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i'm gonna be here til i'm nothing (but bones in the ground)

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It’s the shuffling that first alerts him that something’s off.

Shuffling, and the crackle and crunch of rubble being shifted aside. It’s the sound of someone moving around, touching things, interacting with their environment.

And Klaus is still riding the tail end of the high from some painkillers he dug up in the half demolished, ash-coated back shelves of a pharmacy. He’s lucid enough to function, to talk to himself when it gets too quiet, to walk — er, limp — to the next place where there might be some food or some water to keep him alive for another few days.

The fog wrapped tight around his brain has silenced every single voice, though. It’s left nothing but the impossibly dense quiet that blankets everything around here, not a ghost to be seen anywhere he looks, just miles and miles and miles of nothing.

And even if it didn’t, even if he were perfectly one-hundred percent sober —

Ghosts can’t touch things.

He’s frozen in place, his heart hammering at a mile a minute, because shit, it’s been at least a few days or a week or more since everything went to hell. He hasn’t been able to keep track of time, not really, not when he’s been steadily oscillating between drunk on the one intact bottle of Everclear he found to completely off the shits on painkillers, but it’s been a while, he knows that much. He hasn’t seen another living person in that time, and he was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, he never would. Maybe there wasn’t another living person to find.

Whoever it is, he can’t see them yet. The sounds are coming from over the next hill. Or not really a hill, he guesses, just a particularly high mound of debris from what used to be — an apartment complex? Maybe? He can never fucking tell anymore.

Klaus tightens his grip on the shitty umbrella he’s been using as a makeshift cane, and he makes his painstaking way up the mound.

Burnt bits of asphalt and cement and rock dislodge under his boots and trip up his already precarious climb. His good knee hits the ground, and the pain at least is dulled through that blessed painkiller-induced haze, but getting back up is a bitch. He lets out a groan of effort as he pulls himself up to his feet.

The shuffling cuts off. Whoever it was, if there ever was anyone at all, has gone still at the sound of his approach.

“Hello?” Klaus calls out.

His voice should be crystal clear — it’s not like he hasn’t been using it, talking out loud to no one in the hopes that he won’t totally lose his mind in this place — but it comes out strained, quiet, frightened.

Don’t be stupid.

What the hell do you have to be scared of, anyway?

“Hey,” he tries again. “Is… Is someone there?”

He trudges through the next few steps. Whether there’s actually someone there or not, he has to know. He thinks he might actually start crying at the sight of a friendly face. And if it’s not a friendly face, well, there’s nothing they can throw at him that hasn’t already been thrown at him a thousand times over.

There’s really nothing that could surprise him at this point.

“Hello?” Klaus asks. “Look, it’s been, uh, it’s been a day, you know? So if you’re like, a hallucination or something, could you at least—?”

“St— Stay back!”

He freezes, just steps from the top of the mound, something in him wilting at the sound of that voice.

It’s a kid.

Damn it.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he says with the sort of light-hearted confidence he absolutely does not feel, and he lifts one hand to where he hopes the kid can see it over the pile of rubble. A big black HELLO waving back and forth, like a white flag. “It’s okay, I’m friendly!”

He takes another step.

“I said stay back!”

Klaus doesn’t listen. He takes another step, then another, and another, until he’s standing at the crest of a mountain of garbage and crumbling concrete, leaning heavily on his umbrella-cane for support.

And there, not fifteen feet away and backed up against one of the only intact walls in a ten block radius, trembling from head to toe, clutching a knife in both hands and pointing it at Klaus like it’s a gun, is a kid.

But not just a kid.

Klaus almost drops the umbrella.

Someone definitely just punched him in the chest, right? That’s the reason for that feeling? Or that last batch of pills had something seriously off-label mixed into them. Because there’s no way. There’s no fucking way.

He squeezes his eyes shut until dots burst behind his eyelids, but when he opens them, the hallucination doesn’t go away.

“… Five?”

 


 

Dying is a bitch.

Coming back to life is worse.

Feeling comes back to Klaus, all at once and merciless.

There’s the disorienting thump, thump, thump on his ribcage as his heart is forcibly kicked back into step. There’s the sharp, burning throb that starts at his right thigh and climbs up into his side. There’s the duller ache at the back of his skull. There’s the dirt that’s caked all down the length of this throat and suffused into his lungs, made a thousand times worse when he takes in his first breath and gets nothing but soot and sandpaper. And coughing is agony in so many more ways than one — it rips up something deep in his chest, scratches at his throat, scrapes his cheek against the bricks he’s still lying on top of. A shock of pain ratchets its way from his waist all the way up to his collarbone.

Broken ribs, some more lucid part of his brain tells him. From the manor collapse.

You need to move, Klaus.

He doesn’t want to. He’s not sure he can, actually, but that’s beside the point — he really, really does not want to. The coughing isn’t going to stop any time soon, but that’s fine, nothing he can do about that, he’ll just have to let his body try to get all the dust and grime out even if he knows it’s never going to be enough, even if he knows it’s pointless, given the clouds of soot floating in front of his face every time he dares to crack his eyes open.

He’ll hack up everything he’s got, and then he’ll hack up the lining of his lungs, and then he’ll die all over again.

That’ll show her.

Kick him out of the afterlife just for him to waltz right back in a few minutes later.

The little fucking brat.

By the time he regains control, by the time the coughing dies down into rattling breaths that are at once too quick and not enough, he gets shaking hands underneath him and pushes with every ounce of strength he’s got in him.

… Which, as it turns out, isn’t all that much.

