Got started on this around the time I decided to bring the Androgyne heroside, for a monthly story thread on the Shield of Paragon forums which for December of '08 included the prompt "Endings". By the time I was nearly done in January I realized it was more about the start of Ani's new life and thus better suited to the Reciprocators Perspectives series, the January '09 topic for which was "Beginnings". Only got around to writing the last couple paragraphs and posting it near the end of the year, tho'.
One of the most intriguing places to people-watch in the "City of Heroes" is a place few will ever see, one which the world hopes it will not need for long. It is the secure underground bunker that serves as the operational headquarters of the Vanguard, deep below White Plains -- the area known to most today as the Rikti War Zone. There heroes and villains mingle, the personal vendettas and schemes that drive them in the outside world never quite forgotten but set aside in light of the shared threat presented by the Rikti resurgence.
Lt. Ani Hess of the Vanguard Sword, the Androgyne to much of the Rogue Isles and Paragon City, is a people-watcher. E has been since e was a child. Born lacking any internal or external reproductive systems, e spent much of eir youth watching the boys and girls e grew up with, studying the similarities and differences between them as e sought to understand that which separated em from both. As e matured the questions fueling eir curiosity evolved, but the curiosity itself never faded. Though raised to embrace it, to never feel the least bit of shame about eir uniqueness, e has never been anything but keenly aware of eir status as someone far outside the norm. So e continues to look in, rarely envious but always fascinated.
In time, the people-watching became less of a compulsion for Ani than a pastime. Satisfied with the answers e'd formulated for most of eir questions, the observations began to serve more to entertain em and exercise eir mind. Sometimes e watches eir own kind, the superhumans: gadgeteers, geniuses, mages, freaks of science and of nature, their interactions with each other and the rest of Vanguard. E watches as they gather for an audience with Lady Grey, Paragon's heroes and villains of the Isles gravitating to their own, off-hand snipes and the ensuing rejoinders the only interaction between the two bands. E sees them return from their assignments as an ensemble, their conflicting goals outside the W.Z. set aside in the glory of triumph, knowing at the end of their trials that they can rely on one another for at least as long as they are here.
Another thing Ani has observed is the several distinct ways the human body can move when it is weighed down in impervium-plated combat armor. Around the Vanguard base, e had begun to identify the ranks and functions of Vanguard personnel not by insignias of rank but by their gait.
Colonels stride. Even, measured steps that never falter until they reach their destination reflect the responsibility of command, their ability to commit themselves and entire regiments to the needed course of action in search of victory. These are men and women who walk with purpose.
Rangers stalk the corridors of the base, alert, ready to act on the instant. Often dispatched to perform the Vanguard's most crucial and extreme actions, their movements reflect their constant awareness that even in the Vanguard's heart there may be battles to be fought. These are men and women who walk prepared.
The rank-and-file non-meta human soldiers had the easiest carriage to identify. Theirs was often an outright stomp, an unconscious expression of irateness at another day passing and yet their hard work and the sacrifices of their fellows hadn't led to anything resembling the end of this war. Hard, harried footfalls announce their anger, their frustration, and their readiness to exorcise both on the next invader to enter their sight.
Few, if any, can really be said to glide in Vanguard armor. Normally, Lt. Hess is one of them, eir Vanguard armor a second skin. Eirs is a custom make tailored to eir specifications to be more flexible and less restrictive than that worn by most non-metas, as Ani has only confidence in eir abilities to keep em safe in combat. Eir armor is intended less for physical defense than psychological offense -- similar enough for em to blend in with the rest of the troops in mass combat, but distinct enough that when e stalks the Rikti alone they will know who e is and what e can do to them.
Even though clad in that attire which is almost more comfortable for em than being entirely naked, the Androgyne does not glide today. Today e strides, almost in the manner of a colonel. In the year and a half e has spent in the RWZ battling on behalf of the Vanguard and Earth itself, e has found that which e lacked for years as a tool of Arachnos. E has found purpose. Today, e takes the first step in realizing that purpose.
