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Karl’s Boys

Chapter Text

As the auditorium lights dimmed, the audience went almost silent. A single spotlight on the stage illuminated the pale figure of Leonardo, looking nervous enough to bolt, his eyes fixed somewhere above the watchers' heads.

A derisive whistle came from the other side of Karl, cut off abruptly by his sharp gesture.  Josef closed his hand around the hilt of the knife hidden under his jacket, waiting orders.

The orchestra started up, slow, quiet. Leonardo pulled himself up on his toes and for the first time Josef recognised the poise of a dancer in the awkward looking man. Hand stretched high over his head, Leonardo uncurled his fingers, the glint of something metal nestled in his palm.

The music changed, louder, more powerful, acquiring a deep steady beat. Josef glanced down at the orchestra, saw them all motionless.  On the stage the object in Leonardo's hand appeared to be growing in size; now clearly a watch face. Larger, plate size, then wheel, then filing the stage, eclipsing the man holding it.  Bloody impressive effects.

"Shut down that fucking projectionist!"

Josef was on his feet and running, feet thudding in time with the ticking, loud enough to shake the room. He took the stairs upwards past faces intent on the stage, his back to whatever they were seeing.

The first chime caught Josef unawares, nearly knocked him off his feet. He reached the top, yanked open the door to the empty projectionist's booth and then started on the doors marked "authorised persons only". The third and last opened to stairs going upwards; he took them three at a time, the music swirling around him.  As the second chime came he was standing on the wide, dark, empty roof.

The sound system had to be coming from up here. The steady ticking, the music were as loud out here as they had been inside.  But there was nothing out here except a small construction at the far end of the roof, barely visible in the grey night. Josef started to run.

Only another maintenance stairway. Josef took one last look across the roof and started down it.  Damn, the music was loud; it was hard to think at all.

At the bottom of the stairs he met Vlad, scowling.

"Nothing up there."

"Nothing down here either. Let's just take out the fucker."

"That wasn't Karl's orders," Josef pointed out.

"Fuck that. This noise is doing my head in."

"We should check back in first. He didn't say kill the guy."

Vladimir swung without any warning, smashed Josef under the chin. Josef sprawled on the floor, blinking at the blade in Vlad's hand, the face twisted in anger.

"Always do what you're told, don't you, Joe?  That's the only reason Gabriel wants you. And Mika. Everyone's favourite, aren’t you? You go crawling back to them all and tell them you've failed. I'm going to take out Karl's problem for him and then I'm going to make sure that you learn your fucking place, Junior. You won’t be so pretty for them after I'm done."

Vlad turned and pushed the door to the stage open. Green and red and gold shimmered in searing colours around him and the door swung closed, just as the third chime sounded.

Josef climbed to his feet, slowly. He needed to go after Vlad. The man had just run into what could very well be big trouble and they were a team.  He stood motionless as the beat of the clock made the corridor shudder, tick after tick. Then he turned away to find his way towards the front of house.

Brilliant figures were moving on stage as Josef came into the auditorium. He kept his eyes down, on the edge of the rows of seats on each side of him, trying to focus only on getting to Karl and making his report.

The fourth chime seemed to make the air shimmer.  Something caught at Josef's heel and he stumbled, found both his ankles fouled. He bent down to free them and smooth cables whipped up from the ground to curl around his muscled forearms, twine upwards around his neck. He tried to tear them off, felt the cool smoothness roughen, saw buds pushing out from the green tendrils, forming into leaves.

As he struggled to rip the plant from around his neck a second set of buds sprouted, opened into pale yellow and white flowers, their scent bewilderingly strong. All around him people and furniture were garlanded with flowers that bloomed and then faded, petals dropping to vanish as they reached the floor.  Berries ripened, stained his skin as he fought to free himself.  Then the green winding up his arms disintegrated all at once, the dust blown away by the icy cold wind come from nowhere to roar around the hall.  Snow; a blizzard of impossible snow that hid the stage.  Josef ploughed forward through the freezing whiteness.  Karl was there, somewhere. Karl would know what to do.

