"I believe the worst is most likely over. Your fever has gone down considerably, and other symptoms have greatly decreased."

Axel just nodded lazily in response, still feeling rather lethargic, though at least his head wasn't pounding so much and his throat no longer felt like he'd been doing sulfuric acid shots with boiling vinegar chasers. "So...guess that means I'm back on duty?" he asked, still a bit croaky - maybe his throat didn't hurt as much as it had, but talking still wasn't fun.

Vexen pursed his lips, shaking his head and looking at Axel as though questioning his intelligence - granted, that was how he usually looked at Axel. "Anyone else, yes, but not in your case. The situation with your blood glucose -" Axel couldn't help but groan slightly. Just because he was diabetic didn't mean he was made of glass. "Eight...this is critical to your continued survival. If your blood glucose level rose too high or fell too low, the consequences could be disastrous. And even mild infections, especially those that cause you to lose your appetite, can have unpredictable and potentially severe effects."

Axel had only heard that about a zillion times before. Maybe Vexen was utterly convinced he couldn't be trusted to take care of himself, or maybe he just liked to drive Axel batshit. Did he even have enough of a semblance of a sense of humor to enjoy driving Axel batshit? Probably not, but at least this time, he was also giving him an excuse to stay off-duty for an extra few days. "I know that," he grumbled, glaring down at his insulin pump - no amount of time off was worth that. "So that means no. And for God's sake, don't take the opportunity to say 'no' in five long sentences. Please, by all that was ever held holy, just say the word 'no'." That just about killed his throat to say, but the rest of him felt a little better for getting that out. When Vexen got going, his lectures in medicalese could rival anything Xemnas had to say about Kingdom Hearts for boredom, and left Demyx's musical philosophizing in the dust for length (though Xemnas had them both beat there).

The temperature in the room dropped about five degrees, though it wasn't like Axel noticed. Vexen waved a hand as if to dismiss him, but as soon as he opened his mouth to confirm that verbally, an unignorably loud buzzer sounded, making the Chilly Academic jump with more genuine alarm than Axel had ever seen him display before. As soon as he figured out what that buzzer probably meant, he stopped breathing and all but ran after Vexen as the older man left the room - good God, it was probably Demyx. The gentle musician was fragile and accident-prone enough at the best of times, but right now - after the living hell he'd been through in the blood witch Malenisa's torture chamber - it had been almost two months, but still, he was so weak, so frail - he was a complete invalid, unable to sit up or feed himself or even roll over - even if he'd just caught whatever Axel was just getting over, it might be enough to cause permanent harm, or - or even -

Much to his shame, Axel actually breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Roxas and Fori in the front room of the hospital wing, obviously waiting for Vexen. That temporary relief turned quickly to shock and concern when he saw that both boys looked from the state of their clothing to have been stuck in a running cement mixer for an hour or two, though there were no obvious outward injuries - probably thanks to Fori, who could heal anything from a mild scrape to a severed appendage in seconds to minutes. But while neither of them sported any mild scrapes or missing appendages, Roxas was cradling his left arm in a very particular way that told Axel immediately that it was broken. One of the few things Fori could not fix was broken bones. Axel was at Roxas's side in an instant, hugging him carefully and looking him over for any injuries Fori might have missed. "Roxas, what happened? Are you all right?" he asked, not caring how dumb or obvious the question was.

Roxas just leaned heavily on him, apparently in too much shock and pain to answer right away, but Fori quickly caved under Vexen's glacial glare. "Um...we were having a...sorta...impromptu skateboarding contest?" he explained, the nervousness in his voice turning the statement into more of a question at the end. "And...um...we both kinda wiped out at the end...and...uh..." He swallowed as Axel added his poisonous look to Vexen's. "Well, I, uh, did what I could, but...well, you know...I don't do fractures too well...you know that...so..."

