His Welfare is My Concern

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters and title aren't mine, the story is, and this is friendship cuteness only. XD; All hail the cuteness! And thanks be to SK and Lizzie, who each tried out this plot idea with me in role-plays. I borrowed a couple of their lines throughout this story, since they were so good.

As Valon slowly regained consciousness, he felt the cold cement pressing against his flesh. The brunette Australian groaned, struggling to open his eyes, and could only see darkness. He lay still for several moments, attempting to remember what had happened and coming up blank. It seemed as though there had been a fight. . . . Yes, that would explain why his body ached. He must have come out on the wrong end of a fight for once.

Actually . . . it sounded as though there was still a fight going on somewhere very nearby. Valon tried to raise himself up, despite the dizziness, and found himself staring in confusion at a wall of bars. Then it dawned on him that he seemed to be in some kind of a cell. Momentarily a certain fear struck him and he wondered if he had been thrown into prison again, but as he looked around and took in the musty, dank space he realized that it must instead be some sort of old dungeon. He had been taken prisoner, but not by the law. And on the other side of the barred wall, someone was being beaten. Valon could clearly hear the sounds of a person in agony as he was repeatedly struck, punched, and kicked. The hapless victim struggled to defend himself, every now and then apparently managing to injure one of his attackers, but was always overpowered in the end.

Valon looked around, wondering if there was a way out and if he could help the person in trouble. While he claimed it was true that he didn't worry about anyone but himself, he couldn't stand the blatant cruelty he was witnessing here. One person against at least half a dozen wasn't a fair fight at all. But when he found the door leading out of the cell, it of course was locked. All he could do was watch helplessly as the other prisoner was quickly being beaten to death.

His mind raced as he tried again to remember what had occurred right before he had apparently been knocked unconscious. Wait . . . Alister had been involved. . . . Someone had been hurting Alister. . . . And Valon, for whatever reason, had entered the fray. He frowned, recalling seeing Alister's body being thrown to the ground like a broken toy. Then Valon had ran forward, furious at the cruelty, and had fought with the thugs. Then he didn't remember anything more. . . . He swallowed hard. If he'd been taken, Alister probably had been as well. Maybe . . . maybe it was Alister who was being attacked violently in the next cell.

"Hey!" Valon called, finding his voice. "Alister? Is that you, chum?" His heart raced when he heard the prisoner scream in agony and then slam against the bars separating the cells. He thought he recognized the scream. Definitely, it was Alister. Valon scooted over, reaching through the bars to try to help the other young man up, but Alister somehow managed it by himself. He didn't speak to Valon, as might be expected, and instead turned his attention back to the men who were viciously lunging at him. Then the fight resumed.

Even in the darkened cell, Valon could see the silhouettes on the wall as they fiercely engaged in mortal combat. He gripped the bars in admitted alarm, every now and then hearing a grunt or a hiss of pain and having to dodge the occasional flying patch of blood. Then there was an abrupt, sickening, smacking sound and a body crashed to the floor in the next cell over. Valon could see the form as it lay still on its stomach. It was obviously Alister, as the others gathered around were laughing as they continued to strike at him with their weaponry and hands and feet.

A sudden anger filled Valon's heart as he watched this and he picked up a rock left abandoned in the corner of the room, throwing it with force at the one who seemed to be the ringleader. "Keep away from him!" he yelled, his Australian accent thickening. He couldn't help but feel a certain satisfaction as the rock hit its mark and the man staggered back with a grunt of pain. "What did he ever do to you?!"

"Nothing, punk," the second-in-command retorted, retrieving the rock and throwing it back through the bars in an attempt to strike Valon. "We're just having some fun with him. It's our employer who has the beef with him."

Valon dodged as the rock struck the bars on the other side, shattering into several pieces. "I don't think he was havin' much fun," he said darkly. "Leave him alone!"

A third one struck Alister hard on the back with a crowbar, but upon not receiving so much as a flinch in reaction, he headed for the door in boredom. "He'll be feeling that tomorrow," he said with a wicked smirk, "if he'll be feeling anything, that is." It wasn't clear whether he meant that he thought Alister was dead or even paralyzed, but Valon didn't care what his meaning had been. He watched all of the thugs follow suit, each one giving Alister's battered body a final blow before leaving. The last one out locked the door with a clang, spitting and cursing at Valon as he went up the darkened stairs of the dungeon.

Valon, who normally would have boiled over with anger at the gesture, now ignored it and knelt down near the bars, trying to reach through far enough to grab Alister's wrist and check for a pulse. Finding that his arm wouldn't stretch that far, he clenched his fist in frustration and had to resort to calling to his friend. "Alister! Come on, chum, get up! Get up!" But it seemed to be no use. Alister remained unresponsive to Valon's cries, laying deathly still on the cold floor.

In frustration Valon grabbed the bars tightly, rattling them and trying to see if they would simply give way—to no avail. He called to Alister again, still not receiving an answer, and this time noticed a small pool of blood next to the redhead. Not that he hadn't expected Alister to be wounded, but it was still an unpleasant sight. And what had that horrible smacking sound been? Perhaps . . . perhaps Alister's spine was broken or he had hit his head much too hard on the wall. . . .

Valon slumped back in despair, watching Alister morosely. There wasn't more than a couple of yards between them, but yet Valon simply couldn't get through the bars to offer the help that Alister must need. He sighed. There wasn't much point in calling to him; he was either unconscious or dead. So Valon leaned against the wall, studying the ceiling and the small, barred window, and wondered how they were ever going to escape.

He hated small areas, especially if he was locked into them and not able to leave. He had always been a bit claustrophobic, but that had increased after he had been thrown into prison. Though he had vowed he wouldn't allow himself to be trapped somewhere again, here he was—locked in another cell, alone, while his comrade lay motionless next door. And there was no telling where Raphael was. Had he been captured too? If so, where was he?

