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can i dream for a few months more?

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I
CRACK BABY

 crack baby you don’t know what you want
but you know that you had it once
and you know that you want it back

crack baby you don’t know what you want
but you know that you’re needing it
and you know that you need it bad

 

Lena Pohl had a child of her own for three days before she gave him up. 

She didn’t want to let him go. Not really. But she was young, so young, and her parents insisted. 

 ‘You think you can raise a child?’ said her mother bitingly. Lena sunk deeper into her chair, dreading the rant. ‘Do you even know what that means? Everything you’ll have to sacrifice? He’s not a plaything, for god’s sake. He’s going to be hard work, draining you of everything you have, and if you think we have money to spare for you then you’re more foolish than I thought. You’ll be bleeding money with everything you have to buy - clothes and nappies and endless piles of junk, and that’s not even mentioning all the food. You children never stop eating!’ 

Lena had two older brothers and their stomachs had always rumbled when they lived at home.  

Her mother kept ranting, punctuated with rigorous shakes of the towels she was folding. ‘How many times have I told you what it was like for your Oma? She was nineteen when she had me and oh, the grief I caused her! All her plans to the gutter. I swore I’d never be so stupid. And now you - I thought you wanted to go to university and do something with yourself. Or was that all hot air?’

‘No, I still do!’ she shot back, flame of anger across her cheeks. 

‘You can’t support a child without a job, Lena,’ Papa said quietly. ‘You can’t work and study and look after a baby.’ 

‘I can! I can try. I can put study off for a while, I can make it work. I’m not giving him away. He’s mine!’  

Her mother scoffed. ‘Ha! Yours? You might as well have found him on the side of the street with how fast this has happened. Carry him for nine months, then maybe you’ll have earned the right to claim that he’s yours.’

Lena burst into furious tears, acutely aware of the pain from yesterday’s impossible birth, while her father tutted, putting his arm around her. She cried into his shoulder. 

‘Look, Lena,’ her mother said, softer now. ‘That English gentleman offered us whatever we wanted. You wouldn’t have to work to put yourself through classes. We could ask for enough to buy some property of our own as well - a house for your father and I, for your brothers, and for you too, of course. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And we could go on holiday. Haven’t you always wanted to go on a real, proper foreign holiday?’ 

Her rage got caught somewhere in her throat. ‘A holiday?

‘A holiday is perhaps a bit callous,’ Papa said. ‘But you have always wanted to get out from this tower block.’ 

‘And think of the boy,’ her mother added. ‘Think of the life that man will be able to offer him, all the opportunities. He’ll have none of that if he stays with you.’ 

‘But-’

‘Your mother’s right. You have to do what’s best for him.’

‘I know!’ she cried, exasperated. ‘But how am I supposed to… it’s not fair. You’ve both already decided what you think is best and it’s not even your decision!’ 

Papa sighed. ‘That’s true. It’s not. We can’t make your mind up for you.’

‘No matter how much I wish I could drum some sense into you,’ her mother said from between her teeth.  

‘We can’t,’ Papa said, giving her mother a tired look. ‘But we have your best interests at heart too. That’s our job as your parents. That’s your job now, and you have a very important choice to make.’ 

A monstrous choice she thought as she wiped her eyes. 

The same arguments circled them like ravenous vultures for the rest of the day. Other family members gathered in their little flat, brothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents all coming to see their very own Virgin Mary and her unnatural spawn. They pricked and prodded at her with their questions and their concerns. No matter how often they insisted it was her decision, her voice was lost amongst the clamour as they argued over the fate of this baby, her baby, her little boy that hadn’t existed at the dawn of the day he was born. 

He existed now. He existed with his scrunched up newborn face, his tiny fingers clasping hers, his wisps of dark hair - just like her own - and a cry that she already knew she’d never forget. Oh, that child could cry. He cried and cried and cried until he was picked up from wherever he’d been resting - they had no crib, of course they didn’t - and only once he was held close was he content. He was a tiny wee thing, but you’d never think so from the strength of his voice. 

She didn’t give him a name. Her mother said it was best that way. 

The baby was peaceful in her arms when Sir Hargreeves visited for the second time. He stirred as he was passed over, but as soon as he was in the man’s arms he settled again. 

If this were a fairy tale, her baby would have felt the difference between arms of burgeoning love and arms of greed. He would have screamed his lungs out in a last-ditch effort to prevent his fate. She would have snatched him back, away from the fearsome interloper stealing her child to raise in secrecy, or, if she was not a quick-witted heroine, the thief would have fled while she began a quest to free her child from his clutches. The journey would change her, perhaps unrecognisably, but she would get him back in the end and all would be well. 

Only this wasn’t a fairytale. This was Munich in 1989. The Brothers Grimm were long dead.  

By the time the business deal was complete, there was no such thing as magic in this world of hers anymore. Monetary wishes were not granted by villains looking to ensnare souls but by well-known and worldly philanthropists. Babies didn’t appear out of nowhere - at least not when there was no baby left to prove it. When the shock of what she’d done hit her later, as she screamed I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU at her parents and at the world, Lena learnt that important choices were never easy, that once they were made there were no magic fixes, and that no matter the intensity of her anguish it would not make any difference to a fate already sealed. He was gone, gone from her, far from here, across the country, across the earth. 

She didn’t get out of bed for a week. 

Then, if only to stop her mother nagging, she got up. She stormed out the front door, fetched the mail and stormed back upstairs, throwing it down on the table without a word. Her face said, there, I did it, now leave me alone, clear as day. She went right back to bed. 

The next day was easier. And the next she even showered. 

Days blurred together. She got on with things. She applied to university, and got in, and went. She refused to speak of him, especially to her parents, although the thought of her new friends knowing made her shudder too. 

That didn’t mean she didn’t think of him. 

Sometimes she dreamed of him. In those dreams, she came across him in the strangest of places.

Once while wandering an old house - it looked like the home of a friend from school, only all the hallways were longer and more mazelike than she remembered - she found him abandoned in a doorway. He was bundled up in blankets right on the threshold, rather like whoever placed him down was not sure whether he should be here or there. He was not sleeping: that squall of a cry echoed in the empty room and all the way down the hall. Through it she heard footsteps, far off, coming closer, and she spun to look. There was no one there. Her baby went silent. 

Another night, another dream. She was driving her car at a highly unsafe speed on roads that looped like rollercoasters. A light began to flash on the dashboard, bright red and urgent, then another, and another, and another. She tried to pull over in a panic but she no longer had a steering wheel. The brakes didn’t work either (but they never had). She abandoned her seat, clambering into the back. There in the footwell, buried under a heap of cabbage leaves, was a tiny pale arm, fingernails blue and corpselike; she felt a wave of horror upon recognising it, then began to toss the leaves aside as the car continued to skid, trying to dig him out. Each leaf she grabbed seemed to multiply into more until she was up to her neck in pale green.

Once he was held out to her by a faceless stranger. Her arms were already full - with what, she could not say - so she couldn’t take him, and while she fretted with what to do he was swept away into a morphing, fleshy crowd. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t follow. She awoke feverish and upset. 

 

***

(In another life, when she feeds him at her breast and her mother huffs with a disapproving frown, she doesn’t bow her head and ease him off. No. Instead she holds him closer, his skin on hers, and she stares back at her mother resolutely, head held high. Shame is no companion in this life. Even though this life looks like part-time salary apartments and a table covered in bills. It looks like hand-me-down baby clothes and dirty nappies and exhaustion and a degree on hold, for a while. It sounds like a disconnected telephone, dial tone silence, although she supposes that this way the told-you-so rants are unable to get through. It sounds like crying, tears at all hours, hers and the baby's. It feels like cheek fuzz, sharp little fingernails, and fluffy woollen hats with mismatched mittens to keep the bitter winter at bay. It feels like cradling a fragile thing as she sleeps. Like loneliness and an endless slog.

 Still. It looks like big green eyes full of innocent trust. It sounds like his first laugh. It feels like her heart growing warmer each day, growing as he grows. 

And eventually summer arrives. In this life she gives him his first haircut, sealing a curl in a box on her dresser, greater than any treasure. She finds a new apartment where she doesn’t have to scrub black mould until her hands are raw, nor share a bathroom with unhygeinic neighbours. She visits her parents for the first time since she left. She takes her son to meet them again and she is proud of how he stands up all by himself now, and even though he is a crybaby, a clingy wee thing, crying at the slightest disturbance, crying until she thinks she’ll lose her mind, she still thinks that sound is the sound of life and love and she never ignores it.)

 

***

More often than not she dreamed of the dark haired baby as she remembered him on that fateful day. He was lingering on her conscience, no doubt. But every now and again he appeared to her grown, and if she had cared to ponder those dreams in depth then perhaps she might have noticed that they always aligned with the age he would have been if she’d kept him. The age he was somewhere out there in the big wide world: a five month old rolling onto his stomach, a nine month old smacking his hands against pots and pans, a toddler teetering on unsteady legs. 

Except she didn’t like to think about the dreams too much. They were only dreams. Fitful, nonsensical derivations of things she’d buried deep long ago - a tangle of confusion and guilt and regret. It was easier not to acknowledge them. Perhaps that was why he appeared to her less and less as the years went by. Perhaps she was finally getting over it all. Healing. 

She dreamed of a him as a child only three times. 

 

***

The first one was warm. 

Everything was honey-gold and hazy: the long, floaty curtains (from behind them came the buzz of a bee, gentle, harmonious); the hessian rug beneath her bare feet; the vase full of daisies and straw; the specks of dust catching the light; and the teddy-bear sitting up against the wall with its worn fur and kind amber eyes.

There were children everywhere. They held hands, all of them in a big circle, singing at the top of their voices in the sunshine as they danced around her. She was a maypole, their Maibaum, they were her spring dancers.  

(but the buzz of the bee was not a bee)

‘One, and two, and three, and four, and five, and six, and seven,’ they chanted as they whirled in and around each other to help them keep the beat. They did not look at her. She could not see their faces. 

(it was a wasp)

The banners they danced with began to tangle; she was clutching the ends high above her head. They were already braiding down her arm, halfway to mummifying her. Two of the children collided and knocked themselves down. They got back up immediately, stilted in their movements. Neither cried. The two strands of colourful cloth fell limp against Lena’s thigh and the fallen children did not try to retrieve it. The other children slowed, then stopped. The dance didn’t work without them all. 

(and the wasp was getting louder) 

Besides, there were better things to move on to! Over in the sun-laden corner opposite from the watchful bear was a basket overflowing with all the toys a child could dream of, and they scampered over to it with glee. 

But one stayed. He skipped up to her - his ribbon was emerald green and glossy - and he gently pressed it into her other hand, the hand that wasn’t wrapped like a fairy present. 

(the wasp was trapped behind the curtains, the curtains which hung so thick and heavy that the breeze was unable to make them billow, and between the curtains, the glass, and the bright white windowsill it was getting hot, hot, hot: oh, what a perfect cage; oh, tortuous design) 

She still didn’t see his face. 

(and the wasp raged and grazed against the glass, trapped in the sunlight that was not sweet, not soft - instead it was stifling, it burned, the window channelling heat like a child with a magnifying glass, setting fire to the object of their observation, turning delicate exoskeletons crisp and black)

(oh, child, they ask, was it an accident that we burned? did you mean to singe our wings so we could no longer fly?)

(oh, child, they ask, why did you refuse to open the curtains a crack? did you not notice us struggling to crawl to a cooler home? why did you watch as our legs gave out?)

(oh, child, they ask, how many wasps will perish here? how many sunny afternoons will end in ashes? how many mistakes can one man make?)

She placed a hand on the top of his head and learnt that his hair was soft, and that he was still a small thing barely past her hip, and that he was bounding with energy.

(a monocle makes a very good magnifying glass in the hands of a sadist) 

Before he skipped away again to laugh and play with the other children he leaned into her touch, a skinny arm wrapping around one of her legs. In that moment she felt that he loved her even though he didn’t know who she was. 

(some fires burn hot and dry and give off little warning smoke)

And she wondered: how could such a tiny being be filled with so much love? 

(some wasps burn without making a sound)

 

***

A few years later she dreamed of the boy for the second time. 

She was sitting at her local library’s issues desk, where she’d worked for five weeks now in her waking life. As she was caught in the mundane repetition of stamping books with return dates, she noticed a little boy hand in hand with two other boys, one on each side, all in matching blue pyjamas. The one in the middle had damp curls and cheeks turned pink from scrubbing. The other two boys looked equally clean and shiny. One of them held a knife (that didn’t strike her as odd until much later) and the other looked nervous, as if he expected to be chased out of the premises. The middle boy was grinning with his head held aloft, pulling the others forward. 

She abandoned her desk and trailed behind them. The middle boy seemed familiar; looking at him nudged something in her mind. 

‘We’re not allowed to leave the house,’ the nervous boy said. ‘Dad might find out.’

The middle boy groaned, while the boy with the knife said, ‘Don’t be such a chicken.’ 

He pouted. ‘I’m not a chicken.’

‘No, you’re not,’ the middle boy teased. ‘You’re a scaredy-cat.’

‘I’m not!’ 

The middle boy laughed. ‘Suuuure, Six. This is my dream, you know. You’re allowed to be bad - you’re not even real!’

‘Am so,’ the boy called Six retorted (the name was another thing that did not strike Lena as strange until much later). ‘And who says it’s your dream?’

‘Well, it’s not mine,’ said knife boy.  ‘I don’t wanna dream about a library.’

The middle boy tugged them down between two shelves that were nearly toppling over from the weight of the books, saying, ‘At least it’s better than the one at home. That one’s the most boring library in the world and it smells like old people.’ He dropped the other boys’ hands to seize an ornate picture book. ‘This one’s fun! It’s got pictures!’ 

Sinking to the ground, he settled the hefty book atop his knee. For a moment he was entranced, then he began to haphazardly and hurriedly tear out the most brightly coloured illustrations, stuffing them in his pocket and up his sleeves. 

Lena hovered in the aisle over from them, peering through the narrow space between the shelves. She told herself she was watching to make sure they didn’t get up to too much mischief. She didn’t quite know why she couldn’t tear her eyes away.

‘I reckon it’s all me,’ Six said, picking up a book of his own and flipping through it. ‘It’s probably because I was reading “Matilda” before I went to sleep-’ 

Again? ’ the middle boy exclaimed without looking up, while knife boy snorted. 

‘-and she escapes to the library in that,’ he continued. ‘And yes, again. It’s good!’

‘You’re such a nerd,’ knife boy said, whittling a pointy, symmetrical “2” into the wooden shelf - just like the sharp “S” Lena saw children draw everywhere, only reversed. 

‘Okay, Trunchbull,’ Six muttered. 

The middle boy (her boy, said a voice at the very back of her mind, a voice she had not listened to in a long, long time) ceased his tearing of library property and held up his hand for Six to high-five, grinning. 

Knife boy frowned at the slap of their hands. ‘Wait, why’d you call me that? What does it mean?’

‘Means you won’t get saved by Miss Honey when she rescues the rest of us,’ Six said. 

Knife boy’s eyes widened in alarm. ‘Why not? Who’s Miss Honey?’ 

‘If you read the book you’d know,’ said Six smugly.

‘Oh, I get it,’ he said, turning to cut deeper slashes in the wood. ‘She’s made up. Ha-ha, very funny.’ 

Lena’s boy sighed dreamily, steepling his hands in prayer. ‘Oh Miss Honey, if you’re listening, we’d like to come and visit. Forever.’ 

‘You’ve read it too?!’ asked knife boy. 

‘Nah, Six has only been telling me everything. Matilda’s got powers, just like us - she goes wham-bam-bazaam,’ he gestured wildly, ‘and makes crazy things happen. Like turning a ghost into a funny parrot.’

‘Hmm… not exactly,’ Six said. 

‘And her family sucks ass.’ He whispered the last word. ‘But she gets so much revenge. She sets fire to her Dad’s hair-’

‘Uh, no…’ Six murmured. 

‘- and I think that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard in the world and we should totally try to do that, and then she runs away with Miss Honey who gives her the biggest chocolate cake in the universe and takes her to the zoo and then they get to watch movies together and also play dress up without getting in trouble and her bedtime is never and she’s allowed to talk at the table too -’

‘Matilda doesn’t like TV,’ Six said, although her boy talked so fast that he’d long moved past the point about films. 

He talked like a child who still believed in fairytales, whose dreams were out of scale and tinted with wonder, who wanted to run headlong into the world so it could fill him up. He talked like a child who lived out his childhood in wishes, his words a glimpse of a hungry heart. He twisted details to his own liking. Mixed tidbits of normality in with fantasy like he couldn’t quite tell them apart. (She wanted to make him that cake and let him lick the spoon and then they’d eat it together while it was still warm - but where were those feelings coming from? She didn’t know this boy. She didn’t know him. She couldn’t. She wasn’t anything like Miss Honey - she wouldn’t even make it into the story.) 

‘- and also she only ever trains her power when she wants to and that’s only ever to use it for revenge against the bad guys like her dad and the Trunchbull who’s the most evil of them all.’ 

Knife boy’s eyes bulged. ‘How’d Dad even let you read a book like that?’ he demanded. 

‘He didn’t,’ Six replied. ‘Pogo got it for me. He got me a whole box of cool stories, but this one’s my favourite.’ 

‘Pogo never got me anything special.’ 

‘You’ve got all your knives,’ her boy said. He was back to flipping through the book, searching for other pages that appealed. There weren't many left. 

‘These are Dad’s knives technically. I’m not supposed to have them but I hid this one under my pillow.’ 

‘That’s dumb,’ Six said. ‘You might cut your face off.’ 

‘And both ears,’ her boy added. 

‘No, I won’t. I’m not an idiot.'

‘Sure…’ Six said. 

Her boy stood up all of a sudden, rustling as he did. ‘I’m bored of this. Can we do something actually fun now?’ 

‘Like reading?’ Six asked hopefully. 

‘Uh, no… Haven’t you seen this place? It’s huge! We can play for as long as we want! And there aren’t any ghosts. No Dad. No Pogo. We’re free for the night!’ 

Two’s face lit up. ‘We should build a fort! The books can be our bricks.’ He grabbed an armful off the shelf, dropping them onto the floor without a care. 

‘Yeah! An entire castle!’ Her boy sweeped even more onto the pile. ‘And no one’s allowed in except us!’ 

‘We could use the shelves as the walls if we move them together,’ Six said, ‘then fill in all the gaps with books until no one can peek.’ 

‘But we’d probably need One to move them,’ her boy said, craning his neck up. ‘They are sooo tall.’ 

‘Reckon I can climb up to the top?’ Two asked.

Her boy jumped on the spot in excitement. ‘Ooh, I’ll race you.’

‘You’re on.’ 

‘Six?’ 

Six looked up dizzily. ‘I think I’ll just be the judge.’

‘Come onnnn,’ her boy wheedled. 

‘No, really-’

Two made chicken sounds.

‘Oh, fine,’ Six sighed. 

‘See, guess you’re not a scaredy-cat after all,’ Two said with a knowing look, almost gentle. 

The three children lined themselves up, facing the shelf in determination. Lena watched them from behind with bated breath. Two dropped into a crouch, ready to spring, while Six fiddled with his buttons. 

‘Okay, let’s go when I say go,’ her boy said. He took a deep breath in. ‘Ready, set -’  

Before reaching the end he threw himself onto the perilously packed shelf, feet scrambling for a hold. 

Two immediately shouted, ‘HEY!’ and leapt after him. 

Six followed almost delicately in comparison, with a measured and secure first step, though he still hurried to catch up (and although Lena couldn’t see his face, she knew there was a small grin of delight upon it). 

A cascade of pages fell from her boy’s pyjamas, fluttering into his opponent’s faces, and he cackled as he climbed.

‘You’re a cheat!’ Two yelled, clambering just behind him. 

‘I improvised!’ 

Two grabbed at her boy’s foot, tugged hard. 

Her boy kicked out, dangerously shifting all his weight to the side, still laughing. ‘Hey! Let go!’ 

‘That’s what you get!’ 

The shelf wobbled, then creaked, and then let out a long, reverberating groan. The whole thing started to lean. Books toppled and dropped like overripe fruit. 

‘Oh shit!’ cried one of the children, and Lena suspected that she knew which one. 

A moment later the whole thing came crashing down onto the next bookcase, the one she was hiding behind, the next in a long line of enormous dominoes. 

She heard the boys fall to the ground, shrieking and laughing with the thrill, the sound nearly buried by the thwop and thwack of hundreds of solid tomes and the crack of splintering wood.

