Next time, Keith supposed it might be a good idea to ask Pidge about the accessibility of her apartment. Third floor wasn't too bad, but he did have to give himself a second- dropping his bag with a heavy thud and sitting back on it to let his face cool off, crutch balanced on his lap before he could even think of knocking. She could have warned him that the lift was undergoing maintenance; just his luck considering this apartment complex seemed pretty nice otherwise. It was clean, bright and even had a human at the door that had to check his ID before buzzing him through.
The wolf nudged his arm with his muzzle, and Keith tilted his head where he'd let it fall back against the wall, looking into his yellow eyes. The door-watcher-buzzer guy had apparently been warned by Pidge that a man with a 'large dog' would be visiting, but he'd still stared, slack-jawed at the luminescent creature whose shoulders reached Keith's hip.
"Dunno if this place will be big enough for you, bud. We might have to sort something else out for you." He muttered, patting his muzzle before stabbing the bottom of the crutch into the hard floor and heaving himself up. "We'll see in a minute."
Leaning on the crutch, he buzzed the little intercom numbered '304', and waited. After a moment he knocked, and after another moment buzzed again.
He fumbled for his datapad and checked the information he'd entered next to her name a few nights ago. And then went back through their chat log to double check what she'd written. Clearwater Building, Apt 304- the address he'd given the cab driver. Sharing a glance with the wolf, he knocked again. Still no answer. The wolf whined and Keith raised a brow at him.
"No, we're not just teleporting in. That would be intruding."
He whined again and vanished with a pop, leaving Keith alone in the corridor.
Just as he stomped back to his discarded bag to sit down and type out a message, the sound of hurried footsteps reached his ears and he looked up to a familiar figure. Pidge was running up the corridor, clutching a backpack nearly as big as her, hair flying around her face, strands of her fringe sticking to her flushed forehead and cheeks.
She stopped by her door, dumping the bag similarly to the way he'd dropped his, wheezing with her hands planted on her knees. When she straightened up he could see her denim jacket was buttoned up wrong, pens and a stylus jammed into the tie on her ponytail.
"I'm sorry- So sorry- my class ran late-"
"It's fine-" Keith started, "I've not been here long." He saw Pidge's gaze fall on his crutch and her eyes widen in horror and held back his own grimace.
"Shit, I meant to message you this morning, the lift!"
"Maintenance, yeah. I know."
"I'm sorry-" Pidge repeated, but Keith cut her off.
"It's fine. You wanna get the door?" He picked up his bag, and Pidge started guiltily, turning to the door and popping back a flap to scan her palm. The door clicked open, but instead of walking through it, Pidge stood in the way and turned back to him.
"Before we go in, you have to know- I didn't forget you were coming, I promise." She said, staring up at him, still a little pink in the face.
"Right, OK?" Keith shrugged, completely nonplussed.
"What I mean by that is, I planned to tidy up, and I was gonna get groceries and stuff- get you all set up and have my shit completely together, but before I knew it, it was Thursday and you were arriving, and- just... Just don't judge, OK?"
"Pidge, you're putting me up in your space, for free. It's this or a motel, or a bunk at the Garrison. Can we just go in?"
Pidge nodded, sighed, and pushed the door open.
The hallway was made narrow by a shoe rack littered with coloured sneakers, boots and backpacks against one wall, and a low cabinet on the other piled with mail and leaflets and a green umbrella with cartoony frog eyes propped up next to it. Pidge eased her way through, current backpack held high and Keith copied her, pulling his crutch up for the time being until the little corridor opened up into the living area, the floor set a little lower so they had to step down to enter.
The wolf had been making himself comfortable on a squashy looking couch and upon seeing them enter, disappeared and re-materialized above Pidge, knocking her to the floor and snuffling excitedly at her face.
"Kosmo- ah! Hello to you too!" She choked out between giggles, pushing at the furry chest that pinned her to the floor and Keith bent to shove at the wolf himself.
"Come on you ass, let her up."
Obediently he backed up and sat to attention, letting Pidge get back to her feet, face a little slobbery but no worse for wear.
There was a sofa and an armchair in the living area- the sofa now had a fine dusting of blue hairs sticking to the mint throw and rumpled cushions, complete with a wolf shaped indent. One wall was completely taken up by shelves crammed with textbooks, hard drives, what looked like a collection of old jewel disc cases, a unit dedicated to comic books and even a stuffed mermaid doll peeking out from one shelf.
