Second Chances

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters aren't mine, the story is, and this is friendship cuteness. And I already know the basic plot concept is rather bizarre, so don't bug me about that. What can you do when a story won't leave you alone until you write it? Lisa helped me a lot with the plot and the dialogue, so much credit must go to her! Though it has a similar setting in some ways to Life After the Tears, this is not meant to be taken as a continuation of the events in that story. This is something else entirely. Also, this isn't supposed to have action. It's supposed to be a quiet, reflective piece. Don't like, don't read, and don't complain. Capeesh?

Valon sniffled sadly, drawing his knees up to his chest as he stared blankly at the grass in front of him. He was sitting on a stone bench monument in the cemetery, where he often came when he wanted to be alone and think. He had frequented the location all the more often in the past few weeks, though he did not know the person who was buried there. Somehow a cemetery just seemed a good place to come when reflecting on a departed loved one. He knew his friend had often come to the cemetery to think as well, though he had never understood the attraction. He still did not, to be honest, but he found himself coming anyway, especially on rainy days such as this. Maybe it was because it made him feel somewhat closer to the other young man.

He clenched a fist, angry at himself. He knew he had split open a terrible rift between him and the friend who was yet alive. Thoughts swirled in his mind of what had happened several hours ago back at their home.

"I could have saved him," Raphael insisted that evening, as he stroked Liu gently. The Ragdoll cat had been sad and confused since Alister's death, obviously not understanding why one of their own was gone now. "I could've done something, anything. . . . But I didn't." His voice was dark and cold.

"You were wounded!" Valon yelled. "How the heck could you have done anything? And all these 'ifs'! Heck, we wound up in Doom because of our 'ifs'! I'm sick of 'ifs'!" He slammed his fist on the counter. "You're the one who said we should try to move on, but look at you! You can't move on because you're blaming yourself all the time! You really think you could've done something, even though you were half-dead yourself!" His blue eyes flashed. I'm the one who should've done something, he thought to himself, his heart shattering. I wasn't torn up like Raphael was. But I couldn't save him either!

Raphael glared down at the floor. "And you're trying to say that you don't blame yourself, Valon? You know you're just as hypocritical as I am." Liu meowed and Raphael continued to gently pet her for a moment before pausing, a thoughtful look in his eyes. "It's ironic, that none of us would have met if it wasn't for Doom. . . ." He had thought about this many a time and how strange it all was. They all hated the way they had believed Dartz's lies and delusions about the organization, but yet they knew that without his treachery they never would have found each other. Of course, their families would not have been taken away, either.

Valon snapped. All the agony and pain and self-hatred was now coming to a head. At this moment, so caught up in his anguish, he wondered how good a thing it really was. Alister was dead now, and Valon could not seem to get along with Raphael. Nothing was happening the way it should! "Oh yeah? Well, maybe that would've been better for all of us!" he screamed. "Maybe we never should've met!"

Raphael looked stung. Then he looked down, occupying his attention with the cat. He did not speak for some time, but then he looked up with eyes of blue steel and no indication that Valon's words had just pierced his heart. "If you don't want to stay here any more, you don't have to," he announced coldly. Their family had fallen apart. He no longer knew how to fix it, and he knew Valon was unhappy. He was unhappy himself. He also knew, though, that separating was not what they needed right now. They needed their friend. But that was something that they could not have.

Valon was already storming to the door. "You know what? That's a great idea, Raph! Best one you've ever come up with! Don't expect me to be comin' back!" Raphael called after him, but in vain. The door slammed loudly, as if to signify an end.

Valon glared at the unknown person's headstone in front of him. An end to what? Their lives together, their friendship . . . their family? Or had that ended when Alister had perished?

Naw, he knew. We coulda still salvaged things. . . . But we didn't. We let this happen! A part of him screamed that Alister would not be pleased if he knew what had transpired, but then his bitter side would answer that Alister was not around anymore to know it. Still, he hated what had happened and he hated what he had said to Raphael. He knew he needed to go home and apologize, but he did not feel ready yet. He was still too filled with turmoil and anger. But being in the cemetery was not giving him the answers he longed for. It only made him feel all the more blank and empty.

For as far as he could see, there was nothing but headstones—images of death. Even the trees' branches seemed to droop down, as if in mourning. It all seemed so gloomy and morbid to Valon. What the heck did Alister like comin' here for? This place is awful. He had accidentally caught the redhead at the cemetery a while back, when he had been riding on his motorcycle and had seen Alister wandering among the tombstones. When he had demanded an explanation, Alister had merely shrugged and said that Valon would not understand. Heh . . . he was right on that, he thought to himself ruefully. I still don't.

