Kingdom Hearts...what the hell happened to my life?

Normally, after stupid, dangerous adventures like that, life went back to normal in short order, with maybe a few temporary changes while injuries healed or complications were sorted out. Stupid, dangerous adventures were a dime a dozen in the Organization - Axel had survived more of them in five years than he had during his whole life with a heart, and he considered the five years without an overall improvement, except for the "no heart" bit. They'd certainly been a lot more fun.

Of course, that was before Saix's powers had been totally disabled and he'd turned into a complete recluse until his weapon repaired itself and his powers returned - which was an improvement in a way, but disturbing in a completely different way. That was before Zexion started living out of straws and IVs because he couldn't eat solid food with a broken jaw. That was back when Xigbar had and often used the right to save the most "fun" - often the most dangerous, but Xigbar called that fun - missions for himself, instead of sitting around the castle nursing broken ribs. That was back before Axel had had to spend a week and a half sleeping on Roxas's floor just to make sure Roxas slept at all.

That was back when the human-sized lump on the floor still talked and smiled and laughed and had a little more vitality than Axel's desk chair. Hard to believe this was all his fault.

He gently nudged it - him - with a toe. "Doing okay?" The very stupidest of all stupid questions, he knew, but it wasn't like it made a huge difference. Demyx didn't respond to either the nudge or the question, just continued to stare blankly at the darkness under Axel's bed. Axel had to look twice to make sure he was still breathing. Those eyes...they're so dead...they're a corpse's eyes...

Why did you die like that?

It wasn't like his punishment had been unreasonably harsh - hell, he'd gotten away pretty lightly; the elder members must have made generous allowances for him not exactly being in his right mind. He'd been given medications that would blunt his powers for a period of time - not so high a dosage that he couldn't summon his sitar, or so Axel had been led to believe, but even if he could, he never did. His duties for the next six months would keep him inside the walls of the Castle that Never Was, under the watchful eyes of his superiors. He wasn't allowed to leave the World that Never Was without at least two companions, and he was strictly forbidden to return to the Land of Dragons for any reason. He hadn't even spent more than a day in the dungeons.

Well, that was how it had originally been worked out. It hadn't taken them long to decide that Demyx was really only fit for light duties anymore - he no longer seemed to have the mental capacity to handle anything he didn't understand already. He refused to wear his hearing aids now, and any attempt to explain some new task to him - through sign language, speech, the written word, any means at all - was met with a zombielike stare and no action. Eventually he'd been assigned the supposedly permanent job of washing dishes, which lasted about three weeks before he'd abruptly tried to slash his own throat with a knife he was washing. The last time Axel had seen any life in his eyes at all, he'd been glaring at Xaldin with unconcealed anger and bitterness - probably for grabbing the knife out of his hand before he could finish the job.

Now he was supposed to be closely supervised at all times, to forestall another suicide attempt, and he was off the medication that blocked his powers. Axel could have told Vexen it wouldn't do a thing to help him - it wasn't a side effect. He'd been like this ever since Roxas dragged him back from the Land of Dragons, frostbitten and practically catatonic.

Axel quietly slid off the bed and sat down next to him. Demyx blinked, but that was all the reaction he gave. "Don't be like this, little brother," he whispered, making sure Demyx could see his face. "Come back." For a moment, he thought maybe the endearment had elicited some reaction, some little spark within those dead eyes - but it was so unlikely; probably all he'd seen was a reflection of his own desperate hope.


Are they just not getting the point, or are they getting it and steadfastly ignoring it?

Axel was now fast asleep, as was most everyone in the Castle that Never Was. Demyx, however, was wide awake, and wandering the abandoned halls in his pajamas with a purpose and stealth that would have astounded anyone who saw him during what passed as the day. The fact that he was moving of his own volition would have astounded anyone who saw him during the day - he knew from watching their faces and reading their lips that they now considered him about as intelligent as a houseplant, but still worth keeping alive for some reason.

He wouldn't have minded being no more intelligent than a houseplant, truthfully. Except the houseplant that kept coming into his mind when he thought of himself like that was Audrey from "Little Shop of Horrors". Though he had to admit, it suited him.

He stared into the mirror of one of the castle's many unused bathrooms - no one else would bother to venture here until the Organization grew to at least 20 members and one of the adjoining rooms became occupied. The man that looked back at him was familiar, but Demyx could not recognize himself in that face, and hadn't been able to since the car accident. He knew it was his own - if nothing else, the bandage on the other man's throat was a giveaway - but he never recognized himself in the mirror.

For a brief moment, another face loomed in the mirror. This was the face of a lung, the most powerful of Chinese dragons - blue-scaled, gold-crested, razor-fanged, enormous. Monstrous. This was the face of the dragon Lung Qin Xiang, and Demyx recognized himself in it.

Without warning, the mirror shattered. He stared bemusedly at the bloodied edges of the fist-sized hole in the glass, and at his own bleeding knuckles, then decided it was all to the good - having punched out the mirror, he was now spared the sight of the monster he'd become. Tears seeping unheeded from his eyes, he grabbed one of the two toothbrushes that was sitting on the counter and jammed the handle down his throat, then leaned over the toilet while everything he'd eaten that day came back up. The first several days, he'd tried simply refusing to eat, but that had landed him in the hospital wing with an IV in his arm, so he'd adopted this expedient, and taken over the empty bathroom to hide what he was doing. Dammit, he wanted the monster to die - freezing, starvation, bleeding, bulimia, he wanted himself dead. If the slow way was the only way no one would notice and stop, then it had to be the slow way. Every pound lost, every weakened muscle, counted as its own tiny victory over the monster he'd made of himself. In the meantime, he'd continue to pretend he was barely smart enough to brush his own teeth, and no one had to know how he spent his nights.

Speaking of brushing his teeth and not letting anyone know what he did at night...he rinsed off the handle of the toothbrush he'd picked up first, then picked up the other toothbrush and actually brushed his teeth with it. It just wouldn't do to have some smell of vomit still on his breath tomorrow morning. Once that task was done, and he'd finished cleaning up after himself, he would have liked to return to his room and go to sleep, but sleep just wasn't coming tonight. Instead, he went back to wandering the abandoned halls with stealth but no purpose. Eventually, he found himself seated against the door to his own bedroom, unable to work up the energy to fish his key out of his pocket and unlock his door, and - unwisely - thinking. Once upon a time, he remembered, he could talk and smile and laugh, and listen to music, and play, and compose, and goof off with his friends, and go kick around Twilight Town when he was bored, and eat without wanting to throw everything back up, and look in the mirror without wanting to hide or smash it...once upon a time, he'd been happy.

He'd destroyed it all himself, and so much else besides. Why wouldn't they let him die?

A red light suddenly flared in the darkness, and Demyx instinctively glanced up, letting his eyes go glazed and dull. (So what in Kingdom Hearts's name are you doing out here crying in the middle of the night...) Axel tried the doorknob with the hand that wasn't full of fire, and was stymied. (Lock yourself out of your room? How'd you manage that?) Demyx neither nodded nor shook his head - it wasn't all an act he was putting on; he genuinely did not want to interact with anyone who'd had to deal with the dragon. If it weren't for Axel, what might he have done, so taken with his own power as he was, and so determined to have things his way...He whimpered inaudibly and slid down to the floor, covering his face with his hands.

Axel gently moved his hands away so he could see, for which Demyx wouldn't have thanked him if he could. (All right...I'm going to go get Roxas so he can get your door unlocked, and then you can get inside and go back to sleep, okay?)

Dammit. Roxas. The one person Demyx never wanted to see again, at least until he figured out how to say "I'm sorry" in a way that actually meant something when neither his voice nor his hands would work. No matter what he tried to explain away to himself as "self-defense" or "they wanted to kill me", he could not forgive himself for taking his friend hostage like that. So many things could have gone wrong so quickly - even just losing his temper for a moment - and what could have happened...

Demyx hid his face again as Axel walked down the hall away from him, and kept it hidden even as lights flashed and doors swung open and someone carefully picked him up and tucked him into bed.


"He's way too light," Axel said softly as he closed Demyx's door behind him. "I know he eats - hell, I have to cut up his food for him because he can't be trusted with a knife anymore - but it's like it's not doing him any good; he should be twenty or thirty pounds heavier. Maybe more."

