Suspended Reality

 

Part Three

 

"That was great." Matt coolly held out his scraped-up arm for Joe to bandage, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. "I'm going to be an expert with that thing by the end of the week."

Sora sighed again.

"You're going to be in pain by the end of the week," Joe commented dryly.

"That was one of the best wipe-outs I've ever seen!" TK laughed. "I didn't think you had it in you, Matt."

"Yeah, well, I like to be unpredictable."

I grinned. "I'm sorry I missed it, if it was really that good."

"You're going to have to watch with us next time," Kari said, smiling.

Mimi held out one of her herbal drinks. "Here," she said, letting Matt take it with the hand that was not currently being given attention. "It'll help it heal." She smiled brightly. "If you hurt yourself enough, I may have to put you to sleep. I've got a bunch of that stuff made up already."

"I don't think I'll be needing that." The blond downed the whole cup anyway.

"You shoulda seen it, Ken!" Daisuke crowed enthusiastically, flopping down on the blanket beside his mate. "It was great! His flying was okay, but the landing… wow!" He laughed.

Ken smiled back at him fondly. Matt made a face, but didn't look too serious about it.

"I liked the take-off, myself," Iori added, with a slight smile.

"No, the landing was the best," Miyako disputed. "That's the point where he actually managed to hurt himself." She looked up over Izzy's shoulder at the computer screen. "Find anything worth looking at?"

Izzy sighed. "Not really." He leaned back again, pushing away from the keyboard. "They had some more details on the being they called 'Chaos', but not many. They appear to have done an excellent job of hiding whatever further information is stored here. This may take longer than I thought at first."

"Great." I pushed myself up and joined them, feeling irritable because of my earlier conversation with Ken. "At this rate, that thing's going to find out where we are, and we're all going to be killed off before we figure this out."

"Now who's talking negatively?" Joe commented, finishing with Matt's arm. He put the rest of his stuff back into its box, moving aside to let his patient stand up. "Aren't you the one who always reminds us to look on the bright side, Tai?"

"Yeah, well, I've finally got in touch with my inner self," I grumbled, scowling. "And it's telling me that it doesn't like waiting for things when we've got a villain who can take over people's bodies lurking around trying to kill us!"

"Speaking of sides…" Mimi cut into the conversation, a bright, sing-song-y tone to her voice. "I'm on the downwind one of you guys, and I think it's time for us all to have a bath - don't you?"

"Now?" Matt gave her an incredulous look. "I'm as fond of being clean as anyone else here, but is it really a good idea with that thing still out there?"

"We're going to have to go out anyway," I replied, taking Mimi's side. I did feel kind of gross… Maybe cleaning up would help. "We still need to eat - unless you want those emergency rations. I don't think the situation is that serious just yet."

"Sure, Tai." Matt raised an eyebrow at me. "Who was it who was just complaining about villains lurking around trying to kill us?"

"Well, he can't hurt us unless he gets a physical form," I pointed out. "It's not a long way to the pond. We should go in pairs - not in groups and not alone. Everyone else stays here, and we take turns going. Does that make sense to you guys?"

I got nods in return.

From everyone except one person.

"I'm not going to take a bath with someone else there!" Izzy protested.

I blinked at him, startled. "Huh? Why not?"

"I don't want anyone to see me without my clothes," he said, in a flat tone. He wasn't blushing or anything; he just looked… miffed.

"What's the big deal?" Matt raised an eyebrow at him. "It's not like we haven't seen the equipment before."

"The girls won't be around," I added. Honestly, I was a bit surprised. Usually when a group of us trekked down to the pond together, Izzy was immersed in some project - just like he almost always was - and he absent-mindedly waved us off, saying he'd go later, by himself. The idea that he actually had some sort of issue with bathing in a group had never occurred to me. Izzy was usually too practical for that sort of thing.

Then again, it was probably just as well. The idea of being naked in a pond with Izzy was doing strange things to my stomach. Who knew what sort of embarrassment I might cause myself if it actually happened?

"I don't want anyone to see me," Izzy maintained, stubbornly.

I shrugged. "Whoever goes with you won't look, then."

He frowned thoughtfully. "All right… then I want to go with Joe."

"Huh?" I blinked. "Why Joe?"

"Because he actually won't look." Izzy gave both Matt and me a pointed look. "Unlike a certain two who don’t appear to be taking me seriously."

Matt and I exchanged sheepish looks. He knew us too well.

"That's okay with me," Joe agreed, and Izzy gave him a relieved smile.