The gray-brown cracked earth beneath him spins, and a gray-brown sky slides into view as he collapses flat on his back. Piles and piles of dust — nope, he thinks, ash, not dust — shake free from his jacket and his hair and his skin, more than he’d have ever thought possible, and it joins in with the ash swirling in eddies all around him.

How long was he dead this time?

A minute? An hour? A week?

Fuck.

Fuck.

His leg is broken, he’s sure of it. He hasn’t got a clue how many of his ribs are broken, too, but it’s definitely more than one. He might have a concussion.

He has absolutely no idea what the killing blow was.

And all he can see when he closes his eyes is white white white, the manor falling to pieces and Diego half-crushed beneath the rubble and Allison already cut down and Mom and Pogo nowhere to be found and Vanya, sweet little unassuming Vanya, right in the middle of the destruction, glowing brighter and brighter and brighter until —

Until nothing.

Until sweet, sweet oblivion. Not that it lasted very long.

Klaus still has trouble believing it. Not the part about God, that part actually feels par for the course as far as his life (and death) goes.

But Vanya.

Vanya, the littlest and softest and most innocent of their fucked up troop. Vanya, the one who made peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches and left them out for their long-lost brother for years. Vanya, the one who begged Klaus to get a spider out of her room and nearly broke into tears when he tried to stomp on it.

That Vanya.

He can’t cry. He can’t, not without fucking up his ribs any more than they already are.

He does anyway.

He cries, lying on his back in the middle of the demolished ruins of what used to be his home, tears cutting clean tracks through the ash on his skin.

“B— Ben,” he chokes out as soon as he’s got the breath for it, his first word since returning to the land of the living, his voice half a sob and barely audible. “Ben?”

Come on, he thinks, don’t leave me hanging this time, man.

I know you’re around here somewhere, you have to be.

“Ben!”

Ghosts can’t die, asshole.

Come on.

He calls for the rest of them, too. Allison, who he last saw trying to get close to Vanya, trying to reason with her after she’d long since left reason behind. Luther, who charged at Vanya’s freak of a boyfriend, that asshole who was egging her on the whole time. Diego and Vanya, because he didn’t see either of them die, so maybe… Maybe they didn’t. Maybe Diego shook off his injuries and made it out, the stubborn prick. Maybe Vanya’s power didn’t eat her up from the inside. Maybe the blast wasn’t enough to kill them.

Hell, maybe it was, but maybe they came back, too.

He can’t be the only one, right?

He can’t be.

 


 

He is.

Klaus finds their bodies as soon as he gets the strength to clamber up onto his good leg. Luther and Diego and Allison, one, two, and three, half buried under massive hunks of the demolished manor, every inch of them coated in a thick layer of ash.

He finds their bodies, and he calls out for them anyway.

Of course they don’t answer, not one of them. Probably fucked off into the afterlife without a care for the brother that wasn’t allowed to follow them, gone without bothering to stick around long enough for him to sober up and get the chance to see them again. Not even Ben, now that the rest of the family’s crossed over that line to join him on the other side.

Klaus doesn’t blame them.

Well, he does.

But he guesses he shouldn’t. He wouldn’t stick around here, either, given the choice.

He leaves their bodies where they are. Then he goes scrabbling around in the rubble until he finds the first thing that can be used to help him walk on his broken leg — which ends up being an umbrella, because of fucking course it is, he’s already well established that God hates him and apparently has a flair for irony — and then he and his makeshift cane set off for the nearest half-intact pharmacy.

If God wants him alive when everyone around him is dead, he is sure as shit not gonna be sober for it.

 


 

“It looks like some kind of spatiotemporal anomaly! That, or a black hole!”

“Pretty big difference there, Paul Bunyan!”

“OUT OF THE WAY!”

“What are you—?”

Something came flying through the rift in spacetime that Five had just opened up. It sailed right by his head and smacked into the fence. In fifty-eight years, nothing had ever jumped through before he did. It was unheard of.

A fire extinguisher rolled across the grass toward his feet.

Huh, he thought.

Well, that was new.

“What is that gonna do?!”

 


 

If this is a hallucination, Klaus thinks, it is a very, very vivid hallucination.

He takes another step.

Five but maybe not Five practically hisses at him, gripping tight on the knife, “Don’t! You stay right goddamn there, don’t come any closer.”

He’s only ten feet away now, pressing himself so close to that wall behind him that it looks like he’s trying to phase through it.

And he could, Klaus realizes — remembers. He could phase right through that wall if he wanted to. He could phase anywhere he wanted, anywhere at all, and he’d be long gone again before Klaus could so much as blink.

Klaus lifts both hands in surrender. The umbrella falls to the ground and rolls out of his reach, and he shifts his weight over onto his good leg.

Five-not-Five doesn’t lower the knife.

And God, Klaus thinks, he looks exactly like he did the day he disappeared, exactly like that stupid portrait that always sat over the fireplace, the one Klaus always thought Five would have hated.

Beneath the dirt and the soot that covers everything around here, beneath the wild unkempt hair and the shaking hands and the bright, wide eyes, he’s still the same. Barely more than five feet of scrawny little kid, still wearing the same stupid Umbrella Academy uniform they always wore back in those days.

Like he hasn’t aged a bit in seventeen years.

Like…

Oh, no.

Oh, no, no, no.

I’m ready to time travel, Klaus remembers him saying. I’m not afraid.

Klaus gulps.

This is really Five. He’s really here.

Shit.

