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Losing our minds, bit by bit

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When Keith woke up, the blinds on the room’s window were still closed. That meant that it must’ve been around five or six in the morning; the nurses always opened the blinds at half past six and would bring breakfast quarter past seven.

Keith had already learned that a while ago, since he usually had nothing else to do but count the minutes he spent in this damned place, lying in his bed and staring at the clock or at the ceiling. Reading still proved to be a difficulty for him, and watching TV wasn’t allowed either. The only sources of entertainment he had were either his floor-mates inviting him to hang out or him just watching Lotor drool in his sleep. Needless to say, he preferred to do the former.

Well, that is if you didn’t count the little walks he took during the night, of course. Those were fun. He had the freedom to go wherever he wanted or say what had been stuck in his mind for so long. In exchange, he had to live with the knowledge that the life of others and possibly his own were in danger because of… Well, because of what, exactly? Despite how many scattered clues he could think of, he just wasn’t smart enough to figure out a logical explanation or what the cause of this was. Who knew if anyone was smart enough for that.

Keith took a deep breath and pushed himself up into an upright position. His arms didn’t feel as exhausted as usual, which must’ve meant that his sessions with Coran did, in fact, have a purpose and he was making progress.

Ever since the beginning of his stay, he hadn’t really had the chance to collect his thoughts yet. Perhaps everything had been too hectic - or maybe he was just too afraid to think about what was happening here.

Well, first of all, the patients were a lot more active during the night.

Secondly, some of them were surprisingly hostile towards him. Him, specifically, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong as far as he knew.

Then there was the fact that some patients’ health had been getting worse, for unexplainable reasons, and there were dying. Blaytz was gone already. Nobody has told Keith if they knew the cause of it by now, but he guessed that was not the case.

Also, room 327 and that conversation between Dr. Sendak and Professor Zarkon. There was obviously something fishy going on and they were involved. But Keith couldn’t just ask. Not only because he was physically incapable to do so, but because then he would practically confess that he was eavesdropping, while also walking around at night – and on the third floor, to make matters worse.
And how could he forget; the voice. The first sign that he was going crazy. It was almost comical how Keith couldn’t even pinpoint if the voice was a friend or a foe. There had been more than one situation where he would’ve been doomed were it not for the voice. But it was still an unwanted parasite in his head, after all.

‘Thalamus.’

Well, if that wasn’t the right timing… Keith had almost expected the voice to show up as soon as he started thinking about it. And that was just what he had wanted. He had already figured out long ago that the voice was aware of all the current events going on around Keith, but he had started wondering last night whether or not he could interact with the voice as well.

‘What’s thalamus?’ Keith thought, thus in a way asking his own mind a question. The voice should be able to pick up on that, right?

‘Gray.’ The voice still had no emotion and didn’t speak in full sentences. He didn’t want to make things too easy for him, Keith guessed. That wouldn’t have been entertaining enough. But at least now he knew that he could have a conversation with it, which was progress, he guessed.

‘Is thalamus gray?’ He replied, closing his eyes and trying to remember if he had ever heard about something or someone called thalamus before. His memory had been fuzzy since his accident, not to mention that he found it harder to concentrate. Surely that was the reason why his brain couldn’t come up with anything at the moment.

Keith waited a few seconds, staring at the light lines of sunshine on the floor that shone through the blinds. Waiting for the voice to reply. Waiting for ten seconds, then thirty. Maybe the voice wasn’t sure either. Or it just wasn’t willing to cooperate. Again, that would’ve made things too easy.

It would be pointless to wait any longer. The voice wasn’t going to reply. Keith sighed and reached for the nurse-call button on his nightstand. He might as well get up if the voice wasn’t cooperating. He would have time to think about all this stuff while he ate breakfast.

Barely a minute later, appeared at the door. Keith could remember seeing her a few times before, but there was no name he could associate with her.

“Good morning, Keith, do you need anything?” She asked with a smile while she walked up to Keith’s bed and glanced over the notes at the end of his bed.

Keith motioned to his stomach, trying to signal that he was hungry. The nurse nodded understandingly.

“You’d like your breakfast?” A nod. “That’s fine, Keith, I’ll be right back, then.”

While Keith waited, he glanced over at his lovely roommate, Lotor. The guy had his head turned away from Keith, hands gripping the mattress forcefully, almost like he was having a bad dream. Keith wondered if Lotor had been in his bed when he returned to his room yesterday; he couldn’t remember anymore.