Lena ducked as she was blanketed by books, and they were weighty until they were not. By then they were merely soft blankets, and she could hear a scratchy song playing on the radio, which meant it was time to get up and go to the real library where the shelves were much more sensibly sized. 

 

***

It was not long before she dreamed of him for the third time. 

Lena was deep within the Black Forest. She recognised it immediately; she’d been here when she was younger, backpack laden with studentenfutter, bouncy sneakers tied with double bows, exploring hand in hand with her father. But this time the trees were packed so densely that barely any light filtered down from above. It was dark as the dead of the night. Skeletal trunks loomed out of shadows, appearing where she thought there had been nothing. The silence was oppressive. 

She’d been wandering there for days with only a basket woven from reeds hanging from the crook of her arm, and she knew that she was seeking something silver - a key, perhaps, or a drop of moonlight - but she could not find it. Whenever she thought she saw it glinting in the shadows, she would be distracted by the crack of a twig right behind her or the rustle of leaves, and when she twisted to see who - or what - was sneaking up through the gloom, she saw nothing. Upon turning back, the elusive silvery light was always gone. 

She clambered over a mossy boulder and slid down the other side, taking much too long to reach the ground as the height of the drop distorted and stretched. Eventually she landed with a dull thump. She could see the sky here, and by starlight took in her surroundings. Only then did she realise she had dropped into a pit lined on all sides by more boulders, their sides smooth and green with not a handhold to be seen. 

Curled up in a hollow between two jutting rocks was a small boy, the same boy from the library - her boy. It was his mop of curls that she recognised first, although in this dream his hair was strewn with cobwebs and dust rather than damp and shiny from a bath. He was hiding his face in his knees, arms covering his head protectively, deathly still but whimpering - so quiet she almost didn’t hear him at first. 

She stepped towards him, and with the crunch of her foot upon the ground her boy startled like a spooked rabbit. He twisted away from her, sobbing as he clawed at the stone, hands frantic as if to scrape it away piece by piece. She stepped forward again in alarm, soothing murmurs falling from her lips. The child began to scream. She retreated swiftly, not daring to utter a word, but he did not stop.

The rock did not give either. His fingernails had split, and across the stone were dark smears of blood painted by his fingertips. His screams died out and he began to beg instead, a garble of helpless, broken phrases: please leave me alone, please please please, go away, I don’t want to talk to you, please let me out, Dad, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll be good, I promise, just let me out… please…

She never saw his face, but the echoes of his voice stayed with her even once she woke. 

 

***

(In another life, he wriggles in her lap with his arms around her neck when she reads him a bedtime story, skin smooth and warm with youth, and he stands atop a chair at the kitchen bench as she shows him how to peel carrots and potatoes, and he skitters through their cramped apartment with all the elegance of a startled cat, playing with his imaginary friends - the ones that were nice to him, not the bad ones. 

In this life it is just the two of them and sometimes she wishes it wasn’t, sometimes she can’t get a break. Sometimes she doesn’t know what the hell is going on with that boy, whether he is prone to bouts of melancholy unusual for a child his age (so says the professional, paid for by her parents) or whether he has an overactive mind (so says the other professional) or whether he is merely a sweet wee thing with a sensitive heart (so says Maria Paulik, the batty but kind old lady from across the hall who lets Lena borrow from her pantry when money is low). 

Maria is a godsend, truly, in this life. She's always doting on Lena’s little boy - babysitting him, letting him get his sticky hands into her drawer full of ancient silk nightdresses, letting him drape himself in all of them at once until he is layered up like a doll in pastel petticoats, lacy straps overlapping on his bare shoulders, gap-tooth grin and oversized sunglasses on his face. Maria takes photos on her sturdy old camera and slips them under Lena’s door once they are developed. Lena sticks the best ones on the fridge and her little boy begs to go play next door even when she doesn’t have to go to work. 

He hates sleeping alone. Most nights he sneaks under her blankets and curls up beside her, and she wakes in the morning with his head tucked under her chin. She doesn’t fret because what harm is it causing, really? He will grow out of it in his own time. 

As he plays with his cousin, her parents tell her in hushed tones that while they still think she made a poor decision (that judgement slices into her - a papercut wince, thin and shallow but so, so full of sting - and she will rage over it later with a friend and a glass of deep red wine) they are glad he is in their lives, the strange, uncanny boy that he is. He shrieks when his Opa kisses him on the cheek, beard tickling his skin, and giggles when his Opa tosses him up in the air. He is timid around his Oma because she is sharp and no-nonsense while her boy is brimming with nonsense and easily cut. Unlike his mother, he hasn’t yet learnt how to hide his hurt. She doesn’t want him to have to learn that for a long time. 

In this life she saves up specially to send him off to school with a sparkly backpack. 

In this life, as well as the other, he is the class clown. He makes friends easily. He is a chatterbox. 

In this life, as well as the other, he gets in trouble with the teachers for his naughty and inexplicable behaviour. He sees things that others do not. He is scared of the dark. 

In this life, Lena leaves lights on for him. She studies up on ghost stories from around the world in an attempt to understand, even when her eyes droop with exhaustion in the long evenings. She holds him when he shakes with fear. No matter how many people tell her not to play into his morbid attempt for attention, she cannot dismiss that raw terror as an act. 

She tries her best and she isn’t perfect. She shouts at him sometimes, temper frayed. She always regrets it. 

He hides in the curvy yellow slide at the playground and refuses to come out. He is begging them all to go away and before long he is wailing and incomprehensible. She begs and begs for him to come out, to let her bundle him home. He doesn’t move. Other parents take their children away from the slide, offer help, and all she can offer in return is a pained grimace, a shake of the head. Eventually she clambers inside and pulls him out by the cuff of his jersey, the static from the slide making the cheap polyester crackle, and he screams, hitting the sides, trying to jam himself inside with his legs, and she is perhaps too rough, and people are staring, and once she has him out she has to keep a hold on him to stop him from darting right back in again. She drags him away. 

At the gate of the playground he stops resisting. She looks at him properly. His eyes are red and swollen. His nose is running. He has broken the skin on his palms where his fingernails pressed in too deep, a mirror image on each side. 

He will not meet her eye. She bursts into tears because she feels so hopeless. 

He is startled, distracted. She has to sit down on the ground she is so entirely drained. 

He picks her wilted flowers from the roadside, pats her hair and says, ‘Sorry for being so bad. I won’t ever be that naughty again. Just please don’t cry, Mama.’ 

She wants to cry harder but she doesn’t. She takes the flowers, smile watery. ‘Oh, Klaus-maus,’ she says, putting her arms around him. She thinks about what else she can say. 

‘Am I in big trouble now?’ he asks. 

It’s easy to answer a question. ‘No, maus,’ she says, and kisses the top of his head. ‘You were scared. You won’t ever be in trouble for getting scared.’)

Chapter Text

II
AND YOU ARE NOT THERE AT ALL

i am a forest fire
and i am the fire and i am the forest
and i am a witness watching it
i stand in a valley watching it
and you are not there at all

 

While Lena awoke from a dream in which a child screamed and she watched, helpless, somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean an eight year old Klaus awoke tangled up in his sheets, cheeks streaked with tears, heart racing. 

He tore electrodes from his temples with trembling hands, then extracted himself from his mess of a bed. The floor was cold on his bare feet. As quick as he could, he draped the softest blanket around his shoulders like a cape; it whipped around his legs and he felt slightly more sheltered. But still not enough. Never enough. 

Klaus tiptoed down the hall to Ben’s room and let himself in, keeping his eyes to the floor. 

‘Hey,’ he breathed. ‘Hey, wake up.’ When that garnered no response he poked his sleeping brother in the face. 

Ben groaned. ‘Whaddyawant?’ 

‘Can I get in?’

‘Nghhhh,’ Ben replied. 

Klaus took the eloquent reply as a yes. He lifted the duvet and crawled in as fast as he could, before Ben could protest. 

‘Ugh, you let all the warm out,’ Ben complained, but he let Klaus cuddle close to him. ‘'nother bad dream?’ 

'Mm.’ 

‘Wanna talk about it this time?’

‘No.’ 

He couldn’t talk about it. Not when the nightmares had followed him down the hall to lurk at the end of the bed, rattling breath in their throats, wheezing out his name.  

Klaus had once seen a sick man die. He’d been little then, around six or so and bursting with excitement for his special trip, only him and Dad. He’d never been on a special trip just for him before. The hospice was a strange place though, and the man they’d come to visit was so ancient he couldn’t even talk anymore. His breath had rattled before his breathing stopped, right before his ghost leeched into existence. After that there was no way Klaus could have heard anything - he was consumed with getting out of that room, getting away from the two old men, one grey-skinned and going rigid, the other fleshy pink and staring right at him, and he would’ve made it out if Dad hadn’t caught him and forced him still with a vice-like grip. 

Anyway. The ghosts sounded just like that old man. He hoped that rattling sound meant these nightmares were close to dying again, if that was even possible. All he wanted was for them to leave him be. 

That, and never having to go there again. 

The nightmares crept closer. Somehow they got into his eyes even though they were screwed up tight. Into his ears too - hands muffling nothing except Ben’s snores. 

He buried his face under the blankets and tried to breathe along with his brother.

 

Back across a stormy ocean, Lena dressed for work and pulled the curtains. She felt not-quite-right. Unsettled. 

Sometimes dreams did that - left her off kilter for a morning. She was sure to end up pondering it in an idle moment on the train until she forced herself to stop, or until she busied herself with other things. 

They were only dreams. There was no sense in wondering what they meant. No use ruining an otherwise normal day. 

 

Ben’s bedroom door burst open. 

There were swift footsteps, then a rush of cold as the blankets were thrown back. Ben jolted awake and Klaus cried out in distress, grabbing on to his brother like he could anchor him. 

‘Return Number Four to his own bedroom,’ Dad ordered Mom. 

Mom stepped forward, her nimble fingers prying Klaus’s hands from Ben’s pyjamas. ‘Let go now, my silly goose,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s get you back to your own bed.’ 

‘Please, no,’ he whimpered. Mom was strong, Klaus knew that, but her touch remained gentle even as he refused to loosen his grip. 

Ben was pale in the light spilling from the hallway, gaze flicking back and forth between Dad’s silhouette and Klaus. The nervous energy was rolling off him. Suddenly he threw his arms around Klaus, hugging him with as much determination as he could muster. ‘Don’t make him go!’ he exclaimed, and Klaus loved him like never before. ‘I want him to stay!’ 

Klaus nodded his agreement, unable to speak, heart in his throat, feeling almost dizzy with their shared defiance. Testing Dad’s patience was terrifying, but the ghosts were worse. Being locked in his room by himself was worse. 

‘Split them up immediately , Grace.’ 

Mom looked sad as she pressed Ben to the bed, wrangling Klaus away with her other arm. He reached back to Ben, filled with a sudden feverish hatred for both of his parents, kicking out with his legs, shouting, ‘No! No!’ His protests were ignored. Mom pulled him away and his fingers slid down Ben’s arm; he tried to grasp his wrist but it slipped through. Desperately now, he hung onto Ben’s hand, and for a brief moment they clung together until that grip also slipped and he was left grabbing at thin air helplessly. 

Dad had to step in then for the first time since he’d torn the blankets away, holding his cane out like a bar above Ben’s chest, fixing him with a stern look. Ben cowered now, alone and afraid. Mom settled Klaus onto his feet. He was crying again; she brushed the errant tears from his cheeks.

‘This is unacceptable behaviour,’ Dad said. ‘There will be consequences for you both. Make yourselves present outside my office at eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. I will deal with you then.’ 

‘Yes, sir,’ they whispered in unison.

Mom led Klaus back to his own room where she tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead. ‘I’ll make you all pancakes for breakfast,’ she said gently. ‘Won’t that be nice?’ 

He knew it was her way of saying sorry - the only way she could. Still, he had to stifle a sob in his pillow when he heard the click of the lock.

 

***

Eight Years Later

The moon was new, Lena was bone-tired, and she hadn’t eaten any cheese before bed. Thanks to this serendipitous mix (or, depending on her mood and how willing she was to believe in that kind of nonsense, perhaps not at all), she slept dreamlessly up until the moment before dawn.

When she did eventually dream, it was initially so mundane that she could have been forgiven for thinking she had actually woken up. 

She was in her room - the room she shared with her partner, the room next to the one where her little boy slept soundly. The curtains weren’t quite pulled all the way, and she could see a spot of blue sky outside. Lena stretched, throwing her arms above her head, yawning.

She heard the scrape of a drawer being pulled open and sat right up in shock. There, across her bedroom, was a stranger. He was ransacking her dresser, throwing clothes on the floor, chucking trinkets over his shoulder after sparing them a quick glance. Some of them fell into the pile of cloth, safe, while others hit the floorboards and broke apart in a crash of ceramic, a smash of glass. He pocketed plenty. 

Lena knew she should feel some sort of outrage, but she was honestly so startled that all she did was ask, ‘Excuse me? What are you doing?’ 

He turned to face her and she felt a pain in her chest. 

She shouldn’t have been able to recognise him: he looked entirely a stranger, and she’d never seen his face before. She never saw his face. But somehow, despite all that, Lena knew exactly who he was. It was a feeling in her gut. Had something to do with the way the hairs on her arm stood on end, with the way the faded memories of those strange old dreams flooded back, suddenly clear as anything.  

He was taller than her now, a beanpole, barefoot and shivering. Sixteen. She’d never lost count of the years. 

‘I don’t really know,’ he said. ‘Is this your house?’ He spoke German well, although she caught a foreign accent.

‘It looks like my house. But I think I’m asleep.’ 

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Me too, I guess.’ He looked down at the jewellery box in his hands that he’d been rummaging through. With a sheepish smile, he placed it back on the dresser. 

‘Were you looking for something?’ Lena asked. 

‘I’m always looking for something,’ he said with all the confidence of a sixteen year old who thinks they’ve figured out the world. ‘Who are you?’ 

‘My name’s Lena.’

‘I’m Klaus.’

‘Klaus,’ she said, savouring it. ‘It suits you.’

‘I suppose.’ 

‘I never picked one back then. A name, I mean.’ She didn’t know what compelled her to say it. The explanation was entirely unbidden and once she’d spoken she wished she could swallow the words back up again. 

‘What do you mean?’ he asked, mildly intrigued. 

‘Your name. I never knew what to call you.’ Again, the explanation fell from her lips without clarity, clumsy and thoughtless. 

He frowned. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve never met you before.’ 

‘You wouldn’t remember.’

‘Okay…’ he replied, sounding suspicious. ‘So can you tell me who you are, then? Like, actually? Enough with the ambiguity already.’ 

Lena tried to stay calm. She folded the blanket back, swinging her legs out so she was sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘I think you know,’ she said, carefully this time. ‘I’m your mother.’ 

Klaus shook his head slowly, turning pale, backing up against the chest of drawers and murmuring, ‘Don’t bullshit me. You can’t be.’

‘I nearly didn’t recognise you. You’ve grown so much.’ 

The dresser thudded against the wall. He continued to shake his head in denial. 

She felt that pain in her chest again. ‘Please, don’t be upset. I’m not… I don’t mean to frighten you.’ 

‘I’m not scared,’ he said, too uncertain for that to be the truth. He covered it up quickly, going snippish. ‘I just don’t fancy dealing with this at the moment.’ 

‘Of course. I understand,’ she said even though his words stung. 

Lena averted her gaze, trying to give him space. Looking out, the sliver of sky had turned grey and stormy, and the panes of glass were rattling in a harsh wind.  

‘You don’t understand anything,’ he muttered. ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ 

‘No... I don’t.’ Any sense of normalcy seemed to be unravelling rapidly. The ceiling was sagging, spots of black mould cropping up in the corners. The place where her partner should be lying was vacant now, the sheet covered instead with lumps of coal, and she was suddenly afraid.  ‘Klaus… what’s happening?’ 

Klaus didn’t answer. He was staring at the wall, and a new spot of mould bloomed right where his gaze rested, black, veined with blue. He scrunched his eyes shut in distress.  

‘Are you doing this?’ Lena asked, voice tight. She fought the urge to run into the room next door and check on her son, her real son, fearing he too might be tainted - or vanished. Perhaps her first boy was a changeling come to wreak havoc in his spot. Hadn’t she used to fear what would happen if people found out about him? Worried that her history would come to haunt her? Perhaps this was her punishment. 

‘I don’t know! Maybe?’ 

The walls groaned in a gust of wind and cockroaches swarmed out from her dresser, scattering past him, heading towards her. She felt heavy, like she couldn’t move no matter how hard she tried. ‘Please stop,’ she begged. 

‘I can’t help it - I don’t know how!’ 

She barely heard him, shrieking as the bugs reached her bed. ‘Stop it! Please, stop it!’ 

He clutched at his hair, watching in horror. 

‘What do you want?!’ she cried. Suddenly she could move again, and she scrambled back, crushing the lumps of coal beneath her. Water began to seep down the walls. ‘Why are you here?! Tell me, tell me, please. I can’t bear this. Do you want answers? Is that it?’ 

‘I don’t -’ 

‘I wanted to keep you! Did you know that?! I wanted to keep you.’ She sounded broken, desperate even to her own ears. 

Pain flashed across Klaus’s face, but the insects froze in their swift march and she took a long, shuddering breath. 

Some little part of her recognised that it was entirely unfair of her to say such a thing, but her conscience was heavy as bricks, heavy as sixteen years of silence, and it drowned out almost all reason. He had to know. She had to tell him. If he was cursing her, then she had to confess she hadn’t given him up easily. 

Klaus’s expression turned scornful. ‘But you sold me,’ he hissed. He grappled behind himself blindly, picking up the box of jewellery again, shaking it at her so the earrings and necklaces inside rattled. ‘Did you buy these with the money?’ 

She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. Words failed her. 

He opened the latch on the box and shook it out over the floor. Everything inside had rusted. The box itself was rotting in his hands. 

‘Do you know what he’s like?’ Klaus demanded. ‘Do you know what he’s done to us?’ 

‘No, I don’t… I don’t know what you mean.’ 

He smiled bitterly. It was not right to see that expression on one so young. ‘Of course you don’t.’ 

‘You mean your father? Is that it?’ She got to her feet - the water was up to her ankles - and stepped towards him wildly. ‘What did he do? Tell me!’ 

He didn’t answer her, busy emptying his pockets of everything he’d stolen. They too had rusted and decayed. Only once he was dusting off his hands did he speak, his voice brimming with false cheer, acidic and biting. ‘There you go. All your precious treasures back where they belong. I hope they bring you all the joy in the world.’ 

She reached towards him - to do what, she did not know - and the very next moment she was back in her real bedroom, blinking in the dawn light with an anxious heart. All her trinkets were in their proper places and all her drawers were closed, no doubt filled with neatly folded clothes. The ceiling was flat and clean. Her husband slept soundly next to her. There was no strange boy to be seen. 

‘Klaus,’ she whispered into her pillow. ‘Klaus.’ 

She did not cry. She did not say anything else. She did not wake her husband. 

Eventually, she got up. She set the kettle to boil, then poked her head into her son’s bedroom. He was curled up beneath the blankets, right where he was supposed to be.

After making her coffee she sat down by his window, watching him sleep. The steam from her drink curled towards the glass, causing a light layer of condensation upon it. She took slow, measured sips. 

 

***

Klaus Hargreeves was extremely fed up. His window was beckoning him to clamber out and enjoy the night, but it was barely past dinner time and any of the good parties wouldn’t be starting for hours yet. Also the wind was bitterly cold; he didn’t want to face it sooner than he had to. And wasn’t that just dull. 

So instead of doing anything actually fun he’d languished in his room since sunset, smoking weed and drawing in a notebook with pages all wavy from water damage (he’d dropped it in the bath once or twice), music blaring from his headphones to block out the wheezing demands of some lady who’d been strangled to death. 

The weed made him sleepy and he zoned out, eventually drifting off to sleep with the inky notebook on his chest and pens of all colours scattered around him. 

He dreamed he was in an unfamiliar bedroom, rummaging around for things that might help ease the sudden craving for something. He dreamed that he was caught by a woman who looked eerily familiar - he couldn’t quite put his finger on why - and then it turned out that she was the one who’d given him up, which was nightmarish to say the least, and he woke up feeling horrible, all jittery and wounded. 

In an instant, he tumbled out of bed, threw on his shoes and his coat, patting the pockets to make sure everything was still safe and sound, then he pushed the window open and ducked outside. He went as fast as he could, one familiar action after the other. Clumsy but quick. It was best not to have time to think. 

