Chapter 1: Cemetery Drive
This chapter started out as a couple of character studies I scribbled onto bits of paper towels, written mostly under the desk while I was standing around at work waiting for stuff to happen. I crammed them into my pockets whenever customers showed up and typed them up when I got home for the night. Now this thing's 21k words, I haven't gone to bed before 5AM in days, and my coworker thinks I collect and keep paper towels. I have no regrets.
No beta because I have no friends. Happy to accept corrections in the comments if I've done a dumb. Title from the MCR song of the same name, because I vibed Klaus SO hard listening to it, and the name is perfect for that disaster man.
The thing was. Well. The thing was that for a long, long time, Klaus’s superpower had basically just been ‘dead brother.’ He’d been so fucked up in so many ways for so long—high, so high, higher up in the sky than poor, devoted, deluded Luther off on his moon escapades, and probably for longer, too—and he’d done it to himself for a goddamn reason. He’d done anything and everything, whatever it took, in order to press his powers and everything that entailed down deep enough that he didn’t have to scream himself to sleep; the fact that Ben was still there didn’t have anything to do with him and everything to do with the way Ben clung to what was left of his connection to his living self.
Klaus himself, though, was incidental in the bargain. Ben was the constant shadow over his shoulder who insulted and cajoled him, egged him on and pulled him back. Sometimes he even whispered warnings in Klaus’s ear before a dealer in some skeevy back alleyway could shank him like he’d planned somewhere outside of Klaus’s hearing. Klaus was the connection to the living world that Ben couldn’t avoid, not if he wanted to be anything other than just another shade, just another disembodied voice screaming out pain and suffering that the world they’d left behind would never hear.
Five could teleport and time travel. Allison bent reality with just her voice. Diego could curve whatever he threw and he never, ever missed.
Klaus kept their dead brother from getting bored and lonely in the afterlife. It was probably still better than Luther’s ability, because all Luther had going for him was the raw strength and resilience of a dump truck, but not by much.
But maybe that wasn’t true at all, because if Ben could touch—and by touch Klaus meant punch Klaus in the face—then Klaus wasn’t just living life as the world’s worst satellite antenna. Ben could have contact with the world for the first time in years. Ben could—glow blue and defend their family from a hit squad bent on assassinating them, apparently. That was pretty damn awesome, and it was because of him. Go him! Go Ben!
It had only been a single breathless minute, where his hands lit up with the same blue light tying Ben to the physical world, but it had been enough. For a minute, his powers were limitless, were infinite, were muscles finally stretching after years spent coiled up tight and locked up inside in the dark. For a minute, he wasn’t an antenna, a crackling misbehaved connection over the airwaves; he was the bridge between life and death, the live wire, the conduit, the medium—the Séance—and even gravity wasn’t quite holding him down the way it should. Another minute more, and he was sure it would have let him go entirely.
* * *
They didn’t have another minute.
* * *
Then they were five-six-seven assholes standing in a ring and holding hands, holding tight to each other, surrounded by a different sort of blue light as Five’s powers rattled time and space around them.
Then they were themselves, but not, bodies slipping back to the wrong when; then they weren’t that, either, still the right minds but now in the wrong where—adult brains and memories in their childhood bodies and experiencing their childhood lives, and that wasn’t going to fucking cut it, no sir. Even Five, who’d been living out something of the same thing through the whole apocalypse-plus-buildup, wasn’t going to stand for that. Blue light shivered around them again, humming with that peculiar shhh-whoomp sound that Five’s powers left behind when he slipped through space and time.
* * *
Then they were a lot of things, in a lot of places, when and where. Klaus didn’t pretend to understand whatever time-travel shenanigans they were undertaking, since Five was their resident ‘expert’ and even he seemed to be mostly making this shit up as they went along.
At least the Commission wasn’t interfering, wherever-whenever they were. Five insisted that as long as they kept moving and didn’t make changes to the timeline that would stick, they’d be left alone.
They were fifteen, and then five, and then twenty-five. Sometimes they landed together, and sometimes they slid into place in their old bodies-lives and had to go tearing across the city to get back together before they could jump again. The longest it had taken was a week, when Allison had been in Europe for a movie shoot and had to wait until her manager left her alone long enough for her to escape without having to answer any questions.
So far no one had needed to go on an expedition to retrieve Luther from the moon. With their luck, though, it was probably just a matter of time.
Vanya was the most fucked up by the whole thing. She’d come back to consciousness with a jolt, and unlike Klaus on some of his most violent benders, she had remembered every last bit of what had been done—by her and to her—while she’d been on her power-crazed rampage. She had some pretty wild mood swings, from an obsessive guilt to a swirling fury that was directed at everyone and everything equally. In the early days, there was a lot of yelling, accusations and threats tossed around by just about everyone in just about equal measure, and not a lot actually got resolved.
No one was actually, actively trying to kill anyone else while they went along, no matter how much resentment was quietly festering away underneath. It was enough to start with.
Ben probably had it the worst out of everyone. Far enough back in the timeline, Five’s powers threw him back into his physical body, with all the emotions and sensations that came with it; past the moment of his death, he was a ghost again, invisible and inaccessible unless Klaus got it together and managed to manifest him.
Klaus was not great at manifesting.
Diego disappeared for two days, once, and came back only when Ben had hunted him down and Klaus had showed up to find out what the hell was up with him. As much as he’d missed and wanted to see his dead girlfriend—and god, Klaus got it, he did—it probably wasn’t a good idea to stalk her around town and loiter in her bushes or whatever, and Klaus pointed this out. “Buck up and get your ass in there,” Klaus told him seriously after he’d pounded on the window of Diego’s car until his brother had given in and unlocked the door. “Or get out of here. You can’t watch her through the windows forever, buddy. Someone’s eventually going to report the creeper with binoculars peeping on a lady from across the street.” Diego went home.
Allison spoke as much as she could in the early days, like she was making up for the lack of her voice while she still could. The first time they jumped to a point in time far enough forward, she called up her daughter and talked for hours until her voice went hoarse, and the next day when she woke up to find she had lost her voice entirely, she had a panic attack and couldn’t be talked down until Luther made her some hot tea with honey and convinced her it would come back, this time. Even as time passed, they still caught her reaching up to touch her throat every once in a while, like she was checking that it was still intact. She took to dragging a notebook and pen along with her through the jumps, ready for the moment to come when she’d need it again.
Five took in everything he saw in the parts of the timeline he’d missed the first time around, with the detached curiosity of a zoologist observing a herd of wild animals in their natural habitat. At any given moment, he was probably about five seconds away from whipping out a book to take notes. Luther tried to ‘help’ Five and explain some of the changes, but he’d spent most of his life either mostly alone in a mansion, punching people in the face, or isolated on the moon. His socialization and pop culture knowledge were either oddly specific or entirely lacking. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Top 40s hits of the 1980s and 90s, for example, but memes escaped him entirely, and the first time he saw a fidget spinner it had startled him so much that he threw the half-eaten muffin he was holding at the poor girl just trying to entertain herself behind the counter during her drop-dead dull diner shift.
Five not-so-politely told him to stop trying, after that.
* * *
One early jump threw Klaus back to a place he hadn’t exactly missed—strung out and half naked in someone’s house, with no idea whose, or where, or even why he’d gone in the first place, but it was hardly the first or only time and with whatever cocktail this past-body had in place of blood, it only barely mattered. Klaus watched the ceiling spin and heave in unsteady waves over his head, and the world stayed peaceful and quiet as time stretched like taffy around him.
He’d missed this. It hadn’t even been that long, really, and he had missed it already with a fixated, guilty intensity. He was never, ever telling Ben.
He came back to his body a bit when Ben—in spirit only, in this when and where—dropped to his knees and started screaming in his face, words he didn’t understand and a meaning beyond comprehension. At least it got him focused enough to start looking outside of himself again. That was the only reason that when some crazy-eyed stranger barreled into view, he was with it enough for the adrenaline to jolt him into acting.
He rolled out of the way, quick enough to avoid the stab to the side that had laid him up for weeks, once upon a time, while he sweated out the fever and infection. His fighting skills had never been as developed as his siblings’, and he hadn’t practiced for years, but there was still a reason they called it muscle memory. Lashing out, knocking the other man’s legs out from under him, all came as instinctively as it did to ignore the shallow slice that he took across the arm in order to defend his chest and neck. A sloppy grab and twist were more than enough to knock the knife out of this tweaker’s hand—the bastard was probably just as fucked up as Klaus was, if not more so, and that meant Klaus’s lack of coordination wasn’t so much a hindrance as an equalizer.
The blade went skittering across the floor. The other man cursed, loud and long. Klaus took the second of opportunity that gave him to waver between fight and flight, knowing he would rather run but also mostly sure that his legs weren’t going to hold him up if he tried.
Before he had to decide, an arm like a tree trunk came shooting into view, locked around the other man’s collar, and yanked him right off Klaus and entirely out of sight.
Klaus gaped, startled, at the empty space left behind. “Weird,” he decided at last, when the patch of air stubbornly continued to lack anyone trying to kill him. That hadn’t happened the first time around, he didn’t think.
“Hey, hey, bro, you with me? Klaus, can you hear me?”
Klaus blinked, and sounds turned into words, turned his head to the side and could suddenly tell the words were coming from Diego, who had appeared next to him without warning.
That was also weird, but he didn’t mind this particular weirdness as much. “Oh, hi,” he said, cheerfully enough, even though Diego was scowling like someone had kicked his puppy. Klaus hadn’t done any kicking of anything, so it probably wasn’t for him, exactly, just pointed in his general direction. “When did you get here?”
Diego probably answered, but now Klaus was registering sounds again and he was distracted by the weird noises coming from outside the room—thumps and crashes and a lot of yelling. Klaus let his gaze wander that direction, saw—something, that definitely was some kind of thing, and it was taking a lot of brain power to try and work it out.
That was Luther out there, he could tell, flinging someone around the hallway like a fucked-up human frisbee—Klaus would recognize that refrigerator body anywhere, no matter how hard he was trying to hide it under a trench coat. The whole picture was almost weirder than Diego appearing out of nowhere, actually, since it was a mostly normal turn of events but in the totally wrong context.
Diego grabbed him by the chin and dragged his gaze back around. Klaus’s eyes slid over the empty spot where crazy-guy had been a minute before on the way by, and remembered he maybe had bigger problems.
“Hey, wait, wait wait wait. Where’d he go? The guy, you know, the guy who stabbed me?”
“Stabbed?” Diego repeated, alarmed, seeming to see the blood for the first time. There wasn’t all that much, really. Only, like, a medium amount. Nothing to worry about.
“Oh, no, that was last time,” Klaus reassured him. “No stabbing this timeline. Still a bastard, though. Where’d he go?”
“Luther’s got him, okay? Nothing to worry about. Can you focus up for me, please? Can you tell me where the blood is coming from?” The next bit was barely a mutter, probably not meant for Klaus at all. “God, you’re so damn out of it right now. What the hell did you even take?”
“It wasn’t me,” Klaus told him earnestly. Whatever this body was on, the Klaus inhabiting it hadn’t had anything to do with it. He took a second to offer out his bleeding arm, since Diego seemed so interested in it. “I’m sober now.”
“Yeah, buddy, sure,” Diego said, immediately way too distracted by whatever he was doing to Klaus’s arm to really be listening.
“I am!” Klaus protested, rolling his head on a long loop around his neck, tipping it side-back-side-front-side and watching the world swirl and dive like a roller coaster while he stayed still. “Three whole days. I’m really doing it this time. Tell him, Ben,” he insisted, when Ben dipped into view over Diego’s shoulder. He looked back and forth between his two brothers. “I pinky-swear, D. I’m doing it. Benny-boy punched the pills right out of my mouth last time I tried to fuck it up.”
“No shit.” Diego glanced up at him, and then over his shoulder to check what Klaus was looking at. “Really?”
When Klaus just stared up at him, not saying anything, Ben finally caved and said, “yeah, Klaus, that’s right,” in the special calm voice he only used when he really wanted to start losing his shit. Klaus smiled and nodded up at him, because, really, it wasn’t as bad as all that.
“Shit,” Diego said again, with more emphasis. “Only you, man.”
There was a shh-whoomp sound, and when Klaus jumped, Ben glanced over his shoulder to check it out, because Ben was cool like that. “It’s just Five,” he said, scooting over so Klaus could see too.
“Oh. Hey, little brother,” Klaus said, giggling at the scowl that broke out on Five’s grumpy little face.
“Good, you’ve got him,” Five said to Diego, choosing to ignore Klaus’s whole business. “Allison and Vanya say they didn’t find him. Obviously. They’ll meet us outside. Think you can turn this disaster into a walking disaster, instead?”
Klaus gasped dramatically, tried to throw a hand on his chest over his heart and ended up smacking himself in the mouth instead. Good enough.
“Turn it down a couple notches. He’s had a rough day,” Diego said, and then, through some kind of witchcraft, got an arm under Klaus’s shoulders, twisted and heaved, and suddenly they were all standing.
“Yeah, little bro, be nice to me.” He waved his wounded arm in Five’s direction, noting with surprise that Diego had managed a decent bandaging job somehow without him noticing. “I got stabbed.”
“You did not get stabbed,” Ben muttered. Diego, meanwhile, dragged at Klaus until they started moving forward.
“Stop calling me ‘little brother,’” Five snapped, because his priorities were very different from Ben and Diego’s.
“Oh, but you’re all my little brothers and sisters,” Klaus insisted, shambling along in his best impression of a steady walk. “Vietnam, remember? I’m ten months older than these punks now.”
“Ten months?” Diego repeated to himself. And then, much louder, added, “Vietnam?”
“Well, sure,” Five said, waving Diego off, “you’re a bit older than them, but you’ve got decades to go before you catch up with me.”
Klaus grinned up at him, mostly teeth, since he’d clenched them together to try to keep the giggles that kept trying to escape inside. “They’re little in age,” he said, pressing the side of his face into Diego’s shoulder to try to muffle the laugh. “You’re little in…” He gestured at the top of his own head, and then let his hand drop to hover down at the level of Five’s.
Somewhere behind Klaus’s back, Ben burst into laughter.
Five did not. He sighed, deeply disappointed. “You have absolutely no filter when you’re high.”
“He’s not,” Diego said, clipped and short in the way that told Klaus he was pissed off. “Or at least, he shouldn’t be. He says he’s supposed to be clean, hasn’t taken anything in a couple of days.”
“And you believe him?” Five said with a raised eyebrow, not exactly in total disbelief, but definitely getting there.
Diego shrugged, and Klaus felt the motion slide through Diego’s arm and then down and up his whole body, wavering until Diego tightened his grasp and steadied him again. “He said Ben punched him in the face last time he tried,” he told Five. “I believe that, hell yeah.”
“Well, shit,” Five said, eyeing Klaus like something slimy he’d found in a test tube. “I didn’t know that would happen.”
“Can you fix it?” Diego said tightly.
Five shrugged. “Probably. I don’t know everything, you know. I can try to figure this out, make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Aw, it isn’t so bad,” Klaus announced with the sort of careless nonchalance that only someone very stupid, very fucked up, or very much both could muster. “But don’t tell Ben. He punches really hard.”
No one argued with that.
* * *
Klaus didn’t know what Five had done, exactly, but after that, in every jump they took, Klaus’s body and age matched the time-place, but the state of that body matched Klaus’s personal timeline, instead. It was really just a fancy way to say that Klaus was getting to enjoy withdrawals and detoxing in all kinds of interesting points in his past, instead of riding the high like he had the first time around.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this,” was all Five said, when Klaus tried to ask, and wouldn’t say anything else.
He did wonder if Five was doing the same thing for Vanya, too. They were hopping around times when she’d been on her pills, after all. The walls weren’t shaking down around them or anything, so maybe Five’d made the executive decision to leave her drugged up, but Klaus didn’t think so, and not because he didn’t know that Five was plenty mercenary enough to do it if he thought it was necessary.
It was because every once in a while, out of the corner of his eyes, he could see her eyes shining a beautiful, brilliant white.
* * *
A hundred times, a hundred little moments, a hundred different places and ages all blurring together. Five seemed to have some sort of theme going, most of their stops tossing them together at moments when Vanya had reached out and been turned away, or when they had reached out to her and failed to connect.
Klaus figured he was turning into some kind of time-traveling Jiminy Cricket, except still infinitely more stab-happy. That didn’t stop any of them from taking the chances they were offered. Diego was bad at it, but he was trying—showing Vanya his knives, asking questions about her and her music, which was at least something he was genuinely interested in. Just by being sometimes present, Ben was doing a better job, since he’d been gone so long none of them had taken the time to really build up much resentment. And he was sweet to her, too, with none of the playful mockery or tough love he liked to throw at Klaus. Allison and Klaus followed his lead, that gentle coaxing invitation. They called Vanya in to join them while they sat and painted each other’s nails. They asked her opinion. They listened when she spoke.
Even Five slowed down, hesitated, focused in. At last he told Vanya he should have stopped to think or at least say thank you, say goodbye, that morning when they were kids, when he had run out of the room and kept running until he had hit the aftermath of the apocalypse.
Luther struggled. Vanya flinched whenever he got too close and tended to look at him like she would have happily blasted him across the room, if only she could control her powers enough to do it. Klaus could sort of understand that feeling. He didn’t end up being a part of whatever reconciliation they were trying for, there, though he did catch a lot of glimpses of Allison or Diego shoved between Luther and Vanya while the two talked, or, more accurately, shouted at each other. Vanya and her little noodley stick arms would have been allowed, under sibling law, to shove and smack at Luther when she got angry. Luther, who could bend iron bars with his bare hands, was not. By family vote, he’d have to get by without physical aggression going forward.
No starting a fight with Diego to end an argument. No taking a swing at Klaus when he got pissed off. Absolutely no choking Vanya out and putting her back in the basement.
They were doing more than just doing a speed-run through some heavy immersion therapy for Vanya. Five didn’t have that kind of precision understanding and control, or even a precise knowledge of every critical point in their lives after he’d left. The rest of them got chances with the others, too, to change the things they knew now, as damaged adults, had needed to be changed.
Support instead of competition, or at least in addition to competition. A hand up when one of them hit the floor. Backing each other up when Dad got too intense. Family stuff.
It didn’t matter where-when they were. It didn’t even matter that when Five made the next jump and dragged the six of them along, he promptly erased every change they had just made. They were moving together, so it was still happening to them, even if it wasn’t happening to the rest of the world—a thousand little statements to Vanya, to each other, that they were there. That they’d do better from now on.
* * *
“I really think we’re getting somewhere,” Five said thoughtfully, after about two months of travel.
Luther scoffed. “Yeah, we’re definitely getting somewhere, Five. We’re getting all over the place, actually.”
“Like a pinball in a windstorm,” Diego muttered.
“More like I’m figuring out how to do this in a way that means someday we get to stop,” Five shot back. “But, hey, I’m open to alternative suggestions. Do let me know if you’ve got any better ideas.”
* * *
When they arrived in the next place-time, their original selves were on a mission, Klaus could tell that much. It took a minute to process the change to the environment enough to decide which one, exactly, it had been—and then he remembered.
Understanding hit him like a kick to the gut, knocking the wind out of him for a crucial few seconds.
He cried out, spun around in place. He didn’t waste time with planning or strategy, just dove through and around obstacles because he didn’t have time, still not enough time, and even though he could see some of the others trying the same out of the corners of his eyes, they were all of them too far away, too busy with their own opponents, too slow. Klaus had nightmares about this in the original timeline, would have them again in whatever future he had still to come, only this time they would be memories—where he went running as fast as he could, and was still too slow to do anything but catch a face full of the blood spray as Ben took the hit.
The fatal blow.
Last time, Ben had been long gone by the time Klaus had gotten to him, by the time anyone realized something had gone wrong. This time, Klaus caught him before he hit the ground, almost before the entities in his stomach finished their work and pulled back inside, leaving wholly-human Ben behind.
Ben, with his massive amounts of internal and external bleeding.
Klaus thought he was maybe apologizing and almost certainly crying as they went down the rest of the way together, Ben shouting once with the pain of it, short and sharp, even though Klaus had gone as gentle as he could. This was familiar, wasn’t it? He’d held the bodies of the people he loved time and time again, with Ben, with Dave, with a hundred buddies and allies from the war—bodies on the ground and blood sticky-hot against his hands as he tried to keep it where it was supposed to go.
What was less familiar was the way Ben smiled up at him, easy as anything. Nobody should look so absolutely fearless even while they shook and shivered and bled to death in Klaus’s arms, especially not Klaus’s brother, his best friend. “Hey, hey, this is fine. It’s okay,” Ben said, gasping for breath around whatever had gone fucked up with his lungs. “We’ve done this before, yeah? We can do it again. I’ll be right back, you know I will.”
“Yeah,” Klaus choked out, swallowed the gasping sobs that wanted to break free. Ben didn’t need that right now.
He gave up on keeping pressure on the injuries in favor of a frantic flurry of movement. He grabbed at Ben’s hand as tightly as he could, ruffled his hair, pulled his brother up a little from where he was lying halfway across his lap and wrapped an arm around his shoulders—hugged him tight the way he hadn’t dared do before, the way he’d wanted to so desperately from the moment Ben’s spirit had first reappeared to him, and Ben leaned into it with everything he had left. It had to hurt, but Ben didn’t seem to care. “Yeah, Benny, I know. I’ll see you soon.”
“I promise,” Ben said on a wheezing sigh, barely a breath of air in Klaus’s ear. He squeezed Klaus’s hand once, twice, convulsive, like it was one last message he was trying to convey, and then—and then—
Everything stopped. The gasps for breath, the struggling heartbeat. Ben’s body went limp, went still, one last time.
Now it didn’t matter if Klaus lost his shit. “Fuck, damn it, Ben—not again—”
Five’s powers whisked them all away again.
* * *
Klaus lost time. He thought he remembered Diego shaking him, Luther yelling, Five slapping him almost delicately across the face. Someone shouted at them; they backed off. Allison and Vanya came and sat with him for a while, the three of them wrapped up in a circle of knees pressed too close together and arms twisted around backs and over shoulders—even Vanya’s hold on her shining white fury was wholly forgotten in the face of old grief made new again.
It could have been hours later; it could have been days, or weeks. The first time he’d counted the wait down to the minute, desperate and out of his mind, equally terrified that Ben would and wouldn’t appear. This time, his fucked-up brain had decided to engage in some good old-fashioned dissociation instead; there was nothing in that soft, hazy disconnect, nothing good or bad to think about or feel. He could drift along, untethered, easy. Let the others handle the emotional baggage for a while. Klaus had checked out.
Allison had eventually made him change his clothes and rinse off, and then she’d taken a cloth and warm water and wiped his hands clean of the last of Ben’s blood. Vanya had wrapped herself around his back like a living blanket, and Diego had appeared from somewhere to gently hold his wrists and keep them steady while Allison worked. It didn’t matter. He was still picking dried blood out from under his fingernails.
None of it mattered. He was still waiting.
“You look like shit,” Ben said, wandering into view and looking Klaus over with the same critical nonchalance he used when he caught Klaus shooting up in a crackhouse or sleeping in a dumpster. Klaus was totally sober and doing nothing more socially deviant than lying flat on his back across the kitchen table, staring blankly at the ceiling, so probably it should have felt harsh. Instead there was only a totally disproportionate rush of elation, relief.
Living-Ben had jumped around in age and appearance the same as the rest of them. Spirit-Ben appeared exactly as he had been on the day of the apocalypse every time, thank fuck—clean and whole, not the tattered and bloody mess he’d been as he died. Klaus’s heart crawled up into his throat and tried to choke him. “You’re one to talk,” Klaus said, lied, and Ben was kind enough to pretend not to notice the way his voice cracked down the middle, the way he had to cover his face with both hands for a minute until he got himself back under control.
“Aw, did you miss me?” Ben said, smiling. Gentle. So, okay, it turned out the asshole was actually just giving him a minute to let his guard down before starting in on the mockery.
“Not even a little,” Klaus said, still lying, but of course there was no way Ben didn’t already know the truth.
* * *
They jumped again, and again, and again.
“I’ve almost got it,” Five said, though what ‘it’ was and where that might take them was still a mystery. It had been a little more than three months in time as they’d lived it since they’d started. “I mean it this time. We’re almost done.”
* * *
And then, so far back it almost didn’t make sense, almost couldn’t register as proper memory, there was a teeny tiny Allison—she couldn’t have been more than four years old, for god’s sake—stepping toward an equally tiny Vanya at Reggie’s not-so-gentle nudge. Klaus recognized, with a distant sort of horror, the cage, soundproofed and spike-filled and nightmarish when he knew that it had been made with this squeaky-small version of his littlest sister in mind. The rest of them shouldn’t have been there, hadn’t been the first time around, but no one seemed to notice the sudden appearance of a squad of toddlers on the scene. “I heard a rumor,” Allison said—
I heard a rumor you think you’re nothing but ordinary, that little Allison had said, once upon a time, and Klaus knew it even if he’d never heard it said. It echoed, a fixed point in time, a shiver in reality as Daddy Dumbass pushed them along onto the first step of what would eventually become the end of the world.
All at once everything flickered blue—Five’s blue, not Klaus’s. When it passed Dad was gone and suddenly it was grown-up Allison and Vanya positioned in their counterparts’ places—Allison in the doorway with her throat held together with stitches and tape and a prayer, and Vanya vibrating with rage and glowing with power, barely contained by the metal cage built to hold in what their father hadn’t ever managed to control. The rest of them were back to their future selves as well. Klaus could tell without looking in a mirror, feeling a rightness of self that had been missing while they had all jumped around.
“No. Fuck rumors,” Allison said, her voice barely a voice at all, only a dry, rasping scrape of sound that hurt just to listen to. It didn’t stop her from pushing on, leaning forward so she could grab the force of nature they called their sister by the shoulders and shake her, hard. She flickered blue again, the bandage on her throat disappearing as she dropped a couple days-weeks-months of time without losing an ounce of intensity. When she spoke next, her voice was clear. “Fuck Dad. It was never true, and I’m so sorry I was ever young and stupid enough to say it. You’re extraordinary, Vanya, you are, and it doesn’t have a single fucking thing to do with your power. You’re our sister, and we’re fucked up in all kinds of ways but we love you. I love you.”
Vanya’s expression tightened, light growing more intense around her. Klaus sucked in a breath, heard Five do the same from where he was sweating with effort. Luther went to take a step forward, and Klaus felt a panicked jump in the pit of his stomach before Ben lunged forward and grabbed Luther—actually grabbed Luther by the shoulder to hold him back for that critical second before Diego sidestepped casually in front of him and elbowed him hard in the gut.
Allison flickered blue, clean white bandages reappearing on her neck, and opened her arms.
The white glow winked out all at once, like flipping a switch. Vanya threw herself forward and into Allison’s hold, face crumpling as she burst into tears.
“There it is,” Five said softly. “That just might do it.” He relaxed, tucked his hands into his pockets, and looked around at his siblings with firm satisfaction. “Well, who’s ready to go home?”
* * *
They huddled together in a circle in the basement, as far from the doorway to Vanya’s prison as they could get, Allison and Vanya with arms linked, Ben hovering in the space left at Klaus’s side. They’d gone through a round of hugs, for those of them who were comfortable with it—mostly Klaus had jumped on his two sisters and tried his best to crush the stuffing out of them, while Diego had gingerly patted Vanya on the shoulder and Luther and Five had hovered in the background. Klaus hadn’t quite gotten Ben solid, but he was amped up enough that he had dragged him into view, shining blue, for just long enough to offer a nod to everyone and mime a pat on the shoulder that no one could feel.
The girls were still sniffling, a little; even Diego had teared up for a minute or two there.
Five, though, was all business. “None of this happened,” he told them, waving a hand to indicate everything that the ‘this’ might possibly encompass. “Or, at least, that’ll be true as far as the timeline is concerned. We’ll go back to a fixed point where we all existed together—I think the moment I first came through the portal in the yard should do nicely—and we will substitute this version of us, the version furthest along, for the version that ought to exist then in the proper timeline. Eight days of activity, erased, and we get to relive the week leading up to the apocalypse with the firm knowledge of what we need to do and avoid, and a grasp of the consequences of our actions should we fail.”
“Avoid the crazy lunatics with the suits and the masks,” Diego said immediately, planting his feet firmly in place.
“Get our shit together and work our problems out like real adults,” Klaus added, accepting a firm nod and a high-five from Allison, who had her lips clamped together tightly so she wouldn’t forget herself and try to talk out loud again.
“Keep control, don’t blow up the moon, and avoid the end of the world?” Vanya suggested tentatively. Allison didn’t give her a high-five, but she did reach out to squeeze her hand briefly, which Klaus thought Vanya might appreciate more anyway.
“Don’t look at me,” Luther said. “I don’t know what changes I need to make. I didn’t cause our problems.” Allison glared at him. “What? I didn’t!” he protested. “I’ve been on the moon!”
