Almost as soon as the car stopped moving, Demyx stumbled out the door and as far away from it as he could get in reverse, clutching his chest and breathing heavily as he stared at it - "it" now being a battered hunk of metal decorating the side of the road. The damn thing must have rolled four or five times before it finally stopped, into rocks and trees and what the hell ever; thank whatever Gods had a hand in it that it landed on its tires. "That was a bad fucking accident," he whispered to himself, taking several deep breaths to calm down. The driver's side of the car looked partway caved in - it was amazing he'd lived through that at all, let alone unharmed, or so he assumed he was because nothing seemed to hurt at all - and the rear door had been ripped clean off the hinges. How that had happened, he had no idea; he'd been too busy praying to pay attention to the damages until now.

...Oh, blessed gods, Roxas had been sitting on that side. And here he'd been so relieved that he'd finally escaped something unhurt, and his friends were still in there, in gods alone knew what shape - but the fact that they hadn't gotten out of the car by themselves already was kind of a big hint that it wasn't good. Every fragment of relief gone in an instant, Demyx ran back towards the car in a panic. He could see Roxas had half fallen out of the car - he looked completely motionless - oh, blessed Gods, he was bleeding so damn much...he'd even had fingers ripped off, how cruel could fortune be... "Roxas!" he called, as he ran up to the side of the car. "Roxas, for fuck's sake, wake up! Axel! Are you in there? Are you okay?" No response from either of them. Looking over to Axel's side of the car, Demyx could see him slumped over, totally inert, pretty blatantly unconscious. "Oh, for fuck's sake - would one of you wake the fuck up?" he demanded, trying to cover his growing panic with some sort of action. A portal home still hadn't occurred to him, but if he could just get one of them to wake up - just so he could know that it wasn't the worst-case scenario - please, if there were any Gods out there who might listen to him, make them wake up - he grabbed Roxas's shoulder and tried to shake him awake, realizing too late what a bad idea that was for someone with Gods-knew-what head injuries -

His hand went right through Roxas's shoulder.

Demyx quickly jerked away, then looked down at his hand, down at Roxas, back down at his hand, and back down at Roxas. Roxas was still there, seemingly quite solid, breathing raggedly and unevenly with a strange, unnatural motion on one side of his chest...and Demyx's hand...well, the best that could be said about it was that it was there. Even bearing in mind that he was wearing black gloves and it was dark out, it didn't look all that solid, real, or any other similar adjective. As an experiment, he held it up to the moonlight...and he could see right through it.

The driver's door was still shut. Looking behind him, Demyx couldn't see a single footprint from his flight away from or back to the car. When he checked, he found a third person still in the car - a body in the driver's seat, hunched over the steering wheel, not moving or breathing. The face was hidden, but the hairstyle was unmistakable. And Demyx knew very well he'd been driving.

All right. I must be about to wake up. In my own bed. Back at the castle. And when I wake up, everyone will be okay, and everything is going to be just fine. I'm just having a particularly scary dream right now, and I am going to wake up in

And he was still staring at the mangled wreck of a car that still had his dead body in the driver's seat.

All right, let's try this again. I am going to wake up for real this time in five, four, three, two, one...wake up, wake up, gods damn it, wake up...

And he was still staring at the mangled wreck of a car that still had his dead body in the driver's seat.

All right, four, three, two, one - wake up, wake up, you have to be dreaming, this can't be real, this can't be it, you can't be dead, wake up, wake up, wake the fuck UP -

And he was still staring at the mangled wreck of a car that still had his dead body in the driver's seat, and it was finally starting to sink in that he wasn't dreaming. And he was not going to wake up.

"I...I am so sorry, guys," he whispered to his friends' unconscious forms, fighting the urge to break down and bawl like a baby - but there would be no point to it; ghosts couldn't cry. "I didn't mean to leave you like this...I am so sorry for what you're going to wake up to. And if you don't wake up..." Ah, gods, he couldn't finish that sentence. He couldn't even finish that thought. "Please, guys, please, just wake the fuck up..."


And then he jerked awake, sitting upright in bed, clutching his chest and breathing heavily. The heavy breathing quickly triggered a painful bout of coughing, and by the time it ended, all Demyx could do was lie back - not in his own bed, though he was at least at the castle - and rest for several minutes, listening to the overamplified buzz of the negative-pressure ventilator and wishing he'd come down with something easier to treat, or at least less disastrously contagious. He hadn't really needed Vexen to tell him how serious tuberculosis was; putting him in a specially ventilated room in the hospital wing until either he stopped coughing or Vexen could figure out whether the bacteria in his lungs was affected by the antibiotics he was on made perfect sense. Putting the entire rest of the Organization on antibiotics just in case seemed like a brilliant idea. But fuck it all, just because he understood Vexen's rationale didn't mean he was enjoying himself. The symptoms all by themselves were miserable enough - the chest pain, the coughing, the coughing up blood (blessed Gods, had that freaked him out the first time), the fever, the chills, the total lack of energy or appetite, the tendency to randomly wake up in the middle of the night saturated with sweat...the knowledge that he had one of the deadliest illnesses in the worlds, and depending on how, when, and where he contracted it, it might very well be incurable...

No. Vexen said the odds were that I'd contracted it on a mission in some underdeveloped world, which would guarantee that it's not drug-resistant...and even if I did catch it in the streets while I still had a heart and have been carrying it around with no symptoms for six-plus years, the odds of it being so drug-resistant it can't be treated at all are still pretty damn low...for fuck's sake, think about something else, or you'll never get back to sleep...didn't Vexen say that one of those antibiotics increases seizure risk? Well, fuck that...that's not helping...

Seizures...speaking of, what the hell had that dream been all about? All right, he knew what it had been about. It was that damned car accident. The whole reason seizures had ever become a concern of his. Ages ago now, but he was still dealing with the aftereffects every time he took a dose of Depakene or had to look in the mirror twice to recognize himself. Obviously, however, he'd survived it, instead of dying instantly and wandering around as a ghost for a little bit. He'd been knocked out instantly, and hadn't come around for a month. He didn't even know how the accident had happened, or whether he had rolled the car or if he'd slammed into some stationary object or hit another car or what, he hadn't seen what the car looked like after the crash, and all he knew about his friends' injuries was what he'd seen and heard after he finally woke up. Presumably, his brain was just making shit up for some reason. He wished it wouldn't. This was not the kind of dream he needed right now. He would have really appreciated a pleasant, comforting dream, not bizarre, distressing shit. His current reality was distressing enough.

With a faint sigh, he drew a thin line of water across his forehead with his right hand - he couldn't manipulate water with his left hand like he was used to, probably because it was a highly-advanced prosthetic as opposed to an actual flesh-and-blood hand - and let it run down his face, welcoming the sensation. It felt like all the comfort he had right now. That, and a cheap CD player Vexen had unbent enough to allow him, because he would go batshit insane otherwise, but he didn't even have the energy to reach over and push a button.

Tuberculosis. Yakṣmā. Consumption. The white plague. A disease that, in many worlds, killed everyone it infected, slowly, draining their lives away over months or years, so that by the time they died, they were already little better than a corpse - and while it had been steadily killing them, it had been steadily infecting their family and friends and caretakers, so that once its first victim was dead, everyone close to them would die too, in the same slow, horrible way.

No. It's not like that anymore. There are antibiotics now that will treat it, powerful ones, Demyx reminded himself as he curled up on his side, shuddering with chills. And Vexen's pharmacy is as well-stocked as any major hospital's, in selection if not quite in quantity. I'm going to be just fine. Eventually.

