He woke to the familiar banging of Ryan dragging himself up the stairs.
Klaus didn't know if Ryan was his name. Ryan couldn't speak, because his jaw had been torn off. He'd named Ryan after a WWII movie that featured men getting their limbs blown off; Ryan was also missing an arm and both of his legs. Klaus prayed to God (or Satan, or whoever would listen) that that was what had happened to Ryan. The alternative was that his condition was not a result of war, but murder.
The Academy was located in central Argyle and Klaus didn't get many visits from veterans, except when they drove past the veterans' cemetery. When they did, hoards of men in uniforms looked up, some following the car, pulled to it instinctively. Klaus always slouched down and turned up his headphones rather than engage with them.
The fact that Ryan showed up every other week implied that this was Ryan's territory. That he'd been killed or laid to rest somewhere close by. That someone had torn away his jaw and his limbs and that his death had been slow and brutal.
But Klaus didn't know for sure because he tried to stay far away from Ryan. Ryan was slow, at least, so he could be avoided.
Klaus shoved his blankets off and swung out of bed. Ryan knew which bedroom was his; the first step for getting away from him was to high-tail it out of there.
He stepped out into the hall; the tile floor was cold on his feet. He scurried down the hall toward Luther's bedroom, giving a glance toward the stairs. (Stairs slowed Ryan down considerably.)
"Luther! ...Luther!" he hissed, jiggling the knob. The door was blocked. (None of them had locks on the door, though Luther, Diego, and Allison had all requested locks, due largely to Klaus's night-time wanderings.)
Klaus gave the door a kick with his bare foot.
"...go to sleep, Klaus."
"Luther, he's back!"
"This is the third night in a row. I'm tired, Klaus."
"Oh, and you think I'm not?" demanded Klaus, voice rising to a high pitch.
Klaus kicked the door a couple more times for good measure, taking a mean-spirited pleasure in ruining Luther's sleep, then turned and ran, slipping slightly, back down the hall. All their bedrooms were on the second floor; he could probably wake up everyone and still have time to run up to the third story before Ryan made it to the landing. Was it worth it? Diego had threatened to kill him if he woke him up again. Could he fake a cold and get some cold medicine? That worked rarely nowadays; his dear old dad had gotten wise to his methods and had locked up the medicine cabinet. The household went from going through four packs of Benadryl a month to less than one. NyQuil consumption was down from 64 fluid ounces a month to about three. Klaus continued to insist he had "allergies" and went so far as to huff at dust (finding dust was hard work; Mom was a neat freak), or snort pepper and chop up onions before bed in the hope to getting his hands on some pills or cough syrup. The pepper and onions had disappeared from the crisper and were currently locked up as well in an undisclosed location, which had cured Klaus of his claim to allergies.
Getting any medicine at this hour would be almost impossible.
He ran past Diego's room and Five's silent bedroom to Ben's. "Ben!" He pounded on the door. "Ben, wake up, he's back! Lemme in! God, please, lemme in!" Thankfully, Ben had not barred his door; Klaus shoved it open, ran in, and shook Ben awake, thoroughly unconcerned with his comfort. "C'mon. We gotta go upstairs. He's back again," pleaded Klaus. "...can you ask Mom for some allergy medicine or something? Please? I swear I won't bug you for a week if you get me a few pills. Cross my heart and hope to-- oh, God, he's nearly up the stairs, c'mon, get up!" He ran across the room and flicked on the light.
Ben flinched when the light came on, yanking his sheets protectively over his eyes; he was awake in an instant, and he gasped like a drowning man coming up for water, his body jack-knifing. Klaus froze; Ben grabbed his stomach with an audible groan of pain.
“God, Klaus!” he moaned.
Ben rolled onto his side, curling protectively around his midsection, breathing heavily through his mouth. Klaus watched him, eyes darting between the bed and the door. Asking to choose between wakening Ben’s demons and facing a ghost was not a position he could claim to be happy about. (Down the hall, he heard someone moan his name, and he shuddered.)
“Ben, please,” he whispered.
“Okay, okay.” Ben threw back the covers, still hunching over his stomach. His hair was standing up on one end. Like Klaus, he was dressed in the Academy’s standard pajamas, a pale blue outfit with the crest over the breast pocket.
He crossed the room; Klaus immediately squeezed his eyes shut and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Just take me upstairs. Please.”
“I can’t keep doing this, Klaus,” whispered Ben, opening his door and looking up and down the hallway. It was empty and silent. They left together, toward the stairs; Ben led Klaus up, listening to him whispering to himself.
“Shut up. Shut up. Leave me alone.”
“Hey. Focus on my voice,” whispered Ben as they got to the third story landing. “You know they can’t hurt you. They’re just ghosts.”
“Oh, just ghosts? Wonderful! Here I thought I was over-reacting to being haunted by a bunch of mutilated corpses!” replied Klaus shrilly, one hand still clamped over his eyes.