"What do you think is wrong?" Roxas asked. "Besides...the obvious?" "The obvious" being that spending 24 hours as a cold-blooded dragon outside the Land of Dragons had evidently broken Demyx's mind beyond repair. For the most part, he seemed next best to mindless - not much better off than a Dusk.

"He's dying," Axel whispered. "I dunno what's wrong with him...but I'm pretty sure it's nothing any of Vexen's pills and potions are gonna fix. It's like he's just kind of wasting away." He looked down suddenly, and the fire in his left hand brightened. "Shit. There is blood all over my hand, and I'm pretty sure it's his."

Without another word, they forced Demyx's door back open and stared at him by the firelight. He stared right back at them, eyes dull and lifeless as marbles. Axel flipped the sheets back to discover that Demyx's right hand was cut and bleeding in several places. "Kingdom Hearts, what the hell'd you do to yourself? Punch out a window?" No response; Demyx hadn't been capable of speech in six weeks. "What the hell were you doing wandering around the halls after midnight anyway?" Still no response. Axel might as well have been talking to a Dusk. "For the love of Kingdom Hearts..."

Roxas sighed - it was obvious Axel was going to get exactly nowhere even if he tried all night. "Axel, he can't answer. Give it up already..." For a brief instant, he and Demyx made eye contact, something both of them had been doing everything in their power to avoid lately. Well, Roxas had; it was debatable how well Demyx knew what he was doing. Or it had been. Something flashed in those dead eyes during that brief instant - something that was neither the old friend he missed and mourned or the dragon that still haunted his nightmares. What he saw was a soul in torment - full of pain and grief and bitterness and aching regret and a self-hatred so intense it permitted neither hope nor forgiveness nor any will to live. In the next instant, Demyx flinched away and covered his eyes again, ignoring the blood that streamed down his arm. "Kingdom Hearts..."

Axel grimaced - he had no idea what had just happened, except that Demyx was avoiding eye contact again. "Flinchy, isn't he? Dammit, we'll have to go wake Vexen up to see about that hand, and then I guess he won't be allowed near glass objects...if only the damn snowman had some idea how to really fix him..."

"No...it's not that...it's..." Roxas had no idea what to call it. "I saw him...for a second..."

Axel blinked uncomprehendingly at him for a few seconds, then sighed. "See, I knew you were still in there somewhere," he murmured, turning back to Demyx. "Rox, Fori'd still be awake right now, wouldn't he? He doesn't go to bed until, what, 3:00?"

Roxas nodded. "He's probably in the library right now."

Axel thought for a few moments. "No. He'd try to ask a few too many questions. And knowing him, even if he couldn't get answers from us, he'd start playing Sherlock Holmes and get answers out of thin air. I think I remember enough first aid to keep him from bleeding to death." He disappeared into the bathroom and emerged a few moments later with a packet of sterile bandages and antibiotic ointment. Not sure what else to do, Roxas provided him with some steady light to work by; Demyx just stared blankly. Once Demyx's hand had been bandaged to the point where he looked like he was wearing a giant mitten, Axel stared thoughtfully at the floor for a minute. "So, Roxas, how do you feel about being an accessory to kidnapping?"

"..." Roxas just stared. "...Accessory to kidnapping?"

"Specifically, you can be my alibi. I gotta get him out of here. He's just gonna waste away otherwise. No matter what fancy medical tricks Vexen tries to play, he's gonna die if he stays here. There's gotta be someone somewhere who can do something..."

Roxas swallowed hard, remembering the deep self-hatred he'd seen in those sea-blue eyes for an instant. "Axel...are you...sure it's a good idea?"

The flame in Axel's hand flared brightly enough to illuminate every detail of his horrified face. "What the...why the hell wouldn't it be?!" Demyx buried his face in his pillow.

"He wants to die, Ax," Roxas said without meaning to. "He's desperate to die."

Axel's eyes bulged for a second. "Dear God." Then he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "Fuck..." He took a few deep breaths, seemed to think hard for a few moments, then shook his head. "I can't make it work anymore. At least not without disappearing myself. Not unless I know where I'm going in the first place - there's no safe place I can hide him where I can be sure he'll be safe from himself...no. Not the Nexus. There are a zillion ways to off yourself in the Nexus, and he'd just refuse to come back. Rox, can you think of any world where it's just straight-up impossible to kill yourself or let yourself get killed?" Roxas shook his head numbly. "Thought so...dammit. Maybe send him to Fantasia; they'll keep him too hopped-up on silly pills to care...except he'd OD given half a chance. There's nowhere I can think of where he'd be safe from himself without having someone to keep a close eye on him day-in, day-out...and nowhere I can think of where we'd find someone else who could." Axel sighed. "So much for being my alibi."

"...What were you even planning?"

Axel waved a hand in frustration. "Never mind. I'll explain it to you as we go along - as I make it up."


Damn them. Gods damn them. How stupid could they be? To want to save him...the monster who'd almost destroyed them...at least Roxas had shown a little sense, just before he couldn't stand to watch anymore. No, it wasn't a good idea. Leaving the World that Never Was wouldn't make him any less of a monster, no matter where he went. And kidnapping him? What the hell had Axel been drinking?

He must have still been working on the assumption that Demyx was barely smarter than furniture. Fine. Let him. He'd steal their fucking thunder. He'd kidnap his own damn self. By the time they even figured out he was gone, he'd be dead.

Anger and hatred clashed and mixed with pain and exhaustion in his mind, until he drifted off into a restless sleep full of fire and clouds of steam and brimstone. He found himself at the edge of a boiling pool of mud that reeked of sulfur and burned like acid, wanting to just throw himself in and be done with it, not caring at all how much it would hurt, so long as the monster died, and his powers could hurt no one else - but no matter how he struggled, something kept holding him back, barring him from ending this torture. He couldn't break free, no matter how he tried - but with one desperate burst of strength, he threw himself into the boiling mud, dragging whatever had been holding him back down with him. Below the surface, everything was shockingly clear, and agonizingly painful...unendingly painful; he wasn't dying, he was just sinking, in terrible pain inside and out...whatever had been trying to hold him back was now pulling him down; he couldn't even begin to swim to the surface...he looked to either side, to see what was weighing him down, and discovered he was carrying Axel and Roxas down with him, their eyes wide with terror but neither one willing to let go.

He jerked awake to find his throat raw, his sheets soaked, and Axel standing over him with a ball of fire and a sleep-deprived look. (Why am I not as surprised as I should be to learn that the one time you make any sound anymore is when you wake up screaming from a nightmare?)

Demyx rolled over and buried his face in his pillow, sickened by the fear of making his dream come true. He was distantly aware that he was sobbing uncontrollably, but it didn't matter to him. Even more distant was the warm hand gently stroking his hair. When another hand tried to turn his head away from the pillow, he shied away and struggled - he didn't want to look up; he didn't want to see anything, especially someone he'd dragged down to damnation with him. No, knowing it was just a dream did not make him feel any better. When the hands disappeared, he relaxed slightly, then jerked as they came back and started pulling at his ear. Suddenly, half the world suddenly came into focus in a whole new dimension, and he froze. "There, will that calm you down enough to get you to hold still for sixty seconds?"

Demyx was paralyzed - this was the first time he'd heard sound in six weeks, and it was disorienting, even more so because he was only hearing in one ear. "God...glad that worked. I thought you were going to bite me." He still didn't look up, even when a hand came back to stroke his hair again. "So...in an all-fired hurry to die, are you? Sorry, but I'm in no hurry to let you." Demyx curled up into a ball, trying to will Axel to go away. Even when his other hearing aid was forced on, he willed himself to hold completely still and pretend Axel wasn't there.

When he was wrapped in a blanket and carried away, ignoring Axel became ever so much harder.

"What the hell are you doing?" he wanted to scream, just instinctively, but nothing came out but a thin croaky noise.

Axel chuckled. "Told 'em he wasn't a vegetable."

"Axel, how do I re-enable your 'thinking things through' program?" That was Roxas's voice. Of course. Axel would drag him into anything.

"My what now? Do I have one of those?"