He wondered how many of the people buried here had friends who were missing them. He wondered how many had died alone, with no one to care. He had used to think that that would be his own fate, but that had been before he had met Alister and Raphael. Would Raphael care anymore, if Valon died? The boy hugged his knees. If anyone else died, he was certain it would send Raphael into complete madness.

Not that he was contemplating suicide. Alister had died in order to keep Raphael and Valon alive, and Valon did not want to cause his sacrifice to be in vain. And yet . . . if their friendships were torn asunder, that would also mean that Alister had died in vain. In despair Valon began silently crying. He had held back the tears for so long . . . but he could not do so any longer. He did not know what to do anymore. He felt that he was at the end of his rope. And he wondered if his friendship with Raphael even could still be salvaged. It seemed hopeless.

He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he did not bother to look up when someone else sat on the bench beside him. "You seem lonely," a raspy voice remarked. It had a calming quality, so much so that Valon took a deep breath and furiously brushed any traces of the crystalline drops away with the back of his hand. Here was someone to talk to. Ordinarily Valon would not want to speak with a complete stranger. But now he felt so lost and confused that he was willing to.

The brunette sighed, shrugging a bit. "Yeah, well . . . I guess a lot of people who show up here are lonely," he replied, "if they're still alive." Idly he wondered how this person had found him. He had believed that he had come to a very secluded part of the cemetery, where he would not likely be discovered. No one had ever stumbled upon him before, and that was the way he had liked it.

"The dead too, I imagine," the stranger answered.

Valon laughed weakly, finding that comment slightly morbid. "Yeah . . . guess so." He leaned back, still staring forlornly at the dampened grass. "I wasn't expectin' company. I'm usually the only one here," he remarked, fishing for an answer as to how this person had ended up here as well. But in hoping for an answer he was disappointed.

"Likewise." A brief silence. "But you don't seem the type who would enjoy regularly visiting a place such as this."

"I'm not, really." Valon glared at the ground. In the back of his mind he wondered why this man had determined that. "But what do you care?" he snapped defensively. "I don't even know you!" It just was not common for a complete unknown to walk up and start conversing with someone in this way, not in this day and age. Briefly Valon wondered if he needed to be concerned that this person was going to try robbing him, but then he felt that he had nothing to fear. This man was harmless, at least where Valon was involved.

"Maybe not. But you look as though you need someone to talk to. If you want, I'll listen." For some reason Valon felt that the other person meant it, though he still did not completely relax.

"Well, whatever," the boy muttered. He looked up at the sky, watching the gray clouds shift position and prepare to unleash their rain. "I just started comin' a while back, when I lost my friend." He sniffled again, his wet bangs plastered to his forehead. "I miss him, y'know?" It was strange, but he was starting to feel relaxed around this person. He looked up at his companion, but the night was so dark that he really could not make out any features. All he could see was the faint outline of a fedora hat and a brief reflection of light from the glasses he was wearing. He was wearing a long coat, which seemed to be torn in several places. But he seemed to not mind the chill of the night.

"I see," came the voice. He did not seem bothered at how Valon was staring at him. "So I take it your friend is dead?" Valon gave a vague nod. "How did it happen?"

Valon was silent for a moment, weighing his answer. This was not something he enjoyed talking about, for more reasons than one. "You probably won't believe it," the Australian said at last with a wry, rueful grin. "No one ever would, unless he'd been there and saw it." He gave a shudder at the memories surfacing once again in his mind. He saw the vicious beasts . . . he heard the screams of agony . . . and he remembered knowing how badly the young man had been wounded.

"Try me."

Valon frowned at the person, but then shrugged. "Oh well. I guess it wouldn't hurt nothin'. Just don't try to get me in the crazy house once I've told you." The man grunted in reply. Valon rolled his eyes. This is like talkin' to Alister, he silently muttered, but then blinked in shock at this thought. Crazy . . . I'm crazy! Alister's DEAD! . . . 'Course . . . that doesn't mean that someone else couldn't be like him. But if someone else was, why would he come and talk to me? Alister was a believer in minding his own business. Valon could not picture him ever going to a stranger and beginning a conversation. Valon started to wonder if he was imagining this other person's presence, so he leaned back against him briefly to make sure someone was truly there. The stranger allowed this.

