Suspended Reality


Part Four


"Damn it!" I made a fist and smashed it into the wall, furious with myself. We'd screwed up… let them down. Daisuke and the others were at the mercy of an evil being bent on killing them, and it was my fault for not anticipating something like this. "We shouldn't have left!"

Izzy looked pale, but he made an attempt to reassure me. "We couldn't have known that - "

"We should've thought of it!" I was in no mood for that, but I tried to pull myself together enough to take some sort of action. "Can someone go see if those two are all right?"

Sora hurried forward without a word.

"What do we do now?" Matt asked me, quietly. From the look in those icy blue eyes, he was at least as furious as I was, but he'd chosen to repress it rather than take it out on the wall. "Go try to find where they've been taken?"

"That's all we can do." I unclenched my fists, with some effort. "And we'd better hurry. We only have until Miyako's symbol fades. After that, we'll be too late to save her."

"They're all right, Tai!" Sora called back to me, still kneeling over Mimi's prone figure. "They're unconscious. I think Joe's under the effect of Mimi's drink, that's all."

I let out a breath. "Good." Even if there was no way to save anyone else, at least we hadn't just lost two of our teammates. I glanced around. Matt's face was still mostly a mix of anger and frustration, but TK and Izzy both looked relieved. And Kari…

I stopped. "Where's Kari?"

TK glanced behind him, then quickly back at me. "She was just here!" His voice sounded more than a little stressed - not that I blamed him.

"Damnit…" I muttered that one under my breath. What a time for her to be wandering off!

From outside, my sister suddenly screamed.

"Kari!" I ran for the door, not noticing if the others followed. I wasn't about to lose my sister to some creep who'd just taken four of my friends!

As it turned out, though, there wasn't any danger. But I think what we found was worse.

Kari was kneeling on the ground when we came around the side of the base, shoulders slumped and with her head down so that her short hair fell over her face. She was shaking and she had both hands up to cover her mouth - as I came closer, I could hear sobbing. My sister was crying.

"Kari…" I knelt beside her, put my hands on her shoulders… and saw what she was crying over.

It was Miyako.

She was dead white. Even her hair was colorless. Her eyes were wide open, but they might as well have belonged to a doll. And her body was limp and unmoving.

Dead. Even without touching her, I knew.

"Oh god…" TK's voice, coming from behind me, sounded sick. "She…"

I pulled my sister to her feet carefully. "Come on, Kari." I was trying to sound comforting, but the way my voice shook didn't help that much. "Let's go inside."

"We can't just leave her out here, can we?" Matt's voice was no less shaky than mine had been.

"You can bring her inside if you want." I didn't let go of my crying sister; she'd buried her face in my shoulder and was trembling violently. "We… We can bury her. After we've saved the others."

"What if we can't save the others?" TK's voice was getting a bit shrill; he purposefully didn't look at Miyako. "We don’t have a lot of time, Tai! What are we going to do?"

"You have to try and stay calm." Izzy's voice was steady, but I could tell from his tone that the sight of the dead girl had shaken him, too. "We can't do anything for them if we get all worked up."

"I don’t want to see them die!" The younger blond looked like he was shaking, too; his eyes were wide and frightened. "Iori - I mean, he's only eleven years old! God, I don’t want to see him die! I don’t want to see Daisuke or Ken die, but Iori's going to die soon! I know he is!"

I stared at him. "What do you mean?"

"His symbol's fading! I mean, badly… more than the others." The words were coming out of him in a rush. "He thinks it's because he's younger and not as strong… we're not sure why, but it faded more in a few hours than Miyako's had over the past few days! I saw it at the pond!"

I took in a breath. This wasn't good… That meant that thing would have a lot more power, and sooner than we expected. And we probably wouldn't be able to save Iori, either… "Let's… let's go back inside. Okay? We can talk about this."

"Can't we save them?" That was Kari. She'd leaned back from my shoulder, looking up at me and trying to wipe away the rest of her tears. Her voice sounded small.

"I…" There wasn't any point in lying. I stared back at her helplessly. "I don't know."

"W-We're going to try." Sora's voice was as wobbly as anyone else's, but she didn't look like she was going to break down. "We'll try and find them with the sensors. They're set up now… Maybe they'll help. Right, Izzy?"

"It's certainly worth a try." Izzy moved past us, back around to the entrance to the base. "I'll start it up right now." I think he was just thankful to have something to occupy his mind with.

I was about ready to start looking for something myself.

Matt patted his brother's shoulder. "TK, let's get back inside. We need to help Mimi and Joe - and hopefully Izzy can find the others."

"Yeah." I steered Kari in the same direction - trying to pretend the world hadn't just dropped out from underneath us.


"Mimi's awake." Sora's voice was subdued. She'd gotten out the blankets and arranged our fallen teammates in more comfortable positions. It probably wouldn't help much, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Miyako had been covered up. None of us really wanted to look at her.

"Ohh…" Mimi sat up slowly, with Sora's help. "My head…" She raised one hand to her forehead.

The rest of us crowded around - with the exception of Izzy, who was still feverishly typing away. The sensors had yielded no results, but he was attempting to find any more information we might use from that database.

