Small Towns With Skyscrapers
Che had noticed the gentle breeze earlier, but that was before he became aware of his current predicament. Now, every blade of grass, every sound, big or small, and every sun beam that washed over his skin carried a new meaning. For a simulation, this was incredible! Even his interaction with Nikki just now was something he’d never thought possible with an A.I. program. He looked up at the sky, noting it was well after midday, and instinctively reached in his pocket without thinking, feeling around for his phone.
No phone. No wallet and keys. Nothing.
Che sighed. Of course he wouldn’t have his personal belongings here. They were probably back in the real world, tucked away somewhere by whoever kidnapped him and logged him into whatever weird video game this was. He looked over at Nikki, who stood waiting for him. It was possible she wasn’t an A.I. program at all but another player just like him. Maybe all three of those girls had been kidnapped just like he was and forced to fight in this video game. She’d agreed to lead him to a nearby town, so he could use it as an opportunity to learn more about her.
She started off towards a path that led away from the stadium, and Che quickly broke his daze and chased after her. A little ways ahead, the path split. Heading north, Che could see it led to a lush forest with seemingly nothing beyond it. That must have been the forest Nikki mentioned earlier, the one she said was too dangerous to travel through alone. To the south, there were more woods, but Che could also make out a towering structure that resembled a skyscraper in the distance. Perhaps Shrub Town was in that direction? He’d never known a small town to have a lone skyscraper, especially one that tall, but this wasn’t Earth. Maybe, all small towns had them here. Bella and Kim were waiting where the path split, Bella still wearing an annoyed expression while Kim continued to look amused at everything around her.
“Oh, you brought him back!” Kim giggled into her hands.
“I see,” Bella marched up towards them. “So what exactly was all that back there? And you chose Nikki over the two of us?”
Che gasped in surprise. “It’s not like that! I never intended to fight any of you for real, so I just chose the first person in front of me.”
“All three of us were standing in front of you,” Bella said, her arms crossed. “So save it. You probably picked Nikki because she’d be the easiest one to beat.”
“Bella, it’s not like that,” Nikki sighed. “You saw how he was in the ring. He didn’t even know what he was doing. I think he’s got a concussion or something.”
“Whatever,” Bella grumbled. “Come on. Let’s go before we miss the opening ceremony.”
The four of them started down a trail towards Shrub Town. Che walked next to Nikki, his mind racing with questions.
“What’s the opening ceremony?” he finally asked.
Nikki sighed. “I really hope this isn’t permanent for you. Look, there’s a school in Shrub Town called Legaros Academy. If you want to compete in the regional tournament, you have to pass the exams there. That’s all I’m going to explain to you right now.”
Che narrowed his eyes. “What is your problem? It was just a question. Geez.”
“Hey, don’t get mad at me! You’re the one who doesn’t know anything!”
“Are you always this grumpy?”
He heard Kim giggle again. She and Bella were walking a little farther ahead.
“What’s so funny?” Nikki asked.
“Two fools arguing with each other,” Kim said in a sing-song-like voice. “You’re definitely a pair, a boy who’s afraid to fight and a girl who can never win.”
“I could beat you any day!” Nikki snarled.
“Can you all be quiet?” Bella shook her head without turning to face any of them as she continued walking. “I’m trying to get myself pumped up before we get there.”
Che considered Kim’s words for a moment, remembering his fight with Nikki. She was a Flame type, and the screen showed what advantages she had over other types.
“You could beat Kim, you know,” he whispered.
“Oh, whatever,” Nikki rolled her eyes. “As if you would know.”
Che opened his mouth to say something before closing it and instead looking down at his hands. In a world like this, he figured he’d be a Neutral type. He hadn’t felt a surge of magical energy or anything during his fight with Nikki, and he wasn’t all that remarkable on Earth to begin with let alone a place like this. Still, what about that menu he saw in front of her?
“Can you see what someone else’s type is?” he asked.
“Sometimes you can guess,” Nikki answered, keeping her eyes forward as if trying to maintain her focus. “Usually, you don’t know until you start fighting them, but even then it’s difficult to tell.”
“Could you see my type?” Che asked.
Nikki shook her head. “And it didn’t help that you tried to run away. I don’t think there’s a type that’s known for that.”
Che chuckled, looking away from her. It certainly wasn’t his proudest moment. “Still, you’re a Flame type, while those two are Flora and Aqua types. That’s interesting how you each have an advantage over at least one other person.”
“Aww, I didn’t want him to know that about me yet!” Kim whined over her shoulder. “I wanted to fight him first! Now he’ll know my secret!”
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Bella chuckled. “He can’t even last against Nikki, so you wouldn’t have needed the advantage anyway.”
Nikki glowered, and Che quickly took notice.
“I think you were a good fighter back there,” he offered.
She seemed to break from a daze at the compliment, quickly looking away. “T-thanks.”
“I don’t see why you three need to attend an academy,” Che said. “Clearly, you three know a lot about fighting. I don’t see why you can’t enter the Toky-hatchi tournament now, especially since you were able to challenge random people at that stadium back there.”
“ToKyotchi,” Bella corrected. “And that was just an exhibition match. People to go that stadium to show off their skills. Sometimes, if you’re good, someone will scout you to be on their team when you pass the academy’s final exam.”
“Huh,” Che scratched his head. “I figured you were already a team of three.”
All three girls stopped simultaneously, causing Che to nearly trip and fall. Nikki clenched her fists and looked away, while Kim tried to stifle another giggle. Bella wasn’t as amused. She glared at Che as if he’d said something reprehensible.
“I’d never be on a team with her,” she spat, motioning towards Nikki. “Neither her nor Kim are of any use in a fight, but especially not someone as weak as her.”
Che’s mouth dropped open. “What? How can you say that? She nearly killed me earlier!”
“She was just toying with you,” Bella’s eyes narrowed as she looked over at Nikki. “She should have ended that match in seconds.”
“So what?” Nikki interjected. “I could have, but I didn’t.”
“And why not?” Bella challenged.
Nikki was silent for a moment, her fists still clenched. Che could see the conflict in her eyes, but before she could say anything, Kim spoke up.
“Maybe one day she’ll be a good fighter,” she taunted, her smirk barely visible behind her hand. “Maybe one day she won’t be so used to losing.”
“And you,” Bella pointed a finger at Che. “I don’t know what this act is of yours, but don’t think you can keep tagging along. Once we get to Shrub Town, you leave us alone. Got it?”
“Geez, Bella, I already said I’d help him get to town at least,” Nikki sighed.
The other three started walking again, but Che remained in place. After a few seconds, Nikki noticed he hadn’t joined them and stopped, turning to face him. Bella and Kim followed, confused expressions on all of their faces.
“What is it now?” Bella called out to Nikki. “Did he forget how to walk, too?”
Che remembered how Nikki hesitated in the ring after he told her he had nothing to fight for. She could have ended the match by clobbering him to death right then and there. Sure, an A.I. program could have also shown mercy or simply been confused at what Che said, but no. He recognized the look she gave him, a mixture of pity and understanding. Afterwards, when she came and found him, it wasn’t to convince him to return to the ring like an automated NPC would. She seemed to genuinely be concerned for his well-being, even if she was a snarky brat about it.
“Nikki…” Che’s voice was low and measured. “Are these supposed to be your friends?”
Bella scoffed. “You’re clearly delusional. The only reason we’re even taking Nikki with us is because she has nowhere else to go. If it were up to me, she’d be left behind.”
Che paused before walking past the group.
“I don’t care if any of this is real or not,” he said, “but, Nikki, you deserve better than that.”