"A while back this whole city got overrun with all kinds of monsters," Valon announced finally, when he was satisfied that there was another being sitting on the bench. "Y'know, like the Duel Monsters characters from that card game?" A nod was his answer. "All of us were tryin' to fight them off. . . . My one chum, Raph, was already down . . . and Alister and I were tryin' to protect him. He told us to just go and that he'd be able to make it up, but neither of us were gonna leave him all torn up like that. So we were helpin' him up and tryin' to get away with him, when they started comin' after us." He clenched a fist tightly, almost drawing blood. "Alister said he'd distract 'em. Right about then was when the good monsters were tryin' to get up enough energy together so that they could get rid of all the bad ones. Alister knew that, and he knew what'd happen if he got caught in the blast, but that idiot stayed behind anyway!" Valon slammed his hand down hard on the smooth stone, shaking as the memories became more pronounced. He could see it all again, in front of his eyes. There was not a day that passed when he did not spend time running the events over in his mind and wondering if possibly he could have done something to change the outcome. "Raph and me . . . we were able to get far enough away that we just got dazed when the blast came . . . but Alister . . . Alister kicked the bucket."

He was silent for another moment before looking up at his companion and grinning weakly. "I guess you think I'm nuts now, eh?"

"No." But the other man frowned, studying the boy. "You never found a body," he remarked. "Or if you did, you're not at this Alister's grave, as it seems you would be." He pointed to the name written on the tombstone in front of them.

Valon shrugged helplessly. "Heck, we tried to find a body. We looked everywhere. But well . . . we figured . . . you know . . . that there wasn't any body to find. The monsters all got wiped out . . . and we figured Alister had, too. The only thing we ever found was a bloody piece of his glove!" He spit out the last part of his sentence and then lapsed into silence again, staring blankly into the raindrops that were falling down. Why am I talkin' to him, anyway? I know it's crazy . . . how he's so calm and quiet . . . and he kinda reminds me of my chum. . . . Well . . . when Alister was in a good mood, anyway. He smirked a bit to himself. "If Alister was still alive, he would've come home," the boy added then, glaring at the sky again. "He wouldn't just go off and leave us to suffer."

"What if he couldn't come home?"

"Well, why couldn't he have!" Valon burst out. Now this person was starting to irritate him. What right did he have, to come posing these questions as if he knew Alister so well? He could not know what had happened and how Valon and Raphael had suffered over the loss of their friend. He could not know the immense anguish they had gone through, or anything about their situation. Who did he think he was? "Go on, tell me. Why couldn't Alister've come home?"

The answer was instantaneous. "Maybe he didn't remember he had a home. Maybe he was very sick."

Valon snorted. "He died. We checked the hospitals, incase he'd been taken in as a patient. There was nothing. We were devastated! Both of us were. And each of us was blaming himself for what happened." He was trembling again. "That idiot . . . he knew he would die. He knew it!" This was growing stranger with each passing moment. And there was no denying the fact that the person, in a certain way, did sound like Alister. Valon shuddered, supposing that his loneliness was making him imagine things again. Maybe this person did not even exist, he began to think again. Maybe he was a figment of Valon's imagination because he wanted someone to talk to.

"Alright. I'll agree with you on that—he knew that he was likely to die. But why do you think he didn't let that bother him?"

Valon heaved a sigh, knowing the answer. "'Cause he wanted to protect us," he mumbled. He felt as though he was being tested by this stranger. But tested for what? And why?

"Exactly." Another pause. "You truly do miss him, don't you."

"Of course I do!" Valon yelled, his voice growing louder than he'd intended. He narrowed his eyes, quieting again. "He and Raph were my best chums. Now Alister's dead and Raph is almost always brooding. He blames himself still. But that's crazy, 'cause he couldn't help what happened! I'm the one who should've been able to have done something. . . ."

He felt a pang as he again recalled how he had snapped at Raphael that evening. Raph didn't deserve it. . . . Aw heck . . . I can't do anything right, can I? I gotta get home and tell him I'm sorry. He's all I've got now . . . and me, I guess I'm all he has, 'cept for the cat. . . . We can't let our friendship get ripped apart like this!

In the darkness he could almost sense that the other man was raising an eyebrow. "Could you have stopped him? Honestly, I don't think you could have. He did what he felt was right. You couldn't have convinced him otherwise."

"Yeah, yeah," Valon muttered in irritation, knowing that the man was right. Alister would not have listened. He had not listened when Valon and Raphael had protested about his plan. He had wanted them to be safe, so he had ahead with it anyway.

"But why wouldn't I miss him?" he demanded now, his eyes narrowing as he recalled how the stranger had asked. "Oh sure, he was aloof and quiet and didn't like being around people much, but that doesn't mean he was a bad fella. Heck . . . he was one of my best friends . . . ever. . . ." The boy trailed off, a far-off look in his eyes. "And he woulda had to have cared about Raph and me . . . 'cause of what he did for us." It seemed so long ago now when Valon had believed that Alister had not cared, about them or anyone else. So very much had transpired since then. . . . His outlook had changed so much. . . .

