Ground Level

 

Part Seven

 

TAICHI

 

"Here," I push the door open and pull Yamato in after me. "Sora will never think of looking for us in here."

Yamato gives our surroundings a rather suspicious look but he’s not going to argue with me.

Not given how hard it is for us to get any privacy at all. I mean, yes, it is nice to know that everyone is happy for us and wish us the best but do they really have to say so when I’ve finally got Yama’s shirt off and he’s doing wonderful things to my neck—

"So," Yamato whispers, pushing me gently back into the wall and kissing me. "Where are we?"

I sigh happily, wrapping my arms around his neck. This feels so good . . . he said he loves me! Loves me! And he’s going to stay . . . "Sora’s room."

"Sora’s—" He pulls back a bit to stare at me. "That’s . . . evil."

"Yeah."

"She’s going to kill you."

"I know," I grin, and pounce him onto the bed. He may be taller but I’m stronger and we end up tangled on the mattress. "But, I figure we have a couple of hours till then so—‘

I don’t need to finish my invitation.

I could kiss him forever. Honestly, I think if there was someway I could get past breathing, I would . . .

Yamato pulls back a little, breaking the kiss and leans on one arm just looking at me. His expression in gentle and warm and I smile back, feeling like my heart is full.

And it is. Almost.

Yes, I have doubts. And doubts must be aired—

"How is this even possible?" I ask him, reaching up to touch his fringe—to think this time yesterday I would not have been able to do this because of that suit—"How can something this good happen to me?"

"You reading my thoughts?" Yamato whispers, and there’s enough seriousness in there to tell me he’s not fooling around. I shake my head emphatically.

"Yama, I wouldn’t. Not unless you wanted me to. And anyway, you’d probably be able to tell if I did—I mean, you felt me last night?" Should I even be bringing that up? Last night, put bluntly is not something I want to remember. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget Yamato’s fear--

"Yeah," he whispers. "Taichi, that was—"

I wince, waiting for it.

"—incredible."

Huh?

"You—you defy words," Yamato runs a hand through my hair—his hands are cool, even without the suit. Not a bad kind of cool either, cool like the breeze that keeps you going on a hot day . . . "I swear, there was a moment there when I saw your soul."

"You weren’t freaked?" I’m confused.

"At first I was. But later, once you’d fallen asleep—I couldn’t get the feeling of you touching my thoughts out of my mind . . ." Yamato leans in for another kiss. I kiss him back distracted by an errant thought.

"Wait a minute—did I get all worked up for nothing?"

"I still wasn’t sure about getting rid of the suit—until your little tirade this morning convinced me," Yamato looked at me with this warm happy look that if I’d been standing would have made me want to go lie down in a hurry. "Taichi—I meant what I said. You’re worth anything."

"So are you," I pull him close and we just lie like that. Arms wrapped around each other. I take in his smell, the cool feel of his skin . . . it’s so fine, like a young child’s. I pick up his hand and hold it up so we can see the difference in hue. "My skin’s like sandpaper next to yours—"

"I like it. No, I love the way your hands feel . . . they’ve climbed trees, been out in the sun, started fires—done all sorts of amazing things." Yamato kisses them both on the palm. "They’re perfect. Like you."

I stare at him. "You really mean that."

"Is that so hard to believe?"

"Yes. No. Kind of—This all seems to be happening so fast. I thought love was supposed to take longer than this."

"Maybe it depends on the people. I mean, I don’t remember consciously deciding I was in love with you, but from the moment I saw you at the camp I was drawn to you—" Yamato shrugs. "I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel more for you than I’ve ever felt for anyone. This just feels right—I’m not sure I can put it better that that, Taichi."

"You don’t have to. That’s exactly how I feel," I leaned into him, not touching him just letting my breath warm his exposed neck.

"Tai?" His voice wobbled.

"Yamato," I whispered, as hungrily as I could, leaning further forward, forcing him slightly backwards.

"Yeah?" A gasp.

I nudged him hard and he toppled over backwards. "Fooled ya."

He gapes at me in astonishment then gets this wicked grin. "If that’s the way you want it—"

I have a sudden feeling that I’ve done something stupid. A feeling that turns out to be justified as he runs his hands up the inside of my shirt.

"You haven’t forgotten earlier, have you?"

"No! Stop! Aw, come on Yamato—it’s not fair that I’m tic-tick-lish—waaah, ha—arrgh, stop!"

Rather than take pity on me, the bastard tips me over and sits on me so I have even less chance of getting away. "What did you say, Tai? Are you ticklish?" he asks innocently sliding his hands along my ribs.

I can see only one way out of this situation so I take it. Seizing his shirt around the neck I tug. Hard.

"Hey! Tai—that’s my only shirt!" he protests.

I grin at him, dumping the spoiled fabric to one side. "Should have told me that earlier, Yama-chan," I whisper before scooting across my chest with his tongue.

Should have thought of doing this earlier—

Things are getting considerably more interesting, which of course is when we get interrupted.

"Not again," Yamato sighs, burying his face in my neck.

"I’m resting Sora, really I am—" I start hastily. "I’m lying down and everything—"

The low chuckle we received was definitely not Sora’s. "You boys certainly redefine resting."

"Jun? What are you doing in here?"

"Looking for you. I’ve got something to tell you, something you won’t like."