Lucky bastard.

TK eyed Daisuke and Ken, who were immersed in an impromptu staring contest. "I'll go with Iori," he volunteered, with a wry grin. "Since I can guess who those two want to go with."

"At least they'll get it out of their system," I muttered.

Matt snickered.

"I'll go with Miyako," Kari offered. "So that leaves Mimi and Sora, and Tai and Matt."

"Good enough for me." I shrugged. "Who wants to go first?"

"Well, I intend to take my time," Mimi told us, smiling dreamily. "It always feels so nice to get clean. Maybe Sora and I should go last."

"Forget that idea," I told her. "We're going to be making at least some noise, so we might attract attention. The later you go, the more danger there'll be, so Matt and I will go last - we'd be the best team to lead this thing off on a false trail. And I want everyone to try and be as quick as possible."

"Isn't this a little militant for just a bath?" Sora asked.

"Well, there's no harm in being cautious," Matt said, nodding at me. "I don't want to be smelling everyone's sweat for however long we're stuck in here any more than Mimi does, but there is still an enemy to think about. The quicker we can manage to be, the better off we all are."

"I can be quick if you can," Iori said, glancing at TK. At the blond's quick grin and nod, he added, "We'll go first."

"Then Miyako and Kari should go next," Ken pointed out, as the two of them left the base. "Daisuke and I will follow. That seems to make the most sense."

I had to agree with him there.

TK and Iori made it back about a quarter of an hour later - not like that surprised me. What did surprise me was the way TK's eyebrows were creased inward with something like either thoughtfulness or worry.

"What's the matter?" I asked him - after Miyako and Kari had left for their turn. TK would never put a teammate in danger; if whatever was worrying him could hurt the two of them, he would've mentioned it before they made it out the door.

So I wasn't too concerned.

"It's…" The blond glanced in Iori's direction and frowned, looking torn. "Nothing," he muttered. The expression on the younger boy's face when their eyes met had been something firm.

I wasn't sure I liked the look of that…

"Come here for a minute, Tai." Izzy's voice interrupted that thought. I shrugged off TK's odd behavior for the moment and made my way across the room to stand behind the computer. There were a series of images displayed on the screen.

"What's up?"

"Take a look at this." The redhead pointed to something in the uppermost right corner of the screen. "Does that seem familiar to you at all, Tai?"

I squinted at it. "Uh-huh. That's a sword."

"Not just any sword," Izzy corrected me. "It's your sword. See the markings?"

"Mine?" I stared at it some more. He was right; the markings were the same - even that odd symbol just above the hilt. "What's it doing there?"

"I don't know - but I do intend to find out." He grinned at me - it was easy to see that this whole computer hunt thing thrilled him. "I still have to try and find out more about this Chaos thing… but one thing at a time, right? I thought you might like to know about this, at any rate. It is your sword, after all."

I leaned against the desktop beside him. "Now I'm going to wonder about it, you know."

"I would hate to be the only one." He pushed back from the keyboard a little, tilted his head to the side, and smiled - one of the smiles that made my stomach do flips. "Puzzles are to be shared - at least in my opinion."

"Thanks for the lesson in courtesy." I stared at him for a while, reluctant to leave now that I had an excuse to hang around. For the moment, I was the focus of those huge dark eyes, and I wanted it to stay that way for as long as I could drag it out. "So why don't you want anyone else to go with you to the pond?"

His smile slipped. "I already told you, Tai - I don't want anyone to see me without my clothes."

"How come?" I pressed, not letting him get away with that. "It's not like we're going to laugh and point; you know us better than that, right?"

Izzy sighed. "It makes me uncomfortable," he explained, looking away from me. Still no blush. It didn't seem like something he was embarrassed about at all.

So why was it such a crime for me - us to see him naked?

"Ah, whatever." I backed off. The last thing I wanted was to make him annoyed with me. That happened often enough on its own - no sense setting it off on purpose. "You're a weird guy sometimes, Izzy."

"Take a look at who's talking," he replied, and smiled again.

I love him, my brain decided, without consulting my good sense. I love him and want to carry him away into a castle where we can live happily ever after. Why doesn't it work like that in real life?

"I should get back to work." Izzy stretched out briefly. "I'm sure there's a lot of information I haven't found yet. This system is rather complicated - and I'm sure they've put most of this in as protection against spies."

I bit back a sigh; he'd already turned back toward his first love, ignoring me. "I'll leave that to you. Just let me know if you find anything."

"Of course, Tai." His fingers were busily typing.

