Suspended Reality

 

Part One

 

I had my stomach to the ground under a patch of bushes, legs tensed in case I needed to jump up in a hurry. The air was hot and humid, and the needles on the green-tinged plants above me were prickling my skin. I was sweating like crazy, and that made it even more sensitive to the itchy feeling they inspired. It was seriously uncomfortable to sit around and wait.

But I had to, unless we wanted berries and vegetables for dinner.

"Blade?" A quiet but clear voice spoke directly into my ear, a sound only I could hear. "I'm in position," he continued, when I didn't respond. "Give me a signal if you're ready to proceed."

I slid a hand carefully up to my ear set, and touched off a thin, high buzzing noise.

"Right. Tech out."

I took my hand away from the radio and eyed my quarry - my group of quarries, actually, since what we were stalking at present was a small herd of the local meat source. The animals drinking from the small pool at the base of the slope I was looking over were somewhat deer-like, but their feet were more like cats' paws. I couldn't even describe the face - but I could say for sure that no animal on Earth ever looked like this one. They bred like rabbits, though, and our group had learned early on that they were a lot better to eat than vegetables, fruits, or what passed as fish around here.

The only problem was that they could run really fast when they wanted to.

You're not getting away… I glared at the little gathering beneath me in concentration, and raised my hand to take hold of the hilt just over my shoulder - this time making no effort to be quiet or move slowly.

The whatsits came alert, ears pricking as the sound reached their ears.

Oh yeah… something is up, all right… You just go ahead and get ready for us.

The important thing now was that they were all standing right where they were, perfectly still and alert. That was all my teammate needed, and everything was going to go exactly as planned.

There seemed to have been a couple of holes in that plan, however…

There was an audible click, and then sparks started shooting up from the bushes on the other side of the pond. The creatures made little frightened noises, backing away from it.

I sat up in alarm. I'd seen sparks like those before…

Oh CRAP!

I had about two seconds to fall backwards, roll over into a ball, and cover the back of my neck with both hands before the devise we'd set up to confuse our prey set off the fifth-biggest - or maybe sixth-biggest - explosion I'd been present for in a contained area.

And the third to happen in the past four days.

There was a lot of braying down in the pond area, and then the sound of thundering, thumping animal footsteps came rushing to my ears like some crazy call of doom.

Heading right for me.

This, of course, was part of the plan, but I was hardly ready for them now!

Abandoning the original idea completely, I went with the backup plan that never failed me: improvise.

I grabbed the hilt of my sword, pulled it out, and faced down the panicking creatures currently kicking more dust than could possibly have been on that goddamn hill into my face. There was no way I was lying prone on the ground waiting to get stamped on. No stupid what-do-you-call-it was going to trample me!

This wasn't the first time I'd been caught at the center of a storm of stampeding alien beings, and you can't help but learn things from these events, even if you are in a state of complete and utter panic. Animals instinctively jump off to the side when faced with obstructions - I'd be like a rock sticking out the middle of a stream after they reached me.

Except that rocks can't use a sword like I can.

My eyes, now squinted against a storm of evil dust, were fixed on the last few beasts in this small herd - the ones that couldn't run quite as fast as the leaders. Those were probably the ones closest to Izzy's 'distraction', and most likely burned.

Easy prey.

And as I got enveloped in the sickening-sweet smell of animal scent and the sounds of frightened braying and heavy running, my eyes fixed on the blurry image of a single creature, right on the edge of that rush.

I couldn't help but grin, feeling my adrenaline rush. Hello, dinner.

I gripped my sword tightly, waited until the unlucky victim was just turning to jump past me, and then swung hard, timing the move so that it caught the creature in mid-dash, unable to even notice that it was being cut down until it caught the blow across its throat.

It tumbled to the ground in mid-bound, head nearly severed - what can I say? I like my swords sharp - hitting the ground hard without a sound and only a small spray of blood this time.

All in all, it was a pretty good kill.

I was going to have to clean my sword, though.

"Blade!" My teammate's voice was anxious - and it seemed louder than usual, even through the ear set. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I reported - somewhat breathlessly. "That was… exciting. Next time could you tone down the fireworks a little?"

"Yeah. Sorry about that... I must've miscalculated somewhere. Don't worry, I'll fix it before our next hunting trip."

"You do that." I slumped down to a seat, staring over at my kill. "I got one of them, even if it wasn't exactly like we planned it. Get over here and help me with it."

"I'll be there in a few." Then his voice was gone.

Geez, Izzy… I wiped my sword off on some leaves, and slid it back into its sheath. The sixteen-year-old we called 'Tech' was definitely a genius - but his "miscalculations" were as spectacular as his successes.

I really think he needs to get over this explosions phase, too…

"Well, at least I didn't get blood all over my clothes again." I picked some of the pine needles off the patched-together clothing that Mimi and Joe had come up with for us to wear. "Mimi would probably take me apart and use my skin for a shirt."