Only he did have time to think once he was walking, breath fogging in front of him. He’d dreamed of his mother - not that he thought of her like that, he reminded himself. It was a purely biological relationship. He had a mother, after all, and she was really quite nice even if she was a robot. The last time he’d pined for a “real” mother he’d been a kid who didn’t know better, and he knew better now. That’s why he was so confused that he’d dreamed about her. He hadn’t thought about his birth mother like that in years. So where the fuck had that dream come from? Maybe he was getting sick. 

She’d seemed so normal, though, at first. She’d had the same eyes as him. Maybe that meant something - like dream symbolism, all that bullshit. He quite liked all that bullshit. After years of odd dreams, he’d bought a little book to help decipher them. It was somewhere under his bed now, probably covered in a filthy mixture of dust and cigarette ash (definitely ash - a few weeks ago he’d dropped the chipped teacup he used as an ashtray down there and never cleaned it up). 

That reminded him. He dug in his pockets for his lighter and a cigarette packet, mostly empty, and lit up as he walked. 

He’d been speaking German in the dream. Of all the languages dear Reggie had made him learn, that was his favourite. He felt he had some sort of claim to it. His dream-mother spoke German too - Klaus didn’t realise he was such a stickler for accuracy in his sleep - and the guttural words had sounded soft in her voice. At least before it turned into a nightmare, because by then she was freaking out, tempting him with what could have been - oh, the idea that someone had wanted him - but he wasn’t a kid anymore so he didn’t let his guard down, didn’t say he’d wished a million times that she’d come to save him, and instead he bit like he’d been taught. He snapped and seethed. It wasn’t like he wanted to let all that bitterness wash up out of him like dirty water coming out of the plumbing. He was full of it, brimming with it, soap scum secrets and slimy dishcloth lies and a whole damn clog of trauma, probably. But it had to go somewhere, even if it disgusted him.

Then again, it was only a dream. It was best it overflowed there rather than anywhere else. He wasn’t hurting anyone if it was only in his dreams, and wasn’t that a relief for once. (He ignored the little voice that said but you know it might be more than that, Klaus. You know.)  

He winced to himself as he remembered his plans with his siblings, made in a whisper before they went in for lunch earlier today. They’d wanted to sneak out to go the cinema, and in his somewhat addled but mostly mellow state, he’d agreed. But they would’ve gone earlier - maybe they’d left him sleeping? Maybe they’d left without him when he didn’t open his door? Oh well. He wasn’t going now. He’d make a night of it by himself. Maybe a day of it too if he hit the jackpot, found a friendly soul willing to shell out to keep the fun going. Maybe he wouldn’t go home for a week. Reginald would be mad. So, so mad. But Klaus didn’t care about that. 

He felt brittle. He blew smoke as obnoxiously as he could, big ghostly clouds that were pale against the night sky. Except not ghostly, because most of the time ghosts looked just like anyone else, only bloodier and gnarlier. He glared at one moaning on the side of the road. She didn’t notice him. 

It was cold enough to snow. If it did, he might settle down in it, dig himself a little burrow, let it cover him up until the whole world was white and his fingers were frozen stiff - he’d be brittle enough by then to snap himself into pieces. Like a snappy bar of chocolate. One finger, two fingers, three fingers. There goes an ankle. Wrists for the road. It’d probably hurt. But he’d be half asleep by then, lulled by hypothermia and vodka, and this time he wouldn’t dream of mothers or fathers or ghosts or anything at all. 

 

***

Lena was strolling beside a river. It was not a river she had ever seen before. It flowed slow and murky, carrying bits of eddying debris - loose twigs, crunched-up cans and plastic bags - and as she walked she knocked more rubbish down the steep slope. She couldn’t help it. The path was covered in it, reeking and thick and sticky, and no matter how she stepped, a new cascade tumbled down into the water. 

Glancing up from her feet, she noticed another figure a few steps away. He was crouched at the top of the bank, hugging his legs to his chest, hiding his face in his hands. 

Lena forgot about everything else. ‘Klaus?’ 

The boy looked up. She saw a flash of recognition, quickly overpowered by bitterness. ‘You again,’ he mumbled. ‘Just leave me alone.’ 

‘What are you doing here?’ 

‘Same as you. Dreaming. Please, just go.’ 

She didn’t move. ‘I’ve never been here before. Do you know this place?’ 

He nodded stiffly. 

‘Is it always like this?’ 

‘Not really,’ he said, sighing. ‘It’s less dirty normally.’

She sat down beside him, smoothing the fabric of her coat. He was still hunched over, wearing very little against the chill. There was a definite iciness to this dreamworld. All he had against the frosty breeze was a thin striped top that hung loose off his skinny shoulders, and ripped jeans that exposed pale knees. 

‘You must be freezing,’ she said. 

He hummed. ‘There’s no heating where I’m sleeping.’

She shrugged off her coat and draped it over his shoulders. He rolled his eyes, but he didn’t take it off. 

‘With all that money, you’d think Sir Reginald could manage a couple of heaters.’ 

Klaus laughed an empty laugh. ‘I’m not at home. Although, oddly enough, I wish I was.’

‘Where are you then?’ she asked. 

‘It doesn’t matter.’ He pulled the coat closer around him, staring down at the river. ‘I wish there were ducks. Though I don’t have anything to feed them. What do ducks even eat?’ 

‘Bread,’ she said automatically. ‘Or frozen peas. I think those are better for them.’ 

He looked at her, a long look that she didn’t know how to read, before saying, ‘I suppose you’ve fed ducks before.’ 

‘You haven’t?’

‘Nope.’

‘You father never took you when you were little?’ 

‘Oh, Reginald never had time for that sort of nonsense. He’d probably prefer to shoot them, to be honest.’ 

‘God,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t like the sound of him.’

He picked up a faded blue bottle cap from the rubbish on the ground around them and rolled it between his fingers. He had painted nails, black and chipped. ‘That reaction’s about sixteen years too late.’ 

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know that now.’ He was right, but how could she have known at the time? She’d been young and naive, had put her trust in that strange man, had hoped that in Hargreeves’ care her son would have all the things she couldn’t offer him herself. She’d been mistaken. 

‘Knowing it now doesn’t change anything,’ Klaus mumbled.

Lena wanted to put her arm around his shivering shoulders. ‘Are you safe?’ she asked. 

He didn’t answer, opting instead to chew on his lip. They were cracked and dry. There were dark shadows under his eyes too, like he hadn’t slept a full night’s sleep in weeks. 

‘Please answer me,’ she begged. 

‘Right now? Probably not.’ His voice was low. ‘There’s nothing you can do though.’ 

‘You don’t know that. I might be able to help.’ 

‘No, you can’t.’ 

‘I’ve been researching the Academy,’ she told him. ‘I can come to America. I can do something .’ 

‘I told you, I’m not at home. Just forget it, okay? I’m fine, I’ve got everything under control.’ 

She didn’t believe that, but she wasn’t going to press him. Not after that last dream where she’d said all the wrong things. It was true, though, that she’d been researching him. She’d never wanted to before, preferring the ease of ignorance, but after a few days thinking on it she’d decided to look him up. She had a name to go on, after all. Klaus Hargreeves - more commonly known as Number Four: The Seance. When she’d found an article with a photograph of him, his name beneath it in inky black letters, she’d been so overwhelmed that the boy in her dreams was real that she had to sit down until she stopped feeling so dizzy. 

‘I’m sorry for the way I reacted last time,’ she said. ‘It was wrong of me. I didn’t realise it was truly you, or that it was possible to meet you this way.’ 

She’d read as much as she could about him, brief glimpses though they were. For the amount of public attention they received, the lives of the Hargreeves children remained extremely private. But it was not difficult to learn that her boy saw the dead. She’d needed to go outside for some fresh air after discovering that, and she was still struggling to comprehend it a few weeks on. 

‘It’s okay,’ he said quietly. ‘I’d probably start freaking out too if someone came in and started wrecking my room. And I did turn your man into rocks.’

‘It’s a little bit funny, don’t you think?’ she said, smiling. She could laugh at it now. This dream, while icy, was decidedly less terrifying. 

He smiled back at her - a small, fragile smile. ‘Yeah. A bit.’ 

‘I think maybe I deserved it too.’ 

‘Oh, I dunno…’ 

‘I did,’ she insisted. ‘But you deserved better.’ 

He was quiet for a while. She could hear his breathing, shallow and uncertain. Eventually he said, ‘You don’t know that.’ Muttered it into his knees. 

‘Yes I do,’ she said, frowning. ‘There’s no doubt about it.’ 

He shook his head. 

‘Why are you saying no?’

‘I just… never mind. It’s not important. Forget I said it.’ 

‘But it is important! You deserved -’

‘You don’t owe me anything,’ he burst out all of a sudden, looking at her with wide eyes. ‘I get that you’re feeling guilty, but it’s my fault that we’re sharing these dreams - you never asked for any of this to happen, and you shouldn’t have to pretend to care just because the kid you gave birth to sixteen years ago suddenly shows up out of nowhere with a shitload of problems.’

‘Pretending?’ she echoed, shocked. ‘Klaus, all I’m trying to say is that you deserved to meet me on your own terms. I wanted that for you. And for me. But we can’t undo what already happened, we can’t undo any of it. I’ve met you now, strange though it may be, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I meant it when I said I’d come to America to meet you properly, if you wanted to. None of this is pretend. Not one bit.’ 

‘Right,’ he said stiffly. He was back to staring at his knees, one of them jittering up and down. 

‘I do care, Klaus.’ 

‘Sure, sure. Fair warning then,’ he said, and she could tell he was trying to joke, but his voice was wavering too much to be convincing. ‘I’m what they call a hopeless case, so don’t get too attached. You’ll be fed up with me before you know it.’ 

She pressed her teeth together, tried to remember how to breathe evenly. ‘You’re not. You’re only sixteen, for god’s sake. You’re still a child, there’s no child that’s a -’

‘I’m not a child,’ he interrupted. He stood up, shrugging off the coat, letting it fall to the ground. ‘I’m not your child either. Not anymore. You don’t get to waltz in here and pretend otherwise. I don’t need anyone else to disappoint.’ 

He stomped off, unsteady on his feet like a drunk, and she did not follow. Instead she picked up her coat and spread it across her knees, fingers stroking the soft, felted fabric, and she looked back down at the river, trying to make sense of her whirling thoughts and the stabbing feeling in her chest. 

Across on the other bank a duck slipped into the water. It was a patchy, straggly thing with missing feathers. It pushed through the floating debris until it was out in the deepest part, then it dived down, searching for food in the mud at the bottom. 

 

***

Klaus turned off the hot tap and sunk back into the water, stewing in his thoughts. 

He’d always had vivid dreams. They coloured his nights strangely. Often the terrors were too real to be merely products of his imagination; the ghosts got in no matter what, inhabiting his whole being, waking and sleeping. 

He’d figured out about the dreamwalking as a kid. Every now and again, he would wander into his siblings’ dreams or share his own with them, and then when morning broke they’d each whisper to each other about the crazy games they’d played while they waited for training to commence. Back then, he’d been certain it was because of the wires that all fed back into their father’s computer. Minds linked in the dark of the night, mixing signals and brainwaves into a big soup. 

When the dreams continued even after he stopped wearing the electrodes, he supposed it was another power after all. He never told Dad. Maybe dear old Reggie knew anyway and just didn’t care - a power that only worked while asleep wasn’t much use at all - but either way, Klaus preferred to keep it on the down-low. He was used to secrets. It was hardly his biggest.

The others had asked him time and time again where Dad took him for training, and even when they tried to wrench the answer from between his gnashing teeth, he still never told them. He meant that literally. He’d bitten Allison once because she was being so annoying, threatening to rumour him into telling her. It’s not like he’d intended to keep it a secret at first, but the longer he went without saying, the more impossible it seemed. He’d just been so ashamed, couldn’t stand them knowing how afraid he was. They already thought he was the wimpiest, the weakest, and that would just be the nail in the coffin. Ha. 

Thing is, Klaus had wanted to be good, wanted to be the hero Dad expected him to be. He’d lost track long ago of how many times he’d wished his fear into inexistence, desperate and helpless, whispering into the wind like it could speed his words far far away to the great-granter-of-secrets. Please help me be brave. Next time make me not be scared

He’d eventually stopped believing the wishes would come true. It didn’t take many visits to that place to make it clear no one was listening.

Once upon a time he’d wished for someone to come and steal him away from the Academy. The figure changed its form depending on what he cared about the most at the time. Sometimes sweet, honeyed fictional characters, other times the delivery man who brought their groceries to the back door near the kitchen. (Mom wasn’t allowed past the threshold, and the children weren’t allowed to talk to the man but they hid around the corner and watched him, ever so curious as to what his life must be like delivering food to all the families of America, all the secret worlds he must see.)

And of course he’d wished for his birth mother to come for him. Of course he had. They all had, all their little hearts aching for that fragile thing called love. Even just a visit would have been nice. Even if it was only to say hello. 

All of his siblings had been consumed by the idea of their mothers for a while. Ben used to obsess over his books, tantalised by the stories of families, searching for spaces where he could recognise himself. Luther had gone to Dad on behalf of them all asking for information, but when that was shot down, he’d stopped asking and told the others to stop too. Once, though, when Klaus was really bored, he found an acrostic poem in Luther’s sock drawer. It read: 

Mysterious
Ordinary but still amazing
Taller than me
Has a very nice smile
Everyone is her friend
Really good hugs

There was a stick figure lady with blonde hair drawn in the margin.

Allison liked to fantasise that her mother was one of the stars in the magazines she loved so dearly. She was glamorous and eloquent and bad-ass. Five kept a journal where he wrote down all the questions he’d ask his mom if he ever met her. Vanya imagined someone who took her to see orchestras in concert and never told her she wasn’t special. Diego, when asked what he thought his mother was like, described a woman who sounded exactly like Mom. He’d get flustered when they pointed it out. He felt like he was betraying her by thinking of this other lady. 

And Klaus? Klaus could never settle on one version of his mother, but he knew how she’d feel, somehow. The others thought he was making it up - but there was this faint sense of a woman who watchful and quiet one moment, then sharp and red-hot the next like a metal poker left in the flame. He liked to think she’d been tricked into giving him away. She’d turned her back just once and now she wandered the earth searching for him. He considered slipping the delivery man a note in a milk bottle he’d stolen, asking if he’d set it adrift in the ocean so it could find its way to her like all good messages in bottles eventually do. 

It hit them all at different ages, but eventually they stopped wondering. First came the irritating thought that maybe these women weren’t all they made them out to be. A little bit of naivety was exchanged for self-consciousness and all of a sudden the fantasies felt very hollow. 

Then, of course, came the horrible realisation that perhaps they hadn’t been stolen from loving homes at all. Perhaps they’d been thrust away and never thought of again. Why else hadn’t their mothers visited yet? Not a single one? 

The betrayal hurt. Soon the topic became taboo. They’d roll their eyes if it was brought up - they’d been so dumb, so gullible - and they plunged themselves into other efforts, other imaginings. Ones where they still had some control. 

And now Klaus had met his mother. Not properly, but that was a possibility as well. 

He sunk down so that most of his head was underwater except for his nose. The water filled his ears, lapped over his mouth with every breath. 

That woman coming to find him after all these years was the last thing he wanted. He told himself this again and again, hoping it would make it true. The whole fiasco was stressing him out. 

There was a knock on the bathroom door. 

‘Klaus,’ came Diego’s voice. ‘You done yet?’ 

‘No,’ he replied. ‘Go away.’ Water went in his mouth and he choked. 

‘It’s been hours.’ 

‘So?’

‘I need my toothbrush.’ 

Klaus held his hand above his head and watched water drip off his fingertips. ‘I’m pretty sure it’ll still be here when I’m done.’ 

Diego hit the door. ‘Come on, man!’ 

‘Hey!’ he yelled, barely moving. ‘You’re ruining my vibe, Diego!’ 

‘I don’t care, give me my toothbrush!’ 

‘But I need it!’ 

Silence, for a few blissful seconds. ‘Y-you what? Klaus, what?’ He hammered on the door again. ‘Open up now, you freak!’ 

Klaus snorted, then lifted his aching body out of the bath, wrapped his towel around his middle, and grabbed Diego’s toothbrush from its holder. He ran the whole thing under the tap, making sure the bristles were soaked. 

‘All yours,’ he said, opening the door and holding out the brush. 

Diego snatched it up, examining it, shaking the excess water onto the floor. ‘Ugh! What the hell did you do to it?’ 

Klaus smiled sweetly. ‘Oh, that’s between me and Mr Brush I think.’ 

Diego looked up at him, completely disgusted, but a moment later his eyes widened. ‘Shit - w-what happened to you?’ 

‘Ah...’ Klaus said, blanking before he remembered what he’d told Mom earlier as she’d tended to his bruises and the broken glass in his foot. ‘Wild party, bro. You should’ve been there.’ 

‘Yeah, I don’t think I wanna go to that kind of party,’ Diego said.

‘Your loss,’ he replied easily. ‘Have fun brushing your teeth.’

He tried to close the door, but Diego jammed it with his foot. ‘Hey… you okay?’ 

‘Moi? Course. Good as gold.’

Diego didn’t look like he believed Klaus at all. Oh well. ‘You were gone for days,’ he said. 

‘Like I said. Wild party. Not much else to tell. And no offense, Di, but no matter how much I’m loving this little brotherly chat of ours, my bath is getting cold so... toodleloo.’ 

With a little wave he pushed the door until Diego moved his foot away, locked it, and then got back in the bath, running the hot tap once again. 

Yeah, secrets tasted bitter, and they were heavy to carry all the time, but there was no doubt that once there were enough of them they had substance of their own. They slotted into the hollows of his ribcage, making a cradle for his heart and his lungs, side by side with all the other shit keeping him alive. He wasn’t sure who he was without all those secrets anymore.  

He hadn’t told anyone about seeing his mother. As for Lena, he’d barely told her anything about himself at all. 

All his siblings knew about his bullshit habits anyway. They knew but he didn’t think they really understood. He barely understood. He was tired of people trying to understand. 

It had been good practice when he broke his jaw, when the painkillers brought peace and quiet on all fronts. Good practice, keeping everything in, because after that there were plenty of secrets to keep. His cough syrup salvation. Medicine cabinet numbness. That time he stole Vanya’s weird pills, once, twice and then never again. His venture with Dad’s bar, stocked ever so nicely. Oh, how the strong stuff burned back then. He remembered that first sip he’d stolen in the early hours of the morning, unable to sleep, the foul-tasting liquid making him cough until it hit his stomach when suddenly it felt like he was filled with warm. He hid the bottle under his pyjama shirt and stole up the stairs, lightfooted and nervous although no one else was up at that hour. The only reprimand came from a disapproving ghost. Not that they needed to worry - a little body didn’t need much to lull itself into sleep. He was only having a bit. Same as all the other times too. Just a teensy sip to get him through this night, the worst in a while. He’d put it back tomorrow. 

The thing about secrets is that sometimes they’re awfully close to becoming lies. And he can’t keep secrets from himself. He can only lie. 

Later, after enough bottles went missing that Dad noticed, Klaus had to steal the newly-minted key first. Then he had to learn how to pick locks. And that just made it an adventure, didn’t it? Breaking the rules was ever so easy. It was worth getting caught. Worth it for his ongoing experiment: how far could he push it? How much was too much? He told himself he was fine, he had it all under control - and he was fine until he wasn’t, when maybes became why nots, when I want became I need, until he wasn’t himself without it. 

His habit was his worst kept secret, and his habit helped him bury all his other more terrible secrets down deep so he could float on top, weightless, fearless, thin grin and crazy eyes. He laughed a lot but he didn’t often feel it. He lost faith in everyone around him. He found it again in the pills that made it fine for nothing else to matter. 

He wasn’t emo, no matter how much Allison said he was. Wasn’t that why he took the stuff, anyway? So that he could be bright and sunny and happy and light? Whirling around dancing, full of life, surrounded by warm bodies and beating hearts. Touches of love. He loved kissing, loved it when people eyed him up from across the room, eyes dark and sultry. He loved their fingers on his skin, loved teasing them with one step forward, two steps backward, a tilt of the head. Loved it when they shared their packets of fun, loved it when they left marks on his neck that he never bothered to cover up at home, just waiting for one of his siblings to ask. Look how much fun I’m having, he’d say. Look what the world has to offer on the good days!  

His love wasn’t secret. Maybe that was why it hurt so much when it went wrong. 

Klaus sunk deeper in the bath, holding his breath. At least he was home now. But it was little comfort, what with how much he hated the place.

He could hear the blood rushing through his ears as he told himself for the millionth time that his life was complicated enough without Lena in it. He didn’t need another person picking at his heart. 

