Suspended Reality


Part Two


The fox-boy - Ken, according to Daisuke - pointed at our prisoner in response to my question. "That's mine," he said, calmly, a sharp flicker of that bushy grey tail giving away a somewhat more serious attitude about the situation. "Give him back."

I tried to find something remotely intelligent to say in response to that, but all that came out of my mouth was, "Uhhh… this?" I waved my sword at Daisuke so he knew which 'this' I meant.

Real smooth, Tai…

Ken's eyes glinted eerily. "Yes. That happens to be my mate. I'd like him back now."

His mate? Was he kidding? By that point, I probably looked like I was trying to catch flies in my mouth. I blinked rapidly, and tried to form my question in a way that didn't sound totally stupid. "But… you're both…"

"Both guys?" The corners of Ken's mouth edged up. "I don't know why you're so concerned about it," he said shrewdly, and strolled calmly over to Daisuke as I stuttered at him.

How the hell does he know?

"Uh, I don't think he knows yet, Ken," Daisuke said, with an apologetic glance in my direction. He angled his bound wrists so that Ken could untie them for him. "Better not surprise him."

Did they know every detail of my personal life? I think I must've turned eight shades of red by then, and I didn't dare look at Izzy. What if they knew about him, too?

Matt suddenly broke the silence by laughing out loud. "You owe me flying lessons in the near future, Sora!"

"Aw, damn!" She sighed. "Thanks a lot, Tai… All you had to do was like girls, and I'd win a week with the visor!" She ignored the sight of me gaping at the both of them, and turned to Matt again. "How'd you know?"

"It's obvious. I don't know how you didn't see it."

I snapped out of my shock and glared at them both. "Would you stop talking about my personal life as if I'm not even here!"

"Oh, sorry." Matt didn't look very apologetic. "We were just settling a bet."

"I can't believe you two were taking bets on my… preferences!" I had a little trouble choking out the last word, and I'm sure I went beet red again. I spun around to face Ken and Daisuke, trying to cover my embarrassment. "And what's the deal with you two, anyway?"

Ken had finished freeing our prisoner by then; at my words, he looked up from brushing his fingers through Daisuke's hair, while the redhead nuzzled his head against his - mate's - chest, a blissful look on his face. "Excuse me? The deal?" His tail flipped a little, as if to wave off my question as completely ridiculous.

"Yes, the deal!" I was definitely flustered by that point, but I managed to fix the two of them with a glare all the same. "You've known we were here for six years, but this is the first time we've seen you! Why now? Why not before? What's so special about now?"

Daisuke lifted his head again, but didn't move out of Ken's hold. "I think we should tell them," he said, in a serious tone, and looked his mate full in the face. "They're good people - well, for aliens."

"Aliens?" Mimi repeated indignantly.

"They were here first, Mimi. Technically, we are the aliens." Izzy didn't sound like he'd been surprised to hear about me…

Then again, with Izzy it was hard to tell.

"How did you manage to get yourself caught?" Ken asked, instead of answering Daisuke. He wasn't looking at any of the rest of us.

"Well, you said we needed to observe more closely." Daisuke grinned sheepishly. "I observed a little too close."

Ken sighed, shaking his head. "Daisuke… honestly. You're too careless." He rolled his eyes upward, then stopped, seeming to realize that the rest of us were there. "Miyako wanted me to deliver a message - as long as I was here anyway."

Daisuke blinked. "Miyako did?"

I glanced behind me. No one else seemed to be understanding any of this either, so it wasn't just me.

"We've moved out of the caves," Ken said, and smiled wanly at Daisuke. "It was too dangerous to stay. We don't have anywhere to go now, so Miyako sent me to ask your new friends" - at that, he sent a wry look my way - "for help."

I finally recovered the ability to speak. "You want our help?" I assumed Ken's steady gaze was a 'yes' and went on. "Well, in that case, answer my first question and tell us all what the hell is going on!"

"I intend to - just as soon as you calm down a little." Ken raised an eyebrow at me. "You seem… overly frustrated." He seemed to put a whole wealth of meaning into that last phrase - and his little half-smirk didn’t detract from that, either.

Matt snickered, and tried to disguise it as a cough.

Sometimes I really hate Matt.

"Would you quit making jokes at my expense here!?"

"Sorry." Ken sounded about as sorry as Matt had sounded earlier. "Maybe we should talk about this more tomorrow. It would be easier with Miyako and Iori present, and you" - at that, he gave me a pointed look - "seem to be much less civil when you're lacking sleep."

I had to - grudgingly - admit that was true. But still… "You'd better tell us now," I said, not willing to buy it so easy. "How are we supposed to know you won't strangle us in our sleep? Huh?"

Ken sighed. "I've already demonstrated that I can get in and out of your base at will - and anyway, if we were going to kill you, wouldn't we have done it already? You've been here for six years."

