Chapter 146

                The last time Vince had seen Michael Clark, it was sprawled out on the ground after being summarily and unquestionably defeated by Vince. According to the gossip that went around Lander, Britney had reported Michael’s actions during the team event to Dean Blaine, who had removed Michael from the program as a result. In those early days, it felt like people still left the program regularly, so it hadn’t caused too much of a stir. If anything, all Vince had felt was relief that the then bald ice-based Super would no longer be around to make trouble for him and his friends.

                Which made it all the more shocking to be sitting in a sizable kitchen, being served hot chocolate by the man who’d ambushed him more than once and beaten Alex halfway to brain damage. Even weirder was the fact that Michael seemed unbothered by the reunion. He was smiling cheerfully as he made a mug of coffee for himself and took a seat next to Vince at the counter. Mr. Transport had excused himself after getting a phone call, presumably to pick up Dean Blaine, so for the moment it was just the two of them. In all the crazy things Vince had seen and experienced since Michael left, the two of them being in a room without punches getting thrown felt like it might eclipse them all.

                “You knew me before, I assume?”

                Vince nodded slowly, not entirely sure he trusted his tongue to avoid letting slip any key bits of information that might cause trouble.

                “That’s about the reaction I would expect,” Michael said. “From what they told me, I made quite a bit of trouble. I’ve always had a temper, and being Super in a town without many others meant no one ever really called me on it. I was the special one, and so I could… sorry, it doesn’t matter. I’m working on taking responsibility for my own actions, which means the circumstances of how I grew up are irrelevant. Whatever I did to you or your friends was my own fault, and I apologize for it. I know that rings hollow since I can’t actually remember any of it to regret, but it’s the most I can offer considering the circumstances.”

                Sipping his drink carefully, Vince stared at the man who’d once been the terror of their class. He looked different, and not just because of the hair or two years of aging. Michael had always seemed weighed down, as though even at his craziest he was still aware of the need to impress and succeed. This version didn’t carry that burden. And why would he? Aside from a few staff members Vince had seen as they made their way to the kitchen, it didn’t appear as though there was anyone here to impress in the first place.

                “So… you don’t remember any of it?” Vince asked, finally setting his mug down.

                “Not a bit. Well, a little from my classes here and there, I don’t think they’re legally allowed to wipe that stuff out, but for the most part my time at Lander is all one foggy blur.” Michael pressed his right index finger to his temple. “All of it was wiped. My first clear memory is being in Dean Blaine’s office, getting handed an ultimatum. Come to Lander East and try to work through my shit, or be formally charged with assault for some of the stunts I apparently pulled. Should be an easy call, right? Yet the guy still had to sell me on it. Looking back, I really can’t believe what a short-sighted dick I was.”

                It was hard to argue with the assessment, yet all the same Vince felt part of his mind try to pipe and reassure Michael that he hadn’t been all that bad. That would have been a lie though. The old Michael was pretty damn bad. This one… well he didn’t act nearly as unhinged, although neither had the old Michael at first. Vince was reserving judgement until there was more than a conversation over cocoa to judge from.

                “You had some moments,” Vince told him. It seemed the best way to agree with Michael without being needlessly cruel. “But you seem to be a lot more balanced than you were back at Lander. What have you been doing up here, anyway?”

                Michael shrugged. “Nothing too incredible. Training, for a good part of it. It helps keep me centered. Of course, I’m also doing regular therapy, meditation, yoga, and all that other mind-clearing stuff they make you learn when you’ve got an aggressive nature paired with a history of violence. Drying out may have been the biggest help though. I’m not sure if Dean Blaine told anyone, but I had a drinking problem back then. Sorry, I mean I still have a drinking problem; I just don’t drink up here. Nothing like being on a mountain with no booze for miles to help a guy stay sober.”

                That actually was a bit of a surprise, Vince had never known about the alcohol issue. Then again, it wasn’t as though he and Michael had ever done anything remotely social. Their interactions had been limited to threats, fighting, and ambushes.

                “I’m glad to hear you’re getting better. If this isn’t prying too much, I am curious: what’s your goal with all this? Are you trying to reapply to the HCP, or-”

                “Definitely not,” Michael interrupted, the barest touch of his old force creeping back into his voice. His cheeks flushed, and he looked down into the depths of his coffee. “I’m sorry, it’s just… those sorts of environments are bad for me. I’ve come to realize that now. They bring out the worst parts of who I am, and so I’ve learned to reject them just like the booze. It’s the only way for me to keep from regressing.”

                Both sat in silence for a moment, save for the occasional sips from their mugs, before Michael looked back up and continued. “To answer your question, I don’t have much of a goal. Mostly I’ve just been focusing on getting better, on being better. I don’t know when I’ll reach a point where I feel like it’s time to go back to the real world, but when I do I’m not going anywhere near Lander. I might head back to my home town and work as a boxing instructor or something, my childhood coach was getting on in years, he might want an apprentice to eventually take over for him. Or maybe I’ll travel, working odd jobs as needed. It’s all up in the air, my paths are wide open. I like that, for now.”

                Footsteps came from outside the kitchen, explained moments later when Dean Blaine and Mr. Transport walked inside. They must have really been in a hurry; Dean Blaine hadn’t even bothered to put on anything warm over his usual suit. For a sliver of an instant, the Lander HCP’s highest authority looked surprised and uncertain as he walked in on two former enemies drinking hot chocolate and coffee, respectively. Then he recovered his composure, looking as though nothing in the world was out of place with this scene.

                “Vince, I see you’ve met one of Lander East’s other residents: Michael Clark. While I’m sure you’re both interested in catching up, we should really get you settled in and up to speed on what you’ll be doing here before anything else.”

                “Go on ahead, I’ll clean these up,” Michael offered, scooping up both mugs and heading to the sink.

                Vince did as he was told, standing from the table and walking over to Dean Blaine. As they left the room though, he cast one glance back at Michael, who was dutifully washing the mugs before setting them out to dry.

                There was almost no way anything waiting for Vince was going to top the weirdness of his first encounter. In a way, he found that oddly reassuring.