The strain took him by surprise. Blinking to another location was usually effortless, unless repeated too often. And although travelling through time took more out of him than simple relocation did, it had never been this bad before. His passengers were obviously the reason, but he couldn’t leave them behind. This had been his idea in the first place anyway. So Five clamped his teeth together and pushed himself beyond what his body told him was safe.
Everything around them disappeared in a haze of muted colours. The hands holding his seemed to fluctuate: larger, smaller, squeezing tighter, almost letting go. He held on and made them go faster. Speed was relative in the space between times as they were, but he had some inherent sense of direction as it related to an intangible concept like movement in a continuum. One could seriously injure one’s brain thinking about it too closely. Luckily for Five, apart from his calculations, teleporting usually came to him instinctively. He didn’t need to see where he was going, having a concept of the place was sufficient. Regardless of when the place existed.
His siblings’ hands grew slightly smaller, and then stopped changing. The swirl around them disappeared, solidifying into fresh air. Five thought it peculiar since he hadn’t moved them in space, only time. The building they’d been in should’ve existed at the turn of the millennium where he’d taken them. Or thought he’d taken them. When sound returned, it was to a deafening silence. Considering how central their location in the city had been, such silence should not occur, even in the middle of the night. But he could hear his companions breathing and asking questions, so his hearing should be normal at least, it was only the backdrop that was absolutely nothing.
Five blinked his eyes open. He saw blue sky and lush trees. He had time to curse at the miscalculation he must’ve made, before the exhaustion of the jump crashed on him. Unable to stand against it, he slipped into oblivion, relieved to let go.
Let someone else worry about the apocalypse now.
“Run! Velociraptor!” Klaus shouted and pointed at a nearby bush. The others turned towards it, ready to act in the face of danger. A plump dark grey bird with a pink and blue head stepped out and looked at them with its beady eyes.
“That’s a turkey,” Diego said and put his knives back in their holsters. The bird hid behind the bush again and disappeared from their sight. Everyone relaxed from immediate alert status to merely cautious.
“Where are we?” Luther asked, turning around with Vanya on his arms, her head lolling limply against his shoulder. They were surrounded by tall trees and lush bushes, standing in a natural clearing with a couple of larger rocks protruding up from the ground. The sky was astonishingly blue, unmarred by a single cloud.
“No planes,” Diego noted. He was gazing upwards when Allison touched him on the arm and motioned for him to join her. She knelt down, reaching for Five. The bowling shoes and blue shorts were familiar, but when they looked at his face, they saw a stranger. Instead of the child they expected, they saw a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties.
“Is that Five?” Klaus asked, leaning over his siblings to look at their brother. “Am I still my youthful self?”
You all are unchanged, Ben said, unheard by anyone else. He also looked like he had done before the jump.
“I’m glad you came with us,” Klaus said. No one was paying attention to him, so he observed his siblings. Luther was looking around with a stunned expression on his face, holding Vanya stiffly. She was still unconscious, as was Five. Allison and Diego were checking him for injuries, but they were all unhurt, save for the bruises and scrapes they had gotten in the fight against the bad guys at the concert hall.
“I think we came too far into the past,” Klaus said, more to break the silence than to deliver information no one else had figured out yet.
“No shit,” Diego said, sounding distracted. Klaus followed his gaze, trying to figure out what had drawn his attention, but he could see nothing special. Just trees and rocks and the setting sun. Oh.
“It’s gonna be dark soon,” he said. “Who knows what lives in these woods.”
The prospect of danger seemed to finally rouse Luther out of his stupor. He set Vanya down next to Five, allowing Allison to check her over too, and came to stand with Diego and Klaus.
“If we operate under the assumption that Five isn’t going to recover enough to transport us back to where we want to go, we need a plan.”
“And does our leader have a plan now?” Diego asked. Klaus shuddered at the sarcasm dripping from his voice. Fighting amongst themselves was the dumbest thing they could possibly do at the moment, but he had no means to diffuse the tension with.
“Not much of one,” Luther admitted. “We need shelter and water to survive. We’re all more or less dressed for the current weather” -- a long look at Klaus and his short-sleeved vest and well-ventilated trousers -- “but it’ll probably get cold after the sun goes down. Fire could help.”
“That’s not a plan, that’s a summary of our situation.”
“I’m getting to that part. So, we, uhh, build a shelter.”
“That easy, huh?” Diego said. But he was already looking around for fallen branches that would be dry enough to burn. He left the group and wandered deeper into the forest, not waiting for permission or arguments.
“Go with him,” Luther said, and Klaus nodded. He followed Diego, careful about where he stepped. Ben came along too, gliding silently across the uneven forest floor.
“That’s cheating,” Klaus muttered as he tripped on a scraggly plant and nearly fell. Louder, he asked Diego what they were looking for.
“Fir boughs,” was the reply. Klaus decided to continue his task in silence, not wanting to provoke his already irate brother. Focusing on looking for thick spruce branches helped him keep his mind off the possibility that they were stranded in the past. Five was alive, but his skills in time travel seemed unreliable at best, and if he didn’t recover, he couldn’t even make the attempt to take them back. Klaus could’ve been amazed at witnessing history, even enjoyed the unexpected camping trip, but he was too scared. No civilisation meant he was stuck with only the clothes on his back, and his pockets were sadly empty. Only a handkerchief and a lighter in his vest.
