Sneak Peeks

Read an Excerpt of The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune!

amazon

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Perfect for fans of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and Marissa Meyer’s Renegades.

Read an excerpt of The Extraordinariescoming May 5th.


Chapter 4

When Nick was six years old, he met a boy who was sitting on the swings by himself. Nick was new at school and didn’t know anyone. He was wary of the other kids because they were loud and got finger paint on everything, and Nick hated finger painting.

There were two sets of swings. One looked brand new and everyone was shouting around it, taking turns, and the chains squeaked to the point where it sounded like they were screaming. Nick wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.

There was another set of swings toward the rear of the playground. These swings were ancient. The seats were made of cracked plastic, and the chains looked like they belonged in a castle dungeon. But it was quiet, and it helped Nick’s head to clear and gave him a moment to think since no one ever used those swings.

Except on this day, there was another kid there, sitting on one of the swings, the tips of his shoes barely scraping the ground. He was chubby, and he wore a sweater and khakis. He was eating from a pudding cup. For a brief second, Nick thought about trying to find somewhere else to make his head stop spinning.

But then the boy looked up at him, and he had a smear of chocolate on his upper lip that resembled a sticky mustache, so Nick said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” the boy said quietly.

Nick had never introduced himself to anyone before. He’d always had his mom or dad there to do it for him. But they weren’t here now, and Mom said he had to be brave like Wonder Woman and Thor, and so he squared his shoulders and said, “My name is Nicholas Bell. It’s very nice to meet you.”

The boy stared at him.

Nick frowned, unsure if he’d gotten it wrong. He’d thought it had sounded just like Mom and Dad did when they said it, but  the boy was looking at him like he was speaking another language entirely.

“Um,” Nick said. “So.”

The boy looked behind him. Nick did too. There was no one there.

The boy turned back around. “Are you talking to me?” he asked in a small voice.

Nick nodded. “I think so.” “Okay. I’m Seth. Seth Gray.”

It was a nice name. Nick kicked at the dirt. “Those other kids were loud.”

“I know. S’why I’m over here.”

Nick felt relieved at that. “I don’t like loud kids.” “Me either.”

“Or finger painting.”

The kid made a face. “It gets everywhere.” “Right? S’not cool.”

“Not cool,” the kid echoed.

“Can I swing with you?” Nick asked nervously. He thought it was going well, but one couldn’t be too sure about such things.

The boy nodded, licking his pudding mustache away. “Awesome,” Nick said.

“Yeah,” the boy said, watching Nick climb onto the swing. “Awesome.”

Nick tried to start swinging, but he wasn’t very good at it yet. Mom said he’d get there, but it would take practice. He gave up after a few seconds.

“I can’t swing either,” the boy said.

“It’s hard,” Nick agreed. “My dad is a policeman, and he says that he couldn’t swing until he was, like, eight or something.”

The boy looked amazed. Nick liked that. “He’s a policeman? With a badge?”

Nick shrugged, playing it cool. “Yeah. I get to wear it sometimes.” Nick absolutely did not get to wear it, but it was fun to pretend he did. “He has a utility belt like Batman does.” Nick tried to kick his legs and swing again but failed. “He’s pretty much Batman, now that I think about it.”

“Wow,” the boy said. “That’s awesome. My aunt is a nurse. And my uncle fixes buildings and is a meter maid. He says he’s a meter butler, because girls are maids.”

Nick frowned. “Boys can be anything girls can. And girls can be anything boys can. My mom says that sometimes, boys can even be girls.”

Nick thought the boy’s eyes were going to pop out of his head. “That’s so cool.”

“Yeah,” Nick said. “I know. Cool. Why don’t you live with your mom and dad?”

“They died,” the boy said, dipping his plastic spoon into the pudding cup. “When a train crashed. I was with them, but I don’t remember.”

And since Nicholas Bell was six years old, he didn’t understand the concept of death. It was too big for him to grasp, so he said, “Oh. Was it a big train?”

The boy shrugged. “Maybe. Probably the biggest train.”

That was enough to confirm it for Nick. “We should be best friends. Forever.”

The boy looked at him, spoon hanging from his mouth. “Forever?” he said through a mouthful of pudding.

Nick nodded solemnly. “Forever.”

And from that point on, he never left Seth’s side.

***

Here he was, ten years later, vexed by his ex-sort-of-boyfriend, chasing after his best friend after they’d argued over Nick’s Extraordinaries obsession, an ache in his chest that he couldn’t quite explain. He didn’t like it when Seth was upset, he never had. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, Nick felt like hunting down and killing whatever caused it. Nick decided a long time ago that Seth needed to be protected at all costs. He wore bow ties and loafers and could recite the Greek alphabet backwards, and there was no one like him in the world.

He should’ve punched Owen before he left, even if Nick wasn’t exactly sure what they’d been arguing about. He thought it was about Pyro Storm being a villain. And yes, that was true, but he was a cool villain. He was Shadow Star’s archnemesis, which meant he had to be respected. Both of them had appeared suddenly out of nowhere shortly after . . . well, After. There had been other Extraordinaries Before, but they’d been nothing compared to Shadow Star and Pyro Storm. Even if Cap and the mayor thought they were a menace—in fact, all Extraordinaries were a menace, according to Cap—no one could deny how cool they were. If they tried, they were wrong. Period.

