way the boy’s ears twitched around, listening.

“Oh my god. Hold on, hold still, don’t move, just-” Shiro stood and frantically fumbled his phone out of his pocket, hurrying to take at least one photo. The boy looked like a wet Yorkie, with his ears out and everything but his mouth slathered with black hair. “Oh man. That’s one for the books. Wow.”

“What books?” The boy finally asked, swiping hair out of his face. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, just, uh… your hair,” Shiro said, still half-chuckling as he resumed his seat. “I never get to see your ears, either, since there’s so much of it. They’re cute.”

The boy wrinkled his nose, and his ears flicked back and flat, probably disagreeing, but he turned back to scrubbing at his hair with the soap.

“Your hair’s pretty long, bud,” Shiro commented, watching him work at his scalp. “Didn’t realize there was so much of it until I saw it wet. Don’t reckon you’d let me cut it…?” He asked, not really expecting any answer in the affirmative.

“You can if you want to,” the boy said, surprisingly. “But it grows back really quickly. The researchers here think I’m a long-haired breed. They shaved me down about a month ago, and it’s already almost as long as it used to be.”

“In a month?” Shiro said incredulously. The boy just shrugged.

“If you want me to keep it like yours, I’ll need a lot of haircuts. The first facility gave up and just left it long.” He dunked his head again, staying under to get the soap out, and this time came back up with his fingers raking his hair back down his head, not giving Shiro another chance to laugh.

“How long did it used to be?” Shiro asked.

“Not much longer than this,” the boy admitted. “It stops growing around here.” He clumsily indicated a spot on his side with his cuffed hands, just under where his shoulder blades would normally rest.

“Do you like having it that long?” Shiro asked, motioning for the boy to hand him the soap and rag, and to turn around. “We could do a lot of haircuts, if that’s what you wanted. Especially if you don’t care how it looks.” He thought of Pidge, and her own brand of haircut, which entailed clippers to her nape, bundling everything else in a high ponytail and then just chopping off the ponytail. It was definitely… it was definitely a look.

The boy obediently turned about in the bath, giving Shiro his back and folding his hair up against the back of his head. “Don’t care how it looks. Long is good.” He didn’t go into his reasons why, and Shiro didn’t pry; he didn’t figure it was important.

“That’s fine by me. Plenty of people in our unit with long hair, so you won’t stick out at all.” Shiro opined as he lathered up the rag, working it under the loose collar and over the raised vertebrae and ribs. “So. Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes,” the boy said, his head drooping a little as Shiro worked at his back, arms and sides.

“How did you learn so many languages…?” Shiro asked. “Your English is really good and it keeps surprising me, is all. Did you get any schooling?”

“No,” the boy grunted. “Galra are not educated. It’s not our purpose. The only ones who are, are adult Galra who were created, not birthed like me. We don’t need to read or write or even speak to do as we are intended, to kill or breed. They don’t expect us to live long, anyway. The only way I learned was because my mother taught me, or I listened. My mother was Kazakh, but the research team where I was born were mostly English-speaking, with a few Russian assistants. At this facility, they were all Russian, or at least that’s all they spoke.”

Shiro absorbed that information, sluicing water down the boy’s back. This revelation was concerning – English speakers were not native to this part of the continent, and English wasn’t even an educational requirement for any of the countries involved in the conflict or even their bordering countries. Yet somehow, English-speaking researchers had wound up out here, assisting in Splice research. It could mean treason, a double-cross – or it could mean a country benefiting from the lawless operations being run in this war.

Shiro had asked the boy questions in this vein before, but they’d never gone into detail and Shiro had never really felt the need. Most things the boy didn’t know anyway; he fought who they told him to, killed who they told him to, and obeyed their every command as it didn’t pertain to breeding or harming his fellow Young. He wasn’t even a cog in the machine – he was just a tool, an outside element, to be used to keep the machine running but otherwise uninvolved.

“Those English-speaking researchers,” Shiro said, trying for nonchalance, “did they sound like me, or like Ulaz, or Coran…? Did they have accents like ours?”

“None like Ulaz,” the boy said, narrowing it down. “A few like you, and a few that sounded like Coran, but not exactly.” The boy twisted in the basin to face Shiro, expression intent, all business. “I don’t know where they were from, or even their names. But if I heard others, I might be able to figure out where the Coran voices were from. I could also give descriptions, if that would be helpful.”

Right. Shiro had forgotten. The boy was sixteen and looked adorable soaking wet in a bathtub, but he was no child. He was a man in all but years, and battle-scarred on top of that. He’d killed before – and could still, the reason his hands were still cuffed. For a second, things had felt different between them, but the fundamentals would not and could not change: the boy was an asset and Shiro his handler.

But against better advice, logic and common sense, Shiro stuck to his instincts and gave the boy another smile. “Maybe one day,” he said dismissively. “Alright, let’s get you out of there before you start looking pruney.”

Shiro stood, holding open a ratty towel for the boy to step into, but instead of taking the towel, the boy stood, dropped his head and hunched his shoulders, and Shiro suddenly had a sinking feeling. “No no no, wait, I have a tow-” The rest was lost in a shout as the boy did exactly what Shiro had been afraid of and gave himself a hearty shake from his head to his toes, flinging water around their little partition. Only Shiro’s fast reflexes saved him, jerking the towel up to protect his head and face.

He got the boy as dry as he could with the thin fabric of the towel, giving him a brisk rub down before helping him back into the scrubs. Surprisingly, all that hair dried relatively quickly, fluffing up after the wash and quick once-over with the towel. Looking at the boy’s very delineated hairline, and the way his hair grew in a steep vee down his neck, combined with the odd texture of his hair, Shiro was beginning to think it wasn’t hair so much as fur, or maybe a combination of the two. Either way, it was much more flattering when freshly washed, and Shiro reckoned with a little attention, it would look even better – much less like an abandoned scrapyard dog and more like a human boy. Maybe he wouldn’t cut it all that short, since the boy preferred it long – and especially because he didn’t want to cut it again every single week. Depending on how he wore it, it wouldn’t be an issue, and he didn’t intend on putting the boy in any combat situations, anyway.

He wanted more than anything to impress upon the boy that he had worth outside of the physical. He was more than his genetics, he had value on his own – he was smart, too, and dedicated, and with time Shiro was certain he’d be loyal as well. He could already see it in the way the boy was so eager to please where Shiro was concerned, and how much the boy valued Shiro’s steady presence and reassurance. He almost felt bad, encouraging the boy to rely on him so heavily, but tempered it with the knowledge that it was for the boy’s own good – he was just a crutch until the boy could stand on his own some day.

“So I think we agreed on no haircut,” Shiro said, as they returned to the medical ward, but didn’t immediately reinstate the lead and the chains for the cuffs. The boy sat on the edge of the bed regardless, waiting, as Shiro sat in his usual chair facing him. “But would you be okay with me cutting off a little bit, while it’s still a little wet? Just to even it out and get a little bit out of your face.”

As Shiro predicted, the boy shrugged. “I’ll need to use scissors and a comb,” Shiro warned. “Would that bother you, if it’s close to your face?” Again, the boy shrugged, and Shiro gave him a little smile. “Okay. But remember the rules, okay? If you’re in pain and afraid…”

“Say something,” the boy finished dutifully. “I will.”

Shiro nodded, and couldn’t help but feel a little tug on his heartstrings. The way he reiterated Shiro’s lecture was so similar to the way Pidge did… in a perfect world, they would be best friends, the babies of the company, the smallest and the youngest. They would be so close that even mild-mannered and loving Hunk would be jealous.

Then again, in a perfect world none of them would have ever met. None of them would be out here – and the boy wouldn’t have ever existed in the first place.

Shiro left to fetch the scissors, a comb, and a larger rag to tie about the boy’s neck and returned to find the boy exactly as he’d left him, waiting for him on the bed even though he was no longer chained there. Shiro hadn’t really feared the boy’s escape; yes, it had been a test, but one in which Shiro was already sure of the results. The boy had no reason to leave and every reason to stay. Even if he’d been a spy, a plant meant to infiltrate the Marmora or Shiro’s contingent, the boy’s body didn’t lie – he’d suffered at someone’s hands, and it wasn’t Shiro’s. Shiro treated him with kindness, generosity, and dignity – anyone would be swayed to switch sides if given a choice between the two. And seeing the boy’s gaze come up and fix unerringly on Shiro as he returned to the room, Shiro knew the boy stayed for more than just the opportunity for an easy life.

“It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” Shiro admitted. “Especially with just scissors, so don’t be too judgmental if I butcher your hair.”

“It’ll be fine,” the boy assured. “It’s just hair.” He thought for a moment, then said in an attempt at further reassurance and to adhere to Shiro’s new rules, “It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like or dislike it.”

“Thanks, bud,” Shiro said with a somewhat wry smile, and reached out to gently pat the boy’s shoulder. The boy took it in stride, not reacting either way, and let Shiro come around behind him.

Shiro’s mother had almost always cut his hair growing up; it hadn’t always been good or flattering, but it was almost always the same, neat style. She’d always said that since he was her one and only child that she wanted to experience the most with him, everything she possibly could. She wanted to cook and clean with him, and sew with him, she wanted to go shopping and cut his hair and teach him how to shave and tie a Windsor knot and tuck a dress shirt in properly. He’d learned almost everything he knew by watching her, including the way she treated others. Her first instinct was to love and nurture, especially where it came to other children and animals, but if she for one moment thought there was danger, she seemed to tower over the threat, hard and immovable, with a fire within her that couldn’t be extinguished. In a lot of ways and with a great deal of pride, Shiro considered himself a larger replica of her.

He thought of her as he set to the boy’s hair, trying not to cut too much, starting off small and working his way up. How many times had his mother done this for him in their upstairs bathroom, as Shiro chattered away about what he’d learned in school, teaching her as much as she taught him? How often had he looked up into the mirror and seen her small figure first hunched over his head and then later reaching up, even though she was on a stepstool and he was seated? In college and then boot camp that tiny figure in the mirror had morphed into his own, trimming his own hair and then trimming his friends’ hair.

But he’d never once felt the way he did now, the need to be careful and cautious around the little ears, the long nape, the soft face; grateful, not for the first time, for the dexterity of his new prosthesis. Was this what his mother had felt, all those years ago with Shiro in a kitchen chair across from the sink…? Pouring herself into every stroke of the comb, every snip of the scissors – wanting to do her very best to care for something precious…? How often did she do as Shiro did now, and run her fingers through his fringe with pride not just at her work, but pride in her boy…?

“There,” Shiro forced himself to say, pulling his hand away from fussing with the newly trimmed hair around the boy’s angular face. “Like new. Back home, I’d probably get top dollar for a cut like that, and you got it for free. Lucky you.”

The boy opened his eyes as Shiro bent to remove the cloth from his neck, shaking it out. “Is that what you did before?” He asked. “Or is that classified.”

“Nope,” Shiro said in reply to both questions. “Just had a really great teacher. Here, look.” He took out his phone, and crouched to snap a decent picture of the boy first head-on, and then from the side, before handing it over to the boy. “Not too shabby, huh?”

The boy took the phone in his hands nonchalantly, but the instant his eyes settled on the picture of himself on the screen, they went huge, and he froze. “This… this is me…?” He murmured. His wide eyes drifted up to meet Shiro’s, slow with shock. “This is me?”

Shiro’s brow furrowed in confusion. The boy hadn’t seemed confused or uncertain about having his photo taken by phone, and seemed to expect nothing less when Shiro had handed it to him. “Yes,” he confirmed, gently. “Haven’t you seen photos of yourself before…? Or your reflection?”

“Not… not like this,” the boy whispered, dropping his eyes back down and clutching the phone reverently. He brought his fingers up to touch the stitches in his cheek, where they matched the photo. “This is really me, right now?”

“Yeah,” Shiro confirmed, and just to prove the point gently eased the phone out of the boy’s hands and took a seat beside him on the bed, one leg dangling. He closed the gallery and brought up the camera, changing it to front-facing, and held it in front of them both. “See? This is us, the both of us, right now.” He waved a hand so it would be reflected on the screen.

The boy reached up tentatively and Shiro allowed him to take the phone, to study his own reflection. “This is how I really look,” the boy said, numb with wonder. “This is really me. I’m not… I’m not as ugly as I thought. I'm not… I don’t look scary.” He touched the stitches again, and the look of surprise melted into one of pained realization as he turned to Shiro. “I look just like her. I look like my mother.”

Shiro did his best to swallow down enough heartbreak that he could speak. The words came out low and hoarse anyway. “You’re not ugly,” Shiro confirmed. “You’re not a monster.” He reached up carefully and put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, giving him a gentle tug against his side. “You’re your mother’s son, and that is all you will ever have to be from now on.”

The boy more than allowed the embrace, losing tension and molding himself to Shiro’s side. He didn’t reciprocate, his wide eyes still on the open screen, rediscovering his own face. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be baby steps, Shiro considered. Maybe we can do this at our own pace. Maybe we can run if we want to.

Chapter Text

Shiro’s next order of business was clothes. Pidge and Hunk should be back any day now; they were keeping the comms quiet unless an emergency came up, keeping the task as simple and straight-forward as possible.

The Marmoran camp saw more babies and children than anyone would really want, and religious organizations both locally and overseas frequently sent donations of clothing and toys. For the time being, taking a few pieces of donated clothing would be his best bet in terms of what would fit the boy’s tiny frame; it would also, hopefully, help portray the boy for what he was nowinstead of what he had been. Shiro had no intention of introducing the boy to his new home in blood-stained and threadbare over-sized fatigues.

He wasn’t able to scrounge up much, mostly because of his own standards. Most articles were too large or too small or, and Shiro felt poorly about the decision, far too nice. There were kids here at the camp that may not be getting any other clothes but these, who would need newer things that would last a good year of growing and playing. The boy wouldn’t have to worry about that, in Shiro’s care, and besides that, the boy would likely be working around the unit and would ruin a new pair of jeans or cool t-shirt. It would be better instead, to take clothes he wouldn’t need to really grow into, that had some wear-and-tear. If everything went well, the boy wouldn’t need them anymore once they ordered him a new set of Company issued fatigues.

And if everything went wrong, then they wouldn’t need to worry about clothes anymore, anyway.

Shiro managed to find two decent t-shirts, one black and one red with a pocket, and two pairs of well-loved blue jeans that might have to be cuffed up. He took a few pairs of socks and underthings and called it a success; the boy wouldn’t need any shoes, since the boots they’d found him with were serviceable and again there were others that needed them more, and there were jackets the boy could use back at base camp and those didn’t necessarily have to fit.

Shiro had looked at the little cabinet of donated toys and briefly wondered if the boy would like something like that, but knew even as he looked that the boy wouldn’t have understood the point. Having something for the sake of having, because you were interested, probably even the notion of playtime as a whole would be foreign to someone who had never been a child, only a soldier. There was nothing that would appeal to the more canid aspects of the boy either, and Shiro didn’t even know if he’d be interested in that anyway – if the boy would just have an ingrained appreciation for fetch, or if it would be like playing catch with a regular human boy.

Coran had given the boy another physical this morning, and given him not only the all-clear for travel but a glowing bill of good health in addition. The boy was putting on weight at a decent rate, was eating and drinking regularly on his own, and all his wounds were either closed over or in the process there of. His face was still angular and his eyes were still big, but he had a healthy color to his pale skin and no bruises to mar it; he looked more youthful now than when they’d found him, with the additional softness of puppy fat to his cheeks and jaw.

