1. In Which a Boy Accidentally Has a Discussion About His Little Brother’s Options for the Future Instead of His Own

Jeremiah Dunn was a honey. He looked like a TV show teenager, the kind played by twenty-five year-old underwear models, with strikingly dark hair and a rare but truly arresting smile. Serious by nature, the eighteen-year-old worked hard but had enough raw talent that he made everything look easy. He captained every sport he played, excelled in every class he took, and the entire town of Banner, NJ agreed that it was an absolute shame that it was his little brother Teddy who had the super powers.

Teddy was awkward, even by fourteen-year-old, mid-puberty, voice-cracking standards. Where Jeremiah was tall, proportionately built, and athletic, Teddy had all the grace and coordination of a giraffe running at full tilt. The dishwater-blonde was a goof-off, a goof-up, barely five feet and about as thick around as a fencepost, but he could also bench-press a truck. And in a town of fifteen hundred, that was something.

Banner was the sort of town a self-respecting villain would never bother looking for on a map, let alone one suitable for takeover; it would have about the same impact on national television as a water balloon fight. If you wanted excitement – or even self-respecting villains – you had to take the interstate fifty miles north to Megalopolis, population ten million and birthplace of the World Hero Association of Megalopolis (WHAM!), the Brotherhood of Amazing Super Heroes (BASH!), and the Partnership of Winners (POW!).

In contrast, acronyms in Banner were limited to the PTA and the BPD, which employed a single sheriff and his deputy. The fire department operated on a volunteer basis. Jeremiah’s little brother was, hands down, the only remarkable thing in it.

That he wasn’t precisely human (and by “precisely” everyone meant “not remotely”) was an open secret. Far enough off both the coast and the tourist swathe, secrets in Banner were poorly kept but always stayed local. Even if Jeremiah and his dad had managed to keep Teddy’s mysterious abandonment and subsequent adoption a secret – which they hadn’t – there was no hiding the rest. Teddy’s heart hummed rather than beat, his skin had the indestructible durability of polyurethane, and everyone and their mother knew it.

So when Jeremiah Dunn asked Mrs. Grayson – vice principal and college advisor to all outgoing seniors at Banner High – how one went about joining a hero association, it wasn’t really a surprise when she assumed that he was talking about Teddy.

“Ah,” she said, tapping the notes in her hands into an even neater pile. “It’s a little early to be thinking about it, but Theodore might be a good candidate.”

Jeremiah continued to regard her, not quite smiling but expression somehow still inviting her to go on.

“If he learns how to focus,” she clarified.

When Jeremiah had first sat down at her desk, the vice principal had handed him a packet of college brochures and told him that he could do anything, notable because she actually meant it. Mrs. Grayson had looked the same indefinable age for decades and in that time had probably not once succumbed to hyperbole, so Jeremiah had accepted the brochures and nodded obligingly at all the right moments. Aware that he wanted to come across as nonchalant (calculated speech struck him as manipulative – which bothered him on principle – but it was more important to him that this not come across as a big deal), he’d waited to ask about the associations until she’d looked down at her schedule to see who was next, like it had just occurred to him.

“Right,” he said.

When Jeremiah didn’t immediately go on, Mrs. Grayson continued. “Has he indicated an interest in the leagues?”

Jeremiah was conscious of his responsibilities to his doofy little brother, but that didn’t mean he wanted – or even thought it was appropriate – to actually arrange Teddy’s future. Teddy could make his own plans. In the meantime he needed to pass freshman year, which, considering that the kid was already failing history, math, and art (but somehow not science or home ec), was not a promising prospect.

“Sort of a childhood dream,” Jeremiah explained with a slight smile. It was even true. “I’m curious about the practicality of it.”

Mrs. Grayson considered him for a long moment without answering. Apparently coming to some sort of decision, she said, “I’m rarely asked for information on any of the associations. I’m afraid I don’t know much.”

No surprise there. Banner High was populated primarily by farm kids whose idea of a good time was driving sixty miles to Wal-Mart on a Friday night. He doubted the question came up much. Fortunately, Mrs. Grayson’s “I don’t know much” had yet to mean “I don’t know anything.” She almost always knew more than she claimed to.

