Switchblade: Zero-Eight.

X X X

It's 4.27 in the morning. I'm standing braced against the sink in a hotel bathroom, peering into the mirror whilst one hand rubs at my bleary eyes.

"Rei Kon, you look like crap," I declare in a mutter.

I'm probably the only one on this floor who's awake. After the day just gone, I should by all accounts be exhausted: sleeping like most would be.

But I'm not. I haven't slept a wink since returning to the hotel after Tai's match against Abigail – though not from lack of trying. I just can't get Kai's voice out of my head; the steadfast declaration that instead of Hiro, he is going to battle BioVolt's number one minion, and in doing so turn the Beyblading world up-side down.

"Or maybe right-side up," I add quietly. "If we're talking about the world from Kai's point of view, it's already up-side down." It's easy to ignore the fact I'm talking to myself.

An attempt to run my hand through my hair only ends with more of it sticking in a whole new variety of unflattering angles, and a sound of disgust for the effort. I surrender the effort of trying to look presentable – even though there's no audience save myself – and I put my back to the mirror. Shuffling out of the pokey bathroom and into the main room, I'm greeted by the bright red LED lights of the clock next to the bed. Halfway to the light switch, I pause. Something's rattling.

In a flash of realization, my eyes land on the door the door – the handle's moving.

I stare at it in disbelief, wondering why on earth someone would be trying to break into my room. It's overcome swiftly with a wash of indignant anger. Forgetting about the lights, I march to the door and yank at the handle, pulling it open in one swift move.

"Can I help you?" I demand, my eyes falling on the crouching lock picker. Blue hair – smirking eyes. I recognise Kai in a heartbeat.

"Good morning," he greets calmly.

I take a long, deep breath to leash my temper, pull the door the rest of the way open, and take several measured steps back. It's an invitation for him to enter, since that was obviously his aim to begin with.

Kai stands and steps in, shutting the door behind him like a well-trained houseguest... except for the lock-picking part.

The moment it's shut, I don't miss a step. "It's four-thirty in the morning, Kai."

He's pocketing his tools, paying more attention to them than he is to me. When he speaks, it's as if he never heard me at all. "Would you like to go train?" he asks, as though it's the most normal thing in the world to be standing in your friend's hotel room at this hour.

"Train?" I repeat, not bothering to hide my surprise at such a suggestion. "It's New York. It's winter. It's not even light. You want to go for a run?"

He shrugs, unruffled. "It's not that cold." Of course he'd say that – he comes from a much colder climate.

There's also the theory that Tyson always used to stand by, one that the rest of us only agreed with after a training session. Kai just wasn't born on earth.

Realising my distraction, I put a hand to my head and sigh heavily. "Damnit, Kai. Why couldn't you just knock, like normal people?"

"I thought you might be sleeping," he replies. Then he frowns lightly, watching me. "It would seem I was wrong."

I'm tempted to laugh at the idea of Kai admitting that he isn't right about something. My over-tired cynicism wins out by telling me that it's really not that funny, so I tell him, "I've been up for hours."

"Hnh," Kai grunts. His stare is becoming unnerving. I can never tell what he's thinking when he looks at me, even at the best of times. All I can do is hazard a guess and right now, that guess doesn't have a flattering answer.

All I can do is shrug vaguely. "I don't sleep well in hotels," I offer as an excuse. It's too weak to pass scrutiny if Kai sets his mind to it: strangely, though, he accepts it with a short nod.

"If you say so." It seems that he's done with the conversation, and he indicates the door for a second time. "Well?"

"'Well' what?" I ask. Even though I already know the answer, I'm trying to stall for time until I can find the right excuse to avoid going with him.

"Training?"

"It's too cold for that," I answer, trying not to pout. He doesn't soften, because the normal, sleep-healthy version of myself wouldn't hesitate to agree – and we both know it. We dissolve into waiting in silence for either side to forfeit, until he breaks it by assuring me, "We won't be out for very long."

Even being as tired as I am, it's a tempting prospect. Kai expects this, and he waits.

"… Alright," I agree with a grumble, and turn to find my shoes.

Kai says nothing, but I know that he knew I would cave.

