With You

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters (save "Elizabeth" and the Triple Creek townspeople—and Triple Creek itself) are not mine, the story is, and this is friendship cuteness only. XD; Those hoping for shounen-ai will have to go elsewhere. Also, this has some of the same elements as Ghosts in the Night, but it's different enough that there shouldn't be any complaints. What this really is, shall we say, is a story crafted from the blurb I Miss You. Oh yeah, and the last name I've given to Alister I chose myself. If you want to use it, fine, but please credit me! I apologize for the removal of the song, but the new policy has forced me to remove it. Please try listening to With You by Linkin Park as you read. It was the inspiration behind the fic.

Disembodied voices and screams swirled through the young man's mind as he struggled, trying his hardest to grasp hold of the consciousness that was attempting to settle over him. But it seemed that the harder he tried, the more it slipped out of his reach. And the voices and screams were only becoming louder and more pronounced. One in particular seemed to echo throughout the chambers of his mind, almost driving the boy mad as the pained sound wouldn't cease. To him, it sounded almost as if the very jaws of Hell itself were clasping down upon the one crying out so horrendously. He wanted to escape the sound, but he didn't know how. It seemed to him as if he should understand what was going on and why the other person was screaming, but he didn't.

He did understand that he himself was feeling pain. There was a burning sensation coming from his chest and more along his shoulders and arms. It wasn't long before he realized that his head was hurting him as well. I must be really banged up, he decided, struggling to remember what had happened. All he was certain of was that it was not his own scream that he heard in his mind. It was someone else's. Perhaps they had both been injured at the same time and the other person had gotten the worst of it? But . . . the worst of what, exactly? Why couldn't he remember?

Now he heard another voice, one that was coming from outside of his mind. This voice was familiar somehow and it was telling him that he needed to wake up if he possibly could. Then he felt a strong hand taking hold of his wrist, probably checking his pulse rate. This made him wonder if he was seriously hurt or if he had even been considered as dead. It definitely wouldn't be the first time that such would have happened. But if it were so again, he had a sudden desire to prove the opinion false.

And so he wrestled with his stubborn eyelids, doing his best to pry them open. At first they rebelled, feeling as heavy as weights. But this only increased his resolve and eventually he triumphed, his deep blue eyes fluttering open to a vague and unclear sight. He could make out a person bending over him, and the light overhead, but nothing else. After blinking several times he was at last able to put things into focus. The one leaning over him was gruff, blonde, and blue-eyed, with a muscular build and sporting two small earrings in his left ear. One of his arms was bandaged, but otherwise he seemed alright. And he seemed familiar, though the teenager laying in the bed couldn't place exactly how the man was known.

He stepped back now, smiling very slightly and showing relief in his cerulean orbs. "So you're awake," he remarked in the same low-pitched tone the boy remembered from his semi-conscious state. "How are you feeling, Valon?" Contrary to the first impression the younger man—Valon—had experienced, he seemed to be a kind, gentle person and not a fierce, rough punk. And at the mention of his name, some memories began to resurface. He didn't have amnesia, after all. It was just that the shock of everything he had been through had caused some memories to temporarily flee from his mind.

"Oh . . . I guess I could be worse," he found himself replying in a noticeable Australian accent. He looked at the man again, recognizing him now as his friend Raphael. He wondered if his temporary bout of memory loss had been guessed from his eyes, but then decided that it hadn't been. Raphael didn't appear to have noticed that Valon hadn't quite known who he was at first.

Now the brunette tried to raise himself up slightly, supporting his weakened body against the soft pillows at his back, but he soon simply slumped back into them wearily. It was much too soon to attempt even sitting up yet. He let out a sigh as he found himself looking up at the ceiling again. Oh well . . . at least I'm home and not in some hospital somewhere. "So . . . what happened to me, anyway, Raph?" He turned to look at the blonde and was surprised at the momentary sick look that had passed over his features. Whatever happened, it must've been a dooser, Valon decided. And somehow it seemed like something was missing. . . . Valon couldn't deny the unsettling feeling that someone wasn't here who was supposed to be.

Raphael sank into a nearby chair. "You don't remember?" he returned, studying him carefully. It appeared that he wanted to tell as little of the tale as possible. This only made Valon more confused and worried. What could he be concealing?

Valon thought hard, examining the bandages covering his wounds as he did so. As he reached up to touch the strip of gauze that was going around his forehead, something did come to him—he remembered laying dazed and wounded in the grass, having just been struck in the head with a vicious rock to keep him down. And he recalled someone else coming to his defense when he had been about to be certainly killed. That person had been the one screaming in his memories. . . . He told this to Raphael, who only nodded slowly and seemed to be trying to determine how to relay some sort of ill news.

"All three of us were fighting a gang," the blonde said at last. "They . . . they've bothered us before." He watched Valon studying the bandages on his right arm and his left hand. "You were seriously hurt by them when Alister and I refused to give in to their demands. But you were expected to live and the doctors let me bring you home." He smirked, but Valon thought it looked forced. "I know how much you despise hospitals."

Valon just stared at him. The mention of Alister's name had brought him to a realization of what was missing. There was no silent redhead watching him calmly and expressing, in his own way, that he was glad Valon had regained consciousness; no gray-eyed young man for Valon to tease and argue with. Alister was not here. And Valon, out of a sudden throe of panic, forced himself to rise. "Where is he, Raph?" he cried. "Where's Alister?" For he had suddenly realized that it was Alister's voice he had heard screaming in agony within his memories. Alister was the one who had jumped to Valon's defense when he had been unable to defend himself. And he must have suffered greatly for it.

Raphael looked away, the sick expression coming over him once more. Obviously this was especially what he didn't want to discuss. "Valon. . . . You should lay down again. You've been unconscious for a long time now and you're still weakened. . . ." His voice came out strained, which only made Valon all the more worried.

A feeling of dark alarm began to grow in his heart. He ignored Raphael's words and continued to sit up, gripping at the quilt and then reaching for his friend desperately, wanting to turn the man to face him. "He's alright, isn't he?" the Australian demanded, finally making contact with Raphael's thick shoulder. "Raph! Answer me!" His fingers closed roughly around the flesh and he found himself actually giving the blonde a shake. Maybe Alister was seriously hurt. . . . Maybe he was still at the hospital. Yes, that had to be it. He might be in a coma or something to that effect and Raphael hadn't been allowed to bring him back home.

Raphael didn't respond to even the shaking at first. He couldn't bring himself to reveal the truth to his friend. So many hours he had struggled with how he was going to say what had really happened if by chance Valon didn't remember it upon reclaiming his senses. But when it came right down to it, he found himself baring the news simply and quietly, not trying to soften the blow. "He's dead, Valon."

The hand went slack and fell from its position on Raphael's shoulder. Valon couldn't comprehend what he had just been told. Alister . . . dead? But no . . . that was impossible. Alister couldn't die! He couldn't. . . . Valon had already made up his mind that neither Alister or Raphael could die! He needed them. They were the only people in the world who cared anything about him. And he felt tears gathering in his eyes, though he did not let them flow over.

He remembered now. . . . He remembered seeing Alister being wounded. . . . Alister had taken the shot that had been meant for Valon's body. He had taken more than one, in rapid succession . . . and then had lost his balance and had fallen off the cliff into the raging waters far below. Valon had seen it all, though in his dazed condition he hadn't quite understood. But he had weakly called Alister's name as unconsciousness had begun to settle over him. The last thing he recalled was Raphael attacking the one who had shot their friend.

Valon didn't realize it, but he was shaking. Slowly he sank back into the pillows, gazing up at the ceiling. Alister had sacrificed his life for Valon's. . . . The previously unwanted Australian had once never dreamed that anyone would care about him that much. The only ones other than Mary who had ever acted like they did were Alister and Raphael. They had risked their safety for him numerous times—and now Alister had given everything up for him.

Raphael felt his heart sink. He had known Valon would take the news very hard. Though Valon and Alister were almost always at odds, they were just as close as friends who rarely argued—perhaps closer. Oh, they didn't talk much to each other or know many of the painful secrets in each other's hearts, but they didn't have to in order to know that they would risk their lives for each other. Their friendship had been strange, indeed, but deep.

