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The I, The L, and The Y

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When Keith came home that day, the first thing he did was go to Lana in the kitchen. He’d finished his sandwich in the school bathroom before meeting Mark at the van, as fast as possible, stuffing it all into his mouth and forcing himself to choke it down with handfuls of water from the faucet. He didn’t want to get in trouble for not finishing his lunch, and he didn’t want to get in trouble for making Mark and subsequently the other children wait, either. But that still left the issue of the gifted honey bun, residing in his lunchbox.

Lana looked up as he came into the kitchen, after dropping off his bookbag and taking off his shoes. She offered him a smile he didn’t return. “Good?” She signed, as usual.

Keith nodded distractedly, whiteboard under one arm. He went to the counter, and put his lunchbox on it, opening it and surrendering it for her inspection. He took a step back as she approached, looking curiously inside his lunchbox. Her brow furrowed, confused, and she looked back down at Keith. “What?” She signed, pointing inside the lunchbox.

Gift, his mind automatically supplied, his fingers clenching in preparation. Tutor. He knew the words.

But she didn’t.

He pulled up his whiteboard, leaning it against the counter and wrote his reply. ‘My tutor gave it to me,’ he explained, turning the whiteboard towards her.

Lana’s face opened up into an expression of pleased surprise, and took the whiteboard. ‘You don’t want it?’ She wrote back.

He did want it. But nobody had said he could eat it – nobody gave him permission to do anything more than have it, and he wasn’t about to risk assumptions. Should he admit it? Should he admit that he wanted it? Or would that seem greedy, ungrateful – critical? He had to be careful.

He shrugged, feigning disinterest.

Lana took the board back. ‘How about I put it in the pantry, and you can take it when you want it?’ She offered.

Keith nodded. He knew it was a trick, he knew how to play the game. He already knew he wouldn’t be touching it or asking for it. He was stupid, but not that stupid.

Lana gave him another smile, showing him where she was stowing the single wrapped pastry. “Okay?” She confirmed, and he nodded. She gave him back his whiteboard, her smile still soft and affixed as she turned back to what she had been doing.

Maybe I can look at it, Keith comforted himself, as he went to take up his backpack and start his homework. There’s nothing wrong with looking as long as I don’t eat it.

Shiro just didn’t know the rules. Maybe even Lana and Mark didn’t know the rules – but Keith did. He would never forget them.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Keith didn’t often reminisce on his life before living with Mark and Lana. He didn’t think about much at all, in fact; the past, the future, himself. He lived solely in the now, with consideration for others only. He abandoned his memories, and had forgotten all the dreams he’d had for himself, for the future. It was better to live his life neutrally, pulled along by outside forces – better to be obedient than be an individual. Better to focus on the wants and needs of others, wants and needs he knew he could satisfy, than pay any attention to his own – wants and needs that relied on others to satisfy, wants and needs that never were or would be satisfied. Things were just better when the people in his life, the people in control, were satisfied, happy; when he did as he was told, when he remained still and silent.

His life, now, consisted solely of his daily routine, and he stayed fixated on that. Mark and Lana seemed satisfied. He did as he was told, never argued or even expressed the will or ability to argue – he kept his face carefully blank and went about his life as directed. Bathe, eat, clothes in the laundry bin, homework, sleep. Whatever they told him, however they directed him, he silently obeyed without expression, like a well-crafted robot. It made him a defective child, and he knew that; he knew that his peers smiled and laughed, cried out loud, screamed in rage, argued, had selective interests. Ultimately, he reckoned, being defective was better than putting himself in a position to be hurt, to be punished. Being a good child was less important than just being good.

He thought, he hoped, that Mark and Lana liked that about him. That even if he was a mess, he was a mess that was easily swept under the rug, kept safely to one side, removed. At least he wasn’t a problem, language barrier aside. They’d found ways around that, and honestly he wasn’t that interested in engaging with them; he was sure the feeling was mutual. What would they talk about? There was nothing to discuss, sharing a language wouldn’t change that. It wouldn’t change him, and ultimately that was the issue.

