By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters aren't mine (save for Alice and Gabrielle), the story is, and there is much friendship cuteness to be had! And yes, some of the basic story idea did come from the Alfred Hitchcock classic which is also called Spellbound. Also, I got inspiration from a lovely Monkees fanfic about Davy. I love the Monkees. And the bikers. Some of the plot twists came from RPs with Aubrie and SK.

As consciousness slowly returned, Alister realized he was laying on the cold, hard pavement. He could feel the icy wind nipping at his bare arms and midriff, but he couldn't remember what he was doing there or why. He struggled to open his eyes and found his vision blurred. With a sigh he momentarily let them close once more while he tried to get his bearings.

That was when he realized he was holding something in his right hand. It felt like a handle of some sort, cold and . . . sticky? There was a sticky substance on the handle and all over his hand. Instantly his eyes flew open again and he focused this time, staring at a knife he had been clutching tightly. Blood was dripping down the blade, over the handle, and over his hand. He dropped the weapon like a hot rock.

Stunned beyond belief, the young man shakily pulled himself into a sitting position and just gazed blankly at his blood-stained hand, repulsed and alarmed. What had happened? Why did he have that knife in his possession? Had he been in a fight? He had to admit that his head was hurting. Why couldn't he remember? Coming to think of it . . . he wasn't sure he remembered anything. He glanced around, searching for some kind of a clue. Instead he only found more questions—disturbing ones at that.

Lying only a couple of feet from him was another body, this one limp and obviou y dead. Alister could see that the person had been stabbed. In horror he looked from the corpse to his hand to the knife on the ground, and he had to wonder—had he done that? He wasn't a murderer. . . . At least, he didn't think he was. What was he, anyway? Who was he? Who was the dead person? Why had they met? Why was that man dead and why had he, Alister, been unconscious?

The redhead was in such a distraught and dazed condition that he didn't realize anyone else was approaching until a short, boyish young man was kneeling down right in front of him. "Hey!" the brunette Australian cried, gripping at Alister's shoulders in disbelief as he took in the scene around them. "What's gotten into you!" He had been calling Alister for several long minutes without getting a response—the older boy seeming lost in his own world and shaking badly from the shock of it all. There was so much blood around . . . and someone was dead. . . . Alister was no stranger to seeing death, so there must be a different reason for his reaction. Then the Australian noticed the blood coating Alister's hand. He frowned, the unthinkable possibility crossing his mind.

Alister stared as this person grabbed him. He recognized him, but he couldn't put a name with the face. And for some reason, he was starting to feel dizzy again. It increased steadily until he knew he was going to pass out. But somehow he was still able to process the next question he was asked.

"Alister, did you do this!" The Australian watched him in disbelief, seeing how his vision seemed to be suddenly going out of focus. Alister was ill somehow, that much was obvious. He wasn't drunk (not that Alister drank anyway; he never touched alcohol), but a strange suspicion had begun to form on what actually might be wrong with him. . . .

Alister could only shake his head weakly as he slumped forward into the other person's arms. "I don't know," he whispered helplessly, oblivion claiming him once more.

Valon gave a startled exclamation as the heavy weight fell in his arms. Not that Alister especially weighed a lot (he really didn't), but he was a lot taller than Valon and the Australian really hadn't been expecting for the redhead to pass out on him without warning. With a frown he laid Alister down in the nearby grass and began to examine him, searching for something in particular.

"What'd you get into, mate?" Valon muttered, carefully going over Alister's arms and then his neck. He knew Alister wouldn't have intentionally killed the man, not unless it was in self-defense. More than likely, it had been completely accidental—if Alister had done it at all. Nothing was clear, and Alister himself didn't even know if he was responsible. That wasn't a good sign. Valon bit his lip, remembering the blank look he had received. Alister hadn't even known him.

When Valon was about to give up, he found what he was looking for—a tiny pinprick in Alister's right arm. His eyes narrowed. He had been injected with something. That was probably why he had gotten dizzy and passed out. But was the drug (or poison, even?) responsible for Alister behaving in some eerie way and perhaps even killing that unknown man? In any case, Valon wasn't sure what to do at all. Alister might go to jail—and for something he was most likely innocent of. Valon knew all too well the horrors of being in prison. And even though in the past he had sometimes tried to convince himself that he didn't like Alister, he knew that he did—and that he didn't want the gray-eyed man to suffer that fate. But right now he had to think about getting help for his friend. Quickly he pulled out his cellphone and called Raphael.


"Come on, chum, wake up already!"

Slowly Alister opened his eyes, having heard familiar voices calling to him. At first, as before, he couldn't focus properly. But then it all became clear. He was laying in his bed, Valon and Raphael standing over him. He felt weak and achy at first, prompting him to wonder if he'd had a bout of some sickness. There was no telling how long he'd been out of it, but his friends looked relieved to see him open his eyes.

"How are you feeling?" Raphael asked gruffly, studying him with his blue eyes.

"Tell me what happened first and then I'll get back to you on that," Alister retorted, letting his magenta bangs flop into his eyes.

"That's the problem—we don't know what happened." Raphael crossed his arms, watching Alister for any reactions to what he was about to tell him. "All we know is that you were found next to a dead body, with the man's blood on your hands and a knife on the ground beside you. Valon found you and you passed out in his arms. Then we found out that you'd been given a sedative by way of injection." It all sounded highly suspicious to him. He wondered if someone was trying to frame Alister for a crime he hadn't committed.

Alister frowned, none of that sounding familiar to him. "Am I going to be arrested?" he asked finally. How fun. Just what I wanted to do after waking up from being drugged.

"Not yet, mate," Valon said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "The police agree that it's all fishy. They're doing some investigating and are giving us a day or so to do the same." Officer Valesquez had managed to pull some strings for them. Without her influence, Valon knew it was highly possible that Alister would have woken up to a couple of detectives ready to cart him off to jail.

"That's not the normal procedure, is it?" Alister wondered. His mind was still foggy, but he was certain that normally he would have been arrested and charged for murder.

"Naw," Valon said with a shrug, "it's not normal. But then again, nothing that ever happens to us is normal." He gave a lopsided grin. That was true enough, and his friends were all too aware of it. Ever since they had first met in Doom, strange things had been happening to them. Even though Doom was behind them now, the odd events hadn't stopped.

"Officer Valesquez is the one who fixed this for us," Raphael spoke up, watching as Alister attempted to sit up. "She's the one who helps the Nameless Pharaoh and his friends."

"And she's given us a day?" Alister mused, looking from Raphael to Valon. "It seems she might be placing her job in jeopardy by doing so. I was found with the body, blood coating my hands. To my knowledge, people can be arrested on such circumstantial evidence, even if things don't add up as to why they would have committed the crime." And he knew Valon wasn't all that fond of the police, since they had sent him to prison in the past. He certainly hadn't deserved to be sent to solitary confinement as if he was some treacherous psychopath.

Valon leaned back now. "Yeah, and they could've arrested you 'cause they thought you were doing drugs," he remarked. "Raph and I had to keep reassuring them that you didn't and Valesquez finally agreed to give us some time." He frowned, giving Alister a sidelong glance and wondering if there was a slight chance that the older man lived a secret life that they knew nothing about. "You're not doin' drugs, are you?"

Raphael frowned at him. "Valon," he scolded.

"What!" the brunette shrugged. "You were wondering too. And Alister doesn't lie, so I thought we should ask him, just to make sure."

Alister grunted, supposing that he should feel grateful that Valon placed that much trust in his word. "No," he said flatly, "I don't take drugs." It was true that he had often been depressed in the past—and still tended to be on occasion—but he had never resorted to drugs during those times—or any other. He had seen what drinking had done to his father, making him become angry and hateful and to take leave of his senses, and he was certain that becoming addicted to drugs would have the same result. Besides, once addicted to them, it would be hard to stop if he wanted to. So he just stayed away from them altogether.

"And you're not addicted to sedatives, either, are you?" Valon pressed. Raphael sighed.

"No," Alister repeated firmly, "I'm not. Someone purposely injected me with whatever it was."

"Do you remember where you were before that happened?" Raphael asked now, before Valon had the chance to quiz Alister even further. It was true that even he himself had harbored some vague concerns, but he had truly always believed that Alister was not doing drugs and that his concerns were unfounded. And now that Alister had spoken and confirmed that, Raphael was content to let the matter drop. Besides, he doubted that Alister would appreciate the interrogation—though he hoped the younger man would realize that they were only worried about him and that when he kept to himself all the time it was hard to know what he was up to.

Alister thought a moment. "It was near the edge of town, if I remember right," he replied. "I was accosted and thrown off my motorcycle by two bikers who then hauled me up and started attempting to drag me off. I fought against them and was silenced by a blow to my head." Without thinking, he reached up and rubbed the spot. It was tender and sore to the touch.

Valon sat up again. "Yeah? Then what?" he wanted to know.

Alister shrugged helplessly. "After that, it's a blank. I don't recall regaining consciousness or knowing anything that happened until I was discovering that I was laying next to the body." But something was missing. He felt that he definitely did know something of what had happened. After all, he doubted that the blood could just get on his hands if he was unconscious. And unconscious men didn't grab hold of knives.

Raphael sighed. "Well, if you're feeling up to it, we should probably go to the location where you were attacked and see if there's any clues. We only have a day to solve this before you're taken into police custody." In fact, there might be less than that. Gabrielle had really only been able to promise them the night to find the solution. Right now, Raphael noticed as he glanced at the clock, it was nearing eleven PM. No one had any idea whether Gabrielle would be allowed to hold off arresting Alister for a full twenty-four hours. He was the only possible suspect in the case and there had been other officers on the force who had been determined to bring him in as soon as the sedative had worn off. Raphael wasn't sure exactly how Gabrielle had calmed them down. But they might not wait until the allotted time was up. And he definitely didn't want to see that happen. If Alister was arrested, it might be ages before they would be able to get him out. Valon had already experienced the horrors of prison. There was no reason why another of them had to.

Alister nodded, slowly standing up and heading for the door. As he went, he placed a hand to his forehead, grimacing as he struggled to ignore the voice in his mind as it whispered for him to just find a knife and pick it up. . . . What is that voice? I don't want to pick up a knife. But still it insisted.

Valon hopped off the bed as well and followed his friend. Raphael watched him, knowing how worried he was about Alister. He was worried as well. What if Alister was responsible? Of course, he never would have done it without a good reason, such as self-defense. Or maybe he hadn't been in his right mind. Perhaps he had committed the crime, but had been too drugged up to know what he was doing. The thought was alarming.

A cry of shock from Valon rang out and Raphael narrowed his eyes, startled out of his reverie. What was wrong? Had Alister collapsed? Quickly he got up and went downstairs, but he wasn't prepared for what he saw. Alister was standing blankly in front of Valon, who was backed against the wall, his blue eyes wide and alarmed. Pointed at Valon's heart was a sharp knife from the kitchen.

Catching Raphael's eye, the Australian looked at him with horror. "He's gone crazy on me!" he cried. "When I came downstairs, he was just standing there doing nothing but holding that knife! Then, when I tried to talk to him, he forced me up like this and now he's just standing here, looking at me like I'm nothing and holding the knife!" His heart was racing wildly. What on earth was wrong? Was Alister finally having the nervous breakdown Valon had always been afraid he would? But what was the explanation for the vacant gaze? He acted like he was in a different world, almost. Valon was completely and utterly disturbed.

