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After the End of It All

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She still dreams about when she was Khepri. She dreams of all the people she'd once controlled, and sometimes, in the worst of her nightmares, she's one of the puppets. Screaming out, unable to speak, as she's thrown forwards into the fight.

She sees Scion unleashing his power upon the worlds. She sees the faces of the people she's failed to save, and the people she's condemned to death. And then she wakes up, her throat dry, and something desperate and broken peaking out from behind her eyes. To think: she had once saved countless worlds from a mad god, and now she can't even handle her own dreams.

She could still remember that final conversation with Contessa and the feeling of the bullet passing through her brain. She could still remember that moment when she slowly lost consciousness, and for just one brief instant, she felt as if the weight of a universe had been taken off her shoulders. No more compromises, no more doubt. No more guilt or pain or terror. Her mission had ended, and at last she could rest. For just one moment, Taylor Hebert believed she may have been happy for the first time in years.

And then she awakened. In a hospital bed, her head wrapped in bandages, accompanied by the steady hum of the machines, and it all came back to her. She could see the doctors making their approach, and all she could think, at first, was of Khepri's last memories: all those parahumans advancing upon her, angry and scared and threatening. She retreated inwards, her breath catching and her eyes stretched open. She reached for her power, even as somewhere inside of herself she was screaming at herself not to, not again, but she reached for it nonetheless, tried to take them over, send them away, but it had no effect. Her power was gone.

“She's awake,” one of them said.

“Reaction shows sign of trauma,” said another. He held a clipboard in his hand. “Condition is stable. Miraculous really, considering the placement of the bullet. A millimeter in either direction would have meant hemorrhaging.”

“Are there any records of her in the system? Medical insurance, driver's license, Social Security?” asked the second.

“No. This one's a complete Jane Doe.”

“You think she's one of them?” asked a third.

There was a pause, before the first Doctor looked Taylor in the eye, “So. I don't suppose you have a name, do you?”

She froze, as she locked eyes with each of the strangers, trying to figure out their intentions. What they might do if they were to ever learn what she was. Where she had come from and all she had seen and done.

She never answered.

 

***

 

She's twenty four now, but sometimes she feels so much older. She's missing a hand (she amputated it herself) and she's lived with the old aches and pains for so long that they seem to be a part of her. When it rains or when the weather gets cold, it seems a miracle that she can get out of bed sometimes. Only twenty four, and most her age have only just gotten out of college. So young and full of life, all their futures still ahead of them, and then there is Taylor, who still struggles so much with the past.

She still wonders sometimes how she's managed to make it as long as she has. Twenty four years old. She can still remember all those close calls. Lung. Bakuda. Jack Slash and the Slaughterhouse Nine. The Endbringers and Scion and the Golden Morning, and so many others along the way. She sometimes wonders how she's still still breathing. It seems like a miracle. One she'd never asked for and certainly didn't deserve.

Contessa had asked her once if she had any regrets. At the time, she wasn't entirely sure about that account. She'd done the best she could, and saved all of humanity. She didn't doubt the necessity of her actions in the end. The necessity of Khepri. And yet...

So many nights she's had those same nightmares, and with each passing morning, her doubts continue to gnaw at her. Was Khepri necessary? Could there have been another way? She thinks of all the people she stole, threw at the Golden Idol, into an inferno of devastation. Some of them had families. Lives of their own. And she took that from them. Sacrificed to necessity, perhaps, but still. It had been six years since she was Khepri, since she'd regained her sanity, and sometimes she keeps herself locked in her room with the lights out, searching back into the recesses of her memory.

She remembers the smiling girl with pig tails, the smiling girl who idolized heroes and loved her books and would never have contemplated taking one life, let alone thousands, and she wonders what that girl would think, to know the monster she'd one day become.

 

***

 

At first she'd been alone. Only recently recovered from her wounds, she had been discharged into the world. No identification; no papers. Just another refugee from the Golden Morning, consigned to a cramped dingy apartment with a colony of roaches (not that she minded the company) and two other girls who were more or less of a similar age. Civilians who had fled when the world ended.

