"All right, I think they're done now." Demyx carefully removed the cooking fish fillets from the flat rock that was serving as a grill, trying hard not to burn his fingers, and set them on another flat rock that was serving as a platter. "Dig in soon as you can handle 'em."

While Demyx blew on his fingertips and ran water over them, Axel picked up the largest fillet immediately and looked it over, deciding where to bite first. After a moment, he just picked an end and took a bite, grateful that Demyx could somehow turn three fish into something edible with nothing but a knife, a campfire, some water, and a few flat rocks. It could have used a little seasoning, sure, but compared to anything he could have managed by way of field rations, it was great. Zexion probably couldn't have done that well; sure, he was a good cook, but without equipment? "Next time I go on a mission that involves a long camping trip, I want you along, got it memorized?" he said, smiling around a mouthful of trout. "As far as field rations go, this is good shit."

Zexion sighed, poking intermittently at his pieces of fish to gauge when they might be cool enough to be edible. "Indeed, but only so far as field rations go," he grumbled as he finally dared to pick one up and take a bite.

"Well, next time, I'll be sure to bring along herbs, vegetables, and a cast-iron skillet," Demyx responded with a full measure of sarcasm as he started eating his own fish. "Why couldn't we have brought Roxas along...?"

"Because your personal preferences have no bearing on your mission assignments or your partners," Zexion shot back in a condescending tone.

"And your personal preferences have no bearing on what kind of food I can produce with no equipment."

"Touche," Axel muttered under his breath, getting a thumbs-up from Demyx and a dirty look from Zexion. "Don't look at me like that. You opened yourself up for it."

"Eight, spare us your feeble excuse for wit. Nine must certainly be exposed to more of it than any decent person should be forced to tolerate, and I don't care to be forced to tolerate any more of it than absolutely necessary."

"Children, children, must we bicker so over dinner?" Demyx asked with a grin. "The sooner we get finished, the sooner we can get moving again, the more ground we can cover, and the sooner we can leave."

Zexion gave him a sour look, but Axel just chuckled a little and kept eating. That had shut Zexion down pretty efficiently - there was no way to argue with getting the mission over sooner. His fish disappeared pretty quickly, both pieces, and he was finished almost before either Demyx or Zexion had moved on to their second pieces. "Pick it up, you two," he said cheekily, earning him a glare from both parties. "The sooner we're done, the sooner we can leave."

"We can't all eat like wildfire," Demyx said with a bit of an edge to his voice. He and Zexion were eating as fast as they could without running the risk of choking themselves. Axel just sat back and conspicuously twiddled his thumbs until they were finished. "All right, I'm done," Demyx finally said as he swallowed the last piece of his fish at almost the same time as Zexion. "You two can go wash your hands in the stream or something while I clean up the mess." Axel shrugged at that and obediently headed the ten feet to the stream, Zexion following behind. He wouldn't appreciate having his hands smell like fish for the rest of the mission. Demyx, presumably, could just summon a ball of water or something to wash his hands in...

And just as he knelt and put his hands in the river, the world rippled, then started to shake violently.

Axel heard Demyx scream behind him, but the sound was all but lost amidst the cracking, tearing, rumbling sound of a world abruptly coming apart at the seams. All Axel could do was cover his head with his hands and wait for the earthquake to end. God, is this world coming to an end right now? he thought in sudden, desperate fear. A massive crack in the earth opened not fifteen feet away, turning the little stream into a waterfall that disappeared into the ground. This earthquake just - wasn't - ending...there was a louder cracking, splintering noise behind him, like a tree being torn out at the roots...how long was it going to last...Axel was starting to feel like he was going to be sick...the ground was just rippling underneath him like water...if the earth opened up right under him all of a sudden, there was nothing he could do but fall...how much longer could he take it...

And then, all of a sudden, it stopped.

Once Axel's inner ears caught up with the rest of him, and the world stopped twisting and swaying in front of his eyes as well as under his feet, he pulled himself unsteadily to his feet and looked around. Zexion was no more than a few feet away, still half-cowering, his face dead white and his eyes the size of dinner plates; Axel realized he probably looked pretty much the same. No more than five yards downstream from them, that massive crack was still there, swallowing the little stream they'd been washing their hands in. If they'd been just a few yards further downstream, they could have been dead. Too numb with shock to even twitch, he looked back behind them - the little grove of trees they'd harvested firewood from was in shambles, and that big willow tree was completely toppled over. Where their campfire had been, there was a giant hole in the ground, as if the top of a sinkhole had been shaken into collapse. All signs that they'd ever been there - ashes, stones, fish bones and skins - had presumably been swallowed by the sinkhole. Demyx was nowhere in sight.

...This was bad. This was worse than bad. But - Demyx couldn't possibly have fallen into the sinkhole. He just couldn't have. It couldn't have collapsed with no warning at all, and he had very fast reactions when it came to self-preservation. He must have just run for it in a state of panic when the earthquake hit. "Demyx?" Axel called with a mix of terror and desperate hope, stumbling around the edge of the sinkhole and towards the shattered grove - maybe Demyx had taken shelter in there. If he had, he might have been trapped by falling limbs... "Demyx? Come on, where are you?" No response, and no sign of anyone in the grove. "Demyx! Come on! It's over now! It's safe!" Absolutely nothing. "Demyx, where the hell are you?!"


Fighting back panic with less than stellar success, Axel went back to the stream and grabbed Zexion, who was still apparently paralyzed by the shock. "Zexion, we gotta find Demyx," he said with no preamble and no room for argument. "He must have run off and gotten lost or something...if he ran into those trees, he might be hurt...we gotta find him, quick!"

Too dazed to react to Axel's insubordination with anything but unthinking obedience, Zexion nodded vaguely and started sniffing the air, trying to pick up Demyx's scent. He wobbled right up to the edge of the sinkhole, then stopped. Axel didn't breathe for several moments as Zexion continued to stand at the edge of the sinkhole, sniffing and looking around with an expression so shellshocked there was no room for anything else. "He's...down there..." Zexion said finally, backing away from the sinkhole. "The only trail is the way we came...and it leads into the sinkhole."

Holding the inevitable conclusion at arm's length, Axel crept towards the edge of the sinkhole, peering down into it. He could see absolutely nothing - just a yawning, empty blackness. He summoned a fireball and dropped it in; he caught brief glimpses of torn and cracked stone along the first several feet, where the ground had fallen in, and then nothing but the ever-shrinking dot of flame. Even after it shrank out of sight and magical sense completely, he kept staring at where it had been, as if expecting it to return. Eventually, it dawned on him in a way that he simply couldn't fight back - that sinkhole was several hundred feet deep at a minimum, and could be miles deep for all he knew.

Nothing and no one could survive a fall like that.

"He's...gone," Axel said in a small voice, as if avoiding the word dead could somehow make that part not true. "He's just...gone. Just like that..." He inched back slowly from the edge, and pulled himself to his feet when he was far enough away to feel safe. If he and Zexion hadn't gone to wash their hands, they would be gone as well...and if Demyx had gone with them, he would still be here. Funny; whether to wash your hands right away or linger by the campfire for a few moments was such a minor decision...such an inconsequential choice, that had such consequences...literally a matter of life or death...it should have meant nothing; instead, it meant everything. It meant there was no more Demyx. No more campfire-grilled fish, no more blue towels in the bathroom, no more sitar music next door, no more three-way sign language banter at meetings, no more always having someone to drag along when he was in the mood for entertainment too mature for Roxas, no more homemade curry or late-night Guitar Hero or spontaneous discussions of what the hell ever. No more...so much.

