Chapter One

A week later

Raphael was lost in the strange world of a dream. It was a confused fog, and he did not remember anything more than that as he was slowly pulled out of sleep by an incessant motor and a soft thing brushing against his face. As he returned further into the conscious world, he realized that Liu must be awake and demonstrating her immense affection for him. And sure enough, as he opened his eyes he found himself looking at the furry body of his Ragdoll cat as she repeatedly purred and rubbed against him.

He shook his head slowly, amused by her antics. "Silly cat," he muttered, reaching out to pet her. The purr increased.

Slowly he raised himself up, glancing to the clock on the nightstand. He growled in frustration when he saw that he had slept through the alarm. He should have woken up nearly thirty minutes earlier. The weather forecast had promised snow, and it would be difficult to drive to work in that. Idly he wondered if the prediction had come true.

He sighed as he glanced out the window and saw large snowflakes falling past. He would have to hurry if he hoped to get to the insurance company on time. They did not like it when people came late. Raphael had always tried to be on time, but every now and then there was the occasion when it could not be helped. This might prove to be one of those times. Sleepily he threw back the comforter quilt as he shifted into position to stand up.

Liu sat on the edge of the bed and watched him, her eyes half-closed in contentment. Her long, fluffy tail was spread out along the side of Raphael's pillow, and she twitched it in a seemingly random way as Raphael headed out of the room and into the bathroom down the hall. Then, as if having an afterthought, she leaped down and padded across the floor until she had also reached the bathroom. Quickly she slipped in as the door was being shut and then gracefully hopped up onto the edge of the sink. This was their morning routine. She would sit in the sink and wait for Raphael to have his shower, and then they would go into the kitchen for breakfast.

But today Raphael was not certain that he would have time for breakfast. He might have to grab something on the go and then eat it in his office once he arrived at work. Quickly he turned on the water and stepped into the tub.

Down the hall he could hear that Valon had woken up. The Australian was blaring Linkin Park so loudly that Raphael could easily hear it over the sound of the shower. The blonde man grunted when he realized that he actually had subconsciously memorized some of the lyrics of the song that was on right now—With You. Obviously he had grown more used to the rock music than he had ever believed he would.

He was not certain whether Alister was asleep or awake at the moment, but if the poor man was still trying to slumber, that would not last for very long. Hopefully, Raphael thought to himself, Valon would have the sense to wait until he knew that everyone was up before blaring his rock music.

His parents probably would have had a heart attack if he had ever played the kind of music that Valon liked. Of course, they had never had to worry that he would. He had been raised on classical and chamber music, and he had always been perfectly content with that. Now that he was older, he still preferred those genres above any others.

Before he quite realized what was happening, he was already getting out of the shower. He had been thinking the entire time, and therefore had been doing things automatically. As he reached for a towel, he saw that Liu was now curled up in the sink and he could not resist being amused.

"Just what are you planning to do in there?" he asked. Liu mewed and he shook his head. Cats could be such strange animals. But they also were beautiful, intelligent, and had their own minds, all of which Raphael liked about them. He preferred them over dogs, which seemed to enjoy romping through all manner of filth and then tracking it through the house. His younger brother Julien had liked dogs and had wanted badly to have one, but their parents had objected. Raphael remembered that then they had finally agreed, if the dog stayed outside in the expansive yard. And that had worked well, until the day that Julien had not been able to resist letting the dog inside. . . .

"Hey Raph!"

Raphael looked up when he heard Valon right outside the door. He realized then that he had been getting lost in his memories and that it was steadily getting late. "Yeah?" he said, opening the door and walking out of the bathroom with the towel wrapped around his waist.

Valon stepped out of his way. "Just wondered what was up," he said with a shrug. "I mean, you're supposed to leave about now, aren't you?"

Raphael growled. "Yeah," he answered, going into his room to get dressed. "I'll just have to hope that I won't crash into a snowbank on the way."

