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Steady As We Go

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Shiro leans against the wall of the elevator, breaths shaky, knees trembling. Normally, he takes the stairs. Normally, he takes the stairs two at a time. 

Tonight, though, it takes everything he has just to stay upright and stare at his own pale, blurry reflection in the burnished mirror surface of the elevator walls. He repeats words under his breath, a quiet mantra. “You’re fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.” It had just been a day on top of a week on top of a month. He’d been dreaming of med school for so long he didn’t know how to want anything else.

Keith notwithstanding. 

What he didn’t want to do is come into their apartment, a sanctuary of peace in the midst of exam hell, and drop all his anxiety all over Keith. It wasn’t fair to do that, especially not when Keith had the same exam schedule that Shiro did, but also his lab had gone on lockdown yesterday because they thought someone might have been exposed to dangerous bacteria. What they’d been exposed to, in actuality, was a mislabeled benign tissue sample, but Keith had been holed up for nearly 14 hours.

So yeah, he’d basically had to run a gauntlet of exams. And yeah, there were more next week. And the tutoring center had given him six more students. And he had a pain in his shoulder after they’d changed his PT and he was afraid to mention it because what if something was wrong, what if it was his prosthetic, what if he had to leave med school?

He drew another tremulous breath. It was probably nothing. Sometimes he had pain. And he could manage six more tutees. And he could manage more exams. 

He’d been on his own for a long time now. He could manage all of it. He was born for this, the pressure, the stakes. 

Except he’s not on his own, not exactly, not anymore. Which means he needs to find his own balance even more before Keith finds out what a goddamn mess he is underneath. No one wants to see that. 

He hears Keith singing through the door when he arrives at their apartment and warmth floods his chest. God, he’s adorable. It’s some early 2010s pop that if you looked at Keith, you wouldn’t think he’d know, but he has a secret love for Top 40 that every once in a while rears its head. His voice is good, a light baritone, and when Shiro comes in, Keith’s dancing in the kitchen with earbuds in, back to the door. 

He sways his hips, lean limbs keeping time with the rhythm. He’s belting out the words, banging on the counter as he’s putting dishes away, and Shiro can’t tear his eyes off of him. “Just tell me what to do/ I’ll fall right into you/ Going under, cast a spell, just say the--ahh!” He spins, giving a shout as he sees Shiro, an embarrassed grin on his face. 

“Oh, my God. You scared me!” Keith opens his arms and Shiro leans into them, hearing the faint strains of the song coming through the headphones trailing down his chest. “Look at us, both home before eight o’clock like actual people.” His hand cups the back of Shiro’s neck, pulling him down for a kiss. It’s just the polite side of open-mouthed, just a nice little swipe of tongue along the roof of Shiro’s mouth before he pulls away. “You eat?”

“Yeah. They had pizza at the tutoring center.”

“Cool. The lab bought us all sandwiches because they felt bad about yesterday. Which, you know, they should.” Keith smells like he’s had a shower, a faint whiff of sandalwood body wash rising from his skin. Shiro wants to press his face into the juncture of Keith’s neck and shoulder and stay there for an hour. 

Keith rubs his thumb over Shiro’s jaw, focusing on Shiro. “You good?”

Shiro nods. “Yeah. Totally.”

A faint line appears between Keith’s eyebrows. “You’re sure?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Keith unzips Shiro’s hoodie and tugs it off. Shiro is still taken aback by the way Keith touches him, like he’s something important, something precious and yet not fragile. “Take your coat off and stay awhile, handsome. We’re going to watch something dumb.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighs. He clears his throat. “We gotta study, remember?”

“Fun fact: we’ve studied every day this week. We’re going to study all weekend. We’re exhausted. We need to stop and take a break. It’s good for your brain. You can’t just shove medical minutiae in there 24 hours a day.” He grabs Shiro’s prosthetic wrist and gives it a tug. “Come on, big boy. Let’s get comfy.”

He doesn’t mean to do it, but a soft whine comes out of Shiro’s mouth before he can stop it. 

Keith’s eyes widen. “Shit, did I just hurt you?”

“No, no. It’s not like that.” Shiro rubs his right shoulder with his flesh hand. “I’m fine.”

