It’s never the flash of light that wakes him. It’s never the sound, either, the echoing woosh of the fabric of reality being torn open and his brother jumping through the gap. It’s not even the sound of Five’s feet hitting the hardwood or when one of the books he’s juggling always slips from his arms to hit the floor with a none-too-subtle thwack.
No, Ben always wakes up before any of that. He always did, too, back when they were actually kids, back in their first go-around through the timeline. He always knows his brother is about to arrive in those brief few seconds before he actually does it. He senses it, somehow.
Or… well, he doesn’t, not really.
Still scares the shit out of him, though. Every damn time.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.”
Five, as always, appears exactly where he must have wanted to; this time it’s just above Ben’s mattress, legs crossed so that he lightly drops onto the foot of the bed already seated and comfortable. There’s only one book in his hands instead of the usual six or seven, and he’s in the midst of scribbling something onto its pages. Ben sits up and leans over, squinting through the dim light to try and read the spine.
He gives up after a few seconds. Five is bound to tell him anyway.
“You’re gonna end up impaled on a tentacle if you keep doing that, you know.”
Five hums in thought. He doesn’t look up. “Doing what?”
“Scaring me to death in the middle of the night.”
At that, Five tenses just a bit, almost imperceptibly, and Ben gets that cringing feeling he always gets when he accidentally makes a joke about death or alludes to the actual event or brushes it off. They always freeze, every single one of them, even though he’s been back and alive and well for nearly a month now. Even Klaus freezes, sometimes. Hell, even Five, who hadn’t even been around when he died.
Five doesn’t comment on it, though. His eyes flick up to meet Ben’s, all cold and discerning, and his attention is right back down to whatever he’s writing.
“Yeah, well, I’m hitting a roadblock here and I need someone to bounce ideas off of.”
Ben sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face to try and dispel the drowsiness.
Then he looks up at Five and — huh.
“Five, you look like shit.”
Five doesn’t even have the grace to look taken aback. He just snorts and, again, doesn’t look up from his writing. “Funny, I remember you being nicer.”
“I’m serious. You look like shit,” Ben insists, crossing his legs beneath the blanket and leaning forward to get a better look at him. “And that’s coming from someone who spent the last thirteen years with Klaus.”
“Well I suppose spending that long with only Klaus for company would affect—”
Finally, Five’s pen halts in its scribbling trail across the page of his book, and he looks up at Ben with the same cold, discerning look as before. Except now Ben can see the exhaustion painted in deep, broad strokes beneath his eyes, carved into the lines of his face. His hair is tousled all over, sticking straight up in the back like he fell asleep in an awkward position and forgot to check a mirror when he woke up. He’s also still in the uniform he’s been wearing all day — except he’s at least kicked off his shoes at some point and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, which really doesn’t help, only serves to make him look more rushed, more haggard.
“I’ve looked worse,” Five says.
And… well, he’s not wrong. He has looked worse, Ben knows. He looked much worse when he first jumped them here, but Ben doesn’t think so pale and catatonic that everyone thinks you’re dead is exactly the bar Five should be reaching for.
Before he can say as much, though, Five flips the book around in one quick movement, far too coordinated for someone who looks like they haven’t slept in weeks, and he hands it over to Ben.
“Check my math, would you? I’m always more prone to nitpicky little errors when I’m up this late.”
When I’m up this late, he says, as if he hasn’t been up this late or later every single night since they’ve been back. Ben frowns at him, decides not to argue it right at this moment, and looks down at the page.
It’s gonna take him a while to wake up enough that he’ll even be in the ballpark of understanding what’s being worked out in the margins of this Subatomic Properties of Spacetime book, but he’ll get there if Five helps him through it. Which Five definitely will.
“Okay,” he relents, and he doesn’t miss the way Five’s shoulders sag a bit in relief. “But can you do me a favor first?”
“Depends on what it is.”
“I mean, I haven’t had coffee in…” Ben trails off, puffs out his cheeks, “… what, thirteen, fourteen years? Sure could go for some right about now.”
Five narrows his eyes. “You want me to get you coffee?”
“You could get us both coffee,” Ben answers with a shrug. “Of course, only if you think you can get it without Dad finding out.”
At that, Five gets that look on his face. Ben knows it well by now. It’s that patronising, oh, you sweet, innocent thing look that would seem far less out of place on an actual fifty-eight-year-old’s face, one with battle scars and, like, an eyepatch or something.
There’s a half-smile to go with it, though, and Ben figures he’ll take what he can get.
Five disappears in a ripple of blue light, and Ben sighs, flips to the front page of Subatomic Properties of Spacetime, and gets to reading.
It happens like this.
Allison clings desperately to Vanya’s wrist, hoping against hope that the strain of whatever Five’s doing, whatever it is that he calls this particular kind of jump and all the advanced physics and the forces behind it, isn’t enough to tear her sister away.
No, actually, you know what? Screw hope. Screw physics. She won’t goddamn let it. She is not losing anyone else, not again.
She doesn’t need to cling as tightly to Five’s hand — his fingers are clutched so forcefully around the side of her palm that she swears he’s about to break the bones — but she does anyway.
And it’s a good thing she does. The next thing she’s aware of is a scream, and it takes her a second to realize it came from Five. It’s a sound Allison’s never heard from him in all her life, not when he was truly a child and he endured their father’s strictest and cruelest “training” over and over and over, not when he was actively bleeding out from a bullet wound in Harold Jenkins’ attic, not ever. It’s frustration for only a split second before it morphs into abject terror and pain that makes something in Allison’s chest ache —
The ground drops away from beneath her.
Her eyes burn against the nothing but blue, blue, white, blue, blue, blue, black, white, blue, blue, blue.
And Five’s hand goes slack.
Oh, God, she thinks, clinging for dear life. Oh, no, no, no, Five, don’t you dare —
Her stomach turns. Her ears pop. Her fingernails must be digging grooves into Five’s palm but she doesn’t care, she can’t let go of him, not when she doesn’t have the option of calling out for him, not when she wouldn’t be able to hear his response anyway, not with the warping and tearing of the fabric of reality all around them drowning out all else.
A hardwood floor so similar to the one they’d been standing on only seconds before comes rushing up to their feet, and not a single one of them is prepared for it. They collapse in a jumbled heap, a messy pile of arms and legs and elbows and groans and splintered wood, Klaus on top of Vanya on top of Luther and —
“Five, shit, Five!”
Allison doesn’t recognize the voice. Not at first. She blinks hazy dots from her vision and sees a teenage boy, and it takes her brain a moment to catch up with what she’s seeing.
A teenage Diego, too tall and lanky before puberty caught up with his growth spurts, trembling and trying to clamber onto legs that won’t cooperate. He shoves another teenage boy’s legs off of him — Klaus? Is that really Klaus? God, she’d forgotten how tiny Klaus used to be — and he turns and grabs onto the only one of their party that’s not wincing and groaning and trying to reorient themselves.
The blue swirls and bursting stars finally begin to recede from her eyes, and Allison can finally see, and —
Oh, fuck, no.
Unlike the rest of them, Five looks just as he did before the jump, still the same thirteen-but-not-thirteen-year-old that yanked them all through a hole in spacetime.
Except he’s lying flat on his back, one hand unmoving in Allison’s, the other lying open at his side. Except his eyes are closed. Except he’s so pale it’s like every ounce of life’s been drained out of him. Except there’s a thin rivulet of blood trailing from his nose and another from the corner of his mouth.
Diego’s got both hands on Five now, shaking him, holding either side of his face. “Five. Five.”
