Chapter 237

                “I… wait… pardon?” Will stammered out the half-assed reply, trying to mentally cope with going from victory to discovery in the span of a few seconds.

                “Never mind, I’ll handle it.” Kennedy turned toward the nearest window. “Mary, Nick, I’m sure your listening to my mind if not my words. Will can explain later, but for now I’d like some privacy. I’ve stopped obscuring my thoughts enough for Mary to have a good idea of what’s going on, so I expect to not have to ask again. You’re not the only one who can be scary when she wants to.”

                There was a small rustle of movement from near one of the windows as two shadowy figures appeared. The shorter one gave a brief wave before they both walked out of sight. Seemingly content with the result, Kennedy’s attention returned to Will. “Come on; let’s go to the kitchen for ice. I wasn’t kidding about you needing some. And don’t you dare get that injury healed; it wouldn’t do for all your work to come apart just because one of those dicks saw you with an uninjured nose too soon.”

                Will followed along, brain in overdrive as he tried to reassess the situation. He probably wasn’t in danger, since Mary would never have left if she’d seen violent thoughts in Kennedy’s mind. That didn’t mean he wasn’t in trouble though, he’d definitely broken more than a few rules in this operation. Taking a deep breath, Will calmed himself. If he was busted, that was fine. He’d always been willing to pay the price if it meant keeping his friends safe. Take Back Lander and the identity hunting enterprise was dead. The HCP seniors were as safe as they could be. If it cost him his spot, then so be it.

                While he was mulling, Kennedy had taken a rag and some ice out, wrapping the latter in the former and then handing both to him. Once he’d pressed the compact on his nose, she began to explain.

                “To head off your first question at the pass, there is no Kennedy Dawson. Not really. We created her digitally, and may have planted a few fake memories here and there. Nothing too personal, people can almost always catch those, but set them far enough back and people blame inconsistencies on the erosion of time. I stepped in at the beginning of the year as soon as we saw this little group form. The original plan was to do a quick infiltration mission and make sure they either disbanded or stayed on the straight and narrow. We’ve seen too many groups like this turn ugly not to keep an eye on them. Then you showed up to a meeting, and suddenly we had another opportunity.”

                “Hang on; you were working against Take Back Lander? But you’re all that held them together,” Will reminded her.

                “Some of them. After I made sure we took as many polarizing stances as possible to drive reasonable people away. After I let the meetings grow cumbersome and pointless so that there was no sense of progress. After I whittled down the group to an ‘inner circle’ composed only of the least likable people we had to make sure the group never got traction. After I made us take up a course of action that would ensure we found virtually no empathy from anyone. Disperse a group too soon, and members will take their passion and try to reform into something new. You have to make them hate the cause and everyone associated with it, so that they aren’t tempted to take up the fight once more. Again though, most of that was because I had to shift to a long-term solution.”

                “Right, and you did that because I was there.” Will was finally getting past the shock and thinking straight again. He’d have to work on this more; in the field he wouldn’t have the luxury of long recovery times. Being able to predict a lot of potential scenarios made him vulnerable when one came from left-field. One more weakness to train. “So this was a test then? To see if I could handle dispersing Take Back Lander?”

                “No, Will. This was a test to see how far you would go to disperse Take Back Lander.” Kennedy, since that was how Will still thought of her, suddenly had a very serious expression on her face. “To put it bluntly, you were on the bubble this year. We know about your past. Your mother, your sister’s boyfriend, all of it. Some felt that you crossed the lines too freely, others pointed out that you’ve stayed within certain moral bounds. Subtlety Heroes are already under a lot of scrutiny, every time one of us goes rogue it makes things even worse. You’ve got talent, no one can debate that. What we didn’t know was if you had self-control. How far you’re willing to go as a Subtlety Hero matters, especially because often you’ll be the only one who keeps you in check. So we gave you a test. We threatened your friends and waited to see how you’d respond.”

                Carefully, Will adjusted the bundle of ice on his nose. “How did I do?”

                “Like most of your past work, it went up to the line without quite crossing it. Having Nick punch you was smart; I couldn’t very well let it slide if you were having him beat up civilians. And the part about letting them keep protesting legally was a nice touch. You made it about hunting identities, rather than the group as a whole. More payback than oppression. Will, you’re a smart guy, too smart for your own good sometimes, but you’ve got a strained sense of morality and you’re still better with tech than people. My judgement is that you should be allowed to graduate, however you’ll need to intern under a Hero who knows your past and challenges. You need a watchful eye and a firm hand to make sure you become an asset to the Heroes, not a future liability.”

                “A bit harsh, although I can’t say it’s an unfair assessment.” Will suddenly snapped to a new realization as the discussion turned to internships. “Wait, is this why I’ve gotten so little interest? Because I was being tested?”

                “Mostly,” Kennedy confirmed. “Since I was the one who was willing to put in the work on vetting you, I got to call dibs. If I passed, then someone else could snatch you up, but they probably wouldn’t. Subtlety Heroes tend to have something of an honor system among ourselves, plus if I’d judged you to be a risk there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have graduated.”

                Will lowered the bag of ice and tentatively touched his nose. This whole situation had him feeling railroaded, like he had little say in the matter. The sharp jolt of pain helped bring him back to his senses. This woman might have been in charge of seeing how far he would go, but that didn’t mean he was obliged to intern under her. Both parties had to consent to an internship, even if the result was Will getting paired with someone as a leftover. Then again, he’d been impressed by her control of a room at every turn, and she’d definitely proven capable of deception. It wasn’t an idea he was entirely against, but there was still a major hurdle left to clear.

                “If you want me to intern under you, I should probably know who you actually are first. Your Hero name, I mean.”

                “Was wondering when you’d get around to that.” Kennedy held up her arms, and her entire shape rippled as a cloud of darkness formed around her. Seconds later it cleared to reveal a woman in a simple costume with her entire head obscured by a black mask. “The name is Misdirection, master of illusions and Subtlety Hero for Elemental Fury.”

                “You work with Gale.” Will could have smacked himself in the face if not for the already wounded nose. “She more or less told me that people had their eyes on me. I just thought she meant in general.”

                Another ripple of darkness, and Misdirection vanished as a smirking Kennedy took her place. “Like I said, you’re still better with tech than people. That’s useful too though, and it would be nice not to have to lean on Modus Operandi for all our hacking and gadget needs. I’m not going to be a gentle teacher, Will. I’m going to watch you like a hawk to make sure you don’t finally give in and start crossing lines. If you want to look for another Hero to intern under, I’ll give up my dibs and put you back on the market.”

                Interesting an idea as it was, now that Will had figured out he had a choice, he found he didn’t want to exercise it. Misdirection was right; he did sometimes go too far when people he loved were involved. Having a teacher who knew that, and wanted to help him through it, was his best shot at being a real Hero, not just someone who graduated with the title.

                “I’ve got some friends already going to Brewster. Seems like as nice a place as any.” Will stuck out his hand to Misdirection. “If you’ll have me, teacher.”

                She grasped it and gave a firm shake. “Don’t get overconfident; you still have to make the cut. But if you do, then you’ll find a spot at my side waiting for you. It’s the home stretch Will, don’t fuck it up now.”