He was broken in a million different ways. He didn’t work right. He wasn’t a good child, a good son, a good boy. He couldn’t hear, he couldn’t stand to sleep in a bed, he couldn’t look at himself in a mirror, he couldn’t figure out what his favorite food or animal or color was, he didn’t have hobbies or interests. There wasn’t anything to him, at all, anymore, except a physical form.

Though, that wasn’t exactly true, anymore.

Keith. Shiro had signed his name, with intent, with meaning. He’d given him back something he had lost and hadn’t even realized. He had a name, and it meant something to someone. Shiro used that name to invoke Keith – make him real, and now things were shifting.

He was thinking about the things he did, now. Even if it was just passively, he wondered which shirt he wanted to wear in the morning, what socks; whether he was pleased by a peanut butter sandwich in his lunch or whether he preferred ham; when he watched TV with Alma, he tried to pay better attention, determine whether he was entertained. He paid more attention to the books on the shelves in the den, now – did he want to read any of them? Was he interested?

Some things were still hard… too hard to attempt just yet. Thinking things over in the safety of his own mind was allowed, but looking at himself in the mirror, really looking, wasn’t possible. He really wanted to relearn the face that went with Keith, but at the same time staring at himself made his skin crawl and his gut sink; disappointed, disgusted. He could be satisfied with his name, and his name alone.

The hardest, was remembering. When thinking went too deep and became questioning. When he began to wonder why or why not. Those questions were too much to handle; those questions meant looking at what happened before, feeling it all over again, and he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to be, and he didn’t plan to ever be; he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to feel it, didn’t want it to be real. What came before was gone and past, it was over, it was done; the life he led before, the good and the bad, was gone forever.

But his name came with more memories than he was prepared for.

What had it sounded like, when his father had said his name? His father had a southern accent, he knew, but he knew it as a fact instead of remembering it as a sound. What did a southern accent sound like, again…?

He wondered sometimes, when he was distracted, when he was drifting off to sleep or watching a show that was impossible to follow, when the last time he heard his name was. Who was the last person to say it, while he could hear it.

He was pretty sure it was Her. He was pretty sure She’d been mad.

He would snap back to himself when he thought about it too much; jerk out of the clutches of his memories of the last few weeks spent in that house, with Her. It was still painful, it still hurt too much to think about – the feelings went too deep.

He’d tried thinking about, instead, what his own last words were. What were the last words he ever spoke, the last words anyone had heard him speak…?

He was pretty sure it was either, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel good” or “Don’t know”. Both possibilities were equally pathetic, and reaching that far back, remembering those events in those places hurt just as badly. Being unable to fully recall those last few days in that house was hard, too; a blur of pain, confusion, fear before the nothing he found himself in now.

Those could have been his last words here on this earth, and that knowledge just made the realization worse. Instead of “I love you” or “I’ll miss you” or “Goodbye” or any of the things he used to wish he’d been able to say to his father, he’d mumbled garbled gibberish to somebody who barely knew him and didn’t love him. He’d wasted his last words – even though he’d made it, even though he’d lived, he hadn’t used his voice since.

Again, even if he could speak, communicate in a way other people understood, there was no reason to – nobody to really communicate with. Mark and Lana were good people, but they didn’t actually like him – they wouldn’t, if they really got to know him. All they needed was for him to be good, and he was… he was getting better, at that, he thought. He always did as he was told, he always said yes, he never cried or complained or caused problems for himself or the other residents. He didn’t need to speak, he didn’t need words, he didn’t need to be able to communicate to be able to exist and obey.

He had no way of interacting on any normal level with children his age; whether they were his fellow students or the other children at the home. He hadn’t spent time with children his own age in almost a year – he didn’t know anything about them, about their interests or hobbies, whatever was normal for eleven year olds. He’d grown up entirely separate from them and their world – in more ways than one, when it came to his Deaf classmates. He found it hard to relate to the things they talked about, and found it even harder to be interested. It was hard to invest himself in books or movies or anything else, really, when his life had been narrowed down for so long into staying safe – focused entirely on acquiring the basic necessities, like food, sleep, time and space to recover.

