Detective Conan

In the End

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! It was inspired by It's a Wonderful Life, and thank you to everyone who provided encouragement for this---especially to Aubrie, who gave me the final push to get it all written, and to Lisa, who helped me fix the ending! It's one of those stories that just had to be written. It takes place in the Good Enough for You timeline, but the focus is the relationship between Gin and Vodka. There are references to not only the above-named story, but also Breakdown and Snow White Queen, so if anyone ends up confused, I hope they will read said stories instead of telling me that things don't make sense.

The sounds were mixed and jumbled in his confusion, but as he slowly began to regain consciousness, they started to separate into their own distinct categories. People were screaming-some horrified, some worried, others calling orders. . . . Was it his imagination, or were there others who were crying? For such distressed feelings to be present, someone other than he must be hurt.

Sirens could be heard in the distance, and coming closer. He winced, the noise bothering the splitting headache he was just beginning to realize he had. There were several sets of sirens, he realized, and more yelling. Many people must be injured. Had there been a pileup on the highway?

Memories started to flash through his mind as he worked to pry open his uncooperative eyes. Snow . . . a car careening out of control . . . a furiously honking horn. The car he had been driving had been hit. The car was not his, and . . . wait . . . he should not be alone. Someone had been with him. Someone had been on the passenger side, where the opposing vehicle had seemed to have struck with the most force.

Gin. . . .

He gazed at the scene before him as his vision finally came back into focus. The only thing he could see at first was something dark and hard and leathery. He was slumped over the steering wheel, and a sticky substance was trailing onto his hands. He was bleeding. He pushed himself upright as best as he could, blinking as he tried to keep the crimson liquid from running into his eyes. Shakily he reached up, touching his forehead and then wincing. He was not sure what had happened, but it hurt.

The window on his side was alright, as was that part of the windshield. But he swallowed hard, feeling sick as he turned his attention to the other side. The right side of the windshield was badly cracked, and part of the passenger side's window was completely shattered. Some of the pieces were probably outside, but the rest seemed to have scattered across his companion's lap and on the floor around his feet. The remaining part of the window, he noticed with further alarm, featured blood on the jagged edges.

By now he dreaded even seeing what had become of his partner, but he knew that somehow he had to struggle to do so. The other probably needed immediate medical attention. Bracing himself, he turned his gaze away from the broken glass.

The blonde was slumped back in the passenger seat, motionless. Several long strands of hair had slipped over one shoulder, and his left hand was hanging down limply. The right was on his lap, and thin streams of red decorated it. His face was wreathed in shadows, and the driver had to undo the seat belt and lean over to see.

A small scratch, probably from the flying glass, was on the other's left cheek, and another was near his jaw. The bangs were concealing his eyes, but his partner knew that they would be closed. The hair on the right side was matted down, and blood streamed across it and down the pale face. He had either hit his temple on the inside of the door or on the window itself, and both ways could be very serious.

The dizziness for the driver only increased, especially as he saw his companion's stillness. Trembling, he reached out, gripping the left shoulder desperately as he tried to choke out words. "Bro . . . bro, wake up," he pleaded vainly, giving the older man a weak shake. The blonde did not stir, or even groan, and the other's panic increased tenfold. He leaned over further, grabbing the right shoulder as well. "Bro! . . ." he cried, but could not gather the strength to shake the green-eyed man again.

Equilibrium failed him and he plunged forward, crashing against the other's body. Even with this, there was no movement, and as he lay with his head close to the blonde's heart, his blood ran cold. Maybe he was wrong, maybe he was too injured himself to be able to tell . . . but he was almost certain that there was no heartbeat.

"Gin . . ." he gasped, his voice reflecting how parched his mouth felt. Gin was dead; he must be dead! Maybe he had lost too much blood, or maybe the head wound had been too serious for survival, or maybe it was even something else, some internal damage that he could not see. But in his dazed and semi-conscious condition, he was sure of one thing-this was his fault.

He had been driving, but he had not seen the other car until it had been too late. If he had noticed sooner, and could have swerved in time, or if it had hit on the other side, maybe Gin would be alright. But he was not, he could never be alright. It was his partner's fault, his partner's foolishness, that had done this. Why had Gin ever entrusted him with the car? Why had Gin trusted him that much? He had failed that trust.

He had always failed. He had never been able to complete any assignment he was given without the blonde's guidance. His carelessness had caused many small problems that could have been disastrous if not caught, and now it had caused a big problem that was disastrous and could not be corrected.

Gin had always done better without him. He had not even wanted a partner, but they had been assigned to each other by the base's director. When the blonde had eventually run off with Sherry, he could have so easily left the stout man behind. He had probably only let the other come out of a sense of obligation, or because he had not wanted the careless man to end up revealing that they had left. He would have been fine if they had never met.

The driver's existence was useless any way he looked at it. His self-confidence had always been low, and with the almost certain knowledge of Gin's death, it had shattered into pieces smaller than the glass fragments from the window. As unconsciousness claimed him again, one final thought went through his mind-a thought that, in his moment of bewilderment and anguish, he felt certain was the complete and honest truth.

He should never have been born in the first place.

"You shouldn't wish for things like that, Vodka."

Again consciousness started to wash over him. He could feel that he was sprawled on his stomach, and that he was laying on something hard and cold. He shivered as the chill spread through his clothes and to his skin. He wanted to get up, he had to get up, away from that biting surface.

Weakly he opened his eyes, watching as things came into focus. He was on the rough asphalt, which was covered with snow and ice. He could see all of it in front of him, as well as a pair of women's pumps, but he ignored the latter as memories of the crash came rushing back. Why was he out in the street? He had been in the car, with Gin, and there had been so many people outside, and sirens. . . .

The color drained from his face as he fully took in the eerie silence around him. Placing his hands on the road, he pushed himself up to look around. There were no sirens, no people screaming or crying, no smashed or damaged cars. The Porsche was gone, Gin was gone . . . everything was gone. He was alone, out on this road of nothingness that seemed to stretch forever. Alone . . . except for those pumps.

He whirled, looking back to them. They were still there, and his gaze drifted upward, blushing as he took in the long legs, the knee-length skirt, the shapely torso, and the gently smiling face, framed by dark brown hair that cascaded over the shoulders. The hands were drawn and clasped behind the back, and he recognized the blue eyes that looked down at him. The crimson left his face, replaced again by sheet white.

"Akemi Miyano," he choked out, his thoughts racing. This was not even possible! Akemi was dead. She could not be here. At least, he should not be able to see her, not unless he was also . . .

"Ah, you do remember me," she smiled, winking at him. "Of course, you always were good with keeping track of names and faces." She held out a hand, apparently intending to help him get to his feet.

He could only stare dumbly at the appendage, then up at her. "What happened?" he cried, stumbling and stuttering over his words. "There was that accident I got us into, and Gin was . . . I mean, he seemed like he was . . ." He trailed off, shaking his head. He could not say it. "Where is everything?" he burst out. "It couldn't have all gotten cleaned up that fast! And why am I out here?"

Akemi listened patiently to his befuddled rambling, nodding slightly in agreement to some of the remarks and doing nothing for others. Then she half-turned, looking out at the deserted highway. "It was a horrible, tragic accident," she said quietly. "At least six cars and a semi were involved, and there were several deaths. Many others are seriously injured and not expected to make it through the night." She did not say more, and continued to stand where she was, her hair gently blowing in the breeze that was picking up momentum. She seemed to be deep in contemplation, but before Vodka could think what to do, she looked back to him abruptly.

