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Roots

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He still remembered.

Growing up had been a lesson. The Husk had a mother and father who were loving, so much so that even now he wondered how they were, all the way in London. The Husk had gotten its empathy from them, and its vision from its studies.

Back then, it was simple. Its life had followed the path he had prayed for, and meeting her had been the second happiest day of its life. The way she smiled, the way she laughed, and danced, and sang. Together, they had created the most important thing in the world.

Even when it triggered, she was there. A need to escape, so powerful and long lasting it was almost broken. Almost.

But she had been there. And its powers had become the key to saving the world. Tirelessly it worked, day after day to become a legend. Fame and money had never mattered. It just wanted to do something more. To save people.

And it almost had.

He remembered wings, as white as snow, and a monster with the face of a woman. Sometimes, the face he remembered was one from its childhood. Sometimes, it was the face of one of the two corpses he left behind when he had ceased to be The Husk.

When he was reborn.

The smiling man wasn't a friend. Never had been. Was never going to be. But he was a tool. And he used him just as much as he was used in return.

Because the monster had taught him that the world couldn't be saved. That it shouldn't be.

But he remembered.

He remembered growing up on that small countryside, riding horses with a father and mother. Not his. Never his.

He remembered peers, parties, laughter. He remembered traveling the world. He remembered late nights and loving hugs, first pets and old movies, vacations and trips to the zoo. He remembered dropping a corpse off at school, and telling it how much he loved it.

As Mannequin hid in the branches of a tree, watching a blue van approach and ignoring the beast below him, he took a dull comfort in the fact that the memories weren't his. They belonged to The Husk. He was the monster.

Still, every day, he remembered. And sometimes he wondered if he'd ever let himself forget.


========================================

June 4th, 2011

The New River Gorge bridge was beautiful.

She didn’t really know how to explain it. As far as construction went, the only thing truly notable about it was its size, big enough for her to wonder if she’d ever be able to accomplish anything even close to it. Other than that, the brown rusted steel and sun-bleached concrete didn’t offer much inspiration to the creative mind, and depending on who you were you’d be forgiven for thinking it was unsightly.

But years of collecting postcards as a child had been successful in instilling within Evelyn a sense of wanderlust that a perfectly pleasant suburb had never been able to take away. She remembered the sleepless nights of creating messy collages in a small, fan-cooled room, with glue and tape caught in her hair, her bed, her floor. She remembered those warm cool autumn evenings, when she’d beg her parents to take her somewhere new. When, in return, they’d push her towards her grades and school. When she was afraid she wasn’t really being listened to at all.

It was embarrassing now, but she remembered talking to her postcards, giving them personalities and telling them of her wildest dreams and her deepest fears. The New River Gorge Bridge, ‘Gorgey’ when she was younger, was the first to listen to the pleas of a lonely child.

And here she was, standing on it. Evelyn was older, no longer enraptured by the wonder and curiosity of childhood, but 'Gorgey' always brought a smile to her face.

Despite the clear intent of Grafton to ruin the moment.

“Think I’ll survive if I jump?” Graf began, peering over the bridge and down into the rushing waters below. Dawn greeted them, the sun just barely peeking over the skyline as the sky ruled above them with a purple blue glow. The hour promised little in the way of traffic, and Evelyn had been planning to take her mind off the past week of dealing with the local, still growing but not quite finished PRT for Mathew’s release. Just to watch the sunrise.

However, considering the way Grafton was chewing on a piece of raw wolf meat, Evelyn could only be worried.

“Please, let’s not test it,” she quietly pleaded. “I’m not even sure your power is enough to...to save you, if you try.”

Grafton gave her an unimpressed look, her hair uncurled for once as she chewed on the wolf meat. “I was just kidding, Ev.”

“I know. It just wasn’t very funny to me.”

Grafton sighed, and threw the wolf meat over the bridge, watching it fall before disappearing beneath the rapids. “Okay. Sorry, kid.”

Evelyn allowed herself a smile. To say she and Grafton hadn’t gotten along when they had first met had been...an understatement. Evelyn had never found the use in being a rogue element in your own life. Stability had always, always, worked for her.