She went by Sarah.

The three of them worked long hours in dead end jobs to make rent. It was a dull and dreary tedium, but, after all she had seen and been through since she first became a Cape, there was something freeing about it as well. She was invisible. Unimportant. Normal. And the world kept on spinning.

And then Dad came. He never explained how he found her, though she had her suspicions (she knew from personal experience what Contessa was capable of) and just like that, she was no longer alone in the world. There was someone who knew, who remembered, and saw what she was and what she suffered and what she'd given up.

She left the apartment and moved in with her dad and, for the first time, perhaps, she thought, they'd be a family again.

She may have been wrong.

Certainly, her father still cared about her. She could see it in the way he looked at her, sometimes, but there was the shadow of something in his eyes. When he thought she wasn't looking, she sometimes saw him drinking far past his limit, and she'd help take him to his bedroom, and she'd listen to him, as he laid himself bare.

“I just turned around one day,” he might have stammered one day, slurring over his speech. “And you were different. Grown up without me. Become a stranger.”

“You never asked for help,” he might have said on another. “Though I would've, you know? Maybe you didn't. Hell, I know I was never a right Dad to you. Terrified of screwing things up, and now look at us? Could've died so many times, and I never even bothered to ask. Too afraid to know, even if part of me suspected.”

“It wasn't your fault,” she might have said once or twice. More often than not, she'd merely keep her silence, help him to his room, and tuck him into bed. She'd keep his head turned aside, and let him sleep until sober.

 

***

 

Over the years, more and more refugees came from a broken world, and they spread rumors of Gold Morning, and of Scion and that world of heroes and villains and a festering apocalypse. Internet forums and messageboards explode with rumors, with first hand accounts and with so many, many references. The stories contradicted. Sometimes the heroes of one will be the villains of another, and the accounts are rife with speculation, and the occasional bit of fear mongering. Over time, the name Khepri comes into prominence. It's almost as powerful a bogieman as Scion now, and one of the greatest mysteries of them all. Who was it? What was its purpose? Why did it do what it did, and why did it disappear just as suddenly as it arrived?

Was it still out there?

By the time she turned twenty, Taylor was refusing to go anywhere near those forums.

 

***

 

In her own world, Annette Hebert died in a car accident. In this one, the woman lived. So Taylor went. Perhaps she wanted one more connection with her old life. Perhaps she hoped this Annette could replace the one she had lost. Maybe she just wanted some semblance of a family again, or maybe she just needed someone who could listen. A chance to come clean, if only with just one person.

Maybe she wasn't thinking anything at all.

Even years later, she still cannot say for sure why she did what she did. But she's never regretted the decision.

 

***

 

Twenty four years old, Taylor looks at a photo album (one of the few relics her dad brought with him from Earth Bet – one of the only keepsakes she knows), a sad smile on her face. She pages through her childhood photos, and of pictures of her mom and her dad, when they were just newlyweds. Back before she was born.

She never did get back what they had. Her relationship with her dad has frayed from those years of secrecy. The specter of Skitter and of Weaver continues to hang over the both of them, and though he's tried his best to be there for her, to give her that sense of normalcy (of homeostasis) that she had lost so long ago, those old scars never quite go away.

He still blames himself and she still blames herself and they both spend so much of their times lost in the past. Neither know quite how to move forwards.

But they stumble along, to that future uncertain.

 

***

 

Once a month, Taylor visits with this world's Annette. She started when she was eighteen (almost nineteen), and so many years later, they've still managed to keep in touch. This Annette has a family of her own, two sons and an ex-husband and a life all her own. She's not a college professor in this world (though when she was younger, she considered pursuing a Masters Degree in English). She's a lawyer – even made Junior Partner after her second kid was born.

She's not the mother Taylor knew. She's still kind enough, she still keeps an open ear when Taylor speaks of her problems. She possesses that same fervent love of books, and she can still spend hours lecturing Taylor on the logic games of Alice in Wonderland, or the philosophical underpinnings of Kurt Vonnegut. And sometimes Taylor lets her, because, just for those moments, she can pretend she has her mother back. More often she doesn't.

