Disclaimer: This fic's characters and content sure as hell don't belong to me. They belong to Wildbow, and the story for which they belong to can be found by googling 'Parahumans' and then spending the best week (or month) of your life reading.
Author's Note: I've been writing in third person omniscient for all of my life so moving to first is a bit of a change. I'm gonna try it though. Let me know if I get any characters terribly wrong. Hope I wont.
Chapter One: To Begin Again
That pretty much summed up my thoughts as I took slow steps towards the campus spread out before me. Dad was parked in the parking lot, waving at my. He was smiling, trying to hide tears as I walked away. I dutifully pretended that they weren't there when I turned to give him a final wave.
He returned it, happier than I'd seen him in a long time. Finally, he put the car in reverse and began to back out of the parking lot.
Steeling myself, I turned towards the building that would probably be my home for the next year at least.
Am I ready for this? Can I throw myself into this sort of world again?
I probably could. There was no Emma here. No Sophia. Hell it wasn't even remotely like high school. I had my own apartment, and I intended to pay my own rent alongside two roommates whom I had yet to meet. It was all so normal. Peaceful. How life was supposed to be. I could meet new people and hopefully they would accept me, despite my scars, the dimples from the bulletholes in my forehead. My prosthetic arm. I was still actually a little angry about that one. Sure, Cauldron could silence my Passenger but could they spare a healer to give me my arm back? Or if that was too much work, maybe get a Tinker to make me a fake one? Anything was better than this damn hook I had.
But I couldn't fault them for what they'd given me. Another chance. Another life. I'd be able to make friends like the ones I had with the Undersiders. Brian, Alec, Aisha… Lisa and Rachel. Those two most of all.
I still had trouble remembering the ones who weren't my anchors. My holds on sanity there at the end. Names came in and out, slipping from my still recovering mind. Acquaintances, and friends. None as important as those five though. Golem. Cuff. Defiant and Dragon. Their titles had been easier to remember than their names, except for the Undersiders. I'd spent over a year longer with them than I had with the Undersiders but it didn't matter. I remembered everything about that original group.
I loved them. Alexandria had commented on that I remember, and it had angered me and surprised me simultaneously at the time.
From teammates, to friends, to people you love.
Now they all thought I was dead. It was better that way though. Better everyone thought me to be dead and gone forever.
I turned my thoughts away from those sort of things. This world, Earth Dalet I supposed I'd call it, didn't even have anything like Endbringers. Or capes even. Ask them about Leviathan and all but the nerdiest of geeks would blink at you, confused.
Oh yeah, wasn't that one of the big things that fought…S-Scion?
They would accompany that with a shudder and a whisper, as if saying his name might bring him back. Even if the people of this world didn't know the Endbringers, they knew Scion. Knew him to their bones.
I hoped and prayed they would never know such adversity like the Endbringers. Never have to toe that line between allowing criminals free in the hopes that they could help against attacks from beings far too powerful to exist. Perhaps a bit selfishly, I hoped that Khepri would always draw those blank stares. That name too, had stuck with me. My name. The name of the Endbringer I had almost been.
I stepped into the apartment building and headed to the third floor with my hopes high. My things, few as they were, had all been moved in already except for the laptop in the bag across my shoulder. Classes started in two days and I'd now thoroughly explored the campus with my dad.
I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret thinking about him sending me off like this. He'd lost me for almost two whole years while I'd been with the Wards and vid-calls over the internet just weren't the same. He only lived a half hour away though. Either of us could visit any time, and I had a feeling I'd be taking the bus home every weekend for the first few weeks.
Maybe, after everything, relearning how to speak, living with my dad for another year, I'd regressed a little. I wasn't ashamed. I missed my Dad already.
"Oh, hey, are you the girl in room C?" Asked a peppy red-head hovering around the communal kitchen. Abruptly, a heavenly scent of dirt cheap macaroni seized me, and I noticed that the stove was on, steam billowing from a metal pot on it. So, the girl liked to cook?
"Yeah. I'm Taylor Hebert. Nice to meet you," I offered nervously.
"Chloe Leeds. Want some macaroni? I just got moved into B, and I'm starving!" Said the girl as she held up a knife that was way too large for the task she was using it for. Slicing hot dogs.
I smiled a little, taking extra care to make sure my sleeve covered my metal arm. "Sure, if it isn't any trouble."