Yamato grumbles as I wriggle out from under him. I don’t like doing it but I can tell when something’s serious, and so can Jun. "What is it?"

She hesitates. "I heard this from Dai. I’m not sure how much of it I understand."

"What is it?"

She sighs. "Promise you won’t get mad?"

"Jun!"

Yamato takes my hand. I think he’s also realized this is serious.

"There are underground people out there. I’m not sure what they’re doing—but its got something to do with Ken going back and Daisuke is really upset."

"Shit," Yamato whispers. "They’re looking for us."

I look at him. "You think so?"

He manages a weak smile. "Taichi, we took off with one of their main power sources. I think it’s fair to say they’re looking for us."

"Well, they’re not getting you," I tell him, standing. We’re going to need to know exactly what they’re up to--**Iori? Come to Sora’s room immediately.**

"Wouldn’t Dai have been a better choice?" Jun asks. "He’s the best scout—"

"And take him away from Ken?" I reply. "I couldn’t—not if there’s a chance what he says is true."

"Taichi?" Iori has arrived.

I outline the situation and what I want him to do quickly. "Stay out of sight and listen, see if you can find out what they’re after. I want to know how many of them there are, what their weapons are like—and you’re not to get caught, understand?"

Iori gives me a withering glance. "Would I do that?" He slips out of the carriage silently, quickly disappearing into the night shadows.

"Come on," I pull Yamato up. "We need to find Izzy. Then you can tell me how many underground people are after you and what weapons they’re likely to have." I gave him a second glance. "And Mimi too . . . but then, you’d needed a new shirt anyway."

Sora was not happy that I was adamant about not going back to bed, but she had to admit that defending ourselves against a possible attack did take precedence. Just barely though.

"Are we going to evacuate again?"

"I think it likely. After all, they’re bound to be after Yamato, Hikari and Ken . . ." I sigh. From what Yamato has told me, they’re likely to be in a lot of trouble. And they don’t know it . . .

"Tai, what’s the worst they’re going to do?" Yamato asks, trying to coax a smile out of me. "When they see Hikari’s given up her suit, they’ll have to leave her here."

"Ken’s still wearing his suit," Jun points out.

"If he doesn’t want to stay then we have no right to force him," Izzy says eminently practical. "This is a decision he has to make himself."

"No one is to disturb him or Dai," I say. I hate this. Daisuke has a good heart, I don’t want to see it broken . . .

"Taichi—have you considered the possibility that they may want more than to recover their people?" Izzy muses. "After all, Daisuke did mention that they wanted to use him for tests . . . "

"I’d forgotten," Yamato murmurs. "We may have endangered you all . . ."

"Stop that. We don’t know whether they followed you here, or how they got here," I tell him. "Come to think of it, how did they find us?"

"I can answer that," Iori has returned noiselessly. "There are five, armed with guns, and yes, they do want test subjects. But that’s by the by to collecting Yamato. They want Ken and Hikari, but only if their suits are intact. And they found us by following some sort of tracking device."

"Tracking device?" Izzy asks.

"That’s what I said."

"But surely that’s not right. I mean, one you’d need the capabilities of setting up something to give the signal, two, you’d need someone who wanted them to find us—"

"Which we have." Everyone looks at me. They haven’t seen it yet, but then they didn’t see Ken and Dai in Izzy’s lab. I knew that wasn’t right—

Damm, I should have seen it! I shouldn’t have been so caught up in Yamato, I’ve gone and put everyone in danger—"Excuse me," I say and walk out of the meeting.

Daisuke is just sitting there, watching Ken sleep. He’s quiet and I think he’s been crying. That’s the only thing that keeps me from smashing him into the wall just now.

I know how it feels to be that miserable. I still remember last night, after all . . . and this must be even worse.

**Taichi,** Daisuke acknowledges dully. **He only just fell asleep.**

**We won’t wake him then. I suppose you know where the tracker is?**

Daisuke nods.

**Give it to me.**

He very gently crawls over to Ken and returns with the small metal sphere. **What’s going to happen?**

**We’re going to have to wait and see. We’ve never had anything like this . . . Iori says they have guns. Even our powers might not do us much good against them—and I don’t think it will be a good idea to let them know we have them, or they might start experiments . . . ** I shake my head. **You do know that this was an incredibly stupid thing to do Dai?**

**Yeah. I’m sorry . . .**

**What’s done is done . . .**I sigh. I really can’t be mad at him. **Just . . . this had better work, or else!**

**Okay, Taichi. You’re the boss.**

Everyone is getting so sarcastic recently. I grumble as I rejoin the others. "This is what they’ve been following."

"I’m going to kill Ken," Yamato says, standing up. "The little—"

"You’re going to do no such thing," I tell him. "Iori, do you think you can do us all a favour, and find some nice mutant creature we can stick this on? Just something that will occupy our friends out there long enough for us to pack up and leave."

Iori looks at the tracker and then grins wickedly, an expression that is most disconcerting on him. "How do you feel about mutant sheep?"

 

YAMATO

I really want to do something – like strangle a certain dark-haired energy source. I can now, because Taichi’s busy talking to some of the others about getting rid of that tracking device. So I wait until he’s totally into that, and then sneak out the door.

He doesn’t even notice.

I don’t actually want to strange Ken. I mean, sure, I’d like to, but it’d be stupid, considering we’ve been trying to save his life all this time. I just want to make him realize how serious this is. He’s put everyone here in danger, and I want him to know just that. I want him to be sorry for causing all this trouble. He needs to learn that there are more important things in the world than just what he wants.