Demyx squirmed and kicked, trying to escape - dammit, he hadn't expected to be kidnapped right away! He'd expected Axel would have a little sense, take at least a day to plan...of course, this was Axel he was talking about. Act now, think later. "Quit that. If I dropped you right now, I think you'd break. Hell, you don't even weigh as much as Roxas does anymore. What the hell's been eating you?" Demyx managed to uncover his face and glared venomously at Axel. Axel, unexpectedly, leaned over and smelled his breath. "Puke and toothpaste. Dammit...been making yourself throw up everything you eat?"

"What?!"

"No wonder he's turned into such a skeleton..." Axel tightened his grip and flipped the blanket back over Demyx's face. "Roxas? Portal to Twilight Town, please? Preferably somewhere where we won't draw attention?"

"Are you -"

"I'll tell you more when we get there. Just do it before he figures out how to scream."

"You're sure about this."

"Roxaaaaas..." Axel hissed.

"This was all your idea." There was the sound of a portal opening, and Demyx was carried through it to someplace with colder air, that smelled like the outdoors. "So, Mr. Idea Man...where do we go from here?"

"If there's any place that serves food still open...we start with that." Unexpectedly, Demyx was set back down on his feet, and the blanket was removed. "All right, try to pretend you're not being kidnapped." Demyx rubbed his eyes, disoriented by this sudden turn of events - very sudden indeed; that couldn't have taken more than five minutes. He looked around - they were in a trash-strewn back alley that didn't have more than a few shuttered windows looking out at it, and it was still dark out. Axel and Roxas were standing within arm's reach, which quickly throttled his half-formed ideas of bolting. "First priority - we gotta get some food in you. And just to forestall any tricks, if you have to go to the bathroom, we're following you...Wow, if looks could kill."

Largely against his will, Demyx was led by a long, circuitous route to an area of Twilight Town he didn't think he'd ever seen before - he suspected Axel and Roxas were lost, but it wasn't like he was going to mention it. Rather unfortunately, so he thought, the two of them found an all-night diner anyway, and forced him to sit down while they ordered for him, and for themselves. "So, are you going to actually feed yourself?" Axel hissed in his ear once the waitress was out of earshot. "Or will we have to force-feed you?" Demyx glared mutely at him, wishing he could work up the nerve to just haul off and deck him.

No...

He'd caused pain enough. Far too much. No more.

Axel and Roxas stared blankly at each other from either side of him as he started to cry.


Axel's mind was racing as he shoved down bacon and eggs without actually tasting anything. He was aware that Twilight Town's day-night cycle came as close to syncing with the artificial cycle of the World that Never Was as any world could, and that as long as it was dark out here, they were probably safe. By the time the sky started to lighten up in preparation for dawn, however, the three of them really needed to be in some other world. He strongly suspected, though he had no way to be sure, that Zexion could somehow smell the area where a portal had been and know where it had led to, by smelling traces of its destination on this side.

Maybe he was just being overawed by Zexion's reputation. He didn't want to bet very much on that.

To distract himself, he glanced over at Demyx. He was feeding himself, slowly and rather clumsily but steadily, with no visible emotions whatsoever. Roxas seemed to be keeping an eye on him just in case, which made Axel's extra attention a little unnecessary. The little butter knives they'd been supplied with were barely sharp enough to cut pancakes, anyway. And it wasn't like Demyx was going to jump up and try to hang himself from the diner's curtain rods.

Lovely. That meant the most useful thing Axel could do was fret. And eat. Insulin pumps were wonderful inventions, especially on four-meal days...

Shit. He only had enough insulin left in his pump for another day before it needed refilling. By then, their absences would have been noticed, and as soon as he went back for more insulin, he'd be caught, he could almost guarantee it...

He still wasn't sure it was safe to leave Demyx alone anywhere. Sure, he might decide to go along with them and keep himself hidden, or he might return to the World that Never Was on his own - everyone would probably assume he'd run off on his own, if Axel and Roxas were smart - or he might kill himself as soon as he was unsupervised.

He couldn't leave Roxas alone to keep an eye on Demyx. For Roxas's sanity's sake, if nothing else. He tried to hide it, bless him, but he was still edgy around Demyx; Axel could read him like a book by now. Even if Demyx was back to not being capable of hurting a fly, he couldn't leave the two of them alone together for too long without Roxas's nerves being stretched to the limits.

But he couldn't come along himself because he'd run out of insulin and die.

He sighed heavily, defeated before he'd even really gotten started. "Roxas, I really need lessons in thinking things through...and please, for the love of all that's holy, don't say 'I told you so'."

Roxas's face twisted into a sort of half-smile, half-grimace. "...Right...if you say so...what did you forget?"

"Insulin."

Roxas rolled his eyes. "I had a feeling it had to do with diabetes care. Just insulin, or insulin and your monitor, or insulin and glucagon pens, or insulin and hard candy, or all of the above?"

"...I guess I forgot the monitor too. But I have candy and pens."

"For which miracle, give thanks," Roxas said sarcastically. "It's 4:10 - I guess you have time to run home and get a refill, and your monitor. Maybe leave some sort of note that will make us look like the heroes instead of the kidnappers." Demyx glared at him. "Sorry. It's for your own good, or so Axel convinced me." Axel glared at him. "Don't give me that look. It was your idea."

Axel kept glaring. "So what am I supposed to be writing in said note?"

Roxas shrugged. "I dunno. Demyx ran away on his own, you noticed he was no longer in his room, went and got me, and we went to find him before he hurt himself? I think they'd buy the first part, at least...they all think he's off his rocker anyway." Demyx's scowl deepened. "...It's nice that you're actually responding to us, but please quit glaring at me like that." Demyx frowned even more at that, but he looked petulant, not menacing. Roxas was still looking at him cautiously.

Axel sighed. "Roxas, you are hereby the brains of this outfit, got it memorized? All right, you write the note on...got anything in your pockets? Or use the placemat..."

Roxas shook his head and dug a crumpled receipt out of his pocket. "Not the placemat...if we'd just realized Demyx had gone AWOL, what would either of us be doing writing a note on a placemat? A receipt we had in a cloak pocket, on the other hand..."

"And, see, I would never have thought of that on my own..."

"Clearly." Roxas scribbled hastily on the back of the receipt. "Have you thought of where we're going to go from here? Or are we just going to hide out in Twilight Town? It seems too obvious..."

"I kind of started on that train of thought, but then I realized I only had enough insulin for one more day...if you're done writing, I'll take that, and we can talk about it when I get back." Roxas involuntarily glanced at Demyx, with barely-concealed anxiety. "I won't be gone long. Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

"Do you have any idea how much it worries me when you say that..." Roxas muttered, as Axel handed him enough munny to pay the bill, took the receipt with the note, and disappeared into an alley where his portal wouldn't be seen. It didn't occur to him until he was filling his insulin pump that if he disappeared for what seemed like a legitimate reason, he could come back for refills without fear of getting caught. They'd have no reason to catch him. He grabbed his monitor, test strips, and case out of the drawer, left the note someplace where it would be quickly found, and paused, instead of portaling straight back to the diner. Then he hastily ducked back into his bedroom and poured himself a shot.

Roxas and Demyx were standing outside the diner when he got back, both of them looking like they'd love to be anywhere but there. "Hey...so, now we can talk about where to go from here before it turns daylight..."

Roxas just stared at him. "Axel, is that whiskey on your breath?"

"...Maybe. Anyway, as a starting point, where do you think they'd figure is the least likely place for him to run off to on his own? Seeing as that's what he supposedly did." Demyx glared at him, and Axel realized a moment too late he should stop referring to him like he wasn't there.

Roxas kept staring at him. "How much did you have to drink, before this discussion gets any further?"

"One shot. Just one shot. Anyway, what do you think is the last world they'll check?"

Roxas sighed and rolled his eyes. "Either the Land of Dragons, or some zombie-infested postapocalyptic pit of hell that's even worse than the Nexus."

Axel thought for a moment, then smiled. "The Land of Dragons. Why didn't I think of that before?"

"...Because you just lost your last weak excuse for sense?"

"No. Seriously. Like you said, it'd be the last place they'd look."

"Axel, I had a second thought. You might try it sometime. He's not allowed to go there - it'd stand to reason that'd be the first place he'd run to."

"Assuming they're assuming he has any sense left. Do you really want to go to a postapocalyptic pit of hell? I don't either. Compared to that, the Land of Dragons sounds wonderful."

