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shot in the dark

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I.
The first time Five holds a gun in his hands he’s seven-years-old and wishing he could be anywhere else.

They’re all lined up like little soldiers at their desks as Grace smiles benignly and shows each and every one of them how to take a gun apart and put it back together again. It seems odd, learning such a skill from a woman in a poodle skirt and not a hair out of place.

Five already knows that he hates it. From the frowns on the faces of the others, he’s not the only one who is displeased about their current lesson plan. He hates the weight, hates how it feels in his too-small hands.

Not for the first time, Five wishes he was Vanya, who once again was excused from their lesson.

Five has already been told in no uncertain terms that he’s expected to pass this curriculum with flying colors. Him and Klaus are the two members of the Umbrella Academy whose powers aren’t useful for offense. Jumping is useful for getting into places, for running away, maybe for dodging, but not so much for actual fighting.

That still doesn’t make Five like it.

It’s easier if he pretends it’s just a puzzle, one of the fancy 3D ones that Reginald purchased for them several birthdays ago to encourage their spatial skills or something. His fingers go through the motions until he’s just sitting there taking it apart and putting it together over and over again on autopilot.

He doesn’t notice that the others are watching him until Klaus leans over. “Wow!” His brother enthuses in a whisper, “You’re really good at this!”

It’s supposed to be a compliment. Five knows that Klaus is looking for a smile or a nod or a smug look or something, but he can’t bring his face to even twitch. He just stares at the sleek metal pieces on the table feeling oddly blank.

Grace comes over and places a cool hand on his shoulder. “Well done, Five!” She praises warmly, “Why don’t you try a different one?”

This is one of the few times Five doesn’t lift his head up high and grin, smug and gloating over yet another way he’s proved himself superior to his siblings. He’s seven-years-old and holding a weapon capable of death in hand almost too small to hold it, and all he can bring himself to feel is sick.

 

__________

 

II.
When they’re eight, Reginald starts sending them on ‘practice’ missions. He tells them that it’s preparation for their debut which is scheduled to be in two years, to make sure that they don’t mess anything up or hesitate at a critical moment.

All that means is that they go on missions but they’re all stealth missions. No cameras, no media, no witnesses. Five supposes that if they do mess up and get caught, then Reginald will just move up their debut date even if he did have plans for a bigger, flashier show of their abilities.

Five assumed that they’d be eased into it with milk run missions, but somehow he’s not that surprised when he ends up pressed behind a pillar with bullets ricocheting around him. He would just jump away, but Klaus is about seven feet away crouched behind a desk with wide frightened eyes, and Five can’t jump with passengers.

There’s only two guys, and the only reason they haven’t died is because no one’s gotten a good look at them and realized that they’re two unarmed kids. But with the increasing lack of return fire, the guys are gaining confidence and starting their approach.

Five swipes a glass paperweight up off the floor and clenches it in his hand. Before he can talk himself out of it (because his brother’s life depends on this), Five tugs at the fabric of the universe and jumps.

This happen quickly. Five blinks blue from his eyes and raises the paperweight above his head and slams it down on the back of one of the guy’s heads with a sickening thud. The guy drops like a rock and Five falls to the ground with him. A sharp spike of pain goes shooting up his leg as he lands wrong on the ground, but he’s too busy scrambling for the man’s gun to bother to cry out. He scoops it up and fumbles it, blood on his hands that he hadn’t noticed.

But the other man wasn’t expecting a superpowered child. His response shot goes way over Five’s head, and maybe if Five had been an adult it would have hit but he isn’t and it didn’t. Barely thinking, Five pulls his arms up and practice at the range until he’s good enough to pass Reginald’s muster makes it oh so easy to just - pull the trigger.

The man goes down with a gurgle and a spray of blood. A cry from across the room reminds Five of exactly what he’s protecting, and he puts another bullet into each man just to make absolutely certain that they are no longer threats.

“You can come out, Klaus.” He hears himself call out, as if from a distance. “It’s safe.”

Klaus scrambles out from the safety of the desk with a smile that drops as soon as he takes in the scene. He freezes like a deer in headlights, and Five doesn’t know if the two guys called for backup or who was in hearing distance of the minor shootout so he doesn’t have time for this.