I open the door and walk into the room. Ken isn’t alone, but that doesn’t surprise me. Daisuke’s sitting there, looking small and sad and like he just doesn’t know what to do, and he’s staring at Ken while he sleeps. He looks up when I come in, though.

"Hi Yamato," he says, making an attempt to act happy. "Be quiet, because Ken’s sleeping, okay?"

I shake my head. "I want to talk to him. He can sleep later." I’m meeting Daisuke’s gaze, and he looks like he wants to argue, but I cut him off. "You knew about the tracker, didn’t you?"

There’s a look on his face like a trapped animal. "Yeah, I knew."

"So why didn’t you say anything?" I try to keep that frustrated explosion quiet, but I’m not sure I succeed noticeably. "You know what they’re like! You were a prisoner there! Did you ever stop to think what might happen if they found us? You’ve put everyone you care about in danger; didn’t you think about that?"

He cringes back, looking almost scared and like he’s going to start crying. "I… didn’t… I…" He blinks rapidly. "I only wanted Ken to like me." His voice is so small, like he knows how stupid and useless that sentence is.

"Poor excuse for endangering so many lives." I think it’s possible that I’m being too hard on him, but somebody has to. I know Taichi won’t; he’s way too soft-hearted. But if someone doesn’t teach him right now to think before he acts, he’s going to do something just like this again. He has to think. He can concentrate all he wants, but unless he’s thinking before he acts, it’s useless.

"Yeah, I know." Daisuke seems to have gained some control of himself again. He looks away from me and gazes down at the sleeping Ken. The way his eyes soften… "But I can’t do it. I can’t let him down. He trusts me now – you don’t know how important that is."

"More important than everyone who’s depending on you for their survival?"

Daisuke bites his lip. "No. But more important than living up here."

I don’t have a reply for that. He’s caught me totally off-guard, and I can’t even think to answer him. The meaning behind those words… "You’re not saying…"

"Daisuke…?" A murmur from Ken interrupts me. "If you want me to be awake for your fun tomorrow, you’ll need to be quiet and let me sleep right now."

I turn my attention away from Daisuke, and resolve to say nothing about what he’s just told me. I guess it’s the least I can do; if he’s made up his mind, having everyone trying to unmake it would only get in his way. I focus my attention on Ken instead. "You’re not sleeping again until you and I have a talk."

He opens his eyes and frowns at me. "What could you possibly want that couldn’t wait until tomorrow morning?" There’s a hint of the old irritation in his voice, probably because he’s still drowsy.

"Oh, I don’t know." My voice is sarcastic. "Maybe something like, ‘You’ve put everybody in this base in danger, you idiot’. Or I could say, ‘How could you do that?’ What are your thoughts on, ‘You are a heartless bastard who can’t think past his own selfishness to see that there are more important things in the world besides yourself’?"

He stares at me.

"What were you thinking?" I ask him furiously. "Enabling a tracker? Did you ever stop to think that there would be others effected by this aside from just you? What did you think would happen to the people who live here when somebody came to collect you?"

"Nothing would happen to them," Ken answers, glancing at Daisuke as if to accuse him. "Why would they care about anyone here? They’re coming to rescue me. And you told them, didn’t you?" He glares at the red-head. "I thought you promised me…"

"He didn’t tell anyone; this came from somewhere else." All right, so that’s half a lie. Daisuke did tell Jun. But the look on the brown-eyes boy’s face was enough to make me come to his defense. "It doesn’t matter how we found out, though. We’re all in danger because of you!"

"What danger?" Ken demands, eyes flashing as he turns to face me. "They just want to take me back where I belong, and you won’t be able to stop them. You can stop handing me those foolish stories about trying to save my life and lying about how my brother died…"

"I saw the records, you idiot! Do you think I’d make that up!" I return his glare, and then some. "This isn’t about that, though. It’s about the fact that there are five men out there armed with guns, who are wanting to take back you, me, and Hikari – and capture about half the human population up here to use for ‘experiments’!"

He looks taken aback for a moment, then his eyes narrow. "How could you know…?"

"Taichi sent out a scout when we heard about them," I retort, still fixing him with a cold gaze. "He reported back what they were discussing along the way. They do pose a threat, whether you believe it or not. I’m not forcing you to come with us any more. Miyako may be concerned about your miserable life, but I’m not. If you want to go back and live for one more year before you burn out and suffer a heart failure, that’s your business. If they find you, good riddance."

That speech may be the result of anger more than anything, and I’ll probably regret it later on, but I don’t care at the moment. I’m furious. The only thing that keeps me from smacking the shocked expression right off Ken’s face is the fact that Daisuke lets out a little half-sobbing noise and clutches the dark-haired boy’s hand to his chest tightly.

"I don’t want you to die!" he says, voice choked. "Please stay! I’ll take care of you, I promise! I’ll make sure you’re safe and happy, and I’ll give you whatever you want if I have it! Please don’t go back!"

Ken stares at him, and for a moment, I’m completely forgotten. "I won’t die," he says firmly, but there’s less certainty in his voice. "I have to go back. He doesn’t know the facts… Miyako was a liar. She was a first-rate tech; she knew how to fake documents, I’m sure. I’m in no danger whatsoever."