Vexen gave him a look that quite clearly said "I'll settle your hash later, and don't think you can get out of it", and led Roxas off into the X-ray room. Axel was left alone with Fori, and he really didn't have anything to say to the little demon that couldn't be expressed just as well with a glare. He had no clue whose idea the skateboarding contest might have been - he could easily believe it had been either of theirs, or both at the same time - but he was going to blame Fori for it anyway, since he had all the healing powers and Roxas didn't. Fori, who seemed quite aware that Axel wanted to grind him into the dust, didn't say anything either. They just stood there in a frigid and very uncomfortable silence for who knew or cared how long, until Roxas and Vexen returned. Roxas still looked rather listless and woebegone, but Axel quickly moved over to him, putting a hand on his good shoulder and all but pushing him out of the hospital wing - the better to allow Vexen to tear Fori a new one, as he deserved. "You seem a little out of it," he said as they went down the hall, noting that Roxas's arm was now in a cast. "Concussion or painkillers?"

"Some of both, I guess," Roxas answered, managing a faint smile. "Guess I shouldn't have suggested that contest..."

So the contest had been Roxas's idea after all. Axel wasn't in a hurry to turn around and tell Vexen that. Instead, he just smiled back and tried to think of something they could do now - there was no question that Roxas was going to be on the disabled list for a few weeks. Now their biggest problem would be keeping him entertained while he was stuck home with his arm in a cast...and Axel swallowed hard at that, a pang of guilt running through him as he remembered that someone very close to them both had much bigger problems than they probably ever would. "Let's go see Demyx," he said in a softer voice than he'd intended.

Roxas nodded, the fact that he'd gone to visit him before breakfast notwithstanding. "That's a good idea...he's probably pretty bored..." he agreed, his voice even more subdued. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it..."

Demyx's room always had such a tragic, morbid feel, now; it was usually dark and unnaturally silent and there was always a body on the bed. Granted, it was technically a live body, but...well, Demyx was anything but lively now. He was always lying in pretty much the same pose, flat on his back staring at the ceiling, though not by choice - he just plain couldn't move. And any attempt someone else made to move him, or even to touch him, would cause him unimaginable pain. Sometimes, Axel looked at him and wondered whether it was a good thing he'd survived the torture he'd suffered at the hands of the blood witch Malenisa - well, if he hadn't survived the first day or so, Axel would also be dead, and Roxas would still be Malenisa's slave. But after those few days, after Malenisa was killed...when the murderer had been brought to final justice, and her innocent victim's agony went on and on...it would have crushed them all if he'd died, when they were all rooting so hard for him to live, but maybe it would have been better for Demyx...then instead of a world of pain, he'd be in a world of peace... Axel shook his head at himself. The room really did inspire morbid thoughts. He turned on the light, trying to drive them back; Demyx blinked a little and smiled at them, but it was only a weak smile, that seemed to have little real emotion behind it. When he saw Roxas's injured arm, his expression transformed into a very genuine frown of concern. "Roxas, what happened to your arm?" he asked in a soft voice. "Are you all right?"

Roxas smiled weakly in return and gently stroked Demyx's hair - about the only form of physical contact that wouldn't cause Demyx any more pain. "Just a skateboarding accident. I'll be fine," he murmured. "How are you holding out?"

Demyx tried to force a smile again, but it was even weaker, this time. "I'm still alive...that's a good thing, right?" he asked, but something in his tone made Axel's blood run cold, like even Demyx wasn't sure it was really a good thing. Or maybe he was just being stupidly morbid again. "Haven't seen you around for a few days, Ax," Demyx was saying, drawing Axel back to reality. "Did you just forget, or were you gone on a long mission?"

If Axel had been gone on a long mission, he would have made very sure to warn Demyx beforehand, since assignments for missions longer than overnight were usually given the day before departure, not the day of. But he would never, ever just forget to visit, and only Demyx's mildly joking tone kept him from feeling hurt. "I was sick for the past few days," he explained, trying not to look at Demyx's left hand - he didn't want to get used to the fact that he only had three fingers on that hand now. Malenisa had known he was a musician, and deliberately maimed his hand with the aim of causing more than physical pain. "Vexen didn't want to risk you catching it, so he told me not to visit." He breathed an inward sigh of relief as his brain caught up with his mouth - now that he thought about it, he knew Roxas would have told Demyx about it, so Demyx had to know the reason, and was therefore still feeling lively enough to yank his chain for his own amusement. "I'm better now, but he doesn't want me back on duty for a few days yet, just in case my blood sugar does something stupid."