Like clockwork, they meet, and they talk about their lives and frustrations and careers. They talk about books and childhood memories and their favorite television shows, and if the specter of Earth Bet remains the elephant in the room, each is determined not to mention it. They talk about relationships – whether Taylor might be seeing anyone, making new friends, building a life for herself in this world and, even after so many years have passed, Taylor's still not entirely certain about how far she's progressed, and whether she'll ever be able to leave her past behind. Still, she has her mother back, or at least someone who wears her face and shares her mannerisms, and sometimes that feels like enough.

 

***

 

Taylor got a job almost as soon as she was discharged from the hospital. She started out in a supermarket, cleaning the aisles and manning the checkout lines, working the mornings and afternoons, five days a week. The hours were long and seemed to stretch on an eternity, and the customers – well, the customers could be a pain in the ass sometimes, but she handled it, with the same assurance she'd handled every other curve ball that life threw her way.

She shared an apartment with Alicia and Jemma, two other refugees from Earth Bet. They spent long hours at night consoling one another over nightmares about a golden man (Jemma's were particularly bad. She was English after all, and lost her entire family when Scion snapped) and endbringers and supervillains, and they spent much of their time in shared reminiscence. There were good days, when they'd watch superhero movies, with store bought buttered popcorn and a huge bottle of pepsi, and they'd spend the hours nitpicking every tiny detail the films got wrong. And then there were the bad days, when Alicia or Jemma would break out in tears or stare stubbornly into space, directing their thoughts back to those who never made it out of the wreckage, and the lives they could never get back.

For three months, that was her life. And then Dad managed to track her down and, just like that, she had a family again. And things changed once more.

 

***

 

She was twenty when she found the forms lying on the table. College Applications, and even years after the fact, she could still remember looking at them, with no idea what to do. She could still remember when her father came into the room, looking younger than he had in years, with a bounce in his step she thought he had lost years before.

“You have your whole life in front of you,” he said. “There's no need to keep living on the edge like this.”

Some part of Taylor wanted to object, wanted to throw the forms back in his face. She'd spent two and a half years as a superhero and a supervillain, struggling to hold off the apocalypse, and she'd spent the months that followed holding down minimum wage, struggling to earn enough to keep a shelter over her head. She was still struggling to find herself, to get over the nightmares and feel human again, but college...

“This is big,” she said, not sure how to express her reservations.

He nodded. “It will be good for you.”

In the end, she agreed. She'd hurt him enough over the past few years and if spending four years earning a Bachelor's Degree could in the least bit make up for all that she had done, than she would go through with it. Grit her teeth and endure, just like everything else.

 

***

 

Word got out within a matter of weeks that there was an Earth Bet refugee on campus. It was annoying, and she tried her best to ignore the speculation.

She was invited to parties and sororities she'd never attend, and she pointedly ignored the whispers that seemed to trail her everywhere. She went to class, studied, aced her exams. She roomed with a girl two years her junior, and just looking at her, with her bright colors and stuffed animals, left Taylor feeling worn down and ancient.

Still, life went on, and she made a few friends despite herself. Quiet loner types who spent their days in the library, studying and reading, with little care for the rumor mill or the mysteries of Earth-Bet. The days passed in quick succession, and she lost herself in schoolwork and lectures and the ever present grind. It only took her two years, and she was already set to graduate.

Her Dad came. Life went on.

 

***

 

Sometimes she thinks back to the people she knew, the people she fought with, back in Earth Bet. She thinks about Lisa with her ever-present smirks, of Alec and Rachel and Aisha and Brian. She wonders what they'd say to see her now. Once she had been so determined, so driven, continually steamrolling from one goal to the next, dragging them behind her every step of the way. She'd think about Theo and Glenn and Dinah, and sometimes she'd even think about her enemies: Alexandria and Coil and Jack Slash. It's funny, she reckons. It's only been a matter of years, and yet it feels like an eternity. Sometimes she finds she misses it, and other times, really thinking back about those hellish days of terror and desperation and pain and agony, she asks herself why.

