It was Demyx who fired the first shot. Having never fired a gun before, the shot went far too high, and the recoil knocked Demyx off his feet.

"Ow…" he moaned pitifully, and Zexion rushed to his side, helping him to his feet.

"Get down! Hit the deck!" Luxord yelled, just as the rapid-fire shots of a machine gun began to hit the boat. Zexion and Demyx dropped to the floor, though Zexion didn't miss Demyx's sobs of terror or a cry of pain from the other side of the boat. Debris rained down on them; shards of wood, pieces of the fabric and stuffing from the seats, all being torn to bits by the hail of bullets.

It seemed like forever before the gunfire stopped, though it was probably only about thirty seconds. Zexion looked up, taking in the damage, his ears ringing at the sudden lack of noise.

The boat was still moving; that much was good. Luxord was cursing quite colorfully, and Marluxia was crawling over to where Xigbar was lying on the deck, grasping his bloody leg.

"Xigbar!" Zexion said in a panic, climbing to his feet.

"Stay down!" Luxord snapped, but it was too late. There was a hollow bang from the other boat, which was only ten feet or so behind theirs now, and by a sheer stroke of luck, the harpoon only grazed Zexion. Unfortunately, the sharp javelin caught Zexion's jacket, and his breath left him as he was dragged backward, hitting Luxord before being propelled off the front of the boat.

He hit cold water, the jacket finally ripped off him as the harpoon continued its trek into the water. Zexion struggled to get to the surface, a mere foot away- but he barely managed to get half a breath of air in before the wake of Luxord's boat spun him away from the boat and down, down, further into the blue expanse of nothing.

He fought and kicked, his lungs already aching as the second boat drove him even further into the water, and he knew he wouldn't last much longer. He'd been spun so much that he didn't even know which way was up anymore. He tried to regain his orientation, but then, a hand grabbed onto his.

His first thought was that it was Demyx, but the bright blue eyes that met his own didn't belong to Demyx. It was a shorter blonde, one with a graceful, slender pink fin that shone with the same rubbery scales as Demyx's.

The boy grabbed Zexion's face in both his hands and pressed their lips together, and Zexion began to protest, only to find that the merman had given him a breath of fresh oxygen. The merman looked concerned.

"Are you alright?" he asked, his voice sounding just as clear and colorful as if the boy had been speaking in air like any human.

Zexion nodded, desperately holding his breath. He pointed a finger upward, or what he hoped was upward, and then a hand grabbed his arm.

"Zexion, are you okay?"

Now that was a voice that Zexion knew. It was Demyx. He turned and nodded again, the salt water stinging his eyes so badly that it was hard to keep them open- but he could see that Demyx now had his silvery-blue fin back in place, rather than legs.

"Thank you, Roxas," Demyx continued. "C'mon, let's get him to the sur-"

Suddenly the water boiled around them, and something snapped beneath them, resulting in a tangle of fins and limbs as they swiftly rose upward. Zexion knew immediately what had them captive- a net. A strong, thick net.

When they hit air he coughed and gasped, trying to get untangled, but it was fairly impossible. He saw flashes of a boat, then a glimpse of blue hair, and then the net swung sideways.

"There, there! Drop it!" a voice called out, and the net suddenly dropped and fell open, leaving Demyx, Roxas, and Zexion in a pile on the deck.

"It's a pity you didn't drown," Larxene said with a sneer, and Zexion looked up to find three guns trained on them. Xemnas, Larxene, and Saix stood over them, with Xaldin staying at the front of the ship; Zexion could see Luxord's boat further out, maybe a quarter mile away, idling.

He hoped Xigbar was okay.

A hand tangled in his hair, and he yelped in pain as Xemnas dragged him off to the side- then, the barrel of a gun pressed to his forehead, the hand holding his hair tightly.

"You…have cost me…a great deal of money," Xemnas growled, and out of the corner of his eye, Zexion saw Saix holding Demyx back from crawling over to help him. Neither merman seemed willing to change to human legs so close to the ocean.

"What you were doing was wrong," Zexion snapped.

"You were helping. You were on board with us. Have you told the mermaid that?"

"Merman."

The hand tightened in his hair. "Excuse me?"

"Mermaid is female. Merman is male," Zexion said, trying to pull away from the gun. "If you'd been running this experiment in the true spirit of science, you'd have figured that out by asking him."

Zexion winced as Xemnas cocked the gun, his face contorted in fury.

"It's too bad, boy. You would've made a stellar mind in the scientific community."

Zexion closed his eyes, Demyx cried out in panic and horror, then…the blast of a gun.