Still, he should have done more. Seth deserved as much.

Seth was at his locker when Nick found him, banging his head against it repeatedly, muttering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Nick reached up and put his hand between Seth’s forehead and the locker, so when Seth tried to hit it again, he met a bony hand instead.

“Hey,” Nick said. “Do you want me to kill him? Because I will.” He was very serious about this. He’d learned how on the internet before Dad had tightened the parental controls. He just needed to find some sharks.

Seth sighed. “No. Then you’d go to jail. I’d visit you, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

“Probably. But then I could get a teardrop tattoo and be all badass. That might be worth it.” Nick frowned. “Unless there was a big guy named Enormous Gregory who wanted me to keep my hand in his pocket at all times. I don’t know if I could do that.”

Seth stared at him. “Your brain.”

“I know, right? It’s—whatever. It’s what the Concentra’s for.” Nick looked away, tapping his fingers against the locker, quietly hating that he always needed to be moving.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Seth said, and Nick felt even worse for not sticking up for him. He needed to be a better friend. Seth always had his back, no matter what. Nick should’ve done the same.

“Maybe,” Nick mumbled. “Takes some getting used to. I feel a little whacked out, you know? But the doctor says that’s normal, and it’ll even out eventually, kind of like with the ones I had to take before. Except they won’t make me a cracked-out zombie like last year.”

“Good,” Seth said, and Nick could hear the smile in his voice. He glanced at Seth, still a little startled they were eye level. “I thought I was going to have to take out Cracked-Out Zombie Nick with a headshot.”

“It’s the only way to kill ’em,” Nick agreed. “I’m glad your brain is okay.”

Nick was absurdly touched. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “You can’t let Owen get to you, man. He wants to get under your skin.”

Seth’s smile faded slowly. “I know. It’s part of his charm.” Nick rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t call it charm.”

“You sure fell for it, though.” And then Seth immediately blanched, as if he couldn’t believe those words had come out of his mouth.

“Dude,” Nick breathed reverently. “That was hardcore. I’m impressed. Holy crap.”

Seth rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean—”

“Yeah, you totally did. You can’t take it back now. That’d be weak.”

“O . . . kay?”

Nick nodded. “Also, that was kind of mean. And maybe my feelings are hurt.”

“The truth often does that.”

“Okay. Like. Who are you? I mean, I’m sorry and everything, because you’re right. I should have said more. But also, what have you done with my best friend? Oh my god, are you Bizarro Seth? Like Batzarro the World’s Worst Detective? If you are, tell me now, so I can figure out how to get normal Seth back. I mean, it’s cool if you’re Bizarro Seth, but I really like my Seth the way he is.”

Seth squeaked.

Nick squinted at him. “Uh—you okay?”

Seth nodded furiously, his face red. “Y-yeah. I’m cool. Cool, cool, cool.”

“Good.”

“I’m not Bizarro Seth.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed. “That sounds like something Bizarro Seth would say.”

Seth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I promise. I’m . . .your Seth.”

Nick grinned and put his arm around Seth’s shoulders. “Fantastic. I believe you. What were we talking about again? I can’t remember.”

Seth shrugged, but he looked better, which was the only thing Nick cared about. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all good now.”

Nick felt Seth’s arm wrap around his waist and give him a brief side hug, and all was right again with the world. “You’ve got AP History next, right? My class is right next to yours. Let’s walk and talk. I’ve got some ideas for how Nate Belen will be saved that I wanted to run by you. You got a few minutes?”

Seth did.

Maybe today hadn’t turned out so bad after all.

***

It was pouring down rain when Nick was finally released from the prison known as after-school detention.

“Dammit,” he mumbled to himself, staring out the front doors of the school. He could hear shouts and the squeak of sneakers  on the gym floor down the hall, and a sharp blast of a whistle, but other than that, only the rain was pouring down rain when Nick was finally released from the prison known as after-school detention.

He hadn’t even thought to check the forecast this morning. He’d been too distracted by wishing Rebecca Firestone would cease to exist.

The train station was a few blocks away, which meant Nick was going to get wet. He hated getting wet.

He closed his eyes tightly and thought as hard as he could for the rain to stop, just in case he’d somehow developed Extraordinary powers while in detention and could now control the weather.

He opened his eyes. It was still raining.

He could wait it out, but according to the weather app on his phone, it was going to rain for at least two more hours, and he didn’t want to be at the school any longer than he had to be. He made the decision that since he was a man, he could stand getting his hair and socks wet.

He pushed open the door.

His hand was immediately soaked. And it was cold.

He closed the door again.

Nick was about to slide to the floor to wait it out when he heard his name called from behind him. He turned to see Gibby walking down the hall, hand raised in his direction.

“Oh, thank god,” he said. “I thought I was going to die here. You’ve got an umbrella, right? Wait, what are you still doing here?” Gibby punched him in the shoulder. He didn’t almost fall down, no matter how it looked. “Jazz had cheerleading practice. I was watching to critique her performance later.”