“I’d appreciate anything you’ve got,” he encouraged her.

“Well,” she started, true to form, “I suppose it depends on the city, but from what I understand you generally have to be invited.”

This was not entirely accurate. The big names – the kind of names that made Megalopolis the veritable capital of the hero world – had probably been invited. But there was a network of largely unknown supers operating on neighborhood levels who could not have possibly been well-known enough to be invited. The associations might not advertise in the classifieds, but they had to find these people somehow.

“What about some of the less publicized heroes?” he asked.

Mrs. Grayson seemed to consider that for a moment. “I’m not sure. Who were you thinking of?”

Shadowman, he didn’t say, going with, “Just in general.” Shadowman never received any significant press coverage, but every time one of the big villains broke out of jail and started wreaking havoc he was almost always mentioned as “involved,” though only ever in passing. Jeremiah could read between the lines well enough to know that Shadowman had to be high up in WHAM!’s hierarchy to be helping with the front page takedowns. And this from a guy who, by all accounts, could only turn grey.

“Someone like the Purple Flash?” Mrs. Grayson asked.

“Sure,” he said, recognizing another name in WHAM’s top twenty. “The Purple Flash is pretty popular, but that happened only after she joined. She probably applied before she became recognizable. How does the process work for someone like her?”

“Okay,” she said, “I see.” The vice principal tapped her glasses absently on her desk and Jeremiah held himself still, wondering if she’d have more to give him than what he’d found out by calling around Megalopolis. He hadn’t been able to find anything other than the associations’ publicly advertised phone lines, which were pretty obviously meant to deal with all the fan-calls they undoubtedly received. He’d gotten nothing but the official – if very polite – runaround. “I suppose I overemphasized the need for invitation. But to be seriously considered, a super would have to come with strong recommendations, possibly even training.”

Jeremiah nodded, hoping there’d be more. He’d guessed as much himself. “Something to put on an application, you mean?”

Mrs. Grayson opened her mouth to answer, visibly changed her mind mid-thought, then leaned over the arm of her chair to open a drawer in her desk. “Hold on a moment. I should have…ah. Yes. Here. This is outdated, but it might give you an idea of the…well, the level of what they expect.”

Her tone wasn’t particularly encouraging, but he took the packet she was holding out to him anyways, more interested than his expression indicated. It was an application for the now defunct Hammer Alliance, with a date on it that made it nearly fifteen years old. But that was still – Jeremiah flipped to the back page – seventeen more pages of information than he’d been able to find on his own.

“As you can see,” she continued as he turned back to the first page, taking a closer look, “there are more than a few requirements just for essential prerequisites. They’ve undoubtedly become even more stringent since then.”

He nodded solemnly, eyes glancing over the first inquiry. PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR POWERS. That was a problem, but that had always been a problem. Jeremiah doubted “straight A’s” and “MVP for high school football and basketball in small town, USA” counted, but he’d also helped raise a super being since he was eight years old and that had to count for something. He managed Teddy with just smarts and organization. All he needed was a chance.

“Not only must you have that fundamental level of…of power,” Mrs. Grayson went on, “but you also have to have proved yourself in the field. Which is why recommendations can work, but an invite from a hero in an association is preferable. Supers know what they’re looking for in other supers.”

“Of course,” Jeremiah said, finally looking back up at her. She seemed to want more so he added, “That makes sense.”

Mrs. Grayson’s face remained neutral. “They’re one out of thousands, Jeremiah.”

“I know,” he answered seriously. He did know. “And Banner isn’t drowning in obvious candidates.”

He regretted it the moment he said it. Because hello: Teddy. He’d catalogued Ted’s powers since they were kids, two weeks after they’d adopted him and every year since, and they were unusual, and varied, and devastatingly effective if Teddy would only figure that out. But Teddy’s grades swung between A’s and D’s with no discernible pattern, his entire academic career could be summed up by the running theme in his report cards since kindergarten (“Great enthusiasm but he needs to learn how to pay attention!”), and the only time anyone had asked him if he was “Gonna go to the big city and fight crime?” he had answered “Sure!” and then leaned into Jeremiah to whisper, “I’m probably just going to stay here for the rest of my life.”

It had been one of the most weirdly practical things Jeremiah had ever heard him say.

