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To You, I Will Always Return

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He paced along the fence, arm held across his middle as he watched the trailer being unloaded. Shiro reared up every so often, desperate to see the new arrivals, and wilted when they finished unloading. Only three newcomers, none of which Shiro knew. 

Centaurs were a commodity amongst humans, used for work or sold to wealthy families to entertain their children. If only they knew how the centaurs came into their lives, plucked from their homelands and corralled into cramped pens to be sold to greedy humans. Shiro, because of his size, was unfortunate enough to be bought as a worker, treated like an animal, abused. He lost his arm because of it. 

His saving grace was a kind human, a woman named Allura, and her husband, Lance. They bought him from a slaughter auction, healed his wounds, cleaned him up, fed him, and gave him free roam on Altea Ranch. Allura and Lance told him that Altea was just one sector of the many ranches her father owned, called The Coalition. Altea was the main hub, rehabilitating injured centaurs and giving them a choice to stay or be moved to another ranch. All the branches were set on very, very large plots of land where herds could reunite and live freely. Shiro opted to stay at Altea, begging them to find his mate. 

"I won't promise anything, Shiro. That would be unfair. But we will try our best to find Keith, alright?" Allura was honest, at least.

 

Shiro sighed, trotting back to his favorite spot near the river that ran through the ranch. He wouldn't admit it, but he was starting to lose hope. He and Keith were separated when they were first captured, and Shiro had no idea what his love's fate was. He didn't look up at the familiar sound of Lance's ATV, as he called it. The human stopped when he was close enough, carrying a small basket. 

 

"Hey, big guy. How you holding up?" Lance set the basket in front of Shiro, but he didn't know if he had an appetite. 

 

"I'm...managing.." was his soft reply, praying Lance couldn't hear the hopelessness in his voice.

 

"I'm sorry, Shiro. We- we didn't find him yet." Lance sat next to him, patting Shiro's flank gently. "But, we will. We promise, we won't stop looking." 

 

"I- I know, I know there is a system to how things are done. I just-" Shiro's breath shook on his exhale. "I miss him..."

 

Shiro, apparently, was a special case for the ranch. He had become sort of a leader after he had recovered enough to explore the area. He cheered up the newcomers, and explained how things worked. He was happy to do it, he loved seeing herds reunited. Though, there were the sad cases. Families torn apart, loved ones succumbing to their wounds. Allura and Lance try their best to provide some sort of comfort to those who won't make it, keep them as comfortable as possible. Shiro appreciated their care.

 

Keith's father was one of those cases, found too late and too far gone to save. He and Shiro had been sent to the same work farm, and he had promised Tex that he would make sure Keith was found and safe. He felt like a failure.

 

Shiro watched the stars that night, still laying near the river. He yearned to find Keith, but he couldn't do it on his own without getting caught again. He looked up at the sound of hooves galloping towards him to see Matt and Pidge, siblings, lucky to have been born here on the ranch. Shiro had envied them, at first, but they were perceptive, and didn't use their fortune to belittle him or others. In fact, they had both helped immensely in his recovery. 

 

They must have known the look on Shiro's face, because they didn't say a word as they laid with him. Pidge idly brushed the feathering on his legs with her fingers while Matt braided his tail. Shiro didn't know how they knew it calmed them, but they claimed it to be intuitive. They fell asleep like this, huddled together under the stars.

 

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Shiro continued to watch every trailer that came back to the ranch, as he had been doing for the past two years. He pawed at the ground, wilting further. 

 

"I...don't think I can do this anymore, Matt..." Shiro lowered his head, letting his hair fall over his face.

 

"Don't say that, Shiro. Lance and Allura are doing everything they can." Matt kept his voice gentle, and coaxed Shiro away from the fence. "Come on, your hair needs trimmed." 

 

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He stumbled down the chute, trying to use the gates at his sides to support his trembling body. A rough yank on his reins almost sent him to the ground, but he caught himself before he fell. He couldn't fall again, they would take him somewhere else, away from Hunk. 

