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Charlotte’s not sure what she was expecting.

Logically, it makes sense that the house would be inconspicuous. Maybe the Thundermans are a family of superheroes, but they’re also a family of superheroes trying their very best to blend in to a small, suburban town, so of course they wouldn’t have fortress walls surrounding their property or a laser guided security system or blasters that point at her the second she steps up to the porch. But she’s still a little surprised at just how average it is. Almost shockingly normal. There’s a red-painted door and a clipped lawn and a paved stone pathway, and it’s not really the kind of place she’d expect Max Thunderman, of all people, to call home—

So maybe that’s a little more to the point. It’s not exactly the superhero thing, it’s more that Max and Phoebe Thunderman are some of the least normal people she’s met, second only to Ray and Schwoz and occasionally, Jasper—who doesn’t even have superpowers but does have a Twitter page devoted entirely to buckets. Phoebe, to her credit, is trying, but Charlotte is positive that Max could not possibly care any less about blending in. He doesn’t even need his superpowers to stand out; he’s so entirely, frustratingly himself that it’s impossible to miss him.

(Charlotte doesn’t hate him, or she wouldn’t be standing here on his porch. She has a grudging sort of respect for him because he’s so intelligent, but he’s also careless and cocky and more than a little bit of an ass. So she can’t really say she likes him, either. Maybe she’s somewhere in between—she hasn’t decided on that one yet.)

Charlotte takes a breath. She’s trying to go into this without any expectations, but it’s pretty clear that that plan is already failing. Well. She has a feeling that the next few hours are going to be full of surprises, anyway, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, she could use the distraction; there’s a buzzing feeling of frustration that’s settled into her skin, one that’s become a recent side-effect of spending long hours at the Man Cave. It’s becoming familiar way too quickly, and Charlotte’s in a hurry to get rid of it. A little science always does the trick for that.

Even if said science is being performed with yet another insufferable boy. But it’ll be worth it when they completely crush it at the science fair—her and Max’s combined genius will undoubtedly make an unstoppable force. As long as they can actually work together long enough to make that happen. Piece of cake, right?

She’s about to knock on the door when it swings open, leaving her swiping at air. Max leans in the doorway, his brown hair artfully tousled like he’s a TV character who just rolled out of bed, and raises an eyebrow at her.

“Okay, so were you planning to lurk on my porch all day, or were you ever going to ring the doorbell?”

Charlotte’s cheeks warm. “I wasn’t lurking, and I was about to,” she says hastily, shouldering her backpack and trying not to look as caught-off-guard as she feels. She doesn’t even know how he knew she was here—maybe the Thundermans’ house does have more to it than meets the eye—and it’s completely unfair of him to open the door looking like that, in a black v-neck with the waistband of his grey sweatpants hanging low on his hips—

He smirks at her, and it’s a little too knowing for her liking. “Just come inside, it’s getting cold.”

She can’t argue with that, so she steps inside after him. The house is tidy and colorful and warm, and there’s a strong smell of cinnamon and apples that makes something in Charlotte want to melt into her boots. “It smells amazing in here,” she says as she shrugs off her jacket, inhaling deeply.

“Yeah, my mom’s making some...baked thing, I’m not really sure.” Max’s tone is dismissive, which is somewhat irritating to her. She’s pretty sure she’s never come home to the smell of freshly baked pastries. It’s not like Charlotte’s parents are absent , not like Henry or Jasper’s, but they get caught up in their work more often than not. It’s not a rational thing to be annoyed with Max for, and she knows that, but maybe she’s just having an off day—it’s not like her job did her any favors. 

She doesn’t have much time to dwell on that, though, because then Max’s mom comes into the living room with a tray of pastries in her oven-mitted hand and a beaming smile on her face. “You must be Charlotte!” she says brightly. “Max mentioned he was working on his science fair project with you. Hi, I’m Ms. Thunderman, you can call me Barb. I hear you work with superheroes, right? So there are no secrets here! Oh, do you want an apple strudel?” 

Charlotte has a thing about calling adults by their first name (Ray and Schwoz don’t count, because they’re basically children), so she’s definitely not going to call her Barb. She does, however, take an apple strudel. “Thank you, Ms. Thunderman,” she smiles, feeling like she’s going to melt again. 

Max takes two and thanks his mom, and then tugs Charlotte away. “C’mon, we should go down to my lair before—”

“Are you Max’s new girlfriend?”