Daisuke’s eyes are big and sad, and he hugs Ken’s arm to him, but he doesn’t say anything.

"You don’t really believe that," I tell the former energy-source. "Miyako would have no reason to get rid of you. In fact, she should have every reason for wanting you to stay. You were part of her job. You paid for her food, and her compartment fees. But she was willing to sacrifice that because she was concerned for you. And I’m beginning to think you don’t deserve it – not hardly."

Ken scowls and turns away from me, but I notice his eyes softening as they fall on Daisuke. My arguments aren’t affecting him as much as the red-head’s obvious distress is. If there’s anything that would change him…

I wish it could’ve been different. If we’d lived on the surface, if there hadn’t been this pollution… Ken would’ve been normal. I would’ve been free to be with Taichi without worrying for my life, and perhaps these two would’ve met under normal circumstances… Perhaps they would’ve been happy, and not had this whole miserable affair to deal with. They’re just kids. And so are Taichi and I. Kids. Almost adults, but still kids. We might accept what we’ve been thrust into, but it isn’t fair, all the same.

Not that it makes a difference. We accept what happens, and we try to enjoy life. That’s all we can do. I think I could be happy with Taichi, no matter where we were or what the circumstances might be.

Can Ken say the same for Daisuke?

I think he can. The question is, will he?

"There you are." Taichi walks in through the doorway. His face is serious; he’s ready for the danger. So different from his usual cheerful, happy pose… I love both sides of him. Even in the middle of all this, I still feel that comfortable warmth when I look at him. "We’ve got plans to make. Some of us have a few decisions, too." He glances at Ken.

"What’s happening?" I ask.

"Iori planted the tracker on a mutant sheep," he reports, a small smile tugging at his lips. "It’s not going to save us for long – they’ll catch up with it in a day or two, and then they’ll head back this way. We’re not safe here right now, so we’ll have to leave this base and head to the next one. Again." He runs a hand through his hair and lets the smile out.

I move closer and take over the job his hand started, running my fingers through those soft brown locks. He’s… so Taichi. It’s a unique quality about him, I just can’t get enough… "So we move on. Not too complicated. Will they be able to find us?"

"I’m not sure." He lets out a breath. "I’d say probably not, but I don’t know what kind of equipment they have. We know the surface better than they do, and if we have to, we’ll fight them off. I don’t want to have to…" There’s heavy reluctance in his voice, but I understand that awful necessity. "I’ve got about four dozen lives depending on me – or more. I’ll do what I have to."

I nod. "I understand, Tai. You don’t have to explain it to me."

"Yeah, I guess not." He turns toward Ken. "I can’t be responsible for your safety if you don’t want my protection. I won’t have anyone in this group if they don’t want to be here. This isn’t some kind of roving prison, you know. Either stay here and wait for them to come get you, or come with us. It’s up to you, but I’m not leaving anyone behind to help you."

Daisuke shifts guiltily, but Taichi is too preoccupied to notice.

"I won’t trust anyone from the underground if I can help it," he continues. "They’ll killed before – I saw it myself. If they’d kill a ten-year-old for panicking about being sent up to the surface, you can be sure they’d kill someone older for a more serious reason."

"A ten-year-old?" I’m shocked, though I probably shouldn’t be. Ken’s staring at Taichi, his eyes uncharacteristically wide. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but it looks like he’s trembling slightly…

"I was there, too." Daisuke speaks up unexpectedly. "Taichi didn’t let me see it, but I heard the shot. And when we turned back, he was just lying there…" He looks almost grave. "It doesn’t seem as horrible now that I’ve seen so many more people die, but back then, it was really freaky."

I nod. I’m not going to doubt their word… Especially having seen evidence for more atrocious acts that the underground’s inflicted on people. One of the strongest pieces of evidence is sitting on the bed right now, eyes wide and definitely trembling, now leaning against Daisuke as if for support and clinging to the hand that was already holding his even more tightly.

"We’re leaving at sunset tomorrow," Taichi explains. "I have to get word to the rest of the people in this base, and things have to be organized." He looks at Ken again. "If you want to come with us, make sure you figure that out before then, because I’m not waiting for you."

Ken doesn’t say a word. He just stares at Taichi like he’s never seen him before in his life. Daisuke puts a protective arm around his waist.

"I’ll come with you, Taichi," I volunteer, as the central figure of my life moves to leave the room. "I don’t think I have anything left to talk about here." I give Ken a brief glance that speaks volumes, and then we leave.

It looks like we actually made an impact on him. That’s good, I guess.

I hope, for Daisuke’s sake, that it’s enough.

"What do you think?" I ask Taichi. "Is this more dangerous than the trees."

"It could be," he tells me honestly. "But, actually, I doubt it. They’re here for Ken and Hikari. Capturing us would be like a bonus. If we disappear and they don’t have the tracker to follow, I think they’ll go back. They might search for a while, but if we leave them your suits…" He shrugs, then grins. "There won’t be anything to find us for."

"Sounds good." I return the grin, hooking an arm around his waist. He immediately mimics that, tucking his arm over mine and gripping my side. It feels nice. "I like the idea of being with you for the rest of my life without worrying about being bothered."

He laughs. "Now our only problem is getting enough privacy to make out without being bothered! And our enemies are everyone in this base, rather than the people trying to find it!"

