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At the end of the world and back again.

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Sometimes, Brian would wonder if the universe liked screwing with him.

He wasn’t really one to think about possibilities like that, preferring to stay focused. Driven. He never really thought there was any use in letting yourself wonder if there was a plan in store. He always chalked the possibility up to a solid ‘maybe’ and kept pushing.

He never saw any use in it, but that didn’t stop the odd thought from crossing his mind from time to time. It was moments like those that he felt like he could relax. With Aisha. With Cozen. 

With Taylor, there at the end.

But the past was the past, and he never liked being one to dwell. He lived in the present. That’s why, when he woke up in an unfamiliar place that was decidedly *not*Gimel, he figured he’d do his best to get back to his present. His sister. The Undersiders. Not a bad place to be.

The bed he was in wasn’t that. It was unfamiliar, but somehow managed to be a reminder. 

He stared at the ceiling, and waited. 

Outside the door, quiet footsteps plodded across the floor. Back and forth and over and over, creating a rhythm Brian could get lost in. Outside the window, the skies of Aleph's Philadelphia were pierced by distant skyscrapers, seemingly threatening a storm in retaliation.

Brian eased himself out of the bed and took a moment to just breathe. He didn’t panic very often, he himself couldn’t even remember the last time he had. But being stuck on an entirely different earth, with no way home, was putting that to the test.

Then, he sighed. 

He was stuck. On another earth entirely, in the last place he needed to be. Want didn’t factor into it. He was reminded, just then, of just how inescapable his situation was.

The past was the past, but here it was chasing after him with open arms. Just something else to plan around, with no way to run from it.

He took one last look at the mirror in the room as he opened the door, tracing the edge of where the faint skull would be, had he not covered it up. His eyes were an impossible milky brown now, paler than they had been. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to that.

How much of him, really, was left? How much of him was Brian, and how much of him was just a ghost that acted like it thought it should?

He groaned quietly. He had a feeling he’d be letting his mind wander like that a lot, so long as he was here. Around them.

The footsteps outside stopped, and Brian opened the door.

There was something strange about being in a house. The one he shared with Cozen, back during those quiet couple of years, wasn’t anything like the one he grew up in. That, of course, had taken some getting used to. She herself had taken some getting used to, but he thought he did a pretty good job, before. After hearing about what happened to her, he hadn’t been so sure.

This house was just like theirs. Cozy, quiet, deftly stepping out of the way of the hustle and bustle of city life. If anyone deserved a measure of peace and rest, it was the occupants.

The living room was startlingly empty, filled only with a couch, a tv, and a few decorative ornaments here and there. No pictures of loved ones, or anything else that would give a house life. It screamed practicality and shied away from extravagance. He could appreciate that, but he could also see how barren it was.

Then he heard footsteps again.

“Brian?”

He took a deep breath, and turned. “Hey, Danny.”

Danny Hebert was just as awkward as he remembered him being the first time they met, after the bombings and Taylor’s concussion. He had traded the balding for a smooth head and a beard, he had gained a bit of weight, but he seemed...looked, happier. The worry that had rested on his shoulders had eased, if only a little.

Brian felt like he was intruding.

“I didn’t think you’d be...well, up so early. Not after…”

“Yeah. Sorry, I was just restless.”

“I could only imagine.”

They were quiet for a moment, until Danny offered Brian a smile. “You can sit, you know.”

Brian faltered, before forcing himself towards the couch and slowly easing himself down, as if he was getting ready to sit on a bed of nails. Danny, thankfully, didn’t say give him any grief as he made himself comfortable.

“It’s good to hear that you’re doing well,” Danny began again, walking over to the kitchen again. “Coffee?”

“Yeah. Please.”

Danny chuckled as he reached into a cupboard. “Blonde, right? I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, or if my memory is finally deciding it's had enough of me.”

Brian offered a laugh himself. Humorless, but at least he tried. “No, you’re right. I appreciate this, by the way.”

“This?”

Brian just sighed. “The...the room. It’s nice of you. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I don’t think Taylor would let me hear the end of it if I hadn’t. And, well, I don’t mind.” He opened a bag of coffee beans, pouring them into the grinder before speaking again. “It’s easier. Taylor and I, we had to leave a lot of things behind when we came here. I like to think I left behind that chip on my shoulder.”

“And you guys are okay?”

