Ken shifted a little in an attempt to keep his arm from falling asleep. Daisuke was leaning against his shoulder, lost in sleep and snoring lightly. He wasn’t exactly sure how the shorter boy had managed to fall asleep in the first place, considering their situation, but he was glad that the red-head, at least, had a little peace.
He certainly couldn’t find any.
Absently, the dark-haired boy ran his fingers through Daisuke’s hair. His partner’s mind was peaceful and warm, sleeping. Ken tried to send him as many soothing thoughts as he could. His dreams felt innocent and happy, and the violet-eyed boy wanted nothing more than for him to hold onto them for as long as possible before he’d inevitably have to come back to reality.
Protecting Daisuke was like Ken’s full-time job. He knew his partner felt the same way about him, and it made him feel good. Safe. He could trust Daisuke. In moments like that one, with Daisuke so far from the world and curled up against him, he felt protective – and wanted to be sure that the red-head could trust him, too.
Ken’s mind was busy searching for a solution.
At all cost, he told himself, Daisuke had to be kept safe. That was the main goal. He was sure that his partner would not be happy at all if Ken didn’t make it out unharmed as well, but the important thing would be the red-head’s own safety. Ken was prepared to put himself at risk in order to keep Daisuke from being harmed, and he’d do it over his partner’s protests if he had to. He wondered if, perhaps, he could do something while his friend was still asleep.
Ken was carefully running his fingers over Daisuke’s cheek as he thought, and the red-haired boy was smiling blissfully in his sleep. Simple things could make Daisuke happy; it was nice to be able to produce that reaction so easily.
It wasn’t going to make him happy to see Ken sacrifice himself for the shorter boy.
But, as long as it worked, that really didn’t matter, did it?
An idea had been turning itself over in Ken’s head, a desperate, last-chance, all-or-nothing type plan that put all of Daisuke’s previous ideas to shame. The scheme would most certainly upset the red-head if he knew about it. Ken knew that, if Daisuke had suggested it to him with the roles turned around, he would’ve been upset, too. However, if the tephi agreed…
Then Daisuke would be safe whether Ken failed or succeeded.
Looking down at the sleeping red-head curled up against him, hands clenched in the folds of the dark-haired boy’s shirt, Ken made up his mind. I will protect you, he promised silently, planting a soft kiss on Daisuke’s temple. Because I love you, and you’re everything, and you deserve it.
Ken was still present in Daisuke’s mind when he woke up, which was strange. Usually, in the morning, he’d wake up from a night of dreaming about Ken being in his mind, to find that his partner was still halfway across town and he was in his familiar bedroom with its familiar mess, alone. Morning? he thought, feeling a bit confused.
~I don’t think so,~ Ken’s thought answered back. He seemed to have a strange quiet feeling to him. ~You weren’t asleep that long. I think it’s still early evening. Our parents won’t even be worried yet.~
Daisuke opened his eyes, blinking a little, and felt his memories return. That’s good… I guess.
~It’s good,~ Ken replied. ~You won’t get in trouble when you go home.~
Okay, you’re right, it’s good. Daisuke sat back a little, straightening up but not breaking the contact between them. It’s always good when I stay out of trouble.
Ken smiled, but his mind was guarded. ~Since you’re in it so often!~
"Is something wrong, Ken?" Daisuke asked, out loud. "You seem kind of… down." Subdued, that was the word. "Did something happen when I was sleeping, or what?"
Waves of tenderness flooded Daisuke’s head as Ken leaned down to run gentle fingers over his cheek. "No… I like watching you sleep," he said softly. "I just… I love you, Daisuke. Very much."
Daisuke leaned into Ken’s touch happily. "I love you too, Ken," he answered. "But what brought this on?"
Ken shook his head slightly. "Nothing. Can I kiss you, Daisuke?"
"Sure!" The red-head didn’t wait for his partner to act, leaning up instead to meet the offered lips in a very eager kiss. The response was a little different from what he’d come to expect of their kisses, though. It was hungrier than the others, almost desperate… like Ken was hanging on the brink of something that frightened him, and had to cling to his partner for support. For a moment, Daisuke wanted to ask him what the matter was, but Ken’s arms slid around him, pulling him closer, and he pushed the feeling aside. Later… kiss now… think later…
Kissing Ken was rapidly becoming Daisuke’s favorite pastime.
The dark-haired boy was just starting to deepen the kiss, parting Daisuke’s lips, when a loud ‘clang’ interrupted them. They jerked apart, and the loss of contact made the red-head feel cold.