The clock chimed and he was nowhere. Nothing. Not even the tick of the clock. Nothing beneath his feet. Not cold, not hot. Only the beat of his heart, way too fast.

A sharp, familiar taste. He'd bitten his tongue when Vlad had hit him. The smell of the hall, alcohol and sweat and fast food and the last dregs of expensive deodorants. He was on the floor, lying on the steps, his hip painful where he must have fallen, the short carpet rough against his cheek. As he started to push himself upright, still blind, noise hit him in a huge incoherent wave and finally the world was back, as sharp and sudden as if he'd just opened his eyes.  He needed to get to Karl before the clock chimed again; he stumbled to the rows of seats just as the sixth bell sounded.

Karl and the boys were huddled with their heads together, blocking out the world outside. Joe poked his head into the middle and they stopped talking, stared at him.

"Report."

Josef took a deep breath, trying to ignore the clock’s pulse. "No-one out there is doing any of it. Must be on the stage.” Act like this is still a performance, still comprehensible. Karl would explain it.

Karl nodded. “It’s the clock.”

“How can it be?” Mikael protested. ‘It’s like fucking magic or something!”

“It is magic.” Stefan, solemn, but the others were derisive. “Fairy stories! No such thing!”

Karl slammed his hand onto the back of the chair and they all fell silent. “Magic, trickery, could be fucking goblins, for all I care. It’s the goddamn clock controlling it. That’s all I need to know.”

Seventh chime, and total darkness. Cries and shrieks from around the auditorium, Karl’s voice hissing “Quiet!” the tick of the clock and then a voice, booming,

“Sloth!”

Brilliant yellow flicked on all over the audience, spotlighting faces. Then darkness again.

“Envy!” Karl’s face snarling blue, and Rikard’s.

“Greed!” Just Karl, green.

“Lust!” This time Josef could feel the heat of the orange light on his face. He looked round; Gabriel, Mika, Karl.

“Gluttony!” Mika looked so indignant that Josef had to laugh.

“Wrath!” Beside him Rikard was still in darkness; the rest of them flaming red. A tug on his sleeve, and Rikard was muttering “Told you they were all pissed with you!”

“Not Karl,” he murmured back. “Guess that’s for Leonardo.”

“Pride!” Karl, of course, and Gabriel, and Stefan.

The eight chime and the lights came back.

“Wasn’t that interesting?” Karl, voice cool. “You need a few more vices, Josef. Catch the rest of us up.”

Josef shrugged. “Can’t I just have lust twice? Way things are going I’m going to need it.” What with Karl, Mika and Gabs, and even Vlad pestering... that was what was missing. Vlad wasn’t here.

The music wailed up and down the scales. Karl frowned at him. “Where’s Vladimir?”

“He said,” No help for it. “He said he was going to shut it down. He went onto the stage.”

Faces around him were serious now. Karl shook his head, “You didn’t go with him?”

“I tried to stop him. I told him it wasn’t what you said to do,” Sounded like poor excuses even to Josef himself.

“I didn’t fucking ask you if you tried to stop him. I asked you if you went with him.”

“No.” He waited.

“Why not?”

Josef had no idea what to say. “I... he knocked me down. Threatened me.”

“So?”

Not a flicker of support from the men around him.

“So...you saw it out there. Was a stupid thing for him to do. He hit me, made some nasty threats, told me to come back here, was through the stage door before I was back on my feet.”

Silence.

“If it had been one of the others, maybe I’d had followed.” Josef conceded. “But he was way out of order. Wasn’t going to risk my life for a stupid vicious bastard like that.”

Stefan shifted. “I can deal with this,” he suggested to Karl. “Later.”

Karl didn’t move his attention from Josef. “So you can screw it up further? I don’t think so.” He raised his voice, over the trills from the stage. “This isn’t a fucking schoolyard, boys. I have had enough of your fucking quarrels and petty fucking jealousies because they are getting in my way. They stop. Understand?”

His eyes were still boring into Josef as he spoke to the others. “I’ll deal with this myself, since you all appear to have acquired fucking baggage when it comes to this boy. You lay off him, and that’s an order. If you can’t work with each other you’re no fucking use to me.”