“Let’s add ‘get Luther to address his daddy issues, his anger issues, his control issues, and his persecution complex’ to the list,” Five said, rolling his eyes.
“And make him stop bringing up the moon thing every five minutes,” Ben said, grumpy. “It’s really annoying. Besides, it’s the moon. That’s so fucking awesome. Blah blah blah, he had to go to space, be an astronaut, do what little kids dream about doing when they grow up. Well, I had to be dead.”
Klaus nodded sympathetically in his direction to acknowledge a very fair point, and then leaned across their circle to clap Luther on the shoulder. “Ben says living on the moon is way cooler than being dead, so maybe shut up about it.”
OOH, BURN, Allison took the time to write in her notebook, where only Klaus—and by extension, Ben—could see.
“Alright, children, that’s enough,” Five shouted, rubbing at his eyes to show just how done he was with all their nonsense. “Shall we go?”
* * *
There was one last leap, one last screaming push into the blue void, and then they all fell together in one big pile out back behind the house: all of them looking just as they had when they’d left, most of them still in their bowling shoes, tumbling down to the lawn in a mess of limbs. Ben’s spirit-self landed neatly on his feet in the middle of the mess, phased half-through a torso and a couple of limbs. He waded straight through everyone on his way out, looking pissed off about the whole thing, like he’d been dropped into a mud puddle instead of a pile of his siblings.
It was the day of the bastard’s funeral. It had been a little over three months since the apocalypse; at the same time, there was a little more than a week until the scheduled end of the world.
They scraped themselves off the ground and trooped inside together. It didn’t take much for Five, still in a thirteen-year-old body, to convince Pogo about the general details (for physical proof they had Vanya, all in white, her eyes still glowing with power) and for Diego to convince Pogo fix Mom’s programming (a pointed comment and steady glower were more than enough). And then the seven of them sat down and told Mom and Pogo everything.
“Great job, folks,” Five said when they’d finished, reaching for a heavy glass with one hand and a bottle off the bar with the other. “Crisis averted.”
* * *
They all crashed hard that night.
* * *
“No wonder the bastard had so much trouble training us to stop the apocalypse,” Klaus said idly on the first new morning, while Mom set the table for breakfast.
They had all shuffled into the kitchen at more or less the same time, not yet willing to linger too far out of each other’s sight, and sorted themselves into seats while Mom finished cooking. Diego had offered to help and was soundly turned away with all of Mom’s typical cheer. Five had turned up that morning clutching two empty coffee pots in one hand and an unboxed coffeemaker in the other like a security blanket (none of them had asked), and was starting on brewing the second pot, all the while clinging to the entirety of the first batch and looking an inch away from hissing at anyone who tried to take it from him. Nobody had even questioned the empty seat next to Klaus, even though it was prime real estate, which meant Ben could sit at the table too without worrying about accidentally phasing through a sibling who couldn’t see him.
“Hm?” Mom said, looking at Klaus over her shoulder. “What’s that, honey?”
“Well, it turns out that this whole time, the answer to stopping the end of the world was just active communication plus the power of love,” Klaus said, waving a hand between Allison and Vanya, both half-asleep and leaning on each other as they waited for more coffee to brew. “It makes sense the old man struggled with that, since, as we all know, he only loved one thing besides himself.”
“Oh yeah? And what was that?” Diego was clearly only barely paying attention, but he still mustered up more than enough venom to suggest that dad’s Number Two was having trouble thinking of anything their father had loved at all, excepting his illustrious self.
“Keeping secrets,” Vanya mumbled under her breath. “Abusing his children.”
Both of those were also true, actually, but not where Klaus had been going with this. “Oh, his Mr. Peanut cosplay, obviously,” he told the table seriously. “I think it might have been a sex thing.”
Across the table, Luther choked on a drink of orange juice and ended up spraying half of it out his nose.
“Master Klaus!” Pogo snapped at the same moment, totally scandalized.
Klaus put his nose in the air, sniffed, and then spoke with total conviction. “Why are you booing me? I’m right.”
“Homophobia,” Five said flatly. He was perched up on the counter like some sort of gargoyle, his hair a wild mess standing practically straight on end. He’d vanished late the night before when everyone else was heading off to sleep for the night, apparently to ‘make absolutely fucking sure’ that his ‘former coworkers weren’t about to show up and fuck everything up again.’ Wherever he’d been, it didn’t seem like he’d slept at all.
Klaus sighed dramatically, sprawling back in his chair. “I knew it.”
Ben mimed patting him on the back, but he was clearly rolling his eyes. “Hoo, boy. Someone’s been drinking their Dumb Bitch Juice this morning.”
Pogo shook his head and let it go, but Luther was still spluttering, juice dripping down his face. Still, it was Vanya who spoke up, her face screwing up into a look of exaggerated concentration. “A sex thing, huh? I always thought he was in a long-term committed relationship,” she said, and paused just a split second to make sure she had them on the hook before she delivered the finisher. “With his bathroom mirror.”
Everyone but Luther, Pogo, and Mom burst into laughter at that. Even Five let out a little cackle. Luther just wheezed in horror, a sound like a dying whale, and slid down in his chair until even his massive shoulders disappeared from sight behind the table. That meant he was at an angle where he couldn’t read the note Allison scribbled out to show around the room, but that was probably a good thing.
THAT’S STILL A SEX THING, she had written, and there was no way Luther could have come back from a blow like that.
* * *
It was hard to believe that they were back to a place where they were just—living their lives, with nothing to worry about except for whatever plans they’d made and the day-to-day shit that carried them along.
Ben had it simplest. He was dead. Unless he wanted to head off into the great beyond, he was stuck with Klaus for a while.
* * *
Of the ones still in the land of the living, it was Five who probably had it together best, which was really saying something, because Five was actually a deeply traumatized man-child with attachment issues and problems dealing with his emotions in healthy ways. He also was a deeply traumatized man-child who’d already taken more than fifteen seconds to process that the apocalypse had ended and that he’d need to find a new purpose in life, which put him an order of magnitude ahead of the rest of them.
He was pissed off to find himself stuck as a thirteen-year-old again; nothing he tried would change it. He theorized, mostly to himself but in the rest of the family’s hearing, that whatever he’d done wrong in that first jump back to rejoin his siblings had done some kind of permanent damage to his footprint in the space-time continuum.
Namely, that he looked thirteen again, and was possibly staying that way. If he did age, it was going to have to be at a normal rate. It did not make him happy.
He also missed Delores. Apparently, they’d broken up sometime during round one of the pre-apocalypse week, and now he was trying to give her some ‘space.’ They were still friends, Five assured the family, ignoring the collection of politely blank or absolutely befuddled looks he was getting in response. Of course, Five said, he would visit her. The idea of a tiny teenager wandering into a department store to have friendly conversations with his mannequin ex-wife was deeply, deeply hilarious to Klaus, and he hoped Five would let him tag along at least once.
Five got sloppily drunk more than a few times over the course of the week, and his siblings kept finding him sprawled across some surface or other around the house with a bottle or a glass in hand. Diego thought he might be doing it that way on purpose—at least if he was passed out at home, in plain sight, then Luther and Diego knew they didn’t need to go on another city-wide manhunt to find him. It was a sign that he wasn’t going totally off the rails.
Allison took him shopping after the third or fourth time it happened, and they came back with a handful of receipt slips for a tailored collection of teenager-sized new suits. Allison steered him toward looks that wouldn’t look completely out of place on a body his age, but that would still help him look and feel less like a schoolboy.
There were only the usual levels of drinking after that (usual for Five, not for a schoolboy).
* * *
Allison, meanwhile, might have thought about her career and her daughter, but she had bigger immediate concerns. Right off the bat, she let Mom check out her throat. Her vocal cords were damaged, still, but Pogo and Mom were pretty convinced that they’d heal up well enough after a while. As soon as the stitches came out, Pogo said, she would be able to whisper and hum to her heart’s content; eventually she’d be strong enough to vocalize again, even if her voice might always be raspier, quieter, than it had been before. Until then, she was stuck on enforced silence while things healed, so she stuck to her little notebook. A little thing like a ban on speaking up would never keep Allison from being heard; she took to thwapping people over the head with her book and pen if they didn’t wait for her to write out what she wanted to say, when she wanted to say it.
They all learned fast to let her say her piece.
Still, there were some things she couldn’t do without a voice. She ended up recruiting Luther to help her call, and then video chat, with her daughter and ex-husband. Apparently the two of them were under the impression that she had been in a minor accident on the way to her father’s funeral, which probably was what got her enough pity points from her ex to initiate a conversation. The fact that she couldn’t rumor anyone was probably what convinced him to let it continue, though.
Klaus hadn’t really been a part of any of those conversations, but he had wandered through the background of a few Skype calls with Claire, his niece. That was a trip. She seemed like an adorable kid, thrilled to see her mom and Luther and even Klaus himself, who she called ‘Uncle Klaus’ and actually recognized on sight.
Klaus hadn’t known that Allison had talked about them so often.
“Do you think she knows about me?” Ben said quietly, his face soft as he looked at her smiling little face on the screen.
Klaus felt something clench hard in his stomach, probably just heartburn, and tossed out a cheerful “Uncle Ben says hi!” as he made his hasty way out of the room.
Behind him, he heard a dramatic gasp, and then a little voice shrieked, “Whooooooooa! Uncle Ben is here too? Awesome!”
That clenching feeling was spreading, moving up to his chest, to his throat. Man, heartburn was a real bitch.
* * *
If Klaus had to name the two most important things in Diego’s life, the answer would have been easy: Diego loved his knives, and he loved his mom.
Klaus was starting to think that might be wrong, though. Not the part about Mom—Diego had latched onto her the minute they had reemerged into the time stream and was refusing to let go. Diego would have happily run into a collapsing building to save her, and Klaus knew that for sure, since he’d been the one to have to drag him back when Vanya had knocked the house down and Diego had tried to get back inside.
But maybe there was one other thing Diego thought was more important than his knives. Klaus had known that his brother cared about his detective, a thought that filled him with guilt just as much as empathy, but Diego, it turned out, loved her, and that made it ten times worse that she had died, that Diego had to be the one to find the body while it was still warm.
Klaus knew that feeling too.
The first thing Allison had tried to do when she came back to the present was talk to her daughter. The first thing Diego had done was call Eudora.
There were more than a few phone calls after that over the next few days. Patch had been suspicious at first; it seemed Diego had been wringing that police connection as much as he could, as often as he could. But Diego seemed to have taken ‘active communication and the power of love’ as his new motto, because Klaus had wandered across him tucked away in various corners of the house, having long emotional conversations where the two of them got working on fixing their issues.
The first time he’d stumbled across Diego in the middle of one such call he almost hadn’t recognized who was speaking. Soft words, soft voice—Diego put on such a front that it was easy to miss the fact that he was actually a squishy toasted marshmallow under the layers of genuine badassery. Patch, it turned out, had the honest privilege of interacting with a Diego with a few of those outer layers stripped away, and what was left behind was a man who was actually quite sweet.
It was hard to believe it of a man who wore nothing but leather and harnesses, like he’d styled himself straight out of a BDSM fetish magazine. But it was what it was, and Klaus hoped the lovely detective knew what kind of a good thing she had going.
* * *
Vanya had what was, in Klaus’s opinion, the most sensible reaction to all the shit that had happened: she called her therapist. Klaus hadn’t known that anyone in their family had the guts to open up to a stranger about all their shit, even if they were all very, very damaged people who definitely needed the help, but Vanya had lived her life as the ‘normal one’ and normal people went to therapy when they had serious problems.
After breakfast the first morning, she went into her room for almost an hour to talk to her old therapist on the phone, and then took a cab into the city, where she disappeared for practically the entire rest of the day. Allison went alone to pick her up, and the two of them came back with gallons and gallons of ice cream and about eight pizzas before setting up downstairs in one of the big sitting rooms to watch movies the rest of the night.
Klaus and Ben wandered in first, totally by accident, and ended up getting sucked into the whole thing. Ben used the dead brother card to get everyone to agree to see some movie he’d missed after dying, something that had come out while Klaus had been too far down his self-destructive spiral to do normal shit like go to a movie theater. Klaus got Allison to dig out a couple bottles of old nail polish that had probably seen better days, and he and Allison competed to paint Vanya’s nails, taking one hand each.
Allison’s efforts were uniform and neat, a mix of pretty blue and white. Klaus’s version was a mish-mash of styles, sometimes with spots and stripes, sometimes with layered colors that he painted over each other before the one underneath had time to dry, leaving odd brownish patches in places. He covered those mistakes with little flowers that he dotted on with the legs of one of those little plastic tables out of a pizza box.
Diego showed next, and he came in with microwave popcorn already in hand, a still-hot bag that he offered to Vanya like he was trying to bribe his way in. Mom came in behind him with fresh stuff she had popped herself on the stove, and nothing that Diego or anyone else said convinced her that she didn’t need to go to all that effort; she kept them well-supplied all night.
Luther edged into the room halfway through a movie, and settled onto the edge of a couch like he thought he was about to be asked to leave. He inched his way closer to Allison over the course of the night, until eventually she rolled her eyes and just leaned up against his side, twisting so that her legs were on the couch and her feet on Vanya’s lap.
A good hour or so later Five finally poked his head around the door, noticed the mob of people, and immediately teleported away. Klaus assumed he’d run for his antisocial life, right up until the moment started popping back in and out in little flashes of blue, carrying blankets and throw pillows and duvets and basically anything he could find or strip out of the rest of the house. He tossed a blanket or two at Allison and Vanya, a soft and squishy pillow at Klaus when he made pathetic noises and grabby hands in its general direction, and piled the rest into a sort of nest on the floor. Once he was satisfied, he crawled in, pulled the topmost blanket up over himself so that only his eyes peeked out, and refused to come back out for the rest of the night. Every once in a while, Diego refilled the popcorn bowl someone had settled just outside the edge of his blanket cave, and after a minute or two, a narrow hand would sneak out to snatch up a handful at a time.
Maybe it had started as something of a pity party. But it turned into something—nice, good, in a way that being a family, being together, hadn’t been good for a long time.
* * *
The second morning after they got back, Five came to Klaus’s room around seven A.M. and threw loose shoes in Klaus’s general direction until he woke up with a shout.
“What?” Klaus said, scrubbing at his eyelashes until crusted old mascara crumbled off and let him open his eyes to stare blearily across the room at his brother. “What, what is it, what do you want?”
“Get up and get dressed,” Five ordered. “You’re taking me to where Hazel and Cha-Cha were staying last time. Some crusty old motel, I’m sure. We’re making absolutely sure they’re not showing up this time around, and you’re the only one here right now who knows where it is.”
Klaus blinked at him while he tried to process that. “Uh, that sounds like a riotous good time and all,” he mumbled, “but I cannot express to you just how much I do not want to go back to the place I was kidnapped and tortured in the hopes that the weirdoes who did it maybe aren’t there. Because I don’t want to. At all.” He rubbed at his eyes again, in the hopes that Five would maybe disappear and this would all turn out to be a very weird dream, but no dice. “Ever,” he finished firmly.
Ten minutes later Klaus found himself in the passenger seat of a car driven by someone who looked like a thirteen-year-old, regretting everything. This was what he deserved for having a tiny force of nature as a brother, and also the strength of will of a wet noodle when he was just waking up, he guessed. Even Ben hadn’t bothered to come along.
They got to the motel. Klaus showed Five to the correct room, thinking they could get this whole thing over quick and easy as Five teleported through the door to check inside when no one answered their knock.
He didn’t realize that, when that one room turned up empty, Five was going to want to check the other ones, too. All of them. Every. Last. One.
When they got back home almost four frustrating hours later, Five jumped away and Klaus headed upstairs on his own, only to run back into Five and also Diego in the hallway just outside his bedroom.
“What’s Ben say?” Diego demanded, blocking Klaus from moving forward with his whole body.
At almost the same time, Ben said, “Tell him it’s clear.”
“He says it’s all clear,” Klaus repeated slowly, stuttering to a stop. He tried to edge around Diego again, and this time, his brother let him. “Guys? What’s going…on…”
His room looked like a tornado had blown through it, which was totally normal, except this tornado had left almost everything in a different spot from where it had been when Klaus had left that morning, which was not.
“We cleaned you out,” Diego said. “Or, well, I did, while Five distracted you. Ben kept an eye on everything. Even Mom joined in for a bit when she figured out what we were doing.”
“I hate to tell you this,” Klaus said, eyeing his room, which was still a disaster zone. “I don’t think you cleaned anything.”
“He said cleaned out, not cleaned up.” Five strolled into the room. “By which he meant that he found and removed any drugs, alcohol, etcetera that you were keeping in here.”
“Mom says she’s already hunted down and cleaned up anything you hid in the rest of the house from when we were kids,” Diego added. “So now the whole place is drug-free.”
“Not alcohol-free, of course, this family would collapse if no one in here could drink to forget their problems,” Five added. “But if you want to do it, you’re going to have to do it out in the open, and under supervision. We’ll know.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Klaus snapped, stuck somewhere between confused and pissed off. “You went through—you did—what?”
“You heard us,” Five told him, cheerful in the face of Klaus’s misery. “You’re going stone-cold sober, we’re all very proud, very supportive, blah blah blah. We figured the best thing we could do was remove temptation as much as we could.”
Diego nodded along. “It was Ben’s idea,” he added.
“Ben set this up?” Klaus eyed Ben, then his other brothers, trying to figure out how Ben had managed without Klaus around to translate. Maybe a Ouija board?
Five rolled his eyes. “Hey, remember that trip we took through the best hits of our past? Happened maybe the day before yesterday?” He actually waited for Klaus to nod before he carried on. “Ben wasn’t a ghost the whole time, dumbass. He asked us to do this if we ever got back, and told us where you hid most of your stashes. All Diego and I had to do was get you out of the house for a bit.”
“Betrayal,” Klaus gasped, clapping a hand over his heart and turning to Ben with his best heartbroken look. Ben looked pleased in response, not at all chastened. “Treachery! How could you play me like that? My own brothers?”
“Oh, calm down, drama queen.” Diego rolled his eyes. “The rest of your trash heap’s right where you left it, except the stuff Mom ran through the laundry. And Ben warned us not to look in the box in the closet, so your freaky shit’s untouched.” A mental image popped into Klaus’s head, of Diego covering his eyes and carefully lifting the lid on the box, while ghost-Ben peeped over his shoulder so he could look through it for any illicit substances.
There was no use getting upset about it. What was done was done, and—well, he was sober now, wasn’t he? And he did want to stay that way, even if sometimes the temptation dug at him like claws in his skin. (Maybe his brothers had the right idea.) “Well, that’s fine, then,” Klaus said, and skipped across the room to fling himself on the bed, which smelled like a mountain spring and fresh air. Nice—Mom must have washed the sheets, too. “As long as the dildo collection is safe.”
“You have a dildo collection?” Diego said, horrified.
“You have a dildo collection?” Five said, mostly intrigued.
“You wish there were only dildos in there,” Ben said on a sigh.
That was one comment that Klaus was more than happy to translate.
* * *
In the middle of the week, the first chair in Vanya’s orchestra broke her hand and needed to be replaced.
Vanya got stuck in a spiraling panic attack in the library when she found out via an email mailing list the morning of the auditions for a replacement. She didn’t come out of it entirely until Five took a trip over to Harold Jenkins’ place and made sure the woman hadn’t actually gotten murdered and her body hidden up in the attic this time around. He disappeared for a few hours, and when he showed up again, he reported that she was alive and well, aside from the cast on her arm, and that Harold Jenkins wasn’t going to be a problem for a good long while, if ever.
Vanya took the news with nothing but relief. Allison narrowed her eyes, but didn’t question it. Luther didn’t appear to be listening; he mostly just seemed glad that the crying had finally stopped.
There were a couple spots of blood on Five’s collar and neck, high up and faint enough that Vanya didn’t notice. Diego did (ex-cops had still been trained to notice that kind of thing, once upon a time), and Klaus did too (junkies who were only barely ex-junkies were also great at noticing shit like that, those little danger signs).
“Did you kill him?” Diego asked bluntly, pulling Five out of Vanya’s earshot by the elbow.
Five rolled his eyes. “No, I did not, but thank you for the vote of confidence. I can go one full afternoon without violence, no matter what you might think.”
“Hey, uh, about that. Five, buddy, you’ve got a little something on you just there,” Klaus said, gesturing at the general spot on his own neck.
Five wiped a couple fingers roughly around the curve of his throat, and looked down at the half-dried red streaks that had brushed off onto his hand with irritation. “Damn, I thought I got that all off,” he muttered. His gaze snapped back up, and his eyes narrowed. “Fine. But I can go one afternoon without lethal violence. He was alive when I left.”
“And?” Diego said, hands on his hips. “Is he going to stay that way?”
“Yes, for god’s sake.” Five pinched the bridge of his nose. “I roughed him up a little, knocked him out, framed him for assault, possession, and deadly intent, and then called his parole officer. But that’s all.”
Ben whistled, short and sharp. “Wow. That’s brutal,” he said.
“Ben approves,” Klaus announced with relish.
“Well, I’d thank him, but I don’t live my life on a quest for familial approval,” Five said, but he did look a little flattered. “I’m not Luther. Now let’s go see if Allison’s gotten Vanya calm, or if we’re going to have to make another run to the store for more lightbulbs. I swear, if I get mistaken for someone’s kid one more time, I’m going to start the apocalypse myself just to end it all.”
“Too soon,” Diego told him pointedly.
It turned out that in the time it had taken them to have their little chat, Allison had gotten Vanya calm, convinced her to audition for the spot again, and volunteered Diego to drive her there. Diego looked like he wanted to be upset with Allison for that, but then thought twice when he realized that Allison had also taken care of all the sticky emotional bits that he desperately didn’t want to have to handle.
“I’m meeting up with Eudora today,” Diego said instead. “But if she doesn’t mind, I guess we can take an hour or two to give you a ride.”
“Oh, Diego, don’t be so cynical. I’m sure the good detective would just love to meet some of the family. And I think it might be a good idea for one or two of us to meet her, too—you know, just to make sure she’s good enough for you, ask her about her intentions, maybe give her a shovel talk.”
Ben shook his head. “We’ve had this conversation, Klaus. Stop threatening police officers.”
“I’m not going to threaten anybody!” Klaus protested. “I’m just going along with my sister to her very big, very important audition, purely as moral support, and if I happen to get the chance to meet my brother’s secret girlfriend along the way, then…”
Diego’s eyes went wide. “Oh, hell no.”
Oh, hell yes. “We’ll just go get ready to go, then,” Klaus said brightly, linking arms with Vanya, who looked about three seconds from laughing and showed no signs of coming to Diego’s rescue.
* * *
Vanya got the slot, which thrilled and terrified her in equal measure.
Patch apparently found Klaus delightful, which thrilled Klaus as much as it terrified Diego. Ben mostly just wondered out loud how Klaus had learned to lie well enough to fool a trained officer of the law.
At the very least, the slapstick humor of their family drama kept Vanya from freaking out again.
* * *
It wasn’t likely that Diego had forgotten entirely; he’d probably just shelved the knowledge sometime between Detective Patch’s untimely death and then their return to a time when she was still alive and intact.
Klaus and Detective Eudora Patch had actually met before.
Not counting the time-traveling hitmen, Klaus had been the last to see her alive. The last thing she had ever done was save his life; the last time he’d seen her, he’d been wriggling away through the vents to save his own cowardly hide.
Klaus had been wrung out from more than a few rounds of torture and burning through the first few stages of withdrawal, so his recollection wasn’t exactly as clear as it could have been. He’d showed up in Vietnam with a mild concussion, actually, from the way he’d rammed his forehead into the table again and again to catch her attention from the other side of the door.
He’d only barely remembered what she looked like. In Klaus’s memories she was haloed in light, a literal angel. She had a soft voice (quiet, so quiet, so Hazel and Cha-Cha wouldn’t hear), a soft touch (pulling the duct tape off, getting Klaus free, careful of the injuries she had been able to see), and a firm stance with her gun (so grounded, so confident, so certain she was in the right).
If Diego had asked, Klaus would have told him everything, but Diego hadn’t asked. It was only Klaus who knew, and now that they’d come back around again and Patch was safe (and hopefully staying that way), it was probably going to stay that way. Diego was the only other one who knew it had ever happened, but Diego was also self-aware enough to know he didn’t want to know.
They were getting better now, figuring out how to be a family without ripping each other to pieces in the process. But they all had things they didn’t talk about, things that none of the others knew, or maybe knew only in fragments, in passing bits and pieces. Patch was Diego’s, mostly, excepting that little bit that Klaus was sober enough now to keep to himself.
Five had years alone in the end of the world. Allison had whatever had gone down with Patrick. Luther had his isolation on the moon. If Ben had secrets that he was keeping from Klaus, they were nothing compared to the black hole of information that the rest of their siblings had on his recent life. Most of Vanya’s biggest secrets had been stripped down and examined from every angle in the last few days-slash-months, depending on what timeline Klaus used to count, but it probably wasn’t fair to count that against her. She was just as emotionally crippled as the rest of them; she just tried harder.
And Klaus had the war. Klaus had Dave.
To be perfectly honest, he would be more likely to talk about the war, the sometimes-crippling PTSD, than he would be to talk about Dave.
The war was over. It was gone, and that was good.
Dave was gone, too. Klaus was still struggling with that one.
* * *
But about the war—it was a hell of a thing that had happened to Klaus, when he’d opened up that briefcase. Klaus might have shown up in-country with nothing but a coat (non-regulation), a towel (bloodstained), and said briefcase (a terrifying fucking nightmare machine), but it hadn’t stayed that way for long. Ten months was plenty of time even for good old efficient Army inefficiency to rustle up some gear, a helmet, a footlocker, a gun. And there was more, the things he picked up for himself, good and bad.
A tattoo, for one. A broken heart.
Klaus had also made it to ‘Nam without even a passing attempt at boot camp, which normally should have made him worse in his unit’s eyes than even the shiniest of shinies, so fresh out of training that the polish still hadn’t worn off his boots. Useless. Only good for cannon fodder and getting the rest of them killed.
But there, at least, Klaus had a few things working in his favor. He was—if not likeable, then at least not unlikeable, and odd enough to be entertaining. He was utterly fearless, both of death (his constant companion) and of rigidly inflexible authority figures screaming impossible demands in his face (warmly and familiarly reminiscent of his childhood). He was crazy enough not to stand out but not crazy enough to freak out. And then, of course, there was Dave: sweet, strong, lovely Dave, who had been there from the moment Klaus had arrived and who had—departed—only moments before Klaus himself. Dave had taken him in right off the bat, and it was because of Dave that Klaus’s complete lack of knowledge became not an annoyance, but instead an affectionate joke, a funny little oddity that the unit cheerfully, brutally corrected.
And that was how, in the middle of a warzone, Klaus finally learned to use weapons—grenades and guns and heavy artillery. How to hold his rifle. How to aim it, fire it, strip it down and clean it and put it all back together again in sixty seconds or less. He learned how to drive a Jeep and ride a tank. He learned how to travel through a minefield: both the ginger, bowlegged walk single-file through known treacherous territory and the spread-out abandon of their lines when the danger was only a possibility and not yet confirmed, each man far enough apart from the next that any explosions couldn’t catch more than one or two at a time.
Here, he wasn’t the only one who saw the dead, or even the only one to talk to them, though he was possibly the only one who did it in truth. Ben wasn’t here—eventually Klaus stopped panicking long enough to reason out that Ben’s ghost had no business being in a time before he had ever existed, dead or alive—and though there were drugs and booze aplenty, it was no good getting as blitzed as he was used to when he’d need to be sober and upright enough to aim a gun at any moment. So, yeah, Klaus saw the dead here, Americans and Viet-Cong and civilians alike; he saw them brutalized and bleeding, burned and raw. He saw victims of guns and bombs, of the gas cans, of Agent Orange and his brother herbicides that they set off to paint the jungles all the colors of the rainbow.
It was fine. Mostly. Almost fine.
What difference did it make? Alive, alive-in-spirit, dead-in-body, dead bodies sprawled among the trees and in the streets. Sometimes Klaus chatted with buddies in passing for days at a time before remembering they’d been dead for weeks, and no one still living did more than blink. This was Vietnam: no one wanted to be here. Everyone was crazy. No one cared. Klaus was as sober as he could be (not very, really), as put together as he ever was (not very, really), and sometimes Dave would lean over and ask who he was talking to, and when Klaus told him he’d always nod and say hello to what had to look like nothing but empty air.
All in all, it was pretty good. And that was saying something, because ‘it’ was Vietnam and nobody should sit around at night thinking they almost preferred the war to life at home.
And then—well, Klaus knew what happened to bring it all to an end. He didn’t think he could ever forget.
And then—well, and then he came back, blood still on his hands from the ending of his own world, just in time for the ending of everyone else’s.