X X X

His legs are tingling all over; he can feel the blood rushing through them as his circulation works in time with his breathing. He's sweating but only very lightly; in the cool morning air it quickly dries. After a steady twenty-minute run, he stretches out his legs as he waits for Rei to take a drink from the water bubbler. His companion has been suffering the exercise in silence – Kai knows that it's because Rei's a little less fit than he's willing to admit. A sleepless night has become the basis of a convenient excuse; there's a wordless agreement that it's best to leave the pretence at that.

He continues his smooth pattern of warm-down exercises as Rei returns and copies him; their breath creating little clouds in the cold early morning air.

It's this kind of thing that Kai enjoys. Rei is good company when he's more like his old self, and the cool winter morning is refreshing. The air between them is comfortably silent; in a way that would be awkward between any other people. It's a bit after five; there's a shred of light on the horizon, just enough to throw a watery light on the two young adults alone in the little park.

They seem to have a habit of this – of long interludes that hold nothing but silence; as if either of them spoke, all their thoughts, memories, missed conversations would just... pour out. The quiet is safer, because you don't have to say anything. You can't be misunderstood. But eventually, he breaks the silence.

"I'm going to Russia on Friday."

Rei peers at him from under a raised elbow. "Hiro agreed to let you do the Exhibition match?"

Kai shrugs. "He will." He pauses deliberately after the flippant remark, returning the look that Rei's giving him. "I want you to come too."

There's a pause in the Neko-jin, before he says cautiously, "I'm going to the Finals anyway."

Kai nods, choosing to ignore the warning signs that hint at the thin ice he's about to step onto. "I know. But I want you to come with me."

In Rei, the pause turns to hesitation. When he does find words, they're rushed, blurted. "What? – Why?"

Kai finds the need to choose his words carefully. "Because I will need your help," he answers.

Rei's watching him with a sharp look. "With what?"

"BioVolt." It's only one word, but those three syllables contain a story that Kai can't put into words.

It doesn't matter – Rei understands immediately. "–you're after Black Dranzer." It's a sharp, swift accusation. Rei's quick thinking pleases him until he remembers that the astute quality is not working in his favour for the moment.

For Kai, the realisation brings about prickly words, the kind that come out of his mouth before his mind can choose whether it wants to say them or not. "If Black Dranzer breaks free, innocent people will be put in danger, as well as the not-so-innocent. The repercussions will be huge, Rei, if Tyson fails to control that Bitbeast."

Rei stiffens as though someone's just poured icy water over him. He's silent for a long time and Kai waits apprehensively, knowing in an instant what has triggered the reaction and strangely unwilling to prompt his friend.

Finally, there are words.

"You mean Tai," Rei says cautiously.

Kai allows himself to sigh. "No. – Yes."

"Which is it, Kai?" The words are so slow that he can tell Rei is within a hair's breadth of dumping the topic altogether.

Kai does his best to try and stay relaxed and in control of this suddenly disastrous conversation. "Both. Rei, Tyson and –"

Rei shakes his head, that cynical part of him – the part that Kai dislikes – taking obdurate roots. "No, Kai. If the only reason you're going after this Tai kid is because of a ghost, then I'm sorry, but you're on your own. Hiro is working on the Black Dranzer issue. You're not needed, so leave the kid alone. "

He allows himself to shrug. "I'm not convinced of that," he answers, stubbornly holding his belief – his trump card – with both hands.

His friend is rubbing his forehead with a hand. "Kai," Rei says carefully, "Maybe you're right and Tai is not fit to handle Black Dranzer. But I'm not going to help you derail some kid's dream of being the World Champion, because you think he just happens to be someone who's dead. Sorry, Kai. I'm not doing this."

Kai isn't sure how to look at the situation: is Rei accepting defeat by allowing him to continue on this path without stopping him, or is he claiming a victory by standing on principle? He doesn't know and with every step that Rei is taking away from him, it seems to matter less and less against the fact that he now has to change the world on his own.

The morning's a lot colder after Rei's left.

X X X

"—Ouch! Stephen's Metal Griffolyon is gonna be feeling that one in the morning."

"He sure is, Marley. But it's all good news for Vanessa, 'cause that means she moves onto the next round!"

"Yup! And when we regroup in Moscow, she'll be up against a Beyblade that'll be a real challenge."

"Ooh, I can't wait to see how that one turns out –"

At the push of a button, the voices of Marley and Stretch cut to static, then silence. Hiro wrinkled his nose, and moved further into the lab that Max and Kenny were temporarily calling home. He moved leisurely, stopping to examine a new part or a sheet of unfamiliar data. He reasoned that anything that his two scientists wanted to hide would already be hidden – though he doubted a step like that would be necessary.