"Are you okay?" Sora asked, looking worried.

"My head feels funny…" Mimi swayed a little, then looked up at the rest of us in confusion. "What happened? The last thing I remember is going outside to check my garden… Did I faint?"

"You were attacked." I decided it probably wasn't a good idea to tell her she'd been possessed. "That Chaos guy got Daisuke and the others. Joe got knocked out too, but he'll be okay."

"Oh no!" Mimi tried to push herself up, but she was still too shaky. Her eyes fell on the covered figure at the other end of the room. "Who… who's that?" She'd started to tremble.

Sora rubbed her shoulders comfortingly. "Miyako," she answered softly.

"Is she…?" I think Mimi was expecting the answer; her eyes were huge. When no one said anything, she buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.

I leaned back. Normally I'd tell her to stop crying, but this time, I didn't think it was such a good thing to say. I almost felt like crying myself.

I let them all down…

"I'm so sorry!" Mimi sobbed. Somehow, she'd gotten the same idea I had. "I - I couldn't keep them safe! I'm not good for anything!" She buried her face in Sora's shoulder, crying even harder.

"It's not your fault…" Sora patted her, looking up at us helplessly.

"Mimi, none of us couldn't protected them," Matt pointed out. "You can't let yourself think that way. We couldn't have known what that thing was going to do. I could even think it was my fault for not saying that we shouldn’t leave. But if we're just going to stand around blaming ourselves, we'll never be able to save the others!"

I blinked at him. That… made sense.

How did Matt always seem to know the right thing to say, anyway?

Mimi pulled her head back up slowly, wiping at her face. "You're right… I'm sorry." She pushed herself up again - this time successfully making it to her feet. "What can I do to help?"

"We don't know yet - but Izzy's looking for something on the computer." I stood up as well. "If he doesn't find something soon, the rest of us are going to go scouting." I looked over at Sora. "We're especially going to need you and Matt. You can cover a lot more distance, and he knows those caves underground. Do you think you can handle it?"

She nodded. "Of course we can."

I let out a breath. At least if we couldn't save Miyako… we might still have a chance to save the other three.

"Guys!" Izzy sounded excited; he'd turned around in his chair to face us. "I just found something!" His eyes were bright. "Miyako's not dead!"

We all stared.

I'm pretty sure I spoke for everyone. "Huh?"

"Well… I mean, she is still dead - but she doesn't have to stay that way!" He stabbed a finger up at the screen behind him. "This database I've found tells me that once Chaos is sealed properly, the powers she was keeping would still have to be within her!"

I got the feeling that was good news, but my mind refused to put together how. "What does that mean?"

He didn't even take the opportunity to make a crack about my lack of intelligence. "It means that if we can seal up Chaos for good, then Miyako will get back the powers that keep her alive."

"She'll be alive again?" Kari got up from where she had been sitting silently next to TK, looking hopeful.

"That's right!" Izzy smiled at us - the same smile that always made my heart pound.

Which reminded me… I had another problem to deal with aside from the more immediate one.

Later, I decided silently, and stuffed that off to the back of my brain. "So do you have any idea of how we can seal this thing up?"

"No, but I'll find something." Izzy turned back to the keyboard again, purposefully. "I'm sure it's in here somewhere. Probably something to do with the fifth symbol - I get the feeling that's fairly important."

"Except that it doesn't actually exist," I added, sighing impatiently. "We've got to figure out how to create it first, don't we?"

Izzy's fingers stilled on the keyboard. "Well… maybe not."

I blinked at him. "What do you - ?"

"Hey!" Sora interrupted me. "Joe's awake!"

I spun around - in time to see the dark-haired boy sit up. "Joe! How are you feeling?"

"What happened to you guys?" Matt added.

Joe looked up at us. There was none of the same confusion in his expression that Mimi had shown. He didn't bother to answer either Matt or me, but instead pushed himself to his feet, without any sort of help.

"Joe?" TK stood as well, crossing the room to where Kari had moved.

The older boy's eyes fixed on Mimi and Sora, and he took a step toward them.

Mimi sniffled. "Joe… I'm so sorry about what happened… Sora told me that thing used my herbal drink - I know it's at least partly my fault…" She stepped forward to meet him.

Joe took another step toward them, eyes still oddly free of confusion.

That's when I had another one of those sudden realizations. "Mimi! Watch out!"

"Wha - AH!" The brown-haired girl barely had enough time to avoid the swing her teammate suddenly took at her head, stumbling on still shaky legs and winding up in a heap on the floor. "What's he doing!?" she screamed.

"Sora!" Kari cried. Joe - or whatever was controlling Joe - had taken advantage of everyone's surprise, and grabbed the auburn-haired girl's arm in a grip that I doubt he would've been capable of without help.

"Bastard!" I jumped forward without thinking, vision going almost red with fury. "Let go of her!" I probably would've gone for Joe's throat at that point, I was so angry.

This thing had killed one of my friends!

He ducked under my attack, quicker than Joe could ever have managed, and - still with that blank expression - swung his free hand back and caught me square in the jaw.