I need to go back to sleep...lack of decent rest doesn't help anyone recover from anything...

He closed his eyes, willing himself to let consciousness slip away for a while, and slide into some happier dream of peace and rest and swift recovery. He ended up dreaming about being in an Italian restaurant with a mind-bendingly drunk Xigbar, trying to keep him in line despite the fact that he could barely walk. It was certainly weird, and far from peaceful or restful, but at least it was better than the car accident.

Worlds with a roughly post-railroad and pre-automobile level of technology (generally described as "Victorian", though as previously mentioned, this term tends not to garner serious respect in higher academic circles), where antibiotics are often two generations or more from discovery, tend to romanticize tuberculosis. In these worlds, the illness is just becoming a disease of poverty as opposed to distributed equally among all classes, and in higher-class society, is often associated with starving artists. Many noteworthy artists in these worlds have suffered from and died of tuberculosis, leading to notions that infected artists gain more and more creative genius as the disease progresses, and suffer a final burst of creative energy shortly before death. In some cases, a woman rendered thin, weak, and pale from consumption is considered the standard of beauty.

...And Axel thought reading this shit would make me feel better or something? Creative burst or no creative burst, dying of TB is not high on my list of things to do, thanks. Setting the printouts aside - various information Axel had found on the Internet and thought would amuse him or something, most of which actually had nothing to do with TB - Demyx lay back down and dedicated his efforts to staring blankly at the ceiling for a while, hugging Benji the stuffed killer whale. His ability to interact with the rest of the Organization was extremely limited right now - limited to five-minute intervals, trying to talk to people whose faces were hidden behind filter masks while he had on a surgical mask himself - and fuck it, he just needed something to hug every so often, which is where Benji came in, childish though he/it was. At least it gave him some form of comfort, and something to do other than lie there and feel sorry for himself...and sleep, of course. Sleeping was always an option. In fact, he could go for some of that right now...

There was a sharp, authoritative knock at the door, and Demyx had to set Benji down and put on a fresh mask from the box. "Come in," he said, his voice muffled, and Vexen entered, most of his face concealed by a filter mask. Every time he saw one of those damn masks, Demyx's spirits sank a little - it was like he was some sort of walking toxic waste dump, though he certainly wasn't walking far. All right, so it was nice that the rest of the Organization's safety and well-being was being taken seriously, it was just that the effect on Demyx was nothing if not dehumanizing. "Take it it's time for my medicine?" he added with no humor at all, seeing the cup Vexen was holding, with about eight or nine pills in it. There were four different antibiotics, double his usual dose of Depakene (because it turned out that one of the other antibiotics made Depakene clear from the body twice as fast, on top of the one that made seizures more likely to begin with), some other pill that was supposed to help combat seizures on top of the Depakene, an iron pill because one of the antibiotics could cause anemia, a multivitamin because his appetite had been missing in action ever since he started getting sick and he couldn't afford a deficiency...sometimes he wondered whether taking this much medicine was really doing more good than harm, considering that at least three pills were just there to combat the side effects of the other pills.

Vexen didn't even dignify that obvious comment with a response, or maybe the mask and Demyx's own piss-poor hearing made whatever he might have to say totally unintelligible, though he knew the old bastard could make himself understood when he wanted to be. He just set the cup full of pills on the bedside table, just out of Demyx's reach, as if he didn't want to come any closer than he had to, masks or no masks. For a second, Demyx had a rather satisfying vision of ripping both their masks off and coughing in Vexen's face. Screw it, he didn't even feel like sitting up to get the pills until Vexen was gone; he'd have to take his mask off to take them anyway. "Have you noticed any improvement in your symptoms, no matter how slight?" Vexen asked - pretty much the only thing he ever said to Demyx, other than complaining about something, was directly connected with health and medicine. Demyx would have strangled a puppy for some friendly conversation some days.

"No, was I supposed to by now? It's only been a week, for f-" Anything else Demyx wanted to say was cut off by a bout of coughing, which led to him having to raise the mask for a second to spit out a wad of bloody phlegm. Nasty. And he couldn't just spit into a trash can; he had to spit it into a plastic cup, cap it, throw it into a biohazardous waste receptacle, and then sanitize his hands thoroughly. He could practically sense Vexen's disgusted expression through the mask. "For fuck's sake, don't look at me like that. I can't help this."

Vexen's expression, such as Demyx could see of it, never wavered. "Have you been taking all your medications exactly as prescribed?" he asked, as he always did. "It would be in all our best interests for you to take this more seriously," he added, which was new, though it rather proved he barely knew Demyx at all if he didn't think he was taking this seriously already. "Treatment non-compliance is the primary cause of antibiotic resistance, and I believe you are already aware of the potential consequences of that..." Demyx only scowled at the wall, not caring to dignify that with a response. "Very well. Lunch will be ready in two hours." With that, Vexen left, for which Demyx was extremely grateful. Once the door was shut, he ripped the mask off and threw it away, took the pills one by one just so he'd have them dealt with, and settled down for a good nap before the lunch he knew he wasn't going to want anyway. When he actually wanted to eat again, he'd know he was on his way to recovery; for now, he just wanted to rest.


Finally, finally, there was some sign of life in the car. Axel was just starting to stir, and open his eyes - Demyx held his breath as he lit a fire in his hand, forced his door open, and fell out into the snow, though he hadn't exactly been breathing anyway. Blessed Gods, did he not look good. There was blood all over him, which made Demyx shudder and cringe, and he looked like he could barely stand up even leaning on what was left of the car. His leg looked horribly broken, and the rest of him had to be in its own world of hurt anyway; Demyx could only admire his nerve in trying to stand up at all, let alone walk.

As Demyx watched, chewing his lip all the way (or something along those lines), Axel dragged himself slowly around to the other side of the car, stopping first to check on Roxas. Roxas's condition didn't seem to have improved any; he was still unconscious, and bleeding, and breathing funny, and all kinds of other worrying things. At least he was still clearly alive and breathing, which was better than...oh, Gods. Demyx tried to will himself not to see anything as Axel dragged himself to the driver's door, struggling and failing to open it, then knocking on what was left of the shattered window. Shattered, bloody window, as Demyx could now see in the firelight. It had probably been a head injury that had killed him, or possibly a broken neck...oh, Gods grant it hadn't been something like a piece of broken glass getting lodged in his brain. That would be just...he did not want to think about that. Had Axel caught on yet? He didn't know; he didn't want to know.

He had better things to worry about anyway. Axel had just collapsed in the snow.

Without even thinking about it, Demyx suddenly found himself kneeling by Axel's side, stroking his hair - or at least, the motions were right for stroking, even though his hand kept passing straight through those gelled spikes. Axel was still conscious, or at least his eyes were open, but he wasn't even looking in Demyx's direction, as if he didn't realize he was there at all. Well, he probably didn't, Demyx realized with a pang of grief so sharp it was physically painful even to a ghost, but here he was anyway, and he was going to offer all the help and support he could whether or not Axel could see or hear him. "Come on, Axel," he whispered coaxingly, and Axel didn't even blink in response. "Now is not the time to keel over. Come on. You've gotta get back up. Get back on your feet. You gotta get help. I know it's too late for me, but look at Roxas - I don't think he's gonna last too much longer without help. And you're the only one who can help him. Come on. I know it's tough; I know it hurts like hell, but you gotta do it for him. Come on..." Was there some way he could loan Axel a bit of his strength, since he needed it so badly and Demyx would never have use for it again? He didn't know; all he could do was will Axel to be stronger, to get back up, to just make a portal back to the castle and fall through it, as long as he could just raise the alert and get help...