 

***

Nearly two weeks later, Lena dreamed of him again. She was in a wide, echoing hall. The floor was tiled in black and white - the heels on her shoes clicked as she walked - and the walls were adorned with grand paintings of gardens and still-life flowers. There were so many canvases that to fit them all they had to overlap with each other; no space was left uncovered. Lena spun in a slow circle to take it all in. On the far wall was a table that stretched as far as the eye could see, and upon it were teacups upon teacups all filled with teas of many colours, tendrils of steam curling up into the air and making the hall misty. It smelt strongly of fruit. 

She walked over to it. Leaned in to smell a particularly floral one. 

‘A tea party? That’s very Alice in Wonderland. A bit on the nose for a dream, don’t you think?’ 

She turned around. Klaus was standing right next to her, dressed in the fluffiest purple jumper she’d ever seen and red and green striped pyjama pants, picking up a cup of tea for himself. The tea he chose was scarlet, the cup dainty china painted with black orchids. 

‘Hello,’ she said. 

He smiled, almost shyly. ‘Hi.’ 

‘This is a lot of tea,’ she said, gesturing at the table. 

‘Isn’t it? You must be craving it.’ 

‘Me?’ She didn’t particularly like tea. 

‘Yup. It’s not my dream this time,’ he said, taking a sip. ‘Go on. Choose a cup. I have no idea what this one’s meant to be. It smells better than it tastes, to be honest.’ 

She settled for an earthy green tea in a cup that looked and felt exactly like a halved lemon would if a lemon had sprouted a handle. 

‘Is that a real lemon?’ Klaus asked.

She clinked the cup against his. ‘Nope.’ 

‘Do you reckon it makes the tea taste lemony?’ 

She took a sip. ‘Yes.’ 

‘Brilliant,’ he said, smiling at her again. ‘I like your dreams already.’ 

They strolled to the centre of the hall - it took them quite a while - where there was a tiny wrought-iron side table and a collection of about thirty well-cushioned armchairs. Klaus sat on his chosen one sideways, his long legs hanging over the armrest. Lena took the one next to his, curling up with her legs tucked beneath her. 

‘You seem happier,’ she observed. 

He hummed. ‘I guess. I was having a shit time of it when I last saw you.’

‘You’re alright now?’

‘Better,’ he said. ‘I was being really stupid, you have no idea. But I left when I woke up, after we’d talked. Went home. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. I’d never vanished for so long before, so I was expecting…’ He shrugged. ‘I dunno. My siblings were relieved to see me, at least.’ 

‘It must be busy with so many siblings,’ she said, filing the other things away to unpack later. 

He snorted. ‘Yup. And I’m the annoying one, so that’s really saying something.’ 

‘I have two brothers,’ she said. 'They were also supremely annoying.'

‘Yeah?’ 

‘Yeah. Bruno put frog eggs in my bed once. That’s what I get for being the baby sister, apparently.’ She pursed her lips. ‘He did it ore than once, actually. And for a while when I was in highschool, Henrik used to hide my shoes every morning. He always got up early and I always woke up late, and he thought it was funny to watch me rush around while he got to eat his breakfast in peace. Though he stopped laughing pretty quickly when I whacked him with a newspaper.’

Klaus laughed. ‘I hope you didn’t hit him too hard. My sister Allison’s got a wicked slipper-slap, and it hurts like a bitch.’ He enthusiastically mimed batting a slipper back and forth.

‘Do you steal her shoes too?’

‘Shoes, skirts, whatever takes my fancy, really. I’m always borrowing her clothes, and she hates it. But I don’t hide them, I just wear them.’ He rubbed the sleeve of his fuzzy jumper. ‘This was hers once. Mine now.’ 

‘You like wearing skirts?’ she asked, curious. 

He nodded. ‘I’ll wear whatever. I used to have to wear a uniform every day, so like… anything else is great. And skirts are nice.’ 

‘They are,’ she agreed. 

‘I like your one.’ He reached over, stroking his fingers against the red pleats. ‘Bold.’ 

‘So’s your choice of colours,’ she said, nodding at the green, red and purple eyesore. 

Klaus hushed her, grinning. 

Suddenly a bell rang, echoing around the hall. Their tea party was interrupted by the arrival of at least three dozen builders with spades and rakes and drills in their hands, all of them filing into the hall one by one, mud caked on their boots, fluorescent orange vests catching the light, hard-hats obscuring their faces. They were making a racket with their chatter as they beelined towards the tea table, all of them picking up cups of milky tea, scooping in mountains of sugar from the silvery sugar bowl, passing the sole spoon from hand to hand, then filing out through the door on the other end of the hall in a perfect procession as they slurped at their cups. 

‘Huh. Do you reckon they’ll keep on existing once we’ve woken up?’ Klaus asked. ‘Coming for their tea on the hour, every hour, for eternity?’ 

‘I hope not, for their sake. It’d be a very dull existence.’ 

‘Oh, I dunno,’ Klaus mused. ‘They looked like they were enjoying themselves. And there’s so much tea to try. It could be quite nice. Peaceful.’ 

‘Hm. Maybe.’ She sipped at her own cup. ‘I don’t particularly like tea.’ 

‘Neither,’ he said lightly. ‘I wonder what else we have in common? Because, as it happens, I hardly know anything about you at all. Like... whereabouts in Germany do you live? Tell me about yourself!’ 

‘Well, I'm from Munich. I was born there. You were born there too,’ she added, ‘in my parents' beat-up old apartment. Right on the kitchen floor.’

‘Oh, nice!’ he said. ‘I've always liked to make an entrance. Do you have any other family besides them and the bothersome brothers?’ 

She hesitated before answering. ‘Yes, I do. I’m married. My husband-’

‘The pile of coal?’ he teased. 

‘That’s right. And… I have a son. He’s three.’

Klaus’s expression tightened then relaxed, and when he smiled she could tell it was a genuinely happy smile, bright and warm. ‘You’re telling me I have a baby brother? And I’m only finding this out now?’

‘I didn’t know if you’d want to hear about him.’

‘Of course I do!’ he garbled, springing up in his chair. ‘What’s his name?’

‘Felix.’

‘Felix.’ He rolled the name on his tongue. ‘Shit, I have so many brothers. But he’s a baby so he’s obviously the best. What’s he like?’ 

She smiled fondly. ‘A little rascal. He looks like his papa. Big chubby cheeks and blond hair. At the moment he’s obsessed with worms. He tries to dig them up. I helped him make a worm house in the weekend, so now there’s a big jar full of them in the kitchen.’ 

‘I love him,’ Klaus said.

She laughed. ‘He is very lovable, though he can be quite a brat sometimes. He’s at that age, I suppose.’ 

Klaus raised his eyebrows and said, ‘Oh yeah? I support him. Brat solidarity,’ then drained the last of his tea. After a few moments of easy silence, he got up off his chair to put his cup on the spindly table - it was only wide enough to hold about three cups - and upon sitting back down, he pulled his hands inside the sleeves of his jumper and wrapped his arms around himself. ‘Hey, Lena?’ he asked tentatively. ‘Can I ask you something?’ 

‘Anything.’ 

He cleared his throat. ‘The first time we met, you said… you said you’d wanted to keep me.’

‘I did.’

He nodded, mumbling, ‘Yeah. Yeah, so I was wondering. Why didn’t you?’

She didn’t answer right away, and in her silence he jumped to defend himself. 

‘I don’t mean to accuse you or anything. I just wanna know. But you don’t… you don’t have to tell me, I guess, if you don’t want to. It’s just a stupid question anyway, I know it doesn’t change anything-’ 

‘Klaus,’ she said, and he stopped rambling, looking at her with the wariness of a wounded animal. ‘It’s alright.’ 

He nodded again and looked at his hands. 

‘It was my choice, when it came down to it,’ she said softly, ‘so you mustn’t blame anyone except me. But there were lots of voices with lots of ideas about what would be best for the two of us. And I listened to them more than I listened to my own heart.’ Lena thought back to that day, remembering the depth of her anguish, the fear that she’d made a mistake chilling her to the bone. ‘I regretted it as soon as you were gone,’ she said, like that meant anything now. 

She leaned across her chair and held out her hand. With the briefest of glances he took it. He was trembling. She squeezed it gently. 

‘If I’d kept you, it would have been for entirely selfish reasons. Because you were all mine, this magical little baby that came from nowhere,’ she squeezed his hand again, ‘and I was already starting to fall in love with you. But it would have been a hard life. I still don’t know entirely what it’s been like for you in the Academy, though I know you aren’t happy. And that breaks my heart. I thought I was giving you something better.’

‘With an old man who buys babies?’ Klaus said, looking up, incredulous. He didn’t let go of her hand. 

‘I didn’t question it then,’ she said, trying to explain. ‘I was young. Not much older than you are now.’ 

‘So? I’d never do that. I’d never give my own kid up to a stranger.’

‘Naive, then.’ She rested her cup on her lap, and grasped his hand with both of hers. ‘I’m sorry, Klaus. I truly am. I made a choice with terrible consequences. But I will make it up to you, however I can. I promise.’ 

‘I wasn’t asking for you to do that.’ 

‘I know. I still need to say it. It’s important that you know.’ 

At that moment, the bell tolled and the noisy procession of builders coming for their tea began all over again. 

Klaus sighed and pulled his hands out of her grip, sliding down in his chair. ‘Tea time waits for no one I guess,’ he muttered. 

Lena watched their mechanical, illogical routine, thinking hard. 

‘Klaus, I was wondering… would you let me give you my address?’ It was something she’d been considering in the weeks since the last dream. It was too tricky leaving their meetings up to chance. Especially when he was as skittish as he’d been last time (although this dream was a revelation into how kind and funny he actually was when in a better head space). She wanted to give him the ability to make the choice himself, to contact her on his own terms. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to write to me. I just thought it would be nice for you to have it, so that if you wanted to, you could.’ 

‘You’d want me to write to you?’ he asked slowly. 

‘I would love it. But it’s entirely up to you.’

He considered her with a discerning gaze that made her want to scratch at her neck. Then he shrugged and said, ‘Yeah, okay. Why not?’ 

She told him her address and got him to repeat it back to her until he had it memorised. 

‘It’s fine if you don’t write,’ she reminded him. ‘Or if you wait years before you do. I don’t want to crowd you.’

He laughed. ‘Yup, I got it the first time. My choice.’

‘Just making sure.’ 

‘I know. God, all this worrying - it’s like you think you’re my mother or something.'

She batted at his arm, and he laughed again. She liked seeing the light in his eyes. 

‘Speaking of,’ he said, ‘I should probably wake up for dinner soon, or else the parentals will come a-scolding. It’s been nice dreaming with you, Lena.’

‘You too, Klaus.’

He vanished with a little wave of his fingers and then her dream melded into something new, something much blander. 

 

***

February 19th, 2006

Dear Lena, 

I didn’t know whether to write in German or English. But then I tried writing in German and it turns out I don’t know how to spell anything. I’m pretty good at learning stuff when it’s like… speaking. But not so much when it’s reading. So I guess I can speak German better than I can write it. 

JESUS! CHRIST!

SHE DOESNT WANT TO READ THIS SHIT! !!! !!!

 

February 19th, 2006

Dear Lena, 

It’s Klaus here. Hi. Guten tag. FUCK

 

March 4th, 2006

Dear Lena, 

There’s some things you should know about me. I hinted at it. But I never told you. So I’m afraid you’ve probably gotten the wrong impression of what I’m like. I’m actually pretty messed up. More than just daddy issues. I’m always lying to my family and I steal things from them. Not just clothes to wear. I steal things that I can pawn at the shop down the road and then I use that money to buy things for myself. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve bought with that money. Just to be thorough. You know. 

Items: 

Weed
Oxycodone
Cigarettes
Alcohol (various)
Ecstasy
Cocaine
Xanax
Fancy oil paints that I didn’t really need
A fake ID
Taxi rides that I don’t remember
‘I’m sorry for stealing your things’ presents

Repeat most of the list ad infinitum. 

Christ

Youre lucky munich is so far away or else Id probably steal from you too------

 

March 4th, 2006

Dear Lena,

Maybe I should get Ben to write it. 

Sincerely,
Klaus

 

March 4th, 2006

Dear Lena, 

I’ve spent most of the morning in my room painting on my walls and then trying to write you a letter when that got boring. Dad’s stopped asking me to come to training so I have plenty of free time now. He thinks I distract the others too much. That’s good, I guess. The freedom from training, not the distracting. 

So I guess if you’re reading this then I managed to actually finish one. A letter. They’re pretty hard to write. I don’t really know what to say ------

 

April 19th, 2006

Dear Lena, 

It’s been more than a while since we last dreamed together. You’re probably thinking I don’t want to write. Or that I’ve forgotten your address. I haven’t. Do you want to know how a ghost starts a letter? They write… “Tomb it may concern.” 

I’m sorry. That was a terrible joke. Can you tell I’m nervous? Thing is - I really, really want to write to you. I just don’t know how. 

I don’t know why the dreams stopped just when I was starting to get used to them. I suppose it’s me. I’ve been hoping it’ll happen again. How, though? It’s not like I understand why it happened in the first place. It’s kind of silly, but I find it easier to talk to you there than write to you here. Maybe because in the dreams I can pretend like I don’t really care. It’s just happenstance. If I write you it means I do. 

So the silliest thing I’ve done so far in my attempts to figure out my dream powers is buying some fruity tea. I thought maybe that’d kick the old subconscious into action. I decided I’d have a nap before dinner, because that’s what I did last time, and then I drank 4 whole cups before I went to sleep because that’s my second-best lucky number (also my legal name - did you know that? Fun fact!) (my real lucky number is 69 for obvious reasons, but there was no way I was going to drink sixty-nine cups of tea!!). And then I had an oxy too because that’s what I’d taken last time. Don’t ask...

Ben says I’m writing inappropriate things. Nosy bastard. I’m simply writing things that will let you know how I am as a person. That’s what it’s all about, right? 

Oh yeah!! I told Ben about you. I didn’t tell any of my siblings for a while. To be quite honest I wish I hadn’t told him now because he keeps telling me I should write. He’s probably jealous. (Ha!!! that’s what you get for peeking BEN. Yeah Im writing about you) I even borrowed some stamps from Diego. I’m DETERMINED this time. 

Anyway all that tea didn’t work so I woke up feeling pretty disheartened and haven’t tried much since. SO letter it is.

I’m starting to wonder if I dreamed you up all along. I know I’ve got this address but I still could have just made it up too. Ben says I won’t find out until I post the damn thing. But I can’t post the damn thing until I write the damn thing. Now he’s telling me to stop complaining. 

I’ve written an okay amount now though. I might just leave it here. It’s all a bit nonsense but anyone who knows me will tell you that that’s just how I am. 

One last thing - I think I would like it if you wrote back to me. I need more practise at letter writing so it would be a real big help. 

Tell me about Felix. Does he still like worms? Did you tell him about me?  And your coal man. You never told me his name. And tell me about yourself of course. I hope you’re well. 

Yours overduly,
Klaus 

P.S If you receive this letter and you’re NOT Lena and have never heard of Lena please feel free to burn it/worry for my sanity because she’s probably just a figment of my imagination

P.P.S If you are Lena: hi I guess it’s kinda nice that you exist :)

 

Klaus slipped the letter through the post box slot.

‘Yay,’ Ben deadpanned. ‘You finally did it.’ 

Klaus flipped him off, secretly glad his brother had offered to come with him.  

 

‘How long do you reckon it takes for a letter to go to Germany and back?’

Diego frowned at him, not even looking as he threw his dart. It hit just left of the bullseye. ‘Why are you writing to someone in Germany?’ 

‘None of your business. How long?’ 

‘Hell if I know. Is that why you wanted my stamps?’ 

Klaus took aim with his own dart, sticking his tongue out between his teeth. ‘No, I just wanted to lick them all and put them back again.’ The dart lodged itself a millimetre off from the 20, which meant… a score of 1. He swore. 

Diego rolled his eyes. ‘How long ago did you send it?’ 

‘A while ago,’ Klaus said. ‘April.’ 

Diego got the bullseye this time. ‘Two months is definitely long enough, dude.’ 

‘Yeah, that’s what I thought.’

‘Maybe it got lost? You could send another one.’ 

‘Yeah. Maybe.’ 

 

In the absence of a letter, he finished his box of tea, and another, and another. Didn’t mind the taste of it so much anymore, even got himself a teapot. 

The months melted into each other but no matter how much tea he drank, he didn’t meet the woman called Lena in his dreams again.

He was consumed by other distractions soon enough.

 

And then - incomprehensibly - Ben died. 

Klaus did the only thing he could. The only thing that made any sense to him anymore. 

He left. 

 

***

(In another life Klaus runs away from home when he is thirteen years old. He packs a backpack with as many two minute noodles as he can fit, a beanie and a scarf for when the sun goes down, and three spare pairs of underwear. He folds a photograph of himself and his mother into the pocket of his jeans because he doesn’t plan on coming back and he wants to remember her face, even though he’s furious with her, even though she’s the worst. 

He slinks back at three in the morning two days later because he forgot about the hot water part of the noodles, and the bowl too, and eating them dry makes his stomach hurt. Also he doesn’t have enough money to keep buying hot chips in train stations while also funding his escape. He only has enough for the fare back because an older girl buys his ticket, telling him to plan it better the next time he wants to stick it to the man. She’s nice and shares a cigarette with him, laughs at him when he coughs. 

He lingers outside his mother’s room, pondering, then goes in after dropping his bag outside. There’s a ghost by the wardrobe. He ignores it and shakes her shoulder until she wakes. 

‘Look what the cat dragged in,’ she says croakily, blinking up at him. 

‘Hey, Mama.’

She sits up. She looks stressed, like she hasn’t gotten much sleep. He shivers.

‘You left your warm coat behind,’ she says, eyeing the thinner one he’s wearing.

‘It was kind of sunny when I left.’ 

She huffs, half-exasperated, half-amused, and lifts up the corner of her blanket. He looks at her warily, then gets in next to her. She’s warm, she holds his face to check that he hasn’t changed too much in those few long days, then whispers, ‘I was so worried, Klaus-maus.’ 

He rolls his eyes at the familiar nickname, but he feels warmer too. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers back. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he is.  

In this life, Lena meets a woman who makes her laugh until she snorts at one of the night classes at the local school. Lena teaches basic sewing classes (she’s gotten particularly good at it in recent years out of necessity) and Anika stabs herself in the thumb with a needle because she’s not paying attention to her hands (she’s too busy stealing glances at Lena). Weeks pass and Lena learns that Anika is bossy and nosy and a breath of fresh air. She glows in the night thinking about their conversations, has to hide her grin in her pillow.  

Anika paints Klaus’s nails for him with her fancy varnish which wins him over - not that he needed to be won. He is already smirking at them in the kitchen in the morning as he sips his coffee and nibbles at bread, even winking at Anika when he thinks Lena can’t see. Lena throws a bit of scrunched-up paper at him. 

She and her boy dance and screech to Kate Bush, making a racket in their cosy-not-cramped apartment as they cook dinner. Maria Paulik laughs from where she sits at the table, unseen by Lena. 

In this life, as well as the other, Klaus sneaks out to parties and discovers exactly what makes the ghosts go away. 

In this life, as well as the other, he is lectured about what he does at those parties.

In this life, he is reminded about moderation and safety and that he can always call her if he thinks something’s gone awry, that she trusts him to be careful. He thinks about love and all that sickly shit and trusts that she’ll love him even if he makes stupid mistakes. 

He never develops a crippling phobia of the ghosts. He hates them, he wishes them away, but he understands them, somewhat. Understands his limits. He manages. Sometimes he likes to give himself a break, and Lena understands that too. She keeps an eye on him. He teeters. He always makes it home by morning. 

Her boy gets a job at the local grocers for a few hours after school. He stacks apples and bananas and carrots and all number of things. He likes to slip loose grapes into the grabby palms of little kids and he flirts with the pretty boy who works in the chiller. Grocery stores aren’t particularly haunted. For all the hours people spend wandering them, few return in their afterlife. The lights are bright too. 

In this life, as well as the other, he lines his eyes with black and slings necklaces over his head and paints his nails black too. He draws and writes on the walls of his bedroom, as well as on paper, and he has a dark sense of humour. Sometimes she thinks he looks closer to dead than alive in all that black; when she tells him so he gives her a look that he definitely learnt from her, and he says, ‘Oh what a surprise, mother dear,’ because he’s sarcastic and fed up and frankly amused. ‘I was wondering why all these ghosts were hanging about.’