And then there was Shiro. Shiro who didn’t fit in any category, Shiro who didn’t fit any of the predetermined molds Keith had developed. He wasn’t a peer, he wasn’t an adult; he had power over him, but not much. He expressed interest in Keith when he didn’t have to, by any metric – even if he was being paid, he wasn’t being paid to care. He could easily just practice signing with Keith, once a week, and leave it at that. He didn’t have to talk about himself, or talk about Keith; he didn’t have to go home and make that video, at all, or bring him food. But he had, he did, and Keith wasn’t sure how to fit him into his life – into his very narrow perspective. Nothing was black and white, everything was gray: an uncertain and dangerous mix of both good and bad, unstable, unpredictable, but manageable if you knew what roles people were meant to play. Mark and Lana and Ms. Noel and his social workers had power over him, his life and who he was. Other children had no impact on his life and were dismissed. Doctors and police were there to do a job and nothing more, nothing less.

So then where did the one person who communicated with him as an individual instead of an object, the one person who gave him the ability to communicate at all, the one person who seemingly had no ulterior reasons to interact with him, fit? Where did a young man in university, with a life and friends and a future, who chose to be a part of his miserable excuse for a life for seemingly no reason at all, belong in Keith’s world view?

He didn’t know. He was figuring it out, a little more each time they met, every week. He was learning as much about Shiro as Shiro was learning about him – as much as Keith was relearning about himself.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“Do you like games?” Shiro opened with, the next time he saw Keith.

Keith’s eyes widened with surprise as Shiro took his customary backwards seat across from him. He set his bag of chips aside and wiped his hands on his pants as he went to reply. “Games?” He signed, confused.

“Yeah, like on your phone?” Shiro asked. “Do you have a phone?”

“No,” Keith replied, his brow furrowing. “Why?”

Shiro’s mouth twisted up, disappointed, but he still took off his satchel, dropping it to one side and as had become their custom, taking his phone out of his pocket and setting it on the desk. “That’s fine,” he said finally. “I found a cool one I wanted you to see. Look.”

He brought up an app, leaning far over Keith’s desk, into his personal space. Keith allowed it; he was more than used to it, by now. Personal space had been a vague concept before he was deaf and now that bubble had shrunk even further since people touched him to get his attention. He didn’t mind it, so much, with Shiro. He smelled good and the way he hunched his shoulders made him appear a little less intimidating; it was something Keith would do, too – minimize himself, his presence.

The app loaded, bringing up a word search format, a list of words at the bottom – but instead of finding the text letters, the grid was filled with pictures of hands fingerspelling. “Cool, right?” Shiro signed. “Wanna play?”

Keith’s lips rolled in, trying to stave off an uncertain frown. “Is this a test?” he asked tentatively.

“A test?” Shiro asked, with a frown of his own. “No, why?”

Keith shrugged, short and sharp. “My fingerspelling is bad,” Keith admitted, signs small and reserved.

Shiro’s mouth pulled up at one corner. “Not bad,” he assured. “You just need practice.”

“I don’t have a phone,” Keith said. “I can’t do this at home.”

“It’s not homework,” Shiro reminded. “It’s just a game, it’s fun, look.” He moved his chair around to Keith’s side, so he wasn’t looking at the pictographs upside down. He found the first word, FIGMENT, quickly, and it highlighted the diagonal row of hands in blue. “You get it?”

Keith’s face began to crease in concern, eyes catching on the timer now running at the top of the screen. “I don’t understand. This isn’t homework?” He attempted to confirm.

“Why would I give you homework?” Shiro asked, his confusion matching Keith’s now.

“You’re my tutor…?” Keith asked, hands staying raised uncertainly.

Shiro’s eyebrows rose in surprise, before his expression morphed into one of uncertainty. “You want me to be your tutor…?” He asked, trying to ascertain what Keith was getting at.

Keith made a frustrated noise at the back of his throat, conceding defeat and hating it as he reached for his whiteboard and marker, pulling it out from under his lunchbox. ‘Aren’t you my tutor? Isn’t that why you come here?’ He scribbled quickly.

Shiro’s eyes went round. “What? No, no,” he refused emphatically. “I come to visit Ms. Noel!”

This conversation wasn’t clarifying anything. The box he’d tentatively constructed around Shiro was falling down brick by brick, wall by wall – he was losing his footing, being set adrift. He felt almost betrayed – like Shiro wasn’t who he said he was, like he’d been somehow deceived.

