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hell of a feeling though

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Klaus Hargreeves has a pretty good idea of how each of his siblings is going to die.

No, that’s not exactly right. He doesn’t know how they'll actually go out. Academy life is a bottomless grab-bag of horrors, and Klaus is big enough to admit he's got a better chance of picking winning lotto numbers than he does predicting what will end up killing any given Hargreeves kid. Fighting escaped mutant experiments and watching the Eiffel Tower turn into a literal spaceship humbles you like that.

More like, Klaus already knows how each of his siblings will handle being dead.

Five and Diego are coming back to haunt Dad's ass, for sure. The only reason Klaus knows Five is still alive out there somewhere is because his ghost isn't back here, spitting snarky comments at Dad and heckling the rest of them during drills.

If Luther goes first, he's coming back for Allison, and vice versa. That's a given. Klaus is going to be stuck passing schoolyard notes between planes of existence till the other croaks. It's cool. He's made his peace with it.

Vanya, as always, is a harder read. On the one hand, death would finally give her an out from being the odd one out. On the other, it's basically impossible for Klaus to picture her, alive or dead, anywhere but at Dad's elbow.

Ben is the only one that Klaus is always, absolutely certain will walk straight into that goodnight without so much as an over-the-shoulder. That doesn't stop Klaus from hoping Ben will surprise him by sticking around.

And then Ben dies, and Klaus would rather move into the mausoleum than ever, ever see Ben's face again. Because he wouldn't look like Ben. He'd look like that last, sticky-red image of what was left of Ben. And Klaus has a hard enough time blinking the picture away without it literally haunting him, thank you very much.

 

Klaus would say the house is quieter without Ben around, but that's not technically true. Ben always did most of his talking with his eyebrows, over the pages of a book. It's probably fairer to say that Klaus is quieter without Ben around. Now that Klaus can't barge into Ben's room with no warning whatsoever, take over the foot of his bed, and relay celebrity gossip while Klaus paints his nails and flips through People, and Ben continues to sketch like Klaus was there all along.

Klaus has gotten too many doors slammed in his face to think about trying that shit with anyone else.

Klaus's heartbeat hiccups every time he makes eye contact with Dad, wondering whether Dad will make him try to Conjure Ben. He doesn't. Klaus realizes, with a sour sort of pleasure, that dear old Dad might be afraid to face Ben, too.

Whatever the reason, no Conjuring. Bullet dodged. Dad puts up a statue instead. There's a whole ceremony out in the garden. Dad reads some stock words of remembrance, mostly about the tragic loss of Ben's incredible powers and his bravery in battle and blah, blah, blah.

If Ben were here, Klaus would give him an exaggerated eyebrow waggle while Dad waxes on about "the erection of this statue," and Ben would make his patent tight-lipped smile. The kind he accidentally made whenever Klaus told a dirty joke—grudging, like he was paying up after losing a bet.

But Ben isn't here, and Ben doesn't come back.

 

What do come back are Klaus's regularly scheduled field trips to the mausoleum. Whoopee.

Klaus hasn't been shut in since he was a kid. He remembers those sessions ramping up to almost daily torments when he was nine—in what he now recognizes as Dad's last-ditch attempt to get Klaus's powers ready for prime-time before the Academy went public.

When it became obvious that this whole not-eating and not-sleeping routine was messing with the rest of Klaus's training, Dad finally gave up on him.

“You’re my greatest disappointment, Number Four.”

… And the sky was blue. Next?

Honestly, if Klaus had known that his golden ticket out of the crypt was Dad resigning himself to the fact that Klaus was hopeless—well, no. There probably wasn't much Klaus could have done to convince Dad he was a lost cause any faster. Klaus may not have much going for him, but his record for sowing disappointment? Rock solid.

Now he'd finally made it. Being a certified deadweight opened up so many free hours in the day. Klaus was going to get so much more Vitamin D. Failure never tasted so sweet.

Not that Klaus told any of the others, even Ben. It was too pathetic.

As powers go, Klaus always felt like he and Ben pulled the short sticks. Maybe that's why they got along so well: an affinity between people carrying something rotten inside. But at least Ben's power—it was horrifying, sure, no arguments here—but at least it was useful.

What did Klaus have? A particularly morbid brand of psychosis that was distracting at best, disturbing at worst, and consistently useless for catching baddies.

Things got better once Klaus could focus on normal—ha, normal—physical training. His idle mind was a sitting duck for nearby spirits, and it was best to have something to focus on. Even if that something was dodging Luther's fists or Diego's knives.

In the field, Klaus made himself useful mostly by being the Ben Whisperer. That is, keeping Ben calm enough that he wouldn't choke before a mission or freak out so thoroughly that interdimensional tentacles made an unexpected appearance.

The gig usually amounted to serving up half-baked jokes mid-combat, or an eye roll whenever Luther and Diego collided because they were both trying to shoulder their way through a door first. And, perhaps most importantly: reassuring Ben that all his victims found everlasting peace as soon as he'd picked them off, and that there were absolutely, positively no restless souls respawning as vengeful ghosts in their vicinity. No sir. No translucent corpses in varying stages of dismemberment to see here. Move along. Klaus will cry about it into his pillow later.

Crying about it later may have been Klaus's one job, but he was very good at it. Dad must've thought so too, because gliding by on Ben's coattails spared Klaus nearly seven years of visits to the mausoleum.

Well, he had a good run.

Klaus's one last, optimistic thought as the door closes behind Dad is that maybe his memories of the mausoleum are warped by little-kid goggles. Maybe now that he's older and Seen Some Shit, it won't be as bad as he remembers.

It's as bad as he remembers.

The outsides of Klaus's hands from pinky to wrist bone are rubbed raw and bleeding from banging on the door by the time Dad returns, however many hours later, to collect him.

"You grew out of that, last time," is all Dad says of Klaus's hands.

So it goes.

A few months in, Dad decides to break up the usual regimen by mixing in visits to fresher spirits. Trips to hospitals, sites of recent accidents, back to the mausoleum. Repeat.