"True," I agree. "But I think we’ll win that one. Now let’s go warn our "enemies" about the coming danger, shall we?"

 

KEN

There are times when I could almost let my emotions get the better of me, and hate Yamato. This is one of them. Everything was bad enough, and then he comes along and now I don't know what to think any more . . .

It’s all I can do to make sense of Taichi’s words. Either stay here and wait for them to come get you, or come with us. It’s up to you, but I’m not leaving anyone behind to help you. But I don’t know what to do!

A choking sound comes from beside of me. Daisuke is wiping away his tears. I’m glad he’s stopped crying, I didn’t know what to do when he did. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. A little upset is all. I’ve let everyone down—" Daisuke sniffed again. "You?"

"I don’t know. I’ve never had to make a decision like this before—" Why am I even thinking like this? Staying here is asking me to stop believing in everything I live by—and yet—I can’t dismiss it . . .

"You should sleep," Daisuke whispers, moving over to put his arms around me. "I’ve got so much to show you tomorrow, Ken—"

I lean against him silently, my head churning with thoughts. What they said before—the kid, killed—I don’t want to believe them. They’re making it up.

And yet . . . Taichi said it like it just came into his mind. I don’t think he cares too much whether I come or not, so long as I don’t endanger anyone. Yamato yelled at me before . . . I can’t see any reason for him to want to try and keep me up here now—they might lie to get rid of me, but I don’t think they’d do that to get me to stay, not at this point.

More worryingly, Daisuke agreed with Tai. He wouldn’t lie to me. Somehow, I just know that.

Which gives me no other option but to believe them. And if the Underground was willing to do that . . .

"It’s okay, Ken. I’ll take care of you," Daisuke promises and I allow myself to fall asleep.

I awake to find him kneeling impatiently by me.

"Finally, you’re awake! I have so much to show you!"

Yawning, and still very much asleep, I’m pulled after him. The camp appears more than usually busy—I catch snatches of conversation and realize they’re wondering about the underground team, out there.

"What’s happening?" I ask Daisuke.

He shrugs. "We’ve got a couple of spies out watching them. Iori stuck the tracker on a sheep and they seem to have all gone off to find it. It won’t be too long til they catch up with it though. They have these big metal things that make a heck of a lot of noise—honestly, they’re going to attract everything hungry in an eight mile radius—"

I tune Daisuke out. They have transport—which explains how they got here so quickly. They’re likely to be better protected, and have more weapons and equipment then we did too, so mutant creatures won’t be that much of a problem. I really have caused a lot of trouble—

"Here we go," Daisuke pulls me inside a compartment. "Guess who lives here?"

The carriage is as big as that of Tai’s which Yamato, Hikari and I shared until late. However it has only about a third of that space free. The rest is crammed with mechanical objects of every kind. I step forward, trying to take it in at once.

"Wow—"

"I thought you’d like it," Daisuke sounds satisfied. "I’ll have to thank Izzy for letting us come in here—"

"Thank me now," Izzy emerges from a corner with some kind of motor. "Hello Ken, Daisuke. Having a look round?" His black eyes fasten seriously on me. "I do hope you’re not going to borrow my tools without asking again."

I hang my head. Of course, Taichi would have told him.

"Although, if I ever get the chance I’m going to insist you show me how you did whatever to the tracker. I’ve been trying to put one together for ages."

That makes me look up. "Why would you be trying to build trackers?"

"I thought if we could make some sort of tracking system and attach it to the mutant creatures around this area, we could make it a lot safer for ourselves. Of course, the ideal solution would be to find someway of picking up excess pollution signatures, and base the tracking system on that—"

"I have just the thing for you," I said, turning towards the door.

"That magic measuring thing that talks?" Daisuke scrambled past me. "I’ll get it!"

Izzy laughed at my bemused expression. "He really does like you."

"He wants me to stay," I tell him, not quite sure why. He must know already—in a group this size, there can be few secrets.

Black eyes look at me thoughtfully. "And what do you think about staying?"

"I don’t know," I answer truthfully.

"You don’t have long to make a decision," Izzy says, returning to work on the motor.

"Izzy—" I pause, unsure how to ask what I want to. "If you could go back to the underground—would you?"

"I assume you mean not as a test subject," Izzy places the motor aside, and thinks carefully. "I’m not sure. I’ve never considered the matter—it was not a possibility, so I concentrated on the things that had more immediate value, such as my friends, staying alive, protecting each other. And yet, if I could go back . . . I’d have to say I don’t think I would."

"Why not?" I ask. "You’d have running computers, power sources, proper tools—even safety."

"True. Then again, I no longer believe that there is safety in the underground. I’m content here. The life may not be easy, but I find it immensely rewarding. We may have to struggle harder for our survival then the people in the cities, but we make our own decisions, and we stick together—there’s also the relationships I’ve made. If going back to the city meant I had to leave Mimi, Taichi, Sora, and my other friends—I wouldn’t."

"You’d stay . . . for them?" Out of all the people I’d met since being dragged out of my machine, Izzy was the one I think I most understood. He was like me in some ways—he thought along the same lines. If he was willing to choose emotion over rationality—

"I would. They make life worth living, Ken."

I take a seat opposite him, idly picking up one of the pieces of machinery beside me. "I don’t understand." I’d never allowed myself to care deeply about another person after Osamu. When he died . . . it still hurt.

Yet . . . somehow that pain was fainter . . .

