If Only In My Dreams

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters (other than the bikers and their families, and Dartz) are mine, so is the story, and this is friendship cuteness! I wasn't going to write a specific Christmas story, especially since Christmastime is the backdrop for Engel des Todes, but I changed my mind.

I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. . . .

Christmas has always been a hard time for me. After my brother died, and I joined Doom, I never celebrated it. I would go off by myself at some point every Christmas, holding Miruko's action figure and remembering holidays past, when things were different. Mama always went all out for Christmas, and even though we never had much money, she managed to get our house fixed up to look nice. Miruko and I would help her, and we were happy. Before Dad changed so much, he helped us too. Decorating the house and the tree was always a family tradition that we were excited to observe. But without my family, I did not feel that there was anything worth celebrating. My heart was closed and dead, and I had decided that to keep living, that was the way it had to be.

But things are different now, in a lot of ways. For the first time in years, I have people I love, and it feels like I really have something to celebrate. I think that Christmas can again be special to me.

There's still an emptiness where Miruko was. I think about him and Mama every day and miss them. But I know they would want me to be happy. And, as long as I have Valon and Raphael, I am.

Even so, I still need children in my life. That's why I always go to the group home on Tuesdays and Fridays. Now that it's the holiday season, and they've been preparing for the annual charity festival, I've been going over more frequently. I love being around the kids, and seeing their eyes light up in joy over even little things reminds me so much of Miruko. He always seemed to be able to find something to be happy about, kind of like Alexander. I think that may be one reason why I care about Alexander and why I have tried to learn to accept his snuggles of adoration. He's like a child, happy and innocent. He loves me in some way that I can't really explain, other than that I know it's a pure and childlike love.

I'm startled back to the present as small arms go around my waist. Heather giggles, grinning up at me. "Everything looks really nice!" she proclaims, admiring the work that she, the other kids, and I have completed. We're standing in the large reception hall that's used every year for the group home's charity festival.

I smile back at her. "It does," I agree. "You and the others did a great job." Pine garlands with interwoven Christmas lights have been draped around the walls of the room. Paper snowflakes, carefully crafted by the kids, have been plastered underneath the garlands. (I was recruited to place some more above.) Also around are hand-drawn pictures of various Christmas-related characters, including Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty. In the corner is an artificial Christmas tree, its branches colored white to look like snow. It has one set of white lights and another of colored bulbs, and the kids have finished lopsidedly applying the tinsel and ornaments.

"Which one of the pictures is yours?" I ask now.

Heather beams, grabbing my hand and tugging on it. I follow her over to the opposite wall, and she points out a stick figure portrayal of the Nativity. "This one," she announces, and then quiets. I realize that she must be thinking of her family. It was tragic—all of them were killed in a fire a year and a half ago. When I first met Heather, she was very withdrawn and didn't want to talk to me or anyone. Like me, she was afraid to become close to anyone again. But she's finally started to open her heart once more, and I'm glad. She's too young to be deciding to shut everyone out. She's only seven, the same age Miruko was when he died.

Gently I put an arm around her, but I don't speak. Sometimes silence can be comforting and healing.

Heather leans against me, sniffling. "This is my second Christmas alone," she whispers. "I can't help it, Alister. . . . I miss them so much! Christmas just isn't like it used to be, and I keep remembering how it was. . . . Daddy would read the story of the first Christmas on Christmas Eve, and we'd all be gathered around the tree. . . . The lights were so pretty. . . ." Now she is throwing her arms around me again. "The last foster family I was with said that . . . that I should forget them . . . but I can't!"

My heart breaks for her. I kneel down to her eye level, softly brushing her tears away. "Of course you can't," I tell her firmly. "You love them, and you miss them. There's nothing wrong with that. You'll always miss them, and even though you try to move on, some days are just worse than others." It angers me when some people are so unsympathetic to these kinds of situations. After losing your family, it's only natural to be in pain. And no matter how much time goes by, or how much you try to heal and move on, there are still scars. Time really can't heal all wounds. That's a foolish, idealistic concept.

"I know," she says now, throwing her arms around my neck. "That's why I like being around you, Alister. You really understand. No one else does." A shudder passes through her small body as more tears slip free. "They think that . . . if I keep missing Mommy and Daddy and Emily, it means that I can't love anyone else." She pauses. "I guess . . . I thought that too. . . . And that's why I didn't try."