"Well, we don't have any proof that you've been here that whole time," Sora pointed out. "Since you never did make contact with us."

"That's not exactly true," I admitted, reluctantly. "I caught sight of Daisuke when we first got here - right after I found my sword. I thought I was imagining things, or else I would've told you guys about it earlier."

"I'm more inclined to believe their story than to disbelieve it," Izzy said, in a reasonable tone. "Since they have been here for six years, and they haven't once made an attempt to harm us, it doesn't seem likely that they'd start now."

"I have an idea," Joe added, pushing up the glasses he'd set back on his face as we'd all run out of the room. "Why don’t we set up the alarm and lock our doors, and all of us can get a little sleep. I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't even think straight right now."

"I'm still sleepy," Mimi agreed, petulantly.

"It seems to be a safe bet, Tai," Izzy said, looking straight at me. "The alarm is set to go off whenever any of the doors are opened. If either of these two tries to come into our rooms, we're all going to know about it as soon as it happens."

I frowned. It sounded good, but… "What about all of our stuff? And the computer…"

"Tai, the shelves all have sensors on them. As soon as one of our guests even tries to touch the computer or our stuff, the rest of us are going to be awake and ready to deal with them."

"Guests. I like that." Daisuke squirmed until he was backwards in Ken's arms, facing us, and stretched expansively, butting his head into a comfortable position under his mate's chin. "Better than 'prisoner'."

Kari walked over beside me, and touched my arm. "I know I'll definitely be able to handle this better in the morning," she said.

"It's a lot to take… take… in." TK's addition was cut off by a wide yawn.

I threw my hands in the air. "Fine. Whatever." No point in arguing; everyone was already against me anyway. "Back to sleep, everyone; Izzy, set the alarm."

"Good as done." The redhead hurried back to the computer.

"I thought we were going to have to stand there all night," Joe grumbled to Matt, as everyone separated to go back into their rooms.

"Not so loud," Matt muttered back. "You'll give him ideas."

I ignored that, and turned back to look at Daisuke and Ken. "No - mating - in our base," I said, covering the fact that my cheeks were getting hot again by glaring. "We have to live in this place, you know. If I hear anything going on out here other than you two sleeping soundly…" I let that threat trail off.

"Sure, Tai!" Daisuke promised me, smiling happily as Ken nuzzled at his neck. "We'll be good."

Somehow, that didn't inspire much trust in me.

"The alarm's set!" Izzy warned me, before I could say anything else. "Come on, Tai - let's get back into our room before it activates itself."

I followed him, tossing another warning look over my shoulder. The two behind me didn't even seem to notice.

Great. We have a pair of horny half-human aliens in the middle of our living space!

"So what do you think?" Matt asked the question as soon as the door shut behind Izzy and me. "Do we trust them?"

"I think we should," TK said, earnestly. "Kari and I were talking to Daisuke a lot today; he's too nice to want to kill us."

"And Ken didn't attack us," Joe put in sensibly. "Even though he had plenty of reason to. We did kidnap his boyfriend, after all."

"I think he said 'mate'," I corrected him. "They might not recognize 'boyfriend'. Let's not be offensive without meaning to be."

Matt snorted. "You think we should be offensive on purpose?"

"If we assume they're acting in a logical manner, so far everything points to the fact that they're friendly," Izzy said thoughtfully, ignoring Matt's comment. "I believe we should be cautious, but I couldn't in good conscience suggest refusing to help them if they might actually be in danger."

"What he said," I agreed, nodding. "We should wait until after we've met the other two before we go making promises, though - and we'll need to talk to the girls. They might have thought of some problems we missed."

TK stifled a yawn. "Well, since that's all settled, can we try and get some sleep?"

"Yeah." I sat back down on my mattress, watching the others get ready for bed. I'd just thought of something… "Hey. What Ken said… you know, about me? You guys…?"

"We're fine with it, Tai," Joe assured me, offering a smile. "No one cares about that sort of thing - do we?"

"You're still the same guy who's kept us alive up until now," TK added, grinning at me before flopping back down. "I don't think we're going to be electing someone new at this point."

"Yeah, I've still got more bets with Sora to win," Matt added, with a wicked grin.

"Thanks a lot," I said sourly. "I can't believe you're using me as a way to get the hang glider!"

"Hey, the bet was Sora's idea." He shrugged. "I just made the comment, and she thought it was worth making it interesting."

"I'm surprised you haven't mentioned this to us already," Izzy said, before I could reply to that one. "I didn't think you would be so afraid of our judgement."

I looked over at him. He was watching me with those familiar dark curious eyes - waiting for a reaction to his words. There was no way I could tell if he even so much as speculated about the rest of my guilty secret. Liking guys in general was one thing. Liking him in particular would probably be something else.

"I wasn't all that sure about it," I admitted truthfully. "I'm still not sure. It's… weird."

