Chapter 158

                Ice swept across the stone, crystalizing and joining in small sections that drew together, connecting and forming solid sheets. Vince let out a breath and lowered his hand. He was getting better, but not as fast as he’d have liked. This was different than the other types of training he’d done. Learning to take in kinetic or shoot electricity had been about understanding the sensations and habits of both types of energy. Once he learned what they were like, once he recognized them as they tried to push against him, Vince could open the door and simply drawn them inside instead. But he knew how to absorb heat. Heat was just like fire, and that had always been the easiest energy for him to work with. It pressed against the skin, drawing out moisture, demanding to be let inside. This wasn’t just grabbing the excess, the spike in temperature that deviated from the norm. What Vince was trying to do was to wring every last bit of it from the nearby world around him, and that was proving to be a far more difficult task.

                Vince settled down on top of a nearby rock, listening to the loud booms and occasional bouts of yelling from other places on the mountain. Lander East was a strange place, that much had been clear from the first day of arrival, yet Vince found that he actually rather enjoyed his time here. While it lacked the bustle of Lander’s true campus, things here also felt less fractured. There were no tests looming or classes to fight through or DVA agents looking over his shoulder. All that mattered here was self-betterment. It was a place of pure, simple training. That made it somewhat peaceful, in its own way. True, if it weren’t for Lander’s competitive program and all the others pushing to make him better, Vince knew he never would have taken his power this far, but it was still nice to simplify for a bit, even if it would only last for another week or so.

                Footsteps crunching through the snow drew his attention, and Vince looked up to find Michael making his way down from the main building. He said nothing as he approached, quietly trudging through the ice before settling down on a rock near Vince’s. Once seated, he reached into his jacket and produced a large thermos, along with a pair of thick plastic cups. He poured steaming brown liquid into one and passed it over to Vince before making another for himself. Vince took a careful sip, fearing the bitter bite of coffee, but was relieved to discover it was hot chocolate instead.

                “Thanks,” Vince said. The cocoa was warm all the way down, making him realize how long he’d been out here trying to make the already near-frozen world even colder.

                “No problem. You’ve been at it for a while today. Make sure to come in and warm up soon. The staff here are pretty good about letting you do things at your own pace, but there are safety issues to consider.” Michael didn’t seem to mind taking a swig of the sweeter drink, in spite of his preference for coffee on the first day.

                They sat in silence for a while, save for the sounds of slurping. Vince had nearly reached the bottom of his mug when something bubbled up inside. It was a question he’d begun nurturing on his first day of arrival, one that had only grown stronger with each passing time he encountered Michael. For a reason he couldn’t put his finger on, this seemed like the right time to finally ask it, and he wasn’t sure another would ever come along. If the time away with Nick had reminded Vince of nothing else, it was that all of life and its interactions were finite. An opportunity passed by just might be an opportunity lost.

                “Michael, why are you really still here?” Vince asked. “It’s plain to see you’ve got yourself under control. The man you are now is nothing like the guy who got kicked out of the HCP. I think you know that, too. Whatever Dean Blaine sent you here for, you seem like you found it. Maybe it’s not my business, and if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. You don’t owe me an answer; I just couldn’t stop myself from asking.”

                “I’d say answers are the least I owe you, given the degree of crap I’m told I put our… your class through.” Michael took a long drink from his cup, wiping the excess chocolate from his lip with the back of his mitten. “Fear. A lot of other things too, there are some practical hurdles I need to overcome that make things harder, but more than anything else I think it’s fear. This place has been a haven for me. The structure, the teachings, the general isolation, its helped turn me into a version of myself that, for the first time in my life, I genuinely like. But we both know the world isn’t like Lander East. I’m afraid that if I go back out there, even if I never get near the HCP, I’ll turn back into the old me.”

                “I thought you didn’t remember much from Lander,” Vince said.

                “I was an asshole long before I ever set foot on that campus,” Michael replied. His voice was curiously absent of shame or embarrassment, as though he’d accepted this truth so thoroughly that it no longer had the power to wound him. “And there are still memory bits and pieces from my non-HCP time. Enough to know the kind of man I was before coming here. The kind of man I don’t want to be again.”

                A loud explosion came from the other side of the mountain, momentarily interrupting them, and from their vantage point a section of snow far off seemed to slide out of position. Laughter could be heard ringing out, so it was probably intentional, though with the sorts of powers being tossed around up here it was hard to ever say for sure.

                “Believe it or not, I know how you feel.” Vince finished off his cocoa, this time the warmth burning on its way down. When he dwelled on this memory, every bit of him felt raw and even the barest of touches was painful. “I have anger issues. Not the same as yours, but issues all the same. I try so hard to be good and gentle, the kind of man my father taught me to be. And then something happens to someone I care about, and I just… lose myself. All the loss and the fury and the pain come bursting up and in those moments all I can see is my enemy. All I can feel is the desire to stop them, no matter what. Last May I almost killed someone. Not because I had to, in the heat of battle. I’d stopped him already. But he’d just killed one of my friends, and I wanted to make him pay for that. There was nothing in me screaming to stop; I’d have done it without batting an eye. The only thing that stayed my hand was someone I trusted talking me back from the edge. I’m scared too, Michael. I’m terrified of losing control like that, of turning into the very sort of bastard I’ve trained so hard to fight.”

                “But you’re still training,” Michael pointed out.

                Vince set the cup down on the rock and hefted himself up. “I am. Because learning to control myself and my actions is how I’m coping with that fear. Therapy too. My power is strong. I don’t say that out of ego, but because I know it’s true. I need to be the kind of man who can use it well, who can live up to the term ‘Hero’. And maybe the fear is a good thing. We know who we don’t want to be, so when we start taking steps in those directions we can stop ourselves.”

                “Maybe you’re right.” Michael collected the cups and put them over the thermos, which he tucked back into his pocket. “But all the same, I think I’ll keep going slow. That’s the thing about the cold: it’s really just perfect stillness. Everything in the world slowing to a near stop. I spent a lot of my life running around and going too fast. Since I started acting like someone with cold powers, I’ve been a lot happier. Sooner or later I’ll move on, even glaciers shift, but not until I know what my next step should be.”

                “That sounds like a good plan.” Vince watched as Michael re-zipped his jacket. Two years. In two years the madman who’d nearly beaten Alex half to death and tried to jump Vince multiple times had cooled to this surprisingly unassuming fellow. It was a good reminder that people could change. That was reassuring, and dangerous, because Vince had looked down the path of fury too many times. A few missteps, and he could change too. He had to be in control. He had to be the sort of person who deserved to be called a Hero. And in that moment, for an amazingly crystal clear instant, he knew what the right thing to do was.

                “Hey Michael,” Vince called. Michael was already several steps away, but he turned around to face his former classmate. “I forgive you. For everything you did to me when we were in the HCP. I don’t know if that matters or not, I just wanted you to know.”

                “It matters.” Michael stared at him for several long seconds of silence. “It matters a lot. Thank you, Vince.” He turned and continued his trek up to the main building, leaving Vince alone once more.

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