Yu-Gi-Oh!

Ghosts in the Night

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters (except for Elizabeth and Jamie) aren't mine, the story is, and this is not yaoi or shounen-ai. :smiles.: Just much friendship cuteness and such. I apologize for the removal of the songs, but the new policy has forced me to remove them.


Valon sighed to himself as he settled down at the computer in the corner of the modest living room and flipped the power switch. Another sleepless night, peppered with endless thoughts of the past days and nights—and often, nightmares when he did manage to doze. The house was quiet tonight. Raphael had gone to bed ages ago. And without Alister around, Valon didn't really have anyone to argue with. It was lonely in a way. He had never thought he would miss Alister, or their ridiculous fights, but sometimes, when it was late at night and he was alone, he admitted that he did. Deep down, he and Alister were friends. Perhaps their almost constant arguing had only proved that.

He gazed blankly at the screen as the desktop loaded. Slowly he grabbed for the mouse and clicked on the icon for one of his fighting games. "I hope you're not imagining that you're beating me senseless," Alister had sometimes said dryly when he had come in and found Valon playing the dratted game with a ferocity and passion after one of their quarrels. Valon would usually answer with some sarcastic remark. He missed those times now, but more so, he just missed his friend.

He frowned. Alister wouldn't be coming back anymore. It had taken a long time, but now Valon had finally grown accustomed to the fact. Only after he realized Alister was gone had it dawned on him that the redhead had been a friend and one of the only people he had in his life. Valon had tried to convince himself that nothing could ever happen to Alister or Raphael. It wasn't supposed to. That just wasn't how it worked. They would always be there—the two constants in Valon's life. He had known them both for so long that to suddenly be without one of them was an unwelcome jerk back into reality. Raphael would someday be gone as well, Valon had bitterly decided, and then he would be without anyone again. What would he do then? Wander about aimlessly? He barely noticed as he made it to the next level of his game.

Raphael had grimly accepted that Alister was gone from the first day they had heard tell of it. But he had brooded for days, becoming more closed and irritable than Valon had known him to be. Usually he was quite patient with the Australian, enduring his odd quirks with a sigh and a grunt. But he had seemed to have no patience for Valon's initial insistence that Alister was coming back. They had drifted apart for a while, though at last they had reconciled and were now as close as they had been before, perhaps closer. The whole incident could have destroyed them both, but in the end it looked like they would make it through after all. They had lost one of their own, but that didn't mean that the remaining two had to grow distant as well.

A thump on the front porch made Valon almost jump a mile. It had been so deathly still for so long, with nothing but the quiet noise of the computer game, that to hear such a loud crash out of the blue was extremely shocking. Valon frowned, standing up and going over. He didn't remember that anything had been left on the porch that could fall over. And it didn't seem to be windy either. On the contrary, it was quite a quiet winter night, with snow falling down gently. In case it was a clumsy burglar making the thumping noise, Valon prepared himself for a fight as he abruptly threw the door open.

When a ghost fell into the room and lay sprawled on the floor, the brunette Australian could only leap away in shock, staring. The apparition looked only too familiar with its flipped magenta hair, skinny body, and exposed waist. Valon could hear his heart pounding as he continued to gaze at the apparently unconscious form. No . . . this wasn't possible. Reality had already been determined. Alister wasn't coming back. But then . . . why was he laying on the carpet, shivering in that midriff-baring tank top? Why was he defying reality? Valon uttered a soft exclamation as he shut the door and knelt down next to the body. Maybe he had gone completely insane. Or maybe he had fallen asleep in front of the computer and it was all a dream. That had happened before. Just last week he had dozed in front of the monitor and had woke up the next morning with a badly kinked neck.

Slowly he reached out, certain that once he gripped at the apparition's shoulder, the form would vanish and he would realize his foolishness in believing that Alister had come back. So many times he had thought everything was a dream and that Alister was still alive and well. Sometimes, lost in the fog of a dream, Valon would wander to the redhead's room and knock, expecting to hear him asking "What?" in a very tired, annoyed voice. Once he had even just gone in. Seeing the room void of any life was what had forced him into the truth that Alister was dead. He had never again believed in the idealism that he was coming back. His precious conviction that neither Alister or Raphael could die had been shattered. But now his hand touched ice-cold, solid flesh and his eyes widened, his grasp tightening. "Alister," he whispered in disbelief. "It's you. . . .You're still alive and kickin'. . . ." It was impossible . . . yet true. Valon couldn't deny the reality of what was. Alister was home.

Alister shivered again, though the warmth of the carpet and throughout the house was helping to take the bluish tint away from his features. "Barely," he responded as he regained consciousness. "I was taking a chance that either you forgot to lock the door or that you were still awake." He coughed, most likely from being cold, and rolled over onto his side. From there he tried to sit up, with Valon's assistance.

Valon shivered as he felt Alister's half-frozen skin. "What happened to you, mate!" he demanded as the taller young man started to slump against him weakly. "Everyone 'round here thinks you gave up the ghost!" And really, that didn't seem to be much of a stretch. Alister looked like he'd come through the wringer and then some. His flesh was pale and he looked peaked and weary. The dark circles under his sunken gray eyes—half-hidden behind the magenta bangs, which were now ruffled (as was all of his hair)—testified of little or no sleep. Bandages covering several still-healing wounds could be seen on his right arm and on his back. Various scratches and bruises were also visible. It was amazing, Valon thought, that he was coherent at all. No, he reconsidered then, it was amazing—a miracle—that he was alive at all. He had been considered dead for so many weeks. The police had said that he couldn't have survived the accident and had said that even if he had, why hadn't he come back? That had been Raphael's argument as well, insisting that Alister wouldn't abandon them and that he was truly dead. Then there had been the body found. . . .

"It's a long story," Alister grunted in return, not very willing to divulge many details but knowing that Valon deserved some sort of explanation. "The short version is that I woke up without my memories in someone's house and she told me that I had been the only survivor in a plane crash. Unfortunately for me, she had only rescued me in order to use me once I recovered enough." He narrowed his eyes. There was one reason why he didn't trust people often. Half the time they only wanted to use him. If they were decent, they usually wound up perishing somehow—as his family had. Alister had tried to tell himself he wouldn't trust anyone again, but as luck would have it, he trusted Valon and Raphael. They were his family now.

"Use you!" Valon repeated indignantly, still reeling in confusion from the information Alister was giving him. He and Raphael had been told by the police that Alister had died in the plane crash. Neither of them could figure out what he had been doing on a private plane in the first place or what he had even died for. There were so many questions he wanted answers to, but he knew they would have to wait. Right now Alister was exhausted and probably injured as well. And Raphael needed to know that he was back. So Valon bit down on his curiosity and said, "It sounds like you've had an adventure and a half, chum," and then asked if Alister was badly hurt. He didn't ask if he had his memories back, because it seemed obvious that he must. Otherwise, how could he have shown up here and conversed with Valon just like he always had?

"I'm well enough," Alister replied, despite having said he was only barely alive a few moments earlier. That had been mostly a sarcastic remark. He felt certain that he would survive. "What I really need is a hot shower." He had been out in the snow for much too long and without his trenchcoat. And before that, there had been the fight with that power-hungry woman and her cohorts. . . . Not to mention recovering after having been poisoned. Valon was right about it being "an adventure and a half." It had been a series of events Alister would have much preferred not going through at all.

Valon frowned at him. "When I opened that door, chum, you'd passed clean out on the other side! You look beat. In your condition, you'd probably collapse in the tub if you tried to take any kind of a shower!" Of course, he knew Alister wouldn't listen to him. Indeed, he was struggling to stand up anyway, grabbing the arm of the couch for support.

"Try going through everything I have for the past forty-eight hours and not pass out from sheer exhaustion," the redhead retorted, running a hand through his bangs. "In those forty-eight hours, I've probably had less than three hours of sleep." It made him tired just remembering it all. But he wanted a shower anyway, knowing that would relax him. In spite of Valon's protests, he limped up the stairs and turned to the bathroom on the left.

Valon sighed, crossing his arms. "That's Alister for you," he muttered. "He blows in after we've thought for weeks that he kicked the bucket, goes down for the count against the front door, and five minutes later he decides that he's well enough to stand under a hot shower." He heard the water turning on upstairs. "And what's more, no one can do a thing to stop him." Though he tried to tell himself he didn't care, he knew that he did. Alister was home again, where he belonged. And Valon found himself smiling in spite of himself. Their ragtag family was complete again. He had his other friend back.

