Ground Level

 

Part Five

 

TAICHI

 

I watch with satisfaction the thrashing trees beneath us. "Nice work, Izzy. That's stopped them."

"Unfortunately, only temporarily," he answers, ever pragmatic. "And that was the last of the spray."

I frown. We're running out of weapons . . .

"But they don't know that," Iori says suddenly, frowning at the plants. "I don't think they'll try anything like that for another couple of hours, at least."

"That's something," I pat him on the shoulder. "Go, get some rest. You need it."

Izzy and I walk back to join the others in the central section of the base.

"Evacuation can no longer be postponed, I fear."

"Jun's too sick to be moved--"

"We can't stay here, Taichi. You heard what Iori said--we have only a few hours until they attack again. We were fortunate this time, that no one else was critically injured--but next time--"

"I know," I sigh. I don't like this--but there's only one thing we can do. "Put the word out that we'll be leaving in a few hours. Everyone is to take only what they need. I also want a check done that everyone is here, and a watch posted over those trees--"

Koushiro nods. "Taichi, how are we going to get out of here? The base is surrounded--"

"Leave that to me. Just get everyone ready to go."

He nods, and takes the main corridor. I take the side door to the flight of stairs that leads to my room, quickening my pace.

I can hardly believe it's true--

Hikari. My sister. Here after so many years--

And Yamato.

They're sitting together on a mattress, watching and being watched by the crowd of children sent here at the first sign of danger. You can not fault the wide-eyed stares of the kids. They're beautiful, both of them. Frail and delicate within those suits--like nothing on the surface. If I hadn't stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago, I might say they were other worldly beings, brought here by a spell . . . in a way, I guess they are. I mean, from what I managed to get from Daisuke's rather garbled version of his encounter with the doctor, the underground is like another world now.

"Tai!" Kari spots me first, her face lighting up.

Yama's smile isn't far behind. "We were wondering where you'd got to."

"I meant to be here when you woke up," I say, sitting beside them on the mattress. "But, something came up."

"Something's wrong," Kari says. I'd forgotten how good she was at reading people--how much more have I forgotten?

"Yes. Daisuke told you about our plant situation?" They nod, looking worried. "There was an attack this morning. We put a stop to it, but they've breached our East walls. Iori thinks we have a respite of a few hours before they try anything again."

"Are we gonna vacuate?" One of the children watching pipes up.

I nod. "In a couple of hours, Hiro. Do you all know what group you're going to travel in?"

They nod, one of the older kids snorting scornfully. "We have had to evacuate before, Taichi!"

I give Yama and Kari a sideways smile. "Kids."

"Doesn't seem so long ago that you were that cheeky," Yamato says with a smile I've missed--

"You know Taichi?" the older kid demands. That seems to clear the way for a volley of questions.

"Why you wearing those funny suits?"

"Did you really used to live underground? Wasn't that dark?"

"What are you doing here? Did you come to find us?"

"Are you going to stay?"

"Hey!" Mimi interrupts. "You know it's rude to pester people with questions. Let Taichi have some time alone with his family. He hasn't seen them for ages." She shoos them into the opposite corner. "Now, I want you all to help me check if anyone isn't here who should be--"

**Thanks Mimi,** I send the thought fervently. She grins at me before turning back to the kids.

"I can't believe this," Yama says, and I turn back to find him studying me intently. His eyes--they arrest mine completely. Takeru may have the same shade but his don't seem to have the same power--no wonder the Yamato of my memory doesn't match this. "Taichi--its really you."

"No need to sound so surprised," I tell him laughing. "I can't believe that both of you are here. It seems like a dream." I reach out to touch Kari's hair--only to be stopped by the clear plastic of the suit she wears. I have to ask them about that--there is so much I have to ask them.

"It's really true, Taichi. We're here . . . I've been wishing for this for ages--" Kari smiles up at me brilliantly.

"A pretty strange choice of dream, if you ask me."

Yamato shoots Ken an annoyed look. I'd forgotten he was even present. "Can't you keep your positive thoughts to yourself?"

"That drug of Kido's is wearing off, Yamato. You can't order me around any more."

"Forget him," Kari says, gently recalling our attention. "If those things are going to attack soon, we don't have much time together--"

Still so wise? I wonder if I can still tease a grin out of her--"Hey, whatever happened to my younger sister? The one that was a real ditz, always chattering?"

It works and she laughs. "Taichi--" she threatens playfully.

"What happened to my friend?" Yama asks. "The careless, laughing, soccer playing idiot?"

"Soccer--that's something I haven't thought of for ages." I haven't had much time to dwell in the past--I blink as Yamato's fingers cup my face.

"I kept wondering what had happened to you and Takeru, wishing I could see you again, wondering what you'd be like if I did. I was afraid the surface would change you. You won't believe some of the horror stories the scientists underground came up with, of the effects the surface had on humans."

Yamato's fingers are cool beneath the plastic. "Wh-what did they say?" I'm suddenly afraid.

Yamato sniffs, dismissively. "Stuff to keep us underground. They told us the surface was unstable, that it caused death. Then there were the rumours about it causing abnormalities in people--" Yamato smiles, moving his fingers to my cheek. "And here you are, perfectly normal. Or as close to normal as you ever got."

I have to force myself to smile at that joke. "Wh-what kind of abnormalities?"

"Doesn't matter--just that the magic warped them, and they weren't even human anymore."

I'm confused. Don't they know? Daisuke must have used his powers--he must have told them--

**Daisuke? How much do Hikari, Yamato and Ken know about our powers?**

His reply sounds slightly aggrieved. **Nothing. I lost my temper slightly at the base but I was real careful after that, and I didn't let it show, just like you said.**

"Taichi? You've gone all distant on me--that's not like you."

