"Well, on first glance, the Land of Dragons doesn't seem nearly so impressive as the name would suggest," Axel declared, squinting at their surroundings. "Or maybe it's just because we're in the middle of a damn rice paddy. You wouldn't happen to know your way around a rice paddy, would you?"

Demyx snorted. "Are you kidding me? I think I've done my share of odd work, but thus far, working on a rice farm hasn't made the list." He kicked idly at the mud, then suddenly bent over and picked something up. "Holy crap."

Axel leaned over to see whatever Demyx had in his hand. "What is that? Besides a tiny round object?"

Demyx's voice was a little awed as he rubbed at the object with a grimy sleeve - these peasant outfits must have come with a complimentary layer of grime. "I think it's a pearl."

Axel stared at him for a long moment. "...I call bullshit."

Demyx shook his head insistently. "I'm serious. I think it's a pearl."

Axel didn't bother trying to contain his laughter, and probably couldn't have if he had tried. "A pearl? In the middle of a freakin' rice paddy? Are you out of your mind?"

Demyx glared at him, affronted. "Look at the way it shines," he said, holding it up for Axel's inspection.

Axel rolled his eyes. "Shines like a glass bead, as far as I can tell."

"No...it shines like a pearl, doesn't it?" Demyx held it up to his mouth, breathing on it gently in an attempt to steam some of the dirt away.

Axel rolled his eyes. "The chances of that actually being a pearl are approximately jack in shit, okay? All you found is a shiny little bead."

Demyx removed the object from in front of his mouth long enough to say "Dammit, I know it's freaky, but I swear, it is a pearl."

Axel rolled his eyes again, trying hard not to simply sock him. "It's not freaky, it's fantasy. That. Is. Not. A. Pearl. Is not, and cannot be. Got it memorized?" He turned and walked off in the direction of the nearest town, deliberately jostling Demyx fairly hard. Demyx choked and yelped. "What's the matter, drop it?"

Demyx's voice was oddly choked and strained. "I think I swallowed it."

Axel turned around to look at his face - quite serious - and burst out laughing again. "Well, I guess that's one way to find out if it's a pearl or just a bead! Wait until it comes out the other end!"

Demyx glared at him. "Ax, it's not funny." Then a strange look crossed his face, and he put one hand to his stomach. "Uh...Ax...I...don't feel so good..."

Axel was unfazed. "Okay, throwing it up would be a lot quicker, I'll give you that..."

"No...it's not like that...it's..." Demyx started, hesitated, and stopped, looking confused and a little pained. Then his expression changed to alarm, even fear. His face went pale, and a faint sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead. "Oh, Kingdom Hearts..."

Axel blinked, confused and more than a little alarmed himself. "What? What's going -" Demyx suddenly groaned loudly, clutched at his stomach, and collapsed to the ground in slow motion. "Demyx! What the hell - are you okay?!"

"No - pain - hurts -" Demyx was visibly fighting for every breath, paralyzed by obvious agony. Axel dropped to his knees next to him, not sure what to do or even if there was anything he could do. "Axel, help me - !"

Axel slid one hand behind Demyx's head, forcing his tormented friend to look at him. "Demyx, what happened? What did this?" he asked, feeling utterly helpless.

"Pearl - swallowed - it's poison - I - Axel, I'm dying!" Those last words came out an agonized shriek.

"No! Demyx, you can't - don't - I won't - Demyx..." Axel trailed off helplessly as Demyx stiffened one last time, then went limp. His eyes were still wide open but lifeless and vacant, staring into nothingness. Squeezing tears from his eyes, Axel hugged his body gently, before he could fade. "Demyx, I'm so sorry...I didn't mean to make you swallow the damn thing...I didn't know this would happen..." How fucking pointless, he thought. It had been so sudden, so horribly sudden - within ten minutes of their arrival, one of his closest friends had been transformed from a living, breathing, thinking person to a lifeless corpse that would no doubt fade into mist shortly, all because he'd been bumped a bit too hard at the wrong moment. "Sorry" was a waste of breath at this point. What he really wished he could say was "goodbye".

A thick fog suddenly rolled in unannounced, blanketing everything in whiteness. Axel could see absolutely nothing, not even Demyx's body, though he could feel it dissipating in his hands. Briefly, he wondered if the clouds had come down to bid farewell to the rainmaker, or to gather his remains as he faded.