“Oh! It’ll be easy to start a fire. None of that boyscout trickery, just the modern wonder of a lighter. I shall be our saviour,” he said. Ben shook his head. It was then that Klaus realised he was alone, save for his ghostly brother.
“Diego?” he asked, keeping his voice moderate. When there was no reply, he shouted louder. A flock of birds taking flight was the only reaction he got. More nervous than before, he turned around to go back to the others, fists clenched tightly around the wood he had collected.
“Was it past that tree, or that other one?”
“I don’t know,” Ben said and shrugged.
“But you’re supposed to be my omniscient spirit guide.”
“I only know what you know, I’ve never been here before either.”
“Useless. Can’t you float up and scout for us?” Klaus asked. He wrapped his free arm around himself, trying to ignore the light breeze blowing through the trees. Why had he not put his long-sleeved coat on. The bowling shoes weren’t the most comfortable either, but at least they’d keep water a bit if it rained.
“Diego!” Klaus tried again. Bed had disappeared from view too, probably as a protest. The forest seemed denser and darker, each rustle of the leaves amplified by his solitude. The hairs on Klaus’ arms were starting to stand up, and not only from the cold.
Allison tucked a strand of Vanya’s hair behind her ears. She appeared unharmed, but wouldn’t rouse when shaken. But since she was breathing normally, they decided to leave her be. Perhaps all she needed was rest, perhaps something was badly wrong, but in either case, they could do nothing to aid her. The same was true of Five. He had clearly aged a couple of years, but otherwise there were no fresh injuries on him.
The lack of anything to do frustrated Allison. She couldn’t even pass the time by conversing with Luther since her voice still didn’t function. Everything had gone so wrong so fast, she could barely keep up. She missed her daughter, her sister, her life. Her voice. A single doughnut would’ve made her tear up with joy.
“You okay?” Luther asked. Allison looked at him and nodded.
“I think we can set up camp there,” he said and pointed at a bare spot on the ground where their fire wouldn’t be in danger of setting the whole forest ablaze. “And then we’ll just… wait.”
What if the strain of transporting multiple people through time had destroyed Five’s brain. What if they were stranded permanently in the past. They didn’t even know how far they’d gone. At least further than the establishing of their city, if they hadn’t moved spatially as well. They could be anywhere really, with very bleak prospects of getting back. And back to what, exactly, the destruction of their planet?
“Hey,” Luther said and put his hand on Allison’s shoulder. She turned to look at him, instantly comforted by the warmth of his large palm. At least they had each other.
“I was thinking of exploring the area in that direction,” Luther pointed at the forest opposite of where Diego and Klaus had gone, “we have to find water if we want to survive here.”
Allison nodded and stood up, ready to go with him. Luther pressed her back down.
“Someone needs to keep watch over them,” he said. Allison looked at Vanya and Five, and back at Luther. Their siblings would be helpless if some animal wandered over and nibbled them, but she didn’t want to be left alone. She tried to gesture that someone needed to watch Luther’s back too, but he couldn’t understand. Lacking anything to write on, she grimaced in silent frustration.
“I’ll be back soon, I’ll just take a quick look, see if there’s a stream nearby. Uhh, whistle or clap if there’s trouble,” he finished lamely. Allison glared at him. Luther slipped between the trees, bumping his shoulders as he went, and soon disappeared from sight.
Allison wrapped her arms around herself and started pacing the small clearing. Her siblings slept quietly, so still she would’ve feared them dead had their chests not moved. Deep, healing slumber, she hoped. How they were to fix them both, she didn’t know. But keeping them alive was the first step.
The sun sunk lower towards the horizon. She didn’t know how long Diego and Klaus had been gone, but it felt like a good while. They should’ve found materials for shelter and fire by now. It would be dark soon. Even if no velociraptors roamed these woods, other animals could be present and aggressive. Or humans. Their clothes would immediately set them apart from any natives, wherever they were. If humans even existed yet. Allison didn’t think Five would’ve been able to toss them that far into the past, but her imagination was starting to run away from her. Maybe there would be giant sloths or saber-toothed tigers to eat them. She was starting to work herself up to a frenzy, when the sound of someone approaching tore her from her thoughts.
She tried to call for whoever it was to identify themselves, but all she managed was a wheeze that hurt enough to bring tears to her eyes. But even with blurry vision, she recognised Diego’s dark attire. Smiling with relief, she went out to meet him.
“Is Klaus here?” he asked as a greeting. She shook her head, eyebrows scrunching. Diego swore and dropped his armload of branches and twigs on the ground. “Where’s Luther?”
Allison pointed. Diego didn’t seem pleased. He scratched his head and walked around in a tight circle. “Okay, that bonehead will probably find back here. Klaus!”
No answer. Allison looked at him, trying to convey the questions she had. Diego either didn’t understand, or ignored her. He knelt down and started piling twigs together.
“Got a lighter?” he asked. Allison shook her head. She only had tissues and feminine hygiene products in her pockets. And a single quarter.
“Nevermind, I can do this. Of all the stupid things…”
Allison didn’t listen to Diego muttering to himself. She walked around the clearing, peering into the surrounding forest. There was no sign of Luther yet, and apparently Klaus was missing. And she was helpless to do anything to help anyone. She couldn’t even scream.
They heard Luther’s return from far off. He pushed through the undergrowth, occasionally tangling in thick bushes and swearing as he tore himself loose. When he finally stomped into the clearing, Allison was smiling despite her general foul mood. Luther had a twig in his hair, with one small leaf growing out of it. She reached up and plucked it off.