* * *
Klaus had dealt with a lot of problems with his particular set of abilities. His total failure to summon one specific ghost, despite the fact that he actually wanted to be haunted for once in his goddamn life, was basically the cherry on top of his emotionally damaged sundae.
Dave. Dave Dave Dave. What was he doing wrong? Sure, it was a bit of a long-distance call, but using his powers was nothing like using a phone—it wasn’t like he was bound by satellites or the whimsical rulings of a cell phone carrier. Ghosts had leapfrogged all over time and space to bother him, before, so why not this one?
He tried. He waited. It was all he could do.
If he’d ever really had some level of control over his powers, he didn’t remember it, and since then he’d scrambled his brains over and over again like eggs in a blender. It was gone. He was relearning instinct and natural ability at the same time that he was trying to teach himself new skills and fine control. Why walk when you could run? Impulse control wasn’t exactly his forte, and it didn’t always work out in his favor. Summoning Ben, letting his powers loose—that had been almost something happening through him rather than because of him, even if it had been his own strength that held Ben in the physical world long enough to destroy the band of assassins set on killing them all. And now he struggled to keep Ben solid long enough for a high-five, never mind anything significant.
It was Allison who cut in first, showing up to one of his practice sessions in the library without so much as a single comment or question.
DON’T MIND ME, she wrote when Klaus finally gave up and stared her down. I’M JUST HERE TO TRY SOMETHING.
She built up a little stack of books in the corner and started to read. Klaus tried ignoring her at first, but his own frustration was building as he kept trying, and trying, and only rarely getting anywhere. Ben swung wildly back and forth between encouraging and insulting him, in the hopes that either determination or irritation was the key that would get things started.
It wasn’t going fabulously. Over the course of an hour, Ben had managed three things: blowing air at a stack of papers and moving the top few very slightly off kilter, catching and holding a tinfoil ball Klaus tossed to him for about a second and a half before it dropped to the floor, and swatting a hand wildly through Klaus’s head like it was nothing in a useless but very funny attempt to give him a good smack. It had worked the first time, after all.
That was about when Allison started gesturing to herself off on her side of the room, and Klaus allowed himself to be distracted.
“What are you doing?” he asked, wandering over and hovering just off to the side so he could glance at her books and notes.
LEARNING SIGN LANGUAGE, she wrote. Her free hand shaped the letters A-S-L, which Klaus actually recognized from a misspent summer in the library when he was twelve. He’d picked up the A.S.L. alphabet and not much else.
“I thought Pogo said your voice would come back?” Klaus said, tipping it up into a question.
Allison nodded. STILL GOOD TO LEARN, she wrote. SOMETIMES SAFER NOT TO TALK OUT LOUD, WITH POWER.
Klaus blinked. “You think you can use your powers through signing?”
Allison shrugged. MAYBE. REAL RUMOR NOT ALWAYS SPOKEN, she wrote in her notebook. She tapped at the word ‘rumor’ and then put her pen down so she could make a quick sign, both hands moving to shape a flat circle in front of her while her thumbs and forefingers pinched and opened, pinched and opened.
Nothing happened. Still, if anyone could figure it out, it was Allison.
“Huh.” Klaus thought about that. “Cool.”
YOU? Allison wrote. GOING WELL?
“Eh. Not great.” Klaus still had the crumpled-up tinfoil ball in his pocket, so he pulled it out and chucked it at Ben as an example. Ben fumbled for it, not expecting it, and there was a weird moment where it didn’t stop completely, but it did hit his palm and sort of—slow down, a bit, visibly hesitating mid-fall before it finally slipped through and dropped to the floor. Hm. “Could be worse,” he decided.
Allison’s eyebrows did a strange caterpillar dance. Klaus had no idea what that had looked like from her perspective, but it was probably pretty weird. COOL, was what she actually wrote, and it looked like she meant it.
Klaus figured it was fine if Allison stayed while he practiced, after that.
A few accidental meet-ups later, which they mostly spent working independently, Allison brought Vanya along with her. SHE NEEDS PRACTICE TOO, Allison wrote, while Vanya fidgeted in the background.
Vanya still had the tendency to assume she was in the way unless someone specifically told her otherwise, so Klaus was doing his best to keep his expression totally non-judgmental, even as a joke. “Ooh, yeah, that makes sense,” he said. “Are we getting a mini-concert in here today?”
“Oh, no, sorry,” Vanya said. “No violin. It’s actually—quite a bit easier to control when I’m playing. I was thinking—I want to practice with controlling it without the music. Turn it on and off, direct it, control it better.”
WE HAVE PROPS! Allison wrote, adding a little smiley face to the end of the message even though they could all see her actual smile. She opened up a little paper bag she was carrying and pulled out a collection of little objects—an electronic metronome, a metal clicker that Klaus was pretty sure was used to train dogs, a very small analog clock that ticked way louder than seemed warranted by its size, and a set of tuning forks.
“Sure,” Klaus said, having no idea what any of that was supposed to be for, and deciding maybe it was better not to ask. “You do that. We’ll just be…over here.”
There followed a bizarre hour where odd noises popped up at random intervals. Vanya sometimes spoke, usually softly enough that Klaus would have had to strain if he wanted to eavesdrop (he did, but not enough to make quiet, skittish Vanya uncomfortable in the exchange), but other than that, the only sound from the girls’ side of the room was ticking, beeping, pops and clicks and chimes. For the first half-hour Klaus and Ben both kept catching themselves looking over, startled, every time there was a change in noise.
Eventually the girls settled on one that seemed to work the best, and the other sounds phased out in favor of the tuning forks. Those were actually kind of pretty, a musical hum at a pleasant pitch, and it was actually easier to focus once the noise became semi-constant and less irregular.
He was getting used to the repeated clack-chime-fade of a tuning fork hitting the desk and then ringing out, his brain turning the noise into a soothing backdrop of sound, one that he could tune out and ignore. Of course, that also meant that he didn’t notice there was a problem right off the bat.
Clack-chime-fade. Ben’s hands fell right through Klaus’s.
Clack-chime-fade. Klaus’s hands gave off a few blue sparks, quickly fizzling out. Ben’s left hand slipped against Klaus’s palm before going full ghost again, never entirely solid but present enough to sizzle like static electricity. Progress! Ben grinned at him.
There was something—Ben moved in again, and this time Klaus grabbed and held that sizzling feeling, until his hands sparked again, blue light gathering slowly in his palms, between his clenched fingers. This was it, he had something, he—
A notebook thwapped into the back of his skull. The blue light went out.
“What, what is it?” Klaus snapped, spinning around and rubbing at the back of his poor, abused head. “Come on, I almost had it—”
He saw what was going on, and snapped his mouth shut with an audible click. The air around the desk was rippling like a heatwave. Vanya had dropped the tuning fork—Klaus could see it on the floor—but the sound was still going in a way that was very much not natural, and it didn’t seem like it was stopping any time soon. Vanya’s eyes were glowing white.
“Uh-oh,” Klaus said. Allison threw her hands up in the air with a pointed no shit expression on her face.
Ben got closer to Vanya, who was fast on her way to turning into a ticking time bomb. “Talk to her, Klaus.”
“And say what?” Klaus hissed back at him in a hushed whisper.
“Something, anything!” Ben snapped back. “Calm her down!”
“Hey, hey, Vanya,” Klaus said. He took a few careful steps closer, close enough to press his toes down on top of the fallen tuning fork, hoping that would muffle the sound. It did not; the noise had been caught up in Vanya’s powers, now, and it wasn’t following the laws of physics anymore. If anything, the sound got louder. “What’s going on? You…good?”
Ben gestured angrily, disapproving.
Klaus gestured back, equally angry, because what else was he supposed to say? He wasn’t good at this, and Ben knew it.
“Vanya,” Klaus said again. “Can you relax for me? Take a deep breath? Please?”
Vanya didn’t seem to be able to hear him. The ringing sound droned higher and higher, piercing, impossible to escape even with the way Vanya was clamping her hands down over her ears and hunching over, folding into herself.
“Aw, shit,” Klaus said, and the words were swallowed up by the sheer wall of sound before they’d even left his mouth.
The noise was almost deafening now, a physical force strong enough that the lightbulbs were flickering, hanging light fixtures swinging on their delicate chains. A decorative cup holding office supplies rolled off a side table and smashed, sending pens scattering wildly across the floor.
Ben ducked in close to shout in his ear when the first lightbulb exploded with a neat pop like a kernel of corn and a spray of glass. “Move!”
He’d always had been the sensible one. Klaus grabbed Allison by the elbow and Vanya by the shoulder and did his best to shove them both down and behind the heavy wooden desk they’d been using. They both went easily enough, and just in time—the rest of the bulbs in the light fixtures around the room burst at the same moment, and the windows blew out only a second or two after that. Bursts of wind shrieked into the room.
For fuck’s sake, Allison mouthed, maybe. Klaus was hardly an expert at lip reading. Whatever it had been, it was immediately followed by Allison reaching into her pocket and whipping out a whistle like a football coach might carry. She leaned in right next to Vanya where she was busy curling in on herself, took a deep breath, set it to her lips, and—
“Nice,” Klaus breathed into the sudden silence that had fallen after a second or two of that. Everything had gone still. Nothing distracted someone as thoroughly from a loud, ear-shattering sound as an even louder, even more ear-shattering sound, Klaus could definitely agree with that much, and he was pretty sure Allison’s whistle had been designed to break the sound barrier.
“Has she just been carrying that around this whole time?” Ben grumbled. He was the only one left standing amidst the carnage, leaning against the wall behind them, completely ignoring the inch-long shard sticking out of the wall only a half-inch from his face in favor of rubbing his hands roughly over his ears.
“Oh,” Vanya said, finally uncurling a little, clearly still trying to catch her breath. By the time she looked up and glanced around the room, her eyes were back to their normal color. “Ah.”
Allison put down the whistle; Klaus’s thoughts formed the phrase in the exact same tone he would have used to say ‘the lunatic put down the gun.’ THAT COULD HAVE GONE BETTER, she scribbled in her little book. Her hand was shaking, but she still turned a gentle smile in Vanya’s direction to take the sting out of it.
“Yeah,” Vanya agreed, nodding like a bobblehead. “Yeah, it definitely could have. Um. Whoops?”
Klaus clamped both hands over his mouth, shoulders shaking with the effort—and still couldn’t stop the snorting laughter from breaking free.
Allison patted Klaus gently on the shoulder, but otherwise both his sisters left him alone to get himself under control. NEVER REALLY LIKED THE DÉCOR IN HERE ANYWAY, she wrote.
Vanya opened her mouth, presumably to agree—the old man’s fashion sense had run the gauntlet between oppressively, claustrophobically spartan and so obscenely gaudy it was tacky, with a few brief asides into mad scientist territory but lacking anything resembling good taste or common sense.
That was when Luther burst into the room, wild-eyed, with Mom at his heels and Five following behind at a far more sedate pace. “What the hell is going on?”
* * *
Mom had ushered them out of there immediately and into the sitting room just off the library, presumably so she could safely pick up all the broken shit and bits of glass that had scattered across the room. Pogo hadn’t come to investigate, so he either hadn’t cared about the noise (unlikely) or he just hadn’t heard it (Klaus was pretty sure people on the moon could have heard it, so who knew where that left them). Diego was out for the day, still—probably had convinced Patch to spend the day with him again, the lucky dog—so he got to miss out on the hasty round of explanations that followed.
It shouldn’t have turned into a family meeting.
Hell, it wouldn’t have been a family meeting, or any kind of meeting at all, if Luther wasn’t such an uptight asshole all the time.
Case in point: “She’s out of control,” Luther said, pacing back and forth in the little block of space between where three short couches were arranged facing each other along three sides of a square. “She can’t keep going like this!”
“She’s right here,” Vanya muttered, scowling down at her hands where she was clenching them in the fabric of her jeans, “and she can hear you.” She and Five had claimed the middle couch.
Luther threw up his hands. “Whatever! Fine, Vanya, you can’t keep going like this. This is how we got to the apocalypse last time around!”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Five said. He’d let Luther drag him in and force him into participating, but he’d poured himself a glass of something first, perched himself up on the armrest of the chair rather than the seat, and was busily pretending that he didn’t care about any of this shit at all. If it wasn’t for the way he tensed up defensively whenever Luther’s pacing brought him a little too close to Vanya’s seat, Klaus would almost have believed it.
“She lost control and then blew up the moon,” Luther said.
Five shrugged. “Like I said—a bit of an exaggeration.”
Allison grabbed Luther by the elbow when his pacing brought him close enough to her seat, and yanked him down onto the couch next to her, as far from Vanya as it was physically possible to sit without going to get a whole new chair. SHE’S LEARNING, she wrote. RELAX.
“Yeah,” Klaus agreed. He’d thrown himself down flat on his back across the whole length of the couch to the right of the one Vanya and Five had claimed, his legs tossed partially over the backrest, under the assumption that this whole conversation was going to be long and stupid, and that he should be as comfy as possible for it. “This time around is going way better. Look, the moon’s still totally fine!”
He gestured out the window, where the moon was not at all visible, and was roundly ignored.
Vanya tried to speak up. “I know last time was bad—”
Luther’s eyebrows furrowed together. “Bad? Last time, you blew up the house! There’s a literal cell down there designed to control your powers, and it couldn’t hold you for a full afternoon!”
“Yikes,” Ben said, his voice drifting in from somewhere behind Klaus, out of view. “Conversational strike one: reminding your sister that you once locked her up in the basement.” Klaus hummed in agreement.
“—I know last time was bad,” Vanya said firmly. “But I didn’t learn I had these powers until recently, and I’m sorry, but it’s going to take more than a wave of my hands to figure them out. And—and I can’t just ignore them and hope they go away. At least if I practice now, where it’s mostly safe, then I won’t hurt anyone accidentally the next time things get…”
“Totally fucked?” Klaus offered helpfully.
Vanya bit her lip. “…Stressful,” she decided.
“Well, how did you manage before?” Luther asked. “It’s not like you’ve gone around for years blowing out windows and exploding lightbulbs. What’s different?”
Five took that one with a roll of his eyes. “What’s different, pea brain, is that she’s no longer taking whatever garbage Dad claimed was an anxiety medication in order to get rid of her powers. Or have you forgotten about that already? No more pills, no more power suppression.”
Luther shrugged, tilted his chin up like he was gearing up for a fight. “Well, maybe she should start taking the pills again.”
“Oof,” Klaus said, wincing.
“Strike two,” Ben agreed. “Who offers traumatizing mad science drugs as a genuine solution to a problem?”
WHAT THE HELL, LUTHER, Allison wrote at the same time in her notebook, letters slapdash and rushed.
Luther shrank in on himself a little bit in the face of Allison’s fury, but it didn’t stop him from pushing onward. “Look, now you know what they really are,” he pointed out, “so you can just take them once in a while, when you need to. Just enough to—to give you an edge. Just enough to give you some control.”
Vanya scowled at him, clearly resisting the urge to snap him in half, but Allison was scribbling something in her notebook—and Klaus didn’t know about the others, but he, at least, was too scared of that whistle to even think about interrupting her.
BUT WE KNOW THEY HAVE SIDE EFFECTS, TOO, the note said, when she turned her little book around. Klaus had to tip his head to the side and crane his neck a little off the edge of the couch to get a good enough angle to read it. SHE DOESN’T NEED THAT.
“They limit her emotions, yes, which are connected to her powers going completely out of control!” Luther said, scowling.
“Her emotions,” Five pointed out, “which we also know she’s allowed to have, and deal with, however works best for her. Just because it’s slamming people into walls and throwing them across the room that works best for you…” He trailed off meaningfully.
“Yeah, Vanya’s a lot better adjusted than the rest of us in that regard.” Klaus idly dropped a heel to kick it against the arm of the couch. “If I’d known, I would have killed to get dear old daddy to make me some pills, no matter how stupid an idea it would be in the long run,” he mused wistfully, staring up at the ceiling.
Luther sighed heavily, and Klaus jumped, not realizing anyone had actually been paying attention to him. “Yes, thank you for your contribution, Klaus. We already know you’re a junkie.”
Leave it to Luther to totally miss the point. “Yes, yes, thank you for stating the obvious one more time, brother mine,” Klaus said, rolling his eyes. “I’m not talking about that. I’m just saying it would’ve been nice to take something designed to shut my powers off, rather than just doing whatever and hoping it would—” He waved a hand through the air, trying to illustrate his point when words failed him.
“Hoping it would have a pleasant side effect?” Ben suggested, finally drifting into view. He had both hands stuffed into the pocket of his hoodie as he circled Luther’s couch once, like a shark, before wandering over and across to the far side of the room.
Klaus rolled his head around on the couch to watch him pass, and pointed dramatically at him once he’d finished speaking. “Yeah, yes, exactly that.”
No one questioned the aside. Either Ben was visible again suddenly—possible, but not likely—or the others were so used to seeing him talking to thin air that they didn’t care enough to ask.
“But of course, Five’s right, for all he’s a bloodthirsty little nutcase,” Klaus said with a sweeping wave of his hand. “Little sis has only known about her powers for a hot twenty minutes, give or take. She’s got plenty of time to figure out what works for her.”
“We know what works,” Luther said with a growl. “Her prescription, which she’s already been taking to suppress her powers. For years.”
“I’m not taking the pills,” Vanya cut back in, soft but no less intense for it. Her eyes glowed a bit, but nothing rattled or shook, so Klaus was taking it as a sign of progress.
“There, you heard her. She’s not doing it.” Klaus shifted himself in place, wriggling a bit so that a stubborn fold in the couch cushions wasn’t digging into his back. “And I wouldn’t say they work, exactly. Prescription or not, I don’t think any doctor on the planet would have agreed with Dad’s bullshit pseudo-psychiatry when he started giving meds to an undiagnosed four-year-old.” He paused, thought. “Maybe dear old daddy was on a little something himself when he went about it, hm? A sniff? A sip or two?”
Five raised his left hand, thumb and pinky out, middle three fingers folded in, and waggled it up by his lips in the universal sign for tipping back a drink. It was especially pointed considering that he had a glass of something amber and probably alcoholic in his right hand.
Klaus grinned back at him. Vanya looked vindictively satisfied. Even Allison couldn’t quite keep in a bit of a chuckle at that one, and that was what really got the golden boy’s hackles raised. Luther flushed an angry red and sneered. “And what would you know about prescription medication? You think you’re an expert in pharmaceuticals all of a sudden?”
Five choked on a laugh that he didn’t quite manage to hide in his glass. “That’s one way of putting it.”
Klaus waved that aside to focus on Luther. “God, you have no fucking clue what it’s like to be me, do you?” he said, and giggled to himself for a good few seconds before he could make it stop.
“Oh, boo-hoo, cry me a river,” Luther said. “I’ve done some of the same shit you’ve done, too, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Ben cackled like a hyena at that while Klaus rolled his eyes. “Luther, honey, you went to one rave, got so fucked up you started stripping in public, and then went home and lost your virginity to a girl who thought you were a furry,” he pointed out. “That night, while hilarious, does not and will never put you on my level.”
“Shut up, Klaus.” Luther’s obvious fury was a thin mask over the embarrassment underneath, and it didn’t hide the quick, guilty glance in Allison’s direction. He hurriedly changed tack. “Your many, many issues don’t give you some kind of magical insight into what Dad had to do with Vanya’s pills, or—or what we decide to do about this! Being high right now isn’t actually a point in your favor in this argument.”
“And there it is,” Ben said with a sigh. He sat down right where he was and stared up at the ceiling. Maybe he was hoping it could tell him why all his family members were dumbasses. “Strike three.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Klaus said, throwing up his hands. “I’m not high. I haven’t been high. I’ve been clean for months now.”
Luther sighed, radiating disbelief and disappointment strong enough that Klaus could feel it like the beginnings of a bad sunburn, sizzling on his skin. “Sure, Klaus. Whatever you say.” Dismissive. Luther never had cared about what Klaus had to say.
Klaus felt—something. It sure was a feeling, whatever it was, yawning red and aching in his chest, and it was kind of irritating that if he had been on something, he probably wouldn’t have felt it at all. “Oh, are we doing this, then? Are we really having this conversation now?” he said. His legs were jittering, shaking, so he swung them around to the floor, got up, and stumbled around to hover behind the back of the couch, doing little spins and swirls to keep himself moving. “Fine. Okay. Sure, Luther, whatever you say. I’m just a useless addict. None of you would ever do the shit I’ve done, none of you are weak enough to give in like I did, right—no, shut up, Luther, it’s my turn to talk now!”
Klaus bared his teeth in a grin like a wild animal, and almost started giggling again when, somehow, it was enough to startle Number One back into silence.
“Thank you,” he bit out. “So—where was I? Right. So—if you think Vanya needs to be medicated so badly, why not get her going with a little something non-prescription? Something fun, just like your little nighttime experiment! What do you think, Vanya? You want to try it?”
“Uh,” Vanya said, eyes flickering from Klaus, to Luther, to Allison before coming back to Klaus. “I don’t…think so?”
“Come on, Klaus. Don’t be absurd—”
Klaus shrugged, and merrily carried on before Luther could get out anything else, focusing on Vanya instead of his brother. “Oh, you can start off easy, if you like. I did. Just go pop a Xanax or something every time your power gets out of hand. Maybe smoke a quick joint. It’s not the best coping strategy in the world, probably, but it’ll mellow you out enough to get through it, help you sleep at night. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Vanya didn’t answer that time. There was something in her face, something quiet and almost ashamed, that knew he was right, and he knew the others could see it too.
“Careful,” Ben said, just a gentle warning. Klaus didn’t need the reminder, but he appreciated it nevertheless. Ben knew where this was going; Ben knew where Klaus had been. None of that guilt needed to get shoved off on sweet little Vanya.
“But it’s not just at night that you’re struggling, is it?” he said, too quickly for anyone to try to get their two cents in. “So maybe you can start doing it more often. You’ll need it, won’t you? Things get so out of hand, without a little bit of help. It’s just to make it through the day. Just enough of an edge to give you some control.”
He paused, watched the phrase land and familiarity dawn sick and pale across every face, but this time no one said anything, and it wasn’t because Klaus was actively cutting them off. Silence rang like a struck bell, or like one of Vanya’s tuning forks.
Klaus hummed to himself a little, snuck a glance at Vanya and Five out of the corner of one eye, then Luther and Allison out of the other, before he focused on Ben instead, who was safe to look at, perched up as he was on the countertop all the way back on the far side of the room. “But your powers are still there, aren’t they? They’re still there. They’re always there, telling you things you don’t want to hear, hovering over your bed in the middle of the night when you’re trying to sleep, and they’re ripped open and covered in blood and they’re screaming at you all the time, there’s so many of them—”
Ben cut him off, steady and calming. “Breathe, Klaus.”
Klaus sucked in a breath, refocused. “They’re still there. And it’s hard, isn’t it? You haven’t slept in days. You don’t know how else to make it stop. And Dad didn’t help, either, with all his bullshit training. Dad didn’t teach you anything, just locked you up overnight in the maus—well. He just left you to sink or swim. So, one day, maybe you already took your daily dose, you already took one, but it’s not working as well as it used to, not as well as you want, and you think—you think—”
Five took a slug of his drink with a flourish, enough to catch Klaus’s eye. “You think, maybe just one more,” he said quietly, and grabbed the clean-cut crystal decanter off the side table to pour himself another double. Of course, the youngest-looking of all of them got it—Klaus’s angry old man brother trapped in the body of a child, with all his decades spent alone after the end of the world.
Klaus shot him a salute, one that started off military-pristine and then went sloppy. “That’s it, that’s exactly it. Maybe one more. Maybe something else. So you try that. It’s fine, isn’t it? You’ve got it under control. You’re just testing a theory. And what do you know, it works! Some drugs help you sleep and some help you forget. Add a drink or three on top of that and it takes you far enough outside yourself that you don’t even care that you can still hear the mother of three murdered up the road shouting and crying in your ear while you’re trying to eat your breakfast. You’re not sure what it is you have in the baggie you bought yesterday, but as soon as it kicks in you know you won’t see the way her guts spill out across the table, and maybe then you can eat Mom’s oatmeal in peace and quiet, so doesn’t that make it good? Doesn’t that make it alright? Wouldn’t you take it again tomorrow?” He would. He did.
This time, he almost wanted an answer, but he probably wasn’t going to get one. They were all staring at him, Klaus realized. Allison’s pen slipped from her lax grasp and dropped to the floor.
“What the fuck,” Vanya said weakly, and then snapped her mouth shut as soon as Klaus met her eyes. “Um.”
There was nothing for it but to just press onward. “Of course, sooner or later you know there’s a problem, but what are you going to do about it?” Klaus said. He was almost babbling now, mouth open and words sliding free without any conscious thought or permission. “It’s double the withdrawal, and isn’t that just great? Isn’t it so much fun? Rehab isn’t going to do anything for the way the powers kick back in once the high is finished wearing off. Do you know how many people kill themselves in and after rehab? How many kick it in a hospital? And the way they look, Jesus fucking Christ, all these fucked-up goddamn nightmares staring at you from the hallways and the corners of the room. The ones with slit wrists still bleeding, drip-drip-dripping on the floor. The ones with the bedsheets still knotted too tight around snapped necks, gaping eyes and tongue lolling out and the face all blue and swollen, still kicking their heels. The ones all wasted and withered away to nothing, just skeletons with cracked paper skin stretched over the top. All the split-open skulls and missing limbs and gouged out eyes, bloody and burnt and impaled and broken, standing overhead, crowding together, whispering every detail of it all in my ears nonstop every day and night, asking if I knew that I had bedsheets too in the exact same style, and the mirror in the bathroom would shatter so easily, so many sharp glittering pieces to slice myself open, or maybe I could get enough to OD at the nurse’s station in the hall—”
“Enough!” Luther roared, wild-eyed, lunging halfway up out of his seat. Allison was clinging to his arm, her face white, but that wasn’t enough to hold him down if he really wanted to break free and pummel Klaus hard enough to make him stop. “That’s enough. We get it.”
Klaus blinked. He didn’t remember moving, but he was leaned up against the back of the couch, elbow propped on its back cushion and chin propped on the heel of his hand, casual as anything. He didn’t remember Ben moving, either, but Ben was next to him, now, hands hovering in the air the way they always did when he wanted to touch but knew that neither of them could stand the disappointment when he fell straight through.
He was laughing, a little. Maybe he had been for a while. That was probably what had gotten to Luther so badly.
“Hey,” Ben said, solid and sincere. “You’re fine. Everything is fine. But you should probably stop now.”
“Yeah,” Klaus said, pushing himself up from the couch a little less smoothly than he would have liked. There were no other ghosts over Ben’s shoulder, but Klaus was more sober than he’d been in years, so he knew there could have been, and so he looked. “Yeah, I probably should.”
“Should what?” Five said sharply, eyes flickering from Klaus to the open-space-that-was-Ben at his side.
Klaus waved him off. “Chill out, grandpa. I’m excusing myself from a potentially damaging situation, not swanning off to shoot up in the bathroom. I’ve gone to therapy and Narcotics Anonymous more than most psychologists; I know my emotional triggers when I slap myself in the face with them.”
He turned to leave the room, but not before he caught Allison mouthing the phrase ‘emotional triggers’ with a furrowed look of confusion on her face, while Vanya nodded solemnly along. Vanya had probably done well in therapy. She had the vibe of one of those people who listened carefully and took notes and did whatever bullshit therapy homework got assigned that session. She’d figure out some better coping mechanisms soon enough.
Five scowled at him, but didn’t argue.
He paused, hanging half off the doorframe and halfway out of the room, to turn and look over his shoulder at Luther, who had apparently been stunned into silence. Wonders would never cease. “Oh, I almost forgot. Just so we’re all clear, Vanya won’t be taking anything she doesn’t want to take,” Klaus announced. His voice was light and teasing, but he meant it, and he meant it sincerely. “And no getting sneaky, brother mine. Whomsoever tries to make her will be getting dosed with the exact same thing at triple the strength. Believe me—I’ll make sure of it.”
Luther’s expression crumpled into something between horror and anger as the threat registered, despite how gently it had been delivered. “Klaus,” he started to say, a warning Klaus fully intended to ignore, especially in contrast to the way Vanya’s whole face had just lit up like the fucking sun—so damn thrilled, even around that strange look in her eyes that hadn’t gone away despite the fact that Klaus had now stopped vomiting his emotional issues all over everyone.
Holy god, it was upsetting easy to make her happy. Right now, he didn’t want to think about what that said for the sort of standards they’d set for familial love and support in this house over their lifetimes, so he didn’t.
Klaus grinned back at Luther instead with a smile like a mouthful of needles. “Ooh, I’ll tell you what. Maybe I’ll take a little for myself, too. Make a competition out of it, since I’m the pharmacological expert in the family, and we can see who’s still in a place to force anything on anyone by the end of it all.”
He flounced out, Ben at his heels, only barely remembering to slide the door shut behind him. Even muffled by the door, he could still hear Five say, in his best mocking old man voice, “Better be careful, Number One. You might be built like a brick shithouse, but in a game of tolerance and willpower, I’m always going to bet on him, not you.”
