Ground Level

 

Part Six

 

TAICHI

 

Taichi, this is the last time Iím going to say thisóstay still." Soraís getting that tone again. Last time I heard her use it, someone wound up with a broken arm. It wasnít Sora.

I collapse back on to my bed pouting. "This is a waste of time. I should be taking care of stuffó"

"Koushiro and I are well capable of taking care of everything. We have before you know. Remember last year when you took a scouting group into the mountains while we minded the base? You were gone a week then and we survived."

Sheís right. "I still donít like just sitting here."

Jun laughs, from her mattress on the other side of the room. "Itís a tough job, Taichi, but somebodyís got to do it."

Iím forced to smile. Junís got even longer to wait until Sora lets her up again. Itís still pretty amazing to think sheíll be getting up at all.

"If you want something to do, Iíll send in the kids. Thatíll keep you occupied," Sora pulls together her stuff. "It should take your mind off moping."

"Whoís moping?" Jun demands immediately.

Sora sticks her tongue out. "Not you, for once. Taichi."

"I happen to have a lot to think about," I say in my defense. They both look skeptical.

"Whatever it is, it can wait. You are not getting out of this bed until I say so."

When Sora says something like that, she means it.

I resign myself to my fate. Actually, this might just be as wellóI donít have a clue what Iím going to say to Yamato. My first instinct is to throw myself at him and beg him not to hate me but given the way he looked at me beforeóthat just might make this worse.

Although itís hard to know how it could be any worse.

Yamato . . . he either hates me or is scared of meóotherwise heíd be here with me now. Either way, Iíve lost him. I canít bear the way he looks at me with that distance in his eyes. Being stabbed couldnít be more painful.

"Man, you are broody. Whatís the problem?"

"No problem," I tell Jun.

"Taichi, youíre almost as bad at lying as Dai. Talk. Whatís the matter?"

"He shouldnít be talking. His throatís pretty raw because of the large amount of smoke he inhaledó" Sora thwaps me. "Dolt! Did you think you were impervious to it, or something?"

"Ow! I was just doing what needed to be done." I rub my head.

"Well, be more careful." Suddenly Sora is giving me a tight hug. "We donít want to loose you, Taichi."

Girls. I do not understand them one bit.

A slight movement at the doorway gains our attention. Yamato stands there, looking grim.

"Taichi?"

"Heís resting," Sora says, firmly making me lie down again. I donít protest, I donít really want to face him. Itís much nicer to dwell on my nice little fantasies where heís not in that suit, and Iím not an abnormality and we can just be happyó

But no, Sora continues. "You can stay as long as you donít tire him out talking."

Yamato nods, and with a glance towards Jun takes a seat on the mattress beside me. Note, beside me. Not next to me.

That hurts.

Yamato plays with the frayed edge of the blanket heís sitting on. Heís got the nicest fingers, long and white, kind of like keyís on the one piano that got brought down to the underground city. He was allowed to play it, I remember.

"You still do music?"

Yamato looks startled by the question then shakes his head. "Nah. After you left . . . I couldnít play my harmonica without thinking of you and Takeru. Hurt too much. My father saved and saved, bought me a guitar. Luxury good you know, it wasnít cheap. I played that for a while, until his death. We needed the extra money then so . . ." a graceful shrug dismisses the loss. I know it meant more to him then heís let on. As did his father.

"Iím sorry about your parents . . ."

"I know." Yamato looks as though he would like to ruffle his hair but the plastic of the suit gets in his way.

Thereís a long silence.

"Man, you two are just the fountain of conversation."

I smile weakly. "Weíre not here to entertain you Jun."

"Whatever. Iím going to sneak some food. Cover for me." She gets unsteadily to her feet and hobbles towards the door.

"Fine. But I wonít be responsible for the consequences if Sora finds you out of bed."

Jun laughs and leaves, taking with her all the lightness in the room. Yamatoís face is distant again . . . this canít be good.

"So, when were you planning on telling us about these . . . "powers?""

I flinch at the coldness in his tone. "I thought youíd already found out . . . From what Daisuke said, that was the reason he got taken . . ."

"He forgot to mention that part to us."

"Yeah well . . . I told him to keep it hidden before he left. . . I wasnít sure if we could trust the undergroundó"

I stop. I donít want to sound as if Iím accusing him.

"So," Yamato says again tersely. "How long?"

I sigh. "Itíd be years now. The first summer after we got here . . . the group we were travelling with got attacked by another group, out to claim more territory. We scattered. Takeru, Daisuke, Jun, Sora, Mimi, Izzy and me, we stuck together. We always did. There was no were we could go that was safe . . . Izzy had found this cave we could hide in. It felt funny, like there was magic in it, but we thought itíd be okay, just so long as we didnít go in to deep. Then the other group came looking for us. They must have seen us because they came right into the cave. We had to go back, even further. We were trapped. They hadnít seen usóbut they were pretty certain someone was in there. But they had also felt the magic and they didnít want to come in so instead they waited us out. We spent a whole day trapped in that cave until they got bored, and left."

"And thatís when--?"

"Thatís Izzyís theory anyway. While we were sitting in that cave, I was trying to think of some plan to get us out because it was my fault we were in the cave and Sora turned to me and said, ĎItís not your fault, Taichi.í And I said ĎHow did you know what I was thinking?" And she said sheíd heard me. They all had. And I hadnít said anything."