My throat tightens. Everything that’s happened in the last seven years is between me and the two people I love and care about most and I'm afraid it can't be set aside, that too much has changed. I realize belatedly that there are some wishes that are kinder left ungranted. Maybe it would be better to have Kari and Yamato always perfect in my mind, in the nice safe distant underground--

Except the underground's no longer safe it seems. Another fairy tale gone.

"Maybe," I say, fighting back tears, "maybe we've been changed more than you think."

"Tai." He says my name so gently, its not fair, damnit! "You've changed, yes, I can see that, but only for the better. When I remember my friend, and then look at the person you are now--Responsible, compassionate, everything a leader should be--you should have heard Daisuke go on about you on the journey."

I notice that Kari has hardly contributed to this conversation, that she's been content to watch the exchange between me and Yamato. More, I've been too occupied by Yamato to really mind. Shouldn't my sister be my first concern?

Yet, it's Yamato's hatred I'm afraid of.

"Well, you know," I finally force a smile. "They say a leader's work is never done--I have to go do stuff."

I pause as I stand. The blue haired Ken is curled up against the wall, looking fixedly at nothing. "Ken?"

His gaze flicks sullenly in my direction. "What?"

I ignore the fact that his tone indicates he is only barely deigning to speak to me, and address him as I would any of our group. "Unless we tell you otherwise, stay put, okay? I won't have you endangering Daisuke--or any other of our group--again. Up here life's too precious to waste."

Something flickers in his eyes, but I don't have time to investigate. What I told Yamato was only half excuse--

"Are you sure, Taichi? It is pretty risky."

"Do you see any other option? Knives are only good once they've got you down, and I don't want to see anyone in that position."

"I suppose . . ." Koushiro nods. "I suppose it'll have to do."

"Great. Get everyone to start putting a bonfire together. And find scarves for people--the smoke is going to be hell to get through--"

"And the trees themselves aren't exactly a picnic either."

"Takeru?" He laughs as I do a double take. "When did you get back?"

"Just now actually. I got to tell you, it was close--those trees are nasty."

"Where's the rest of your team?"

"At the base. I figured things would be getting pretty interesting back here so I thought they'd be better off getting things ready for us."

"Good," I nod.

"Where did you come through?" Koushiro asked. "Did you notice anywhere that was less crowded than anywhere else?"

"Well the way I came wasn't too bad--until they realized I was there. Most of them seem to be moving towards the west side, like there's something there that they want."

"What's over at the west side?" I wonder.

Koushiro snaps his fingers. "Jun!"

"No way."

"It makes sense," Koushiro's eyes got a familiar glazed look. "I hypothesize that--"

"Hypothesize later," I tell him firmly. "We have a bonfire to organize, right?"

"Is there anything you want me to do?" Takeru asks.

I smile. "Go to my room and make sure that the kids aren't giving Mimi a hard time, okay?"

"Okay."

Koushiro nudges me as the younger boy walks away. "Isn't that a bit mean? Sending him to go and see the brother he hasn't seen for seven years without even a little word of warning?"

"Nah," I shrug. "It's more dramatic this way."

"I've never seen this side of you," Koushiro chuckles. "Taichi the drama queen."

"You."

We push each other around a bit, and then Sora calls me.

"Jun is getting better--as long as she doesn't try and walk herself, we should be able to get her to the other base fine."

I nod. "I'll find someone to carry her."

"What's wrong with Daisuke?"

"Well, I was thinking of getting him to mind Ken. He seems willing to put up with him."

"And your sister and Yamato?"

"Takeru can look out for them, easy."

Sora nods. "Leave Jun to me then."

"You can't carry her, Sora--"

"Before you call me weak or anything, might I remind you that I have the power to break every bone in your body by just touching you?"

Sora's healing powers can also be used for things other than healing. "As soon as we're out of the trees, give her to me or Izzy. I've got a feeling we're going to need our healer at full strength."

Everyone climbs in to my room for the meeting. I outline what we’re going to do clearly, so that even the littlest children understand. It's pretty basic. Koushiro and I are going to go through, cutting a path for the others to follow us as quickly as they can. Those at the back will have torches and fire the trees behind them. It's pretty risky. An awful lot of things could go wrong--but even if the worst happens and the wind changes, trapping us with fire, I think I'd have the strength to control that.

Only there'll be no hiding from Yamato and Hikari how much I've changed then.

"Taichi?" The meeting is over. Yamato has come to stand beside me. "What is it?"

"What?"

"I upset you before." Before I can deny it, he catches my hand. "Come on, Taichi, I've known you since forever. I know when you're upset."

"Maybe," I sigh, tightening my fingers around him. "But you don't know me now, Yamato."

Koushiro is making the preparations for our escape. I let go of Yamato's fingers reluctantly and join him.

Will he still want to know me after this?

 

YAMATO

I am really starting to hate those trees.

Damn it, I had Taichi’s attention there, just the right kind of attention, and now this has to come up and he’s gone again. I know we’re in danger and I should be worrying about that, but I really would like to spend some time with him… I mean, I haven’t seen him in seven years – is an hour or so too much to ask for?

It must be. On the surface, though, I guess that makes sense. From what I’ve seen, things are always serious, and there’s always some kind of danger lurking about.

It’s frightening, but at the same time, it’s a thrill. It makes me feel more alive than I have since we were moved below the ground in the first place. And that’s hardly a time I can remember very well, so this all seems new.

I ignore the people staring at me and watch Hikari playing with the children. They’re all fascinated by her, reaching out to touch the plastic suit around her, tugging at her arms, begging her to tell them about what it’s like under ground, in the cities. I sit behind her, and for some reason, none of them have approached me – though I see a few staring with wide eyes. It’s unnerving.

Ken, of course, is having none of it, sulking over by the wall and glaring at anyone who comes near him. What was he doing, I have to wonder, that made Taichi single him out for that moment? Trying to escape? I smile slightly at the thought. Not likely, Sunshine!

