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I Can Be Your Hero

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“What do they call you? Squirtle? Pikachu?” The bald-headed teenager leaned in to mock the other student. Another thug had his arms pinned behind his back. The kid being held down was wearing a Pokémon tee-shirt, and his yellow backpack lay kicked into the bushes.

Tommaso watched from where he was smoking an illicit cigarette outside a propped-open side door. He flipped the collar of his leather jacket up against the wind.

How the other kids got out here, he didn’t know. They didn’t look like smokers. Well, maybe there was actual smoke coming from the top of the bald-headed kid’s chrome dome, but that was pretty normal around here. People gave off all sorts of discharges and radiation. It was something to get used to.

“I’m Johnny Wrestling,” the kid said, now being squeezed in a full nelson.

“And why do they call you that?” The other thug asked.

Tommaso took a drag. This might be interesting.

“Because I can get out of any hold!” Just then, Johnny appeared standing behind the two thugs. From there, he winked at Tommaso. Then he vanished from the kid’s arms.

The two were stuck in a loop of astonishment for a moment.

“Scott, where’d he go?”

“I’m over here, fellas!” Johnny said from a few feet closer to Tommaso.

Scott had to be the bald one, Tommaso thought. He bit his cheek and regretted not paying more attention at orientation.

“Get him!” Scott said.

“You know why they call me Dash Wilder?” The kid with hair said.

“Your parents named you after a spice blend. I know, it sucks. My friend Kori—” Johnny started but was interrupted by a shoulder tackle at superhuman speed from Dash. They went flying and sailed all the way into Tommaso, knocking them all into a pile.

Tommaso snarled, shoving Dash away with as much kinetic force as his charge had contained. “Do you know why they call me Psycho Killer?” He asked, leaning over him and grabbing him by his letter jacket.

“That’s such a good song!” Johnny piped up from where he lay amidst the manicured groundcover.

A ball of fire whizzed past Tommaso’s head and hit the brick wall of the building, singeing the ivy.

“Hey, watch out!” Johnny said. He appeared behind Scott while he seemed to still be laying on the ground. He turned and kicked him in the head, hard, and vanished from the first place where he was. “That’s dangerous.”

Tommaso’s eyebrows went up at the well-executed super kick. He stood up and brushed himself off, stomping on his dropped cigarette. Dash staggered to his feet and back to where Scott was clutching his head.

“Students!” They heard a British voice scold from inside. “There are to be no fights outside the training facilities.” Footsteps approached.

“Gotta dash,” Dash said, grabbing onto Scott and zipping away, around the side of the building and out of sight.

William Regal stood in the doorway. He surveyed the scene.

“Sir!” Johnny said. “It’s not! Psycho Killer was helping me find my backpack, I lost it.”

“Mm-hmm,” Regal said. A patch of frost spread across the ground at his feet, echoing his displeasure. “And that’s how the wall got scorched, and why you’ve got a black eye coming in. I know you’re both new here, lads, but you should know better.”

Johnny touched his face, wincing.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Tommaso said. “I was out here smoking and Johnny tried to stop me. I should have listened.” He walked down to where Johnny’s backpack was tossed into the bushes, grabbed it, and handed it to him.

“Detention for both of you,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “Get back to class, immediately.” He turned and walked into the building with a puff of frost and the students followed.

Tommaso looked behind him to see Johnny’s face crumple. It wasn’t something he ever wanted to see again.

***

Detention at the School for Gifted Youngsters could range widely depending on who was supervising it. Mr. Regal drilled them on tactics in a cold room. Ms. Amato made them shelve books in the library while hovering above them.  Mr. Brookside made them clean the grounds, but he never watched them too closely. And he was on detention duty that Saturday morning.

“I’ve never used a power-washer before, sir,” Johnny said, looking at the equipment.

“Tommaso looks like he has. You’re not afraid of a little hard work, are ya boy,” Mr. Brookside said.

“No sir,” Tommaso said, looking down. It was a chill October day and there were a lot of leaves to rake, a lot of brick throughout the grounds to wash down, and neither of them were telekinetic enough to make the job easier.

Brookside left them with a wheelbarrow full of tools and wandered back into the manor house to do whatever the instructors at the school did when they weren’t hovering over the students to make sure they didn’t set each other on fire or create a time paradox or god forbid plagiarize an essay.