A moment later Raphael came out of his bedroom, blinking sleepily as he realized the shower was running and that Valon was standing at the bottom of the stairs. "Did I leave the shower on?" he asked the brunette at last, unable to comprehend. There was no one else who would be using it. . . . Not anymore. . . .

"Nope," Valon replied with a grin, "you didn't, mate." Raph, you're not gonna believe this. . . . Not in a million years. . . . Especially not after the way I was actin' a few weeks ago. . . .

Raphael gave him the most perplexed expression possible, feeling utterly confused. Maybe he was just too tired to realize that Valon was most likely playing a prank, he thought to himself in his fogged state of mind. "Then what . . . ?"

Valon had to laugh. "It's Alister!" he declared jubilantly. "He's come back, Raph. He's home."

Raphael growled. It was too early in the morning for this. "That's not funny, Valon," he scolded. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew Valon wouldn't play a trick like that, but he was so tired that his retort had just came out. And he knew that what Valon said couldn't really be true. Alister was dead! But what was going on with the shower?

"Dead men don't take showers," Valon replied as Alister opened the bathroom door and walked out. The redhead was wearing a dark robe and was drying his hair with a fluffy towel. He looked up when he felt eyes upon him, meeting Raphael's astonished and disbelieving gaze.

"I thought I'd come home," he said by way of explanation. Home. . . . That had a nice ring to it. Yes, he had a home and a family, though for a long time he hadn't realized the latter. Actually, Valon probably hadn't either. Raphael had been the only one among them who had always considered the other two as being family.

Now Raphael could only continue to stare, not certain if he was dreaming, hallucinating, or if this was possibly real. Alister remained where he was, running the towel through his magenta locks. As his hair began to dry out more, it started to curl up at the ends the way he liked it.

"I thought he was a ghost myself when I first saw him," Valon said, climbing up the stairs. "He passed out on the floor after crashing into the front door."

Raphael thought this over, becoming wide awake now. Valon was right. . . . Alister had come home. He was still alive. He couldn't doubt the seemingly impossible news now. The proof of its truth was standing in front of him. "You're long overdue, Alister," he said at last, looking the younger man in the eyes. That was an understatement. Raphael hadn't known how he would bear losing part of his second family. When the news had come of Alister's demise, he had accepted it as the cold reality and had started to brood, wondering if he could have done anything to change what had happened. But he hadn't even known Alister had been on some private jet that had crashed. Alister was too secretive for his own good.

Alister's "death" had nearly torn the other two bikers apart from each other. Raphael hadn't quite realized at first, but he had indeed been annoyed by Valon's refusal to accept the facts. He had snapped at him often, eventually getting into a bad argument with the Australian that had resulted in them both barely speaking to each other for the next few days. Not that they had been speaking much anyway since the news of their friend's tragic and perplexing death. When they each realized the other was grieving in his own way, and that they were quickly drifting apart, at last they were able to start patching up their friendship and have hope that eventually they would heal.

Alister actually gave a slight smile now. Raphael had missed him. And somehow he had the feeling that even Valon had. He remembered how uneasy and suspicious he had felt when in the home of that devilish woman. He felt none of that here. Being here was right. He knew that he belonged here and that he was welcomed and cared about. And he cared about the others in return. It had taken a long time for them to finally earn his trust and then his friendship, but once they had, they had also gained Alister's firm and steadfast loyalty. He would never betray them. And he had the assurance that he would not be betrayed by them. They were a family, in their own odd way. Raphael was like the protective elder brother, tough but actually soft at heart, watching out for the other two. Alister was the middle brother, silent and aloof but caring. And Valon was the youngest brother, sometimes rebellious, sometimes naive, but really craving somewhere to belong and a purpose in life. Perhaps, with each other, they had a purpose.


Naturally, Alister was ready to drop by this time. Valon had happened to mention how the redhead had said that he had only gotten a maximum of three hours of sleep in a span of two days and Raphael was insistent that Alister should rest. Though they both were highly interested in knowing what had happened to their friend over the weeks he had been gone, they knew that his health was the most important thing right now. The shower had refreshed him, but it wasn't able to hide how weak and exhausted he was. And Alister was so tired that he didn't protest when he was directed to his bed. He collapsed into it, after promising to tell his story when he woke up, and then was pretty much immediately asleep.

Valon smirked a bit as he watched this. "He might not wake up for a couple of days," he remarked.

Raphael adjusted the quilt around Alister's shoulders before turning to leave. "If that's what it will take for him to recover, then fine," he said, smiling softly as he glanced back at the slumbering redhead. Alister was home. He kept repeating it in his mind, in awe. Both he and Valon had eventually had to accept that Alister wouldn't be coming home, but now he had. Somehow he had defied logic and had survived the plane crash. And a multitude of other things, if what Valon had said that Alister had briefly mentioned was any indication of how the past few weeks had gone for him. "Let's let him sleep."

Valon nodded slowly, following the blonde man out into the hall. "I'm glad he's alright, Raph," he admitted quietly. "I never wanted anything terrible to happen to him."

"I know," Raphael replied as he gently shut the door. "I know."


As it turned out, Alister did not sleep for a couple of days. He was awake and about by the time Valon woke up the next morning. The Australian found him in the kitchen, slowly drinking what looked like a glass of ice water and wearing his trademark attire of black pants and a too-short tank top. At first Valon started when he saw the other man, causing Alister to look up at him questioningly.

The Australian shrugged, sliding into his usual place at the circular table. "It's kinda strange, you havta admit," he said quietly, "finding a 'dead' bloke in the kitchen." Alister made no reply and Valon sighed. "You could've at least tried to call, you know," he remarked, though he then realized he didn't know how long Alister had suffered with amnesia. He certainly wouldn't have known to call when he didn't remember anything. Perhaps he hadn't regained his memories until shortly before he had come home, for all Valon knew.

"I could have tried," Alister agreed, "if several different factors aren't considered." He set the glass down. He wasn't the type to try eating the ice when it was the only thing left in the glass. "One, that I didn't know who I was, let alone that there was anyone worried about me or that there was a phone number I could call for help. Two, that I was being held prisoner in a strange woman's house and kept under almost constant surveillance. I couldn't have used the phone even if I knew someone to call. And three, that I was being poisoned."

Valon just stared at him, dumbfounded. "What!" he cried at last.

"You heard me." Alister leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "They were poisoning me." He frowned. "That didn't come until later, though."

"Well . . . as long as you're awake, how about telling us what happened—from the beginning." Raphael spoke up from the doorway. He had woke up not long ago and had been listening quietly to the other two conversing. Now his eyes narrowed. "And if you were being poisoned, maybe you need to see a doctor." The last thing they needed was for something else to happen to Alister now that he finally was back with them.

But Alister shook his head. "There's no need. I got the antidote." Idly he rubbed at a spot on his arm near his shoulder. When Valon looked close enough, he was certain he could see a tiny puncture wound, most likely courtesy of a hypodermic needle. "As for telling my story, I did promise I would. But I would also be interested in knowing what happened with you and Valon in the meantime." Had he truly been missed so extremely by them both, even Valon? It was still something hard to get used to at times. He had thought for so long that Valon hated him. Though at the same time, he realized now, Valon had been thinking that Alister hated him. It was amazing what a lack of communication could cause. Actually, neither one hated the other, albeit they often didn't understand each other or their motives for doing certain things.

"Fair enough," Raphael said now, also coming to sit at the table.

Flashbacks

Alister did wish he knew who he was. He wished he understood why he had been the only survivor in the plane crash and why some stranger was nursing him back to health. Perhaps he was too suspicious of a person, but he didn't trust the woman. There was something about her . . . about the way she fussed over him and seemed so overly concerned about his memory loss . . . that seemed so fake. There was no other word for it. In Alister's mind, she was completely fake. She wanted something from him, but he couldn't determine what it was. And so he was playing along with her little game. He was still weak. Often he found himself passing out for seemingly no reason. There wasn't a good reason for him to give his rescuer any hints of his true feelings about her nature, for if she was plotting something underhanded, she could bring further harm upon Alister if she knew he suspected it of her. And he would be almost completely defenseless against a physical attack at this point. The woman had quite a few strong servants roaming through her house. Bodyguards, she called them. Alister didn't doubt it. And he also didn't doubt that they beat up people with whom the woman was displeased.