I’m not curious enough to try and pry it out of him. He probably won’t talk to me, anyway. If I really want to know, I can always ask Taichi about it later on.

Taichi. My thoughts wander back to him at that invitation I provided. He’s… changed. But I don’t think it’s a bad change. He’s grown up, obviously. I still remember a kid with big hair and a faded tan, with a goofy grin and open, friendly brown eyes. The grin is the same, when he’s not worried about everyone’s safety, and the hair and eyes match what I remember. But he’s different. He’s taller, and he’s got more muscle tone on him – there’s a seriousness about his face that wasn’t there before. His skin has to be at least three shades darker than it was. And it looks perfect. Exotic. The same things that, in Daisuke, had just been new and strange, are able to have a kind of beauty when mixed with Taichi’s features. He’s more attractive now than he had been when we were young. The times I’d tried to picture him while he was gone could never have gifted me with this image; it’s… beyond words.

I sigh to myself and turn back towards Hikari.

"Mimi!" The door behind us bursts open suddenly. "Tai told me to come up here and – oh…"

When I look up automatically, my gaze is met by a pair of very familiar wide blue eyes…

Oh my god… "Takeru?"

He’s still got one hand on the doorway, and the look on his face is priceless. "Y-Yamato?" he stammers, in a little squeak of a voice, which I can hardly place as the one that came from my shrimpy little brother. He’s tall now! And he has muscle tone, like Taichi’s… "How… but… you… what…?"

I stand up, and can’t help being pleased to realize that I’m still taller than he is, if only by a few inches now. His hair is still blond, and raggedly cut, like Daisuke’s. His skin’s lighter than that of the other two, but it’s darker than mine or Hikari’s… And on his head is the hat I gave him, before he got taken…

"Takeru," I say again, finding it hard to keep emotion from my voice. I hadn’t even realized, until now, exactly how much I missed him. Taking the few steps forward that close the distance between us, I grab him in a fierce hug.

He lets out a strangled, half-choking sob and clutches me back so tightly that I find it hard to breathe. "I can’t believe it! How is this… possible?" He falters, and pulls back to look at me. "I thought you were… I thought…"

I give him a half grin. "Well, you thought wrong – we’re here to stay. At least, that’s the plan."

"You… ‘we’?" he repeats, and then his gaze travels past me. I notice that Hikari had stood up when I greeted Takeru, and is watching us silently, the expression on her face a mix of anticipation, anxiety, and a number of things I can’t identify.

"Hikari," Takeru says softly, and the tone of his voice is very different from the tone he greeted me with. Or even the tone that I greeted him with. I recognize it, though. It’s the tone I spoke to Taichi in, just a few moments earlier.

"Takeru," she replies, just as softly. They stay where they are for a moment, gazing into each others’ eyes like star-crossed lovers. Maybe they are.

I roll my eyes discreetly at the potential for high drama. God, no…

Then Hikari suddenly laughs out loud and runs across the room to grab my brother in a hug that outdoes even the one I gave him. Then again, I’m related, so one would hope it wouldn’t be the same. "I’ve missed you so much!" she tells him, half-laughing, half-crying. "I never even got to thank you for the way you…"

"Don’t." Takeru’s eyes look a little watery, too. "I like it up here, anyway. It’s not like I’m sorry I did it. Besides, seeing you here like this is worth it, and more."

"Oh yes!" she agrees fervently. I half expect them to kiss, even through the plastic suit, but they pull away instead and look around at the rest of us.

The girl with the brown hair – Mimi, I think Taichi called her – suddenly lets out a little squeak. "That was just too cute for words!" she says, watching Takeru and Hikari.

They both blush.

"What a waste of precious time and energy," Ken mutters, from his sullen position. He doesn’t seem all that impressed by what’s happening around him.

"At least it’s making us happy," I retort, my good mood not even spoiled a bit by his bratty act. "I don’t think I’ve ever once seen you smile. Do you even know how?"

His eyes flash with indignation. "Of course I do! I know how every part of the human body works! How dare you insult my intelligence like that!"

"I wasn’t insulting your intelligence," I say dryly. "I was insulting your lack of humanity. Have you ever actually enjoyed doing something, or smiled just because you were happy?"

"What do I have to be happy about?" he answers coldly. "You’ve taken me from everything I know, forced me to live with these savages you call ‘friends’, and won’t allow me to return to where I belong. And now I’m forced to watch you people and your pointless, unprovoked display of – "

"Unprovoked?" I laugh. "You don’t know anything about the situation." I glance back at my brother and Hikari, but they look content to let me handle this. "You know, Hikari was the one slated to go to the surface seven years ago. Takeru wasn’t even a consideration. But do you know what happened? Do you?"

Ken stares at me. For once, he actually seems to be listening. I take that as an open invitation.

"Hikari was sick," I go on, staring him down. "Not just with a cold – though that probably would’ve been just as bad, up here. She would have died on the surface, no question. Takeru knew that, and he volunteered to be sent up here instead of her. They were that close. He risked death, and he lost everything, to save her. They haven’t seen each other since then – and that was seven years ago, remember. This is the first time they’ve spoken to each other in all that time, and they have every damn right to be as emotional as they please!"

He flinches slightly, but I’m not done yet. I’m on a roll, in fact. "You sit there like you’re so high above everyone else, passing judgement on people who have been through a hundred times more than you’re enduring right now, and you think you have the right to complain? Grow up! Do you think they had a choice of whether or not to come up here? No. So stop acting like a spoiled child and start concentrating on trying to make yourself happy. You don’t need a machine to do that for you."

"Happiness is a waste of time," he says sulkily, but it lacks much of the conviction he put into it before. His tone is slipping, too. The cold practicality has shifted to a tone much like that of a pouting child who’s lost his favorite toy. I think he’s saying those things to defy us more than he is because he really believes them any more.

It’s a start, I guess.

