The Next Level

 

Tepha Trouble

 

‘Motomiya, Daisuke and Ichijouji, Ken – Novice Rune Master and Level Two Element Adept – AVAILABLE’

Daisuke stared at the entry for a moment. Novice. He’d been a Novice for a month. He knew, having heard from Takeru and Hikari, that it was going to be at least a year before he was promoted again. More than likely, they’d said, he’d have lots of tough assignments and the promotion would just come out of the blue. He looked up again, at a different entry.

‘Yagami, Hikari and Takaishi, Takeru – Level Three Element Adept and Apprentice Rune Master – TRAINING, NO CALLS’

Guess that means they’re looking after Miyako and Iori for a while. Daisuke shifted the book a little and leaned back on his bed. Iori had seemed nice enough, but… Well, actually, Miyako hadn’t been so bad, after she’d stopped insulting him. But… I don’t like her. She’s trying to steal Ken from me or something. I mean, not like he’d go for that, but still.

Sometimes, Daisuke felt like his thoughts got ahead of his understanding. If only there was someone he could talk to… Another Rune Master, someone he could ask about promotions and Levels, and what they actually mean. Maybe someone who could help him with what was going on in his head – or the hot feeling he’d gotten in his chest when Miyako looked at Ken. Was there a reason why he felt so possessive of his partner? Did Ken feel that way about him, too? So many questions… But who could he talk to?

Taichi would’ve been Daisuke’s first choice. He was someone the red-head had known for a while, he was friendly and approachable, he was a Rune Master himself, and he had a partner. It would’ve been perfect – if Taichi had been home. But since he wasn’t, that option was out.

Second best would’ve been Takeru. He wasn’t as ideal as Taichi – especially since he had been Daisuke’s main rival in the quest for Hikari’s affections – but he was trustworthy. He was a Rune Master, friendly, and he had a partner as well. He was nearly as good a person to talk to as Taichi would’ve been. But, since he was busy training Iori, it probably wasn’t a good idea to bother him.

Who did that leave? Daisuke frowned down at his book. Come on, there’s gotta be someone…

The entry above his caught his eye briefly. Oh no. No way!

‘Motomiya, Jun – Master Rune Master – AVAILABLE’

I can’t ask my sister for advice! Daisuke shut the book, exasperated. No way! I mean, she’s my sister. She’d just start making fun of my or say I couldn’t handle it. Or… Hey!

Against his own will, Daisuke’s legs seemed to have swung over the edge of the bed, his hands put down the book, and then he stood. Hey! What do you guys think you’re doing?

His legs ignored him and walked toward the door.

I don’t wanna talk to Jun, really! Daisuke blinked. C’mon, guys…

Apparently, his hand did not believe him – it reached out and opened his door. Daisuke’s legs continued to ignore his protests, carrying him out to where his sister was watching TV.

Aw, guys, look – she’s watching TV… wouldn’t wanna disturb her, right? For a moment, his rebellious body seemed to hesitate, considering that.

Jun reached out with the remote. "There’s nothing good one," she complained, shutting off the TV. She looked up, and spotted Daisuke hovering near the hall. "Hey squirt. Something you wanted?"

Oh fine, what the heck… "Actually… uh… can we talk for a second?"

"Sure, whatever." She moved over to make room for him on the couch. "Sit down."

He sat. "Where’s Mom and Dad?"

"At a meeting. What’s the problem?"

Daisuke decided to take that as an open invitation. "How long did it take before you got promoted from Novice to Apprentice?" He looked at her sideways. "And… what was it like? Would it be any different with a partner?"

Jun sank back into her seat. "Okay. I’ll answer those one at a time, then. A year and a half. It didn’t feel any different – my status just suddenly said ‘Apprentice’ instead of ‘Novice’. And, I don’t know. But I doubt it."

"Why?"

She frowned, biting her lip in thought. "Because it wasn’t a big deal. I mean, it didn’t seem like something that would have anything to do with being bonded, or sharing minds. It just… happened."