And then, with his help or without it - Demyx would probably never know - Axel rolled over, summoned a portal, and dragged himself through it. Demyx could have cried with relief, except ghosts couldn't exactly cry. Instead, he stood up himself and followed Axel through the portal...or tried to. All of a sudden, to him, it was like walking through a thick patch of fog - everything went dark and fuzzy for a second, and he came out in the exact same world he'd started in. All he could do was stand there and watch the portal silently, wishing desperately that he could cry.

Soon, people started coming out of the portal - thank all the Gods, Axel had summoned help, instead of just collapsing in a corner somewhere. There was Vexen, in the lead as might be expected, and Lexaeus, and Xigbar, and Xaldin...funny, he might have expected to see Fori and Zexion along too. Maybe they were busy with Axel. That wasn't so important - what was important was that they were getting help. As long as his friends would be okay, that was all Demyx needed to know.

But would they be okay? Roxas looked so terribly hurt...oh, oh, thank the Gods, he was coming around at last. He was saying something to Lexaeus; Demyx couldn't make out what...but the way Lexaeus glanced over to the driver's seat, and Roxas's frightened expression, hurt him in a way he hadn't known he could be hurt. He looked over at the driver's seat himself - apparently Xigbar and Xaldin hadn't had any more luck getting the door open than Axel; Xigbar had eventually resorted to opening the passenger door and crawling into the front seat after him. He even managed to get a neck brace on him somehow, as Demyx saw when they finally dragged him out of the car and onto a backboard. How long would it be before they realized they'd wasted their efforts?

Does it even matter? he thought to himself sadly. It's over. I should go...

But I wasn't ready...I wasn't done yet...

Demyx wished he could go back to the castle with everyone else - he didn't want to be stuck wandering as a ghost in this world; he just wanted to see home one more time. The world blurred a little, like a brief fog rolling in, and...suddenly, he was there, without needing a portal or anything. He blinked in surprise, and grinned for a moment at this discovery - but a moment later, reality came crashing back down. He was dead. He was nothing more than a ghost, a loose soul wandering around without a home. What did it matter if he could go from world to world in an instant just by wishing himself there? He was dead.

All of a sudden, he wanted to be anywhere but home.


He jerked awake with a sharp cough, and didn't stop coughing until he choked and nearly gagged on another wad of sputum and blood. Once he managed to get rid of that, and calm down and lie down again, he couldn't help but wonder - what the hell had that dream been? Hopefully this wasn't the start of a pattern...

I really owe Roxas for this one, Demyx decided as he slowly flipped through the book he was reading - it was one he'd had for ages now, a big coffee-table book about beaches that he barely had the energy to lift right then, but just looking at the pictures, even if he didn't have the powers of concentration to read the text, made him feel better. He was still feverish, lethargic, sweaty, in pain, completely without appetite, and unable to go a full hour without at least one coughing fit, but thanks to the book and the pictures therein, he no longer felt quite so isolated, depressed, or stir-crazy. In fact, he was kind of daydreaming about places he'd like to go and things he'd like to do once he was finally allowed out of the hospital wing.

Unfortunately, that was still a long ways away. And right now, he wasn't feeling especially ambitious - just tired. He'd rather stay awake and keep reading the book, just because it was something pleasant to look at and think about in his unpleasant situation, but the energy it had taken to hold the book and sit up to read was worn out now. He had no choice but to set the book down and lie back for a while, maybe close his eyes for a moment while he rested...oh, damn, he was exhausted. Probably this whole not-eating thing wasn't helping, he realized as if for the first time...he did try to eat, really, but it was hard when any and all food had the appeal of wadded paper towels, which was the whole reason Vexen had him on IV, screw it. He didn't have the energy to think about this shit right now. He just...really needed to questing hand found Benji, where he'd been set on the bedside table, and pulled him into a hug...that used up all the energy he had left; now he just...just needed to...


He found himself in New Orleans first, standing in the middle of the street as people and cars went by and right through him, without a second's pause or a backwards glance. Evidently, no one could see him here either, or make physical contact; he was very much a ghost, after all. It was dark, but the clocks were showing an earlier time than he'd have expected; it must be roughly wintertime here too, though New Orleans didn't seem to be a great place for snow at any time of year. And there was some major celebrating going on; the streets were a riot of cheering and screaming and laughing, but the chaos didn't seem organized enough to be Mardi Gras, and the dominant colors seemed to be gold and black, instead of gold, green, and purple. And the fleur-de-lis seemed to feature heavily all of a sudden. It looked like a celebration of all things to do with American football, or more specifically all things to do with the home team.

What the hell's going on...did the Saints just win the Super Bowl or something? To satisfy his own curiosity, Demyx stepped into a bar that had several TVs going - walking through the wall like he'd done it every day for years. Apparently that was exactly what was going on; every television in the bar - and probably in the city - was displaying the aftermath of the football game, and displaying the winning scores quite prominently. Apparently, it was the first time the Saints had ever won the Super Bowl, and some vital encouragement for a city still reeling from the effects of that hurricane...

Well, that's one thing I can say that most people never will...I tried to fight a hurricane once. Got my ass kicked, but most people will never even try. With a faint, bitter smile on his ghostly lips, Demyx stared up at the closest TV, taking in the action; what he knew about football could fit very nicely into a bottlecap, but the TVs kept showing replays of a player in a Saints uniform, ball in hand, running like hell down the field as untouched and unobstructed as if he was the only man playing. The crowd couldn't get enough of it. "This is the happiest damn day of my life!" one man declared, and Demyx jerked as if he'd just been punched.

So the best day of your life just happens to be the last day of mine. Would you care if you knew? I'm nothing to you, just a stranger, a Nobody...but if you knew, would it bother you that on what you just declared was the happiest day of your life, someone died?

Screw it; it doesn't matter. There are probably a million or more people throughout the worlds who died today, and I wager I'm not nearly the youngest or the saddest.

I wonder if Axel and Roxas know yet. I wonder how they'll take least they'll still have each other.

I wonder if they'll be okay.

I wonder if they'll miss me.

With a soundless sigh, Demyx turned his back on the televisions and walked away, out of the bar, out of the neighborhood, out of the city.


He didn't jerk awake suddenly, this time; he simply rolled over in his sleep, and something about that motion made him wander back to consciousness. Once again, he came around wondering what the hell that dream had just been. That was the third time he'd dreamed about dying and becoming a ghost after the accident, and what was more, they seemed to be in sequence, one set after the other...what the hell was going on with that? The car accident was ages ago now; he'd never had dreams about it before, especially not like that...they were just so sad and frightening, whether he was awake or asleep...not to mention haunting. He had to lie back and take a few deep, careful breaths just to relax himself, and remind himself that the events of those dreams had never really happened. They couldn't have - there were details in there that he had no way of knowing in the real world. Like after the accident - he didn't know what shape the car was in, whether Roxas's door had been ripped off or his own door had been stuck so tight Xigbar had to crawl in the passenger side to get him. And he knew that New Orleans's hometown football team was called the Saints, but he didn't know anything about them winning the Super Bowl, let alone on the same day as the accident, and he had so little clue what went on in an American football game that he couldn't even be sure a man running down the field alone with the ball was anything good, let alone spectacular.