Then the fog rolled back, and Axel suddenly found himself confronted by a dragon. Serpentine, long teeth, sharp claws, a hundred feet long if it was an inch, capable of using an 18-wheeler as a chew toy. He did the only really sensible thing he could do at that point - he fainted.

Axel came to somewhere in midair, and found himself clutched in the dragon's talons. Afraid to think about where the dragon was flying him to, or what it would do with him once they arrived, and knowing for a fact he was going to be airsick as soon as his stomach woke up, he fainted again.

The next time he came around, he was lying on a rocky ledge, with a blanket draped over him. It was still daylight, so he figured he couldn't have been out for too long - or he'd been out for over 24 hours. When he realized he was encircled by a wall that seemed to be made up of sea-blue scales, he almost fainted a third time, but eventually admitted that the dragon had had all sorts of chances to eat him already and hadn't, so it probably wasn't going to. It still took him a while to work up the nerve to stand up and actually talk to it. "Um...hi. If you're not going to eat me...what are you doing here?"

The dragon lifted its head, turned to face him, and opened its mouth. Axel had been expecting some sort of roar or growl, or maybe a hiss, but the sound that came out was nothing if not musical - like a hundred stringed instruments playing in harmony. "Um. Okay. Wow. That was interesting, but what was it supposed to mean?"

Assuming dragon expressions meant at all the same things as human expressions, Axel thought the dragon suddenly looked sad. Its sea-colored eyes blinked mournfully at him, and the sandy crest on its head suddenly drooped. "I'm sorry, but I seriously got nothing out - holy shit." He'd thought for a moment that the dragon looked an awful lot like Demyx pouting. Then something clicked. "D-Demyx? Is - that seriously..."

The dragon drew back a little, then bowed its head and closed its eyes. Another mysterious fog rolled over, and when it rolled back, Demyx was standing there, with his head bowed and his eyes closed.

"- get to be a habit," Demyx was saying. Axel blinked - he was lying on the ground again, covered in the blanket. "I mean, yeah, this has to be at least as big a shock to you as it is to me, but come on. I don't think I've ever seen you just faint like that, and twice -"

"What the fuck is going on?!" Axel sputtered, interrupting him. "I mean, you died - you were dead - you faded - and then this dragon - but you were the dragon - and now you're here and - " He shook his head. He was babbling uselessly and he knew it.

Demyx chuckled softly - there was now a strange light and a strange depth in his eyes, like the sun shining from the bottom of the ocean. "I think I get what you're saying. You're right, I was a dragon. Still am, in fact."

Axel looked at him closely. "Still are? You don't look much like one now."

Demyx favored him with an odd smile, then closed his eyes and bowed his head. A moment later, the fog was clearing once more and there was a sea-blue dragon where he had been standing. When the dragon's eyes opened, Axel could see clearly - that wasn't a shape he was used to, but those were unquestionably Demyx's eyes, still possessing that strange light and depth. "A lung can turn into a human and back at will, but it's always a lung, not a human," Demyx explained when he returned to human form.

Axel scratched his head, feeling hopelessly confused. "What do you mean by a lung? Since when did you speak fluent Chinese?"

"Since I accidentally ate a dragon pearl, thank you kindly. I owe you one. And a lung is a dragon."

Axel felt like he was caught in the weirdest dream he might ever have. "So...that pearl you found...was a magic pearl that turned you into a dragon?"


"Right. Just wanted to make sure I was understanding that right." Axel took a deep breath. "Demyx, what the hell is going on? I'm gonna die of confusion in a second..."

Demyx sighed and sat down on a rock. "Well, it's interesting - dragons, at least in the Land of Dragons, are very wise and knowledgeable beings, which I can already tell is going to come in handy. That being said, I have no idea how to answer you."

"Oh, fucking joy and joyness." Axel sighed and stared up at the sky. "I probably don't need to tell you how confused I am. Hell, I already did."

"You're probably at least as confused as I am, and I have to admit, I'm pretty damned confused myself. I can't help but wonder if I messed something up by finding that dragon pearl. Like maybe some great hero was meant to find it and become a dragon, instead of a passing Nobody."

"If that's your biggest concern right now, I envy you deeply."