"Well, it's not like you've been hitting on us or anything." Matt waved a lazy hand. "We don't care. There are more guys than girls around here anyway - all the more selection, huh, Tai?"

"Yeah, sure." I rolled my eyes and flopped down. "Whatever." What difference did selection make, anyway? Whatever it was making the choices for me had already finished shopping around.

I stayed up late thinking, long after the others had fallen asleep, and stared at Izzy's face until I gave in to the darkness as well. His eyes were closed, the lashes a thin outline against the top of his cheeks, and I couldn't tear my gaze away from the curve of his jaw line.

Life wasn't fair.


"Miyako and Iori will probably be here soon." Daisuke grinned at us, sitting cross-legged on the floor with Ken's protective arm tucked around his waist. He didn't seem to take much notice of it. "If they're not already outside waiting."

"Well, they can just keep waiting for now," Mimi told him firmly, twisting a few knobs on one of the devises Izzy had fixed up for her to cook with. Joe and Sora were on duty as her cooking helpers for the morning. "We're not going anywhere until everyone has had a good breakfast." Then she smiled brightly. "I'll be sure to make enough for them as well, though!"

"They'll like that," Ken murmured. I wasn't sure if he was being serious or not.

I rested my hands on my knees, watching Mimi order around my friends. I'm glad it's not my turn to help. "So are you guys wanting to stay here? Because if so, you'll have to take a turn at that, too." I nodded my head in the direction of the cooking frenzy.

"Does that mean you'll let us stay?" Daisuke's ears pricked up.

"We want to hear your story first," Matt told him. "Tai's speaking hypothetically." He offered a wry smile. "Do you think you can handle it?"

"We'll manage," Ken assured him. Daisuke didn't look quite as confident; he was watching as Mimi bitched at Joe for getting her the wrong spoon.

Having my turn come up less frequently would be a definite plus if they did stay.

Izzy suddenly pushed away from his computer with a sigh, and came over to sit with us, crossing his ankles and resting his hands on his knees the way I had. "Your entrance last night caused a small glitch in our system," he told Ken. "But I seem to have it fixed now. It would be unlikely for you to be able to break in the same way."

Ken shrugged and smiled in response. "It'd also be unlikely that I'd let you take Daisuke prisoner again."

"True enough," Izzy conceded, with a small smile in return.

"You guys should try coming hunting with us," TK suggested, adjusting the vest he used for such trips. The thing could actually glow if he wanted it to, though I wasn't entirely sure how. It had come in handy a few times.

"That'd be fun!" Daisuke agreed, enthusiastically.

"I'll bet we'd work well together," Kari added, smiling at both Ken and Daisuke. "You two have probably had more practice, though."

"It might not be a good idea to go hunting if you're in danger," Matt reminded them. "Isn't the reason you want our help to hide from whatever's trying to kill you? Going out hunting doesn't really count as hiding, you know."

Daisuke looked sheepish. "Oh yeah."

"If we decide to let you stay here, you'll have to remain indoors as much as possible," Izzy added seriously. "But whether or not you'll be staying is still in question." He looked over at me. "The final decision will probably be Tai's."

Up to me again - fantastic. Why couldn't I ever make easy decisions? How come Izzy never came to me with the problem of whether or not he should sleep in his own bed or in mine? That would be an easy decision.

And of course the mattress is really too small for two people, so he'd probably have to sleep pretty much on top of me. Then maybe when the others went to sleep, we -

"Yeah, well don't look now, but I think our final decider just zoned out."

Have I mentioned that there are times when I really dislike Matt?

"I have to think about it if you want me to make a decision, don't I?" Good cover, Tai. I gave the tall blond what I hoped was a careless grin. "Just trust me."

Matt shook his head. "I honestly believe that you uttering those words is one of the scariest things I could think of."

"Well, you're not exactly all that reliable yourself, Mr. 'We'll report back in an hour'," I reminded him.

"Breakfast is ready!" Mimi called out brightly, before Matt could say anything in response. If we wanted to eat, we had learned to come when she called, so everyone got up right away to head over to the food.

I grinned. It was so rare that I won.

"Nice victory, Tai." Izzy patted my shoulder, and offered what I thought was a really cute grin. "Maybe next time you can do it without Mimi's help."

I swiped at him without really meaning to connect. "Aw, be quiet! Like you could do better!"

"I just did, didn't I?" He dodged easily and smiled at me again, heading forward to claim his plate of breakfast.

If I weren't crazily in love with him, he would be suffering for that.

Unfortunately, though, I was, so I shrugged it off and got myself a plate for breakfast. I could get him back secretly by having bad thoughts about him - even when I was trying my hardest not to.

Hormones are really annoying. It always seems like you're the only one who has them.

"That was really good!" Daisuke enthusiastically finished off every last bite of the meal Mimi had given him, and leaned back with a huge smile on his face, making a contented purring sound. "You're an even better cook than Iori!"

Mimi beamed at him.

