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The I, The L, and The Y

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Keith sometimes felt like he was fading out of existence. Slowly becoming invisible, or maybe melting into the background; becoming a quiet fixture in a corner of other people’s lives. Everything else rushed around him and past him, other people, other lives – other homes, other families, other places. The other children smiling, laughing, running… adults with soft, sad expressions on their faces, bigger smiles for the other children – the easier, more accessible children.

He watched everything, he took it all in and observed, but he never interacted. Decided against immersing himself in a world that didn’t seem to care whether he was in it. He just couldn’t find his way in; there was no way, no place, for him to connect. He had no parents, or family; no friends. He had no interests or hobbies, insofar as he could tell, that he might share with others his own age or like-minded adults in his orbit. Even if he did, there was no way to engage them.

Every day was the same since coming here. He woke up with everyone else in the home, got ready at his appointed time, ate whatever they gave him, went to his new school with new kids who were meant to be just like him but weren’t, then came back to the home, did his homework, got ready for bed at his appointed time, and then went to sleep.

It’s not that he was ungrateful, really. He was okay, here. He was well-fed and looked after, and they tried to accommodate him at every turn. They really did. They moved him far away from the people that hurt him, took him away from the whole state, gave him gentle people who tried to care and enrolled him in a special school just for him and his new needs, with children they kept telling him were “like him”. He had a routine, he had stability. He had food and shelter and clean clothes. He had safety.

He wasn’t ungrateful, he just… didn’t feel anything at all. He wasn’t happy here, but he wasn’t scared either. He’d stopped being angry and frustrated months ago, when he began to learn how futile his feelings were. No matter how mad he got, or how frustrated, nothing changed. Nothing was undone. Things stayed the same. Time, medicine, love or what passed for it, they couldn’t heal the damage done, and neither would screaming or fighting. It wore him down, the struggle, raging against his reality. Eventually the fire simmered down, and with it everything else. Happiness, contentment, hope all became just as muted as the anger and the fear and the hopelessness. He had become muted himself, uncertain of himself at every turn.

That was until He came.

It didn’t mean anything, at first. People came to his classroom all the time, guest speakers or parents or people interning from the local university. He treated them the way he did anything else since coming here; with scrutiny at first, then indifference. He could tell the person was interesting in some way, because the other students were excited, asking question after question. He didn’t bother interjecting or participating, Keith understood he was unpopular and his questions wouldn’t be welcome – if he even figured out how to ask. He watched the man, the teenager, young adult, whatever he was, interact with the students and their teacher, how bright and open his face remained, how his almond eyes were wide with interest, the way his mouth was set amicably throughout. The visitor was good-looking, Keith supposed, well-built with a symmetrical face. He had eyes like his own, and dark black hair like his own, and Keith was interested in that more than anything else. He was like him, in some way. Not significantly, but in his world there was so little connection between himself and others that he latched onto that more than his friendly demeanor or the uniform from the university.

Then the visitor’s eyes flicked up toward the back of the classroom and found him there, sitting at his desk, staring ahead blank-faced, and Keith suddenly had this new stranger’s attention.

It was always an uncomfortable feeling, being acknowledged. It provoked feelings of anxiety, feelings of fear and dread. He didn’t like the attention, so he tried to disengage, looking away, out the window, much like he did when the teacher lectured or his classmates gave presentations he couldn’t follow. Eventually their guest would lose interest, and move on, and nothing would change. Same as ever. Just another day.

He didn’t startle when a large hand waved in his periphery, used to it, but his eyes widened as he turned around to meet eyes like his in a smiling face, instead of the teacher’s gentle reprimand.

The stranger waved, still smiling, a greeting instead of a way to get his attention, and brought both hands up before him.

“My name is Shiro. What’s yours?” He signed.

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He stared at him blankly, eyes darting down to watch his hands since he didn’t speak as he signed. He got most of it, though he wasn’t sure on the name. It didn’t matter.

He didn’t sign back. Instead, he took the little whiteboard from his desktop and wrote in small, uneven letters, ‘Keith’.

Shiro, if that was what his name was meant to be, frowned, furrowing his brow. “Keith?” He signed, slower than he’d spelled his own.

Keith didn’t nod either, instead writing beneath his name a small ‘yes’. He knew the man could read. He knew the man understood. He was testing him, pushing him to use a language he had barely learned and wasn’t trying to. He was used to it.

But Shiro didn’t push. Instead his expression eased into another smile, a soft one like he was used to seeing from his teachers and his foster parents and the parents of his classmates. Sad, pitying. Probably thinking he was too stupid to learn. Thinking he was slow, or stubborn.

Then Shiro commandeered a chair from the desk in front of him, and sat across from him while straddling it. Keith wasn’t sure if he liked this development or not, leaning back slightly in his own seat and taking his board and marker with him. He’d had a full-immersion tutor take it away, once, and he didn’t want to risk it.

“It’s nice to meet you. Is writing easier for you right now?” Shiro asked, gesturing at the board in his little hands.

Keith shrugged, his gaze dropping after the question. It didn’t matter. Nothing did. Communication only mattered in families, with friends; what he had were people who had never asked for him and didn’t want him, and classmates who looked at him with confusion or derision; the deaf boy who didn’t get the jokes, couldn’t follow the conversations, didn’t know the slang, wasn’t raised in the culture or the language. An outsider who didn’t belong in the outside, either.

Keith didn’t see the point in learning how to communicate with people when he had no people. His foster parents only knew the same basics he did, taught by the one-time tutor and then by his teacher. Yes, No, numbers, the alphabet – no way to say “Do you have homework?” or “How was your day?” At the home, they wrote instead on his whiteboard or used gestures. The home he’d been placed in was for special cases like his own; children with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities. It wasn’t a home for the deaf, his foster parents didn’t already know how to sign, they were just patient enough to adapt to different needs and lived within driving distance of a Deaf school.