 

The leather harness keeping his arms behind him was too tight, rubbed against his skin, but the humans didn't care, they never cared. Two years of being over worked and beaten took its toll on Keith, his fire that had gotten him through most of it was almost gone and he was sure that his next prison would extinguish what was left. They crowded him into a pen, leading Hunk in behind him. The larger centaur huffed at the humans before pressing in gently against Keith. 

 

"You holding up ok, little buddy?"

 

Keith couldn't answer, the bit in his mouth preventing him from speaking. He wasn't sure how long it had on, the human refused to take it off, and it made eating difficult. Keith simply leaned into Hunk for support, his legs starting to shake. 

 

"I figured, buddy. We'll be alright. They won't hurt you." Hunk carefully nudged him with a hoof, urging Keith to lay. He couldn't, not now. He might not get up again. Hunk moved more in front of him when they heard the doors open, and humans started filing into the barn. They must have stopped in front of their gate, because Hunk huffed and stomped his hooves into the concrete. 

 

"It's ok, you're safe now." A female's voice, Keith was sure, but he swayed again and almost collapsed into Hunk.

 

"If you're taking me, you're taking my friend too." Hunk sneered at them, but he lost the venom in his voice when he saw a smaller centaur with the humans. 

 

"We're taking the whole barn." She opened the gate, but didn't enter. "I'm Pidge, are you hurt?"

 

Hunk blinked, wilting even as he tugged on his harness. "I- I'm alright. But- but my friend-" He moved to reveal Keith just as he collapsed. Pidge reared back a little in shock, calling for help and moving when Allura and Lance came running. 

 

"What the- Hunk? Is that you-" Lance started, but paled at the sight of Keith. "Oh, fuck-" 

 

"Lance, call ahead to Coran, get the medical barn ready asap. Griffin, Kinkade, help us out here." Allura was quick to remove Hunk's harness before moving to Keith. "Do you know his name?"

 

"No- no he, they always kept the bit on when I saw him..." Hunk rolled his shoulders, wincing when his joints popped. "How can I help?" 

 

Allura carefully undid the harness and bit, hissing in sympathy at the wounds dug into Keith's skin. "Is he close to you...?"

 

"My name's Hunk, and, I guess? He couldn't communicate. Is- is he gonna make it?" Hunk moved out of the way when more humans appeared with a cloth to lift the fallen centaur. 

 

"We're going to do everything we can for him. But, I would like you to stay with him, if you're ok with that."

 

"Yeah. Yeah, of course." 

 

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Shiro flexed his new arm, raising an eyebrow at how much it felt like his flesh arm. 

 

"State of the art, won't rust, weather proof, and durable." Slav stood, putting his tools away as he prattled on, and Shiro rolled his eyes. He looked towards the main gate, pawing at the ground. The trailers hadn't returned yet, and it was almost sunrise. They had left at nightfall, Matt mentioning something about a raid? Shiro wasn't paying attention when Matt was talking about it.

 

The sun peeked over the mountains when the trailers finally returned, and Shiro didn't pace along the fence this time. Two years of hoping and waiting was finally taking its toll. He went to go to his spot by the river, but a trailer going to the medical barn caught his eye.

 

It peaked his interest, and his worry. There hasn't been immediate need of that barn in a long while, meaning he may be needed for support. Shiro trotted closer to that side of the fence, trying to get a look at what was going on. They backed the trailer right into the barn, which made Shiro frown. Pidge eventually came out, trotting to the gate when Shiro walked out of it. 

 

"Pidge? What's wrong?" Shiro frowned. She was trembling, visibly upset. 

 

"I- fuck, Shiro, he's- stars he looks so bad..." she glanced back at the barn, stomping her hoof. "I don't understand humans, Shiro. Why do they do things like this? Why aren't they all like the ones here?" 

 

Shiro pulled her close, guiding her away from the barn. "I...I don't know, Pidge...I can't answer that."

 

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Keith groaned as he woke up, feeling warm, which confused him. He hadn't been this warm in two years- 

 

"Little buddy?" A soft voice next to him made Keith crack his eyes open, and he saw Hunk laying next to him when his vision cleared.