“I’ve never been in detention before,” Johnny said, picking up a rake and looking at it.

Tommaso rolled his eyes and grabbed the wheelbarrow, pushing it forward toward the particular patio they were supposed to be working on. The estate had a groundskeeper but Mr. Wurtz’s time was mostly spent repairing damage done by students still learning to use their powers, and he didn’t have a lot of time for cosmetics. They almost never saw him during the day. Tommaso didn’t know if he was a mutant like everyone else or just a grumpy human.

“Where are you from?” Johnny asked. “I’m from Cleveland.”

“Um. Wisconsin, I guess,” Tommaso said as they got to work on the leaves.

“I’ve never been to Wisconsin! I haven’t been very many places. Ohio, and New York because we’re in New York right now. And all the states in between New York and Ohio. And I went to Disneyworld once when I was little. And that’s it.” He paused. “That’s all the states I’ve been to.”

Tommaso kept moving his rake rhythmically, listening to the scratching sounds it made against the brick patio.

“What states have you been to?” Johnny asked.

“Who fucking cares,” Tommaso snapped, but then he remembered what Johnny’s face looked like when it was sad and he winced, not looking up. “Wisconsin. California. New York. That’s it.”

“California! Have you been to Disneyland! I hear it’s different from Disneyworld because—”

“No,” Tommaso interrupted.

“Oh,” Johnny said.

They went back to raking. Johnny teleported himself to rake from more than one angle at once.

“This isn’t so bad,” he said. “I thought it would be like on the Simpsons where Bart has to write something on the chalkboard a whole bunch of times.” He held up a bag for Tommaso to rake leaves into with four sets of hands. “And I would be good at that because I can make two of me.” Two of the hands disappeared.

A ripple of wind blew at the strings of Tommaso’s hooded sweatshirt. He flexed his fingers. “If this is punishment, I’ll fucking take it,” he said.

“Why, how did they punish you at your school?”

Tommaso looked into Johnny’s innocent eyes and almost decided to lie about it. He had kept to himself for the past few weeks that he had been here: getting used to the freedom and the strangeness, and relishing some of the anonymity. The other week someone had spilled the beans, though, and the old stares were coming back, although it felt a little different at a school for mutants where half the kids were on fire or half-fish or purple or guilty about something that probably wasn’t their fault. Well. In that respect it wasn’t that different from where he had been.

“Solitary confinement,” Tommaso said. “Like I said, this is better.”

“What kind of school was that?” Johnny asked, not picking up on what Tommaso was getting at.

“Do you know where the only maximum security juvenile mutant detention facility in the United States is?” Tommaso asked, breathing heavily.

“No,” Johnny said quietly.

“It’s in California. I was born in Wisconsin. I was locked up in Cal Max for five years for killing my parents. Professor H. got me out. Now I live here.”

“Oh,” Johnny said. His eyes were cast down. He picked at the skin on his thumb. “But how old are you now?”

“Seventeen.”

“So that’s...”

“I was twelve. It was an accident. Until Professor H, no one believed me.”

“I believe you,” Johnny said, looking back up from his feet.

Tommaso leaned on his rake. “Why?”

“You should believe people,” Johnny said, a little crease of sadness in his forehead. “Bad things happen when you don’t believe them.”

“Wish you could have been my lawyer, kid,” Tommaso said, bumping him on the arm with his knuckle.

“I’m fifteen,” Johnny griped.

“Like I was saying.” A tiny sliver of a smile streaked across his face.

They hauled the bagged leaves to a dumpster and caught their breath.

“Do we really have to wash the shed?” Johnny asked.

“I’m used to doing what I’m told,” Tommaso said. “What do you think will happen if we don’t?”

“I’ve only ever seen people skip out on detention in movies,” Johnny said breathlessly.

Tommaso rolled his eyes and got a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He tapped them against his thigh and opened them, pulling one out. He pulled the lighter from where it was tucked inside.

“I can’t believe you *smoke*,” Johnny said. “That’s bad for you.”

“So’s prison. Want one?” Tommaso asked, laughing.

Johnny bit his lip. He put out his hand. Tommaso handed him the cigarette he had out already. Johnny squinted at it. He smelled it.

“Put it in your mouth,” Tommaso said, rolling his eyes. Johnny did. Tommaso stepped close to him to light it. “Suck in,” he said.