The older man studied Valon from behind his dark glasses, feeling a certain compassion for him in his grief. "You sound as though you're trying to convince someone that he was a good person," he observed quietly. "Yourself, maybe, out of grief because he's gone?"

Valon's head snapped up and he frowned at the person once more in the darkness of the evening. Between the moonless night, and the man's high coat collar, glasses, and fedora hat, not much could be determined about his appearance. "Naw, of course I'm not!" he yelled. "It's just . . . just that . . . well . . . I guess I used to think maybe he wasn't . . . and that he hated me and everyone else. . . . But that was a long time ago, for cryin' out loud! I found out a while back what he's really like. And . . . I dunno, I don't think I'd ever find a couple of chums as good as him and Raph. . . ." He glared down at the grass. "But Alister's dead and I blew up at Raph earlier. . . ."

"I see." There was a hint of slight concern. "Neither of you has ever gotten over his death, then," the man deduced.

"It's not that easy to," Valon said, cupping his chin in his hand and leaning forward. "But I really went overboard. . . . Raph mentioned something about how we wouldn't have ever met up if it wasn't for Doom, and then I yelled that maybe it would've been better that way, if we'd never met, I mean." He rubbed his eyes, forgetting that this person would not have any idea what Doom was. "Come on! Raph and Alister are my only chums . . . my only family, really. I didn't mean what I said. It's just . . ." He shrugged helplessly.

"It was your grief talking," the stranger answered, "and maybe, in your anguish, you wondered if it would have been better if you had never met them. But I doubt highly that it would have been."

"Yeah. . . ." Valon clenched a fist. "I've gotta apologize to Raph. . . . And . . . I just wish . . . I wish I had a second chance to talk to Alister, too. . . ."

"Oh?" His companion sounded slightly surprised now. "What would you do with a second chance?"

Valon thought about that carefully before answering. It was something he had pondered over much during the past weeks. "I'd tell him I was sorry," he admitted then. "We were always arguing about something. We're nothing alike in personality, so we misunderstand each other a lot. I mean . . . we did. We'd had a row right before he croaked, actually . . . but I never got to tell him I was sorry. . . ."

"One does hold regrets when someone dies, don't they." The other young man spoke in a faroff voice, as if he was not speaking about Valon's case but about something of his own. For a moment it sounded as though his voice was filled with pain.

"Well, I dunno about others, but I sure do. You must've had someone you care about die too, didn't you." The Australian blinked up at the slender person.

"I did," was the only response. Valon sighed, looking down at the grass as a breeze blew through it. It was obvious that this man was not going to talk about his own problems, even though he was willing to listen to Valon's. Just like Alister. . . .

Valon grinned ruefully as he continued. "I guess . . . if I had another chance, I'd try to listen to him more." He had a bad habit of getting annoyed whenever Alister had tried to give him advice or had pointed out something or another that Valon was doing that was dangerous. He liked to think that he could take of himself perfectly fine and that he did not need anyone's help or advice. "He was only tryin' to look out after me . . . even though I didn't wanna think I needed it."

"Really." Valon felt a hand being laid on his shoulder. "You know, I believe he would have accepted your apology. He wasn't as cold-hearted as he sometimes appeared to be."

Valon started violently, both from the sudden contact and from the words. "Yeah?" he cried defensively. "And how would you know anything about him except what I told you? That's not enough to figure him out!" He had come to realize that Alister was a very complex person. Just when Valon would think he had the older man figured out, he would be surprised again. Alister was truly an enigma. Valon doubted that he would ever fully understand him.

"No, it wouldn't be," came the agreement. "But I happen to know him well. He was lost after his biological family died. He couldn't bear the pain. When he later had you and Raphael as his friends, he wanted to protect the both of you. He had a purpose again, and a family, and he refused to lose that the way he had lost others before. He wanted his new family to live . . . and he was willing to sacrifice himself so that they would." His grip on Valon's shoulder tightened.

The Australian felt a chill go down his spine. There was only one possible explanation for this, even though it wasn't possible. Only one person would know Alister's deepest feelings, as Alister had never revealed them to anyone before. "You can't be," he whispered. "You can't be!"

"I am, though," came the reply. "You have your second chance, Valon."

