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Just Gotta Ride

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Seventeen-year-old Falco gunned the engine of his cherry red motorcycle, a thin smile plastered to his face underneath the black helmet's visor. He sped down a narrow two-lane blacktop through the countryside, tall grass lining the road along with a sprinkling of lavender wild flowers. The grass and flowers billowed in his wake as he flashed past, the stems flowing up and down in waves. Trees towered overhead, as the road swept through the forest and over the mountains. Even though it was nearing summer, Falco didn't feel that hot in his red and silver motorcycle suit. The trees provided ample shade, with sunlight piercing through the leaves in narrow beams. The speedometer showed him going well over twice the speed limit. Like he cared though. He hadn't seen anyone else on the road for hours. No traffic, no police, no nothing. Falco attacked the road as if it was his own private race track. This teenaged avian saw himself as invincible.

A sign up ahead indicated Route 7 coming up on the left. The thin smile turned into a huge grin. It was his favorite road for hundreds of miles around. Route 7 started at the top of a small mountain, and it barreled down through the forests into the valley below, ending at Sapphire Lake. Route 7 contained lots and lots of tight curves, hairpins and switchbacks, due to a severe elevation change between the start and end. These road features were meant to slow the pace of traffic, but Falco saw the twists as a challenge and the speed limit signs as a friendly suggestion.

Falco arrived at the intersection to turn onto Route 7. Chuckling like a kid in a candy store, he turned left and began to barrel down Route 7. The road started its sharp descent towards Sapphire Lake. From the vantage point at the beginning, he could see the deep blue lake shining in the sun, miles of trees between here and there. The trees soon obscured it, leaving Falco with just the road in front of him.

Here, Falco always felt like he was going down the first drop of the Cornerian Giant, the steepest rollercoaster on the planet. But this was even more fun, because he controlled the ride. Falco blasted down the hill at over 120 miles per hour, the trees blurring into a formless green mass in his peripheral vision. He shot across a bridge over a creek, and then the road began to track into a gentle left turn. Despite the thick trees making it a blind curve, Falco kept the throttle all the way down, crossing into the opposing lane of traffic to maintain the best driving line. If anyone was coming the other way, the medics would be cleaning Falco off the pavement with handy wipes. He didn't give a crap.

The road straightened out, but a roadside sign warned about a series of consecutive hairpin turns coming up. Warned? To Falco, that was an invitation. Falco blasted past the next sign for the first hairpin, the speed limit advising a pitiful twenty miles per hour. Falco kept it over twice that, leaning the bike so hard into the turn his knees flashed just an inch above the pavement, the G-force holding him there. Right as he cleared the first hairpin the second one began, Falco repeating the motion on his right side this time. Back and forth he went through three more hairpins, skimming the tarmac with his knee each time. The tight curves behind behind him, Falco gunned the throttle again, rocketing down the hill without a care in the galaxy.

"Falco!" Someone called out from behind, the voice distorted and barely audible.

Falco spared a glance in his mirrors. "Aww crap…" He spotted flashing red and blue lights in the distance.

While far away at first, the white police car closed the distance fast. The officer's voice became clearer over the loudspeaker. "You need to stop now. This can't keep going."

Falco gunned the throttle. He figured he could get away from a cop car on his bike, especially out here in the hills. The cop's sedan would have about twice the power of his bike, but several times more weight. A sweeping right hand carousel turn came up. The curvature allowed for full throttle on a bike, so Falco gunned it and leaned hard for more speed. The cop won't be able to match this with his four wheels, Falco thought. He spared a quick glance in his side mirror. The police car completely filled it. Falco's jaw dropped. This was impossible. How the hell was the cop gaining on him in a hard turn like this?

"Falco, I said you need to stop!" The cop bumped into him, sending a jolt through his system. The bike wobbled around, Falco panicking as he wrangled it back into control. The turn ended, leaving him and the cop barreling down another straight. However, the police car pulled alongside him. Falco tried to look at the driver, but he couldn't see him through the black tinted windows.

"You awake Falco?" The cop bumped him again, sending Falco careening over to the other side of the road. A deep ditch full of sharp rocks lined that side of the black top. Falco jerked the handle bars back, but it was too late. He fell right in. As soon as he heard the crunch of his motorcycle against the stones, everything went black.

Falco jerked his head upwards, his vision filled with white. He blinked several times, and vague shapes began to appear in the void. An orange face began to come in focus in front of him, the body beneath clothed in a green flight suit. "Falco…" That was Fox's voice wasn't it? "Are you awake?"

Falco shook his head, blinking several more times. The sounds of chattering filled his ears, accompanied by the clatter of silverware and footsteps. He looked down and spotted the blurry shape of a plastic tray with half-eaten food, pushed off to one side. Now he remembered. The cafeteria. He'd dozed off in the cafeteria. He was at the Cornerian Flight Academy right now. Lunch time. While everything still looked fuzzy, he turned back to Fox. The teenaged vulpine had one hand on Falco's shoulder, a worried look on his face.

"You all right?" Fox asked.

"I guess…" Falco yawned, as he kept blinking to clear his sight.

The cafeteria's harsh fluorescent lights reflected off of just about everything. Opening his eyes here after having them shut for several minutes was murder. After rubbing his eyes one more time, he was able to look at Fox face to face without covering them.

"I'm sorry…I was dreaming."

While he looked grim before, Fox smiled and spared a chuckle. "I figured. You were so out you even drooled a little bit there." Fox pointed at the sleeve of Falco's red jumpsuit. "Look, I just didn't want you to sleep so long you didn't get to eat."

"Well…thanks for looking out for me," Falco returned with a smile.

"No problem, but I'm worried about you." The smile faded away. "How late did you stay up last night?"

Falco shrugged. "Wasn't that late."

"Yeah?" Fox took a sip from his milk carton. "Well I don't think it was enough if you're sleeping in the middle of lunch. What were you doing last night?"

Falco paused, avoiding Fox's eyes. "Studying…"

Fox frowned. "I saw the grade on your test last period. D minus."