“I found a stream a little bit that way. Water tasted fine.”
Finally a bit of good luck. Allison gave him a thumbs up.
“How was the terrain around it? No point setting up camp here if there’s a suitable spot closer,” Diego said.
“Lots of bushes.”
“Helpful. Come on, show me where, I’ll check it out.”
Allison feared the boys would get into a pissing contest, but Luther only turned around and started walking. He may have been their leader once, but the isolation had left a mark on him which he hadn’t shaken off yet. Allison figured he’d re-adjust to life on Earth again just fine, surrounded by his siblings, but he needed more time.
Her eyes were drawn to Five. She couldn’t even imagine what his mental state was. Growing up alone, doing the deeds he had done, it was too big for her to comprehend. He was certainly affected, presumably more than he let on, but he wouldn’t draw strength from his siblings. Allison didn’t know how to help him, or how to help Vanya. She couldn’t even whisper a rumour that they were okay and happy. Just a few years ago, she would’ve tried. But she had learned the hard way that life wasn’t supposed to be that easy.
Sitting on the ground between them, Allison took Vanya’s hand in her right and Five’s in her left. Five had aged, but he had hardly grown at all. The hand she held was smaller than hers, but more angular than it had been before. She loosened his tie, making sure that all his other clothes still fit too and weren’t restricting him. As she was checking the bandage on his abdomen of the healing shrapnel wound, she heard her brothers returning. They weren’t talking, but neither did she sense any hostility from them when they stepped into the clearing.
She turned to face them and raised her eyebrows in an exaggerated manner. Damn she wanted her voice back.
“It’s all good. We’ll relocate,” Diego said. Allison drew a K into the air.
“Klaus!” Diego hollered. Nothing again. She was starting to get worried in earnest. They were finally all together, she didn’t want to lose anyone now.
“Let’s draw an arrow in the dirt,” Luther suggested. It was weak, but the best they could come up with on short notice. Luther picked up Five, leaving Vanya for Diego and Allison to carry together. She looked over her shoulder as they were leaving, trying to will Klaus to show up. Only the dim forest stared back at her.
When twilight faded into full darkness, Klaus admitted that he was lost. He was also cold and hungry and thirsty, but the need to reunite with his siblings overrode his body’s discomforts. He didn’t think they’d leave without him, but he wasn’t completely sure of it either. Maybe they thought a dinosaur had eaten him and spared a thought for his memory, but wouldn’t let it stop them from jumping back to the future.
Rubbing his bare arms with his hands, Klaus stumbled on. Ben hadn’t returned yet, which worried him, especially since he was stone cold sober and thus his powers should be at their prime, but he tried not to think about it. He wasn’t abandoned by everyone, only a little bit temporarily lost. He’d find his way. He always had, making a path through his life, visiting every ditch and rock bottom he ran into, but somehow always rising out of them. This time wouldn’t be any different. So what if he had found that someone needing him gave him clarity and purpose, something that pushed him along, helping him forget the urge to numb himself. He could make it on his own again. No big deal.
A howl from somewhere behind him made Klaus freeze. It sounded big and bloodthirsty. He had no wilderness survival skills to speak of, but even he could tell that running into predators would be bad. Finding shelter would be good, but he didn’t know where to even start looking. His siblings were probably building one now, and lighting a fire. Oh.
“Stupid!” Klaus berated himself. He turned his gaze towards the sky, forgetting the forest floor for a moment. Their intention had been to start a fire, and you couldn’t have fire without smoke. He searched the sky, but all he saw were stars and a thin sickle of the moon. If there was a plume of smoke somewhere, it was too dark to see it, or it was hidden by the trees. He really should’ve thought to keep his eyes trained upwards much earlier, when it could’ve still helped him.
“Useless, as everyone knows. Only good for talking to ghosts, and I can’t even find any of those.” Which was curious. Usually every place had its spirits, wherever people had walked. Sure, the forests weren’t exactly crowded, but someone must’ve been murdered and buried here at some point, haunting the premise for him to find. And where the hell was Ben?
Klaus continued walking. He didn’t know where he was going, but he reckoned he had more chance of finding his siblings if he moved. It was unlikely they’d look for him after all. He weaved his way around the trees, occasionally stubbing his toes on half-buried rocks and protruding roots. Small branches smacked him in the face, but he kept going. His thirst was growing unbearable, and he could feel blisters forming in his heels. The bowling shoes weren’t the most sensible footwear for hiking. When he couldn’t take it any longer, he stopped to take the shoes off. As soon as his bare feet hit the cooling ground, Ben blinked to existence by his side.
“Woah! Did I just conjure you with the power of my toes?”
“You tell me. Where are we?”
“If only I knew. I am glad to see you though. Perhaps together we can find the way back.”
“Have you kept wandering around aimlessly?” Ben asked, incredulity colouring his voice.
“If I stay put I’ll get nowhere. This way, at least --” A hiss from Ben silenced Klaus. He looked around, trying to see what had alerted his brother. He could see nothing, but a sound was starting to reach his ears.
“Someone’s coming,” Klaus whispered. Before he’d reveal his presence to the newcomer, he listened. As far as he knew, no one else but he and his siblings were in the forest. But the limits of his knowledge had been proved restricted on numerous occasions. Slipping behind a tree, he peered around it to see what was causing the approaching sound. Footsteps, he reckoned, but whose.
