"Admit it, guys, this was a good idea."

Axel rubbed the back of his head, glancing over at the setting sun as he gnawed his ice cream stick. "Aside from not being able to go on any of the rides -"

Demyx just grinned and punched him in the shoulder. "Hey, I gave you enough warning to bring Dramamine if you wanted to. It's not my fault neither of you did."

"You did not," Axel muttered, biting through the stick so it splintered, which always made Demyx wince, and flipping it into a trash can. "You just said hey, none of us have missions today, let's go to this amusement park, right this instant."

"I'd have waited long enough for you two to get Dramamine..."

"Well, wandering around in a drugged-up daze isn't much more fun than motion sickness," Roxas said, flicking his ice cream stick into the same can without even looking. "You know, though...something about this place is...I dunno. It's just...kinda weird. In a creepy-ish way. Sort of."

"Bonus points for your clarity and conviction, Rox," Demyx said idly; his ice cream stick was long gone, and he was wandering around with his hands in his pockets, still staring at the gleaming metal curve of the roller coaster on the other side of the park. "It's ghost-town-themed. Of course it's going to be kind of creepy. It's supposed to. Frankly, I was grateful it wasn't as dumb and hokey as most. I'm just pissed that roller coaster was closed..."

Axel only shrugged sharply in response. He'd always seemed a little bitter that the awesomeness that was called "roller coaster" was denied to him, simply because he was incredibly prone to motion sickness. He could barely ride a carousel without turning green, and Demyx had the proof of that sitting in his camera. Roxas was better, but not better enough to risk riding a coaster. Privately, Demyx felt sorry for both of them. "Oh, well. There are other roller coasters elsewhere in the worlds. It must be almost closing time now - let's go home."

Demyx nodded absently, half-turning in the direction of the exit, where his friends were already going, but he was still looking longingly at the roller coaster. The metal rails were shining such a brilliant red in the setting sun, standing out so brightly from the wooden substructure, the gleaming curves of its hills and turns more seductive than the artificially enhanced curves of that erstwhile saloon dancer who'd flirted with all three of them with the ardor and interest you'd expect from an actress who'd been hired to dress up and flirt. Demyx would rather ride the roller coaster, hands down. He hadn't ridden one in so long...it was the only one in the park, and of all the pissy luck, it was closed for repairs the one day they all got off to come here...it looked so awesome...the park was all but empty by now; if it was open, there wouldn't be any line at all...if only it was open...if only...if only... "You know what?" he said, turning around decisively and making straight for the coaster. "I'm going to see if that coaster is open yet or not. If it is, I should have time to ride it once before closing. If not, no harm done."

There was a moment of dead silence behind him, which he was sure Axel and Roxas were spending staring at each other in disbelief. "You idiot," Axel finally said, right on cue. "Even if whatever was wrong with it is fixed now, why would they open it for the last fifteen minutes of the day when everyone's gone home already?"

"Oh, humor him," Demyx could hear Roxas muttering faintly, though Roxas's voice was probably perfectly audible to anyone who could hear properly. It wasn't Demyx's fault that he couldn't. "You know and I know it's probably closed, but it won't hurt to let him see for himself."

"I can hear you," Demyx said loudly, and silence reigned as they headed back across the park to the coaster. The roller coaster was separated from the rest of the park, and seemed to have been newly built, compared to the rest; its newness might have explained why it was closed for repairs, if they were still working out the kinks. Unlike the rest of the park, which seemed to be built entirely out of artificially weathered boards (no doubt concealing at least as much plywood and rebar), the entrance to the roller coaster, including what looked like a tunnel at the very beginning, was built out of piled boulders. No doubt it was all concrete shaped to look like boulders, but it really did look like the whole building and tunnel had been dug out of a rockslide. In fact, as they came closer, the boulders started to look almost like the scales of a giant snake that was mostly underground, the way they were arranged...and as they got close enough to see the sign at the entrance, the ride's name and logo became visible. UNKTEHI, it was called, and the name was underlined by a Native American-style drawing of a giant spotted snake with one horn, glowing eyes, a ridged back like a dragon, and scales the same color as the stones. Presumably, that was the original Unktehi; if so, it was a perfectly fitting name for a roller coaster. And... "See, you bastards?" Demyx announced, punching Axel triumphantly in the arm. "It is open!"

Axel groaned audibly; Roxas elbowed him in the side. "All right, so it's open. Let the man have his fun. He's not gonna have time to ride more than once."

"I'm just glad it wasn't open all day, or he wouldn't have gotten off it yet," Axel muttered, then raised his voice. "You know, Demyx, you shouldn't be riding that thing anyway. You have a seizure disorder."

"Suck me," Demyx said cheerfully. He was aware that roller coasters could trigger seizures in some people, but he wasn't one of those people. Life would have sucked if he had been. "You shouldn't have been eating ice cream. You're diabetic."

"...It was sugar-free, jackass!"

Demyx only laughed to himself as he strolled inside the rocky entrance, Axel and Roxas reluctantly following behind. As he'd expected, there was only one other person there, and she seemed to be the ride operator. She had the coloring of a Native American, but thankfully, the management hadn't seen fit to force her into a hokey costume; the blonde streaks in her dark hair and the visible piercing hole in her lip would have ruined the effect anyway. "Three of you?" she asked in the bored monotone of someone who was just waiting for the workday to be over; it matched her tired, all-but-expressionless face perfectly.

"One of me," Demyx said, strolling up to where the roller coaster train was waiting, ready to be boarded. It bore a superficial resemblance to a string of mining carts, with less safety restraints than he was used to; then again, it was a wooden coaster, presumably with no loops and a lower top speed than some, so maybe the advanced restraints weren't necessary. "They're just going to be waiting around for me."

It may have been his imagination, but the operator's emotionless gaze seemed to flicker with displeasure at that. "You sure?" she asked, addressing Axel and Roxas. "It's really fun." There was nary a hint of conviction in her voice.

"Yeah, no," Axel said, with a lot more conviction. "Trust me, you really don't want us riding. I bet you're the one who has to clean out the train every time someone gets sick in there, so..."