Valon leaned on his door, smirking a bit in amusement. "You're just as cheery as ever," he remarked. "Oh yeah, and the cat's in the sink again." He still wondered what sort of kick Liu got out of doing that, but he decided not to think too much about it. He doubted, after all, that he would ever figure out what was going on in that cat's mind. He had trouble enough determining what Raphael and Alister were thinking without pondering over the cat's thoughts.

Raphael grunted, sorting through his drawer for a white dress shirt and a tie. Going to work in a suit was still something that did not particularly appeal to him, but the job paid well and they definitely needed the money, so he dealt with it. And at any rate, he was certain that he could handle it better than Valon could—not that Valon would ever get such a job in the first place. "I know," he spoke then in response to Valon's last comment. "She does it all the time. Is Alister awake?"

Valon rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I guess so," he said. "I knocked on his door and asked if he was and he grunted at me. So I told him I was gonna play a CD and he said 'Fine.'"

Raphael hurried to adjust the tie. "Well, at least you didn't go ahead and blast it over the amplifiers without first checking to see if he was up." He studied his reflection in the mirror and was frustrated to find that the tie was still crooked. Muttering to himself, he tried one more time. It still did not look right, but he decided that it would have to do. He did not want to be late for work because his tie would not cooperate.

Valon again backed out of the way when he heard the doorknob turn. He watched his friend come out and head for the stairs, then stop and go to Alister's door. "I'm leaving now," Raphael called through.

"Alright," Alister answered, then paused. "Be careful," he said then. "It's still snowing."

Raphael sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Don't I know it," he muttered.

He looked down, feeling something brush against him, and saw Liu rubbing her head and body over his legs. Amused, he bent down to swiftly pet her goodbye. "So you came out of the sink, eh?" he said, scratching behind her ears before standing up and hurrying down the stairs.

Valon leaned on the railing, watching him get his coat and head out the door. "See ya, Raph," he called. Raphael nodded in reply and shut the door before snow could blow in.

Valon sighed to himself and straightened up, wondering what he would do today. He could not ride his motorcycle in the snow, and he doubted that Alister would be very good company. He usually was not. And so Valon decided to spend the day watching some new anime that he had found out about.

Feeling eyes gazing upon him, he looked around and found Liu looking up at him expectantly. "What do you want?" he asked, even though he figured that she desired food. Shaking his head, he went to the stairs and started to descend. "Come on, kitty, let's get some breakfast," he decided, "and then you can watch TV with me."

Liu scampered after him, perfectly content with that.

Alister remained in his room for a while longer. He was stretched out on his bed, gazing down thoughtfully at the true crime book he had been reading. Most fiction stories bored him, as it seemed that they were either too incredible to be believed at all or else too filled with ridiculous romantic subplots that were not really necessary. Alister preferred to get the facts, and he liked reading about how real criminals were captured, so true crime was the perfect genre for him.

It is interesting, though, he thought to himself as he slowly sat up, that if anyone tried to write the truth about the supernatural they would be branded as a delusional idiot. And yet that would be as true as this story is.

He sighed softly to himself. He would be perfectly content if it was not true—if there were not any such things as the Orichalcos that could corrupt people's minds and hearts. And yet, ironically, he would not have met Raphael and Valon if it had not been for the Orichalcos. He still wondered about that.

He also wondered if any of them would have even had a desire to meet, if they had still had their families with them. It was not anything that he would lose sleep over, but it was something that bothered him whenever he happened to think of it. He supposed that Valon, growing up in the orphanage, would have been happy to have found a couple of people to be his friends, but he somewhat doubted that they would have gotten along well with each other. As it was, they certainly had not when they had met in real life, and it had taken years of serving in Doom for them to realize that they cared about each other.