He reached the end of an aisle and stopped to casually observe the surroundings, noting with a small amount of humour that the clear counter tops meant Kenny hadn't quite settled in yet.

That was just as well – the tournament was moving on, which meant that they would be too.

A blonde-haired head appeared in the doorway across the room, adopting a familiar and pleasant grin as Hiro nodded his greeting. "Hey Max."

"Hallo Mister Chairman," Max answered in a drawl, stepping out of the adjoining room. "Shouldn't you be off doing important business-related things?"

Hiro waved a dismissive hand. "They have ways of finding me if they need to. 'Til then, I reserve the right to hide away."

"Ah, so we're your sanctuary then."

"Kind of. Kenny around?"

Max nodded and indicated the room behind him. "He's in here, testing Metal Driger's agility."

Hiro pursed his lips and moved forwards. "Actually... there might be a bit of a complication with that."

Stepping to one side, Max frowned. "How come?" he asked.

"Kai... wants to do it instead of me."

"What, the exhibition match?" Max's surprised tone neatly summed the situation up. After the fire, Kai had literally disappeared from the Beyblade world overnight. He had stayed in contact – kind of – but only so they didn't go looking for him. So for him to want to battle... it meant coming out of retirement, and that meant something big. "Have you agreed?"

"Not yet," Hiro answered, walking towards his friend. "But he'll do it anyway, so it doesn't matter if I agree or not."

"Has he said why?" Max was still frowning as he moved to one side so that Hiro could fit through the doorway.

Hiro shook his head. "No, but I think it's to do with this Blader," he replied, scanning the room. They were on some kind of little balcony, or viewing platform. There was a coil of steps that wound downwards and out of sight, leading down to what he guessed to be a Beydish. He could hear Metal Driger not too far away; it was enough for him to assume he was right.

"The Blader?" Max huffed a sigh as he led the way to the edge of the platform. "I thought he was just obsessive about the Beyblade."

"So did I. My secretary's working on a new file for the kid, since Kai stole my first one. When that's done we'll be able to look for what Kai saw in him." Hiro followed Max, a hand laying itself on the railing as he surveyed the room below.

It was made up as a miniature stadium, with a Beydish and two podiums for fighters to stand on. Entirely clinical, it was done in shades of grey and white. The rim of the dish had aluminium cans lined up at irregular intervals; Metal Driger was a blur as it moved around them, directed by the young man kneeling next to his laptop. Hiro had to grin at the sight. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen Kenny not working on something.

"Hey, Chief!" Max called, breaking away from the balcony edge to tap down one or two steps. "Look who came to visit."

Kenny glanced up from his work long enough to lift a hand in greeting. "Hi Hiro!"

Hiro returned it with a wave of his own, moving to the stairs as well. "Max said you were working on Metal Driger's agility," he said, once he'd reached the bottom.

Kenny nodded, tapping the pause on his recordings before standing. "We're making great progress, and we should be done in time for Moscow."

Hiro winced, and rubbed the side of his face sheepishly. "About that..."

"Kai's doing it," Max interjected.

"The exhibition match?"

"Yeah."

"He's sort of taken it upon himself," Hiro explained, "And I can't stop him. I could try, but Kai'll just do it his way anyway."

"So you don't need Metal Driger to be in top shape for the match," Kenny said slowly.

Max wore an apologetic smile as he answered. "... Sorry, Chief."

"Hm. Okay. Do you want me to look Dranzer over?" the scientist asked. If either of his friends thought he was handling the rejection well, neither was game enough to make a point of it.

Hiro shrugged. "If you can find him, be my guest. But before you do that, I have another request."

Kenny was on his feet by now, laptop tucked under one arm. "Sure," he answered, regardless of what the request actually was. Hiro was good at what he did – he didn't ask for things without solid motivation.

They were the kind of attributes that had made him a good Chairman and a great coach.

Max indicated the Lab upstairs. "Why don't you get your data set up for download, Chief? Hiro and me will bring the other stuff up."

Kenny nodded and moved off. "I'll see you upstairs."

As the young man jogged up the stairs, Max collected the aluminium cans. "He took that well," the blond said quietly. "He's been working on your Driger for months."

"I know," Hiro answered as he recalled his Beyblade, catching it neatly. "But I think he'll like what I have in store for the both of you."