"Telepathy?" Yamato sounds faint. "So you can read minds too?" Thereís a slight edge of fear in his voice.

"Those of us who were in the cave can share thoughts," I told him. "Itís a little bit harder than talking, trying to think loudlyóand some of the others whoíve been with us a while or who have their own powers can to. Like Iori."

"Can you read my thoughts?"

"I donít know. I havenít tried."

"Try."

I look up at him. His face is set . . . Iím suddenly reminded of the telling off I got from his father when I broke their valuable surface vase. "Yamato, I donít want toóI donít think this is such a good ideaó"

"Try it, Taichi."

Pushing my misgivings aside, I sit up slowly and concentrate my attention on him. Itís hard to do when his eyes are set so intensely against mine. I donít think Iíd have been able to deny him worse than this . . .

Itís not bad at first, just hard. Like trying to roller blade up hill . . . I have to strain really hard just to get anywhere. His thoughts are faint. I can get slight hints, but its like trying to claw my way through a brick wallóand just as productive. The only thing Iíve produced so far is a headacheó

Waitóthere, just thereóa glimpse of gold and ice blue. I push a little harder, and am rewarded with the cool clear feel of Yamatoís thoughts. I reach out to him gently, trying to embue my thoughts with as much of my feelings as I canó don't want to scare him--**Yama-chan?**

I feel shock and then panic thrown back at me, followed by a deep rooted fear. Iím thrown abruptly and painfully back into my own thoughts.

"Oh God, Taichi," Yamato says, drawing a long, shaky breath.

"Go away," I tell him dully. Iíve seen what he thinks of me . . . and its worse than what I was afraid of . . .

"Butó"

"Just leave me alone!"

He stands slowly, I think heís reluctant to go. I bury my face in the blankets, resolutely not looking at him. I hear the door shut.

Yamato . . . I moan, gathering the blankets to me. Whyíd you have to hurt me this much?

Iím glad that Junís goneóI can sob out my pain in the blankets without fear of anyone hearing.

A slight touch at my shoulder. I freeze.

"Taichió"

He tricked meó"I thought you leftó" I canít meet his eyesóI refuse to look at him.

"Shushóitís all rightó" the plastic of the suit is cool against my skin, as his fingers wrap around my shoulders. "Itís okay, Taichió"

I donít know if this is pity or guilt but at his point I donít care. I let myself be taken into his arms and cry.

I wake, with nothing but a dull ache in my head remaining from all the excitement of yesterday. A dull ache and a hand at a funny angle under me.

A few minutes later I realize thatís not my hand.

Iím very careful not to disturb whoeverís next to me, as I sit up, carefully untangling myself from the blankets. I canít believe the sight that greets me thoughó

Yamato.

"I was surprised too, when I got back last night and found the two of you asleep like that," Jun says. "Is there something you havenít told us?"

"I donít know," I sigh, brushing his cheek with care. He looks so peaceful, lost in dreamsóI donít want to be the one who brings him back to this reality. "Last night I thought he hated me. Nowó"

"Morning Taichi! Morning Jun!"

The door is shoved open and three of the younger kids carry in food.

"Sora says youíre not to think of getting up till sheís had a chance to look you over."

"But you can have something to eat. Hey, Taichi, you want to know a secret bout TK?"

"No fair! I was going to tell Taichió"

"But Iím olderó"

"Hey," I interrupt. "Why donít we let Lissa tell me?"

The smallest one grins, climbing into my lap. "Síabout Hikari. He made some flowers for her."

"Mimi says theyíre in love, and itís very cute and that theyíre going to be very happy together."

"I think thatís silly. I wouldnít do that. Not in a million years."

"In that case," Jun says joining the discussion. "Youíll have a very lonely life."

"So?"

We tease him, as Jun and I eat our breakfasts, trying to keep our voices low to let Yamato sleep. Weíre only partly successfulówhen I turn around next I discover he has woken up and is watching us thoughtfully.

I gulp. So many questions I want to ask . . . so many questions I fear to have answered.

Jun spots the look. "Come on, Taichi needs some time to talk to Yamato."

The kids grumble but go with her.

"But Jun, youíre not even sposed to be out of bed!"

"Soraís gonna be really mad!"

"Thatís Soraís problem," Jun turns back for a moment on the edge of leaving. **Good luck.**

"So," I say into the silence.

"So," he repeats, watching me. This gaze of his has changed somehow from last night. Itís still guarded, still troubled yes, but its less tense somehow.

And man, heís beautiful even with his hair ruffled and even with the little blotchy marks on his face where the suit has stuck to him. If only things had been a little bit differentó

I tear myself away from thoughts of what I canít have. "Iím sorry, Yamato," I say, turning away so I canít torture myself by getting lost in his hair or his eyes or his smoother than silk skin.

"For what?"

"For not being what you wanted."

Thereís a silence, then, when he speaks again, his tone seems warmer somehow. "Taichió"

"No," I cut him off. "I donít want to hear itóI donít you to pity me! Maybe I didnít choose to end up like this but I happen to like it now. And if that scares you, fine! But I wonít mope around after you like Dai does to Kenóeither accept me now oró" I swallow, having to suddenly fight back tears. "Or weíll take you someplace else. Back to the underground, or to one of the other groups of kids. Not all of them are effected by the magicó"

"Taichi." His gentle use of my name stops me. I wait in misery for the rest of his sentence . . . But it doesnít come. Instead he steps closer to me, placing his hands on my shoulders and bending down so that I can feel his breath on my neck as he repeats my name. "Taichió"

Wait.