"Come on!" he yelled at Alister now. "Cut it out and put the thing down. If you can act like this with me, I dunno that you wouldn't have done it to some strange guy on the street!" He glared at his friend from behind brown bangs.

"Valon," Raphael growled as he slowly and cautiously approached, "you're not making things better." Now that he could see Alister's expression, he was certain that their friend didn't know what he was doing. His eyes were glazed over and he was not looking at Valon, but rather, looking through him. Raphael knew that the only way to handle this was to stay calm and speak gently, but firmly to the redhead.

"Alister," he tried, looking right into the empty gray eyes, "you know you don't want to do this. Valon is your friend. You would never try to harm him if you knew what you were doing. You have to come back to your senses and see what's going on." At first he received no response at all. But then he was certain that he saw the hand shaking that held the weapon. Alister was struggling, trying to break free. At last the knife slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor, following quickly by Alister himself as he sank to his knees. Valon slowly pulled himself away from the wall, watching the man suspiciously.

"What's the matter with you!" he said indignantly, concealing how frightened he'd actually been. For a while, he had been afraid that Alister was about to kill him. And he didn't want to be betrayed like that. He had been betrayed too many times in the past already. Now that he had Alister and Raphael as a family, he didn't want to lose them or to have either of them turn against him. Though, as he thought back on the incident, Alister had acted quite catatonic and had stopped short of stabbing Valon, as if he wasn't sure what to do next . . . or maybe as if he had been waiting for the next command . . . or even, because he hadn't wanted to hurt him, Valon realized. Poor Alister hadn't been in control of himself, but he had indeed been fighting for control.

Alister was breathing heavily now as he looked up at Valon with stunned, haunted eyes. "I . . . don't know," he managed to say for the second time that night. Both Valon and Raphael were taken aback by how lost and confused he looked. Usually Alister managed to keep his emotions together the best of any of them—though when he actually did snap, he wasn't a force to be reckoned with. Now he was gazing down at his hands, remembering them dripping with blood. What if it was true? What if he had killed the man? Or worse . . . what if he had came to himself now and had found blood on his hands again, that of Valon's? What if he had killed his friend? He clenched his fists tightly, almost drawing blood. No! No, he wouldn't have. He hadn't. He had broken free of whatever had been controlling him, though, as he thought about it, he realized that it hadn't seemed exactly like mind-control. . . . What on earth had been going on!

Raphael reached out to help him up. "Whoever those people were that attacked you, they must have done something to you," he said with narrowed eyes. "We need to find out what it was and how to reverse it." He struggled with the conflicting emotions he was going through at the moment. He knew very well that Alister would never deliberately harm either him or Valon, but what if the power over him hadn't been able to be broken? Would he have then plunged the knife into Valon's chest . . . or would he have continued to simply stand there like a robot, doing nothing but gazing at Valon eerily?

Alister didn't acknowledge him at first. "So much blood," he muttered, trembling slightly as he started to rock back and forth. "It's everywhere. . . ." He continued to stare at his hands, obviously lost in his own world. Valon was highly troubled by these actions, as was Raphael. It almost looked as though Alister was, indeed, having a breakdown. Or was he remembering something? Whatever the case, the sight of blood rarely drew this reaction from him. He had seen too much of it in the past to be greatly affected by it now, as he seemed to be at the moment.

Raphael knelt down in front of him, not entirely certain what the best course of action was to take. Should he tell Alister that there was no blood now, or should he try to probe him for further details? It could be important, possibly relating to the current mystery they were plagued with. But then again, he could be remembering his childhood and the war. If so, there was no reason why he should have to reexperience that traumatic time. But Raphael had no way of knowing what Alister was seeing. "Why is there blood?" he asked quietly.

Alister didn't stop his faint rocking. "Because people are dead," he replied, his voice cracking. "Bodies are everywhere. . . . The survivors are tripping over them . . . stepping in the blood. . . . It's washing down the streets with the rain. . . ." He looked up at Raphael, his gray eyes haunted.

Now the older man was certain that Alister was remembering his past. Gently he reached out, gripping Alister's wrists. "There isn't any blood now," he said firmly. "Look around you, Alister. You're in your home, with your friends." He gazed into the redhead's gray eyes, which were clouded with agony and pain. Valon knelt down now as well, concern building at Alister's state.

"Yeah!" he chimed in. "Come on, Alister! You're disturbing us both! First you hold a knife to me and now you're lost in a memory!" Raphael shot him a warning look, but Valon ignored it. This seemed so unlike his friend that Valon couldn't hold his tongue. He wanted Alister to be the way he always remembered—aloof and cold, with a firm grip on his feelings and a willingness to die for his friends. And before he realized it, he was reaching out and grabbing Alister's shoulder, shaking him slightly. "Snap out of it, mate!" he cried.

Alister jerked back, breathing heavily. He stared at Valon and Raphael with the expression of a deer caught in the headlights. Then he looked down at the floor, his long bangs and sideburns falling across his face and concealing his current emotions. When he finally looked up again, he looked stricken and upset. "I must have killed that man," he whispered, clenching his fist. He was back in the present situation, but still quite distraught. "Valon's right—if I could attack him, when he's my friend, I could have easily attacked a stranger."

Raphael frowned, relieved that Alister was no longer lost in the past but upset at the strange mystery and worried at Alister's words. "But you didn't do anything to hurt Valon," he replied, laying a firm hand on the younger man's shoulder.

"That's right," Valon exclaimed, feeling bad for his earlier comment that Alister had referred to and had obviously somehow heard inspite of his state when Valon had said it. "Come on, I didn't mean it! I was just ticked off 'cause you were holding a knife at my heart." And I was scared, too.

Alister shook his head, slowly getting up. "Let's go to that location where I was attacked," he said darkly, "and see if there's anything to be found." Or if I can remember exactly what happened to me. There was definitely a gap in which something dreadful must have happened. But Alister was afraid that, whether he had been drugged or mind-controlled, he had truly committed the crime. And as Raphael and Valon rose to walk with him to the door, he was afraid that he could have killed Valon, if Raphael hadn't intervened. He hadn't been in control of his body at all. It had been as though he had been going about blindly and on auto-pilot. And yet . . . he had stopped in front of Valon and had just stood there, holding the knife and not making a move to hurt the younger man. Why? He couldn't explain it.

The street where Alister had been assaulted was dimly lit and almost entirely devoid of human life. Raphael narrowed his eyes when he saw the broken-down buildings and cracked sidewalk. It definitely wasn't the best location in which to be thrown off one's motorcycle. Many of the city's lowlifes populated this area.

"Hey!" Valon called out as he rounded the corner. "Alister's motorcycle is still here. That's kinda weird—that they didn't try to steal it, that is." He righted the red vehicle and dusted it off, frowning in confusion. Obviously Alister must have been wanted for a deeper, darker purpose—but what? Had they wanted to get him drugged in some way in order to get him to kill that man? The thought made Valon angry enough that he wanted to punch the conspirators out.

Raphael turned to look at the motorcycle, then at Alister, who was starting to wander up the street. "This area looks familiar," the blonde man muttered, following after Alister while Valon started wheeling the motorcycle along. And, as he caught sight of a foreboding mansion at the end of the street, his next breath caught in his throat and he remembered why it seemed recognizable. He and Valon had been here before, but from the other end of the street. They had gone to that mansion looking for Alister after he had been missing for several days. And they had found him—nearly dead after a cruel beating and emotionally broken from some outrageous mental torture. When he had recovered enough to tell them what had happened, he had spoken of a strange woman who had claimed to be experimenting on him. Raphael and Valon had been horrified and indignant. It seemed too much of a coincidence that Alister would be run off the road right here. Most likely, he had been attacked by the henchmen of that same woman, who had not been caught by the police.

"What the heck were you doing here, Alister?" Valon cried, also recognizing the area and feeling a shiver go up his back.

"I wasn't trying to go down this street," Alister retorted. "They crashed into me right at the corner and I ended up swerving around the curb." He glared up at the manor they were approaching. "And I seem to remember, somewhere in my mind, leaving this location, though I don't remember arriving at it." I was probably unconscious when I was dragged inside.

"If you were here, at this house," Raphael growled as he caught up, "nothing good could have come of it. You may not remember, but this was where Valon and I found you that time when you'd been missing for five days. You said that you'd been held prisoner and used as a human experiment." And he felt a new rage boil within him. What right did that woman, whoever she was, have to use humans as lab rats—and especially, what right did she have to use Alister as one? He felt a strong urge to find her, as she was surely involved in this, and get her crimes brought to a halt. That should have happened long ago.

Alister frowned. "I remember saying that and I remember the actual torment they put me through, but I don't recall the building—at least not from the outside." He stopped at the gate. "If we want to find answers, it looks like the only thing we can do is to go inside." He felt disgusted as he saw what looked like dried blood on part of the gate, and he felt grateful that the device was already open and that he wouldn't have to touch it when it was in that state. Slowly and purposely he headed up the walk to the sinking, decrepit porch. Valon and Raphael followed, knowing that Alister was likely right but not enjoying the prospect of going into what had been a torture chamber in the past.

"Just don't get yourself caught again or something," Valon grumbled, feeling a cold breeze tickle his bare arms as Alister tried the door and opened it. He shivered, venturing into the spacious parlor and remembering the horror of finding Alister laying in one of the rooms, battered and bleeding and practically devoid of life. Quickly he glanced over at his friend, reassuring himself that it was all in the past. Alister was physically well now, though Valon was doubtful as to his complete mental well-being and sanity after the incidents back home.

"I don't intend to," Alister retorted, reaching for a lightswitch without thinking. As a gentle glow flooded the room, he idly wondered how he knew the switch was there.

"There wasn't electricity installed on this floor when we were here before," Raphael noted in a low tone, narrowing his eyes as he looked about for any clues. It seemed that the building must be in use again, even though the police had dismantled the torture chamber after the previous incident. Perhaps the scientist had now set up her own private generators to make electricity.

Valon shrugged. "Are we planning to split up?" he asked, putting his hands behind his head as he walked further into the room.

"I don't know that it's a smart idea," Raphael retorted. "There's no telling what we might find." He noticed that the lights flickered and he wondered if their presence here was somehow already known, despite the fact that everything had looked deserted.

"We should stay together," Alister decided.

That was the last thing Raphael heard before a trapdoor opened in the floor and he fell through. He let out a yell of surprise as he plunged downward, at last crashing at the bottom in what seemed to be a dark and deserted room. The man lay dazed for several moments as he tried to get his bearings. How far had he fallen? Were Alister and Valon safe? Did they know what had happened to him? Actually . . . what had happened to him? He grumbled to himself as he pushed himself to his hands and knees.

Abruptly something hard slammed down on his head. Stars swirled in front of his vision and then gave way to more blackness as he fell back to the floor, not having anticipated the blow at all and falling unconscious.

"Ha, I think he's waking up!"

"Poor fool—he has no idea of what we're going to do to him now!"

"You gave him the drug, didn't you?"

"Just as you said. He'll wake up, but he'll only be semi-conscious and very susceptible to suggestions. Once the good doctor comes back in, she can proceed to do to him what she tried to do to the redhead. This should prove interesting. After all, we'll have to give him a much different story than we gave Mackenzie."

He could hear their voices, and even vaguely see their outlines when he opened his eyes, but nothing was very clear to him. It seemed as if he was still in a dream. Yes, that must be it. If he was truly in reality, why would he feel so detached from humanity?