Mostly.

From what she knew of Grafton though, it had been the opposite. She had been a nomad ever since her twenties. Like Mathew, but for much, much longer. Evelyn still found herself surprised that Grafton had even bothered to stay with them.

It took time. But she felt like they understood each other now. It helped that in the end, they weren’t as different as she had initially thought.

“It’s okay,” she mumbled. “I think I’d just like to enjoy the sunrise for now.”

Grafton glanced over to the van parked by the end of the bridge, with both Russel and Cody having their own private conversation and sitting on top of its roof. Evelyn glanced over as well, offering a small wave that was returned by Russel.

Peace.

“I think I’m just stressed out,” Grafton continued. “Dealing with the PRT was a fucking chore. I don’t know how they didn’t recognize me.”

Evelyn recognized the unspoken apology in Grafton’s words, and allowed herself a smile. “It’s been fifteen years since you were a villain, Graf. ‘Beast’ disappeared all those years ago in Reno. You haven’t hurt anybody since then.”

Grafton didn’t answer for a moment, then shot Evelyn a wolfish smile. “Yeah. Because they were too scared to come after me. Who can blame them? I’m the best after all.”

“Oh, I believe you.”

“I know. Why wouldn’t you?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes, turning fully to Grafton. “You know, I wish I had as much confidence as you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything get to you.”

Grafton shrugged. “I’m old, sweetheart. If I wanted to pretend I was a meek little flower, I’d be having my mid-life crisis about now. Plus, I did all my crying and winging when I was younger.”

The sun still burned bright, and the purple of the sky began its slow shift to a dull blue. They both looked up at a passing flock of birds, and Grafton sighed. “I let go of Alice Brown because there was no use holding onto what she was. Vapid. Spoiled. Becoming ‘The Grafton Monster’ was the best thing I ever did.”

“I know.”

“...I don’t mean to go on about it. It’s all in the past. Just...corporate heroes. Bunch of assholes.”

Evelyn nodded. Grafton rarely spoke of her past, but Evelyn knew about Grafton’s parents, and their work in the PRT. Evelyn had always heard her speak about how glad she was that she left them behind.

Evelyn knew how that felt.

Growing up in a suburb had come with its perks. And its limitations. She had never wanted for money, and knew that the opportunities she had were miles away from what other people could even reach for.

The trouble was always there. Her parents had always described themselves as ‘old-fashioned,’ as if that excused how uncomfortable they had insisted on making her whenever her childhood friend Suzanne was around.

It was only when she got to high school that she realized that her parents weren’t who she thought they were, and that them being uncomfortable around Suzanne had nothing to with who she was and everything to do with how dark her skin happened to be. Getting away from them and getting to college in a whole other state had been so simple at the time. It was still simple now.

As she stared out at a rapidly changing sky, she couldn’t deny that a part of her wished they were better people. That they could be the loving family she thought they had been before she realized who they really were. The better part of her wouldn’t forgive them. Not until they learned. If they ever did.

They didn’t keep in touch. And although for different reasons, Evelyn was sure Grafton didn’t keep up with hers, either.

They watched the sunrise together for what felt like an hour, when in reality she was sure it had only been ten more minutes, before Grafton pushed herself off the steel divider and looked back to the van. “Come on. Russ is gonna freak out if we don’t hit the road soon.”

Evelyn only nodded, and they walked back to a smiling Russel. Cody was running his hands over the braille in a book, humming as they approached. “Hey you two. Me and Russ were just talking about why he’s bald and also why his sense of fashion is so fucking weird.”

Grafton didn’t bother holding back her immediate laugh, and Russel’s eye twitched. “Actually, we were just talking about how much the two of you suck.”

“It’s true,” Grafton supplied. “But you love us for it.”