"Oh." Daisuke turned that over in his mind. "What do the Levels mean?" he asked. "I mean, how does it work? Why is it that one minute you’re a Novice and the next you’re an Apprentice? Is it because you’ve changed, or does your power get stronger, or what?"

"I’m not sure," Jun said slowly, forehead crinkling as she mulled that one over, "but I think it’s got to do with what you’ve experienced, and how well you did with it – when you feel ready inside, you get promoted. Know what I mean?"

"I think." He thought about that. "So it has more to do with you than your powers, right?"

"That’d be my guess." She shrugged. "That all?"

"No, but I’m not sure if you can help much with the rest." He put his chin on his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. "It’s got to do with my partner, and bonding."

"Well, I could try," she offered, brightly. Obviously, she was getting a huge kick out of the ‘advisor’ role.

"Okay. Here goes." Daisuke cleared his throat and straightened. "It’s because of this girl – we met her at the soccer field today, and she’s a Rune Master, like me. I didn’t like her much, and I know she didn’t like me either – but she really liked Ken. I started thinking about how maybe she’d like to break up our bond and make him her partner instead, and I got this kinda hot feeling, right here." He pointed to his chest. "It sorta made me like her even less."

"You were jealous." Jun shrugged. "That’s an easy one, short stuff. I get like that when I like this really cute guy and he’s talking to some other girl. It’s just jealousy, that’s all."

"But is he like that about me?" Daisuke persisted. "I mean, we’re partners. It’s like… he’s mine. I don’t wanna share him, you know? Is that normal? Sometimes it feels weird, and I don’t know why."

"Well…" Jun hesitated. "I can’t say for sure, but it almost sounds like having a bond is something like being in love. You get jealous when other people want them, and you want them all to yourself. Right?"

"I guess." Daisuke chewed his lip for a moment. "I think Ken was happy I was jealous. Is that weird? He liked that I got upset when Miyako was trying to get his attention."

"He’s felt that way about you, and he’s glad you feel it too?" she guessed. "I mean, it wouldn’t be great for him if he got jealous for you and you never got jealous for him."

"Huh." Daisuke blinked. "That actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks!"