Nick rubbed his shoulder as he grimaced. “You were perving on her from the stands and got kicked out again, didn’t you.”

Gibby shrugged. “She looks hot in the uniform. I’m allowed to stare. There also might have been some gloating since the football team was running drills in the gym.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“I’m dating the cheerleading captain. I’m allowed to be.”

“So gross,” Nick muttered. “Can we leave now? This place is sucking out my soul, and I don’t want to be here until I’m required to come back tomorrow. And hearing reminders from you that I’ll be alone forever isn’t helping.”

“I can’t believe—you know what? Nope. I said I’d stay out of it, and I’m going to. I don’t know how the patriarchy ever succeeded. You’re all so stupid.”

“Stay out of what?” Nick asked, confused. “Did Owen say something to you? I swear to god, I’m going to punch him in the pancreas. I don’t—”

“I’ll leave you here without a second thought.”

Nick believed her. Gibby was a woman of her word. “Shutting up now.”

“I don’t think that’s actually possible.”

Nick sighed. “Yeah, I don’t have a neurotypical brain. I’m lucky that everything I say is awesome and I have a couple of people who actually like me.”

“Barely,” she said, though Nick could see her fighting a smile. “Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, daddio.”

And like a couple of cool cats, they did exactly that.

***

The train was delayed.

“Why?” Nick asked, looking toward the ceiling of the station. The tile was dirty, and something that looked like it’d once been a hot dog was hanging from one of the grates over the fluorescent lights. “What did I ever do to you? Aside from all those things I did?” “Looks like it’s a problem farther down the track,” Gibby said, frowning down at her phone. “Says it’ll be twenty minutes. Which in Nova City Transportation Authority speech means they have no idea what’s wrong, something’s probably on fire, and it could be up to an hour.”

It had definitely once been a hot dog. Nick could see dried mustard and everything. “My socks are wet.”

“Yeah. Your life is a tragedy in four acts. Want to wait or do you wanna hoof it down to Market Street and get on the Silver Line?”

“That’s eight blocks!” “I’m aware.”

“In the rain.”

“Your powers of observation are your greatest skill.”

He didn’t know why someone had thrown their half-eaten hot dog into the light. It was one of the millions of stories that happened in Nova City every day that he’d never get to hear. “My socks are wet,” he said again.

“So you’ve said. Make up your mind, Nicky.”

It was stifling down in the station. People were milling around angrily, everyone staring at their phones with similar scowls on their faces.

Nick hated crowds.

And honestly, the hot dog was perturbing him more than he cared to admit.

“Fine,” he said, knowing he sounded grumpy but unable to do much about it. “If we have to.”

Gibby wasn’t the type of person to deal with his crap. It was one of the reasons he liked her so much. She rolled her eyes at him, letting him know exactly what she thought about him, and then grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the stairs.

But when they reached street level, she made sure to stand close so they could both be under the umbrella.

***

Nick and Seth had been ten when Lola Gibson quite literally punched her way into their lives.

It’d been two against four, and Nick was positive the on-duty teacher looked the other way right when they’d been cornered. Seth shoved Nick behind him, the top of his head barely to Nick’s chin, like he thought he’d be able to protect him from the beating they were about to get.

Granted, Nick probably deserved it, given that his mouth moved before his brain managed to convey it was a bad idea to laugh obnoxiously when David Carlucci swung at the tetherball and missed, falling face-first into the metal pole.

David Carlucci and his goons were sixth graders, which meant that Nicky was going to die.

But then Seth was there, standing in front of him, all four foot ten of him, like he thought he’d be able to stop them from getting their asses beat.

And right when Nick was about to open his mouth again, there’d been a flash of black braided hair, heralding the arrival of Lola Gibson, some girl Nick and Seth were peripherally aware of but had had no contact with previously. She stood in front of Seth, hands on her hips, wearing jeans and a hoodie with a skull and crossbones on the back.

David Carlucci told her to move. Lola Gibson responded by punching him in the mouth, splitting his lip. David Carlucci recoiled before snarling, eyes narrowed as he started toward them again.

Lola Gibson opened her mouth and screamed, which, at the time, became the loudest sound Nick had ever heard. He was suitably impressed as David Carlucci and his goons took a step back. Nick, never able to keep his mouth shut for long, was about to tell them off when a teacher came running over.

Lola Gibson burst into tears, sobbing that these boys were trying to hurt her and her friends, and she was just a little girl, and they were trying to hit a girl, and—

David Carlucci and his gang of prepubescent misfits were led away on a one-way trip toward the vice principal’s office where Nick was convinced they’d be drawn and quartered for their crimes against humanity.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Lola Gibson immediately stopped crying.

“I like you,” Nick told her seriously. “I’ve never said that to a girl before.”

Lola Gibson narrowed her eyes at him. “I will hit you just as hard.”

“I take it back.” “Good.”

“Your tie is blue,” she said to Seth.

“Thank you,” Seth mumbled, because he didn’t do very well with new people.

And that was how Nick and Seth met Lola Gibson.

She never left after that. Even when she went to high school before them, she still hung out with them almost every day after school and on weekends.