Allison kneels over him, too, now holding his hand in both of hers. God, he feels so cold.
“Five, come on,” Diego pleads with him. “Five.”
“He’s — he’s still alive,” comes another voice she only recognizes from memory. “Guys, I can’t — I can’t see him, I know I’d see him, he’s gotta still be —”
“Diego, check his pulse.”
That one’s Luther, she’s sure. The other must have been Klaus.
Diego presses two fingers just beneath Five’s jaw at the same instant that Allison shifts her grip on his hand, flits her fingertips down to his wrist, and she feels it at the same time Diego does.
A faint heartbeat. Barely a blip, but it’s there.
Diego had been hovering almost entirely over Five, and he all but collapses now, dropping his forearm and his head onto Five’s chest. “God damn it, you cannot keep doing this shit, man,” he whispers before lifting his head again. “We need to get him to a hospital.”
“We don’t even know what’s wrong with him!”
“Yeah, no shit, Klaus, which is why we need to get him to a hospital so we can find out.”
“We should take him home,” Luther speaks up. “Mom will know what to do.”
It’s a testament to the week they’ve had, Allison thinks, that he didn’t say Dad will know what to do. No one wants to think about Dad right now, even knowing what must be awaiting them when they get home. Assuming Five got them where they’re supposed to be — when they’re supposed to be.
Diego sniffs and drags a hand over his face, still staring down at Five, and he nods. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
“Holy shit,” Klaus murmurs, just loudly enough for them all to hear. “The world really has ended, huh?”
“Too soon, man.”
Allison swears her heart actually skips a beat.
Diego, who’d been opening his mouth to bite some angry comment at Klaus, snaps his mouth shut and whirls around so fast he nearly falls over. Allison drops Five’s hand in favor of bringing both hands over her mouth. Luther’s jaw hangs open, his face taking on a faint tinge of green.
Because Ben is sitting right there.
Not as she remembers him, not the age he was when he died, but all the way back on the day Five disappeared. They all look exactly as they did seventeen years ago, and Ben is no exception. Which means he’s short and baby-faced and thirteen and…
… and alive.
Allison wants to shove everyone and everything else aside and pull her little brother into the tightest hug she possibly can, and she is very, very clearly not alone in that. Luther won’t stop staring, open-mouthed and dumbstruck even with Vanya still cradled awkwardly in his arms. Diego’s finally lost the battle to stop tears from spilling over, and he quickly swipes at his cheeks. Klaus reaches out and winds an arm around Ben’s shoulders, and he lets out a startled, teary laugh when he actually makes contact.
And that’s it. That’s all they have time for. Ben hunches his shoulders a bit, evidently nervous in the face of their overwhelming relief at seeing him, and he says, “I can help carry him.”
“Y— yeah,” Diego says, shaking himself. “Yeah, okay.”
He flexes his arm, the one that not too long ago had been restricted to a sling, an arm that not too long ago had been padded with significantly more muscle.
He doesn’t dwell on it. “Ben, you get his legs, I got his arms. Luther, you got Vanya?”
Luther hitches Vanya up a little higher so that her head lolls against his shoulder. It’s a more cumbersome job now than it was before — at this age, Luther was so much smaller, only a few inches taller than Vanya, but he’s not lacking in strength. He doesn’t answer aloud, only nods.
“Okay.” Diego looks up at the rest them. “Okay. Let’s go home.”
When Vanya wakes, things are… hazy. She wakes to a cold feeling in her stomach, to the familiar dull whine of traffic muffled by walls. She wakes to the echoing tick — tick — tick of a clock that sounds like it’s moving far too slow, even through the dense fog that her thoughts have become. Her own heartbeat bumps by her ears like something separate, something outside of herself, and when she opens her eyes it’s to nothing but darkness.
Then there’s a flash of blue and the shh-woomph of Five blinking into a space that had been empty a few seconds before.
Her eyes adjust. The blue cloud burned into her retinas begins to fade. Five is standing beside her bed — and why is she in her bed at the manor? Why is she—?
Oh, God —
“F— Five? What—?”
What did I do?
She can’t get the words out past the baseball that’s lodged in her throat, she can’t breathe. The memories come rushing back to her too quickly, all jumbled up and out of order. The crumbling of stone, the manor falling to pieces. Leonard shouting, his one remaining eye manic and his mouth moving but no sound coming forth, nothing she can hear. Pogo, limp and lifeless. Knives swirling through the air. Allison crumpling to the floor of the cabin. Music and gunshots and screams and — and —
“Vanya, hey. Breathe. Focus on me.”
She can’t, she can’t, his voice is fading to a dull ripple beneath the tidal wave that is her own pulse, and —
There’s a flash of blue, but she doesn’t hear it this time.
She doesn’t hear anything.
Another flash, it couldn’t have been more than three seconds since the last one, and then Five is standing by her bedside again. This time he’s not alone. His hand is tight on someone’s upper arm, and by the time Vanya’s addled brain catches up with what she’s seeing, Allison has already shaken herself from Five’s grip and sat down on the bed right in front of Vanya. The mattress dips without sound.
It’s not Allison, though. Not as Vanya last saw her.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she says, and somehow her voice is the only thing Vanya can hear. Her tentative smile is exactly the same, her shining eyes are exactly the same. “Vanya, it’s okay, I’m right here. You’re okay.”
“I’m — I can’t — God, I’m sorry —”
Allison reaches one hand up to the side of her face, and that’s all it takes. Vanya crumbles. She falls into her sister, grasps onto any part of her she can reach, clutches the back of her pajama shirt and buries her face into Allison’s shoulder. It’s the ugly sort of crying that she hates, the kind that makes her feel like she’s drowning, like every gasping hiccup is only a fraction of the air that she needs.
But Allison keeps her steady through it. She runs a hand up and down her back, holds the back of Vanya’s head, presses her cheek to Vanya’s ear.
“You’re okay,” she says again, and again and again and again. Her voice becomes a rhythm, a steady backdrop to Vanya’s frantically hammering pulse, and it gently swells until that’s all she can hear: “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.”
The mattress dips again. Vanya tilts her head, just barely, just enough to look over Allison’s shoulder and see a hazy image through her tears of Five climbing onto the bed. He sits far enough away that he’s just out of arm’s reach, cross-legged and staring nonchalantly down at his hands. Every once in a while he glances up toward Vanya’s door, eyes suddenly sharp and shoulders tensed, before he relaxes and looks down again.
He keeps watch, sitting there in perfect silence until Vanya’s sobbing eases to sniffles, until exhaustion pulls her eyes closed, until she feels the comforter being pulled up over her shoulders without quite remembering how she got horizontal again in the first place.
Her last memory before sleep takes her is a touch, feather light on her upper arm. Not Allison’s.
“We’ll figure this out,” Five says, but whether he meant for her to hear it or not, she has no idea. “I’ll figure this out. Promise.”
Three nights after the jump, Five appears in Luther’s bedroom just as the clock on his bedside table clicks from 3:41 to 3:42.
Luther doesn’t mind, seeing as he was up already anyway, but the way Five seems to stumble through the teleportation — something he’s never seen Five do — is definitely a cause for concern. There’s also the way he grips the bedpost by Luther’s feet, leaning into it like he can’t quite stand without the support.
There’s also the fact that he’s awake at all.
“In the flesh, yeah.”
Luther frowns. “Hey, should you be using your powers? You know, so soon after you…?”
He doesn’t try to finish the question, and he knows he doesn’t need to. After you nearly died trying to jump us all into the past probably goes without saying.
