Chapter 90

                “Hang on now, walk me through this again.” Roy’s eyes took note of Mary’s return, but only because he’d been watching for her. Hershel was originally supposed to hang around until she got back. That plan had gone out the window when Violet came running up to Hershel jabbering about some freshman who wanted to talk to Roy. Excusing himself by claiming to have had too much to drink, Hershel went up to Nick’s apartment where he helped himself to some whiskey. Five minutes later and Roy, the late arrival, had burst onto the party scene. Much as he wanted to do a tour around and talk to some of the lovely woman he’d taken note of in Hershel’s memories, duty came first. The hardest part was finding a quiet place to talk, but the space was large and they’d eventually located a corner.

                Of course, there were still mundanes around, which meant they had to choose their words carefully.

                “I need you to spar with me,” Ashley said. Roy had been a bit surprised to see the freshman searching for him was the same one who Hershel had overseen a match for. He was even more shocked when he got a close enough look to realize she was the girl from Six-Shooter. It did explain why she hadn’t simply walked up to order a drink, though. As a freshman, she was underage.

                “Everyone talks about how tough you are,” she continued, eyes scanning for anyone who might be getting too close. “They say you’re a real brick of a fighter. I’m having trouble with control. Well, I mean, figuring out how hard to… punch. I didn’t have many sparring partners growing up, and now I’m having trouble adjusting. Punch too hard and I might hurt someone, too soft and it doesn’t do any good.”

                Roy closed his eyes, dearly wishing he’d left this crap for Hershel. He loathed talking in code and working out subtext, thankfully this was simple enough that even Roy could keep pace. Ashley’s power was creating explosions, and she’d never had an environment to train against other living fighters before. She needed control, to know exactly how much power to put in to a blast for it to be effective yet non-lethal, and that was the sort of thing one gained through experience. Coming to Roy made a certain amount of sense, of everyone in the senior class he was probably the most durable, even more so than Chad. But what didn’t add up was why she’d felt the need to go all the way to the seniors in order to find someone who could help her.

                “Have you tried talking with your teacher, or coach, about this?” Roy asked. “I feel like it would be their job to get you past that kind of hurdle.”

                Ashley nodded, and Roy noticed she also broke eye-contact when she did. “He gave me exercises to do, techniques to figure out how hard my punches should be when sparring.”

                “So what’s the problem?”

                “The problem is that it’s taking forever, and it’s all non-combat training,” Ashley spat. “Expl-… punching fruit doesn’t help me keep my head during a real match. I need to fight someone better than me, someone I can’t hurt, until I’ve learned to control myself in a genuine fight.”

                “Uh huh, and what did your teacher say when you brought this up?” Roy asked.

                “He told me that you don’t cross a mountain by leaping, you do it one step at a time,” Ashley replied. “But he also said that if I really wanted a sparring partner, I should go find one. You know they never discourage extra-curriculum training.”

                That wasn’t entirely true; the HCP never discouraged safe extra-curricular training. Ashley wouldn’t know the difference yet, though. She was too young, too headstrong, too… well, too much like Roy as a freshman, if he were being honest with himself. The girl had power, he’d seen that through Hershel’s eyes, and she knew it. Right now she probably thought the only thing holding her back was not being able to use her abilities properly. No doubt she believed she’d be at the top of the class with a little training and the right opportunity. That sort of brashness was dangerous, especially with an ability like hers.

                “What’s so wrong with the step-at-a-time method? I’ll tell you this right now; your teacher is right about it being the best way. Slow and steady, constant effort, that’s the way you get better at anything. There are no montages, Ashley. Just people who train like hell, putting in all the steps they can every day. I think you’re looking for a shortcut, and the only thing those do is get people hurt.” Roy hoped Hershel would keep the gloating to a minimum when he found this memory. Four years ago he’d have never even come up with these words, let alone said them. Then again, the Roy of four years ago also would have never made it to senior year.

                “I’m not… okay fine, maybe I am looking for a shortcut,” Ashley admitted. “But is it so wrong to want to train myself in actual combat? To make sure that even in the most dire of moments I can still use the right amount of force? I want you to honestly tell me you think it’s a bad idea.”

                That was a tough one. What she was describing wasn’t inherently bad, in fact mastering control of one’s abilities was a cornerstone of the HCP education. Which made it all the more curious that she was trying to jump ahead in the curriculum. Roy couldn’t say it was a bad idea outright, but helping her might result in people getting hurt. It all depended on why she was so desperate, what was driving her forward. If she wanted control to be a proper Hero, that was one thing. If she was just chasing power though, then Roy had no desire to lend her any aid. He could already guess where that path would end.

                “The idea itself isn’t bad,” Roy said at last. “But there are two issues: why are you desperate to get stronger so fast? And why come to me? There were bound to have been other people closer to your age.”

                “Actually, they’re pretty much the same answer,” Ashley said. “I need to get stronger because I’m behind. Even if I go step-by-step, there are other people who’re doing the same thing, only they’ve got a head start on me. And the one out in front is the one I’m aiming for. That’s why I came to you, too. I’d heard that not only were you tough, but you’ve also been the most dedicated at trying to be the best. You’re the only one always trying to knock the king off his throne, so I thought you might be willing to help me do the same.”

                Inadvertently, Roy’s eyes wandered over to Chad, who was having a conversation with Shane and a mundane woman in a football player costume. It was true that Roy had personally challenged Chad more times than anyone else, at least outside of class battles. The other serious contenders were no doubt waiting until they had strategy, or an occasion that would actually raise their rankings. Roy had stopped caring about that a long time ago. He just wanted to win. To know that all the years he’d spent chasing after the man, the friend, who’d whipped him senseless freshman year weren’t in vain. That was the lesson Roy had learned the best from their initial fight: losing wasn’t the end of the world. Especially not if you learned from it. Roy would lose to Chad a hundred times if that was what it took to beat him once.

                “I do understand,” Roy said at last. “And I’ll think it over. No, first I’ll talk to your teacher, then I’ll think it over. I won’t do anything without his approval, that’s before anything else. After that I’ll give it consideration. That’s all you’re getting tonight, so don’t push your luck trying to argue. Got it?”

                Ashley nodded, a grin stretching across her face despite the fact she’d gotten a maybe, at best.

                “Good. Then hightail it out of here,” Roy told her. “You’re underage and there’s a lot of booze at this party. The last thing we need is to get in trouble for having hooch around minors.”