 

"Hey, you had me worried there." Hunk smiled at him, but it faltered. "That stuff they gave you works fast, you almost- you almost died on me." 

 

Keith frowned, but Hunk continued. "You don't have to say anything, no pressure, ok? I know you've had that bit in for a long time." He shifted closer to Keith, looking him over. 

 

"I'm sorry, bud, I didn't realize how bad off you were...those humans bought the whole barn, ya know. We're at Altea Ranch." Keith blinked once, just to let Hunk know he was listening. He wasn't sure if he had the energy to speak, anyway. 

 

"I'm gonna go tell them you're awake, ok? You need looked at, but they wanted to wait until you knew what they were gonna do." Hunk got up carefully, moving a blanket back over Keith before he left the stall.

 

He must have dozed off again, jumping a little when the stall door opened. A human knelt near his side, a woman with a kind face and a warm smile. 

 

"I'm glad you're awake. We're going to help you walk, ok? Does a wash and a hoof trim sound good?"

 

That, sounded amazing. When was the last time he was actually clean? Or had his hooves properly trimmed? He gave her a weak nod, and she moved enough for a few other humans to walk in with a large cloth. 

 

"We're going to put this under you, and help you stand and walk. You're very weak right now, but we'll get you feeling better." She smiled again, helping the other humans roll him over enough to get the cloth under him. 

 

"My name is Allura. Can you tell me yours?" 

 

Keith didn't want to, not yet. His name was all he had left. His silence wasn't met with harsh touches or words, only a tender smile and a soft hand on his sunken cheek. 

 

"It's ok, you can tell me when you're ready, or never. That's up to you."

 

They moved him like he weighed nothing, and he supposed he practically did weigh nothing now. The humans moved slow, with Allura and another human supporting his upper body. The room they took him to was, odd. Concrete floor, sterile looking. They moved him into a rack like contraption, tying the cloth to the four poles and letting his elbows rest on the flat, padded surface at the front of it. Stars, he was winded. Even with the help walking, he already felt exhausted. Keith didn't flinch when the water was turned on, a gentle spray that felt amazing on his skin.

 

"Oh my, you have been put through the ringer, haven't you?" A human with orange hair looked Keith over, slowly lifting his hooves and tsking at the state of them. He started to tremble as they cleaned him up, waiting for it to turn into pain like it always had. It never came, even as Allura carefully washed his hair and face. 

 

"That damned bit cut into your face.." her brow knitted together, a deep frown settling in. "You'll never have to wear one again, ok? Nor a harness. You're free." 

 

Keith wasn't sure if he believed her yet, but for now he could let himself enjoy this while it lasted. 

 

"It's sunny outside, and I bet some sunshine would feel great, yeah?" The man patted his flank. "My name is Coran, by the way."

 

They helped him walk outside, to another rack. He heard Coran fiddling with something before he sat next to Keith's front hoof, lifting it slowly and resting it on a padded base. 

 

"Overgrown." He tsked again, and Keith heard a clipping sound. "Once we get your hooves where they should be, walking will be less painful." 

 

Keith tuned him out, letting his head rest against a pillow like surface as Coran worked. The sun felt so good on his back. Wherever this ranch was, the air was fresh and clean. He opened his eyes when he heard hoof beats coming closer.

 

"Hey, little buddy!" Hunk beamed at him, a smaller centaur next to him and a human on his back. "Pidge and I brought you some food and a water pouch." 

 

"Hey, I helped too!" The human pouted, sliding off of Hunk's back. 

 

"Yeah, Lance helped too. But how are you feeling?"

 

Keith huffed, but didn't say anything. He didn't feel hungry, but as much as the humans were fussing over his ribs, he figured he should eat. The small centaur, Pidge, moved closer and held a pouch with a straw to his lips. 

 

"Don't drink too fast, ok?" She smiled at him. "If you want, I can braid your hair. I'm kinda good at it, I braid Shiro's hair all the time-" A sharp inhale from Keith made her pause, and she blinked at the wide eyed look he was giving her. A soft, broken voice made Pidge's eyes widen. 