“What’s it like, then?” Keith takes a step towards him. 

“It’s nothing,” he says automatically. “Just a little tweak or something.”

“A little tweak?” Keith frowns. “Something going on?”

“I mean, I don’t think so,” Shiro says. He glances at the television, trying to deflect. “Um, what did you want to watch?”

Keith’s hand reaches out and slides softly around Shiro’s waist. “Baby.”

God, the word just makes him melt. “Yeah?”

“You need to tell me what’s up with you.” Keith’s fingers stroke Shiro’s side, right above his hips. There’s nothing demanding in his tone, but it makes Shiro want to tell him, to spill it all, every anxious thought and every frustration. If he does, though, Keith will see him, really see him, and Shiro’s not sure he’s ready for that. 

“You mean with my arm?” Shiro swallows. “It’s no big deal. It happens sometimes.”

“I mean, yes, your arm, but I mean with you in general.” He grips Shiro’s hip and pulls him towards the couch. “Sit down and tell me all your troubles.”

Shiro slides in next to Keith, grateful for the warmth of his body along Shiro’s side. “It’s just the same shit you’re dealing with. Nothing special.” Shiro’s breath comes out just a little shaky. “It’s just been a long week. And for you, even worse.”

Keith’s fingers reach up and card through Shiro’s forelock, his touch gentle. “It’s not a competition.” Keith flicks him a grin. They are neck and neck for the top GPA in the class. “At least not for who had the worst week, yeah? And just because I had one doesn’t negate yours.”

“I just,” Shiro stops as the pads of Keith’s fingers smooth over his temple. “I don’t want to burden you with anything.”

“Want to know a secret?” Keith says, almost a whisper. “I can carry a lot of shit. So you don’t need to be a comic book hero right now and pretend that your problems will put everyone you love in danger or that you’re too dark and twisty to tell your tale of woe.”

Shiro ducks his chin. “I’m not like that.”

“You are a little,” Keith says, his fingers kneading Shiro’s nape. “You keep a lot locked up. And I’m not here to try to break in. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk. But, baby, you don’t have to try so hard, not with me.”

The air in Shiro’s lungs comes out in huff. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s that I don’t want to bring you down.” He reaches out, squeezing Keith’s knee. “I don’t want to add to your worries.”

Keith studies him. “You don’t add to my worries. You make my worries smaller, because every minute I get to be with you, they seem farther away.”

“God, Keith,” Shrio says, covering his face for a moment with his hand. “The things you say.”

Keith kisses his cheekbone, letting it make a smacking sound. “You like my filthy mouth, but you like when I get mushy too, don’t you?

Shiro flushes. “Yeah. I do.” He leans into Keith’s space, humming when Keith slides his hand under Shiro’s shirt, smoothing over his chest. “I love your mouth. You always know just what to say.”

“I’m glad you appreciate it. It got me in trouble most of my life.” Keith’s palm presses over Shiro’s heart, fingers splayed. He’s quiet for a long moment before he speaks softly in Shiro’s ear. “Your pulse is really fast, baby. You’re pretty keyed up.” 

Keith pays attention to things like that. Shiro’s not used to anyone caring about his pain level or if he’s lying in bed with a racing heart from anxiety. There hasn’t been anyone around to care. But Keith notices. He doesn’t miss anything. Sometimes after a bad dream Shiro wakes up and he can feel the circle of Keith’s fingers around his left wrist, as if somehow Keith can track Shiro’s pulse so he can follow him into whatever nightmare that shook him. Keith is the most attentive lover Shiro’s ever had, but he’s still not used to it. 

Being someone’s priority is new. And it’s heady and beautiful, but it also makes Shiro wonder how long it’ll last. He trusts Keith completely, but if Shiro knows anything about the universe, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. Sometimes stars collapse. 

“I just have a lot on my mind.”

Keith’s hand moves to Shiro’s shoulder, just the lightest brush. “Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to take your shirt off and I’m going to put some of that really nice lotion on you, all right? And then you’re going to lie down on the couch with me. And you’re going to rest.”

Shiro hesitates. “But what about--”

“Come on, baby, you’re good at doing what you’re told, right?” Keith’s voice hits that resonant pitch that just sends a thrum right through Shiro’s brain. “How about you do what I tell you right now and take your shirt off?”

