Ray gave himself a headache trying to remember exactly what happened.
"I don't recall being anywhere near here when I lost consciousness." He told Glenn, who sat next to the rack where he lay.
"You were in rough shape. I'm surprised you even lived. But I wouldn't worry much about all of the details. You are here."
"Fair enough." The last thing Ray remembered was being ambushed by an Energy Fly swarm.
"You know you being away certainly changed the mood of everyone. Ashe especially."
"Huh? Did she try to pick fights with everybody now that I wasn't there to beat up on?"
Glenn laughed. "You'd think. She was actually rather fun to hang around."
"You're telling me she was acting nice?"
"True story. One guy from another unit actually asked her out on a date."
"And how'd that go?"
"She wouldn't stop talking about it, even after Jace and I told her we weren't interested in hearing about it."
Ray smirked. "Lucky guy, huh? Now that I'm back here, how do you think it'll affect that?"
"No telling. I'm sure Midas won't like the results."
"Ashe is dating Midas? From unit FR-H? That's an S-Class unit!"
"Not really. They've spent quite some time together but it's nothing official. It was just yesterday."
"Haha. Well quite frankly I'm not that interested in hearing about that either. What are the other two up to anyway?"
Glenn's expression changed. "Honestly, Ashe went back to her 'normal' self a good while before you got here. Jace took the opportunity to ask her more questions about her old career, hoping she'd be nice enough to share. Despite how stress-free she seemed, she didn't take it well. At all."
"She's really sensitive about that. Why is Jace so fixated about learning why she quit boxing?"
"I'm sure you know he almost idolized her. Not as much her person as opposed to her raw talent. What made it so bad was he kept pressing. More than likely they're still in some stupid argument. I got fed up with hearing it, so I came in here."
"Oh brother...and you'd think Jace of all people would have learned his limits by now."
"Tell me about it. I'm surprised he hasn't gotten hit again. Ashe's personality 'change' had actually gotten her off probation."
"Probably knows she won't get another probation."
"That too. Can you walk? Don't know about you but I'm going to chow. And be careful with that arm of yours. They just put that thing on."
Sure enough, as Ray walked into the compartment after chow, Ashe and Jace were still in some kind of argument.
"I just wanted to know! Why is it such a big deal?"
"Because there is nothing for you to know! Why can you not accept that and stop bothering me about it?"
"There's more that you aren't telling about. I want to hear about it. After three undefeated championship titles, you didn't just quit because you 'felt like it'!"
Ray attempted to break it up. "Hey, guys? Perhaps we can just compromise?"
He was greeted with a harmonic "SHUT UP!"
Ray scratched his head. "Yeah. Great to see you guys again, too."
Glenn shook his head and left the compartment rather hastily. Ray was about to follow suit, but hesitated.
"If it's not such a 'big deal' then why won't you drop it and bug off!"
"I know you're hiding something! I think I deserve an explanation! You owe me that much!"
"Owe you? You think I owe you? I don't owe you shit! What you deserve is your head being knocked off!"
"Um, yeah? I think you do. Sort of was a let-down when you suddenly disappeared from the ring."
"Jace, I...I...UGH!" Ashe stood up swiftly. Jace winced slightly. But instead of trying to pick a fight, she stormed off into the night on the large balcony. Jace left the compartment angrily without another word.
Ray sighed deeply, and walked himself outside. It was sprinkling. Even with the rain being light, the misty blackness made it hard to see. He spotted her sitting on a bench staring off into the sky.
She stood and turned. "What do you want, Ray? Unless someone is dying, go away!"
"I don't know what that was all about, but mayyyyyyyybe you were a bit over-the-top."
"Don't bother me. I was in complete control. Besides, if YOU came out here just to ask me questions about my old profession, then get lost." Ashe clenched her fists, as if to make herself clearer.
"Well thinking about it, it would be an interesting story."
"If I wouldn't tell Jace, then what makes you think I'd tell you? I'd rather cut my tongue out."
"I'm not going to pry. That's your business. But I do think Jace was right about one thing: you holding something back. It's pretty clear there is more to it than you let on."
Ashe glared at him.
"Like I said," he continued, "you don't have to tell me anything. But telling someone might make you feel better, perhaps? Just trying to be helpful."