What was so enthralling about that damn computer, anyway?

Miyako and Kari came back a short while later - and my sister came to talk to me even as Daisuke and Ken left for their turn. "Miyako's symbol is really light," she said, brows creasing the way TK's had done. "It probably only has a few hours before it's completely gone."

That wasn't good. "We're going to have to try twice as hard to protect her, then," I said. Without her symbol, she'd be at the mercy of that thing if it happened to catch her.

"Yeah." Kari still looked worried. I didn't blame her.

Daisuke and Ken came back with the equally promising news that their symbols were fading as well - not as much as Miyako's, and Ken a bit more than Daisuke, but they were definitely fading.

Not good news.

We pried Izzy away from his computer, and got him to take his turn with Joe next. That, in my opinion, was probably the worst news, but I kept my mouth shut about it. Even if he wouldn't be looking, just knowing that Joe was alone with my love interest while he was free of clothing was enough to agitate me.

I'm not sure if anyone could tell I was worried, but Matt shot a few smirks my way.

That really didn't help.

Izzy came back and immediately went back onto the computer to finish up where he'd left off. Joe didn't seem to be acting concerned or strange. I took that to be a good sign.

Sora and Mimi left for their turn, and I took the time to test everyone who'd already come back, so we could make sure no one was possessed. No one was.

Another good sign.

"I think I’ve found something," Izzy announced, when I’d finished testing Matt. He had stopped typing, and was staring up at his computer screen. "I believe this should help us somewhat."

Miyako peered at the screen from behind him, adjusting her glasses as she did. "This is information about that thing they called ‘Chaos’, isn’t it?"

"That’s right." Izzy nodded. "It’s some of what they’ve managed to catalogue on his abilities. At least, after most of his power had been sealed away. It says here that once Iori had been born – so to speak – he’d been weakened to the point where he could only take a physical presence through one being at a time."

I frowned, looking over his shoulder at the words I couldn’t read. "So, no armies of possessed creatures?"

"Exactly," Izzy confirmed. "But I’d guess that holding him off and then finally being able to finish creating Iori took too much of their strength. From some of what’s in here, they seem to have figured that out and were taking steps to ensure that their work was completed. I just haven’t been able to find anything that can tell me how they planned to do that."

"You’ll find it," Kari assured him.

Matt nodded his agreement. "Does it say anything else? The more we know about this guy, the better our chances will be when we go up against him."

"Hold on a minute." Izzy typed a few more rapid commands, and the computer did his bidding, displaying a new series of words I couldn’t read. "The only other thing it says is that it takes some time to possess a new body – and to leave it. Apparently, if the victim is knocked unconscious, Chaos is trapped in the body until it either revives or dies."

"That’s something I’ll keep in mind." I grinned. "From now on, we try not to kill anything that attacks us. Knocking it out will be ten times more effective."

"At least it’ll slow that thing down some," TK agreed.

Izzy was already typing again. "I’ll tell you about any further progress I make," he promised.

I made a face at his hunched-over back. Progress… right. I had a sinking feeling that even if he and I ever did get together, the main conversation topic would still be his computer.

That was a depressing thought.

About another fifteen minutes after Izzy’s 'progress report', Matt and I were at the pond for our turn - with my sword along for the ride. Matt thought I was being paranoid, but I didn't like to leave it behind. If it turned out that I needed it, then I'd be kicking myself later. And that's only if I was still alive.

It never hurts to be careful, right?

The area was like a cove surrounded by heavy trees. The ground dipped down slightly to a thin strip of sand that outlined the still water being fed by that same stream I’d killed our last meal at. It wasn’t far from our base, and the water was clean. The scenery was pretty nice too: sunlight sneaking in through the trees and playing on the water like magic sparks. There was enough room for a group to sit and just daydream, if you really wanted to. And if anyone happened to feel like a swim… the water was right there.

In any case, there wasn’t time to daydream, and Matt and I weren’t all that fond of spending a lot of time washing anyway. Without time for a good splash war, what fun was a bath? Needless to say, we made good time.

"I wonder what Izzy’s deal is, huh?" I tugged on my pants, glancing over at Matt. He was still toweling himself off with one of our rags. "He didn’t seem embarrassed or anything… Maybe he’s afraid I’ll hit on him."

Trying to make that last bit sound like a joke was actually pretty hard. I don’t know what I’d do if I thought Izzy knew I liked him.

Especially if it freaked him out like that.