"Everything’s a waste of time." I smile wryly and look over at Takeru, who is giving Ken a curious glance. "That’s Ken," I tell him. "And, Ken, this is Takeru."

"Nice to meet you," Takeru says politely, moving forward and holding out his hand. Hikari stops him.

"Ken doesn’t like to be touched," she explains.

"Not by the savages that live up here," Ken adds.

I’d cheerfully wring his neck if we weren’t trying to save his life.

At that point, Ken is saved from the possibility of being punched in the face by Taichi and a large group of other kids coming into the room. They give Hikari, Ken, and me a couple of interested looks, but since everyone’s pretty much seen us already, it doesn’t last long.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Daisuke going over to sit near Ken. He looks up at the still-sulking taller boy, who pointedly ignores him, and smiles. I shake my head, looking away. I don’t know how he manages to be so nice when Ken is such a pain in the butt. It’s kind of amazing, actually.

"Okay, people," Taichi says loudly, and everyone shuts up. "We’re going to outline the plan for you. I want everyone to listen close and do what you’re told, no questions. We don’t want any casualties."

I’m amazed. He’s a born leader – how else could he get these kids to do just what he says, no grumbling or questioning about it? I try to concentrate on what he’s saying, as he outlines the plan that is supposed to get us all out and past those monster trees. It sounds risky… but if anyone can pull it off, I’m sure Taichi can. He’s probably been through worse, and still pulled through.

I wait until after the meeting before moving over to talk to him again. He seems upset… something I did? I remember the way he’d looked, when I spoke to him before – close to tears, almost. "Taichi?" I say, getting his attention. He look so tense… "What is it?"

He plays innocent. "What?"

"I upset you before." I don’t wait for him to make up some excuse, like I know he wants to. I should be surprised that I can still read him the way I could before, but I’m not really. "Come on, Taichi, I’ve known you since forever. I know when you’re upset."

"Maybe." He sighs, and his fingers tighten around mine. The expected excuse comes next. "But you don’t know me now, Yamato."

True. Some things have to have changed. But he can’t change completely. I just need a while to adjust to what is different about him – then, I’m confident, I’ll be able to know him as well as I did before.

He lets go of me to go help the red-head he identified as ‘Izzy’, and I let him go, not following. The last thing he needs is someone tagging along who knows nothing about what’s going on. I’m not stupid enough to risk my neck trying to help when I have no idea what to do.

The first part of the plan goes well. I don’t see what Taichi and the others up front are doing, but it’s obviously working. I’m in the middle of the group, with the littler kids and the people taking care of them. Takeru is next to me, hovering over Hikari protectively, and Daisuke’s somewhere behind, probably trying to do the same for Ken. When the shout comes for us to get moving, we do it right away. The kids don’t even put up much of a fuss – they’re probably used to this sort of thing, though.

The trees are worse than I’d imagined – not as bad as that mutant bear, but not far from it, and there are a lot more of them. They look like ordinary trees – giant ordinary trees – but they’re moving around too much to be normal. If anything is normal up here. Their vines and roots whip around their bodies, and only the fire keeps them back. Whenever a vine gets singed, or burned away, they make an awful screaming noise – like they’re in pain. I try not to look at them; it’s one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen.

"How much more?" Hikari yells. Her voice is strained with tightly controlled fear.

"Not much!" Takeru calls, holding her arm protectively and gripping a knife like the one Daisuke gave me in the other. He looks competent and alert. In a dangerous situation like this, I’m doubly glad to have him with us. "It’ll be okay! We’ve survived worse, trust me! Just keep moving!"

We move faster. There’s a lot of shouting and sounds like people are fighting… It’s the kind of atmosphere that breeds fear and panic. The only way I can keep from screaming or something is because I notice that the little kids are being quiet and moving like they’re supposed to. If someone who’s only four or five years old can do it, then so can I.

I can’t even hear if Ken’s complaining again.

The smell of spoke is nearly overpowering. My eyes water with it. They’ve started lighting fires in the back as well; everyone is out, and the trees have started to close in behind us. I don’t like the way it’s so uncontrolled – the wind makes the flames seem to bend toward us, trying to follow…

It’s terrifying. I’ve never experienced a fear this intense.

Horror stories will never be the same for me. It feels like I’m in one.

"Taichi!" Someone shouts, and a chorus of tree-shrieks sounds from all around us.

I look up, and my heart nearly stops. In front of us, cutting us off from Taichi’s little advance group, is a wall of flames. It circled around, catching on the wood from the mutant trees, engulfing about half of them. Now we have to stop, because we’re completely surrounded by fire.

Hikari gasps a little and Takeru clutches her arm, pulling her close. Behind me, Ken’s half fainted against Daisuke’s shoulder, and the red-head has both arms wrapped protectively around him. The former energy source for the Machines is obviously greatly effected by the waves of heat coming from the flames – which isn’t a surprise, considering the intensity of the temperature and the fact that he’s used to a controlled and stable environment. The heat fans over my face, making the plastic of my suit stick to me. A little hotter, just a touch more, and it could melt completely. I flinch back.

"Takeru, how are we going to get out of here?" Hikari cries, her voice cracking in panic.

My brother gives her a reassuring smile. "Don’t worry, Hikari. Fire isn’t a problem, not so long as we’ve got Taichi with us. He can handle it, no problem!"

I frown. But… how would Taichi be able to deal with something like…?

There’s a strange cracking noise, and the fire blocking our path in front splits in half and is thrust to the side by some unseen force. Flames blaze with a fierce intensity to either side of our group, but in front of us is a clear path to safety.

And standing in the middle of that path, with his arms extended to either side and a look of intense strain on his face, is Taichi.

"Get going!" he shouts to the group. "Now!"

Everyone starts moving, as if this is nothing out of the ordinary. As if in a daze, I get my feet working, to push me past the leader of the group, who is still standing in the center of the path as kids stream around him, arms extended, face set in that expression of unnatural strain.