Russel ignored the snickers of both Grafton and Cody and gave Evelyn a small smile, which she returned. The back doors of the van opened, revealing a yawning Sam and a sleeping Mathew. They rubbed their eyes, peering at the rest of them with an expression between annoyed and confused. “Why are you guys being so loud? We-”

“Is there room back there? Scooch,” Grafton interrupted, pushing past Sam and immediately curling into a ball. Sam, for their part, gave Grafton a glare, who was already doing her part to begin snoring. Loudly. Sam sighed, and after a moment's deliberation, closed the door.

Cody frowned, his voice noticeably quieter than it was before. “She okay? She was annoyed, I think.”

Evelyn shook her head. “We just had a conversation. I didn’t mean for it to get out of hand, but I guess it kind of did.”

“Out of hand seems right, that was weirdly rude even for her,” Russel whispered.

“We know how Grafton is. If she wants to talk to us, she’ll talk. Making her isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

Cody nodded after a moment, before hopping off the van and onto the ground below. “I guess that’s fair. This is why you’re the doctor.”

“I’m just a psychologist.”

“Still a doctor, miss humble. I’m gonna head into the van and get some sleep,” Cody responded. He opened the doors, ignoring an annoyed Sam as he climbed into the van, shutting them behind him.

Evelyn and Russel took a moment to look at the sunrise, and Evelyn offered a mock curtsey. “After you, sir.”

Russel smiled, and bowed in return. “I thank you for this opportunity.”

They both shared a quiet laugh. This was peace.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Did you talk to him?”

Russel glanced at her, and she smiled back. They had been driving for a while now, and the forest road winded and twisted endlessly in such a way that she was sure they would have gotten lost had it not been for Mathew. He knew the roads well, and they followed him and Sam as they rolled down the road on Mathew’s bike.

Cody and Grafton were both asleep in the back, and Evelyn only partially realized that it must have felt like she was cornering him, somewhat. That...was not good.

“I don’t mean to pry,” she hurried to say, relaxing once she saw his growing frown diminish. “I was just...I was just curious.”

Russel didn’t answer, and Evelyn decided to drop the subject as they entered a clearing and came across a small valley. The lake at its bottom shimmered a clear blue, and she felt herself smile at the families she saw, down below. A few even waved at their passing van, and Evelyn waved back, fully aware that they probably wouldn’t be able to see her.

“Yeah. We did.”

Ah. Evelyn turned to him, and studied his face as he kept his eyes forward. The lines on his face hadn’t been there when they first met. Evelyn didn’t feel the need to tell him that perhaps his work was getting to him. They all knew, especially now.

“I thought you were gonna ask me about Hector and Rosie or something. Didn’t expect that.”

Evelyn nodded. “Do you want to talk about that instead?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I…”

Patience was the one thing Evelyn felt she could offer in spades, and only stared out the window as Russel trailed off. Eventually, he began speaking again, quieter.

“It’s a lot. Rosie and I...we figured there was always a chance things weren’t going to work out. Just from two different worlds, I guess. It only got worse when I got my powers, and after Hector got his…”

Evelyn hummed. “Charleston?”

“He shouldn’t have followed me. But I should have been making sure he wasn’t.”

She frowned. “We all should have.”

“I raised him.”

“I know, Russel. But we’re a family. All of us,” she tried again in a softer tone.

Charleston hadn’t been pretty. If a parahuman that could lift entire trucks was causing trouble, you’d send the PRT. Or you’d send the heroes. Russel had been the closest at the time.

Evelyn still remembered their fear when they found out Hector had followed. When they found out Backbreaker had almost killed him.

It was the first time the thought of losing each other became a constant. She wondered if that was why so many of them were willing to drop everything to make sure Mathew was okay. That he was safe.

Somehow, that feeling brought warmth. She had always known, but they were living proof that they could be relied on. She cherished it.

“Anyway,” Russel spoke, breaking her out of her thoughts. “What about your love life? Are you and Dana?...”

She rolled her eyes. “Dana and I broke up almost two years ago now, Russel.”

He shrugged. “I know, I guess I was just curious. What happened there, anyway? If you want to talk about it.”

What had happened? Evelyn shifted a bit in her seat and shrugged. “I think...we just worked better as friends. Hmmm. She’s like a cat, and I’m more of a...a well-mannered dog, I think.”