No more Demyx.

"We have to return home immediately," Zexion said in a shaky voice. "Regulation demands immediate reporting of all on-duty fatalities..." Axel could only nod and turn blindly to follow him through a portal, too overwhelmed with the shock of...all of this...to even think for himself.

"There was...absolutely no reasonable hope for a rescue?"

Axel shook his head slowly, trying to fight back tears - he'd been too shellshocked to cry earlier, but being forced to rehash the tragedy for Xemnas's benefit was making it hurt worse and worse by the second. "We both had our backs to him when the quake struck, and didn't see what had happened until it was over. And...the sinkhole had to be a minimum of three hundred feet deep, presumably down to solid rock. Even if there was some way we could get down there safely and quickly...there wouldn't have been anything to rescue. He was just...gone." How often had he used the word "gone" in this conversation? He had no idea, but it was a lot.

"There was no warning," Zexion added quietly - a phrase he'd been using only slightly less often than Axel had been using "gone". "The sinkhole must have collapsed in the first few moments of the earthquake, and there was no way to know beforehand that there was the slightest potential for collapse. It had looked like any other patch of roughly level ground."

Xemnas nodded, and then there was that long pause that usually signified the grilling was over and he was just getting his thoughts arranged before delivering the next order. "First of all, this must be confirmed by the Proof of Existence...have either of you done so yet?" Axel and Zexion shook their heads in unison. "Very well, then...that must be done first. Then I would strongly advise both of you to report to the hospital wing."

Feeling ill and miserable, Axel started dragging his heels in the direction of the Proof of Existence, not at all eager for what he knew would await them there. When Xemnas swept past him and Zexion to take the lead, he felt compelled to at least keep up, but he still felt worse than merely horrible. This was easily one of the worst days of his life, and a serious contender for the worst - it had passed being diagnosed with diabetes, which put it into the top three or four. And this was bearing in mind that Axel's life had contained some truly terrible days. How am I going to explain this to Roxas? he wondered to himself, which thought by itself was enough to boost the day past receiving the death penalty and at least level with actually being executed. Oh, God...he could see it in his mind's eye, as if he'd actually been watching it...Demyx dousing the remains of the fire with a well-placed splash of water, possibly going to throw the fish bones and skin into the forest or bury them or something, or just straightening up to rejoin them, when suddenly the ground rippled like water and gave way under his feet...and he hadn't had time for more than a short scream before the earth swallowed him whole...

Why Demyx? Why? He'd survived so many freak accidents, murderous attacks, and life-threatening illnesses, it seemed ridiculous to think that something so...mundane as an earthquake could kill him. Even if it could, it should have been while he was doing something like searching for survivors in the rubble or sacrificing himself to prevent a catastrophic tsunami. Not...not like that. Not something so ignominious as falling into a sinkhole while he was putting out a campfire. He deserved better. He deserved so much better...

They were at the Proof of Existence now. Axel groaned softly and closed his eyes, not ready for the sight of that single glaring red Proof in among all the blue. He knew Demyx was dead, but one last little part of him refused to believe it, refused to let go of the hope that he'd pulled out yet another miracle and survived the fall, refused to accept cold hard reality...

He opened his eyes. There was no glaring red Proof among the blue. All of them were blue. Even Demyx's.

Axel could hear Zexion gasping behind him as he followed him and Xemnas into the room, but he paid him no heed. He was already off and running, desperate to see the reality of this blue Proof for himself. "Oh, my God," he whispered, dropping to his knees in front of Demyx's Proof and gently tracing the outline of his sitar with an awed expression. "You fucking miracle man. You pulled it off again. You...you must be fuckin' immortal..."

"Eight." Xemnas's voice was enough to jar Axel out of his stunned state, even from across the room. "If Nine has survived, and has failed to return on his own, then our next move has changed from a casualty investigation to a search-and-rescue mission. If he did indeed suffer a fall as great as you described, he may be seriously injured and in dire need of rescue. A rescue team will be assembled and provisioned as quickly as possible; I would advise you both to get what rest you can, as your assistance will be urgently required once the rest of the rescue team is ready."

Axel could only nod dazedly, still trying to wrap his head around the thought - he'd known for sure that Demyx was dead, that he'd fallen into the sinkhole and been killed and would never come back, and now, all of a sudden, he knew he was alive. It was as overwhelming as if he'd actually seen Demyx die and come back to life. Eventually, Xemnas's last words filtered their way into his brain - the ones about him and Zexion getting what little rest they could before being dragged out again with the search-and-rescue mission - and he gathered his focus enough to make a portal back to his room. Once there, he just flopped onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling and vaguely surprised it wasn't spinning overhead. A nap was absolutely beyond him; the closest he could come was just lying still for an hour while he tried to let everything sink in.

After a fall of nearly 400 feet, water was about as soft and yielding on impact as concrete. Unless you had a strong magical affinity for water, hitting water after such a fall would kill you just like hitting concrete. Even if you did have a strong enough affinity to water that it would still yield to you, there was no escaping uninjured. Frankly, alive was good enough.

He woke up without any idea where he was, except that it was dark and wet and pretty cold and he hurt a lot. Eventually, he realized that he was underwater, lying on the bottom of some deep pool, and he didn't remember how he'd gotten there. For that matter, he didn't remember who he was, what he was (besides human), what he did for a living, or where he'd come from. He was aware that he shouldn't have been able to breathe underwater, and that he probably should have drowned long ago and somehow hadn't, but he didn't know why he wouldn't have. Oddly enough, this didn't concern him too badly; he thought it was very strange, to say the least, but not as frightening as he thought it probably should have been. What concerned him far more was the amount of pain he was in; his leg and at least one rib felt broken, his right arm was dislocated at the shoulder, and his entire body felt like a massive bone bruise. Had he been attacked and thrown into the water to drown? If so, his attacker or attackers had made a serious error in judgment; apparently he couldn't drown. But that didn't mean they weren't still out there somewhere, or that they wouldn't come back and finish him off if they knew he was still alive. He had no idea who might have attacked him or what he might have done to make them so angry, if that was the case, any more than he knew his own name right then, but he doubted that would stop someone with a deadly vendetta.