Pausing at the foot of the staircase, Klaus thought about how he would normally deal with something like this, and realized that none of the usual methods were going to work. Most of them, in fact, would get him nothing but a smack across the face from Casper the Disapproving Brother Ghost.
Hm. Maybe Vanya wasn’t the only one who needed to think up some better coping mechanisms.
Ben clicked his tongue against his teeth a couple times. “Hey, Klaus?”
“Remember that book of Dad’s? The one in the weird gold box that you sold?”
Klaus tipped his head to the side. “Yeah, I remember it. In case you’ve forgotten, the only reason I sold it was because I was out of shit to take in the first place. I wasn’t fucked up enough to black out.” He hesitated. “Yet.”
“Chill, man, I know that. It wasn’t a dig.” Ben waved off Klaus’s vaguely apologetic look. “Do you think it’s still here somewhere?”
“I mean, I didn’t go chucking it into any dumpsters this time around, so I don’t know where else it would have gone.”
Ben nodded, like that confirmed something for him. “We should go ask Pogo if we can give it to Vanya.”
“I mean, sure,” Klaus said, game enough, and started to walk up the staircase. He thought he remembered seeing Pogo wandering around somewhere upstairs earlier. “But why would Vanya want it?”
“Because Dad wrote about her in there, dumbass. And Dad obviously knew about her powers. It’s probably full of shit that could help her out.”
“Wait, it is?” Klaus came to a complete stop halfway up the stairs, so suddenly that Ben stutter-stepped straight through him.
“Yeah.” Ben stopped a couple stairs above Klaus and looked down at him over his shoulder. “You didn’t actually read any of it before you dumped it, did you.”
It was not a question. “You did?”
“I looked at the first few pages, same as you,” Ben said, which—fair. It wasn’t as if Ghost-Ben was flipping through Dad’s notes like library books when Klaus wasn’t there to turn pages for him. “It just had some ‘introductory notes on Number Seven,’ nothing about her powers, but I’m sure he gets to that later on. What were you doing when you were looking through it, if you weren’t actually reading any of it?”
Klaus squinted up at him. “Thinking about how weird Dad’s handwriting was. Duh.”
“Yeah, yeah, come on. Let’s go bother Pogo.”
* * *
Pogo, it turned out, didn’t actually need all that much bothering before he caved. Klaus kind of got the feeling he’d wanted to let Vanya in on it all for a while, and had been too—scared? In awe?—too something of Dad to go against what the old fart wanted.
“Not trying to force you into anything,” Klaus told her, raising both hands to signal his innocence when Vanya took one look at the cover of the notebook that he’d dropped on the table in front of her and recoiled like he’d just offered her a live rattlesnake. At least it immediately shut down the likelihood that she was going to want to talk about everything he’d babbled at them earlier. “But Pogo says that Kentucky Fried Daddy’s got all kinds of notes in this thing. He didn’t get the point of ethics, obviously, but he was big on the scientific method, so even if everything he did was super messed up and psychologically damaging, it was all written down. In obsessive detail. Maybe if someone less fucked in the head takes a look at it, there might be some ideas for how to deal with all this—some good ones, this time. Less drugs and solitary confinement, more, uh, meditation? Deep breathing? Sorry, Vanya, I don’t actually know how your powers work.”
“Kentucky Fried Daddy,” Ben mumbled, clearly not about to let that one slide.
Klaus shrugged. “He was kind of rocking that whole Colonel Sanders vibe, you know? The guy on a bucket of KFC? With the white mustache and the goatee—”
“Where did you get this?” Vanya interrupted. “How did you get this?”
“Oh, uh,” Klaus said, refocusing on the issue at hand. “It was in his study. He’s dead, obviously, so he doesn’t need it anymore, and Pogo said I could have it…?”
“No, I mean…” Vanya reached out a single, cautious finger and poked at the cover of the book like it really might turn around and bite her. “Last time, uh, the first time around, he had it. Leonard—Harold Jenkins did. It’s how he knew that I could do…what I can do.” Her hand waved wildly for a second, which Klaus guessed was probably supposed to mean something about her powers.
“Yeah, that’s—that might have been kind of, a little bit, my bad,” Klaus said, rubbing a hand over the back of his head. Ben elbowed him in the gut; Klaus couldn’t feel it, because Ben was in full ghost mode, but he took it in the spirit that it was meant. “I mean, barely at all. I didn’t, like, go hand it off to the first creeper I saw on the street or anything. But I did throw it in the dumpster outside, so he must have—found it? While digging through our garbage?” He stopped for a second to consider that, wrinkling his nose. “Wow, that’s actually really messed up, isn’t it?”
“Says the guy who ate food out of that same dumpster one day later,” Ben pointed out, but his face had gotten all scrunched up as well. Yeah, he thought it was weird, too.
Vanya poked at the book again, this time a little more firmly. “I only saw it for a minute, but I know it’s got all kinds of information on me. On my abilities. On whatever tests and stuff Dad did when I was a kid to try to figure them out.”
“Yeah,” Klaus said again, drawing the word out a bit. “Pogo says there’s shit about all of us stuffed in his office and, like, in the rest of his files.” Their father had been a weird, damaged old man. No surprises there. “Damn, CPS would have had a field day, if they’d ever checked out the house.” Apparently, a billionaire white guy could just buy as many kids as he wanted and bring them all into the country, and nobody ever bothered to ask what he wanted with them or check up on them later. “But forgetting about that asshole for a second, I thought—” Ben ghost-elbowed him again. “—Ben thought that maybe it’d help you to have a starting point.” He twitched his way through a shrug. “I mean, we didn’t read it, so I have no idea how useful it is. Only dear old Daddy has any idea what’s in it, this time around.”
By that, he meant that this time around Harold McStalker Jenkins hadn’t seen it, and wouldn’t have any reason to go after her again.
That settled her. Klaus had kind of thought it might. “Oh. That’s good. And—thank you, Ben. That—that was a nice thought.”
“No problem,” Ben said, and then gave Klaus the side-eye until he remembered that no one else could hear their dead brother and translated.
There was a pause. Vanya switched back and forth between staring intently at the notebook and staring blankly off into space, but she made no move to take it, or explain what she was thinking.
Klaus fidgeted in place. “So…”
“What if I can’t do it?” Vanya asked quietly, before Klaus could make an awkward excuse and leave. “What if it’s better to just, just take the stupid meds? Luther’s right—”
“Luther is a dick,” Klaus interjected.
Ben agreed. “He is a massive, throbbing penis.”
“Yeah,” Klaus said. “And not even in the fun way. You know?”
She was shaking her head. “But he’s still right. It’s safer, it’s—it’s easier if I’m on the pills. The apocalypse wasn’t ever an issue until I stopped taking them.” Vanya looked up at him, and her Bambi eyes should probably be classified as a lethal weapon. “I know what Luther wants and why he wants it. He’s still worried about Allison, after I—after what I did to her. And I get that, I do, but I also know that when it came down to it, he decided to lock me up in the basement instead of deal with me. And I can’t live my life like that.”
“You won’t have to. He was just scared,” Klaus said. Scared, and stupid.
Vanya nodded. “Yeah, he was. Is. But he’s also one of the few people who understands what we went through and who’ll give me an opinion worth something. Diego doesn’t care as long as I’m not actively going nuts, Allison is too busy trying to be supportive of my choices to give me a straight answer, and Five—uh. Five probably would have dealt with me himself by now if I wasn’t his sister. I know he cares about us, about me, but sometimes I still think he’s just waiting to see if I can handle it on my own before he tries anything more, um, extreme.”
“Yikes,” Klaus said with a little wince. Ben shot him a look, and he shut up.
“So.” Vanya took a deep breath and pushed onward. “So, I’m asking you, now. What do you think?” Probably there were worse people in the world she could have asked, but Klaus, feeling vaguely hunted, couldn’t think of any. “Should I keep trying? Like this? Or should I just go back to—to—” Her hands fluttered at her sides and up near her chest, like nervous little birds, all puffed up feathers and flapping wings. “—the way it was before, you know?”
“Aw, little sis,” Klaus cooed, stuttering out a laugh. “I have no fucking clue. You think I don’t ask myself the same thing every day? All the time?” He squashed down the urge to ruffle her hair, pinch her cheeks. “How about you tell me if you figure it out?”
* * *
Vanya didn’t take the pills.
She did take the book.
* * *
The day of what had once been the apocalypse dawned the same as any other day, or at least Klaus assumed it did, since it wasn’t like he was awake to see it.
Sunrise was at five in the morning, or something equally horrible. The only times Klaus had been awake at five A.M. were the times when he had never actually gone to sleep the night before. Mornings were the worst, and Klaus would never be out of bed before noon if Diego didn’t threaten him into it. Diego didn’t like it when Mom got that ‘politely disappointed’ look on her face, the one that would have been outright devastation on any mother figure not programmed with a maximum of three expressions.
Still, Klaus made it down to the kitchen at a decent hour, that particular morning. They hadn’t exactly trapped themselves in the house for the week, and they’d all done a fair bit of spreading out and getting in a little quiet time after months of time-hopping and trying to stick to one another like glue. But the morning of the former apocalypse, they all silently agreed to stay together again.
Mom baked fresh muffins for breakfast and switched everyone’s coffee over to decaf. It didn’t exactly help, but Klaus could admit that it was pretty hard to have an existential crisis or a panic attack while holding a hot-and-fresh blueberry pastry, so in that sense it was pretty much a success.
Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, Five made margaritas for everyone. Vanya, Klaus, and Ben got virgin ones, not even a drop of alcohol, even with Klaus complaining until Five finally shut him up by adding an entire jar of maraschino cherries to his glass—Vanya because she had a performance, Klaus because Allison had decreed they weren’t allowed to enable him anymore, and Ben because, as Five put it, it just wasn’t worth it to waste perfectly good top-shelf tequila on a ghost who could neither drink nor get drunk. Klaus dropped a couple of his cherries into Ben’s glass to ease the sting of it.
Eventually evening came. Vanya left the house first, needing to get to the venue a few hours early for set-up and rehearsal. That left the rest of them to hover awkwardly around the house, twitchy and uncomfortable for reasons they all understood and didn’t want to acknowledge. Klaus wasted time by trying on various outfits, bits of pieces of which had been stolen from his siblings’ wardrobes.
Finally, Allison informed them that it was close enough to the concert’s official start time that they could leave without getting there so early the doors would still be locked to the general public. It wasn’t all that much time to wait, in the grand scheme of things, but it was still long enough that Klaus could actually see Five’s left eye starting to twitch when he thought no one was looking.
Just as they were about to head out, Klaus grabbed the bag he’d hidden in the closet in the foyer earlier in the week and whipped out five sets of brand new bowling shoes, which he had absolutely paid for (he’d rented them, okay) and also had every intention of returning (if the opportunity arose, which it probably wouldn’t, since he had no intention of ever going back to the bowling alley he’d gotten them from. He’d stolen five pairs of shoes from them, after all, so he was going to be persona non grata there for a good long while).
“I’m not wearing those,” Five said, sounding tired, but he still held onto the shoes when Klaus pressed the appropriately-sized pair into his hands.
Diego looked horrified. Then Luther started in on Klaus for ‘inappropriate timing’ and making jokes ‘in poor taste,’ and suddenly Diego had to be on Klaus’s side for the whole thing, unless he wanted to be as much of a stick-in-the-mud as Number One.
In the end, they all wore the shoes, if only because Allison decided it was fun and bullied Luther into going along with it. The others had fallen in line after that.
So they went to the concert, and settled into the seats Vanya had reserved for them ahead of time. Ben sat on the armrest of Klaus’s seat, legs dangling out into the aisle, but only because Patch had asked if she could come along at the last minute and Diego had looked so guilty when he’d come to Klaus and Ben about it. It was hard to justify what would look like an empty seat to the rest of the world in the face of that.
The lights went down, and the music started. No assassins appeared to shoot them down. Nothing glowed or rattled or shook. Vanya’s suit stayed firmly, appropriately black.
After a certain point, Klaus stopped worrying about that and started enjoying himself. He wasn’t a big fan of classical music, and he had enough childhood memories of a younger Vanya sawing away at the poor strings to have a knee-jerk fear of violins with all their squeaking and screeching and wailing. Also, the music-driven destruction of earth hadn’t really helped him get over that fear. By the time Vanya stood up alone for her solo, though, he had mostly managed to put it behind him. These musicians knew what they were doing, and no matter how intently he focused, he didn’t hear a single squawk or shriek out of any instrument, though it was pretty interesting to try to catch them at it.
Klaus forgot about that as Vanya started to play. He forgot about everything.
They all knew Vanya was talented, but they had known it objectively, the same way they all knew that Mozart and Beethoven and whoever were talented for writing the music that the orchestra was playing. They’d never heard Mozart play his own work; they’d never really heard Vanya perform, not like this.
The rest of the orchestra dropped to a background hum. It was all Vanya, now, and when she moved the music moved through her.
Sometimes another musician or two crept up out of the background to join her, sounds curling together or echoing back and forth in a call-and-response. Sometimes the whole orchestra swelled up like a wave and carried Vanya and her violin up to even higher heights. It almost didn’t matter. The rest of the group could stand up and walk off the stage and the audience would still have stayed in their seats, totally enraptured, so long as Vanya had kept playing.
Nobody was watching the clock. But if they had been, then they would have known the exact moment that, in the original timeline, a burning chunk of the moon had crashed down to earth, and they could have acknowledged it as it passed.
But that timeline wasn’t this one; that crisis was no longer coming.
This time, the concert carried on, triumphant, completely unaware of the disaster it could have become. This time, Vanya’s violin sang pure and sweet, notes floating and twisting through the air and pulling the audience along like kites on a string.
Nothing happened, except for the music, on and on. It was the most beautiful thing Klaus had ever heard.
And at the end of the night, the music ended. The world did not.
Chapter 2: The Future is Bulletproof
Five is either a grumpy old man or a poorly socialized pit bull trapped in the body of a boy who no longer exists. It’s—a lot, to finally come back in time and deal with people he doesn’t completely hate, and who he can’t just stab if he really wants to get out of a conversation.
I've done it! A second half has been added to this beast, somehow even longer than the first! Once again, no beta because I have no friends.
Chapter title from Na Na Na by My Chemical Romance (thanks for your many gifts, Gerard Way). Unabbreviated title was going to be 'The Future is Bulletproof; the Aftermath is Secondary', but that runs a little long.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Five wasn’t just spewing hot air when he said he knew more about everything than everyone else. He was, objectively, a genius, but that wasn’t what he meant. He had seen things no one else had, experienced things no one else would—he’d lived out the aftermath of the end of days, for one. But that wasn’t what he meant, either.
Every other human being experienced life with understanding and control of their positioning in the first three dimensions, and with knowledge (though imperfect) but not control over their place in the fourth. Five’s powers had given him free reign over the first five dimensions so far, and maybe someday the sixth—a first-hand look into the parts of the universe where scientists were still barely beginning to collect hard evidence as proof that they existed at all.
It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that Five had more of a practical understanding of the universe, of time and space—that was to say, everything—than even the theoretical physicists who dedicated their lives to studying it. It was true the same way that actual builders and contractors and electricians and plumbers had more practical understanding of housebuilding than architects.
One thought about it. One lived it.
So, yeah, Five knew more than anyone. He’d been twisting a wrench against the screws of the universe for decades.
* * *
If you asked him if he knew better, well—that was a different matter, entirely.
* * *
When Five had been thirteen in truth, still so achingly young and sure of himself, everything had ended—everything he cared about, everything he hated, everything he knew and everything he didn’t. There were things he’d never done, never known, experiences that he’d never had and never would get to have now, that he was going to miss without ever knowing he was missing them. Thirteen-year-olds weren’t equipped to understand that kind of loss, deal with that kind of grief.
There were things he did know to miss, and he had missed them over the decades as much as he was capable without breaking something inside himself that couldn’t be fixed. His home, the wreckage of which had burned and smoldered for ages, leaving very little behind and none of it worth salvaging. His time, the security and safety of belonging in a place that knew him and that he knew.
His siblings, their future selves as much as their past selves, who he’d recognized only in bits and pieces, in the umbrella tattoos on their arms. Their bodies made Five feel small, feel young, in a way his brothers and sisters never had when they were alive. They’d grown up without him, literally and figuratively—an impossibility he’d never considered before, in a family of children all born on the same day.
One. Luther must be the biggest body, tall and strong in a way that a young Number One would have killed to be, all heavy muscles and arms and legs like tree trunks.
Two. Diego was absolutely the one with the huge collection of knives strapped to him with an assortment of harnesses and leather. (Five took four of those knives with him when he moved on. His brother wasn’t going to need them, after all. He’d broken one, lost two in various misadventures, but one had gone all the way with him through the apocalypse, through the Commission, and back again to stop it all from ever happening. He thought—he hoped—that the version of Diego who died in the apocalypse would have appreciated that.)
Three. Allison had grown up the way she’d always wanted, dressed to impress and something about her obviously sharp enough to kill. There was a tan line on her finger where maybe there had once been a wedding ring.
Four. Klaus was easiest to recognize, had become what he’d already started to be, before Five had left—a scarecrow-thin man in black and feathers and lace, eyeliner and tattoos, everything that Dad would have hated.
He hadn’t buried them. He hadn’t been able to. He’d hardly been able to look at them, let alone touch them long enough to dig them free of the foundations of the house, and even if he had, he still would have needed to claw a hole big and deep enough in the torched earth to fit four adult humans, and then drag the bodies there. He couldn’t do it.
There was enough ash still falling from the sky, those early days, that he just waited for that to cover them up instead.
Ben and Vanya weren’t there. If Five had to choose, out of all his siblings, he would say he’d always been closest to those two—the first two names he’d called when he’d taken that final blind leap through time and seen the sky burning red. He’d hoped, distantly and without ever truly admitting it to himself, that they had survived, that they might show up out of the blue one day and fix everything in a way that Five couldn’t seem to figure out. (After a certain point, some number of weeks-months-years, he’d have taken someone, anyone, who showed up and told him what to do. He’d gotten the Handler, in the end. But he’d always wanted his family.)
He’d wondered how they had changed over the decades, Numbers Six and Seven, what they looked like now.
When he’d found Vanya’s book in the wasteland, he’d taken in the author’s photo on the back first, drinking it in with hunger—recognizing the shape of the face, something in the eyes, the shy smile. If he saw her now, he’d know her, alive or dead.
It wasn’t until he actually opened Vanya’s book and read it that he knew he had five definitely-dead siblings, not four. Five would never know what Ben looked like at this age—no one would.
* * *
It was a trip coming back and seeing those bodies, that photograph, transformed from empty vessels into something real and alive again. He’d been able to put that aside for a while—worry about the apocalypse, and then about the frantic skip-hop-jumps through their past while he tried to sort out a fix that would stick, had distracted him for a while. With safety again came time to think.
He had read all of Vanya’s book, so there were things that he had known, objectively, about his siblings. Now, he got to see those things in action, the bits Vanya had gotten right and gotten wrong. He hadn’t realized how much he’d lost, all those decades walking the wasteland and trying to carve the details of his living family into his mind and heart. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed, with all that wasted time throwing himself into the future and having to fight and work and claw his way back.
They were living, thinking beings, not whatever static image he’d been holding onto for so long.
Luther was and had always been Reginald’s good little soldier. But he was starting to question that, now, and all his conviction, his forthright surety that he knew where he was and what he was meant to do, had been shaken under the weight of one last betrayal from dear old Dad. Once he would have taken a bullet for any of his siblings, leapt between them and any dangers, including ones they’d brought entirely onto themselves; he’d buried that, somewhere along the way, under layers of resentment and orders and the mission. It wasn’t entirely lost, luckily—now that they were safe, Five could see it reemerging in little flashes, from somewhere deep down inside where he’d also shoved his patience and warmth and gentle sense of humor and kept them alive somehow for all these years.
Diego was leather and knives, scarred and strong and hard. Next to Five, his hands had done the most violence. But outside his little spats with Luther, Diego fought only to protect himself and others, and even then, it was out of a sense of justice, nothing twisted or cruel. The worst thing that Five had seen him do to anyone was to spit harsh words at Vanya, and in the aftermath of Vanya’s tell-all exposé, Five couldn’t even blame him. Diego protected his truths fiercely, the soft bits of himself that he rarely trusted others enough to give away, and Vanya had thrown those out into the world for the vultures to pick apart and examine. But it was harder for Diego to abandon someone than it was for someone to get behind his walls in the first place—Vanya had apologized sincerely, and just like that, she was one of Diego’s people again, to be trusted and watched over and guarded. Diego wasn’t shy about fighting with them, disagreeing with them, but that didn’t mean he didn’t watch over them as much as he could; he wouldn’t try to stop them from making stupid decisions, like Luther did, but he was the one they called first when things blew up in their faces.
Allison was elegant and talented and famous, all the things a movie star should be. She was also a mom, with all that entailed—devoted to her family beyond reasoning, concerned with all the sharp and hard parts of life where they could cut themselves into ribbons. It led her to some bad habits, with Five—objectively, they all knew Five had lived almost three times as long as the rest of them, but he had the body and face of a young kid and that would mess with anyone’s mind. The others were just useless enough with normal human interaction to eventually take it in stride; Allison had a young child of her own, knew a little more how children were and should be treated, and had some trouble getting over that mental disconnect. She didn’t like to use her powers anymore, even before the damage to her throat. Without them, she had learned to be persuasive in other ways, to listen to an argument and find the pressure points to break it down, when she needed, or to change her own mind, if she thought it was right.
Klaus was effusive, bright and strange and vividly, indescribably weird. Vanya had been very right about the drugs, the fixation and the driving need—no one but a junkie looking for a fix would go as far as Klaus had, smash a snow globe across their own face and perform a piece of the most brilliantly improvised emotional manipulation that Five had ever seen, in exchange for a mere twenty bucks. She was wrong to suggest they were the reason that he was the way he was. Five had watched him sweat and shake his way through a cold-turkey detox, had even helped him do it, and discovered that a sober Klaus was a little more focused, more present behind the eyes, but still inescapably, entirely himself. He’d just found his reason to finally pick up his ghosts and carry them, to finally stand his ground.
Vanya, sweet little Vanya, wasn’t the normal one anymore, left behind and put aside not only for all their weird and fucked-up Academy bullshit, but also for the good parts of their childhood, what few of those there were. She had powers, cataclysmic and world-ending ones; she was and always had deserved her place as the seventh in their little family line-up of misfits. She played music like an angel. She stuttered her way through conversations, still, and always froze up when the rest of them left room for her to interject herself in their space, in their conversations. But she was getting better. Hers was the voice of good and common sense when the rest of them started to spiral out of control; her connections to the outside world were more grounded in normality than Allison’s, and less damaging or dangerous than Klaus’s, which made it easier for her to spot and call out the rest of the family’s weird bullshit.
* * *
And, last but not least, there was Ben.
Five knew that Klaus was practicing with his powers only because Ben was popping up around the house more and more often as time passed. Usually, he was only spectral, a sketched-out shape in glowing shades of blue that could be seen and heard but not touched, but every once in a while, Five would catch a glimpse of him out of the corners of his eyes, fully fleshed out and seemingly solid, and have to do a double-take.
Except for Klaus, Five found himself to be the best at handling Ben’s reappearance from the afterlife. Even Mom had dropped a pan the first time Ben had unexpectedly appeared in the kitchen while she was in the middle of making breakfast. She did also catch it before it hit the floor, and then immediately proceed to check in on whether or not Ben could eat, and did he want eggs or waffles this morning? When Ben, nothing more than a blue outline, told her that he couldn’t eat in that particular form but that he did enjoy the smell of fresh-cooked food, she cheerfully made him up a plate of his own. From that point on, Five knew, she would happily defend and support Ben’s eating habits, or lack thereof, to the fullest extent of her ability.
Mom processed things differently from the rest of the world, unsurprisingly. It didn’t mean she couldn’t show she cared.
But out of everyone else in the house, Five was best at taking it in stride, and it wasn’t even hard to explain why. After all, in the grand scheme of things, what was one more dead sibling reappearing in Five’s life?
* * *
Six siblings and Mom and Pogo, a full house, a full world of people all carrying on, being themselves, going about their business—all of them alive alive alive. Or, in Ben’s case, close enough.
There were Allison and Luther, talking their way through, and then promptly out of, whatever pseudo-incestuous relationship had been building between them.
There was Diego, chasing a hysterically giggling Klaus around the house after every single one of his shirts had mysteriously had the necks cut out into a deep V-shape overnight, with Ben tossing insults and encouragement at them both from where he’d perched cross-legged on the narrow railing at the top of the stairs, in total defiance of the rules of gravity and physics.
There was Luther alone, walking in on the others huddled up around the earliest of the family portraits, where they’d already vandalized over each of their faces with a modern photo—Luther’s had the horrible square mutton chop sideburns he’d grown on the moon, and Five’s was passed out drunk. They stopped arguing over where to put Vanya’s picture and fell into a guilty silence as soon as Klaus spotted him and started shushing them all, waving his hands wildly. All of them were ready for the fight to start, but all Luther did was wander over, yank Vanya’s headshot out of Diego’s hands, and slap it onto the painting directly over Dad’s face. It looked ridiculous, undersized on Reginald’s body and narrow enough that the edges of his hair and head peeked out around the edges of hers, but Luther just nodded firmly at it, then at them, before striding away.
And then all of them were turning to him, too, dragging him into their daily lives, like it was easy. Like he hadn’t been just as dead to them as they’d been to him.
There was Allison, waving Five into the room while she was on one of her scheduled Skype-calls with her daughter and ex-husband, thrilled to introduce Claire to Uncle Five.
Vanya, leaving out a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich in the kitchen, under the one light left on in the whole house, on those nights he missed dinner and came home long after everyone else had gone to bed.
Ben, smirking at Five after the two of them had casually circumvented a locked door, Five with a powered leap and Ben by just casually strolling straight through it, leaving the rest of their siblings trapped on the other side.
Klaus, cajoling and pleading and begging until Five agreed to take him to a Starbucks, where he was introduced to the sugary-sweet-caffeinated wonder of the java chip frappuccino with a wink and a smile that suggested that it had been Klaus’s real plan all along.
And even Pogo, sitting them all down at last to talk their way through the last of the secrets Dad had kept from them their whole lives. Turned out that Dad was, in the strictest sense of the word, an alien. Wild.
Five had long since realized he didn’t know how to do this anymore. Oh, he’d sort of gotten used to people, again, once the Commission had picked him up. That had been a crash-course in resocialization, going from the dizzying emptiness and desolation of that dead world to a career as a time-traveling hitman. But those bastards, his coworkers, might as well have been paper cutouts, automatons, trained monkeys in suits—he hadn’t felt a genuine connection to any of them. Delores was the most real person he’d met in that whole period of his life, and she didn’t technically have a heartbeat.
He didn’t know how to care about people, didn’t have the slightest fucking idea what to do with them once he did. The emotions it brought up, for god’s sake, the good and the bad—how did anyone live like this, all the time? How did they not go crazy with it? Sometimes, just thinking about the collection of obnoxious idiots he called his family made him want to throw up, to run away, to kill them all and then himself. He wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t know that was a totally inappropriate reaction, and he never, ever would do those things—not even to save the rest of the universe—but if he did, then at least he wouldn’t have to worry anymore about the next time they went and died without him.
There had to better ways to deal with it, he knew that. Billions of people on earth got by without resorting to violently attacking the things that scared them. Five could learn that, too. Probably. Hopefully.
Well, with the apocalypse averted, at least he had some time to figure it out.
* * *
“What on earth are you doing?” Five asked, when he caught a glowing blue Ben hovering halfway up the main staircase in the front hall.
His brother’s spiritual presence shrugged, like this was an everyday thing that Five had somehow missed. “We want to see if Klaus can call me, summon me, whatever—when I’m not around,” he said, leaning against the banister. It was fascinating to Five that he didn’t fall through that, but human touch was still beyond him when he was in this form. “I’m usually somewhere pretty close by, so he doesn’t really need it for me, but it’s not like he wants to test it out on any of the fucked-up ghosts he’s used to seeing.”
“PAGING BEN HARGREEVES. CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Klaus screamed, somewhere off in the distance. The only reason it wasn’t ear-splittingly painful was that he was far enough away to muffle it somewhat, but Five felt sorry for anyone else in the house. “CALL FOR BEN ON LINE FOUR.”
“NICE TRY, ASSHOLE,” Ben bellowed back. Five flinched back in a whole-body movement. “NOW STOP FUCKING AROUND AND DO IT RIGHT.”
If Klaus said anything in response to that, they couldn’t hear it.
“Well, that seems to be going well,” Five said with an edge of sarcasm, rubbing a hand over his ear.
“Eh. He’ll get it or he won’t,” Ben agreed philosophically.
