Keith doesn’t have time to ponder why Shiro’s been distant since he came back to life. One day-cycle he’d left the Black Lion and joined Pidge in Green, and nothing more has been said about it. There’s a war going on, and Keith’s back on earth for the first time in years, and it makes sense that Shiro’s too busy to talk about how they feel after that fight. About what Shiro remembers.
(Does he remember? The agony of not knowing keeps Keith up at night. Beseeching Shiro, telling Shiro he loves him; those memories don’t hurt. They’re old news. But Keith broke a rib in that fight, and his bruises took a long time to heal. Every time he inhaled too quickly — he was right back on that disintegrating platform, stuck in the middle of a vision he’d spent two years trying to pick apart.)
Things get worse after they make it back to Earth. Keith doesn’t have fond memories of the place, and life at the Garrison is even harder the second time around. Keith doesn’t have a place here and his skin crawls at the thought of putting cadet orange back on; he puts it off, and puts it off, and it doesn’t matter even when Sanda corners him in the hallway and yells at him to show some respect. There’s not a lot she can do to make Keith obey her; he’s the leader of Voltron.
Most of his energy is directed towards making sure his team gets the support they need — Shiro helps, his rank has been reinstated and then some, and the brass listens to him, but that means he spends most of his time in meetings. Keith resents this; he saw how they tied Shiro down and injected him with sedatives, like a wild animal. But Shiro’s not talking to him, so Keith dedicates himself to pacing the halls, making sure the paladins have things like rations and bedding and designated quarters. Keith’s the one offering a shoulder to cry on (Hunk) or making a rudimentary board game to help pass the time (Lance is teaching Allura how to play mancala; it’s Keith’s job to find shrapnel and pebbles that are the right size. Lance has exacting requirements and a flipping color palette).
Of all of them, Keith’s least worried about Pidge. Pidge doesn’t want but could probably use a good dose of mothering, because Pidge forgets to eat and sleep on a schedule. They went a little feral in space; it suits them.
Keith can’t talk to them about that, because he’s not exactly a shining example. It’s better to leave that to the professionals — in this case, Pidge’s parents, who dote upon them with copious amounts of affection and support and shared lab space. It gets the job done.
As the Paladins settle and the war just drags on, Keith spends more time alone. He gives in to the low, monotonous anxiety of knowing that the war will come to him, and accepts that he’ll do whatever it takes to end it. He doesn’t love that ending the war might well end him, and he’s terrified of knowing he might lead the paladins to their own deaths. If his mother were in the same solar system he might talk to her about it; Krolia knows this feeling, has lived through it. She wears it draped around her shoulders in the same way Keith’s father sometimes wore an old cardigan when it got cold at night: a concession, not a burden.
In her absence, Keith thinks often and wretchedly of talking to Shiro, Shiro, who had the audacity to want this for Keith — but it’s no use being hurt. Shiro hadn’t wanted this responsibility when it had been his weight to carry, and now Shiro has an even bigger weight. A whole future he never planned on! No wonder he’s absent from the Paladins of Voltron. Shiro in the Atlas is a young god, bright with potential. They’re all going to run themselves into the ground if they follow his example, so it’s up to Keith to — he doesn’t know.
Keith’s never seen the point in complaining about his lot in life, and anyways. Shiro must trust Keith, to give him this burden. It’s a gift. There are so many strings attached.
When the wormhole opens — Allura and Pidge and Hunk have been experimenting, seeing if they can develop some kind of stopgap, if only for transporting civilians to a nebulous safe zone — Keith’s the only one who recognizes the significance of the child who appears.
He and Shiro never talked about the clone facility with the others. Keith didn’t feel like it was his place to say anything, and Shiro — Keith doesn’t know what Shiro remembers.
So it’s just Keith who knows the shape of the vat that the baby’s housed in, the jagged text inscribed at the base: it’s Shiro’s name, transliterated into Galra, and a lot number. It’s Shiro, or a clone of him: Shiro in potentiality. Really, he looks like any baby, fat and glossy-haired, innocuous with sleep.