A door opened, sounding far away, and then high-heeled footsteps clicked on the floor. "Alright, gentlemen," a new voice came. He had never heard this woman speak before, but she sounded harsh and cold. "I'll take over now. I know just how to get through to our guest. This is a man who loves his friends more than life itself. We're going to prey upon that until he believes what I'm about to tell him." Then a new outline was bending over him. He blinked, desperately trying to get things into focus, but it was impossible. All he could see was short, blonde hair and a slight sneer. If he had truly been coherent, he would have fought his way out of his predicament tooth and nail—but as it was, he was forced to remain here as she bent over him, speaking quietly and in a soothing, kind tone.

What she spoke of was horrible . . . and yet . . . it made an odd sort of sense. Alister was losing his grip on reality, she said, and he had indeed killed that man. They would lock him away, if not in prison, in a mental hospital. Raphael didn't want that for his friend, did he? Of course not. He had to set Alister free. He had to set them all free. And she knew the only way that was possible. She continued to speak softly to him, explaining her plan and then telling him to go to sleep. When he awoke, he would remember none of this. All he would remember is what he had to do.

Some part of him wanted to protest this plot. It didn't seem right. But he wasn't able to clearly process thoughts at this point. Maybe it would be better once he had slept, as the woman was telling him to do. Maybe then he would understand what he was supposed to do and why—and why he kept hearing two children's voices pleading for him not to do it. Wearily he closed his eyes and was instantly asleep.

Valon threw up his hands in frustration. "He's nowhere, Alister!" he yelled. "We've looked all over this floor and pried up every trapdoor we could find. Raph's just vanished!" And the Australian was highly annoyed by this fact. Didn't they have troubles enough without one of their own going missing? In this building, when they knew what had happened here several months ago, it wasn't likely that Raphael would return unscathed.

And Valon had to admit—he was uneasy being around Alister right now. He seemed fine at the moment, but how did Valon know that he wouldn't discover some new weapon and blank out, as he had before? And maybe, if it happened again, he actually would attack. Valon didn't want to deal with that. He didn't want to have to worry that his friend could actually end up injuring or even killing him. Of course he knew that Alister wouldn't, if he knew what he was doing. But half the night the poor redhead hadn't seemed to know at all what he had been doing.

"He has to be somewhere," Alister retorted calmly. "People don't simply vanish, Valon." But he clenched a fist in frustration as they entered the next room. It seemed strange to think of strong, tough Raphael falling into the hands of the crazed woman and her lackeys, but he wasn't invincible. It could have happened. They could be starting to torture him the same way they had tortured others, including Alister himself. He wanted to find Raphael quickly before any more time elapsed.

"How come neither of us noticed he was gone!" Valon said in irritation, glaring from behind brown bangs. "We heard him yell, but when we turned back, he wasn't there! How could he get away that quick?"

"Our enemies must be skilled in the art of being quiet when they want to be," Alister replied, glancing around and even up at the ceiling, as if he was expecting someone to descend down upon them. "He probably fell through a trapdoor that's now been locked up. But that could happen to us as well—or worse things could. We shouldn't let our guard down for anything."

"I agree."

Both Alister and Valon whirled around, stunned to see Raphael stumbling up a nearby staircase and rubbing his head. The older man looked exhausted and his eyes were bloodshot. When he reached the top, he leaned against the wall and looked at the other two. They seemed fine, which was a relief. But he wondered why he couldn't remember anything after he had crashed on the floor and before he had woken up laying on a soft couch in a lighted room. Something obviously must have happened, as he certainly hadn't landed on the soft couch. But for the life of him, he couldn't recall what had taken place. All he knew was that there was a nagging voice in the back of his mind and that it was starting to get louder. He was getting annoyed by it, but he didn't know how to make it be silent.

"Hey!" Valon burst out. "Where the heck have you been? Did you find some kinda clue or something?" He frowned at Raphael, storming forward to stand in front of him. He only came up about to the tall man's chest, so the sight of him glaring fiercely up at the blonde man was quite amusing—or would have been, in other circumstances.

"No," Raphael grunted, "but I got hit over the head." He rubbed the spot again as it dully ached.

"And that's supposed to be a good thing?" Valon snapped. "We were worried! We thought maybe you'd been found by that mad scientist!" He poked Raphael in the chest.

Raphael blinked at him, feeling dizzy for some reason. Now the voice was practically screaming at him. "Set them free, Raphael. . . . You must set both of them free, and yourself. The police won't understand. . . . Alister will be taken from you if you do nothing. He will be suffering. Remember what Valon told you about when he was in prison? You don't want Alister to go through that, or to be confined in a mental institution. You know you don't." And that was all true, but still . . . still, how could he do what the voice had instructed? That wasn't right. . . . That wouldn't help. . . .

He gasped as he felt the voice overwhelm him, trying to lock him away in his own mind. Something was taking control of his body! Even if he didn't consciously, willingly agree to comply with the disembodied entity, it was going to make him go through with it anyway! He growled, raising a hand to his head and trying to ward off the increasing influences that were trying to take over. "Get back," he choked out, afraid of what he would wind up doing to his friends. "Get away from me!"

Valon backed up, narrowing his eyes. "What's wrong, Raph?" he demanded. "Did I give you a headache?" He knew that yelling at someone who had sustained a head injury wasn't especially a good thing to do, but he had become so frustrated over the whole situation that he hadn't been able to hold his tongue.

Alister frowned, coming over as well. "Raphael?" he called, seeing how pained the older man looked. That was no mere headache, the redhead was certain. He had suffered much the same way right before he had picked up that knife and advanced on Valon. Some other force was trying to take over. . . .

Abruptly Raphael lunged at the brunette, throwing him harshly to the floor. He stood over the startled form, his cerulean eyes blank and darkly narrowed. Completely trapped in his mind, Raphael could only watch in horror as his body acted without his permission. Then he felt dizziness overwhelm him. Though he fought against it viciously, he eventually found himself blacking out, unaware of the struggle that was continuing in the real world.

Valon gazed up at his friend in shock from his new position on the floor. "Raph!" he said in disbelief, starting to pull himself up. When he was violently knocked down once more, hitting hard on his side, he gasped in pain. "What's wrong with you!" he yelled in desperation. First Alister, now Raphael. . . . Alister could have killed him, but hadn't. Raphael was hurting him and could kill him if he used his full strength. Would he? Valon felt a certain terror well up in his heart again.His foster families had always beaten him eventually, even during the times when he thought he'd possibly found friends. Why was this family turning against him too?

Alister got in front of Valon before Raphael could start punching and kicking at the stunned Australian, as the blonde was apparently about to do. "Raphael, listen to me," he said firmly, looking into the vacant eyes. "I know you don't know what you're doing. This is what happened to me earlier. But you don't want to hurt us. You have to stop." In response Raphael grabbed Alister and threw him back, where the slender man crashed into several vases on an end table and then fell to the floor in the midst of them.

"Hey!" Valon cried indignantly, struggling to stand up again. "He didn't do anything to you! And I didn't either, for that matter!" He knew that Raphael couldn't be in control of himself, but this was upsetting! He couldn't stand being attacked by the ones who were supposed to be his friends. That was something he was all too familiar with already. Why was it always his lot to be turned against? . . . Though, Alister was having the same problem as he was, at the moment. Valon clenched a fist. It wasn't just him being turned against, if he could even call it that. Poor Raphael couldn't control what was happening. He would never willingly turn against them.

Alister sat up shakily, brushing broken china off his trenchcoat and his bare waist. "Valon, stop it," he said firmly, managing to get to his feet. "You know Raphael would never hurt us if he knew what he was doing. I know you probably feel betrayed, but you have to get over it. If he could comprehend what's happening, you know how distraught he would be." I know how distraught I was. . . . I understand how Raphael is suffering—or how he will be.

Valon now yelped as Raphael grabbed him by the front of his shirt and raised him into the air. "Come on, Raph, put me down and stop this crazy stuff!" He struggled in vain, grabbing at the tough blonde's arms again before he was dazed by being slammed into the wall. He let out a gasp, the force of the blow knocking the wind from his lungs.

Then Alister was there, grabbing Raphael from behind. The man growled, letting go of Valon at last and turning his attention to the redhead. Alister looked at him calmly, unafraid. "I know you're not yourself," he said low, his gray eyes piercing into Raphael's blue orbs. "But this has got to stop. You have to fight for control." He gestured towards Valon stumbling to his feet. "You're hurting us—especially him. And you know you would never want to do that."

Of course, Alister was right. And Raphael, who was semi-conscious now, was indeed fighting for control. But so far he hadn't had any luck. Then he felt himself blanking out once more as the controlling force became more insistent. For the next couple of minutes, he had no idea what his body was even doing. It was a frightening and horrid position to be in. All he could do was pray that Alister and Valon wouldn't wind up too badly injured and that he would be able to take control again very soon. Certainly he refused to give up.

Valon yelled in alarm as Raphael now grabbed Alister with both hands around his waist, lifting the redhead into the air. Alister's eyes narrowed as he tried to get free, gripping at the strong, thick hands, but he was unable to pry them away from his skinny frame. In the next instant he cried out in pain as he was thrown across the room to crash into the opposite wall. Before he could get up, Raphael was there again, starting to beat him.

Valon clenched his fists, frustrated as he tried to figure out what to do now. How could he really hurt Raphael? And yet, Raphael was hurting both of them. They couldn't just stand back and take it. Well, Alister wasn't trying to. He was defending himself and dodging Raphael's punches. But he wasn't trying to hurt Raphael either. Both of them knew that Raphael would be aghast if he really knew what he had been doing, but Valon wondered if hurting Raphael, possibly knocking him unconscious, would be the only way they could help him in the end.

Now Raphael was grabbing Alister by the wrists and again lifting him up. Alister's struggles meant nothing to him and he again threw the redhead viciously, this time through a half-open door and onto the kitchen floor. Then he proceeded to beat him again, landing several rough blows to his face, chest, and stomach. Alister hissed in pain, finally doubling up and clutching his waist as he tried to think of what he could possibly do to help Raphael break free.

All the while the voice continued to echo throughout the recesses of Raphael's mind, telling him what he had to do. "Kill them! That's the only way you can set them free. They don't understand, but when it's all over, they will. You have to kill them and then kill yourself!" Inspite of that, he heard his own voice as well, protesting it all vehemently. What was he thinking? Of course he couldn't do this! It was sheer madness. It wouldn't solve anything. He wanted to stop—but somehow, for some reason, he couldn't break free. The hold over him was too strong. He struck Alister again.

This time Valon ran forward, grabbing the man's arm and holding it against his chest. "RAPH!" he screamed as the blonde instantly began trying to get free. "Raph, you've gotta stop! You're hurting him! You're hurting him, Raph!" But Raphael turned his attention from Alister to forcefully shove Valon backwards. Valon apparently wasn't getting through to him.

Alister, however, was getting up again. The next thing Valon knew, his two best friends were rolling across the floor, desperately engaged in a wrestling match that actually could mean life or death in Raphael's current condition. But no, Valon tried to convince himself as he scrambled out of their way, Raphael would never . . . not even being controlled, he couldn't . . . he couldn't possibly.

