Ground Level

 

Part Eight

 

TAICHI

 

"No."

"But Taichi—"

"No."

"But just think of the possibilities—"

"Izzy, I said no."

"I fear you’re being too hasty in your judgement of the situation. After all—"

"They’ve got guns, Koushiro. Guns. No."

Our red headed technology expert sighs. "I still think the potential usefulness of the vehicles outweighs the danger—"

"And I think that I’m not going to let you go and get killed for a piece of metal—you’re too important, Izzy. We need you here." I meet Izzy’s eyes and hold it until he nods.

"Fine."

The group watching visibly relaxes. They hate when we argue—and they know we don’t need arguments, particularly at a time like this. Hikari and Yamato are watching concerned from the sidelines, particularly Yamato. He isn’t used to this . . .

"Is everything ready?" I ask the rest of our group.

"We just need to finish blocking off the rest of the entrances. Daisuke’s not back yet—"

"I’m here!" Daisuke announces, as he appears, Ken in tow.

"Great. We’ll be leaving as soon as the scouts get back. And one more thing," I duck into the crowd and pull Yamato and Hikari up beside me. "Yamato and Hikari. You’ve probably seen them round, and gathered that they’re staying. Look out for them like you would any other new arrival, okay? Just remember they don’t already have seven years of surface life to teach them stuff, and be patient. They’re members of our team now, and although they don’t have hunting or scouting skills yet, they can help us in other ways."

"Like what?" That faintly skeptical question comes from the would-be leader.

"Yamato’s been working in a kitchen, he’s going to help with our food. Hikari’s volunteered to help with the gardens, and she’ll be keeping Takeru out of trouble."

"What about K—" Someone starts and is immediately elbowed by Jun.

I look worriedly at Daisuke. From the tightness of his expression they haven’t yet resolved this . . . and they’re running out of time.

"I need volunteers to scout ahead of us the journey to the next base," I continue. "Who’s ready to leave now?"

Yamato slides a hand round my waist as I talk to the scouts. "I still can’t get over how organized you all are at this—" he whispers, breath scorching my neck, as I finish.

I lean back into him with a sigh. "Believe me, when you’ve done this the thousands of times that we have, you find there is nothing left to organize." I brush his hair away from his face, smiling at it . . . he asked Mimi if he could borrow her mirror and spent I don’t know how long this morning combing it into what he calls order . . .Mimi is delighted at the prospect of having a new friend. I think it looks beautiful, no matter if it’s been combed for the last half hour or whether it’s all messed up because I’ve been running my fingers through it . . .

Actually, no, I think I prefer it all messed up . . .

"I think its ridiculous," a harsh voice intrudes into my reverie. "Our so called "leader" is endangering all our lives for the sake of a few deadweights all because he has a crush—"

I pull back from Yamato, whipping around to glare at the speaker, heat rising around my clenched fist.

A steadying hand is placed on my arm. "Troy," Izzy says calmly. "Might I remind you that seven years ago, you knew even less about living on the surface than Hikari and Yamato here? But you adapted, as they will, with a little time and help from the rest of us."

"Besides, they know stuff we don’t—it’s like an added advantage," Jun nods. "The fact that Taichi couldn’t keep his hands off Yamato if he had stinging rash is beside the point."

I blush. Am I that bad?

"We need a leader with an undivided attention," Troy continues. "He’s—"

"Well capable of making the decisions for the rest of us, regardless of whether he’s found a partner or not," Sora finishes. "I trust Taichi to put the welfare of our group first."

My cheeks burn. I haven’t exactly done a good job of that, have I? If I’d paid attention, I’d have seen the tracker—

"Besides," Yamato finishes, "I don’t exactly plan on being a dead weight to you or anyone else."

I love him.

"And there’s this little thing called compassion, which we happen to believe in. It’s also the only reason you haven’t been kicked out years ago—Don’t push you luck," I tell Troy. "Either put up with the situation or leave, but I don’t want to hear any more complaints from you."

He scowls and sulkily turns away. There’s a flash of blue to the side and I look up to see Ken also turn aside—not with Daisuke? I’ll ask them later.

**Thanks guys** I tell my friends.

**You’re welcome,** Mimi hugs me. **Taichi we’re all happy for you, and none of us mind Yamato and Hikari being here. It’d be worth it, even if they didn’t contribute anything just to have you and Takeru happy.**

"What are you doing now?" Yamato asks, his hands returning to their rightful place about my waist.

"Izzy and I were just going to fake you and Hikari’s deaths. Want to come?"

"How are we going to die?" Yamato asks, as he follows us to the spot we’ve chosen.

"We decided, given that we planted the tracker on a mutant sheep that we’d set it up as if you’d been attacked by them. They’re a lot more dangerous then they sound because they always travel in flocks," Izzy explains.