He couldn't just stay underwater forever, though; he knew that for certain. He couldn't swim, with a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, so he was forced to adopt the slow but possible method of dragging himself along the bottom until he reached the slope that led to the shore. He could somehow sense which direction was the shortest route, the same way he somehow knew where the endless black expanse of water that surrounded him was broken up by massive chunks of rock and debris that were invisible in the darkness but would no doubt hurt to run into. It seemed to take hours, but eventually he hauled his upper body free of the water and collapsed on the shore, thankfully fine sand instead of harsh, rough stones. He lay there, half-in and half-out of the water, for a long time, clinging to the edge of consciousness, until a drop of water - from the sky? From the ceiling? - suddenly landed on his cheek and jarred him into something like full wakefulness. Once he regained most of his consciousness, he dragged himself the rest of the way out of the water and paused to catch his breath and wait until the pain died down, taking the opportunity for a look around. The world wasn't quite so dark, now that he was out of the water; he could make out dim outlines of rocks and faint reflections on the surface of the water, and far above him, an irregular round light that didn't seem like the moon. Was he in a cave, looking up at a skylight? Maybe it would become more obvious once his eyes adjusted a little. Had he fallen through that hole and into the water or something? It seemed ridiculous, but he had no real idea how he'd gotten down here, and it seemed as likely as being attacked and left for dead.

...How was he going to get out of here?

Well, that big hole up there, assuming it was a hole and not an oddly distorted moon, was out of the question; he probably couldn't climb all the way up there even if he wasn't injured. And he had no way of knowing what other routes out of this cave there were, if any; for all he knew, that hole was the only way in or out and he was trapped down here. Since caves weren't well-known for their abundant food sources, he would most likely starve to death down here, if his injuries didn't kill him first. Since he didn't think he was hurt in any life-threatening way, it would probably be starvation. And starvation was an awful way to go. He sighed and closed his eyes, feeling a wave of sudden despair wash over him at the thought of his inescapable fate.

Just then, he felt a faint breeze tickling his hair.

A breeze meant air flow. Air flow meant an opening to the outside world. An opening to the outside world, any opening, was a potential escape route.

His hope and energy suddenly renewed, he picked himself up as best he could and started stumbling his way down the offshoot tunnel the breeze was coming from, dragging his bad leg behind him and cradling his injured arm. If there was a way out of here, he had to find it, as soon as possible. Once he was out of here, then he could worry about getting help and escaping whoever had tried to kill him, presuming someone had. The first thing he had to do was get out of here before he starved to death or lost his mind altogether. The cave seemed to grow darker the further away he got from that hole - and he was now certain it was a hole in the cave ceiling, and nothing else - but the tantalizing breeze led him on, despite all the obstacles he walked into or stumbled over. Even when fatigue and pain wore at him to the point where his whole body was screaming at him to lie down and rest for a bit, he struggled on, following the breeze. He didn't dare stop to rest. He had to find a way out - he had to find freedom.

"This is indisputably the place," Zexion said, peering nervously into the sinkhole. "I can still smell him, though the trace is growing older and fainter."

Lexaeus peered into the sinkhole as well, shaking his head grimly. "The drop to solid ground is some 450 feet, into a very large network of caves. If he survived the fall in any shape to move on his own, he may be wandering the caves, hopelessly lost." He knelt down, resting his hand on the edge. "This was a dome, at one point; the surface curves outward from the hole after the initial drop. Carving navigable stairs will be impossible."

Roxas sighed, feeling increasingly hopeless - they knew Demyx had still been alive right before they left the castle, but unless they kept sending someone to check the Proof of Existence every so often, they'd have no way of knowing whether or not he was still alive until they found him, and if they never found him... He bit his lip and inched a little closer to Axel, not wanting to think about that "if". And what if there were more earthquakes? What if another sinkhole opened up right underneath them? He tried to force himself to calm down and stop with the "what-ifs", because none of these nasty thoughts were helpful to Demyx at all, but it wasn't the least bit easy. Axel, Zexion, and Lexaeus all seemed to be drawing similar conclusions or having similar worries; the only one who seemed largely unaffected was Xigbar. "Then what say I head on down and see what there is to be seen," the Freeshooter said in an almost insultingly casual tone, and walked off the edge. He dropped out of sight almost immediately, but it wasn't like Xigbar could die in a fall.

He popped back up a few minutes later, looking something less than thrilled. "First of all, there's a damn underground lake down there, right under the hole. If he's in that lake somewhere - not altogether unlikely - we're gonna be hard-pressed to get him back out without his cooperation, which we're not apt to get if he's out cold or something. Second of all, it is dark as fuck in there. I mean, can't see your hand in front of your face dark. I only found out the water was there 'cause I landed in it."

Roxas knew what was coming next - that was most of the reason he'd been brought along at all - but that doesn't mean he was looking forward to actually going down into that...that pit, even if Demyx was down there. He went stiff as a board as Xigbar grabbed him by the arm and pulled him through a portal that opened onto nothing but darkness, only to cling tightly to the older man as he realized they were standing on absolutely nothing. "Oh, lighten up," Xigbar said in an almost bored tone. "The room too, while you're at it. It's a big-ass room, so it'll probably take a lot of light."

Very cautiously and reluctantly, Roxas obediently brightened the inside of the cave enough to make out details, though it wasn't daylight-bright. Even in low light, it almost took his breath away - the cavern was magnificent, enormous and glittering faintly and carved with fantastic shapes. It looked almost big enough to hold the entire castle. He looked down at the water below them - no more than five feet below them, it turned out - and was stunned by how clear and pure it was; he would have expected something much cloudier, but the light went right through to the sandy bottom. But the sandiness was interrupted by massive chunks of broken rocks, that had presumably fallen from the ceiling above them...when they caved, Demyx had gone down with them... Roxas swallowed hard and forced himself to brighten the light directed down into the water, searching for any unusual black patches that weren't rocks but might be a Nobody. But he couldn't see any such thing, or any place where a body might have been at one time, though he didn't really want to see anything like that considering what it would imply. "...Well, if he went in the water, it wasn't around here," he said finally, not sure what to do next.

"Well, it's a big lake," Xigbar said lightly, propelling Roxas along in midair with a hand on his shoulder. "We just have to search all of it."

That search was easily one of the least pleasant experiences of Roxas's life, despite the gorgeous surroundings. As if the fact that they were looking for Demyx's possibly-broken body, or the place where his dead body had been, wasn't bad enough, he did not like the vertigo-inducing sensation of walking on absolutely nothing, and light wasn't as totally effortless to manipulate as most of the others seemed to think. He was having to put out some serious candlepower to keep this huge room even dimly lit, and it was tiring. And there was absolutely no sign that anything even vaguely human-shaped had ever been in that lake; if there had ever been such a sign, it had probably been erased by the current long ago. How long had they been down here, scanning the lake bed? Roxas had no idea, but it felt like hours; the combination of walking in midair and watching the rippling surface below constantly was starting to make him feel sick, and the drain of putting out so much light for so long wasn't helping. He had to stop soon, or he would be sick, but how was he going to explain that to Xigbar, especially when he was the only light source down here...?

"Look. Down there. See that?" Roxas didn't even want to look. He'd had enough and then some of watching the water shifting endlessly five feet below. But Xigbar seemed to think it was really important, so he looked, even though the most he saw was some shallow, irregular depression in the lakebed, that extended into a long trail...oh. "That's probably where he landed," Xigbar said, pointing to the deeper depression at the beginning of the trail, not realizing Roxas had had to look away to avoid losing his lunch. "And...it looks like the trail leading away from it...he must have dragged himself out. Good and bad sign - good, because he's alive and conscious and at least thinking clearly enough to get out of the water; bad, because he was apparently in no shape to walk or swim and not thinking clearly enough to go home." He propelled Roxas towards the shore with a more involved look than he'd had the whole time. "All right, to solid ground. Gotta find someplace solid to set a portal before we can haul everyone else down and get to finding our little MIA before he gets too far."

