The worst part was the stares. Again. Despite the fact that the majority of the Slaughterhouse Nine were dead at my hands, the looks I was getting from people were, for the most part, less than friendly. They only saw the destruction that had occurred during my fights with them. The trails of devastation left by my fights with Crawler and then Siberian.
And word had spread of what I had done when Bonesaw had given me my present.
I bit my lip hard, forcing that memory away. It was raining and I had let the water strike, soaking me as I stood there. I was grateful for it, this once, as my eyes stung even as I shoved my foot against the shovel, heaving another scoop of dirt into the empty space I had carved out. There was nothing there, though. There could never be anything there.
And it was my fault.
I drove the shovel in again, pausing to take a breath. I was alone, for the moment. Well, I was alone at the spot as I worked. There were people nearby though, watching. They kept their distance, at my request.
Another shovel of dirt dropped into the hole, then another. I had lost count of how many now, but it seemed no closer to being filled than when I started. Eventually it would be, though. Was I deliberately dragging my feet? A way of denying truth? If I didn't finish this, then it wasn't real?
I dropped another into the hole.
No. I couldn't be doing that. As much as I wanted, Dad wasn't going to come home from work ever again. Or make waffles on saturday mornings. Or his garlic bread that I loved.
And it was my fault.
I kept shoveling until the hole was filled, then used the shovel to flatten the wet dirt out. My eyes looked past the plot to where the stone had been placed. I stared at the matching headstones, trying to think of words, things to say, and failing.
"I… " My voice cracked and I tried again. "I'm sorry I haven't been by in a while, Mom. This isn't how I intended my next visit, though. I thought I might be able to tell you about all the good I was doing, that I was making the bad people go away."
"But that isn't how things are," I went on. "The bad people came here, for me, and now everything is a mess. Half of Brockton Bay is trashed and it's mostly my fault. People were hurt, killed. Some of them were my fault, too. I didn't care what was in my way when trying to kill the people who had come after me."
The next words caught in my throat and it was a long time before I could force them out.
"I'm leaving a spot for Dad here, beside you," I said. "It's just an empty spot, though. I… what they did to him… I couldn't leave him like that."
My legs gave out and I dropped to my knees in the wet grass and mud. "I killed him. And burnt what they had done to him to ash. They did that to him to get to me."
Wet hair fell across my face, shrouding my vision. "They wanted me. Because I have power. Or because they thought it would be fun. I don't know why. It brought them here, I guess, the power I have. I can fight an Endbringer, but I can't protect the people around me."
"I made friends, and they got hurt," I continued, drawing a shuddering breath. Speaking was getting harder. "Because of things I had done, or because they wanted to get at me, like with dad."
My fist slammed into the grass in front of me. "It isn't fair!"
I turned my head skyward, the rain leaving tracks across my face as my eyes burned. "Why does shit like this happen? WHY?"
"Why?" I asked softly, but no voice answered me.
Annette Hebert. Daniel Hebert, the gravestones read, silent testament to what I had lost.
"I… thought I was strong enough after you were gone, Mom," I said. "For a while, if I told myself that, I could believe it. But now.. with this… I realize I'm not. I don't know what to do."
I rose slowly and the only response was the rain continuing to fall. Mud stained my legs and the clothes I wore. I could have used my power to drive it away and leave them clean, but didn't. There was no point.
"When I got these powers, I thought… I thought it made me untouchable," I swallowed. "I could mute sound so anything I didn't want to hear, I didn't. I could keep anyone or anything from touching me."
"It's a lie, though," My throat seized up for a moment before I continued. "All this power and it doesn't really make me untouchable. I… figured that out too late."
"I'm sorry, Dad!" I screamed, bending double as my eyes began burning again and I knew the liquid running down my cheeks wasn't just rain. "I'm sooooorrrrrry…." My arms wrapped around my sides and I drew in gulping breaths, losing myself as the things I had been bottling up overwhelmed.
Arms circling around me. Someone had come.
I swallowed, looking up slowly from the broad chest to see who had put their arms around me.
Colin stood there, his expression one of concern.
I buried my face against his shirt, fresh sobs pouring forth against the cloth.
"I-It isn't fuh-fair!" I cried, unsure if he even understood what I was saying. "Why d-did it have to buh-be my Dad?"
"You're right," he said softly. "It isn't. And that's something that I had to learn to accept a long time ago."
I fell silent, wrestling with my breathing as he went on. "But even so, it's something that I, that we, can change. It won't make what happened go away, but… it'll mean you can build something that he would be proud of."
"Proud?" I echoed bitterly. "How could he be proud of anything I do? I'm the reason he's DEAD!"
My fists slammed against his chest as fury overwhelmed me, but he merely stood there as I beat at him.
