Wind and air. Speed. No boundaries. Complete freedom.
The rewards of flying.
The gift of the sky.
Fly with me, is what it said. Fly with me.
"Kei? Kei?! Kei! KEI!"
"Emily, what are you doing?!"
"I don't know! I don't—kyaa!"
Emily flipped through the open air, her legs thrown over her head countless times. To any onlooker it would have looked absolutely amazing, to vault that high and that long in near absolute freefall. But for Kei and especially Emily it was a dangerously hilarious accident that could probably end in near disaster.
"Bloody hell," Kei mumbled, pushing off the nearest building in earnest yet still smiling regardless of the situation. It was actually rather funny.
In one swift motion the poor girl was tugged out of her rollercoaster ride, the scruff of her jacket held tightly in the other girl's gloved hand. They touched down on a flat rooftop and, to absorb the torque in the somersaults, Kei added three 360 turns, for purpose and for flourish, of course.
"Oh my god…" Kei let go of her friend and Emily collapsed onto her hands and knees, her back shaking as she breathed heavily. Kei couldn't stifle the laugh that burst from her mouth and backed away lest Emily seek revenge on her less than sympathetic reaction. "Oh my god, oh my god," she kept muttering. "I almost died. I could have died. I almost died. How am I not dead?"
"Because I'm brilliant," Kei said, squatting down and rolling on her ATs forward. She craned her head to try and see Emily's face. She was still grinning. "What happened back there?"
Emily sat back on her heels and covered her face with her hands, trying to gather her composure. When she spoke it was muffled and hurried.
"I tripped! I tripped right before taking the jump and, to catch myself, I slammed my right foot down on that radiator box thing and it jetted by ATs forward! Oh my god…"
Kei bowed her head and laughed as she rolled around, her goggles slipping down from her forehead and getting her dark hair in her face. She swatted the lot away and plopped down on her bottom.
"That's priceless," she breathed, shaking her head. "You, my friend, are pure entertainment."
Emily shot her a disapproving look. "Thank you, Kei. Thanks so much." She sighed. "Now do you see? This is why I want to train with you and not the team. I'd just embarrass myself in front of Kazu."
"No you wouldn't. You're not that bad, you know--,"
"But he's supposed to be the next Flame King! And then there's Ikki and Agito there too; three Kings watching me stumble on a simple jump? That's so pathetic."
Kei rolled her eyes and tugged the tie out of her hair. "You've already joined them in Parts War battles and they know you're a strong girl. It would be fine."
"Well, I want to do more than just fine," she snapped, but then caught herself and rubbed at her forehead, trying to offer an apologetic smile. "Sorry. I didn't mean to yell."
Kei shrugged. "No offense taken." Simultaneously the two girls looked up at the night sky, the stars blotted out by the neon lights of the city.
"Do you not like training me, then?" Emily asked, still looking up. "Is that why you're pushing me to train with the team?"
"Not at all," Kei said easily. "We've been friends a long time, and when you joined Kogarasumaru I only ever saw you and Yayoi at school. So this is a nice change of pace. It's just that…" She blew at her bangs and leaned back on her hands. "They're your team, you know? You grow together as a team when you train together as a team. Besides, like you said, you potentially have three Kings on your side. And especially with Agito there…. They would probably be able to teach you a lot more than I can."
A pause followed that short spiel, one where Emily couldn't help but stare at her friend.
"You know, if they ever saw you ride, they'd probably ask you to join too," she said practically. "You could--,"
"No," Kei said abruptly but quietly. "I couldn't."
"You know they're always looking for people. I mean, with Ikki doing his own crazy things and getting into random fights, and Agito in the hospital to often, they wouldn't mind having a good stand-in, so you wouldn't have to always participate in the battles."
But Kei was shaking her head. "No, I couldn't do that," she said, lying down and crossing her arms behind her head. Emily stared down at her, still frowning.
"Why the hell not?"
"Because," she replied. "Because of Kazu, and Ikki and even Ringo. And Agito." Confusion filled her friend's face.
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't know," was the airy reply. "What am I talking about?"
Itsuki turned in his seat to look over his shoulder, his feet thrown up on his desk. Behind him Kei Hakase was waving from the back of the class, her headphones dangling below her chin as she smiled at them.
"Hey," he said, raising a lazy hand at her in acknowledgement. Kazu, who was lounging against his desk, smiled and waved too. "What's up?"
"I just wanted to congratulate you and your team on the win this weekend," she said good-naturedly. "It was really amazing."