“Did you just call yourself a dog?”

“A well-mannered dog.”

“Still…”

She lightly slapped him on the shoulder, and hid a laugh as he gave an exaggerated and muted howl. “Shush. And we weren’t even talking about your love life, per say.”

“...Yeah. You’re right. I just...I’m gonna miss her. It’s practically already over, you know? Just a few more months. She’s going on dates now. And I’m just...stuck.”

Evelyn studied him. She could see the telltale loneliness in his eyes. She had felt that before as well, once upon a time.

Well then.

Evelyn sighed, and reached over to wipe a small smudge of dirt from his cheek. Russel begrudgingly allowed her, and she could only smile at the way his face twisted into a good-natured grimace. A wonderful expression, if she said so herself.

“I...I understand,” she began, returning her hands to her lap. “Although I’m sure that I haven’t felt what you’re feeling. Dana and I...well. I loved her, I think. I still do, just differently. I always worried about if she was getting herself into trouble, or getting hurt, or things like that. She’d want to be alone when I wanted to talk, and sometimes I pushed on that. I wanted to understand her, but I think I overdid it sometimes.”

Russel offered a tired smile. “You were looking out for her.”

“Sometimes. Sometimes I just...I just worried she was mad at me. It got to the point where she’d feel guilty about not talking and I’d feel guilty about talking too much, and It just...it didn’t work. But that’s okay, Russel. That’s just a part of living.”

“I know,” he responded. “And don’t sell yourself short. You went through heartbreak, Evelyn, You’re allowed to feel bad about it. My pain isn’t any more important than yours.”

She smiled. “I appreciate that, Russel.”

“And I appreciate you. This. Us. You guys...I couldn’t imagine life without you.”

A warm feeling she had trained to ignore nearly broke to the surface before she willed it away yet again. Sometimes, Russel would talk, and sometimes she’d want to keep him talking for as long as she could. He was the first person, besides Dana, to back her on their support group. However, she couldn't very well keep all of his time. Not right now.

Instead, she looked out the window. Evening would be upon them soon, and the dim ever-growing red of the sun bathed them in warm light as it continued its descent. They drove in an open field now, and Evelyn’s eyes followed a lone billboard showing a tiny girl holding a burger with a small family.

Soon, they’d be back in their beds. And she could continue the shelter, now that Mathew was okay. She hoped she would be able to talk to him later, let him know that she cared.

She frowned. She’d also have to check in with Beatrice soon. She hadn’t heard a word from her in over a week. If only-

“Mathew and I. We talked for a bit, and it didn’t go too well at first.”

Oh?

Evelyn turned back to him as he continued, staring out at the fields. “Asking him if he was okay had been the easy part. Telling him he shouldn’t have used his powers was...I don’t know. It wasn’t the right time.”

“He knows you care, Russel.”

“Does he?”

Evelyn frowned, and waited for him to finish. Russel sighed as he spoke again. “I’ve been on his case. A lot.”

“You have?”

He nodded. “I tried to reign it in a bit for Cody’s get-together, but he must have been sick of me already. I shouldn’t have even been pushing him. He’s not my kid, I just...I get worried. A lot.”

“But not about Dana? Or Cody?”

He winced. “Dana’s a professional, does it for a living. And Cody keeps his head down. Mathew...I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about him going out to towns and causing trouble. I know we said we didn’t get our cape lives mixed in with our friendships, and I know he’s not hurting people, I just…”

It was a full minute before he finished his sentence. “I’m projecting. I feel like he’s a lot like how I was a decade ago. But I know that’s not fair. And I’m trying to be more fair to him.”

She smiled. “For what it’s worth, he told me he was going to be more fair to you, too.”

“Me?”

“He feels bad about antagonizing you.”

Russel looked away, shrugging. “He doesn’t have to. It’s my fault.”

She’d have to pick his brain about that. Someday soon. But now wasn’t the time.