"It’s hard to explain. You just have to decide what you want out of life."

"What did you decide?"

Izzy does a very surprising thing; he sticks his tongue out at me. "I’m not telling. You’ll have to make your own decisions, Ken. If you want my advice though, gather as much data as you can before you make your decision."

"Hey!" Daisuke’s shout heralds his noisy arrival a few seconds later. "I got the whatever."

"You took a while," Izzy notes, as I take the device from Daisuke.

He makes a wry face. "Taichi and Yamato were using the carriage for some rather, um, interesting activities and wouldn’t let me in. I was lucky though. They threw it at me when I wouldn’t go away."

"I hope it wasn’t damaged," Izzy says, holding a hand out for the device. "How does it work."

I explain, finding Izzy makes a very good audience. Daisuke is almost as good. He just sits there, watching me, as if he’s filing every little detail away. At first that made me feel uncomfortable. Now, I don’t mind it. In fact, it’s even kind of reassuring . . .

Izzy shows us some of the machines he’s been working on crafting and then leads us outside to show me their water supply and garden, both constructed under his supervision. Daisuke points out where he helped. I am suitably impressed. When Taichi joins us later, I find myself biting back a disappointed exclamation.

"I hate to interrupt the tour," he says with a smile. "But we need Izzy to help us."

"Surely there isn’t a problem with the evacuation?"

"No, Takeru’s had one of his trademark ideas, and we need you to tell us whether its feasible."

"So what did TO come up with this time?" Daisuke asks.

"He thinks," Taichi says, ruffling Daisuke’s hair, "that we can use the suits to fake his and Hikari’s deaths and so get the underground off our backs permanently." He looks really happy—I think he was very worried about this.

"It’s a distinct possibility," Izzy muses. "I’ll join you immediately."

"Taichi?" I say quickly before he leaves. "Just so you know . . . If I stay, I won’t tell them Hikari and Yamato aren’t dead. And I wouldn’t tell them about the base either . . . I don’t want to endanger you again."

I’ve never apologized for anything before. I’m not sure how to do it.

From the look Taichi gives me, I think he knows what I’m trying to say. "That’s good to know, Ken," he says simply. "Thank-you. I hope you make the right decision."

Daisuke throws his arms around me as the older guys leave.

"What are you doing?" I ask, non-plussed.

"It’s called a hug," Daisuke explains. "Come on, now I’ve got something really special to show you."

He leads me into the woods again. I don’t feel as nervous as I did yesterday, on my own and without any weapon. I believe Daisuke when he says he’ll protect me . . . so when he tells me to shut my eyes, I don’t even question him.

"Just wait till you see this," he tells me, leading me forward. ‘You’ll love it."

"Will I?" No sooner have I asked that, then I’m given the chance to decide for myself. Daisuke tells me to open my eyes, and I do, blinking in astonishment at the sight that greets me.

A field . . . full of flowers.

I look at Daisuke.

"I found this place last time we were here. It was about this time—they only come out like this once time a year. Aren’t they pretty?"

I bend down and gently touch one of the delicate violet buds. "Yes . . . very pretty, Daisuke."

"There’s more. Come one." He takes my hand again. I follow him, trying not to crush any of the fragile blossoms . . .

"Do you know what they’re called?"

"Sora said they were bluebells, and I think she would know. But there—" He gestures. "What do you think of that?"

I look at it. Then I look at Daisuke. "It’s a river."

"And isn’t it cool?"

I look at the river again. It winds its way down a small waterfall before spreading across the meadow, the bluebells gathered by its side. I still fail to see the attraction. Daisuke seems to like it though.

"Here," He finds a large stone by the riverside and pulls me down to sit beside him. "Don’t you think it’s peaceful? I like to come here to think sometimes . . . but you can’t tell anyone that, okay? Jun would laugh herself silly if anyone told her I thought . . ."

I smile. "I won’t tell."

We fall silent after that. Daisuke was right, the gentle bubbling noises the river makes are peaceful.

I watch the river, wondering if this is what Izzy meant by gathering data . . . And what was it Yamato said? That there were things about the surface I couldn’t feel with a suit? And he was dead yet--"Daisuke, you’re not using your powers now, are you?"

"No," he’s obviously confused by the question. "Why would I? There’s no need—"

"Just checking," I tell him, fumbling with the catch to the hood of my suit.

He stares at me. "Dude—what are you doing?"

I pull the hood off, shaking my hair free. "Gathering information."

Daisuke puts a hand towards me, hesitantly, then pulls away. "Can—Can I—"

I smile at him. "What?"

He takes a deep breath and then blurts it out. "Can I touch your hair?" He blushes bright red, and looks away hurriedly. "That is if you don’t mind, and if it’s perfectly okay with you and all—"

He’s only 22 without his powers—"Sure."

"And I’d try my best not to mess it up—" Daisuke stops mid-sentence. "Huh?"

I just smile at him.

"You really mean that? Wow—" Daisuke leans closer to me and his face takes on an almost reverent look. Taking a deep breath he stretches out his hand and lifts it to my face. "I knew it," he whispers, fingers tangling in my hair. "Like silk—"

I don’t reply. Daisuke’s so close to me . . . and he doesn’t smell dirty at all—in fact, he smells kind of nice. Exciting maybe . . . My heart skips a beat as his fingers accidentally brush my face.