Alister actually managed to get the upper hand several times, but he was quickly pinned to the floor again by the strong, muscular Raphael. He felt the hard fists come down on his body again as he gasped and grunted in pain. "Don't do this," he growled, trying to defend himself once more but this time not being able to. "You're stronger than this, Raphael. Prove it . . . prove it by breaking the control." Several more well-placed blows followed, but then the attacks ceased. Alister looked at Raphael wearily, slightly smiling, before his eyes closed.

Valon, meanwhile, had leaped on Raphael's back, trying to pull him away. "YOU'RE GOING TO KILL HIM!" he screamed then. "STOP! FOR CRYIN' OUT LOUD, RAPH, STOP IT!" He felt panicked. The feeling surged through his veins and he knew that he couldn't stand by and watch as Raphael continued to strike Alister's poor body. But he didn't know how to save either one of them. He felt helpless.

Abruptly Raphael gave up on Alister, who seemed to be unconscious anyway, and reached up, grabbing Valon off his back and throwing him down to the floor without mercy. Valon cried out, admitting that he was terrified as Raphael loomed over him and then proceeded to punch and kick at the brunette teenager. Valon tried to defend himself, but against Raphael, especially when the man was in his current condition, there was no contest. This is it. . . . I'm going to die. . . . I'm gonna be killed by one of my best friends. . . . I never thought I'd go like this. . . .

But it wasn't over yet. Raphael was still fighting desperately, refusing to let this voice and this other power keep control of him. He didn't care how strong it thought it was! He was stronger. And Alister's and Valon's words continued to pierce through to his awareness, as well as Sonia's and Julien's. They were with him, trying to help him fight against this enemy. He concentrated, using every possible ounce of his energy to overcome the madness.

You're stronger than this. . . .

Prove it by breaking the control. . . .

You're going to kill him! . . . .

You have to stop now, elder brother! . . .


And then, suddenly, without knowing how, he was back in control. He looked down at the sound of the panicked voice, breathing heavily and realizing that his hand was balled in a fist—and poised over a badly beaten Valon. The Australian was shaking, his eyes wide as he stared up at Raphael. The man's own eyes widened in utter horror as he backed up, surveying the damage he'd caused. Valon looked petrified, more damaged emotionally than physically, and Alister . . . Alister was laying still. . . . Raphael struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, but it only returned.

I did this. . . . I hurt them. . . . He looked to Alister's prone body again. Or . . . is it even worse than just that? What if . . . what if he had fulfilled part of the voice's command, even though he hadn't wanted to at all? Raphael felt sickened. Dizziness came over him again, but not from the effects of the drug—or whatever had been responsible for controlling him. Now it was because of his horror over what he had done.

"Are . . . are you badly hurt?" he asked, finally managing to find his voice, but stuttering uncharacteristically. He looked over at Valon as he went to Alister and tried to check for life. He was reluctant to even touch the injured man, but Valon certainly wasn't in any condition to examine him. Raphael would just have to have the faith that he wouldn't suddenly lose control and do more damage. Shakily he reached down, touching his finger to the base of Alister's neck. When he felt a gentle throbbing, he let out the breath he had been holding. Alister was still alive.

Valon watched Raphael, seeing the many emotionally pained expressions that went through his eyes. He had been about to make an angry retort, but upon seeing how stricken Raphael was, he knew he couldn't. This was the friend he knew—not the stranger who had been mercilessly attacking both him and Alister. Slowly he uncurled himself and sat up, trying to ignore the aching pain around his left eye and on his waist, where Raphael had delivered the harshest punches. "Aw, heck, don't worry about me," he said, managing a weak grin as he inched his way over. "How's Alister?"

"Alive," Raphael barely was able to get out. He knew Valon needed tending to as well, but at least he was conscious. Alister must be hurt the worst, Raphael had decided—at least physically. "I . . . I did this. . . ." Quickly he stood, his legs hardly able to support him in his current state of indescribable guilt and horror. He stumbled to the sink, testing it and finding that it worked, and then dampened a clean cloth he found in his pocket. Coming back over and crashing to his knees, he gently brushed the cloth over Alister's face and neck, trying to revive him.

"Yeah," Valon said, "you did—or at least, your body did. You didn't really wanna do it." He was still upset, but he was forcing himself to conceal it. He knew his words were true. Poor Raphael hadn't been able to help what had happened—but what on earth had happened, exactly? The brunette bit his lip, watching Raphael desperately work at bringing their friend back to consciousness.

Raphael shook his head. "I . . . I'm sorry," he managed to say, though that could never express the hundredth part of his sorrow and horror. "I'm so sorry. . . . When . . . when he comes to, maybe I should go away for a while. . . ." His voice came out haltingly. He knew this wasn't like him at all, but then it also wasn't like him to lose control of his body and attack the others! What if they'd been hurt far worse than they were? What if it happened a second time . . . and the results weren't so favorable? Raphael had barely been able to regain control this time. He couldn't bear the thought of attacking the others any more. The strange woman's words, hidden deep within his subconscious, emerged again. "This is a man who loves his friends more than life itself." And it was true. Raphael would rather wind up leaving them and being alone then to stay with them and wind up causing more pain for them. "I haven't been able to do anything to help solve this mystery. Instead I almost killed you both." His voice grew bitter as he clutched the handkerchief tightly.

But Valon turned to stare at him in shock. "You mean you'd just leave us!" he cried indignantly, glancing down with relief as Alister stirred.

Raphael shook his head. "I . . . I don't mean it like that," he responded, also relaxing as he watched the redhead. "I mean, to go away to protect you both."

Valon could no longer hold back any of his distraught feelings. This was just one more incident to add to a long list of horrible things that had taken place that night—Alister had been found with blood on his hands, they only had a few hours to prove him innocent of murder, he had cornered Valon with a knife, Raphael had disappeared and then had attacked them both, and now he was thinking of leaving! "You're crazy!" he burst out without thinking. "And what if Alister had been dead! Would you have still decided to leave then! Where would that have left me, Raph!" He barreled on without waiting for the shocked older man to answer. "It would've left me alone, that's what! I would have been all alone with Alister's dead body!" Angry tears gathered in his eyes, but didn't spill over. "I'm sick of being alone! I don't care what the reason is. You're stronger than any stupid mind control or whatever the heck that was! You don't have to go away." He slammed his fist into the floor. "I don't want you to go away, Raph! You're supposed to stay here, with us!"

Raphael was at a temporary loss for words. But somewhere in his turmoil of thought, he knew Valon was right. Even if he was only worried about his friends' safety, he couldn't simply leave them, especially not in the predicament they were currently in. And if Alister truly had been dead—Heaven forbid!—poor Valon would have been just as devastated as Raphael. It would have been wrong to just leave him somewhere with the body, though Raphael doubted that he would have actually ever left them here in this horrible place anyway. He just wished he could remember what had happened! Though he heard the woman's voice in his mind, he couldn't recall that she truly existed.

"Valon's right, you know. . . ."

Immediately Raphael snapped back to attention, looking down at Alister. The redhead looked sore in several places and rather pained, but not as hurt as Raphael had thought he was upon first seeing him. Carefully he struggled to sit up, Valon assisting him, and then he looked Raphael firmly in the eyes. "Your place is here, Raphael," he reassured him. "I don't lay blame on you, and I would hope that Valon doesn't. I was also taken over by whatever force this is. However. . . ." He rubbed at his waist, a new thought having just occurred to him. "Neither one of us did serious damage. We could have, but we each broke the control before that happened."

Valon looked down, thinking about Alister's words. Admittedly, he had felt a bit frustrated at Raphael. Now he had been attacked by both of his friends in the same night. But he certainly wasn't the only one struggling. They both were as well. And when neither one had meant or wanted to hurt him, how could he stay angry? He felt guilty now. What if that had been him being controlled? He would have felt such extreme self-hatred upon breaking free, especially if he discovered that the others were harmed in any way. And he could see that Raphael was feeling exactly that.

Raphael clenched a fist, but he recognized that Alister was right. Still, that didn't take away the guilt and the feelings of disgust and self-hatred. What if he hadn't been able to break free? What then? "I could have killed the both of you," he growled.

But Alister shook his head slowly. "I don't believe you would have," he replied firmly. "Right before I fell senseless, I saw the look in your eyes. You were panicked. You knew what your body was doing, but you didn't know how to stop it. Yet you heard me speak to you. You looked at me and I knew you'd heard. I was confident that you would break the control before any extreme damage was done. And now I see that you did." And strangely, when he thought about it, the incident actually gave him hope for his innocence because of that. "It reminds me of something I heard once—that no one can be forced to do something under hypnosis that they wouldn't do in reality."

"Hypnosis!" Valon repeated in disbelief.

Raphael frowned in confusion. "But it's also said that you can't be hypnotized in the first place without giving your consent," he remarked, wondering what Alister was getting at.

Alister leaned back against the wall, allowing his aching back a bit of relief. "Normally, I agree that that's true," he replied slowly, "but I've been constructing a theory in my mind from fragmented memories I've been having over the past while. During the time I was unconscious, I seemed to recall a woman speaking to me, trying to prey upon my desires to see justice served upon those who have committed evils. It made me recall being jabbed harshly with a needle in my arm just as I was waking up after being mugged by those men." He glanced from Raphael to Valon, who were both gazing at him intently. "I have the feeling that maybe what they do is drug their victim so that he doesn't know what's going on and then whisper things to him, attempting to hypnotize him into doing something for them. Since he isn't entirely 'with it,' they hope that he'll accept the suggestions as his own thoughts and not remember them speaking when he wakes up. But to make certain, they give a post-hypnotic suggestion."

Raphael's eyes narrowed darkly. "I remember that," he declared. "I was given a post-hypnotic suggestion to forget. It was a woman speaking." And then he was struck with a horrible realization. It was most likely the mad scientist again, the one who had hurt Alister before. She was using them in her experiments! Anger surged through his veins. How dare she. How dare she!

"How right you are, Raphael."

Immediately all three bikers looked up in stunned shock at the feminine voice. A woman with short blonde hair, glasses, and a white lab coat was standing near them, having emerged from a panel in the wall. Flanking her were two rough, vicious-looking men, obviously two of her lackeys. The woman stepped forward carefully and precisely, her high heels clicking on the wooden floor, and came to stand directly in front of them all. None of them were very pleased—especially not Alister, who recognized her instantly.

"So . . . it was you," he said darkly, his gray eyes narrowing in disgust and annoyance. "You're the one who held me prisoner in the past. What is it you wanted with me and the others this time?" Out of the corner of his eye he watched Valon leap to his feet and he growled inwardly, wondering if the boy was going to do something rash. That was the last thing they needed right now.

"Yeah!" Valon snapped, clenching a fist tightly. "Wasn't it enough that you tried to kill him once before! Did you decide you wanted to do it again?" He had never met this person before, but from what Alister was saying Valon had realized that she, indeed, was the one who had been responsible for Alister winding up being found nigh to death several months ago. They had already assumed that she had been involved with the events of tonight, but now it seemed that they had proof.

The woman simply smirked, seeming to enjoy Valon's outburst. "That wasn't my intention, actually," she responded. "But I was amazed that he survived the last time, and when I found a chore that needed doing now, I wanted to see if I could make him do it for me. He was the perfect lab rat for my latest experiment. Only he intrigued me all the more." She crossed her arms. "Really, Alister, you don't recall anything that happened earlier tonight?"