"There we go." Izzy and I had already dumped some of the stuff Yamato and Hikari brought with them around the place. We’d set up blankets and scattered little box things Yamato said were food to make it look as though they were resting when the "attack" took place.

"This is your last chance," I tell Yamato holding up his suit. He shakes his head.

"Getting out of that thing was the best decision I ever made."

I grin foolishly at him. I love it when he says things like that.

"Jump each other later," Izzy says, pulling out a knife. "We’ve got work to do."

Hikari’s and Yamato’s suits are slashed artistically then have dirt dumped on to them. Shredded fragments of Yamato’s ruined shirt and his trousers which rapidly went the same way join them. I grin at my love—dressed in the same khaki’s clothes as the rest of us, it’s starting to sink in that he’s actually staying . . .

"Earth to Taichi. I need the sack—come on, you can stare at his butt later."

"I wasn’t staring at his butt," I tell Izzy. "I was staring at all of him."

"Nice to know I’m appreciated," Yamato smiles, abruptly turning serious as he sees the contents of the sack. "Tell me they’re not—"

"Human?" I ask gently. "Sorry Yamato. The first year, when the big group split up, there were a few who insisted on staying here believing the underground would reconsider. We found them a few years ago . . ."

"I’m sure they wouldn’t mind," Izzy says quietly, placing the bone fragments beside the suits. "After all, we did give them a burial."

We return to the camp in silence. I really hope this works . . . I’m terrified about loosing Yamato to the underground. From what Iori said they seem to actually want him, and the only reason I can think of is to be made an example of—I tighten my hold on Yamato’s hand, thinking of the last example. I will not let that happen.

"The scouts aren’t back yet," Hikari informs us as we reach the base. "Neither are the underground people."

"Any news?"

"They’ve caught up with the sheep—who appear to be giving them a hard time," Takeru tells us. His hand is still firmly wrapped around Hikari’s.

"How do you guys eat?" I ask. They blink at me. "I don’t think I’ve seen you not holding hands once in the last 24 hours."

Hikari smiles. "How do you breathe? Whenever I look for you, you’re always attached to Yamato—"

"Speaking of which," Yamato says gently pulling me away from our younger siblings. "We have some time—"

Have I said that I love him?

It’s hard to open a door when you’ve got your arms wrapped around your boyfriend in a very passionate embrace but we manage somehow and stumble backwards into my carriage, all without breaking our kiss. Yamato guides me in the direction of the bed, and as soon as I feel the mattress behind me I fall back, pulling him with me. As his mouth continues to toy with my own I tug at the buttons of my shirt, intending to take up where we left off.

"Don’t mind me," Ken says. "I can wait for Daisuke elsewhere."

Yamato breaks the kiss swearing. I sit up.

"Ken? Wait—you looked like you wanted to talk to me before."

"Yes. There are two things," Ken sits back down again. Yamato curses into the mattress beside me and I poke him.

"I –I wanted to ask you about what happened before. The boy challenged your leadership—"

"Happens all the time," I shrug. "It’s no big deal. People are allowed to disagree with me. Izzy and Sora are always ready to point out when I’m overlooking something."

"But he raised a point. If I were to go with you . . . I’d have to learn to live like you." Ken pauses. "What is that like?"

"We’re always moving," I tell him. "You’ve probably figured that out already." I wind my hand through Yamato’s hair as I continue. "We’ve got three sources of food. Our gardens—we’ve got one at every base, then there’s food from before the move underground—canned food and that. When we’re in cities we can scavenge for it. Then there’s hunting. We start the little kids helping in the gardens, move them onto scavenging and then up to hunting when we think they’ve learned how to protect themselves."

Yamato is listening interestedly too. "What sort of things do you hunt?"

"Any non-Magical animals we can find. At our next base we’ll be eating a lot of fish. It’s right by the sea, a boat that got wrecked and washed ashore."

"I think I remember going to the sea with my parents," Yamato murmurs. "Before—"

"You’ll love it," I tell him. "The sea is fascinating to watch. Like you—"

Ken stands. "I can see you two will be busy for a while so I’ll leave you."

We’re too busy frantically kissing to respond.

The next time we’re forced to stop for breath though I realize something. "Didn’t he say he had two things to talk to me about?"

"Find him later," Yamato growls. "Taichi—"

The note of desperation in his voice is enough to affix my attention back to him, and only him. That is until Daisuke turns up.

"I hate to interrupt—but you guys haven’t seen Ken anywhere, have you?"

"Are you sure you were joking when you said our enemies were the ones inside this base?" Yamato groans, collapsing beside me.

"If this is a bad time—" Daisuke hesitates.

"It’s fine, Dai," I assure him, ignoring my sulking boyfriend. "He was here not long ago, waiting for you. I don’t think he’ll be that hard to find."