Don’t say Teddy, he thought without letting it show on his face. Because I know him better than anyone, and he’s not suited for it.

She didn’t. Instead, Mrs. Grayson regarded him, expression nearly unreadable (but that was how the vice principal always was, so he didn’t let it bother him), and then said, “Void is the only person on record who has ever made it in the hero world without powers.”

Jeremiah’s gut twisted suddenly. Was she on to him?

“He’s a special case,” she added.

Void was easily one of Megalopolis’s most famous heroes, ranking at number one or two depending on who you talked to. He operated on brains, athleticism, and a plethora of high-tech gadgets, and if he was a special case, it was because he was rich enough to afford them. On extremely slow news nights the anchors of KWTV, which operated out of Megalopolis and supplied much of the news in the region, had passionate arguments about which high society bachelor was the masked crusader.

But it didn’t matter if Mrs. Grayson was on to him, Jeremiah reminded himself, meeting her gaze steadily. This didn’t need to be a secret. “He’s clearly an effective hero. Despite his lack of powers.”

“It’s not just the manifestation of the power itself,” the vice principal pointed out, going with another tack rather than arguing with him about Void. “Supers – for whatever reason – can take hits that no one should be able to. Even the weak ones.”

This was not the first time Jeremiah had heard this theory, though he wasn’t sure that he subscribed to it himself. Regardless, there was no use arguing the point when it couldn’t be proved one way or the other. “Fine, but isn’t it just as much – if not more – useful to be smart, or dedicated, or—”

“What would happen if Theodore punched you in the face?” Mrs. Grayson interjected, abruptly.

The question cut him off with a completeness that made the tick-tick-tick of the clock in her office very loud. Jeremiah’s hands, resting on his lap and hidden under her desk, clenched, but then he loosened his tight jaw to give her a smile. “I’d dodge.”

Mrs. Grayson huffed out a breath, a small, tightly controlled noise she released through her nose that somehow ratcheted up his temper like nothing else could have. “If Theodore wasn’t your brother,” she said. “If he was a villain and he wanted to take over the world and you were all that stood between him and victory; if he had no reason to not hit you with full force. What would happen?”

There were a lot of things that Teddy could do. Read the headlines on a newspaper nearly two miles away. Drink antifreeze and pee green for a week, which the eight-year-old had found hilarious until his twelve-year-old brother figured out what it was and made him stop. Walk away, giggling, from a three story fall. Run at a top speed of 34 mph for at least forty minutes (which was, not-so-coincidentally, the same amount of time it took Dad to hear about that particular experiment and track them down to Mr. Casey’s field, where Jeremiah had been following his little brother in the truck). And in a rare fit of temper, he had ripped the town square Maple out of the ground during the 4th of July parade. When he was six.

You’d die, hung, unspoken, in the air between them.

When Jeremiah didn’t say it, she put on her glasses like the matter was settled and picked up the Hammer Alliance application, tapping the packet into a neat pile before placing it carefully back in her desk drawer.

“If you’re interested in law enforcement there are several excellent programs in this state alone, and MU has one of the highest rated programs in the country. Your options are essentially limitless. I don’t have any brochures printed out, but I can—”

Jeremiah stood suddenly, chair scraping across the floor with a noise that startled Mrs. Grayson from her perusal of his many “options.” He could feel heat creeping up his cheeks to his forehead and he realized, to his mortification, that he was blushing.

“Thank you,” he said. “I know that—it’s not like I really…” he trailed off, then jumped back in when he saw the vice principal open her mouth to say something. “Thank you for your time,” he repeated firmly, picking up his backpack as he talked, desperate to leave, knowing that the longer he stayed the deeper his flush was going to get. How long had she known? From the beginning? Was that why she had explained the nature of league invitations to him? Had she actually been trying to be gentle?

“You’ve been very helpful,” he said without looking at her, eyes on his bag like zipping it up required all of his attention. “I’ll take a look at these college brochures, see what kind of future I can look forward to.”

Jeremiah was out the door before Mrs. Grayson could bid him goodbye, eyes forward without looking at the secretary manning the front desk, his entire face hot now as he tried to figure out what exactly he had been trying to prove by bringing it up in the first place.


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