Chapter 236

                “This is hardly what I’d expect from a future Hero.” Kennedy was, somehow, still holding it together. Her eyes were locked on Nick, even as the rest of the room shrank back after that display of power. “Maybe we will look bad, maybe your sound files can tarnish our reputations, but don’t think the HCP will walk out of this clean. With all of us telling the same story, some people will believe us. Enough to wonder what sort of Heroes-in-training use their gifts to shove normal humans around.”

                Nick glanced over to her, never allowing the crowd as a whole to leave his sight for more than a few moments. Will could see esteem in that gaze, Nick had noted her ability to stay cool. None of the respect made it to his smile, however, a far more theatrically wicked smirk than Nick would have ever affected without a mask.

                “That might be true, if I were indeed in the HCP. But too bad, so sad, I’m afraid I didn’t make the cut. None of us did. So all you can really tattle about is the fact that the HCP keeps people like me, people who take these kinds of actions, away from being Heroes. Sort of proves that they’re doing the job right, don’t you think?”

                “Bullshit.” Tad wasn’t getting out of his seat, the telekinetic display had cowed him, but he still had enough stubborn willfulness to talk shit. In an odd way, Will was slightly impressed. Given a different context, he might have called it bravery. “Why the fuck would you care about us going after HCP students if you washed out? You’re bluffing. A real HCP failure would want us to succeed, to get some payback on the people who took their spot.”

                In a flash, Nick was across the room, never touching Tad yet glaring down at him with enough force that it may as well have been a physical shove. “Whether you know it or not, you just revealed far more about yourself than probably intended. Don’t be surprised if no one in this room ever trusts or speaks to you again, you sniveling fucking worm.  And since you don’t get it, let me explain using small words: Just because I didn’t make it doesn’t mean I don’t have friends in the HCP. Unlike you, some of us are capable of seeing past our own self-interest. So when you mess with the HCP, you mess with our friends, and that is a very dangerous proposition.”

                He whirled around, glaring at the rest of the room. Nick was pinging between charm and madness at a hectic rate, not even Will was sure what to expect from one moment to the next. “Let’s not make this harder than it needs to be. You have no leverage, because I’ve kept all proof out of your hands. You have no recourse, because I’m not an HCP student so they can’t be held responsible for any of my actions. At best, you might be able to figure out who I am, I’ve certainly shown enough power to give you some clues, but the HCP drums out far more students than it keeps. If you think I’m the only one with loyalty, the only one who feels the drive to protect that place… well then you’re pretty damn stupid, because I’ve been blatantly using words like ‘ours’ and ‘we’ this whole time.”

                The last swerve of the sentence took the room by surprise. It had felt like Nick was building toward some threat, instead he had simply pointed out language use. Odd as it was, Will could see the logic. It was the sort of unexpected tonal shift that kept the room off-center. As soon as they thought they could guess what Nick was going to do, he lost some of his power. By being wholly unpredictable, he left them in a constant state of uncertainty.

                “Any other pointless questions? Do some of you want to appeal to my sense of morality, or maybe try to convince me that what you’re doing is right?” Nick actually paused, waiting to see whether they would try to debate him or not. “Good. Looks like there’s hope for this lot yet. One last thing though: if you want to keep your little social club going, feel free. I don’t give a shit about you protesting or getting signatures or whatever you were up to before this. Fight the HCP all you like in the light of day. But when you try to do something as wicked as revealing student identities, you step into the shadows. That’s where you’ll find the real monsters, hungry and waiting. That’s where you’ll find the HCP’s cast-offs, the ones not quite moral and decent enough to be Heroes. Come if you like, just be ready. The Ghosts of Lander certainly will be.”

                Again, the lights flickered, although this time no one even tried to bumble with their phones. A few seconds later, when they cut back on, Nick had vanished. Silence hung over the room for nearly a minute, until Kennedy finally pulled herself up from the chair.

                “Well, that was quite a show. We should take heart though, this means we’re on the right trail. If we weren’t a real threat, the HCP wouldn’t be sending it’s thugs to come try and scare us. Now if we keep pushing-”

                “Are you crazy?” Tad had finally found his tongue again, and was pulling himself out of the chair that Nick had appeared to throw him into. “Did you not see that shit? You could feel the crazy coming off of that guy. He covered every angle, had us pinned to the wall, almost literally. We know they’ve got a tech Super from the emails. Now a telekinetic, who is probably a telepath too. For fuck’s sake Kennedy, this isn’t a fight worth picking anymore.”

                “Perhaps we did get too ambitious with our efforts to uncover identities, but we have other options available. Despite his bluster, I feel relatively certain the HCP would care about one of their failures threatening other students. We can subject ourselves to a telepath as proof, even without video. Not to mention, this is our biggest lead yet. Think about it: we know that man’s power, height, and general build. If we can figure out who he is, then his social circle is almost certainly going to have HCP students in it.”

                It was a good, logical plan. The problem was that Nick had stolen away the room’s capacity for logic and replaced it with fear. Kennedy was making her first mistake, and it was one Will understood all too well. She was trying to reason with people, using thought instead of feeling. Sometimes that was the right move, however against a manipulator like Nick Campbell one first had to undo the emotional damage he’d wrought. Nick had made them scared, taken away every idea of recourse they had. Until they were past that, no amount of good sense would break through.

                Some people listened to Kennedy; others began walking out without so much as a goodbye. That was the start of the exodus, but far from the end. One by one they all filed out, keenly aware that they had more to lose than to gain by going down this path. In under five minutes, Will and Tad were the last ones.

                “Look, Kennedy, I don’t like Supers either, and I sure as hell don’t want to share a campus with them. But you want us to keep going on a wild goose chase knowing it will piss off some really powerful people. If you want to go back to protests or something, give me a call. You made it too real with this identity shit. That guy is right; we stepped into a world we weren’t ready for. And I’m taking the chance to get out while it’s here.”

                Tad strode out the front door without another word. Will rose to his feet, intending to give Kennedy a quick nod of farewell, but her hand fell on his shoulder.

                “We should ice that nose, it’s starting to swell.” Despite watching her whole organization walk out on her, she gave Will a surprisingly caring smile. As he was looking at her, Will dimly heard Tad’s car engine fire up and his tires tear out of the driveway. Kennedy’s smile deepened at the noise. “And now that he’s gone, why don’t you tell Nick and Mary to go on home? We’ve got some things to discuss, and I’m sure it can’t be comfortable hiding in the bushes out there.”