He hadn’t managed to make any friends, but he wasn’t surprised and didn’t care. Before he’d been enrolled here, it was just him and the other kids at the home. Even without having lost his hearing, he would have struggled. There was trauma from his last home, habits he’d learned, bad coping mechanisms. An immediate distrust of everyone and everything. No one could be trusted, safe spaces weren’t always safe. He didn’t talk much about it, both because he didn’t want to and because he couldn’t. He didn’t like using his voice anymore; without being able to hear it, he was scared it sounded weird, like he’d noticed when his hearing first started fading. Without a voice or hearing, most of the children in the home gave him up for a lost cause. He didn’t like touch, really, and he didn’t like the rough-and-tumble outside games because of that – even if he could have heard them coming, the notion that someone was going to lay hands on him made his anxiety spike, made his skin tighten and his insides clench. The only other resident he got along with was a girl a few years older than him who had a developmental disability of some kind, he wasn’t sure which. But she liked him, liked touching him, liked his hair especially, and always wanted to be in some sort of contact with him. She always patted his shoes or his feet first, so he knew to expect her, and he honestly didn’t mind her company. She didn’t touch him as a person, expecting a response or reciprocation, she treated him like a life-size toy. She wasn’t bothered if he ignored her or if his expression remained flat, she was content to pet his hair or move his arm or hand, just for fun or in a bid to cuddle up next to him. She didn’t get upset if he got up or walked away anymore, he was sure their foster parents had given her a talking-to on boundaries at some point.

It was simple, uncomplicated contact. She was never rough or greedy, just passive. She took nothing from him, he didn’t need to give anything back. He never initiated contact or hugged her back and she seemed content with that. She was calm and she was constant. Her name was Alma.

At school, he was the odd man out, but he wasn’t surprised. Nobody at this school really looked like him, pale skin and dark hair and lidded almond eyes. When he’d started, his hair had been fairly short and choppy; they’d made fun of his ears, how gnarled they looked. His hair was longer now, just past his shoulders, bone straight and even now, but most of them had already seen the damage done. Not all of them were cruel, of course. The majority were just curious, and wanted to talk to him, but he lacked the means. Attending a Deaf school was a total immersion experience, but he wasn’t well-equipped. It was a whole new language that he hadn’t chosen to learn, didn’t want to learn, didn’t really need to learn. He could read and write in English, and that should have been enough. They wanted him to accept his new life, move on already, but he was stuck with no means of moving forward. He’d be turning 11 soon, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d lived too much for 11 years; his classmates didn’t understand the experiences that came before, that had brought him here; they only understood his life as it was now – silent when it didn’t have to be. His classmates had a whole language he didn’t understand, parents to communicate with, friends to talk to, experiences to live and enjoy and explore.

Shiro wouldn’t understand that. There was no way for this stranger to understand what even his foster parents and classmates couldn’t. Why was he even here? Why was he even talking to him?

“That’s okay,” Shiro signed in reply to his shrug. “We can-” Keith missed the rest of the statement. He must have frowned, because Shiro signed, then spelled, for clarification. “We can work on– W-O-R-K O-N – it.” Shiro’s smile never faltered, and Keith’s frown deepened into a scowl.

‘Work on what’, Keith wrote, turning the board back to the infuriatingly peaceable visitor.

“Signing and fingerspelling,” Shiro signed, refusing to write or even really acknowledge the whiteboard, maintaining eye contact.

Oh. A tutor. That was embarrassing. They’d acknowledged his lack of progress in front of his whole class – they weren’t going to let him live it down. Eleven years old and learning the alphabet. Why couldn’t they leave him alone? What did it matter?

Keith’s scowl dropped and his expression smoothed. ‘Why?’ he wrote, simply.

That did get a reaction from Shiro, his eyebrows rising with surprise. “Don’t you want to learn?” He asked, uncertain, dipping his head to try and get a better bead on Keith’s expression.

Keith’s expression remained neutral as he wrote back a simple, ‘Doesn’t matter’, then pointedly flipped his whiteboard facedown on his desk with his marker. He saw Shiro sign something else, but didn’t pay him anymore attention, turning his gaze back to the front of the classroom and letting his gaze become unfocused.

They were probably staring at him. Talking about him. He didn’t care. Nothing lasted forever. The good, the bad – everything was temporary. Why bother with any of it.

Chapter Text

His foster father, Mark, was usually the one to pick him up from school, making him the first stop in the van since his school was the furthest away. He greeted Keith with a smile when he opened the passenger side door and climbed in, putting his backpack by his feet. “Good?” he signed, same as always, as Keith buckled in. Keith bobbed his head in a nod, and his foster father nodded in return, then set them back on the road.

Keith stared out the window as the other kids piled in one by one, turning over his day in his head. Sometimes he imagined what he’d say, if he could, to his foster parents or his therapist, or even the ghost of his father. Some weird guy came to school today, he’d start off, casual. I think he’s from the university? He was wearing that ugly uniform that the interns wear sometimes. I don’t think he was an intern. He didn’t sit up front and observe, or help with the lessons. He just talked to everybody. Even me. Especially me. Maybe he’d frown at that, and maybe his Dad’s mouth would curl at one corner while he worked at the dinner he’d made them. He said he’s going to work with me. Like a tutor, I guess. Mark and Lana didn’t mention it, and neither did Ms. Noel. I’m not sure what the point is or why anyone cares enough to bring in outside help. What’s going to happen if I don’t learn? I’m still going to be deaf. Everyone else can hear but me. I can’t just go to a store and sign to just anybody. And even if I learned, what then? Nobody at the home signs. Mark and Lana don’t sign, and why would they learn a whole new language just to talk to the trainwreck that got dumped on their doorstep? He could feel himself begin to frown outside of his fantasy conversation as his resignation and what passed for bitterness ruined the illusion. He wouldn’t feel this way if his Dad were really there. He wouldn’t be the trainwreck that got dumped on someone’s doorstep if his Dad were still alive. Either way. Whether I learn or not. It doesn’t matter.