Matt shrugged. "Maybe he’s just modest. Not everyone likes to parade around naked – even if it is with people of the same sex." He grinned. "Although the idea of you hitting on someone is pretty scary."

"Very funny." That made me feel better, though; at least there was another explanation that made sense. And Matt's teasing let me know that he thought it was ridiculous that Izzy would be worried about me hitting on him.

"I know." He tugged on his pants, setting the towel aside. "It is, isn't it?"

I pulled my shirt over my head. "Yeah, right. Wanna hurry up?"

"Give me a minute, will you?" He walked across to where he'd tossed his shirt, by a clump of bushes. "I just need to get this - "

That sentence remained forever unfinished, because a small creature with huge teeth and claws like a raccoon jumped out of the bushes and pounced on him.

"Matt!" I jumped forward, not really thinking about it.

He didn't need my help, though… The blond fell backward and landed rolling, grunting on impact - then bent one arm and hit the thing on its side with his fist, knocking it off his chest. The momentum helped him roll sideways, away from it, and he rose in a crouch, eyes wary.

The creature made a noise like something between a snarl and a hiss. Its skin was reptilian, but the face looked like some creepy parody of a raccoon's. A long, thin tongue snaked out between its teeth as it eyed Matt right back, eyes narrow and malevolent.

And intelligent. Aware.

Not good… We'd run into these things before, and they were stupid as stumps! There was no way this thing could be thinking the way its eyes led us to believe it was.

Unless it wasn't really the creature that was attacking us.

"Matt! That's - !"

That was all I had the chance to get out. The thing had only looked at Matt for about five seconds, and then it abruptly lost interest - and turned, faster than I could react, and pounced on me.

"Tai!"

"GAH!" I stumbled back, and had my arms full of rabid reptile-raccoon. Its claws dug into my shirt as I fell, ripping the material and tearing at my skin painfully. I yelled, trying to swat at it the way Matt had done, but the thing had a firm hold, digging one set of claws into my side while the second set tore my shirt to shreds.

"Get… off…!" I dug my heels into the ground and pushed at the thing with my hands, trying to dislodge it. I succeeding in making some very painful gouges in my skin, and didn't manage to move the thing very far. I rolled around, trying to struggle free. It seemed like it was attached to me…

There was a loud THUD, and the thing's head jerked forward, hitting my chest with force. Abruptly, it went limp.

I yanked its claws free and hurled it away from me - throwing more than half of my shirt away with it. My heart was going a hundred miles an hour.

Matt was standing over me, holding my sword in one hand. From the way he was holding it, I think he must've just given the thing a good whack with the hilt. "I don't think I killed it," he said breathlessly, and stalked cautiously over to check the body of our fallen opponent. "No… I just knocked it out."

"Good." I let out a long breath, still feeling kind of dazed but recovering fast. This wasn't the first time I'd been hit with a surprise attack. "Then… it probably won't follow us. At least not for a while."

He looked back over at me, rising from his crouch. "Was that what I think it was?"

"It had to be." I pushed myself to my feet, ignoring the shaky feeling. I was scraped and probably bleeding, and Matt had red scratch marks on his upper body as well - battle wounds from its assault. "These things don’t look at you the way this one did."

Matt handed me my sword, then snatched up his shirt and pulled it over his head. "I think we need to get back," he said, wincing as the material brushed his scrapes. "Right now."

I definitely had to agree with that. Sliding my sword back into its sheath, I tucked them under my arm and headed for the path that would take us back, not looking to see if Matt was following. "Come on!"

I could hear him running after me. Neither of us said anything, though.

Matt chose to stay behind me when we got back to the base - which was probably a smart decision, considering that I was almost ready to try and walk through the door. At that point, I wasn't sure if I was angry, scared, or just strung really tight from that mini battle.

Whatever it was, I stomped into the base as loudly as possible, and left Matt to close the door behind us.

" - section is coded by…" Izzy had been explaining something on the computer to an attentive Miyako, but he broke off as he looked up and caught sight of me, and his eyes went wide. "Tai!" He jumped up from his seat, alarmed. "You're bleeding!"

Immediately, I had the full attention of everyone in the room.

"Oh my god…" Sora stepped forward, breaking the initial silence. "What happened to you?"

Matt stepped up behind me, and tugged at the tattered remains of my shirt. "Let's just say it wasn't the kind of thing you'd normally want trying to rip your clothing off."