“Five,” he says, struggling past a suddenly dry throat. “It’s okay. It’s… it’s me. It’s Klaus. You, uh, probably don’t even recognize me like this, huh? It’s been a while—”

“You were dead,” Five cuts him off, angry and biting and so, so scared. “You were dead, I saw you. You, and — and Allison, and Diego, and Luther, all of you.”

“I know,” Klaus says, even though he hadn’t known that, or at least he hadn’t known that Five had known that, and shit, now he can’t help picturing it, the shaking little kid in front of him digging through the remains of the Academy, unearthing four dead bodies that looked like aged-up versions of the family he’d left behind. “I know.”

“You’re… You’re not — I tried to wake you up,” Five admits. “All of you. I tried, and — and it didn’t…”

Klaus feels something in his lungs deflate.

Hesitant, mindful of any sudden movements, he slides his right foot forward and hops one step ahead on his left, ignoring the way his still broken femur sends a half-dulled shock of pain up through his stomach.

“Don’t! I said — I said stay back, you’re not — you can’t be here —”

“But I am!” Klaus stammers, hands still up in surrender, a nervous smile on his face. “I am! Believe me, if anyone would know what a hallucination is like, it’d be me, right? And I’m telling you, buddy, this” — he waves vaguely at himself — “this isn’t it. I’m the real deal. I’m actually here.”

Five’s jaw is shaking. His grip on the knife is only getting tighter, and Klaus realizes with a jolt that it’s one of Diego’s knives. How long has Five had it? How long has it been since he left their dead bodies behind?

“I’m here,” Klaus repeats. “I’m real. I’m alive.”

“How?”

Five says it through gritted teeth, and Klaus slides another little step forward, until he’s only a few feet away from his little brother.

His baby brother, and is that ever a term he never thought he’d have a reason to use, not after thirty years of shared birthdays. But here he is. The world has ended, and all but one of his siblings are dead, and he has a baby brother.

Shit.

“My power,” Klaus finally answers. “I think. Maybe.”

“Your power,” Five repeats, all skepticism.

“Yeah, apparently seeing the dead isn’t where it stops, I don’t know,” Klaus admits, because this is Five, and if he remembers anything about Five, it’s that he doesn’t respond to bullshit. He likes clear cut facts, he likes honesty. And Klaus very nearly opens his big fat mouth to mention the three times he’s OD’d in the last decade, too, just to back up his theory.

Not the fucking time, Klaus.

He’s still a kid.

“I died, but it didn’t… stick? And I met God for a minute, who by the way, is not very nice. So it might not be my power at all, it might just be that she doesn’t like me,” he says, mostly just thinking out loud now — sue him, he’s nervous, and he’s somewhere between riding a nice numb high and being knocked clean sober by the sight of his seventeen-years-missing brother. He shrugs, lifting his hands and dropping them helplessly. “Who knows, you know? Not me.”

Five stares at him with almost the exact same look that Klaus is used to getting from the rest of his siblings, the what the hell is wrong with your head look, the how high are you right now look, except there’s something else there, too, something that’s close to fear, but not quite.

He lowers the knife a fraction of an inch.

“… Klaus?”

His voice comes out like it’s struggling to make its way out of his throat, barely audible, which is a pretty stark difference to all the angry shouting and the don’t come any closers and the stay backs.

Klaus gives him a sad smile, lifting his hands again.

“Hey, Five.”

There’s a beat of silence.

Then the knife clatters to the ground, and half a second later Five dives forward, so quickly that Klaus almost thinks he teleported to do it, so quickly that he staggers back a step. Five’s arms are a desperate vice around his waist, fists bunching up the back of his coat, and Klaus ignores the throbbing in his ribs in favor of wrapping his arms around his brother and holding him tight.

And Five never cried when they were kids, except for that one time he accidentally teleported too high up and broke his collarbone on the drop. He’d been four years old at the time.

This makes the second time, as far as Klaus knows.

Christ, he’s shaking like a leaf.

“It’s… it’s okay,” Klaus says into his hair, even though it’s definitely, definitely not. The whole damn world is up in flames, and this is where his brother ended up when he disappeared all those years ago, a thirteen-year-old stranded in an apocalyptic shithole, all alone until now, and even now he’s only accompanied by what is probably the single least responsible, least-qualified-for-this adult on the planet. Anyone would have been better than him. Diego would have been better than him, for shit’s sake.

But God has a fucked up sense of humor, doesn’t she?

“I — I’m sorry,” Five chokes out, his voice muffled by Klaus’ shirt. “I didn’t — I didn’t mean to —”

Whatever he didn’t mean to do, Klaus doesn’t find out, because apparently those are all the words that Five is capable of stringing together. The rest dissolves into shaking inhales as he tries to get his crying under control, panicked little gulps when he tries to hold his breath, and Klaus just holds onto him, runs a hand up and down his back, tells him it’s gonna be okay even though he knows it won’t be.

Yeah, he thinks, God has a very fucked up sense of humor.

And Klaus makes the decision, right here and now, to tell her to shove it when he sees her again.

 


 

“What is that gonna do?!”

“I don’t know! Do you have a better idea?”

The rift wasn’t acting exactly as it should have.

It wasn’t behaving, it was like the fabric of spacetime was tearing at Five rather than the other way around, compressing him down and stretching him out, like squeezing his entire body through a pinhole. It hurt, but —

He could see them. He could see their faces, staring up through the rift at him, it was working

“Woah, woah, woah, woah—”

“Everyone get behind me!”

“Yeah, get behind us!”

“Uh, I vote for RUNNING—”

The rift spat him out, some ten or twelve feet in the air. It dropped him like a flailing ragdoll to the ground, and that hurt, too, almost as bad as the rift itself. But at least all of goddamn time and space had finally stopped screaming past his ear and shattering his eardrums, at least he wasn’t scattered across the whole continuum, at least he was in one piece.

