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Keep On Rising (Until The Sky Knows Your Name)

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"The poor dear is in her bunk," The matron says with a sad smile. "We've considered moving her to one of our rooms for the time being," She continues, handing him a mug of tea. It's far too strong for his tastes, but he is certain the caretakers here need the added fortitude. He sips at it politely, trying not to grimace at the taste. "Barely comes out for meals, only when someone forces her - and she hides half of what we give her." She frowns. "Every sound she hears makes her jump. Miss Evanliegh found her under her bed after a nightmare, whimpering about Fallen-" She notices he's made a bit of a dent in his tea, pulls the mug from his hand with a surprising amount of force, and tops it off before he can stop her. "Commander, it's probably best if you didn't visit with her."

Zavala nods, trusting her expertise. It's his only free day this cycle. Like his peers, he too had activities - civic duties - he saw to in his downtime. Some, like Cayde, chose a preorganized activity to oversee - he's made it a point to ruin any and all pick-up sports in the city as of late. Meanwhile, Zavala prefers spending his time in the City's many orphanages.

But not just any of them. He focuses on the ones not backed by factions or philanthropists. The ones that children get sent to when they turn up in the Last Safe City unclaimed, when they turn up on the streets without any ties to a community or place. The latter is far more common: the number of refugees has declined in recent years, and the number of orphaned children is very slight. In fact, it's been nearly a century since an orphaned child had made it to the City from beyond the walls. Most of the children here were born on the streets in the slums, found by kind-hearted people ill-equipped to take care of them. 

He nods, only half listening to the matron's babbling. Karena, the head housemother, was clearly moved by this child's misfortune. "....they found was toppled over miles away… that she'd walked so far was quite remarkable."

The mug stops halfway to his mouth. "What?"

"Didn't you know?" She turns back to the kettle on the counter, but she rinses it out instead of pouring him more. He says a silent prayer of thanks to the Traveler. "She was the only one of her group to survive. One of your fireteams found the convoy miles back. Looks like they'd been without food for some time, probably fed the girl whatever they could. Never would've stood a chance against the Fallen, rest their souls…" She tsks.

The Commander pushes back his mug and looks to the red and white blanket folded up beside him, patting it once with a firm hand. There is a gravity to his downturned gaze. "It would be for the best if you gave this to her," He admits. "If there is anything I can do…"

"Oh, no, never you mind, Commander." She waves a hand, giving him a gentle smile. "She'll be alright. It just takes a gentle touch."

-/

The children are always happy to see him. Places like these don't often get visitors, especially not the kind that don't require them to market themselves to a prospective adopter. They get to run and holler and simply be, some choosing to follow him around like lost ducklings, others content to wave in a greeting and carry on independently.

Of course, of all the times he's come here, the biggest event of the day is always supper. Even the most standoffish of children fight to sit beside him at the table. Today is no exception.

So, instead of sitting in one place for the duration of the meal, he moves around, making sure to spend time with each of them. Most of the time it involves mild babysitting, making sure no one is stealing anyone else's desert or lobbing unwanted vegetables at their dorm-mates when they think he isn't looking.

If he's to be honest, it's hardly different from Consensus meetings. And the company is far more tolerable, for the most part.

When he's almost to the end of the table, toward the end of the meal, there is a sound, a thump above them like something's fallen to the floor, a muffled scream. Then, more footsteps, like a herd of elephants descending the stairs. One of the caretakers, a man who had been off in the kitchen, sets after them, already yelling.

"We were looking for Hilda," One of the boys responds, defensive without being prompted. "We didn't know she was in there."

The housefather puts both hands on his hips. "You didn't know," He says with a shake of his head. "She's been in the same room since she's got here, and you all visited Hilda in the infirmary this morning." He sighs. "Karena is with her now. She won't like it when I tell her about this."

The three boys pale. The housefather turns them around, ushering them towards the kitchen. "I was going to bring her dinner," He sighs, "But it will have to wait. The three of you will sit with me in the kitchen until the head matron returns. We will be having a discussion about this."

A chorus of downtrodden groans meets him in reply, but the caretaker does not relent. Instances like this were quite common in places like this. Among children in general, really.

The Commander rises from his current seat at the end of the table when the meal recommences, the children quick to discuss the boys' impending punishment and their disdain of the new girl who gets every meal brought up to her. He strides from the dining area to the industrial kitchen, fixing the unruly children with a look he'd too often given a wayward Hunter.

The housefather turns to him immediately, looking a bit surprised to see him there. "Commander, do you need something?"

"You said you were planning on bringing her a meal?"

"I was, but I doubt she'll eat now," He too gives a withering glare toward the children. "It's alright. I'll take her up something a bit later." He rubs the back of his head. "We usually leave it on the dresser. She, uh, doesn't really engage with us."

One of the children sitting at the kitchen counter comments loudly, “Even Miss Karena is fed up with it. I heard her! And she’s been doing this for a million billion years!"

The smooth baritone of the Commander cuts through the exasperated commentary. "I don't mind.”

“Well, she hasn’t eaten all day, that I know of.” The man turns back to the counter, producing a plate with a cover to keep it warm. “If you really don’t-”

“Of course not.”

“Second floor. Third door, on the right,” He hands the Titan the plate on a tray, with a juice-box and cutlery. “Don’t be surprised if you frighten her. It’s not you, she’s just-”

He nods, solemn. “Karena told me.”

“You have my thanks.” With that sorted, the worker regards his charges. “These three will have to wait for their assignment from Miss Karena. Since our new addition is feeling a bit shy, I think we’ll be writing our apologies, wouldn’t you say?”

Their childish grumbling is loud enough for him to hear all the way up the stairs. 