"Tai!" That one was Izzy.

I stumbled back, vision blurring a little. I know our resident doctor could never have hit someone that hard.

Matt caught the follow-up punch before I could get my ass thoroughly kicked. At this point, Sora seemed to have gotten over her shock enough to twist around and landed what looked to be a really painful kick to Joe's shin.

I regained enough of my senses to make me useful again, and dove in from the other side.

Joe seemed to abandon his original goal to hold Sora down, and instead grabbed hold of her shirt, ripping it down the front.

Lucky thing Mimi had insisted on bras for the girls.

The brown-haired girl had managed to pull herself up somewhat while we were scuffling - and she wasn't looking ready to scramble to her feet and run away. As Joe took a quick glance at Sora's chest before shoving her aside, the girl on the floor drew her knee up with a really determined look on her face and kicked out hard at his legs.

Joe stumbled, and that gave TK the opportunity to run in from his undefended side and hit him over the head with one of our roughly-constructed wooden chairs.

He toppled forward into my hands like a shelf after I'd tried to attach it to a wall.

"That should teach you not to attack me!" Mimi told him, angrily.

I was still breathing heavy from the fight, but I managed to get out a, "Good work, Mimi, TK," all the same.

Izzy and Kari hurried over to us from behind where TK was standing with the remains of our chair. "Are you guys okay?" Izzy asked, staring at me in concern.

I'll admit that despite the situation, that really did make me feel good.

"We're fine," Matt said, somewhat breathlessly, and glanced at Joe. "But I think he's a little out of it."

"It looks like that's it for the chair, too," Kari said, smiling weakly at TK.

Sora was holding the front of her shirt closed. "Do you think it was looking for the fifth symbol?"

"It had to be," Izzy agreed, also looking at Joe. His expression was a little more worried than I think it had a right to be. "There's no other reason for it to be ripping open yours and Tai's shirts."

I handed Joe over to Mimi, while Sora ran to grab another shirt. "Izzy… what's the matter?"

He avoided my gaze. "I think… we're going to have to leave the base."

"What!?" That wasn't just me. Matt, Mimi, TK, and Kari were all staring at Izzy incredulously - and Sora had stopped short, just coming out of the girls' room.

"What do you mean we have to leave the base?" I demanded. "How are we supposed to find a way to seal up Chaos if we do that?"

"I know! But it's too dangerous to stay here!" Izzy bit his lip. "He knows we're here, and he can take us over at will - maybe even more than one of us at a time, now that he's got Miyako's energy. And no matter what, we can't let him get his hands on that fifth barrier! He'd wipe us out without even thinking twice about it!"

"But there isn't any fifth barrier!" I almost shouted. "Isn't that what we're trying to create here? How's he supposed to get his hands on it if it doesn't even exist?"

Izzy's eyes shut tightly, and took in a deep breath, reaching up with one hand to clutch the front of his shirt.

"Izzy?" This didn't look good… This really didn't look good. "It doesn't exist. Right?"

He opened his eyes again, swallowed hard, and met my gaze, looking like he wanted to be sick. "I'm sorry, Tai…" he murmured.

"What are you talking about, Izzy?" Matt sounded as strained as I felt.

"This is what I'm talking about." Izzy pulled open the front of his shirt - just enough to reveal a symbol exactly like the ones that had decorated the other four barrier holders.

But this one had one more line at the bottom than Iori's had.

All five of us stood there and stared at him for a moment.

Matt broke the silence first. "I thought you said they'd never created a fifth barrier holder," he started, still gazing at the symbol on Izzy's chest as if he wasn't too sure that it was actually there. "When did you get the honor?"

Izzy was definitely avoiding my gaze by then; he pulled his shirt closed, looking over at Matt as he answered the question. "Remember when we first got here, and I got pushed back from the computer? It wasn't just a protection device - it was set up so that the first person to touch that computer became the fifth barrier holder."

That about did it for me. "And just when did you figure this out, anyway!?" I grabbed his shirt with both hands and shook him, feeling angry and afraid and wishing I could shake enough sense into him to reach back in time and make him tell us this earlier. "Six years ago? How long did you plan to go on without telling us that something had happened to you!?"

"Tai!" Kari grabbed my hands, trying to pry me away from Izzy. The redhead wasn't fighting against my grip at all, staring up at me instead with a pale but defiant face.

I brushed my sister aside. "Why didn't you tell us!?" I screamed at my best friend. "You think you could die and we'd just say 'oh well, that's life'!? What were you thinking!?"

"Tai, stop!" Matt snapped at me.

I ignored him, tightening my grip on Izzy's shirt and glaring down at his face. Too many emotions were hitting for me to sort them all out. Anger was easiest, and fear, and shock. Hurt, because he hadn't trusted me with this before. "Why didn't you say anything? Why?" I gave him another shake.

Izzy grabbed my wrists, still giving me that determined expression. "I didn't want to worry you!" he blurted out. "We already had so much to worry about, getting trapped on this world… and it was just a symbol! It wasn't hurting me or anything… I didn't even find out what it meant until after Daisuke and the others showed up! I'd never been able to access that database!"