The girl turned to me again. Honestly she seemed pretty nice. She had shoulder length hair that fell straight as an arrow. She was pale with clear skin and light blue eyes. Shorter even than me, but far more beautiful, I knew. She wore a striped purple and green longsleeved shirt, and a pair of sweatpants with the college's team logo printed all over them. A knight's helmet.
"Nah, no trouble. I hoped you'd be back soon. Saw your stuff, but none of it was in the kitchen. Hope you don't mind me loading up the fridge and cabinets?" She phrased the sentence as a question but turned back to her macaroni.
"No! Er.. uha.. I mean no problem. I'm not much of a cook anyway," I said dumbly.
"Hah. Me neither. Anyway, feel free to grab anything that doesn't have a label on it. Have you met Sophia yet?"
I scowled at the name, irritated. Of course one of my roommates would be named Sophia. Not that I really cared anymore, but it would definitely sour my day if the girl's personality resembled Shadow Stalker's in any way. "Sophia? Oh, the girl in A? No. Nobody was here before."
What an unpleasant coincidence this is.
"Oh, she seems pretty cool. She only stopped by to move a chair and a few bags in before she left. Don't think she unpacked anything either," Chloe said, never taking her eyes away from the pot.
"Hmm. She must've wanted to look around town I guess. Or maybe she's buying stuff at Walmart," I thought aloud.
Chloe gave a noncommittal shrug.
I wandered into the main living area, slipping my shoes off as I went. My feet sunk into the carpet and it felt great. Dad's house only had hardwood floors. I blinked at the enormous television and glass stand that had been erected in the corner. The communal living area had provided a couch but where had the television come from?
My new roommate apparently noticed my wide-eyed stare. I'd never owned a TV that big. "Oh hey yeah could you turn that on!? They're showing the Wardens Induction Ceremony in ten, and I missed the live one. Its already hooked up so it should work. Channel… damn. Thirteen I think? Its different here than it was back home."
"Wardens?" I asked.
"Oh wow, you been living under a rock?" She replied skeptically. "You know? Wardens! The new superhero team up in New York! Ever since S-Scion," the girl stuttered momentarily. "People have been getting powers! Anyway, they're taking after that other Earth and forming a team, called the Wardens to police the villains that keep popping up. They're starting a team in all the major cities! God I wish I could have superpowers! Wouldn't that be sweet?"
I couldn't exactly say I was surprised. The same thing had happened in Earth Aleph. But I didn't think letting her know I was a refugee from Earth Bet would be a very good way to start off our friendship, not to mention my thoughts on just how wrong having powers could go. So I just nodded, wandered over to the flatscreen, and pressed power.
I was immediately inundated with a Teletubbies sing-a-long. Jeez did they still play that crap? I changed the channel quickly, hiding a little embarrassment that I had no reason to feel, until I reached one that looked like a news broadcast.
"-elcome for a few of the Heroes that will be making up New York's own Wardens!"
Applause burst from the crowd gathered below a large dias that held a group of eleven Capes I didn't recognize. Probably the new team. So, Earth Dalet had been having trigger events. I can't believe I had missed that until now. Living alone with my dad, working part time at shoe store while my dad managed a construction company, we didn't get much time for anything else.
I slunk back to the couch and draped myself over the side lazily. We'd moved a lot of crap today and I was beat. That macaroni smelled damn good.
For a while I watched the show in silence. They introduced the new heroes, giving a bit of information on what each one could do. There were seven Wardens and four Wards.
One or two of them, probably the ones that had already been caught on camera, gave a demonstration of their powers. Bastion, a tall man with a body-builder's physique, and a purple and white costume, was a classic forcefield maker. His power seemed reminiscent of Narwhal's except I was certain he couldn't exceed the Manton effect. On the other hand Tyco, a Tinker clearly, had somehow managed to come off as both playful and awesome, as he showed off his vehicles that looked like something straight out of a small boy's fantasy. I was hesitant to call them cars. Land vehicles fixed with giant jet engines lit with blue flames or pulsing wit purple electricity that he assured the audience was 'perfectly safe.'
It seemed he was more equipped to outfit the police force than actually do any field work. Still, even I wanted one of those shiny cars, and I didn't care much about them.
"Seems unreal doesn't it?" Chloe asked, and I jumped. Luckily, she was either too kind to make fun of me or didn't notice as she proffered a plate of macaroni with sliced hot dogs mixed in.
"Thanks!" I said brightly. Careful to grab the plate lightly with my left hand, I set it down on the end table to my right, while Chloe sat down with her own plate to watch with me.