An indeterminable amount of time passed, during which Valon was mostly lost in his thoughts. When a weak groan finally brought him back to the present again, he was relieved to hear it. "Alister?" he called softly, turning to peer into the other cell.

The redhead was, indeed, waking up. And it appeared that he wasn't paralyzed in any way. Slowly he pulled himself into a sitting position, looking blearily at the blood and then at his own flesh. Shakily he reached up, rubbing gingerly at the back of his head. He seemed quite oblivious to anyone else being there.

"Hey!" Valon yelled, not liking being apparently ignored, especially when he'd been worried. Alister looked over, his eyes half-open and bloodshot. "Are you alright, chum?" Valon demanded. "For a while there, I thought you might've kicked the bucket."

Alister grunted. "After I stop feeling like I was run over by a truck, I'll get back to you on if I'm 'alright,'" he said.

Valon sighed, leaning back. Alister seemed normal enough. He couldn't be too badly hurt, the Australian rationalized, or he wouldn't feel like behaving as he usually did. "Would you mind tellin' me what that was all about?" he demanded at length, watching as the redhead weakly leaned against the bars and looked up at the ceiling.

Alister didn't answer at first. Then he spoke out of the dead silence, cutting through it like a knife. "You shouldn't even be here."

Valon frowned. "Then where should I be?" It seemed to him that Alister was opening the door to begin another argument. And even he knew that this was the last place where an argument should be.

But that wasn't Alister's intention at all. (Of course, he never intended for them to start arguing. It just happened.) "This was my problem," the redhead said flatly. "They didn't even know or care about you. But when you saw me fighting them, you decided that it looked like a good fight and joined in." He spat the words "good fight" out as if they tasted bad. He didn't understand why Valon liked to go looking for trouble. And especially he didn't want to become nothing more than a possible way for Valon to be able to fight with someone.

"And what's wrong with that?" Valon retorted. Actually, though, he wasn't sure that was why he had stepped in. It was natural for Alister to think so, and even Valon wondered if it was so . . . and yet there was a lingering doubt. What if . . . what if Valon really did care? What if his heart had softened so much that he was willing to give his life for another person—and one that wasn't Mai? Maybe he didn't want harm to come to Alister. He remembered how angry he'd been when he'd seen the redhead being mercilessly beaten. Of course Valon couldn't tolerate cruelty to anyone, but still he couldn't help but wonder. . . . Maybe he thought of Alister as a friend.

"What's wrong with that?!" Alister repeated in disbelief. "What's wrong with that?!" He knelt on the floor and gripped the bars, looking through them to Valon. "Do you even realize the danger you're in right now?" he cried indignantly. "Those men weren't just hurting me for the heck of it. They had a purpose, Valon. Their purpose was to kill me. And since you saw it, they'll kill you too. Neither one of us is going to get out alive."

Valon glared at him. "And that's a big problem for you, isn't it?!" he snapped, his voice reverberating off the dark walls. "That now you have me to worry about, I mean. Well, I'm perfectly capable of defending myself, you know! I can take them."

"Yes," Alister said ironically, "that's why you were knocked unconscious and brought here—because you could take them."

Valon gave him a deathglare. Alister stared back calmly. At last Valon's shoulders slumped in defeat and he looked at the floor. "Well," he said slowly, "it's not like you really care about me anyway. You just don't want me in your way." And it's not like I care whether you care. You're nothin' to me. You're not my chum. But Valon frowned when he heard the thoughts that were going through his mind. That isn't true! he retorted. Alister was his "chum"; Valon just wasn't certain if he cared enough to risk his life for him. Or . . . maybe . . . deep down, he was certain. After all, if Alister was truly his friend, Valon would indeed do anything to help him. Otherwise, he couldn't really say that Alister was his friend. Maybe it was really Alister's feelings that he was unsure of, and he didn't want to think that Alister didn't care, so he pretended that he himself didn't care, instead. It had been so long since he had really cared about anyone besides himself. . . .

Alister stared at him, surprise manifested in his eyes. "Why do you say that?" he asked.

Valon looked back with confusion. "Hey, it's not like you've ever cared," he replied. "From the very first time we met, you always hated me!"

Alister frowned. "I thought it was the other way around. It was only recently when I realized you cared at all about me." Valon had certainly rarely seemed to act like he cared. Of course, Alister thought to himself, maybe he hadn't acted like it, either. Maybe they had been giving each other the wrong impression for years. "Valon, I've never hated you."

Valon was stunned. "What, then?" was all he could manage to say. Alister didn't hate him? Why did he always act like it, then? And why did Valon feel such a sense of relief? Did he actually want Alister to be his friend?

Alister carefully sat down again, rubbing at his injured leg. "I've never understood you," he admitted. "I never understood why you've always been so open with your emotions or why you've always been so carefree when you had such a terrible past." He had always been a serious sort of person. Those who were his polar opposites definitely could annoy him after a while, but that didn't mean that he hated or even necessarily disliked them. In some ways, it just seemed wrong to him—to laugh, to smile, to engage in trivial things such as playing computer games—when his family had been taken from him in the war. Wouldn't that mean, he often thought to himself, that their deaths were no longer as important to him as they had once been? Wouldn't it mean that he was drifting further away from them? Another part of him insisted that, No, it would only mean he was getting on with his life. But he couldn't quite accept that answer. He didn't think he would ever really enjoy the things that many others his age did. He felt older than them in many ways, though he was only twenty.

Valon blinked, coming closer to the bars. "Well," he said with a shrug, "I don't care what people think of me. And what's the point of goin' through life with a thunder cloud over your head?" He leaned against the brick wall, watching Alister and seeing the pain registering on the other young man's face as he found the source of the spilled blood—a cut on his left shoulder that, at least, didn't look highly serious (it was only bleeding as if it was). "Life would get dull awfully fast if you never tried to find something fun about it."