The operator winced the faintest bit, all the reaction she displayed. "All right. You guys can wait here." Axel and Roxas shrugged, and Demyx boarded by himself, one car back from the front, taking vague note of the warning sign on the wall. It was pretty much the same warning sign as was posted on every roller coaster he'd ever ridden - don't ride if you're pregnant or have a heart condition or serious back problems, keep hands and arms inside the ride vehicle, remain seated at all times, blah blah blah. The restraining belts and bar were easy enough to figure out; all he needed to do was glance at the instructions, and he was all set before the operator came to check him out. "...Hokay, you're good. All right..." She went behind the podium and pulled the lever to get the ride in gear, then all of a sudden, the instant before the train actually began to move, she rushed back over and jumped into the front car. "If your friends aren't coming along, I'll ride with you," she said as casually as if she did this every day. She didn't set her own restraints. Confused now, Demyx glanced back at the warning sign, wondering if there were any rules about that like there should be. The following people should not ride, those under the influence not permitted, you must be at least this tall, keep hands and arms inside the vehicle, don't throw anything from the vehicle...and at the very bottom of the sign, he saw a warning notice he'd never seen before on any other roller coaster.

When this ride is in motion, all else is stopped.

He looked back at the platform as they pulled away, at where Axel and Roxas were standing. They were still just standing there, watching him...except, blessed Gods, they weren't moving at all. They were just standing there, still as statues, not even breathing. There was a bird in the sky behind them, visible through the entrance, just hanging there as if it was part of a painted backdrop.

He looked at the front of the train, where the operator was now sitting, as the car entered the first tunnel - the one whose entrance was made to look like the dragon's mouth. She looked back at him, and her blank, apathetic expression had been replaced by a smile both predatory and sadistic.

Demyx never screamed on roller coasters. He considered it to be a sign of weakness, if you were actually that scared of the ride, or a sign of immaturity, if you screamed just for the hell of it. Honestly, people who screamed on roller coasters, especially for the hell of it, annoyed the hell out of him, and he wouldn't scream on a roller coaster if you paid him. Not unless the situation had truly gone completely to hell around him.

He screamed now.

The ride accelerated at stunning speed, faster than any normal roller coaster could or should, so that instead of crawling through the tunnel like it should have, the train plunged into darkness and did not emerge. From the outside, the tunnel had appeared to be only twenty feet long; at the speed they were moving, they should have been in and out in a flash. Somehow, Demyx was not the least bit surprised that they plunged into darkness and stayed there. It just added to the feeling of sick horror building in his gut. I'm going to die, he thought to himself. I'm going to just disappear somewhere along the way, and by the time the train comes back out into the light and stops and the rest of time unfreezes, my seat is going to be empty and no one will ever know what happened to me...probably not even me...

...Okay, no. Just no. So it's dark in here. So the ride operator has the most disturbingly scary smile since Malenisa. So the ride generates some sort of magical time-stopping field around it while it's in motion that affects the entire world as far as I can tell. That's no reason to panic...okay. Fuck that. Yes it is. That is really an excellent reason to panic. I'm a dead man. How the fuck do I get off this fucking thing alive? If any gods can hear me in this pit, help me, please...get me out of here...I don't want to die...or at least I want to die for a good cause, with a little dignity, if I'm not allowed a good long life first...not just disappearing into thin air on a demon roller coaster...not like this...

A light flashed overhead, and Demyx gasped and ducked, certain it was the end of his ride. Then another one flashed, and another one, and another one, and eventually he started to get the idea that those really weren't heralds of doom. As a matter of fact, they were...streetlights. In a tunnel that was part of a roller coaster in an amusement park in a field five miles away from the nearest town. Fucking streetlights. Out of all the ridiculous...what the fuck? As he sat up a little, daring to actually look around, he realized - he knew these streets. These were the streets he'd spent four and a half years of his life on. These were his home when he couldn't afford to live indoors, through the blistering days of summer and the deathly cold nights of winter. These were where he'd spend ten or more hours a day leaning against a wall, trying to look cute and vulnerable despite how ugly and cynical he was, peddling his body to any man who wanted it enough to pay for it, and sometimes having it stolen from him when they decided to take what they wanted for free. These were where he'd lost his pride, his dignity, his sense of self-worth, his will to live, and finally his heart and his life. Why, out of all the places he'd been in his short life, did this nightmare ride have to bring him here, to his own personal Hell? He wondered that for a moment, then realized, with a sickening certainty, that was probably the point.

As they flew past a darkened alley, he caught a glimpse, in the dim light that was available, of a scene that would be burned into his mind forever. There was a boy there, twelve or thirteen - no, Demyx knew he was thirteen. He was small and skinny, his face and hands scarred and roughened by years of exposure, but not enough to disguise the hot-chocolate shade of his skin, such a contrast to his sand-blond hair and sea-blue eyes...Edmy Ghatori, Demyx as he had been long ago, when he still had a heart. And there had been a man in the alley as well; his face had been invisible, but Demyx just knew that he had a knife to the boy's throat, the same way he knew that both of them had their pants around their knees...and he leaned over the side of the car and threw up. He'd never been sick on a roller coaster in his life, but no speed and no amount of twisting and turning could hit him in the gut the same way that seeing that nightmare repeated before his eyes did. And he knew, he knew, that it was only just beginning.

They were already coming up on the next horror - a scene of an even younger Edmy lying on the ground, flat on his back with his arms up to protect himself from the cocaine-crazed thug who was so desperate for his next fix he'd even rob Edmy of his meager takings, simply because he was such an easy target. And the next - another customer, this one an actual paying customer, but he'd thrown him against the wall and used him so roughly he'd spent that night in too much pain to sleep. And the next - another customer who didn't want to pay, who simply used his greater size and strength to do as he pleased with Edmy. And the next - that one time when even the other boy-whores ganged up on him and beat him up, because all of them at least knew who their mothers were and what race they were and that made Edmy the lowest of them all. On and on it went, seemingly unending scenes of violence and rape and fear, with intermittent spells of simply being in the street, dying by inches of hunger and exposure and despair, while all the respectable people walked right on by, not even taking enough notice of him to turn up their noses, accentuating the fact that even while he had a heart, he'd always been a nobody. A nothing. Just one more fleck of scum, to be robbed and beaten and used however you pleased, because he was nobody, and nobody cared. As he saw his younger self being led into a van - don't go, he wanted to beg himself, because he knew what was waiting at their destination, except his voice had been left far behind - tears began to spill down his cheeks, totally unheeded. All he could do was shake his head slightly, praying for the nightmare to end, and yet knowing that it would not. Every horror he'd ever experienced on the street was going to be replayed for him, and he was utterly helpless to prevent it; he did not even have the power to look away.

