"Why are we here again?"
I wonder how often Mom felt like this? I thought, looking down at my sister. A grin remained on my face despite my own internal feelings.
"Because, Taylor," I said, careful not to show an ounce of my annoyance. And what was my mere annoyance in the face of an event such as this? "You keep saying that I suck at making friends."
I smirked, letting the smug feeling of victory radiate off me. "So I wanted you to meet them."
Taylor bit her lip and looked away, nervousness written as plain as day across her body language. "They're not, like…" She trailed off, losing the nerve to finish.
"Druggies?" I ventured with a raised brow.
"No!" Taylor snapped with a fierce blush. Which just meant that it had actually been one of the things she'd been considering. "I just, ah, think it's a bit creepy in here, and you like dark stuff, so I thought maybe…"
I frowned, really quite confused as to where she was going with this. "Maybe…?"
"It was a cult?" she squeaked.
It took a minute for my brain to catch up there. Even with all the processing power I could throw at stuff the guess was so out of left field that it took a while for me to just figure out what the hell she'd said and how in god's name it actually fucking fit.
"You think I'm in a cult?" I turned to her, bewildered, insulted, and more than a little amused. "Really?"
"Yes?" She said in a voice that was all questions and no confidence.
I rolled my eyes and kept walking.
"Well, you can't blame me!" She shouted at my back.
"Sure I can."
"But it's super creepy in here!"
It wasn't that bad.
Sure, we were in a long poorly lit hallway underground near a lot of the school's guts and machinery which produced a lot of weird sounds that were hard to quickly identify the source of. Yes, there were a lot of nooks, crannies, exposed pipes, and crawlways in this section, and that did let a lot of critters like mice, rats, and spiders skitter around and do their thing in the dark depths of Arcadia high. And, okay, they had found that one dead guy here, but it'd just been a maintenance person who'd had a heart attack. The fact that it'd taken them nearly a week to realize he was missing and for some random student to find him and post pictures of his half-eaten bloated corpse covered in rodents and bugs all over the internet didn't change the fact that he was old, in poor health, and died of natural causes.
And none of that meant that anyone should reasonably find this at all creepy. In fact, it was kind of cool, really. Seeing the little microcosm of subterranean urban life. As it most certainly wasn't haunted.
"You're being ridiculous, I said flippantly, with a smile on my face.
"Oh come on, you believe in God and all that. You're telling me you don't believe in ghosts?" Taylor argued, jogging after me as I walked towards the lit door at the end of the hallway.
"Taylor," I said, carefully bringing all my patience to the fore, "Contrary to popular belief, just because I'm religious does not mean I'm superstitious."
"Yeah, but isn't there a holy ghost?"
"Holy Spirit," I corrected, "And that shit's complicated."
I glared at her.
She stuck her tongue out.
I flicked her in the forehead.
"Ow!" She flinched, giving me an over exaggerated pout. "You're so mean to your little sister!"
It actually made me smirk. "You say that now, but soon you'll be singing my praises."
"I just know you'll be perfect for this," I muttered to myself with a chuckle as we approached the door at the end of the hall.
It had a faded label on it, and most people didn't even know this room existed. The principal and management, of course, knew, as did maintenance, but other than that the only people who knew and used it were those in the know.
"Way to not sound like a cultist, there, Amy," Taylor grumbled.
"Just you wait." I grinned, unwilling to contain my exuberance. "You're gonna love it."
I giggled as I opened the door. "This"
On the other side was a large room, an artifact of the old New England architecture that the school was built on we liked to call it the Dungeon, though the official name was far less glamorous. Long ago, the wood and stone held everything from salted meat to fruit preserves to wine. I could still smell the ghosts of such succulent meals, enough such that I'd been pushing the group to bring some back.
Later on, in the midst of the fear and paranoia of the cold war, it'd been turned into a bomb shelter. The rooms had been expanded out, reinforced, given modern installations like climate control, filters, and even hardline connections to the outside world. It wasn't quite up to the same standards of an Endbringer Bunker, but that was understandable given the age it'd been made for.