Klaus spends his stretched-out waking hours trying to shake the voices, forget their broken, bloodied, or disease-shrunken bodies. Klaus hangs around so many ghosts that sometimes, he feels like one of them. In the middle of the night, paranoia tries to convince Klaus that he is one of them, somehow astral-projecting himself into a physical body without actually being alive.

Klaus finds himself braced, at the start of every mission, to be sent back where he belongs.

 

Dressing up is among the few things that make Klaus feel like a real, living person.

Ben was the first to notice, of course.

"Do you want to be a girl?" he said one afternoon when they were ten, watching Klaus tape catalogue clippings into a composition notebook like pressed flowers. Clippings mostly plucked from the women's fall line.

Klaus's tongue suddenly felt too big for his mouth.

"No," Klaus said, because he didn't. Klaus may not have understood why he wanted to reach for the tube of Allison's sweet-smelling shampoo rather than the industrial-size jug of soap his brothers used. He may not have known why he daydreamed about piercing his ears so he could wear hoops like Mom. But Klaus did know that he didn't want to be a girl.

He at least had that.

Ben considered. "But you like makeup. And dresses."

"Yes," Klaus said, because he'd allowed Ben to see too much of him by now to deny it.

Ben considered this for a significantly longer moment, during which Klaus pretended to lounge casually against the footboard of the bed while holding every muscle in his body tense.

Apparently, Ben found this notion neither crazier nor more disgusting than Klaus's funny little habit of talking to dead people, because he said, "Okay," and went back to his book.

Klaus wanted to hug him. Or cry. Or both. But more than anything, he wanted to move on like nothing was different—and they did. It was that simple.

Trust nothing to be that simple with Luther.

Klaus is admiring his profile in one of Mom's A-line dresses in his bedroom mirror when the alarm sounds. A shock zips up his spine, and Klaus immediately reaches up to tug off Mom's clip-on opals. He drops them to his desk with a clatter and shucks her bracelets off his wrists.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

Luther has recently graduated to stalking the halls and clapping impatiently for the rest of them to get their asses in gear. It's a pretty pointless job, given, you know, the whole alarm setup. Not to mention a thankless one; Luther's definitely had more close encounters with Diego's knives since taking over for Dad. But then, most of Luther's No. 1 duties seem pointless and thankless to Klaus, so what does he know.

Klaus yanks out desk and dresser drawers in search of his mask. Fuck, it was right here

"Christ on a bicycle!" Klaus clutches at Mom's pearls around his neck and lurches back from the newly appeared ghost on his bed. She regards him indignantly, like he snuck up on her.

The worst thing about dead people, besides everything, is how they all show up like Klaus is wearing a big neon OPEN sign. He doesn't know how he can make his No Heartbeat, No Breathing, No Service policy any clearer.

"Nope," Klaus says, turning away to continue his search for the mask. Ghosts are easier to ignore in the afternoon sun, when they're alone and not sporting grotesque injuries. "Not today." Or any other.

The woman is closer now. Ghosts do that, sometimes, when Klaus has his back turned or can only see them in his periphery—move unnaturally quickly. Klaus doesn't know whether they float or teleport Five-style, but it's creepy, and Klaus would rather they not.

Klaus shoves his drawer shut and tries not to recoil from the woman now standing right beside him. "Look—"

"Klaus!" Luther throws open the bedroom door with a bang that makes both Klaus and his uninvited guest flinch. "Let's g—What are you wearing?"

Klaus fights the urge to curl in on himself by straightening up and planting a hand on a popped hip. "It's who am I wearing." Then casts a critical look down at the dress. "Pretty sure this one is from the Reginald Hargreeves 'Women Belong in the Kitchen' collection."

Luther makes a series of incoherent splutters that coalesce in a frustrated, "Take it off. You're holding everyone up."

"Untwist your knickers, Number One," Klaus says, untying the bow around his waist and unzipping the back of Mom's dress to reveal his combat uniform underneath. He smirks at Luther and taps his temple.

Luther rolls his eyes and storms off, which is as much of a concession as he ever makes. When Klaus looks back around, the ghost, too, has gone. He shimmies out of the dress and lays it carefully on his now-empty bed, where he spots his mask. Klaus sticks it on and rushes after Luther, determined to maintain this two-steps-ahead streak by beating him to the front door.

It's not until Klaus is flying down the staircase head-first that he remembers oh, yeah, he borrowed Mom's heels, too.

 

Dad’s furious that Klaus is sidelined for the mission, on account of being in the ER. He doesn't mention the crossdressing. Klaus doesn't know what he expected. From what Klaus gathers through books and TV, parents of queer kids are usually angry because their children haven't grown into the people they were expected to be. Lucky for Klaus, Dad has never really viewed any of his children as people, per se.

 

Klaus wonders, sometimes, what the others think about his trips to the mausoleum. He wonders whether they picture him sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by ghosts like dolls at a child's tea party, gossiping about living and dead relatives. He wonders whether they suspect—whether they have any idea how it really is.

It isn't fair to wish they understood, when Klaus has never been able to make himself explain it to them. But what is this family, if not knee-deep in each other's business at all times without invitation?

They must know, Klaus thinks at his bedroom ceiling fan. Just like Klaus knows about Diego's supposedly secret speech therapy lessons with Mom. Just like they're all politely ignoring the accelerating undercurrent between Allison and Luther.

Klaus's siblings have had years of practice tuning him out. But the way Klaus screams when he's locked up, even with a broken jaw wired shut, it seems like the whole world must be able to hear him.

If the others do know, though.

This is where Klaus has to break eye contact with the ceiling fan and curl up in a ball with his head under his pillow. If they do know, if they even suspect, and they've never said—

The thing is, would Klaus put it past them?

Luther thinks the sun shines out of Dad's ass. Allison thinks the sun shines out of Luther's ass. Diego's too busy with his perpetual pissing contest with Luther to bother with problems that can't be solved with knives.

If anyone knows, Vanya does, and she's always wanted superpower lessons so badly that she probably thinks Klaus should be thanking Dad on bended knee for such wonderful educational opportunities.

Ah, fuck. That's not fair. This is Vanya, he's talking about. Vanya, who once burst into tears when she caught Klaus and Ben burning ants with a magnifying glass in the garden. Vanya would never intentionally let Klaus get hurt. None of them would, Klaus thinks. Which means, none of them know.