I don’t know what to think any more. About the situation, or about him.

 

KEN

"It's okay, Ken. Taichi's here. He'll take care of it."

That's not logical, I think, burying my face against Daisuke's neck. I've never ever been this scared in my life. And with good reason too--the flames are so close that I can feel them even from here--

"Get going! Now!"

"There," Daisuke starts moving again, carrying me with him. I have a brief glimpse of Taichi in the centre of a break in the flames with his arms spread as if he can make them obey him by willing it . . . Then we're past him, joining the other group ahead of us. A few minutes more, the smoke thins suddenly and then, incredibly, we're stepping out on to the parched earth.

We've survived.

I gasp with relief as Daisuke sets me down onto the ground. Moisture floods my eyes--am I crying?

"Shush, Ken. It's okay," I look up then and start as Daisuke's hand brushes my cheek.

"What are you doing?"

He looks flustered, then guilty. "I wanted to wipe your tears. I forgot--your suit. I didn't mean to touch you--"

He bites his lip, then takes a step back. "I'll be back in a moment, kay?"

"Rest here," Takeru leads Hikari and Yamato over to where I'm sitting. "See, I told you we'd be all right."

I look at the forest and shudder. The fire is spreading, the trees writhing and twisting under it. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound they made as they burned as long as I live.

"Are we all here?" Izzy walks down the rows of exhausted, smoke stained people. I have to admit that the organization of these people is well done. "Everything okay, Takeru?"

"We're just fine."

"Wait--where's Taichi?" Hikari demands suddenly, fear coloring her voice. "He's still out there."

Yamato starts, coming out of an almost shock-like state. "He's not--he didn't--"

"He should be back by now," Izzy frowns. "He wouldn't have--"

"There!" Takeru points.

There's a break in the flames lapping the forest edge and Taichi steps out, the flame immediately whipping up behind him. I draw a sharp breath--I can't deny what I just saw.

No wonder the surface is off limits.

"I suppose we now know what the scientists meant by abnormalities," I say.

Yamato flinches.

I almost expect him to lash out at me, but he doesn't. His eyes flick over to Takeru and for the first time there's a sort of distance in them. Obviously wondering if he is changed too--

Takeru's too busy looking worriedly at Taichi to notice. "Izzy, I think--"

"Damn." Izzy is already moving towards Taichi. I wonder why--until the brown haired leader stumbles then falls. He's immediately the focus of a lot of attention. The surface dwellers crowd around him, over top of them, Takeru's voice calls for Sora, Izzy is telling everybody to keep back.

Sora is an orange haired girl with a business- like attitude. Only minutes after she has reached the crowd she has got most people out of the way, and is making plans with Koushiro. At least that's what I assume she's doing. We can't actually hear from where we are seated.

"It's okay," Daisuke has returned. "Taichi's not hurt. Sora says he breathed in a lot of that smoke, and using his power wouldn't have helped. We'll be resting here for an hour or so before we start towards the base."

I decide to let the fact that he chose me to plonk himself down beside go unremarked, I want information. "Daisuke, what Taichi just did . . . is that considered normal in your group?"

He shrugs. "Well, normal for Taichi. If I did it . . . well, Jun would have to stop teasing me for having such a crummy power. Of course, hers isn't that much better. I mean, what good was it against those trees back there?"

"You have powers too?" Yamato asks sharply.

"Uh-huh, only we're supposed to keep them hidden. That's why those guards back at your base captured me--I forgot and--"

A conversation with Daisuke is like playing pinball. Once he's started you have to do your best to shift him onto the topic of your interest. I was good at pinball. Osamu taught me how to play . . . "You have to concentrate to use these powers?"

"A bit. Sometimes you have to concentrate not to use them. I've had mine years now, I can't remember what it was like not having it, but you have to be careful. When you're scared or angry you might make things happen without meaning to, so you got to learn how to control it."

I wonder if the others are thinking of the bear like I am.

Daisuke stands abruptly. "Izzy wants me. I'll be back."

I didn't see the red head beckon him. I watch as Daisuke joins him, sitting by Taichi. I wonder what power our erstwhile guide has. He didn't say.

"I should have known it was too good to be true," Yamato says, suddenly. "Bastard councilor's. I'd like to wring their scrawny necks."

I turn my attention back to my companions. Yamato's attention, rather curiously, is focused on Taichi and not his brother. As I watch, Taichi looks up and meets Yamato's gaze. His face tightens and then he looks up at Sora with a stilted smile. Yamato is silent.

Three days ago, if you'd asked me, I would had affirmed that silence was my preferred operating condition, that nothing was as restful. Now I wish he'd say something, anything, just to end this oppressive mood--

"Maybe--" Hikari speaks up quietly. "Maybe it's not as bad as we think. We don't know--" She stops. A few minutes later she starts again. "After all, Daisuke did nothing to harm us--"

"Has done nothing to harm us yet," Yamato voice is what? Bitter? Dark? I've become a lot more adept at reading emotion than I was . . . and yet this still confuses me. And I thought machines were complex.

But Daisuke . . . Daisuke is in many ways not complex. And in others, very confusing. "Daisuke wouldn't hurt us. Such an occurrence does not conform with his behavior patterns."

Yamato snorts. "And this from the expert on human psychology. Well, I hate to say it but I think your programmer's missed a few logic circuits--"

"I wasn't the one who wanted to come out here!" I snap back. Oddly enough, now that I turn out to have been justified in my dislike of everything beyond my machine, I'm strangely . . . dissatisfied.

"We still have the suits," Hikari says firmly. "We can go back if we wish. But let's give the surface another chance. After all, we don't know everything--"

She breaks off as Daisuke and Takeru return.

"How are you feeling?" Yamato's sun haired brother asks.