The nurse came back and put the food tray in front of Keith, then went to the window to open the blinds. “You’re up pretty early, did you not sleep well?”

Keith shook his head before looking down at today’s breakfast. Tea, as always, along with a cream cheese sandwich and an apple, both cut up in small pieces. At least there was some diversity when it came to the menu, despite everything else here being repetitive and not exactly exciting. Well, it was a rehab center after all.

“Oh well, that’s a relief. Hmm, Dr. Sendak told me that Professor Zarkon would like to pay you a visit today. You know, talk to you about some things and check out your scar. Nothing out of the ordinary, you don’t need to worry.” The nurse came back and sat down on the chair between his and Lotor’s bed. She flashed Keith a smile, then turned to Lotor, immediately contorting her face to a frown. Keith noticed a name tag on her shirt and tried to decipher the letters, which just left him with disappointment and slight frustration. That didn’t get better when it took him six tries to pick up the next piece of his sandwich. Or when he accidentally dropped the sippy cup.

Why does Zarkon want to visit him, though? He hadn’t found out about last night, had he? Maybe Lance wasn’t that believable after all. Or they could’ve simply found his empty bed. But in that case, wouldn’t they have spotted that Lotor was missing, too?

“Hey buddy, watch out,” Keith’s nurse put the small sandwich piece he had dropped on his lap back on the tray. She smiled encouragingly with that overly sweet smile Keith knew all too well by now, then turned to Lotor and started messing his blood pressure and such while talking to him… about his family..? Keith wasn’t sure.

Fifteen minutes later, after Lotor had been fed, the nurse took his empty tray and left. Keith sighed and laid back on his pillow. He had a lot of time before therapy, but he didn’t know how long Professor Zarkon would want to stay. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t even have therapy today if the odds were in his favor. If there was one thing he absolutely hated about this place, it was speech therapy. Adam kept being so persistent, even though he knew very well that Keith had given up on speaking at this point. He sounded like a caveman every time he tried.

“Good morning, Keith.”

Keith’s head snapped up and his eyes met the ones of Professor Zarkon, who had just entered the room. He nodded as a way to greet the surgeon.

Zarkon sat down and pulled out a clipboard, then looked up at Keith with a smile. It was a typical friendly smile, but somehow, it felt off. Maybe it was just Keith’ imagination after what he had heard last night. Probably. Zarkon was honestly a sympathetic and friendly person who just wanted to help his patients. He didn’t need Keith’s distrust.

“So… Well, first of, how are you? I haven’t seen you in a while. Your surgery was almost a month ago.”

Keith shrugged. What was he supposed to say? There was no right answer. It’s not like he was suffering, but being at rehab after a TBI wasn’t the height of luxury. He had been a lot happier before the accident.

“I know what you mean. It can be hard to adjust to your new life.” Zarkon gave him a pat on the shoulder. Not like that made him relax more. “Actually, that’s part of what I want to talk about today. I don’t think anyone has had a serious talk with you about your life after recovery, right?”

He nodded with a bitter expression. In the past weeks, people hadn’t really bothered talking to him in a way that didn’t make him feel like an idiot.

“Okay. Let’s start with the basics, then. May I take a look at your scar, please?”

Keith bowed his head automatically. He was used to this. His surgical scar was the most important one of all his injuries.

“It’s healing alright. If I’m being honest, I’m kind of surprised. In a good way, of course.” Zarkon flashed his obnoxious smile again and continued with the usual check-up. Blood pressure, shining a light in Keith’s eyes, and other stuff Keith had to endure almost every day. He understood its importance, of course, it was clear to him that he had almost died and that the doctors wanted to make sure he gets the best possible outcome at the end of his recovery.

After a good five minutes, the professor leaned back with a satisfied expression. “Alright, Keith. First of all, I have spoken with Dr. Sendak and decided that you’re fit enough to start doing water aerobics with the other patients here at the rehab center’s pool. Now that that’s discussed, let’s get to the interesting part, shall we? One thing you have to know is that your brain will never be the same after your traumatic brain injury. It’s a disability. Even after you leave Voltron Rehabilitation Center, you will most likely have some sort of learning difficulty. You could have a shorter attention span, difficulty remembering or comprehending new information; the list goes on.”

Keith listened quietly, ironically taking some time for his brain to progress everything the professor was saying. He had realized all of this long ago, but he had never thought about how much it would actually affect his education or his chance of getting a good job. And Professor Zarkon wasn’t making it sound good.