"Talking to yourself can be the first sign of a mental breakdown, Tai." Izzy knelt beside me, offering a smile. He still had fairly pale skin despite the kind of heat we got, and his eyes were large and very dark in comparison. Anyone trying to make a connection between this boy and the scrappy little computer geek who'd been stranded on this world with us six years ago would probably have a hard time.

Of course… he was still a computer geek. Just not so scrappy or little.

"Don't even joke," I said, mock-threateningly. "It's not my fault your fireworks show nearly got me killed! You were just supposed to startle them, not blow them up!"

"I'll make adjustments for next time," he promised.

"You'd better, or after next time, there's not going to be a next time!"

He gave me a quick half-smile. "Sure, Tai." No more than that was really needed. Me threatening to never take risks again was the farthest thing possible from a real threat.

I settled back against a tree and left the business of cleaning and tying up the dead animal to him. I felt I deserved that much - after all, he'd just about gotten me either killed or seriously injured.

Of course… a day when I wasn't in danger of being killed or seriously injured was a very rare thing.

You know, after six years of living in the middle of a big forest on another planet I'm almost used to fearing for my life on a daily basis. We're a lot better off than when we first started. For one thing, we're more of a team now. I mean… having only seven other people on whom your survival depends tends to make you want to be very close friends with them. There are a lot of hostile beings out there, honestly.

And we've probably come across most of the ones in this area.

"Can you hold these together while I knot this, Tai?" Izzy asked suddenly, fumbling with a coil of rope and the creature's paws.

"Sure." I pushed away from the tree and moved over to help.

I held all the ankles together, and Izzy knotted. He was a lot better at it than I was - not like that was a big surprise. Izzy just had smaller hands than I did - with slender, flexible fingers. He had smaller wrists and arms, too… I watched him tie the rope up, paying more attention to the way his hands moved than the way the knot was forming. He had nice hands.

I don't know why I was so interested in Izzy's hands…

Maybe because they were attached to the rest of him.

The top of my best friend's head was level with my eyebrows by then, and he wasn't a scrawny little kid any more. He'd cut that flaming red hair closer to his head - probably because of the heat around where we lived - and he was… well… I hadn't thought of a word for it yet. Thin? Too plain-sounding. Slender? Too girly. He was Izzy-esque. That was my word for it. Unique.

And my best friend. Only my best friend.

I was staring a bit too long; with a slight cough, I turned away from him. "Guess we'd better get this wrapped up if we plan to make it back in time for Mimi to cook it for us."

Izzy sat back and surveyed his work. "You're probably right," he agreed - not even noticing my stare. Of course, I didn't really expect him to. Who stared at their best friend like that?

Let me rephrase that. What guy stared at their male best friend like that?

Well, there was usually something else that I could distract myself with. "Can you check and see if Sora's in range? She was supposed to report on their progress after an hour, but I'm sure it's been longer than that."

"No problem." Izzy pressed another button on his own ear set - one that was somewhat bigger than mine. "Why don't you get a stick for us to carry that thing with while I do?"

"Yeah, all right." I turned to look around. "Don't be too long."

All eight of us had those ear sets - for keeping in contact with each other. That was one of the first things we learned when we started going on hunting and gathering expeditions. Getting out of contact was dangerous. Izzy's ear set had more features than ours, but that was because he was the only one who knew how to use those extra features. That meant that, since I was the "leader" and needed to keep track of everyone, Izzy generally went with me on my little adventures.

Not that I was complaining… not really.

My ear set buzzed to life just as I was picking up what looked like a strong enough stick to carry our supper with. "Blade? This is Ivy. Are you there?"

I pressed the lock that released the mouthpiece. "Yeah, go ahead."

"Claw and Angel have made it back," she said. "They caught a few small things, and found a patch of those funny rocks. Did you have any luck?"

"We got one of the big things with the cat feet," I replied. "It should feed us for a couple of nights anyway. Did they bring any rocks back with them? I think Tech said he was running low, and we didn't find any out here."

"There's lots now!" I could hear her giggle right in my ear. Mimi somehow could always find a reason to either laugh or complain. "Make sure you don't drag that thing in the dirt," she ordered me. "I can make new outfits for Angel and Claw with the skin. They grow too fast!"

"Yeah, well, they'll get over it." I smiled a little. "We went through the same thing, and we came out okay."

"I guess so," Mimi agreed, with a long-suffering sigh. "Well, the two of you need to hurry home. It's past time for dinner, you know!"

"We'll be there right after we check Tech's nets," I assured her. "Talk to you in a bit, Ivy."

Then I clicked the lock back on, and the mouthpiece slid back into the rest of the set.

We'd gotten a lot better about only using the code names over the radio, I noted, hooking the stick through Izzy's knots. We'd run into trouble before because of that - some aliens had hacked into our signals once and used them to learn our names. Once they'd found those out, they used them to control us. TK and Izzy had been the only two who hadn't been effected - probably because their nicknames aren't as close to their real names as the rest of ours are.

We'd been lucky that time. We weren't taking the chance again.