Danny shrugged, grinded the beans, then spoke as he finished. “We take our steps. Every day, one foot at a time, but we take our steps. I got a job managing a power plant, somehow, and Taylor is finishing up college. Psychology major, and she wants to be a social worker.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. She tried out English, for a bit, but…”

Danny trailed off, and Brian let him. Taylor was in college now, her sights set on the sky, and Brian couldn’t help but feel happy about that. 

He wondered, after The Titans. Thinking about Cozen hurt, enough to keep those thoughts away, but his mind would often drift to Taylor. She was gone, that much he knew, but he never could stop wondering what gone meant. Dead? In exile? He never would have guessed in college, moving on.

Moving on. From them. 

He had come to terms with that, all the way back to when she had joined the heroes. It wasn’t like he didn’t know things could come to an end when you weren’t prepared for it. In fact, that was a possibility he had tried his best to prepare for. No stupid moves, no ego-tripping. Just a level-head and a clear goal.

And look where that got you.

He huffed.

The point was, she deserved that chance. And he felt like he was ruining it by showing up and taking over their couch. 

Why here, so close to the heberts? Why not anywhere else on Earth Aleph?

He was glad that the coffee Danny brought him succeeded in making those thoughts go away, if only for a time. He was glad they didn’t talk, not feeling particularly up for conversation as he wrestled with his mind. They had brought him in, no questions asked, but he could tell they were curious as to just how he found himself in another universe entirely. Taylor more so than Danny, for obvious reasons.

The story, in his opinion, really was boring. Assholes who wanted to screw other people over hadn’t stopped popping up after Scion or The Titans, and he figured they’d be showing up after the next big world-ending threat reared its ugly head too. The most recent Asshole had been ‘Drifter,’ someone with a grudge against Lisa apparently a mile wide. He hadn’t gotten the chance to try anything, or even yell at Lisa like old times, before Drifter touched him.

Waking up in the neighborhood on Founder’s street had been more than a bit of a shock. Seeing Taylor and Danny was...well, a lot more than shock found its way through his body. 

He didn’t know why he agreed to stay. The offer had been given, free and plain, but it was better that he let them live their lives in peace.

So why did he say yes?

Was it that look Taylor had given him, all wide-eyed and lost? Like they had just met again, for the very first time?

He didn’t know how to feel about what that look had done to him.

“Huh.”

His thoughts were interrupted by a humming Danny.

“Hm?”

“Ah, sorry,” Danny muttered, checking a plain brass watch. “Looks like I gotta get to work. You okay here on your own?”

“Yeah. Yes.”

Danny smiled. “Got it. You uh, let us know if you need anything.”

I need to go home.

Brian nodded, watching the blank T.V. as Danny stood to get properly dressed. A car passed outside, loud and exceedingly obnoxious, and they both shared an exasperated ‘what can you do?’ look.

Then Danny paused, and sighed.

“I should uh, let you know. It’s about…” he checked his watch. “...two on a friday.”

“Uh,” Brian tried, shrugging. “Alright.”

“Sorry. That means Taylor is gonna be home pretty soon. Ten to twenty minutes.”

Ah.

Brian didn’t say anything as Danny disappeared, and only offered a small grunt as Danny left. Soon, he was left alone in a house he felt like he was intruding in. 

Soon, he’d be alone with her. 

What would he say? Would he say sorry? Would he ask her why? Could he get angry? Should he?

Did any of that matter?

He cursed. Why was he tripping over himself on what to say to her, anyway? It was Taylor. She knew him, he knew her, there wasn’t anything to be scared of. 

Sure. He could go with that.

In the end, he couldn’t forget he was a guest. He’d give her some space, if he could help it. Forcing her to talk wasn’t going to get them anywhere. 

So Brian went to the backyard, very much not retreating as he sat in a patio chair. A small wisp of darkness floated in front of his face, invisible to him, which he swiped at as if it were a bug.

He didn’t have to wait long. He tensed once the door opened behind him, footsteps pausing before slowly starting up again, stopping at his side.

He turned, and almost wished he hadn't.

She looked so different, yet he recognized her immediately. She was missing an arm, and her hair was cut short and colored brown, but she still leveled that quiet gaze on him that he had come to grow fond of. At least back then, in Brockton Bay. A red backpack hung loosely from her left shoulder, decorated with pins and stickers.

His breath caught, and he was very careful not to choke in front of her.

“Hey,” he tried, wincing as his voice came out slightly garbled. “Hi.”

She didn’t answer for a moment, only staring, and Brian took that as his cue to look away. The sun shined gray through the clouds of the sky while the swaying trees near and in her backyard did their best to put him at ease. He wasn’t very receptive.

