Chapter 6.7: Challenge Accepted

"Hrmm..." The doctor pulled William's arm over his head and gave it a wiggle, his fingers pressing on the back of the student's neck and shoulder. He guided William's arm out as his fingers pressed down further along his spine. "Trapped nerve at a guess," the doctor told his patient. "Lie back and we'll get the scans in."

"Why didn't you start with that," William spat. The inspection had cause another flare-up.

"We don't always have technology at our disposal," the doctor replied patiently. He was in his forties and oddly skeletal for a man who practiced healthcare. A digital display appeared over the length of William's body, showcasing his body as practiced hands stripped away layers of his humanity revealing layers of muscles, veins, nerves, and bones.

"Who did this to you?" the doctor asked darkly.

"No one," William replied. "I was showing off and I must have pulled something." The doctor's dubious expression told him that he didn't believe him. "You do have a pinched nerve and that pain should subside in two to three weeks. Avoid aggravating it." He called up a new screen to record his findings. William's stomach twisted as he made out the words that signalled an investigation into his injuries. Roger was going to be found out, and he was going to have to pay the price. "The nurse will give you something for the pain. Take two before bed."

"What about during the day? What about the exams?" he asked the doctor who stared down at him knowing all too well his motivations behind his silence.

"You'll be exempt," he replied. "But that means you won't qualify for squad recruitment."

William saw the word exempt when the doctor had selected his prescription. He knew that if he even tried to go to his next exam, the system had him flagged and would reject his score. For the next three weeks, he'll be scheduled with the first-years until an instructor was willing sit with him for the remaining tests. There would be no re-dos.

The doctor left the room as William buttoned up his shirt; he knew that Astral had won.

By the time he left the infirmary, the sound of church bells sounded across the campus, signalling the end of the breakfast cycle. For those who were attending their first aid training, classes would begin in fifteen minutes.

Hands in pockets, William walked along the side street toward the main avenue. He had nowhere to be, and now he had the remainder of the week to just goof-off. He should have ecstatic. The sound of foil wrapping being pulled from a small piece of tightly compact food drew attention to the fact that he wasn't walking alone.

Astral licked her food cube, silently keeping pace with him. He slapped the morsel from her hand. "Don't eat that shit," he yelled.

The one inch by one inch morsel completed its tumble with the fourteen-year-old watching it mournfully. "That was my breakfast," she whimpered. "It was my only one too."

"You should eat real food, you can afford it," William snapped.

Astral's shoulders sagged. "Actually... not so much, no. I sort of spent my allowance on things my granddad didn't approve of. He thought it would a good time to teach me the value of a credit. You know, practice for the real world. I should just be thankful that I don't have to pay rent." She smiled in her attempt at optimism.

"You're lying," William challenged quietly. "Your granddad wouldn't do that, would he?" He didn't know much about the Councilman. The only thing he knew for sure was that every summer, Philip would drop her off at the Mathers household and at the end of the season; Mathias would get paid.

"I should be thankful that my tuition covers a basic meal plan," Astral added thoughtfully. "I suppose with you taking my place on the squad, I'll have time to get a part-time job and then we can have lunches together!"

"You're lying," William repeated in a whisper.

"Okay, maybe not all of our lunches," Astral admitted. "I don't know what fresh food actually costs, so maybe just a few lunches then."

"Forget about it," William groaned. "I don't want to join that stupid game anyway!"

"Oh come on now! I did really bad just to make sure you could get in. I mean you were talking about Squad VII all summer, and now this chance pops up! I thought to myself: self! This is a good way to give William what he really wants. He's been so nice with putting up with me every summer; it's the least I could do." She added in a whisper, masking her mouth from passers-by, "OH! But don't tell Seth! He'll make me do the re-takes."

She smiled at him. He felt like he was being played. But what if it was true. She had no interest in the games; it was a massive time sink as far as she was concerned. So why join at all? Why even pretend to be interested? Was it really just to set Seth up to force him to take him? Did she use her influence to set things up this way? He hugged her pinning her arms against her body. He cried. He couldn't help himself.

Astral didn't reach out to comfort him, opting to remain rigid beneath his sorrow. "What's wrong?" her voice was cold, the sound of a master planner who suspected that their plan has just failed on a phenomenal level.

"I got hurt! I'm exempt from the rest of the exam," William sobbed failing to control himself. He was making a scene, but he could will his legs to move.