"So, who's your favorite? Mine's Clinic. I mean, wouldn't it be awesome to be able to heal anyone who's in the same room as you?" Chloe was clearly enthusiastic about the whole thing.
My thoughts lingered on Panacea. Healing. It sounded like such a wonderful gift to be able to give people. But I couldn't forget how cold the New Wave girl had become. How calloused she was to healing people.
"Not… as amazing as you think," I said, off handedly.
She gave me a curious look and I cringed. That had sounded a little bit too much like first hand experience.
"I mean… wouldn't you get tired of people begging to be healed all the time? After a while, I think you might become numb to it," I said, trying to make the comment sound offhanded.
"I hope not," the redhead replied between a spoonful of noodles. "I'm hoping to be a doctor someday! So I'd like to think I'll always be willing to help people who need it."
She really did seem like a genuinely nice person. And a doctor? Wow. It must be nice to know exactly what you want right from the start. All I wanted to find here was a way to get beyond my past. But she had presented a good opportunity for me to be a little open about myself. I'd have to tell them sooner or later so I figured, best bite the bullet now. I was having serious trouble left handing the macaroni while pretending that it wasn't a problem anyway.
"Well if you ever get healing powers, I'm first in line," I said. "I uhm… well."
I slid off my jacket and pulled off the glove, revealing my arm.
"Oh… oh wow. Holy fuck, how did that happen? I'm sorry..."
"My arm. A… Well. I lost it during one of Scion's attacks." A lie, sort of. Scion had been attacking but he hadn't been the cause of this.
"I just wanted to let you know so, you know. It doesn't surprise you in the future. I know its kind of...weird." I finished lamely.
"Oh, no its not weird. I've known a few people with prosthetics. I'm just… ah, do you need help or anything?" She asked, clearly feeling nervous. Her eyes kept lingering on my hand and the fake, immobile plastic fingers.
I grinned back at her. "I'm crippled, not helpless! Just still getting used to using my left arm for everything," I claimed brightly as I picked up the plate with my left hand and balanced it with my right. I headed over to the kitchen table. It would be a hell of a lot easier to not make a mess of myself there and I could still see the TV.
"Thanks by the way. Some people get really uncomfortable when they find out." I said off-handedly, fixing my eyes not on her, but on the television again.
The girl jumped, jerking her eyes away from my prosthetic as if I'd caught her staring. Which I had. She'd clearly been uncomfortable. Fortunately, I'd learned that little trick a few months ago and it tended to work pretty well. Thank someone for 'not' making a big deal out of it, and they'd inevitably go out of their way to avoid being uncomfortable around it, hoping you didn't catch on. So far the trick had a pretty good success rate.
Aaaand, I'm a manipulative bitch.
"Well hell yeah! If I ever get powers you'll be first on my list! But… honestly have you ever thought about going to New York and seeing Clinic? She might even be able to heal that for you." Chloe asked, genuinely curious.
I shrugged noncommittally. "I'd never heard of her till you brought her up. Let me guess, the girl with the red cross on her costume right?" I asked pointing out the tall blonde haired woman on the television.
Sudden panic seized me as I got a closer look at the woman. Bonesaw. Even with the mask and a difference of nearly a decade in age, I recognized her. The blonde curls on a cute face were as damning as a picture of the whole Slaughterhouse Nine. Clinic was this world's Bonesaw. A kinder one, whose powers were apparently different. This girl, woman really as she was probably my age or maybe as much as five years older, hadn't been twisted by Jack in her youth. Her abilities hadn't been paired with horror. After all people in 'this' world had only started triggering after Scion's attack.
Rationality set in. This world was much like Aleph. Most people born after capes had started appearing in Earth Bet had not been born in Aleph, and the same was true here. There were rare exceptions but they were unlikely. That, and Bonesaw was far too young to be this woman.
That rational did little to set my heart at ease. The blonde curls had been such a staple in my world that the hairstyle had had gone entirely out of practice for an entire generation of children fearful of mimicking the figurehead of the Slaughterhouse Nine.
"That's the one. Maybe it'd be a good idea Taylor?" I barely heard her as I fought to recapture my breath. I hope she considered it just a pause as if considering the offer. No way. I wasn't going within a hundred miles of the Protectorate if I could help it. Wardens. Whatever they were calling themselves. Sure maybe these capes were new and it wasn't likely any of them would recognize "Skitter" but I didn't want to take any chances.