"You went to the Parts War battle?" Kazu asked, his brow furrowed beneath his beanie. She nodded.
"I was there at the Behemoth battle too. That was really something."
"I didn't know you were into ATs," he said in surprise, looking down at his friend and then back at her. "Talk about a small world."
"How long?" Ikki asked, twisting around further in his seat, no longer pretending to be interested in the conversation but now was genuinely interested. Kei shrugged.
"A few months only. Not too long."
"She's really good," Emily quickly interjected, joining the exchange as she went to stand next to Kazu. "I've seen her." She looked back at Kei and grinned knowingly. Kei only made a face.
"I'm okay," she said. Ikki turned to Emily.
"How good?" he asked. She smiled.
"Really, really good."
"Are you part of a team?" Kazu asked, casually shifting his weight towards Emily. Kei wondered if he was even aware of the motion but saw no noticeable change on his face.
She shook her head and leaned back in her own chair, staring down at her mp3 player in the hopes that it would signal the near end of the conversation. She just wanted to congratulate them on a win worth congratulating, that was all.
"Haven't been asked?"
"Haven't accepted," she said with a grin, still staring down fixedly at her music playlists.
"You should see her ride. She can do some insane tricks." Emily went on and Kei rolled her eyes. What a card, playing her up to the Storm King like a personal advocate. She laughed under her breath but made a mental note to trip her again later that night when they would be practicing together.
"No, they're more borderline crazy tricks, not full-fledged insane," she called back, laughing. She raised her headphones to her ears. "Anyway, nice win on Saturday. You're speed," she said, pointing to Kazu, "is sick. And tell the cute one that I'm a big fan."
"The cute one? You talking to me?" Ikki replied, pointing at himself and smiling in a self-satisfied way. Kei smiled wider and shook her head to his disappointment. She covered her left eye and nodded to the doorway.
"That cute one," she said, before leaning back and closing her eyes to be drowned in her music.
The three friends turned to the door to see Agito saunter in, his hands jammed in his pockets as he scrutinized the rest of the class scattered and grouped around the room.
"What are you doing here?" Ikki demanded, kicking at him as he passed by the desk. Agito turned and glared hateful daggers at the cocky crow but restrained himself enough not to retaliate.
"Don't fucking touch me," he hissed lowly, more out of habit than true vehemence. Emily leaned around Kazu, one eyebrow raised questioningly.
"Really, what are you doing here, Agito? Usually Akito is the one to go to school with us."
"I need a reason now to walk into a room? He's tired so I'm letting him rest," came the agitated response. The Fang King dropped down into his seat and teetered back in his chair, balancing himself on only two legs. Kazu smirked.
"That's awfully nice of you."
"Hey, sunshine," Ikki teased, leaning towards Agito. "You've got a new fangirl to add to your ranks. Someone thinks you're cute." Emily giggled but Agito wasn't pleased.
"Fuck. Does it look like I care?"
"This one's not that bad though, and she rides AT," Ikki went on. When Agito finally turned to look at him he jerked his head to the back of the classroom, indicating Kei. The smaller boy turned in his seat to look, his single eye falling on the dark-haired girl sitting at the last desk in his row, her eyes closed as she listened to music. Ikki, Kazu and Emily all stared at him in anticipation, all of them wondering if he'd react in his simple agitation or else in real outrage. What they didn't expect was for his eye to widen in a strange mixture of surprise and hatred before he quickly turned back around, his head bowed low and his teeth clenched.
"What's the matter, Agito?" Emily asked, oddly concerned with the reaction. She looked at Kazu and Kazu looked back, both of them puzzled. "Agito--?"
"You're all a bunch of fucking retards, you know that?" he hissed, turning away from them to face the wall. "Stupid shitheads without a clue to what's going on."
Ikki, Kazu and Emily all exchanged looks, but none had anything to say.
Kei opened one eye and gazed down her row, smiling at the dark blue head turned purposely towards the wall. Fang King, she thought. A fang by any other name would still be as morbidly enticing. And then there's the birth of the Storm King…
Kei opened both her eyes and leaned her head back as her headphones were gently lifted away. She gazed up into the bespectacled gaze of Ringo Noyamano and smiled.
"Hey. You can call me Kei, you know. I'm pretty sure we've known each other long enough."
The girl shrugged tiredly and set the headphones down on the desktop. Kei raised an eyebrow as she sat down in the chair next to her. Now this was a genuine surprise. Ringo usually never spoke to her in public.