And then, it got worse.

There came scenes where Edmy was sixteen or seventeen, an age he'd never lived to reach; by then, Demyx was so overwhelmed by horror that he could no longer tell true memories from false. This slightly older Edmy seemed...different, somehow. Stronger, wilier, less vulnerable, all sorts of things he would have killed to be when he was young. When Demyx first saw him, he was leaning against the wall, gazing out at the world with diamond-hard and ice-cold eyes, a situation so seemingly innocuous that Demyx found himself searching for the horror. It was almost ridiculous that this scene, out of all the horrors that preceded and followed it, would be so - and he suddenly choked and vomited again, inside the car this time, as Edmy held a knife to a boy-whore's throat, and used him and threw him away like a piece of trash.

He rarely saw this older Edmy without the knife again. Before he was very much older, he'd started to make real use of it, routinely slashing his victims' throats once he'd had his pleasure and throwing their bodies in the river. He began to spend more time around the river in general, in fact. He kept up the occupation of prostitute, but primarily as a front; whenever he got a customer, the two of them would almost always go off on some path that led by the river, and if the customer was lucky, their body would eventually be found, still recognizable, though they would have long been stripped of anything valuable. That wasn't often; Edmy seemed fond of slashing faces and hands, even after his victim was dead, whether to obscure their identity or for his own sadistic pleasure. It wasn't long before he started raping his would-be customers before killing them, beating them and humiliating them and threatening them until they begged for mercy and groveled at his feet before the knife came out. Soon, he began to extend the same treatment to the boy-whores and prostitutes he'd never stopped preying on...and by the time Edmy was twenty, the age Demyx was now, the brutality had evolved into true torture, culminating not in the knife, but in holding his victims' heads underwater, toying with them, allowing them to struggle, to think they could break free, even allowing them a breath or two, until finally he simply forced their heads underwater one last time and held them there, until their struggles had ended forever.

Demyx was utterly paralyzed by now, tears streaming silently down his cheeks as he watched the carnage in openmouthed horror, unable to intervene or cry a warning or even look away. As Edmy straightened up from his latest victim, a cruel, satisfied grin on his face, their eyes met for a brief instant, and Demyx had just enough time to lean over the side again before throwing up everything in his stomach. All the horrors Edmy had wreaked were as real and vivid in his memory as the horrors Edmy had once suffered, and in those hard, cold eyes, for the first time in a long time, Demyx had recognized himself. It was no doubt his imagination, since everything outside the train car was no more than a scene frozen in time, but he could hear Edmy laughing at him, a sick, joyless mockery of his own laugh. When he straightened up, he saw that the train was speeding towards another tunnel, also carved like the dragon's mouth, this one with glowing lights where the eyes should be - and what did he care? What did it matter? He was as much a monster as any beast of lore...worse, actually; compared to what he'd done to his victims, eating them alive seemed positively kind...

But...that wasn't real, a tiny part of his mind whispered, and he jerked in surprise. What happened to you when you were a kid was real, but...Edmy died at fifteen. He never grew up to become a monster. He grew up to become...well, you.

Demyx shook his head, and took a deep breath, and realized...that tiny part of his mind, wherever it had been hiding...it was right. He'd never raped anyone, whether threatening them with a knife or a gun or simply using brute force. He'd never slashed anyone's throat while they were helpless, or held their head underwater until they stopped struggling; in fact, he hated the thought of killing anyone. Not to say he hadn't killed before, but only at the greatest need, to save himself or someone else. He never killed for pleasure. He couldn't kill for pleasure, not even a cockroach. Whoever that twisted monster Edmy was, wherever he'd come from...that wasn't him.

As he watched the approaching second tunnel, jarred out of his horrified paralysis, he realized - the wall around the tunnel was shifting oddly. Not like a rockslide - more like...almost like a living thing. Like it was the body of something alive and breathing. Like a giant snake with scales of stone.

No. No. Oh, no. Not going in there. Not going to be eaten by the real Unktehi. Must get out of here... But...how could he? He couldn't get off the ride; even if the restraints didn't stop him, and he could jump off, he'd hurt himself horribly on impact with the ground, and he'd be frozen in time like everything else until the ride itself stopped. He couldn't derail the train or anything, and the rails were carrying it straight into the dragon's mouth. Could he try to make a portal? While the ride was in motion, how could he use it, especially if he'd be frozen as soon as he entered it? That might kill him...oh, blessed Gods, there was another set of rails, one that turned to the side before reaching the dragon's mouth. He could see now that the exchange was set to carry the train into the dragon's mouth, but...there was a switch. Right there. If he could somehow flip the switch before it was too late... Lassoing and pulling was useless, at the speed they were moving. Instead, he summoned a column of water behind the switch, and used it to push. The switch ground into motion, the rails clicked into place, and almost before Demyx realized it had worked, the train had turned aside, riding the new set of rails, away from the dragon's mouth.

"You bastard!" Demyx jerked in surprise at the first words out of the ride operator's mouth since the ride had started - he'd been so wrapped up in his own series of nightmares that he'd forgotten she was there at all. Before he could react, she suddenly whipped around and swiped at his face with her fingernails. They looked like normal human fingernails, complete with worn black polish, but it felt like she'd slashed his face with knives; he could already feel the blood running freely, and see it dripping down onto his clothes. "Why couldn't you just leave it? Why did you have to open your fucking eyes?"

...So this was her doing, or at least she was playing a willing part in it. All of a sudden, Demyx wasn't shocked or scared or horrified anymore, only angry. What the fuck was her game here? What was the point of forcing him to relive every horror that had happened to him on the streets, plus every horror that might have happened if he'd stayed on the streets too long, just to feed him to a dragon at the end? For that matter, why should he sit quietly and tamely allow himself to be eaten when he could redirect the track away from the dragon and, you know, not die? "Who the fuck are you?" he demanded, ready to knock her face in even though he was still restrained. "Who are you, what the fuck are you doing here, and what the fuck is going on? Because I didn't want to get fucking killed! Now you answer!"