He'd found another patch of light, dim and fading though it was. It was coming from another hole in the distant ceiling, one too far away to reach and too small to crawl out of even if he could get up there, but when his body demanded that he sit the hell down and rest already before it gave out on him utterly, it made for something to look at and tell himself There - when I get to that little patch of light, then I'll rest. And it was a good place to rest. He was sitting fairly comfortably, his back to the rock wall and his broken leg in as comfortable a position as he could manage, in enough light that he could inspect himself for identifying marks in case he got out of here and started seeing "Missing" or "Wanted" posters of himself. He didn't remember what his face looked like, though he knew what color his hair was - a few dingy blond strands kept falling in his face no matter what he did - but he did know now that he had three fingers on his left hand, burn scars across the backs of both hands, and a tattoo of a dragon fighting a tiger on his left forearm, all of which would probably be mentioned by someone who was looking for him for any reason. With some difficulty, he unzipped his long trenchcoat, then gingerly peeked under his shirt. He had confirmation that he was, in fact, male (which he really had known all along, but it was nice to be certain), and several more scars to add to the inventory - two running parallel across his abdomen, one long, puckered vertical scar along the right side of his chest, and one nasty-looking stab wound almost in the center of his chest. Those scars told him a couple more things - first, that someone or multiple someones had tried very hard to kill him in the past, and second, that he was obviously very difficult to kill. The latter was encouraging enough to allay the discouraging effects of the former, though it did open up the possibility of his former life being a less-than-stellar one. For all he knew, he was a notorious highwayman or bank robber, or maybe an assassin, none of which sounded like careers he'd enjoy. Frankly, he'd rather be in some creative, nonviolent field. He wouldn't mind being a chef, for instance. Or a musician. Though chefs and musicians tended not to suffer life-threatening scars or be thrown into deep sinkholes, unless they were catering to a singularly tough audience.

Funny, though...was the cave really this utterly silent, or was he deaf? He snapped his fingers experimentally, and heard nothing, which argued for deafness. More bits of information about himself - he was deaf, for one thing. But he couldn't have been born deaf, or he wouldn't understand what a musician did or find anything unusual about the total silence. He must have lost his hearing after he was old enough to grasp the concept of sound and music, which meant he'd probably learned to talk by then, so he wouldn't necessarily be known for a deaf-mute. Of course, he might have lost his hearing to a head injury in the fall he'd suffered, or to whatever attack might or might not have preceded it, in which case, anyone who might have been looking for him wouldn't know he was deaf at all.

So...he was a grown man, too young to have gone grey yet, deaf but born hearing, with numerous scars from what were probably life-threatening injuries at the time, three fingers on his left hand, a typical tough-guy tattoo on his left arm, and a black trenchcoat. And the ability to breathe underwater, which, come to think of it, kind of argued for him not being all human, or for him being a powerful water mage. And, apparently, he'd had an extremely interesting career. It wasn't enough to make a complete picture, not by a long shot, but he was getting a bit of an outline.

All of a sudden, a light shone behind him, and he had to turn and look. The large cavern he'd started out in, the one with the hole in the roof big enough to fall through, was now lit up well enough to see details. It wasn't daylight, he could tell that much. He couldn't say for certain it was an artificial light, but he knew it was not daylight. He struggled to his feet as best he could - well, to his good foot - and looked closer; he was reasonably sure he could make out some tiny, vague human figures highlighted by the brightness, and the light seemed to be coming from at least one of them. Maybe it was some sort of mega-powerful flashlight...

His mind instantly snapped back to his guess that he'd been thrown down here by someone who was trying to kill him. These people might easily be looking for his body, to confirm the success of the hit or just to make sure he was good and dead - and if he was still alive when they found him, he doubted they'd hesitate to fix that.

With his leg like it was, there was no doubt they'd be able to catch up to him sooner or later, if they came this way. And with his arm like it was, he wouldn't be able to defend himself too well. If these people had tried to kill him and would try again if they found him, his only hope of escape was getting out of the confines of the cave before they caught up to him. And if they were completely neutral parties, or even looking for him to help him - both seemingly unlikely, given the sort of tale all those scars suggested - well, he still wanted out of there as soon as possible with or without their help. Turning his back on the light and the people, he limped into the darkness as fast as he could, following the tantalizing breeze that offered his best hope of eventual escape. Thankfully, the ground here was solid rock, not sand, so there would be no footprints to track, and in the faint light, he could see where the cavern - itself one of a dozen offshoots from the main room - started to twist and wander and branch off in multiple places. As long as he followed the breeze, he'd stay on the right track, but if they didn't think to follow it themselves, they'd never find him.

"The trail is hours old, but Nine has been through here," Zexion announced with great certainty almost as soon as they relocated the shallow marks in the sand where Demyx had apparently dragged himself out onto the shore. "And..." He bent down a little and sniffed again. "I smell no blood. If he was injured, he could not have been bleeding profusely." Axel was more than a little grateful for the good news, but when he tried to visually follow the track further, he discovered the sand gave way to solid rock within ten feet, and the track disappeared. Well, that was what they had Zexion along for, right? At least in part? This big central room had at least a dozen offshoots in all different directions; without Zexion's nose along, they'd never have a hope of finding him.

Assuming he hadn't already gone home on his own or something. Assuming he wasn't already dead...

No. He couldn't let himself think like that. Despite his outwardly slightly frail appearance, Demyx was one tough bastard. If the fall hadn't killed him instantly, he'd probably survive just fine until they caught up to him. He had to. He had to, because if he didn't...Axel didn't dare think about that. They'd find him soon. Demyx would be all right. Everything would be okay.

Zexion started moving down one of the offshoots, apparently following his nose; the other four followed silently, Roxas providing a steady light for them to navigate by. Even with the light, it was hard to see more than twenty or so feet ahead of them, what with all the twists and turns the cave made; how Demyx had managed to navigate this cave injured and in the dark was beyond Axel's ability to guess. He must have, though, or else Zexion wouldn't have led them all down here. Eventually, Axel noticed a faint breeze that seemed to be coming down the corridor; maybe that was how. "He must have been navigating by following the breeze," Zexion said aloud just as Axel came to the same conclusion. "A wise decision, if that was the case; the breeze is most likely to lead to an opening to the outside world."

Axel hadn't realized that part of it, though it made perfect sense when he thought of it. But if Demyx had made his way out of the cave, injured or not, finding him might become a lot easier or a lot more difficult. Everyone glanced at Lexaeus at the same time, and the Silent Hero was staring pensively at the wall. "...If there is an opening large and accessible enough for Nine to escape through, it must be far away," he said finally. "There are none for at least a linear mile down this corridor."

"...How long is the corridor?" Axel just had to ask.

Lexaeus looked pensive again for several moments. "...Impossible to tell for certain," he said finally. "I suspect the main branch alone is over fifty miles, and possibly several hundred. This cave network could encompass a small country," he added as Axel tried to wrap his head around the idea of tailing a badly injured Demyx down fifty miles or more of twisting caves. And the entire cave network was the size of a small country...thank God for Zexion. More specifically, for Zexion's nose. He was better than a bloodhound.