The tough blonde leaned over Valon, concerned when he saw that the brunette seemed to be in a state of shock. "Valon?" he asked, touching the boy's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Valon started, coming back to the present, and then struggled to roll onto his side, away from Raphael. "Be quiet, Raph," he replied, his own voice strained now. He needed to be alone to think about this. One of his friends was dead. . . . Could it have been prevented? Valon was certain it could have been, if only he had not been taken prisoner. I'm so stupid! He gripped the pillow tightly, feeling an angry tear escape from his eye and trail down his cheek.

Raphael sighed sadly, straightening up. "I'm sorry, Valon," he managed to say at last, his voice gruff. "I never wanted Alister to die either. I should have been able to get over to the both of you sooner. . . ." He clenched his fists tightly, angry with himself. He had seen that the others had been in danger, but he hadn't been able to reach them before Alister had been shot multiple times and had fallen over the edge. Raphael's opponent had been almost a match for him in skills and strength. The only thought he had to console himself with was that he had been able to attack the murderer before Valon had become his second victim. If they had both perished, Raphael didn't think he would have been able to stand it.

"Don't blame yourself," Valon retorted, still refusing to face the older man. "It's my fault. I let them take me. . . . Then you and Alister had to come and save me. . . ." He was frustrated at himself when he couldn't make the tears stop coming. But it seemed as if all the pain of his entire life was being let out now in the crystalline flood. He hiccuped, burying his face in the pillow.

Raphael, knowing that Valon didn't want him to realize that he was weeping, chose to ignore it. "Don't talk like that," he growled. "You know you fought them as hard as you could. You weren't captured on purpose."

Valon sniffled. He would ignore that for now, though he knew Raphael was right. Of course he hadn't wanted to be taken. Those he had been fighting had had to beat him unconscious before they had been able to get him. But it didn't mean he blamed himself any less. I should've been able to take them! Alister died because I wasn't able to take care of myself. "Where's his body?" he asked at last, his voice muffled by the fluffy pillow. He supposed their friend's corpse had been taken to a morgue, unless only a few hours or so had passed and Raphael had hoped that Alister could be revived. In that case, perhaps the body was here at home or at the hospital.

Raphael was silent for a long time. Here was something else he hated to tell Valon. But the fact was, they didn't have his body. Search teams had been looking since the horrid accident had first occurred, and Raphael had joined in for a while, when he hadn't been tending to Valon, but nothing had been found save for the bloodstained buckle from one of the redhead's belts and a piece of cloth torn from his tank top—and more blood splattered across the rocks near the bottom of the cliff. Yes, Alister had definitely been in the water and had most certainly died in the rapids, but his body was nowhere to be found. Probably, Raphael thought morbidly, it would be found months later at the bottom of the water. "I . . . I don't know where it is," he replied at last, explaining the problem to Valon.

The brunette looked up with a start, staring at Raphael in disbelief and forgetting about the tearstreaks across his face. "Maybe he's not dead then," he cried finally, though he knew it was impossible. Alister had been shot so many times. . . . He never could have made it to the shore, and even if he had, why hadn't the search teams found him? Valon knew that the most likely scenario was that Alister had fallen onto the rocks and had been instantly killed—if he hadn't already been dead before the impact due to the many gunshot wounds. Then he had probably been pulled under the water. . . . Oh blast it! He couldn't stand to think of that. And it had all been for him. . . .

"He's dead, Valon," Raphael replied softly. "There's no way he could have survived that. Even if he was alive when he hit the water, the wounds would have been too much for him. They're going to continue looking for his body, but we have to accept that he's gone." He watched his friend carefully. This was naturally not good for him at all, especially since he was still weak as well. Waking up to the news that his friend was dead must be a horrible shock to his system, Raphael knew. Valon had been badly and cruelly beaten and then, during the fight, had been shot a couple of times himself, though not seriously. Alister had made sure of that. . . .

Valon's shoulders slumped and he stared down at the quilt. "Raph . . . I wanna be alone for a while," he said finally. "To think it all out, you know?" He clenched his fist, unable to keep the remembrance of Alister's scream of pain from his mind.

Raphael sighed, heading for the door. "I thought you might," he answered, going out into the hall. "But I'll be here if you want to talk." He needed to think himself about what had happened. While Valon had lain unconscious Raphael's thoughts had alternated between grief over Alister's death and worry for Valon. And actually, he knew it would probably be the same now when he pondered. He didn't know how Valon was going to handle this. Frankly, he didn't know how he would handle it either. All he could think of was a conversation he remembered having with Alister a while back, during the aftermath of an incident shortly after Doom, when Valon nearly had died.

"If he had died, what would have happened to us?" Alister mused quietly, looking down at the injured boy. Raphael couldn't be sure whether Alister really wanted an answer to his query or if he was speaking mostly to himself, but the blonde replied anyway. The same question had been in his own mind, though he hadn't enjoyed thinking of it.

"I don't know. . . . We probably would have grown apart eventually." Raphael frowned, crossing his arms. Without Valon around to make things more interesting and to confuse and bewilder them, their lives would get dull quickly. But Raphael never stopped to think about how life would be without Valon unless the possibility seemed certain. During Doom, first Alister had been claimed by the Orichalcos and then Valon. Raphael had been certain then that he would never see them again, but thankfully he had been wrong. Still, he had been greatly saddened when he thought he had lost them both due to Dartz's madness.

"And it would have gotten so bad that we wouldn't have a desire to be around each other any more?" Alister finished for him. He spoke matter-of-factly, but actually when he thought about it, the idea depressed him. If the death of one caused the other two to completely drift apart, then it seemed the one dying would have perished pointlessly. Certainly if he himself died, he wouldn't want to think that it would completely tear Raphael and Valon apart from each other. He would want them to continue staying together and being a family.

Raphael sighed. "Probably." He began putting the leftover bandages back into the first aid kit, idly listening to Valon's nonsensical mumblings as he dreamed. Most of them, he deduced, were about Mai. He wondered if Valon would ever get over that woman.

Alister was silent now, pondering over something in his mind. "If I die," he said at last, startling Raphael completely, "promise me that it won't cause you and Valon to hate being around each other. I don't want to be the cause of all of us drifting apart."

Raphael just gazed at Alister with surprise. The redhead had always been more quiet and reserved than Valon or even Raphael himself, and Raphael had wondered if Alister was the type to sit and ponder over macabre subjects. It appeared that such was so. But then again, it wasn't really that much of a surprise when he thought about it. Alister had been exposed to death so many times that he was probably blasé on the subject by now, especially if the death being discussed was his own. "You're not going to die anytime soon," Raphael growled, looking at the other young man sternly.

Alister shrugged. "You don't know that. No one knows when they'll die." But while it might be true that he was fine with talking about his own death, talking about others' deaths wasn't so easy for him, especially if he cared about the person. He might pretend it didn't bother him, but deep down, he would know it did. "Just promise me."

Raphael grunted. "Fine," he retorted at last, "but as long as we're talking about it, the same thing applies if I die. I know you and Valon have trouble getting along, but if I'm gone, you'll have to manage it somehow. I don't want to leave a lot of chaos behind me." He crossed his arms, studying Alister's never-changing expression. The redhead was truly an enigma. And yet, behind the facade was a kind, caring person. No matter how emotionless Alister appeared, his true soul was deep and filled with much pain.

"Very well." Alister watched Valon, who dreamed on and knew nothing of the pacts they were making. But that was just as well. Valon would grow upset at the talk of death. He didn't need to know. "I assure you that I won't allow my friendship with him to fall into disrepair." And Raphael knew that Alister meant what he said.

The blonde came back to the present now, frowning as he turned to look back at Valon's room. He had left the door partially open when he had departed and now he was certain he could hear Valon muttering to himself—probably cursing himself—as the tears continued to stubbornly fall. But he knew that Valon wanted to be alone at the moment and so he left him to his own thoughts, though when he entered his own room he kept his door partially open as well so he could hear if Valon called for him.

Valon didn't know how long he remained in his darkened room, helplessly crying when he thought he never would. But knowing that Alister was surely dead had done something to his self-control. He knew these angry, confused tears weren't for Alister alone, but for every injustice he had been dealt. He had been rejected so often he had grown used to it, but now . . . now things were so changed. It was so strange . . . realizing that someone cared enough to give his very life to keep Valon alive. "Why'd you do it?" he whispered softly to the empty room. "Crazy idiot . . . didn't you know you'd die?" His voice raised. "Didn't you know it?"