"Okay. Thanks Taichi." Daisuke pauses a moment then throws his arms around me. "He kissed me!"

"He did—Ken kissed you?" Okay, I am surprised.

"Or he let me kiss him—I’m not sure—but we kissed!"

"That’s great—"

"Wonderful. Now can you please go find your boyfriend and leave me alone with mine?" Yamato is getting impatient again.

"Okay. Have fun!" Daisuke is off again, undaunted by Yamato’s tone.

"It’s a conspiracy," my boyfriend sighs, looking at me suspiciously. "Why do you look so happy?"

"I never realized it before . .. but you’re cute when you’re frustrated."

 

YAMATO

I watch Taichi hurry out of the room with his hair more mussed than usual and a goofy grin on his face, and smirk to myself. This had been the first time we weren’t actually interrupted, but we’d had to stop before long at any rate; there’s just too much to be done at the moment.

Oh well.

I leave the room shortly after he does. I don’t have people to command, but I do have a snotty little ex-energy-source to talk to. Taichi had still been worried about that second thing Ken had been interested in talking about, so I agreed to ask about it.

Not that I think the little sunshine-bearer will actually talk to me.

"Yamato!" Takeru runs up to me – surprisingly, without Hikari. "I was hoping I’d find you," he told me, smiling. "I have a job for you. We’re trying to make the train look abandoned, so some of us are piling twigs and junk on top of the carriages. I’m in charge of growing plants over them. I thought you’d like a chance to help – it’s better than sitting around, right?"

"Definitely," I agree. "I’ll join you guys in a bit, okay? Taichi asked me to have a talk with Ken, so I’m going to get that over with first."

"Get it over with?" Takeru repeated, and laughed. "You don’t think much of him, do you?"

"More than I did yesterday," I admit. Daisuke’s ecstatic admission that Ken had kissed him was a positive sign, I’m sure. "If he decides to stay, I’ll bet he’ll grow on me eventually."

"Well, if he decides to stay, he’ll probably become more and more like one of us," Takeru notes. "And less like an outsider. I think we’ll all more or less come to accept him. Except maybe Troy. But then, he doesn’t accept anyone unless they support him as leader."

I snort. "Yeah right."

He shakes his head. "That’s pretty much the general feeling around here."

"I can see why. So, have you seen Ken anywhere?"

"Well, I think he was with Daisuke. That was ten minutes ago. I know for a fact that Koushiro’s enlisting Dai in loading his tools up. There are an awful lot of them if you want to move everything by hand." Takeru shrugs. "So you could try his workroom if you want."

"Sure." I know where that is already. I’m getting good at this sort of thing. This kind of life takes a little getting used to, but the general living terms aren’t that hard to deal with. "Thanks, TK. I’ll be back as soon as I’m done to help you guys out."

"We’re all waiting breathlessly, Yamato."

Now where did he pick up that kind of sarcasm? Not from me, for sure…

"Now, those need to be stored in one of the – oh, hello Yamato." Koushiro looks up from where he’s explaining what goes where to Daisuke. "Was there something you wanted?"

I smile. "No, keep working." Ken is sitting in a corner of the room, watching the goings-on with apparent interest. "Hey chuckles," I say, catching his eye. "There was something Taichi wanted me to ask you. Care to chat where we won’t be disrupting anything?"

He surprises me by actually smiling at the name I gave him. "All right," he agrees, and rises gracefully to cross the room, placing a hesitant hand on Daisuke’s shoulder for a moment while passing him. They share a warm look briefly, and I’m surprised again. Then again, Daisuke did say that they had kissed.

"What was it you wanted to see me about, Yamato?" Ken asks politely. I realize that I’m seeing the deferential Ken that had diligently served as the central core of the Machine without complaint. It feels odd, especially in contrast to the rude brat I dragged across the surface. I feel a brief surge of pity for him – he’s only trying to understand a confusing new world under extreme pressure.

It’s the first time I’ve been able to talk to him and feel something other than irritation.

"When you came to see Taichi, you said that you had two things to talk to him about," I explain. "We were wondering what else you wanted to talk about."

He shifts a little. "I’m not certain Daisuke would be pleased if I shared it with you," he says, looking away from me. "I had second thoughts before I said anything to Taichi."

I nod. "All right, if you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to." I change the subject. "I heard from Dai that the two of you were kissing. Does that mean you’ve decided to stay?"

"No." He doesn’t say the word with any kind of derision. "I don’t know yet."

I raise an eyebrow. "But you did take off the hood."

"Only for a moment," he explains, looking up again. His eyes are big, and uncertain – almost frightened. "It wasn’t enough to contaminate me, certainly. I didn’t feel much different – perhaps because the experience wasn’t long enough. Kissing Daisuke…" He stops, and licks his lips – unconsciously, maybe. "That was an experience." There’s a quiet sort of awe in his voice.