Charlotte chokes on her pastry. A tiny girl in a pink shirt and blonde pigtails just appears out of thin air, looking up at Charlotte with narrowed eyes, and, okay, she was right about the day being full of surprises. 

“Jeez, Chloe,” Max says with a huff of laughter. “She’s just my science fair partner.”

“I’m Charlotte. Definitely not his girlfriend,” Charlotte agrees quickly, once she’s successfully swallowed and regained the ability to breathe.

“Did Chloe just use her powers in front of that girl?” Another voice, panic-stricken, comes from the top of the stairs, and a boy with freckles splattering his cheeks runs down, followed closely by a girl with a bright blue bow perched in her dark hair. “Are we gonna have to move to Antarctica again?”

“Again?” Charlotte wonders aloud. 

“No, Billy, remember, this is the girl Max was talking about yesterday. She works with Captain Man and Kid Danger!” The girl looks excitedly at her, and she’s got the same smile as Max, that same bright glint behind her eyes that hints at cleverness and maybe a bit of trouble. “I’m Nora. So tell me, is Kid Danger as cute in person as he is on TV?”

Charlotte feels her cheeks heat up, and something twists in her stomach. She does not need to be thinking about how cute Henry is or isn’t right now, especially when she’s frustrated enough with him that picturing his face just makes her want to hit something. 

“He’s not cute, Nora, gross,” Max cuts in, saving Charlotte from having to answer that very uncomfortable question. He grabs Charlotte’s hand and tugs her over to the side of the stairs, where he hits a button and opens up a hatch in the floor, revealing a tunnel slide. Oh. Cool. “Come on, Char, let’s go downstairs and get away from my family ,” he says, pointed in his annoyance, and Nora sticks her tongue out at him. “After you.” He gestures to the slide.

“Nice meeting you guys,” Charlotte calls back to Max’s siblings, and then jumps into the hole.

She lands softly on the bed and looks around, and oh. Here is his place. The walls are a deep blue, and there are metal tables scattered with papers and tools and the beginnings of projects. In the corner, a small whiteboard is propped against the wall, covered in calculations alongside cartoon-y doodles and jotted notes, and there are posters on the walls: one from the Z-Force, and others of sci-fi movies and punk-looking bands she’s never heard the name of. This room is tonally different from the entire rest of the house, in a drastic, rebellious way that’s so him. But she kind of likes it.

“Who are you?” 

Charlotte jumps down from the bed in surprise at the sudden voice, right as Max comes down from the slide. “She’s my science fair partner, Colosso,” he answers for her. “We talked about this.”

“I thought I was your science buddy,” the voice says, and she’s pretty sure it’s coming from the cage in the corner of the room. Well, more accurately, the rabbit inside. That’s. Normal.

“Sure, but it’s nice working with someone who has opposable thumbs for a change,” Max snarks.

“Well, if you got the Animalizer from your dear old dad—”

“Nope, you’re shutting up now.” Max flicks his hand, and the tarp draped halfway over the cage covers it completely. She can hear Colosso’s muffled noises of protest behind it, but Max chooses to ignore them. “Sorry about that,” he says, running his fingers through his hair and rumpling it further. It’s annoyingly cute, and she’s pretty sure he’s doing that on purpose. “My siblings—and my rabbit—can be a little overwhelming sometimes.”

She waves him off, settling into his desk chair. “I think they seem great.” A little loud, maybe, but fun. The fact that he has four siblings was initially a deterrent against meeting at his house, and they’d debated it for a while before she ultimately conceded to the point that he had more tools and old inventions they could use, as well as an actual space dedicated to a lab instead of just her dad’s work table in the garage. Hopefully, that wasn’t the first of a series of disagreements, because she does not need that right now.

Her phone buzzes on the table. Henry’s texted her four times in a row. Speaking of things she doesn’t need right now .

She spares a glance at the messages, if only out of curiosity, and oh, she definitely shouldn’t have done that. He’s not even texting to apologize. He’s just bragging about his latest save—and now transitioning into whether or not she’s caught the latest episode of Dog Judge. Charlotte sets her phone face-down on the table with perhaps a little more force than necessary. 

“Are you okay?” Max’s voice comes in, and she looks at him to see he’s watching her with a mixture of curiosity and mild concern. She tries to school her features into something calm and shove down the anger bubbling in her chest.

“Yes,” she says—a little too clipped, maybe, because he raises an eyebrow. “I’m fine. Let’s just. Get started.”