Alister narrowed his eyes, shakily standing as well. Raphael followed suit, ready to steady Alister if he needed it. The blonde man still felt immensely guilty about what he had caused, even though it certainly had happened without his permission. But he also felt angry. He was remembering this woman's voice more and more as she continued to speak. This was the person who had been speaking to him when he had been so dazed and incoherent from the drug. She was the one who had tried to get him to kill his friends!

"I recall enough," Alister answered icily. "You wanted me to kill that man."

The woman, whose name was Alice Portman, smiled in an offhand way. "He needed killing. Do you know who he was?" She went on without waiting for any of them to reply. She knew that they had no concept of the trouble they were likely to be in now. The police and being arrested would soon be the least of their worries. "He just so happened to be a powerful member of the Mafia who was being groomed to take the place of Del Vinci. And even though I occasionally worked for Del Vinci, I haven't liked his successor at all. I've wanted him dead, but my men couldn't be caught doing it and I didn't want to take chances. So I decided to find out if it was possible to make someone do what I wanted by making it seem like something they would want to do. Does that make sense?"

"Oh yeah," Raphael spoke up, his voice filled with a revulsion that the other two had rarely heard from him. "It makes sense. It's a sick form of hypnosis or brainwashing. That's what you tried to do to me! You tried to make me believe, while I was too out of it to understand, that the only way I could help Alister and Valon was to kill them." His blue eyes flashed with anger.

Both Alister and Valon turned to look at him. They were both aghast at this news, Valon all the more so because he hadn't been Portman's victim and didn't know what to expect from her. The Australian's mouth dropped open in stunned shock. "She said what!"

Portman sighed, shaking her head. "Yes, but you overcame both the semi-hypnotizing and the drug, which was still trying to bend your senses enough that you would listen to my instructions and only that." She looked at Raphael thoughtfully. "You fascinate me," she proclaimed now. "All three of you do."

"Sorry we can't say the same about you!" Valon retorted, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He was growing more repulsed and angry with each passing minute. "I wish we'd never met you!"

"Well," Portman replied without skipping a beat, "I know some other people that you'll like meeting even less." She glanced out the window, adjusting her glasses as she caught sight of several roughly-built men who was firmly heading for the porch. "In fact, I might be your only hope right now."

Alister was not pleased in the least. "What do you mean?" he demanded. He and the others weren't facing the window, and when he turned to try to see what she had seen, he couldn't see anything.

Portman smirked. "The Mafia has found out that the man has been killed, but they believe you did it, Mr. Mackenzie. Therefore, they're coming to kill you and your friends. I could show you to a way out, but it would come at a price."

"Like we'd trust you!" Valon snorted before catching on to the rest of what the woman had said and the way she'd phrased it. A glimmer of hope formed in his eyes. "Wait!" he cried as the front door was being flung open. "Do you mean Alister really didn't do it!" Raphael didn't follow her orders. Maybe Alister didn't either! Maybe he's innocent!

But Portman had no chance to answer—and most likely wouldn't have anyway—as they were abruptly confronted by several vicious, scarred, tattooed men. Valon turned to glare at them with defiant eyes as he got in front of Alister and Raphael, his fists raised to fight. Raphael narrowed his eyes, knowing that neither Valon nor Alister should have to fight right now. They had already been beaten—by him—and were weakened and weary. He laid a hand on Valon's shoulder firmly, silently telling him not to rush into anything.

"What do you want?" he asked coldly, though he was certain that Portman had been telling the truth. These people certainly had the look of assassins about them. One of them was starting to reach into his jacket pocket. Raphael had no doubt but that he was drawing a gun.

Valon was certain of it as well. With a cry he lunged forward, attacking the man and sending a revolver flying across the floor, where Alister halted its travel by stepping on it. He raised his gray-eyed gaze to look coldly at the man who had been carrying it.

Then, abruptly, Valon was picked up and thrown harshly at the others, all with one swift motion. The brunette gave a yelp as he crashed against his friends, causing them all to stumble back. Raphael struggled to catch him, while at the same time keeping Alister and himself from toppling over. If they wound up on the floor, it could be disastrous. They could then all be shot and killed before having a chance to defend themselves.

The one who had thrown him continued to glare at them all. "Is one of you Alister Mackenzie?" he growled. His associates all drew their guns, pointing them at the hapless trio. Alister noticed that Portman and her cronies had somehow managed to slip away while all of this had been happening, but that wasn't a surprise. Naturally she wouldn't want to be caught with them, since she had apparently arranged for Alister to kill the gangster.

"What do you plan to do when you find him?" the redhead spoke up with narrowed eyes, though he was certain he knew.

"We'll kill him," growled a second one, "as punishment for messing with us. But it doesn't really matter which of you is him, since we planned to kill all who were with him as well." He trained his gun at Alister's heart.

"Yeah!" Valon yelled, now standing up again and having discovered the panel Portman had likely made her escape through. He stood in front of it to conceal the fact that he was fumbling to push it open. "You're not gonna get the chance!" Even he knew it would be foolhardy to try fighting so many men when they all had guns. And right now, Alister could be shot at any moment. They had to get out of here somehow! The panel might be their only hope, even if they wound up having to tangle with Portman once again. Valon bitterly acknowledged to himself that he wasn't sure which option was worse. He gave an inward cry of triumph as the panel suddenly slid open.

"I disagree," the assassin sneered, firing a round. Alister barely managed to dodge it and then was grabbed by Raphael just before he and Valon started vanishing into the passageway. Once all three of them were safely inside, Valon flipped a switch he'd found that caused the panel to instantly close, sealing them in. They could all hear the cursing and swearing of their assailants as they tried to determine how to open the panel again.

"Come on, fellas!" Valon yelled. "They'll probably figure it out before too long. We've gotta get out of here!" Alister and Raphael needed no coaxing. Quickly they ran after their young friend as he sprinted down the dimly lit tunnel and around a corner.

"We don't even know if this is an escape route!" Raphael growled as he chased after the brunette. They could be marching right into Portman's lair—and that certainly wouldn't help them any. Then again, perhaps she and her men had left for now, if they were determined enough not to be found by the hitmen. The lair might be empty.

"Looks like we'll havta take that chance!" Valon called back. "After all, it's either this or get all shot up!" He leaped over a fallen suit of armor that was in his way. If it wasn't his imagination, there was a broken window just ahead. He called a warning for the others to watch out for the obstacle on the floor as he got closer. Indeed, it was a window, with all of the glass shattered away. He could see the yard outside, and their car almost straight ahead on the other street. If they could just get to it. . . . "There's a way out over here!" he yelled now, climbing out through the hole. I hope there's not more of those blokes out in the yard. . . .

Alister and Raphael were just discovering the window when they heard the sounds of the panel tearing free. In just a minute or more the assassins would be bearing down on them! At Raphael's insistence Alister went out first and then the blonde man quickly followed.

Valon was already running to the car. He looked back to make certain that the others were following and then yelled for Raphael to throw him the car keys. But, as it turned out, the other two arrived then and that wasn't necessary. Raphael unlocked the car and everyone dove in just as the hitmen began pouring out of the window, firing their guns loudly. Valon hissed as a bullet clipped his shoulder and then started when he heard another one shatter the side mirror on the driver's side. Once Raphael was assured that the other two were safely inside, he revved the engine and quickly rode off.

"Is everyone alright?" he demanded to know, hearing the sound of bullets peppering the ground. Another struck and lodged in the back right door.

Alister grunted, glancing up from where he was arguing with Valon over the treatment of the boy's wound. (Valon insisted it was a mere scratch, while Alister thought it should be cleaned immediately to help prevent infection.) "Relatively," he replied, "but I have the feeling that our enemies aren't done yet." Indeed, in the next moment he heard the roar of another engine. When he glanced behind them, he found that the hitmen had gotten into a van and were hot in pursuit.

"I kinda think that's obvious now," Valon remarked sarcastically, wincing as Alister proceeded to clean the injury.

Raphael clutched the steering wheel tightly, screeching around a corner. He hadn't expected that they would give up, but he wondered what on earth he could do to make them go away. And how would they manage to prove Alister's innocence in the crime? Raphael was completely convinced that Alister hadn't done it. He didn't understand who had actually killed that man, but he was certain it hadn't been his friend. The problem was, they had no proof of that. Even if they went to the police and said that they were being chased by assassins, that certainly wouldn't help Alister's case, since the hitmen believed that he had murdered Del Vinci's successor.

"Hang on," he yelled as they went up a hill. Now he realized that they were actually quite near to the canyons. He might be able to lose the gangsters in the immense clusters of trees and boulders, but on the other hand, if he couldn't and they were caught, there would be no one nearby who could possibly come to their rescue. But it was too late to make another decision now. The van was bearing down on them and there was no way Raphael could turn around and go back the other way without creating a collision. And so, narrowing his eyes in determination, he drove up the winding road leading into the canyons.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Raph!" Valon exclaimed as another bullet shot out the entire back windshield. The Australian yelped and ducked down to avoid flying glass. Alister also ducked, pulling his trenchcoat's collar high around his neck to protect it from the multitudes of shards that exploded around them.

Raphael looked at them in the rearview mirror, making sure that they were both alright. "No, but we don't have any other choice at this point," he responded.

As they advanced deeper into the dark canyon, the van kept a steady pace behind them, firing every now and then and usually managing to hit somewhere on the car. All of the former Doom warriors were tense, but none were quite expecting the horrible popping sound and the ensuing lurch of their vehicle. As Raphael struggled to keep the car on the road and failed, it became all too obvious that one of the tires had been shot out.

"Fellas," Valon gulped as the car plunged against the railing and severed it, "I think it's safe to say that we have a problem."

"Oh, do you think so?" Raphael grunted as the van slammed into them from the side. That was the final disaster needed to send them over the edge and plunging deep into a ravine. The assassins sneered, watching the car's descent, and then drove off, certain that they'd succeeded in causing the trio's deaths. And even if they did survive, who would help them? Their fates were sealed.

Valon groaned, becoming aware of a voice calling to him and asking if he was alright. He couldn't remember at all what had happened or where he was, so when he opened his eyes and found that he was slumped against Alister he gave a startled cry.

The redhead looked down at him expressionlessly. "I take it you are alright, then," was his only comment.

Valon sat up, rubbing his head as he realized it was paining him. As he glanced around he realized that they were sitting on the back seat of the car. "Yeah," he replied, "but what the heck happened! And where's Raph!"

Alister undid his seatbelt and climbed over into the front of the car. "Here," he answered, "slumped over the steering wheel. He's unconscious." At least . . . Alister certainly hoped Raphael was only unconscious. A cold chill went up his spine at the thought of the older man being dead. He had been the first to regain consciousness after the crash and had discovered that the car was laying at the bottom of the ravine. That it had actually landed upright was a miracle. And that he and Valon were relatively unscathed was another. But what about Raphael?

Valon undid his own seatbelt, leaning forward. "He is?" he said with concern, putting his hands on the back of the front seat. "And should we really be staying in the car? It might catch fire or blow up or something." He swallowed hard, watching Alister gently examine Raphael for broken bones.

"We shouldn't stay," the gray-eyed man grunted. He sat back, relieved to find that Raphael did not have anything broken and that he was, indeed, unconscious and not dead. Slowly he climbed out of the passenger side of the car and went around, opening the driver's side door and gently starting to pull Raphael out. Valon staggered out the back door, blinking away spots of dizziness as he started walking, and blearily watched Alister.

