Chapter 235

                Will found it odd that he was slightly nervous. It wasn’t that the nerves showed, he’d certainly had enough training to conceal his tension. It was more perplexing that they were there at all. Given the stakes he’d grown used to playing for, the success and well-being of his team or classmates on the line, this shouldn’t have been more than a blip on his mental radar. After all, if things went truly sideways then the most likely thing to be lost would be his future. And scary a thought as that was, it really didn’t compare when he imagined doing this kind of work with lives on the line. Yet he was still a touch nervous as he made his way into the familiar den of Kennedy Dawson’s home. It was easy to know intellectually that his future was a worthwhile sacrifice if it kept the others safe, but emotionally the possibility still scared him. It wasn’t that shocking though, not even Chad had been able to keep his feelings at bay forever. Some things were simply inevitable, and fear over his fate was one of them.

                Despite that, Will looked the same as always. Unsure, a little out of place, and with the slightest hint of fear. He didn’t belong around these people; they’d sniff that out one way or another, so Will had chosen to embrace that obvious difference by seeming intimidated by Kennedy’s wealth. It wasn’t a hard sell; the opulence was quite striking, especially compared to the little he’d grown up with. Looking like a lower-class student out of his depth made perfect sense, and if anyone ever noticed that Will wasn’t quite on the same page as most of the group they chalked it up to that blatant difference. Perfectly blending in was beyond him, but playing to people’s assumptions was the best way he’d found to work around the issue.

                The meeting went normally for the first ten minutes or so, with Kennedy checking in to see if anyone had gotten more mysterious emails since their gathering. To Will’s delight, while none of them had received so much as a text from an unknown number, many reported seeing strangers watching them, or even following from a distance. In truth, Will hadn’t organized any of that, so unless Nick had suddenly gone severely off-script the Take Back Lander members were simply being paranoid. The worry showed on their faces too, the mere fact that they were no longer operating unseen had stripped much of their bravado. Kennedy, predictably, was the least bothered, conducting the meeting with her usual calculated charm.

                Her only moment of noticeable frustration came when no one had any more information to report about their efforts to uncover HCP-student identities. There were plenty of excuses tossed about, some more legitimate than others, but the end result was plain: people were scared. Their secrets had been brought into play, however briefly, and no one wanted to be the brave soul who pushed things too far and saw just how serious the mysterious email sender was. Even that indiscretion on her face was brief, as she quickly composed herself.

                “Very well,” Kennedy said once the last failed report was made. “It seems we need to have another talk about whether or not we are all truly committed to the cause. I told you that this enterprise came with risk, and potential danger, and we all agreed that those were worth the cost in order to keep standing up for our school. If your feelings on that have changed, then let us air them out right here and now, because these half-hearted efforts are getting us nowhere. I seem to be the only one who is still actively working to gain interviews and uncover clues, the only one refusing to be cowed by a few disappearing emails with no overt threat attached. If you are willing to bend so easily now, I can’t imagine how you’ll fair when you face real opposition.”

                At her words, the lights suddenly cut out. It wasn’t for long, less than ten seconds, and they came back on before anyone could even yank their phone out of their pocket to turn on a flashlight. But when the room was visible once more, it was different. Specifically, there was someone new standing in the center of it. He was dressed well, yet plainly, an unremarkable off-the-rack black suit that Will knew it must have physically pained Nick to don. He wore nothing distinctive, save for a simple gray mask similar to, yet not quite the same as, the ones employed by the students during the attacks last May. While the room stared at the stranger in shock, he seized the moment, leaning in to take a deep bow.

                “You’ll have to forgive the intrusion, but when someone offers up a juicy entrance line like that it feels criminal to let it go to waste. Much as I’d like to introduce myself, that would rather defeat the purpose of the mask, so you’ll have to simply think of me as a Ghost of Lander. A bit overly theatrical, I’ll be the first to admit, but thematically sound enough to justify it.”

