"Do you recognize this, Ms. Hebert?" asked the principal.
"It's a photo of the Simurgh," I replied quietly, glancing at the item in her hand then returning to staring at the floor. It was my photo of the Simurgh, the one I kept in my backpack to gaze at while I was hiding in the bathroom at lunchtime. They must have found it that morning, when my bullies had convinced a teacher I had a gun so my backpack would be searched and I'd look like a criminal.
I supposed now I also looked like an Endbringer cultist.
"It was found in your backpack this morning," confirmed my homeroom teacher Mrs. Knott, who was sitting next to the principal. She gestured at the photo. "Do you understand why we might find this... disturbing?"
"No," I lied.
The photo was covered in glitter and little hearts and phrases like "sexy warrior angel" and "my precious Smurfy". I had made these additions based on things I'd seen on a poster of Dauntless inside Madison's locker when I was walking past and Madison was making bitchy comments at me. Madison's Dauntless poster and my photo of the Simurgh were both completely disgusting, but an infatuation with Dauntless was socially acceptable and the infatuation with the Simurgh I was attempting to develop was not.
I tried to suppress my feelings of disgust towards the Simurgh photo and replace them with the feelings of affection I'd normally expect a person who did that to a photo to feel for its subject. It didn't entirely work, but I thought I might be getting better at it.
If I acted like I loved the Simurgh hard enough, maybe someday I really would fall in love with her.
If I could love her, I could control her.
My dad was the only person I had ever achieved total control over so far. It had happened right after I got my power—I took him over and used his body to get me out of the filth-filled locker I was trapped in without really thinking about it. After I was free I was horrified at myself for doing that to him and let him go.
He didn't even seem to realise I'd done anything. He thought he'd just randomly decided to come to my school and check on me.
A visit to a pet store showed me that cute fluffy animals were easy to love enough to control; an adorable little jumping spider I found on my bedroom windowsill was a bit harder but I still managed it. However, the only humans I had ever been able to affect were my dad and Emma. Puppies, kittens, and spiders weren't going to be strong enough to fight villains like Lung or Kaiser and I wouldn't want to risk my dad or even Emma in a fight so I knew I needed to find something more impressive if I wanted to be a superhero.
I had loved Emma once. Not romantically, but like I might love a sister. In a way I must still have loved her, or at least the person she used to be, or I wouldn't have been able to control her even to the slight extent that I could.
It was from Emma that I got the idea to force myself to love someone by behaving as if I already did. I'd noticed that she sometimes had strange mixed feelings while tormenting me, mixed feelings that I could exploit to make her stop, and eventually I figured it out. She was faking it. Her feelings were based on lies she'd told herself enough times she'd convinced herself they were true. By acting confident, by acting like she was stronger and better than me, she'd managed to create for herself a kind of confidence and strength.
If I faked love for someone who was expendable and strong enough to fight villains I could eventually develop some actual love for them, and that would probably be enough to make them mine. The Endbringers were the obvious candidates. Big, strong, and nobody would mind if I accidentally got them killed. I chose to start with the Simurgh because of her looks—I was straight, but I didn't find Behemoth or Leviathan physically attractive and I thought it would be easier to overcome my sexuality and fall in love with a beautiful woman than to get past her brothers' terrifying appearances.
"Was this meant to be some kind of joke?" asked the principal, waving my Simurgh photo at me. "Putting sparkles and sappy phrases on a photo of a monster? Did you think this was funny, Taylor?"
"It's not funny," I said quietly, still looking at the floor. This was so embarrassing. I was going to have to admit to having a crush on an Endbringer even though I didn't yet. If I said out loud that I wasn't attracted to the Simurgh that would be a huge setback, it'd make it take me even longer to get to the point where I could control her and be a superhero.
So I forced myself to meet their eyes, pasted what I hoped was a look of stubborn resolve on my face, and tried to sound defiant. "And... and she's not a monster. You're the monsters."
They stared at me.
"Having that photo with me makes me feel... safer," I continued. "The Simurgh is so... so smart and pretty and strong... just like my mom was. None of you are doing anything about the bullies and with her in my backpack I feel like I have some backup when people fuck with me." That's completely true except for the part about the photo making me feel safe I told myself firmly, trying to assuage the guilt caused by comparing my mom to an Endbringer.
The principal and Mrs. Knott continued to stare at me.
"It is an Endbringer, Taylor," the principal finally said in a strained voice, obviously making a huge effort to sound calm. "It has killed thousands and driven many more insane. It is not on your side."
"If it were here it would be doing far worse to you than your classmates ever could," Mrs. Knott added gently.
"Maybe she's just misunderstood," I said. "Maybe she'd be good if she had someone to love her." She'd certainly be good if I loved her. I'd make her be good. "Why are you interrogating me about a photo, anyway? Don't you have more important things to do?"
"We've been keeping a close eye on you since January," explained Mrs. Knott. "Your father asked us to, so we could help prevent anything like that from happening again. We also felt it would be a good idea to monitor your mental health, to make sure you weren't going to do anything... drastic."
Great. They were incompetent or careless when it came to protecting me from the bullies but they were obviously willing to make more of an effort to ensure I wasn't going to shoot up the school. Or try to summon an Endbringer to destroy it.
"This photo and your comments about it raise some serious concerns, Taylor. We're going to have to call your father," said the principal.
The school wanted me to get some therapy, but they weren't willing to pay for it and my dad couldn't afford it. It was eventually agreed that I would attend a free LGBT support group in the hopes that I would stop being weird about the Simurgh if I were exposed to some nice normal non-Endbringer girls who understood some of what I was supposedly feeling and didn't constantly harass me.
The drive home was awkward.
"When I was about your age, I... I once developed a crush on a woman who was on the news for killing her baby daughter," my dad said suddenly, awkwardly breaking the awkward silence. "She was dangerous, a bad person, but she was... attractive. Very, very attractive. When you're young it can sometimes seem like that's all that matters."
I didn't reply.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that I... I understand," he said. "It's... it doesn't matter to me that you like girls, either. I love you and I just want to support you."
"Thanks, Dad," I said softly, then I leaned against the window and pretended to fall asleep.