The gun slips from his hands and clatters to the floor, the loud noise making him flinch just a little. But it does free up his hands to gesture more firmly at his siblings, “Come on,” Five says firmly, “We gotta meet up with the others.”

With a direct order, Klaus shakes himself loose and approaches Five only a little warily. Five feels a pang of hurt shoot through the numbness that had taken occupation in his body, but resolutely shakes it off.

“Are you hurt?” Klaus whispers, reaching out and taking Five’s hand in his own. He eases almost imperceptibly after he does so, and so Five allows it.

“I’m fine.” Five brushes him off, ignoring the twinge in his leg, more than a little impatient as he tugs his brother towards the exit. “We gotta get moving though, okay?”

They don’t run into any more issues on the missions, meeting up with their siblings without further incident. As soon as they reach the others, just a little bit fashionably late, Klaus drops his hand to run over to Ben. Five pretends he doesn’t mourn the loss as he deflects Luther’s questions (it feels more like an interrogation) about his state and the blood on his clothes.

Later, he looks his father in the eyes and parrots his words back about no witnesses. Later, he washes his hands and pretends he can’t see the rust brown flecks clinging to the creases of his palms.

He sits in bed and remembers the sounds, the wet crunch of a skull and the shriek of his sneaker sliding in the blood. He remembers a weight in his hands and the kickback that left bruises on his shoulder.

His mother asks him in the morning if he’s feeling poorly, clucking her tongue and smoothing his hair from his face as she picks up his trash can to clean. Five doesn’t look her in the face as he denies it, but somehow he ends up excused from group training for the day anyway.

He can’t even pretend he isn’t thankful for it.

 

__________

 

III.
He picks up the gun without thinking about it. It’s nothing special - there are plenty of guns lying around is the ruins of houses and police stations and megamarts.

A few years back, Five had started honing his safecracking ability out of sheer boredom and the minute hope that perhaps there would be some preserved food that was still edible inside. He mostly got bunches of useless documents, handfuls of worthless jewelry, and guns. But he’d always left his findings as they were, content with solving the mystery of the contents and ready to move on to pursuits more necessary to his own survival.

But today, he picks up the gun.

Even after all the years he’s been stuck in the apocalypse, the feel is familiar in his hands. He feels the phantom kickback and the ghostly smell of iron and gunpowder. It’s heavy in his hands, but he still tucks it into his wagon.

“It’s for protection.” Five explains to Dolores as he unloads his haul for the day.

She looks at him, full of skepticism.

“It’s for hunting.” Five tries again, “Just in case there’s something out there with more meat on it that the beetles we’ve been scrounging up.”

Dolores is somehow even more judgemental about this excuse, which is fair considering the fact that the largest living creature they’ve seen that aren’t themselves was a particularly enormous cockroach. Even that big cockroach would probably be blown away by a bullet to the point that it would be useless for food, anyway.

But Five can’t bring himself to say that the gun is for a tentative plan b forming in the back of his mind since he picked it up. Maybe it was the weight of another formula failure that morning, maybe it was the persistent hunger that had vanished a while back (it worried him, that he didn’t feel hungry anymore, as much as it was a relief from the pain). Maybe it was the quiet headache burrowing itself in his skull and the tickle at the back of his throat, paired with the traumatic memory of the last time he was sick and would have died curled up in pain and gasping if the heavens hadn’t taken pity and decided a little rain might be appropriate.

The helpless feeling of knowing he was dying and could do nothing to stop it, and nothing to speed it up and end his suffering.

“It’s in case of emergency.” Five finally tells Dolores, and she accepts that explanation with no further questions, though she does give him a somewhat concerned look and reminds him that alcohol isn’t a substitute for water.

He doesn’t use it, though he thinks about it as the years pass by and he starts to have consistent aches and pains that don’t pop up so much as become things that are necessary to plan around. He thinks about it after yet another equation fails and he has to scream his frustration at the sky or else he would combust in place. He thinks about it during a long winter where he can count every single one of his ribs and hasn’t seen the sun for weeks.