It's both easier and more difficult to cross the threshold of the mausoleum, knowing not to expect any cavalry to come.

Ha. Look at Klaus, silently daydreaming about his bunch of sixteen-year-old siblings coming to rescue him for himself.

Number Four, superhero extraordinaire.

 

Getting drunk for the first time is like sinking into a hot tub after wriggling out of a cold pool.

Klaus convinced Allison to Rumor the local liquor store clerk into believing they're twenty-one, so they could buy something to ring in their seventeenth. Dad, as usual, is celebrating with an elaborate evening of nothing at all. Very on-brand for the Hargreeves, to commemorate deathdays with statues and birthdays with early bedtimes to rest up for a six a.m. 10k. Ben is laughing at them, somewhere.

Once Dad is asleep and Mom is plugged in, Allison leads the way up to the rooftop greenhouse, where their flashlights reveal remnants of an old blanket fort.

"Ooh-la-la," Klaus says, settling himself on a tasseled pillow under the bed sheet canopy.

“Move over,” Diego says, sprawling next to him, knocking Klaus with his knee.

Klaus smacks him in the arm with a pillow, which Diego snatches and hugs to his chest. Klaus retaliates by pillowing his head on Diego's shoulder and refusing to be shaken off.

After mausoleum days, Klaus is short on warmth. He's not above stealing it from others, when they'll let him. Diego must be in a good mood, because he gives up easily.

"I didn't know this was still up," Luther says, quiet enough that it's clearly meant only for Allison.

"Of course it is," Allison says, shaking out her bedspread like a beach towel in front of Diego and Klaus, so that she, Luther, and Vanya can sit across from them.

"I like what you've done with the place," Klaus says, twirling the cord of a fairy light between his fingers. "Very boho-chic."

Luther makes a face like Klaus is speaking German, but Allison smiles. "Thank you," she says, and wraps a hand towel around the cork of their first bottle of champagne. It's nothing like how people open champagne in movies. Dad is a light sleeper, so Allison has to wiggle the cork out as slowly as possible, and they all wince at the soft pop it expels upon release.

Allison pours one out for each of them in the seven mugs Luther carried up from the kitchen. Klaus claims his and Ben's. After a brief game of eye-contact chicken to decide who's going to tag in for Five, Vanya collects his mug.

Luther raises his cup to make a toast, but then frowns, like he doesn't know how to say a few words that aren't a rallying cry before battle.

"To seventeen," Klaus says, holding his and Ben's drinks aloft. "Miracle any of us made it this far."

 

Drunkenness comes up to meet Klaus quicker than expected.

A few glasses in, Klaus's head is too heavy for his neck, and turning too quickly sends the room careening in the opposite direction. But it's good. No ghosts in sight. Not even the memories of past encounters that usually dark-tint the periphery of Klaus's mind. Just Vanya, Allison, Luther, and Diego. All completely opaque, with all their body parts in the right place.

Klaus is reminded of sneaking out to Griddy's Doughnuts late at night when they were kids. How many years has it been since they did that? Klaus can't remember the last time they were all together besides silent mealtimes, which don't count. It's nice.

He must say as much aloud, because Vanya says, "Well, almost all together," and knocks back the last of Five's drink.

"Where do you think he is right now?" Allison says, leaning back on her hands and tipping her chin toward the ceiling, like Five might suddenly fall out of thin air. At this point, Klaus wouldn't even be surprised. His life is a comic book, and Five always was dramatic like that.

"Hanging out at an intergalactic dive bar, lecturing aliens on proper time-hopping technique," Klaus guesses.

"Crazy fucker," Diego says fondly.

"Remember when he was still learning spatial jumps, and he kept ending up in the wrong place?" Luther says.

"Under the kitchen sink," Allison says.

"In the chimney," Vanya adds.

"At least never showed up in the shower with you." Luther shudders at the memory.

"At least he never ripped the bathroom door off its hinges," Diego says pointedly.

"Still not as embarrassing as that time you boomeranged yourself in the nuts with a baseball," Luther shoots back.

Klaus grins lazily. They don't do this much anymore—banter without real heat. That's nice too. Everything is so nice. Bless the universe for the ghost-canceling headphones of alcohol, Klaus thinks, and pours himself another drink.

"Okay, that's enough for you," Diego says sometime later, both too soon and not soon enough. Diego uncurls Klaus's fingers from the handle of his mug and sets it down somewhere out of sight.

Klaus makes a low whining noise in the back of his throat, but makes no moves to stop Diego. He's having some trouble communicating the idea of motion to his limbs.

"Up you get," Diego says, looking down at him. Huh. When did Diego stand up?

"No thank you," Klaus says. At least, he's fairly certain the words come out in that order.

"No—nope nope nope," Diego says, lunging forward to grab Klaus's wrists to stop him flopping back onto the pillows.

"So comfy," Klaus pouts.

"Sure, until Dad finds you up here tomorrow and kills you," Diego says, which is when Klaus realizes that the others have already gone downstairs. "Come on."

"Okie dokie." Klaus waits for his body to pick itself up. It doesn't. Brain to appendages, come in, appendages. Nothing.

"Such a lightweight," Diego says, even though he's slurring his words, and stoops down to pick Klaus up bridal style.

Klaus loops his arms around Diego's neck. "My hero."

Diego frowns, jostling Klaus in a way that Klaus really thinks is playing with fire, given how much champagne is sloshing around in his belly. "Dude, you actually weigh, like, nothing."

"Yes, yes, you're very strong," Klaus says, patting Diego indulgently on the shoulder.

"That's not what I—never mind," Diego says grumpily.

Klaus hums 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen' quietly as Diego carries him, step by staggered step, to his bedroom.

"Hey, Diego?" Klaus says, as Diego kicks Klaus's door open and crosses his dark room to drop Klaus—more gently than expected—onto his bed.

"Hmm?" Diego says, midway through turning away.

"D'you wish we could do this all the time?"

Klaus has more words in his head to follow that question. Words like, Do you ever wish we were just normal teenagers, rather than a bunch of superkids who have to play-pretend normalcy in the middle of the night? Even if it meant no badass powers, no post-mission adrenaline highs, no teen magazine covers, am I the only one who thinks that would be pretty nice?