I stand up, holding her close, and walk over to a stuffed chair. Slowly I sit down in it, with Heather on my lap. We're the last ones in the room. The others have left in anticipation of the festival that starts tomorrow evening.

"That's how I felt for years," I tell her. And those years were so cold and dark. My grief turned to anger and hatred, and I pushed everyone away, even those who only wanted to be my friends. And yet they stayed with me. I know that opening my heart again was a risky decision. It means that I have to accept the fact that someday I might lose Valon and Raphael. But it also means that I can experience happiness again.

"But . . . it's not true," Heather says, wanting confirmation even though she knows the answer.

"No," I say firmly. "It isn't true. We can love a lot of people, even if we're missing those we've lost."

Heather snuggles. She is silent for a long time before finally asking what's really been on her mind all evening. "Alister . . . do you believe that they're really lost?" she asks, her voice quavering. "I want to think that I'll see them again. . . . I want it so bad!"

Now I'm silent, but only for a moment. I've seen Miruko two or three times since his death, and I know I wasn't hallucinating or experiencing delirium. Those experiences were real. "You'll see them again," I reassure her. "It might not be right away, but it will happen. And they're watching over you now. Circumstances beyond anyone's control took them from you, Heather, but they still exist on another plane . . . in another realm . . . and nothing would keep them from being with you in any way that they possibly could." Heather is mature for her age and I believe that she understands what I'm telling her. When we lose people that we love so much, it does change our outlooks. After something like that, we can't just be the same as we always were. Sometimes we're never the same again. I don't think I could ever be the same as I was before my family was killed.

Heather smiles, gazing off into the distance wistfully. She's silent for another long moment. "Will you sing, Alister?"

I blink, surprised at the sudden request. When I look down at her, she's still looking at the wall, her eyes half closed in exhaustion after the long day. "What do you want me to sing?" I ask her. I rarely sing for anyone. I don't know if even Valon and Raphael know that I can sing. Heather knows only because once before, when we were first becoming close and she was ill with a fever, she wanted me to sing to her.

"Sing something Christmassy," she says softly. "Do you know O Holy Night?"

My mind wanders off somewhere else. Yes, I know that song. Mama would sing it to me and Miruko. I remember one time in particular, when there was a blackout and Miruko was scared. Mama sang it then, and he calmed down and was happy. Mama always had a beautiful voice, and as I softly sing the carol for Heather, I can hear Mama in my mind, singing it with me. Heather smiles softly, relaxing, and before I've finished, she's drifted off to sleep.

I lean back in the chair, looking up at the ceiling as I remain lost in my memories of Christmases past. And then, strangely, I hear Alexander's voice from the other day, when he had been sitting with me and watching the news.

"Why is it that there's both happiness and sadness all the time, even at Christmas?" he wanted to know, looking up at me from where he had been laying his head on my lap. "I mean . . . I thought Christmas was a time of peace and joy . . . but there's still bad things happening. People are still doing bad things, and other people are still getting hurt, and missing people. . . . It doesn't seem fair."

No, it doesn't. I wasn't even sure what to say to Alexander, because he had caught me off guard with his sudden burst of philosophical thinking. It took me a moment before I was able to think of a reply, and while I was pondering, Raphael spoke up.

"People who are doing bad things aren't gonna stop because it's Christmas," he said darkly.

That gave me the opening I had been looking for. "No, they won't," I agreed then. "We've all got our free agency, and a lot of us abuse it."

Alexander sighed, his wings drooping. "I wish they wouldn't. I don't like seeing so many people being sad. . . ."

"Mr. Mackenzie?"

Startled, I come back to the present and find myself looking up at Ms. Ayamoto, who is in charge of the group home. She sighs, and I frown, seeing that she looks concerned. Is something wrong? Usually she acts more distant and aloof around me.

"What is it?" I ask. "Did something happen to one of the other kids?"

She shakes her head. "They're all fine, but one of your friends is calling. He said that your other friend is missing." She reaches for the sleeping Heather. "He's still on the phone. I'll take her so that you can speak with him."