And in any case, Five doesn’t address the question at all. Instead he just utters two words that drop a stone into Luther’s gut, two words that flip some sort of switch in his brain from anxious about Five to just plain anxious and dialed up to a hundred.
For a second he’s not sure what to say, or if he should say anything at all, but his mouth goes ahead and works out a response before his brain is even aware of putting a response together. “She is?”
Five shrugs. “Not technically. She woke up. Then she fell back asleep. But she’s not, you know, unconscious anymore.”
“Is…” he trails off, looks down at his hands. Breathe. “Is she okay?”
“She will be.”
Luther nods. “Okay.” He nods again, feeling ridiculous, like he’s a bobblehead or a dumbstruck child, not an adult. He peels his tongue from the roof of his mouth and asks, “Um — is there anything…?”
“You can do?” Five finishes for him, raising an eyebrow. He’s got both hands on the footboard now, holding himself up. And Luther, despite all the anxiety over Vanya and what he’ll do when he sees her again, can’t help but notice that Five looks awful, somehow even worse than when he stumbled out of the medical wing yesterday. Five yanks him from that train of thought the next second, though. “Steer clear of her for a bit. Or — as much as you can without Dad noticing it, anyway”
Luther blinks. “That’s… that’s all?”
“Yeah, Luther, that’s all.”
He nods, chewing on his cheek. “Okay,” he says, because really, what else could he have expected? For how long, he wants to ask, but he doesn’t. Not yet. “I can do that.”
“Good. See you at breakfast.”
“Five, are you—?”
His brother disappears without a word, and Luther sags back into the bed with a frustrated sigh.
When they were kids all those years ago, Five had never really given much thought to what kind of training the others were being put through.
At the time it was enough to test his own abilities, to prove himself. It was enough, enduring every last one of Reginald’s strictest regimens, blinking and blinking and blinking until his legs couldn’t carry him anymore, and then getting back up and doing it again, farther and faster and better, pushing himself until he vomited or blacked out. It was enough, the sick satisfaction he used to get from glaring up at his father and smiling, thinking, I’m better than anything you can throw at me. Nice try, old man, but I can handle it.
He won’t make the same mistake this time.
For one thing, he could not possibly care less what Reginald thinks this time around.
The Reginald of his memory was always a regal and imposing figure, towering over him, cruel and demanding and emotionless but smart.
Now not only does Five know he’s smarter than the old man — he suspected as much as a child, or at least thought he had the potential to be smarter, one day, maybe — but now he knows more than the old man does, he’s seen more, he’s done more. The old man isn’t even an old man anymore, not really. What is he in 2002, sixty? Seventy? A bare decade or so older than Five is, and given that Reginald’s spent a life in luxury and power without a care in the world, he might as well be a child.
His father isn’t what matters, though. His brothers and sisters, they’re the ones he needs to worry about.
It’s the mistake they made the first go around.
The mistake he made.
He blinks into their bedrooms after lights out, checks on them when he can’t sleep. He pays particular attention to Vanya, of course, obviously, and perhaps a little more attention to Ben that he should. Sue him. The others haven’t seen Ben in thirteen years, but Five hadn’t seen him in so long that he’d been starting to forget what his face looked like.
When one of them disappears for training, he follows at a distance. He knows how to stay hidden, how to tail someone without being spotted. When their training goes particularly awry, when they return trembling and panting and with tears in their eyes, Five makes a mental note to visit them that night. He is by far the least qualified person to comfort one of his siblings, he knows that, but he’s also the only one who can sneak into their rooms without dear old Dad finding out.
And besides, sometimes his silent company is enough. Sometimes his rattling on about physics and spacetime is enough. It’s got to be better for them than suffering through it alone, at any rate.
Five knows that much.
Still, despite all his expertise, despite all his Commission training, it takes him two full weeks of tailing Reginald before Five can figure out where the hell he keeps taking Klaus for his training. All the others he’s figured out, but not Klaus. Not yet.
When he does figure it out, he almost wants to hit himself.
Of course it’s the goddamn cemetery.
He waits, crouching behind a tombstone and listening, waits for the sound of the mausoleum grate closing with a screech. He waits until Reginald starts up the family car. He waits until the sound of crunching gravel beneath the tires fades to nothing. He waits another fifteen minutes, just to be sure.
Then he takes a step forward, and the dim light of the twilit cemetery gives way to absolute, crushing darkness.
“Yeah, it’s me.” Five widens his eyes, tries to get them to adjust. It’s absolutely no use. There’s not a speck of light in here for his eyes to pick up.
“Please tell me that’s actually you.”
“What? I just said it—” Five starts to say, and then he realizes. “Oh. Yeah, no, it’s actually me. I haven’t died. Just checking in on my little brother during his training, that’s all.”
God, this dark is annoying. He hadn’t thought any place could be this dark, not since— well, since. He clenches his fists, focuses, and the fabric of spacetime obediently bends and twists, tears through one of its seams, ready for Five to jump through. But he doesn’t jump through it. He just lets the blue light of his power wash over the interior of the mausoleum, lets the power coalesce around his fists and stay there.
“Oh. Yikes,” Five says when he gets a half-decent look at his surroundings. It’s exactly how he should have expected it to look, really, it’s a mausoleum, for God’s sake. All dank and dusty and grey, thrown into an even eerier relief, he suspects, with the blue light.
Then his eyes fall on Klaus, and — damn it, he simultaneously loves and hates how young they all look in this timeline. Loves it, because now they no longer resemble the faces he’d seen all those decades ago, the bodies he’d found staring sightlessly at a dust-choked sky. Loves it because the mere sight of them no longer knocks the air from his lungs.
But he hates, hates, how helpless it makes them look. Especially now.
Klaus, tiny wide-eyed Klaus, sits huddled in the corner of the mausoleum with his knees pulled up to his chest and one arm wrapped tight around his legs. The other hand is in the midst of tugging through his hair. There are tear tracks running down his cheeks.
And he doesn’t look at Five. Not for any longer than a second at a time, anyway, before his eyes dart toward something else, something to Five’s right and then his left.
Five lets himself down onto the mausoleum floor, as disgusting and dust-covered as it is, and he says, “I’m gonna take a shot in the dark and say we’re not alone in here.”
Klaus brings those wide, shining eyes to him, and Five ignores the pang that causes.
God, they’re all so fucking small.
“No, we’re, uh— we’re not.”
Five nods, chews on his cheek. “You okay?”
At that, Klaus actually barks out a laugh, clipped and hysterical. “Oh, yeah, I’m just— I’m just peachy keen, little bro.”
For once, Five refrains from the automatic, not your little bro, and instead his brow furrows as he asks, “Is this what your training was back then, too?”
He has to ask. There’s always the chance they’ve altered some things without realizing it. A butterfly flaps its wings, yadda yadda yadda. But Klaus sniffs, scrubs uselessly at his nose, and nods. Five squashes the feeling of disappointment that brings, the knowledge that this was happening all those years ago when Klaus was actually a little kid and Five, oblivious, was too focused on blinking further and faster and better to notice.
“When does he let you out?”
Klaus lets out a miserable breath, shaking his head and tugging his hand through his hair again. “Once he thinks I’m not — I’m not afraid of —” his voice cuts off, and rather than say it aloud he just peels his arm away from his legs and waves vaguely at their surroundings, at the empty-but-not mausoleum.
Five tries to ignore the feeling of something creeping over his shoulder. It’s in his imagination. They can’t touch him, not unless Klaus goes through a whole lot of effort to let them.