When the others wonder what to do with the baby — Allura suggests calling the medical research facility, Hunk advocates for finding a refugee family to foster him — Keith surprises himself by stepping forward.
“I’ll take him,” he says. “That’s Galran written at the base, maybe — maybe he’s a half-breed, like me.” Unsaid: Keith will never send a child to the Garrison’s medical facility, especially not in the middle of a war.
Pidge looks at Keith for a long minute, light glinting dramatically off of their spectacles. Keith’s not sure why they still wear them.
“You know,” Pidge says, “I think Keith should take care of him. If we call Medical, they’ll probably want to perform experiments. And I don’t know how well some random family will handle a part-Galra baby.”
Pidge knows that Keith can read Galran; they don’t mention it. Keith crouches and disengages the seal on the little vat, and the suspension fluid drains away. According to Pidge’s scanner, the baby is probably four or five months old, too young for teeth but old enough to be weaned. When Keith retrieves him from the pod, the clone flutters its eyes open and makes a little shrieking sound. Keith’s first instinct is to soothe, and he holds the baby close, patting ineffectually at its back. There are tattoos down the baby’s spine, more Galran: a serial number.
“You’ll need a name,” Keith tells the baby. The baby is tacky and wet and doesn’t have any clothes to speak of; Keith strips off his tee shirt, suddenly grateful that he’s so far refused to wear the cadet uniform. He swaddles the baby, a little like how he used to wrap the wolf close to him when the wolf was still small.
“You’re not waiting for him to tell you his name?” Hunk’s joking, in that kind way he has. His broad face is so full of welcome when Keith spares him a glance. It becomes possible for Keith to smile in return.
“Don’t tempt me,” Keith says. He accepts Hunk’s corrections and readjusts his arms around the infant. Keith is too tentative at first, until Hunk demonstrates how to adjust the slope of his spine to accommodate the extra weight. He’s never been so conscious of his hips before, of how his collar bones jut out; what if Keith’s sharp edges hurt the baby? He won’t allow it.
After some debate, Keith settles on “Ryou,” because he remembers Shiro saying once that it means “distant”; the baby’s come a long way, after all.
There’s a brief scramble as they leave the lab; Keith ends up whistling for Kosmo and teleporting, but the baby is a distraction and so they arrive at the Paladin quarters the same time as everyone else; there’s a little common room nearby, probably some dead professor’s office that’s had a beanbag chair and a card table thrown into it. Lance is there, playing Patience, and, predictably, is delighted by the baby. He’s also dismayed by Keith’s assumption of responsibility, though not, surprisingly, because he doubts Keith’s abilities as a caregiver.
“We’re in the middle of a war, dude,” Lance says after getting off the communicator with one of his numerous siblings, requisitioning baby supplies. “And no offense, you don’t have the best track record when it comes to, well —”
“You do have an appalling lack of self-regard when you take missions, Keith.” Allura’s a diplomat. She looks kind, kinder than Keith probably deserves, because it’s a fair statement. Knowledge or death.
“Well,” Keith says, awkwardly; there’s a lump in his throat. “I guess I’ll have to be better about that.” It’s a new mission.
Later, he’ll realize it’s that oblique promise that convinces the other Paladins to let him keep the baby.
Lance shows him how to tie the baby into a sling, and Hunk lends Keith an oversized button-down to wear over the contraption. Ryou likes to be carried, which is helpful, because that’s about all Keith does with him. He makes a little bed in his own quarters and is gratified to discover that Ryou is a baby who sleeps through the night (this is unusual, he’s told. Repeatedly. Keith’s anxious enough about raising a child, and the constant foreboding anecdotes people feel compelled to share with him are not helpful. Fortunately, Ryou, at least, seems able to disregard them).
Keith develops a sort of hunched posture, as he goes about his daily work while wearing the baby. Ryou weighs about fifteen pounds, and Keith’s strong, but fifteen pounds gets heavy after a couple of hours. To distract himself, he tries to keep up a flow of chatter — he’s never talked so much in his life, but Lance and Hunk, who both know about babies, assure him that the talking is important. It feels important, even if it feels silly. Keith’s under the impression that silliness might be a quality he’s lacking, but he’s overcome worse obstacles.
