When the fate of the world wasn’t at stake – and when the fate of the world was at stake, honestly – sobriety seemed damn near impossible.
Tonight’s dinner had been one of those times Klaus felt like he was going to claw off his skin if he couldn’t get his paws on something that’d take him out of his head. But he was trying, he was trying so fucking hard because Dave was worth that and more and everything. So he'd bit the insides of his cheeks and fidgeted in his chair and fanned himself with his napkin and, once none of that distracted him anymore, leaned over and loudly whispered, “Allison likes furries, pass it on,” in Diego’s ear. Diego sprayed creamed corn across the table. Luther squeezed his water glass a bit too hard and Klaus had wisely made himself scarce after that. Since Ben didn’t have anything better to do, they went for a walk.
The cool air helped a little bit, soothed the perpetual itch crawling from limb to limb. Ben helped too, keeping up a steady stream of conversation as they meandered downtown, and whenever Klaus’s eyes wandered towards neon-lit clubs and familiar faces hanging around alleyways, he tried to remind himself of all the progress he’d made lately. It was the first time since age fourteen that he’d been sober for an entire week. When he hit double-digits, Allison owed him the largest sundae their local ice cream place could make. And that motivation was nothing, nothing, when he remembered what had happened on Tuesday night.
He’d heard Dave’s voice. It wasn’t much, just a faint, disbelieving whisper – Klaus? Klaus, is that – before he lost the connection, but it was enough. Klaus had spent the next twenty minutes alternately laughing and crying, sprawled across his bedroom floor, lightheaded from the effort. He was going to see Dave again, soon. He just had to stay away from the mind-altering substances and keep practicing.
On a night like this, however, there was no point in even making an attempt. Better to avoid the kind of frustration that got him into trouble. “I don’t know how it’s possible to be hyperactive and bored at the same time,” he complained, bouncing on the balls of his feet while they waited for the light to change. The fancy-suited businessman he shared the sidewalk with gave a nervous chuckle, apparently under the impression Klaus was addressing him. “I’m about to pop. Shit, I would kill for a joint right now. That’d calm me down… any chance you partake?”
“Sorry, I left all my drug paraphernalia in my other pants,” Ben snarked.
“I was talking to this dude.”
“Uh,” the man said, inching away.
“You could try channeling your energy into something constructive, for a change,” Ben said. “Weren’t you going to learn how to knit?”
“Five borrowed a needle to use as a shiv and I can’t knit with just one. Hey, I’m feeling a bit peckish,” Klaus said, withdrawing several crumpled dollar bills from his pocket and smoothing them out. “Four bucks? Groovy. We could….”
“Klaus?” Ben said when Klaus failed to finish his sentence. “Klaus. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Klaus said vaguely, staring at the lit sign on the other side of the street. His chaotic brain had finally latched onto a distraction.
It’d been Vanya – obviously, in hindsight – who had brought it up during one of Luther’s beloved ‘Family Meetings’. There was at least one per week and Klaus usually tried to dissociate his way through them. Thus, the reason he couldn’t remember the precise topic of conversation, but it must’ve involved their resident adolescent alcoholic, because she’d blurted, “I don’t think he sleeps here.”
Luther’s eyebrows drew together. “What?”
Vanya had gazed at the floor for a few seconds, shrinking, because sometimes she was a petite brunette apocalypse and the rest of the time she was just the timid, downtrodden sister they’d all failed. But then she lifted her head and looked right at Luther and said, “I’ve gone looking for him some nights, so we could talk, and he wasn’t there. He’s never there. When I asked, he just… deflected. I don’t know where he goes at night, but he’s not in the house.”
Allison, Team Mom, frowned, Luther said something about Vanya probably just missing him as he went poofing around instead of walking like normal people, and Diego threw in a crack about getting a call from the police when they found an unsupervised child wandering the city. But Klaus caught the split-second look his brothers shared. They knew something. Tossing his head back over the arm of the couch, he’d let Luther’s blather fall into a background drone and followed the fluffy white tail down the rabbit hole. Diego once mentioned where he’d found Five out cold after going on a bender… or what passed for a bender when one was physically thirteen years old. Klaus had chased the memory until he caught the rabbit. Argyle Library.
The building he was now staring at.
“Where are we going?” Ben asked, keeping pace as Klaus jaywalked across the road. Standing in the glow of the streetlight, Klaus swept a hand before him to indicate the library, like a game show host showing off their display of fabulous prizes. “Yeah, okay, but why?”
“Intellectual pursuits,” Klaus said airily. “And this might be where Five’s disappearing to every night.”
Ben didn’t look like he followed. So Klaus explained – well, he spit out every nebulously relevant thought he’d had over the past five minutes, stream-of-consciousness style, but Ben was well used to this. By the time they reached the front doors, he was nodding. His expression, however, wasn’t too promising. “You’re going to break into the library on the off-chance Five comes by,” he said flatly.
Klaus wagged a finger at him. The automatic doors whooshed open in a rush of warm air. “Uh-uh-uh. I never said I was going to break in.”
“They close in thirty minutes,” Ben said, leaning back to look at the building hours.
“Exactly,” Klaus said. He walked backwards through the lobby, clasping his hands under his chin like a prayer. “And, I was thinking, while we just so happen to be here, we could mosey around… maybe grab a couple of books… they do have a lot of them….”
Ben was weakening. Klaus could see the cracks in his cool, unaffected façade as Ben drank in shelf after shelf after row after floor. No matter what dear old Dad tried to mold him into, he had always been a gentle intellectual at heart, and while Klaus didn’t have a clue where the guy kept his… afterlife bookshelf or whatever, he only seemed to have a couple of books he could pull out of thin air. Still, Ben gave one last stab at being the voice of reason. “This is a public library, Klaus. You can take out all the books we – you – want, without stealing.”