But in this life heis full of life. He’s her lanky, long-legged son, sharp when he wants to be, but so soft when she catches him off-guard. He gives her sleepy grins in the morning and makes her laugh until her stomach aches with the ridiculous things he says. He plays the fool and he does it so well. 

He cries in his room when Chiller Boy breaks his heart. She brings him a box of tissues and a box of chocolate. She lets him take long showers and doesn’t nag about the hot water.

He gains another mother when Anika moves in, although neither of them will ever admit out loud what they mean to each other. Not for a few years at least. It makes official, though, what had been up until then an alliance made in nailpolish and snark. 

In this life he meets his little sister the same day Lena and Anika do. 

In this life he leaves home with a kiss on the cheek and a reminder to call once he gets there.

In this life he knows people will catch him if he falls.)

Chapter Text

III
IT WOULD BE JUST TO SLEEP AT NIGHT

mom, i'm tired
can i sleep in your house tonight?
mom, is it alright
if i stay for a year or two?

mom, i'll be quiet
it would be just to sleep at night
and i'll leave once i figure out
how to pay for my own life too

 

It was a bitter day early in spring, and the heavens were unleashing a torrential onslaught that soaked Lena through long before she arrived. 

Her feet squelched inside her shoes as she strode up the path to the Academy. Raising a pale hand, she knocked briskly. 

A blonde woman answered. She looked immaculate - hair in perfect shining waves, lipstick bright, smile sunny. ‘Hello there. How can I help you?’ 

‘Is this the Hargreeves’ residence?’ She’d rehearsed what she was going to say for most of her walk here. Still, anxiety roiled in her gut.

‘It is,’ the woman said, still smiling. ‘I wasn’t aware that Sir Hargreeves had any appointments scheduled for today.’ 

‘I don’t have an appointment. I’m here about Klaus.’

The woman’s smile faltered. ‘Klaus? Is he alri-’ She cut herself off abruptly, then began speaking as if from a script. ‘Oh dear. Has he gotten into trouble again? I’m awfully sorry. We can reimburse you for any damages, of course.’ 

‘Actually, I was wondering if he was at home.’ 

The smile fell entirely. ‘I’m sorry, he doesn’t live here anymore.’

‘Oh,’ Lena said slowly. ‘Where does he live?’ 

‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’

‘At all?’

The woman shook her head.

Lena’s eyes darkened. ‘You’re his mother?’ 

‘I am.’  

‘Yet you don’t know where he is.’ 

The woman hurried to explain. ‘His father deemed it unnecessary for-’

‘Unnecessary? For god’s sake, he’s only seventeen!’ 

‘I know - he’s far too young-’

‘At least tell me how long he’s been gone,’ Lena interrupted again, swiping wet hair off her face, ‘and why exactly he doesn’t live here anymore.’ 

‘He ran…’ The lady blinked, expression flickering oddly, and she clutched at the doorframe as if to stabilise herself. ‘He left of his own accord two months and six days ago. It was a Thursday evening, 34 degrees farenheit with a light breeze-’

‘I don’t care about the weather! I want to know where he’s gone!’ 

With her outburst Lena stepped one foot up onto the threshold. To her credit, the woman didn’t flinch back, although she did speedily swing the door over so Lena couldn’t move inside any further.

‘I’m afraid I don’t know. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance. It was lovely to meet you.’ With another flash of a smile, she closed the door in Lena’s face. 

‘Scheisse,’ Lena swore, going back down the path, not even bothering to hide from the fat drops of rain. 

It was devastating, coming all this way only to find out that he was no longer there. Her only thread to chase snipped at the very first moment. She wrapped her arms around herself, gathering her coat tight, already worrying about where on earth he could possibly have vanished to. 

‘Wait! Excuse me!’ 

Lena stopped in her tracks. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that the woman was back on the doorstep, and rather than moving into the rain herself, she was beckoning Lena back up the path. 

Keeping her head down, Lena went back up. ‘Yes?’ she asked sharply. 

The woman leaned close to her, voice low like she didn’t want to be overheard. ‘It’s true - I don’t know where he is. But his brother might.’ 

 

***

Lena knocked for the third time and finally a lanky, tired-looking guy in a college hoodie opened it up. 

‘Yeah?’ he said, rubbing one side of his face. 

‘Are you Diego?’ 

He blinked at her, then hollered over his shoulder, ‘Yo, Diego! Get over here!’ 

‘Who is it?’ a voice shouted back, over the sound of a television turned up much too loud and a heated discussion about basketball. 

‘I dunno, some random lady!’ 

Footsteps approached and the tired guy ducked away without another word, leaving her face to face with Diego Hargreeves. He was casually spinning a knife between his thumb and forefinger.

‘Hi,’ he said. 

‘Hi,’ she echoed. 

There was a moment when they both waited for each other to talk.

‘Do you want something?’ he asked. ‘Or are you just gonna stand there all day?’ 

‘No, I... I’m looking for Klaus.’ 

‘Klaus?’ he said, surprised. ‘He doesn’t live here.’ 

‘I know. I was told you might know where he is.’

‘Well, I don’t.’ He leaned up against the doorframe with its peeling paint, still spinning the knife. One of his flatmates started yelling at the TV. 

‘No idea at all?’ 

Diego ignored her. ‘Why d’you want to find him anyway?’ 

‘Because I’m worried about him.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t waste my time. Knowing him, he doesn’t want to be found.’ 

‘That’s even more reason to look,’ she said fiercely. 

‘Oh yeah?’ he replied, his eyes narrowing. He had a piercing stare. ‘You’re the German lady he wrote to, aren’t you?’ 

She nodded. 

‘You look like him.’ 

‘I would do. I’m his mother.’

He didn’t even blink. ‘We already have a mother.’

‘Birth mother, then.’

‘Whatever. Why the hell didn’t you write back to him?’ 

Lena jolted. ‘What do you mean?’ 

‘The letters. You never replied. Pretty cruel, if you ask me.’  

‘But I did write back,’ Lena said. ‘I wrote back straight away.’ 

Diego went very still; the knife stopped spinning. After a few moments he closed his eyes, muttering, ‘Fucking p-piece of shit…’

She gritted her teeth. ‘Don’t speak to me like that.’ 

‘I’m not talking about you. Where… where did he get you to send the letters? To the Academy?’ 

‘Yes. Where else?’ 

He groaned. ‘Klaus, you utter moron.

Lena stared at him in confusion. 

‘He never got your letters,’ Diego added. ‘Pogo goes through all the mail.’

‘Pogo?’

‘He works for our father. Normally it’s fine, he gives us our fanmail and shit like that… but I guess he… Dad probably told him to…’ He swore again, now holding the knife tight in his grip. ‘They’d know your name. They’d recognise your damn name.’

Lena stepped back, looking around at the dimly lit hallway, at the other battered apartment doors. She laughed once, humourlessly, pained. Three letters she’d sent. One, in reply. And then, after months of waiting - she didn’t want to rush him, wanted him to take his time - she’d sent another one, tentative, asking for little in reply except for a small note to let her know that he’d changed his mind, that he didn’t want to be in contact. If only to stop her from fretting that something had happened. 

She’d known something was wrong when he didn’t reply to that either. 

Not long after she’d sent a third. She’d seen the news about the death. One final plea. The silence continued, so here she was. Desperate times. 

But she’d believed he’d been forbidden to write back. She never thought, not even once, that he’d never received her letters at all. 

God, what had he thought? She felt sick to her stomach. 

‘You have to tell me where he might be,’ she urged. ‘Please. You must know something. Anything.’

He sighed, a short huff of air. ‘Checked the crack houses? The raves, the nightclubs? That’s your best bet. I can’t help you any more than that, ‘cause I haven’t seen him since the funeral, and that was months ago.’ 

‘Crack houses?’ 

‘Maybe,’ he said, shrugging, and her heart broke clean in two. ‘Wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know how well you know him, but he’s trouble.’ He looked her up and down, then sighed again. ‘I’ll help you look, okay? I’ve got nothing better to do today.’ 

 

***

They traipsed over the city, through the seedy parts of town. They didn’t find him. 

Diego was a strange young man. He was standoffish towards her, and bitter when she asked about their home and their childhood. However, he searched with her all afternoon and well into the evening. She would always be thankful for that. 

It was still raining, heavily. She bought an umbrella at a dollar store. Diego refused to use it or buy one of his own, preferring instead a dark hooded raincoat and the steady drip of rain down his nose. 

‘We’re going round in circles,’ he said later in the night, as they were taking a break under a shop front. ‘I don’t think we’re going to find him.’ 

Lena nodded, albeit reluctantly. 

‘I’ll walk you back to your hotel,’ he offered.

‘No, it’s okay. I think I’ll look a while longer.’ 

‘You sure?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

‘Suit yourself.’ He stepped out into the downpour then looked back, a nearby neon sign making the raindrops on his coat glisten red. ‘Good luck. I hope… I hope you find him.’

‘I will,’ she said, hoping to speak it into being true. 

‘Well, when you do… give him my address, okay? He doesn’t know I got out too.’ 

‘Of course,’ she said, nodding again. Weary in the wet and cold. ‘And Diego?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Thank you.’

 

***

Heavy with exhaustion, Lena returned to her hotel, falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow - 

- and then she was running through a long commercial drying room, filled with rippling white sheets and the overwhelming smell of cheap laundry powder. She held her hand out in front of her as she ran, pushing the sheets aside - they were sopping - and in this fashion she ploughed forward, trying to get out of the humid, suffocating room. The further she went, the wetter and heavier the sheets became, water puddling on the floor, testing her step. Somewhere, dryers rumbled and spun. As she ran between a narrow pair of sheets, both nearly transparent with the damp, she sensed shadows on both sides keeping pace with her. Stretching, limber shadows. Too long, too thin. They had no footsteps even as her own splashed and stomped on the concrete floor. She kept glancing at them, her heart rising into her throat, thrumming with fear. Still, she ran - from what, to where, she did not know. The shadows followed her every move.

Lena grabbed at another sheet to lift it over her head when a shadow of a hand appeared opposite her own, mirroring her movements. She tore her hand back.

But now that she had come to a stop, the sheets around her began to tremble, gusting in on a non-existent breeze. They swung and shifted right up against her, closing in, and if she did not want to be entombed here she realised she would have to keep running, so she pressed her hand into the sheet even though shadows danced on all sides -

- and the shadow-hand pressed back.

She screamed, tearing the sheet from its line. Her hand came away black with ink, and the sheet was stained black where she’d touched it too. Right where it had been hanging was an enormous mirror covered in condensation that ran in inky rivulets all the way down to the floor. 

In the mirror was a figure. At a glance, it looked just like herself.

Lena stepped back in fright, pressing up against another sheet - only now all the sheets were falling, revealing ink-blackened mirrors all reflecting her.

But there was something off about the reflections. Something not quite right. Through the dark streaks, the whites of their eyes were too white. Their smiles were too wide, their teeth too sharp. As one, they pressed their hands against the mirrors, staring at her, reaching out, calling out, and Lena could hear the crick of their necks as they jerked their head to the left in mirror-multiplied unison. 

She was trapped within a mirror maze and so she began to run once more, scraping her elbows on the sharp corners of glass. The not-Lenas followed her no matter how many corners she turned, and the passage was getting narrower - the mirrors were dripping inwards from the top like melting candlewax, the figures were leering closer and closer, and now their hands were reaching out through the rippling surface of the glass, trying to grab her, and they almost had her, clawed fingernails snagging in her hair - 

A hand grasped her wrist. She screamed again, scrunching her eyes closed, paralysed with fear. 

‘I don’t think so, bitches,’ said a familiar voice. 

She twisted in shock, just in time to see Klaus plunge his free fist right into the mirror, shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces. The glass fell to the floor, shimmering like rain. The not-Lenas vanished.

Klaus stumbled back from the force of his punch, swaying against her before crumpling over entirely. Lena cried out, falling to her knees next to him. 

It had been over a year since they’d sipped tea together. When she looked at him - a good long look now that she had the chance - her throat tightened with pain. 

He was thin, too thin, thinner than someone of his height should be. His face was haggard. Sharp bones poking through pallid skin, filthy clothes hanging off him, and dark circles under his eyes that couldn’t be solely caused by smudged eyeliner. Greasy hair and papery lips, tempting blood with too big a smile. 

He didn’t notice her investigation. He was barely propping himself up with one arm, head lolling to the side like he was struggling to stay awake within the dream. 

‘Long time, no see,’ he mumbled. He was speaking English. German, perhaps, was too much of a stretch in his current state. ‘Sorry for the nightmare. It’s probably mine.’ 

‘You’re not the only one who has nightmares,’ she said. 

‘The ghosts, though…’ 

‘What ghosts?’ 

His hand inched towards the shattered mirror beside them as though to point, but it didn’t quite make it into the air. 

She decided not to press the point. Perhaps they’d looked like ghosts to him. They could very well have been ghosts. Her own personal selection. 

‘What have you taken?’ she asked, because she wasn’t stupid. ‘Are you safe?’ 

‘Mm, can’t remember.’

She shook him. ‘Hey, wake up.’ 

‘Here?’ he asked, giggling slightly. ‘Or in the real world?’ 

‘Here. Talk to me, open your eyes. I know you can if you try. You just found me.’ 

‘That was a lot of effort,’ he slurred. But he did open his eyes, and he did sit up slightly. ‘You’ve got terrible timing, you know. I got rid of the stamps aaages ago.’ 

‘Tell me where you are,’ she urged, gripping his shoulder, ‘and I’ll come and find you.’ 

‘I’m pretty far away from Munich.’

Where? ’ 

‘I dunno... Some alleyway.’ 

‘Scheisse!’ she swore. ‘Any memorable landmarks?’

‘Uhhhhh…’ He frowned and clacked his teeth together as he thought. ‘Kebab shop. Mm. It’s… green.’ 

‘Anything else?!’ 

He was blinking every other second, eyelids drooping shut. ‘There’s… the river. Bridge. Close.’ 

He slumped over. She tried to catch him, but he disappeared before he reached her arms. 

 

Lena woke up. It was two in the morning and she got dressed faster than she ever had before, ran out through the sheets of rain to hail a taxi, asking him if he knew of a kebab shop near a bridge crossing the river, perhaps in a rougher part of town if that helped. He wasn’t sure, but he was willing to drive her where he thought it might be. She was certain he sensed the urgency in her voice. 

They drove fast - the roads were mostly empty - and she pressed her face against the window, scanning unfamiliar city streets. 

Then, a flash of a glowing green sign.

‘There!’ she cried.

‘They don’t look open,’ the driver observed, pulling over.

‘Doesn’t matter.’ She wrenched the door open and got out, then stuck her head back in. ‘Would you mind waiting? I won’t be long, hopefully.’

With his nod, Lena ran. 

There was indeed an alleyway beside the shop. The shop’s roof jutted out, offering the slightest bit of shelter from the rain, and on the ground beneath it - between the dumpster and a stack of damp cardboard - was a dark shadow in the shape of a person. 

Klaus was unconscious, lying on a flattened cardboard box, curled up in his oversized coat. 

Lena knelt by him and shook his shoulder gently. ‘Klaus, wake up. You need to wake up.’

He stirred, groaning. When he looked up at her, his eyes were foggy and unfocused. ‘Woah… Was dreaming of you…’ His voice was croaky with sickness. 

‘Can you get up? I need you to walk with me, it’s not far.’ 

‘You’re so fast,’ he mumbled. ‘I can’t walk to Germany. Crazy, that’s crazy...’ 

She hooked her arm under his, saying, ‘Come on Klaus, sit up now, nice and slow,’ as she pulled him up to a sitting position, his hand flopping limp over her shoulder. ‘That’s good, see, you’re doing it. Now can I get you to stand up?’ 

He groaned again but unsteadily made it to his feet, leaning most of his weight on her. She gripped him around the middle and began to walk them out, stuck together like they were competing in a warped three-legged-race. She scraped her sodden hair out of her face with her spare hand, before moving it back to stabilise him. 

Seeing them coming, the taxi driver rushed out to meet them, helping Lena with the near deadweight that was her son. 

‘Hospital?’ he asked as they manoeuvered Klaus into the backseat. 

Lena nodded. ‘Please.’ 

Klaus made a sound of distress. ‘No… Not there.’

‘You’re unwell,’ she insisted. 

‘I’m fine. Don’t need hospital.’ 

‘Klaus - I don’t know how to look after you when you’re like this.’ 

He waved a limp hand. ‘Be fine ‘n dandy... in the morning. Just need to sleep.’

Lena got in beside him, letting him rest his head on her shoulder. She held his hand. It was cold and clammy. The driver had his hand on the steering wheel and was looking back at her for confirmation. 

‘I think it’d be best -’ she started. 

Klaus shook his head vehemently. ‘No. I can’t.’ He sounded scared. Properly scared.  

‘Okay,’ she said in a small voice, stroking the back of his hand with her thumb to soothe him. ‘Okay. Back to my hotel, then, please. Where you picked me up.’ 

The driver nodded and pulled back out onto the road. 

‘I don’t know where my passport is,’ Klaus said into her coat.

‘That’s alright.’

‘Do I need it if we’re walking to Munich? Planes, sure. But I dunno… I dunno… Dad’s probably got it. I can’t go see him.’ 

‘You don’t have to. We’re going to take you back to my hotel so you can warm up and sleep.’ 

He hummed. ‘Sounds nice.’ 

‘Just try and stay awake for me now, Klaus. Can you do that, mein Schatz?’ 

He hummed again. 

 

***

After thanking the taxi driver profusely, Lena helped Klaus into the elevator and took him up to her hotel room. 

He was filthy but nowhere near coherent enough to manage taking a shower, so she took off his coat and shoes for him, led him to the bed, stripped the cover back and let him curl up. He was small against the sheets, coltish, immediately slipping into unconsciousness.

She lay down next to him, exhausted. But for a while before she slept she watched him sleeping and wondered, not for the first time, what would have happened if she had fought a little harder to keep her baby close. 

 

***

The spectres were swooping down on him, screaming his name. They were all he knew, his neck twisting as he tried to escape them, his face scrunched up in blind terror. A low, petrified moan escaped his lips. 

He felt the icy rush of them as they engulfed him, like frost in his bloodstream. He was eight years old and trapped, and they were preying on him, murmuring the most terrible things, and he was never escaping them, never, he was never getting out, and Dad was never coming to get him, and he was going to become one of the ghosts himself, lost to memory, loveless and decrepit and dead, dead, dead…

‘Klaus, it’s alright,’ a soft voice said, breaking through his fog of terror. He flinched as hands patted his arm, then relaxed as they did not scratch, did not claw. ‘You’re safe here.’ 

He gasped for breath. It rattled in his chest and before he could see who he was with he immediately burst into a fit of raw coughing. His lungs burned and his eyes watered. 

‘That doesn’t sound good,’ the voice murmured as a cool hand touched his forehead. 

Lying limp on the bed once the coughing eased, Klaus opened his eyes again, blinking the tears away. When he saw who was with him he shot upright. 

‘Lena?’ he croaked, trying to suppress another cough. 

The woman nodded. Klaus couldn’t believe his eyes. She was fully dressed, her clothes rumpled from sleeping in them, and her dark hair was braided over one shoulder messily. She looked real - realer than she ever had in his dreams, weightier somehow, casting shadows, no longer diluted by the dustiness of sleep. And yet…

‘I thought…’ he whispered. ‘I thought I’d made you up.’

Her eyes turned sad. ‘You didn’t. I’m here. Really here.’ 

‘I don’t understand. Why-?’

‘To look for you, mein Schatz. When I heard the news… your poor brother… and after so long not hearing from you, not dreaming together, I had to try to find you, Klaus.’ 

He clenched his jaw at the mention of Ben, the pain of that still fresh even though his brother was sitting in the corner of the room, watching silently. Then he felt a rush of a different hurt, the older one, the bitter frustration that tasted like pointless cups of tea and unused stamps. He’d truly given up on seeing her again, had convinced himself that she was a figment of his imagination, and had started to forget about those strange dreams entirely because it was easier that way, easier than accepting that she didn’t want anything to do with him. Easier to wash it down the drain with everything else that made him feel that empty ache. 

Oh, that ache filled him now. 

‘But I wrote to you,’ he said, hating how weak he sounded. How vulnerable. ‘If you’re real… then why didn’t you-?’ 

‘I wrote back. Straight away, I swear. I never realised you didn’t get them. Your father confiscated them.’

‘He what ?’ 

‘Your brother told me it’s what probably happened.’ 

His heart hammered in his chest and he felt nauseous - a different nausea to normal. 

‘I thought perhaps you didn’t want to write anymore,’ Lena added. ‘Then I thought you’d been forbidden.’

‘Oh,’ he said. 