Valon almost fell off the bench. Immediately he whirled around to look up again at the person he had been conversing with. The moon had come from behind a cloud now, lighting upon the man's features. He recognized the deep crimson hair poking out from under the hat, but the eyes were hidden from him behind honey-tinted sunglasses. His friend looked weary and exhausted, and all of his clothes were torn in places, revealing bandages draped over various parts of his pale skin. His voice still had a rasping effect, but it was recognizable. Valon had recognized it quite soon after they had began talking, but he had been certain that it would be impossible for it to actually be Alister talking to him, unless he was hallucinating. He would say that he was now, but the hand on his shoulder was real. All of this was real.

"Why you!" he yelled, grabbing a fistful of Alister's torn tanktop and then gripping his shoulders. "You were talking to me all this time! Why didn't you say it was you?" So many conflicting emotions were crashing through his heart all at once—disbelief, wonder, annoyance, foolishness. . . .

"I assumed you would recognize my voice," Alister replied calmly, "but I soon realized that you thought I was dead. Then you wanted to talk about what had happened, so I listened. You were too upset at that point, so I didn't tell you who I am. I thought it would be better to wait until you were calm again. Otherwise, you might have had a heart attack," he finished dryly. He studied his friend thoughtfully. He had missed Valon, and Raphael as well, of course. They were his family. He cherished the ties he still had on earth, as Miruko had once told him to do a long time before. He was glad that he was not dead, though it surprised him slightly at times. Often he had wished that he could die and go be with Miruko and their mother. But he had come to realize that he had family in Heaven and also, family on earth. He loved them all, and he wished that he could be with all of them, but right now his place was on earth.

Valon glared. "Yeah? Well, I'm upset now!" But he actually was not. He was overwhelmed and happy and joyous. They could go home together and Raphael would not have to be sorrowing any longer. Their friend had returned, though Valon still could not believe how that was actually so. Alister was supposed to be dead!

Now Valon went from gripping Alister's shoulders to embracing him firmly for a brief moment before pulling away. "You idiot," he cried. "We missed you! We missed you so much. . . . Didn't you realize we'd miss you!" He looked at him, blue eyes flashing.

Alister was surprised at Valon's action at first, since they were not generally affectionate with one another, but then he just shook his head, reaching up to remove his sunglasses and study Valon clearly without them. He supposed both that it had been such an agonizing thing for his friends to go through and such a shock now to find Alister alive that Valon had acted impulsively. "Yes," he said then, "I knew. And I also knew that I wanted to protect you and Raphael."

"Yeah, well . . . we never wanted you to die," Valon retorted.

Alister grunted. "No, we never do want the people we care about to perish," he answered quietly after a moment of silence. "That's the irony of things, isn't it. One wants to save his friends from death, and yet he knows that they will be upset if he himself dies instead. And yet he can't stand by and do nothing." He lapsed into a silence once again, musing over this. This was the sort of subject that he had pondered over many a day during his recovery.

Valon swallowed. "Naw, he can't," he agreed, knowing that in Alister's place he would have done the same thing. Alister nodded vaguely.

"Hey," Valon said then, a new thought occurring to him, "I guess . . . earlier . . . what you were tryin' to say was why you really didn't come home, wasn't it?" He blinked up at Alister, looking into the depths of his gray eyes.

"Yes," Alister admitted quietly, coming back to the present. "I was seriously injured, Valon. I didn't get caught in the worst part of the blast, but it did do damage to me. And before that, I was also attacked by a Magician of Black Chaos. I was already wounded by that time from the Silver Fang attack." His eyes took on a faraway look of their own as he remembered the battle. It had been a harsh, fierce fight to the death, and Alister had barely managed to win, though he did not know how he had succeeded. He had collapsed unconscious right after that, and that was when the blast had actually struck.

He had regained consciousness in the monsters' own realm, being tended to by a Dark Magician Girl. Not all of the monsters were vicious creatures, of course, and the good ones had been very kind to him. But he did not explain all of that to Valon right then. He opted to wait until they could go home and talk to Raphael.

Valon looked down, biting his lip, and then back up at the man who was one of his two best friends. "What about now, Alister?" he asked. "I mean . . . are you still awfully torn up?" There was the fact that his voice seemed a bit different. And Alister had been wearing his sunglasses at night, though Valon knew he often did do that anyway. The Australian looked searchingly into Alister's gray eyes, but Alister met his gaze, and he obviously was not blind.

Alister was silent for a moment before he answered. "I'm healing," he responded carefully. "I don't have any injuries that won't heal, if that's what you mean. I'm going to be fine."