“Are you? Afraid of them?”
The way Klaus curls into himself is answer enough. Actually, if he’s being honest with himself, everything about Klaus since Five’s set foot in here has been answer enough.
“But you’ve seen ghosts before,” Five says. “Hell, you talked to Ben for years.”
“Ben’s Ben, Five.”
Well. He supposes that's fair, but…
“Klaus. Look at me,” Five says, because now his little brother has ducked his head down toward his knees, both hands in his hair and his eyes screwed shut. He at least does look up at Five, but his eyes dart toward the back corner. “Not them, Klaus, look at me.”
He does, even though it seems to take him a herculean effort to do so.
“There you go. Look at me, and pay attention. Are you paying attention?”
His thirteen-but-thirty-year-old brother still has his hands in his hair, digging into his scalp, the heels of his palms pressed into his temples. Tears are still flowing freely down his cheeks, his jaw shaking. But he nods, and Five waits another second to be sure he’s really listening before he continues.
“I am the scariest thing in this mausoleum,” Five says, with enough severity and certainty that he hopes the message still comes across, even coming from this pathetic thirteen-year-old body. “Not them. Not even you. Me. I’ve done worse things than any ghost you’ll ever see. I will do worse things than any ghost you’ll ever see. And I’m not dead, so I can touch whoever I want without needing to go through you first, unlike these assholes.”
He waves a hand dismissively at whatever ghosts Klaus must be seeing, not knowing and not particularly caring whether they can hear him or not.
“They can’t do shit.”
Klaus watches him, and his eyes dart to the left. “Yeah, but they still — talk. They still talk and — and scream and…”
Five wilts a bit at that. There’s not much he can do about the dead screaming in his brother’s ear, not much except talk and hope he’s loud enough to drown them out.
“Look, it’s… it’s fine,” Klaus says, making a valiant effort to sound like his thirty-year-old self. “I’ll just — you know, fake it. When Dad comes back around I’ll act like I’m fine, and he’ll let me out.”
“Did that work last time?”
That earns him a glare. “No, but I was fucking thirteen then. I can fake it better now.”
“Yeah, I… I was too—” he cuts off, winces and presses the heel of his palm into his temple with a little more force. “Fuck, they never stop.” He shakes his head. “I was too afraid then. I’m — I’m better, now. It’s… not as bad.”
Not as bad.
This, Klaus curled up in the corner of the mausoleum and barely holding it together is not as bad as it was when he was actually thirteen years old?
Five bites the inside of his cheek, clenches and unclenches his fist. Anger is familiar. It’s usually a bit more cold, though, a bit more calculating, a bit more distant than this. He hasn’t really been angry, not really, in a very long time — years and years of isolation have a way of numbing that sort of thing. He doesn’t think he’s quite gotten back to that sort of visceral, fiery anger yet, not the kind he used to feel as a kid.
But he’s close.
He could kill their father, technically. It would be easy. Slip something into his food, reprogram Mom to forget his shellfish allergy. A pen to the throat would be messy, but quick. It would make things a lot simpler, give all of his siblings more room to breathe and to heal and to help Vanya become a nicely adjusted and well loved person in control of her powers.
But it would also bring the full force of the Commission down on them before Reginald’s body would even be cold. That big of a change would be far too noticeable.
“Well,” Five says, shaking himself out of his murderous thoughts. “Is it better with or without the light?”
He lifts his hands, as if there’s any other source of light he could possibly be referring to, and Klaus’ eyes widen. “With. Definitely with.”
Five nods, drops his hands into his lap again. “Okay.” He’ll have to bring a lantern along next time. Keeping this up is going to be tedious. “Then I guess I’m sticking around for a while.”
At first, Luther thinks that the first visit Five pays to his bedroom in the middle of the night is going to be the last. He assumes Five came to warn him to steer clear of Vanya, and that was all. He assumes it won’t happen again.
But it does.
Five visits every so often over the following weeks, always at night.
The timing differs, though. Sometimes he appears right as Luther’s getting into bed, already mid-sentence in some lecture about string theory or the butterfly effect or some spatiotemporal what-do-you-call-it, so Luther just sighs and sits back and listens. Other nights he appears at midnight, or at three or four in the morning, looking like he just got out of bed himself, bags under his eyes and all. Those nights he’s a little less talkative — but that’s not saying all that much, for Five. He still goes on about their next move, what they can afford to change in the timeline and what they can’t, whether his former employers might be storming through the front door any minute now.
Tonight’s one of the former, which unfortunately means that Luther has absolutely no hope of keeping up, which even more unfortunately means that he can’t help letting his mind wander.
Things have been… better, with Vanya.
Not great, but better. They’ve spoken maybe three sentences to each other in the last few weeks, but she hasn’t started crying or making the walls shake at the mere sight of him, which is a step up from what he’d been expecting. A few nights ago he approached her with every intent to say the words that he should have said the very first day she woke up, but he’d found that his tongue just wouldn’t cooperate.
Two simple little words, and instead what had come out was, I — uh, I’m glad you’re okay.
He’d debated reaching out, laying a hand on her shoulder, but he aborted the movement before it was any more than a twitch of his arm. And she took his words well enough, he guesses, with a tiny smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and a murmured thanks. She may even have understood what he really meant to say.
But that doesn’t excuse him, he knows. He’ll still have to say it. After all, that’s the whole point of all this, isn’t it? They have to be better.
He has to be better.
He looks up at Five, who by now has fallen silent and started furiously jotting down… something, Luther would be lying if he said he had any clue what, all over the pages of the textbook in his lap, his feet propped up on Luther’s desk.
Luther opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again.
Then, before he can talk himself out of it, he says, “I’m sorry, Five.”
The pen freezes, still poised over the page, and Five raises his eyebrows and blinks at this textbook, like he thinks he heard wrong. Then he shoots Luther a look, one eyebrow raised.
“Why? What’d you do this time?”
“Nothing this time,” Luther answers. “It’s… last time. You know. Vanya. The apocalypse.”
Again Five only blinks.
“It was my fault,” Luther continues, because apparently Five’s not going to make this easy for him. “All of it, the apocalypse, it was all my fault. And I’m—” he pauses, gulps. “I’m sorry.”
For a second Luther is absolutely certain that Five’s going to reject the apology, that all he’s going to say is yes, Luther, it was your fault and frankly I don’t care how many times you apologize, too little too late, it won’t be enough to undo the decades I spent in an apocalyptic wasteland.
Instead, though, Five just lets out a heavy sigh. He runs both hands over his face, up and down, looking more and more tired by the second, the bags under his eyes more pronounced. For a moment, Luther tries to imagine him at fifty-eight — maybe he had a beard, Luther thinks, and he’s used to scrubbing at his face to wake himself up.
Luther still can’t picture it.
“For the love of…” Five mutters to himself, looking up at the ceiling like he wishes someone would strike him down right there in Luther’s chair, before he turns those eyes on Luther again. “I already had to have this conversation with Vanya, and I figured that’d be the end of it since, you know, she’s the one who actually blew up the moon. But since the Universe clearly hates me and my siblings are all a bunch of emotional idiots, I guess here we are. So tell me, Luther, how in the world do you figure the apocalypse is your fault?”
Luther stares at him. Doesn’t he get it?
It’s only been keeping him up every single night, night after night, wondering what might have happened if he’d acted differently. Wondering if he’s always going to have the weight of the apocalypse on his shoulders.
“Because she wouldn’t have done any of that if it wasn’t for me.”