“Come on, Klaus. It’s okay. We’re upstairs now. That’ll slow him down.”
“Keep moving,” demanded Klaus.
“...are we gonna do this all night?”
“...you can’t outrun your demons, Klaus.”
Everyone’s alarms went off in perfect synchronization at 5:30 a.m. In seven rooms on the second story of the Hargreeves mansion, six teenagers threw back their covers and rose; they had thirty minutes to brush their teeth, wash their faces, get dressed, and meet in the central room for the morning briefing. Breakfast was promptly at six-thirty, and classes at seven.
Although there was no true order to the morning routine, the six Hargreeves children tended to fall into a natural order. Luther was almost always the first into the bathroom, followed by Diego, who was wickedly efficient; Allison took longer to get the snares out of her hair, which sometimes required Ben and Klaus to work side-by-side to rush things along. Despite the mansion having enough bathrooms for everyone, the hallway with their rooms had only one, and Reginald Hargreeves believed that this was for the best because it forced them to operate in close quarters on a tight schedule: a critical skill.
Ben stumbled into the first-floor sitting room still struggling to straighten his tie; the others were all seated on the couches, their attention on Reginald, who was looking at his pocket watch.
“You’re late, Number Six.”
“Sorry, Dad.” Ben dropped into a couch between Klaus and Vanya. He and Klaus had gotten to bed around five; they were sporting identical raccoon eyes.
“Today is Friday, September twenty-ninth. Tomorrow we will be replacing your music lessons with a portrait sitting. Number One, your lessons for Monday are canceled, as I have to attend an important meeting; you will attend archery with Number Two in lieu of your usual training. Number Six, your free time on Sunday is canceled until further notice; you are falling behind in your trigonometry lessons. ...yes, Number Three?” Allison had stuck her hand up.
“Our birthday is on Sunday.”
Reginald’s brow furrowed even further over his monocle. He seemed to be surprised by this information; morning briefings rarely had anything other than a list of upcoming events, and it was unusual for any of them to speak. Everyone was looking at Allison hopefully; everyone had been eager to make the same point because Reginald appeared ready to forget it entirely.
“...very well. I will allot another hour of free time for celebrations on Sunday,” said Reginald.
Ben raised his hand. “Do I get to--”
“You may be present for birthday festivities. Not for your usually scheduled free time.”
Ben looked dejected.
Everyone rose in synchronization and filed out toward the kitchen. Luther whispered a thanks to Allison. Ben shot Klaus a dirty look, but Klaus was yawning and missed it.
The days of the week had a rhythm as tightly as mornings did. Mornings were communal lessons; mid-afternoon were communal trainings. Each of them had their own day of the week for individual training in the evening, starting with Luther on Mondays. After dinner, they were allowed to retire to the den for reflection time. This was not the same as free time; they were not allowed to play but expected to engage in activities that “stimulated the mind.” To that end, they read, journaled, drew, or played pre-approved games. (Allison and Diego had been on the same game of chess for a week; Diego accused her of cheating, which she had been; everyone else feigned ignorance, hoping the match would end in an explosive argument, as the previous one four months ago had. Chess had only recently been re-approved.)
After breakfast they sat in the classroom on the second floor, working out math problems while Reginald paced the rows, hands clasped behind his back, offering criticism.
“Posture, Number Two, posture. Remember, the public is always looking to you, even when you are not paying attention. ...that is incorrect, Number Four.”
Klaus had one hand bunched in his hair; he flipped his pencil around and erased his answer, trying to backtrack. Behind him, Ben yawned.
They had originally been seven. Five had been gone for four years, but his presence was still felt; his chair stood empty in its usual place beside Ben’s. The classroom had two rows; Vanya could have been moved up to Five’s seat, but she remained in the back, behind the empty desk. Allison sat behind Luther and often had to crane around him to see the chalkboard. Reginald was uncompromising on their arrangement; order was critical to success, he said.
Their afternoon lessons included swimming and lockpicking. Ben lagged behind the rest, letting out small noises of frustration that he couldn’t open his lock; it was clear the lack of sleep was getting to him. Reginald barked at him to try harder, reducing him nearly to tears; fortunately, Reginald was distracted before it came to that when Luther accidentally crushed his lock completely. (“It still counts! It’s open!”)
They had a fifteen-minute break between lessons; Ben looked haggard. Saturdays were his training days; Fridays had an open slot because of Five’s absence. “This is your fault,” he hissed at Klaus as they toweled off in the communal shower that was attached to the small natatorium in the back of the house.
“My fault? If this is anyone’s fault, it’s Ryan’s,” retorted Klaus indignantly, rolling his towel into a whip, ready to defend himself against Diego, who had done the same. Seeing Klaus wouldn’t make a good target, Diego cracked his towel against Luther instead.
“My free time got canceled because of you!”