I can feel his breath on my neckóthatís not possibleó

He didnító

 

YAMATO

I think, by the way Taichiís shoulders tense under my hands, that heís noticed. Oh good. I was starting to think Mr. Fearless Leader was lacking in the area of simple observation.

Despite my sarcastic thoughts, Iím feeling pretty happy with myself right about now. Iím floating on air, my headís up in the cloudsÖ Iím delirious. This doesnít feel quite real. Itís like some corny romance novel, that I get to live out.

Theyíre a lot more interesting when youíre actually in one.

Taichi pulls out of my hold and spins around, eyes so wide they threaten to take up half his face. "Yamato!" My name is a strangled choking noise in his throat. He looks like heís starting to have trouble breathing.

"Careful, Taichi!" Iím concerned now. He did swallow a lot of smoke earlierÖ "Maybe you should sit down." I maneuver him down onto the mattress. "Take it easy."

"Take it easy?" His voice almost squeaks, and heís looking at me incredulously. "YamatoÖ you justÖ justÖ justÖ!" His eyes donít get any smaller; he makes this weird little squawking noise that doesnít translate into any kind of words.

"Oh yeah." I shrug, trying to act like itís no big deal. I take the time to pull that annoying plastic suit the rest of the way off of me and toss it across the room carelessly. "Guess I wonít be needing that any more, huh?"

"ButÖ" He stares at the discarded suit, then at me. "But now youíll beÖ"

"Just like you," I answer, and smile. "I think Iíll be better off. Youíve got a great life up here. I mean, youíre willing to defend what youíve got here, no matter what I say. And, Taichi, you know what? I trust you. If you think itís a good life, then Iíll live it and tell you what I think after."

His mouth works as if he wants to talk to me, but nothing comes out Ė like he just canít find the words.

"Even if itís not that great," I continue. "Iíve thought about it a lot, and I think itíd be worth itÖ because of you." I lean down and touch his cheek with my plastic-free fingers. His skin is still smudged and dirty, but it feels nice. Just like I thought it would. "I made up my mind Ė if you want me here, Iím going to stay."

Taichi blinks rapidly for a few more seconds. Then he starts to rise as if heís going to stand up. "Taichi?" I watch him, a little puzzled.

"Shut up, Yamato," he says almost casually, and launches himself out of that low crouch, knocking me back onto the bed and smashing his lips against mine in a most passionate kiss.

Rational thought goes out the window at that point.

Iím in the middle of running my hands over the small of his back and down along his waist as we explore each with lips and tongue when the door creaks open. Iím all for ignoring whoever it is in favor of nibbling Taichiís lower lip, but he immediately pulls back and looks up.

Jun is standing in the open doorway, looking not a bit surprised and actually rather impressed. "Donít stop on my account," she says, a hint of laughter in her voice. "Iíll just sit quietly by the wall Ė you two go on making out as if Iím not even here, okay?"

My face burns, and Taichi sighs. Then we look at each other. "Okay," Taichi says with a shrug and leans down to catch my lips with his again. He tastes smoky and exotic, like fire. At first touch, I canít get enough. Heís delicious.

I forget about Jun.

The door creaks open again. "Oh myÖ" Soraís voice.

We pull away Ė again Ė and look up. She looks more surprised than Jun did, but thereís a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Now thereís an interesting way to get some rest," she comments blandly, as if making some kind of clinical observation.

Taichi buries his face in the pillow beneath me, his cheek against mine, and starts to laugh softly. "I donít think weíre going to get any kind of privacy here," he tells me quietly.

"Youíll get privacy when youíre well enough to handle moreÖ strenuousÖ activities," Sora responds. Her ears are just too sharp, if you ask me. "Go ahead and snuggle all you want, but youíre not doing anything thatís going to come in direct conflict with you getting rest."

I wrap my arms more securely around his waist. "Sheís quite evil, isnít she?"

"Oh yeah," Taichi agrees fervently.

"And a spoilsport," Jun chimes in.

Sora laughs.

"Sora! Did you hear about Takeru and HiÖ oh my!" Mimi stops in the doorway, her excited look changing instantly as her eyes went very wide. "Oh wow!" she breathes, then clasps her hands together and squeaks happily. "Your news is even better than mine, Sora! That is just so cute!"

Taichi and I exchange rueful looks. "Thanks," I say dryly.

"Oh, youíre welcome!" Mimi waves a hand. "But, you know, you might want to get up because Ė whoops, theyíre already here! Well, oh well." She moves aside so Takeru and Hikari can enter the room.

Theyíre holding hands.

And Hikari is not wearing her suit.

Thereís a moment of silence as the four of us stare at each other.

Taichi breaks the silence first, laughing softly. "Itís a family tradition, I think," he comments, grinning and snuggling against me. "Yagami and Ishida. Weíre made for each other."

"Couldnít have said it better," Hikari agrees.

"And weíre both stuck here now, hmm?" I add. "So I guess weíre just going to have to put up with these two, arenít we?" I grin at Taichi as he makes a face at me. "I think I can learn to live with it."

She smiles. "I was going to come and tell you that I was staying. Thatís why I took off the suit before I came looking for you. You couldnít very well forbid me to stay if I was already contaminated."