Zexion jerked in pain and surprise as Xemnas was blasted backward, a bloody, gaping wound in his shoulder. He hit the wheelhouse, blood splattering on the wall and the gun dropping from his hand.

"Xemnas!" Larxene shrieked, rushing to his aid, and Zexion stood up and looked at Luxord's boat.

Why am I not surprised? He thought when he saw Axel holding a smoking shotgun in one hand, his other hand clenching his shoulder, where his own bullet wound had probably been torn open by the recoil.

Another bang, and a bullet grazed Zexion's neck, leaving a bloody trail along his skin. Demyx switched over to legs, the process looking as if his fin had melted and reformed, and then he tackled Saix.

Zexion knew he had his chance. He rushed over to Roxas, picking the smaller merman up.

"I'll take care of Demyx and get him home safe. I promise. Just…don't come back here," he said, and then he dropped the flailing merman off the side of the boat. That was when he noticed that the boat was no longer moving- it was simply rising and falling with the waves and the current.

A hand grabbed his shoulder from behind, spinning him around, and then Xaldin's massive hand wrapped itself around Zexion's neck. Zexion gripped that hand in both of his, trying to pry the fingers off his neck, but one of Xaldin's hands was bigger and stronger than both of his own.

"You little bitch," Xaldin growled, and Zexion felt a pull, a burn at his neck, and a definite loss of air as his feet left the deck. He suddenly realized why the boat wasn't moving- Xaldin had been mad enough to leave the helm.

"Zexion!" Demyx's voice called out, but then there was a thud, the unmistakable sound of metal hitting flesh. Zexion began struggling even more when he heard Demyx hit the deck.

"I'm tempted to rope you up and drop you into the propellers," Xaldin growled, and Zexion could feel his pulse pounding in his head, choked sounds leaving him as he tried to drag air into his lungs. "Or maybe just rip your arms off with my bare hands."

Zexion could hear a motor drawing closer, and Xaldin's furious gaze left his face, focusing in on Luxord's approaching boat. "One bullet fired and I snap his neck!" Xaldin roared, his grip tightening. Zexion was seeing stars, his legs twitching from the lack of oxygen.

I'm going to die here, he thought, his own thoughts fractured and broken with impending unconsciousness. After how close we've come, after all we've gone through, I'm going to die like this.

His arms, no longer able to grip Xaldin's hand, fell. His hand struck something, and though his vision had turned grey and white, he managed to decipher what it was.

A steel cable for the netting. A steel cable that was only in place with a latch and hook; he remembered the contraption from his summer on the dolphin study boat.

This would either work, or backfire horribly. But he didn't have a choice.

With his hand weak, he barely managed to flip the latch, but with his last breath he managed to slip the hook free.

It all happened too fast for him to comprehend. There was a spray of warm blood, and with his body going numb, he didn't know if it was his or Xaldin's. All he knew was that when he hit the deck, he was dripping with blood, all over his face and chest.

He felt like he was hearing everything from a distance. Cries of horror, gunshots, all hell had broken loose with that one snap of a steel cable. His hands were grasping at his own throat, his head exploding with pain as his system flooded with blessed oxygen.

But it was too little, too late. The world spinning around him, his eyes fluttered closed and his mind shut down.


When Zexion woke up, it was into a drugged, cloudy consciousness, and he could hear a steady beeping near his head. He wasn't awake long before the world went black again.

There were vague memories of being poked and prodded, moved once, Axel's voice, other voices, but none of it was clear enough to understand. When he finally woke up into a clear state of mind, he felt like he'd been asleep for years.

"Hey, you," a voice said, and Zexion blinked a few times, his eyes finally focusing. He was in a white room, too white. He tilted his head, the shock of red immediately letting him know who was by his side.

"Axel…" he started, though his throat was dry. He swallowed thickly, and Axel smiled, for once not a mischievous smirk- a real smile.

"Relax. You've been put through the grinder, buddy," he said, setting a comforting hand on Zexion's arm.

"W-What…"

"What happened?" Axel said, filling in his question for him. "Let's see…you decapitated Xaldin, there was a big gunfight, I got shot again, and then the Coast Guard showed up."

Zexion frowned. "Are you okay?" he managed.

"Yeah, Yeah. Same arm, too," Axel said, gesturing to the sling. "But I'll be fine. Xigbar's okay, too, he'll just have a wicked limp."

"Xemnas?"

"Comatose. Unfortunately, I'll have to wait a while to sue him," Axel said with a snort. "And don't worry…Demyx got away safely, and the secret was kept. Everyone thinks Larxene is a raving lunatic, and Saix disappeared. No one knows where he is. And I owe Luxord a new boat, his is demolished now."