Slowly he stood up, gazing out the window at the winter snow before leaving the room and going downstairs to get breakfast. Miruko had told him once that he had been meant to meet the other two, that they all needed each other, and that being together was the best way for them to grow and develop into better people. Alister had wanted to ask him if that had meant that Miruko and their other family members had all been supposed to die, just as Dartz had believed, but he had not had the chance. That thought, however, disturbed him highly. He certainly did not want to think that everything had happened the way it had been supposed to be.

He came back to the present as he arrived at the kitchen. Valon had managed to get the chocolate cereal down from the top shelf and now was sitting at the table, eating quickly as he always did and gazing out the window at seemingly nothing in particular. Alister assumed that Valon had not heard him come in, but he found that he was wrong.

"Snow's comin' down pretty heavy," the Australian remarked.

Alister grunted. "Are you saying you think Raphael is going to have problems getting to work?" Sometimes he wondered how it was that Valon could know when someone had entered the room, even when he appeared to be preoccupied. Perhaps, he decided, it was a skill he had learned on the streets.

Valon shrugged. "Naw . . . not if he's careful." He smirked. "And it seems like he always is."

"Unlike you, you mean." Alister searched the cupboard until he found a box of wheat flakes and decided to have that. He was not particularly fond of cereals that had lots of sugar in them, and far preferred various types of flakes and Cheerios instead.

Valon frowned at him. "Heeey," he retorted, "that's not what I meant at all!"

Alister found a bowl and dumped some of the flakes into it. "It's true, though," he said flatly.

"I'm careful." Valon munched on a spoonful of cocoa. "If I wasn't, I wouldn't still be here." This sort of banter was usual between him and Alister. He did not really mind it, as it was a way for them to communicate in a fairly civil manner. Of course, on the other hand, it often had a way of leading to more unpleasant conversations.

"You're still here because you've been extremely lucky." Alister poured the milk and then brought the bowl to the table. Liu glanced up briefly from her own breakfast to watch him, but then returned her attention to the food. "Lots of other people who do the stunts you do are dead right now." And frankly, it worried Alister at times, as he knew it worried Raphael also. Valon was not indestructible, and sooner or later he would discover that fact . . . probably painfully.

Valon rolled his eyes. "Aw, come on, Alister. I'm not gonna croak till I'm good and ready." He smirked again. "And I don't think that's gonna be for a long time, if it happens at all."

"All of us will die eventually," Alister responded.

"True enough." Valon was no longer amused by the conversation. He licked the milk off of his spoon and studied his friend. "But you've always gotta be morbid, don't you?" He frowned. "Life's not all about death, Alister. You've gotta enjoy it while you can."

Alister grunted. "I enjoy it, in my own way. I don't think I need to do a lot of dangerous motorcycle tricks in order to do so."

"Naw, you enjoy it by being anti-social and hanging around in your room a lot." Valon frankly wondered at times how he and Alister ever managed to get along at all. They were still just as different as they had ever been, and still often came to blows. But every now and then they actually were able to have a peaceful conversation.

Alister, however, doubted that this conversation would stay peaceful if it continued in the vein in which it was going. He merely shrugged.

Valon sighed, then blinked at him curiously. "So . . . what do you do all that time in your room?" he asked finally. It was something he had often wondered about, and occasionally he had tried to ask before, but Alister had always seemed to think that he was asking in a prying manner and had not given a straight answer.

Alister could see that right now Valon was genuinely interested. He supposed that there was not any harm in telling him something, so he said, "What do you think I do?"

Valon was frustrated at being asked a question in response to a question. "I dunno," he retorted. "Probably sit around and think a lot. Do you even like to read or stuff like that?" For some reason he found it strange to think of Alister having any sort of hobbies. It seemed to him that usually the redhead was always lost in thought about something and did not have the time or the interest for anything else.

Alister finished his cereal. "Sometimes," he answered. "But not fiction."