"It's not. My biggest concern is how badly this is going to screw up our mission, because, in my suddenly vast wisdom and knowledge, I have completely forgotten what we were supposed to be doing here."

"Still Demyx through and through. There's a relief."

"Don't make me eat you."

Laughing to himself, Axel pulled the mission papers out of his pockets. "This was supposed to be a basic, straightforward mission, though a pretty damn long one considering the size of the world. Monitoring Heartless activity and shit. Expected completion within eleven to fourteen days, allowing for brief returns for 'medical supplies' - meaning insulin and hearing aid batteries and stuff - with the option to call for backup if it doesn't look like we can make that deadline. But that's cake, if you can fly. We could finish it in three." He suddenly noticed Demyx was staring off into space. "Demyx? What's up?"

"Axel, do you believe in destiny?"

"...The hell did that come from?"

"Never mind. I'm just thinking it might be better to take the full fourteen days."

"...Are all dragons suckers for punishment? Or is your new wisdom and knowledge not nearly so vast as you think it should be?"

Demyx gave him a withering glare. "You can go home if you want. Tell the Superior you preferred to let me do the whole mission by myself."

"No thanks. I choose life."

"Good. Now, unless you were really keen on spending those fourteen days camping in the mountains like we were originally supposed to, I should probably give you a crash-course in local etiquette."

Axel stared at him. "...I must be missing the connection."

"The connection lies in finding places to sleep indoors. Which first demands not making fools of ourselves in front of potential hosts. Now the first real key part, and I know this is going to be tough for you, is - always respect your elders..."

Sooner or later, they agreed to take all the time allotted; Axel eventually conceded that it was more than possible that Demyx knew something he didn't just then. At first, he'd thought Demyx intended to go the whole way on foot, like he hadn't suddenly become a giant supernatural creature that could fly wherever he wanted to go, but he soon learned otherwise. Demyx wanted the extra time to more thorougly examine the cities and towns; he was intending to fly between them. And he intended for Axel to ride. Axel, who was highly prone to motion sickness in all its various forms, couldn't have been less thrilled if Demyx had suggested taking the Titanic, but there was really no other way for him to keep up. "I'm gonna spew all over your back, and then you'll just throw me off," he'd muttered the first time he climbed up behind Demyx's head and found as secure a grip as possible without grabbing any sensitive frills or tendrils, but the ride was astonishingly smooth. In fact, if he kept his eyes closed so he couldn't see how far away the ground was or how fast it was moving under them, he really didn't feel too bad.

When they landed outside the next city or town, and Demyx turned back into a human, it didn't take Axel more than five minutes to start finding it hard to believe that he and the great blue dragon who'd been ferrying him around were one and the same. It was easy to think of "Demyx" and "the dragon" as two separate entities, and forget that one could transform into the other and back at will. It was even easier to forget that the dragon form was apparently supposed to be his default state.

"Does it - hurt - to change back and forth?" he asked on the fifth day, after they landed just outside the largest city so far.

Demyx stared off into space, not seeming to see what was in front of his eyes. "It did the first time," he murmured softly. Then he shook his head, as if snapping back to reality. "No. Not anymore. Everything just goes fuzzy for a moment, and - well, the fog clears and I'm a whole different shape. It's not difficult, really."

"How bad was it the first time?"

"...Think about that question for a while, and then decide if you really want to know or not."

Axel thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, probably not. Anyway, which of these charming hovels and tenements were you intending we spend the night in here?" Despite the fact that Demyx was probably capable of making all classes fall at his feet in reverence just by announcing he was a dragon, he preferred to simply introduce himself and Axel politely and humbly beg for a bite to eat and a place to spend the night, and he had a distinct preference for the houses of the poor. That confused the hell out of Axel - not only were the accommodations the antithesis of luxury, the owners could probably ill afford to give up so much as a grain of cooked rice to a pair of travelers - but he certainly couldn't make any arrangements by himself; whatever Demyx decided, went.

Demyx raised an eyebrow at him. "Axel, I thought you were tired of associating with the lesser classes..."

Axel held up his hands defensively. "No no no - I was just -"

Demyx laughed and waved a hand. "Just kidding. Mostly, I've been figuring the poorest of the poor were the ones who needed the luck of a dragon's visit most. Tonight, though, I was hoping to work our way into something more luxurious. This is the provincial capital - in case you didn't see that big fancy complex on our way in, that's the Imperial Governor's palace."