"What is it?" Max asked, stepping down from the rim around the Beydish.

Hiro grinned, pocketing Driger as he walked towards the stairs. "Come upstairs and see."

X X X

By the time they reached upstairs, Kenny had managed to clear a space on an overcrowded bench top, leaving a pile of tools and old printouts shoved to one side, where they teetered threateningly on the edge. The screen was a blur of colour and download bars, the data transferring from the little machine and onto the larger desktop next to it. Kenny was tapping away at both keyboards, flicking from one to the other with each new dialogue box.

Wandering up from behind, Max deposited the cans in a nearby bin, whilst Hiro took a seat at an adjacent terminal. He swung idly on the chair as he waited, hands playing loosely with Metal Driger.

"You take care of that," Max commented, returning and taking a seat closer to Kenny. "I don't think he's quite finished working on it."

Hiro grinned in answer, running a thumb over the new attack ring. "I'll remember," he replied in a drawl

Kenny pushed away from the desk and swivelled around to face his friends. "Ready!" he declared. "What's up your sleeve, Hiro?"

The Chairman sat back, turning Driger over in his hands. "I have a repair job for the two of you," he began, "A big one. The only thing that wasn't damaged was the BitBeast – everything else will need work."

Max nodded, unconcerned. They did this sort of thing frequently: Repairs and Maintenance was slowly being merged into Research and Development, making it more their department by the month. "So what's the deadline?"

Hiro took a breath. "The finals."

"- What?!"

Kenny sat up straight in his chair. "That's less than a week, Hiro!"

"I know, I'm sorry," Hiro replied hastily, "I should have realised earlier that it would be necessary."

The little scientist sighed and slumped back in his chair. Despite the sudden workload, Hiro could tell that he wasn't too upset. This was why Kenny took the job in the first place – pressure. Deadlines. Things that put you on Autopilot, so you didn't have to think. "Alright... I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Kenny," Hiro answered with a grin. "I'll make it up to you."

"Where's the Beyblade?" Max asked, "Still with the Blader?"

Hiro shook his head, pocketing Metal Driger before pulling out a small box. "It's here." The lid was hinged and was easy to flip out of the way, the contents then held out in presentation.

Max took one look at it and found himself on his feet, pulling the box from his boss's hand. "—Hiro."

Kenny followed. "How long have you been carrying that?" he asked, running a thumb over the twisted, charred remains. Dragoon glowed faintly in recognition, the only piece that hadn't been ruined by the fire.

Hiro rubbed his nose, not willing to give a definitive answer. "A while. Can you do it?"

Kenny gently prised Dragoon from the box, examining the Beyblade's every angle as he turned it over in his hands. "It'll be tough... I don't think there's anything that can be recycled. It'll have to be from scratch..."

"So that's a yes?"

Max smiled softly and answered, "Hiro, how could we refuse?"

Kenny nodded in agreement with his friend, then paused. "Just... why do you need it?"

"I... I don't know, honestly," Hiro replied with a shrug, "I just get the feeling that we're going to need it, especially if things go foul with Black Dranzer." He didn't mention that there was no-one here to actually /use/ Dragoon – no-one dreamt of 'inheriting' the Beyblade, and Tyson hadn't exactly had a successor. Daichi might have counted... but no-one had seen him in years.

Fortunately, neither Kenny nor Max seemed inclined to mention it either. Hiro could only hope that they felt what he felt – that something big was going to happen. Something life-changing. Maybe restoring Dragoon wouldn't do anything. Maybe it would. There was no way to tell.

"Hm. Alright." Max didn't press the issue, apparently satisfied with the answer. He moved off across the lab, grabbing his lab coat from a table. Parts had been strewn all over it, leaving grease marks and stains. They clinked as he pulled the coat out, tugging it on over his business clothes. Unlike Hiro, he liked to watch the matches when he could, and to do so he'd had to dress respectably. "Leave it with us, Hiro."

Kenny was already going in the other direction, arrested by the new task. "I'll get started on the diagnostics."

"We'll have it up and running by Finals," Max told Hiro confidently, logging into a computer. "We'll take good care of it."

Hiro nodded, leaving them to it as he back-tracked from the lab. "Thanks, guys."

There was no answer for the Chairman, just the sound of two men diving head-first into a project where there was no time for second chances.

X X X

To be continued.