That purposeful stride carried the Androgyne from the Rogue Isles portal into Vanguard R&D. There e joined the Dark Watcher, leader of the Vanguard's Helm division, in observing the autopsy of a Rikti casualty in the operation theater below. The former Freedom Phalanxer's head never turned, nor did his eyes acknowledge Hess' presence, but still the greeting came with impeccable timing, his deep voice filling the air as soon as Hess' footfalls ceased. "Lieutenant. How are the threads today?"
The threads of Fate, a phenomena only Ani Hess is privy to, chains of dimensional refraction that bound em to every person in eir life through glimpses of possibilities diverging into actuality in an infinite number of new dimensions. The Dark Watcher's own experiences as a traveler into myriad other worlds lent him an insight into the operation of Hess' threads that had helped the young mutant come to a clearer understanding of eir potential through their conversations. While Hess reported primarily to Gaussian, eir few brief but enlightening conversations with the leader of the Helm had left em with an abiding respect for the man. "Calm today, sir."
"Good." Before the conversation Ani expected had even begun, the Watcher introduced a non sequitur, using an almost imperceptible nod to indicate the Rikti on the examination table below. "He's one of yours."
Ani looked closer at the Rikti, saw the jagged patches of flesh that had been fatally rehumanized by eir radiation blasts, and noted the faint suggestion of eir own face fighting for space with the Rikti's own in spite of its skull's deformation. E couldn't help but quirk a corner of eir mouth upward -- the sight of eir handiwork, once horrifying to em, nowadays never failed to fill Ani with a quiet pride. Especially when eir "artistry" was wrought upon a Rikti canvas. "You're welcome, sir."
The Dark Watcher issued a short grunt of dissatisfaction. "If only we could prevent the necrosis."
Ani was caught off-guard by the Dark Watcher's quiet musing. "Sir?"
"When you came to us...looking at your history, your ability. When we saw how it worked against them, I'd hoped we could use you."
Ani furrowed eir brow. "I haven't been of use to you?"
"You have. I simply held out hope for more. I wondered if, in you, we might not find a means of undoing the riktification process, but it seems not. Your corrections are limited...incomplete. And quite fatal." The Watcher almost sounded amused, though he remained stone-faced in his observation.
Ani looked again to the Rikti, leaned forward and gripped the observation deck railing. E squeezed, hoping to wring out of emself some of the tension e felt rising, knotting the muscles in eir back. E was afraid e knew where the conversation was going, and it wasn't the direction e'd hoped for. "It doesn't have to be. I'm in control now. I can hold back, dim the intensity. I've been practicing. On them."
The Dark Watcher's eyes again refused to waver from the corpse. "Is that so?"
"I, er..." Ani hesitated. "...I was done practicing with that one, sir."
There was silence between the two for a long while after that, but eventually the Watcher spoke. "We need you and your kind for this war, Hess. They're relentless. We have an entire world waging war against us, and right here is the main insertion point for their forces, our best opportunity to end this, but to do that we have to strike back not just as hard, but harder than they do. Heroes, they want an end to the war as much as Vanguard does, but...we're not fighting crime out here. They can't always bring what it takes to win a war. Their principles do not apply here.
"But out there? In that city, in our world? Those principles are all that matter. You can't toy with a human criminal the way you have with the Rikti. No matter how wretched and forsaken the scum you're called on to apprehend, you can't forget that they're human scum -- they are a part of what we're fighting for here, Hess: humanity. You forget theirs, you've forgotten yours."
Ani remained silent through the lecture. A part of em itched to snap back, to ask Dark Watcher what he had done for this world between the wars, what he knew of the city beyond the War Zone's barriers. Though e successfully held his tongue, the Dark Watcher turned now to face em with a knowing twinkle in his eye. Their eyes locked and two gazes that often saw more, and more mystifying, things than most other humans met in mutual understanding.
The Dark Watcher reached into his overcoat and withdrew a metal file folder emblazoned with the emblem of the Vanguard. "That said? Don't lose your edge, Lieutenant."