It was the summer between Nick and Seth’s freshman and sophomore year that she shaved her head and demanded they call her Gibby. Since Nick and Seth liked their faces in the shape they were in, and because they respected their friend, she was Gibby.

People didn’t get their friend group, not that Nick really cared. He didn’t understand most of them, so it was fair. They were the queers of Centennial High (and though they weren’t the only ones, they were the most visible). They were the nutjobs, the weirdos. Seth was too smart. Nick was too loud. Gibby was too butch, and Jazz had once been like everyone else before Gibby had put her lesbian magic all over her and taken her to the dark side. Or at least that was what Jazz had heard one day in the girl’s bathroom. Gibby had laughed so hard that she cried, something Nick and Seth had never seen before, and were amazed by.

Then came Owen and . . . well. The less said about that the better, seeing as how the Great Romance of Nick and Owen was a by-product of Owen’s arrival, and no one wanted to relive those days. Though Nick hadn’t said it out loud, he wondered if Owen had put his lesbian magic all over Nick. That seemed to be the only explanation as to why Nick would have let Owen touch his nipple that one time.

They weren’t popular, but that didn’t matter. He loved his people very much.

***

It’s not as hard as she’s making it out to be,” Gibby said. They were huddled close underneath the umbrella. “I know she’s worried, but why can’t she believe me when I tell her that everything is going to be okay?”

Nick shrugged. “You’re graduating. Going on to bigger and better things and leaving us all behind. I mean, I get what you’re saying, but I can see where she’s coming from too.”

“I care about her. A lot.”

“I know.” It was touching, though Nick would never say that to Gibby’s face because she’d never let him hear the end of it. “And she knows it too. But you have to admit, she’s got a point. Things change. And you’re young.”

She scowled. “I hate it when that’s the excuse. That me being in a relationship at seventeen isn’t the same as having a relationship when I’m older. Plenty of people marry the person they dated in high school.”

Nick nearly tripped. “You want to marry—”

“Oh my god, no. That’s not what I meant. I’m saying that being young doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”

“What happens when you turn eighteen and she’s still underage?

What if her parents try and give you crap for that?”

Gibby rolled her eyes. “It’s fine. Her parents like me. And my parents think she’s—and I quote—‘the bee’s knees.’ Whatever the hell that means.”

Nick frowned. “I don’t understand hippies.” “No one does.”

“Especially when they’re also accountants.”

“It’s confounding in ways I don’t even want to think about. We were the only Black people at every commune we visited. We were weirdly treated like royalty.”

“Can I give you some advice? Not about the royalty thing. I’m too white to ever give you advice about that. About Jazz.”

Gibby stared at him while they waited at an intersection for the light to change. “You? You want to give me advice?”

“I feel like I should be offended, but I don’t quite know why.” “Oh, you should be. This’ll be good. Lay it on me, Bell. Give me advice.”

Nick thought for a moment. Then, “Respect her fears. You may think they’re unfounded, but they’re still what she’s feeling, and that’s valid. Reassure her if that’s what you want. And if you don’t, make sure she knows you still care about her, but it’s better to end it now than further down the road when it would hurt more.”

“That . . . wasn’t bad,” Gibby said, sounding begrudgingly impressed. “Where did you come up with that?”

“I’m very self-aware,” Nick said smugly. “I see everyth— Ow, who put this freaking fire hydrant here?” He glared down at it as he rubbed his knee.

“That’s better,” Gibby said, pulling him back under the umbrella. “The world is right again, and all is well.”

“Whatever. I gave you good advice, and you know it.”

“True,” Gibby said. “But I’ve always felt like the best advice is the one you can also follow yourself.”

“What?”

She bumped his shoulder with hers. “What about Seth?” Nick blinked at her. “What about Seth?”

“Really. That’s what you’re going with?”

Were they speaking the same language or . . . ? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gibby sighed. “Oh, lord. Okay. Let’s try this a different way. Nicky.”

“Gibby.”

“What happens when you graduate and you and Seth go to different schools?”

“Not going to happen,” Nick said immediately. “Seth and I already have plans to go to the same school where we’ll share a dorm the first year, and then move off campus the following years. When we graduate, we’ll get an apartment in the city where I’ll spend four years on the force before leaving to open my detective agency-slash bakery. Seth will become a famous author who writes true crime stories that won’t actually be true because they’ll have dragons in them, or he’ll be a lawyer that wins every case since he’ll be the voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

Gibby gaped at him.

Nick looked over his shoulder, but there was nothing of note behind him. He turned back to Gibby. “What?”

“You just . . . how can you . . . If I hadn’t made that promise—” She shook her head. “I swear to god, if I’m not there the moment you have the biggest realization of your life, I’m going to cry foul and make you do it all over again.”

“Are you okay?” Nick asked seriously. “Because you’re not making sense. Did you have a stroke? Can you feel the side of your face, or is it numb?”

He reached to poke her cheek, but quickly backed down when she snapped her teeth at his fingers.

***

They’d made it four blocks when it happened.

Nick said, hey, let’s go down this alley, because it’s a shortcut.

Gibby said that going down alleys when it was dark and raining was never a good idea.

Nick called her a chicken. He might have even folded his arms at his sides and said bawk bawk, though he wasn’t proud of it.

