The sun was well past its midpoint in the sky by the time Che and the others arrived in Shrub Town. He found himself constantly looking over at Bella and Kim, who seemed unfazed by their confrontation with Reagan and Vista. Of course, neither of them knew what really happened during the fight. Che had started to tell them, but Nikki glared at him and shook her head before he could get a word out. Maybe it was for the best.
The town itself was nothing special to Che, though it was a lot cleaner and better kept than most towns on Earth. The grass was bright green and freshly-manicured, while the trees were vibrant and healthy. He could even see flowers blooming along the paved walkway. While taking in the sights, he exhaled and realized hed been holding his breath for quite some time. When he sniffed the air, he noticed it was clean and refreshing, just like the country towns hed been to before.
From where they were positioned, Che could make out a few rows of cookie-cutter houses, what looked like a town market, and a small hospital. He felt the tension in his shoulders loosen up at the sight of the hospital in particular. He didn like the possibility of ending up at one, but he could rest easy knowing they existed in this world. Still, every town landmark was dwarfed by a massive skyscraper towards the outskirts heading north. It was surrounded by what looked like a high concrete fence with watchtowers along its perimeter. Che figured it had to be where the academy was located.
As they entered the town proper, he could see what looked like students milling about everywhere. Some looked young enough to have barely graduated elementary school, but the majority looked about the same age as Nikki. Several parents stood in their doorways waving to their children as they set off in the direction of the academy. Che, seeing this, wondered if the school would be split up by grades and felt a chill run down his spine. Of course, they were!
Every student seemed to have on the same uniform. The boys sported a white button-down shirt and dark blue-striped tie with black slacks, while the girls wore a white button-down shirt with a dark blue plaided skirt. Che sighed and rolled his eyes as he recalled never having to wear uniforms in school. And at age twenty-three, he wasn excited to start wearing them now.
Nikki noticed his expression and elbowed him in the side.
”Hey! ” she whispered. ”Stop looking like that! ”
”What? I can help it, ” Che said. ”This place looks so…strict. ”
”Well, it is a school, ” Nikki shrugged. ”And you…kinda blend in already anyway. I didn know the uniforms were like that. ”
”What do you mean? ” asked Che.
”Well, this isn just an academy, ” Nikki explained. ”The army recruits train here too. ”
”Oh, ” Che said, his eyes widening in understanding. ”I had no idea. ”
”Well, thats not surprising, ” Nikki rolled her eyes.
Che was about to retort when they were interrupted by a voice calling out to them. He looked over and saw Bella and Kim several feet ahead waving them over.
”There you guys are! ” Bella exclaimed. ”Hurry up! Registration is about to close! ”
Che and Nikki hurried to catch up with Bella and Kim, trying not to attract too much attention to themselves. As they made their way toward the academys gates, Che couldn help but notice the stares they were getting from some of the other students. He tried to ignore it, but it was difficult. Nikki must have noticed as well because she slapped him on his back.
” she said.
e lagging behind. ”
They finally reached the gate, where a guard who seemed completely bored out of his mind waited. He was wearing the same uniform as Reagan and Vista with a few add-ons: a sword at his side and a shield slung over his back.
”State your business, ” the guard droned, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
e here to register for the academy, ” Bella pushed forward, her hands on her hips. Che smiled despite himself. Bella always seemed to think she was in charge no matter what.
The guard looked them over, his eyes narrowing before pointing a finger at Che. ”Whys he dressed like that? Thats not the student uniform. ”
Che paused, his heart pounding in his chest. He had to come up with some sort of explanation that didn arouse too much suspicion. He dug in his pocket, brandishing the student ID Yokan had left him. Not sure of what to say, he held it up for the guard to view. ”Im a student. ”
The guard stared at him for a few moments before sighing and stepping aside.
e good to find your dorm room. The others need to register. ”
Che let out a sigh of relief as he and the others passed through the academys gates. While Shrub Town seemed like a normal, run-of-the-mill village, the campus was more massive than he was expecting from outside of the concrete fence. The skyscraper hed seen before rested in the center of the campus, but Che could see several other buildings surrounding it. They were all connected by a series of paved roads that transitioned into concrete walkways.