"Don't you think that's rude, looking at my grades?"

"I guess so, but I'm worried about you. You're making Ds and Fs all over the place."

"So what?" Falco shrugged. He spooned some green beans in his mouth, even if they were mushy and cold. "I do really good in the flight simulators and in the practical exercises. That should be enough to balance things out. Besides, it's just school, right?"

"School isn't going to last forever." Fox crossed his arms. "Eventually we'll need what we learn for the real world. You need to think about the future, Falco."

"Sheesh, you sound like an old man over there."

"We're both gonna be old men one day." Fox leaned back in his chair. "Dad tells me this a lot. This part of our life determines what we do for the rest of our lives. I want to learn as much as I can here, before Dad lets me fly with him. Then I want to take over Star Fox when he retires. What are you gonna do? Graduation is soon. You need to have something lined up before school's over. Have you applied for the Cornerian Navy or anything?"

Falco blinked, vacantly gazing around the room. "I…guess..." He honestly couldn't remember, to tell the truth.

Actually, Falco didn't want to work for the government anyway. It didn't suit him with all of their paperwork and rules. Falco wanted to work for Fox's dad too, but unfortunately James said it wouldn't work when the avian asked him. He already had Peppy and Pigma on the payroll, plus the payments for the Great Fox. Falco didn't believe Fox at first when he said his dad took out an eighty year loan for it. He did like Fox and James, but damn was he jealous that Fox had his path laid out for him thanks to that nepotism…

Fox getting on Falco's case right now wasn't helping things. "That motorcycle racing isn't gonna pay the bills, you know," the vulpine said. "That's what you were doing last night, wasn't it?"

"No…" Falco couldn't look Fox in the face again.

Fox stared at Falco in silence for a moment, before he snatched one of Falco's arms by the wrists, turning it over to show the palm. Some faint grease stains coursed through the blue feathers. Fox shook his head. "Right…studying. Because as we all know, reading books will get your hands covered in engine grease."

"Whatever." Falco yanked his hand back out of Fox's grasp, glaring at him.

"Falco, you're lucky the government gave you a scholarship so you could come here. You know, since you were in that orphanage. They don't give many of those scholarships out. If it were me, I'd be grateful and I'd take this seriously. Not many people in your situation get that kind of chance."

"Why should I be worried?" Falco shrugged. "The government saw potential in me. I've got this. I know I can fly."

"Potential by itself isn't enough. You need to do good in the classroom exercises too, or the Cornerian Navy will never let you near any of their fighters."

Falco sighed, twirling his fork in the mashed potatoes. "I'm tired of talking about this. You're my friend and all, but I'm sick of this."

"I'm saying this for your own good." Fox leaned in closer to emphasize the point. "I'm your friend Falco. Sometimes being a friend means I have to say things you may not want to hear, but they have to be said anyway."

"Can't you do that some other time? Like in a week or two?" Falco ate some of the potatoes.

"With how your grades are doing and how close it is to the end of the semester, a week or two may be too late." Fox sighed. He fell back into his chair, and then checked his watch. "Ten minutes till the bell. I'll let you eat, but we need to talk about this later."

Falco had no argument with that. He continued to munch on the cold potatoes. Fox went back to eating as well They sat in silence for a couple more minutes, the clamor of the student body around them mere background noise in their heads.

Falco heard a pair of footsteps coming up behind him. He turned to look and spotted a most curious pair: a short yellow-furred cat and a tall gray canine.

The yellow cat stood there, holding a tray of food. Brown stripes marked his forehead and extended out from the outer edges of his eyes. His skinny tail idly swished back and forth, the yellow and brown alternating in stripes. He wore a white dress shirt with a red tie. Plaid trousers in crimson and purple completed the out-of-place prep school look. As for his height, Falco thought that even Slippy could challenge this kid there. The cat's big pointed ears and bright green eyes made him look very young too, like he was twelve.

Falco wanted to joke about his looks, but then took another look at the cat's companion. It was like night and day. The gray canine towered over the table, Falco's seated viewpoint exaggerating the height. Falco couldn't tell the exact species of canine though, but he had a blocky muzzle and pointed ears. Lighter gray fur accented the muzzle and the inside of the ears. The canone glared at both Falco and Fox with golden yellow eyes, looking vaguely pissed off and bored. He wore a dark suit over a white dress shirt. Despite the attire, Falco could see the outline of an athletic, muscular build beneath the clothes.

The young cat seemed oblivious to the canine though, and spoke to Falco and Fox with a smile. "Would you mind if I sat with you?"

Falco just stared, not able to take his eyes off the canine. Fox however smiled back and waved for the cat to sit down. "Sure thing."

The cat ran around to Fox's side of the table and sat down, and left Falco with the tall, dark, snarling stranger. With a huff, the gray canine slid into the seat next to Falco, not bothering to look at him or say anything. Falco did not mind that.

Ignoring the canine, the cat raised a hand to Fox. "My name is Giichi. What's yours?"

"Fox McCloud," he smiled as he returned the handshake. "That's…an unusual first name."

Giichi just laughed. "I know. You can probably tell from my clothes, but I'm not a student here. Just visiting for the day. I want to study abroad, so I'm looking at schools to go to."

So he is like a prep school rich kid, Falco figured. Must have loads of money. Falco kept his face neutral, but this cat's presence and demeanor somewhat annoyed him. Falco felt like this cat didn't belong here.

"Where are you from?" Fox asked.

"The planet Thaljista."

Fox's face went blank, apparently trying to search his memory for the name. "Never heard of that place."

"It's OK," Giichi shrugged. "It's far away from here, in another system. I wanted to come to Corneria since it's kind of like the center of the galaxy."

"So you want to be a military pilot?"

"I don't know. Haven't decided what kind of career I want yet. Been checking out a few different schools over the past week. I thought this school might be interesting, so I had Aug here set aside a day for it." He gestured towards the unknown canine.

