Chapter 109

                Roy’s eyes wanted to dart up to the small window obscured by tempered glass, where he knew Professor Fletcher was keeping watch over them, but he resisted the urge. The wrong glance might betray that they were being observed, which would add pressure onto Ashley, and there was already more than enough of that for now. Eventually, she’d have to get used to fighting with people observing, to say nothing of all the other distractions and stresses that went along with combat, but that came in the later years. Today, all she needed was to throw the right amount of power into her strikes.

                Adjusting his white uniform to make sure it moved freely, Roy carefully took a defensive stance and then gave Ashley the nod that he was ready. She raised her fists, the right one flickering for a moment as she gathered power. They’d spent weeks working on her control, until she could make a hole in concrete that was any size she liked, but this would be the first time they rolled out her power in actual combat. With both classes facing their end of semester tests so soon, she wasn’t going to get a lot of real practice time, but Roy knew that wouldn’t matter as much for her exam. After all, the freshmen were dropped into that underground labyrinth with color-coded stun guns, she didn’t need to explode to score some wins. This was about laying the groundwork for what came next, the rest of the year she’d have to spend battling her way uphill if she wanted to wear a sophomore uniform.

                “I’m going to use bone-breaking attacks, for now.” Ashley’s eyes didn’t waver from him as she made the announcement, nor did Roy take his off her as he signaled that she’d been heard. Generally, announcing any information before a fight was folly, however in this case it was what would allow Roy to know if she was hitting the mark in terms of power. They’d tested her explosions meant to break bones already, in the presence of a healer just to be safe, and while the things did sting, it wasn’t enough to do any serious harm to Roy. This battle wasn’t about knocking him out; Ashley would be the winner if she managed to keep her power within whatever parameters she set.

                Ashley’s charge was rough, worse than even the bullshit Roy pulled as a freshman. It made him want to wince, seeing all the holes in her form and ways she was telegraphing her impending attacks, mostly because he recognized so many of the failings from his own early efforts. Dodging her first blow would have been laughably easy, but instead Roy raised his left arm to block the attack. Better to let her get a little comfortable for the first few strikes, so she could find a rhythm. Eventually he’d need to take the opposite tactic, keeping her purposefully off balance to truly test her focus. For the first blow, however, he just wanted to see how well she could control her power.

                Though the explosion rang in his ear, it did nothing to actually move Roy’s arm. Worse, Ashley froze up as soon as the attack occurred; leaving herself so open that Roy had to deliver a quick, gentle, jab to her stomach just to make her aware of the mistake. The people she fought in class would do far worse if she didn’t learn to stay guarded and follow-through with her attacks.

                “I didn’t even feel that,” Roy told her, holding up his hand to pause the match. Examining his arm, he found the jacket sleeve he was wearing had been lightly singed but was otherwise completely intact. “That wasn’t bone-breaking level. It wasn’t even wood-breaking level. You’d have been lucky to dent sheetrock with that small of a blast.”

                “Sorry.” Ashley was rubbing her stomach carefully, clearly surprised by the counter-attack. “I wasn’t expecting you to block, I thought you’d dodge instead. It threw me off, and I sort of panicked, and I instinctively weakened the blast out of fear that I’d hurt you.”

                “I won’t say that’s the worst instinct, better to go too soft than too hard at this point in your training, but at the same time you can’t be so dedicated to predicting what an opponent does that you get rattled when they use a different tactic.” Roy looked at his arm for a moment longer, then began to unbutton his uniform jacket. He peeled it quickly away, revealing a matching tank-top underneath, and tossed the jacket down several feet away. “For this next one, stay at bone-breaking level, but don’t worry about what I’m doing at all. Just get close to me and let the explosion fly.”

                “Okay. I can do that. I can connect.” She put her hands back up, and this time both of her fists glowed with energy.

                “Stop. Don’t think about connecting. Just focus on getting close and making your blasts the exact right amount of strength. Remember, your power doesn’t come from your muscles, and one of the many benefits of explosions is that ‘close’ is often good enough.” Roy was pretty certain there was a saying about that, something with hand-grenades, but his attention was stolen by Ashley’s second charge before he could quite recall what it was.

                This time, he decided to dodge just to change things up. Her left arm swung in an uppercut that would have been ridiculous, if not for the explosion of energy that tore forth from her hand even as Roy was leaning away from the blow. It was a whole other league from her first strike, and while the hand was several inches away from Roy’s body he could still feel the power of it wash over his chest. A second later, Ashley’s right fist hit, landing directly in Roy’s stomach. He had a moment to appreciate that it was almost exactly the same spot he’d struck her in before she released the second explosion. It slammed into his abs, but wasn’t enough to shove him backwards. It did feel correct for the amount of force she’d been trying to use, at least, and given the victorious look on her face Ashley knew she’d gotten it right.

                That triumphant grin vanished immediately as Roy grabbed her arm and spun her around, putting her in a lock.

                “What are you doing?” Ashley spat.

                “I’m sorry; did you think that landing one good punch meant you’d won the fight?” Roy was careful with his grip, making sure she was uncomfortable without going so far as to cause serious pain. This was instruction, not torture. “Remember, you’re learning to fight other students, which means anything powerful enough to one-shot them risks being lethal. I hesitated and you capitalized, which was correct. Then you reveled, which was so fucking wrong I can’t believe I have to point it out. In training, you fight until somebody wins or calls for a pause. In battle, it’s just the first one. Save the triumph for when you’ve got something to celebrate.”

                “Okay, I get it.” Ashley tugged on her arm, which Roy continued to hold in place. “I said I get it, aren’t you going to let me out of this?”

                “I could, and if you really need me to I will, but your next opponent might not be so kind. You want to learn how to fight for real, this is a situation you will almost certainly find yourself in. How are you going to get free, without potentially killing the person holding you?”

                The most obvious solution would be to use her power to cause a small explosion where his hands were, knocking them back and setting her free. But that came with the potential of blowing his fingers off, if not his entire hand apart. While not technically lethal, that wasn’t the sort of thing that would fly against other students if it happened regularly. Until Ashley had perfect control, she was going to have to think her way out of these situations, rather than relying on raw force.

                As Roy felt her body tense, he knew she was gathering energy. With a darting glance to the covered window, Roy silently hoped she didn’t do anything too dangerous, and then braced himself for a lot of potential pain in his hands.

                When the explosions came, they were tremendous, although neither touched Roy’s hands in the slightest. No, Ashley hadn’t even tried to break the hold. Instead, she’d detonated her energy blasts on the soles of her feet, driving her and Roy forcefully backwards and slamming them both into a wall. He took the brunt of it, and by the time they’d both scrambled to their feet she was halfway across the room, successfully freed from his hold.

                “Not too shabby.” Roy wiped some of the dust and concrete flecks from his shoulders as he moved back to the center of the room. “Little strong though.”

                “I’m fighting someone with enhanced endurance, so I knew you could take it. If it were someone weaker, I’d have just used enough power to knock them over,” Ashley replied.

                That was the right answer, and a sound strategy. Despite his warnings about pre-mature celebration, Roy permitted himself a small grin as he took his defensive stance once more. If she kept using her head, Ashley might just make it to the end of the year after all.

                “Whenever you’re ready,” Roy said. “This time, see if you can hit me twice.”