Break the Silence

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, the story is, and this is friendship cuteness! Thanks to those who tried to help me determine if Valon can swim. XD; Everyone who wanted some Valon hurt/comfort stuffs, here you go! And I got the idea for one of the hallucinated scenes from Raphael's second duel with Yami Yugi. Those in the know will hopefully know what I mean. :smile.:

I hate claustrophobia. . . .

He plunged downward weakly, semi-conscious and no longer possessing enough strength to claw his way back to the surface. He had struggled and tried, coming up not three, but six times—but then always fell into the aqueous depths once more. This time, he didn't think he would be able to get up again. He was clinging to any shreds of life that he possibly could, too dazed and stupefied to really be panicked anymore. He felt his hand brush against a piece of seaweed as he descended lower. The ocean, holding him down and dragging him further, seemed to be enclosing around him.

Heh. . . . I guess . . . I shoulda learned how to swim better. . . . But it's a mite late to be thinkin' of that. . . .

As an orphan child he had lived near the coast, roaming the cruel, cold streets of Sydney and just trying to survive—never receiving much education except that of the world's indifference. He had taught himself to swim, but he had found that he couldn't go at it very long before his muscles would start to ache, so he had stayed away from the ocean as much as he could. As a youth he had been arrested for two crimes (one of which he hadn't even committed) and had spent so many countless, horrible days in prison—and even in solitary confinement. (That had been when his dislike of small places had become intense.) Then he had been "rescued" by a misguided man and had become part of a equally misguided organization—but he had gained an adopted family.

Was it worth it? he often wondered. But usually he would come to the eventual conclusion that it was. In spite of all the heartache and all the pain and anguish—and all the rejection—he had found two people who would never reject him. They both cared about him dearly as a younger brother and had tried to protect him, in spite of his indignant protests that he didn't need protection. He had to admit, some part of him wished they were here now. He didn't really want to die; he had always been a fighter. But he didn't know what to do now. He couldn't struggle to swim anymore and he was losing consciousness rapidly.

Mai's face flashed in front of his eyes. She was the only woman he loved and probably ever would love. But she didn't return it. He knew this, though he didn't want to accept it. And somehow, he really didn't understand. She had wanted understanding and acceptance. He had given it to her, but in return he had only been slapped in the face repeatedly. Was it just because she was afraid to care again? That was what Valon had believed. But Raphael had told him that Mai was hypocritical. Valon had retorted angrily before leaving the house. That had been the last time he had seen either him or Alister before he had gotten into this predicament.

It looks like . . . I won't get a chance to talk to any of 'em again. . . . Sorry, fellas. I didn't want it to end like this. . . .

He blinked weakly as ribbons of blood mixed with the ocean. He had been wounded during an encounter with some of his past enemies, though the details of that experience were all garbled together in his mind. But he could never forget those people. Long ago they had been the bullies who had always bothered him and who had even been so unrefined and outrageous as to enter the church and harshly shove Mary about. Then, when the church had been burned down, he had been certain that they had been responsible and so he had gone and beaten them up. Eventually they had all wound up in prison for arson (well, Valon had also been arrested for beating the others up), and much later, they had all been defeated by him at the duelist training camp and their souls had been taken prisoner by the Orichalcos. He had heard nothing from them ever since everyone had been returned to their bodies, and indeed, he hadn't expected he ever would again.

But you blokes were waiting for me today. You'd been spying on me! I guess some guys never change. None of you did.

They still hated him just as much as before—perhaps more so. And they had found it to their immense luck that he had rode down to the docks in a bad mood. His anger and frustration over his arguments with the other two bikers had made him not as alert in the fight as he might have ordinarily been. Of course he had fought fiercely, fueled by his emotions (and had landed more than a few good punches), but they had eventually weakened him enough that they had been able to throw him cruelly into the swirling oceans.

The weather was bad today, causing the waves to crash viciously against everything and to make it almost impossible for even a good swimmer to survive. Valon, with his average swimming skills, just wasn't able to handle the roughness of the waves, especially considering that he had also come out on the wrong end of a fight. He had been tossed about on the waters for some time, as if he was nothing more than a broken doll, and then had finally started to drown after the sixth attempt at fighting for air. Naturally his enemies had shoved him in the water on purpose, knowing of his limited abilities where swimming was concerned.

Colors sparkled and danced around him like pricks of otherworldly light. For all he knew, maybe they were. He supposed he believed that death wasn't the end. . . . After all, he was certain that one's spirit didn't die along with their body. Idly he wondered what sort of afterlife would await him. He believed that he had lived his life the best he had been able to under his circumstances. Oh, maybe he could have done better with paying attention to his school subjects, he thought with a wry smirk, but he didn't think failing math class would give him a bad grade in the next world.

Maybe he wouldn't even go to an afterlife. Maybe he would be stranded as a wandering spirit, doomed to observe his loved ones but unable to communicate. He shuddered inwardly, the thought dreadfully unpleasant. It seemed to him that something like that would be the worst kind of Hell. Now that he knew there were people who cared, he wanted to be able to communicate with them.

Once again, weakly, he clawed for the surface, but it was impossible to obtain. His arms limply fell back and he felt more water rushing into his mouth, nose, and ears as the remainder of his senses slipped away. It seemed as if he felt strong arms grab hold of his form, but he was certain it was only his imagination. Still . . . the grip was firm and comforting. He relaxed into it as oblivion brushed over him.

Valon's savior gripped the weak body with as much force as he could muster without actually injuring the poor boy worse. With his free hand he reached up, praying that he would be able to swim back to the surface. He was a good, strong swimmer, but the harsh waves had even been a struggle for him. Still, of course it was mild compared to the horrible and furious waters that had taken his family away from him years before. He held his breath desperately as he rose, feeling the currents attempting to pull him in a direction different from that of his goal. But he insisted on fighting against Neptune's wrath and breaking through to the surface. At last he succeeded.

As Raphael rose, he began coughing and gasping for air. Valon lay in his arms, his teenage body still and unmoving. The brunette slumped forward as soon as they were partially out of the water, hanging over the blonde's arms and looking for all the world as though he were dead. But Raphael growled, refusing to believe it, and swam to the pier while still holding Valon with one arm. The waves continued to crash against him, knocking him away several times and starting to batter his strong body, but still he refused to give up.

Alister was waiting on the dock, kneeling on the wooden planks and reaching out to take Valon from Raphael when they got close enough. He was stunned at the lifelessness of his friend's body as it fell against him. "They were telling the truth, then," he said darkly, half-expecting Valon to shove him away and say that he was fine. But that didn't happen. Carefully the redhead laid Valon down on the pier and gently pressed on his chest, causing water to pour out of Valon's mouth. But other than that, he made no movements.

Raphael climbed out now, his eyes narrowed grimly as he watched Alister continue to press on Valon's chest in an effort to extract all the remaining water. "They'd better not have been telling the complete truth," he retorted with a growl, remembering what the gang had told them about Valon most certainly having been drowned. He was certain that Valon had still been conscious, though just barely, when he had found him. And Valon wouldn't die. Raphael vowed that he would not. He hated the water and refused to lose someone else to its grasp.