The low table in the middle also had books piled on and underneath it, papers scattered across the smooth white surface and pens gathered inside a coffee mug.
Pidge winced as she caught him looking at the room; every spare surface was taken up with books or computer pieces or old mugs. The sink was full of dishes and there was a coat that had been aimed at one of the high stools in the kitchen area, but had missed and was crumpled on the floor.
"I warned you, I meant to tidy up before you got here. I did at least get the bathroom and your room spruced up though."
The sofa the wolf had claimed was backed up against a section of a half-wall that separated off the lounge from the kitchen area, but she led him past that and to a door on the opposite end of the room.
"This is yours," Pidge pushed open the door to a smaller room. The carpet had the telltale tracks of a recent vacuum cleaning session, the bed was made with crisp aqua blue sheets, an extra comforter and set of towels sitting on a small corner desk. It was left mostly plain- white walls, the wooden furniture was stained light. It would have felt like a hotel room except for the boxes of books and discs peeking out from under the bed, and the blinds on the window were open, letting the last of the evening sun in and making the room look warmer.
"There's a lock on the door so you can hole up in here and have all the privacy you want." She said, and crossed to the dresser against the wall. "The top two drawers are empty- there's some of Matt's clothes in the bottom drawer from when he visits- he won't mind if you need to borrow anything-" Her eyes fell on the bag on his shoulder- pretty small considering how long he was supposed to be staying. "Are you OK for clothes and stuff?"
Keith shrugged. "I have some stuff in storage, I can go get it."
"Cool." Pidge nodded. and then tapped the wardrobe door with her knuckles. "There's a rail in there if you wanna hang anything. There is... I've got some more coursework in here and under the bed. I don't think I'll need any of it for the next few weeks, but if I do I'll knock, OK?"
Keith couldn't help the little snort in response. Just as he'd thought she couldn't possibly cram anymore paperwork into this apartment, she'd proved him wrong again. He dreaded to think what her room looked like, but honestly it was comforting. There were few constants in life, but Pidge hoarding and collecting knowledge like a dragon's cache of treasure was one of those things that would never change.
"I'll let you get settled," Pidge was saying, and he looked back up as she headed back to the doorway. "there's plenty of soap and shampoo and stuff in the bathroom if you wanna get a shower- towels over there-" She pointed at the little desk, "If there's anything you need I'm gonna do a grocery run on Saturday and I will clean up the place too- it's my day off. But dude, just treat this place as your own, OK? I'm out a lot, so you've got the run of the place in the daytime. As long as you don't set anything on fire I don't really mind what you get up to."
"I'm not gonna set the place on fire."
"That's what Lance said." Pidge grumbled, and nodded towards the desk where underneath, Keith could make out the remains of scorch marks in the wall.
"Exactly." Pidge was out of the room and gone before he could ask for an explanation.
The shower was good- the water pressure was one thing that he did miss when he was on board Marmoran vessels for extended periods of time. Looking at the shower head it seemed as if Pidge had gotten it modified; even if she couldn't physically do it herself, with a father, brother and best friend who were also mechanical magicians and a foot taller than her it wasn't out of the question.
When it came to opening the shower door to get out it was a little stiff, and he had to brace himself against the wall to push on it, aware that his leg was protesting very loudly by way of throbbing so hard he felt it in his ears. He had to sit again once he was out, perched on the edge of the toilet lid to dry himself, steadfastly looking anywhere but his left thigh and staring instead at the green robe hung on the back of the door.
His datapad began to beep in his jacket pocket and he scrambled to his pile of discarded clothes to dig out out turn it off before Pidge could hear through the walls. It only took another moment of rooting around in the inside pockets to find the little capsule inside, shake a pill out and use the cup on the sink to swill it down. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror and scowled at it, throwing his towel back over his head and scrubbing vigorously at his wet hair.
Pidge was in the kitchen area, dispensing an armful of mugs onto the side by the sink and she looked up when he reentered the room and sat on the sofa. She'd discarded her jacket and appeared to have been trying to tidy up a little; the piles of books were more uniform and her backpack sat open by the coffee table, yet more sheaves of paper stuffed into it.
"Kosmo just... kinda poofed out, that's normal, yeah?"
"Yeah, he does his own thing a lot." Keith nodded, plucking at the throw. "Sorry about the shedding. It's warmer here than the last place we were stationed."
"No worries. I miss having a dog around." When he looked back up to argue that the wolf was not a dog, she'd crossed back to stand on the other side of the coffee table and was shaking a wooden tray at him.