Instead, he cleans it. He methodically takes it apart and puts it back together again on nights when his thoughts buzz too loudly or his nightmares are just that much too real. Five remembers his mother’s kind smile as she taught them the various parts and pieces, and he mutters the words under his breath alongside the memory.

Dolores pointedly ignores the gun’s existence, and Five gets the feeling that even though she doesn’t bring it up she disapproves of its existence. She sees it as a way out, an excuse to one day give up. Maybe if she brought it up, Five would try and find the words to explain that that wasn’t it. But she doesn’t, and he doesn’t.

The last day he sees the gun is ironically the only time it ever might have been necessary. A woman appears, pristine against the grime of the apocalypse with a blood red smile. Instinct has Five scrabbing for the gun and pointing it between him and her.

Seeing another person, after so long alone - it’s terrifying. There’s also the fact that there’s a not insignificant part of his brain sneering at him that oh look, he’s finally gone mad, conjuring up an entire new person to accuse him of being a failure. That at least he’s getting some variety outside the spectres of his siblings that he sees when he closes his eyes.

But the woman smiles at him sharply, in a way that sets all his hackles raising in alarm - this is a predator, his instincts whisper to him, don’t tear your eyes away or she will bury her fangs in your throat. And then, she offers him a job.

Keep her in your sights and at least you’ll see her coming with the knife, the same survival instincts whisper to him again, and Five has always been inclined to listen to his instincts.

He takes the job.

He leaves the gun.

 

__________

 

IV.
He really should have known better. When they say fix the timeline, they mean eliminate the problems. And by eliminate the problem, they mean that while they can’t abide by getting their own hands dirty, they can have Five take care of the issue without a fuss.

Five should have known better than to think that anyone would consider him a person. He’s surrounded by people now, an almost claustrophobic number of people considering his history, but all of them look at him and see something else instead of a person. A useful tool, an efficient weapon, a loyal dog.

A deadly little thing.

The first thing they do is fix him, like mechanics fixing a car. They rebreak the fingers in his right hand and straighten them out where they healed crooked years upon years ago. They put him on an IV drip and liquid diet until he’s gained enough weight that people stop frowning at him like it’s his fault he starved for so long.

He gets a little gadget that beeps three times a day to remind him to eat, because he doesn’t remember on his own. He gets surgery on the knee that has been painful for months.

He gets a gun placed in his hands at a gun range, and the Handler smiling her too sharp smiles and telling him to impress her.

He does.

Once he’s physically recovered enough that every doctor doesn’t blink with alarm coming into the room, they send him on missions. And like the good little weapon he was always trained to be, he completes them with a kind of brutal efficiency that has the Handler clapping her hands together in delight as she meets him for debriefing.

“I knew you would be an asset to the Commission.” She tells him in the same tone she praised the new coffee machine from the break room. Five wonders if she even sees a difference between it and him, or if she sees them both as simple tools needed to complete a task. He doesn’t ask.

He picks up a gun, heavy in his hands, and doesn’t ask questions. He can’t afford to bring attention to himself, not when his treachery is written in pencil across worn paper pages in the pocket of his coat.

Sometimes, instead of cleaning the gun or working on the equations that will one day save the world, he traces his fingers word by word through the book that has long served as a reminder of everything he is trying to save. Other times, he just flips to the back to the author’s biography and traces the face of the sister he never did find a body for.

She got rid of her bangs, but overall he likes it. He likes the idea of a sister so unafraid as to publish exactly what she thought about her childhood and what she went through. He might not approve of some of the contents or interpret things the same way, but he loves that Vanya decided to write a book like this and put it out in the world.

He wants to meet the Vanya who wrote this book, the one who grew out her hair and plays in an orchestra on a stage for all the world to see. He wants, he wants, he wants. But things, weapons aren't supposed to want.

He’s idly jotting down more numbers in his book on a mission, just killing time before his mark gets into place, when it finally happens. The numbers click, the well of power that sits inside his soul flexes and hums as a missing piece slots into place. Maybe it’s not a perfect fit, but it fits and that’s all that matters.