"What do you think of your wish now, Vodka?" she inquired. Her expression had sobered, and she looked searchingly into the heavyset man's bluish-lavender eyes for the answer. He realized then that he was missing his sunglasses, and he quickly averted his gaze.

"My wish?" he mumbled. He was only becoming more bewildered with every passing moment. None of this was making sense, and Akemi was not helping.

"You thought to yourself that it would have been better if you had never been born," Akemi replied. "But you're more rational now than you were then. Do you still feel the same way about your life?"

He did not meet her gaze. How was it her business what he felt? Why should he tell her? But . . . how would she even know his last conscious thoughts in the first place? He frowned, looking up at her now.

"I was there," she told him simply, easily deciphering the questions in his eyes. "I felt your pain, I sensed your thoughts. You were afraid Gin was dead, and that it was because of you that your dear friend had suffered." Vodka's mouth droppe open in shock, and she had to smile softly at the look in his eyes. "There's no need to look so cornered," she said, stepping closer to him. "You can't admit it, and neither can he, but you've been close friends for years. Everyone around you can see it."

Vodka looked away again, not willing to acknowledge Akemi's remarks, nor to deny them. "Gin would have been better off without me," he said at last, his voice a monotone. Something compelled him to speak, to talk to Akemi, even though he did not want to. She had been Gin's childhood friend, not his. They had only met a few times as children, and even more rarely as adults. Still, she had always had that effect on him, to be able to get him to talk about his true feelings. It had always confused him then, and it did so even more now.

"You really think so, don't you?" He could feel that she was still looking at him. "Let's look at something, Vodka."

He blinked, looking up with a start. He wanted to ask her what she was talking about, and to say that he did not want to see Gin's body again, but any words died in his throat when he saw that they were now standing in a hospital room. But how on earth had they gotten there? It had just suddenly happened, even though that was impossible! And why were they there? What did Akemi want him to see?

His gaze traveled around the room. It seemed like any other, normal hospital room at first glance. Then he noticed the occupants.

The woman sitting in the chair to the left of the bed was obviously exhausted. Her lavender sweater was rumpled, and the sleeves were pulled halfway up her forearms, revealing the watch that she was continually looking at. Her neck-length red hair was in disarray as it fell across her face and stood out at the sides and the back. She leaned on the bed railing, running a hand tiredly through the strands before sighing softly to herself. Her eyes were hidden, but Vodka did not need to see them to know that they were filled with worry, and sadness, and most likely other emotions as well.

Slowly she reached out and over the railing with her left hand. The band on her finger glistened slightly from the overhead lights as she took hold of and lifted a large, man's hand, keeping it laid within her own, small and delicate one. Smiling vaguely, but genuinely, she looked to her companion. "The hospital is one place I never wanted to get a call from," she remarked quietly.

Vodka swallowed hard, following her gaze. He had seen that it was Gin laying there, still silent and unmoving, but he had become focused on Sherry because of not wanting to look at his partner in that condition. Now he saw, however, that Gin was awake and seemed aware of his surroundings. An immense, indescribable relief and joy flooded the quiet man's heart. Gin was alive.

The blonde grunted, looking up at his wife. "It's not that bad," he growled. "I shouldn't even be in here." His hair was freshly washed of the blood that Vodka recalled had stained it, and the green eyes looked out from amid the unruly, floppy bangs.

"It's a head injury," Sherry objected. "It could have been serious. It looked bad enough that the paramedic who found you thought that you were dead, before he examined you. Maybe that's what poor Vodka thought too. He was sprawled against you, as if he'd found you after the crash and then passed out again from his own injuries."

Gin was clearly not impressed. "These kinds of wounds always bleed a lot," he answered. As Sherry watched with disapproval, he let go of her hand and placed his hand on the bed to push himself up. The blanket fell away, and Vodka saw that Gin's right arm was in a sling, but not a cast. Whatever had happened, his arm was not broken. Still, it seemed to pain him, as he winced and shut his eyes, bringing his left hand to the right shoulder. Guilt swept over Vodka for having been careless enough to cause such injuries to be inflicted.

"Has there been any more news about Vodka?" Gin asked now.

Sherry sighed, knowing that Gin would not want her to mince words. And she herself thought it better to be completely honest. "His concussion could be serious," she answered grimly. "He hasn't responded to anything since you two were brought in. The doctors are worried, Gin. . . . But all we can do is wait."

The fierce man's expression twisted in anger, and he pushed down the railing on the right side of the bed. "That idiot," he hissed, throwing the covers back the rest of the way and revealing that he was wearing his robe. "He shouldn't have moved around so much if he woke up. . . ." He swung his legs over the edge, fully intending to get up. Vodka recognized the look in the other's eyes. Nothing could deter him now, not even Sherry.

She recognized it too. She stood first, walking around to the other side of the bed as Gin eased his well-built body into an upright position. He grunted, watching her, but she only stayed back, making certain that he could get up on his own. When she was satisfied, she walked alongside him as he took several shaky steps forward.

"You should be resting," she rebuked.

He stumbled, and instinctively Vodka reached out to help him. But his hands passed through, and though he had been half-expecting it, Vodka shivered. They were indicating that he was still alive, so what was this? Was he having some sort of an out of body experience? Whatever it was, he did not like it. Observing the scene, and not being able to touch Gin, made him feel as if he was dead. He quickly moved away as well, watching as Gin steadied himself on the wall before continuing the slow pace toward the door.

"I rested," he retorted.

In this way the blonde proceeded out of the room and to the next door over, Sherry following him as he pushed open the heavy object and staggered inside. Vodka suddenly felt strange as he first watched this and then phased through the door with Akemi. They had come here to see him. It was Vodka's body laying lifeless in the bed as the machines beeped incessantly. Vodka was staring at himself. It was impossible, and yet, it was not. He wanted to look away, but some sort of morbid fascination kept him right there, staring, until Gin spoke again.

"Vodka . . . what were you thinking?"

Vodka swallowed hard, looking at Gin helplessly as he cursed and sank into a chair. Was Gin referring to the accident, to Vodka getting up afterwards, or something else? It did not matter which-not really. Vodka still blamed himself for the crash, and now he was realizing that he was causing distress to Gin in other ways. He could see how weary his partner was feeling. Gin should not be up. Sherry was right, that he should keep resting. But Gin was obviously planning to stay here now. Vodka shook his head, overwhelmed.

Akemi turned from the scene, looking knowingly to Vodka. "Gin wouldn't be here if he didn't care," she said gently. But she knew Vodka understood this, and that it was not the real issue at hand. The poor man was still troubled.

"It was still my fault," he mumbled. He would not wish that he would die, especially after what he was witnessing. That would only cause Gin further pain, though the green-eyed man would never admit it. But if Vodka had never been born, then none of this would have happened at all, and Gin would surely be better off for it. The blonde had gotten hurt more than once when trying to protect Vodka.

Akemi smiled sadly. "Well . . . so it's come down to this," she mused. "I was hoping it wouldn't, but now that it has. . . ." She snapped her fingers. "Fine, then. You've never been born."

Vodka gawked at her. "What?" he stammered. That was absurd! She could not really have the power to do such a thing. And if he had never been born, then how could he be standing there, talking to her? He still existed!

She nodded to the bed they were standing by. "Look," she said solemnly.

Vodka whirled, his thoughts racing. Would he find that he had died? Would he find Gin looking stunned and then angry, and Sherry trying to think of something she could say to comfort him? But he found none of that, or even any of them. A strange woman was laying in the bed, with her husband sitting in the chair next to her. Vodka's stomach plummeted.

