Klauen blinked against the influx of light, raising a hand to shield his view before he recognised it for what it was; a conclusion to his confinement. He rose from where he was pressed against the back wall, limbs hitched up to his chest, and fell to his knees on the concrete floor, hooking his hands behind his head as it bowed.
His gaze stayed fixed on the grey ground between his legs as the pair of highguard stepped forward and took his arms into the small of his back, hitching them up higher to test his compliance. He gave them no qualms, obediently bowing forward to relieve the twinge of pain that flared through his elbows and shoulders as his wrists were shackled.
They waited as Klauen found his feet, leading him out of his solitary cell and back into the empty corridors of the prison. This was a different kind of empty; bare and welcoming, unlike the hollow static of his own company. He was mildly confused when they didn’t lead him directly back to his own cell, but he kept his head down and walked in-step with their authoritative boots.
He understood when they arrived at the bathrooms. Rows of showers stood empty but for one, and Klauen was released from his shackles as he was guided to the adjacent cubicle. He waited on the precipice, watching the specks of water from the neighbouring cubicle mark flecks on his bare, faintly bruised feet as his sentries’ words washed over him unheard.
Klauen peeled away his shirt, removing the confining layers of his clothing and stepping under the welcomed wave of water that crashed over his shoulders and trickled fingers down his spine. The benediction was not lost on the Stahlborn, and he raised eager fingers to his greasy hair, rinsing it thoroughly in the fall.
It was a few minutes before he became aware of his company.
He looked far, far worse than Klauen remembered. His hipbones protruded, his collarbones hooked to his shoulders like talons desperate for purchase. His limbs were skeletal, curled fingers and jutting elbows. Klauen could count every single one of his ribs.
Bruises patterned his chest and neck, painting him a mockery of health. He looked deprived of sunlight and energy, a horrifying collaboration of pale and fragile.
The man raised his head, sparing it from the flow of water. “Hello, brother,” Korol said, a bleak attempt at his trademark sneer.
“You look like shit,” Klauen muttered, barely moving his lips, and turned back to his shower. It was a statement, not a gloat, and difference wasn’t lost on Korol, as weak as he was.
“You certainly sound more placid,” he said articulately, leaning one shoulder against the cubicles’ one shared wall, partially for support and partially so he could face Klauen. “Solitary seems to have done wonders for your temperament.”
“Go fuck yourself,” the younger mumbled, halfway to a slur, lacking the conviction to address Korol fully.
The elder didn’t relent. “You husband was in here the other day. Seemed almost as worn down as you.”
“I don’t care.”
A smug, conceited smile. “This imprisonment is doing wonders for all of our health, in my opinion.”
“Shouldn’t bother you for much longer,” Klauen responded, and it was almost a sneer. Almost. “You’ll be released as soon as they acquit you for your crimes, immunity and all. Should be soon.”
Korol tilted his head back, staring down the length of his nose at the other Stahlborn, assessing. It may have looked intimidating, but with Korol’s gaunt cheekbones, it just looked tiring. “I hear your trial is well underway, even after your little incident.”
Klauen stiffened, and the other latched onto it, pleased to have finally hit a nerve.
“Oh, you hadn’t thought we’d heard?” Korol teased, his teeth bared in a growing grin. “It’s been all we’ve been talking about down here.”
“Glad I could entertain you,” Klauen responded sharply, ending the line of conversation.
Korol’s lips twisted in displeasure, before he shifted back under the trickle of water, scrubbing fingers into his scalp. “So it was the signature that did it, hmm?”
Klauen didn’t reply, closing his eyes as he pushed water over the crown of his head, revelling in the sensation of being clean. Anything to distract him from Korol’s pestering.
“I thought Anwalt would enjoy that tidbit of information.”
Klauen bit. “What?”
Korol turned a lazy gaze on him, eyebrows arched. “Oh. I was the one who told him about the execution certificate.” He chuckled to himself, raising hands to squeeze the water from his hair.
The elder Stahlborn’s head ricocheted off the tiled wall, his balance going out from under him with his legs and sending him crashing down under the persistent flow of water. He sat, stunned, on the floor of the shower cubicle, and gingerly raised a tentative hand to his now-bleeding scalp.
The escort stepped forwards, but Korol produced a bloodstained hand, warding them off. “No, it’s fine. It’s fine,” he insisted, rising to his feet. The escorts begrudgingly receded, their gazes never falling from where Klauen stood, knuckles throbbing from where they had connected with Korol’s jaw, driving his whole skull back into the wall.
Korol stepped back under his shower as Klauen turned his attention back to his, but the elder’s gaze didn’t lift from Klauen’s shoulders.
“Do you want to fight?” he asked evenly, pitching his volume lower than the escorts would be able to discern.
“I want you to fuck off,” Klauen responded cuttingly.
Korol’s tone was uncharacteristically solemn. “We can’t always get what we want, baby brother.”
“And what is it you want, Korol?” the younger sneered, exasperated, as he turned to face the other.
“I want to die,” Korol responded with a blind honesty that made Klauen falter.
“I want to die,” he repeated. “I’m done with this whole charade.”
“Pretending I can cope with this. You think I haven’t noticed what I look like? What I’ve become? My body is rotting away with me trapped inside it. Even if I am granted immunity, what good is a life like this?”
“Why do I care about your quality of life?” Klauen sneered.
“Because you’d be lying if you said you’d never fantasised about killing me,” Korol said bluntly, meeting the other’s eye. He had him there.
“And how does putting you out of your misery trump watching you suffer like you damn well deserve?”
Korol glared. “I’m giving you an offer–”
“Are you begging me?”
Korol’s silence was merciful on Klauen’s ears, however brief. “Yes.” There was humility there, and a blatancy that Klauen had never before had cause to associate with decency. He looked tired all of a sudden, so tired. “Yes, Klauen, I’m begging you to kill me. Please.”
Klauen stared down at him, this sliver of a monster who had once tormented, and considered how easily it would be to snap his neck. The sort of sound it would make, with Korol’s skull cradled in his palms, how heavy the weight of his body would be with no one inside to guide it.
Klauen stared down at the weary husk of his brother, at the somnolent pleading eyes of the man before him, and recalled what they had looked like when they had been alight with malice. Now they were raw with a sort of childlike desperation.
Korol’s gaze sparked. “No?” he repeated incredulously. “No? You would deny me this?”
“I would deny you the benefit – the mercy – of a quick death,” Klauen retorted heatedly, “when you were remiss to grant it to your own victims. Including me. So enjoy your death, Korol. Or I certainly will,” he added, stepping from the shower and binding around his waist the towel that the nearest escort offered him, leaving Korol swaying in his own cubicle, dismayed and all the more desperate.