Alister grunted, finding a clean handkerchief in his pants pocket and using it to press against the wound. "I suppose," he said slowly. When were the times when he felt as if he was experiencing anything resembling "fun"? he pondered silently. But he knew the answer. It was when he was with the children at the group home where he volunteered twice a week. They were so innocent, though many of them had had their worlds torn apart. Alister reveled in helping them and in seeing how they came to regard him with delight and happiness. That was what he enjoyed in life—no mere computer game or a "good fight" could give him the satisfaction that being with the children did. Their trusting eyes were the most rewarding thing above anything else.

"So. . . ." Valon watched him, hesitating, before finally voicing the question he had often asked in his mind. "Why are you the way you are? I mean . . . why do you bottle everything up? It's not healthy. And it's not like you're the kinda person who'd care what others think of you. You couldn't be, considering the way you act around them. And the way you dress." He crossed his arms, waiting for an answer. If Alister would even give him one.

"You're right," Alister said after a silence, "I don't care. But neither do they. And since they don't care how I'm feeling, why should I waste my time letting them know?" He had once been more open than he was. Sometimes he had even cried. But he had been only a child. The last tears he ever cried were the tears when he realized Miruko was dead. After that he had made up his mind to never cry again. Since then, he never had. And he didn't feel that he was doing something so unhealthy. It was natural to him by now. It would seem unnatural and uncomfortable to display too many of his emotions. He would feel exposed and vulnerable—as if everything about him was an open book. Valon didn't mind being like that and wearing his heart on his sleeve. But to Alister, the thought was almost alarming. He didn't want everyone to know the deepest feelings in his heart. He didn't even want anyone to know he had a heart. If anyone got close to him again, and he acknowledged that he cared about them, he would eventually lose them, just as he had lost his family. And he didn't want to suffer that any more.

Valon frowned. "But Alister . . . if you go through life like that, people will think you don't give a care about any of them!" he protested.

Alister hissed in pain. "Good!" he snapped. "Let them think that. Let them stay away from me. I don't need them. I don't need their deaths weighing on my heart. I'd rather be alone than to have that again." And yet . . . he knew Valon and Raphael had already wound up deeply close to him. If something happened to either of them, he would feel the pain again. Indeed, he felt a certain panic that Valon was here with him. He knew that somehow he had to get his friend . . . yes, his friend . . . out of here.

Valon gazed at him, not certain whether he was more amazed or shocked. Alister may not have realized it, but he had revealed a lot about himself in just those few sentences. It was obvious that behind the aloof and cold exterior, there was an aching soul that Valon hadn't realized existed. Perhaps, in some strange way, Alister was the most sensitive of the two of them. Perhaps he feared letting his emotions show because he felt that eventually there would be too much pain that would come of it. The Australian was about to reply when footsteps could be heard on the stairs.

Alister's eyes narrowed darkly. "They're coming back," he growled. "They'll kill you now." Raphael's pessimism must be rubbing off on me. Not that I don't have a good reason to be pessimistic right now. . . . I know how these people operate.

Valon clenched his fists. "Let 'em come!" he cried. "I'm not afraid. I'll prove it! They're gonna regret ever messin' with either of us." He wanted to talk more with Alister, but he knew this wasn't the time. Maybe once they were safely away, then they could resume their conversation. Or maybe by then Alister would not be willing to talk. He was so unpredictable that it was impossible to know from one day to the next how he would behave. Then again, perhaps all of them were like that in their own ways.

A dark chuckle echoed throughout the dungeon. "Those are fighting words, Aussie," one of the thugs from earlier commented as he came to stand in front of Valon's cell. He glanced in the adjoining space and sneered. Valon followed his gaze and was stunned to see Alister laying on the floor again, looking deathly still. But he quickly realized that Alister must be putting on an act in order to accomplish some purpose. If they thought he was dead, they wouldn't pay attention to him and he might be able to do something to get himself and Valon out of this mess. "Your friend's dead," the cruel man continued, unlocking Valon's cell and going in. Half a dozen other thugs followed him, the last one shutting the door again before Valon could attempt an escape. "And now you're gonna join him."

Valon stood tall, looking at his opponents with unwavering determination. He felt anger rising within his soul. How dare they! Where did they get the right to torture Alister and to then come in with the intention of leaving no witnesses? He wasn't going to stand for it. "Just try it!" he yelled indignantly. "I'll take you all on." He lunged, delivering a harsh punch to one of them before a retaliation could be made.

Instantly he was punched himself, with such force that he staggered back. "Feisty, aren't you?" the ringleader smirked. "Before we're done with you, you'll be begging for mercy."

Later on, Valon didn't remember very much of the fight. He only remembered that he had never given up, even when he had been backed into the proverbial corner. He had often fought against those who were much bigger than him and had come out on top, so he focused now on victory and continued to land punches and kicks in between getting struck repeatedly himself. He wasn't thinking about Alister at the moment, so when the cell door suddenly fell open and the redhead stumbled in, Valon was shocked.

"Leave him out of this," Alister growled coldly, gripping the doorframe for support. At the sound of his voice, every one of the thugs turned to look, their eyes registering a mixture of annoyance, anger, and surprise. "Valon's done nothing to you. He wasn't a traitor and a spy in your organization, as I was. He doesn't deserve your punishment."

"Then you want us to attack you again?" the leader sneered, quickly getting over his shock that Alister was still alive and had somehow stolen the keyring from one of them. "It would be our pleasure. Of course, when you're dead, we'll go after the short one again. He's a witness, and we can't leave any witnesses."