Probably. Most likely. He’d have to check once he could move again.

For now, all he was aware of was this:

Cold, solid ground beneath his hands and knees. A strange lack of an ache in his lower back, hardly noticed when it was there but impossible to miss now that it was gone. Footsteps, shuffling toward him.

And one voice, out of all the others, that he actually recognized.

“Does anyone else see… little Number Five, or is that just me?”

 


 

In the first week after Klaus woke up at the end of the world, Priority Numero Uno was to get as high as he possibly could, using whatever means he could possibly find.

After he finds Five, surviving moves a tick up on the list.

They settle into a routine of sorts.

There are no sunsets or sunrises when the sky is blotted out by swirling ash around the clock, but when the ruddy beige above them shifts to a brownish gray and then to pure jet black, they hunker down wherever they are — usually the library, since the support beams are one of the few structures still standing — and they sleep. When light comes back, they set off in search of the nearest grocery store. Five yammers on all the while about physics and spacetime and a whole load of stuff Klaus can’t even begin to understand, but apparently just listening and offering up the occasional uh-huh and yeah that makes sense is enough for Five. Better than nothing, anyway.

Within the first few weeks they’ve ransacked every half-intact store in a three mile radius, and the library is stacked with columns of canned food taller than Klaus can reach, massive jugs of water that they painstakingly rolled here in the wagon, a few that Five managed to teleport there before he almost passed out from the exertion.

Klaus also, slowly and discreetly, fills up his pockets with pills whenever he spots them on their little outings.

He keeps on walking the tightrope. Not too high, definitely not too sober.

And things are… okay.

Not good, they can never be good in a place like this, but they’re okay. Both of them had expected to go through this shitheap alone, and now they’re not. Neither of them had expected to have any company at all, let alone someone they knew, and now here they are, bickering like brothers again and sometimes laughing and always surviving. It’s… okay.

There are rough times, though.

Somewhere around week two, Klaus finally gathers up the nerve to tell him. He stops dancing around the subject. He tells Five all about Vanya, about her powers and her pills and her dickless piece-of-shit boyfriend, about how much of an asshole their father really was, about the soundproof bunker in the basement, about the white white white and the atomic bomb detonation that boomed right out of the littlest Hargreeves.

Five doesn’t believe him, or he does, and that’s worse, because he doesn’t want to. He gets angry. He lashes out and calls Klaus a liar, shouts below-the-belt insults, cries and disappears — just teleports away without warning, and he doesn’t come back for three hours. When he does reappear he’s dead-eyed and practically catatonic and clearly exhausted, but he wordlessly makes dinner for both of them anyway, which is… well, that’s as good as any olive branch, as far as Klaus is concerned.

Once, somewhere around the second month, Five says he wants to try teleporting to another continent.

Just to see, he says. Maybe this didn’t happen everywhere. Maybe there’s someone.

Klaus doesn’t want him to. He’s worried Five will overdo it and hurt himself, and some small part of him is worried that Five won’t overdo it and he’ll like wherever he ends up and he won’t come back.

But in the end, there’s not really a choice, and they both know why, even if they won’t say it out loud.

No matter how much food they scrounge up, the expiration dates aren’t gonna allow them to stay fed for more than a decade or so. If there’s life somewhere else, anywhere else, they need to find it. Otherwise their lives are nothing but a ticking timer.

Five disappears, all frayed nerves and cautious optimism.

When he comes back twenty minutes later, Klaus doesn’t need to ask what he found. Five collapses to his knees, too pale and shaking, and Klaus silently rubs his back as the poor kid heaves up everything he’s eaten today.

 


 

“Does anyone else see… little Number Five, or is that just me?”

Wait. Had he heard that right?

What the hell did Klaus mean, little Number Five?

Oh.

Oh, god damn it.

His suit was hanging off him like a tent, his tie was suddenly too loose.

How? Why? Had he gotten the equations wrong? He’d thought he had the equations down perfectly.

He looked down at his hands, too small and too young, lacking all the callouses from hauling around the wagon and the tons of heavy lifting he’d done over the years and, more recently, the time he’d spent handling weapons for the Commission. The scars of the apocalypse, wiped out in one quick time jump.

Well. That explained the disappearing back ache at least.

“Shit.”

 


 

After three years, Klaus’ supply runs out.

He knows it’s coming. He knows, about a week beforehand, that he’s emptied every available pharmacy in the whole damn tristate area and that whatever he’s got left is not gonna last him much longer. He knows withdrawal is gonna be a bitch and that the dead all around him are gonna be worse, so he tries, in that last week, to stretch it out as long as he can, tries to postpone the shakes and keep the voices dulled down with half a pill at a time.

His supply dwindles.

The tightrope frays.

When it finally snaps, he’s not ready for the free fall.

And Five knows, because he’s too smart not to have noticed. He’s never tried to get Klaus to stop, because over the years Klaus has turned being just sober enough to be good company into an art form, and because maybe, just maybe, Five sympathizes with the need to be a little numb in a place like this.

He’s matured way quicker than a sixteen-year-old has any right to.

So he knows what’s going on. He doesn’t comment on it, even though Klaus knows he must seem like a wreck, fidgety and restless and perpetually too hot, too itchy, the boundless patience he’s built up by living in a wasteland with only a teenager for company now shortened to an inch-long fuse. He doesn’t comment when Klaus starts shooting venomous glares at people that Five can’t see, or when he starts hissing at them to go away, to leave them alone, to just shut up.