There is a moment of peace that comes when he accepts that Keith’s going to take care of him. It’s new and precious, the idea that Shiro can allow someone else to provide comfort, and even more, that that’s okay. Shiro grabs the hem of his t-shirt and tugs it over his head, wincing at the slight pull in his shoulder. The cool air of the apartment suffuses his skin and he shivers for a moment. 

“That’s my good boy.” Keith crosses to the bathroom to retrieve a tube of expensive lotion that his doctor had recommended for scar tissue healing. “Fuck. You’d think I’d get used to seeing you since we sleep together every night, but damn, baby.” Keith clicks his tongue. “You just look so beautiful.”

Shiro shakes his head. “I look exhausted. I’ve seen myself.”

“You’re stunning and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” Keith climbs up on the back of the couch, his knees pressed in along Shiro’s sides. “Tell me what’s going on with your shoulder.”

God, he’s afraid that if he talks about it, somehow it’ll get worse. Which makes no sense, he knows, from a physiological perspective, but it feels true. “Um.” He chews on his bottom lip. “It’s like around the top of my deltoid and it kind of radiates towards the trapezius, like near the scapula.”

“Okay. Sharp or dull?”

“It’s dull. Just like a twinge.” Shiro tenses as Keith’s hands sweep over his skin. “How is it that your hands are never cold?”

“Genetics.” Keith palpates the area with his hand, pressing in slightly. “How long have you had the pain?”

“Just a few days. Got worse yesterday.” 

“You taking anything?”

Keith already knows the answer; he’s just taking a dig at Shiro’s dislike of painkillers. “No.”

“Hmm, does that seem like a best practice? Maybe we should write you up as a clinical case.”

“Keith.”

“You’re taking some before you go to bed.” Keith makes a soft sound as his fingers press a little deeper. “Baby, there is a knot back here as big as my palm. What have you been doing?”

Shiro tips his head down. “I’m just doing my PT.”

“Mmm, the PT that they actually gave you, or the doctored version that you do when you’re feeling like you need to up your game?”

Shit. Keith really did pay attention. 

“Um.” Shiro clears his throat, a dry laugh escaping. “Listen. Okay. I’m allowed to do extra if I’m feeling up to it.”

Keith kisses the back of Shiro’s neck. “Sweetheart.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re in med school. You’re working extra hours on top of your regular hours. You’re not getting enough sleep. Your regular PT is more than enough.”

Keith’s tone isn’t accusatory; it’s gentle, so much so that Shiro’s throat tightens. “It’s just,” he sighs. “You know how you want to just be in charge of one thing when everything else feels like it’s spinning out of control?”

The slide of Keith’s fingers over the back of his skull are like magic. “I get it. It’s the thing you get to choose.”

“Right.” Shiro shifts against Keith. “I know you’re right. I probably overdid it.” It had happened before. It is the most likely explanation. Still, Shiro’s got that little twist in his heart that makes him worry.

“I can’t blame you. You’re trying so hard to excel in every area of your life. It’s not weird that you’d do the same in PT.” Keith places his palms flat on Shiro’s shoulders, warm and light. “But you need your body to do everything else.” He laughs, kissing the back of Shiro’s head. “I need your body. So be gentle for a bit, would you?”

“For you,” Shiro says fondly, “yeah, I will.” 

“Good.” The warmth in Keith’s voice is like honey, golden and indulgent. “I’m going to get you nice and relaxed. First, you are going to close your eyes and take a deep breath for me and then let it out slow.”

There is no relaxation video on ViewTube as good as Keith, no meditation app that compares. Shiro complies, closing his eyes and filling his lungs, letting out a long exhale. 

“That’s perfect. Such a good boy.”

He didn’t realize until Keith how much it means when someone he cares about praises him. At first, he felt embarrassed; why would a grown person need to be told such things? It felt like fishing for compliments or attention-seeking behavior. 

With Keith, it’s not like that.

Shiro does want to be good. He wants so badly for his life to matter, for his choices to make a positive impact, to be worthy of someone’s attention. Worthy of love. He knows these things. Years of therapy have made him a least a little self-aware. Ultimately Shiro has to decide that for himself, to not need his more selfish impulses and seek out his better angels. He doesn’t need Keith to tell him that he’s good. 

