And Just Like That
Che let out a sizable groan of relief as he pulled himself onto the roof of the girls’ dormitory. He paused, shaking his head to force away the feelings of creepiness and disgust, but he was certain this was the only place he’d find Nikki.
Thankfully, his theory was confirmed when he spotted Nikki standing in front of an AC unit with her back to him. He took a deep breath and walked forward, pushing away the fog of paranoia that had been building inside his head since he’d chased after her.
“So, you’re climbing onto roofs in your spare time now?” she asked, though she didn’t turn to face him.
“At least I’m not setting off explosions,” Che scoffed before softening his tone. “I’m sorry you heard all that in the cafeteria.”
Nikki finally turned around and shrugged. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”
Che shook his head. “Nikki, look. Ever since I first met you, those two have treated you horribly. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t think you deserve that.”
“That’s BECAUSE you don’t what happened,” Nikki countered, and Che was quiet as he waited to see if she would elaborate. He wanted to know, but it sounded like she didn’t want to talk about it.
She regarded him for a moment before rolling her eyes. “So what? You just climbed all the way up here to tell me that?”
Che shook his head again. “No. You know the other reason I’m here. Why didn’t you tell me you and Lorenzo planned to get into the restricted area last night?”
Nikki sighed and looked away, not wanting to meet his eyes. “It’s not what you think. There’s something…I just need to make sure someone from my past isn’t here.”
Che frowned. He didn’t want to press the issue, but he needed answers. “Why didn’t you just tell me that? I could have still helped.”
“Because I…” Nikki clutched her arm nervously. “I have to do this myself. I’m sorry.”
“No, you don’t!” Che exclaimed. “All this time, you’ve helped me. Well, you know what? Now it’s my turn! If there’s someone here that you want to find, then let’s find them!”
“What about Yokan?” Nikki met Che’s gaze, her voice heavy with worry. “Don’t you have enough going on with that?”
Che let out a sad chuckle, despite the gravity of the situation. “I think at this point he’ll find me before I find him again anyway. In the meantime, let me help you.”
“I don’t want to get you involved,” Nikki shook her head as turned away from Che once more. “I have my reasons.”
“Nikki, please!” Che took a step closer and reached out his hand. “I can’t do this on my own, and neither can you!”
“That’s where you’re wrong!” Nikki called behind her. “You heard Kim and Bella. You can’t depend on me. This is something I have to fix. I can’t drag anyone else into it again!”
“Nikki, come on!” Che groaned, his shoulders slumping. “What happened between the three of you? Can you at least tell me that?”
“What does it matter?” Nikki asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“It matters to me,” Che replied firmly. “You matter to me, and I don’t like that we’re keeping things from each other.”
“Chetachi, just stop!” Nikki whipped around, her expression full of frustration and sadness. “Stop acting like you care about me or anyone else! Just stop!”
“Nikki, what are you talking about?” Che took a step back, his eyes widened in shock. “I do care about you! Why would you think otherwise?”
“You…” Nikki stammered. “Look. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“So, what do you mean then?” Che crossed his arms. “Why would you even say something like that?”
Nikki bit her lip, pausing for a moment before responding. “It’s just…everything about you doesn’t make sense. You being from another planet, not having any memories, why Yokan is after you. I’ve never been able to figure out why until now.”
“I told you what happened the day you met me,” Che replied, his confusion evident.
“I know you did,” Nikki’s voice grew softer, “and I know you truly believe what you told me.”
Che opened his mouth to respond, but Nikki cut him off.
“I think you’re an experiment,” she said, her voice much clearer and more serious. “I think someone messed with your head, and you don’t remember who you really are or where you’re from.”
Che’s expression shifted from confusion to pure disbelief. “Nikki, where is all of this coming from? Did Lorenzo say something to you?”
Nikki shook her head. “He suspected something was off, but I’ve been trying to figure it all out since I first met you. Chetachi, it’s the only explanation. I wanted to go to the restricted area to find out for sure. That’s why I didn’t tell you.”
Che couldn’t believe his ears. An experiment? He knew his story sounded wild and fantastical, but Eden was about as wild and fantastical as it got given its inhabitants essentially had superpowers.
Still, out of all possible explanations, why did she settle on experimentation?
He then remembered she wasn’t just trying to get into the restricted area like Lorenzo. She had an exact place in mind once she got inside, a place she’d shown no interest in until a few days ago.
“You know what’s at the Marbot Research Facility, don’t you?” Che dropped arms to his side, the realization crashing into him like a wave. “What are not telling me?”