“We should go look for him,” Diego said. They’d been sitting around the fire, doing nothing for the last hour or so. Their shelter consisted of fir boughs that Vanya and Five were laying on. Not very impressive, Allison thought, but she didn’t know how to make anything proper either. And it wasn’t too cold yet anyway. Their somnolent siblings were still dead to the world, and she was starting to get worried in earnest.
“No, we should stick together,” Luther said. While Allison agreed that they shouldn’t disperse needlessly, they also weren’t all together if one member of the family was missing. She couldn’t protest though, but luckily Diego did it for her. The boys started arguing, devolving into name-calling. She expected a fistfight to break out, but a sound from behind silenced them.
“Klaus?” Diego asked. He stood up and turned to face whoever was approaching them. It was Klaus, but he wasn’t alone. A troop of Commission operatives surrounded him, six by Allison’s quick count. They all stood up, hands hovering over knives, or making fists in lieu of weapons.
“Good evening,” the one holding onto Klaus’ arm said, presumably the team leader.
“What do you want?” Diego countered, never one for idle pleasantries.
“The pertinent question is what do you want. Do you want your brother, or a mass murderer?”
“Just hand him over, and no one will get hurt. We’re not giving up Five,” Luther said. The open, shocked gratitude on Klaus’ face made Allison sad. Had he really thought they’d just refuse the bargain outright?
“Ah, you misunderstand me,” the tall man said, raising his free hand placatingly. “It’s the woman we want.”
“What do you want with Vanya?” Diego asked. He seemed to be on the verge of exploding into action. Allison wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. Sure, they were outnumbered, but they’d faced worse odds before.
“She is somewhat crucial to history, and you lot can’t be trusted to keep her.”
“We’ll take our chances,” Luther said and cracked his knuckles. That was all the encouragement Diego needed. His first knife hit its target before Allison realised it had even left his hand. The second one downed a second man, but by then the rest were upon him. Luther smacked one down, but while he was busy with the fourth one, the leader pulled out a tiny switchblade and held it against Klaus’ throat. Allison’s hand rose of its own accord to rest against the bandage still on her neck.
“Stop!” the leader snapped. Amazingly, Luther and Diego paused and looked at him.
“Hey now, no need to get so intimate,” Klaus said. His voice sounded calm and steady, but his eyes were huge.
“Hand the woman over and we’ll be on our way.”
Allison spotted the briefcase the person furthest back was carrying. That could be their ticket back home, as long as the operatives didn’t get to use it. She took a step to the side, slowly starting to inch closer to it behind everyone else.
“You lost your advantage. It’s three against three now.”
Allison hoped it was Klaus that Luther had counted out. She was still capable of kicking ass, even if her greatest weapon was out of commission for now. And thinking of their powers, she wondered if Ben was ready to strike at any moment too, made corporeal by Klaus. If he was able to, he did seem too scared to focus, if that was what his power required.
“The odds are well in our favour,” the leader said. “Execute.”
Allison didn’t wait to hear what the ominous command meant. She sprinted towards the briefcase, ignoring everything else going on around her. She heard gunshots and shouts, hoping none of her siblings were hit. If she could make it in time, they might escape. Her hand reached for the briefcase, trying to grab it before the person holding it noticed her, but she turned at a crucial moment. Allison jumped back to avoid getting kicked, running swiftly back to close range in order to circle behind the woman and stay out of her gun’s way. In the general melee, she couldn’t tell what anyone else was doing. Focus on the task, trust the others.
The briefcase swung towards Allison’s face. She dodged it and grabbed it as it went past, stepping into the trap. The gun was aimed directly at her head, and she wouldn’t have been able to dodge it had a blueish glowing tentacle not knocked the hand aside. Capitalising on the attack, Allison kicked the woman on the head before she could recover. She fell to the ground and didn’t move again.
Allison turned towards the others, holding the briefcase in both hands. Luther and Diego were fighting the leader, having defeated all the other operatives already. She saw Vanya and Five still on the ground, undisturbed. Klaus was in front of them, out of the fray and moving with Ben. Things seemed to be going well for them. After the boys got rid of the leader, they could gather their things and travel back to the present with ease. Allison smiled and approached Klaus. He was winding down from using his powers, Ben fading with each passing moment. She tried to pat their ghostly brother on the shoulder, but he was no longer solid. The gesture did not go unnoticed, however, for Ben smiled back at her. Her relief made her careless. She didn’t hear the already downed operative get back up and approach them until he was right on top of them.
“Ally, move!” Luther shouted, prompting her to roll to the ground, no hesitation. The briefcase fell from her grip, and the Commission agent dived for it. Luther and Diego followed him, intent on preventing him from using the time machine. She saw that they were too slow. The lid was almost open, they wouldn’t make it in time. She reached forwards and grabbed Vanya’s ankle with one hand, dragging her with her in order to grab the operative with the other hand. Diego jumped and managed to put his hand on the briefcase just as it was opening. Allison couldn’t tell whether he tried to stop his brother or help him, but Diego stretched his leg to poke his toes against Luther’s face, creating contact between them. The glow was already turning painfully bright when Allison saw Ben also touch the operative, keeping a hold on Klaus as well, who in turn had grabbed Five. As they started to fade, she realised that Ben wasn’t solid enough. He was starting to shimmer along with everyone else, but Klaus and Five remained as they were. Mouthing a silent denial, she was pulled into the time vortex, leaving the two brothers behind.
