CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Due to delays and heavy traffic, Auron didn't manage to make it back that night before Demyx went to bed. The blond cleaned his cuts, reset his bandages, and went to bed with silence so pure it was like the volume knob had been broken on life. He had no dreams that night; evidently his mind had exhausted itself by delving into the past, and was content to sleep and recover, building power for the next unprecedented attack.

The next morning, Auron was there early, kicking the end of the bed with one heavy boot. "Wake up."

Demyx's eyes snapped open to darkness, heart jumping at the sudden jolt. Disorientated, he lifted his head from the pillow, sleep-swollen eyes shifting up to the figure that loomed over his bed with confusion. "…Did I oversleep?" The alarm hadn't gone off yet. Slowly, clumsily, he drew an arm out of his blankets and reached over for the clock, wiping his face while squinting at the numbers, scowling a moment later. "I'm really… not oversleeping." Dropping it, yawning widely, the blond pushed achingly up into a sitting position, the frigid air hitting him a second later as the blankets fell from his shoulders. Massaging his forehead wearily, wrapping his arms around his upper body, he cracked one groggy eye open, asking drowsily, "Auron? Are we going somewhere I forgot about? It's only Tuesday, right?"

"We're heading out for breakfast," the man told him, and giving no further explanation, left the room to allow Demyx to dress.

The boy stared glassily at where he'd been standing, brows drawn together in a puzzled frown, the words slow to register within his blank mind. Then, as the chill began to creep through his flesh, he clambered out of bed in search of warmer clothing. He emerged into the sitting room minutes later with Sora's hat and scarf adorning his head and neck, asking of the man, who stood by the window looking out at the world in a way Demyx would never again feel comfortable doing, "Uh, are the downstairs neighbours cooking meat again? I can't-I can't smell it yet." He halted with another shuddering yawn, mind still not quite caught up to the situation. "Can I have some time to wash my face?"

Auron turned, looked him up and down with an unimpressed expression. "…You can, but at the same time, do me a favour, get rid of those things."

Demyx blinked at him, realisation dawning as he noticed the man's customary glare focused tersely at his colourful Sora additions. He clutched at them defensively. "But they're warm," he argued, bewildered. "You didn't complain about me wearing them in to see Lucrecia; why do I have to get rid of them just for going to breakfast? Where are we going?"

Auron grimaced. "…I know it'll be cold for you," he said at last, after what appeared to be some kind of internal debate, "but I need you to take off the hat and scarf this time. Keep your arm sock, but lose the ones that colour-blind kid gave you. Just for this morning."

Demyx stared with incomprehension, wavering but still puzzled. "…Can I at least put them in my bag for later?" he asked. Auron sighed.

"Fine. Do that."

Frowning, Demyx reluctantly reached up, and, after a moment's hesitation in which he hoped that Auron would change his mind, unhappily yanked off the woollen items. Trailing back to the bedroom, he pulled his satchel up from beside the bed and unclipped it, carefully pushing the hat and scarf inside. Wondering exactly what was going on – he still couldn't smell cooking meat from downstairs, which was the only reason they ever went out for breakfast – Demyx went to wash his face and brush his teeth. As he combed and fixed his hair, foreboding began to set in. Auron was acting just the slightest bit out of character; he was usually more up-front than this. Why go to all this trouble, waking Demyx early, making him take off the weird clothing when it previously hadn't bothered him, taking him out of the apartment like this…? Was – was ShinRa planning something? Was this Auron getting him out of the way for them to do something to his apartment, like – like plant listening bugs? Or cameras? Or go through his stuff? Had they all found out about Zexion's visit, and now they wanted to monitor him?

"Calm down. You look about ready to have a panic attack."

Demyx gasped with a jump, eyes leaping over to see Auron in the mirror, standing just outside the bathroom door. In all his ruminating, he had stopped combing, starting up again now with the man's steady, one-eyed gaze upon him. "I'm not, I'm just…" His mouth dried up. He didn't know what to say.

"Demyx." Auron's voice was the same as ever. "Relax. It's just breakfast. Nothing sinister is going on."

The boy grimaced, placing down the comb and feeling his spiked hair automatically for style flaws. "We never just have breakfast, though. I don't…"

"Trust me." The man said it simply; it was hardly a request, more like a command, although given in the nicest possible way, Demyx supposed. Auron wasn't asking to be trusted – he was just telling Demyx to trust him. Properly. To not… be suspicious of this altering of the routine. Maybe to believe that Auron had his best interests at heart?

If it had been anyone else, Demyx wouldn't have been able to answer. But Auron had been alongside him for a while now, had seen him at his worst and never once ratted him out to ShinRa, and especially not Hojo. So instead, nervously, Demyx hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah." His voice echoed slightly in the tiled room. There was a beat of silence between them, before Auron slid away from the door and back towards the body of the apartment, Demyx not far behind him. He gathered his things for the day ahead, slung his bag over his shoulder, and followed the man over towards the front door. "So is there a reason for us doing this?" he asked uncertainly. "More than just – breakfast?"