"Well, I donít plan on forbidding anyone to stay now," I say, with a shrug. "Since I think that Iím going to be here for quite a while myself."

"This is so incredibly sweet!" Mimi gushed. "Iím going to go get Izzy! Just wait until he hears about this! Heíll love it!" She dashes out the door at top speed.

"She has a lot of energy to spare, doesnít she?" I comment.

"Usually," Sora agrees.

"So, if you four are all in here," Jun begins, looking around as if she expects to see someone else come jumping out, "where is my brother?"

"With Ken?" Hikari guesses.

Daisukeís sister makes a face. "Donít tell me those two are going to come running in here with a confession! That would just be too freaky!" She thinks about that for a moment, then adds, "Cute, though."

"I doubt it," I tell her. "Kenís not what youíd call an impulsive person."

"Heíll make Daisuke work for every inch of that suit that gets removed," Hikari puts in. "And then work some more for every time they touch Ė even the briefest, lightest ones."

Jun shrugs. "Oh well. Daisuke has enough determination for ten stubborn little brothers. Heíll manage."

"Iíll manage what?" Daisuke walks through the door, looks around, then does a double take and blinks at Taichi and me. "Dude! WhatÖ?" His eyes move to Takeru and Hikari. "What happened to your suits?"

I shrug. "We took them off."

"Oh." Daisuke sinks down to a seat on the mattress, looking stunned. "You guys took off your suitsÖ" He looks around again and notices the positions we were in. "And you got togetherÖ" The expression on his face gets almost painfully hopeful. "So, isÖ KenÖ?" The sentence is left hanging.

I look away, not wanting to be the one to dash those hopes.

Hikari answers instead. "I donít think so, Daisuke," she says gently. "Not unless he did while we werenít around."

"Oh." The red-head sighs, then grins up at us. "But you guys are together! Thatís so cool! Congratulations!" He jumps up and enthusiastically hugs both Takeru and Hikari.

The mood is immediately lightened.

"And you twoÖ Wow!" He plunks himself down next to us, and grins with excitement. "Iím so happy for you, itís almost like it was me who got a cute underground guy!"

Taichi laughs. "Thanks, Dai!"

"And we havenít had more than two minutes of privacy since," I grumble Ė not that seriously, though. "This place has way too many people in it!"

"One of whom is the doctor for the person you plan to fool around with!" Sora adds, crossing her arms over her chest. "No fun while Iím looking after him! You wait until heís fully healed!"

"Fine, fine. Wouldnít want to argue with the healer." Itís great to argue like this, laughing and joking around. It really makes me feel like I belong. Like Iím whole and satisfied. And with a gorgeous and happy Taichi in my arms.

Life is good.

"Come on, Izzy!" Mimiís voice calls, from outside the door. A few seconds later, she bursts back into the room, her arm tucked securely around the crimson-haired mechanics expert. "Taichiís got a boyfriend! And Takeru has a girlfriend? Arenít they cute?"

"Adorable." Izzy grins at Taichi. "Congratulations are in order, I see. And for you as well, Takeru."

"I knew youíd agree." Mimi smiles happily.

"Of course!" He gives her shoulders a squeeze. "Iíd be a poor friend if I didnít."

"This is just great!" Daisuke says, standing again. "Everyoneís together! Thereís so much mushiness around here we could drown in it!" He looks at his sister, whoís sitting next to Sora. "Weíre not about to get a confession from you two now, are we?"

Jun sighs. "I apologize to everyone listening for my idiot brother. He doesnít know any better. He was just dropped on his head as a child."

"Hey!"

I grinned.

"Iím gonna go get Ken!" Daisuke says, already forgetting about his sisterís insult. "Just wait until he sees this! I bet heíll be real happy!" He runs out the door.

Taichi and I look at each other again, and sigh. More companyÖGreat.

Oh well. I have him, and thatís all that matters. There could be a hundred people around, and I just wouldnít care. Heís the only important thing.

 

KEN

I am not happy.

"Dude, canít you at least smile?"

"What have I got to be smile about? Iím in the company of lunatics."

Daisuke lets out a short impatient breath. "But Taichi and Yamato are happyóor at least were happy before Sora booted Yamato out for not letting Taichi rest . . . and Hikari and Takeru havenít stopped smiling, or holding hands all morning!"

"Good for them," I growl.

Daisuke stares at me perplexed. "I donít understand. Arenít you pleased Yamato and Hikari have found somebody to be with?"

"I think that theyíve let their emotions make what could be a disastrous decision. We still donít know nearly enough about how the atmosphere of the surface could effect us." But I donít sound sure.

"Thatís not it," Daisuke says. "Whatís really bothering you Ken?" He scoots closer to me. I donít order him away . . . Iíve come to accept this contact, even appreciate it. It makes me feel less alone . . .

WaitóIím lonely?

"Iím afraid," I tell him softly. "Before everything was so clear cut. I hated Yamato and I hated the surface, and I hated you . . . but things have changed. You, Yamato and Hikari . . . even if I didnít enjoy it or choose it, thatís the most contact Iíve had with people, except Osamu in my life . . . I didnít think it would come to an end. Now . . . I donít want it to end."

"What makes you think it will end?" Daisuke doesnít laugh or interrupt with stupid questions. Instead his eyes are sympathetic and heís frowning, like heís trying to understand . . . itís probably a struggle for him. He does everything so easily, impulsively. For a moment Iím jealous . . .