“They left,” Klaus said. He still had his hand up, but there was nothing in front of him, only the smouldering remains of the trampled fire. His siblings were gone, as were the Commission goons who’d had the time travelling briefcase. Only four corpses and his too-young-brother remained.
“They just left us here. How are we to get home now? I can’t believe it. Not that I’m surprised by it either. But I can’t believe it. Can you?”
Five gave no reply. He was lying face-down on the ground where Klaus had pulled him in his haste to catch the ride. The night around them seemed darker than before.
“Okay, what do we do? You’re alive but not so lively. My responsibility. You can take us home, right? I just gotta revive you. Yeah.” Klaus kept muttering to himself as he rolled Five over and shook his shoulder. He received as much reaction as he expected to. Slipping his arms under Five’s knees and back, Klaus picked him up with ease. His brother looked more mature, but his mass hadn’t changed much, making him a very slim young man.
“Were you this tiny all your life?” he asked. “Or is this just mystical magic aging weirdness.” Klaus sat down by the firepit, positioning Five comfortably in his lap. He reached over and poked the embers with a stick, trying to get the flames going again. It took him a moment to figure out, but eventually he blew into the smoulder and added dry grass, reigniting the fire. His rejoicing was only dampened by his solitude.
“You’re not good company, you know that?” he told Five and nudged him. Five’s head was leaning on Klaus’ shoulder, face nuzzled near his warm neck. He looked peaceful and at ease. That would end as soon as he woke up.
“Alone in the dark. This is not a big deal. I’m totally fine, thanks for asking.”
A rustle from somewhere behind him made Klaus flinch. He turned to look, but it was too dark to see anything past the circle of light cast by the flickering flames. Anything could be lurking in the forest.
“Come on out, dead or alive.” In saying so, he realised that there still weren’t any ghosts around, even though the Commission agents’ corpses were lying in his direct field of vision. Another mystery Klaus had no answers for. He decided to do what he did best and ignore the question in favour of distractions. Only there was very little to do in the dark forest, accompanied only by his unconscious brother.
“You’re not brain damaged, are you?” he asked, shaking Five a bit. No response. He turned back towards the fire, and tried to relax. The hand suddenly touching his cheek made him screech.
“Holy fire and cake, Five! Are you trying to give me a heart attack!”
“Where…” Five whispered. His eyes were unfocused, barely staying open.
“I believe when is the operative question. But I don’t have an answer. You’re the one who brought us here, remember?”
Five gave no indication of remembering. He pressed his face against Klaus’ chest and took a deep breath that ended in a shudder.
There was no reply, nor anything else from Five for the rest of the night. Klaus hugged him close, purely for warmth, of course. He kept the fire alive, never nodding off for longer than it took for a single log to burn. The thick canopy blocked most of the stars, but he saw a sliver of the sky, and he followed the moon as it passed over. His vigil wavered as the hour grew later, but he was still dimly aware of the impenetrable dark becoming less intense as they drifted towards the dawn. By the time the first rays of the sun blinked over the horizon, he was refreshed and ready to face a new day.
Klaus washed his face in the stream and drank as much as his stomach could hold. If water was to be his only breakfast, he would indulge himself. A cigarette would’ve been heavenly to top off the imaginary meal. Or a doughnut. Either would do, preferably accompanied by a glass of something sparkly. Not that he was fussy regarding what form his alcohol came in, as long as it flowed freely. He was considering the merits of giving his pits a wash too when he heard Five groan behind him.
“Heeey, do you yet live?” he asked as he returned to his brother’s side. Five was blinking slowly, adjusting to the morning light.
“What happened?” he asked and brought his fingers up to rub his temples. His voice was rough and weak, not the vibrant tone his younger self had spoken with. Klaus felt a twinge of worry in his gut, thinking Five should’ve recovered by now. His own experiences with time travel were limited, but he recognised the symptoms. Only, this seemed a lot worse than the headache and exhaustion he had suffered. Six times worse, perhaps.
“Well, you transported us, as planned, but I don’t think you meant to bring us to the middle of a primordial forest where I reckon we are now. Of course, the Commission goons somehow found us anyway, and took everyone else somewhere, presumably home, so here we are, just us and the turkeys.”
A blank look overtook Five’s features. Klaus could almost hear his fried little brain struggling to catch up.
“Indeed. Like really big chickens.”
“I know what turkeys are,” Five growled, suddenly grimacing as if experiencing pain. “But why are they here? Where are we?”
“You’re the one who should know, being as you brought us here,” Klaus said.
“Well what have you found out? You haven’t just been sitting with your thumb up your ass, I assume.”
Klaus hesitated. He had explored, if his unfortunate wood-gathering trip could be called that. But all he had seen were trees and rocks, and the muzzle of a gun. He knew nothing of the terrain around them.
“We found water,” he said and pointed at the stream. “And then the Commission people attacked. You haven’t been out that long.”
“We have to get moving. If they traced my jump, they’ll send others,” Five said. He made an attempt at getting up, tensing his arms and pushing against the ground, but he couldn’t manage to complete the motion before falling back, breathing hard.
“They won’t though. They wanted Vanya, and they got her. Along with all our other siblings too, but their mission is no doubt completed. They’ve no use for us.”