A couple of tephi stood in the entrance to their little ‘cell’, still with the freaky grins plastered over their faces. They made a few gestures that seemed to indicate that the prisoners should follow them.
"I wonder where we’re going now," Daisuke said, glancing at his partner as they were herded from the room. Ken was avoiding his eyes. "Hey, what’s the matter?"
The taller boy shook his head. "It’s nothing important. I asked for one more chance, to try and convince that leader of theirs to leave us along and keep this war from happening."
"And they agreed?" Daisuke was thrilled; Ken had to be the smartest, most persuasive person ever! "That’s great! You sure are good at this stuff, Ken!"
"Yeah," Ken said softly, still not meeting Daisuke’s eyes. "Great."
Frowning, the shorter boy touched his partner’s shoulder. Dude, what’s the matter? We’ve got another chance to get ourselves out of here! Isn’t that a good thing?
~It is,~ Ken agreed, though his mind still had that oddly subdued feel to it. ~And you’re right, of course. The most important thing is to get you out of here, to safety.~
Get us out of here, Daisuke corrected, catching the taller boy’s mistake. We’re in this together, right?
Ken didn’t reply.
Right? The red-head was starting to feel just slightly uneasy.
His partner turned to look at him, finally. "Daisuke…"
"So here you are." At the voice, they both turned, and found themselves facing the very same tepha who had been arguing with them earlier. "You requested another opportunity to talk. I chose to accept your terms, and so here you are. Talk."
"Terms?" Daisuke glanced quickly at Ken. "What terms?"
"I want you to try and compromise," Ken explained, pulling free of his partner’s hold and ignoring Daisuke’s question. "You say you can’t leave us alone, but there has to be a middle ground somewhere."
"What is this compromise?" The tepha seemed mildly interested.
"That you modify your pranks," the dark-haired boy answered. "If you tephi have to be out there tricking people, do it in ways that won’t hurt or terrify them! Hurling toys at small children isn’t exactly all that safe, you know."
The leader seemed to shrug, and his ‘voice’ was unconcerned as he replied with, "We cannot help our instincts. Simple pranks would not work. I do not believe we could."
"Can’t you try?" Ken was sounding almost angry, and his teeth were gritted. "It doesn’t have to be like this! We don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t need a war!"
Daisuke lost patience with the argument, and moved forward to grab his partner’s arm. Ken, he’s not gonna listen! Why don’t we just try and get outta here, then go tell Koushiro what’s going on? Maybe if I gave you an Earth Rune, we could do it! We just have to try!
~I can’t!~ Ken answered, feeling almost desperate. ~Daisuke…~
Why not? I’ll bet Taichi and Yamato could handle this! The red-head tugged at his partner’s arm. Come on, Ken, we’re just new! Let’s get somebody who knows what they’re doing! He couldn’t explain why, but he felt irrationally afraid for Ken, like the argument had a trap in it, and the taller boy was in very serious danger. Let’s just get outta here!
~Daisuke, you don’t understand – I made a deal…~
"We cannot co-exist," the leader said suddenly, breaking into their discussion. "As long as our two kinds are free to interact, there will be conflict."
"Which will result in war!" Ken shot back, turning away from Daisuke again to face down his opponent. "With this sort of conflict, that’s what will happen! That’s why we need to stop it here and now, before this whole thing gets out of hand!"
Daisuke wasn’t interested in the argument. What deal? he demanded. When his partner didn’t answer him, he felt that ugly knot of fear growing larger. Ken, what’s going on?
Without answered, Ken pulled out of Daisuke’s hold.
"And what if we are not interested in stopping a war?"
Ken didn’t look at Daisuke, who was staring at him with a feeling of shocked betrayal rising up in his throat. "Why would you not be interested in stopping it?"
He made a deal with them and didn’t tell me… Daisuke almost felt like crying, but the mix of anger and fear made his hurt unable to show. Why would he do that? What kind of deal would he be making that he couldn’t talk to me about? We’re supposed to work together! We’re partners!
Partners or not, Ken had made it clear that he didn’t want Daisuke’s help.
"Wars are a part of any civilization," the leader answered, indifferent to Ken’s pleading. "Tension builds, and population counts grow high. War is like a cleansing. Why would we prevent that?"
"Because wars that don’t have to happen are a waste of life!" Ken’s voice had the desperate note of someone who knew he was lost and was trying to make one last stand. "It’s meaningless!"
"Lots of things in life are meaningless." The leader of the tephi leaned forward slightly, that ugly grin seeming to leer. "You fail to convince us. Will you go through with your part of the bargain?"