"I haven't seen you around that much. You know…out there," she said, glancing slyly out the window. Kei looked towards the window as well, saw the open sky and completely understood.
"I thought that was the way you wanted it," she said matter-of-factly. "I thought that was the way Sleeping Forest preferred it."
Ringo involuntarily flinched at the mentioning of Sleeping Forest but kept her composure. Kei had made sure to say the name quietly.
"Yeah, I know. It's your discretion, actually, that I wanted to ask you about."
Kei ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair, pushing it out of her eyes, making a mental note to get it cut soon. "This is about congratulating Ikki in front of everyone, isn't it?" she said with a grimace. Ringo just stared knowingly at her. "Yeah, I can understand that. I'm sorry; that was a little reckless. I just figured, you know, what with my hiatus in 'that' world, I thought it would be okay." She tried to look humbling but Ringo replied with only silence. Kei sighed. "Sorry, sorry. I'd hate to fight with you, Ringo, so I'll keep my silence." She turned back to her headphones, picking them back up. Noyamano leaned forward though, dropping her tone considerably.
"Can I ask you one thing?"
Kei looked back at her. "Of course you can." But the other girl was adamant in not making eye contact.
"How many offers have you gotten? For Kogarasumaru."
Kei raised her chin and smiled, but not at all in a menacing manner. "A lot. Almost as much as I've gotten for Sleeping Forest." That statement actually got a laugh out of the quiet Thorn Queen. Kei was glad. "But the amounts never compared, you know. The Forest still holds the most value." Ringo nodded but shifted awkwardly. "You want to know how many offers I've had for the Kings."
The two girls turned to look at them all near the front of the classroom. "Even without the Flame Regalia I've had about two for Kazu. I've had more than what is reasonable for Ikki." She felt the other girl stiffen at that. "But the Fang King is still, by far, at the top of the list."
"Above me?" Ringo joked, surprising Kei with her lightness. Kei laughed. "No, no, of course not. But he's at the same level, with you and Kilik, of course."
"Of course." Ringo let her gaze wander off before something caught her eye and made her shoot to her feet, turning abruptly away from Kei. "Anyway, thanks for telling me. I'll…well, I'll talk to you later." And then she was gone, striding across the room towards Yayoi.
Kei turned to see what had surprised her and found herself looking back into the menacing stare of Agito himself. He was looking directly at her, his expression hard to read. She was so caught off-guard by him that Kei felt herself physically jump in her seat and blush all over. As a way out she quickly donned her headphones again and turned completely around in her chair. Regardless, she still felt his icy gaze on her back.
"What are we doing Ikki?"
Ikki pushed Onigiri over so he could get a better look around the corner. "We're going to follow her."
"Because she's good but won't admit it," Emily injected behind Kazu. Buccha looked down at her.
"How do you know?"
"I've trained with her a few times. I didn't tell you guys because she thought me training without the team was awkward."
"Why would it be awkward?"
"I don't know, but that was her excuse."
Kazu leaned farther out from behind Ikki and forward. "What is she doing now?"
The five friends all squinted to get a better look as they spied on the unknowing Hakase. She was sitting on the steps of the school's front entrance, bent down over her feet. They had watched as she waited for the courtyard to empty before pulling her ATs out of her bag and slipping them on. Now, however, she was doing more to them than just pulling on the straps or tying the laces.
"She has tools like Kururu and Hako," Kazu said. "Is she also a tuner?"
"I don't know," Emily answered. "She didn't tell me, at least."
"She's not fixing her gears," Ikki observed. "She's doing something else."
Kei finally straightened away from her ATs and tucked her tools back into her bag before getting to her feet, shouldering her book bag and duffel. Buccha quickly gathered the team and shoved them out of view so they wouldn't be seen. The five pressed themselves against the wall, waiting.
"How will we know if she's left or not?" Onigiri demanded. Ikki kicked him in the head.
"We'll be able to hear her ATs, idiot," he said, but Emily was shaking her head as she stepped out and peered around the corner.
"No way! She's gone."
Everyone slid out to the courtyard, looking around. Kei was nowhere to be seen.
"I didn't even hear her motor start!"
"Wouldn't we have at least heard her wheels on the gravel, even if she hadn't started the motors?"
"She's not even anywhere in the sky!"
"Where did she go?"
"Everyone, fan out!"
But before a single person could heed Ikki's command a blast of music erupted somewhere from the rooftops to their left, loud enough that it echoed across the buildings and surrounded the group. Everyone jumped involuntarily.
