The trees whispered above me, leaves ruffled by the summer breeze. I shut my
eyes smiling, enjoying the play of the wind on my face. Times like this it was hard to imagine that I'd once been, if not content underground, at least accepting of my life there. Times like this . . . it was hard to imagine why I'd stayed there so long . . .
I opened my eyes again to the sun drenched forest.
Just think . . . if I'd stayed how many sights I would have missed out on. I'd never have known that when standing beneath trees you see the sun through the leaves, like green glass. I'd never have known the way the breeze sends light dancing all over the place like a lazer display. And, I couldn't help a grin, as my eyes sought my boyfriend, I'd never have known Tai's crooked grin, the way his eyes laughed except in only the most serious circumstances, the olive colour of his skin, the way he wasn't here . . . wasn't here?
Tai was definitely gone . . . I stayed quite still, listening out for anything. A sound might tell me where he'd went or what had caused him to disappear so suddenly . . . I fidgeted with the spear I held.
There was a slight movement behind me. That was all the warning I got.
I hadn't time to bring my weapon up. I was knocked back to the ground.
He grinned at me. "Yes, Yamato?"
It was hard to glare at him, when he was lying on my chest like that. "And the whole purpose of that was what? I mean, I know how hard it is for you not to jump me but you didn't have to scare me--"
"Aw, was poor widdle Yama-chan scared?" Tai tickled my chin and I grimaced.
I should never have given him an opening like that.
"Actually, that wasn't the only reason I jumped you. You got distracted." Tai rolled off me. "You can't afford that, Yama."
After all that, and we weren't even going to fool around. I scowled getting to my feet. "And you weren't?"
"No," Taichi stuck his tongue out at me. "Yama, you got to stay alert out here. In the time I jumped you--you could have been killed."
I shut my mouth. He was right. If that hadn't been Tai--
"Don't sound so disappointed. It's not so long ago, you didn't even know how to walk in a forest. It takes time, Yama." Tai took my hand. **I'm very pleased with how you're doing.**
I smiled, slightly mollifed. I could now receive Tai's thoughts more easily than I could when we'd first removed our suits. I knew he couldn't lie to me by thought--so if he said he was pleased then he really was pleased.
That didn't mean I was.
"Let's get going," I said to Tai. "You wanted to show me how to forage for food, right?"
"Right!" Tai took the lead again. "There are some blackberry bushes up ahead that are clean--Yama, you are going to love blackberries."
I smiled, Tai was usually right about these things. But still . . .
I was not altogether happy.
"Hey dude," Daisuke plonked himself down next to me at dinner. "You don’t look happy."
"I’m not," I said, hoping he would take the hint and leave me alone. There was a reason I was sitting apart from everyone else . . .
"Oh." Daisuke began to eat. "Why?" He asked between mouthfuls.
"Because? Is that all?"
"Yes that’s all! Now if you don’t mind I was thinking—"
"I’ll help!" Daisuke said immediately. "What are you thinking about?"
I sighed. This was going to be hard. "Stuff."
"Oh. I see. Let me know if I can help—you know, you are a good cook. We’ve eaten so well since you guys arrived Tai and Jun keep on telling me I’m putting on weight. Ken says they’re just teasing me but I don’t know—"
"Thank-you," I said sourly. It figures, the one person who sits next to me, is the one person on whom all my sarcasm is lost.
And I am sarcastic. Big help I am, making nice meals for everybody—when they have to endanger themselves just keeping me safe.
Daisuke, being Daisuke, didn’t notice. "Of course Ken would say I looked good even if I looked like Masaki—"
"Masaki?" I questioned. That was a new name.
"Oh, he’s the leader of another group of kids. We try not to run into them."
"There are other groups?" I’d never thought of that. I mean, it made sense—all the kids that Daisuke and the rest termed ‘new’ had to have come from somewhere—but that there were other groups, organised like ours, had not crossed my mind.
"Yeah. Some of them are big, some small, some nice, most not. Most don’t like us because of our powers."