Axel rubbed his forehead - he always kept his eyes closed while they were flying; he didn't have the slightest clue what Demyx was talking about, other than that it sounded nice. "And you're going to try to get us in there for the night?"

"Sounds like a good way to finish a day of chasing Heartless, don't you think? Depending, of course, on whether or not the Emperor chose a good Governor for this province," Demyx said blithely as he turned down a narrow sidestreet. Axel was forced to abandon any potential train of thought and follow him before he disappeared.

This is gonna fail fifteen ways from next Sunday, Axel thought to himself as he and Demyx waited outside the palace gates for the Governor's servants to at least come investigate. They'll assume he's an impostor and throw him out on his ear or something, or maybe make a joke out of the two of us. All hail the mighty dragon and his trusted companion - a couple college-age nuts, one of whom is basically helpless except for the magical understanding of this world's dominant language. If I didn't have that, I'd be completely screwed. Like I'm not already. He stopped glancing around nervously and faced forward just in time for the gate to open and a supercilious little man in silk robes to peer out. The little man looked at them like they were something a horse had left in the street, and seemed about to shut the gate in their faces, but Demyx spoke up before he had a chance. "Kindly inform your esteemed master that Lung Qin Xiang is here."

The little man's expression changed, from mild distaste to confusion, suspicion, and a certain amount of awe. "You...are Lung Qin Xiang, I may presume?" Demyx nodded once; Axel kept his mouth shut, as that was usually the smartest thing he could do in most any circumstance. The man seemed to think for a while, then he bowed low to Demyx - and obviously only to Demyx. "If the exalted dragon Qin Xiang and his...honored companion...would give us the great honor of waiting here for a few moments, I shall inform the esteemed Imperial Governor of your arrival. He will have just sat down to dine, I fear, so if your humble servant is delayed in his return, please, spare a bit of your infinite patience."

He disappeared, leaving Axel scratching his head. "Lung Qin Xiang?"

Demyx shrugged. "I needed a name to give him, and I picked an accurate one, and one that was going to impress him. Dragons - at least the lungs, the great dragons - outrank everyone but the Emperor, and the Emperor is their equal, not their superior. They don't call this the Land of Dragons because it sounds cool. He was actually holding back some - he's probably not sure I am who I say I am, and is hedging his bets."

Axel snorted. "Still treated me like horse crap."

Demyx rolled his eyes. "Axel, you're over a foot taller than the local average, you have bright red hair and green eyes, and you have visible tattoos, which the locals consider a barbaric custom, or a suitable punishment for criminals. You could have 'Foreigner' tattooed on your forehead and it probably wouldn't make much of a difference at this point. He probably wanted to kick you out and throw the kitchen trash after you. Your one and only saving grace is traveling with a dragon - it gets you a promotion from 'foreign devil' to 'honored companion of the dragon Qin Xiang'."

"...What about you, blondie?"

"I am the dragon Qin Xiang. That pardons a hell of a lot."

Just then, the little man returned, kneeling and bowing so low his forehead touched the ground. "Exalted Lung Qin Xiang, my esteemed master the Imperial Governor humbly asks whether you and your honored companion would do him the unfathomable kindness of joining him at his repast. Also, he has the great hope that you would graciously share some of your celestial wisdom and power in assisting him with a certain...political problem."

Demyx glanced at Axel, as if Axel could possibly give him any useful advice, then nodded at the still-prostrate man. "Kindly inform your esteemed master that we accept his gracious invitation."

The man immediately sprang to his feet. "Excellent - most excellent - allow me to do you the service of leading you to where my esteemed master and his family dine."

They followed him into the mazelike palace, trying to memorize the route as they went. Demyx leaned over and whispered one last piece of advice to Axel. "Whatever they serve you, don't ask what it is; watch what everyone else is doing with it, then do the same. And anything that seems alcoholic - don't drink it. Claim religious reasons or whatever if you have to. If you do, whatever you do, don't get into any sort of religious debate."

"I know that," Axel hissed back, just as they arrived at their destination.