"I can't get a reading," Izzy said suddenly, taking his hand away from the ear set. He moved over to help me lift the thing off the ground. "Sora must be out of range."

"She's probably in the air, then." I braced my end of the stick against my shoulder. "Did you notice if Matt was in range?"

Izzy nodded, positioning his side on the same shoulder. "He's not."

"Of course not - why would he want to make it easy for us?" I made a face.

"Do I detect sarcasm?" Izzy asked, with an innocent-looking glance over his shoulder at me. "You wouldn't be alluding to the fact that Matt makes your life difficult on purpose, would you?"

I gave him a sour look. "You were never such a smart aleck back when we were on Earth."

"Working with you brings out the best in me."

"Thanks a lot." I took a small revenge in purposefully lowering my gaze even though I knew he couldn't see and probably wouldn't get it even if he could. He looked at least as good from behind as he did from in front.

Unless I somehow sprouted a computer screen on me somewhere, though, I doubted he'd ever think the same half-guilty thoughts about me.

Tech, we called him - and that was what he was. He'd saved our lives indirectly more times than I could probably count over the past six years. He'd fixed up and activated Matt's radar-vision visor, and figured out how Sora's portable wing-set worked. Our base's defense system had been completely revised and refined by him, and we counted on him to keep us alive at night when we were inside it. A thousand and one times we'd been attacked, he'd been the one to keep us from being wiped out or squashed like bugs. Not by playing the hero or saving the day, but by providing us with the weapons and equipment we needed to be heroes.

And the comfortable-fitting pants Mimi had made for him looked really good whenever he happened to bend over.

Not a good thought, Tai… I raised my gaze quickly, and tried to concentrate on carrying that dead animal home. It was definitely a safer subject.

"I'd like to bring the nets down if we didn't catch anything today," Izzy said, breaking me out of my thoughts. "They've been up for long enough. I believe that it's time to relocate them, since they don't seem to be doing much good where they are."

"Yeah," I agreed, as we made our way into the clearing where the first of Izzy's traps had been set up. "I guess the animals must've gotten used to them being there. I don't think there's anything dumb enough to get stuck in them now."

"Uhh… hey, excuse me? You guys down there? Can I get some help here?"

At the sound of that unfamiliar voice, both of us looked up at once.

I don't know what we were expecting to see, but it definitely wasn't what we did see.

Trapped in one of Izzy's carefully-designed nets, and currently wriggling around while giving us a sheepish look, was a boy who looked about fourteen - my sister's age. With golden-toned skin, red-brown hair, and huge liquid brown eyes.

Not to mention a set of reddish cat ears and a huge puffy cat's tail.

I stared. Izzy stared. Neither of us said anything for a moment.

The cat-boy broke the silence first. "Ehe… hi there. Can you get me down, maybe?"

Izzy and I looked at each other.

"I vote that we take him back with us," Izzy said, after another moment of silence.

"Yeah, good idea." I looked back up at the cat-boy. He looked strangely familiar…

"No, that's not a good idea!" The boy grabbed handfuls of the net and peered out at us with big pleading eyes. "Miyako's going to be so mad at me for getting caught… Can't you just let me go and pretend like this never happened? Please?"

"Well, you should've thought of that before you got yourself caught in our net!" I gave him an annoyed look. "We can't just let you go - what if you're a dangerous alien?"

"Huh?" He blinked at me. "Me? Dangerous? Are you kidding? Anyway, you're the aliens! We were here first!"

"I think he's got you there, Tai," Izzy muttered.

I frowned. "Well, if you were here first, how come we've never seen you before this?" I ignored that voice at the back of my head trying to tell me I had seen him…

"Because you weren't supposed to." The little guy actually had the nerve to smirk at us. "We've been watching you ever since you got here, and you never once saw us. We're pretty good at hiding, huh?"

I had to admit, he was either really brave or really stupid. "If you've been here all this time, and you're as friendly as you're trying to make us think you are, why haven't you ever contacted us before this? Huh?"

"That's a very good point," Izzy agreed with me, and looked up at the cat-boy again. "As far as I know, the customary procedure when two peaceful groups cross paths is to open friendly relations as soon as possible. If you've known we were here for the past six years, why haven't you ever attempted to make contact with us."

"Because we weren't sure if we could trust you!" The boy looked desperate. "Look, I'm really, really sorry for messing up your net and getting caught and all. But I can't stay here or Miyako will be mad and then Iori will be mad because I made Miyako mad, and Ken will probably have to rescue me and he's not going to like that."

"So there's four of you?" That might be useful to know. Of course, he could just lie…

The cat-boy nodded emphatically. "Yup. Only four. Nothing to worry about. Can I go now?"

I looked at Izzy again. "What do you think?"

"I think we didn't live this long without being cautious." He gave me a half-smile. "And we probably won't live much longer if we don’t keep it up. I still say we take him back to the base until we can be sure that he poses no possible threat."

"I'm with you," I agreed. "Let's get him down."

Izzy nodded, and went over to where his net was harnessed, getting ready to bring our new catch to the ground.