Up until this point, the gray canine had sat there silently, his pointed ears lying almost flat against his head. However, they immediately shot up at mention of his name. The hard expression melted away from his face, settling into a blank look. Falco supposed this was as close as Aug got to smiling. In any case, the canine spoke before Falco.

"My name is Augustine. I'm Giichi's chaperone. Just keeping him safe while he's off world."

Falco thought 'bodyguard' or 'bouncer' would have been more appropriate words than 'chaperone'. Augustine awkwardly extended a hand to the avian, who also awkwardly returned it. Augustine's hands felt like they were made of solid iron, and he gripped Falco's hand too hard. Falco masked his discomfort, but thankfully Augustine seemed to feel just as embarrassed and soon ended the handshake, looking away once it was over.

"A chaperone?" Fox asked, looking between Giichi and Augustine. "Your parents must be rich. You're really far away from home too if even I don't know where Thaljista is." Fox religiously studied the maps in their space navigation class.

"Yeah…they are. But I like to get away from there every now and then. I wanna see other parts of the galaxy." He beamed a smile at both Falco and Fox.

"What other schools were you thinking of visiting?" Fox, looking pleased by Giichi's company.

Giichi stared off into the distance, as he verbalized a mental list. "The Cornerian Technical Institute. I like working with computers. Or maybe a culinary arts school…"

Fox chuckled. "Sure do have a wide range of interests, don't you?"

"I guess so. My parents pretty much let me do whatever I want. They said I could go to any school I wanted." Giichi paused to dip his spoon into the mashed potatoes. He took a look at them, raising his eyebrows. After one sniff, the cat wrinkled his nose and squinted hard. "Ugh…smells like it was scooped out of the bottom of a dirty sink. How do you eat this crap?"

"Hah, think that's bad?" Falco laughed. "You should see some of the crap they put in our MREs. What makes you think you're military material anyway? You look like you belong in some stuffy prep school with that uniform."

Augustine looked in Falco's direction and narrowed his golden yellow eyes at him. Falco unconsciously leaned back a bit.

"It's ok Aug," Giichi said, waving for him to stop. He turned to Falco. "You couldn't guess by looking at me, but my family has some military history, a famous soldier or two. Nobody you probably would have heard of though, if you've never heard of Thaljista."

"Yeah?" Falco cocked his head. "Everyone in your family look as small and cute as you? I have a hard time imagining you in the military. How old are you anyway? You look like you're skipping fifth grade to be here."

While Giichi had been relaxed before, the 'fifth grade' remark appeared to have struck a nerve. Giichi slightly narrowed his eyes at the avian, the slit-green eyes sharpening in focus. "For your information, I'm sixteen. I can drive if I want."

Falco belted out a laugh. "Oh oho ho…a driver huh? When you get your license? Last week? Bet you couldn't keep up with me on my bike. Can you even look over the steering wheel?"

"Falco…" Fox frowned. "Why are you acting like such a dick for? You only just met Giichi."

Falco remained silent, knowing exactly why he was acting the way he was, but not wanting to admit it. He was jealous. Jealous of this cat's wealth. How Giichi could travel the galaxy on a whim, with a minder too. This cat probably spent more money in a week than Falco would in ten years.

"So you like motorcycles?" Giichi leaned towards Falco with genuine interest. "You race?"

Falco looked at Giichi with mild surprise. It was like the cat hadn't heard any of his prior insults. He was eagerly awaiting Falco's next words.

Perplexed by this, Falco decided to answer honestly. "Yeah…I've got an old bike. Its twenty years old, but I put a lot of money into it to fix it up. We go racing down the highway every now and then…"

"Hmm…" Giichi grinned, showing off the points of some sharp little fangs. Oddly, the teeth made him look cute instead of predatory. "That sounds cool."

"Giichi…" Augustine interrupted. His long arm reached over the table far enough to touch Giichi on the wrist. "You're not thinking about what I think you're thinking about, are you?"

Giichi chuckled a bit. "No, of course not Aug. Just curious about the night life around here." He looked back at Falco. "Continue?"

"Well…okay. We meet at an abandoned scrapyard near Route S1, and then we just ride around Corneria City's highways."

"That sounds like a lot of fun. Too bad I can't be there, right Aug?" Giichi gave a playful wink to his chaperone.

"You know this isn't Gerrant, right Giichi?" Augustine's deadpan voice contained no trace of humor. "It's the other side of the galaxy. Things are different here."

"Different here?" Fox frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"Uhh…" Giichi looked like he was struggling to come up with a reply. "Different…laws, he means. Speed limits aren't as strict back home."

"Okay…I guess." Fox went silent, not sure how to respond to that.

Falco didn't know what to make of this either. He looked over at Giichi again. "What…you want to come ride with us or something? You know we get pretty grimy and dirty doing that."

"Wouldn't bother me at all," Giichi chuckled.

The bell rang out, interrupting everyone. Fox sighed and looked over at Falco. "Come on…five minutes till the next class."

"Yeah yeah…" Falco gulped down everything that was left on his plate in a flash. Between him dozing off and then getting into that long talk, he'd hardly touched his food. He had to hurry up.

"Holy…" Giichi's eyes widened. "How do you gulp it all down like that? This stuff is crap."

"Because Giichi…not all of us are as lucky as you. To most people, the stuff around here tastes like crap, but I'm grateful for it. It's better than what I got at the orphanage. I bet you don't know what it's like to be hungry. I mean really…really hungry, when you haven't eaten anything for days. Sometimes the orphanage can't afford to feed us some nights."

Giichi's eyes widened, and he went silent. Looking away from Falco, he spoke timidly. "Gosh…I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Falco kept his face blank, but inside he felt a mix of mild pleasure and sadness from humbling Giichi.

"Come on Falco…we're gonna be late now," Fox shouldered his backpack, before picking up his food tray.

Falco did the same, hurrying after the vulpine. He spared one last glimpse at Giichi and his bodyguard, but both of them were merely staring after them.

"So that's what it's about Falco?" Fox asked, once they were out of earshot. "You're jealous because he's rich and you're not?"