Auron shot him a long, flat look for a moment. Then he said, "It's just the doughnut place on the corner," and led the way out into the hall, pausing only to make sure Demyx was locking up before they left. Demyx released a sigh, mouth twisting with displeasure for a moment before settling into a blander expression as they descended the three flights of stairs and left the building for the big, cold world. Despite Auron's… Auron-like assurances, the blond couldn't help feeling tense as he followed the large man along the pavement. Auron had made no mention of the phone calls Zexion had placed the day before, not even to ask about his supposed fainting spell. He hadn't asked after the boy's Sunday-given injuries, and even with the assertion that everything was business as usual, Dem could tell that he wasn't the only one with tight shoulders here. It made him frown, chest constricting a little, but as long as his guardian kept insisting that nothing bad was going to happen, he remained on the more positive side of nervous.

Once again, as usual, the streets were quiet at this hour, the sun having not yet risen, the cold wind keeping those who were out and about sealed up inside their heated cars, and reducing Demyx to violent shivers he knew better than to complain about. He thought longingly of the scarf and hat so nearby, but Auron's specific request to get rid of them stayed his hands, kept him steeped in frozen misery as he hurried along in the gloom. Up ahead, three blocks away, the doughnut store sent bright light out through its long windows like a beacon, its little neon sign clearly visible. Evidently containing compassion within his soul, Auron didn't allow for any dawdling, setting a sharp pace the entire way to get Demyx out of the frigid air as quickly as possible. It didn't change the fact that the teen was blue-lipped by the time they got there, but he appreciated the sentiment, all the same.

The store was like a hot bath after the outdoors, its warmth and light soaking into his skin the instant he stepped inside, hands rubbing fiercely up and down his upper arms while his teeth chattered all over the place. Auron let the door swing shut behind them, murmuring, "Take the usual table; I'll order the drinks," and melted away towards the counter, where the man Demyx knew to be the manager of the place was serving. The air had its usual welcoming scent, some of the blond's tension already beginning to dissolve as an unfamiliar event became a familiar one, his eyes and feet immediately going to their regular little out-of-the-way booth. He slid in, arranging his bag on his knees, skin still cold but losing that jittery, slapped feeling as he waited for Auron to join him.

The brightness of the environment was helping to banish his lingering fatigue, the comfortable informality of the place aiding in soothing his jangled nerves. He hadn't been given a chance to balk and protest, hadn't had the presence of mind to give in to any of the raw feelings leftover from yesterday's episode; the hurried, breathless start had driven it all briefly away to the peripherals of his awareness. It tried to leak back, slowly, but it seemed that the edge of it had been blasted away – it was present, but duller, all the anxiety that Demyx usually felt after such a flashback finding a difficult time bursting into full being in what felt like a safe environment. He and Auron had been coming here for a little while now – probably about eight visits in all since he had moved into the apartment those few weeks ago – and so far, he had never been harassed, not once. Of course, that was probably because they always came at such an inconvenient hour, and Auron provided a nice screen for trouble – but still, even the staff had never given him any trouble. It was nothing like going grocery shopping, that was for sure.

Just a few seconds later, Auron returned, earlier than usual and without the drinks. Demyx's eyebrows lifted, the boy asking, "Where's my coffee?"

"The manager is bringing them to us." Auron sat sideways in his seat, one elbow on the table, gazing flatly across the store. Demyx was confused.

"Why the manager? Do you know the guy?"

Auron grunted. "To an extent." Lips twitching downward, he gave a quiet sigh, then turned his face to the boy and said, "Listen. For some time now, Heidegger has been insisting that you need to get a job, to get off the ShinRa payroll and start returning the money they've been spending on you, hospital stay and visits to Lucrecia included."

The blond went still as he processed this sudden information, Auron waiting patiently. "…Why didn't I know about it, if Heidegger's been saying it for a while?"

"I've been telling him you're not ready." The man started tapping one gnarled finger against the tabletop. Demyx allowed this to sink in, staring at the tanned, scarred finger.

"…And now?" he asked, his voice suddenly hoarse, a spark of fear beginning to sting at his insides. Auron sent him a look that said it all. Demyx began to panic, the little doughnut store abruptly seeming a hell of a lot less comfortable – feeling hot and tight, sweat prickling at the blond's brow, palms going damp. "Auron – no," he said, choked and small. "I'm still not ready. I'm – how am I supposed to get a job? Nobody in their right mind would hire me! And, and I barely have any skills!"

"You said," Auron remarked neutrally, "that you had worked in a coffee shop before, didn't you?"

