"Hey! Red! Over here!"

Axel was starting to wonder what Demyx was supposed to be translating on this mission, if they were magically able to understand everyone anyway. The wrinkled old lady did seem to be gesturing to him, and there was hardly anyone else around who might answer to "Red". Giving Demyx a questioning look, and receiving only a baffled shrug in return, he figured he had nothing to lose by going to check it out. "You want something?" he asked the old lady.

The old lady just gave him a knowing grin that was sorely lacking in the tooth department. "Oh, you might be surprised, child..." She tapped the center of her forehead. "I see into your soul, young man. I see you have the soul...of a tiger."

It took a lot of self-control for Axel to not just turn around and walk back to where Demyx was waiting for him. Well, granted, he liked tigers. He thought they were awesome and bad-ass and mighty predators and all that. In some worlds, he was able to summon them. He had frequently been compared to one. But he didn't know how far he wanted to get into this soul mumbo-jumbo. Compliments were one thing; spiritual shit was something else entirely, and not something Axel was all that comfortable with. "Well...that's interesting," he said patiently, hoping that was it.

That wasn't it. The old woman just gave him another largely toothless grin. "I have something for you, if you want it...a special gift, for a special young man." She held out a black leather cord with a strange charm that seemed to be made out of tiger fur, claws, and at least one tooth. "A gift to unleash the tiger within you. Wearing this, wherever you go, you need fear nothing." Her dark eyes sparkled knowingly. "Nothing. Any more than the tiger has to fear. He is lord of the forest, eh? And so will you be!"

Axel had no idea what she was on about, but he took the charm and put it around his neck. It had an odd warmth to it, as if the tiger that had contributed the fur, claws, and tooth had been alive more recently than he'd like to think about. "Well, um...thanks," he said, not knowing what else to say.

The woman's smile suddenly hardened into something approaching a snarl, and her eyes suddenly glittered in a way that made Axel a bit nervous. "Thank me later, tiger-man," she whispered in a serious, knowing voice. "Thank me when you see what this does for you." Then her face relaxed again as suddenly as it had hardened, so suddenly that Axel almost wondered if he'd really seen it harden at all. "You'd best rejoin your friend," she laughed, patting him on the cheek in a patronizing way. "He's sure to be curious what we're up to. Off you go."

Axel was nothing if not confused by now, but he still knew a dismissal when he received one. "O...kay. Thanks again." Without waiting for the old lady's reply, he walked quickly back to where Demyx was standing, looking just as curious as she'd predicted.

"So...what was that all about?" Demyx asked without preamble once Axel was in hearing range.

Axel shrugged, not knowing what to say when he didn't know himself. "She wanted to give me something. I don't know why. I suspect she has a screw or five loose somewhere, though." He showed Demyx the charm he'd been given, then tucked it under his shirt. "Said it was supposed to unleash the tiger within me, or some shit like that."

Demyx grimaced a bit, then shrugged. "Well...every world has its share of harmless nuts, I guess. And at least it looks kind of cool. Now we'd better get started hunting Heartless, or we're gonna be here all week and then some."

It hadn't been such a difficult mission as all that. Daily grind, kind of thing, leave in the morning and come back that night. But for some mysterious reason, Axel felt totally drained. He had neither right nor reason to feel so drained - his blood sugar was where it belonged, and he didn't think he was getting sick. But nonetheless, shortly after dinner, he was forced to cut short his usual round of video games and crawl off to bed - he was just too tired to focus. Maybe he was getting sick. He was pretty sure his glucose monitor wasn't busted or anything, because if his blood sugar had been out of line, Fori would have said something. Maybe he was getting sick, and it would be more obvious in the morning, or maybe he just really needed a good night's sleep, and he'd be fine in the morning. As he killed the lights and crawled between the sheets, he really hoped it was the latter. He fell asleep before he could spend too long thinking about it, still wearing the tiger charm.

He had some very strange dreams that night. About tigers, mostly; it must have been the influence of the charm. They were leaping, springing, pouncing, tearing, clawing, biting, stalking their prey through forests and caverns of stone, night's darkness bright as day to their eyes, massive paws padding noiselessly through the corridors of the castle, swift, sure, and deadly...and in his dreams, a tiger pawed open his door and padded out into the hallway, in search of prey.

The blue-haired man was aware of danger. He had seen the new star rising, a star that did not belong in this world's sky. Stars did not suddenly appear out of nowhere for no reason, and this one, burning gold as a tiger's eye, promised great trouble in its wake. If any of the others even realized the gold star should not have been there and had no place in this sky, none of them could have read its message - indeed, no few of them scoffed at him, and his supposed ability to tell the future from the stars. He could not and had never claimed to read them like a book, though he'd watched this one for hours to learn what he could from it, but he'd seen a definite warning tonight, and he was rushing to share that warning with his Superior, and tell them all to be wary of danger.

He hadn't expected the danger to be so close -

The tiger appeared only as a fast-moving blur at first, resolving only when it was in mid-leap and too close to avoid or defend against. Its target had no chance to do anything but move a little to one side, so that a bite meant to snap his neck instead sank into his shoulder, the tiger's jaws crushing every bone in their way. The man screamed in pain, but no help would come - the others were too far away to hear.

But the tiger had made a poor choice of target - its intended prey was every bit as ferocious as the tiger itself. With a flash, a giant spiked blade appeared, swinging at the tiger even faster than its own leap. Only the man's injured shoulder, and the fact that he hadn't quite shifted from self-defense to attack, saved the tiger's life - instead of the edge of the blade, the man struck with the flat, catching the cat in the ribs and sending it fleeing down the hall, yowling in pain. The man waited with his blade ready for a long time, in case the tiger returned, before seeking help.

The tiger, meanwhile, had limped as far away as it could get, nursing bruised and cracked ribs, before finally seeking the shelter of what it thought of as home...and as it settled down to rest and recover, the gold star set.

When the alarm went off the next morning, Axel felt even worse than he had the night before. Not only did he feel as drained and tired as if he hadn't slept at all, he felt stiff and achy on top of it - especially his left side, which hurt like hell for some reason. He must have strained something without realizing it the day before, and it was coming back to haunt him now. And that charm the old lady had given him had pressed into his skin during the night, leaving strange red marks on his chest. Stretching as much as he could without it being too painful, he went into the bathroom to test his blood sugar and shower and check out some of these bruises he didn't realize he had until now.

Demyx's bathroom door was open, and Demyx himself was sitting on his bed with his cat in his lap, fully dressed and looking like he hadn't had a very restful night either. Now this was weird. Demyx should have just been waking up, same as Axel. "...Um...dare I ask? Never mind; I will...what's up?"

Demyx sighed and stroked Connie's fur gently, so as not to wake her up. "Saix got attacked last night. He says it was a tiger. Dunno if I believe that, but it was sure as hell something. It ripped his shoulder up so bad Vexen actually called me in to give Fori a boost so he could stop the bleeding and fix what mess he could without accidentally healing it into a bigger and more permanent mess. Blood is mostly water and shit like that." He yawned widely, then shuddered a little. "Crunched up like chicken bones. I got a much better look at that than I wanted to. After Vexen let me go, all I could do was run for the nearest bathroom and puke." He shuddered again, more violently. "Whatever the hell took a chunk out of him, I don't wanna meet it myself."

Axel couldn't help but whistle at that - it must have taken a hell of a something to even get the drop on Saix, let alone leave that kind of hole in him, let alone get away with it. "Daaaaamn. Any idea what it was?"

Demyx shrugged listlessly and shook his head. "No idea. Like I said, he says it was a tiger, but I doubt it."

Axel shook his head in disbelief. "Where the hell was he? We better stay out of that world, if the resident fauna are mean enough to take a bite out of Saix."

Demyx gave him a very odd look. "...See, that's the scary part. He was in the castle."

Axel could feel his face turning pale. "...In...the castle?"

Demyx nodded, looking twice as drawn as before. "Yeah...which is why I'm not convinced it's a tiger. What the hell would a tiger be doing in here? How could it even get in here, unless someone was dumb enough to leave a portal open somewhere?" He groaned, leaning back and closing his eyes. "How the hell could anything that big and that mean get in here? More importantly, where the fuck is it now?"