Behind the skyscraper were more buildings, but Che couldn see what they were from his vantage point. Before the group could move any farther, Bella rounded on Che, startling him.
e a student? ” Bella exclaimed once they were out of earshot from the guard.
Che nodded. ”I found my student ID, and it all came back to me. I must have fallen and hit my head when I went to the stadium. I don remember anything else. ”
He winced inwardly at how smoothly the lie escaped his mouth. Would he be able to keep up this facade for long? How many more times would he have to concoct a fake explanation? He clenched his jaw as he returned his gaze toward the skyscraper. He had to find Yokan as soon as possible.
Bella snatched Ches ID away from him and stared at it. ”Your names Rowan? What kind of name is that? ”
”Now, now, Bella, ” Kim smiled. ”Let the poor boy have his name. ”
Bella stared at Che for a few moments before handing his ID back to him. ”Fine, but youd better have a good explanation for it later! You should already be at your dormitory by now! ”
”Bella, enough already! ” Nikki groaned. ”We have to get registered before its too late. ”
Che nodded. ”Ill wait for you all to finish. ”
He watched as the girls made their way to the registration desk, where they were each given a form to fill out. Che was curious about what was on the form, but he didn want to attract any more attention to himself. Hed just have to wait and ask later.
Once the girls were finished, they rejoined Che with hands full of materials.
”Theres a tour starting, ” Bella explained. ”Kim and I are going to go check it out. ”
The pair started off before Bella turned to face them again.
”And it goes without saying…
” she continued.
”From this moment forward, we
e no longer associates. We plan on passing the exams as quickly as possible so we can enter the ToKyotchi tournament. We don have time for a bumbling idiot and his new sidekick. ”
Che opened his mouth to protest, but Nikki beat him to it.
”Yeah, because we totally want to follow you around campus all day, ” Nikki replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Bella glared at them before stalking off, Kim following close behind her.
”What is it with them? ” Che muttered.
”It doesn matter,
” Nikki shrugged.
e right. Theres a tour starting soon. And also… ”
She handed him a pamphlet with several papers tucked inside. Che opened the pamphlet and found registration paperwork designated for Rowan.
”Whoever Rowan is, hes supposed to be enrolling today, ” Nikki explained. ”I was able to swipe it without anyone noticing. I think theres already a spot saved for him in the dorms, so all you have to do is find your way there. ”
Che took the papers from her, his heart once again pounding in his chest. He was actually going through with this. There was no turning back now.
”Nikki…I don know if I can do this. ”
”I don see what other choice you have, ” Nikki folded her arms. ”You want to find out where that weirdo is, right? ”
Che nodded. ”Yeah, but… ”
”But what? ” Nikki prompted. ”I don see any other way to get into this place, and he clearly wanted you to find him. ”
”But why are you helping me?
” Che asked.
”Im sure youve got your own reasons for being here. Plus, you
e like a teenager. You shouldn even be a part of this. ”
Nikki shrugged as she put her hands in her pockets. ”Look…theres apparently a lunatic on campus who kidnapped you from somewhere and brought you here. I don think my age matters to someone like that. ”
Che let out a sigh. ”Okay, I see your point. But still…I don like you being involved. Youve helped enough. ”
Nikki paused for a moment as if she was considering his words.
”Don forget what I said. You helped us, even though you weren sure how to fight. I don know why you
e here, but I don think you
e a bad person. ”
Che felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. ”Thanks, Nikki. ”
Nikki quickly turned to face the other direction. ”Okay, don get all weird on me. Lets figure out where the tour starts. ”
Che followed after her, his mind racing with thoughts. He still had no idea what he was getting himself into, but at least he had a friend by his side.
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