The road stretched out in front of them, as Russel turned the murmur of the radio off as he continued. “We started talking about powers, after that. About...about how he got his. I knew the story, but that was the first time he told me all of it. The cops, the guns, everything.”

She saw him grow quiet for a moment before he finished. “Trapped. Like how I was when I overdosed. It felt like my body was floating one moment, and like a stone the next. I got lucky by getting my powers. We both did, in that moment of panic. That fear. The idea that I’d die and the world would go on without me the next day, I think he felt that too.”

Evelyn didn’t respond. The value of staying silent had been a learned thing, but in her times of getting her doctorate, she had made sure to make herself learn.

Russel rubbed at his eyes. “I don’t know. I just hugged him. He hugged me back, and...it’s the fucking powers, man. You only ever learn how to get them when you get them, and when you do...you wish you hadn’t. I want to save people, I need to. I need to be better than I am. And...fighting Leviathan, I was sure I was gonna finally make a difference. I was so sure. Then...you know Vista? Brockton Bay ward?”

She was afraid of this. “I do,” she murmured, already laying a hand on his shoulder. “Russel…”

“She was just a little girl. And I couldn’t do anything.”

The silence that followed was heavier than any other Evelyn had experienced. She only offered a hand on his shoulder, slowly massaging it as they drove. There weren’t any words she could use to ease what he felt. Not when she didn’t know the right ones to say.

It was a long while before he turned to her, and offered a small smile. “I’m sorry, I’m just going off. I’m sure you know what I mean.

After a moment, she offered a wan smile. “Yes. I know.”

That was a lie she had gotten good at telling.

The old familiar guilt she always felt when her friends talked about how they got their powers, or the way they experienced using them, returned. Familiar enough now that it was only a dull reminder rather than...what it had been before.

It was times like these that she felt like a fraud, an imposter, rather than a friend. Someone who lied to keep herself safe.

Becoming a Psychiatrist had been her dream, even when she left behind the certainty her parents money offered her. She enjoyed the fact that she was a far cheaper option that others. She enjoyed the fact that she got to help people. She even enjoyed the sleepless nights that she spent pouring over her clients, to make sure she knew everything there was to know. To be a lantern in the dark.

But she had always wanted more.

She saw the way the heroes she saw every so often changed the world around them, and the strangled feeling in her gut that told her she wanted to be just like them never went away. It wasn’t the allure of fame that captured her, or the potential money, or even the imaginings of what power she’d be able to use. Despite what she presented, Evelyn always thought of herself as exceedingly simple.

She wanted to help people.

It was naïve. The thought of going out to fight someone in a costume was almost laughable, but the idea never left her mind. At first she told herself it was just a dream. Then, she considered how she’d even get powers. Then had come the research, the days and weeks and months of research, of collecting errant newspaper clippings and saving tabs and walking into places she wouldn’t have ever considered before.

She had told them that she got her powers after she lost her old job. It wasn’t a technical lie, but it was a lie all the same.

‘The Dealer’ had been her source.

Even now, she couldn’t remember the exact steps she took. He had offered her a smile, a pleasing voice, some gentle words. All it had taken was her savings to become ‘Architect.’ She had been proud of herself for not fighting, for immediately doing her best to build bridges, restore buildings, become something.

She was still proud of what she had done. Not of who she was.

It took her a long time to figure out that getting powers wasn’t fun, and by the time she did she had already had them. It never stopped her from feeling like she was mocking her friends. Like she had somehow gotten ‘lucky’ enough to bypass the pain they must have felt.

The two of them were silent as they drew closer to the town, and Evelyn allowed herself to look out at the approaching Santa Mosemar, colored a deep red from the setting sun.

Then, she gasped.

The smoke was the first thing she noticed, slowly rising trails of black that left streaks across the red sky. She saw the lack of light as well, and even at this distance, she could tell that not a single one of them were on. A power outage? Evelyn frowned at the same time Russel did, the van slowing down and coming to a stop on top of the hill leading inside. Outside, Mathew and Sam slowed down as well, and for the first time Evelyn felt they were all thinking the same thing;

‘What the hell is going on?’