Axel shook his head - important questions, all of them, and all questions he'd like the answers to himself. "I wish I knew," he said, flopping down on the bed next to Demyx. "Someone's looking for it, right?"

"Zexion was, but he said he couldn't smell anything unusual." Demyx rubbed his eyes. "Meaning whatever it was, a thousand to one it's nothing natural. If it was natural, it would have a trackable scent." He sighed, looking like he might cry. "No one knows where the fuck this thing is. I am so damn tired...I just wanna sleep, but I'm afraid I'm just gonna have nightmares from this shit."

Axel sighed, then forced a weak smile for Demyx's benefit and ruffled his hair. "Get some rest," he said kindly. "You sure as hell look like you need it...have a Dancer stand guard or something if you're worried. Better some sleep than none, after all."

Demyx returned his weak smile. "What about you? You look like you barely slept either."

Axel shrugged. "Just had some freaky dreams last night. I just need some coffee. Now get some sleep; I'll see you later."

Demyx slept for the rest of the day, as far as Axel could tell. At least, he didn't emerge from his room at all; he just stayed inside with both doors shut. Hopefully he wasn't just too afraid of whatever had mauled Saix to unlock his door.

Fortunately, Axel had someone else to help keep his mind off the attack. Roxas came back from an overnight mission in time for lunch, still alert enough to do something other than crawl into bed and go to sleep - apparently he'd gotten more rest than usual on his mission, which might explain why he was a little late. Whatever the reason, Axel was happy to monopolize someone's attention, and fill him in on all the nasty goings-on last night. Roxas was as surprised at the monster's choice of target as anyone. "Why the hell would it go after Saix?" he asked more than once. "I'm surprised it got away, considering!"

Axel shrugged, trying to look knowledgeable. "No one knows for sure, Rox," he said in an artificially wise voice. "Current theory is that no one else was awake and moving around when the monster was hungry, and it went after the only available target. It was the middle of the night, after all."

Roxas saw through the act like a screen door. "Meaning no one has any idea, least of all you. And no one has any idea what it is."

Axel shrugged, a little peeved that Roxas wasn't buying his knowledgeable act. "According to Saix, secondhand from Demyx, it was a tiger. But as Demyx said, what the hell would a tiger be doing in here?"

"What the hell would an anything that big and nasty be doing in here?" Roxas countered reasonably.

Axel shrugged helplessly. "Damned if I know. But there's obviously something. I don't think Saix is lying about what happened to his shoulder."

Roxas shook his head and shuddered a little. "Whatever it was...I think I'm gonna stay in my room and travel by portal until we figure out what the heck is going on." Axel nodded - Roxas certainly wasn't alone in that. "Anyway, feel up to kicking some digital monster ass? Something we can actually find and kill?"

Axel laughed out loud. "When do I ever not? Your room or mine? Fair warning, I think Demyx is still asleep next door to me..."

"My room, then. I don't give a damn if we wake Fori up. He deserves it." Roxas looked thoughtfully at Axel. "What is that around your neck?"

"...Huh?" Axel grabbed at his neck, and came up with the cord attached to the tiger charm. "Oh, this? This is just something a crazy old lady gave me on my mission yesterday for no reason. I'm pretty sure it's good for exactly nothing, but it looks cool, so I'm keeping it until further notice." He tucked it back into his shirt. "Anyway. Done eating? Beat you downstairs -" He bolted for the kitchen door, and Roxas pursued him with an indignant yell. Axel slowed down just enough for Roxas to pass him, then portaled directly to the younger Nobody's room. The look on Roxas's face when he got down to his room and discovered Axel already there was priceless, but Axel wasn't quite sure it was worth getting smacked upside the head with a convenient hardcover book.

There was no further mention of the tiger/monster/whatever for the rest of the day, save one. At dinner that evening, Xemnas announced that no one was to go wandering the halls between midnight and 7:00 AM, and to remain in their rooms with the doors locked during that time, at least until they found and eliminated whatever monster was lurking in the castle. Everyone who might have listened to him was already taking that precaution, and everyone who hadn't taken that precaution yet probably wasn't going to listen to him anyway, so it was kind of a waste of his effort. Roxas didn't feel like more video games after dinner; since he didn't say what he was going to be doing instead, Axel assumed he was probably visiting Namine and didn't push it. Instead, he went down to the arena and got in a short workout, just because it took more effort to get back in shape than to stay in shape, then went back to his room and watched a DVD. Before long, owing to the less-than-restful sleep he'd had the night before, he fell asleep.

One by one, the entire castle went still, as each member sought their own bed and settled down for the night. By Xemnas's midnight curfew, the hallways were empty, save for a few patrolling Dusks.

And the gold star rose unseen.

There was one who had not heard the Superior's warning. Contrary to what his friends thought, the young man hadn't spent the entire day in his own bed. He'd intended to, but boredom had eventually gotten the better of him. He'd left his room hours ago without anyone knowing, and spent most of the afternoon and well into the night alone with his music. Time had slipped by without him noticing, and he hadn't realized how late it was getting until just a few moments ago. Now he was hurrying towards his own room, not thinking about tigers or monsters, but only about not getting caught out so late by the others.

The tiger was on him almost before he knew it.

He had just enough time to raise an arm to defend himself. Bones snapped audibly as the tiger's jaws clamped into his raised arm instead of his throat, its massive weight carrying him to the ground. The tiger didn't care - this one was weaker than the other, less able to defend himself. The next bite would inevitably be to the throat, the killing blow. This time, its prey would not get away -

And then the man punched it in the eye. In and of itself a laughable blow, perhaps, to a tiger, but every animal's weakest point is its eyes. The tiger released his arm and jerked back, growling with pain - and suddenly, it was blown far down the hallway by a massive jet of water. By the time the stream disappeared and the tiger could regain its bearings, the only sign of its prey was a few smears of blood on the floor. There wasn't even a scent-trail, except the one leading to the room the man had come from. He had simply disappeared, leaving the tiger frustrated once more.

Well, there were other prey in this castle. Snarling with frustration still, the tiger turned and padded off down the hallway. The man had escaped it, perhaps, but it would eat tonight, sooner or later...

The little grey creatures weren't as large as the prey it had lost, but they were weak, and the tiger had at least a few mouthfuls that night before it felt compelled to seek shelter and rest. Driven by instinct, it padded back to the place it thought of as home. Once there, it stretched out in comfort, better able to relax with some food in its belly, and fell asleep.

And the gold star set...

It took Axel a long time to wake up - the sound of the alarm didn't seem to register like it should. Maybe a typical blaring alarm would have had more of an effect than his CD player, but it would no doubt have been destroyed and the ashes ignored as he went back to sleep. What actually woke him up was his own cat, Sol, batting at his face with a paw. The first thing he noticed, besides Sol, was that his eye hurt and he could taste blood in his mouth - well, he'd been having more freaky dreams. Maybe he'd bitten his tongue or hit himself by accident in his sleep.

The second thing he noticed was that there was no sound from the room next door, or any sign in the bathroom that Demyx had already showered and left. Now this was wrong - maybe Demyx had slept all day the day before, but he couldn't possibly do so again today. Not if he was all right. Axel tested his blood sugar with no great attention to what he was doing, going through the motions without really thinking about it, listening closely for any sign of life in Demyx's room. He heard nothing. Definitely worried now, he knocked on Demyx's bathroom door, then tried to open it, then went around to his other door. There was no answer, and both doors were locked. As a last resort, he teleported directly into Demyx's room. It was empty, and the bed was cold - no one had been in this room for hours, at least, and maybe longer.

Axel was past worried and moving on towards genuinely afraid for Demyx now. Dressing hastily and haphazardly filling Sol and Connie's food bowls - he was too distracted to remember to shower - he portaled to the Hall of Empty Melodies, which was sort of Demyx's second home. The Hall was empty, but there were a few bloodstains on the floor outside the door...and what looked like the pawprints of some very large animal...

That took Axel right past afraid and on into terrified. Fighting back panic, he portaled to the hospital wing, praying Demyx had actually made it there. If it was too late...