Then came the coughing fit, which Tommaso had expected. He took the lit cigarette back from Johnny and put it in his own mouth, lest it go to waste.

“Are we friends now?” Johnny gasped.

“You didn’t have to try a cigarette to be my friend,” Tommaso said.

“But...peer pressure,” Johnny said, gasps turning into laughs.

“You really want the Psycho Killer to be your friend.”

“Yes.”

“...okay,” Tommaso said. Johnny pumped his fist.

They dragged the power washer out to the brick shed that had accumulated a new layer of “Jericho was right” graffiti and made a halfhearted attempt to remove it.

“What’s out there?” Johnny asked, sitting on a stump while Tommaso’s cigarette butt dangled from his lip as he fiddled with the washer controls.

“Where?”

“Out there. All I see are trees. I looked at an old map in the library that said the estate owned a patch of forest going north for a few miles. But I got a new county map and it doesn't show any of it! Isn’t that crazy?”

Tommaso nodded. “It sounds like you want to check it out.”

“I want to check it out so bad. Come with me.”

“Okay.” Tommaso had never explored a forest in his life, thinking back to before the accident when everything went to hell, when he thought he was just a normal kid from Milwaukee. He put out his cigarette and dropped the butt in a can someone had helpfully left behind the shed.

They picked their way into a thick strand of evergreens. Johnny looked up down and all around him in wonder, and Tommaso felt as much wonder about the setting as he did about his companion. This kid did sincerity like it was going out of style.

“What was that?” Johnny said, stopping abruptly, and Tommaso bumped into him. They stayed close, listening. There was another metallic rustle.

“It came from that way,” Tommaso said, gesturing to the right of them with his head. “Come on.” He put himself in front of Johnny and stepped carefully through the leaf litter.

“What the heck is that?” Johnny said, as they pushed through a tight strand of saplings that scratched at their arms and clothes.

A biped robot lay on its side, bleeping pitifully.

“It sounds so sad, I’m going to—” Johnny said, stepping out in front.

“No!” Tommaso shouted, trying to grab him out of the way. Johnny’s arm slipped through his fingers.

“Stop. Mutant.” The robot said. “You will be apprehended.” It fired a red beam from its eyes right at Johnny, hitting him square in the chest. But then his body disappeared.

“Okay,” a voice said from behind Tommaso. He turned. Johnny was there, unharmed.

“How…”

“Stop,” the robot said again.

“If I port before I get hurt I can blep the hurt dupe,” Johnny said. He actually brushed his shoulder off as he said it (it was covered in pine needles, but the gesture did not go unnoticed).

“Blep.”

“Well, you try having a power that’s hard to explain.”

“Oh, like to a judge?” Tommaso said icily.

“You will be apprehended,” the robot bleated. “Stand down.” They turned back and saw it trying to get up to standing. When it was kneeling, it fired another beam at the boys, missing Johnny but hitting Tommaso with a glancing blow that should have knocked him over. Should have knocked anyone else over. But it vanished into his body.

He stomped forward, absorbing two more shots from the eye beams before he closed the distance. He hit it in the chest with a running high knee, and all the blue energy he had absorbed came flowing back out with the force of the blow, shredding the metal of the robot’s chest and sending its head flying. The glowing eyes went dim. Tommaso fell to his knees, catching his breath, and shivering. Why was everything dark all of a sudden? He was so cold.

He felt a hand on his back, resting there, then moving in a circle. “It’s okay,” Johnny said. “We’re safe now.”

“Are we?” Tommaso asked.

***

They left the tools where they were and hustled back to the manor. They burst in on Mr. Regal having a cup of tea in the east drawing room with some visiting graduates. Tommaso staggered to a halt when he saw who was in there, but Johnny walked right in.

“Mr. Regal, there’s a dead robot in the woods! We fought it and took off its head but it said things about capturing mutants and—” He caught his breath.

Tommaso crept in behind him. He avoided making eye contact.

“Sentinels,” said Sami Zayn, setting his teacup down hard on the table. “Fuck.”

“Watch it, Zayn,” Neville said, hovering four inches above his chair.

“Fucking sentinels, Neville! Call Balor in, we need to do a sweep.” He pulled out a phone and started tapping at it.

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Regal said to Johnny and Tommaso. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I take it you’re finished with your detention.”