He stumbled, mentally, caught between writing and signing now, unsure of where he stood with Shiro, who he was to Shiro. He wanted to ask him Then why are you here, why spend all this time with me if it’s not for your gain, for someone else’s benefit? But he couldn’t find the words, stymied. He could feel his chest heaving and his eyes pricking, his throat tightening. This was wrong, this was all wrong, he’d been tricked – he hadn’t known what Shiro wanted at all, had he messed up? Had he done something wrong? How could he know without knowing Shiro – how could he understand what Shiro wanted if he didn’t even know who he was, where he fit?

Shiro’s hand gently pulled on the board, tugging it down, and he ducked his head so that their eyes met. “You thought I was your tutor?” He asked, carefully, his expression softer in the face of Keith’s palpable distress.

Keith nodded, helplessly.

“I’m not a tutor,” Shiro confirmed, and Keith’s heart made a home in his belly. Shiro let go the board so he had both hands available to explain. “I know Ms. Noel – I know her son. I come to visit sometimes.”

Keith let the board rest on top of his lunchbox, numbly. “Why…?” He signed, awkward, uncertain of how to ask what he needed to, in any language. Why had Shiro even bothered? What was there in it for Shiro, if there wasn’t money, school credit? Was it really just a case of a do-gooder taking pity on the most pathetic child of the bunch?

“Because I know,” Shiro signed, earnest. “I understand. I see myself in you.”

Keith’s face pulled into something closer to a frown, despite his teary eyes. “You’re deaf…?”

Shiro shook his head. “No. CODA,” he explained. “My parents are both Deaf. I’m hearing.”

Keith felt his jaw slacken in surprise, and his anxiety derailed into wonder. Somewhere along the way he’d just begun assuming that Shiro was Deaf; his signing was so fluid, he never resorted to ‘sim-com’, moving his mouth along with the words, or Pidgin Signed English like Keith himself did. It looked so natural on Shiro, that Keith had stopped questioning it.

“You’re hearing?” He asked, agog, his hands stuttering over the question.

Shiro nodded, but didn’t seem proud at all; he rolled his lips in, before continuing, hesitantly. “English isn’t my first language. Sign is,” he explained. “School was hard at first… making friends was hard. So I understand that. I know.”

This was a situation that Keith hadn’t anticipated, couldn’t prepare for. He was so used to standing outside of circles, to being alone in everything he went through by choice or by circumstance, that he’d never considered the possibility of sharing an experience with someone – let alone someone like Shiro.

Shiro was capable, and self-possessed, unselfconscious. He was probably pretty smart, to be attending the university; he was big and strong, built solidly, with a handsome face that radiated kindness, always smiling, friendly. Shiro had friends – he had a family, a life, a future.

How could he have ever expected for someone like that to have anything in common with someone like him?

“Are you surprised?” Shiro asked, smiling wryly.

“Yes,” Keith admitted. “I thought you were deaf, like me.”

“I get that a lot,” Shiro assured. “It’s my first language, so of course it’s the easiest for me. I still have a hard time with English, sometimes.” He shrugged, like it was no big deal – this revelation he’d lain at Keith’s feet.

“How did you learn…?” Keith asked cautiously.

“My grandparents,” Shiro explained. “My friends, school.” He shrugged. “I got teased a lot, because my voice sounded funny, and my grammar – G-R-A-M-M-A-R – was wrong. We’re the same, but backwards,” he signed, playfully touching the back of his hand to Keith’s arm. Keith shrank away from the contact, uncomfortable, but as always Shiro let him be. “What about you?” He asked. “Your parents sign?”

Keith looked away, gripping his whiteboard, trying to puzzle out an explanation that wasn’t pathetic. He bit his lip, and brought his hands up slow, uncertain. “My parents are dead,” he decided on, blunt and honest. As far as he knew, his birth mother was dead, too; he had no way of knowing. Either way she wasn’t coming back for him. “My…” He hesitated, struggling to figure out how to word the next part. “F-O-S-T-E-R parents, are hearing.”

“Do they know sign?” Shiro asked.