"Speaking of Iori, he and Miyako are probably here by now," Ken reminded him. He had a cool look on his face, but his tail was almost lashing with impatience. "Shouldn't we go outside and meet them?"

My teammates all turned to look at me.

I really hate when they do that.

"Sure." I shrugged, and got up. Breakfast was over - and there wasn't much point in sitting around thinking about it. "Let's go."

"I hope they've already eaten," Daisuke said cheerfully, getting up to catch up and walk beside me. "That way I get seconds!"

I grinned at him. "Not if I get them first!"

"Does it look to anyone else like they're bonding?" Sora commented innocently.

What was it with everyone turning into wise guys all of a sudden?

There was no one waiting outside when we came up through the front door. Ken immediately slid onto my favorite rock - probably on purpose - and Daisuke joined him. Nobody else bothered to sit down.

"Want me to scout around?" Matt asked me, holding onto his visor but not putting it on just yet.

"No." I shook my head. "There's no point. If they get here and you're gone, we'll just end up having to wait for you too. They said they'd be here; there's no reason they wouldn't show up."

"Unless they ran into trouble," Joe added, pushing his glasses up again.

Leave it to him to come up with a worst-case scenario.

"That's possible." Izzy came up beside me, looking thoughtful. "What do you think we should do if that's the case?"

That was all I needed - more problems to solve. "Why don't we wait for a while and think about that if they really don't show up?"

I could already see Matt rolling his eyes without even turning to look at him, but fortunately, he didn't have time to make a comment. Without any sort of extravagance or show-offing, a short, serious-looking boy who couldn't have been older than eleven or twelve pushed strolled out of the forest and stopped right in front of us. He had large wolf ears, of a darker grey than Ken's, and a furry wolf's tail. I couldn't really see how it worked with his closely cropped brown hair and neat appearance, but somehow it just did.

"Hi," he said, in a quiet voice. "The others probably already told you about me. I'm Iori."

For a moment, we all just kind of stared.

Matt snorted. "That's a new one."

"A new one as compared to what?" A taller girl with long dark hair and golden feline-type ears shoved aside some branches and broke into our conversation. She had a tail that looked more like a lion's than an ordinary cat's, and there was a set of large glasses perched on her nose. "Hey there," she greeted us, with a bit of a smile.

"Let me guess." I pointed at her, with a half grin. "Miyako. Right?"

"Hey, you're good." She patted me on the shoulder in mock congratulations. "It's amazing how well you use the process of elimination to enhance your psychic powers. So now, let me guess - we're here to explain."

"We didn't want to start without you," Daisuke agreed, with a nod.

I figured it wasn't worth my energy to get mad about the dig she got in at my expense. "We're still waiting to hear why you need our help."

"Oh." Miyako sat down on Matt's rock, crossing her legs and getting comfortable. "That's kinda complicated. How much time do you guys have?"

Matt waved a hand generously. "Take as much as you need. We don't have anything better to do with our morning, anyway."

"Well…" She pushed up her glasses and fixed us with a serious look. "Long story short, we are each a kind of… wall. A barrier, sort of."

I glanced around. No one else seemed to understand any better. "Barrier?"

"Oh yeah. Against this really evil thing." Daisuke pulled open the front of his shirt. "The whatever-it-is these marks are holding back."

On his golden-skinned chest, just a short ways below his neckline, was a delicate series of black lines arranged in an odd symbol.

Beside me, Izzy sucked in a sharp breath. "What… What is that?"

Daisuke shrugged, closing his shirt again. "We've always had them, just like we've always been here. Ken says we were made here, and that whatever these marks are holding back was trying to destroy the people that made this place." He waved a hand back toward our base.

Ken nodded. "None of us are really sure what it means, but these marks are like the source of our life… and that barrier Miyako was talking about."

I just blinked at them. Barrier…?

"But it wasn't complete," Iori added, and joined his teammates by the rocks - though he didn't sit down. "There was too much malicious energy to confine with just the four of us. As far as we've been able to tell, a part of whatever they were trying to confine is still out there in some form, and it's gaining access."

"Well, if that's the case, why didn't they just make another one of you?" Sora asked. She looked about as fascinated as I think the rest of us felt. "Were you attacked?"

"I've read through their notes," Ken answered her, sighing. "That's about all we have for information - none of us have the faintest idea how to activate the computer and get into whatever they have on there. And they say that the loss of the energy - our energy - is what keeps this thing incorporeal. It's impossible for it to attack directly."

I frowned, trying to puzzle through this. "So then what happened to your… um, parents?"

Miyako grimaced. "Actually, even though this thing had no real substance, it must still have been able to attack somehow. We're pretty positive that the people who lived here were wiped out before they got a chance to create a fifth barrier holder."

Mimi bit her lip. "How awful!"