I let her take Heather, my mind racing as I get up and head to Ms. Ayamoto's office. What happened? Did Raphael not come home from work? Or did Valon go out on his motorcycle and disappear? She hasn't specified who's on the phone.

Reaching the desk, I shakily pick up the receiver and hold it to my ear. "Hello?" Part of me is dreading what I'm going to hear. Maybe it's just because Heather and I were talking about losing our loved ones, but I have an ominous feeling about this. I don't want to lose anyone. . . . Of course, it's probably not anything to worry about. I shouldn't let myself get carried away with morbid thoughts.

"Alister?" It's Raphael. That means it must be Valon who's gone. I grip at the telephone cord.

"What's wrong?" My eyes narrow. "Ms. Ayamoto said that someone is missing. Did something happen to Valon?" The only possible other friend that she could have meant is Alexander, but somehow I don't think it's him. He lives with Dartz, and I usually don't know what's happening with him unless he's coming to visit. He doesn't live with us because of the tension that would probably exist between him and Raphael and Valon, and because he's used to living with Dartz. It's probably better that way.

I hear a sigh on the other end of the phone. "Yeah," Raphael answers. I can tell he's probably rubbing the bridge of his nose in weariness. "He was out riding his motorcycle, and it started to snow about an hour ago, if you haven't noticed. He hasn't come back. I was just about to go look for him."

I haven't noticed. I move the blind at the window, looking out at the fluffy and fat flakes that are falling silently to the ground. The streets are already covered in the substance. Valon could have easily gotten into an accident in this mess. Already my stomach is starting to twist. "I'll leave right now and come to help," I tell him. We make plans for different areas to search and then hang up.

Ms. Ayamoto is standing in the doorway when I turn around. She's still holding Heather, who's slumbering on and is oblivious of any possible trouble. "Were you able to get the matter resolved?" she asks, adopting her usual, business attitude.

"No. I have to find Valon," I answer, walking past her. "If Heather wakes up, tell her I'll be back tomorrow, for the festival." Heather doesn't need to know about Valon being missing. She has too many things already to be worried about. And I'm sure that Valon's just off somewhere and has lost track of time, as he sometimes does. Raphael has told him that he should get a cell phone, but Valon keeps finding other things he wants more. I have one, but it hasn't been working lately.

Ms. Ayamoto nods. "The snow is bad out there," she says slowly, and then points to her own cellular phone on her desk. "Take that with you. There's a chance that you might end up someplace where there isn't a telephone and you'll need one."

I nod in reply, masking my surprise. "I'll return it tomorrow," I reply. Quickly I grab up it and my coat and head out the door.

I walked to the group home, as I usually do, so I don't have a motorcycle to ride through the snow. But that's probably better anyway. I could end up in an accident myself if I was trying to travel that way. Hopefully when I find Valon, he won't have had a problem with his motorcycle.

If he's been stranded somewhere in the snow for a long time, he'll probably catch a cold, or worse—pneumonia. My father was never the same after he had a bad bout of pneumonia, and I don't want to see anyone else I care about having to go through that. Valon already had an experience where he was delirious after nearly drowning in the cold ocean. He was just lucky that he recovered from that.

It's amazing—even though it's still snowing heavily, people are still out walking around. They're worried about getting their Christmas shopping done, I guess. Several of them push past me roughly, not offering apologies, but I mostly ignore them. The majority of the Christmas shoppers are more polite, but in any case I don't really care right now. Soon I'm past all of them. I keep walking, not even sure of where I'm headed.

Valon isn't at the arcade. I've checked there and a couple of his other favorite places. But he knows better than to try to ride a motorcycle through a big snowstorm like this. He's probably somewhere else, waiting it out. At least, that's what I want to think.

I don't know how far I've walked, but now I'm in a more deserted part of town. The snow seems thicker here, maybe because no one has been driving through it. Some of the flakes whip against my face, stinging my cheeks. I pull the high collar closer around me and then take out my sunglasses. It looks like we might have a blizzard tonight, which isn't good when Valon's missing. Even if I find him, we might both get stranded out here.