The five of them continued slowly down the corridor, Zexion in the lead and Roxas right behind him. Zexion was getting further and further ahead, it seemed, though he wasn't visibly speeding up...no, Roxas was slowing down, and everyone behind him as well. Axel couldn't see his face, but he was walking like he was coming to the end of his rope, like if he didn't stop and rest sooner or later, he'd just drop...how much effort did it take to produce that much steady light for so long? Axel would have thought it was about the simplest element to control, but he was in no position to know for sure...all right, maybe he couldn't control light directly, but he could produce it, after a fashion. "You'd better take a rest," he told Roxas finally, moving out in front of the younger Nobody and conjuring a large ball of fire. "You can't act as a permanent flashlight. Let me do it."

"Thanks," Roxas murmured, and dropped back as Axel went to light the cavern in his place; his expression looked just as drained as the rest of him. That made Axel wonder - just how long had they been down here, and what time was it? Did he even want to know? If he checked his watch and found out it was 2:00 in the morning or something, or that they'd been down there for hours already, he'd just feel exhausted all of a sudden, and he couldn't afford that. They had to find Demyx, and then they could fret about how long it took. Honestly, if they found Demyx and brought him home safely, Axel wouldn't care how long it took, as long as he didn't send himself into insulin shock in the process. And all he had to do was pause and eat something whenever he started to feel a little lightheaded. He couldn't afford to stop for a full meal or anything, not with so much at stake...

"Forget this, dudes. We gotta rest. Can't do Demyx much good if we all fall over from exhaustion."

Axel shook his head numbly - he didn't want to stop, ever, until they found Demyx and brought him home safe. But even as Xigbar spoke, he suddenly felt so wiped-out, like he'd been wandering around with this fireball for hours already, though it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes since he took over from Roxas...could it? He'd lost all track of time. Maybe he had been. Or maybe his blood sugar was doing something weird on him, which was another distinct possibility. Keeping the fire lit, he sank down, trying to find a comfortable seat on the rock while he dug for his monitor with one hand. "Put that out for now, dude," Xigbar said warningly as Axel tried to set the fire down somewhere. "I doubt any of us want to run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning down here. Even if there is a steady breeze. You got a flashlight, at least."

It was a measure of how tired Axel was all of a sudden that he didn't even protest. He just dug his flashlight out, then extinguished the fire while he searched for his monitor; everyone else had their flashlights out already while they searched for comfortable seats, even Roxas. "We better not stay too long," he grunted as he pulled his monitor and a pack of crackers out of his pocket.

"That goes without saying, dude." Axel nodded and leaned back, opening the pack of crackers and staring up at a pale white dot that could have been a star shining through a distant hole in the ceiling.

Shit. They were following him. How'd they even know which corridor he'd gone down? Did they have some way to track him, or did they just make a lucky guess? That part didn't matter right now; what did matter was that they were after him, and they were gaining on him, like he knew they would. Damn his broken leg anyhow, and the way his broken rib started hurting twice as much when he exerted himself enough to start breathing harder. Hopefully he wasn't making too much noise; whoever was tailing him could probably hear just fine...oh, hell, that was probably how they found him. He had no idea how much noise he was making, dammit, and if he was making a lot of noise, he had no idea how to keep from doing it. Biting his lip against the pain, he doubled his pace, seeing no choice now but to get out of here as fast as he could before they caught up with him. But as the powerful flashlight behind him was replaced by flickering firelight, and eventually by what seemed like several small flashlights, he had to wonder how much longer he could put up with this. He had no idea how long he'd been down here, except it was more than long enough to kill the battery in that powerful flashlight and burn out a torch, but his leg was absolutely killing him, his chest hurt so much he could barely breathe, and his arm felt like it was coming off. Was he just wasting his time? He knew he wasn't going nearly fast enough; they were bound to catch him eventually...

...And then, the lights went out.

Not in the sense of him being unconscious again; he was still entirely conscious, and all too aware that he was suddenly surrounded by pitch darkness. The lights - the flashlights his pursuers had been carrying - had all gone out. What was with that? Had they turned their lights off in an attempt to sneak up on him, or had they stopped to rest or something? Stopping to rest seemed ridiculous, though he could see the appeal - maybe they assumed he was too badly injured to escape, or that there was no escape. For all he knew, they all knew this cave like the backs of their hands; maybe they knew there was no escape down here. If there wasn't, there was no way for him to turn around and try a different route; he'd run straight into his pursuers. Forward was the only way to go.

Forward it was, then. He'd escape this way or die trying.

Gritting his teeth, he continued to follow the breeze as fast as he could stand; if his pursuers had stopped to rest, he wanted as much distance between himself and them as possible before they got moving again, and if they were following him in the dark, maybe he could lose them if he kept going. He just had to keep following the breeze, because that breeze was his best hope for freedom...

There was...water, running underneath him. Some underground river, flowing no more than a few yards beneath his feet. How he knew it was there was beyond him; he just knew, like it was a sixth sense. Unable to resist the impulse, he started following the underground river, realizing a bit too late that he'd lost the breeze and wandered down a side corridor. But now, he could tell that the stream came to the surface no more than ten yards away, and he dragged himself that much farther before turning around, just because he wanted to dip his fingers in it. Somehow, he just knew where the stream disappeared underground, and where it ran on the surface, and dipped his hand in, drawing in a sharp breath at how cold it was - but also how pure, something else he knew without being sure how he knew. Judging by the direction the water was flowing, he'd been following it upstream.

He felt another breeze on his face. A stronger breeze. Was this route also a way out? Maybe a closer one, or a larger one?

Maybe following this side corridor instead of the one he'd been following would shake his pursuers off. They probably wouldn't know the stream was there, and if they did, they probably wouldn't figure on him following it. He hadn't felt this new, stronger breeze until he was already a ways down this corridor; they wouldn't notice it at all unless they came down here. And while they kept going the way they had been, he might get out of here safely, broken leg or no broken leg. He was feeling better and stronger already, probably the effects of renewed hope. If nothing else, he could hide in the water or something, if it was deep enough - he knew he could breathe water, and he suspected his pursuers didn't. I'm getting out of here, he thought to himself. I'm getting out of this cave, and they won't catch me. I'll be safe. Once I'm out of here, I can work on getting medical attention and maybe finding out who I am and who they are and why they're after me. Maybe, if it turns out my old life was too unpleasant, I can get to work on a new one...maybe I can't be a musician, but you don't need to hear to be a chef, or have ten fingers, necessarily...

He sped up a little, ignoring the pain in his broken leg, keeping his face to the breeze and drinking it in like an intoxicating liquor. The breeze and the stream might as well have been his lifeblood right now. They were what his life depended on.

Roxas jerked awake suddenly, and found himself on totally unfamiliar ground - what parts of him weren't right next to Axel were cold, and he was lying on bare rock with no blanket. He brightened his surroundings unthinkingly, just to get a look at where he was, accidentally waking everyone else up in the process. He might have apologized for that if he hadn't remembered why they were there as soon as he saw the cave walls; finding Demyx as soon as possible was worth a few rude awakenings. He didn't know how long they'd been there anyway - it might have been hours already. If something had happened to Demyx while they were all sleeping, he'd probably never forgive himself, or any of them. Unfortunately, not all of them felt the same way, at least not yet. "The hell did you do that for?" Axel groaned, rolling over and rubbing his eyes. "I only just started to relax..."