I felt my grip loosening. It was hard to believe what I was hearing. Izzy had risked himself just so that the rest of us wouldn't worry? "Well, why didn't you tell us after we found Daisuke and the others?" I demanded, trying to hold on to some of that righteous anger. "You knew you were in danger then!"

"What would you have done if I had?" he retorted, glaring right back at me. "Locked me up in here with them? That would've worked out just great, wouldn't it? Then I'd be a prisoner too! And I couldn't let you do that anyway, because you need me out there, Tai! You know that! You can't afford to leave a valuable resource lying around unused just because there's a chance it might be in danger!"

"He has a point," Matt agreed, quietly.

"Shut up!" I let go of Izzy, shoving him back. Everything he'd just said had made sense, but I still hated hearing it. I didn't want to hear about how my best friend had to put his life in danger, and had to keep it from us, and couldn't even trust me enough to - "You," I said, pointing at him, "need to get out of this base. You were right about that. And the rest of us need to leave, too."

"We can lead a false trail," Sora offered, in a soft voice. It was probably the tension that was making everyone try to be so quiet. "Someone should go with Izzy and try to hide out, and the rest of us will thrash around and draw attention to ourselves."

"It works," Matt agreed, glancing at his brother and receiving a nod in return. "We can get Izzy back here tomorrow - after all the danger's been pulled off somewhere else - and he can try to figure out our battle plan."

"And we'll be scouting at the same time," TK added. "Or, at least, Matt and Sora will be. Kari and I will take care of thrashing around."

I firmly shoved aside any and all objections to the plan that were based on wanting my sister and TK kept safe, and glanced at the prone form in Mimi's arms. "Someone's going to need to take care of that guy," I pointed out, forcing my voice to be calm. I barely had any anger left - not in the face of all these reasonable arguments. "He'll probably still be possessed when he wakes up again - he could be dangerous."

"I'll take care of that, Tai," Mimi told me, her eyes determined. "I can defend myself, and I'll be able to delay him for a while, too. We'll run off in a different direction, and by the time he wakes up, he won't have a clue where Izzy might be."

Matt nodded, and turned his gaze on me again. "It makes sense, Tai. You and Izzy are going to need as much of a head start as you can get. The rest of us will do our best to give you that."

I stared at him, the last of my anger drained away quickly to be replaced by shock. "Since when am I the one to take Izzy? I don't even have my sword any more - I gave it to Daisuke, remember? How am I supposed to protect him?"

"Come on, Tai." Kari shook her head at me. "We all know you're the best person to keep him safe. All of us trust you - especially Izzy."

I looked over at my best friend, and he offered a weak smile. "I'd… I'd appreciate it, Tai. Call me irrational, but I feel safer when you're around."

He felt safer… around me? I blinked at him, not quite sure if I trusted my ears on this one. I made Izzy feel safe?

Maybe… I did have a chance. Even if he had pushed me away…

"Okay," I agreed, and returned his smile as best I could.

I may have failed Daisuke and the others… but I was not going to fail Izzy!


"Tai… you don't have to hold onto my wrist, you know. I'm not going to run away."

I tightened my grip and kept moving, dragging Izzy along behind me. "I don't care. I'm not taking any chances - and you're not leaving my sight. Everyone trusts me to keep you safe - and I'm not about to let anyone else down."

"I'm not about to either," he protested. "Even if my own life weren't one of my most immediate concerns, I still wouldn't want Chaos to get all of its powers back and kill everyone on this planet!"

I turned my head a little to glance at him over my shoulder. "Look, Izzy… This whole thing is freaking me out just a little. And while I'm holding onto you, I know for sure that you're right with me. I'm not ready to let go of that just yet. I'm sorry, but you'll have to put up with it until my nerves calm down."

He sighed, but quickened his pace to keep up with me.

We were already a long ways from the base - but in my opinion, the farther we got the better off we were. It was starting to get dark out, and not much sunlight had been filtering in from the top of the trees anyway. The direction we'd chosen had been one that didn't lead out into the wastelands - where there'd be too much open ground for my liking - so we had to put up with less visibility. Izzy had voiced the thought - several times, actually - that it might be a good idea to find some place to hide for the night. I had blankets in the bag I was carrying, and he had food and a light in his, so we weren't going to be hungry, cold, or unable to see. And I know he was tired…

I still didn't want to stop. Neither of us knew what was going on back there. For all we knew, that thing had finished with Mimi, seen through TK and Kari completely, and was on our trail already.

And there was no way I was letting it get its dirty hands on Izzy.

"Tai, if we're tired from walking, we won't be able to put up much of a fight in the case that something happened to find us." He tugged lightly against my grip on his wrist. "We need to find some place to rest for the night."

I reluctantly concluded that he made sense there. "Well… start looking around for a good hiding place," I said, not stopping. "When we find one, we'll stop." That was as much as I was willing to concede.

He knew better than to protest. "I'll start looking."

I figured that would be good for about another half hour.