“That’s…” Russel began, slowly opening his door before stopping halfway. “Ev?”

“...Yes?”

“The town. It’s quiet.”

She felt her breath catch. Evelyn opened her door and gingerly stepped onto the ground outside, slowly looking around as she knelt. Mathew and Sam dismounted the bike, holding hands as they quietly approached.

“What the fuck?” Mathew hissed. “This...fuck. This is weird.”

“I’d have to agree,” Russel responded after a moment. “I think...Jesus, I think some of the windows are broken? I can’t really tell.”

“Yeah. Alright. These are fucking serial killer vibes.”

Evelyn placed her hands on the ground, and her power began its slow network as it fished its way through the earth below. She felt it urge her to shift the ground into strange shapes, to change the dirt to iron, to gold, to water. She ignored it and focused.

“Maybe...maybe something bad happened? Like a villain attacked?” Sam interjected quietly.

“Maybe, but Rosie or Hector would have called me, and Dana would have probably called Evelyn. Beatrice would have called any of us, but she...she hasn’t been answering. It doesn’t matter. We have to go, now.

The ground just below her was solid. Her power told her of tiny shapes moving around the dirt around them. Insects and worms, she guessed. So she went deeper.

Russel groaned, and was interrupted by a waking Grafton as she slid the door open with a yawn. “I was dozing, and Cody’s full on asleep, so good luck waking him up. What’d we stop for?”

“It’s...” Sam began. “There’s something wrong with it.”

“Wrong?”

“There,” Sam urged, pointing. “There’s...there’s someone flying. Above the town.”

It was then that Evelyn felt her eyes widen.

Underneath the earth. Dog-sized objects were buried underground. Dozens.

And they were moving.

She would have warned them too, had a distorted laugh not come from the trees surrounding them.

They all froze. The blue motes of Mathew’s distortion began to form, as well as the off-white glow of Russel’s power. Sam took a step back towards the van, more than likely to wake Cody, and Grafton glared as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of bloody meat, chewing it. Her power responded, and after a moment her body slowly began to change.

And yet, nothing could have prepared them for the shapes that burst through the trees.

A mouth with mismatched and yellowed fangs greeted them. Six legs, attached to a body the color of tar, hundreds of eyes staring them down. Oversized claws threatened death, and the blood already on them promised it. She could only see it as a parody of every animal she had come to love growing up.

The figure that stood in the treeline was almost worse to look at. Nine feet tall, with a chalk white body, as if made of ceramic. She had seen the pictures online, of something vaguely humanoid, of a monster made of tinkertech. Here, he had four arms instead of two, three with fingers that moved too much to be compared to a person, and one with a long and curved blade, glinting in the retreating sunlight.

Crawler and Mannequin.

And in an instant, every nightmare she had about a man with a knife, with a smile, with blood, were realized.

Evelyn felt herself scream. She wasn’t a fighter, she wasn’t. She had never spent the time to try. Her power retreated as she stumbled back, falling to the ground and pushing herself away.

Grafton immediately shook off her sleep and leapt forward, her body changing mid-air as she met the Crawler with fangs of her own, Russel joining her soon after. Evelyn didn’t have the time to register what form Grafton took before the ground erupted.

They weren’t spiders, to say so would imply that they were somehow natural. There was nothing natural about the cherry-red skin and bleeding muscle that made up their legs, their two grasping hands, the stitched together crying faces that she hadn’t been able to stop herself from looking at in time. A sound emerged from bloody mouths, somewhere between a giggle and a scream.

Then, Sam was trying to pull her up. They were yelling something she couldn’t understand. Evelyn glanced to the van in a daze, wondering about Cody, hoping he was okay.

Only to watch as the ground below the van erupted.

More cherry-red monsters emerged from the ground, surrounding them in a half-formed circle. Three whirled back on the van, beginning the frighteningly quick process of ripping it apart. To get inside.

To get to Cody.

It was then that she decided for herself that she didn’t have a choice.

She had to fight. She had to.

Evelyn shoved her hands into the ground, and their trial began in earnest.