"Daisuke?"

"Yeah?" he sounds likes he’s afraid to talk too loud, thinking maybe that he’ll shatter the moment.

"I haven’t kissed anyone before. I’m unsure of the correct procedure—"

 

DAISUKE

Soft, soft hair… it’s even smoother than it looks – it slides through my hands like water or sand and I have to grab more, separating all the little strands and then grasping them together so they gather into something like that silk piece. My fingers accidentally-on-purpose brush his face; it’s smooth too. He even feels beautiful…

And the whole time, he’s smiling at me. Not bitter or hateful or forced – it’s a real smile, and all for me. It’s more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen.

"Daisuke?" he asks. It’s like one of those crazy dreams, and everything he says or does is impossibly perfect. Even his voice is beautiful. I think he could sing totally off-key and I’d still think it was gorgeous.

"Yeah?" I say back, keeping my voice hushed so I don’t break the spell. I’m afraid he’s going to disappear and Taichi will shake me awake and say that we’ve got to get up and get moving, and Ken will just be some perfect dream that I can’t ever touch for real. His hair’s so nice under my fingers. I can’t believe he let me touch it! I’ve wanted to ever since I first saw him, and never thought I could, and now I am and it was all worth it!

His next words make me freeze.

"I haven’t kissed anyone before," he says simply. "I’m unsure of the correct procedure – " He pauses there, and tilts his head at me expectantly, as if he’s curious to see what my response might be.

My fingers tighten in his hair. "You… you wanna? Kiss somebody?"

"You," he corrects me.

"Me," I repeat. "Uh, okay!" My heart’s pounding. This can’t be real! I feel like I should be waking up again this morning and starting the whole day over again. Because Ken can’t have let me touch his hair… he can’t have taken the hood from his suit off… he can’t be asking me how to kiss me… he can’t…

Well, I don’t care if he can’t. He is, and I’m happy. This means he’ll stay for sure, right? This means he likes me. It means he wants to stay. And I’ll never be apart from him! He’ll kiss me and hug me and then we’ll run off to a private hideaway and vow to love each other, forever and ever…

"Daisuke?" Ken says, interrupting my daydream.

"Oh – right!" I grin at him, shifting closer in excitement. "Okay, I’ve never been kissed or kissed anyone," I confess, "but I know what to do. You tilt your head a little, like this." I tilt my head. "See?"

He copies me. "All right."

"That’s so our noses don’t get in the way," I tell him, thinking he might want a reason. "Then you open your mouth just the smallest bit, like this." I part my lips and try to mimic how Taichi looks when Yamato’s about to kiss him. "And sort of close your eyes…" My eyes flutter shut as I lean forward a little – can’t help it, I’ve been waiting forever and ever for Ken to kiss me, and now he’s finally going to do it… His breathing is mingling with mine, and I feel like that warmth is spreading all through my whole body.

"Then what?" Ken asks me, just a touch breathlessly. Like he’s as excited as me.

"You lean forward…" I start to do that myself, angling my head up a little because Ken’s taller. We move toward each other so slowly, because I’m scared he’ll back away if I move too fast, and he’s only copying what I do. We get so close that I can tell his lips are there next to mine but they’re not quite touching… Then they brush softly, just the slightest bit, and then more, and…

Then we’re kissing.

It’s even better than I daydreamed it was going to be. He’s really soft. I don’t know what to do, except my fingers are still in his hair, and I like how his lips feel on mine. We stay like that for a while, because I don’t know how I’m supposed to move, and Ken knows even less than me. After a while, instinct sort of takes over and I move more, kissing him kind of clumsily.

It feels good. It feels really good.

I wonder if it feels this good for him, too.

It has to, because he doesn’t pull back. Instead, he puts his hands hesitantly on either side of my hips – probably copying Yamato and Taichi, like I am – and tries to move his mouth the way I am. It’s not perfect, but it feels nice just for being with him. I just figured out why Taichi risks Sora’s wrath to sneak off with Yamato. It’s because this is the best feeling in the world, and I love Ken, and I want him here with me forever so we can kiss and hold each other and never let anything get between us ever again.

I’m still not sure what to do with my tongue. Jun says a lot of couples kiss with their tongues, and I’m sure Taichi and Yamato do it, but I don’t know how so I won’t try it yet. I move closer to Ken and think about how warm he is, and how soft and responsive his lips are, and how I’d love to melt into his arms so we can lie tangled on the floor like we’re trying to sink into one person.

After a while, I have to breathe, so I have to move back. "You’re so… perfect… Ken," I tell him, gulping in air. "You should stay and be with me. Stay." I kiss him again, and he doesn’t move away. "I’ll love you forever if you just let me be with you," I promise hopefully.

He’s silent for a while. "I still have to think," he says, finally. I’m surprised for a minute when he leans forward and kisses me again. Moving slowly, probably because he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, his hands slide around my waist and rest at the small of my back. I move closer happily and give him lots of short kisses while telling him with every break just how nice he is, how good he feels, how I love him so, so much and want him to stay forever and ever… My fingers stroke his hair and I move even closer, so that we’re pressed against each other.

"Ken… you’re… beautiful," I tell him between kisses. "So… soft…so… perfect." I could die like this and I wouldn’t care. I pull back a little and stare at him, feeling dazed and caught in the moment. "Say we can stay here forever," I mumble, blissfully.

