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Skinned Knees and Hollow Trees

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When Number Two first sneaks out that sunny summer day, it's right after training. He gets into a fight with Number One over something mundane again, and runs off into the woods while his brother isn't paying attention. Number One's so panicked by this that he bursts into tears, terrified of Reginald's reaction and for Number Two's safety. He's the leader, he knows his father will say. How can he lose one of his subordinates?

And then Father will look at him in that stony, disappointed way that lets him know he's messed up and everything is his fault. He's nine years old but he's the leader, he can't hide behind excuses and get by with his incompetency.

Father pulls him aside and hands him a book, telling him to read it and then write an essay about where he failed as a leader. Number One looks down at the book, and can already tell he won't understand nearly a third of the words in it. The Prince, it's called, by Niccolo Machiavelli. He's not allowed to ask for help.

Still, Father tells him this is the only way that he can be better, the only way he can stop failing so much, the only way Father will forgive him. With those final words, he sends Number One upstairs without dinner for the evening, telling him the ache of his empty stomach will encourage him to stop failing, and remind him of this lesson.

By the end of the book, Number One's head is swimming with words and phrases he barely understands. But one thing sticks in his mind and burrows deep.

It is better to be feared than to be loved.

It rings in his head even as his eyes rove over the other pages, even as he writes his pathetic approximation of an essay, even as he heads to Father's office to turn in his work.

It is better to be feared than to be loved.

When he finally turns it in to his father, the man asks him if he's learned anything from the book. Number One repeats, without any hesitation, the words that have been burned into his psyche. The look in his father's eyes isn't one of pride, not yet, but somewhat similar, like something in the realm of acceptance, perhaps even- though Number One dare not entertain the idea- approval.

However, Father barely skims the papers before throwing it out in the bin next to him, right in front of Number One. Father doesn't say if he did well or not, but he doesn't make him do any more essays. Number One hopes one day he'll be able to make Father proud the way he's supposed to.

Number Seven is eight when Sir Reginald slaps her in the face for making eye contact with him. He tells her she has no right to, and when this proclamation is met with silence from the rest of her siblings in the dining room, she eventually agrees. She never looks anywhere higher than his chin ever again.

She is nine when he ups the dosage in her medication after she gets angry for the first time. Someone ruined one of her favorite music sheets, and though she doesn't remember what she did, she remembers how she spends six months so nauseous and drowsy and generally out of it that she could barely remember her own name sometimes.

Vanya is ten when she sees Diego sneaking out at night, running off with two boys towards the house next door, and wonders- of all thoughts- if he is finally deciding to leave and never return. Instead of being worried, all she feels deep inside is a foreign blend of envy and grief. She can only think that he is lucky.

When Number Three has her mouth duct taped for the entire day, it's because Dad is tired of her "incessant, despicable whining" after he hears her complaining to Number Five about the pain in her wrist when Five twisted it funny during their sparring match.

He tells her that her voice is unnecessary outside of training her powers, and that if he hears her whining about 'trivial matters' once more, he would leave the tape on for two whole days, and she would have to go without meals.

She complies, because there is nothing else for her to do, because even after Mom gives her a check-up and discovers her wrist is actually sprained and tells Dad, he doesn't do anything more than exclude her from activities that would normally require using both hands.

 Her words are unnecessary, he tells her after Mom patches her up. It would be wiser if she simply did not speak unless required to. She was not given a mouth to use however she wants. Her voice is a tool, and one only uses tools when there is a job to be done.

 Number Three takes care to never speak around Dad unless she must, learning at the delicate age of seven that she is not meant to do more than she is told. The lesson is carved into her in its own way, a way that also taught Number Three that she is not fond of going hungry for whole days.

Number Five is six when he first begins to think about running away.

Because he is six, however, the words in his mind aren't "running away" but rather "leave forever". And soon, at barely seven, he looks for ways to go as far and as fast as possible, reasoning that, if he can go from room to room in the blink of an eye, he should be able to do the same at a greater distance.

He doesn't want to approach Reginald, but eventually he does, ignoring the steadily increasing 'thump thump thump' rhythm of his pulse and the creeping discomfort (it is not fear; even at seven, he knows better than to so much as think the word 'fear' near Reginald Hargreeves) in favor of clearing his throat and, for the first but certainly far from last time, inquires about the strange concept he's heard of called time travel.

Reginald's response is to tell him without any amount of hesitation that Five is not only incapable of time travel, but also that he likely never will be, and to give up on such "foolish, frivolous dreams" that very instant. To ensure that Number Five keeps such idiotic ideas out of his "feeble mind", he orders him to warp from one end of the house to the next repeatedly without break until Reginald is satisfied.

As it turns out, "satisfied" is when Five collapses on the ground, trembling and puking all over himself. The boy is nearly broken apart, his atoms not accustomed to such abuse and, for a terrifying moment, some of them refused- or perhaps forgot how- to recombine, and so Five lays crumpled on the ground until he's no longer in danger of losing solidity.

Reginald tells "Humpty Dumpty" to put such useless drivel out of his mind, and focus on trying not to lose shape and fall apart instead, as he apparently "is so terribly incompetent" that he "cannot do even the most basic and necessary of tasks required to live". Reginald leaves him on the floor, still quivering.

Number Five learns to never allow Reginald to be satisfied.

He also becomes entirely obsessed with the notion of time travel.

Number Six is four when she learns she will never be more than a mere space filler.

Hargreeves does not hesitate for even the slightest moment when making it crystal clear that not only was she not his first choice, but she was not his second, either. Or third.