His foster father tapped him on the shoulder, and he came back to himself, sensing the flurry of activity that was the other kids piling out of the car. Mark pointed across him and out the window, indicating Alma waiting on the lawn, flapping her hands in excitement. Keith blinked at her, not acknowledging his foster father’s hopeful half-smile as he turned and got down out of the van. His foster parents thought they were friends, Keith had realized; they thought that because he let her close physically that they were close in some other way. They weren’t. The relationship was comfortable and mutually beneficial, but they knew nothing about each other and weren’t interested in learning more. Keith was just the only one that let her do what she wanted and didn’t yell at her or swat at her for being so handsy. And Alma… Alma gave him the only attention he was comfortable with. The same attention people gave to animals, petting them, playing with them, cooing at them, but never treating them with the respect afforded another human being. Alma treated him like a pet, and it was probably sad, somehow, that it was the only treatment he responded to or was comfortable with.

When he came abreast of Alma she gave a little skip in place before crouching down and patting his shoes, twice, like knocking on a door. In reply, Keith dropped a hand down for her to grab in both of her own, and then headed inside with the slightly taller girl at his heels.

He let her grip his hand and gently jostle his arm as he took off his shoes by the door, then headed to the kitchen. Lana was there with two of the younger kids, but she turned around at their entrance, giving them both a smile and a wave. She spoke some to Alma, and Keith caught some of it by lipreading and expression, some form of “How was your day?” She turned to Keith next and signed as she spoke, “Good?” Keith nodded, and she smiled. “Hungry?” She asked next, and Keith shook his head. She nodded at that, smiled for him, and turned back to what she was doing before. He didn’t mind the dismissal. He was used to it, and honestly preferred it to her undivided attention. He still wasn’t comfortable alone around women, so he’d rather be ignored than anything else.

Alma was okay. She was just a girl.

They went to the front room, and he noticed the TV was on, but it wasn’t too loud since Alma was tolerating it. Keith took a seat on the couch, and Alma let him get set up for homework before crawling up beside him and leaning heavily against his shoulder. Throughout, his mind kept circling back to what he assumed was going to be his tutor. When the day had ended, Shiro had made sure to catch Keith’s eye with a smile and a semi-casual, “See you later”. What had that meant? That he was coming back? How soon, how often? What goals was he going to be expected to meet? Was this going to mean more homework…? Would he drag his foster parents into whatever he was attempting? God, he hoped not. There were six kids with varying needs in the home, as it was he was one of the ones that required the least effort. He could bathe and dress and feed himself, he could get around the house on his own, his school was a full eight hours just like his old schools, and his only medical appointments, technically, was with his therapist every week and an audiologist as needed. He didn’t want to become one more thing for them to deal with, an additional burden. He was aware that they could have turned down the placement, but he was equally aware that they’d probably looked more at the “deaf” portion of his paperwork and less at the “emergency removal from abusive home” portion. They’d probably thought he was just a normal boy who couldn’t hear but could still laugh and play and probably sign – they weren’t expecting a reluctant fixer-upper that did nothing but take up a bed and food and gas money. He was barely a child, more a ghost, and while he sometimes felt bad for disappointing them, the majority of the time he was just relieved he’d been placed in a home where he was allowed to drift – just exist, unnoticed.

Maybe Shiro understood being deaf. Maybe he was perfectly comfortable with being deaf. Maybe he was born Deaf, or maybe his parents were, and speaking with his hands and face instead of his mouth was perfectly normal and fluid for him. Maybe he understood that part of Keith’s life. But there was no way to understand any other aspect of his life. Shiro went to a normal school and in some way must have led a normal life. He probably had a family, and friends; he seemed like a likeable sort of person people enjoyed being around. He might even have a girlfriend, or something.

Ultimately, Shiro had a life outside of some dumb kid at a Deaf school who couldn’t even spell well. Maybe this whole thing was for extra credit, or something. And if it wasn’t, then he was probably one of those do-gooder types who did things like missionary work overseas, or whatever. There was something for Shiro to gain, somehow, and not much for Keith.

Whatever. Eventually he’d get bored of Keith and move on, or get reassigned. It wasn’t going to change anything. Keith was okay with what he had. He had reliable food and a place to sleep and there were social workers and medical aids that came to the house all the time; there was oversight, and he cherished that the most. Even if they weren’t here expressly for him, somebody would probably notice if one of six kids went missing.

Probably.

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The next time he saw Shiro was about a week after he’d come to visit in the classroom. Truth be told, he’d already written him off after not seeing him for so long, but as he and his classmates boarded the small bus for their trip to the museum, one more person climbed on after his teacher. He wasn’t wearing the university uniform today, instead wearing a t-shirt that was snug across his chest and shoulders and loose-cut blue jeans. He smiled and greeted all the kids as he made his way down the aisle, high-fiving some on the way to the back, where Keith was curled up around his backpack.

“Hello!” Shiro signed, that ready smile still stuck on his face. “Mind if I sit here?”

Keith didn’t reply, barely darting him a glance as he squeezed himself in tighter against the window, less an invitation and more an attempt to escape.