She growled in response, a deep, animal sound that should have been coming from the stone dragon, not from the teenage girl with the streaked hair and pierced lip. "You want to know?" she said, her voice suddenly soft and cold. "Fine. You're going to find out." With that, her eyes began to glow, bright as sparks, bright as fire, bright as the sun...

Demyx blinked. He wasn't entirely sure what was supposed to be going on now, but boy, was that hard to look at. It was also creepy, but everything going on around him was already so creepy, freaky, or straight-up terrifying that the eyes alone made no impact in that area. Is something supposed to be happening right now? he wondered, not noticing any great change in himself or his environment, except that they seemed to have left the city behind. Apparently, something more than that was supposed to be happening and wasn't, because the girl flinched, and stared at him with shock and something like fear, until her lip twisted with anger once more. "You bastard," she repeated. "You treacherous little bastard. You monster. Who the fuck are you?"

For the first time since noticing the bizarre warning sign, Demyx started to feel a bit of real confidence, as he shoved the restraining bar aside and stood up, not caring that the ride was still moving at full speed. "I'm nobody," he said with perfect honesty, unable to keep a cocky smirk off his bleeding face. "So answer my first question. Who are you?"

Just then, the ride lurched sharply, and Demyx was thrown backwards, over the back of his car and into the one behind it, flat on his back and folded up like a pretzel. So much for cockiness; he was going to feel that landing for a week. Before he could recover enough to pry his shoulderblades away from the floor, the ride operator was leaning over him, totally unaffected by the ride's motion, her eyes still glowing brilliantly and her mouth still fixed in an inhuman snarl. "Nobody, huh?" she demanded, grabbing him by the collar and jerking him into a sitting position, in a way that his back and neck really did not appreciate. "Damn right that's what you are...monster." The train suddenly shot out into the open air once more, and a sea-blue, serpentine dragon flew overhead, keeping pace with them.

Oh no. Oh no. Not again...

The Castle that Never Was loomed up ahead, starkly out of place under this blue, featureless sky in the middle of this brown, equally featureless plain that was otherwise interrupted only by roller coaster track. It looked like an eternal fortress, a tower of might in the middle of nowhere, as unshakable and unbreakable as the foundations of the world despite the delicacy of its structure...but Demyx knew better. Demyx had seen the dragon already. He kept watching the castle helplessly, with a sick sense of dread, as the dragon suddenly loomed up from the other side of the track, soared overhead with its scales flashing in the sunlight, until it was hovering in front of the castle. All of a sudden, the castle didn't look half so big or so mighty...and in front of Demyx's eyes, the dragon reared back slightly and shot a massive jet of water at the castle, so powerful it ripped part of the wall straight off and exposed the rooms within to empty air. As a few last pieces of stone gave way, frozen in time on their way down to shatter like ice on the ground, the dragon turned around on its huge length and soared off again, heedless of the destruction that had just been wreaked on Demyx's home, the pain caused to Demyx's friends, his adopted family...by Demyx himself.

"Lung Qin Xiang," he whispered, finally able to cover his face and shield his eyes from the horror, too late. The damage had already been done. "Why did you come back? You're dead. I wanted you dead. You're supposed to be dead..." He could hear the ride operator, or whoever the hell she was, laughing - at him? At the destruction of the castle? He didn't know or care - and he suddenly felt compelled to launch himself at her, and knock her flat. That went over like a lead balloon; she just grabbed his arm, twisted it back until his shoulder came out of its socket, and threw him back onto the floor of the car, in another uncomfortably pretzel-like position. At his new eye level, he saw a tiny round object rolling around on the floor of the car - a pearl, half-covered in mud, the very same pearl he'd swallowed by freak accident one fine day in the Land of Dragons...such a little thing...that had made such a monster out of him...the dragon pearl...

I'm not a dragon anymore, he thought helplessly. The dragon is dead. Long dead. Out of desperation, he grabbed the pearl with his good hand and tried to throw it out of the car, but another sudden lurch, this one sideways, sent it bouncing off the wall and back in, while he was thrown into an even more pretzel-like and less comfortable pose. Groaning with pain and frustration, he managed to untwist himself and straighten up, to see that the castle had been left behind and they were now approaching a Chinese palace, its magnificent lacquered pillars shining brightly enough to blind. But the dragon was already swooping overhead, and the palace grounds were beginning to flood...and as the dragon soared over the palace, the water began to pour out its doors, then its windows, then the entire palace buckled and collapsed with what should have been a resounding splash, except it was dead silent. In all the echoing silence, Demyx could swear he heard human screams.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he demanded helplessly of the smirking ride operator, lunging at her again. All that got him was a punch in the gut and a sideways landing across the back of the car that felt like it broke a rib on impact; he was lucky that being in two separate cars meant that she didn't have the legroom and/or clearance to kick him in the junk too. Fuck, she was strong, but it wasn't like he didn't already know she wasn't just a teenage girl. He was starting to feel that sense of inevitable doom again, like there was no way he was getting off this roller coaster alive. He'd still rather be broken trying to fight it than lie down and tamely accept it. "Fucking let me go!"

"Sit the fuck down!" the girl (or whatever she was) snapped, grabbing him again and shoving him into the handiest seat, much to the displeasure of his backbone. Demyx shook his head slightly, trying to clear it after that rough handling, and realized that they were suddenly approaching a forest, though he hadn't seen any plant taller than grass in the entire field. As they came closer, he could see soldiers, waiting just outside the trees, their weapons at the ready, as the dragon flew overhead and disappeared behind the trees...the trees...there was something up with them; they weren't North American species, they were Asian...then the dragon came bursting out of the trees again, rushing at the soldiers with its jaws wide open, and Demyx started to gag and retch painfully, though nothing was left to come up. He absolutely did not want to see what was coming next - he already knew what was coming, and the memory he'd forced out of his head for so long was bad enough. On the plus side, he was too busy dry-heaving to watch the...carnage. Carnage was the only term he wanted to apply to it. Not the term the dragon would have used, which was more like...banquet.

Why is she doing this to me? he wondered helplessly, no longer able to summon the will to fight. Why is she forcing me to relive all the hell that monster wreaked? I wanted to forget him...I wanted him to be nothing more than ink on skin, one more tattoo to tell tall tales about, nothing else...I am not Lung Qin Xiang...I never was...