‘I should’ve found another way. I should’ve come sooner. I’m so sorry, Klaus.’ 

He shook his head. ‘It’s not your fault. I should’ve known.’

Truth was he’d never even considered that Reginald would stop the letters. He mentally kicked himself for being so stupid. Of course that was why. Of course.

‘Hey,’ Lena said, and she put her hand on his arm. Her touch was soft, thumb resting just below the little bruises in the crook of his elbow - but she didn’t look at those, thankfully. ‘It’s not your fault either. Not one bit.’

‘I hate him,’ he said, voice dull. ‘I hate him so much. You have no idea how much.’ 

With that definitive statement, his body was wracked with another coughing fit. This goddamned cold had been wrecking him for well over a week. 

‘You don’t have to ever see him again,’ Lena said once he’d quietened, hand moving to his back, rubbing softly through his worn singlet. 

‘You’re not gonna make me go back?’ 

‘Not there.’ 

His lower lip trembled, betraying him. ‘Okay,’ he whispered. 

Klaus took a moment to study the room he was in - a hotel by the looks of it. Sunlight was peeking around the edges of heavy maroon curtains, staining the room a soft red. The duvet was maroon too, the sheets pristine except for where he’d been lying. He felt a stab of guilt. Felt unbearably dirty. 

Lena continued rubbed soothing circles on his back and Klaus suddenly remembered where he’d been last night and what state he would’ve been in. What Lena now knew about him. If anything threw a spanner in the works it was that. She’d never have come looking for him if she knew, and she wouldn’t stay, not for long, now that she did. 

Klaus settled further away from her with the heavy duvet rucked up around his waist, gnawing on a bit of dry skin on his lip. Bit down too hard and tasted blood. 

‘I didn’t want you to see me like this,’ he said. 

Lena’s expression crumpled but she caught herself before it had a chance to fall too far. ‘I just want to see you safe,’ she replied softly.  

The ache in his chest intensified painfully. His eyes burned. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with words like that. No one said that kind of shit to him. It made him doubt his own senses, made him worry that this was all in his head again, that he was on some kind of weird trip, that finally he’d well and truly lost it. 

‘I’m still not sure… that you’re real,’ he choked out. He wiped at his eyes hurriedly, like there was still a slim chance that she wouldn’t notice that they weren’t just watering from his cough anymore. 

‘I’m real,’ she said, and his breath shuddered through him - he wanted to believe her so, so much - and then she reached out and pulled him into her arms. 

Klaus buried his face in her shoulder, her plait tickling the side of his cheek, while her arms wrapped around him, warm and soft. Yeah, he was really crying now. 

He could list his excuses for her: he was sick with a godawful cold; he’d just woken up from his Supreme Worst Nightmare; he was having one of the most awful years of his life (and that was saying something); no one had ever come looking for him before, not that he could remember; and it had been much too long since someone hugged him like that too, sincere and comforting, asking for nothing. But he wouldn’t tell her any of that, because he was almost certain that she wouldn’t care that he was crying. He knew Mom never minded. It had only ever been Reginald who’d demanded emotional strength. Klaus would choose weakness anyday if only to spite him. 

Eventually he lifted his head from Lena’s shoulder, rubbing at both eyes with his fists until he saw flashes of colour.

‘Are you hungry?’ Lena asked, filling the silence. ‘There’s room service here.’

He flashed her a watery smile. ‘Do you think they have pancakes?’ 

‘We can check.’ 

Lena slipped off the bed and went to the little kitchenette, bringing back the menu. She and Klaus browsed through it together - Klaus was happy once he saw that yes, there were indeed pancakes, but Lena kept trying to tempt him with other things too. He suspected that she wanted to feed him up. One dark voice said that she wanted to get him lots as fast as possible, so that she felt like she’d done a decent job before she finally got him out of her hair. 

Then she told him to take a shower. 

‘I don’t have any other clothes,’ he said, frowning as he looked down at his singlet. It used to be striped in bright colours but it was now two tones of murky beneath all the splotches and stains. His jeans were black - they didn’t show the dirt as much - but the knees were badly frayed and he knew they were filthy. 

‘You can borrow some of mine if you don’t mind,’ Lena offered. ‘Until we can get you some more clean ones.’ 

‘Oh. Thanks.’

Klaus ended up warm, clean and wearing a skirt made from a floaty material. It was soft to touch. He sat cross-legged in the centre of the bed, picking at the berries atop the pancakes, slowly eating them one by one while Lena sat against the headboard, sipping black coffee. 

Ben was sitting on the bed as well. ‘She’s definitely real, Klaus,’ he said. ‘I can see her too.’ 

Klaus didn’t reply and focused on putting a raspberry on top of his little finger like a hat. He tried not to look at him too much. Ben never went away, no matter how much he took. God knows he’d been testing it. 

He’d downed a couple of pills when Lena was distracted on the phone and he was starting to feel more like himself again. 

‘I went to the Academy yesterday,’ Lena told him now, breaking the silence. ‘Your mother said you ran away.’ 

‘I moved out,’ he corrected.

‘Where did you go?’ 

‘A friend’s place.’

‘But you’re not staying there anymore?’

Klaus shrugged, twirling the raspberry on his finger as delicately as he could so he wouldn’t crush it. ‘I could go back there. If I wanted.’ It was only a little lie, really, but from the way Lena was pursing her lips, he figured she’d seen through him. ‘I can look after myself, you know,’ he added. 

‘You shouldn’t have to,’ Lena said. 

‘You can’t look after yourself,’ Ben said. ‘Don’t kid yourself. You barely find food most days, let alone a place to sleep.’ 

Klaus ignored them both, thinking, I’ve found plenty of beds, asshole. He licked raspberry juice off his finger, then popped the whole berry in his mouth. 

‘A safe place to sleep,’ Ben said a moment later. 

Klaus sighed in frustration. Typical Ben. So clever yet somehow not realising how much it hurt Klaus to see him all the time and not be able to hug him. He wished desperately and not for the first time that Ben would go and haunt some other poor sod, someone who couldn’t see him.

‘Don’t let your pancakes get cold,’ Lena said, letting the topic slide, a small smile as peace offering. 

He smiled back, and it still counted even if it didn’t reach his eyes. Most didn’t these days. 

 

***

He was bundled up in Lena’s spare jumper. She’d tried to get him to wear her coat too but it looked ridiculous with its too-short sleeves. It was sunny out today so it mattered less, he told her, but she’d tsked and said, ‘Not with a cough like that.’ 

While they walked down the street he lit up a cigarette, and her head snapped over at the click of the lighter. 

‘You-!’ She was gaping at him before her eyes narrowed and a quick hand hit it out of his mouth. 

‘Hey!’ he protested, watching it soar into the gutter.

‘No smoking!’

He laughed, amused by her rigidity. ‘You’re not the boss of me.’ 

‘I am today. And I say no smoking.’ She waggled her eyebrows at him. It was probably meant to be commanding. 

‘You’re funny,’ he said, scrambling to pluck it from the roadside. 

‘It’s bad for you. You’re already coughing, already sick.’ 

He took a pointed drag, grinning, then coughed.

‘Stop it!’ She tried to grab it from him and he danced out of her way. 

‘Did you know your accent gets really strong when you’re annoyed?’

‘Good. I don’t want an American accent.’

Klaus laughed again. ‘Do I sound American?’ he asked in German. 

‘Ja. It’s bad. Grating. Every German person will be able to tell.’ 

‘Wow. Thanks.’ 

He went to take another drag and she snatched the cigarette away, stomping on it. 

‘A bit of smoking is the least of your worries, you crazy woman.’ 

‘I know. Still, no smoking.’

‘You know I’m already high, right?’ he drawled, almost bragging. A quieter part of him deflated, wondering why he was doing his best to shock her, saying, really, Klaus? Again?

‘Yes, I know.’

‘I mean like, right now.’ 

Her glare was piercing. ‘I understood the first time.’ 

‘You did? Huh.’ She set off down the footpath at a quick pace. He had to skip a little to catch up with her. ‘You kept quiet about that.’ 

‘Can’t throw away what you’ve already swallowed.’ 

He stared at her in surprise. People usually weren’t so blunt. ‘How’d you tell?’

‘I saw you.’

‘Do you have eyes in the back of your head or something?’ 

‘There was a mirror.’ 

He blinked. ‘Aha! So you were spying on me!’ 

‘You weren’t subtle. No more, okay? And don’t try to be sneaky. I’ll know.’ She tapped her head. ‘I’m pretty clever.’ 

‘Sure, sure,’ he said, because that was the path of least resistance. He wished it was as easy as she made it sound. 

 

***

When he was trying on clothes - soft and clean and new against his skin - he stood next to her just outside of the cubicle and was struck by their reflections. 

‘I look just like you,’ he said softly, staring at their matching eyes, their hair which curled in the same lazy way. They weren’t identical - their faces were different shapes, her nose was rounder, and he towered above her. He also looked rather awful and unwell where she was healthy - but, still, there was no doubt about their relation. He found himself somewhat in awe of it. 

Lena smiled at him in the mirror. Her eyes crinkled. ‘Must be all my DNA. Though where you got your Y-chromosome from, I don’t know.’ 

He grinned. ‘Magic, right? Or maybe the Holy Ghost? That’d explain a lot.’

‘Oh? Do you turn water into wine often?’ 

‘I wish,’ he scoffed, and she pinched him lightly on the arm. He laughed, brushing her hand away. ‘You know, that reminds me - once my sister Allison actually tried doing that. The water to wine thing, with her power.’

‘The rumours?’ 

‘Yeah!’ Klaus ducked back into the changing room to try the next thing. ‘She was going through a phase where she was convinced she was actually the daughter of God. She tried the water trick, and tried to exorcise me of “my demons.” And she tried to get us all to start praying to our heavenly parent, but I think only Ben and Vanya and Luther ever did. It was kinda sweet, even though none of it worked. And for all I know, she could be right.’ 

‘Maybe she is,’ Lena said. 

‘You think?’

‘I don’t know. It’s always been a mystery.’

‘Aw, come on! Surely you have some idea! Before it happened, did you ever hear the voice of God or an angel whispering in your ear at night? Or like, when you were brushing your teeth or on the bus? I don’t know if God’s a stickler for a schedule or not. They probably burst in on you at the most inconvenient of times.’ 

‘Nope,’ she replied. ‘None of that. Not a word nor a warning.’

‘How inconsiderate!’ he said, muffled as he pulled a t-shirt over his head. ‘At least Mary had nine months to think about it. How old were you, by the way?’ 

‘Eighteen.’

He stuck his head around the curtain, mouth open. ‘No way!’ 

At that moment, a woman in the cubicle across from Klaus’s drew her curtain back, shooting them a deeply concerned glance before exiting with her pile of clothes. Klaus snorted, and threw the balled up t-shirt in her wake.

‘I told you I was young, in the dream,’ Lena said. ‘You were mad if I’m remembering correctly.’

‘Yeah, well, I’d only just turned sixteen then. I thought that eighteen was like a proper adult. Now, I can’t imagine what I’d do if I had a kid in … what? Half a year? That’s crazy!’ 

Lena smiled sadly from where she was sitting. 

‘I don’t blame you, you know,’ Klaus said, ducking back inside. ‘For giving me up. I know I was rude about it before, but I was being a moody little shit.’ 

‘And I don’t blame you for that. You have every right to be angry.’ 

‘Not at you,’ he insisted. ‘You’re not the one buying children. Seriously - you were basically a child yourself! Anyway. I’m not mad at you anymore. You flew across the world to find me, didn’t you?’

He pulled the curtain aside, dressed fully in his new clothes. 

‘I should have done that years ago,’ Lena said.

 

***

They were waiting in line to pay, both with bundles of clothes in their arms.

Lena was quiet, unable to stop fretting about the fact that, yes, she should have made this trip long, long ago. Even last night she hadn’t fully admitted it to herself, too caught up in the stress of finding him, but since this morning when she’d woken him from a nightmare that had him writhing in the sheets, the extent of Klaus’s problems - his trauma - was impossible to ignore. It cropped up in all the little things he said, in his obvious homelessness and his addiction, the way he veered between hiding the truth shamefully and flaunting it like he hadn’t a care in the world. She’d not at all been prepared for just how bad it was. 

Yet it wasn’t fully a surprise. All these years, perhaps from the day she passed him into Reginald Hargreeves’ arms, she’d known in her gut that something wasn’t right. 

How easy it had been to pass off their dreams as worlds of her own making, subconscious ruminations of her own guilt rather than a cry for help from her boy, breaking through barriers of distance and anonymity, physics and logic. Her boy reaching out to her, and Lena reaching out to him too, only to go and ignore the desperate message.

She’d known. Even when he was a child she’d known yet still ignored those unsettling dreams, shoving the truth deep, deep down, afraid to think about what it meant. 

Klaus was standing next to her, fiddling with the tag hanging off a pair of socks and staring off into the distance, zoned out. The cardigan he was wearing was inside-out. There was the slightest shadow of facial hair above his top lip while his cheeks were still smooth with youth, and the hair on his head flicked out at all angles, curling on the nape of his neck, shiny now it was clean. He was tall enough to rest his elbow on her shoulder if he wanted to. 

Lena was suddenly struck by how real he was. 

Maybe she would’ve come searching sooner if she’d been able to see him like this the whole time. The normalcy amongst the horror. It was barely enough that she was here now, here to pick him up off the streets, trying to clean his wounds and ease his hunger. She knew that hunger ran deep. She knew those wounds might never heal. 

Klaus frowned, breaking out of whatever reverie he had fallen into. ‘Hey, Lena?’

‘Mm?’

‘Were we… were we talking about passports last night? Or am I just making that up?’

‘We did, a little bit,’ she said. ‘You seemed to think I was walking you back to Germany.’ 

‘Ah,’ he said with a faint grin. 

They moved further up in the queue, both deep in thought.

‘You know,’ Klaus said slowly, barely audible under the loud speakers in the store, ‘when I was still waiting for a reply to that letter, I used to imagine going to Germany. Just sometimes. I was really hoping you’d reply. Not only because it would’ve meant you were real, but also because a part of me wanted… I dunno.’ He glanced at her hesitantly. ‘If you were real, then I could, like… meet you. Properly. And Germany seemed far enough away from Dad that he wouldn’t be able to find me there.’ He shrugged. ‘Then again, I doubt it ever would’ve happened, even if the mail did get through. I was always coming up with half-baked plans on how to run away.’ 

Another chilling rush of regret washed through Lena. She didn’t think she’d ever forgive herself for her part in all of this hurt. 

Still, she shuffled the clothes she was holding into one arm and laid her free hand on his shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t mind if you came back to Munich with me,’ she said, soft and calm despite what she felt. ‘I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, I’d be quite happy if you did.’ 

Klaus looked at her hand, then right in her eyes. 

‘It’s up to you,’ she added. 

‘I’ll think about it,’ he said, before dumping his clothes on the counter and holding up the tags of the ones he was wearing to the shop assistant. 

 

***

‘I see people drinking from teapots in there all the time,’ Klaus said, face pressed up against the glass. ‘We should go!’ 

‘I don’t even like tea,’ Lena replied, darting to the side of the footpath where she was safely out of the way of rushing pedestrians. 

‘Well, I do. Come on, for old time’s sake! I’ll pay!’ 

She raised an eyebrow. ‘Really? With what money?’ 

‘I have a little bit, I think.’ He dug his hands into his new coat pocket before slumping in disappointment. ‘ Merde. Wrong coat.’

‘It’s okay, I’ll get it.’

‘I can’t let you buy everything,’ he said, pouting at her. ‘You already got me so much.’ 

‘Don’t be silly, Klaus.’ 

‘I’m not being silly, I just know how much things cost now. All this stuff was expensive.’ 

She tutted. ‘They weren’t. They were very average in fact.’ 

‘It doesn’t matter! I wanna buy you tea!’

‘Buy it for me another time, then. What do you say? Tea tomorrow at two? And in the morning you can show me your favourite sights. I don’t know this city at all.’ 

He hesitated. ‘Ugh, fine. I guess that’ll do.’ 

 

***

His high started to wear off in the afternoon. He was hit with a wave of lethargy and felt dull, and he didn’t really know if it was the cold that was making him ache or if it was the withdrawal from the stronger stuff he’d taken in the alleyway. Or a bastardly mixture of both. He was starting to jitter, and kept scanning alleyways for a familiar dealer as he and Lena walked. Only they were in the wrong part of town. And it was barely 4pm. And he’d have to give her the slip - he knew she was getting more and more suspicious of him, so that was going to be quite the little mission. Would she let him back into her hotel room when he slunk back high as a kite? Unlikely. Would she still consider taking him all the way to Germany with her? Even more unlikely. Near on impossible. But then maybe he should do it if only to make it obvious exactly what she was getting into with him, because clearly she had no idea, no idea whatsoever. Maybe she was naive, even now. Maybe he was being naive for saying he’d think about it. What kind of world did he think this was? Miracles didn’t just drop out of nowhere. She wasn’t his goddamn fairy godmother. 

‘Shall we get some food and head back to the warmth?’ Lena asked, and Klaus panicked.  

‘Oh, we don’t have to go back yet.’ His throat hurt because he’d been talking so much, bringing out the veneer of cheeriness - leaning on mania. ‘We should explore over the river. That’s the fun part of town.’ 

‘I think you need to rest. You seem tired.’ 

‘I’m fine.’

‘Well, I’m rather exhausted. Jetlag.’

‘You should go back and sleep then. I’ll come in later.’ 

‘I want you to come with me,’ she insisted. 

He bristled. ‘You’re not my babysitter. I told you, I know how to look after myself.’ 

‘So where are you going to go, hm?’ 

‘Places.’ 

‘Oh? And to do what?’ 

‘Stuff. I dunno. Catch up with some friends.’ The lies were lacklustre. Something was wrong with him. Perhaps it was because he was unwell. It wasn’t helped by how she was looking all trodden-upon and sad; he felt terrible because of it. 

‘You told me you wouldn’t take anything more.’ 

‘Yeah, well, that’s the truth.’ Klaus realised he was scratching at his skin absently, to add to the general twitchiness. Great. He forced himself to stop. 

‘Is it?’ 

He didn’t answer. 

Lena sighed and began rummaging in her coat pocket, pulling out a key card to her room. ‘Here,’ she said, offering it out to him. ‘You’re right. I’m not your keeper.’ 

He took it, immediately tapping it against his thumbnail in agitation. What did she mean by giving it to him?

‘We’ll get dinner when you’re back,’ she said. ‘You remember where the hotel is? The room number?’ 

‘Yeah.’ 

‘Good.’ She took the bags he was carrying from his hands. ‘See you soon, then.’ 

‘Uh… sure.’ 

And that was it. They went their separate ways. Klaus started walking, feet leading him down a well-trodden path to the other part of town with little thought. He was frowning, hands in his pockets, feeling deeply confused. 

Ben appeared beside him. ‘What are you doing?’ 

‘Go away,’ Klaus said. 

For a moment, Ben seemed startled by the fact that Klaus had finally acknowledged him. He recovered quickly. ‘That’s your mother you just left behind.’ 

‘Oh wow, really? I hadn’t noticed.’ 

‘Are you seriously doing this?’ Ben said, all disappointment and sense. ‘She flew across half the world to find you, Klaus.’

‘So?’ he snapped. ‘What do you want me to do?’ 

‘I don’t know - literally anything else? Don’t be an idiot?’

Klaus ignored him, walking faster. Ben did as ghosts do and ignored the laws of physics, appearing in front of him again. 

‘Klaus, come on! Go back.’ 

‘Just leave me alone.’

‘No. This is the first time you’ve talked to me in weeks. Unsurprisingly, I think I’m gonna stick around.’ 

‘Asshole,’ Klaus hissed. 

An older couple glared at Klaus as they walked past him, and he could hear the disapproving tuts from behind, the muttered complaint of ‘Kids these days...’ He spun around as he walked, pulling the finger at their backs. 

‘You’re making a mistake, Klaus,’ Ben said. 

Steadfastly ignoring his ghostly brother, Klaus wandered and wandered and wandered until he reached a rundown second-hand electronics store. 

‘Yoohoo, Jonesie!’ he called as the bell above the door chimed. It was a dingy little place, with lights that were far too dim, and shelves groaning with dusty old appliances.

At the front desk which was tucked in a gloomy corner of the shop, the man called Jones was working over an old tape player, head bowed, screwdriver in hand. He glanced up, and upon seeing who it began to watch Klaus carefully. ‘You got cash this time?’

‘Yeah, course -’ 

‘I want it first. No funny business.’

‘What? From me?’ 

