Across the world, far away from the Audio Knights and the PureBeats, a gap-toothed girl held her ground against an onslaught from the most unlikely of opponents.
She slid back against the sudden assault, fists pummeling at her crossed arms in an attempt to knock her prone.
Against such stone-like, battering fists, she could already feel the bruises forming, but Nami ignored the pain and instead focused on avoiding the next blows entirely.
This time, she swayed back and forth, dodging the incoming fists that were directed by her own mental signals.
In front of her, her Sweet Survivor-borne Sentonal reacted in succession to her own mental commands to attack. A flurry of fists flew forth, with none other than their very own Music Master as the intended target.
Nami dodged the first and second, and when the third came, she slid down onto the marley floor to avoid it. Her Sentonal would naturally only throw punches, so when it proceeded to attempt its infamous storm of fists, Nami found her chance at the startup.
Matching its speed, Nami put on a gap-toothed smile of satisfaction before going into a windmill in an attempt to force her Sentonal to back off.
Even after over a month of practice, she remained to be unwieldy and unsure. Nevertheless, the move still worked and she managed to keep her balance. Flipping back up, Nami shifted her feet as she faced down her ghostly sparring partner.
In the corner of this dance studio, Nami’s tall Gogo boots lay removed and unused as her chosen Nona Reeves song continuously blasted from speakers installed up above. For the last hour and half, she’d trained against her own song effect, purposely magnifying her own weaknesses in an effort to rid herself of them.
It was all Arashi’s idea. They had the space, they had the time, and most of all, Nami had the drive.
She grinned through her teeth, wiping small beads of sweat from her forehead. The memory of a better dancer, the infamous Afro-kun, remained as bright as the rising sun within her mind.
In the corner by her boots, Nami’s phone buzzed loudly as she was reminded that today’s time was up. She stood up straight in response, mentally informing her Sentonal that its job for now was finished. Like a statue, it received her command and just remained floating, fists at ease as Nami picked up her phone and grabbed her boots with her free hand.
Just a twist of the aux knob on the stereo nearby, and the room was silent, music disappearing and her Sweet Survivor vanishing in tandem.
Nami dripped with sweat, a rare occurrence for her. Her nose twitched, the notion of a nice warm shower on her mind as she clicked the dance studio’s lights off and made her way back into their apartment hall.
Water spilled through Nami’s long blue-black hair as she mentally recounted everything that had happened in the last few months.
It was crazy to think, but losing had paid off for Nami and Arashi in the end. Since they’d come back to Japan and been debriefed on the Rob Prototype situation, the two siblings found themselves on a comfortable retainer with Zero Beat as they were newly christened under the name Nagataki X.
Having been so used to going from hotel to hotel when they could afford it, it was odd for Nami to be able to have a bathroom that she could call her own. Zero Beat’s retainer was more than generous, allowing Arashi to purchase them a nice apartment just shy of the heart of Akihabara. It wasn’t his first choice, but he relented once he realized how important it was to Nami.
Nami blinked underneath the water, scrubbing herself delicately lest she agitate her skin further. The water tickled her toes and felt heavenly compared to some of the cheap places they’d often had to stay it in the past.
She couldn’t remember the last time she and her brother had argued about something. Recently, he’d been cordial, kind, and now seemingly immune to her demands and frequent impatience. Nami could only assume he was far too ecstatic with their current situation to care about the small things, but in the deepest part of her mind, she kind of missed his lecturing. On some level, it was the only thing that kept her reigned in and focused.
Nami switched the water off, stepping out of the quaint shower and grabbing a teal towel nearby. Wrapping it around herself to appear decent, she inspected her face in the mirror.
Never one to wear makeup, she instead showed her teeth to the mirror, her fingers lightly touching the gap between her front most incisors.
She would forever remain self-conscious over this part of her, and forever be paranoid that some quack of a dentist might only shift her teeth further. That remained to be the only reason she’d never had them fixed.
For now though, Nami brushed away such thoughts. She’d made progress on mastering the most difficult break dancing that had long eluded her, and additionally completed daily training just as Arashi had instructed she do so.
Tonight, she would allow herself the pleasures she long for.
This very night marked the beginning of a bi-weekly tournament at Shori-Platinum, where the losers waited to be defeated as her brother would watch her in support from the sidelines.
Nami smiled to herself triumphantly. This reward was well in order. Rhythm games, beating amateurs and her favorite shio bowl at the ramen shop after the fact. A perfect and succinct combination.
All that was missing now was Michael.
Among all the good that had happened to Nami and Arashi, Michael’s clear victory over her was the one thing that could not be wiped away. It was something she couldn’t ignore; something that plagued her dreams and meandered into her thoughts each waking day.
She could keep training, keep improving, and keep winning against the losers. The money from Zero Beat flowed in, and it appeared life was comfortable and at ease.
But until she saw him again, and until she felt that most wonderful feeling of seeing him lose against her superior skill, Nami Nagataki would never truly be satisfied.
Nami hated waiting, almost as much as she did losing. Her brother knew her incredible lack of patience all too well.
But he had also been the one to spark an idea in her mind, one that mirrored her longing to defeat Michael Kay when they eventually crossed paths again.
Last year, an American had won the world championship for her most favorite rhythm game. The comment from that old man still echoed in the back of her mind, that she was merely a big koi in a small pond.
She had soon realized that this was all too true, and the frightening thought that Nami was only winning because the competition was weak reared its ugly head in the process.