"So you're holding onto this thing's evil powers, right?" I was still trying to put together everything they'd told us. The whole story sounded like something out of a book or a movie - but for some reason, I had a strong feeling I could believe it. And Daisuke did have that symbol on his chest… "That means you're probably in danger because he's back and trying to wipe you out - am I right?"

"We weren't sure about it when I left," Daisuke admitted, glancing sideways at the others.

"We're sure now," Ken said, darkly. "Why do you think we abandoned the caves? They're not safe enough."

Matt shook his head, looking skeptical. "There's a lot that doesn't really add up here. If this guy is trying to kill you, why didn't he just do it back when he wiped out everyone at that base? And even if there's a good reason for that, what makes you so sure he's back to finish the job now?"

"I can answer the second one," Miyako said. She slid open a top of her shirt enough to reveal another mark. It resembled the one Daisuke had a great deal, but there were differences - one being the lack of two extra lines at the bottom that had been on Daisuke's.

And another being the fact that it was considerably lighter.

"It's fading," the girl said flatly, not bothering to close the top part of her shirt again. "It started fading a while ago. And Ken's is fading too - just not nearly as much as mine. Daisuke's seems mostly all right, and Iori's is fine - but I'm the oldest, and Ken's next after me."

Even I understood that. "You think that means this thing is breaking free of that barrier?"

"It can't mean anything else," Ken replied. "And we're certain it already knows about our tunnels. We were attacked twice by creatures that have never showed us any sort of violence before, and Iori fainted in the front hallway for no reason just yesterday."

"I felt cold," Iori said, quietly.

I gave him a sympathetic look. That was creepy to think about - having some evil thing breathing down your neck without you even knowing about it.

"What about my first question?" Matt asked.

Ken shrugged. "We don't know that. It wasn't in the notes or anything. Maybe it's in your computer somewhere."

I glanced over at Izzy, expecting a comment. He didn't give one, though… He was actually staring intently at Miyako, as if trying to puzzle through something.

At least… I hoped that was what he was doing… Irrationally - considering the importance of this discussion we were having - I felt a surge of jealousy. Why was he staring at her?

"Tai?" Sora's voice got my attention. She was watching me closely. "We've heard their story. You have to make a decision now. Are we going to help them?"

I glanced around quickly. The others were all turning to look at me again as well. It wasn't the first time I'd been put in this position - and it probably wouldn't be the last, unless Armageddon struck later that day. "Let's put this to a vote," I said, crossing my arms. "Everyone who likes evil things with bad attitude, raise your hand."

Not surprisingly, I only got strange looks for that one. "Now everyone who likes Daisuke."

That was more successful.

"Majority rules. Looks like they're staying."

"All right!" Daisuke cheered, and beamed at his friends.

Matt shook his head. "Tai, normally I think you lost your brain somewhere in your hair, but moments like these convince me there's really something working up there." He grinned at me. "Nice work."

"Thanks," I said, "I think. I guess we can all go back inside now - especially these guys. If we're going to protect them, this is probably the best place to keep them."

"For now," Kari added. "After all, that thing knows where this place is."

"We'll worry about that later on." I let everyone else file in ahead of me. "Right now, we need to talk about defense. And possibly offense, too. I think we want to get this evil whatsit out of the way for good."

"Me too!" Daisuke agreed enthusiastically, flashing another grin at me.

"Let's just think about keeping us all alive, okay?" Joe pushed his glasses up and shot me another wry look. "That's the only thing I'm worried about."

"We'll be safer once we've gotten rid of that thing," I reminded him. "As long as it's still out there, Daisuke and the others are in danger - and probably us too, since we're helping them."

"Maybe we can find something on the computer," Matt suggested, glancing back at Izzy.

No response. The redhead looked a million miles away.

"Hey, Izzy." I poked him in the side.

He started, and blinked at me. "Huh? What is it?"

"You were staring off into space," I told him. "Matt wanted to know if you could find something on the computer that could help these guys. What do you think?"

"I - Maybe…" Izzy's eyes grew distant again. "I just… yeah. Maybe."

I frowned. "Are you feeling all right? You seem kinda off."

"I'm fine, Tai." He smiled at me. My stomach immediately decided that this was cause for some excitement. "I'm just thinking, that's all."

"Yeah?" What a surprise that was. "What about?"

"Well…" He wandered past me to the computer, still looking thoughtful. "There was something on here that I found rather curious. Most of the information and systems are protected by passwords or encrypting. However, this one right here…" He sat down and typed in a long stream of letters and symbols.

The screen immediately went black, and something like a CD drive slid out from the end of the keyboard facing Izzy. It looked like a touch pad, but with half a design drawn onto it already.

The top half of Daisuke's and Miyako's symbol.

"I've never been able to figure out exactly how this works," Izzy confessed. "But I now believe that what is needed is to complete the symbol properly. Miyako, you said you were the oldest?"

"That's right." She stepped forward again, looking interested.

