If he thinks he’s being subtle, he’s a fucking moron.
James gets a front-row seat to watching as he hovers in the air over Sam, energy following his hands as they pull up a shield to block his opponent’s attack. He returns the onslaught with a fast swing of his staff. It connects. The girl goes flying, her dragon quickly skidding to a halt then chasing after her—straight towards James.
“Fuck!” He’s grateful Amanda is quick to react, dodging around the other dragon and charging after the duo ahead of him. When he siddles up alongside Aleks, he’s back in his seat, leaning forward to go faster. “Mag-claw?” he shouts, grabbing Aleks’ attention. “Fucking really?” James scoffs and stares at Sam. How long have they really been racing to have mastered that?
“No idea what you’re on about,” he mutters, even as he clicks his fingers and creates a couple draconic sparks for show. James continues staring at him. “Look out.” James snaps to attention and yanks to the left, steering around the hole in the track just in time, bumping up against Sam. Amanda snaps at him, almost takes off his Mag Cell, and he’s quick to retreat, paws pounding along the concrete. “Watch the road, stop distracting us,” he says, even as Sam keeps pace with Amanda.
With a huff, James asks over the sound of wind rushing past him, “Why are you slowing down? You can go faster than this.” He rocks with every rapid step Amanda takes, looking through his visor at the road ahead.
“Can’t, Sam’s tired,” Aleks reasons with a shrug, “this one’s yours, dude.”
He spots a blip on Aleks’ radar, right at the centre. “Don’t you pull that shit, race properly for once in your life.” There’s a rough growl reverberating in Amanda’s throat, loud enough that Sam twitches at the sound of it. “Stop just giving these races to me.”
He’s answered with a barked out laugh followed by, “What kinda sadist do you think I am?”
“An idiotic one, duh.”
“James!” Brett shouts, appearing on his screen a split second later, “Upcoming gliding section.”
“I know, I see it. C’mon, ‘manda, Aero and Side Venting at the ready.” She harrumphs back at him, can’t respond otherwise, and he figures she was already three steps ahead of him anyways. He frowns upon seeing that Aleks doesn’t have his Aero Gear anymore. Did someone remove it during the race? The green dragon he got tangled with earlier looked like a bit of a brute…
Before he can linger much further on it, Amanda directs a mag-burst at the ground and launches them both into the air. The gliding wings slide out with a metallic click! James barely even has to use the Venting Gear to keep on track.
Heat bursts right over his head.
James smothers a shout.
He ducks down to avoid the flames.
Aleks and Sam glide over them, flying purely on the power of their Thruster Gear.
Aleks flips a middle finger at him. “I’m gonna get there first!”
James frowns and quickly aims his Heatwave Gear at a spot right in front of Aleks. He feels the rings heating up a mere second before the shockwave fires, a beam true and straight.
Under the booming announcer’s voice and the onlookers cheering, he can hear Aleks yell and watches as Sam swerves instinctively, turning to glare over his shoulder a moment later. James can’t help but give him a salute. Aleks lands and tosses something James can’t quite make out onto the road behind him. He disappears farther along the track within a moment, leaving James and Amanda to continue gliding until she reaches the road again.
James flinches when he sees Aleks atop Sam charging right at him. Amanda reacts first, directing a mag-burst to push James into the air before they can collide. His stomach flips the same time he does, flailing. Her claws scrape along the track and James worries she might wear them down to the quick.
No collision occurs.
Amanda goes sliding through the projection with ease and catches James before he can land on the track. He plops back in his seat and she leans forward, once again returning to racing along the track.
“Tell Aleks he’s a little bitch.”
“Will do. Hey Linds… yeah, tell him he’s a little bitch… yep… hey James, he says you’re a dumb bitch for falling for it.”
James can’t help but roll his eyes, bending his knees right before Amanda bounces over a swinging obstacle aiming for her legs. “I’m not the one who set a projection on the track to freak another racer out!”
“Hah, I taught him that.”
“Well fuck you too.” James ends the communication call, redirecting all of his attention to the race at hand. Aleks can’t be that far ahead.