What do you think?

Valon froze, hearing the familiar, quiet voice belonging to his departed friend. When he recovered from the shock he looked about, trying to determine where the voice but coming from—but he found nothing. Of course, he was alone. Alister wasn't really in the room with him. Still, Valon was certain he'd heard the redhead's voice, perhaps coming from his memories. It sounded like something Alister would say, so maybe he was imagining that his friend was truly saying it.

Or maybe he was going insane.

The Australian's shoulders slumped and he stared down at the comforter quilt. Alister had known that he was likely to not survive. And he had struggled to protect Valon anyway. "I never thought anyone would care that much," the brunette said now, his voice cracking. "I never thought . . . you'd care that much." But of course he had recently discovered that, indeed, Alister cared that much. This hadn't been the first occasion when the redhead had risked his safety in favor of Valon's. But this would be the last.

I know you didn't.

Valon knew this wasn't his imagination. He looked around again, determined to find where Alister—or Alister's spirit—was hiding. But it seemed to fall to him to not be allowed to see his old friend. Maybe Alister didn't want him to. And so he merely sighed and slumped back into the pillows, falling silent again. It seemed to him that he could feel Alister's presence in the room somewhere nearby. Perhaps the lanky young man was sitting on the edge of the bed, his arms crossed, watching Valon calmly from behind his dark sunglasses. But Valon found it unnerving when he couldn't actually see his friend. It had to just be in his mind.

At last he slammed his fists down on the bed. "Alright already!" he cried, louder than he meant to. "I miss you. There, I said it. Are you happy now?" There was a pause and then he felt his voice cracking. "For cryin' out loud . . . I miss you." Upon stating this, he rolled onto his side and glared at the wall. And he fancied in his mind that the elusive presence left him alone.

To his memory now came something Alister had told him not that long ago. And Valon recalled how incredulous and stunned he had been when he had been told.

It had happened one evening after a particularly trying day at the bikers' home on a normally quiet Domino City street. Alister and Valon had been arguing again, all because Valon had been upset and hurt that Alister didn't confide in him at times when he felt that he could confide in Raphael. Their quarrel had driven Raphael almost mad, to the point where he had threatened to move out. Of course, neither of them believed he was really serious—and Raphael knew that he wouldn't really pack up and leave the only family he had (despite feeling irritated with them during these times). But Alister and Valon had each gone upstairs after that, staying in their respective rooms and refusing to come out for the rest of the day. Raphael had merely sighed, settled down with a book, and wondered if he had let his temper get too far ahead of him.

Neither Alister nor Valon was actually hurt by Raphael's words, however. They were keeping out of each other's way and had decided to give Raphael the peace and quiet that he deserved after constantly having to play referee in their squabbles. For the most part, the duo spent the day thinking and wondering what their next course of action should be.

It was after dark and Valon was just turning on the light after waking up from an unexpected nap when he heard a knock on his door. He sighed, stretched, and called out dryly, "Don't worry, Raph. I'm still alive in here." After all, he was certain, Raphael was the only one of the other two who would come knocking on his door. Alister never would.

So it was to his great astonishment that he heard a different voice than he was expecting. "It's not Raphael."

Valon's shock was so great that, instead of just calling through the door and demanding an explanation, he threw the door open to face the redhead looking back at him. "What do you want, Alister?" he exclaimed, perhaps sounding more hostile than he had intended.

But at any rate, Alister took no outward notice. "Just to talk," he replied calmly, "if you have no objections." He studied Valon with his gray eyes, as if he was silently appraising his comrade to see if he thought him worthy of some knowledge that had heretofore been withheld.

Valon frowned suspiciously, clutching the edge of the door with one hand. "Oh yeah? And why do you suddenly wanna talk now?" he wanted to know. "I've always wanted to talk to you and you've never wanted to." Alright, so perhaps both of those statements were exaggerated, but Valon was confused and couldn't understand what would have suddenly brought about Alister's change of heart.

As it was, the redhead was still not very forthcoming with information. "I just wanted to tell you something that I never told you before," he said, still using that same unruffled tone of voice. "Perhaps you won't care. But I've decided that now is as good a time as any to tell you."

Well, Valon had to admit that he was curious now. And so he allowed Alister to come in and they sat down on the bed. What he was told was what he never would have expected in a thousand lifetimes.

"You know by now," Alister began, "that I blamed the Kaiba empire for my family's deaths." Valon nodded, confused and impatient and wondering what relevance this had to what was going to be said. His friend took a deep breath and seemed to hesitate before adding, "I blamed myself as well, especially for what happened to Miruko." The redhead looked down now, taking out the broken action figure and running his hand over it.

Valon just blinked at him, surprised at this admission. He wasn't sure what to say. And so he simply waited for him to finish fondling the toy, having learned some time ago that Alister found it sacred because it was all he had left that had been his brother's.

Alister sighed, glancing off into the distance before coming back to the present. "I blamed myself so much," he said slowly, looking Valon in the eyes, "and I felt so sickened and unworthy to have survived when no one else had, that more than once I wanted to destroy my own life. However, I usually ended up deciding not to go ahead with it—except once." He had struggled and pondered for hours on whether to tell this to Valon now—or if he would tell it ever. But for some reason, it just seemed right, though he also found it hard. Speaking of it again reminded him of the pain he had felt those years past and how he had loathed himself. And judging from Valon's expression, the spunky Australian had just been struck speechless.

Indeed, Valon just stared. He couldn't comprehend. Alister had been suicidal? But how could that have been? Alister had never given any indication of such feelings! Of course he had always been skilled at hiding how he truly felt—if that could be considered a skill and not merely a danger to his health—but still . . . thinking of Alister feeling so alone and friendless and believing that he deserved to die . . . Valon was horrified. "When was this?" was all he could manage to get out. He was certain his cerulean eyes were as wide as saucers.

"We were still with Doom at this point," Alister said quietly. "On this night I was in my room with my pocketknife, struggling again with my feelings of self-hatred. It was six years ago that day when Miruko had been killed in that tank because of my foolishness. And it seemed fitting, I thought, to die myself on that same day." He looked down, studying his wrists. "I was going to slit my wrists and then lay back on my bed, bleeding to death. No one would miss me if I did, I thought, and I wouldn't miss living in this mortal world. I felt that I hadn't truly been living since Miruko died and that I wanted to be released from my existence."

Valon was aghast. "That . . . that's horrible!" he breathed finally, his normally cheerful countenance extremely sobered. "I . . . I had no idea. . . ." In another circumstance, his troubled expression—so out of sync with his usual personality—might have seemed comical. But Alister found nothing humorous about it, nor, of course, about the situation he was retelling.

"Alister, what happened?" Valon demanded now. "What make you stop?" He looked down at Alister's wrists as well, as if expecting to see the scars of his heartbroken actions, but saw nothing. And of course, he was certain that if Alister had really attempted to end his life, the others in the Orichalcos temple would have found out about it. Though, he supposed that if Alister had changed his mind before cutting deep enough for it to be fatal, he could have hid the evidence of his actions with the long, fingerless gloves he often wore.

The gray-eyed young man looked at Valon again, a certainty gleaming in his orbs. "You did," he proclaimed quietly. "You stopped me."

Valon's mouth dropped open. If he had been stunned before, he was positively flabbergasted by now. This seemed too impossible to be true. "Whaddya mean, Alister?" he cried. "I don't remember that! If I actually caused you to not off yourself, how come I wouldn't remember it?" Surely Alister wasn't serious! And yet Valon knew that Alister didn't joke around, especially not about subjects such as this.

Now Alister actually did smile slightly—or perhaps it was a smirk. "You didn't know," he replied simply before then telling of how Valon had come to the doorway and made the most idle of remarks—musing that, since both Raphael and Alister had once had loving families, they probably wouldn't want to do anything that would disappoint them. "I don't know why you chose to come stand in my doorway and say that right at that moment," Alister said, serious again. "That's often confused me. I supposed finally that you just happened to be thinking that you've never really had a loving family with parents and siblings and you wondered what it had been like for those who had. You probably don't even remember saying that now."

Valon shrugged helplessly. "I don't," he admitted.