Demyx jumped, fingers clutching the edges of the table, leaning forward and whispering wildly, "Here? You want me to work here?" His eyes widened a second later, body flattening against the table, voice becoming even more of a desperate hiss, "That's why the manager is coming over!? Auron – look at me!" He gestured frantically to his bruised face, his healing arms. "I'm a mess, and you want me to go through a job interview?" He clutched his head, fingertips digging into his scalp with something very akin to terror. "If I work in a place like this I'll be in contact with people all the time, customers, employees – what makes you think I'm ready for that?" He stared beseechingly at Auron, feeling the absurd urge to cry. The horror was strong, steamrolling his strength, his small amounts of bravery, his will to flatten every emotion into a cookie-cutter mould of pleasantness. His hands shot across the table, snatching fistfuls of the man's sleeves, face a strained mess of fears and flickering anger. "Auron – why did you stop telling him I wasn't ready?"

"I didn't stop," he growled, jerking free and sitting back, putting distance between them, shifting his broad shoulders and gazing sideways across the shop. "But Heidegger insisted. I went all the way in to Sector Zero yesterday to convince him otherwise, but Heidegger's focus is money, and he and the ShinRa Company are of the opinion that after several weeks of exposure you should be ready for the next big step. It's nothing I have control over."

"What about Lucrecia?" Demyx anxiously demanded. "She never said a single thing about it, wouldn't she know? Wouldn't she be able to talk to them?"

"Lucrecia has nothing to do with your finances, Demyx," Auron told him wearily. "Even if she knew, she'd have even less say in it than I do. Just be glad it's me telling you about it, and not Heidegger or some official from ShinRa. I wouldn't have put it past them to just turn up at your door and inform you the time has come to obtain gainful employment."

"You mean the way that you are?" the blond demanded between gritted teeth, eyebrows turned up at the middle. "Auron –"

"This isn't up for discussion, Demyx." He said it flatly, blunt and to the point, making the boy flinch. "This is happening, whether you like it or not. And here come our drinks; this is the man who we want to be your boss, so try to make a good impression."

Staring at him only a moment longer, Demyx drew back, slowly feeling his only newly realised faith in his guardian suffer a fault line. Why couldn't Auron have told him this at the apartment? Why assure him that everything was fine, and then slap him with an event so huge that he needed at least a week to come to grips with it, let alone a little over a minute? It was – it was base manipulation. It was a blatant trick. Had Auron seen the way that Tifa had handled him with the numbers on Sunday afternoon, and decided that the greatest way to breach a difficult situation was to resort to cunning? To – to treat him like an idiot?

"Don't give up on me yet, Dem," the man muttered across, before saying, at normal volume, "Rin, thanks for taking the time to see us." He stood, reaching out a callused hand to shake with the man arriving with two large cups of coffee.

Rin was a curious combination of fair hair and nut-coloured skin, with a placid face and an accent Demyx couldn't place as he greeted, "Good morning, Sir Auron and Demyx. Thank you both for frequenting this establishment as much as you have in the last few weeks." Demyx blinked at the use of his name, the amicable attitude of the man as Auron shifted over to let him join them at their booth table. Even more surprising still, upon settling across from him, Rin then smiled directly at him. "I am glad to make your acquaintance, young man. I understand from Sir Auron that you require a job, correct?"

"I… uh… well…" Demyx stammered, caught off guard, Auron answering for him, "Demyx is concerned that his being here will cause a negative reaction from your customers."

Well – that wasn't exactly what he'd been planning to say, but he supposed they might as well get that not un-large obstacle out of the way. He stopped trying to speak and instead studied the manager closely as he gave his reply. At first, Rin was thoughtful, evidently considering the concept. Then, he simply shrugged. "In my home world, my people were ostracised for being different; I know what it is like, and would be disappointed in myself if ever I tried to recreate such an attitude towards others." He smiled. "You may not fit an ideal, but I am willing to give you a chance, young man. The public will learn to not be afraid, I am sure." He rapped his knuckles on the table briskly. "Now, let us talk of experience. Sir Auron tells me you have worked in a setting such as this before, correct?"

Demyx took a moment to swallow, eyes skating over the table sightlessly as he attempted to gather his thoughts, brows furrowing. "Right – uh, of course, well…"

He cleared his throat, and recalled for Rin his time in the café in his own world haltingly, going over his former duties, the skills he had learned, the hours he had worked and the pay he had earned. He talked about the relationships he'd had with his boss and fellow employees, and as he spoke, the two men listened carefully, Auron sitting back while nursing his coffee, Rin nodding every now and again with an attentive expression. By the time Demyx stopped, he felt as though he'd been talking more in those thirty or so minutes than he had in an entire month – he was almost exhausted by it. He let out a low, heavy breath, Auron inclining his head faintly in approval. Demyx flashed him a slightly confused, half sheepish smile. He supposed Auron hadn't been so bad, after all – at least he'd brought him to somebody who would listen to him, who wasn't afraid. It seemed like Auron was the main guy to go to when someone like that was required. Demyx's trust hadn't been misplaced, in the end. He still didn't think he liked the way it had been done – but at least Auron hadn't moved to the screwing-over camp like it had initially appeared.