They nodded, wide-eyed at seeing The Man Gravity Forgot and The Underdog sitting right in front of them.

“Then you probably have some studying to get back to.” He raised an eyebrow. “We’ll handle this from here.”

“Yes, sir,” Tommaso said.

They went back to their rooms without talking any more.

***

Mr. Regal pulled them aside at dinner.

“I’m sorry boys, we didn’t find anything in any of the places you described except a few adamantium bolts.”

Johnny went pale. “Sir, I swear, we fought it and everything. It tried to shoot me with a laser but I blepped just in time.” He wrung his hands together. “We weren’t lying!”

Tommaso stayed quiet.

Mr. Regal’s face was grim. “Any evidence that the sentinel program has resurfaced will be taken extremely seriously. We’ll be on the lookout.” He put a hand on each of their shoulders. He looked like he was about to say something more, but shook his head. He patted them and walked away.

“So. What’s a sentinel?” Johnny asked.

***

“The Sentinel program was implemented by. Anyone? Anyone?” Prof. Sandow paused. Tommaso and Johnny were sitting next to each other in Introduction to Mutant Studies class. They looked around the room. Ember looked just as blank as they did.

“...it was at the behest of Senator Kelly and the Mutant Registration Act passed in 1986 supposedly to capture rogue mutants, but who can tell me from the reading about the fallout of that?”

“Sentinels,” Johnny whispered in Tommaso’s ear.

“Mr. Gargano.” Professor Sandow leaned over him.

“We fought a Sentinel when we were in detention on Saturday,” Johnny said. Tommaso winced.

“That report hasn’t been confirmed,” their professor said as the class broke out into chattering.

“I’m not lying!”Johnny said as the class broke into nervous tittering.

“Jericho was right!” Dash Wilder piped up from the back. “They’re coming back to round us all up!”

“I will round you up myself if you don’t do the reading,” Sandow said. “Now, the Mutant Registration Act…” he began to drone as he went back to his chalkboard.

***

By the end of the day the rumors had spread around the whole school that either the government had tracked them all down, or Johnny was as crazy as the Psycho Killer himself and the two of them were plotting something.

“I don’t know what to do,” Johnny said, sitting cross-legged on Tommaso’s bed, leaning against the wall.

“You don’t have to do anything. People make shit up all the time.” Tommaso sat next to him. He adjusted the pile of books they were trying to study out of.

“But I know what we saw!” He took a breath. “I also saw you. How do your powers work?”

“I absorb energy that hits me. Kinetic, electrical, whatever...then I can project it back. I have to project it back. It’s...complicated.”

They were silent. Tommaso flipped through his tactics textbook, trying to find something to study that would distract him.

“If somebody punches you really hard, do you get to punch back really hard? Or does it shoot out of you like a beam of...cool punching energy?”

“The first one, unless I try to hold it in. Then if anybody touches me it just...spills out.”

“Oh,” Johnny said. “But that means you’re, like, unpunchable.”

Tommaso smiled. “Not as scary sounding as Psycho Killer. The Unpunchable Man.”

“No-Punch Man!” Johnny said.

“What doesn’t knock me out makes me stronger,” Tommaso said, laughing.

“What about bullets?” Johnny asked.

“I don’t want to talk about bullets,” Tommaso said quietly.

“Okay,” Johnny said. He leaned against him. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Wrestling,” Tommaso said.

Johnny’s eyes lit up. That was the expression Tommaso wanted to see. “Really?” Johnny said.

“Tell me everything you know about wrestling,” he said.

“The most important thing about wrestling is that you have to tune up the band before you can do sweet chin music,” Johnny said.

“Should I write this down?” Tommaso said.

“Yes,” Johnny said seriously. “They don’t call me Johnny Wrestling for nothing, you know.”

“Johnny, no one calls you Johnny Wrestling except you.”

“And you.”

“And me,” Tommaso said with a small smile. He got out his notebook.

***

In some ways the School for Gifted Youngsters was like what Tommaso remembered of going to school—they had classes and homework—but in other ways very much not. Instead of gym class, they learned to control their mutant powers in the Performance Center, a holographic training facility in the second subbasement of the mansion where their school was tucked away. And they all lived here. That reminded him of the other place he had spent a lot of time. But the bad place kept the mutant kids in; this place kept the rest of the world out. They were safe here, they were told.