But the problem with lying to yourself was that no matter what you told yourself, you always knew the real truth. Demyx had been Lung Qin Xiang, once upon a time, and on a certain level, he still was. Maybe he could no longer change shape or fly or whip out epic kung-fu moves out of nowhere, but...he'd never been entirely the same afterward, he realized, as the wind suddenly blew colder and colder. He'd become cockier, more arrogant, prouder, more defiant and confrontational...the temperature kept dropping, and he hugged himself and shivered as snow began to fly...the dragon had rubbed off on him, he reflected bitterly; he'd changed from a perfectly sweet, harmless guy to a potentially dangerous asshole...he shivered again, more violently this time, and realized with a bitter smile that this was the kind of weather Lung Qin Xiang had died in...

No. No. Blessed Gods, no. It wasn't. Xiang had died in a storm - Xiang had died to bring the storm, to quench the fires a demoness had set in a helpless village. No, Axel had set those fires, but he'd been under the demoness's control. Did that matter all that much? Xiang/Demyx might have done some pretty rotten stuff, while he existed, but everything he'd done was not evil. Even when he'd been at his lowest - when he'd deliberately tried to freeze himself to death, to atone for the hell he'd wreaked in the World that Never Was (that must have been where the snow came from), Roxas had followed him, and threatened to stay there and freeze with him if he didn't come back on his own. And the threat had worked. Obviously, Xiang couldn't have been such a bastard as all that. And "arrogance" and "pride" were only negative terms for the confidence and self-esteem that Demyx had lacked his whole life. Potentially dangerous? He'd always been potentially dangerous; anyone who had the power to drown people on the spot was by definition potentially dangerous.

Good one, bitch. You almost got me again.

He straightened up a little, ignoring the pain in his abused back, and smirked faintly at the snowy sky. "Now that is just not right," he said aloud, thinking about the storm...and suddenly, the air warmed slightly, and the snowflakes turned to raindrops, and thunder rumbled faintly in the distance. He couldn't help but laugh aloud, seeing that. "All right, that's better."

The ride operator, or whoever she really was, was staring at him with mingled fear and rage. "You fucking bastard," she said slowly, drawing each word out into a snakelike hiss. She suddenly lunged at him, clearly intending more violence. Much to his own surprise, he stood up, grabbed her arms before she could reach him, and shoved her backwards to a landing as uncomfortable and ignominious as any she'd given him. While he wondered where that had come from, all of a sudden, she glared poisonously at him, and the ride lurched around a sudden corner, throwing him off-balance again. All right, there had to be some connection. Like he didn't know that. "Why do you always have to keep fighting? Why can't you just...hold...still?"

"...Okay, tell you what. You stop trying to kill me, and I'll stop fighting. Because, so you know, I always fight when someone is trying to kill me. Which is why I'm still alive."

"Don't imagine it's going to save you this time..." She sprang to her feet, much quicker than Demyx could have if he'd fallen in that same position, and glared venomously for a moment. All of a sudden, the train rolled onto its side, and he was sent tumbling out of the car; only good luck and better reaction times saved him from being dumped out altogether and frozen in time while the ride continued on, or came back for him, which would probably be worse. Instead, he was dragged along the ground, clinging to the side of the car for dear life, while the rails were turned sideways and the train rode on in all defiance of the laws of physics. His clothing was being steadily ripped to shreds, and the skin beneath it; vaguely, he wondered how long it would take to wear through the muscle as well and get to bare bone. He didn't want to find out, but finding out seemed better than letting go...

...All right. I made it rain when she wanted it to snow; maybe this is like a lucid dream or something, where now that I know I'm dreaming, I can call the shots. In that case, I'm gonna take a page out of Xigbar's book. If she can make gravity do what she wants, I'll make gravity do what I want. With that, he pulled himself back into the train car, ignoring the blinding pain in his injured shoulder, back, and side, and stood up. Parallel to the ground, just as the train was running perpendicular to it.

Just then, the train plunged into another tunnel. Demyx stopped breathing.

"I hate you so fucking much right now," the ride operator announced, sounding exactly like the teenage girl she looked like. Thankfully, this tunnel appeared to be exactly that, an ordinary tunnel filled with some dim sourceless light, as opposed to a dragon's gullet. At least they seemed to be right-side-up now, too, though he had no way of knowing for sure. "You are such a fucking bastard -"

"All right, you can drop the act anytime now," Demyx snapped, not sure how much more of this nightmare ride his nerves could take. "If you're a real teenage girl, I'm Santa Claus, plus I moonlight as the Tooth Fairy. At least you can go easier on the F-bombs and name-calling."

"Oh, shut up already," she snapped back at him. "It fits my mood. You have been more damn trouble so far all by yourself -"

"Than entire trains full of people have before? Than anyone else you've tried to break down and kill, or feed to a dragon, or whatever the hell you're trying to do?" Demyx wouldn't have been shocked if she did this routinely, if there was a history of people riding Unktehi within half an hour of closing, alone except for the ride operator, and never disembarking when the ride finally came to a stop.

"Shut up!" She lunged at him again, swinging her fingernails at his face, but he blocked the blow and gave her a punch in the jaw that knocked her backwards. He wasn't usually one to get aggressive when being defensive would suffice, but he was angry, scared, and starting to get desperate. The only thing he wanted anymore was off the roller coaster. "I am so fucking sick of you right now - you were supposed to be easy!"

"...Easy to what?" Demyx demanded, jumping on top of the seat as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A mistake, as he realized too late he should have realized earlier; the ride abruptly lurched again, and he went tumbling out again. It took another minute and another square foot of road rash for him to get back in. "Bitch, stop doing that! And answer my question!" he screamed, the effect no doubt ruined by his bleeding face, dangling arm, and shredded clothing. And most of the right side of his body was a bloody mess of road rash, plus a nice patch from his left hip down to his knee. Boy, did that sting.

"Shut up!" Boy, was she not much of a conversationalist, but she could sure as hell make you hurt. "Stop fucking fighting! You don't deserve to live anyway!"

"Oh, is that the point you've been driving at? Because it's not working," Demyx barked at her. "I'm not fucking buying it. Now let me the fuck out of here!" It was worth a shot to ask/demand, he figured, because he couldn't see any other way off this damned ride. If that was how it was supposed to work, he probably should have asked nicely, but as long as it was his dream/nightmare anyway... As an experiment, he tried to force himself to wake up. He felt very cold inside when he realized he was already wide awake.