"In that case, it's more likely that your symbol will be the key." He traced out the lines that had decorated her chest onto the pad with the tip of his finger, carefully. "All others came afterwards - and the program would have been created before they were."

I watched him finish, a little bemused. "You've got a pretty good memory if you know how that symbol looks just from seeing it a couple times."

"That's my job here, isn't it?" Izzy said it just the slightest bit defensively. "I handle information and details. It's part of what you need me around for." He pushed the pad back into the computer and we all waited to see what came up on the screen.

The deep blue flickered, and then gave way to black. A long series of what looked like meaningless symbols in white came up.

I stared at it. "Is that a good sign?"

"An excellent sign," Izzy replied cheerfully, eyes moving quickly over the screen. "I'm familiar with this sort of encrypting now - just give me a little while, and I'll have the program up and running."

"Great. In that case, we'll leave it all to you." I turned back toward our new group members. "You guys know you're going to have to sleep out here in the main room after we set the alarm at night, right? We're willing to trust you on this, but not enough to put our lives in immediate dangers."

Miyako nodded. "We understand. We'll be fine in here."

"I'm sure we have some extra blankets," Mimi suggested. "I'll go have a look!" She darted back to the girls' room.

"That means no more mating in the base for you two," I commented casually, glancing sideways at Daisuke and Ken to see their reaction.

Daisuke blinked. "How'd you know about that?"

"You did!" I swung around and pointed an accusing finger at the two of them. "I thought I told you no mating in this base! I can't believe you went and did it anyway!"

Daisuke's ears dropped. Ken shrugged, and his tail swished as if to dismissive me completely.

I made a frustrated noise. "You two are impossible! Thank god we've got your friends here for tonight… No more privacy!"

"They won't be doing anything with me in here," Iori assured me, in a dry tone. "I don't know about Miyako… she's got a voyeuristic streak in her, I think."

The girl shrugged innocently. "I just don't want to interfere with young love."

We've got a pair of horny half-humans, and we've got a girl who appreciates live-action gay porn… I sighed. This is going to be interesting, anyway.

At least Iori seemed more or less sane.

"So what happened to you guys after everyone else at the base was wiped out?" Kari asked curiously. "Were you here, or somewhere else?"

"I don't remember much." Miyako grimaced. "I think Iori was just a baby. I remember we had to feed him milk from some of the wild animals around here. We were all pretty young ourselves, but we managed somehow."

"That would've been hard," TK commented sympathetically. "Harder than what we had to go through. But how come you guys moved out of the base here?"

"We weren't really living here," Ken answered him, standing behind Daisuke with his hands around the redhead's waist. "We already had our other home - I'm not sure why. We were just brought here every now and then."

"I'd be thankful if I were you," Matt said. "That's probably the only reason you're still alive."

I shook my head. "Thanks a lot for the cheery thought."

"No charge."

"How about you guys?" Iori asked, his serious green eyes studying us. "You've only been here for six years… Isn't there a place where you came from originally?"

I exchanged glances with Matt. "Yeah… Earth."

"We were supposed to be up in space, in suspended animation," TK added. "But something went wrong, and we wound up here instead."

"Suspended animation?" Daisuke frowned, as if trying to puzzle out the meaning of that.

"It's when you're kept alive, but sort of frozen," Kari explained. "So you don't age or die or anything. We were up there in space while they tried to fix our natural resources so that our world would be okay to live on again."

"I get it… I think." Daisuke's face screwed up a little as he thought about it.

"It's sort of complicated." I avoided the subject of trying to get back home, and our parents. "But hey, we're doing okay while we're here. So far we haven't been eaten or anything."

"A lot of that is really more luck than anything, though," Sora added, with a bit of a smile.

"Not totally," I protested. "We make a pretty good team."

"We know," Miyako agreed. "We've been watching you, remember? There were times when we were really impressed. Daisuke especially - he really wanted to meet you guys."

"Except Ken said it might not be safe," Daisuke complained.

"Well, we had to be careful." Ken looked at us with that unreadable blue-violet gaze. "And there was no reason to contact you. Why take unnecessary risks?"

"You don’t have to tell me that." I grinned. "We even tied Daisuke up, and he's as friendly as they come."

"That's me. Mr. Loveable." Daisuke beamed.

Miyako rolled her eyes upward. "Whatever you say."

"I think I've got something!" Izzy called to us, leaning back in his computer chair. When we turned to look, the screen had a series of images and symbols that I didn't really understand. I still hadn't learned how to read those inverted characters, either. "I've found the data they recorded on the project to seal up this power."

"So?" I leaned over his seat. "What does it say?"

"It says… this thing - Chaos, they called it - came a few years before the project was started." Izzy's eyes were busy; he was still reading even as he spoke. "They don't know where it came from or what it was, but the more it killed here, the more powerful it grew. The project was an attempt to seal its powers away - and finally its presence as well."

"So that's why they created us?" Miyako peered at the screen with interest.