"Allan?"

He looked up at the sound of the aristocratic voice. For whatever reason, his rescuer—well, her name was Elizabeth, she said, but Alister rarely thought of her by name—had chosen to give him the name "Allan." He didn't think it fit at all, but Elizabeth seemed to get enjoyment from it and since they had no other name to go on, she continued to call him this. Alister figured it was probably the name of some former beau of hers.

"How are you doing today, Allan?" Elizabeth smiled sweetly as she entered the room, but Alister only went further on guard. He studied her while trying not to be too obvious. Her carefully styled red hair (which was much brighter and a more "pure" red shade than Alister's own magenta locks) rippled over her shoulders and down her back, while her green eyes met Alister's own gray orbs and lighted with a certain something that he couldn't quite decipher. Simple delight or kindness, perhaps, but also possibly (or probably) there was a dancing smirk hidden in those emerald eyes. And maybe also a slight hint of . . . lust? Alister was almost certain he recognized this. He tensed.

"I'm fine," he said shortly.

Elizabeth pouted. "You're always 'fine,' Allan, darling. But I know better. You look extremely malnourished." She came over to the bed and set a hot mug on the nightstand before playfully reaching out and squeezing Alister's upper arm. "And you need to get some more meat on your bones. You have the beginnings of some nice muscles."

Alister carefully pushed her away with his other hand. This was normal behavior around her, so he doubted she'd suspect anything from it. One of the things she'd been complaining about since he had first regained consciousness a couple of weeks or so ago was that he rarely talked to her and that he never returned her affections. "Surely," she had protested, "you owe me some more gratitude for saving your life." His response had been basically that he didn't have to show his gratitude by holding and kissing someone he didn't even know or love. And so he continued to refuse her advances. It seemed inappropriate, he often thought in disgust, for her to persist in trying to get close to him when he didn't want it and when he was laying wounded in her house. "I haven't eaten much for a couple of days. There's a difference between that and being malnourished," he said flatly. "And I'll worry about my own muscles."

"Oh, alright then," Elizabeth relented at last. She leaned back, brushing her crimson locks away from her face and pointing to the mug. "I brought you some more of that herbal tea. You should drink it before it gets cold." The woman stood then, heading for the door. She would leave as the same enigmatic presence she had been upon first entering. She never told Alister much about herself in the hopes that he would be curious and ask. But he rarely did, and when he had, it had been obvious that he had been asking simply because he wanted to know the caliber of the woman who was tending to him. His heart was not one easily moved by women or romance. She had always known this about him. But that made it all the more of a challenge. Plus, there was the information he carried, locked away in his mind, that she wanted. . . . The information that she would retrieve eventually, no matter what it took. Subconsciously he still remembered everything. If she could simply pry the memories from deep within his soul, without him even realizing it, then all the better . . . for her.

Alister stared after her coldly as she left, then turned his attention to the herbal tea. He studied the substance as he took the mug in his hands, ignoring the steam that rose from it and warmed his face. It was a frustrating position he was in. Though he was well enough to walk, he knew he was still too weak to leave the mansion yet. What was more, he knew that when he did, he wouldn't have anyplace to go. His memory was completely gone. He didn't know if he had a family somewhere who might be looking for him or if he had any good friends. He seemed to himself like the kind of person who never allowed anyone to get close to him (romantically or not) and vice versa. Perhaps he was alone in life. He had no way of knowing.

Slowly he took several sips of the tea and then set the mug back on the nightstand, thoughtfully running his tongue over his upper lip. Maybe he didn't really have a good reason to be overly suspicious of Elizabeth, at least not in the way he had been thinking earlier. She was most definitely trying to make romantic advances on him, but that didn't necessarily make her a criminal. It did make her extremely revolting in Alister's eyes, however. He couldn't stand women who forced themselves upon unwilling men. He wondered grimly if she'd "rescued" any other poor souls and tried to treat them in the same way. Moreso, he wondered how many of them might have given in. He vowed that he would not. He was stronger than that.

Involuntarily he yawned. Immediately he frowned, wondering why he would be starting to get tired already. He hadn't been awake very long. And one of Elizabeth's visits was usually enough to keep him silently fuming and quite awake for several hours. Except when she or the servants brought food. . . .

Wait. . . .

Alister took the mug again and stared into it. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, but he was starting to get the suspicion that something was. Maybe Elizabeth had been drugging him, for whatever reason. That would explain why he had suddenly been passing out with seemingly no reason behind it. Elizabeth had insisted that the fainting spells were happening because he was so much more ill that he had originally thought he was, but now he was starting to wonder if she had been lying. It made enough sense to him. The only thing he didn't understand was the reason why she was doing it. What did she want from him? He was certain it was something more than lustful desires being fulfilled. Though she perhaps tried to hide it, she was quite clever. There was definitely a reason for her behavior. And he was going to have to find out what it was.

Who am I? Where am I? Is anyone looking for me? Who is this "Elizabeth"? Why did she actually rescue me? I know she couldn't have been concerned for my well-being.

The questions kept coming, filling his mind until he thought he would go crazy. He had no answers. Though, he had arrived at a wise decision.

He had decided not to finish the tea.

&&&&

Dead.

Deceased, passed on, lifeless, "no longer with us."

It didn't matter which phrase one used. It all meant the same thing. And Valon was rejecting it all.

He sat on the porch of the modest home, staring out into the distance in frustration and not caring as the cold wind nipped at his face and hands. Why was he having such a hard time accepting that Alister was dead? He wasn't supposed to be especially close to the aloof redhead. But the news that the police had brought—that Alister had been identified as having gotten on the private jet that had eventually crashed and left no survivors—had left Valon numb and in complete denial.

Maybe it was because it sounded too far-fetched. Alister would have had no reason to have boarded the private jet owned by Industrial Illusions. And yet it had been proved that he had been on it. A security camera at the airport had captured him blending in with the other passengers as they all had ascended the portable stairs into the jet. But that only posed more questions and no answers. Valon and Raphael didn't know how to explain the mystery and neither did Maximillion Pegasus. He had clearly been as appalled as everyone else to learn the news of what had happened to one of his company's jets and its passengers. He had offered condolences to the two stunned bikers and promised to get to the bottom of it all, but so far he had uncovered nothing.

Valon looked down. Maybe the fact that it was far-fetched was some of why he was upset, but he knew it wasn't all of it. Alister and Raphael weren't supposed to die. In his mind, they were indestructible. If they could die . . . then Valon could wind up alone again. And he didn't want to be alone. He had gotten used to being with the other two over the past few years and had eventually allowed himself to consider them as his friends. After Doom, they had each individually decided to search for the others. Valon wasn't certain what had motivated him to do so. He had figured he would just be alone again, wandering around and getting into trouble. But instead something inside himself had insisted that he wanted to find Alister and Raphael and that he should. Maybe they had symbolized something constant and taken for granted, which was something Valon had never had before. Nothing ever lasted forever and no one ever stayed forever. Something always happened to them. But Alister and Raphael were always around. Valon had been a bit shocked to learn that they had been searching for him as well as for each other. The two more serious, quiet, former Doom soldiers got along very well. And admittedly, Valon and Raphael had a certain rapport. But he hadn't thought that they would consider him important enough to find. That they had even bothered to said a lot to Valon about the kind of the people they really were.

He gazed out at the fading colors of the sunset. Alister would be coming back soon. No matter what the reports were or what the security cameras showed, Valon was certain that there was more to the story—much more. Alister had probably escaped the jet before it had crashed. Nevermind that the police had found a badly burned body amongst the wreckage that had been identified as Alister through their testing. It was all some misunderstanding. It had to be. Alister was coming back.

Unless . . . unless he'd just decided to leave them without any warning.

Valon clenched his fists. Alister wouldn't do that. There wasn't any reason for him to suddenly pick up and leave. Besides, he hadn't packed anything. Even the broken action figure that had belonged to Miruko was still here. And if Alister had decided to abandon his friends, he would have at least taken that with him. No, Alister had probably gone off doing some secret thing or another. But he would be back. He always came back.

"Mr. Valon?"