"Let you out of here?" the girl sneered, her eyes still glowing bright as spotlights in the dark tunnel. "Let you out of here for what? So you can go back to your friends?" She said that with an even more sneering emphasis, and at that moment, Demyx saw another streetlight appear out of nowhere. Except this one was shining in the Hall of Empty Melodies, somehow, and he could see himself, cowering on the floor, trying in vain to defend himself from...from Axel, from the monster Axel so often became when he was drunk. As often as not, alcohol only sharpened his already ferocious temper, and he always, always, always took it out on Demyx...he'd been slapped and beaten and set on fire so often...Axel had nearly killed him, more than once...

Not anymore, bitch. I know your game now. The scene changed, to Demyx's own bedroom, the night after he'd lost the last of his useful hearing. Demyx was lying in bed, wide awake, too ripped up to sleep, and Axel was in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the bed, sitting up with him just because he knew Demyx couldn't be alone. This memory was every bit as true as the last one. What are you going to do about it? he silently asked the seething ride operator with a cocked eyebrow. She only made an exclamation of disgust, slashing at him with her fingernails again, but he shoved her down into the little footspace at the bottom of the car, and then kicked her while she was down. She'd just about deserved it. To his growing lack of surprise, though, she jumped right back up and sent him sprawling over the back of the car again, and he landed square on his back so hard that everything below the point of impact turned to pins and needles. Physically paralyzed now, he could only watch as the next streetlight revealed the training arena, and Saix holding him off the floor by the collar and looking at him like a piece of trash...but Demyx recovered quickly now, both from the physical shock to his spine and the emotional shock to his system, and the next streetlight revealed Saix catching him in the dungeon after he'd run out on a meeting in a panic, and not only letting him go, but advising him how to hide until the mess blew over. The ride operator only snarled again, and the next streetlight showed Demyx back in the arena, on his knees in tears, driven past the boundaries of his endurance, a physical and emotional wreck, and Lexaeus just standing there, watching him fall apart with all the sympathy and concern of a granite statue...

But that was just plain going too far. Demyx's mind was running at full speed, not shocked into numbness by having every traumatic memory he had, plus a bunch she'd invented for him, shoved down his throat. He'd asked to be put through that intensive training, he'd driven himself past his own endurance, and Lexaeus was letting him cry because he'd get over it and get back to work soon enough without being coddled or screamed at. Put mildly, he was not impressed. "Run out of ideas already?" he taunted her, pulling himself back to his feet, and expecting the train to lurch this time and shifting his balance as expertly as if he was on a surfboard. "Come on. My life has been shitty enough that you should still be going for a year."

The ride operator only sighed in frustration, glaring at him like she was trying to set him on fire with her glowing eyes alone. "You are fucking impossible, you know that?" she growled at him, then suddenly, inexplicably, smiled at him. "Can't deny you're a tough one, though," she added, while Demyx wondered what her game was now, and drew a bright red crystal on a chain from under her shirt. Demyx's eyes were suddenly fixed on the crystal, and not just because of where it came from. "I have to admit...I like that..."

Demyx blinked hard, trying to tear his eyes away from the crystal and keep them on the girl who was wearing it. After all, she...he knew that...the entire time, she...but...after all...but...blessed Gods, she was beautiful. How had he never noticed that before? Well...maybe because they were on a roller coaster...for some reason, the exact events that had been going on kept slipping from his mind. He was aware that they'd been fighting about something, but he couldn't remember what; it couldn't have been that important. He didn't want it to be important. He wanted her, now, and if he wasn't reading her expression all wrong...she wanted him too. Those beautiful glowing eyes, shining like stars in the darkness, had an unmistakable come-hither look to them...

Slowly, painfully, he picked his way down the train towards her, crawling across the backs of the cars, trying to keep his injured arm out of the process, but unable to take his eyes off her. She smiled at him and licked her lips, her tongue playing over the hole in her lower lip, and he wondered what she'd look like with that missing piercing in place, with ripped jeans and a tight T-shirt...or better yet, the piercing in place and no clothing at all. That thought spurred him on, making him trade caution for speed in his eagerness to reach her, until suddenly he slipped and nearly fell facefirst into the bottom of the next car. He managed to catch himself in time, but wrinkled his nose at the unmistakable smell of vomit. Where the hell had that come from all of a sudden?

Right, right. This was the car he'd started in. He'd been sick in there earlier. Did that matter? There was just one more car between him and her...why had he been sick? He'd never been sick on a roller coaster in his life...it didn't matter; she was one car away. He was just one car away from her...well, like it mattered, he'd been sick after seeing an alternate version of himself, an Edmy that never really existed, holding a knife to a boy-whore's throat and...

Whoa. Hello, Demyx. This is your other head calling. You know, the one you're supposed to think with. Aside from the inherent stupidity of sex on a roller coaster and the fact that your skin is now half road rash, do you really want to get it on with a girl who's been doing her level best to either drive you to suicide or soften you up so she can kill you herself? Hello!

He jerked himself upright, glaring at her, trying to force himself not to be interested, and especially not enthralled. Where the hell had that come from? As a rule, when in single combat with a female around his own age, he did not normally spontaneously decide she was the hottest thing he'd ever seen and that he had to have her that instant. And if he was thinking straight, he'd consider her sudden and equal interest in him suspicious...what had he thought of her before the ride began? Rather plain, could be pretty if she tried a little harder or didn't have to comply with a dress code...it was that crystal. Up until she pulled out the crystal, their only interest in each other had been as enemies. There had to be something about it. A love-spell or something. She was no doubt just using it to lure him in, because neither psychological torture nor physical abuse was working. She was just trying a different tactic to get her claws on him. And that was something he did not want.

As he watched, the crystal twitched a little, seemingly of its own accord. He kept watching, and the crystal kept twitching, in a steady, even rhythm. Almost like a beating heart...

His eyes widened in sudden realization, and he lunged at her with anger instead of lust, grabbing for the crystal heart. She clutched at it and knocked him backwards, and the train shot out into the light.