He kept Josef waiting for another three beats of the clock before he shook his head slightly. “You’d better fucking pray Vlad turns up soon. Before I have time to get round to your punishment.”

“I could go look for him,” Josef offered meekly. Because whatever was happening on that stage was less terrifying than Karl angry.

“Not worth it. Stupid wanker walks into that lot, deserves all he gets.”

Which had been Josef’s reasoning. Didn’t seem entirely fair that he was in trouble for it.

Another chime. Nine, was it, or ten? Karl again. “We’re all going to sit here and watch the rest of this sodding performance. I want to know exactly what this bloody clock does.”

It did stuff. Impossible sights, unearthly sounds. People long dead, people who had never existed. Josef watched and marvelled with the others but his thoughts kept dragging back to more mundane matters. Karl and the tone in the man’s voice when he’d said punishment. What the others would do because although Karl had said lay off this was their business and no doubt they’d make their views known. And underneath the really serious stuff, a small fret about Gabriel, and what Gabriel might want.

The final stroke of midnight and the lights came up on an exhausted, exhilarated audience. Barely a pause before the judges were acclaiming Leonardo the winner, the King and Princess cooing over him, the audience applauding until their hands must have been raw. Karl hadn’t taken his eyes from the watch in the man’s hand.

As Leonardo and his future wife left the stage hand in hand the compere was twittering inanely about holidays and memorabilia. Karl finally stood, stretched, lithe and predatory.

“Right, boys. Let’s go get them.”

They jumped over the front rail, crossed the stage. Someone tried to block Josef and he lashed out with all the night’s frustrations, felt something crack as the man stumbled to the ground. Good.

Backstage there were a couple of Royal security guards, trailing the happy threesome. Karl grabbed one around the back of the neck, swung him round and kneed him in the balls. Gabriel and Stefan were on the other one, dragging him to the ground and kicking him in the face. The two men and woman ahead of them turned round, stared at Karl in clear shock.

“Give it to me.”

Leonardo shook his head. “No,”

The King spluttered, “Karl, stop this!”

Karl smirked. Stepped forward, seized Leonardo’s wrist. “Drop it. Now.”

“No!” Leonardo tried to twist out of his grasp and Karl backhanded him over the face with his free hand. Spoke to the King. “What did you expect, your Majesty? We had an arrangement. You broke it.”

“No!” That was the Princess, flying at Karl. Josef wrapped his arms around her, dragged her off without effort; she was a tiny thing, really. The old man tried to get her off him but Rikard was there, holding him back.

Leonardo was attempting to fight now, hopelessly badly. Karl was playing with him, dancing him across the stage, a jab here, a twist of muscles there. The Princess was struggling to get to him. Josef held her tighter, his face in her hair. She was soft; he felt himself getting aroused as he pulled her against his body, her hair tickling his face. Mustn’t get distracted. Karl’s future wife was definitely off limits.

The boys were shoving the King around now, laughing as he stumbled from one to another. The Princess had finally stopped struggling, was watching Leonardo get roughed up; Josef could feel her sobs shaking her body. What the hell had her father been thinking of, going up against Karl like this? Could have got the girl killed.

Karl was finally done showing off. He smashed the bruised and battered Leonardo to the ground, prised his fingers open and took the watch. Gabs dragged the artist to one side of the stage as Karl turned the device over and over in his fingers. Then he smiled up at the TV cameras, took a stance directly in the centre of the stage and crushed the watch in strong fingers, letting the broken remnants drop.

Josef let out the breath he’d been holding. The audience gasped, the Princess whimpered and Leonardo cried out as if it had been him broken.

Karl looked up towards the judges. “I think,” he said, coolly, “you’ll decide that was the most fucking incredible thing that you have ever seen. Won’t you?”

They looked at the rule book and they listened to the King pleading with them, but Josef knew the outcome was never in any real doubt. Bruised, battered and empty handed, Leonardo was nothing any more. Karl had won everything; the Princess, half the kingdom and the whole damn game.