Every healthy growing boy has urges, Klaus has decided, on the basis of knowing exactly no healthy growing boys, only Luther, Diego and Ben—none of whom really qualifies as ‘healthy’—and his father, who is not growing, and Pogo, who is very much in no sense a human boy.
Mom has explained that All Of Them Are Going Through Changes and Klaus has seen the sidelong looks that Alison and Luther give each other. Because he is also relentlessly nosy, he’s seen Diego’s collection of catalogues and Vanya’s single sad poster of a very average-looking man in a plaid shirt making soulful eye contact with the camera.
If Ben has something stashed he hasn’t been able to find it, but Klaus has the distinct impression Ben spends most of his time trying not to get into conflict with the interdimensional monsters living inside his body: it doesn’t leave a lot of time for daydreaming about romance.
They have a lot of pairs of binoculars at the Umbrella Academy but, to Klaus’s brief frustration, none of the windows facing out actually look into the bedroom of anyone he could even slightly conceive of wanting to look at, although there is someone across the street who appears to be teaching their dog to tap-dance.
So he takes to the bathtub while everyone else is occupied: Vanya with violin, Alison with arithmetic (how many times can she touch Luther’s arm by ‘accident’ before someone notices she’s doing it on purpose), Diego with darts (or dancing, if he’s really sure no one’s looking), Ben with baking under the watchful eye of Mom, and Luther with … lllllumbering around the place with his head up his ass being Number One, probably.
Klaus can’t find a way to alliterate “hiding in the bathtub listening to Ace of Base” so he doesn’t bother. It’s not important.
“Oh,” he whispers to himself, sinking under the water until it comes up to his cheeks, “she leads a lonely life…”
The water is warm and the bass is distorted by volume and Klaus has, on at least one of their trips out of the Academy, seen a man carrying lengths of scaffolding who looks like he could just as easily sling Klaus over his shoulder and carry him away somewhere. Maybe somewhere secluded and beautiful and—Klaus wracks his brain for something suitably romantic, but Diego is probably the person with the most interest in that stuff and he’s not about to get out of the bath and find him to ask. There are probably roses involved.
Klaus runs his palm down over his chest and thinks back to the construction worker outside the bank.
He was a very powerful-looking man, Klaus thought, happily.
After a moment, the sound of gentle splashing became a fevered counterpoint to the opening to “The Sign”.
There was a slam.
Klaus sat bolt upright. If there had been a towel within reach he’d have clutched it to himself, but as it was he just sent up a fountain of lukewarm water as he plunged both hands down to cover what until a couple of seconds ago hadn’t been His Shame so much as the source of A Good Time. The bathroom door bounced back off the opposite wall and Ben yelled from several yards down the corridor:
“WHY CAN’T YOU DO THAT IN YOUR OWN BATHROOM?!”
Two: Brandon (Probably)
Independent adult life was suiting Klaus even less well than Ben had predicted it would. So far he’d discovered that if he wanted to sleep on clean sheets he had to wash them himself and change the bed himself, and that washing sheets cost money he’d rather spend on disgusting flavoured liqueurs, which Klaus was currently mixing in a cinema slushie cup while lying pathetically in a pile of sheets that hadn’t been washed since last month.
“It’s too complicated,” Klaus said, swirling the contents of an out-of-date sample rack of Liqueurs Of The Baltic. He draped a hand over his eyes. “Too complicated.”
Ben squatted down on the floor next to him. “I watched three other people do this when you were in there. One of them thought the washer was a submarine and he still managed to put his quarters in there.”
“What if I just… steal some more sheets?” Klaus suggested, gulping down another mouthful of something that would probably have made Ben come out in hives just to sniff, if he’d still been alive.
“What if you stopped getting drunk a second and tried to cope with a really simple chore like an adult?” Ben suggested. He knew it was futile. Klaus had been investigating the bargain bins of all the shops that would sell alcohol to the underaged in a spiral of self-pity ever since Tuesday, when he’d seen a homeless guy get hit by a bus.
The bus hadn’t even slowed down and Klaus hadn’t either, once the homeless guy started hanging around him and muttering.
“This is handling my problems like an adult,” said Klaus, rolling onto his face. “Children don’t drink.”