Five shrugged and made to move along. “Keep me updated, I suppose.”
Ben vanished. And Five did mean vanished: the blue glow that gave him shape and form went out, not like a candle or a lightbulb would, with a glowing afterimage left behind, but with an immediate and total nothingness where once there had been something.
“Hm,” Five said, intrigued. He took a short jump upstairs to the hallway outside of Klaus’s room, just in time for the door to go slamming open.
Klaus tumbled out of the room, hands in the air and cheering loudly, with ghost-blue Ben following behind. “Yes!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Success! Take that, bitches, I’m the master of death!”
“Can the master of death maybe take it down a couple notches?” Ben said, shaking out his arms and neck, his face scrunching up in distaste. “That felt—really weird. Like getting squeezed through a sink drain. And I think I have a headache?”
Five hadn’t thought that ghosts could get headaches. It wasn’t like they had physical ‘heads’ to ‘ache,’ not to mention the lack of things like nerves and pain receptors.
“Oh, yeah, me too. I almost passed out,” Klaus agreed, still manically cheerful, though he had taken the volume down to a reasonable human level. “Think I can do it again?”
“Ugh,” Ben said. “Can’t we wait a bit before we try for a repeat? I did not enjoy that.”
Klaus grinned brightly at him, because Number Four had never shied away from the things that hurt him physically. “Come on, buddy, gotta strike while the iron’s hot!”
“Can I watch?” Five cut in, curious.
Klaus shared a look with Ben that Five couldn’t read. “Oh, uh, sure, if you want,” he said.
Five shifted a little in place, feeling a very unusual urge to defend himself. “It seems interesting,” he said. “And if you do pass out this time, better that someone’s there to deal with it.”
“Oh, I guess that’d be good,” Klaus said. He scratched at the back of his head, looking—dare Five say it—a bit bashful.
“Yeah, someone’s going to need to take pictures so we can make fun of you for it later,” Ben said, before Klaus could get embarrassed and chicken out.
Well, Five could definitely do that. “I’ll get the camera,” he said, and jumped away to his room.
He could still hear Klaus’s shout from down the hall. “Hey!”
* * *
That wasn’t all Klaus was discovering about his powers, either.
“Hey. Hey, come look at this,” Ben hissed at Five late one evening, poking his head straight through Five’s door in a pulse of blue light and ignoring Five’s shout of disapproval. “I need help with something, and you’re the only one who can get in, come on.”
“Look at what,” Five grumbled, irritated, but he stood up nevertheless.
Ben waved him into motion. “You’ll see. Come on, you’re going to have to jump into Klaus’s room. He’s locked the door.”
Five eyed him. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Whatever weird crap Klaus is into behind locked doors is his own business.”
“It’s not like that, you big baby,” Ben said, rolling his eyes. “Come on. I just need you to look at something, and then back me up on it when Klaus asks you later.”
“Ugh.” Five sighed, pushed away from his desk and took a step or two in the direction of Klaus’s room. “Fine. But if it’s something terrible—”
“It’s not,” Ben said with another, stronger eyeroll. “Don’t be paranoid. I’ll meet you in there.” Without another word, he drifted back out through Five’s door, presumably back down the hall toward Klaus’s room.
Five sighed, put upon. And then he jumped, appearing in the open center of the floor with a little pop of sound. “What am I supposed to be—oh.”
Over by the bed, Klaus had his eyes closed, his hands resting palms-up on his knees; he was glowing blue as he accessed his power. All of that was perfectly normal, at least for Klaus. What was less normal was the fact that he wasn’t sitting on the bed, but rather hovering over it—no wires, no strings, nothing but Five’s brother full-on fucking levitating as he—what? Meditated? Channeled his abilities?
“What the actual fuck,” Five whispered, trying not to disturb the scene.
“Yeah, so, he won’t believe me when I tell him he’s doing something new. He thinks I’m pulling some kind of weird prank.” Ben spoke at a totally normal volume as he wandered into view and started poking at the top of Klaus’s shoulder with his shining-blue hands. There was a weird reaction between the glow around Klaus and Ben’s glowing outline, hardly enough to be called contact, but plenty strong enough that Klaus slowly drifted an inch or two downward. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assured Five in response to Five’s hiss of surprise, “he can’t feel me, not really, and he doesn’t pick up on anything he hears or sees when he’s like this. I blasted Africa by Toto for forty-five minutes straight last time, and he still told me he hadn’t heard the song in like five years when he wondered why he had it stuck in his head later.”
“He just doesn’t know he’s doing this? Really? How has he not noticed?” Five asked, quietly in awe—of the ability itself as much as the sheer, blinding obliviousness it had to entail for him to not have noticed it yet. Klaus was a good foot off the bed, legs curled crisscross underneath him, and looking as stable as he would have been sitting on the floor. Some of the little bits and bobs scattered around the room, the smallest and lightest things like loose candy wrappers or pieces of paper, were shaking and shuddering and starting to lift into the air. Five could feel the beginnings of a gentle tugging against his own jacket.
Ben laughed under his breath. “Oh, yeah, he’s noticed something,” he said. “He keeps hitting himself with things he’s picked up, or dropping himself onto the floor, but he’s convinced himself that I’m the one doing it.”
Five rubbed at his temples, the bridge of his nose. “How, exactly?”
“Throwing things at him, pushing him off the bed, distracting him while he’s trying to concentrate. The usual.” Ben shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I wouldn’t.”
Since Ben had forgotten he was visible, a time or two, and spent five to ten minutes making weird faces or snide comments in the middle of family events specifically when Klaus was trying to talk, Five didn’t find that very hard to believe.
“Has he ever…” Five gestured. “…outside this room?”
Ben shook his head. “He usually keeps the more intense shit out of public view, so it’s mostly in here.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “Why?”
“I was thinking,” Five said slowly. “Do you think we could get him to do it somewhere else? Somewhere with a higher ceiling?”
“Oh, shit,” Ben said, stunned. “You mad genius.”
Ben could, it turned out, get it done, and without raising so much as a suspicious eyebrow. Klaus was happy enough to keep trying out in the front foyer, where there was a huge amount of open space and the nearest ceiling was two stories up at the top of the exposed, sweeping staircase. Five was sincerely impressed.
Five had been right, too—without interference, Klaus made it easily eight feet up in the air after less than a minute, and was drifting higher and higher with each passing second.
“Oh, shit,” Ben said, another minute after that, once he was done giggling to himself. “Wait. How’s he going to get down again?”
Five shrugged, unconcerned. “How does he usually do it?”
“Usually he falls flat on his face,” Ben said pointedly.
They both looked up, to where their unsuspecting brother was drifting uncomfortably close to the chandelier.
“Oh, shit,” Five said, just as Klaus’s rising head smacked into one of the chandelier’s metal arms.
Klaus came back to himself with a start at least fifteen feet off the ground and immediately started to drop. If Five hadn’t made a quick double-jump—leap up to the ceiling, grab Klaus by the wrists, and jump back to the ground—things might have gone very badly, very quickly.
The good news was that at least Klaus believed Ben completely about the whole thing, now. That still didn’t stop Klaus from hissing and spitting at the both of them like a cat that had been unexpectedly dunked in a bucket of water for the next full hour and a half.
Ben actually went solid right as explanations started, apparently just so Klaus could give him a solid thwap upside the head. But he stayed solid for the full hour and a half Klaus spent complaining about the whole thing—even while absolutely furious, Klaus would never intentionally take that away from him.
* * *
Allison got her voice back on a rainy Sunday evening.
The house was hushed and still. Pogo and Mom pulled the tape and bandages carefully off her neck, checked on the mostly-healed wound, and pronounced her safe to try whispering, then slowly build back her voice for normal use.
It didn’t take her that much time to get working on her powers, too. In fact, from what Five gathered, she hadn’t waited for her throat to fully heal before starting on that. It was taking the initiative, certainly, even if Five thought she was going about it in the stupidest possible way.
“I’m learning sign language,” she told him, her voice soft and cracking, but audible. She still had to speak quietly, limit herself, or she risked losing her voice entirely for a day or so while she recovered—but it was coming back, slowly but surely. Her agent for her acting career had to be beyond thrilled. “A.S.L. I think it’ll help.”
“For communication? In case you have vocal problems again?” Five said, somewhat interested. The Commission had used certain hand signals for silent communication in the field, when it was needed, but those were very specific and not exactly tailored to everyday conversation. For one, there were three different ways to say ‘take the shot,’ depending on urgency and target accessibility, and no way at all to say ‘hello.’
Allison shook her head. “It could be good for that, if it comes up,” she admitted, “but mostly I’m learning for my powers. So I can use them if my voice gives out, or if we’re in a place where we need to be totally silent. I think it’s the best way I can improve my abilities right now.”
What? Five snorted out a laugh. “Ha.” Then, when she didn’t immediately join in, he realized she was being serious. “Oh. That’s ridiculous.”
Allison turned slowly, imperiously, to stare him down. “Excuse me?” she said in a dangerously soft voice.
“I said that’s ridiculous,” Five told her loudly. “Absurd. If you want to improve on your powers, Rumor, you don’t start with sign language. You start with contract law.”
“Excuse me?” Allison said again, less dangerous and more baffled.
“There’s no point in broadening your scope when your foundation is flawed,” Five said. Allison made an inarticulate noise of offense, but Five sailed on. “You make two major types of mistakes with your powers. The first is an impulse and control issue: using them when you shouldn’t or don’t need to.” He raised an eyebrow, daring her to argue, but she did not. “You’ve been working on that one, and while signing won’t make it any worse, it won’t make any improvements, either. Will it?”
“Well. No,” Allison admitted.
Five waved a hand in a quick circle and flourish: well, there you have it. “The second mistake is purely an issue of semantics. Linguistic specificity, if you will. The things you say don’t match the things you mean, or they do, but not precisely. Consider this: you rumor Vanya to believe she’s nothing but ordinary. Vanya no longer thinks she has powers—but she also has a lingering, debilitating self-esteem issue that she can’t override, no matter her talents as a musician or writer or just as a generally successful person. It’s a monstrous mistake. Every normally socialized child is taught to believe there’s something special about them; that’s the whole point of every children’s cartoon and daytime television program. And yet Vanya believed there was nothing, for decades, uninterrupted.”
Allison was turning pale. She put a hand over her mouth.
“I don’t say this to hurt you,” Five said. “You were four years old. I don’t believe you said a word that Dad didn’t put in your mouth. But your power bends reality based on your words, so the words you choose matter. Dad went for simplicity over specificity, and that fucked Vanya over. If he’d been more precise, he could have easily separated out Vanya’s knowledge of her superhuman ability from her sense of self-worth. What you need to work on isn’t the strength or scope or delivery of your powers, it’s your phrasing.”
“If I had spoken more clearly back then, you think—you think that would have stopped Vanya from ending the world?”
“If Dad had been a bit more of a wordsmith and a bit less of a mad scientist, Vanya might have escaped our childhood with a bit less trauma,” Five corrected her. “Maybe.” Their childhood had been pretty traumatizing even outside this one particular incident, no matter how much damage it had later caused. The apocalypse might still have come even without that one, glaring mistake.
“So, you want me to focus on semantics,” Allison said slowly, tasting the word in her mouth.
“Contract law,” Five repeated firmly. “Semantic exactitude is a good start, but don’t try to pick incredibly specific words just to keep your rumor short. Write it like you’re trying to compose a business deal, where any loopholes left unclosed might come back to screw you over.” He shrugged. “Learning a new language is tedious, and time-consuming, and hard. And if you can’t even manage clarity and specificity in your native language, trying to pull it off in another one is going to be damn near impossible.”
“You think teaching myself contract law is going to be less time-consuming?” Allison said in disbelief.
Five rolled his eyes. “I think you don’t have to go out and become a lawyer,” Five said. “Just learn to speak like one.”
* * *
Five caught her later looking at ‘How to Write Legal Contracts’ on wikiHow and had to stop himself from shaking her. Internally, he was shouting at her to find some better sources. No one was going to learn legal thinking and framework from a How To article less than a page long.
But everyone had to start somewhere, he supposed.
* * *
Out of all his siblings, Vanya was the one most able to spend time with Five in peaceful quiet, and Five could appreciate that—he needed that, some days, living in a house full of people decades younger than him and seemingly still filled with so much intensity, so much drive to do and see and speak. She didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. She wasn’t mission-oriented, always needing something to fill the time. She didn’t ask incessant questions about what Five was doing, thinking, feeling.
Sometimes they sat together in the library for hours and hours without saying a single word, not even hello or goodbye when they came and went. It was nothing short of miraculous.
There had been one notable exception, early on, barely a day or two after the day of Vanya’s concert and the apocalypse-that-wasn’t. Vanya had shuffled into the library with her hands linked in front of her, wringing them together as she edged her way into view.
Five had sighed, closed the book he was skimming but kept it in his hands. It wasn’t all that interesting, anyway. “Can I help you?” he said, hoping to just get it over with.
“I owe you an apology,” she said. She wouldn’t look at him; her chin was tucked toward her chest, her eyes pointed off at the corner of the room.
Five twitched a little in place. He hadn’t expected that, and his mind instantly flicked through the last dozen or so of their interactions, trying to figure out what on earth she had done to be sorry for. “Alright,” he said slowly. “Why?”
“For ending the world.”
“For…” Five blinked at her. “Didn’t we already have this conversation? I could have sworn we were all there for it.” Five was almost certain that they had. Vanya had apologized for destroying the earth and the moon; the rest of them had apologized for being such self-centered dicks that they’d never noticed siblings being abused, traumatized, and manipulated to the point of destroying astronomical bodies. It had all seemed very emotionally healthy, very therapeutic—holding hands, kumbaya, all that jazz.
Vanya nodded frantically. “Yeah. Yes. For just the general sort of—” She waved a hand, clenching and then flicking her fingers apart to simulate a sort of earth-shattering kaboom. “But that was different.”
“Okay. Alright.” Five had to slow down and think that one through for a minute. “So,” he said, processing, “now you think you have to apologize to me, specifically? Why on earth would you do that?”
Now she was the one looking at him funny, like she thought he was being intentionally dense. “I was the reason you had to live through the apocalypse.”
“It wasn’t like you did it specifically to spite me,” Five said—amused, confused. Bemused, even.
“But if I hadn’t,” Vanya said, hushed, like she was imparting some deep, dark secret, “if I hadn’t done it, you wouldn’t have been alone for so long. Even if you were stuck in the future, at least we would have been—someone would have been—”
Five laughed; he couldn’t help it. “Vanya. Don’t be ridiculous. There was an entire organization of time-traveling hitmen dedicated to making sure you did exactly what you did. I can’t exactly blame you for going through with it when I know exactly how they work, exactly how many little tricks and traps they put in place to keep you on their track. You don’t need to apologize for being manipulated.”
She had relaxed a little, but not entirely. There was more, then. He waited, eyebrows raised in pointed question, and eventually she slumped in place and asked. “What if I do it again?”
“Then we’ll go back again,” Five said immediately. Again, and again, and again, until he finally got it right. “I think I’ve proven that I’m not afraid of a little timeline fuckery when the situation calls for it.”
“You won’t—” She stopped herself, swallowed. “You’re not—going to kill me, then? If I mess it up?”
Five froze. She couldn’t have knocked the wind out of him more effectively if she had hit him in the stomach with a metal baseball bat. “Is that what you think?” he said. “Still?”
He would have done it—all of them but Allison would have—back when they thought it was the only way, when the only other option had been Vanya dying anyway a minute later, along with the other seven and a half billion people in the world. Reginald Hargreeves hadn’t programmed his batch of vigilantes to hesitate when confronted with pesky things like moral hang-ups or ethical dilemmas; they’d have done it, if they needed to, and then they would have stewed in the regret and mental trauma until they died.
But Allison had stopped to think. Allison had hesitated, and she’d been right. Thinking about what could have been still kept Five up at night.
“I wouldn’t be mad,” Vanya said hurriedly, like she thought that was his problem. “Well, obviously I would, or I wouldn’t be destroying things. But I get it. I’d—I’d do it, too.”
“No,” Five snapped, and put both hands firmly down on the arms of his chair so that he wouldn’t try to reach out and shake some sense into her. “Absolutely not. Thump you over the head, knock you out, and drag you back to the past to try again with less world-ending temper tantrums, absolutely. But kill you?” He snorted. “I came back to save you all, bunch of useless disasters that you are. I’m certainly not going to take you out myself.”
“I mean it, though,” Vanya said hurriedly, trying and failing to hide the look of utter relief breaking across her face. “If I do go off the rails—if I become that person—”
Five knew exactly what kind of person she meant: he’d been that person. He was that person, and he didn’t much mind it. In the timeline-that-wasn’t he’d shot the Handler in the face for another hour or two with his siblings at the end of the world. He’d have killed Harold Jenkins, or Hazel and Cha-Cha, or any random Joe Schmoe after the math turned up against them. He wouldn’t have cared who. He wouldn’t have asked why. He’d have let the world burn, if that turned out to be the only way to keep his family.
“You won’t,” he told her. His voice was sure, absolute. Vanya would never. Her heart and mind and morals were all in the right place, aligned in the right way—Five’s had all gone skewed, along the line, but he could still recognize someone with a solid moral compass when he saw one.
“That easy?” she said, skeptical, but a tiny smile was creeping up on her face. Sweet, kind Vanya, his littlest sister—literally, since Five’s teenage body was already two inches taller than Vanya as an adult. She was more likely to choose to lock herself back up in the basement than she was to choose to do someone deliberate harm.
“Easier than you think,” Five told her. “You don’t want to be. That’s enough.”
That was everything. Five still hadn’t gotten the hang of it, himself.
* * *
Five came across Luther in Dad’s study one afternoon. It was a perfect day outside; the light falling through the windows was crisp and golden. Files had been spread out around the room, opened on nearly every piece of furniture and even strewn across the floor, while still-sealed metallic boxes were stacked in haphazard piles in corners and thrown across the desk.
Luther was rip-roaringly drunk, and it was only three in the afternoon. “Oh, hey, Five,” he said when his brother’s presence finally registered. He was half-lying on the floor against one of the walls, a pathetic lump of humanity, and for a few seconds Five thought very seriously about just shutting the door and walking away.
But Luther was still his brother, and Five would still help him, even when he was a hopeless mess. “Hello there, Number One,” Five said, stepping into the room with brisk efficiency, planting his feet in whatever open spaces he could find in the gaps around the new paperwork carpeting. “Doing a little redecorating?”
Luther shook his head, clutching at a bottle of something amber-colored that was already more than half-empty. Knowing Luther’s inhuman metabolism, Five was willing to bet it had been full when Luther had started. “Going through all of my—all of this shit,” he said, gesturing around the room. “Seeing if any of it is worth keeping. I spent four years of my life on it, and now I can’t—I can’t just throw it out, you know? So much time and effort, just because I believed Dad when he told me there was a point to all of it.” He laughed. “Stupid. I’ve been looking over it all—and I still can’t see what he was thinking. What I was thinking. If he just wanted me out of the fucking house, there were easier ways to do it.”
“I think most parents tell their kids to go find a job, an apartment maybe,” Five agreed, coming to a stop at Luther’s feet. He kicked at one of his brother’s shoes, not exactly gently, but not with any real force, until Luther got the message and sat up the rest of the way. “They don’t stick them on a one-way shuttle off the planet.” He actually wasn’t entirely sure about that; he’d spent his teenage years and onward in the apocalypse first and then as a killer-for-hire, and it wasn’t like anyone he spent significant amounts of time with now were better examples. Everyone in their family was damaged. Who knew what normal people did?
“Yeah. Yeah, exactly.” Luther raised the bottle to his lips, winced, stopped himself, and kept lifting it higher instead, high enough to press against his forehead and roll it back and forth, back and forth. “And now—he’s dead, and we almost lived through the apocalypse, caused the apocalypse, whatever. The whole reason he went out and bought himself a child army in the first place, and it turns out if he’d just done fucking nothing, we would’ve had a better chance of preventing it.” He dropped his head. “Allison—the rest of you are getting it together. You’ve got lives, plans. Interests, or—or people. A purpose. I’ve got—this.” He waved the hand holding the bottle wildly, gesturing around the room, ignoring the way it was tipping dangerously close to spilling. “I have a mountain of nothing, and all because I trusted my father, like that’s a ridiculous thing for regular people to do. Maybe I would have a better idea of what the fuck I’m supposed to be doing with my life if he hadn’t mailed me to the moon when he ran out of ideas for how to control me. Instead, I’m just—like all the rest of this crap. Useless.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, Luther, get it together,” Five snapped. He yanked the bottle out of Luther’s hand and took a swig. “It can’t possibly have taken you literal decades longer than the rest of us to realize that Dad was a senile old man who was, and I cannot stress this enough, completely fucked in the head. He treated us like literal lab rats, and you’re upset that he, what, didn’t really care about the results of his experiments for once?”
“I wasted so much time—” Luther said, anguished.
Five took another hearty gulp of booze. It was Dad’s good stuff, too, the whiskey he’d learned to hide away early on so they (Klaus) wouldn’t break into his stash in the middle of the night. “It’s only wasted if you let it be,” he pointed out. “You’ve got four years’ worth of data and personal observation recorded here, along with enough samples to fill any astronomist’s wet dreams. You never considered calling up a research center? Sending a spiffy little email on over to NASA?”
“Dad always said—” In a sign of beautiful progress, Luther frowned, stopped, and reassessed what he was about to say, finally realizing that any sentence beginning with those words might end in questionable ways. “It was proprietary tech that got me up there,” he said slowly. “All the research is owned by the Umbrella Corporation.”
“Which, now that Daddy dearest has kicked it, belongs to us,” Five said brightly. “Do whatever you want with it. Burn it, call up the government, write a book. I certainly don’t care, and I’m sure the others will agree it’s yours.”
Luther bit his lip. “You think people would really be interested?” he said hesitantly. His shoulders hunched inward. It looked nothing but ridiculous when a man of his size tried to make himself seem small.
“I’m surprised they aren’t already knocking down your door, actually,” Five said. He dropped to a crouch at Luther’s side, picked a file up off the floor, and flipped through it with only a half-focused attention to detail. This one was a collection of Luther’s attempts to grow various flora in what were admittedly less-than-ideal conditions. Apparently, he’d had some success with aloe vera and cherry tomatoes; orchids had consistently failed. “You spent four straight years in a totally different atmospheric and gravitational environment, recording everything you did and saw, and you came back in less than a day with absolutely no visible stress or readjustment period. You have, and are, the greatest collection of scientific knowledge regarding off-planet conditions and their effects on humankind currently in existence.”
“Yeah,” Luther said, as thoughtfully as someone could while approaching critical levels of drunkenness. “But…what about after that? I don’t—I don’t even know what I like doing, you know? Someone’s always just told me what to do, and then I did it. I probably can’t do that forever, right?”
“Then get the fuck out of the house for once,” Five told him, leaning in and resisting the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. “Go to the movies. To the library. Read a book, watch some trash television, get a hobby. Maybe get a girlfriend who isn’t also your sister, for god’s sake. Figure out what you like and then do it. There are more than seven-and-a-half billion people living on this planet, Luther, and most of them figured out how to live without daddy’s permission at one point or another. You’ll get there.”
Luther was straightening up a little, unfolding himself from the huddle he’d been adopting. “You think I can?”
“Yes,” Five said firmly. “And if you can’t, then we’ll help you, idiot. That’s what family’s for. We all get it, you’re Number One and you don’t need any of us to hold your hand, whatever, but even Diego’s picked up a side interest or two somewhere along the way, and he still wears the mask and goes out to fight crime at night. Maybe you need the help, just this once.” He slapped Luther on the leg, ignoring the way Luther twitched, startled. “Now buckle the fuck up and go drink some water, you idiot. There’s only room for one sloppy alcoholic in this family, and now that Klaus is sober, I’ve got dibs on the slot.”
“Why you?” Luther grumbled, but he did start pushing himself up and onto his feet. “I’m Number One.”
“Yes, you are,” Five said, patting him on the shoulder like he might do for a whining child, “but I’m pushing sixty and I’m stuck in a houseful of twenty-something-year-old idiots. I need all the help I can get.”
* * *
The thing about young idiots, though—they still had time to learn. They grew. They transformed. They got better.
* * *
Slowly, week by week, Diego was changing what he wore.
Five wasn’t always the most observant, but if there was one thing his life had taught him, it was to always, always be aware of when someone was armed. And Diego was always armed. Even in the mornings, just out of bed, he could be found wandering the house in black and leather, harness and holsters strapped to his chest, knives cleaned, sharpened, and ready for use.
Except that wasn’t always the case these days. One morning, Diego came down to breakfast with his holsters half-empty. Five didn’t think anyone else even noticed. A few days after that, and they were all empty.
He didn’t wear them at all for a whole day the week after that, and looked twitchy and uncomfortable the whole time. But after a while, it seemed to get easier, and eventually he didn’t carry weapons or his holsters at all in the house anymore.
Outside was a different story; Diego still looked like a leather-fetishist escapee from a BDSM convention beyond the safety of their front door.
Safely inside the house, and sometimes when he stayed the night with his Detective Patch, things were different. Black, black, and more black were still the colors of the day, but gradually, there were other things being introduced as well—soft greys, off-whites, deep blues. Leather was replaced with denim or wool.
He didn’t grow out his hair from its military-sharp cut. He didn’t start wearing sweater-vests and cardigans. He still carried himself the same, sharp and controlled. But he did—soften, sometimes. Just a little. Just when he was home, and safe.
Klaus was the only one that Five had seen outright acknowledge the change, and he had brought it up only in passing, literally. As he went sweeping by Diego on his way out the door, he had flicked his eyes up and down, taking in Diego’s muted red button-down, and then said, “Huh. Nice. Hey, burgundy is a good color on you, buddy. Keep up the good work!” He didn’t pause a second longer than it took him to toss Diego a set of finger guns before the door shut behind him.
Only Five, sprawled out unnoticed in the other end of the room, noticed the pleased little smirk that flickered across Diego’s face when he thought no one could see him.
Luther said something about it one time and one time only. (“What are you wearing?” he said, which wasn’t so terrible. It was mostly the tone—confusion, disgust—that Diego had objected to. Since all that Diego had been wearing was a loose-fitting sweatshirt and jeans, Five couldn’t figure out why Luther felt the need to object to it at all.) Diego, who Five thought had already been looking a little irritated, grabbed a handful of decorative glass marbles out of an equally decorative vase and started pelting Luther with them, at first in a rattling barrage, and then one at a time, tossed with unerring precision every time Luther opened his mouth.
“I said I was sorry, so knock it off—ouch! Hey!”
Five snorted out a laugh.
Diego whirled around on him. “You got something to say?” he said sharply, a marble or two still held menacingly in his hand. “What are you wearing, Diego? Can’t you deal with your problems without resorting to violence, Diego? Anything?”
Five shrugged. He wasn’t that much of a hypocrite. “Oh, no, if only I hadn’t gone tragically and immediately blind and deaf as soon as Luther started talking. Maybe then I could have saved my poor, tragic brother from the consequences of voicing every obnoxious comment that passes through his thick skull.”
“Oh, come on—ouch! Hey!”
* * *
If there was one thing that they all needed to improve on, it was keeping an eye on each other without explicitly being told, and then acting on problems when they saw them. Supporting each other.
So, when Klaus dragged Five along on an outing with Vanya to the mall, he paid attention when an attractive woman in a crop-top and leggings started up a conversation with Vanya in the music store. Klaus was busy flitting around the room, putting his hands on any instrument that didn’t look like it would break if he messed around with it, but even he was watching the interaction out of the corner of his eyes.
It went on for a few minutes, but Vanya seemed to be enjoying herself. The woman said something; Vanya smiled. Vanya said something; the woman laughed, and pulled a pen out of her bag to write a series of numbers on Vanya’s hand.
That was about when Five figured he might need to cut in. He beelined over to Vanya’s side just in time to hear the woman invite Vanya to join her for coffee.
“Like a date?” he said bluntly. He looked like a child; it still wasn’t socially acceptable for him to ask questions like that, but people generally forgave him for it when he did.
“Yes, like a date,” the woman said gently, answering Five but looking at Vanya.
“Oh,” Vanya said, blushing a startling and immediate red. She started stuttering and stumbling over her own tongue, looking down at the number on her hand in shock. “Ah. I, uh, thanks, but I don’t, um.”
“What my sister is trying to tell you,” Five cut in, “is that she appreciates the interest, but she is heterosexual.”
“Tragically,” Klaus added with a wink, appearing on the scene and draping a careful arm over Five’s shoulder, no actual weight to it and barely even touching at all. Five still shook him off. “Unlike the rest of us.”
“Oh. Oh!” The woman laughed, her lips a perfectly painted red bow. “I see. Well, it was nice talking to you, Vanya,” she said. “Feel free to call me anyway. I hope we can still meet up. Just as friends,” she clarified easily. “It’s always nice to meet a fellow musician. Enjoy your afternoon!” She waved as she turned to leave.