And mostly, Tommaso felt safe. People cared. His teachers all seemed to know all about his background and checked in, making sure he was okay. Sometimes conversations in class got really overwhelming and he had to take a walk, but nobody gave him a hard time except when he also snuck a smoke break.

Johnny saw Tommaso didn’t have any posters in his room so he got him one of Stone Cold Scott Summers. Tommaso still wasn’t sure who all these people were but he pinned it to the wall nonetheless.

Dash and Dawson kept trying to pick on Johnny whenever they could, but Tommaso let his reputation as the Psycho Killer do a lot of the work in scaring them off. Johnny kept trying to repay him in Pokémon cards, but Tommaso had no idea what to do with them. He put some up on his wall next to the poster of Stone Cold but apparently that was not what they were for.

And so October and November passed with no more sightings of sentinels and no more mention of them than as a topic of philosophical discussion in Mutant Studies, as well as practical discussion in tactics.

“They were designed to pursue one target endlessly,” Regal told them. “One sentinel hunts one mutant until capture, then discharges that one mutant at a...facility.” He rubbed the gnarly scar on the back of his neck. “They never did well being attacked from multiple angles at once. If I had to redesign them I’d...well I’d quit my job, they’re an atrocity.”

Tommaso wrote all that down in his notebook right opposite a drawing of Remy LeBeau, the Heartbreak Kid, he had been working on for Johnny. He still wasn’t sure why everyone loved this guy, but Johnny had showed him some tapes and he was trying to catch up.

***

There was a knock on Tommaso’s door. He was still getting used to having his own space he could do almost anything in. He got up to answer it.

“Do you know how to dance?” Johnny asked, looking bewildered, and walked right in under Tommaso’s arm.

“Why? Is there a wrestler who dances now?” Tommaso asked.

Johnny sighed dramatically. “Yes, but that’s not relevant! There’s a school dance, Tommy! It’s mandatory.”

Tommaso blushed at hearing his old nickname. “There’s not that many students here, J. If we all stayed in our rooms and played Pokémon it’d be a pretty awkward dance.”

Johnny huffed and sat down on the bed. Tommaso bit his lip and joined him.

“Hey,” Tommaso said, “At least if it’s mandatory we don’t have to worry about getting dates.”

“What are we wearing?” Johnny asked.

“Do you have a tie?”

“Do you?”

“I got my court suit. Got my lucky Space Jam tie.” Tommaso frowned. “It’s actually not very lucky. It’s just the only tie I have.”

Johnny looked serious. “Do you know how to tie it?” He asked.

“Yep.”

“Can you help me tie mine?” Johnny asked in a small voice.

Tommaso put his arm around his friend. “Sure, kid.” Johnny didn’t protest this time. Instead, he leaned into the embrace, letting out a breath.

***

The students were mostly excited preparing for the Snowflake Ball, even if Alexa scoffed that it was hardly a ball and the other kids giggled at the word ball and someone defaced the flyers to have an extra S. It was only at “Mr. Regal Has Snowflake Balls” that detentions started getting handed out.

Ms. Amato took some of the girls shopping for dresses in town, and while they were gone, Mr. Bloom came out of his seclusion chamber to try to teach the boys to dance. At least there were no serious injuries.

The night of the ball, Johnny showed up at Tommaso’s door with his shirt untucked and a plain blue tie draped around his neck.

Tommaso looked up from his desk where he was finishing the touches on his drawing. He had torn it out from the notebook and carefully trimmed the edges.

“This is for you,” they both said at the same time.

“What?” Tommaso said. Johnny handed him a small wrapped square.

“Merry Christmas,” Johnny said.

“I didn’t wrap mine,” Tommaso said. “Um, here.” He thrust the HBK drawing at Johnny.

“Is this for me?” Johnny squeaked. “It looks just like him. Oh man, this is the best!” He looked up at Tommaso with eyes brimming with tears.

“It’s nothing,” Tommaso said, looking down at the present in his hands. He pulled at the piece of yarn tied around it in a floppy bow. He slid a finger under the tape and unfolded the wrapping paper.

“I made you a mix CD, it’s not anything, but it’s just songs I like, and I don’t like that many songs, so it’s all the really good songs,” Johnny said in a rush.

“Thank you,” Tommaso said, turning it over in his hands. He set the wrapping paper down on his desk.