"Where are they?" he cried, pointing at the bed. "Where's Gin, and Sherry, and . . . and me? They were there! They were right there!"

"Only when you existed," Akemi replied simply. "Now, everything's changed." She turned, heading for the door. "Come with me, Vodka. I'll show you."

Vodka stared at her, then back to the bed, his mouth moving but no words coming forth. He must be going mad! Surely all of this was some bizarre hallucination brought on by the accident, and none of it was real. It could not be real! He had to still exist! But in any case, there was no need for him to stay where he was. He whirled, seeing Akemi vanish around a corner. Immediately he ran after her, desperate to find what had happened to Gin. He had to be here somewhere!

The hallways of the hospital were occupied, and still nearly as crowded as they had been just a few short moments ago. The doctors and the nurses hurried about, some talking amongst themselves but others staying silent as they went from the emergency room to the operating room to other places in between. They carried out their orders with precision and ease, and none of them gave Vodka a second glance, or a first glance to Akemi. At last the poor man looked to the woman, unable to ignore the unsettled feeling that was only growing stronger.

"Where did Gin go?" he demanded. He had to be here somewhere! He had seemed relatively fine, but maybe he actually was not. Maybe they had taken him somewhere else.

"He's not here," Akemi said calmly. "Why should he be? He wasn't involved in the accident."

"That's . . . that's ridiculous! Of course he was!" Vodka burst out, and did not notice that he was being stared at by one of the young interns.

"Sir? Do you have a problem?"

The stout man started at the new voice, and whirled to face the other. Why could this person see him now? Gin had not been able to a moment before. Did this mean that Vodka would also not pass through anyone again? In any case, he was unprepared for this encounter, and he began again to stammer when he opened his mouth. "I . . . I . . ." Frustrated, he started over. "I want to know where one of the victims is from the highway accident tonight!" He gave the intern Gin's alias, but the doctor's expression never changed.

"There aren't any patients here with that name," the intern replied flatly.

Vodka stared at him, at a loss. "But . . . he was here," he stammered. "Maybe he checked out?" Knowing Gin, he would want to get away from a hospital as soon as possible. Maybe he and Sherry had both left. But then . . . what had become of himself? He knew he had been looking at his own body a few moments ago. He wondered if he had died after all. Nothing was making sense!

"I've seen the charts for tonight," was the answer. "Not at any time did we have someone by that name."

Vodka looked to Akemi. He was at a loss as to what to do, but surely the intern would listen to her. Akemi usually could make people listen. Still, the physician had not looked at her once during this conversation, which seemed odd. How could he help but notice her? Women rarely went completely unnoticed, especially pretty ones such as Akemi Miyano. When she had been alive, and even after her death, Vodka had heard, with some level of frequency, other agents talking about her favorably when it came to her physical appearance.

"Hey," the doctor spoke up now, "there is a guy missing from the psych ward. It wouldn't be you, would it?" He frowned. Vodka's helpless staring at what seemed to just be air was not lost on him, and he was highly disturbed. He knew that Vodka had been carrying on an animated conversation with himself right before the intern had spoken. Obviously, he was certain, the poor man was hallucinating, not to mention delusional.

Vodka turned back, gaping at the other. "No!" he said in disbelief. What was he ever going to do? He could not be detained here, as a mad fugitive from the psychiatric ward! He had to get away and find what had happened to Gin! If the blonde was not in this hospital, then maybe he had been taken to a different one. Vodka would not rule out that possibility, though he also wanted to check their home to see if he was there.

"Gin isn't here, Vodka," Akemi said firmly at his side. "And this man will only cause trouble for you. Just run!"

Vodka clenched a fist. How could he run? Gin could still be here, and Vodka had to find where he had ended up. Even so, he knew how the blonde had just suddenly vanished from the hospital room, along with Sherry and Vodka's own body. What if Akemi did know what she was talking about, at least partially, and she knew where they had gone?

In any case, Vodka did not have time to think over other possibilities. The intern was now yelling for other doctors to come help him get Vodka back to the psychiatric ward. And that could not happen. Without thinking further, Vodka shoved the younger man aside as he ran frantically down the hall. He could hear other footsteps behind him, and he struggled to pull forward, desperate to get away. He was not that good of a runner, and never had been, but somehow he made it to the elevator in time and forced the doors shut before he could be followed. Breathing heavily, he pressed the Ground Floor button.

"What's going on?" he moaned, slumping back against the wall. "This is crazy. . . ."

"I told you, Vodka, you don't exist. You've never been born," Akemi answered from where she had appeared on the other side of the elevator.

"But I have!" he wailed. He had proof of it! He dug into his pocket, searching for his wallet. At last locating it, he pulled it out and fumbled with the flaps before getting them apart. But it felt so light, moreso than it ever should. . . . His heart sank as he looked into every pocket and chamber. All of them were empty. Where were his ID cards, his credit cards, his driver's license? Where was the cash he had? It had all vanished!

Akemi just sighed softly, shaking her head.

The elevator gave a ding of notification as it reached the ground floor. Vodka looked up with a start, awkwardly shoving his blank wallet back into his pants pocket as the doors opened. He again wished he had his sunglasses, especially when he saw the cluster of doctors gathered around the device. All of them perked up at the sight of him, and he knew that they must have been called to catch him once he arrived. But they would not have the pleasure.

He charged forward, right into the midst of them-pushing one to the right and another to the left. One grabbed for him and he whirled, punching the doctor squarely in the jaw. Then he hurried past, dashing through the doors and not stopping to rest until he had run around to the side of the building. He could not get any kind of reprieve here. They would chase him outside. Already he could hear them, and he fled around the back, weaving his way through the cars and vans in the parking lot. Just outside the gates he could see a taxi, and he ran to it, yanking open the door and collapsing inside on the plush seat.

His adrenaline rush having passed, he slammed the door and leaned back, feeling a cough rising in his throat. Being a fairly heavy smoker, he could not run as he had done for very long, or very frequently. He turned away, coughing again, and then looked up at the bewildered driver.

"Get me out of here!" he cried, gripping the back of the passenger seat.

"Where to, buddy?" the driver asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Anywhere!" Vodka replied desperately. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the doctors still coming. But they were not quick enough to catch up before the cab driver had revved the engine and was pulling out of the parking space. Vodka slumped into the seat, wanting to hope that he was safe for now. Somehow it did not seem likely.

"What are you going to pay him with?"

Vodka started, looking over at Akemi in shock. How had she gotten in? He knew she had not been there a moment before! Then again, he already knew she was dead. The rules apparently worked differently for her, but it was all so strange to get used to. He just wanted to go home, where everything was normal-well, relatively normal.

That was it. Right now he would go home, and all of this insanity could end. That was still the most likely place where Gin had gone. He leaned forward, looking over at the driver. "I want to go here," he replied, reciting the address of the home he and Gin and Sherry had been living in for the past while.

The doctor gawked at him in disbelief through the rear-view mirror. "There?" he said incredulously, turning a corner. "You seem pretty high-strung to me. Why don't you just go home tonight and get a good rest?"

Vodka stared back, struggling to hold back the uneasy feelings that were sweeping over him. "That . . . that is my home," he stammered, gripping tighter at the seat in front of him. This was unbelievable! First the doctors had known nothing about Gin, and had thought he was crazy, and now this man acted as though Vodka was trying to go somewhere other than a residence! So much had happened already. Why could Vodka not simply go back to where Gin was and wake up from all of this?