"You were asleep," Lexaeus said in a voice as easy to argue with as a landslide. "As were we all, I presume..." He did not look best pleased by that fact, and Roxas was pretty certain that wasn't just his imagination. "Hopefully, all of us are rested enough to continue until further notice." Why they most likely didn't dare stop a second time, and what might have happened while they were resting this time, didn't need to be said.

Xigbar sighed impatiently and checked his watch, cursing vociferously. "We've been out about four hours, which is two hours longer than the absolute maximum I wanted," was the gist of what he said, once all the unprintable words had been edited out. "Shit. We'd better get our asses in gear - we've got a lot of time to make up."

Axel quit complaining immediately, his irate expression replaced with a look of fear and concern. He didn't say anything, just pulled himself to his feet, hastily rubbing sleep out of his eyes and looking around in case Demyx might have sneaked up on them while they were asleep. Zexion was the slowest to wake up, which tempted Roxas to kick him, but he rolled over and sat up soon enough, sniffing at the ground even before he seemed completely awake. "We've been here far too long," he said almost immediately. "The scent trail has grown a great deal fainter." He looked down the corridor, still sniffing, and started moving almost before the rest of them could finish reorienting themselves. Seeing no help for it - he couldn't simply let Zexion get lost, after all - Roxas sighed and moved into position behind him, generating enough light for him to see by and silently reflecting that Demyx could evidently move far and fast for being unable to swim or walk out of the lake. He didn't get angry at Demyx for being able to move that fast and still not going home for whatever reason, but it was tempting.

Axel, Lexaeus and Xigbar fell into line behind the two of them, and they all followed Zexion up the corridor, as Zexion followed Demyx's scent-trail. Sooner or later - Roxas had once again lost all track of time, if he'd ever regained it at any point - Zexion hesitated, then stopped, looking puzzled and distressed. "I've lost the trail," he muttered, as if wanting to curse but unable to unbend far enough to do so. While Roxas stopped breathing for a few moments, Zexion backtracked, heading a few yards up one corridor, returning equally frustrated, heading a few yards up a different corridor, and coming back motioning for the rest of them to follow. "He's left this main corridor and headed up a side route. He may be lost..."

"And we aren't?"

"Quiet, Eight." Axel, surprisingly enough, shut up, and the searchers continued behind their unusual bloodhound. Soon enough, they could hear water running, and a small stream running along one wall came into view suddenly - well, that probably explained why Demyx had taken this particular detour. And there was that breeze again, stronger than before - hadn't Zexion said that the breeze probably led to a way out? Did this side branch lead to a closer way out or something? What if Demyx had already escaped the cave? What if he'd already gone home? What if he was lying in a corner somewhere, too badly injured to move? What if he was...

What if he'd somehow been enchanted into the form of a giant sickle-fanged gargoyle and would maim them all horribly if they came too close? That speculation was as worth wasting time on as any of the others. Biting his lip against pointless anxiety, Roxas tried to brighten the light as much as was reasonable without wearing himself out again too quickly. If they just followed Zexion, followed the river, followed the breeze, then wherever Demyx was and whatever had happened to him, they'd find him, sooner or later. There was no need and no reason to worry...

Yeah, right.

He couldn't remember ever being this miserable or in this much pain before - for obvious reasons - but if he ever had been, he was frankly grateful he couldn't remember. He probably would have been scarred for life by anything worse than this. He'd be lucky if he didn't start his new life, or start rebuilding his old life, mentally scarred from this experience. Granted, dragging himself through a neverending cave in search of a way out, with a broken leg, broken rib, and broken or dislocated shoulder, followed by people who likely wanted to kill him, was all the life he could remember as of right now, but hopefully he wouldn't have to live like this indefinitely. For one, he'd starve sooner or later. For another, he didn't know how much longer he could stand the pain of dragging his broken leg around, and trying not to cough, choke, or cry at the pain his broken rib was causing. Hopefully he wasn't cruising for a collapsed lung or a permanent limp. Where was the breeze coming from, or the stream he was following? Where was his promised way out? Was he just following a ghost to his death? If so, he had no choice but to follow it, or he was sure to die, but it felt like he'd been following the breeze and the stream for weeks on end, with no light but his pursuers' flashlights and torches and no light at all right now...and he hadn't found a way out yet...were his pursuers still following him, had he finally lost them, or had they given up? He didn't know what to hope for there...

Suddenly, he saw a light. Not yellow, but grey. Not from behind him - from in front of him. Not his pursuers catching up to him again...daylight.

The way out.

His fading hope revived in an instant. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he sped up as much as he could, which wasn't very, and kept dragging himself towards the light. I'll rest once I'm safely out of here, he silently promised himself. As soon as I'm a hundred percent sure of escape, I'll find a place to hide in case they're still following me, and rest for a while. I can't keep going forever like this, but I can keep going that far. I have to. I can do this.

It seemed to take an eternity and a half, spent dragging himself along towards the light, biting through his tongue and sweating with pain. Finally, just when he'd started to wonder whether he'd simply collapse in his tracks before he ever found the source of the light, he rounded one more turn and suddenly found himself there. There was another vast room, like the one he'd fallen or been thrown into in the first place, only better-lit. Here, the breeze grew into a definite wind, and the little stream joined or flowed from a river that descended from a proud waterfall, highlighted white against the dark rock. A hundred or more feet above him, behind the waterfall, was a gaping, irregular hole...and beyond that hole, the sky.

This, then, was his way out. Now how was he going to get up there? Gritting his teeth again, he paused, looking the scene over in search of a way up. The waterfall obviously dropped down a rocky cliff, but beside it, the cliff turned into a rocky slope - a steep, rough slope, but one he might just be able to climb.

This was not going to be a pleasant experience.

Trying to focus his mind so exclusively on escape there would be no room left for pain, he dragged himself up to the slope, then started climbing with one arm and one leg. This would have been a bit of a workout if he'd been perfectly healthy; right now, it was a form of torture. He bit his tongue so often his mouth was filling with blood, and his good hand was so slippery with sweat he nearly fell more than once, but he had no choice - he had to climb this slope, because otherwise he would never escape. Once he escaped this cave, he could escape his pursuers once and for certain. He could set about relearning who he was and where he came from and getting his old life back, or building a new one if he so chose. He could find food and medical attention and breathe freely and see the sky overhead instead of rock and live in light and be free. All he had to do was climb this slope...

All of a sudden, he stumbled, and fell onto flat ground. Ahead of him, level with him, was the sky. The way out. Freedom.

He lay still for a few moments, catching his breath and hoping for the pain to subside. I did it, he thought to himself. With no help, no memory, no idea who or where I was, injured, with people chasing me the whole way...I did it. I found the way out. Whoever the fuck I am, I'm awesome.

