Max is ten years old the first time he runs away.
He's not prepared for it, for any of it; not for the bitter, icy chill of a fall night in Metroburg, or the sudden darkness that blankets the city, or the shadows that seem to lurk around every corner.
(And certainly not for the overwhelming feeling that he's completely and totally alone, but he'll never admit that.)
He can't even remember how it all started, but he knows how he felt when it was over: hot and angry and suffocated, like someone was pressing down on his chest. He couldn't stay. He couldn't stay there and listen to them tell him he should be quieter, sit still, be more like his sister--
No. He'd gone out through the window.
And now he's ten years old and alone on the streets and scared, but stubborn, and he won't turn back. Not even when the wind picks up and the thin hoodie he'd grabbed on his way out loses its ability to keep him warm. Not even when the buzz of anger fades and all he feels is tired.
He makes it pretty far. He walks for an hour, maybe more, as far away from their apartment as his legs can carry him. Then, there's a soft thud on the pavement behind him. And he knows who it is. But he doesn't turn around.
"Max," his father's voice says softly, gently, and he doesn't turn around. "Max, I'm so sorry. Please come home."
He doesn't turn around. But maybe when Hank's strong arms tuck him close, he doesn't pull away, either.
Max is thirteen and he's always been an outsider.
But maybe it just took him this long to realize it.
He comes downstairs late that night, when Phoebe is already asleep and he should be, too. He has this grand plan to sneak his Nintendo DS out of the kitchen drawer and back up to his room, and then he finds his parents curled up together on the couch, just talking.
He tiptoes into the kitchen. "We raised some amazing kids, didn't we?" his mom’s voice drifts in, and he hears his dad hum his agreement. Max slides the drawer open slowly.
"Now if we could just send Max off to military school, we'd be golden."
The video game drops from his hand. He catches it with his telekinesis just before it hits the ground, just in time to hear his mother say in protest, "Hank." But she's laughing, and Max can't, for the life of him, see what's funny. His whole body suddenly feels cold.
They don't want him there.
He sleeps on a park bench that night. They don't find him until late the next morning, when the sun is already high in the sky.
"Max, what were you thinking?" Phoebe says, throwing her arms around him, even while his stay stiff at his sides. "We were worried sick!"
"You were, maybe." He gives a little huff of laughter. "Trust me, it's what they wanted."
"What? What are you talking about?" Phoebe looks puzzled, but he doesn't explain. He doesn't see the point.
She wouldn't get it, anyway.
He's fourteen and has nothing to gain and everything to lose, but he steals the motorcycle anyway.
It's a standard-issue Hero League bike, and it's almost too easy to hack its security system. For a glorious fifteen minutes, he rages down the street, wind whipping at his hair, laughing harder than he ever has before and feeling utterly, completely free.
It's short-lived but it's worth it, even as the power-neutralizing shackle clinks around his ankle and a pair of guards leads him to the Hero League's Juvie.
"Max, how could you?" is the first thing his mom says to him.
And maybe he should feel some sting at the horror in her voice, at the disappointment in their eyes. But it's almost like he's built up an immunity.
"It was easy," he says lightly, and shrugs. "You should tell President Kickbutt to update the security on those things."
He gets four weeks of time.
Well, it would've been two. But it's hardly been three days and he can't take it anymore; there's nothing to do, nothing to build or sketch on or play with, and everyone either glares him down or avoids him like the plague. Because he's Thunderman's son, and even here, he's an outsider.
After he gets his lip split for the second time, he breaks out of his cell with nothing but a plastic fork.
And then he's back to running.
They catch up to him eventually. And they don't give him forks anymore, but he manages just as well with spoons, so their security system gets an update.
Max loves a challenge.
He's sixteen and they move to Hiddenville, and Max knows they're hoping it'll fix him.
They give him the room in the basement and the permission to do whatever he wants with it, and they let him keep Dr. Colosso despite all of Hank's rambling about the bunny being a bad influence. He wonders if this is their attempt to make amends, or if they've really just stopped caring.
They've convinced themselves it's just a phase, and maybe they're right, maybe he will grow out of it, but Max is sixteen and still stubborn and determined to prove them wrong.
So he contacts Dark Mayhem.
(And there's a small, small part of him that hopes he never hears back, but he'll never admit that.)
He does hear back. And he keeps up a correspondence with one of the greatest supervillains of all time, while Phoebe earns her cape and becomes the protector of Hiddenville and is their parents' pride and joy. Max fades into the background, but maybe its better that way.
And yet, there are those moments when things are different. There's family game nights and movies on the couch, there's helping Billy with homework because Phoebe is busy and reading stories to Chloe when no one else is around. There's cooking with his mom in the kitchen and watching his dad's eyes light up when they fix the TV together. There's Saturday breakfast and cheesy portraits and all the other stupid, corny things that make them feel like a family.
And he doesn't hate it.
And it's almost enough to make him stay when Dark Mayhem calls him out. Almost.
But there's also yelling and doors slamming shut, and biting comments about his phase and how he's never been one of them. There's arguments that shake the whole house and comparisons between him and Phoebe, and there is always, always the constant reminder that he will never be good enough.
Max is seventeen and he's still an outsider, and maybe they're better off without him.
That's how long he stays with Dark Mayhem. In two weeks, they don't find him. Maybe they stop looking. He doesn't care.
(He tells himself he doesn't care.)
In his mind, it's like everything's boiled over at once. Suddenly he's angry at the world and his family and maybe himself, and falling in line with a villain is so much easier than it should be. Despite everything his family has ever said, he's good at being bad. For once, he fits neatly into place, no squared edges shoved into round holes, just him and who he's meant to be.
But it's not quite right.
He keeps expecting to hear his mom's voice, or feel his dad's hand on his shoulder. He keeps expecting Chloe to teleport into the room, or Billy and Nora to run in while in the middle of laser-eye tag, or Phoebe to make some sarcastic jibe at him.
He keeps expecting them to be there.
This is what they wanted. They wanted him to leave, he tells himself, they don't need him, they've never, ever needed him.
But god. He really needs them.
So he's seventeen and he's running again, and this time it's towards his family instead of away from them.
He seals the door of Dark Mayhem's lair shut with his heat breath and leaves an anonymous tip to the Hero League, and then he's standing on the doorstep of their house--his house, and his hand trembles and pauses before the bell.
The door swings open before he rings it. Oh right. Thundermonitor.
Phoebe is standing there, and her eyes are so wide he would've laughed in any other situation. He opens his mouth, but he doesn't have to say anything. Suddenly her arms are around him and his around her and she's crying and maybe he is, too. And then his parents are there, and Billy and Nora and Chloe, and he's suffocating in the center of the group hug and definitely crying.
And they stay like that for a few moments. And maybe he was wrong. Maybe they do need him.
Max is seventeen, and he's done running away. He's seventeen, and he's finally made it home.