The Next Level


A Glance to the Past


"I want you drinking plenty of water, understand? And don’t eat too much junk food before the big game this weekend. All right, guys?"

Daisuke nodded with the rest of his teammates, inside feeling restless. It was warm out – but not too hot – and practice had just ended. He wanted to go do something, not sit around and listen to their coach go on and on about keeping healthy for an important game. Sure, he meant well, and he was probably right about it, but he was boring.

Daisuke’s partner, Ken Ichijouji, sat attentively beside him, eyes focussed on their coach. Of course, Ken did things the right way, always paying close attention when someone was talking to him, practicing when he was told to practice, reading his Elements manual through four times to be sure he got all of the information… Daisuke thought the world of Ken, especially since he was bonded to him and shared the dark-haired boy’s mind whenever they were in physical contact – but his partner in the world of magic really did need to loosen up. The red-head was working on that.

Shifting casually, Daisuke stretched out his legs on the ground and touched the tip of his foot to Ken’s knee, which jutted out as he sat cross-legged. So I guess this means our afternoon of hooking up liquefied chips and chocolate bars to our veins is out, huh?

~Shouldn’t you be paying attention?~ All the same, Ken covered his mouth with one hand to muffle his chuckling. Daisuke sensed amusement and contentment from him.

"Something funny, Mr. Ichijouji?"

Ken looked chagrined. "No, sir." He shook his head. ~Great. I get in trouble because you’re bored!~ He wasn’t angry. Ken hardly ever got angry with Daisuke, not even when they’d argued over how to break up a fight between a typhoi and a leachen the previous week. Sometimes he got irritated, or exasperated, but he was never actually angry.

Daisuke still liked it best when he was happy.

I’ll make it up to you, he promised lightly. We could go walk around after the practice is over. We’ll get ice-cream – on me. How about it?

~All right. I’ll just have to call my parents first, so they know I’ll be home late.~

Great! Daisuke grinned to himself, pulling back his foot. In his opinion, you could never spend too much time in Ken’s company. He was one of Daisuke’s favorite people to have around, and not just because of the bond. There was something special about Ken; being close to him gave Daisuke a warm, happy sort of feeling that was hard to define. He liked it, though.

"Okay guys! See you in a couple of days – don’t forget!"

That went fast. Shoving himself to his feet, the red-head turned to his partner. Ken rose gracefully, looking as if no effort were put into his motions. He was so… special? Nice? Daisuke couldn’t describe it.

"Well, let’s go find us a pay phone!" he said cheerfully, grinning up at the taller boy. Ken nodded, with a faint half-smile on his face.

"Don’t forget your cleats." His own soccer shoes were slung neatly over one shoulder.

"Oh yeah, I almost forgot." Daisuke bent to retrieve them. Rising again, he turned back to the other boy, and found him staring. "What is it?"

Ken went red. "Ah… nothing. Not important. Look, there’s a pay phone." He hurried off toward it.

Daisuke shrugged and followed him.

Fifteen minutes later, they were back at the forested part of the field, eating ice-cream and talking with each other comfortably – half out loud and half with their minds. Ken was eating a butterscotch-swirl, and Daisuke had opted for his favorite, chocolate. His, however, was gone before even a quarter of his partner’s had disappeared, and the red-head was eyeing the double-scoop of butterscotch-swirl in a not-too-subtle manner. Ken switched it to the hand furthest from him.

"It’s nice out." Daisuke casually moved around behind Ken, and over to the side by the ice-cream.

"Yes, it is." Ken switched his cone to the other hand.

Daisuke frowned for a moment, then touched his partner’s arm. Remember when we first got bonded? That was the day I got my book, too. It was pouring rain!

~Yeah, I remember.~ Ken took a long lick of his ice-cream, and amusement positively oozed off of him as Daisuke watched hungrily. ~I came back to get your cleats for you so they wouldn’t be outside when it was so wet out.~

That’s cool. Daisuke never took his eyes off the cone. You’re such a nice, generous person, Ken. No one else could ever be so great. I’ve never had a better friend, really!

Ken chuckled. "Nice try." He licked the top of his ice-cream.

Daisuke watched him intently, wishing desperately that he could be – have – that ice-cream cone. No fair! I’m hungry! My cone is gone, and I want ice-cream…

Ken smiled at him, and took another lick.

That did it. Daisuke grabbed the hand holding the ice-cream, and took advantage of Ken’s surprise by leaning in and taking a nice, long lick himself. "Mmm… that’s not bad. Maybe I’ll have to get that flavor next time."

Ken just stared at him, shocked.

"What? It’s dangerous to get between me and food. You know that." Daisuke grinned and leaned over his partner again. "How about another? Please?"

Wordlessly, Ken held out the ice-cream.

Daisuke grinned, triumphant, and was about to lean in again…

…when he crashed into another person, let out a started yell, and fell back.