He started, looking around for the source of the voice. Then he saw a shy boy of about eight coming from around the side of the house. The child had a mop of messy blonde hair, a plastering of freckles, and bright violet eyes that shone out from behind thick bangs. He came and stood in front of Valon, repeatedly grabbing and bunching the hem of his shirt and then letting go again. Obviously he was nervous or upset about something.

Valon frowned in confusion. "Who are you and how come you know my name?" he demanded. It wasn't often that he associated with young children, or as he called them in his Australian slang, "ankle biters." He didn't necessarily dislike them, but they made him edgy. He never quite knew how to treat them.

The boy bit his lip. "I'm Jamie," he said at last. "I . . . I know your name because . . . because I knew a friend of yours." He looked up into Valon's blue eyes with his own violet orbs. Valon was surprised to see what looked like unshed tears glistening and gathering.

"What friend?" the Australian asked, his voice softening slightly.

"Alister," was the instant response. Jamie sniffled, trying to smile. "He . . . he always came down to the group home on Tuesdays and Fridays. All of us really liked him. He was awfully nice to us. Most of us are orphans and we're going back and forth from foster families and all that kinda thing. It's . . . it's hard." He looked down briefly but then met Valon's shocked gaze again. "Alister would talk to us, each one, and he really listened too. He actually liked hearing what we said. Most people . . . they just kinda ignore us or they don't really care. But he always understood." The child didn't try to brush away the tear that suddenly emerged. "When he didn't come last week, I knew something was wrong. Then I heard about the crash. . . . And that he'd died in it. . . ."

Valon was trying to collect his thoughts from amidst the extreme surprise. "Well . . . he's not really dead, you know," was all he managed to say. "He's comin' back." Valon had honestly made himself believe this, much to Raphael's dismay. The blonde man had tried to talk to Valon about this denial, even suggesting that he should see a counselor, but Valon had flatly refused. The last thing he needed was some stranger telling him that Alister was dead and that he needed to accept it. His own mind and logic told him that every day, but he continued to block it out.

Jamie just smiled sadly and shook his head. Obviously the child was a lot wiser than given credit for. He could see that Valon was simply denying what he couldn't bring himself to face. To him, this said that Valon had truly cared about Alister as a friend. "He talked about you sometimes," he said finally.

Valon could only stare at him. "He did?" What would Alister have said about him? That he was an irritating loudmouth who was always getting in his way? It wouldn't really surprise him.

Jamie's reply definitely did surprise him, however. "He said you were always open with your emotions and that he didn't understand that because he'd always felt that the best way to go through life was to hide them. But he said that even though you guys argued all the time, he knew you were a good person. He said you'd saved his life once." He smiled again. "And any friend of his is my friend too."

For once Valon had nothing to say.

Interlude

Alister seemed unfazed by what Valon was telling. "Jamie was here?" he said quietly, but he was merely musing to himself. He knew that Jamie could have gotten in trouble if it had been discovered that he had sneaked out of the group home to come talk to Valon. But that was Jamie for you. He did anything he pleased, against the rules or not, if he believed it to be the right thing in the end. It was an attitude that could get him in trouble someday, if he ever wound up in a similar situation to what Alister's had been with Doom.

"I didn't know you were workin' with ankle biters," Valon said, giving Alister a sideways glance.

Alister shrugged. "Of course not. I didn't tell you," he replied flatly.

Raphael stayed silent. He hadn't really been surprised when he had overheard Valon and Jamie conversing. He knew that children were Alister's soft spot. It made sense that he would spend some of his time volunteering as a sort of counselor/big brother. And it also made sense that Alister had said nothing about it to either of them. He preferred to keep his secrets, including ones about any good deeds he'd been involved in. Alister did nothing to get glory or fame. He would be perfectly content if no one knew what he'd been up to. One similarity between the redhead and Raphael was that they were both very sincere and acted on principals and a belief in justice. Valon, of course, was also sincere and believed in not going against one's principals—but with him, admittedly, sometimes he just liked a good fight.

Valon rolled his eyes at Alister's remark and then changed the subject. "So who is this sheila Elizabeth?" he demanded.

"I'm coming to that," Alister replied. "And actually . . . the answer is both interesting and disturbing."

Flashbacks

Alister had barely managed to limp across the room, pour the herbal tea into a potted plant, and then stumble back to his bed before he heard someone approaching the door again. Narrowing his eyes, he dove back under the quilt and decided to pretend that he was asleep. If his suspicions about this woman were correct, perhaps he would now be able to find out what. He closed his eyes almost all the way as the doorknob turned. Only someone studying him carefully would possibly determine that he was actually watching them.

He could hear someone quietly walking toward him after shutting the door again. Elizabeth, most likely. Soon he felt a body sitting on the edge of the bed and he could vaguely see that it definitely was Elizabeth. Her bright red hair and revealing clothes couldn't be easily mistaken.

"Oh dear," she murmured softly. "Poor Alister. It looks like you've had another fainting spell." She leaned forward, checking his pulse. "I'm sorry, did I say 'Alister'? I meant 'Allan.'" She leaned back, a soft smirk gracing her lips. Even with Alister's limited view of her, he could see that she looked quite different from the romance-obsessed woman who had been in the room only moments before. Now she looked quite shrewd and perhaps dangerous. And what was meant by that other name she had called him by? Was that his real name, by any chance? If it was . . . then things were only more complicated. He didn't like the thought that she might know who he was and have that advantage over him. And if she did know his identity, then she had been blatantly lying to him from the start.

Now she was withdrawing what looked like a syringe from the small purse she was carrying. She held it up to the light as she filled it with some substance or another and then gave another smirk as she lowered it, preparing to jab its contents into Alister's arm. But he wasn't going to wait to find out what it was. Instantly his eyes flew open and he slapped her hand, knocking the syringe away.

"I don't think so," he hissed quietly.

Momentarily surprised, Elizabeth quickly tried to regain her bearings. "Why, Allan," she stammered, "I thought you were unconscious."

"'Allan'?" Alister repeated coldly. "Are you sure you don't mean 'Alister'?" He studied her, seeing a slight widening of her eyes. She hadn't been expecting him to have overheard that. "Well?" He glared at her impatiently when she remained silent. "Is my name actually 'Alister'? Do you know who I am?"

Elizabeth smiled suddenly, leaning forward. "My, but you are suspicious. No, you are not Alister. He is dead. But you resemble him strongly." She traced a pattern on his cheek before he grabbed her wrist and held it away from him. "I do wonder if you could be his relation. Alister was my beau, you see. And when you came along, you just reminded me so strongly of him that I couldn't help wishing. . . ." She trailed off, casting her gaze downward.

Alister was unimpressed. "You wished that I would be in love with you, just as he was?" You're lying through your teeth. You said "He is dead" so flippantly. You didn't care about anyone named Alister. He was certain that he, indeed, was Alister and that he had never been her beau. She wanted something from him and was lying desperately in order to attempt to get it.

Elizabeth only shrugged. "You can't blame a girl for dreaming."

Alister frowned. "Stop trying to deceive me," he growled. "And what was in that syringe?"

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around Alister's neck. "It was merely something to stabilize your condition," she whispered. He was very attractive. She would win him over somehow, whether he willed it to be or not. Then she could go about doing what she needed to do without his interference. With a wicked smirk she leaned down and placed her lips over his, kissing him firmly while pressing hard against the back of his neck with her hands. Alister struggled violently, giving her a vicious slap across the face, but he could feel his body numbing. Whatever she was doing, he wasn't going to be able to stop her. Undeterred by the blow, Elizabeth continued to press unbearably until Alister's body went limp underneath the quilt. It didn't take long for unconsciousness to descend if the right touch was administered. And she'd subdued other men this way before. Alister, whose body was so weakened, had been an easy victim.

Gently she caressed his pale cheek. "Yes," she hissed, "your name is Alister, not Allan. And you are going to tell me about Atlantis." After retrieving the syringe, she held it ready to inject it into his arm. The needle's contents consisted of a truth serum. When Alister woke up again—due to Elizabeth's harsh means—it would already be taking effect. And when Elizabeth got the information she wanted, she would kill him. He would be of no use to her then. There were so many stricken lives she had left behind her over the years. Alister's was just one more to add to the list.