"Need some help there?" he asked, knowing that they should move far away from the car in case it did wind up exploding.

Alister stumbled, the full weight of Raphael's body slumping against him. "If you can," he replied, Valon's dizziness not being lost on him. None of them were extremely well at the moment. And just how many times have I passed out tonight? he asked himself dryly as Valon stumbled over to assist. It seemed to him as though he had been knocked unconscious at least three times now—when he had been mugged, when Raphael had attacked them, and now, when the car had crashed. And oh yes, then in between all of that, the sedative had knocked him out again. How fun. I've spent probably half the night unconscious at various times.

Together he and Valon managed to get Raphael over to the opposite side of the ravine and leaned him gently against a log. Then, after pondering for a moment, Alister started removing his trenchcoat. "We'll lay him on this," he said in explanation.

Valon bit his lip, sitting on the log and looking their lifeless friend over. "So . . . is he really badly hurt, Alister?" he asked. "I mean . . . we both woke up. Why didn't he?" A new wave of guilt swept over him as he remembered how frustrated and upset he'd been when Raphael had attacked them. Of course it was only natural for him to be upset over such an occurrence, but he knew that it hadn't really been Raphael's fault. The poor man had been in utter despair when he had came back to himself and realized what had been happening while he had been controlled by the combination of Portman's cruel resources. Valon knew he shouldn't have ever snapped at him. And now . . . what if he didn't have the chance to say he was sorry?

Alister spread the dark cloth over the ground and then carefully moved Raphael onto it. He didn't answer Valon at first, instead leaning over the older man and trying to determine how serious his injuries were. There were plenty of other things that could be seriously damaging to their friend. He wouldn't have to have gotten broken bones for something drastic to be wrong.

As he examined Raphael, Alister found that he had taken a harsh blow to his head, apparently had been cut by flying glass, and actually had been shot. The bullet had gone through, but the wound was bleeding profusely. Alister frowned. There was no telling how much time had passed between the crash and when he and Valon had regained consciousness. If Raphael had lost very much blood, that alone could be fatal.

"Do you have a clean cloth?" he asked Valon abruptly.

Valon blinked. "Yeah, I guess so," he said, fishing around in his pockets. He handed it to Alister when he found it and the redhead took it, grateful that he'd remembered to bring the first aid kit that they kept in the car. He worked silently, trying to stop the insistent blood from continuing its flow.

Valon knelt down next to his friends, feeling himself growing more and more stressed and worried. Please, Raph! Come on, you havta be okay. I said I didn't want you to leave. . . . Well, I was talking about you actually walking out and not coming back . . . but I don't want you to die, either! He wondered if it was selfish in a way. He knew Raphael missed his family so very much and longed to be able to see them again. But still . . . still, Valon also knew that Raphael cared about him and Alister. They were his family now and Valon was certain that Raphael didn't want to leave them.

He glared at Alister, frustrated that the older man was being so silent on the subject of if Raphael would be alright. "Come on, Alister!" he cried impatiently. "You've gotta know something about how he's doing!"

"I know it isn't good," Alister replied calmly, though inwardly he wasn't feeling all that calm. Raphael hadn't stirred at all, which wasn't a good sign. At least I managed to stop the blood, he thought to himself darkly as he bandaged the wounds. Now I have to see if there's any glass particles stuck in his flesh.

As he began to carefully check along Raphael's arms for anything sharp, Alister abruptly made another discovery—an alarming one. Lodged in the blonde's left arm, near his wrist, was a dart. Alister's eyes widened in shock and horror. Carefully he reached out with a small bag over his hand, removing the device and leaving it in the bag. They might need it for evidence—or to trace down the antidote if there was poison in it.

"What the heck is that!" Valon gasped, his own eyes widening to twice their usual size. He snatched up the see-through bag and stared at the small, yet potentially deadly object inside. "Is that what I think it is!" His hands started to shake. This was just getting worse and worse, and he felt helpless to stop any of it.

"If you think it's a dart, you're right," Alister responded, "but it's impossible to know whether it was poisoned." At least . . . most likely it will impossible to know unless Raphael starts dying, he thought morbidly. But even then, they wouldn't know for certain if that was due to poison, though it seemed probable that it would be the cause. He bent down, checking Raphael's pulse and breathing again.

"Poisoned!" Valon practically screamed. The bag dropped from his hand back onto the lid of the first aid kit. "You think Raph's been poisoned, yet you say it like it's an every day thing!" He was nearly sheet white. Having lived on the streets and witnessed so much gang violence and cruelty, he had actually seen death by poison before. It always varied depending on what kind was used, but usually the victim died a slow and painful death. Other times, they would slip into comas, where they would remain until their bodies finally gave out. This was the last straw for Valon, to be faced with the thought that Raphael would suffer those fates. If they could get help to him, maybe there would still be hope—but they were miles from any civilization!

Alister raised his gray-eyed gaze to meet Valon's horrified and stunned blue orbs. "Valon . . . losing control won't help things," he responded quietly. "I'm upset too." He himself knew that he sometimes lost hold of his emotions, and he actually felt like he would now, but he knew he couldn't. Raphael needed some kind of help and they had to think about how they would give it to him. They were practically in the wilderness, at the bottom of a ravine, and the car, even if not totaled, was useless to them at the moment. ". . . Do you have your cellphone with you?" he asked now, though he doubted it would be of much help out here.

Valon swallowed, pulling the device out and testing it. "Yeah," he said after a moment, "but I can't get a signal here, Alister!" He almost felt like throwing the phone to the ground in vexation, but somehow he managed to calmly put it back on his belt. "Is this it, then! Is Raph just gonna die!" The tears sprang to his eyes again, but he refused to cry in front of Alister. He looked down at Raphael. The man looked so quiet and still, but not at peace. He looked pained and almost agonized.

"We don't know that," Alister returned, his emotions crashing within his heart. They wanted me. . . . I'm the cause of this. . . . He knew that the men had wanted to kill all three of them, but still, if they hadn't been convinced that he had killed that gangster, they wouldn't have come after him and the others at all. Alister clenched his fist so tightly that he almost drew blood, as he had when Dartz had told him that Gozaburo Kaiba had sold weapons to both sides in the war. "We don't even know that he was poisoned. Valon, all we can do is wait."

"Wait!" Valon repeated hotly. "I'm sick of waiting! This whole night has been a disaster! You and Raph both went crazy 'cause of that woman, you're gonna be arrested for murder, we got chased by assassins, and now Raph's dying! Wait? Ha!" He stood up abruptly, brushing the angry, insistent tears away from his eyes. "I'm not gonna just sit around and twiddle my thumbs while Raphael's life is eaten away by whatever was in that thing they shot him with! Don't you get it, Alister? I won't!"

Alister stood up as well, looking down at the shorter and younger man sadly. "But what can you do, Valon?" he asked. "Can you stop Death itself? Can you?" He looked down to Raphael's inert form and then back up at Valon. "You're not that powerful, Valon. Neither of us are. If Raphael is dying now, and he was poisoned, we won't be able to do anything to stop it."

Valon knew Alister was speaking the truth. He knew he couldn't do anything and that he and Alister were both quite useless in this situation, but that was all part of what made him finally snap, as he did now. "SHUT UP!" he yelled, his voice echoing off the sides of the ravine. His eyes flashed. "JUST SHUT UP! Raph isn't going to die and that's just all there is to it!" He blinked back new angry tears that had been forming in his eyes. Raphael couldn't die! It was unthinkable. And since it was so unthinkable, to Valon Alister was committing a horrible taboo to even say it might happen. "Why can't you ever be positive! You're just about as pessimistic as Raph is himself! Every time you open your mouth you're saying something negative!" He felt himself trembling, so distraught was he over the current situation.

"Actually, Valon, you're being negative right now," Alister retorted in that quiet, level tone of his that drove Valon absolutely mad during times like these. How could Alister stand to be calm when Raphael was most likely dying? Yes, Valon knew it was likely true, which was another part of why he was so upset. He just couldn't bear to face the probable truth. For Alister to say it so bluntly made Valon fear all the more that it would really happen.

"I told you to SHUT UP!" Valon's voice was shaking, though it had risen in volume. "Just don't talk to me! I don't care if you never say anything to me again! I DON'T!" With that he lunged, not thinking about what he was doing at all, and allowed his fist to connect with Alister's cheek.

The redhead stumbled back, shocked at Valon's behavior. Losing his balance from not being prepared to be punched, he wound up sitting down hard on the ground. Slowly he raised a hand to his reddening cheek, looking up at Valon with an expression the Australian had never seen before from one who was usually stoic around him. Alister looked pained from the blow, but more so, he appeared shocked, stunned, and hurt in a non-physical way. He didn't say a word, but he didn't have to. Valon had never before actually harmed him, though once in the past he had become angry enough that he had felt like it and probably would have, if Raphael hadn't dragged him back. Now, Valon had actually hurt him.

Valon stared at him, massaging his hand. For a long time he couldn't bring himself to speak. Did I really do that? he cried inwardly, his heart racing. He . . . he looks almost crushed. . . . But . . . I didn't think he was even capable of that feeling. And why . . . why because of something I'd done and said? . . . Did I really say what I did? But . . . I didn't mean it! I . . . I don't want him to not talk to me. . . . It's just . . . all the stress about Raph and all . . . and Alister wasn't helping to keep me calm. . . . What kind of heartless jerk am I! It doesn't matter what was going on in my mind! That's no excuse. . . . All that matters is . . . is. . . .

Alister's still-quiet voice interrupted Valon's thoughts. "So be it." Without saying another word, he turned away from Valon to study Raphael's lifeless form.

Valon felt dizzy, as though every part of his body was aching. "Alister . . ." he choked out, but didn't get any further. All that matters is that I've now driven away the only other living person who cared about me. He slumped to his knees, punching the ground with his other fist, and allowed the tears to come freely.

Alister stayed silent for the next several hours, not bothering to turn around and see if Valon was still there. He knew that the brunette indeed was there; he could hear Valon muttering angrily to himself and sniffling every now and then. He didn't think it likely that Valon would go away, especially not when he was worried about Raphael, just as Alister was.

He rubbed his cheek again. It was quite sore, though he ignored most of the pain. Heh. . . . Valon delivers a cruel punch, he thought to himself. But did it really affect me? It shouldn't. You can't trust anything he says or does when he's upset. Perhaps my words didn't help, but he wanted my honest opinion on what I thought about Raphael's condition—and frankly, I honestly don't know that I have much hope for his survival, under the circumstances. I've seen death too many times. I stayed by the side of more than one man or woman who later passed away. Why should this be any different? He knew Raphael was strong-willed, but so were many of the people whom he had watched slip into Death's embrace. Still, he didn't want to stop believing in his friend's ability to pull through. That alone could destroy some of Raphael's will to live.

He shifted position, finally deciding to sit in the grass with his legs stretched out. It had hurt, to fall backwards and hit the ground so suddenly, as he had when Valon had punched him. But did it truly hurt more than in just a physical way? Alister sighed to himself, unsure of the answer. He had never allowed Valon's actions to affect him before . . . not really. Even after he and Valon had become close friends, he had known that the emotional boy often went into tirades and said things that he really didn't mean at all. And yet, somehow, it still did hurt in some way. Valon usually wanted to talk to Alister and was upset when Alister didn't want to comply. For him to say that he didn't want Alister to talk was quite a switch. Still, Alister knew Valon really hadn't meant it. He was upset and he was sorry, and had been sorry ever since he had actually struck his friend. Alister was certain that Valon would come to him when he had cooled down sufficiently and wanted to talk. The poor boy's emotions had probably been building up to this all night and now he had finally snapped. Alister couldn't really blame him.

