After the Tilt: Book 2

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Chapter 30: Growing Old is Not for Me

“Of all people, why are you asking me to help out?”

“Because you are kind and patient… and everyone else is too busy.”

“So, you still aren’t talking to Meyer?”

“It’s complicated.”

“No, it’s not. You are both just two stupid teenagers. Get over yourself! No one’s perfect you know. We all make mistakes. What’s important is to learn, to move on.”

“Sure… I’ll learn to move on, but first I have to learn how to use my Heighten Characteristic… you know… priorities.”

Ashe laughed.

As expected, I had found her in her tent, enjoying the peace and quiet of a life of leisure.

“It was too good to be true. I knew sooner or later someone would come and force me out of bed.”

“Sorry,” I said pitifully.

“It’s ok, I was starting to get bored anyway. My life has always been jampacked full of action, and I’ve always envied those who could just stay home and relax, but… turns out… it’s not really my thing.”

As she talked, she swept her long curly hair back and pulled it up into a ponytail. She then hopped off her bed and rolled up her sleeves. She meant business.

Her readiness annoyed me a little. It meant I’d have to be serious about it. Ashe wouldn’t let me half-ass anything.

“So, what are you going to do?” she said without giving me the time to think.

“Try not to kill you,” I answered intent on sounding cool.

She laughed again.

“Go for it. Give it your best shot. Growing old is not for me anyway.”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me to her; my body pressed against hers. But quicker than me, she twisted my arm and flipped me over, sending me to the ground.

With one hand behind my back, my face shoved against the floor and Ashe sitting on top of me, I had nowhere to go and was quite sure I looked entirely pathetic.

“So, are you gonna try or just waste my time? I got out of bed for this. You better not disappoint me.”

She let go of me. Painfully, I picked myself up and brushed myself off.

“Round two,” she said with a smirk.

At lightning speed, she grabbed my shoulders and kneed me in the groin. I collapsed to the ground instantly in debilitating pain.

“Get up! We still have round three. But that’s your last chance. Show me that you’re serious.”

I got up and staggered a little.

She was ready and coming at me.

She grabbed me from behind in a chokehold. This time I knew what to do. I had practiced this move with Fiori. Ashe knew that. She had been there. She was giving me a free pass.

I stepped forward and quickly slipped my shoulder from under her arm and pushed myself away from her.

She smiled.

I smiled too.

“Ok, so you remember self defence class. But you still haven’t tried to not kill me. I could have killed you three times by now.”

She made the sound of a snapping neck.

“And I could have killed you three times as well. I just don’t have enough control over the energy exchange. Not enough to guarantee your safety anyway. I’m afraid I’ll kill you Ashe,” I admitted.

“So be it! What does it matter if you kill me? Right now, I am your opponent. The only thing that should matter to you is getting out of here alive. Being selfish will keep you alive.”

Being selfish to live another day, that just didn’t resonate well with me. I remembered what Fiori had said to me about some lives being worth more than others but…

“Ashe would you die for me?” I asked.

“I would. But don’t let that go to your head. There’s a bunch of people I would die for,” she said with a smile.

“But how? How can you say that so carelessly? Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m terrified of dying. Rather, I’m terrified that I might die without making a difference. So, if I die protecting those who matter to me, then it will be a good death.”

I understood what she meant. I shared the same feelings. “Then you see why it just doesn’t seem right to me, that it’s ok for me to be selfish and it isn’t ok for you.”

“Everyone has a role to play. We can’t all be the lead. Some of us are supporting characters and sooner or later we will have to die for your story to continue. This is how life goes. I am just glad I get to be part of this story. Of your story. I get to change the world. I get to live an exciting life surrounded by great people.”

Her smile was now tainted with melancholy.

“So, try. Don’t be afraid to kill me. Try and try again until it becomes second nature. We all believe in you. It is time for you to start believing in yourself.”

I smiled faintly.

“You know, you’re really good at pep talks,” I joked.

“I have many hidden talents,” she answered with a wink as she launched herself toward me.