They were quiet for a moment. Johnny rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet nervously. “You look really cool all dressed up,” he said.

“You still need help with your tie?” Tommaso asked, deflecting.

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny said. He fiddled with the end of the silky fabric in his hand.

Tommaso put down the CD and stepped close to him. He ran his hands behind Johnny’s neck, tucking the tie under the collar neatly. He looped it around, tucking the ends together in a neat knot, then slid it up to tighten.

“How’s that feel?” He asked.

Johnny gulped. “Fine, I think.”

“Then let’s go,” Tommaso said. He nudged Johnny with his shoulder. “It’s mandatory.”

***

The ballroom was dimly lit and filled with the sound of music being DJ-ed off of José’s clunky laptop. He held a headphone up to his head and bopped to the beat, as Rich hovered nearby, moving continuously, trying to get the other kids started.

Nia and Alexa leaned against a wall, scowling. Dash and Dawson were near the punch bowl. Other kids milled around, half-dancing, half standing around. The chaperones looked on with a lack of interest. There wasn’t much to chaperone yet anyway.

“You boys clean up all right,” Mr. Brookside said as Johnny and Tommaso walked in.

“I’m very clean right now,” Johnny said, and Tommaso stifled a laugh.

“That’s a good lad,” Brookside laughed openly, slapping him on the back and walking off to where Mr. Regal was inspecting a table of snacks.

Bayley and Asuka came in behind them, walking close.

“We dance now,” Asuka said, punching Tommaso in the arm. “Greatest dancer,” she said, pointing two thumbs at herself.

“We’ll see,” Bayley said, adjusting her necktie. “Come on, you guys. It’s a dance, not a stand-around.” She let Asuka grab her hand and pull her over to the dance floor. José saw them and faded “Mr. Roboto” out and “Bust a Move” in.

Johnny and Tommaso froze at the edge of the floor.

Johnny pressed his lips together. “The song says bust a move, Tommy,” he said.

“Gotta do what the song says,” Tommaso said with a shrug.

So they did. Or at least, they tried. They shuffled their feet and tried not to get too wild with the arm movements, and when they felt brave they copied what Asuka was doing, which got them warm looks from Bayley. Two songs later there was a rough circle of kids on the floor all trying to follow what Rich and Asuka were showing off.

“This is called a cabbage patch,” Rich said over the music before swinging his hands and hips in opposite directions.

Mr. Regal came over to José, and José nodded, handing him the monitor headphones. Then he came to the dance floor too, tapping Rich on the back. Everyone stepped back to let the two of them have a little bit of a dance off.

Johnny stood so close to Tommaso it was almost no effort at all for their bodies to move against each other as they danced, and it looked like the other kids had the same idea. Bayley had a hand on Asuka’s hip as the music said “When I dip, you dip, we dip” and they looked like they were in another world.

And then the heavy beat of the dance music faded out and into something slower. Tommaso felt a lump in his throat.

“I think I need to sit this one out,” he said, pulling away from Johnny.

“Why?” Johnny said, his face looking stricken.

“Who wants to dance with the Psycho Killer,” Tommaso said, looking at his feet. “Go ask Ember or something, I’ll wait for you over there.”

“But I want to dance with *you*!” Johnny cried.

Tommaso looked up. “Really?”

Strains of Enrique Iglesias picked up as the kids paired off. Bayley and Asuka were still plastered to each other. There weren’t really many people on the sidelines. Even Ms. Amato was dancing with another teacher.

Huffing, Johnny slid his hand into Tommaso’s and they walked to the middle of the dance floor. Johnny hooked his arms around Tommaso’s neck, and Tommaso put his hands on Johnny’s waist. They were standing very close.

Bayley dipped Asuka deeply. Johnny and Tommaso looked over at the two of them and looked back at each other. They leaned in and pressed their foreheads together, creeping more closely entwined.

Tommaso was working up the courage to say something, do something. Johnny’s eyes fluttered open, looking at him like he was the only other person in the world.

And then the lights flickered on and the door to the ballroom slammed open.

“Evacuation, right now!” Mr. Bloom said, his voice echoing in the large room. “Regal, answer your damn comm.”

Sami Zayn, Neville, and Finn Balor (fully shifted into crouching, snarling demon form) followed the teacher into the room. “Sentinels,” Sami said. “Mark 3. Who knows where they came from but they’re on their way, and they’re past the first checkpoint. We picked off a few on the way over.”