Shiro didn’t seem to take the hint, dropping to a seat beside Keith. “Thanks. Do you remember me?”

Keith shot him a withering look at that. I’m deaf, not stupid, he tried to convey by expression alone.

It worked, as Shiro’s mouth quirked up in a more amused smirk. “I thought so. Do you remember my name?”

Keith stared blankly at him, knowing full-well Shiro wanted him to spell it out, especially since his whiteboard was still in his backpack. Besides, he really wasn’t sure whether it was just an unusual name, ‘Shiro’, or whether he’d misread it and wasn’t exactly eager to risk humiliating himself by butchering his tutor’s name.

“It’s Shiro,” he confirmed, spelling it out nice and slow. Well, at least Keith wasn’t a total idiot. It was just a weird name, or maybe a nickname. He noticed Shiro didn’t follow up with a sign name, so either he didn’t have one, or he was deliberately keeping things formal between them, like Ms. Noel did. It was… interesting. Probably nothing. But interesting. “It’s a nickname. My full name is Takashi Shirogane. It’s-” He ended with a sign that Keith didn’t recognize. He signed it again, and clarified. “J-A-P-A-N-E-S-E. I’m Japanese.”

Oh. One more piece of the puzzle. He was looking at Keith expectantly, swaying back and forth with the motion of the bus and Keith figured Shiro wanted him to reciprocate somehow. Did he want his full name? Was he asking about his ethnicity…?

“What’s your full name?” Shiro asked, clarifying, and Keith breathed a sigh of relief. He never knew how to address his ethnicity, even when he could communicate fluently. However, this question was no easier. He could sign it, but he’d be abysmally slow and he’d either he laughed at or pitied and he didn’t really like either option. Or he could go through the effort of weaseling out his whiteboard, though that might convey that he was somehow invested in the conversation, when he wasn’t. Or he could go the easier route, which would be the rudest, and ignore the question. He was stupidly reluctant to go that path in the face of Shiro’s open friendliness. What could it hurt, really? A single concession? It might even convince Shiro he wasn’t as dumb as he probably thought, might get him to ease off if he saw he could at least sign his name.

Keith debated internally, drawing in his bottom lip before cautiously darting a look around the bus at the other students. They were all in the midst of their own discussions or else otherwise occupied on their phones or handheld games. Besides, if he was stealthy and hid behind the bench in front of him nobody should be able to see. He glanced back at Shiro to find him smiling patiently at him, waiting him out. Keith shifted slightly away from the window, cramming his backpack into his lap so that he could spell his name, slow and shy. “Keith Kogane.”

Shiro’s smile brightened, and Keith felt… something. He wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad something, but he definitely felt it. He dropped his hands back to his bag, pulling it back up to his chest like a shield. “Kogane?” Shiro asked, clarifying, and Keith nodded. “That’s cool,” he said, not asking about his last name or where it was from, and Keith was glad he watched his classmates so often; he recognized the phrase Shiro used. Keith didn’t reply, but he didn’t turn away again either, and Shiro seemed to take this as tacit permission to continue. “Have you been to this museum before?” Keith shook his head. “It’s cool. It’s one of my favorites. It has-”

Shiro continued, carrying on emphatically; he apparently wasn’t joking when he said it was one of his favorites. Keith couldn’t keep up; there were words he didn’t recognize, that context didn’t clear up. He understood that it was a space museum, and Shiro loved outer space. He liked the stars, and he liked flying. There were apparently a lot of exhibits that Shiro was excited about, his enthusiasm on par with Keith’s classmates. Even though he only caught half of what he was saying, Keith still watched, took it all in, same as always.

They pulled up to the museum and filed out to stand in front of the displays outside. Ms. Noel went over the rules, and Keith watched passively from the back of the small group, Shiro standing conspicuously at his side; not at the head of the group, as a figure of authority, but more like a chaperone. Keith glanced up at him, so much taller than he was, and frowned in confusion. When Shiro noticed his look, he returned it questioningly, and while the other students’ backs were turned, he fished out his whiteboard and marker and hastily scribbled, ‘Why are you here?’

Shiro skimmed the question as he wrote, then shrugged. “Because I want to be,” he signed. “I love this museum. I told you.”

Keith’s frown persisted. ‘Why with me?’ He wrote.

“Because I want to be,” Shiro reiterated. “Because I like you too.”

Keith didn’t like lies and he didn’t like platitudes. He preferred bluntness, reality, truth. One of the few things he actually appreciated about sign language and Deaf culture was the disregard for unnecessary pleasantries and double-talk. His frown melted into his neutral façade, and he held eye contact with Shiro as he purposefully stuffed his whiteboard back into his bag, bringing the conversation to an end and turning his attention to the front of the group.

Shiro must think him so easily swayed. He must think he’s an idiot. Did he expect him to blush, to smile, to crack, to weaken? At simple praise? Superficial praise, at that? Then Shiro was the idiot, not Keith. Keith knew the tricks, knew that the caress preceded the strike, softness warned of hardships. ‘I like you’, how stupid. He didn’t even know his full name until today. He didn’t know what he liked to read, what he liked to eat – his fears, or the dreams he’d once had. He didn’t know he was 8 when his father died, he didn’t know his mother abandoned them both years before that, didn’t know that Keith still slept under his bed at the home.

He didn’t like Keith. He didn’t know Keith. No one did.