Nikki’s gaze trailed to the ground. “I don’t know, Chetachi. That’s what I was trying to find out last night.”
Che closed his eyes and sighed, his head pounding as he tried to process what Nikki had told him. Why wouldn’t she just tell him what was really going on? He knew there was much more to the story, just like with Lorenzo.
At the thought of Lorenzo, a chill shot down Che’s spine as he recalled the scene from last night during the explosions. Lorenzo had simply walked up to the gate and been allowed inside, even though there was pure chaos happening all around him.
Why didn’t they turn him away? He was supposed to be in Astronomy class just like Che and Nikki. It didn’t make sense.
“Lorenzo…” Che murmured. “He got inside last night without a problem, almost like he’d been given access.”
Nikki nodded but didn’t say anything.
“He told you he could help you get into the restricted area too, didn’t he?” Che guessed.
Nikki nodded again, her expression unreadable.
Che shook his head. “I think he’s been playing both of us this whole time, and he isn’t who he says he is.”
Nikki stared at him with an incredulous look on her face. “And who do you think he is?”
“I think…he could be in the same situation as me,” Che rubbed his arm nervously. “I think he’s from somewhere else and got brought here just like I did.”
“Chetachi, do you hear yourself?” Nikki leaned forward, her expression now laced with concern. “Do you realize how crazy that sounds?”
Che narrowed his eyes. She couldn’t be serious. “This is a world where people can be made of grass and flowers and move things with their minds, but me being from another world is the crazy part?”
Nikki sighed and looked away.
“Whatever,” Che threw up his hands. “You can think I’m crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were crazy,” Nikki countered, meeting his gaze once more.
“You didn’t have to,” Che’s voice was a bit harsher than he meant it to be. “I just don’t get why you’re so sure I’m an experiment.”
“It’s because…” Nikki’s voice trailed off, though she maintained eye contact with Che.
“Because what?” Che asked, his voice softening.
“Because I’m an experiment.”
Che’s eyes widened, and he couldn’t find the words to speak. He stared at Nikki, desperately wanting to ask what she meant, but he didn’t know what to say.
Nikki sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “Right before we came to this region, Bella, Kim, and I lived in a lab. We were watched over by a man named Professor Eminal. Legaros burned down our village when we were babies, and we grew up in different orphanages. He took us in, and we thought he was going to take care of us…”
Che was starting to connect the dots, and he swallowed hard. He heard Nikki’s voice grow distant as she continued. “Instead, he experimented on us and several others. I wasn’t a Flame type as a child, but I became one thanks to his experiments. Same with Bella and Kim.”
“Nikki…” Che’s voice barely above a whisper.
“At some point, I planned for us to escape,” Nikki continued. “I knew it would only get worse if we were caught, but I’d convinced Bella and Kim that my plan would work. Then, we found the tubes full of other dead experiments, and I…”
She trailed off again, burying her face in her hands. Che was certain she was about to cry, but she looked up at him with teary eyes and a determined expression.
“I just couldn’t do it,” her voice was shaky and barely above a whisper. “I couldn’t run. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even fight back. I’d worked so hard to plan our escape, but when it came time to follow through I panicked.”
Che wanted to reach out to her, to say something that would bring her comfort, but he had no idea where to begin. Instead, he just looked at her in silence.
“There was a guard who used to stand outside our hibernation chamber,” Nikki continued. “I’d never seen his face before, but he was the one who caught us. Except, he wasn’t a guard at all. He was an illusion created by Eminal, who was a Mental type. My Mark is Clairvoyance, and outside of battle I can usually detect spirits and illusions. But I never once thought that guard wasn’t real. That’s how powerful Eminal was. I still don’t know what was real and what wasn’t.”
“Nikki, I…” Che finally worked up the strength to speak.
Nikki shook her head. “Eventually, Bella came up with a plan to put him to sleep by singing to him on her birthday. It’s how her Mark works, but before she could start the lab was attacked and destroyed by Legaros soldiers. They almost killed us, but one of them let us escape. That’s how we found our way here.”
Che’s mind was racing as he absorbed all of what Nikki had said.
“The real reason I came to this academy,” Nikki’s posture was now straight and full of resolve, “was to get strong enough to get revenge on Legaros for all it had done to us and to make up for my failure. And I have to do it alone.”
The silence grew between them as Che tried to find the right words to say next. He’d known since he got here that Legaros was somehow connected to his job interview and Yokan, but he didn’t stop to consider what else it was responsible for.