Falco frowned at Fox, not replying.

"I'll take that as a yes," he said as he tossed his food tray into the dishwashing line. "I see what you did there when you talked about the lousy food here."

Falco couldn't think of a good reply to that, so he set his own tray down to be washed. The two of them headed for the nearest door out of the cafeteria. They continued to talk as they jogged for the next class.

"Okay, fine, you saw through me." Falco finally said.

"Thought so," Fox said. "He sure did seem interested in your motorcycle stuff though. It was like he forgot all the nasty stuff you said before."

"Yeah…I know. A little too interested." Falco paused again. "Too bad the bell rang. I almost think I would have liked to say more."

"It's nice to make new friends, but you really need to knock it off with your bike. I see what all of that late night racing is doing to you. You're always tired even in the middle of the day. How do you even stay on that bike when you're supposed to be in bed?"

"Adrenaline. Pure adrenaline. Can overcome just about anything."

"Yeah? Well our bodies have limits on that kind of thing. Sooner or later even the adrenaline's not going to be enough. Bet you'll take a nasty spill one day when you doze off at the wrong time. You're not still hanging out with Katt, are you?"

Falco's eyes widened. He couldn't form any words. "Umm…ah…"

"Really Falco?" Fox rolled his eyes, stepping around a corner into the next hallway. "She's bad news and you know it. She keeps bringing you back out again and again for those races."

"Come on…" Falco jogged to catch up again. "We hardly get to see each other now. What's wrong with having a girlfriend? I see you hanging out with Fara all the time."

"Fara's not trying to get me to do stuff that might get me arrested…or in the hospital…or in a coffin."

"Excuse me," Falco laughed. "We're training to be fighter pilots, probably the most dangerous job in the galaxy. What I do with my bike is like driving Mrs. Marigold compared to that."

"At least fighter pilots do respectable work. Pilots can change the outcome of a war. Racing motorcycles on the street will never do that. Now come on…bell's about to ring."

The two of them were the last people in the hallway. Fox and Falco rushed through a classroom doorway, jumping into their seats just as the bell rang. The professor, a kangaroo, quickly began to launch into a spiel about flight physics. However, Falco paid it very little mind. Even in spite of everything Fox had said before, the only thing he could think about was meeting up with Katt again tonight to go for a ride. It was obviously bad for his health to keep going out like this but he couldn't help it. He just had to ride, no matter what…

Falco rode down Bedford Avenue in downtown Corneria City on his motorcycle. With it being 11:03 pm on a weeknight, the streets were deserted. Just the way Falco liked it, with no traffic in his way. Neon-lit signs for clubs and restaurants streaked past, lighting up Falco helmet visor in a wild array of colors. It always felt like day time around here with the lights. Sometimes Falco forgot to turn on his headlight here.

Falco needed to be up in six hours, but he didn't care. He'd meet up with Katt, ride around for about an hour, then slip back into the dorms and no one would be the wiser. The back door in the communal kitchen had a bad lock, and it was easy to jimmy it open with some paperclips. You were supposed to report that kind of stuff to campus security, but Falco always conveniently forgot to.

Falco turned off of Bedford Avenue and onto Slim Street, the character of the neighborhood instantly changing. Fancy establishments gave way to tattoo parlors and liquor stores. The street lights numbered fewer here with each pool of light like an island in a sea of darkness. Falco turned into a narrow alleyway between two abandoned brick buildings, the walls covered with crude graffiti. A chain-link gate blocked the passage. However, it was open just enough for a bike, so Falco slipped right through. The concrete transitioned to gravel as Falco entered an abandoned back lot with junk everywhere. He puttered past long-abandoned cars, overgrown with weeds and rusted over from decades of sitting out in the elements. The cars stacked high enough to form walls twice as tall as Falco's height.

He turned round a pile of cars, spotting an oil barrel with a fire burning in it. A solitary figure stood next to the barrel. It was Katt. The fire's glow bathed her in an intense shade of orange, while the skin-tight purple and white riding suit enhanced her figure. Spotting Falco approaching, she smiled and ran right over. Falco didn't even have time to get off the bike before she wrapped her pink fuzzy arms right around him.

"Katt! Hold on a sec!" Falco laughed, as he tried to get off the bike. "I know you like to cuddle, but just wait a bit."

"Oh come on…I hardly get to see you anymore." Katt giggled and backed off. "Just can't help it."

"You see me every night now." Falco jumped off of the bike and hit the kickstand. "That's hardly getting to see me?"

Katt's wide smile faded. "You know I'm only going to be on-world for just a little longer. We need every moment together we can get. My dad's going to drag me back into space any day now."

Like Fox's dad, Katt's dad ran his own PMC squadron and he let little Katt fly along too despite being a minor. That was illegal by Cornerian law, but not enforced much with mercenary groups.

"Don't tell me your father's already spent your big payday." Falco frowned. "Haven't seen you in like a year, and you've only been here a week."

"I'm afraid he's hitting the gambling and booze hard." Katt's ears flattened. "No telling when we'll be able to come back again. You know how bad Dad is at managing money."

"Yeah…" Falco sighed. "It has been about a year since he pulled you out, since he couldn't afford your tuition. Guess we better make the most of tonight then. So, what were you thinking of doing tonight? Want to hit the bayside highway? Bet the choppy water will look amazing under the moon."

Falco heard the sound of tires crunching on the gravel nearby. It sounded like four tires instead of two. A twin set of headlights shined on the ground just around the corner from their meeting place.

"Who is that?" Katt asked.

The sound of four tires made Falco nervous. He thought it might be the police. Some cops had motorcycles too, but most of the time they cruised around in cars. He wondered if they should try to hide.

But before he could do anything, the car's engine rose in crescendo, the tires howling as they fought for grip on the gravel. A car blasted around the corner…going sideways, the tires kicking up pebbles like water in a rainstorm. Falco threw up his hands to block the glaring headlights. The car kept coming, speeding right for them. It was too late to jump out of the way. Falco closed his eyes. A bunch of pebbles hit him in the knees, but otherwise he was unharmed. Wondering what had happened, Falco opened his eyes. The car's front bumper sat just a few centimeters away from Falco's knees, the engine gently purring.