He was secretly even more gratified when Demyx gave him a critical look. "Does he think you're made of glass or what?"

"Yes," Axel said with a weak chuckle - in that room, it was the best he could do. "He has since I was diagnosed. And I haven't had a major blood-sugar crisis since Fori joined, but still...he's convinced that whenever I get sick or injured, a diabetic death spiral is just around the corner." Demyx made a weak noise that sounded like a chuckle, and Axel panicked as soon as he heard it. "Oh, God. Demyx, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you laugh..."

Axel's only thought was for how much pain Demyx had to be in, given that he had a full rack of broken ribs and almost all the skin on his chest peeled off, but Demyx stared at him as if he'd grown another head. Almost as soon as Axel noticed it and tried to formulate an intelligent response, like "Why are you staring at me like that?", he found himself being dragged out into the hallway so fast his arm started to come out of its socket. "What in Kingdom Hearts's name is with you?" Roxas demanded, before Axel could try to come up with an intelligent question to ask him instead. "You're complaining that Vexen treats you like you're made of glass? Then what do you call the way you're treating Demyx?"

Axel's brain ground to a halt temporarily, trying to comprehend the fact that Roxas was chewing him out for being careful, of all things, and his mouth went on without it. "I was just being careful with him!" he sputtered, not wasting time on thinking. "I mean, do you have any how much pain he must be in..."

He trailed off as Roxas held out his broken arm for inspection. "Probably not an exact idea, but I do have one," he said grimly. "Maybe I've never been through everything he has, but I have broken every rib on one side before, so badly Vexen had to operate on them. And I had a broken arm and a broken leg at the same time. Plus unspecified internal injuries. Vexen wouldn't tell Fori any specifics, just told him to clean up the blood." Axel stared blankly at Roxas for a moment, then cringed deeply - of course; that stupid car accident. "Not to trivialize whatever pain Demyx is in, but only to mention that you didn't treat me like a glass statue. You definitely never panicked and apologized for making me laugh."

Axel glanced away for a moment, torn between anger and embarrassment. "I was as big a mess as you were at the time," he mumbled defensively. "Besides...this wasn't an accident. That demented bitch could have killed him..."

Roxas's eyes glinted with anger and pain. "You're telling me," he said in a tight voice. Axel could have punched himself - of course, Malenisa had forced Roxas to watch while she tortured Demyx. He'd been under a spell at the time that made him unable to care less about Demyx's fate, but the knowledge after the fact that he'd just stood by while one of his "big brothers" went through that...well, Roxas had been the one to kill Malenisa eventually, but Axel wouldn't be shocked if he frequently wanted to go back and hack at her corpse. "But that's another thing," he continued when the painful memory had passed. "The way you act whenever you're in his room - you act like you're in a funeral parlor with a corpse on display. You talk just barely above a whisper. You act like if you just breathe on him a little too hard, he'll curl up and die. If he was half that fragile, he'd have died weeks ago - Kingdom Hearts, you panicked when he tried to laugh a little! Is he not allowed to laugh ever again? If I wasn't, I'd curl up and die just from that!"

Axel would almost prefer getting a lecture from Xemnas. Sure, Xemnas could verbally flay you in front of the Organization and make you wriggle like a worm on a hook in private, but Roxas's informed and personal touches stung like hell and made Axel feel like crawling back into Demyx's room and asking his forgiveness on hands and knees. And Roxas could cover a much broader range of subjects. And delivered a hell of a lot more lectures, at least to Axel. "I was just being careful," he protested weakly. "I mean, God knows he's in enough pain already..."

"So in order to spare him a little more pain, you're going to forbid him from laughing for how long?" Roxas retorted in a withering tone. "Until he's out of bed? Fully ambulatory? Back on duty? Xigbar's age? Come on, Axel. Demyx is fully capable of deciding on his own if it hurts too much to laugh, and if it does, he can stop laughing on his own. He doesn't need your help to tell him when enough is enough." Axel felt three inches tall and shrinking by the second. "Besides, you seem to think he hasn't recovered the slightest bit the whole time he's been here. I'll have you know that his broken bones are mending perfectly well, and his skin is well on its way to regrowing completely. I bet you could give him a reassuring pat on the shoulder without him screaming in agony. You might even let Connie back in his room. The worst she could do to hurt him is pounce on his crotch, and I know Malenisa didn't touch that. In fact, I'm sure the only reason Demyx hasn't told you any of this himself is because he's too shy to tell you to knock off treating him like glass already."