"It will have to. Iím going back to the underground, remember?"

"You donít have to . . ." Daisuke looks at me earnestly. "You could stay here with me, Ken. Iíd look after you, and you could help Izzy with the machines, and I bet youíd like itó"

I stare at him. I think I finally understand. "The trackeróback at the base. This is why you didnít tellónot because you wanted something from me, but because you wanted me."

"Yeah . . ." Daisuke looks hesitant. He wants me to stayóI study his brown eyes thoughtfully. They are so full of hope . . .

"Iím sorry Daisuke . . ."

I try to be as gentle as possible but his face falls. "Itís okay. I understand. Iíll see you round I guess. Iíve got . . . stuff to do." He disappears out of the carriage.

I feel strangely . . . regretful. As if Daisuke is somehow my responsibility. Although illogical itís a feeling I canít quite shake off. I sigh, and turn back to the walls.

Yamato and Hikari donít come back to our carriage. Iím somehow not surprised. Given what Daisuke told me before he left, they have obvious reasons for being absent. But I miss them. Staring at the walls is rather tedious when you donít have anyone to ignore.

About an hour later I realize something else.

I miss Daisuke. Iím starting to wish there was someway I could make him feel better. I canít promise to stay . . . but there has to be something I can do.

I know the perfect thing.

I havenít gone around this base without someone with me before and Iím slightly nervous. Unlike the last base, the train is just situated in the middle of a big flat open space, surrounded by grass and with a forest bordering one end. The surface dwellers are busy with their day to day tasks, and hardly look up as I pass them, heading towards the forest. Iím a little nervous about this to tell the truth. The sky overhead is so distant . . . itís better once Iím amongst the trees although thereís still the risk of getting attacked by some sort of animal . . . perhaps I should have acquired a weapon of some sort before leaving the base.

Iím sure Iíll be fineóI just need to stay relatively close to the base. I look around the forest. Although there is vegetation everywhere I can not see any sign of what I need. This task may be harder to accomplish than I thought.

Half an hour later, Iím holding on to a branch with one hand while leaning out, trying to grab another with my other, all the while attempting not to think about the long way down or how easy it would be to fall. Fastening my attention on the object I seek, I stretch out my hand againóJust a little further . . .

A sudden breeze tosses the branches and I loose my handhold and crash to the ground. I impact with the ground then roll, ending up sprawled against something warmó

"For crying our loudówhat do you have to do to get some privacy around here?"

"Yamato?"

His scowl turns to a look of utter surprise. "Ken? What are you doing out here?"

"And whereís Dai?" Taichi asks, voice slightly muffled. Well, I suppose it would be hard to talk when youíve got two people slightly sprawled on top of you.

I scramble away quickly. "I donít know. I think I upset him."

"So, why were you in the tree?" Yamato asks, resignedly pulling himself away from Taichi.

"I was trying to get something. For Daisuke. Not that itís any of your business or anything."

"Oh we quite understand. Need a hand?"

Taichi gets me to point out the branch I want then climbs up the tree. I stand by Yamato, as we both watch him. Heís a lot better at climbing than I am . . . then again, he doesnít have to worry about not ripping his suit. I steal a look at Yamato. He doesnít look adversely affected by the atmosphere. He just looks . . . happy.

"How does it feel?"

"What?"

"Without the suit."

"Great. Itís hard to explain it . . . but the air out here just tastes better. I think its fresher . . . there are all these other things you miss in the suit. The way things smell, the breezes . . . " he breathes in deeply. "Itís just wonderful. I feel like Iím alive again."

I donít bother pointing out the illogicalities of that sentence, Iím sure heís aware of them. Instead I concentrate on trying to understand them.

"Heads up!" Taichi has reached the branch I want, but instead of leaning out to try and pick the flower has jumped on to the branch. His weight brings it down, but not low enough that I can reach it. Yamato reaches up, adding his weight to pull the branch down.

"Pick as many as you like, Ken."

Theyíre different from the flowers Daisuke brought to me, large and white with pale yellow centres. I concentrate on picking the ones that are freshest, and without marks left by insects. A giggle interrupts me from my task. Looking down the branch I see that Yamato is taking advantage of the fact that Taichi has both hands on the branch and is running his free hand under Taichiís shirt. Taichi is protesting loudly and trying to kick him but not having much luck.

I shake my head, having got as many flowers as I want. "Iím done."

Taichi lets go of the branch, fallingóaccidentally, Iím sureóon top of Yamato. I canít help but feel kind of wistful as they wrestle laughing, until they end up tied in a lengthy kiss. Nothing more than emotion and hormones and yet . . . I canít help but feel sorry. Which is stupid. Machines arenít supposed to feel sorry for themselves . . .

Maybe I canít go back. Maybe Iíve been changed too muchó

"We stay out here any longer, Sora will be sending out a search party," Taichi says, standing up and pulling Yamato up after him.

"Iím seriously beginning to dislike that girl," Yamato grumbles although heís smiling. "If I didnít know better Iíd suspect she had an ulterior motive for keeping such a close eye on you."

"Jealous, Yama-chan? Thatís adorable," Taichi has his arm around Yamatoís waist like itís always belonged there.

"And you donít mind?" I ask, thinking that if anyone tried that with me, Iíd hurt them.

"Mind what?"

"The pollution."

Yamatoís face tightens and he steps towards me angrily. Taichi catches him and pulls him back. "I donít think he meant it like that, Yamato."