Someone a lot taller than Roxas suddenly laid a hand on Axel's collar. He turned, and Demyx shook his head very seriously. Apparently the Land of Dragons wasn't his first choice of hiding place. "Fine. Where do you want to go?" Demyx stared at him blankly for a few very long moments, opened his mouth, and said absolutely nothing. The best he could manage was a frustrated expression and a weak hissing sound. "Awesome. So how long before you're able to talk again?" Demyx glared at him. He turned to Roxas, who was shaking his head almost automatically. "So unless you come up with a better idea within fifteen seconds, the Land of Dragons it is."

"Atlantica."

"Too obvious. Way too obvious. Eleven."

"Port Royal?"

"Are you nuts? Eight."

"New Orleans?"

"Also way too obvious. Four."

"Anywhere but the Land of Dragons!"

"Like where? Zero. Time's up. We're going." Already seeing the first hints of dawn in the sky, Axel opened a portal and physically dragged Demyx and Roxas through it, rather than try to convince them to cross on their own. They both looked at him like he was dragging them off to their executions.


Demyx - or Lung Qin Xiang, or some combination of the two - knew the best possible escape for him was to immediately change to dragon form and fly off, leaving Axel and Roxas stranded with no way to catch up with him. He knew that even if they managed to track him down, he could cover in hours ground that would take them days to cross, and by the time they caught up with him, he would have been long dead. He also knew that they would try to track him down, and they stood an excellent chance of being hurt or killed while doing so. Wherever he went, they'd try to follow, even to Hell.

As if he didn't have enough on his conscience.

They were in enough danger just from accompanying him as he was.

As a monster.

"You shouldn't have done this." The over-amplified sound of his own voice jarred painfully in his now-sensitive ears, but he couldn't be bothered to turn his hearing aids off.

Axel whipped around so fast he almost knocked himself over. "Well, it got you talking!"

"You shouldn't have brought me here." Did Axel have a death wish or what? And was he trying to kill Roxas too? He could kill them both without trying very hard...they wouldn't even necessarily know what hit them...

No!

Lung Qin Xiang sank down onto the nearest rock that offered any sort of seat and covered his face with his hands, paralyzed by the knowledge of his full powers. Towards the edge of his remaining field of vision, he saw Roxas backing away from him. "I told you this was a bad idea..."

"You tell me almost every idea I have is a bad one. Look, he's talking now, which is better than he ever managed before."

"Even he doesn't want to be here. Let's get out of here already. What the hell do you think you're going to accomplish?" Lung Qin Xiang turned away and closed his eyes, feeling sick. He also removed his now-superfluous hearing aids.

"Roxas, I don't know what I'm going to accomplish, but I know what I'm trying to accomplish. I'm trying to get Demyx back. I don't like having a semi-responsive automaton around; I want Demyx. Are you going to help me with that, or would you rather run home and let the rest of them know where we are so we can get hauled back and he can stay an automaton until he wastes away completely?"

"Don't talk to him like that." Where had those words come from? His own mouth, of course, but before then?

"Huh?" Lung Qin Xiang could practically see the bafflement on Axel's face, but moved his hands away from his eyes just to confirm it. He could also see Roxas glaring at Axel, looking hurt. "What did I say?" Axel wouldn't know tact if he woke up in bed with it, but Lung Qin Xiang couldn't bring himself to say so. "Um...sorry?..."

Roxas's voice was half a snarl. "Thanks a ton, Axel."

Axel talked fast, obviously trying to salvage some part of the conversation and his assumed leadership role. "Look, I know you're scared -"

"Scared?!" Roxas's voice was too loud and defiant for his denial to be genuine. "Scared of what, for Kingdom Hearts's sake?" While the two of them argued, Lung Qin Xiang tuned them out and absorbed himself in his own thoughts. Foremost of these was - why were Axel and Roxas so determined to follow him from Hell to breakfast? And what did Axel mean when he said he wanted Demyx back? Why didn't they want him to die? No - why did they care whether he lived or died? After what he did...why did they forgive him?

If you were such a callous, cruel beast as you think you are, why would you even give a damn?

What? He was a little surprised by his own thought. It gave him pause. If he was such a monster as all that, why did he care?

"Hello. Are you hungry?"

Lung Qin Xiang looked up. All of a sudden, sharing the clearing with them was a pretty girl about Roxas's age, with glossy black hair and innocent eyes, holding a cloth bag. "I was out with my mother and father, and I went ahead of them to find food...I found more than the three of us can eat. Would you like some?" She smiled and held out the bag to Roxas, who was closest.

Roxas half-reached for the bag, obviously tempted. Axel was more cautious. "Where'd you come from? Who are you?"

The girl smiled again, very prettily. "I was out with my mother and father in the forest...call me Bai. Do you like wild mushrooms?" She held out the bag again, and Roxas reached for it with more confidence. Lung Qin Xiang thought she looked oddly familiar, for some reason...and just as he decided she looked very much like a Chinese version of Naminé, his eyes seemed to focus in a different dimension just long enough for him to see the curve of bare bone underneath the pale skin and dark hair, and the death's-head grin under that sweet smile.

"Bai - Bai Gu Jing! She's a demon!" He sprang to his feet, all other thoughts forgotten - and froze. Consciously, he wanted to change into his dragon form, and kill the skeleton-demoness before she could do anything to Roxas, but something in his unconscious mind was balking him at exactly the wrong time. He couldn't transform here any more than he could have in Twilight Town.

Axel was under no such unconscious restrictions. With a roar, he summoned his chakrams and lunged between Roxas and Bai Gu Jing, slashing at the demoness with weapons blazing. Before Lung Qin Xiang could choke out a warning, the bag she'd been carrying disappeared, along with her pretty smile. Her now-skeletal fingers elongated into lethal claws, and with a vicious snarl, she slashed at Axel's face and chest. As Axel collapsed, she disappeared, leaving Lung Qin Xiang to stare at the place where she'd been.

Roxas immediately fell to his knees next to Axel's body. "He's not hurt," he murmured. Indeed, Bai Gu Jing's bony claws had left no physical mark on his skin or clothing. But Lung Qin Xiang's magical senses could tell she'd done very much worse to him than mere physical injury. "Come on, Ax...wake up..."

"Roxas..."

"Wake up, Axel...please..."

Feeling like he was about to pick up the business end of a lit torch with it, Lung Qin Xiang put a hand on Roxas's shoulder. "Roxas."

Roxas looked up, glanced around as if disoriented, and then looked right at him. "Can he wake up?" he asked, looking very forlorn. "He's still breathing - what did she do to him?"

"I..." Lung Qin Xiang sighed. "I don't know. I...think she may have been trying to steal his heart, and tore his mind from his soul instead."

"And...what does that mean?" Roxas asked very hesitantly.

Lung Qin Xiang swallowed hard. "...I don't know."

Roxas looked like a very small, very scared child just then, next to Axel's very long, very still body. "What's gonna happen now?"

All this trouble I caused by misusing my powers...and now see what happens when I don't use them at all. Lung Qin Xiang shook his head. "Nothing good...I can feel it..."

"Is there anything we can do?" Roxas whispered very softly.

"Don't know that either." All of a sudden, some aspect of Demyx suddenly flared up and took over, and Lung Qin Xiang found himself giving Roxas a hug, and noting with regret how the younger boy's body went rigid. "Roxas...I know you're not at all comfortable here to begin with, and Bai Gu Jing was targeting you, after all - she went after Axel because he got in the way. And when Axel wakes up - if he wakes up - he's going to be a completely different person. He may not recognize you, or remember you at all. And as I said, I don't know if there's anything that can be done for him. Would you like to go home?" For the life of him, he couldn't say why he'd made the offer - it just seemed like it had to be done.

Roxas sighed heavily, ruffling Axel's hair. "You know, you're being less scary right now than all the times Axel had to keep an eye on you at meals to make sure your fork made it to your mouth."

Lung Qin Xiang propped Axel up with his hands, keeping a close eye on how he was breathing and whether he showed any other sign of life, and sighed heavily. He never even considered taking the opportunity to abandon them and let Roxas drag Axel home. "...Think it's too late to go back to Twilight Town and pick up that blanket?"


Roxas didn't think he'd ever be able to get to sleep. It's not that the conditions weren't comfortable - though they weren't; Axel was wrapped up in the one actual blanket they had, and Demyx and Roxas were making do with their cloaks and the ground. The real cause was somewhere between fear of the demon, fear of Demyx - though he'd been acting more like himself now than he had in weeks, he was a dragon now, and on his home territory - and fear for Axel, who had yet to wake up. The hunger didn't help either.