"When I'm dead," Alister repeated, his voice like ice. "You couldn't kill me before. And you won't now."

Then the fight resumed, only with the already-weakened Alister as the new target. He fought as best as he could, dodging the cruel fists and weapons while struggling to land his kicks and karate chops. And Valon, of course, didn't just stand by and watch. He joined in the fight ferociously, but this time he knew exactly why he was fighting. It wasn't because he just wanted to enjoy a good, fair battle. There was nothing fair about this situation. He wanted to help Alister. This was his fight now, he realized. Alister was his friend and Valon wouldn't stand by and let him suffer.

The next several moments were a blur of flying fists, weapons, and shouted curses from the thugs. Alister managed to take a couple of the men down eventually, but then Valon heard a pained cry as the redhead was thrown viciously into the wall. He lay limp and dazed on the floor, breathing heavily as one of the men laughed and raised a bloodied crowbar to strike him again. Enraged, Valon ran forward and grabbed the weapon in midair.

"What kind of bloody cowards are you?!" he screamed. "You don't go around kickin' someone when he's down. Not if you're fightin' fair!" He gripped the metal tighter, refusing to let go. Then he tore it free from the gangster's hand and struck him with it instead. Fiercely he fought, finally sending several of his opponents to the floor. Behind him, Alister was struggling to get up again, watching this scene with amazement, to say the least.

What no one quite realized yet was that the structure they were in was very old and not very strong. Everything other than the brick walls at the backs of the cells was weakened extremely. It had been a long time since there had been this much activity in the building all at once. Now the ceiling of the floor above them was about to give in.

"The problem is," one of the men growled as he suddenly grabbed Valon from behind in a chokehold, "we don't fight fair. Nice guys finish last." He pressed his arm harshly against the Australian's throat, cutting off his air supply. Valon gasped and choked, gripping the arm and trying to pry it away from him. He was determined that he would not come to his end here. Furiously he kicked out at the man's shin while digging his fingernails into the thick arm.

Suddenly the gangster gave a grunt of pain, loosening his grip on Valon as he abruptly crumpled to the floor. Valon darted out of the way, rubbing at his neck and coughing as he struggled to get air into his lungs again. When he finally was able to look over at the scene, he saw Alister wearily standing over the fallen thug's body, massaging his hand. Valon understood then that Alister had struck the person so that he, Valon, could get away. He caught the redhead's eye and smiled in gratitude before the rest of the hitmen attacked.

Together the two former Doom soldiers fought viciously against their enemies. Though they were often beaten back and they were growing more weary, they still refused to give up. Perhaps, though Alister had no time to really ponder on the thought, he was grateful for Valon's assistance. He was much too weakened from the previous beating to take them all on by himself. Valon's strong fighting spirit was for once a welcome blessing, no matter the reason why he was fighting.

It was when plaster began to rain down into the cell that everyone at last paused in their struggle of mortal combat and looked up to the ceiling. It and the other walls, which were not brick, were crumbling. The drawn-out fight was not helping to make the building hang together. As the chunks of plaster and wood grew much larger, the thugs quickly realized that they would be lucky to escape alive. Perhaps, they decided, they should run for their lives and leave their prisoners behind. Certainly they would not manage to escape. And so they turned to run for the door of the cell, but not before they shoved both Alister and Valon back harshly against the wall and struck them with the crowbar and a pipe when they struggled to get up again.

During this last leg of the unfair fight, Valon felt the pipe strike across his head when he tried to defend Alister from the cruel blows. He cried out in pain, falling back against Alister, and felt consciousness slip away. Though Alister yelled for him to stay awake, there was nothing Valon could do. He felt himself go limp.

For the second time that night Valon found his senses returning to him. It seemed as though he was being moved, he realized as his mind cleared, and he could feel small pieces of some kind of material bouncing off his arms and back. As he managed to open his eyes, he realized with stunned shock that he was being carried piggyback style on Alister's back while the building continued to give way around them. He clutched at the taller man's shoulders, feeling a bit panicked as a rumble swept over the staircase Alister was attempting to climb and the injured young man stumbled forward. "What the heck are you doing?!" the Australian yelled, not certain he liked being carried like some sort of "ankle biter" but wondering if Alister honestly wanted to help him get away.

Alister gripped at the banister with one hand while still trying to hold onto Valon with the other. "What does it look like?" he retorted, shuddering as he waited for a wave of dizziness to pass. The added weight upon his already weakened body was not helping. Ordinarily Valon wouldn't be so hard to carry, but Alister had been involved in three fights during the course of the past hours and he was barely able to force himself to keep standing. Every time he moved he caused the wounds and aches to start protesting. All he wanted right now was to collapse on the floor and not get up, but he knew they would both die if they didn't get out. He couldn't give in to the desire to simply lay down. He had to keep forcing himself to go on.

Valon looked behind him as the bottom stairs were beginning to cave in. "It looks like we need to keep moving!" he exclaimed, wanting to be put down but deciding that wasn't a good idea until they were on solid ground again. He gripped at Alister tightly, not wanting the both of them to wind up tumbling down into an abyss.

Alister concentrated on reaching the top step. Now that Valon was conscious, he didn't have to worry about holding onto him as tightly as he had been. The Australian was clutching his shoulders so firmly that Alister was certain the flesh was probably going white. He held the banister with both hands now, nearly slipping as the stair right below him crumbled, and then finally managed to get his footing two stairs up before the both of them would be hanging precariously in midair.

When at last he managed to maneuver their safe landing onto the main floor of the old mansion, the redhead's legs gave out from underneath him and he fell forward to the floor with a gasp. Valon tumbled off his back to fall beside him as the rest of the staircase disintegrated.