Klaus grinned, expertly ignoring the librarian at the circulation desk who was eyeing him, her hand hovering over the phone. She had the world-weary aura of a woman who evicted at least one coked-up hobo out of the bathrooms every day before ten a.m.; he doubted she’d bother summoning security for a harmless weirdo carrying on half a conversation. “What fun is that?” He whipped out his trump card. “Look at it this way. I could take your advice and use my time constructively tonight, trying to extend a helping hand to our dear brother, or I could give into temptation and spend the night face-down in a gutter, blitzed out of my mind.”
“That’s the argument you’re using?”
“Oh, this from the guy who constantly reminds me he died young and that’s somehow why I should be sober!”
They bickered playfully throughout the first and second floors, weaving between the stacks and making note of interesting sections. Ben didn’t offer any further complaints about the potential book-thievery. Klaus, delighted he’d suckered his partner-in-crime into this scheme, pried a batch of romance novels off a shelf and dramatically read the summaries in his best movie-trailer voice. The teary teenage girl at the other end of the row was in stitches after two minutes, so at least he’d improved somebody’s day. He liked to bank moments like that as insurance against whatever undoubtedly terrible decisions he’d make tomorrow. Just in case someone got down off her high bike long enough to pay attention.
“Library patrons,” a woman said over the PA system, “we will be closing in five minutes.”
Klaus dumped all but one of the romance books in the science-fiction section. The remaining paperback went into his pocket. “Here we go,” he breathed, rubbing his hands together.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Ben said, in a tone that clearly stated I know damn well you haven’t noticed, “but all the windows that open, and the doors, have alarms on them. You’re not getting back inside without setting something off. Unless you want to spend the night in jail….”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Klaus said dismissively. “And I told you, I’m not breaking in,” he added, keeping his voice down now, just in case anyone else was lingering on the second floor.
“Then what –” Ben began. Klaus pointed. Ben closed his mouth, stared for a long moment, then shook his head. “You can’t seriously believe they won’t check before they leave.”
Smirking, Klaus strolled down the row. “I know what I’m doing. I used to do this all the time – not here, at the branch near the rehab center – when the weather was shit. Come on, underpaid librarians don’t look closely, they want to go home and go to bed. Besides, worst case scenario, they give me the boot. Big whoop! I only got caught once and they didn’t even remember next time I came in. Best case, we get to do a little recon and see if this is really where Five’s haunting… uh, no offense.”
Klaus pushed open the bathroom door. There was one person inside, occupying a wheezy hand dryer; Klaus slouched past him as inconspicuously as possible (this was the only time in his life he’d regret wearing a bedazzled jacket), chose one of the middle stalls, and closed himself inside.
“Well, this is cozy,” Ben said, leaning against the wall of the stall. He wasn’t really, of course, and Klaus’s eyes automatically searched for that half-centimeter gap between Ben’s shoulder and the wall. He was all too aware of the way Ben didn’t quite interact with his environment. They were working on it. “Now what?”
Klaus plopped himself down on the toilet seat, leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, waited until the dryer shut off and he was certain the other man had vacated the premises. “Now we wait.”
“Hush. Before all the staff leaves, someone will come around and peek into the bathrooms to make sure nobody’s shooting up in them. But if they’re anything like the other library, they’ll just glance under all the stall doors. No feet, no problem!”
“This is a terrible idea,” Ben said. Then a peculiar expression crossed his face. “You know, I read a book when I was a kid where this exact thing happened – I mean, not exact, it was two kids living in a museum, but that’s what they did so they wouldn’t get caught at night.”
“I know the one,” Klaus said brightly.
“You got your plan from a children’s book?”
Klaus finger-gunned at him. “You betcha. I need you to do your ghosty thing and let me know when everyone’s left, and then… we go from there.”
Heaving a sigh of drama-queen proportions, Ben took a step back, melting through the mottled green door and out of sight. Klaus scooted against the wall and braced his feet on the edge of the bowl. “Please, no disgusting toilet-seat diseases,” he muttered, wiping his hands on his ragged jeans.
The waiting was always the worst part. With no entertainment, he had nothing to do but sit there and think. Navigating drug-induced holes in his memory, furious spirits, and filthy trenches full of prayers and desperate stolen kisses under the cover of darkness? Only slightly less appealing than cleaning out the drain after Luther showered. Thankfully, Ben was around, this time – he’d pop back in sooner or later and Klaus wouldn’t have to be alone. In the meantime, he very carefully steered his train of thought into safe waters, such as what the hell he was going to say if Ben asked why he was doing this. It wasn’t like he knew. Just something to keep him busy when going home didn’t feel like the best idea and drifting through the streets offered too many temptations.
Or perhaps he did know, in a roundabout sort of way. He knew the Hargreeves Circus was attempting to be an actual family instead of a freakshow. He knew the fact they continued speaking to one another proved they actually did care about each other. He knew Five was an undersized asshole who might be running off to deal with some new crisis he’d refuse to tell them about because he thought they were idiots. And God, Klaus knew he loved him anyway, even if sobriety came with the unexpected side effect of wanting to strangle him a lot more often. Strangulation could come after he knew Five was okay. So take that, Ben; he knew what he was doing.
Good old Ben, Klaus thought fondly, propping his elbows on his knees and resisting the impulse to start tapping his feet. He would’ve gone ‘round the twist a decade ago without Ben nagging him to drink water instead of booze occasionally and eat something that didn’t come in pill form and sleep. And now, when Klaus fucked up and got blackout drunk because he couldn’t take the screaming anymore, he still woke up to the I’m Disappointed But I Understand, You Dumbass look. That was why he hauled himself out of bed (or wherever he’d keeled over), washed the bodily fluids from his hair, and mainlined caffeine until he could see straight again. He kept on trying to be the man his brother believed in and Dave thought was worth loving.