I've been stuck long-term in the hospital wing more than once since then. For even more traumatic reasons. I should be having bizarre flashbacks about those, not that stupid accident. Hell, Malenisa and Unktehi were each traumatic enough to make any sane person with a heart wake up screaming for months... He rolled over again, scowling at the wall, and found an oddly lumpy wrapped present sitting on his bedside table. Now that was new.

Working his way into more of a sitting position, he picked up the present and read the note that was taped to it. You were sleeping when we came in to give this to you, and we thought it would be healthier for you not to wake you up, it read in Roxas's handwriting. Have fun with it anyway; it might make your life a little less boring while you're stuck in here. Axel says "Merry Christmas", albeit really, really early, so you can blame him if mentioning it makes you cranky. Underneath the writing, a little silly face had been doodled, sticking its tongue out at him. Demyx couldn't help but chuckle at it as he set it aside and unwrapped the package.

The next place he found himself was on a sandy shoreline, mostly overgrown with beach grass, the waves leisurely washing straight through his feet. Even his own element wouldn't acknowledge his presence, now that he was dead, Demyx thought morosely. With an effort of will, he found he could still make the water go around him, as if he still had a physical presence, but seeing the water washing around his feet when his feet were all but invisible in the sunset light was rather disturbing. Soon, he gave up on that and let the water flow as it pleased.

It was a peaceful place, though. Peace had a lot going for it at the moment. Peace and beauty...he would have to prepare himself to move on sooner or later, and it seemed better to wait until he was relaxed and at peace and really ready to go, instead of right now, when he still couldn't get over how...totally unfair his sudden death was. Sitting down on a handy log, he stared out at the water, barely caring that the setting sun wasn't blinding like it should have been. The scene was beautiful, and all he wanted to do was sit and drink in the beauty for a while.

Time seemed to stop, while he was there. The sun never finished setting, as if it had frozen in place; it simply hung in the sky, a red-gold sphere casting a warm light over the sand and lending a golden shimmer to the water. Soon enough, Demyx began to feel calmer, not so angry at the unfairness of the was still unfair, though. Just because of a stupid deer in the road, when he was already so tired, and driving on bad roads he wasn't familiar with...and with his two best friends in the car with him, no less. Gods, he didn't want to go on to his next life and leave those two behind. He'd miss them so damn much, except he wouldn't even remember them. And he didn't want to forget them. They meant too damn much to him. And they would miss him too, wouldn't they? He hoped they did...well, he didn't want them to spend the entire rest of their lives moping over him, but he hoped they would at least think of him fondly every so often. It would hurt if they just went about their lives as if he'd never been part of them at all. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. He still wanted to be part of their lives. He still wanted to live his own life. It wasn't fair, for it to have been so full of pain and misfortune and then cut short before it had a chance to improve. A slow death would have been kinder; cancer would at least have let him say goodbye.

Then again...maybe I'm not over it enough yet.

A heron suddenly flew past to land in a nearby tree; the movement startled him and made him wonder how long he'd been sitting there. He couldn't stay here indefinitely, he realized...but he couldn't move on either, not yet. He wasn't ready yet. It still didn't feel like his time. But he couldn't wander the worlds as a ghost forever...he might just have to do it temporarily, until he was truly ready. Not to mention get in some things and places he'd always wanted to see in his life...even if he was only seeing them after his death, it might help him feel readier. With a soundless sigh, he stood up and wished himself - elsewhere.


It was a knock on the door that woke him up, this time; it took Demyx a few moments to work his way fully back to consciousness and realize what that was. "Just a second," he said, forcing himself to sit upright and grabbing for another surgical mask. The second he'd asked for also gave him time to try to forget that weird-ass dream he'd just had - yet another totally inexplicable episode in the "death by car accident" series. And this one, he was even less sure wasn't drawn from reality - he'd been on dozens of beaches in his life, at all times of day, and he might have been startled by a heron more than once before and not be surprised enough to remember even the next week. He couldn't know for certain whether this dream was bullshit or not. "All right, it's safe to come in now," he said once the mask was securely in place, eager for something to take his mind off the dream.

Thankfully, it turned out to be Axel, not Vexen, who Demyx would have been happy to never see again right then. Even if Axel's face was also half-hidden by a mask, he was such an improvement over the cranky old doctor there was no comparison. " are you holding up?" the redhead asked, sounding a little awkward and uncomfortable. Well, Demyx didn't blame him; those masks were probably horribly uncomfortable. "How did you like that...that..."

"Kantele?" Demyx picked up the instrument Axel was gesturing helplessly at, that looked like a flat, oddly shaped box with a sounding hole that had strings stretched over the top; he'd recognized it for what it was as soon as he'd unwrapped it. "It's fantastic. Where did you ever find it?" He cradled it in his lap like a child, and plucked out a short, simple melody on the strings - he wasn't going to admit how helpful that "How to Play" guide had been, even though it had been part of the package. He had a mystique to preserve, after all.

"Well, you find strange things on missions, you know," Axel said, ruffling his hair like he always did. "Including secondhand shops with weird instruments in the window. Roxas was the one who tracked down the 'How to Play' guide online somewhere. I told him you wouldn't need one, but he insisted..."

"Don't say things like that to him," Demyx said, aiming a mock punch at Axel's arm. "I mean, I'm sure he meant well -" And dammit, as if on cue, he started coughing again. It felt like it took him a full minute to stop hacking and spit out another wad of bloody phlegm. "Sorry about that," he groaned, once the evidence was disposed of. "It's gross, I know, but I kind of can't help it."

Axel's expression was hard to read, under the mask, but Demyx was familiar enough with him to recognize sorrow and concern when he saw it. "It sucks, doesn't it," he sighed, sitting down in the chair next to the bed. "That - I have to say it looked like it hurt."

"It did. But I can live with it."

Yet again, Demyx wished he could see Axel's face under the mask, as the redhead gave him another gentle punch in the arm. "Tough little bastard, you are," he said in a wry tone. "You need to be with the luck you have."

"Sadly, all I am is stubborn," Demyx grunted, unable to keep himself from smiling faintly, though Axel couldn't see his face any more than he could see Axel's.

"Stubborn works. If stubborn keeps you alive, stubborn is plenty good enough for me." Axel leaned down to give him a hug; that, at least, was safe, since TB wasn't spread by touch. "When the hell are you getting out of here? Regular life sucks without you around."

"Wish I could tell you. Wish I knew myself. I kind of assumed it would be whenever Vexen decides I'm not contagious anymore...whenever that is. It takes two months to finish the first course of antibiotics, so...probably at least another six weeks...unless I have a bad reaction to something and he has to change the medication around to something that will take even longer...fuck TB with a red-hot poker. I'm sick of this al-" And, of course, once his speech started getting a little too vehement, Demyx started coughing again. It didn't improve his mood any. "Fuck it in the ass with a rusty pitchfork!"

Axel was giving him a very odd look; maybe it wasn't all bad that Demyx couldn't see his entire expression. "...Okay. I'm going to demonstrate my brilliant deductive powers and guess that you're getting frustrated."

"What gave it away?" Demyx growled, setting the kantele aside and flopping onto the pillow. "I want out of here. I hate this little room, and I'm sick of listening to the ventilator, and I'm sick of being stuck here alone." Axel, thankfully, didn't say anything, just rested a comforting hand on his shoulder, until Demyx finally heaved a sigh. "Well, since you can leave, you should probably get out of here before Vexen kicks you out."