Klaus should unspool this thought further, is trying to figure out how, when Diego says, "What, me carrying you around the house like a princess?"

Klaus closes his mouth. Then closes his eyes. The task of explaining himself suddenly seems too exhausting to attempt. "Sure."

"Don't get used to it," Diego says, before completing his pivot away from Klaus and closing the door behind him.

 

Klaus wakes up to the morning sun shining daggers into his eyes and feeling like a fish swollen full of toxic runoff. But for once, Klaus hasn't dreamed of the mausoleum, and that's worth all the hangover in the world.

 

It's not so much a new routine, as it is a new way of life, getting wasted every night after training. It's a gasping inhale after hours underwater. Top of the line respite. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

Klaus isn't stupid. He knows, logically, that this is a terrible, no good, very bad idea. Fortunately, Klaus is already the undisputed Academy fuck-up. Why not lean into it?

Dad might know. If he keeps regular tabs on their savings accounts, he definitely suspects. But Klaus has gotten drinking-to-just-before-the-brink-of-an-epic-hangover down to an art. And if it's not affecting training, it's not Dad's problem.

Unfortunately, crime is a fickle mistress, and missions don't follow Dad's militant schedule the way training does. So it's inevitable that Klaus go on the occasional mission slightly buzzed. This, Klaus does not recommend quite so strongly. Although, the return trip home is significantly quieter when he's not being trailed by rookie ghosts howling at him about how he'll pay, how they'll all pay. Yeah, yeah, take a number, Klaus thinks.

Possibly, it says something about how truly useless Klaus is that Numbers One through Three don't even seem to notice the difference. Oh, Klaus zoned out and got himself captured again? Surprise surprise. Klaus tripped and knocked Diego over right as he was about to take deadly aim at the villain of the week? Go figure.

Klaus isn't really in the market for new reasons to hate himself, but here they are, showing up anyway. At least now he has a means of unhooking his brain from his body and letting it drift up, up, up to bob around somewhere above the rest of him, out of the way for a while.

When he's not being sent on ill-timed missions, drunk-Klaus keeps to himself. Hargreeves kids have spent enough time shunted together to respect a closed door when they see one—with the possible exception of Luther, although he's given Klaus a wider berth since the broken jaw incident.

Klaus isn't a huge fan of closed, let alone locked doors, for obvious reasons. He even keeps the door cracked when he's bathing. But for drinking, Klaus will close his door (and open his window, no matter the weather, just to scratch the itch that he needs an escape route at all times).

Mausoleum days have always made Klaus clingy. The need to touch people who won't pass through him, talk to people who aren't screaming at him to avenge their deaths or pleading with him to pass messages to left-behind lovers—it aches like hunger.

But Klaus is a person best handled in small doses. Or, so he's been told. He knows better, by now, how to put himself away for the day. So with the possible exception of Dad, grandmaster of turning a blind eye, Klaus is pretty sure no one has noticed.

Drinking is like the mausoleum, like that. Ninety-nine percent of Klaus cringes away from the idea of Allison or Vanya, and especially Luther or Diego, discovering Klaus’s most profound fuck-up. But there's that one, traitorous percent that wishes someone would please, for once, care enough to find out.

No one does. Klaus is ninety-nine percent relieved, one percent crushed, and zero percent surprised. No one's ever seemed particularly bothered by his misery; no reason Klaus's newfound relief should be any different.

 

There's a slight possibility that Diego might, perhaps, maybe know something.

This educated guess brought to you by the fact that Diego just jimmied his way through the lock on Klaus's bedroom door to find Klaus tilted back in his desk chair with a bottle of vodka tucked against his chest.

Klaus blinks up at him in surprise. "No, please, come in," he says, gesturing so expansively with his free arm that he nearly loses his balance.

Diego does, kicking the door shut behind him and closing his fist around the front of Klaus's shirt to yank him forward. "Hey!" The front legs of Klaus’s chair hit the hardwood floor with a sharp clap. "What the hell?"

"Shut up." Diego jabs the pause button on Klaus's boombox to silence Cyndi Lauper's crooning about how girls just wanna have fun. "You're drunk. Again."

Klaus's common sense, currently riding in the backseat of his brain, makes the feeble note that Diego's expression means Very Serious Business.

The inebriation sitting at Klaus's front wheel makes the compelling counterpoint that no one can expect to be taken seriously while wearing flannel pajamas.

"I am indeed," Klaus says. "Gold star for you, Number Two." He reaches up to boop Diego on the nose.

Diego smacks his hand away. "Stop it. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Klaus considers. Besides having spent his afternoon ignoring a persistent, not to mention decapitated corpse that couldn't take a hint? "Nothing," Klaus says. "Until you arrived. Unannounced." Klaus angles the neck of his bottle in Diego's direction.

"Give me that," Diego snaps, grabbing the bottle and, for lack of a better place to put it, setting it on Klaus's desk.

Klaus pushes out his lips thoughtfully. He could reach for it, but he probably won't. At least not until Diego releases the front of his shirt. If he keeps yanking it around, he's going to stretch it out. More than he already has.

"You gotta shape up, man," Diego says.

Klaus grins. "You sound like Dad."

Diego's eye twitches, but he doesn't take the bait. Instead, he says, "You reek."

"Hooooow rude of me," Klaus says, craning his neck and drawing the word into a long exhale that makes Diego lurch back and finally release Klaus's shirt. Klaus smooths it down with clumsy hands.

"God, you are so—"

Through Klaus's swimmy vision, Diego's scowl fills in the blank.

It prickles. Klaus wishes Diego would go away. He's sort of ruining Klaus's everything-is-beautiful-and-nothing-hurts time.

"Well, when you put it like that," Klaus says, giving his smile an amused edge. This is a low blow, taunting Diego of all people for being inarticulate. Low enough that it might make Diego leave.

No such luck. "So, what, then?" Diego crosses his arms. "Couple drinks on our birthday and suddenly you're an alcoholic?"

"Diego. Buddy. Pal." Klaus stands on wobbly legs and grips Diego's upper arms. "It's just a few drinks."