Klaus slapped his palms against his cheeks a few times, shook his head. No more thinking. He’d hit his quota of soul-searching for the entire month right there. He started digging in his pockets instead, rummaging through the detritus his jacket seemed to accumulate all on its own, until he discovered something useful: a dry-erase marker. Tapping it against his lower lip, he studied the walls of the stall. Beneath the Ghost of Graffiti Past, the metal was pale green with the odd fleck of red and yellow for flavor. Klaus named the color ‘Guacamole Vomit’, uncapped the marker, and started drawing lines.
Ben returned just as Klaus was putting on the finishing touches. “Stop defacing public property,” he said. “Most of the workers are still here. I thought I saw a janitor come in….”
“Yeah, he didn’t stick around.” Klaus had held his breath and crossed his fingers, leaning as far away from the crack between wall and door as he could while keeping his balance on the toilet seat. He’d heard what sounded like someone pushing a cart, walking across the room, fussing with a few faucets, flushing a toilet further down the row. Klaus started composing – I’m terribly sorry, I’ve been ill, must’ve been the dodgy burrito from that new food truck around the corner. You know the one? I think the worst of it’s over, though, I’ll get out of your hair ASAP, I’m so sorry to inconvenience you like this – but then the bathroom door closed, the room went black, and he was home free. He’d ventured out of the stall just long enough to turn the light back on. “Too bad, we’re going to have a great time.” He pointed the marker at the wall with a flourish. “Your move.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed. “E.”
“Poor, predictable Ben,” Klaus sing-songed, drawing a head on the hangman. “Always with the common vowels. Next?”
Klaus won eleven games. Ben won nineteen, between popping in and out to report on the staff’s movements. Finally, he reappeared in the stall and neglected to continue their second argument about whether or not using Vietnamese words constituted cheating, instead saying, “I think you’re clear. I haven’t seen anyone in the last twenty minutes – there isn’t even an overnight security guard.”
Hopping to his feet, Klaus shoved the marker in his pocket and attempted to massage some feeling back into his ass. “Then the night awaits!” He made a beeline for a sink first, however. Being a person who’d passed out draped over a public toilet a time or three, he harbored no illusions about their cleanliness. “Any sign of the murderous midget?”
“Well, there’s a clown doll in the kids’ area that looks like somebody took a cheese grater to it, but unless you think that was him….”
“Doubt it.” Klaus shut off the water, paused, stared at a smiley-face sticker on the wall. Someone had given it a disproportionate penis, of course. “But… waaaaaaait,” he said slowly, turning to Ben, “is Five afraid of clowns?”
Ben shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
He was probably right. Still, note to self: check into that. “Okay!” Klaus chirped, clapping his hands together. A gentle push of the door and they left the bathroom. “Until he shows up – if he shows up – we might as well occupy ourselves. You had your eye on the mythology section, right?”
“Slight problem.” Ben stuck his arm through a row of encyclopedias and waggled his fingers at Klaus.
“It’s what we call incentive. I get you books,” Klaus said, twirling a finger in Ben’s direction, “but you can’t actually read the books until you’re –” he thumped his knuckles against volume S-Sn, “solid.”
“Why do I need incentive? You’re the one who –”
“Details. Where did you see mythology?”
The library was dark. It made sense, but Klaus hadn’t factored that into his calculations, so prowling around in search of books was a bit more difficult than anticipated. He would gather a stack, make his way to the big glass windows in the front of the building, where he could just make out titles by streetlight, and leave them on a table for Ben, who’d read the summaries on the dust jackets and decide if he wanted them or not. He wasn’t too picky, unfortunately. Klaus hadn’t brought a bag. But he was having a good time, regardless; Argyle Library boasted an enormous selection and even a guy like him, who preferred more… psychotropic pastimes, found a few interesting reads. He also rode around on one of the book carts like it was a scooter. The light on the reference desk would never be the same.
By the time they reached the top floor, Klaus had entirely forgotten the original reason for overstaying his welcome.
“We’re almost out of books,” Ben said regretfully, regarding the remaining shelves.
Klaus opened his mouth to retort speak for yourself, since he’d gotten stuck carrying the to-read pile and his arms were about to fall off, but a gentle yellow light at the end of one row caught his eye. Somebody had left a reading lamp on, it seemed. Or maybe one lone employee stayed late… or they did have an overnight guard and Klaus was about to get pile-driven into the tile. He started to backpedal, made frantic gestures for Ben to get out of sight, remembered nobody else could see Ben, and spotted something on the floor, sticking out from behind the shelf.
Little black shoe. Long sock. Knee.
The fraction of a second his brain needed to process what he was seeing took too long. He never even got to move. There was a world-warping shimmer in the corner and suddenly something sharp drilled into his lower back – Klaus yelped involuntarily, drowning out Ben’s surprised shriek, and flung his hands into the air, books be damned. “Unarmed!” he cried.
“Jesus, Klaus!” The pressure on his spine disappeared. Five stormed past him, white-knuckling a pen, very much not unconscious or dead behind the shelves.
“What the hell?” Klaus shouted, dropping his arms and squeezing his shaking hands together.
“I thought you were a cop!” Five yelled back.
“And you figured paralysis by pen was a good option for self-defense?!”
