Kogarasumaru had another challenge up and it was to be taken seriously, so even Agito, who liked to train alone, was cooperating with the rest. Teamwork was essential to this one, but hours and hours of practice, repeating the same actions and going through the same motions, was becoming dull work for a team that comprised of middle school students –- most of them boys at that.
So when Emily put up a suggestion for a marathon, it was greeted with a unanimous cheer and the group moved as one from the gym to the field. Since speed was the primary weapon of choice here, Kazu handicapped himself by locking his back wheels. Ikki wouldn't have any of it, however, and actually tried to remove the handicap by force. It took Buccha, a vicious uppercut from Emily, and five whole minutes before Agito finally blew his top and ended the scuffle by throwing a fang at them (which was barely avoided and violently protested). In all, Nakayama and the Tool Toul To girls, who had come to support the team, counted eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds before everything was all sorted out for the marathon to actually begin.
Sumeragi was referee, a job that Nakayama usually held. The other girl relinquished it to her this time as a sign of both acceptance and thanks, because the Pledge Queen had graciously taken it upon herself to instruct the Fang King's new link tuner in the finer aspects of the trade.
She was nervous, her disheveled pink hair seemingly more unruly for the hand she ran through it in an attempt to keep it away from her face. Her other hand held the ref's whistle, and she waited uncertainly as the boys –- and Emily, who had been persuaded to join -– took their places on the track. On each of their faces she saw the excitement of the brawl ebb away into a seriousness that could be recognized as their 'game faces'.
This race may have been viewed as a form of recreation upon the initial evocation, but when it came down to it this was no game to them.
This was a test.
Like the whole ordeal with the Trophaeum tower. You got to the top with your team, but only one person could sit at the throne. They were teammates, they were friends, but they were also enemies.
No, not enemies. Rivals.
The leader of Tool Toul To shivered a little, feeling that familiar spark of anticipation that followed the expectation that great things would come from this team. She heard it from everybody, that this was the team to watch for, and that its leader, in particular, would take the AT world by storm.
For he was the Storm King, and she, a genius and the best of her profession, was his tuner.
She started when his voice called out to her -– "Oy, Sumeragi! Quit daydreaming and start it already!" -– and when she looked up, their faces weren't quite so serious anymore because they were laughing at her, at what he said. She was embarrassed of course, but she cracked a smile and called back an apology. He was the person who would sit on top of the tower, on top of the rest, and they all knew it and supported the idea; liked it even, despite the fact that they were rivals.
But his having their friendship didn't mean that they would go easy on him when it came down to one-on-one.
She raised her hand, put the whistle to her lips and waited a second. Less than a second after the hand went down and the whistle was blown, six figures came hurtling towards her at top speed, eyes fixed on the finish line with an unwavering determination.
Kazu was at the head of the pack, his handicap now a significant reminder of the true level of his skills, but Ikki and Agito were not far behind him and the rest of the pack trailed the leaders by far less. Emily was holding her own particularly well, her training from the track team showing through when she powered past the two Kings as they threw insults at each other, catching them by surprise.
Now all she could see before her was that familiar beanie-hoodie-jeans combination, blonde hair sticking out where the hat hadn't covered it, limbs pumping forward and back in a motion that she near-memorized from her numerous, covert (and not-so-covert) observations of him.
She didn't know when her admiration for him had changed to adoration, to an almost-worship, but then her mind didn't always dwell on things like that. By nature, she saw things simple, and simple was that her Kazu-sama thrilled her and surprised her by turn. He was interesting. And he was always so far away.
Would he stop being so interesting if she caught up to him, then?
Her thoughts so overwhelmed her –- 'Stop loving Kazu-sama? Impossible!' -– that she faltered and her momentary lead over the boys ended. Now instead of one back, she was faced with five and more than one of those added four taunted her: 'Better luck next time, Adachi!' and 'Being distracted will be your downfall!'
She shouted insults right back at them, pure insubordination, but her grin was as genuine as it was wide. She was the newest at ATs, the least trained and the most inexperienced, but she would catch up to their level someday. Maybe she wouldn't ever be as good at some things as they were, and maybe her battle skills would stay at average -– but when it came to running? She was a bloody starter at the bloody track team, dammit! If she couldn't beat them all at a marathon someday, she might as well quit ATs right now!