“Hi,” she murmured after a while.

“...How were classes? Are you okay?”

“Me?”

“I, yeah.”

“I’m fine,” Taylor said, nodding once. “I’m okay. I’m doing Psychology.”

“Yeah, your dad told me. How is it?”

“Different. I feel like I’m good at it.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.”

The silence was deafening. 

He had no idea what to do. He hadn’t expected her to cry, or throw herself in his arms or anything like that. She had hugged him the night before, but it was a quick thing more than likely born from disbelief and a need to make sure he was actually real. Brian had felt that same urge, and was glad that she had saved him from acting on it on his own.

But now she knew the answer to the same kind of question that had quietly lived in his head, day after day. She knew he was alive, he knew she was okay. Only bitter remnants of their last goodbyes remained. Both in Brockton Bay and at the end.

Somewhere, deep down, the urge to reach out to her nearly floored him. He schooled it as quickly as he did everything else.

"And you’re...okay?"

He was glad to hear her talk again. He wasn’t glad to hear that particular question. 

"I'm fine," Brian responded. He'd said it to himself enough times for it to stick, now. "...I like the hair."

“You didn’t see it yesterday?”

“It was dark. Kinda. I was distracted.”

She looked to the side, nodding. “Well. Thanks. I like yours too.”

He barked a laugh. “I’m not really doing anything with it, you know. This is the result of wanton and irresponsible growth.”

She ducked her head, and let out a laugh. “Well, I think it looks nice.”

He could tell she did. He wasn’t sure why that surprised him. He felt his smile grow in naturally now, replacing the strange contortion on his face.

“Thanks, Taylor.”

She paused, looked away, then set her backpack on the ground. “I’m going to go get a watering can. Is that okay?”

“A watering can?”

“For my plants garden. Uh. Garden of plants. Both are right, I think?”

He shook his head. “I’m absolutely sure I wouldn’t know.”

“Do you need anything?”

“I-No. I’m good. I’ll be here.”

Taylor didn’t answer, only nodding and walking back inside. Brian tried not to think about the small flip of his gut as it happened.

It made sense. He was sure that leaving it all behind had been her plan as soon as she got here. He couldn’t blame her for wanting a fresh start, away from all the blood and violence and sheer and utter lack of hope. He felt like he understood.

But he had said yes. Like a lost stray.

Those thoughts clawed at him until Taylor got back outside, a faded yellow watering can in her hand and a bottle tucked underneath her armpit. “Um. I didn’t know if you were thirsty, so I got you some water.”

“Thanks.”

She set the can on the ground, and set the bottle on the ground beside him as she picked up the can again and moved deeper into the backyard, towards a small field of flowers he was surprised he hadn’t noticed before. Briefly, he chastised himself for being vaguely disappointed that she hadn’t handed him the bottle directly. He told himself to cut the shit. He wasn’t sure if he was successful.

He picked up the bottle, yet it was quickly forgotten as he watched her.

Her movements were stiff, short, as if she hadn’t ever watered plants before. She kept her back to him, instead looking out at the line of trees every once in a while. Sometimes, she would drop the can itself, seemingly distracted by a stray thought or a resting root.

More than once, she’d turn to catch him staring, and he’d look away. More than once, he’d do the same thing to her in return. At one point, Brian forced himself to look anywhere but where she was, but that only seemed to make everything feel more awkward. In the end, he resigned himself to watching her, just in time to see her sit down quietly and look up at the sky.

She looked so peaceful.

Surrounded by flowers of every color of the rainbow. Yellow blue and red and white and more, all swaying gently in the wind. He caught a glimpse of her face as she looked to the side, towards the distant roar of an airplane, and he was struck by the smile she wore.

Domestic. A reminder.

Are we together in ten years?  Do we have kids?  Are we married?  Are we together, king and queen of Brockton Bay?  Have we retired?  Can you imagine a scenario like that?  Like any of that?

He had told her, before, that he couldn’t imagine it. That it wasn’t a real possibility. It was the answer his memories provided, and he had chosen to believe them. And yet he felt like something had always been off about his answer.

‘Me either.’

He remembered.

It was an answer given out of a quiet fear. She hadn’t responded. He knew what that meant. She couldn’t imagine it. So he had tried to reassure her, to spare hurt feelings. To tell her that in the end, he couldn’t imagine it either.

He watches her in the bed of flowers, and sighs.