Five’s irritated expression shuttered. He leaned towards Klaus, eyes a little too wide, unblinking. Vietnam had accustomed Klaus to the homicidal variant of a thousand-yard-stare, but it still creeped him out, and the effect was not diminished in the slightest when it came from someone five feet tall and wearing knee-highs. “You have no idea what my other options were,” Five said softly. He maintained eye contact just long enough for Klaus to feel a bead of sweat form between his shoulder blades, and then spun on his heel and stalked away.
“You should pick those up,” Ben said, gesturing to the books scattered across the floor.
Klaus threw his hands up again, this time in aggravation, but crouched and started gathering anyway. “You should pick those up,” he mocked in an undertone. “What am I, your maid? When you’re corporeal again, we are going to have words – you really thought I was a cop?” Staggering slightly under the weight of the books, Klaus followed Ben, who was following Five, the weirdest little procession the library ever did see. “Only in my more salacious fantasies, buddy. There are some inventive uses for handcuffs.”
Five practically radiated revulsion, which made Klaus grin. There was no fun in cracking jokes about his sexcapades if someone didn’t disapprove, and Five had yet to disappoint. Probably a bit unkind, though, since Klaus couldn’t begin to imagine the misery – adult brain experiencing mature urges while trapped in a prepubescent body? Had to be the worst kind of hell. And… he paused mid-step, something occurring to him. Klaus had been around the block a few times, Allison had a daughter, Diego had had girlfriends, Vanya had gotten pretty close to her Looney Tune boyfriend, poor girl, and even Luther finally snagged a one-night-stand. Five had time-travelled at age thirteen and his long-term girlfriend was half a mannequin. He was the only living Hargreeves child who’d never had the chance to get laid.
God, it was worse than he’d thought. The middle school spring dance didn’t seem like Five’s scene, and given the massive discrepancy between his physical and mental ages, that was pretty questionable to start with. And frankly, a cherubic face did nothing to hide his off-putting personality. Klaus, under the impression a lot of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone just chilled out, lit up a blunt, and got it on with a partner of their choosing, experienced a surge of sympathy.
On the other hand, maybe Five was above such carnal desires. Klaus didn’t intend to ask until he could make a long-distance phone call from an undisclosed location. When Five stopped, Klaus did too, dumping the books onto the ground with a sigh and pretending not to notice Ben’s scowl. “Nice place you got here,” he said, setting his hands on his hips, taking it in. Five hadn’t been behind the shelves at all – there was a niche in the wall here, mostly hidden by one of those semi-private corralled desks that dotted the library, and Five had set up camp with a reading list that rivaled Ben’s.
Five settled down on a blanket and grabbed a book as thick as his fist. “What do you want?”
Klaus pressed a hand to his chest, feigning offense. “Is that any way to speak to your favorite sibling?”
“You’re not my favorite sibling.”
Rude. Klaus glanced at Ben, who opened his mouth, closed it, tilted his hand back and forth in a so-so sort of gesture… then shrugged and said, “Yeah, okay.”
Klaus blew him a kiss. “So!” He clapped his hands together and sat. “Whatcha doing?”
Life’s Small Pleasure #1: Needling Five with deliberately stupid questions, which he couldn’t help answering because he never missed a chance to remind everyone how dumb he thought they were. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Smiling innocently, Klaus said, “Trespassing?”
“Look who’s talking.” Five turned a page. “Actually, I’m surprised you’re trespassing in a library, of all places. I didn’t think you knew how to read.”
Klaus made a loud buzzer sound, amused by the way Five twitched. “Foul! You said you didn’t think Luther knew how to read just this morning. Recycling material already? That’s not like you.” He indicated the book Five was holding. “What’s it about?”
Five told him. Klaus couldn’t understand a single word. Well, he picked out temporal-spatial and something about abnormalities, but the rest of it was Five’s typical technobabble and Klaus didn’t stand a chance. He nodded along until Five stopped, then folded his hands in his lap and looked woefully at the ceiling. “I must be getting old,” Klaus announced. “I don’t know the slang you kids are using these – OW!”
Withdrawing the heavy book he’d just introduced to Klaus’s kneecap, Five glowered and said, “I’m not a –”
“Yes, you’re fifty-eight, we’ve heard!” Klaus spread his arms wide. “You’re fifty-eight, Luther went to the moon, I see dead people – we all have our crosses to bear. Take a chill pill.”
Five turned the page so violently he almost ripped it clean out, and Klaus wondered if he’d ever murdered anyone with just a book before. Probably. It wasn’t like he had any reverence for the printed word; the little heathen wrote in all his books. “Why are you here, Klaus?”
“Me? Well, I was out for a nice evening stroll when I stumbled across the library, and I thought, hey, you know what would be nice? Ben does so much for me, and he never asks for anything in return, and the least I could do is pick him up a few new books to read. It’s a big place, though. Had to stay after lights-out so I could finish exploring. And then what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a miniature assassin and eight tiny…” Klaus looked closer, “quantum physics textbooks.”
From the angle of his eyebrows, Five wasn’t buying it, but he didn’t say anything. Klaus left him to his silent judgment and tipped open a fat hardcover. Yup – all those mind-bending equations Five started spouting off at the tender age of four. That was the same year he had miscalculated, teleported himself six feet above the stairs, and knocked out five front teeth on the banister. He’d looked like a jack o’lantern, which made it a lot harder to take his genius prattle seriously. Klaus snickered at the memory.
“It’s wondering eyes,” Five said abruptly, plucking the topmost book off Klaus’s haphazard stack. He studied the title for a moment, then peered past Klaus, his gaze roaming uncertainly. Klaus tilted his head towards Ben, who was sitting atop the desk, watching things play out. Five looked about a foot to Ben’s left. But Ben, sweet Ben, slid over so he was in the correct spot as Five said, “This one’s all right. I liked Thesmophoriazusae better.”
