Chapter 7

When we woke up finally, everything was still and silent. Rubbing our eyes, we pushed ourselves off of the rocky floor and looked around at our surroundings, still half-asleep. It was dark; we realized that we had slept for the entire day. The others were all there, asleep like we had been.

Or at least, we thought they were all there. On looking closer, we soon realized that we could not find Three and One. We drifted over the sleeping forms, slowly making our way over to the large exit. Once we reached it, we looked out, scanning the gloom outside. There was nothing except rock as far as we could see.

Suddenly something touched our shoulder, making us jump. We turned quickly, then relaxed when we saw that it was only Three, one of his tentacles laid on us gently. "…Oh. Three."

He looked at us, expression unreadable. "Hello, Fourteen," he said quietly.

We gave a sad smile. "We… failed yesterday."

He paused, then shook his head. "No. We did not reach our objective, but we did not fail."

We blinked. "…How so?" we asked.

"We are all still alive. As long as that is so, we can never fail." He sighed. "But you did give me quite a scare last night, when I couldn't find you. You can't imagine how anxious we all were. For both you and Thirteen…"

We nodded slowly. "We're… very sorry…" we murmured apologetically.

He startled us by putting his tentacles around us, embracing us. "Don't be…"

We hesitated, then returned the embrace, blushing vividly as we leaned our head against him. "Alright, I won't…" There was a short silence, and then we ventured, "…Three?"

"…Yes…?"

"…Why did… that monster attack? Was it just wild, or was it put there… on purpose?"

He sighed. "The Aggregate released it into that tower, in order to stop us. Even though it was used to help maintain the Hub, it was expendable. They decided that it was better to destroy the tower and us with it than to give us a chance to damage the Hub…"

We absorbed that information. "…Oh…"

He closed his eyes, giving a slight smile. "Also, there's another reason why our mission wasn't a failure."

"…What is it?" we asked, mildly curious.

"We… managed to free another syanqua from the Aggregate."

This stunned us. "…How…?"

"When the tower was collapsing, he was trapped under some rubble. Seven, Four, Six, and I discovered him as we were escaping. It seems that the Hub disconnected him, having assumed he was dead. That sometimes happens, in order to save the rest of the Aggregate from the pain."

"…Oh." We blinked. "…Where… is he now?"

Three gestured back into the cavern, with his eyes still closed. "He's in there with the others… We already inducted him, but he's still adjusting. Since you were Fourteen, we decided to call him Fifteen."

"That makes sense…"

"You'll meet him tomorrow morning." He paused, opening one eye and glancing at us. "…Did you know that you slept for the entire day? I've never seen someone sleep that hard…"

Our blush darkened. "We… We were tired."

"I figured…" He closed his eye again, then pulled me closer against himself. We didn't resist. "…You're soft…" he murmured, giving another small smile.

We giggled nervously. "…Um… Thank you…"

"Mm…"

For a long time, neither of us moved. We wondered what Three was thinking, but we only knew what we ourselves were thinking. We closed our eyes, resting against him. Around him, we felt safe, safer than we ever had.

It was as if nothing else existed…

A rough voice jolted us out of our reverie. "Three. Figures I would find you with her…"

We opened our eyes, blinking as we looked up at the speaker. We quickly recognized it as One; he was floating in front of the two of us, expressionless.

"I like her," Three responded, opening his eyes as well and giving One an irritated glance. We blushed a little on hearing him say that, as he continued in an annoyed tone, "What do you want?"

One glanced at me, then returned his dispassionate gaze to Three. "We have to discuss something. It's very important."

"So is this."

One grunted. "I have to remind you that you're the leader of this little band, so your attention is required by more than just her. She can wait."

Three hesitated, then sighed and let go of us. He gave us a pained smile. "It was nice talking to you. I'm sorry I have to go now… Get some more sleep, alright?"

We just nodded dumbly, blushing furiously. He nodded back, and then followed One as the latter turned and started off. We watched them go, until they disappeared behind a rock formation a short distance away.

With a sigh, we turned back toward the cave and drifted back inside, trying to erase the blush from our face, but failing. We looked around at all the still-sleeping forms of our friends, but we could see nothing except Three's eyes. His beautiful, green eyes…

"…Fourteen?"

We turned at the sound of the voice, startled slightly. Today was not a good day for our nerves. "Oh, hello Eight," we said, recognizing our friend.

She yawned and lifted off the floor where she had been sleeping. "Fourteen, why are you… Oh, that's right, I guess you slept all day."

We smiled sheepishly. "Yes, we've been told…"

Eight blinked at that, staring at me. "…By who? How long have you been awake?"

"Um… Not very long, but Three was awake, and we talked for a while."

"Oh." She glanced around the cavern, then paused. "…Er… he's not here. Where did… Where did he go?"