"All right," Axel said, ruffling his hair gently. "I'll be sure to drop in as often as I can get away with."

He turned to go, but for some reason, Demyx just couldn't let him quite yet. "Wait, more thing...this is gonna sound kinda stupid, but...remember that car accident?"

Axel paused on his way to the door. "Well, it's kind of hard to forget, unless you mean a totally different accident than I think you mean, but...why ask about it right now?"

"Well...I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it lately, for some reason," Demyx temporized; it would sound stupid to admit he'd been having a sequence of dreams about dying in the accident and then wandering as a ghost. "One thing I've been wondering - and this is going to sound kind of stupid - what kind of shape was the car in? Do you know? Because I've heard of accidents where the occupants were badly hurt or killed but the car was practically driveable..."

Axel laughed, but it sounded weak and strained. "Not that car, let me tell you. I dunno what shape the engine was in, but the body was a wreck. Roxas's door had been ripped clean off somehow, and I couldn't get your door open for love nor munny. Granted, I wasn't exactly in the best shape to try."

Demyx's blood ran cold for an instant - that was how it had been in his dreams, and Axel would know how it had been in reality. But thankfully, the mask hid what reactions he couldn't control. "...All right, that does sound pretty bad," he said, as if the condition of the car really had been most of what had concerned him. "That satisfies my curiosity for now. Now you'd better go before Vexen catches you."

"You're not going to believe this, but...I actually feel kind of hungry."

Vexen actually looked vaguely impressed at those words, though whatever hint of an expression he was capable of behind that mask quickly vanished. "Excellent," he said, though he seemed as unenthused as ever. "Have your other symptoms improved at all?"

"Well, I have a little actual energy now. Not much - I'm still sleeping a lot - but some. And I'm definitely coughing less," Demyx answered easily, his mood improved along with his general health. "I'm just...feeling better overall."

Vexen actually looked a little approving at that, though it might have been Demyx's imagination. "Excellent," he repeated. "The antibiotic therapy is apparently having some beneficial effect. Once you stop coughing entirely, you will most likely be no longer contagious and therefore fit to release, albeit with continued antibiotic treatment."

"...That's the best news I've heard in ages," Demyx said with utmost sincerity as Vexen set his daily doses of everything on the table. "How long do you think that might take?"

"Difficult to estimate; there are too many variables. But it would not be unreasonable to say that by the end of intensive antibiotic therapy -" A loud buzzer rang out suddenly, and Vexen jerked, looking thoroughly displeased. Demyx twitched slightly - was that how the big red emergency buzzer in the front room worked? If so, that meant someone else in the Organization was hurt... "If your appetite is improving, your meals will be adjusted accordingly...I will return later," Vexen said, glaring at the wall as he disappeared from the room, leaving Demyx to sit and wonder what exactly was going on and who was hurt and how badly. He took his many pills, because it wasn't like he had anything else to do, but other than that, he could do nothing but sit there and worry, and eventually sleep.


He wandered the worlds as a ghost for a very long time, through many dreams, gathering sounds and images and memories from places he'd never been in his life. Everywhere he went, he searched first and foremost for beauty, and inevitably found it, on an island in a lake set ablaze by sunrise or an oasis tucked deep in a desert canyon or a single bold flower forcing its way up through the concrete. He drank it all in, right along with every ringing church bell and every symphony orchestra and every child singing in the street. There was so much out there, and he felt now that he'd experienced far too little of it during his too-short life. Or perhaps he'd only been blind to it, too caught up in his own worries and troubles to pay attention? Such a pity...but at least he was allowed this second chance, however long it lasted, to go out and find all the beauty he'd missed and keep a little bit for himself, just for a little while.

He only wished his friends could see this.

Of course, he reflected, as he wandered from a streetlight performance by a quartet of street musicians to a hill of poppies waving in a hazy twilight to a tropical shore lit by a setting moon, if they were still alive, and would recover eventually, they would still have a chance to experience all this beauty for themselves. He hoped they took advantage of it. Maybe, when they did, they'd think of him, and how much he would have enjoyed it... Would they miss him? He liked to think so, but he hoped they wouldn't miss him too much. He didn't want them to be crippled without him. He wanted them to live, and enjoy all this beauty for themselves someday, and think of him...

Those thoughts didn't cause him pain, for once, and as he watched a school of tiny fish dance in the waves, through and around his translucent fingers, he realized he was finally ready to go. He spent one final moment soaking in the beauty of this island and this moonlight and these precious little fish, then willed himself elsewhere, away from this world and all the worlds he knew, into the unknown.

He found himself in a sunny field, with green grass underfoot and a brilliantly blue sky with appropriately white, fluffy clouds overhead. The scene was as beautiful as any he'd wandered through before, in its own way, but he could tell that there was something...other about it. It wasn't truly part of the worlds he knew. It was just the next world over - and yet, a world from which there was no return. He looked down just to confirm it - yes, he was finally solid and all the way in the world. Except...

No, he thought with a sudden panic. I...I can't. I'm not really ready. I have to see them again, one more time - I have to go home - Knowing full well that it was futile, he willed himself away from here, away to the worlds he'd left behind, the home he'd left behind, even though he knew he was past the point of no return...

And all of a sudden, he was back at the castle, and back to being translucent. But - how? How had he been able to return from the other side? Had he not really crossed over yet or something? Well, whatever the reason...he was here now, which was what he'd wanted a second ago. After a moment of confusion about what he really did want, he decided to just accept this turn of events and do as he'd intended - look in on his friends one last time.


He was jerked awake by someone at the door - not knocking politely, but pounding, insistently and urgently. No matter how startling it was, he made sure to put his mask on before answering. "C-come in," he stammered, trying to hide how startled he was, or that he'd just been jarred out of yet another freaky dream. Whoever it was seemed to be in a big enough hurry; he didn't want them to feel guilty about waking him.

It turned out to be Axel, though he could only really tell from the hair. He had that filter mask on, as usual, but what Demyx could see of his face was flushed and oddly puffy, his eyes were as red as his hair, and he was crying. Not just crying - he was sobbing quietly as he sat down next to Demyx's bed, with an oddly raspy note, as if he'd been sobbing for so long his voice had been damaged and he still wasn't stopping. Demyx wondered for a moment what could possibly make him so upset, and then he remembered shortly before he'd gone to sleep - the buzzer that had dragged Vexen away suddenly - and he knew. "It's Roxas, isn't it," he whispered, his blood running cold, and Axel only nodded and hugged him tightly, sobbing into his shoulder. Demyx let him, holding him silently and patting his back comfortingly, ignoring the tears that were suddenly streaming down his own face, until Vexen came and dragged Axel away.

Objectively, Demyx knew he should eat. The little salad was just sitting there, as appealing as anything, with spinach and strawberries and bell pepper and all sorts of other things he would have put in it if he'd been making it himself. But he had so little interest in little interest in anything. Honestly, what was the point? He knew that he was losing weight again, and that Vexen was getting pissy because his recovery seemed to have stalled in its tracks just when it started to become significant...why did it matter? He was still taking his medication religiously...why bother? He'd taken his hearing aids out after Axel had been dragged out of his room days ago and hadn't put them back in until Vexen forced him to yesterday, preferring to lie in silence...who cared? There were things in life more precious than even a musician's hearing, and he'd lost one of them.