That had to be the truest thing I'd ever heard him say.

~~~~~~

"Ow! That hurts, Joe!"

"Well, if you'd hold still, maybe I'll be done sooner." The older boy raised a meaningful eyebrow at me, then went back to cleaning out my cuts. "I'm going to need to bandage this up, too - otherwise you'll run the risk of getting some of these cuts infected."

"Great." I let out a frustrated breath, and tried not to squirm so much. My whole chest felt sore.

"What do you think that thing was after, anyway?" Matt was leaning against the wall near us. He hadn't needed bandages; none of his scrapes actually involved broken skin. "It didn't actually try to kill us."

I nodded in agreement, wincing as Joe hit a particularly painful spot. The others seemed to be finding great amusement in my situation.

I didn't see what was so funny.

"Are you okay, Tai?" Izzy had abandoned his computer for the moment to watch me get patched up. The faintly worried expression on his face negated everyone else's poorly concealed grins all by itself.

"Yeah, I think I'll live." I relaxed a little as Joe finished cleaning and started bandaging. "I've been hurt worse, right?"

"You're a walking accident waiting to be set off, from what I remember," Miyako commented, and Daisuke snickered a little.

I just shrugged. It was probably the truth.

"Do you think it's possible that Chaos was looking to see if either of you had one of our symbols?" Ken asked suddenly. "You mentioned that it attacked Matt first, and then jumped on you and tried to tear your shirt off."

"Maybe it just likes you," Daisuke suggested, grinning.

I made a face at him. "Thanks for the thought. I feel a lot better now because of it."

"No problem."

Izzy was looking thoughtfully at Ken. "That is possible," he agreed slowly, ignoring the exchange between Daisuke and me. "It might have come to the conclusion that one of us is holding the fifth barrier already."

"Well, it knows that Matt and I aren't holding it," I said sourly. "He wasn't wearing a shirt when it attacked, and mine wasn't any good for hiding things by the time that thing got through with it."

"It probably knows where we are now, too," Iori added quietly. "Since it managed to get as far as the pond. If it doesn't know yet, it's only a matter of time before it finds out."

That wasn't exactly a cheery thought.

"Perhaps it's time to set up those sensors I've been developing." Izzy glanced across the room to the shelf where he kept whatever project he was currently working on. "They just need some minor adjustments - which will only take a few minutes - and then they should work fine. I was going to suggest that we put them up after we'd come back from hunting yesterday, but we ran into Daisuke and I completely forgot."

Sora asked the question we were all thinking. "What do they do?"

"They should tell us whenever something is moving within the parameter created by their positions," Izzy explained. "I have three in total, so if we arranged them in a triangular pattern around the base, we'll be able to detect any movement around us."

"I caught about half of that," I admitted, standing up as Joe finished with my bandaging, "but I think I understand. Will it tell us if this Chaos thing is moving? It doesn’t have a physical form, after all…"

"I have no idea," Izzy said, with a rueful smile. "But at least it’ll tell us if anything it’s taken over is approaching. That’s something."

"I guess so." I shrugged. At least this new device didn’t sound like something that would explode. "Do you need to set them up in some special way out there, or can anyone do it?"

Izzy shook his head. "I’ve set them up so that one holds the program, and the other two respond to it," he told me. "So I’ll need to be there to set up that one, but the others just have to be placed in the proper spots."

"Well, how are we going to know where the proper spots are?" Mimi asked him.

"I have a map of the area on my computer," Izzy answered her, absent-mindedly making his way back to the machine. "I’ll be able to figure out where the sensors should be placed before anyone leaves the base. Then we’ll just have to split up and set them out."

"Teams of two?" Matt suggested, before I could open my mouth.

"That makes sense," Sora agreed. "It’ll be safer that way, and we’ll still have two people to stay here with our barrier holders." She smiled at Miyako.

Daisuke’s ears drooped. "You mean I can’t go along?"

I looked away from Izzy, who was already calling up a map on his computer screen, and gave the cat-boy an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Daisuke. We wouldn’t be doing a very good job of protecting you if we let you go running around all the time, would we?"

"I guess not." He still looked disappointed. Even Ken wrapping comforting arms around his shoulders didn’t seem to help.

I debated briefly with myself, then picked up my sword from where I’d set it down earlier. "Why don’t you hang onto this?" I said, holding it out for him. "I’ll take a couple of our knives with me, and Izzy’s got some of those exploding things we discovered by accident. You can use this to keep everyone here safe."

Daisuke’s eyes widened. "You mean it, Tai?" He took the sword, looking awed. "Wow… I always wondered what it would feel like to carry this around." He pulled it out of its sheath for a moment and held it up.

I grinned at him. "Now you’ll know. Let’s just hope you won’t have to use it while I’m gone."

"Yeah." He looked considerably brighter, freeing himself from Ken’s hold briefly so that he could sling the sheath around his shoulder the way I always wore it. "Thanks!"

"No problem. Just don’t hurt yourself with it or anything."

"I think he can manage." Ken smiled at me – a grateful-looking smile. He probably hated it a lot more than I did when Daisuke was unhappy. "If you can, anyone can."

"I can handle it!" Daisuke slid the sword back into the sheath carefully, beaming.

Miyako rolled her eyes upward. Iori just smiled.

"Here’s the area we want the sensors to cover," Izzy announced, and we all moved over to crowd around his computer. He’d drawn a triangle shape on top of the map, with our base in the middle of it. "I’ll zoom in on each point, and you should be able to see where the device will need to be placed."

"Sounds good." I looked around. "I guess I’ll be going with Izzy… Who else wants to get out there?"

"I will," Matt volunteered, not surprisingly.

"I’ll go with you," TK said, nodding at his brother.

"Sora and I can take the other one," Kari suggested. "Joe and Mimi should stay here anyway. We’ll need them if anyone gets hurt, and I’m sure they can take care of the others."

"We’ll be fine, Tai," Mimi assured me.

"All right." I nodded. "Then the rest of you can get your coordinates from Izzy, and we’ll get these things set up – before our friend out there decides to pay us another visit."

"Well said," Sora agreed, and offered a half-smile.