Keith shrugged. “A little,” he confirmed. “It’s fine.”

“Who do you talk to?” Shiro pressed, beginning to frown. “At home? At school?”

Keith shrugged again, disinterested. He didn’t bother writing or signing; the whole concept of feeling disconnected from his life, from the people around him, was too great for either language. It would take too long, be too sad – make him sound ungrateful, whingy. It would be better if he kept it simple, kept it basic. “I talk to you,” he said.

Shiro didn’t look happy. He looked upset, he looked concerned. He looked confused.

Keith took up his whiteboard again, uncapping his marker and starting to write. ‘It’s okay,’ he reiterated. ‘I don’t like talking anyway.’

“What about friends?” Shiro insisted. “Here, or at home?”

“No friends,” Keith replied, and knew he probably looked as disaffected as he felt about it. “F-O-S-T-E-R sister, Alma. She’s okay.”

“Foster sister,” Shiro signed, giving Keith the word he needed. “Does Alma sign?”

Keith shook his head. He wasn’t sure if she could learn to, or if she would even want to; she seemed satisfied with their arrangement as it was. He knew she spoke, because she’d tried talking to him, at first, so language wasn’t foreign to her – but something like sign, that was completely unnecessary for her to learn?

‘Doesn’t matter,’ he wrote. ‘Won’t be here long anyway.’

“Why not?” Shiro asked, concerned.

Keith gave another shrug. Because that’s life. Everything changes, even when you don’t want it to. The good things get taken away with the bad. Nothing stays forever. More than likely, Mark and Lana would surrender him to the agency, give him back like they expected a refund – this model is defective, it doesn’t work right, it can’t hear or play or love. Eventually they’d probably just lose patience with him, get frustrated with having to introduce a whole new language to their already hectic lives, and for what? What could Keith possibly give them in return? How could Keith possibly make it worth their while? All the things he’d had to offer before had been wrung out of him, gone now.

Or maybe they’d get mad. Maybe he’d slip up, the way he was bound to do, and he’d be punished. Maybe he’d disappear. Maybe this time it would be for good.

“Foster home,” Keith said instead, in explanation.

Shiro didn’t seem any happier with that answer, but the lights flickered overhead, cutting their conversation short. Shiro didn’t move, pinning Keith with a gaze that was focused but desperate at the same time – like he was trying to find an answer, a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, a question nobody had asked. Like he wanted to change Keith’s situation in the thirty seconds it would take for the other students to start filing in.

So Keith did something he hadn’t done in a long time. Something he hadn’t had to do.

He reassured him. He took Shiro’s emotions at face value instead of overanalyzing them – instead of simply obeying, or remaining neutral, he took the initiative and reached out first.

‘It’s okay,’ he wrote. ‘I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.’

Shiro deflated at that, the tension seeping out of his arms and back, a helpless smile drifting across his face. “Okay,” he confirmed. “For now.” He got up, picking up his satchel and slinging it over his head and one shoulder, taking up his phone with the other hand. He paused then, hesitating, considering; Keith met his gaze evenly, having to crane his neck up.

“Thank you,” Shiro signed finally. “For talking to me. If you want a tutor, I’ll help you.”

Keith nodded, and gave him a small, shy smile. “Thanks,” he replied, keeping it quick as the other kids began to come in.

“I’ll see you later,” Shiro assured, then turned to leave, making his customary stop at Ms. Noel’s desk, thankfully a brief one, before heading out the door.

Keith watched him go with a weird, warm, even feeling in his chest – like something had leveled out, stilled, a ship on a stormy sea suddenly emerging into calm waters.

That was new.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Shiro had planted a thought in Keith’s head. He had a knack for doing that.

This time when Keith came home, he again went to find Lana, finding her in the den watching TV as she folded clothes. He stood in the threshold, in the hallway, and waited patiently for her to notice him, unwilling to interrupt by approaching. When she finally did notice him, she jumped a little – no doubt startled by turning and finding a completely still and quiet child lurking in the hall. She offered him a smile, and beckoned him in to join her. “Good?” She asked.

Keith nodded, not joining her by the TV. He stood off to one side, several feet away – closer to the bookcases and toy boxes that dominated the room. He took several deep breaths, mentally and physically preparing himself – waiting for her to realize that he was approaching her with his hands empty.