I thought we were going to stay young, awesome, and together forever...especially's not fair. It's not fair.

He still had the note from Roxas, that came with the kantele. He'd read it and re-read it so many times that it was steadily wearing to tatters, but he couldn't put it down. He couldn't let go of it. He couldn't remember what Roxas had said to him on his last visit - he couldn't even remember what they'd talked about - but as long as he still had that note, he still had something. It didn't nearly make up for sitar lessons and ice cream and shopping trips and being the truest friend Demyx could have asked for when he needed one the most. All those late-night conversations, all those nights he'd spent sleeping on Roxas's floor when Axel was drunk and in the mood for violence, all the work Roxas had had to do - work he was entirely too young for - trying to keep Axel and Demyx both alive and sane while Axel was trying to sober up and Demyx was trying to recover from his last and worst assault...he'd been so brave, to be the adult of the group, and keep his head on straight when both his big brothers were losing theirs in a hurry...and it all came down to this. And Demyx hadn't been there. He hadn't been able to say goodbye. He didn't even know what had happened. And he should have.

There was a knock on the door. Demyx would have liked to tell whoever was on the other side to get lost and let him rot in peace, but instead, like an automaton, he pulled a face mask on and grunted "Come in" like he'd been programmed to. Somewhat to his surprise, his visitor wasn't Axel or Vexen, but Lexaeus. "Oh...hi," he mumbled unenthusiastically, unable to make eye contact. "What do you want?"

Lexaeus didn't answer right away, just went over and gave him a massive hug. Demyx started to cry for no reason, simply because he was just now realizing how badly he'd needed one, and Lexaeus seemed perfectly content to let him. "Your friends are safe," he murmured finally, his deep voice penetrating straight through the face mask.

Demyx rubbed at his eyes, trying to wipe the tears away, but they just kept coming. "But...Roxas..." he choked, unable to say anything beyond that.

"He will be in the hospital wing for a long time, but he is safe." Demyx stopped crying instantly, all but paralyzed by that news. "Now...will you eat? Vexen is worried about you; he's afraid you might be about to relapse."

Demyx stared at the salad on the bedside table like he'd never seen it before. How did it even matter? Roxas was still alive. That was what mattered. "What happened?" he demanded, needing first and foremost to know everything about everything he'd missed. Why was Roxas in the hospital wing at all? Why hadn't Axel said a word to him about it? Why hadn't he seen Axel even once since that day?

There was a long pause before Lexaeus finally answered. "There was...a disaster on the mission," he said finally; Demyx had to force himself not to roll his eyes at that extremely vague description. "The only one on the mission at the time who can still speak coherently is Fourteen, and she...can be difficult to understand at the best of times. The mission was to an active war zone, the best of my knowledge, there was an attack involving poisonous gas." Demyx made an involuntary squeaking noise, visions of asphyxiating nightmares dancing through his head. "Eight was towards the outer edge of the gas cloud and managed to escape quickly, but even so, he's lost his voice, and his eyes are still badly irritated."

Demyx shuddered violently, trying not to think about what that toxic gas must have done but unable to stop himself from doing exactly that. "And...Roxas?" he asked carefully, not sure he wanted to know.

"Much more badly affected," Lexaeus said gravely. "If help had not been so close to hand - very specialized help - he might not have survived. But - there was, and he did. And he will recover."

It was good news, Demyx supposed - better news than he'd expected to ever hear again, when he woke up this morning. But there was something still off, some shadow lingering in the Silent Hero's eyes, that said the full story hadn't yet been told. "Who else was on that mission?" he asked carefully. "What happened to them?"

There was silence for a long moment. "...Xigbar was also on that mission," Lexaeus said finally. "His condition is...very serious."

That was it, then. No further details, no reassurances that he would recover sooner or later. Demyx could read between the lines of that one easily enough. "...Well," he said slowly, choosing his words with care. "Tell him that if he dies, I will come hunt him down and kill him."

It was probably his imagination, but Demyx thought Lexaeus actually smiled a little behind that mask. "I will...though knowing him, I doubt he needs threats to encourage him to survive. He would do so simply to spite death if he had no better reason. Now, Vexen would be very unhappy with me if I disturbed you too much, so I will take my leave now, and you had better eat, and rest."

Demyx only nodded silently as the Silent Hero made his way out of the room, his hands folding and twisting with anxiety under the blanket. Eat? He didn't want to eat, after hearing news like that...granted, it turned out the truth wasn't nearly as bad as he'd thought, but it was still plenty scary...well, he did have to eat, though. Vexen had enough patients now without him being more difficult than he had to be. Reluctantly, he picked up the salad bowl and gave it his best effort, but the best he could do was pick at it for a while before setting it back down. Sleep had more appeal at the moment anyway. Maybe, for once, he wouldn't dream about that stupid car accident...


The biggest obstacle, at the moment, was that Demyx wasn't sure where in the castle he was. He was in a long, white hallway, but that long, white hallway could be just about anywhere, including around the corner from his own bedroom or in an area of the castle that wasn't even inhabited. And it wasn't like he could just portal to some blatantly familiar area...well, then again, he could walk through walls now, he reflected with a bitter smile. If nothing else, it would be easier than wandering the maze of hallways until he went from totally lost to irretrievably lost.

With a faint sigh, he set off on a direct path through the nearest wall, into the crawl space with all the pipes, which he was slightly familiar with - who would do the plumbing now that he was gone, he wondered? Xigbar probably knew the most about the castle's inner workings, but he had more demands on his time than time on his hands - straight through, and into the hallway on the other side. Yet another long, white hallway, as it turned out, just as featureless as the one he'd started in. This might take a while. Then again, it wasn't like he had anything better to do with his time. He just walked on through the next wall, and the next wall, and the next, until he suddenly found himself in the big walk-in refrigerator next to the kitchen. It was an odd place to end up, but at least it wasn't another long white hallway, and he could find his way around from there. Through the door into the kitchen, out the kitchen door and take a left, down the hall to the first intersection and take another left...just in time for Xigbar and Vexen to walk straight into/through him, never even noticing he was there. Hell, he hadn't expected them to, and for the hell of it, he decided to follow them for a bit and listen in on their conversation; it wasn't like it would hurt anything. "- quite encouraged by the progress so far," Vexen was saying.

Even from behind, Demyx could practically see the skeptical look on Xigbar's face. "How encouraged? That didn't actually answer my question. How much more progress does he have to make? How much more progress is he likely to make? Is there going to be anything left worth the effort by the time we're done?"

"It depends entirely on what you mean by 'anything left worth the effort'; as I already told you, brain injuries of any severity can be extremely unpredictable in terms of degree and length of recovery," Vexen replied, sounding affronted. "What degree of recovery would you consider -"

"Consciousness. Actual consciousness. An aware, thinking mind, as opposed to just a breathing body working on nothing but reflex. Because if that's all the better he's going to do, it would be positively cruel -"

Demyx stopped dead at that - who were they talking about, Axel or Roxas? Either way, it - blessed Gods, what a nightmare. He'd seen them both come around after the accident, if only for a little while, but head injuries could be tricky...things could be so much worse than they looked at first glance... Spurred by sudden fear, Demyx took off running in the other direction, towards the hospital wing, straight through the walls instead of wasting time navigating the hallways. Of course, he just managed to get himself completely lost again, in another endless span of white hallways. Suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety and despair, he stopped in his tracks and began to "cry".