"Holy moly," the Australian uttered in alarm, realizing how close they'd both come to perishing. He was feeling quite a bit better now, save for the pounding headache due to the pipe's blow, and he knelt quickly beside Alister, laying a hand gently on his shoulder. "Hey," he said, his voice quieting, "are you alright, mate? You look beat."

Alister groaned, knowing he had to force himself to get up again. They weren't safe on any floor of this disaster area. And there was also the possibility that once they did get out, the assassins would be laying in wait, just in case the building hadn't done their job for them. But that was a chance they would have to take. They couldn't stay in here. He struggled to push himself up to his knees and then failed, crashing back on the floor again.

Valon watched him with concern. "You shouldn't have been tryin' to carry me," he said softly, knowing that in Alister's condition it could be a bad strain—and probably had been. "You were right, Alister—I shouldn't have gotten involved with this. But since I did, you should've just tried to save yourself and not bothered with me." Guilt swept over him as he watched the redhead again struggle to get up and fail. Carefully Valon reached out, trying to offer assistance.

Alister growled. "I'm not a coward," he retorted, finally accepting Valon's help and being able to weakly sit up. He leaned against the wall, wondering how long the respite from the chaos would last. Any minute the floor they were on could start breaking. "Whether you should have gotten involved or not, it would only have been selfish and cruel to have left you behind, especially after you were trying to help me." He gazed at the younger man blearily and found himself idly wondering how old Valon actually was. A ridiculous thing to think about in this situation. But, he supposed, he was wondering because it was so confusing to place an age with the

Australian. At times he seemed absurd and almost childish, while at other times—such as now—he showed how mature and unselfish he truly was.

Valon bit his lip. "But now you're probably hurt worse," he objected. "I don't want to be the cause of you dyin'!"

Alister rubbed his eyes. "You won't be," he reassured Valon.

That didn't comfort the worried Australian. "Look at yourself! Are you even going to be able to stand up again?!"

Alister grunted. Truthfully, he really wasn't sure he'd be able to. His legs felt numb and weary, just like the rest of his body. Everytime he merely thought about standing up, he would grow dizzy. "If not, I'll crawl out of here," he muttered coldly, just as more plaster collided down from the ceiling.

Valon thought about this, coughing as the dust and the plaster floated around them. "You carried me, chum," he said at last. "Maybe . . . maybe I could carry you." He wasn't at all certain he could manage it, however. Alister was quite a bit taller than he was, though he really didn't look like he weighed very much. But Valon was certain he wouldn't be able to take Alister piggyback style. If he was going to carry the other man, it would have to be in his arms. He wasn't sure how long he'd be able to do that, but maybe if they could just clear the hurdle that was the collapsing house, they could worry about the rest later.

Alister shook his head at this suggestion. "Don't bother," he said, taking hold of the wall and forcing himself up. He swayed violently before managing to get his balance. "I can make it." But for how long? He only knew he didn't want to be a burden on Valon. If the younger, shorter man attempted to carry him, Alister was certain he would wind up throwing his back out. And if Alister couldn't make it out alive, he wanted Valon to at least be able to. Valon was innocent in this whole mess. He hadn't been the one who had infiltrated an evil organization in order to end it and now was wanted by the leader because he had singlehandedly brought about many of the gang members going to prison. It was Alister's life they wanted, not Valon's.

"Are you sure?!" Valon frowned, trying to steady his friend. "It doesn't look like there's a way out around here, unless we broke that window over there, and that might only cause more damage."

"If we go down this hall, eventually we'll come to the parlor where the entrance is," Alister replied, starting to cough from the dust now as well. "But we have to hurry."

He never knew how it was that he was able to walk that far, but somehow he managed it. He felt his way along the wall for most of the way. Towards the end, he found himself leaning against Valon for support instead. When they at last were able to stumble out into the fresh night air, coughing and gasping, Alister again felt like he was going to collapse. But he knew he had to stay standing. They weren't out of danger yet. Behind him he heard more of the mansion collapsing and he vaguely felt Valon pulling him along so that they wouldn't be in the way of any falling debris, but now he felt almost as if he was going through the experience on auto-pilot. Only when he realized that they, indeed, were being shot at was his mind able to clear again.

Valon gave a startled exclamation as a blast from a laser gun went off over his head and struck the side of the mansion, instantly causing the entire side to begin giving way. "Crikey, they're all wacked!" he cried, still trying to steady Alister as they made their way across the grass.

"They're determined to get their hit," Alister responded. He soon heard Valon hissing in pain as another laser struck its mark. The Australian reached up, gripping at his shoulder and wryly wishing that he was wearing his shoulder pads.

"Just how powerful are those things?!" Valon said indignantly as he cautiously pulled his hand back. There was no blood, but the skin was red and tender to the touch.

"Judging from what I know about them, their guns are probably set to 'Kill,'" Alister told him flatly, "but it will only have that effect if it hits you dead-on. You're extremely lucky that you were only grazed." Though he spoke unemotionally, he was furious now. They had no right to shoot at Valon. When the next round of gunfire went off, he shoved the Australian into the grass on his stomach.

Valon cried out in surprise as the long green blades rushed up to greet him. He lay dazed for only a moment before attempting to get up again, but he was forced back down by a heavy weight crashing onto his back. It took only a few seconds for him to realize it was Alister. He froze in stunned shock, hearing a final blast from the gun and then a moan of agony from the redhead. Obviously he had been struck. And Valon had the distinct feeling that he had been struck several times over. Why else would he have collapsed as he had?

Now the gunfire stopped. Valon could hear the assassins walking through the grass towards them, but he didn't dare move, even though he wanted to. Perhaps, if they thought the two bikers were already dead, they would go away. Gritting his teeth and praying for Alister to hold on, Valon closed his eyes and waited. He concentrated on trying to determine if he could feel Alister's chest rising and falling as he breathed, but he was too nervous to stay focused for more than a moment. He feared that Alister was dead or dying, but he didn't want to think about that. Alister wouldn't die. He couldn't die, not now, not this way! The guilt that Valon felt at the thought of Alister giving his life for him was overwhelming. I wanted to know you cared, chum, he thought to himself sadly, but I didn't want to find out like this. . . .