Alister bent down, listening for any sign of a heartbeat. At first he was certain that he wouldn't find one. He was so used to the lifeless bodies he had seen during the war that death was something commonplace to him now—though, when it was someone he cared about who was dying, he couldn't be blasé on the subject. His own heart was racing as he listened desperately for a soft thump. At last he found it. Valon was still alive, though he needed care and attention immediately or he probably would not last. Alister quickly told this to Raphael, who frowned and glanced around darkly.

"Is he breathing?" the blonde demanded to know now, kneeling down by them as well.

Alister shook his head. Though Valon's heart was still beating very faintly, the water had almost completely asphyxiated him. Without immediate attention to the problem, Alister knew that Valon would certainly die. Quickly he set about applying artificial respiration, dryly thinking that Valon would probably have something to say about that later. If Valon would be saying anything later. . . . The brunette was sometimes fond of teasing and annoying his gray-eyed friend, though it was all in good fun, of course. Alister saw Valon as a younger brother, though he wouldn't admit it aloud, and he would be devastated if anything happened to him—as would Raphael.

After a moment the redhead leaned back, waiting to see if Valon would start breathing on his own. Then he was rewarded as the Australian sputtered and coughed, rolling onto his side as more water dripped from his mouth. Weakly Valon moaned, going limp again and falling once more onto his back.

He could vaguely hear his friends' voices in the current state he was in, though he was so dazed and hurt that they sounded far away and as if they were being heard through a thick fog. There was Raphael, asking Valon if he could hear them and if he could give them some kind of a sign if he did. . . . And Alister saying that Valon was probably too out of it to be able to respond, even if he could hear them. The last thing Valon was aware of before he went under again was someone again lifting his body up and cradling him protectively.

As Alister and Raphael learned, Valon's condition after being beaten by both the gangsters and the harsh waves, as well as nearly drowning, was not good—but it was better than might have been expected. The doctors at KaibaCorp Infirmary didn't feel that the Australian was in life-threatening danger (but that what he needed most was rest), so, once they had tended to the teen's worst wounds and made certain that there was no water in his lungs, they told the others that they were free to take him home and nurse him back to health there. And Valon's friends, seeing no reason to keep him at the hospital under the circumstances, opted to do just that.

Alister slid into the driver's seat of their car, watching in the rearview mirror as Raphael got in the back with Valon's exhausted and unconscious form. Though Raphael did not speak as he made certain that the warm blankets were wrapped securely around their friend's body, Alister could see the many emotions of outrage and confusion flitting through his eyes. Neither of them could understand why Valon had been so mercilessly attacked down at the docks. And what was even stranger to them was that when they had arrived and found the treacherous creatures having a good laugh over it, it had appeared that the assailants had known Valon from somewhere before. But Alister and Raphael hadn't recognized them.

The redhead was a bit stunned to find that his hands were shaking as he reached out to grasp the steering wheel. He had thought he was doing a very good job of concealing his emotions, as always, but it seemed that perhaps his expertise at doing so was failing in this case. It just seemed so eerily strange and wrong—to see cheerful, perky Valon laying so still and quiet. The only real indication that he was alive at the moment was the sound of his raspy breathing—and the occasional moan.

Why did they do this to him? That was the unspoken question that both Alister and Raphael had been carrying with them since Raphael had dove into the water to rescue the drowning Australian. It really didn't make sense to either of them.

"It seems," Alister spoke at last, forcing his hands to stop shaking as he maneuvered the car out of the parking garage, "that Valon has displayed once again that he has an unfailing ability to get into trouble and make enemies."

Raphael kept a firm but gentle hold on the younger man so that he wouldn't fall off the seat onto the floor. His eyes were narrowed as he watched Valon weakly grasp at the quilt to pull it closer. "Those men knew him," he muttered darkly. "It wasn't just a random attack and he wasn't just a random victim. They planned this." And he couldn't help thinking that if Valon hadn't let his temper get the better of him during their argument and stormed off, that maybe this wouldn't have happened to him. Or maybe it was more my fault. . . . After all, he had said what had gotten Valon so upset. But still, Raphael knew that he hadn't been trying to pick a fight. The only reason he had said what he had was because he felt that Mai was not good enough for Valon and that Valon would only continue to have heartbreak if he didn't get over her. His intentions had been good; he couldn't blame himself.

"I don't doubt it," Alister replied, clutching the steering wheel tightly as he drove around the next corner. "They disliked him for some reason—that much was obvious when they spoke to us. I couldn't miss the delighted tone to the leader's voice nor his sneer when he said that they had overpowered him and thrown him into the water." His voice had taken on a bitter tone. He couldn't stand such blatant cruelty to someone, especially toward one of his friends. "They must have known he couldn't swim well." Alister, with his long limbs and lean torso, was quite an expert swimmer, when he wished to be. He would have followed Raphael into the water had the man not found Valon fairly quick. Poor Valon, especially under the circumstances, hadn't been able to withstand the fierce waves for very long.

Raphael looked up grimly, his blue-eyed gaze piercing the window of the car. It was raining now, the incessant drops splashing onto the street and onto their vehicle. But he barely paid attention. An outrage such as this made him want to rise up and make certain that justice was served. But the gang had all wound up arrested, so hopefully the law would serve the justice, though Raphael didn't have much faith in the courts. It seemed to him that people like that were often released much too soon and that most of them still needed to remain in prison. When many of them got out, they would go right back to their prior activities of hurting people. It disgusted him.

Valon shuddered then and Raphael turned his attention back to his friend. It was thought that he would be alright . . . but would he? Would he truly? He hadn't ever completely woke up since they had rescued him. Now he was curling into a ball, as if trying to take refuge within the folds of the blanket. It was possible that he was cold, of course, but Raphael couldn't help but have the feeling that it might be something else.

"He might go into delirium."

Alister's flat, emotionless voice brought Raphael's head up with a snap. The redhead was glancing at the older man in the rearview mirror again, his gray eyes reflecting his deep concern and worry. And Raphael could see something else within the depths of the orbs as well—a haunted remembrance.

"I've seen it happen before," Alister ent on, though he gave no explanation of the circumstances for which he had seen it. "I've seen perfectly sane men go out of their minds after similar incidents of being out too long in the cold water and such. Sometimes they don't ever recover from it, either." As they approached the driveway of their home, he steered onto the concrete and then pulled the lever into Park. His hand was gripping it tightly enough that the knuckles were going white.

Raphael frowned darkly. "Valon's not going to die," he growled. But then he pondered on Alister's words. The way he had phrased things, and the way he was now unconsciously showing how much the incident had upset him, made Raphael wonder just exactly what the younger man had seen and why. Alister rarely let such things get to him. If that event had, then he must have closely known whoever was being referred to.

But Alister offered no further conversation on the subject, nor did he agree that Valon wouldn't die. He opened the door and stepped out, then opened Raphael's door as well, knowing that he would have his hands full carrying Valon out and getting him quickly to the porch and inside the house before the rain could affect him.

"You don't get it! You don't understand what she means to me! Neither of you have ever understood!"

Valon glared at the other two bikers with rage and irritation. He was tired of how they always complained about Mai. Valon knew her better than they did, after all! How dare they claim to know all about her? Most of what they believed about her wasn't true, anyway. She wasn't self-centered and arrogant. That was a front, a facade! And she wasn't a hypocrite, like Raphael had just said she was. She accepted him; she just didn't love him the way he loved her.