It turned out to be closer to twenty minutes. "That would be a good place, Tai." Izzy came to a halt, using my grip on his wrist to pull me to a stop as well. He pointed toward a cluster of bushes set against a slight rocky hill.

I raised an eyebrow. "You want to hide in the bushes?"

"Not in the bushes." Izzy shook his head, and pointed with his free hand. "I almost didn't see it myself, but there's a cave behind them. See?"

I looked. He was right. You could barely see the outline of it, but there was definitely a cave there. "Let's check it out first," I said, dubiously. "If it connects to those tunnels that Daisuke told us about, we could have something coming at us from behind."

"That makes sense," Izzy approved. "Let's go, then."

The cave turned out to be just an ordinary one - not the entrance to a tunnel or anything, but big enough to hold the two of us comfortably. And I had to admit, it made a good hiding spot. The bushes should block us from immediate view, and as long as we didn't start too many fires, it would probably be unlikely that anyone would find us.

All in all, I was pleased.

Izzy was clever enough not to make an issue of that. "Do you think it's safe to turn this on while we eat?" he asked me, pulling the strange portable lamp-type thing from the bag he'd just set down. "It's going to be pretty dark in here if we don't have some source of light."

"Go ahead - just make sure it's on low." I set down my own bag and pulled the blankets Mimi had given us out, spreading them on the ground.

He flicked it on to the lowest setting and put it down to one side of the blankets. The light it provided created some eerie shadows in that small space, but at least we could see what we were doing.

"We should eat before I change your bandages," Izzy said, pulling the strip of bandage and the homemade salve that Mimi had given him. "Since we're not likely to want to afterward."

"I don't know… pain always makes me hungry." I sat down on the blanket he hadn't already claimed - the one closer to the cave entrance, which suited me fine. I'd be between him and trouble if it found us.

We ate in silence. Not necessarily because of the tension, but because we were both hungry enough so that conversation just got in the way of stuffing more food into our faces. Izzy had to wrap up the rest and put it away before we stopped.

"Take off your shirt, and let me have a look," he ordered, retrieving the medical equipment.

I did as he said, and tried to sit still as he unraveled the bandage already wrapped around my chest. The cuts were still quite sore, and having something peeled away from them wasn't much fun. I gritted my teeth and endured it.

"I'll bet those are painful," Izzy said sympathetically, setting aside the old bandage and pouring some of the salve out onto his hand. His touch was more hesitant than Joe's had been - he flinched back whenever I did, trying not to apply too much pressure to the most tender spots.

"You'd win that bet," I told him, struggling to keep my voice flat. He wasn't looking at my face while he worked - but I was looking at his. There was a very appealing expression of concentration on it that I didn't want to disturb. And there was no way to deny the fact that I was enjoying having his hands on me - however they'd gotten there.

He pushed you away before, the sensible side of my brain reminded me. That still didn't make sense to me. He'd been kissing me back, after all… It seemed like he'd enjoyed it. Then I'd - done something wrong, I guess. I just didn't know what.

If I promised never to do it again… would he let me kiss him then?

I wasn't so sure I wanted to ask. How should the question go, anyway? I stared at Izzy's face, uncertain. We were acting like nothing had happened - we had to - but the confusion was driving me crazy. Where exactly did I stand with him? Was that whole kissing thing just a mistake? Maybe he was just being polite by not saying anything - and as long as I did the same, I'd never have to hear his rejection.

I bit my tongue - hard - and said nothing. It was probably better that way, anyway. At least if I didn't know, I wouldn't get hurt.

Well… not badly hurt.

"Those should be okay until tomorrow - as long as you don't get into too many more fights." Izzy wiped off his hands and started wrapping the bandages around the damaged area. "You're not being very careful of these."

"Hey, it was the doctor who attacked me, remember?" I resisted the urge to fidget. I'd needed more than my share of bandaging over the past six years, but I still didn't like having to sit there for it.

The ear-set suddenly buzzed to life, and Mimi's voice came through faintly. "Blade?"

I reached up and clicked the lock for the mouthpiece, trying not to jostle Izzy. "Ivy? What are you doing contacting me? Is something wrong?"

"The others have led the enemy away from us," she told me. "Medic seems to be back to normal. Is there some way you can meet us?"

"We talked about this earlier," I reminded her. I was already not liking this conversation… "I can't meet you, remember?"

"Oh, right." She sighed. "Is Tech there?"

I took in a long breath. "Ivy, what's my real name?"

"What? But, Blade… we're not supposed to say that over the radio, are we? Someone could be listening in!"

"You have my permission," I told her flatly. "What is it?"

"Well, Tai of course, but - "

I closed the line. That wasn't Mimi.

"What did she say?" Izzy had finished with my bandages and was watching my face for a clue about the conversation.

"She asked me to meet her, and wanted to know if you were with me." I slid the ear-set off and set it aside. "And she didn't know my real name."

He was quiet for a while. "Oh."

"Yeah. Oh." I leaned back against the cave wall, with a low noise like a growl. Focussing on how frustrating this was made me less aware of how much it scared me.

Izzy settled next to me, sighing. He raised his head and looked up at the wall opposite us, seemingly fascinated by the way the shadows were patterned across it. "Tai?"