Of course, he wouldn’t have been through anything like that before, either.

"You used to hate Daisuke," I remind him.

"I know." He half smiles. "I grew attached to him somehow. He’s a likeable idiot, isn’t he?" There’s a hint of fondness in the words. "Never takes no for an answer… not even when he has to…"

"It’s going to get him into trouble one day," I note.

"Yes, it will," Ken agrees, very quietly. "I can tell you that for certain."

I frown. "Why? Has he done something?"

"No… not yet." He hesitates. "I feel I should tell somebody, but I’m no longer certain Taichi should be that somebody. I have a suspicion he’d not take it well. It could cause Daisuke some pain. I think I’ll tell you, if you wish, and then you can see that it is passed on if necessary. Does that sound fair?"

"Perfectly." I keep myself from smiling. He’s trying… is it his fault that he talks like a computer? No, I hardly think so. "All right, go ahead. I’m listening."

"You are aware that I may be taken back this evening if I choose to be," he says, then glances at me for confirmation. When he gets a nod in response, he continues, "Well, Daisuke is less than pleased, which I’m certain you are also aware of. However, he has made a promise that alarms me. His intention is to go where I go – so, in the event that I choose to return, he wants to come along. But I’m not sure…" He stops, seemingly stuck for words.

"I understand." I have to think this through for a moment. Daisuke’s planning to… Yes, that could be a problem, and I think I can predict Taichi’s reaction. I can also predict Daisuke’s reaction to Taichi’s reaction. There is no way that any of those could have a positive effect on the group as a whole. "That’s not good," I say, finally.

"I didn’t think so, either," Ken agrees. "I can’t see Daisuke adapting well to life underground, especially if he’s forced to where a contamination suit as well. And the response to his decision up here would not be a good one."

"No." I shudder, thinking of what Jun would do if that happened, and she found out I’d known all along. "But I don’t think we can tell Taichi. He’d flip."

"I thought so." Ken nods. "I won’t say anything. That was what I was going to talk to him about, though. I thought maybe he’d hold Daisuke down on knock him out, or…" He trails off. "I don’t know what. Something that would keep him from following me."

"So you’ve decided to go back?"

"No." He shakes his head. "I don’t know yet. It’s not that easy, you understand."

"Sure." I shrug. "Not well, but I have an idea. I’m sorry for being so hard on you through this whole thing. None of it was especially easy for me either."

"I understand." He smiles. "If I’m going back, we can at least part with no hard feelings between us. I might even miss you at some point – only briefly, but I’m sure you understand."

Did he just make a joke?

"Oh sure, I’m probably going to have trouble dealing with the loss of you charming presence," I answer, half grinning. "I’ll leave you to whatever it was you were doing before, though. And good luck with that decision. I hope you make the right choice."

"Me too," he agrees, before heading back into Izzy’s workroom.

I walk away, feeling better for some reason and unable to explain why.

When I get back to where I promised to meet Takeru, I find a very nice surprise – meaning, Taichi’s there, supervising. Probably only for a few minutes, since there’s obviously a lot to be done, but still. I walk up behind him and slide an arm around his waist. "Hey."

He turns to smile at me. "Hi Yama." I think he knew I was there before I did anything. Taichi’s got very good senses. "Did you talk to Ken?"

"Yeah," I answer, wondering how I’m going to handle this. I can’t lie to Taichi… so I decide that the truth is the best way to go. "He changed his mind, and now he says he’d rather I didn’t tell you."

"Oh." Taichi frowns. "It’s not something that could endanger us, is it?"

"No," I answer. "If it was, I wouldn’t keep it from you."

"Okay, Yama, just checking." Taichi pulls away from me for a moment. "Dillan, we’re going to need this done before sunset. Can you hurry a little more?"

"Sorry, Taichi," one of the kids answers, abashed. "I’ll try."

"Do whatever you can," Taichi says, kindly enough. "I don’t think I need to tell you that it’s important." He faces me again. "I need to get going, Yamato. We have a lot to do. Are you staying here?"

"Yeah." I shrug. "I might as well try to be helpful, huh? Since I’m joining the group and all."

He grins. "Makes sense." With a quick farewell peck, he’s off again – running off to check up on somebody else.

I’m in love with a very busy guy. But I know he’ll have time in his schedule for me.

"Over here, Yamato." Takeru waves at me.

"Where’s Hikari?" I ask, when I get closer.

"Helping Mimi with the little kids," he answers. "That’s a full time job. Iori usually helps out, but he’s scouting right now, and that’s way more important."

"So, what’s happening?" I ask him, copying the other kids in piling rubble just so on the carriages. "Did anyone report back yet?"