Was it at all possible that what Akemi said was true? Everything was so wrong. . . . But Vodka could not even imagine that such a thing could happen. It only happened in fantasy stories. He was dreaming. All of this had to be a dream. Yet it seemed so real . . . too nightmarishly real. Shakily he ran a hand over his face.

He looked up when he felt the car stop, and any remaining hope of normalcy fled. Where was the white house with the large porch? Where was the tree in front that helped to shield them from nosy people who wanted to see inside, or the fence that he and Gin had started to put up before the latest snowfall? All of it was gone, as if it had never existed. In its place was a nightclub, the bright neon lights flashing brilliantly against the windows and the frame of the car. It was obviously crowded, and Vodka could hear a female singer just finishing a number, to an enthusiastic round of applause.

"No," he whispered, falling back against the seat. "No . . . this isn't right. . . ."

"This is the place you wanted," the driver sighed. "Now, are you gonna pay me?"

Vodka did not even hear him. He fumbled with the door handle, finally managing to get it open and stumbling outside onto the sidewalk. The man must have made a wrong turn! This was not the street. They lived in a peaceful residential area that was not right next to the business district. They must be lost. He would go look at the address on the building and prove that this was wrong. It had to be! There was not another explanation. At least, not another one that Vodka was willing to accept as the truth.

He stumbled forward, still unable to hear the taxi driver yelling at him. He could only think of this place, of how it was not home, of how it could not be home, and how home had to be elsewhere. He had to get home. He had to see the address in order to determine where they actually were located. They were probably on the other side of town. That was where all the nightclubs were.

The familiar numbers on the door made him stop in his tracks and his heart began to race. No . . . no, it was not true. It was not possible! What was this place? Why did it have their home address? Was this a cruel joke? Akemi would not play such a trick . . . would she? Vodka did not think she would. But . . . how had it gotten here?

"There was a white house here!" he said desperately. "Where is it? Where did it go?"

"It was torn down two years ago!" the irate driver yelled back. "Have you been in a coma or something at the hospital you were running from?"

Was that the explanation? Vodka did not feel like such a thing had happened, but how would he really know? It could have happened, judging from what the doctors had said about his condition after the accident. But . . . where were Gin and Sherry? They would not have abandoned him! Had they moved somewhere else? Had something happened to them? Could they be . . . no, they were not! He would not believe that they were dead! They were alive. He would find them. He would find them, and then this entire, horrible mess would be straightened out.

"Hey, have you been a naughty boy and drank too much?"

The familiar voice sent a chill up Vodka's spine. He turned in an instant, only to meet a playful and smirking Vermouth emerging from the alley around the side of the building. She was wearing an elegant, deep blue evening gown, and her long, wavy blonde hair was swept up on top of her head, with several small locks hanging down on either side of her face. She was carrying a clutch purse, and searching through it for some item or another, perhaps a key. And Vodka swallowed hard. It had been Vermouth's voice he had heard from inside. She had been the singer.

"Vermouth! . . ." he choked out, and then did not know what to say. Why was she here? Of all places, why here? Why, at the location where the house was supposed to be?

She froze, paling herself. Vermouth? How would this stranger know to call her that? She was not Vermouth any more. Was this some sort of a prank being pulled, or was this man dangerous, perhaps an old enemy of the Black Organization? In any case, it would not do to look so uneasy. She gathered her composure, replacing the trademark smirk on her lips before she turned to the driver. "Excuse me, sir, does this man owe you something?" she purred.

"Yeah!" he growled. "I drove him here from the hospital, and he claims he lives here! The guy's a nut!"

"Oh well, there did used to be a house here," she smiled, and turned back to Vodka. "Pay the man, won't you? I'd like to have a talk with you."

Vodka shook his head helplessly. How could he say that he did not have any money, and that he did not know where it had gone? Maybe he had been mugged, or maybe someone on the hospital staff had stolen his money. But no. He was certain that he had not been in a coma, and that it was the same night that the crash had happened. And as he gazed at Vermouth, the blank look in her eyes was apparent. She did not know him. And Vodka fell back. He was at his wit's end. For a moment he had hoped, he had even been glad to see her. He had thought that maybe she could help him figure out what was wrong with him. But obviously, she could not.

The blonde whipped several bills out of her purse, counting them and then passing them to the driver. "That should cover it," she declared, and winked.

The cabbie looked at her in awe before counting the currency himself. "Yeah, this is fine," he exclaimed. "If you wanna bother with that guy, miss, it's your business. But if I was you, I'd have him sent back to the looney bin, where he belongs." He pocketed the cash, and Vodka watched as he drove away.

"What's going on, Vermouth?" he demanded then, turning to look at her.

She turned back to face him, her arms akimbo. "There you go with that 'Vermouth' thing again," she remarked, and he could hear the veiled suspicion in her voice. "What makes you think you can call me that? It isn't usual, to give people liquor names, after all."

He could feel that Akemi was there again, looking at him, but he did not turn to her this time. "Vermouth, it's Vodka!" he burst out, his voice strained with his desperation. "I . . . we . . . we're in the Black Organization! I mean . . . we were, before it fell apart! You . . . you helped us escape!" She was his last hope. He did not know where at all to go from here, unless Akemi knew a location. But she seemed to want to stay back, allowing Vodka to find things out for himself. And he did not know how much more he would be able to bear.

Through it all, the same thoughts kept running through his mind-where was he? Where was Gin? Was the blonde even alright? There was such an ominous feeling looming over all of this, and he was becoming increasingly disturbed and worried for his partner's safety, not to mention his own sanity.

She raised an eyebrow. "'Us'?" she repeated. "Who's 'us'?"

Vodka felt his shoulders slump. "Me and Gin," he replied, his voice sinking back to its normal, quiet tones. Idly he wondered why no one had come outside to find out what the commotion was about, but the loud and boisterous horns and drums from inside quickly solved that mystery. He doubted that anyone within had even heard him at all. But that was just as well. He did not want anyone coming and butting into this situation.

Now Vermouth audibly gasped. "Gin!" she exclaimed. Immediately she went to Vodka, taking hold of his wrist and leading him into the empty alley. "You say you're Vodka?" she said with a frown, placing her hands on his shoulders as she looked down at him. "There wasn't ever an agent codenamed Vodka. How do you know Gin?"

Vodka felt his mouth growing dry again. "Gin was my partner," he said, aware that his voice had dropped again. Now that the initial shock was wearing off, he felt himself going numb. What had happened to Gin in this strange world? Did he even want to know? Would Gin have forgotten him too? No . . . Gin would not forget. Maybe Gin was looking for him too, bewildered over what had suddenly taken place.

Vermouth's expression darkened. "Gin's never had a partner," she replied. "That jackass. . . . I think it would have done him good, but he always refused. And, well . . . he's not fit for anybody now, partner or otherwise." She drew back, releasing Vodka but still studying him with narrowed eyes. She was not certain what was wrong with this man. He seemed so sincere, and that was what was confusing. From his eyes, she could see that he honestly believed what he was saying, and yet she knew that none of it was true. How would he even get such ideas?

"What do you mean, Vermouth?" Vodka cried. "Do you know where he is?"

"I know," she answered, "but I'm not stupid enough to go there, and I sure won't give the location to some stranger who has no idea what he's getting into." She sighed, seeing the shattered look come across his features. "Trust me, you don't want to see him," she said then, in a softer, kinder tone. "I don't know who you are, but you seem harmless. Gin would kill you in an instant."