Clean, hair trimmed, healthy and healing, and in regular civilian clothes, the boy looked normal – like an average child on the cusp of puberty. The only thing that belied that image was the over=sized collar around the boy’s neck, and Shiro was still of two minds about that. He acknowledged the boy may have had a point, where it came to the implication of ownership and his safety, but he also hated looking at the thing. It looked so heavy and uncomfortable, despite the fact that there was plenty of room for the boy to slide a fist between it and his throat, but more than that he hated the constant reminder, to both the boy and to others that he was an animal and fully expected to be treated as such.

He was pondering what to do about it, splitting the promised apple between himself and the boy in comfortable silence when there was a knock on the door of the medical ward. Both their heads popped up and looked around; as Shiro had anticipated, Pidge stood on the other side, looking rough and exhausted but vindicated, if unsmiling. She hitched a thumb over one shoulder as a silent request for him to step outside, and Shiro nodded.

“That’d be Pidge,” Shiro said, getting to his feet. “Just came back from an intelligence op at the facility. Gonna debrief her and then I’ll be right back. Okay?” The boy nodded, looking unbothered, wholly occupied with his apple, and Shiro gave him a brief stroke over his hair in farewell before stepping outside.

“Have fun?” He opened with, wryly taking in the state of her and the smile on her face.

“I see he’s learned Sit and Stay,” she replied with mock cheer. “Congrats, Cesar Millan.”

“Thanks, Roll Over’s next on my list,” Shiro said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest. “I assume you learned some new tricks this week as well?”

“Just brushing up on some old ones,” Pidge replied smugly. “Mostly 'fetch' – found myself a tidy little hidden room full of servers and several serviceable hard drives from secondary terminals from which I can extract a truly disgusting amount of information. It’s all in Russian, of course, but I figured Ulaz could assist, or maybe Kolivan might know a guy.”

Shiro chuckled, giving his head a rueful shake. “Leave it to you to go up a mountain for some files and return with the whole damn operation on disk. Great work, Pidge.”

“Well, it’s not everything,” she said, with false humility. “But it might as well be. Whatever gaps there are we can fill with what we have, and input from the researchers and Fido, assuming he can tell the truth as well as he can kill.” She lifted her chin at the boy in the bed.

Shiro shot her a look, mingled disappointment and resignation, knowing any criticism would fall on deaf ears. She heaved her shoulders up dismissively. “Hey. We don’t know anything about him for sure until I start working on the data I retrieved.”

“I know what I know about him,” Shiro said. “It’s been a good week for him – for us. We’ve made progress.”

“So you think,” Pidge said, brushing him off. “You don’t know what’s going through his head.”

“You can’t claim to, either,” Shiro pointed out.

“I know dogs, and I know Splices,” she replied. “You can’t tell me a wolf has the temperament of a rabbit just because you have a good feeling about it. It’s still a wolf, and some things are hard-wired into them. That’s a fact – that’s science.”

“So after these three months, I still haven’t proved myself to you,” Shiro said softly. “You never trusted me so little before.”

“You’ve never done something this stupid before,” she explained. “I still respect you, Shiro, but now… I don’t know about trust off the battlefield. This is a mistake, Shiro. Hunk might cave, Ulaz will probably cave, Coran has probably already caved – but me? I’m gonna wait until I have all the information. The records I have now will give me everything I need, one way or another. You’re gonna thank me for that.”

“I don’t want you to, or expect you to, do anything else,” Shiro said quietly. “I respect that this choice has been hard on you, for your own reasons – and I trust you to handle this right, and make the right choice when it comes down to it. If you expect me to talk you out of this, don’t. Whatever gets you the validation you need, whatever gets us information on the boy for the boy’s sake, whatever helps Kolivan and our own operations, I know you’ll find it. I wouldn’t have anything any other way, and that includes you.” Carefully, he unwound his arms, holding them open for her tentatively, genuinely afraid that she wouldn’t accept – that she would walk away, from him, from everything the’d built these last three months.

It did his heart more good than he would ever admit to have Pidge step into him, under one arm, without any sign of hesitation. “I don’t hate you,” she grumbled. “It’s because I don’t that I’m doing all this, you get me?”

“I got you,” Shiro said, voice softer this time, giving her a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you. No matter what you find, thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Pidge said, pulling away and flapping a hand dismissively. “Go back to training up the runt.”

“Get some rest,” Shiro said, gently, his hand on the door. “I want to head back home as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake. Kolivan wants to go over some intel with the boy, but once that’s done we can be on the road.” Shiro paused where he would have dismissed Pidge, already knowing how she’d feel about what he was going to say next. He turned back to her. “I want to make introductions tomorrow. I want the boy to know who he’ll be working with, to get to know you guys. And I want you guys to have the same opportunity to get to know him.”

As Shiro expected, Pidge sneered. “Sure. Sounds great. Can’t wait. Gonna get all prettied up for the big occasion.” She gave Shiro a little two fingered salute and carried on her way. “I’ll send the boys a Facebook invite.”

Shiro sighed, watching her go, and took the win for what it was. At least she’d agreed to the notion, however sardonically, instead of arguing the point or outright refusing. He knew her feelings hadn’t changed – but hopefully, now, she accepted that his hadn’t either.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro hadn’t been so astutely aware of the height difference between himself and the boy until he was crouched in front of him, tugging fastidiously at him while he stood patiently at the bedside. Superficially, Shiro was aware that one less crease in the boy’s hand-me-down shirt or pushing most of the boy’s hair out of his face wasn’t going to change his team’s impression of the boy; they’d already seen him on the brink of death, they’d heard from Kolivan and the prisoners what the boy was capable of. But that didn’t stop Shiro from treating it like the boy’s first day at school, or picture day.

“I can tie my shoes,” the boy offered, even as Shiro was already folding and tucking the boy’s jeans into his boots, regulation style. It felt different, performing the actions that had become second nature to him on someone else, someone much smaller than himself. He still had to wrap the laces around the boy’s ankles before tying them off, even with his pants tucked in.

“I know,” Shiro replied, reaching up to tug at the boy’s shirt next, removing invisible wrinkles in the faded fabric. He looked up at the boy’s placid face, the way he passively left his arms at his sides without the weight of the restraints and let Shiro pull and manipulate him. “This is more for me, than it is for you,” Shiro admitted with a wry smile. “Wanna make sure you look your best.” From Shiro’s position the boy still stood only a few inches taller than him, well within reach as he went to tuck his hair behind his ears as best he could with the boy’s long fringe and the inhuman shape and placement of his ears.

“I don’t think it’ll change anything,” the boy opined. “They already know me.”

“Yes,” Shiro agreed. “I don’t expect a haircut and a new outfit to change their opinions of you. But I like I said, this is mostly just for me – you’ve made progress, and I want that to show. I’m proud of you, that’s all.”

The boy tensed, shoulders hunching and jaw clenching, eyes wide at the mention of pride. Shiro wasn’t sure if the boy could blush, but everything about his posture and expression said everything a blush would. Shiro smiled, gently, and this time stroked a hand through the boy’s hair for pleasure, as a reward, instead of in a half-hearted attempt to tame it. “You’re doing good,” Shiro said. “I’m really happy about how far you’ve come.”

The boy dropped his gaze to the side, caving under the pressure of Shiro’s approval, his mouth curling up shyly, just enough to show a little fang.

There was a soft rap on the door, and Shiro knew just from that that it was Coran. From the look on the boy’s face, once again neutral with his shoulders dropped, he could also tell the rest of the team was here, too.

The boy was well aware that Shiro’s team was, if not afraid of him or disgusted by him, at least wary of him. Shiro wished that weren’t the case, but the boy seemed unfazed by the notion of working with people who didn’t like him. Shiro supposed that was par for the course, for him, and wished that wasn’t the case for him now, with a new team of better people. He almost wished the boy would be shy, or obstinate – be capable of experiencing something negative or painful with something other than resignation.

Shiro got to his feet, the boy once more barely coming up to Shiro’s bicep, and ran one last hand over the boy’s head as he turned to face the door. He nodded, and Coran nodded in turn before opening the door and allowing the rest of the team inside the ward. One by one they filed in, each expression different, to stand by the now vacant bed, before Shiro and the boy.

The boy had met virtually everyone at least once, by now; Ulaz had dropped in several times, to brief Shiro or else just check up on the situation, and it had been the same for Kolivan, though the Marmoran leader had spoken considerably less. Coran the boy probably knew better than he did Shiro at this point, for all the time they’d spent together, and Shiro was glad that at least his first experience with a member of his new team had been with Coran – the man was naturally friendly and nurturing, and Shiro was sure that seeing Coran pour himself into his healing had proved more than Shiro’s words ever could. Hunk had kept himself scarce, at first avoiding the medical ward and Shiro and then taking up the intel operation with Pidge, so he was probably the only new face for the boy. Pidge, at least, if he hadn’t seen, he had heard; she wasn’t shy, and she wasn’t quiet, most especially where her feelings and thoughts on their newest addition were concerned. She was the only one Shiro really worried about, for that reason.

“Buddy, I want to introduce you to your new unit,” Shiro began. “These are the people you’re going to be working with from now on.” The boy gave no response, letting Shiro continue as he looked over the group assembled before him. “You already know Coran,” Shiro indicated the red-haired man, who gave a little wave, his eyes creasing with a smile. “As you found out, he’s our chief medical officer and field surgeon. He keeps us all healthy and in working order. If you ever get hurt or feel sick, you’ll report to either myself or Coran. Understood?” The boy nodded his understanding, but didn’t return Coran’s smile.

Surprisingly, or perhaps less so, Coran didn’t let it slide and instead extended a hand for the boy. “Coran Hieronymus Wimbleton Smythe, a pleasure,” he introduced himself. “It’s a pleasure to have you onboard, my boy.” The boy’s eyes widened, startled at the unexpected gesture, but he put his smaller hand in Coran’s and permitted the man’s brief, hearty shake.

“This is Ulaz,” Shiro moved on. “He’s like me, a commanding officer in this company. He speaks Russian as well, and does most of our translating on smaller excursions. He helps me keep the camp running from top to bottom. If you need anything, Ulaz is someone you can go to for help or supplies.”

Ulaz gave the boy a small, tight smile, and similarly offered him a hand, though notably different than Coran’s approach – he didn’t consider the boy a child, but instead a new recruit. “Rad tebya videt',” he offered. The boy nodded, but again didn’t smile or reply, taking the man’s hand in another brief shake.

“This is Kolivan,” Shiro said, darting a wary glance up at the man’s disapproving and intimidating figure. “He’s the leader of the Marmora, and the commander of this camp. He’s the one that liberated the outpost you were at. He’s part of a joint effort with our company, and we work together often; he’s also our best translator. He’s Kazakh too.”

Kolivan’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he continued to look down his nose at the boy before him, offering neither a greeting nor a hand, and the boy didn’t seemed surprised. He met Kolivan’s stare intently, without fear, and said nothing. Shiro moved on.

“This is Hunk, our chief engineer and heavy weapons expert,” Shiro introduced with a small, encouraging smile for the much larger man. Hunk’s body was turned slightly away from the boy, shoulders up and hands nervously fiddling with one another, eyes wide and darting. “He’s probably the nicest guy on the planet. He’s also a really good cook, and makes sure we all get a little taste of home from time to time. You won’t be working with him much, but maybe after a bit you can start helping out in the kitchen.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” the boy said first, surprisingly, voice subdued but maintaining eye contact – he was being gentle, but he still respected the large man before him. “You don’t have to shake hands if you don’t want to. I understand.”

Pidge snorted from Hunk’s side, but nobody glanced her way. Instead, Hunk darted a glance at Shiro, gauging the situation, before clearing his throat. “No, it’s, uh… it’s fine.” Tentatively he offered his hand, awkward for the distance between them that neither was willing to breach, and the boy gently clasped Hunk’s fingertips. “Oh wow, uh, your hands are really… really rough.”

The boy withdrew his hand slowly, making no sudden moves, as if Hunk were the animal that could be startled. “Sorry,” he apologized, sounding sincere even if his face didn’t reflect it. “Dog paws,” he explained.

“I didn’t mean – it’s not, like, bad or anything,” Hunk reassured in a rush. “I was just, uh, surprised, is all. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fine. It’s, uh, it’s nice to meet you too, I guess. I mean. All things considered. You know.”

The boy let Hunk ramble on until he slowed to a stop on his own, his face neutral, saying nothing to stay or reassure him, and Shiro figured it was time for the part he’d been dreading.

“And last but definitely not least, this is Pidge,” he said, letting pride fill his voice. “I’ve mentioned her, once or twice. She’s our comms and tactics expert, as well as intelligence and general field tech. She’s the youngest in our company, and if you’re lucky you might be able to work with her on projects from time to time, especially if a translator is ever needed.”

Pidge huffed, trying not to preen or be swayed by the flattery, and stuck her hand out abruptly.

To Shiro’s utter bemusement, the boy’s reaction to her was far different than to anyone else he’d been introduced to. He kept his gaze lidded and averted as if shy or uninterested, instead of meeting her stare directly like he had with everyone else, his posture shrinking towards Shiro. When Pidge stuck her hand out, he pulled his hands in towards his belly and turned away from her entirely, his face tucked away, towards Shiro. “What the Hell is his problem?” Pidge growled. “I’m trying to be nice to him.”

“I know,” Shiro acknowledged, keeping his voice soft. He brought a hand up to brush over the boy’s hair. “You okay, buddy?” He asked, more a murmur for the boy’s ears alone. “You know Pidge wouldn’t hurt you, right? You don’t have to be afraid of her.” The boy didn’t say anything to explain himself, or otherwise indicate he’d heard or felt one way or the other about Shiro’s statement, but he let his posture open back up some, though he avoided looking at or interacting with Pidge at all. Shiro decided he’d address the issue later, once they’d finished here.

He gave Pidge an apologetic look before turning a more uncertain one on the boy, resting his false hand reassuringly on the back of the boy’s head as he turned his attention back to his assembled company. “You probably noticed that he hasn’t introduced himself in turn, and I’m sure you can guess the reason why. We agreed, as part of him joining our unit, that the name Volkodav and the person associated with that name is dead. He is no longer to go by that name. Unfortunately, it’s the only name he’s ever been given - up ‘til now.” He looked meaningfully into the grim and uncertain faces before him. “I want us to give him a name. After that, he will be for all intents and purposes a new person, just a local Splice recruit.”

“How about Little Shit,” Pidge said bitterly, arms folded over her chest, visibly stung by the boy’s reaction to her.

Shiro threw her a pointed look. “I’d really rather not.”

“That’s… Shiro, that’s a lot of responsibility,” Hunk argued. “We can’t just come up with a name, right here, right now, those kinds of things need a lot of thought, I mean…”

“Do you have a preference?” Coran asked the boy directly, his eyes wide and inquisitive, not pitying.

The boy met his gaze and shook his head. “Any name is fine.”

“Perhaps a Kazakh name?” Coran suggested, looking to Kolivan. Kolivan’s expression didn’t change.

“We don’t name Galra,” he said, his voice a disapproving rumble. “We name animals and we name people, but we do not give names to anything in between.”

Again, the boy met his gaze unwaveringly, and didn’t allow anything on his face to express anger or displeasure, if he felt any, at Kolivan’s reply.