Ben forbore from comment on exactly how old Klaus had been when he started drinking. He couldn’t help feeling that in some way it was his fault, although in a much, much larger way it was their dad’s fault, and Ben had, without a shadow of a doubt, got the worst outcome.
He looked up as the door opened; Klaus didn’t.
The bedroom walls were covered in the graffiti left by everyone else who’d stayed at the house, and Ben had had plenty of time to read all of it while Klaus was sleeping off the last binge. He could’ve gone somewhere else, of course, but right now he was reluctant to leave his idiot brother on his own.
The not-exactly landlord was also blind drunk.
“Hey baby,” he addressed the tangle of dirty sheets on the floor. “What’s cooking?”
Klaus wriggled out of the sheets far enough to finish the last of his Pukemaker and gave Allegedly Brandon a smile which didn’t connect with whichever of his remaining braincells was in attendance.
Ben sat down on the naked mattress with his book and extended his legs in front of him.
Slow minutes crawled by.
It was impossible to concentrate.
“I’ve read the same sentence twelve times,” said Ben.
Klaus, who was listening with addled fascination—or at least giving a great impression of listening—to Brandon talking aimlessly, incoherently, and insincerely about a time he’d met Dr Demento in a parking lot behind Bigby’s Discount Liquor, completely ignored Ben.
Ben took in Brandon. He was maybe twenty-five, but his hairline had already given up and was heading for the back of his head. He had the kind of muscles men had when they had nothing better to do than work out and drunk, and a waist that agreed with this diagnosis. He was whiteish and tallish and what was left of his hair was dark, which was probably going to be the case for his teeth soon too.
He also had his hand on Klaus’s chest.
Ben left while Klaus was still taking off his underpants.
There was absolutely no reason for Red to go by that name. He didn’t have red hair. He didn’t wear red. He didn’t even have a particularly red face. He did, however, keep people like Klaus squarely in the red by holding the keys to oblivion in a hand that was only unlocked by handfuls of dead presidents.
Which Klaus thought was kinda ironic. If you were going to call yourself “Red” you should have the decency not to engage in such rampant capitalism.
“You only have five dollars,” said Ben, following Klaus down the paint-spattered alleyway, which, owing to someone’s careless opening of a tin of fine blue emulsion, looked like the site of a brutal massacre of a whole village of Smurfs.
“I know,” said Klaus, peering into each doorway in turn.
“You can’t pay for anything from Red with five dollars,” Ben said, with maddening accuracy, as he trailed along behind him with his hands in his hoodie pockets.
He wasn’t wrong. Red would charge six bucks for a packet of cigarette papers. He’d probably charge ten to punch Klaus in the face.
“Why not just go back to rehab?” Ben suggested. “You get your own bed.”
“Hey, Jiminny Cricket,” Klaus muttered, sidling down the long edge of a commercial dumpster. “When I want moral guidance I’ll—” he waved vaguely at the sky, “sing sixteen verses of the French national anthem.”
Red stepped out from a security door at the far end of the alley. He was not a big man: in fact, he looked a little like a rat and he was about two inches shorter than Klaus. He had thick dark hair, most of it somewhere in the vicinity of his chin, and probably somewhere in his grandcestry someone in his family had lived on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, catching octopuses and stabbing mermaids.
Red acknowledged him without saying a word. Two well-groomed eyebrows wandered up his forehead and two venal eyes crawled down his jacket.
Klaus spread his arms like an affectionate saviour and uttered the immortal words, “Now, I don’t necessarily have the full price—”
His dealer gave a long-suffering sigh.
“But you know I’m good for—”
Nothing, the voice of Reginald Hargreaves concluded, treacherously, in Klaus’s mind. A serious disappointment.
“You’re in luck,” said Red, flicking something unseen off the shoulder of his jacket. “Madeline got her wisdom tooth taken out.”
For a moment Klaus had a fleeting thought that this meant he was ready to roll in some gratis heavy-duty painkillers, but the look on Red’s face suggested otherwise.
“Can’t open her mouth properly for another week,” said Red, pointedly. “So I’m open to barter.”
Klaus stretched a thin and indifferent smile over his lips, and introduced the knees of his best-beloved leather pants to the filthy alley floor. He extended his arms again. “I’m ready when you are, sir.”
He didn’t have to glance over his shoulder to know that Ben had drifted away in disgust.
