"Weíre about to have visitors," Tai said as we reached the campsite. "Be careful what you tell them."
"Vistors?" I said, surprised enough to abandon my brooding thoughts momentarily.
"The magic Mimi sensed belonged to another group. Weíre not sure what they want yet. Apparently this is a trip to establish Ďfriendshipí but Masakiís not known as being particularly friendly -" Tai squeezed my hand. "Iím going to have to act differently around him. I donít think youíll like it much."
"How so?" I asked.
"Tai!" Izzy hailed us immediately upon spotting us. "Takeru and I are working on a contingency plan but we need you to okay the details."
I blinked. Izzy had a fairly large bruise on one cheek I was sure hadnít been there this morning -
Taichi nodded. "Iíll explain later," he said. "I think Mimi may have saved us food -"
I realised Iíd been dismissed.
Sora found me while I was eating.
"Donít let me interrupt," she said, sitting beside. "Taichi asked me to give you a check over."
"Well?" I asked. "Has my magic gone up?"
"I think so - then again I have nothing to compare you against. Youíre not infected by bad magic though - thatís something."
"Can you do anything about this?" I pointed to my cheek.
Sora ran gentle fingers over the bruise. "I can take away the sting a little, but youíre stuck with the bruise."
"Well it would look a bit odd for Izzy to have one and you not to, since youíre known to be the source of the trouble," Sora said practically.
I stared. "Tai hit Izzy - because of me?"
"Basically yes," Sora admitted. "But itís more complicated than that."
"How?" I couldnít believe Tai capable of this. Sure, he was quick tempered at times but this almost counted as bullying -
"The other group changes things. The strength of a group is seen as the strength of their leader - which they measure in fear." Sora sighed. "There were members of that group present when Izzy reported that youíd gone - as it was, the very fact that youíd gone without telling anyone undermined Taiís authority. He couldnít let that appear to go unpunished."
"And how does Izzy feel about this?"
"He understands," the redhead answered for himself. "He may not like it, but he understands."
"Izzy," I stood up hastily. "Iím sorry -"
He looked at me squarely. "Good. Maybe next time you wonít foolishly endanger yourself. Or lie to me -"
"Yeah -" I say, my throat suddenly dry. He may be a year younger than me, but it's like being lectured by a parent.
"If you do something like this again, Yamato, I will personally show you that I can hit just as hard as Taichi."
"What's the plan? Do we meet the other group?" Sora asked.
Izzy nodded. "They arenít overtly hostile . . . and we have a fair chance against them if they are. But to refuse to meet them would look suspicious, and if spread might involve serious inroads on our territory."
"And so weíre going to meet and do what?"
"Feast. Theyíre bringing meat and weíre providing the rest and the warriors in each group will brag about how tough they are, Masaki will hit on everyone in sight, Iíll have my hands full persuading the half of the visitors not getting into fights that Mimi is not interested in them and -"
"A good time will be had by all," Sora interjected with a smile. "Mostly these are a good way to catch up on the other groups, find out what is happening. Much of the information we pick up at these type of meetings is useful later on - we know which groups are set on expanding their territory, which should be avoided, who we can trust, who we should run from. Itís also an opportunity to find boyfriends for those of us without them."
"And does everyone come?"
"Pretty much. We were hoping to move the younger kids and you, Ken and Hikari out early tomorrow morning, but when they asked about you Troy let it slip that there were others from the surface," Izzy didnít sound exactly thrilled with Troy. "Your little escapade this morning has caused us a lot of inconvenience."
"Oh." Iíd been hoping that I could take care of myself without causing the others any trouble. Looks like Iíd failed miserably.
"Do either of you know where Taichi is? I need to tell him something."
"Heís probably in your dwellings," Izzy said.
He was, already in bed.
"Werenít you going to say goodnight to me?" I said unhappily.
"I wasnít sure you wanted me to," my boyfriend said. "Yamato - you didnít seem too happy with me before."
"I wasnít," I admitted.
"I donít know. Izzy and Sora explained some stuff for me - I wish Iíd known about the other group."
"None of us did." Taichi welcomed me into our bed, wrapping his arm around my own gravely.