Zarkon must’ve noticed his sour expression, as he quickly continued. “Don’t get discouraged, Keith. Everything I’ve told you so far is only a possibility. Your surgery went great, maybe you’ll surprise us with how fast you’ll recover.” After that sentence, he winked at Keith, which made him extremely uncomfortable. Maybe his gut was right after all and he should not trust this man under any circumstances. “There are offers at some universities for students with TBI or other disabilities. You don’t have to worry.”

After a short hesitation, Keith nodded. The professor seemed to have changed his tone entirely after he noticed how discouraged Keith was, surely he didn’t have high hopes when it came to Keith’s future. Way to motivate your patients, Zarkon, great job.

Zarkon continued, cheering him up right away with assuring him that he could also have reduced social skills and poor judgment. Because who has time to worry about learning difficulties when you can’t even make friends, am I right? Keith suffered through another twenty minutes of the professor offering him advice on programs for people with TBI before Adam grew impatient and visited him to take him to his therapy room himself.

For once, Keith was really, really thankful for Adam.

Said thankfulness didn’t last long, however. Only until he was sitting across from Adam again. Adam would show him a card with a picture of an object on it, and he would have to try saying its name. He was pretty sure those cards were from a memory game meant for little children.

“K- Koia- Or… Wa...” Keith shook his head before laying it on his arms resting on the desk in front of him, hiding his face from Adam. He just couldn’t do it. According to Zarkon, his future was already doomed, why should he bother trying?

“Car. Right?” Adam’s expression didn’t change and he put the card to the pile of other cards. “C’ mon, don’t give up, it’s a normal thing. You’ll get better at it.”

Keith doubted that. His hand-eye coordination and his movement have visibly improved in the last couple of days, but that was not the case when it came to his speech.

“Alright, let’s try something else. How about reading? I’ll help you.”

He watched as Adam pulled out a piece of paper. The words on it were written in a bigger font, maybe something around 24-28, Keith guessed. But despite his best efforts, he still couldn’t read them. Like, he recognized that those were words, but they just didn’t make sense for his brain.

“Okay, let’s start slow. You can do this, Keith.”

Surprisingly, reading was a bit easier than Keith had initially thought. Of course, it was still difficult, but Adam really did take it slow and made him get through each word letter by letter.

Now that he thought about it… Wait. He didn’t remember having any problems with the letters when he had been using Pidge’s tablet or reading the notes at that old man’s bed on the third floor last night, for a matter of fact. Shifting between the ability and inability to read was definitely not a normal thing, right?

Keith shrugged it off for now and concentrated on reading. By the end of their session, he managed to read six sentences. He was almost starting to warm up to logotherapy, though when Adam asked him to read them aloud as well, Keith’s confidence vanished in a matter of minutes.

 

After the therapy, Keith decided to head to the common room in hopes of finding Lance, Pidge, Matt, or the others there. He still had to use his walker, but it was noticeable how much he had improved. While he still practically dragged his legs to move forward, his movements were faster. It felt a bit more natural. He didn’t have to concentrate on every single step.

The room was practically empty when he arrived. It could’ve been because most patients were at therapy or enjoying the good weather outside. Yeah, that was most likely the reason. There was, however, a young woman sitting on one of the couches, that Keith hasn’t seen around before.

“Uhm, hi… I’m waiting for Lance, have you seen him?” The woman asked as soon as Keith entered her field of vision. Now that he could see her face, Keith realized just how much she resembled Lance. She must’ve been a family member of his. From what Keith experienced the last time the McClains visited, he could tell today wasn’t going to be a chill day either. He shook his head after he processed the question and made his way to one of the tables. Grabbing one of the hand-eye coordination games there, he didn’t pay much attention to Lance’s relative anymore.

Until the door opened again and Lance stepped through. Keith looked up, just to see immediately in what bad shape his friend was. His limp seemed way worse than it did most days and he was holding onto the furniture near him as he approached the woman, as if he felt dizzy and could lose his balance any moment.

“Hi, Veronica… Long time no see,” Lance flashed her a smile and sat down next to her. He didn’t seem to have noticed Keith, but Keith didn’t mind at all. He would have time to ask him about last night later.

Veronica frowned and started asking Lance about what had happened to him. Because obviously, something was off, despite Lance denying that fact.

The possibility, that Lance simply didn’t remember popped up in Keith’s mind. Of course, he had kind of expected that already. Nevertheless, his suspicion on what could’ve happened to Lance concerned him. Because he last saw – or rather heard – Lance with Dr. Sendak and Professor Zarkon, and they definitely weren’t talking about anything positive. Keith automatically concluded that they should not be trusted.