"Meant it like what?"

Yamato studies me a moment. "Those people who put you into the machine never told you about tact, did they?"

"I didnít mean to insult Taichi, I was just asking!" I flare back at him. "What is wrong with a straightforward question?"

"Well in answer to your question, no I donít mind."

"And the fact that we donít know how this atmosphere could affect us doesnít bother you at all?"

"Look Ken," Yamato says. "No, we donít know the extent of what the surface can do, and yes that is a bit worrying. It might change me, sureóbut I happen to think that love is worth taking that riskó"

Taichi and I stare at him. "Love?"

"Love," Yamato repeats, his gaze locking with Taichiís.

"Ken, you carry on back to the base. Tell the otherís weíll be along soon," Taichi says, not looking away from Yamato as he wraps his arms around Yamatoís neck.

"Sure," I tell them in tones of heavy skepticism. "Am I also to tell them Iím about to rip off my suit and join the party?"

They donít reply. To tell the truth I donít think they noticedóI donít think theyíd have noticed, even if Iíd danced around them naked. I return to the camp feeling smug for some unaccountable reason.

Sora is fussing around the camp site, looking furious and muttering something about when she gets her hands on them. "Have you seen Taichi, Ken?"

I decide they did help me to get the flowers. "No."

"What are you doing?"

"Iím looking for Daisuke."

Her eyes widen and I think she notices the flowers for the first time. "Heís with his sister. That carriage there."

I nod and walk off. "Hey!"

"What?" I ask, turning back to her.

"Arenít you going to say thank-you?"

I try out the words thoughtfully. "Thank-you." It still feels weird to say them.

"Youíre welcome."

Daisuke and Jun are talking quietly as I enter.

"Daisuke?"

"Ken?" He sounds surprised, spotting the flowers. "Are those for me?"

"Yes." I hold them out.

He stares at me a moment more before reaching out to take them, a huge grin spreading across his face.

"Hey, thank-you, Ken. This is really special, you know?"

I think Daisuke is struggling for things to say. Which is strange . . . because usually, you canít make him stop talking. I glance away from him, feeling rather uncomfortable myself to find his sister watching us with an identical grin.

"Honestly . . . you guys are so cute!"

I open my mouth to tell her that cute is not functional but Daisuke grabs my arm and pulls me after him. "Later, Jun!"

"Where are we going?"

"Just somewhere we can talk."

There is a ladder down the side of one of the train carriages, a lot easier to climb than that tree was. Daisuke and I sit up on top of the carriage and watch the sunset.

"I bet you donít get anything like that underground."

"No," I murmur, "No we donít." It intrigues me, the sunset. There is no use for it to be so pretty. It does not affect its job at all, it gains it no benefit and yet . . . there it is."

Daisuke turns back to me. "Tell me about your machine."

That question surprises me. "How it operates?"

"Everything about it. I want to understand why you want to go back so much."

I realize that all today I havenít once thought about my machine. Not the way I did at first at least . . . what does that mean?

I think for a moment, trying to put it into words that he would understand. "Well, my machine isó"

Thereís a flash of light out there in the distance. Then another one. I frown. It looks like the sunset glinting off metalóbut there wasnít anything like that when we walked here yesterdayó

The tracker.

Theyíve come.

 

DAISUKE

After we get up on the roof, I immediately start to think about whether Ken would like it if I moved closer and put an arm around his waist. My heartís still beating hard from when he gave me those flowersÖ Ken actually came to see me, and he brought me flowers! And after I told him that giving flowers means you like someone a lotÖ He likes me! He has to! He wouldnít be up here, he wouldnít have come to see me, he wouldnít have given me those flowersÖ Hikari was right! Iím ecstatic, and thereís a warm feeling all through me Ė all I want to do is find out more about him and figure out how to get him to stay.

So I ask about his machine.

It takes me just a few seconds to realize that Ken isnít going to finish his sentence. That isnít much like him. I look over to see whatís up, and heís staring out at something in the distance.

"Ken?"

Thereís a look on his face like he just ate something that was totally rotten. He tears his eyes from whatever he was looking at and turns toward me again. "Iím sorry. I thought I saw something."

"Really? What?" I glance out to where he was looking before, and see a brief glint of something from a fair distance away. Itís not like anything Iíve seen before, and Iíve seen a lot, up here. "I see it!" I jump up. "But I donít know what it is! Iím gonna have to go and tell Taichi Ė "

"Donít bother." Kenís quiet, emotionless words interrupt me. I look back toward him, and heís staring out at those little glinting specks. "I know what it is."

"You do?" I blink. "But you havenít been on the surface for more than a couple of days! How could you know Ė ?" I stop, and stare at him as he pulls out a familiar object.

The tracker. ButÖ that meansÖ

I sit down again, with a thump. "ThenÖ those are them. From the underground."

He doesnít say anything; doesnít look at me.

"The ones who are gonna takeÖ youÖ aÖwayÖ fromÖ meÖ" I falter on the last few words, and find a huge lump rising in my throat. Just when I was getting through to himÖ just when he got me flowersÖ just when I thought he was starting to want to stayÖ

I stand again and move over to the edge of the roof before he can answer. If heís even going to. I donít think I can talk without breaking into tears, so I just swing around and climb down the ladder as fast as I can.

"Daisuke!" Ken cries, finally snapping out of whatever trance he was in.