“I’ve never even had a pet,” Hunk fretted. “I don’t have kids! How do you… how do you even decide? There’s so many, how do you…”

Shiro turned his gaze to Pidge. “Any ideas?”

“Fido,” she deadpanned. “Spot. Rover. Lassie. Tin Tin.”

“Pidge,” Shiro said sternly.

“How about Keith,” Ulaz spoke up.

Keith?” Hunk said incredulously, turning towards the older man. “Are you serious? Out of all the names out there, you chose Keith?”

Ulaz shrugged expansively, hands out. “What? It’s a human name, right? I’m not going to give him a Russian name, he can’t have a Kazakh name, Keith is perfectly adequate-”

“Okay, I get that, but there are other English names that are more modern, cooler sounding than Keith, it’s so old-fashioned, nobody calls their kids Keith anymore-”

“It’s hideous,” Pidge said. “I love it. My vote is for Keith.”

Pidge,” Shiro said again, warningly this time.

“I like it,” the boy said softly, out of the blue. Shiro looked down at the boy at his side, meeting his gaze as the boy looked up at him.

“Are you sure, bud?” Shiro asked. “We don’t have to settle for the first one. We can think of others, there’s a lot of names to choose from.”

“I like this one,” the boy insisted, his voice firm. “Ulaz and Pidge like it, I like it. Keith is good.”

Pidge snorted again, rolling her eyes, but Ulaz’s interest was definitely piqued. “Okay,” Shiro allowed. “Keith it is.” Shiro raised his head, and addressed the boy’s future team. “Everybody, I want you all to meet Keith, our newest recruit. He’s going to be assisting in camp maintenance and light security for the time being, and eventually we hope we can make use of his tracking skills. He’s fluent in English, Russian, and Kazakh, so if you need a translator on the fly, he can help. We’re going to take it slow – let him get acquainted with the unit, the camp, and our way of life. Any questions for Keith?”

“What kind, of, uh… precautions are we gonna take, once we get to camp?” Hunk asked, eyes dropped to the side guiltily. “No offense, uh, Keith.”

“I feel a lead and cuffs would hamper his ability to work about the camp,” Shiro said. “The collar is staying, more for his safety than ours. I don’t intend to use restraints; if necessary we can resort to commands, but I doubt we’ll have to.”

“Well what about a shock collar?” Pidge suggested. “Or a muzzle? Those wouldn’t hamper his mobility.”

Shiro took a breath through his nose, and when he turned his gaze to Pidge, it was hard and cold. “I will not repeat myself, Holt,” he said quietly, military steel in his voice. “He is not a dog, and I will not permit him to be treated like one. Am I understood?”

Pidge shrugged, knuckling her goggles up her nose, and looking away. “Sir yes sir,” she muttered, but Shiro seemed to accept it.

“I’ve been trained with both,” the boy, Keith, offered. “If people would feel safer with me in one of those, I could do that.”

Shiro cast a kinder glance down at the boy. “Part of the issue is that it wouldn’t make people feel safer,” he explained, looking back up at Pidge. “When people see things like that, they think they’re necessary – they assume that you’re a danger to them, that you cannot control yourself. I know that’s not the case.”

“What about schooling?” Ulaz said, redirecting the conversation. “You mentioned learning to read and write?” Shiro nodded, and Ulaz turned to Keith. “What about math?”

“I can count,” he replied. “Do simple things – add, subtract. But I can learn whatever you want me to.” His stern expression and voice made it sound more like he was accepting a mission instead of agreeing to a basic education.

Ulaz gave Keith a small smile. “Good answer.” Turning to Shiro next, he offered, “I know a few people back home that can supply English textbooks. Everything else we might be able to score in town - books in English and Russian, notebook paper, pencils.”

“Thank you,” Shiro said in earnest. “I hadn’t even decided on a curriculum yet, but those are all things we’ll need.”

“What about foods?” Hunk asked, surprisingly, sounding more curious than concerned. “I mean – can he have things like chocolate, or grapes? Can he have bones?”

Shiro’s gut clenched as he realized he’d failed to look into that – he’d just assumed Keith’s digestive system was the same as a human’s. It was a question he’d never even considered, and if Hunk hadn’t broached the subject, he might have unwittingly put the boy’s health in jeopardy. He glanced down at Keith, expression concerned. “Are there things you can’t eat?” Shiro asked. “Things that make you sick, or hurt you…?”

“I don’t know,” Keith replied, perplexed. “Usually just had the same thing every day. Raw meat is okay too, and I’ve eaten bones, before. Beer is okay, but it makes me dizzy after a while. Don’t know what chocolate or grapes are.”

Beer?” Hunk gasped, scandalized. “He’s twelve!

“Sixteen,” Keith corrected.

“There are some foods that might not be good for you,” Shiro said, steering the conversation back to the problem at hand. “Foods that dogs can’t eat, that will hurt them or make them sick. Humans can eat them, but dogs can’t, and until Pidge can decrypt the logs from the facility, we won’t know for sure how mixed you are. We just want to avoid making you sick by accident.” Shiro looked up to Hunk, and didn’t even have to try to appear grateful. “Thank you, Hunk, I hadn’t even considered any of that.”

“Thank you,” Keith said as well, following Shiro’s lead, and Hunk seemed to get flustered by the praise.

“Oh, uh, no problem, you know me, food is kind of my thing, so… just, just glad I could help, um…”

“May I be dismissed?” Pidge asked flatly, interrupting.

“I’d prefer that you stay,” Shiro said honestly. “But I understand if you’d rather go.”

“Don’t have anything else to contribute, and Keith doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, so I really don’t see the point,” she said. “I’m gonna take some leisure until tomorrow.” She gave Shiro a short two-fingered salute. “Nice meeting you, Keith.” She turned to leave, not giving anyone a chance to reply; Keith didn’t look like he would anyway, his gaze averted entirely, seemingly ignoring her.

Shiro watched her go, brow creased. There was nothing he could do to change the situation at hand without compromising one or the other – satisfying Pidge meant abandoning Keith, and keeping Keith meant upsetting Pidge. All he could do was give it time and try to manage what was in his control, and he knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. He wished more than anything for a sign that he was doing the right thing – that he wasn’t becoming invested in a lost cause, but if he were being honest, it was too late.

He was already invested. The boy had a name, now, to go with the little piece of Shiro’s heart he’d already taken.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

That night the boy sat in his bed, cross-legged and unrestrained, across from Shiro who sat similarly at foot of the bed as they carefully folded paper cranes.

“Told you it would be fun paperwork,” Shiro grinned. “Way more fun than filling out eight hundred pages of forms, right?”

Keith hummed his agreement, focused entirely on the creases in his square of paper. Beside him was a pile of crumpled paper that had the general features of cranes – a few lopsided heads, an odd number of wings, some tails at weird angles.

Shiro watched him work, his fingers fiddling with his own finished crane. The introductions had gone well, and he’d been happy to see his team get even a little involved in what Keith’s new life would entail. He still couldn’t get over the fact that the boy was now going to be called Keith. On purpose. His choice, Keith’s choice. It hadn’t been what he’d imagined for someone who looked and acted the way he did – but Shiro had made the deliberate decision to have his team choose a name for the boy. He wanted them to form that attachment, however unwittingly, and Keith wouldn’t have ever chosen a name for himself. This way, everyone felt some attachment to the name; it wasn’t wholly arbitrary. They all owned the name, in some way – they had that bond, now, no matter how seemingly insignificant or tenuous.

“So,” Shiro sighed. “Keith, huh?”

“Yes,” Keith agreed, his attention still on his work. “Ulaz and Pidge chose it.”

“They could choose another name, if you don’t like it,” Shiro said. “Doesn’t have to be the first one we said out loud. There’s lots of names to choose from.”

Keith shrugged. “I like Keith. Keith doesn’t mean anything, it’s just Keith. I’m Keith,” he said, with a pleased, insistent note, still not looking up.

That brought a smile to Shiro’s face. “That’s right, you are. I’m glad you like it, buddy.”

The boy hummed, this time sounding satisfied, relaxed. Shiro considered carefully whether he wanted to disturb Keith’s peaceful mood, but decided the need for answers was pressing, and the sooner the better.

“What do you think about your new unit?” He asked. “They seem okay?”

“Yes,” Keith agreed. “They’re your unit. They’re probably really good at their jobs, and you like them.”

“Yes,” Shiro drawled. “But that’s how I feel, not how you feel. How do you feel about them – about working with them?”

Keith frowned, his fingers pausing as he considered. “They’re good people,” he said carefully. “I can tell that, smell that on them. They seem very smart and have a lot of experience… I can tell they’re all good fighters. They all like and respect you, and I like that.” He hesitated then shrugged. “I know that Kolivan and Pidge don’t like me, but that’s okay. I understand.”

“Does that bother you?” Shiro pressed gently.

“Not really,” Keith admitted with another shrug. “I would like it better if they did, but I know why they don’t. Most people don’t like me. I am a Galra, and Galra are dangerous – we hurt, we kill. Galra do not do good things, we are not good animals.” He looked up at Shiro. “You’re the weird one, for liking me. Not them.”

Shiro’s smile was sad, then. “They would never hurt you,” he reassured.

“I know,” Keith said. “They’re not bad people. They’re just normal people, afraid of things they should be.”

“Are you afraid of them?” Shiro asked.

“No?” Keith said, confused. “Why would I be? I know what people can do. Whatever they want to do, they will do, there’s nothing I can do to stop them. If they want to hurt me, they will, and if they try to make me hurt others, then I won’t. But they’re your people – they won’t do those things. They’re good people.”

Shiro frowned, confused. “Then can I ask why you didn’t like Pidge…?” He asked. “It’s okay if you don’t, and I’d understand why, all things considered, but you’ll be working with her – living with her, every day, and I want to make sure you two get along.”

Keith frowned in return. “But I do like Pidge,” he said.

“I don’t understand,” Shiro said, slowly, wondering how he could have possibly misconstrued Keith’s reaction to Pidge. “You weren’t bothered at all by Kolivan, had no problem with him, but when it came to Pidge you wouldn’t even look at her. You said you’re not afraid of her, and that you do like her – but you acted as if she were a threat, or invisible.” Shiro leaned in. “I won’t lie to you and say that she does like you, or that she’s an open-minded person, but she did try, today, to be nice. I can at least tell you that – that she’s trying. Can you just… explain to me, what’s going on, so we can work on it? Like before?”

Keith looked away, jaw working. “I do like Pidge,” he muttered. “I just don’t… I don’t like girls.”

Shiro’s eyebrows rose. He hadn’t expected that at all. As far as his experiences went, male and female Splices were equal on the battlefield. There were no ranks for Splices, and strength was determined entirely on genetics and performance – no one judged a female Splice to be weaker than a male on sex alone. A soldier was a soldier – a weapon was a weapon, judged solely on it’s execution. More than that, Keith hadn’t seemed invested in gender roles at all – the only distinction he ever drew in conversation was between humans and Splices. He was genuinely surprised, and honestly a little disappointed, though maybe he shouldn’t have been; considering his training, his upbringing, his intended purpose…

As the realization began to form, Keith confirmed Shiro’s fears. “Don’t like being around girls. Not allowed near them, unless they want… want me to, uh…” Keith sucked in a shuddering breath, and this time both hands came up to the back of his neck and grabbed fistfuls of hair. He swallowed, over and over again, fighting for words or fighting back the urge to be sick, Shiro wasn’t sure and it was painful to watch either way. Before Shiro could lay hands on him to soothe, Keith squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to finish. “They’re so afraid of me, girls look at me and they know, they know what’s going to happen, what I’m there for, and I hate… I hate that they’re afraid of me. I don’t want her to look… look at me like that, don't want her to be afraid of me.”

Shiro wanted more than anything to grab the boy up, like he would a human child, hug him hard and rock him, reassure him that it was over – but Keith was not a human boy, these were not human traumas, and he was in uncharted territory. His heart ached, but he forced himself to instead put his hands on the boy’s elbows, and squeeze gently.

“Keith. I know it’s hard, but I need you to look at me, okay? Look at me, Keith.” Shiro waited him out, letting him get his breathing back under control, before bringing those big blue eyes up to meet Shiro’s. “Keith. We don’t do those things, here. I've told you before. We don’t make our people hurt others – especially, especially not in the way you mean. Humans don’t use each other for that purpose, and no one in my company is expected to… to perform, in that way. What they did was wrong. To you, to those girls. It isnot okay and it is not normal - and it is also not your fault. Pidge does not, and will never, view you in that way. She sees you as a fighter, an animal – but not like that. Am I understood, do you understand?”

“I don’t want her to be afraid of me,” Keith whispered, pained. “I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t hurt her like that. I don’t want to, I never wanted to. I hated it, I still hate it, I don’t want to.”

“You’re not listening to me,” Shiro chastised softly. “Keith. That is over. It is done and it is over. That will never, ever happen again. You will never be put in that situation, you will never be… used for that purpose. No one expects you to be, especially not Pidge. You’re safe. She’s safe. I personally guarantee that. I already promised you – you’re not here to fight, you’re not here to breed. Repeat it back to me.”

“I’m,” Keith gulped. “I’m not here to fight. I’m not here to breed.”

Shiro took a deep breath, exaggerated for Keith to emulate. He continued, holding Keith's stare and forcing conviction into his voice. "My name is Keith. I’m a tracker and a translator. My mother was a Kazakh and looked just like me. I am sixteen years old. Again.”

“My name is Keith,” Keith repeated obediently, his voice softening as panic loosened it’s grip on his throat. “I’m a tracker and a translator. My mother was a Kazakh and looked just like me. I am sixteen years old.”

“And when I’m hurt and afraid, I…?” Shiro pressed.

“I tell you,” Keith replied in an exhale, all the anxious tension in his body leeching out as he kept his eyes on Shiro’s. “I tell Shiro.”

“You’re damn right," Shiro growled. "Come here.” He gave the boy’s arms a light tug, and Keith went easily, dropping his hands and unfolding his legs so he could move closer to Shiro. Shiro pulled him in against his side with an arm around his shoulders, moving his hand to run through Keith’s hair. “I need you to remember something, okay buddy? It’s important. The most important thing you will ever need to remember, okay?” Keith nodded, obediently. “Your name is more than just a name. Keith isn’t just what people are going to call you – Keith is also your second chance. Keith is a new person in a new life – those things that came before, they matter. They hurt, but they matter, because they brought you here, to where you are now – but you are not the same person, anymore. You are Keith, and you can make Keith whoever you want to be.”

Keith nodded again, slower this time, ponderous, against Shiro’s shoulder. “… should I apologize to Pidge?”

“I don’t think you need to apologize, I think an explanation would be better, but… what does Keith think?” Shiro asked. “What does Keith want to do?”

“I want to apologize,” he said. “I want her to like me, if she can.”

“It was pretty easy for me,” Shiro encouraged, giving the boy a friendly jostle. Keith didn’t smile or return the embrace, but he allowed it – and Shiro would take whatever he could get.

Chapter Text

Kolivan fully intended to make use of the boy while he was still in the camp; he freely admitted that though he didn’t trust Galra in general and this Galra in particular, the information Keith would provide could prove useful. Even if Keith didn’t tell the truth, or told an altered version of the truth, it would go towards proving his guilt or innocence.