"Not since they told us that the guys from the underground found that mutant sheep," he answers, reaching into the ground. I watch his face twitch in concentration, then the plants growing around the train start to creep up steadily and engulf it. It’s weird…

Oh well. Nothing horrible, I guess.

I keep working, and ignore it.

I’m interrupted about a quarter of an hour later, by a soft touch on my arm. "Excuse me?" a quiet voice asks me. I turn, and I’m facing the little Iori kid. "Do you know where Taichi is?" he asks me.

"No, sorry." I wipe my forehead on my sleeve. "Before you go to find him, what’s going on?"

"They’ve doubled back," he says. "It should only be a matter of a couple of hours before they discover this base. But as far as I know, we’re on schedule. I’ll have to find Taichi and tell him, though."

"Okay. Don’t let me keep you." I give him a brief smile, which he returns, and they he continues on his way.

I get back to work.

"That’s good, Yamato," Takeru says, after a while. "I don’t think they’ll be able to tell people were living here. It looks pretty abandoned."

I look, and have to agree. "Especially with all of those plants grown all over. I don’t think they’ll guess that you can actually do that." I grin at him, and he laughs.

"No, I guess not. It does come in handy, doesn’t it?"

"Can’t wait to see what I’ll end up with," I say truthfully. "If I happen to get any sort of powers."

"True." Takeru shrugs. "You might. It’d be interesting."

"Sure would," I agree.

We look at each other, and laugh for no reason at all.

It feels good to have a little brother again.

 

KEN

"Back a bit—now to your right—I said right Daisuke! Izzy, move a little to your left—and there."

"Phew!" Daisuke slides onto the floor. "That—whatever that was—was heavy."

"Yes. Even with your power we had a much harder time lifting that generator than I anticipated. Still, that was the last." Izzy squeezes Dai’s shoulder in thanks. "You two can stay here, take a breather. I’ll see how other things are coming."

I sit by Daisuke and he slides his arm around me. I rest my head on his chest and we stay like that, silent. It seems like we’ve already said anything there is to say. All we can do now is enjoy what time we have together.

This relationship is accepted on the surface. Below—I fear otherwise. I’m supposed to be an emotionless power source. I probably wouldn’t even be allowed to see Daisuke—let alone touch him, even through a suit.

"I’ll have to thanks Izzy," Daisuke said.

"Why?"

"He asked our help on purpose, knowing we’d be finished sooner. Usually I’m not allowed to help except with heavy things. Too clumsy."

"You’re not clumsy," I tell him. "A little hasty perhaps."

He smiles. "And you’re not as stuck-up as Yamato says. What did he tell you before?"

"Nothing much," I whisper. "That he was sorry he wasn’t more understanding before and that he’d miss me."

"Really?" Daisuke gives me a delighted grin. "I bet the two of you could even become friends—if you stayed that is . . ."

I say nothing. I still don’t know, and you think I should by now. I’m running out of time . . .

"Damm." Daisuke says shortly, into the silence.

"What?"

"Message from Tai. He wants us to leave. Now."

I don’t want to leave this carriage—to have to make the decision that will decide the rest of my life, and Daisuke’s too. Although I’m not letting him come with me. He doesn’t see how the underground would wear away at him, he’s too stubborn to even think of the possibility that he might be wrong . . . actually, that’s kind of like me when I arrived.

"We have to go," Daisuke says in a voice that’s not much less scared than I feel. I nod and take his hand, and we leave the train.

Taichi is going over the evacuation plan with everybody. I watch him. He’s so serious when he’s dealing with the other’s safety, I’m glad he doesn’t about Dai’s intentions. So maybe I still have time to talk him out of it—If I must, I can be really brutal and lie and just tell him I don’t want him around—but I don’t want to do that. The last tiny bit of my machine training whispers that that is illogical, that it may hurt him momentarily but it’s for his greater benefit. All I know is that I would face ten mutant bears before I would willingly hurt Daisuke.

Not that I’m not going to hurt him, either way.

"Hey Jun," Daisuke joins his sister in the crowd and hugs her. "You’re a great sister."

Jun nods. "I know," she says, with no modesty whatsoever, watching Taichi.

I frown. The two of them don’t seem overly fond of displaying their affection for each other—why now? Unless—and as Taichi finishes his speech and moves over to join us, Yamato in tow, I start to feel apprehensive.

"Ken, you’re still in your suit. Is that your decision?" Taichi asks.

"I—uh," I hesitate.

"Thanks Tai—" Daisuke throws his arms around him.

"Uh, sure." Taichi untangles himself, a look of complete puzzlement on his face. It would almost be comical, if I didn’t fear what was coming. "May I ask what for?"

"For everything. Taking care of me and teaching me stuff." Daisuke pulls away. "I’m going to miss you."

"Miss me? But—you’re not—" Tai’s eyes widen in understanding, then frown. "No."

"But Tai—"

"No!"