Gibby threatened violence against his genitals. Nick demurred.

But then Gibby stomped toward the alley, and later, Nick would tell himself that it was all her fault, that if she’d stuck to her guns, they wouldn’t have run into two goons with leather jackets and knives that looked like swords but were actually only switchblades. “There was a hot dog stuck in the light on the platform,” Nick told her as they made their way down the alley. The rain pounded down around them. “I can’t stop thinking about why it was there.”

“Someone threw it up there.”

“I know that, but not that kind of why. Not the why of action. The why of reason. Why did the owner of that hot dog decide to do that? It makes absolutely no sense.”

Gibby snorted. “Sometimes, people do things just because they can. There doesn’t have to be a reason. It’s all chaos.”

“Anarchists, man. I’ll never understand them.” “It’s not about—”

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”

No one who started a sentence with well, well, well ever wanted to do something nice. Nick turned slowly to look over his shoulder. Two men stood behind them. One of them had a mustache. It was wet from the rain and hung under his nose like a drowned rat.

The other was balding, the strands of his comb-over plastered to his head, rainwater dripping off his earlobes.

Nick froze. They didn’t look like they had a gun, but all he could think about was his mother’s last moments, something he’d stressed over time and time again. He’d never been given a clear picture of what had happened, only being told by Cap that it had been quick, something so uniquely terrible that it didn’t help as much as Cap thought it would. Nick was brave, yes, but he was also in a position to know that sometimes, people didn’t come home no matter what they’d promised him.

He almost tripped when Gibby shoved him behind her, hands curling into fists. He swung his backpack around to his front, going for the mace that Dad had given him. He’d wanted a Taser, but Dad had figured he’d end up electrocuting himself, which— while rude—was probably accurate. But given the way the universe worked, Nick found everything but the mace as he dug through his bag, including lip balms, a used straw, and an old sandwich that needed to be disposed of immediately as it posed a health risk. He was panicking, and it was only getting worse. He looked up from his bag out to the street behind the men in the alley. He could see people scurrying by on the sidewalk, umbrellas up, faces down toward their phones.

And it sucked. Even though Nick had lived in the city all his life, he’d never been mugged before. Because he was wired the way he was, he’d fantasized about what he’d do if the situation arose. In these fantasies, he’d be brave, taking no shit from anyone. He wouldn’t need to be saved because he’d save himself. But faced with this cold reality, he could barely function, becoming more and more desperate when he couldn’t find the goddamn mace.

“Everything,” Mustache Man snapped, causing Nick to inhale sharply. “We’ll take the whole bag. Both of you. Now.”

“And if we don’t?” Gibby asked, because she was more of a badass than Nick could ever be.

“No,” he whispered in her ear. “Give them what they want.”  He could picture it, clear as day: Dad receiving yet another phone call that would send everything crashing down around him. He couldn’t let Dad go through that, not again.

She didn’t look at him. “We’re not going to give them anything—” Male Pattern Baldness pulled out a knife, popping out the blade with the click of a button. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t the biggest knife Nick had ever seen. It was maybe five or six inches.

Small, really.

But Nick knew it wasn’t the size that mattered. It was what could be done with it.

He gripped Gibby’s shoulders, trying to make his legs work so he could step around in front of her. He was sweating, and his heart was racing, but he tried not to let it show on his face. You didn’t show fear in the face of a predator, especially when said predator had a knife.

Scratch that. Two knives, because Mustache Man also pulled out a knife similar to the one Male Pattern Baldness had. And because Nick wasn’t always in control of his thoughts, he wondered if they were dating, and had picked out his-and-his matching switchblades. He cursed himself for being a romantic even when he was about to be stabbed.

He leaned his forehead against the back of Gibby’s neck, struggling to breathe, his bag pressed between them, trying to gather the tattered remains of his courage. In his head, he could picture it: He’d shove Gibby behind him, his shoulders squared, and he’d tell their muggers to go to hell. His dad had been a cop for longer than Nick was alive and had instilled in him a sense of duty. Of honor. You protected those who needed it. And not that Gibby needed it, exactly, but the principle was the same.

It was something Shadow Star would have done. He was a hero, and he wouldn’t take crap from anyone.

He could do this. He could do this.

“Okay,” Nick said slowly as he raised his head. “No one needs to get hurt.” He stepped around Gibby, meaning to stand in front of her, but she grabbed his wrist, holding it tight. They were shoulder to shoulder. He heard Dad’s voice in his head, whispering that it was easier to stand together than it was to struggle apart. He slid his hand up until Gibby’s fingers latched onto his own. He squeezed her tightly.

“Then hand everything over,” Mustache Man said, jabbing the knife toward them. “And maybe we won’t consider seeing what your blood looks like on the pavement.”

All in all, it was a very believable threat. Nick absolutely didn’t want to see what his blood looked like on the pavement. Even if he was brave (ish), it was outweighed completely by the fear of being stabbed. Nick did not want to be stabbed. He did not want Gibby to be stabbed.

“Okay,” he said, hating how his voice wobbled. Gibby heard it too, inhaling sharply, her grip hard enough to cause Nick’s bones to grind together. “Please. Don’t hurt us. We’ll give you whatever you want.”