As she prepared to jab the syringe into Alister's flesh, she was abruptly stunned speechless by the form of a small child who suddenly got in her way. He glared at her with his bright gray eyes as his red bangs fell into them. "You leave him alone!" he screamed, kneeling on the bed next to the prone form. "Alister hasn't done anything to you!" He hugged Alister protectively around the neck and continued to glare at the woman, refusing to let her come closer.

Elizabeth was not happy with this development. What was more, she had no idea where this child had suddenly came from. "Now look here, brat," she snapped, all trace of honeyed seductiveness gone, "I wanna know how you got into my house and more importantly, why you're interfering with what I'm trying to do here!" She reached out with the intention of grabbing the boy and throwing him forcefully across the room. When her hand went completely through, she recoiled in disbelief and revulsion. "What are you?" she gasped.

This was the scene Alister slowly regained consciousness to. Weakly he opened his eyes and was shocked out of his mind to see a child frantically embracing him. What was even more strange was that he couldn't feel the embrace normally. He could only feel a warm, loving energy surrounding him. When he found he couldn't move his body, he had to wonder if Elizabeth had somehow paralyzed him.

"Don't worry," the boy whispered, looking at Alister and smiling. "You're only numb 'cause of what she did. You'll be able to move in a few minutes." Alister was stunned as he realized that the boy looked like himself. Was this a relative? He did have this strong sensation that he had known him before and that he was someone very important to him. And seemingly with no bidding came a name to his lips.

"Miruko. . . ."

He remembered nothing more and nothing less. There was only that name, most likely belonging to this child. And he had the feeling that somehow Miruko was not in danger from Elizabeth's wrath. Actually, when he looked at her, she seemed almost frightened. Her green eyes were wide and furious as she yelled for her lackeys to come into the room. What on earth had the child done?

Miruko kept hugging Alister. "You've gotta get up now, big brother," he said softly. Brother! This was his brother! "She wants to hurt you. You've gotta get away!" He sat up, his gray eyes full of worry and pleading. "Come on, get up!"

Alister wasn't certain he could. Had the numbness worn off yet? He attempted to move his hand and found that he was able to. After a moment he had gathered enough strength to also sit up. Miruko smiled brightly and scrambled to the floor, encouraging him to follow. Wondering exactly how he was going to escape in his condition, Alister limped after him. Elizabeth's attention was momentarily diverted as she continued to insist that her henchmen hurry it up, but then she turned and picked up a heavy vase.

"You won't get away that easily, Alister," she purred quietly in a voice that spelled certain death. "I've waited too long to get my

hands on you to allow you to escape now."

"I'm not afraid of you," he retorted coldly. And he wasn't. He was only outraged and angry by her actions and confused by the appearance of the young child who had addressed him as "brother." Where had he come from? Why hadn't Alister been able to feel his embrace? "I only want the truth."

"What a coincidence," Elizabeth smirked. "That's what I want too." She advanced slowly, still holding the vase. "I want the truth about the mystical land you once came in such close contact with. I want the knowledge of the Orichalcos. And I'm going to have it, whether you willingly give it or not." There wasn't much point in keeping secrets now. Her servants were arriving at the room. Alister had nowhere to run, unless he was foolish enough to jump out the window. And just to ensure that he wouldn't, she stepped in front of it.

"I don't even know what you're talking about," Alister snapped. He scanned the room desperately, looking for a way out. There seemed to be none. With a growl he backed up against the wall as Elizabeth's men came at him from all directions, his thoughts racing wildly. He wasn't going to let them take him again—and certainly not without some kind of a fight. Not that he was in any condition for fighting. It had been several weeks since he had first woken up here, and he was recovering nicely, but he wouldn't last long in an all-out brawl.

He braced himself against the wall, suddenly having the odd urge to try kicking it in. It couldn't hurt, he supposed, so he attempted it. To his shock, a rectangle-shaped opening appeared as what had been a painted-over, hinge-rusted door fell backwards. He also fell backwards, crashing down on what seemed to be the top of a suspended dumbwaiter. As the rickety door started to swing shut again, he felt something prick his skin, followed by an angry curse from Elizabeth. What now? he wondered grimly to himself as he tried to get his bearings. It suddenly dawned on him that Miruko had just seemed to vanish back in the room and his eyes narrowed in confusion. That made no sense. . . .

"You fool!" Elizabeth was yelling. "He still had that drug in his system, too. With the addition of the poison, it could be enough to kill him!" There was the sound of a slap. "I still need him alive!"

Alister was already starting to lose consciousness from the fast-acting substance. He gripped at the rope holding the dumbwaiter up, struggling to force himself to stay awake. If he passed out now, would that mean that he wouldn't wake up again?

&&&&

Raphael was waiting for Valon when he came back inside. The blonde studied his friend sharply with narrowed blue eyes, frustration and concern written across his features. "It can't continue like this, Valon," he said quietly, his voice firm. This intense denial wasn't healthy. The more Valon kept insisting that Alister wasn't dead, the worse it would be for him when he finally was forced to acknowledge that he was living a lie. Raphael was worried that Valon would completely have a mental breakdown when that happened. And then he would lose his other friend.

Valon whirled to face him. He knew what Raphael meant, but he was going to pretend he didn't. He didn't want to argue about Alister again. Especially not after his astonishing conversation with Jamie. "Did you know Alister's been volunteering with helping the orphans?" he asked, purposely ignoring Raphael's statement.

Raphael sighed, knowing what Valon was trying to do. "I didn't," he replied, "but it doesn't surprise me." He paused, struggling with how to phrase this in a way so that Valon would be less upset. But he knew that was probably impossible. Valon would be upset no matter how Raphael put the words. So he sighed and decided to simply plunge in. "You shouldn't have told him Alister is coming back."

Valon's eyes narrowed darkly. "It's true," he retorted. "He's comin' back, Raph. I know you'll be surprised when it happens, but it will."

"You're not making this easy." Raphael had been under so much stress lately. Dealing with Valon's stubborn refusal of the facts only made it harder to get over Alister's demise. Not that he could ever really get over it. That wasn't what happened when you honestly cared about the person who had perished. The pain would just diminish enough so that going on with life was possible, but it never left entirely. There would always be that emptiness where the person had been. And that could never be filled by anyone else. He had lost all of his family many years before in the tragic shipwreck. And now he had lost one of the only two friends he had now. It looked like he was losing the other as well, though not to death.

"Well, I'm sorry, mate," Valon shot back. "What do you want me to do—bottle everything up and just decide that he's gone for good! I thought you felt more emotion than this! But you're bein' as bad as Alister himself!" Just as Valon's open emotions had confused Alister, it confused Valon how someone could simply hide their feelings away, especially if they cared. Why wouldn't they want to show their emotions? It wasn't as if Raphael or Alister were the types to be concerned about what people would think of them if they weren't so serious and quiet all the time.

Raphael clenched his fists. "I miss him just as much as you do, Valon," he said in a low tone, "but I have to face the facts. He's dead, just like my family died years ago. In order to survive, I had to acknowledge that they were dead. If I had allowed myself to keep falsely hoping that they would come back and we would all leave the island together, I would have most likely fallen into a pit of despair when I finally realized the truth." He looked down at the short young man, his blue eyes boring into Valon's own. "I don't want that to happen to you. Alister wouldn't have wanted it either."

"Who said I'm missing him?" Valon mumbled, half-turning away. But he didn't deny it. He knew it was true.

Raphael rubbed his forehead tiredly. "Valon. . . ." He had been trying so hard to be patient with his friend, but his patience was wearing thin. "Listen. . . ."

"No! You listen, Raphael!" It was only rarely that Valon called Raphael by his full name. Obviously he was highly upset. "You just go around acting so cold about it all. When we first got the news, you accepted it without any questions! But because I won't believe my chum is dead, you act like I'm crazy! Well, I'm sick of it!"

Raphael's patience snapped. "I never said you were crazy!" he yelled. "Of course you aren't. You're just grieving differently than me. But if you keep on like this, you're going to get a rude awakening." His voice rose again. "Alister is dead, Valon! He's DEAD! We can't change what is. The people we care about always die. We have to learn to live with it." There wasn't a day that went by when he didn't wish things were different and that Alister was alive. He didn't appreciate Valon's insinuations that he didn't even care. And he hadn't immediately decided that Alister was dead when the police had come to them. He hadn't believed it at first. But he had certainly believed it before Valon. He was certain that, deep down, the Australian really knew the truth about their friend. He simply couldn't bring himself to acknowledge it aloud—or even to himself.