"I'm not telling you anything! Besides, why is it you two insist that I'm keeping secrets? Both of you are the single most annoying, stupid, and harassing people I've ever met. Especially you!”
"For one, the first day we'd met I stressed the point when Glenn asked. You were pretty quick to snap at me for it. For two, instead of telling Jace you simply weren't into it anymore, you got defensive and turned it into a screaming match."
"It doesn't matter what your assumptions are! It's not something I like to talk about."
"Ray!" She cracked her knuckles. "I'm done with you. Leave me alone or I will boot you off this balcony!"
Something welled inside of Ray. Growing anger? This wasn’t something he was used to. He wanted to lash back out, but tried his best to suppress it.
"You don't have to talk to me personally. I'm sure Glenn or someone else would be more than happy to help. That's all I'm trying to do. Help. I don't care if I'm making you mad right now. Being so assertive about the issue is what gets people to pry for information."
"I have my reasons! They aren't for anyone else to know! If something bothers me, I'm ‘going’ to assert myself."
Ray’s emotions flared. With his free arm, he grabbed her black shirt collar and brought her gaze even with his. Ashe’s fighting instincts were completely overwritten by overwhelming shock. "This isn't even about your past anymore, Ashe! It's about you being an anti-social, insecure brat. You're an adult, so stop acting like a spoiled, under-disciplined kid in a shooter game forum! Sure I make a fool of myself in an immature manner a lot, but at least I usually know my place. You are selfish, stubborn, and nothing more than a bully. If you're so dead-set on keeping to yourself, then fine, I don’t care anymore. I'll back off. Just say it one more time. 'Ray, back off.' I get it. If you'd rather rearrange my face instead, then go ahead." He spoke, releasing her when he finished.
It was hard to tell given the light rain, but Ray could have sworn a tear rolled down the side of her face. She relaxed and sat back down facing away without a word, almost hugging herself.
Ray felt remorseful, but he knew also someone had to say it. He'd just hoped that it didn’t need to come to that. He took a deep breath and turned to leave.
He stopped. Taking it as an invitation, he walked over and sat beside her. "Look. I've no intention on forcing you to say anything. If it's that personal, then keep it to yourself. But getting fired up about the slightest mention of your kick-boxing career is no way to handle it."
She stared at the ground with an empty expression, refusing to make eye contact. "Maybe. But maybe you of all people does deserve an explanation."
"Me? Why me? I thought I was your personal oversized 'stress-buddy' that you hit every time you were angry?" He replied with a slight smile, hoping to cheer her up a bit.
She flashed a quick smile back. "Honestly I wish I had that kind of attitude. Someone who can just laugh at himself..."
Ray raised an eyebrow. Ashe took something from beside her and handed it to him. It was the book she always seemed to be interested in. It bore no title or author. Ray opened it and flipped a page. And another. And another. All of the pages were blank. But something was easily different, as the rain rolled off of the pages instead of soaking in; they were made of some kind of waxy foil. They felt like normal paper. Even in the darkness Ray could make out his distorted face in the pages.
"As you can tell it's not necessarily a normal book containing words. It's like a mirror. When you look, it reveals more than just your appearance."
"What do you mean?"
She took a deep breath and sighed. "A reminder. It reflects who you really are. Back before I'd ever started kick-boxing I was always picked on. Cheerleaders, thugs, jocks, wannabes, the typical cliques with people who think they have everything."
"I think everyone to an extent went through that at some point."
"Possibly. But the difference is it was because I always tried to stick up for those less fortunate, or I was associating with those labeled as geeks, nerds, or losers. The problem was, I was a pacifist. I didn't like violence of any form. But at the same time, I couldn't defend myself either. I didn't know how." Her shoulders slacked a bit.
"You used to actually dislike violence?"