As soon as Demyx - well, Lung Qin Xiang - was announced, the entire room went still for a long moment, then everyone promptly bowed to him to some degree or another, giving Axel a little time to assess the room. It was large and crowded; either the Chinese still did plural marriages and harems, or the Governor's extended extended family lived with him. Unexpectedly, he was led to some lesser seat, among the distant cousins or quasi-legitimate sons or whoever they might be, while Demyx was graciously escorted to the seat next to the Governor himself - a tall, rather imposing man just out of middle age who had a remarkably warm and amiable smile. Demyx obviously didn't like being seated so far apart any more than Axel did; he was visibly protesting to the Governor, who seemed to counter all his arguments with calmness and firmness. Eventually Demyx gave up and contented himself with smiling weakly to Axel from across the room; Axel could only smile weakly back.

They were apparently too late for the main service, so food was rushed out to them from the kitchens; Axel tried to distract himself from wondering why he and Demyx had been separated and what exactly he was eating by thinking about fireworks. He had only limited success, but he did notice that the food tasted much better than he'd expected, and ever so much better than the bland rice and weak tea he'd been getting used to. He'd been expecting dainty, delicately flavored little tidbits, not flavorful dumplings and roast pork and...well, whatever he was eating. Even the constant green tea tasted somehow different here, as if they'd added some spice to that too; he was drinking that instead of whatever looked like wine. Demyx had had a point; he got drunk a little too easily. Hell, even if it was alcoholic, he didn't need it to feel good. This was the best meal he'd had in days; just then, he felt entirely warm, content, and relaxed almost to the point of lethargy. Demyx obviously wasn't feeling so content; Axel could tell even from this distance that he was in the middle of an argument with the Governor. Probably about that "political problem" the servant mentioned. They needed more of this good food, both of them; they'd probably have more luck talking if they mellowed a little. The Governor had just said something that made Demyx angry; he was drawing back, and glaring at the older man, and saying something else. The Governor just shrugged, and gestured abruptly...

Suddenly three heavily armed men appeared out of nowhere and dragged Axel upright; one of them held the blade of a sword to his throat. He tried to summon fire, to fight, to protest, even to yell in surprise, but for some reason, his mind was just not working fast enough, his body was always one step behind where it should be - and one lazy thought trickled through: I've been drugged.

Across the suddenly-silent room, Axel saw Demyx's horrified face, dead white with shock, and heard the Governor's voice clearly: "Now, Lung Qin Xiang, we may discuss business." Then something heavy crashed painfully against the back of his skull, and everything went dark.

Axel was dragged back to consciousness fighting against a dream of Port Royal, and being chained at the neck, wrists, and ankles in a tiny, waterlogged cage. Reality proved to be little better - he was chained by the neck to a short wooden stake, and his wrists and ankles were chained behind him, trapping him in a kneeling position. And he'd been stripped to the waist while he was out. At least they hadn't chained him underwater. His head was aching horribly, though, and he groaned involuntarily.


A line of white-hot pain suddenly burned across his back, and he yelled. He heard, or thought he heard, Demyx calling his name from somewhere fairly close, and he tried to crane his neck and look for him, but as soon as he tried, the whip - that's what it had to be - the whip cracked across his back again, carving another trail of pain as it went. He tried unsuccessfully to bite back a scream, and almost bit through his lip.

"Axel! Axel, no!" That was Demyx; it had to be, and he was close enough to hear Axel as well. "What are you doing to him?! Stop hurting him!"

"Demyx?" Axel called, but he could only get that one word out before the whip cracked again, and anything else he might have tried to say was lost in a scream.

"All else can come later, exalted dragon. For now, we have business of a most urgent nature to discuss." That was the Governor's voice, and there had been a rather nasty inflection on the words "exalted dragon", like he didn't believe Demyx was one. Axel wondered why Demyx didn't turn into a dragon and simply eat the douchebag, though for all he knew, there were armed guards holding a sword to his throat too.

"Most urgent nature?! What the hell do you think is more urgent than this?" Axel had never heard Demyx sound like that before, and the combination of rage and raw terror chilled him. He wondered what the Governor was threatening - and if it would be worse than what he was already doing.

"Calm yourself, noble Qin Xiang. The fate of one foreign devil who chanced to be traveling with you is -"

Demyx cut the Governor off sharply. "You call him a foreign devil again and I'll -" As if on cue, the whip came slashing across Axel's back once more. He and Demyx screamed simultaneously.