Now, at last, the train was following the track he'd seen from the other side of the park, before he'd gotten on this nightmare ride, except it was situated in the middle of that same unnaturally empty brown plain they'd crossed earlier, instead of in the theme park it belonged in. It soared up the side of a dramatic hill, plunging down into an adrenaline-spiking drop, everything Demyx ever wanted out of a roller coaster, but he was completely unrestrained, clinging to the train for dear life, alone with a girl who wanted him dead. He knew, he just knew, that if he didn't find some way to stop this ride somehow, he was going to die on it, sooner or later. And he did not want to die. Not today. Not like this. But how was he going to stop it? Water wasn't strong enough; it wouldn't make enough of a barrier...

The girl suddenly punched him in the face. Since they were on an uphill slope, he went tumbling backwards with the force of gravity as well as the force of the blow, catching himself only by good luck. Thankfully he was still on the train, not being dragged along behind it or something. "All right, that is fucking it," the girl declared, her glowing eyes slanted with fury now. "See what you get for fighting for so long? You are just gonna die anyway, and you made a huge pain in the ass of yourself in the meantime."

"Frankly, I'm proud to have made myself such a pain in the ass," Demyx shouted back defiantly, but he felt like his guts had turned to ice. He was afraid, deeply afraid, not with the mind-shattering horror from the first part of the ride, but from the simple knowledge that he was probably not going to survive. There was just enough hope that he couldn't bring himself to resign himself yet, but...fuck it, there was pretty much no hope. He just really, really, really did not want to die. Not today. Not like this. "Better than lying down and rolling over," he added, while inside, he was begging and pleading any god that might listen to get him out of here, make it stop, let him live.

"You...still...ugh! Let's see what you have to say when I'm done with you!" All of a sudden, the girl was standing on top of the back of a car, balanced as easily as a high-wire gymnast, while Demyx was still trying to catch his breath and get back upright. Then she jumped down and landed squarely on his torso, breaking a couple ribs and knocking all the wind out of him. It took Demyx almost thirty seconds just to be able to breathe again, which felt like thirty years to him, and even when he was finally able to suck in a little oxygen, it hurt like fuck. Seeing her still standing there when he recovered, he quickly rolled over the back of the car and into the next, but she just stood there and laughed at him, a sadistic, mocking sound that made him flinch. Why wouldn't she laugh? She had him over a barrel.

...I have to kill her. It's the only way I'm going to get out of here alive.

Demyx didn't hesitate - it was her or him, at this point. With a quick gesture, he filled her lungs up with water - not a pleasant way to go, something he hated doing, but it was a sure-fire kill - but - but - oh, blessed Gods, she had no lungs. He tried to cut off the blood flow to her brain, an even faster kill that would still work on creatures without lungs as he understood them - but - blessed Gods, she had no blood either. What the fuck was she? Other than not even human? Well, he'd known that all along - the glowing eyes were a bit of a giveaway - but not to have even the basic shared weaknesses of any land-dwelling animal...? Blessed Gods, she was going to kill him. She was going to kill him, because he didn't know how to kill her and save himself, and there was nothing he could do about it.

...Wasn't there?

The girl finished laughing at his futile attempts to drown or otherwise kill her with his powers, and aimed a savage kick at him. The kick splashed solidly into a block of water, which absorbed most of the force of the blow before it ever reached him. Now it was his turn to laugh, in triumph at finding a way to block her blows, and a wave rose up and smashed her backwards, sending her crashing spine-first across the backs of the cars as roughly as she'd smacked him down earlier. "You look like you could use a massage!" he taunted her, the water forming into a ball and splattering in her face just to make the point. A mistake on his part - she suddenly sprang up and leaped at him like a panther, and lunged at him with her fingernails before he could react, tearing his shirt to shreds and ripping bloody gouges in the skin beneath. Before he could even fully respond to that, she swung at his face with the back of her other hand; he turned his head away from the blow, and she caught him just behind the eye. From the way the blow felt, if it had hit his nose like she was aiming for, his nose would have been smashed. He could tell he wasn't going to be seeing out of that eye for a while, once it started to swell.

Fuck it. It wasn't going to swell up into a proper black eye. It would never get the chance. She might as well have been made of stone, for all the damage her blows did, and for all the damage he could do to her. She was going to kill him. He was going to die. "No!" he shouted, pulling himself upright and standing unsteadily on the seat, unable to accept that conclusion, unable to just...lie down and die like that. But he had no choice. There was no way out.

She only smirked cruelly and aimed another kick at him, now that they were standing on the same level. He saw where it was headed, and twitched out of the way just in time to avoid catching it in the groin, but the blow landed squarely on the corner of his hip instead, and he went down like a sack of bricks, unable to catch himself or even stand upright any longer. The blow had broken his pelvis. All he could do now was just lie there, crippled and helpless and utterly defeated, as she sauntered over as casually as if she were on a level sidewalk and grinned down at him. "I gotta admit, for all the pain in the ass you were, that was kind of fun." Demyx just glared at her, gritting his teeth against the pain of breathing alone. "I gotta tell you, though, I am so looking forward to moving on to waterparks, and I will have you to thank for it. Getting that back all by itself makes this whole clusterfuck totally worth it. No one's gonna forget my name again. By the way...you look delicious. Just so you know."

Demyx's eyes widened slightly, then narrowed, then closed for a moment in despair. "So...that's what you wanted, all along," he wheezed. He didn't know if it felt better or worse to know that she'd wanted him, or more accurately his powers, specifically, as opposed to him being some random chump who was dumb enough to get on the roller coaster right before closing. It was a toss-up, and he didn't want to waste time thinking about it. "You're a monster," he whispered, feeling sick and cold with despair. This was it, he knew it. His ride was all but over.

The girl only snorted at him. "Geez. Took you long enough." The beating crystal heart glittered tauntingly in front of his face as she leaned in close, still smirking cruelly at him. "You know what, though - when we - I mean I - get back, I should totally tell your friends that you somehow fell off the roller coaster in the tunnel, oh no, please help me find him." She grinned at that and licked her lips, the crystal heart seeming to beat faster in anticipation...

Demyx's hand was on the crystal heart before she seemed to realize what was going on, and before she could react, he'd snatched it from around her neck. It was cold, cold enough to burn, but he didn't care. While she was still grabbing at her throat, at where the heart had been a second ago, he threw the heart in front of the train, a small blob of water cementing it briefly to the rail...

Just long enough for the wheel to run over it and smash it to bits...