Four: Big John
It wasn’t the first time Ben had had to watch his brother get sent to jail, and he suspected it probably wouldn’t be the last. When Klaus had stumbled cheerfully off the stand and into the arms of the tired, disgusted court security, Ben distinctly heard the judge say under her breath, “I am so tired of sending you people to rehab.”
He wasn’t sure it was the greatest attitude for a sentencing judge to have, but he could almost sympathise, and he only had to watch one person completely fail to engage with the root cause of his addiction.
“This is gonna be cool,” said Klaus, stretching along the top bunk. Ben watched him warily from the floor. The least he could do—and also unfortunately the most he could do—was to give his brother ample warning while he was incarcerated. Everyone needed a friend in prison: Klaus was just going to have to deal with his friend being his dead brother, rather than someone who could actually… do anything.
Ben sighed to himself.
“I’m going to learn metalworking this time,” Klaus informed him. “Or… Chinese. What do you think?”
“I think you can’t learn anything when you’re full of ketamine,” said Ben, “and as soon as you go into withdrawal you won’t be able to concentrate.”
“That’s not a very positive and rehabilitative attitude,” Klaus chided him. “Hi,” he added, as the door opened.
There was a very large man taking up most of the space in the doorway. He was, at the very least, six foot four. He strained the prison jumpsuit sufficiently that he was nearly developing cameltoe, which Ben was pretty sure Klaus would notice. He was lightly tattooed, with the kind of deep-level reddish tan that said that enough sun damage had been done to ensure that no amount of time in jail would fully rob him of it. He had a boxer’s nose and eyes filled with the lean, contemptuous intelligence of someone who was absolutely certain that the rest of the world existed for his own personal use.
Ben, perhaps reasonably, disliked him on sight.
“Why the fuck,” said the large man, over the top of Klaus’s valiant attempt to introduce himself, “do they always put the junkies in with me?”
“It’s probably your charm and winning personality,” said Ben.
Over the next two weeks he watched Klaus try and fail to make friends with anyone who wasn’t a very, very obvious addict, try and fail to get a place in the metalwork shop (oversubscribed) or the language class (only for long-term inmates), and try and fail to get Big John, his cellmate, to stop looking at him like he was something pulled up out of the steel toilet specifically to annoy him.
“I think maybe you should ask to be moved to a different cell,” said Ben, while Klaus was hanging off the fence in the exercise yard, trying to persuade a pigeon to land on his arm with the sheer force of goodwill and charm.
The pigeon, unsurprisingly, wasn’t buying it.
“I think maybe it doesn’t work like that,” said Klaus. “Aaaanyhow, there are a tonne of other awful people in every cell in this facility. That is the entire point.”
“Not all of them hate you that bad,” said Ben, putting his hands in his pockets. He squatted down by the pigeon, and stared at it. The bird stared back.
“Oh no,” said Klaus, with absolute conviction. “They do.”
Ben looked at the emptiness reflected in the pigeon’s eye. There was no sign of his own face in there, but the bird clearly knew he was there. It shuffled awkwardly away from him.
“Bird brain,” Ben sighed, as Klaus gave up on the pigeon and wandered over to the guys engaged in a very obvious haggling session.
In the end he didn’t know what had sparked it off. The dinner, which was visibly bad but no more so than they usually were—creamed corn, boxed mashed potatoes, and something which advertised itself as probably square sausage patties and which was probably just hobomeat, according to Klaus (who ate three). It wasn’t the weather, it wasn’t the internal weather system of the prison itself, where storms of mood passed through the population like wind through a field of grain.
It was just inevitable.
Ten minutes after lights-out Big John kicked the underside of Klaus’s bunk hard enough to fling him up in the air.
“Get down from there.”
“I’m comfortable where I am, thanks,” said Klaus, clinging onto the flimsy frame.
Big John kicked him in the fingers and Klaus whipped his hands away.
“Down from there.”
Klaus got down off the bunk. Ben waited uncertainly by the locked and bolted cell door.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said. Klaus paid no attention to him.
“On the floor,” said Big John, unbuttoning the front of his jumpsuit at waist height.
“You should have warned me,” said Klaus, nervously. “I’d have brushed my teeth.”
He got down onto his knees and attempted a smile. Big John did not return the smile. Ben held the breath he didn’t have from force of old habit. The sounds of guards closing doors began to fade across the wing.
