Chapter 233

                Roy easily deflected Ashley’s attempt at a punch, slamming an open palm into her ribs that sent her flying across the cell where she thumped against the wall. While he certainly wouldn’t go full-out with his strength, Ashley was one of the more durable Supers he’d seen in the HCP, so some amount of force was necessary to deal with her. Otherwise, she’d ignore small blows and keep on coming.

                Spitting curses under her breath, she leapt to her feet and charged right back into the fray. It was strange, watching her stumble about, anger clouding her judgement. Roy couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Chad had felt during their first freshman year. Seeing an opponent with so much potential who couldn’t focus enough to properly use it. Then again, he might be giving himself too much credit. Ashley’s bout was lasting far longer than Roy had against Chad. The only thing Roy could take comfort in was the fact that Chad had been trying to teach a different kind of lesson.

                Another wild punch that Roy could read from a room away. This time he swept her legs as he slammed her in the shoulder, sending her sprawling across the floor. She wasn’t quite as quick scrambling to her feet, which made it the best opportunity to try and get conversation going he’d seen so far.

                “If Professor Fletcher was in here right now, he’d laugh your ass out of the HCP.” Not the most diplomatic of openings, but Roy had decided on tough love and he wouldn’t do Ashley any favors with a half-hearted effort. “You’re near the end of freshman year, past the labyrinth trial. That means you’ve been fighting your classmates daily, so there’s no excuse for being so sloppy. Unless maybe you can’t quite clear your head and focus.”

                “Shut up.” Ashley was moving again, charging straight at Roy. It was a bold move; however she had the misfortune of trying it against someone who’d specifically trained to make his charges as dangerous as possible. Part of that training meant understanding all the possible counters to the technique, and Roy employed a few of them himself by side-stepping her move and slamming a knee into her stomach. She dropped to the concrete, coughing and spitting but otherwise unharmed. The lady was tough; he had to give her that.

                “Might have knocked the wind out of you with that one. Feel free to take a few minutes to catch your breath, it ain’t like the results will be much different from you attacking. I should have brought a radio or something down here to keep myself entertained.”

                More coughing was her initial response, before she craned her neck to stare up at Roy. There was nothing subtle about the anger blazing on her face, yet even as she glared at him Roy could see her pushing other things down. He didn’t know what the rage was masking, though he could make a few educated guesses. The trouble was that Roy’s guesses were useless; the only way this helped was if Ashley was the one to talk about it.

                “You’re a real big man, beating the shit out of a freshman girl.”

                “First, don’t lean on the girl part. I’ve been in this program long enough to know there are plenty of women who can whip my ass up and down this whole campus. Second, I think we both know this isn’t about me or my ego, neither of which really need any help from stomping a freshman.” Roy hunkered down a little, getting closer to her eye-level. “And lastly: you’re better than this. I’ve sparred with you enough to know what you’re capable of, and it’s worlds above the piss-poor display you put on here. See, you think anger makes you stronger, so you’re holding onto yours for all its worth. But anger alone won’t do shit for you in battle. You have to focus it, channel it, be in control, and that ain’t happening until you can own your rage. You have to be its master, understand it and accept it for what it is. I hope you learn that lesson, Ashley. Maybe you still need someone better to teach it, but I did the best I could.”

                Roy rose back up and walked over to where he’d left his uniform jacket. In a smooth motion he scooped it up and slid it around his shoulders. “For your sake, try and think on what I showed you here today. If you don’t, I have a strong hunch this is the last year you’ll spend in the HCP.”

                He turned, intent on heading back to the door, but Roy noticed Ashley’s head had lowered while he was getting his jacket. From across the room, he could just make out the small droplets falling from her face to the concrete below. Despite the initial urge, he didn’t rush over. Instead, he walked there slowly, taking his time so she could compose herself if she wanted to. When he arrived, Roy sat down next to her and waited silently. He knew too damn well that these moments often took time to get control of.

                “My sister was here last May.” The words echoed around the battered cell, hanging in the air like a dark mist. “She was human. Came to Lander because they offered her an academic scholarship. She was… I won’t say the family favorite, but definitely the golden child. Smart, moral, lots of ambition, all the things parents are inclined to be proud of. Me, not so much. I didn’t like the fact that being Super made people treat me differently, so I shoved them away. Made trouble. Nothing big enough to get me arrested, but plenty to make sure my parents looked at me as problematic. Leanne was always on my side though. Until the day she left for college, she tried to keep peace between me and our parents. Then she was gone, and things got harder. And then… she was gone.”

                It wasn’t the exact story Roy would have guessed, although it did hit most of the notes he’d been expecting. The way she tightened up anytime someone talked about the attack on Lander, how green she was when she first got here, even the way she seemed so driven to rise up the ranks. Ashley had an axe to grind, probably into someone’s skull, and everything else only served that goal.

                “I’m sorry about your sister.” The words meant little, yet they were all he could offer.

                “Thanks.” Ashley sniffled slightly and tried to covertly wipe her face on the back of her forearm. “I was keeping things in check pretty well until The Sons of Progress got arrested. I’m glad those bastards are behind bars, I am. But I wanted to be part of taking them down. I wanted to show them firsthand what they’d called down upon themselves. I wanted… I don’t know. It was a fantasy. I get that. A stupid power-trip revenge fantasy that was never going to happen. Still, it was something. It kept me going. Kept me connected to Leanne. Now it’s suddenly gone, and I guess I’m floundering. This was never the life I wanted for myself before. I’m not sure I’m a good fit for it, or it for me. I just feel lost. And even though The Sons of Progress are in jail, I’m still so damn angry. Only now I don’t know where to point it.”

                “That is a lot to deal with,” Roy said. “I’d give you answers if I could, but between you and me I’m barely keeping a handle on my own issues, so I sure as shit ain’t qualified to teach someone else how to deal with theirs. We’ve got people who are, though. If you want, I can walk you down to Dr. Moran’s office and make an appointment. Or we can sit here and talk. I will offer just one bit of advice though, and technically I didn’t even come up with it.”

                Roy wasn’t entirely comfortable with how much he’d found himself quoting, paraphrasing, or reflecting on the lessons that Titan had given him in childhood over the past year. It made clear just how much of who he was, and what he’d learned, had come from his father. All those years between them, and Titan had still had a visible hand in shaping his sons. But this moment wasn’t about him, or Titan, or their stained dynamic. It was about trying to give a little hope to someone that desperately needed it.

                “My... trainer… used to say that revenge is a hard way to live. It’s like living with a fire in your stomach. As long as you feed it, you can keep it burning, but eventually it will torch you from the inside. If you want to honor someone, to turn their loss into something good, then you fight on for them. Some people start charities or causes in the names of those they lost. People like us, who are only good at destruction, we can use that power to keep others safe. To make sure that next time some bastards come to a college with death on the mind, they find mean fuckers like us waiting to make them regret it. I’m not saying you should be a Hero. It ain’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in walking away. I’m just tossing out the idea that there might be other ways to honor your sister besides blowing up the heads of The Sons of Progress.”

                Ashley’s head bobbed in a slight nod as she wiped her face again. “Other ways, sure. But will any of them be as satisfying?”

                It took Roy a second to realize that Ashley was making a joke, or as close to one as she could get given the mood. He chuckled, then reached over and softly patted her on the back.

                “You’d be surprised. I got a taste of what it was like to help people that night, to save lives that would have ended right in front of me, and it’s pretty damn satisfying.”