"Patience, noble dragon. Please, do me the unfathomable kindness of hearing what I have to say." Axel could almost hear the warm smile in the Governor's voice - warm like a wolf's when its prey is helpless, he now thought.

There was a very long silence. Axel was tempted to try and find where Demyx and the Governor were, but he had the feeling that as soon as he tried to turn, he'd get the whip again. When Demyx finally spoke, he sounded wary, and still terrified. "...What do you have to say?"

Whatever the Governor had to say, he said it too softly for Axel to make out. If he hadn't been in so much pain, he might have strained to listen in, but just then he was too busy wondering if his back was bleeding or not. Demyx's reaction was a lot clearer, and impossible to misunderstand. "No! I - never! I won't! I refuse! There's no way! How dare you!"

The silence hung in the air like an approaching thunderstorm; for a moment, the world held its breath. Then the whip strokes started falling again, not one at a time, but hard, fast, and relentless. Axel tried to keep his jaws clenched, tried his hardest not to scream, because he realized now why they were torturing him - they weren't trying to break him, they were trying to break Demyx, without hurting their precious dragon directly - and if Demyx heard him scream any more, he would break, and these sick sadistic people could force the gentle musician to do something horrible, or all kinds of horrible somethings, just by keeping Axel as a hostage, and even if they both lived long enough to be rescued it might be too late by then, it would be too late for him because he'd die without a ready supply of insulin, and he could not break now, because he could not let Demyx break - but the pain was too terrible, too hellish, unendurable, and he screamed until his throat went raw and he tasted blood.

Then - the nonstop beating ended abruptly, and Axel might as well have been alone in the universe, with nothing but his burning throat and his shredded back and the chain around his neck and the blood dripping down his skin. Gradually, he became aware of the faint sounds of sobbing. "I'll do it," Demyx whimpered softly. "I'll do whatever you want. Please - stop hurting him."

Axel sighed and hung his head. Demyx had broken.


Crickets were supposed to be lucky in the Land of Dragons. Right then, if Axel had been free to move, he would have gleefully squished, stomped, or ignited every single one in the area, if not the city, if not the world. Unfortunately, he was chained up like a prisoner awaiting execution - which he was starting to suspect he was - his back was in tatters, he was starting to get cold, and someone he never got to see kept pouring a bucket of saltwater over his back on a regular basis, probably to keep him awake; it stung his injuries like every single whip cut made fresh at once, and coincidentally blunted his powers to the point of uselessness. And those damn crickets would not shut up.


He was starting to truly hate crickets.

Kingdom Hearts, his back killed.

What the hell were these sickos forcing Demyx into? Killing people? Drowning a whole army at once? Something Demyx could do, no doubt, but something he'd rather kill himself than do. Hell, he might kill himself; he'd attempted before for other reasons. Axel wondered briefly what would become of him if he did - they certainly wouldn't need him as a hostage anymore.


Damn those crickets anyhow.

What would Demyx do, after he died? Run away? Get revenge? Probably not revenge. This was Demyx, after all. It seemed pretty damn unlikely that they'd be rescued before Axel's blood sugar killed him, whether he died of hypoglycemia from getting insulin from his pump and no food, or hyperglycemia after the insulin in his pump ran out. They were probably keeping their precious dragon under guard, so Demyx couldn't get away and get help. Then again, he was a dragon. Maybe he could.

Why hadn't he just attacked in the first place, instead of dithering and acquiescing?

Probably because he was Demyx, and attacking was never the first thing that came to Demyx's mind.


Stupid. Fucking. Crickets.

What time was it, anyway? How damn long had he been chained out here like a dog? Kingdom Hearts, he felt so tired and weak - was that from the beating he'd taken, or was hypoglycemia setting in?

...What the hell was that? It sounded like a lion the size of a double-decker bus, except it kept going - and going - and going - and - oh, no, was this little courtyard flooding? If it was, he wouldn't have to wait for his blood sugar to kill him...

All of a sudden, the moonlight was blotted out. Axel looked up with difficulty just in time to see the silver-blue form of Lung Qin Xiang arcing across the night sky, his tail still silhouetted against the moon for an instant. Demyx, what are you doing? he thought.

The courtyard was definitely flooding. The water was inching steadily up to his chained wrists. Was Demyx responsible for that? If so, did he know Axel was down there, in danger of drowning?