Instead of Kolivan’s preferred method of interrogation, he agreed to Shiro’s request for something more relaxed, and recommended that instead of asking the boy to confirm information gleaned from the guards and the Young, to instead ask him questions directly to avoid influencing his answers in any way. Shiro didn’t reckon Keith would lie, or else be so gullible or easily swayed, but he knew the boy was eager to please and prove himself especially where Shiro was concerned – and equally ashamed of who he was and what he had done before. He didn’t want the boy downplaying his role at the facility, or admitting to things he didn’t do because it seemed like the answer they wanted.

As it turned out, Shiro needn’t have worried. Keith was self-possessed in situations such as these, calm and direct, all business. He hardly even looked back at Shiro, where he’d deliberately stationed himself behind the boy and by the door, out of sight. Keith sat across the well-worn repurposed kitchen table, across from Kolivan, and met him eye to eye, voice level and shoulders straight – dispassionate, like a soldier debriefing.

For Shiro’s sake, they spoke English, though Keith offered Kolivan the choice of any of the languages he spoke. Kolivan had dismissed the offer, and instead dove directly into questions about the facility, their operations, and their command structures – paying particular attention to the boy’s role there.

Keith confirmed most of the things Shiro already knew through their conversations. Keith estimated himself to be around sixteen, but had no functional way of knowing his exact age, which was to be expected. He readily admitted that combat training had been his primary focus up until the age of twelve, when the researchers at his initial facility had deemed him viable for breeding. At that time, there were no breeding females at that facility, so he had been transferred to this one, where there were other Young of a breedable age – but no real breeding program. Here, he was expected to serve both functions: as an experiment and a sire, but also as a true Galra – to hunt, to kill. It sounded exhausting and bleak, even from the sterile, aloof way Keith described it – the emotional, the physical, the psychological toll it must have taken on him, still just a child, expected to do twice the work of the average Galra.

Shiro wanted more than anything to call the interrogation to a halt, to ask for a break for the boy, give him some time and space; he wanted to pull Keith away from that table and into his arms, or be able to touch him in some way, soothe him. He knew how hard it was for Keith to talk about that aspect of his life, the expectation to breed, to harm someone else, someone innocent – not realizing that he was just the same, a victim, forced to endure something heinous. He wanted to take the hurt away more than anything.

But instead, Shiro held himself back, made himself stick to the wall with his arms crossed over his chest to hide the clenching of his fists, whether in anger or frustration or purely out of the automatic need to touch the boy, protectively or reassuringly. He wouldn’t undermine Keith, here, in front of Kolivan during an interrogation. He didn’t want Keith to be perceived as weak-willed, or broken – to Kolivan or to Keith himself. The boy was holding his own, despite the tension that seeped into his shoulders and the way his hands gripped each other hard under the table, in his lap – but his hands never strayed up, into his hair. His voice and expression remained detached and his back straight, determined, and Shiro wouldn’t take that from him. This was probably the first time Keith was recounting in total what he’d lived through, and Shiro knew from experience that speaking it out loud, making it real again, was a crucial first step in the process.

When Kolivan moved on to the more violent aspects of his purpose, the stress and tension leeched out of Keith’s small body, his shoulders slowly dropping. It was sad, it was disgusting – it was a relief. Nobody, especially not a child, should feel relieved by discussing the violence they’d witnessed – the violence they’d committed.

But Shiro supposed virtually anything would be easier to discuss than that.

“They called you the Volkodav,” Kolivan rumbled. “Why?”

“That’s what they called my breed,” Keith explained. “They wanted to see if it was true. It was.” He said it without pride, without remorse; as a fact.

“You fought wolves,” Kolivan said, half question, maybe with disbelief.

“Yes,” Keith agreed. “Wolves, dogs, bears – anything that would fight back.”

“And what was the purpose of that? Or do you know?”

Keith shrugged. “They wanted to evaluate my abilities without endangering a human or a Galra. That high up in the mountains, there’s a lot of wolves, easy to come by. They wanted to see how animal I was. If I won, I ate. If I lost I slept outside. I tried to win.”

“And humans?” Kolivan drawled, voice low. “Did you earn any meals by those?”

Shiro wanted to object to the phrasing – the way Kolivan had made it seem like the boy was to blame for wanting to survive, but before he could move to intervene, Keith replied.

“Yes,” he answered. “A few. Sometimes not for food.”

“How many?” Kolivan asked. “Do you know their names? Or why?”

Keith did Kolivan the service of not shrugging in the face of what was likely a sensitive topic, but the boy’s dispassionate replies and blank face did the job a shrug would have. “I don’t know how many. Didn’t count. Didn’t think it was important. They sent me out, told me to kill the person and bring back proof. Sometimes they just told me to kill as many as possible. They never told me why. I didn’t ask questions.”

“And the ones you killed for free,” Kolivan demanded, voice grating.

“Staff at the facility,” Keith said flatly. “They wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. If they hurt me, that’s fine, if they starve me, that’s fine. Then they came for the others to make me do what they wanted – they hurt them, so I killed them. They didn’t do that anymore, after that.”

“So that’s it,” Kolivan murmured. “You killed on command alone, or out of concern for others. Never once did you kill out of anger or from your baser instincts.”

“I tried, once,” Keith admitted. “At my first facility I tried to kill the people who killed my mother. I failed. I know now that it wouldn’t have made a difference – when someone dies, they stay dead. Killing them would not have brought her back. I’ve seen it, now.”

“And that’s the only time,” Kolivan said dryly, glossing over the murder of the boy’s mother.

“Yes,” Keith insisted. “I’m good at killing, but I don’t enjoy it.”

“Then why did you run?” Kolivan demanded. “When we took the outpost, and you were freed. Why not surrender – why not die right then and there, if you wanted to so badly?”

“Because I didn’t know what was going on,” Keith answered, placidly, addressing his suicide attempt as boldly as he did everything else unsavory about himself. “I didn’t know the Marmora even existed until you found me. I didn’t think it was a rescue, I thought it was a coup – I thought we were being stolen by another faction, another project or facility. I couldn’t risk being captured. I figured I would get as far away as I could, and by the time I was ever found, I would be long dead and useless.”

“Yet you left the Young,” Kolivan pointed out. “The Young you were supposedly willing to kill for.”

“They would not have come with me, for that reason,” Keith explained. “They saw me kill, and feel no remorse. They tried to force some of them to fight me or breed with me. They fear me – they fear me more than they fear you. They would not have survived the mountain without me – they are too young, they had never even left the facility.” His fists clenched, then, just once. “I didn’t have a choice – I couldn’t find a way to save them.”

Kolivan looked unconvinced. “You know that we have others, here,” he said, his eyes focused hard and sharp on Keith’s, holding his stare like it was a contest of wills. “Staff, other Galra, Young.”

“I do,” Keith replied, eyes lidded, unintimidated.

“They can confirm or deny the statements you’ve given me here, today,” Kolivan warned. “Do you understand? If you lie, I will know.”

“I understand,” Keith agreed. “I have nothing to hide and no reason to lie. I admitted that I’ve killed and killed on command. I’ve admitted the things I’ve done for the breeding program.”

“Your reasons why have been murky at best,” Kolivan said, sitting up straighter, gathering his things, preparing to draw the interrogation to a close. “Until we have access to the research logs, your word against theirs is all we have to go with, and it doesn’t look promising for you. I’ll be confirming all this with your lead researcher.”

“You won’t,” Keith denied, and Shiro stiffened and Kolivan paused in the act of standing.

“Is that a threat?” Kolivan growled.

“No.” Keith raised his eyes up to meet Kolivan’s narrow glare. “It’s the truth. You cannot confirm anything with my lead researcher, because he’s dead. I killed him myself,” he admitted plainly. “Whoever you have here, they were not the head of operations. The lead researcher was the only one with outside communications, who reported to someone outside the facility – I wanted to make sure his research died here, with him – with us.”

Kolivan’s eyes drifted up to meet Shiro’s, uncertain, concerned. “We confirmed his identity with the Young and others,” Kolivan said, keeping his voice firm, but couldn’t hide that he was affected by this apparent revelation.

“You have to be careful how you ask the Young,” Keith advised. “Most of them can barely speak, or have minds that are more animal than anything else. They probably don’t know the difference between the lead researcher and an assistant, or if they do they can’t find a way to tell you. As far as the staff…” Keith shrugged. “I don’t think this was ever meant to be a breeding or training facility. It was a research outpost that got out of control. The staff here aren’t like the staff at the first facility – they had no oversight, total freedom, and very little guidance. They’re not professionals – they were working above what they were really capable of.”

“How well did you know the staff and the Young?” Shiro asked, this time, coming around to stand beside Keith, leaning on the table insistently. His gut clenched, full of ice, at the possibility of a traitor in their midst – a danger they might have otherwise overlooked.

“I think I know almost everyone,” Keith admitted. “I went back and forth between training and breeding so I’m familiar with most of the facility and the staff and Galra in both departments. I might not know their names, but I know who they are – their purpose.”

Shiro shot a glance at Kolivan, and saw only reluctance and not stubborn refusal. “If you saw the person we thought was the lead researcher, could you tell us who he really is…?”

“Probably,” Keith said.

Shiro stood away from the table, heaving a worried sigh, and Keith stood with him, sensing his urgency. Together, the three of them left the little room, and once they’d stepped out into the hallway, Ulaz, who’d been waiting outside with a Marmoran guard, fell into step with them. He didn’t even have to ask – Shiro immediately filled him in under his breath as they moved through the corridors. “Everything’s fine,” he said first. “We’re keeping Keith. But we ran into a small problem – he says he killed the lead researcher. Whoever we have here maybe isn’t who he said he was – and if that’s the case, we’ll have to start all over again from the beginning. It brings everything we’ve learned into question.”

Ulaz is quiet for a moment, digesting that. “I take it from the whole killing-researcher thing that whatever he may have lied about, doesn’t include Keith,” he said, sounding a little disappointed but not surprised.

“No,” Shiro agreed. “He was right about Keith. I’ll fill you in on that later, but really – it’s nothing we didn’t already know, by now. Keith says he’s familiar with virtually everyone at the facility, so we’re taking him to identify the man we have in custody now.”

There was no more discussion as they headed through the maze of hallways that made up the small headquarters Kolivan had erected that also housed the jail, whenever they would have need of it. They slowed as they approached a single room, larger than would be assumed given the low building’s overall size; there were no bars except for in the small, high windows, much like the containment structure Keith had initially been kept in. From what Shiro could see, there was a group of five men seated within, on beds and chairs, murmuring amongst each other or else otherwise occupying themselves. Keith was too short to look through the window in the door.

“Do you want me to go in?” Keith asked. “Or do I just have to look?”

Surprisingly, Kolivan cocked his head consideringly. “I’d like you to go in,” he drawled finally. “With all of us. I think the reaction to your presence would be worth noting – for everyone involved.” He shot Shiro a pointed look, before turning to unlock the door, opening it wide to allow their entire party to enter. “You first,” Kolivan told Keith.

Shiro frowned, unsettled by Kolivan’s look and demeanor, but Keith merely took a breath, and stepped inside the cell with Shiro right behind him.

Shiro wasn’t sure what he’d expected, following Keith into the room, Kolivan and Ulaz filing in after them, but the surge of panic and fear that rippled through the room at Keith’s entrance wasn’t it. Two of the men had even climbed onto one of the beds, like being a few inches higher would guarantee their safety, like being in a corner would save them from what they feared – a skinny little boy in a t-shirt and blue jeans, with a collar around his neck.

All the assembled prisoners had moved far away, shouting fearful protests, except for one, who remained seated on the bed, taking in the group of three men and one Young – his gaze slowly settling on Keith with a grin. He said something in Russian then, lifting his chin at the boy, seemingly unafraid. Maybe he could already sense the ruse was up – or maybe he’d never pretended to be afraid in the first place.

Keith didn’t react to whatever he’d said, meeting his eyes unwaveringly. Whatever, whoever, this man was, Keith wasn’t afraid of him. “He’s surprised the boy’s alive,” Ulaz translated in Shiro’s ear.

Keith looked away from the man’s taunt dismissively, turning back to Kolivan. “Do you want me to identify them all, or is there one in particular?” At the dismissal, and hearing the boy speak, the man who’d remained seated lost his smile, fingers flexing anxiously; Shiro reckoned he probably didn’t know the boy was capable of speaking more than one language, or maybe even capable of speaking at all.

“All of them,” Kolivan confirmed, and Keith turned back to the men cowering from him in all corners of the room. He indicated the two on the bed. “Those two were lab researchers. Little contact with subjects aside from collecting samples.” He pointed out one braced against the far wall. “Dog trainer. Worked with some Galra too, but mostly full-blooded animals.” He moved on to a man sobbing, crouched in the corner, face turned away. “Security guard, but no threat at all. A coward. He’s the one who freed me when you took the outpost.” His gaze dropped back to the man still seated on the bed, his jaw now working, figuring out what Keith was up to. “Warden. In charge of security, perimeter and internal. Made sure the researchers were safe from us Galra. Made sure we behaved – made sure we did as we were told.” There was a note in Keith’s voice, then, that Shiro couldn’t place, but it made his stomach clench, sick.

The man growled something in Russian then, practically spitting out the words, fists clenching on his knees; he may not have understood what Keith was saying, but he probably grasped that he’d unraveled whatever lies he’d told. “I’m not translating that,” Ulaz muttered, confirming that whatever the man said was an insult.

“A warden,” Kolivan rumbled. “Not a researcher at all, then.”

“No,” Keith agreed. “Though out of everyone here, he’s had the most interaction with the subjects, if that’s what interests you. He won’t have information on our DNA, but he’ll know our abilities, our ages.”

The man didn’t seem pleased by the lack of reaction he was getting, from either Keith or Kolivan, and whatever he said next definitely had something to do with their ethnicity – Shiro could hear the similarity in the word, Kazakhskaya, and even if he hadn’t the narrowed disdainful glares they both gave the man would have said enough. Having gotten the attention he wanted, a smile crept back up the warden’s face. Whatever he said next was smug and acerbic and directed almost entirely at Keith, judging by the way he looked up at him alone, only jerking his head towards Kolivan once.

To Shiro’s shock, Keith began to growl at his side, lips pulled back from his teeth, his body tensed and vibrating with a low snarl. It was the first time Shiro had ever heard him make such an entirely animal noise – there was no human aspect to his posture, his expression, his voice. Everything about Keith in that moment warned of imminent attack, hackles raised. Whatever the man had said was sufficient enough to strike home, and Shiro had a feeling it was something about Keith’s mother – the only thing that really seemed to garner an emotional response from him was her.

Keith made no move to lunge or otherwise attack, but Shiro didn’t like the way he leaned forward, teeth chittering anxiously, furious. Without stopping to really consider it, the implications or the ramifications, Shiro snapped, “Keith, no. Down.”

He wasn’t sure if it was the authoritative note in his voice, something that brooked no argument or maybe appeared hard and threatening, or if it was perhaps the sound of the sharp commands that got through, but Keith obeyed like Shiro had flipped a switch. That wasn’t really what he’d wanted to do – the snarling, the bared teeth had overridden Shiro’s normal perception of the boy. He hadn’t seen a child, then – he’d seen an animal untethered, uncontrolled, and sought to bring him to heel. He hated himself for that.

All the same, Keith’s mouth slackened, his posture relaxing; his breathing was still heavy, he was still rumbling angrily, but he was no longer poised to harm. Shiro clenched his hands at his sides, fighting the urge to drag the boy backwards, into the apologetic protection of his body. He didn’t want the boy in here, he didn’t like the effect it had on him – it wasn’t good for Keith to be stuck in a room with people who had hurt him, were complicit or even just turned a blind eye. The warden, Shiro was sure, was definitely someone who would have caused Keith harm in more ways than he cared to fathom.

