May 1st, 2019.
Vanya sighed as she looked at the newspaper in the box. She had to remember to do something for Five to celebrate. She had no idea how much he’d care, but she had a feeling it might help to remind him of the milestones that he’d achieved. First a new month that wasn’t meant to be. Next a year that was never meant to be, eventually. Birthdays they hadn’t gotten to – even though it wasn’t going to be Five’s birthday anymore.
Helen startled her out of that thought before it could get painful, clearing her throat.
Vanya raised her brow. Helen was holding one coffee in her hand. “You know, I kind of assumed you’d get two coffees,” she said, trying not to laugh.
“Shit,” Helen hissed. “I meant to!”
Vanya snorted. “It’s fine, I know you’re not a morning person.”
Helen pushed her coffee into Vanya’s hand. “Just wait one second, I’ll get another for myself.”
She dashed back inside, leaving Vanya to laugh to herself over her newly acquired coffee.
Helen wasn’t, per se, a good girlfriend in the normal sense. She was cutting, selfish and impatient. She put her foot in her mouth on the regular, she sulked over the slightest disagreements, and she was constantly sarcastic. She was also easily the best partner Vanya had ever had. She was funny, patient, apologized easily and often, and gave Vanya every bit of space or help she needed, even if sometimes Vanya had to remind her what those things were.
Vanya turned to watch her through the window of the café, yawning as she waited for the second order.
They’d been taking it slow. Granted, it had only been a month, but Vanya had been sleeping on the couch, the majority of their intimacy conserved to their date nights, twice a week. If Leonard had taught Vanya anything, it was that she couldn’t dive headfirst into a relationship when it was very possible it was just a desperate escape from loneliness by any means necessary.
But Helen had been around for 3 years, had gone through thorough vetting by her family (the other version of them, but still) and had taken all this memory swapping well, and it was hard to take it slow with her.
And as hard as Helen was trying to be kind about all this, she didn’t have the tact to pretend she wasn’t waiting for Vanya to finally give them the all clear in trying to be a couple like they had been. She’d been so carefully avoiding topics like her parents, Vanya’s family and… well, sex… that it was almost more forceful than if she’d just brought them up.
Vanya sighed, sipping at the coffee and watching the slowly waking street. How fast was too fast when you were one foot out of an 8 day relationship with a serial killer that had tortured your brother within an inch of his life and had instead woken up with a steady girlfriend you didn’t remember who was charmingly imperfect in all the right ways?
“Hargreeves family bullshit as usual,” she muttered to herself.
“Okay,” Helen said, returning with a sigh. “Two coffees.” She kissed Vanya’s cheek in a quiet apology. “Ready for rehearsal?”
“Uh,” Vanya said. “Yeah. Sure.”
Helen frowned at her. “What?”
Vanya glanced at her as they started walking. “Nothing.” Helen looked unimpressed. “Just thinking about you.”
“That does not make me feel better, you know,” Helen said. “You look like something died in front of you.”
Vanya rolled her eyes. “No, not like… I just… was feeling guilty.”
“God, again?” Helen said. “Don’t you get tired?” When Vanya gave her a look, she held up her hands. “Joke. I’m joking. I wish you wouldn’t feel bad, but I’m not actually mad at you for it. Don’t feel guilt about your guilt, I may roll my eyes out of my head and then I’d feel bad for being insensitive.”
“Sure,” Vanya said, nudging Helen’s shoulder with her own as they walked. “Asshole.”
“Yeah,” Helen said. “I am. It’s why I fit right in with the Hargreeves family.”
“See, that’s what I was thinking about,” Vanya said. “It feels stupid to rush in and introduce you to my family after a month, but it also feels stupid not to when you’ve already sort of met them.”
“I sure did. You would not believe the speech Allison gave me about what would happen if I hurt you,” Helen said. “My life flashed before my eyes. And Diego? I like him, but I’m seriously not sure anyone told the poor man about lesbians before he met me.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not like we got outside much,” Vanya muttered. When would be the best time to introduce her again? Right now, family time was mostly geared towards making a space for her, rekindling whatever team spirit they’d had as a family, and worrying intensely about Five, who spent most of his time looking like he’d run twelve marathons while being told his pet had died. She groaned. “Anyway, I’m just… sorry.”
Helen gave her an exhausted look that Vanya was starting to think was teasing. “Again?”
“Oh shut up. I’m sorry that we were serious and now I’m dragging my feet about you meeting my family – again – and… you know…” She sighed.
“Your family is a mess, I can live without for a few more months,” Helen said, mouth quirking up. “Besides, I’m not ready to meet your elusive favorite sibling anyway. He’ll probably hate me.”
“Five will not hate you,” Vanya said. “You’re great.” That, and despite being grouchy as usual, Five seemed too tired for things like outright hate at the moment.
“You literally just called me an asshole.”