Somehow, he found himself waking up shortly after dawn, with something very warm snuggled up against him. He looked around in confusion - it was Axel; he must have come around in the middle of the night or something. "When did you wake up?" he murmured.

Axel's eyes popped open, and he instantly rolled away from Roxas, trailing the blanket behind him. For an instant, he was crouched on his hands and knees, alert and wary as a wild tiger, eyes darting all across their campsite - then his gaze settled on Roxas, and he smiled, and relaxed, and lay back down on the blanket.

Roxas was baffled. "Uh...what was that about?"

Axel looked up at him, blinking uncomprehendingly. Roxas was about to ask if he'd gone deaf, but - no, Axel had heard him talking; it was more like he didn't know what was being said. Like he'd lost the ability to understand the world's language for some reason. And - but - no...it was like...he didn't seem to know that what Roxas said was supposed to have any meaning to it. Like...like he'd forgotten language, period. But...if he'd forgotten language, period - if he couldn't tell speech from sound at all...he should be freaking out. He should be trying to get his message across with sign language, or writing, or something. If he'd forgotten those too, he should be really freaking out. Instead...he didn't seem to know anything was wrong. Like he'd forgotten there was such a thing as language.

Are you okay? Roxas signed just in case. Axel gave him that same uncomprehending look. Roxas couldn't help but be reminded of a dog being given a command it had never heard of before.

He looked closely at Axel's eyes. There was no spark of human intelligence in there at all.

Roxas yelped and leaped back involuntarily. Axel, startled, did the same thing, looking around behind him as if trying to see what might have frightened Roxas. Roxas just stared at him - now he was the one with no idea what was going on. "Demyx! Demyx, where the hell are you?!"

A few moments later, a huge, vaguely snakelike shape rushed overhead - a dragon. Roxas knew it had to be Demyx, in his dragon form, and he wasn't in any danger at all - but he was frozen to the spot, paralyzed with fear. Axel didn't react any better; he raced for the nearest cover and hid. The dragon did one loop around the campsite, then swooped towards the ground; Roxas ducked, just in case. He was dimly aware of a thick fog rolling in for a few seconds. "Roxas? What's up?...Why is Axel hiding in the bushes?"

Roxas straightened up, and saw Demyx, in human form, standing next to a large cloth-wrapped bundle. Axel, apparently deciding whatever danger there had been was over, crept out on all fours, looking around cautiously. "Axel is..." He couldn't think how to accurately end that sentence without being misleading, exaggerating, or cruel. Not acting right? Can't talk or sign? Off his rocker? Had a brain transplant from a dog? "Acting weird," he finished lamely.

Demyx looked closely at Axel, who was now standing unsteadily on two feet and cautiously examining him right back. "I guess parting ways with his mind is going to make him a marginally better traveling companion than parting ways with his soul would," he muttered grimly. Axel, seeming to sense disapproval, went back down to all fours and looked up at him pleadingly. "Gods...Vexen would have a bloody field day with him. It's the next step down from a Nobody, and at the same time a close relative of a Heartless - instead of having a heart but no mind or soul, he's got a soul but no mind or heart. I wonder if there's a loose mind running around without a heart or soul." His face was slowly twisting into an expression of rage, and Roxas backed off a step or three. "If I ever see Bai Gu Jing again, she will beg for Avici before I'm through with her. It'll seem like a relaxing vacation." Axel was cowering now, backing away and whimpering like a beaten dog; Demyx leaned over and patted his head. "Don't worry; it's not you I'm mad at. It's the bitch who left you like this." Axel relaxed visibly, and stood up to give Demyx a hug. "Whoa. Okay. That was unexpected."

Roxas scratched his head, bewildered but at the same time trying not to think too hard, lest he come to some very ugly conclusions. "He never seemed to understand a word I said," he said.

Demyx watched as Axel went back to his blanket, stretching out and looking up at Roxas. "I'm pretty sure all he understood was that I was friendly. Think you can get him to collect firewood? I don't know if he can summon fire anymore, with...the way he is, and I don't want to find out very badly right now. Make sure you get some decent kindling." Feeling like an idiot himself, Roxas gestured for Axel to follow him; Axel just blinked at him. He ended up trying to tug Axel to his feet, and then tugged him along after him. Axel picked up on the idea that he was supposed to be following Roxas, but he never did seem to catch on that Roxas was busily collecting chunks of wood. He tried to catch a mouse, that Roxas had scared out of its hiding place under a log, but it eluded him handily. Roxas wondered uncomfortably what he would have done with it had he managed to catch it.

By the time he decided he had enough, including kindling, Demyx had opened the bundle he'd presumably brought with him - the cloth it had been wrapped in turned out to be a couple more blankets, wrapped around a sack of rice, a three-legged iron pot, two wooden bowls, a teakettle, a container of tea, and a few other odds and ends. "...You've been busy," Roxas said.

Demyx nodded. "Traded a new well site for it...was he any help? Oh, well...was he any trouble? Good..." He took the kindling off Roxas's hands, cleared out a space in the middle of the campsite, and sorted out flint and steel from the rest of the bundle. "This is probably late to start the process, but you won't get too far without food, and I don't think you'd like to try to crunch down raw rice...besides, it's not like we're going anywhere in particular..." It took him eleven tries to get the kindling to light and stay lit, using the flint and steel. "...I'd kill for a pack of matches just now."

It wasn't until then that Roxas noticed the bandages on Demyx's hand were gone, along with the one on his neck. There was a faint but visible scar on his throat, and no marks at all on his hand. "How'd you fix yourself up so quick?" he asked, ignoring how Axel was trying to grab the fire. He was succeeding, too, but his powers were at least intact enough to allow him to hold a handful of flame without getting burned, and he was examining it with wide-eyed wonder.

Demyx shrugged as he set up the iron pot over the fire and filled it with water. "Magic."

Roxas nodded warily, as Axel tried to bite the fire. "Does that just happen automatically, or did you -" He stopped, suddenly stricken with the fear that Demyx's mental state - especially his will to live - was really no more stable today than it had been the night before last. If that was the case, he might wake up tomorrow morning, or just turn around at some point, to find he and Axel had been abandoned in the Land of Dragons and Demyx was...gone. He shivered involuntarily. How far can I trust you? he wondered.

"I decided I couldn't afford a disabled hand just now." If Demyx had any idea what was going on in Roxas's head, he was ignoring it.

Axel, having decided fire was not meant for eating, shook away the flame that still clung to his hands and sat down next to Roxas, looking up at him pleadingly. Not knowing what else to do, Roxas patted his head like he would a dog's. Apparently taking that as a sign of approval, Axel dragged his blanket over next to Roxas and stretched out on it again, very like a guard dog. It didn't take him long to start becoming restless again, and as Demyx added rice to the pot of water, he crawled over to investigate, almost knocking over the pot. "Don't do that!" Demyx admonished, pushing him away, and he crawled back and lay down at Roxas's feet, whimpering softly. Roxas felt immensely sorry for him, reduced to this animal-like state, and just had to give him a hug. Surprisingly, Axel seemed to purr a little, like a cat.

A strange snuffling noise caught his attention. He looked up to see Demyx sitting on a log near the fire, blinking furiously. "Demyx, are you...crying?"

"No," Demyx said forcefully, and went back to watching the rice cook, giving it an occasional stir with a wooden spoon. His attitude didn't invite further questioning.

Lacking anything better to do, Roxas started thinking. He knew Demyx had the power to heal others almost immediately in this world, by turning into a dragon and breathing on them; was it possible he could...probably not. If he couldn't cure their heartless state, it didn't seem likely he could do anything for Axel right now either. And just what was going on in there, anyway? He seemed all calm and in charge - was he really improving so quickly, or was that just the dragon taking over and he'd go back to being unresponsive to the point of lifelessness when they got home, or was it even just a facade he was putting on to cover his mental instability briefly? What if it was just a facade, and Demyx snapped again? What would happen to them? No way Axel was capable of taking care of himself right now, and Roxas didn't think he could take care of both of them...would they ever be able to get Axel back to normal? Or was he doomed to this subhuman state for the rest of his life?

"The rice is done."