A moment later, the glimmering dragon did a neat loop and came back in his direction - no, towards him, towards this courtyard - there was barely enough room for him, even coiling himself all the way around the courtyard so that his tail overlapped his nose - and then Demyx was standing there - an instant later, it seemed, Demyx had rushed to Axel's side, and was prying the collar from around his neck with his bare hands. "Glad I got here in time - fit to ride?" he asked in a low voice. "Oh, hell, what'd they do to you? Dammit...your back's a bloody mess..."

Axel bit his lip weakly - that calm and control wasn't like Demyx; Demyx should be on the verge of a breakdown; a breakdown could get them both killed and being calm and controlled was the only way he'd get them both out of here. "I...might be able to ride..." he said, gritting his teeth against the pain.

Demyx shook his head decisively. "Not likely. I won't risk you passing out and falling off." He quickly turned back into dragon form, turned to face Axel, and breathed a blue mist over him - and suddenly, his back no longer hurt at all, or his head, and his mind was much clearer than it had been a second ago. "There. Now you can ride," he said a moment later.

Axel shook his head in disbelief as Demyx pried the chains off his wrists and ankles, ignoring the still-rising water levels. "But - how did you -"

Demyx cut him off. "All dragon magic is not destructive. Prepare for boarding."

As the two of them soared off into the night, Axel took one last look at the Governor's palace, still plainly visible in the moonlight. As he watched, the lacquered pillars and elaborate walls buckled and fell in on themselves, and the whole palace complex collapsed with a resounding splash. As the remains were washed away by the mysterious flood, he squeezed his eyes shut, not sure he wanted to look anymore.

"I think you owe me an explanation," Axel said once they were back on solid ground and Demyx had regained human form. He also kind of thought he was owed an apology, but he didn't mention that. After all, Demyx had not only saved his skin (after endangering it needlessly, or so it seemed from his perspective), he'd healed him.

Whether or not he thought he owed Axel an explanation, Demyx was rather slow to give him one; instead, he took a good look at Axel's back while there was still enough moonlight to see by. "There are still scars there," he said, frowning deeply.

"As long as it's not bleeding or hurting anymore, I'm about as happy as I can get," Axel said fervently. "So...the explanation?"

Demyx continued to frown over his freshly-healed injuries for some moments before giving one. "...There's a gang of rebels in the area," he explained finally. "Religious fanatics, who claim to have a divine mission to overthrow the current emperor and coincidentally install their own leader on the throne. There have been some...acts of violence, associated with this gang, and of course it would enhance the Imperial Governor's prestige and standing with the Emperor if he were the one to see them dealt with...hell, I might have helped him willingly if he'd asked me straight-up without all this..." His hands clenched into fists. "He was so damn polite and roundabout in his wording...I couldn't even figure out what he was asking...all I was sure of was that I probably wouldn't like it. He told me I might as well agree even if I didn't know exactly what he was asking, because I would agree to it sooner or later...I asked him what made him think so, and..." He sighed heavily and sat down. "I never expected him to do what he did," he said in a much softer voice.

Axel didn't know what to say to that to save his life. "I hope not," was what eventually came out.

Demyx groaned and scrubbed at his eyes - probably wiping away tears. "Sorry for freezing up like that," he said in something close to a whisper. "I know I should have done something right then...but I couldn't think clearly. I couldn't even see you; the Governor and I were behind a silk screen, so I could hear you. I could hear you scream..." His voice faltered and died for a few moments, then he shook himself. "Ax, I'm so sorry, but I didn't even know where you were; I just knew they were hurting you, and all I wanted was to get them to stop..." He sighed. "Too late to do anything about it now, I guess."

Axel shrugged. "I think you did do something. You came back, washed out the palace, and saved my ass. And something tells me you didn't go out and kill off all the rebels first."

Demyx sighed again and nodded. "Almost as soon as the Governor's guards started leading me away from wherever you were, I started thinking about ways I could get out of there, and rescue you while I was at it. I...I guess the dragon part of my mind was really starting to set in, at that point. If that makes sense. I know I couldn't come up with anything like that normally." He stood up again, gazing at the moon. "The Governor and his entourage led me to a wooded mountain valley and told me the rebel camp was supposed to be somewhere in the valley. I think they were surprised when I did turn into a dragon, though whether it was a pleasant or unpleasant surprise I'm not sure." He paused for a few moments. "I flew out of their sight behind the woods, turned back into a human, came back through the woods, and ambushed them as a dragon."