With the conclusion of the interviewing process, more customers entering the store as the sun rose over the horizon, Rin nodded and reached over to pat the blond on the back of the hand. "That will do, thank you. I'm sure your qualifications are enough to get by here, I have nothing to complain about. Once it is decided with the ShinRa Company, we can organise your hours and wage. I look forward to it." He began to stand, shaking Auron's hand again, courteously saying, "Sir Auron – until the next time. Thank you for considering my establishment for your charge." With a straight back and firm stride, Rin gave one final nod and smile, then left the table to return to the counter, already taking orders alongside the other employee at the register.

For several minutes, neither Auron or Demyx spoke, their silence a reflective one. The blond noticed the man watching him, and sent over a faltering half-glare, like he wanted to be mad but couldn't quite manage it. "…I don't think I like you much right now," he said at length. Auron lifted one shoulder acceptingly. "You're lucky that that Rin guy is so easygoing," he continued, an accusing tone to his voice, expression struggling to remain neutral. "If it hadn't been him, who would you have considered trying to fix me up with?"

"Maybe Tifa," Auron supposed. "But I didn't think she'd be thrilled about being on ShinRa's books. She doesn't like the company very much."

"I wonder why." The sarcasm felt good, but it spelled the end of his wavering mood – with a warning look from Auron, a darting look about the shop, Demyx returned to being quiet, his agitation settling into the space in his chest reserved for the inexpressible. For the remainder of their drinks, they each kept to their own thoughts, Demyx hunched over, a faint frown on his features. He could still feel his heart beating, that scared-rabbit reaction pounding through his temples. The idea of being forced to go to work to pay off his ShinRa debt – it sent shivers up his spine. It made his veins cold, his mouth turn dry, his teeth clench and grind… but there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing but take it in stride, not let on how badly it frightened him, and play the game as ShinRa dictated. The only alternative was to rebel, which was no option at all.

As they finally stood to take their leave, the hour close to when Demyx was due at the academy, he felt the weight of yesterday's events begin to resettle on his shoulders with this latest shaking event, forming a brittle cage somewhere inside his throat. He inhaled slowly, running fingers through his hair, not glancing about as they made their way over to the door, sparing only a second to toss a thin smile over at where Rin continued to work – the man threw a wave back at them before they headed outside, apparently irrepressible.

"…So how long had you been planning this?" the blond eventually hoarsely asked, as they manoeuvred their way through the steadily increasing human traffic of the sidewalk, shoes scuffing the pavement. Auron, gazing ahead, let out a non-committal grunt.

"Since I knew you'd had experience in that sort of thing in your past life."

Demyx looked over sharply, astounded. "That long?! That – that was in my paperwork! You'd have known that since before you even knew me!"

"And I've known Rin for longer still," the man responded, "vaguely, at least. I delayed today's meeting as long as I could, but ShinRa doesn't want to coddle you any more than it has already. Rin is your best shot at being treated like a human being. I thought I'd have longer to prepare you, but –" He shrugged. "Turns out Heidegger was more determined than I'd given him credit for. Sorry," he added, as an afterthought. Then, "Do your best." He reached over to pat a hand briefly onto the boy's shoulder. Demyx sagged a little, wondering how he could possibly 'do his best' when everything inside him cried out for mercy.

"So when do I start?" he asked, voice cracking slightly. He was terrified the man would reply 'tomorrow', but rather than immediately respond, Auron scowled. Demyx glanced over hesitantly. "…Auron?"

"…After Hojo clears you for it," the man muttered. "You've got an appointment at the end of the week. Saturday morning. We'll take a cab."

The shock would have been less if Auron had turned around and punched him in the gut. Demyx stumbled to a halt, white as a sheet, eyes bright and fearful and large in his suddenly ashen face. "Are you serious? Why? I don't have to see Hojo anymore, I've got Lucrecia now. Saturdays are when I see Lucrecia. Why do I have to see Hojo?"

"Because there's no way around it," Auron growled, reaching over and grabbing the boy by the strap of his bag, yanking him back into motion, pulling him along as Demyx's jellied knees started to buckle with each step. "Hojo is the overseer of this sort of thing, he has to clear you as sane and healthy for the next big step in the grand adventure of life. It's just routine, so don't freak out about it. That would be what made him happiest of all." He gave the strap a harsh tug. "And quit that," he bit off. "Stand properly; you're not a kid to be scared by the boogieman."

Hurt, Demyx sucked in a breath, trying to be what Auron expected of him. He straightened his spine, quickened his step to keep up with the man, fighting to keep his breaths even, mind working frantically to maintain a state of calm. Like Auron said, nothing would make Hojo happier than knowing he was having a bad effect on his ex-patient – except maybe having Demyx flip out completely and get carted back in an armoured van. He had to be strong about this – had to show just how far he'd come in the weeks since his release. Hojo was a sadist, a sick freak, and Demyx had to prove that he was thriving out of the man's care, like a plant that had managed to live despite being watered with rat poison. He coughed once, coughed a second time a little desperately, feeling his respiration falter as if it could turn on a coin and plunge him into a fit of gasping panic – but then Auron interrupted, drawling, "Don't tell me – that's the colour-blind kid."