"Why would the powers be a problem?" I asked. "I mean, they’d be useful, wouldn’t they? Especially living up here—I keep hoping I’m going to develop one—" I bite my tongue too late.
Daisuke doesn’t even seem to have noticed. "Well—Taichi and Koushiro were among the first to get powers. Back then, we didn’t really know what was happening. And then—well, we were all pretty freaked when we found out. Tai couldn’t control it at first and that scared a lot of kids. See, before anyone changed by the magic went crazy and tried to kill us. So they thought that was what would happen—so they tried to kill anyone with magic."
Taichi never mentioned this. "And?" I whisper with dry throat.
"Well, someone tried to sneak into our tent to try and kill Taichi and Izzy at night, but we woke up, and Tai lost control again and burnt the tent," he sighed. "I had a shirt I really liked from the underground—and that got burnt. But the kid who’d tried to kill them got badly burnt and said Tai had tried to kill him and the group’s leader said he had to leave. Izzy said he was going to, and Takeru did too, so the rest of us left as well. And yeah, since then we either get avoided or attacked. Except . . . "
"Except?" I prod.
"Well lately, there haven’t been so many attempts to kill us. Part of its that there are more with powers now. I think we’re still the biggest, but every group has at least one magic user." Daisuke shrugs.
I look over at Tai talking with Izzy. He at least can take a hint, he usually leaves me alone to sort out my thoughts and when he judges I’ve brooded enough, jumps me.
I concentrate hard, then push out with my thoughts. **Taichi?**
**Yama-chan?** The response is immediate. I grin at my success, then remember my question.
**You didn’t tell me . . . that the other groups tried to kill you.**
**That was a long time ago, Yama. Don’t worry about it. They know we’re not that easy to kill so they leave us alone.**
"Dude—where are you going?" Daisuke called after me, as I stalked off, abandoning my meal.
I took off in the direction of the woods, not hearing Taichi following, but knowing he would.
"You could have told me," I stopped walking.
"Why? Yamato, its ancient history. Unless we run into another group, but everyone knows this is our territory." Taichi’s answer came from even closer behind me than I’d expected.
"I know—but still. I feel so helpless!"
"Yamato—adjusting to the surface will take time. Believe we, we spent ages learning how to adapt. Everyone understands that—no one minds that you, Hikari and Ken have to be watched out for—except yourself."
I sighed. He was right—I had no one to be angry at but myself.
"Look," Taichi’s hand caressed the back of my neck, kneading the tense flesh there. "Everyone of us contributes in different ways, even those of us with powers. You know Mimi? She hates to kill anything, she refuses to hunt. So she’s found other things that she’s good at and no-one thinks any less of her. And Daisuke’s the best scout we’ve got and he hates gardening—Yamato, you just need time to discover your skills and then you’ll fit right in."
I turned around for the first time, to look at Tai. "Do you mean that?"
He nodded, wrapping his arms around my neck, and bumping our foreheads together. **I do. Besides . . .** he gave me a crooked grin. **There is one department in which you are very skilled, and which in my opinion is more than enough reason to keep you around.**
"Oh, really?" I asked with a smirk. "And what department would that be?"
Taichi slid his hands down around my rear and gave me a grin. "Why don’t we continue this discussion back in our quarters? I’d be more than happy to enlighten you there . . . "
He wasn’t going to get any arguments from me.
Still breathing heavily from our discussion of my better qualities, Taichi curled up around me, snuggling against me with a happy sigh.
"Did I ever tell you I love you?"
"You may have mentioned it," I smirked. "Once or twice."
"You—" Taichi couldn’t even manage to sound annoyed and abandoned the effort. He was in a thoroughly happy mood, one in which I knew I could ask him anything.
"You know you told me how you got your powers . . . tell me again?"
"Cave," Taichi murmured, "with old magic left in it—and not the bad magic either."
"There are different types?"
"Izzy’s got a theory, that there are two kinds and they’re . . . what’s the word, mutually exclusive? No, maybe polar opposites or something. The two kinds fight each other and that’s what caused everything to fall apart." Taichi yawned, adjusting my arm slightly so I made a better pillow. "We’re just lucky we hid in a cave with the right magic."