                This next moment was crucial. Will watched the crowd absorb the appearance of this stranger. He really hoped they wouldn’t do anything stupid, but already he could see that was a lost cause. Fear masquerading as anger was overriding their common sense; Tad looked as though he was about to jump up and rush the intruder. That couldn’t happen. If this got physical with a regular student, it dramatically changed the stakes and the situation. Which was why they’d built in a contingency for the possibility, albeit one that Will wasn’t particularly fond of.

                Leaping to his feet, Will stalked over to the Ghost of Lander looking as menacing as he could manage. “Listen asshole, I don’t know who you think you are but this is private property, and we’re not going to stand for it.” Rearing back, he took a wide swing at Nick’s skull. The punch never connected, instead Nick easily blocked it while countering with a swift, simple jab to Will’s nose. They’d talked it over at length, and much as they might have preferred to go with a staged punch, it had been decided that realism was more vital to the plan. Will dropped to his knees, clutching his face, before slowly inching back toward the nearest chair.

                “Ghosts can’t trespass, they don’t exist in the first place,” Nick replied. “And if you want to search for proof of that, I ask only that you check the security system. You’ll find no record of me ever setting foot in this house. Your over-eager friend did do an excellent job of providing an example of why I’m here though. In a word: reciprocation. He tried to throw a punch when I was content to keep things verbal, and in return I hit him back. The only difference you might notice is that my hit was much better.”

                Nick whipped his head suddenly, locking eyes with Tad, who’d been easing himself up from his seat. “One could, if they were so inclined, compare it to a bunch of bastards hunting around for the secret identities of HCP students. Bumbling and inept as they might be, it’s still a clear attack. So if someone were to come along and hit back, someone who might be far better at digging up other people’s secrets, what would that really be except simple reciprocation?”

                “There’s one big difference in your example.” Kennedy was on her feet, looking the intruder dead in the eye. She was the least predictable element here; Will couldn’t properly estimate what sort of actions she’d take. Dealing with her was entirely at Nick’s discretion, a fact which had in no small part contributed to Will’s case of nerves. “What we’re doing is legal. What you’ve done is breaking and entering, invasion of privacy, and probably violates a few laws about hacking as well.”

                “Ah, but there’s the rub. When you talk about legality, you talk about proof. You’ve got none of it, while I have heaps. No emails to show, no footage to prove I was here, just the word of a group that has proven itself to be aligned against the HCP. Feel free to try and snap some pictures, you’ll find your phones unwilling to cooperate, unlike all the video and soundbites I’ve put together. And if I’m pushed, people will know about your little clubhouse meetings, coldly discussing outing future Heroes. I imagine the press will have a good time with that. Heroes might be polarizing but people are more empathetic to mere students, especially ones who recently suffered a serious attack. I bet some of the people in your own families and companies might take such offense that they leaked personal secrets of yours. Well, the emails would come from their accounts, anyway.”

                Out of the corner of his eye, Will noticed Tad starting to rise again. Damnit. He’d expected that watching someone else get swiftly handled would drive home that this stranger was dangerous, but some people were too dumb to take a hint. He tried to catch Nick’s attention as Tad rose, hoping dearly there was a way to cut this off before things moved to the next level.

                As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Nick had ample failings, but a lack of planning and preparation was not among them. Nick turned his masked face back to Tad, who met his stare and tilted slightly forward, clearly preparing to rush him. In the moment of hesitation, Nick made a simple gesture with his hand. From the wall, Tad’s chair shot out, bumping into his knees and catching him as an unseen force gently shoved Tad backwards.

                “That was rude. Do you always interrupt people when they’re talking? Never mind, I don’t care about you enough to hear the answer. But as you can now hopefully tell, I’ve come to be heard. I would highly recommend you all keep your responses verbal. Otherwise…” The small part of Nick’s mouth that could be seen split into a chilling grin as he spread his arms out and gave a casual shrug. As he did, many of the objects in the room lifted a few inches up, hovering there for several seconds before setting themselves back down.

                “Otherwise, I think you already know my policy on reciprocation.”