"Can't we talk this over some more?" the cat-boy moaned, and his ears drooped pitifully. Izzy released the net, and he made a startled noise but managed to land smoothly on his hands and feet, legs curled reflexively under his chest. The net tangled itself all around him.

I couldn't help but grin.

This is going to be interesting.

~~~~~~

Since it was a little too strenuous to have to carry two animals on that stick, Izzy and I were forced to make the cat-boy walk behind us. We used some more of that special rope we'd got from our base, and tied him up - hands behind his back, and a loop around his waist that worked like a leash to keep him behind us.

His fingers, I noticed while he was being tied, looked a lot like human fingers - but they definitely had retractable claws.

I still couldn't remember where I'd seen him before.

"So what's your name, anyway?" I asked, while we walked. There wasn't much point in muttering insults at each other. It wasn't like he'd tried to kill us or anything…

"Daisuke. And I already know yours," he added, ears perking up a little. "Tai and Izzy."

"You must know an awful lot about us," Izzy commented, glancing over his shoulder at our new addition. "Since you've been watching us for six years. You probably know exactly where our base is, and how we hunt. Even how we fight, since you've probably seen the creatures we come across."

Daisuke shrugged. "Sometimes we help, if we can. Hey, and we haven't just seen where the base is…" He grinned at us - a huge, infectious smile. "We've seen inside it, too."

His words brought a forgotten image back out of my memory - a small boy with cat ears and a tail crouching just outside the tunnel leading into the base. That had been before we'd made the door for that tunnel, of course… but…

"Wait a minute! I saw you!" I turned to stare at the cat-boy again. "You were watching us when we first got to the base, weren't you? I thought I was imagining things!"

Daisuke looked embarrassed. "You weren't supposed to see me. I messed up."

"Sorta like the way you just got caught in our net without meaning to?" I offered him another grin. I was actually starting to like this guy… Hopefully, we wouldn't have to kill him.

He scowled, ears falling back. "That was an accident! I knew the net was there…"

"If you say so." I turned forward again, humming to myself.

"I did!" Daisuke made a grumbling noise, sounding a lot like a discontented cat might sound.

I shook my head and kept grinning away.

"Tai!" Kari was waiting for us outside when we got back. She still had her favorite gloves on - the same ones that had earned her the code name 'Claw' - and I could see the fading sunlight glancing off the metal points at her knuckles. She was a tall and slender fourteen year old now, not a gawky little kid.

That didn't mean I had to like it when people noticed, though…

"Your sister's really pretty for a human," Daisuke said, as if reading my thoughts.

I turned and gave him a suspicious glare. "Just what are you thinking about?"

"Hey! Don’t give me that look!" Daisuke put more space between myself and him, eyes going a little wide. "It was just a passing comment! I'm already mated anyway; I'm not interested in her any more."

"Any more?" My eyes narrowed even further.

He bit his lip and gave me an appealing look. "That was a long, long time ago… I'm way over it now."

Kari had already made her way over to us by then. "Hi guys. Looks like you did better than we did this time." She looked past me, and blinked. "What's that?"

I forgot about defending her virtue. "This is Daisuke. He got caught in one of our nets."

Daisuke offered her a weak smile. "Hi?"

Kari had come across much weirder-looking things than Daisuke, so she only looked surprised for about five seconds - then she smiled brightly at him. "Hi! I'm Kari." She looked at the ropes holding him, and gave me a quizzical look. "Is he dangerous or something?"

"We don’t know yet," I told her. "So we're being careful."

"I'm not dangerous!" Daisuke bounced in place a little, anxiously. "I wouldn't hurt anything! Except for maybe some of those little things that taste really good when Iori cooks them just right..." He got a dreamy look on his face, then shook his head furiously. "But that's for food, and we don’t eat humans anyway! Yuck!"

"There are four of them, according to him," Izzy explained to my sister. "They've been here longer than we have, so they know us all quite well. I still haven't managed to get a straight answer on why they've never contacted us before."

"Because we didn't know if we could trust you!" Daisuke blurted out.

Kari shrugged, and gave the cat-boy a reassuring smile. "Well, we're not going to hurt you. But you have to understand, we can't be too careful here." She turned to me again. "Mimi's waiting for you guys. Better go inside and get that thing cleaned."

"Are Matt and Sora back yet?" I asked, following Izzy through the door and pulling Daisuke after us.

Kari came in last and closed the door. "Not yet."

"Damnit!" I muttered, feeling a fresh wave of irritation. "What is he doing? They were supposed to have reported back more than an hour ago!"

"Well, I'll be able to find out where they are as soon as I can get back on the computer," Izzy assured me. "They'd need more than just an afternoon to get out of range on the tracking system here."