"You idiot," Valon muttered. "I thought we'd lost you. . . ." He swallowed hard. "Raph and I both really missed you, y'know. It just wasn't the same without you around." He glared, but then his expression softened. "I know what you were trying to do, though. And, well . . . thanks, chum." He grinned. "I'm just really glad you're back." He poked him playfully. "Are you glad you came back?"

Alister grunted. "If I hadn't wanted to come back, I wouldn't have," he answered flatly.

Valon grinned. "Yeah . . . I guess that's true enough. You're as annoying as ever. You can't just give yes or no answers." He paused, weighing his words for quite some time before speaking again. "But hey . . . did you really mean what you said, about me and Raph being your family?"

"I don't tend to say what I don't mean." Alister replaced the sunglasses over his eyes as the rain began to fall.

"Yeah . . . you don't." Valon found himself actually laughing, feeling overwhelmed and happy and joyous.

Alister smiled slightly, watching the boy before starting to stand up. "Come on," he said quietly. "Let's go home."

Valon scrambled up after him. "Yeah," he agreed. "Home sounds good. And Raph's gonna be shocked out of his mind." He continued to grin happily.

"Heh." Alister did not deny it.

The two friends left the cemetery.

Raphael growled to himself as he sat at the kitchen table, looking through the stack of bills that had come earlier. He had snapped at Valon before the boy had stormed out, and now Raphael was starting to worry. It was still raining outside, so there was the possibility that Valon had gotten into an accident. If he did . . . then it's my fault, he thought bitterly. Just like it was my fault when Alister died. . . .

He ran a hand through his hair. Why was it that he had been wounded? If it had not been for that, then the three of them could have left together and Alister would not have felt the need to do what he did. Instead, Raphael and Valon's friend was now dead, and he and Valon could no longer seem to get along. Raphael tried, and Valon tried, but in the end it seemed that they always wound up losing their tempers and being angry with each other. We can't get along anymore. . . . And now what kind of trouble has Valon got himself into? Raphael glared at the table before standing up. He needed to go look for the boy. Valon was reckless; there was no telling what he might get into.

Raphael had thought it a good idea to give him some time to calm down before going after him, but after all these hours it seemed unreasonable that he would not have returned home . . . unless he truly had meant it about going away. Raphael frowned deeply, not wanting to believe that. Valon had been upset . . . they had both been upset. . . . Surely what had been spoken out of heartache and grief was just that, and not the true feelings. Raphael did not want to lose Valon. He wanted to make up for what had happened earlier and to somehow try to mend their friendship. Alister would have wanted that as well.

As he was heading to the front door, it was suddenly flung open and he wound up crashing into two people who were on their way in. Stunned, he pulled back. He was about to apologize to Valon, who he saw first, but then he noticed the other young man and went completely pale. "Alister!" he managed to choke out at last. But . . . that was not possible. He must be going mad.

"Hey, Raph!" Valon chirped with a grin. "Look who's finally back with us!"

Alister smiled slightly, seeing how shocked Raphael looked. "I'm real, Raphael," he said, stepping inside along with Valon. "I'm not a figment of your imagination."

Raphael stared at him. "But . . . how?" he finally managed to ask.

Valon turned to look at the redhead as well. "That's a good question, mate," he declared. "You said you wanted to wait to talk about it until we got home." He shut the door and wrung some of the rainwater out of his fluffy hair. "So, where the heck were you after the attack!"

Alister grunted, pulling off his trenchcoat slowly and also removing the hat. "It's a long story," he replied. Now that the coat was off, the others could see more of the bandages covering Alister's various wounds. Valon shuddered when he remembered seeing Alister being slashed by the Silver Fang. Those wounds were on his upper back, concealed mostly by the tanktop, but part of the bandage over them was visible.

"We thought you were dead for so long," Raphael spoke again, his voice cracked as he came over to the younger man. He hesitated for a moment and then laid his hands on Alister's shoulders gently.

Alister looked at him, his gray eyes calm and peaceful. He was happy to be home, and he knew that both of his friends were happy to have him back again. "I know," he said quietly. "I'm sorry about that. I came home as soon as I could."

Long into the night, after he and Valon changed into dry clothes, Alister explained of what had happened to him while he had been nursed by to health by the good monsters, in their dimension. Both Valon and Raphael were stunned, but they supposed it was logical enough for the good monsters to take Alister back with them after the battle. But there were still questions.

"Why didn't they come find us!" Valon asked in vexation.

"I wondered that as well, once I was recovering enough to be able to think clearly," Alister answered as he petted Liu, who had also been overjoyed to see him and had settled down on his lap. "The Dark Magician Girl said that they weren't sure where I belonged, and that I was so severely injured that they thought they should just take me back with them instead of trying to find you and Raphael. She said they were alarmed when they realized that an innocent person had been caught in the blast that had been meant only for the destructive Duel Monsters." Idly he rubbed at his right arm, where his friends could still see the vague outline of a scar.