Five leaves his gun behind, leaves his mission behind, leaves the Commission behind.

And he jumps.

 

__________

 

V.
Five has a gun in his hands and they are too steady for the weight that they carry. Too steady for the knowledge of what it means - that he is willing to kill innocents and spill their blood in order to fulfill his mission.

There’s a small part of him whispering that he’s no better than the Commission. After all, wasn’t it built on the premise that sacrificing the few to save the many was the right and just thing to do? Preserving the timeline meant preserving the world, after all.

Five wonders how they justify the apocalypse, in that case.

He tells Luther that the math is good, that this Milton guy or whatever is going to die in four days anyway so it technically doesn’t even matter. Five is just speeding it up a little bit, with the added bonus of giving everyone else on the planet years and years of extra life. A fair trade, right?

But that’s apparently no good enough. Luther is righteous and in that moment Five hates him more than anything. It’s not enough that Five’s hands are permanently stained with red, that he sacrificed everything for even the smallest chance that he could see them again. That he could save them.

He knows he’s abrasive and irritable and that they have better things to do than fall apart because, oh yeah, the apocalypse is on. But he wishes that his family would at least act like they missed him.

(There was a mission, one of the good ones, where Five ended up accidentally acquiring a child who had been kidnapped. Even knowing he’d be punished for it, Five had taken the time to detour and return the kid to his family. His parents had cried and sobbed as they clung to him and to each other as if they might disappear if they let go. They’d smiled through their tears and thanked Five repeatedly in shaky words that he didn’t stick around long enough to fully listen to.

He wonders, now, if anyone cried over him. He wonders if anyone was as happy to see him as that family was, if they missed him as much. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t ask.

He’s afraid of the answer.)

He’s already dismissed the conversation and turned to leave, to do what is necessary no matter the cost.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Luther says.

And then Luther is holding Dolores out of the window and Five’s gun is pointed at his brother and his hands are no longer as steady as they were just moments ago. His mind races, and he looks at Dolores hanging there and he can’t. He just can’t.

He has lost so much over the years, sacrificed every small and tender moment he’s capable of, every ounce of humanity he decided he could live without. He sacrificed his morals, his body, his entire lifetime to his mission. He threw away years and weathered skin and the crows feet from the corners of his eyes and his own sanity.

But not Dolores.

He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because Luther is his brother. His reason for carrying on. Family. Five had mourned over Luther’s corpse, pressed shaking palms against his chest and begged to hear a heartbeat that would never happen. He can’t kill his brother, can’t pull the trigger, can’t relive that. It would break him just as surely as losing Dolores would.

“It’s either her, or the gun.” Luther says, as if it could ever be that simple, “You decide.”

But to give up, to not prevent the apocalypse, was to kill them all as surely as if Five pulled the trigger here and now.

Rock and a hard place.

And then Luther lets go.

In the end, he chooses the choice that buys him the most time (and isn’t it funny - the time traveller who has spent his entire life desperately grasping for more time). He throws the gun and jumps and catches Dolores as his brother scrambles to catch the weapon.

“I can keep doing this all day.” Luther tells him, sounding almost pleased with himself. As if he didn’t just almost toss the only thing keeping Five’s fragile sanity in tact out the window.

He cradles Dolores against his chest. His hands are still shaking, and there’s a part of his soul whimpering and wounded and betrayed. Luther has the gun, but Five knows that doesn’t matter. Five has been honed into a weapon all his life, regardless of if he has a gun in his hands or not.

He doesn’t need it. Throwing it away was an empty gesture, really. He could still hunt down the people from his probability map and take care of them, could try desperately one more time to save the world. Save his family. Save even his brother who stood against him.

But then his brother says kind words, tells Five that somehow after everything, after carving out every good thing inside of him and sacrificing it to uncaring gods, he’s still a good person. Five wants to deny it, wants to scream, wants to show Luther the blood dripping from his hands and demand to know how it could ever be washed off.

His mind is still moving at a million miles an hour, and even though the math said that killing this Milton was his best chance it wasn’t the only chance. And if this chance failed - at least his siblings were forewarned.

“There is one way.” Five says softly, “But it’s just about impossible.”