Demyx stopped crying immediately. All of a sudden, Saix was standing there looking at him. Not through him, at him. "You can...see me?" he choked, hardly able to believe it - he'd spent so long invisible, he'd come to expect it.

"Yes, and I was wondering why I hadn't." Saix said, clearly quite cool with the whole seeing ghosts thing. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd already moved on, and Four was wasting his time maintaining an essentially dead body. Or worse, you were trapped inside a body that could no longer move."

"...What?" That was ridiculous. That was insane. There couldn't be...couldn't be anything left for Vexen to maintain...he'd been killed instantly... "But...I'm already dead..."

Saix gave him a look that was difficult to interpret. "Not precisely," he said after a moment. "It is entirely possible that you should be, and yet...are not. You have parted ways with your physical body, and yet remain in the physical world. Now...where are you going from here?"

"How do you mean?" Demyx asked, more than a little confused by this whole "not precisely dead" idea. Had he been the one Xigbar and Vexen were talking about? "I mean...where else can I go from here? I mean...I only stopped here before moving on to see how everyone was my body actually still alive, or just on life support?"

"I'm given to understand that it is breathing and opening its eyes on its own, but with no evidence of a conscious mind behind it. For...obvious reasons."

"Oh..." He wasn't really dead? This was just some kind of prolonged out-of-body experience, he wasn't really dead...he wasn't really dead? "I almost went," he said in sudden shock. "I spent so long trying to prepare myself, I thought I was ready, I thought I was already dead...but when I got over there, I realized...I just had to see everyone again..." Saix was staring at him in utter disbelief now, and Demyx felt compelled to defend what he'd just said. "I mean...I know it wasn't any of the worlds I knew...I was actually solid, all the way in the world, not - not see-through like I am now..."

"Truly," Saix said, with what might have been insulting calmness if he wasn't obviously throttling some stronger reaction. "You crossed over and...came back. Did you pass through the gate?"


"Never mind. If you had, you would know. But even from the World Between Worlds..." Now Saix seemed to be looking through him - or into him. "Still waters run deep indeed. If you had been born in Etrylar..." He trailed off and shook his head. "Neither here nor there. Now where are you going to go?"

Demyx was that close to saying of course he was staying here, he didn't want to die, but the words wouldn't come out. After all, the entire reason he was having this prolonged out-of-body experience was that his body had suffered a severe brain injury, severe enough that it could and maybe should have been fatal. What effects would it have, if he decided to return to that damaged body and live? Would he be blind? Completely deaf? Paralyzed? Unable to walk or speak or feed himself? Would himself even be the same person? Would his personality be so drastically altered his friends would no longer know him? Would he start thinking chairs were gazelles or other such bizarre garbage? Would he lose his ability to play or write or even appreciate music - Gods, what a horror that would be. Would he be so badly brain-damaged that he wouldn't even be able to form a coherent thought anymore? Or worse - wake up to find his mind completely intact, and his body completely paralyzed? Just a body in a bed, helpless and motionless and praying for death to save him from the prison his own body had become? Xigbar was right; it would be cruel... "Do you think I should have died?" he whispered, addressing his own feet more than Saix.

"I cannot say," Saix said with perfect calmness. "The only decision that matters is yours."

Demyx felt like he was standing at the edge of a cliff. One step forward would send him to a death that might be his only salvation; one step back would bring him back to a life that might no longer be worth living. How could he decide, when he didn't know - but how could he know until he'd already decided? How could he decide? But when the only other option was remaining in this ghostly limbo indefinitely - how could he not? "...Tell Vexen to give me one more week," he said finally, his voice steadier than it had any right to be. "If I haven't woken up in a week...well, you'll know what my decision was."

The kantele was actually speaking to him now. Granted, it was probably only speaking to him so soon because he hadn't had much else to do but practice with it for weeks, and it was only at the simple-conversations stage, but even a simple conversation could be a thing of beauty. Right then, he was trying to make it tell a ghost story, and while still reluctant, it obeyed. As his fingers tripped across the strings, coaxing out a delicate, haunting tune, he couldn't help but think of a boy, dead too soon and wondering what to do...a boy wandering the worlds as a ghost, so lost and lonely, trying to find all the beauty he could before he finally accepted his fate and moved on, and then a homecoming more bitter than sweet, as he wrestled with the decision whether to live again or die...

"I already know this story," he whispered to the kantele. "I've been dreaming it piece by piece, ever since I entered the hospital wing...starting at the death...and all the journeys, through all the worlds..."

A knock at the door interrupted his musings, and he had to set the instrument aside and pull a face mask on just in time for Axel to come in, still looking like someone had just shot his dog. Despite his bleak expression, Demyx couldn't help but smile when he saw him. "You scared me, I hope you know," he said, reaching up to give his friend a reassuring hug. "I thought Roxas was dead, until Lexaeus came by and let me know otherwise."

Axel's expression didn't change, as far as Demyx could tell, as he backed out of the hug. I'm sorry, he signed - apparently his voice was still out of commission. I was too upset to think straight. I didn't think about what you might think.

"I can forgive you," Demyx said, motioning to the chair next to his bed. Axel sat down as if he was barely aware of what he was doing. " to me. Sign to me. Whatever. Communicate with me."

About what?

"Anything. That mission. The latest gossip. Fried chicken. Whatever. I just need a human to talk to."

...Fried chicken? You must be desperate... There might have been a slight hint of a smile under that mask, but it vanished quickly. I made such a fool of myself on that mission.

A fool of himself? Demyx hadn't heard anything along those he was reluctant to ask about it, for fear of making Axel feel worse. "...What exactly happened?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

I ran for it, Axel signed, barely making eye contact. As soon as I smelled the gas and my eyes started watering...I just ran. I left Roxas and Xigbar there. If Xanrivash hadn't been there, they would have died. He buried his head in his hands for a moment, then peeked through his fingers, as if making sure Demyx wasn't about to tear him a new one.

He couldn't have, even if he'd wanted to; Axel just looked so miserable and ashamed of himself that all Demyx really wanted to do was comfort him, even if all he could do was lean over and pat him on the shoulder. "Well, really...better Xanrivash run to the rescue than you. I mean, it's not like she'd be hurt at all by poison gas..."

I know, Axel signed, after wiping his eyes. But that's no excuse. I shouldn't have run. I should have at least tried...

"So she would have had to rescue you too? So you could be choking on a respirator right now? Axel...getting yourself out of there before you were totally incapacitated was probably the most helpful thing you could possibly have done."

Axel only glowered morosely at him. If you were there, you wouldn't have run away, you would have run back to get them.

"...Okay, there are three things wrong with that statement. One, I've never been in that situation, so you can't be sure it's true. I'm sure I would have run; I can't tell you which way. Two, even if I tried to run to the rescue, I don't need to breathe air. I can breathe water instead, which is something you cannot do. Three, even if I tried to run to the rescue, and even in light of the fact that I can breathe water instead of air, it still would have been stupid of me when Xanrivash was right there."

You'd still feel bad if you didn't.

"I wasn't arguing that point. In fact, I'm sure you're right on that count. But that doesn't change any of my previous points."