"I can’t promise," he answers softly. Then he leans forward and kisses me again, before pulling back and reaching up to gently free my fingers from his hair. "I need to put my hood back on when I’m not gathering data," he explains, trying to soften that blow with a pretty smile.

"Okay," I agree. I feel like he’s shutting himself away from me, and it hurts, but I keep saying in my mind that if he stays, it’s all gonna be fine in the end. I shift a little closer when he finishes with the hood. "Was my kissing good?"

He smiles – one of the good smiles. "Very good," he answers without any mocking notes in his voice at all.

I squirm happily and grin at him in excitement. "So maybe you’ll stay?"

"Maybe," he answers distantly. "I’m still not sure."

Same answer as before… but now he’s kissed me! I touch two fingers to my lips and smile to myself. Ken kissed me! I can still feel it, making me tingly all over… He kissed me! I can’t stop smiling, not even for a second. I glance over at Ken, and he’s smiling too.

"Why do you want to go back?" I ask. I know, I’ve pretty much repeated that question a million times over in different ways, but he still hasn’t given me a very good answer. I want to know.

He shrugs. "It’s where I belong."

"It doesn’t have to be," I tell him earnestly, shifting again to face him. "You could belong here, you know. I could tell that Izzy liked you, and you could help him make stuff for us. I think you’d really like it, and you’d have me too… We could be together, Ken. You could belong with me."

He sighs. "It doesn’t work like that, Daisuke."

"Why not?" I insist. "It can if you want it to. People are always saying I can’t do something, or that things can’t be a certain way, but sometimes I try and I prove them all wrong. You never know until you try."

"It isn’t that simple in this case," he points out. "I can’t just experiment briefly and then decide to go back if it doesn’t work out. I either stay or I go back. I can’t change my mind later on."

"But you’d be happy here, Ken," I tell him. "I know you would, because I’d make sure of it. I’ll bring you flowers every day and we can visit all my special spots and you can help Izzy build machines – that makes you happy, right? And you said you liked kissing me – we can do that whenever you want, too. We can sit outside and watch the sun set at night, and look at the stars and make wishes. It’d be so great, don’t you see?"

"Maybe…" He looks unsure.

"You don’t have to figure it out right now," I say. "But when you have to make up your mind, think about that, okay? It’d be much more fun up here than it would be down there. I don’t think I’ll like living there much, if you choose that."

Ken turns to face me completely, and the look on his face is pure shock. "Living there?" he repeats, as if he thinks that he didn’t hear right.

"Yeah." I grin at him. He doesn’t return it. "I’ve decided that I don’t wanna live here without you," I say, now letting some of that determination into my voice. "So if you’re going back down to the underground, so am I."

He stares at me as if I’ve sprouted horns on the top of my head. "You can’t go there!"

"Yes I can," I tell him stubbornly. "I just have to wear a contamination suit my whole life. I don’t care any more, because you’ll be there, and I want to be where you are."

"I won’t allow it!" he snaps, eyes blazing. "Not hardly! You aren’t coming back with me, Daisuke, so don’t even think that you are! That’s ridiculous!"

I bite my lip. "Then I’ll go there alone," I tell him, meeting his angry gaze steadily. "I don’t care if they use me for experiments. If you don’t let me come with you, then I’ll go back myself and let them take me. But Ken…" I can feel my eyes filling, and blink rapidly. "I really want to be where you are. Please take me with you. Please?"

"Daisuke…"

"I’ll sit in a chair for my whole life and just watch you!" I blurt out, desperate to get him to agree. "I don’t care what it means for me, but just don’t leave me behind, please let me come and be with you, please, Ken, please!"

He’s caught with nothing to say. "I… I don’t understand…"

"Me neither, but I don’t care!" So who knows how I fell for him? I mean, it just happened… and now I’d give everything up and go with him, even if it means never seeing another friendly face again. "I’ll leave my whole life behind and go with you, and I’ll stay as long as you let me," I promise. "I just… can’t…" My voice chooses that moment to falter, but I keep looking at him, trying to make him see that I’m serious. "I don’t want to be apart from you. Not ever."

He looks at me like he’s never seen me before in his life. "Emotional attachments," he says, but the words don’t have the conviction they would’ve had a couple of days ago. "It’s so foolish to form them… I can’t… can’t…"

I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter. He’s looking at me, staring right into my eyes, and I don’t want to break this spell, not yet. I know that the grey underground’s going to crush and confine me, and I’ll hate it. I don’t care. If I can’t have Ken up here, then that’ll be even worse. Just being with him… being allowed to watch him, and love him… That’s what I want.

"Ken?"

He looks forward and ignores me in favor of thinking, which I don’t mind. I know I’m probably not making things easier, but I can’t just stay behind. I can’t!

"Daisuke!" Iori’s voice calls from somewhere outside my little spot. "You’re supposed to help Taichi and the others with blocking off the entrances! Hurry up!"

"I gotta go," I tell Ken. "The stuff we use to block our base is too heavy to lift up without me. Want to come, or would you rather stay here?"

"I’ll come," he says, and slides off the rock to follow me. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking; his face is totally unreadable, and he doesn’t say anything else when we start back toward the base.

I wish I knew, though. Now I’m going to worry about it until he makes up his mind.

Please stay, I think to myself. It would solve everything… please, Ken…

I just have to hope he makes the right choice. For both of us.

 

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