He felt a kick at his side, then one at Alister's. A cruel laugh followed. "We got them," the ringleader's voice came. "The traitor's dead and so's his Aussie friend." Valon felt rage build within him when he heard the delight in the voice. Bloody heartless assassins! You killed him! he screamed silently.

"What should we do with the bodies?"

The first voice snorted. "I'm not carrying them with us. Let them stay here. We'll go back to the boss and tell him they've croaked."

The others laughed and seemed agreeable with this. Valon now could hear them walking away. After he couldn't hear their footsteps any longer, he forced himself to be patient and wait for another moment before crawling out from under Alister's body. He took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts, and then immediately fell to examining his fallen comrade. Alister had not been wearing his trenchcoat, making many of the sore wounds over his back visible. Valon was certain that under the redhead's tank top he would find more raw skin. He shuddered. It looked as though he had been struck at least half a dozen times.

"Alister?" he whispered in horror, wanting more than anything to hear a reply. Even if he only received a grunt or a growl or some cold remark, at least that would tell him that Alister was still alive. And somehow, that was the most important thing to Valon right now. He didn't want the other young man to be dead. Certainly he didn't want Alister to sacrifice himself just so that he, Valon, could live. Alister had to be alright. He had to be!

Carefully Valon moved Alister onto his side, then his back. He hated making him lay on his wounds, but he had to be able to see if he was still breathing or if his heart was still beating. If he wasn't. . . . Valon swallowed hard. Never mind that just yet. He leaned over, listening for the soft thump of a heartbeat. At first it seemed like there was only silence. Then Valon thought he heard what could have been a slow, faint beat. But he frowned when he couldn't hear it again. Maybe it was just his imagination.

He leaned back, running his hands through his hair. He was too distraught to be able to know what he was hearing. His own heart was racing a mile a minute and his hands were shaking. He felt almost dizzy with fear and with worry. What was he going to do? They were out in probably the boondocks, with no one around who could help. Whether Alister was dead or not, Valon had to get him away from here somehow. But he didn't know where to go. If only Raph was here, he thought to himself sadly. He'd know what to do. . . .

He held his hand out under Alister's nose, trying to feel gentle breathing. Was there any? Had he felt soft air on his fingers or had that been a breeze blowing by? It was starting to get windy. . . . Oh, blast it, he didn't know what he was feeling!

Valon cried out in frustration, slamming his fist into the ground. "This wasn't supposed to happen!" he screamed. "I should've minded my own business. Maybe then he would've got away. Maybe . . . maybe he'd be alright. . . ." He felt tears pricking at his eyes. He couldn't stand this. Alister was most likely dead because he had been protecting Valon. And Valon couldn't bring himself to accept that. Even if Alister wasn't dead, Valon simply wasn't calm enough to be able to figure out what needed to be done. "It should've been me, if it was either of us," he said, his voice cracking.

But almost as soon as he'd said it came the remembrance of Alister's harsh words back in the dungeon. "Let them think that. Let them stay away from me. I don't need them. I don't need their deaths weighing on my heart. I'd rather be alone than to have that again." Alister would rather die than to have someone else he cared about die and to have to go through life feeling like it was his fault. As Valon thought about it, he realized with certainty that Alister must have blamed himself for Miruko's death. He didn't want to feel that he was responsible for anyone else's death as well. And so Valon looked down sadly, realizing that things had happened the way Alister would have wanted it.

Almost without thinking, words began to form on his lips in an urgent, desperate prayer. "Please," he whispered, "if You're there, God, don't let him die. . . . Not like this. . . ." The wind rippled through his fluffy locks and chilled his face and arms, but he ignored it. He had prayed in his childhood, especially at the church, but usually only at Mary's gentle urging. He had never really thought Anyone besides her was listening to his prayers. But still, in times of trouble, he usually still found himself uttering quiet pleas for help from a Supreme Being. Was it merely the childhood teachings making themselves manifest again, or was it possibly a seed of faith that was trying to grow? Valon didn't know and didn't stop to ponder over it right then.

He looked back at Alister's lifeless, pale form. "Come on, chum," he begged, "speak to me! Say something . . . anything! Anything at all. . . ." He trailed off forlornly, just gazing at the blood-soaked handkerchief around the wound on Alister's arm. He found himself wondering if he had somehow made the injury worse when he had grasped so hard at Alister's shoulders. But he hadn't even remembered the wound then; he had been so surprised and stunned at what had been going on.

The gray eyes opened halfway. "What do you want me to say?" Alister weakly asked, trying to focus on his friend. He coughed and then winced in pain, realizing he was laying on his back. The soreness was almost overwhelming.

Valon stared at him in shock and delight, his blue eyes wide, trying to comprehend. He had been dead . . . or had he been? Valon had never been sure. Maybe he had been just barely clinging to life. The Australian only knew one thing for sure—his prayer had been answered. Alister was alive. "I thought you were leavin' me, mate," he said at last, saying a silent thank You.

Alister blinked at him. "And you cared?" he asked. Full consciousness wasn't coming to his mind. He wasn't dead—yet—which he was surprised about, since he had been certain that he wouldn't wake up again after passing out from the pain. And the effect from the laser guns could still kill him. At any rate, he was certain that he was going to pass out again. But he wondered what Valon would do then. He didn't want to leave him to try to figure things out, so he struggled to cling to consciousness for as long as he could.