“Nerds,” Klaus said under his breath. He already knew who’d be going on the fetch quest. Still, it was impossible to ignore the warm fuzzies in his stomach when Ben practically glowed like that.
Five put the book down and returned his attention to his own. “Go away,” he said, but without any of the earlier vitriol.
“Maybe I want to sit here and do some light reading too. Ever thought of that?” Klaus took the romance novel from his pocket, kicked off his shoes, and stretched out on the chilly tile, folding an arm beneath his head. “You know… a wise man once informed me this is a public library. You could borrow some books and take them home instead of… lurking.”
“Hypocrite,” Ben said. Klaus flipped him off. Five didn’t respond, just propped his book up on his chest so his face was hidden behind it. He was going to pretend Klaus didn’t exist – fine, then. Klaus was used to the invisible treatment. Besides, this gave him the perfect opportunity to freely inspect his brother’s nook.
What he saw was a borderline-claustrophobic space, completely enclosed on three sides, far from any doors or windows, with easy access to the stairs and atrium. That figured. Klaus understood hypervigilance, but Five was downright paranoid – he couldn’t believe the kid hadn’t heard him rattling around on the lower floors, honestly. Maybe the purple shadows under his eyes had something to do with that. He’d decorated with a few notebooks, some equations scribbled on the wall, four disposable coffee cups, and a half-empty glass bottle of something Klaus would bet his life wasn’t water. The blankets were what caught his eye, though – the one with all the stars and planets and spaceships had lived on the chest at the foot of Five’s bed for more than twenty-five years. The second had come right off his mattress. And the olive-drab base layer… he was pretty sure that one belonged to Diego.
Five, for his part, seemed uncommonly relaxed. Either he was wasted, or he spent so much time in the library he’d gotten more comfortable here than at the Academy. Klaus flicked through a few pages without reading them, shut the book, craned his neck to look back at Ben, and mouthed, does he sleep here?
Ben shrugged helplessly. “You could ask, but….”
But Five wouldn’t answer, Klaus knew. Not yet. Convincing Five to open up took finesse. For starters, Klaus had to get him talking again, so he tossed out the first question that came to mind – “Hey, did you and Dolores break up or something?”
“Abort mission,” Ben deadpanned.
“Shut up!” Klaus hissed, plastering on what he hoped was a pleasant, inquisitive smile while mentally swearing a blue streak. He just had to pick the landmine topic. That whole week they’d tried to prevent the world from ending, Five carried Dolores around like a security blanket, holding one-sided conversations and giving no indication he knew she wasn’t really alive. Even Klaus, He Who Talked To Ghosts, found it slightly alarming. He tried not to judge, however. Who among them hadn’t spent forty-five years in an apocalyptic hellscape, went what 21st-century psychology called ‘batshit fucking insane’ from the isolation, and started hallucinating a lady friend in order to cope? But then Dolores had vanished, Five suddenly quit mentioning her, and… yeah, it’d been a Family Meeting topic after Five got annoyed with their “childish nonsense” and left. None of them knew how to safely broach the subject with him.
And Klaus had opened the can of worms. As Five very, very slowly lowered his book, Klaus kept frantically smiling and whispered to Ben, “If I die, my weed’s stashed in the purple pump with the broken heel – bottom right corner of my closet. See if you can get it to Vanya somehow.” In what could be his final moments, he invented a multiple-choice question. Number Five will now look at Klaus as if he’s _______.
b. Too stupid to understand
c. An irredeemable junkie who doesn’t give a shit about anything except where and how he’ll get his next fix
d. An idiot
Unexpectedly, the answer was e. None of the above. Expression unreadable, Five just regarded Klaus for about ten seconds before lowering his gaze. “She’s back where she belongs,” he said.
“Oh.” Klaus couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. Did Hallmark make condolence cards for dumping your Emotional Support Mannequin? And – hold the phone – had Five actually listened to him? Klaus hid a manic grin behind heaving bosoms and bad genitalia metaphors, having apparently lost control of his facial muscles. There was nothing funny about this situation, but holy shit, he’d never expected anyone, least of all the local prodigy, to take his advice. Being the family’s foremost expert on addiction, he recognized it in Five. And though Klaus only ever paid lip service to his court-ordered rehab sessions, he evidently absorbed something useful along the way.
I’ve seen that look in the eye of someone who doesn’t know who they are without their high anymore. Trust me. You gotta just let it go.
Maybe Five had listened. Maybe he was letting go of his most tangible link to a forty-five-year nightmare.
…or maybe Five had been projecting his last vestiges of rationality onto Dolores (plausible, since ‘she’ didn’t appear to have a high opinion of the drinking), and getting rid of her meant he was jettisoning that part of himself, so his mental state was about to become far worse.
Klaus decided to believe the former explanation. He loved it when people listened to him. Trying to salvage the conversation, he babbled, “Ever thought about getting a puppy or something? Like, they’re doing great things with therapy dogs these days. I’m just saying it’d be better than talking to your coffee all the time – or your walls – or inanimate objects in general. Ah, but you might be more of a cat person, I guess? All aloof and prickly and solitary.”
“I asked the old man if we could get a dog when I was eight, remember?”
“Oh, right!” Klaus said, the memory bubbling to the surface. “And Allison wanted a hamster, so you two teamed up, and he thought everyone was in on it, so we all had to sit through the lecture.” He dropped his voice an octave or two and grumped, “I’m running an academy, not a zoo, the well-being of the human race rests on your shoulders, you don’t have time to go cavorting around with lesser beings….”
Just as Klaus began to think his dead-on impression fell flat, Five, in a hushed voice, said, “I’m still amazed Pogo kept a straight face the whole time.”