Demyx inhaled hard, let out one last startled choke, then, eyes watering, swung to see where Auron was looking. They had reached the school before he'd even realised it, absorbed as he was in fears and worries and agitation, and there at the gates, standing in his puffy silver jacket, a burnt orange beanie with blue earflaps while wearing a magenta scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face, was Sora. Nearby, looking decidedly more normal, stood Riku, and to the side of them, slightly apart from the duo, Roxas leaned against the cold brick of the wall, head down and reading a book.

Sora spotted them across the street at the same time that Auron noticed him, letting out a distant shout and throwing his arm through the air in a frantic wave. Demyx and Auron watched the boy grab Riku by the shirt and lead the charge to the zebra crossing, waiting impatiently for traffic to clear before dashing across, making a beeline for Demyx with a look of determined concern. "Dem!" he exclaimed, the moment he was within range, releasing Riku to instead transfer his grip onto the blond's shirt front, pulling at the thin material as he shook his arms up and down anxiously. "Dem, how are you? Do you feel okay?" He let go of the shirt, patted Demyx's shoulders, then clutched his face between his hands and stared worriedly into his eyes as though searching for evidence of disease. "You just vanished from the school yesterday after you passed out on the field, Zexy said he took you home but he wouldn't tell me what happened, and that is so unfair because I was right there when it happened! And I'm your friend, I have a right to know, don't I?"

Sounding surprised, Auron murmured, "That's right – you fainted. I forgot to ask about it, after everything with Heidegger."

Sora threw him a scandalised glare. "And you're the guy who's supposed to be taking care of him? Nice going, buddy! Try doing your job, why don't you?"

Auron stared for a moment, registering slight astonishment on his usually stoic features, before the corner of his mouth twitched. "…I can see now why you wear those blinding woollen things," he said to Demyx, then gently tapped a knuckle against the blond's bicep and started turning away. "Stay level. See you tonight. I'll bring dinner."

Sora gaped as the man exited the scene, apparently content with leaving his charge in the presence of a kid with serious fashion issues, the faintest hint of a genuine smile on his face. Outraged, Sora exclaimed, "Wha-at! I don't believe it, he left without even saying goodbye to you, Dem! What kind of a guy is he?"

Demyx lowered his chin with an automatic smile, feeling bewildered by the boy's sudden presence in the middle of so much upheaval, struggling to switch gears to match Sora's exuberance. "It's okay, Sora – Auron says goodbye in his own way. He's really not bad."

"Not bad my ass," the boy scowled, watching Auron melt into the crowd before returning the full brunt of his attentions to Demyx. "So what happened? Are you okay? How do you feel today?"

Demyx reached up, hesitated for a moment and then gently disengaged Sora's hands from their clamped positions either side of his face. A part of him watched warily for any negative response from the boy at being touched – any sign of feeling threatened – but Sora, being naturally Sora, only looked a little at a loss now that he had nothing of Demyx to cling to.

"I'm feeling fine. Zexion took me home, I got a night's rest, and I'm here now feeling… completely all right." He shivered, the cold swarming all over him, the lie sounding only a little bit wooden behind the mask of reassurance. But in a sense, he was at least feeling a little better – after all, Sora had come to meet him. And Riku, even though the kid obviously couldn't get a word in edgewise with the chattering Sora absorbing every breath of communication space. Demyx could tell that he kind of cared too, though – he was sending over a sympathetic sort of look, though whether it was for yesterday's suffering or the current moment with Sora he couldn't quite tell.

"Are you completely, entirely, a thousand percent certainly sure?" Sora asked penetratingly, leaning forward with a suspicious frown.

Riku touched his shoulder to call him off, saying, "It's good to see that you're feeling okay." Demyx gave a small, genuine smile of appreciative relief as Sora backed off, then jerked, instinctively flinching when the boy instead grabbed him by the left arm.

"Oh, your cuts," Sora remembered in reaction to his sudden movement, thinking it had been pain rather than a recurring sense of shock at having the cursed limb touched, looking down and rearranging his grip around the scabs.

Then, without another moment's pause, the energetic boy guided the way back over the road to the school, Riku walking on the other side of him, Roxas pushing away from the wall as they approached. He clapped his book shut, pushing it into his bag and raising an eyebrow at the way Sora was apparently joined at the hip of the resident mad-worlder.