“Oh, he wrote the book on being an asshole.”
“I thought that was a team effort?”
Vanya shoved her, getting a laugh out of Helen that she couldn’t help but mirror.
“Look, you can introduce me to your family whenever you want,” Helen said. “You’ve stuck around, that’s enough. I mean, sure, I miss the way things used to be, but I’m happy just having you.” She smirked at Vanya. “And you know I wouldn’t just say that to make you feel better.”
“Yes, I do,” Vanya said, stopping as they reached the music school. “But I’m…” She sighed. “With everything going on with the end of the world and Five, you’ve really been there for me, and I’m… I’m scared about going too fast, but I really want to do something… serious with you.”
Helen stopped, looking uncharacteristically touched. “Well,” she said, wrapping her arms around Vanya’s shoulders. “What about a weekend trip? Get out of town for a little, and maybe…” She stopped, giving the same look she’d given Vanya when she’d sent her out for batteries for her vibrator. Vanya didn’t have the heart to point out that she wasn’t being subtle.
“Well, my last weekend trip with a partner nearly killed my sister,” Vanya said, though that memory seemed to be in the distant past. She and Allison had been spending a lot of time together, especially since Allison had decided to catch Vanya up on the martial arts training the rest of the family had gotten. It was surprising how fun it was.
“Oh my god,” Helen whined. “Really? I promise not to let you go mad with power.”
“I’m mostly kidding,” Vanya said, trying to hide her smile. “You’re right. A weekend trip isn’t that crazy after a month. Where do you want to go?”
“They’re opening up this abandoned amusement park about an hour from here, and I really want to see it,” Helen blurted.
“What?” Vanya managed, trying not to laugh. “I didn’t peg you for an amusement park enthusiast.”
“Well, you’re not pegging me in general, so…” Vanya punched her lightly on the shoulder, and Helen shoved her back. “What! There’s only so much I can’t say!”
“Asshole,” Vanya whispered, chuckling softly.
“As though any reasonable person could refrain from such an obvious joke. Anyway, I love amusement parks,” Helen said. “I worked at one in high school and they’re great. Especially ones with weird stories attached, which this one has a lot of. Honestly, the weirder, the better.”
Vanya peered at her over her coffee. “Answer me honestly… are you just dating me for the ambiance of my family?”
“Oh, come on, Vanya,” Helen said, hiding a smile. “That’s only a small part of it.”
“Oh? What’s the main part?” Vanya teased.
“You were so oblivious I had to have you out of sheer spite, of course.”
Vanya burst out laughing. “Wow, thanks. You really know how to make a girl feel special.” She brushed her hair behind her ear. “But okay, sure. Weekend trip it is, you weirdo.”
“Great,” Helen said, smiling and grabbing Vanya’s shoulders to march her inside. “Now shut up and walk, we’re going to be late.”
Ben sighed, leaning on the doorframe. “I hope you know what an eerie picture you paint right now.”
Five looked up at him blearily. He had dark circles under his eyes, hair ever so slightly in disarray, legs sprawled out in front of him as he sat against the bed. That alone wasn’t that concerning – it meant Five still hadn’t learned how regular sleep worked, probably, but after only a month that wasn’t surprising.
The part that made it especially weird was the several dozen synchronized watches spread out around him like some kind of ritualistic arrangement.
“I’m trying to find hobbies,” he said, hands frozen in the watch he was currently repairing.
Ben sighed. Granted, Five finding a hobby would be a good thing, but at the moment it looked more like he was exhaustedly and obsessively timing and repairing every watch and clock he could get his hands on. “It’s May,” he said.
“Is it?” Five said, leaning in to squint at one of his watches while he finished winding up the one in his hand. “That’s nice.”
“Thought you might want to celebrate the unencumbered passage of time,” Ben said. He pulled out the box Vanya had dropped off in the morning, lovingly wrapped in today’s newspaper. “So did Vanya, though she said she’s booked back to back in lessons today. But she got you marshmallow chocolates.”
“She shouldn’t have. The apocalypse won’t become any more over because of certain calendar events,” Five murmured, placing the latest watch into the spread, grasping for his box of unwound watches blindly.
“Think of it like a sobriety chip,” Ben said with a shrug, setting the gift on Five’s nightstand. “Not like I got to see many of those living with Klaus.”
“Oh, good, he’s passed on the idea that I’m addicted to the apocalypse,” Five drawled, digging through his box.
Ben snatched the box out of his hand. Five let out an indignant squawk. “You’re literally sitting surrounded by clocks. This room is an actual mausoleum of time. Come outside with me and celebrate the fact that we’ve made it to May.”
“I suppose I could go for a coffee,” Five muttered.
“No,” Ben said. “It’s 4pm.”
“Is it?” Five said, looking at the absurd array of clocks. “Oh. I guess it is.” He looked back at Ben. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“No caffeine after 4pm,” Ben said. “It’ll keep you up all night.”