"Tonight and every other night."

Credit where credit is due. Diego's more astute than he looks. Also, apparently good at picking locks. Klaus would make a mental note to ask Diego how to do that, but experience says drunk self-notes are as good as written in sand before high tide. No time like the present. "Can you teach me how to pick a lock?" he says.

"What? No. Stop changing the subject." Diego uncrosses his arms and puts his hands on Klaus's shoulders to sit him back down in the desk chair.

Klaus has spent a lot of time watching his siblings pretend, whether they're pretending to be a modern von Trapp family or a teen Justice League. Still, it's weird, in this moment, to watch Diego pretend to be a grown-up. Klaus has seen Diego play Irritated Older Brother #2 more times than he can count, but Stern Father isn't a face he's put on before.

Diego must find it uncomfortable, too, because his expression softens marginally when he says, "I'm worried about you."

Don't cry. Don't cry. "There's nothing to worry about."

"Bullshit."

Klaus looks away and swallows thickly.

Diego crouches in front of him. "I can't help you if you don't tell me what's wrong," he says, like something straight out of an after-school special. Which it probably is. Growing up with no role models besides a world-famous crackpot, a fifties housewife robot, and a superintelligent chimpanzee, Klaus isn't the only one who's learned most of what he knows about being a real person from TV.

If there were ever a moment to tell, this is it. Diego's asking. Someone's actually asking.

Klaus opens his mouth, but the words don't come. Diego is looking up at him with those stupidly big brown eyes. He's not playing grown-up anymore, and Klaus has never been more acutely aware that Diego's only seventeen, too. The way Diego carries himself and cuts down enemies, it's easy to forget.

But combat is garden-variety terrifying. The things Klaus sees—fuck, he needs another drink. Klaus sits on his hands. The things Klaus sees on the daily make combat look quaint. The mere thought of recapping seven seasons of Klaus Visits the Mausoleum to Diego makes Klaus want to cry again.

Besides, what would be the point? It's not Diego's fault that Klaus's supposed superpower regularly makes him want to brain himself on the nearest sharp corner. Diego can't do anything to help. Klaus would just be letting his own misery spill over onto Diego, and Diego probably has plenty of misery of his own to be getting on with.

"Klaus?" Diego presses.

Klaus sighs, packs his grand confession plans into a box, and tucks them away in a back corner of the basement of his mind. Maybe next time.

"Why does there have to be something wrong with me?" he says. "What, like our whole lives aren't reason enough to drink?"

Diego's expression hardens. "So, you're just going to slowly poison yourself."

Like any of them can think about living long enough for cirrhosis of the liver to matter. (Yeah, that's right. Klaus has done his research. He knows exactly what the fuck he's getting into.) "Worse ways to go," Klaus says.

Diego stares at Klaus for three solid seconds, scoffs, and stands up. "Such a fucking waste."

Klaus's eyebrows lift. "Excuse me?"

"With the company you keep, you should know better than anyone how short life is," Diego says, like he has any idea about anything.

The pleasantness of intoxication is fading fast, and the world is coming into painfully sharp focus around Klaus. "Shut up."

"Ben's death? Could have been any of us," Diego says, like Klaus hasn't spoken. "But you got to walk away. This is what you're gonna do with it?"

"I said. shut. up." Klaus stands, fists at his sides. Even tipsy, Klaus isn't dumb enough to pull anything, but dammit if he doesn't wish he were Luther right now.

"Ben would back me up on this," Diego says.

Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. "Get out," Klaus says. "Get out now."

Diego doesn't budge. "You know he would. Why don't you call him up and ask? Unless he's already here, telling you you're just as much of a dumbass as—"

"Get out!" Klaus shoves Diego forcefully enough that he stumbles into the door and winces at the doorknob digging into his back.

Klaus has never shouted at any of them before. He hates that Diego made him shout.

Diego gapes at Klaus for a beat before fixing his face into something more commanding. "Klaus—"

"I said," Klaus says, quiet now. "Go."

Diego goes.

Klaus re-locks his door and turns to his closet. He pulls out the fluffy pink robe he borrowed from Allison a while back and wraps it around himself. He wipes his eyes with the soft sleeves, collects his vodka from the desk, and curls up in the corner of his bed.

Fuck Diego. He doesn't know anything. And fuck him especially for bringing up Ben.

 

Klaus drinks himself to the point of feeling a little more forgiving.

Diego doesn't know anything, but Klaus could have told him. If Klaus weren't such a coward.

If Klaus weren't such a coward, a lot of things would be different.

Klaus resolves, as the alcohol coaxes him toward sleep, that next time he won't chicken out. Next time Diego asks, Klaus will tell him whatever he wants to know.

 

There is no next time.

Diego is the first to move out for good, less than two months later, without telling anyone where he's going.

Vanya leaves next, to start her music program in New York. This is a good thing, Klaus tells himself. Even if he will miss occasionally turning down his own music to drift on the river of whatever classical piece Vanya happens to be practicing.

Allison's departure comes as a bigger surprise. Not because she belongs in L.A. any less than Vanya does in New York, but because Klaus never thought he'd see the day she left Luther.

And then Klaus is left alone with Luther. Which basically means alone.

Luther doesn't bang on Klaus's door when the mission alarm blares anymore. Without Allison to spread a Rumor that Klaus is invisible to perps, or one of Diego's knives to have Klaus's back while the rest of them kick ass, Klaus is too much of a liability. Dad fills this new free time in Klaus's schedule with more trips to the hospital.

Sleep is scarcer than ever, and comes in one- to two-hour snatches throughout the night. Klaus can't seem to drink enough or sleep enough or smack his forehead with the balls of his hands enough to fully mute the undead vying for his attention. So he drinks, sleeps, and smacks himself into oblivion as much as possible.

Klaus has a whole new system to remind himself that he's alive. One that involves bubble baths and candles and Cher. As soon as Dad frees him from a stint in the mausoleum, Klaus makes a beeline for the bathroom and sheds his dirty clothes. He stands over the tub, picking at his skin, until the water is warm and deep enough to hide in. It’s quite nice.