Klaus burst out laughing, the sound reverberating strangely around the empty building. “God, he deserves hazard pay –” he managed before being overcome by giggles. Five didn’t laugh, but he was smiling, genuinely, no venom or superiority to be found. Klaus’s heart grew three sizes. He’d cast a line and Five took the bait, so now it was time to reel him in. Wiping tears from his eyes, Klaus said, “Heeeey, Five?”
“Have you been sleeping here a lot?” Klaus twirled a finger to indicate the library in general.
The smile evaporated. Klaus could almost see the rock-solid shell enclosing his brother again, cutting him off from sympathy and affection and all the people who cared about his insufferable tiny ass. “That’s none of your business.”
“There isn’t anything to worry about,” Five replied, his tone cool and measured.
He started to sink behind his book once more, but Klaus sat up fast and slammed a hand down on the open pages, keeping Five from using it as a shield. “And Ben’s worried too! Right, Ben?”
“Actually, yes,” Ben said.
“See, Ben said he’s worried about his second-favorite – hold on, what do you mean actually, yes?” Klaus demanded. “You didn’t think I had a cause for concern?”
“I needed to see for myself. Look at all the smudges on the walls; a ton of stuff's been written there and erased over and over. He’s been at it for a while… weeks, minimum.”
Weeks. Now that Klaus gave it some thought, he realized he hadn’t once seen Five asleep at the Academy since he’d returned from the future, disregarding the time he was unconscious from blood loss. And he looked tired, sure, but wasn’t displaying any symptoms of dangerous sleep deprivation. Klaus could add two and two and come up with he’s literally bunking at the town library. “Uh… why here? There’s a perfectly good Holiday Inn around the corner. Why in general? I mean, if Allison and Luther aren’t leaving room for Jesus, I get it; I could lend you my spare headphones. Or – oh my God, are you here for a hook-up?!”
“Stop. Talking,” Five hissed through his teeth. He yanked his book out from beneath Klaus’s hand. Klaus fully expected to be concussed with it, so he blinked when Five did nothing of the sort, instead seizing the glass bottle by the neck and shotgunning a good two-thirds of what remained.
“At least share,” Klaus said petulantly. Ben swung a foot through his ribcage.
“This is public property. Come on,” he wheedled, “you can tell me, what’s the appeal?”
Five drained the bottle. “I don’t know,” he muttered, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “It’s….”
“Quiet?” Klaus didn’t actually think Luther and Allison were bumping uglies in their childhood bedrooms, but unscheduled three a.m. rackets were not unheard of at the Umbrella Academy.
Five shook his head, lowering his face into his hands and rubbing his temples. “That’s not it.”
“Full of fresh reading material?” Klaus guessed. “People-free? Uh… aesthetically pleasing?”
An uncomfortable silence fell. Klaus mulled that one over for a while, then raised his eyebrows. “I don’t understand.”
“You can’t condescend your way out of everything,” Klaus said, his mind racing. Shit, this went a lot deeper than wanting someplace else to read because the Hargreeves family was a pack of noisy jackasses with no respect for privacy. “Not to sound like Luther, but you do know we aren’t going to let anything happen to you, don’t you?”
“Bad move,” Ben interjected as Five’s head jerked up, lips curling into a snarl. “Walk it back, now –”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Klaus said hastily, waving his hands. “Please don’t bite me.”
His plea had the desired effect – feral anger collapsed into disgust. “I wouldn’t. I’d probably contract something.”
Ouch. That stung a little. “I’m clean, thanks. And yeah, you can take care of yourself, I hear ya. I’m just saying –”
“Do you really want to know why I’m here?” Five snapped. Klaus, taken aback, nodded. “The world ended. I spent two weeks wandering around, looking for shelter, before I figured out there wasn’t any. I never saw an intact building the entire time I was in the future. And if you think I wanted to hang around the Academy, where I buried you – so I kept going, collecting anything that looked useful, until I found the library. Most of that was a mess too, but…” he waved in the general direction of the stairs, “the pillars around the atrium survived. A bunch of the shelves, too. Nothing was on fire; that was nice. I’d only planned to loot the place, but once I got started, I realized it was probably the best I could do. Thought it’d be temporary, and then I never left.” Five bit his lip, an uncharacteristically vulnerable gesture. “It was home,” he finally said. “We’d go scavenging for weeks on end, but we always came back. I didn’t need to drink myself to sleep there. Dolores was thrilled when the ivy started growing in. It was home, it was our home, I knew every inch of that place and I come back and –” His voice cracked, and he clamped his mouth shut, jaw trembling.
Dear Lord, Klaus prayed desperately, please don’t let him start crying. He hadn’t seen Five cry since the banister incident. Moreover, if Klaus witnessed such a blatant display of emotion, they’d need dental records to identify his body.
Luckily, Five took a deep breath through his nose, let it out, and pulled himself together. “I thought it’d be easier to adjust. Nothing’s the same. There are people here.” He said ‘people’ the way someone else might say ‘oozing pustules’. “It’s not ours anymore, but it’s still the safest place in this godforsaken city.”
Klaus was starting to catch on. He chose his next words deliberately – “More than home?”
“Weren’t you listening? Dad’s child soldier factory is not my home!”
“Fuuuuuuuck,” Klaus groaned, leaning against the side of the desk and raking both hands through his hair. “Ben, I’d sell my soul for you to take over this conversation right now.”
“I wish I could,” Ben said, “but you’re not doing such a bad job yourself. Keep going.”