‘Room 327.’

Keith waited until the familiar echoing in his head subsided. The voice, good as always at association games, probably reminded him about the room because his thoughts about Zarkon and Sendak.

He shifted in his chair, facing the table again. There was no chance he could go to the third floor right now, in broad daylight. There was no chance he would not get caught.

‘Thalamus. Gray. They’re out of control. Room 327.’

Keith bit his lip. The voice usually didn’t say so much in one go, it must’ve meant this was really important… Then again, why should he trust the voice? He’s still recovering, he shouldn’t take on such a stupid, senseless adventure.

‘Lance.’

“Keith! Hey buddy, thanks for returning my notebook! This is Veronica, my sister, by the way. Veronica, this is Keith, the guy I’ve told you about...” Keith was caught by surprise as Lance turned to him, clearly only noticing him now. His sister waved at Keith with a smile.

The voice was playing games with him now, he was sure. What was ‘Lance’ supposed to mean? Was he involved in this mess too? Or was it supposed to be a technique to manipulate Keith into visiting room 327 again?

The only reason Keith was going to sneak to the third floor now was because if he didn’t, the voice would’ve kept bothering him until he did.

He returned the wave and the smile, then grabbed his walker and started making his way towards the door.

“Leaving so soon? Did I say something wrong?” He could hear Lance’s voice behind him.

Keith glanced back after he came to a halt. It would be too awkward now not to reply. “Uh… uh… L… Mu-L...” He groaned. Why would he try speaking again when he knew very well it wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Oh well, time for the good old pantomime method. He pointed to his stomach and then in the direction of the cafeteria, which was left to the common room if he wasn’t mistaken.

“Do you mean lunch?” Veronica asked with a smile, speaking slowly and clearly, like most of the staff here. She probably had experience with talking to TBI patients, Lance to be exact.

Keith nodded thankfully and resumed walking, muttering his sorry excuse of a ‘bye’.

Once he was outside the common room, he headed to the elevator. Mostly because he couldn’t take the stairs with a walker, but also because it would more likely go unnoticed if he went to the third floor. He could always just blame it on his brain that he pressed the wrong button.

He was more than five feet away from the elevator when that typical ‘cling’ sound could be heard and the doors of the elevator slid open. Keith was about to step aside when he noticed that the elevator was empty.

Uhm… Strange. But okay. It was nothing that much out of the ordinary.

He stepped into the elevator without any second thoughts and pressed the button with the ‘3’ on it. There was something written next to the button, but, well, Keith was obviously unable to read it. It probably said something like ‘adult ward’ or such. It didn’t matter.

There seemed to be a lump forming in Keith’s throat as he waited for the elevator to reach the third floor. He was starting to get goosebumps from the anxiety that was creeping up in his mind and making him imagine the worst possible outcomes. Trying to stay reasonable, he took deep breaths until he calmed down. It was going to be fine. Like Lance had said yesterday: when in doubt, he could still act like he had no idea how he had gotten there.

The elevator stopped moving, and Keith gripped his walker so tight that his knuckles turned white. He couldn’t wait to just step out this thing and hurry down the hallway.

The doors didn’t open. Keith could hear that ‘cling’ sound again that showed that the elevator had reached the right floor, but the doors didn’t open. The doors. Didn’t. Open.

Great, his plan failed before he even started executing it. Only because this damn elevator broke and trapped him here inside.

Keith was about to throw his walker against the doors in frustration when his ears picked up a voice right on the other side of the metal.

“Nyma, I think it broke. We can take the stairs. You can go to your patients, I’ll report the issue to the porter in the meantime.”

That was Shiro’s voice. And they were probably going to leave right away. How convenient.

Keith counted to ten before daring to make a noise again. Shiro and Nyma – a nurse too, probably – must’ve been out of hearing distance by now. He leaned against the wall of the elevator and buried his head in his palms. How was he going to get out of this one? It wouldn’t have been a wise decision to press the alarm button on the elevator, he would only gain more attention with that.

Barely three seconds later, the doors just…opened. Without any help. Had Shiro gotten help so fast?

Surprised and confused, Keith stepped into the hallway. It was a lot brighter than he remembered, for obvious reasons, and it didn’t seem as mysterious. Well, it looked more or less like the second floor, except that the hallway was filled with elderly instead of teens, with a few middle-aged adults here and there. A few glances shifted to Keith, but they didn’t linger long.