"Good. Go ahead and do that, then." I handed Daisuke's rope to Kari. "Put him somewhere where he won't be able to touch anything or get himself free. Joe! TK!" I raised my voice to make myself heard in the next room. "I need you to help me carry and clean this thing; Izzy's going to track down Matt and Sora."

The door to our left slid open, and two boys - one a lanky blond and the other an older boy with thick glasses - came into the main room. "You'd better keep it down, Tai," TK warned me. "Mimi's taking a nap."

Joe had noticed the boy Kari was leading around. "Uhh… what exactly is that?"

"This is Daisuke," Kari told them. "We're not sure if he's dangerous yet."

"I'm not dangerous!" Daisuke protested again.

TK grinned. "He doesn't look dangerous, that's for sure."

Daisuke's ears flattened. "Who asked you?"

TK shrugged, still smiling. It was that placid, even-tempered nature that had earned him the code name 'Angel' - and it definitely seemed to irritate Daisuke. "Just offering my opinion. But if you don’t want my help…"

"Well, looks can be deceiving, TK; you know that." Joe took Izzy's burden from him, leaving the redhead free to head over to his one true love. "Leave that alien alone and help us skin this one."

"I'll let you know when I've located Matt and Sora," Izzy assured us, as we took our supper off into the tunnel area - where all the dirty jobs were done - for the most unpleasant part of the cooking process.

Sometimes, I really envied him.

"You know, this is one thing I'm really not going to miss if we ever get back home," TK commented, giving the dead animal a wry glance. "It almost makes you lose your appetite completely."

"Yeah, but then Mimi cooks it, and you forget all about that," I reminded him.

He grinned at me. "Well, that's one of the things that make it worth living here."

I had to agree with that one.

Most of us had more or less given up on ever getting home - though our official position was that we were still looking for a way. I had never told anyone about what Izzy had said to me and Matt on our first night, and I don't think either of them ever talked about it. Everyone just acted like one day we'd make it back and everything would be okay. When you run across monsters every other week, and you have to hunt down food and watch out for your group members while you're keeping them from eating you, you definitely don't want your mind occupied with something else. Acting like it was all okay might just be avoiding the problem, but as long as it got us through the day…

Well, let's just say I wasn't about to dispute it.

"I've found Matt." Izzy joined us just as we were cleaning up after ourselves. "Sora's in the air, so I couldn't get a lock on her position, but Matt's moving pretty slowly. Keep your ear set on, Tai - I sent out a signal, so he knows to report in as soon as he can."

"Good." I put my knife aside and stood up. "If he doesn't report in about another half hour, I want you to send another signal. If he and Sora are really in trouble, then we'll have to think about taking action."

"Right." He nodded. "Are you guys finished cleaning?"

"Yeah." Joe dipped a cloth into the bucket of water we kept inside for cleaning, and washed off his hands. "I may never be clean again," he commented, wryly. Joe had never been all that happy about anything really messy.

Then again… Joe was our primitive version of a doctor, so an obsession with cleanliness was probably not really out of place. His code name - Medic - was a really obvious one. Matt used to go with 'Mental' instead… that was a few years ago - before Joe mellowed out some.

Matt. Goddamn him. If he were in trouble…

Actually, if he were in trouble, I'd rescue him. If he wasn't in trouble… then I'd kill him. Cheerfully.

"Where is Matt, anyway?" TK asked, following us as we came back into the main area. I took on the job of carrying in the meat Mimi would probably need to make supper with.

Lucky me.

"In the wastelands," Izzy replied, speaking of the dead-looking area beyond the forest. We weren't present when that section had been totaled - but we had come across the aliens who'd done it. Let's just say they were thoroughly nasty. And looking at that grey-tinged dead land was a vivid reminder.

"What's he doing there?" I put my burden aside and leaned over Izzy's shoulder as he sat down at his computer again. The picture on his screen had an indicator for Matt's last recorded position - a short ways outside of the forest.

"I honestly couldn't tell you." Izzy gave me a half-smile. "But I'll be sure to add that function to the program next time I do an upgrade."

"Very funny." His sense of humor is really killer - did I mention that? "I just hope he contacts us soon. About what area was Sora in?"

"Around the same place." Izzy shrugged, leaning back and looking me full in the face. "I think she's scouting for danger while he does something - I don't have any idea of what, though."

I had to move back a bit, trying to be inconspicuous about it. Hormones have to be the single most terrible curse inflicted on mankind. "Well, I'll add that to the list of things I plan to talk to him about when he finally reports," I said wryly, trying to focus on that rather than the smooth lines of my best friend's face. He had the kind of curving lips that really looked like they'd taste -

Bad thoughts, Tai… Bad thoughts. I thought we were working on that.