Easy for him to say; he didn’t have a pint-sized hitman scowling at him. “Okay, first of all, you’re homesick for your Armageddon fallout shelter and I don’t even know where to begin with that, but the safety thing? I get it.” Five opened his mouth. Klaus cut him off. “No. Shhh. Stop talking. For once in your life, shut up and listen. I was living pretty rough after I told Dad to suck my entire dick and left the Academy. Okay, when you’re tripping so bad you crash harder than the Hindenburg –” Five’s eye twitched, for no evident reason, “you tend not to worry about where you’re sleeping. But when I was lucid, I did. And my options were… icky? Usually? I did some shit I’m not proud of, couch-surfed, slept in parks, broke into buildings, occasionally passed out in alleys. And I was never safe. Couldn’t trust half the people I was fucking just so I had a bed for the night. You know how many of them stole drugs from me? Or worse? Most of the time I went to sleep and didn’t know if I’d wake up in the morning.” Most of the time he hadn’t cared, either. “This is the only place you feel safe. Back then, for me, it was either the shitty little hippie commune by the railroad station – before the cops shut that down – or rehab. I get it. What I don’t get is why you’re all uptight about admitting it.”
“Because it’s irrational,” Five said, using his talking-to-idiots voice. He sounded like he was talking to himself.
“Oh,” Klaus said sardonically, then breathed, “oh.” He was used to not understanding. He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t what anyone would call gifted, either. That made it easy to let all the shit he didn’t understand roll off his back, leave it for someone else to pick up. Five, however, was literally a genius. He saw the entire world in mathematical terms. That, along with his power, allowed him to physically interact with the space-time continuum, an abstract concept to everybody else, folding it around himself like a cloak and giving the finger to the laws of physics. The point – he understood everything… except why he couldn’t undo forty-five-plus years of psychological damage and sleep in his own bed. There was no variable, no equation he could manipulate to fix himself. He was ashamed of it.
“Want to know what your problem is?” Klaus asked, after a minute or two. “You don’t have a pillow.”
Five stared. “I don’t need one. I did without for long enough.”
“There you go,” Klaus said, snapping his fingers. “After all this time, you’re still in save-the-world mode. Only the essentials: coffee, alcohol, and your oversized brain. You won’t bother getting a pillow, because it’s not vital, and you refuse to rely on anyone, even your own family. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. I mean, look at me! Would I ever have started getting sober without Ben verbally abusing me? No! Christ, I was gonna have Luther tie me up in the attic. If you’d just tell us you’ve got a problem, maybe we could put our dysfunctional heads together and find a solution.”
“You can’t help with this,” Five said. He didn’t seem angry or frustrated anymore, just exhausted.
“How do you know that if you don’t even ask?”
Five said nothing. Klaus wasn’t surprised. His brother had really taken to heart old Reginald’s bullshit about never appearing weak, no matter what. He wouldn’t ask for help when he was four years old, in tears, mouth bleeding all over his blazer, clutching a fistful of broken baby teeth; he wasn’t about to do it now, either.
“You aren’t alone anymore,” Klaus reminded him. “You went through hell to save us from the apocalypse. Why push us away and let all that effort go to waste?”
Silence, again. Five was picking at the label on the bottle and avoiding Klaus’s eyes. Klaus tipped his head to look at Ben, who held up a hand, thumb and finger forming a circle. Perfect.
“I don’t know if I like talking to you while you’re sober,” Five finally said. “You’re a little too perceptive for my tastes.”
Klaus’s jaw dropped. “That is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me!”
With a half-hearted eyeroll, Five said, “You’re welcome. But if you tell anyone what I’m doing here, I’ll rearrange your digestive system.”
“I can keep a secret,” Klaus said. Five threw him a disbelieving look and Klaus tried to be offended, but he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on, sadly. “Okay, I’ll do my best – for my sake as well as yours. You know we’d be having another wonderful Family Meeting if I opened my big mouth.”
“I hate those things."
“Me too! We’ve had five of them in the last month and only one didn’t end with a shouting match and things getting broken.”
“Why do you think I always leave before the screaming starts?” Five muttered. “I didn’t hear anyone else’s voice besides mine and Dolores's for almost half a century. It’s overwhelming sometimes.”
Klaus gasped, hands fluttering to his mouth. “Did you just volunteer personal information? Hallelujah, I didn’t have to sweet-talk you this time! See how much easier this is when we’re honest with one another?”
“Already regretting it.”
Grinning, Klaus said, “The spare headphones offer still stands, by the way.”
Five didn’t quite smile, but one corner of his mouth quirked up a bit. Klaus chose to interpret that as I’ll take it under consideration. It was time to back off and quit pressing before Five had enough and misused that bottle on Klaus’s skull. He’d gotten what he wanted, now he’d give the guy space to process everything they had discussed. Kind of like what they called catch and release in fishing parlance. At least, he thought that's what it was. Klaus had never gone fishing in his life. “Well, if you’re going to stick around tonight, I guess there’s no chance of me bumming a ride home.”
“I didn’t drive here.”
“How’d you even learn to drive in the first place?”
Five shrugged. “Taught myself in the Bad Future. Every few years I’d stumble across a working car I could hotwire. Those were useful as hell for getting further out of the city or shifting debris, but they only lasted until the tank was empty,” he said. “When I started working for the Commission, traffic laws were… a rude awakening.” His eyes took on a dreamy glaze and fixed on a distant point, like he was reliving a treasured memory. “I racked up over $500 in tickets. They had to make a rule about not claiming legal fees on your corporate expense account because of me.”
For the second time that night, Klaus erupted into laughter. “You’re funny when you aren’t being a prick!” he exclaimed. “I like it. We’re definitely gonna hang out a lot more.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Ha ha. Seriously. I know we didn’t get along as kids, but now we’re older and wiser….”