Sure enough, when he rounds the corner onto the final straight, he can see Aleks, lagging a little.. James snorts. Idiot. It barely takes him a few seconds to catch up to them both, casting Aleks a grin as they dash past, straight towards the finish line.
It’s only when he crosses it, the announcer booming his name overhead and the audience roaring, that he realises Aleks played him. He can feel Amanda growling with shared anger as she goes storming over to Sam as he and his rider try to sneak away after coming second.
“Hey!” No reaction. “I said hey!” James is tempted to fire his Heatwave Gear just to get his full attention. Instead, James steers Amanda after him and zips in front, bringing Sam to a halt. “Where do you think you’re going?” Amanda huffs and leers at Sam, causing him to back up a couple steps.
“Uh, to see Linds,” Aleks says as he points behind James. When he looks, he sees Lindsey sitting atop Noah, waving overhead to get their attention. Aleks slides around James and keeps going, even as James frowns and hurries to keep pace.
“What’s wrong with you?” Aleks gives him a blank look. “Why do you do that? Every single race, you always come second—what’s up?”
“Well, second’s better than third.”
“First’s better than second.”
Aleks’ expression doesn’t even falter as he say, “No need to rub it into my face.” Sam glows gently as he mag-lifts Aleks out of his seat and sets him on the ground. James follows him shortly after, watching as Brett slides off of Hannah, an amused look on his face when he claps his hands together and joins the trio.
“What’s your problem? Don’t like being photographed?”
“Nah, do you?” he retorts, gesturing with a jut of his head at the people gathering around the exit of the track, trying to get a picture of James and Amanda.
James answers, “Only when I deserve it.”
Aleks doesn’t respond to that. Not like he can when Lindsey swoops in and entraps him in an embrace. “Sorry you came second again, but you did so well! Maybe don’t lose your Aero Gear next time?” Noah transfers a new set of Aero Gear onto Sam along with an additional Mag Cell, watching as Sam tests out the new gear.
One of the wings activates and jabs into Amanda’s side.
She shrieks and Sam startles away before rushing in to check on her.
“Oh damn,” Lindsey mutters as Brett rubs at his forehead.
Amanda hisses, teeth bared, and Sam lowers his head, trying to peer at where he hit her. No blood, but James can’t help worrying about how badly it hurt her. Sam plays up the sorry act, tries whining and nudging at Amanda, only to end up being whacked with her tail as she intentionally turns her back to them.
“Great, now she’s in a mood. Thanks Sam, you doofus.”
“She’s so touchy. I don’t—augh!” Aleks lands on his ass, feet knocked out from underneath himself as Amanda glares over her shoulder at him and resettles her tail around her body. She huffs and resumes ‘ignoring’ them. “Sorry,” he mutters as he pulls himself back to his feet and dusts off his riding outfit. “Look, I gotta go? That new Black Neural Gear comes out today, I wanna get in before the line’s too long.”
“I’ll come with,” Lindsey says immediately, Noah perking up and padding over to her. He lowers himself down for her to clamber into the seat as Sam pulls and mag-locks Aleks into his seat. Lindsey gives Brett a quick wave.
“See ya,” Aleks says as Sam turns around and both he and Lindsey, atop Noah, trot off, out of the track arena, leaving James with Brett.
Brett nudges him and points at the paparazzi. “You don’t wanna keep your adoring fans waiting, do you?”
With a snort of, “Yeah, sure don’t,” James whistles at Amanda, encouraging her over with the promise of getting her groomed and fed many treats. Might as well get this part over and done with. He’s already preparing for a wrist cramp that’s bound to happen due to the amount of things he’s gonna have to sign…
James tries ringing Trevor. No answer. He’s probably out of range, exploring temples and whatnot.
Amanda backs up when Abby first arrives, snarling and on edge. James shouts, “What the fuck?” and looks at Aleks. “No, seriously, what the fuck!”
Aleks rests his chin in his hand, elbow atop Sam’s head, and simpers.
“What?” Abby asks with a grin as she slides off of her dragon—her orange and grey dragon.
“How the fuck can you control that thing?” James asks as Amanda growls and keeps her head down, like she plans on headbutting the other dragon if it so much as takes a single step closer.