Demyx stumbled along beside the kid, listening to his outpouring of woes on the topic of yesterday's supposed fainting spell, Saix, and the evils of teachers who either pushed students too hard or didn't reveal pivotal information to concerned parties after a disaster. It seemed as though any other actual input wasn't necessary – needing only to give the occasional hum of assent and nod of his head, Demyx allowed himself to be steered towards his first class for the day, breaking out into a crooked smile when Sora's parting remark before moving on to his own class was, "And where the hell is the stuff I gave you? You're freezing to touch, did you know that? Damn it, I'm going to need to get you more hats – don't worry, I've got heaps at home."

He was gone like a whirlwind, and though he was a bewildering entity first thing in the morning, and it might have been attributed to the sudden presence of classroom radiators, Demyx felt warm for the first time since he'd woken up.

o.O.o

Seeing Zexion again brought a chill trickling back.

The man was waiting for him as he came out of Paine's history class, leaning against the wall looking grim. Catching sight of Demyx, expecting him as he was the last out of the room, the first words out of his mouth were, "Do you want to file a report against Saix? I'll support you if you do."

Oh, for crying out loud.

Demyx hesitated, flicked his gaze over Zexion's expression, then lowered his head and continued walking straight past him. "I don't need your support. I'll be fine."

There was a pause from behind, then an incredulous, "You'll be fine?" Zexion's footsteps came quick behind him, the shorter man trying to keep up with Demyx's long legs, the blond rather eager to not have to talk to him right now. He couldn't handle this at the moment, couldn't – couldn't look at Zexion properly. It made him want to burn with some form of humiliation that the man had seen him in such a bad state: the vulnerability he'd displayed, the terrible way he'd handled having a guest for the first time, the way he'd come off as so… so unstable… Eyes slamming shut, he tried to block out the man's presence, but Zexion persisted as only he could, his voice managing to pierce its way into Demyx's skull regardless of whether he wished it otherwise. Aggravated, he was saying, "He pushed you too far, Demyx; you know it, he knows it, the entire class saw it happen."

"Yeah, and how many of them would testify at a hearing, huh? I mean, for me?" The words burst out of him in a daring moment, a startling burst of sourness in his heart that laced his words and managed to anger the man following in his wake.

"How about Sora?" Zexion demanded hotly, dodging a pair of skittering girls. "Riku? They're the ones who carried you, the ones who've been harassing me since yesterday to know what really happened to you." He let out a frustrated sound, evidently growing sick of the back of the boy's head. "Why are you walking away from me? Stop, turn around – I'm trying to talk to you."

"I don't want to talk," Demyx replied lightly, increasing his stride, passing through a clump of students on their way to their next period's classes. They scattered as they noticed him, Zexion shooting them dark, disapproving looks as he strode closely behind.

"Demyx," he said, deliberately calming his voice down, evidently trying to sound more reasonable, "this isn't any form of – of ignorance rage, I am simply trying to see to it that Saix gets put on notice for the abuse of one of his students. I would do it for anyone, and it's my fault it happened at all, I'm the one who kept you too long out of his lesson, I – I gave him an excuse to hurt you."

Demyx's steps slowed. He glanced back over his shoulder, hearing the regret clearly in Zexion's tone, along with a heaviness that Demyx knew well – that lingering sense of having somehow failed. Zexion, their eyes meeting for the first time, was now the one to look away, expression shamed, frustrated. He stopped walking, Demyx reluctantly following suit, the two of them standing in the middle of the open-air corridor, the cold bite-biting at the blond's exposed flesh.

Noticing the agitated, unhappy body language of Zexion's stiff posture and hunched shoulders, Demyx couldn't help but sigh, feeling a stab of pity. "Look," he said, weary compassion in his tone, "it wasn't your fault. Saix would have probably done it anyway, he was looking for the excuse to push me. And he wasn't trying to – to actively hurt me, he just… he likes to…"

"He likes to make you suffer," Zexion snapped, then took in a breath to tamp the fires of his righteous outrage, lifting his chin and meeting the blond's eyes steadily. "I'm not trying to make your life more difficult, Demyx. I just want to make it so that someone like Saix can't."

"Isn't that my decision to make?" Demyx asked simply, hands tightening around his bag. When Zexion stared, he added, "I just want to forget about it, Zexion. I want…" He ducked his head, frowning at the concrete. "I want to pretend it didn't happen. I don't want – to think about it anymore."

He closed his eyes, and could still see the memory in his head, fleeting images of a world gone mad and wrong and twisted, and he didn't want to have to see that any longer than it would stay on its own. Raking it all up, drawing it out when he could just let it fade away – he wasn't going to pursue a damn thing with Saix if it meant having to be reminded and reminded about what had happened just from being made to run a little bit too hard. Today might have started off in such a way as to dull the razor's edge of the terrible aftermath of such a memory, but a kernel of panic remained within him at the thought of how many more times he might have to endure it – have to voluntarily run himself straight into another episode. If he could avoid thinking about that, even for a little while, then he would. It was as simple as that.