....pff. As if that would ever happen.
At the back of the pack she may well be, but the back was also the best place to watch them. And him.
It would be a while till she could catch up to him like that again, and get a good view of him in his running form. But in most cases it wasn't the goal that mattered, but the journey. She would treasure every bit of her own path to improvement, both on the track and off it, and –- if she would have her way –- with Kazu always there, watching her progress, and sharing her moments of glory together with her.
When the momentary surprise of the rookie overtaking the veterans had died down, seriousness managed to seep back into the boys' brains and their competitive spirits shot up to an all-time high. Be outdone by a girl? No way in hell that was gonna happen!
The Kings retook their places quickly enough, and the lone girl in the pack lagged to the back of them.
Her best friend, watching from the sidelines, thought she was taking the whole ordeal extraordinarily well. Emily was smiling pretty widely for someone who usually went on the offensive when she was being pelted by chauvinistic taunts. But then, there was the fact that she was able to catch up to her Kazu-sama that short while back.
The girl smiled to herself and thought how careless Emily was to let her infatuation get in the way of her concentration. Typical Emily.
Of course, she herself wasn't any different. Her gaze never strayed for long from the smallest figure in the pack. Sometimes she berated herself for watching him because -- if she was being completely honest with herself -- she sometimes liked to think of him as someone younger than her. It was probably because of his height and the way he liked to snap at people when a conversation wasn't going his way. Because she saw him as someone younger than herself, she felt obligated to take care of him.
But then, in reality, he couldn't really be that far away from her own age now could he?
She sighed to herself and tilted her head back a little, covering her eyes. These excuses, Yayoi, why do you bother coming up with them?
"He's younger". "It's a crush". Who needs excuses when you simply just want to take care of someone? Why do you need to explain why you care about somebody?
A shift in the reactions of her companions redirected her eyes to the tracks just in time to see the latter part of the race unfold: Agito had managed to distract Ikki (who fumbled and fell over, his face bright red for some reason). She watched as the Fang King poured all his power into his treks and inched closer to the leader of the pack.
Kazu caught sight of him, poured on his own speed, but there was no getting rid of his approaching assailant.
Nearing the finish line.
That gap was closing up frighteningly quick -- to his credit, Kazu wasn't panicking.
Oh -- neck and neck now!
Yayoi held her breath, and by reflex the timer in her head ticked in a count down.
Who was it? Who made it first?
All eyes were on the Fang King as he veered off-track, cursing his face blue as smoke and sparks flickered to life at his feet. They were coming from his ATs, she could tell that from a distance, and panic overtook her as she joined the rest in the rush to his aid.
They're coming from his ATs they're coming from his ATs oh crap oh crap that could only mean --
He was on the grass, desperately trying to pull off the treks, when he yelled for her to get the hell over here if she otherwise valued her life. Which meant that she got there before the others did, and was already spilling out the apologies before she hit the ground and helped him with the shoes.
Her normally rational mind was now in full-on red alert. She lifted the clasps, batted away at his flailing hands, and without thinking things through, wrapped her fingers around the heel with the single-minded purpose of taking those shoes off.
When she yanked, pain spiked through her fingers so suddenly that it made her gasp and stumble backwards. One good look at her hands gave her the impression that they had been burned.
In the background he was calling her all kinds of stupid and it was then when the others reached them. Though her hands hurt she waved them over to him -- they got his ATs off in no time, with no problems. Her hands throbbed, and she felt some tears forcing their way out from both pain and humiliation.
It was a stupid move, and it was her fault entirely. She was responsible for his regalia, fixing it up and the like, and now it was obvious that she'd been doing a rather shoddy job with it.
Breaking down in the middle of a simple race was fine, but what if it had been a battle?
She felt like crap. And her hands were starting to hurt.
Someone was calling her... Ah, only Emily. Good old Emily. She reassured the girl that she was fine, only a small burn; but try as she might, she couldn't keep the disappointment completely out of her face.
Another person now, sitting next to her. More around her back. It was Sumeragi and the Tool Toul To girls, cooing soothing words and patting her back.
It's not her fault, no far from it. Sumeragi was smiling at her when she looked, startled by the words. Her fellow tuners were nodding in agreement.