Big John knocked Klaus face-down, then grabbed a handful of his hair, suspending him above the floor. “Take it off.”
“I’d rather not,” said Klaus, desperately. “It’s kind of cold.”
“Off.” Big John shook him like a rag doll.
Ben closed his eyes and exhaled slowly.
There was a thump.
“Ow,” said Klaus, rather more urgently. “Ben.”
“Shut up,” said Big John, even more gutterally than usual.
Ben squeezed his eyes shut more tightly.
“Ow,” said Klaus, even more urgently and with a good deal of horror. “Ben, please—”
“I said shut the fuck up,” said Big John, from between gritted teeth. “I won’t tell you again.”
“I can’t,” Ben said, taking a step backwards, towards the cell door. “I can’t watch this.”
““No, no, nonononon—don’t go! Ben!” Klaus whimpered.
There was a brief gurgle that assembled itself into: “Please! Don’t leave—”
“I can’t watch this,” Ben repeated, taking another step back with his eyes closed. “I can’t watch it, Klaus—”
“Don’t leave me!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
“I can’t,” said Ben, barely moving his lips. His eyelids made a liar of him as he stepped backwards through the closed cell door; opening a crack, the last thing he saw of the cell was Klaus with one arm flung out, and Big John on top of him, like a dog on a carcass.
In his ears rang “PLEASE BEN, DON’T GO—" all the way out of the wing and as loud as thunder, as loud as guilt, but the guards in the guardroom he stamped into didn’t hear it any more than they heard or saw him, standing over them and screaming.
In the dark of the Saigon disco Klaus chased shot after shot and watched Dave, beautiful Dave, brave Dave, Dave the perfect marksman, Dave the welcoming smile, Dave the effortlessly funny, kind-handed, great dancer, terrible singer, Dave, Dave, Dave…
He watched Dave take the hand of one of the Saigon girls with less than perfect enthusiasm, watched him look back over his shoulder at Klaus. And smile, and smile.
The music wound around his legs like twin plumes of smoke, moving his feet. Well, whatever it was, it was. He’d always loved to dance after all.
The lights were low and the bar was sweaty and the night was thick and full of mosquitos and the smell of a hundred soldiers’ cigarettes filled the dancefloor and Saigon girls held out inviting hands and Klaus dodged them all like bullets to find his way to Dave’s side.
He thought he heard you deserve some privacy in his brother’s voice before he staggered into a darkened corner with his lips mashed to Dave’s, but he wasn’t listening at all.
Ben wandered the floor of a room so familiar to them both it might as well have been tattooed into their skin, if Ben had any and Klaus’s wasn’t already occupied. After a while he realised that Klaus, true to form, was not pacing himself and was in fact lying face-down on his childhood bed with one arm bent awkwardly under his body.
“I didn’t hit you that hard,” he said, which still felt like a ludicrous thing to say. He shouldn’t have been able to hit his brother any kind of hard, because he was dead and he’d been dead for kind of a while now and he’d never been able to lay hands on anyone or anything at all up until an hour ago when he smacked some pills out of his brother’s face. Which was great, because he’d been wanting to do that for literally years--but why was it working now?
And, Ben thought, coming to a halt as Klaus’s flat, skinny ass lifted off the bed a little, what exactly was he doing anyhow?
Klaus’s elbow moved. The mattress dipped slightly.
Ben sighed a soul-deep sigh from the depths of his entire existence. “The world is ending and you’re jerking off?”
He had to hand it to his brother: Klaus was so inured to sighs of disgust, impatience, and exasperation that he barely reacted.
“It helps me think,” he informed the bed, in a muffled, mouth-full-of-blanket voice.
Ben stretched out the pockets of his hoodie with his hands. “Does it?”
There was an ominous pause. The mattress had stopped moving and Klaus’s elbow was still.
“No,” he admitted, his ass sinking back down onto his arm. “It stops me thinking and right now thinking is not very fun.” Klaus waved his left hand in Ben’s vague direction. “Also, pattycake wasn’t working.”
Ben took a metabolically unnecessary breath and put his hood up in case blocking out the view of the rest of the room helped the conversation to not be happening.
“And this is what you think will work?” he said, at last.