"Takeout drawer." She said, rattling the flyers and menus inside again. "I figured we'd order in, and tomorrow I can make a list, get some real stuff in. You want anything to drink? I have water, three different flavours of tea... Coke, beer- or coffee? Well, it's probably too late for coffee, but I don't know what hours you're keeping- I think there's a bottle of wine somewhere under the sink, I'm not a fan, but-"
"Pidge." Keith interrupted, taking the drawer and watching as her rambling stuttered to a halt. "Relax. It's just me. I'm not some alien diplomat or like, the emperor of Mars that you need to please. Just me."
"I know." She said, her empty hands fidgeting and twisting themselves around the hem of her shirt. "It's been a while since you- since I had any guests. You know- if you were staying at my mom's you'd be eating some delicious homemade dish in a spotless dining room right now- I definitely didn't get any of her hosting skills, and I just-"
"It's OK." Keith stopped her again before her ramble could run away with her. "I'm definitely more of an 'eating pizza in semi-squalor' kind of guy."
"Well good, because that's what's happening tonight." Pidge quirked a smile- finally, and knelt down by the coffee table, continuing to sort through her work as Keith thumbed through the leaflets in the drawer. He quickly zeroed in on a menu, and used his datapad to input an order of several very greasy sounding pizzas and sides for them to share. By the time he'd finished Pidge had cleared a space on the coffee table and had moved onto to the next pile of books on it, sorting through them and tucking notes into a folder.
"What is all this, anyway?" Keith lifted a page of a textbook that had been left open at some sort of diagram. "A new project?" If he could get her talking about her work, she'd definitely relax.
"Cybernetics and Nanotechnology." Pidge indicated the book he was looking at, and then raised the one in her hand. "And Neurology... And some standard Human Medicine. I wanted to branch out a little into other species- Altean and Galra would be the obvious choices, but I just don't have the time between classes and work. I want to design prosthetics." She added in response to his bewildered look. Sure enough, underneath the book he was looking at was another pad opened up to an outline of a human body, branches of nerves labelled and highlighted within.
"Like for Shiro?" He noticed that the scribbled notes became more dense around the arm and torso area, Pidge's handwriting cramped close and too small for him to make out.
"Well, anyone who needs them, but yeah- we've been talking and that's what I'm working on right now- designing and building a prototype for him; he's gonna be patient number one." Pidge stood up with a stack of books and carefully slotted them onto a shelf on the wall behind her. "And from what I heard, you were almost going to end up my patient number two."
Keith stiffened, and he felt her gaze follow his hand as it gripped his thigh without permission from his brain.
"Yeah, well," He muttered, "I'm fine, so I'm not. Gonna be number two, or whatever."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm relieved about that. Your mom called me, after you confirmed you were coming here and filled me in on what she thought I needed to know."
Pidge made her way back and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, her knees dangerously close to his, hands clasped between her legs. He chose to glare stubbornly at the cover of Localization of Clinical Neurology, but he could feel her staring at his face, not moving or giving up on her gaze.
"I'm glad she did, considering you neglected to mention to me that your planet leave was because you shattered your femur and spent two phoebs with metal screws in your leg."
"Like I said, I'm fine. See any metal now?" He spread his hands out with a flourish, finally meeting her eye. "I heal fast- Galra genes."
"You'd have healed faster if you hadn't kept pushing yourself- but I'm not gonna lecture you on that. Krolia told me you'd have appointments at the Medical Centre, and it's because you're Galra that it's imperative you go. You heal fast, but if you heal wrong at any point you'll be in trouble. She just wanted me to make sure you actually attend your appointments, and I'm working and studying there a lot anyway, so I said I'd give you a ride."
"I can sort my own transport out; I'm not six." Keith sneered, but Pidge was unaffected.
"No, you're not a child, but I know you. You're always putting everything else above your own comfort or safety. They've had to corral you on Earth just to stop you trying to do Blade stuff. Please, let me do this for you? It's honestly no bother having an extra person in the car, plus your mom is scarier than you and I don't want to disappoint her."
"I can't believe you're in cahoots with my mother."
"Put it this way, Keith." Pidge said promptly, folding her arms. "When you saw that the lift was out today, knowing I live on the third floor- did you walk the stairs on your busted leg, or did you get Kosmo to take you up?"
He knew he didn't have to answer. This was a trick question. In her eyes he could see she knew exactly what he'd done and was only asking him for dramatic effect- to win the argument and he had no comeback. She knew him. They might not have seen each other in... X'hal knew how long, but she was still able to go toe-to-toe with him when he got defensive and prickly.
