Switchblade BETA: Zero-One

X X X

Fire was and always had been the cruelest of Mother Nature's forces, with flames that showed no mercy against flesh or foliage, tearing great scars in the landscape that took generations to heal. Whilst forest fires were common by arson, those created by Mother Nature herself were not, much less concurrently with a storm.

Of course, as Tyson Granger had rapidly found out, fire was unpredictable enough to spring up at the worst times – and this would unquestionably be one of the worst. For what felt like hours he had run before the flames, looking for a place to hide and escape the fire – a cave, a riverbank, water, just something that would let him stop long enough to rest. His hat had been lost long ago, carried away by the winds that urged the flames higher. With nothing to act as a ventilator, Tyson had to draw in deep breaths of smoke-filled air, trying to fuel leg muscles that were steadily refusing to work.

Coffee-brown eyes darted back and forth across the scenery he tore through, searching for some form of salvation – when the dark blue of water caught his attention, the Champion bolted for it without a second's thought. He reached the river quickly and in an eagerness to get away from the flames, stumbled down the bank at breakneck speed. Stopping at the river's edge, Tyson crouched, scooping up handfuls and splashing it across his face. The spring water was revitalising, deliciously cool in an environment where the heat was everywhere.

Once his thoughts had cleared, the boy dug his hand into his pocket, pulling out a small metallic object. Inspecting it carefully for damage, Tyson allowed a small grin. "You're okay, Dragoon?" He asked, turning the Beyblade over in his hands to look at all angles. "That's good. I'll get Kenny to run a diagnostic when we get home, 'kay?" Looking to the swirling waters for a moment, an uncharacteristic frown crossed his face. "Daichi better be okay too," he added quietly.

The boys had separated quickly, driven apart by falling debris from the forest canopy. They had agreed to see each other on the other side of the forest, but Tyson wasn't naïve. He knew enough about the real world to know that it would take a miracle to survive this. Strength came in numbers, and here he was alone with naught but a Bitbeast.

Lost in a moment's worth of brooding thoughts, Tyson was never aware of company.

He had no idea that an unfamiliar boy had followed him through the forest, or that the same boy was creeping up behind him.

It wasn't until a thick branch thudded into the back of his skull, that Tyson realised the riverbank was not as safe as it ought to have been – but by then, the darkness consumed him and it was far too late.

X X X

Get the Beyblade; he'd been told. Follow the teenager through the forest, take the Beyblade, and get away from the fire. We'll give you money to do it.

It was nice in theory, but now the task was complete, the orphan had to question – what did he do with the Beyblade afterwards? Poised on the edge of the flaming trees and the riverbank, he hesitated. The Champion lay prone on the embankment, sprawled where he had fallen, water from the river licking at him.

However much he wished it, the street kid couldn't afford to worry about the Champion. He already had the Beyblade; Tyson was already unconscious; now all that was left was to get away from the fire.

Turning away, he kept Dragoon tightly held in one hand, and broke into a run. The boy ran for longer than he cared to think about, weaving his way through the parts of the forest that had not yet been touched by fire. Finally, strength exhausted, he stopped – the orphan's body wouldn't be able to run any further. Leaning against the trunk of a thick tree, his thin frame heaved, trying to suck in enough air for his body to keep functioning.

The smoke was thickening and it made it all the more difficult: with no experience of fires, the boy didn't know it would be safer if he was closer to the ground. Instead, when the decreased oxygen earned him a drowsy feeling, the street kid didn't fight it, eyes slipping closed. As far as he was concerned, the fire had not yet come through this area – it would be safe. He could stop… and rest… and sleep.

X X X

A grim line of teenagers and young adults stood waiting in the driveway of the forest-based training facility, watching the blackened trees in tense silence. Helicopters swooped overhead, dumping water across what remained of the foliage, dampening the wood that still smouldered. The storm had passed on some time ago, but the group had not been able to search for their missing companions – Tyson and Daichi had been forced to fend for themselves in the fire, drawing anxiety from their team and coach.

Of the five of them, Hiro was easily the most worried. He was the oldest and the most world-experienced; thus he was the one who had the most realistic view of what this fire meant. The odds of Daichi and Tyson surviving… however much he wanted to hope, they were in fact very slim.

It didn't help that it was his brother out there.

To his left stood Hilary, and to the right were Max and Kenny. All three were pale and tight-faced with worry. The only exception was Rei, who also stood to the left, but a small distance apart – he had come from a different part of the complex. His exterior spoke of calm which strained to stay in place, masking the insatiable need to get out there and to comb every hectare until he found the two.

"Alright, team." Hiro swallowed before he even attempted to keep talking – fear of the inevitable kept his mouth dry. "Let's get going."

As one unit they set off down the driveway, splitting into groups at the bottom. It was a prearranged system, so they could cover more ground – Kenny and Max would go together; Hiro with Hilary (seeing as he was the oldest and had to look after the girl); and Rei on his own. The Neko-jin hadn't bothered to complain – these forests were like the ones near his northern home, and he would move much faster through them by himself. Each group was armed with water, flare guns, and first-aid kits: "what-if" circumstances had already been discussed.