‘I’m serious, Klaus.’ 

Klaus made a fuss of searching pockets he knew were empty. ‘Ah, shit,’ he muttered. ‘I swear it was there a minute ago.’ 

Jones sighed and went back to fiddling with the tape. ‘Sorry, dude. It’s not happening.’

‘Aw, come on, Jonesie, just this once,’ Klaus wheedled. ‘You know me, you know I’ll get the cash to you when I can -’

‘No money, no goods.’

Klaus leaned forward, resting his elbows on the counter, but as soon as he got close Jones stood up - and he was no small guy. Six foot four and solid as a bull. There was a warning look in his eye, screwdriver secure in his fist. 

Reluctantly, Klaus stepped back, holding his hands up. ‘Okay, okay, easy big guy. I get it.’

‘Don’t wanna see you in here again if you’re only mucking me around. That clear?’ Then, upon Klaus’s nod, he jerked his head at the door. ‘Scram, kid.’ 

Klaus scampered out, sitting down with a huff on a nearby bench. The sun was setting and he had no money and an insatiable itch. There were other ways, of course, to help him out of this little conundrum. Sticky fingers. A coy glance. He closed his eyes, eyelids burning orange with the sunset rays, leg jittering up and down, thinking, thinking, thinking… 

As he thought, his thumb idly stroked the soft fabric of his new jacket, sliding along the creases where it lined his elbow, the bruises that lay beneath.

 

***   

Lena was too worried to sleep. She was lying on her side, mentally walking through all the city streets she’d traipsed through yesterday, picturing Klaus huddled in another alleyway, incoherent. 

She had no idea what she was doing. Had it been sensible, letting him go off like that? Should she have been stricter? Was it his test to see how much she actually cared? Had she blown it entirely, acting all nonchalant when really she felt like she was being wrenched apart? The only consolation was that he had the key. She hoped with all her heart that he came back here, even if he was in a bad way. She hoped he knew that she’d look after him, that giving him the key meant that she wanted him back here with her no matter what. She hoped he knew that there were no conditions.

Her stomach rumbled. She’d been putting off dinner. With a yawn, she got up and went to the window, looking out at the twinkling city lights. 

Behind her, the door beeped. 

‘Klaus,’ she said, seeing him enter in the reflection, and she spun around.

He waved jazz hands at her, though he looked sheepish and tired. ‘That’s me.’ 

‘Are you alright?’

He sighed. ‘I’m pretty hungry - can we still get dinner? I know it’s late.’ 

‘Of course. I haven’t eaten. What do you fancy?’ 

If he noticed her studying his eyes, he didn’t say anything. She didn’t mention anything about them being bloodshot either. 

 

***

She woke up in the night to the light in the bathroom shining out through a crack in the door. 

Inside, Klaus was arguing quietly with someone. 

‘- well maybe I will go back with her. But it has nothing to do with you… Oh my god, you’re so much more annoying now. Get a life, Ben…’ He scoffed, the hushed laugh echoing slightly in the hollow little bathroom. ‘Can so say it. You’re the one haunting me, you’re asking for it… Yeah? And say what? “Go get a death?” That just sounds dumb…’ 

The sink ran and then he came back out into the main room, leaving the light on so there was a faint strip of yellow falling across the carpet. The bed dipped as he lay back down on his side. 

‘Can’t sleep?’ Lena said. 

Klaus made a startled sound in the back of his throat. ‘Shit. I didn’t realise you were awake.’ 

‘I heard you talking.’

‘Oh. Sorry. I was trying to keep it down.’

‘It’s fine.’ She propped herself up on an elbow, wondering if she should ask this question or not. Watching him carefully, she decided to go ahead. ‘It was your brother, wasn’t it?’

Klaus was silent for a long moment, eyes glinting in the half-light. ‘Yeah,’ he said eventually. ‘Does that freak you out?’

She shook her head. 

‘Most people hate knowing they’re around,’ he added.

‘What about you? I can’t imagine how hard that must be.’

‘...It’s my power.’ 

‘Even so.’

Again, he lay there in silence. After a while, he pulled the duvet up over himself so that only his nose and eyes were peeking out. ‘It’s not the best,’ he murmured. Then, even quieter, ‘Sorry, Ben.’ 

Lena thought about what it meant to be unable to mourn properly. To see those loved ones who have lost their lives lingering on around, always reminding, never properly at peace. Some days it might seem like a gift, like they never really left. On others perhaps it felt like a curse. Especially now, when everything was still so raw. 

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Klaus said, vulnerable and small. There was a pause, then he whispered, ‘Just - don’t go. Please.’ 

‘Are you talking to me?’ Lena asked.

Klaus shrugged and closed his eyes firmly.

 

***

They got tea and Klaus paid for it. They sat by the window, watching rain stream down the glass. They made each other laugh as they pinched tiny teacup handles, seeing how many ridiculous ways they could hold the cups in attempts to be fancy, little fingers sticking out at extreme angles, putting on stupid accents as they clinked the delicate china together. 

‘Oh, yes, darling,’ Klaus drawled, when the waitress asked them if everything was to their liking. ‘It’s simply spiffing. The aroma on this blend is just… exquisite.’ He kissed his fingers. ‘Mwah!’ 

The waitress managed to restrain her glare (a fine talent, Lena thought) and proceeded to leave them alone for the rest of their visit - apart from when Klaus was fiddling with the little tealight candle in a jar on their table and accidentally set a napkin on fire. 

(He said it was an accident. Lena had been looking in her bag for photos of Felix to show him, so she wasn’t exactly sure.)

 

***

As they walked through town, Klaus linked his arm through Lena’s. He was holding up the flimsy umbrella she’d bought - it was covered in red polkadots, which was so very on-brand of him.

It was nice, walking together like this. She seemed to enjoy his closeness at the very least. He figured she’d expected him to be standoffish, and he was at times, but mostly in an emotional kind of way. He’d never been iffy about personal space and all that jazz. Feelings, though… they were harder to share. 

All in all, he was amazed by Lena. So far she’d put up with all his nonsense. She wasn’t afraid to scold him either, and usually he’d do anything he could to avoid that - god knows he’d had enough punishment and critique with Reginald - but for some reason he didn’t mind it as much with her. Maybe because she didn’t seem to be doing it for the sake of strictness, so that even though it still got on his nerves, he didn’t snap at her or ditch her altogether. She was never cruel. He almost - and this was taking him into really dangerous territory here, but he couldn’t stop himself from noting it, even if he’d never say it aloud - felt like it meant she cared about him. 

Maybe, maybe. 

The rain was dropping off to a light mist and he twirled the umbrella above them, sending drops flying. They’d reached a bougie walkway by the river. It was a pretty area, bursting with overpriced pop-up stalls where they could browse useless knicknacks (and maybe pocket some of the ones that stood out) or order overpriced food (he’d spent all the money he had on the tea, but maybe Lena would by him some churros). It was the sort of place that put bars and spikes in the middle of the benches so distasteful vagabonds had no way to catch a quick nap or ease aching muscles. One time Klaus had set up along the busy walkway with his little sign asking for spare change; it had taken about fifteen minutes for a police officer to order him to leave.

They wouldn’t chase him away today. They were here to stroll, not loiter. Excitedly, he pulled Lena down the rain-slick steps.

‘Is this the river we dreamed about?’ she asked, twisting her head to look around, rather like an owl. 

Klaus blinked. ‘Oh yeah. It is.’ He tried to drum up the memory of the dream, which was hazy from time and also the fact that he’d dreamt it while utterly wasted. He remembered it being dirty and cold. Abandoned. ‘It’s a lot nicer in real life, right?’ 

‘It looks pretty in the rain.’ 

And that was true. There were fairy lights and lanterns strung up across the footpath; they glittered through the misty dusk. The smell of roasting coffee drifted out from a coffee stand, cosy in the cool air. Everywhere people walked to and fro with umbrellas of all colours - a small kid had one that was bright yellow, with eyes and a beak at the front like a duck. Umbrellas everywhere. Constant reminders. A busker was playing the violin under a little alcove and if Klaus closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back at the Academy, music emanating from the room next to his, sweet little melodies and exciting jigs and scales upon scales. He wondered how Vanya was doing. He wondered how they were all doing. Whether Allison had escaped to Los Angeles like she’d always dreamed. Whether Diego had gotten out too. Hadn’t he wanted to go to police school? That would be funny. Klaus didn’t know what he’d do with a pig in the family. He even spared a though for Luther. Poor guy. So caught up in Dad’s net that he didn’t notice it digging into his skin, leaving scars. 

Klaus tightened his hold of Lena’s arm. Earlier today she’d shown him a couple of pictures of Felix. His baby brother. The kid had an unfortunate bowl cut, flyaway strands of white-blonde hair that was starting to go dark at the roots, and chubby red cheeks. When Klaus looked at the photos, carefully holding the edges of the glossy paper, there’d been this lurch in his stomach, the same as when Lena had first told him about Felix. Seeing his muddy little gumboots and his bright wide smile, squinting happily at the camera like any normal, well-loved child should - all Klaus could think was that should have been me. He’d shaken it off quickly. It was pointless thinking like that. 

Now, he pushed all the muddled thoughts about his family and Lena and Munich-Munich-Munich from his head, saying, ‘Ooh, don’t these smell deee-lish?’ as he steered Lena towards the churro cart.

She looked up at him with her usual sardonic smile. ‘Go on then. My treat.’ 

He clapped his fingertips together in a tiny cheer of thanks.

 

***

‘Just so you know, I fly back in two days,’ Lena said as they ate boxes of chinese takeaways on the hotel room floor. 

They’d bought a whole assortement of dishes and had set them up between them like a little picnic. Klaus had just taken another long shower, and maybe his skin was pink from scrubbing, or perhaps two full days of meals had chased the pallor from his skin. Either way he was looking much healthier - almost content. He was cracking jokes, telling her lighthearted stories of his misadventures and seemingly endless facts about his siblings. Turned out her Klaus was a right gossip. 

For a second or two he seemed taken aback by her statement. He covered it up quickly, like he always did, but she could still see lingering uncertainty in his eyes. 

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Sure.’

‘There’s still plenty of time to buy you a ticket.’

‘If I decide to come.’ His chopsticks hovered over his plate, a piece of broccoli suspended between. He watched her warily. 

‘Of course. I just thought you should know how long you have to decide. Even if you don’t know until right before, I’m sure we can wrangle something last minute. I don’t mind.’ 

Logistically, it would be trickier the less time they had to plan, to pack. They still needed to fetch his passport from the Academy. Lena knew Klaus didn’t want to go back there; she was happy to go in his stead and to talk to his strange mother again no matter how infuriating she found her. She was even willing to miss her own flight if it meant she wasn’t travelling back alone - though she thought it best to keep this from Klaus. These sorts of decisions were always easier to make with a time limit. She figured he would mull it over for months if he could.

In her head, she was hoping that by getting him out of this city, far from Reginald Hargreeves, far from all his familiar haunts, far from tantalising reminders of his dangerous habits, then maybe, maybe, he might be able to heal somewhat. Even if it was only brief. Perhaps all he needed was that little shove in the right direction. A warm bed and three hot meals a day couldn’t hurt, and people who asked how he was - that was more important than anything.

All she had was her instinct. She knew she couldn’t ever mend what had been broken, but at the end of the day she was going to try her best to pick up the pieces. 

Klaus put the chopsticks down. ‘You don’t have to do all this, you know. I don’t… I don’t deserve it.’

‘What are you talking about? Of course you do.’

‘You’ve seen what I’m like.’

‘So?’

‘So, I’m bad news, and -’

‘Saying that won’t change my mind, you know,’ she interrupted. This wasn’t the first time he’d tried to sway her into thinking he was no good, not worth her time. No matter what she said, it kept creeping into their conversations. 

‘- and ,’ he continued forcefully, ‘I’m probably going to end up in prison one of these days. Or dead.’

Lena’s throat tightened. ‘Don’t say that.’

‘Why not? I know that’s the road I’m on, people have told me so more than enough.’

‘You should prove them wrong, then.’

There’d been a retort ready and waiting on his tongue, but Klaus faltered as her words sunk in, like he’d never thought of it in that way before. Eventually he muttered, ‘That’s impossible.’

‘Of course it isn’t,’ she snapped. 

‘Yeah? As if you know what it’s like.’ 

‘Klaus,’ she said, exasperated, but trying to keep her voice level. ‘I don’t know what it’s like for you. Of course I don’t. But I do know that even when the most difficult things seem impossible, they actually turn out to be manageable. Hard, but manageable. Especially when you have someone to help you.’

That was the wrong thing to say. A dark blush - whether of anger or shame, she wasn’t quite sure - bloomed across his cheeks. ‘I don’t want anyone’s help,’ he said. ‘I don’t need it.’

‘Hey,’ she said, grabbing his hands firmly. ‘We both know that’s not true. I’m sorry, but you know it. Everyone needs help, and you’re my child. ’ He tried to tug his hands away but she held on tight. ‘I’m going to want to look after you no matter what - no matter these terrible things you’re dealing with. Hell, I want to look after you even more because of them. You deserve it. And you deserve more than what I’ve given you so far! New clothes and food? That’s nothing.’

He was holding himself as still as a statue. ‘It’s not nothing to me,’ he whispered. 

Lena wondered how much more shattering her heart could take. 

Klaus’s hands were trembling a bit when he pulled them away. ‘I’m just… I’m just gonna go out for a smoke,’ he said, gesturing listlessly at the miniscule balcony. 

Lena watched him from the corner of her eye while he was outside. He was hunched over, his back to her, smoking a joint with his elbows leaning on the ledge.

She sighed deeply, running her hands over her face. A rather sizeable part of her wanted to lock herself in the bathroom and sob. But she didn’t. After Klaus had lingered out there long enough to chill anyone to the bone, especially someone who was only wearing pyjamas and an untied hotel dressing gown, Lena nudged the door open. 

‘Are you okay?’ she asked. ‘I’m sorry that I upset you.’ 

He glanced at her, and she realised he’d been crying, though the tears had long since dried to streaks. 

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ he said. 

‘Oh, Klaus,’ she said softly. She stepped out onto the narrow platform, and held her arms out to him. He barely hesitated, meeting her halfway. He had to lean down slightly to hug her, and she had to rise up on her tip-toes until her chin rested on his shoulder, but his hug was tight, arms wrapping around her like he never wanted to let go. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, mein Schatz,’ she murmured. She squeezed him close.

‘It’s just… everything seems so hard. Things that everyone else can do fine.’ He laughed thinly. ‘I’m guessing most people don’t freak out when someone tells them they care.’ 

Lena tutted. ‘I’m sure you’re not the only one. Besides, you’re dealing with things most people wouldn’t even dream of dealing with.’

‘Still.’

‘You know,’ she said, stepping back, holding onto his arms as she got a good look at his face, ‘it’s very different, of course, but when I was just a little bit younger than you, the boy I’d liked for months once came up to me in class and casually told me he liked my art. And for some reason that I still can’t fathom today, I burst into uncontrollable, hysterical tears. In front of everybody. Him, my friends, the teacher. I had to leave the classroom. I thought I’d gone crazy.’

Klaus laughed again, and it almost reached his eyes this time. ‘Ah. So that’s where I get it from.’ 

‘Maybe,’ she said, laughing a bit too. ‘Sorry.’ 

She hugged him close again. Below them, car horns blared and music poured from a nearby bar. 

‘We’ll figure it out, Klaus,’ she added. ‘Even if now it seems like you’re lost in a world that’s got no space for you, it won’t be like that forever. You’ll look back on all this one day and it won’t seem as impossible. Maybe you’ll even find something to laugh at. I know none of this is fun and games, but you’re good at that already - looking for the light.’

‘I guess.’

She patted him on the arm. ‘You are. Now, come on. Let’s get out of the cold.’ 

 

***

‘Lena?’ Klaus whispered later that night.

‘Hm?’ 

‘I’ve been thinking about it… and I’d like to come to Munich with you.’

She’d been about to drop off, but suddenly Lena found herself wide awake. She opened her eyes and turned to face him. Once again the light from the bathroom spilled across the room, so she could see the nervous furrow of his brow. ‘Okay,’ she whispered easily. ‘Let’s do it.’ 

 

***

‘Are you sure?’ Lena asked. ‘I can just go and ask by myself. It’s fine.’ 

‘Yeah, that’s not happening. I wanna snatch it from right under his hairy old nose myself.’ Klaus craned his neck, staring up at the fire escape and narrow ledge that offered access to his old bedroom. He was only slightly nervous. (That was a lie. He was buzzing with nervous energy. He could power up a generator with the intensity of his dread.) ‘Come on. I’ll give you a leg up.’ 

There was nothing that brought back memories better than clambering up his old home like a monkey. The grit of the bricks and the pigeon shit and ladder rust. The aftertaste of vodka, ears ringing from shouts and booming speakers, muscles shaking with the beginnings of a hangover as he forced himself up. It was a match made in hell.

‘It’s that window there,’ he said. ‘And watch out for that funny-coloured brick. It’s loose.’ He’d learnt that the hard way. 

Once she made it to the ledge in front of the window, Lena tried pushing it up. ‘It’s locked.’

Klaus squished past her, clumsy as ever. He wobbled a bit before her hand firmly seized the back of his jacket, then, reaching inside his pocket, he threw the rock he’d stashed in there through the glass without hesitation or finesse. 

‘Oh my god!’ Lena exclaimed. ‘Klaus!

‘What? It worked.’ He got another stone from his other pocket and batted away most of the glass until he could reach through to the lock. ‘And, there we go,’ he said, lifting the sash with a satisfied smirk. ‘Open sesame.’ 

He climbed inside clumsily while Lena winced, muttering, ‘Watch out for the glass.’

And then he was standing in his bedroom. It was just as he left it, apart from Ben who was now sitting at the desk, waiting for them. He wondered if anyone had even bothered to come in here at all since he ran away. Probably Mom, to dust.

The glass clinked as Lena stepped through. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s so small.’

Klaus snorted. ‘Yup.’ 

‘But… the size of the mansion...’

‘That’s dear old Dad for you.’ He cleared his throat and put on his best plummy Reginald-voice, puffing out his chest. ‘What’s that, Pogo? The children want space? For what possible purpose? No, they shall suffice with the smallest bedrooms, whereas I, Mr. Utter Shitface, shall hoard all remaining thirty-five bedrooms for my nefarious purposes and skull collections!’

Thirty-five bedrooms?!’

‘Oh, at least forty-two. Five counted them once.’ He opened his wardrobe, still full of all his old things, the bottom littered with empty bottles. ‘Alright. I’m pretty sure the passport’s not anywhere in here, but it’s worth a look. You can go through the desk if you want. Or just have a nosy.’ He turned to grin at her mischiveously. ‘No promises you won’t find anything that scars you for life.’ 

To be honest, he knew the passport was in Dad’s office. He just wanted to give himself a bit of time before he went out into the rest of the house. It was like… dipping his toes in the water to make sure it wasn’t hot enough to boil him alive. With the rate his heart was already beating, he wasn’t too sure he’d survive jumping straight in. 

Scrabbling through the clothes, chucking those he still liked enough to wear into a pile in the middle of the room, he eventually cleared the wardrobe out to the back. Behind him, he could hear Lena rustling through the things on his desk, looking in the drawers.

While he was standing on his toes, grabbing a box from on top of the wardrobe, he heard the door to this bedroom creak.

‘Klaus?’

He looked over, startled. ‘Luther!’ 

Luther was in the doorway, caught halfway between charging in and running away - which really just amounted to lurking awkwardly like a wet towel in a windless room. He looked the same as ever. Blond hair neatly parted, jaw firm and proud, back straight. However, there were small shadows under his eyes, as though he hadn’t been sleeping well, and there was an air of uncertainty around him which was totally alien to the brother Klaus knew.

‘You came back,’ Luther said eventually. 

Klaus grimaced. ‘Oh. Well. Not really. It’s just a quick trip this time, mon frère. Dash in, dash out. You know how it is.’ But then perhaps Luther didn’t know. After all - there he was, still dressed head to toe in the Academy uniform. It didn’t look right. Kind of like when a kid dresses up in their parent’s clothes, only in reverse, so that rather than swimming in too-big shirts, swamped at the collar, belts full-buckle at the waist, instead he was hanging onto bygone days by squishing into familiar old clothes that didn’t quite fit. Wouldn’t ever fit again. 

Klaus felt a weird wave of pity for Luther. His brother’s eyes narrowed, though, and that was a distraction: he was glaring at Lena. 

‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘Why are you in here?’

‘She’s with me,’ Klaus said, before Lena could get a word in.