"How can you tell?"
"After you’ve been here a while you can sense it," Taichi sighed sleepily. "Cave’s around here somewhere I think . . . "
Taichi was asleep. I smiled, wrapping my arms around him. Personally I thought he was at his most adorable when he fell asleep on me. Maybe I was just biased.
Sleep followed quickly for me too. My last thoughts were of that cave . . .
Something was tickling my nose. I twitched, batting it away, but after a moment, I found the end of my nose being teased again. Frustrated now, I opened my eyes, and found myself looking up two amused brown eyes.
"Should I be concerned you sound so unsure?" Tai teased, tickling my neck with the grass stalk he’d been playing with before. "Are you seeing anyone?"
"As if," I pounced him, and rolled him back into our blankets. "Although maybe I should—I have to get back at you for waking me so rudely."
"My sincerest apologies," Taichi’s voice softened, as he reached with one hand to brush the hair hanging by the side of my face. "But I had to wake you Yama. Mimi felt some big magic moving to the West and I’m taking a patrol to check it out. We might be gone all day—and I didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye to you."
I should have realised—he was dressed after all. "How serious is it?"
"Nothing we can’t handle—but nothing for a rookie." He kissed me gently on the cheek. "Don’t worry. I can take care of myself."
"I know. But that doesn’t stop me—" I kissed him seriously on the lips, trying to delay him as long as I could. Tai didn’t seem too eager to leave me, running his fingers through my hair and around my neck.
Troy leaned against the entrance to our sleeping space looking most unamused. "We are waiting."
Taichi sat up, kissing me again. "Take care, Yama."
I sighed, flopping back onto the blankets as he left. I didn’t particularly want to go and see him off—and that had nothing to do with the fact I wasn’t dressed yet. To tell the truth there had been a fair bit of spite in the little exchange—I’d be determined to make sure Taichi didn’t like leaving me—I was angry, and I wanted to share.
Taking it out on Tai wasn’t a great way to make me feel better though—I sighed. He was right though. No place for rookies—
I paused. If there was no place for rookies, I was just going to have to make sure I wasn’t one.
"Yes, I remember that cave. Tai’s right, it is around here. Of course I haven’t been there for while. I think it was in those hills there." Izzy pointed.
"Those ones there?"
"Yes. Why the curiosity?"
"Oh, nothing really. We were just talking about it last night, and I was wondering if I could take a look at them."
"Of course not! Those hills are a long way away—not to mention the magic—any magic—is potentially harmful."
"Of course," I shook my head. "I should have thought of that. Thanks Izzy."
"No problem. So, are you free to help me redesign the water supply this morning?"
"Sorry, I’ll be scouting with Daisuke’s group."
Izzy nodded, already turning back to the mess of pipes and other things in front of him.
"I’ll just leave you to it," I said.
He made no sound that might indicate he’d heard me. I grinned and walked off. Ken and Daisuke’s quarters were close by so that if Ken woke up in the night with a sudden urge tamper with something mechanical, he could (apparently this had happened more than once). I stepped inside, stopping as I realised the room wasn’t empty.
"Oh—sorry, Ken. I’d have knocked but I thought you’d be up and about with Dai by now—"
"He’s bringing me breakfast in bed," Ken gave me a brilliant smile, occasioned I suppose by the opportunity to share Daisuke’s thoughtfulness.
"Aren’t you lucky," I grinned back. "I won’t hang around then. I was just wondering if you still have the magic meter. I was hoping to play around with it."
"Don’t damage it," Ken instructed, pointing me to where it lay. "We only have one of those."
"I’ll be careful," I said. "Now I better get out of here before I interrupt Daisuke’s treat."
"I’ll see you later," Ken replied. "You’re scouting with Daisuke and I, aren’t you?"