Roxas looked up, his train of thought neatly derailed. Demyx was scooping rice into a bowl, while Axel watched curiously. Once the bowl was full, he handed it to Roxas along with a pair of chopsticks, and Axel switched to watching him instead. His pleading look intensified, and Roxas, figuring he was just as hungry as the rest of them, was about to offer him some rice, but Demyx unexpectedly offered Axel the second bowl. Axel took it, and examined it curiously, and sniffed at it, and started eating with his hands. When Demyx offered him chopsticks, he tried to bite them, then threw them away as inedible. Roxas wondered if there was a third bowl in the bundle he hadn't seen, but Demyx didn't produce one, nor did there seem to be any rice left in the pot. "Demyx, aren't you going to eat?"

Demyx shook his head, acting unconcerned, but his eyes were troubled. "I'm...not especially hungry right now. And I thought you and Axel would need the food worse."

"You're the one who's barely eaten in six weeks."

Demyx shrugged. "I don't particularly need to eat in this world." The bones in his face stood out in sharp relief in the early morning light as he watched Axel and Roxas with concealed longing. "...For the most part."

"You should eat something," Roxas said in a much more tentative voice than he'd intended. If Demyx was refusing to eat, even though he looked so hungry... "Are you okay?"

Demyx glared briefly, and opened his mouth as if he was about to say "Yes" and blow off all Roxas's concerns...but he hesitated, and stopped, seeming to shrink in on himself. "I...don't know how to answer that right now."

Boy, did he not look intimidating just then. "Demyx, eat something."

Demyx shrugged helplessly. "That's all I made, and there's no time to make any more."

"You're the one who said we weren't going anywhere anyway. You've got all the time in the world." Unexpectedly, Axel stood halfway up and offered his half-full bowl back to Demyx, looking uncertain. Demyx gave him a stunned stare for a few moments, then warily took the bowl back, and Axel grinned. "...What was that?"

"I have no idea," Demyx murmured as Axel curled up at Roxas's feet, evidently seeking more approval for realizing Demyx had no food and generously sharing his. Soon, he went back to silently begging for some of Roxas's rice.

Worried though he was, Roxas couldn't help but chuckle at the sight. "All right...if you insist..." He offered Axel a bit of rice with his chopsticks. Axel stared at it with unconcealed puzzlement, then leaned forward and carefully ate it. "Good job!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Demyx adding more rice and water to the pot.


Curious how easy it was to think without a soul.

Axel was aware that thinking had never been a strong point of his, but that knowledge brought with it no discouragement or frustration to cloud his thoughts. Simply lacking a heart had nothing on the sheer emotional blankness caused by lacking both heart and soul - try as he might, it was impossible to even remember what it felt like to feel. Not that he'd put much effort into it. He hadn't cared enough to try. He hadn't even been curious enough to qualify as caring. He was only aware that he no longer remembered. He was also aware that he was supposed to have an excellent memory, and that this was a noteworthy lapse, and that was the extent of his concern.

In fact, the only thing that could be said to concern him was the intense emptiness in his chest.

Bai Gu Jing had explained that that was due to not having a soul - it had been lost to the void, according to her, and without one, he would be lost for eternity at death, as surely as if he'd been consigned to the fires of Avici. The easiest way to change this would be to go out, kill someone, and take their soul as they died, but the bony demoness had had a better offer than that. He was to cause all the fire and mayhem he could, without taking any of the souls that were released along the way - those were for Bai Gu Jing to collect herself. At that, he'd balked, and asked outright why he shouldn't simply kill Bai Gu Jing herself if she didn't intend to let him have a soul. She'd only given him a skeletal smirk and continued explaining - the chaos he wreaked would inevitably lure Lung Qin Xiang and his gold-haired companion; "Demyx and Roxas" were the names his memory supplied. If he were to kill them both, and allow Bai Gu Jing to take the soul of the gold-haired boy, Axel could take the dragon's soul for himself - a dragon's soul, and with it, a dragon's powers. And a soul - preferably the most powerful one he could get - was the only thing he was capable of wanting anymore.

The only complication he could think of was the distinct possibility of being injured or even killed in the process, but Bai Gu Jing had reassured him that his targets would be extremely reluctant to so much as raise a hand against him in self-defense - in fact, their first inclination would be to trust him. He was dimly aware that when he'd had a soul, he'd cared deeply about "Demyx and Roxas", but that thought bothered him not at all.

He sensed the small mountain village up ahead long before he actually saw it - the souls of all its inhabitants, human and animal, called to him and drew him like a magnet. A soft target, towards the interior of the Emperor's domain and therefore largely safe from barbarian invaders, its people unused to having to defend themselves at a moment's notice. Even immune to emotion as he was, he found himself unable to keep from grinning madly as first one bamboo shack, then another, burst merrily into flames, and the bony figure of Bai Gu Jing flitted about like a wraith, gathering the souls of those who burned inside. He had to force himself not to chase after those souls himself, choke back his thirst for salvation - by restraining himself now, and not stealing one of these lesser souls, he was reserving for himself the greatest prize - the dragon's soul. Self-control would grant him near godhood.

Not even an army could keep him from that.


Lung Qin Xiang knew he'd doused the campfire thoroughly. The faint smell of smoke could not be coming from that. "Roxas, do you smell smoke?"

"Axel always smells like smoke..." Roxas ruffled Axel's hair lightly, and Axel gave him an adoring look - like a dog with its master, Lung Qin Xiang thought. Poor Axel. When his mind was intact, even basic obedience was a trial for him, let alone subservience.

"I'm not Zexion, so I don't think it's him I'm smelling from over here." This was the middle of autumn, or near enough; it wasn't exactly peak wildfire season. And there seemed to be far too much smoke for a simple campfire. "I'm going to go investigate..." He changed to dragon form, noting with regret how Roxas and Axel both flinched, and rose into the sky.

A thick, dark column of smoke was rising from the side of the nearest mountains. If he listened carefully, he could pick out the sound of screaming.

No wildfire then. It's houses.

He dove for the ground, not caring that he startled the daylights out of Roxas and Axel in the process. "I think there's a village burning," he said as soon as he was able. "Think you can get Axel to ride?"

"...I hope so..." Roxas muttered reluctantly. "Hopefully the village isn't going to burn down while we fight over it..."

Lung Qin Xiang sighed and returned to dragon form. Roxas climbed onto his back first; Axel watched him with wide eyes, not daring to approach too close. "Come on," Roxas said coaxingly. "He won't hurt you. It's safe - see, I'm up here already." Roxas patted the dragon's side encouragingly, and Axel took a few hesitant steps closer. "See, it's okay. There's nothing to worry about." Eventually, Axel crept close enough for Roxas to reach down and pull him up onto Lung Qin Xiang's back. "There, see? You're safe...just hold on tight..."

Once he was sure his passengers were settled and secure, Lung Qin Xiang took off, towards the pillar of smoke. The immediate reaction was a very loud, panicked scream from directly behind his ears. He growled involuntarily, and put on an extra burst of speed as Roxas tried to get Axel to calm down. Hopefully he could manage; if Axel panicked and tried to escape, there would be no easy rescue that didn't involve endangering them both. Fortunately, Axel did hold still - well, "freeze up" would be a more accurate term, and Lung Qin Xiang could feel him shaking slightly. When they finally landed on the outskirts of the village, Axel slid off and slunk away on all fours, looking terrified and more than a little sick. "At least he won't be trying to play in the fire," Roxas muttered.

Lung Qin Xiang shook his head as he changed forms again. "Keep an eye on him. Keep him out of trouble." At this altitude, there was already snow accumulated on the ground; the fire should not have been able to spread so quickly, and yet it had. Something other than natural forces was at work here - something was consciously spreading the fire, it seemed. He had to find that source before he could start to quench the flames, and the sooner the better. As another house ignited, he zeroed in on it, hoping whatever or whoever was causing the fire would still be close by when he arrived.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something metallic spinning towards him. It didn't register as a chakram until it sank into his gut.

He collapsed to his knees as Axel strolled towards him and yanked the chakram out painfully - but this wasn't the Axel he'd left with Roxas just minutes ago, the pitiful creature with no more mind than a Dusk. This Axel - he seemed intelligent enough to know what he was doing, and his eyes - Lung Qin Xiang had never seen eyes so...empty. "Why did you do that?" he murmured, tasting blood in his throat as he spoke.