"What was that?" Onigiri demanded. Emily frowned.
"That's her favorite song. She's always playing that music when we train. I think…I think that's her!"
"Is she lugging around a stereo in her duffel?" Kazu demanded but Buccha was shaking his head.
"No, no. That's what she was doing to her ATs. I was wondering why she was messing with the motor and the memory stick. She's playing the music through the gear's technology."
"She turned her skates into surround sound?" Ikki asked skeptically. Buccha nodded. "Weird, but whatever. Now we can follow her. Let's go!"
Everyone nodded and took off, launching into the sky to pursue the trail of electric guitar strums and rumbling base beats.
Agito watched from the school rooftop as his teammates took off in pursuit of that bumbling racket. He frowned and cast his gaze forward over the building tops, squinting into the lowering sunlight. He could just barely make out her silhouette in the distance. He scowled.
"Why did you call me out here?"
He turned only slightly as Ringo came to stand next to him on the edge of the rooftop, her ATs slung over her shoulder. She was looking at him warily.
"It's not like I enjoy your presence," he said in a hiss. She rolled her eyes and ignored the venom. "This is fucking business."
"I know. What do you want?"
He crossed his arms. "Why were you talking to that girl?"
"Did I fucking stutter?" he snapped. "Why were you talking to that girl today?"
Ringo fiddled habitually with her glasses. "You mean Hakase?"
"I mean that bitch Kei." She cast him an annoyed look but said nothing. She had gotten used to his terminology over time but that didn't mean she approved of it. "What were you doing talking to her?"
She already knew what he was asking without actually having to hear it. The anger in his voice betrayed the smallest hint of anxiety.
"Like hell I'm worried--,"
"You are, Agito, and I know so. I'm worried too. So is Kilik." He fell silent and just scowled at the horizon. "But you don't have to worry about her. She can't touch you."
"I know she can't touch me. No one can touch me."
"I mean she won't try to either. She won't attempt to come near any of us."
He turned to stare at her for a moment before uncrossing his arms and sliding back with his right foot. "How the hell can you sound so certain?"
She pulled in a breath, held it, and then let it out. "I trust her, I guess." Agito grinned but not at all in a humorous way.
And he took off without another word.
Wind and air. Speed. No boundaries. Complete freedom.
The rewards of flying.
The gift of the sky.
Fly with me, is what it said. Fly with me.
She skated right off the edge of one of the buildings and rode the wall right down to the street, using her momentum to swing around a streetlight and down a narrow ally. Her music rose and fell with each move, the song blaring from the wheels that projected her.
She reached up a hand, pushed down on the motor and used the boost of speed to hook onto a pole arm and project herself upward again so that she was flying atop the roofs again, the open sky engulfing her. Grapevine, left over right, leap the narrow gap, sidestep the water tower, avoid the electrical wires and grind along the edge. Make it intricate but make it fun.
"Fancy fucking footwork."
It was a bit embarrassing for someone who had been riding as long as her to stumble at the smallest surprise, but the fact that the surprise just had to be Wanijima made the surprise so much more shocking. And it wasn't the sweet Wanijima either.
She tried to catch herself midfall and ended up executing a wonky peppermill, her hands splayed out on the hard surface of the rooftop as she stopped herself from planting her face into the cement. When she had regained her balance she looked up to see Agito standing over her, his brilliant blue hair illuminated in the orange sunlight and his lone visible eye staring down in narrowed speculation. She felt her heart drop to her stomach.
"A-…Agito," she stammered, trying to smile at him. He didn't so much as breathe in response and her stillborn smile fell. "Hey." She rose to her feet, dusting off her clothes. When she met his steely gaze she noticed that he had grown from when he first joined their school. Now he was only a few inches shorter than her. "Wh-what are you doing here--,"
"What's your deal?" he immediately demanded. He said it in a level tone, nearly monotonous, but it still boomed in her ears and she couldn't help the shiver in her spine. He was the Fang King after all.
"Have I a deal?" came her meager reply, and she inwardly awarded herself a few brownie points. Banter at a time and situation like this was admirable. Agito seemed to disagree.
"What is your fucking deal?" he repeated, gathering strength in his voice. But with that strength came urgency and Kei understood that his urgency came from worry. He was worried, and he was worried because of her. That gave her a little power.
"I don't have one, Wanijima," she said easily, hiking her bags higher on her shoulders. He eyed her burden and she lifted her chin proudly. Yes, I skate with these heavy things, she thought proudly. I'm just that good. "And you don't have to look at me like that, you know."