Ryou is awake a lot during the day, and he’s so interested in whatever comes out of Keith’s mouth. He’s constantly putting his little hands on Keith’s face, trying to bump noses (bumping noses is Ryou’s favorite thing; it makes him laugh and laugh). He’s at an age where (apparently) he’s figured out how to scream, and the sound delights him; anyone else in the immediate vicinity, not so much.
Keith loves Ryou right away. He’s not surprised; Ryou is Shiro, after all, and Keith has loved Shiro for a long time, in myriad ways. But this is an easier love, one that doesn’t hurt. It’s easier than anything has ever been before. Keith remembers this part, at least from the opposite end, when he was small and all he wanted was a kind word, a warm body in close proximity. Keith remembers loving his father. He remembers how good it felt to have a father, how he only realized it when his father died.
If Keith can manage it, Ryou will never know what that’s like.
Having a baby around the base is and isn’t good for morale. Keith never makes a formal announcement — it’s not privileged information, but his ability to share intimate details has gone dusty from lack of use. It only takes one meeting where Ryou’s awake and grabbing at Keith’s face, then screaming when he doesn’t get his way, for news to spread. Lance tries to organize a baby shower (“My nephew deserves more than your old tee shirts and a secondhand romper!” meets “Lance, you gave him that romper”) and is only quashed by Hunk and Allura tenderly sitting on him until he shuts up.
“Babies need things, Keith!” Lance sulks.
Right now, Ryou needs a nap but is settling for sucking an angry welt onto Keith’s bicep. “He’s got everything he needs.”
“Keith.” Lance shakes his head in despair; it might be mock-despair, but Keith’s never been good at reading the highs and lows of Lance’s drama. “Buddy. This is your firstborn. You gotta spoil him!”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Pidge offers. They’re designing a completely useless baby monitor; Hunk’s built the guts and now the two of them are arguing about how many cameras they should install in Keith’s room. “Why would you ruin a perfectly nice child?”
“It’s a figure of speech, Pidge.”
“Just sayin’,” Pidge shrugs. “I mean, he could use at least a couple more outfits. You can’t just keep whipping off your shirt every time he’s between laundry.”
“Yeah, you’ll catch a cold,” Hunk says.
“That’s not why,” Pidge says. “He causes gaper’s block in the hangar bays and the MFEs have been whining. Apparently Griffin's not getting the love and attention he’s accustomed to.”
“I’m not sure if I should sympathize with him or be grossed out that people think Keith’s hot,” Lance complains.
“If I let you teach me how to knit,” Allura says, “do you think you could refrain from hysterics?”
“ME?! Have hysterics?! Allura — !”
Keith buries his face in his hands. “Please,” he begs. “Please, stop.”
His team ignores him. Ryou still hasn’t fallen asleep. Finally Kosmo sacrifices the bushy end of his tail to the cause, and Ryou falls asleep gumming at the tip. It’s probably not good for him, but Keith is desperate.
Much as Keith prefers to fly under the radar — he’s never been much for crowds — it turns out that showing up one day with a baby, introducing him as your son, and refusing to elaborate, turns a few heads.
A couple of officers complain that they’ve been separated from their families for years, or that they aren’t allowed to bring their kids or their pets to work; but Keith doesn’t work for the Garrison. That bridge has been burned, and Keith doesn’t have any backup childcare. He’s not even a contractor; he’s not getting paid.
Commander Holt catches on, or maybe Pidge tells him, because he invites Keith to his quarters one night, about two weeks after Ryou shows up.
“Heard you’re a father now,” Commander Holt says when Keith enters. His tone is easy, accepting; he offers a glass of something that looks mildly alcoholic, and Keith, familiar by now with Pidge’s experiments in distillation, refuses.
“Yes,” Keith says, firmly. “He needed a family.”
“Everyone does,” the commander says. “But are you going to share?” He reaches out, elderly and a little imperious. Ryou’s been quiet in his sling, but the prospect of a new person sets him to making grabby baby motions until Keith hands him over. Keith’s protective, but he has limits; besides, he’s been carrying Ryou all day.