"Hey, watch where you’re going, you clutz!" a female voice snapped at him.

"Who’re you calling a clutz, you clutz!" Daisuke rose, indignant, and faced a tall, purple-haired girl with glasses and hippie-like clothes. She was glaring at him, irritably.

"You!" she snarled back. "So watch where you’re going! Got that?" She made a ‘hmmph’ noise and turned her back on him. "If your brain can grasp that concept…"

Daisuke scowled, then abruptly got a wicked idea. Ken was giving him an apprehensive look, but the red-head ignored him, pulling out his ever-present dagger and tracing the ‘trip’ Rune onto the offending girl’s back.

She obviously felt it, because she started to turn, still glaring. "What was tha – Whoa – AAAA!" Abruptly, she let out a scream, and tumbled backwards…

…into the arms of a very familiar little brunette, who had run over at the noise. "Daisuke!" Hikari chided him, steadying the shaken girl. "Stop that!"

"Sorry." Daisuke shrugged and traced the ‘cancel’ Rune.

"You know this cretin, Kari?" the purple-haired girl asked incredulously, brushing herself off. Daisuke glared at her, ready to try another Rune. Hikari or no Hikari, he wasn’t about to stand back and let her insult him!

Ken put a hand on his shoulder. ~Let it pass.~

As if he could ever go against his partner. Okay, Daisuke agreed grudgingly. But only because you asked me to.

"Miyako Inoue," Hikari was saying, "these are my friends, Daisuke Motomiya and Ken Ichijouji. Daisuke, who you seem to have met" – Miyako and Daisuke glared at each other – "is a Rune Master as well, one Level above you."

"She’s a Rune Master?" Daisuke said incredulously, at the same time as Miyako said, "He’s a Rune Master?" They scowled at each other.

"That’s right," Hikari told them. "Ken is an Element Adept, Miyako – like me. Except he’s still one Levels below me. But he and Daisuke shouldn’t have a problem being promoted – in a year or two, provided they keep up the good work."

Ken managed one of his charming smiles. "Nice to meet you," he said smoothly, holding out a hand for her to shake. Style and class, no matter what the occasion – that was Ken.

Miyako blinked. "Oh." Then her face lit in a smile. "Oh! It’s nice to meet you too!" she answered, blushing faintly as she shook Ken’s hand. Her eyes locked on his face as that smile on her lips seemed to get bigger and bigger.

Daisuke frowned, feeling something hot right in the vicinity of his chest. "Ken and I are bonded," he told her, almost triumphantly, slinging a casual arm around his partner’s shoulders. Ken blinked, then flushed a little.

Miyako frowned at him. "Well, that’s nice," she said, not sounding like she thought it was nice at all.

Hikari shifted, a little uneasy. "Um… Miyako’s still at the Initiate Level," she explained. "I’m helping her get ready for her Trial – you know, practicing with her powers…"

"Wouldn’t Takeru be better for that, if she’s a Rune Master?" Ken asked curiously. He still called both Hikari and Takeru by their full names, rather than their nicknames. Daisuke made a note to talk to him about that – and promptly forgot it as Miyako smiled winsomely at Ken.

Hikari shook her head, smiling. "No. Whatever Takeru can teach her, she could just as easily get from the book. I’m helping her to deal with powers that aren’t like hers."

"Ah." Ken nodded. "That does make sense."

"So where is ol’ TE, anyway?" Daisuke asked, not as resentfully as he would have a month ago. Since his Trial, he’d been less and less interested in Hikari – and so Takeru had become more of a friend and less of a rival. "I thought you and he were joined at the hip or something."

Hikari smiled a little. "Note quite – unlike you and Ken, we do spend some time apart. Takeru is helping Miyako’s friend Iori, who’s a Level One Element Adept."

Ken looked interested. "Did the two of you get your powers together?" he asked Miyako.

She looked positively elated that he was giving her some attention. Daisuke frowned harder at her, feeling hot around in his chest again. Why was Ken talking to her?

"We knew about each other, since we were together when we got our manuals," Miyako answered. "And Iori recognized TK’s name in the reference section – because they were already friends – so we decided to see if they could help us get ready."

"Nice to have friends involved, isn’t it?" Ken smiled at her.

Daisuke was feeling more angry and confused and upset by the second, and he didn’t know why. I’ll bet she wants to marry him or something! he thought derisively, not sure why that thought brought more of the heat-in-the-chest feeling. She’s probably trying to figure out how to break a bond apart so she can bond with him, instead of me! That was enough to make him angry for certain. Ken was his partner! His!

~Um… Daisuke, I can hear you,~ Ken thought at him.

The red-head blinked, feeling something like he would’ve if someone had poured a bucket of cold water over his head. What was he thinking? Sorry, he sent back, feeling sheepish. Ken would never leave him! Miyako could scheme all she wanted, but Ken was still Daisuke’s partner. Forever and ever. Too loud, huh?