"Am I missing something?" Jun asks, peevishly.

"Daisuke—" I interpose hastily, trying to avert a disaster, but I’m too late. He turns to face his sister. "I’m going back to the underground with Ken."

Jun stares at him. "Like hell you are! Daisuke, have you gone completely stupid? They’ll kill you!"

"You don’t know that," Daisuke says stubbornly.

"You don’t know they won’t," Taichi’s tone is the most balanced of the three, but it’s got an undertone I don’t like.

"I can’t believe you’re just going to go and leave us like that, Dai! I mean, we need you here. You know how few of us we are, and that we need everybody we can get. Dai, you can’t just abandon us—" Daisuke stares at his sister, his lip trembling.

This is even worse than I thought it would be.

"I’m not abandoning you! I just need to be with Ken—"

I take step back as Jun looks at me. I think at this point she would rend me limb from limb cheerfully, if it would make her brother stay.

"Please understand—I have to go with him—" Daisuke looks between his sister and his leader desperately, and my heart aches. This is my fault—my fault he’s being hurt like this, mine that no matter what happens, people are going to hurt—

"Daisuke," Taichi says in that quiet tone that is far worse than Jun’s screeching. "Look at me."

Daisuke pulls a deep breath and then does just that. The two of them just stare at each other a couple of minutes, and I frown, trying to work out what is going on.

"Takeru," Yamato whispers beside me. "They’re using thoughts, aren’t they?"

Of course. I’d forgotten all about that.

"Yes," Takeru nods, looking gravely on. Taichi has unclenched his fists to gesture to the people standing round, Daisuke has pointed angrily to Yamato.

"What are they saying?"

"I can’t tell. None of us can. This is between them and them only," Takeru shudders. "Given the anger radiating from Tai, I don’t think I want to—" he takes a tighter hold of Hikari’s hand.

I’m sorry Daisuke, I think as I watch. But this is for the best . . . the best. Even if it doesn’t feel like the best—

Taichi whirls away from Daisuke, then turns back to face him. Daisuke’s face remains set, adamant. Taichi crosses his arms.

"Fine," he says, breaking the silence. "Stay. It’s your funeral."

In the protest that follows that statement my own exclamation goes unheard.

"You can’t be serious Taichi! You can’t let him go—" Jun is most vocal.

"He’s thought about this and he knows the dangers. He really wants to do this—we can’t prevent him." Taichi does not sound happy at all.

Nor am I—I was counting on Taichi to force Daisuke to stay if necessary.

"You are not going little brother—even if I have to tie you to a tree and guard you myself!" Jun protests.

"Taichi already thought of that," Daisuke says with a slight smile. "Sooner or later, you would have to untie me, and then I’d just head back to the underground—"

"No you won’t!" I say hotly.

"Ken?" Daisuke looks at me and for the first time I see a hint of uncertainty in his resolve.

"You are not coming back with me. I will not allow it."

"D-don’t you want me?" he pleads.

My heart aches at the hurt in that question. "Of course I want you, idiot. But you have to stay here, with your friends and the life you know. There’s no alternative." Seeing Daisuke about to argue with me, I forestall him hastily. "There’s a pretty good chance the underground won’t even allow you back in with me."

"I’ll promise to wear a suit—" Daisuke starts.

I cut him off resolutely. "What’s make you think they’ll waste a suit on you? These are the people who sent you up here in the first place, because you were a drain on the colony’s resources. Now—you don’t have any skills they need and you’re a contamination risk. They have absolutely no use for you besides as a test subject."

"But—" Daisuke’s voice finally cracks, his eyes brimming with tears. "I got to go with you Ken! I can’t live without you—"

"The requirements for life are oxygen, and adequate sustenance," I murmur weakly. "Not me." And yet, I believe him.

Daisuke’s emotions finally overpower him, and he drops onto his knees, weeping. Taichi kneels by him, the voice that was so cold a minute ago, now full of compassion.

"Daisuke," he murmurs, putting a hand round his shoulders. Jun joins them, rubbing his back.

At that moment, I would do anything to make Daisuke smile again—and that’s when I realize. I can’t go to the underground without him, anymore than he can stay up here without me.

Taichi and Jun are not having much luck comforting Daisuke. He’s sobbing that hard that none of what he says, makes sense. "Let me," I request kneeling by him.

Taichi stares at me a moment, then, grinning, relinquishes his place to me. I put my arms around Daisuke, awkwardly, but even at a moment like this savoring the warmth of his body against mine.

"Daisuke—stop crying," I tell him.

"I can’t—you’re going to be gone and it hurts so m-much—" he chokes back a sob. "I don’t want to live without you."

I kiss his forehead gently. "You don’t have to."

He’s silent a moment, then . . . "You can’t kiss me with your suit on, can you?"