Abby pats the thing on the side and shrugs. “I dunno. I found her in the Wastelands.”
“Of fucking course you found it there.”
“Her. Her name’s Kia. Aleks said you wanted to buy some new Aero Gear?” She takes a step back and points to the white gear mag-locked to the side of Kia. “I got Level Seven.”
“…okay, sure, where’d you get it?”
Amanda scoffs. James balks. “Why the fuck would you go down there willingly?”
“Kia keeps me safe from the other orange-boned dragons.”
“What the fuck.”
“Are you gonna buy the gear or not?”
“Yeah, okay, sure, just… what the fuck…”
Aleks remains quiet and watches the exchange take place with a smirk.
Joe answers on the third ring and James wastes an hour of his time asking how the Academy is treating him before bidding goodbye.
Racers play around more than others, in James’ mind. They jostle and joke and poke fun where they can. Racing is just for the thrill of it, the glory of winning, and enjoying time spent with one’s dragon. A majority of them are friendly outside of the track, even remaining so as they line up at the gates, listening to the announcer riling up the audience.
…the second the gate drops, it’s Game On.
Aleks is exactly the same, the little smile at the corner of his lips gone, replaced with the crease in his brow and the hard, calculating look in his eyes. He’s got Lindsey in his helmet, telling him where to save his energy and where to give it all he’s got.
Brett’s similar, if more military in his style.
“You want to try to keep a head start, because it’s easy now and it’s only gonna get harder later on.”James watches as a Scavenger-Class goes zipping past him and can only shrug, keeping them within eyesight. “Street racing gets dirty on this track,”Brett reminds him. “Do not damage your Balance Gear or your Turning Gear; you’ll lose without them.”
“Got it.” James swerves in front of a racer as they attempt to dart around him. With a flick of his controls, he extends his Aero Gear and blocks off both sides right as they enter a narrow tunnel. A litter of heated pellets zip through the air, pinging off the walls, burning and snapping off one of the white draconic wings. Cursing, James pulls out his sword and keeps his head turned over his shoulder, weapon raised and at the ready. The racer backs off, unwilling to fight within close confines.
Then the man’s dragon howls and bumps against the wall of the track, his Thruster Gear being torn off.
James returns his attention to the race at hand, patting the top of Amanda’s head. Then he hears, “Funny meeting you here.” James whips his head to the side, spotting Aleks and Sam rushing up alongside. Sam grins and bumps against Amanda’s side playfully.
“Oh, har har, very funny—fuck off, I’m racing.”
“You know about the hairpin?”
James nods and jabs at his communicator screen. “Brett’s backseat racing for me.”
“Just checking, it’s a bitch of a thing. Hah, nice Level Three Turning Gear. You’re gonna need it for the tight turns.”
James lightly rolls his eyes at the same time Sam whacks the person behind him in the head with his tail.
“Oh, shut up. Just because yours is a few levels higher doesn’t mean anything, just that you like spending money.”
“Abby gets ‘em cheap, I buy ‘em cheap.”
“You just said I like spending money!”
“I take it back; you’re a cheap whore.”
“Nah, that’s your mom.”
Brett says into his ear, “Hairpin.”
“Hairpin!” James announces, pointing ahead.
The light green dragon from earlier fires their Turning Gear. The projectile clings to the concrete wall, digging in. Their footing slips. The dragon skids along the ground and crashes, slamming into the road and up against the wall with a wail.
Aleks yells, “Jump!”
Sam tumbles over the wire and skids on the track. James engages his Balance Gear and veers to the right. Amanda leaps up the wall, claws scraping over the harsh surface, and manages to wall-run past the crash and the wire. James braces when they land back on the road around the hairpin, huffing, and looks back over his shoulder. Sam lies splayed on the road, Aleks tossed to the side and shaking his head. He pulls up his comms and immediately asks, “Is he okay?”
“Ask Lindsey if he’s okay!”
“…she says he’s just a little dazed. They’re already back and racing, now in fifth.”
“Okay, okay, cool.”