Her eyebrows rose as her gaze darted down to where his empty fingers poked out of the sleeves of his hoodie, then back up to his face, curious, confused. “What?” She signed slowly, questioning what he was doing there, what he needed that he intended to communicate to her without the use of his whiteboard.

With one last gulp, he raised a hand and pointed at the bookcase – at the rows of books and magazines of all types there. Then brought his hand back to indicate himself. “Okay?” He confirmed, trying to get his point across with gestures alone. He wanted permission – he wanted access to the shelves of reading they had available.

Lana’s eyebrows rose again. She mimicked his gestures, just to confirm. When Keith nodded, she did too. “Yes,” she signed. “Good.” She followed it up with a big smile, and an expansive inviting gesture towards the bookcase – giving him freedom to peruse all of it, it seemed.

Just to cover his bases, he asked one more question: he gestured at the books, pointed at himself – then pointed towards the ceiling, asking if he could take them up to his room.

Lana nodded, simultaneously signing “Yes”, and seemed pleased so Keith decided to risk one more step.

“Thank you,” he signed, slow and careful so she’d understand. That wasn’t a sign they’d used much, if ever, though he remembered learning it with her and Mark. He wasn’t sure if she remembered it, or if it would come across correctly – he knew his expression wasn’t right, eyes lidded disinterestedly, mouth a silent line, inscrutable.

Lana frowned at first, then her expression slowly brightened, and she reciprocated. “Thank you.”

He didn’t say anything else to that, heart pounding a mile a minute, though he was sure it didn’t show. He went to the bookcase, standing on his tiptoes to reach the shelf with all the National Geographics, pulling two down at random. He darted a glance at Lana, confirming, but found she was still gazing at him fondly, seemingly with warmth in her expression.

It’s not real, Keith reminded himself. She’s just letting you know you’re allowed. She doesn’t like you, and she doesn’t love you. You’re just not in trouble this time.

He pulled the magazines in against his chest and turned away, not returning her smile. He felt trembly, his knees and hands weak, but he’d done it. He really did it. He talked to Lana, one on one, and had asked for something.

Lana had never barred him from anything, per se, but that could just be the language barrier, or maybe a rule that everybody but Keith knew. He didn’t know anymore what was normal for a home, for a family – for a mother. She’d never expressed that anything was off limits, she’d never punished any of the other children physically that he saw, but that didn’t mean anything. Maybe this home was different. Maybe it wasn’t.

When he got to his room, he dropped to a seat on the floor by his bed, magazines clutched to his chest, and let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. His chest hitched as his lungs and ribs worked against each other, counter rhythm, his heart tripping in his chest.

He’d asked. He’d asked, and received. He’d asked, not with his voice, not in writing, but with his own language.

It's okay, he tried to reassure himself. You’re safe, you’re okay. She gave you permission, she allowed it, it’s just books, she already had them. It should be fine.

He ducked down and rolled under the bed, squirming to get himself situated with his magazines in hand, making himself comfortable. His pillow and blanket were still on the bed, but he didn’t really need them for reading; the carpet was comfortable enough. His roommate was outside, playing, and so was Alma; he probably wouldn’t be disturbed for a while. He could take his time.

He pored over the magazines at his leisure, taking the time to admire the photography while he was at it. He liked reading, he liked it a lot; it was one of the things that his hearing didn’t effect, his last point of contact with the language he’d grown up with. He would read anything and everything, even nutritional information on boxes and cartons, instructions on shampoo bottles – if there were words, he wanted them. He soaked up written words with ease and enthusiasm, but reckoned nobody needed to know that. It was the one thing that brought him, if not joy, then some measure of peace, or comfort; he didn’t want to risk losing it.

He could have easily taken more magazines or books than just the two, but he didn’t want to express too much interest; just asking in the first place was exposing himself to an alarming degree, and he wasn’t sure he could muster up the strength to ask for more than what he had. Oh well. The school had books too, maybe he could read some there – Shiro only came once a week, the other four days he had to himself.