“That’s better, kid,” Male Pattern Baldness said, mouth twisting in a sneer. “Maybe next time, learn to keep your gob shut.”

“There won’t be a next time,” a deep voice growled from somewhere above them.

Nicholas Bell froze because he knew that voice.

That voice had starred in many a fantasy, alongside those in which Nick had saved himself. Sometimes, that voice would whisper in his ear as its owner held his hand, telling him he thought Nick was cute, and they should go on a picnic or to the boardwalk and make fun of all the tourists paying fifteen dollars for cotton candy. That voice had also been his muse in the writing of his magnum opus, the ever-growing tale of love and sacrifice, of hot superheroes and supervillains in skintight costumes, starring a young, handsome man named Nathaniel Belen, mild-mannered and innocent until he fell for the protector of a city and thus put himself in the crosshairs of the war between good and evil.

That voice belonged to someone Extraordinary.

Nick took a step out from under the umbrella. He turned his face toward the sky. Rain fell onto his cheeks.

And there, perched on the side of a rent-controlled apartment building, was Shadow Star.

His black costume was slick with water. It glittered in the low light that filtered out from one of the windows of the building. The star symbol was stretched across his muscular chest. The lenses over his eyes flashed, and his mouth was open, teeth bared as he snarled down at Mustache Man and Male Pattern Baldness.

Nick’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. He’d had dreams that had started like this, and in those dreams, he’d say something witty and hilarious, causing Shadow Star to laugh (something Nick didn’t think he actually did, given that he needed to spend his time brooding about darkness and the diseased heart of the city). But for the life of him, Nick couldn’t say a word, his brain misfiring at the sight of the Extraordinary he idolized to what was most certainly an unhealthy degree. Eventually, a sound did fall from his mouth, but it was a breathy sigh. Not his finest moment.

Mustache Man took a step back like he was getting ready to run. Male Pattern Baldness gaped up at Shadow Star, mouth opening and closing.

Mustache Man turned and—

Shadow Star raised his hand, and from underneath his wrist, a bright light burst into life, illuminating the alleyway, casting shadows where none had been before. Nick blinked against the flash, turning his head away to shield his eyes. He looked back in time to see Mustache Man make it two steps before his own shadow rose up from the ground, grabbing him around the ankles, flipping him up and over until he landed on his back with a bone-jarring crunch. He stared, dazed, up toward the sky, blinking slowly in the rain.

Male Pattern Baldness didn’t try to run away.

Instead, he darted toward Nick and Gibby, knife still clutched tightly in his hand. Nick scrabbled backward, pulling Gibby with him, causing them both to stumble into a small, ancient dumpster against the side of the building, overflowing with what smelled like weeks-old Chinese food. The umbrella fell to the ground, and they were instantly soaked.

Nick held his hands up, annoyed that he was about to die right in front of Shadow Star of all people, already preparing an angry diatribe he was going to snarl at God and Jesus and some apostles when he got to heaven, if that was where he ended up.

Male Pattern Baldness had almost reached him when Shadow Star flipped down between them. He landed gracefully in front of Nick, crouched low in the way only superheroes seemed to do, one hand against his chest, the other raised away from his body. Male Pattern Baldness tried to stop, but the pavement was slick, and he slid through discarded newspapers and what looked to be the remains of either curry or a diaper.

Shadow Star wrapped a hand around his throat, using his other hand to knock the knife away before it’d even become a threat to him. The man’s eyes bulged and he said, “Urk,” like he wanted to speak, but couldn’t quite do so around the grip Shadow Star had on him.

Nick had never mustered as much willpower as he had right then to keep himself from reaching out and touching Shadow Star’s back. It was only a couple of feet away, and it’d be so easy, but in the end, while he might have had a rather significant crush on the Extraordinary, he was also respectful of one’s personal space, and would not touch someone without their permission, even if it seemed like Rebecca Firestone did it all the time.

“You made a mistake,” Shadow Star growled at Male Pattern Baldness, bringing their faces so close together, their noses almost touched. “One that you’ll regret.” His voice was deep, almost like it was being modified somehow to disguise it, but Nick also thought there was a great possibility that was how he normally sounded. He tried desperately not to sigh dreamily right then and there, especially with Shadow Star actually growling like Nick had made his character do in the fic. Screw everyone who didn’t think art imitated life.

Male Pattern Baldness said, “Blargh,” and then Shadow Star threw him against the side of the building, and he landed in a pile of trash, where he stayed, the only movement the slow and steady rise of his chest.

Shadow Star turned toward Nick.

It was at this moment that Nick realized two very different things:

First, his underwear was wet from the rain, and having wet underwear was worse than wet socks.

Second, this was the moment he’d been waiting for ever since he’d seen Shadow Star for the first time On the news three months to the day since Before had become After—a blurry cell phone video that showed him backflipping off the top of a bridge, landing in front of a man who’d been ready to end it all and jump into the Westfield River. Nick had, at last count, watched said video 647 times in the last two years. Granted, since then, there’d been other, clearer videos of Shadow Star (hell, he’d even been interviewed, though it’d been with Rebecca Firestone, but Nick had become an expert at muting the video whenever she spoke), but that had been Nick’s first, and therefore his favorite.