Luther would beg to differ. Tonight, he pauses outside the bathroom door to look in on Klaus, who's just finally drunk and bathed himself into a mental fog thick enough to obscure the house fire victims who followed him home. Klaus would say Luther is lurking, but Luther is really too big to lurk. Looming, is more like it.

When he doesn't disappear from Klaus's peripheral vision after a few seconds, Klaus turns to look at him. Luther's got blood on his temple and bruises on the skin exposed by his rolled up sleeves. He must have been dispatched while Klaus was locked up.

"So, this is what retirement looks like," Luther says.

The jab hurts, but Klaus's brain is currently wrapped in enough insulation that it doesn't puncture him. He tips his head back against the lip of the tub and gestures at the closed toilet seat. "Care to join?"

Luther looks like he could really use at least a few minutes surrounded by soothing aromas, and maybe a foot soak. Klaus could really use some living company, even if it's Luther's.

The feeling is not mutual. Luther scowls and stomps off to his room. Klaus's stomach sinks. "Rain check," he says to no one, and reaches a dripping hand over the side of the tub to take another swig, hot and prickly, straight from the neck, to buoy himself up.

Klaus turns up the volume on the radio perched on the windowsill above the bath and pulls his arms back into his warm water cocoon. Klaus hugs his torso and shivers, and stares up at the bottom of the radio jutting over the edge of the windowsill, daring it to fall in.

 

Klaus... Klaus... Help me Klaus... Why, Klaus...

Klaus's moan is a long, strung-out vibration in his chest that he can't actually hear because his hands are clapped so tight over his ears. He's curled up in a corner, eyes scrunched shut—itchy from dried-up crying. He's so tired, his head pounds, his back aches. He wants to go home. Please, please let him go home soon.

Klaus... Klaus, please...

There's a kid in here today, about Klaus's age. What's left of a kid, anyway, thrown from a vehicle into a tree. There's not a lot that makes Klaus vomit, anymore, but he had to switch corners to avoid his own puddle of sick. He can't open his eyes again.

How long has he been here? Time is putty in the dark of the mausoleum, but Klaus doesn't think he's ever been in here this long. He's vibrating like a plucked string. Please, please...

Klaus... Klaus!

"Shh," Klaus murmurs miserably, more to remind himself that he has lips and a tongue that he can move. That he isn't a disembodied pinprick, sunk deep down in a dark abyss and completely adrift. He's real. He's alive. He's going to get out. He's real. He's alive. He's going to get out. He's—

Klaus... please...

Oh, god, please let him get out. Please, please, someone.

But there's no one left. Only Luther and Dad. And one day, when Dad accepts that Klaus truly isn't good for anything, maybe he'll just leave Klaus here. Maybe—maybe that's what's happening right now. Maybe Dad isn't coming back. Maybe Klaus is going to be stuck here, surrounded, until—until—

"Klaus. Look at me."

It isn’t like the other voices. It's not harsh or demanding. It's calm, commanding, and startling enough to make Klaus's eyes snap open.

It's Ben.

Or, it's how Klaus imagines Ben would look if he were here.

It isn't the ghost of Ben. Klaus knows ghosts. Ghosts arrive looking exactly as they died. This Ben, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside Klaus, is slightly older than Klaus last saw him, and most importantly whole. He isn't real, but dammit if it isn't good to see him anyway.

"Ben?" is what Klaus would say, if he had any air in his lungs.

"Klaus. Breathe," the apparition of Ben says.

Right, breathing. That.

"In." Ben models a deep inhale. "Out." Exhale. "In. Out."

Klaus sucks in a thin breath. The air comes slowly, like he's pulling it through a coffee straw. He pushes it back out. In again, to mirror Ben's exaggerated inhale, and out.

Only Klaus could do such a shitty job of keeping himself alive that he needs a ghost to coach him through it. Hallucination of a ghost. Whatever.

"That's good," Ben says. "In, out."

Klaus's tunnel vision is receding, enough for him to remember they've got an audience.

"Hey, hey." Ben snaps his fingers in front of Klaus's eyes to stop them drifting over to the dead teenager among the crowd. "Eyes on me."

Klaus reaches out on instinct with a hand that passes straight through Ben's chest. An awful, ragged whimper of a noise escapes him.

Ben's expression is pinched. "It's okay. You're okay."

He's not. He's not. "I wish you were here."

"I am," Ben says. He scoots himself closer. "I'm right here."

Such a comforting idea that Klaus almost believes him.

Klaus wants to close his eyes, but doesn't want to lose track of Ben. He swallows a sob.

"It's okay," Ben repeats. "You've got this. It isn't forever."

It might be, this time. "Dad isn't—he's not—"

"Klaus. How many times have you been here?"

"Like. Hundreds." Fuck, Klaus is crying again. He pulls up his collar to wipe his eyes.

When Klaus emerges from his shirt, Ben's expression is steely. "And how many times has Dad left you?"

"None."

"There you go," Ben says, looking strangely relieved by it. "He's coming back. You're getting out of here."

"Until next time." The tears are coming faster now, blurring Ben. "Dad always puts me back."

Klaus wipes his eyes with his sleeve frantically to bring his brother back into focus. The sight of Ben's expression is almost surprising enough to make Klaus stop crying. For the first time ever, Ben Hargreeves looks ready for a fight.

But when he speaks, Ben is as steady as always. "Then you have to leave."

It's exactly what Klaus would want Ben to say, if he were here, but— "I can't."

"You're eighteen."

That's not what Klaus meant.

Don't get him wrong. Klaus has fantasized about leaving. A lot. But he doesn't have Vanya's full-ride B.F.A. program waiting for him, or Allison's ability to Rumor her way into free everything, or Diego's post-apocalyptic survival skills.

More than that, if Klaus left the Academy, then that would mean that leaving, on some level, was an option all along, and that maybe they could have left before Ben—

"Klaus. It's time."

Ben's unwavering calm is painfully familiar. Klaus was always everything in excess; flamboyant but secluded, a downhearted chatterbox. Ben straddled every spectrum, considered every angle, weighed options ad nauseam. When he wasn't unleashing wild eldritch creatures from his chest, Ben was the most contained person Klaus had ever met.

You could always trust Ben.