I take another step forward and stumble, nearly falling on my face in the snow. Instinctively I fling my arms out in front of me as I go down, and I end up touching something. As I hit my knees and look down, I realize that a snow-covered body is laying in front of me. Instantly I go cold inside, reaching to brush some of the powder away from the red jacket. This is Valon. He's wearing his helmet (thank God), and his goggles, but I recognize him. He's either unconscious or . . . never mind.

After glancing around, I can see his motorcycle overturned in the snow nearby. It doesn't look like it was damaged. He probably simply slipped on the icy street and went down. But why is he so still? He shouldn't have any serious head injuries, though it does look like he has a red mark on his forehead. I can see it when I push his bangs aside. Maybe . . . maybe he was knocked senseless and hasn't ever woke up because of the cold. . . .

Sometimes silence can be agonizing.

Gently I feel along his back and neck, trying to make certain that neither is broken. It looks like he's okay as far as that's concerned, so I move him carefully onto his back to check his breathing. I'm not sure I can feel anything. . . . He doesn't move, his skin is cold and pale, and his eyes are closed. He looks almost eerie. Shaking, I push back the thoughts that are trying to come into my mind. No, Valon isn't dead. He's just unconscious from the fall and the snow. I lean over him, again trying to find any sign of breath. Now I think it's there. Yes, I can feel it against my cheek. He's alive.

The next thing I need to do is to get him warm. His hands and the exposed part of his face aren't frostbitten, but they're like ice. He could be suffering from hypothermia, depending on how long he's been out here. That was what led to my dad's pneumonia, except that he fell in water and not snow. But Valon won't end up like him. I won't let him.

Quickly I take off my coat and wrap it around Valon. The cold immediately attacks me, but I ignore it. Today I at least decided to wear my blue long-sleeved shirt, so my arms aren't completely exposed to the below freezing temperatures. I pull Valon's limp body close to me, hoping that I can offer him some semblance of warmth. He slumps against me, moaning softly, but he doesn't wake up.

As he starts to huddle closer, I feel Ms. Ayamoto's cell phone being pressed against my side. I'd forgotten about that, in all the confusion of finding Valon. Now I reach for it with one hand while still holding onto Valon with the other. Quickly I dial Raphael's cell phone number and pray that he answers. The snow is starting to get stronger, and I don't know how much longer Valon will last in it. There's no telling how long he was here before I found him.

Finally I hear a click. "Hello?"

I relax, hearing Raphael's gruff voice. "I found Valon," I tell him, and then explain the rest. "If you're anywhere nearby, you should try to get here as soon as you can," I finish, giving him our location.

Raphael growls. "I don't think I'm too far away, but the snow's slowing me down. Are there any buildings you could go in while I'm trying to get there?" I can hear the sound of brakes screeching in the background.

"No," I answer. "It looks like we're on the edge of a field. There aren't any buildings around at all." I sigh, feeling the wind whip my hair about. "Just come as soon as you can. I don't know if Valon can stand the cold much longer." I hang up to let Raphael concentrate on driving, and I turn my attention back to keeping Valon warm.

We seem so insignificant here, all alone with nature's fury attacking us on all sides. We're no match for the harsh winds and snow. It reminds me of how I felt when I was with Miruko, trying desperately to take care of him. I felt so alone then, as if the weight of my world was on my shoulders. It really was, too. I was the only one who could take care of my brother, and I failed. I can't fail again. I can't let Valon die.

I hold his half-frozen body close to me, making sure that my coat is still securely around him. I hear him mumbling to himself, but he still doesn't regain consciousness. I wish he would. . . . I wonder what he's dreaming about. He must be dreaming of something, or he wouldn't be mumbling.

My thoughts wander, and I gaze out at the glistening snow I see memories of Christmases gone by. I can hear Miruko's laughter as we ran through the new snow, throwing snowballs and building snowforts and snowmen. I can see Mama standing on the porch, smiling and laughing as she watched us. I smile softly, almost wistfully, listening to the happy sounds that now are only in my mind.

I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. . . .

It wasn't so long ago, but it might as well have been in another lifetime. I'm not that little boy anymore. I haven't been him for years. Sometimes, in situations like this, when I once again am carrying the fate of other people, I wish that these burdens wouldn't fall on me. I don't think I'm qualified and I'm terrified that I'll fail.