Today, however, the room stored a large round table, twelve chairs, and five other people talking amongst themselves. On the table was a large map with a grid pattern overlaid on top, two large ornate black boxes with silver latches and golden designs, a myriad of dice of all manner of shape, size, and color, as well as an array of silver figurines ranging from a mighty dragon to a small dog.
Chad, a reed-thin Vietnamese-American man a grade above me with long black hair and a lackadaisical slouch noticed me come in and gave me a smile and a wave. I waved back, feeling the cooling rush of being back in my element. I was back in a familiar setting, a place with well known and trusted friends. In a way, it felt like coming home.
"Oh my god…" Taylor's jaw dropped at the sight of the room
I leaned back against the door frame and folded my arms over my chest to let Taylor take in the view. I let the smug feeling wash over me and fill my face with confidence.
"Can we go see the cult instead?" Taylor asked.
I stumbled off the door, barely catching myself with my enhanced reflexes. "W-what?"
Taylor gave me a flat, unimpressed, dare I say bored look. I worked my jaw for a moment as I tried to think of a response.
"Dungeons and Dragons? I didn't peg you for a nerd, sis," Taylor asked with an accusing brow.
"I-I'm not a nerd!" I sputtered indignantly.
Glancing behind her I could see Chad, Jasmine, and Lucas all struggling to hold in their laughter. I shot them all glare before Taylor stole my attention again.
"I mean, I thought you were going for the whole cool broody goth rock chick kinda thing. But then you pull out D&D." Taylor sucked in through her teeth, "That's pretty nerdy."
"Says the person who keeps reading Wikipedia when they're bored."
"Hey! Wikipedia is doing good work! I happen to appreciate the incredible availability of reliable information it provides. Don't hate on it just cause you can't internet."
"Wikipedia can eat my fucking-"
I was cut off by the loud creaking of the wooden door on the opposite side of the room opening up from one of the many passages of the basement. Five more people entered through, and I caught Rob and Morgan immediately, but behind them…
"You know...I think maybe I spoke too soon…" Taylor tried to say nonchalantly. "Maybe I should give D&D a chance." She dipped her head down and averted her eyes, trying to hide her growing blush by fixing her hair.
I only noticed that in the background. I was too busy looking at the trio that had entered with wide and disbelieving eyes. The blue-haired kid, I didn't know his name, annoyed me a little. I thought his hair was kind of gaudy and his overall attitude ticked me off, but he was a teenage boy and an open cape so it didn't really surprise me.
Seeing the blonde haired and blue eyed form of Victoria Dallon was much higher on my list of "Things currently driving me to a blood rage", especially the way I could feel her aura tickling the back of my brain. This close, I was sure it was doing the same to my sister's much more malleable mind, something that set my teeth on edge. The way she looked around with wide starry eyes somehow managed to piss me off, and the way everyone seemed to notice her the moment she walked in made my eyes twitch.
But the person who made my blood boil was the one in the back who deliberately tried not to meet my eyes. The normally smiling and confident ball of charisma and enthusiasm that most girls liked to call a dreamboat. Dean Stansfield.
"Oh, wow!" Vicky said with genuine excitement, which only managed to piss me off more somehow, "Dean, look at these!"
She flew over to the table and swept up two of the figurines on the table and brought them up to her face to inspect them.
A slim Hispanic boy with close-cropped hair and glasses, Hector, walked up to her and cleared his throat. Hector was the one who made the metal figurines for everyone. By hand, no less. He did it in his spare time in the machine shop his dad ran and he was pretty proud of them. They may have been durable, but he didn't appreciate people mishandling them.
"Um, if you could-?" He began, gesturing to the figurines.
"Oh!" Vicky brought a hand up to her face in shock, "I'm so sorry! They just looked so cool and intricate!" She quickly placed them all back on the table, yet did so carefully to keep from damaging them.
