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The light is pain; I open my eyes and it strikes into me with almost physical force, harsh white illumination ever-so-faintly flickering in a way that sends a band of pain up the back of my head.

I don't remember closing my eyes; I don't remember making a sound, but something prompts an electronic hiss and click before I hear a woman's voice, a little too loud against my ears.

"Hello? Can you hear me?"

I groan, pressing my head against my pillow and bringing a hand up to cover my eyes.

"It sounds like you're awake." She pauses. "My name is Miss Militia. Can you tell me who you are?"

The words penetrate, but it takes a moment before the meaning does, before understanding blazes a path through the fog in my head.

Miss Militia.

Sophia.

Dad.

I push myself up on one arm, looking at the room through slitted eyes; I don't have my glasses, but I can still see bare steel walls.

"Where-" The word comes out thick and slurred through numb lips.

"You're in Protectorate headquarters; we've got you in a room for your safety. Can you tell me who you are?"

It's a weird question, and I can feel it slowly turning over in my head as I swing my legs down and sit on the edge of the bed, staring down at bare arms- my bare arms.

And I remember how I was Emma even as I notice that I'm me again, even as I realize my sweatshirt is gone, even as my stocking feet touch the bare-metal floor.

"Taylor." I look at a dark spot that bulges out of one wall- a camera, maybe? "I-I'm-" I swallow. "Sophia. She- she shot me- she shot Dad-"

"Taylor, it's going to be okay." Her voice is oil on the troubled water of my words, steady and soothing. "We know about what Sophia did, and we're going to take care of it, but I need your help."

And then she says the words that make the world stop.

"Taylor, we know you're a parahuman."

She pauses.

"We need to know what you did to your father."

Dad?

The words sit in my head, frozen and aching, and all I can think is what's wrong with Dad?


 

He looks down at his hands.

 

There used to be callus there, now faded from years of office work.

 

There used to be strength there, but it's faded now as the scars and wrinkles have waylaid the tautness of youth.

 

They were a father's hands.

 

He looks at his hands, and all he can see is his daughter's face, eyes wide and pleading as she stares at him.

 

He looks at his hands, and all he can remember is the feeling of flesh parting like the pages of a book against his fingers, the sound of her struggling to breathe through lungs he's crushed and torn in his embrace.

 

There's a man in blue armor, sitting across the table from him as he looks at his hands.

 

The man tries to talk to him, asks him questions he doesn't hear over the sound of his little girl.

 

He looks down at his hands.

 

And he wishes he wasn't alone anymore.

 

[hr][/hr]

"I... I didn't do anything to Dad." The words come out mechanical, hesitant like the last notes of a wound-up music box as I remember him on his knees in front of the other me, the sound he made as he watched my torn-up self fall into nothingness before his eyes.

I can hear Miss Militia over the speaker, her words slow and hesitant. "Taylor... we spoke to Principal Blackwell. She said he was... very aggressive when she spoke to you two."

She hesitates. "Did you do that, Taylor? We just want to help him."

[hr][/hr]

 

He doesn't remember the man in blue leaving.

 

He knows the other man comes in, gold armor brilliant and shining over a white tunic, the red crest on his helm brushing against the top of the doorway.

 

He knows the man in gold-and-white sits down, pulls something from under one arm- a tablet.

 

The man shows it to him, and the world seizes to stillness when he sees his little girl's face, eyes closed like she's sleeping.

 

He stares. Sees her, sees how she was before that awful tearing moment.

 

Someone's saying his name, calm and patient as they repeat it again and again.

 

He looks up at the man, sees his smile, kind and sad with understanding as he speaks again, asks a question.

 

"Can you tell me about her?"

 

[hr][/hr]

"I didn't do anything to him!"

The words spill out along with the tears as I tell her what happened, about Sophia holding me down as Emma used the razor, about how my Emma was there for me and then gone and then there again, Dad seeing me that night and his reaction.

I tell her about meeting Blackwell, Emma coming in and playing turnabout; searching lockers, and what we found in mine. How Sophia attacked me, how I became Emma and Dad defended me.

I tell her about Blackwell's office and try not to think about what the words bring up.

She asks about my power, and I stare at the mirror on the wall of my room, dig into the sight of the stubble on my scalp and the feeling of exposure I get in this room where the light drives away all shadows-

And Emma's with me, pulling me into her arms and letting me close my eyes as I listen to her voice.

[hr][/hr]

"She was looking at me, and just for a moment, I didn't believe her." He's weeping openly now as he stares down at the picture of his daughter. "And she saw it, she saw she was alone."

A sniff, the sound long and clotted through his tears.

"And that's... that's." He swallows, wipes at his eyes. "She said she loved me, right before-"

The words are barbed, digging into his throat. Right before I killed her.

He looks up, into the armored man's eyes, and he can see a tear-trail half-masked under his helm.

"Danny." His voice is soft. "I am so sorry."

They both stare at the picture of Taylor.

"She's not dead."

He hears the words, doesn't process them for a moment.

And then he looks up, sees Dauntless' eyes. Sees his smile, kind and genuine.

"We didn't find Taylor's body in Blackwell's office. Just you and Emma- someone who looked like Emma Barnes," he corrects himself, tilting the tablet towards him and tapping a few commands before tilting it back to Danny.

He sees Emma, lying there.

And then the image animates into video, and Daniel Hebert watches as Emma's face frays apart like willow bark, peeling and dissolving into-

Taylor.

"She's okay, Danny. She's alive, just sleeping like you were."

He stares down at his little girl.

"And she's going to need you."

[hr][/hr]

Miss Militia is gone, but I'm not alone, breathing in Emma's scent and feeling her stroke my hair as she hums and my mind pinballs through memory after memory.

I remember Sophia.

Her crossbows.

The bandanna covering her face, and something feels wrong, like it's supposed to be something else-

A mask..

Memory calls back, a stern face cast in dark metal, crossbows akimbo, cape flaring-

Emma's hand stills on my hair. "What is it?" she asks.