Two inches and still shrinking. "How do you know all of that?" Axel asked, feeling physically as well as psychologically trounced. "I mean...about how well he's recovering?"

"I live next door to Fori," Roxas said with a touch of smugness. "He talks twice as much as Vexen and Zexion put together. He's a wellspring of information. That's how I know the only thing Demyx is in serious danger of dying from right now is boredom."

If Axel shrunk much more, he'd probably disappear. "I guess that makes sense," he mumbled, looking at his shoes. It made entirely too much sense. Demyx could do pretty much nothing for himself; Axel knew that...but he'd been only thinking of how helpless that made him. How mind-bogglingly bored he had to be never entered his mind. "But...why the hell does he never say anything?"

"Because he's Demyx," Roxas said impatiently. "Kingdom Hearts, Ax - he knows you're worried to death about him; of course he wouldn't complain, because he knows you'd freak out!"

If Axel really was as tall as he felt right then, Roxas would have needed a microscope to continue the conversation. "Um...so...when he stopped asking me to play CDs whenever I came in...and stopped really caring when I did so on my own..." That had secretly terrified him no end, because if Demyx became indifferent to music, the end was surely near.

"He must be bored sick of every CD he owns," Roxas said, rolling his eyes. "You know what - try giving him some real music to listen to. A live performance. You know where he keeps his guitar, right? I know you know how to play it. Play it for him. Play one of his own compositions - he'll be flattered. Just do whatever you have to to keep him entertained. Kingdom Hearts knows he needs someone to."

"Yeah. Sure. I can do that," Axel said - anything to get Roxas to leave him alone, at this point. "In fact, I might just do that right now. I can probably get under his bed all right."

Much to his surprise, when the two of them returned to Demyx's room, Demyx was wearing a broad grin that said clearly he was fighting not to laugh. "Thanks, guys," he said in an almost choked tone, as if afraid that saying too much would make him crack up - and Axel didn't think he had only his own comfort in mind. "That was entertaining."

Axel was ready to sink into the floor, and even Roxas looked a bit discomfited. "Don't tell me you heard that whole lecture," Axel groaned, knowing full well that Luxord and Zexion probably heard that whole lecture, if they were in their rooms.

Demyx's grin broadened, if possible. "I did. I have to say, it was nicely done, Roxas. A first-rate verbal curbstomp. Being treated like glass gets old, and I am usually bored out of my skull." Roxas rubbed the back of his neck modestly. "One question, though. Since Axel will be going back on duty long before you are, why did you put the entire burden of keeping me entertained on him?"

As far as Axel could tell, Roxas didn't even waste time trying to come up with an answer of any quality. He just turned bright red and looked as if he wanted to sink into the floor. What he'd done to Axel over the course of a lecture, Demyx had done to him with one pointed question. Axel couldn't help but give the musician a discreet thumbs-up, and Demyx grinned like the Cheshire cat.

"That was mean, at least as far as you go," Axel said conversationally as he uncoiled Demyx's feeding tube, attached a clean funnel to the top, and started running a disinfected saline solution through it - specially prepared by Vexen to keep the tube clean. "Why'd you have to knock poor Roxas down like that?"

"Because after the lecture he gave you, he was thinking like he was Dr. Phil or something," Demyx answered, watching the procedure with a sort of detached interest. Axel wondered how he managed - if that was his stomach the feeding tube was plugged into, he'd be creeped out no end. "I had to take him down a peg or three before he got the idea he could read you the riot act whenever you did something tactless, clueless, or insensitive without thinking about his own missteps. Plus that was a pretty tactless omission on his part. I mean, he does have a lot more time off coming than you do."