He gave her a nervous smile. "That's, uh, fine, but I'd appreciate it if you were more careful. I know they're made of metal, but I actually used a pretty soft and cheap one for them, so it's not too hard to get them to warp-"
Hector would have continued to ramble, I knew, but Vicky cut him off.
"You made these?" She prodded with a curious look.
"I, uh, yeah?"
"That's incredible!" She placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder and prompted him to keep talking.
And he did.
Just like that Vicky had taken one of the more introverted members of the group, someone who barely spoke more a sentence to anyone, and made him open up to her like they were old friends. He was my friend, I'd worked for over a year to build a relationship with him, with all of the people in the club, and here she was, making them with the snap of her finger.
It infuriated me. Today was supposed to be special. I was going to be the veteran member of the D&D club introducing my younger sister everything in here. It would have been a great way to help her make new friends, to expand her interests, and I know she would have loved it. All the work and plans I'd had were ruined, tossed to the wind because Vicky and her cousin showed up and stole the show. Now Taylor would be more interested in ogling the boy in blue and the rest of my friends talking shop with the resident celebrity.
And the worst part, the part that really pissed me off, the part that had my bones writhing under my skin wasn't either of that. The blue kid was too clueless to really hate, he was kind of a bumbling fool. Vicky, for all that it felt like she was stealing my friends, wasn't being malicious about it. She was genuine, if saccharine sweet. Sure, it made me want to rip off her arms and watch as she cried herself to sleep, but she was relatively innocent in all this.
She was like a big dog, with her happy dumb face and the way she just seemed to absorb a room's attention. There was also the fact that she'd end up bumbling around knocking every carefully laid thing to the ground without even knowing she'd done it.
No, for all she was a bull in a china shop ruining my afternoon and stealing my friends, she wasn't doing it out of intent or malice, she was simply being Vicky. A person I loathed, but a force of nature. There was a far more deserving subject of my anger. The person who'd brought the little monsoon over here to ruin everything.
Dean splashed water on his face, trying to wipe away the sweat from the nerves and heat. Arcadia's basement was, outside of the dungeon room, a hot a humid place. He wiped his face off with a paper towel and looked at himself in the mirror. A few droplets of water still clung to his growing facial hair.
He was stalling for time and we both knew it.
"I'm waiting, Dean." I tapped my foot impatiently.
We were in the Dungeon's bathroom, which I'd dragged Dean in here to explain and everyone else was too busy yucking it up with the local celebrities and meeting each other to notice. Dean didn't resist, probably because for all he was an idiot at least he wasn't a coward.
He hung his head for a moment, letting the water dripping from his brown hair punctuate the silence.
"...I can explain," He said.
I gave him a grin that was all teeth. "Please do."
He sighed, then pushed off from the sink and faced me. "...This is for your own good."
"For my own good?" I challenged with an arched brow.
"Yes." He nodded, then cringed the moment I allowed my anger to boil over inside me. "Okay, it's, uh, you both need more friends."
"Well Dean," I said with a dead smile as I walked up to him with tight and jerky movements filled with angry tension. "In case you hadn't noticed, your girlfriend has a shit ton, and she's currently working at stealing the few I had."
"So, you know," I said, my hands itching to reach up and tear his face off. "Thanks for that."
"It's, uh, not that simple." Dean winced, "You see...Vicky's, uh, ...she doesn't have a lot of real friends."
"No." He shook his head sadly. "She's got a lot fans, groupies-"
"Thralls?" I supplied innocently.
Dean scowled, "That's not fair. Or accurate."
"Hey." I shrugged. "I don't really give a shit if she's Heartbreaker 2.0 or not. As long as she stays the hell away from me and mine it's not my problem.
I let out a dark chuckle. "Well, it wasn't, then you brought her here."
"Look, her Radiance-"
"Is that what she calls it? My my doesn't that sound nice-"
"It's very complicated, but it's not permanent-"
"Yeah, because, you know, Pavlov conditioning and reward system reinforcement isn't permanent-"
"And, it's not something she can just turn off."
"Okay." I nodded with that same empty grin stretched across my face. "That's got a simple solution, keep her the fuck away from me."