The train jerked sharply - no, not just jerked, it had suddenly come clean off the rails. Demyx was sent flying through empty space, unable to move any longer, only able to watch as the train peeled off the track completely and came flying after him, and the entire wooden structure of the roller coaster began to collapse soundlessly. The only sound he could hear was the ride operator screaming, and screaming, and screaming...

"Demyx...Demyx, please. Just open your eyes, man. I'm sorry I've ever been a dick to you. I'm sorry I didn't take sitar lessons seriously. I promise I'll buy you all the sushi and bug candy you want. Just open your fucking eyes..."

...Well, that was an unusual request. But the voice was Axel's, not the scary-bitch ride operator, and he sounded pretty desperate, so Demyx obediently pried his eyes open slightly. Yeah, that was Axel, and he didn't seem to be frozen in time anymore. And Demyx was lying on the ground, instead of still being on that roller coaster from Hell. "...I'm alive," he croaked, more than a little surprised to find out that it was so.

"Well, thank Kingdom Hearts for that. You scared us, I hope you know." That was Roxas, but his voice was oddly shaky. Demyx focused his eyes on Roxas's face with some difficulty; he looked terrified. Well, he probably was, but Demyx found his situation such a relief it was almost funny. He wasn't on that fucking roller coaster anymore, he wasn't dead, and the scary bitch who wanted him dead was nowhere in sight. "What happened up there? It was just like...everything collapsed...all of a sudden..."

Demyx nodded weakly, trying to wrap his head around what had just happened, and how it related to the real world he suddenly found himself in once more. At least, that's where he thought he was. But breathing was painful, moving his right arm at the shoulder was painful, trying to move his left leg at all was blindingly painful, his back hurt, his chest hurt, his face hurt...his left hand hurt incredibly, and he lifted it slightly to discover that the palm of his hand was pure, frosty white. "The heart," he whispered, letting his hand drop again and closing his eyes. That beating crystal heart, that had been so burning cold in his hand...but it had been destroyed, now, and he was safe.

Axel and Roxas only looked at each other with fear and concern, as if he'd said something so totally off-the-wall they were afraid he'd lost his mind. "Demyx, there's an ambulance on the way, all right?" Axel said finally, patting his hand and forcing a smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring. "If you stay conscious, they might not check your pulse."

"...Ambulance?" Demyx turned his head to the side with some difficulty, squinting at the grass surrounding him. This wasn't the unbroken expanse of brown he'd been flying over a minute ago. It was green, for one thing. And it was generously littered with massive wooden beams and planks and thick metal rails and...and...blessed Gods. The real roller coaster had collapsed.

Had any of that nightmare really happened? Had time really stopped while the roller coaster was moving, had he really been sent on a definitive journey through his worst memories and nightmares, and had the ride operator with the pierced lip really been a bloodless monster out to kill and eat him so she could take his powers? Had he been injured in the fight, or simply in the fall? Had he simply hallucinated several hours' worth of pure hell in the time it took the roller coaster to get moving, get up to speed, and suddenly collapse? Would he ever know?

Demyx tried to move his left hand again, and groaned aloud at the pain. It didn't seem likely he would have gotten such a horrible case of frostburn from a fall alone, no matter how he'd landed or what landed on him. That had to be from the colder-than-ice heart. "Demyx, don't move," Roxas protested, resting a hand briefly on Demyx's cheek; it came away bloody, as Demyx knew it would. Demyx felt briefly sorry for him; he could have no idea. "I'm sorry...but please. Don't move. You might just hurt yourself worse. Just hold still...you're gonna be okay..."

Demyx could only whimper on response, reaching out towards Axel with his frozen hand - maybe fire would fix it; it seemed as good an idea as any. Axel grabbed his hand without a moment's hesitation, as if he was afraid to let it go. "I can hear the ambulance coming right now," he said, stroking Demyx's hair reassuringly with the other hand, a moment before Demyx was able to hear the sirens himself. "Just stay conscious, buddy...you're gonna be all right..."

Demyx held still from then on, waiting patiently while the EMTs put a neck brace on him and strapped him to a backboard. It wasn't like he really had any other choice. He had better things to do than struggle or fuss, and more important things to think about. What had really happened on that nightmare ride? What had happened to the ride operator? He turned his head, as much as the neck brace would allow, to see the smashed remains of the train several yards away, and a rescue crew working on pulling someone out from under it...but it wasn't the teenage ride operator who'd been so dead set on killing him. It was a shrunken old lady with brown skin...but she was wearing the same uniform as the ride operator had. As they zipped up a body bag around her, he could swear he saw a piercing hole on her lower lip.

...Why was there a dirty pearl in his pocket?...

Whenever Demyx woke up screaming in the middle of the night, for the next several months after the disaster, everyone shook their heads and felt sorry for him; it was only to be expected that being the only survivor of such a horrible accident would leave deep mental scars. Demyx, of course, didn't have the heart to tell anyone the real story.

AN: Um. Wow. I got this out fast. Started on Sunday, finished on Thursday. But then, I was really, really inspired on this one. Anyway. I found this Random Story Elements Generator online. I was screwing around with it, just to see what kind of junk it came up with, and in among all the stupid, weird, and cute-but-useless junk, there suddenly came this:

"You board the ride only noticing the warning sign all too late, 'When this ride is in motion, all else is stopped.'"

Suddenly, I had no choice but to put Demyx - the only one of the Trio able to ride roller coasters at all, thanks to reasons explained in the story - on the time-freezing roller coaster from Hell. After discussions with my friends and beta readers, I added in a few other story ideas that I'd been wanting to use for a while and stirred over low heat for five days. The "return" of Lung Qin Xiang was one of those ideas. Unktehi herself and her crystal heart was another. In the original version of that, Demyx killed her and took her heart for himself, which turned him into a chick magnet and allowed him to see the future and granted other useful, convenient, and fun powers, but it also corrupted him and was starting to drive him insane, until he threw it away and fed it to a Heartless (creating a Heartless!Unktehi, which was a really clever idea on his part...). Unfortunately, the introduction and plot setup for that one was longer than most of my whole stories, and it was shaping up to be a whole novel, plus one of the major early plot points was rendered irrelevant by a story I actually finished and published. If you message me, I'll explain all the elements of the original Sioux legend (as I know it) that I incorporated (or tried to) in the story. I'm feeling too lazy to point them all out here.

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