Valon smiled a bit. "Yeah," he admitted, "I did. I do." He sobered, looking at him seriously. "Alister, I thought you'd given up your life for me. And I . . . I didn't know how I would handle that." He swallowed hard. "I'm not worth your life."

Alister grunted. "If I was going to die for you, I obviously was of the opinion that you were worth it." He groaned without meaning to as he tried to roll off of his back and onto his side. The pain was dull and numbing, coursing through his veins. Every now and then it would suddenly flair up, sending him into bursts of agony.

Quickly Valon reached out, gently pulling Alister's body up and holding the upper part in his arms. Accidentally he jarred one of the wounds on Alister's back and the other young man jerked. "Sorry, chum," Valon apologized softly, reminding himself to be more careful. He shifted, allowing Alister to get comfortable.

Alister sighed, thinking to himself what a strange situation they were in. They had both been taken hostage, they had both been hurt, and they had struggled to help each other. He had learned quite a bit about Valon over the past hours, and he suspected Valon had learned something about him as well. Now, for good or bad, they were stranded in the middle of nowhere and Alister was too injured to be of much help. And the next thing that came into his mind was so trivial. But he still wanted an answer. "How old are you, Valon?" he asked finally.

Valon stared at him in disbelief. "What kind of a question is that?" he demanded.

Alister shrugged. "I was just wondering."

Valon sighed, deciding not to ask questions. Alister obviously had a reason for asking. He never did anything without a reason. "Seventeen . . . eighteen . . . nineteen. . . . You know, I don't really know." He laughed weakly. "It's one of those. . . . I'm just not sure which one. No one ever kept track of my birthday, and I became an orphan when I was just a young ankle biter, so. . . ." He shrugged as well, suddenly realizing how cold the night was. Neither one of them were really dressed appropriately for it.

"Heh. . . ." Alister smirked weakly, not really surprised by Valon's answer. "I'm not sure which one, either. Sometimes you act extremely immature. But other times . . . you amaze me." Valon was trying to be very gentle and to make certain that he didn't hurt his friend worse. And somehow, Alister had the feeling that Valon would have given his life for him, if it had come to that. Valon was a true friend, one whom Alister could feel confident in placing his trust.

Valon looked at him in surprise. But he had no chance to reply before Alister hissed in pain and started to go slack again.

"The laser blasts are supposed to kill," Alister muttered, blinking away spots of dizziness. He wasn't going to be able to stay awake. He was warning Valon that he could still wind up alone out here.

Valon's eyes narrowed. "They haven't killed you yet! And they're not going to. I'm going to make sure you don't kick the bucket." I am not going to let my chum die! You're going to be alright, Alister. Just wait and see.

Alister closed his eyes. "I'm going to make sure of it, too," he said, his voice breaking. He felt himself losing consciousness, but he was going to trust Valon to take care of him. And of course, he would fight for his life. Alister was many things, but a quitter wasn't one of them. He was stubborn and quite determined to stay alive.

"Alister . . . I owe you one, mate," Valon said quietly, watching him. He owed him so much. . . . Even if Alister didn't die, he had known that was a high risk and he had been willing to take it anyway. Now he was hurt so badly. . . .

Alister was silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "No," he said at last, "let's call it even." He was certain that he wouldn't be alive at all if Valon hadn't been there. He would have been overpowered and beaten to death by the thugs if it hadn't been for the Australian. "You saved my life earlier, Valon. I'm just returning the favor."

Valon looked down at his friend as he went completely limp, again surprised by his words. Then he looked up at the surrounding area, trying to determine what he should do now. Really, though, he thought, there was only one solution. He had to get Alister home. And there was only one way to do it.

Taking a deep breath, he gathered the taller young man completely into his arms and then stood, struggling for a moment before getting his balance. He was right that this was going to be harder than it looked. And he himself was injured, perhaps worse than he wanted to admit. He had been beaten during the fights, not to mention that his shoulder had been shot by one of the lasers. But still, he narrowed his eyes in determination and vowed that this would work. He would carry Alister all the way back home if he had to.

Valon wasn't sure how far he walked. It all blurred after a while. He didn't even know what direction he was going in or whether he was heading back towards Domino City. He just concentrated on one thought—getting Alister home. Maybe Raphael would find them eventually, he hoped. His arms were aching, but he forced himself not to think about the pain. After a while it seemed to grow numb. Valon himself was exhausted. As soon as he got back home and made sure that Alister would be alright, he would collapse in bed and sleep for a day and then some.

His thoughts turned to the glimpse he had caught of Alister's true spirit. There was so much more to the redhead behind the facade he had painted. Valon realized that Alister must have indeed wanted it to appear that he had no heart. He had wanted people to stay away from him because he didn't want to get close to them and then lose them. It was a horrible, tragic way to go through life. But Valon had seen that Alister was a kind and caring person, willing to give his life for another. He was a true friend. And Valon admitted to himself that he would have been willing to give his life for Alister if the situation had been reversed. It looks like I don't just worry about myself anymore, he thought to himself. And it actually felt good.

He took another step forward with a sigh, seeing that the scenery hadn't changed much since he had started out. For all he knew, the city could still be miles away. But regardless of whether it was or not, after another long stretch of wilderness and silence Valon was certain he heard his name being called. He looked around blearily, holding Alister's body close before he saw Raphael coming towards them in disbelief. He was vaguely aware of the strong blonde man asking what had happened, but Valon could only deliver Alister's form to him before he collapsed in exhaustion. Everything had taken its toll on him.

Alister opened his eyes slowly, feeling strong hands rubbing ointment on his back. As he focused, he discovered that he was laying shirtless on his bed. His wounds were bandaged and he realized it was Raphael who was tending to his raw flesh. Weakly he moved his hand across the comforter, alerting his friend to the fact that he was awake. Except for the pain he felt, he would be inclined to say that everything had been a dream. But he knew it wasn't. It had all been real.