“More impossible than what brought you back here?” Luther asks, and it’s supposed to be rallying but Five worked for forty-five years to pull off that particular miracle. He wonders if Luther knows just how much of a chance there was of Five pulling himself apart atom by atom instead of making it through whole and healthy, if missing a chunk of years.

Five wonders if Luther knows exactly how dangerous his new plan is, walking right into the viper’s nest, he wonders if he would care. If Luther valued Five’s life just as much as he valued whatever strangers were written upon Five’s wall.

Five doesn’t take the gun back, when they leave.

(He also doesn’t tell Luther about the handgun he still has. He dislikes handguns the most, but he’ll use them when absolutely necessary. And no matter how much of a weapon he is, with or without a gun, meeting the Handler means he’ll need every edge he can put his hands on.)

The game is on.

 

__________

 

I.
Five holds a gun in his hands. He’s thirteen-years-old. He’s fifty-eight-years-old. He’s forgotten how old he is. Five holds a gun in his hands, and wishes he could be anywhere else.

Or maybe not. Unlike when he was a child, Five can certainly think of several places he would rather not be. He would take his bedroom in the manor over a dozen of other places he would rather not think about - a wasteland, a shopping center, a building out of time, a concert hall.

Five holds a gun in his hands, and wonders why he grabbed it. Why he slipped it under his pillow and pretended it didn’t exist, even as it sat there solid and real and heavy with the weight of Five’s sins.

He doesn’t need a plan b, anymore. Doesn’t need to worry about wasting away in a slow and agonizing death from sickness or starvation or dehydration. He doesn’t need this gun, even as his fingertips itch.

The silence is deafening, and there’s no Dolores to chase it away anymore. It makes his skin buzz uncomfortably, and he has to break it or risk doing something inadvisable.

“I don’t want to be a weapon.” Five whispers into dead air, surprising himself.

But now that he’s said it, it reverberates around in his skull on repeat. “I don’t want to be a weapon.” He repeats, louder and more firmly this time. “I want - ”

And the words get stuck in his throat so quickly he almost chokes on them. The words repeat in his mind, silent and mocking. I want, I want, I want.

What does he want? He wants to stop the apocalypse. He wants to save his siblings. He wants to go home. That’s it. That’s been it for forty-five years. His mission, his ultimate goal, the thing he sacrificed everything for. What could he want on top of that? What could possibly measure up? What should he do now?

“I want…” Five rolls the words over slowly in his mouth. Is that allowed? It feels a little like he’s doing something he isn’t supposed to be doing, but in the same way sneaking out to Griddy’s with his family felt. Like he might get in trouble but boy, it would be worth it.

If he’s not a weapon, what is he?

“I want - to be a person.” Five says out loud. It seems obvious, but it feels important, so he says it again. “I want to be a real person.”

It’s stupid, it’s so stupid, but tears gather in the corners of his eyes. Or maybe it isn’t stupid at all. From toy soldier to survivor to weapon, when had Five ever had the time to just be… Five? To make choices for himself?

“I want…” Five drags out the sound, thinking. Then he straightens up brightly, “A sandwich! A peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich!”

It’s so simple, but it feels so novel. The idea that he can just want something and… get it. He could go downstairs right now and make himself the sandwich that tastes like home if he wants to. If he wants to! He doesn’t have to, if he doesn’t want to.

“I don’t need you.” He tells the gun still in his hands. “I don’t need you, and I don’t want you.”

It’s somehow the easiest thing in the world to disassemble it in his hands as he walks to the window. It’s the easiest thing in the world to stand on the fire escape and toss it, piece by piece, into the dumpster with the wind in his hair and the sun on his skin. No rubble in sight, no ash in the air, no oversaturation.

“I want a sandwich.” He says aloud to no one, a small smile tugging at his lips.

It’s frightening, it’s strange, it’s unfamiliar. The unknown is scary, and Five has spent so long being molded by people or circumstances that he isn’t sure who he is without all that weight and baggage. He isn’t sure who he is if he’s a person and not a weapon, but one thing is for sure.

That person wants a sandwich.