Ken sighed, and Daisuke noted the slump of his shoulders. Defeat. But Ken never loses… "All right," the dark-haired boy agreed, after a moment. There was a slight catch in his voice. "But let Daisuke go first – please. I don’t want him to watch this…"
"No!" Daisuke tried to jump forward to stand by his partner, but was immediately restrained by a number of the tephi, who kept his arms pulled to his sides, keeping him from drawing any Runes. "You can’t make me leave without you! What do you think you’re doing?"
"Sorry, Daisuke," Ken said quietly, not looking at him. "I made a deal. It was to keep you safe, though. You get to go free. That’s what I asked for, no matter what the outcome."
The red-head struggled uselessly against the little grinning creatures holding him. "You think I’m gonna leave you without a fight? What do they get, now that you can’t convince them?"
Ken still wouldn’t meet his eyes. "Do you remember what Takeru said, Daisuke? These creatures live off each other. But they still think of meat as a delicacy. Especially… human… meat." He fell silent, staring at the ground in front of him in silent, grim determination.
It took a moment for the meaning of that to seep through into Daisuke’s head, but when it did, it made a huge enough impact to make him come completely unglued. With a wordless cry, he tried to throw himself against the holds keeping him from his partner. "NO!" he yelled, when the tephi held him with an almost embarrassing ease. "You can’t!"
"I’m sorry," Ken whispered, again, helpless.
"Sorry nothing! You can’t do this!" Daisuke kept struggling, feeling nothing but anger and desperation as he tried to free his arms, tried to draw a Rune that would save them. "I’ll blow this place to pieces! I’ll make it explode! I’ll get you all with hurt Runes if any of you touch him! Let me go right now, you creeps! Ken!"
"Daisuke, stop!" Ken looked up at last, sounding stricken. "You’re supposed to be safe…"
"No! I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming too!" Daisuke felt angry tears rising and blinked furiously. "You can’t do this!" he shouted, frantically struggling. "You can’t…"
"They can’t!" He was beyond the point where he could be reasoned with. "It’s not fair! They can’t do this! You’re mine, they can’t have you, mine, it’s not fair, mine mine mine, I won’t let them, they can’t do this, because you’re MINE!" Without meaning to, he broke down and started to sob hoarsely, not able to bear the thought of losing his partner and being unable to do anything about it.
"Please stop…" Ken sounded like he was ready to cry. "You’re making it harder…"
"I don’t care! You’re mine! My partner!" The words came out more fierce and defiant than anything Daisuke remembered saying before. "I’ll love you forever, and we’re bonded, and that makes you mine!"
"I made a deal."
"So?" Daisuke glared at his partner through blurry eyes. "How would you feel, if I was gonna be eaten and you couldn’t do anything! It’s worse than being the one who’s gonna be eaten!" He started struggling again. "We’re partners for life, and you can’t get rid of me that easily!"
Ken had already started to cross the room to him. "Daisuke, I’m sorry…"
"That’s good. I’ve observed enouh."
Daisuke didn’t stop to wonder about that statement, because he was suddenly free, and all he could think about was getting to Ken. He took two steps, flung his arms around his partner’s waist, and buried his face in the taller boy’s shirt. It was with a massive amount of relief that he felt his mind merge with its other half again, and he felt complete. Think about leaving me again – ever – and I’ll kick your butt! he thought furiously at the dark-haired boy.
Ken’s arms were tight around his shoulders. ~I was stupid, Daisuke – I won’t do it again, I promise!~ His fingers clenched in the red-head’s shirt. ~You have my permission to smack me if I ever even think about it!~
Good. Don’t think I’ll forget. Daisuke pulled Ken closer and let that bliss drown out everything else.
"Interesting," the tepha remarked, cutting into their moment of relieved happiness. There seemed to be a mildly curious tone in its ‘voice’. "Is there a reason that the safety of another would be more important than one’s own?"
Daisuke didn’t need to let Ken answer that one. "’Cause it’d hurt to live without him, that’s why." He tightened his hold on his partner’s waist. "And you’re not getting him back, so forget it! He’s mine!"
Ken’s fingers clenched tightly on Daisuke’s shoulders. "That goes double for me!" he agreed firmly.
"Humans have forgotten what it feels like to be continually bound to another of their own kind," the tepha observed calmly. "I believe that is the source of this strong reaction to such a binding. That interest me. I’m not certain which of us is better off."
"Dude, who cares?" Daisuke made a face. "If I went around wishing I was something else, I’d never have any fun! I like being me!"