"Maybe someday, if I'm ever up near New York again," I said with the most non-committal shrug I could manage. As if I didn't really take the powers seriously. I was supposed to have never heard of Wardens before after all.
A sound of keys suddenly alerted me to the presence of a newcomer at the door. The door opened to reveal a girl who looked thankfully nothing like Shadow Stalker's civilian form. Shorter than me as well, the girl's hair deep brown hair was tied into a cacophony of curls and pinned up to frame a slightly pudgy face. She too was thin and pretty but not beautiful in the way I might describe Chloe. Her clothes left little to the imagination though and a swirling tattoo of some sort cascaded down her left arm.
I instantly didn't like her, and felt a little guilty about it. From her appearance she seemed like a party girl. The one who'd get drunk and wake up not remembering the last night. But I'd give her a chance. Maybe she wasn't so bad. Hell she couldn't possibly be harder to get along with than Bitch.
"Hey Chloe. What's your name, skinny?" She asked simply looking down at me on the couch.
I bristled. I wasn't that skinny. I'd filled out at least a little since high school and my days as Skitter.
"Taylor Hebert." I clipped. "Are you Sophia?"
She nodded, talking as she stepped around the couch, heading for the recliner when she spotted the elephant in the room.. "Mmm, Sophia Fehrenbacher. I- Holy shitballs, your arm is gone!"
I laughed before I could stop myself. It was by far the best reaction anyone had ever had to seeing my prosthetic. My opinion of the girl made an almost instantaneous flip. Her expression was so honestly surprised that I couldn't hold it back.
"Daamn, you've gotta tell me the story behind that sometime. Doesn't hurt still does it?" She asked, her curiosity overriding any chance that she might hold back out of sympathy.
She had no pity for me whatsoever, and honestly, I thought the girl might've found the whole thing cool. A fair sight different from the almost constant sympathy I received from most people, and a refreshing one at that.
"Nah, no pain, though that feeling of ghost limb that you hear about is definitely real. Honestly its not that bad. Hey, if I'm lucky maybe a Tinker will trigger who can make really awesome prosthetics!" I joked, hopefully.
"What's a Tinker?" Sophia added at the same time as, Chloe murmured, "Or you could just have Clinic heal you…"
"Yeaaahhh, but then I wouldn't have awesome battlescars!" I turned to Chloe with false excitement hoping Sophia would ignore my slip. Of course this world didn't have categories yet. Dammit. I should've known that.
Sophia joined me, thankfully forgetting about my slipup. "Fuck yeah!"
"Hey, I thought you said you didn't know anything about heroes. How do you know about triggers?" Chloe asked, her eyes narrowed at me.
Damn damn damn! Divert! Distract! Raise a wall of bugs!
I didn't miss a beat. "I didn't know about the Wardens," I emphasized. "Triggers… those I know something about."
"Wait, so you know a hero?"
I faltered. "I… know a person with powers," I said evasively. "I don't really want to talk about her."
Me. I don't really want to talk about me.
"A villain then." Sophia said, disregarding me entirely.
I glared at her, and she flinched. I shouldn't have brought this up at all. It hit entirely too close to home. What was I? I spent two years being a hero, saving people. PG and shit. That was after four of the most intense months of my life. Two years building back a reputation as a hero, covering the dirt I'd filled my life with before. Everything I'd done I thought had the right reasons.
Then I'd ruined it all. I'd been willing to enslave every cape I could find. An army five thousand strong, all held under my unwavering leash. Regent was probably rolling in his grave. I'd been willing to do that because as far as I could see it had been the only option…
...What kind of person sees enslavement as the only way? If only I'd been smarter, faster, better maybe I could've found that better way.
"I said I don't want to talk about it." I barked, my tone involuntarily turning sour. I feared it might've been reflected in my bugs with the way the two girls gulped. But no. I couldn't feel them anymore. My passenger was dormant.
"Jeez, no need to bite us," Sophia chided. She was nervous. A little afraid maybe? Was I that intimidating? Abruptly I realized that I'd locked eye contact with the girl and hadn't dropped it since the moment she'd spoken. Damn, now I felt like a giant jerk. They were just curious. I almost wanted to call them innocent but I wasn't stupid enough to label anyone with that anymore. Panacea had seemed innocent to me once. Look how that turned out.
Still, a little politeness never hurt anyone. I had baggage. No harm in them knowing I had trigger topics that they should probably avoid.
"Sorry. I just… that question hits a little close to home." I apologized.