He almost landed on top of Fori. "What the hell do you want?" the little demon snapped, looking like he hadn't had a hell of a lot of sleep either.

Normally, Axel would have tried to scalp him for that, but he was too worried about Demyx. "Do you have any idea where Demyx is?" he asked.

Fori pointed vaguely in the directions of the hospital rooms. "Second corridor, third room on the left." He portaled away before Axel could ask anything else. Axel didn't care. He just ran down the corridor indicated, holding his breath, and flung open the door of the third room on the left side.

Demyx was lying in the bed, his face pale and his left arm tightly bandaged and lying across his stomach. He had been asleep, but he roused when Axel entered. "Saix was right; it was a tiger," was the first thing he said.

Axel immediately sat down in the chair next to his bed, resting a hand on Demyx's shoulder. "Demyx...oh, God, how did this happen?" he asked, his face a mask of concern. "I thought you were in your room all day yesterday!"

Demyx shook his head wanly. "I spent most of it there...but about 3:00, I got bored and moved into the Hall. I spent almost twelve hours in there - I was on my way back to my room when..." He shuddered - there was no need to explain what he meant by "when". "I didn't even have time to react," he said in a softer voice. "I just got my arm in front of my face...and it locked on to my arm. I thought it was gonna tear it off..."

Axel sighed and gave him a hug. "Dammit...the Superior just gave us a curfew. No wandering the halls between midnight and wake-up call. But you weren't at dinner last night, so you never heard it..."

Demyx shook his head. "Hell, I knew about the tiger as well as any of the rest of you...I should have come up with that on my own...but I was too worried about not doing another accidental overnighter in the Hall to think about it." He looked down at his injured arm regretfully. "Serves me right."

Axel bit his lip, not quite knowing what to say. "Well...you'll be safe in here, at least. Get well soon - I'll see you after breakfast." He gave Demyx's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before heading out the door and into the kitchen.

Much to his surprise, no one was there, not even Xaldin. Swallowing hard, hoping the tiger hadn't done any more damage last night, Axel started looking for everyone, starting with the residential areas. It didn't take too long; everyone awake and out of their room seemed to be clustered around Xaldin's door. Axel swallowed again when he saw even more blood there than in front of the Hall, but Xaldin was there with them, seemingly uninjured and baffled as the rest of them. As Axel stood there and watched, Fori shoved past him to investigate the bloodstains.

After a moment spent staring at them, the little demon dipped a fingertip into the blood and licked it off. "Dusk blood," he declared with authority. Everyone who'd been holding their breath breathed at once. "Guess the tiger was just going for whatever food it could get. Can't imagine it could get too much out of a Dusk, though, especially once it started to fade."

Axel shook his head. Even the lesser Nobodies weren't safe...Sighing to himself, he went back to the kitchen, in the hopes of eventually getting some breakfast before his blood sugar took a nosedive. Roxas was already there, looking utterly confused at being the only one there. He looked up as the redhead entered. "Axel? Where the heck is everyone?"

Axel sighed heavily. "On a tiger hunt," he said, rolling his eyes a little. "The same one that attacked Saix came back, took a chunk out of Demyx's arm as he was coming back from the Hall - which, it turns out, was where he spend most of yesterday - and apparently killed and ate a Dusk right outside Xaldin's door. Either that tiger is very quiet or Xaldin is a very heavy sleeper..."

Roxas's eyes went wide. "...Demyx? But...I thought he was safest of all of us...I mean...he was in his room all day..."

Axel put his arm around his shoulders. "I just said, he took off for the Hall of Empty Melodies when no one was paying attention."

"Is he gonna be okay?"

Axel gave Roxas a one-armed hug. "Yeah, I'm sure he will," he said confidently. "This is Demyx. To him, a broken arm is nothing." He thought about that for a moment and reconsidered. "...All right, a broken arm is something, but compared to what he's lived through in the past, it's not all that much."

Roxas shook his head, still looking shocked. "Where is he right now? Are we allowed to go visit him?"

Axel checked his watch, then opened a portal to Demyx's hospital room and gently pushed Roxas towards it. "Not to sound callous, but you can. I already have, and I need to eat before I go into insulin shock. Tell him I said hi."

There was a palpable atmosphere of nervousness and unease throughout the castle, such as Axel could only compare to the way things had felt before they went to take down Malenisa - and then they'd had four members missing, not two recovering in the hospital. Axel didn't quite understand it, but he felt it as strongly as anyone else. No one, no matter how strong they were or thought they were, was going through the castle alone - after all, Saix had been the tiger's first victim, and no question, he was one of the toughest - and every door was kept locked on the assumption that people would portal into or out of rooms directly, and that the tiger could get past an unlocked door, apparently. Axel thought that was ridiculous, but he found himself locking his doors anyway. After all, if the tiger had gotten into the castle in the first place, that suggested there was something uncanny about it...

"What I'm wondering is, why isn't anyone hunting for this thing?" Roxas asked during their usual evening gaming session. Neither of them was playing at the top of their game - they were too worried to devote their full attention to Dead or Alive tonight. "I mean, it got two people already..."

Axel shrugged listlessly. "I'm pretty sure they are, but...like I think I said, it doesn't leave a scent trail Zexion can follow. And I don't think they're willing to risk too many people wandering around looking." He snorted vaguely. "I'm surprised they're not sending more of us on overnighters, just to get as many people as possible out of the castle at night. There's something I never thought I'd say before."

"Maybe there just aren't enough missions..."

Axel snorted, watching Sol bat curiously at the figures on the screen - normally he would have shooed the cat away, but he just didn't care enough right then. "When are there ever not enough missions? Especially with two of us disabled?" He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Hell, I wouldn't even mind so much. I haven't been able to sleep for shit anyway lately..."

Roxas gave him a curious look. "By the way, I've been wondering all day - where did you get that shiner from?"

Axel rubbed his bruised eye gingerly, wondering how to admit that he didn't know himself. "I don't remember. Maybe I hit it on something without thinking too much about it, and now it's coming back to haunt me."

"...If you managed to hit your eye on something, I think you'd be forced to think about it..."

"Not before my second cup of coffee."

"Good point," Roxas was forced to admit with a wry smile. "I think if you got shot during your first cup of coffee, you wouldn't even realize a gun had gone off until you finished your second."

Axel glowered at him, not finding it funny. "Shouldn't you be getting to bed?" he asked rather sharply.

Roxas gave him a smug look. "Aww, Axy, did I hit a raw nerve?"

Axel scowled even more deeply - the stress of having a tiger running around the castle and Demyx's injury had worn down his sense of humor, and he was tired to boot. "Oh, look at the time. You really need to be going to bed." Before Roxas could make a gibe or a protest, he turned the game off and opened a portal to Roxas's room, gesturing sharply at it. "Right through there. Don't have to walk through the hallways at all."

Roxas smirked. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"What gave it away? Now shoo." Roxas obediently went through the portal, but he paused to stick his tongue out at Axel before he left. Axel nearly gave him a shove. Then, lacking anything better to do that night, he soon went to bed.

When the gold star rose once more, the tiger found itself with prey closer at hand. The two small ones in the room with it might have been no more than a mouthful apiece, but every mouthful was welcome. Unfortunately, they both darted under cover, out of the tiger's reach, hissing and clawing at it. Two little mouthfuls weren't worth the hassle they were causing, so the tiger went out into the hallways once more, in search of something larger and easier.

However, there was no prey to be found wandering the halls tonight. Growling with frustration, the tiger slammed its massive paws against one of the wooden doors that concealed the humans, splintering the wood but not breaking the barrier, and the knob refused to twist in its jaws. Muffled shouts from within showed that its prey had been alerted, but none emerged, and the tiger eventually loped away disappointed.

Then its sensitive nostrils filled with man-scent. Several humans - too many - all coming towards it at once. The tiger had gone from hunter to hunted. As stealthily as it could, it padded down the halls at a speed the hunters couldn't match, disappearing down one of several corridors that all branched off very close to each other - with luck, it could become the hunter once more, or at least elude the humans' grasp this night for certain. Luck was with it - the humans foolishly split up, searching carefully down every corridor, and the smallest of the group edged his way nervously down the same corridor the tiger was hiding down. The tiger waited patiently, hiding in the rippled shadows beneath the window, just out of the light, allowing the man to approach...