Axel stared down at him with utter impassivity, and Lung Qin Xiang noticed his tattoos now extended all the way down his face. "I decided it would be easier to take my reward first."

"Reward...?"

"For helping Bai Gu Jing. Your soul," Axel said in a voice too emotionless to even be considered casual. Of course; this was the loose mind running around with neither heart nor soul.

"Helping Bai Gu Jing...with what?" Lung Qin Xiang asked, mostly to keep Axel distracted while he worked on gathering his strength. If he could reunite this Axel with the Axel he'd left with Roxas...without getting killed in the process...damn it, he should have remained in dragon form...

Axel shrugged. "She wanted the blond boy's soul."

Lung Qin Xiang suddenly felt very cold, and not simply from blood loss and the climate. Of course she did; that had to be why she'd tried to attack Roxas in the first place...and because Axel had gotten in the way, and tried to save him, she was now using Axel as a tool... "What does she want it for?"

"Never said. Where is he?"

Lung Qin Xiang's mind was racing, thinking of ways he could reunite Axel's mind and soul that didn't involve Roxas's soul being stolen by a demon. "I don't know...but I can help you get your own soul back..." He thought he had the bleeding stopped for now, but it wasn't a permanent solution. As much damage as the chakram had caused, there could only be one permanent solution.

He wasn't afraid of it, but he had to get Axel back together first. He didn't especially want his own soul stolen, even by a friend.

Axel looked at him, as if considering what he'd said and weighing it against the demon's offer. "I think you're lying," he said finally, and raised the chakram in preparation for a killing blow. Lung Qin Xiang watched closely, preparing to dodge and change forms as soon as it started to come down - hopefully he'd still have some strength left...

A skeletal, wraithlike form, like a terribly underfed young girl, suddenly appeared between Axel and Lung Qin Xiang. "Finish the boy," she hissed. "Now, or I take the dragon's soul."

Axel transferred his gaze to Bai Gu Jing, as if contemplating whether or not to attack her instead. "Fine," he eventually said, with no hint of the contempt that should have been there, and walked away, with the demoness following.

Lung Qin Xiang waited patiently until they were out of sight, then staggered to his feet, pressing a hand to his stomach as the wound started bleeding again. Gods grant he wouldn't lose his own soul in the process, but he couldn't let the demoness get another shot at taking Roxas's. Thankfully, neither of them seemed to realize he was still capable of following them - but they were heading straight for where Roxas was waiting.


Had he still been able to feel anything, Axel would have been furious at Bai Gu Jing's insistence that she got the boy's soul before he was allowed to take the dragon's. He might have tried to attack her directly, and get her out of his way, or tried to get around her somehow. Without any sort of emotion to complicate matters, he simply weighed all the choices, with their risks and rewards, and decided that doing as she said would be most beneficial - the dragon was dying, but not immediately; neither his body nor his soul was going to escape in three minutes. If he could kill the boy by then, his work would be over and he could finish the dragon and take his reward before Bai Gu Jing could have second thoughts. Considering how easy it had been to ambush him, it should be simple.

One skeletal finger extended from behind him. "He's hiding in those bushes," Bai Gu Jing hissed, and disappeared. He didn't need to be told where to look; even from here, he could feel the pull of their souls drawing him in...

Wait. Their souls? There should have been only one...had they acquired a companion the demoness didn't know about?

"Roxas?" Yes, that was the boy's name...

There was a startled noise, and some scuffling in the bushes, then the blond boy appeared. His eyes were wide and his mouth was hanging open, but Axel could no more read emotions in others than register them himself. "Axel?! How did you - how are there two of you?" Axel couldn't think how to answer that without giving his game away - he couldn't even make sense of it - so he merely shrugged. "Where's Demyx?"

"He's injured. Come with me." The two sentences had nothing to do with each other, in Axel's mind, but Roxas would read a connection between them and assume Axel would lead him to his companion.

Where was that second soul coming from?

Roxas didn't come any closer, so Axel was forced to take a few steps closer to him. "What happened to him? Are you okay? Your voice sounds kind of funny..."

"Yes. I'm fine." He cocked his arm imperceptibly in preparation to throw the chakram at Roxas's throat. One more second, and his end of the bargain would be completed.

But in that second, he suddenly became aware of something - some - sensation? He didn't recognize it, but...his face flushed slightly, and his lips pulled back from his teeth, for no good reason...because this person wants to hurt my friend - he can't hurt my friend - ! I'll kill him!

...What the hell?

Axel's concentration was shattered. He whirled around to look at where the second soul he sensed was hiding - and something suddenly sprang at him - someone that looked - just - like - him -

Bai Gu Jing had been lying, he realized in a split second. His soul wasn't lost -

Knocked off balance by the collision, he crashed to the ground, so consumed by rage he could barely see straight. He neither noticed nor cared that whatever - or whoever - had hit him had disappeared. "That bitch," he snarled. "I'll fucking kill her!"

Roxas was staring at him in disbelief as he pulled himself to his feet. "...What the hell..."

Axel grabbed him and shoved him behind his back. "I'll explain later. God, that bitch..."

Just then, Bai Gu Jing shrieked in fury, with an agonizingly piercing note that made Axel want to drop his chakrams and cover his ears. "You traitor!"

"You lied to me!" he flung at her, but he was starting to feel sick - she'd torn away his soul once already, what might she do to him the second time - and what about Roxas - would she use him to attack Roxas again, the way she'd - oh, God, Demyx...

As Axel's legs started to turn to jelly, Bai Gu Jing's bony claws extended to strike - at him? At Roxas? God, no - he'd go through any hell he had to to protect Roxas, but once he had, he couldn't protect him anymore - he couldn't stop her...and as those claws came slashing down, something very big and very blue suddenly slammed into the demoness, scattering fragments of bone. There was one faint, fading screech, and all of a sudden, there was no trace of Bai Gu Jing.

Finally.

"Demyx? You - wow! Holy shit, you're okay!" Axel couldn't resist the temptation to run up and hug the dragon's nose as best he could - it was the only thing he could conveniently reach.

Axel. You're back together.

God, yes, he was back together, that hideous cold emptiness was gone, he had a soul, he could feel, he could care... "Yes. Yes. Dammit, I owe you more than I could pay you back for in just one lifetime..."

It didn't seem possible, in a voice that powerful, but somehow Demyx's - thoughts? - seemed to contain a note of weakness...no, more than just a note... Is Roxas all right?

"Y-yes...I'm fine...is she..."

Bai Gu Jing is gone. His - thought-voice - was steady, but...it seemed to be fading...weakening...

Axel took a good few steps back and looked at Lung Qin Xiang - no, Demyx. He was Demyx, even in dragon shape - but - "Oh, God..." A river of dark blood was running from a horrific gash in the dragon's belly - and Axel knew precisely where it had come from. "Heal yourself...quick!"

Almost in the same instant, Roxas came running up to them. "Demyx, Kingdom Hearts, what happened?!"

Demyx turned his huge head to regard Roxas with a faintly amused look in his clouding eyes. It doesn't matter anymore.

"Heal yourself!" Axel pleaded. God, why hadn't he already?

Demyx gazed at the burning buildings - oh, hellfire, how many people had been killed...? I...can't. He slowly rose into the sky, trailing blood down his scales. Thank you...thank you both...

"Demyx!" Axel screamed helplessly, then abruptly turned away and hid his face - he knew what was coming, and he couldn't stand to watch. Roxas clung to him, hiding his face in his shoulder, shaking slightly - he knew it too, he had to. Three seconds of infinite horrible suspense ticked by -

Suddenly there was a blinding flash, that made Axel cringe even though he'd been looking away, followed by a tremendous explosion - like thunder directly overhead. In the next instant, the skies opened, and torrents of rain poured down to quench the fires. Axel slowly sank to his knees as the rain washed out his powers, not daring to look up at the sky - "He's gone," Roxas whispered.

Axel wrapped his arms around himself, his entire body shaking so hard he couldn't have stood up if he tried. I know, he thought. Bai Gu Jing, that bitch, she'd read him perfectly, she'd known he wouldn't be able to resist trying to save a burning village...but Axel was the one who'd thrown that chakram...he'd started the fires...He cried out involuntarily and collapsed. If he hadn't already been so badly injured, Demyx wouldn't have had to die to bring rain...God, soul or no soul, why had he ever trusted that bitch...