Luther stepped into the room, closing the door with his back. He leaned towards Klaus. ‘We’re not supposed to let strangers in, remember? Or have you forgotten that already?’ 

‘Lucky she’s not a stranger then!’ he chirped. ‘Ask Father-dearest. I’m sure he’ll agree.’

Luther’s mouth went thin. ‘He’s not here.’

‘Oh. Actually?’

‘He’s been gone all week.’

‘Well. That’s stupidly good timing.’ Klaus looked down at the the box in his arms and tore the lid off. It was full of old papers and odd ends, all the bits and pieces that he didn’t care for but wasn’t supposed to throw away. He upended it on his bed. 

‘You - you broke the window,’ Luther said, still hovering awkwardly by the door. 

‘I suggested the front door,’ Lena replied. She had sat down at the desk. ‘He was adamant.’ 

‘It’s called flair, thank you very much,’ Klaus said, rifling through the mess. ‘So, Luther. How’s it been in the Hell Palace? Miss me?’

‘No,’ Luther said. Much too quickly. ‘It’s fine.’ 

‘Oh, I bet it is. How’re the others? Anyone else follow my fine example and fly the coop? I know Diego left.’ When Luther didn’t answer, Klaus stopped rummaging and looked at him questioningly.

His brother shrugged, looked at his feet. 

‘Oh my god,’ Klaus breathed. ‘You’re the only one still here, aren’t you?’

Luther’s silence was further confirmation.

‘Even Vanya’s gone?!’ 

‘She left last week.’

‘Damn,’ Ben said. ‘That’s sad.’

Klaus laughed in shock. ‘Shit, Luther. That’s… that’s…’

‘Quiet?’ 

He laughed again, running his hands through his hair. ‘God. You need to get out, mi hermano.’

Luther crossed his arms defensively. ‘I can’t. Dad needs me.’

‘No, he doesn’t.’

‘He does. I’m the only one left. Even… even Allison…’

Klaus felt the heavy rush of pity again. ‘She’d agree with me,’ he said. ‘You can’t stay here alone. That’ll drive you mental. What do you even do? Train all day? Play poker with Pogo? Ugh! You gotta get out, see the world!’

‘I don’t…’ Luther said gruffly. ‘Just… What are you doing here, Klaus?’ 

He sighed. ‘Looking for my passport, actually.’

‘In here?’ Klaus could feel Luther’s condescension from across the room. ‘They’re in Dad’s study. They’ve always been there.’

‘Perfect.’ He abandoned the box, dusting off his hands. ‘I’ll just pop in-’

‘But you can’t go in there! It’s his study.

Klaus rolled his eyes. ‘He’s away. You said it yourself.’

‘So?’ 

‘So, I need my passport. Sooner rather than later.’

Luther frowned at him, herding him away from the door. ‘That’s not why you’re here, is it? You’re up to something.’

‘I’m literally not.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Oh, for god’s sake, Luther. What do you think I’m gonna do? Raid his office for precious artefacts?’

Yes. You’ve tried it before!’ 

‘Yeah, well, that was… that was like, years ago.’ 

‘No it wasn’t. It’s only been four months!’ 

‘Exactly!’ Klaus cried in exasperation. ‘Last year! Come on , Luther. Escort me in if you’re so afraid. All I want is my passport. Isn’t that right, Lena?’

‘It’s true,’ she affirmed. ‘We’re catching a flight tomorrow.’ 

‘Why should I believe you?’ Luther said, scanning Lena up and down as if to x-ray her for criminal intent.

‘Please don’t be rude, Lu-Lu,’ Klaus chastised. ‘That’s my mother you’re talking to.’

Luther choked. ‘Your what ?’

Klaus blinked big innocent eyes. ‘My mother. Now, move! I don’t wanna stay in this house any longer than I have to. It’s giving me the heebie-jeebies.’

By some miracle, Luther was shocked enough to move aside when Klaus pushed him.

He followed Klaus and Lena (and Ben) all the way to Dad’s office, Klaus offering Lena a rushed and emphatic tour of the house as they went, claiming scratches and scuffs on the walls as his own contribution to the decor, pointing into one room and telling her, ‘I once accidentally set the curtains in there on fire,’ which was true as far as one’s experiment to see how long it takes a lit cigarette to scorch such thick fabric could be called an accident. (Turns out it doesn’t take long at all.) 

It wasn’t as awful as he’d expected, being back here. The dark, ornate corridors were still stifling and claustrophobic, and every inch seemed to bring another shuffling, horrid memory to the surface: all those times he was bodily dragged to training; or zipping up suits as alarm bells rang, nerves roiling; or stumbling drunk in the middle of the day. But somehow, now that he wasn’t trapped here, now that he was free to fly across the ocean, the Academy itself had less of a potent hold over him. The barbarous hooks of his memories still scraped his skin to the point of pain, but they didn’t drag him into a dark pit with no way out. 

Anyway. They got to Dad’s office and Klaus crept in inside past the threshold, feeling all of a sudden like a disobedient little kid, but he found the drawer where his passport and other dubiously-legal bits and pieces were kept - Luther pointed it out, to stop him from making too much of a mess - and he slipped his file out from between Luther’s and Five’s. The other ones were gone. 

Lena insisted that they go out through the front door this time, and Luther again trailed on their heels.

In the front foyer, Mom suddenly appeared from the shadows, heels clicking, a pink feather duster in one hand, apron tied neatly around her waist. ‘Klaus!’ she said. ‘You’ve come home!’ 

Beside him, Klaus felt Lena tense. 

Mom stepped up to him, smiling fondly. ‘How wonderful to see you again,’ she said, patting his cheek. ‘I’ve been worried sick about you! And look at you,’ she chided, ‘all skin and bones! How about I whip up a nice warm meal?’

‘Oh…’ he said quietly. ‘Um.’

Mom looked at Lena. ‘Hello again,’ she said with a smile. ‘You’re welcome to stay for lunch too.’ 

‘Mom,’ Klaus said hurriedly. ‘I’m… I’m not staying.’

Her eyes dimmed. ‘Whyever not?’ 

It tugged at his heart. He glanced at Lena, who was frowning, uncertain, then back at Mom and the little downward turn of those perfectly painted lips. ‘I just can’t.’ 

‘But this is your home.’

‘Mom… I don’t want to live here anymore.’

She seemed confused. Lost for words.

Lena cleared her throat. ‘He’ll be with me. If you’re worried. I’ll look out for him for you.’

‘Oh,’ Mom said, brightening a little. ‘Well, that’s very kind of you. But Klaus? You will visit me, won’t you? Sometimes Diego calls by, although I haven’t seen the others in a while. I do miss you children. The house can be rather quiet these days.’ 

Klaus opened his mouth, unsure of what to say. ‘Oh. I don’t know…’

Lena nudged him. ‘You could write to her,’ she whispered. 

And that - that was actually an okay idea. Simple. Enough for now. 

‘I’ll write to you, Mom,’ he said. ‘I’ll try.’

‘That sounds lovely, Klaus,’ she replied.

He didn’t really want to say a proper goodbye, but something made him hesitate, and then before he knew it he was stepping forward and hugging her lightly. He’d never been close to Mom per se, not like Diego. But she was still Mom . Everything about her was familiar. All her strange robot quirks. Her kinda-charming nicknames. Even the weird retro vibes, which seemed more than a little odd looking at her now with fresh eyes. All of those things dredged up a weird mix of nostalgia as her arms wrapped around him, soft, that delicate hum of machinery only just discernible, and suddenly he found himself hugging her tighter even though all the things he felt towards Mom were confusing as hell - hadn’t she been the one who aided Dad even as Klaus screamed and begged to be let go? Hadn’t she been the one who locked the door at night? He knew he’d been raised by an algorithm, that Dad was the programmer, but god, he’d be lying to himself if he said he didn’t love her despite it all. Because hadn’t she also been the one to nurse him through his worst hangovers, his worst injures? Hadn’t she held him when he cried, when he finally confessed that things were getting out of control? 

He must have reached some kind of limit, because it suddenly all became a bit much. He squeezed her once and then he let his arms drop, stepping back swiftly.

‘Let’s go,’ he said to Lena, opening the door. He felt a bit shaky. Fingers twitching towards his pockets. Instead of that, he took a deep breath of the fresh, cool air, then turned back to his brother who was standing as though he wished he could shrink into nothing. It was an odd look on someone as tall as him. He also looked so morose that Klaus had to say something. ‘And you,’ he said, waggling his finger at him, keeping it light. ‘You had better not still be here when I’m back in the country. Go visit Allison or something. Have a bit of fun. Loosen up! Trust me - trust me - you deserve it. If Dad gets to go off on vacation or whatever it is he does, then so do you, ‘kay? Though, personally, I think it’d be even better if you leave for good, but like… baby steps, right?’

Luther still looked sad, but he smiled slightly. ‘See you, Klaus.’

‘You’ll think about it?’

He nodded. 

Then, with a little wave to him and Mom, Klaus stepped outside, face raised to the overcast sky. As he heard the door close, goosebumps rippled over his skin and up his spine. He felt like he’d just done something momentous. 

He took another deep breath, closing his eyes, holding it in. 

‘Are you okay?’ Lena asked, gentle touch on his arm.

He nodded. ‘Just… just give me a sec.’

And then, after a few more moments, he let it all go. It was a quiet sigh. Nothing dramatic. With it, he felt lighter, like he’d shed the first of countless suffocating layers. 

Of course, he knew he still couldn’t breathe properly. It was going to take a lot more than this to get him to that stage. He hadn’t just been holding his breath since the moment he clambered in through that window today, or since he ran away. He’d been holding it for longer than he could remember. His entire life.

Klaus opened his eyes and chuckled. It was a bullshit metaphor, he thought, but it made sense. And although he had no idea how to go about even beginning to process all the stuff weighing him down, he finally felt like it wouldn’t destroy him to face up to it one little bit at a time. Baby steps. Small breaths.

Maybe Lena was right. Maybe it wasn’t impossible. He’d gone back to the Academy and the world hadn’t ended. He hadn’t fought with Luther - not really. He hadn’t stolen anything except a passport which belonged to him anyway. He’d managed to say an okay goodbye to Mom, a hug which said everything he couldn’t yet bring himself to say out loud. He hadn’t even run into Reginald, the worst prospect of all. 

And now - now he had Lena saying she’d look out for him, and a ticket out of here, and for once his future wasn’t solely a hazy, numb muddle - drugs and rehab on repeat until he met with the early grave that had been taunting him all his life. Now it was a big fat question mark. A terrifying, thrilling thing. 

So yes, he was scared shitless, and it was taking all his remaining battered willpower not to run from it all, but he’d made his choice. 

Klaus Hargreeves was going to dare to dream once more. 

See, sometimes the desperate wishes of little boys locked in graveyards do come true, even if it takes a while. Sometimes, messages in bottles will finally find their way to foreign shores, and help will come. And sometimes, stories that really, truly aren’t fairytales get a happy ending. Or a happier ending than what might have arisen otherwise. 

 


 

(In this life, Lena scoops Felix up into her arms, kissing all over his face. 

‘Mama missed you so much, munchkin,’ she says as he squeals. ‘Look how much you’ve grown!’

It’s only been a week, but she’s exhausted from travel and has been through an emotional wringer, so she thinks she can excuse herself from being a bit ridiculous with her motherly affection.

She glances over at Klaus. He’s lingering by the wall, as if afraid to step too far inside her home.

‘Look, Felix,’ she says, dropping him down - he’s really much too heavy to be carrying these days. ‘This is your big brother Klaus. Say hello!’ 

Felix takes one look then hides his face behind her coat, peeking out with one eye.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Well. He’ll warm up to you.’

Klaus sits down cross-legged, smiling. ‘Hey, little dude,’ he says softly, giving a little wave. ‘I’m not that scary. Promise.’

Ten minutes later, Felix is tugging a travel-weary but still enthusiastic Klaus from room to room, chattering on about what each room is for and all the games they’re going to play, while Lena leans her head on her husband’s shoulder and catches him up on all that’s happened, feeling like she could fall asleep right there. 

‘He was worried you wouldn’t want him to stay,’ Lena says. ‘I told him not to be silly, but -’ she stifles an enormous yawn, ‘he might still be cautious… He’s new to a lot of this. There’s other things, things I’ll tell you about later, but he’s going to get through it, I’m sure. We just need to give him time, yeah?’

Johann is understanding, like she knew he would be. 

 

In this life, they all go to the park on a bright, sweet Sunday in the late days of summer. Klaus is feeding the ducks with Felix, seeing how far they can throw half-defrosted peas and bursting into fits of laughter. They’re both clowns.

When all the peas are gone, Felix runs off to the see-saw with his papa, and Lena walks with Klaus around the pond. 

‘I’m a month sober,’ he says, out of the blue. ‘As of today.’

She stops in her tracks. ‘Oh, Klaus. That’s wonderful.’ 

He gets a light pink blush over his cheekbones. ‘I don’t want any fuss over it,’ he says. ‘I just… I wanted you to know.’

The day he told her he was trying to quit, he insisted he wanted to do it on his own. So she knows he’s been trying to stay sober for a while now even though she tries to stay out of it, and she knows he’s slipped up a fair few times since then, but she trusts him to keep working at it, that he’ll ask for help if he needs it. 

And now - she squeezes him with a casual one-armed hug. ‘Alright. No fuss. But can I say one thing?’ 

‘Sure.’

‘I’m so proud of you.’ Saying she’s proud doesn’t quite come close to the immensity of what she feels. But it’s enough upon seeing the way he ducks his head, hiding his smile, and for the rest of the afternoon she keeps catching him grinning secret grins, and there’s a lightness about him which she hasn’t ever seen before. 

 

In this life Luther thinks and thinks and then one day he wakes up and gets the hell out of that stuffy old house. It’s a total whim. But when he lands in Los Angeles, he realises just how much he has missed his best friend, and though he returns to the Academy, soon enough he’s flying back again and again until he stays for good.

And so, in this life, Allison has someone around who knows what it means to be too powerful for your own good, someone who knows her, and maybe she makes some of the same mistakes, and maybe she doesn’t. She’s learning. They’re all learning. Luther always helped her see the bigger picture, and she always encouraged him to rebel. 

Little seeds planting big ideas. Baby steps leading to leaps and bounds. How easily the future shifts. 

 

In this life, Diego is in police academy, living like a lone wolf. He’s a vigilante at night, irritable and exhausted by day, keeping busy, keeping fit, searching for some sort of purpose in this shithole life. 

There’s Eudora, of course. He’s still working up the courage to ask her out. He wants it to seem impromptu, but he keeps getting flustered. 

Anyway. It's been three years since an unfamiliar German woman knocked on Diego's front door. Now he answers another door in a new grungy apartment, and it's Klaus who greets him with a sarcastic grin, marching in and proclaiming he's come to stay. 

Diego is wary at first. He knows his brother. But he doesn't have the heart to turn him away, so he gives Klaus his couch, and Klaus gets a job - a whole whirwind of jobs, mostly working in kitchens and restaurants, although he is a postman for a while, and there’s a short stint of modelling (easy enough to get if he feels like flaunting the name “Seance”), and at one point he even gets involved with this bizarre sleep therapy group which Diego thinks is a cult, and then it turns out it is a cult, and they’re extremely reluctant to let Klaus leave because of his unprecedented empathetic-dreaming (he doesn’t really ever tell them it’s like, a superpower of his, preferring instead to play up the ambiguous, unintelligible hippie persona and keep them questioning) but eventually they stop trying to break into their home after Klaus ‘accidentally’ conjures two dozen bloodied ghosts. 

That whole shebang happens later, though. Before then, they collectively save up enough to move to a bigger, nicer apartment. It's messy. It's slapdash. It's the epitome of two fucked-up brothers finding their feet, and actually somehow getting somewhere. More importantly, it's a home - one that Diego is almost okay inviting Eudora around to.

See, turns out he's not a lone wolf after all. Turns out he didn't have to search very far to find a little bit of purpose. 

 

In this life, Diego runs into Vanya when he’s visiting Mom. (He sneaks in through the kitchen entrance. So does she.) 

They’re a bit awkward, but they chat for a bit. Diego is feeling charitable because he passed his exams, and so he invites her over for dinner with Klaus. He invites Mom too, and after she thinks for a while she finds a loophole in her programming that allows her to come - because there are no more children to look after in that big old house, and Reginald is away again. 

Vanya’s astounded by the change in her two brothers. Somehow, they’d frozen in her memories at seventeen, with all their old issues and arrogance, but now time catches up with her and she realises it’s been four years since they all left. They’ve both changed so much. 

Later that night as she catches the bus home, she takes a good long look at herself and wonders if she should dwell so much in the past.

It helps when Klaus and Diego keep inviting her over. It helps when she stays up until three in the morning talking to Klaus about all the shit they went through, about foggy memories of being locked up somewhere dark and scary, about the hurt that comes from being sidelined and derided. He talks about getting sober and the miracle that was meeting his birth mother, and although she can’t help the stab of jealousy, she manages to shake it off and instead works up the courage to ask, ‘How did you know? How did you know you could live without them? The drugs?’ 

‘I didn’t,’ he says.

One day, with his answer in her mind, she takes a good long look at the pills she’s taken since childhood. She decides she’s tired of being tied to the past, for all its certainties. She tips them out and takes a step into the unknown.

 

In this life, Klaus learns to conjure Ben sooner rather than later. Ben gets to talk to Vanya and Diego, and then Allison and Luther, which is a blessing for his sanity after years now of solely Klaus. He gets to touch things, and read books without Klaus sitting there turning pages and getting bored, and although it’s sad, hopelessly sad, and always will be, it’s also a little bit wonderful.

He’s something close to happy, and that’s not anything Ben ever thought he’d get. 

 

In this life, Five tumbles into the future at thirteen years old and finds his family in the kitchen, grown into people he can only just recognise. They’re still a raucous bunch, still talking over each other - apart from Vanya, who seems happy just listening, a glass of wine in her hand. 

Five waits at the door for a moment, almost shy of these near-strangers.

It’s Vanya who notices him first, of course. She drops her glass. It shatters red and with the sound loose items all around the kitchen seem to tremble. They stop soon enough. 

‘Five?’ she says, ignoring all the siblings staring at her. 

Then all the eyes are on him. 

And he is overwhelmed, hurriedly working out the math in his mind and maybe panicking a lot, but after the dust starts to settle and the shock fades away, he’s okay. After all, it’s home.

There are worse places to end up. 

 

In this life, Klaus flies back to Munich every now and again. He’s always welcome, and he knows it. 

His family seems to grow and grow, and he’s lucky he’s got the kind of heart that can hold it all. Six siblings on one continent, as well as his mom, not to mention all the nieces and nephews and inlaws, while over in Germany, there’s grandparents and uncles and cousins. He meets them all when he’s still a teenager, and it scares the shit out of him. But he does it like he does so many impossible things, and he somehow manages to charm their socks off in the process. Then there’s a step-father who’s kind and funny, and a brother who reminds him of himself when he was that age, just with none of the added trauma, and another mother who he loves to the moon and back. 

In this life, Klaus sits down with Lena, a pot of tea on the table between them as is their tradition, and he tells her she saved his life. 

Lena cries. Of course she does. And then, once she’s laughing tearily against his shoulder as he hugs her, she tells him to stop being so silly. All she did was give him the helping hand (or the kick up the butt, depending on how they’re feeling) that he needed. ‘Think how brave you were,’ she says. ‘I’m not even talking about jumping on a plane to the other side of the world with a woman you were only just getting to know. When you wrote me that letter, you proved you had the guts to contact me even when you weren’t sure if I was real. And you could’ve resented me when I finally showed up. You could’ve refused to have anything to do with me at all, which would have been fair enough seeing as I’d spent your entire life doing exactly that. But you didn’t. You wrote to me. You made your choice. And, god, Klaus, when you did that - you saved your own life.’ 

When she says that, it is like the heavens finally open, letting the rain pour and pour and pour. They talk for hours that day. They talk about the hardest things, the things they have never talked about before. Things Klaus keeps secret. Things Lena regrets. 

Maybe it’s the moment Lena feels she’s finally made amends for the mistake she made. Not in giving up her child, but in forgetting him for so long.

And maybe it’s the moment where Klaus finally feels the last shred of heaviness that’s haunted him since childhood dissipate. He breathes easily. 

Their tea goes cold but neither of them notice. There’s so much else between them now. 

 

In this life, the Commission struggles to trace the timeline change. The funny thing is, dreams don’t leave the strongest of impressions in the ripples of history. Not until they’re acted upon. 

But of course, by then it’s too late: the dream has already been dreamed. 

There’s no undoing that.)