The man had just enough time to scream before the tiger's fangs sank into his throat.

But help was close at hand - too close. Briefly, the tiger considered taking the killing bite immediately - the one that would snap the neck and sever the carotid artery - and dragging its prey off to eat elsewhere, but there was no time even for that. If it lingered at all, the other hunters would kill it. Abandoning its wounded prey, the tiger ran for its life, loud reports sounding behind it as something whizzed past its ears. Long after it lost the hunters, it continued to prowl the halls hastily and warily, ever alert for the sounds and scents of pursuit. When it finally returned to the safety of its hideout, it was exhausted, hungry, and very angry...

Axel woke up feeling exhausted and stiff, as if he'd been running all night. This was getting awfully damned irritating, waking up every morning feeling like he'd never slept at all - if this kept up too long, he'd have to bite the bullet and talk to Vexen about it. He dragged himself through getting dressed and testing his blood sugar, wondering why Sol was hissing at him and Connie was hiding from him and his blood sugar was low again, and showed up to breakfast not caring that he was late, grabbing a can of Coke out of the fridge and flopping into his usual seat before he noticed anything odd.

But he recognized the atmosphere around the table, he realized as soon as he woke up enough to know it was there. He couldn't pick out a third missing face, but he could sense there had been another tiger attack in the night. Maybe someone had had a narrow scrape and escaped uninjured? "So who got to play with the tiger this time?" he asked Roxas with black humor. Presumably the younger Nobody had heard all about it already.

"Zexion..." Roxas sighed and leaned back, the stress and anxiety visible on his face. "All the other Elders are kind of at each other's throats, because I guess it was a big fuckup...Larxene and Xanrivash heard it prowling around their rooms - I guess it tried to break down Larxene's door - and they warned the Elders...they threw together a hunting party and went after it, but when it disappeared into one of those tangles you find in the halls, where the corridors go all different directions, they split up...Zexion ended up down the same hall with the tiger, and it jumped him before anyone could do anything. Xigbar caught up to him before the tiger finished him off, but it ran for it, and he stayed behind to help Zexion instead of chasing it. So now they're all bitching at each other for splitting up and letting Zexion go off on his own." He buried his face in one hand. "I'm just wondering how long it's gonna be before this thing kills someone..."

Axel shook his head, trying not to let his eyelids droop too much - between the Coke and the coffee he would soon consume, he'd have to wake up sooner or later. "Well...damn," was all he could say without sounding like an idiot or a clod. "I wish I could have been along for the hunt..."

"You could have been, if only you'd been willing to wake the fuck up, dude," Xigbar said as he handed Roxas a mission assignment, his usual easygoing humor replaced by a very grim expression. "We knocked on your door for a good five minutes, and you didn't even roll over, far as we could tell."

Axel stared after the older man for several seconds after he went on his way. He wouldn't wake up? That was crazy...he was one of the lightest sleepers in the Organization, for all he didn't like to actually get out of bed, and he felt like he'd hardly slept at all last night. He should have woken up just from the sound of them in the hallway, well before they actually knocked on his door. Why hadn't he? He shook his head slightly - one more way in which his sleeping patterns had gone completely off the wall; he was apparently sleeping crazy deep and getting no rest out of it. If he couldn't get a normal night's sleep tonight, he'd be talking to Vexen tomorrow. "Well, if you're gonna be gone today, Rox, I'm just gonna head back to my room and catch up on some reading."

Roxas gave him a sly look, knowing exactly what kind of things Axel liked to read. "Catching up on what? Comic books or Playboys?"

"The New England Journal of Medicine..." Actually, Axel was just going to sleep all day, or at least as much of it as he could. Whatever Xigbar said, he felt like he hadn't slept all night, and he had some catching up to do. "Anyway, good luck, and don't get eaten by anything. That includes Heartless as well as tigers." The look Roxas gave him clearly suggested the joke was not as funny as Axel had hoped. He didn't especially care - as soon as he was done with breakfast and dropped his dishes off by the sink, he went back to his room and flopped on the bed. For reasons he couldn't explain, he reached under his shirt to grab the tiger-claw charm he hadn't removed once since it had been given to him; he was still holding it when he fell asleep.

It was 5:00 in the morning, WTNW time, when Roxas wiped the sweat off his forehead, tried to tally up all the Heartless he'd killed so far, and realized he was about a dozen over quota. Technically, he was supposed to stay in this world overnight, or at least wait two hours until curfew was over, but he was done a little early, and he was wiped out - he was going home right now. Shoving his paperwork back in his pocket, he portaled directly to his room and started peeling his uniform off, intending to go straight to bed.

He heard a soft padding sound outside his door.

He froze instinctively, but relaxed almost immediately afterward - Fori must have heard him moving around and was trying to mess with his mind. Then he froze again when he heard a loud thudding noise at his door, like someone trying to knock with a weighted club. And it seemed to be coming from higher up than Fori could reach, unless he was standing on a stepstool. He sucked in his breath as he heard a low growl, suddenly paralyzed by fear - the tiger had to be right outside his door. His first instinct was to run, and go somewhere safe, even though behind his own locked door was as safe as anywhere in the castle. Not really thinking about what he was doing, except getting away, he portaled to Axel's room - surely the redhead wouldn't mind being awakened so abruptly, once Roxas got a chance to explain himself.

Connie and Sol were curled up on Axel's pillow. Axel himself was nowhere to be found. Roxas's blood ran cold. Trying to stifle panic, he looked at the bathroom door - it was standing wide open. He wasn't in there. And, Roxas was just now realizing, his bedroom door was unlocked.

He can't have been that stupid. Please, don't let him have been that stupid.

Trying not to shake with fear, Roxas summoned his Keyblades and very carefully edged his way out of Axel's room, brightening the hallway somewhat. If Axel had been dumb enough to go wandering the halls after hours, he had to find him before the tiger did, no matter what. He scoured the hallways for what seemed like forever, all his senses alert for anything that could be either Axel or the tiger, but all he saw was the blank white walls, and all he heard was the sound of his own panicked breathing. His fear amplifying with every minute he didn't find Axel, he started searching further and further away from where he'd started, anywhere Axel might conceivably have gone, even if Roxas couldn't figure out why to save his life. He should have had no reason to be out of bed at this hour anyway; once you got past that, his reason for being anywhere in particular was beside the point.

Which is why Roxas happened to be at the top of the stairs outside the meeting room when he saw a flash of orange and black from the corner of his eye.

It was just enough warning. He screamed and jumped to one side as the tiger pounced; it passed by him so close he could swear he felt the whiskers brushing him on the way. The frustrated tiger snarled and lashed out with its claws, catching him in the side; the pain of the blow dulled by adrenaline, Roxas swung his weapons at it, catching it at the base of the neck. It wasn't a serious blow; the tiger growled loudly and gathered itself to spring again, but Roxas shone an intensely bright light into its eyes before it could. That seemed to affect it worse than the physical blow; the tiger snarled in pain, shaking its head and trying to cover its eyes. Blinded and disoriented, it backed away from him - and tumbled right down the stairs.

Holding his breath, Roxas crept to the edge of the very tall stairway and watched it fall, its pained growls and snarls dying away quickly. Once he was pretty sure it had to have reached the end, he lit up the stairs as much as he dared; the tiger was just lying at the bottom of the stairs, in a small pool of what he was reasonably sure was blood. He watched it for what seemed like hours, but it remained completely motionless.

...Could it really be that simple...?

An intense, throbbing pain in his side called him back to reality. Roxas looked down, and only then realized how badly the tiger's claws had scored; his torn robe was soaked with blood, and it was starting to run down his leg and into his boot. Feeling suddenly dizzy, he stumbled through a portal to the hospital wing, slammed his hand onto the emergency buzzer to summon Vexen, and blacked out.