The warden didn’t seem fazed by Keith’s feral response, and to Shiro’s disgust he seemed more amused than anything, his smile turning sly. He asked a question next, voice lilting and saccharine. When Keith didn’t answer or give him the snarl he’d gotten the first time, the warden asked something else, darting a look at Shiro, knowing. Whatever he said after that wasn’t a question, and made Ulaz stiffen beside him. Keith especially objected, eyes narrowing and biting out a curt, heated reply that was mostly growl.

Dostatochnaya!” Ulaz barked with all the immovable strength of a commanding officer, issuing the command to all assembled. Even though Shiro was technically Ulaz’s commander, his spine still stiffened, shoulders back at the sound of his voice. He didn’t even get a chance to intervene or grab for the boy’s tensed shoulders before Ulaz’s hand was clasping the back of Keith’s neck, though it looked more reassuring, protective, than punishing or restraining.

“We’re done here,” Ulaz said, reigning in the situation. The glare he left Kolivan with was venomous. “Permission to remove the asset from a hostile situation, sir?” He grit out.

Kolivan’s jaw worked, eyes narrowed. “I’ll allow it,” he murmured. “But keep in mind this changes nothing. I’m not finished with him.”

“Then would you mind stepping outside to discuss it?” Ulaz asked, voice neutral. “I don’t see anything to be gained from staying here.” His hand never left Keith’s neck, buried in his hair, but it was worth noting that Keith didn’t bow his head – just followed obediently as Ulaz steered them out of the cell.

Kolivan opened the door for them, allowing Ulaz with Keith in tow and Shiro to leave first, bellowing a warning into the cell before closing it behind him and locking it.

“Let me clarify,” Ulaz said, flatly. “The hostile situation was more than just that room and that disgusting beast. It’s you, too, and I’m removing him from you, too.”

Ulaz,” Shiro hissed, stepping into the man’s side. “Just what the Hell did I miss in there?”

“You let that man attack a sixteen year old boy,” Ulaz said, his focus trained entirely on Kolivan. “You let him call him disgusting names, humiliate him, and said nothing, did nothing. You didn’t have to defend him, but you could have stopped it and you chose to let it continue.”

“You saw what he did, what he became when provoked,” Kolivan said, not arguing the point. “There was a reason I allowed it.”

“The man called his dead mother a whore,” Ulaz snapped. “Anyone would be incited to violence if someone did that – especially a child!”

“I don’t know what will make the two of you come to your senses, but I’ll say it again – he is not a boy. He is a weapon at worst, and an animal at best. Giving him a name, treating him with kid gloves, won’t change his nature. You would not take this sort of care for any other enemy combatant – I think you’re confusing his ability to speak for some form of humanity. He is a dog, an asset, and nothing more or less.”

Throughout the heated exchange, though they kept their voices relatively low, Keith looked stressed, uncomfortable – unable or maybe just unwilling to speak up or to intervene in any way, uncertain of who to reassure. In the interrogation, in the cell, under Ulaz’s hand Keith had been straight-backed and composed, but now his head was slowly bowing as volley after volley of accusations were hurled, back and forth – powerless to stop it. When Keith’s hands reached up and grasped the long ends of his hair and began to pull, Shiro made the decision to put a stop to it.

“Both of you will stand down,” Shiro hissed, taking a step forward. “This isn’t what’s needed right now, for anybody involved. Kolivan, you got what you wanted from the boy, and then some. I understand how you feel about him, and you’re right about exercising caution. And Ulaz, we’re already gone – we leave tomorrow, there’s no need to make a scene, we all know how you and I feel about Keith, as well. None of us are changing our minds any time soon.”

“You didn’t hear what that man said,” Ulaz growled. “What he allowed him to say. That sonuvabitch degraded him in front of all of us, and I was the only one who could say anything and would say anything! That’s going too far even for-”

Ulaz,” Shiro snapped, dropping a pointed glance to where Keith’s hands were tugging at his hair, pulling it out, stressed beyond coping. “Find another way,” he said, softly this time. “This… this isn’t helping him.”

Ulaz’s face went slack with shock and regret as he took in the boy’s bowed posture and fists full of hair, and then to virtually everyone’s surprise, and with no hesitation, Ulaz stooped and hefted the boy into one arm, against his chest. “C’mon Keith,” he muttered, meeting Kolivan’s gaze. “Let’s go home.” He turned then to Shiro, saluting with his free hand. “Permission to return to the medical ward for the duration?”

Shiro took in Keith’s demeanor in a glance, the way his hands had been forced down to Ulaz’s broad shoulders, his expression surprised but not upset. He wasn’t struggling to get down, he didn’t look uncomfortable at all in the taller man’s hold, though he was a little too big for such a carry. Keith glanced at Ulaz, and then slowly back to Shiro, one hand coming up to mimic Ulaz’s salute, uncertainly.

“Permission granted,” Shiro said, voice soft with exasperation and exhaustion, a small smile lingering around his mouth. “Dismissed. I’ll see you two later.”

Ulaz dropped his hand to shore up his grip on Keith, and Keith went with him without complaint.

“I had hoped that your second would be a voice of reason in all this,” Kolivan said. “But I see now that I was mistaken.”

“His reasons are just different than yours – than even my own,” Shiro said levelly. “I meant what I said. I don’t expect anything but time to prove Keith’s worth and loyalty, and I fully understand your reluctance. But as of now, despite how we may treat him, he’s an asset – to the both of us. He will be treated as such – protected, kept safe and comfortable. There’s nothing to be gained from antagonizing him.”

“I’m not attempting to antagonize him,” Kolivan said flatly. “I’m attempting to keep you objective. I worry that your concern for what you deem a child will cause you or your company harm that is entirely avoidable. Put yourself in my position – I’m trying to keep you safe from a very real danger.”

“I know, and I appreciate that more than you will ever know,” Shiro said earnestly, honestly. “I’ve never had the type of relationship I’ve had with you and the Marmora, and I won’t jeopardize that. I’ll tell you what I told Pidge – I’m fully prepared to put him down if it comes to that. There won’t be any hesitation, or a second or third strike; at the first sign of violence or betrayal, I’ll end his life. Will I suffer for it, after becoming attached? Absolutely,” he admitted. “But I see an opportunity, and I’m not giving it up, Kolivan. The boy is staying – Keith, is staying.”

Kolivan drew in a deep breath through his nose, and heaved it back out in a sigh. “There’s no arguing with you. I can see that. All I ask, at the very least, is constant contact between you and I, and to be granted full access to the boy when needed. Are those terms, at least, acceptable?”

“That’s doable,” Shiro replied, gentling. “And if there’s anything else I can do to set your mind at ease, aside from abandoning the boy here and now, tell me. I’ll do it, to the best of my ability.”

“I think, for now, that will be enough,” Kolivan said. He stuck out a large hand. “Good luck, as always, and especially now.”

“I’m always in need of that,” Shiro said, shaking on it.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro wanted more than anything to immediately return to Keith, talk with him, pet his hair – confirm for himself that he was alright, that the stress had ebbed. But he had other responsibilities to tend to – especially where their return trip was concerned, with their newest recruit in tow.

Besides, having seen the way Ulaz had swept the boy up so protectively, eased his worries. Keith was safe, Ulaz would make sure of that, and keep him as happy as they knew how.

He was still surprised by Ulaz’s reaction, though he really shouldn’t have been. The man was a natural with children, he knew when to hold them and how to soothe them and make them laugh, and kids always seemed to love him in turn. Shiro never asked if he had children of his own, but assumed he must and if he didn’t, then maybe he was the oldest sibling of a large family. He wasn’t cautious, like Shiro or like Hunk, when it came to picking up or carrying babies or children, and Ulaz always seemed to know what to say or do to allay fussing or fear.

He just hadn’t imagined that Ulaz would take to Keith so quickly, would become so protective of the boy so soon. He knew Ulaz would come around, but maybe seeing someone so young so distressed, or hearing whatever had been said in that cell, had weakened his resolve. Shiro did wonder about that, and hoped he could get answers from Ulaz sooner rather than later – he didn’t necessarily want the answers, which were doomed to be ugly, but more the understanding that they would bring. He really, really, didn’t want to know anymore about Keith’s life at the facility – there were no happy memories there, his mother had passed before he’d come here, and after that… there had been no one to love him, to protect him. There had only been pain and degradation, and it hurt Shiro like a physical wound to even imagine the boy he knew now trapped in that place.

Never again. He and Ulaz, at least, would make sure of that.

Keith hadn’t seemed bothered, either, by Ulaz’s command of him or the way he’d handled his body without telegraphing his intentions or asking permission, though Shiro supposed that was to be expected from his life before. But he hadn’t been afraid, he hadn’t looked uncomfortable, he’d allowed Ulaz to pick him up and take him away from the situation, from Shiro, without a fight. Shiro wasn’t sure if that was due to Ulaz’s paternal airs, or if Keith just felt safe enough with Shiro’s second in command, but it gave him a mixture of relief and jealousy. He felt like he was being usurped, even though he knew that wasn’t the case, but more than that he was just glad that Keith had someone else to turn to.

By the time he’d finalized their departure and travel plans and confirmed their arrival with the base camp, several hours had passed and he found his anxiety steadily building the longer he was away from Keith; it hadn’t been an easy day for anybody, but especially not for a traumatized sixteen year old boy who’d been through a relentless military interrogation. He hoped Ulaz had brought him dinner. He hoped Keith had eaten it.

When he finally stepped foot into the medical ward with food in hand, just in case, Ulaz was still there, in Shiro’s usual chair at Keith’s bedside and the two of them were playing a card game in total silence. The both of them seemed completely relaxed, content with each other’s company in the quiet, no sign of the distress of earlier. Shiro noticed that there were no bowls on either the bedside table or the bench over the bed and couldn't help but feel a guilty swell of relief - mealtimes were still his and Keith's.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt,” Shiro announced. “I brought dinner.”

Keith’s head had shot up once Shiro had entered the room, his neutral expression easing into something more interested – not smiling, but genuinely pleased to see Shiro nonetheless. The card game was almost immediately forgotten as he shoved the bench further down the bed and scooted back against the pillow, folding his legs up to presumably make room for Shiro. “Hi,” Keith offered, a first – and Shiro realized that today was the longest they’d gone without each other since Keith had left containment. Obviously Shiro wasn’t the only one who had felt the loss.

He gave Keith a soft smile as he stooped to hand out the bowls. “Hey, buddy. How’re you doing?”

“Good,” Keith said, taking his bowl and holding it in his lap. “Ulaz is teaching me durak.”

“Russian card game,” Ulaz explained. “It’s more fun with more people, so we’ll definitely have to let Shiro play some time, or teach somebody else.”

“Sounds fun,” Shiro agreed, taking a seat at the end of the bed the way Keith had wanted him to. “Sorry it took me so long, I was setting up our return home tomorrow. Nailing down the details, letting them know we’d have company on the return trip.” He gave Keith another small smile, and started to eat, and true to habit Keith started to eat once Shiro did, whether consciously or not.

They spoke back and forth, mostly Shiro and Ulaz discussing the trip details and camp life that they’d be returning to; the camp didn’t stop running just because their own lives had been turned upside down on assignment. They talked about people Keith had yet to meet, ordinary boring matters pertaining to the running of the camp like picking up the post and running the laundry service, about the little things they’d have to do to set Keith up upon their return home. Keith remained mostly quiet, only answering what was asked of him, not interjecting much; content to listen and eat his dinner.

Ulaz finished first, stretching hard in the chair, before scooping up the cards and stowing them and grabbing his empty bowl. “Think I’ll go ahead and sack out for tonight,” he grunted. “Long day today, longer day tomorrow. Good night, Shiro. Dobroy nochi, Keith.” He spared a hand to ruffle the boy’s hair affectionately, and Keith allowed the contact though he seemed uninterested in it.

Dobroy nochi, ser,” Keith replied. “Spasibo.

Ulaz bobbed his head in acknowledgment, already turning to leave. Shiro decided to take the opportunity presented.

“Hey, Ulaz, mind if I walk with you for a bit?” He asked, then turned to Keith to ask him as well. “Mind if I dip out with Ulaz for a couple minutes? I’ll be right back after.”

Keith’s brows dipped in at that, but it wasn’t a frown per se, and the expression soon dissolved entirely. “That’s fine,” he said finally. “I don’t mind.”

“Great,” Shiro said cheerfully, getting to his feet. “Keep eating, I’ll see if I can scrounge up some dessert while I’m out.”

Keith obediently continued to eat his dinner, even as Ulaz and Shiro left the medical ward, and continued down the hall, towards the doors that led outside to the cool night air – far enough away, that certain heightened senses wouldn’t be able to glean what was being discussed.

“Am I correct in assuming that you’d like to talk about what happened in that cell today,” Ulaz began, mildly enough.

“You are,” Shiro nodded. “I think I missed out on something important, both to him and to you. From my perspective, I’d have to agree with Kolivan – it looks like he snapped, like he’s capable of being provoked, and that has me worried.”

Ulaz nodded sagely, keeping their pace at a ponderous stroll. “He can be,” Ulaz confirmed, sounding reluctant, “but I doubt it’s something that will come up often – or at least, not to our detriment. The two things he responded to were an insult about his mother, and an insult about you.”

“Me?” Shiro said, recalling how the former warden had looked up at him, smug and sly, that once as he had spoke.

“He called Keith’s mother a whore, then asked if Kolivan was his father – the, and I quote, ‘dog-fucker’,” Ulaz said, tone too polite for the coarse words used. “He also called the boy a few names, threatened to expose Keith and his past, and when it didn’t garner a reaction, he went after you.” Ulaz’s jaw worked. “He… insinuated, that you were interested in children, and not in the family way. Keith didn’t… exactly defend you, but I think that was his intention.”

Shiro frowned at that, processing. “What did he say, last? The warden? I saw the way you reacted, Ulaz – you withdrew Keith almost immediately after that. You literally dragged him out of there. If it’s not important, then that’s fine, I don’t need to know word for word what was said. It just seems to me, like maybe there’s something I should know, something that made an impact on you, at least.”

“It is,” Ulaz agreed quietly. “It is important, I just…” He exhaled heavily, eyes closing as he slowed to a stop, gathering himself. “I’m sorry, this has never been easy for me to talk about, especially not where kids are involved, just…” He finally turned his gaze to Shiro’s, in the dark, forcing himself to report on the situation, attempting to be detached. “The warden didn’t insult you outright,” he explained. “What he asked, was if we knew what Keith could do, what Keith was capable of. When Keith didn’t answer, he asked if we knew but were using him for... for something else. Then he told him that he’d always… always made a better bitch than a sire or a soldier.” Ulaz swallowed, as if stifling the urge to vomit, the urge to look away, to stop. “What Keith said, essentially was that he’d rather be anything to you than be anything for him.” He finally dropped his gaze, hands clenching on his empty bowl. “And Kolivan allowed it. Kolivan let that man throw that boy’s suffering, his humiliation in his face. He let that man degrade him, again, right in front of us and the other prisoners. He said nothing.”