I glanced at him. He still wasn't looking at me. "What?"

"Would you…" He stopped, and tried again. "Suppose this thing found us, and we didn't make it through this. Would you have any regrets?"

I bit my tongue to avoid giving him an aggravated, 'It's not going to find us' as a response. The expression on his face made me want to give him an honest reply. "Yeah," I admitted. "Tons of them."

"So would I." He did turn to look at me then. "But there's one I'm not particularly eager to take with me. And since we're alone and I have this opportunity…" He let that trail off, and ran a nervous hand through his hair, averting his gaze again. "Sorry. I'm… not really sure how to say this. It's just…"

I was hoping I knew what he was going to say; my heart was hammering hard enough against my chest... "You can just say it. I won't mind if it doesn't come out right."

"All right." He took in a deep breath, and met my gaze again, looking determined. "Here it is, then. I've… sort of… had… feelings for you." The last came out in a rush, and his cheeks went red. He looked almost shocked with himself. "I mean… that is…"

I was a bit shocked myself, even though I'd been hoping to hear it. I guess I hadn't really believed he would say it. Feelings for me… Feelings - as in… "You… what? You love me?"

It sounded so stupid when I said it like that!

"Uhhh… yeah. That's what I wanted to say." He looked away from me, gaze fixing on the far wall again. "I've felt this way for a while now. I just… never said anything, that's all. Even when you told us you were gay… well, just because you're gay doesn't mean you'd like me, right?" He was babbling now. "I didn't want to confess to being gay myself, because I figured you might suspect that I was trying to get your attention by saying so right after we'd found out about you. And - and it would be true, so I couldn't really - "

"Izzy." I shook his shoulder, interrupting that stream of useless information. If I didn't stop him, he'd probably go on for quite a while. "You're not kidding around with me, are you? Because playing around with my feelings isn't funny."

He blinked, startled. "I'm not kid - " He stopped, and caught his breath sharply, turning his head around quick to stare at me incredulously. "Wait. Your feelings?"

"Do you have any idea how long I've been feeling guilty about falling for my best friend?" I could feel my stomach fluttering. Izzy loved me back! I could hardly believe it… This couldn't be real!

But it was. And he loved me. He loved me.

"Falling for…?" He looked like he couldn't believe it any more than I could. "You fell for me? You fell for me, and you felt guilty about it?"

"Yes! Damn it, Izzy…" I took hold of both of his shoulders, feeling like I'd just dropped a huge weight off my back. "You've never shown the slightest bit of interest in anyone! I've been watching you for the past two years at least, and you've never even given me a second glance, except as a friend and teammate! I was half convinced I was betraying your trust by thinking about you the way I did - and I couldn't stop… I mean, the thoughts would just… sneak into my head… I mean…" That did it. I was blushing, too.

"Thoughts like… like kissing me in the middle of the path on the way to the base?" He was staring at me with something like wonder.

"Well… why do you think I did it, anyway?" I tried without success to get that blush off my face. "I couldn't help it - you were on top of me, your face was right there… and my mind just sort of went blank…" I let that trail off, and grinned weakly. "Ehe… and… I kissed you."

"I know that." He smiled at me - a soft, lopsided sort of smile that made me swallow hard just from looking at it. "I was there, remember? I would've been the one on top of you - kissing back."

"Yeah, until you pushed me away." I frowned at him. "Why did you push me away? If you had feelings for me, and you wanted me to kiss you…"

"I did! But I thought you were going to… uh…" Izzy looked embarrassed. "I though you were going to take off my shirt - and then you'd see the symbol, wouldn't you?" He looked sheepish. "I panicked."

I stared at him for a moment, taking this all in. "So… you didn't freak out because of what I did?"

He shook his head vehemently. "Of course not! Do you have any idea how many times I've imagined you doing just that? It's not likely to freak me out!"

"You imagine me doing stuff to you?" This was starting to sink in now… I was alone in the middle of nowhere with Izzy, and he'd just told me he loved me back. The possibilities were starting to try and push their way to the front of my head as ideas… "Would you… Uh, I mean… If I kissed you again, you wouldn't panic this time, would you?"

He reached up to where I was still holding my shoulders and set his hands on my wrists. "Not this time," he agreed, staring up into my eyes seriously.

That was all the invitation I needed. I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and brought our lips together carefully. It wasn't the passionate kiss from earlier, but something about being able to focus clearly on the contact between us made it that much sweeter.

I pressed forward a little more, parting my lips, and he met me just as eagerly. Even more than the food we'd just scarfed, this was addictive. I felt like I was breathing from his mouth, leaning forward, always trying to get more. He felt so good! I wanted to kiss him forever.

We pulled back after a few moments, leaning our foreheads together as we tried to get used to breathing normally. "That was… wow…" I freed one hand from his shoulder, brushing my thumb over his cheek to see how it felt. He had very soft skin.