Dean sighed, folding his hands together and recollecting himself.
"Amy," He began, "I think you could be one of the few real friends Vicky will ever have."
My false smile fell.
Faster than Dean could react, faster than any normal human could react, my hand snapped out. Tiny claws split open my skin for a fraction of a second, tearing open my gloves and leaving the fleshy underside of my hand exposed. I grab Dean by the bottom of his face, cupping his chin, and drinking in the data with a deep breath.
He freezes, his whole body going stiff in a silent panic. I can see his whole body lighting up with fight or flight responses. Most importantly, I can see those two little odd nuggets of inhuman meat in his brain.
"You actually believe that," I exhaled.
I released my grip on his chin but left a few skin and hair samples on him. Nothing he could detect, but enough to retain physical contact with him, as far as my power was concerned. I could see the pulses coming from the strange nuggets in his brain, as well as how they impacted the rest of his thoughts. Translating what all the signals meant for someone I sort of knew, like Dean, was hard. There was no way I'd be able to get anything resembling real-time translation of his thoughts.
But his brain followed the same blueprint as most other human brains. I might not get details, but it was enough to get the basics with simple pattern recognition.
"Did you have to try and rip my head off?" Dean rubbed his sore throat.
"No," I admitted with a shrug. I flashed him a toothy grin. "But it made me feel better."
Dean knew I had powers, and I knew he had powers. Given what they were it was kind of hard for the two of us to spend a year and half at the same school and not notice the oddities about each other. We didn't know the exact specifics, mostly because I tended to avoid him when I could, but I knew he was an empath who was probably Gallant, and he knew I had powers that at least mimicked empathic sense.
He didn't make as big a deal out of it as he could, likely because I didn't tend to do cape stuff. Which meant I was more or less just a student who also happened to have powers. The fact he had no idea I was an autobiokinetic also probably had something to do with that. The enhanced strength I gave myself was easily disguised by the fact I actually had the muscles for them.
Of course, then there were times like this. When he tried to meddle. Sometimes it was the classic unsubtle pitch of the wards. Others, it was the fumbling attempts to fish for information on her powers. Today it was the good old, "why can't we be friends?".
Dean paused. "...Has anyone ever told you that you can be kind of a bitch?"
"Oh golly gosh, I am?" I gasped. "Oh, my stars and garters!"
"Why, I am coming down with the vapors. You have insulted my honor, good sir," I reeled, fanning my face as dove more and more into the accent and character, "A lady of my delicate and refined constitution cannot endure such cutting insults to her dignified character."
Dean closed his eyes, sighed, and thought something along the lines of, Why me?/God dammit/Just one fucking day is all I ask
"Alright, Amy, I'm sorry," He said finally, "And I know you know I mean that."
I let my lip curl up in disgust at the fact he was right.
"It's just...Vicky has never been great at making friends. Even now, all she has is a legion of yes men. She thinks it makes her happy, but…"
"But it's a hollow victory?" I guessed.
"Yeah," he said with a sad smile and a shrug, "She can get everyone on her side, but does it mean anything when you didn't earn it? I know that deep down she's always worried that the only reason people like her is because of her powers or New Wave. Hell, she's scared that the only reason her own family loves her is because she finally got her powers."
"And she puts up with you because you're immune to all that," I said guessed.
"Well," Dean said with a self-deprecating chuckle, "Yeah?"
We were both silent for a moment. What was I supposed to say to that? I decided to break the ice with a tried and true technique amongst people who could read each other like a book.
"That's fucking depressing."
Dean laughed. An earnest one this time.
"Yeah, well, welcome to the world of parahumans." He shrugged. "Irony and pain is the name of the game."
I grunted in agreement.
"Why are you telling me all this? Wouldn't Vicky, like, cut all your limbs off and burn you to ash if she found out?" I asked.
"Yeah," Dean cocked his head to one side, "But this is kind of a gamble on my part. You're the only other person I've met so far in the whole city who is even resistant to Vicky's Radiance. If she had even one more friend she could actually trust...that'd be enormous."