Once separating from the others of his team, Rei wasted very little time. As he moved deeper into the burnt forest, the Blader's initial hopes for any sort of survival diminished by the second. Everywhere around him, it was deathly quiet – there were no birds, no leaves for the wind to brush through. There were no animals fleeing from the presence of a human, and no company to talk with.

Overall, it was very creepy.

The ground was still hot, even under the soles of his shoes. Rei wasn't surprised when he looked down and encountered grey cloth instead of white – it would take forever to clean his robes.

Fate, however, had an actual surprise for him to run into.

Ducking under a precariously hanging branch, Rei flipped his long hair out of the way as he straightened. Not for the first time, the Chinese wiped his damp-with-sweat fringe from his eyes, leaving a long black streak of soot behind. Deciding to stop and catch his breath, Rei turned to get his bearings – and came face to face with a very unexpected being.

" – Kai?"

X X X

Kai's day had not been the best in history. Once he had heard about the forest fire, there was no stopping the Russian – against the wishes of his new team, Kai had prepped himself and headed out.

He knew he was tough, and knew what he was capable of – a fire like this was not going to stand in the way of his battle against Tyson.

After all, he wasn't in the Tournament for fun, now was he?

Once the hike began he had of course headed towards the river – even if the Champion didn't, hopefully Daichi had enough sense in his mind to know that a large body of water would be best, if he wanted to survive.

Approaching the river, Kai had only taken a handful of steps when a clump of red to the distant right caught his attention. Whipping around, a cold chill swept across him as it became clear that the red was in fact Daichi's hair - his small body was caught between a group of rocks and a couple of tree trunks; right in the centre of the river.

Kai moved quickly towards the bank, discarding his scarf and shoes before sliding off the bank to sink waist-deep into the water. The water was surprisingly luke-warm, and full of small branches or debris from further upstream.

Kai made his way across the river, allowing the current to tug him along with the water flow until he could grab onto the rocks for stability. It was fortunate that there hadn't been much rain over the last few months, otherwise it would have been too deep for him to do this.

Was he alive? A touch to his neck said yes - Kai could feel the weak pulse. Noting, though, that the boy was unconscious, he released the breath he hadn't realised was being held. "You fool," he told Daichi in a quiet mutter, gathering the boy up. With a great deal of effort, and more stumbles than he would have admitted amongst company, Kai struggled back to the bank. He hauled Daichi's limp form out of the water before clambering out himself; falling to all fours and gasping for breath once the task was complete.

The jungle-boy hadn't stirred once during the whole thing, which made the Russian a teensy bit worried. Eager to keep moving, he forced himself to his feet once more, and gathered the boy's form in his arms. At a slow, dogged pace, Kai set off into the trees. The closest building would be the training facility – it would be doubtlessly be the Emergency Services' temporary HQ; thus the best place to head for help.

Once amongst the trees, it was plain that Kai didn't have eyes in the back of his head. Something overhead CRACKED ominously – he glanced upwards in time to see a log – no, a branch – plummet from above, pulled by gravity straight down towards himself and Daichi.

"Shit –"

Kai had no time to get out of the way. The best he could do was make a mad lunge for the side, holding onto Daichi's form tightly so the boy wouldn't sustain any more injuries.

The branch and Kai slammed into the ground at the same time, centimetres from each other. The impact was enough to stun Kai into unconsciousness – he didn't hear bones crack; feel the searing pain...nor see the darkness of the world around him.

And when Rei stumbled upon their two forms, he never heard the exclamation, either.

X X X

My ribs hurt.

It was a notion that sliced his hazy consciousness in two, giving way for a storm of half-formed thoughts which swirled around in his head like a fog. Brilliant red eyes opened slowly, blinking once or twice until they could focus on the ceiling overhead.

Where is this?

Instinct (and a certain amount of childhood paranoia) told him that the place wasn't one he knew, which meant it could be dangerous. Naturally, the first thing he did was try to sit up. The idea was almost instantly put on hold: a sharp pain raced down one side of his body, triggered by the slight shift of weight onto an arm he'd been using. It buckled and Kai unexpectedly fell back to lay flat. He sucked in a breath until the pain subsided, refusing to wince or yelp.

What was that?

For the first time, Kai realised that his shirt had been replaced with neatly wrapped linen bandages. He didn't have the faintest idea who had done it or where it had come from, but it didn't take a genius to figure that he was injured somehow. Needless to say, this was something he found more than a little irritating; living in Russia (and later being captain of a world-class team) had given him a certain affinity for needing to know what was going on all the time.

So wisely remaining on his back, Kai kept one ear on the door and began digging for memories.

When those recollections came forth, they were unforgiving. The acrid smell of burning wood; the heat of raging fire; the thick, black smoke that made one suffocate... And Daichi's limp body, floating in the water.

Shit.

"Kai?"

He couldn't help the twitch that ran through him when someone else's voice probed the silent room. Without waiting to see who had spoken to him, Hiwatari pulled himself up, learning from the earlier mistakes and treating the injury carefully. Despite his efforts it still stung like all hell, but this time he'd expected it: that made all the difference to his body language.