Klaus twisted his head around to give him a dishevelled, sheepish smile, one of the puppy-eyed ones of ‘how much worse can things possibly get’ that Klaus liked to spread around shortly before things got predictably worse. “Well, I thought maybe you’d be so grossed out you hit me again.”
Ben sat down on the floor. “That… isn’t… the problem,” he said, slowly.
“Oh my god,” Klaus tried to point at him, but the angle he was lying at meant he’d have had to dislocate his elbow to achieve it.
Ben shrugged. “Maybe I should do it.”
Klaus made goggle-eyed eye contact with him and blinked once or twice. It was almost an achievement, making him startled by a response, except that he did also occasionally get that way about things like toothbrushes and soda vending machines when he was high. “Why do you think that would work?”
“Well,” Ben extended an explanatory hand, keeping the other stuffed in his hoodie pocket. “I really wanted to smack those pills out of your face…”
His brother nodded along as if he understood, wearing the expression of someone who very much didn’t. “So doing something you’d rather die—poor choice of words ahha—than do will work?”
“No, genius,” Ben sighed.
Klaus stared even harder. “Oh my god. You… want?”
Ben reared back from the attempt at an accusatory point. “Not especially—"
But Klaus was grinning. It wasn’t a triumphant smirk but it was the grin of a man who has finally figured out the answer to a confusing math problem. “Liar.” He frowned, and tapped himself on the nose in thought while Ben squirmed uncomfortably on the floor, not exactly relishing the role reversal. “Can you though?”
Ben raised his eyes to the heavens he’d never bothered to find out the reality of. “Roll over.”
He shuffled over to the bed, and put his chin on one hand, and reached out with his other hand, which passed straight through Klaus and straight through the bed and, in an almost pointed demonstration of acute failure, briefly dipped through the floor below as well.
With Klaus watching him with a weak, fixed smile, he clenched his teeth and tried again, trying to think of whatever it was he’d been thinking of when he managed to make contact with his brother for the first time since his death. As far as he could remember, it was mostly don’t do that and a lot of frustration.
Well, the frustration was there all right.
“This... isn’t working,” Klaus said eventually, after Ben had successfully fisted the floorboards two more times.
“It was worth a try,” Ben said in a conciliatory voice. He wasn’t sure it was. The world was about to end and here they were, failing to commit post-mortem incest for reasons of spurious power-enhancement so that they could—what, exactly?
“Stand back, I’m going to finish what I started,” Klaus said, with something approaching dignity. It was a good, if somewhat unusual look on him. It certainly beat out the self-pity.
“With me here?” Ben asked, leaning back on the heels of his hands, ready to leave, but not quite going.
Klaus shrugged and waved the hand that wasn’t already cupped around his dick. “I figure you’ve seen it all already a hundred times by now.”
Ben got up on one knee and gave him a long hard look in the face, which was a safer bet than a long hard look anywhere else at present. “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you getting your gay on, Number Four?”
Klaus shrugged with absolute unconcern and his dick in his fist. “Oh, ten hundred.”
Ben shook his head. “Zero. None. Not once.” He made a nada gesture for emphasis.
“Now that’s just homophobia,” his brother said with an exaggerated pout, turning his attention back to what he was doing.
“No. I just thought you wouldn’t want me watching,” said Ben, thinking of the many and varied times he’d taken a break from futile babysitting duties to just… not exist somewhere else for a bit, instead of watching Klaus get railed, get high, or get beaten up yet again.
Klaus wagged one painted fingernail at him. “Well you thought wrong.”
“You are kind of an attention-seeker,” Ben conceded. It wasn’t news. A life as devoid of praise as his had left him with a pretty intense need to find it anywhere, from anyone, preferably in conjunction with something to shut out the voices of the deceased. Although even Klaus didn’t like an audience of dead grandmas, babies, and dismembered co-eds when he was trying to get off.
“And you’re kind of messed up,” Klaus retorted, without any kind of malice. He caught Ben’s eye and gave a small, one-shouldered shrug against the mattress.
“Aren’t we all.”
Klaus blinked slowly a few more times and exhaled. Ben put his chin back on his hand and his elbow on his knee and his face level with the edge of the bed and cleared his throat.
“Are you doing this or are you going to sit there with your boner out like this until the world ends?”
His brother gave him a sidelong look from kohl-blackened eyes. “Are you watching?
Ben snorted. “Yes, Klaus. I’m watching.”