Weakness. Do you want to be walked all over? You're angry. They should shut their mouths, and you'll make them if you don't want it to go like last time. Image and intimidation! Don't you remember how good it felt, that cloak of invulnerability you wore?! You don't deser–!
I cut off that line of thought before it could go any further. The monster inside. That part of me that hadn't felt shame or guilt but pride. Pride at tearing out Lung's eyes. Pride at pulling the trigger on Coil. Pride at my plan to bring down the Behemoth. Pride… at enslaving an entire army. My monster had only grown with the years, and whatever it was Panacea had done to me hadn't softened it. Not one bit.
Dammit, I'm not like that. I'm not a monster. Not an Endbringer. I didn't feel pride then… It was always for the right reasons.
We fell into a sort of awkward silence the three of us. Finally though, Chloe broke it. The girl clearly hated silence. "Well, we won't ask again then. I'm sorry too, for what its worth. Didn't mean to pry."
Sophia nodded as well. Shit, I actually had scared her. Dammit all. This is not how I intended to make friends. I gave them a shy smile, and they seemed to accept it with their own. I took another bite of macaroni. It really was excellent. Perfect college experience already.
"Oh look, they're introducing the other Wardens!" Chloe's excitement changed the entire demeanor of the room. Sophia, too, looked interested in the people on stage, and I had to admit I was a little excited myself. These people weren't Cauldron. Maybe they really were heroes...
...Like I'd wanted to be. So very long ago.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is Rhapsody," The television spoke, introducing one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. She reminded me of Canary in look, but her eyes had the hard passion of Alexandria. The woman stood and gave a short bow that mocked the audience more than showing any sign of respect. They were hiding her power but it was easy enough to guess… I could… see it. She could sing, another similarity to Canary. But instead of control or inspiration, her song only brought sleep. I had no doubt that some who'd fallen under her lullaby would never wake again.
I lurched, shaking my head in denial. No. No... Goosebumps rose on my arms and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing. But it couldn't be... couldn't have been! There was no way I could know a cape's powers by looking! That would mean... I was still...
The name haunted my dreams as much as my waking hours. Contessa had only told me it once but it dominated my mind. The name had been picked for me by the world, and I'd been exiled for it. A name chosen for the fear I inspired.
"...think she can do?" Sophia asked my other roommate. She sat down on the armchair, another piece of furniture the apartment had come with, and took up a lively discussion about the show with Chloe.
I glanced back at the television. Gone were the impressions of the singer's possible power. Gone were the dark implications hidden behind a voice that could sing the world to sleep if only it had a loud enough speaker. Gone.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was all in my head. Just my imagination.
"Probably sing I guess." Chloe replied blandly. "Not a very cool power if you ask me."
Why was I so worried about this? I couldn't feel even the slightest trace of a bug. It didn't matter what I'd done because everyone was alive, and I couldn't do it again. The ends justified the means. I'd saved everyone. Finally forced them to work on the same page.
So why was my decision eating away at me?
And why now? Why was this only starting to bug me now after I've been here for almost a year?
Maybe it was just the nervous jitters from moving away from my dad. Parahuman nervous jitters. Much more intense than civilian ones.
I stood and took the plastic plate over to the sink and rinsed it off before leaving it there along with my fork. The other two girls were engrossed in their conversation, and I was content to stay out of it. Maybe not the best social decision ever but I didn't want to go down the road with capes.
"Well nice to meet you guys. I've been walking all day around campus though so I think I'm gonna take a shower and turn in." I told them as I hovered outside my door.
"At seven?" Chloe asked skeptically.
"Yep. I like to get up early and run in the mornings. Especially while its still warm out."
Sophia shook her head, miming a sort of fake pity. "Euughh. A morning person." I think I'd captured villains in the past with less disdain. I grinned at her.
"Euughh. A night owl…" I mimicked her disgusted tone as best I could. She laughed and threw a throw pillow at me.
Maybe I really could make friends. I'd done it before after all.
It had been over a year since I'd seen or heard any of them. I wondered how they were doing? What they thought of me now, after everything. Tattletale. Bitch. Imp. Grue. Even Regent, now gone but not forgotten. I missed them so much sometimes.
I wandered into my room shaking my head, and turned on the nozzle to the shower in my private bathroom. Meeting new people. Making new friends... it almost felt like a sort of betrayal. The Undersiders had dug me out of the worst pit I'd ever been in. Well my new pit was just as bad, but all the demons terrorizing me were in my head.
Maybe these new friends could save me, just like my old ones had.
"Maybe…" I whispered.