Alister relaxed slightly now as he told the remainder of his story. "While for you it was the most random comment, for me it sealed whether I lived or died," he explained. "I knew that you were right—I wouldn't want to do anything to disappoint them . . . and killing myself would have done that. So . . . I let the knife clatter to the floor instead of cutting through my flesh. And I let you think that I had been holding it for some other reason and then just dropped it because I was startled at your sudden appearance. As far as I know, you never suspected the truth of the matter, especially since I had not been facing you at that time." If he had been, and Valon had seen the knife poised over Alister's wrist, surely he would have realized what the other young man had planned to do. But as it was, the thought had never even crossed his mind. Alister could see this as he looked into Valon's overwhelmed blue eyes.

For a long time Valon again couldn't think of anything to say. Alister had almost killed himself . . . but he, Valon, had stopped him without even realizing it. He wasn't sure how he felt about this. All he could think of was how stunned he and Raphael both would have been if they had found Alister's body hours later, when it would have been too late. And poor Alister! Valon couldn't even imagine the horrible pain his friend must have gone through. Though Valon had always been treated roughly and cruelly, he had never been suicidal. He had always determined to survive anyway and to rise above their cruelty. "So . . . did . . . did you ever want to kill yourself after that?" the brunette asked at last.

Alister shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "That was the last time. I still blamed myself, but not to the point where I wanted to die."

Valon thought this over and then smiled weakly. "Well . . . I guess I saved your life, chum," he remarked then. It made him feel confused and awed at the same time. Alister was someone he barely understood, but he cared about him as a friend. Valon could very well have lost him ages ago, if he had not followed whatever urge led him to the door.

"You did," Alister agreed instantly. He was positive that he would not be alive today if it wasn't for Valon's inadvertent influence.

The brunette looked at him curiously now. "So . . . why did you figure you'd tell me now?" he asked. "I mean . . . you haven't for ages. Why now, especially when we were just arguing earlier?"

Now it was Alister's turn to think. He wasn't even quite sure he knew the answer himself. "You were upset because you felt that I never confide in you," he responded finally. "But I know by now that you're trustworthy. Perhaps . . . I don't always have to be quiet around you." Oh, he was certain that he would always have that aloof streak in his veins. It was just part of who he had become. But it was true that sometimes he confided in Raphael. Valon was worlds apart from Alister, but actually, when he sat right down and talked to him, Alister had found that Valon was a willing, mature listener. Alister had decided that sometimes he would confide in Valon as well.

Valon smiled genuinely now. "Yeah?" he said. "Well . . . thanks . . . for tellin' me."

Valon was left staring at the wall as he came back to the present. "How 'bout that, Alister?" he remarked, trying to smile but failing. "I saved your life once . . . and now you saved mine." He looked down at the floor now. "And you died for it. . . ." With a sad sigh he laid back into the soft pillows and soon was asleep, dreaming of the treachery that had brought about Alister's death. He relived the fight with "Elizabeth's" gangsters and their subsequent torture of him when he refused to divulge the secrets of Doom and the Orichalcos. Then, when Alister and Raphael had also refused to meet their demands, the gang had tortured Valon again as punishment.

Valon didn't blame his friends for their refusal. After all, he was certain that even if they had told what they knew, Elizabeth—or rather, JoDee, the name she had always given Valon—would have still had him tortured and probably killed. As it was, her henchmen had been acting without her orders when they had set about trying to kill the bikers on the cliff. "Elizabeth" had wanted at least one of them to remain alive until he talked. Valon was certain that she would turn up again very soon, hoping that Alister's death would have subdued the others into talking.

Actually, it did just the opposite. Valon clenched his fists in his slumber, vowing that Alister's death would not be in vain. If either he or Raphael gave in to the woman's wicked demands for information, they would be failing their fallen friend. Alister wouldn't want her to have the knowledge of Doom and the Orichalcos. She would certainly use it only to gain power and eventually her selfishness would bring about the destruction of the entire world. Valon moaned as his memories turned into a nightmare of that happening.

Alister sighed, watching his friend's uneasy sleep from where he was sitting on the edge of the bed. "I've really been here, you know," he remarked quietly. "It seems you can't see me, but you can occasionally hear me. If you can hear me now, I'm telling you not to grieve over me." Slowly he stood up, heading for the door. When he was at the doorway, he stopped and turned back. "You're younger even than I am, Valon. Find something to do with your life. You'll meet other people eventually, I imagine. They'll be better friends for you than I was and they'll do the crazy things with you that you always wanted me and Raphael to do." He smirked slightly, remembering how Valon had tried to get the other two interested in anime, manga, computer games, and even dangerous motorcycle stunts. Then he paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow. "On second thought, find someone at least who won't support you in doing stupid things that could get you killed."

Valon mumbled in his sleep, indeed hearing Alister somewhere in his dreams. It sounded to Alister as if Valon had just replied that he wouldn't find any better friends than the ones he already had and that Alister was crazy for thinking otherwise. And Alister, not a fan of goodbyes, decided to leave things as they were and walked out into the hall.

Raphael was still awake in his room when Alister walked in. The redhead stood back near the doorway, observing his other friend as the older man brooded. He could gather what some of Raphael's thoughts might be, and he was probably correct in at least some of his assumptions.

The blonde clasped his hands and stared at the floor, replaying the events of earlier in his mind again and again. He couldn't get the images out of his mind. Valon had been laying on the ground, beaten horribly and half-dead. . . . Alister had gotten in the way before Valon could be shot to death, thereby sealing his own fate. . . . And now he was dead. Raphael couldn't cease from blaming himself. If he could have defeated his enemy just a few minutes faster, perhaps he could have overpowered the gunman before harm had been dealt to either of his friends. And even if he hadn't been able to stop Alister from being shot, what if he could have prevented him from toppling over the cliff's edge? Maybe Alister's life could have even been saved, despite the many wounds, if he hadn't been lost to the crashing rapids!

"I let you down," Raphael muttered, feeling sick. He rubbed his eyes and laid back on his bed, staring at the ceiling. "I should've been able to stop it from happening. . . . I should've been able to keep you from dying. . . ." And he couldn't help but think how strange and ironic it was that first he had lost his biological family to the ocean's wrath and now he had also lost part of his adopted family to it as well. A part of him hated the water because of that. He wasn't sure that he would ever want to get on a ship again.

"You can't blame yourself," Alister replied quietly as he came in closer. He could see that Raphael had heard him, as the blonde rose up and looked around in confusion, just as Valon had earlier. "Heh. No, you're not crazy, Raphael. It's me."

Raphael swallowed hard, staring over near where he had heard the voice. Alister had returned? Well . . . he realized that this would have to be Alister's spirit. Alister had come to say goodbye. He wanted to say something, but he felt that his mind was blank.

"I just want to tell you one thing," Alister said, feeling his form beginning to shimmer. He didn't have any more time left. "Don't forget our pact." He looked Raphael firmly in the eyes, though he knew that his friend couldn't see him. "Valon needs you now and you'll need him." With that he was gone, leaving a stunned and determined Raphael behind. He hadn't forgotten the pact. And he would make good on it.

The next several days weren't easy. Valon was still recovering from his own injuries and needed a bit of help getting around the house, though he denied that he did at first. But Raphael knew better and wouldn't take no for an answer. Eventually Valon grudgingly accepted the assistance.

But even though his physical wounds were healing, the wounds torn into Valon's heart and soul were as raw and fresh as ever. He was certain that Alister had visited him that first night, even though another part of him insisted that it was a dream, and this said firmly that his friend truly was dead. He had, admittedly, clung to some hope at first, since the body had not been recovered. But Alister wouldn't have come to visit unless his mortal body was dead. Valon longed to talk about it all with someone, and he should have felt that he could talk to Raphael, but there was another problem.

Even though neither Valon nor Raphael wanted it to happen, they were drifting apart. Raphael hadn't told Valon about his own experience with hearing Alister, as then he would also need to tell about the pact, which he thought might upset his already distressed friend. And as Raphael had tried to deal with his own grief, he found himself losing his temper more often. He still carried so much self-hatred for what had occurred on the cliffs. There was so much he felt that he could have done differently and better! He should have been able to keep the gang from taking Valon in the first place. He should have been able to find their hideout in the canyons sooner. And he should have been able to prevent Alister from being shot and killed. So many should haves. . . .