"Valon, please. . . . Calm down." Raphael sounded weary and tired, and indeed, he was. This wasn't the first time they'd had this argument. And the Australian didn't seem to realize that Raphael and Alister were only worried and didn't want him to get his heart broken.

"You're overreacting," Alister added, lowering his sunglasses to give Valon a Look. Valon almost always wore his heart on his sleeve, whereas with Alister, he possessed a stony silence that left most people wondering exactly what was going through his mind. He rarely lost control of his emotions, unless there was a grave injustice being done somewhere.

"Overreactin', am I?" Valon retorted. "Come on. You're always giving me grief 'cause of Mai. When I first brought her back to the Orichalcos temple, neither of you were all that overjoyed about it. You both figured she'd only wreck things. And it was always obvious that you didn't like her, Raphael!" Of course, the feeling had seemed to be quite mutual. Mai had never gotten along well with the tough blonde. She was always insulting him and refusing to go along with whatever orders had come from Dartz. Raphael had usually wound up so exasperated that he didn't know what to do with her.

Before the man could respond now, Valon rushed right on. "You don't think I can make any good decisions on my own!" He was already annoyed due to a gang bothering him on his way home from the store. He didn't need this. "Who needs either of you! I sure as heck don't!" With that he stormed out the door, slamming it behind him and leaving the other two bikers to feel frustrated and a bit hurt, though they knew that they couldn't depend on anything Valon said when he was angry. He hadn't meant it. But still, it did hurt.

Valon moaned, starting to toss about in bed. His hair, still damp from his experience, flopped limply into his closed eyes and over his face. Raphael, who had gotten the teen into more comfortable clothes once they had entered the house (and then had changed into dry clothes himself), was now sitting on the bed's edge and watching him with concern. It was hard to see Valon like this. He looked so ill . . . so silent. . . . It just seemed wrong.

"If he hadn't lost his temper and left, maybe this wouldn't have happened."

Raphael looked up at the sound of Alister's blunt voice. The redhead was standing in the doorway, his long arms crossed over his masculine chest. But in spite of his cold words, his eyes revealed his true emotions.

"He was a fool," Raphael agreed, "but he couldn't have known what would happen." More than thinking along the lines that Alister was, Raphael felt frustrated that the boy hadn't realized why they had always objected to Mai. Or maybe he really would realize if he stopped to think about it. Valon often did not think, but simply and blindly barreled on ahead. In any case, his assailants probably would have still found him and hurt him somehowif the attack had, indeed, been deliberate and meant for Valon specifically.

"He doesn't look well." Alister came closer to sit on the other side of the bed and then reached out, brushing Valon's dark bangs aside and touching his forehead as he checked for a fever. His expression darkened as the younger man jerked away from his grasp and dove under the quilt, hiding from them both. That was unlike him, no matter what had transpired between them in the past. "And he isn't acting well, either."

Raphael shook his head. "Valon?" he called softly, though he was certain that Valon was too out of it to hear him. "It's just us. No one is going to hurt you now." He laid a hand on Valon's shoulder through the quilt. The only response was that the teen started curling into a ball.

"I believe," Alister said after a long moment, "that he is indeed going into delirium. This is only the beginning of it." He had seen this sort of behavior before. And his heart sank at the thought of poor Valon suffering through it now. Delirium preyed upon the mind's weaknesses and caused the victim to hallucinate and distort reality. And it could make someone go completely mad. Unconsciously he shuddered as he thought back upon it—the screams of horror when the man had leaped up and attacked, the pleading for him to get control of his mind and come back to normal, the refusal and the inability for the man to listen and comprehend the truth of the situation. . . . He had been so young, witnessing all of that. . . . He had wanted badly to step in and help, but he hadn't known what to do. And Miruko had been clinging to him in confusion and fright. The child hadn't understood what had been going on at all.

Raphael clenched a fist, wondering if it had truly been a good idea to bring Valon back home when he was in this condition. Perhaps they should have kept him at the hospital. But then again, he knew, there wasn't really anything the doctors could do for him when he was delirious. It pretty much had to run its course. They would just have to stay by their friend and care for him as best as they could, praying for his recovery. But Raphael had the feeling that it was going to be a very long night, for all three of them.

And there was Alister, displaying his obviously tormented feelings again. Raphael's eyes narrowed as he watched the redhead gently pull the quilt down again so that Valon could breathe. In his eyes was reflected the knowledge of what he had seen in the past. But of course he wouldn't make mention of that aloud. He wouldn't tell the circumstances that had acquainted him well with delirium and its possible effects. And Raphael wasn't the type to pry. If Alister wanted to divulge his secrets, he would.

Valon opened his eyes, blinking as he looked around himself. He was laying on the floor of a room whose walls were painted red. The boy was still dazed and confused, and in his current condition, he supposed that someone had been painting and that they weren't quite finished yet. The crimson liquid drops slid down the walls and hit the floor in puddles, making quiet plinking sounds as they embraced their associates that had already reached the floor before them. And as Valon struggled to sit up, he realized that his hand was covered in the substance. It was so warm . . . so warm and sticky. . . .

And then suddenly his eyes widened and he grabbed his wrist with his other hand, feeling dizzy as he discovered that this wasn't paint at all—it was blood. His heart started to race as he looked up at the walls again. More blood! It was all blood! It was everywhere! Suddenly he felt sick.

"What's going on!" he screamed, hearing his voice echo off every one of the wretched walls. "Where am I! And who the heck got hurt!" Shaking, the teen tried to stand up and failed. He was too weakened. Some of the blood, perhaps, was his. And yet, he didn't seem to be bleeding. . . .

But where was anyone else in this room? It seemed deserted. It was just a small prison, perfectly square in shape, and with the only light being a dim red glow. It almost seemed to be coming from the blood itself, though Valon was certain that was impossible. And it also seemed as if the room was starting to close in around him, boxing him in all the more and leaving him with no chance for escape.

Dizziness overwhelmed him. "Stop it!" he yelled, certain that some evil soul was behind this treachery and shrinking the room's size on purpose. Panic began to grab at his heart increasingly and he thrust his hands out when the walls approached him, struggling to shove them back. He couldn't stand small places! And especially he couldn't stand this small place! He couldn't be boxed in with so much blood! It was more than he had ever seen before in his life. And it was everywhere. The sight, the smell, the feel . . . it all made him feel as if he were about to go mad.

But that was nothing compared to his horror when he managed to touch the wall. He could feel human flesh under his hands. There was a body here, somehow hidden from him before because of the thick layers of blood! And he couldn't help it then. He let out a haunted, ear-piercing scream.

Raphael was startled half out of his wits when Valon screamed. The poor boy had opened his eyes a few minutes ago and had even sat up, but he was obviously still out of it. He kept gazing around the room, eyes widened in alarm, and then had struck out with his hands as if he was trying to push something. As soon as he touched Alister, he let out a wail and fell back onto the mattress, shaking and looking as though he'd seen some grotesque sight.

Alister's response was much less subdued, though something briefly flickered in his gray eyes. But then he leaned down and laid his hands firmly on Valon's shoulders, looking into the younger man's vacant, sickened gaze. "Valon, can you hear me?" He was certain that Valon could not, though it was apparent that some of his senses—especially touch—were at least partially in the real world. Otherwise, Alister was certain, Valon would not have screamed upon touching him. The problem was that his senses were so distorted at the moment that they only fueled whatever hallucinations he was having. "If you can hear me, Valon, you have to focus on my voice and forget about whatever else you're experiencing at the moment. Anything else you feel is happening is not real."