Shiro’s mouth was suddenly dry and full of cotton, his throat choked by it. He should have known, objectively, what the people at that facility were capable of. He should have known the kind of tactics they would use to bring a soldier, a Galra, to heel – to force him to obey, to have him lose all sense of self, of worth. It was common, in any war it was common, but it was worse, so much worse, when a child was involved. A child couldn’t understand the intent, the purpose – they couldn’t differentiate later on, the difference between sex and humiliation, pain. Even someone like Keith, bred for war and killing, would have no way of knowing that the design behind something like that wasn’t sexual – it was power, it was control, it was a desire to destroy another living being from the inside out.

He shouldn’t have asked. He shouldn’t have confirmed what he’d suspected, deep down, all along. He didn’t want to know, he didn’t want this knowledge, he didn’t want any of this – he never asked for all this heartache, for this sick feeling in his gut and chest. He’d wanted to save a life, he’d wanted to provide a future, and he’d willfully forgotten that no matter where they were now or a year from now, the past had brought them here. Made them who they were. All it’s ugliness, all it’s pain and suffering and loss, would always be there somewhere, lurking, waiting to slither out into the light when it was least expected.

He knew that better than most.

He rubbed both hands over his face, brusque, punishing, trying to force back the strain in his throat and the sting in his eyes. “Thank you for telling me,” he told Ulaz, voice quiet and tense. “I… I needed to hear that. I needed to know. He needed me to know, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Ulaz replied, and Shiro knew that it was genuine. “I wish I didn’t have to say it, as much as you wish you didn’t have to hear it. But we should… we should know. Even if he’s not afraid of us now, even if he doesn’t seem scared of men or triggered by them… we should be careful, in future, what we say, what we do. I don’t want him to think that we… that we would ever…”

It sounded too much like the way Keith had phrased his struggles with girls. It sounded too much like Keith likened himself to the type of man that did what they had done to him. As if they were the same by virtue of action, motivation irrelevant, when it was that motivation that made all the difference – between a monster, and a victim.

“I don’t think he… views it the way we do,” Shiro said, strained. “I don’t think he knows the difference between different types of violence, or what they mean. He never mentions what they did to him, only what he’s done, himself. I think he just… expects it, now.” He swallowed. “I think he already expects us to hurt him, and maybe that’s how he copes. He just stays on alert, waiting for it, instead of fearing if or when it’ll come.”

“How do we even disprove something like that,” Ulaz murmured, pained. “How can we prove we’re trustworthy? We’re out here for the same reasons he is, Shiro. We might not do the things those facilities did, but we kill – we capture and interrogate people. How the Hell are we supposed to make him feel safe?”

“We can’t,” Shiro said. “We can’t force him to feel anything. All we can do is just… take the opportunities afforded us, and keep him safe from others, with us. We can protect him, like you did today.” He managed to muster up a weak smile. “He wasn’t afraid of you then, Ulaz. I think it meant more to him than we’ll ever understand that you took him away from all that, and stayed with him. You kept him safe, even if you and I know he wasn’t in any danger, maybe he saw it differently. He sees you differently, now.”

Ulaz didn’t look reassured. “I hope so. God, I hope he doesn’t see me like that. I hope no one ever sees me like that, but especially not him. Especially not a kid.” He sucked in a breath, and brought his eyes back up to Shiro. “I’m gonna… I gotta decompress for a bit. Being with him for a while helped, but I…”

“No, no, I understand,” Shiro said. “We don’t leave until late tomorrow anyway. Do what keeps you sane. And thank you, for doing what you did for him today. I didn’t get a chance to say it, and I’m not sure Keith knows how to, but I’m sure he’s thankful too. You did the right thing, taking him away and keeping me informed. Thank you.”

Ulaz gave him a weak smile. “It’s what anyone with a half a heart would do. It’s just a shame he was surrounded by heartless people.” With that, he turned and walked away into the maze of tents in the darkness.

Shiro watched him go, then went to one of the larders and grabbed an apple, his body on autopilot as his mind and heart tried to wrangle down the mess of his emotions to a tolerable level. He had to get himself in check before he went back; if Keith saw him the way he was now, he’d be upset, he’d feel guilty, and Shiro never wanted that to be Keith’s reaction to seeing him. The only way he wanted Keith to look at him was with joy, with interest – not fear or resignation or self-hatred.

When he returned to the medical ward, that’s exactly what he got. Keith’s hands paused in the middle of sealing a crease in a paper crane, his head popping up and big blue eyes on Shiro, his expression open and relaxed – happy to see him, unafraid.

He had promised Kolivan, he had promised Pidge, that he could remain objective. That he was willing to end the boy’s life if he presented a threat.

That was a lie, now.

“Hey buddy,” he made himself say. “You finish dinner?”

“Yes,” Keith said, but his brows began to furrow. “Is everything okay? You don’t smell right.”

Of course. He should have known that just fixing his expression and relaxing his voice wouldn’t prevent the boy from picking up on his distress. “I’m okay,” Shiro said, and it wasn’t a lie. “I’m just… worried about you.”

“Why?” Keith asked, confused. “Coran said I’m good to go. I ate everything. I played durak with Ulaz. And now we can go to sleep.” His eyes drifted to the apple in Shiro’s hand wantingly, but he didn’t ask for it or point it out. His gaze came back up to Shiro’s. “I’m okay.”

“Today was kind of rough,” Shiro explained. “It was a lot, even for me.” He approached the bed, but instead of taking his usual seat, he moved the bench further down and took a seat beside the boy in the bed itself. He took out his knife, and started to carefully and methodically slice up the apple, focusing on that instead of all the dark truths he'd learned today.

Keith shrugged, as usual. “It’s okay. It’s over now. I told Kolivan everything I know, and I identified the prisoners. So now we can leave, and that’s good. Like that.”

“Yeah we can,” Shiro agreed with a small smile, offering Keith a slice of apple. “Starting tomorrow we leave it all in the past. Get a fresh start.” Keith grunted, more interested in the apple for the time being. Shiro hesitated, pondering his own selfishness, before he asked, “Would it bother you if I slept here tonight…?”

Keith glanced up at him, confused. “You always sleep here.”

“I meant with you,” Shiro explained. “Here in the bed. Would that make you uncomfortable?”

“No,” Keith said, unbothered. “It’s a big bed. Lots of room for you.”

“I meant more, would you be uncomfortable with me being that close to you?” Shiro stammered, unable to look at Keith. “While you slept?”

“No? Is it supposed to?” Keith looked even more confused, and Shiro wasn’t sure how else to get his point across.

“I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” Shiro finally blurted. “I don’t want you to think I’m going to… try to take advantage of you.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Keith answered, finally meeting Shiro’s eyes. “I respect you and that’s different. I know the difference between good people and bad people. I know you won’t hurt me without reason. You told me – no more fighting, no more breeding. I’m Keith and I’m just Keith, now. I’m a tracker and a translator, and I’m my mother’s son. That’s all I have to be. I remember.” Having said what he’d wanted to, he held his hand out for another piece of apple.

“I just… we were apart a lot today,” Shiro said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I missed you. I was worried about you. I just… want to be close to you for a little while. I’d feel a little better if I did that.” He acquiesced, carving off another slice of apple and handing it over. “Just want to know you’re safe tonight.”

“I’m okay with that,” Keith agreed, seemingly uninterested in the prospect at all. But when they stretched out in the bed that night, Shiro’s prosthetic arm open for Keith, he curled right up against his side without an inch of space between them, his face buried in Shiro’s shoulder and one leg folded over Shiro’s.

Chapter Text

They piled into the convoy truck the next day, saying few goodbyes. Kolivan was just as terse as always, but at least did Keith the service of ignoring his presence instead of looking down his nose at him or eking out any last minute critical remarks. All he did was offer Shiro and Coran stern handshakes and thanks, before turning to leave.

Typically Shiro would either drive or ride in the passenger seat, preferring to take point on the road, both due to his experience and his personal anxiety regarding letting any of his team take up the position. Out here, most IEDs were liable to destruct headfirst, as soon as the front tires bore down, instead of midway or towards the aft of the vehicle. He knew riding in any seat, in any vehicle, was a risk but if he could minimize it in any way, he would – even if that meant putting himself in danger, first.

But today, he made himself climb in the back and take a seat, leaving room for Keith beside him. Keith tucked his bundle of new clothes under one arm and easily launched himself into the back of the truck one-handed, taking up the vacant seat at Shiro’s side. “All good?” Shiro checked, though Keith didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. “You’ve been in a truck before, right?”

Keith nodded. “A couple times. We mostly used carts, but for longer trips we used a truck.”

“The suspension isn’t what she used to be,” Shiro warned. “So it’ll be bumpy for a while until we hit the flatlands again.”

Keith’s brow furrowed, confused. “I’ve lived in the mountains my whole life. I know.”

Shiro couldn’t repress the fond smile the boy’s unapologetic statement brought to his face, or the way his hand automatically came up to smooth back Keith's hair. “Yeah. I guess that’s true. Just didn’t want you to be worried, if the truck jolted. It’s normal, especially when we get closer to the base camp. It’s nothing like the mountains, but the hills are pretty rocky too.”

Keith didn’t say anything in reply to that, staring Shiro down with eerie intensity, like he could see straight through him – his body, his years, his command, right down to his soul. “It’ll be okay,” he said, finally, more softly than his expression would belie. He ducked under Shiro’s hand so that he could sit closer to him, thigh to thigh, straight-backed and chin lifted, alert.

Shiro wondered if he was giving off some sort of scent, a pheromone that Keith was picking up that betrayed his anxiety and fear, or if the boy was just adept at reading people’s tone and expression. Either way, though it didn’t relieve his anxiety, it was a much appreciated and meaningful gesture, to have Keith decide that Shiro needed protection and soothing more than he himself did, and take up the offensive. It was the thought that counts.

The rest of the company piled in, Ulaz last as he secured all personnel and cargo before climbing behind the wheel with Pidge in the passenger seat, her rifle cradled in her arms. Hunk and Coran rode in the back with them, Hunk hunched over and occupied with scribbling in a notebook that was dwarfed in his hands and Coran chattering on as he normally did, about everything and nothing; somehow he always seemed to have a new story to relate, as if he’d lived for centuries instead of mere decades. Shiro half listened, leaning slightly forward to stare out the front windscreen, half aware of Keith’s meager weight swaying into his side with the motion of the truck as they first navigated the narrow, winding dirt roads out of the Marmora encampment, then the smoother terrain of the flatlands, and back into the trails that led through the hillside and down towards the base camp.

Every time Shiro glanced back down at Keith to check on him, he seemed to sense Shiro’s attention and turn his head back towards him at the same time, turning his scrutiny from the road behind them and meeting Shiro’s gaze with watchful blue eyes. Shiro noticed that each time Keith turned towards him, his mouth snapped shut, like he’d decided against saying something; he frowned, concerned, even though Keith didn’t seem distressed. “You doing okay, buddy?” He asked, wondering if Keith was maybe too afraid to voice a concern.

Keith nodded once, then frowned. “Hot,” he explained, not a complaint, just a fact. Shiro puzzled over that for a moment, utterly baffled, trying to figure out how that had anything to do with what he’d assumed the issue was. It was in fact hot in the convoy truck, even with the back open and windows down up front; it was spring time, and on the featureless expanse of the steppes and the desert, the wind was warm and dry, no clouds to shield them from the sun bearing down from overhead. Everyone in the vehicle was dewed with sweat, clothes and hair damp – except for Keith, whose clothes were still mostly dry, and only the lightest sheen of sweat on his forehead. Was he trying to muster up the will to complain to Shiro about the heat…? Was he okay, was this another oncoming bout of dehydration, somehow…?

Instead, Shiro got his answer as Keith turned away, looking out the back of the truck – letting his jaw slacken and mouth hang slightly open, the tip of his tongue barely lolling over his bottom lip. Oh. That’s right – dogs don’t sweat. They cool off by panting. His eyebrows rose, and he turned his surprised expression on Coran, wondering if he’d noticed. Coran just grinned back beneath his mustache, likely having noticed hours ago, if not weeks ago by now.

They made it down to the base camp without issue, and Shiro couldn’t deny the swell of relief it gave him to have the truck pull to a stop and be greeted with ordinary camp life; soldiers working, milling about, tents flapping in the meager breeze, all the sights and sounds that let Shiro know that he was finally home and safe. Even in the middle of a war, this would always ease his heart much more than unlocking his front door in quiet suburbia.

As they all piled out, a few unoccupied members of their company came up at a jog or a stroll to welcome them back. Naturally as soon as they had approached, a sentry had alerted the camp of their approach, but on it’s own returning from a non-combat assignment was nothing to get excited about – they would have been told before they’d even arrived if they’d lost someone. Having a full convoy leave and a full convoy return was their expected average – having a full convoy leave, and then return with one more was something entirely new.

Shiro didn’t give Keith a hand down from the truck, knowing he didn’t need it, but stood close just in case he was uncomfortable with being swarmed so soon after his arrival. Hunk and Coran climbed out after them, Ulaz and Pidge coming around the back to join them and the small mob assembling.

“Glad to have you back, Shiro,” Olia opened with, stepping forward and offering a solid handshake in greeting. She was closer to Coran’s age, but looked older due to her weathered skin and narrow eyes from years working in desert climes; out of all of them, she seemed to have adapted the best to the weather here. She functioned primarily as base commander but was equally as capable when it came to running skirmishes, and was tough as grit when she had to be. “Preparations for the Splice’s arrival are as you requested.” Her heavily wrinkled eyes drifted around the group that had disembarked from the truck, until they landed on Keith at Shiro’s side. “…huh. Well, that’s… I’m not sure what I expected.”

“Where is it?” Rolo asked next, pushing his way to the front, “I’ve never worked with a Splice before, holy shit.” Rolo was just as new to this outpost as Shiro was, and Shiro got the impression that the man had been a mercenary all his life, more out of convenience than out of any lust for violence or ambition. The man seemed perfectly content to have his boots on the ground and a gun on his hip, utterly uninterested in his assignments or rising in the ranks. He wasn’t a bad sort, just utterly motivated by himself and his own needs.

“Everyone,” Shiro said pointedly, getting everybody’s attention, “this is Keith. He’s a local Splice who’s going to be staying with us for the duration, and working primarily as a tracker and translator on assignments.” Keith confirmed the introduction by giving the assembled company a salute. From the corner of his eye, Shiro could see Ulaz duck his head to hide his proud grin.

That’s the Splice?” Rolo asked, mouth quirking up like he expected a punchline. “How old is he?”

Keith looked up to Shiro for confirmation, before he replied for himself. “I’m sixteen years old.”

“He can speak,” someone else said from the small crowd.

“He literally just said he’s going to be working as a translator, dumbass,” someone else replied.

“Maybe he’s mute! We had that one guy, what’s his face, that signed-”

“He wasn’t a Splice, he was just a guy-”

“Yes, he can speak,” Shiro interrupted, cautioning himself to be patient. Most members of his company had never technically met a Splice, even if they’d worked with one – most Splices approved for combat were loners, considered more weapon than soldier. They might have worked with one in the field, but in all likelihood they’d never had a conversation with one. “For all intents and purposes, to us, he’s a human. He can do, and does do, all the same things we do. He eats, he sleeps, he speaks, and he works.”

“No offense, but what’s the point of having a Splice be on comms or as a guide? Why not just have him run the perimeter?” Asked a voice from the back of the crowd. Shiro knew they genuinely weren’t trying to upset anyone; it was a valid question, and it was just the opening Shiro needed.