He’s already got a pad of paper and a pencil poised in his hands, but he pauses. “You know, if there’s something you need to get off your chest, you should spill.”

“Are you planning on being my therapist for the day, Thunderman?”

“No,” he says hastily. “I just meant that like, it’s gonna be a lot harder to work together if you’ve already got a stick up your ass. Whatever’s going on, it would probably be better to just let it out. For...y’know. For science.”

There’s a part of her that guesses he’s probably right, but the rest of her is too stubborn to admit it, especially with his shitty way of phrasing it. She doesn’t have a stick up her ass. She’s allowed to be in a mood; she doesn’t have to be bright and calm and easygoing all the time—

“No offense, but it’s not really your business,” she says, her voice even. 

He locks eyes with her for a moment, his gaze careful, and finally, he shrugs and glances away. “That’s fair. Alright, then, straight into it. Where do we start?” 

“Brainstorming, I guess. Do you have any ideas of what we should do?”

Max’s whole face lights up, and something in his expression makes Charlotte think maybe he doesn’t get asked this question very much. He flips through his notebook and pauses at one page. “Okay, here me out—what if we built like, a short-range teleportation device? I was thinking we have two ports and could move an object between them. I’ve already got a few ideas on how we could do it—I have some experience messing with the space-time continuum, so…” he glances up with a little self-pleased smirk on his face. “What do you think?”

“Schwoz has kinda already built a teleporter,” Charlotte replies sheepishly. “And it’s possible I already entered one in the Swellview Gizmo show...and then destroyed’s a long story.”

Max furrows his brow at her, looking confused, and then shakes his head and starts going through his notebook again. “Uh...okay then, no about this: we make like, Iron Man style gauntlets with hand blasters and neural sensors that let you control them, and we could do a demonstration with like, a firing range—”

“For the school science fair? I’m pretty sure we’d get kicked out, we can’t just bring highly powerful weapons on campus,” she points out.

“Okay, so do you have any bright ideas?”

She smiles a little and tugs her binder out of her backpack, flipping to the pink divider that heads her drafts section. “As a matter of fact, I have a few. So, what if we created a pill that could be used to diagnose patients for certain diseases? We could use nanotech within the pill to test for symptoms, like a blood test but within the body.”

“Isn’t that kind of...mundane?” Max says, raising an eyebrow.

Charlotte bristles. “It could make medical diagnoses exponentially more efficient and accurate and save people thousands of dollars on trips to the doctor or ER. If we implement it right, we could basically revolutionize the industry,” she deadpans. It’s a good idea, she knows it is, and there’s a part of her that feels like he’s shutting her down just because he can. Maybe that’s just her experiences in the Mancave talking, but knowing that doesn’t make her feel any less on edge. 

He shrugs, his notebook in his lap as he leans back on his palms. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t be helpful, I just think it would be fun to do something... cooler.

“Like inventing military-grade hand blasters to play with in a school building.”

A grin flashes across Max’s face. “Now you’re getting it. I also have plans for a pen that can turn into a lightsaber, because that would be hella badass—”

“We’re not doing that,” Charlotte huffs immediately. “We’re not gonna do something dangerous, because that’s gonna get us disqualified . Or arrested. We should focus on doing something that could actually help people, something that’s simple but effective—”

“Something boring.”

“Something useful.

“A lightsaber could be useful!” 

“In a sci-fi movie, sure. Even in the military—which, by the way, I’m not exactly keen on inventing new weapons for them to kill each other with—long-range weapons make way more sense than a giant glowstick,” she argues. She can feel the frustration that’s been brimming inside of her all day—all week, really—threatening to spill over, and she takes a breath, trying to calm herself down. “We don’t have to do the pill, we could do something like water filtration tablets that kill bacteria—”

He cuts her off. “All of that sounds really cool and helpful and all, but it’s a science fair. Isn’t the whole point to do something a little, y’know, flashy? Exciting? C’mon, you don’t have to stay in the white lines all the time—”

“Don’t talk like you know what’s best for me,” she snaps, her voice low.

He shrugs. “I’m just saying, you could stand to have a little fun .” He’s got this easy, encouraging smirk on his face, like he’s already convinced that he’s right and he’s so...annoyingly relaxed about this. Sure of himself. 

(Maybe that’s what sets her off. Maybe it’s everything else; even now, she’s not really sure.)

“Or we could take this seriously, and you could listen to me and stop pretending that you know me ,” she says, and there’s a little more bite in her voice than necessary, and she knows this, and she doesn’t really care at the moment.