“I, yeah,” Vanya stuttered, twitching through a wave of her own. “Bye. You, too.”
“Making friends?” Klaus asked cheerfully. He waited a beat, then two. “Vanya. Hey. Are you listening?”
Vanya didn’t answer, too busy staring after the other woman, at her swaying hips, as she walked away. Five didn’t see what the big deal was—was Vanya so unsocialized that a single human interaction threw her off this badly? “That was nice of her,” she finally said.
Klaus eyed her over with intent, looking for something that Five didn’t know to recognize. “Are you going to call her?” he asked gently, nudging her in the side.
Vanya came back to herself with a start. She shrugged. “Yeah, I think so,” she said, looking down at the number before curling her fingers carefully over the ink on her palm. “I mean, I don’t have a lot of friends. And Emily seems friendly, um, and very nice, and she likes music. She’s really pretty, too, isn’t she?”
Five figured that she was, but he wasn’t really sure what that had to do with it.
Klaus knew. He laughed, but not meanly. “Oh, Vanya. That’s super gay,” he said.
“Says you, the pansexual,” Ben’s exasperated voice said out of nowhere. Five jumped a little in surprise. Ben wasn’t visible anywhere, either in blue or as his solid self, but Five maybe thought there was a hazy wash of something hovering behind Klaus’s left shoulder, only visible out of the corner of Five’s eye. “You’re gay. And a colossal hypocrite, apparently.”
Klaus half-turned and nodded cheerfully at the hazy patch, confirming Five’s suspicion. “Shit, yeah. You got me, officer, guilty as charged.”
“Sorry, what?” Vanya said, before they could really build up a full head of steam.
Klaus waved a hand through the air, a messy flutter of pale fingers, bright red nails, and black feathers from the cuff of his sleeve. “Oh, my dearest darling sister,” he said. “It’s perfectly normal for a straight woman to feel an aesthetic appreciation for a beautiful lady, maybe to want to look like another woman who they think is objectively attractive. It’s totally normal for a straight woman to think another woman is nice, and funny, and friendly. But when you have all those things in combination, and when a woman then looks at a woman like you just did—when a woman checks out another woman’s ass like you just did—that’s gay.” He nodded his head sagely, almost to himself. “Think about it.”
Vanya glanced at Five like she was hoping for support, confused, and Five had to just shrug.
“Well,” Vanya said slowly, tilting her head back to look up at the ceiling as she actually took Klaus’s suggestion and thought it through. “She was…great. So great that I kind of want to punch her in the mouth? But…”
“But with your mouth?” Klaus suggested.
“Yeah,” Vanya said dreamily, and then mentally kicked herself. “Wait, no. Wait.”
“Gay,” Klaus whispered to Ben, plenty loud enough for everyone nearby to hear, and accepted a high-five from what looked like empty space.
* * *
“I’m nearly thirty!” Five heard Vanya wailing later, loud enough to be clearly understood even through Allison’s closed door. “I can’t be having a sexuality crisis now!”
But she could, and she was. She made sure to loudly blame Klaus every step of the way.
* * *
One morning, around four AM, Five gave up on sleeping and wandered downstairs to the kitchen. Even Mom wasn’t up and about yet for the day, so he fully expected to have the place to himself.
It was a surprise, then, to find Ben, shining blue, with his head half-shoved through the refrigerator door. “Oh, good,” he said. He seemed totally unbothered by the uncanny way his face shifted in and out of the metal surface he was half-phased through. Since Ben had been corporeal for most of the day leading up to then, it was doubly surprising—Klaus must have slipped sometime in the night.
Maybe it was harder to do while asleep?
“Finally, someone with working hands,” Ben said. “Help me out?”
“Alright,” Five said. It wasn’t like he had plans. “But only if you stop doing that.”
Ben shrugged and moved out of the refrigerator, back to respecting the laws of space even if he wasn’t exactly bound by them. “Come on, then,” he said, waving Five over.
At Ben’s direction, Five pulled out a bit of sliced turkey out of the fridge, a can of tuna from the cupboards, and a few extra-crispy slices of bacon left over from breakfast the morning before. He had Five arrange the meat on a flat plate, and then grab a bottle of water from the pantry.
“Take them out the side door,” Ben said, and so Five shrugged and did. His hands were full, so he popped out of the kitchen and reappeared just outside the door instead. Things were so much easier when he didn’t have to bother with petty things like doorknobs or locks.
Five looked around. It was still almost fully dark; with the light of the one streetlight off in the distance, he could just barely make out the outline of the dumpster a good way down the alley. “Now what?”
“Hold on,” Ben said, drifting straight through the door in a wash of dim blue light. Suddenly Five could see with a bit more detail, enough that he noticed the little metal bowl sitting on the ground just by the door.
Five narrowed his eyes. “Number Six, tell me this isn’t what I think it is,” he said.
Ben had already moved down the alley, where he was crouching by a stack of cardboard boxes that had to have been there for god-knew-how-long. “Just a second,” he called back over his shoulder. He turned back to the boxes. “Hey, there, little guy,” he crooned. “I brought more food, yes I did, don’t you want to come out?”
The boxes rustled.
“That’s it,” Ben said quietly. “Come on, buddy, come on out.”
Five had an inkling where this was going. He quickly dropped the plate off on the ground next to the metal bowl, which he filled with water out of the bottle as quickly as he could, never mind how much of it splashed directly onto the ground, and then he took a couple shuffling steps away.
Just in time, too—at that moment, the smallest, most pathetic cat that he’d ever seen came tumbling out of the trash heap and rolled to a stop at Ben’s feet.
It wasn’t quite a kitten, but it still had that young, coltish look that Five assumed meant it wasn’t all that much older than one. It was hard to tell, with only Ben’s ghostly blue glow serving as the light source, but it seemed to be mostly colored a black so dark it almost looked purple, with hints of something that might be white under the dirt on the tips of the paws and just under the chin. Its fur was a matted mess, and it was missing part of one ear. Even as far back away from the thing as he was, Five could see it was coated in weird sticky bits and debris. It probably had fleas or ticks or maybe even rabies.
Ben looked absolutely enchanted.
“Ben,” Five said suspiciously. “Did you adopt a cat?”
“Nah,” Ben said easily. “He’s not mine. I found him living out here a while back, and Mom said it was cool if I took a bit of extra stuff to feed him a little. He was really skittish at first, but he was hungry enough to risk it, and now I think he likes me.” Ben smiled down at the scrap of a thing in front of him, and then made a few clicking noises as he stood up and started leading it over to the food. It gave Five a suspicious look, but seemed comfortable enough with Ben to follow him anyway. “He’s doing better now. He was so skinny before.”
It was still pretty skinny, Five thought, but if Ben thought it had been skinnier before then probably it had been on the verge of starving. It actually sounded a little to Five like Ben had adopted the thing, and just hadn’t quite convinced it to come inside yet. “Does it let you touch it?” he said, hoping the answer was no, or that Ben remembered that even ghosts had to wash their hands when they were corporeal.
“Yeah, sometimes,” Ben said, dashing those hopes. As the little monster started to eat, he took a seat next to it, patiently waiting a couple seconds for it to decide whether it was comfortable with him there before he settled in. “Oh! Hey, this is cool. Watch this.”
He reached out. Five was momentarily confused, and then rather than sticking his hand straight through the cat, like he’d expected, Ben’s outline hit the point where the cat started and—stopped. He was even glowing a brighter blue, like he was reacting to the matted fur.
When he started to move, Five could actually see the surface of that fur moving, too, under Ben’s semi-transparent hand. The cat, meanwhile, acted like this was totally normal—like it was just being petted, same as it did any old day, and not at all like something was happening worth blowing Five’s mind.
“I have no idea what to do with that,” Five said at last, staring dumbly at the improbable sight of a ghost petting a mangy cat behind a dumpster.
“Oh, yeah, me either,” Ben agreed, sounding almost happy about it. “I actually think it might be a cat thing, not a Klaus thing, which is even more nuts. It’s kind of bringing into question everything I know about reality. Then again, I’m a ghost tied to the world by my brother’s freaky superpowers, and you’re a sixty-year-old teleporting time traveler stuck in the body of a teenager. Reality is subjective, I guess.”
Well, when you put it like that. “Fair enough.”
Five stared some more. The cat, finished with wolfing down its food, turned around to start playfully biting at Ben’s fingers. Little blue sparks flew up where its tiny needle-teeth scraped against Ben’s not-skin, drifting down to fizzle out against the pavement.
“Did you give it a name?” Five said after a while, long enough later that the sun was thinking about rising, and the cat had stretched out along its side to give Ben maximum access for petting, practically begging to soak up whatever affection he would give it.
“Yeah,” Ben said. He turned a mildly sheepish look in Five’s direction, not an expression Five was used to seeing on the face of his ghost brother who had once held tentacle monsters from another plane of existence in his stomach. “I’m calling him Octopuss.”
Five opened his mouth to comment, thought about it, and shut it again with a click. Sure. Fine. “Whatever,” Five sighed, and finally reached out to offer a hand for the little monster to sniff. “I don’t even care anymore.”
The cat accepted his offering, purring as it started to rub its little face against his hand.
It wasn’t terrible.
* * *
Someone had redone all the store displays for the new season; it was strange seeing Delores in something other than that white-and-black polka dot shirt, as unfamiliar on her now as his own hands were on himself, and just as jarring to spot out of the corners of his eyes.
She did look nice. Still no sequins, but Five figured he could forgive the employees this one time, since this wasn’t the reality where he’d once passed that message along to a member of the staff.
“Well, Delores,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
A woman walking past with two squalling kids in tow gave him a weird look; Five thought that was a bit rich, since he wasn’t the one causing a scene by dragging two bratty monsters through a shopping mall.
“We’re finally settling in,” Five continued, like he’d never been interrupted. “It’s been a good while since the apocalypse passed us by, now. I think the Commission is really going to let us be, which—I’m having a little trouble believing.”
He sighed. She stared down at him.
“Well, obviously I’m happy about it,” he said, scowling. “I didn’t want to have to deal with all that bullshit forever. Now I’m back home, I’ve averted the end of days, and I’ve saved my idiot family. It’s, well, of course it’s everything I wanted.”
It was just—well. His whole life had been working, growing, running. Fighting. To be told that he could stop—to be free, finally, totally—it wasn’t just hard to believe. It was practically impossible. Five was outright terrified to trust in it, and equally terrified that if he didn’t, if he couldn’t bring himself to stand down and learn to operate without a mission, then he would fall into the trap of creating a problem when one didn’t just stumble into his lap. Klaus wasn’t entirely wrong to call him a junkie, even if Five’s drugs didn’t come conveniently packaged in a pill.
Delores’s face was a gentle, blank mask, as it always had been, but Five had been an expert in reading her moods for literal decades. She was disappointed in him.
Five was a little disappointed in himself, too.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I am better than this. I’ll be better.”
After all, he’d created a new branch of physics while alone at the end of the world, with nothing but a pencil stub and the margins of library books. What was this, compared to that? What did it matter if he’d finished up his mission in life, only to find himself trapped in the body of a child again, with another whole life to lead?
What did the nightmares matter, the ones that kept him awake night after night? They weren’t real, not anymore. They wouldn’t be real, this time.
He’d figure it out.
“Thanks, Delores,” he said, waving goodbye as he turned to go. “You always know just what to say.”
He did remember to pass along Delores’s request for something with sequins again before leaving the store. She’d gone through the end of the world, too; she deserved something good for herself, for once.
* * *
Diego was learning to cook.
Five only found out about that one by making an idle comment in Diego’s hearing, something about needing to find some non-violent hobbies. It was a part of his and Delores’s new plan to improve his outlook in a non-ending, non-ended world, but most of the things Five enjoyed doing also involved killing people, or maiming them, or even just threatening them into doing what he wanted, which Allison seemed to think was still a form of ‘emotional violence.’ Whatever.
His brother had eyed him, all six-foot-whatever-inches of him, muscle-bound and capable of murder no matter how many knives he was or was not carrying at any given time, and just sort of shrugged in response.
What can you do? It seemed to say. Yeah, Five had assumed he’d get it, if any of his siblings would.
But Diego hadn’t just acknowledged the comment and forgotten it. A few days later, in the middle of an afternoon when mostly everyone was out of the house for the day, he knocked on Five’s door.
“You busy?” he said, poking his head around the edge of the door when Five called out absentminded permission for whoever it was to come in.
Five shrugged. “Nothing earth-shattering,” he said. “Do you need something?”
“Not exactly,” Diego hedged, opening the door an inch more. “Just—how do you feel about macaroni and cheese?”
Not all that strongly one way or the other, actually, but Five was curious enough to let Diego lead him down to the kitchen, where Mom was handing Vanya a weighty cardboard box and a piece of cardstock about half the size of a standard sheet of paper. Mom was wearing one of her usual outfits under a somewhat heavy coat—heavier than the weather maybe required—like she was about to go out.
“You lot have fun, now!” she trilled. “I’ll be back in about four hours. Please call if you need anything!” She bustled out the back door before any of them had time to answer, and disappeared.
“Spicy Bacon Mac & Cheese,” Vanya read off the card, like this was all perfectly normal behavior. “With a side of hand-cut fries and roasted carrots. Oh, Diego, this one looks good.”
“What’s going on?” Five said, narrowing his eyes at Diego, then Vanya, then the cardboard box, which Vanya had tossed up onto the counter. “Where’s Mom going?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Diego said. “Mom’s been testing out a bunch of different stuff lately, trying to see if there’s anything she likes. Earlier she said she was going to a hockey game today.”
Five felt his expression twist. “Why?” he asked, baffled.
Vanya shrugged, a little awkwardly. “I think she saw Luther watching football downstairs the other day and asked a few questions,” she said. “But—I’m not really sure how she got from that to this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Diego said, a little more aggressively. “She can do whatever she wants. We’ve got other stuff to do.”
“Yes, about that,” Five said, willing to let it drop. “What exactly are we doing? Something about macaroni and cheese?”
“Yeah,” Diego said. “We’re cooking it.”
Five stared at him. Over at the counter, Vanya reached into the box for the first time and started pulling things out: an onion, a package of meat, uncooked pasta. “We are?” he said, unable to help the way his tone went a little dubious. He looked at the pile of ingredients again—he recognized all of them, but that didn’t mean he had any idea how to get from there to anything edible.
“Well, I am. Vanya’s supervising, since Mom actually trusts her not to let us burn the kitchen down while she’s out,” Diego said, and Vanya half-turned to throw Five a little wave. “I thought maybe you might want to join us.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Five said slowly, well aware that out of everyone in the house, he had the absolute least experience with anything in a kitchen more complicated than ‘use can opener’ or ‘apply fire to food.’ “But—why?”
“You said you wanted to try, uh, other things,” Diego said, shifting a little from foot to foot. “Things that aren’t, I don’t know, knives or fighting or breaking and entering. Whatever it is you usually do in your free time.”
Five suddenly understood. “And this is yours.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Diego waved a hand in a so-so gesture in front of him. “I’ve been doing it for about three weeks, now.”
“I’ve been helping for two,” Vanya chimed in. “He didn’t want to bother Mom, but after, uh. After…”
“After I started a fucking grease fire trying to pan-fry some chicken,” Diego said, looking to the heavens like he was remembering the incident and praying for patience.
“Yeah, that,” Vanya agreed. “She said it might be good to have some help. At least I’ve cooked real food for myself before, in my apartment, so here I am.”
“Why’d you want to do it, then?” Five asked Diego. It didn’t seem like he was a secret culinary genius, anyway.
“It was Eudora’s idea.” Diego turned with a shrug to start washing his hands. Five suspected it was as much to hide his face as it was to perform basic kitchen safety procedures. “She said maybe the work-life balance thing would be easier for me if I had some hobbies, not just ‘the whole Batman thing.’ I tried to tell her about boxing and working at the boxing ring, but…”
“Let me guess,” Five said. “She meant hobbies that don’t involve punching people in the face.”
Diego took his time drying his hands on the towel by the oven. “Yeah.” He finally turned around. “I guess she’s not wrong. And I’m a grown-ass man, I should be able to make my own food that doesn’t come out of a can or a box, you know?”
Five supposed that was a fair point.
“You don’t have to,” Diego said, this time not hesitating to look Five in the eyes. “It was just a thought.”
Five dipped his head in a tiny, acknowledging nod, and watched Diego’s tense shoulders soften. “Where do we start?” he said.
Vanya smiled at them both, obviously pleased a conclusion had been reached calmly and reasonably, and handed Five the recipe card so that he could squint at Mom’s tiny, copperplate handwriting. “Here. It doesn’t look too bad,” she said.
Five read the first step aloud. “Finely chop the yellow onion. Press two cloves of garlic—what?”
“Do we have a garlic press?” Vanya said, accepting the recipe card when Five handed it back and then glancing around the kitchen. “We can just chop that, too, if we don’t.”
Five looked around, too. “I have no idea what that is supposed to look like.”
“This thing?” Diego said dubiously, yanking open a drawer and holding up what looked like a tiny metal hammer.
Vanya snorted, shook her head. “That’s a meat tenderizer.”
That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
“Add milk slowly to roux, stirring constantly, until fully incorporated,” Vanya read a bit later.
“What the fuck is a roux?” Five grumbled, looking around the kitchen. “Where would we even keep those?”
“No, dumbass, that’s what we just made,” Diego muttered back at him. “The part on the stove with the flour and butter, that’s a roux. It’s just a fancy word for starter sauce.”
Vanya was supposedly supervising and giving directions, but she’d opened the bottle of wine on the counter before Five had even gotten to the kitchen, so they hadn’t even made it halfway through before the buzz kicked in and mistakes started happening.
“Oh, whoops. We were supposed to start cooking the pasta before we finished the cheese sauce,” she said casually, glancing down at the recipe card.
“Shit,” Diego said, pausing halfway through cleaning the rest of vegetables. He grabbed the big pot they had chosen to cook the noodles and started filling it at the sink. “I’ll start that—”
Five, who was poking through the cabinets across the kitchen on a hunt for the pepper grinder, poked his head out nodded firmly. “—and I’ll slice the bacon and the jalapeño.”
Diego pulled the paring knife from the knife block, aimed at the cutting board, and gave Five a second’s head start; Five leapt across the room in a burst of power, turned, and snatched the knife out of the air as it went spinning past him, end over end. The jalapeños came flying at him a second later, and he caught one up with his free hand, speared the other on the end of the knife.
Once, Five and Diego had spent a series of months working out how to do tricks like that. Five had quite a few minor scars to prove their mistakes. It had been years, though—he hadn’t known that he could still do it, or do it so easily, without having to communicate.
“Nice,” Diego said with an appreciative nod.
Five nodded back, because it had been. “You, too,” he said, setting the peppers down so he could open up the oven and check on their bacon strips, which could be called—crispy, if he was being very generous. “Hey, Vanya, how long were we supposed to cook these, again?”
Vanya shrugged. She tossed the recipe card like a frisbee, watching it slide across the counter and fall out of sight, and started idly kicking her heels against the cabinets from her perch on the countertop. She took a hearty gulp of her wine. “Like, eight minutes.”
“And how much time did we put on the timer?”
She snorted. “What timer?”
Well, that explained it. “It’s fine,” Five decided. It was easier to cut like this, anyway, practically crumbling under the knife.
Vanya looked at him with pity, but he forgave her as soon as she held out her wine glass and let him take a couple quick sips. It was just enough for emotional support, and then he went back to the cutting board.
“Don’t forget to deseed the jalapeños,” Diego called over to him. “That’s a mistake you only make once. And don’t touch your eyes until you wash your hands!”
There was a whole world of past blunders there that Five had missed. He didn’t ask, just calmly cut the seeds and the ugly white center bit out of the jalapeños before he sliced them into small, sort of even pieces. Good enough.
“How much more time on the pasta?” Five said, once he’d finished.
Diego was scowling down at the pot on the stove. “The water’s not even boiling yet.”
“Start roasting the rest of the veggies while we wait?” he suggested.
Diego sighed, his sense of order deeply aggravated by the switch-up. “Yeah, I guess.”
Five sliced potatoes into strips, and then wandered across the room to chuck the fancy spiral pasta into salted, boiling water; Diego peeled and cut carrots into sloppy circles on a forty-five-degree angle, at Vanya’s insistence. Apparently, a gentle buzz was all it took to strip away the last of her hesitance and filters.
“They should look fancy,” she said, kind of aggressively, and neither of them cared enough to argue with her.
They threw everything together on a baking sheet, both of them agreeing silently that combat knife skills did not translate to cooking knife skills, and that they could be forgiven for their inconsistently sized vegetables, and then quickly tossed the whole mess in olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary.
“Four hundred degrees is probably still good,” Five said, squinting dubiously at the oven, which was still heated from cooking the bacon, and finally just shrugged and chucked the whole thing in. None of them had been able to find the recipe card again after Vanya had tossed it aside; they were making their best guesses, now. He set a timer for twenty minutes, with absolutely no idea whether that was too long or too short a time. It felt fine.
Diego suddenly swore. “Shit, the pasta!”
It was fine, barely even overcooked, and only a piece or two had really stuck to the bottom of the pot. Diego strained the noodles while Five quickly reheated their cheese sauce on the stovetop, since it had started to go cold and solidify a little, and then he poured it overtop while Diego threw in the bacon bits and jalapeño chunks.
“Well, it smells good,” Vanya said dubiously, jumping off the counter so she could wander over to take a look inside the pot. “It even looks decent.” She took the big spoon they’d used for stirring from Five, and poked at their finished product a couple times, lifting a couple noodles and a bit of bacon up out of the pot so she could squint at it intently. “But how does it taste?”
“Not until it’s all done,” Diego said sternly, yanking the spoon out of her hand.
Five and Vanya shared identical looks of disappointment. “Boo,” she said, and Five nodded agreement.
Eventually the timer went off, and they checked on their roasted vegetables. Some of the smaller pieces were getting a little too dark, almost but not quite burned; the bigger chunks were only barely soft. Vanya declared them good enough, so they went with it.
Diego plated the food, neatly adding a generous serving of everything to each of three plates. Five and Vanya didn’t wait to dive in; Diego took a little more time, carefully arranging his plate in some arcane pattern Five didn’t understand and snapping a picture on his phone before he even bothered to grab a fork. Once he got started, though, he quickly caught up.
There was plenty for all three of them to go crazy, and still quite a bit more left sitting on the stovetop.
“What do you even do with all this, normally?” Five said, taking another bite of the mac and cheese. It actually was pretty good. If the noodles had been cooked properly, he would have gone with great. “This is way too much food for just you, and I think we all would have noticed if Mom started serving your shitty attempts at dinner instead of her usual fare.”
“Hey,” Diego said mildly, but notably didn’t attempt to argue or defend himself any further than that. He did snag a carrot off his plate with his fingers and take an aggressive bite, ignoring the smear of olive oil residue sliding down his thumb, but that didn’t count. “Actually, I’ve mostly been giving the leftovers to Ben. He keeps asking for them.”
“What—Ben?” Vanya said, baffled. She’d poured herself another glass of wine, which Diego had promptly taken away and replaced with water; she didn’t seem to have noticed the difference. “Our ghost brother, Ben? He doesn’t even have a stomach half the time. What does he want with all that food?”
“Who knows?” Diego said with a philosophical shrug. “I think I’ve seen him taking notes. No idea what kind of weird bullshit’s going on with that, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ask too many questions.”
“Like?” Five said.
Diego shuddered. “Like. Where does the food go?” he said. “He doesn’t—you know. He doesn’t digest things, the way we do. But I’ve definitely seen him eating it, on days he’s solid. So—after he eats it, where does it—”
Oh. Five definitely would not be asking that one, himself.
“Ew,” Vanya said delicately, wrinkling her nose.
“And he always takes the most when I screw up the worst. Why does he want it? What is he doing with it?” Diego shook his head. “Whatever. As long as I don’t know, I don’t have to deal with it.”
* * *
“Oh, yeah, I started a food blog,” Ben offered up easily enough, when Five asked him later that night, after Diego had delivered their leftovers from that afternoon. He was solid, and seemed to be enjoying the ability to hold a fork as much as, if not more than, the ability to eat the food on said fork. “Mostly I make fun of his fuck-ups, but it’s gotten me a pretty decent following. Uh, maybe don’t tell Diego that part.”
Five rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “That’s probably for the best, yes.”
“People think I have a ‘refreshingly unique take on the culinary experience,’” Ben said. He smiled off into the distance, laughing a little to himself. “Can you imagine the looks on their faces if I told them it’s because I didn’t have taste buds for years?”
* * *
Out of all their rag-tag bunch of dumbasses, Allison was objectively the most successful at life.
She had a job out of most people’s dreams, and while her marriage hadn’t lasted—apparently for very good reason, Five had heard—her daughter was still the light of her life.
But she had taken a sabbatical from her career. Five had overheard at least part of Allison’s half of that conversation, which had involved a lot of intense speeches into the phone intermixed with stony silence while someone on the other end of the line had squawked loudly enough to be heard from a distance of at least ten feet from the speaker.
And her ex-husband and daughter wouldn’t see her, at least in person. Patrick still wouldn’t even speak to her alone, or let her speak to Claire alone—they had scheduled phone conversations once a day, now, and Skype conversations twice a week, but there was always someone else hovering in the background, either Patrick or his parents or even, when his paranoia really kicked in, one of his lawyers.
“I’m trying to fix it,” Allison told Five, after the first time he questioned the stranger wandering through the room during a Skype call with Claire. Her chin went up, commanding and certain. “I’m going to fix it. But Patrick might be right, that it’s better for me to be with her from here, like this, for a little while. I made mistakes. I chose the easy way, even though it hurt them, and even if there’s an easy way for my powers to fix it all right this second, I think the right thing to do now is to wait for them to trust me again.”
“Well,” Five said, a little out of his depth, “it did work for our houseful of messed-up morons, didn’t it? I guess it’s how normal people have to do it.”
“Yeah,” Allison said. She smiled at him, quick and almost involuntary. “It did. We’re messed up, but we’re learning. I like that about our family—we’re all trying to do better now. We can help each other out. Figure out what that’s supposed to look like, together.”
Five shot a quick look at her, and then picked up a weird, decorative—abstract horse thing off a side table to fiddle with while he talked. “Is that what happened with you and Luther?” he said, giving the not-quite-a-horse a quick spin between his palms. What even was this? Why had Dad wasted his money on it?
If he’d expected Allison to react poorly, or even dramatically, he’d have been wrong. “Luther is my best friend,” she said calmly, answering the real question Five hadn’t known how to ask. “That’s all.”
“Yeah?” Five said. He hadn’t entirely meant for it to sound skeptical, but it was out there now.
“Yeah.” Allison was good at speaking with absolute certainty, like what she said was either an unquestionable truth, or else the world would bend to make it so.
Five still gave her his best side-eye. He put the horse-thing safely back down on the table with a heavy metal clunk. “Really?”
“Really. I’ve been—figuring things out, like I said. And one of those things is that a family of choice doesn’t mean what I thought,” she said. “When I was little, I liked the thought that even though our birth parents didn’t want us, at least we were all together. I got to—to choose Luther. To choose all of you. It felt a little like it was all of us, united against the bad guys of the world. And then Vanya got shoved aside, and you left, and Ben died, and we just—we all collapsed. We broke apart. All of us, even me and Luther, when I thought—”
She stopped, took a couple deep breaths.
“It doesn’t matter what I thought. We weren’t a family of choice; we were a family by force, and if Dad had died when we were young enough, we all would have fallen apart so fast I think we would have forgotten each other’s names.”
Five felt the corner of his lips twitch. “That wouldn’t be entirely our fault,” he said, and didn’t even try to sound sincere. “Most of us didn’t have names at that point.”
“That’s rich coming from you, Five,” Allison said. When she laughed, it was different than it had been, before her injury—breathier—but it wasn’t necessarily a bad change. “I’m just saying—what we have now, it’s better. We’re still not perfect, we’re still so fucked up, but we’re all still here. We’re still trying. I feel like we’re finally figuring out what it means to be a family of choice, to love each other like brothers and sisters and recognize it for what it is. The way it is. God, I’m not explaining this very well, am I?” She smiled down at him, a little self-effacing. “And I thought I was getting better. So much for contract law, right?”
Five thought he understood anyway. “You’re saying that we’ve finally figured out familial affection, after years of confusing it with other things.” Five tried very hard not to think about Luther’s response at that moment, and didn’t entirely succeed—he imagined that Luther would have had a very different reaction to ‘I love you like a brother’ when Allison had given him his version of this talk.
That got him another laugh. “Something like that, yes.” Slowly, carefully, she reached out, giving him plenty of time to stop her or pull away. When he didn’t, she let her hand rest gently on his shoulder, not grabbing or holding but just present, touching, light as a butterfly. “I know we don’t talk about these things very often,” she said quietly enough that Five would have had to strain to hear her if he hadn’t already gone perfectly still, frozen like a startled deer. “None of us are good at this, but I don’t think it’s an excuse. You did—something incredible for us, Five. You came back for us. You saved us.”