Raphael shook his head slowly. "You were gone for weeks," he stated, hating the memories of those past weeks. The house had seemed so quiet, but not just because Alister and Valon had not been arguing. It had been because everything had seemed so incomplete without Alister there. He was part of their family and that was the way it would stay.

Alister nodded. "And I was near the point of death for most of the time. They didn't think I was going to survive." He had been told later that he had been in a state of delirium for ages. Time was measured differently in the Duel Monsters' dimension, so Alister was not certain how long it had been according to their own time. After he had finally regained consciousness, however, it had seemed to him as though he had been there for a long while as he had continued to recover.

Valon grinned. "But you did, chum." He paused, blinking as another realization came to him. "Why were you in the cemetery anyway?"

Alister grunted. "I was going to come home when I was returned to this dimension, but I happened to be returned near the cemetery and I saw your motorcycle there, so I went in. I knew that you and Raphael probably thought I was dead, and I wondered idly if another body had been found and if so, if you had thought it was mine. When I saw you, you looked quite forlorn, so I sat on the bench with you and you know the rest."

"Yeah. . . ." Valon still felt ridiculous that he had not realized that he had been talking to Alister all that time. But he knew that Alister was right and he had been quite upset, so he had not paid much attention when the voice had sounded like his "deceased" friend's, assuming it to be his imagination.

"It's good to have you back," Raphael said then, and firmly meant it. "We missed you."

"Likewise." Alister nodded. "Valon told me that both you and he were blaming yourselves for what happened," he said. "But you realize that you couldn't have stopped me? I wanted to do what I did so the two of you could get away. You couldn't have changed my mind, Raphael."

Raphael sighed. "I know," he replied quietly. And he had known, but in spite of that he had still blamed himself.

Valon bit his lip, looking up at Raphael and recalling that, in all the excitement, he had forgotten to apologize. "Hey, Raph," he said slowly, "I'm really sorry about earlier, you know? I didn't mean it."

Raphael nodded, laying a hand on Valon's shoulder. "It's alright," he reassured him. "I'm sorry too. We were both upset."

"Yeah," Valon responded, "but that's no excuse. You and Alister are my best chums. Heck . . . who knows where I'd be if we'd never met. . . ."

"Probably still in prison," Alister said flatly. Valon frowned at him, but he had to concede that it was probably true.

"Well," Valon spoke up after a brief silence, "everything can get back to normal around here, right?" He grinned impishly, looking from Alister to Raphael.

"That depends on what you mean by normal," Alister answered. "I'm too weary to argue with you tonight."

"That's not what I meant!" Valon retorted, cuffing Alister on the shoulder (but first making sure that Alister did not have an injury there). The boy's cerulean eyes were bright, however, and it was obvious that he was not upset. He was happy, having both of his friends with him. Perhaps, even, he enjoyed a bit of verbal sparring with Alister, just to know that he was home.

Raphael just shook his head, watching them. Already things were sliding back into place. He had the feeling that the two might start arguing soon, whether Alister felt he was too weary or not, but Raphael found that he was actually relieved. Alister was home, and that was what mattered the most right now.

Valon yawned, stretching, and leaned against the back of the couch as he began to doze. "What a day," he mumbled, the events swirling round in his tired mind. "I got into a row with Raph, wandered all over the city, and ended up talking to Alister and not even knowing it. Crazy fella." His eyes closed and he settled down to rest, not consciously realizing that he was using Alister's shoulder as a pillow. Alister blinked at him, his expression deadpan, but allowed Valon to remain there for a moment before the boy decided he'd rather lay down on the couch and curled up at one end of it.

Raphael watched in some amusement. "I haven't seen him so happy in a long while," he remarked. "When we thought you were dead, he seemed to act indifferent about a lot of things. I rarely saw him smile or be happy. He was always depressed." And Raphael did not blame him. An important part of their surrogate family had been dead to them, and the remaining two had not been able to get along very well during that time. It was no wonder that Valon had been depressed.

"What happens to one, happens to all, it seems," Alister mused with a slight frown. "It's not good to get that attached to people. It only causes pain when they die or move on." He reached for a nearby quilt, covering Valon with it. The teenager mumbled in his sleep as he burrowed into it.

Raphael observed him silently before speaking again. "You're saying that you recommend not becoming attached to people," he remarked at last.