"Actually Izzy asked me to help him with something to do with water—"
Ken nodded, obviously recognising what Izzy was working on. "Now I better scram—"
I smiled as I left Ken. I had everything I needed. Everything but—
I returned to Tai and my room, to get the pack that I’d brought with me from the underground. The guns were still there—Tai had recommended we not use them as the noise was likely to attract more trouble—but I supposed it would be useful in helping the others locate me if I got into serious trouble—
If you haven’t figured out what I’d decided to do by now—
Well, let’s say even Daisuke could have put it together.
Stopping once more by the kitchen to gather food for my trip, a task made easier by the fact that I was known to have been invited to go scouting with Daisuke, I was on my way, slipping into the forest and heading to hills.
I was going to going to come back a useful member of the group, or be dammed trying.
The woods were quiet.
I walked as carefully as possible, trying to listen out for any sounds. Taichi had told me over and over that when things were quiet, something was wrong—and that was usually a magical wrong.
I wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign, given that I was looking for a magical cave or not.
As I heard a low snarl from behind me I decided it probably wasn’t a good sign.
Daisuke had ended up giving me his knife. I drew it out of its sheath, turning round quietly.
It had been a deer I think—to tell the truth its body was such a mess I couldn’t tell. I stepped back quietly, trying not to move suddenly. Magical creatures were flighty. I tried to remember if deer travelled in herds or not . . .
It snarled again, an unnatural sound, advancing on me. Its intention to attack was clear—
I jumped out of the way as its hooves struck out. I almost dropped the knife.
"Shit—" This wasn’t good—the deer couldn’t really bite but I’d forgotten about its legs being equally useful as a weapon. It had the advantage of reach on me. I ducked again dropping into a roll on the ground and slashing upwards as the creature tried again.
It shrieked, landing awkwardly, one leg folding under it. I’d managed to wound it!
I took off as fast as I could through the trees, hoping it would take the hint and leave me alone.
About fifteen minutes later I stopped running and paused to listen out for sounds behind me. Any noise from the deer had stopped ages ago—I’d managed to loose it!
Score! I grinned, thinking happily of how pleased Taichi would be with me—when I told him I’d lied to Ken and Izzy and crept out of the camp on my own. Okay, maybe not.
But I had to at least make it to the cave before anyone figured out anything was wrong and told Taichi.
I reached the Hills mid afternoon. They were pleasant, covered in moss and easy to climb. I wandered through them searching for the cave for a while, before realising I had no way of telling where it was.
"Let’s see if it was worth carting you all this way," I said, pulling the meter out of my bag. I tested it on myself first, pleased when the meter said 14%—I was getting closer to Taichi and the others. But I was guessing you had to be at least 25 or more to actually have a power—
I let the meter scan the surrounding area.
"17%--mild level of pollution. 18% mild level of pollution. 17% level of pollution—"
I decided to go with the 18% and followed a trail round the side of one of the hills. I enjoyed my exploration—the path crossed over a waterfall and I paused a moment to paddle in its waters.
Maybe if Tai wasn’t too mad at me, I could convince him to come back here and take a swim with me . . .
With a last wistful look back at the waterfall I continued.
"Level of pollution 20%--Advise caution."
Getting better . . . I gasped as round the next corner I saw a cave—could this be it?
"High levels of pollution detected—extreme caution advised."
I turned the meter off.
Remembering what Taichi had told me about there being two kinds of magic I approached cautiously, trying to feel the music the way he’d described. At first I found it hard to detect anything strange about the cave, but when I stood just inside the entrance I felt the magic. It was disturbing, it didn’t give me a feeling of danger the way that the warped creatures did.
Rather it gave me a tingling feeling like the way Taichi’s thoughts did when he sent them to me. And in my opinion, nothing that reminded me of Taichi could be bad.
I stepped inside the cave.
"So? Zap me with magic or something!"
Nothing happened. The cave echoed my own words back at me mockingly. I shrugged, Tai had said they’d had to spend some time in the cave.
I went to the back of the cave where I found a ledge to sit on and stretched out. I’d bought food with me, so I pulled that out, settling back to wait.
Something poked into my side.
I batted it away, more interested in my dream.
Taichi had decided to give me breakfast in bed and that was far more exciting than anything happening in the base. When I was poked again, I groaned.