"True, I suppose." The tepha seemed to shrug briefly. "I have what I wanted. The two of you are free to go, on one condition."
"You’re letting us go, after all that?" Daisuke blinked, confused. "What’d you want so much, anyway? We didn’t give you anything!"
"Call it curiosity." The grin on the tepha’s face almost looked wickedly amused for a moment. "I had never been given the chance to observe a set of mated humans before. The experience was… enlightening."
Was that whole thing some kind of experiment!? Daisuke bristled, scowling. "Hey, listen here, buddy…"
"Never mind, Daisuke," Ken interrupted. "They didn’t harm us. We can’t change what happened by getting angry." He looked up at the tepha again. "You said there was a condition to be met before we left. What is it?"
"Travel to each of the gates in your own home and seal them."
That surprised both Daisuke and Ken. "What!?" they demanded together, too shocked to even find humor in the way their voices perfectly chorused out the word.
"You wished to avoid war." The tepha tilted its head at them. "This is the only way. We are all agreed. Will you do it?"
Daisuke glanced at Ken, to find the dark-haired boy looking back at him expectantly. Your party, you answer, the red-head thought, with a shrug.
~All right.~ Ken pulled partly free of Daisuke’s hold, and faced the tepha. "Yes," he answered simply. "We’ll do it."
Sealing the gates took the rest of the evening, more because they had to travel to all four locations than because the process was that involved. Ken used Earth, and Daisuke used a variety of Runes for ‘seal up now and always’, combining them together to close up the tephi’s entrances to their city forever. Each gate took about fifteen minutes – and a great deal of energy – and the trips on the subway were spent in exhausted silence. The last stage of the ‘journey’ was from the final gate to the soccer field near Daisuke’s apartment. Both of them were significantly relieved to make it.
"Whew!" Daisuke sprawled out on the grass, feeling its blessed coolness against his hot back and shoulders. "Whatta day! Falling in love… getting captured… working overtime…"
Ken laughed, joining him on the ground with considerably more grace. "Do we even have set hours? I remember getting up at midnight at one point to take a night-flight over to Nerima just because of a stray salyk…"
"Well, we didn’t get in trouble, at least." Daisuke smiled. "Anyway, you wouldn’t actually wanna give this up, would you? You gotta admit, it’s worth it!"
Ken rolled over and propped himself up over Daisuke with an elbow resting in the grass on either side of the red-head’s face. "Yeah, it’s worth it," he agreed, smiling, and leaned down for a sweet kiss. "You’re worth it."
"I’m too tired to move," Daisuke said, yawning a little. "Let’s camp out here for the night, okay? I could fall asleep right now…"
"At least you don’t have to take another train back to Tamachi!"
"You don’t have to, either." Daisuke grinned at his partner’s surprise. "You can sleep over at my place. Just call your parents from there, and I’m sure they’ll let you."
"Hmm, okay." Ken pushed himself off of his partner and rose slowly to his feet. "We’d better get moving, then," he said, offering Daisuke a hand.
With an exaggerated groan, the red-head took it and hauled himself up, too tired to even try to pull Ken down instead. "All right, all right, let’s go. I just wanna sleep…"
"Check your manual," Ken suggested, as they started to trudge down the street toward Daisuke’s apartment building. "I’d like to make sure our status is back to normal."
The shorter boy pulled out the book and flipped through it, trusting Ken to lead him down the street safely. "Here it is. We’ve got an ‘AVAILABLE’ listing again." He looked at their levels. "But we’re still just Novice and Level Two!"
Ken smiled, lacing his fingers through Daisuke’s. "Nobody said it would happen overnight, Dai."
True. Daisuke shut his book and smiled himself. So maybe we’re not ready for the next level just yet. But we’ve made it a long way. And I know we’re on the right track… He squeezed Ken’s hand slightly. Especially with this.
Ken didn’t reply, but the warm happiness that spilled over into his partner’s mind spoke for itself.
Daisuke looked up at the street he walked down just about every day of his life, on the way home. It was night and not afternoon, and it wasn’t raining, but for some reason, he found himself remembering that Day, a little more than a month ago. He’d been walking home alone, with nothing on his mind besides finding some way to get Hikari to agree to be his date for the…
Ken was forced to a halt as Daisuke’s hand gave resistance to his continuing forward motions, and he turned with a questioning look.
Hmm… The red-head suddenly looked up at his partner, feeling a mix of excitement and a strange shyness. "Ken?" he began, slowly, a smile just starting to creep across his face. "How do you feel about… Junior Proms?"