"He's dead because a sick man decided to come after you," Colin said. "If it hadn't been you, Taylor, it would have been someone else. I told you, Jack's ruined a lot of people. But he can't do that ever again. Because of you."
He took a deep breath. "No, the cost isn't something you should have had to pay and if I could fix it so that you hadn't, I would. Your dad wouldn't want you to let Jack ruin you after the fact and you know that."
I tried to speak, but he went on without letting me. "Forward, Taylor. You can't follow where what you're thinking goes. It's a worse place than anything you've seen before and you're better than that. I know it. Your dad did too."
"I…" I swallowed. "It hurts."
"It does," he agreed. "And it will. But it'll hurt less, eventually. And every day that you go forward and do things, live without giving in to what Jack wanted you to become, is a day that you're being someone that your dad would be proud of."
Would he, I wondered silently. Colin seemed certain. But I wasn't so sure. I turned my head, staring at the gravestones past his arm, my breathing returning to something resembling normal.
"I… I don't know…" I said. "I… people will get hurt near me… They already did… Lisa.. Dinah… You. Because you were close to me… What happens next time? You're better off leaving me alone!"
"I do," Colin said with gentle firmness. "It will get better. And that isn't going to happen. People can get hurt, whether near you or not. You can't make their decisions for them on whether to be close to you. Not Lisa's, Not Dinah's, and certainly not mine."
"But… Siberian tore your arm off! And would have done more! Because I knew you!"
"And my arm is fine now," he said, raising it. "I'll need to work to get it in proper shape, but injury is something that could happen. I could go out and fight Kaiser and have the same thing happen. That's my choice. You didn't force me to fight the Siberian, Taylor. I did that myself. Because it was the right thing to do. And I would do it again, if necessary."
I stared at him. "Why?"
He half-smiled. "Because you're my friend. Or at least, I think of you as one. And I protect my friends."
"You protect everyone," I retorted.
Colin's head dipped in agreement. "I suppose I do. But it doesn't make what I said less true."
I didn't look at him for a long time, then stepped back slowly. He let me, though one arm rested on my shoulder, giving a comforting squeeze.
"I.. I think I'm ready to go," I hesitantly said. He said nothing and I looked at the gravestones again. And the hole that I had filled. Colin seemed content to wait as I stepped around him and stared at them, thinking of what I wanted to say.
"I love you, Dad, Mom," I murmured finally. "And I'm sorry. I'll do better. I promise."
I turned as I finished speaking and left, Colin following in silence.
The rubble of the house mocked me. The rain had stopped, at least, but now I was staring at what remained of the house that donations and public support had produced. And there was even less of it than of my old house. And I couldn't blame Crawler for this. He had done some damage, sure, but it had been my actions that had blown the rest of the house apart.
"I'm sorry, guys," I said, unwilling to turn to look at the others that were standing behind me for fear of what I would see. "I think I blew up all of your stuff."
"It's only stuff," Phillipe said, leaning in to sling an arm over my shoulders. "The important part is that you're okay."
I opened my mouth to say something. What, exactly, I wasn't sure, but Dinah came up beside me, standing close and drawing my attention. She had been healed by Amy Dallon, but still looked pale. I wasn't sure why, as she hadn't talked about it, but I guess it was something she had seen.
"You okay?" I asked her, earning a slow nod.
"It hurt and the numbers kept changing so much. I couldn't see what was going to happen." She swallowed, looking even paler, if that were possible. "Some of the numbers were really frightening."
I slid an arm onto her shoulders. "I can't see the numbers, but it was pretty frightening for me too. Now?"
"Better," she said, relaxing. "There's still…" She trailed off.
Dinah shook her head. "Later." She wrapped her arms around herself and stepped away, a haunted look on her face. I frowned but let her. Whatever it was, I would have to ask her later.
"Done with your secret whispering?" Shawna asked.
"Yeah," I said, glancing at the ruined house briefly. "Yeah, we're done here."
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Lily asked, glancing at me, then the others. "Because I can't be the only one who thinks this is a phenomenally bad idea, can I?"
Lisa's usual grin was entirely absent. "The PRT's higher ups are pulling a full investigation of what happened here, with the likelihood that certain groups with an agenda will try and put the screws to Taylor to make her do what they say. I can't imagine why this would be upsetting to you."
I snorted at her tone as my eyes tracked along the devastation I had left in pursuit of Crawler. "Noise, that's all. Nothing outside of my ability to affect."
"Don't be entirely hostile," Lisa cautioned, despite her previous mocking. "They'll look to slant how things played out, blame as much as possible on you as a way to limit your options. When they hassled you after Leviathan, they didn't have much they could use as leverage. That's not the case now."