Jun smiled in a cheery, superior sort of way. "No problem, squirt!"

~~~~~~

"She actually helped me! Can you believe it? I mean, my sister! Wow!" Daisuke chattered away happily, content in the presence of his partner. It was early afternoon on the day after he’d spoken to his sister, and they were walking around the area not far from Yamato and Taichi’s place. "It was amazing!"

Ken smiled faintly, looking distracted. "I’d imagine it was."

Daisuke stared at him, perplexed. "Dude, what’s eating you? Is something the matter? I’m not giving you a headache with all this talking, am I?"

"Not at all." Ken shook his head, but didn’t look at him. "I was… thinking."

He looked moody and unreadable. Daisuke hated it when he couldn’t tell what Ken was thinking or feeling. It made him feel like his partner was shutting him out, holing up inside himself and refusing to let him in. Daisuke didn’t like being out. He was used to feeling Ken in his head, to being in Ken’s head, and he didn’t like separation of any kind. Ken’s mind was Daisuke’s favorite place – he felt warm and safe and appreciated there. Being shut out of that beautiful, sweet haven was intolerable.

He touched Ken’s shoulder and felt wonderfully complete. But the taller boy’s thoughts were unusually stiff and cautious, not welcoming Daisuke as they normally did. Ken! He protested. Please let me in! What did I do? You don’t hate me, do you?

~Never…~ Ken’s tight control wavered a little, just slightly. It was like he didn’t want to let Daisuke back into his mind, where the red-head had always been welcome, before…

Miyako! Was that it? Maybe Ken had a crush on the girl, and didn’t want Daisuke to find out. Hot waves of jealousy ran through him. He’s supposed to be mine, that’s not fair, he shouldn’t hide things, we’re supposed to be partners, it’s not fair, it’s not fair

~Daisuke, stop!~ Ken jerked his arm out of Daisuke’s hold. "You don’t understand what you’re doing," he said stiffly. "And every time you do it, I try to delude myself into thinking that…" His voice faltered, and he scowled at nothing. "As if that would ever happen."

"Dude, what are you talking about?" Hurt at Ken’s abrupt rejection had turned quickly into frustration. "I didn’t do anything! What’s the problem?"

"Nothing. Never mind." Ken shook his head. "Forget I said anything."

"Oh sure, that’ll work." Daisuke impulsively grabbed his arm. Like it or not, we’re stuck with each other, all right? I may not be as smart as you, but at least I’m trying. Ken, I’m your partner, and when you’re upset, I’m upset too! Tell me what’s wrong?

Distress echoing through the taller boy’s mind worked to reassure Daisuke – Ken had not wanted to hurt him. The look on his face was the sort of look you’d see on a deer with car headlights trained on it. "I – " he began, and faltered. "Daisuke… I – "

A loud shriek interrupted him, and both boys looked up abruptly. "MOM—MEE!" a child’s voice cried, and a fit of hysterical crying, punctuated with little screams of terror, followed directly after. There were sounds of shrill laughter and crashing noises.

"Something’s happening!" Daisuke took off toward the sound at a dead run, not even thinking about it.

"Julie? Oh my god!" Obviously the mother.

"What’s going on?" Ken gasped, catching up to his partner. The sounds of the little girl crying and the mother screaming, with the high-pitched laughter in the background, were too disturbing to ignore.

"I dunno, but it’s coming from over there!" Daisuke rounded the corner, and stopped short.

There, in a small grassy area in front of a narrow house, was a girl of about three years of age, sobbing in fright. The girl’s hysterical mother was trying to get to her daughter, but lawn instruments such as rakes and shovels were being prodded at her by the creatures Takeru had identified the day before as tephi. More of the creatures were hurling hard plastic toys at the little girl, and laughing brightly as she screamed. Part of the fear that rendered the victims so helpless had to be because, as normal human beings, they couldn’t even see their tormentors.

"Hey!" Daisuke ran toward the scene, waving his arms. "Stop that! You’re gonna hurt her!" He barely noticed Ken running behind him, being too focussed on stopping the tephi.

"Julie!" the mother sobbed, running to her child as the tephi turned to look at Daisuke. The creatures regarded the newcomers with mischievous little grins.

"You’re supposed to have a pact with us!" Ken accused angrily. "Why are you attacking innocent people? That goes against our agreement!"

"Yeah!" Daisuke didn’t know the details, but he knew the basics. "You’re supposed to leave normal people alone!"

The tephi had abandoned their toys and were approaching the two boys instead. None of them seemed inclined to answer their questions; from the glint in their eyes and the mischievous little smirks, they were obviously thinking of having more fun with the new victims.

Ken touched Daisuke’s arm. ~We’d better lead them away from other people.~

Yeah, he agreed. How about… down there! Without waiting for an answer, Daisuke took off down the street, toward the narrow alleyway he’d just spotted. Ken had no choice but to follow.

Shrieking with laughter, the tephi clambered after them.

"Dead end!" Ken pointed ahead. The alley Daisuke had chosen was blocked off with a solid brick wall. "We’ll have to fight them right here, Daisuke!"