“Hey, I’m taking this seriously, and I’m—”

Charlotte snaps her binder shut. “You know, it’s my fault for thinking this was going to work,” she huffs. “Clearly we’re too...different, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this whole project with a self-obsessed jerk who thinks he knows everything and just wants to mess around.”

“Oh, so that’s how it is?” He sits up, eyes suddenly blazing. “At least I’m not a goody-two-shoes with a superiority complex and no sense of humor—”

“Better a goody-two-shoes than a fucking supervillain!”

Max recoils like he’s been slapped. Charlotte shuts her mouth, inhaling sharply. Fuck. 

She shouldn’t have said that. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything , but least of all that—she’s seen how he gets quiet whenever his past choices float into the conversation, she can tell it’s a topic he’s sensitive about, and now he’s sitting in front of her looking shell-shocked, his eyes anywhere but meeting hers. And damn, she might have just ruined everything. 

“I-I’m sorry,” she says immediately, her voice shaky. He doesn’t say anything, just twists his hands in his sheets, and she can feel her heart thudding in her chest as she gets up and perches on the edge of the bed, closer to him. “That was...really uncalled for.”

There’s a sort of pained smile on his face when his eyes finally cut to her, and he looks so hurt that Charlotte wishes she could erase the last five minutes entirely. “I mean, it’s kind of true,” he replies.

“It was,” she corrects him gently. “Not anymore.”

“Yeah.” Max nods in agreement, his voice alarmingly soft. “Was.”

There’s a beat of silence in which she chews her lip and tries to decide what to do. “I didn’t mean it, Max,” she says seriously.

He gives a small breath of laughter, even though she can’t, for the life of her, see what’s funny. “I know you didn’t.” He leans back on his palms again. “It’s okay—you were right, I was being an ass. Your ideas were really good.” 

A small smile crosses her face. “Thank you.”

“But I’m gonna say it, because I feel like I’m contractually obligated to. I told you so.”

“What?” That knowing look is back on his face, and Charlotte narrows her eyes at him.

His mouth quirks up in a smile, but his eyes are soft; if she didn’t know any better, she’d say he almost looks concerned. “Whatever it is that’s bothering you, it’s not going to go away until you talk about it,” he says, his tone light but still careful. “I know I’m not a therapist, can still tell me.”

She’s the one to glance away this time. She doesn’t even know Max that well, not really, and yet there’s something in her chest that tugs her towards telling him everything that’s been burning in the back of her mind for too long now. Maybe it’s because all the people she thought would always have her back are the same people she can’t stand to be around right now, the same people who she feels are suddenly all against her. Maybe it’s because he’s looking at her like that , with his dark eyes all soft and encouraging, or because she’s just tired of feeling like she’s fighting by herself.

“I’m just,” she starts, trying to find the words, and then she does and everything seems to pour out at once, “I’m just so tired of this. I’m-I’m tired of being constantly shut down, even when I know I’m right. I’m tired of never getting a single thank you, and being ignored, and being talked down to by my friends. I’m tired of being treated like I’m nothing.

Max’s demeanor shifts so quickly that Charlotte thinks if she weren’t about to cry, she might have laughed. He goes from casually leaning back on his bed, his whole body loose, to sitting up abruptly with fire burning in his eyes. “This isn’ this about Henry? And Captain Man?”

She shouldn’t involve him in this. But she just... really wants someone on her side. Needs it, even. Slowly, she nods. “Work just... sucks right now,” she admits, the frustration plain in her voice. “They keep—every time I do something to help, they push me aside and pretend that it didn’t even happen, and now Piper’s in on it too and today they just...they acted like I wasn’t even there for like a solid hour . And then I left and no one’s even texted me to apologize. I’m just. Tired of being the punch line to their stupid jokes.”

She hears Max exhale through his teeth and say, half under his breath, “That’s fucked up.” She nods, feeling strangely validated.

There’s a moment of quiet, and then; “It sounds like you need a new career path,” Max says.

Charlotte huffs a laugh. “Yeah, sure.”

He sets his notebook aside and moves closer to her, and his expression is hard to read. “I’m being serious,” he tells her. “You’re smart. Freaking brilliant. You’ve got great people skills, you’re obviously organized,” he gestures to the color-coded binder she’d left on his chair, “you’re responsible and hard-working and driven. You could get a job anywhere you wanted to, even being sixteen.” He says it all so matter-of-factly, like he’s not even trying to pay her a compliment, just stating observations. It makes her feel suddenly warm to the tips of her toes.