The tragedy was that Raphael was often so angry with himself that he took it out on Valon without meaning to. This would result in many hurt feelings and even more anger. The two had wound up snapping at each other often over the next few days, usually culminating in Valon angrily going into his room and slamming the door. Raphael would call after him in vain and then sigh to himself, rubbing the bridge of his nose and knowing that he had failed once more.

"Sorry, Alister," he muttered after one particularly exasperating argument in which Valon had ended up yelling that Raphael was just as bad at understanding him as Alister had been. When Raphael had retorted that Valon shouldn't speak ill of the dead, especially when Alister had died to save the Australian, Valon had screamed that he knew exactly what Alister had done and that Raphael was self-righteous. Then the boy had stumbled up the stairs, limping and tripping, but refusing Raphael's help as he struggled to get back into his room. Raphael was left staring after him, stung by his words.

What if Valon's right? he thought to himself in horror as he sat down at the kitchen table. Maybe I am self-righteous. Maybe my grief over Alister's death has caused me to become critical of Valon's actions. He realized that, in spite of Alister's words, he still did blame himself. Perhaps self-consciously he was trying to make himself feel better by being faultfinding with someone else. But he despised the thought, not able to really comprehend that he could be that kind of a person. Certainly that wasn't the normal him. And he soon began to understand that he was not trying to hurt Valon on purpose, nor to be criticizing.

"What's happening to us?" Raphael muttered in despair, slamming his hand on the table. It was strange, how someone could be taken for granted while he was here—but then when he was gone it was realized just how important he had been in their lives. Raphael hadn't really believed that Alister would die so young, in spite of the pact he had agreed to make with him. It seemed impossible to realize that he was actually dead now. Of course, his spirit still lived on somewhere, but for those on the mortal plane, it simply could not be the same.

Don't give up. If it was me with Valon instead of you, I know I'd be having the same problems—and probably on a much worse scale. But you can still fix this, Raphael.

The blonde man looked up with a start. He could see no one, but still he was certain that Alister was there, watching him. Surely their friend did know of what had been going on and how hard it was for them to go on without him. It was ridiculous to ever think that Alister wouldn't be aware of it.

And Raphael knew that Alister was right—he could still mend the damage that his words had done. At least, he hoped he could. Surely the wounds hadn't gone so deep now that they couldn't ever heal! Valon was so sensitive, though, that it was hard to know. Raphael stood up, clenching his fist in frustration. He knew that he should have tried harder not to lose his temper with the brunette. Valon's heart was aching, just as Raphael's was, and he deserved more kindness and patience that Raphael had given him. In determination he headed up the stairs.

Valon's door was shut when Raphael arrived, but that was nothing that hadn't been expected. Of course Valon would shut his door. He wouldn't feel that he wanted to keep it open after the harsh words he and Raphael had exchanged. With a sigh Raphael reached up and knocked, softly at first and then louder when he didn't get a response. "Valon?" he called then, wondering if by any chance he needed to worry about what his friend might be doing.

At last, to his relief, he heard a muffled Australian voice reply. "Go away." It sounded as if Valon was laying on his bed, perhaps hiding his face in a pillow.

But Raphael didn't go away. He was determined to make up for whatever added pain he had caused the younger man. "Valon, look," he called firmly, "I'm sorry about what I said. Maybe you're right—maybe I have been acting self-righteous. But I haven't ever done it on purpose. I've never wanted to hurt you. It's just that Alister's death has been affecting each of us in different ways." He leaned on the door slightly, clenching his fist again. He felt disgusted with himself. "If you don't want to forgive me, I understand." He waited for a while, but upon receiving no answer he turned to leave.

That was when the door slowly opened. Surprised and hopeful, Raphael turned back to look at his friend. He was stunned when he saw how truly pale and weak Valon looked. Had he been blind to this? Physically Valon was healing, but he would never fully recover as long as the emotional wounds were wide open. Raphael realized that he hadn't been helping to close the wounds—he had been rubbing salt in them. "Alister wouldn't want that," Valon remarked quietly, looking back at Raphael. "I mean . . . he even made you promise that we'd stick together if he croaked."

Raphael stared at him in disbelief. "Then . . . you knew about the pact?" he exclaimed. But that didn't seem possible. If Valon had known, he was the type to let it be known and to demand explanations. Why wouldn't he have said something?

Valon shrugged. "Yeah," he admitted. "I was only half awake, but I heard you both talkin' about it. I dropped off again after that, but I've always remembered what I wound up hearing." He leaned against the door, feeling weary. Would this nightmare ever end? he wondered. Would he and Raphael ever be able to heal from this?

"Why didn't you ever say you knew?" Raphael asked.

Valon sighed. "Oh, I dunno," he admitted. "I know usually I probably would've. And I guess I was kinda ticked that I wasn't let in on things, but I knew you two just figured it'd upset me too much." His brown bangs brushed into his world-weary eyes, giving him a tired and exhausted appearance, much older than his late teen years. He just wanted it all to be over—all the pain, all the agony, all the tension. Now he was certain that he understood why Alister had tried to pretend he didn't have feelings or emotions. It hurt too much to lose someone. He voiced these thoughts now, his voice cracking.

Raphael sighed as well, laying a hand on Valon's shoulder. "Yeah," he agreed, "I know. It hurts like no other pain ever could. But pain's a part of living. We may not like it, but that's the way it is. And dying's a part of living as well."

Valon tried to smile weakly. "Alister's probably happier wherever he is now," he said. "He's probably back with that little brother he loved so much. . . ." He brushed aside a stray tear.

Raphael gave Valon's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "That doesn't mean he'll forget about us, though," he replied. "He never would."

"Yeah. . . . I know. . . ." Valon rested his head against the edge of the door. "But that doesn't mean I don't still miss him."

"We'll always miss him," Raphael said quietly. There were all kinds of things that he could say, such as that Alister would never die as long as they kept him alive in their memories, but it all sounded hollow and empty to him. And so he fell silent, just pondering, along with Valon. They would never be able to completely get over Alister's demise, but in time, perhaps they would be able to go on living. And the gunman's trial was coming up shortly. He was being charged with murder and attempted murder, and both Raphael and Valon were determined to see that he went to prison for what he had done.

But "Elizabeth" was still running loose somewhere. She had been a fugitive for some time now, and according to the police after finally seeing a photograph of her, her real name was Vivalene. Valon was stunned at the news. He had heard of Vivalene before. She was notorious for tricking gullible men in order to get things that she wanted and then, when the men were no longer useful to her, she would kill them.

"Alister was right all along," Valon had said regretfully when they had received the news. "I didn't even believe him at first." Raphael had tried to console him, but it had been almost impossible. Now that Alister was dead, Valon couldn't help remembering how cruelly he had treated Alister at times because of his objections about Vivalene. He had apologized long ago for his conduct, and Alister had accepted that, but now Valon had been feeling guilty again.

"At least maybe we can see that justice is done," Valon spoke up now, clenching his fist. "The bloke who killed Alister can't wind up getting away with what he did!" His blood boiled at the thought. He himself had been sent to prison for a crime he hadn't committed—that of burning down the church. And the one really responsible, Dartz, hadn't been punished.

"He won't," Raphael vowed. "We'll make sure of it." He was relieved that the two of them seemed to have resolved their differences, but being a pessimist, he was certain that this wasn't the last argument they would have over the next while. As long as they could resolve their disagreements, however, things would hopefully turn out fine in the end.

As the next two weeks went by, both Valon and Raphael began to slowly heal. It wasn't easy, especially when there were always reminders that Alister wasn't there—his empty room, his red motorcycle parked in the driveway, and the fact that things were just so much quieter without him arguing with Valon. The Australian found it very strange, but he actually discovered that he wished that he would get into an argument with Alister. Raphael told him that it was probably because if they were arguing, it would mean that Alister was alive and well and back with them. Then he admitted that he wished that they were arguing as well and that he was needed to break it up.

Valon took to riding his motorcycle around the city for long stretches at a time. It was his time to ponder and Raphael, knowing this, left him alone when he wanted to ride. Raphael himself would just stay at home to ponder, usually remaining in his room for long stretches of time and trying to convince himself that Alister was right and that he couldn't have done anything differently than he had. Both he and Alister had done all they could to rescue Valon, and Raphael shouldn't have to feel guilty for something that wasn't his fault. But it was easier to say it than to make himself believe it.