"Hmm." I nodded. "So, uh-"
Even before I finished, Dean's face fell. His brain already churning with what his power was telling him I was feeling.
"Why should I care?"
"Really Amy?" He sagged.
"I mean, it's a nice sob story, but it sounds like a personal problem. She's not my girlfriend and she's sure as shit not my sister, so I don't see why I should get involved in that ticking time bomb," I explained with a casual shrug.
"She needs your help, Amy. You can't just turn her away," Dean practically pleaded. I could feel the desperation radiating off of him. The moment he said it, he knew it was the wrong angle, but that didn't mean I couldn't enjoy tearing him a new one for it.
"First off." I ticked off with my fingers. "I totally can. Fuck her."
Sure, I was probably being a hypocrite, a bitch, and an asshole, but fuck him. Dean had pissed me off so I couldn't be particularly bothered to be a nice person at the moment.
"Second, she'll be fine. She's got you, and she's got all the 'friends' she could ever ask for. Plus there's that whole 'truth and justice' thing going for her. She'll be fine. And if she's not," I shrugged again, "that's where you step in."
"Third and finally." I rounded out. "Her pep pisses me off on a fundamental level. Despite the fantasies your prepubescent dick might dream up, I'd sooner flay Victoria alive and record the sounds of her screams to make my own mixtape of feel-good memories and lullabies than join your little harem and kiss the bitch."
Dean blinked, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
"I-I'm not trying to make a har-" Dean cut himself off with a shake of his head, "You're trying to distract me."
"I'm trying to live my own life and not get dragged into your teenage fantasies." I pushed anyway.
"I'm not fantasizing about-"
"You are now," I cut him off.
And he was.
It was a fairly well-educated guess given the readings I was picking up from him.
Ah, betrayed by your own body. I smirked. You poor poor teenage human male. Dealing with all those pesky hormones. So glad I got rid of mine first chance I got.
"I-I'm, uh, I" Dean stammered. I'd caught him flat-footed and he knew that I knew that he was thinking about it now. "That's not the, uh, I don't-"
"So we done?" I said, spinning on my heel to leave the bathroom. "I mind my business, you mind yours?"
"No, wait!" Dean said, lunging to grab my shoulder and keep me from leaving before he convinced me.
Dammit I cursed, hoping that that'd been the end of it.
"Yes?" I said in a tone as empty as my expression.
Dean sighed, realizing that nothing he'd said had actually gotten to me and that none of this was really going how he'd wanted it to at all.
"Amy, I'm sorry I put you on the spot like this," He said. He actually meant it. Not surprising, given his nature, but nice to know. "But Vicky needs this. She'll never admit it, and she'd kill me if she knew why I really did this. She doesn't even know you have powers."
"Huh, color me impressed," I admitted.
Dean rolled his eyes at the comment, likely because he literally was coloring me impressed. I smirked at the way his mind churned in annoyance. He scowled, seeing my emotions play out in response. I let out a snort at the fact that I could piss him off just by thinking in his direction.
Finally, Dean sighed and pushed on, "Honestly, I think the two of you could be great friends."
I raised a lone, questioning, brow as I deadpanned, "She's a yammering puppy of pep and happiness I want to punt into the Plaguelands."
Dean paused. "...Isn't Taylor also kind of like a puppy?" He said, leaning back like he expected a fist to come flying towards his face.
Good, he was learning.
"Yeah," I admitted, then effortlessly spun on my heel and leaned into him, "But she's my puppy."
He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, you win."
What Dean actually meant is that he couldn't think of a good counter yet. He'd be back, he hadn't given up, but I'd made my point. Dean was a stubborn bastard, and as foolish as he was arguably brave. He liked to meddle where he had no business just because he thought it was "The right thing to do". It was stupid, and it'd probably get him killed one of these days, but it also meant he wasn't in the habit of giving up just because someone told him to.
I should know, I've been dealing with the idiot for the past year and a half.
Already I could see the way he wanted to get that last word in.