“Thank god for precogs,” Neville said. Balor just growled.

“Seniors, suit up, we’ll need you,” Mr. Regal said. “Sara, get the rest of the children to the safe room. We’re not putting them on the transporters unless there’s a breach of the inner defenses.”

“Sentinels,” Johnny whispered, his eyes wide.

Bayley, Asuka, and a few others followed Mr. Regal out down the west corridor, and the rest of the kids clustered together, heading to the stairs down to the safe room tucked away in the basement with its adamantium walls.

“We drilled for this,” Ms. Amato said. “Find your buddy. Two straight lines.”

Truth be told, the only part of the school that really felt like a prison to Tommaso was that windowless room, blast proofed with the same technology used on his cell in Cal Max. He hated it down there, hated the drills, hated being afraid.

“We can help,” Johnny said to Tommaso as they brought up the rear of the line. “We’re the only students who have fought one before!”

“We’re not supposed to,” Tommaso said. “We’re not strong enough—what? Dammit Johnny!”

Johnny’s form had disappeared from next to him. He turned around to see Johnny halfway down the corridor to the patio.

Tommaso swore and took off running after Johnny, his tie flapping as he tried to catch up.

They ran out the French doors to the patio and once they were outside it was no secret where the giant robots were—they could see them swooping in and out of the trees of the woods on the edge of the property.

Without talking, both students made a mad dash for where the action was, crunching through the crust of snow on the ground. There were bolts of energy and howls and horrible clanking noises coming from off to the west. A burst of intense cold hit them that couldn’t be from anyone but Mr. Regal, fighting hard to defend the students he cared about so much.

“What’s that?” Johnny said.

A fuzzy purple form swooped above them.

“That’s just like the one we fought,” Tommaso said. “And it’s splitting off from the pack.”

Johnny’s face was grim in the moonlight. “Tommaso. They can detect mutants, right?”

“That’s what Mr. Regal said.”

“I think it detected us.”

“Fucking shit,” Tommaso swore. “Run!”

They ran further into the woods, pulling the robot away from the others.

“Stand down,” they heard in a robot voice. “I am a friendly robot.” It fired a few laser pulses at them, missing but barely.

“I don’t believe you!” Johnny shouted.

With a hiss of ozone, a volley of pulses hit Tommaso square in the back and he tripped over a root, falling hard to the ground.

Johnny skidded to a halt and ran back toward Tommaso.

“Don’t touch me!” Tommaso screamed. “I can’t control my blast, I’ve absorbed too many, I’ll blow you up!” Just like my parents, he thought silently in despair.

“Tune up the band!” Johnny said. “Can you discharge any of it into the ground?”

Tommaso dragged himself to his feet as the robot loomed over them. He stomped, visualizing an attack on the ground, and felt the energy in his body partially dissipate.

“Remember tactics,” Tommaso said. “We gotta flank it.”

“Tommaso Ciampa,” the robot said, “mutant registration number 918774657. John Gargano, mutant registration number 909877346. You will be detained.”

“I’m not going back!” Tommaso screamed, launching himself at the right side of the robot’s head, channeling all the energy he had absorbed into a vicious double knee strike that he had practiced on many holograms in the Performance Center. At the same time, Johnny ran at the robot’s left side, jumping, and porting himself so that he could kick the robot in the weak seam at the head with two copies of himself at once.

The impact of both of them working together was spectacular, Johnny’s precise double kick combining with Tommaso’s energetic overload, and the robot’s head exploded, the body falling backwards. Johnny blepped the copy of himself and landed in Tommaso’s arms, the two of them rolling out dissipate the impact of landing, landing in a snow bank.

They caught their breath, clinging to each other, their dress clothes wet and dirty. They were alive. But were they safe?

They heard a chorus of cheers pick up from farther away in the forest, and they saw Neville flying overhead in a slow spiral.

“When did we get registration numbers?” Johnny asked.

“I have no idea,” Tommaso said. “I thought the program was over.”

“This is probably bad,” Johnny said.

“Pretty bad.”

“And we’re probably going to be in big trouble,” Johnny added.

“Yep.”

Johnny relaxed against Tommaso. “Maybe we’ll get detention again,” he said, resting his head against Tommaso’s chest.

Tommaso smiled. “Can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be.”