“Just focus on the race,” Brett instructs, “he’ll be fine; he has Lindsey.”
“That’s what makes me worry.”
He hears a faint shout of “Hey!” and chuckles.
The Scavenger-Class catches back up within seconds, a black dragon running along behind her. James spots familiar light green racing gear atop Axel and grins. Before he can be overtaken, James withdraws his sword and pats the top of Amanda’s head. A mag-burst shoots him into the air, straight towards the other racer, and they meet him halfway, hovering over the race track.
James receives a solid whack to his forearm before he twists and brings his heel down on top of the racer’s head. They go down with a shout echoed by their dragon. James pushes off of Amanda and swings his blade.
His opponent’s Turning Gear falls to the ground with a clank. James finds himself being yanked back into his seat, landing with a soft thump and retaking his controls as they dart into another tunnel. Jakob hovers behind him, not willing to try to test James’ mercy.
“He’s back in third,” Brett informs. James hums and looks over his shoulder, barely making out the faint purple and red shape that is Sam and Aleks. He thumbs over his controls and quickly checks Amanda’s mag levels before he engages his Thruster Gear. Jakob shouts something from behind him but it’s quickly lost through the sound of wind rushing past him and fire burning on either side of him. He can barely smell the fumes, orange light cast along the tunnel.
The end grows near and James cuts off the jets.
Cheering starts up from the end of the tunnel, the announcer crowing something over the speakers. James races towards the finish line, checkered flags being waved overhead.
He skids to a stop before he can cross the line, a confused murmur coming from the onlookers. James keeps his eyes looking backwards at the mouth of the tunnel, waiting.
He can’t be too far behind.
Someone exits the tunnel.
James rolls his eyes and casually wanders across the finish line. He’s immediately assaulted with a winning horn and a collection of fireworks being launched into the air.
Jakob sulks as Axel comes to a stop next to James. “Why you tease me like that, dude?”
“Wasn’t waiting for you, dude.” On cue, Aleks appears from the tunnel and darts across the finish line. Amanda trails after Sam as James mutters, “Took you long enough.”
“Sorry, got caught up.”
“You were going so slow that I passed you!” Jakob laughs. James squints at Aleks but he merely shrugs and says nothing in response.
James doesn’t bother calling Asher, doubts he’d want to talk to him after James found out he was cheating and he ended up being banned from street racing.
“—last seen in a temple…” Alec trails off upon spotting James, quickly zipping his lips shut. Aleks turns around to look at James and says his goodbye to Alec.
“You need something?” he asks, letting Alec slip past James, out of the stable. Sam chitters and looks at the door before letting slip a short roar.
“Nah, just checking to make sure you’re okay. You got fucked during the race.” Amanda nudges the stall door open further and pads inside, stepping around James and Aleks to brush past Sam.
“Mm, I’m fine,” he waves it off with ease. “Sam picked me up and kept going. Lindsey said nothing’s broken or sprained so I’ll be good for the tandem event.”
Aleks raises an eyebrow. “You want me to be your partner?”
Something conflicted crosses Aleks’ expression before he gives a nod. “Sure, fuck it, I don’t trust any of the other racers.”
“Not even Jakob?”
“Jakob would fuck me over for laughs, dude.”
Anna rings him first and congratulates him on making it to the tandem event, sending him the best of luck. She gets his address and says she’ll be posting him her old Tandem Gear.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
“Yes, for fuck’s sake, I’ll be fine!”
Aleks frowns and glances over his shoulder. “I’ll leave after this guy,” he says, jutting his head behind himself at the blue dragon, rushing closer, the racer wielding a staff. James groans but nods, watching as Sam and Aleks drop backwards, allowing the oncomer to get closer. They attempt to keep a wide-berth, but Aleks swerves in closer and activates the Thruster Gear on the opposite side, slamming the dragon against the wall. Sam growls when he gets snapped at. Aleks has a split second to avoid a swing of a staff.
Two blips in his helmet from Lindsey. “You’re clear.”
Energy runs through him. Aleks struggles to hide his smirk as he pulls up a small shield of pure draconium. His opponent stares, wide-eyed, and can’t even stop the attack of a mag-ball going straight for him.