"Exactly." Izzy nodded. "What it says is that life forms were made using the energy of that power. That's how you were given life in the first place. The symbols were to protect you - so that this thing couldn't get its hands on you guys to reclaim its power."

"Okay, now I'm confused…" Daisuke opened his shirt again to look down at the symbol. "I thought these things were supposed to lock away that Chaos thing's power."

Izzy shook his head. "Your existence locks away his power, because you're using it to stay alive. The symbols provide you with protection against that."

"That could be a problem, considering they're fading now," Miyako commented wryly. "What else does it say?"

"Well, Iori was right in assuming it wasn't complete," Izzy answered, typing a few more commands. Different images and symbols flashed on the screen. "They needed a fifth as well. The problem was that once they'd created four barrier markers, the only thing left of Chaos was its presence. Not even a physical form remained, but it could still be dangerous. There wasn't any energy to support it, so they couldn't create another life form to hold the fifth barrier."

"Back up a bit," I told him. "What do you mean when you say this thing can still be dangerous? If it didn't even have a physical form and all its power was locked away, what could it possibly do?"

Izzy grimaced. "Well, those records are incomplete - because while they were still creating Iori, this thing attacked them. It looks as though it was able to take over the body of another living creature - with some effort."

I sucked in a breath. That possibility wasn’t too good…

"Go back to the fifth barrier holder," Miyako said, not letting me voice that thought just yet. "Did they figure out what needed to be done?"

"I think so." Izzy went through the text rapidly. "I believe they were developing a possible solution, but there's no information on it here. I'll have to go through their records more thoroughly before I can say for sure."

"If you can find it, we might be able to seal this thing up for good," Iori noted, the first traces of excitement evident in his even-toned voice.

"I hope we can do it without any confrontations," Joe added.

"Well, there's something we need to do before any of this goes any further," I said firmly, drawing everyone's attention to me. "Izzy just mentioned that this thing can take over the body of another life form. How do we know it's not in one of us right now?"

Matt frowned. "That's a really good point, Tai. How are we going to find out?"

"Remember what we talked about after we beat those guys with the radio stuff?" I crossed my arms over my chest. "It's time for a little question and answer."

Our 'question and answer' was actually a way of determining if team members were genuine when we spoke on the radio. If I were talking to someone posing as one of us and asked the question, they shouldn't be able to answer properly. We actually had a few questions, but since there'd never been an occasion to use them, the first one would work fine for now.

"Okay," I began, now that I had everyone's attention. "This is how we're gonna do this. I'm going to take each of you into our room one at a time and ask. I'm not giving anyone a chance to improvise if they are possessed."

"Excellent plan." Izzy nodded in approval. "I think we can safely assume that those who aren't a member of the group are protected by the symbols they carry at any rate."

"Exactly." I pointed a finger at random. "TK. You first."

He obediently followed me into the familiar sleeping room, and as soon as the door was closed, I asked the question. "All right. So what's your real name?"

"Takeru Takaishi."

"You're good." I grinned at him. "Get out there and send someone else in, okay?"

"No problem, Tai." He left the room.

No one was possessed, as it turned out. That was definitely a good sign; it might mean that this evil guy hadn't found us yet. So we had a bit of breathing room.

Izzy was the last to be 'tested'. "Koushiro Izumi," he responded immediately, and then straight away threw in a question, "So what's your real name?"

"Huh? Taichi Yagami." I blinked at him. "Why the question?"

He smiled. "Well, someone had to test you, didn't they? What if you were the possessed one?"

That actually hadn't occurred to me. I guess the others wouldn't have known I wasn't, though… "Good thinking, Izzy." No evil guy could match my best friend's thought pattern.

"Let's get back out there," he suggested. "I'd like to go back to trying to find those files on the fifth symbol."

I followed him out. "What if there isn't a fifth symbol yet? We might have to make one ourselves."

"No… I think there is." Izzy bit his lip, looking thoughtful again. "I just have a hunch."

"Well, I hope you're right." I rejoined the rest of the group. "Even though it probably wouldn't be that hard to make - just add another line to Iori's, right?"

"I guess so." He was already back on the computer, not even looking at me any more.

So what else was new?

"I think it's time for those hang gliding lessons." Matt smirked at Sora. "Izzy's probably going to be here for a while, and we've got nothing better to do - right?"

Sora sighed.

I made sure not to laugh at her until they were already outside, with a curious TK and Kari set following after.

"I'll get the bandages ready," Joe said wryly, and went back into our room.

Daisuke broke free of Ken's hold, and ran after them. "I gotta see this!"

Miyako and Iori looked at each other and sighed. "Well, I have to admit I'm curious," Iori admitted, and followed everyone else outside.

I sat down on the blankets Mimi had set up - then flopped onto my back with a sigh. For some reason, I wasn't feeling up to watching Matt learn how to fly. Maybe I was just tired. Making decisions really took a lot out of a guy.