He came around having no idea where he was or what was going on, and instinctively brightened the room before he realized it was already plenty bright to begin with and he'd just made it painfully bright. Once he got the light levels in the room to something acceptable, he slowly realized that he wasn't in his own bed, in his own bedroom; he was in a hospital bed in a hospital room. Demyx was sitting next to his bed, his arm in a sling; he looked like he'd been crying for the past few hours straight, but he tried to force a smile when he saw Roxas was awake. "Hey," he said in a soft, cracked voice. "How are you doing?"

Roxas thought about that for a while before answering, and decided he really didn't feel that bad. "A lot better than I think I should be...pretty sore, but not awful."

"Good...Fori fixed you up pretty well, then..." Demyx's forced smile faded, and he swallowed hard and rubbed at his eyes with his good hand, as if trying not to burst into tears.

All thoughts of telling him about defeating the tiger last night were set aside. "Demyx? Are you okay? What's wrong?" Roxas asked, concerned but afraid he might not want to know.

Demyx had to swallow again before answering. "...It's Axel," he said finally, his voice even softer and more cracked. "The - the tiger got him too..."

Roxas's stomach suddenly went hollow. "...How bad?" he whispered, terrified of what he was about to hear.

Demyx shook his head slowly, tears seeping from his eyes. "...Bad...tore into his neck, broke his back in two places, smashed his head up so bad his skull looks like a jigsaw puzzle..." He had to swallow before he could continue. "Th-there's nothing they can do...even if they could k-keep him alive long-term, h-he'd probably never w-wake up...and h-he'd be paralyzed from the chest d-down for life...they're just g-gonna take him to the Nexus...a-and wait...and s-see if he comes b-back..."

As Demyx started sobbing in earnest, Roxas just sat there, frozen with shock and horror. He'd been too late. Even while he'd been scouring the hallways, trying to find Axel before something bad happened, the worst had already happened. It might even have happened while he was still searching. He might have come across the tiger fresh from its latest victim. While he'd been fighting the tiger for his own life, Axel could have been lying fatally injured not twenty feet away, around a corner, and he had had no idea...Kingdom Hearts, if Axel had been looking for him when he ran into the tiger... "...Where was he?" he forced himself to ask, his voice barely audible.

It took Demyx a few seconds to regain enough composure to answer. "Bottom of the stairs, outside the meeting room," he said in a husky voice. "Fori smelled blood on his way to breakfast, and went to check it out. He says he must have put up a hell of a fight...there was tiger blood all over him..."

Roxas froze again. The information he'd just received did not compute.

That's where I left the tiger...it was too badly injured to move; it should have still been there...

He'd injured the tiger's neck, and it had fallen down the stairs and didn't get back up. Axel had been found in the same place the tiger was last seen, with an injured neck and a broken back and skull - which could have been caused by a blow from a Keyblade and a fall down those stairs. There was tiger blood all over him, but the tiger had been uninjured when Roxas found it, and there was no reason Axel would have been fighting it after that.

Axel hadn't been in his room last night, while the tiger was out and prowling around. The night before, when Zexion was attacked, he'd refused to answer his door when the others had tried to rouse him - but Axel was normally a very light sleeper. If he'd been in his room at all, he should have answered - but he might not have been. No one had checked.

"Demyx...when you were attacked, how did you get the tiger to leave you alone?"

"I...I punched it in the eye, and it let go of me...then I hosed it down and blew it back down the hall, and portaled off before it regained its bearings..."

Demyx had punched the tiger in the eye. The morning after Demyx was attacked, Axel had shown up to breakfast with a black eye he couldn't explain.

Every night the tiger had appeared, Axel had shown up the next morning looking like he hadn't had any sleep the night before, but insisting he'd slept all night and just didn't get any rest out of it.

The morning after Saix was attacked, Axel had been wearing a strange charm made out of tiger fur and claws, and said it had been given to him the day before by a mysterious old woman. That meant that the first night he'd worn it, the tiger had attacked someone for the first time. As far as Roxas knew, he'd worn it every day since - and the tiger had attacked every night since.

And he never realized...

"Demyx...I want to see Axel..."

Demyx nodded, squeezing a few more tears from his eyes. "All right...I'll show you where he is...fair warning; it's not pretty..." He offered Roxas his good arm to help him stand, and Roxas stood up and immediately hugged him tightly. It wasn't fair - it wasn't right - for Axel to have been responsible for all this, and he never even knew - he'd go down as the tiger's first kill, and no one would know the truth...

Well, they were going to. Roxas would make sure of it. Besides, if he was wrong, no harm done.

Axel was in the ICU, hooked up to nothing but a respirator. The lack of machinery really brought it home - there was nothing to be done except take him to a world where death wasn't permanent and wait for the inevitable. Kingdom Hearts, he looked like a corpse already. He glanced over at Demyx, to gauge his reaction, and the sight of only three fingers emerging from the end of his sling made him feel even worse - what good was pure will to live, no matter how powerful, to someone who was essentially brain-dead? Tears pricking at his eyes for the first time, Roxas carefully removed the charm from around Axel's neck - and put it around his own.

Demyx looked over at him and smiled weakly - he must have thought Roxas was just taking a memento, something to remind him until Axel came back. "Do you want to come with us?" he asked gently.

Roxas shook his head faintly, too dazed with shock to think straight. "...Come where?"

"To the Nexus..." Demyx put his good arm around Roxas's shoulders, his gaze wandering off into space. "I asked Vexen and Xigbar to...to let me go with Axel...and...and wait with him..."

Roxas squeezed his eyes shut, feeling tears roll down his face. That was...that was beautiful, in a horribly sad way, for Demyx to want to be by Axel's side at the end... "I...I'd love to," he eventually said in a choked voice, his throat seeming to swell shut with unshed tears. "But I can't..." Demyx nodded understandingly and pulled him into a one-armed hug. "I...I'm going to find the tiger."

Demyx nodded, his gaze wandering to the charm again. He didn't ask about it, for which Roxas was frankly grateful, and he didn't insist he not risk his life doing any such thing, for which he was even more grateful. "All right...take care of yourself," he murmured. "Try not to let it get you again...and see you when we get back."

Just then, Xigbar and Vexen came into the room, both of them looking regretfully down at Axel, then up at Demyx. Neither of them seemed to pay attention to Roxas, and that seemed to be deliberate. "So...ready to go, dude?" Xigbar asked Demyx quietly.

Demyx closed his eyes and nodded, letting go of Roxas. "I...I guess...ready as I'll ever be..." he whispered, as Vexen started disconnecting Axel's respirator. Xigbar nodded and opened a portal.

Roxas didn't want to stay there anymore. He took off through a portal of his own, out into the hallway, and made his way down to the Proof of Existence, half-blinded by tears. Once there, he sat down next to Axel's Proof, to keep his own vigil. He didn't move again until it turned red.

As if he hadn't been having a bad enough day, Roxas was much too late for breakfast, and had to make do with a couple slices of toast and peanut butter. And if that weren't enough, the elder members seemed to have decided he was at least partially responsible for Axel's death, presuming that Axel had been out searching for Roxas when he was attacked. Roxas hadn't had the stomach to tell anyone his version of events yet, so he'd been forced to withstand no less than three lectures - one from Xemnas, one from Xigbar, and one, surprisingly, from Lexaeus. Lexaeus, at least, had tried to be gentle, which somehow only made it seem worse. At least Xemnas hadn't seen fit to give him a public lecture at a meeting, like he had when Roxas accidentally let a pack of Heartless into the castle and led them straight to Demyx. A private lecture in his office was more than bad enough. Demyx came back in time for lunch, smelling like smoke and gasoline, but it didn't take more than one look at him to tell he'd really rather be left alone for a while. He couldn't so much as try to force a smile, even for Roxas's benefit, and he wouldn't say a word. He disappeared again after lunch, but first, he stopped Roxas in the hallway and gave him a little plastic bag containing a bit of ashes. Roxas looked into his eyes and understood immediately, without the need for words. Demyx read his understanding and gratitude in the same glance, and vanished before Roxas could try to express them out loud. Roxas was left alone in the hallway, literally holding the bag.

He sighed and looked down at the little bag of ashes. If he was wrong about this - no, he couldn't be wrong. The pieces fit together too neatly, and there was no other good explanation. One hand moved to grip the charm around his neck, as if it could reassure him - in reality, it frightened him no end. He had to talk to someone about his suspicions, or he might go mad with worrying...and there could be worse results than that if someone wasn't warned...