A doorbell rang, making Keith jump, and Pidge unfolded her arms to plant her hands on her knees and stand up. "You always put everything above yourself, Keith. Let us put you first for once, OK?"
Keith sat, listening to the low buzz of Pidge chatting with who he assumed was a delivery person. He had spent what felt like decaphoebs propped up with metal screws digging through his leg. In fact, he'd likely forever have metal implants to replace what couldn't be repaired. It had been infuriating. Every second spent cooped up in the medical ward had felt like days, and to have been booted out of his own missions, replaced so that they could carry on without him- well, he knew logically that it was the right decision, that to put everything on hold because of one man would be ridiculous, but it still stung, frustration still bubbled molten under his skin.
The screws had come out and he'd been desperate to get back into action- it didn't even have to be out on the field, he'd take anything. And yet he was still being treated as if he was made of glass. He was still healing- he knew that, but how was he supposed to get better if nobody would let him get back into some sort of routine?
OK, maybe he should have told Pidge the reason he needed somewhere to stay for a while was because he needed to attend physical therapy in the city. He'd really only mentioned he'd be visiting Earth to Shiro, who'd suggested asking Pidge about her spare room and then, obviously knowing Keith would feel awkward calling her out of the blue to ask, must have passed the message onto her because she'd called him, fresh from a stint on Olkari studying something he hadn't quite grasped. The next thing he'd known she was sending her Earth address, directions from the spaceport and he'd barely managed to get a word in. She'd bent over backwards for him, offering up her spare room without a thought and even when his mother had apparently called to tell her about his... condition, she'd still opened her door for him, and ready to fight, it seemed.
Pidge returned with a small stack of boxes and bags and placed them on the coffee table, reaching underneath it for a moment and then with a low hum the table rose a few inches to make the food easier to reach.
She flopped down on the couch next to him and passed him a drink from inside one of the bags. The snap and hiss of the cans opening broke the silence for a second, and Pidge was the first to lean over, pop open a box of garlic dough balls and dig in.
Keith was halfway through his first slice of pizza when he swallowed, put the slice down on his makeshift card plate and wiped his mouth.
"Fine." He said. "If you're going the same way... It's practical to ride with you."
"An excellent way of looking at it."
She wasn't looking at him, just continued to pick the vegetables from her slice of pizza, eating them individually before folding up the slice to eat like that. He paused again.
"I didn't mean to sound ungrateful, Pidge. I'm sorry."
This time she shot him a sideways glance, brow raised as she casually crammed the whole slice into her mouth.
"I've been stuck in a medical wing for ages. I was looking forward to a bit of freedom."
"I told your mom I'd help you get to your appointments. There was never any talk of keeping you trapped in here or babysitting you. You're not the 'Emperor of Mars', and I don't have time for that."
He grinned a little at her words, and she smirked back, wiping her fingers on one of the napkins that came in the bag.
"Actually while we're on the subject, you got your datapad?"
Keith fumbled a little in one of his larger pockets, unlocked the pad and passed it over into Pidge's open hand. He watched her tap at it for a few moments, and then hand it back.
"There. You're all connected up to the apartment."
"And... what does that mean?"
"You've got access to everything. The internet, the locks, AC, coffee machine..." She shrugged, and then gave him a pointed look. "And you have my organizer. There's bus schedules, cab numbers, maps. Shops, parks, libraries- anything you want, it's in there."
"Don't mention it." She said, and continued tearing at the slice of pizza in her hand. For a while they ate in silence, Keith pretending to browse through the programs Pidge had connected him to, and chancing glances at her whenever she leaned over the table for her drink or a barbecue wing.
She looked tired- hair raked haphazardly out of her eyes underlined with purple, and yet she was twitchy and uncharacteristically weird about her mess. Clutter was usual for Pidge, but her caring what other people thought about it was not. Perhaps him staying here was a bad idea. Perhaps he should have found somewhere else to stay. He couldn't even remember the last time they'd spent any time together-
"The wedding." Pidge said, unprompted, leaning back on the sofa and shooting him a grin. "We last saw each other two years ago, at Matt and Shiro's wedding."
"Shit." Keith breathed. "That long?" and Pidge shrugged at him.
"We got busy. It happens."
"I bet you saw Hunk like, last week though." Keith countered with a frown. Two years? Granted most of this year he'd been holed up in a medical ward, in and out of healing pods and surgeries, but something hot was creeping up his neck anyway.