I smile. "No, Daisuke. I can’t."

He takes a deep breath then looks up—pushing me away a little so that he can ascertain that my suit really is gone. "But—Dude—I thought—"

"I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision," I tell him, wrapping my arms around him and bringing us back together again. "And when I saw how much I’d hurt you, I knew I hadn’t—nothing could be worth hurting you that much—"

"Ken," Daisuke whispers, cupping my face with his hand. "You—" he chokes again.

I am most annoyed as he again dissolves into tears. "I thought I told you to stop crying!"

"I can’t help it," Daisuke cries onto my shoulder. "I’m so happy—"

"But that’s utterly and completely illogical!" I tell him.

Taichi laughs behind us. "You two can argue about that as we walk to our next base. Come on." He pauses. "Oh, and congratulations."

There is a chorus of good wishes and I blush. I have no idea how to react to this—declaring my emotions in public is not something I make a habit of doing.

Daisuke stops crying and grins. "There’s just something we got to do first."

His hand brushes my face again, bringing our lips together and then . . .

I could stay like this forever—the little part of my brain that isn’t caught up in the sensations of the kiss, of Daisuke’s lips over mine, of his breath, of his smell, of his warms skin brushing mine, of the salty taste of the tears he was crying not too long ago.

"There," Daisuke says, pulling back. "Now we can go."

 

DAISUKE

"Yama!"

"What? Nobody cares what we're doing!"

Taichi laughs helplessly, and sinks into Yamato's arms. I grin, watching them, and feel so happy I could burst. It's only been a few days since Ken agreed to stay, and every moment is warm and happy, even though we've been traveling almost non-stop.

Ken's fingers tighten around mine. His hands are really soft. I know it'll change since he's going to be working with tools and machines, but I'll always love how they feel. Mine, I think to myself. It's hard to believe. He's staying for me. I'm going to spend the rest of my life making sure he believes he made the right choice.

Nights are really nice, too. We cuddle and talk to each other in really soft voices so we don't disturb anyone and so no one overhears what we're saying. I tell him I love him again and again, but he always seems to like hearing it. I can't say it enough; the words almost have magic all on their own. I'm so happy inside… it's like I'm floating without leaving the ground.

"I'm tired, Daisuke," Ken says simply, into my ear. He always says what he's feeling, but it's not like complaining. He's just telling me. I think it has something to do with how he was a machine, but I'm not really sure how.

"Okay." I think for half a second. "Want to sit down? We've finished setting up camp for tonight anyway."

"That would be nice."

I hug his waist. He's so warm and soft. I love him.

"This isn't helping me sit down, Dai," he says, but not like he wants me to stop. I hug him tighter and bury my face in his shoulder. It feels so great without the plastic. It makes me smile.

"I suggest a compromise," Ken says, after a while. "We can lie down, and you can keep hugging me. Agreed?" He loops his arms around my shoulders loosely - and not as awkwardly as he would've about two and a half days ago. He's totally relaxed in my arms. Before, he'd always tense up a little, but not now.

I like the change.

"Okay," I agree, and we slump down together. He ends up half on top of me, eyes half lidded. I can't resist and lean forward to kiss him. He's great to kiss. I can't get enough; it's just so nice and warm and wonderful…

My hands inch up all on their own and run through his hair, smoothing and separating the silky strands. Mine, I think again, still amazed. I'm so lucky… He's beautiful and he feels so nice, and he's special and gentle and kind, and I can hardly believe he's with me. "I love you," I whisper for the millionth time, between kisses.

"I love you too, Daisuke," he says, very softly. It sends a thrill all through me. Ken loves me…

The first time he said it, I cried. I don't know why I'm suddenly crying so much; I've been doing an awful lot of that since Ken came into my life. And he surprised me again by kissing the tears off my face and very quietly begging me to smile. So I smiled, and didn't stop smiling, even when we started kissing again.

Ken tells me that he loves my kisses. I love his. Maybe because it's him.

I'm really happy. I can't remember being so happy. Ken's like… everything.

"Dude, you… well… you don't ever regret it, do you?" I ask, breaking away for a minute. "Like, deciding to stay? I mean, I kind of almost forced you into - "

"No," he answers, cutting me off. "I don't. Besides, even if I did, it wouldn't matter. Giving up my home is the price I pay for having you."

I smile, staring up at him. "Ken…"

He waits a moment for me to say something after that, then rests his head against my shoulder and sighs. It's a nice sound; comfortable.

I listen to him breathe for a while, then let myself doze off. I trust the others to keep watch. It's not my turn this time, so I can sleep together with Ken for as long as I want.

Taichi wakes me up the next morning, really early, and we start out again.

"How are you doing, Daisuke?" he asks me at one point, when we have to stop for lunch. "Things are all right with you and Ken now?"