“Yes, she would have—”
“Don’t,” Luther cuts him off, shaking his head. “Don’t make excuses for me. I hurt her, Five.” He stares down at his hands in his lap, wringing them together, and now that he’s gotten some of the words out, the rest tumble from his mouth before he can rein them in. “She was afraid, and she didn’t know who to go to, and she went to me, and I — I should have listened to her. I hurt her, and I just locked her up in that — that cage, exactly like Dad did, and I didn’t let up when everyone else told me to let her out. I mean — yeah, Five, Vanya was the bomb that set off the end of the world, but she never would have blown up at all if I hadn’t lit the fuse.”
There’s a moment in which he just stares at his hands, unable to look at his brother as he tries to gain some control over the sharp lump that’s risen into his throat. An effect of this younger body, he tells himself. He’s fine. He is. He bites down on the inside of his cheek, hard, which doesn’t really help all that much.
Then Five says, “Jesus, Luther, that is the stupidest analogy I’ve ever heard.”
Luther blinks, startled out of his reverie, and he directs a wide-eyed look at Five, but his brother doesn’t give him the chance to say anything else.
“‘I lit the fuse,’” he mutters, rolling his eyes, and Luther’s too stunned to point out the fact that he picked up the analogy from Five, on that last day before they jumped back in time. Five doesn’t seem to remember. “I mean, who built the damn bomb, Luther? Who packed it full of gunpowder and pressurized the damn thing? Hell, who groomed you up to be the perfect possible person to set it off?”
“Don’t answer that, it was rhetorical. Obviously I meant Dad, among… among others.” He breaks eye contact, just for half a beat, just long enough for Luther to notice. “Look, apologize to Vanya, sure. Locking her up was a bad move. But don’t apologize for the whole damn apocalypse. That, Number One, is one responsibility you can’t take all on your own. Plenty of others had a hand in it.”
Luther gulps. “I am still sorry, though,” he insists, quietly, eyes on his brother. “Because I did have a hand in it, even if I wasn’t the only one. I mean, all that time you spent alone—”
“— is irrelevant,” Five cuts him off with such a sudden intensity that Luther actually snaps his mouth shut.
For a second, at least. He knows deflection when he sees it. Before he might have left it alone, maybe, but now… Now they have to be better. He has to be a better older brother. Even if this particular younger brother is almost three decades older than him.
“Yes, Luther, it is,” Five tells him, his voice carrying the undercurrent of a growl. He grinds his teeth as he glares at some vague point on the far wall.
“Because we’re going to stop it. Obviously.”
“No one else is going to have to go through it,” Five insists. “It’s irrelevant.”
Five kicks his feet off the desk and stands, straightening his blazer, the textbook tucked under one arm.
“Apologize to Vanya,” Five tells him, no longer looking at him. “That’ll be a good step.”
Five turns and steps through a shimmering blue light, and he’s gone before Luther can say another word.
“I think something’s wrong with Five.”
Diego lounges back on his bed, lobbing his navaja up into the air so that it spins end over end above him, catching it by the handle and snapping it shut, opening it and lobbing it up into the air again. Klaus is lying on the floor, his legs propped straight up on the wall as he reads a magazine. While the blade’s spinning above him, Diego turns his head to raise an eyebrow at Luther standing in his doorway.
“Okay,” Luther relents as Diego catches the blade again. “I think something else is wrong with Five.”
“Other than the usual?” Klaus asks.
“Other than the usual.”
Diego frowns. The tiny, not Hulked-out version of his brother hasn’t moved from the doorway. His arms are tight over his chest, his shoulders hunched. He’s looking like he wants to be anywhere but here, like he wants to be talking about anything but this.
Really, Diego wants to let him stew for a bit. But instead he folds the blade up again and sits up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. It’s a lot harder to be a dick to Luther when he looks like a kid, which — yeah, dumbass, he scolds himself, you’re supposed to be less of a dick anyway, to everyone. Otherwise this was for nothing.
He shakes the thought away. Rome wasn’t built in a day. He’s working on it.
Luther frowns. Klaus shoots him a look.
“You do?” Luther asks.
Diego leans forward, his elbows on his knees as he rubs a kink out of his neck. Shit, no wonder he ended up with upper back problems as an adult. How long had he been lying there throwing knives until Luther snapped him out of it? Why the hell didn’t Klaus say something to him earlier?
He looks up at Luther and gestures toward the bed with a nod. “Would you stop hovering in the door like that? It’s freaky, man.”
Luther’s shoulders relax a fraction of an inch, and Diego clamps down on the urge to roll his eyes as Luther carefully steps into the room, like he’s worried that putting his foot down in the wrong place might set off a booby trap.
His brother, being cautious instead of bulldozing around like he owns the place.
The world really has ended.
Luther sits down on the bed next to him, Klaus drops his magazine onto his chest, and Diego tells them both, “He hasn’t been sleeping.”
“You noticed?” Luther asks.
“Yeah, I’m not an idiot. Everyone’s noticed.”
With the possible exception of Dad, not a single person in the house hasn’t noticed the way Five zones out all the time, the dark circles under his eyes, the fidgeting. Even Mom picked up on it, for God’s sake. She only asked him if he’d prefer a new mattress or a new bedspread, but still. She noticed.
Diego adds, “He’s been hopping into my room every once in a while after lights out. I think he does it to avoid sleeping.”
Both Luther and Klaus, at the exact same time, ask, “Really?”
Diego raises an eyebrow, looking from one of them to the other. “Uh… yeah, why? Is it that surprising?”
“No, it’s just, he’s been doing the same thing with me,” Klaus says. “Doing his teleport-y thing and visiting the — my room in the middle of the night.”
Luther’s brow creases. “Yeah, me, too.”
Diego frowns, the beginnings of an idea already tugging at his brain, an idea he very much does not like. “How often?”
Luther shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe once a week?”
Diego’s eyes go from Luther to Klaus, who just nods. “Yeah, same here.”
And, miracle of miracles, Luther gives no resistance to the impromptu interrogation. His eyes drift to the side as he thinks, and he answers, “Uh, two nights ago, so what was that — Tuesday? Then before that it was Wednesday, I think. Before that it was after I pulled my hamstring during training, which makes it… three Thursdays ago?”
“You?” Diego asks, looking to Klaus.
“Every Monday,” Klaus answers right away. “Oh, and there was… last Friday night? That, too.”
“So basically once a week, and he doesn’t tend to visit more than one of us on the same night,” Diego says. His heart sinks. “Shit.”
“What does it matter if…?” Luther trails off, then raises his eyebrows. “Oh.”
“He’s rotating,” Luther says.
“Through all six of us?” Klaus asks.
Diego sighs, massaging his temple and wanting to kick himself for not noticing this before. “Which means he hasn’t slept a single night all the way through since we got back.”
“I mean, we don’t know for sure, right?” Klaus asks. “We’d have to confirm it with the others.”
“Nah,” Diego says, shaking his head. “Two’s a coincidence, three’s a pattern. Plus, we know he’s been visiting Vanya when Dad doesn’t know, and the only time that can be—”
“— is at night,” Luther finishes with a defeated sigh of his own, dropping his head into his hands.
“Shit,” Klaus breathes, staring at the ceiling.
“What are we supposed to do?” Luther asks.
Diego shrugs. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”
Luther lifts his head out of his hands. “No,” he says, all firm and authoritative, because apparently you can take the giant ape arms away and give him a good reality check in the form of an almost-apocalypse, but you just can’t fix stubborn. He shakes his head. “We have to do something.”