~~~~~~

The sensory equipment Izzy had fixed up for us looked something like a huge, square-shaped bug with four long legs. It had a set of antenna that stuck out the top of it at the front, and the rest of it was almost split into two sections, connected at the middle but clearly separate from each other. The top of the section not holding the antenna was covering a small control panel – which Izzy would be using to set everything up properly.

And it was a lot heavier than anything that small really had a right to be.

"Are we there yet?" I asked irritably. My half of that stupid thing felt like it’d been weighed down with fifty pounds of bricks or something – and I was sweating all over from the exercise combined with the sun. "This thing is heavy."

"Close enough," Izzy’s somewhat strained voice answered, from behind me. "You can set it down."

I did so. "Thank god," I groaned, a little over-dramatically, and flopped down to the ground. The earth was wonderfully cool against my back. It was just too hot out for carrying heavy stuff around.

Izzy slid down beside me. "You’re telling me." He sighed, pushing himself up. "I’ll just get the program ready, and we can set it into the ground as soon as we hear that the others are in position."

"Whatever you say." I sat up as he opened the panel and began fiddling around with the thing. We were in the middle of a cluster of trees, several yards from the path that led to our pond. It looked like any other place in the forest, except for the twisted old grey-colored tree that Izzy had chosen on the map to mark this position.

I pressed a few buttons on my ear-set to get Matt, sliding the mouthpiece out so I could talk. "How are you guys doing over there?"

"We’re just about set up," he reported. "Give us another couple of minutes."

"No problem." I pressed a few more buttons. "Claw? How are you two doing?"

"We just got here." She sounded at least as out of breath as I felt. "Give us a little while, okay, Blade?"

"Sure thing. Let me know when you’re all set up." I closed the mouthpiece again, and turned back to face Izzy. "It’ll be a few minutes."

"Okay." He finished whatever it was he’d been doing and leaned back. "We just have to get this set into the earth properly. The legs should be buried, so its position will remain reasonably constant. Can you help me?"

As if I’d ever say no. "Sure."

We didn’t have to work too hard to push the skinny poles that served to stand up the sensor into the ground. The earth around this area was fairly pliable stuff – perfect for gardening, which Mimi had taken advantage of. We had a little set-up where we grew our own fruits and vegetables – strange though they sometimes looked – on the far side of our base. It more or less looked after itself, but she checked on it whenever she could.

"Done." Izzy wiped his forehead with the back of one hand, smiling at me. I could see the sweat on his skin; it was hot enough to make doing anything uncomfortable, much less trying to push something into the ground.

He looked so good, though… cheeks all flushed from the heat, panting slightly, eyes bright with satisfaction at the accomplishment of our task… I desperately wanted to just lean over and bring our mouths together - taste what it felt like to kiss him. But I couldn’t do that, because we weren’t together, and he wasn’t even gay, and if I tried it he’d freak out completely and never want me near him again.

Why did life have to be so unfair?