“We should go somewhere else anyway,” Five said through gritted teeth. “Find out where we are.”
“Not sure I should listen to you. You’re not funny in the head, are you?” Klaus asked with a frown. He wasn’t worried about Five’s sanity, but he did see how much pain he was in. Resting and recuperating sounded like the most sensible option for him.
“What’s the most important thing in estimating the length of a trip?”
“To know where you’re going?”
“To know where you’re starting from. So tell me, how far in the past or future are we?”
“How could I possibly know?” Klaus asked, spreading his arms for emphasis.
“Exactly. We need information, and we can’t gather it here. I suggest we follow the stream and see if it’ll turn into a river. Eventually we’ll run into habitation along it.”
“What if we reach the sea without seeing anyone?”
“Then we’ll have a nice ocean view to gaze upon as we wait for our deaths.”
“Aren’t you a ball of sunshine,” Klaus said. He could see the logic behind the reasoning, but his gut feeling was against it. Nothing he could put to words, just a vague sense of something being wrong. Not that anything was right in their scenario, but something worse wrong than what was to be expected.
“Let’s get going,” Five said and forced himself to his feet. He staggered until he managed to slap a hand against a tree and find his equilibrium while leaning on the rough bark. Klaus rotated his shoulders and made his neck crack with quick sideways stretches.
“Okay, I’m ready for whatever adventure awaits us. Poorly dressed and already starving, but totally ready.”
They followed the flow of the stream, keeping it constantly in their view. The forest was so thick that it would be only too easy to lose their direction amidst the trees. Klaus had left his shoes behind when the Commission operatives had ambushed him, but the ground was smooth enough by the stream that he could walk without trouble. Luckily the coniferous trees were growing further away from it, dropping their cones at a safe distance. He only stepped on roots and rocks, otherwise the moss and sand felt pleasant on his bare toes. Five followed his example soon after complaining about blisters forming in record time with the bowling shoes on. He tied the laces together and draped them over his shoulders, unwilling to leave anything behind that could be useful later.
“Could we also disrupt history?” Klaus asked during their first break. They drank more water, reasonably sure of its purity now since neither had had any symptoms after drinking it earlier in the morning. “Introduce an object that is way beyond the technology they have now? If there even are humans here.”
“You seem strangely convinced that we’ve gone hundreds of thousands of years into the past,” Five replied.
“I have a reason to believe so. But what if there are like stone age people here and they find a modern bowling shoe?”
“Then they’d worship it as a divine idol until it fell apart. I don’t know.”
“Someone’s in a foul mood,” Klaus said in a singsong voice. He was rewarded with the meanest look his brother could conjure up.
“Headache.” Five had been massaging his temples as they went, occasionally stopping to lean against a tree for a moment. He didn’t look old enough to have wrinkles yet, but the frown constantly on his face had etched a few lines into his forehead that Klaus thought might stay there permanently if he didn’t unclench soon. Klaus had gone through his pockets dozens of times in hopes of finding some pills that he might’ve overlooked earlier, but there were none. He was as clean as could be. A shame, both for him and his brother who probably could’ve killed for some pain relief. As for himself, Klaus felt like there was a full body itch in him that he just couldn’t scratch. Even some sugar could’ve worked to take the worst edge off.
They followed the stream as it ran through the forest. The going was quite easy, until they hit a rock wall. The stream disappeared underground, probably appearing on the other side, but their way was blocked by piles of large stones, reaching a small hill in height. Going around seemed to be the only option, but the formation stretched as far as they could see in either direction.
“Well isn’t this a bit of a dilemma,” Klaus said. He leaned on his knees with his hands, breathing hard. There were no trees nearby for support, only rocks. Five sat on the ground and stared at the obstacle.
“I could blink to the other side,” he said. Klaus raised his eyebrows at him.
“No offense, but you don’t look capable of punching through a wet paper bag at the moment.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Five asked. He closed his eyes and allowed his head to sag.
“We go around. The question being which direction do we choose.”
“Can’t see it mattering much.”
“It does if one side offers a much shorter trek to get around,” Klaus pointed out.
“You choose,” Five said, to Klaus’ great astonishment. He made a show of being in awe at the trust his beloved brother was bestowing upon him, going on until Five threw a pebble at him. Rather than offended, Klaus was relieved that Five had enough spirit left to aim at him.
“Fine, we go right! Follow the Hello hand.”
Five took longer to get up than Klaus considered healthy. He hovered near his brother, but Five glared at him with such vitriol that it should’ve burned a hole through the stone. They started making their way over the uneven terrain, staying as close to the rocks as they could while still being unhindered in their progression.
“Kinda wish I still had my shoes, uncomfortable though they were,” Klaus said. The soft sand and moss had changed into rough gravel with jagged edges. Five had put his shoes back on as soon as they encountered the rocks, to Klaus’ great envy. He stepped on something sharp and lurched down, narrowly missing the bullet whistling past his ear.
“Holy cow! Down!” Klaus shouted, but Five was already kneeling behind a larger rock, scanning the top of the pile to see who was shooting at them. Klaus joined him, hearing several bullets hit their protection.
“They’re shooting at us!”
“No shit. Do you see them?” Five asked. Klaus looked, but he couldn’t make out anything. He raised his head a little bit higher, dodging immediately back down when he drew the shooters’ attention.
“What do we do?” he asked his brother. Five had closed his eyes, looking either ready to pass out, or to do something very stupid.