"Not that much," Alister answered. "But I can't seem to follow my own advice." He did not say more, but his meaning was obvious—he was attached to the members of his adoptive family. Raphael could not be sure, but he seemed to give a faint smile.

"Do you wish you were able to?" Liu rubbed against Raphael now and he stroked her fluffy, soft fur as he waited for Alister's answer.

Now Alister was silent, considering his reply. "For so long I lived with my heart closed," he said slowly, massaging his arm again, "and I thought that was the best way. If I didn't get close to anyone, and they didn't get close to me, then there would be no heartache if I or they died. I didn't know that I could bear the pain again. But almost without realizing it, I developed a bond with you and Valon. The both of you became my friends, and then my surrogate family. Even before I fully accepted it, it was true."

He glanced down to the slumbering Valon. "My 'death' caused a lot of pain for him and for you. And what if I had truly been dead? Would things have gone on in the vein that they were? You and Valon were growing apart. I didn't want to cause that." He lapsed into silence, knowing that he still had not answered the original question. "But I suppose that's what happens sometimes . . . when you care about someone." He looked thoughtful. "And I suppose . . . there wouldn't be much I could do to stop the pain. No, I don't regret not following my advice and I don't wish that I did," he said at last. "My life would be uninteresting without the two of you around."

Raphael nodded slowly. "I feel the same." He looked at the younger man. "You're right, there's a lot of pain when you care about someone. That's just part of life. We don't like it, but we have to deal with it." He paused. "One thing I've thought about is that if there wasn't any pain, we probably wouldn't know what happiness is. There wouldn't be anything to compare it to." Liu purred softly, kneading her paws against Raphael's chest. He shook his head in amusement.

Alister contemplated this. "I suppose that makes sense," he said finally.

"I do believe that Valon and I would have mended our friendship, though, even if you had truly been . . . dead," Raphael finished after a brief hesitation. "If that had happened, each would have been all that the other had. Neither of us wanted to give up our friendship with the other."

Alister nodded too. He believed that as well.

Valon mumbled in his sleep, hugging the couch pillow close. When asleep, he seemed to look even younger than his late teen years. He almost had a certain air of innocence about him, though he truly was not all that innocent and naive. None of them were. They had all been painfully aware of life's harsh realities for many of the years in their short lives.

"When I saw him at the cemetery, he seemed lost and lonely," Alister remarked. "For all he knew, I was a stranger, but he wanted to talk so badly that he accepted me as a suitable listener."

Raphael frowned. "He tried to talk to me at times, but it usually didn't go well." And he realized the irony of the statement. Valon usually got along better with Raphael than with Alister. For this day, it had seemed to be the opposite. Raphael imagined, though, that things would shift completely back to normal before long, since Alister and Valon still possessed opposite personalities.

"You were both aching. Don't feel badly about it." Alister leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "I'm sure the both of you understand why it happened."

Raphael grunted. He knew Alister was right, but that still did not change that he regretted it. He wished that he and Valon had been there for each other better than they had been, though occassionally there had been days when they had seemed to get along well after Alister's "death." Such days had generally been few and far between, however, but both Raphael and Valon had been happy to experience such days when they did come.

He turned to study the gray-eyed young man, certain that he caught sight of red peeking through the white gauze of the bandages in some places. "Be honest, Alister," he said gruffly. "How badly were you hurt?" He remembered seeing Alister get clawed by the Silver Fang as if he was little more than a broken doll. It had highly disturbed him. He felt a certain awe that Alister was sitting on the couch now, alive and well and breathing, after seeing what had happened to him and also having thought for so long that he was dead.

"As I mentioned, they didn't think I would survive," Alister answered. "I don't know all the details of how severe the wounds were, but I lost a lot of blood—almost too much. Some of the wounds are still healing, but I wanted to come home. The Duel Monsters were reluctant at first, but they finally let me." Alister had had to talk with them for many a long hour before they had relented, however. They had believed it to be in his best interest to stay behind with them for a time, while his only desire had been to come home.

"Your arm must have been badly injured," Raphael remarked, noticing how Alister was rubbing it again. The redhead had been favoring his other arm for the most part, not using the injured one unless he had to. He also was leaning against the soft back of the couch in a way that made Raphael wonder if his back was paining him.

Alister grunted now. "It'll heal," he answered. "It was nothing that serious." But Raphael had the feeling that Alister would not tell him even if it was. That was just part of Alister's personality.

Valon mumbled again. Both Alister and Raphael looked at him, slightly amused. Yes, things were definitely going back to normal. Through a miracle, Alister's life had been spared and he had been able to come home. All three of them still had each other. Everything would be alright.