Astral arched a brow. "And that means, you won't qualify for recruitment." She snarled inwardly, composed herself and nodded. "That means I'm stuck. A deal's a deal. I doubt I'll be able to talk Seth out of it." She sighed. "But I might still be able to get you recruited, if that's what you want."

"With Squad VII?" He asked hopefully.

Astral narrowed her eyes, her expression clearly reading: 'Don't be a dumbass'. "Just fill out that application form, I'll deal with the rest of it." She ran off. Did she mean any of that? Or was she just trying to find out what his scores were? It's what he would do. He felt stupid.

His little group of friends lingered in their second favourite cafe, which just so happened to be home to supporters of Squad III, the second-ranked team on campus, and Squad IV. William didn't want to be anywhere where Roger might just happen to pop in. He couldn't tell his friends exactly what had happened the day before between him and the squad member. Revealing every gory detail about what had happened between Astral and Roger, on the other hand, that was okay, and it did serve as some mildly interesting gossip for his quartet.

"She's just some kid," William reminded them. "Homeschooled and all that. This is probably her first time at a real school. With all the pressure, I'm surprised she hasn't begged her granddad to go home."

"You think she's cuter than me?" Sarah asked the studious Liam, who paused in what he was doing just long enough to think about it.

"Not my type, my dear," he admitted and got back to work. The answer didn't seem to satisfy the blond, but without a proper reaction from the well trained Liam, she had nothing to work with.

"It doesn't surprise me that she's an Enhanced sympathizer," Reginald offered. "I was looking into her family history and it turns out that her dad was a huge Enhanced-rights supporters. He used his political pull to give those freaks the right to marry normal people. Can you believe that?" His chuckle was brimming with venom. "That traitor deserved more than four years service. He was a disgrace to our kind. It wouldn't surprise me if the apple didn't fall far from the tree, if you know what I'm saying."

He had no idea. No wonder she got so angry every time he said something against the Enhanced.

Seth entered the dinner while consulting his tablet. Next to him, was Squad IV's illustrious captain. She was a dark-skinned Amazon, whose hair jutted out in every direction. She had high cheekbones and a pleasant smile. The conversation the captains shared was outside of the quartet's hearing range, but it didn't stop them from staring, just like everyone else in the cafe.

Seth glanced their way and offered a nod to his companion, indicating the direction they were headed. "Mathers," Seth greeted. "This is Evelyn Clark, captain of Squad IV."

Sarah could barely contain her excitement and opted to fiddle with the tips of her blond ponytail. "It's nice to meet you," William shook the captain's hand. It was stronger than he would have thought for such long, graceful fingers.

"I'm here to formally invite you to my squad; I won't take no for an answer, and I expect to see you on the training fields first thing three weeks from now. Once your recovery period is over, of course." She told him firmly and turned to leave, her job here, done.

"Why?" William couldn't help but ask. Did Astral come through for him?

The Amazon smiled at William. "Upon reviewing some complaints, I've chosen to take full responsibility for certain actions that members of my squad have committed against you and your friend. He had no right to cause either of you distress like that. We don't train as hard as we do to take out on other people. We save our aggression for the games and the killing fields."

In exchange for his silence, William assumed. It might not get him what he wanted, but at least he'd be in the games. This was a major step up, and he didn't have to finish his exams to get in. He should have been thrilled, but somehow he felt cheated. "Thank you," he replied.

She smiled and offered a vague nod before leaving the cafe, likely to tend her responsibilities as captain. As Seth turned to leave, William asked, "Did Astral have anything to do with this?" He didn't know why he needed to know. He should have just accepted it and left it at that. She owed him anyway. It was because of her that he got hurt to begin with.

"Daamon messaged me some time after breakfast accepting the position on my squad," Seth admitted. "I just figured you had something to do with her sudden change of heart. I can already tell that she doesn't like to have her victories cheated from her."

Victory? But she told him that she was doing poorly on purpose. "She said she wasn't doing so great on the exams," William ventured, hoping to find out how true his suspicions were.

"Let's just say: I have my work cut-out for me," Seth smiled a sad smile. So he knew what she was doing. He must have. "Congratulations. Remember to send in your registration form or else that little arrangement won't hold water."

William sat there with his friends, dumbstruck while watching Squad VII's captain leave the cafe. Seth must have gone to Captain Clark to report Roger about what he did to Astral and pulled a favour from her instead.

"Waitress, a round of carbonated juice please!" Sarah called. "It's time to celebrate the addition of Squad IV's newest recruit!"