As awful as the withdrawal is, though, it’s not the true problem. It comes and it goes in waves, it’s absolutely the worst fucking thing Klaus has ever experienced in his life, but it’s not the problem.

The problem is after.

The problem is that, after weeks of sweating and nausea and headaches and vomiting, the withdrawal has torn his immune system to fucking shreds.

Or at least that’s what Five tells him.

Through the pounding in his head and the dry cotton feeling in his throat and the fuzziness in his eyes, Klaus can still hear him talking, always talking, which is a comfort at least. He’s louder and clearer than any of the ghosts wailing in Klaus’ peripheral, always has been.

“… which leaves out the possibility of a bacterial infection,” Five is rambling now, pacing back and forth at the other end of their little hollowed-out ceilingless section of the library. Klaus can just barely make out his outline. “Probably a virus. Flu, maybe. We know you need fluids, which luckily we still have plenty of. Mom always used to make — what, soup? Chicken soup, I think? That sounds right. I could blink to one of the stores we haven’t hit yet, I’m sure there’s some unexpired chicken soup somewhere. Could find some actual medicine while I’m at it. Cough syrup, or something. Aspirin.”

Five crouches down, right at his side — and when did he get there? Did he teleport again?

He pats his hand on Klaus’ chest, and his hand is freezing, or maybe Klaus is just warm. It’s hard to tell.

God, he’s so tired.

“That’s fine, go to sleep. You need it,” Five says. His voice sounds like it’s underwater. “I’ll be right back, okay? Promise. I just have to find something to help you get better. You’re gonna get better. You’re gonna be okay.”

Klaus doesn’t remember anything after that. He wants to say yeah, sure, I’ll be fine, he wants to say don’t you worry about me, little man, I’m all good, but his already hazy vision is blotted out with big black splotches of nothingness, and something tugs him out of the world and down into the dark. Down here there’s no feeling at all, no ash and dust, no dead people following him around with their sad helpless eyes and their anguished screaming. No nothing.

He has no idea how long he stays in that dark, nothing place, but his eyes feel like jelly when he finally cracks them open. His legs feel worse, like every muscle’s been pulled out and pressed through a meat grinder and then stuffed back into him.

He’s lying on his back. A blank beige sky is all he can see.

When he lazily turns his head — or rolls it along the ground, anyway, since that’s all he feels capable of doing — his vision is filled up with a whole lot of messy black hair, and it takes him a second to recognize it as the back of his brother’s head. Five is curled up on his side facing away from him, either out cold or pretending to be. His head is pillowed on Klaus’ arm, and it’s not until then that Klaus notices the pins and needles in his pinky and ring finger.

With no small amount of effort, Klaus glances around at their little clearing of stacked canned goods and water jugs and chalkboards and books. There’s a few flickering silhouettes of people hovering around the perimeter, but no fully formed ghosts, not yet. There’s also a bottle sitting not two feet away from Klaus’ head, close enough that he can make out the words Nighttime Fever Reducer on the label. It’s half empty.

Well, Klaus thinks, that explains why he feels like someone injected a bunch of fuzz into his brain.

He cracks a smile. Then, mostly just to prove to himself that he can move at all, he lifts the arm that’s not pinned to the ground, and he slowly reaches over to ruffle Five’s hair. His brother barely makes a sound outside of a little groan from the back of his throat.

Thanks, bud. I owe you one.

 


 

Five’s hands shook a bit as he snagged the peanut butter off the shelf, but none of them seemed to notice. They were all there, exactly as they’d looked the day he’d found their bodies, every last one of his siblings except for Ben, all of them staring at him like they thought he was insane.

He’d made it, but now he just needed to make them believe him.

He didn’t imagine that would be a trivial task.

He dug a knife into the jar of peanut butter, eyes down to avoid looking at them — especially at Klaus, who of course had to sit himself on top of the kitchen table, right in front of him, all soft and wide-eyed and younger than Five could ever remember him being.

It felt wrong.

“What’s the date? The exact date.”

Vanya was the first to answer. Vanya who was still smaller than him even after the dimensional rift spat him out as a little kid, Vanya whose voice barely registered above a whisper, Vanya who was always afraid to take up too much space. Little, soft spoken, couldn’t-hurt-a-fly Vanya.

The unwitting harbinger of the Apocalypse. The four horsemen packed into a five-foot-nothing atomic bomb.

“The twenty-fourth,” she said.

“Of what?”

“March.”

“That’s…” Five trailed off. He wasn’t quite too late, then. A few weeks earlier would have been nice, but he’d just have to make due. “That’s good.”

 


 

“They’re trying to kill you, you know.”

The woman’s been following Klaus around for three days. She sits next to him when he’s eating, follows him out of the library when he leaves, offers commentary in the middle of Five’s physics lectures, and just generally does not leave him the fuck alone.

But what else is new?

Klaus runs a hand over his face. “That so?”

Five, scribbling away in one of the latest textbooks he lifted from a University on the other side of the state, barely looks up at the sound of Klaus talking to one of the ghosts. He’s used to it by now.

“Don’t be an ass,” the woman says. “They are.”

She’s young. Younger than him, not much older than Five. Mid twenties, maybe. She didn’t die in the apocalypse, though, Klaus can tell. Unlike all the ghosts who did die that day, she’s almost entirely uninjured, no dented skull or crushed torso or blackened burns from head to toe. Just a single gunshot wound at the center of her stomach.

The woman paces soundlessly in a circle, passes through one of the support beams and then right through Five like he isn’t even there, drumming her fingers on her bicep.