Daisuke doesn't wait for us to answer. "You up to heading back to the base now? It'll probably take you guys longer because you're not used to the long walks, but you don't want to be travelling at night, and Taichi doesn't want to put you all in danger just because he got careless."

"It's not that far," Takeru says. "Once we're there you'll be able to relax properly and everything."

"You'll really like this base. Izzy says it's something called a train--it's a type of machine, Ken."

Is he trying to make me feel happy? I look at his hopeful expression and feel something . . . strange. "I doubt it will be anything like my machine. It was formulated and built in the few years just before the surface became unsafe, and even then it was still in the trial phase--"

"Machine?" Takeru asks. He obviously hasn't heard the story yet--

Yamato and Hikari fill him in on the last seven years. I observe silently, Yamato’s words from this morning in my mind. If it hadn’t been for chance, Hikari would have been the one sent up here. Knowledgeable, practical Hikari . . . Takeru would be normal. I try to imagine it . . . Takeru, his hair cut as neatly as Yamato’s, his skin just as pale. Hikari . . . would she be as dark as her brother? No . . . she’d be dead. Another one of the countless victims of the surface . . . I’m surprised to discover just how sad that thought makes me. It isn’t fair that they were summarily singled out and expelled like that . . .

Daisuke is helping by filling in details. Apparently his short time spent in the underground makes him an expert. I listen entertained as he tells Takeru about sliding doors and doctors.

I'm less than amused, however, when the subject reaches me.

"Miyako had proof that the machines were unsafe. The first operator died of heart strain eight years into powering it—"

"That’s not true! You don’t know anything about it!"

Yamato and Hikari look surprised—I suppose this is the first time I’ve yelled. I’m too angry to care.

"Osamu died because a tech who went to the surface infected him! I should know after all—I was there when it happened!"

"Ken," Hikari forestalls quietly but I’m in no mood to be calmed down.

"I know what happened! It’s bad enough you dragging me to the surface, without bringing my brother in to justify it—leave Osamu out of this!"

There is pity or something like it in their faces. I don’t want to see it. Daisuke calls after me as I turn my back on them and stalk off.

"Ken!"

I ignore him and keep walking.

"Ken," he catches up to me. "Don’t go off by yourself—this is the swamp right, remember the bear? Stick close to me and I’ll get you through."

Just yesterday and I thought I’d never forget the bear.

We have what I suppose in surface terms is a relatively uneventful journey, reaching the base shortly after Takeru, Yamato and Hikari do. The rest of the surface dweller’s reached here long before we did, even Taichi.

Daisuke was right. I do approve of this base.

I walk up and down the tracks, looking at the train . . . some sort of vehicle by the looks of things. It is divided into sections called carriages, with an engine at the front. I poke around with the controls happily.

"This one here probably controlled the brakes, while I’d say these here were the acceleration . . ."

I have an audience of not just Daisuke but Koushiro as well. "I’ll have to show you my collection of old machines and tools. I’ve been attempting to restore them. However, since most of them require an external power source, there’s not a lot I can do—"

"I’m sure with the right materials a generator wouldn’t be too hard to pull together," I muse. Daisuke is watching me again—this time he’s smiling slightly.

"Izzy!" Taichi calls and our companion excuses himself.

"What?" I ask Daisuke.

"What?"

"What was that smile all about?"

He rubs the back of his head as if he thinks I’m going to yell at him. "I was just thinking . . . you almost looked happy then."

I stare at him in astonishment.

"Taichi has instructed me to take you to your carriage." Izzy returns. "Come on."

The carriage is large enough for three mattresses to be spread comfortably on the floor. Unlike those at the hotel, these are made from plastic cushions, which Daisuke tells us come from seats which used to adorn the train. The room apparently is Taichi’s, however, we do not see the scruffy haired leader all evening.

Although not an expert, I think he’s avoiding us, or, more to the point, Yamato.

"What are those things?" Daisuke asks, watching as Yamato and Hikari unpack their packs.

"It’s a meter designed to measure the amount of non standard particles in an object or atmosphere. In other words, it measures how much magic is in something."

"Why did you bring that?"

"In order to decide whether or not it was safe to take off our suits."

Daisuke looks at me. "Would you take off your suit if the machine told you it was safe?"

I snort. "No way."

"There . . . it’s ready to go," Hikari stands up and holds out the device. ‘I’ll measure the room first."

"Level of pollution 1-2%. Safe for human habitation."

"It talks!" Daisuke is astonished. "How does it do that?"

"There’s a recording inside." I inform him, trying not to smile.

Hikari points the machine at Daisuke.

"Level of pollution 22%. Advise caution."

"Thanks a lot," Daisuke tells the machine sourly.

"I don’t understand. Below 25% is not supposed to have any adverse effects on people," Yamato says.

"Dude, maybe it’d change if I used my power." Daisuke has come up with a useful suggestion. "Want me to?"

Yamato nods cautiously. "I suppose so . . . "

"Cool." Daisuke goes quiet then, and shuts his eyes. There’s a minute or so when nothing happens . . . then Hikari squeaks as her pack floats past her. I scramble to my feet to stare in astonishment at our belongings—now floating about a metre off the ground.

"Hell," Yamato whispers.

Daisuke grins suddenly and then next thing I know there’s a squawk from Yamato.

"Put me down!"

He’s suspended about 30 centimetres off the ground and does not look happy about it at all—

I laugh.

 

DAISUKE

Yamato, and the packs, crash to the ground.

"Ow! Christ!"

I don’t notice him, because I’m busy gaping in astonishment at Ken, who only laughs more at the older boy’s pain. He has a sense of humor! A kinda weird sense of humor, sure, but I can’t help being elated all the same.

"Ken, you’re laughing!"

He stops, and gives me a condescending look. "Bright as ever, aren’t we?"