So, yes. Nick’s underwear was wet, and his crush on this Extraordinary could apparently grow even bigger when he was standing right in front of him. He needed to act cool. It was not every day one was rescued by the superhero of their dreams.

The problem with that was Nick didn’t necessarily know how to be cool. Oh, sure, he understood the objective concept of it, but Nick was an awkward sixteen-year-old boy who wasn’t always in control of his mouth. Which was why instead of being cool and saying Thank you for saving us, you’re so neat, my name is Nick, and I’m glad I’m not dead right now, he blurted, “I have a pillow with your face on it!”

The only sound that followed Nick’s slow, mortifying death, was the rain on the pavement. And Gibby saying, “This is painful to watch.”

Shadow Star offered a hint of a smile, and Nick did his best not to stare, though he was failing spectacularly. “Are you all right, citizen?”

He couldn’t believe Shadow Star was actually talking to him. “I don’t do anything weird with the pillow, in case you were wondering,” and oh god, why couldn’t he stop talking about the stupid pillow?

Shadow Star said, “Oh. That’s . . . good.” “Yeah,” Nick said. “It is. Like, so good.”

“Right,” Shadow Star said slowly. He glanced over Nick’s shoulder at Gibby, then looked back at Nick, who couldn’t help noticing they were almost eye to eye. Add in the fact that Shadow Star looked so much younger up close, and Nick couldn’t tell if he was smitten, or if he was about to faint. “Are you both all right?”

“Aside from the emotional trauma that will probably rear its head when I’m thirty-seven and working at my cubicle in a dead-end job that I hate, just fine,” Nick babbled, unsure why the words coming out of his mouth were the ones his brain deemed necessary to speak out loud.

“I’m fine,” Gibby said mildly. “Any trauma I might have had is being washed away by the tragic comedy occurring right in front of me.”

Shadow Star took a step toward them, gaze fixed on Nick. For his part, Nick remained where he was, though he doubted he could have moved even if he wanted to. Shadow Star’s mouth twisted slightly, and Nick tracked the movement with laser-sharp focus. They were—speaking objectively, of course—nice lips. Perhaps the nicest lips he’d ever seen.

Shadow Star leaned toward him, and though Nick had no idea what the hell was going on, he was so on board with this unexpected turn of events, because it looked like Shadow Star was going to kiss him.

Holy shit. Yes. Yes. Yes.

This was what he’d written fanfiction for. He understood at that moment that Shadow Star had seen through Nick’s failings as a human being and had somehow already fallen in love with him right back. He didn’t know how it’d happened (especially so quickly— maybe Nick was cooler than he thought), but he was already picturing a house in the suburbs where he’d go to book club meetings and say things like, “Yes, Pride and Prejudice is an old book about stuff, but I didn’t get a chance to finish it because Shadow Star took me out to dinner last night at a fancy restaurant that had separate forks for the salad.”

Life was glorious. Except.

Except it wasn’t a kiss. It was Shadow Star bringing his left leg up toward his chest, then kicking it out behind him. The moment Nick thought was supposed to be the second first kiss of his life was actually Shadow Star’s foot striking the newly risen Mustache Man in the chest, knocking him back.

And yet, Nick’s lips didn’t get that message until it was far too late. He kissed the side of Shadow Star’s head, right on his mask. It tasted of wet rubber.

Gibby made a sound like she was choking behind him.

Nick widened his eyes in terror as Mustache Man slammed against the wall, slumping down on top of Male Pattern Baldness.

Shadow Star lowered his leg. “Did you just . . . kiss my head?”

Nick forgot how to human. To his horror, he fell back on old habits with the sound he made: that of an amorous elk in the Pacific Northwest, bleating and terrible.

Gibby, struggling to breathe, said, “Why is nobody else here to witness this?”

Gathering what was left of his wits, Nick said, “Um. No?” “Oh,” Shadow Star said. “Because I could have sworn you kissed the side of my head.”

“Nope,” Nick said, thankful that it was still raining, so no one could see that his entire body was on its way to being covered in flop sweat. “I didn’t do that. That would be weird.”

“A little,” Shadow Star said.

“And I respect your agency,” Nick said. “Thank . . . you?”

“You’re welcome,” Nick said, wishing that Pyro Storm would appear right at that very moment and try and destroy Nova City so Nick could perish in a wave of fire. It would be easier than trying to get through the next two minutes. He glanced up quickly. Nothing. Apparently, supervillains only cared about death and destruction when Nick wasn’t making an ass of himself. Goddamn Pyro Storm.

Shadow Star pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “I should probably take these guys down to the nearest precinct.”

To which Nick said, “Yes, I know how the law works. My dad’s a cop. So. Ten-four.”

Gibby sounded like she had somehow transformed into a rather large manatee and was trying to sing the song of her people, a sonorous wheeze that lasted far longer than Nick thought was necessary.

“Is he?” Shadow Star said politely. “That’s great. Nova City’s finest do good work. You must be proud of him.”

“So proud,” Nick said. Then, “I have your poster in my room.

Can I have your autograph?”

“You want me to come into your room and sign your poster?” Shadow Star asked, eyes widening behind his mask.