Zexion felt tears sting at his eyes. Demyx got away. That meant he was back with his family, back in his own world, where Zexion would never see him again. The dream had ended along with the nightmare.

"Zexion…you okay? Need more drugs? The nurse has the hots for me, I'll bet I could get you a gallon of morphine…"

"No…no, I'm fine," Zexion insisted, shoving aside the sorrow, the uncertainty. He needed to get over this, as quickly as he could. It wouldn't do any good to dwell on what couldn't be. "How long…?"

"You've been out three days," Axel said with a frown. "Your parents are here. They're down in the cafeteria right now, though."

Three days. If Demyx was going to come back, he would have by now.

Zexion felt truly alone for the first time in years.

Whoever said it was better to have loved and lost than never at all had quite obviously never been in love.


Three Weeks Later

Zexion sat on a bench on the pier, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He watched the waves pitch and roll, slapping against the wooden pier, his mind not on his present surroundings.

Xigbar, Axel, and Marluxia had been worrying about him. Though the three scientists had decided to start their own lab once they won every penny of Xemnas' money, Zexion had taken no joy in the idea of having a lab where he could decide what to study. He'd met the proclamation with a simple nod of the head, leaving Marluxia and Xigbar silent with shock.

Zexion took no pleasure in the idea of experiments and calculations anymore. As Axel put it, Zexion acted like he'd died that day. He spent most of his time sitting by the ocean now, or re-reading books in his apartment that he'd read a dozen times, without actually comprehending the words.

He simply couldn't get his mind off Demyx. The way he laughed, his insatiable curiosity and endearing naiveté, the way he arched and gasped in a surge of pleasure…

Zexion sighed. He felt like he was going insane. Demyx wouldn't be coming back. There was a barrier there, a watery barrier that separated them. Different worlds, different lives. It was stupid of him to ever expect otherwise.

He agreed with Larxene on one point: he should never have gotten so attached.

His parents had assumed it was the trauma of the gory fight that left their son changed. Zexion had been dodging reporters for the past few weeks, though he knew they were discussing him on the news. He'd caught the TV reports here and there; a young man dragged into a web of lies and illegal experimentation, caught up in a rebellion led by two fellow scientists. Marluxia and Xigbar were local heroes, as was Axel; Axel had come up with a bulletproof story, one that left not a single hole for Larxene's insistent explanations of mermaids and contracts.

It also gave Zexion a great excuse to do nothing. It gave him an opening to brood and cut himself off from everyone and everything.

"Zexion?"

Zexion recognized the voice, vaguely. He looked over his shoulder, and was shocked when he saw who stood behind his bench- Roxas. He was in jeans and a t-shirt, and gave off that same unearthly glow that Demyx had. His blue eyes seemed suspicious.

Zexion stood up. "Is Demyx okay?" he asked desperately, and Roxas hesitated.

"I came to thank you for saving me," he finally said. Zexion shrugged.

"I was just returning the favor," he insisted. "Please. Tell me how Demyx is."

Roxas eyed Zexion for a few long moments, his expression undecipherable. Then, he sighed.

"He's horrible. He won't sing, he won't eat, he won't do anything. And from the looks of you, you're not much better."

Zexion fell silent. He was feeling a strange mix of emotions; happiness that Demyx missed him, but ashamed that he felt any measure of happiness at Demyx's misery. Roxas rubbed the back of his neck, looking nervous now.

"I'm not supposed to be here. Our parents forbade us both from going near land or boats. But…I just wanted to meet you," he said. "Demyx, he isn't…he just isn't happy without you. I've never seen my brother this unhappy."

"I'm sorry," Zexion said softly, his voice nearly a whisper as the sea breeze pushed his hair away from his face. "We…never meant for any of this to happen. I just want him to be happy."

"Me too. But you're human. You see the obvious problem here."

"I have no problem with that. And neither does he."

"You'd have him shunned by his entire society so you could be happy?"

"I'd have him make his own decisions."

Roxas lifted his chin, and Zexion crossed his arms, creating a momentary stand-off. But after a few moments, Roxas snorted softly, shaking his head.

"I can see why he likes you so much," he murmured, turning and beginning to walk away, toward the end of the pier.

"W-Wait!" Zexion called out, and Roxas paused, glancing over his shoulder. Zexion sighed. "Will I see him again? Ever?"

Roxas paused for a few moments, then shrugged. "Maybe," he said, and with that, he took a headfirst dive off the end of the pier. Zexion rushed to the edge to make sure he didn't get hurt in hitting the water, but all he saw was a flash of pink, then nothing but a few ripples.