He scanned the room until he found the doorway - and the form standing there: Rei.

"How're you feeling?" The youth held a tray in both hands, a glass of water and a bowl appearing to be the only things on it. He was watching with an anxious expression that Kai didn't like; this calmness felt surreal for a reason he didn't yet know.

What have I missed?

For Rei, the only answer was an inquest of Kai's own. "What's going on?" He could tell from the forced smile that Rei had expected a question like that: Kai felt a twinge of annoyance that he was becoming predictable. It was covered up with an impatient add-on to the question, "Well?"

"You shouldn't be sitting up," the neko-jin told him quietly, moving further into the room. He stopped next to the futon and knelt, the tray balanced perfectly by one hand whilst he offered the glass to Kai.

"The last thing I'm concerned about is my health," was the answer. Despite the tone, the glass was taken with wordless gratitude.

"You got hit by a tree," Rei reminded him, settling on the floor. "And earned a few injured ribs. I'd reconsider that, you know."

"My question hasn't been answered."

Kai would never admit it, even when he reflected on this scene later – but when Rei's only response was a soft sigh and a murmur of 'I know', he felt a twinge of fear. He chose to stay quiet now, until the other could answer. A blind man could have seen that Rei was composing himself, working his way to saying something that he would dread.

"We found you about two days ago, just after the fire was put out. Daichi's a little burnt but he's alright, he's walking around already." Kai watched two of Rei's fingers fiddle with the end of his hair, something that he'd never seen him do before – did it mean he was hiding something? After all, this was very interesting information to learn, but he'd skipped out on the one thing that Kai wanted to know.

As things were, he had only set foot in that forest for one reason – to find the Champion.

So where was Tyson?

"That's not everything," the youth said warily.

Rei let out another sigh, this one defeated. Kai found himself watching in fascination as the Beyblader, normally so composed and calm, fidgeted a little more, moved as if to stand up and then changed his mind… He scratched his nose and he stared at the floor. Then he looked up to the ceiling, took a deep breath, and looked him in the eye.

"We found him yesterday. The fire made it hard, but… He's dead."

He's dead?

It rung through Kai's ears as his eyes widened in shock. He found himself unable to say anything, transfixed by the fragile look Rei was giving him: the look that threatened a shattering of composure if he so much as dared to challenge this devastating truth.

He's not allowed to be dead.

Some part of Kai's brain flicked a switch to connect his confused mind to his tongue once more. The first words out were ones that hadn't paid an ounce of attention to the frailty of the situation. "I don't believe you."

"Kai…" Rei's shoulders slumped, his eyes misting over with the threat of tears. Still, Kai couldn't look away. "We found Dragoon in his hands."

How can he be dead?

It was a suffocating thought that thickly clouded his mind, closing his throat and endangering the tight control that Kai kept over himself at every waking moment.

With a start, he realised that Rei was getting up, taking the tray with him. He'd lost track of time and, it seemed, the ability to speak at all – he could only watch as the fellow Beyblader made his way to the door, pausing there to look back over his shoulder.

"The funeral's on Thursday. I'm sorry, Kai."

The click of the shutting door put a definitive end to the conversation.

Kai sat forward, ignoring the way his ribs protested the motion. He lifted the glass of water still in his hand to rest it against his forehead soothing a faint headache that he could feel. "So what am I supposed to do now?" he muttered quietly. "How can I be the best if I can't defeat you, Tyson?" He straightened a little, fingers slipping into a pocket and pulling out Dranzer. Fingers pressed it tightly into his palm, watched absently by the Russian. "I'm going to have to start finding a way, aren't I?" Bracingly, Kai pulled himself to his feet, where he wavered for a moment until his injury quieted.

He started for the door, head held high in a refusal to give in to either his physical wound or this newer one; this situation that said the world's Champion was no more. His gut feeling said that Tyson wasn't gone – no matter what the others said, or did, or wanted him to think, they couldn't change that notion. He wasn't going to give in to this; he was going to be the best and he was going to defeat Tyson to do it.

"You watch yourself, Champion," Kai said, looking to the ceiling as he walked. "I'm coming for you."

X X X

It was a sober group that gathered their suitcases that day. There had barely been any time at all to unpack them in the first place and now, in violent contrast to the laughing, bubbling collection of Beybladers who had arrived only a day and a half ago, they all bundled into the van without a word. Not one of them threw so much as a glance over his shoulder towards the forest that had claimed Tyson's life.

Kai watched them from his room, arms folded and expression stony. As the doors slammed shut and they departed, his gaze swept across to the trees which surrounded the facility. From this high up, the acres of forest seemed to go on forever. In pockets and long streaks, one could see the telltale signs of the forest fire that had ripped through the landscape. It would take generations for the scar to heal, something that mattered little to those in closest affiliation with the former World Champion.

They had scars of a different nature now; ones that plunged deep under the surface, changing the hurt to something far more personal.

X X X

To be continued.