"Axel, look," Roxas said in a low, intense voice. Axel didn't especially feel like looking at anything but the mud just then, but Roxas forced him to turn his head. The distraught villagers were gathering and gasping in amazement, as charred skeletons suddenly regrew flesh and set themselves upright and breathed and opened their eyes and asked their relatives what had just happened and did they just have a nightmare about a terrible fire? None of them understood what was going on, but Axel thought he might - all the souls Bai Gu Jing had collected, from the victims of the fire, had been scattered after her death...and Demyx hadn't spent all his remaining power on the rain. Water brought life, after all.

He was unimpressed. He wanted Demyx back.

"Axel? Are you okay?" Demyx asked.

Fuck this. I'm hallucinating. His voice sounds funny anyway.

"Demyx?! How - how did you - you're -"

"I dunno either - I...oof! Hey! Don't knock me over!"

Then again, Roxas couldn't talk to one of Axel's hallucinations.

Axel didn't go so far as to stand or sit up, but he did roll over and wipe the mud out of his eyes - and Demyx was standing about ten feet away, looking thoroughly dazed and confused, while Roxas hugged him tightly. "Demyx...?"

"I...think so? I mean, I don't really have any reason to believe otherwise, except I thought I just died, but..." Axel instantly sprang to his feet and ran straight for him, sending all three of them sprawling in the mud. "Ack!"

"I don't fucking believe this! Am I dreaming or something? Don't wake me up, just in case!" Axel looked up and looked Demyx in the eye. The strange light-and-depth look, that reminded them he was more than human, was gone. "Are you...not a dragon anymore?"

"No..." Demyx tried to stand up, but couldn't, because Axel and Roxas were lying on top of him. "If one of you would let me get at my hearing aids before they're crushed, I wouldn't have to read your lips."

"Sorry..." Axel and Roxas rolled off him at the same time. "...Are...um...you okay?" No response; Demyx hadn't seen it. Axel waited until he had his hearing aids back on before he tried again. "Are you okay?"

Demyx remained lying on the ground, not caring how muddy it was. "Lemme think about that for a while." There was an almost disbelieving smile on his face, however, and his eyes were shining with very human exultation. "Holy shit...it's over! It's fucking over! No more of those fucking nightmares!" He laughed giddily. "I didn't think it was even possible, but - dammit, I'm free!" After a few minutes of giddy laughter, during which Axel and Roxas stared at each other and questioned his sanity, he suddenly sighed and seemed to calm in an instant. "Thank you. Thank you both."


"Did he ever esplain what he was talking about? What was over, what nightmares he meant, or why he was thanking you?"

Roxas shook his head. "Explain? He's gone out of his way not to talk about it ever since." Xanrivash hissed thinly in frustration and wrote that down. "But -" Her interest was recaptured immediately. "I think I might be able to guess."

"All right, what do you guess?"

"On the understanding that this isn't going any further than the page you're writing on..." Xanrivash nodded. "Good. I haven't even told Axel this - when he...when he cracked the first time, when he went out and stole the Jade Dragon Ring...you know about all that..."

"Yes...did the ring have anything to do with it?"

"No...but after Axel found him, and talked him into giving up and letting me go...he ran off to the Land of Dragons again. He was trying to kill himself, this time. Axel guessed that was what he was doing, but he was in the middle of a blood sugar crisis and couldn't do anything to stop him until his blood sugar got back up, so I went after him...he didn't want me to save him..."

"Did he attack you?"

Roxas shook his head. "He tried to talk me out of it. Told me I had the most reason to want him dead, and it would be better to let the monster die. I think...now that he's not a dragon anymore...I think, as far as he's concerned, the monster is dead, and he can relax without being afraid of himself and his powers."

Xanrivash nodded pensively, and conversation paused for a several minutes. "He seems to have ajusted to sis mons of washing dishes."

Roxas rolled his eyes. "Pfft. He says it takes less than an hour and a half a day, total, which is less time than any mission has ever taken him, and he has basically the entire rest of the day to do whatever the hell he feels like. He spends over 12 hours a day playing and composing now. It's more like a reward than a punishment." He sighed and scratched his head. "Xaldin still washes the knives himself."

"Xaldin liess knives."

"He likes sharp pointy objects in general, I think. It's not like Demyx is still off his rocker and is going to try to cut his own throat at any given opportunity..." Roxas leaned his head over the back of the bench and looked up at the sky, then looked at the clock tower. "How much longer is this gonna take..."

Xanrivash shrugged expressively. "I have no way of knowing."

"Pfft. Long enough for you to get the whole story, which is probably the whole reason you volunteered to come along now that Axel and I aren't considered appropriate off-world escorts for him without at least one other member..." Roxas sighed. "I bet Demyx is going to be thrilled when he gets off probation or whatever this is considered. Except for the going back on active duty part...never mind. Spoke too soon."

"Is your fault, you realize."

"It's Axel's fault. He came up with the stupid kidnapping idea...well, I guess I can't call it stupid, because it worked...heck, as far as I know, the cover story might have worked if Zexion's nose wasn't quite as keen as it was. He could smell that there had been two portals to or from Twilight Town, one made a couple hours after the other - and that all three of us had gone through the first one at once, but only Axel used the second." Roxas chuckled softly. "Axel just about pitched a fit when he found that out. I just think we're lucky we didn't get punished for it - if we hadn't brought Demyx back responsive and talking, we would have been, I'm sure."

"If you hadn't done it, you two would still be suitable escorts."

"If we hadn't, Demyx would still be slowly wasting away, refusing to talk, smile, or interact with anyone. I wish we'd been smarter about it, sure..."

"You're glad you did it, but you wish you hadn't let Assel plan it."

"...Yeah, that would have been smarter."

Roxas might have said more, but a very long shadow suddenly leaned over him. "Hellooooo, Roxas."

"Gah!...Hi, Ax. What new atrocities have you had committed on your skin this time, since you didn't let me see the lineart?"

Axel grinned. "Can't show you directly, because it's still got bandages over it, but the tattoo artist took a Polaroid." He handed Roxas a color snapshot of his scarred back. The marks from the lash were no longer nearly so obvious under the pair of bright, flaming phoenix wings that had been tattooed over them. "Thought it fit."

Roxas thoroughly disapproved of tattoos in general, but he had to admit that, all things considered - especially the scars they were disguising - the phoenix wings were really appropriate. "It is kinda cool, I guess...so what abuse did Demyx put himself through?"

"You have the most charming ways of describing the process of getting a tattoo...hey, Dems, hurry up!"

"Are you kidding me...showing Roxas tattoos is like playing heavy metal for Vexen..." Demyx jogged the last few steps towards the other Nobodies. His left hand was bandaged halfway up to his elbow, but the faint scar on his throat - which Roxas had expected would have been covered somehow - was still fully exposed. His face looked a little odd, though, and Roxas suddenly realized he'd grown used to Demyx looking starved and skeletal - but that course had also been reversing since their return. He was starting to flesh out all over again.

Roxas still eyed him carefully. "So how much skin graffiti did you get?"

Demyx grinned and blushed a little - well, Demyx blushed all the time for any reason, at least under normal circumstances. "Just the one..." He handed Roxas a couple Polaroid shots of his wrist and hand. "I'd have had it done on my right hand, but that now looks alarmingly normal, whereas my left hand still looks a little freaky from getting bit by a cobra...Xan, please don't look at me like that..."

"Are you ever going to explain what you did to your right hand?" Roxas muttered as he looked at the pictures. He realized a few seconds later that he should have expected this, but at first, he was surprised by what he saw - there was now a sea-blue Chinese dragon coiling around his wrist so that its head was staring up from the back of his hand. Next to the dragon's head, three Chinese characters had been written vertically.

I'd have thought he'd never want any reminder, let alone such a permanent one... "What does it say?"

Demyx blushed a little more and tried to look nonchalant. "It says 'Lung Qin Xiang'."


AN: Finis! This wasn't a three-chapter story, it was more like a trilogy!

Remember the tattoos Axel and Demyx got at the end of "Into the Nexus"? They just got another set. Refer to "A Few New Scars" if you want to know when Demyx got bitten by a cobra. And yes, Xanrivash has a weird accent.