Chapter 9

                Ashley was halfway across the cell when Hershel noticed her hands starting to glow. It was a red, flickering light that oscillated as it grew progressively brighter. The possibilities whizzed through his head; an energy manipulator, like Thomas, seemed the most likely choice, or perhaps she merely blasted things from her hands, like Allen. Next to him, Hershel noticed that Professor Fletcher had taken a half-step back, unconsciously moving away from the window. Without prompting, he followed suit, just to be on the safe side.

                Rearing back, Ashley telegraphed her first punch so blatantly that Hershel felt even he could have blocked it without Roy’s help. For Judy, it wasn’t even an effort. With a single calculated motion she raised her forearm and began to brush Ashley’s blow aside, while readying a counter of her own. However, no sooner had she touched the charging girl’s arm than it became apparent that such a strategy might not be viable.

                The explosion filled a quarter of the cell, sending Judy careening backward into a wall and knocking Ashley halfway back to her starting position. In moments, both were back up, neither any worse for the wear, save for Ashley’s uniform. Her right sleeve was completely destroyed, the black fabric simply ending in a singed spot near her shoulder. Without the sleeve obscuring his view, Hershel could see the red energy re-appearing, pulsing veins of it running across her entire arm.

                “Explosions? Is that her power?” Hershel started to glance at Professor Fletcher, then remembered his duties and kept his eyes trained on the fight.

                “What the hell was that?” Judy yelled from across the cell. Hershel nearly jumped in surprise at the sound of her voice. He’d expected that, just as they could only hear him when the intercom was pressed, so would they be muted. It did make more sense this way, though. After all, if he was supposed to intervene in the event of danger, knowing the mood and discussion of what was happening could play a big part.

                “That, as you put it, was about a tenth of what I can really do,” Ashley replied, the glow on her arms getting steadily brighter. “My way of giving you a warning shot. I don’t want my climb to the top hampered by using lethal force. How about you give up, that way I won’t accidentally hurt you.”

                Judy’s concrete lip lifted in an oddly unsettling smirk. “I might consider that, if I actually thought you were holding back that much. But I think you’re bluffing. Besides, that blast flung you as much as it did me. Much stronger and you’ll just hurt yourself.”

                “You wish. I’m tough enough to withstand my own blasts. Just don’t get mad when I turn you to rubble.” Ashley held up her hands, clenching them into tight fists as she spoke.

                Moving carefully around the cell, eyes locked on her opponent, Judy kept a healthy distance between herself and Ashley. In a different situation, Hershel would have suspected her of looking for an opening, but given that Ashley seemed to be able to detonate at any close range, that was probably impossible. Fighting her from any angle meant dealing with the explosions, unless one had the ability to attack from a distance. No, if Hershel were to guess, he’d say Judy was buying time, thinking through a plan that would change the dynamic of the fight. It was what he’d do, in her situation.

                “You know, it’s pretty unlucky for you that I’m the opponent you were put up against,” Judy said, finally stopping her continuous circle. “If you’d gotten someone with less training, or who didn’t know as much about Supers, you might have been able to bluff your way into a victory. But even if you’re as tough as you claim, it seems to me you don’t have a lot of practical fighting experience. Which means I bet you aren’t nearly as confident in your control of those explosions as you’d need to be to use them on a smaller scale.”

                Before their eyes, Judy’s gray appearance faded away, turning her back into the same normal, slightly tanned, woman who had walked in the door. The only exceptions were her fists and part of her arms, which stayed just as concrete as they had been before. Ashley’s own eyes grew wide as she watched the change, and the glow in her own arms dimmed noticeably.

                “What are you doing?”

                “I’m making myself weaker,” Judy explained. “So weak, so human, that if you try and use an explosion like the last one, you stand a good chance of killing me. Unless, of course, you know how to use them on a small enough scale to end this fight without using lethal force.” Judy’s concrete hands raised and she shifted her feet, preparing to mount a charge of her own.

                “That’s… that’s crazy.” Ashley stepped backward, her red glow nearly vanishing as she backpedaled.

                “No, it’s a calculated risk. This is what real fights are, rookie, and I suggested you adapt to it fast.” Without another word, Judy charged, quickly closing the gap between she and Ashley. Her heavy fists easily made it through the weakly mustered guard of the girl with the braid. While the punches weren’t enough to outright flatten Ashley, it quickly became apparent that the beating was taking a toll on her, as trickles of blood began to flow from her lip and eye.

                “Should we stop this?” Hershel asked.

                Professor Fletcher calmly shook his head. “Right now, Ashley still has the chance to turn things around. If she can use her ability with enough control, she could defeat Judy. Or, if she can think of a new plan, she might also be able to turn the tables. Painful as this can be to watch, we owe her the opportunity to change the match’s outcome. Nothing is decided until- whoops, never mind.”

                As he spoke, Judy had landed an aggressive blow to Ashley’s temple, sending the brunette spinning to the ground. To her credit, Judy immediately backed away and gave her opponent room to breathe and recover, but Ashley’s slow, groping attempts to climb back to her feet made it clear that the match was done.

                “Winner: Judy Bush.” Hershel’s voice rang through the cell, even as its door opened and another of the seniors appeared, Thomas, who had pulled infirmary transportation duty. He wrapped Ashley in a cocoon of orange energy, then lifted her gently off the ground. Hershel gave his friend a moment to get clear, then continued. “Judy, if you require healing please follow this man to the infirmary. Otherwise, head back to the gym with the other freshmen to await your next match.”

                “Nicely done,” Professor Fletcher said. “Before you go though, I wondered if you would tell me, what did you think of Judy’s strategy during the match?”

                “At first glance, it seems stupidly risky,” Hershel replied, looking down at the scorch marks and flecks of blood in the cell. “If Ashley had been able to control her blasts better, or had taken a dumb risk, things might have turned out very differently. But the more I think about it, the more I realize she gathered a lot of information before taking the gamble. Seeing Ashley’s range, gauging her strength, even finding out how tough she was to calculate proper attacks; it was still risky, but it’s like she said: it was a calculated one. Honestly though, what impresses me most is that she was even able to have the idea in the first place.”

                “How do you mean?” Professor Fletcher opened the door to the observation room and motioned to head down, which Hershel did as he kept talking.

                “I mean, she decided to make herself weaker to win. Everyone in the HCP is almost universally concerned with winning through getting stronger. For her to be able to think like that, to use the rules as much as her power against an opponent, I think it means she’s got the sort of mind that’s going to make her extremely dangerous. If Judy isn’t in the top five for freshmen women, I’m going to be really scared of what these new kids can do.”

                Though he didn’t say as much, Professor Fletcher’s assessment was almost precisely the same as Hershel’s.