Valon supposed that he had been expecting such an answer, but he persisted. "Yeah? Isn't it kinda nice to have an escape from all the crazy stuff that goes on in real life?" That was why he enjoyed the anime and manga that he did. It seemed like entirely different worlds to get involved with. When he had been the angry, lonely child in the orphanage—the child that nobody wanted—he had thrived on such stories. He had stayed up late at night reading them, captivated by each page more than the last. He wondered if Alister had ever done that as a child.

And Alister had, actually, but that seemed to him as though it was in another lifetime. He was not that inquisitive boy anymore and he never tried to return to the way he had been then. Even if some part of him longed to have not had to grow up as soon as he did, he ignored it. "I never do escape, Valon," he said, his voice quiet. "I don't have any escape. I can't escape from myself."

Valon sighed, sobering. "I should've figured you'd say that," he said. Then he leaned back, deciding that he did not want things to remain so somber. "So . . . what kinda stuff do you read, anyway?" Somehow he could not picture Alister enjoying biographies, or archaeological books, or anything such as that. None of that seemed to fit the older man's dark personality.

"True crime," Alister said flatly. "I like to see criminals brought to justice."

Valon blinked at first, but then decided that it was actually not such a surprise. "That figures," he said, and then was truly surprised by the thought that he might enjoy such books himself, if the action content was good. Valon was always up for something that had a lot of death-defying escapes and intense battles, and he was a firm believer that truth was stranger than fiction. Doom certainly had proved that.

"Occasionally," Alister continued now, "I play the harmonica."

Valon stared at him, his eyes wide. "Yeah?" he exclaimed in disbelief. That certainly did not sound like something Alister would do. Valon had not thought that Alister would enjoy playing any instrument at all. Alister could not stand to perform for anyone, as was evidenced by the fact that he never pulled voice-acting stunts unless he had to. He did not want to be on display, being mere entertainment.

"I learned it when I was a child," Alister told him, seeing his shocked expression. "I don't play it unless I'm alone."

And, as Valon thought more about it, he supposed that a harmonica was a good instrument for Alister. It was quite melancholy, after all, and Alister certainly seemed to like dark and melancholy things. "So," he said slowly, "why're you telling this to me now? I mean . . . I figured you'd wanna keep it a secret."

Alister shrugged. "I just felt like it," he replied finally, not able to think of what else to say. Every now and then he was willing to let the others in on a small part of his anti-social life, but he never revealed that much. And he was certain, after all, that they kept their share of secrets as well.

Raphael sighed softly to himself, rubbing his eyes tiredly as he stopped at a semaphore. It had been a long, hard day at work, with clients coming in—it seemed—one after another. Raphael had barely had a chance to stop and think. He hoped that he had given everyone their correct files and that nothing had gotten mixed up. In all the rush, he partially worried that he may have left part of a lettuce leaf from his lunch in one of the folders. Oh well. If it had happened, there was not anything he could do about it now.

The light turned green and he stepped on the accelerator. As he turned a nearby corner, the snow blew out in front of his windshield and he growled, momentarily having trouble seeing where he was going. As the flakes started to dissipate, he barely made out the shape of an approaching car in time to swerve away from it. He heard the horn being honked at him as he drove past, but he ignored the noise.

He hoped that Alister and Valon had been able to get along well enough for the day. Sometimes they actually seemed to accomplish that feat. And at other times, they fell to arguing again and Raphael would be able to feel the tension as soon as he would step into the house. He prayed that this would not be one of those days. That was the last thing he needed right now. He wanted to get home and be able to relax.

As he turned another corner, it dawned on him that the car was only increasing its speed. Frowning deeply, he pressed on the brake pedal, but to no avail. It had been working only a moment ago. What was wrong? He stomped on it with all his might, the car practically soaring over the unplowed road, as a large field came into view.

Many thoughts went through his mind at that moment. Was he going to die? What would happen to Alister and Valon—and Liu—if he did? Why were his brakes failing? Had someone tampered with the car?

Then a bright light enveloped Raphael's vision and he did not see anything more.