“I came back to save the world,” Five said dumbly.
That didn’t seem to put Allison off. If anything, it made her smile, dazzling. “That, too,” she agreed. “And you spent forty-five years trying to do it, when it took us only a decade to give up on finding you. So thank you, Five. Maybe it didn’t turn out the way you thought it would, but you tried. You chose us. And I just want you to know that we choose you, too.” She finally lifted her hand off Five’s shoulder. It hadn’t been a bad touch, not at all, and Allison touched people all the time, so Five hadn’t had a reason to be so incredibly hyperaware of every moment of it, like it was shaking some foundation of him that he’d almost forgotten existed.
Nobody touched Five. In the apocalypse, there had only been Delores, and she was a source of mental companionship, more than physical. At the Commission, in the assassinations department, no one touched anyone except to stab them in the back, physically or emotionally. Maybe he’d reacted, ah, poorly to physical touch, even the most well-intentioned, since coming back from the apocalypse, but he had decades of experience to wean him off touch and then teach him that it would only lead to pain when it came. In one of the most stunning moments of emotional awareness of their entire, fucked-up lives, his siblings had both noticed his lack of comfort with touch and then acted on that knowledge, which meant he avoided all the uncomfortable touchy-feely moments he despised—but also all the ones that maybe would have been fine with him, if given enough warning and a second or two to process.
He had maybe missed touch that wasn’t meant to hurt, touch from someone safe. Someone he trusted.
Five tried to think of a way to dismiss the whole thing and realized he shouldn’t; he tried to think of the words to explain what he was feeling to Allison, and entirely failed. He reached out instead, awkward, unsure, but Allison held still—held her breath, like she thought she might scare him off—and let him try. He wrapped his hand around her wrist and squeezed once, clumsy. “Okay,” he said, peeling the word—a word, any word, acknowledgment of any kind—off the back of his teeth. It was all he had.
Idiot, Delores might have said. She’d always been his source of common sense; she’d been the only one who knew all the soft and tender parts of him that he’d had to strip away over the decades to survive and come out even somewhat intact.
Liar, she also might say, because he was one. You know the words to use, when someone tells you they love you. There are only four of them, and three of them are ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘too.’
Five wasn’t sure he was ready to say anything like that, not yet, not when he was still half-convinced that he’d wake up one day to find it was all gone, or that it had been just a dream all along. But Allison seemed to get it anyway, and Five thought maybe that was enough, just for today. He’d keep trying. He never really stopped, it seemed, when it came to the bunch of morons that he called a family.
* * *
Speaking of trying: Klaus was.
He wasn’t going about it in a measured, reasoned way, but he was trying.
Five was walking past the library when he heard the sound of a commotion, voices raised loudly enough to catch his attention. That wasn’t necessarily all that unusual. They were getting better at getting along, certainly, but that didn’t make them nonconfrontational angels of sweetness and light.
What was unusual was that the shouting voices were Klaus and Ben, who usually kept their fights to passive-aggressive barbs and some light back-and-forth shoving.
“Oh, come on, Ben! It’s not that bad of an—ouch—bad of an idea—ow, seriously! Knock it off!”
Ben sounded furious. “You absolute lunatic, do you seriously think that I’m going to just—”
“I just want to go for a few minutes to talk to her, okay, see if Dave is stuck in the afterlife or whatever—”
“—to just let you kill yourself so you can, what, chat with a chick on a bicycle, some little kid you’re telling me is literally capital-G-God—”
“Chill out, it’s not like she’s going to keep me, she already told me she hates me, she doesn’t want me there, she’ll probably just boot me right back—”
“Oh, yeah, sure, that’s very reassuring, you’ve probably pissed off possibly God enough for her to throw you out! I’m definitely going to let you off yourself, seems like a foolproof plan that won’t end with you just fucking dead on the floor while I watch!”
“Relax, Ben, I just told you I’ve done it before! A quick OD—no, no, none of that, uh, a nice solid bump on the head, I’ll pop there and back before anyone notices I’m gone. It’s not that big a deal!”
“Not that—not that big of a deal—! Fuck this, I’m going to kill you.” Ben did something that sounded pretty violent; there was a series of thumps and thuds.
Klaus yelped, and when he spoke again, his voice had gone really, seriously pissed off. “Ouch! Okay, what the actual shit, Ben? Get the fuck off of me!”
Well, as much as he’d like to, he couldn’t just walk away after that. Five picked his jaw up off the floor and jumped fully into the room, appearing with a pop halfway across the floor towards his brothers, where he could see the scene as a whole for the first time.
He—didn’t exactly decide to dismiss the way a fully corporeal Ben was continuously wrestling a struggling Klaus to the ground without so much as commenting or flinching, but it was hardly the strangest thing he’d seen in the last half-century or even the past week. He let it pass him by, water in the stream of oddities that was his life.
Instead, he approached. They’d seen him, now, so he was committed. “Well, this seems like fun. Need a hand?”
A solid opening move from Klaus, if Five was a teenager on the inside as well as the outside, easily intimidated with strong language and a dirty look.
“Well.” Five stopped a few feet away, well out of reach, and looked down at his brothers where they were tangled together on the floor with a raised, unimpressed eyebrow. “Obviously, everything is just superb. From everything I’ve just seen and heard, it’s all going great. I don’t know why I asked.”
Ben didn’t look very impressed, either. “Do you have anything useful to say, or are you just here to feel better than the rest of us?”
Five rolled his eyes. Obviously, he could manage to do both. He addressed Klaus directly instead of pointing that out. “Don’t be a complete moron, you little shit. Let’s not jump to extremes before considering the practicalities, hm? I think we’d all prefer it if you addressed your powers here, while you’re alive, rather than taking unceremonious trips to the afterlife every time you hit a little hang-up. Think about the trauma to the rest of us, if nothing else.”
“Every time?” Ben muttered. “It only takes one time to stick.”
“I already told you, she doesn’t want to keep me—”
Five spoke loudly to interrupt before they got going. “First, and most simply, is that there could be some failure on your part. Your powers. You’ve spent the last few decades desperately trying to be rid of them, haven’t you? It might take a bit more than ten minutes of effort to regain that control. Again, better to address that here.”
“Oh, go to hell,” Klaus said, but even half-snarled it was milder than Five had expected. “Asshole.”
“Perhaps it’s a matter of time and stamina,” Five continued, undeterred, because Ben’s irritated look was softening, shifting toward approval. “Maintaining a decently stable connection with Ben for all these years is a good sign, obviously. You don’t lack for ability. But it’s one thing to latch onto a spirit already in the same geo-temporal space as yourself, and another thing entirely to go hunting for one that’s decades out of place and halfway across the planet.”
Klaus hadn’t stopped struggling, but it was slower now, almost distracted.
“Not to mention I knew to go looking,” Ben added, his voice going abruptly and startlingly gentle, with just enough of a touch of wry humor to keep it from falling entirely out of place. Almost coaxing, like Klaus was a spooked horse about to bolt—which in retrospect was not a comparison entirely out of place. Five didn’t doubt that if Ben let go, Klaus would be gone so fast there would be a cartoon cloud of dust left in his wake. “Not everyone wakes up dead and thinks, you know what I should do? Go bother my brother, The Séance, who talks to spirits.”
“He knew, okay?” Klaus said. He finally went still in Ben’s grasp, not exactly passive but not fighting to get free, and dropped his head down to thump his forehead a few times against the floor. “I mean, who knows if he really believed me, or if he was just humoring the resident basket case, huh? Everyone went batshit nuts over there. But he knew. And he’s still not coming.”
Ben startled. He obviously hadn’t known that much. Five raised an eyebrow, almost surprised, but then again, maybe he wasn’t surprised at all. Klaus lied all the time, when he needed to, or wanted to, or when he thought it would be funny—but he didn’t lie about the big things. The things that mattered. As far as Five knew Klaus just didn’t bother. The junkie loser brother—most of the people in Klaus’s life had spent a long time assuming the worst of him no matter what he said. If Klaus had told this Dave person the truth, and if the man had actually accepted that truth—then regardless of whether or not a silly thing like belief had ever been in play, he had already had more faith in Klaus than literally anyone else in Klaus’s life up to that point.
After all, Diego had confessed (to Five, since Ben was the only other one in the room at the time, and even if Diego had looked at Ben the whole time he spoke, there was no need to confess anything to anyone who had been there the whole time and obviously already knew) that Klaus had told the rest of the family that Ben had been haunting him, and they hadn’t believed it. He’d done it the once and only the once, and when the others had snapped and snarled at him, strung out and shaking and pitiful, for joking at the expense of their dead brother—well, he’d laughed until he cried, but he had never tried again.
“So, if he—heard you calling, so to speak—he would have a general idea what was happening and what it meant.” Five hummed thoughtfully, willing to accept that premise. “There’s always the simple possibility that he doesn’t want to make a reappearance,” and there Klaus made a noise like someone had kicked him in the chest, while Ben’s arms tightened minutely in place, so Five pressed quickly and firmly onward, “but putting that aside as unlikely,” and also completely unsolvable, rendering it unimportant under the current circumstances, “it still leaves us with what I would consider our most likely options.”
“Which are?” Ben said warily, when it seemed like Klaus was struggling too much to ask for himself—struggling internally, this time, Five clarified to himself with a pinch of good humor. Klaus was holding himself still in Ben’s grip.
Five hesitated, his mind working a few steps ahead. “Various anomalies in the spatial and temporal dimensions due to our shifting between—”
“The what?” Klaus said, brain visibly and almost audibly kicking back into the present with a snap. His whole face scrunched up like he’d just smelled something unpleasant.
Five sighed. “Time travel shenanigans,” he said succinctly. Klaus’s face cleared, a little, and then scrunched up a second time. Five sighed again, putting a hand up to his face to rub at his temples. “Look. Certain types of time travel are easy. Traveling forward, generally, is simplest. Humans do it—if you’ll pardon the pun—all the time, just at a constant speed. Even skipping forward, like I did, wasn’t all that difficult. You remove yourself from the time stream at one point in time, and then time—continues to pass, if you will, only you’re outside of it. Separate from it. And then you drop back in at a future point, and carry on as if nothing is amiss, because as far as the timeline is concerned, nothing is. Events continued on just fine without your interference while you were gone. Follow me so far?”
Klaus and Ben exchanged a look. Klaus shrugged, Ben’s grip loosening just enough to let him. “Sure,” Ben said with a slow nod. “That makes sense.”
“But—” Klaus tried.
Five cut him off. “Going back is much harder,” he said, and felt his lips twist and his eyes tighten before he managed to get his expression back under control. “As I discovered for myself. The fourth dimension allows for movement but not any changes, and manipulation on a fifth dimensional level is much, much harder. Remember that jump I took back to Dad’s funeral, the first time? I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, yet, it took such massive amounts of energy to pull off, and it—failed, didn’t it? I didn’t change a thing of significance. My presence didn’t cancel the apocalypse as I knew it; it merely, ah, put me in place to help bring it about. I caused an alternate timeline, an alternate universe, but one so similar to the original that barely anything shifted at all.”
Ben frowned. Klaus looked a little like he’d tuned out halfway through the explanation. “Do you have a point, somewhere in there?” Klaus asked.
“I’m getting there.” Five rolled his eyes. “After Vanya—well. That last big jump we took, the one that dropped us off again at Dad’s funeral, it—erased everything that happened after that the first time around. We overwrote ourselves, put our future consciousnesses into our past bodies, and lived out time from that point onward in a totally different direction. A butterfly flapping its wings to cause a hurricane, yes? We’ve caused a split. An alternate reality.”
Five saw the exact moment it clicked in Ben’s mind, just from the slow-dawning understanding on his face. It hadn’t dawned yet in Klaus’s. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand, or wouldn’t; Five knew his brother was smarter than most, that he had been even when he was blitzed out of his mind on whatever inane cocktail of alcohol and drugs he’d mixed up. It was sentiment slowing him down—the thought hadn’t occurred to him yet, and Five knew that for certain, because if it had then Klaus would have done his level best to forget it immediately using whatever methods available to him at that moment.
The fact that Klaus and Ben were having this fight at all, that Klaus was still sober, meant he hadn’t thought it through.
“We’re in an alternate reality, Klaus,” Five said.
Klaus stared, obviously uncomprehending.
“A totally different timeline.”
Five sighed. Maybe his assessment of his brother’s intelligence had been overly optimistic. From the way Ben was clearly getting ready to wrestle Klaus to the ground again at a moment’s notice, maybe it wasn’t entirely—maybe Klaus just didn’t want to know. “Klaus. Nothing of the future we recall happened here. Including the parts that took place in the past.”
That did it. The denial faded away. “So, you’re saying,” Klaus said at last, only to cut himself off and start over again. “You’re telling me it doesn’t matter what I told him, or didn’t tell him. He won’t know to listen for me calling him. And even if he heard, he’d have no reason to come—”
“Because this is a totally different timeline than the one that we left, yes.” Five wanted that much to be clear, at least, because as far as options went it was still slightly better than the one where Dave wasn’t bothering to show because he didn’t feel like it.
Klaus nodded. The look on his face was strange, because his mouth was smiling but Five would never call the expression as a whole a smile. “Because in this timeline, I’ve never been to 1968. I’ve never been back in time at all. And because—oh, yeah, fuck, because we avoided the assholes with briefcases entirely this time around, I’m not—I never—”
There were a lot of ways those thoughts might have ended, but Five knew they all boiled down to the same thing.
I’m not going to meet him. I never will.
“Holy shit,” Klaus said faintly. Five saw Ben’s muscles lock and release in expectation of a fight that never came. “Fuck, fucking—shit. Goddamn fuck. Of course. Of—fucking course, the one time I think this stupid shit-stain of a power can work for me and it fucking—it doesn’t matter if it works or not, because the one ghost I fucking need—the one I—his ghost doesn’t even fucking exist!”
“Possibly literally,” Five said absently, but not without sympathy, because in the grand scheme of timeline-related things ten months was forever and a couple decades were nothing at all. It was entirely possible that with all the changes that had-would take place in this reality’s timeline, the Dave-who-wasn’t-Klaus’s-Dave was alive and well and safely at home somewhere stateside. Even with perfect control of his powers, Klaus would never be able to summon the spirits of the living.
Klaus didn’t even seem to hear that comment, too busy working up a good head of steam, but Ben did, and he hissed a warning at Five as sharp as a rattlesnake. Five blinked at him, confused, and then missed the next minute or so of Klaus’s ranting as he made the one mental leap that Ben had obviously taken before Five himself. It didn’t take all that long.
Five was a lot of things—an asshole and a coward and a liar and a killer and and and—but he was also a brother, and he’d struggled for decades to save his siblings, keep them alive and safe as long as possible, even if he’d missed out on so much that he was still struggling to understand them, most days.
But, for once, this wasn’t all that hard to figure out. This was a man for whom Klaus happily would have died for real, permanently, not just for some quick jaunt to the afterlife for a chat with—some girl on a bicycle?—that Klaus seemed pretty convinced was actually a god that hated him; certainly Five knew that this was a man for whom Klaus already had dragged himself kicking and screaming towards total sobriety, which was an infinitely better measure of love, at least by Klaus’s standards.
So, Five did see Ben’s point, in this case. Probably he should never say—possibly should never so much as imply, whether or not Klaus was around to hear it—that the only reason the man his brother loved had died was because his brother had gone there and loved him in the first place.
Five had killed a lot of people, in a lot of ways. He knew that sometimes, if he said the right words at the exact right time, in exactly the right way, they’d find a gun and pull the trigger for him.
Klaus was already riding that line. Five didn’t need to push him over it.
Ben was glowering at him, still, muscles in his arms as Klaus started to buck again in small, uncoordinated, unintentional jerks of movement that wouldn’t stay any of those things for long. Glowering at him like it was his fault, like he expected Five to fix it, which was—shit. Oh, shit. It was pretty fair, actually, because before Five had opened his big mouth Klaus had been having a perfectly normal sobriety-fueled meltdown, which Ben was more than capable of handling. It was Five who had just upped that to a full-blown existential crisis, and so he would get to be the one to fix it. Joy.
How was he supposed to teach a necromancer about grief? About the permanency of death, but only this one time?
Five was—not good at emotions. None of them were. He wasn’t all that great at Klaus, either, no matter how much he tried, but at least Ben could help them out with that—for years it had been a perfect little closed loop of Klaus, who had been there for Ben when no one else could, and Ben, who had been there for Klaus when no one else would. At least he had Ben to look to for clues, now that they had all traveled back in time again, now that he was spending more and more time manifested.
Now that Ben’s consciousness, which had existed only as a ghost tied to Klaus and his powers, had traveled back—
“Oh,” Five said, wondering. “I’m an absolute idiot.”
He hadn’t exactly meant to say it out loud, but it did have the benefit of catching Ben and Klaus’s attentions instantly.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Five snapped. “You’re both idiots, too.”
Ben sighed. Klaus laughed, partially interrupted in his meltdown, and it was only halfway to hysterical. “Never change, Number Five.”
Five gave up on standing and just dropped, straight onto his ass on the floor, finally down at eye level with his stupid baby brothers. “Listen, dumbass. Ignore everything I just said. It’s all—well, not wrong, but certainly misguided.”
Five didn’t think he’d ever caught his brother’s attention with such immediacy or intensity, but that didn’t mean that Klaus understood. “What? Why?”
“Ben,” Five said triumphantly.
“No, I’m Klaus. He’s Ben.”
“I know he’s Ben, idiot. That’s the point. My god, I’m going to need a drink after this conversation is finally over.”
Ben cut in. “I don’t get it, either.”
Five could have ripped his hair out. “Okay, look. Think about it. Ben, you’re here. Not past you, not the you of when you died, but—no, you’re still not getting it. You’re—you’re the ghost version of yourself that ran around with Klaus, and, and had experiences. Made memories. But we traveled here using my powers, and I can’t touch any of that shit. I can’t do a goddamn thing about it. I wouldn’t begin to know how to try. And obviously Klaus can’t touch space-time or effect alternate realities with his powers. But—”
“But the Ben I know is here,” Klaus said, with the sudden fever-intensity of understanding. When he heaved suddenly in place, Ben wasn’t expecting it, and Klaus managed to yank himself free. He threw himself forward and clutched at Five’s sleeve with an almost manic hunger, an expression that Five recognized like his own face in the mirror: the look of shattered hope reassembling itself suddenly, painfully, with no regard for the scars it would tear open again along the way.
And still, he was with it enough to not grab at Five himself without warning. His stupid, stupid family.
“Can you,” Klaus said, choking on it. Shaking with it. “Five, please, can you…?”
Five leaned forward and flicked him, hard, on the forehead, right between the eyes—anything to get that look off his face. “Yes,” he said, unquestionably, undoubtably sure. “Obviously.”
* * *
The actual answer was something more along the lines of—probably. Most likely.
There were a lot of calculations involved, a lot of mathematics, a side branch of physics that he’d essentially reinvented that was only useful for someone like him, someone with his understanding to set up the basics and his abilities to provide the power, that essential oomph to get things moving.
Pogo had offered to give him office space for his work, if he wanted it, but it was Mom who had provided a solution he preferred. After the not-apocalypse, when Five had casually mentioned to her that he’d once scrawled all over his room with the various calculations he’d used to try to avert the damn thing, she had carefully repainted three of the four walls of his bedroom with chalkboard paint. He’d come home to find her waiting with a basket of erasers and chalk in various sizes and colors to hang over his door, totally willing to undo everything if it ‘wasn’t to your liking, dear,’ like Five was going to be anything but pleased with the change.
No matter how much time passed, Five was willing to bet that his own room, behind the protection of his own four walls, was always going to feel like the safest place in the universe.
There, he could work, and so he did. Even with his door open, there was no one and nothing in the house that constituted a threat, just—various levels of distraction.
Speaking of distractions.
“I know you said you’d help, but…” Ben said from somewhere behind him. “What are you doing, exactly?”
Five jumped, not expecting it, even if he probably should have. He scowled at the disturbance, knowing objectively why his brother was asking—Ben cared, a lot, and about Klaus in particular. It wasn’t like he could just turn it off while Five handled the problem.
He also knew that none of his siblings knew anything about theoretical physics, or would sit still long enough to learn even the basics. Five wasn’t going to waste his time trying to explain the nuts and bolts of space-time travel calculations to a bunch of goons who didn’t care.
* * *
For anyone who did care, Five would have explained it like this: there were ten theorized dimensions. For functional purposes, in Five’s well-considered opinion, only the first six mattered, and those were the ones that had become his bread-and-butter.
The first three dealt with space, and even schoolkids knew enough to list them: length, width, height. The first dimension could be imagined as a line, length without width or height. The second took that line and made it a square; the second dimension added width to length. The two-dimensional landscape was the realm of stick figures and children’s drawings, where things were perfectly flat and could move up and down, side to side, but never forward or back. The third dimension formed the cube, and it introduced the crucial sense of height—maybe better called depth—and with that came concepts like “around” and “between” and “through.” This was the world as humanity experienced it, a 3-D “cube” of a universe out there occupying physical space. Five had been messing around with travel in three dimensions when he was still a little kid, from the moment his powers had manifested—teleportation, or the travel between two points without traversing the distance in between.
The next three dimensions dealt with time, and that was where it got a bit trickier.
It did help that the set-up of dimensions four through six mirrored one through three, in some ways. Four was the line, five the square, and six the cube. In the fourth dimension, the easiest to understand, the exact shape and positioning of the 3-D physical “cube” of the universe was, at any given moment, a single solitary point alone the line of fourth dimensional time. There were a million billion trillion points of the past stretching out behind the singular point of the present; there would be a million billion trillion more in the future, all stretching forward along a single, immutable path, moving forward at a constant speed (one day equals one day, one year equals one year, etc.). The first time Five had leapt forward in time, he’d moved in the fourth dimension—a straight progression from his past to his future—just at a much faster rate than everyone else.
Time travel was theoretically and practically possible in this dimension, even for people not-Five. Hell, it was easy. It was how the Commission had first developed their briefcases. But no one going anywhere would be able to make any changes; where they were, they had been and always were going to be. It wasn’t possible to go back in time, kill your own grandfather, and prevent your own existence, or something wild like that—not while moving purely in the fourth dimension. Everything that was had already happened, and would always happen, even if those things hadn’t actually gotten around to doing it just yet—if you moved purely through the fourth dimension, you had always been present in that time and place. Fourth dimensional time was a straight line; it was a train on its tracks; it was a cart on rails. It wasn’t going anywhere except where it had been all along, and it hadn’t been anywhere except where it would someday be meant to go.
The fifth dimension, the square to the fourth’s line, was a bit harder. If the fourth dimension was a train on a single track, the fifth marked the places where the tracks split—a left turn instead of a right, choice A instead of choice B, flip a different switch, and suddenly the “line of time” went off in a different direction. The fifth dimension marked the first realm of the ‘possible’ rather than the ‘actual,’ the places where things might have gone differently, in a different elsewhere and else-when.
Five’s original, disastrous jump back on the day of their father’s funeral was his first attempt at fifth-dimensional manipulation: moving to one such turning point with the express interest of changing the fourth-dimensional timeline. It was the exact sort of thing that the Commission was determined to prevent. No wonder it had been so hard, gone sideways so fast. He’d been trying to drag a metaphorical train off its tracks with nothing but willpower and his bare hands, and the thing was, he’d done it. Not perfectly, not even all that well—but he’d known, objectively and absolutely, that he’d done work in the fifth dimension at the moment that their family house had come down without any of his siblings left inside to die.
The positions of their dead bodies from his original fourth-dimensional timeline were burned into the backs of his eyelids, and the second time around, it hadn’t happened that way.
So, he had created an alternate reality, or at least moved into one—and that was the elusive fifth dimension. He’d added width to time’s length; at that point he’d lived two “lines of time,” not just one, and he’d known he could live more. The fifth dimension turned time mutable, changeable, and from then on Five had the will and the way to do some changing.
He could ignore the messy bits, the mistakes he’d made in doing it. Sure, he’d stuck himself in a body that was decades younger than it should have been. Sure, by leaving his job as a Commission hitman when he had, he’d accidentally changed history, and JFK had never been assassinated. Nobody got things perfect on the first try, every time, right? Every new project had a few kinks to work out.
Best to put that thought aside.
Last but not least was the sixth dimension. The cube. The sixth dimension was the collection of all possible versions of the universe—every fourth dimensional line of time, every fifth dimensional split, fractals breaking apart and coming back together only to split apart one more time—and all of them going back to a singular beginning point.
The places where all choices originated, the time when time began. Scientists called this the Big Bang.
If the fifth dimension referred to the branches of the timeline, then the sixth dimension was the whole damn tree, and the Big Bang was the root. From that one starting point, every choice and action ever made, every one that could be made, in some place and some time, shaped the sixth dimension—an infinite collection of possibility, an infinite number of realities that started the same as theirs, and then moved off to somewhere different, somewhere along the way. An infinite number of ones still the same as their own, waiting for some moment in the future to hit a fifth dimensional split and fracture away.
There was the universe with the apocalypse. The one with no apocalypse. Ones with different apocalypses altogether, an infinite number of them. The same apocalypse, but in an infinite collection of other times and places in infinite combinations, with another set of infinite combinations of the same or different people to take part. The only thing that had to be constant in the sixth dimension was that one starting point, the moment when time and space began.
As far as the sixth dimension went, Five was less interested in movement and more interested in knowledge. Perfect understanding of the sixth dimension gave perfect understanding of all the lower dimensions, by proxy. He would never again have to take a leap of faith through time and hope for the best. He could find all the fifth dimensional branches, could see the way they shifted and shaped the fourth dimensional timelines; he could know exactly what would come of any given change to the timeline, and know exactly what changes to make to achieve a certain outcome.
He could make time and space his bitch, once he worked it out. Five liked to think he’d be a wise and benevolent supreme commander of the universe, someday. He’d even sort out that whole Kennedy assassination mix-up. That one was his bad.
Anyway, those were the six dimensions that mattered. Seventh through tenth dealt with possible worlds beginning from a different starting point. Not the Big Bang. Maybe that starting point had been so similar as to be almost indistinguishable, or maybe it had been so wildly infinitely different that dwellers of this particular sixth-dimensional space would be unable to comprehend it—and Five wasn’t nuts enough to fuck with that. He didn’t want to be responsible for accidentally converting humankind into sentient scooters, or somehow rendering margaritas impossible to make, just because he’d gotten bored and tried switching over to a new set of the laws of physics.
* * *
It was possible that Five had gotten a bit sidetracked. Ben had said something.
“What are you doing, exactly?”
Five sighed, tapped his chalk impatiently against a blank spot on his chalkboard-wall. He didn’t bother to turn around. “I’m trying to reverse-engineer the sixth-dimensional positioning of the universe we came from, based on what I know of the fifth-dimensional shifts we took to get from my original universe to here. Once I’ve done that, I’ll calculate an appropriate positioning in the first four dimensions to aim for in that specific timeline, and figure out a way to safely open a connection to it through the fifth and sixth dimensions.” Dropping his voice, he mumbled, “And all of that hopefully without killing off any presidents.” Or turning into an ocelot, or something equally abstract. He disapproved of that sort of thing.
And truth be told, he didn’t know what, exactly, might happen if he fucked this up, though he’d have to fuck up very badly indeed to cause something of that magnitude. It still wasn’t totally impossible.
There was a pause. Behind him, Ben was tellingly silent.
Five sighed again, pulling the sound from deep in his gut. “Where did I lose you?”
“Well,” Ben said. “I’m just going to ignore the whole president thing—”
“A wise choice,” Five informed him.
“—so let’s start with…dimensions? There are six?”
Now Five put down the chalk, and turned around so that when he raised a disapproving eyebrow, Ben got the full effect. “Ten, actually. Look, do you actually care about the specifics, or is ‘Five does some complicated math, finds the right timeline, opens up a glowy portal to Klaus’s dead boyfriend’ good enough for you?”
Ben’s disapproving eyebrow was better than Five’s. Shit. But that was probably only because Klaus had given him plenty of opportunities to practice over the years, so at least Five still had that. “I didn’t need the attitude, but yeah, that’ll do. As long as it works.”
“Oh, I’ll make it work,” Five said grimly, turning back around. If there was one thing that he knew about himself by this point, it was that ‘impossible’ would only apply once he was dead, and he wasn’t dead yet. “The only question is how much time it’ll take me to do it.”
* * *
It took a mere six days, all told, which was record-breaking compared to his first go-around (forty-five years, so comparatively it was an exponential rate of improvement).
Actually doing it, then, was also comparatively easy. He said comparatively, because it was very much a relative thing. He knew where he was going, the place he wanted to be; finding it was a bit like rifling through a drawer of unlabeled files one at a time, waiting for the one that felt right under his fingertips. It was like walking along a ladder stretched across a gaping chasm, feeling each rung press into the arch of his feet with every careful step. It was like—like looking into a funhouse mirror, a mirage, and telling the universe which bits were real, and which bits were not, rather than the other way around.