“Hate to break it to you,” Klaus says, lounging back on one of the old dirty cushions he’s collected over the years, his hands behind his head, “but whoever they are, it doesn’t matter what they’re trying to do. You guys can’t touch me.”

Her eyes search the dusty horizon, and her nose wrinkles. “I’m not talking about ghosts, dumbass.”

“Yeah?” Klaus asks. “Then who?”

Uncertainty crosses her features for a second. Her brow creases. “I don’t know their names. Black female, about five nine, medium build. Big white guy with a beard.”

His mocking, barely humoring smile takes on a sympathetic note.

“Are they the ones that…?”

He waves at the gunshot wound in her chest, and the woman nods.

Klaus sighs. She’s fixating, he’s seen it before in ghosts that were murdered, obsessing over whoever killed them. She’s been dead a long, long while — they all have by now — and she must not realize that whoever killed her has been long dead, too.

“Look, it’s okay,” Klaus tells her, sincerely. “I’m pretty sure I can’t die. Already rode that ride, you know, and I got chucked off of it.”

“You can, eventually,” she tells him. “You need to stop going out on your own. Those lone ranger walks you go on, it gives them the perfect opening.”

He shrugs. “Hey, I gotta stretch my legs somehow, right?”

And it’s true. By now, anything edible or drinkable that they haven’t already gotten their hands on is well out of walking distance, so Five has taken over the scouting and the exploring, popping out of existence and reappearing with whatever he can find from all over the country. That leaves Klaus with, quite honestly, nothing to do aside from read and cook and listen to Five thinking aloud about quantum entanglements and dimensional shifts.

Sometimes he’ll go out, wander through what’s left of the city, dig up neat little artifacts in homes and stores, chat with the occasional friendly-ish ghost or two. It keeps him sane.

“I’m serious,” the ghost says. “If you have to leave, take the kid with you.”

“Yeah?”

She nods, biting the inside of her cheek, looking at Five. “I don’t know why, but they don’t want him knowing about it. I heard them, talking, planning. They need you out of the picture, but they need it to look like an accident. They don’t want the kid knowing there’s anyone else left.”

Klaus sighs again and links his hands over his stomach. He could point out the obvious, which is that there isn’t anyone left, but he decides against it and instead asks, “And why would anyone want to kill me, huh? What’s so special about me?”

Five stops writing then. He shoots a questioning look up at Klaus, then in the vague direction of where he assumes the ghost might be. He’s looking a little too far to the right.

The ghost is starting to flicker. They do that, sometimes. It’s harder to hang on the longer they spend dead.

“Because you’re not supposed to be here.”

As the ghost ripples away into nothing, Five asks, “What did they say this time?”

Klaus shrugs. “Eh, just the typical ‘I was murdered’ bullshit, you know. Guess she doesn’t know whoever killed her is dead, too.”

“What, she thinks her murderer is trying to kill you?”

“Thought,” Klaus corrects. “She’s gone now. But yeah, don’t worry about what these guys say to me, kiddo, half of them are” — he twirls his finger by his ear and whistles in the universal symbol for batshit insane — “after being dead so long.”

Five tosses his pencil at Klaus so that it hits him in the shoulder, then he picks up another of the several dozen all over the floor and resumes his scribbling. “Don’t call me kiddo, Klaus, I’m twenty-two.”

Klaus laughs. “Yep, whatever you say, short stack.”

The second pencil hits him in the forehead.

 


 

“Heya, little bro.”

Five tried not to flinch and didn’t quite succeed. Not that it mattered, really. If his memory was right, Klaus was still on a twenty-four-seven drug-induced haze in the days before the apocalypse — and for several years after. He probably didn’t even notice.

With a sigh, Five turned away from the ridiculous portrait of himself up on the wall, and he shot a look at Klaus, the first genuine eye contact he had made with his older-but-younger brother since arriving in the past.

“I’m twenty-eight years older than you, Klaus. I’m not anyone’s little bro.”

Not anymore, anyway.

And Klaus, just as Five remembered, wasn’t capable of making any gesture half-assed. A shrug was a full body endeavor, hands flailing to the side and then clapping together in front of him. “Eh, I dunno, short stack, you still look pretty little.”

Five tried, and failed, not to smile at that.

Some things never changed.

“Yeah, yeah,” Five said, looking away. “Hey, I’ve gotta run an errand. You feel like going for a drive?”

“Oh, I can’t—”

“I know,” Five cut him off. “I know. I’ll do the actual driving. Just seeing if you wanted to tag along, that’s all.”

He would have a lot of fish to fry in this timeline, he knew, in the seven days he’d been allotted to prevent the end of all life. So many loose ends he needed to tie. Harold Jenkins, the Commission, his other siblings, Vanya, Vanya, Vanya.

But another problem was right in front of him: too-young Klaus, clearly high on something, looking completely and utterly taken aback at the prospect of someone actually including him in anything, let alone willingly.

“Aw, little old me?” Klaus asked, one hand over his chest. “Look at you! Back for less than an hour and already playing the part of concerned older brother. I’m touched, really.”

“Just… returning the favor, I guess,” Five quietly admitted, but whether he would end up explaining the meaning of that to Klaus, ever, he had no idea. He hoped Klaus wouldn’t ask. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked around Klaus, toward the front door, and asked over his shoulder, “You coming, or not?”

 


 

Klaus lives to the ripe old age of forty-three.

The infection isn’t necessarily any worse or better than whatever he caught after the withdrawal all those years ago, but it’s persistent in a way he never knew a sickness could be. For days on end he feels like he’s in a fog, the kind that’s disgusting and muddy and makes his eyes hard to open at all, the kind that jacks up his body temperature so he’s constantly too hot while everything around him feels too cold.