Valon just stared at him in shock, fire burning in his blue eyes. At last he turned away without another word and went upstairs. He could hear Raphael trying to call him back, but he ignored the blonde man. He didn't want to talk to him anymore right now.


For the next several days, neither of them said much to the other. Raphael came and went, going to his job, and Valon rode his motorcycle around the town, making sure their paths didn't cross very often. He wasn't actually angry at Raphael, and he knew Raphael wasn't angry at him, but he didn't want to face the truth that Raphael always tried to force him to acknowledge. His own mind was trying hard enough. Continually he had dreams in which everything was normal again and Alister was back home, just as Valon tried to convince himself would happen. But when he would awaken, he would remember that Alister was actually not there. Even so, he found himself regularly going and knocking on the door to the redhead's room. Upon not getting an answer, he would rub the sleep from his eyes and kick the door angrily before going back to bed.

He didn't realize that Raphael had sometimes seen this going on, but he had. The blonde would watch Valon from the doorway of his own room, seeing him knocking in vain and then finally giving up with a vexed mutter. And Raphael would shake his head sadly and wonder what to do for his friend. He knew that eventually something was going to happen that would make him have to acknowledge Alister's death as reality. What worried Raphael almost constantly was that he didn't know how Valon was going to react when this happened.

When it did, it was on a stormy night exactly three weeks from the time Alister had been killed. Valon, unable to sleep from frustration over his dreams, was simply wandering around the dimly lighted house. He had drank a glass of soda absentmindedly, tried to play one of his violent computer fighting games, and even had gone outside on the porch for a while in spite of the raging snow. When at last he came back in and went upstairs, he leaned against Alister's door in frustration and rubbed his temples.

"Why do you havta make things so difficult, Alister?" he muttered. "Can't you just come back already?" His shoulders slumped and he turned around to face the wooden door. Narrowing his eyes, he tried the knob and found that of course it was unlocked. Slowly he wandered in and let the light from the hall spill into the darkened room. He wasn't really thinking about what he was doing. Or perhaps he was.

His gaze traveled around the lonely quarters. The bed was made, save for the quilt being slightly turned down, and hadn't been slept in. The closet door was open slightly, offering a glimpse of the clothes the redhead had favored—including several of those odd tank tops that didn't come down all the way, assorted denim jackets and vests, and dark-colored jeans. Alister's trenchcoat was draped over a chair, the many straps sticking out at all possible angles. Valon smirked to himself, remembering asking Alister once what the straps were for and sarcastically wondering if he was planning to stab someone with them. Alister had merely raised an eyebrow and assured him that No, he was not planning that. He never had explained what the straps were for, though. Valon had known that they were naturally just for show, though he found the style a bit odd.

On top of the desk were some of the few temporal possessions Alister had been interested in, including Miruko's broken and charred action figure and the locket that contained pictures of Alister's mother and his brother. Slowly Valon went over, clicking the oval locket open and gazing at the pictures inside. Miruko looked pretty much like an innocent child version of Alister himself. His hair wasn't as deeply magenta as his older brother's and the gray eyes weren't as dark, but the resemblance was definitely there.

The resemblance was also obvious in the faded photograph of the woman. Her hair was a darker shade than even Alister's and was swept up in a style to keep it from spilling in every direction. Her face was kind, reminding Valon of the only good mother figure he had been fortunate to know—Mary, the nun. He smiled slightly to himself. She looked like the kind of gentle, caring mother that many children only could dream of having. Alister must have had a happy childhood . . . before the war had taken it and his innocence away. Valon frowned, closing the locket.

"I guess you're with them both now, chum," he said softly without really realizing what he was saying. "You've got them again . . . so what would you want with us, eh?" He turned around, surveying the room again as the snow swirled against the window outside. It looked so gloomy and uninhabited. . . . And it dawned on Valon that Alister really wouldn't be coming back to inhabit it again. The room was empty because its owner was dead.

Interlude

"Are you ticked 'cause I went in your room?" Valon asked Alister. By now the three bikers had moved into the more comfortable living room to continue their tales. Alister, who was exhausted but trying to insist he wasn't, was laying on the couch. Valon and Raphael were each sitting nearby in chairs.

"Under normal circumstances I might be," Alister replied, "but considering that you thought I was dead and that you were missing me, I'll overlook it." He rolled onto his side, adjusting the soft couch pillow behind his head, and tried not to get so comfortable that he would find going back to sleep impossibly enticing.

"How did you get out of your predicament?" Raphael asked, scrutinizing Alister in confusion. The way Alister had been telling it—which was probably the way it had happened—he had been in the throes of death almost as soon as the dart had struck him. And with Elizabeth and her thugs right outside the dumbwaiter door, it sounded like Alister had possessed no hope of escape. Nothing short of a second miracle would have saved him. (The first miracle being Miruko's appearance.)

Alister shrugged. "I'd like to know that myself," he remarked.

Valon stared at him in disbelief. "You don't even know what happened to you next!" he cried.

"I remember vaguely," Alister told him, "but it's all a haze in my mind. The poison was taking hold and I was only semi-conscious."

Flashbacks

In Alister's diminished state of awareness, he only knew that he somehow had to get away from Elizabeth and her men and that he had to find the antidote for the poison he had been given. There would have to be an antidote somewhere; he just didn't know where. It was probably in the house. Perhaps even one of the thugs was carrying it in his pocket. But Alister was in no position to be trying to search them. They would take him prisoner in a half-second. Shakily he reached out with one hand, pulling the poison dart out of his shoulder. He dropped it down the shaft in disgust and then went back to gripping the rope.

He didn't know how it came about. It seemed almost that he was acting without thinking, but he found himself pulling upward on the rope. Then he was moving, propelled on the top of the rickety dumbwaiter that the rope controlled. It was lucky, he thought to himself, that he didn't weigh very much. If one of Elizabeth's lackeys was on this old-fashioned device, it would definitely have broken by now. Alister, however, was not all that heavy. He was barely one hundred thirty pounds, if that, and he had definitely lost weight while he'd been recovering from his injuries. But it was never a good idea to underestimate him because of his skinny physique. He was a good fighter when he wasn't weakened (as he was now), and what he lacked in physical strength he made up for with his sharp mind.

When he saw he couldn't go up any higher, he reached forward and slammed hard on the darkened wall, hoping that there was another door he could use to get out. Somewhere in his fogged mind he knew that his captors would find him soon enough if he couldn't get away. But even if he got away, he would die without the antidote. He slammed hard against the wall as it refused to budge, feeling a wave of dizziness sweep over him. Why wouldn't it open? Was something holding it shut?

At last it creaked and splintered, sending Alister spilling into what looked like another bedroom. He gazed around, his eyes glassing over, and vaguely heard voices coming from farther down in the dumbwaiter shaft. They were going to check each floor until they found the one he was on. And he wasn't going to let that happen. Somehow he struggled to get to his hands and knees. Whenever he had fainted in the past weeks, it had been anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes after he had eaten. This time, he did remember that he hadn't drank all of the herbal tea, though Elizabeth probably thought he had. "He still had that drug in his system, too. With the addition of the poison, it could be enough to kill him!" she had screamed. Alister wasn't sure how much time he had, but he didn't plan to let any of it go to waste. There was no telling how long it would be before the poison would completely kick in. He couldn't judge how long it would be just from the drug he'd had in the past, since that was an entirely different substance.

Slowly Alister managed to stand, gripping the wall for support. Later on, when he recalled back on the experience, this was where his memories became extremely clouded. He only vaguely remembered leaving the bedroom and stumbling down the hall. When he encountered one of Elizabeth's thugs and wound up having to fight him, it was only a miracle that he ever managed to get away. As it was, he only barely was able to. As they grappled viciously, Alister felt a small vial of some sort in the henchman's pocket and wondered if that could be the antidote he needed so badly. Weakly he fumbled to get it while still trying to keep from being subdued. His only coherent thought was that he had to retrieve it. No matter what happened, he had to get hold of the vial.

The man snarled coldly, shoving Alister against the wall. "You've caused enough of an uproar already, you stupid kid," he hissed. Alister's exact age was unknown, though he looked to be somewhere between eighteen and twenty. And to the hardened thug, Alister was just a kid. "If it was up to me, I'd just kill you now. But the boss lady wants you alive so she can force you to give up whatever secrets you're hiding under that red hair of yours." He started to attempt to raise Alister into the air.