Aleks clicks his controls, turns off the Thruster Gear, and leaves the two behind on the track, human dazed and dragon panicking over his rider.
A second competitor darts in front of them.
“Ramming Gear,” he announces. It activates and spreads out over the front of Sam’s chest and face. Sam lifts his head up at the same time Aleks presses the firing button. The mace ball goes flying a split second later. It crashes into the other racer’s controls and glances the back of her dragon’s head. She shrieks and veers to the right, rider yelling and trying to control her.
Aleks narrowly avoids being knocked into, Sam bouncing over a flailing tail and rushing to catch up with Amanda and James. “So, you sure you don’t want my protection?”
“We can’t win if we just play defensive. There’s a reason this is called Offence Defence.”
“Only if you promise to contact me if you’re in trouble.”
Aleks gives James a long, hard look before nodding and racing ahead. Amanda remains at a leisurely pace, James continuously looking backwards for possible attackers.
“Three teams in front, go get ‘em,” Lindsey crows into his helmet. Aleks hums and pulls up his radar, keeping an eye on Amanda’s whereabouts. It’s a shame he doesn’t have his usual Tracking Gear with him. Right before passing through a gate, Aleks checks the timer on it.
“Hey, James, Jamie.”
“You got a minute fifteen to get through this gate.”
“It’s only gonna get tighter and tighter.”
“I’ll be fine! Stop worrying about me.”
Aleks rolls his eyes.
He starts focusing again upon spotting a racer in front of him.
Staff unclipped, he holds it at the ready.
Two buttons are already lit red, but three are green and ready to be pressed.
They don’t even notice Sam catching up until Aleks swings his staff and hits a button. A loud bzzt hums through the air. The man reels backwards to glare at Aleks as he retrieves his own staff. The dragon begins snapping at Sam, even as she’s pushed against the edge of the track, balancing precariously. Aleks jumps across onto his opponent’s dragon, standing on her back, and easily deflects an attack arcing down for his head. One step forward, the racer stumbles on his own Seating Gear, Aleks sweeps his legs out from underneath him. The only thing stopping him from falling to the track face-first is his dragon mag-pulling the draconium in his suit. Aleks jabs at a second button, turning it red.
One to go: the head.
His initial attack is blocked and he staggers when a foot connects with his hip. Heat flares in his side. Aleks winces. Sam snarls.
The rider tries to hit him in the head. Aleks grabs the staff and brings it to a halt, palm twinging. He wallops the guy in the side, almost knocks him off the dragon entirely, and hits the final button.
A loud buzzing noise fills Aleks’ comms. He jumps back onto Sam. Lindsey announces that another competitor has been eliminated and congratulates him.
Sam’s eyes land on a racer and their dragon. Aleks grins and leans further forward in his seat.
“Aleks.” He hums and glances at his communicator screen, most of his attention facing forward. “Get back here, someone’s coming up on me.”
His eyes remain locked onto the racer ahead of him, starting to lag behind. She’s only got one button left unpressed. “I’ll be there after I get this—”
“Aleks, now,” James grinds out, looking over his shoulder. Aleks sighs. Sam slows to a stop, both of them with their gaze turned backwards, waiting for James and Amanda to appear around the corner of the track.“Aleks!” They can both hear the echo of his shout, the ground vibrating with every step Amanda and their attacker takes.
“He’s got an Energy Drain Whip!”
“Tandem Gear, you’ll be fine.”
“Amanda won’t be!” Aleks curses and turns Sam around fully. With a press of a button on his controls, the Thruster Gear activates. His hands twinge from how tight he’s gripping the controls through his gloves. He soon spots a blue dragon racing alongside Amanda, James trying to block the attacks with his sword, teetering precariously.
A buzz fills the air, a competitor being removed from the race, but the buttons lining Amanda are still lit bright green. Aleks lets slip a small sigh.