Suddenly I realize that a shadow has fallen over me. I look up, expecting to see Raphael, but instead there's a Catholic nun standing here. She smiles kindly at me and then looks to Valon. "Ah, Valon, you're still getting in trouble," she says softly, shaking her head.

I frown at her in confusion. "Who are you?" I demand to know.

She looks back to me. "A friend," she says in reassurance. "And Valon will be alright. You were led to him in time, Alister."

A chill goes up my spine. Valon has sometimes talked about the time he spent in the orphanage, and especially about the nun Mother Mary. "She was the only really good thing about the place," he said once. "The other kids didn't like me, and so I didn't like them either. But Mother Mary, she really cared. She wasn't one of those kinda religious fanatics who figures that the letter of the law is the most important thing. She was sincere, y'know? She really wanted to help all us anklebiters out." This has to be her. She seems to know Valon, and anyway, I doubt that any local nuns would be out walking in this weather.

"You're Valon's nun, aren't you." It's a statement, not a question.

She smiles and nods. "I took care of him when he was a child. He was a handful, always getting into some sort of trouble. But even though he put up such a tough front, I knew that behind it was a confused and pained boy who only wanted to be loved. I did my best for him while I could, but then I was killed and poor Valon was swallowed up by his anger and pain." She looks firmly into my eyes. "I'm glad that he now has true friends who would do anything to keep him safe. You and Raphael love him, and he loves the both of you in return." She smiles again. "The three of you needed each other, Alister. All of you have benefitted from being together, and your meeting was not a coincidence. It was meant to happen."

And just as mysteriously as she's come, she's gone again. Realizing how tired I'm getting, I start to wonder just how long I've been here with Valon. Why doesn't Raphael come? Has he gotten into trouble? I hope he's alright. . . . I don't know if I can stay awake much longer. We really need to get up and move around, but that's impossible since Valon is unconscious.

At least I know that Valon will be alright. Surely Mother Mary knows what she's talking about. So maybe this time, I won't fail. . . .

It's only when my eyes snap open again that I realize I must have started to doze. The cold is getting to me. I was walking in it for some time before I actually found Valon, but maybe I've been here with him longer than I thought. I wonder if seeing Mother Mary was real or if I hallucinated her. Maybe it was all a dream and I was dozing for some time. But I can't let myself go to sleep. Then I probably won't wake up. And I do want to live. I have to live and make sure that Valon gets safely to where it's warm. I've come to realize something else, too. There are people who would be upset if I die, especially at a time like this. I have to stay alive, for them.

But it's so hard to stay awake. . . . The snow looks inviting. I could just lay in it with Valon and close my eyes. I'd wake right up again. Ugh, what am I thinking? I wouldn't wake up. I'd go to sleep and then be in the same state as Valon, or worse, since I gave him my coat and I don't even have a jacket, as he did before I found him.

I think I hear a car coming at last. It must be Raphael. Maybe now we'll finally be rescued and get to go home. Then we can sleep naturally in our beds. Valon will be alright, and Raphael is as well. I see him coming toward us, looking upset. He's saying something, but I'm not sure what it is. I'm trying so hard to stay awake, but now that he's here, most of the rest of my willpower is slipping away.

He kneels down next to us and I slump forward, falling against him. Oblivion and sleep sound so good right now. . . . Colors swirl in my vision before giving way to darkness.

This feels so soft. . . . What is it? I'm laying on something soft and warm. I like it. But where am I? Am I back home, in bed? I hope I'm not in the hospital. I hate hospitals.

I struggle to open my eyes, and after a couple of failed attempts, I manage it. As I focus, I see to my relief that I am in my bed. Does that mean that Valon is here too? I remember what happened now, and how Valon was hurt. Slowly I try to sit up, and as I do, the bed suddenly vibrates as someone plops on it.

"Hey! We were startin' to wonder if you'd ever wake up, chum."

I look up, startled, and find myself looking at a grinning Valon. A bandage is peeking out from under his thick bangs, but otherwise he looks perfectly fine. He laughs, cuffing me on the arm, and I realize that I'm wearing a dark grey, short-sleeved shirt. "Crazy fella," he remarks.

Raphael shakes his head, approaching from the other side of the bed. "Give him some time to recover before you bombard him," he grunts. He looks weary, but relieved as well. How long have I been out of it?