"You know, I think it's too hot for this kind of work," Izzy commented, trying to push himself to his feet. He wobbled a little - a sign that he'd been crouching for too long. "I feel like something Mimi's grilled up for dinner."

"Tell me about it." I decided to stay sitting, but leaned back out of my crouch so I could stretch my legs out. "I think I need another bath already."

"Well, hopefully we'll cool down on the walk back." He sat down on the other side of the sensor we'd just planted, his knees bent in front of him. "There's a lot less to carry, after all."

"Thank god."

The ear-set buzzed to life. "We're done, Blade," Sora's voice said into my ear. "Hunter contacted us a few moments ago; he's done too. Is there anything else you need us to do?"

I repeated her question to Izzy.

"When the light in the front starts glowing red, they'll need to flip the switch beside it," he told me. "Get them to tell Matt as well."

I flipped the mouthpiece down, and dutifully told them that. "Let us know about any problems, okay, Wing?" I added.

"Of course. Talk to you in a bit!" Then her voice was gone.

"We're just about done, huh?" I readjusted my ear-set and watched Izzy activate our sensor. "Then we can go back and see if this thing actually works."

"It seems to be fine." Izzy leaned back, watching with satisfaction as the appropriate lights on the machine lit up. "Everything's running perfectly."

I grinned. "At least it didn't explode."

"Well, there is that," he conceded, and stood again. "Come on, Tai. We should start heading back."

I followed him. "Can I ask you something, Izzy?"

"Of course." He slowed to let me catch up with him, even though it wasn't really necessary. "Ask away."

"Am I the reason you don't want anyone seeing you without your clothes?" I blurted it out in a rush. Despite what Matt and I had talked about, it still bothered me. "I mean, because you found out that I'm…" I stopped. "Well, you know."

He turned to look at me, eyes widening in surprise. "Do you honestly think that?"

"I dunno…" I rubbed the back of my neck, feeling kind of embarrassed for asking. It wasn't really my business… but it was driving me crazy, not knowing. "You never said anything before. I just thought, maybe you think I'll be checking you out or something. Guess I'd understand if that weirded you out."

I didn't think the red on his cheeks was from the heat any more. "I… didn't even think of that," he admitted, looking about as embarrassed as I felt. He was still looking at me, not paying attention to the path…

"Hey, watch out!"

Too late. Izzy's foot caught on the stone decorating the trail directly in front of him, and he lost his balance, letting out a startled yell as he toppled forward.

I jumped forward to try to save him from what looked like a first-class nose-dive, and accidentally ended up unbalanced and in his flight path instead. The only thing I managed to do for him was break his fall.

"Owwwww…" The first thing I felt was pain. Those cuts on my chest were still pretty new, and Izzy was not a scrawny little kid any more. It was probably a good thing I'd landed on my back, even if I'd gotten the wind totally knocked out of me in the process.

Then I finished catching my breath, and realized that Izzy's face was about two inches away from mine.

I think the heat from my blush could've cooked dinner for us all on its own.

"Uhhh… sorry?" he apologized, somewhat breathlessly. He wasn't moving - in fact, he'd gone totally still against me.

Against me. My face was suddenly not the only part of my body flushing. "That… that's okay," I stuttered out. This felt suspiciously like one of those dreams that I shouldn't really be having about my best friend.

Except this wasn't a dream. This was real.

And said best friend was really on top of me.

I could feel the shared body heat wherever we were touching; his heart was pounding hard against his chest - and against mine, too. And I could see his eyes up close - slightly clouded, somewhat confused, and staring right back into mine.

No no no… stop thinking. Just push him aside, sit up, and laugh it off. That's the best thing to do…

But this was the boy I'd been in love with ever since I discovered I was gay. I'd spent so much time dreaming about getting him this close. I couldn't push him away. I couldn't… couldn't…

Izzy let out a shaky breath, and braced his hands on the ground beneath me, probably getting ready to push himself up again.

I think my mind blanked out at that point. That hormone-driven voice at the back of my head screamed something about the fact that he was about to get away, and my body responded without thinking, hooking my arms around his waist and rising up just enough to meet his lips in the first kiss I'd ever given anyone.

He went rigid, but I was not in any position to take note of it. His lips were soft and yielding… I'd thought about it so many times - kissing him - but the reality was better than any dream. My fingers were tingling where they pressed against his back, holding him as close to me as I could get him.

I'm kissing Izzy!

That thought was enough to feed whatever lust-generated fog had settled over my brain.