Vodka clenched a fist. "Gin wouldn't kill me," he replied, the desperation starting to rise again. Vermouth was not going to be any help. But Akemi had to know the truth. He would make her tell him where Gin was staying.

"He would," Vermouth answered firmly, and then paused as she heard a car drive up out front. The suspicious frown returned when the voices of two police officers reached her and Vodka's ears.

"Yeah, someone knows he took a cab to this address," said the first in a gruff tone. "They took down the license number and followed it here, then called us. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic about the house that used to be here."

"And he's definitely the guy who busted out of the hospital?" murmured the second.

"The description checks out-a heavyset guy in his mid to late twenties with a rumpled business suit and a fedora hat. He pushed and shoved the doctors at the hospital, and even punched another. He kept rambling about the highway accident and a patient that doesn't exist. This fella wasn't one of the victims of the accident, so no one can figure out where he came from. They had another guy missing from the psych ward, but he was found."

"So this one's probably a dangerous nut, huh? Great. Just how I wanted to spend my evening."

Vodka flushed. He did not like being talked about like that in the least, especially when he knew perfectly well that he was not crazy. It was everyone else in this place who was mixed up, and that was a highly unsettling and frustrating fact. There was not anyone from whom he could get help or answers.

Vermouth only glanced back to Vodka for a moment before heading out of the alley. So that was the explanation for his strange behavior, was it? Well, it made some sense, though there were still the questions of why he honestly believed he had been Gin's partner, and how he knew anything about the Black Organization. But they would have to wait. She was late for a last-minute appointment, and she could always visit Vodka at the hospital to get answers. He would be safe there, in the meantime.

"Oh officers," Vodka heard her say in her typically sultry voice, "I've seen the man you're looking for."

He did not wait to hear more. The panic rose again in his heart, along with a swift knife of betrayal. Why would Vermouth do that? Why was she against him too? Nothing was right in this dream-this horrific, realistic dream that would not end. By now his heart was turning somersaults as he turned and tried to quietly sneak through the alley. Gin was the stealthy one, and Vodka silently cursed as he ended up kicking along a tin can and a plastic soda bottle. Once again people were chasing him, and this time there was not a taxi cab he could use as an escape-not that he wanted to try that again, anyway.

Behind him he could hear Akemi's voice, and his eyes widened when he realized she was talking to the policemen. So she could be seen by other people, if she wanted them to see her! He would not have had to look like he was insane. But he did not have time to think about that factor. She was directing the officers to take the left path, and while they were thus occupied, Vodka had to find some kind of shelter. Trying a door on the right side of the alley, and finding it unlocked, he dove inside and tried to shut the door as softly as possible.

He gasped as he felt something move under his foot, followed by the squeal of a rat. Grabbing onto the door handle for balance, he stumbled back as he heard the rodent scampering away. He shuddered in disgust, wondering what other creatures he would find if he continued to remain there. Most likely, it would be better not to try to find out.

The only thing he even had that he could shine around was a penlight, if he still did have that cursed thing. He had lost everything else. But as he searched his pockets, he finally found the object in question and held it up, taking in his surroundings.

Apparently this building had also been a club, once upon a time. From the looks of it, he had wandered into what had been the wine cellar. There were still a few stray bottles here and there on rotting shelves that had borne many a leaking roof, and another that he discovered only after he kicked it and it skidded across the floor, very narrowly missing the wall.

Several more rats jumped at the sudden noise, and as Vodka watched in revulsion, they scurried into every available nook and cranny, and under most of the shelves.

"Not very pleasant, is it?"

He started at Akemi's voice. "What is this place?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at her.

She walked gingerly across the floor, making certain to avoid everything of questionable origin. "It's not a place that would mean anything to us," she replied, but he could hear the hesitation in her voice. She was not telling everything.

"Where's Gin?" he demanded, feeling a bit of his courage return now that they were alone. "Vermouth's here, and I don't know why she is, but Gin is supposed to be around and he isn't! And what did Vermouth mean by what she said about him? What's happened to him?"

She walked to the door leading into the kitchen, and pushed it open. This time it was cockroaches that ran under everything in sight. "He's not here," she answered then, and ignored his other question.

Vodka narrowed his eyes, following her. "But he was?"

"Once, yes." Akemi opened a cupboard, taking note of the fact that its only contents were two empty bags of flour and more roaches. Quickly she shut it again.

Vodka could not stand to think of it. Had Gin not had anywhere else to go? Had he been forced to come here after the fall of the Black Organization? It was easy to see why he would have left. Not only was this building probably condemned, for good reason, but Gin would hate being near a nightclub. It would always be noisy. "Where is he now?" he wanted to know. Akemi had the answers. She had created this nightmare, so she must know all of its twists and turns. And he had to know too. He did not care what Vermouth said. He had to find Gin! The blonde would remember him, and they could help each other get out of here and back to their own world. Or maybe Akemi would send them home when he found Gin.

Again she hesitated. "You're supposed to discover that for yourself," she said finally, turning back to look at him.

"I don't know where to discover it!" he cried in despair. He could not take any more of this torment! There was not any place left for him to look, that he knew of, unless . . . unless Gin had returned to one of their previous homes. He looked to Akemi desperately. "Has he gone back to Tokyo, or Chicago?" he asked.

She shook her head. "He can't travel now, for several reasons," she informed the stunned man. Then she sighed again, and finally opened the door leading into the club itself. She could guide Vodka along the way, as long as she did not outright tell him of Gin's location. But she had to admit that she dreaded what would happen once Vodka found it. She knew that Vodka would not like what he would see, but she also knew that it was the most necessary and the most heart-rending part of this experience. It was what all of this had been leading up to.

"Won't the police see us in here?" Vodka frowned nervously, following her into the main room. It was just as dilapidated as the rest of the building, or moreso. Termites had been in there, chewing on the tables, chairs, the bar, and the very woodwork itself. Evidence of rats was everywhere, and several stray roaches ducked out of sight. Most of the windows were boarded, but there was one through which one could gaze outside.

She smiled impishly, the first he had seen from her in years. "Not if we go right now," she replied. "I've sent them on quite the wild goose chase."

He hoped she was right. But even so, he was just as confused, or moreso, than he had been before. "Where would we even go?" he demanded. "By now probably the entire city's looking for me!"

Undaunted, Akemi pushed open the rotting door leading to the front of the street. "Let's just take a walk," she announced. "Maybe we'll find something."

Vodka could only follow her. Gin would not ever stand for something like this. He would vehemently protest and be stubborn about getting his way. But Vodka knew that he could not do that. He was not like Gin. More than anything, he wanted to get home, but he did not know at all how to get Akemi to take him there, nor did he know what she expected him to learn here.

He was not sure how long they walked as she headed for whatever location was in her mind. He was content to be silent for the most part, but Vermouth's words would not leave his mind. The longer they walked, the more uneasy he became. What kind of condition was Gin in now? Was he ill? Why had Vermouth said that even she would stay away, and that Gin would kill him if he went there? True, if Gin did not know him, he would naturally be suspicious, but . . . no! No, Gin would not try to harm him.

"What happened to the Black Organization?" he said at last, quietly. He had been about to ask Vermouth about Sherry when the police had arrived, and now he wondered if he would find the redhead with Gin. But he doubted that Akemi would tell him if he asked, since she was unwilling to talk about Vodka's partner.