Sometimes Valon would feel as though he was being watched over by Alister when he took his rides. This was comforting sometimes and disconcerting at others. One night he rode up into the nearby canyons, not quite certain what it was that he was being drawn to. But when he finally parked and got off to look around, he found that he had driven over to the very spot where Alister had perished.

Valon's heart caught in his throat as he stepped closer to the cliff and looked over the edge. The water crashed against the rocks far below and Valon fancied that he saw some of the blood still splattered over their jagged surfaces. After a moment he turned away, clenching his fists. "You idiot," he whispered shakily. "You got yourself killed because of me. . . ." He turned back, looking out across the sky. "Why? Why did you do it, Alister? WHY?" Perhaps, he thought to himself, he hadn't really begun to heal at all. Coming here opened the wounds afresh.

Because you're my friend.

Valon's shoulders slumped. Alister was here again, but he knew it wouldn't do any good to try to look for him. He wouldn't be able to see the redhead. "Yeah," he said softly, his voice cracked, "I know." He paused, pondering over the words he wanted to say. "You were a good chum, Alister," he said at last. "And . . . it doesn't matter whether I find any others or not. They'd never replace you." He looked down, studying the churning waters. "I could never have any better chums than you and Raph. . . ."

He felt a gentle breeze then, tussling his already-wild hair and tickling his eyes with the tips of his bangs. When it calmed down, he gave a sad sort of sigh and turned to leave, climbing on his yellow motorcycle. He could still sense Alister's presence with him until he left the canyon. Then it was gone and he didn't sense it again.

Raphael was waiting for him when he got back. He was sitting on the couch, just gazing off into the distance and looking as though he was pondering over some fantastic new discovery that he wanted badly to accept and embrace. When the doorknob turned and Valon came in, the blonde looked up with a start and then relaxed. "It's late," he remarked, glancing at the clock.

"Yeah," Valon nodded, taking his red jacket off and throwing it carelessly across the back of a chair. He paused for a long moment and then revealed why he had been gone so long. "I went up into the canyons."

Raphael knew instantly what Valon really meant without the younger man having to say it. "How did it make you feel?" he asked quietly. He wasn't sure if he could stand to ever go to that spot himself. It seemed to him that it would make the pain all the worse. But maybe for Valon it had had the opposite effect.

The Australian shrugged, plopping down on the couch next to him. "Kinda sad, I guess," he replied, and sighed. "I looked over the cliff's edge and saw all that water and those rocks. . . ." He stared at the floor, propping his chin in his hand. "It made me hope that Alister died quickly. Poor fella. . . ."

Raphael sighed too, watching his friend. If the body ever was recovered, it would likely be horribly mangled. He tensed at the thought and then decided to change the subject. Before he could, however, Valon continued.

"Alister was there," the brunette admitted, looking up at Raphael now. "I know he was. He was watching me. And . . . I dunno . . . it's odd, I guess, but when I left . . . I kinda felt more at ease. Like . . . I could stop feelin' sad." He smiled shakily. "That might not last long, though."

Raphael forced a half-smirk. "Yeah. . . . Maybe not. I guess there'll always be good days and bad days." Even now, that's how it was for him concerning his own family. He still had days where he missed them so badly that he didn't know how he would stand it. He would remember Sonia's sweet singing or Julien's innocent laughter and look around, as if hoping to find them lurking in some corner of the house—but he knew he really wouldn't be able to see them or hear them, except in his memories. Or at least, he had thought so. . . .

Valon sighed, leaning back against the couch. "Guess so," he agreed, looking up at the ceiling. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he asked, "Hey, Raph? What happened when you first met Alister?" Both of them well remembered when Valon had first met him. Neither one had made a great impression with the other and Raphael had wound up having to break up the first of countless arguments between them. But Valon had never known how things had been when the two quieter Doom members had first met.

Raphael blinked and then looked over at him. "You wouldn't have found it very interesting," he replied. "We met in the main room of the temple and just scrutinized each other. Finally I introduced myself and then Alister did likewise. I asked him why he had joined Doom and said that I had because I wanted to see justice done. Then he said he did as well and didn't say anything more. And that was pretty much it." Alister hadn't trusted Raphael at first, but Raphael had understood his distrust and had been patient, unlike Valon. Eventually Alister had let some of his defenses down and had engaged in serious conversations with Raphael at times. And, Raphael knew, Alister had grown attached to both him and Valon.

Valon snickered. "Yeah, that sounds about right," he commented. "I guess it's true that quiet people attract quiet chums. Heck, Alister and I couldn't have been any more different than we were. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that we never got along." He paused, thinking for a moment as he realized something.

Even during Doom, when Valon had been certain that he disliked Alister and that Alister hated him, there had still been times when he had come to the knowledge that he cared about Alister. After he had refused to duel in Alister's behalf when Raphael had told him about the redhead falling to the Orichalcos, Valon had hung up the phone and had inwardly felt a bit of a strange sadness at the thought of Alister being gone. Somehow there had been a bit of an empty feeling in Valon's heart, as if he had lost someone important. He had denied feeling that way. But now, with the circumstances so changed and different, he could deny it no longer. Alister had been a friend, even when Valon hadn't openly realized it.

Raphael looked at him, seeing the prolonged silence and the vague, far-away expression. He waited quietly for a while, expecting Valon to come back to his senses in a moment, but when the Australian continued to stare at the opposite wall, Raphael decided to speak. "What is it?" he asked.

Instantly Valon started. Then he sighed, half-smiling, and crossed his arms. "Nothin'," he said then. "Nothin' at all." But after a pause, he decided to tell Raphael his true thoughts of the moment. After all, he had wanted to talk to him seriously about their departed friend ever since his death, but in the past things hadn't ever seemed to work out for that to be possible.

The blonde man listened as Valon spoke, not really surprised. He had recognized Alister's true nature before Valon had. And he was glad that Valon had at last come to comprehend it as well, though he wondered if it had really taken Alister making the ultimate sacrifice for Valon to understand.

Without Raphael even asking anything, Valon answered the question for him. "I guess I've known for a long time now that Alister's not really what he seems when you first meet him," he mused slowly. "I mean, even when we were with Doom, sometimes he'd kinda be nice to me—like when he came looking for me that time when I'd wiped out on the road and then brought me home when I was too beat up to make it back myself. That always puzzled me, you know?" He rubbed his eyes. "I couldn't understand why he'd help me. But now, I think I get it. He was a real decent guy. And . . . he really cared about the both of us. We were his chums."

Raphael nodded. "And his family, too," he added quietly. "We were all he had. And he was willing to die if he thought it would mean that we would be safe."

Valon gave a shaky smile again. "Yeah," he agreed. It felt good to talk about this with Raphael. As he looked at his friend, the Australian saw that Raphael now seemed to be more calm and at peace himself. He wondered if Raphael had finally managed to stop blaming himself. At last he voiced these thoughts, curiously.

Raphael was silent for a long time. "I . . . don't know if I'll ever stop blaming myself entirely," he answered then. But it was true that he felt more calm at the moment. Sonia and Julien had came and sat with him for a while, just offering silent comfort. And Raphael had, indeed, been comforted.

"You should, mate," Valon said. "What happened wasn't your fault."

"It wasn't yours, either," Raphael retorted.

Valon blinked in surprise at this remark and then shifted onto his side, propping himself up with an elbow. "Yeah . . . that's what I keep tellin' myself," he said softly. "Sometimes I realize it's true, but other times . . . well. . . ." He shrugged helplessly.

They talked long into the night, helping each other to heal. By the time each went to his respective room to sleep, there was much more to be pondered over. But they each felt more calm than they had since Alister's death. It had greatly helped them to converse with each other. Valon had often thought that Alister would suffer a nervous breakdown one day because he kept all of his feelings bottled up inside. Perhaps Valon would have been right, had Alister still been alive. . . .

Some distance from where all of this was occurring was a small town on the coast. The name escapes me now, but it was something uncommon and odd, such as Doublefork or Triple Creek. Ah yes—Triple Creek was the name. The townspeople there took life very slowly and leisurely, but they were smart and kind and willing to help anyone they found who was in trouble.