Falco couldn't see much of the car with just the fire's light, but the outline appeared to be sleek, with a long rectangular hood flowing into a narrow, rakish windshield. The engine hummed in a low grumbling note. This was definitely no cop, whoever he was. Before he could wonder who it was, the driver's side door opened up. Falco watched as the door slammed closed, revealing a familiar face.

"Giichi?" Falco's mouth fell open. He was still wearing those prep school clothes even.

"Real sorry about that, Falco," Giichi looked away and rubbed the back of his head. "I didn't think you'd be standing right on the other side of that turn." It was like he felt embarrassed about spilling some milk instead of almost smashing Falco's legs into pieces.

Katt walked over, eyes wide at the young-looking newcomer. "You know this kid, Falco?" She looked at him with an eyebrow raised.

Giichi hissed at Katt, his skinny tail flicking around. "I'm sixteen!"

Katt chuckled, as she walked over to the smaller cat. "I think mommy would be very upset with you being up this late, little boy. And daddy too for stealing his car." She ruffled her hand through the fur on the top of his head, giggling the whole time. Her tail playfully danced behind her.

"I'm not a little boy!" Giichi shook her off and stepped back, glaring at her. "All right? I've got a license!"

"Hold it, you two," Falco stepped between the two of them, raising his hands to keep them apart. He turned to look at the yellow cat. "Giichi…what the hell are you doing here? And where did you get that car from?"

"I want to race with you, what else?" He said that as if Falco was supposed to know that already. Giichi placed a hand on the long red hood. "And this car's a rental. It's not exactly my style, but I think it'll do."

Falco did a double take. "Whuh wuh what? You serious?"

"Of course," he smiled. "I told you my parents let me do anything I want."

Falco glanced at the car, studying it. He recognized it as a crimson red Compadre HD1 muscle car, with HD1 being the base trim of this model. While initially surprised, Falco smirked upon realizing Giichi had the bottom-of-the-barrel model with the smaller engine.

"So are we going to race or what?" Giichi asked again, looking at both of them impatiently.

"You can't be serious." Katt shook her head. "This all feels like one big joke to me. How did you even find out we were here?"

"Falco told me at lunch."

Katt widened her eyes, looking at him. Falco just remembered it too now, and he was starting to regret it.

Katt crossed her arms, glaring at Falco. "You need to be more careful about what you say around strangers, Falco."

Falco wanted to melt into the ground and vanish.

"I don't get it…" Giichi looked between the two of them, confused. "I thought you guys liked to go fast. I know it's not a bike, but I bet I can keep up with either of you."

"You know your Compadre's the base trim right?" Katt smirked. "You've got the smallest engine for this model. It probably only made about two hundred and twenty kilowatts or so."

"It was all I could get on short notice."

"Hah, and what makes you think you can keep up with us in it?"

"Dad gave me a private race track to practice on."

Katt just laughed. "Right, and your dad owns his own city or something."

"Look," Giichi sighed. "If you don't believe me, just let me race one of you. Then you'll see that I'm serious. If you leave me behind, then I'll leave you alone. Deal?"

"That sounds good," Falco grinned. He didn't like Giichi anyway, especially for embarrassing him in front of Katt. "I'll do it."

In spite of Falco's smug expression, Giichi beamed a genuine smile right back at him. He didn't look like he meant any malice at all with the smile. In fact, the little guy looked rather like a child who'd just been given his favorite flavor of ice cream. There was no offensive aura or feel of competitiveness at all in Giichi's emotions. Falco didn't know what to make of that. Just what sort of driver looked like that before racing? Nonetheless, Giichi kept talking. "Okay, so how do you guys race?"

"We either go to Route S1, we hit the bayside route, or we buzz by the harbor. S1 is twisty, bayside is fast with long straights, and the harbor is a mix of the two. Your pick, since you've never driven here before."

"Hmm…I guess the harbor."

"All right. Over by the harbor route, there's a huge Ferris wheel for the tourists. You've probably seen it. Flashes all kinds of colors. You can't miss it during the night. I'll lead you onto route S1. Once we're off the freeway entrance, we're racing. Follow the signs to Harbor Route S2. Whoever passes the Ferris wheel first wins on S2 wins. You can't keep up, I leave you behind. Understood?"

"Sounds like fun!" Giichi replied with that childlike cheerfulness again, much to Falco's irritation. "When do we go?"

"Now." Falco jumped on his bike, slipped on his helmet, stuck the key in the ignition and twisted it. The bike roared to life, as Falco ignited the lights. He gunned it past Giichi. The cat just barely had time to get out of the way.

Falco buzzed round two corners back onto the street, but before long he heard the sound of Giichi's red car catching back up. The car rounded the corner behind him and closed in surprisingly fast. The white LED lights lit up the road all around Falco's bike. Once Giichi got within about five meters of Falco he slowed down and held that distance, not closing the gap any further, waiting for the signal to start.

Within a few minutes, a sign showing "Route S1 Counterclockwise" showed the entrance coming up on the right. Falco indicated for Giichi to follow with his blinkers, and turned into the entrance. The highway on-ramp descended down a narrow concrete tunnel, the lower half lined with mustard yellow tile. Soon the right wall gave way to pillars, exposing Route S1 proper on the right. Falco glanced through the gaps to see if there were any cars, but didn't spot any. Not surprising because it was a late hour after all, but one could never be too careful. He was about to cross the crack in the pavement marking the start of the freeway. The avian glanced one more time in his rearview mirror. Giichi still tailed him at precisely five meters.

"Here we go…" Falco whispered, leaning forward over the bike to reduce drag.