~Just a touch.~ Ken was a little confused, but he seemed pleased, too.

Daisuke shrugged, mulling over that reaction. His partner was still a mystery to him.

"It sure is!" Miyako was beaming at Ken, blissfully unaware of the conversation they’d had. "Kari and TK are great! They’ve really helped us a lot." She looked at him hopefully. "Maybe you could help us some time… you think?"

"We’re way too busy right now!" Daisuke broke in hastily, before Ken could open his mouth. "Important Novice stuff, and all that. Sorry ’bout that. But, maybe we’ll see you around."

Miyako glared daggers at him.

"Hey Dai, Ken!" Takeru walked over, with a friendly smile on his face and a boy about two-thirds of his height in tow. "How are things going for you guys?"

"Great! We’re the best team there is!" Daisuke bragged, grinning. "Who’s that?"

The short boy bowed politely. He had light brown hair cut smooth and even all around his head, and slanted green eyes. "My name is Iori Hida. It’s nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you, too," Ken spoke up. "My name’s Ken Ichijouji, and this is my partner – "

"Daisuke Motomiya!" he interrupted, cheerily. "Nice to meet ya!"

Iori smiled. "Any friends of Takeru’s are friends of mine as well."

"Cool!" Daisuke grinned at him.

"My brother says hi," Takeru told them, casually touching a hand to Hikari’s arm. "We got a postcard from them yesterday – they wanted to know how you two were doing."

Takeru’s older brother, Yamato, was a Level Five Element Adept, and one of the two people who’d bound Daisuke and Ken together when the red-haired boy had been injured about a month ago. The other, his lover and bond-mate, Taichi, was Hikari’s older brother and an Adept Rune Master. Currently, the two of them were busy in the Bahamas solving a complex problem involving a pair of weird creatures called barcumas, and they wouldn’t be returning for another two weeks, at least. They had been sending postcards to their siblings, though.

"We’re doing great!" the red-head answered enthusiastically.

"When Daisuke’s not trying to eat my ice-cream, that is." Ken finished off the last of his cone, and brushed his hands off. His partner hadn’t even noticed him eating it!

"Dude! Where’d your ice-cream go?" Daisuke stared in dismay at Ken’s empty hands. "I thought you said I could have another lick!"

"Well, you should’ve acted faster." Ken smiled at him. ~Sorry, Dai. I was hungry.~

So was I! Daisuke whined. He thought for a moment, desperate to salvage something. Can I at least lick the flavor off your fingers? I need ice-cream!

Ken’s face turned a very interesting shade of red. "Um… why don’t we just go and buy another cone for you, Daisuke?" he suggested, sounding a touch strained.

"Okay! Fine with me!" Daisuke grinned and looked up. Miyako and Iori were giving them a pair of blank looks, and Hikari and Takeru looked like they were going to start laughing.

"I would’ve given a lot to hear that conversation," the blond chuckled.

Hikari nodded, grinning. "You’re not kidding!"

Miyako just blinked. "Huh? What conversation?"

Ken’s flush was starting to fade. "We were talking with our minds," he explained.

"Oh, right." Iori caught one. "You two are bonded. Of course."

Miyako scowled. Daisuke smiled cheerfully, feeling much better.

"Hey, look at that!" Takeru suddenly pointed at somewhere above them, where a small creature watched them from a tree branch. "We don’t usually see them around."

Daisuke stared at the thing for a moment. It had a small, grinning face, like a monkey’s, and the body of an oversized cat. Its hands and feet were human-like, but with sharp black claws. The creature’s body was covered in brown and white fur. He wracked his brain, trying to come up with a name for the thing. "It’s… a…"

"A tepha," Ken filled in for him. "They live in our world, but normal people can’t see them. A few of them have some telekinetic abilities. But they don’t bother humans, usually."

"Oh." Daisuke looked up at the tepha. "Okay."

"They don’t usually eat," Hikari explained. "They feed off the presence of other tephi*. As far as I know, they don’t really need to breathe oxygen, either. Right, TK?"

"That’s about it. The tephi have a pact with us." Takeru nodded. "They would consider meat – especially human meat – a kind of delicacy, because they don’t normally eat. But as long as they leave us alone, we’re supposed to leave them alone, too."

"Huh." Daisuke looked back up at the tree. "Hey, it’s gone!"

Ken shrugged. "Well, you didn’t expect it to hang around all day, did you?"

"No…" Daisuke frowned. Something about the encounter seemed wrong, somehow… Was he the only one who noticed? No one else seemed uneasy. He shrugged, trying to brush aside that feeling. "I guess not. Come on, Ken, let’s go get that ice-cream!" He grabbed his partner’s arm and pulled him away, with just a brief wave for the four others behind him.

But he couldn’t leave that feeling behind. Something was wrong.

He just didn’t know what.


*tepha: singular, tephi: plural