It took me a few seconds to realize that he was kissing back, body suddenly responsive to the hands I couldn't keep from running over his back. He felt incredible! His fingers dug into my shoulders as he parted his lips and returned my kiss with more force than I'd expected even in that guilty section of my brain set aside for fantasies.

Oh god… I groaned into his mouth, clutching at his waist frantically. Izzy…

His back arched, and our lips parted briefly enough for a slight gasp to escape him before they came back together, drawn by some attraction more powerful than gravity. The heat we were generating between the two of us was something delicious - not anything like what I'd been complaining about earlier. And I had Izzy's mouth moving hungrily against mine… Izzy's thighs tensing against my hip as he straddled my lap… If there really was a place called heaven, this had to be the closest we could get to it while still alive.

All mine… I'm never gonna let go…

I slid my fingers around the line of skin between where his shirt was hitched up and where the hemline of his pants was. He felt so good… My hands snaked up his shirt, looking for more contact.

Izzy jerked in my arms, and abruptly pulled back, letting out a startled gasp as he yanked free of my hold and fell back, pushing himself away from me with his hands and feet.

What…?

I felt like I'd just been doused with cold water. All I could do was stare mutely at him, blinking rapidly and feeling more than a little confused.

What just happened!?

Izzy's eyes were wide as he stared at me, breathing heavily and looking about as dazed and confused as I felt. But I was sure there was no trace of that panic he displayed mirrored in mine.

What did I do!?

"Izzy…" I started in a shaky tone, reaching out a hand. "I…" I stopped there. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to do? I'd just kissed him! I'd more than kissed him! And I probably looked like an idiot, sitting there with my arm out like that!

Oh crap! Now I was starting to panic!

He just stared back at me - looking something like a deer caught in a truck's headlights.

My ear-set chose that moment to buzz into life. "Blade!" That was Matt's voice - and he sounded urgent. "I just got a message from Medic - a pretty garbled message - and it didn't sound like he was trying to give me a courtesy call! Where are you?"

I had to take about five or six deep breaths before I could gather enough of my brain together to remember who Medic was. "What did he…?" I didn't have the mouthpiece down. I reached up, hands shaking really badly, and clicked on the lock. "What did he say?" I managed to choke out.

"I couldn't tell! Something about Mimi and some herbal thing - that's all I know. He sounded totally out of it."

Mimi… herbal… I sat up abruptly, startled into full wakefulness by a seemingly random thought. One that sparked a terrible sort of fear at the pit of my stomach.

"Get over to the base," I told Matt abruptly, pushing what I'd just been doing to the back of my mind. If what I thought had happened just happened… "Now!"

Then I turned off the ear-set and pushed myself up. "We have to go," I told a startled-looking Izzy, and started off through the tree, in the most direct path toward the base.

I had a really, really bad feeling…

"What's going on?" The redhead caught up to me a moment later, obviously more concerned about what I'd been talking to Matt about than what I'd just done to freak him out. "What happened?"

"Do you remember Mimi's herbal drink?" I asked, not slowing down. He knew how to keep up with me. "The one that puts people to sleep?"

"Yeah… what about it?"

I hoped I was wrong… I really hoped I was wrong… "Well, what would you do if you were an evil being who took over her body and could get the people you wanted to kidnap to drink it just by giving it to them?"

Izzy let out a low breath. "Oh no…"

"Yeah! Oh no!" I quickened my pace.

Matt was waiting for us outside the base. "The door's jammed!" he told me in an almost angry tone, not bothering with a greeting. "The others are trying to wedge it open - we need Izzy here. Where were you two!?"

"We fell into each other's arms and started making out," I said in a sour tone. He'd never believe that was the truth anyway. I looked over at Izzy; he was already staring at me as if I'd grown a second head. "Get over there and help them," I told him, and stalked after him when he hurried to do what I'd asked.

I had better be wrong…

"Get out of my way," Izzy said coolly, moving through the other three to examine the side of the door. "It's not serious," he reported tensely, and pulled something thin and metal-looking from the bag he'd taken along in case the sensors needed adjusting. "I'll… have this… open… in just… a minute!"

It was closer to twenty seconds.

There was no point in giving any more instructions. I was through the door less than a second after it slid open, leaving everyone else to follow me.

I made it about three steps into the room, and then stopped short.

Lying on the floor, either dead or unconscious, were the bodies of Mimi and Joe. Several overturned cups were on the floor, creating miniature puddles of one of Mimi's herbal drinks.

And the four we'd come to know as the barrier holders were gone.

 

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