Chapter 36

 Since Vince had first met Sasha that day in the infirmary she had been perpetually light-hearted. Her emotional range seemed to consist of sassy, flirty, and spunky. This wasn't to say she never had her down moments, just that she seemed to carry everything, even sadness, with a strange sense of cheerful apathy. As though nothing mattered too much, like none of it could really touch her.

The girl Vince was gazing at through the observation window looked nothing like the one he had grown close to over the previous weeks. Oh, her face and hair were the same, as was her uniform, but the girl herself was utterly different. Gone was the smirk hidden in the angles of her face, the carefree posture, and the easy manner with which she moved. Her eyes were hard now, and focused. Every step she took as she and her opponent positioned themselves for the fight to come was calculated, careful, and delicate. It struck a memory within Vince of when he and his father had snuck into a zoo and Vince had gotten to see a pair of tigers. Sasha shared their same rippling gait, smooth and deliberate but at any moment able to attack.

The other girl in the cell, Jill, didn't seem to be taking things any lighter. She was a girl of medium height with chopped-short dirty blonde hair. Instead of the standard uniform, Jill was sporting something that looked a lot like a one-piece flight suit, except with baubles and electronics bulging out at random intervals. As the girls moved to their starting sides of the cell, Jill took a helmet she had carried in her arms and slipped it over her head, obscuring any sign of her face behind a black visor. Outside gear had to approved, but so long as it corresponded to your power, it was permitted in official matches.

"I see they're taking each other quite seriously," Will commented. He and Vince were standing together to watch the fight, making sure to give the referee and a small girl who was presumably the healer ample room in which to act if necessary.

"Yeah," Vince agreed. "They are."

"So, Sasha is your girlfriend?" Will asked bluntly. If either one had been paying more attention they might have noticed the sudden swivel of the small girl's head toward their direction. Both had eyes only for what was on the other side of the glass, though, so her action went unobserved.

"Sort of. We haven't really talked about it or anything, but... yeah, pretty much," Vince said.

"I hope that we can maintain our affable partnership, regardless of the outcome of this fight," Will said.

Vince hesitated before he answered. "You think Jill's going to win, don't you?" 

"I don't know," Will replied. "I built the suit she's wearing, and I am very well informed of my sister's capabilities in combat, but when dealing with super speed, nothing is written in stone."

As the girls readied themselves, waiting for the referee’s signal to start, Vince silently agreed with Will. Both of them seemed intensely focused on this match, and he didn't know which of them would be walking away from it. He doubted they did either.

"I don't have to take this personally if you don't," Vince said. "After all, this isn't a squabble; they're trying themselves against one another as warriors. Whoever loses, there's no shame here."

"Agreed," Will said. "Though I'd keep that little theory away from whichever actually does lose."

"Duh," Vince said with a nod of his head. Vince was young, foolhardy, and ambitious. That didn't make him utterly idiotic, though.

The referee pressed a small button and the dean’s recorded voice began to play from within the cell. When it concluded, their match would begin. "Be ready," he said to the small girl at his side. "This one could easily end messy."

*          *          *

Sasha adjusted her footing without taking her eyes off Jill. The proverbial bell had been rung, yet both of them stood steady, neither rushing forward to make the first move. Sasha adjusted again, wishing dearly that Jill’s head wasn't hidden behind a helmet and visor. It wasn't that Sasha was so cutthroat that she would have gone for the face or the eyes (not to say that she wouldn't, though), it was that blocking the face took away a lot of unconscious tells. Eye movements, facial tics, even nostril flaring could often be that little extra advantage that meant the difference between a win and a loss.

Sasha took a step forward, then one back, gauging Jill's reaction. Her opponent moved back a hair, but otherwise kept her same stance. So that meant Jill was playing defensive, waiting for Sasha to make the first move. It was the smart play, the one Sasha would have made if the roles were reversed. Charging someone with super speed was a good way to go down fast. You fully commit to an attack, and before you realize it they've moved out of the way and turned your own momentum against you.