"Yes...but it eventually got to the point where I'd had all I could take. I started taking self-defense classes. My main intention was defending myself and others. My instructors said I'd progressed very quickly. They asked me if I was interested in doing it for sport. So that's where it started. It took me a few years to work my way up to where I am now. But eventually I got toward the top. Six years ago, I earned my first championship title. It was all over the news, in holo newspapers, everywhere. I felt so good about myself. My old friends and those who I'd always stuck up for supported me. So I kept pushing. The following season I won for a second time in a row. And again the third. I was the first in the women's league to earn three championships back-to-back. Immediately after the third win, my family wanted to celebrate as usual. I was walking down the street headed toward the café they kept on the corner a block away. Two men came from behind me. So I changed directions into an alley. It led to a dead end, and I was cornered. So naturally I prepared to fight my way out of it. I'm sure you can imagine what their intentions were. But anyway, the minute they tried to grab me the minute I turned loose. I hit one in the nose and the other...well let's just say I went for a cheap shot between his legs...I had them both on the ground. Plenty of time for me to casually walk away. But instead I kept going. I hit while they were grounded. I ended up hospitalizing both of them. It was ruled as self-defense so I didn't get in any trouble. But something drove me to continue, even after they were clearly defeated."
"Perhaps it was just the heat of the moment? I'm sure you didn't actually mean to just beat the living daylights out of them."
Her blue eyes shot up toward him. Her voice grew shakier. "That's the point. I did. I knew exactly what I was doing. And I enjoyed every minute of it. I can't remember, but I wouldn't doubt I was laughing the whole time."
Ray said nothing. He let her continue.
"That feeling I'd had in the alley that day is what ultimately changed my personality. I got hungrier, wanting to start fights for reasons that made little sense. I'd become a control freak, using my own skill just to get what I wanted. It got me into trouble here and there."
Ray looked down. He was still lost for words. He couldn't have imagined how rough she'd had it.
"But there was one day I can never forget. I was hovering over some high school freshman for reasons I can't even remember. But as I was wailing on him, out of nowhere this girl that looked about eleven or twelve stood between me and him. I think it was his little sister or something, but that doesn’t matter. I would push her to the side but she would get back up and get back in the way. When she tried to actually fight, I took it as a challenge and immediately kicked her over. She knew she didn't have a chance. She stared up at me as I walked toward her. For a split second, my attention caught a puddle that she landed beside. I saw my reflection, as you normally would. I didn't think much at first, but when I looked back at her..........I still saw my own image. I turned and ran. I realized what was happening. I had become the very thing that I stood against years ago. I had embraced what I hated. The following week was the first match for the new season. I was readying myself. It was the day before the match and I was watching my opponent training in one of the practice rings. The image of that girl kept flashing through my head. I couldn't shake it off. I went to my coach and told him it was over. I won't participate this season. I'm through. It confused him but he didn't ask a lot of questions. I haven't been back in the ring since. I spent two years mostly secluded to myself, hardly talking to anyone. Instead of wasting away I decided I'd join the military. They were talking in ads about how you can 'Make a better person out of yourself by fighting for your planet!'. I thought it would be an opportunity to repent. I did everything to keep my cool. But despite my mentality I still had an aggressive streak about me."
"What do you think happened? Did boot camp not help?"
"I met you."
"So I'm some of the reason you act like you do?"
She said nothing for a moment, turning her attention back toward the ground. "Not necessarily. Not you personally. You’re just so care-free and easy-going. Some of it was annoyance, but in truth…I was a bit jealous, maybe."
"Which explains the reason you dislike me as much as you do?"
"Yeah. But at the same time, I do sort of like -- well. Never mind."
Ray didn't ask and let it be.
"But that's it. That's why I'd quit. I wanted to help people not hurt them. I hoped I could return to my 'old self', but it's probably impossible at this point." She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them.
"Not impossible. Just need some mental adjusting. And some moral support never hurts. I can help with that, if you'd like."
Ashe looked up toward him. "You would actually help me, even as badly as I treat you? Or even just knowing the kind of person I was?"
"You see, that's your problem. The past is the past. You can't change it, but you can let it go. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter who you 'used' to be. Your background is unimportant. I don't care about who you were. The only thing I care about is who you are today."
Ray held her book out to her. She took it and returned it to her side.
"Thanks, Ray. I needed that. I think I've become a bit stronger from this."
"Think nothing of it. I can't fathom why Jace would argue about something as pointless as it was, but it might be a good idea to at least apologize for blowing up in his face. I'm sure he just took it offensively when you got fired up."
"It's probably for the best, yeah." She looked back out toward the sky.
Ray said he'd leave her alone and got up to leave. Before he disappeared back into the compartment she called after him.
"I'm glad to see you're back, Ray."