Valon screamed again when Alister touched him and struggled violently, trying to shove him away. In his poor mind, the body he had discovered was a zombie of sorts and it was pulling away from the wall and the blood to attack him. What was worse was that it was Alister's body. This was no longer the friend he remembered and whom he had spoken viciously to earlier that night, along with Raphael. This was an empty shell—an enemy. And yet, it had once housed his friend's spirit. How could he fight against it?

"I'm sorry!" he cried then, looking upward with eyes that threatened to overflow with tears. "I didn't mean what I said before. I really didn't. . . . I was angry. . . ." Guilt again racked his soul as he recalled his words from earlier. He did need his friends. He wanted them back. But he couldn't have them anymore. They were gone. All that was left was their blood staining the walls and their zombielike bodies, attacking him, hurting him. . . .

Raphael had grabbed him now, as well. Valon screamed, trying to shove the corpses away from him. He couldn't stand being assaulted by those who had been his friends. He continually struggled against them until he grew dizzy and felt himself going limp.

Raphael frowned darkly as Valon desperately fought against both him and Alister. They were trying to get him to calm down, but it wasn't working. If anything, he was more distraught than ever. The poor Australian cried out as if he was being cruelly harmed, repeatedly interjecting that he was sorry and that he didn't mean what he'd said before. Then, abruptly, he went limp, falling unconscious with the stress of it all and his illness. He looked so drained, so tired and weary and sick. . . .

Gently the two older bikers loosened their grips on their friend's body, laying him down on the bed. Alister checked Valon's forehead once more, this time able to do so without him shrinking away, and then took his temperature, leaning back with a frown as he removed the device from Valon's mouth several moments later. The boy had a fever, but that wasn't a surprise. If it became too serious, however, they would have to take him back to the hospital. Alister hoped it wouldn't come to that. He couldn't stand hospitals, and he knew Valon wasn't fond of them either. If Valon's condition permitted it, Alister felt it would be better for him to stay in a familiar place, with his friends as his caregivers.

Carefully he dampened a cloth in the bowl by the bedside and then brushed the material over Valon's pale face and neck. He was silent, his gray eyes narrowed darkly as he worked. Raphael watched him, then gazed at Valon's tormented form. He would move to assist, but Alister seemed to know what he was doing. This wasn't the first time he had tried to care for one who was ill. Raphael had never much thought about it before, but it made sense that with Alister's background, he would be skilled in some ways with illnesses. He had probably seen so much of it during the war.

"Once," Alister said at last, never looking up, "there was a man. A good man, at one time. He had a wife and two children, and he loved them more than life itself. They were a happy family and greatly enjoyed being with each other." His hands shook slightly. Obviously, Raphael noted, this was a subject that upset him. He remained quiet, waiting for Alister to continued. Valon gave a rasping breath during the silence.

"Over time," the redhead continued, "the man changed. He grew angry and depressed and started to throw things. It made his children afraid of him. They couldn't understand why he wasn't the same father they had loved and looked up to." He leaned back, expressionless, and pulled the quilt around Valon again. "Their mother told them that he was upset about things and that he was ill, though not physically. But he still loved them, she would assure them, and eventually things would get better." His voice took on a slight bitter tone.

Raphael waited a moment. "But they didn't?" he guessed then. He was certain that he knew who Alister was speaking of, though he said nothing aloud. He would play along for the time being. Alister would most likely realize that Raphael was doing so. They were quite close, enough so that they often knew the hidden meanings behind the other's words—and the one speaking would know that they knew, even if they said nothing to indicate it.

"They started to," Alister responded after another moment of silence. "For a while, things really did change and he became the man his family remembered. But it didn't last long." He watched over Valon with his continuing blank expression, making it appear as though he wasn't affected by what he was telling or by his friend's condition. But Raphael could see the sadness and the concern flickering in the younger man's gray eyes. No matter how pokerfaced he could become, his eyes always revealed the truth.

"He had also started to drink," the redhead recalled then, placing one hand on the bed and leaning on it slightly. "That, of course, hadn't helped his rages any. One night he had gone out, searching for liquor anywhere he could find it. It had become hard to get any at that time, during the treacherous war that was taking place. Most was sold on the black market for outrageous prices. But he still managed to find some. Unfortunately, he didn't watch where he was going and wound up falling into a pond. By the time he was found and brought to his home, he was half-drowned and more than a bit ill. His wife then set about tending to him faithfully, praying for his recovery. Her children helped when they could, though the youngest didn't really understand what was going on."

Valon started to moan again, crying out that he was sorry and that he just wanted his friends back. Alister paused his narrative to look at the younger man, as did Raphael.

"We're both here, Valon," the blonde said quietly, laying a hand on the teen's shoulder. He knew Valon probably couldn't hear him, but he felt that he had to try, anyway.

Valon smiled weakly, surprising both Raphael and Alister. "I wish that was true," he whispered sadly, falling still again. For him, his friends were dead. His delirium and his guilt-induced hallucinations had made him believe that. Raphael couldn't really be speaking to him, unless it was his spirit.

Raphael closed his eyes tightly, feeling his heart twist. He hated this. Valon didn't deserve to suffer this way. Why couldn't he just be brought out of his misery and recognize reality? He said a silent prayer for his friend before opening his eyes again.

Alister shook his head sadly, silent now himself. He, also, was haunted by Valon's behavior, especially in light of what he had witnessed in his past. What if Valon would never recover and would simply go mad instead? He clenched a fist. He couldn't bear to think of that. At last he spoke again, returning to the story he had been retelling.

"If the man had been dangerous before, he was even worse after that. He grew more violent and hateful, not seeming to appreciate the woman's sacrifices for him. I don't believe that he was ever sane after he 'recovered' from his physical illness. He would go into nonsensical rages and believed that he was being hunted by assassins. Sometimes he would beat his wife in front of the children, certain in his demented state that she had alerted the enemy to where he was." His eyes had taken on a faraway look as he remembered this. It had been a horrible time in his life. But then again, after the war had begun, most all of his childhood had been horrible.

Raphael's expression darkened, sickened by what he was being told. "The children must have been terrified," he noted.

"Very much so," Alister agreed. "The younger would go to his brother for comfort and answers, but of the latter his brother could give him none. He didn't understand what was wrong with the man, either. Sometimes he wished his father would simply go away, since he was doing nothing except hurting everyone else. That man was not what he wanted to remember his father as." Again he grew silent, this time for a longer period, but his thoughts at the moment were not obvious. When he finally continued, his voice had hardened.

"One night the man was convinced so thoroughly that his family members were his enemies that he attacked them all, even the children, and then ran out of the house and into an area being ravaged by bombs. He was found dead the next morning." Alister concluded his narrative and looked at Valon as the brunette grabbed his arm abruptly, his blue eyes open and wide, but glazed.

"Alister?" he whispered, his voice choked. He couldn't be seeing Alister. His friend was dead—never coming back. He had just watched him being repeatedly stabbed again and again. And then Raphael had been run through viciously with a sword. Valon had been forced to stand by and watch their deaths, unable to do anything to help them.