“Well, I don’t know what you got planned,” Diego says, “because if you think giving the pint sized sixty-year-old assassin an intervention is gonna end well, you’re out of your goddamn mind.”
“We wait,” Klaus speaks up, still staring thoughtfully at the ceiling.
Both Luther and Diego frown down at him, and there’s a beat of silence before Luther echoes, “We wait?”
Klaus nods. “Guys, I hate to break it to you, but no one in this house ever opens up to anyone else, not unless… you know, unless they can’t take it anymore. Sometimes not even then. Face it, we’re a bunch of emotionally stunted wrecks. And yeah, we all grew up with some seriously screwed up lives” — and Diego can’t help but notice that Luther only tilts his head in agreement to that, no knee-jerk defense of Dad to be found — “but we at least grew up with people around. Five didn’t even have that.”
“You’re saying he’s not gonna admit there’s a problem,” Diego says.
“And that is the first step,” Klaus says, pointing at him.
“So we just wait?” Luther asks, sounding profoundly uncomfortable with the idea. “Until he does?”
Klaus lifts up the magazine again, popping it back open with a dramatic little pop and holding it over his face. As he returns to whatever article he’d been reading, he casually adds, “Well, that, or you can try talking to him. But, uh — maybe hide anything that can be used as a weapon first.”
Diego rolls his eyes. “Nah, you’re right. We’ll just… wait. He’ll hit a breaking point, and we’ll just have to figure it out then.”
The breaking point doesn’t come that day, or the next, or the next.
Even though they’re all looking out for it. Even though Diego mentioned it to Allison, who mentioned it to Vanya, who then passed the message along to Ben, who’d already heard it from Klaus.
And Five keeps visiting, once a night, to one of their rooms. They each try to breach the subject of sleep with him, once or twice, but they all give up on that as soon as it becomes very clear that crossing any imaginary line of Five’s results in him blinking right out of the room with a subtle insult or, sometimes, without a word at all.
So they give up on talking, and they wait. Five can’t be sleeping more than an hour or two a night, but at least his insomnia-fueled escapades only lead him to hanging out with one of his siblings. They all agree it could be much worse.
It’s not until two full months after they jumped back in time, three weeks after the conversation in Diego’s bedroom, that Five’s nighttime habits start to affect him during the day.
It’s the morning. They’re all sitting around the table, silently eating breakfast.
Diego keeps glancing up at the others, as he does every morning. They’re all carrying on the charade that this is just another perfectly normal day for them, and Dad’s sitting at the head of the table without a clue that every kid at this table as already grown up, some more than others.
The goddamn oblivious ass.
Vanya’s got one of her hands under the table, probably holding onto Ben’s. Klaus keeps fidgeting as always; Diego can just barely hear his heel tapping out a staccato beat on floor. Luther and Allison are doing the same thing he is, glancing up at the others, checking up on how everyone’s doing in the only way they can with Dad sitting nearby.
It’s how they notice Five, his elbow on the table and his cheek in hand, closing his eyes.
His shoulders slump a bit. His spoon is still held steady in his other hand, so he’s not quite asleep, not really. Just dozing, maybe. His eyebrow twitches.
Then he jerks awake so suddenly that it makes half the table jump, his sharp inhale loud enough to catch all of their attention. Including Dad’s, which — shit. Five doesn’t seem to notice that, though, or notice anything, as he jumps up to his feet and pushes his chair back with a screech, the spoon gripped tight in his fist like he intends to use it as a weapon.
That was Vanya, but she’s quickly echoed by Allison, and then:
“Number Five, what is the meaning of this?”
Five’s looking between all of their faces, his eyes wide and panicked, chest heaving, and he flat out ignores Dad. Every inch of him is shaking, and then —
Then he’s gone. In a flash of blue, he disappears, knocking into the chair on his way out. It tips and tips and tips, smacking back into the floor well after Five’s already vacated the room.
“Grace!” Dad shouts, making Diego’s blood boil. “See to Number Five.”
And Mom, of course, just smiles and heads off in the direction of Five’s bedroom.
Diego has a feeling she’s not gonna find him. Not until he wants to be found.
“Five, are you—?”
“I’m fine, Vanya.”
“— was nothing, I just startled myself. Overtraining, I guess.”
“But Five —”
He disappears before she can get another word in.
“Hey, you know if you want to talk about it—”
Allison blinks, staring at the space Five had been occupying only a second ago.
“… Or not.”
“You’re seriously gonna keep acting like nothing’s up, huh?”
“Something is up, Diego, or have you forgotten that we have an apocalypse to—”
“Yeah, yeah, stop the apocalypse, whatever. You know damn well that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Damn. That’s a new record, Diego thinks. In and out in about ten seconds.
Every Monday evening, Reginald Hargreeves takes Klaus to the cemetery for his weekly “one-on-one” training. And every Monday evening for the last eight Mondays, Five has shown up as soon as the old bastard was gone, and he’s shown up toting a lantern and bag of snacks.
It helps. The light helps. The company helps. The ghosts — or the twisted, desperate versions of ghosts that hang around here, anyway — they don’t leave, they’re always still there, screaming at him, begging him for help that he just can’t give, but at least they’re not the only thing he’s seeing anymore. They’re not the only thing he’s hearing anymore.
Five just being there, it’s helped.
… Which is why Klaus feels horribly, horribly guilty for what he’s about to do.
The second Five appears, he can tell something’s up. Klaus can see it in the crease in his forehead, the way his eyes scan over Klaus from head to toe.
“Me? Oh — uh, yeah, I’m good,” Klaus answers, tapping his toes on the mausoleum floor, flitting his fingers along his knees. “I’m just… I don’t know, nervous, I guess? They’re being” — he waves a hand at the ghosts — “loud, you know. Demanding. Mean. The usual, just a little extra.”
And, well… It’s not a lie, technically. It’s just not the reason.
Oh, no. Bad. Five looks suspicious. Shit, okay, speed it up, Klaus.
“Hey! I had an idea.”
Five raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yeah. What if — um, what if we left the mausoleum? Just for a little bit.”
Ah. There it is. Five’s shoulders relax. Klaus is asking for a favor now, one that he knows is a big ask. Plenty of reason to be nervous.
“Klaus, you know when he gets back—”
“I have to be here, I know,” Klaus agrees, nodding so quickly it almost feels like a spasm. “But just for a little while, you know? Just until he gets back, I know it’s not gonna be at least for another three hours, that’s the shortest it ever was. We have plenty of time.”
Five frowns. “If he gets back—”
“You can just teleport me right back before that happens,” Klaus cuts in. “Come on, little bro—”
“Not your little bro—”
“We can go wherever you want. We can to the library! You like the library, right? All those books! And they’re closed by now, so we’ll have the place all to ourselves!”
Five lets out a sigh, massaging his temple. Klaus is wearing him down, and he knows it. It’s definitely because Five hates sitting around in this mausoleum almost as much as Klaus does — not that he’d ever admit it, but Klaus can always tell. It’s the way he shifts around, the way he kind of curls in on himself when he sits down, the way he also hates not having light in here.
“Just tonight,” Five tells him, and Klaus heaves a sigh of relief. “Just this one time. We can’t push it. You said the shortest time was three hours?”
“Yeah! Yeah, three hours—”
“You get one and a half. Then we’re right back here.”
“You got it, buddy, hour and a half,” Klaus agrees without hesitation, already making to stand up. “Did I ever mention you’re my favorite brother? Not that I have favorites, obviously, but if I did, you would sure as hell be in the running.”
“Stop talking,” Five says, grabbing onto Klaus’ arm. “And hold your breath.”