"Iím sorry Iíve caused so much trouble for everyone -"
"Izzyís the one you should apologise too. He took responsibility for your absence -"
"I already did. Iím not happy with that, Taichi -"
"I didnít think you would be." My boyfriend rested his head against my shoulder.
"This is what you meant before - that youíd have to act differently?"
"To judge how strong our groups is, Masakiís going to be watching me. If we want him to leave us alone, heís got to think Iím too much of a threat to be worth his time. So, I have to live up to their perceptions of a leader - tough, controlling, and unfortunately violent. Iím especially not going to be able to act the same around you -"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"A typical leader takes what he wants, when he wants, especially with relationships. They would see my love for you as weakness -" Taichi looked up, turning eyes full of sorrow on me. "Youíll be considered my property."
"I can live with that," I assured him. "You donít have to pamper me, Taichi."
"If you say so." Taichi kissed me, running gentle finger over my cheek. "You know," he says with a slight smile. "The thought of anyone hitting you makes me want to go and tear pieces out of whoever did it - a little difficult when Iím the guilty party."
"A dilemma to be sure."
"You," Taichi said fondly, kissing me. "What did Sora say?"
"Iím okay - no bad magic here."
"Thank God," Taichi said fervently. "Yama, you have no idea -"
"How youíd feel if you lost me? Taichi, I feel the same about you. I canít bear to think of it -"
"Then letís not think." Taichi kissed me again, and I deepened the kiss, drawing him in, gentle and sweet. We made love slowly, tenderly, to better savour each moment, and to show each other just how much we treasured each other. It didnít dispel all the shadows surrounding us, but it laid to rest the most worrying - we were sure of our love, our trust in each other.
Taichi fell asleep, curled on my chest.
I put my arm around him, gently stroking his hair.
He looked far too vulnerable in sleep - even though I knew he was capable of battling magical creatures and took responsibility for the lives of fifty or so people . . . He still looked like he needed protecting.
I tightened my arm around him.
If he needed protecting . . . Iíd be there.
By the time I woke up the next morning Tai had already left to prepare for our visitors. The rest of the camp was awake too and in party mode. I watched as Daisuke and Takeru squabbled, Daisuke putting up a trellis sort of construction while Takeru encouraged sweet smelling wisteria to climb over it. The children and Mimi were busy making certain there was enough food stuff prepared, and I was rapidly encouraged to help.
In fact, I was so occupied making sure the kids didnít eat more than they helped make, that I almost missed the other kids' arrival.
"Nice set up youíve got, Taichi."
The loud voice wasnít familiar. I stared at the group standing in the middle of our campsite.
They were looking round, eyeing us with a similar amount of curiosity. Maybe a little too much curiosity . . . or maybe hearing about these guys past encounters with our group had made me hostile. I pushed that thought from my mind and looked at them.
They were tough looking, all of them had visible scars - their clothes were rougher and dirtier than our group - obviously, they didnít have a Mimi to take charge of their fashion. I was surprised at the difference between the group members. There were about eight of them who were big, obviously well cared for, while the rest were in various states of malnutrition -
"You look like youíre doing all right for yourselves. Good hunting?"
"Fair," Taichi answered. "Of course, we have a lot of competition. The hunting is good for the magical creatures as well." He gestured to the other members of the group beside him. "You know all these guys, right? Izzy, Jun, Daisuke, Troy -"
"I remember them. Iím more interested in this run away of yours."
Masaki sent an appraising glance over the campsite.
"That would be me," I stood. **Better get it over with** I said to Taichi privately as I joined the group.
"Yamato," Taichi said brusquely. "This is Masaki."
"Interesting," Masakiís gaze made me distinctly uncomfortable. The guy was huge - and there was nothing remotely kind in his face. "He is a treasure. I can understand why youíd want to get him back."
Taichi was right. I didnít like this.
"I wasnít running away," I snap. "I was doing some scouting of my own."
Masaki leered at me. "Against Taichiís wishes though . . . which does not say a lot for the strength of your control over your group."
Those words were directed at Taichi not me.
Without even thinking about it, I glared at Masaki. "For your information, Taichi is a great leader! The best in fact -"
"The food is ready! Come on!" Izzy and Sora had turned up suddenly.