But how was he going to start that conversation? At least, without sounding stupid or nuts?

That question, among many other things, kept him distracted for pretty much the entire day. He couldn't stop thinking about Axel, and the tiger, and the charm around his neck, and the little bag of ashes in his pocket, and the conversation he'd eventually have to have with Fori. His actual body was kind of going on automatic, walking around and eating and pretending to read a book with no real input from his brain. By the time he woke up enough to the world around him to look at a clock and have the time register, it was close to midnight.

Oh, no...how much time do I have...?

He immediately went into Fori's room, hoping there was still enough time to have an actual conversation. Fori was sitting on his bed reading a book, and gave him a "what the hell now?" look as he came in. "Fori...if you ran into the tiger, what would you do?" Roxas asked, without bothering to explain his presence.

Fori stared at him like he thought he'd gone nuts. "...Drain the blood from its head until it passed out, and run for my life before it came around...is there a reason you're asking? Do you know something I don't?"

Roxas looked down at where the charm was hidden under his shirt. "I...I hope not. But I might."

Fori just looked annoyed by that vague answer. "...What do you hope you don't know but think you might?"

"Um..." How could he say it without sounding too incriminating. "I think I might know where the tiger comes from?"

If anything, Fori looked even less impressed. "And...why are you telling me you think you might know where it comes from, instead of just going out and sharing this information with the people who are capable of acting on it so they can go out and kill the damn thing before it kills someone else?"

"...It's not that simple..."

"Well, then could you please explain, as long as you're going to prove your theories by leading the damn thing to my room or something? Or if that's not what you're intending to do, could you explain what the fuck is going on?"

"I...I don't know for sure myself..." Roxas murmured, feeling suddenly drowsy - extremely drowsy. Drowsy enough that all he wanted to do was stumble back to his room and collapse on the bed. "Just...stay on guard tonight...if you don't figure it out tonight, I'll explain tomorrow...and if you run into the tiger, don't kill it." With that, he returned to his own room, not caring how baffled or annoyed Fori was, and flopped onto the bed, barely taking the time to dim the lights before falling asleep.

Well. That was really nice of him.

"You're acting like an angel," Fori muttered at Roxas's closed door - and coming from him, that wasn't a compliment. In his opinion, angels were devious, manipulative, self-righteous, hypocritical, self-absorbed, elitist, and loved to make themselves look like heroes by making sure hapless (if not necessarily innocent) victims got up to their eyesockets in sticky situations they then needed to be rescued from. Which seemed to be what Roxas was doing now. He probably did have a good idea where the tiger was, but instead of luring it to his door and putting his own neck at risk, he was going to lead it to Fori's door, conveniently right next to his, and not only put the immediate danger further away but give himself the opportunity for a heroic rescue.

Fori would totally show him. He'd knock the tiger out if he even heard it outside his door; he didn't have to see it to do so. And then he'd be sure to wake Roxas up to see it, and make him guard it while he went to get the others.

One thing Roxas had already succeeded at, though. Fori wasn't going to sleep for a long time.

Well, the tiger should have been injured, shouldn't it? Considering how much tiger blood Axel had had on him...but then, there should have been a long trail of tiger blood leading from the scene. There had been some on the stairs, but none beyond that - there wasn't even enough on the stairs, given how much had been on Axel. There should have been a trail of blood from wherever the tiger had been injured to wherever it was now, but the tiger had gone no further than the top of the stairs - and vanished. Where the hell had it gone? Did it teleport?

...What if it had started at the top of the stairs and fallen...?

Fori might have continued on that train of thought, and followed it to the end, except right then, he heard a soft growling noise from Roxas's room, and the tiger suddenly padded in through the bathroom door before he even had time to process what the growling noise meant. Strangely enough, his first thought was It's so damn small...I was expecting something a lot bigger... Then the tiger looked up at him and growled louder, as if surprised and angry to see him there, and he scrambled for the nearest potential hiding place that seemed out of reach before it could get any ideas, which happened to be on top of his bookshelf. A little too late, he remembered his brag about just knocking it out cold if he ever ran into it.

Undeterred by his attempt to escape, the tiger jumped up onto the bed and reared back far enough on its back legs to take a swipe at him that just barely missed, knocking a dozen or more books off the shelves in the attempt. Without thinking about it, Fori summoned his own claws, flinching a bit at the sudden feel of cold chainmail encasing his hands, and took a swipe back, leaving a series of parallel shallow gashes on the tiger's cheek. The tiger snarled and lunged at him again, its paws leaving splintery gouges in the wooden top of the bookshelf...and only then did Fori remember his original intentions clearly enough to actually carry them out. He reached out with his elemental "sixth sense", searching for that particular pair of arteries that led directly to the tiger's brain...and with a motion like pinching a straw shut, he blocked off the blood flow through one of them. The tiger stumbled immediately, staggering around on the bed and getting its paws tangled in the sheets as it became increasingly dizzy and disoriented, and eventually flopped over onto its side and lay still, except for the faint motion of breathing.

Roxas had said not to kill the tiger. Logically, out of anyone in the Organization, he would have about the best reason to want the tiger dead. If he wanted it kept alive, there had to be a really, really good reason for it. And he'd been right in his vague hint earlier. There was no reason to think he couldn't possibly be right now.

Climbing carefully down from the top of the bookshelf, and pussyfooting around the tiger so as not to wake it up, Fori went to alert the others that he had the tiger in his room, down and out cold - starting with Roxas. He deserved the hassle for acting like such an angel earlier. Except, Fori realized as he turned on the lights and looked, Roxas wasn't in his room. And...there was no sign of any blood in the room either. His bed had been slept in, recently enough that it was still warm, but there was no sign of him or indication that he'd left. If he'd opened his door or made a portal, Fori would have been able to hear it.

And the tiger had come from his room.

Fori looked back at the tiger on his bed, which was still lying there limp as a rug. "Oh, hell no," he said aloud. "If you were the tiger, how'd it rake you last night?"

And then he went back to the previously abandoned thoughts that the tiger was much smaller than he'd been led to believe, and wondering if the tiger had gone up the stairs and disappeared after killing Axel or if it had been wounded at the top of the stairs and gone down...or fallen...actually, a fall down those crazy high stairs would explain a broken back and a fractured skull a lot better than a tiger attack would...and that would explain why the tiger seemed to have vanished into thin air...and what if it hadn't been Axel who fought and wounded the tiger, but Roxas...Roxas's injuries had obviously been caused by a tiger, Axel's not so much...come to think of it, there had been a little tiger blood on Roxas's clothes...

"Oh, hell no," he repeated, then went to rouse and alert the others, before the tiger could wake up. He could get deeply invested in a long train of thought when there wasn't a large deadly predator in the next room.

Demyx was sitting on a busted milk crate, still gazing silently into the remains of Axel's impromptu funeral pyre. There was really no practical reason for him to have burned the body, except, well, the body was there and that was what you were supposed to do with them, and Axel would come back sooner or later whatever he did, and he'd thought Axel would like that...and the look on Roxas's face when he'd handed him the little bag of ashes suddenly popped up next to the look on Xigbar's face when he'd come into his hospital room to tell him what had happened and the look on Axel's face when he'd opened his eyes just a little bit at the last instant before he stopped breathing, and he suddenly dissolved into tears all over again. He took absolutely no comfort from the knowledge that Axel would come back soon and be perfectly all right and it would be like nothing had happened. Something had happened, everything was not all right, his best friend had died in his arms, and he was devastated. He was so ripped up, in fact, that when someone approached him, he ignored them completely - a potentially fatal move in the dog-eat-dog Nexus.

"You did not go out of your way to make yourself easy to find, you know." Demyx recognized the voice as Fori's, but didn't respond - he didn't feel like talking at all. He just grunted morosely without even turning around. "Um...if you can stand to drag yourself back for a few minutes, we need your help with something. And in case you're interested, you missed dinner. By about twelve or thirteen hours." Demyx didn't respond to that either. The only reason he'd returned to the castle for lunch was to deliver the ashes to Roxas. He couldn't care less about eating. "Well, anyway. We've captured a tiger, and we need you to take a look at it and tell us whether or not it's the same tiger. Saix says it isn't, Zexion is in no shape to tell us, and Roxas is MIA."