Yes. Absolutely. Nick wanted that more than anything in the world, but he could see why that sounded a little creepy. “Uh. No? No! Those were two independent thoughts that sounded like they were one. Ha ha. That would be weird, right? Inviting you over to my room when you don’t even know me. Did I tell you my name? It’s Nick. Not that that means you know me now. I’m very complex underneath. Like, what you see isn’t what you get. Not that you’re trying to get anything! Ha ha. You can autograph my . . . something.”

“Like your boobs,” Gibby said.

Nick nodded. “Yes, like my boo—” Pyro Storm could show up anytime now. That’d be just great with Nick. Hopefully, he’d take out Gibby first. “No,” he said forcefully, causing Shadow Star to jump back as if he was startled. “Not my b— That’s . . . I don’t even have—” The ground didn’t open up and swallow him whole, no matter how hard he wished it. “I have paper. And a pen. You can use that.”

“It’s raining,” Shadow Star pointed out. “You’re so smart,” Nick said in awe.

Then Gibby was standing next to him again, a smile on her face that Nick knew he should be terrified of but couldn’t muster the strength since he was still dazed. She put the umbrella over them and said cheerfully, “There. That’s better. Now you can sign Nick’s something without it getting wet. Even though Nick probably already is.”

“So wet,” Nick agreed.

Gibby manateed again. Nick promised silently that he’d have his revenge against her in this life, or the next.

He took his backpack from Gibby, reaching in to find his notebook. He managed to get it out without much struggle. He couldn’t find his Spider-Man pen, but Gibby was there to help him as his hands were shaking. She handed Shadow Star a pen before turning around and motioning that he could use her back as a surface to sign his name. Nick was instantly jealous because he wanted to feel the pen pressing into his skin when Shadow Star wrote on the paper. But he still had at least a little of his wits about him, so he was able to stop himself from shoving Gibby away and taking her place.

Shadow Star put the paper on her back and signed his name. He looked like he had nice hands under his skintight gloves.

“There we go,” Shadow Star said. “If that’s all—”

“Oh,” Gibby said as she stood upright again. “We can’t let you go without getting a picture. Right, Nicky? Don’t you want a picture with Shadow Star?”

Nick’s brain short-circuited. He said, “I. Can’t. Think.”

“Yeah,” Gibby said. “He wants a picture.”

“Okay,” Shadow Star said. “But just one. I need to get these guys behind bars before they wake up.” He turned his face toward the sky. “And the city is calling for me. I need to keep her safe. There is a shroud of shadows over her.”

“Oh my god,” Nick whispered. No one could ever tell him again that fanfiction wasn’t a realistic artistic expression, not with Shadow Star spouting off lines from Nick’s imagination.

Gibby rolled her eyes. “Yikes. That was . . . I don’t know what that was. Nick, you want to use your phone for—”

Nick shoved his phone at her. He hadn’t even realized it’d already been in his hand. He didn’t even care that it was getting wet. Nothing else mattered at this moment.

She stepped back, taking the umbrella with her.

Nick was rained on immediately. That was fine. Wet everything was fine because he was standing next to Shadow Star. It could have been raining acid, and he wouldn’t have complained.

“Okay,” Gibby said. “Get close, you guys.”

Nick squeaked but managed to cover it up with a cough. He scooted sideways until he was firmly pressed up against Shadow Star. He didn’t turn to look at him so he wouldn’t accidentally kiss the side of his head again.

“Nick, you look like you’re in pain. You need to smile.” Nick smiled.

“And now you look like you’re about to eat baby animals. Dial it back.”

Nick dialed it back.

“There we go,” Gibby said. “Shadow Star, you don’t need to smile because you’re brooding and deep or whatever.”

“Exactly,” Shadow Star said. “I breathe the shadows of the dark, and—”

“Everyone say I think Nick is super cute!”

“I think Nick is super cute,” Shadow Star and Nick said at the same time.

Gibby took the picture as Nick realized what had come out of Shadow Star’s mouth.

“You said I’m super cute,” he said in awe, blaming puberty for the way his voice cracked.

“That’s not—that’s what she told me to say.” Shadow Star sounded flustered. ” I’m not—”

“So you don’t think he’s cute?” Gibby asked.

Yes, that. The most important question that had ever been asked in the history of humanity. Nick waited on pins and needles for Shadow Star to either confess his love or break his heart.

Shadow Star did neither. Instead, he said, “The dark heart of the city pulses beneath my feet. Its blood is calling for me. I have to go.” And with that, the lights burst to life on his wrist. He pointed them at Mustache Man and Male Pattern Baldness. Their shadows grew on the walls behind them. Shadow Star grunted, and the shadows reached down and grabbed the would-be muggers, pulling them up the side of the building. Shadow Star crouched low before springing upward, landing on the wall, dark shades holding him against the brick as he ran after the criminals. He disappeared over the rooftop and was gone.

Nick stared up after him, blinking the rain away.

“You’re welcome,” Gibby told him, shoving his phone into his hand. “Now, can we go? Watching you get a boner in an alley that smells like feet is not how I expected to spend my afternoon. I need a shower.”

Order Your Copy:

amazon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *