Suspended Reality

 

Part Five

 

It was too bright.

I frowned, not wanting to wake up, and intended to roll over away from whatever was being obnoxiously bright, so I could go back to sleep.

That was when I realized there was something leaning against my side.

I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw - blurred though it was - was the top of Izzy's head.

Last night filtered back into my brain more or less in a steady stream, and I smiled, feeling very good. I'd slept with Koushiro Izumi. We'd had sex. He loved me. I rolled the words around in my head, liking the sound of them. And there he was, with his head resting against my shoulder and one arm draped across my stomach.

This had to be the best way to wake up ever.

My stomach was starting to make itself heard, but I wasn't ready to get up just yet. We'd saved some food last night, so there'd be something for breakfast, at least. By this point, Mimi, or Joe, or Mimi and Joe - or Mimi and Joe and whoever else came into contact with them - would be out looking for the two of us.

So this would be a good chance to head back to the base and try to find something on that computer.

I wasn't all that eager to get going on that, though… My arm was loosely draped around Izzy's shoulders, and I'd started running my thumb over his skin softly as I thought. We were going to be putting Izzy in an awful lot of danger this way… but he was the only one who knew how to use the computer efficiently, so we had no choice.

I'd rather just stay where I was, watch him sleep peacefully, and revel in the fact that I had just had sex with him.

"Hm-m-m…" Izzy stirred under my hand, body tensing briefly as he drifted from sleep to wakefulness. I could feel his hand sliding over my waist in sleepy confusion, before he stopped completely and his eyes flickered open. "Tai…?" His voice was thick.

"Morning." If anything, I sounded worse than he did. "You sleep okay?"

He pushed himself up so that he could look me full in the face, and smiled. My heart started to pound; he could still do that to me. "Better than I had expected to before I made my confession."

I made some pretense of brushing non-existent strands of hair from his face so that my fingers could linger on his skin. "You're not the only one. I'm glad you told me."

He leaned down and kissed me. I think we both tasted gross - like always, first thing in the morning - but I know I didn't care, and if he did, he didn't say anything. It was a slower kiss than last night's - less desperate, but just as passionate. I slid both my hands around to rest on his lower back, feeling like I could conquer the whole planet just from having him in my arms.

This whole being in love business wasn't nearly as frustrating as it had been before.

He broke away and hovered just above me, propped up on the elbow he had resting on the blanket a short ways from my head. "I wish we had a lot more time."

"You and me both." I said that with very real regret. I'd love to take a few hours and pay him the homage he so rightly deserved. Heck, while I was dreaming, I'd like a hotel suite like back on earth where I could carry him to a fancy feather bed and shower him with every comfort known to man.

But we weren't back on earth, and all I had were a couple of blankets and the remains of our food. I couldn't give him time and attention either, because even one hour could be the difference between life and death for Daisuke and the others.

"We'll have time after this is over," I promised, giving him a grin that held a lot more confidence than I really felt. "When Miyako's brought back to life and we've saved the other three - defeating the evil Chaos thing in the process. Then we'll sneak off for a couple of days and spend the whole time kissing and having sex."

He actually laughed, and it didn’t sound faked. "Tai, when this whole thing is over, I have a feeling I'm going to have to sleep for a week." He rolled off me and sat up, reaching down to brush a hand over my cheek. "But after that, I'm sure my schedule will allow for it."

"It had better." I sat up as well. "Okay… where did I throw all the clothes?"

"Right over - oh." Izzy made a dismayed noise, holding up what looked like half of a shirt, raggedly torn down the middle. "Did you really feel it deserved death for covering my upper half?"

"Suffering and death," I agreed, nodding solemnly. "You can wear mine - it should cover that symbol up for you, and we're not that far apart in size."

"All right." He hastily pulled his under-shorts on, not minding my gaze - too much. I think I noticed a slight blush - but I couldn't tell for sure, because it wasn't his face that I was really looking at. "Don't you need to get dressed, Tai?"

"In a minute." I waved a hand vaguely, trying to divide my attention between his hips and thighs. "I'm busy right now."

I found out then just how good his aim was as he threw my pants directly into my face.

"Hey!" I reached up - belatedly - to pull them down, and by that point, found that Izzy had already pulled his own pair on. "That's cheating!"

"That's saving time," he pointed out, practically. Despite his tone, I could see the glint in his eyes that belied the excuse. "You should hurry and get dressed so that we can eat and be on our way as soon as possible."

I pulled on my shorts and the pants over them, wishing that weren't such a good cover story. "Yeah, yeah… I don't see how there's anything wrong with just looking, though…"

Izzy pulled on my shirt - only a little too big - and knelt down so that he could kiss me. "Tai, I love you, but I'm still very aware that you have a strong perverted streak."

"And why is that bad?"

He laughed at me and moved over to get the food out.

We kept up the light bantering as we ate, spending as much time as we could safely spare on light touches and meaningful looks and smiles. I think Izzy was thinking the same thing I was - this cave was like our haven, and nothing could touch us here. Once we stepped back outside, the real world would catch us up again, and that'd be the end of the honeymoon.

And we couldn't even linger, because time was important, too.

Izzy rolled up our blankets neatly, and stuck everything back into the bags. "We'd better go," he said flatly. "The sooner I get back to my computer, the less time those symbols will have to fade."

I picked up my bag, swinging it onto my shoulders. Now that we'd gotten started, I could feel that sense of urgency tugging at me again. "I still need to keep track of you," I pointed out, and held out my hand. "Come on."

He took it, and we hurried back out through the bushes, avoiding the path we'd originally come down. I could get back to the base from any area within a day's walk, no problem. Even if we had to take a less obvious route.

"What do we do if Chaos is waiting for us there?" Izzy asked, after a few moments. He kept his voice low.

I was kind of hoping he wouldn't ask that… "I don't know," I admitted. "Fight it, I guess.
We'll approach cautiously. If it's there and we see it, we'll back off and stay away."

"I have some small explosives," he reminded me. "Mostly created by accident, but they'll serve a useful purpose all the same - if we happen to need them."

"I wish I had my sword," I muttered. That really made me feel unsafe. For some reason, just having that thing strapped to my back made me feel a lot better. "Daggers aren't quite the same, if you know what I mean."

Izzy was silent for a moment. "Your sword…" He seemed to be thinking about something; the words came out almost vaguely. "There was a picture of it on the computer's database," he mused, out loud.

"Yeah." I remembered that. "Did you ever find out why?"

"No… but I've thought of something that perhaps I should have before." He gave me a half smile. "There was a symbol on the base of your sword, wasn't there?"

"Right." I wasn't entirely sure where this was going, but I had a bit of a clue… "Are you thinking it might be another password for somewhere?"

"I haven't come across any more sections protected by passwords that require art skills." He shook his head, frowning thoughtfully. "But I think I have an idea of where to look now… I'll test the theory as soon as we get back."

"Then we'd better hurry up so you can get testing." I quickened our pace.

~~~~~~

The area around the base appeared deserted when I crawled in through the bushes with my stomach to the ground. Izzy was forced to follow my example because of the death grip on his hand that I refused to release.

He wasn't going anywhere without me knowing about it.

There was no activity in the area, and the door was still shut. It looked exactly like it had when we'd left, so there was no way to tell just by looking if there had been any visitors since.

I stayed and watched for about a quarter of an hour, then sighed, giving up. We weren't going to be able to tell anything unless we went to take a closer look. Well, let's get this over with then. I tugged at Izzy's hand to let him know we were moving, and the two of us left the bushes.

Still no movement. I took that to be a good sign.

"Let's take a look around." The words were as quiet as I could make them. Izzy nodded in response, letting me lead him around the side to Mimi's garden.

And there we came to a halt.

Crumpled in the soil amid the neatly maintained plants, was a small, white form.

Iori. Dead.

"Oh god…" Izzy barely breathed the words out, but I heard him. Here was our evidence that something had been here, but we couldn't tell how long ago or whether it remained.

Or how long Iori had been…

I crouched by the still little figure, carefully pushing him over so he wasn't lying face down in the dirt. His eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking, like a picture from a horror show. His skin was cold and clammy - far too chilled to have been a fresh kill. He must have been dead for hours before we found him.

It was suddenly hard to swallow. TK is going to be devastated…

"We should take him inside," Izzy said in a soft voice, staring sadly at the limp form that had been a serious-faced boy with quietly dignified mannerisms.

I let out a long breath, and scooped him up in my arms. We had to seal this thing. There was no way Miyako or Iori deserved to die like this…

The door was still broken; Izzy had jammed it shut before we left, but he got it open easily enough. The inside of the base appeared untouched - and when we turned on the lights, nothing moved or jumped out. There were no signs of life anywhere, and everything was still exactly as we had left it. Even the broken chair that TK had used to knock out Joe was still where he'd dropped it when we made our plans.

"It seems to be deserted." Izzy headed immediately toward his computer, clearing the blue glow from the screen and typing in a series of commands.

I slid Iori under the same blanket that covered Miyako. It was about all we could do for him right then.

Had Ken and Daisuke been forced to witness their friends' deaths? I shuddered, making my way back over to Izzy's computer. It was awful to think about… seeing something like that happen to someone you cared about. And Ken's symbol had to be fading too… more than Daisuke's…

I grimaced.

"Find anything yet, Izzy?"

"I've only just gotten started, Tai." His tone was all business now that he was back in his computer chair. "Give me a minute or two to test my theory."

I hovered over him. "What is your theory, anyway?"

"Well… I found that much of the information could be obtained by translating the code used to create images into an address for a point on whichever drive contains it." Izzy's eyes never left the screen as he spoke, and a series of images and text flashed by on the screen, called up by his sure fingers. "I attempted to use the image of the sword, but it got me nowhere. However… if I shortened that to include only the symbol on the sword…"

I struggled with that. "So, images turn into information?"

"That's not exactly correct." He smiled a little, still not looking at me. "But it'll do as a basic explanation - ah!" The page with the small sword image flickered into being on the screen. "Here we go."

I watched, a little bemused, as he called up some sort of smaller file with a long string of characters. "I'll have to take your word for that." Trying to understand exactly what Izzy was doing when he used the computer gave me a headache.

"Prodigious!" That had to mean something had gone right; Izzy only used that particular term when things were going his way. A series of characters appeared on the screen, and in the center was a larger image of my sword - the point of which was drawn through the middle of what looked like Izzy's symbol.

"Now we're getting somewhere!" I stared at the screen, feeling triumphant even though it had been Izzy's victory. "What's it say?"

His eyes were already moving busily over the text. "I think…" He frowned, then leaned back a little. "Just as I thought - we're going to need your sword."

I let out a long, frustrated breath. "Of course we do - that's why Daisuke had it when he was kidnapped. Someone out there hates us."

"The situation is not irretrievable," Izzy interrupted firmly, turning away from the screen to give me a stern look. "Chaos can't know the sword's importance - it's unlikely that it would have been left with Daisuke, but it's also not likely to be under heavy guard. We may be able to get it back without being noticed."

He was right. I straightened, offering a rueful grin. "All right. But I think we're going to need backup." And I knew exactly who to turn to for that… "I'm getting in contact with Matt."

"I'll keep reading while you do," Izzy said, turning back to the computer. "I'd like to know just how we use the sword - and what it has to do with my symbol."

"Good luck." I stepped back a bit, and pressed a few buttons on the side of my ear set. "Hunter? You reading me?" Hopefully he was in range…

"Blade?" Matt's voice was surprised, but clear. "Is everything okay?"

At least he wasn't asking where we were…

"Remember what we talked about before we left the base?" I was keeping this deliberately vague - just in case. Matt knew what we'd been talking about - coming back and checking the computer. "I need you to do that."

There was a moment of silence, and then he seemed to make sense of it. "All right."

I signed off. He'd gotten the message; no need to be on for longer than was necessary.

"Is Matt coming?" Izzy turned away from the computer. He didn't look particularly excited about what he'd just read. Not a good sign…

"Yeah. What did you find in there?"

He sighed. "We need that sword, Tai. My symbol is a part of it, but without the sword, I can't do anything."

I frowned at him. "So you know what we have to do?"

"We have to go get the sword," he pointed out, giving me a wry smile. "I can work out the rest as soon as we have both of the necessary objects."

"You're not a 'necessary object'." I ran a hand through his hair, and gave him the best I could manage for a smile. "And I don't think it's a good idea for you to go running right into the arms of the evil thing that's looking for you."

He shook his head, standing up to face me. "You won't be able to do anything without my symbol. Anyway, Tai, there's nowhere safe to leave me, and you're going to need all the help you can get."

"I know." I brushed his cheek with the backs of my fingers. "I just don't have to like it. You know it'd kill me if something happened to you just because I dragged you into danger."

"You're not dragging me in." His eyes met mine, stubbornly. "I'm refusing to stay behind. There's quite a bit of difference."

"Still." I kissed him - a short one. "You'd better let us protect you. No hero stuff, all right?"

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Look who's talking."

"Hey, I'm not the one with a symbol on my chest that an evil power is after!"

"And yet, throughout our time here, I'm the one who's been in less danger."

I had to admit he had a point there.

Matt arrived - predictably enough - when I happened to decide he wouldn't be there for a while yet, and I had to jump back from Izzy guiltily as the door from the underground tunnel opened and he stepped into the base.

With Kari trailing behind him, looking like she hadn't slept at all.

The four of us stared at each other for a moment.

"What happened to your shirt?" my sister asked me, breaking the silence. Her voice was tired, too.

"Izzy's wearing it," I said, without even thinking. I was too concerned about her to watch my words. "I thought you were with TK… what happened?"

"Chaos has TK," Matt told me flatly. I could see the emotion on his face as he said it; he and his brother were particularly close, though he'd come a long way since those days of being ridiculously over-protective. "And Sora, too. We had to come through the tunnels - it has her scouting from the air, looking for us."

I let out a low breath. TK and Sora... I glanced at my sister quickly, feeling very grateful for her safety - no matter how tired she might be - and experiencing a rush of sudden sympathy for Matt. "What about Mimi and Joe?"

"We haven't heard from them," Kari said, sinking down onto one of the blankets we'd left on the floor. Her eyes made a quick sweep of the room, and fell on the double lump of Miyako and Iori. "Is… that…?"

"Don't worry about it." She didn't need to hear it; she knew just by looking. I knelt beside her, and gripped her shoulders protectively. "We've figured out what we're going to do. Can you tell me your real name?"

Even as tired as she was, Kari understood the need for that. "Hikari Yagami," she said softly.

"Yamato Ishida," Matt added, saving me the time and trouble of asking. "I do have something for you, Tai. We've more or less reasoned out where Chaos is keeping" - he glanced quickly at the second lump, assessing its size - "Daisuke and Ken."

"Something?" I repeated, staring at him like he'd suddenly sprouted wings. "That's everything! How'd you manage it?"

"They're in the caves." He shrugged, as if it were no big thing. "Kari was separated from TK before he was taken - when she found him again, he was wandering into one of the caves. She thought he was acting funny, so she followed. Chaos is using him to guard the others."

I didn't like that information too much. It meant we'd have to fight with TK before we could get to Daisuke and find out where my sword was. And as soon as we did, that thing would know exactly where we were. We wouldn't have much time after that. "Nothing on Mimi and Joe?"

"Nothing." Matt's expression was dark. "They could already be dead for all we know."

That hung in the air for a while.

"The important thing now is to get our hands on Tai's sword." Izzy's voice was cool and practical, cutting into the silence sharply. "We have to find Daisuke to do that. Once we have the sword, it shouldn't take long to seal Chaos."

"Tai's sword?" Matt repeated, before I could ask exactly what Izzy planned to do to accomplish this sealing. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"The two keys to sealing Chaos are Tai's sword, and my symbol." The redhead clutched at the front of his - my - shirt absently as he spoke. "We need both if we hope to accomplish anything."

Matt's attention appeared to have been caught by the fabric itself. "Izzy's wearing your shirt?" he asked me, raising an eyebrow.

I blinked at the subject change. "Huh?"

Kari even managed a small smile - weary though it was. "You two…?"

"Uh… well…" Izzy's face flushed a little; he looked to me for an answer.

I think the color rising on my cheeks spoke for me.

"Congratulations, in that case." Matt shook his head, smirking a little. "And thank you, because you've won me another week with the hang glider once this is all over."

"You were betting on my relationship with Izzy!?" I shouldn't have been surprised, but somehow, I was anyway. "But… how did you…?"

"What can I say?" He grinned at me. "I'm an observant person."

"Can we just get going?" Izzy said, a touch irritably. I don't think he liked this prying into our personal life any better than I did. "I'd rather we got this done with before Chaos gains any more power."

Then again, that argument made a whole lot of sense…

"The four of us against an evil super being…" Matt's tone was wry as he waited for me to help Kari up so he could lead us into the tunnel again. "I like our odds - don't you?"

"We'll manage somehow," I said stubbornly.

I just wished I could believe me.

~~~~~~

 

"You're nuts!"

Izzy stood just outside the semi-circle of incredulous stares that were pointed in his direction, wearing a stubborn expression and holding a device just a little larger than his hand. "I'm only being practical, Tai - if you'd just - "

"Just nothing!" I interrupted, scowling at him. "And what's practical about you going into the lair of some evil being - one that's looking for you specifically - without any of us to help?"

"What's practical about the rest of you going in and being taken over to fight against me?" he shot back, meeting my glare with enough force to match it. "This" - he pressed a hand over his chest - "makes me immune to that. As long as the rest of you keep out of sight, I should be able to handle things fine by myself."

Handle things? I gave him an incredulous stare in return. Izzy was not a match for TK - even without Chaos providing the younger boy with extra strength. If it came down to unarmed combat, TK had the advantage. He was taller, stronger, and faster than Izzy. "How exactly do you plan to handle things?" I asked him, raising an eyebrow.

"This is how." The younger boy raised that device he'd taken from the base. "I started developing it a while back, but completely forgot in all the excitement - until I discovered that knocking out the possessed victims traps Chaos inside them. After that, I thought it would be prudent to take it with me when I could - for protection, if nothing else."

Matt voiced the inevitable question. "So what does it do?"

"It's a stunner." Izzy beamed down at his new toy, clearly pleased with it. "Observe." He flicked a switch, and the thing whirred to life. An electric blue glow crackled into life at one side of it - where a set of small antenna protruded just a half-inch from the end.

It was actually pretty cool.

"The light produces a mild electric current," the redhead explained, flicking the switch again to turn the thing off. "All I need to do is press this onto him - even through his clothes - and he'll be out like a light in no time. No lingering aftereffects," he added quickly, seeing Matt's concerned expression. "He should be fine when he wakes up."

"And how do you plan to get close enough to get him with that?" It was a good plan… I had to admit that, as much as I wanted to tramp all over it and order him to stay put instead. "You'll still have to wrestle with him, won't you?"

"I'll rush him." Izzy shrugged. "I'll run in as fast as I can and try to catch him with this before he can react. It's not foolproof, Tai - but it's all we've got."

"He's right," Matt agreed, nodding at Izzy before I could respond. "This is the best plan we have - unless you feel like losing more people. If you, me, or Kari goes out there, the first thing it's going to try and do is get under our skin."

"It's the safest plan, Tai," Kari added, turning to look at me with eyes that somehow looked wider in the dark of that tunnel. "I don't know if I could fight with TK, either…"

"I know I couldn't," the blond beside her muttered, darkly.

I let out a breath. Even if I didn't want to, I could see the advantages of this plan. I couldn't afford to let personal feelings get in the way, not at a time like this. The wrench I got from closing my eyes and suppressing those feelings was painfully familiar. I was the leader of a group of survivors - and I did what I had to do.

As I'd pointed out to myself many times before, it didn't mean I had to like it.

"All right," I agreed, through my teeth. "All right, we'll do it your way. Just…" Reaching out before Izzy could react, I took hold of his shoulders and kissed him right there in front of my sister and my second-in-command.

Izzy's cheeks were a bit red as I pulled back from him… His gaze flickered down toward his shoes, then back up at me, eyes dark and strangely vulnerable. Despite all that practical crap he'd been spouting off, he was as uneasy about this as I was. I brushed his lips with mine again briefly, trying to be somewhat reassuring.

Matt snickered, and poorly disguised it as a cough.

I chose to ignore that. "If you're not alive by the time you've finished, I'll kill you," I added firmly, releasing Izzy from my grip.

He smiled at me - a quick, tense smile - and nodded. "I'll be careful."

What else could he promise? I watched him go, feeling helpless and not liking it. He moved around the corner quietly and was out of sight in the tunnel ahead.

"He'll be fine." Matt patted my shoulder sympathetically.

I nodded, and moved to follow. "Let's get in position. I want to be there in case he can't handle it."

As it turned out, Izzy didn't need my help.

TK's reaction time was considerably faster than normal - I noticed that as soon as I got to crouching by the corner and watching the fight. He spun just before Izzy reached him - alerted by the older boy's footsteps. There was no particular expression on his face, just that same unconcern that had graced Joe's. His opponent, on the other hand, had his eyes narrowed, face screwed up in concentration.

I clenched my teeth together. Izzy… Every instinct was screaming at me for sitting there; my legs were shaking. I wanted to run out and help him… But I couldn't. I couldn't…

The redhead must've been anticipating the swipe that seemed an automatic reaction, because he was ducking under it even as it came, and kept advancing, managing to catch TK - barely - with the dangerous end of his stunner.

There was a crackling zap sound like electricity, and the blond gave a violent jolt, a brief expression of anger on his face as his eyes rolled back in his head. He toppled as Izzy darted back on pure instinct, crouched to spring again if necessary.

But TK's body didn't move.

I let out the breath I'd been holding in. Good… he was safe. I was never letting him do anything that stupid again.

"Let's go," Matt muttered to me, and the three of us moved forward. No time to stand around and waste time now - Chaos knew Izzy was here. Sora was probably already heading our way.

Not to mention Mimi and Joe… wherever they were.

Izzy's breathing was a little quick when we joined him, but the fight hadn't gone on long enough to hurt him at all. He left his stunner turned on - probably a wise choice, considering we didn’t really know what we were getting into - and moved to follow after us.

The area we were in had been carved smoothly - distinguished from the rest of the tunnels by the sharp corners where the walls, floor, and ceiling connected to each other. The rooms were rectangular again rather than circular. The tunnel TK had been standing in front of was also not very well-lit - though we could see the door at the end. It was the same sort of door as the one we had guarding our base.

I glanced over at Izzy, not wanting to speak. He was the only one of us who might be able to open it…

Out of those of us still on the outside of it, that is.

Matt moved aside before he'd even entered the short tunnel, letting Izzy go in first. He was holding one of our more common daggers in his fist, blade gleaming.

Definitely a smart move. I pulled the one I was carrying out and held it the same way - more ready to hit downward with the hilt than stab upward with the blade. It was better to be overly cautious than overly confident - and if something came out of that door other than Daisuke or Ken, we were prepared. Kari moved over to my side and I noticed her clenching her fists, holding them up so that the steel part of her gloves could connect with whatever she swung at.

I have a feeling about this… The three of us didn't move to follow Izzy. Matt's eyes met mine from the other side of the tunnel entrance, and I knew he felt it too.

Instinct rarely failed you.

And this time was no exception, because Izzy had only gotten about halfway down that tunnel before the door swung open and Joe rushed out with a cold expression to hit at him roughly - barely giving him time to let out a startled yell.

My best friend hit the ground hard, and didn't have time to roll away - Joe was on him in a heartbeat, pinning him back. His stunner had wrenched free of his grip when he'd hit the ground, and it skidded across the floor - too far from his reach to be of any use.

I didn't even think at that point. My dagger was in my hand, and I'd been waiting for something like this. I sprang down the tunnel and delivered my older teammate a solid blow to the head.

I didn't even see his expression - but I clearly heard Izzy gasp as the dark-haired boy collapsed on top of him. He was staring at me wildly.

"Izzy - are you - !?"

Hands closed around my throat. Hard.

"There you are," Mimi's voice said, in a completely normal tone. Like I'd gotten lost or something and she wasn't crushing my windpipe with a grip I knew she didn't really have.

Fuck! I immediately panicked - not good. I clawed at her hands, eyes going wide as I gasped for breath. Pain was making my vision spark. She jerked me in her grip like a rag, slamming me into a wall. My vision grayed.

Get it off… get her off… no…

Then someone yelled something, and her hands abandoned their grip. My body was acting on auto pilot, pulling away instinctively and catching a glancing blow that barely registered.

I slumped forward, falling down to my knees and gasping in ragged breaths. Something from behind jostled me but I barely noticed, letting myself fall and trying to recover.

That had hurt!

Matt stumbled off to the side, mouth bleeding. I twisted my head to look behind me just in time to catch sight of my sister backhanding Mimi fiercely. Mimi's attention had been more on Matt than Kari, and she didn't see the blow coming fast enough to dodge it. Her eyes went wide with shock - and again, outrage - even as she was knocked back with that steel claw.

The brown-haired girl hit the wall, body crumpling to the ground, suddenly boneless. Out like a light.

So… we'd done it.

Our crazy sudden assault plan had worked - all we had left to worry about was Sora, and she'd need more time to get to us.

Izzy finally managed to shove Joe off of him - a task that had been nearly impossible in the middle of the fighting - and retrieved his stunner, flicking it off. "Names!" he gasped out - more an inhalation than a word. We caught his meaning.

Matt wiped at his mouth, straightening. "Yamato Ishida."

"Hikari Yagami." Kari was breathing hard; her eyes were still narrow and her fists clenched and unclenched slowly, tension visible in her posture.

"Taichi Yagami." My voice sounded wheezy. I rubbed at my sore throat. "We're good?"

Izzy nodded, letting out a shaky breath. "Good. Let's go in."

The door had been left swinging open - courtesy of that rush attack we'd just received - so there was nothing to hinder us from reaching Daisuke and Ken. I pushed ahead of the others and moved inside boldly.

The room I entered was small and not very well lit. It had no furnishing of any kind, and it seemed colder than the outside, somehow. Daisuke sat with his back to the wall on my right, his legs curled under him and with his head hung low enough so that his expression was not visible. He looked small - defeated.

One glance told you why - the limp, white shell that had been Ken was clutched tight in his arms.

Just like Miyako and Iori. Dead.

"Daisuke…" I didn't mean to make my voice low; it went like that all on its own. The sight in front of me was terrible. I had to swallow hard around a lump in my throat. The cat-boy didn't look up at me, even as I stepped forward.

The other three just hovered in the doorway - this one was up to me.

Fantastic.

I knelt down beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Daisuke."

He did look up at me at that point - but I almost wished he hadn't. There were tear tracks on his face, and his eyes were dull - almost lifeless. "Tai," he acknowledged me, voice hoarse. I don't even think he had enough left to be surprised.

I had to swallow again - several times - before I could speak. "We're here to save you," I said, giving the shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Come on."

"You're too late, Tai." Even the tone of his voice sounded dead. "Ken's already - " He choked on that sentence, and his face bent forward again, shoulders shaking under my hand as the tears came back.

"He's not!" I gripped his shoulder, that sense of urgency taking over. It felt like time was crawling up all over me. We had to get to that sword… "We can still save him - and the others, too. But you're going to have to trust me."

Daisuke's head had shot up; he was staring at me with huge eyes. It was almost like he was afraid to be too hopeful. "Wh… What do you mean?"

"I don’t have time to explain it all… but we can save them, Daisuke - trust me." I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. "We have to find my sword - can you help with that?"

"I… I think…" Daisuke swiped at his cheeks, a bit of the old light coming back into his eyes. "I think so…" He grabbed my wrist tightly before I could pull away, returning my gaze with a kind of desperation. "Can we really save them?"

I nodded, trying to look positive for his sake. "If we hurry, we can." Pulling away, I offered a hand to help him up. "Come on!"

~~~~~~

"They mostly kept us in that room," Daisuke explained as we moved on. His voice was hushed - not at all like it usually was. He deliberately wasn't looking at where Matt was carrying Ken's body. Bringing him along with us wasn't exactly the smartest plan, but Daisuke wouldn't leave without him.

"Was the sword already gone when you woke up?" Kari asked, just as quietly. That was more fatigue than anything, on her part… She looked like she barely had anything left.

I could hardly blame her for that.

"Yeah…" Daisuke sighed. He looked tired as well - but a different sort of tired. "Miyako was gone, too. We never saw what happened to her… But I know. I saw Iori…" He swallowed. "And… And…"

"It's okay," I interrupted him. "We have Miyako and Iori, back at the base. And we'll be able to save all of you - you'll see."

Daisuke nodded. His eyes were still lacking their usual spark. "I saw the sword once. They brought us out here the first time - when… Iori…"

Kari reached up to rub his shoulder comfortingly.

"My symbol's gone." He said it like it didn't really make a difference. "It was still there when Ken… when that happened. It's gone now. My turn coming up, I guess."

"Your turn is not going to come up," I said firmly.

"We'll make sure it doesn't," Izzy added, offering an awfully weak-looking smile. His face looked sort of sick - maybe from the fight with Joe and Mimi. It was hard to fight friends…

I slid my fingers around his as we walked - just for a moment.

"How long do you think we have until Sora shows up?" Matt asked - saying out loud the question that none of the rest of us even wanted to think about.

"Not long enough," I muttered. She'd had plenty of time to get to the tunnels by now. I was just worrying about how fast that thing could make her move.

Daisuke moved ahead of Kari, toward where a shorter tunnel veered off from the main one. "Here it is," he told us, heading down it and into a small room.

It looked like it had been inhabited, once. There were traces of chairs, bookshelves - little homey touches. Those things had not been treated well, though - as the only way to determine what had been in this room was to guess at what the wrecked items were before Chaos got to them. Bits of wood scattered the floor, and jumbled piles of rocks and boulders littered the room. It looked like a disaster area.

"What hurricane struck this place?" Matt commented quietly, behind me.

Daisuke didn't seem to be paying attention to our reactions. "Here," he said, moving across the room. There was a small closet at that end, littered with debris and partly hidden in shadows. The cat-boy reached around a rock pile, digging through what looked like some odd assortments. "It's in here somewhere."

Above him, the shadows seemed to move…

I blinked. Was that…?

"I got it." Daisuke twisted to look at us without rising up, holding my sword in his hand. My attention instinctively went to that prize - this was what we'd come for! "Here's your - "

"Daisuke!" Matt's attention apparently hadn't wandered. "Above you!"

Too late.

Daisuke fell back with a yelp as Sora emerged from the dark place in the closet - but his reaction time was not nearly fast enough to avoid her. She was on him faster than the rest of us could react, grabbing him by his throat with both hands and lifting him up as easily as if he really were the feline he resembled.

My sword clattered to the floor as Daisuke let out a strangled noise and clawed at the grip on his neck with both hands. His eyes were as wide as they could go.

"Daisuke!" Kari reacted before I got over my shock, running forward to try and knock Sora's hands free.

Our teammate's face was blank; something malevolent looked back at us through her eyes. She took one hand from Daisuke's throat, and met Kari's charge with a single swipe across the shoulders - powerful enough to knock her back against the cave wall.

That must have been about it for my little sister, because she crumpled to a heap on the ground and didn't move.

"Kari…" Matt and I both hesitated, and that gave that thing in Sora's body just enough time. Still dangling the cat-boy with one hand, she brought Daisuke down until they were on eye level. She shook him roughly, making him look at her - a white glow surrounded the two of them, and the cat-boy thrashed in her grip, letting out helpless little squeaks of pain.

"Daisuke!" I didn't hesitate that time; running forward, I grabbed at Sora's arms. It was like trying to pry apart a stone statue. Matt joined me less than a second later, but even the two of us couldn't budge her. Yelling, I started to strike at her shoulders, her arms - anything to make her let go. She didn't even seem to notice our efforts.

Daisuke's face was going pale; his struggles faltered…

Izzy took that moment to run forward as well - but instead of going for Daisuke, he bent down to retrieve my sword.

Sora's attention left Daisuke for the moment, and her eyes met his. I'm not really sure how it happened - but for an instant, Izzy's expression was that of a mouse trapped by the stare of a snake. He froze in place, one hand clutching my sword, his gaze locked on Sora's. A small smile twisted up the corners of her mouth.

No!

I stopped trying to dislodge her and instead set my fist, pulled it back, and punched her in the jaw as hard as I could. Her face was knocked too hard for her to hold that hypnotizing gaze any longer.

Izzy blinked - then gasped in a breath, picked up the sword, and backed away quickly.

The look Sora gave me held more annoyance than real anger. She grabbed my shirt with her free hand and lifted me off the ground even as I fought her, tossing me back against the wall. I hit it hard enough to daze me, and slumped to a seat on the ground. The only thing I could do for a terrible moment was watch the lights swimming around in my vision as I tried to regain my senses.

When I looked up again, it was just in time to see Sora toss Daisuke's colorless body to the ground indifferently.

I think it was that carelessness that made me start to see red at that point. Daisuke had been my friend, and this thing treated him like so much dirt. I could see Ken on the ground where Matt had left him - and in my mind, I could see Miyako lying in the dirt outside our base, and Iori face-down in the garden.

You're never going to get away with that!

Sora was facing Matt when I charged her from her other side, so she didn't have time to completely block the swing I took at her head with the hilt of my knife - but she did manage to get her arm in the way. There was a sickening sort of crunch as it connected - I'd just broken Sora's arm.

That cooled me down a little - this was still Sora's body. When - not if - we got rid of this thing, she'd have it back again, and I didn't want to permanently hurt her.

She didn't even seem to feel the pain of the broken bones. Instead, snarling, she broke free of another one of Matt's attacks, and managed to backhand me with her good arm. I stumbled, getting turned around as I tried to keep my balance.

That's when my eyes found Izzy.

And I realized what he'd been trying to get my sword for.

During the fight over Daisuke, he'd managed to take the sword to the far end of the room, and - since he was the only one who knew what to do with it… He had both hands on my sword - on the blade, not the hilt - and had the point set against the symbol on his chest - which he had bared by pulling down the front of my shirt.

In that instant I understood exactly what that page had told him he had to do. I could see the picture on the screen - Izzy's symbol, with my sword stuck through the middle of it - as clearly as if I were still looking at it right then. My stomach gave a sudden, violent lurch.

Izzy's symbol…

With my sword through the middle.

I broke away from Sora, trying to make a panicked rush for the redhead at the other end of the room. "Izzy! No!"

For the barest of seconds, his eyes met mine - a very determined gaze. And one I knew too well. Before I could reach him, he gripped the blade with both hands and pushed it toward him. It sank in without resistance.

Behind me, Sora suddenly let out a terrible, lingering shriek that hurt my ears, some kind of freaked-out banshee wail.

"NO!" I don't even remember willing myself to yell it - I tried to run forward, to catch Izzy as he buckled forward, falling to his knees… to pull the blade out…. to make it stop… The area around him was glowing white, brighter than Sora and Daisuke had before…

Matt grabbed me from behind, holding me back. "Tai!" he shouted, over Sora's shrieks. "Stop!" I wasn't even hearing him, but my elbow connected with his ribs. He made a gasping noise, but didn't let go even when he started cursing me.

I don't even think I heard him; all I could focus on was Izzy…

His hands were dripping blood, slashed from holding onto the razor-sharp edges of my sword - but his face twisted stubbornly and he yanked at it again. He grimaced, fingers loosening a fraction as the blade slid forward sluggishly. The glow around him intensified, almost blocking him from our view. His hands dropped limply from the sword, his body swaying as if it lacked the force to remain upright.

And Sora was screaming - but it wasn't even Sora. It started off as her voice, but that was lost soon in the noise behind me - a terrible, shrill sound… anger, pain, defeat… and that loss - it had been so close… so close

There was a soft thud - Sora's body hitting the floor - but the screams continued shrilly, though much of the substance behind them had faded.

Someone else was screaming, as the light faded and Izzy slumped into a heap on the ground. There was an odd lack of blood - just that nightmarish sight of my best friend - my lover, the boy I was in love with - crumpled in a dead pile on the dirty stone floor, with my sword still sticking right through him. And someone was yelling - an anguished, crazy howl like an animal suffering intense pain. The room seemed to spin with it; the noise was deafening.

It wasn't until Matt pulled back and socked me square in the jaw that I realized it had been me.

~~~~~~

I think I fell down. I was dazed for a moment - but Matt hadn't hit me hard enough to knock me out.

A dead silence had fallen by the time I came to my senses again.

Sora was lying slumped in the middle of the room, unconscious. Beside her was Daisuke - not nearly so colorless as he had been when she'd tossed him aside, and I could see him stirring, his chest seeming to rise and fall as he breathed. Against one of the walls, Kari still lay motionless, Matt stood next to me with his fists clenched and his head bowed…

And…

I didn't even try to get to my feet - just struggled across the room on my hands and knees, wanting to reach him as soon as possible.

Izzy…

It wasn't fair - Daisuke was alive, and Izzy was - he was…

I couldn't even think it.

Crying isn't something I did a lot of, but the sight of the sword sticking out of him was almost enough to send me into hysterics. I yanked it out, tossed it aside, and grabbed him off the ground, clutching him tightly against me so I wouldn't see the wound. His body was limp and pliable in my arms. You can't be dead… You can't be…

He wasn't getting up to reassure me…

No… I was shaking all over; my eyes shut tightly as I held him. "No…" I mumbled it out loud, shaking my head fiercely. He couldn’t be… Izzy was indestructible. He'd always be there, sitting at his computer with the satisfied expression and the bright eyes. He'd glance up and give me that perfect smile whenever I did something just to make him look at me. He'd make something explode in the middle of hunting when it wasn't supposed to, then rush over to see if I was all right. He'd be my best friend forever, I'd love him forever, he wasn't dead, he wasn't dead!

"Tai…" Matt began awkwardly. He didn't come over or touch me. "Tai, it's - "

"Don’t say it!" I might've said those words with too much force, gripping Izzy closer to me. The moment he said anything, he'd make it real. But it couldn't be real… this was a dream - a nightmare…

"But it…" His voice was shaking. "It's not… there's no… There's no blood…"

I looked up sharply. He was wrong - Izzy's hands were oozing blood, making a mess of my clothing and puddling on the floor. But other than that…

I loosened my hold on his body, forcing myself to look at his chest.

Nothing but smooth, unblemished skin.

No wound.

No symbol.

The boy in my arms gave a jerk, and suddenly took in a long, gasping breath - and started to cough violently.

I gaped at him for a moment. "I… Izzy…?"

He was still gulping in air; his eyes remained tightly shut. "Tai…" It was barely a breath, but I heard my name.

Wild, crazy relief caught me in a wave - I couldn't help letting out something like a tear-clogged whooping noise, and hugged him even tighter. "Oh god… Izzy… you're alive…"

Nothing else could possibly matter to me in that moment. I gripped him as close to me as I possibly could, still crying. I was getting my own shirt all wet, and Izzy was struggling weakly, gasping out something about cracking his ribs.

I didn't care.

I was never going to let go of him again.

 

Epilogue