He felt the gentle bump of his tires passing over the pavement crack. Twisting the handlebars, the sport bike shot forward like a rocket, the front tire leaving the ground briefly. Falco leaned forward to keep the bike planted. And with that he was off, blasting through the underground Route S1 tunnel. The tiles on the walls blurred together, making them look more like a solid yellow bar.

The snakelike tunnel curved this way and that, uphill and downhill, or even a combination of both in the middle of a turn. Falco didn't care. He drove through this tunnel so many times he could drive through on only instinct. Good thing too, because the walls made all of the curves blind. If a taxi or something was tootling along up ahead, he'd only have a second to dodge it. Even if Giichi was a newcomer to this area, Falco decided to ride at an eighty percent pace. It'd be enough to win easily. Speaking of which, how was the cat doing? Falco glanced in his mirrors towards the end of a straight.

The avian caught a flash of the red Compadre just exiting the previous turn at the straight's other end. Falco looked forward the next turn. So Giichi was about eight seconds or so behind. The tight, twisted tunnels favored Falco's sport bike over Giichi's heavier and wider sports car. Eight seconds wasn't bad, Falco thought, but he didn't feel like he was in danger.

The tunnel exit approached rapidly, the cool night air blasting past Falco into the tunnel with a pleasant breeze. Tiled yellow walls gave way to concrete, neon and glass canyons, tall skyscrapers lining the elevated expressway. Falco found himself awash in a rainbow's array of colors as he blasted over the blacktop. The buildings on the left gave way, showing a dark sea of trees beneath the road. He was now cruising past Unification Park, planted to celebrate the unification of Corneria under one government. The blue and white Unification Tower loomed shined over the dark trees miles to see. The road snaked along the park's borders, with skyscrapers to the other side.

Falco spared another glance back. He spotted the Compadre just exiting the last turn the avian had cleared. That cat was closing the gap. Falco's eyes widened. And this was supposed to be the part of the highway where he had the advantage. Falco didn't want to admit it, but he was starting to feel a little nervous now. It looked like he'd have to increase his pace to stay ahead. He decided to take it to ninety percent for the rest of the route. Falco twisted the throttle just a little bit tighter, leaning into the turns at more extreme angles for higher speed.

Before long the sign for Harbor Route S2 flashed past, indicating a turn up on the right. Falco flicked the signal switch on his bike to indicate for Giichi to follow. The single lane ramp curved tightly onto S2, Falco leaning into it so hard his knee nearly scraped the pavement, the top of his helmet breezing past the concrete barrier on the inside. At the turn's exit, Falco returning to the upright position, letting the bike drift to the outside. The lane merged with S2, dropping Falco onto a three-lane.

Falco glanced back again. Giichi had just left the ramp like he did, now about three seconds behind. Not good. They'd left the twisty S1 downtown route, and Giichi was slowly but steadily closing in. Somehow Falco lost several seconds to Giichi's much heavier car in the twisty S1 route. What could he do now? His light weight and agility wouldn't mean as much on the straighter S2. The avian prayed for traffic ahead. He could slip between vehicles while Giichi would have to waste time going around.

Cranes and container towers replaced the skyscrapers next to the highway, signalling the start of the harbor district. Within a few more miles, they would pass the Ferris wheel. But every time Falco looked back, Giichi slipped closer and closer, like he was reeling Falco in with a rope. Soon, the Compadre filled Falco's mirrors. It's like that cop in my dream, he thought. Falco trembled, afraid Giichi was going to bump him.

Looking ahead Falco saw the Indigo Bridge coming up, named for the indigo lights flashed upon the suspension bridge's supports at night. Two semi-trucks trundled slowly along ahead of him, blocking both lanes of traffic. Falco eyed the gap between them. He'd have just a few inches of clearance on either side. The avian didn't want to get crushed, but then he'd be able to get away from Giichi. He felt terrified of having his dream wreck repeat in real life, so Falco decided to go for it.

He squeezed the throttle, headed straight for the gap. The truck trailers wobbled back and forth as he passed by. One of the trailers skimmed his elbow. Falco gasped, overcorrecting and skimming his other elbow on the truck on the other side. He adjusted the handles back and forth, trying to keep the bike headed straight. The exit was just a little further now. Falco squeezed the throttle one more time.

He was almost out of the gap and— A third tractor trailer rig changed lanes ahead, directly in his path. Falco hadn't seen it because the first two trucks blocked his vision. Falco panicked and squeezed the brakes too hard. All of the bike's weight transferred to the front wheel, causing the rear wheel to go airborne. The entire bike leaned forward, with Falco on top of it. In under a second the bike stood almost vertically on its front wheel. The avian went flying over the handle bars. Falco went airborne, the entire world going topsy-turvy as he flipped through the air. It all felt like slow motion. He couldn't see anything but the sides of the two trailers he was between.

With a hard slam, he landed on his back on the pavement, the harsh road surface tearing at his leather motorcycle suit. It felt like someone hitting his back with a multi-stranded whip. He rolled across the pavement, his helmet banging against the pavement over and over again. A roaring sound, like a freight train, rushed directly by his head. Falco realized his head had just been a couple inches from being smashed by truck tires. The visor cracked against the concrete on the next roll. Then he came to a halt. It hurt…everything hurt. Any movement caused that part of his body to feel like it was on fire.

Still, he tried to get up. Falco saw bright light heading for him off to the side, and looked towards it. A loud horn blared right in his face, Giichi's Compadre speeding right for him. He wanted to move out of the way, but his body painfully protested any more movement. Falco closed his eyes. The car's tires screeched, sounding like demons howling at him just before dragging him down to hell. Falco blacked out from the pain, not knowing if he was dead or alive.

For how long Falco was out, he had no idea. Vague images of everything right before the accident flashed through his vision. Giichi showing up…speeding down the highway…the truck…losing control of the bike…the headlights bearing down on him. It all came to him as if trying to view through a cloudy mist, and the solid wall of pain his body passed through made it hard to focus.