Back then the truth had been scarier. He hadn’t known how to tell her that a part of him, blooming, wanted something like that. 

With her.

Lightning flashed, thunder screamed, and Brian jumped.

Taylor herself was shocked into movement, gathering up her watering can and jogging back to the shade of the patio. Brian couldn’t help but give a smile as newly formed rain caught her before she could make it all the way, and she gave him an unimpressed flat look in return.

“And you went through all the trouble of watering them,” he hummed, crossing his arms. “Almost like the world's out to get you.”

“I wouldn’t put it past the world,” she answered, a life in her voice that hadn’t been present before. “We don’t get along too well.”

“The old one, sure. Not this one?”

“We have our ups and downs. We’re taking a bit of a break, right now.”

Laughter formed between them, short but genuine, and they stared out at the backyard as rain began to fall.

The silence, now comfortable, gave Brian the courage to say what he had meant to say the first time he saw her again. “Taylor. I just wanted to say thanks. For all of this.”

“Us letting you stay here?”

“Yeah. You-”

“You needed help. You were confused,” she interrupted, her tone quiet but firm. “Of course I was going to help you.”

“Thanks.”

“You don’t have to thank me. I wouldn’t have turned you away. Not after everything.”

“I wouldn’t have blamed you.”

“What?” She responded, confusion bleeding into her voice. “Why?”

Brian didn’t answer for a moment, staring out at the rain and watching distant lightning flash. “I just...I figure this was yours. The escape. You deserve a rest, and all that. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“You’d never be intruding.”

“Sure.”

“I mean it,” she pressed. “I’m...I’m happy you’re here.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Always.”

He wished he could say he was glad to be here too. Seeing Taylor was doing wonders, in those small strange ways he couldn’t describe, but he needed to get back home again. At some point. He just needed to figure out how.

“I,” he began, swallowing. “Still need to figure out a way to get back home. To the others.”

“Oh. Yeah. When you say the others…”

Brian smiled. “I’m back with the Undersiders. Lisa, Rachel, Aisha. They’re okay. Lily and Sabah too.”

“Oh.”

She looked happy. Then, she looked sad. Finally, Taylor looked up to him and smiled. “I feel like that’s a weight off my shoulders. You know?”

“Yeah. I know.”

They both turned away, with Brian staring up at the sky.

He’d had to find a way back, sooner rather than later. But there wasn’t any harm in enjoying this if he could. It wasn’t like things could be how they were, before, but it wasn’t like they needed to be.

“Brian?”

Brian turned away from watching for lightning and gave Taylor a look. She herself stared up at the sky, blinking through the rain and watching the approaching storm. He didn’t dare let himself push her to continue.

Eventually, she looked up at him and let the words come slowly, as if she was afraid they’d hurt her.

“Back on the rig, when...you know. Scion. I asked you to stay.”

“You did.”

The both of them were silent for a moment longer. A flock of birds passed overhead, faster than his eyes could track. The rain seemed to freeze as she stared at him. He couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes, as the question became obvious.

“You got out okay,” she whispered. “Right?”

There wasn’t a right answer.

There were only so many ways you could say ‘it’s complicated’ and still have it mean something. He died. And now he was back. 

But he still died, hadn’t he? 

He didn’t blame her. At the end, he saw gold and felt that quiet defeat slip into his mind as he thought of Aisha. At the end, he was brought right back to being that scared little kid hiding under the cupboards from that asshole that still managed to cast a shadow over his life.

For a moment after Valkyrie brought him back, just a moment, he was afraid of the world again. And if he could be brought back to that, did any of what he tried to accomplish before matter?

Thoughts that wandered. He’d silenced them again when he became a part of the flock, and yet here he was being faced with that reality one last time.

There was an urge there, to tell her everything. Small and fleeting, quickly snuffed out, but it arising at all threw him off balance. He at least didn’t see any reason to hide what happened to him from her. She proved to be unflinching time and time again, admittedly more than him. 

But when he tried to speak, firm and comforting, his voice came out in a quiet mutter instead.

“I did. I’m okay,” he lied.

She nodded, and they turned back to watching the rain.

Eventually, Taylor walked back inside, carrying the faded yellow watering can, and somehow Brian knew she hadn’t believed him. 

Eventually, he walked in after her. The apartment was quiet, the light to her room on. He stopped only a second when he heard music on the other side of her door.

Eventually, Brian got back to the guest room, and he chased wandering doubts away with the soft drum of rain and the rumble of thunder.