“That’s the ticket,” Commander Holt says, settling the baby on his old-man knees. He looks delighted. “Been a while since I held a baby. This is a nice one. Is he sleeping for you?”
“He sleeps. I don’t.”
“Hmm.” Ryou squawks and pats at Commander Holt’s face, and the commander takes a moment to blow a raspberry in response. It’s very eloquent. “Well, that won’t last. Or it will! Colleen and I learned that whenever we thought we had the kids pegged, they’d go and change their minds on how things should be done.”
Keith laughs, reluctantly. “Sounds like Pidge.”
“Sounds like both of them! They get it from both sides. Colleen and I always do like to reevaluate a situation after we get more information.”
“Sir,” Keith says (“Call me Sam!” the commander interrupts). “Why did you call me here?”
Sam Holt doesn’t look away from the baby in order to answer. Keith approves, actually, because counting off little piggies going to market on Ryou’s toes is of the utmost importance.
“—alllll the way home! Have you got any other family nearby, Keith?”
“No,” Keith says. His mom’s off-world with Kolivan and he won’t hear from her for months, even if he manages to send a message through the barrier. He ought to; she should meet her grandson. Then Keith reconsiders: “The other paladins are family, I guess.”
“It takes a village,” Sam tells him “Isn’t that right, Ryou? A whole village — the entire Garrison — because we need to take care of you!”
“Are you … offering to babysit?” This could be promising.
“No. Well, yes, Pidge can share my schedule with you if you need help, of course. But I meant that whatever drew you to this little fellow — ” Sam joggles Ryou around so he’s facing Keith and manipulates one stiff, chubby arm so it looks like the baby is waving at him. Keith smiles automatically and wiggles his fingers in response. “He’s your family, and so are your friends. You’re not alone.”
“I know,” Keith says. He’s just lonely.
After that meeting, people stop bugging him about his little shadow (“your tiny tagalong! The littlest Paladin!”). It’s the new normal: there’s the Black Paladin and his son. That’s nice. Now get back to the business of war.
It’s still the hardest thing Keith has ever done, but for once he doesn’t hate himself at the end of the day.
Keith stopped tracking time long ago. He got mixed up between day and night after he left the Garrison, when he was following the Blue Lion’s call, and like all bad habits, oit gathered momentum. When he was on the castleship, it was a monotonous grind-and-go of inaction and battle, and when he was with the Blades it was just a continuous loop of mission-rest-mission. He didn’t really bother on the whale, either; most of that was Krolia. Keith just kept an eye on how much the wolf grew, and when they needed to eat, and how much stronger he needed to be.
But he gets into the habit now that he’s got a child to look after. Every day, week, hour, and minute has a new revelation: Ryou discovering peekaboo, Ryou finding his toes, Ryou tasting Hunk’s cooking for the first time. Ryou’s first cold and the horrible accompanying stuffy nose. Time is slow now, in a way Keith has never experienced. There’s a sweetness to the minutes, which arch and bend about him, lazy with tedium; and time moves fast, too, in sharp bursts of joy.
Ryou doesn’t seem like he has a lot of needs, except when he does — and then those needs are imperative and urgent. He’s not hungry until he is; he’s dry until he’s wet; he’s healthy until he‘s not. It’s a learning curve.
One morning Keith’s lying on his back on the floor of the common area, balancing on his raised knees, so it looks like the baby’s flying. As Ryou shrieks and coos, Allura kneels down next to them, just in Keith’s blind spot.
“He’s growing,” she comments. Keith hears a slurping sound; she must be drinking one of those faux-tea beverages everyone on base is pretending to love now that the Garrison has run out of coffee stores.
“You are growing, aren’t you, Ryou?” Keith tells the baby. “Morning, ‘llura.”
“Good morning,” she says, amused. “Is your commanding officer treating you well?”
“We have an understanding.” Ryou spits up on Keith’s face, a warm, viscous emesis that reeks, gently, of breakfast. Keith probably shouldn’t have played “fighter plane” so soon after feeding him. “Oh, hey buddy, did I turn you upside-down too soon? Was that a little too much? Too many G’s?”
“Ugh,” Allura sounds disgusted. “Better you than me.”