“Yes, your maturity is astounding,” Five said dryly.
Ironic, coming from him. Fifty-eight years meant jack shit when you’d spent most of them alone in a desolate wasteland. Five’s own maturity was maybe 25% actual adult functionality, while the rest consisted of trauma and murder and crazy survivalism. He’d lost a good chunk of sanity in those years and it showed. He also never had the chance to develop any interpersonal skills; all six of them were banned from the Jade Dragon restaurant last week when he threatened to burn it down for serving him tap water.
Five yawned. Klaus tried not to yawn as well, failed, and felt his jaw pop. “Shit, I’m tired.”
“Yeah, so am I. There used to be a time when making conversation wasn't exhausting....”
Klaus almost reached out to pat his shoulder, then thought better of it. Five hated being touched. He would simply deflect or jump away, unless he was caught completely off-guard – case in point, when Luther flung their budding arsonist over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and marched out of the Jade Dragon, he’d been too stunned to react at all. “Go to bed, then, or whatever you call this.” He tapped the blanket-covered tile and made a face. “That can’t be good for your back.”
“My back doesn’t hurt anymore.” Five smiled humorlessly. “Silver lining, I guess.”
“Always looking on the bright side of life, huh… are you sure you don’t want a pillow?”
Rolling his eyes, Five lurched forwards and vanished in a glimmer of light. Klaus blinked twice before the air rippled and Five was sitting in front of him again, tossing something soft into his lap. “Happy now?”
Klaus picked up the pillow – more of a cushion, really – and wrinkled his nose at the eggplant-and-papaya striping. “It’ll do, but I wouldn’t have chosen this color scheme. Yuck.”
“What’d you expect? It’s from the children’s section.”
“Get fucked,” Five said, ripping the cushion from Klaus’s hands and shoving it behind his head as he reclined.
“I’d love to.” Klaus jammed his feet into his shoes, stood up, dusted off his jeans. “Well! I think I’ll take my leave. Come on, Ben; you can pick a book and I’ll turn the pages for you. Oh, and –” He glanced at Five. “Thermo… thermometer…?”
“Thesmophoriazusae,” Five and Ben said in unison. His own book propped up on his chest, Five blandly added, “Aristophanes, 882, Adult Non-Fiction. You want me to draw you a map?”
“I’m sure I can manage.” And he did. The only reason the trip took five whole minutes was because Klaus detoured into the fiction section and snagged a copy of Flowers in the Attic. Ben had said no, but screw that; Ben wasn’t the boss of him. He intended to leave it on Luther’s bed. Maybe the guy would learn something. “Found it,” he said, rounding the corner and heading towards his brothers. “I wish you could help me carry –”
“Shhhh!” Ben, now kneeling on the ground, glared at him and jerked his head towards Five.
“What, you can’t be… serious…” Trailing off, Klaus stopped dead.
Five was sound asleep.
“He’s gotta be faking it,” Klaus said under his breath. Nobody conked out that fast, even if they weren’t a classic insomniac like Klaus. Convincing act, though. The book was splayed open across his stomach, his fingers loose around the edges. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, breathing slow and deep, making a wispy little sighing noise on every exhale. He looked very small. Leaving him here alone all night suddenly seemed wrong.
Christ, Five could decapitate someone with a Coke bottle if he had to, and yet here Klaus stood, feeling protective and junk. He ignored it as best he could, gathering the books he was appropriating. Overall, the night was a net positive – he hadn’t thought about doing drugs in over an hour, his stubborn-ass brother actually confided in him, and Five was sleeping, even if he had to squat in the library to do so. This, too, was progress. Give it another decade and they might wind up with a normal sibling relationship.
“Let’s go,” he murmured to Ben, who didn’t move. He was looking at Five as though he’d like nothing more than to give him a hug, consequences be damned. Klaus tended to forget, given how long Five had been absent, but he’d always hated Ben and Vanya less than he hated the rest of them. And Ben, naturally, loved the arrogant pain in the ass with every chamber of his enormous heart. Watching Five struggle and being unable to do anything must’ve been torture.
Well. If he was willing to risk getting shanked….
After seven days sober, the space between Klaus and his powers was more of a crack than a chasm. He let his eyes close, reached across the gap. Most ghosts stuck around because something tethered them to earth; Ben was tethered to him, and that made it easier. They were averaging seven or eight seconds of manifestation at a time now. Klaus gritted his teeth until his jaw ached and pulled.
The spaceship on the blanket wrinkled beneath Ben’s fingers.
For an instant, Ben just gaped at his handful of fabric. Klaus didn’t have a free arm for a thumbs-up when their eyes met, so he just winked. Ben’s entire face lit up. Quickly, well aware of Klaus’s limits, he shook out the blanket and draped it over Five, covering him completely. Five shifted a little and turned his head to one side. Ben hesitated, touched his forehead with incredible gentleness, stroked his dark hair off his face. Then he was wrist-deep in Five’s cranium and Klaus, panting, whispered, “Sorry. Thought I could hold on a little longer.”
Ben stood up. His smile didn’t waver for an instant. “Thank you.”
They took the stairs in silence, partially so they’d not bother Five, partially because it was dark as hell and Klaus had to focus on where he was putting his feet. He didn’t want his obituary to read went ass-over-teakettle in the library, carrying enough books to occupy his brother for, oh, maybe three hours. Better than overdosed, though, which had always seemed inevitable.
“Quick question,” Ben said when they reached the first floor and Klaus was raiding the stash of reusable canvas bags behind the circulation desk. “If you can’t open the doors or windows without triggering the security alarm and waking him up, how do you plan on leaving?”
“…shit,” he finally said. “Roof?”
Ben sighed. “Worth a shot.”