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Sweet Imperfection

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What frustrates Shiro most is that he’s not perfect at it.

When his physical therapist recommended taking up smaller activities to help solidify the connection between new arm and his brain— his fourth arm and third prosthesis, upgraded from the floating arm to a more streamlined, attached model— she’d suggested hobbies like knitting, calligraphy, jewelry making, gardening, and so on.

Shiro settled on cake-decorating because when he mentioned it as a possibility, Keith had shrugged and said, “I love cake.”

Shiro’s not afraid to admit that’s his reason.

His mechanical arms have always been strange to him. He’s vividly aware of where muscle meets metal, where his organic body once was and is no longer. Sometimes he feels the phantom pains of twitching, aching muscles. He can feel his fingers move in response to his brain waves, but sometimes it feels too disconnected. Sometimes when he touches things, it feels like nothing at all. Sometimes when he looks at his metal hand, he sees only emptiness. It is his hand and not his hand.

He thinks, sometimes, of cupping Keith’s face and how his palm would sit awkwardly, unnatural and clunky against his cheek. How, most likely, he wouldn’t be able to feel Keith’s smile plumping up his cheek beneath his palm or feel the flush-warmth of Keith living and breathing and alive, eyes soft as he looks up at Shiro. That is, of course, when he allows himself to think about touching Keith at all.

Cake-decorating is supposed to help with these small touches. But the art of decoration is proving more frustrating than stress-relieving.

Shiro tries to be gentle as he scoops the buttercream into the pastry bag. He’s chosen an earl grey cake today, richly fragrant and foggy with bergamot. The buttercream smells of it, too, speckled with hints of loose leaf tea. But it’s also grainy because the powdered sugar didn’t incorporate as smoothly as he’d hoped because his wrist seized up when he tried to whisk it all together.

He’s managed to smear the cake with a crummy layer of the buttercream and now he hunches over the domed mountain of cake, attempting to pipe a shell border along its bottom edge. Just as he focuses on the first mound of buttercream, his hand spasms, convulses, and the frosting erupts in a burst of sugary cream.

“Damn it,” Shiro mutters, trying to uncramp his hand from where it clenches the pastry bag, oozing grainy buttercream onto his cake board.

With great effort, he uncurls his fingers one at a time, from pinky to index. He tries to pipe the shell again, only to fail again.

This is how Keith finds him, bent over his cake, hands covered in buttercream and head aching from a clenched jaw and furrowed brow. It takes a moment for Shiro to even notice Keith’s there, but when he sees him in the doorway, Shiro lurches to slump against the counter, contrite.

“Hey,” Keith says in greeting, moving to his side immediately. “You all right?”

From anyone else, the question would make Shiro flush in embarrassment and shame. But it’s Keith and it’s always been easier when it’s Keith. Even these brittle parts of Shiro— all the ways he’s a failure— is easier to show Keith. Even if he hates for his friend to see it, he knows that Keith’s the only one he could ever trust it with.

Shiro frowns down at his mess of buttercream forlornly. The piping doesn’t even vaguely resemble shells, or any discernible, purposeful style.

“This is the fourth time I’ve tried this and I’m not good at it,” Shiro says and his voice sounds bitter like overbrewed tea. He’s tried the shells, he’s tried rosettes, he’s tried ruffles and zigzags and stars. His buttercream is always grainy, and his designs always look beyond amateur, like a child came in to fingerpaint the cake before shoving in their fingers instead.

If the point is to better his dexterity and fine motor skills, he’s failing utterly.

The frustration and sadness must show on his face. Keith frowns, looking between the cake and Shiro. When he takes Shiro’s hands, it’s a gentle touch, like he expects Shiro to shrug him away. As if Shiro ever would.

He holds still as Keith carefully cleans his metal hand free of buttercream, inching a dish towel between every crease and alloyed joint. It’s delicate work and, not for the first time, Shiro feels longing flood through him— not just to touch Keith but to do such precise movements so easily. Right now, Shiro couldn’t clean the frosting out from the metal facsimile of fingernails on his own hand no matter how hard he tried.

“The point is it’s supposed to take time,” Keith says. “We’re not perfect to start. No one is. Don’t rush it, right? Patience?”

His smile is wry and Shiro wants to be annoyed at it, but it’s Keith and he can’t. He huffs instead so he doesn’t have to answer. Keith’s hand shifts against Shiro’s, squeezing, and Shiro can at least feel that much, Keith’s warm hand on Shiro’s metal one.