The other racer doesn’t spot Aleks and Sam until it’s too late. Sam jumps on command and Aleks switches off the thrusters in favour of extending his Balance Gear. The rod on his left smacks into the other racer, James jumping over the metal and being mag-pulled into his seat. The Nautilus-Class skids to a stop, looking back for her rider. Aleks switches the Thruster Gear back on, flames burning the road as it rotates and aims forward, bringing Sam to a quick stop before sending him hurting backwards. Another bounce through the air, Aleks twists them both around. The whip from the other racer bounces on the track and Aleks mag-pulls it into his hand. The jets power them forward and they quickly rejoin James and Amanda.
Bright red shines from the dragon’s right leg. “One button depressed, not too shabby.”
“Fuck you, you were supposed to protect me!”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
James lets out a heavy sigh. “I’m transferring some draconium energy to you; you used quite a bit on your Thruster Gear.”
“How many in front of us?”
“Two teams, last I checked.”
“One team’s out,” he states as he brings up the current scoreboard, “mean’s we got three behind us. Jakob and Alec are teamed up, I think Jakob’s playing offensive—” Aleks snaps his fingers, grabbing James’ attention right before he tosses the whip he collected towards him. “You kidding?”
“If anyone gets too close, pull the Energy Drain Whip on them, helps us both out. I’m going up ahead, call me if you need help.” James merely nods, pulls up their energy levels, and transfers more energy to Sam through their Tandem Gear. Aleks grins and reactivates his Thruster Gear.
Once he’s out of James’ line of sight, he turns off the jets and rests a hand on Sam’s head, fingers sliding over red scales. “Okay, buddy, let’s go, time to speed up.” He feels the vibration through Sam, every thump of his paws, each breath and pound of his heart. This is the reason he loves racing, blinking and feeling like he can see the track through Sam’s eyes.
“Target spotted.” Sam chuffs at him in response. Aleks leans back, braces one hand on Sam’s spikes, and keeps his knees bent. “Get closer.”
They don’t notice them as they get closer, not until Aleks leaps and lands on the back of her dragon. She looks over her shoulder and braces. Aleks swings his staff. She goes flying. The dragon digs her claws in, twisting back towards her rider. Aleks takes no time in jabbing his staff at the last button. He spots the way her comms flare bright red and grins. Energy sparks around him and Aleks finds himself being mag-pulled back into his seat as they race ahead.
Aleks salutes at the woman’s teammate as they pass, even as he tosses his helmet onto the track and kicks at it.
“I got some dick trying to sneak up on me,” James mutters.
“Use the whip I gave you.” There’s a moment of calm, in which Aleks just focuses on the way Sam bounds along the track. Lindsey sends him a quick notif, a bleep through his helmet, reminding him of the aerial section ahead of him. He presses the button on the left side of his helmet, marking the notification as red. His screen blips. Sam’s energy levels are quickly boosted. Aleks can’t help but grin. “The whip worked?”
“Use it until they start slowing you down significantly.”
“Got it. You wrecked that team I just passed?”
“You know it.”
“Haha, fucking sweeeeet. Hm, Brett says we only got one more gate to go”
Aleks sighs. “I just passed it now. Looks like we’ll have to settle for second.”
“Damn. Well, you’re used to that, I’m not.”
Aleks just hums and turns off his communicator.
Lindsey reminds him of the aerial section just around the corner and he extends his Aero Gear. Sam bounces at the last second to get that little bit of extra height. His radar beeps, signalling James is getting closer to him. Aleks can only hum to himself as he glides towards the finish line. Sam chuffs and looks around, at the buildings towering over the clouded wasteland below, the audience cheering for the winner, already announced.
Aleks looks over his shoulder, spotting James atop Amanda, drifting after them. Aleks snickers and activates his Balance Gear. With a quick nose-dive, Aleks pulls backwards on the controls and Sam flips all the way over, full loop. Aleks looks backwards to see James copy him, twice, like it’s a competition between the two of them.
It always is just between the two of them.
Aleks waits when he lands, looking back to check that James is following. The crowd is already cheering and congratulating the winners, nothing he isn’t used to. He pats the side of Sam’s neck, listening to him panting. “Good job, buddy. I’ll get you something to eat back in your stall, yeah?” There’s an appreciative hum from him as he starts to lightly jog, matching pace with Amanda as she glides in.