It is a little gross, but Keith doesn’t mind.
“‘Spose so,” he says, rolling onto his side and stripping off his shirt. It’s only good as a spit rag now; he’s going to have to shower and change.
“This suits you,” Allura says. Keith cranes his neck up at her and sees that she’s crying. “This little life.”
He doesn’t call her out on it. Keith’s not a crier, but there’s no shame in it.
“Allura,” Keith says instead, “do you want to hold my son?”
“No,” Allura tells him. “Not until he has a bath.”
Eventually, Shiro finds out.
Finds out is inaccurate; it’s not like Keith was hiding this. Everyone on base has seen him with the baby. Keith is mildly notorious because of the baby. It just took Shiro a while to realize that Keith wasn’t watching one of Lance’s innumerable nieces and nephews.
He corners Keith in an empty hallway after a meeting, resting his new hand heavily on Keith’s shoulder, right over where the sling crosses. He’s not pinning Keith in place, he’s just — making sure.
“Were you ever going to mention it?” Shiro’s using his captain voice and it’s stern, hyper focused. He doesn’t feel guilty when Keith’s spine goes straight at the tone. Keith’s been conditioned to follow Shiro, and Shiro’ a little proud of it; the leader of Voltron, because Shiro pushed him to reach his potential.
“What, mention Ryou?” Keith settles a hand on the baby’s back.
“I didn’t know you had a son,” Shiro’s trying to be careful, but it doesn’t come across that way. He sounds like he’s accusing Keith of some sort of gross betrayal, which is — ridiculous.
“Yeah, well, he needed someone,” Keith says. “And maybe I did too.”
“Lot of kids need someone these days,” Shiro says. He’s being unkind; he knows what Keith lived through. He doesn’t know Keith as well now, but it’s still bound to hurt.
Sure enough, Keith’s face takes on its default stubborn affect. It’s a little different than it used to be — Keith’s broader now, with the jawline of a grown man, not a scrappy adolescent — but it’s still a thin sheet that barely masks Keith’s anxiety. Shiro’s patient; he keeps his hand on Keith’s shoulder, waiting him out.
“He came through a wormhole,” Keith says, finally. “As far as I'm concerned, he’s a refugee from the Galra, like everyone else in this war.”
A terrible sense of foreboding takes hold of Shiro; he can’t quite name it, but it makes him feel sick and a little desperate. “Keith,” he demands, “where did you get that baby?”
“His name is Ryou,” Keith says. Shiro hasn’t seen Keith look so determined in months, and that’s saying something: determination is Keith’s baseline. “He was in a vat with your name and a serial number, but his name is Ryou and he just learned how to hug.”
Shiro’s been through a lot of shit, but nothing could have prepared him for this.
Keith’s son is a goddamn clone.
It’s deeply weird. Shiro knows that Keith loves him. It’s always made him feel warm and strong and worthy, which is why Shiro pulled away after Allura and Keith coaxed him back to life: he doesn’t deserve that kind of devotion. Keith is determined to love any scrap of Shiro he can find, no matter how tenuous the connection, and it’s impossible for Shiro to return the sentiment. He’s got blood on his hands.
Shiro knows everything his clone ever did or said; it was written in the body that was salvaged for him, carved into every joint and every copied scar. He wishes he could forget, sometimes — and here he’d never thought he’d be nostalgic for the raw, empty gaps in his memory when he first escaped the arena. But Shiro remembers every hit he landed on Keith during their fight. He remembers how he wanted to hurt Keith; how he wanted them both to die together, with an army of his clones as witnesses.The wreckage would be their memorial.
He remembers liking the violence. He remembers the way Keith’s voice had cracked on a sob when he’d told Shiro he loved him.
Shiro feels sick. He hasn’t felt this unsettled since the druids finished experimenting on him in that lab. Wasn’t it enough that they used him for sport? Shiro has lived in his own shadow during this war, and he spends most nights wallowing in guilt, probing that leftover violated feeling like a sore tooth. He thought that part, the part where his imprisonment came back to haunt him, had defined edges.
Keith has a son. Keith’s son is Shiro, or of Shiro.