“Besides,” Keith says, scooping up a glob of a failed shell border and popping it into his mouth, his eyes glittering. “It tastes good.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Your cakes are always good,” Keith says, insisting. He licks his finger and it’s distracting. Shiro bites his lip and Keith shrugs. “I like this tea cake. It’s really dense and not too sweet.”

“Yeah,” Shiro says. It’s his favorite cake for the same reason; he’s never been super interested in overly sweet things, but he likes the texture and weight of the cake once he slices into it. “Now if only I could actually make something pretty.”

If only he could create something worthwhile. Instead, it seems that all Shiro’s good for anymore is destruction. He’s not about to read that deeply into cake-decorating, but he wonders if maybe he should have stuck with something like calligraphy as his fine-motor hobby. He feels like a toddler in the kitchen. It’s hard to imagine that he could ever do anything beautiful.

“Shiro,” Keith says. He stares into Shiro’s eyes. “Your cakes are always my favorite. You’re really good at baking them.” He leans in closer. “Don’t tell Hunk, but I like yours best.”

“Blasphemy,” Shiro mock-gasps, but something squirms in his chest at Keith’s words, especially when Shiro’s joke makes Keith’s face bloom with a smile.

When Keith hands the piping bag back into Shiro’s grasp, Shiro sighs and resumes his hunched-over position. Keith braces his elbows on the counter so he can scoot his face down to watch closely, like this is deserving of his full attention. Somehow, it doesn’t make Shiro nervous to have Keith’s eyes on him. He takes a deep breath and twists the cake around to a new side and, slowly, squeezes the pastry bag.

When he makes the first three shells for the border, they’re lopsided and oblong, different sizes and connected by too thick a strand of cream, but it’s a start. It is, at least, better than the other attempt even if Shiro can only see the flaws and all his little failures.

But he also feels Keith touch his back, a five-pointed star between his shoulder blades, and it makes him feel warm, like he’s bursting, like he’s a tea leaf in water slowly unfurling. He turns his head to look at Keith and finds Keith’s eyes on him rather than the buttercream, already trusting that whatever he sees will be good. Maybe even perfect. Because that’s how Keith is.

Keith’s smile hints a dimple, his eyes shining in the kitchen light. “There,” he says, nodding towards the cake. “Not so bad, right?”

Later, once he’s better at it, Shiro envisions the cake he’d decorate for Keith: a desert scene, ground up graham crackers for sand, delicately crafted succulents and cacti piped from different metal tips to create texture, little dots of pink for the cactus flowers. He can imagine that Keith would laugh when he saw it, shaking his head fondly. He imagines that Keith would love it. But he also knows that Keith would love this cake, too— all its battered shells broken and oblong. He’d love the imperfection of it.

Keith’s never wanted perfect. Even if that’s what he’s always deserved.

Shiro takes a deep breath, fighting back against the swelling in his chest, a heart going trochee against his ribs. “It’s… not so bad, yeah,” he says in a low murmur. “I just wish… something could be easy for once.”

Keith hums. He finds Shiro’s hand again and squeezes. Shiro watches Keith think, considering, and then jolts when Keith threads their fingers together. It looks strange, the delicate shape of Keith’s fingers laced through with the clunky silvered metal of Shiro’s hand. And yet, somehow, it seems to work.

For Keith’s birthday, Shiro thinks. He’ll keep practicing and make the succulent cake for Keith’s birthday. Even if it’s not perfect, he knows Keith will love it.

“Some things can be easy,” Keith says thoughtfully.

He scoops up another dollop of buttercream to eat. Shiro can’t help but stare at his mouth and when he remembers to meet Keith’s eyes instead, Keith’s expression has gone soft with longing.

Keith sounds so quiet when he says, “Things can be easy. If you let it be, Shiro.”

It sounds like an invitation. Shiro stills, thinking of the gentle weight of Keith’s hand in his, the way he’s always, dutifully, appeared in Shiro’s kitchen to taste-test his cakes. He thinks of how many times they’ve sat side by side at the little kitchen table, the one next to the window with the light streaming in, their triangular slices of cake set before them. Shiro thinks of those moments beside Keith and how he’s never once patronized him for the bad design work, how he’s only ever looked at Shiro like he’s proud of him.

“Oh,” Shiro says, looking at Keith. He watches Keith nod. “Yeah… Yeah, Keith.”

“Yes,” Keith agrees.

And so Shiro lets it be easy: he leans in towards Keith, pausing and waiting until Keith’s lashes flutter shut. He breathes out. It’s easy, then, to kiss Keith. The kiss is off-center and imperfect, but when Keith kisses him back, Shiro stops caring about perfection.