Chapter 100

                Roy jumped back, narrowly avoiding the spray of heat and concrete the rained down from the spot where Ashley’s fist had landed. She was doing markedly better than in the first fight Hershel had overseen, Professor Fletcher had obviously been drilling her control well, but that didn’t mean her explosions weren’t still fluctuating wildly at the high end. After taking a few of the weaker ones as a test, Roy was pretty sure he could handle her stronger attacks, but it wasn’t something he quite felt the need to test until there was good reason.

                “Okay, judging from the hole in the ground, that would have blown off someone’s leg,” Roy said, carefully examining the fresh crater, one more pock in the spotted cell they’d been working in. “Was that the level of power you were aiming for?”

                “Blowing the leg off might be a bit much. I was trying to throw a punch that would just shatter some bones,” Ashley replied.

                To her credit, Ashley had proven to be immediately honest about the moments when she fell short. Roy had come in braced for sitting her down and having a long talk about how covering up her failures in training just stunted her progress, but it hadn’t been necessary. From jump, she’d owned up to her intentions, regardless of how well the strikes lived up to them. The woman had come to train; there was no question about that.

                Roy looked at the hole again. A normal person’s bones would have been broken; she wasn’t wrong about that. “You came in hot for that goal, but let’s try to use it. Give me ten more attacks just like that one. Same explosive power, as near as you can make it. I’ll judge your success by the craters you leave behind. Once you’re used to that level, we’ll work on dialing it back, using the leg-blowing measure as our standard.”

                Her fist raised, already glowing with power as it readied another explosion, but moments later the light began to fade as Ashley looked back to Roy. “I can do that, and I will, I just wanted to know when we’re going to get to the sparring. Punching holes in concrete is something I can do on my own.”

                “Maybe so, but until I get a sense of what your power is compared to your goals, I won’t be able to offer much help.” Roy walked over to the still smoking crater and jammed his foot inside. “This is something visible, measurable. Like the weight on a bench press. When you can make a hole this size at will, you officially have a leg-blowing-off attack. That’s something we can establish and demonstrate on concrete anytime we need to. So when you know, a hundred percent, that you’re throwing an attack of this level, then you can hit me with it. A lot, probably, as many times as needed until I know what it feels like to take that one. We’re going to develop standards, so that anytime you hit me with a strike, I know roughly what sort of impact that would have on a normal person.”

                “I thought I was the one who needed to know that,” Ashley said.

                “You need to be able to hit the mark you’re aiming for, even in the stress of battle,” Roy told her. “Even when you’re scared, or tired, or hurting. Your power is too strong for mistakes. To get real life experience at that, you need someone to call you out when you fuck up. That’s why we establish the standards first. Every time you throw an explosion that’s too weak, or too strong, I’m going to make sure you know it. Learn through failing, through trial and error. It might not be the best method, but it’s the only one I know how to teach.”

                Ashley moved closer to him, getting a good view of the concrete crater she’d created. She hunched down, examining it, her forehead furrowed as she concentrated. Finally, she stood back up and walked a few feet over, to a section with unspoiled concrete. Roy had a hunch there wouldn’t be many of those left by the time this session was over.

                “You know, I didn’t expect everyone to be so big on control until I got here,” Ashely said, lifting her fist once more. “I grew up seeing Hero fights, and I always assumed it was all about raw power. The stronger Super was the victor. It never occurred to me how important control really was, until the first fight where I needed it and didn’t have enough.”

                “A lot of freshmen come in that way.” Roy bit back a derisive chuckle, but it still managed to escape as a half-snort. “Hell, I may have been the worst of the bunch. I thought that just because I could hit like a train that was all I’d need to come out on top. Then Chad whipped the shit out of me in two seconds flat when I came after him, and I started to understand that raw power might not be enough. Of course, don’t let yourself forget that power does have its place. You ever hit someone you couldn’t move? That your absolute best, most powerful shot did nothing to?”

                Ashley shook her head. “I always assumed my best would kill whoever I used it on, so I’ve never thrown it. That pretty much rules out seeing it fail.”

                “You will. Sooner or later, you will. I fought a professor freshman year who I could barely dent, and last May I caught an ass-kicking from an enhanced strongman who tossed me around like I was nothing. Control is important, but so is power. Because when the moment comes that you need to let loose, to hit like a pissed off locomotive, the last thing you want is to come up short.”

                The crackling glow around Ashley’s fist started again, growing brighter for several seconds until it became steady. She let out a long breath, however she didn’t move to attack. “When you say last May…”

                “The attack on Lander. We were out there helping protect civilians. See, there was a group that came on campus to-”

                “I know what happened here.” The glow flickered, getting sharply brighter before dimming back to its previous position. Though her voice was steady, that moment told Roy plenty about Ashley Beck, and perhaps even explained why she was only now learning to train her power. Not everyone started out wanting to be a Hero, but loss and anger could both be powerful motivators. “What I wanted to ask was about the strongman who fought you. Since you’re alive, I’m guessing you beat him. How’d you pull off a win if he was that much more powerful?”

                “I didn’t. My… a Hero who was in town came along and took him out with a few punches,” Roy said.

                “I thought that this guy was one of the enhanced Supers. A regular Hero beat him that easily?”

                Roy realized there was no skirting this, and he had only himself to blame. “Well, the Hero was Titan, after all. Like I said before, power matters.”

                Ashley’s eyes widened a bit, but her glowing fist stayed steady. “You got to see Titan in action? All I’ve seen are videos, mostly the new stuff from Brewster. What was he like in person?”

                “Strong.” That much, Roy could say without hesitation or malice. For all that he felt about his father, no one, him least of all, could deny that Titan was strong in a way that defined and defied the word all at once. “Now quit stalling and throw that punch, before you forget what the last one felt like.”

                She hadn’t actually been stalling, Roy knew that already. Ashley was trying to hold the feeling, to get a sense of how much power should be in her fist so she could move it up or down for the next attempt. Still, this was a topic he didn’t want to get into, and she wouldn’t have the luxury of spare time to adjust her power in a fight. Better to learn by doing, quickly and frequently, until it became second nature.

                Because the truth was, when Ashley learned to control that power of hers, Roy had a feeling she was going to be a serious contender for the top of her class.