Morosely Alister watched Raphael's labored breathing. It was extremely frustrating and upsetting—to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with a comrade helplessly laying near death. The poor man didn't deserve this. But Alister didn't know what to do. He and Valon certainly couldn't attempt carrying him. And they had no means of contacting civilization. Valon's cellphone didn't work in the canyon wilderness they were in. So for now, they were stranded where they were, just having to hope and pray that the assassins dispatched to kill them all wouldn't find that they were still alive and then finish the job they had started.

He heard the rustle of grass near him, but he didn't look up. Then he felt a shaky hand come to rest on his shoulder. "Can I sit here?" Valon sounded subdued, his voice trembling. Alister frowned. Usually he wouldn't ask permission; he would sit where he pleased.

"I don't believe anyone is stopping you," he replied flatly. An outsider might think he was speaking in a cruel, cold way, but Valon knew better. It was just part of Alister's personality, and he was saying that Valon was welcome to sit down.

And so Valon plopped down, looking at the older man with tired, sad eyes. "You know," he said, trying to weakly smile, "I know a story about this young bloke. . . . He's always kinda rash and emotional. . . . Too much for his own good, maybe." He shrugged, sniffling again, and drew one of his knees up to his chest. "He never thought anyone would care about him, 'cause no one ever did before . . . 'cept one person, who died." He paused briefly for a moment before continuing. "But now . . . now he has two guys who do care about him. . . . I guess . . . they've all been kinda like a family, in a way. Only . . . one of them's been accused of murder and is upset, even if he won't show it much. And all three of them got chased by assassins and the oldest one got torn up awfully bad. . . ." He swallowed hard, looking at Raphael's unconscious body. "And . . . the rash guy got stupid and hurt his other friend, not really thinking about how much his friend is probably hurting right now. He feels sick about it and wants to say he's sorry." He turned to look at Alister pleadingly. "I guess . . . he wonders how he could even be forgiven again." I'm always doing stuff like this . . . and they let it go. But how can they? I've hurt them. I'm still doing it now! What kind of idiots are they for always giving me more chances? I'll just keep screwing everything up.

Alister sighed, looking at Valon and seeing the sincerity in his eyes. "You've already been forgiven," he replied then, and meant it. "You weren't trying to hurt me. You were angry and upset and frightened for Raphael. You still are, I imagine. I am." He leaned back against the log they had laid Raphael against earlier. "I'm sorry, too, actually, if my words distressed you that badly. But we both know it's very possibly the truth, even though I'm certain we won't give up on our friend."

Valon blinked at him before then suddenly exploding with his current inner conflict. "So just like that, you can forgive me and everything's okay again!" he cried. "I hurt you! I hurt you, Alister! And it's not the first time, either." He clenched a fist, his blue eyes flashing with self-hatred. "I really wasn't thinking how upset you've probably been. . . . I mean, when you don't show it, it's hard to know if you even are upset! But . . . that's not an excuse. And . . . I've hurt Raph, too. I'm always hurting people I care about. . . ." He shut his eyes tightly, guilt welling up inside of him. "If . . . if I'd been with Mother Mary that night, instead of storming off ticked at that gang, then maybe . . . maybe the church wouldn't have been burned down. . . . Maybe she wouldn't have died. . . . Maybe. . . ." He trailed off. Oh, how he despised himself! Sometimes he couldn't understand why others didn't hate him as much as he often hated himself. And he hated the way he'd been acting tonight. I'm so selfish! he berated.

After a moment he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You don't know . . . how many times I've thought about what happened to my brother Miruko . . . and how I could have prevented it, if I'd only tried harder. . . ." Alister's voice was still quiet, but to Valon it sounded almost as if it was breaking. His grip tightened. "And how often I've replayed it over in my mind. . . . I always saw Miruko looking up at the man in the tank with pure trust and innocence. He believed he would be safe. I . . . I believed it. I truly believed it. But . . . it just wasn't to be." Alister looked down at the trembling teenager, stunned to see so many of his own emotions reflected in Valon's words and behavior. He had never imagined that somewhere behind the carefree smile Valon had concealed so much pain. . . . "How could I stay angry at you, when you and I are guilty of the same grievance?"

Valon blinked, looking up at his friend with a bit of confusion. Alister just sighed.

"You see . . . neither of us meant to cause problems or do to wrong . . . but still we did, so many times and in so many ways. That was the entire story of our life with Doom." The redhead paused, mulling things over in his mind. "Though . . . blaming yourself for Mary's death is fruitless. Dartz would have found another way, another time to get rid of her. It wasn't your fault, Valon." And as he spoke, he realized something. That was true, both in Valon's case and in his own. Even if he hadn't put Miruko in that tank, there would have been no guarantee that the child would have survived the war. Dartz most likely would have found a way to kill him somehow. He really couldn't go on blaming himself, even though he wasn't certain that he would ever fully stop doing so.

Valon hiccuped, watching Alister and seeing how he suddenly looked as if a stunning truth had just been revealed to him. Then he considered Alister's words. Really, he knew it was true. He had come to the same conclusion himself in the past. But still, at times like this, when his heart was aching and he felt so helpless, the old guilt would all come flooding back. "I'm scared, Alister," he whispered finally. "It started when I found you kneeling next to that body and it's been growing ever since then. I'm scared about a lot—that you'll get arrested . . . and . . . that you're right and that Raph is gonna leave us. . . ." He felt the tears pricking his eyes again. "And that he's gonna have an awful death because of some bloody idiot poisoning him!" He clenched a fist.

Alister's eyes narrowed. "I never said that I thought for certain he would die, nor can we know for certain he was even poisoned," he replied. "Of course it's a possibility, though a grim one and one that we'd rather not have to consider. But his condition hasn't changed over the last few hours—so he isn't any better, but he's not worse, either. I believe that he's still fighting to survive. He won't give up without a fight. That's just not his way. None of us are like that, actually." Valon did look extremely helpless right now, Alister realized. He looked almost childlike, longing for comfort and not knowing how to obtain it. They both wanted desperately to help Raphael, but it didn't seem as though there was anything they could do. All they could do was believe in him and continue to keep their vigil. . . . And pray, Alister reflected. It certainly wouldn't hurt. He said a prayer silently.

"Yeah. . . ." Valon tried to smile shakily before sobering again. "But, really, Alister. . . . How do you manage to put up with me?"

Alister shrugged, not entirely certain he knew the answer himself. Valon could be undeniably frustrating, and sometimes Alister lost patience with him, but he cared about him immensely and wouldn't want to be without him. "I suppose," he said finally, "because friends have a way of doing that, somehow."

Valon grinned a bit. They would be okay. He had to believe that, otherwise he would go mad. But Raphael would recover and they would all get back to civilization. And he and Alister would manage to resolve their differences. He knew Alister cared, and he cared as well. They were close, in their own way. "Thanks, chum," he said softly. "By the way . . . how's your cheek?" He knew he'd punched Alister hard, and he'd seen the redhead massaging the injury several times over the past hours. He felt guilty again as he realized how thoughtlessly he'd behaved.

Alister rubbed at it again. "Fine," he grunted. "What about your hand?"

Valon glanced down at it, realizing that he was rubbing it without having consciously realized he was doing so. "Yeah . . . it's fine, too," he replied. He swallowed hard, looking to Raphael. "I just hope that . . . he'll be fine. . . ."

Alister didn't try to conceal his true emotions any longer. "I hope that as well." He sighed, leaning over and checking Raphael's pulse. "What we have to do is figure out some way of making contact with civilization. I know it seems impossible, but we can't give up. Raphael needs our help."

Valon leaned forward in frustration. "There haven't been any cars passing down the road up there since we fell down here!" he retorted. "And it's not like we could send out smoke signals or something. What if those hitmen blokes saw 'em?"

Alister rubbed his eyes. "Maybe we'll have to take that chance," he said after a moment of silence. "Helicopters and airplanes often pass over the canyons on their way to other destinations. If we can just get one to notice us, we might be able to get rescued and then Raphael would get whatever help he needs."

Valon shook his head slowly. "Well, if you think we should try that, then I guess we'd better," he replied with a shrug. "I mean, what more could go wrong?"

Alister was already gathering up fallen tree branches to start the fire with. "Don't say that," he grumbled. Something else could always go wrong, especially for them.

And so it was that the duo began to send out a smoke signal message as the cold night wore on. They took turns working the communique (which was simply an "S.O.S.") and watching over Raphael, who showed no signs of awakening.

Valon sighed softly to himself as he watched Alister. "I wish you'd wake up, Raph," he whispered, drawing his knees up to his chest as he involuntarily shivered. Raphael was laying on Alister's trenchcoat still, so he wouldn't have to lay on the cold ground, and he was covered with his own. Both Valon and Alister were cold—especially Alister—but they didn't mind. Raphael needed the warmth more than they did. "We're really worried about you. . . ." It had been such a horrible night . . . and what would await them when they finally did escape? Would Alister have to go to prison? Valon clenched a fist. He couldn't let that happen. That was the last place where Alister belonged.

He started out of his thoughts upon hearing what sounded like a helicopter overhead. "Do they see us!" he called to Alister.

The redhead watched the vehicle for a moment, then nodded. "I think they do," he replied. "They're descending." And then he shuddered vaguely, catching sight of the kind of helicopter it was. His gray eyes took on a haunted, faraway look, which he quickly tried to shake off. It wasn't the same anymore. . . . This helicopter wasn't one of those that had invaded his refugee camp . . . and it wasn't one of those that had helped kill his brother. Still, his hands trembled.

"Who is that?" Valon asked, his hair starting to blow around wildly from the increasing wind as the helicopter got closer to the ground.

"It's from KaibaCorp," Alister responded distractedly. How strange . . . that now this helicopter is most likely our salvation. . . .

As it landed on the plentiful grass, the helicopter's door came open and Mokuba leaped out, running over to them. He was followed by a stoic Seto, two of Seto's most trusted employees, and . . . was that Gabrielle? Valon swallowed hard, getting to his feet. She was probably here to arrest Alister. . . .

"Are you guys okay!" Mokuba cried, coming to a halt and looking at them, then at Raphael's unconscious form. "We've been looking all over for you!"

"We're fine," Alister said, smiling down at the child, "but Raphael needs medical attention." He described the known injuries and added that they didn't know if the poor man had been poisoned. Valon then demanded to know how this had all came about and why Gabrielle was with them.

The police officer looked at the spunky Australian with a bit of amusement. "Don't worry," she said. "Mr. Mackenzie's off the hook. We won't arrest him."

Valon gaped at her, while Alister raised a confused eyebrow. "You won't!" Valon said then. "Well, never mind! Let's talk about it in the chopper. Raph's hurt!"

Seto grunted. "Heh. It's a good thing my helicopters are equipped with medical supplies, and that I have a doctor on board." Neither Alister nor Valon was bothered by the CEO's brusqueness at the moment. They were too grateful for the rescue and especially that Raphael would now have added chance to survive.

Valon paced about impatiently as Seto's doctor examined Raphael. "Isn't he ever gonna figure out what's wrong!" he cried finally. The waiting was endless! He was tired of waiting, and of not knowing how badly their friend was injured. To occupy his mind with other matters, he looked to Gabrielle. "Well, tell us how come Alister's not gonna havta go to jail!" he requested then.