Axel stared at him - was this really Demyx, talking so calmly, even proudly, about taking a group of men unawares in the form of one of the most dangerous predators in the worlds? Men he had every reason to want revenge on? Did he...could he have really...Axel shook his head in distress as Demyx continued. "Once the entourage had scattered, I turned and headed back for the palace. I wasn't sure where they were keeping you - I just knew it was outdoors - so I just flew circuits around the place until I saw you. You must have heard me - I know you did; I saw your eyes when you looked up. It's very handy that they glow like they do." Axel saw Demyx smile faintly in the moonlight. "Everyone in the palace certainly heard me, and got out as soon as they realized it was flooding. The next Imperial Governor is going to have a job to do rebuilding it." The smile became a little more savage.

Axel stared blankly, hoping Demyx didn't mean what he thought he meant. "The next Imperial Governor...you didn't...did you actually...you didn't, did you?"

Demyx's smile widened, revealing sharpened teeth gleaming in the moonlight. "Maybe." Then his expression leveled out. "We'd better get back home, just in case...I don't know off the top of my head what dragon healing can or can't do."

Axel shook his head. "I dunno - you as a dragon...ah, never mind. You're right; let's go home." You as a dragon scare the hell out of me sometimes, and not just because you can turn into a huge reptile with sharp teeth, he didn't say.

Demyx very calmly opened a portal to Vexen's lab. Vexen looked up sharply when he saw them - apparently he never went to bed. "What have the two of you managed to get yourselves into this time?" he asked, irritated.

"Take a look at Axel's back..." Demyx said, with absolutely none of the self-assurance he'd had a minute ago. Axel glanced back at him - the strange look in his eyes was gone, along with his confidence, poise, and just about all the color in his face. It was suddenly very pale white, tending towards green. "I...well, uh, he can fill you in..." Demyx suddenly swallowed hard, then raced for the nearest trash can.

Axel sighed. At least he'd waited until the crisis was over before coming apart at the seams.

"Are you sure you're fit to come back so soon?"

Demyx rolled his eyes. "Rox, that's the two dozenth time you or someone else has asked me that question. And for the two dozenth time, yes. I'm sure. Do I look like I'm going to fall apart anytime soon?"

Roxas looked sideways at him, privately admitting that Demyx looked pretty calm right then and wondering to what extent he could trust that apparent calm. "Well, when you and Axel came back three days ago, Vexen had to forcibly sedate you to get you to calm down at all. You've eaten about one meal a day since then, and I don't think you've slept naturally without waking up screaming every two hours. If I were Xigbar, I think I'd have rather gone myself than let you finish the mission, with or without a new partner."

Demyx smiled thinly, his eyes shining strangely in the sunlight. "Ah...yeah...Xigbar...I - explained a few things to him. I convinced him I not only could, but should be allowed to finish this mission, and then get some time off."

Roxas wasn't convinced. "Then I'm not sure the Superior shouldn't have overruled him."

"He probably told the Superior what I told him, and the Superior agreed." It was very hard to believe Demyx had been an absolute wreck a few short hours before - he had more poise and self-confidence now than Roxas had ever known him to possess. Granted, self-confidence was never Demyx's primary attribute.

Roxas still didn't think he should have been allowed back on duty so soon, and he tried the last card he had. "It's supposed to be a long mission, though. Long hikes, not much food, not much rest - and you still have a week's worth of work to do. Are you sure you're going to hold up for that long?"

Demyx laughed softly, and the strange light in his eyes caught and held Roxas's attention. "Don't worry, Rox - life in the Land of Dragons may not be quite as tough as you were led to believe." His tone suddenly became dead serious. "And trust me - what happened to Axel is not going to happen to you." Then he bowed his head and closed his eyes, and a strange mist rolled in.

AN: I love dreams. They're so inspiring. Even weird dreams about people who can turn into Chinese dragons. I worked on this on and off almost the entire time I was on vacation.

Yes, I know Dragon!Demyx is kind of scary and very much unlike our favorite deaf sitarist. Just wait for Part II.

Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, got it memorized?