I'm relieved myself, to see that Valon's alright, but outwardly I give him a pokerfaced expression. "You seem to be feeling energetic for someone who could have died a few hours ago," I tell him flatly.

"Yeah, well, I didn't," Valon answers, "'cause some crazy bloke gave me his coat when he needed it himself!" He grabs me by the front of my shirt, pulling me towards him as his eyes flash. "You could've croaked, for cryin' out loud!"

"Well," I say calmly, echoing Valon, "I didn't."

He lets me go, muttering to himself, and then looks up again. "Don't you get it!" he bursts out. "I don't wanna lose you!" He glares at me, gripping tightly at the quilt with one hand. Then his shoulders slump. "I guess it's stupid. . . ."

Raphael comes and sits down in a nearby chair. "You care about him," he says gruffly. "That's not stupid." Then he pauses. "And if it is, we're all stupid then." We've all suffered heartache and the loss of loved ones. We've all been closed off from others in our own ways, and yet for some reason, we care about each other and we want to be together. Some people could call that stupid, or foolish, or even insane. We're all risking the pain again, and yet for some reason all of us seem to think it's worth it. A while ago I would have denied that I felt this way, but I would rather take a chance on suffering the pain of loss again in order to be with Valon and Raphael instead of forcing myself to stay closed off and alone.

"Heh. . . ." I lean back against the soft pillows and look firmly at Valon. "I didn't want to lose you, either," I tell him, "so I did what I had to and determined that I wouldn't die."

"Oy. . . . You can't go tryin' to cheat death, Alister." Valon slumps back into the pillows too.

"It's strange that you would say that," Raphael remarks, giving Valon a pointed look.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Valon retorts, even though he knows exactly what it means.

I grunt. "With all the dangerous stunts you do, it's a miracle that you're still alive."

Valon rolls his eyes.

I still want some answers about what's gone on. I look back up at Raphael. "When did you find us?" I ask. I still remember vaguely seeing Raphael getting out of the car and coming to us, but after that everything is a blank. And it seems like I must have been asleep or unconscious for a long time following that, for Valon to be awake and cheerful. After all, it would have taken him a while to be able to come to.

Raphael sighs. "Not as soon as I should have," he says darkly. "The snow caused more problems than I thought it was going to. Then there was an accident and a road block, and I had to try to find another way around." He narrows his eyes. "And I wasn't as close to where you two were as I thought I was." I can see he feels guilty. It's obvious in his eyes and in his tone of voice. "You were probably in the snow for a couple of hours, at least."

Valon stretches. "I woke up not too long ago, but you were still out of it," he says to me. "Raph had a rough time getting us home. He said he gave you his coat and turned up the heat in the car all the way. Then he tried to remember how to get back without running into the road blocks." He grins at Raphael. "But you did fine, Raph. Don't beat yourself up over it. After all, you got us here safe and we're all alive and kickin', right?"

Raphael grunts, but he knows that Valon is right. And not being one to dwell on the past, he tries to relax.

"What happened to you anyway, Valon?" I ask, looking to him. Raphael crosses his arms, looking as though he's already heard the tale.

Valon places his arms behind his head. "I was gonna head for home when it started snowing," he answers, sounding somewhat annoyed. "So then I was going along and skidded on the road. I went one way, my motorcycle went another, and I must've crashed down on the pavement." He shrugs helplessly. "I don't remember anything after that."

Liu hops up on the bed with us, walking over our laps and rubbing against us before moving to Raphael in the chair and starting to knead his chest. He shakes his head, obviously amused, and reaches to pet her. Then he looks up again, at Valon. "You're just lucky that you didn't break anything," he says dryly, "and that Alister found you in time."

Valon smirks, then finally sobers. "Yeah . . . I know," he admits, and pokes me in the arm to get my attention. I look at him. "You and Raph . . . you've both always been really good to me, probably a lot better than I deserve." He looks back at me, then to Raphael, his blue eyes serious. It's strange to see him looking so earnest and sincere. Sometimes I wonder if my initial impression that he wears his heart on his sleeve is actually false, and that he actually hides much more than he shows when it comes to his feelings.

Raphael grunts. "You're family. We look out for each other." Liu nuzzles him and he pets her again.