He put a gentle hand on the back of Keith’s head. “While that’s what he was trained to do,” Shiro said softly, “that is not what Keith has chosen to do. He has decided on a better life for himself, here with us, where he won’t be required to kill or to hurt others. He has other, much more valuable traits that we can make use of, and he’s volunteered to perform those tasks instead of what he was made to do previously.”

“He’s killed before…?” Rolo asked, brow furrowing.

“He’s only sixteen,” someone murmured. “Jesus Christ.”

“He has, but that’s no longer his purpose,” Shiro repeated. “He made the choice to take a different path.”

“Can he do that?” Someone else asked. “Like, does he know what that means…? I get that he can speak, but like… how ‘all there’ is he…?”

Shiro tried not to bristle. “As I said, functionally, he’s the same as you or I. You can ask him questions yourself, if you like,” he offered, taking a half-step back from Keith who, to his credit, didn’t look back at him as he moved away.

“Are you really sixteen?” Rolo asked, without hesitation. “You sure as shit don’t look it.”

Keith nodded. “Yes. Pretty sure.”

“What are you mixed with?” Someone asked.

“Not mixed with anything,” Keith replied. “I was born, not made. I’m whatever my mother and father were. I know my mother was dog-mixed, not sure about my father.”

“What kind of dog?” Someone else asked, half-grinning. “Chihuahua? Shih Tzu?”

“I don’t know what those are,” Keith said. “She was big. Bigger than me. Like Commander Shirogane.”

Shiro’s eyebrows rose at that; Keith had never disclosed a relative size for his mother, just that she was ‘big’. To stand at Shiro’s height and width would be quite a feat for a normal human woman; he wondered if the Splicing granted her her size, or if she’d been selected because of it. Either way, it sounded ludicrous, coming from someone as small as Keith.

“Are you the runt of the litter?” Someone laughed, and Keith turned towards them with a flat stare.

“No,” he replied. “Just the only one that survived.”

To Shiro’s relief, no one paused to give weight to Keith’s statement, and the gathered soldiers continued to launch question after question, all with harmless curiosity. A few people even left, unimpressed and uninterested; they had jobs to do and Keith’s addition to their ranks didn’t effect them at all, or else they’d already worked with Splices previously and didn’t buy into the fuss anymore. Keith answered all of their questions obediently, holding onto the bundle of clothes in his hands, relaxed and unthreatened. Shiro and Ulaz stayed behind, naturally, to run crowd control if needed, but Hunk and Coran quietly excused themselves to return to their duties. Surprisingly, Pidge stayed behind, leaning back against the truck with her arms crossed and eyes observant.

They asked if he could bark or howl (he could, but didn’t see the point), they asked if he knew any tricks ( “I don’t like deceiving people”, and after Ulaz translated the question back in Russian, “I can drink a beer without opening it and I can make paper birds”), they asked if he liked playing fetch (he again didn’t see the point but staunchly reassured them that he was willing to learn), they asked if he had paws or a tail (he didn’t have either, and he showed everyone his human hands almost proudly, devoid of claws as he’d promised). To Shiro’s relief most seemed to treat him as either side of his mixed DNA; as a very alien human child, or as a talking dog. It was in no way ideal, but it beat any one of the worse alternatives.

The sole exception, as Shiro had anticipated, was Regris. The man didn’t say much, nor did he ever have to – he ran internal security for their unit, both the camp and the soldiers. He kept to himself, and Shiro’s sole interactions with him were when he reported back after securing the perimeter and passing on his watch, or when he debriefed after assignment. Shiro didn’t know much about him, but reckoned he didn’t have to; the man was competent, thorough, and deadly when it came down to it.

So it didn’t surprise Shiro at all, when he finally spoke up, his voice a low rumble. “Can you fight?” He asked Keith.

Keith’s expression tensed, his jaw working. “I can if I have to,” he admitted grudgingly.

“Can you kill?” Regris asked, meeting Keith’s eyes steadily.

“I can,” Keith grit out. “But I won’t.” There was no mistaking the conviction in his voice.

Regris didn’t pursue the line of questioning, shifting his focus to Shiro. “I want to take him with me on patrol,” he said. “He’d be more useful out there than in the camp, waiting to be necessary.”

“That’s up to Keith,” Shiro said, looking down at the boy beside him. “Is that something you would like to do?” He asked, nudging Keith’s arm. Keith still hadn’t looked away from Regris, his expression narrowed and evaluating.

“I won’t kill,” Keith repeated, uncertain that Regris understood. “I said I wouldn’t do that again, and I won’t. I’m a tracker and a translator now, I don’t… I don’t have to do those things anymore.” Shiro’s hand came up to Keith’s nape, letting the weight of his grip express his support and approval.

“You’re right,” Regris agreed. “You don’t. I don’t want you with me to take lives, but because you can and refuse to do so – a man with that mindset is more valuable to me than the alternative.” He turned his attention back to Shiro. “Sir,” he said by way of farewell, and with nothing more said, turned to leave.

Keith looked completely baffled, and finally turned to look up at Shiro, questioning. “Regris has his own way of doing things,” Shiro explained gently. “Almost all of us do. We’re not a standard military unit, but we all work together – we all do our part, in our own ways, to get the job done and keep everyone alive and well. See, you won’t stand out so much after all.” He gave Keith a small smile the boy didn’t return. “Alright, I think that’s enough for the Q&A portion. We can make introductions as they’re needed, going forward. I think it’s time for the grand tour.” He turned away from the dispersing cluster of remaining personnel, to where Pidge was still reclining against the truck. “You coming with?”

Pidge’s eyes lingered on Keith, but ultimately she declined. “No thanks. Got years of data to decrypt and translate… should probably start working on that.” She stood away from the truck, grabbing up her field pack and a duffel from by her feet and moved past the two remaining men and one Splice. “See you ‘round.” She brushed roughly past Ulaz, and his eyes narrowed.

“You’re not too old for me to put in time-out,” Ulaz called after her, but all Pidge did was throw an unimpressed look over one shoulder.

“Don’t threaten me with a good time, sir,” she replied, disappearing down into the encampment.

“She gets it from your side of the family, you know,” Shiro said wryly, moving them away.

“She does,” Ulaz sighed, looking bereaved. “And she knows this.”

Keith looked between the two men, confused, until Shiro caught the look. “We’re joking,” he explained, then after a moment’s consideration he continued. “It’s what human parents do, sometimes – debate over which side their children’s traits stem from, in a friendly way.”

Keith nodded ponderously, accepting the explanation and mulling it over.

They did a light overview of the relatively small camp – though anything would seem small compared to the sprawling Marmora camp or the rundown maze of the mountain outpost. All told there were only a few handfuls of designated tents – for the mess, for laundry, for bathing, for communications, and so on, while the rest were residential, mostly one to three people to a tent. The residential tents all circled the primary facilities, and weren’t segregated by gender or rank, since neither were really acknowledged in the camp outside of friendly banter or more personal conversations. The larger facilities circled the residential tents and were mostly open air, concealed under makeshift sheds, tents and camouflage netting, like the armory and the motor pool. There wasn’t much to it aside from that; currently they housed a compliment of about thirty people, now, with Keith included. They stopped by the quartermaster’s office to see Olia again, and pick up the items Shiro had requested – mostly regulation bedding and the smallest pair of sweats they had on hand, which were probably intended for someone Pidge’s size. Olia smiled stiffly at Keith, but still looked uncomfortable around him; largely, if Shiro had to guess, because he appeared child-like, and Olia didn’t have a maternal bone in her body. She’d take a bullet for a child before she willingly held one for pleasure’s sake.

As they exited the Quartermaster’s office, Shiro asked Keith, “So. Any questions so far?”

Keith thought it over carefully. “I’m the only Galra – the only Splice, here right now, aren’t I,” he said, less a question than a surprised statement.

“That’s right,” Shiro said. “We don’t usually employ Splices within our company. Humans are generally considered better suited to our assignments, and to be honest… Splices are expensive and humans are not.” Shiro frowned. “Does that bother you…? Being the only one of your kind here…?”

“No,” Keith said, shaking his head. “I didn’t spend much time around my own kind, at the facility, anyway.” He rolled his lips in, considering. “I guess I just assumed since you took me with you, that you had… Splice, facilities here. Like to bathe and sleep.” He looked up between the two men, brows furrowed and eyes wide. “Where do I go, then?”

“With me,” Shiro said softly. “All the places I go, you go. You’ll still eat with me, though in the mess the majority of the time, and you’ll shower in the same tent I do, and sleep in the same tent as me.” A few days ago, it had seemed like a good idea, keeping the boy close, and he’d felt Keith would enjoy the prospect, be reassured by it. Now, he wondered if he should be more cautious – make sure Keith agreed of his own free will. Make sure he consented. “If that’s not okay, we can make other arrangements. There’s other tents, and if you’d rather more freedom or mobility, we can-”

“No,” Keith blurted, then immediately followed it up with, “No. I want to stay with you. I don’t… I'd rather be with you. Please.” He dropped his gaze, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable with his outburst, clutching his new bedding and clothes tighter to his chest.

“Okay,” Shiro drawled, darting a glance at Ulaz. “That’s fine. You can always change your mind later, too, if you don’t like it.” Keith bobbed his head, rushed, and Shiro straightened, out of his personal space, leaving a hand on his shoulder all the same.

They went to Shiro’s tent then, where Olia had followed his instructions and prepared for Keith’s placement in advance, installing a cot beside Shiro’s with plenty of space between them afforded by the tent’s size, complete with a gently used footlocker at the end. They left Keith’s things there on the bed, and decided to wrap things up with Keith’s first meal in the mess hall; Ulaz took his leave then, giving them both a salute each, which Keith staunchly returned.

Keith seemed a little overwhelmed by the size of the mess tent, and the process as a whole – able to, probably for the first time in his life, get his own food for himself. Shiro took a few photos on the sly, Keith standing there with the metal tray clutched to his chest, huge eyes gleaming greedily at the line of steam tables. When it was his turn he practically slapped the tray down, and watched them pour his portions with barely concealed excitement. His whole body gave a small repressed shimmy as they moved down the line, and Shiro wondered if that was his version of a full-body, tailless wag. The cooks looked more amused and fascinated than anything else as Keith took up his tray and waited obediently for Shiro.

Still very aware of Keith’s issues regarding food, he took them to a deserted table in the back that Pidge and Hunk usually claimed so that they could discuss their projects with their mouths full without criticism. Now, Keith took up a seat as close as possible to Shiro’s side, managing to restrain himself until Shiro started eating, and then he dove right in, ravenous, like he hadn’t eaten in days instead of mere hours. His enthusiasm definitely got them a few concerned looks along with the amused ones, but Shiro wasn’t worried; it was normal, he had to keep reminding himself. They didn’t know any better, and they didn’t know Keith at all, yet. Even for a Splice, he stood out – almost entirely human passing, able to think and communicate like a human. It would take time for other people, outsiders, to mesh the two concepts together – that Keith was both an animal and a human, no matter how he seemed at first.

They finished dinner without fanfare, aside from Keith’s insistence on giving his tray a long-tongued once over to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, and Shiro hadn’t chastised him for that. At least not yet; they’d had a big day, a huge transition, and there would be time enough to let Keith know the intricacies of human table etiquette. Instead, they’d retired once more to Shiro’s tent. “Do you want to say good night to Coran or Ulaz…?” Shiro had asked, gently, as they stepped inside.

“No,” Keith said in his usual, uninterested way, moving to his new cot and starting to strip down to change into his new sweatpants and sweatshirt, shoving the oversized sleeves up to his elbows. Shiro didn’t question it, dressing down himself. Normally, he slept in just his briefs and maybe his undershirt, but tonight he decided to play it safe, tugging on a pair of shorts as well. A little bit of discomfort was worth it, if it might set Keith at ease.

Shiro threw himself back into his bed once he’d changed, releasing a long groan as his body settled into the familiar grooves worn into the thin mattress. It was good to finally be home, in his own bed, and not being forced to fold his long body onto the meager space afforded by what was essentially a low-hanging hammock rather than a cot. He rolled over just enough to reach his books on the other side of the bed, giving Keith his back; he was about to ask what Keith was in the mood for, when Keith spoke up first.

“I know Ulaz told you,” he said, voice too soft for the flat tone he was trying for. “About what the warden said. About me – about what I did, for him.”

Shiro paused, looking back over his shoulder. Keith stood at his cot, his head bowed and skinny arms at his sides; he’d made no attempt to get into the bed, the sheets and pillow still stacked on top of it. Shiro frowned, rolling back over to face Keith, dropping his feet to the floor, moving slowly as if he were wary of spooking the boy; confused by where he was going with this. “Keith,” he began, but didn’t know what else to say.

“You’re different with me, now,” Keith said. “Something’s changed.”

“Nothing’s changed, Keith,” Shiro insisted.

“I’m not afraid of you,” Keith said, as if Shiro hadn’t spoke. “You’re strong, and you have power here. I know that. I’ve always known that. But I’m not afraid of you, or what you can do to me.”

Shiro didn’t immediately move to reply, instead thinking over his conversation with Ulaz; remembering what he’d discussed in therapy, what felt like years ago now. People coped in strange ways, ways that might superficially seem healthy and balanced, but weren’t; ways that masked how deep the pain and the fear went, ways that tried to obfuscate the heart of the issue. He wanted to just take Keith’s words and hold them close, to reassure himself – that’s what he wanted to hear, most of all, that Keith was not afraid of him. But more than that, he wanted, needed, the truth – he wanted Keith to be able to heal. He wanted him to have the ability to mend all the wounds he’d been left with and grow. If he left those wounds there, covered up, they’d fester and weaken him, stunt him, and all the lofty plans he had for Keith would crumble into nothing at the first stumble.

“Is that because you expect me to do those things to you, or is it because you know and trust that I won’t?” Shiro asked, softly, knowing his face reflected his own pain, sadness – disappointment, and let it show. “There’s a difference, Keith, between not being afraid of the inevitable, and feeling safe. That’s important.”

“I trust you,” Keith replied, but it wasn’t firm, and his eyes didn’t meet Shiro’s; he wasn’t sure.

“That’s the thing, Keith – you don’t have to, right now; it’s okay not to trust me. It’s okay to be afraid of me. You’ve been through… so much, so much I don’t understand or probably know about, and you’ve survived. For sixteen years, you’ve survived. You did what you had to do, to keep your mind and body in one piece, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it kept you here, it gave you this chance, and that’s a good thing. Fear isn’t bad, Keith. Fear keeps us safe, keeps us alive, keeps us going. I’d understand, if you were afraid of me, after everything you’ve been through; especially after finding out who I am and what I do, here. What I don’t want, is an absence of fear because now you expect the things you used to fear. What I want, eventually, over time, is for you to get to know me, and who I am – and come to trust that I will not hurt you. I will say it as many times as it takes, but I know it can’t undo everything you’ve lived through, and everything you’ve done to protect yourself. Just… please. Give me the same chance I’m giving you.”

Keith’s hands came together, squeezing each other hard, jerking like they wanted to move up, but he viciously repressed the instinct. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in the dark, voice thick.

“I’m not,” Shiro said levelly. After a moment, he continued – speaking for the first time in months about the ghost at his back, the shadow over his right shoulder, however obliquely. “We do what we have to do, to keep ourselves safe – to stay alive. There is nothing, nothing shameful about that.” Surprisingly, he found himself putting more conviction into that than he’d ever had when he’d been talking about himself, and he wondered if maybe, finally, out here in the middle of nowhere, he was experiencing the breakthrough he was supposed to have within the safe confines of suburban civilian life. Maybe this was a little bit more give and take than he’d thought.