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When Mark drove Keith home after the field trip, he was full of things he wanted to express and talk about. He wanted more than anything, in that moment, to explain the breath-stealing wonder that had snatched him up during the lightshow, how the planets were so much closer than everybody thought – how we had already been to so many, with exploratory vehicles and even with human boots on the surface. How humans were already gearing up to go even farther, even right now, today, candidates from the university were training to go up there, travel the black as far as they could, reaching the end of their known solar system. One of the other students had asked about aliens, and for the first time, he was glad he understood at least enough to follow the discussion. He’d been so swept up, he’d even turned to Shiro with a face full of excitement, eager to share it, before remembering that he wasn’t talking to Shiro anymore today. He’d almost gone back on his bitter decision to ice Shiro out but hadn’t, and once he was in the van, once he was at the home, he regretted it.

He wished he could tell Mark and Lana that he’d had a really good day today. He wished he could tell them about it. He bet they’d be so happy to hear that, to hear that he’d been a normal boy for at least a few hours. They’d like that.

But it would take too long to write out, and he had all the words but they didn’t, and in the end, he wound up back at square one, frustrated with himself.

Alma didn’t care that he was stern and tight-lipped when he got home. She still gripped his bicep in both hands and swung his arm to and fro. He went to find Lana, same as he did every day as soon as he got home, and found her talking to Mark. They both looked concerned, and paused their conversation as he and Alma entered the front room, as if he could overhear their discussion. Their expressions softened as they turned to look at him, and his gut tightened with anxiety. What had he done now, what was wrong, what were they hiding, he’s in trouble, he’s in trouble now-

Lana set aside the clothes she was folding, and stooped down to Keith’s level. “Good?” She signed, as if she already knew he wasn’t. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. His whole body felt numb with fear. What had he done? “Write?” She offered next, gesturing at his backpack, and with shaking hands he disentangled himself from Alma and drew his whiteboard out of his bag, offering it to Lana. She took it, smiling reassuringly. ‘I’m not mad,’ she wrote. ‘Just worried. Is everything okay at school?’

Keith gulped. Was this a trick? A trap? Did they know about the tutor? Was he supposed to have told them? That was the only thing that had changed at school, right? Had his teacher called them? Was he going to get punished? He’d never been in trouble here. He didn’t know what they did here, to deal with unruly children. This is it, this is what happens when you draw attention to yourself, stupid, stupid, your stupid face, you always look so bratty, and this is what happens, this is all your fault, look at what you’ve done-

In trembling hands, tears already rolling down his pale blank face, he took the whiteboard and shakily wrote, ‘I have a tutor I thought you knew I’m sorry I’m really sorry’. He held it up for her, trying to hold it steady, not daring to meet her eyes or brush the tears away. He saw the way her face contorted in confusion, looking up at Mark. Alma was still there, gripping the back of Keith’s sweatshirt. He hoped she wasn’t scared, too.

Mark leaned down, taking his wife’s place, easing the whiteboard from Keith’s hands. He erased everything, and started over. ‘We’re not mad. We’re worried about you. You seemed upset in the car. If you had a rough day at school, we want to make it better. You’re a good boy. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ He held the board up for Keith to read, and something pulled loose inside Keith. The tears came faster, blurring his vision. You’re a good boy. He was going to be okay. He was okay, he was safe.

Mark waited until he was sure Keith had read it, then signed, “Yes?” When Keith nodded stiltedly, he let the whiteboard drop, and reached out to give Keith a quick squeeze to his bicep, reassuringly. They knew, everyone in the house knew, how hard touch was for him and how uncomfortable he was with hugs. Mark wiped the board down again, starting to write again as Keith pulled his sleeve over his hand and scrubbed embarrassedly at his moist cheeks. ‘We’re glad you got a tutor. That’s a good thing and we’re very happy,’ Mark wrote, smiling as he gave Keith back his board and marker, and squeezing his arm again, the same one, just as briefly. Keith didn’t know what else to say to that, so he just nodded, clutching his bag and his whiteboard to his chest. Alma snaked an arm through one of his, pressing against his side, and he took the opportunity to duck his head and move towards the stairs, heading to his shared room to do his homework. He needed some space, a few minutes to pull his heart up from it’s sudden plummet, and if he was honest with himself, he needed a few minutes to stop his tears.

Alma could stay, and she did. She didn’t bother him or try to soothe him; if she said anything, she didn’t try to get his attention for it. She sat curled up behind his knees where he lay on his bed, his face buried in the pillow while he wrung out the last of the tears.

He couldn’t tell if anyone heard.

Chapter Text

“Are you mad at me?” Shiro opened with, one week after the museum.

It seemed like Shiro was going to visit once a week, which Keith found tolerable, but questionable. Shouldn’t a tutor visit more often? Or was it more a matter of review – going over what he’d learned each week, working on whatever he was struggling with? Regardless, it was better than being forced to sign with a stranger from the university for an hour every day.

Keith considered Shiro’s question. He wasn’t mad at him, per se… more disappointed. He’d enjoyed watching Shiro talk about the museum and the planetarium and flight, but he didn’t like the lie he’d told. He had hoped Shiro would be different, since he seemed so easy-going and open, but instead he’d tried to manipulate him. He didn’t like that.

‘I’m not mad,’ Keith replied at length on his whiteboard.

“You didn’t talk to me at the museum. Why?” Shiro asked. “Did I say something to upset you?”

Keith cocked his head, tapping his marker against his whiteboard as he thought. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’m not a kid. I don’t need to be lied to. I can handle the truth.’

Shiro frowned, reading it over, then bringing his gaze back up to Keith. “What lie?” He signed emphatically. “I didn’t lie to you.”

Suddenly, Keith wasn’t sure. Had he misinterpreted? Misunderstood the intent? Had he gotten all riled up over nothing? He’d be humiliated. Again.

‘You said you liked me,’ Keith wrote hesitantly. ‘You don’t know me, so how can you like me?’