For the past year of his life, or more, he’d done only as he was asked, only what he was expected to do. He always agreed to anything that was asked of him. If someone asked if he wanted to go somewhere or do something, he said yes. If they asked if he was okay with something, he said yes. He did everything at it’s appointed time, quick and efficient – bathed, ate, studied. Whatever time left empty he used to just sit still and be quiet – to disappear for a little while, mute himself. He spent a lot of time in his own head, by necessity – in many ways. Nobody seemed to mind, and if they did, they didn’t express it to him.

His life had a routine, had a schedule – he was a slow-moving train, chugging down the same narrow tracks, each and every single day, and he took comfort in that. Nothing to analyze or overthink, as long as he stayed on those tracks, and didn’t cause problems for the conductors.

This… would be a detour. Having a personal interest was not on the tracks – it was an unnecessary loop. Lana and Mark didn’t ask him to do it, Ms. Noel and his social workers hadn’t asked him to. But Shiro… Shiro had asked about him. Shiro had expressed interest in him – in wanting to know him, when Keith didn’t even know himself.

He still didn’t know what his favorite food was, or his favorite color, or animal. But that information paled in comparison to discovering that he and Shiro had something in common. Something crucial, something painful and uncomfortable.

For the first time, in a very long time, he could relate to someone – he could communicate with them. Shiro understood a part of Keith that Keith didn’t even know how to share. He understood how Keith felt without Keith having to explain, sort out his emotions and thoughts into words – Shiro already knew. He’d lived it, and more than that, he’d survived and thrived. He’d made it through the pain and disappointment, and become who he was now.

It wasn’t hope for himself, per se, that Keith found in that, but rather basic admiration. Shiro had struggled and come ahead by miles, had grown into the tall, strong, smart and friendly person he was now. Instead of fighting the inevitable or succumbing to it, he’d picked up his burden and carried it – still carried it, to this day.

Keith didn’t delude himself into thinking that he’d one day be like that; fundamentally they were not the same. Shiro was strong and smart, and Keith was not; Shiro was a real person, and Keith was just a ghost. But he could try, which was more than he’d been willing to do until he'd met Shiro.

Now, as he read, he tried to sign along. Some words didn’t have signs, of course, or else they shared a sign; the grammar wasn’t the same, either, but he was focused more on vocabulary. It was like a game – like the one Shiro had shown him earlier. Find the letter, find the sign – find the word, find the sign. It was like the whole magazine became an enormous wordsearch, and he was curious to see how far he could get. After a while it wasn’t even like he was reading at all, just picking out words he knew or might know, spelling out the words that he didn’t even know in English, trying to remember them subconsciously so he could ask.

Ask. He could do that. He’d done it once now, and that was with the person he objectively considered the most terrifying, on his own, without words – asking Shiro how to sign a word, or what it meant, didn’t seem like such an insurmountable, forbidden task, compared to that.

He’d gotten so involved in the magazines that he hadn’t even noticed the judder of the stairs or the thump of feet on carpet, only looking up when someone reached under the bed to tap his curled feet. He startled, jerked out of his concentration, and looked down the length of his body to where Alma was reaching beneath the bed, smiling. She gave him a little wave.

He gave her a slow wave back, instead of just meeting her stare, and it looked like she squealed in delight. They didn’t usually interact much outside of physical contact, which was understandable, all things considered; even without the language barrier, Keith wasn’t naturally friendly or good with people like Shiro was.

What about Alma…? Does she sign…?

He thought about it. He considered it.

Technically, she didn’t have to know how to sign – he did. She didn’t have to understand what he was saying, to have a conversation with her. He could just… talk to her. Nothing would come of it, to be honest; it would be like talking to himself. Where was the harm…?

“Dinner’s ready?” He asked slowly, and she tilted her head against the floor, where she was watching him. He nodded. “Alright, I’m coming.”

She didn’t know what he was saying, but she seemed happy to be communicated with, acknowledged when he normally didn’t. She got to her feet and waited for him, bouncing on her toes with anticipation. He slithered out from under the bed, leaving his magazines behind, and offered her a hand, letting her grab onto him and lace their fingers together.

It was nice to see her smile at him, because of something he’d done. He supposed it would be okay, as long as it made her happy. That would be nice too… if he could make someone happy.