Demyx immediately scrambled to his feet, feeling sick with horror - dammit, he should have told Roxas not to go looking for the tiger, he should have ordered him to come along, he could have ordered him to come along, he outranked him - "Where is it?" he asked in a hoarse, choked voice, mentally blaming himself for everything that could have happened to Roxas, whether or not any of it actually had happened.

"In my room." Fori opened a portal and gestured him through it. About half the Organization was already there, including Saix, who must have just been released from the hospital wing for this. He was staring distractedly out the window, not at anything interesting, but Demyx wasn't paying attention to him. All he was paying attention to was the tiger, lying stretched out on Fori's bed like a rug, with four parallel scratches from Fori's claws on its face...the beast that had killed at least one of his best friends and caused so much havoc in only five days...a brief burst of rage suddenly flooded through him, and he wanted nothing more than to kill it, destroy it, turn it into a rug and hang it on the wall for a trophy...

...It's too small.

With that thought, he was shaken from thoughts of revenge and back to what he was supposed to be doing. "It...it can't be the same one," he said in a soft voice, bending down a little for a closer look. Sure, fear made everything larger, but not nearly larger enough to account for this difference. "It's barely half the size of the other one. It can't be more than half-grown."

Everyone, except the ever-emotionless Xemnas, displayed some sort of chagrin and disappointment at that announcement. Apparently that was exactly what Saix had said. "In that case, the danger cannot be considered over yet," Xemnas announced gravely, and Demyx winced inwardly - the last thing he wanted to hear was a speech. "As the grown tiger has defied both Six's and Fourteen's attempts to track it, we...Seven?" Demyx glanced over at Saix instinctively - the Luna Diviner usually paid close attention to Xemnas's every word, but he hadn't even turned around to look at him. He was still just staring out the window with a distant, tense expression. "Dare I ask what it is out that window that you find so mesmerizing?"

Saix still didn't even glance behind him. Instead, he slowly stretched out his good arm to point out the window. "The gold star," he said in a soft voice. "It first rose the night the tiger appeared...and now it's about to set..." None of them had the least idea what relevance that could possibly have, but somehow, all of them held their breath, crowding around the window to try to catch a glimpse of the star in question. Demyx was too late to get a spot at the window, and sat down in Fori's desk chair instead, keeping an eye on the tiger.

Everyone around the window tensed even more, as the star sank below the horizon. All of a sudden, the tiger seemed to shimmer faintly and melt away - and Roxas was lying there, four parallel scratches on his cheek and Axel's tiger-claw charm around his neck.

For the life of him, though the exact moment of transformation was crystal clear, Demyx did not know and could not remember what, if anything, he said. He must have made some sort of noise, because everyone suddenly turned to look at him, then down at Roxas. Time seemed to hold still for a moment, as if Luxord had randomly decided to freeze them all -

"Well. No damn wonder he didn't want me to kill it," Fori said suddenly. As if he'd broken a spell with those words, everyone started talking all at once, yelling at each other, issuing orders, demanding Fori explain what the hell he'd just said, examining Roxas like he was some sort of fascinating clinical specimen...only Demyx remained frozen, staring at the scene as if it was some sort of unreal nightmare. To him, it was.

"Fucking hell...!"

He didn't remember screaming those words, though he certainly heard his own voice. He definitely managed to get everyone's attention for a moment - just long enough for him to take three steps forward, rip the charm from around Roxas's neck, and storm out. He was aware of all of it happening, though he didn't really remember doing it - it was as if he was only a passenger in his own body, while someone else was actually directing it. Whoever was controlling him led him through a portal, that his hand seemed to open without his input, and to a rocky beach under a rising sun.

Oh, shit, I'm not about to have a seizure, am I?

That brief flare of panic was enough to bring him fully back to himself. As he tried to sort his various thoughts and emotions out and figure out where he was, the sensation of being a passenger in his own body - which usually did mean he was about to have a seizure - disappeared, leaving him slightly dizzy and drained. Demyx sat down hard on a rock, staring blankly at the charm in his hand - rage, that was it. That was what had taken control of him and led him here. Helpless rage, when he'd put all the pieces together and realized the connection between the charm and the tiger - after Roxas had taken the charm, he'd turned into a small tiger, so when the big tiger had been stalking the castle before, it must have been...that meant there was no one to blame for Axel's death but Axel himself...Roxas must have realized, that's why he'd taken the charm in the first place and warned Fori not to kill the tiger, but Axel...Axel could have had no idea...

With another scream of rage, Demyx flung the charm as far away from himself as he could manage, watching through teary eyes as it sank under the waves, then started to sob helplessly. He wanted so very badly to be angry at something, anything that he could assign blame to, but what could he blame? The charm, and the old woman who'd given it to Axel. The charm was long gone now, and the old woman was worlds away. He couldn't blame Axel because Axel had had no idea what the charm did, he shied away from blaming Roxas even though he did know, and even his extremely self-critical tendencies couldn't find a defensible way to blame himself. All he could do was sit there and cry.

Once he was out of tears, and calm enough to actually function like a normal human, Demyx portaled back to the castle. Fori's room was still stuffed with people. Roxas was awake now, sitting on Fori's bed, while Fori tried to fix his face and everyone else was questioning him relentlessly. He seemed to want to hide under the bed, for which Demyx couldn't blame him. "No, I didn't know what it was or what it did until after Axel was hurt..." he was protesting, seemingly to no avail. "No, even then I wasn't sure...what would it have gotten me? All the same damn dumbass questions I'm getting right now anyway...I don't know! I'm tired!"

With sheer force of will that seemed completely out of character for him, Demyx forced his way between Saix and Vexen and grabbed Roxas's hand, dragging him to his feet and right away from Xigbar's questioning. The look on his face must have been frighteningly intimidating; even though most of the people in the room outranked him, no one questioned him. As far as Demyx was concerned, that was all to the good. Mumbling something about coming back later, he dragged Roxas through a portal into the Nexus before anyone could work up a protest. They ended up right next to the pyre that Demyx had left only fifteen minutes earlier - had it only been fifteen minutes? It felt like hours...

"Thanks," Roxas murmured eventually. "I...I just couldn't take all those questions right now, and they wouldn't shut up. Thanks for getting me out of there..."

Demyx gave Roxas a one-armed hug. "You're welcome," he answered softly. "I didn't think it was totally fair for them to start grilling you like that either."

Roxas nodded and hugged Demyx back. "...What did you do with the charm?"

"Got rid of it," Demyx said honestly. He didn't say where or how, and Roxas didn't press it.

"...Are we waiting for Axel?" Roxas asked after a moment.

"Yes." That was the last thing either of them said for a while. They didn't really need to say anything.

...Where the hell am I?

On the plus side, Axel was feeling rested for the first time in days. On the minus side, he had no idea where he was or how he could possibly have gotten there. The last thing he remembered was going right back to bed after breakfast, because he still felt so tired...and his room at the Castle that Never Was was far, far away from a trash-strewn street in some other world. Was someone playing a prank on him? If so, he'd skin them alive as soon as he found out who...Roxas and Fori couldn't have dragged him out into the hallway by themselves, so if they were in on this, they must have had help...and the only real possibilities there were Xigbar, Demyx, or Luxord...

He looked down at his hands. They were covered in intricate red tattoos.

So he had to be in the Nexus...no one would be dumb enough to drag him into the Nexus just for a prank. It was too dangerous. He and the pranksters would be equally likely to get killed. At least the Nexus was one of those worlds - or some of those worlds - where death was temporary...

Wait, did I die or something?