Shiro’s expression relaxed, coming to understand. “You’re right, I don’t know you. But I would like to. Is that okay? If I get to know you?” He asked, earnestly, and then dropped his hands to his lap, where he sat across from Keith, straddling the chair again. He was waiting, patiently, for Keith to make a decision. He wasn’t lying in wait, ready to talk him out of whatever choice he made, or convince him to do what he wanted. He just… waited, eyes on Keith, shoulders relaxed and face open.

Keith hesitated, when he didn’t mean to. What he’d meant to do was immediately say, ‘no’. He wanted to keep Shiro at arm’s length, wanted to keep the distance afforded by a strictly scholastic relationship. He didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that just because someone showed interest or kindness indicated that they cared, genuinely, about him. He’d made that mistake before and the pain of it was still fresh and raw and so close to the surface. Shiro was just a student at the university looking for extra credit, and one dumb student was probably easier to manage than a whole classroom.

But Shiro had agreed with him. He had acknowledged that Keith was right, instead of continuing the lie, or arguing. He’d made it seem like Keith actually had a valid point. Shiro had listened to him. And really, what was there to even know about Keith? He was just some broken kid, with no worth, and no future. Even if he wasn’t deaf, what family would want to take in an ugly, miserable little boy who didn’t do the things kids should do, feel the things kids should? Who wants a child to come home to that didn’t smile, or run in to hug them? Who wanted a child that couldn’t make friends and didn’t play sports or participate in other social activities? He was ruined goods, returned in poor condition, and who would choose something fractured and chipped over something whole? Something good, that worked as it should?

There was nothing really interesting about him. He was plain and boring. And really that was all Shiro had to know. Maybe if he saw Keith as someone boring, he’d lose interest, and leave it at that. If he satisfied Shiro’s curiosity, eventually he’d lose interest and move on. That’s usually how it worked, anyhow.

Keith acquiesced. He shrugged, and wrote a simple, ‘Okay’, and Shiro acted like the world had opened up for him. His smile widened and reached his eyes, making them squint up, and Keith tried not to let himself feel any which way about that smile. If he let Shiro down, that was Shiro’s fault.

“Thank you!” Shiro signed enthusiastically. “How about I start? My favorite color is purple. You?”

Keith blinked. He wasn’t expecting any of that. He’d been expecting an interrogation, of sorts, not a give-and-take type situation. He also wasn’t expecting to just dive right in; he thought he’d ask over time, or maybe not really ask anything at all. It was the lunch period, and it was just himself, Shiro, the teacher, and two other students making up a test in the classroom. They had the time, and the privacy, he just wasn’t expecting Shiro’s enthusiasm, when he really should have. Shiro never seemed reluctant about anything.

He thought about the question at length. Did he even have a favorite color, now that he thought about it? Everything he owned now he hadn’t chosen, really; since he was eight, his entire wardrobe was determined by what hand-me-downs fit and the weather. He hadn’t chosen bedding in years, he didn’t have any toys anymore, and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d picked something out for himself from a store. ‘Red,’ he decided on. It was the color of his favorite hoodie, and that was close enough. He wore this hoodie every day he left the house and sometimes even on days he didn’t. It was oversized, so it was big enough to cocoon himself in, and he could pull his hands inside the sleeves if people were being pushy about signing at school.

“Cool,” Shiro replied. “What about favorite animal? I like-” He used two signs Keith wasn’t sure on, but spelled them out to confirm without Keith having to ask. “I like snakes – S-N-A-K-E-S and lizards – L-I-Z-A-R-D-S. Do you like those?”

Keith was being forced to think a lot more than he’d anticipated. These were common questions, things people asked each other all the time, these were things people just automatically knew about themselves. People had instinctive preferences, likes and dislikes, and other people would respect that, normally. People remembered those preferences. For over a year he’d been such a non-entity that he hadn’t even considered such basic questions – he hadn’t been able to make any choices for himself, make decisions large or small. He’d been shoved around, commanded, and he’d been so powerless through it all that he’d given in, or forgotten. It had stopped being important to be Keith, and started being more important to survive.

‘Yes’, Keith replied, uncertainly. He wasn’t sure if he felt either way about reptiles, to be honest. But he wasn’t grossed out by them, or scared of them. He’d never had a pet or considered having a pet before, so he didn’t know whether he’d want to own one, necessarily. Plus, he didn’t want to upset Shiro, or offend him… he wasn’t all that bad. He was being nice, for now. Keith supposed it did no harm to play along. It was easier to get along with other boys, anyway.

“What about you?” Shiro asked. “What’s your favorite animal?”

Keith tried to stifle his mounting panic, but his hands still retreated from the whiteboard, fiddling with the marker in his lap, while his eyes drifted to the side, ashamedly. What animals did he like? No, were there animals he didn’t like? He was scared of sharks, but wasn’t everybody? Or were they kind of cool, since they were scary? Did he like cats? Dogs? No, wait, did those count? Did it have to be something exotic, a wild animal? Like an alligator, or a zebra? What’s the answer, come on, think, think, he wants an answer you idiot, get it together, figure it out, stupid, what’s the answer what’s the answer what does he want to hear what am I supposed to say-

Shiro’s hand tapped the desk within Keith’s range of sight, getting his attention and Keith came back to himself, feeling the sudden tightness in his eyes and throat that warned of frustrated tears. When he raised his eyes to meet Shiro’s, however, his vision wasn’t cloudy, and Shiro’s expression hadn’t changed. He hadn’t gotten that sad, pitying look other adults got when he misstepped and did something a normal child wouldn’t. Instead, he was still smiling, still engaged, like Keith hadn’t done anything weird or wrong. “If you don’t know, that’s okay. There’s a lot of animals to choose from. It’s okay not to know things,” he reassured, so easily, like it was no big deal, like Keith hadn’t failed a simple task, like Keith wasn't an idiot. “There’s still a lot of things I don’t know. But I’m learning, and you’re learning. That’s what’s important.”