“No, no, you’re not going there. We’re just fine here, they can’t get us through the rock. Nice solid wall to protect us, better than any kevlar.”
The first grenade missed and fell into a crag at the foot of the pile. Klaus jumped at the explosion that shook the ground.
“Okay, those could be a problem,” he said, perhaps a bit too loudly. His ears were ringing, making it hard to hear what Five was saying.
“ -- no choice. Okay?”
Klaus nodded, too befuddled to question what he was agreeing to. An eerie blue glow surrounded Five, and he disappeared. Moments later, Klaus saw movement at the top of the rock pile. He raised his head to look properly. Of course. His brother was there, engaged in close combat with at least three people. Potentially more, Klaus couldn’t make out. He clenched his hands, hiding the tattoos in tight fists. The pile was too high for him to climb, and since there were no ghosts around to employ for help, he could do nothing.
In silent frustration, he observed. One person was kicked over the edge and he tumbled down, accompanied by sickening cracks as his body hit several rocks on its way to the bottom. A gun went off and pierced the day with its loud succession of blasts. Klaus hoped it hadn’t hit his brother. He could only see the heads of the people, moving erratically. The shortest one was Five, and he was hopping about swiftly. Klaus didn’t know where he found the energy, but he rooted him on. One loud scream made the hairs on his arms stand up. It didn’t sound like Five, perhaps a woman, but Klaus wasn’t sure. His helplessness was killing him.
“Come on, where are all the dead when I really need them,” he muttered. He didn’t know if he could make anyone corporeal or if it only worked with Ben, but he was willing to try. Anything to make a difference.
The thought surprised him. Aloof, not taking things seriously, never contributing. Those were the words to describe him, not valiant, assertive, or involved. The last few days -- and the stolen year in the past -- had really changed him. His sobriety could possibly be a contributing factor too. His senses felt sharper and his mind ran more smoothly than it had in years. But the clarity came at a price: the worry for his siblings, the fear he had felt at the end of the world, it was all amplified. No more hazy mist for him, he was present and aware. And at the moment, he was failing at his duty to protect his brother.
“Dammit Five, why do you have to make everything so difficult.” The sounds had quieted down at the top of the hill. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was determined to find out.
“You’re out of your mind,” he muttered as he left the cover of the rock and dashed towards the large pile. It was easily the height of a three if not four storey building. Only someone very silly would even attempt climbing it.
“If you’re dead, I’m going to kill you!”
Five gave no reply. Klaus tried not to consider what it could mean. But at least the Commission goons hadn’t replied either, be it with words or gunfire. A bit of good luck. He only hoped it would last while he made his way to the top.
The going was difficult. Klaus had no equipment to aid him. He didn’t even have shoes, though that seemed to help with grip. As long as he didn’t step into hard edges, which, being that what he was climbing was a pile of rocks, was almost impossible to avoid. He chose his handholds carefully, mindful of not having any safety net at all, and cursed in German. When he ran out of swear words, he vigorously spat out any and all words he remembered.
“Kartoffel!” He had seriously underestimated just how steep the hill was, and how much effort pulling himself up it required. His arms burned and his feet stung, and his throat was so dry it hurt. Having a quick break would’ve been wondrous, but there were no ledges to rest upon. Still, he tried to cling to the wall and take the strain off his arms, with little success.
“Hey Five! Can you hear me? A word or two of encouragement would be nice,” he hollered while gathering his strength to continue. The fear that he would find only corpses at the top pushed him along. He reached for the next suitable crack in the wall, careful to not send an avalanche down, and pulled himself up.
He kept going for a while, ascending so high he no longer dared look down. But the top was still some ways off. He sighed and stepped on a rock, leaning all his weight on it as he pushed himself upwards. As he did so, a part of the rock crumbled away, leaving a sharp edge to dig into the unprotected sole of his foot. He howled in pain but couldn’t take the weight off his foot until he found a solid purchase for his other one, a task better not rushed. When finally he was secured by both hands and his uninjured foot, he lifted the wounded one and bent the leg back until he could see the damage at the bottom.
“Oh dear, shouldn’t have looked,” he mumbled as he squeezed his eyes shut and held onto the cliff wall. Blood was dripping down his foot, coming from a deep gash stretching across the sole.
“I’m holding you accountable!”
“What?” It was quiet, but Klaus recognised Five’s voice. Filled with new vigour, he lifted the injured foot and stepped on a rock, trying to put his weight only on his toes. His blood made the stones beneath his feet slippery, forcing him to concentrate even more intensely than before.
“Don’t worry about that. I’m coming for you. Are you hurt?”
The silence stretched. Klaus was convinced that Five was considering himself above such common courtesies as answering direct questions, until the reply came, even quieter than before.
“That is not a good answer. In fact, that is a terrible answer. But I’m coming, just wait.”
Five said nothing else. Klaus tried to speed up the climbing process, but only managed to slip and slide down for a couple of metres after he put too much weight on a poorly anchored rock. Spitting curses and pebbles, he renewed his efforts, going carefully rather than swiftly. By the time he finally reached the top, he was drenched in sweat and shaking with the exertion. His foot was hurting so fiercely he was sure it would need to be amputated, and that would only bring relief. He pulled himself over the edge and rolled to the reasonably flat ground, and lay there panting for a long while. Since no one shot him while he recovered, he trusted that all threats were eliminated.