"It's me," Alister replied quietly, but he wasn't certain his words were getting through. It was rarely clear in such cases whether the poor, delirious victim could hear and understand voices in the real world, though Valon had heard Raphael earlier.

Valon shuddered, unable to comprehend, and then gazed about the room to find Raphael still sitting on the other side of the bed. "Raph?" he called out as best as he could, reaching out shaking fingers to grasp at him now. He hated his world of nightmares and ugliness. What was worse was that for him, it was all real. And what was truly real seemed to be the fantasy. He had watched his friends die in more than one horrible scenario by now. Sometimes he was alone when it happened. Other times Dartz or the gang from his childhood was there. They would taunt and tease him, and, in the gang's case, start beating him again. And Valon would find that he was helpless to stop it.

Gently Raphael took hold of Valon's flailing hand. "Yes," he responded, feeling a chill go up his spine at how clammy the boy's flesh felt. "You're safe, Valon, and we're here with you. Everything will be fine." He could only hope. He had become pessimistic by nature, but he knew that he had to encourage Valon now. Giving him negative emotions wouldn't help his condition. And he did want Valon to be fine. He didn't want anything horrible to happen to him.

"Fine?" Valon repeated vaguely. "Naw. . . . It can't be. . . . Not anymore. . . ." Wearily he closed his eyes, unwillingly slipping into another of his agonizing dreams. Raphael sighed, shaking his head, and let go of Valon's hand, laying it back on the bed.

"And what happened to the man's family?" the blue-eyed blonde asked finally, though he was certain that he knew. One member of his family is in the room with me.

Alister sighed. "Only one of the children is still alive," he answered. "And he still doesn't know what he thinks of his father." What happened to change him? Why did he start drinking and become so bitter? Sometimes . . . sometimes it's hard to believe that he didn't hate us, though Mother tried to reassure us that he didn't. But we did nothing to him. We always treated him well. He must have been struggling with something else, something he never told any of us. . . .

Raphael sighed too. "That's understandable." He wondered idly why the redhead had decided to tell him all of this. Alister had never spoken of his father, though more than once he had talked about Miruko and his mother and how much he loved them. Other than that, though, he rarely ever told even Raphael of his personal feelings about his past and the events therein. But the older man already knew many of Alister's thoughts and feelings. Right now, Alister was confused, saddened, frustrated, and worried. That was all obvious from his eyes. And Raphael had known Alister for years. They were close, and the blonde felt that he could sense the other quiet man's emotions at times.

"Yes," Alister replied then, "I suppose." I pity him in a way. . . . No one deserves to go insane. But he was treating us poorly even before that. Why?

Valon dropped to his knees amidst the blood that was pooled all around him, tears falling from his cerulean eyes. He couldn't understand. Why was this happening? Why did he have to continually watch Alister and Raphael being killed? Wasn't one time enough? It was as though he was trapped in a never-ending horror movie. And he was just about to the end of his rope. He couldn't take it any longer.

"Poor Valon," a quietly accented voice spoke from somewhere behind him. "You're all alone, my child. And I'm afraid it's taking its toll on you. You've started to go quite mad."

The Australian stood up, his heart racing wildly. He knew that voice. He knew it only too well. And he wasn't about to be deceived by it again. "Look who's talkin'!" he retorted angrily. "You're not all there in the head yourself!"

"Now, now, there's no need to be harsh." Dartz stepped out of the shadows, dressed in the purple business suit he had worn as president of the Paradius company. "You recognize that it's true, even if you want so badly to deny it. But there is only me now. Your friends are dead. Come back with me and I will be your family, just as in the past."

"Shut up!" Valon screamed, shaking as the blood dripped off of him. "You don't care. You never cared. You were never my family!" He tried frantically to get the blood to come off his hands, to no avail. "My family's . . . my family's. . . ." He trailed off, unable to finish. But the only family he had was laying at his feet. They were both dead. And he was grief-stricken. The last thing he needed right now was for Dartz to be bothering him.

"Yes, Valon, your family's dead. Here, do you need more proof? Let me show you." With that Dartz proceeded to reach down and pull Alister's limp body up by grasping under his arms. The turquoise-haired man then held the corpse out for Valon to see. Blood continued to drip all around, seeping from Alister's wounds and pooling on the ground. It coated Dartz's hands red, though he didn't seem to notice. The lanky man's head hung down, the red hair falling over his face. Valon recoiled in horror at first, but then was indignant.

"Put him down!" he screamed. What right did Dartz have, to desecrate his friend's body! Valon found himself getting more and more angry. "Just leave him alone! Leave us all alone!" Angry tears gathered in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. Not here, not in front of Dartz. . . . "Haven't you done enough to us already!"

Dartz smoothly let Alister's body fall back to the floor in the blood. "Well," he responded at last, "without me, my child, you never would have even met the others. Did you ever think of that?"

Valon paled slightly, watching him. He had thought of it before, pondering over the irony of the fact. "You had to kill our families before that could happen, though!" he said finally, still shaking. He dropped to his knees next to the lifeless forms of his friends, letting the tears spill over now. He couldn't take it any longer.

Raphael rubbed his eyes wearily, letting out a sad sigh. He and Alister had been here for so long, keeping their vigil over their ill friend. The clock on Valon's nightstand was announcing that it was going on for four in the morning, but neither Raphael or Alister cared. They were both ready to drop, but somehow they were both determined to stay awake. Sleep was greatly wanted and needed for them, but how could they think of sleeping when poor Valon was suffering so much? Raphael knew that he couldn't. And Alister's bloodshot eyes were a testimony to the fact that he was determined to not sleep as well.

"This child," Raphael spoke finally, a new thought entering his mind as he resumed pondering over Alister's tragic tale. He had been thinking of it off and on since Alister had fallen silent a while ago. "Did he ever blame himself?" He knew how it was with children sometimes. If they wished for someone to go away and then something bad did happen, they often laid the blame on themselves. Valon still tended to be that way occasionally, as he was such a sensitive person. Raphael wasn't sure if Alister might have been that way as a child, though he did know that the redhead had a very caring heart and that he had blamed himself in the past when things had gone wrong for those he loved, especially Miruko. As far as Raphael knew, Alister still blamed himself for the child's death.

There was a long pause now. "Yes," Alister admitted at last. There wasn't much point denying it. "He blamed himself when he saw how sad his mother was, though his common sense told him that his wish couldn't have made things come true. He himself didn't know what to think of the death. Part of him was numb and unfeeling, while the other part was relieved that at least the man wouldn't be beating them any more. And yet a third part missed the father he had loved. But the man who had died wasn't his father, and he supposed that was a big part of why he just felt numb. His father, as far as he was concerned, had died years before. The sanity-deprived man who had just died had been a stranger."

Raphael reached out, laying a hand on Alister's shoulder and giving a gentle squeeze. "Valon won't wind up like that," he said firmly. "He'll get better."

Alister gave him an ironic, dry smirk. "That's what the child's mother always tried to say. It seems as if she was wrong, doesn't it." Then he looked down sadly, watching as Valon tossed about and moaned in his sleep.