Ani took a deep breath, unable to conceal eir relief. E accepted the folder as it was offered and held it in both hands. "Thank you, sir. ...I am ready for this." This last sounded far more intended to convince emself than the Watcher.
"You'd best be. If not, I'll clip your thread myself." The Dark Watcher held up a hand, clenched it into a fist. Ani was astonished to see the smoky, glimmering thread of Fate that bound em to the Dark Watcher drift upwards out of the mass e always perceived to coil itself around the Watcher's forearm, like a snake seeking warmth.
"...understood," Ani murmured.
The Dark Watcher lowered his hand and the thread lazily unwound, returning to its position tethering their fates. He moved, flowing past the Androgyne like a liquid shadow away from the observation area. A slight motion of the Dark Watcher's hand bid that Ani should follow, so e fell in behind him immediately, eir pulse quickening.
It was the first time, Ani realized, e had ever had the chance to watch the Dark Watcher in motion. The Vanguard's most mysterious man preserved much of that mystique by moving unseen. If the Dark Watcher sought to speak with you and summoning you to his presence was infeasible for security concerns, he had a way of positioning himself where you were going to be before you even knew it to be your destination.
"You'll enter the city through our DPO in Atlas. There you will be met by representatives of City Hall, the PPD, and the FBSA. I hope you're well rested because you're going to be there a while. Vanguard's issued its support for you on this, and thanks to Dietrich you can expect Freedom Corps to at least stay out of it. Our recommendations are included with your record, but it's going to be up to you to sell them on it."
They came to a stop at one of the DPO portals, that which connected to the Vanguard facilities in Paragon City. A panel slid aside automatically on eir right gauntlet, proximity activating eir portal interface. The accessible locations, Atlas Park, Founder's Falls, and Peregrine Island, were all grayed out on the screen beneath an overlay of large red letters that blinked, "ACCESS DENIED".
The Dark Watcher produced a PDA which also interfaced with the Vanguard portal system. He punched in a series of commands, authenticating via thumbprint and retinal scan as needed. A second after the last scan was complete, Ani's screen flickered. The red letters blinked one last time and, alone of the displayed options, "Atlas Park" illuminated in a soft green. Ani stared at the screen for a long moment, lost in thought for a time as e prepared for what e was about to do.
The threads of Fate give Ani Hess a unique perspective on eir world, but e was a people-watcher for years before they were revealed to em. E only rarely will inspect them in search of additional insights when watching the people around em, usually preferring to screen the threads from eir vision entirely. In the threads, Ani can find a glimpse of their destiny but not what motivates them towards it; that is what e seeks to learn through eir mundane observation. Over the years e has learned to recognize several patterns in the threads, common traits of unrelated destinies that lend to these threads a certain uniform distortion. E has an extensive mental catalog of these rhythms and patterns from which to draw on, to inform eir understanding of another's behavior and future.
Despite all that e has learned, all e understands of what drives and guides the destinies of others, there is one very significant limitation to eir sight. E sees the threads which bind em to each person with whom e will cross paths in life, and through them can discern, subvert or hasten their fate. E is blind, however, to eir own, leading to a strange dichotomy of persective. As certain as e is that the threads will lead em to where eir prey or allies are meant to be, that each person e encounters has a destination that is unavoidable, the certainty of their fates accents the uncertainty of eir own.
Staring into the plasmatic swirl of the portal, Ani reflects on this. For a moment e is lost in speculation, verging on daydream, as e wonders what fate e may encounter on the other side, ponders the infinite possibilities e cannot glimpse. It is the Dark Watcher who brings em back to eir senses, his voice resonating as if only an inch from Ani's ear. "Merry Christmas, Lieutenant." Ani whirls to find the man is nowhere to be found. E bites back the urge to laugh, and a moment later whispers eir gratitude into the air without any doubt that it will reach the Dark Watcher's ears.
Ani gives eir head a shake to clear it of its anticipatory cobwebs and taps the screen on eir gauntlet; eir signal is approved an instant later and the portal attunes for transport to Atlas Park. Ani pushes aside the temptation to linger another moment wondering what might await em on the other side, and instead steps through -- to find out.