"There was a power struggle, the same as there was when you existed," Akemi answered, and Vodka winced at her choice of words. "It ended the same way, with the FBI getting in there and managing to get the better of them in their weakness." By now they had come to what was at last a residential area, and she slowly led Vodka up the walk of what seemed to be a small park. But as they passed through the gate, Vodka realized that it was something quite different.

It was eerie in the moonlight, to look at the various crude markers over people's graves, and Vodka frowned. What was the significance of coming here? What was he supposed to see here? It was completely silent and still, but Vodka did not feel at peace in the least.

He bent down, reading the inscription on a nearby stone. All it was, was a name and the date of death, but that was plenty. The poor man went sheet white as his gaze passed over the name. "I . . . I know this person!" he cried in horror. "This is Chardonnay's grave!" He looked over at Akemi, his thoughts racing. Chardonnay was alive, or at least, he had known that she was alive after the date printed on the stone. She could not be dead!

Akemi only gave a quiet nod. "Sake is here, too," she answered. "Actually, the death dates are only what can be approximated. Both of them were dead by the time Portman's base was found and infiltrated." She looked back at Vodka. "You weren't there to lead the search for them, and since they'd already been given up for dead, their bodies were not found for months." Slowly she walked among the stones.

"But they weren't even in America!" Vodka burst out now, going to Sake's stone and staring at it before returning to Chardonnay's. "Portman had them in Tokyo, and . . ." Horror gripped his soul and twisted his heart. No . . . no. . . . It could not be that these two were not the only Black Organization operatives laid to rest here. Portman had taken more than just them captive, but . . . no, he would not consider it! Still, he could not control his fears. Blindly he wove his way among the rows, checking each name against the knowledge stored in his mind. He did not know the next person, or the next, or the one on the corner.

"He's not here, Vodka."

The heavyset man stopped short, breathing heavily. Of course, Gin was not there. Vermouth had indicated that the green-eyed man was alive. He ran a hand over his face. Seeing Chardonnay's stone had especially shaken him. What did it say about what Gin's fate actually had become? Gin had been Portman's captive, too. Even if he was alive, what had happened to him?

"Then where is he?" he retorted now.

Akemi only looked at him in reply.

He narrowed his eyes uncomfortably, turning to look at the houses on the other side of the iron gate. This was a poverty-stricken part of town, and most of the abodes were badly in need of repair, or of being demolished altogether. He felt sick as he gazed at them, wondering how anyone could manage to live in this area. Then he noticed a black car parked in a carport.

Immediately he went forward, gripping the bars of the gate as he tried to get a better look. It was an old car, a classic, still in good condition. It had been washed recently, and he could see the paint glistening under the moonlight. He could never forget that vehicle. He knew it too well. And he had crashed it earlier that evening.

He turned his attention to the house itself. It was battered, weather-beaten, and looked abandoned. The paint was peeling off in large chunks, the porch was sagging in, and one of the pillars seemed to have been glued together. The car looked out of place in such a locale.

"How could Gin live there?" he breathed in horror. Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked alongside the gate until he found the nearest exit. Then he dove through it, crossing the deserted street as swiftly as he could. He had a feeling of urgency that he did not understand, and it only made him all the more uncomfortable as he approached the small yard. He stopped, gazing at it sadly. It was so different from the yard of their home, the home that suddenly did not exist anymore. The grass here was brown and wilted-dead, just like the house and the feeling he got from it.

He could see why Gin would prefer this place over the building by the nightclub. It would definitely be quiet, and Gin was morbid enough that he probably would not mind the view. But still, it was wrong. Gin was not supposed to live here! And where was Sherry? She surely would not have just let the yard stay in such disarray. He had the distinct feeling that whatever was happening inside, Gin was not happy.

Akemi nodded to him in encouragement as she passed by, walking up on the broken porch and avoiding a gaping hole in the middle. "Go on in," she said quietly, and something about the way she said it made him ten times more uneasy. Whatever he was going to find in there was not going to be good.

Slowly, cautiously, he pushed the door open. It gave a loud creak as it moved, and Vodka winced as he hesitantly stepped inside. "Bro?" he called softly, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. "It's . . . it's me. . . . It's Vodka. . . ." The room was tiny, and devoid of most all furnishings. In the center was a wheelchair, and Vodka felt his blood run chill as it was turned so that the occupant could face him.

"Who did you say?" The voice was raspy and filled with gravel, but Vodka still recognized it, and he let the doorknob slip from his hands as he stepped further into the room. Gin was in a wheelchair. He was injured. But what was wrong?

"It's Vodka," he choked out. "We . . . we were in the Black Organization together, bro. . . . I mean . . . that's how we met. . . . And . . . we've been together since then, until now, tonight. . . ." He could sense that his words were not getting through, and a new sense of desperation began to come over him. He had to get Gin to remember! Gin could not forget him!

Now he stared, dumbfounded, at the man in front of him-if, indeed, he could be called a man. The other was dressed as Vodka always remembered, in the black coat and hat, and the blue sweater, but his long hair was tangled and unkempt as it hung over the back of the wheelchair. The Gin Vodka knew never would have allowed his hair to become so unsightly! And as he raised his green-eyed gaze to meet his partner's, it was without recognition, let alone mercy or even sanity. He looked at least twenty years older than he actually was, and the beginnings of a beard could be seen on his lined face. His lips parted in a twisted smirk as he started to reach inside his coat.

"Vodka?" he snorted, and the shorter man was chilled by the tone of voice. "There has never been an agent codenamed Vodka." He started a chuckle deep in his throat, a sadistic, maniacal chuckle, and he brought out his gun with a shaking hand. "You must be out of your mind. That's a pity. But I could cure you of that . . . permanently. You wouldn't mind that, would you?"

Vodka's mouth dropped open, and his thoughts tumbled madly over each other. Part of him wanted to run forward, grabbing the blonde by the shoulders and pleading to be known and remembered. The other part was too horrified to even move. "Bro . . ." he finally managed to choke out. "Bro, what happened to you?" His voice cracked, barely above a whisper. He had seen so many things, so many bewildering, alarming things over the past length of time, but this was the most horrifying. This was what pierced his heart and soul. Of all fates Gin could have met, this seemed the worst.

"What happened to me?" Gin repeated, and his smirk only widened. "Shouldn't I be asking you that? You address me so familiarly . . . you must be insane." He toyed with the gun, as if pondering whether to raise it now or later.

Vodka could not stand it. In an instant he had reached the miserable man and was gripping his shoulders, staring into the startled and crazed eyes. "I'm your partner, bro!" he cried desperately. "I'm your partner, for over eight years now! Why don't you remember?" He did not realize it, but he was shaking the other man. "Why don't you remember?" he screamed again, his voice trailing off as he felt the gun being poked into his abdomen. Gin was going to kill him.

"I've never even had a partner. I've always worked alone. Eliminating you would be a mercy killing," Gin mused, and the gun clicked. "But I'm not in the mood to do you any favors. I'd rather have some fun with you first. No one ever comes to see me. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I kill anyone who dares to enter." He grinned again, mocking and taunting Vodka, and the poor man slumped back, sickened.

"Why?" was all that he could manage to get out.

"After Shiho left, he became very bitter," Akemi said softly and not unkindly from behind Vodka. "And eventually, he had that problem of being caught by Dr. Portman. She brought him and the others to America, and he was the only one who survived the torture. But he never recovered from what she did to him. You weren't there to heal his mind." She paused as she took in Vodka's haunted and stricken expression, then carefully continued. "Aoshi took care of him, and when one of his men started beating Gin, he retaliated and ended up getting shot in both of his legs. He's crippled." She could see that Vodka had stiffened again, and not from the feel of the gun.