“Thank you,” she says softly, but then her mind drifts back to what he’s really trying to say. “But I don’t want a career change. We do important work. We save people.”

He laughs a little. “Of course you do, but Captain Man isn’t the only hero, you know. The Hero League has a bunch of paid internship opportunities. You could fight crime and actually get recognition for it. They don’t generally hire non-supes, but considering your skills and your experience—”

“I can’t just leave the Mancave,” she says abruptly, although she’s suddenly not as sure as she tries to sound. Max’s face falls a little, almost like he’s disappointed. “I mean, working with the Hero League sounds amazing, but...I can’t just leave. Henry and Jasper are my best friends. I’ve been with everyone for years, we’re like...we’re like family.”

“Sometimes family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Max says with a wry sort of smile, and then shakes his head and looks like he regrets it almost immediately. Charlotte feels confused, for a moment—with the bright house and the family portraits on the walls and the baked snacks, the Thundermans seem like kind of the perfect family. Her gaze lingers on the picture of Max and his siblings that sits on his desk, noting, for the first time, that his parents are left out of the photo. She suddenly wonders if this is coincidental or not. Before she can ask, though, he’s tugging a hand through his hair and starting again, as though eager to move on. “Have you told them any of this yet? Maybe they don’t even realize that it’s hurting you. From what I’ve seen, Henry and Jasper can be a little...dense.”

Charlotte laughs quietly and then shrugs a little. “I’ve...tried. I’ve told them it’s not funny, I’ve told them to stop, but I don’t know if they took me seriously. Even if I sat them down to really talk about it, I’m...not sure they’ll listen.”

He nods, seems to consider this for a moment. When he opens his mouth to reply, he hesitates for a moment—which is different, since the Max she’s seen is always so sure of himself, or at least, speaks before he has time to doubt what he’s saying. “Listen, Char, if staying at the Mancave is what you want, you have to be sure it’s still a good place for you. If loyalty means as much to Henry and Jasper as it does to you, then they’ll listen. But...if not, you have to remember that they need you, but you don’t need them. You’’re a badass, you’re everything, and they can’t make you anything less than that, ever.” He nudges her gently with his elbow, a smile on his face, and then he stops short. “Shit. Are you crying?”

She didn’t even realize she started. Well, she didn’t expect to be crying in Max Thunderman’s basement, of all places, but fuck it, she’s been holding these tears back for a long time, and she did say this day would be full of surprises. “Sorry,” she says, blinking fast and praying her makeup isn’t running, and then his hand comes to rest gently on her back. 

“It’s, um, it’s okay,” he replies, a little awkwardly. “I did tell you to let it out.”

She gives a watery sort of laugh. “Thanks, Max. Seriously, for,” she sniffs, “for everything. I didn’t even realize how much I needed this.”

“You don’t have to thank me.” Max shrugs like it’s nothing, but looks pleased. “And, uh, the offer to join the Hero League programs is non-perishable, by the way. If you change your mind, I’ll put in a good word with Super-President Kickbutt for you.”

“I find it hard to believe your judgement means much,” she teases lightly.

“Fair point. I’ll tell Phoebe to talk to her.” They laugh together, and there’s something sweet and soft blooming in Charlotte’s chest, making her heart flutter. Max looks at her, his eyes impossibly bright, and takes her hand with a surprising gentleness. “Look, don’t...don’t let the stuff that they say get to your head, okay? Feeling like you’re alone, like no matter what you do, you’ll never be enough...that can lead you down a pretty dark path.”

Charlotte hesitates at that, treading carefully. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and then he gives her a small smile. “I’ll spare you the details of my not-so-tragic supervillain origin.”

“So there’s an origin story?”

Max shrugs. “Villains aren’t born, they’re made. There’s always an origin story,” he replies, his tone way too light and easy for what he’s saying. “But that’s for another day. I’m pretty sure we have a science fair project to work on?”

Charlotte’s hesitant to let the topic drop so quickly, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to talk about it, and she’s not going to push him. “Yeah,” she says finally. “So, um, compromise? Something useful, but also fun?”

“I can work with that," he grins at her, and, okay, when he's smiling like that, maybe working with him is going to be a lot easier than she thought. Apparently, just like today, Max Thunderman is full of surprises. "What did you have in mind?”