So it was that several weeks back, when an inquisitive child found an apparently dead body washed up on the grassy bank, he immediately ran to get the town doctor—who, in spite of being in such a small town atmosphere, was quite up to date on all the latest medical technologies. The physician came quickly and found, to his astonishment, that the young man was still alive, though just barely. After getting him back to the local hospital, managing to extract the water and the several bullets that had been shot into his body, and administering a blood transfusion, the doctor and his nurse could only wait to see if their patient would survive.

Over the next weeks, the boy—for really, he was scarcely older than that—was carefully and kindly nursed back to health. He had no identification, so no one was certain of what to call him other than John Doe. Mostly he remained deeply unconscious, emerging from that state every now and then to go into a delirious fever and sometimes calling for someone named Miruko. Later on he spoke of needing to find out if his friends were alright and telling of a horrible battle in which all three of them had been wounded, but he was still mostly unaware of those around him and did not answer the questions they posed to him. After speaking of these things and becoming highly distraught, he would usually pass back into unconsciousness.

Towards the end of the third week he seemed to regain some of his health, enough so that one day, while the nurse was checking his vital signs, he looked up at her with perfectly clear gray eyes—as previously they had always been somewhat glassy when he had been awake—and spoke. "Where am I?" His voice was quiet and with a slight nasal tone, but pleasant to listen to.

The nurse, however, was startled and almost dropped the clipboard. She looked down at him, struggling to regain her bearings, and then replied, "You're in a hospital. You've been very ill."

He frowned in confusion, blinking, and then asked if his friends were there as well. The nurse said No, and asked him for his friends' names, but he could only look at her helplessly. He remembered who his friends were and would recognize them both in an instant, but their names had fled his mind. He could only recall one name when queried further—his own.

"Mackenzie," he told the nurse. "Alister Mackenzie." He had a middle name as well, Amelda, but he didn't use it much and saw no reason to inform the nurse of it.

"From Scotland, are you?" The nurse smiled gently and noticed that the young man had no distinctive Scottish accent.

Alister rubbed his forehead. "I've never been there," he muttered. But he was of Scottish descent. His grandparents had immigrated from Scotland many, many years before, settling in the country where he had been raised and had later watched his family die.

Next he was asked for his age, so they would know whether he was a minor or not. He looked youthful enough to still perhaps be sixteen or seventeen, but the nurse was flatly informed that her patient was twenty.

Alister sighed to himself, brushing the magenta bangs out of his eyes and finding that he was wearing his clothes, which had been washed and mended and then given back to him when his condition had started to improve. He wondered exactly how far away from home he was, as he had never heard of the town his caregiver had said they were in. Most of his memories were intact—he remembered his family, his childhood, the war, Doom, and his friends. Aside from the problem of currently not remembering names, Alister felt that he remembered most of what had been significant in his life.

He also recalled some of what had happened to him after plunging into the frigid waters after being repeatedly shot on the cliff. He had barely missed the rocks—though his blood had splattered across some of them—and had gone under the surface. The violent waves had sent him desperately flailing to and fro until he had finally managed to break through the aqueous depths, coughing and gasping and barely conscious from the blood loss and the pain. The last thing he remembered was grasping onto a floating log as he had been pulled upstream.

The nurse, seeing that he wasn't much in a mood for conversation (of course, if she had known him, she would have realized that he usually wasn't, especially with strangers), patted his shoulder gently and told him that they would try to find his friends. He told her that they all lived together in Domino City before he found his strength giving out and the need to rest being overwhelming.

There were other things he remembered as he slipped into a semi-conscious state, mainly how his spirit had occasionally wandered. He had visited his friends and had known that they were mourning his death—and really, he had honestly believed himself to be dead. The last time he had visited one of them had been an indeterminable amount of time past, but he assumed that it had been shortly before he had finally broken free of his delirium. He smirked weakly in a sort of morbid amusement, wondering what the others would think when they were informed that their friend's body had been recovered—and that his spirit still occupied it.

It didn't take the nurse long to find out exactly where Alister lived. When she called the bikers' home, she found herself talking to a sleepy Australian, who was of course incredulous and disbelieving as soon as she tried to explain herself.

"Do I know someone named Alister Mackenzie?" Valon cried, sitting right up in bed—for it was quite late by this time. "Look, I dunno who you are or why you wanna know, but Alister's kicked the bucket." He clenched the fist that was not holding onto the phone. Indeed, he knew it was true. And ever since he had returned from his journey into the canyons, he had felt that Alister was no longer watching him and Raphael. Perhaps, Valon decided, the redhead had stayed around just until Valon had felt that he had been able to have some sort of closure—as he had felt upon leaving the site where Alister had perished.

The nurse, whose name was Leola, smiled gently and patiently as she leaned back at the nurses' station desk. "Well, actually," she replied calmly, "he's right here at the hospital where I work."

Valon's grip on the phone became that of iron. "You . . . you mean you found his body?" he asked, feeling a certain dizziness and a certain relief. With the body of his friend discovered, perhaps there would be complete closure. But he also felt a bit of a horror. How would he stand to see the corpse? Surely he and Raphael would have to positively identify it. And after everything Alister had likely suffered, his mortal shell might be horrendously mutilated.

Leola glanced over the clipboard with the information on Alister's physical condition. "Well, you could say that," she told the bewildered brunette, "only he's not in the morgue."

"What kind of joke are you trying to play?" Valon wailed, finding it all very cruel.

"It's no joke," Leola told him, serious now. "The fact is, your friend is alive and recovering from the experience he went through." The next thing she heard was Valon dropping the phone in shock.

Raphael, who had been awakened by Valon's pitiable yells, now entered and blinked sleepily at his friend. "What's going on?" he asked, seeing the phone on the floor and Valon staring off into the distance, breathing heavily. He couldn't imagine what sort of news would have sent Valon into such a state.

Valon shook his head slowly, looking up at the confused blonde. "She said Alister's alive," he choked out, pointing at the fallen telephone. "She said he's alive!" He couldn't quite process what he had been told. It had to be a cruel joke! Alister couldn't have survived what he had been through. And yet . . . another part of his mind argued that the body had never been recovered, and hence, there had never been proof of Alister's demise. But his spirit came to us! Valon protested inwardly. Raphael had at last told Valon of his experience with hearing Alister speaking to him, and Valon hadn't really been surprised. It made sense that his spirit would come to both of them. He was dead! He was dead!

While Valon was having this intense mental struggle between his common sense and what he was longing to believe instead, Raphael had picked up the phone and was speaking to Leola, who had still been patiently waiting on the line. Though he was stunned at the news himself and could barely believe it, he managed to stay more levelheaded than Valon had been and collected the information that Leola provided him with. When he hung up, the tough blonde sank down into the soft bed and looked at what he'd written on the paper, completely flabbergasted.

Valon looked over at him. "Well?" he demanded, coming out of his reverie. Maybe Raphael would help him understand this madness.

Raphael looked back, shaking his head slowly. "I don't understand it any better than you do, Valon, but that nurse seemed to be telling the truth." He showed Valon the paper, which described the manner that the nearly dead young man had been found in, the way he had been dressed, and his general physical appearance. It went on to briefly touch upon some of the things the patient had said in his delirium. Raphael then told Valon of the conversation that Leola had had with the young man.

Valon just stared, feeling his heart begin to race with a wild hope. "Then . . . then it really is Alister?" he cried, his blue eyes widening. In that moment he looked almost childlike, full of hope and trust. He didn't think he could believe that it actually was Alister unless he saw for himself or else heard the familiar voice, but oh! He wanted to believe it, more than anything. And from what Raphael had now told him, it actually seemed possible that it could be the truth!

Raphael had to smile at Valon's eagerness—and at the hope he himself felt. He couldn't explain it logically, but he was positive that this was not some cruel trick. Some of what Leola had reported that the young man had said in his delirium was what only Alister and the other two bikers would know. "Unless we're being played for fools, it must be," he said, standing up. "It all checks out."

Valon was already out of bed, grabbing for his ever-present goggles—the thought of sleep entirely forgotten. "Well, of course it's Alister," he laughed upon second thought. "Who else would dress like he does? Come on, Raph, what're we waiting for! Let's bring the crazy fella home!"