Vodka's soul was quickly being shredded at Akemi's words. His partner, the man Vodka respected and looked up to, and the only person whom Vodka could say he honestly cared about in this world, had lost his mind. And it was because of Vodka. . . . He had wondered and had hoped that his absence would have made things better for Gin. Instead his wish had caused this horrible fate. Was there not any way to change it? Any way at all? "But what about your sister?" he cried finally. "What about Sherry? Didn't she come back?" He did not notice Gin's eyes widen in shock and then narrow in hatred from this question.

Immediately the blonde reached out, grabbing a handful of Vodka's shirt and dragging him down to Gin's eye level. "What about Sherry?" he demanded. "How do you know her?" His voice was cold, deadly, the voice that had struck fear into Vodka's heart many a time. Only now it was far worse than anything before.

Now Vodka's emotions simply spilled over. "I lived with you and her for years!" he screamed. "When she left, I was always with you on the chase to find her! But you got back with her! You're married to her, Gin! You're married to her, and all of us have been living together again!" His eyes trailed to Gin's left hand, which was still clutching the gun-and of course, was bare.

Gin's expression twisted further, and his eyes gleamed. "Ah, Sherry," he purred, ignoring the details of what Vodka had said. "She was the first one I killed after I returned from Portman's laboratory. And I enjoyed every minute of it. She deserved to suffer and die, after what she did to me." His voice lowered as he began to describe in gory details exactly what he had done, and how. And even knowing the way Gin had claimed to feel towards Sherry in the past, what he was saying now was not like him.

It suddenly and painfully hit Vodka that this was not the Gin he knew. This was a complete monster. Vodka could see blood splattered on all the walls and the floor. Gin had not been lying when he had said that he killed anyone who had came there. Vodka wondered if he would be next. But could he even die, when he did not exist? He had not believed Akemi when she had told him that he had never been born. Now he did.

Desperately he struggled to pry Gin's hand away from him. "Let me go!" he cried, his sickened feelings only increasing with what he was being told. "Stop it, Gin! Stop it!"

Gin only gripped tighter. "I'll do worse to you," he threatened, and the sick amusement remained on his features. "If you were really my partner, as you claim, then you should have been here! Where were you when that woman was killing me a little bit each day?" He started to raise his left hand again. "You were never here, because you never existed. Maybe you're not here at all, and it's only in my imagination. I wonder what will happen when I try to harm you? Do you even feel at all? Can you die? Let's find out, shall we?"

Vodka clenched his fingers tightly around Gin's wrist in response, twisting and breaking it in one swift motion as the blonde gasped in pain. As Vodka thrust the appendage from him, he barely noticed as a piece of cloth tore from the other's threadbare coat. Instead he clenched his fist around it as he reached into his jacket with his other hand. Immediately he drew his own gun and pointed it at the creature in front of him.

"I was here!" he screamed. "I was here, and you weren't like this! You weren't insane! You wouldn't want to live like this, Gin! You'd never want to live like this. . . ." He gripped the gun tightly, but his hand still shook. Could he bring himself to shoot? If Gin really realized what he had become, he would want Vodka to pull the trigger-but could he?

The gunfire erupted like thunder. Gasping, Vodka fell back, dropping his gun as he clutched his now torn stomach. Gin grinned madly, firing again and again as he hit Vodka in both of his legs. The shorter man stumbled, his legs instantly crumpling under him as he slammed to the floor. Dazedly he watched his blood start to spread across the tiles, and he was aware of Gin's insane laughing as he was shot once more, in the back. He gasped, the blood rushing to his mouth as he coughed it up.

This isn't the way it should be, he thought desperately as his vision clouded over. I don't want this! I don't want this! I want to live. . . . I want to go back. . . . I want Gin to be himself again! Whatever happens to me . . . even if he hates me . . . I want to see him sane.

Vaguely he heard Akemi saying something to him, but he could not register what it was. Everything went black.

"Vodka?" A low curse. "Wake up, Vodka."

He tensed at the sound of the voice. Gin . . . it was Gin. . . . No, he could not bear to see Gin out of his mind any longer. But . . . why was he not dead? Gin had already fatally wounded him. There was no way he could have survived. No way . . . unless. . . . Could he be home?

He struggled with his stubborn eyelids, forcing them open. As the scene slowly came into view, he focused on Gin's weary form sitting in a chair next to what seemed to be a bed. His long hair, freshly washed and smooth, fell over his shoulders. His face was scratched, and there was a pad of gauze against his right temple, peeking through the long bangs. His right arm was in a sling, though not a cast. His left hand was gripping Vodka's shoulder, and the overhead lights caught the gleam of the band on the third finger.

Relief, awe, and indescribable emotions swept over Vodka as he saw this. This was the Gin he had always known, the Gin he was loyal to, the Gin whom he looked up to and respected, and cared about. Gin was sane, and he seemed to be relatively alright physically as well.

"Bro . . ." Vodka choked out, and then did not know how to proceed. How could he ever express his feelings? How could he possibly ever begin to tell Gin of what he had seen, and felt, and experienced? He knew that he could never make it clear to Gin how he felt to be able to see the other safe and well. But he struggled to form words of some kind. "What . . . what happened? I . . . I remember the accident. . . . I thought you were dead. . . ." Vaguely he remembered Akemi showing him a scene from earlier that night-he supposed it was still that night-when Sherry had told Gin about Vodka's injuries and that all they could do was wait. Had Gin stayed there all the time since then? He looked so tired. . . .

Gin grunted. "You were hurt worse than me in the crash. You ended up with a bad concussion." His eyes narrowed. "You could have been killed."

Vodka tried to digest what he was being told. Had it all been a dream? Had Akemi not actually come to him? Had he not actually gone through what he had? It had all seemed so real. . . . Had it been a hallucination of his tortured mind? That did not seem possible. And yet, what other explanation was there? He had been laying here the entire time. Still, he could never forget the sensation of looking at himself from across the room. That had been so eerie.

"What about the car?" he gasped then. He had not had much time to focus on that, but it was something else that had been concerning him. He did not know how bad the damage was to the Porsche, though the impact had certainly felt serious. And he felt extremely guilty for having inadvertently caused the vehicle to have any flaws.

"It can be fixed," Gin answered flatly. His voice lowered, growing more cold as it did. "Anyway, it was the other driver's fault. Don't worry about it." He leaned back. "It's just a car."

Vodka stared at him in shock. Of all people who could have said something like that, he would never have expected it from Gin. He knew how much the blonde prized that Porsche, above any other material possession. For years he had watched Vodka like a hawk when the other was driving, and only recently had he relaxed enough to not worry if his partner was the one behind the wheel. And now Gin was telling Vodka that it was just a car.

"Where's Sherry?" Vodka struggled to ask. He knew this was reality, this was his world, and yet he wanted to make sure. He had to know that everything was as it should be, including Sherry's presence.

"She went to get something to eat." Gin frowned, studying Vodka sharply. "What happened to you, Vodka?" he demanded. He could tell that his friend was shaken by something. It was obvious in Vodka's eyes and in his actions and words. And he usually did not ask about Sherry. Now he acted as if it was urgent, to know where she currently was located.

Vodka could only weakly shake his head. How could he ever explain it? He could barely comprehend it himself. "I just . . . wanted to make sure," he mumbled at last.