The red-head stopped just short of the wall and turned to face his opponents, pulling out his silver dagger. "Let’s get ’em!" he shouted, the now-familiar excitement coursing through him.

There were a dozen or so tephi, and they all had identical grins on their faces as they approached their victims, effectively cutting off any escape routes. Wait till they taste this… Daisuke didn’t need to get out his book for the Runes, they were so ingrained in his mind.

‘Creature’ came first, with ‘tepha’ spelled out beside it, and then ‘arms’ and ‘legs’. The Novice went to trace ‘seal’ and ‘ground’, but found himself abruptly cut off.

A shrieking tepha pounced, baring fangs and teeth, set to attack the occupied red-head. "Look out!" Ken’s voice shouted, and Daisuke felt the taller boy crash into him, knocking him to the ground and out of harm’s way. The tephi giggled and bunched together.

"We have to be quicker than that," the dark-haired boy said, watching the catlike creatures warily. "Don’t take your eyes off them."

"So what do we do, Ken?" Daisuke raised his dagger, eyeing the tephi with no small amount of apprehension. The attack had caught him off-guard; he didn’t want it happening again.

"Use the Elements. Runes take too long." Ken crouched protectively over his partner, glaring at the tephi as if daring them to try something. "If you give me the Spirit Rune, I should be able to get control of them. All right?"

"No problem, dude!" Daisuke gleefully traced out the symbol. There’s no way we could lose now! He’d seen Ken do this before; Spirit could take complete control of something for as long as the dark-haired boy could hold it. And with his partner’s help, that could be a long time.

"Perfect!" Ken thrust his hand through the place on the air that Daisuke had drawn the Rune on, and shut his eyes. "Be ready to help me out, Daisuke!"

"Yeah!" The red-head grinned at their foes, expecting victory. "You bet!"

The result didn’t quite meet his expectations.

Ken had his eyes shut loosely, a look of concentration on his face. Because of the bond, Daisuke always felt an odd buzzing on his skin whenever his partner used the Elements. Even when they weren’t touching, he could still sense it. But when it reached out to touch the tephi…

A small giggle broke the silence, and then another. In a matter of minutes, the tephi were all laughing hysterically – but their laughter was perfectly in sync, each guffaw at the same time, the same exact way… It was the creepiest thing Daisuke had ever heard. He shifted uneasily.

Ken screamed.

"Ken!" Daisuke immediately grabbed at his partner, at once struck by a crushing fear. What is it, what’s the matter? He clutched at Ken’s mind, desperate to fix whatever had made the dearest, most precious person in his life scream as if he were being tortured.

The dark-haired boy just screamed. His thoughts were agony.

The tephi laughed.

Daisuke was getting angrier by the second. They did this to him, they’re trying to take him from me! He burst through the chaotic wall around Ken’s mind and tried to clutch it to him, gathering every spec of what made the taller boy himself. Mine! He thought childishly, firmly. The clawed tendrils of thought that clutched at his partner’s mind were thrown back by the force of Daisuke’s fury.

He’d never been so angry before.

Or so frightened.

"He’s mine!" he exploded, out loud, his hands tightening around the dark-haired boy’s arms. "You can’t have him, never, not in a million years, not ever!"

And, abruptly, Ken’s mind was wrenched out of their control. The taller boy sagged into Daisuke’s arms limply, not unconscious but not able to form enough coherent thought to communicate in any way with his partner. He was injured, and badly.

Furious, Daisuke pulled out his dagger and drew ‘fire’ in mid-air. With his thoughts to fuel it, the flame that burst from it was fairly impressive. "Get away!" he yelled at the offending tephi. "I’m not gonna let you hurt him again!"

For a moment, they just stood there, staring at him in silence. There was a moment, just a brief moment, when Daisuke thought they might attack him again, and then it ended abruptly. A hidden signal seemed to pass through them all then, and together, the group turned and left the alley.

The red-head barely noticed.

"Ken." Daisuke supported his partner, staring worriedly into the half-lidded blue eyes. Ken. The dark-haired boy didn’t seem to see or hear him, but his mind clung to Daisuke’s almost by a reflex of some sort. He’s out for the count – I need help…

Fumbling a little in order to keep one arm around Ken, Daisuke pulled open the back-pack he and Ken had started carrying everywhere. He was about to grab his own book, then hesitated. Since he was a Rune Master himself, his manual would show records of other Rune Masters in the area – but the only Element Adepts it had were those with partners.

Ken’s not a Rune Master, so I’m gonna have to find him someone else… He left his own manual alone, and pulled out his partner’s instead.

I’ll find you some help, I promise. Unconsciously, Daisuke pulled his limp partner closer to him, clenching his fingers in the soft fabric of Ken’s shirt. I’m never letting anyone take you away. Not in a million years. Not ever.

 

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