“...ask Vanya to tutor you, she’s great at math.”
“I could tutor you,” said Vanya hopefully as she pulled off her swimcap.
Ben responded by groaning and clutching his stomach. “I think I’m going to puke.”
“It’s just trig, Ben, it’s not hard. Soh-cah-toa,” said Klaus with a shrug. He cracked his towel against Diego; Diego cracked back.
“You need to stop getting up for him,” advised Allison.
“Dad says it’s a sign of progress that you’re getting more sensitive,” added Luther.
“Klaus is sensitive,” quipped Diego, landing another crack of his towel on Klaus’s stomach. Klaus grabbed it and yanked; Diego slipped on the tile floor and fell with an audible crack.
“Are you okay?” asked Ben in alarm.
“Easy for you to say I should just stay in bed. You’ve never tried to sleep with someone yelling in your ear,” snapped Klaus bitterly.
“We all literally do. Every night. Because you wake us up,” said Luther as he shrugged on his blazer.
“Maybe you could try rumoring my ghosts away? Tell them I can’t hear them?” suggested Klaus.
“They don’t listen to us,” said Allison with a shrug. “Tell them yourself to leave you alone.”
Ben groaned again, clutching his stomach; the others were nearly dressed, but Ben was lagging behind.
“Come on, Ben, you’re okay. Remember, sensitivity means progress,” Luther encouraged him.
“Don’t wait up. We don’t all have to get in trouble if I’m late,” said Ben. His face was pale, and even though he’d already toweled off, it was shining with moisture.
Speaking at the dinner table was forbidden. They were allowed to speak at breakfast and lunch, which were informal, but dinner was usually tied to a lesson and they were expected to behave elegantly. Reginald said this was good practice for state dinners and celebratory galas they’d be invited to as heroes. The dinners they had gone to had always been far less stuffy than Reginald had led them to believe, but nonetheless, he persisted in demanding they exercise their etiquette skills at the table.
“May I be excused?” asked Ben halfway through.
“You have not finished your lamb.”
“My stomach really hurts.”
“Good. Embrace it. Your powers are growing.”
Ben hunched over his plate, looking pleadingly to the head of the table. “...please, Dad?”
“Absolutely not. Your dinner is nutritionally perfectly balanced and you need to finish it.”
Ben picked up his fork listlessly and ate his food with minimal chewing. He was clearly forcing it down. When they retired to the den after dinner, he curled into the corner of the couch, breathing heavily.
“Can you stop breathing like that?” asked Allison after a half-hour of silence that was only punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather clock. She was staring at the chess board; Diego was watching her like a hawk, ready to take one of her knights.
Ben groaned in reply.
“...c’mere,” offered Klaus. He was sitting in front of the fireplace, playing with a pack of tarot cards. Card games were forbidden except on Sunday free time, but for Klaus, an exception had been made. “I’ll give you a reading.”
Ben got up and walked over; Klaus shuffled a deck loudly and the scattered the cards over the ground. “Major arcana. Choose one,” he said.
Ben let out a weary sigh; Klaus’s readings had long-since become predictable. So predictable that Diego had nicknamed him “The Reverse Magician” because that was the card he always, inevitably, chose.
“I always get the tower.”
“This time you won’t, I promise.”
“...did you take it out of the deck?”
Ben flipped the card over. It was the tower. He glared at Klaus.
Klaus shuffled another deck and made three piles. “Flip the top one,” he instructed.
Ben flipped the top three cards over.
“Okay, this is great. I mixed all the suits together but you picked three different ones. So this is physical, mental, and spiritual realm,” said Klaus, spreading his right hand over the cards. “Reverse seven of tentacles-- I mean, pentacles--”
“Shut up, Klaus.”
“Sorry, sorry. ...seven of pentacles for the physical realm. You feel like you’ve stagnated. The wheels are turning but you’re going nowhere. You feel hopeless, distracted, like you’re working hard without any results--”
“Wow, the cards told you that?” asked Ben sarcastically.
Klaus ignored him. “Mental. Upright eight of swords. You’re lost. You’re dependent. I’m getting helplessness. Poor judgement. ...you’re going to rely on someone else to make a choice for you and it’s going to be bad.”
“Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it, Klaus?” asked Luther, looking up from his book.
“Shut up. Spiritual. Five of cups-- oops--” The third card was stuck to another. “You turned over two. Five of cups and eight of cups. I can work with that. Five of cups is loss; eight of cups is surrender. ...in light of the eight of swords, maybe you’re supposed to surrender to someone else’s decision? ...but then you’ll get a loss. Unless you’re supposed to avoid the loss by surrendering. ...wait…”
“I want my money back,” said Ben.
“Look, this isn’t an exact science, okay?” Klaus shuffled the cards indignantly. “I’m doing the best I can.” He tried to cut the deck and dropped it. The cards scattered across the floor, with The Fool and the Devil facing upward and grinning at them.