"I know," I said, fishing in my pocket. "And first is this waste of my time appointment. I should just not go. I don't need to talk to someone I don't know about how I feel."
"Wait, I hadn't heard about this," Phillipe said. "They're wanting you to go to a shrink?"
I shrugged, drawing the paper with the time and location out. "To determine what sort of effect my recent experiences have had on my state of mind."
"They want to prod and have you respond unfavorably," Lisa said, drawing everyone's attention. "To give them more ammunition. Whoever you have to talk to will try and needle you, prod sore spots."
"What isn't one, right now?" I asked with no small amount of bitterness in my voice. "I'll be fine. I'll participate in their little circus exactly as long as it suits me."
"And then what?" Lily asked.
I smiled and judging from the looks they gave me, it wasn't a nice one. "Then we'll see. I think there's some sort of bounty for that bunch of assholes, so once I've got that, I'll replace all the stuff I blew up."
"Taylor," Phillipe said, moving in front of me. "You know we really don't care about the stuff, right?"
"You might not," I replied. "But I do. I've got to go. I'll see you guys for lunch." I slipped around him, then went airborne, moving away before anything else could be said.
The room bothered me for some reason. I wasn't sure why. Was it the color? A shade of peach that seemed off in some way that I couldn't place. Or the fact that I was sure every single painting on the wall was slightly off. In either case, none of that bothered me as much as the person sitting behind the desk across from me.
He was shorter than me, with hair that appeared unwashed and an expression that left me feeling unclean. I didn't like him and part of me wondered if he was chosen specifically for how off-putting he appeared. His suit was a poor fit, and he never met my eyes for very long. They were always drifting off, as if he were uncomfortable.
I broke the silence first. "I don't exactly know why I'm here."
He began arranging the papers on his desk in a fussy, precise manner. "There are concerns regarding your state of mind after your experience. I've been tasked with assessing that."
"For some reason," I said, restraining myself from rolling my eyes. "I have severe doubts about your ability to assess anything related to my state of mind or experiences."
Surprisingly, he did not appear to be offended, merely curious. "And why is that?"
"Four days ago, I was subjected to a campaign intended to drive me insane. As a result of that, I killed my father out of mercy because that was preferable to what had been done to him. Tell me, what sort of experiences have you had that qualify you to assess anything I've been through?" I asked, turning to look at him directly.
He flushed and laced his fingers together. "Taylor … Sorry, may I call you Taylor?"
"I'd rather you didn't," I replied.
"Ms. Hebert, then," he amended. "While I admit I haven't had the same experiences that you have, I do have extensive experience consulting those who have suffered traumatic situations."
I stared for a moment, considering his reply. He claimed that, but didn't explain what made him so.
"Precisely how are you qualified?" I asked. "You've spoken to a lot of people who have had their lives torn apart by Jack Slash, is that it? Or had their father, wife, or some other family member mutilated into something unrecognizable? Tell me, please."
"Let's talk about your father, shall we?" he queried.
"Let's not," I answered. "There's nothing I care to share with you about him."
"Ms. Hebert, I do have to ask these questions," he murmured. "Unpleasant as they may be. You hold a great deal of power. That makes many people uncomfortable and they have reservations about how you respond to potentially stressful situations given your recent trials."
He linked his fingers together in the center of the desk. "As I possess no special abilities like you, I am sure you're aware that I am no threat to you. Would it not be ideal to address how your recent experiences have affected you in a situation where you have control?"
"I've no desire to revisit what I went through," I told him bluntly. "There's exactly nothing that is gained by doing so."
"Clarity, understanding," he murmured. "Acceptance?"
"Clarity?" I echoed. "There was plenty of that. Understanding? I'll admit I don't quite understand what he hoped to gain. And frankly, I don't want to. Acceptance?"
I stood up, putting my hands flat on the desk. "Accepting that I killed my dad because of what they did to him isn't something I am keen on."
I straightened. "I don't think there's any point to my being here."
"Ms. Hebert, I do have to present a report to the PRT of our meeting," he cautioned. "They are not likely to react well to your refusal to cooperate."
"The extent of my interest in how they will react or not is so small that you might suggest I don't care at all about that," I replied. "There's nothing they can do to me."
"Perhaps not to you, no," he agreed. "But your friends? Do they share your apparent immunity to harm?"
I tilted my head, considering the question. My silence apparently disturbed him as the color drained slowly from his face.
"Let me be as clear as possible," I began. "For your report, for whoever is undoubtedly listening in. If anyone should decide it is a good idea to harass my friends or harm them in any way, there will be nowhere they can hide from me. Nothing and no one will protect them from what I'll do." He said nothing as I turned with the last word and walked out of the room.