On Earth, it was just another tech company that didn’t want to hire him. On Eden, it was likely the cause of countless tragedies.
“So that’s it,” Che finally managed. “If I’m an experiment, then that means it’s possible that professor is still alive.”
Nikki nodded. “And he could still be experimenting on people and messing with their heads. That’s why I wanted to go to the Marbot Research Facility myself. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Chetachi.”
“But Nikki…” Che sighed. “Look, I know it sounds insane, but please believe me. I’m not an experiment.”
Nikki looked into his eyes for a moment before shaking her head. “I just don’t know for sure what to believe anymore, Chetachi.”
“It’s you. It’s been you all along.”
Che and Nikki turned to see Tyson standing at the edge of the roof, having just climbed up after them. His expression was hard and unforgiving, but Nikki stepped forward.
“Tyson…” she began. “How long have you been standing there?”
“He’s the imposter!” Tyson shot a finger in Che’s direction. “He’s the reason that guy is after us, and he knows who that guy is! My mom! My dad! It’s all his fault!”
“Tyson, please…” Che held up his hands. “It’s not…there’s more to all of this.”
“Like what?” Tyson’s voice was full of rage. “There’s a guy flying around kidnapping and attacking students on campus. He tells us there’s an imposter, and it turns out it’s you! You called him Yokan, right? So that means you know who he is!”
Che stepped back, feeling a sudden chill in the air. He knew he couldn’t explain everything to Tyson right now, not with everything else imploding all around them.
“What happened to the real Rowan?” Tyson demanded, his voice quivering with fear. “Did you kill him?”
Che shook his head, unable to look Tyson in the eye. “Tyson, it’s not like that. Please, hear me out.”
“No!” Tyson shouted. “You’ve been lying to us from the start! I’ve been sharing a dorm room with someone who’s been pretending to be a dead student!”
“Tyson, I’m sorry,” Che tried his best not to remain calm, but he knew there was no turning back now. “I didn’t mean for things to happen this way. It was the only way I could think to find Yokan. I have to stop him.”
“I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth!” Tyson shook his head. “You’re both probably working together! You’re just a two-faced liar!”
“Tyson, that’s enough!” Nikki called out. “You don’t understand! Don’t blame him for everything that’s happened!”
“Nikki, it’s okay,” Che took a step toward Nikki, and Tyson rushed between them.
“Stay away from her!” he yelled and pushed Che, who stumbled and fell on his back. He cried out in pain as he hit the ground, unable to move.
“Don’t come near her!” Tyson shifted into a fighting stance. “You brainwashed her into believing all your lies, but that’s over with! No more!”
“Tyson!” Nikki yelled. “Stop it! He didn’t do anything wrong!”
Che stared at them both in disbelief, which was soon replaced by sadness. How had it all managed to fall apart so quickly? Still, he should have known it was bound to happen eventually. His cover was officially gone, and there was nowhere left to hide.
He had to think quickly. He had to find a way to protect Nikki and Tyson from Yokan, no matter what. He ran through every possible scenario in his head until he came to a conclusion, though he wasn’t impressed with it.
“Alright, Tyson,” Che managed to stand, dusting himself off. “I’ll leave her alone. I promise. Just do two things for me, okay?”
Tyson scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest. “What?”
“First, don’t tell anyone about me until tonight when I get the last of my stuff from our room,” Che explained. “Second, please look out for Nikki, Bella, and Kim until finals are over and everyone returns home.”
Tyson rolled his eyes. “And why should I do anything you ask?”
“I know,” Che nodded. “I know I don’t deserve to ask anything of you. Just at least watch out for the girls. Please.”
Tyson maintained his fighting stance, not speaking for several moments. Then, he relaxed his body and nodded. Nikki’s eyes darted between the two of them, the growing panic in her expression clear as day.
“Chetachi, what are you going to do?” her voice sounded frantic. “You can’t fight him! He’s too strong! You’ll die!”
Che turned away from both of them, his eyes meeting the horizon. He could see the entire campus from where he was standing, including the scorched fields left behind from last night’s explosions.
Legaros Tower loomed in the distance, with the restricted area resting in its shadow. So many students should have been on their way to their next classes right now, including Nikki and Tyson, and so many of them wouldn’t arrive thanks to Yokan.
Che clenched his fists, feeling a sudden resolve washing over him. He couldn’t change what Nikki and Tyson thought of him, but he could still do his best to protect them. He had to try one last time.
“You’re right, Nikki. I could die,” Che called behind him. “But it wouldn’t be the first time.”