It made sense on a certain level. If he'd been so badly injured somehow that there was absolutely no hope for him, they might have dragged him to the Nexus to die in the hope that he'd come back. Except you'd think he'd remember something like that. If he'd gone into insulin shock or a diabetic coma overnight, Vexen or Fori should have been able to do something about it. It seemed just as likely that the ceiling had fallen in on him while he slept. He looked down - his clothing was pretty much intact, except that his robe was torn at the neck and shoulder, but much to his dismay, his tiger charm was gone. Well, things had a nasty tendency to disappear every so often in this world, and disappear forever. Odds were, he'd never see it again. Scowling to himself, he jammed his hands into his pockets - and found a little slip of paper he didn't remember being there. 2936 Eastshore, was all it said, but that was all the information he needed. That address had been where he'd first arrived in the Nexus, way back when they were looking for Fori. Apparently he was supposed to meet someone there, instead of going straight home.

Demyx and Roxas were sitting on a couple milk crates not far from where his portal led, hugging each other gently and obviously fast asleep on each other's shoulders. The look on their faces pretty much answered Axel's question about what he was doing there - they'd obviously had a long, sad wait. Shaking his head, he went to wake them both up, careful of Demyx's injured arm. "If you two were waiting for me, I'm here," he said, trying and failing to inject at least a little humor into his words.

Demyx and Roxas both stood up to hug him tightly. Axel wondered just how bad it had been. Well, if he'd died, obviously it had been bad... "Nice to have you back," Demyx murmured, his voice not betraying nearly as much emotion as his face did.

Axel couldn't help but hug them back, trying to force at least a weak smile for their benefits. "So...if I dare ask, what the hell happened?" he asked, trying and failing to sound lighthearted. The mood was just defying all his attempts to turn it around.

He did not expect the reaction he got. Demyx and Roxas just looked at each other, as if silently asking each other what and how much to tell him. The mere fact that they were looking at each other like that made Axel wonder even more - what the hell had happened that was so horrible or humiliating that his best friends weren't willing to tell him the whole truth? "It was the tiger," Roxas said eventually, in a way that made Axel certain that he was getting at best only part of the truth and at worst a story that had some vague tangential association with the truth.

Axel sighed, wondering how best to tease, torture, coerce, and otherwise extract the actual and complete truth from them, and whether or not it was actually a good idea. "The tiger," he said in a carefully emotionless voice, prompting Roxas to say more. He was about 98 percent sure he'd shut and locked his door before going to bed, and Demyx's would have been shut and locked for days - how could the tiger get at him in his sleep?

Roxas and Demyx just looked at each other again, and Demyx spoke up this time. "Yeah...it was bad," he said, the look on his face enough to convince Axel he was at least telling the truth about that part. "If we'd kept you home, even if you survived, you'd never have walked again...assuming you ever woke up...so we did what we could..."

Axel nodded - that was interesting, informative, and even a little disturbing, but it didn't really answer his question. "That's...interesting...but about the tiger..."

"You don't need to worry about it anymore," Roxas said, a little too quickly. "It's been caught and dealt with. It tried to get into Fori's room, and he knocked it out."

Axel ground his teeth slightly. Well, that was great news, but it still didn't answer his question - namely, what had happened to him? But since Demyx and Roxas were so bound and determined to pussyfoot around it, how best to approach it? "Guys...I hate to break it to you, but for some reason or another, I don't remember a thing about what happened."

Demyx shrugged slightly. "You did have a really bad head injury," he said as if reading it off a cue card. "That would probably explain why you don't remember."

Axel clenched his fists, the remains of his patience going up in smoke. "I meant I wanted one or the other of you to tell me what happened. Preferably without pussyfooting, misleading, and selectively editing your way around it." Hopefully that would shame one of them into telling him the straight truth. It offered a better chance than threats.

It didn't. They did look ashamed of themselves, but neither one of them spoke. They didn't even look at each other; they just gave him matching hurt looks. "Ax...I hate to say it, but..."

"You'd probably be happier not knowing."

Great. Now they were even finishing each other's sentences. They were really thoroughly united in their determination to keep him ignorant. But he had to admit, once the initial flare of anger burned out, their judgment in this matter was probably trustworthy. "Well, as long as you two are bound and determined not to tell me anything..." Demyx looked a little guiltier at that, but it just seemed to make Roxas a little mad. Axel held up his hands defensively. "Hey, no biting. I just came back from the dead. I was just about to say we might as well go home." Demyx and Roxas looked at each other again, but it wasn't the same kind of look - instead of a "great, what do we tell him?" sort of look, it was a "we are dead men" sort of look. "...Okay, what the hell is that look about? Am I gonna be in trouble when we go back?" Axel demanded, wondering how much more shit he could put up with in one day.

It took several moments for either of them to answer. "You, I don't think so..." Demyx said slowly. "But I'm pretty sure we are..."

"...Do I even want to know? Screw it, I probably don't...let's get out of here."

Axel never did find out exactly what had been going on. As soon as they set foot back in the castle, the three of them had been split up and dragged off separately, presumably for questioning - at least, that's what Axel went through. He had no idea what Demyx and Roxas were being grilled about, because they'd done their best to keep him clueless. And he had no idea what the hell Xemnas kept quizzing him about the missing charm for. He did gather that first Roxas and then Demyx had taken it, that some fresh hell had transpired while it was in Roxas's possession, and that it had disappeared entirely immediately after Demyx took it - all of which only made him madder, but presumably they'd each had some compelling reason to do so, whatever it was. After all, Demyx didn't take people's stuff and get rid of it just for shits and giggles.

He was the first one to get done with his grilling, still wondering what the hell it was all about. Roxas and Demyx came back later, looking a little shellshocked, especially Demyx. Whatever the results of their questionings had been, they never said, but Demyx didn't leave the castle for anything but missions for the next few weeks. Axel assumed he'd been grounded as punishment for something or other, possibly for getting rid of the charm before the brain trust could look at it too closely. He was left to assume a lot of things; Demyx and Roxas weren't the only ones who wouldn't give him a straight answer on a few key points. Every incomplete or evasive answer he got made him wonder even more, but eventually, he decided he probably didn't really want to know. He did wonder why Saix and Zexion kept giving him such strange looks, though. Granted, having Saix a little afraid of him was no bad thing.

But time passed. Injuries healed. Eventually, life went back to normal. For a while, Axel wanted to get a picture of a tiger tattooed over the scar on his neck and shoulder, but Roxas eventually talked him out of it. The only memorial to the tiger's brief reign of terror was the tattoo on Demyx's left arm, replacing a blue Chinese dragon tattoo that had been obliterated by Malenisa's handiwork - a dragon much like the old one, except now, it was battling a tiger. Roxas teased him about it every so often, pestering him about who really defeated the tiger, but Axel never did get what he was on about, and eventually, he stopped doing so in Axel's presence. After that, the tiger sort of stopped coming up in conversation; within a few months, it was all but forgotten.

Back in Atlantica, after Demyx threw the charm into the water, it sank slowly, looking like nothing so much as a large fly-fishing lure. Before long, a curious skipjack tuna came along and swallowed it, only to be disappointed that it had no real food value. Shrugging its nonexistent shoulders, it fell back in line with the rest of its school and went on its way.

The day passed. The sun set. A few hours after moonrise, the skipjack who'd swallowed the charm suddenly went still, floating aimlessly on the current as if it had abruptly fallen asleep. Shaking their heads slightly, the rest of the school continued on, meaning to leave the lazy one behind.

A gold star that had never been seen in Atlantica's sky before slowly rose over the horizon.

In an instant, the skipjacks scattered, fleeing in terror from the tiger shark that had suddenly appeared in their midst.

AN: I love that ending.

Funny, whenever I go out of state for vacation, I seem to come up with epic stories that involve people turning into animals. When I spent a month out West, I came up with "Lung Qin Xiang". This time, I spent a week at the Gulf Coast for Spring Break. The end result of that was "Burning Bright". Like "Lung Qin Xiang", it started with a dream - this time, it was a dream about a man around whom people seemed to die randomly, and he was upset by it, and didn't know why they were dying, but it turned out to be his fault. I think he was a plaguebearer originally, but I decided a were-tiger would make for a better story. In the original original werebeast myths, people did not become weres through being bitten by other weres, because if you were bitten by a were, it was probably working on killing and eating you - the usual methods for becoming one were making unholy pacts, drinking rainwater that had collected in an animal's pawprint, or wearing a magic belt or other item made from animal parts. The wolfskin belt became a tiger-claw charm, and things progressed from there.

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