He said it so matter-of-factly, like it was normal, like everybody just went about their lives without a script, without knowing the right answers. Like everybody didn’t know their favorite animal off the top of their head. Like it was okay to say, ‘I don’t know’. He’d even said that he himself, an adult, didn’t have an answer, didn’t have a lot of the answers. That… didn’t seem right. He was sure adults knew most things, even about him, even without him knowing about them. Surely an adult could figure out Keith’s favorite animal? Somebody had the answer. It wasn’t just up to Keith to decide… right?

“Here, let me show you,” Shiro signed suddenly, digging around in his pocket and taking out his phone, flipping through it. “This is my boy, Peels,” he explained showing Keith a picture of a yellow snake in a lamplit terrarium. He gestured for Keith to take the phone, and without thinking, Keith took it in both hands. “I have three snakes right now,” Shiro continued. “This is Sophia, she’s a girl. I think,” he said with a wry smile, swiping to a photo of a snake that looked a little more like a snake should look, Keith thought, army green with dark splotches all over. “And this is Hawthorne.” He spelled the name extra slow and careful, before swiping to a smaller snake in a nest of wood shavings, with stripes of black and red. Shiro continued to swipe through the impressive gallery of snake photos, some of them selfies, some of them with a tanned boy with glasses around Shiro’s age, a friend from university Keith reckoned since there were so many photos and all in what looked like a small basic apartment.

They looked through Shiro’s phone until the lights flickered outside and overhead to indicate the end of the lunch period, then Shiro had taken back his phone and said goodbye. “See you later,” he’d signed, smiling, as if to a friend. Keith had nodded, and almost without meaning to, the corner of his mouth had pulled up a little as he waved a farewell in return. It was worth the risk to see Shiro’s smile widen as he turned away.

That night at dinner, in his own silent bubble at the table beside Mark, Keith carefully considered his pot roast, eating it piece by piece instead of numbly chewing and swallowing whatever he was given. He ate the meat, the potatoes, the gravy and each individual vegetable thoughtfully, and pondered whether he liked it, or not. He couldn’t recall if, when he was with his father or any of his other foster homes, if there had been something he’d refused to eat; that wasn’t something he’d ever consider doing now, food was too rare and precious to refuse. He knew the other kids had things they didn’t like, even here at this home, since some of the kids didn’t eat the same meals.

Nothing really turned his stomach or grossed him out; Lana always gave them at least one hot meal a day, breakfast or dinner, and he valued it too much to have ever thought to criticize. It was food, fresh, made for him daily – he wasn’t going to do anything but eat it, as quickly as possible, before it could be taken away. Nothing was ever guaranteed, there was no such thing as a sure thing, and that applied to food too: if they were going to feed him, he was going to eat it and make sure they couldn’t change their minds. It was like human parts of him shut off at mealtimes, he just ate whatever they put on his plate, regardless of what it was, and didn’t stop or look up until it was all gone. He didn’t notice ingredients or colors or tastes or textures or even really temperature. Food was food.

But now… now he thought about it. Did he like one thing more than the others, in the pot roast? What was his ‘favorite’, like Shiro had asked? How did he even go about figuring that out? It was making his head hurt and swim, trying to force new thought patterns.

If you don’t know, that’s okay. It’s okay not to know things.

Maybe he didn’t have to decide right now. Maybe he could think about it. That’s all he had to do. Just think about it, a little. There were no rules against that. That should be alright… right?

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The next time Keith saw Shiro, he wore a notable look of excitement, despite how harried he seemed as he took long strides into the classroom, taking his bookbag off over his head. “Sorry I’m late,” he signed. “I have something for you!”

Keith blinked, surprised, his sandwich halfway to his mouth. His eyes did a quick review of the room, and found no one else there but the teacher. Carefully, he set his sandwich back in his lunchbox, wiped his hands on his pants, and signed shyly, “It’s fine.”

Shiro beamed at him, looking breathless from the rush over and maybe excitement as he took his usual seat across from Keith. Seeing Shiro’s pleasure at the short little sign tempered Keith’s anxiety over risking it, even in a practically empty classroom. Made it worthwhile.

“Do you have any allergies – A-L-L-E-R-G-I-E-S?” Shiro asked, seemingly out of the blue, keeping his satchel in his lap.

Keith blinked, still not sure he understood. “A-L-L-E-R-G-I-E-S…?” He double-checked, unprepared for the question and not sure how to reply. He felt a little guilty and a lot stupid for making Shiro sit through his abysmally slow spelling and especially reiterating the question. What did allergies have to do with anything? Was there a trip planned for a hike, or a farm…?

“Yeah, to foods. Like nuts, or strawberries…?” He explained.

Keith nodded. “Milk,” he signed, with a frown, and Shiro seemed to find his expression, at least, amusing.

“Perfect. Here,” he reached into his bookbag and retrieved two plastic-wrapped corner store pastries, neither of which looked to have frosting at all. “Pick one, there was a sale so I bought two. I have to find something on my phone for you.” He waggled his phone, then looked away, his attention on his screen as he scrolled.

Keith narrowed his eyes, not trusting the choice laid out before him or Shiro’s nonchalant attitude as he seemingly ignored him. It still felt like a test, like there was a wrong answer – like something as simple as choosing a danish would have consequences he wouldn’t understand until it was too late.