Ah, good. I was half afraid he’d gone insane – but if he’s insulting my intelligence, he must be fine.

I beam at him. He’s less… bitter. And he was having fun with Izzy, I could tell. He could help with building things for us – I’m sure he’d fit right in! We could take care of each other – I’d save him when there was trouble, and he could keep me from doing dumb things that would put me in danger. And we’d be together forever, just me and him, sharing nice quiet moments like some of the other couples. I could run my fingers through his hair and he’d…

"Um… Daisuke?" Hikari is waving a hand in front of my face.

I blink, and force my gaze from Ken to look at her. "Huh?"

She looks like she’s going to start laughing, but politely holds back. "I said, the meter gave you a 28 rating when you were making stuff float around. So I guess that’s what makes it go off."

"Oh." I frown at the machine in her hands. Stupid thing. It says I’m not safe enough for Ken. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah." She tucks the machine away again. "Do the others have powers, too, Daisuke? I mean, if you can move stuff with your mind, and Taichi does…"

"Fire," I supply helpfully.

"Right." Hikari nods. She’s taking this very well – a lot better than Yamato, who is still staring moodily at the wall. He and Ken have almost kinda switched places, which I think would be pretty funny, except that it’s not making Taichi very happy. "Can you tell me what sort of powers the others have?" Hikari asks.

"Okay!" I sneak a glance at Ken, who is actually looking mildly interested. He didn’t tell me to stop staring last time… "Well, Jun can walk through anything that’s not alive," I begin, trying to divide my attention between Hikari and Ken. "Izzy has lightening, Iori can talk to animals and stuff, and Mimi can sense when things are moving around, even from miles away. Oh, yeah, and TE can make plants grow faster."

Yamato glances up sharply at that, then looks away again, eyes almost pained.

"TE?" Hikari smiles.

I grin. "TO, TA, TN… Whatever."

She laughs, then an expectant spark forms in her eyes. "Do you know where he is? I think I’d like to go and talk to him. We haven’t had much time together, you know… and it’s been seven years…"

"Yeah, I understand." Sorta. "I think he’s with Taichi – probably in the main room. Need me to show you the way?" Not like it’s that hard – just straight through all the compartments in the train.

"That’d be great, thanks."

I look back over my shoulder before we leave. "Want to come, Yamato?" I ask. "Taichi will be there… you know… I thought you might wanna talk to him."

He shakes his head. "I’ve got some thinking to do. Tell him… I’ll see him later, okay?"

"Sure thing, dude!" I look over at Ken, and smile, hoping to find a hint of interest – or, even better, attraction – in him. "Bye Ken," I say, a little awkward but doing my best to hide it.

He doesn’t say anything, but he does look up at me, and his eyes aren’t cold or hateful.

I feel fluttering in my stomach.

Hikari smiles at me as I join her in the weird sorta hallway thing in the train. "You really like him," she says – not a question. But not teasing or mocking me in any way. "That’s pretty sweet."

I can’t help it; my cheeks burn. "Um… thanks," I say. "So… do you think he likes me?"

"Give him some time, and I think he could," she answers honestly. "Just keep at it, Daisuke. You’re doing fine so far. This has to be the closest to actual human behavior I’ve seen him show."

I feel myself flush with pleasure at that. "Really? You really think I have a chance?"

"If you’re patient, then yes. I really think you do."

I bite my lip and skip a little, excited at the idea. I have a chance with Ken! I have a chance with Ken! Hikari said so, so it must be true! I’m filled with hope and happiness and all kinds of ideas about what we can do when we get together and confess our undying love.

"But it’s going to take you a while," Hikari says, cutting into my little fantasy world. "I mean, Ken isn’t exactly thrilled with you, not yet. You’re really going to have to work on it if you want anything to happen."

Yeah. That makes my good mood a little less ecstatically happy. Ken doesn’t like me very much right now. But maybe he will later. Maybe I can wow him with my charming and exciting personality. Maybe I can wow him with my dazzling wit. Maybe one day he’ll wrap me up in his arms and we can take off that stupid plastic suit and then…

"Daisuke!" Takeru says when I walk into Taichi’s compartment – but he’s not looking at me. "And Hikari, hi!" He’s grinning like an idiot. Well, maybe not, but I think he looks like one.

Well, not really. But I can say I do.

"How’s Yamato doing?" Taichi asks, a touch weakly, from his position on one of the matrices. "And Ken," he adds, as an afterthought.

"Yamato wants to see you later, but he’s thinking right now," I report dutifully. "And Ken’s good. Ken’s really good. I think Ken would be really good at lots of things, you know. Like working with machines like Izzy does, and figuring out how things work…" And kissing, I add silently, grinning to myself. I’ll bet he’d be a real good kisser, his lips look so soft…

"That’s nice," Sora comments, smiling slightly.

"And are you doing all right, Hikari?" Takeru asks, looking a bit anxious. "I know, the whole fire thing was pretty freaky…" I think he’d like to ask what she thinks of the whole ‘powers’ idea, but he’s nervous about it.

"I’m fine," she assures him. "It was frightening when we were there, but it’s not so bad now." She smiles a little, hesitantly. "Daisuke says you can make plants grow faster."

"Right." He nods. "It’s not much, but it comes in handy sometimes."

"You should show me some time," she says, and the tension between them is instantly vanished, as if it wasn’t even there. Must be nice to have such an easy relationship…

"All right," Takeru promises softly, taking her hand. "You know, Hikari…" He glances at the rest of us, looking embarrassed. "Uh… want to talk outside? It’ll be safe if we stay close to the train."

"Sure," she agrees, smiling a bit shyly. They leave the room, still holding each other’s hand.

I wish I could hold Ken’s hand. Even through the plastic, I bet it’d be nice.

"Hey Daisuke?" Taichi sits up a little, brushing aside Sora’s attempts to keep him lying down. "Did Yamato say anything, while you were in there? About what happened?"