But when Keith does, it’s like heaven. 

“Another deep breath. Hold just a few seconds longer this time and let it out nice and slow.”

It’s been awhile since he actually remembered to breathe like this, to center himself and just follow his breath. He used to meditate. He used to have time to meditate. Maybe he needs to start doing that again. He feels his heart rate start to drop along with the quiet pattern of his own exhalations. 

“You’re doing so well, love. That’s it.” Keith’s palms trace along his skin, back and forth, following along the path of his shoulders. “Take two more breaths for me.”

With his eyes closed, sounds get a little louder: the sweep of Keith’s fingertips, the rush of air going into his lungs, the hum of the fridge, the sound of rain outside pinging against the window. As he finishes his last breath, Keith’s fingers slide along Shiro’s jaw, pressing for a moment. “Good boy. You should feel the difference in your pulse, baby. So much calmer.”

Shiro tips his head back, resting it against Keith. “You know, if med school doesn't work out, you could always have an online relaxation channel.”

“Nah. You’re the only one I want watching me.” Keith presses his cheek against Shiro’s hair. “This is all I thought about yesterday, you know that? When I was locked in that stupid lab all I wanted was to just be able to touch you and be close to you. To just breathe you in.”

Shiro tilts his head to kiss Keith’s knee, which is the closest part of him he can reach. “I was going to break into the building. I would have rather been in quarantine with you than be safe and alone outside. Allura body blocked me.”

“She’s fierce.”

“I know. Fortunately I didn’t have to find out who would win in that fight because they called the all-clear.”

“Thank goodness.” Keith started kneading the base of Shiro’s neck. “I didn’t like being away from you for so long.”

Shiro reaches up with his left hand, grabbing Keith’s. “I didn’t like it either.” He turns his head far enough that he can reach Keith’s, kissing him. It’s quick and sweet, like a chocolate chip melting on his tongue. “I like you close enough to do that.”

“I do too.” Keith resumes his kneading. “I like you close enough so I can do this. Make you feel good and relaxed and special.” Shiro hears the sound of Keith squeezing lotion into his palm. “I’m gonna warm this up for a second. Is there a place I should start? Someplace that’s not hurting?”

“My left shoulder, maybe?”

“You got it, big boy.”    

When Keith’s fingers touch his skin again, they glide, smoothing over his deltoid and trapezius, shifting over his left bicep. The lotion is creamy and unlike most recommendations from his physicians, smells good, giving off a faint whiff of lemon. It also has a light warming affect, sinking into his tired muscles. As Keith massages Shiro’s shoulder, he leans in a little closer. “Look at how strong you are, baby. How well you take care of yourself. You put so much time and effort into keeping yourself fit, and I appreciate that.” He squeezes to emphasize his point. “I like it when you rest, though. I like when you take time to just be.”

His touch is like something magical. Shiro can’t open his eyes. “I know. I don’t do it enough.”

“You’re doing it right now, and you’re doing great.” Keith gently rotates Shiro’s left arm in its socket. “Now see if you can relax that arm for me, just let me move it for you, yeah? Let it go. That's it, there you go. Good.”

Keith works his palms down Shiro’s entire arm, taking time to pay attention to each joint, each muscle group, even his hand and fingers. “Don’t forget to take one of those deep breaths every so often. It helps keep you focused on your breath.”

Right now all Shiro can focus on is the dreamy way Keith smells, the perfect pressure of his fingers on Shiro’s skin, and the way Shiro’s starting to slowly feel the stress rising atom by atom from his body. 

“You all right, baby?”

Shiro nods. “Yeah. Just feels so good.”

“That’s what I like to hear, sweetheart.” Keith’s hands glide to Shiro’s right shoulder, his touch noticeably lighter. “All right. I want to see if I can give you any relief on this side. If there’s any discomfort at all--”

“Discomfort.” Shiro chuckles. “Now you sound like a doctor.”

“They’ve got us trained already.” Keith squeezes Shiro’s ribs with his knees. “Okay. If I hurt you at all, if there’s any pain, you need to tell me immediately.”