When he opened his eyes, Zexion was watching, and it was unnerving in a way – it seemed as though the man had seen every single thought racing through Demyx's mind, like the blond's brain was close to being an open book to him. Demyx's stomach sank as he virtually confirmed it in the next heartbeat: "I've been thinking," said Zexion, "and I might know a way to help you avoid – the sort of thing that happened yesterday. Maybe. Come with me to my office, and I'll show you."

Demyx knew what he was talking about: all that ranting of having a knife in his pocket, the borderline hysteria he'd displayed – he was haunted by the what-ifs of if it had been anyone but Zexion who had found him in that state. Hojo featured strongly in a lot of the possible scenarios he had cooked up in his imagination since it had happened, and absolutely none of them ended well. Demyx swallowed a lump, gaze suddenly darting about, unable to maintain contact on the other's clear eyes as he brightly said, "Oh, right, well – really, I need to be getting to class, actually."

Zexion sighed. "Demyx, you have a free period, this was your mathematics block."

The blond forced a thin smile. "Then you have a class to get to."

"My class," he replied firmly, "can handle themselves for a while. I want to show you my idea."

A flush of anger stirred in Demyx's chest, one he had to bite down to prevent from escaping in the public setting, but nonetheless he allowed his expression to drop as he hissed out, "You can't keep rearranging schedules to fuss over me, you're going to get us in trouble. First you make me late for a class, then you're making yourself late – I don't need you taking all these little side-trips just for the sake of pitying me!"

"This isn't about pitying you." Zexion stepped closer, took hold of the blond's wrist, the tattooed one, the same one that the man had inspected with such fascination the afternoon previously that it made Demyx jump and feel a tingle in his cheeks to think of. Earnestly, quietly, Zexion continued, "This is about wanting to help you, Demyx, and I was thinking and thinking about what you told me yesterday, and I came up with a possible idea. It's ridiculous, it's possibly pathetic and you might think I'm a total fool for even suggesting it, but I want to try. You deserve better than this. Better than this." He squeezed the tattooed wrist meaningfully. "But until that 'better' happens, the least I can do is put forth ideas on how to control –" He reached out with his other hand, pressed a finger into the middle of Demyx's forehead, " – this."

Demyx nearly went cross-eyed trying to focus in on it. He resettled his gaze onto the serious face of the man right in front of him, feeling a moment's cautious uncertainty.

"…What are you talking about?"

"Your biggest threat right now isn't Saix or ShinRa or even the punks that beat you up and carve graffiti into your desk." Zexion told him, eyes intense, "It's this." He tapped Demyx's head again. "It's you, Demyx. Your memories, the triggers you mentioned." A look of despair fleetingly crossed the man's face. "You can't even sit across from your own window without worrying about setting something off, some horrible, repressed memory that's going to scare anyone who doesn't know what's going on and put you through hell in the meantime."

Demyx started shivering, and this time it had nothing to do with the cold. Eyelids briefly fluttering, he asked, "W-well, maybe. You might have a point there. But what can you hope to do about it?"

Zexion squeezed him again, harder. "Follow me. Please." This time, Demyx wavered only for a moment before jerkily nodding his head. With fierce sort of gratitude, eyes shining, Zexion exhaled, "Thank you." He released the blond's arm, turning and gesturing for him to follow, Demyx reluctantly bringing up the rear. It was reminiscent of following Sora around – there was a buzzing energy to the man that he didn't usually exude. "My office is near the library," he said over his shoulder, leading the blond through a building he hadn't yet ventured into, up one of the ever-present flights of stairs and down a long, bendy corridor into a small room at the end. It was tiny, in fact, and piled with books and papers in a way that suggested not that Zexion was an untidy man, but merely that he hadn't been given enough space to operate in. This was… different. Demyx was used to facing him in an empty classroom, a broad, familiar, communal space. This was cramped, and intimate in a way that completely unnerved him, with only a single window and no obvious escape routes except the one and only door. Less than ideal – it set his teeth on edge.

Not noticing, Zexion urged him distractedly, "Sit down, I apologise for the mess, I'm deputy head of the English department but they still won't spring me a larger office – typical." He, remaining standing, had opened a drawer in the overly large desk that filled far more space than it could afford to, rooting around among a collection of dead pens, sticky notes and paperclips. Demyx, watching on, quirked an eyebrow until, after letting out a victorious noise, Zexion commanded, "Hold out your hand!"

"Um…?" Demyx did as he was told, hesitantly offering up his covered right arm only to have Zexion wave an impatient hand for the other one, then, when it was within range, grabbing it and slipping something small, dark, and constricting around it. It clung to his wrist, Demyx frowning, pulling free and holding it up to have a better look. There, creating a thin band cutting inconspicuously through the dark, bold slashes of his tattooing, sat… "It's an elastic band." He shot the man a dubious look, Zexion sitting down heavily on a little chair with wheels that squeaked under his weight, looking simultaneously triumphant and unsure.