I nod in agreement. "You've done the same for us," I tell him. I still remember the time that he took a bullet for me. It was haunting, watching him fall to the asphalt. . . . He was bleeding badly, and the whole scene reminded me too much of the war, when I'd seen so many loved ones die. I'll never forget that sight.

Valon stretches and turns onto his side, propping himself up on an elbow. "Hey," he says, changing the subject, "that festival thing you've been getting ready for is tomorrow, isn't it?" He glances at my clock. "Well . . . later today," he corrects himself, and I turn to look at it as well. Apparently it's going on for three-thirty AM.

"It is," I reply. Why is he asking about that? He didn't seem to show much interest in it before.

He nods slowly. "Maybe I'll drop by," he suggests now, and I really am surprised. "I could introduce them to an Australian Christmas song that I heard a while ago," he says, and smirks.

"I thought being around kids makes you nervous," I say flatly. "That's probably why you still can't get along with Alexander."

Valon shrugs. "Eh. . . . You're right, I don't like bein' around 'em," he answers. I notice that Raphael doesn't really look surprised by the conversation. I wonder if he and Valon had a conversation of their own either while I was still unconscious or before Valon even went out on his motorcycle. "But I know what it's like to be all alone in some place like that, and it's not any fun. 'Course, if there's some people around who really care, like you, it makes things a lot easier." He looks up at me. "I've always thought it was right nice of you, chum, to go try to smooth things over for those anklebiters. A lot of 'em probably look on you like I did on Mother Mary." His voice gets softer as he says this.

I'm not really sure what to say to that. I guess it's possible. I've often hoped that I would make a difference. I know Jamie and Heather feel close to me. And Heather was so distant before she finally started to open up to me.

I wonder if I should tell Valon that I saw Mother Mary. Or did I really? It could have been something I dreamed. But actually, I don't think it was. It was too real. If it was a dream, then Mother Mary must have really appeared within it. She wanted to reassure me that Valon would be okay, and to let me know that she's still watching over him. I think Valon would want to know that. It might give him some comfort, the way knowing that Miruko is watching over me gives me comfort.

Raphael is nodding approvingly. "I was thinking that I might come too," he says.

"Sounds good," Valon grins, and then looks to me. "What do you say, Alister?"

I lean back. "It's fine with me," I answer.

A glimmer of gold catches my eye and I glance down at the locket around my neck. Slowly I hold it up and click it open, looking at the pictures of Mama and Miruko inside. Memories of old Christmases again come to my mind, and then I remember another year, during the time I was with Doom.

I was walking down the cold streets, angry and hurting and remembering how things had used to be. People had passed me by and I had heard the song I'll Be Home For Christmas playing on someone's car radio.

I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. . . .

I had scoffed silently. I didn't even have my dreams then, I decided. My dreams had died with my family and my heart. And when I did dream, it was of terror and pain. When I had dreams, they were nightmares.

That night I did dream, though, and it was of pleasant times—Christmases past. I relived all those special times with my family as the years went on. It seemed like the happy part of my life was lived again in those short hours, and when I woke up I felt such an intense longing and loneliness that I actually was in pain. My heart was aching, but I wouldn't accept that explanation. After all, my heart was supposed to be dead.


I'm startled back to the present as Valon waves his hand in front of my face. "Where the heck did you go off to?" he demands. "You spaced out on us, mate." Raphael gives him a warning look.

I grunt. "I was just remembering some things that happened a while back," I say, and then don't offer any more information.

It's amazing, how much my outlook has changed since that dark and lonely year. I still don't have my mother and my brother back, but they gave me hope. When I saw Miruko while my spirit was separated from my body, I realized that he still lives on, just as I'd always tried to believe about Mama. I will still have a chance to be with my family again. And then I realized something else: I still have a family here on earth. Actually, I'd known that for a long time, but I was too afraid to embrace the truth. But slowly I'd begun to heal, and then I finally felt ready to acknowledge that I'm not alone. When I went looking for Valon and Raphael after Doom, and found that they still wanted me, I think that was when I finally felt that I could open my heart again. The risk of pain is worth being able to be accepted and loved. At least, that's how it's been for me.

I don't need to have dreams in order to be home for Christmas. I know that I am home, right now.