Gin was bewildered by this point. "Make sure of what?"

Vodka gave a slight shrug. If he was more awake, he supposed he would care more about sounding rational, but right now he was so overwhelmed and relieved and indescribably joyous, not to mention he had a headache bothering him. "That everything's as it should be," he replied then, looking up at the blonde through his blurred vision.

Gin grunted. While he had no idea what Vodka was talking about, he would leave it alone for now. Vodka should rest, and not try to talk. But Gin was determined to ask him about this later, once they were both recovered. Of course, by then Vodka might not even remember his half-delirious rambles. It was probably nothing to worry about, anyway-just some delusion or hallucination he had experienced while unconscious.

Vodka's gaze drifted back to Gin's injuries, and he winced as he remembered again how they had come about. "Bro . . . I'm sorry," he said then, and he wondered exactly what he was apologizing for-that Gin was hurt, that the Porsche had been damaged, that he himself had almost gotten killed, or something else entirely. He wondered if he was apologizing because of the future that never was, and never would be-and the fact that it had been Vodka who had seemingly caused it to come into being.

It haunted Vodka, to think of the crazed Gin who had "killed" him, and especially to know that it was because he had not been there to help Gin that the green-eyed man had ended up in such a condition. It was actually quite mind-boggling and sobering, to realize that his presence had made such a difference in Gin's life.

It was then that he remembered exactly what Akemi had said to him right before he had fallen unconscious. "You've been given a precious gift, Vodka. You know that your life hasn't been in vain, and that you have helped the person you care about deeply. You know that he does need you, and want you." And she had smiled. "Go home, Vodka. Go home."

"I'm sorry," Vodka mumbled again.

"Don't apologize to me," Gin grumbled, and his eyes told Vodka all that he needed to know.

The heavyset man slumped back into the pillows. He could not speak anymore. But he did not have to.

Gin leaned back, sighing as his hair slipped over his shoulder. "Just go to sleep," he muttered. Vodka needed the rest, and he did not need to spend time worrying. That would only make it harder for him to recover.

Vodka nodded weakly, burrowing into the softness as he pulled the covers up around him. As he did so, out of the corner of his eye he noticed a small and indescribable object fluttering down onto the bed. Blinking, he turned to look down at it—and then paled. It could not be. . . . It could not have ended up here! That did not make sense! And yet, here it was. He must have been holding it all this time, and then had let go when he had grabbed the quilt.

"What's wrong with you?" Gin snapped. Vodka had been acting so strangely ever since waking up, and after the blonde followed his partner's gaze to the thing on the bed, he leaned over and took it. He frowned as he held up a jagged piece of cloth, black in color and obviously torn from a worn trenchcoat. "What is this?" he demanded. His coat was not in such bad condition as this material was, nor had his coat even been torn in the first place. Even if it had been, he knew that Vodka had not had a piece of it.

Vodka shook his head helplessly. He knew what it was, and where it had come from, but he could not make mention of it. He never could. Gin would never believe him. Vodka could not believe it himself. The cloth's simple presence was an acknowledgment that what had happened to Vodka had been real. None of it had been a dream or a hallucination. He had proof that he had been to another world. And yet, he wondered, how had this morbid memento come back with him, when in the other dimension he possessed none of the things he had been carrying?

Gin set the cloth back on the bed. "What happened to you, Vodka?" he asked again, his narrowed eyes looking sharply at the other. "I know something did. You can't just tell me 'nothing', because I won't believe it."

Vodka sighed. He knew that was true. He could not conceal the truth from Gin. The blonde was too smart for that. Of course, he had never thought in a million years that he would suddenly be found possessing a scrap of clothing belonging to that other, abominable Gin. Maybe, he thought suddenly, Akemi had left it there for him. That sounded like something she would do, for whatever reason. Maybe she wanted him to tell Gin. Or maybe she just wanted him to realize that it had truly happened.

"You'll think I'm crazy, bro," he spoke at last.

"Maybe. But this is also crazy." Gin pointed to the cloth. "It shook you up to see it. Why?"

Vodka looked down at it, then up at his friend. Somehow, he did not want to keep this a secret. He wanted to tell Gin, to get his opinion, even though at the same time he also dreaded it. "I saw Akemi, bro," he said finally, and swallowed hard as Gin went pale. But then his resolve hardened. "She . . . she showed me this place where I'd never been born. . . ." He looked back down at the cloth. Saying what he had seen made him seem so arrogant and self-important. Gin would surely think so, too, especially considering how proud the green-eyed man happened to be. He always tried to convince himself that he could do everything on his own, without help from anyone. But Akemi had shown Vodka that it was not possible, that Gin needed Vodka in his life.

"Bro, you were nuts!" he cried finally. Subconsciously he gripped a handful of quilt. He hated even talking about that part of what he had experienced. He did not want to remember that Gin, but he knew he could never forget. It was indelibly carved into his memory.

"You . . . you were crippled, and you were trying to kill me. . . . You'd already killed Sherry." He looked down, shuddering. "I tore that piece of cloth off your coat when I was trying to get away from you . . . I mean him. . . ." He shrugged helplessly. "Whoever he was! I know he wasn't really you . . . but he was. . . . It was awful. . . ." And he was frustrated by his stammering. He knew that he was not making sense and that he probably sounded absolutely ridiculous. Of course, it would be hard to tell what he had seen without sounding ridiculous.

Gin was silent, his eyes veiled. Vodka bit his lip, wondering what the other was thinking. Or did he really want to know? Most likely, as Vodka feared, Gin was thinking that Vodka was pretentious for indicating that if Vodka had never been born, Gin would have ended up insane. Maybe Gin loathed him for his words. Finally he spoke, and Vodka tensed.

"I don't know what kind of mind games Akemi was playing with you, but you should know better than to consider it was real," he grunted. "I'm the only me that exists, and I'm not going to be trying to kill you or Sherry." He picked up the cloth again, turning it around in his hands, and then placed it on the nightstand. "Go to sleep, Vodka." He knew that Vodka definitely believed the experience had happened, and of course that piece of cloth had to come from somewhere, but he was not about to agree that it had actually been taken from another Gin. That was too ridiculous to think about.

Vodka flushed, and with a sigh he turned onto his side and snuggled under the covers. "Do you think I'm nuts, bro?" he mumbled uncomfortably.

"No." Just weary and probably delirious, he added to himself. Though, if Akemi had been behind it, who knew what she would come up with. She had a crafty, cunning streak that had not diminished since her death. If anything, that had opened more figurative doors for her. "Why did Akemi say she was showing that to you?" he asked then.

Vodka hesitated. What should he say? He did not like to admit the full truth behind it. And yet if he did not, it made even less sense. Anyway, Gin knew all about Vodka's insecurities. Vodka doubted it would be a surprise to him. "I thought you'd be better off without me," he said at last, still in a monotone.

Gin grunted in reply, definitely not surprised.

At last Vodka felt a gentle blanket of sleep coming over him again. It seemed comforting, but he still had to hope that this time he would only sleep, and not have any more bizarre experiences. The one he had come from was enough for a lifetime. His eyes started to close.

"No, no more 'bizarre experiences', Vodka. This one's purpose was served. You'll be alright now, won't you?"

Blearily he looked down at the edge of the bed, and he could have sworn that he saw Akemi sitting there. He blinked, and she was gone. Had she been there at all? He frowned in confusion, letting his eyes sink closed.

Yeah, he thought silently, I'll be alright. I'm home now.