"An elastic band," he agreed, pulling the chair in close to the desk. "A tight one, too, but not too tight." He leaned across, taking hold of Demyx's hand and slipping two fingers under the rubber to double-check that it wasn't cutting off the blood flow. "Just tight enough," he murmured with satisfaction.

As Demyx began to ask, "Tight enough for –?" Zexion chose that moment to stretch it thin and let it go. The resulting stinging snap made Demyx exclaim with surprise, the impact short but sharp enough to echo through his nerve endings. "Ow! What the hell was that for?" He rubbed at the smarting area with one finger, shooting an injured glance across the desk at Zexion's smiling face.

"That," he said happily, "is my idea." He shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. "It might seem silly, but it's the only way I could think to help you." Putting his elbows on the desk, lacing his fingers together, his sense of triumph faded in favour of returning solemnity. "Look, Demyx – I don't know how it happens when you end up in one of your episodes, but if you find yourself slipping away, if things start to go… foggy, then try snapping the elastic. Use it, use the pain, to remind yourself of where you are." As Demyx frowned, Zexion again reached over and plucked at the band, the snap making Demyx wince and hiss a little. "See how sturdy it is?" the man continued. "This is the sort that really stings when you let it go. If that can somehow help…" He studied the blond's face, the stirring comprehension but no less puzzlement in his expression, and with a low exhalation he sat back, folding his arms. "Like I said, I don't know how it happens, or even if you'd have time to try and pull yourself out of it. But it was all I could think of, Dem. If you feel the world turning fuzzy, snap the elastic as hard as you can, as often as you can, just to try and have something to focus on. It's a basic solution, but it works for some compulsions and I just thought – if it could work for you, we might as well try it. And even if…" He leaned closer again, intent now, searching Demyx's eyes for signs of understanding, of agreement. "Even if you can't stop yourself from sinking down, if at any point you find yourself with just an ounce of autonomy within these memories of yours, just a second's confusion, look for the band. If you look for it, maybe you'd find it and manage to bring yourself back – maybe even just recognising that something is supposed to be there that isn't, maybe that would be enough to drag you out of it. I don't – I don't know how it works, but I was just hoping that –"

"It – it might." Demyx was staring fixedly at a clear point on the desk, his lips barely moving as he spoke, a curious tingling numbness enveloping his face which slowly turned into a flush. His voice was barely above a whisper. "It might work, maybe, I don't know either." Realising with the utmost horror that his eyes were stinging with moisture, the blond blinked rapidly to banish the shine before Zexion could notice, though he was sure, as he let loose a noisy sniff, that the sharp-eyed man had probably already seen. A pocket of silence enveloped the office, Zexion going still across the desk, Demyx fighting back a sudden swell of feeling that pushed against the barricades in his mind and heart, causing them to creak, his lips parting so that he could draw a deep breath without making it obvious.

Zexion was trying to combat the nightmares. The memories. He was doing it for Demyx.

What was – what was wrong with this man, that he would dedicate so much energy towards helping some wayward hopeless case that just happened to stumble across his path like this? Why did he bother with it? There was no reward at the other end of it, and nobody in this world was going to pat him on the back and tell him he was doing a good thing… so why? He barely even knew Demyx, and yet… so much concern. Not even Auron… not even Lucrecia had dedicated time towards trying to prevent his episodes beyond telling him to keep away from the triggers – even though it meant discovering each trigger only as they hit.

His fingertips tracing the line of the elastic band – so simple, completely inelegant, yet potentially workable – and felt his stomach swoop. His shoulders hitched as he drew in another large gulp of air, voice croaking as he muttered, "Thank you." As Zexion tried to respond, he cut him off, again saying, "Thank you." Demyx then stood sharply, causing Zexion to lean back quickly as he filled what little space they had. Without delay, Demyx blurted, "You need to get to class, and I – I have to find the library. Excuse me. Thank you."

Nearly blind, not with tears but with a sudden maelstrom of internal activity the likes of which he hadn't felt for months, Demyx swiftly left the room and staggered away, the hallways clear now of student life, the new study period in session with everyone behind closed doors. He didn't stop until he found a bathroom, shouldering his way into the empty, echoing space and locating the furthest cubicle along, shoving inside and locking it behind him. Gasping now, he climbed up onto the seat, crouching down and hiding his eyes away behind his striped arm sock, struggling to keep up with the tide of emotion crashing inside.

Zexion was helping him. Nobody in the hospital had ever helped him like this. Nobody in the entire world had shown concern to this degree. Zexion was trying to care about him. Demyx didn't think he could cope with it.

Guilt yawned inside him, at the centre of the thousands of mental blocks and fences and obstacle courses he had constructed for himself, a guilt so vast it formed a canyon at the core of his soul. With a flicker of recognition that it was the first time he had been made to genuinely and completely feel something since the day his life had gone to hell in a hand basket, Demyx bit down on his tattooed wrist, and in this isolated, unpopulated safety, wept a little, all by himself.