It seemed Sasha was stuck on the offensive. That was okay, though; it was the area Sasha was the most comfortable in anyway. Choosing an angle, Sasha accelerated into a blur and demolished the gap between her and Jill. She didn't make contact with her, though, instead opting to ring around her twice then come to a stop at her rear. Jill was half turned when Sasha halted. Sasha spat a curse under her breath. Jill's reaction time was good, and that meant once she attacked, there was a possibility Jill could counter with whatever gizmos were hidden up her sleeves. Super speed was a wonderful gift, but its weakness was that it was hard to aim precisely going several hundred miles an hour. Sure, Sasha's perceptions were sped up somewhat - otherwise she'd never be able to maneuver with her talent - but there were limits. They increased proportionally: in the same way that it would be hard for a regular person to do something precise while he or she was running full speed, Sasha was bound by the same obstacle. If she wanted to do more than swing wild, she'd need to slow down significantly when she made her attack.

It wasn't ideal, but Sasha had picked this partner. She'd issued this challenge. It would move her up five ranks, into the range where she'd be eligible for combat. She narrowed her eyes slightly, clearly betraying her intention to attack. It didn't matter. If Jill could keep up, then she would; if she couldn't, then no amount of warning from Sasha would make the difference. It escaped her own thoughts that mere moments earlier she had been thinking about the advantages of reading facial tics, but before that realization could bob to the surface of her mind she was already running again.

Sasha didn't bolt in directly: that would have been ludicrous. Instead, she circled Jill, drawing progressively closer then pulling back. She pulled a few feints, seeing how quickly Jill reacted to her advances. The closer she got, though, the more confident Sasha grew. Jill was close on her blocks, but not quite there. If Sasha had followed through on one of her punches she would have definitely made contact. Sasha looped around again, this time committing to her attack mentally. She would pull up short and let loose a flurry of super-fast punches. Even if Jill did manage to block one, the other fist would gain momentum and connect at least five times before Jill would be able to react. Sasha put in one last bolt forward, then pulled back on the metaphorical throttle and let fly at Jill with both hands.

Those who were blessed with super speed had been given a significant measure of durability in the package with that gift. As such, their bodies could withstand moving and stopping at such high speeds. It meant that Sasha could punch flesh and bone with tremendous momentum and only suffer minimal damage herself. While it didn't work against harder materials, steel for example, she could easily handle regular combat. So when Sasha's fists connected with Jill's ribs, she felt a sense of elation that she'd gotten her blows through without Jill even coming close to blocking either hand. A millisecond after that, it dawned on her that Jill hadn't even tried to block. She might have speculated more about why as she continued to punch Jill if that had been an option, but unfortunately that's when Sasha's time ran out.

That next millisecond, you see, was when the pain started.

*          *          *

"What happened?" Vince cried as Sasha violently flew back from Jill and into the concrete wall.

"She electrified her suit at the moment of impact, giving your girl a devastating shock," Will said, his voice even but his tone not entirely hiding the distress he felt in his own stomach.

"She can do that?" Vince asked, eyes on Sasha's crumpled, twitching form.

"It was the only option she ever really had," Will confirmed. "Sasha was too fast for Jill to have a hope of hitting her with any other kind of weapon. The best bet she had was to use herself as bait and strike when Sasha made contact. It was a good idea, but it wasn't without its risks."

For the first time Vince let his eyes move away from Sasha and back to her opponent. Jill was hunched over; he could tell from the movement of her back she was breathing with arduous labor.

"My sister put all of the suit's power into that jolt," Will continued. "That means the electronic shields and dampeners were shut down. She took Sasha's blows full on and left herself completely vulnerable."

"I think her ribs are broken," Vince noted, a fresh note of empathic concern in his voice.

"At the least. She has no physical powers, so those blows affected her just like any other human. She should be okay for now, but I'd be distressed if the end of this match weren't in sight," Will admitted, gesturing to the referee.

Vince looked over, and realized the referee was methodically counting down from ten, eyes locked on Sasha's fallen form. If she couldn't get up before zero, this bout would be over and the girls could get healed. Vince actually felt a rush of relief as the referee dropped past the count of three. It sucked that Sasha lost, but right now his mind was solely fixated on getting to her and making sure she was okay. When the referee's hand struck the number two, though, the counting stopped. If that hadn't told him enough, the gasp from Will made the picture clear before Vince could turn to the window and see it.

Sure enough, Sasha was clawing her way up the concrete wall with one hand, slowly dragging herself vertical. The significance of this wasn't lost on anyone watching, least of all her opponent. Without hesitation Jill threw her hands up, signaling her surrender and the end of the match. With twin sighs of relief, Vince and Will bounded down the stairs to the door, eager to make sure everyone was all right.