"I have to go!" I manage to choke out. I donít want him to get mad at me. I want to be with him again later, but I canít right now because itís hard to breathe and my chest and throat hurt and I just wanna run back to my sister and cry like a two-year-old.

Heís leaving me.

It isnít fair!

"Daisuke!" Jun sounds alarmed. Well, no kidding since I just came running in like I had an army of mutant wolves on my tail. "Whatís the matter? I thought you were with Ken."

"IÖ IÖ" Thatís all I get out, because I flop down onto the mattress and start sobbing like my best friend just died.

Why canít he stay? Why does he have to go? Why is he leaving me just when it seems like heís finally starting to like me? Why canít anything go right for me? Taichi gets Yamato, and Takeru gets Hikari, and everyone is just deliriously happy and I have to sit here and cry because I fell for a stupid machine and now he doesnít want to stay and Iím gonna be all alone and why, why, why?

My chest hurts, and my throat hurts. I wish I could die.

Not really, but it feels like it right now. Heís leavingÖ doesnít want meÖ I think Iíd make a good boyfriend Ė why doesnít he? Whatíd I do? How come I canít make him stay? I mustíve done something wrong; Taichi and Takeru got it rightÖ

Jun pats me on the back awkwardly. "Daisuke?" she asks softly. "What happened?"

"Wh-why?" I donít think she can answer me, but sheís the only one here. "Why doesnít he like me enough? Whatíd I do wrong?"

She sighs. "Oh Daisuke," she says, pulling me up a little so Iím facing her. "Itís not you, baka. You canít force other people to like you. Besides, he seemed to like you fine Ė he brought you those flowers, didnít he?"

"Not enough to stay," I mumble, glancing up at the flowers that Jun put in a clay water-holder. Theyíre all blurry and they lump together into a big blob. "H-heís g-gonna l-leave me!"

Fresh tears flow out of my eyes and it hurts again. Jun reaches up to wipe my face. "What do you mean?" she asks, sounding a bit puzzled. "I thought he was staying."

I shake my head, knocking away her hands without meaning to. "Thereís surface people coming, and they wanna take him away, and he wants to go because he doesnít like me enough to stay!"

She stares at me in shock for a moment, then hugs me suddenly. "Oh Dai!" she says softly. "Iím so sorry!"

I cry some more, letting her pull me closer. "Why does it hurt so much?" I whisper.

"Because you care about him and heís a jerk!" she replies, a bit angrily. "How could he do this to you? That is so mean! He knows that youíre in love with him, how Ė ?"

"What?" I push back and stare at her, tears forgotten for a second. "I donít love Ken!"

She shakes her head. "Oh Daisuke, come on! Youíre smarter than that!"

Iím caught speechless.

"But itís all right," she tells me, smoothing my hair and pulling me back into another tight hug. "Iíll go talk to him if you want." Her voice turns into a tone I wish she would use less often. "Iím sure I could persuade him to stayÖ"

"No!" I pull back and shake my head violently, upset for Ken. "Then heíd hate me! I donít want him to hate me! I want him happy! I just donít make him happy enough, I guess." I bite my lip and stare down at the mattress, feeling the hurt come back.

Jun hugs me again, but this time pulls back before I can. "Iíll tell Taichi about the people from the surface, since heís going to need to know," she says. "But I wonít tell him about Ken. Unless you want me to."

I shake my head. "Heíd hate me."

"One other thing," Jun adds, standing up. "Ken was looking for you. I told him to go away, since you were upset, but maybe you should go talk to him. It might make you feel better, little bro." She ruffles my hair and leaves the room.

Sometimes I think Iím really lucky sheís my sister. Even if she is a pain.

I donít want Ken to see my crying and all, so I dry off my eyes and concentrate on not letting any more tears out. Heís not gone right now. I can cry later. Instead, I splash some water from the bucket in our room onto my face, hoping itíll help make it look like Iím fine.

Now I have to make the time between now and when those underground people get here seem like the best fun anyone could ever have. Because if I can make Ken like it here that much, then maybe heíll stay.

I can hope, right? I donít want to lose himÖ

Itís weird, I think, drying my face off on my sleeves. Everything was normal and I was happy before he came along, but now heís just been here for a few days and I canít even picture what itís going to be like without him.

I donít even want to picture what itíd be like without him.

"Daisuke!" Takeru practically pounces on me when I come out of Junís room. Hikariís with him, not surprisingly. "I heard from Sora that Ken was giving you flowers!" He grins. "Guess that made you pretty happy, huh?"

"Uh, yeah!" I try to act thrilled, but I think the result is pretty pathetic. "Iím really happy! Really! See?" Both of them look confused. Uh-ohÖ "Want to see them?" I ask quickly, hoping thatíll cover me.

"SureÖ" Takeru sounds baffled. I guess he figures I should be running all over showing everyone what Ken got for me. Well, I wouldÖ but I donít feel like it any more.

"Here!" I wave my hand at the clump of white and yellow petals. "Cool, huh? Well, I gotta go, see you guys later!" I take off before they can ask any questions. Hopefully, I wonít meet up with anyone elseÖ

"Hey Dai!"

Darn it!

"Hi Sora!" I put on a big grin. "Did you see the flowers Ken got for me? Theyíre in Junís room! TK can show you where they are! Gotta run!" I just catch her startled look, and then Iím off around the corner.