"That doesn't mean I am," Raphael replied, also looking to Valon. "He will get better." They had to believe that. He had to believe that. If he didn't, he felt that he would go mad with worry. He felt helpless, just watching Valon go through such agony and not knowing how to stop it . . . if there was any way. . . . He said another prayer, feeling himself growing more and more desperate.

Alister looked down. "God willing," he murmured, as Valon threw the quilt over his head.

Raphael nodded slowly in agreement, concern for their friend written in his eyes.

It was an hour or so later when Valon opened his eyes once more. Now he abruptly threw the quilt back, sitting up again and struggling to get out of the bed. Instantly Alister and Raphael were beside him, trying to lift him back up onto the mattress. But Valon would have none of it.

"Let me go!" he screamed desperately, struggling against them both. His eyes were wild with panic. "I've gotta find the others! Don't you get it?" In his tortured mind, it was a dark, stormy night and both Alister and Raphael were somewhere out in the rain. He was afraid that they were going to get into horrible trouble, especially since Del Vinci's assassins had been dispatched to kill them both. There was no time to waste! He had to find them before Del Vinci's men did!

"Valon! We're right here," Raphael retorted, realizing just how badly out of it their friend was. He winced as the younger man kicked him in the shin in his panic to get free. But still he kept a firm grip on the teen's body. To let go could prove disastrous. What if Valon managed to get to the door and out into the hall? He could easily fall down the stairs and hurt himself worse. Or he might even try to climb out the window. No, Raphael couldn't risk it.

Alister decided to try a slightly different approach when he spoke. "This isn't going to help you or your friends, Valon," he said quietly, speaking of himself and Raphael in the third person. "You can't rush into things blindly. That will only make it worse."

Valon didn't calm down, though, and continued to fight against Raphael's viselike grasp until wearily he slumped forward over the man's arms again. "Come on," he said in a rasping voice, "please, mate. . . . I've gotta help them. . . . You havta let me go. If I don't get there before the hitmen do, well. . . ." He trailed off, shuddering. He knew he was too weak to try any longer to get free from whoever was holding him, and he was so desperate to be allowed to go that he was actually begging for his release. Surely these men would let him go if they understood the situation, wouldn't they? After all, they hadn't been trying to hurt him, so they must not mean any harm. . . .

Raphael hated seeing Valon like this. He exchanged a look with Alister before replying. "You don't have to worry about them, Valon," he told him then. "Your friends are safe. But they're worried about you. You need to lay back down and rest so that you'll get better." He spoke in a calm, gentle tone, hoping to get Valon to believe him and relax. It was unnerving, to see Valon behaving like this and to know how badly delirious he was. He could see from Alister's expression that he was even more unnerved.

Valon was silent for a long moment. "They're safe?" he repeated finally, looking up at Raphael with his glassy eyes. "Really?" He gripped at the man's thick arm with one shaking hand, starting to go limp once more.

"That's right," Alister spoke up. "The assassins weren't able to find them. Just let us help you now, Valon." He moved out of the way so that Raphael could lay the tormented boy back on the bed. When Valon was in a state such as this, Alister had determined that the best thing to do was to play along with him a little bit, while always making certain to assure him that nothing was wrong anymore. It didn't seem to do much good to simply tell him that he and Raphael were right there with him, but if he phrased things differently to go along with the scenario Valon was experiencing in his mind, it seemed to work at least a bit better.

Now Valon allowed Raphael to set him down into the softness of the mattress, but it was unclear whether it was because he fully accepted their words or because he was simply too tired to move anymore. Perhaps it was a combination of both. "They're safe now?" he said again, his tone urgent. "You're sure?"

"Yes," Raphael replied, pulling the quilt up around him. "Go to sleep, Valon." He shuddered, remembering vaguely an occasion from his childhood when Julien had fallen ill and had been a bit delirious. It hadn't been to the extreme that Valon was, but for a young child it was still highly disturbing. Raphael recalled watching as the nurses tended to the boy while their mother and father stayed right by him and tried to offer comforting words. Sonia had clung tightly to Raphael's hand, confused and scared for their younger sibling.

Valon sighed in weariness, closing his eyes and shuddering weakly. "They know I'm sorry, don't they?" he asked quietly as sleep began to overtake his senses. "I didn't mean what I said earlier. . . ."

"They know," Alister answered firmly, even as Valon's breathing deepened and he slipped into oblivion. The redhead sighed, rubbing his own forehead, and then went back to sit near the edge of the bed.

"It's unsettling, isn't it," he announced a moment later.

Raphael nodded grimly. "Very much so," he replied, his voice dark. Valon wasn't really similar to Julien in any way, save that they both had brown hair—and that Valon was now like a younger sibling to Raphael, as was Alister. I hate seeing my family suffer. . . . He clenched a fist in frustration.

Alister was silent again before then speaking morbidly. "I suppose we should be grateful that he's not really acting violently." He crossed his arms, watching Valon for a moment before sighing and leaning forward, rubbing his eyes. "The worse he did was struggle to get free." And that was mild, especially compared to what Alister remembered his father doing.

Raphael didn't respond, though he did have to agree with Alister on that. His leg hurt a bit from where Valon had kicked him, but he knew that the Australian hadn't meant to cause harm. He had only been desperate to get free and to help his friends, not realizing that they were right there with him. The blonde man closed his eyes, wishing that Valon could recover soon.

He was falling . . . floating . . . turning over and over in what seemed to be midair. Was he drowning again? In a way it didn't seem as though he was still in the water. And yet he could feel the liquid rushing into his mouth again. He gasped, wanting to spit it back out but not being able to. It was overpowering him, dulling his senses, and making breathing all but impossible. He reached up, clawing desperately, searching for someone, anyone, who would be willing to get him out before he completely suffocated. But he was alone. He started to feel himself blacking out.

But instead of losing consciousness, his body went numb. He was no longer able to attempt to struggle his way back to the surface. His limbs hung useless as he descended ever deeper into Neptune's kingdom. Is it endless? he wondered. Maybe there isn't a bottom. . . . Maybe I'll keep falling forever, like this. . . . He wasn't certain at all that he liked that prospect. He wanted to be back home, where everything was normal—not to be plunging downward till the end of time.

It almost seemed as if he could hear voices whispering to him through the water. The tones were obscured and eerie, but he was certain they were there. He closed his eyes wearily, wanting to call out to them and ask how to get home, but he knew that the only thing that would happen would be that he would swallow even more water. Besides, he was too exhausted to even make the effort anyway. And so he continued to listen, trying to make out words.

"Sleep, Valon," they seemed to tell them. Watery fingers brushed against his cheeks. It wasn't really a soothing sensation, but it seemed to make him even more drowsy.

Who are you? he asked in his mind, falling down into the arms.

"No one important," was the reply. He had been heard. But he didn't stop to ponder on how that could be. It seemed as though anything made sense in this dimension, and that anything that didn't wasn't of consequence. "Your friends are dead. Don't you want to join them? Don't you want to be with them again? What is there for you here? You have nothing. And you know that you will die soon. You can't swim any longer. Your limbs are aching and you feel numb." The strange apparition was running its fingers through his hair. Valon could only let it happen. He felt paralyzed.

Why shouldn't he succumb to the inevitable? He knew that the entity spoke the truth—he couldn't go on trying to swim, and anyone who meant anything to him was dead. Well . . . save for Mai, but he couldn't have her. Why should he continue fighting? It would be so much easier just to give in and die. . . .