It's the Fang King, isn't it? Yeah, difficult case for a beginner like her. Probably likes to work his ATs to the bone, so it's likely the engine's been strained. It's an easy fix, they could teach it to her after dinner if she liked.
Their kindness was such a contrast to what she was used to; it was becoming harder not to cry.
Beyond them, crouching on a roof, a lone AT rider watched as the Fang King's tuner gave in to the impulse. She smiled as the group of girls envelope her into a tightly-knit group hug; and she watched, in particular, as the Pledge Queen -- all emotional herself -- choked up as tears streamed down her face.
The effect it had on everyone was automatic: They all began to laugh. She could almost hear them now: What are you doing, Sumeragi? Crying when you're not the one who's hurt? How silly!
She was smiling a watery smile, despite being the butt of the joke. And everyone else was probably smiling along with her.
The AT rider watched her with some envy, some sadness, because she could remember a time in the not-so-distant past when she was in the same position, surrounded by the same people. Oh what she would not give to call these people her "comrades" again.
Right now the circumstances prevented her from doing such a thing. But someday... Someday...
Well, right now -- and forever -- at least she could call them "friends".
Things on the field seemed to be settling. The guys, finally taking notice of the commotion, joined up with the girls, and the two groups blended into each other. To all appearances, they were just a regular group of kids hanging out over the weekend.
The topic of the moment was the marathon, because apparently the standings still counted despite the abrupt ending. There was a lot of scamming going on, with someone embellishing his performance in one turn and slinging mud at the rest on another. At the center of it was, of course, Ikki, and he was making the most ridiculous claim of all.
He was needling the Pledge Queen about naming him in first place -- because, after all, Agito had to be disqualified for his disruption of the race, which in turn should disqualify Kazu since he had the unfair advantage of being ahead of the pack, and thus hadn't seen (or "been distracted by") the spectacle that Agito had made of himself.
The pink-haired tuner was to have the final say in it because she was the referee, but Kogarasumaru's irrepressible leader wasn't making things easy for her (in terms of proximity, he was way over the line drawn by private space). Thankfully her girls came to the rescue, and they carted her towards the drinks station. A last glance revealed the team ganging up on Ikki; the Pledge Queen giggled and commented that things were always so much fun when they hung out with these people.
Counted among the angry was Emily. Obviously, she would not take any slander on her Kazu-sama lying down. Before she could say her piece, however, who should appear by her side but her idol himself. He patted her on the back, and was saying some sort of congratulations.
Oh that's right, she was able to make second for a while.
Through a haze of happiness, she realized he was still talking to her. You might catch up to me someday; I have to be careful. It was followed by laughter, which made her smile.
She wouldn't say it out loud but to her, that time was still buried deep in the future. She was far more interested in keeping a solid grip on second place right now. After all, second place gave her the best view of him.
Needless to say the main body of the group was pretty busy; no one seemed to notice when the shortest member took his tuner aside and gave her a cold compress to cool down her burns. She became flustered and started apologizing, but he gruffly shut her down and told her to just heal. It took a while, with several, uncomfortable, in-between silences, but the two were able to work things out somehow.
When the group reconvened at the field, they came together; him with his hands in his pockets, her following close behind.
The sky was a deep red when Kogarasumaru finally disbanded and went on their separate ways. One of them stayed behind, however, just for a little bit. He waited till everyone was gone before he squinted up at the buildings. When he started to get impatient, he called out a name.
A pause, and then a small figure seemed to rise from the top of the one nearest to the equipment shed. Her dark hair, up on either side of her head, was as unruly as ever. Her glasses glinted in the fading sunlight.
They could barely make out one another's faces because of the distance, but they were both echoing each other's smile. She waved. He waved back. He told her his team was getting stronger each day. She nodded; already knew.
Fate would bring their teams clashing together. That much was already obvious. So she wasn't spying on them, not really, and he wouldn't take it as spying because he knew her.
This was merely a hello.
The others were calling to him; he had to go. She shot him a thumbs up in farewell.
Good job on today; everyone really is improving.
He saluted her, a parting wave, before he walked out the gate, and she smiled, a last personal one, before she launched herself into the air and flew away.
The fields were empty at last, dust rolling off the track and grass whistling with the cool, pre-night breeze.
Just another day at training.
Just another beautiful day.