"I don't want to stop." He slid one of his hands around to the back of my neck, keeping a firm grip on me. "We don't have to impose any restrictions, do we? I feel… This feels…"

"Okay." I kissed him again, taking advantage of his parted lips and making him gasp a little into my mouth. Neither of us had really had a lot of experience kissing, but if he was suffering from the same frustration I was… well… I'd waited a long time for this sort of contact, and whether I knew what I was doing or not, I was definitely ready to take things to a much more physical level.

Izzy was the one to break the kiss, easing his mouth away from mine but not moving away. "Tai…" The way he said that - like letting out a breath, with my name in the middle of it - made my spine tingle. Both of his arms were around my shoulders by then, and he only had to tug at me slightly to pull both of us back down to the blankets.

I pulled back a bit, staring down at him apprehensively. This was the exact reverse of our positions from before; now he was on his back, and I was on top. I slid my hands down just under his ribcage, watching them move over the lines of his body - then jerked my gaze back up to his face, flushing. "How… I mean, what exactly… did you want to… uh, do?"

Izzy tugged me back down impatiently. "Everything sounds good." His lips met mine again, and I caved without even trying to offer resistance. There was something irresistible about Izzy's kisses… I suppose me being in love with him and lusting after him like the worst kind of hormone-driven teenager might make me biased in determining that, but it was true. I was more than willing to press him down and eagerly explore the warm cavern of his mouth with my tongue.

It really didn’t take much to turn me on when it came to Izzy.

He made a muffed groaning noise against my kiss, holding me down with a firm grip on my shoulders - and arched his back, trying to press more of himself up against my body.

The rush I felt from that contact about did it for my patience. I grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands and pulled it apart as hard as I could. The material tore, and I tugged it aside, running my hands down over Izzy's taut stomach muscles. I could feel them jump under my fingers as he broke our kiss to gasp sharply.

It was pretty gratifying to know I was the one who made him react like that.

His skin felt warm to the touch - maybe that was why he was having so much trouble catching his breath - dealing with my comparatively cold fingers. I kissed the corner of his jaw as his head fell back… then the hollow of his throat… then the junction between his neck and shoulder… His skin tasted good, too. I opened my mouth and ran my tongue over the corner of his neck experimentally, and he slid his hands into my hair, fingers gripping at it convulsively.

"Don't stop…" That came out almost as a sigh. "Tai…"

"Mmhm…" As if I could stop.

My hips eased against his, one leg worming its way in between his thighs and earning a little much-needed pressure against my groin. Spikes of pleasure arched up from that region, and I had to fight back the urge to grind my way to an early climax. The way he squirmed against me and made those little gasping sounds didn't help much.

And he was definitely going to have a mark with the way I was attacking his neck.

From the way his head tilted to allow for easier access, I don't think that concerned him too much. I know it didn't concern me.

"Mm, Iz…" I trailed my fingertips down the side of his body, stopping when they hit rough fabric, and bringing them up to the front of his pants. This was enough teasing - I wanted him out of them - now.

One problem with that plan… I may have undone the same sort of fastening a million times on my own pants, but trying to fumble around with Izzy's while not losing any sort of contact with him was an entirely different matter. I couldn't keep my hands steady at all, and it was really hard to stop trying to rush with it.

Finally, I had to break away from him - letting out an impatient growling noise - and settled back to get the pants off properly.

Izzy sucked in a few deep breaths, face flushed, before he managed to open his eyes and smile faintly at me. "Problems, Tai?"

I got the fastening open, and grinned triumphantly, pulling the offending item down over his hips and off. "Not any more," I assured him, then made quick work of my own and shucked them aside.

I had to take a moment to stare, because I'd never even come close to seeing him show this much skin before.

'Izzy-esque' was once again the only word I could use to describe him. I don’t think anyone else could possibly look as sexy and perfect and just… beautiful… as this. Even the still-dark lines of that symbol crafted onto his chest just above his ribcage didn’t take anything away from his appearance. I traced one finger carefully over its outline, my gaze following the motion. I couldn’t take my eyes off him – it was hard to believe that he was willing to let someone as ordinary as me be his lover.

He pushed himself up on one elbow and reached out to brush a hand over my cheek, smiling in that way that always set my heart pounding – with just a bit of uncertainty. "Are you… ready to do this?"

If I decided to let my hormones answer that one… I was more than ready.

The rest of my brain was not so sure. "Yeah, but… are you sure I won’t hurt you? I mean, I don’t really know what – "

He pulled my head down and kissed me hungrily, cutting off not only the words but the thought as well. "You won’t," he said breathlessly, tugging the rest of my body down on top of him. "I want you to do this. Okay?"

I kissed him back and slid my arms under and around his waist to pull him more tightly against me. "Okay," I gave in – not that it took much convincing. I felt like I was going to explode… I wanted to do this with him so badly…

But still…

I pulled back again, this time hooking my fingers around the waist of his undershorts. "Are you sure?" I asked again. I really didn’t want to screw this up… He was the most important thing in the world to me – I wasn’t sure I could forgive myself if I hurt him.

"Tai…" He returned the favor, freeing my erection from the shorts that had been confining it. It was a bit unnerving, the way he stared at me – I could see him swallow, hard. "Maybe we need… something. To – to make it easier."