In fact, had the other peculiar children not been dead, untraceable, not for sale, or otherwise inaccessible to Hargreeves, he would never so much as contemplated buying her.

He takes great care to ensure she understands that, of all seven siblings, she was actually the cheapest to buy- that is to say, she was free. Her birth mother, according to him, hadn't hesitated for even a second before thrusting her at the old geezer the moment she learned what he was there for.

A demon child, she had called her. Fires start when she so much as glances at something. Fires that do not burn her. Fires that she delights in. Number Six's birth mother saw this, and decided she would either find someone willing to take her far, far away, or she would dispose of the infant Number Six herself.

Still, Hargreeves gave her a small amount of money in the event that the woman might somehow try to spin it against him, perhaps in the hopes of suing or something similar. Even so, he'd given her a mere two hundred dollars.

Number Seven was worth sixty thousand, he told her. Number Seven was worth sixty thousand, and in Number Seven's case it was clear to even her own mother that she'd likely be useless.

Number Six is five when she decides that, if she truly is a demon, she'll simply have to make the most of it, and welcome the flames. One day, she might find it in her to burn the world down. She'd need to be prepared for that.

Charlie is ten when she looks at Diego, and his friends who sneak in through the window just to see him, and the snowmen all four of them built on that one perfect day, and finds something she thinks is worth burning the world down for.

Fran has always known, has always seen, has always been.

When she looks at Sir Reginald Hargeeves, the Horrible Awful in human flesh, she feels her lips curl downwards in both pity and distaste. No matter where or how or why, he is never any different.

It is a shame, for academically the man is brilliant, and politically he is powerful, and financially he is unstoppable. He could save so many lives, and yet instead he is merely fixated on destroying them under that same pretense.

If Fran could not see, she would say he is the most vile man to have ever lived; human only in appearance, a most foul beast if there ever was one. But Fran can see, and she sees that while no less than Remor awaits such a disgusting creature, the world is never quite so simple.

But all in due layers, she reminds herself, for she cannot do quite so much here. It is not up to her, for if it was, Reginald Hargreeves would never have existed.

As she moves down the hall, she finds Five in his room, frustrated with the equations he has hastily scribbled over the boards and papers. Fran smiles softly, heartstrings tugging at the sight.

How many will be lost to this? How many, until they needn't any longer? Will this really be the only in which things are different? Or will they follow too, treading worn tracks? 

"You seem to be having trouble."

Five growls at the comment, tossing yet another completed notebook at the wall. While he's never necessarily been the carefree sort, he's unusually tense whenever time travel is involved.

Fran misses seeing him relaxed, or as relaxed as one could be in this house of horrors. He's always been ambitious and at times, singularly driven, but the obsession has taken things to new, unprecedented levels.

It's all beginning to look the same.

"I'm at a roadblock. Again." He grits out. He hates to admit his shortcomings, she understands. Especially for something he's so passionate about. "He keeps talking about acorns! I just don't get it! What does he know, anyway?"

'He' is most certainly none other than Reginald, who has taken to feeding Five only the slightest morsels of information. It drives Five insane, and Fran is quite sure that's the only reason why the man bothers.

Oh, dear.

Five is prepared to murder someone when Fran comes to his room.

Usually, he hates when people come into his space, but he'll admit he's quite intrigued by his sister. Fran is nothing if not cryptic, and he enjoys trying to decode the things she says, puzzles as they are. So far, she seems to be the only one who understands what he says, other than Reginald, who Five tends to avoid on principle.

However, he is aggravated, and not in the mood to try deciphering her words at this time. Still, he explains his issue to her upon request, and watches as she hums and scans her eyes over his work. He isn't sure what she can possibly to do help, but waits until she gets her fill, says her riddle, and leaves him to his work. Finally, she speaks.

"You see, Five, time-"

"Is an illusion?" Five interrupts sarcastically, uninterested in hearing her confusing riddles. Perhaps if he finishes it for her, he can resume his research sooner. She stares at him strangely, as if he is the nonsensical one.

"Is liquid," she corrects. "It is a jump rope, not a lifeline." It is one of the most straightforward things she's ever said, and Five still has no idea what she means by it. "That is the reason you have failed to discover how to travel through it, and why your father insists you wait. You are trying to run when truly, you must swim."

"How would you know?" Five asks with narrowed eyes. Fran's smile is kind, but the meaning is indecipherable.

"Because I must, or I would not survive."

Her brother is nothing if not bewildered by this statement. Perhaps she shouldn't reveal so much. Perhaps she is beginning to become too partial, too preferential to them, but she can't seem to help it. Perhaps it's because they're family.

She usually doesn't have siblings.

"You'll figure it out Five, I'm sure." She pats his shoulder affectionately and turns to leave. She should not stay here, lest she say more. "You've always been brilliant. Just take care not to leave us behind." She closes the door and makes her way to her own room.

Hopefully, this would be enough- for now- to keep him from going too far, too fast.

The Hargreeves children all sit on the couch, backs impossibly straight, as they wait for their father to arrive. Pogo announced earlier that the man requires their presence.

He finally appears, and immediately the attention is completely on him.

"Children," he begins. Instantly, they know something is different. "For years, I have ensured you all train diligently and vigorously, and for one sole purpose. This, as you know, involves the safety of the world." The children shift, anxious but also on the edges of their seats.

"Finally, the time has come. We will embark on our first mission this week. This will be a long, crucial mission, not simply as our debut but by its very nature. We will be gone for quite some time, and therefore you must all pack extensively." He glides over to the stairs.

"With this, the Umbrella Academy's inaugural class will debut in the eyes of the public. Do well not to make fools of yourselves and, by extension, the rest of the Academy."