"Don't you want to watch your friend fly?"

I turned my head to look at Ken, who had sat down on the blanket next to me. "Don't you want to keep your death grip on Daisuke?"

"We don't have to be together all the time." His tail flipped once. "Periods of separation make for healthier relationships. We're still independent people, despite being mated."

I made an amused noise. "I knew a lot of people back home who wouldn't have agreed with you."

"Those are the type of people who get sick of each other within a year and spend the rest of their lives making themselves and everyone around them miserable," he answered, leaning back on his elbows and still managing to look graceful while he did it.

I had to grudgingly admit that he was a very good looking fox-boy.

"How do you know about that sort of thing?" I propped myself up a little - probably not looking half as good as Ken while I did - and stared at him. "Aren't you guys born and raised in the wild?"

"Well, we do know something about civilization." He rolled his eyes. "Even when she was younger, Miyako was quite an avid reader - so there's a full bookshelf in our cave. Perhaps we don’t know the same civilization you came from, but I'd imagine there are similarities."

"You're getting relationship help from books?" I don't know why I found that strange. People did it back on Earth all the time. And it wasn't like they had much choice here…

Ken looked away from me. "It's only a hobby of mine, reading those things," he said. "Daisuke and I do what we feel like. If there's something he doesn't like, he'll tell me - and it's the same way with me. It keeps things simple."

"Right. Because everything's that simple, huh?" I frowned. "Wish I was an animal, too."

"You are."

I shot a quick glance his way, suspiciously. It was hard to tell if Ken was making fun of me or not. This time, though, he actually did look serious. "What's that mean?"

"A lot of living things can be classified as 'animal'." He turned those dark blue eyes on me again. "There are differences in the species, but I think you make too much of them. You and I can be called civilized, because we supposedly have more intelligence than those things you guys like to hunt and kill. But at our most basic level, we are still animals, just like them."

"You mean like hunt, kill, eat, drink?" I shook my head. "I know. My teacher used to tell us that when he taught biology. Human beings came from monkeys, I think."

"I'll take your word for that," Ken said wryly. "You forgot one, though. One of the most primitive animal instincts - and one you're having some trouble with, from what I've seen." He looked away from me, very obviously turning his eyes to where Izzy sat typing away at his computer.

I could feel my cheeks heating. "Just what are you implying!?"

"I've seen how you look at him." Ken's voice was quiet; he obviously wasn't planning to reveal my secret. "No animal ever has complete control over those sort of impulses. We react to things like touch, scent, and what we can see. Every species has some sort of mating instinct, or they'd have died out before they even started to exist."

I watched Izzy type away obliviously, feeling very frustrated by the conversation without really knowing why. "If that's the case, why don't I just want to hop in the sack with Mimi or Sora?" I muttered, feeling more bitter about it than I usually did. "It's not like procreation is a possibility with him."

Ken sat up, shrugging. "The greatest minds in the universe probably couldn't tell you. And I won't demean what I feel for Daisuke by calling it an urge or instinct. Obviously that's part of it, but hardly the most important part."

"It's all about love," I agreed, in a bright, fake falsetto. "It gives everyone a happy ending!"

Ken gave me a superior look. "Don't you ever read?"

"Fine." I rolled my eyes. "So it gives some people a happy ending, and some people a really shitty ending. And maybe you're in love with Daisuke, and I'm in love with Izzy. I don't see what's so special about it. I don't even know what I want from him. Not really, anyway."

Ken sighed. "Do you like being around him?"

"Of course I do! He's my best friend!"

"And what about sex? Do you want that?"

I think the nice red shade spreading across my entire face answered that one adequately.

"Touching? Kissing? Falling asleep in each other's arms?"

"Yes! So what?" I sat up too, staring to get annoyed. "Why do you keep asking all these stupid questions?"

Ken sniffed, looking amused. "Well, if you think they're stupid questions, then it seems like you already know what you want from him, don't you?"

I scowled. "Look, wise guy…" I had to pause and think for a moment, trying to work out what I wanted to say in response to that. There weren't too many options.

"There isn't anything special about it," Ken continued, as if I hadn't spoken. "You want to spend your life with someone you really care about, and at the same time you want to sleep with them. Simple as that."

I couldn't help but laugh. "That simple, huh? In that case, why don't I just march across the room, spin Izzy's chair around, and demand that we retire to the bedroom so that I can do him blind?"

Ken smiled at me. "Why don’t you?"

The scariest part of that calm statement was the fact that I think he was actually serious.

"I was kidding!"

Ken gave me a smile that spoke volumes. "Sure you were."

"Why do you have to be so… so perfect all the time?" I turned away from him in frustration, letting my eyes fall on the redhead staring up his computer screen. He was just leaning back, stretching out briefly as he read through whatever was being displayed.

"Why are you so perfect?" I repeated in a quieter voice, resting my chin on my hand.

But I don't think I was talking to Ken any more.