Klaus tips his head forward to rest his temple on his knee and side-eye his hallucination. "Will you come with me?"

"That is how this works."

Klaus knows. He just needed to hear it. He nods, shifts so that his knee is digging into his left ear, and covers his right with his hand. The rest are getting loud again. Ben mimes a deep inhale and exhale. Klaus breathes in, breathes out. He's got this.

 

When Klaus wakes up from what turns out to be a two-day bender, he's no longer hallucinating his dead brother.

This, by all accounts, should be good news. Klaus doesn't have much in the way of normalcy, and not being insane—at least in the traditional sense of the word—was one of the few things Klaus could hang his hat on. Klaus should be relieved that one itty bitty mental breakdown doesn't mean his brain is permanently busted in a new way.

Klaus doesn't feel relieved. He feels like shit.

Regardless. If Klaus was waiting for a sign to leave the Academy, then a vision of Ben telling him to get the fuck out of dodge is basically a cosmic billboard. Imaginary Ben was right. It's time.

Klaus almost feels a little nostalgic as he drags himself through the mansion in pursuit of something to numb his skull-cracking headache. That is, until he arrives in the kitchen to find Luther eating a bowl of Wheaties like the walking cliché he is.

"Nice of you to finally join the land of the living," Luther says.

Klaus throws him a wan smile and a wink. "Don't get used to it, love. I'm on a very short visa."

"All the poison you put in your body? I don't doubt it."

Klaus hates it when Luther says pretentious stuff like that. I don't doubt it. The words sound wrong coming from Luther's quarterback body, like he’s a ventriloquist dummy that Dad is controlling from someplace out of sight.

Klaus gives Luther a cheery middle finger and opens the cabinet. He pulls the bottle of painkillers from the top shelf, shakes two, then four, then six into his hand and swallows them dry.

When he looks up, Luther has put his spoon down and is frowning Klaus like he's a piece of gum on the bottom of a shoe. "You really do look terrible," he says at length.

Klaus bats a bashful hand. "Oh, stop."

"I'm serious."

"I know." Luther always is.

Klaus pockets the pill bottle and pushes himself off the counter.

"Where are you going?" Luther says. As though he and Klaus have spent more than a hello and goodbye's worth of time alone in a room together in years.

"Dunno," Klaus says, heading upstairs to pack. Anywhere but here.

 

The next time Klaus hallucinates Ben, he's in the middle of screaming his throat sore. Screaming Ben's name, as it happens.

Klaus used to be able to opt out of nightmares, if he drank himself into a sufficient stupor before falling asleep. Simpler times.

As it is, here's Klaus, frantic and damp with sweat, wailing into his pillow.

Above the din: "Klaus. Klaus."

At first, Klaus thinks it must be one of his housemates. That would be a surprise. Klaus has the basement bedroom for a reason.

An even bigger surprise is blinking through the gloom to see Ben sitting on the edge of his mattress in the region of Klaus's knees. Klaus's shrieking trails off.

"You awake?" Ben says.

Klaus nods and sniffs. Is he crying again? Yes, yes he is. He cups his forehead in the palm of one hand and fumbles blindly on his nightstand with the other. His fingers find the familiar contours of his pipe and his lighter. He flicks the flame over the bowl he didn't finish smoking before falling asleep and inhales deep.

"You sure that's a good idea?"

Klaus nods. Anything to relax the whiplash of seeing a living, breathing—well, sitting, blinking—Ben on his bed, moments after dreaming a rerun of Ben’s death. Klaus holds his inhale for one, two, three before coughing an exhale into his forearm. He's still newish to this.

"Thought that was a one-off," Klaus says, once his throat is clear.

Ben frowns. "What?"

"This." Klaus waves a finger between his chest and Ben's, and sips another inhale of sour smoke. He pulls the pillow from behind his back and hugs it to his chest. Exhales more smoothly this time. "You."

"You're a difficult person to reach," Ben says.

"By design, baby," Klaus says, and raises his pipe like cheers but waits to take another drag. If the deal is that hallucination-Ben is supposed to be a ghost, then getting too high too fast might make Ben pull a vanishing act, like all the others do. Klaus isn't ready to let him go yet.

"This is how you deal with ghosts now?" Ben is profoundly unimpressed.

Thanks to Klaus's generous pothead roommates, yes. Smoking weed is a whole different flavor of inebriation than drinking. And Klaus may still be in the honeymoon phase of this new vice, but from where he's standing, it's all positives. Not having to pee constantly? Yes, please. TV is way more interesting? Totally. No waking up absolutely flattened by a hangover? Thank god.

Who now averages four hours of sleep at night and is absolutely killing it at adulthood? This guy.

"Cheaper than therapy," Klaus says, digging a knuckle into one of his tear-itchy eyes.

Ben's expression somehow becomes more deadpan. "How long?"

"Oh, come on," Klaus says. Fuck whatever part of his subconscious is trying to make him say it out loud. "You know."

"We can't read your mind," Ben says, with a furrowed brow that says he can't believe he has to give Klaus this lesson in Ghosts 101.

Klaus grins. The cannabis is kicking in, filing down the sharp corners of his feelings. Or maybe that's just his imagination getting ahead of his high. "Right, yes," Klaus says, making a cyclic gesture with his hand, "because you're a ghost. Wink wink."

Ben's frown deepens. He looks borderline suspicious, the way he used to when he didn't understand something, like he thought the universe must be playing a trick on him. "What?"

Klaus holds up a one moment please finger while he takes a hit. "A few director's notes," he says, addressing whatever part of his cerebellum is in charge of this one-man show. "Number one. Consistency. If you're going to follow one of the rules, you have to follow all of them. Otherwise it ruins our suspension of disbelief."

"What."

"I mean, what is this?" Klaus indicates the leather jacket that Ben absolutely never owned in life, and most certainly wasn't wearing when he died. "Sloppy costume work," Klaus answers for Ben, whose face is doing a very good impression of Luther spotting Klaus in a dress. "If I'm really supposed to believe that I'm having a two a.m. chat with Ben Hargreeves' ghost, he should be dressed in Academy uniform. Also, be covered in blood. And also be sixteen. All things considered, a little spandex doesn’t seem like too much to ask."