"Mmm, I think last November? There was a winter gourmet market in London that he wanted to go to, then he stopped off at his parents, and then here." Pidge tapped her chin, and continued as he opened his mouth again. "Lance was here in the summer. Buuut, you'd be right if under 'last week' we're including video chats. You never video chat with us."
"Not very interesting chatting from a hospital bed." He grumbled.
"Might have passed the time for you." And again Keith paused to try and formulate a response, watching Pidge roll her eyes at him with a half smile. "Still, it'd be nice to hear from you occasionally, instead of about you from Shiro or Allura, or a Blade report. I'm not holding it against you." She added, stretching her arms out and rolling her neck with a yawn.
Pidge systematically piled slices of pizza into spaces inside other boxes, stacking the empty ones up on the floor beside her. It was a short walk to the kitchen area to tuck the boxes in the refrigerator, and she leaned on the half-wall behind the couch to look at him.
"Well, I'm gonna try and get some shut eye. Keyword here being 'try'. If you need anything just bang on my door, I'll likely still be awake. You know, the couch pulls out if you don't like the bed-"
"You're doing the twitchy host thing again, Pidge." Keith said, his lips turning up. "I'll be fine- I'll probably turn in myself in a moment. Long trip and all."
Pidge nodded, cheeks colouring a little where she tapped on the surface of the wall.
"OK. Well, I gotta be up early so if I don't see you in the morning..." She trailed off, and Keith nodded.
"Go sleep, Pidge."
Her face softened for a second, eyes looking him up and down and lingering for a moment on his face. "Sure thing. Goodnight, Keith."
She ran a hand through her hair and turned, pulling the biros out of the elastic tie as she went, disappearing into her room.
Keith watched the space where she'd closed the door on him, sucking his lip in between his teeth. Two years. Had it really been two years since he'd seen his friends?
No, he distinctly remembered seeing Allura and Coran at a Coalition gathering, a big one, a few phoebs before his injury. Hunk and Lance had been there too. And as Captain of the Atlas he spoke with Shiro on a frequent basis.
Pidge was a different case, he supposed. She'd been traveling- he knew that much, but the galaxies were many and vast, and their goals had been different. He'd gone out to help, to fight. Pidge had gone to see, to learn.
As he looked around the little apartment, he could see pieces of the little life she was making for herself- books bound with materials not found on Earth, pictures on the mantel of her and her father on a planet with a purple sky and two suns. A map of starlines from the Olkari horizon.
A photograph from the wedding; Matt with his hair in a sleek braid and silk tie around his neck, Shiro a sculpted Adonis in a white suit and starlight hair, their arms around their respective Best Men. Him and Pidge. Clad in matching charcoal suits, though in his memory Pidge had worn hers better than him- the four of them all grinning at each other instead of the camera, the Holts with their matching crooked smiles, Matt and Shiro positively beaming at each other. Pidge had sworn her red-rimmed eyes were from all the flowers- the bouquets, centerpieces, and white blossoms woven into her brother's hair, but he'd seen her take the double-strength antihistamine before the ceremony.
His eyes burned and he dragged his fingers across them and pinched the bridge of his nose. He hadn't been lying; he was tired, had traveled for a long time today. Even with wormhole ports situated across the galaxy, it had taken a couple of jumps to get him to Earth. He stood up, ignoring the stiffness in his leg, instead just waiting a second before taking a step so that the damn thing didn't buckle under him again.
The windows in the bedroom were opened just a crack, a slight breeze circulating the room and feeling cool on his face. It had been a long time since he'd experienced an Earth summer, and not one spent in the desert, flopped on top of the musty covers of a bed in the middle of the day, clothes discarded in favor of lying under a window and trying to catch even the weakest of winds from it. For now he only stripped his shirt off, leaving his pants on, pulled back the covers and crawled carefully into bed, settling into a newfound position on his back, the least likely to jostle his leg at night. The scent of laundry detergent was foreign in his nose, but oddly comforting as he gazed blankly through heavy eyelids at the ceiling in the dark.
It was never silent on a spaceship, not really. There was the purr of engines, the hum of oxygen filters and electric lights and crew members going about their duty. Instead his ears were filled with the slightly muffled sounds of traffic, civilians coming and going without schedule, the odd thump through the wall he assumed must be Pidge still lumbering around despite her intent to sleep. It would all be difficult to shut out if he weren't so exhausted.
He closed his eyes to the surroundings, and slept.