"Welcome back," Raphael said quietly. The blonde smiled slightly as Alister tried to turn and look up at him. "For a while there, we weren't sure if you were going to make it." Valon had told him what Alister had said about the laser blasts. The Australian had obviously been highly worried and distraught. Raphael had done his best to reassure him, saying that Alister's vital signs were really quite normal and that he was probably going to outsmart the assassins and survive. But Valon had still worried.

Alister grunted, trying to remember what had happened and where Raphael could have came from. The last thing he consciously knew was that he had been on the grass and Valon had been protectively cradling his body. Valon. . . . Where was he? He was alright . . . wasn't he? "Where's Valon?" His voice came out a lot raspier than he thought it would.

Raphael glanced over at the small couch in the corner. "He's here. And he's exhausted." He didn't skip a beat in applying the ointment while he spoke with his friend. Poor Valon. . . . He had insisted on staying in Alister's room with him to make certain he would be alright. But he had been so weary from everything that he had quickly fallen asleep, his arm hanging over the edge of the couch.

Alister struggled to raise himself up enough to look around. He soon spotted Valon on the couch and had to smile a bit. "He's alright, isn't he?" he asked, tensing when Raphael accidentally touched a sore spot too firmly.

Raphael grunted an apology. "He will be," he replied then, and paused. "He carried you a good deal of the way back."

Alister's eyes narrowed. "He did what?!" He watched Valon for a while, wondering just how badly he'd strained himself in doing that. The brunette Australian did, indeed, look exhausted. Alister didn't doubt that he would sleep for a long while.

Raphael shook his head. "I was looking everywhere for the two of you. When I finally found Valon struggling to carry you, it was at the outskirts of town. He didn't know how far he'd walked. He just gave you to me and then collapsed on the grass." Later, on the ride home in the car Raphael had driven to search for them, Valon had explained everything in detail. Raphael had been appalled, alarmed, and surprised at the tale. And he had been glad that the two of them had been able to work together and help each other the way Valon had described that they had. Alister and Valon were such polar opposites that any experience that gave them a chance to better understand and appreciate each other couldn't be all bad.

"I didn't want him to do that," Alister muttered now. "He probably hurt himself."

Carefully Raphael bandaged the sore flesh. "I suppose he didn't care about that—just as you didn't care about putting yourself in danger to save him," he said finally. "He just wanted to ensure that you would be safe."

Alister was silent, pondering this. He knew he couldn't stop someone from doing something that might wind up hurting them, even though he might want to. And if he was going to open his heart again, he would have to accept everything that came with it—the sadness as well as the happiness, the sorrow as well as the joy, and the possibility of tragedy. He would have to take the chance. He would have to pray that Valon or Raphael wouldn't end up perishing as his family had. But he could never push the thought away that it was a possibility. He could wind up alone again, without his surrogate family. But still . . . for the first time in years, he didn't want to be completely aloof and cold. He doubted that he ever would not be, as that was just part of who he was, but around Valon and Raphael he found he didn't care if they saw that he was more than that.

Valon stirred, coming back to awareness from the sound of the voices. He blinked repeatedly, sitting up and running a hand through his bangs. "Hey!" he cried then, smiling brightly as he took in the scene. "You're awake!" Despite the pain, he got up and came over to Alister's bed, sitting on the edge of it. "You had us both awfully worried, chum," he said seriously.

Alister watched him, carefully turning onto his side now that Raphael was done. "Raphael told me what you did," he said, equally as serious.

Valon rubbed the back of his neck, looking a bit embarrassed. Getting recognition for something kind he'd done had that effect on him. "Yeah, well . . . I had to get you home somehow," he said with a shrug. He looked at his friend with some amusement. "You know, you actually don't look like you weigh very much," he remarked.

Alister smirked slightly. "But I'm guessing I weigh a bit more than you were expecting."

"Just a mite." Valon fell silent now, not sure exactly what to say. "I . . . I'm glad you're going to be okay. . . ."

Alister nodded slowly. "Likewise," he said, "it's good to see that you don't seem too much the worse for wear." He leaned into the soft pillows, watching the Australian. Raphael had chosen to remain silent, also observing.

Valon was silent again, which was unusual for the talkative brunette. "Alister?" he said at last. "Do you remember what you said earlier—about not caring if people thought you didn't care?"

"I remember," Alister responded slowly, wondering what he was getting at.

"Well . . . I just wanted you to know that I know different, chum," Valon smiled awkwardly. "I know you care about people. You care about me and Raph." I wish it hadn't taken somethin' so drastic for me to realize it, but at least I didn't realize too late. "And you didn't want us involved in 'your problem' 'cause you didn't want us to get hurt."

Alister's expression didn't change. "I suppose we'll soon find out whether your finding out is a good thing or a bad thing," was his only comment. But somehow it didn't bother him that Valon had seen beyond the facade. He wasn't upset or irritated, as he had thought he might be. It actually felt good, to once again have people that were close to him and who cared whether he lived or died. He doubted that he and Valon would ever stop having their arguments, but at least he knew that deep down they really cared about each other. They were surrogate brothers, and of course Raphael was one as well. Their family was strange, but it was a family. And it would endure.

"Yeah, I guess so," Valon replied. But he was certain he already knew the answer—it was a good thing, a very good thing.

Raphael smiled as he watched them. Yes, he was of the same opinion as Valon was. Alister was accepting that their group was a family—his family—their family. And he could see that Alister was starting to become more relaxed and comfortable with the idea. Maybe eventually he would open up more again, now that he knew there were people who cared, but it really didn't matter whether he stopped being aloof or not. What mattered was that they were all home safe and that the injured would recover. Everything was going to be alright.