We shrugged. "One came, and said he had to talk to him about something. They went away somewhere…"

"…I see…" She gave the area another glance-over, before looking at me again. "They do that sometimes, it's not too unusual. Probably talking about what to do next…" She gave a soft smile. "Speaking of which, how was your first real mission? Three, Six, and Four told us about it already – especially Four, she couldn't stop talking about how exciting it was – but, I want to hear about it from you…"

We giggled embarrassedly. "Um, well, we didn't do much… I, that is. I didn't do much. Except almost get killed. I was scared… But with the others there, we felt safer, so it was kind of exciting, too…"

She nodded. "It's fine to be scared. As long as you know what to do when the time comes." She sighed then. "None of us are soldiers, you have to realize that. We would train ourselves, or something, but we don't even know what to do in the first place…"

That comforted us a great deal. "But, how will we win, if…?"

"We have to work together. We'll find a way. So far, we've escaped being found by the Aggregate, so we have an advantage over the Hub." She yawned tiredly, then smiled again at us. "Every one of us has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. All together, we can do what we have to."

"Hm…" We swept the small cavern with our gaze, picking out each sleeping body. "I… guess so…"

"Yep…" Eight drifted back down to the floor, curling up again and closing her eyes. "I'm tired, sorry. We can talk more tomorrow… Good night," she said quietly.

We drifted back to the place where we had been sleeping before, settling down likewise on the rocky floor. "Alright… I'm tired too, good night…"

Eight didn't respond for a long moment, and we thought at first that she had fallen asleep again. Then she spoke again, her voice quiet. "…One more thing…"

We reopened our eyes. "…Yes…?"

She lifted her head, looking up at us through the gloom. "…You asked… how we could win, without training or an advantage in numbers," she whispered, barely audible. "…But, sometimes… Sometimes, it isn't about winning."

~.~

When morning came, we woke to find everyone else already awake, milling about. Some were absorbed in business, particularly Three, who had returned, and Seven, while most were relaxing after the mission we had just come back from.

Among the latter was an unfamiliar male, who we figured was Fifteen. He was being shepherded around by Twelve, his eyes wide as he took in everything.

On glancing over from the other side the cavern and noticing that we were awake, Twelve motioned to Fifteen and then gestured at us. He said something that we didn't quite catch. We lifted off the ground, stretching as we woke ourselves up, and then turned to look at both of them inquisitively.

After a moment of hesitation, Fifteen drifted over, Twelve trailing a short distance behind. Fifteen glanced up at us and then averted his eyes shyly. "…Um, h-hi," he mumbled.

We nodded, giving a friendly smile. "Hello to you too… We're Fourteen. You're… Fifteen, correct?"

He blushed brightly, but nodded slightly in response. "Y-yes… We are."

Twelve moved forward. "He's still a little shy," he said apologetically. "Still adjusting to the change."

We gave a nod of understanding. "We're… We mean, I'm, still adjusting, too."

Twelve nodded back. Then, he paused, and a sly grin came across his expression. "So, I heard you were out all night with Thirteen yesterday…"

We blanched. "N-no, it wasn't… like that…"

He nodded knowingly. "Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."

"…We said that wasn't it!"

"I know, I'm teasing," he said, still grinning. "Calm down."

"Ugh." We turned away, scowling.

Twelve moved around in front of us, glancing us over carefully. "Hey, Fourteen…" he said after a moment, "…why don't you spend a little time with Fifteen? Show him around, not that we have a huge place here… Three already gave him the talk, and I introduced him to almost everyone now."

"But we're new, too," we protested. "Wouldn't it be better for someone else to…?"

"Exactly." He nodded, smiling. "The rest of us have gone through the same thing you two are, but you could probably relate to each other a little better than to any of the rest of us."

"Oh…" That made sense, we supposed. "Right. Okay."

"I'm only asking because I have something else to do right now, really… The others are making plans, and they'll need all the help they can get." He gestured at the group that was huddled around Three.

We blinked. "Um, wait, then shouldn't we-"

He shook his head, cutting me off. "No, you're still new. No physical labor until you're adjusted. We have no shortage of help here, we'll be fine." He grinned at us. "And anyway, I think Three kinda likes you, so it'd be a scandal to make you work."

I felt my face blush deeply. "Um. Well, it's…"

"Ooh, are you blushing?" He leaned in, inspecting my face as his grin widened. "…Yep, no mistaking it. Heheh, I think Thirteen has some competition…"

We tried to say something, but couldn't think of anything to respond with. Finally, we just reached out and pushed him away, mostly playfully. "Didn't you have to, um, go work or, or something?"

"Fine, okay. See you later." Still grinning, he waved to us, then nodded to Fifteen before turning and drifting away.

Still blushing, we took a deep breath, then turned to Fifteen. He had been watching with wide eyes for the entire exchange. "…So, um… What now?" we asked, awkwardly.

He hesitated, kind of just staring at me for a long moment.

Then, he asked quietly, "…Uh, Three is the, the leader… right?"

Oh, no.