The mausoleum floor drops away from beneath him. All the air leaves his lungs.
“— do,” he coughs as their feet hit the library floor. “Shit, a little warning!”
They’re here, right on the first floor of the library. The place is backlit with the dim after-hours lighting and the moonlight streaming in through the windows. It smells like paper and carpet cleaner and not a hint of mausoleum mildew.
“That was the warning, moron,” Five says, and the little shit’s smirking as Klaus shakes himself out of his grip and then stumbles, dizzy from the teleportation, and latches onto Five’s shoulder. Or — that’s half the reason he grabs Five’s shoulder, anyway. “And besides, that’s far from the worst jump you’ve…”
His voice trails off. The smirk falls from his face.
Klaus determinedly ignores the queasy, nervous feeling in his stomach.
“What the hell is this?”
All of them are here, just like they said they would be. Ben and Vanya and Diego and Allison and Luther, all sitting around on the library lobby couches, all looking at Five.
“Hey, Five,” Vanya says, giving a hesitant little wave.
“Why are you all here?” Five asks, taking a step back. Klaus keeps a grip on his shoulder. “How are you all here? The — the library’s closed.”
Diego snorts. “Come on, you think I don’t know how to pick a lock?”
Allison sighs. “Five, just… come here and sit with us, would you?”
Five tries to take another step back, but Klaus holds him steady.
“Idiots, all of you, every single goddamn — let go of me, asshole, I’m… I’m leaving,” he tells Klaus, his voice shaking. “I’m leaving, and you’re not coming with me, you can find some other goddamn way to get back—”
“Five, please,” Vanya cuts in. “We’re worried about you.”
And Klaus wouldn’t have believed it possible, but Vanya’s tiny little voice somehow gets Five to falter. He hesitates, just for a second, his tirade cut off mid-sentence, and he finally gives up on trying to shake free from Klaus’ grip and instead glares at each of them in turn.
He doesn’t sound angry, or at least not just angry, Klaus thinks. There’s more disbelief there, and genuine confusion, like Five can’t possibly comprehend why they’d be worried about him. It makes something in Klaus’ chest deflate.
“Seriously,” Luther says, looking as guilty as Klaus feels.
“What, because — because I fell asleep at breakfast?” Five asks, throwing his hands up, smiling like he’s about to start laughing. “Because I had a bad dream? You all really think I’m going to—”
“Five, come on, man,” Diego interrupts. “We’re doing this, right here, right now. Just go with it, yeah?”
“There’s nothing to do,” Five spits, and damn, he’s really shaking now, trembling like a leaf under Klaus’ hand. “Don’t you get that? There’s nothing any of you can do.”
Without warning he drives his elbow straight into Klaus’ gut, and Klaus doubles over, both arms curling around his stomach — damn, the kid’s got some muscle — as Five takes one single step forward and disappears in a ripple of blue.
Klaus wheezes, “Yup. Okay. Yeah. I, uh… I guess I deserved that.”
“That went well,” Allison says.
Diego sighs and drops his head back on the couch. “Told you, didn’t I?”
“Well, talking to him didn’t work, and the intervention was a bust,” Ben speaks up. “I don’t suppose anyone had a Plan C?”
“Not really. And, uh, Diego,” Klaus says, leaning over with his hands on his knees. God damn can Five pack a punch. “Any chance you know how to pick the lock on a mausoleum grate, too? My ride just left.”
Diego rolls his eyes and gets up, and as they start walking together toward the library exit, Klaus hears Allison still talking to the others.
“We have to do something,” she says. “He can’t keep going on like this.”
The thing is, Five’s… trying.
He’s trying to prevent the apocalypse after his absolutely colossal failure the first time around. He’s trying to help his siblings along the way, because even though Vanya seems well adjusted, and even though she seems to be getting the hang of her powers in her little secret practice sessions, and even though she seems happier and less tense around all of them—
Well. Five won’t rule out — he can’t afford to rule out — that the Commission could just send someone else to push all the right buttons again and erase all the work he’s done.
Then it’s poof, goodbye world.
Hello, crumbling ruins and ash and death.
He’s trying to keep the world in one piece. He’s trying to make sure Ben stays in one piece, too, since he still hasn’t forgotten those lines in Vanya’s book, the lines that had destroyed any hope he had of maybe finding his last remaining brother all those decades ago. He’s trying to do all of this while making sure their dear old Dad is none the wiser.
He’s also, though less obsessively, trying to acclimate.
It’s… slow going.
He really, really misses Dolores.
He stops blinking into his siblings’ rooms at night.
They sometimes try to come check on him, but it’s sporadic. The idiots have to sneak around to do it, not like him.
And his refusal to leave his room anymore, unfortunately, results in hours upon hours of staring up at his ceiling, or out his window. It results in him poring over the same calculations over and over and over again, which is bad, because his addled, sleep-deprived mind is so prone to errors that he ends up ruining weeks worth of work with a few misplaced decimals.
His room is just so goddamn quiet.
It’s been two months, three weeks, and four days since he dropped onto the manor’s lawn in front of all his siblings. Two months, two weeks, and four days since he pulled off a backward jump again, and this time with six passengers.
Two and a half months of… maybe two hour’s sleep a night. If that.
Well. Until it’s not.
Five doesn’t know where he is, but it’s absolutely suffocatingly dark, and it’s so damn quiet. It must be the middle of the night. During the day, the sun does what it can. Its light filters through the clouds of swirling ash and dust, casts everything in a ruddy beige glow. During the day, Five can move, he can read and write and see, and it’s during the day that he can pick up Dolores and head off to the next destination, the next place he’ll scrounge up some food and water.
During the night, though, the stars… God, he hasn’t seen the stars in so long he’s almost forgotten they were ever there at all. And there’s nothing left on Earth to provide light anymore.
Pitch black, everywhere he looks.
The smell of — burning that’s long since burnt out, of smoke, that’s all there is.
But hadn’t he been somewhere else…? Hadn’t he…?
He’d stopped all this, hadn’t he? He’d gone back, he’d been home, he —
Oh, no, no, no, no.
He’s done it again. Dreamed of it again. Let himself think it was real again.
God, but it had been real, he swore it was, so why—?
He can’t breathe. He can’t seem to get any air into his lungs at all, the air is nothing but grime and soot and the kicked up dust of the cracked Earth, and that’s just the proof, isn’t it? He was never back home, he never will be, he keeps chasing this ridiculous notion that he can get the equations just right, that he’ll be able to go back and stop all of this, but it’s —
It’s never going to happen. This is all there is, just him and Dolores and an empty, empty world, and if he doesn’t start breathing soon there won’t even be a him anymore —
He sucks in a great gulp of stale, dust-strewn air, and God, he cannot stand that smell, all smouldering brimstone, and his throat is closing up —
Waking up should be a relief. It’s not.
It’s not like a burst of cold water — it’s like he was already in the cold water, drowning and slowly sinking until someone grabbed him by the front of his shirt and forcibly ripped him up into the air. It’s too warm, and he can hear the rattling breaths trying and failing to pull any air into his lungs, and his throat still won’t cooperate, and —
“Five, hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
He’s in his bedroom at the manor, and Allison — little, thirteen-year-old Allison, eyes wide and frightened, is standing right there in front of him.
His heart rate, already too fast, skyrockets until it’s all he can hear.
He still can’t breathe.
He panics, and the bedroom fades to a backdrop of bright, bright blue.