"I take it we can let Mimi have her beauty sleep until he actually reports," Joe commented.

"Might as well." I sighed. Having my dinner delayed was never a fun experience. "If they're doing something important, we'll feel bad if we don’t wait."

"And what if they're not doing something important?" Kari asked, joining us.

"Then we'll kill them and have more to eat ourselves," I said, with a completely straight face.

"I like the way he thinks," TK said, turning toward Kari.

"You guys actually eat people?" That was Daisuke trying to get into the conversation from across the room.

Right. We probably should question him at some point.

"It's just a joke," Kari assured him, moving toward him again. "What we're trying to get at is that we're mad at them for making us worry."

"Oh." Daisuke shrugged, leaning back into the ropes holding him to one of the shelves again. "I get it… I think."

"Don't worry about it too much," Kari said, with a half smile.

TK sighed. I noticed him staring petulantly over to where Kari was smiling at Daisuke, and shook my head. Daisuke might not be interested in Kari any more, but it didn't look like he was the one I should be worried about.

Izzy jabbed a finger into my side. "I'm sure Kari can take care of herself, Tai," he said, guessing where my thoughts had been.

I frowned at him. "Yeah, but I'm the big brother. That's my job."

He gave me an amused look, but didn't dispute that.

Before I could elaborate on my position, my ear set suddenly crackled to life. "This is Hunter. What's up?"

"It's about time!" I clicked the lock and spoke into the mouth piece. "Where the hell are you, and why haven't you reported back sooner?"

"Don't go anal on me, Blade." His voice was cool - unlike mine. Damn him. "We were checking out something. Wing's already heading your way - she'll let you know what we were doing when she gets there. I'll see you in a bit."

"Wait - don't you sign off on me! Hunter!" Too late. He was gone. I tore off my ear set and muttered some choice phrases under my breath, hoping the blond beside me wouldn't catch them.

TK might not have, but Izzy did. "Problems?"

"They're coming back." I resisted the urge to throw the ear set into a wall, setting it down on the table beside Izzy's computer instead. "Matt didn't tell me anything - he said Sora will explain more when she gets here."

Izzy pushed his chair away from the computer and stood. "Did you want to wait outside for her?"

Thank god for best friends who know you too well. "Hell yeah, let's go!"

"Hey, can I wait outside?" Daisuke tugged at the rope holding him. "I think my friends might be coming, too!"

"Do you even know what 'prisoner' means?" TK asked.

Daisuke laid back his ears and made an angry cat noise.

I don't know exactly why, but that little exchange put me in a much better mood.

"It's not so hot out any more." Izzy leaned back on 'his' rock, and stared up at the sky. "Too bad it's too dangerous to go hunting in the evenings. We wouldn't be half as overheated."

"You noticed that too, huh?" I flopped down with a sigh.

Neither of us mentioned 'home'. That's probably the only thing that saved us from looking like we were in a bad movie. Well… that and the fact that Izzy wasn't female, and our conversation wasn't likely to end in a dramatic kiss with the sunset framing us.

Not that I'd mind that last part…

"I don't think it's possible to not notice."

We waited in silence. I'm not usually good with silence, but I'd spent a few evenings like this with either Matt or Izzy and they had some appeal to them despite the lack of conversation. Sometimes it was just better not to talk.

I stole a glance over at Izzy. He was still staring up at the sky, hands tucked behind his head. Those dark eyes looked so far away. What's he seeing up there? Probably imagining himself calculating distances between the stars or something. Maybe thinking about how far it was to Earth. Thinking about life? Thinking about love? About me?

Yeah, right.

He must have felt my stare, because he turned his head to give me a questioning look. I turned mine away. It didn't matter that he'd just caught me staring, because I doubted he'd ever guess why. Normal guys don't look at other guys like that.

Normal guys can usually stop themselves from having feelings for their best friend.

"There's Sora." Izzy sat up, looking at the familiar form in the sky.

I joined him, pushing those other thoughts aside for the moment. "Sora!"

The girl we called 'Wing' freed one hand from the huge hang-glider she was using and pressed a button on the metal "backpack" they were attached to. She came down for a neat landing and pressed another button to have the wing-like structure pulled back into its shell. Then she looked up and smiled at us.

Sora's hang-glider was actually one of the cooler things we'd found in that base. The device attached to it could release a gust that could have her in the air without having to run off a cliff or something - and she could be brought down the same sort of way. I wasn't all that clear on how it worked, but Sora had gotten pretty good at flying it.

That came in handy fairly often.

"I'm sorry I didn't report sooner, Tai," she said, before I got the chance to demand an explanation. "I've been in the air all afternoon. Matt made an interesting discovery that he wanted to check out. I had to make sure he was safe while he did."