He can’t quite get his head around it, because he’s seen them together. Ryou is a little person with a brain and a heart and a sunshine smile, one little tooth just breaking through his lower gums. He isn’t shaped from Shiro’s own experiences, or by his old illness and assumed expiration date, or by Shiro’s night terrors and fatalistic nerve; he isn’t much of anything yet. He’s just a baby. He doesn’t even look like the pictures Shiro remembers seeing of himself as an infant.
“But he’s me,” Shiro blurts out. “You’re just trying to own me.”
“Don’t say that,” Keith snaps. “He’s got your genetic makeup, fine. But Ryou’s his own person. Aren’t you the one who told me that it didn’t matter what blood I had running through me, ‘cause I was still the same Keith you’d always known? It’s not any different.”
The baby starts crying and Keith turns away from Shiro — away! From Shiro! — in an attempt to soothe him. It’s that more than anything that proves Keith’s point: this isn’t about anyone but Ryou. Keith will never defend himself, but he’s willing to throw hands, even with Shiro, if it means he can protect his son.
Is it possible to be jealous of a baby? Is he really just envious of a version of himself? Shiro believes in Keith, and has grown dependent on that belief. “Complacent” is the word, really; Shiro has been neglecting Keith. He might have changed Keith’s life, but Keith has saved Shiro so many times now that it feels like he’ll never finish paying back the debt.
“What is it, then, Keith” Shiro whispers. He’s still got his prosthetic hand on Keith’s shoulder; his lack of forearm let Keith turn away, but Shiro wasn’t ready to let go. “Are you just trying to save me again, any way you can?”
“Shiro,” Keith says. He sounds heartbroken. “As weird as it sounds, this is one thing that’s not about you.”
It’s this last that makes Shiro, finally, feel ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” and once the apology’s out in the open, Shiro is shocked to find he’s crying. “I’m afraid.”
Fatherhood has changed Keith, in just a few short weeks; before he adopted Ryou, Shiro thinks, he would never have leaned into the pressure of Shiro’s prosthetic arm and followed the prompt to come closer, to sling his own arm up and around Shiro’s neck. Shiro bends into the touch, bumping his chest against the baby sling; Ryou hasn’t calmed down yet, tiny little tears rolling down his scrunched up face, and Shiro feels a sudden kinship with the baby. They aren’t the same person — Keith’s right about that — but they want similar things.
Keith is generous; he pulls Shiro close, the baby tucked securely between them. For the first time in a long time, Shiro takes a deep breath.
“I’m afraid, too,” Keith whispers in Shiro’s ear. It sounds like it’s a secret he’s been keeping. “But we don’t have to be.”
“Just talk to me,” Shiro says. It sounds like an order, even through the tears; it is.
“Only if you talk to me,” Keith answers.
After the incident in the hall — not a fight; Keith knows it wasn’t a fight, and would be happy if he never even thought of the concept of a fight with Shiro ever again — Shiro makes a point to seek Keith out at least once a day, usually more. It’s stilted at first, leaning heavily on terrible physics puns, but one day Shiro drops a particularly filthy curse word, and then they’re back in business. Keith figures they might as well get as much mileage as they can out of their swears before Ryou starts understanding what words mean.
It’s not perfect. Keith finds that increased proximity and daily conversation only serve to remind him of why he admires Shiro. His morbid sense of humor only seems to come out around Keith, but it’s tempered now; whenever Keith hands him the baby, Shiro stops joking about his own demise and spends long moments explaining the latest adjustments Sam’s making to Atlas.
“It’s still weird,” Shiro confides during one of Ryou’s increasingly rare naps. “I mean, that he’s part of me. It’s not that different from having a kid, I guess, and Adam and I always talked about having a family — but I never thought it would happen.”
“I think this might qualify as a shortcut,” Keith says.
“Fair.” They watch Ryou sleep for a while longer; his little eyelids are twitching rapidly and he keeps kicking one leg. “You’re a really great dad, Keith. I’m proud of you.”
Nothing unusual, from Shiro, but — it still makes Keith duck his head down in order to hide his blush. Every kind word feels laced with meaning, even if Keith has no idea what that meaning is.