 

"Sh....Shiro..?"

 

"You know Shiro?" Pidge leaned in closer. 

 

"Sh- Shiro..? H..he's he-re?" His voice kept breaking, throat raw from disuse. He didn't care about the thick tears that started rolling down his face. He wanted to find Shiro, he needed Shiro.

 

"Whoa, hey, it's ok-" Pidge tried to get his attention again, but he started struggling to get out of the rack, kicking at the poles and gate weakly. He tried to call out for Shiro, his voice cracking and fading in and out of breathy syllables and harsh sobs.

 

Pidge was at a loss, trying to cup his face and calm him down. He kept backing into the gate, his hooves slipping out from under him as he cried for Shiro and pushed on the front gate of the rack. Her eyebrows shot up when something clicked. 

 

"Are- Hunk, try to calm him down, I'll be back." Pidge took off at a full gallop, leaving a confused Hunk to deal with his unnamed friend. She found Shiro walking with Matt along the river. 

 

"Shiro!" Pidge skidded to a stop, grabbing on his arm and tugging backwards.

 

"Pidge? Hey, wait-" Shiro huffed, refusing to budge. "What's wrong?" 

 

"We need you at the med barn, now. Like, right now."

 

"Why? What happened?" Shiro started to follow her, but she moved behind him and started to push. 

 

"Look, I don't want to get your hopes up, but- I think we- I think- just, go!" Pidge readed back and used her front hooves to push on his backside, getting aggravated.

 

Shiro grumbled, looking back at her and frowning. "What-" 

 

"I think we found Keith!" Pidge kicked at him, not hard enough to injure. "Just- fucking come on!" Shiro froze, eyes wide as he looked towards the barns. 

 

"You....what?"

 

He didn't wait for her impatient reply, bolting as fast as he could towards the barns. The siblings galloped after him, yelling about the gate not being open. Shiro didn't care, his heart leaping into his throat when the hoof trimming rack came into view and- 

 

"KEITH!"

 

Shiro cleared the fence in a single jump, everyone around the rack scattering out of his way and he barreled towards them. 

 

"Keith!" Shiro's heart shattered at the state Keith was in. Weak, thin arms reaching for him. 

 

"Sh-Shiro..!" Keith's voice broke again, sending him into a coughing fit and another quiet wail. 

 

"Oh, starburst..." Shiro started to cry, getting as close as the gate would let him and pressing kisses to Keith's face. "My love, sunshine, starlight..." Weak hands petted against Shiro's chest, trying to find a grip. Shiro's flesh hand found Keith's, gathering them both up and holding them to his chest. 

 

"Baby...look what they've done to you..." Keith trembled, sobbing into Shiro's shoulder, still kicking at the gate. 

 

"Keith, don't kick the gate. Please? You'll hurt yourself.." Shiro kissed him again, nuzzling his face to the top of Keith's head. "Let- let Coran do what he needs to do-" 

 

"Don'- don't leave...please- please don't go-" Keith pleaded, his sobs quieting down the more exhausted he became. 

 

"I'm not going anywhere, sunbeam. I'm not leaving." Shiro held him as Coran finished with his hooves, trimmed the feathering, cleaned and wrapped Keith's wounds. Keith was half asleep by the time they were done, and Shiro almost didn't have the heart to wake him. He looked to Hunk as they got ready to move Keith, but Hunk smiled and spoke first. 

 

"I can catch up with him later. Take as much time as you need. And don't thank me, he helped me too when he could." 

 

Shiro nodded, and followed them back to the stall. He laid down and settled himself before they brought Keith in.

 

"He has a long way to go, Shiro, but I think he'll be alright." Allura smiled at them while Coran hooked Keith up to fluids. The silence was welcoming when they were finally alone. 

 

"Shiro...?" Keith stirred, looking up at him with bleary eyes.

 

"I'm here, baby, I'm here. We're together again." Shiro kissed his forehead, wrapping his arms around him gently. "Rest, sunbeam. I'll be here when you wake up."