Then it abates, either on its own or because Five managed to scrounge up some antibiotics from a few states over, and Klaus starts to think he’ll be okay until, every time, it comes roaring back far worse than it had been before.

He fights it for two weeks.

But there’s only so much he can do.

“I told you.”

Klaus blinks, shakes his head. He’s standing up at the edge of the demolished library — and when did he get standing? He hasn’t had the strength to stand up for a while now. He feels better, though, and oddly light, as if that oppressive weight that’s been sitting on his lungs for the last two weeks has suddenly been lifted away.

“You should have listened to me, asshole.”

The woman — the ghost, from before, she sounds angry, but mostly just sad, disappointed.

Klaus doesn’t pay much attention to her. He’s too busy staring, staring ahead at what was once the interior of the library, his view as always unimpeded by the lack of intact walls.

“Yeah,” the ghost says, finally with a tinge of sympathy. “Sucks, I know.”

Five is sitting cross-legged on the ground, his elbows on his knees and his hands tugging through his hair. His right knee is leaning against the side of a body that Klaus almost doesn’t recognize — dark curls down past his ears, uneven scruff all over his jaw, dark circles under his eyes. It’s a six-foot-long body stretched out on some cushions with an old quilt covering him all the way up to his shoulders.

“I didn’t…” Klaus murmurs, unable to tear his eyes away. “I didn’t want to go.”

“Yeah,” the ghost says. “Most people don’t.”

“No, I mean… I can’t.”

I can’t leave him alone again.

He doesn’t say that aloud, but the ghost seems to get it.

“You can stick around for a while,” she tells him, gentler than he’s ever heard her. “It’s gonna get harder as time goes on, but you don’t have to leave right this second.”

And it sucks, it sucks that Five can’t see him there, but Klaus doesn’t leave. He watches as Five sniffs and scrubs his hands over his face and stands up. He watches as Five seeks out the least desolate, least rubble-covered patch of ground in the area and spends a whole two days doing nothing but digging. He watches as Five lifts Klaus up — because he can do that now, he never quite reached Klaus’ height but he was never quite as skinny as Klaus was, either, not with thirteen years of Klaus stealthily making sure Five always ate more than him — and teleports him to the sight of his little one-man funeral.

He watches the months that follow. He watches as Five keeps working on his research. He watches as the chalkboards are steadily filled up with more and more equations that still don’t make any sense to him, but apparently make sense to Five. He watches as Five finally starts reading Vanya’s book, flipping through it for any clue as to how he can stop the apocalypse when — not if — he gets back.

He watches as Five gets tired of talking aloud to no one and picks up a mannequin from the nearby department store.

Five names her Dolores, and Klaus is too grateful to care that she’s not a real person. He’s too grateful that his little brother has someone, anyone to talk to, no matter what form that companionship comes in.

And besides, who’s he to judge?

 


 

“Hey, Vanya.”

“Klaus? Five? What are you…?” Vanya’s voice trailed off as she glanced down at Five’s blood-spattered clothes, one hand tight on the doorknob. “Oh my God, is that—?”

“Blood, yeah,” Klaus answered with a laugh. “Turns out our big bro is a badass! Who’d have thought, huh? You should’ve seen him, zipping and zapping all over the—”

Five elbowed him in the side to shut him up, because Vanya really did not need to know all that. The Commission grunts that ambushed them were all dead and wouldn’t be able to fuck with the timeline anymore, which made them a non-issue, and anyone else the Handler decided to send after him wouldn’t be Vanya’s problem, anyway.

(Same went for Harold Jenkins, who was already in police custody and was staying that way, thanks to a series of photos of him lurking around Vanya’s apartment and following her throughout the city — photos taken from almost suspiciously hard-to-reach places. And Diego, once he saw the photos and despite his apparent distaste for his littlest sister, had been all too eager to get the guy behind bars with a stalking charge stacked on top of all his other parole violations.)

Five shook his head. One problem at a time.

“Can we come in?”

“Uh — yeah, yeah, of course,” Vanya said, stepping aside to let them pass.

He and Klaus shuffled into her little apartment, and Klaus wasted no time in stretching across the length of her couch while Five slowly lowered himself into the armchair beside it.

Vanya glanced nervously between the both of them and murmured, “I’ll, um… I’ll go get the first aid kit.”

“V, wait,” Five called out, halting her in her tracks.

He shot a look at Klaus, gesturing with an impatient tilt of his head for him to move his legs so their sister could sit. Klaus did so without complaint, smiling at Vanya and patting the cushion with his foot in invitation, and as soon as she sat down, he stretched his legs out again and laid them over her lap.

“What’s going on?” Vanya asked.

Five took a slow breath and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, his heart hammering a little too fast for his liking. This was the part he’d been looking forward to and dreading for the vast majority of his life, this was the part that mattered. This was the part where he would finally make good on a forty-five-year-old promise and stop the apocalypse, not by killing Commission goons or by working out the right equations, but by doing right by his sister.

It was a long, long time coming.

“Vanya, I need to tell you something, and it’s gonna be a little hard to accept at first,” he told her, wringing his hands together. “But you need to know.”

“Is this about…?” Vanya started to ask. “Is this about the, um, the world ending? Like you said?”

Five nodded. “Eventually,” he said, because he refused to lie to her. “But however upsetting what I’m about to tell you might be, I want you to know that we” — and he glanced at Klaus to indicate that he was part of the we — “are gonna be with you every step of the way. We’re your brothers. We’re here, no matter what happens.”