I turned that over in my head a few times, and found nothing worth getting angry over. "All right," I said finally, taking her bait. "What did you guys find?"

"We're not the only ones living underground here," she said, simply.

That got my immediate attention. "You found signs of life?"

"Anything dangerous?" Izzy added.

Sora sat down on one of the rocks near us. Her hair was windblown and her clothes were all out of place from her flight, but she had those sort of healthy good looks that could pull off that sort of appearance and still look pretty. There had been a time when I'd thought I wanted her.

Life would be so much simpler if that were true.

"I don't know all the details just yet," Sora was saying. "We found a tunnel while looking for the rocks with the currents running through them. It was disguised pretty well, but you could tell by looking at it that it's still in use. Anyway, Matt went inside to have a look and - "

"He went inside?" I interrupted. "What if whatever was using that tunnel had still been in there?"

"Well, he does have radar-vision for that sort of thing," Izzy reminded me. "And I should remind you, Tai, that you've already given Matt autonomy whenever he's not in a group with you."

"That's only so someone would be capable of giving orders in case something happened to me." Matt was sort of like my unofficial second-in-command. He was the unofficial leader when I wasn't around - and whenever we had to split up, he took one group and I took the other. But still… "I didn't mean he had the right to just run right into danger without telling anyone!"

"Do I need to point out the hypocrisy in that?" Izzy gave me a pointed look.

"Yeah, maybe I get a little impulsive - okay, a lot impulsive - but at least I tell you guys about it before I go sticking my head into a rat's nest!" I frowned. "He should've reported before he went inside, instead of making us worry like this!"

"I'm sorry, Tai," Sora apologized. "It seemed deserted - and Matt asked me to scout the area to make sure no one was going to come in after him. I should've reported before I did that."

I shook my head. "Just remember for next time. We need to be able to keep track of each other all the time." I let the subject drop - at least until Matt got back. "Did he say what he found in there?"

"Not yet." Sora shook her head. "He told me that you'd signaled him, and we needed to head back. I guess he'll tell us when he gets here."

"Great." I rolled my eyes upward. "Sometimes I think that guy keeps secrets just for the fun of it."

Izzy gave Sora a knowing smile. "He's just angry because Matt found this place before he could."

"I am not!" I refused to admit to that - even if it was true. I would've liked to be the first one to explore that tunnel… After Matt reported on it, I wasn't likely to get the chance at all.

Damn that bastard. He shouldn't be allowed to get ahead of me.

"He should be here in a few minutes," Sora assured me. "I wasn't that far ahead of him. I think he might just have slowed down so I could give you the basics and he wouldn't have to go through them."

That did sound like Matt. I sighed impatiently. "Well, I hope he gets here soon."

"Is now soon enough for you?"

I glanced up, somehow not surprised. Matt loved to make an entrance - particularly an unexpected one - but the novelty wore off after the first hundred or so times. "What's the story on the tunnel?" I asked him, not bothering with the lecture. It could wait.

He shrugged, pulling his visor off. "It's a home - or a base, like ours. I didn't get too far because they had a door like ours too, and I couldn't get through it. But I spent a lot of time looking around, and there were a whole lot of tunnels going off in all sorts of directions. I get the feeling they have a bunch more hidden around here."

"You guys are just full of good news, aren't you?" I gave the blond a wry look. Matt was taller than me - older, too, by a whole four months - and he had an air about him, just like his brother. The difference was that TK was calm and approachable. Matt was just plain cool - he was the only person I could think of who could pull off that kind of attitude and make it look totally natural. Even his appearance matched that pattern. Spiky blond hair… icy blue eyes… And if you considered Izzy's complexion pale, well, Matt's looked like it belonged to someone who'd been trapped in a tower and not allowed to see the sun for ten or fifteen years.

I had no idea how he kept it that way. And I wasn't about to ask.

"I didn't hear you ask for good news." He offered a sardonic smile. "If it makes you feel any better, from what I saw of their living quarters, there couldn't be much more than three or four of them."

Three or four… That sounded familiar. "How long would you say they've been here?"

Matt shrugged. "They looked pretty settled in, if that's what you mean."

Izzy had caught on my meaning. "It seems to match what Daisuke's told us," he said, looking thoughtful. "I suppose if they live underground as well, it would explain why we've never come across them before this. It would also explain how they manage to observe us without being seen."

Sora and Matt were both giving him weird looks. "Who are you talking about?" Matt asked, raising an eyebrow.

I grinned, feeling better already. "You're not the only one who made a discovery."

Izzy looked up at our wayward teammates again. "Maybe you'd better come inside."