And when that light fades, it does not give way to pure deep darkness. It’s dark, but he can see. The stars are visible above him when he looks up — one or two faint constellations, a smattering of stars not blotted out by rain clouds and the light pollution of the city.
Five collapses, falls right down into the dirt. He hadn’t even thought about where he was going, just went.
The air is cool here, though. It makes his trembling, rattling gasps come in a bit smoother. It makes his lungs fill up a bit easier. He tugs his hands through his hair, scolding himself, thinking, Breathe, come on, it’s easy.
In and out.
In… and out.
Come on, you’ve got this.
Awareness comes back to him in fits and starts. He has no idea how long he sits here, breathing and gasping, but eventually he starts to hear what’s going on around him. The faint sound of traffic, the trickle of water. He’s sitting in the wet gravelly dirt on the bank of a river, and it takes him a second to remember that it’s the one he used to blink to when he was a kid. This is the place he used to run off to whenever he was particularly angry with Dad or with one of his brothers or sisters, when he needed a minute alone.
It’s the second place he’d gone after — after.
The river had been all dried up then, though.
And really, he should have expected them to find him here. He’d told Vanya about it, once upon a time, back before everything. He might have mentioned it to Ben once, too, he can’t remember.
He doesn’t expect them to get here so quickly, though.
The first thing he hears is tires crunching over gravel, the dull hum of an engine that he immediately recognizes as the family car. Some vaguely more competent part of his brain knows that they shouldn’t have taken it, Dad’s gonna be pissed if he finds out, but he doesn’t say it aloud. He can’t muster up the energy. He doesn’t even turn around.
There’s the sound of a door opening, then another, and another, and another. All four doors open, all four doors close.
Then footsteps, six sets of them.
He doesn’t move. Someone sits down on his right — Allison, naturally, because he must have scared her half to death when he disappeared. He keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead as the rest of them all gather around, Ben to his immediate left, Diego next to him. Klaus flops down onto the ground in front of him, flat on his back with his hands behind his head. Vanya fits herself right beside Allison but a little closer to Klaus, so she’s still in Five’s peripheral. Luther seems to debate for a second, then sits himself down by Klaus’ head, over to the left.
None of them says anything.
They just… sit with him, being quiet, for what Five swears must be the first time in their goddamn lives. None of them touch him either, both Allison and Ben sitting just close enough that he can barely feel the heat of them — Ben’s hip just an inch or so from his, Allison’s upper arm almost but not quite touching his shoulder.
He could blink away if he wanted to.
He is just so, so tired.
Five’s not sure he can speak, not just yet. He can tell by their silence that they won’t make him, but — maybe he should. Dolores would tell him he should. She’d want him to, for his own sake.
He takes a slow breath. Nothing but clear night air, the smell of petrichor.
“I, um…” he starts, then gulps, instantly and acutely aware of the way every single one of them stiffens, like they’re afraid any slight movement will scare him off.
He’s not sure they’re wrong about that.
“When I first… left, I didn’t—”
Shit, this is harder than he thought it’d be. He has to force out that first sentence, though, just that one sentence and then he can shut up, if for nothing else than because he can’t remember telling them before. They need to hear it.
He needs them to hear it.
“I didn’t mean to leave,” he says, and his throat hurts and his eyes burn at the thought of it. “I mean — I meant to, I just — I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t be able to get back. And I tried, over and over and over again, to get back. Every day.”
Come, now, Dolores would say. You’ve come this far, go on and say the rest.
He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes.
God, he’s just so damn tired.
“And I… I imagined it,” he admits, “all the time, I imagined what it’d be like, getting back and walking in through the front door. Hey, guys! I’m home.”
He drops his hands, stares out at the river. He can feel their eyes on him. And he hasn’t cried in a long, long time, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like, but he can feel it coming now. He gulps again and forces out the rest, as tiny and pathetic as his voice sounds.
“I always… pictured it, seeing all of you again. I dreamed of it. Constantly.”
There were those days, too, when he’d been at his lowest and he’d thought, I won’t even tell them. I’ll just come back and live out whatever years I have left, and then I’ll die with the rest of the world like I’m supposed to.
He doesn’t tell them that.
“Sometimes—” he tries, and his voice kicks up in pitch until it’s gone. And there it is, a tear making its way down his cheek, hot and stinging until it trails all the way down his neck. “Sometimes, when I… when I go to sleep, or — or even when I’m awake, it gets too quiet or I smell smoke and I think… I think I’m back there, I think it happened again, or it never stopped happening in the first place, and all this…”
He waves a hand, spastic, but the point is there. All this. The river, the city, the stars, the faint sound of traffic and life going on.
His brothers and sisters. All of it.
“I think it’s not real,” he admits. “Sometimes.”
His words are met with quiet. He swipes at his cheeks, still staring straight ahead at the river.
Eventually, when it becomes clear that he has nothing left to say — or, more accurately, that his voice has stopped working altogether — Allison reaches around him and lays a hand on his shoulder, light and barely touching, cautious. She’s worried he’ll shake her off, and that’s fair, he supposes. It’s his first instinct, anyway.
But he’s so, so tired.
He doesn’t move, just closes his eyes, and Allison lets the rest of her arm fall over his shoulders, and Ben leans into him from his other side, and the rest of them all scoot a bit closer. Klaus is practically lying on top of his feet. Someone’s hand finds his upper back, maybe Diego’s.
Five deflates. His shoulders sag, and slowly, bit by awkward bit, he gives into Allison’s gentle nudging and relaxes against her. She’s taller than him, still, even when she’s thirteen, too, and his head settles into the space between her shoulder and her neck. She might have guided him there, he thinks — he’s so out of his element with things like this, doesn’t quite grasp how people can fit together, he never has.
But Allison does. Her hand leaves his shoulder in favor of running through his hair. Vanya leans over and grabs hold of his hands in Allison’s lap, gives them a little squeeze and doesn’t let go. None of them says a thing about the tremors running through him or the fact that he’s maybe still crying, tears silently spilling over before he can do anything about it.
“We’re here, buddy,” Klaus speaks up, quieter than Klaus has any right to be. “Like, we’re actually here. We’re real.”
“And we’re not going anywhere,” Luther says.
“Yeah, so, y’know, maybe don’t go teleporting away every ten seconds — ow, Ben, kicking is not necessary—”
“We’re not here to scold him, Klaus—”
“I know, I know, I’m just saying — ow!”
“Eh, I dunno, he’s got a point, Ben,” Diego mutters.
“Don’t defend him.”
“No, please defend me, Ben’s mean when he’s not a ghost — ow, dammit, dude!”
Five wants to roll his eyes. The morons couldn’t even manage to stay quiet for, what, ten minutes? But that’s his family, he supposes. It’s his big bunch of idiots, in all their loud, raucous, emotionally repressed glory.
God, he missed them.
He missed them so goddamn much.
Five sinks further into Allison, squeezes Vanya’s hands back.
He falls asleep to the sound of Luther and Diego yelling at Ben and Klaus to stop arguing, to the sound of Allison sighing and murmuring about boys and how she can’t take them anywhere even as she keeps running her hand through his hair, to the sound of Vanya whispering to him we’re here for you, Five, it’s okay, we’re not leaving you alone, and the sound of Ben — who’s now dropped out of the argument to let Klaus argue with Diego instead — whispering, yeah, hate to break it to you, but you’re stuck with us.
Five doesn’t dream of the apocalypse. He doesn’t fool himself, he knows he will again, but he doesn’t now. That’s all he can bring himself to care about.
He’ll deal with the rest as it comes.
And for the first time in a very, very long time, he won’t do it alone.