When Klaus could sit up, he looked around the top of the pile. It was small and littered with bodies. The Commission agents were all quite clearly dead. He grimaced as he saw a loose head, and copious amounts of blood around most of the bodies. Five had been busy. Klaus didn’t look too closely at the tools he had used, scattered around the circle of devastation. Whoever had brought the machete to the fight had made a very bad choice.
“You actually came,” Five said. Klaus whipped his head around. Five was lying against a rock, nearly hidden by its shadow. He held both arms tight against his stomach. When Klaus went to investigate, limping without registering the pain on his foot too much, the reason became apparent. Someone -- presumably the one who had brought the machete -- had sliced his gut open, and he was trying to keep his innards in.
“That’s not good,” Klaus pointed out. The look on Five’s sweaty face relayed his response with no need for words.
“Find the briefcase,” he said through gritted teeth. Klaus did so, limping around the plateau, pushing the corpses over with his bad foot. He went through each operative twice before he had to admit defeat. The case was not there. But they must’ve had one in order to travel there. Struck by sudden inspiration, he leaned over the edge where he had seen Five toss someone off before. And of course, there at the bottom, shattered into many still recognisable pieces, was the briefcase.
“Oh this is so not good,” Klaus groaned. Five made an inquisitive sound. He looked to be drifting off again, eyelids fluttering and breath hitching.
“Okay, no need to panic. So what if the only two available time-travelling methods are both broken, there’s… other options. What are they? None whatsoever. Okay, maybe I should panic after all. Five, what do you think?”
Five thought nothing at all. Klaus knelt by his side and pressed his hands against the mess that used to be his brother’s knitted vest and little blazer. Five groaned weakly but did not wake. Judging by the expanding puddle under him, he had lost a lot of blood already.
“No panic, no panic, no panic,” Klaus repeated in a voice that could only be described as panicked. He kept applying pressure to the wound, his brain completely blanking out on what to do and how to proceed. As his mind idled, the sun continued its eternal path across the sky, starting its descend towards the horizon.
“You should go,” Five whispered after a long while, shaking Klaus out of his stupor. He turned to look at his brother, seeing the pale, sweat-drenched face and sunken eyes. Whatever they decided to do, they would have to do it soon.
“I’m not sure I can carry you down from here,” Klaus said. Five shook his head slowly.
“Leave me. I’m done.”
“No no no, that is not an option.” And truly, it was not. The drug-addled, isolated Klaus from a couple of years earlier would’ve probably left to find his own luck. Or maybe he would’ve stayed and taken a lethal dose, watching the sunset with his long-lost brother. It was no ocean view, but the lush forest below still offered a beautiful scene to gaze upon.
“No. We’re not giving up that easily. You saw a glimpse of what could be if we were a real family. I’m sure we can save Vanya and somehow put all our broken pieces back together. But we can only do that if we’re all there. Even Ben, now that I know I can make him real to everyone else too. We can do this. Come on, would you have ever believed me to be saying such things? So it must be true.”
“Your logic continues to astound me,” Five said. His voice was weak, but there was strength in his gaze. “We have to take a gamble.”
“I don’t see a casino anywhere.”
“Can you -- ah -- be serious for one moment. I don’t know how long I’ll last so let me do this now. I have to transport us, but going blindly will probably send us somewhere not useful. Can you tell me anything at all that might give us some sort of a timeline?”
Klaus didn’t like the way Five seemed unable to catch his breath. The boyishness had faded from his looks, but he still appeared younger than Klaus. Too frail, too easy to snuff out like a weak spark. Too close to the edge.
“No fire! I’ve seen no smoke anywhere. Only bugs and birds. Yeah, it was a turkey, not a velociraptor.”
“That’s too wide,” Five gasped out. Blood was starting to leak out of the corners of his mouth. Klaus hoped he had just bitten his tongue.
“I don’t know anything else! There are no tools laying around, no planes flying, no houses, no humans! I haven’t felt a single spirit in all our time here, even Ben was fading in and out.”
“I suppose that’s something of a range. Listen,” Five said, and paused to breathe for a long moment. As the quiet stretched, Klaus thought he had passed out.
“You can choose,” Five whispered. “Take the blind leap with me… or stay.”
“Why would I stay when there’s nothing here?”
“Because… there’s nothing here. No dead.”
Klaus looked up at that. It was true. The silence he had sought for all his life, that he had only ever found through the dampening effect of drugs. It would be here. He could be clean and free, could make whatever he wanted of his life, not have to fear the intruding dead anymore. His thoughts would be only his.
He smiled and closed his eyes. It was all he wanted, and yet he knew what his choice would be. He had tried the solitary way of existence, and it had led him on the road towards damnation. The year he had spent with Dave had been the best of his life, despite the war raging around them. It had only been possible because of the connection he had found with Dave. He could not live alone. Even if it meant facing his powers and learning to master them the hard way.
“I’m coming with you. Wherever it may lead us. And hey, maybe we’ll end up somewhere where we can determine exactly how to return home.”
“I’m… “ Five couldn’t finish the sentence, but his eyes, glittering with unshed tears, either told of pain, or of the gratefulness he felt at not having to be alone. Klaus took his hand and squeezed the bloody fingers. With his other, he leaned on the wound, hoping to keep his brother together for the duration of the trip. Five focused, starting to emit the familiar blue light. Klaus felt a pulling sensation somewhere behind his eyes, and then they were gone.