Yep, I thought bitterly, not even bothering to keep the sneer off my face. There it is.
"Give her a chance, okay?" Dean asked. "She's not that bad, and she could really use a true friend."
"Just give Victoria a chance, Amy. Please?"
Oh fuck, my face fell, Now he's begging.
As much as I liked kicking puppies, this felt like kicking a crying limp puppy begging for death. Which actually made me feel bad. Somehow.
"Fine," I huffed.
His face lit up.
Oh, there's that hate again, I thought, instantly wanting to turn his skull inside out.
"But-!" I growled, holding a solitary finger up to his face, "If she fucking tries anything with Taylor, then I promise nothing. Got it?"
He nodded fervently, hope no doubt blooming inside him. God, he was going to be insufferable. I was already regretting this.
"Amy, thank you so much. You won't re-"
I cut him off with a finger on his lips.
"Shut it. I already am. Don't make me punch your smug fucking face." I clipped out.
He nodded silently.
I sighed, figuring this was the best I was going to get.
I walked out of the bathroom in a bad mood. I was willing to give Victoria a chance. Keyword, A. If she stepped out of line I'd send her crashing to the ground so fast she'd need a new pair of legs.
That was, of course, when I saw Victoria literally floating around the table with a look of concentration written clearly upon her face. I was hit by a wave of her so-called "Radiance", momentarily basking me in awe and rapture, before I washed it away with casual and practiced ease.
She hung in the air above the table, her four golden orbs rotating above the table like a ceiling fan while two more hung by her side. The four orbiting above the table each shone a beam of light, much like a spotlight. I knew for a fact that those same beams could be focused into narrow lances capable of melting through steel like a hot knife through butter, a fact that made their presence near my sister unnerving for me.
Taylor, much like the rest of my friends in the D&D club, was looking at the beams with enraptured surprise. How much of that was because of Victoria's "Radiance" and how much was because it was genuinely amazing to them I wasn't sure, but even I could admit that the light show she was displaying was reasonably impressive. The beams of light she cast upon the table interacted with each other, the orbs twisting and extruding into different shapes, mostly just ovals and needles, all to create an effect something like an inverse shadow puppet. Instead of being darkness cast in light, it was light cast in darkness, all taking different effects and shapes.
And, grudgingly, I had to admit it was pretty good. The myriad of shapes and characters she made on the table in the dark was far more varied than any normal person could make with mere hands and actually started to look somewhat holographic.
"Wow," Jasmine said, a senior classman with straight shoulder-length brown hair and a plain face. She or Rob were usually the DM's for the group, as the two had been playing D&D for the longest. "That could actually really help with stories and stuff."
"We've got our own little movie maker." Rob smirked, possibilities dancing in his eyes.
"Yeah, combined with Amelia's voice acting and Hector's model's, we got all our bases covered on that." Jasmine agreed, nodding in my direction.
I suppressed the urge to scowl easily, instead defaulting to a flat expression that gave no hint at my true distaste. When I told Dean I would give this a shot I hadn't expected or wanted anyone else to try to push us together.
Then, of course, Victoria looked down at me with that megawatt smile filled with innocence and sunshine, her "Radiance" flaring up even brighter. The intensity of it gave me what I can best describe in human terms as a headache even while reset my own brain back to normal. For all that her aura screamed "LOVE ME", my own instincts screamed, "GO FUCK YOURSELF" in return.
I saw the way she'd wormed her way into all my friend's hearts in mere moments. I saw the way Taylor and Victoria's cousin made a miserable attempt to both flirt and act nonchalant around each other. I saw the way the carefully laid plans I'd made, the ideas I'd had, all burned to ash and scattered in the wind. I saw it all and felt a new kind of hate burn it's way into my heart.
I glared at Victoria's form as I used every ounce of my self-restraint to keep from jumping up there and assimilating her from the inside out. I knew it was the wrong thing to think, but deep inside my soul I yearned for it. I knew, one way or another, I would have my revenge. Then and there I swore it.
I will not let this stand.