"Dude, they couldn't be better!" I'm grinning like an idiot, but who cares. "I think I know how you felt, why you and Yamato were always sneaking off to be in private and all. Except I don't wanna sneak off when we've gotta do so much traveling."

He grins. "Yeah, well… there'll be plenty of opportunities when we get to the next base."

I nod. "Uh huh." Our ocean base is a big huge passenger ship. It was actually on one of the docks, floating perfectly well, when we found it. It's pretty cool, even though sometimes it's hard to get used to sleeping when the water makes everything move. We can't go in the water because of pollution, but it's kinda nice to see it with a sunset and everything.

I can't wait to show Ken.

Taichi runs a hand through his hair and smiles. "I don't know about you, but I'm happy." His eyes stray over to where Yamato is eating lunch with Hikari and Takeru. "I think things turned out pretty well."

"Me too." I look a little to the side, where Ken's sitting, listening to the conversations. He doesn't say much, but I think he's starting to feel more friendly towards everyone. TE in particular is helping me draw him out. And Izzy, with the machines. Those two are getting along well already, just like I knew they would.

Sometimes I'm so smart I amaze myself.

"Who thought the two of us would land a couple of gorgeous guys from the underground, huh?" Taichi jokes, ruffling my hair. "We must be doing something right."

"Uh huh," I agree again. Ken looks up and, when he notices me looking at him, smiles. "I'll see ya, Taichi," I say absently, already heading straight for him.

I hear Taichi laugh behind me, but hardly care.

It's gonna take a while to get used to having Ken around with me all the time. Right now it still feels like a miracle or something. I sit down beside him and lean into his shoulder, wrapping an arm around his waist.

"Did you want something, Daisuke?" he asks. I think he already knows what the answer will be; I mean, we've only done this about a hundred times.

"No, just you," I say cheerfully.

Our nice little moment is interrupted by a yelp from Yamato and some loud giggling from the others. I look up and noticed that Taichi did better than me by actually pouncing on the blond. He's sitting on Yamato's hips, bent low over him, and he looks over and grins at me as if to say 'Now that is how it's done, Daisuke'. I butt my head up against Ken like a cat craving attention and grin back.

I think Ken would faint if I ever pounced on him.

Some day, though, maybe in a week or so, I'll try it and surprise him. And I think he'll like the idea.

That makes me think of something, almost right suddenly out of nowhere. I've got the rest of my life to be with Ken. It's not a few days, not a few weeks, not even a year or two. It's my whole life. I'll be able to work him into all the big gaping spaces and fill everything up. Maybe we'll start sharing a cabin like some of the couples do. We've got so many days stretching ahead of us… it's amazing how much we can do. And it still doesn't feel like enough. Maybe even forever wouldn't be enough. Because I want us to do everything. I want to fly to the moon and share it with him. I want to mind-link with him like I can with Taichi. I want to show him the whole rest of the world, and make him smile, and surprise him, and love him, and be there forever, the two of us, for the rest of everything.

"What are you thinking?" Ken asks, fingers brushing over my cheek. He likes touching my face. I don't know why. Maybe it's like with me and his hair. Like, maybe it reminds him of something nice from his past. But I don't care why; it makes him happy, and it makes me happy, and everything's good.

"Stuff," I say, then add, "about us. You know, like being together forever and doing all this cool stuff together. I wanna show you everything."

He laughs. "Highly improbable."

"I’m going to try anyway," I tell him. Everything's highly improbable or impossible with him. I don’t believe it for a second.

"Time to get going!" Taichi calls out, and we get up.

It's another few hours, and then I can smell the ocean.

"Well," Koushiro says, from beside me. "We made it." There's a faint smile on his face.

"We sure did." I skip forward a little, letting go of Ken's hand. "Dude, we're almost there!"

He reclaims my hand. "How can you tell?"

"I can smell it, can't you?"

Ken gives me a look, and I grin sheepishly. Oh right. He's never been to an ocean before.

"We made pretty good time," Taichi comments, on my other side.

"It wasn't so bad," Yamato agrees. They've each got an arm around the other's waist. The looks they're giving each other kinda suggest that they're probably not going to get there any time soon. Not when there are still so many convenient hiding spots - and this close to the base, they'd be pretty safe.

I grin. Oh well.

"I'll race you there, little brother," Jun says, then takes off before I can reply.

I stick my tongue out at her back.

"Things haven't changed, have they?" Takeru laughs.

"Shut up, TI," I tell him.

"And you still can't spell."

I glare at him good-naturedly, spare a glance for Koushiro and Mimi talking about whatever it is they talk about, and turn back to see Taichi drag Yamato discreetly off into the bushes. And beside me is a vision of silk and softness and everything I love all wrapped up in one. Life is good, I think, and smile.

Then I push on ahead to show Ken the ocean.

 

The End