"That's a relief," Axel said as he gave the medicated nutrient mixture another stir - this was what passed as Demyx's lunch, and Axel couldn't imagine it being delivered any way other than a feeding tube. He didn't think any sane person would actually ingest that crap. The rest of the Organization still at the castle was eating in the kitchen right now, including Roxas, but Axel had made himself a sandwich earlier so he could be here "feeding" Demyx right now. "I was afraid the abyss had been staring back or something, or the real Demyx had died and been replaced by his evil twin Skippy. Specially cloned and raised by Vexen just for the purpose, which explains the evil part."

Demyx cringed deeply as Axel started pouring the slurry into the funnel. "Ah, Gods, I hope he hasn't been cloning me for any purpose. Or any of us, for that matter. That's just too disturbing to contemplate."

"Well, we could ask Roxas to ask Fori about it," Axel said casually as he adjusted the flow so it wouldn't go too fast. "I mean, Fori's probably where Vexen gets all our blood samp-"


"What, am I not allowed to mess with the invalid? Roxas said to knock off treating you like glass."

"I hope your evil twin murders someone and you get blamed for it."

Axel stuck out his tongue as he encouraged the last of the slurry down the funnel. "Given that it would be Vexen raising said evil twin, I'd bet the first one he'd murder would be me, followed by Marluxia. On second thought, Marluxia can get murdered by his own evil twin. I wouldn't even want my twin to dirty his hands with that prissy pill."

Demyx chuckled weakly at that, stifling himself when it got too painful. "Marluxia couldn't have an evil twin. In order for the cosmic balance to be preserved, he'd have to have a good twin. Same as Fori."

Axel nodded sagely at that as he ran more saline through the tube to clean it again. "And Zexion would have a stupid twin, and Lexaeus would have a talkative twin, and I guess Larxene's twin would be as tough and badass as cotton candy bunny rabbits..."

Demyx nearly choked. "Larxene and cotton candy bunny rabbits do not belong in the same sentence, okay? It's just wrong on a fundamental level."

Axel couldn't help but laugh out loud at his reaction as he coiled the tube back up and replaced its protective cap. "Oh, come on, Demyx, you're supposed to be the ridiculously generous one. Give her a little credit. She must have a soft spot somewhere. Granted, I have not the faintest clue where, but she must."

"I think you know exactly where all her soft spots are, Axel my man," Demyx said with a sage expression and just the right amount of knowing innuendo to make Axel blush a bit and glare. There was a moment of silence, then Demyx spoke up again on a different topic. "You know, now that you're actually talking to me, this is something like enjoyable. Not like before, when you seemed to think you'd break some sacred taboo if you said anything. And Zexion, who got the job when you were sick - he was as warm and personal as Vexen and maybe even slightly chattier than Lexaeus. Hell, I'd have preferred Lexaeus. Maybe he doesn't talk much, but that's because he just doesn't waste words, not because he thinks everyone is beneath him or that small talk is just an irritant. Zexion - it was like he was mad at me for needing to be fed." While Axel tried to puzzle out what Demyx might be getting at, if anything, Demyx sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "It's nice to know that even if it's the only thing I can do anymore, I'm still fit to carry on an intelligent conversation with."

Axel blushed even more at that than he had at the innuendo about Larxene. "I'm sorry," he mumbled as he gathered up the various accessories that needed to be returned to Vexen. "I...well...you've heard it already, haven't you? I'm sorry for being a pessimist and treating you like glass and all that shit."

Demyx gave him a cheeky grin as Axel ruffled his hair. "You're forgiven. Just don't do it again."

AN: I've been trying to write a story that covered this period almost since I wrote Blood Ties...and I think I've finally found the perfect balance between plot and angst. I'm even starting out with a nice dose of fluff so the angst will hurt more when it arrives. (Cue Cheshire-cat grin here.)

For those who've never read any of my stories before, you'll have to read Blood Ties to get the entirety of what's going on here, but to answer a few questions I've been asked in the past, Axel is diabetic, Fori's full name is Foriuxocol (so it does have an X in it - his Other's name was Lucioforo), and Connie is Demyx's cat, currently staying in Axel's room along with Axel's cat Sol. It doesn't come up in this chapter, but Demyx is deaf and wears hearing aids. I know; I'm horribly cruel to them.

Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts and all associated characters belong to Square Enix and Disney. Foriuxocol, Malenisa, Solace, and Consolation belong to me.