Alister glared back, not responding, and abruptly kicked out at him, sending the man flying backwards and causing himself to drop to the floor. They were standing dangerously close to the top of a long staircase. One false move and they would probably both go down.

Now Alister was kneeling on the floor, his heart racing. He could feel the poison getting a greater hold on his mind. It was fogging over his consciousness and beginning to make his vision go out. But he could still see the vial in his hand—and the hypodermic needle—that he'd taken from the gangster's pocket. He stared at both, trying to determine what the vial's contents were. He wanted to make certain it was the antidote—and not another poison—before injecting it.

"It's okay, Alister," a soft voice whispered. Alister froze. That was the child Miruko's voice! He was too dazed to look around, but he didn't need to. He trusted that boy completely, whoever he was. "That's what you need, but you've gotta take it quick. That guy's not gonna be knocked out for long." Apparently he had hit his head when Alister had kicked him backwards.

Alister didn't waste any more time. His hands shaking, he filled the needle with the substance from the vial and struggled to jab it into his own arm. At the same moment that he finished this process, the man rose up and lunged forward, grabbing Alister and starting to beat him up.

"That's the last time you ever get smart-aleck with me!" he yelled between curses and punches, the latter of which Alister tried his best to intercept. "Even with amnesia, you're still the biggest pain in the neck that the boss lady has ever kept here! You look like a weakling compared to me, but you've given me even more trouble than the tough muscleman we had before you."

Alister grunted in pain as a blow caught him right in the midriff and then he retaliated as best as he could with a punch to the man's face. His mind seemed to be clearing a bit—at least, he thought it was—and he found he was able to fight quite well, save for being weary. His captor was a good fighter, too, unfortunately, and wound up quickly sending them down the stairs.

Alister later assumed that he had blacked out for a short amount of time, as he never remembered actually falling. He knew he would have had to, though, as the next thing he clearly recalled was being sprawled across the thug's back at the bottom of the staircase. Slowly he moved away onto the floor, trying to get his bearings, and then realized that his mind was clear. His body was still weak, but he was no longer in a fog and a stupor of thought.

He looked back at the form he had fallen across. His attacker seemed to be alive, but unconscious. Alister could hear running through the upstairs corridors and he knew that he would be caught again if he didn't leave right away. Quickly he stumbled to his feet, warding off the slight dizziness, and maneuvered his way through the strange mansion until he found himself back in the room where he had been staying. It was empty at the moment, but not for long.

The redhead barely had enough time to retrieve his boots before several more of the thugs entered as well, weapons bared. Alister glared at them, unafraid, as he backed up near the window. "You won't shoot me," he said coldly, "not unless you're going to go against that woman's orders." Unseen by them, he gathered an object into his hand.

"We wouldn't shoot to kill," was the reply as a gun clicked, "but you'd be more useful to us if you were crippled."

Alister growled, abruptly smashing the window with the vase he'd picked up and then leaping out through the jagged opening. "Sorry," he called back as he dropped to the snow-covered ground two floors down, "I won't be stopped that easily." He ignored several new bruises and cuts and struggled to stand once again. Guns went off above him as he ran across the yard as best as he could, and once he felt a bullet zip dangerously past his shoulder, but somehow he eventually got to the gate leading out. Behind him he heard the barking of several vicious dogs as he tried to get a good grip on the bars and climb up and over. He had no idea what he would do when he went over that gate—he only knew he had to get away from these greedy, power-hungry demons. He wouldn't be a pawn in their plans. The only way they'd get the information from him was if they actually managed to catch him and use the truth serum, but he was going to make sure that didn't happen.

One of the dogs leaped up at him as he slipped on a bit of ice that coated the rungs of the gate. Alister desperately flailed, trying to regain his footing, and had to kick the dog away when it tried to bite him. He didn't like hurting animals, but if they were going to hurt him, he didn't think he had a choice.

At last he was able to hoist himself up and over the top, scraping himself on the sharp points as he went down on the other side. Alister hissed in pain, the ice and snow chilling his bare arms and waist as he fell into the coldness on his stomach. He hadn't even been able to get a coat before leaving. He wasn't certain why he was dressed the way he was, but that was the least of his worries. The dogs barked and growled, trying to claw through the gate to get to him. He could hear Elizabeth and her henchmen yelling as they burst through the front door.

He didn't know where he was going to go now. Perhaps the police station. . . . But after that, then what? He still remembered nothing. He had no one he could go to. He only recalled that the mysterious child was named Miruko and that he was someone important to his heart. His brother. . . . His deceased brother. . . .

He would have to ponder on it later. Right now he had to flee for his freedom and his life.

Alister struggled on through the snow for some time, cold and with an obvious limp. He wanted to think that he'd lost his pursuers, but he knew that wasn't a wise trap to fall into. He wouldn't be lulled into any false sense of security. Indeed, it wasn't long before he encountered several of the thugs and they became engaged in a vicious battle. It was all he could do not to get overpowered. He would be attacking one and then another would suddenly come out of nowhere, trying to punch or kick at him. Then he would have to quickly dodge while trying to subdue the one he had been fighting with first. It was extremely tiring, especially when he'd already been through so much in the past day.

When the police came, Alister was relieved. He had been just about at the end of his physical strength. One of the villains had pressed something on Alister's right arm, causing it to go temporary numb before he was able to land the punch he had been trying to. Then he had been thrown to the ground. Of course he had struggled up again, but with a deadened arm and a bad leg, he couldn't do as much—though he hadn't let that stop him. He had landed several good punches and elbowed another thug in the ribs with his good arm before he had been judo-flipped to the ground again. Now he slowly got up from where he'd been sprawled in the snow, clutching his numb arm as he looked at the nearest officer. "Arrest these men for abduction and assault and battery," he instructed coldly.

The policeman frowned, looking him over. "You look like you've been through the wringer," he commented with a shake of his head. "How about we go down to the station and you tell us everything?"

Alister frowned as well, thinking. If he went, they might insist on sending him to a hospital. But he wasn't hurt that badly and he wanted to continued his quest for who he was. Elizabeth—who wasn't here—obviously knew his identity, from what she'd said. It was a pity that she hadn't been arrested too—though Alister knew she likely wouldn't have told him anything anyway. Concerning his current decision, he also knew he needed to make certain that the police understood the true and complete story of what he knew had happened to him. So he finally agreed to go with them. He would just make sure that no one forced him into a hospital.

All of the thugs were close-lipped at the police station. No matter what the officers asked, they were met with silence. But Alister's story was believed and an All Points Bulletin was put out for Elizabeth—who, they said, sounded like a wanted criminal from Alister's description of her. It was likely, though, that she had fled and was laying low. Alister, out of patience, was ready to leave the station once his arm stopped being numb. He had seen a map of the surrounding area and a nearby place called Domino City had caught his attention. Now he wanted to go there and search for answers. Something about the name seemed so familiar to him—and in his condition, if something was familiar, it was a good idea to find out why it was so.

And that was what he set out to do, despite the officers' protests. He wandered back into the snow, certain that he could get a bus to Domino and be there in a few hours. But as it turned out, the buses weren't running anymore that night because of the increasing severity of the storm. Alister frowned, standing on the street and wondering what he should do, when he had an experience that changed everything.

As he turned the corner of a snowy, dangerous street, he stumbled upon a young child of about four who was about to be struck by a car. Instantly Alister ran forward, almost blindly and automatically, and snatched the terrified boy from harm's way. He felt the car graze against his own body as he fell into the snow, but he merely gritted his teeth and held the child close. The child had nearly been hurt, just as Miruko had been. . . . No, Miruko had been killed. . . . Alister had blamed himself for it . . . and someone else.

As Alister lay dazed in the snow, cradling the crying child, all of his memories flooded back. He knew his name, his past, his family . . . his friends. He knew he had a home to return to. And it felt like a heavy weight was being lifted from his shoulders. To know that he did have somewhere to go and that he had people who cared whether he lived or died was comforting somehow. He wouldn't have to wander about without a purpose. He knew where he belonged.

"Are you okay, mister?"

Alister started, coming back to the present and looking at the child, who had stopped crying and was gazing at him in confusion. "I am," the gray-eyed man said now, struggling to sit up while balancing the boy in his arms. The car hadn't hit him badly, though he was certain that he now had several more bruises to add to his "collection."