“Okay, baby.” Shiro sighs, not out of resignation, but out of contentment. “I trust you.”

“Such a good boy.” Keith’s kiss lands on Shiro’s nape. “I’m going to start with the trapezius. Nice and light.”

Keith’s fingertips smooth the warming lotion over the aching muscles there, sweeping first and then starting with delicate pressure. His thumbs rub circles, his strong hands seeking out anything that feels tight. Unable to hold back, Shiro lets out a groan, and Keith stills.

“Is that a happy groan or a pain groan?”

“It’s happy,” Shiro says, dragging a long breath as Keith’s hands press the air out of him. 

“Good. I’m glad.” Keith’s hands alternate pressure, taking their time to cross the landscape of Shiro’s right shoulder. It’s a slow process, and Keith warms the muscles first before returning for deeper sweeps, finally moving in on the buried knots. 

Shiro suddenly tenses when Keith hits an especially sore spot, hissing a breath. “Keith.”

“Okay, baby, I got you,” Keith says, easing up. “You were so good to tell me something hurt.” Keith’s fingers palpate lightly. “This is the spot, yeah?”

Shiro’s eyes are closed tightly enough that he can feel wetness gathering between the lids. “Yeah. Shit.”

“All right. I’ll see if I can loosen it a little. Just breathe and try to relax for me.” Shiro tries, letting out a shaky exhalation. “Good boy.”

Keith takes his time, easing over the knot and releasing muscles around it first. He’s patient, hands never ceasing in their movements. “You’re so pretty, baby. Your gorgeous skin and your hot body, all for me to take care of.” The praise keeps up as Keith works the sore spot, distracting Shiro from the ache.

It’s just like Keith to be able to press into Shiro’s most vulnerable places, to seek out the hurts and soothe them, drawing out the pain like poison from a wound. Everything about him, from his mouthful of pretty words to his dexterous hands to his warm body at Shiro’s back, seems tailor-made to fit Shiro’s every want and need. It is amazing, Shiro thinks, that he can truly just let go and let Keith work his magic. 

“Hey, love,” Keith says, “can I move your shoulder? I just wanna get a feel for how it’s moving in the socket.” 

Shiro nods, floating along with Keith’s ministrations and the scent of lemon. He’d say yes to anything Keith asked right now. He feels Keith take his right shoulder in one hand and his prosthetic in the other, gently rotating it. “How’s that? Is the pain any better?”

“Yeah.” Shiro sighs, grateful that it isn’t catching the way it was earlier. “It’s still a little sore, but not early quite so much. Thank you, baby.”

“I’m glad.” Keith gives his deltoids a warm squeeze. “Let me just get this lotion all over your back for good measure.”

After his accident, Shiro wasn’t able to reach all the places on his back that itched from his stitches and scar tissue. His skin was especially sensitive to weather and humidity, and there were times he could barely focus with the raging, fire-hot itch that coated his back. Keith didn’t know how many times Shiro had suffered in the past. One time he’d walked by the bathroom and saw Shiro trying to smear some cream between his shoulder blades and Keith offered to assist, and ever since then, he’s remembered at least once or twice a week. He’s extra gentle over Shiro’s scars. Shiro doesn’t say anything, but he notices that. 

He’s used to people treating him like a gym god--untouchable--and a broken china heirloom--fragile--with very little in between. He’s not used to people treating him gently, softly, lovingly. 

It’s a feeling he’s getting used to, one he hopes will never end. 

His entire back feels lightly warm and smooth by the time Keith is finished, and the hydration sinking into his skin makes every movement feel more pleasant, like he’s just stepped from a sauna. “You doing all right there, my sweet, good boy?”

Shiro falls back against Keith’s chest, loving the way Keith’s arms slip around him. “Your hands have powers.”

“Oh yeah?” Keith laughs, kissing behind Shiro’s ear. “What kind?”

Shiro can feel Keith breathe, feel the strength of his lean body supporting him. He feels utterly safe in a way that’s hard to describe. “The power to make me feel like I might just make it through.”

“You’re not just going to make it through, love. You’re going to fly.” He kisses Shiro, mouth soft and perfect, and Shiro believes in the moment that he actually could.