The three of them—Five, Klaus, Ben—had gone to the attic to make their attempt, sitting in a neat half-circle near the attic wall as they waited. When Five succeeded, and a round sheet of light popped into view, it looked like nothing more than a perfectly transparent pane of blue glass. They could look straight through it and see an identical far wall of an identical attic—but Five could tell, with absolute certainty, that it wasn’t their attic.
“I don’t think I can do this very long,” he said, breathless, not loving the way his voice had gone tight and strained with effort. “Maybe ten minutes, at a stretch. But that’s okay. This is just a test run, anyway; we’re not even sure yet that I’ve got the right time and place.” The longer he held it, though, the more certain he was that he did; he couldn’t have said how he knew, only that it felt right. Two days before the apocalypse, in their previous universe. “Do not try to stick so much as a finger through that—not even a finger, dumbass—”
Klaus, who was absolutely about to give the shiny blue lightshow a good poke, grinned sheepishly and pulled his hand back. He was practically vibrating with excitement. “Alright, alright. My bad.”
Five rolled his eyes. “Look, I don’t know what would happen to you if you went through it, or what would happen to the you that should already be there, if your physical matter goes through there. But it should carry sound just fine, and—presumably—spirits.”
Ben, in corporeal form, raised a hand. “So, I can try?”
Five paused, thought about it. Well, shit. It was their best—only—way to test in practice what Five had only theorized, wasn’t it? “Just a hand, first. Pick the one you like the least.”
“Oh, that’s reassuring,” Ben said, but he hopped up from a seat to a crouch and stuck his left hand toward the glowing portal. “I’ll only lose my least favorite hand.”
Except his hand passed through easily, with no resistance from the portal or effort on Five’s part. Klaus, wandering in a wide circle around the thing, reported that Ben’s hand wasn’t just going straight through—it had gone elsewhere, not right out the other side—and realized at the same moment as the rest of them that neither of them could see the others. This alternate dimensional counterpart of the attic was empty.
“Well, fuck. Alright. Going through,” Ben said, and did. It wasn’t until that he was fully through that he appeared on the surface of the portal—like a projection on a screen, another bit of blue glow. He stumbled, and for an alarming moment, wavered in and out of sight like a mirage, but then he steadied and Five could breathe again.
“Hm,” Five said. “Klaus, how’s your connection to him?”
“Fine,” Klaus said with a shrug. “Ben, buddy, you still there?”
“I can hear you just fine,” Ben said. His words came out perfectly clear, like he was still in the same room. “And I think—” He wandered over to a wall and knocked on it a few times, hard enough that dust rattled loose. “Yeah, I’m still solid. God, that felt weird. Kind of like the first few times we time-traveled, Five—like my stomach was trying to crawl up my throat and escape my body. Glad I’m sort of used to it.”
Five sucked in a breath, held it, let it out slowly. He was starting to sweat. “Come back through. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold this, and you definitely shouldn’t be on the other side when it closes again.”
Ben scurried back through without bothering to argue, wincing in exaggerated distaste and nearly tripping flat on his face once he was back on their side. “Ugh. Gross.”
Klaus shivered a little, too. “Ooh, okay, I felt it that time,” he said. His face went distant, thoughtful. “Yeah, okay, I really felt that. I get it. I think.”
“Great,” Ben said, shaking it off. He darted a couple quick looks at Five. “Maybe try it now? While Five still has it open?”
“We can always try again tomorrow if it doesn’t work,” Five said. Maybe it was a bit like weightlifting—the strain felt like something of the same sort, like he could train unused muscles to lift longer, lift heavier loads. He could probably sleep it off and try again.
Klaus shrugged, clearly not expecting much, but he settled in anyway, his hands starting to glow with little wisps of blue. “Hello, out there! Dave. Dave. Dave. If you can hear me, follow the sound of my voice. Come into the light.” He giggled to himself. Ben elbowed him. “Right, sorry. Hey, Dave, go through the blue glowy light circle, specifically, not just any random light. Definitely not the bright white afterlife light. Is that a thing? Ben, is that a thing?”
“No,” Ben said firmly.
“Okay, okay, sheesh. Touchy. Dave. Dave, Dave, Dave. I can sit here all day, if you want to make me stop yelling at you, you’re going to have to come over here and make me—”
Five looked at the portal, which was no longer perfectly round, its edges starting to waver and wisp away into nothingness. He couldn’t see anything moving on the other side, and since he wasn’t Klaus, obviously, he wouldn’t, but he could feel his pulse pounding all the way down to his fingertips. “Letting it go,” he warned.
“Wait!” Ben said, jolting upright and grabbing at Five’s arm.
Klaus sat bolt upright as well, at the same moment. “Hey, what’s—”
The portal sparked, bright enough to leave spots in Five’s vision, and Klaus had been right—Five had it now, Five knew what he felt. Something had just passed through.
The lights overhead exploded in a shower of glass—not fucking again, Five thought with a shout, as Klaus and Ben both screamed in surprise. Everything went a bit nuts for a few moments, portal pulsing wildly, the room shaking.
It was made worse by the way Diego burst through the door in a panic. “What the fuck are you guys doing up here?” he shouted, a knife in each hand, and then he took in the scene and was visibly stunned silent.
The portal whined and sputtered out of existence. Part of the broken overhead light hit the floor with a crash.
And something hit the ground with a heavy thump, turning visible and solid in a flicker of blue sparks halfway through a fall. It was a body, face-down on the floor, wearing green army gear and a helmet that went rolling and skittering away across the wooden floorboards.
Then everything was still.
“Dave?” Klaus said in barely more than a whisper. There was cautious hope, there, but he seemed to have frozen in place.
The figure on the floor flickered a ghostly blue, then back to solid, as he sorted himself out. Then he rolled himself over and looked up so his face was finally visible. It was a nice enough face, though it wasn’t one Five recognized, but Klaus sucked in a breath through his teeth and promptly stopped breathing altogether.
The man on the floor looked toward the sound, where his eyes locked on Klaus like a magnet. “Oh, hey, babe,” he said, breaking into a grin. “Thought that was you I heard, shouting in my ear.”
“Dave,” Klaus said, certain this time, even though his voice broke and cracked. When he smiled it was like someone had turned a light on inside him—like a house waiting, empty, for the person with the keys to come home and wake him up again. Five had never seen him smile like that before. Five hadn’t known he could smile like that, with pure radiating joy, soppy and in love and unashamed. “Hey, sweetheart.”
Ben leaned over to shove at Klaus’s shoulder, get him moving again. Klaus stumbled forward a step, but only one. He hesitated.
“I’d come to you, but I think I need a minute before I get up,” Dave said gently, ruefully, from where he was still sprawled out on the ground. “That blue light was a hell of a thing—I feel like I’ve gone through a spin cycle on the washing machine.” He lifted a hand, though, held it out in Klaus’s direction. “Would you get over here already?” he said. Waited.
Now Klaus moved. Maybe he had needed the invitation, because he was across the room and dropping to his knees in the blink of an eye. “It’s fine, it’s okay, we have time. You’re here,” he said, fumbling and folding Dave’s hand into his own. “God, I missed you.”
“I—well, I’m not sure where I was,” Dave said softly, his face going distant before he wrestled it back. He pulled their joined hands up to his face so he could press a kiss there, so gently, on the back of Klaus’s hand; when he looked up again his eyes were intent. “But—I think I was looking for you.”
Klaus lit up all over again.
Five should have expected them to grab onto each other and start making out at that point—Klaus had always been a very enthusiastic person, with absolutely no exceptions, and apparently Dave could match that intensity. Good for them, Five supposed. It probably should have been a very touching moment, a very meaningful one, but Five had never really gotten the point of all that sex and kissing stuff, even after he’d tried it a few times. For him, witnessing this moment was a bit like watching two cats licking each other at the zoo—very sweet in concept, kind of weird in execution.
“Oh-kay,” Diego said loudly, finally putting away the knives. It seemed that he’d processed the scene enough to start dealing with it. “Time for the rest of us to get out of here!” He tugged Five along a few steps by the sleeve, gave Ben a gentle shove to the shoulder to get him moving. Ben didn’t look like he shared Five’s mild disgust, but he did seem to share the almost clinical fascination with the whole thing—like he was watching a slow-motion car crash, and kind of wanted to go grab some popcorn while he watched the whole thing play out. “You too, ghost boy,” Diego said firmly. “Spooky doesn’t need his shadow for this one. Klaus, remember this door doesn’t lock,” he called, even louder, as he went. “If you want to get freaky, take it to your room. Don’t scar anyone’s virgin eyes.”
Klaus spared the time to flip him off, which was all the acknowledgement Diego was looking for.
But Dave actually pulled back, ignoring Klaus’s whines, to look Diego in the eyes. “Sorry,” he said, somewhere between sheepish and guilty. His one hand was infinitely gentle where it was cupping Klaus’s face, but the other was clenched tight where he’d grabbed onto the hem of Klaus’s jacket, and that was when Five recalled, suddenly, that Dave and Klaus had met in the Army, during the Vietnam War.
The 1960s were not kind to people like them, and god only knew what Dave had experienced.
“It’s fine,” Five said sharply, and then immediately shook himself and took it down a couple notches. “It’s fine. There are just some bits of your brothers that you don’t need to see, yes?”
Dave didn’t look entirely convinced, but Ben had his back, at least. “Oh, please. Like we haven’t all seen Klaus wearing less.” He shot Dave a lewd wink over Diego’s shoulder just before Diego managed to chivvy and shove him out of the room entirely.
Dave’s grip relaxed slowly on the jacket. Good enough.
“Out, out!” Diego barked at Five, trying to grab at Five’s jacket again. Five rolled his eyes and leapt out of the room in a whirl of blue, reappearing next to Ben out in the hall.
Diego slammed the door shut with an answering eyeroll but no real heat.
“Aw,” Ben said, totally unconcerned with all the slamming and eye-rolling. “They’re so cute together. I can’t believe they met in a war zone.”
“Yeah, so…what happened in there, exactly?” Diego said. “I caught the end of the light show, but I missed what kicked it off. I guess Klaus finally got the call to connect on his dead boyfriend?”
Ben hopped up to sit on a narrow table against the hallway wall, tucking his hands neatly into the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. “Yep, that’s Dave. I was expecting someone a lot weirder, honestly. He seems pretty normal for a guy who picked Klaus as a partner.”
Five ignored that comment, and while Diego opened his mouth, possibly to argue, he finally shrugged and let it stand. Five addressed Diego’s actual question, instead. “I used my power to open a rift in space-time back to our previous timeline, since Klaus didn’t time-travel or meet Dave in this one, and held it open long enough for Klaus to call his soldier boy’s ghost through.”
“Huh. Cool.” While he thought about that, Diego raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips, and bobbed his head up and down a few times. “Nice one.”
“Nice one?” Five said, appalled by the casual tone. “Nice one?”
Diego shrugged. “Yeah. What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big—I just definitively proved String Theory and ripped a hole in the fabric of the universe, that’s all! No problem! Just a normal Tuesday afternoon!” Five snorted. “No. It was very difficult and incredibly complicated. You should be thanking me for letting you see history in the making, because no one else on the planet has done what I just did, and no one else could. It was a big fucking deal.”
Diego smiled at him—not in a way that suggested that Diego was impressed with Five’s brilliance, but more like Five was Ben’s dumpster cat and he’d just been caught purring. “Yeah, I know. That was really sweet of you.”
Five gaped at him. “I am not sweet. I am—I am a genuine badass. I’m the rock star of physics.”
Diego shrugged. “Not arguing that, bro. Didn’t you just say we should be impressed? That it was super crazy hard, and nobody else could have done it?”
“I did, and it was,” Five said, still proud. He didn’t think that was going to fade anytime soon. It had been awesome.
Diego’s voice shifted into the kind of cadence Five would have expected to hear from a lawyer about to drop a bomb of a question on the witness on the stand. “And did you or did you not do it entirely so that Klaus could get it on with his ghost boyfriend?”
Five opened his mouth, thought about it, and froze.
Ben scooted forward a little until he was on the edge of the table, rocking forward dangerously to peer at Five’s face with a ghoulish little smirk. “Oh, he definitely did,” he said, nothing but amused.
“That’s what I thought,” Diego said gleefully. “You saw he was sad and you felt bad about it, you softie.”
“You felt bad, too! He was pathetic!” Five snapped.
“Well, sure, I felt bad. The dead love of my life came back and his didn’t,” Diego agreed. “That sucked a lot, but it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it.”
“Exactly! You would have done the same thing!” Five said, still angry but no longer sure why.
Diego nodded, and gestured outward with both hands, palms up, like he was presenting awards on a game show. “Yeah. Exactly. Nice one, bro.”
“Oh.” Now Five was confused—hadn’t Diego been insulting him? It was hard to argue with someone who kept agreeing with him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome…” Diego grinned down at him. “…you big softie.”
“Big fluffy teddy bear.”
Five scowled, and seriously considered finding some knives. Diego had two of his own with him, but he’d make Five eat them before he’d let Five take them away, which was the exact opposite of what Five would like to make happen. “Really. Stop.”
Ben cut in. “How about Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man?” he tried. When that got him a weird look, he threw up his hands. “Yeah, I liked Ghostbusters. Yeah, I’m a ghost. I know it’s ironic. Sue me.”
Five had literally no idea what that meant. He also didn’t care. “Absolutely not.”
“Lava cake,” Diego suggested. “With the hard outside and the ooey-gooey filling.”
* * *
Five wasn’t soft. Maybe he looked like a baby-faced teenager—maybe he’d never directed all his sharp-edged violence at his family, just his sharp-edged tongue. It didn’t make him an ounce less dangerous.
He’d been a hitman, an assassin, and more importantly, he’d been good at it. He was the best. He’d killed more than any of them, combined, and he was still adding to that count. Coming back to relive the end of the world (again), Five hadn’t been idle. He trusted in three things: himself (usually), his family (some days), and the dedication of mankind and the universe to fucking him over (a constant).
So, he hadn’t trusted blindly that the Commission would up and decide to leave them be, simply because Five had no tracker to draw them to him in this timeline. It hadn’t taken him the full three months of hopscotch travel with his siblings through the past solely to figure out how to get safely to the proper turning point in the timeline: he’d planned. He’d plotted. He’d schemed. He made sure he had it right.
And then, and only then, he’d taken the seven them to the one point in their past that the math told him would set them on the best course toward changing their future, and he’d trusted his idiot siblings, for once, to get it right.
Once they were back in the weeklong buildup to the scheduled end times, Five didn’t rush. He sat down with everyone, with Pogo and, once she was repaired, with Mom, and he explained everything. They all did—every messed-up piece of it, even the stuff Five had missed or hadn’t known about the first time around. They’d talked for hours and hours, and Five hadn’t worried about that, because even with a tracker to follow the Commission hadn’t gotten around to him until much later that night, the last time around.
They wrapped it up, and his family had all gone to crash for the night. Five himself went to a 7-Eleven, chugged two large black coffees while they were still almost hot enough to scald him, and then went straight to the root of the problem: Commission headquarters.
In another dimension, another time, the Handler herself had shown Five the way to this place. Maybe she hadn’t thought about what that meant for someone like him, what he could do with that kind of information, or maybe she had just thought it worth the risk. Maybe she hadn’t believed the reports. Maybe she hadn’t fully understood the sort of damage he could wreak when he was really, truly pissed off.
Five was way beyond that point, now.
He was methodical with it.
He took his sweet fucking time.
First, he went through the entire building, as quietly as he could, keeping himself undetected—room by room, floor by floor, making sure there were no hidden tricks, traps, escape routes. Then and only then, once he was sure he was in the clear, he got started. He blocked off all the exits. The building was made to be easily defensible: once inside the security room, blast shields could be dropped down over every door and window, reinforcing every wall. It was impenetrable from the outside, and, unfortunately, inescapable from the inside except by way of briefcase.
Of course, he went after that next. It took less than fifteen seconds to travel from the security room to the briefcase storage area, the way Five traveled, barely any time at all after the security shutdown and far too little time for anyone to actually react. The room exploded just as satisfyingly as he remembered.
In just under thirty seconds, he’d effectively crippled operations and trapped everyone in the building with him. His powers made it upsettingly easy for one man to manage what should have been impossible alone.
Then he posted up in the message room—poor, stupid, unlucky Gloria he knocked out and left locked up in her little side office—and waited.
There was no way out. He’d destroyed the security system controls, and with the briefcases gone, they were trapped like rats on a sinking ship. But they weren’t entirely stupid—without knowing who or where he was, or what he wanted, they had to know their best bet was going to be getting a message out, calling for backup and an exit plan with a briefcase. They were going to come straight to him—the smart ones, the upper management.
Five got luckier than even he had expected. He got to blow up the message room, and he got to meet the Handler’s eyes and smirk just before he did it.
There was no question in his mind that higher management was both his biggest threat and the least of his worries. If left alone, they would find ways to destroy him, his family, and every bit of progress they’d made; in a one-on-one fight, they were sometimes scrappy but ultimately useless. He took them out, one by one, without a qualm.
The lowest echelons, the mindless killer drones like Hazel and Cha-Cha, were the least of his worries, but could have been the biggest threat. If they chose to fight back en masse, he’d almost certainly die. Only a few, and he’d maybe survive—and he found it hard to believe that they’d fight back, not now that he’d taken out anyone who could order them to do it. They were amoral, merciless killers, but they were killers-for-hire. Five understood that mindset very well.
If they weren’t told to do it, if they weren’t paid to do it, they wouldn’t. Five left them be, and didn’t think too much of it.
It was middle ground that gave him the most difficulty—the ones who weren’t in charge, but weren’t quite part of the hive of thoughtless worker bees. Middle management, the office dwellers, paid to think and act but never truly decide anything.
With upper management gone, the future of the Commission was going to fall on them, and Five didn’t like that he couldn’t be sure which way they would fall.
Five could kill them. But that would leave only the killer drones behind, and presumably the world wouldn’t enjoy what would rise in the Commission’s place if Five left an unsupervised group of hitmen, assassins, and murderers in possession of time-travel tech. If Five killed middle management, he’d probably end up needing to kill everyone, and he wasn’t fond of that.
That was probably what Ben might call ‘a tiny bit of overkill.’ Then Klaus would call him a little psycho again, and it wouldn’t even be unjustified.
Besides, he’d decided, since he was already laying the perfect groundwork for a good terrorizing and some solid threats, he might as well go all in.
So, then, the next step was to get all of middle management together in one place. Luckily, emergency plans called for employees to meet up at designated spots around the building in case of invading threats, so Five knew exactly where to go to get them, and then where to gather them all up.
“Good evening, folks,” he said. The cafeteria was big enough to hold them all and had doors that were surprisingly easy to bar—a fire safety hazard in the making if he’d ever seen one. “For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Number Five. Also known as the man who can travel without a briefcase. Now known as the one who just opened up quite a few slots for promotion farther up the ladder from you lot. All of them, actually. Congratulations on becoming the highest-ranking individuals at the Commission.”
With a splatter of blood across the front of his shirt, his hands singed with soot and gunpowder residue, still sticky-red under that, Five figured they all knew what he meant. He’d considered bringing a few bodies along, for maximum impact, but he’d ultimately decided that was a bit too macabre even for him.
A dull roar of shouts, shocked muttering, and gasps broke out. A few enterprising employees pulled out guns. Five leapt around the room in short bursts, laughing to himself as he plucked weapons easily out of confused hands as they tried and failed to follow his movements. One managed to get a shot off, but all it did was pluck the hat off a coworker’s head as Five popped out of existence, only barely avoiding a tragic friendly fire accident.
Tragic. Really. Five would have been heartbroken.
“Are we done playing around, children?” he said, after a final jump that left him standing alone on top of one of the long cafeteria tables, a pile of guns at his feet and just one left in his right hand. He checked it, quickly and comfortably—fully loaded, though whatever dumbass he’d nabbed it from hadn’t bothered to toggle the safety before waving it in Five’s direction. “I can start shooting, maybe pick a few sacrificial candidates, just to give the rest of you a little motivation to stop wasting my time,” and there he paused, ominously, to be really sure the threat landed, “or you can all shut the hell up and sit the fuck down, and once you’ve given me ten minutes of your time, it’s more than likely that you’ll get out of today alive and with all your various bits and pieces still functional and attached. Do anything that I don’t like, and I can’t promise the same.”
The silence was gratifyingly absolute, but no one moved. Possibly they were too terrified, but Five wasn’t in a mood to wait.
“I said, sit down,” Five snarled, flipping the safety off on his new gun with a very audible click.
“Thank you,” Five said, lips twisting into a sharp smile. “Now listen up, because I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m only going to tell it once. Once upon a time, there were seven siblings, and one of them worked for the Commission after the end of the world. The Commission didn’t believe him when he said he would do anything, anything, to avert the apocalypse, to make them leave his family alone, and when the time came, they kept meddling and meddling and meddling. They attacked his family. They caused the apocalypse. So, finally, he went into their house and took them all out, one by one, until there was no one left to meddle ever again, and the floors and walls were painted red with their blood. The end.”
There was a long, drawn-out silence. Someone near the edge of the group shuffled in place, a little awkwardly, and was firmly shushed by his closest peers.
“It’s not a very nice story, is it? But it doesn’t have to end like that,” he told them, gentle but firm, like he imagined a real parent might discipline a group of unruly children. “Amongst you idiots are the lucky few who will become the new higher management in this shithole. Right now, I’m letting you live. I’m even letting you resume your work uninterrupted, if you so choose, except in this one sticking point: you leave me and mine the hell alone. Forever. That’s your new highest priority. Because if I have to come back—shit, if you make me come back, I won’t be nearly so kind. Don’t forget that I travel through time and space however I choose, and I don’t need your shitty briefcases to do it. If you try to kill me, you will fail; if you try to hurt what’s mine, try to keep the apocalypse running on schedule, it won’t matter whether you succeed or not. I will come back to this exact place at this exact moment and I will kill whichever one of you bright-eyed monkey-brained shitheads had the idea in the first place. And I will do it over and over again, forever, if I have to. Do you hear me? I can do this forever. Maybe there are branches of reality where you win, at least for a minute, but I don’t have to live in them, and I will burn each one of them to the ground and salt the ashes before I leave.”
He clicked the safety back into place on his gun. “Or,” he said, just a suggestion, soft and sweet. “Or. You take my offer. I leave here, and you or your people never interfere with me and mine again, and in return, you and yours will never deal with me again. Do we have a deal?”
A brief pause, and then a round of earnest nods all around when it seemed like they all recognized he wanted an answer, this time.
* * *
When he left, he did it by jumping out of the cafeteria and leaving the doors locked behind him. Right around then, the security guards he’d left locked up in a storage closet should have worked their way free, and he’d left them with exact directions to where their trapped coworkers had been left in the cafeteria. Not even Five knew what they’d find when they got those doors open again.
The rest of the ten minutes he’d requested at the beginning of the conversation, the time it would take for those security guards to get back to the cafeteria and bust in, Five was leaving for his future-self to come back and do some cleanup, if necessary.
It was—a bit overdramatic, probably, leaving them to stare at the clock and the empty room, waiting to see if-where-when he might pop back up into sight and cause some more carnage. But it could work to keep them cowed long enough to let him and his family live out their lives in peace. Hopefully they would just decide it was too much hassle to fuck with him after all that. But if it wasn’t—if some enterprising someone decided to take a shot, then they would be coming for Five himself first of all. He thought he’d done a pretty solid job of demonstrating what would happen if they tried any other avenues before making sure he was firmly, permanently, put down.
It was a weight on his back, a constant reminder that he needed to keep one eye open. All he had to do was survive the initial attempt—his powers would take him through to fixing the deeper problem, after that. If he needed to come back, he had left himself plenty of time to do whatever cleanup was necessary. He didn’t exactly want to do it, but he would.
Ten minutes. A heavy weight.
* * *
It was a weight he would happily carry, so long as it meant no one else would need to.
And this way, he got all of his family together and safe, living their lives the way they wanted to live them, for once without manipulation or looming threats.
They were even starting up traditions—between each of them, in pairs and groups and all together—like watching movies together on nights when they were all in the house.
This way, he got to lean against the doorframe and listen to Diego grumble about the fact that Patch hadn’t been invited, even though Klaus’s boyfriend was, and see Luther leaning into Diego as much as Allison from where he was crammed onto the couch between them. Ben and Dave were both present and steadily solid, so Klaus was on a hot streak with that one.
They were all in agreement that Dave, as the newest arrival, got first movie choice, but when Dave didn’t really have an opinion, they decided to pick something they thought he would enjoy rather than pass the choice along to the next in line.
None of them, Ben pointed out, wanted to try to explain weird future shit any more than Dave wanted to be exposed to it right off the bat. Best to start out easy.
“Damn it, Klaus,” Diego grumbled. “I wish you’d told us more about your man than how sweet and pretty he and his ass are. How’re we supposed to pick something based on that?”
“Yeah, way to make it hard,” Ben called from across the room. He was perched on the couch over by Vanya instead of Klaus for once, sitting on the arm of the chair but with his legs tucked in behind Vanya’s back, feet nudging up against Allison’s side. “We already agreed: no porn at movie nights.”
“It’s alright,” Dave said, looking mildly concerned at the chaos building around him. “It can be someone else’s turn.”
“No, no, it doesn’t work like that,” Klaus told him fondly. “If you don’t pick, someone will pick for you.”
“Wow,” Luther said. “Way to make it sound like a threat.”
Vanya nodded agreement. “Ominous,” she said quietly.
“Idea! I just found this article: ‘Best Movies of 1970.’ It’s all the stuff that would have come out right after his time,” Allison said, scrolling down her phone screen with quick, broad flicks of her finger. “Patton, M*A*S*H, Kelly’s Heroes—”
“No war movies!” Diego said. “Come on, the last time he was in the land of the living, he was in an active war zone. We can do better than that.”
Luther shrugged. “I mean, these all came out in 1970. Wasn’t everyone about done with war around then, too? And they still got decent reviews.”
“Babe?” Klaus asked idly.
Dave, arms and legs tangled with Klaus on the loveseat, shrugged as best as a man could with a human octopus attached to his side. “I don’t mind,” he said.
Vanya muttered something in Ben’s direction. “Wait!” Ben yelled. “Vanya’s got it, that mad genius.”
“Uh,” she said, flushing as everyone’s attention turned toward her. “I just remembered that—um. The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977.”
Everyone went quiet as they thought about that.
Klaus turned big, round eyes on his man. “Dave,” he said. “Babe. Honey. Light of my life. You are possibly the last person still present on this earth who has not witnessed this cinematic masterpiece. It will be a joy and a gift to me, to us, to share this experience with you.” Not looking away from Dave’s face—he seemed confused, but willing to go along with the whole thing—he added, “If any of you dumbfucks spoil the James Earl Jones-voiced twist, you all know exactly what I mean, then I will use my new telekinetic powers to Force-choke you to death.”
They hadn’t noticed him yet. Judging by the sloppy pile of blankets and pillows they’d left on the floor in front of the coffee table, though, he was expected.
Dave asked quietly if a movie called Star Wars wasn’t still about war. Ben and Diego teamed up to try to convince him it was a documentary. Allison and Vanya exchanged glances from their spots next to each other, each grabbed a pillow, and did their best to beat Diego and Ben into submission. Luther made it easier by snagging Diego’s collar to keep him from just leaning out of Allison’s reach, and Klaus cleared things up with Dave, gesturing wildly with his free hand as he explained something about sci-fi epic cinema that seemed to involve a lot of explosions and sound effects.
Sooner or later, someone would turn and see him. Or maybe he would give up on lurking in the doorway and go to join in. Across all realities, there would be worlds where the former happened, and worlds where it was the latter. He hadn’t quite decided yet which way to take this world, this branch of reality. He was almost content to wait, just this once, and let the moment decide for itself.
It was enough to know that either way, he’d be in the room with them by the end of the night.
Me, to no one in particular: so, nobody's gonna point out the obvious 'I accidentally erased Klaus's man from the timeline' issue, huh? That's cool, I'll just....shuffle some theoretical physics into here... and fix it real quick before anyone notices....
Luther - disappointing dad energy
Allison, Diego, Ben - lawful, neutral, chaotic mom energy
Klaus, Vanya - queer disaster uncle, queer chill aunt energy
Five - grumpy grandpa who lived through the war and won't talk about what he did for the government, but it was definitely black ops energy
Also, Five did not kill the Handler. Not directly. If he did steal all her trackers, her belongings, her coat, and her shoes, and then transport her directly into Siberia in the middle of winter at three in the morning, as far from civilization and hope of human rescue as he could get her, then he could still truthfully say she was alive when he last saw her. She definitely did not stay that way for long, but that's no longer Five's problem.