It’s just like any other race they’ve been in, charging towards the finish line alongside each other.
Until Amanda chirrups, grabs Sam’s attention, and winks.
Aleks hisses out, “You bitch!” as James zips in front and crosses the finish line before him. Not that it matters; they’re a team, but the point still stands.
The crowd begins chattering to each other as Sam comes to a halt and huffs at Amanda, even as she giggles and leans forward to let James slide off.
The first thing James sees of Brett’s face, is his massive grin. He grabs James by the biceps and says, “Cheating!”
Aleks frowns and echoes, “What?” as he climbs off of Sam.
“The winners, they were caught cheating!”
James’ face lights up as he mutters, “Oh shit.” A man with a camera goes charging over towards him.
“That means it defaults to whoever came second!” Brett announces.
Amanda chitters and leans over James’ shoulder. “Us?”
Jakob rocks up in time to hear Brett state, “You’re the winners of the Tandem Races!”
“Holy shit! Aleks!” James snaps his head around but the spot where Aleks was previously is now filled with a woman, asking for a photo with James. He gives in, hoping that Aleks will return once his spot is freed, but, instead, he finds himself crowded by excited fans and a couple other racers congratulating him.
Aleks will have to wait until James can walk a few feet without being interrupted.
James’ phone beeps with a message. He waits until he’s away from onlookers to check it. He finds a prerecorded message from Aron congratulating him on winning the tandem event and saying he looks forward to seeing him join the Academy.
James shoves the stable door open, only to freeze upon seeing a different coloured dragon—
A black and gold dragon—
“I told you,” Aleks starts, keeping his hand on the dragon as it shuffles backwards, eyeing Amanda and James warily, “we don’t like the attention of winning.”
“…Sam?” There’s a blink of recognition, Amanda pushes her way into the stable, knocking James aside. “Hey!” Aleks dips to the right, avoiding Amanda as she goes in closer to inspect Sam. His markings are different: golden paws, spines along his back, and swirls running over his side. All it takes Amanda is a quick couple sniffs for her to recognise Sam and nip at his neck in reprimand. He bounces away.
“I’m not a hero,” Aleks says resolutely, “Sam isn’t the Black and Gold Dragon of Legend and I’m not the Dragon Booster or whatever you wanna call me. I just want to race—we just want to race, not become some—some superhero, y’know?”
James frowns and steps closer, giving a small nod. “Sure.”
“I just thought he was a stubborn, fucked up purple dragon that didn’t want a rider, got him real cheap. Then he let me ride him and changed colours, turned out to be black and gold. There’s supposed to be some amulet and a gauntlet but I don’t fucking know where to find that shit. Alec tried but we figure it's in the Wastelands somewhere.” Aleks slides back alongside Sam and pats at his shoulder, rubbing over the scales and still not looking at James. “I don’t want people looking into Sam and I in case we get found out. I’d have a target as big as… well, as big as Sam painted on my back. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding from assassination attempts.”
James nods. “I mean, that’s understandable.” Aleks returns the nod. He watches closely as Amanda wanders around Sam before rearing back, standing tall on her hind legs. James can hear the churring noise deep in her throat and sighs when Sam returns the noise and settles down on the stable ground. Amanda flicks her head, squinting at him, before she sits down beside Sam. Her short front arms scrape at the floor. “Hey, stop that, you just had your claws done.” Amanda curls her lips and hisses. “I mean it.” Another hiss. With a sigh, James huffs, “Fine, whatever.” She does one long scratch over the concrete to make her point and harrumphs, head turning away. “Bitch.” She lets slip a snarl and James is quick to take back his statement.
Sam rests his head on the floor and traces the rings around Amanda’s back legs. She pretends she doesn’t notice.
“Dude, y’know, if you had just told me why, I wouldn’t have pushed it.”
“Yeah, well, I got trust issues a mile long. Plus, I mean, you’re a liar—”
“You like pulling pranks on me, dude.”
James scoffs and retorts, “So do you!”