“Cutting down on coffee won’t help me sleep,” Five said, narrowing his eyes, the sharp furrow of his brow getting even deeper than usual. “It’ll just give me a headache.”
“I’ve spent 13 years personally haunting someone addicted to pretty much every kind of drug out there,” Ben said, kneeling down slightly to look Five in the eyes. “Do you really think I care about that kind of excuse anymore?”
Five glared at him.
“When was the last time you slept?”
Five shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“We have a family meal every day,” Five bit back. “You’ve seen me eat.”
“Okay, when was the last time you ate more than one meal a day?”
“45 to 14 years ago,” Five said, with the sort of carelessness he’d settled into lately and that was probably going to give Allison heart palpitations in under a year if he kept it up. “Your point?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Come on, think of something you’d be willing to eat, I’m buying you food.” He held out his hand to help Five up.
Unsurprisingly, Five’s face twisted into some inexplicable emotion, and he instead used the bed to lever himself to his feet. He rubbed his face as he got up. He was probably stiff from sleeplessness, but Ben didn’t mention it. Instead he withdrew his hand, letting Five hobble out the door on his own.
“So, what do you want to eat?” Ben asked, trotting down the stairs with Five.
“God, I don’t know,” Five said, rubbing at his eyes. “As long as it’s not roaches.”
Ben sighed, taking pity on him. “You know what sounds good? Deli sandwiches.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” Ben took the rest of the stairs two at a time. It was always exciting to go places without having to haggle Klaus into it. Klaus was still his favorite brother, sure – how could he not be, after all this time – but it was a relief to be free from him. Klaus probably wouldn’t mind the thought anyway. At the moment he was probably dead asleep until it was time for him to get up and join Diego for work. He’d still been struggling to adjust to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep in the night, meaning that if he wasn’t actively doing something, he was probably sleeping.
“So I have a question about math,” Ben said, opening the door for Five.
“Fine,” Five muttered.
Math was an easy subject to get Five invested in.
“So I was looking at that problem you gave me, and I’m not getting how a charge wouldn’t have infinite mass with the equations you gave me,” Ben said. This was blatantly false, but if the past month had taught Ben anything, it was that they’d definitely have food before Five realized this.
“Ben,” Five snapped. Baiting him was like taking candy from a baby. “I’ve already told you this. The integral of the Dirac delta distribution is not infinity.”
“But it’s an infinite function.”
“It’s not a function, because it’s infinite at zero.”
“But you said it wasn’t infinite.”
“No, I said the integral isn’t infinity,” Five hissed.
Ben put his hands in his pockets with an absent nod. This was too easy. “But an integral is the sum of all values of a function under the curve, which includes infinity, so the sum of whatever plus infinity is infinity.”
“No! The Dirac delta is not a function, it’s a limit of the Gaussian distributions which is infinity at zero, but which has an infinitesimally small width.”
“So it’s zero.”
Ben tried not to grin. He couldn’t wait to tell Klaus about this later.
It was probably mean to pick on Five – he’d actually been doing a surprisingly good job of dissecting quantum mechanics to Ben’s level. Given how arrogant he’d always been about his math skills, Ben had expected him to launch into it a mile a minute, but after a few days of adjusting to Ben’s speed he’d laid out a lesson plan that had gotten Ben feeling confident about the basics in under two weeks.
Still, ranting about math seemed to be good for Five. He looked a lot more alive babbling about Dirac distributions than he had in the past few days, especially today. It had probably been a while since he’d slept, but with a bone to pick he was back to being himself.
The deli was about ten minutes’ walk away, and Five was currently ranting about normalization when Ben ordered for him. Asking what he wanted was a fool’s errand, so Ben got him something light and digestible. Given that his body was the original 13 year old Five, he probably had just as much of a stomach for food, but Five himself had an odd relationship with eating.
As far as Ben could tell, in one lifetime he’d spent most of his time eating canned food and bugs, while in the other he’d at least had the benefit of a community garden and the occasional lost deer, but the burden of having to share and keep everyone else fed before allowing himself to eat.
He set down the sandwiches in front of Five, who was still babbling about how, “the Dirac comb is a sloppy model for periodicity, but—“
“You know I’m messing with you, right?” Ben said.
Five stopped short. His face clearly said that no, he had not known. After a moment, though, he scowled. “Fuck you, Ben.”
“Hey,” Ben said, grinning. “At least it kicked you back into gear.”
Five rolled his eyes, frowning down at his food. “And already we’re back to this. Go back to spouting bullshit about quantum physics again instead.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Ben said. “But now that we’re here, you look really tired.”
“Of course I’m tired,” Five muttered, tearing the crusts off of his sandwich. “Name one thing that’s happened to me in my sum total of 72 years of life that wouldn’t make me tired.”