-/

He makes sure to step both lightly but not silently as he approaches the room. With the back of his index and middle fingers, he raps his knuckles gently against the door. After a moment of balancing the tray in a single hand, long enough to hear the sound of rustling on the other side of the door, he edges it open just a small amount.

At this point he realizes that he does not know the child's name. Not that it matters. He steps into the room, leading with the tray. The orphanage has nearly identical rooms for all it's inhabitants. Bunk beds in one corner of the room and twin dressers against the opposite wall. One half of the room is decorated in a child's drawings: some taped to the ceiling and walls by the top bunk. One dresser has a small pile of books and a few plush animals on it.

It doesn't take much to recognize that the more lived-in part of the room belongs to the girl in the infirmary. He sets down the tray atop the empty dresser, casually wondering aloud if she'll be able to reach it.

He goes unanswered. The lower bed she occupies creaks - it's very old - as the child presses herself back against the far corner, all but wedged against the wall in a trembling heap of blankets. He notes with a small sense of pride that the one he'd made - the one he gave to every child upon their arrival - is on top, little fingers threaded between the stitches.

Beach-glass eyes, a kind of green similar to a stormy sea, watch him in wary resignation. When he turns toward her, tray still in his hands, she whimpers and draws the covers around herself further, pressing herself against the corner where the frame meets the wall.

"It's alright," He murmurs, careful not to make eye contact, lest he scare her more. "I just wanted to make sure you could reach your supper."

Against her will, her stomach gurgles loudly. She flushes but doesn't make a move for the tray. 

Zavala does his best not to sigh, instead lifting the lid designed to keep the plate hot, moving it away. At first he's surprised about the small portion she's been given, but remembers what the matron had said, about her party suffering from starvation. Though she has the blankets pulled up to her face, he can see the dark circles under her eyes, the gaunt lines of a child who knows hunger far too intimately. It makes his chest ache with an overwhelming sadness.

He reaches for the small juicebox next, looking away, pretending to be disinterested.

She reaches out, snatching the small dinner roll next to a tiny helping of stew, pulling it into her chest, into the relative safety of her nest of blankets. Wide, fearful eyes meet his when he looks back, blinking in surprise, as if his incredible sense of awareness hadn't allowed him to witness the whole thing.

The child blinks back blankly. Panic, an array of mixed fight-or-flight synapses all firing at once... a paralyzing terror is etched into her very being. Though she trembles with it, she does not cry. He smiles at her, a small thing, mostly with his eyes, taking a knee beside the far edge of the bed.

"It's alright to be afraid," Zavala intones, very gently. "This is all very new. There are so many dangers, outside the walls-" She makes a squeak and the Commander immediately shifts gears, "But you are here now. You will be safe in this City. I promise."

She squeezes her eyes shut at that, shaking her head in a tiny negative.

"No?"

For the first time in a long time, his words bring no comfort. None of his attempts to soothe her work, and her dinner is long since gone cold when he takes his leave (though he can tell by her distrust, she won't touch it). It physically pains him to shut the door behind him, to hear the child finally sob brokenly to herself, muffled by blankets, unable to be consoled for anything.

The matron pats his shoulder when she walks him out. "You have a kind heart, Commander. Don't take it too personally. She'll come around."

-/

He doesn't make it back to the orphanage until the fall. It's been nearly three months since his previous visit, and the children are beside themselves, vying for his attention. Three of them have been adopted, another two have gone off, applying for their own housing now that they've grown old enough to secure jobs.

The entire time, he watches for a hint of the little girl from his previous visit. The child had weighed heavily on his mind, even months later. He'd looked into what happened, read the report from the Fireteam that happened on the little girl miles from the overturned vehicle ransacked by the Fallen. Things like these always hit close to home, for reasons he never quite fathomed.

Much later in the day, following an early supper (and the usual carrying on that came with it), he catches sight of a shadow on the staircase that leads to the dormitories. He's reading a book to several of the youngest children, all of whom fight over who gets to turn the page for him. When he looks back again, it's gone.

He says his goodbyes to the houseparents, thanking them, as always, for their dedication to providing a healthy environment for the children. He almost doesn't recognize her, fidgeting slightly, fingers curled around the trim of the door frame.

The caretakers look surprised, all of them watching her carefully. Karena dutifully crouches down half way, looking at her maternally.

"Yes dear, what is it?"

Those eyes find him instead of answering. In the light, he can see how they're almost as blue as they are green. She looks nervous, but not terrified. "I jus'," The girl steps into the room, carefully, making a complete sweep of it with her eyes to assess for danger before continuing. "Jus’ wanted ta' say thank you," She drawls. Her cheeks turn pink, highlighting a sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. "Fer' the blanket."

Karena keeps the surprise from her face, but her cohorts are not nearly as reserved.

He turns slowly toward her and crouches down so that he's only a little taller than she is. "You are very welcome…" He tilts his head, still, after all this time, not knowing her name. It had never made it into the strike reports.

"Amanda," She whispers bashfully. "Amanda Holliday."

The smile he gives her makes her gasp, his bright irises almost twinkling as he regards her. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I am Zavala."

She toes the edges between floorboards with a worn boot. "They say yer in charge ‘round here. ‘N the City," She finishes, between nervous and maybe awed.

He chuckles. "Is that so?"

Amanda nods, looking down.

Despite flinching, she doesn't shrink back when he puts a hand on her head, ruffling her blonde hair. "Next time I come by, I hope you'll visit with me."

"I c'n do that," She whispers.

His voice is warm, and when he withdraws she looks up, almost conflicted. Upset that he'd withdrawn contact. "Good," He tells her. "I look forward to it."