“Means a lot,” Keith finally manages. “Thanks.”
Shiro lays his hand along Keith’s spine; he’s been doing that more and more lately. “Of course.”
And still, they’re in the middle of a war. Shiro’s got Ryou napping in his quarters aboard Atlas when he hears news that the Paladins have been captured, and there’s no time to drop him off with a babysitter, assuming Shiro could find someone on base who isn’t already obligated to man a battlestation. Ryou has the first ride-along of his life during a battle that Shiro isn’t confident he’ll win.
But they do; Shiro survives, by the skin of his teeth and the edge of Keith’s bayard. Privately, he thinks that it’s knowing he has Ryou with him — that Keith has trusted Shiro with his son — that inspires him to transform Atlas.
In that moment, quintessence running through him, Shiro feels like he’s giving birth; he’s a father, and this ship is his offspring. Everything is impossible; everything hurts. Shiro has a thousand things he wants to say to Keith after this, he realizes; he has never wanted to survive so badly.
And then —
“Paladins,” Keith says over the comms, and Shiro feels his heart sink. “It’s been an honor flying with you.”
Keith doesn’t close his eyes this time: it’s not like Naxzela at all.
This is the first time when, faced with his own death, Keith understands why his father chose to walk into that burning building, even if it meant leaving Keith alone. It wasn’t about glory or because he’d forgotten his only son; it was bigger than that.
Keith feels hollow with anticipatory grief. It feels nearly like peace.
Whoever’s taking care of Ryou: Keith hopes they know to call his mother. She’ll do what needs to be done.
When Keith wakes up, he sees: his mother, sitting on the edge of the bed, Ryou in her arms. Kolivan’s on the window seat. Shiro’s on the television screen, spouting some nonsense about heroism and sacrifice; Keith stops listening immediately. He feels raw. He feels so grateful he hasn’t made an orphan of his son.
“Was it worth it?” Kolivan asks him.
Keith thinks before answering, licking his dry lips before croaking, “did we win?”
“For now,” Krolia says. “For a little while.” She adjusts her hold and tilts Ryou so Keith can get a better look. “Someone missed you while you were sleeping.”
“I’m glad you could meet,” Keith says. He sags back into the pillows.
“He’s an excellent grandchild,” Krolia informs him. “I approve.”
“Good.” Keith grins and his lower lip splits open. “‘Cause I’m not sending him back.”
It turns out he’s been asleep — in a coma — for nearly a month. Ryou has one and a half teeth and he can’t crawl, but he can roll from one end of the room to the other without assistance. Feeding him has become a contact sport, one Keith is shocked he doesn’t have the energy for.
When his mother and Kolivan leave for the night and Keith should probably be sleeping, Shiro joins him in the flesh. Ryou’s sleeping in an oversized milk crate, just out of reach; when Shiro comes in, he must see how Keith is sitting up in his hospital bed, staring at his son with a desperate, grateful look.
For the first time, without Keith asking, Shiro gathers Ryou into his arms.
He moves over to sit on the edge of the bed and heaves out a sigh. “I thought this would be different.”
“What would be different?” Keith’s hungry for the sight of them both.
Shiro looks across the bed at him, grim and a little besotted with purpose. “Having a family.”
“Oh,” Keith says, faintly. “That.”
“I do love you,” Shiro tells him, and, like a coward, turns his focus back to the baby. “And this little guy — I’ve been thinking about it a lot. He’s me. And he’s your son.”
“Ryou is Ryou,” Keith says. “It’s not like I shrunk you down and jammed you into a onesie.” It’s uncomfortable; it will be uncomfortable until Shiro can understand that Keith’s not cultivating a fallback option: he’s raising a child.
“My mom says that I’m like my dad, sometimes,” Keith tries to explain. “I’ve got his DNA in me. She loves me because I’m Keith, but I’m my dad, too. He’s the source material.” He watches Shiro and Ryou for a minute, memorizing the ridiculous juxtaposition of Shiro’s big prosthetic hand curving around Ryou’s back.