"Yes - we wouldnít want our guests to go hungry!" Sora said chirpily, glaring daggers at me as she ushered our Ďguestsí towards the food.
I was confused.
What was I supposed to have done?
"What were you two thinking?" Izzy demanded. "I thought we agreed the under-grounders were going to keep a low profile!"
"You saw what happened - did you want me to just sit there and let him malign Tai?" I demanded.
"This could be good for us, Izzy. After all, Masakiís issue is that Yamatoís defying my leadership proves Iím weak, and weíre fair game. But, Yamato just defended my leadership. Problem solved."
Izzy looked dubious. "I have serious misgivings that weíve heard the last of this."
I wasnít sure if I should add my opinion. After all, Taichi didnít seem angry at me, this time.
"Besides -" Tai shrugged.
Izzy groaned. "No. Donít tell me you thought it was romantic."
"Romantic?" Tai scoffed. "Do I look like Daisuke?"
I exchanged a look with Izzy. While the aforementioned scout was reduced to almost total sap by anything Ken did, there were some points of resemblance -
"The answer is no," Tai informed us, frostily. "Romantic, no. Damned sexy - yes."
If I wasnít bright pink at that point, Iíll be extremely surprised.
"Sexy?" I squeaked.
Tai grinned. "Very much so."
"Excuse me, but I would rather not be party to your, uh, recreational activities -"
I ignored Izzy. "How sexy?"
"However," Izzy was almost the colour of his hair. "You can do that later. Now is not the time, Taichi -"
"Izzy," Tai asked quietly tapping the shorter redhead on the nose. "Youíre not arguing with me?"
Izzyís face collapsed as the realisation caught up with him - he couldnít argue with Tai without undermining his leadership the same way my little stunt had.
"Good. Weíll be on the dance floor if you need us," Tai said as we left.
"Dance floor?" I asked, before I saw that a circle near the eating area that had been swept clear. Mimi was there, singing to a couple of crude instruments produced from who knows where. Ignoring the urge to take the instruments away from their owners and tune them I asked Tai, **Should we be doing this?**
**What do you mean?**
**Well, what about the others?**
**Theyíll be fine. Izzy and I have a couple of contingency plans; donít worry,** Taichi assured me pulling me out into the ring of dancers - it was already packed. **Besides, no better place to keep an eye on you under-grounders. Look.**
I spotted Hikari and Takeru practically sitting in each others laps by the trellis, watching as Daisuke tried to coax an extremely self conscious Ken into dancing with him, the only result being that Ken was now a nice bright pink colour.
"Poor Dai," Taichi said. "I donít think heís going to have much success."
"I canít imagine the machine dancing," I said. "Although heís loosened up a lot since he chose to stay."
"He has. Heís made a great addition to our little family. You too," Tai wrapped his arms around my neck, leading me in the dance.
It was fun, dancing with Tai, quite apart from how nice it was to hear music again and the fact that although nothing fancy, this music had an intoxicating beat. Tai teased me, flirted with me, showing a side of him I hadnít seen in years. Maybe he was the leader of a tribe of fifty or so. He still enjoyed having fun as much as the next guy. And I intended to see to it that Tai got to enjoy himself as much as possible, flirting back, and dancing with him until Mimi ran out of voice.
As we moved to a slower dance, I noticed a familiar flash of dark hair. What was Troy doing, talking to Masakiís soldierís so openly? I frowned as I noticed them placing another mug in front of him - I had a bad feeling about this.
But . . . no reason to ruin Taichiís fun. I could talk to Izzy later.
**That was fun,** Tai told me, hugging me a moment, letting his head rest as the music paused.
**Want to get something to eat?**
**No, I should probably get back to keeping Masaki entertained.** Taichi squeezed my hand in a reluctant farewell. **You dance well, Yamato**
Izzy was over in the eating area, sitting with Mimi and glaring at anyone who came to close. Iíd never seen him so protective before.
"Hey," I said sitting next to him. "Troyís been -"
"Acting far too friendly with Masakiís lot. I noticed," Izzy said. "As far as I can tell heís spouting off on how he would make a much better leader than Taichi if only everyone else would get over their blind loyalty to him."
I shook my head. "Why does Taichi put up with him?"
"Youíll have to ask Tai."