He looked over both, but neither of them stood out; one was honey, and the other cinnamon. Shiro hadn’t given any indication of which he himself wanted, or which he wanted Keith to take. Should he turn it down? He had his own lunch, after all, and maybe that was the choice he was supposed to make. Maybe he was supposed to not seem greedy, maybe he should prove he was grateful for what he already had, was that it? A third option?

Keith shot a glance up at the front of the classroom, not sure if he was looking for reassurance or secrecy. Ms. Noel was still grading papers, her attention on her desk. She couldn’t help him or she wouldn’t see him. Whatever choice he made, he needed to make it quick; just bite the bullet. There wouldn’t be anyone coming to his rescue if he made the wrong choice.

Trying not to draw any attention to himself, Keith kept his eyes on Shiro and crept his hand over to the honey danish, gently touching the cellophane wrapper. It made a noise, or maybe Shiro saw him in his periphery because he glanced up, took in the tableau of Keith frozen and tensed with his fingertips on the honey danish, and gave Keith a distracted smile before reaching for the remaining danish and unwrapping it.

Keith wasn’t sure what had just happened, but whatever it was, Shiro didn’t seem interested in the outcome. He didn’t seem to take notice of Keith’s choice at all. Was that normal – was that supposed to be normal? Did people do that? Had he made the right choice…? It was a relief to know he hadn’t done something wrong, at least, but confusion rose in the anxiety’s wake.

“Thank you,” Keith tried, the sign as small and shuttered as his others, and Shiro’s next smile was warmer.

“You’re welcome. Okay, I found it,” Shiro replied, scooting his chair around so that it was adjacent to Keith’s desk, allowing them to both watch Shiro’s screen. He pressed play on a video, and the camera focused on Shiro in plainclothes, his yellow snake in his arms and one hand. “Hi, Keith! This is Peels. Say hi, Peels!” Shiro used the snake’s tail to make a quick salute by it’s face, and the snake’s tongue snapped out, as if blowing a kiss or a raspberry. Shiro visibly laughed, and waved goodbye, the snake’s tail wrapped around his hand, as if waving goodbye too.

Keith’s heart flipped unexpectedly and uncomfortably. He wanted to watch it again. And again and again and again. He’d rarely ever seen his name signed, and never signed like that; with joy, with excitement. He could still picture it in his mind, repeating on loop, the graceful follow-through of Shiro going from letter to letter, close to his chest, a smile on his face. Keith. Keith. Keith. He didn’t sign it slowly, or facing away from him, or up high the way he was used to – someone merely showing him how his name should look, instructing, dispassionate. Shiro signed it like it was familiar - like he’d done it hundreds of times.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had said his name – the last time he’d been able to hear it. But for the first time in a long time, seeing Shiro sign it, it felt like his name again instead of a jumble of assigned letters. It made his name real again – made him, feel real again.

Keith rolled his lips in, and felt his body shrink in an attempt to contain whatever was happening inside him, whatever this horrible, beautiful feeling was that made him swallow hard. His ankles crossed and his knees met, his hands between them, as he struggled to figure out how to react, what to say.

Shiro had gone home, where Keith didn’t exist and didn’t matter, and thought of him anyway. He’d taken time he could have used on anyone or anything else, and instead had made a 30 second video just for him. He’d saved it on his phone to show Keith, because he planned to see him again, and wanted him to see it.

Keith existed to Shiro. He didn’t disappear when he wasn’t physically there, he wasn’t swallowed up by other, better things; other, better people. Keith was real in a way he hadn’t been in a long time.

After a full minute of Keith rolled in on himself like a pillbug, eyes glued to the screen, Shiro’s face fell. “Is that okay?” He finally asked, setting the phone on the desk. “That I made a video for you?”

Keith nodded a little more emphatically than he’d intended to, tearing his eyes up to Shiro’s face. “Yes. I like it,” he signed. “It’s good, I like it.” He hesitated, gaze tracking back to the video. “… again?”

Shiro’s smile slowly bloomed back into being and he nodded, pushing the phone across the desk and into Keith’s space, letting him press play as many times as he liked, lunch forgotten.

After a couple minutes, Shiro tapped the desk beside the phone. “You really like Peels, huh?” He asked. “He’s cute, right?”

Keith nodded more ponderously this time. “Yes,” he signed. “I like him.” He hesitated, then continued, truthfully. “I like seeing my name.”

Shiro’s gentle gaze turned sad, but he didn’t ask, didn’t pry. Maybe he sensed it was a sensitive topic, maybe just the statement alone made it clear that there wasn’t a happy story there. Instead he signed, “It’s a beautiful name, Keith.”

Keith couldn’t contain the smile that welled up, seeing Shiro sign it in person.

“I’m glad you liked it. I’ll have to make a lot more,” Shiro promised. “I can’t stay today. I have a class.” He rolled his eyes, already getting up and pocketing his phone, taking up his danish and slinging his satchel back over his shoulder. Keith was actually sad to see him go.

“Okay. Thank you for the video. I liked it,” Keith reiterated.

“No problem,” Shiro signed dismissively. “See you later!”

“See you later,” Keith replied, albeit more shyly. Just in the nick of time, too, as the lights flashed overhead to signal the end of lunch and the return of his classmates.

Shiro smiled, seemingly just for him, and headed out, stopping only to briefly converse with the teacher. As Keith started to pack up his leftover lunch and his gifted honey bun, he realized his whiteboard had been under his lunchbox for the duration of Shiro’s visit.

He’d had a conversation without hearing or writing for the first time in his life. It felt like a concession, like caving, like giving in – but something else made it feel like a breakthrough, a success, too.

Chapter Text

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.