Selena didn’t have to wait long for Vince to enter the cell. She was a little surprised: when Chad had nominated her, she’d been certain they’d send down Roy and hope his ability would let him resist her song. It wouldn’t, of course; Selena had tested herself against those like Roy before she’d even hit her teens. They might be able to walk away from a speeding car crash without a scrape, but it did them no good once Selena Wilkins had them under her spell.
Vince looked determined as he moved carefully to the opposite side of the cell. She waved a hand to greet him, and he returned the gesture. Selena avoided speaking before battles so no one could accuse her of using her power before things officially kicked off. Vince’s reason for silence was much simpler than that: he merely couldn’t think of what to say. He knew he had to win, he knew his team was counting on him, and at the same time he wasn’t sure how he was going to do any of it. Selena’s considerable abilities aside, she was physically a normal girl. Stronger and leaner than most her age, but still quite vulnerable by HCP standards. At least Camille was in Close Combat training. Beating up Selena would leave a sick taste in Vince’s mouth, and that was assuming he could even find a way to do it. He had one idea; however, even he knew it was something of a long shot.
“Are you ready to begin?”
“I am,” Vince said immediately. A long shot was better than no shot. He narrowed his eyes and focused with all he had. No matter which way it went, this fight would be over in less than a minute.
“I’m ready.” Selena’s vibrant voice was devoid of melody, yet it still held an almost musical quality. Vince wasn’t the only one poised for action. Her tongue darted briefly across her lips, a sign of nervousness and a preparation for the impending musical onslaught all rolled into one almost imperceptible motion.
“Then this match has begun.”
Selena threw herself to the side at the same time she allowed a thick, hearty series of notes to burst forth. To her surprise, she dodged nothing, as the fireball she’d been certain Vince was aiming at her never materialized. The tan girl rolled to her feet, song continuing to flow without so much as a pause, and looked at her opponent, who seemed frozen in place. Vince hadn’t so much as twitched since the battle began; he was still clearly standing in the same spot, not even looking at her.
Selena shook her head. No, he wasn’t clear, not clear at all. In fact, the longer she stared at him, the more distorted he appeared to be, like someone had secretly drawn a wall of water between the two of them and was agitating it more and more with every passing moment. She figured it out almost a full two seconds before the heat struck her.
The massive outpouring of thermal energy washed over her like a blanket made of lava. It burned at her eyes and grabbed at her nostrils. She didn’t immediately blister, but she had a feeling prolonged exposure to this environment would cook her from the inside out. Still, she kept singing, her rich lullaby cascading across the acoustically-ideal concrete walls, permeating Vince’s ears even as his endless heat scorched across her skin. She could barely make out his form anymore; the distortion of the air and the tears in her eyes were teaming together to make seeing a cause at the edge of hopelessness.
Selena’s throat felt seared as she gasped for a breath. The air was thin and sizzled in her lungs. Had she been anyone else, the spasms wracking her chest would have become full-fledged coughs and all would have been lost. Her mind was a fog of pain, her tongue felt as if it had matches underneath it, but she knew she was still singing. The burning in her throat told her that even more clearly than the gorgeous notes still ringing in her ears. This was her last breath; the next one would be more than she could bear. Selena poured every bit of herself into her song, every thought, every sense, every emotion. It was a melody of peace, a song of slumber, and right now there was almost nothing in the world she wished for more.
* * *
It was taking a lot to stay conscious and keep pouring out the heat, but Vince wasn’t quite at his breaking point yet. He didn’t know if he’d gotten more mentally fortified or if the scalding temperature was somehow weakening the power of her song, but he’d managed to resist the ever-growing pull of sleep so far. It was getting harder; his eyes were beginning to stay closed a little bit longer with each blink. Still, Vince kept his focus aimed at the tan girl’s kneeling form.
He could still change up his tactics. One blast of electricity and her medley would grow quiet. Throwing lightning was dangerous; it was so easy to send too much. Had he been in a more rational frame of mind, he never would have used it at all, even against Michael. Still, he knew it would work, it would definitely give them the win. Didn’t that make it worth the risk?
His eyes lingered in the closed position for nearly five seconds this time. Vince shook his head to cast away some of the mental fog. When his eyes settled again, they found themselves looking down at his feet, at a smear of red that stained the concrete beneath him. Camille’s blood. They’d cleaned it well, but it would take a professional to coax the red liquid from the porous surface. She’d been hurt so badly trying to win for them. He needed to win this, for her.
Vince looked away from the ground and back at his target. His right hand cupped as he shifted a bit of his focus. The trick to electricity had finally been revealed to him by Professor Fletcher. You didn’t aim it like fire; instead you visualized it coming back to you from the target, creating an imaginary circuit that the energy would naturally flow along. He visualized that central point on Selena’s shoulder, a safe distance away from her weary, straining face and her delicately slender torso. His stomach churned. She just looked so damn weak already. Maybe the heat would win out over the song. Maybe he didn’t have to risk hurting her like this.
Vince took another long blink, but forced himself to reopen his eyes one last time. This time, in the initial bleariness that accompanied such an act, he swore that for a moment it was Camille herself he was staring at. His resolution tightened and he knew which attack path he had to take.
* * *
She never heard him slump to the floor. The first indication Selena got that she’d won was when the next sweet gasp of oxygen felt only painful rather than torturous. Greedy gulps of air that were merely uncomfortable followed, and only after she’d pulled in all she could hold did she look across the cell to her opponent. He was sprawled out on the floor; a visible trickle of blood ran from under his temple. He must have fallen so hard that he struck the floor. Selena was impressed. That meant he hadn’t gone down gradually; he’d managed to stay standing until her spell overtook him entirely. Not many people had that kind of willpower.
“The winner of this match is Selena Wilkins,” Professor Fletcher called through the room. His voice sounded strange, almost alien when contrasted to the beautiful song she’d been weaving around them. She pulled herself slowly to her feet, pausing for a moment to wonder just when she’d even fallen down, then walked over to check on Vince. His chest was rising and his breathing seemed steady. That was good; anything else could be fixed by the healers.
* * *
“Shit,” Mary swore under her breath. “He almost had her.”
“No kidding. I can’t believe he got so close to winning,” Nick commented. “I underestimated that guy.”
“You... you knew he would lose?”
“Of course. Vince against Selena, anyone could have told you how that would end.”
“Then why send him instead of Roy?”
“Because it’s not that he lost, it’s how he lost. He did it without showing any more of his power than was absolutely necessary.”
“Damn it, Nick, did you really think that was more important than us winning this thing?”
“Don’t be silly, we were never going to win,” Nick chided her. “All I’ve been doing is making sure our losses were manageable.”
“So that’s it? It’s all over?”
“Certainly not. I’ve worked quite hard to manipulate them into giving us this final match-up.”
“Rich versus Roy? He already beat him way back in the first year trials.”
“That was a long time ago,” Roy rumbled from behind them. Both had heard him approach, but neither had felt the need to curb the conversation.
“Quite right. I’m sure after all this time of having a defeat nagging at his ego, Roy has put more thought than any of us at just how to overcome someone like Rich.”
“You’re damn right,” Roy agreed, flashing his teammate a dazzling grin before heading out the door. It wasn’t his usual smarmy smirk, nor was it his debonair cowboy charm smile. No, the smile on Roy’s face was like that of hunting dog that had finally been let off the leash. It spoke of eagerness, of hunger, and above all, of the thrill that was currently coursing through his excited bones.
“Settle in, folks,” Nick called to the rest of the room. “I promise, this should be one interesting show.”