Keith gulped and started moving forwards. Being seen by other patients wasn’t that bad – as long as no one from the staff noticed him.

The further he made it down the hall, the lesser people were sitting outside of their rooms. He supposed it was because the comatose patients didn’t need to be close to the elevator anyway, so it was just easier to put them at the end of the hall.

Three more doors, then he would get to the fire door. Which he, by the way, didn’t even remember from last night. He glanced behind him just to make sure once more that he was a, alone, and b, going the right way.

‘Room 327.’ The voice reminded him one more time before he opened the fire door and saw the room of 327 for the second time.

There were no doctors around this time, he could safely sneak in and check out this place. He stepped closer and grabbed the door handle, pressing it down, and-

Well, pressing down and realizing the door was locked. That made sense since this was a staff-only area. As he took a step back, he noticed a small gray square at the wall next to the door, one of those little devices where you had to slide your card into to open the door.

Keith grimaced and accepted that there was no way he could gain entry to the room. Not today, at least. He also had no chance to figure out what the room was for. An important piece of information that for sure would’ve helped him find out what was going on in this rehabilitation hospital.

He did however learn that there was a flight of stairs at this end of the hallway as well, which he hadn’t noticed until now. He wasn’t sure what to do with this information since he couldn’t take the stairs yet.

One thing he knew, however, was that someone was coming up those stairs.

Keith’s eyes widened as he looked around, looking for a hiding place in a panic. Getting his walker through the fire door would be difficult, and he wasn’t sure how much time he had left before the person reached the top of those stairs.

He hurried towards the fire door without his walker, holding himself up by leaning on the walls, stumbling and almost falling quite a few times. After he pushed open the fire door, he automatically made his way to the closest room, 326, the room he hid in last night as well.

The white-haired man was still there, and Blaytz’s former bed was still empty. Everything was like he had left it.

Keith made his way to the empty bed and sat down exhausted. It was kind of disrespectful, he knew, but he was close to collapsing from the stress, and the room seemed to be lacking any chairs. The poor old guy didn’t get a lot of visitors, Keith guessed.

He eventually changed his position into laying after a few minutes. He didn’t dare leave this room again, not after his walker was most likely found. The person who must’ve found it didn’t necessarily know it was his, but it was better to stay here to avoid becoming the main suspect.

 

A soft voice was talking to him, and the owner of that voice was gently shaking his shoulder.

“Keith, it’s time to wake up...”

As he slowly opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the face of Romelle. What was she doing here? Also, when did he fall asleep?

“Everyone is looking for you. You didn’t show up to therapy and we couldn’t find you anywhere. I’m guessing you sleepwalked again, but how did no one notice you going up the stairs?”

Keith frowned at that last sentence. He had entertained half of the third floor by demonstrating his walker-using skills in front of them. Why didn’t they report seeing him here?

“Come on, I should bring you back to your room. You’d rather sleep in your bed, am I right?” Romelle asked with a bright smile and helped him up from the bed.

 

After they returned Keith to his room and assured everyone that he was fine, Shiro decided it would be best to let him stay in bed for the rest of the day as well. Keith had to admit that he was very thankful for Shiro for making that decision. Wandering around the rehab center at night did also mean that he wasn’t getting enough sleep, and the consequences of these actions were starting to show.

To his disappointment, no one actually knew that he hadn’t had lunch – they all believed, because of Veronica’s retelling of what had happened, that he first ate something at the cafeteria before getting a nap. And no one bothered to ask the staff at the cafeteria apparently.

The dinner was quite delicious though; sage tea, along with a small soup and chicken with rice. It kind of made up for the missed lunch.

Keith’s heavy eyelids were practically begging him to close them. He hadn’t even realized how tired he actually was until he was under the covers and had a full stomach. Shiro was understanding and even encouraged Keith to go to sleep quickly, since ‘getting enough sleep was helping him heal’ and ‘a tired brain won’t recover as fast’.

After receiving the usual ‘good night’, ‘sweet dreams’ and such, Keith was finally left alone, and he hoped, almost prayed, that he would actually sleep through the entire night this time without leaving his bed.

Of course, due to the fact that this was Voltron Rehabilitation Center and that he had the worst luck in the entire universe, Keith wouldn’t get a good night’s rest. Why would he? There was no reason why he would’ve deserved it, right?

Still, it was kind of a surprise when he, sound asleep (and wishing it would stay that way as well), felt a sudden pressure on his chest and heard a quiet but clearly audible whisper.

“Keith. Keith, you have to check this out.”