Shiro has said he’s not good with children, that he’s shy around babies, but he looks perfect like this: his head is bent to keep his eyes level with Ryou’s, and he keeps bobbing his head forward so his forelock brushes against Ryou’s face. That’s one of Ryou’s favorite games; he’s so tired he keeps falling asleep in between his hiccup-y little giggles.
Keith’s still foggy with pain and sleep, and he’s been so focused on Ryou that it takes that little, sweet lull — watching Shiro act so tenderly towards the other most important person in Keith’s life — to realize what else Shiro’s said.
“You love me?”
“Keith,” Shiro shifts up the bed, awkward as a beached seal, until he and Ryou are leaning heavily against Keith’s legs. Shiro looks like a supplicant: his head is thrown back a little, and Keith can see the line of Shiro’s throat. He’s got a scrape on his neck, like he’s been rubbing at the collar of his jacket and has irritated the skin beneath. “Keith, that was never a question.”
“Yeah, it was,” Keith reaches out and touches Shiro’s face, dares to stroke the frown lines forming between his brows. “It was a question for as long as I didn’t know there was an answer.”
“You’ve been asleep so long, your nails are growing out,” Shiro says, bleakly. It’s true: Keith’s nails are normally torn and bitten to the quick, his fingers covered with scabs and nicks he picks up carelessly. “I never want to go through that again. I turned my ship inside out for you. Is that enough of an answer?”
“No,” Keith whispers. Shiro hands Ryou up to Keith so he can sit up properly; Keith hasn’t lost the knack of moving Ryou while he sleeps, but it takes concentration. It takes Shiro putting his flesh arm around Keith’s shoulders to redirect his attention.
“Atlas is alive now,” Shiro tells him. “She helped me realize some things. For one,” he hovers his prosthetic arm over Ryou’s sleeping form, illuminating the baby with its light, “I don’t think I’d stop at anything if there was a chance I could save you. Either of you. Both.”
“Because you love me,” Keith says. He feels numb.
“Because I love you,” Shiro says. “And I love Ryou. You’re my family, Keith. Whatever it takes.” He lets the declaration hang there for a minute; Keith relishes it. It’s everything he never thought to want for himself.
“So,” Shiro says. He sounds a little bashful. “Now that I’ve got that out there. You got anything to share with the class?”
“Come here,” Keith rasps, and kisses him. It’s clumsy; Keith’s never kissed anyone before, and the split in his lower lip tears open enough to bleed under the force of Shiro’s response. “Ow! — Don’t stop.”
“I won’t,” Shiro promises. He pulls back just enough to lick at Keith’s mouth, easing the sting. “Just let me put the baby to bed, first.”
While Keith heals, Shiro starts carrying Ryou around base with him; it becomes normal pretty quickly. Hunk makes a point to send him pictures of the two of them throughout the day: Shiro and Ryou talking to Atlas, their palms flat against her broad hull; Shiro and Ryou standing morosely in line at the fake-coffee cart; Shiro inadvertently napping while he should be approving staff reports, Ryou lying on a blanket, rolling sideways and only kept from escape by judicious placement of Shiro’s prosthetic arm.
It’s a good thing, even if Keith misses the comfort of having Ryou close; he’s a helicopter parent, he thinks wryly, albeit one who’s got a weight restriction while he convalesces: no lifting anything over ten pounds. He’s allowed to hold Ryou, but only when he’s sitting down. Ryou is unimpressed with this limitation and doesn’t understand why his favorite person won’t toss him into the air.
“Serves you right,” Allura sniffs. “You’re a baby-hog. Now the rest of us can finally have a turn.”
“You never want to hold him!”
“Well, you only ever offer after he spits up!”
“That wasn’t intentional,” Keith explains. “He’s just like that.”
At the end of the day, Keith meets Shiro in his office and Shiro wraps Ryou and Keith up in his arms so he can fucking dip him, he’s ridiculous. Shiro kisses him often now, enough that Sam Holt gives them an electric kettle so he doesn’t have to walk in on the two of them in the break room anymore. It’s an adjustment for everyone, even Ryou’s fanclub.
“That’s the littlest paladin,” people say. “And there’s the Black Paladin and the captain of the Atlas. He’s their son.”