Jeez, that was so stupid! I even called Takeru by his actual nickname! Sheís gotta know somethingís wrongÖ At this rate, everyoneís gonna know something happened to me Ė not like we can keep secrets that long around here anywayÖ

"Ken!" I burst into the room and findÖ Yamato. "Oh. Hey."

"Donít act so thrilled to see me, Daisuke." He grins, and raises an eyebrow. He looks different, somehow, without the suit on. Clearer, almost. More real, and less like a fairy person in an old story. Or someone from another world. "Kenís not here, but he was looking for you earlier."

"UhÖ yeah, he found me." I donít think heíd have been looking for me after he knew I was hiding out in Junís room, so it had to be before he came over there. "But I left and now I dunno where he is."

Yamato gives me a strange look. "Didnít he have something to give you?"

"Huh? Oh, right. The flowers. Uh-huh." It takes me a few seconds to realize that Iím supposed to be thrilled about it. "That was so great, Iím really happy, Kenís so nice, heís the greatest, I just love havingÖ himÖ aroundÖ" I stop talking before I think about that too much.

Concentrate. Itís important now, so I have to do it. I can.

I get another strange look. "YeahÖ okay. Sora found us around in the bushes, but Iím meeting Taichi again as soon as he can slip away from her." He grins. "Itís getting to be a full-time sport, almost."

"Thatís cool." I manage a grin at that. Soraís so weird about people sheís supposed to be taking care of. "Well, Iím gonna go find Ken, see ya later!"

I turn to leave, and almost walk into a smirking Taichi. "Whoa! Hey!"

"Sorry, Dai," he apologizes, then he looks up past me. "Coming, Yama?"

"You bet!"

I laugh. Canít help it. Being around those twoÖ who can?

"Theyíre really attracted to trouble, arenít they?" Ken asks from behind me.

I jump. "Dude, donít scare me like that!" Then I spin around and grin at him. "Iíve been looking for you," I say, then before he can say anything, I grab his hand and pull him back into their room. "Iím gonna spend tomorrow and as long as I can making sure that you have the best time of your life! And tonightÖ" I have to think about that for a while.

"Tonight I sleep," he finishes dryly. "My instincts tell me that your idea of fun will use every scrap of energy I possess. So Iíd better get plenty of rest."

"Okay," I agree. "But can I stay and talk to you for a while?"

"If itís what you want," he answers, shrugging slightly. Heís looking down into my eyes and Iím almost positive that heís happy Iím gonna stay with him. Maybe those flowers did mean somethingÖ he does like me.

And if he likes me a little, he can like me a lot! Right? So maybe he can like me so much that he wonít leave when they try and take him away! I feel my hopes rising again. I could have a life with him, still. If I want it bad enough, if Iím willing to do anything to have itÖ I can.

AnythingÖ I wonderÖ

Ken sits on the mattress, and makes a polite gesture as if to tell me I can sit. He doesnít have to ask twice. I plunk down next to him and scoot over so that our hips are touching. It doesnít get me any dirty looks and he doesnít move away. I smile happily.

"So you never did tell me about your machine," I prompt him.

"Oh yes," he says softly, staring forward. Then he looks at me. Those eyes of hisÖ theyíre so pretty. I feel like Iím hypnotized, staring at them. WowÖ "There isnít much to say that youíd understand," he continues, either not noticing my little sort-of trance or just not saying anything about it. "I have programmes for everything Ė for memory, for thought, for communicationÖ I forward messages and respond to data stimulants. Iím in charge of generating the shield that keeps the underground protected from pollution on the surface. It has to be kept very even. I maintain the city, basically. I doubt that youíd understand further details."

I nod. I sort of understand what heís saying Ė heís kind like a computer, which Izzy told me about once. It doesnít make sense to me, but I guess it does explain why he thinks everything is a waste of energy. Heís probably used to saving energy, since itís so important to what he did and all. "But there werenít any other people?"

"Only the techs." He shrugs, as if it isnít important. Iím not in contact with them very often. They have their tasks, and I have mine. My duties come before all else. Of course, this" Ė he waves a hand over his suit Ė"is the result of the last time I chose to contact a tech."

"It sounds lonely." I canít imagine that, being cut off from the whole world and shut away in a big grey box like the rooms underground. I think Iíd go crazy; my whole life, Iíve been surrounded by people, sharing laughs and being hugged and having a whole lot of contact. Itíd be so weird to live aloneÖ so quietÖ soÖ empty.

That explains Ken, though. I think I understand now.

"I wasnít concerned with loneliness," he says flatly. "I had a very important job to handle. Loneliness Ė or any other emotion Ė wouldíve been a burden. I chose not to saddle myself with such petty concerns." His voice doesnít sound as sure as it did when he first came up here.

For some reason, I feel sad for him. And I think Iím making the right move when I slide an arm around his shoulders reassuringly. It feels right, sort of. I always act on instinct, anyway. And he feels nice like that, too, soft and warmÖ his shoulders donít feel as delicate as they look.

He looks at me with those pretty blue-violet eyes and gives me a small smile. "Iíve hurt you," he says, in a tone I donít really recognize, coming from him. "Iím sorry."

"Itís okay," I say, truthfully. I give him my best cocky grin Ė the one that Taichi says is gonna get me punched in the face some day. "I can take it."

And I canÖ because I wonít have to.

Iím not letting him leave me behind. No matter what.

 

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