Raphael concurred, following his earnest friend and pondering over how this event could possibly be happening. He could find no answers, save one.

Raphael and Valon wasted no time in getting their car and commencing the hour-and-a-half drive to the town of Triple Creek. The only way to get there was to take a little-used road through the canyon, and some might have opted to wait for morning to come before attempting it, but both Raphael and Valon were determined to get there as soon as possible. Alister had been lost to them for weeks and now that the others had been informed that his life had miraculously been spared, they wanted to find him again as soon as possible.

"How the heck would Alister get all the way over there?" Valon burst out in disbelief in the middle of their journey. "That's a long way from where we were havin' that brawl." He glanced out the window, looking over the road barrier at the rushing water far below. That water should have killed Alister, if the bullets hadn't, but instead the water had brought Alister to those who would help him. It was all so strange! "He's had more than his share of good luck."

Raphael shook his head. "I think," he said slowly, "that there was more at work here than simply 'luck.'" A miracle would be more like it. He couldn't forget what Miruko had told him a while back—that God wasn't too busy to help them and that even the life of one man was important in His eyes. All three of them had been spared from death more than once. More and more, Raphael was allowing himself to consider the possibility, however slight, that it was important to a Supreme Being—and to their departed loved ones—for the three of them to remain together. It gave him a certain feeling of comfort and peace.

Valon looked over at him. "You mean you think he had Someone watchin' out for him or something like that?" he asked.

"In a word, Yes." Raphael drove around a sudden curve sharply and stumbled upon a sign directing them that Triple Creek would be approaching within twenty-five miles. "Can you think of a better explanation?"

Valon shrugged. "Guess not," he replied softly, his mind wandering back to the times he had spent at the church with Mary. He had experienced some semblance of happiness there, even if he hadn't known what to think about what Mary had tried to teach him. Maybe Mary was still trying to teach him now. He smirked slightly at the thought. If she was, he probably wasn't a much better student now than he had been before.

Alister was quite awake by the time Raphael and Valon arrived at the hospital. He was laying on his side, propped up on one elbow and thinking to himself. He fancied that his brother had been with him earlier, when he had been in a dreamlike state, and that Miruko had told him that, because he had been willing to give up his life for another, he had been allowed to keep it, and that also, it had been spared for a wise purpose. Then the child had hugged him tightly, an action which Alister had returned before waking up. He could still feel the child's embrace and he smiled slightly. Yes, he was certain Miruko truly had been there and that it hadn't been just a dream. It had been too real to be merely that.

He looked up when he heard voices in the hall. He recognized them both, and when their owners appeared in the doorway, Alister was pleasantly surprised to find that he recalled their names now. And he realized in that moment just how much he had missed them both.

"It really is you!" Valon exclaimed, running in and enthusiastically plopping down on the bed in a sitting position. Raphael, amused as well as relieved and happy and awed, followed him in and stood next to the bed.

"We thought you'd left us," the blonde told him. Just being told that Alister was alive was nothing compared to actually seeing it was true. This was, indeed, the friend they had lost. He was very much alive and quite alert, though he still seemed exhausted in a way. Most of the bandages had been removed by now and he seemed physically well for the most part, but Raphael—and Valon—only remembered too clearly seeing the bullets piercing their comrade's form and how stunned and agonized he had looked before falling overboard.

"I thought so too." Alister pushed himself against the soft pillows as he turned onto his back and attempted to partially sit up. He looked both of the others over, as if trying to determine how badly they had both been hurt during the battle that had separated them and how they had been surviving. But, save for the indications of the cares he could see in their eyes, they seemed perfectly well and normal. Valon was chattering away, far more talkative then usual as he described to Alister just how lonely things had been without him.

"And, hey," the Australian finally got around to asking, "what the heck were you doing comin' to visit us as if you were saying your goodbyes?" He frowned, looking at Alister curiously.

Alister shrugged. "As far as I knew, I was dead," he said. "I remember watching you and Raphael, but . . . it was more like a strange, ethereal dream than anything else. If you want my honest opinion, I think my spirit actually did take leave of my body occasionally." What Alister meant by it seeming like a dream was simply that now that he was recovering again, the events during the time when he had been ill seemed all mixed together and far in the past. But actually, when his spirit had been wandering, his mind and thoughts had been clearer than at other times during his illness.

Valon shuddered slightly. "That's kinda creepy then," he retorted. "I mean, if even you thought you were dead and you really weren't. . . ." He trailed off, then suddenly burst out again without warning, startling both Alister and Raphael. "Don't do that again!" He grabbed a fistful of Alister's tank top, but not harshly, and glared at him.

Alister looked at him calmly, knowing that this was only Valon's way of saying I missed you and I don't want you to die! "I don't think I had much choice in the matter," he retorted. "My spirit just seemed to leave at different intervals and wandered where it chose. Of course, if you're referring to my actions on the cliff, I did have a choice in that and I'll determine whether anything of the kind happens again."

"You don't havta be trying to protect me!" Valon exclaimed. "I . . . I was doin' fine." But his shoulders slumped and he sighed, letting go of the soft material. He knew his rantings weren't fooling anyone. And he knew that he hadn't been doing fine and that he would have died had it not been for Alister's intervention. "But . . . thanks, chum. . . . You . . . you really proved yourself out there. If you remember hearing me . . . I meant what I said about not finding any better friends than you and Raph." He tried to give a weak smile.

"I remember." Alister watched the younger man, knowing that he was sincere. Valon did not lie, though sometimes his emotions would get ahead of him. But at the moment he meant every word he was speaking.

Raphael smiled slightly as he watched them interact. Their friendship often confused him, especially when often there was so much miscommunication between them, but he knew that he would have to go a long way to find two other friends who were as loyal to each other as these two were.

"How long do you have to stay here?" he asked now. If necessary, he and Valon would board at the local hotel until Alister was well enough to travel.

Alister sat up more. "Actually, I was examined earlier and was told that, if I rested for the next few days, I could go home when my friends came to get me." He had been improving steadily over the last several days, much to the doctor's surprise and relief, and now that he was completely alert he seemed well enough to leave—though he would likely need help standing up, as he was still weakened. But when he had learned that his friends had been located and that they were alright, that also seemed to help with his recovery.

"So you mean you can come with us now?" Valon chirped.

Alister was a bit amused himself, as Raphael had been. He had rarely seen the Australian so very happy. But he was touched as well, for he knew that in spite of the fact that Valon often misinterpreted what Alister said and became incensed, Valon truly cared about him as a friend. "I can," he responded.

So it was that all three bikers were able to leave the hospital that early morning. Alister expressed his gratitude to the doctor and Leola for being willing to care for him and requested that they tell the child who had found him how grateful he was, though this was unnecessary, as the child came upon them as they were leaving and spoke with Alister for a moment or two. Then he looked at Valon and Raphael for a moment, as if studying them, and smiled brightly.

"I'm glad he has friends!" the boy declared. "And you both look like nice people. You're helping him and all."

Valon shrugged as they got situated in the car. "Yeah, well . . . he's helped us, too," he answered. "The bloke saved my life."

They left that day feeling fulfilled and joyous. Raphael, though he hadn't spoken as much as Valon, was just as relieved and glad that Alister was back with them. And Alister knew that. They didn't always have to speak for their feelings to be known.

Valon was tiring now, the lack of sleep catching up to him. He yawned, stretching, and leaned against the window. "So . . . we're goin' home then," he remarked. "All three of us." The days of loneliness and agony were over. Things would go back to normal now. Though, in a way, Valon wasn't sure it could ever be entirely normal now. Alister had came back from the grave as far as Valon was concerned. That wasn't something that happened every day. But the Australian smiled a bit, immensely grateful that it had happened now.

Raphael nodded slowly, allowing himself to relax as they entered the canyons. To his memory came the times when Alister had visited them in spirit form and had offered advice and consolation. Alister had actually still been trying to help them even though he had been so gravely injured and had been almost dead. Perhaps, even, he had been clinically dead at some point. But he decided not to ponder over it. It really didn't matter now. Alister was back, where he belonged.

The redhead himself was in the middle, watching the other two and keeping to himself for the most part. But though he didn't speak, he was grateful for the feelings of complete welcome and acceptance. He knew he was with those who cared about him. And at the moment it didn't seem that anything else could be better.