Aleks looks ready to argue the point before he reconsiders with a tilt of his head. “You got me there.” After an stifling moment of silence, James shuffling on his feet, Aleks says, “So…”
“Secret,” James confirms his silent question, “won’t tell a soul.”
“Good. Otherwise I’d have to kill you.” Amanda is immediately at attention, head upright, squinting at Aleks. Aleks pretends he isn’t fighting the urge to flinch away from her. Sam struggles to get her out of Attack Mode.
James merely laughs. “Sure, as if you could kill me.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Go on, fucker.”
“I’ll”—Amanda growls—“never mind!”
James doesn’t think much of it when he pulls a purple draconium tag off of Amanda’s side. Someone in the races must have been using Marking Gear to keep track of other teams.
Dragon City Police aren’t a rare sighting, but they are definitely of concern when they rush past James and turn into the stables. The stables Aleks and Sam are staying at. James urges Amanda on, arriving to see at least five blue dragons gathered around, hovering, on guard.
Two things rush through his mind.
The fuck happened?
And where’s Aleks and Sam?
The first officer he talks to says, “Just a failed break-in attempt,” but it doesn’t put James at ease.
The second officer won’t say anything on the topic.
Then he finds Aleks, waving off an investigator and leaning back against Sam.
As soon as his eyes land on James, they turn cold.
“Was it worth it?” he asks, venom dripping from his words. An officer perks up at the tone. James frowns and walks towards Aleks. Aleks is quick to pick up his staff and meet him halfway, keeping James at bay. “No, don’t get close to him.” Sam hovers behind Aleks, chest rumbling with a growl. Amanda remains quiet, a puzzled noise caught in her throat as Aleks pokes the staff against James’ chest. “Was. It. Worth it?”
“How much were you paid?”
“The fuck are you—”
“I trusted you!” Aleks spits out as Sam snarls and tucks himself further into the corner. “We trusted you!”
“What happened? Are you al—” Aleks jabs his staff into James’ chest again, digging into the racing gear to the point that James winces. “Stop—”
“I’m not pretending!
“A crew tried to steal Sam!” Aleks’ voice raises. “I was asleep and then I heard him roaring and in pain and I found him with Control Gear and Mag Cables draining his energy! They knew what he was and were trying to steal him from me. Now, tell me, how much were you paid?” James opens his mouth only for Aleks to cut him off again. “I want to know how much you think I’m worth to you.”
“A lot more than money,” James retorts, huffing and pushing the staff aside. Aleks whacks him in the ribs and James holds onto the staff this time, halting Aleks from attacking again. “It wasn’t me.”
“You’re the only one!”
“What?” Aleks snaps his gaze towards the officer hovering at the entrance of the stall.
“Sir, I’d advise you calm down.” It takes Aleks a deep breath before he nods, glaring at James. “We traced the origin of the leaked information to an online user by the—”
Aleks startles and steps around James to ask, “Who?”
“A girl who was here yesterday afternoon.” Aleks blinks slowly. “She posted a picture she took of the black and gold dragon in this stall with the two of you present.”
James turns his gaze back to Aleks, watching the way his eyebrows go up, the staff wavering in his hold. He looks at James for a split second, eyes wide, before he lowers his weapon. “I’m sorry—”
“I didn’t mean—”
His voice cracks when he says, “I was just scared—” He’s cut off when James reaches out and drags him into a half-hug, squished against his side, arm looped over his shoulders.
“I’d be scared too.”
Aleks takes in a slow breath and hugs James properly. “I almost lost him, I almost lost Sam.”
“I know, that sucks, dude.” James pats him on the back, looking over to see Amanda lying down next to Sam as he scoots into her side, basking in the way she rests her head on his back. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you apologising? I should be the one apologising.”
“You already did, though, so now it’s my turn.” Aleks leans back, red-faced, and hangs his head. “Sam wouldn’t have been found out if it wasn’t for me.”
“It’s whatever. Not your fault.”
Their attention is dragged away from each other by the sound of chirruping.
“Sam, oh my fucking god.”
James is immediately waving his arms. “Hey, nO! GET OFF HER! Amanda, defend yourself! You can do better than him! Sam! SAM, DO NOT FUCK MY DRAGON!”