"Like I'm your enemy."
"Everyone is my enemy." He glared at her ATs which still blasted their music. "Can you shut that thing off? Fuck."
"Huh? Oh, sorry." She pressed down on her heels and twisted a little to the left, shutting off the music. She saw Agito staring at her skates and she smiled. "Cool, aren't they? I modified them myself."
"I don't give a shit about that," he said. "I thought they said you rode the Silent Road. That stupid racket isn't exactly silent."
Kei's mood immediately lightened, a genuine smile breaking her face. "You've actually heard about me? You actually know who I am? You've never noticed me in your class before. Well, then again, Akito's in class more often."
"You've never said a fucking thing until today," he corrected. "You don't usually notice a wall ornament until it starts singing in your face." She laughed at that even though she knew he hadn't intended it to be funny. "Why were you talking to Crow earlier today?"
Kei shifted easily from foot to foot, her fingers fiddling with the hem of her uniform skirt. She tugged at her spandex shorts and wrinkled her nose, all her movements a method of stalling. "I just wanted to congratulate your team on the win this weekend, that's all. Nothing more."
"I asked you why you were talking to Crow!" he yelled, losing his patience. "Now answer me!"
"Agito, calm down." Without any hesitation Kei reached out and grasped him by the shoulders in a physical attempt to calm him. Like a knee jerk reaction he reached up to swat her arms away and push her back, but she was already letting go, swerving around and ducking so that she stood behind him. "No need to be so feisty."
"Get the hell away from me!"
"Now, now." She dropped her bags on the ground behind him and completely embraced him from behind, using what little height she had over him to pin his arms to his sides and double him forward. This way, if he tried straightening to his feet to shove her aside, he'd have to accelerate his ATs out from under himself. Not exactly a dignified way of escape.
"Get the fuck off of me you stupid bitch!"
"You wanted an answer, didn't you? So listen carefully, Fang King." She laughed heartily into his hair. He went rigid at the action and the lean muscles in his arms flexed menacingly. She knew he wanted nothing more that to slice her to pieces. "I've gotten countless offers from so many happily rich Storm Riders to take down Kogarasumaru, you know." Agito went unnaturally still. "I've even had special orders for Kazu and, of course, a large offer for Crow." She leaned closer to his ear. "But everyone's number one will always be you."
His fingers curled into fists. "Well, fuck. That means I do have to get rid of you now…"
"Not so, not so, baby shark," she cooed. "Because someone very, very special has made me an even greater offer not to touch any member of Kogarasumaru."
He tried twisting around to face her but only succeeded in earning a meager glance from over his shoulder. "And who the fuck would that be?"
She met his gaze and smiled into his face. For someone who was still so physically young he really was a handsome sight.
"I'm not going to spill all my secrets so easily," she said. "You'll have to work a little harder for the top secret files."
"The fuck are you playing--,"
But mid-sentence she had given in to her impulse and leaned forward, kissing him delicately on the cheek to silence him. For a split second she saw his rage well up and threaten to explode, but just as swiftly she reached around and dragged his eye patch to the other side. Little Akito blinked rapidly and looked down and then back up at her as she released him and stepped away.
"Ha-Hakase," he said quietly. "Why—,"
"Don't stress about the little things, kiddo," she said, chucking him affectionately under the chin before reaching down to retrieve her bags. "Let's leave things like that to the hot heads, like Agito." She winked at him and skirted around his person, preparing to take off.
"Wait, Hakase," he called out. She stopped and turned. "Are you…do you really ride the Silent Road like he said?" he asked. Like every girl in class, Kei's heart practically melted at the innocence in his tone. Se had the impulse to lie to him, because he sounded so sad, but decided that lying would probably only make things worse.
"Only when I'm working," she said kindly. "For the other times I ride the road that all Storm Riders ride." She twisted her heels and music began to blast from her ATs again. "The one up there!" She pointed to the sky and backed towards the edge, moving to the beat of the song. More sounds began to fade into the scenery, which turned into voices, which turned into the familiar calls of Ikki, Kazu, Emily, Buccha and Onigiri. Akito turned to see their shadows leap over the buildings in the distance, quickly closing the expanse between them.
"Crow," Akito said. Kei swerved around.
"That's my cue. Until next time Akito! And Agito." She dove off the roof, taking her music with her, the rhythms and beats falling from their crescendo. Akito watched her leave in stillness.
"The Silent Road," he said to himself. He looked over at his approaching team and waited, patiently, for them to arrive.