But that wasn't like him, to be talking that way. Why was he allowing himself to fall prey to this creature's words? It didn't care about him. Why should it even be telling him the truth? Maybe it was lying. And in any case, he was a fighter. He didn't simply give up when things were harsh. He had to get out of here somehow! He had to get back and see for himself if the others were alright!

The apparition seemed to realize that it was losing control of its victim. "You'll never escape," it vowed. "Once you come in, you can never go back out!" With that it turned into a massive whirlpool, wrapping around the helpless boy and dragging him down into the depths of the ocean . . . perhaps down to the gates of Hell. Valon wanted to scream, he wanted to fight, he wanted to get away, but he could do nothing.

Dizziness enveloped him as he spun about in the whirlpool. Everything was going by in a blur. It was worse than any amusement park ride or dangerous motorcycle stunt. Valon opened his mouth involuntarily, the water rushing in as he found the strength to try to claw one final time to get out of his revolving prison. Then black spots appeared in front of his eyes and consciousness was lost as it dawned on him that he could not breathe at all. He plunged downward limply.

The morning eventually came, bringing with it more heavy raindrops that plinked against the windows and splashed onto the grass. Alister and Raphael barely noticed the arrival of the rain. Both completely worn out and exhausted, they had slumped back against the bedposts, still watching over Valon but unwillingly half-dozing. Valon had been asleep or unconscious now for a while and had seemed to settle down, so his friends were hopeful that the worst of the delirium was over.

And slowly awareness was beginning to wash over the blue-eyed brunette. For a while he had been sleeping soundly, for once not dreaming of anything and being grateful for it. Now he was starting to regain consciousness in the real world. His muscles were aching dully, most likely from his attempts at swimming. How long was it since he had been out of the whirlpool? He hadn't known whether he had ever hit the bottom or not. But he didn't feel as though he was soaking wet now. . . . Perhaps he had been rescued after all.

Or had it all been a dream? He seemed to be remembering something else now . . . how he had fought with the gang members who had been his enemies in the past and how he'd gotten quite roughed up. . . . They had thrown him in the water. . . . But he didn't remember being rescued. . . . Or did he? It did seem as though he felt someone grab hold of him just as he was passing out. . . .

He tried to open his eyes and was greeted by his fluffy brown bangs. Weakly he attempted to reach up and push them away, but it hurt too much to try to move his arm at the moment, so he didn't. Instead he peeked out as best as he could, managing to make out Alister and Raphael both slumped against the bedposts, their eyes half-closed. But they looked alright, save for being tired. Valon perked up immensely at this.

"Raph! Alister! You're okay!" His voice came out rasping, but he didn't care, so great was his relief to see them. Somewhere in his memories he recalled seeing them both laying dead. But . . . those were only dreams, weren't they? This was reality now, and his friends were fine . . . he hoped.

Both of them started as soon as Valon spoke. Then Raphael moved forward, amazed and relieved.

"We're fine," the blonde said, overjoyed to hear Valon speaking as if he knew what was going on around him. The past night had seemed like an eternity all to itself, neverending and agonizing. "But what about you?" he asked now. "Are you alright?"

"You've given us quite a scare," Alister said flatly, coming forward as well. He couldn't deny how relieved he felt. Valon looked like he felt normal again . . . or at least as normal as Valon could be. But Alister had honestly feared that Valon might start behaving as his father had in the past. If that had happened, he didn't know how he would have handled it. Valon shouldn't ever have to suffer that way. He should never have to lose his sanity. The thought alone, and the glimpse of a crazed Valon from the previous night, was more than enough to disturb him highly.

"I did?" Valon blinked at his friends curiously, still trying to completely comprehend what had been going on. "I'm sorry if I did. . . ." He looked over at Raphael. "And I guess I'm feelin' alright now. . . . Kinda worn out and sore, though. . . ." He managed to reach up and brush his bangs aside, grinning weakly. "What the heck happened!"

Raphael shook his head. "Some old acquaintances of yours tried to drown you yesterday," he reminded Valon grimly. "You've been delirious since then." But who were the men who did this to you? he asked silently. Why do they hate you so much?

"Yeah?" Valon said vaguely. He thought he was starting to remember now. Involuntarily he shuddered. It wasn't something he enjoyed recalling. "So . . . you fellas were with me all this time?" He felt bad if he'd been giving them a lot of trouble, but he was immensely touched that they were willing to stay with him through his illness and his moments of madness.

"All the time," Alister confirmed with a nod.

"I didn't give you too much grief, did I?" Valon blinked as Raphael leaned over and checked his forehead for any traces of a fever.

Raphael allowed himself to smile a bit. Valon didn't seem to have a high temperature now. He was recovering. "You had us both worried, if that's what you mean," he replied gruffly. We were afraid we might lose you. . . .

"Aww . . . really?" Valon smiled lopsidedly, leaning into the softness of the pillow. He could see that they were both sincere. They were his best friends, his elder brothers. And he was grateful to have them. Kinda strange. . . . No one ever cared before, 'cept Mother Mary. . . . And now I've got two blokes who'd give anything they could to help me. . . . He already knew they cared, but still, it always filled him with a certain sense of awe.

"Yes," Alister said frankly. "You were ill during most of the night." It was agonizing, especially when remembering what happened to my father. . . .

"Well," Valon said brightly, "I'm gonna be okay now."

Raphael smiled a bit again. "I can't deny that." Even Alister seemed to smile very slightly. This latest nightmare was over and Valon was safe. Their family wouldn't be broken apart.

Valon took to studying the quilt, pondering over what he now wanted to say. It wasn't often that he was known to be serious. "Hey," he said finally, "thanks, fellas. . . . There's not a lot of people who'd have had the patience to stick with me through all of that. I must've been acting awfully nuts." He didn't really remember any of his behavior, but he knew what he'd heard about delirium victims. And he wasn't extremely happy to know that he been the latest victim. But oh well . . . all's well that ends well, eh?

"I've seen worse," Alister said honestly.

"Who were the people who tried to kill you?" Raphael asked after a moment of silence, sobering now.

Valon shrugged. "Well . . . they're the same blokes I beat up years ago when I thought they'd burned down the church," he admitted. "They've always hated me, but I never really knew why. And, well, me pounding on them didn't help any." He grinned weakly. "I guess they were a bit more thirsty for revenge than I realized. I mean, I never thought they'd try to track me all the way down here clear from Australia."

Raphael frowned darkly. He had to wonder if those men had, indeed, been stalking Valon for a while, just waiting for the right time to attack. If they hated him that much, it wouldn't surprise him in the least to learn that they had done that. "You didn't deserve what they did," he growled.

Valon sighed sheepishly. "I guess I kinda brought it on myself, actually," he said. "I'm the one who got ticked off and stormed out. And . . . well, I'm sorry 'bout that." He looked at his friends with sincere eyes. He truly did regret it. He knew he shouldn't have spoken so cruelly. Actually, I'm lucky they were even willing to help me after that, he thought suddenly. Some people probably wouldn't have. I've got two real loyal chums.

"So you told us several times during the night," Alister remarked, recalling Valon's pleading, sad voice. It was haunting in a way, when he remembered how desperately the brunette had cried out that he was sorry and how he had believed that his friends were in danger. But Alister didn't know the half of it. And at the moment, Valon didn't have any recollection of his delirious words.