"Despite the way he acts, I think Troy really does like Tai," Mimi said, offering Izzy part of her meal. "Thatís why heís always criticizing him. Not to bring him down but to make him better."
I snorted. "Sure." The music started again with another singer - nowhere near as good as Mimi. "You were great before, with the singing and everything."
"Thank-you," Mimi smiled. "I noticed you and Taichi dancing, you seemed to be enjoying it."
"It was great."
"Why did you stop?" Izzy asked suddenly. "You wouldnít have got tired for a while yet -"
"Something is wrong, Izzy." Mimi said. **Yesterday, when I felt that magical presence that Taichi went out to investigate? They found Masakiís group instead. But I can still feel it . . . I think it's here.**
**What are you saying?**
**That whatever that magical power was, its here now. Someone in Masakiís group has an extremely strong magical force.**
**Tell Tai,** Izzy instructed.
**What do we do?** I asked.
**Relax,** Izzy told me. **Masaki hasnít threatened us yet - and if you start acting all uptight and suspicious, things might only get worse.**
I had to force myself to act normal. **How about I go round and tell the others to be on guard then?**
**Thatíll work.** Izzy patted my shoulder. **Iíll do the same.**
I nodded and walked over to join Takeru and Hikari, grabbing a plate of fruit as I did so.
"You two hungry?"
"Thank-you, Yamato," Hikari smiled, taking a pear. "We were getting hungry." Takeru and she were having one of those looking-deeply-into-each-otherís eyes moments. I looked around to see that Daisuke and Ken were not too far away.
"How about you guys? Want something to eat?"
"What do you want Ken? Iíll get it for you," Daisuke was on his feet immediately.
Ken smiled his rare smile. "Pick something for me Daisuke. I know Iíll like it."
Aw. Wasnít that cute?
As Daisuke came over I whispered to the three of them, "Izzy wants us to be on guard. Thereís a strong magical power here -"
"The one Mimi picked up yesterday?" Takeru asked.
I nod. "Just be alert without being too obvious about it."
"Gotcha," Daisuke grabbed a handful of fruit and returned to Ken.
I watched wistfully. Daisuke got to feed Ken. Hikari and Takeru were exchanging kisses in return for pears (in fulfillment of my big brotherly duties I told them to Ďget a roomí and was ignored). Tai was sitting over there talking with Masaki.
I would give anything for him to be sitting here with me -
I shook my head. I could survive without Tai for a couple of hours. Instead I could do something useful -
"Troy!" I exclaimed as if Iíd only just noticed his presence. "I havenít seen you up on the dance floor yet. You coming?"
Not giving him a chance to respond, I pulled him after me.
**Nice work!** Jun said, joining us in the dancing ring. **I was just thinking we had to get him away from them somehow.**
It took the combined efforts of the two of us to keep Troy on the dance floor. Luckily he was not his usual belligerent self.
**Did they get him drunk?**
**Duh! Is he usually this co-ordinated?** Jun sent sarcastically as he stumbled and we had to prop him upright.
**I didnít know you guys had alcohol.**
**Masakiís lot brought it, but its not hard to make.**
The music came to a halt then. "Hey, you lot! Quiet for a moment!" Taichi ordered, and we settled down to listen.
"Now theyíre just going to make speeches and congratulate each other," Jun sighed.
I nodded, watching as Masaki stood up and cleared his throat.
"Firstly I must thank-you for your wonderful hospitality." There was a sort of . . . falseness in his tone that made me bristle. I suddenly had a very bad feeling about this. "In this world of so much hardship and hostility, it is a very good thing to know who your allies are. Particularly when we may at any time be attacked by those who believe that the possession of magic is enough to warrant immediate extinction. With that in mind I have an invitation to offer to you. Join us as our allies, and we will take control of the surface. Weíll never have to be afraid again."
Jun drew a sharp breath as people around us started talking excitedly. "So thatís his game."
"Conquest of the surface?" Taichi asked dryly. "People who resist?"
"Will be dealt with accordingly."
"Under your leadership?"
"Of course. Although, Taichi, you will still be allowed the command of your tribe."
"Thatís very generous of you." Taichi was sarcastic. I tensed, expecting some sort of fight. Masakiís warriors were already standing, preparing for a confrontation.