Ben seems to need a moment to take all this in. Klaus will wait.

"You don't think I'm actually here," Ben finally concludes. He looks sorry enough that Klaus feels sorry for him.

"It's not your fault. It's my fault for not convincing me," Klaus says, reaching automatically forward to pat Ben's hand.

He knows it isn't there. He knows. So it shouldn't spark a bright pain deep in Klaus's chest when his fingers pass through thin air. And yet.

Klaus tucks the hand back into his lap.

Ben looks legitimately upset now. Does Klaus's imagination have a customer service number? Because Klaus is very much dissatisfied with his experience.

"For instance," Klaus says, and takes another drag. He's ready to recede into himself and be alone, now, please. "If you were Ben, you'd need a pretty good backstory for why you decided to randomly show back up after two years. Resting in peace not your cup of tea?"

Klaus doesn't mean to live-splain death to a dead person, but again, Klaus is something of an unwilling expert on the subject. Ghosts either linger with unfinished business or they Move On. It doesn't happen both ways.

"I came back for you," Ben says.

Klaus inhales way too much smoke and descends into an epic hacking fit. His subconscious can't just say stuff like that, what the fuck.

"What?" he wheezes, staring at Ben with eyes watery from all the coughing. No other reason. Absolutely not.

"I came back for you," Ben repeats, with just the same weight behind every word.

Klaus gapes at Ben. He feels cracked open, like if he makes any sudden moves he's going to spill out all over the place.

"No one comes back for me." Klaus doesn't mean to whisper, but.

"I did."

Really, Klaus thinks, it's the kindest figment of imagination his brain could have gifted him.

 

Ben-but-not-really keeps showing up.

Sometimes he even has a book with him, or some other prop from his time on Earth. "Ghosts don't carry books," Klaus tells him one day, just to see whether his brain takes constructive criticism.

Ben puts a finger to his lips and makes a shoo shoo gesture. Klaus doesn't bother about it after that. Fuck it, let the nonexistent boy read his nonexistent book.

Honestly, Klaus savors the company when he's sober enough to see straight. True to his word, Ben goes wherever Klaus goes, following him through his string of shitty apartments with shittier roommates. People who get mad when Klaus drinks their liquor or smokes their weed, or when his intoxicated ass writes notes to himself in Sharpie directly on the refrigerator, or lounges in the bathtub until it goes cold.

Sporadic night terrors, Klaus has found, can also be a deal breaker.

So Klaus bounces between Craigslist sublets. Long eyelashes and wicked smiles underneath nightclub lights can usually secure him a place to sleep in the time that falls through the cracks. He doesn't mind having a warm body in bed next to his own, either. With no close friends and no family left to speak of, Klaus will take a friendly touch anywhere he can get it.

But Klaus never stays. He's good at keeping someone's attention when he's shiny and new, but being constantly dogged by ghosts is sort of like having a hit out on him. Never safe to sit still for too long.

Besides, life outside the Academy quickly forces Klaus to realize he's not built for relationships with real people.

"What do you do for fun?" asks some girl, any girl, while Klaus rolls a joint on her coffee table with surgical precision.

This, he thinks, but that's not exactly right. This isn't fun. It's sanity. It's survival.

If Klaus hangs around long enough, everyone eventually comes to look at him like he's the human embodiment of morning breath after a night of getting fucked up. Klaus's whole childhood should have prepared him for that, but somehow didn't. So Klaus picks up and sheds casual acquaintances like pieces of a wardrobe, ignores the hurt, and tells himself it doesn't matter.

Holding down a job is out of the question, but money shows up in Klaus's bank account every month without fail. Klaus doesn't know why Dad does it. Maybe he gets off on issuing this periodic reminder that Klaus isn't really free of the Academy and never will be. Like Klaus is a rambunctious dog that just needs to blow off steam outside before inevitably being called back in. Purely out of spite, Klaus sometimes considers closing the account, but. You know. Food, and stuff.

Klaus doesn't spend much on food. Most everything he eats comes prepackaged and preprocessed to the point of being only debatably food. Klaus budgets for drugs above all else.

He has a whole Batman belt of ways to ward off the dead, now. Ben approves of exactly none of them, no matter how Klaus tries to explain the way LSD fans out the black-and-white world into a rainbow, or molly makes him fall ass-over-teakettle in love with the whole universe at once.

Ben says that Klaus is curdling his brain. Klaus says that Ben, and everyone else for that matter, should be banned from the word curdle. It's no moist, but it's up there.

"It's like you're competing with yourself to see how many poor life decisions you can make in a single day," Ben says, watching Klaus pull out a wad of cash from across the alleyway. Ben hangs back like this whenever Klaus is buying, as if he's afraid he'll catch delinquency.

"Relax," Klaus says, heedless of the man counting out his bills. This guy's overheard enough of Klaus's one-sided conversations to be unfazed. "If alien invaders, murderbots, and wannabe world dominators didn't manage to take me out when I was a literal child, I doubt a little speed will do the trick now."

Ben is unamused.

"Look at it this way," Klaus says, taking his purchase with a Namaste bow and turning to Ben. "If I do die, then you get to say 'I told you so' in, like, two seconds when I reboot as a ghost."

Ben, looking mollified at the prospect of getting to shove it in Klaus's face if he dies, gives this one a pass.

Klaus will get sober before he admits it out loud, but Ben's nagging is kind of nice. It's not like Luther's generic just say no disapproval. Or that time Diego basically told Klaus he was wasting a lease on life that should have been Ben's.

Ben, or at least Klaus's dreamed-up version of him, cares because he cares about Klaus. How ‘bout that.

Of course, practically speaking, there's no way Klaus could actually take Ben's advice. With Klaus's expanding repertoire of ways to escape himself, ghosts only skirt around the edges of his life these days, and only appear in the rare windows between highs.

"You must become the master of your own life, Number Four. Or it will become the master of you."

Yeah, well, Klaus has mastered the fuck out of a ghost-free life. Take that, Dad.

It's not much of a life, if you ask Ben—which Klaus never does, although Ben is quick to offer an opinion anyway. Still. It's Klaus's life. His. And he's got this shit on lock.