~~~~~~

"Where did you find this?" Matt had both eyebrows raised as he took in Daisuke's tail and ears. "Batting around a ball of yarn?"

The cat-boy bristled at that. "Hey! Was that an insult?"

"He got trapped in one of our nets," Izzy explained. "He says his name is Daisuke and he's not dangerous. Supposedly, there are three others like him out there."

"Not exactly like me." Daisuke's ears perked up again. "I mean… whoa, that'd be weird if we all looked the same. We're as different from each other as you guys are."

Matt and I exchanged glances. I held up my sun-browned arm to study it, then looked over at his almost-white skin. "I don't think we can expect any Daisuke-clones to drop in on us then."

"I think we can expect major differences in hair, at least," he replied.

I grinned, tugging at the unruly brown mop sitting on top of my head. "At least my hair doesn't look like I spent five hours in front of a mirror re-arranging it."

Matt shrugged. He was could be incredibly vain, and we all knew it - so he never denied it. "You might want to try it some time," he said, instead.

"I don't think this is really getting us anywhere," Izzy commented, and turned back to Daisuke again. "What we'd like to know right now is whether or not those caves Matt and Sora discovered belong to you and your friends. They told us already that there was definitely someone living there."

Daisuke's eyes went wide. "You found our caves? But Iori's supposed to be watching the entrances! You shouldn't have been able to find anything that made it look like we lived there!"

Matt shook his head. "I didn't see anyone, and there was plenty of evidence that people lived there. Maybe we're talking about different caves after all."

Daisuke shook his head firmly, suddenly looking very serious. "If there were other caves around, we would know about them. Ken and I spent months searching - we covered everything." He frowned. "They must have abandoned them while I was gone…"

Izzy leaned forward. "Were you planning to abandon them?"

"Well… sort of." Daisuke scratched his head, his expression turning a bit nervous. "We're - well - we're kind of in trouble. It just took a really long time to catch up to us."

That didn't sound good… "Is this something we should be worried about?"

"Maybe." He didn't sound too sure. "Ken knows more about it than I do. He's really smart." Then he seemed to brighten. "But I bring in the most food!"

Matt rolled his eyes upward. "I think Izzy had it right - this really isn't getting us anywhere."

"Maybe we should just eat." I turned to look at the brown-haired girl currently ordering Joe around as she got our dinner ready. "Kari, you told Mimi to make enough for Daisuke too, right?"

"Of course - right after she finished suggesting all kinds of ways to dress him up 'nice'."

Daisuke's ears drooped at that.

Supper turned out fantastic - as usual. Mimi was a terrific cook, even if she did tend to be tyrannical when it came to preparing the food. That was one area where she made a much better leader than I ever would - if I were the sort of leader who terrified everyone into submission with threats of adding various unnecessary bows to their clothing.

At any rate, no one really minded being ordered around, and we all went to bed full and happy.

Another unusual day - go figure. I stared at the ceiling, feeling tired but not really ready to drift off just yet. In the improvised mattress next to mine, Izzy was on his side facing me - and on my other side was Joe, face down with his head turned away from me. Matt and TK slept across from us, both quiet except for the deep breathing that meant they were fast asleep.

I was the only one who snored. At least, so I'd been told.

Daisuke didn't really seem dangerous… My eyelids drooped a little. Maybe he's telling the truth. Maybe we can trust him - and his friends, too.

So maybe we could try and help them with that trouble they were in.

Tomorrow…

My eyes drifted shut, and I felt myself sinking into a comfortable sleep.

That was when the alarm system Izzy had set up to let us know when someone came into our base at night let out a loud, horrible sounding screaming noise - and didn't stop.

I sat bolt upright. "Hey!"

"Aaaa… wha….?" Joe sat up in alarm, looking around with sleep-dampened panic.

"What's going on?" TK pushed himself up on his elbows, still looking a little confused. He was quite a deep sleeper. Beside him, Matt had sat up, reaching for his visor instinctively.

"The alarm system!" Izzy seemed to recover fastest, pushing aside his blankets and getting to his feet. He stumbled for a few steps, but made his way to the door. "Someone's in the base!"

"Don’t go alone!" I jumped up after him, snatching up my sword. "It could be dangerous!"

"Well, hurry up, then!"

The five of us piled out into the main room - in time to meet the girls, who were coming out of their room at about the same time.

"What's going on, Tai?" Kari shouted, over the still-blaring alarm. She had one glove on, and was in the process of pulling on the second.

"Is it an alien?" Mimi was clutching a small dagger, and clinging to Sora, who held two more.

"I don't know!" I quickly scanned the room - empty. "Izzy, turn the alarm off! I can't hear a thing!"

"Right." He hurried over to the computer.

My eyes fell on Daisuke, who was staring around with wild eyes. "This isn't something you did, is it?" I asked loudly, jogging across the room to get to him. "That alarm says someone broke into here, but there's no one here - did you mess it up somehow?"

"How could I? I don't even know how that thing works! Anyway, I'm tied up!" He pulled on the cord - still secure. "See?"

"Got it!" Izzy called out triumphantly, and the alarm stopped.

I turned back to Daisuke. "Well if you didn't do it, who did?"

"Oh. Sorry about that."

I think we all turned as one to face the owner of that unfamiliar voice. Stepping out of the shadows by the tunnel entrance - which was closed, and looked totally secure - was the dark figure of a boy, maybe about the same age as Daisuke. His hair was dark and smooth-looking, and his skin was that same flawless alabaster that Matt sported.

Unlike Matt, though, this boy had two grey fox ears sticking smoothly up through his hair, and a bushy grey tail trailing behind him.

Total silence greeted his entrance.

He smiled. The expression changed his entire face. He looked like some kind of marble statue work of art type thing; his face and body were almost unnaturally graceful in their construction. I couldn't help but stare.

The fox-boy looked past me to Daisuke. "You have something of mine."

Daisuke smiled weakly. "Uhhh… hi Ken," he said, wiggling his fingers in greeting and trying to paste a cute, appealing look onto his face.

I looked over at my friends, meeting the same baffled expression on each of their faces that I'm sure graced my own. It took me a moment to put my thought into words, but when I did, I think I spoke for all of us.

"Just what exactly is going on here!?"

 

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