“Klaus tells me sleep helps with that sort of thing,” Ben remarked.
Five rolled his eyes. “If you’d seen the things I’ve seen you wouldn’t sleep either.”
Ben took a bite of his sandwich and sighed. “Which of us do you think has killed more people?” He wondered, sometimes, if his siblings really remembered that Ben’s job had generally been to lock himself into a room and tear everyone in it to shreds.
Five paused, eyes flickering guiltily over Ben, before he sighed. “You know, my work in the Commission is surprisingly low on the list of things I have nightmares about.” He snorted bitterly. “I think maybe after 45 years alone, people stopped seeming as… real. They were just numbers, in a way. A couple hundred dead, but billions saved.”
Ben hummed. It was depressing to hear Five talk about it that way, but Ben knew how he felt. When you had little choice but to kill, it stopped mattering. It was just the way things had to be to go on.
Five let out a tired breath and nibbled at his food. “May 2019,” he said, slowly, looking out the window at passersby. “I guess you’re right. It’s a milestone of sorts.”
“Not a small one,” Ben said. “Think about how much you’ve survived to get this far.”
Five scoffed. “I’d rather not.” After a moment, he looked at Ben with a reluctant scowl. “I owe you a talk.”
“I wasn’t keeping score,” Ben said. “And I did vote to traumatize the hell out of you, so…”
“What was the score of that?” Five asked, mouth quirking up slightly, recognizing the absurdity of putting something like that up to a vote.
“Four to two.”
Five looked him up and down. “Vanya, I’m guessing,” he said, thoughtfully. “And… Allison?”
“Huh,” Five said, surprised. “He’s come a long way, hasn’t he?”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, he’s been trying really hard.”
Five sighed. “Well, whatever. New milestone, new attempt at being… open, or whatever.” He sat back, not looking at Ben. “Pogo was still in the house,” he said. “In timeline 2.0.”
The look on Five’s face made it hard to respond to that right away. Instead, Ben decided to give him a moment to stabilize before getting into just how fucked up their lives could get. “2.0? Really?”
“So what are we? 2.1?”
“If the shoe fits.”
Ben swallowed the bite he was on, giving Five his full attention. “Alright. Go on.”
Five chewed over his words, tearing his sandwich to bits without looking at Ben. “If it had been anyone else, I might have put it together. But Pogo looked the same. So I thought I could get through to him.”
Ben stayed quiet. Five tended to retreat if people showed actual concern for him, and this was the first time he’d actually opened up since his crash right after arriving in this future. For the most part, he’d just spent most of his time in his room or lingering in the background like he was the ghost now.
Five chuckled, but it wasn’t out of any sense of humor, then another bite of sandwich into his mouth. “I don’t think I realized it was me or him until I was already soaked in blood. Mostly his, but he took off a nice chunk of my side, too.” He looked out the window. “Kind of glad everyone else has been avoiding him, so it’s no big deal that I am too.”
Ben made a face. “That’s shit.”
“It is,” Five said, looking back at Ben. He stuffed a piece of sandwich in his mouth and chewed it up before continuing. “You know, you were the only one I never saw in timeline one. Vanya’s picture was on her book, but you just stayed a kid in my mind. Now sometimes I forget your face. Instead I see…” His breath shook.
“Maggots?” Ben offered.
Five laughed despite himself. He looked like he had when he’d laughed as a 13 year old, but there was something different about it. It had been a long time since Ben had seen a genuine laugh from Five. “You spend too much time with Klaus.”
“I know.” He reached for Five’s hand, but Five snatched it away like he was burnt. Ben held up his hands to show he wouldn’t try again, but that only seemed to darken the cloud that had fallen over Five’s face. “If you ever need to know I’m not dead, just ask. Vanya and Diego have both called me at 3am five times already.”
“Yeah,” Five muttered. He pulled his plate closer to slowly pick away at his food. He fell quiet again. Ben let him, finishing his own food slowly to leave Five time to eat, one small bite at a time.
“Want anything to drink?” Ben asked.
Five nodded. “Water is fine.”
“Alright,” Ben murmured, getting up to get Five a bottle of water from the counter. By the time he’d gotten back, Five had leaned his chin on his hand and was all but nodding off as he ate. He handed him the water, watching as Five hurried to open up the bottle and drink, like it was going to run out if he didn’t take his chance.
Ben leaned back in his chair.
Another thing to add to the list of things to worry about when it came to Five, he supposed.
“You know I’m trying, right?” Five said softly. “I’m exhausted, but I’m trying.”
“Of course I know that,” Ben assured him. “We all do.”
“Next time I think I’ll get soup,” Five muttered, finishing off the last of his sandwich reluctantly. He blinked at the menu above the counter slowly. “Lemon chicken rice soup. Sounds kind of good.”
After all, progress was progress.