Valon sighed a bit again. "Yeah, well. . . . Neither of you deserved what I said. . . . I mean . . . I know you're only worried and all, even if I don't agree with you when it comes to Mai. And . . . I really do need you fellas," he declared, and then grinned impishly. "And you need me, too."

Raphael gave him a sidelong glance. "Are you sure?" he said, though he was only teasing. And Valon knew that.

"Yep," the Australian replied, "or you wouldn't have come after me." He continued to grin, feeling relaxed and happy in spite of his injuries. He was wanted, even after his angry outburst! At the moment, he didn't think he could be happier. Several years ago he never would have dreamed that he would ever find somewhere he belonged. Now he had a family that would always stand by him.

"Well," Alister remarked, "I see you won't be fooled." He allowed himself to smile, his gray eyes filled with emotions. They had come a long way since Doom. Even then they had been some sort of a strange family unit, but at that time only Raphael had seemed willing to really acknowledge the fact. It had taken all the trials they had since come through together for them all to realize how important each considered the others.

Valon smirked, cuffing Alister lightly on the arm. "Naw," he stated. "Not anymore." He sobered for a moment. "I know where I belong and who my chums are." Carefully he stretched, trying not to irritate his muscles, and then abruptly stopped being serious. "So . . . what's there to eat?" he chirped.

Raphael shook his head in disbelief. "I suppose that tells us for certain that you're feeling better," he proclaimed. When it came to food, Valon's appetite was generally as large as Joey Wheeler's. (He also had a bad habit of sometimes eating much too fast. Alister would sometimes dryly say that it was a miracle when Valon could get through a meal without requiring the Heimlech, to which Valon would usually snort and respond with some sarcastic remark.)

Valon grinned. "Better than I was, that's for sure," he replied.

Alister felt himself relax. Valon was going to be fine. He was not going to go insane, as Alister's father had. Valon was already recovering well, though he was still understandably weakened and weary. He would get better and their lives would settle back to normal . . . well, until the next calamity, that is. I'm getting as pessimistic as Raphael. . . . But he was certain that more misfortunes would come. The trick was for all of them to stay strong throughout whatever happened.

Ten minutes later Valon was eating some applesauce slowly, partially sitting up in bed. He licked the spoon, watching the other two as they started to doze again. "You should both go to sleep or somethin'," the Australian remarked. Poor fellas. . . . They're exhausted because they were staying up to take care of me. . . .

Alister slumped against the bedpost, not ignoring his body's desire to shut down and go to sleep any longer. "We're fine," he grunted almost incoherently, and then was instantly asleep. Valon was alright; there was no reason why they couldn't sleep now. And Alister was happy to embrace the blanket of oblivion.

Raphael looked over at his slumbering friend, shaking his head. "Do you need anything else?" he asked Valon now, looking back to him. Maybe, if Valon didn't and he planned to sleep himself, Raphael would as well. He was so exhausted. And he had been the one who had dove into the water after the boy. His body ached from being thrown about by the waves. Now he just wanted to stretch out and go to sleep.

"Nope," Valon told him, observing the sore places along Raphael's arms. He blinked in confusion before remembering how he had felt someone grab hold of him right before he passed out under the water. He raised his blue-eyed gaze to meet Raphael's. The blonde man nodded in silent confirmation of what Valon was asking. But Valon asked aloud, anyway.

"So . . . you're the one who got me out?" The Australian finished the applesauce and set the bowl down on the nightstand. That had tasted good. He was still a bit hungry, but more so, he was tired himself and wanted a peaceful sleep void of treacherous nightmares. He planned to follow Alister's example in a moment, as he was certain Raphael would.

"That's right," Raphael said, but didn't feel that he should get all the credit. "When you were gotten onto the pier, however, you weren't breathing. Alister then helped you to do so." He glanced over at the lanky man, who had slipped from leaning on the bedpost to stretching out across the foot of Valon's bed, still sound asleep. He looked peaceful enough. Raphael hated to have to disturb him.

"Oh he did, huh?" Valon looked at Alister as well, seeming to smirk slightly in some sort of amusement but refraining from whatever teasing remark he had been about to make. He was truly grateful for his friends and their willingness to help him. And he knew he wouldn't be alive if they hadn't helped him through this.

Raphael nodded slowly. "Since you don't need anything else," he said after a brief silence, "I'm going to lay down for a while." Watching Alister sleep made him all the more aware of how tired he himself was. He started to stand up, running a hand through his blonde hair and being thankful once again to see Valon behaving normally. He said a silent prayer of thanks.

"Okay," Valon said, stifling a yawn. "Are you gonna just leave him here like this?" He indicated Alister. Not that he minded if Alister stayed, but it seemed a bit of a precarious and uncomfortable position. His legs were hanging off the edge of the bed and he didn't have a pillow or a quilt. Still, Alister didn't look like he minded. He just wanted to sleep.

Raphael shrugged. "As long as you think you won't kick him accidentally, I don't see a reason to move him," he replied. "He'd probably wake up if I tried to." But he didn't think Alister would remain there long. He would probably wake up in a few minutes and decide to go elsewhere to sleep. Raphael didn't see much point in disturbing him at the moment.

Valon yawned again, carefully rolling onto his side. "Alright," he mumbled. "I think there's some kinda quilt in a chair. You can give him that." The brunette never slept with very many layers of bedding, as it irritated him and made him much too hot. Recently he had been sleeping with two quilts due to winter, but then had found that the weather was now warming up and therefore had tossed the second quilt onto a chair. He hadn't used it since.

Raphael gave a slight smile and reached for the extra quilt. Gently he covered Alister with it and then started to head for the door to go to his own room. Then he paused and turned back, watching the two younger bikers thoughtfully. They were his family, his adopted family. And it felt good in a way, he thought to himself, to have people to take care of again. He had always looked after Sonia and Julien as a child. He had a feeling that Alister felt the same way—being glad to have someone to look after, that is. Valon was a younger brother to both of them and they would go to great lengths to protect him, just as any one of them would do for any of the others.

Valon blinked at him sleepily, seeing how he was studying them. "What?" he asked, reaching to pull the pillow down slightly.

Raphael paused, then shook his head. "Nevermind," he said. "Go to sleep." Then he paused again. "I'm glad you're feeling better," he said at last, grasping the doorframe with one hand. That's an understatement.

Valon grinned. "Me too," he replied, and then was asleep.

Raphael regarded him with slight amusement before going on to his room directly across the hall and collapsing into bed. He felt as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Valon was safe. They were all safe. And he prayed it would continue to be that way. The last thing they needed was another catastrophe. Oh well. . . . Maybe we'll get lucky and have some peace for a while. Not that it's likely. The normal thing for us is to be going through calamities. He sighed at this thought, shaking his head, and then subconsciously grasped the pillow as he dozed. It wasn't long before he was completely asleep, as the other two already were.

But while Raphael was correct about what was the "normal" thing for them, they always went through the calamities together and their bonds with each other helped them to survive. They were very close as a family unit, and the disasters they endured only served to prove this. Certainly they would never be grateful for the terrible things they went through, but they could definitely be grateful for anything gained from them. Right now, they most assuredly all were.