"Not really…" I try to remember. "Hikari got out this machine that was supposed to test how much pollution was in the air, and whether it was safe to take off their suits. It talked, too – it was really pretty cool. Anyway, the room was only one or two, but I was 22 – 28 when I use my powers – and I guess that’s bad."

Taichi sighs, and looks sad. "But did Yamato say anything?" he asks again.

"Not really, except that 25 is supposed to be the number where humans are affected by the pollution," I reply. "He’s sitting in there and staring at the wall and kinda acting like Ken used to…" I smile to myself at that thought. "Except Ken’s not acting like that so much any more. He even laughed once."

Taichi gives me a weak smile. "That’s great, Dai," he says, but I can tell he’s not happy. I wonder if Yamato had anything to do with that… I think Taichi feels for Yamato like I do for Ken. He’s got more chance, though. Yamato doesn’t think he’s stupid and dirty.

I wonder if the flowers would work with Ken… I didn’t get the chance to try, before.

"I’m gonna head back," I tell Taichi and Sora. "I just wanna ask TO something first, then I’ll go make sure those two aren’t trying to kill each other or something."

Another weak smile. "Okay. Let me know when Yamato wants to talk, all right?"

"You got it, dude!" I flash him a quick grin and hurry out of the room to find an exit that will lead me to Takeru and Hikari.

I see them before they notice me, probably because I’m just looking through a window and haven’t opened the door yet. They’re talking quietly, and Takeru is holding one of Hikari’s plastic-covered hands. He doesn’t seem to mind the plastic much, because as I watch, he lifts the hand up and kisses it softly. Hikari smiles at him in return, and they stare into each others’ eyes for a moment.

Would Ken let me do that? Would he do it to me? Hikari’s lucky, she can just look at Takeru and he does all kinds of romantic stuff, like kissing her hand. Takeru’s lucky too, he can do all that romantic stuff, and she lets him. I can’t help it – when I watch them, I really, really wish that Ken would suddenly just come up to me and stare into my eyes and smile at me and tell me I’m perfect and wonderful and that he wants to stay here with me forever.

But he won’t. I know that much.

"Hey, TB?" I say, stepping out of the train. He turns to look at me, but doesn’t release Hikari’s hand or move away from her. They both look really happy. "Um… can you do me a favor? I… need some flowers. Just a couple, but if you’ve got some seeds or something and can grow a few of them…"

"Sure." Takeru smiles. "I’d be happy to. And that’s a good way to demonstrate for you, Hikari. I did say I’d show you how my powers work."

"Sounds great," she agrees.

He reaches into the pouch that he keeps tucked onto his belt and bends down to bury the seeds in the ground a little. Then he closes his eyes and a look of concentration passes over his face. A few seconds later, there are little shoots springing up from the ground. They mature right in front of our eyes, growing bigger and sprouting leaves, and finally blossoming into a huge armful of brilliant white and yellow flowers.

Hikari looks awed. "Oh wow… that was amazing…"

"Thanks, dude!" I grab a handful of the stems and pull them from the ground carefully. "These are perfect! Knew I could count on you, TL!"

"No problem." Takeru picks the rest himself and turns toward Hikari again. I can already predict what’s coming next, and I really don’t want to watch them getting mushy again…

Before I have to see or hear anything, I hurry back through the door and back down through the train to where Ken and Yamato are.

Just before I go into the room, I change the half-formed plan I’d had and hide the flowers behind my back. Then I walk back in. "Hey guys!"

Yamato gives me a brief glance, nods, then goes back to studying the wall. Ken doesn’t even look up; apparently, the floor is more fascinating than I am.

What a fun-loving pair.

"Hi Ken," I say, a bit hesitantly. I remember what sometimes happens when I try to talk to him. I walk over and sit beside him, and this time he does look up, but he doesn’t say anything. He just looks at me.

I guess the fact that he hasn’t told me to go away is a good sign.

"I got something for you," I say, watching his face for signs of what he’s thinking. I can’t tell, though. I can never tell. I just hope that he’s thinking something good. "It’s not much and all, but I… well… you know…" I pull the flowers out from behind my back and hold them toward him. "Here."

He looks at the flowers, then at me. His forehead creases, as if this is a huge puzzle he’s trying to solve. "Is there some purpose for these that I’m unaware of?"

"They’re flowers," I explain. As if he wouldn’t know that. "You give them to people you like. I like you. So I got you some flowers. See?" I try a smile, hoping that explanation wouldn’t make him too mad at me.

He’s looking at my face, as if he’s trying to figure out what it is or something. "I don’t understand," he admits – it’s the first time I’ve heard him say that.

Even Yamato seems to be taking an interest. He’s turned his attention away from the wall and is watching me shift nervously, still holding the flowers. He doesn’t interrupt us, but there’s a funny look in his eyes.

"Well, they’re like a present," I try to explain, trying to ignore Yamato. "I like you a lot, and I wanna see you happy. I thought that maybe if I got you a present, it might make you happy. I thought that maybe you’d like them. They’re kinda pretty, see?"

I expect to get some kind of retort about how pretty things are a huge waste of time and we should all focus more on efficiency and work, so I’m really surprised when Ken says, "All right," and takes the flowers from me. "Thank you," he adds. The way he says the words, it makes it sound like he’s trying to sound them out for the first time.

I blink for a moment, shocked, then a huge smile spreads across my face. He actually took them! I can hardly believe this… "You really like them?" I ask, staring at him hopefully.

"I appreciate the thought," he answers in that flat tone, but he’s looking at the flowers in a strange way. I’ve never seen that kind of look on his face before, and I can’t tell what it means.

"Great!" I grin, feeling thrills all the way through me, and settle in to stare at Ken.

He still ignores me, but this time he doesn’t tell me to stop.

I think that’s a good sign. It’s something, anyway.

 

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