Keith squeezes him once more before climbing down to flop down on the couch. “C’mere, baby. Lay on me.”

Shiro always felt like he was too big, too heavy to curl up on someone, but Keith actually loves it. Keith’s sprawled on his back, a grin on his face, and Shiro lowers himself down gently over him, resting his head on Keith’s chest, his right arm over Keith’s waist. 

“Mmm. You smell good. Like summertime.” Keith says, his voice rumbling through his ribcage. 

“You smell good. Like hot boyfriend.”

Keith snickers. “What do hot boyfriends smell like?”

“You know. Like shower gel and kinda woodsy or like fancy herbs, or like just that clean boy smell that makes me weak in the knees.” Shiro blushes. “It just smells like you do. That’s the hot boyfriend smell.”

Keith’s fingers card through Shiro’s hair, dragging over his scalp in delicious, slow sweeps. He feels Keith’s heartbeat against his cheek as he listens to the comforting rhythm of each relaxed lub-dub. While he loves listening to Keith’s heart through a stethoscope—it’s heaven being able to listen while kissing him or blowing him, hearing it race with pleasure—he loves it this way too, just the comfort of being cuddled close, feeling how warm and alive Keith is under him. 

“You comfy?” Keith asks.

“So comfy. You?”

“God, yes. Love having you like this. Crush me, Shiro,” he says, a little laugh escaping.

“You’re really okay though, right?”

“Totally. I’m good. I just like saying, ‘Crush me, Shiro’. It’s fun to say.”

Shiro grins. “Fun to do, too.”

Keith’s quiet for a minute and his heartbeat is loud enough that Shiro wonders that Keith can’t hear it. In the silence, he drifts on the sound, slowly noticing a pattern. Every time Keith breathes in, his heart picks up a few beats, only to slow when he exhales. Shiro listens closely to six cycles of breath to be sure he’s not mishearing, but it’s definitely there. They’d just covered common heart conditions last month in one of their classes. He rubs his thumb over Keith’s hip and says, “Did you know you have respiratory sinus arrhythmia?”

Keith makes a surprised sound. “Seriously? I do?”

“Yeah. I hadn’t noticed before, but you absolutely do. It does these tiny speedups when you breathe in.” Shiro squeezes him a little tighter. “It’s cute.”

He chuckles. “You think my benign heartbeat variation is cute?” Keith says, pressing a kiss to Shiro’s forehead. 

Shiro grins. “I think everything about you is cute.”

“I love that your idea of pillow talk is diagnostic. That is some adorable med nerd shit right there.” Keith’s voice is so fond it makes Shiro blush. 

“I’m glad you appreciate my weirdness,” Shiro says, suddenly feeling a bit like he said too much. 

“You’re not weird. You’re really smart and observant. Which are just two things I appreciate about you.” He squeezes Shiro’s ass. “And here’s a third.”

Shiro snorts. “Keith.”

“What? You have a gorgeous ass, baby. I should know. Mine’s not too bad, either.” He smooths his hand down Shiro’s spine, a sweep of comfort. “And I love when you listen to my heart. It makes me feel so, I don’t know. Like, seen. Or heard? Whatever. It just feels really good. Like you get this insight into me that, you know, no one else really does. And I like when you’re lying like this because I can feel yours, too.”

Shiro sighs, closing his eyes. “I can’t imagine a better place to be right now.”

“We could be on an expensive couch in an expensive apartment, instead of this lumpy mess in this run-down dorm.”

“It’s not so bad. And I don’t care about the couch or the apartment, as long as I’m with you.”

“Aww, you want to live in a cardbox box with me, baby?”

“Sign me up.”

Keith hums. “Hmm, it’s going to have to be a big box to fit your giant dick and the two of us.”

“Oh, my God.”

“I’m just trying to make sure we’ll have enough space.”

Shiro kisses Keith to stop his mouth, savoring the heat, the rush, the comfort, grateful that tonight he’ll fall asleep in Keith’s arms, and in the morning, he’ll wake up next to him. There will be exams, late nights, exhaustion, pain, and disappointments, and maybe all of them just in the next week, but Keith will be there, steady as a heartbeat, and just as close.