Taichiís next reply was mild. "As flattering as your offer is, Iím afraid we must pass," he said, turning his back to Masaki and signalling the musicians to start playing again.
"You donít seem to understand, Taichi. This isnít an offer you can turn down."
I saw the flash of metal with horror. **Taichi, heís got a knife!**
Even before my thought had been completed, Taichi was side stepping Masakiís intended blow and spinning around to deliver one of his own. I was on my feet, wanting to help Taichi but unable to see a way I could.
**Takeru! Stop any of his warriors from joining the fight - release the vines now!** I heard Izzyís command and looked up to see the vines from the trellis drop directly onto the warriors below, wrapping them in a thick embrace. Takeru had his eyes shut in concentration.
So that was the contingency plan.
I turned my attention back to the fight between Taichi and Masaki. Both were moving so fast it was hard to keep up with them. Taichi seemed to be just one step ahead of Masakiís knife. Why doesnít he use his power? I wondered.
Masaki seemed to be thinking the same thing. "Is that the best you can do, Taichi? Whereís that famous fire of yours?"
"You want it, you got it!" The air around Taichi crackled and then was filled with flame-until he was just visible through a barrier of fire.
I gulped - I hadnít seen Tai do that before - yet at the same time I was reassured. Taichi was strong - he could handle this.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Masaki smirked. "Give me your best shot - unless youíre too weak to hurt me."
Masaki was goading Tai? Either he was insane or -
**Itís a trap! Donít, Tai!** Mimi screamed too late.
Taichi had already sent a blast of flame towards Masaki, which the other leader didnít even try to dodge. Instead, stopping just short of hitting him, the blow seemed to hesitate then snapped back to hit Tai fully.
He cried out in pain, falling.
Izzy pulled me back. "Stay here. You canít help, Yamato."
Sora had run to him immediately, to put her healerís powers to use. Tai hissed as she assisted him to his feet.
**Heís burnt,** Sora informed us, her shock clear from her thoughts. **Tai never gets burnt -**
Masaki smirked as he stalked over to them. "Out of my way, girl."
Sora glared, putting up her hand as Masaki approached - then abruptly fell back, clutching her stomach as if she was in pain. Masaki ignored her collapse, watching Tai instead who was standing shakily. After a moment the flames flickered back into being around Taichi, but they flickered often.
"What did you do to her?" Tai demanded.
"Itís more what she did to herself," Masaki said smugly, reaching through the failing barrier to seize Taiís shoulders.
Beside me I felt a surge of magic as Izzy prepared to use his power - ending in a startled gasp, and his collapse.
"Whatís wrong?" Mimi knelt beside him urgently.
"I tried to use my power to help Taichi," the redhead said, rubbing his head. "And it was somehow twisted against me -"
"Daisuke?" I saw Ken trying to support his hurt love. This was not good - if our most powerful warriors were unable to fight . . .
"You should have taken my offer," Masaki said, shaking his head as he slammed Tai hard into the trunk of a nearby tree.
"They say . . . hindsight . . .20/20," Taichi gasped.
I had to help him -
Junís arms were locked around me. "Yamato, please donít. Youíll just get hurt too."
"You canít expect me to stay here and let him -" I winced as Tai was again thrown against that tree trunk. This time the flames flickered abruptly out. Masaki smirked, supporting Taiís limp body with one hand and drawing the knife with the other. "I want whoever is controlling those vines to let my warriors go now, or I cut Taichiís throat."
**Do it, Takeru,** Izzy ordered wearily.
I didnít see my brother do anything but the vines fell limply to the floor.
"Perfect," Masaki grinned. "I think we understand each other. You follow my orders, and Taichi stays alive."
**Weíll obey him for now,** Izzy ordered everyone in mind-speech. **As soon as we work out how heís using our powers against us, we can free Tai but until then better just to do what he says. Pass it on to those who canít hear thoughts.**
There was reluctant agreement.
"Now, Izzy. Come here."
Izzy obeyed, guessing what was to happen - it was only logical that Masaki remove our sources of leadership. I was amazed at his courage. He stood firmly, only shutting his eyes as Masaki ordered one of his men to knock him out. A few minutes later his unconscious body was laid next to Taiís and we were all Masakiís prisoners.