She's still curious about whether Contessa keeps an eye on her. She wonders what the older woman might say about the person she's become.

But she's moved forwards, as best she can. She's got her father and she's got Annette. She still keeps in contact with Jemma and Alicia, with whom she shares more in common than just about anyone else her age. She calls them frequently, finds that they eventually managed to go to school as well (Alicia's trying to become a Nurse) and are still employed and still living together. Every month they invite her back into their lives (they've continued to keep an extra room open, just in case) and, eventually, after spinning her wheels half a year, she accepts.

She tells her Dad she's moving back in with friends, that she'll still call every weekend, and he smiles at her. Says he's glad to see her moving on with her life. She flies out the following day, and her fellow refugees meet her at the airport and show her a new apartment (this one far nicer and far less roach infested than the first.)

 

***

 

Alicia's going for her nursing degree and Jemma's going to law school. Every night, they still have nightmares, and sometimes they wake up with the same vacant expression that Taylor sees in the mirror some mornings, when the dreams have been particularly intense. Still, they go to therapy (they try to get Taylor to get help as well but Taylor refuses. She intends to take her secrets to the grave) and they get on with their lives as best they can. And watching them do their best to put their pasts behind them and move forwards, it awakens something that's been long dormant.

Taylor remembers her mother – her real mother – and her love of literature and books, and long discussions on Wonderland and Narnia and Middle-Earth. There's a small impromptu party when Taylor announces that she's going back to school, going for a Masters in Literature. Taylor smiles all the way through it.

 

***

 

And so life goes on. Her past as a Cape, as a hero and villain and martyr all in one, are long past. She's no longer Skitter or Weaver of Khepri. She no longer fights in life or death struggles, but at the same time, traces of that remain.

She was mugged once, walking home from class. A ruffian with a knife tried to stick her up, and she ended up breaking his arm, leaving him face down and bleeding on the pavement.

She's been told that she's standoffish. Intimidating. That she has the air of a war veteran, and she's been asked a few times whether she might have been shipped overseas. Whether that's where she lost the arm.

Sometimes she says yes – tells another lie, but it's an easier one to handle than the truth. Sometimes she says nothing at all, and continues to go on with her day.

She has her good days and bad days, as do Jemma and Alicia and the few other survivors of Earth Bet her roommates have introduced her to over the years. Alicia's very much into networking, she gradually comes to notice, but Taylor doesn't really mind. It's nice to find people who know, if even just a little bit.

She still goes by the false name however.

 

***

 

She's twenty four years old, and she knows something inside of her is broken. Normal people don't go by a pseudonym, and normal people don't suffer the nightmares she has. Normal people don't startle at strangers who look vaguely like people they once knew, and wonder for one brief moment if they'd found her, and come for retribution.

But still, she's come a long way since she was eighteen, recovering from a bullet wound in her head. She's made a family again (a dysfunctional one but a family all the same) and she's made friends. She's gone back to school, with hopes of gaining a Masters. Perhaps one day she'll get a job teaching at a university. Like her mom.

There's a boy in her cohort. Jason. Two years older than she is. Good looking. Kind. Has a real passion for Shakespeare. They've gone out for coffee a few times, and he's even sent the occasional sonnet her way. Jemma and Alicia think he's sweet, that she should just go for it (because what's the worst that can happen?) He's certainly nothing like Brian – there's not that darkness in him, and he's genuine and decent in a way she hasn't been in a long, long time. Sometimes she wonders whether he's too good for someone as broken as her. Sometimes she's convinced such a relationship could only end in heartache. Still, she may have many flaws (to put it mildly), but cowardice has never been one of them.

She thinks perhaps it's time she took the next step. It's been so long since she had anyone like that, and she thinks that maybe they could build something together. Or maybe they'll just collapse like a house of cards. But at least they could try. And who knows? Maybe being with someone kind, someone without all the scars, might help her come into grips with her own extensive baggage.

She's twenty four years old, with a history filled with trauma and terror, but the future stretches endlessly before her.

Slowly but surely, Taylor Hebert recovers, and begins to find herself once more.