After those few moments, he dragged himself back to his feet, taking one last look around at the cave he was about to escape for good. As he looked around, he caught sight of a small rise not far away, topped by an incongruous little building. What in the world that building might have been doing there, he had no idea, but something compelled him to go check it out; if nothing else, he might rest there out of sight for a while. The climb to the building was just as painful as the climb up to the exit had been, but blessedly much shorter. The building turned out to be a small square structure, open on all sides like a pavilion, about four feet to a side and just high enough for a tall man to stand up straight in. In the center was a small bowl, apparently set into the stone, filled with water, and he let himself sink to the ground and peered at it, eager for his first look at his own face. The man looking back at him was younger than he would have expected, not very far out of his teens, if even that old. As he'd known, he had dingy blond hair, styled in a way that didn't quite have the nerve to be a full-on mohawk, and eyes somewhere on the blue side of blue-green. He had hearing aids, too, which was a bit of a surprise since he couldn't hear jack shit even with them, but confirmed that he'd been deaf before he wound up down here. He looked pretty damn rough, but that was only to be expected, considering what he'd just gone through. Funny, he didn't look like a hardened assassin or criminal. More like a...well, a would-be rockstar. A deaf would-be rockstar with too few fingers to play an instrument. Wouldn't that be ironic.

Well, he'd found his way out, and he'd found his safe place to rest. Curling up on the floor of the little pavilion, around the bowl of water, he finally allowed himself to either fall asleep or pass out; whichever it was, he soon fell unconscious, and that was what mattered.

And he started to dream.

He dreamed of lying on his back in the little pavilion, on a stretcher or something, and in a world of hurt - like he had a broken leg, at least one broken rib, and a dislocated shoulder, not to mention a massive headache. The pavilion was still there, but not a hundred feet away, by where the river the waterfall came from would surely be, was a much larger building - a church or monastery, he thought, that had been built under the shelter of the cave roof. The sky outside the entrance was clear and blue, and the land beyond, extending well into the cave, was rich and grassy as far as he could see. And there were people around - a number of women wearing all-encompassing dark robes, their heads covered by either hoods or headdresses, and a few men and a handful of women and children in what were probably more typical clothes for this time period; a few of those were wandering around bandaged, or walking with canes or crutches. As he started to work out the implications of that, an old woman in a dark robe, her expression wise and kind, came to look him over, carefully prodding at his leg and shoulder. "You're a very lucky young man," she said in a conversational tone, and he could hear her voice perfectly well. "And a very strong one as well, or you would never have made it so far. Don't worry, you're in good hands now, and you'll return to your friends in much better shape than you're in now." As she looked him over, her expression became graver, but she didn't seem to lose hope. "I fear that some of your injuries cannot be healed by human arts, and some you alone must heal or learn to live with on your own. But what we can do for you, we will - after all, ours has always been a healing order. And even if a time comes when none of us remain here, and nothing remains of our abbey but stones and memories, we always will be."

"Do you know who I am? Or can you help me find out?" Demyx asked - but even as he asked, he started to remember.

The old woman smiled and helped him to roll over, so that he could see into the bowl of water set into the floor, holding his left hand all the while. From this angle, he could see his reflection in it quite clearly, and so much more...

The further they went, the worse Axel felt. Every twist and turn this corridor made seemed familiar as deja vu, like they were somehow going in an endless circle. He didn't know what to hope anymore - that Demyx wasn't injured, which would mean he was okay, or that he was injured and they still had a hope of catching up to him anymore. For all any of them knew, he'd gone home and they were chasing the wind. Or something worse. He didn't even know how long they'd been down there, or how long it had been since the earthquake. At the absolute least, he figured they were in the middle of an epic overnighter. At the worst, they'd been here for days already and might be here for days more. It wasn't likely, if he could have thought it out logically, but considering how little grasp of time he had right then and how inadequate four hours of sleep seemed, he'd believe it. Right now, all it seemed like he had to wait for was for Roxas to get tired enough he had to take over the light-providing duties again, or for Xigbar to decide they absolutely had to have another short rest. Until one of those happened, it would be more endless trudging through the caves, totally lost and isolated, indefinitely. When Roxas stopped in his tracks suddenly, he assumed that was his cue, even though Roxas was still glowing like a monstrous firefly.

The only thing was, Roxas wouldn't let him move out in front of him. "I'm not tired," he said, sounding a little defiantly stubborn, like he was and refused to admit it. "It's just that...there's light up ahead." To demonstrate, he extinguished his own glow, letting everyone see there was still pale grey light shining distantly in front of them.

Axel was pretty sure he wasn't the only one who could have cried from relief at that news. "We must be closer to the exit than I realized," Zexion said, speeding up without a backward glance. "Nine's trail still leads this way - he may have already made his way out."

No one was trudging now. They were all running as fast as they could manage without running Zexion over, and Zexion was presumably running as fast as he could without losing Demyx's trail. The cave had some sort of end and exit, and even if they didn't find Demyx right there when they got to it, knowing that the exit was there at all was enough to restore hope. They weren't going to wander lost indefinitely. They were going to get out of here. They were going to find Demyx and bring him home.

All of a sudden, they found themselves in a huge room like the one the sinkhole had opened into, only not so beautiful. And there was a huge opening, out to broad daylight, that wasn't squarely in the center of the inaccessible ceiling - it was just up that steep slope there, next to the waterfall. Axel didn't need to follow Zexion's lead to scramble up the slope as quickly as he could, looking around desperately for anything that might be a footprint in the loose stone and rubble. He didn't see any, but that didn't mean Demyx hadn't come up this way; he would have had to, to get out of the cavern. It seemed to be only a matter of moments before he reached the top and collapsed on the ground for a moment, briefly enjoying the sensation of just being able to rest, then picked himself back up and looked around. He didn't see Demyx, but there was that odd little shrine-looking building over there, right on top of that rise...well, why the hell not? If nothing else, it might afford a better view, so Axel made for the little shrine as the rest of them were still working their way up the slope.

What he found up there nearly made him fall over, and did make him scream. "Guys! Guys! I found him! He's right here! He's right fuckin' here!"

He could hear Xigbar cheering from partway down the slope, but he wasn't Axel's foremost concern right then; Demyx was. Demyx was just rolling over, rubbing his eyes and looking blearily at Axel; after a moment, he cracked a faint smile. Hello, Axel, he signed. Nice to see you, now that I know you're not trying to kill me.

"..." That took Axel back a step. "Wait, what?" he asked before remembering that Demyx wouldn't be signing if he could hear. Why would you think we were trying to kill you?

Demyx sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, looking obscurely distressed. When I woke up the first time after landing in this cave, I had no idea who I was, where I was, or what I was doing there. Once I saw all the scars, I figured I'd been in some nasty profession like armed robbery or assassination, and that I was thrown down here by someone who wanted me dead. When I realized someone was following me, I thought you were the ones who tried to kill me. He shrugged and sat up. I guess my brain only just got back in gear. Sleep helped.

"...Wait, what?" Axel asked again before he could stop himself. So the whole time we were trying to rescue you, you were running away because you thought we wanted to kill you? And now, you're just fine? Not just fine, but you can remember everything that happened while you couldn't remember anything?