“Round four!”

She slipped her foot between my legs and with a quick sweep and a well-timed lunge forward, threw me to the ground yet again. Before I knew it, she was sitting on my chest with both hands around my neck.

“You have six seconds left before you pass out. What are you going to do?”

I couldn’t think clear, but I was certain she was going for the kill. In a pitiable attempt at self defense, I grabbed at her wrist hoping she’d release her grip, but to no avail.

I didn’t want to kill her.

There was no way I was going to kill her.

I am not killing her, I thought.

Don’t kill her…

I need air.

I need…

I…

***

When I woke up, Ashe laid on the floor next to me. I could see that she was breathing.

Did I do that?

Shit…

I sat up and gently rubbed my neck. I could still feel the residual pressure left by her hands.

I poked at her.

“It’s ok, you can get up now….”

I poked some more until she stirred a little.

“Damn that was unexpected,” she finally said as she sat next to me on the floor.

“What happened?”

“You did it. You sucked all the energy out of me. It was the weirdest shit ever.”

“I did? Good, I guess….”

“It’s a good thing you did, because I wasn’t gonna let go, you know.”

“Actually, no. I don’t know! I have no idea. Because I didn’t do anything. I passed out and then I woke up. That’s what happened. So, if you tell me that I did it, well, great… except that the exercise was a complete waste of time, as I still don’t know how in the hell, I did what I did!”

“You really don’t know then….”

“It’s as Meyer said… some sort of automatic self preservation reaction from my body… Eli’s like that too… I am such a waste…”

“Maybe… after all…you really ought to ask Meyer.”

“No. I won’t! Get up! Let’s try again! But let’s skip the choking part this time.”

Once more, Ashe laughed and sprung to her feet.

“Go easy on me, ok. I’m already pretty low on energy!”

“Here, eat this,” I said as I threw her the piece of bread I had kept from breakfast. “It will help you regain your energy.”

She chowed it down and we got back to business.

I have to hear her heartbeat, I told myself.

I have to concentrate and listen to her heart.

“Earlier you said that growing old wasn’t for you… did you mean it?”

“Yeah… I did.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Growing old just means I have to keep dealing with all this bullshit. What’s the point! Antarticum is one big jail. I’ve seen enough to know; I don’t want to be part of its future. I’m just done. I’ve experienced enough to die without regrets. I just hope my last moments can be as glorious as those who died on the barricades.”

“The barricades?”

She laughed.

“It’s a Hugo book.”

“Hugo?”

“He’s a famous writer from France. I read one of his books once and it changed my life. I came to understand, no one is truly good nor evil, it is just a matter of perspective. And I realized that in the grand scheme of things, we are just repeating history. Caught in a vicious cycle, we’ve never been able to break away from this loop. So, you see, it truly doesn’t matter what we do, in the end, pure Humans, Meliors and Aethereusians alike, will all screw it up given the chance. Dogs will always eat dogs… and I don’t want to be a part of that. So, give me a worthy cause and I will gladly die.”

I still couldn’t hear her heartbeat, but I could understand her heart a little better.

Concentrate, I thought.

I extended my hand and grabbed her at the throat. She didn’t fight it.

Listen… can you hear it. It’s somewhere in there.

I looked at her straight in the eyes, and without an apology, began syphoning the energy out of her.

Listen for it. Don’t let it stop.

Her face became a grayish color.

Fight the urge of taking it all.

She collapsed to the ground, breaking my contact with her.

I poked her.

“C’mon, get up. Get ready for round two!”

She opened her eyes and mumbled something incoherent. She seemed less than pleased.

Rubbing her head, she said: “It hurts you know, falling to the ground like that. Can I at least lay down for a while?”

I smirked.

We spent the next five days training hard: improving my speed and precision. By the end of the fifth day, I was quick enough to prevent her from throwing me to the ground. I could also dodge a surprise attack quite effectively and escape a chokehold. But perhaps, my greatest achievement was the fact that I hadn’t killed her yet!

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