"Easier how?"

He swallowed again, and blushed furiously. "So it won’t hurt when you… when you…"

"Oh." I stared down at him. He was looking at my face again… those dark eyes were so hard to look away from. I had to force myself to think about what he was saying. "So… what do I use?"

He seemed to be having the same problem I was with concentrating; his fingers were absently clenching against my shoulder, and his gaze looked a little clouded as it met mine. "How about… that… the salve that I used for your cuts?"

I nodded, pushing myself up long enough to find the stuff and bring it back over with me. I leaned over Izzy again, propped up on one elbow. "So… you want me to…?"

"Tai, if you make me wait any longer, I am going to hurt you!"

I grinned a little and leaned over to kiss him again, brushing back a few strands of firy red hair. "Tell me if I hurt you," I said, heart pounding from a mix of fear and excitement. "Okay?"

He kissed me back, taking my breath away with how much need he could put into the action. "Tai, please," he said breathily, barely breaking the kiss to speak. "I don't care if it hurts. Just do it."

He was not making it very easy on my hormones.

I don't think my last thread of will power was going to hold out if I kept us waiting, anyway… I leaned back a little, sliding a hand between Izzy's thighs and carefully pulling them apart and up. He gulped in a couple of quick, steadying breaths, muscles tensing briefly before he forced himself to relax. There was a flush rising on his face again - from desire, or embarrassment, or a mix of the two; I wasn't really sure which.

I poured about as much of that salve as I could fit onto my hand out of the container, reaching down to spread it over the erection I'd been neglecting for - too long, if the sharp sparks of pleasure arching through my body at the touch were any indication. I shut my eyes, biting back a moan and prying my hand away.

It was way to late for me to back out of this now. I bent over Izzy's body again, catching his lips in a hungry kiss. He looped both arms around my neck and hooked his legs over my waist, and I reached down with one hand to guide myself into him.

He gasped - breaking the kiss - and his whole body went rigid. "Ah…"

I gritted my teeth, some sort of weird animal-like noise emerging from the back of my throat. He was so tight… It was almost painful, but it felt good… oh god, it felt good…

"Tai… ahh…" His fingers pressed into my skin hard enough to bruise it. He gasped again, eyes finding my face again. "Tai… oh… Tai, stop, please…"

I let my breath out in a hiss, clenching my teeth so hard it felt like I'd break them. My body was still screaming demands at me; it took just about every ounce of strength I had to keep from pressing into him without a care. I stared down at him, breathing heavily. If I unclenched my teeth to speak, I knew I'd lose it.

Izzy's chest heaved painfully; he shut his eyes tightly, then opened them again, blinking rapidly. "Okay…" That was barely a breath, but I heard it. With a slight groan, I pushed into him completely, feeling his body shudder beneath mine. He was still holding me against him as if for dear life, breathing irregular.

"Izzy… Iz…" I couldn't take my eyes off his face, pulling back and thrusting back in, more quickly this time. I was so close… god, I couldn't hold it much longer…

He let out something like a low whimper, grabbing the back of my head with both hands and pulling me down against his lips. Both of us were letting out those little moaning sounds, muffled by the desperate kiss he'd caught us in, and I had a feeling he was close, too… I could feel his trapped arousal rub against my upper torso with each thrust…

On instinct, I reached between our bodies to grab his erection with still-slick fingers and pumped him roughly, trying to get him off before I came myself.

It only took a few strokes. His body jerked, and abruptly the kiss broke as he buried his face in my shoulder with a muffled cry, the rest of him breaking into convulsive shudders with his release.

The sight mixed with the clenching of his muscles spiked another shot of shuddery hot pleasure through me… I clutched his hips tight and thrust into him twice more, quick and hard, before I reached that high point, waves of crushing ecstasy sweeping my thoughts away and sending me spiraling to somewhere beyond heaven.

I came down some time after, still staring down into Izzy's face as we both breathed heavily. His grip on my shoulders and waist had loosened or fallen away, and I pulled back from him, rolling onto my side. His eyes followed me, and he smiled wearily.

God, he was beautiful. I mean, really beautiful. Even now, his smile could make my heart thud against my chest.

I couldn't resist reaching out to brush sweat-dampened hair from his face. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

He returned me the favor. "Sort of… but it wasn't bad. It felt right - being with you."

I rolled onto my back and used the corner of my blanket to clean myself up a bit. We could always just use his… "If we do make it through this, can we make a habit of this?"

He laughed and moved to loop an arm around my waist, resting his head comfortably in the crook of my shoulder. "I would like that."

I think the grin on my face looked just a bit goofy. "Good."

Izzy let out a long breath and hugged me closer. "I love you, Tai," he breathed, hardly loud enough for me to hear even with his face right next to mine.

"Iz…" I reached around to pull the blanket as far over us as I could get it, keeping an arm around his shoulders as if he might disappear if I didn't. "I love you too."

He made a vague noise to let me know he'd heard, and drifted off to sleep in my arms a few moments later, breathing soft and regular against my neck.

I stayed up a bit later after that, just staring at the ceiling of the cave - then I let myself follow him.