"To Axel."

"To Axel!"

Everyone toasted to the redhead, who made a good show of appearing modest as they sat in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the demolished lab. To anyone watching, they must have looked pretty odd, sitting on the sidewalk by a demolished building with glasses of champagne- but they had reason to celebrate.

Axel had managed to not only get each one of them nice sized settlements after Xemnas had recovered, but he'd also managed to get Marluxia and Xigbar joint ownership of the land the lab sat on. Now, with their newfound fortunes, they could afford to build a bigger, better lab.

Zexion sipped at his champagne, watching as people simply stopped to admire Marluxia's new car- a specially modified classic mustang that had been made entirely environmentally friendly. Marluxia had used every penny of that 100,000 dollar offer Axel made him.

It had been a month since Zexion saw Roxas. Almost two months since he'd seen Demyx.

He'd resigned himself to accepting that Demyx was not coming back.

"Zexion…hey, earth to Zexion," Xigbar said, waving a hand in front of Zexion's face. Zexion blinked a few times, then tried to focus on the matter at hand.

"Sorry," he said softly, and Marluxia sighed.

"You've got to get over this, Zexy. How about we set you up with a date? I know a few guys who-"

"No," Zexion snapped, then he quickly reigned in his temper. "No, I'm…fine. Really."

"Yeah, right," Axel said. "You're falling apart."

Zexion looked away, the silence setting in heavily. "I'll be fine," he said softly, standing up and handing his champagne to Xigbar. "I don't feel well. I think I'll head home."

"Zexion…"

"I'll call you tomorrow, Axel," Zexion said, starting to walk away. He didn't want to listen to them talk about how different he is, or how much his situation sucks, or how they're glad they aren't him- he just wants to curl up under the covers at home and stop thinking.

"Don't you dare walk away after all the trouble I went to for you," a voice said, and Zexion's eyes widened as he turned around. Roxas was standing beside the little group, and behind him…

"Demyx!"

Before he could take a single step forward the blonde was in his arms, clinging to him as if he never planned on letting go. Zexion buried a hand in Demyx's hair, taking in that fresh, clean ocean scent that was all Demyx. For a few long moments that was all there was in the world, just him and Demyx, and the frantic pounding of his own heart that told him this wasn't a dream.

"Remember what mom and dad said, Demyx, they expect a visit once a month. And they want you to bring him out to meet them," Roxas said, rattling off the list of rules, as they'd obviously been repeated to him many, many times.

Zexion took Demyx's face in both of his, setting his forehead against the merman's.

"I never thought I'd see you again."

"Me either. I just couldn't…"

"Stop thinking about you."

"Yeah."

Zexion parted from Demyx long enough to pull Roxas into a hug. "I can't thank you enough, Roxas."

"No problem," Roxas said, and then he smiled. "I just want him to be happy."


Epilogue

Zexion leaned back in the small boat, folding his arms behind his head with a contented sigh. He could hear Axel going on and on about preparations for the grand opening ceremony of the new lab to Marluxia- he'd been hired on as a private attorney for the lab, in addition to his criminal defense day job.

"Zexion!"

Zexion opened one eye to find Demyx clinging to one side of the boat. "Are you coming in today?" the blonde asked, and Zexion smiled gently.

"In a minute, Demyx. I promise."

Demyx leaned forward to give him a quick kiss before disappearing into the water again, and Zexion settled back down with a contented sigh.

He wasn't content for long, though. A shadow fell over him, and before he even realized who it was, the boat suddenly flipped over in the water. Zexion swam his way to the surface, treading water like a pro as he glared at Marluxia and Xigbar, who were busy laughing.

"You should've seen the look on your face, little dude!" Xigbar exclaimed, and Zexion briefly cursed them for being able to touch the bottom where the water was too deep for him to do so.

Suddenly, two hands grabbed each of his arms and dunked him again, and he had to once again fight to the surface, along with Roxas and Demyx.

"Stop ganging up on me!" Zexion said. "Just because I can swim now doesn't mean you get to dunk me all the time…"

"Who says?" Roxas asked, and Zexion splashed him.

Demyx helped Zexion turn the boat right side up, then they both climbed in, Demyx switching from fin to legs and putting on a pair of swimming trunks Zexion had brought for him.

"This really is the life," Demyx said, cuddling up to Zexion. "Though I still think you went overboard, buying me a private beach."

Zexion smiled, kissed Demyx's forehead softly.

"I just want you to be happy."

"I have you. I am."