However, he started to gain awareness of his surroundings. One of his eyes was covered by something. The other eye couldn't see much of anything but white walls. He felt himself laying in a bed. He could faintly feel someone sitting off to his side, although he couldn't see much of anything. He tried to reach out in that direction. After moving his hand, someone immediately put their own hand on top of it. The hand felt familiar…

"Katt…that you?"

"Yes Falco…it's me. You're in the hospital."

Falco tried to sit up, but jolts of pain shot through him like electricity. He closed his eyes groaned, settling back onto the bed.

"Don't move, you're still banged up bad," Katt said, gently putting a hand on his arm. "You've still got some bandages over one of your eyes."

Falco realized he could feel bandages over most of his body, after Katt mentioned that. He thought his skin must look like someone took a big cheese grater to it. The thought repulsed him, so he decided to keep talking to take his mind off of it. "How long I been out?"

"Couple hours now. Fox told me he's on the way." Katt went silent. She took a breath as if to say something, but didn't speak. Falco looked at her curiously, and this seemed to cause her to regain composure. "G-Giichi is here right now."


Katt gestured to the other side of the bed. Falco slowly turned his head to minimize the jolts of pain, spotting Giichi sitting in a chair. The yellow cat's eyes wandered to the floor, as he tried to avoid Falco's gaze. With how upbeat and cheerful Giichi always seemed to be, seeing him like this was rather surprising. Nonetheless, when Katt mentioned him, he timidly looked up at Falco.

"Uh… Hi Falco." Giichi forced a smile. He didn't seem to know what else to say.

Neither did Falco for that matter. He too felt rather awkward. He'd treated Giichi like crap at lunch and talked down to him before the race, but still the cat was sitting here.

Katt decided to keep talking to fill the silence. "I followed after the two of you in case there was trouble. I didn't see the crash, but Giichi was already there. It's a good thing he was driving a car. We both put you in the passenger seat and he drove you to the nearest hospital."

Falco looked at Giichi, surprised. He always thought rich people only cared about themselves and their rich people problems, and yet Giichi had probably saved Falco's life by doing that.

"Uhmm…" Falco grunted. "T-thanks Giichi." It was hard to say that.

"No problem," Giichi quickly replied. Notably, this seemed to make him feel a little more at ease, as the cat kept up the eye contact. "Actually, I should be apologizing to you. I almost ran you over. I pulled the handbrake at the last second, and the car only just stopped right next to you. Least I could do was take you to the hospital."

"Wow…thanks." Falco was speechless for a moment. "But those things I said to you today…"

"Really, I don't care about that," Giichi shook his head. "I've had worse things said to me anyway. A lot of people don't like my family back on my home planet. It's part of why I wanted to go to school somewhere else. No one knows who I am here."

"I don't think I'd mind swapping places with you," Falco said. "I grew up in an orphanage. I never had my own room until I got to the academy. I scraped together my life savings to buy that bike…"

Katt suddenly took a sharp breath. Falco looked at her. She awkwardly chewed her lip, looking away from Falco.

"Katt, what is it?"

"Your bike… One of the trucks ran it over. It was in a million pieces all over the road."

Falco supposed he shouldn't be surprised with how he wiped out between two semi-trucks, but even so that bike was his most treasured possession. He felt like a piece had been torn out of him. And he didn't have the money to buy a new one. No more riding…no more races… What made it all the worse was that Falco had no one to blame but himself for this. He was the one who raced recklessly on it just about every night. He could have wrecked at any time before this, but Falco simply believed that would never happen. He was young and invincible after all, at least in his own mind. Tonight was a humbling wake up call.

"Are the police—?"

"They're outside, I'm afraid," Katt glanced at the door. "They'll want to talk to you once you've recovered."

Falco groaned. That was not what he wanted to hear right now.

"Don't worry, you're not alone," Giichi chuckled. "They want to talk to all three of us."

"Yeah, well you're rich." Falco rolled his eyes. "I've only got like fifty credits to my name. I bet any fines I have to pay will be way more than that. Hell, they might let you off scot free since you're rich."

"You want any help with the fines?" Giichi asked.

Falco's eyes widened. He'd just insulted Giichi again and yet again he'd brushed it off. Heck, with that offer he went even further than that. It felt embarrassing to take Giichi's charity though. Falco wondered if he should just try to pay it on his own and spare himself the humiliation.

"Well, you don't have to answer right now," Giichi smiled. "Just worry about getting better for the moment."

Someone knocked at the door. Falco looked over towards it, fearful it might be a cop. Fortunately for him, the door opened up to reveal Fox instead. However, Fox looked about as grim as a police officer probably would have. Falco did not like how Fox was avoiding looking at him. The vulpine put on a little smile upon seeing the avian, but it looked forced. He politely nodded at Katt and Giichi before looking back at Falco.

"Falco…good to see you're ok." He slid into a seat next to Katt. "How are you doing now?"

"Hurt like hell all over… Guess you were right. I never should have gone out racing like this."

"Yeah…" Fox looked away, sounding distant.

Why was Fox acting like this? Most of the time, he was warm and friendly with everybody. This sudden aloofness sent a vague chill down Falco's back.

"Fox, are you ok?"

"Well…" Fox paused. He looked back at Falco, then at Katt. He let out a long sigh. "I don't know if now's a good time to tell you. You still look pretty bad."

"Tell me what?" Falco's eyes narrowed.

Fox went quiet again, giving Falco a pained look. "Are you sure you want to hear this right now?"

Falco hesitated. He didn't like the way Fox said that. Nonetheless, he nodded for him to go ahead.

"I guess it is better this way, since you're hearing it from a friend." Fox paused, gathering himself up. "Campus president found out about your racing and the wreck from the police. He… He's decided to kick you out of the academy for reckless behavior. Your scholarship is revoked."

Falco's eyes widened. He couldn't process the information for a moment, as he sat there staring blankly. It couldn't be true. It just couldn't. Everyone said he had so much potential. He got that scholarship, he got into that school despite his background, he did good in the flight exercises. Why? Why why why? First his bike, and now this. His entire life was turned upside down. Speechless, Falco laid back into the pillows stacked up behind him. This hurt worse than the actual pain form his injuries.