Demyx shrugged helplessly, looking slightly embarrassed. I can't think how else to explain it, he signed hesitantly. I mean... He paused suddenly and stood up, then started moving his right arm around, staring at it as if he was certain it hadn't been there when he went to sleep. "Okay, there's officially weird shit going on," he said aloud. That shoulder had been dislocated and I should have a broken leg. But now they don't hurt at all.

That, Axel had to believe. Xigbar had said it looked like Demyx hadn't been able to walk or swim when he dragged himself out of the lake, and he was evidently just fine now. You have some kind of luck, he signed, shaking his head slowly. I don't know whether to pity you or envy you. Hearing the others finally catching up, he half-turned and waved them over. "He's in here. He looks all right, but his hearing aids are dead or something."

"Cute," Xigbar muttered petulantly. "So, after chasing him through Kingdom Hearts knows how many miles of caverns overnight and then some, would you mind asking him why, if he was all right the whole time, he didn't, like, go home? Or maybe hold still long enough for us to catch up?"

"You may be assuming too much when you say he was 'all right the whole time'." Zexion sounded so smug that Axel just had to turn around and look - yes, his face was just as smug as his voice. "After all, things have been known to happen to people who sleep on a nexus of holy magic."

"...Wait, what?" That was from Roxas, this time. Demyx, of course, would have no idea what was being said, unless he was reading someone's lips. "What are you talking about? Is this entire cave magic or something?"

"Not even this entire room," Zexion answered in his usual I-know-something-you-don't-so-count-yourself-lucky-I'm-explaining-it-to-you tone. "The magic itself is quite old, and has most likely faded a great deal from when it was strongest. But I would speculate that some manner of temple or church was located here once, whose priests or acolytes employed holy magic on a regular basis - for healing, would be my primary guess - and this shrine here, as the last structure standing, would be where the highest concentration of remaining magic would gather."

Everyone was staring at Zexion with a mixture of disbelief and exasperation, except Demyx, who had apparently been reading his lips but was staring at him with disbelief alone. ...That makes a lot of sense, Demyx signed slowly. I know I was hurt pretty badly when I went to sleep, and I had a strange dream about being right here, except there was a big church over by the river, and there were healers...I don't know if they used magic, but I know they were healers...but how would you know?

Zexion only looked even more smug, which kind of made Axel want to punch him. That is beside the point. Our main objective, as of right now, is to return home safely.

Now Demyx looked exasperated as the rest of them. "If you're in such a hurry, let's go home, then," he said aloud, presumably for the benefit of those who didn't understand sign language. "This isn't the most fun I've ever had in my life, and I would like to get out of here." To emphasize the point, he gestured and opened a portal, waving the others through it. "If I could have remembered I could do this earlier, I would be a lot happier now..." Axel was closest to him; he should have been first through the portal. Instead, he reached out and seized Demyx's left hand, his eyes wide with disbelief and shock. "All right, what the hell?" Demyx demanded, trying to pull his hand back. "Would you let go of my hand?"

"Your hand..." Axel said softly, barely hearing a thing Demyx had to say; he certainly didn't actually let go of it. "It has five fingers..."

They ended up having to carry Demyx through the portal; he'd fainted as soon as he managed to get his hand back from Axel and see that his two missing fingers had magically regrown. Axel was grinning like an idiot anyway; they had Demyx back, in one piece, and a little more of him than expected. What more could they ask for? Mission accomplished!

A little Siamese cat shoved her head under Demyx's right hand, and he stroked her almost mindlessly, still unable to take his eyes off his left hand. Six hours wasn't long enough to get over the shock of having ten fingers again. Ten fingers, after he'd resigned himself to living with eight for the rest of his life. He'd already given his old right-handed guitar to Axel; he'd already taught himself to play violin left-handed...and all of a sudden, none of that was necessary. That disability - a crippling disability indeed to a musician, even worse than losing his hearing - was suddenly gone. Things he knew he'd never do again were suddenly possible; things he knew he had to do sooner or later were suddenly irrelevant. It was even more drastic than if he'd suddenly regained his hearing; he could hear anyway, as long as his hearing aids were on and working. This was life-changing all over again.

And for the life of him, he did not know what to do.

Sighing to himself, he slowly peeled his shirt off, dropping it on the bed for Connie to play with - the state he was in, he wouldn't care if she clawed it to ribbons; he had other shirts. Almost as an afterthought, he peeled off his boots and socks as well - yes, he was up to ten toes again too. Not only that, but the scars were gone - the burn scars on his hands and feet, the long puckered scars on his arms and legs, the long gouges across his abdomen...the only scar left on his body, as far as he could tell, was the deep scar over where his heart should have been. Why? Why were all the other scars gone, and that one left?

"...Some of your injuries cannot be healed by human arts, and some you alone must heal or learn to live with on your own..."

He squeezed his eyes shut, ignoring the kitten that was toying merrily with his discarded shirt. The scars that had disappeared all had one thing in common, including his formerly-missing fingers and toes - Malenisa. And...Gods knew all the scars she left weren't physical. When his memories returned, there was no differentiating between what he wanted to remember and what he wanted to forget, and you couldn't heal the memory of having lived through Hell. Was that why that last scar on his chest remained? As an outward reminder of a wound that could never be healed?

...Was that really it? The memories were terrible, to be sure, but at this distance, they weren't overpowering...they had no impact on his daily life...

He gently massaged the ring and little fingers of his left hand - the ones that, at this time yesterday, had been no more than stubs. If he'd known yesterday that he would have them back by now, he would have gone mad with joy on the spot - but if anything, he was a little upset. Why in Kingdom Hearts' name would he be upset? The only reason he could think of was that he'd become so used to living with only eight fingers...

He'd learned to live with it. And his hearing obviously hadn't been restored, and Vexen said his EEG still showed epileptic patterns - but he'd learned to live with those, the same way he'd learned to live with his worst memories. But if he woke up one morning and found out he could hear without his hearing aids, or that he could throw his Depakene out and never have another seizure again, he'd be overjoyed. He wouldn't be angry that he'd never have to change those stupid little batteries again or that he would no longer be chained to a prescription bottle. And it wasn't like he hadn't had to change his life at all to accommodate deafness or epilepsy. So...why be upset now that he had his fingers back? Why, indeed?

He held up his hand again, examining those last two fingers, and managed a smile. All right, so he'd have to buy another right-handed guitar, but there was no reason he couldn't keep playing violin left-handed, now that he'd gone through the effort of teaching himself to play that way. And his old nemesis, the piano, was about due for a rematch. He'd learned to live without those fingers - now he was going to learn to live with them again. Laughing softly to himself, he rolled over to watch Connie playing with his shirt; on impulse, he snatched it away and dangled it just out of her reach, watching her bat at it with her claws. This was going to be fun.

AN: I saw a gorgeous picture on deviantART entitled "Well of Souls". Someone was insisting I find some way to at least give Demyx's fingers back. I'd already come up with two different storylines for that, both of which fizzled out. I had the picture! The cave! The pavilion! A key plot point! An excuse to abuse Demyx! Over three times as much story as I thought I had, but I don't care!

For the story with Malenisa, read Blood Ties.

Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts and all associated characters belong to Square Enix and Disney. The original picture "Well of Souls" is by Karezoid on deviantART.