Keith’s head rose at that, uncertain, his eyes lambent in the dark, hearing the change in Shiro’s voice. “How do I… how do I fix it?” He asked, earnest, like he believed that Shiro had all the answers. “How do I… stop, doing that – being like this?”

“Time,” Shiro said, gently, knowing how disappointing the answer would be – remembering, how disappointing the answer was. “I wish there was just one way to do it, but there’s not – it’s different for everybody. You’re going to mess it up, you’ll make mistakes but you’ll learn. You just have to remember to be patient with yourself – not just with others. I know you make allowances for other people and how they feel, like Kolivan and Pidge, but you have to do the same thing for yourself. Be patient with yourself, too – just, focus on that. One step at a time, patience and focus.”

Keith nodded, slowly, absorbing the tidal wave of new information – a totally new and different perspective. Shiro didn’t expect him to be able to change anything right away, he knew that; Keith didn’t have the tools, yet, but maybe Shiro did, at least to some degree. Maybe therapy wasn’t a total bust, after all – it just took a change of scenery, for it to finally make some sense. At the very least, Keith was aware now. He wasn’t on autopilot, he wasn’t constantly on high-alert, exhausting himself mentally and physically, waiting and waiting and waiting for the pain he thought he knew would come. He couldn’t stop, not just yet, but maybe he could take a step back and rest; take a real, hard look at all the memories, the emotions he’d been avoiding, shoving aside, numbing himself to. It was a start, and that was all Shiro could give him; as much as he wished he could, he couldn’t do this for Keith.

Keith’s hands unwound, one coasting up his bare forearm, before he finally spoke. “Then,” he started ponderously. “Do I still have to sleep all the way over here…?” He asked.

“No, you don’t,” Shiro said, the tight knot in his middle easing up at the question, at the tension seeping out of the boy’s posture. “It’s up to you. All you have to do is ask.”

Keith stooped then, swooping in on his cot, and Shiro expected him to start lugging the whole bed over, closer to his own. Instead, Keith gathered up his pillow and bedding, and came around to Shiro’s bed, dropping everything by his feet and following it all down. “Uh, bud?” Shiro asked, startled. “You can just move the bed over, if you want to be closer.”

“I don’t like it,” Keith said, and there was that staunchness Shiro so enjoyed, firm in his opinion and unapologetic. “Only did it back with the Marmora because I had to. It’s too high up. This is better.” He sounded very satisfied with himself, shoving the sheets and blanket around the packed earth of the floor.

“I’m gonna step on you,” Shiro said, attempting to dissuade him.

“I’ll hear when you wake up,” Keith absently reassured. “I’ll move, don’t worry.” He grabbed up his pillow, clutching it in his hands as he determined where best to situate it in the small flat nest he’d made for himself.

Shiro heaved a sigh, and surrendered. He supposed, if this was going to become an every day thing, that he could get out on the other side of his bed, once he’d rearranged some things. He picked his feet back up, curling back up in his bed and watched Keith tug and drag his bedding around to make sure his newly designed bed was just right. Finally, he smooshed his pillow down as flat as he could make it, more than it already was, and threw himself down onto it almost violently. Keith squirmed a few times, booted feet kicking at the sheets and blanket, before he finally went entirely boneless with a sigh. Shiro couldn’t help a snort of laughter, mouth quirking up.

“All good, buddy?” Shiro asked, wryly.

“All good,” Keith groaned into his pillow, face buried in it the way he’d slept face-planted in Shiro’s shoulder the night before.

“You want me to read a little bit?” Shiro offered, letting his hand drift down to the wealth of black hair, running his fingers through it; the habit soothing the both of them. Keith just gave a muffled, satisfied rumble, and Shiro’s smile softened. “Good night, buddy.”

“Good night,” Keith replied, already sounding well on his way to sleep. Shiro let his hand coast over his hair, over and over again, until eventually he followed him down into sleep, his hand hanging over the side of the bed.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The next day was set to be the template for Keith’s life at the camp. They hit the showers first, Shiro with his caddy of soaps from home and Keith with his company-issued items, and washed up side by side in the stalls; Shiro showed him how to conserve water and water pressure by only using the showerhead twice, once to get wet and once to rinse off. Keith seemed to be more than okay with this, fascinated by the shower mechanism but respectfully keeping to the time allotted. Shiro let him shake himself off to his heart’s content, but warned that if there were other people in the showers they might not appreciate it. He didn’t anticipate that Keith would be independent enough, just yet, to shower or eat on his own, but he had hopes that it would be sooner rather than later.

Showered and dressed, they went next to the mess hall, and Keith’s enthusiasm had not waned in the slightest, still just as excited to get his own tray and solicit his servings from the cooks. Keith hadn’t yet reacted to anything else the way he did the concept of the mess tent – he was always interested in food of any kind at any time of day, but Shiro reckoned the notion of being able to secure food for himself, three times a day, regardless of behavior or performance was probably a sad sort of novelty. Then again, Keith hadn’t yet been assigned any duties yet at the camp, as far as the day-to-day work required to keep the camp and it’s personnel running; Shiro might yet find something Keith could be interested in of it’s own accord.

So far, until Keith settled in and got used to life with his new company, all Shiro had planned for the boy was book-learning and self-care like showering and eating. He wanted to give Keith the chance to get to know the layout of the camp, their hours and schedules and the rhythm of their assignments; he wanted Keith to get to know every last member of their company and feel comfortable with them. He knew, of course, that Keith was likely to adapt to anything with relative ease, but he wanted Keith to be a part of the camp, a part of their unit – he didn’t want Keith to be relegated to the role he’d had before, present but kept separate, only called upon to be used, like a tool or a weapon. He wanted Keith to be vital to the camp in the little, unimportant ways they all were, outside of their abilities and capacity for violence, but because they helped cook, helped clean, participated in drills and down-time activities. He wanted there to be a noticeable void if Keith was absent; he didn’t expect emotional attachments, though he of course wanted there to be some, but just the average reliance upon another capable being to pull their weight and sustain their lifestyle.

He was looking forward to that; Keith having a life, flourishing, developing interests and friendships. It was a bittersweet hope, knowing that Keith would grow apart from him, not rely on him as much, maybe not be so attached to him anymore… but it was what he wanted. For Keith to really, truly become Keith, not just a weapon or an animal, but a person. He was half human, his mother, his father had started out as humans; Shiro was sure that that was what they would have wanted, for their boy. A normal life, without fear, without pain, nice and boring, safe, where their son could experience joy and excitement and happiness, sadness and grief too because it was a part of living life – loss and the pain of it. Whatever concerns he had, worries for his investment in the life of a Splice, worries for the future, he soothed himself with that – wherever Keith’s parents were, whatever afterlife, they could look down on their boy and know that he was safe. There was somebody there, now, to take care of him… protect him, even love him. Their son wasn’t alone anymore, and the notion of doing right by Keith’s parents made it just that much more rewarding.

He took Keith to the medical tent next, to meet up with Coran. It was decided early on that Coran had the most time and patience out of everyone in the camp, and more than that was deeply familiar with and to Keith, and so would be the natural choice for teaching Keith to read and write in English. Ulaz had volunteered to work with Keith on the Cyrillic alphabet, though they’d yet to decide on how and when to start on his Russian education. Judging by Keith’s conviction, nobody really worried whether Keith would take to it at all; Keith was committed to success, whatever it took, and for once Shiro was pleased by that learned, mission-oriented mindset.

He watched Coran get Keith set up at his own desk, pulling up a chair beside him. There was a yellow steno pad and a pencil already prepared, as well as an obviously handmade alphabet chart. Shiro should have considered, lacking any experience in reading or writing, that the boy wouldn’t automatically know how to hold a pencil, but it still surprised him to see Keith clumsily grasp it with Coran’s help, figuring out how and where to set his fist on the paper, his fingers flexing on it at different angles, uncomfortably.

“Which hand is your dominant hand?” Coran asked, patiently as ever. Keith frowned, confused. “Which hand do you use the most?” Keith’s expression worsened, one eyebrow rising.

“I use both,” Keith tried to explain. Coran shook his head.

“Which hand do you use for your fork or spoon?” Coran again attempted to explain.

“Commander Shirogane uses this one,” Keith said, lifting the hand already holding the pencil, still visibly baffled. “So I use this one. Should I not do that…? I can use the other one.” He shifted the pencil to his other hand, his grasp still just as careful and uncertain.

Both Coran and Shiro’s eyebrows rose at that, but Shiro was the one to ask first. “When you fight with a knife, Keith, which hand do you prefer?”

Keith shrugged. “Whichever one is free.” Coran and Shiro shared a surprised look, and Keith prickled. “Is that bad? Am I doing this wrong?” He asked, shoulders rising and the hand with the pencil starting to drop, losing confidence.

“No, no,” Coran rushed to reassure. “Quite the opposite, my boy. That’s a very good thing. It’s a talent, being able to use either hand; it’s called being ‘ambidextrous’. Nothing wrong with that. Just choose whichever hand you’d like to start with, and we can begin.”

Keith didn’t seem very comforted by the explanation, but put the pencil back in his right hand and set his fist back on the lined paper, pencil poised gracelessly and a more determined frown on his face. Coran gave an overview on the alphabet, explaining how each letter represented a verbal sound, and how the sounds could construct a word, and that was how reading largely worked; determining what sounds were being constructed and finding the word they were intended to make. Keith perked up at that, grasping the information with relative ease. Coran didn’t jump just yet into silent letters or letters that changed sound, keeping it simple to start, and it seemed to work. He gave examples for every letter in the alphabet, common ones, like ‘A begins Apple’ and ‘Z begins Zoo’, and Keith paid rapt attention.

Towards the end of that lesson, Keith’s face once more narrowed into a frown. “Sounds familiar,” he remarked, unsolicited. He looked up at Coran. “Is there a song with these in it?”

“Yes,” Coran said, startled. “There is. A very common one. Most English-speaking children learn it very early on.”

Keith cocked his head, humming interestedly, turning his attention back to the letters assembled on the chart Coran had made. Using his pencil, he slowly read out each letter, tone rising and dipping to the tune, until he got around to H, drifting off. “I don’t remember the rest,” he admitted, sounding frustrated. “My old researcher taught me that, when I was little… that was a long time ago.” The statement should have been more amusing, considering Keith was still young and still small, but his weary tone made him sound bereaved, instead.

“That’s fine,” Coran reassured, his mustache lifting in a small smile. “You can relearn it, if you like. It makes things easier to remember, and some systems are organized alphabetically – in order of where the letters appear in the alphabet.” Keith nodded, absently, more focused on the forgetting than the relearning. “Do you want to know what your name looks like?” Coran offered, half as a distraction, and Keith seemed to brighten at that.

While Coran showed Keith how to write out his name, Shiro pondered that revelation. Keith had told him he was never intended to learn how to read or write or even speak at all, yet the English-speaking researcher had gone through the trouble of teaching him that song… why? Was it an evaluation, and if so, of what? His memory retention skills, his language skills…? What purpose would it serve…?

Shiro’s attention was drawn back to Keith in the present, as the boy turned in his seat to look up at him with the steno pad held up. “Look,” Keith insisted. “That’s me.” He pointed to the painstakingly written though still shaky and fully capitalized letters of his own name. “And that’s you.” He moved his finger down the page, to where he’d carefully written ‘SHIROGANE’. He looked away from the page, back to Shiro, eyes big and bright with interest – wanting Shiro’s approval.

“Yep,” Shiro managed to say, offering a small smile. “That’s you and me, buddy. That’s what our names look like.”

Keith turned his attention back to the steno pad, looking more than satisfied, but actually pleased with himself as he looked over his work. He looked especially delighted with his name, seeing it for the first time – and maybe coming to realize that he was learning, that he could learn. Things really were changing; Keith, was really changing.

Coran set Keith up, and left him largely to his own devices, letting him copy the alphabet to his heart’s content. He excused himself from Keith’s side, and Keith didn’t seem to really mind, but as soon as Coran approached Shiro and asked him to step outside, they had his full attention.

“I’ll be right outside, bud,” Shiro reassured. “Keep going.”

Keith reluctantly turned back to his work, hunched over the desk, and both men stepped outside the tent. “I wanted to discuss something with you,” Coran said, folding his hands at the small of his back as they strolled out of Keith’s earshot. “Regarding the boy.”

“Alright,” Shiro drawled, uncertainly.

“Have you sent in your report yet?” Coran prodded, delicately, meeting Shiro’s eyes directly and refusing to let go his gaze. Shiro froze.

“No,” confessed, awkwardly. “Not yet.”

“You have to let them know,” Coran goaded, however compassionately. “The longer you hold off, the worse it’ll be when it gets back to the Company. They won’t understand your concerns – our concerns. All they’ll see is withheld information about a potential asset. That won’t help you, and it certainly won’t help Keith.”

“I know,” Shiro grit out, more frustrated with himself than Coran. He ran his false hand through his hair, agitated. “I just… I’m not sure how they’ll take it. If they’ll allow it.” He glanced back at the medical tent, where he could just barely glimpse the red of Keith’s shirt. “What if they decide he’s worth more off the field and in a lab…? What if they decide to take him away…?”

“It’s a risk,” Coran agreed. “But it’s one you absolutely have to take. If you don’t report on Keith, you will almost definitely be removed from the theatre, entirely, and there won’t be a way for you to come back. They’ll take Keith, either way, and find a use for him – and we can agree that whatever purpose they find for him won’t be as altruistic as yours or mine. Just because they don’t manufacture or invest in Splices doesn’t mean they won’t take advantage of an opportunity. We know that. If they find out through Kolivan, through another member of our unit, imagine how that will look, for you – for any one of us involved. They might just pull the lot of us, and then what? What will happen to Keith, then?”

Shiro heaved a sigh, and turned desperate eyes back on Coran. “What am I supposed to do?” He pleaded. “What am I supposed to say? How the Hell am I supposed to keep him safe – keep him here, with us?”

“Report back,” Coran insisted. “They don’t need to know about Keith, per se, but they do need to learn about the existence of a Splice within the camp, on the Company dime and on Company land. They need to know – we, need them to know. I trust that you’ll figure out how to get it done; you have, at least, the support of myself and Ulaz.” He offered Shiro a last, wan smile, clasping his shoulder reassuringly – but his eyes were pitying, sympathetic as he turned back to return to Keith’s side, leaving Shiro mired in the decisions he had to make.

Shiro had been in tough situations before; life and death, rock and a hard place. He’d even been in them with others, lives he was responsible for. It was part of what had landed him here in the first place, in many ways. But this was the first time a child was involved, outside of combat. Ensuring the survival of a child was one thing, rescuing them from captivity or from being pinned down by heavy fire another, but determining that child’s future for himself? Deciding how he lived and where and with whom and for how long…? That was something he’d never prepared for nor ever thought he would have to. One false step, a badly worded phrase, and Keith would be gone – relocated, or in the worst case, ‘destroyed’.

That night, while Keith slept beside him on the dirt floor small and warm, Shiro typed up his report.

He didn’t send it.

Chapter Text

Shiro lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was necessary. Not just for Keith, anymore.

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

____________________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiro took the tablet back, expression stern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiro couldn’t wait.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do you think,” Shiro asked.

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

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

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

“Yeah?” Shiro asked fondly.

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.”