Alister, who was sitting with crossed arms, looked to the woman as well. "It does seem surprising that I would be allowed to go free, if there weren't any other suspects," he remarked. He felt cautious at the moment and hadn't fully accepted that he was free. Perhaps they would still arrest him later. He wanted the whole story before he would know what to think.

Gabrielle smiled. "I and some other officers went back to the area where the man had been killed and we found the manor where Alice Portman had been operating from in the past," she explained. "When we went inside, one of her men—a wanted fighter-for-hire—was attempting to leave the premises. We caught him and said that he would get a lighter sentence if he could tell us anything about the murder that had taken place earlier out on the street. He finally confessed that Portman had tried to have Mr. Mackenzie kill the man under a form of brainwashing combined with a new mind control drug she had been working on, and that proof would be in her lab, including a video tape of the experiment—which we did find. Anyway, instead of killing him, Mr. Mackenzie simply stood there with the knife. Finally it was one of Portman's lackeys who killed the man, out of frustration and disgust. Then another of them shoved Mr. Mackenzie down on his knees next to the body, where blood was already pooling on the ground. That is how the blood got on your hands, though the reason why you clutched the knife again is unknown." She looked to Alister. "And, indeed, we found the lackey's fingerprints on the knife, as well as yours."

Alister leaned back against the seat, pondering over this. Now that Gabrielle had told of what Portman's minion had said, it had triggered several more memories in his mind. Portman had tried to convince Alister to kill the man because she said that he was Del Vinci's successor and would probably do the same horrible things that Del Vinci himself had done. And since Alister fought for justice, he couldn't allow such a tyrant to come into power. I was going to kill him, he recalled. I lunged at him and knocked him to the ground, but then just stood over him and did nothing else. . . . I . . . I didn't want to spill blood, not when so much had already been shed. . . . And . . . when I attacked Valon, it must have been a side-effect of the drug as it tried to get control of me again. . . . He felt an immense peace come over him. He truly was innocent, then. He hadn't committed a crime even under Portman's brainwashing and mind-control—and neither had Raphael.

"Well, this is great!" Valon chirped with a grin, then immediately sobered. "Now . . . if Raph would just wake up, everything could go back to normal. . . ." He looked down sadly.

Alister laid a hand on Valon's shoulder silently to offer comfort. The brunette looked up in slight surprise at his friend, then smiled weakly.

"The man also confessed that the three of you were being chased by a bloodthirsty mob of assassins," Gabrielle finished now. "We began looking everywhere for you and even started to question some of your various acquaintances to see if any of them knew where you had fled to. When Mokuba Kaiba found out, he pleaded for his brother to allow them to join in on the search."

"And so we found you!" Mokuba grinned. He bit his lip, seeing how worried they were about their friend. That was something he could completely understand. "Hey, guys, I'm sure Raphael's gonna be okay," he said softly. "I mean, he's a strong guy. Whatever's wrong, he's probably fighting against it right now."

That was when the doctor came back out into the main room. Instantly everyone was looking up at him for information. "Well!" Valon exclaimed.

The physician smiled wearily. "He's going to be fine," he announced. "You were right that he was poisoned, I'm afraid, but thanks in part to the fact that you saved the weapon, I was able to figure out what poison it was that much faster and administer the antidote." This was a rewarding part of his job—to know that he'd been able to help, in some way, to save someone's life. And he could see how relieved and happy the man's friends were.

Valon leaped up. "Is he awake? Can we see him!" he demanded. Alister stood more slowly, but he was just as anticipant as the boy. Raphael would be alright. . . . It was such a weight off their shoulders. . . . And such a miracle that they had survived at all, actually. Alister smiled slightly as he felt the presence of Miruko near.

"Come this way," the doctor replied, leading them into the small but efficient medical chamber. "He's not awake, but he should be reviving shortly." He left them alone then, allowing them to reunite with their comrade.

Valon blinked when they entered the room. Raphael was laying still on the lone bed, his eyes closed, but he no longer looked pained. He looked calm and at peace. And then both he and Alister saw two children's forms sitting on either side of the bed, watching over him. The children, a boy and a girl, both looked up as Alister and Valon approached, but made no move to leave or to speak. They smiled welcomingly, not bothered by the newcomers. Alister drew a sharp breath. He had seen them both before, on two different occasions. Sonia and Julien. . . . Raphael's siblings. . . .

"Hey," Valon said softly, "who are you two?" They didn't answer, though they smiled at him. After a moment Sonia whispered something softly in another language—which Alister determined was most likely French—and then she and Julien shimmered and vanished. But Alister could still sense that they were there. For some reason, he and Valon had been allowed to see them for a brief moment.

Raphael stirred, his eyes opening slowly. He blinked up at the lights overhead, attempting to remember what had happened. It was all a blank in his mind, though he remembered most of the events of the previous hours—Alister being accused of murder . . . them all going to the manor . . . him attacking the others. . . . The last thing he recalled was when they had been chased down the highway by the hitmen. After that the only thing he had been aware of was that Sonia and Julien had been with him, telling him that he had to keep fighting and that his friends would be so sad if anything happened to him. And he had, indeed, kept fighting.

"Raph!" Valon cried excitedly, kneeling on the bed. "Hey, we were afraid you'd never wake up, chum." Alister smiled slightly at the way the boy's entire countenance had brightened. He lowered himself onto the bed as well and studied the blonde man.

"You did have us concerned," he agreed.

Raphael blinked at them both. "Why?" he asked raspily. "What happened?" He reached up slowly to rub at his head.

"You were poisoned by the assassins that were chasing us," Alister told him quietly.

"We thought you were gonna die!" Valon shuddered, then grinned brightly. "But it looks like you'll be okay after all, wontcha?"

Raphael smiled slightly. "Yes," he agreed, "I will be." He looked around. "Where are we?" And will Alister have to go to jail? He, of course, didn't know that Alister had been acquitted. For all he knew, there were officers standing just outside the room, waiting to take him away. The thought horrified him. But somehow he felt a peace. Things were alright.

Now Alister and Valon began explaining the strange and marvelous tale to their friend, who listened with surprise and astonishment. They told it all—how Gabrielle and the others had found Portman's lackey, his confession, and the search to find the three of them. It was all truly alright now. Alister was still a free man and, if Raphael was feeling better, they would all be able to return home safely.

"And I do remember that what Portman's henchman said is actually the truth," Alister added now, speaking carefully. "I had been starting to remember fragments before that, but now I remember the rest. It happened just as he said it did. So. . . ." He looked Raphael in the eyes. "It seems we both overcame Portman's influences."

Raphael realized that Alister was right. And even though he had attacked the other two and still felt terribly guilty about it, he hadn't hurt them as badly as he might have done. Both he and Alister had been able to sever the control before it had caused irreparable damage. And that thought gave him great comfort.

"I guess that'll give her somethin' to think about!" Valon smirked, placing his hands behind his head. "She says she wants to study us humans and find out what makes us tick. I'd say we're a bit more hard to figure out than she thought."

Raphael relaxed, watching the cheerful brunette. It didn't seem like anything could ever keep him down for very long. My life would be a lot less interesting without him around, he decided, or Alister, for that matter.

"Hey," Valon added abruptly, "when we came in, there were a couple of kids sitting on the bed."

Raphael started, blinking at him in confusion.

"It was Sonia and Julien," Alister supplied.

Valon's eyes widened. "They were your brother and sister, Raph?" he exclaimed, remembering hearing their names being mentioned before.

Raphael nodded and rubbed at his head again. "You saw them?" he mused. He had known they were there, as he had felt their presence and heard their voices, but he hadn't realized that anyone else would be aware of their vigil.

"Yep," Valon nodded, "and the girl said something to us. Dunno what it was, though." He repeated the phrase to the best of his remembrance, knowing he was probably mangling it but hoping that Raphael would be able to figure out what it meant.

Indeed, Raphael understood. And he smiled slightly. "The literal translation is 'friends of Raphael,'" he told them. "Sonia was calling the both of you my friends and, most likely, saying that she and Julien approved."

Valon leaned back, momentarily at a loss for words. "Well . . . that's good, to know they like us," he said at last, "'cause we're gonna be around for a long time." He grinned. Everything was alright now and he finally felt at peace.

Alister crossed his arms, glancing at Valon and then allowing himself a slight smile. Yes, he admitted silently, we will be. At least, he could hope that would be so. At any rate, they were still together now. And though he was the one of them most likely to dwell on the past, he was concentrating on the present for the moment. Raphael was alive and recovering, Valon was cheerful again, and he wasn't going to be arrested. That was all very promising. He started to relax.

Valon yawned abruptly. "We haven't slept all night," he remarked. "Well, I guess you kinda have, Raph, but it wasn't like a normal sleep." He could see the pre-sunrise light out the window of the helicopter. A new day was approaching, one that he would probably sleep through for the most part. But that was alright.

"If you're tired, go to sleep," Raphael responded, slightly amused.

"I think I will," Valon mumbled, starting to doze off against the bed railing. "By the way, Raph, I'm sorry I snapped at you," he said with half-open eyes.

"It's alright," Raphael assured him, and shook his head in amusement when Valon then fell asleep. He looked back to Alister. "It must be a relief to know that you won't be arrested," he remarked quietly.

Alister nodded vaguely. "And also to know that you'll be alright," he replied. "We were both extremely worried." It had been so eerie and strange, for Raphael to be laying hurt. Usually he was the one looking after the two of them. "And . . . I didn't want to have to find out what would happen if you wound up perishing," he added then, remembering the conversation he and Raphael had had when they had made their pacts that if one of them died, the other would stay with Valon and not allow their friendship to fall apart.

"I didn't either," Raphael grunted, "but that won't be a worry . . . at least for now."

"Yes," Alister agreed, "you're right." For now our family is reunited.

Raphael looked at him. "You must be exhausted as well," he said now. "You were controlled by that woman and had to worry over whether you'd killed that man. I could tell you were distressed by the thought, even though you didn't say much to indicate it."

Alister's eyes darkened. "I was," he admitted. "I didn't want to think I'd killed someone." He paused. "I've seen too much blood being shed, Raphael. I don't want to spill any more. That's why I didn't kill Del Vinci when I had the chance." He understood this now, after everything he had just come through. He truly didn't like violence and wanted to avoid it when he could.

"I know," Raphael said quietly. He had recognized that fact before Alister himself had done so.

And he also recognized that he was still tired and weary himself. He stifled a yawn. It was true that he hadn't really been sleeping normally, and being controlled and then poisoned had taken a lot of strength out of him.

Alister saw this as well. "You should sleep," he remarked.

Raphael grunted. "So should you," he retorted, starting slightly as Valon slipped down from the railing to plop on the bed. He curled on his side, facing the railing, and mumbled to himself. Raphael was again amused.

Alister started to yawn himself. "I will," he replied, and then was, leaning against the opposite railing. Raphael shook his head, watching his friends, and drifted into a peaceful sleep.

Mokuba came to the doorway a few minutes later, to tell them that they'd safely landed. He blinked in surprise at the sight of all three of them sleeping soundly, but then he grinned and left quietly. Mokuba was glad that they had each other and that they were a family. He was immensely grateful for his own family—his brother Seto. Now he went to find him and tell him so.