He gulped, his mouth suddenly dry.

“Do you trust us?”

 


 

“Klaus?”

Five’s voice is heavy, slurred with sleep. It’s been a few hours since their tearful reunion, and the two of them have managed to find a semi-intact section of a building — the library, apparently — to take shelter in. Five told him what it was when they reached it, all proud and condescending and exactly as Klaus remembered him, like he hadn’t just spent a solid half hour sobbing into Klaus’ chest like the little kid he still is.

How do you not see it? Seriously, I recognized it after seventeen years and an apocalypse.

His tone lacks any of that haughtiness now, though. He’s curled up on his side with his head on Klaus’ lap, his dusty Academy blazer draped over him like the world’s shittiest blanket, his eyes half-lidded.

“Yeah?” Klaus asks, barely above a whisper.

Five gulps. Klaus can see it. His eyes open a bit more, but he doesn’t look up, just keeps staring straight through Klaus’ stomach.

Finally, he pulls the blazer tighter over his shoulder and says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

Klaus lets out a breath, puffs his cheeks out as he leans his head back against the support beam.

(And there’s a kink in his back, but sleeping like this will be better for him anyway, right? Keeps his broken ribs… elevated, or something. He doesn’t know. But Five’s comfortable like this, so Klaus is, too. He’s dealt with worse.)

“I’m not,” Klaus says, and he glances down to see Five shooting a disbelieving look his way. Disbelieving and just plain sad, so Klaus flashes his best fake-it-til-you-make-it smile in the hopes that it’ll wipe some of that look away. “What, you’re telling me you’re sorry you missed… all this happening? Yeah, I bet. You really missed out. It was a roaring good time, let me tell you.”

“I could’ve helped,” Five insists. “I could’ve helped stop it.”

Klaus looks down at him and frowns, chews on his cheek. The simple certainty in Five’s voice almost surprises him, but then again, even at thirteen he’d always had a better handle on his powers than the rest of them ever did, didn’t he?

And for a moment, Klaus imagines a Five that never left, a Five that had years and years to grow and practice and learn, a Five that would’ve stood beside the rest of them when—

When it happened.

Klaus almost wants to tell him. He wants to tell him all of it, what caused all this. He wants to tell him exactly how fucked up powerful their sister turned out to be, about thirty years of repressed emotion packed into her and locked away with pills and denial, about the white white white that Klaus sees every time he closes his eyes, about how no one, not even the full force of the Academy could have stopped it, not when they didn’t notice what was happening until it was already too late.

He doesn’t say any of that, though. He’ll have to tell Five eventually, and he’s not looking forward to how that conversation is gonna go down, but he doesn’t have to tell him right now.

It’s been a long enough day already.

He drops a hand on Five’s arm and gives him a little squeeze through the blazer-blanket.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, bud,” Klaus says. “You just would’ve died with the rest of us. I’m glad you didn’t.”

And maybe that’s selfish, but it’s the truth.

He keeps his hand where it is, his thumb running back and forth as he waits for Five to fall asleep, but Five breaks the silence again.

“Can you see them?”

Klaus sighs, closes his eyes. He’s been dreading that question.

“Nah, Five. I haven’t seen them.”

“If you do—”

“You’ll be the first to know, promise,” Klaus tells him, because, well, duh. “And I’ll pass the message along, and they’re gonna say the same thing I did. There wasn’t anything you could have done.”

They missed you like crazy, he wants to say. We all did. They’d all just be glad you’re okay.

He doesn’t say that, though. Kind of feels like rubbing salt in the wound.

“Besides,” Klaus says, “I don’t think I’m gonna see them. Probably better that way, you know? Means they moved on to… you know, wherever it is people go after they die. I only see the ones that decide to stick around.”

And not even the ones that stick around, not unless you’re sober, a more self-aware, more responsible voice in his head pipes up.

It sounds like Ben. Klaus knows it’s not.

But he doesn’t want to think about Ben, or Vanya or Diego or Allison or Luther.

He also doesn’t want to think about what the future holds for him and Five right now. He doesn’t want to think about the kind of tightrope he’s gonna have to walk. Can’t get too high when there’s a little traumatized hundred-pound teen with him and he’s the only adult around for miles and miles and miles. Can’t get too sober or the shadows are gonna start moving. Definitely can’t drop it cold turkey, because withdrawal is bad enough when it happens in a bed in rehab and not in an apocalyptic wasteland, thank you very much.

Then there’s the whole supply issue. It’s only a matter of time before it runs dry. He doesn’t want to think about that, either.

He’s pulled from his thoughts as Five reaches forward and grasps a fistful of his shirt by the waist.

“I’m gonna stop it,” Five says, very clearly seconds away from falling asleep. “I’m gonna figure out how to go back. And I’ll stop it.”

“Yeah?”

Five nods, all the blind and rigid optimism that only a thirteen-year-old could have — or maybe, Klaus thinks, that only Five could have — and he lets go of the shirt. His eyes are closed when he mumbles, “Jumped forward just fine. Jumping back’s harder. I’ll… I’ll figure it out. I’ll go back, and I’ll stop it. I promise.”

And Klaus, smiling and giving his little brother’s arm another squeeze, can’t help believing him just a little.

 


 

“Do you trust us?”

This was it, Five thought, wringing his hands together so tightly they were starting to hurt.

Vanya looked nervously to Klaus, gulped, and then turned her gaze back to Five. Then she said what were probably the greatest four words that Five had heard in a very, very long time:

“Of course I do.”