Arashi had only served to push her further towards greater goals. Nami now promised herself that once she’d conquered these bi-weeklies, it was high time to hit the national tournaments, and eventually, the coveted world championship.
Nami smiled to herself at the mere thought, as people cheered around her and the amateurs continued to play.
Why be satisfied with the small victories when she could have the biggest and most important one of all?
Nami watched in silence as the lights and sounds of Shori-Platinum blared all around her. In all her years coming to this place, it never failed to put a smile on her face. It was the only place she felt truly at home.
For today’s tournament, it was particularly crowded, and Nami stayed towards the back lest she be assaulted by familiar fans and their demands for autographs and pictures.
She turned ever so slightly, searching for her brother among the crowd but finding no sign of him. Nami’s expression became more unsure as she acknowledged his absence, but her moment of thought was interrupted as the female announcer finally called out her name.
“Nagataki-san, step right up! Remember everyone, one round, single elimination! Winner of tonight’s tournament walks away with a custom trophy and points on the leaderboard!”
Nami walked forward as the crowd broke like the Red Sea in her wake.
The concept of winning money was foreign to her. Not including Japan’s strict anti-gambling laws, bragging rights were far more important than any measly amount of yen.
Nami stepped upon the dance pad, the crowd cheering behind her as she waved back at them with a snide smile. She was never usually one to entertain her so-called fandom, but today was a special occasion.
As she allowed her opponent, a short, somewhat stocky girl, their choice of song, Nami knew that this new series of tournaments was about to mark the beginning of a beautiful string of victories.
The game counted down to zero as Nami relaxed into position. She’d missed the girl’s choice entirely, but it didn’t matter in the slightest.
After all, Nami had memorized every single song in all three distinct dance games that were played in Shori-Platinum. No surprises could be thrown at her tonight.
The beat dropped, as a raunchy, raspy singer belted out the opening rap.
Nami’s eyes widened, her feet already moving into perfect place as violins sang in the air and the match began.
As expected, the next two minutes were just business as usual for Nami. She moved to and fro quite effortlessly, catching each and every step as the crowd roared in response.
For that extra bit of flair, Nami closed her eyes thirty seconds to the end, having memorized the final steps to the song. Her boots tapped against the large dance pad with perfect synchronization, as the sound of the girl’s ragged breathing next to Nami signified that her victory was totally assured.
But when Nami opened her eyes, she was greeted with a sight beyond just the crowd of fans and an opponent who was beyond beat.
Floating in the air in front of her, pulsing to the beat of the music, was a large object in the shape of the Venus symbol. It looked no bigger than a shotgun, rotating on an unknown axis and gilded with shining, silvery facets akin to the surface of a disco ball.
Nami looked back at the crowd, but of course, no one could see her inadvertent song effect unless they were also Music Masters themselves.
It had been quite some time since she’d used a new song effect. Nami blinked as she reached for this newly created object, the noise of the crowd slowly becoming unimportant the closer her fingers got.
She stopped right before contact, a voice nearby interrupting her thought process.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. Not here, at least.” said a boy of succinct and organized tone.
Nami swiveled, almost expecting her brother to finally be standing there waiting for her.
At the same time, the song finally ended, and with it, so did that previous song effect. Nami made a mental note of it to herself as something she would further test later, perhaps back at the apartment.
Alas, when Nami scanned the speaker, it turned out it wasn’t her brother who had addressed her. Instead, she was faced with a boy around her age, wearing a high school uniform, with long black hair tied up in a ponytail.
She noted the scar just below his left eye, and when she saw him furrow his brow, Nami finally remembered where she’s seen him before.
“Hey, I remember you!” she said quite loudly, stepping down from the dance pad and now ignorant of her victory. “You’re that guy from EMI. The one I beat in like five seconds.”
“Deji.” he said, nodding his head slightly in respect. His hands were clasped at his front, his voice incredibly formal and polite. “Can we talk somewhere more private?”
Nami scoffed, then laughed through her gap. “What, you want a date? I’m a little busy here. I still have at least five more matches to go until I win this thing.”
Deji stayed rigid, and in complete understanding. “Sorry to disappoint, but it involves our kind, so I can certainly wait. Go ahead, I imagine it won’t be too difficult for you.”
Nami smiled, somewhat surprised. “Okay. You just watch and maybe you’ll learn something.”
The next match had already begun, but between this impromptu meeting and everything else on her mind, Nami’s focus was scattered.
On top of that, Arashi remained to be nowhere in sight.
Where could he be at a time like this? She could always depend on him to show up at the last minute if anyone got too pushy with her.
Deji remained stalwart even as Nami scanned him from top to bottom. He didn’t look too scrawny, but he didn’t look too strong either. Even if he was really here to do her harm, she was positive she could take him again with little effort.
Her eyes went back towards the arcade floor itself, both to search for Arashi and make sure of no one suspicious waiting around.
Thankfully, Nami saw no sign of that old man from months ago in the crowd.
She’d never admit it, but it felt out of place for Arashi not to be around to meddle in her business.
For now though, she’d have to be content with waiting for the inferior players to dig their own graves, and wonder if Deji’s appearance meant that Zero Beat finally had a job for them again after all this time.
Perhaps she’d be crossing paths with Afro-kun sooner than she thought. She grinned through the gap in her teeth.
That thought alone was leagues more exciting than any victory a simple video game could provide.