The child shivered, wrapping his arms around Alister's bare waist. The redhead had just saved his life and he trusted the stranger completely. "You're dressed awfully funny," he remarked. "It's winter, not summer."

Alister actually laughed, something he rarely did. Usually only a child's innocence could evoke this response from the normally serious young man. "I know," he replied, standing up with the child held close. "Where do you live? I'll take you home." The child gave him directions as best as he could and Alister started out to find the house, still limping from earlier.

Soon he would be going to his own home, he thought to himself. He remembered it and where it was. He wondered what Valon and Raphael were doing and if they missed him. They probably thought he was dead. Well . . . they'd learn differently before long.

&&&&

Raphael found Valon sitting on Alister's bed, staring blankly ahead at the wall. The blonde man sighed, coming into the room slowly and standing over his friend. They had never really reconciled after the incident several days before. And from Valon's saddened and stunned expression, he'd perhaps just realized that Alister was truly dead, just as Raphael had known would happen sooner or later.

"I wondered if you would come in here eventually," Raphael said quietly.

Valon didn't look up. "He's dead, Raph," he said in a hushed, shocked tone. "It just dawned on me when I walked in here. I . . . I always knew it, really . . . but . . . I didn't want to believe it. . . . I . . . I just didn't. . . ." He clenched his fists. It was stupid to deny what was true, he berated himself. He hadn't been able to stop himself from doing so, but he knew he should have anyway.

Raphael laid a hand on Valon's shoulder. "I know," he said gently. "But we'll get through this." He didn't quite know how, but they would. He wasn't going to give up. And he knew that Alister wouldn't want them to. They still had each other—he and Valon. That was reason enough not to give up.

Valon smiled ruefully. "You know, it's kinda odd. I used to wish sometimes that Alister would just go away. Now he's gone and I just want him back." He shrugged in a melancholy way and then sighed. "I guess that's why they say 'be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.'"

Raphael sat down on the bed with him. "The two of you really were good friends," he remarked. "You'd have to have been close, to have fought all the time and yet still come through for each other when it counted. But still . . . sometimes we never know how much someone means to us until he's gone." He watched Valon's shoulders slump.

"He was too quiet," the Australian complained. "He rarely talked at all and he seemed leery of everything and everyone. And he was always serious. I don't think I've ever seen him laugh. He only even smiled once in a blue moon. I've never understood him."

"I think he felt the same way about you," Raphael answered carefully, not wanting to speak for the dead. "You were polar opposites." And Raphael, who wasn't as aloof as Alister nor as open as Valon, was stuck in the middle, always playing peacemaker. But those days were over. It had always made him irritated to be forced to break up the other two's arguments, but now he found himself wishing that there was an argument to break up.

Valon looked up at him, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "I miss him," he admitted. "I never thought I'd let anyone get under my skin again, but you and Alister wound up being my best chums. I guess . . . when people have known each other as long as the three of us have, they kinda tend to get awfully close without even realizing it." He leaned on the nightstand. "And now I've lost somebody

again."

"So have I," Raphael replied. "I miss him too. But we still have each other, Valon. We're not alone—not yet. And we should do our best to make sure it stays that way."

Valon actually gave a slight smile. "Yeah," he agreed, "you're right, Raph."

They sat in silence for the next while, just remembering their fallen comrade and wondering what the future would bring to them. They only knew that they would face it together, whatever it was. That was the night they both began to heal.

Flashbacks' End

"So," Alister finished, by now laying with his arm over his eyes and looking like he was half-asleep, "I took the boy to his home and then wandered through the snow for a good portion of the way back. I hitch-hiked for a few miles." He moved his arm away and looked at his friends. "It was hard even finding a car out in that mess."

"I can imagine," Raphael frowned, glancing out at the fluffy white flakes that were still emerging from the sky.

"He took me to about a mile or so away," Alister said. "I walked that final mile myself and then fainted from exhaustion and exposure to the cold on the front porch. The rest, you already know."

Valon shook his head, stunned by everything he'd been told. He couldn't believe how badly Alister had been treated. And he had only detailed the last day or so of his several weeks of torment! "Why didn't you call us!" he cried then, not able to think of anything else to say. "I mean, after you got your memories back. You could've found a pay phone or something! Or even called from the kid's house!"

Alister sat up. "Two reasons," he replied matter-of-factly. "First, I knew you both had probably thought I was dead. For me to call on the phone out of the blue struck me as odd. It would be like receiving a call from beyond the grave. And secondly, the phone lines were dead."

"You mean you thought just blowin' in out of the blue wasn't just as odd!" Valon exclaimed in disbelief, remembering his stunned shock upon seeing Alister's body crash into the living room.

"Well, you see," Alister said dryly, "I had visions of me calling on the phone and you answering and then passing out from shock when you heard my voice."

Raphael interrupted before Valon could make some sort of perturbed retort. "When you regained your memories, did you happen to know who that Elizabeth woman was?" he asked.

Alister sighed, crossing his arms. "I did," he admitted. "And I don't think you're going to like it," he added, looking at Valon.

"Well!" the Australian cried impatiently. "Who is she!"

Alister shook his head. "Her name isn't really Elizabeth," he announced. "She's the woman who's been coming to the house all the time—the one who kept asking you about Atlantis and who made inappropriate remarks to me." He continued to watch Valon for his reaction, remembering how angry he'd gotten in the past when Alister had accused that woman of basically being a lustful criminal.

But Valon only blinked and then frowned. "I knew you wouldn't be fibbing about her, Alister," he said at last. "I actually told her not to come around any more. And coming to think of it . . . she hasn't been here since you . . . well. . . ." He didn't finish.

"Since I 'died'?" Alister supplied flatly.

Valon nodded slowly. "And hey, comin' to think about it," he said with a frown, "how did she get you, anyway? The police said they . . . they found your body in a plane that crashed." He lowered his gaze. "The bloke said it . . . it was burned beyond any kind of recognizing, but when they did some kind of DNA testing they found it was you." He shuddered. Neither he or Raphael had actually looked at the corpse that had been found. Seeing some of the pictures of the crash site and the charred bodies had been enough for them.

Alister leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "I don't know the details of how that worked," he said, "except that someone on the police force must have been lying. She seems to have 'friends' everywhere. And if she could get you to think I had perished, you wouldn't be looking for me." He then explained that he had seen "Elizabeth" spying on the house and that he had decided to follow her. She had made several stops before getting on an Industrial Illusions jet at the airport. Alister then had followed, already having learned some very disturbing news about the woman—she was working for a crime boss, as well as having signed on to work at Industrial Illusions, which was why she had been able to take the jet without suspicion. In the air, the plane had experienced some sort of engine trouble and "Elizabeth" and her cronies had quickly bailed out, but not before dragging Alister with them after he bailed as well.

"I was wounded badly," he said, his eyes narrowing, "but not from surviving any plane crash, as she told me when I first regained consciousness with amnesia. When she first took me, her lackeys would beat me for hours, trying to get the information about Atlantis that she wanted. One time they went too far and accidentally struck me right on the head with a crowbar. I didn't wake up for several days after that."

Raphael narrowed his eyes in disgust. Who was this person? Why was she so obsessed with learning about Atlantis? That could only spell trouble. Just because of her greed, the three of them had suffered for nearly two months. He vowed that he would put a stop to her sick schemes once and for all.

Alister paused for a moment, seeming to be collecting his thoughts. "How long was I gone?" he asked at last. "In the various conditions I was in, I didn't tend to keep track of the passing days." He looked from Valon to Raphael, wondering how long he'd been missing after Valon had gone into his room. Valon had said that he had started to adjust to the idea that Alister wasn't coming back, but he hadn't said how long it had all been.

"Six weeks," Raphael spoke up quietly. Valon had come to terms with Alister's "death" halfway through that time period. But even more recently, Raphael had been able to see that Valon was still struggling. It was hard, after all, to lose someone who had been a friend—especially if the realization that the person had been a friend didn't even really come until after the person was gone.

"It was a long time, mate," Valon added, looking at Alister. "Too long." He paused, starting to smirk a bit as his eyes danced with slight mirth. "You know . . . you were actually probably the only welcome ghost I've seen in my life."

Alister looked back, his expression deadpan and emotionless. Then, slowly, he smiled.