"God…what am I gonna do?" Tears started flowing out of his eyes. "I'm too old to go back to the orphanage now. My bike is gone…scholarship gone…what will I do now?" Falco usually tried hard to never cry, but this time he let the tears pour.

"I don't know Falco…" Fox's ears flattened.

"I…I've got an idea," Katt quietly spoke up. Everyone in the room looked at her, wondering what she might say. She briefly glanced at the three boys in the room. "Falco… What if you do the same thing I did? You fly with me and my dad?"

Falco's eyes widened. Her father's PMC… He'd have work. He'd be able to make money. He'd still have a roof over his head.

"Is that a good idea?" Fox narrowed his eyes towards Katt. Looked like he still believed Katt to be nothing but trouble. "Falco hasn't finished his training. It's dangerous and illegal."

"I've been flying for a year without finishing my training, and I'm still fine," Katt said.

"Katt…" Falco interrupted. "That sounds great, but I don't have any money. I can't buy a fighter."

Katt blinked, apparently having forgotten about that. "Maybe… Maybe you could work on our mothership until you can afford one?"

"Wouldn't that take a long time? How is your dad going to afford hiring me anyway? You guys are always tight on cash."

Katt looked away, her ears going flat. This idea seemed worse and worse the longer they considered it.

"I think I can help," Giichi spoke up. Everyone else looked at him. He smiled warmly at Falco. "If you like, I can help get you a fighter Falco."

Falco stared at Giichi, astonished. Even for an old fighter with many flight hours, that would be around a hundred thousand credits at least. No small chunk of change. Most mercenary pilots barely scraped by the first couple years while they paid back the loans on their fighters. To have all of that paid for up front… He could start making serious cash immediately. He wouldn't have to work for the government, and he'd even get to spend all of his time with Katt. This was an opportunity sent from heaven. He needed to take it.

"I…I…gosh, Giichi." Falco had to stop because he was so overwhelmed by all of this. "Why are you doing this? I treated you like crap all day."

"Nothing is better to me than racing." Giichi smiled. "When you let me race with you, you gave me the one thing I love more than anything else in this universe."

Falco raised his eyebrows.

"As soon as we started racing, I completely forgot about all the bad things you said to me," Giichi was now grinning broadly, looking far off into the distance. "Sometimes I go to race circuits, but they have too many rules and regulations. It kills all the fun. But on the street, it's nothing but the drivers and the road: racing distilled into its simplest, purest form. Street racing could kill me one day, but when I'm on that edge I just don't care. When we raced tonight, nothing else existed but moment we were living in. No past and no future. Racing is loud, chaotic, and dangerous to many, but it is my version of peaceful meditation."

Falco's mouth hung open. Suddenly this young boy sounded like a monk. While strange, Falco couldn't help but feel enamored by the words. "That's...that's how I feel about it too sometimes."

Giichi laughed and turned back to Falco. "You see? When you told me you raced bikes, I thought I might like you more once we raced, and I was right. Don't worry about the money. To me, buying a fighter is nothing in exchange for tonight's race. Besides, I would hate to leave you in such a bind after this race. I feel responsible for what happened to you, since it was my idea to race you."

"You know Giichi," Falco laughed, pointing at him. "You sir, are a god among men."

"No, I'm just lucky I got born into money, that's all," Giichi gazed away from the others, as if trying to see through the wall. "I do hope one day that I can live up to what my family stands for though."

"That sounds great and all," Fox spoke up. "But Falco… This is the second time you've gotten a big chance like this. You wasted your scholarship with the motorcycle racing."

"Yeah Fox…" Falco sighed. "I know."

"I'm not completely on board with this idea. I don't like the idea of you flying without a license, but you do fly good. I think this could work." Fox placed a hand on Falco's shoulder. "Guess what I want to say is, you're lucky you got another big chance. Make sure you do it right this time, OK Falco?"

Falco didn't like being put on the spot like that in front of everyone else, but he supposed he deserved it after the stupid decisions he made tonight. He looked at Katt, smiling at him and obviously excited. Then he looked at Giichi, also smiling and happy about helping him out.

"Okay," Falco grinned at Fox. "This time, I'm giving it my all."

"Great," Giichi said. "We'll start shopping for fighters after you get better."

"I think I'll tag along too, after I tell dad the good news." Katt giggled.

Falco couldn't believe this. He thought tonight was the worst night of his life, but that crash may have been the best thing to ever happen to him. He was going to start over with just about everything he could ever want.

"Guess you leaving I won't be seeing you for a while, huh Falco?" Fox looked bittersweet as he mentioned it.

Falco's smile faded slightly, looking back at the vulpine. "Yeah… I guess so. You've been a real good friend Fox."

"Well, maybe it's only just for now," the vulpine put on a lopsided smile. "You never know what life will throw at you, like tonight." He grinned and looked at the others. "I'll go looking at fighters with the rest of you too."

"Sounds like a party!" Giichi laughed.

Everyone else laughed too. Falco looked at Giichi, wondering what cosmic force just happened to send the cat to the academy today. "Thank you Giichi. Thanks for everything."

"No problem," Giichi said, standing up. "Just get some rest tonight. I'll see you later."

"Yeah Falco," Katt stood up, tucking the sheet on his bed over him. "Tomorrow's the first day of the rest of your life."

Falco leaned over to put an arm round her, enjoying being this close to her. She gave him a gentle hug back. After that, he laid back in his bead. "See all of you later, once I get better."

"Bye!" they all said in unison, as they headed for the exit. Giichi and Fox filed out, but Katt stayed behind.

"Falco, I really feel like everything's going to be great from now on. Can't wait for you to start flying with us."

"I know Katt. I can't wait either."

"Get some rest, little man," she giggled.

"Okay then." Falco smiled. "Bye for now, girl."

She blew a kiss at him, turning off the lights and closing the door behind him. Falco settled into his bed, sleeping easy despite the wounds all over his body.