I had been waiting in the room for a while. There was a camera in the corner of one ceiling, that tracked my every movement. But beyond that, I had seen no one since being shown to the nearly bare room. With no one to talk to, I was bored. And impatient. I wanted to be done with this entire thing. The higher-ups in the PRT were going to drag this out, I was sure, to upset me, like Lisa had said.
Making me wait was likely part of that, I guessed. Perhaps the intent was to have me irritated and impatient so I would be easier to rile?
I sighed and drew my finger casually across the arm of the chair, severing a piece of the polished wood. The chair was mostly uncomfortable, lacking any padding anywhere to strip away. Which was good for what I wanted. The block of wood floated up into the air, rotating lazily as I looked at it.
A thought and I redirected some of its momentum, splitting it into six pieces. Four were the same size, one was smaller than the four and the last was larger. I let the five rotate lazily above me as the largest piece turned in the air above my hand.
Fixing the image in my mind, I began chipping and shaping it. By the time I had something resembling my intent, I was fighting the urge to laugh. What was supposed to be a representation of Armsmaster looked more like an angry dwarf with a spear. I stared at it for a moment, then began work on a second. If I was going to be made to wait, I was going to amuse myself.
The last one was finished when I heard the door knob click. I eyed the figures floating in the air, tiny replicas of my friends, even if they weren't the most accurate. I smiled at them, then let them drop into my hand as I turned my attention to the opening door.
Lisa stepped into the room, her eyes flicking from me to the tiny figures I held. Her lips quirked in what was almost a smile. I wondered what her power was telling her about them.
"They want me now?" I asked, standing and dusting off my pants of any wood shavings. I hadn't bothered to dress up for this. They could accept me as I was or not at all. It didn't matter to me.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked, frowning. "This won't exactly make them your friend, you know."
I shrugged. "What are they going to do to me that hasn't been done? There isn't anyone that can force me to do anything I don't want to."
She rubbed the sides of her temples. "I get that. But is being confrontational the way to go?"
"They won't stop trying to find a way," I said. "Maybe this isn't the best idea, but it's what I've got. This.. there's no reason to stay." I looked at her and her frown dissolved into a grin.
"It's a good thing I made arrangements for you." Lisa said as she turned, then paused. "You know they'll stop you, right?"
"They'll try," I corrected, matching her grin with one of my own, however forced it felt. I didn't wait for her to reply as I walked out of the room, heading for the conference hall.
There were several people seated on a raised platform. I recognized some of them from the meeting after Leviathan. I hadn't liked them then and nothing had changed my opinion since.
"Now that you're here, we can continue," one of them said, looking down at me from where he stood.
"No," I said and he blinked.
"Excuse me?" he said, a hint of red appearing in his face.
"I said no," I told him. "I'm not going to participate in this. I'm leaving."
"You will not!" he said, his voice raising. I saw Colin standing nearby, in his armor, looking impassive.
"Yes, I will," I contradicted. "A lot of bad things happened, yes. The Nine are dead. I… can't stay here. I'm taking a bit of the bounty for myself. The rest is going to help Brockton Bay rebuild."
I looked around the room at the people there, took a deep breath. "But I'm done. Staying here isn't possible." I met the eyes of those I had grown close to, nodding to each in turn.
I met Colin's gaze last and saw his head incline slightly. I nodded back and turned on my heel, ignoring the shouting from the PRT representatives.
"You're sure you don't want to come with?" I asked as I shouldered my backpack.
Lisa shook her head. "I'm going to manage things here. Rebuild the shelter. Phillipe and Shawna decided to stay here and are going to help. Lily too, I think. I'll keep money flowing if you need it."
"I meant what I said about the bounty," I told her, eliciting a snort.
"Please, give me a bit of credit," she said. "I won't be touching that. I have other sources to draw from." She scuffed at the floor with her foot for a moment.
"You obviously want to ask something," I pointed out. "What is it?"
"Will you be coming back?"
I looked off toward the bay. The devastation wrought by my fight with the Nine was like a scar across the city from where we stood at the memorial. I felt my heart clench for a moment before I sighed.
"I don't know. Maybe." I finally said. Lisa nodded, as if she had expected that answer.
"Don't be a stranger, okay?" she murmured, stepping close to hug me before turning and moving away quickly. I stood there for a long moment, then turned as well, intending to leave.
I stopped before I had even taken two steps, my eyes widening.
"I want to come with you," Dinah said, a backpack slung across her own shoulder.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "You have your uncle…"
She shook her head. "The numbers for me… I don't like them."
"Who am I to argue with the precog?" I replied, moving to stand beside her. "If you're sure it's what you want, then I'd be happy to have you along." Dinah's face split in a smile as we started walking away from the memorial site and Brockton Bay.