"Can’t someone else do it, Takeru?"
I blinked, opening my eyes. Taichi—and his tone was not reassuring. I blinked taking in my surroundings—I was still in the cave.
I looked at Taichi again and gulped. "You’re mad at me, aren’t you?"
"Mad? No," Taichi said. "Try furious."
"Oh." I did not feel better.
"Yamato," Taichi began then turned around. "No, I’m too angry to talk to you right now."
I flinched. I’d made Tai angry before but I’d never seen him this upset—except maybe after the first time I saw him use his power.
I hurried to pull my things together as he continued. "We’re going back now."
It was the longest walk I’d ever been on.
Taichi walked ahead of me, his pace just fast enough that I had trouble keeping up. Worse still was the silence—it was impossible to ignore how angry he was.
I just wished he’d yell at me and get it over with.
Anything was better than this—
After about an hour or so of me stewing in my own worry, Taichi whirled around and faced me.
"You knew how dangerous that was! You knew that there was no need, that we’re all willing to accept you and protect you until you learn survival skills!"
"Yes," I admitted.
"So what were you doing? Trying to kill yourself?"
"No—of course not! Taichi—"
"Do you have any idea what magic can do to you? We were lucky! More weren’t—think of what would have happened to Jun if Dai hadn’t come back—and you were willing to risk that for what, pride?"
"Taichi, I was careful—I went to the cave you guys did--"
"How do you know it was the same cave?" Taichi demanded. "Yama, these hills are full of them!"
"There was some graffiti on the walls. ‘T.M sucks.’"
"Daisuke—" Taichi sighed. "How do you feel?"
I blinked. Abruptly, all the anger was gone from his voice and he just sounded worried and worn out. "I’m fine I guess. I don’t feel any different."
"That’s good. I—Yama—" he hugged me, urgently. "If anything had happened to you—"
"What?" I asked, running a hand through his hair carefully—I wasn’t sure if I had permission to do this.
"I wouldn’t have died Yama—" Taichi said, his eyes telling me he was deeply serious. "But I wouldn’t have lived either."
I was well and truly speechless. I could only stare as Taichi continued, taking my hand in his. "If this had gone wrong—and I’d lost you—What were you thinking? Don’t you care?"
He was back to angry again—but I wasn’t so alarmed now that I knew what was behind it.
"Of course I care, Taichi. I want to be able to take a place in this world as your equal—I don’t want you to have to protect me. I know you don’t mind it—but the fact is you have a lot of people who need protecting. Sooner or later, I’m going to be in trouble and you’re not going to be there—and I’ll have to protect myself."
"Yama—" Taichi started unhappily.
I shushed him. "Taichi, listen to me. I have to learn to protect myself, and although you’re teaching me, it’s not enough. I have to learn the same way you did—only, there was no one protecting you."
"We never purposely put ourselves in danger—" Taichi whispered.
"Neither did I," I said. "I knew what I was doing."
"But you have no idea of the dangers—the possible consequences—"
"Then teach me," I said. "Don’t try and do things the easy way, show me the dangers. I’m tougher than you think, Taichi." I took a breath, keeping my voice steady to show how serious I was. "I’m ready."
"I’m not," Taichi said simply, leaning into my arms. I gathered him to me slowly and for a few moments we stayed like that, peaceful, content. Then Tai pulled away from me with a sigh. "We have to keep going."
The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I suppose even animals mutated by magic need their sleep.
As we neared camp we could see a flickering glow—they had a campfire lit.
"Yamato," Taichi whispered, pausing. "Understand I regret doing this."
Doing what? I wondered then found out as his fist connected with my jaw hard enough to send me stumbling back.
"You told Izzy you wouldn’t go to the caves, and that you were going with Daisuke’s patrol." Taichi said in his ‘leader’ voice. "Never ever lie to us, Yamato."
Then he offered me his hand to help me back up.
I took it in silence, unsure what I was feeling.
I know I probably deserved it but—Taichi had never hurt me before . . .
I didn’t like that he could.
We returned to the campsite in silence.