Axel just stared at him for several moments. Finally, he shrugged and shook his head, but somehow Demyx felt sure he was smiling just a little beneath the mask. You make yourself hard to argue with sometimes. His face fell again. I can't stop thinking about it anyway, and if something really bad happens - I mean, Vexen said Xigbar -

"I know," Demyx said, having no qualms about cutting his friend off in a good cause. Axel just stared at him for a second before letting his hands drop. "Vexen hasn't told me much - when does he ever - but Lexaeus was kind enough to fill me in, at least. If something really bad happens, we'll all feel horrible - that's how we know we aren't the soulless bastards normal people say we are. And you know what else...I still wouldn't say you should have done anything different."

...Even if?

"Even if."

There was silence for a moment, then Axel leaned over and hugged Demyx tightly. I hope we don't have to find out if you're right or not, he signed after he let go. But thank you.

Demyx might have said something in response, but there was suddenly another sharp knock on the door. Neither of them had to ask to know that was Vexen. Axel promptly disappeared through a portal, while Demyx wasted time fiddling with his mask as if he was putting a fresh one on. "Come in," he said, once the coast was clear and Axel was safely gone. As he'd known, it was Vexen, with his daily dose of everything. "Bet you'll be glad to see the last of me for a while..."

"Knowing as much as I do of your track record, I expect you to be back in my care within three weeks of returning to duty," Vexen said, setting the medicine down on the table as usual. "Are you still experiencing a productive cough?"

"...Okay, I'm going to ignore the thinly veiled insult in favor of the fact that, praise Ganesha, I think you actually made a joke there. And no; I'm barely coughing at all anymore." Demyx half-smiled as he picked up the cup of pills and looked into it, thinking of how soon he might get out of the hospital wing and free Vexen would have more time to take care of Roxas and Xigbar. Gods damn it to every Hell individually, in sequence. Well, Lexaeus had said Roxas will be okay, a very concrete will, and anything that didn't kill Xigbar right off the bat had probably missed its chance...because that made him feel so much better and totally not guilty about being able to escape first. "And you already know my appetite is better, I have more energy, the fever is pretty much gone..." Really, he just wanted Vexen out of there all of a sudden. He felt better than he had in almost two months; he wasn't the one that needed medical attention.

And it worked; Vexen simply sniffed at him, said "Very well; I can see you have no further need of me," and walked out. Gratified, Demyx pulled his mask off, took his medicine, settled back with the kantele, and realized he suddenly felt incredibly lonely. Sighing to himself, he plucked at the strings, trying to continue the story it had been telling him when Axel came in. It didn't take him long to find the thread again, and soon he couldn't help but smile. The tune was still so haunting, and the story still so tragic, but... "I tried to tell you earlier, I already know this story," he whispered as he set the kantele aside and settled down for a nap. "I already know how it ends."


One day.

Six days had already passed since his conversation with Saix, and the start of his self-imposed seven-day limit. Six days had passed, and he had one more day to decide whether he wanted to live or die before - well, before the decision would be made for him. Granted, since his body was breathing on its own, Vexen would have to disconnect his feeding tube and wait for him to starve - and blessed Gods, he did not want that, even if it would technically extend his grace time. And even if he did decide to move on, he didn't want his friends to have to see that. They'd been in to visit him a few times, mostly the last few days. Once he finally found his way to the hospital wing, he'd been hanging around there pretty much all the time, mostly looking and listening in on his friends; he'd looked in on his own comatose body a few times, while his friends weren't there, but it was just...too disturbing. It wasn't quite like looking at his own dead body, since it was breathing and everything, but...those eyes. Those were dead eyes. Maybe it was just because his soul or consciousness or whatever was currently residing outside his body, but - it still frightened him deeply. Maybe, if he chose to return to that body, that was how he would be forever...

Was it worth the risk to live? Was it worth the pain to die? He had one day to decide.

To be honest, he was leaning towards leaving. Even Axel and Roxas were talking like they didn't expect him to wake up, Vexen seemed to have figured he'd done all the recovering he was going to do, and...well, Demyx had been doing a lot of reading over Roxas's shoulder, and Roxas had been reading up on closed head injuries and what sort of effects they had, and it was not encouraging. Seizures, thought disorders, personality changes, physical paralysis, permanent mental deficiencies...honestly, it was amazing his body could still breathe on its own. And he knew he'd been having seizures once or twice a week...blessed Gods, imagine if he tried to continue with his regular life around that. And if that was the worst of it, he'd be getting off lightly indeed. He could just imagine himself stumbling around like a drunk for the rest of his life, unable to cook for himself anymore, or play sitar, or walk a straight line, or put a whole sentence together...

I'm sorry, guys. Call me a coward - I've earned it - but I just can't face that.

But he just couldn't move on yet, not when he still had a little time to put off the decision. Right now, Roxas was stopping by Axel's room, to collect him for their daily visit - most likely the last time they'd see him "alive", or at least while his soul was still within the mortal realm. And tomorrow, Vexen would come in and disconnect his feeding tube, and Axel and Roxas would be horrified and upset, but maybe they'd understand anyway...and he wished he could say goodbye, and this was the closest he'd ever come. Sighing inaudibly, he followed them into the room where his body was, and listened as they greeted his essentially-dead body as if they thought he was actually in there, then resumed talking to each other as if they were alone in the room. "I wonder if maybe he's still in there somewhere," Axel said, clearly totally unaware of where Demyx actually was right then. "He smiles whenever he sees us, and sometimes when we come in here he's crying...wouldn't it be the irony of a lifetime if it turns out all that's left in there is emotions. That'd put a bug up certain asses."

"Could you not talk like that?" Roxas snapped in response - he didn't seem so willing to believe Demyx wasn't coming back, despite all the reading he'd been doing. He was probably just in denial, but he'd be so devastated anyway...almost, almost, Demyx changed his mind, thinking about that. But - no. Considering what he was likely to wake up to, which Roxas should know just as well as he did, it was better that he not wake up at all.

"I said if," Axel said petulantly. "I have no idea how long it's supposed to take for him to wake up from...wherever he is right now. Maybe his soul is off touring the worlds without his body." And Demyx froze, because that was exactly where he'd been and what he'd been doing. If he could have cried, he probably would have.

"...Are you being serious?" Roxas was glaring at Axel as if he'd spoken some unforgivable insult; he looked ready to jump him and defend Demyx's honor with his fists, size difference be damned. It might have been funny, if the whole situation wasn't so awful.

"Oh, hell no. I've been too serious for my own good for too damn long, got it memorized? Besides, it's better than thinking he's stuck in there somewhere and can't get out...or is just not anywhere anymore..." And the way Axel was looking down at him just... "If you think of his soul of being gone on a worlds tour, you open up the likelihood of it coming back eventually. And if on the off chance it doesn't, then maybe it ended up somewhere nicer than here." And Demyx thought about all the beautiful worlds he'd visited, the weeks he'd spent wandering, and - why had he returned to the castle? Why hadn't he left long before now?

"That's a little...morbid yet oddly comforting." They were why. They were why everything.

"Thanks, I do my best." And Axel leaned down and tapped his hearing aid, as if he was trying to get his attention - as if there was something left in there, as if he thought he might be heard. "Well, when your soul gets back from its big tour of the worlds, we wanna hear all about it, okay?"

I...screw it. Screw it. Screw the consequences. I can't...I...I have to... And Demyx closed his eyes, and focused his will on one thing and one thing only...the end of this ghostly, unreal half-existence...

And all of a sudden, the only thing he was aware of was that his head hurt, he felt nauseous, and something was messing with his hearing aid. The hearing aid thing was the only one he could think how to fix right then, so he swatted at whatever it was, and found himself with a grip on someone's wrist. "Quit fuckin' with my ear," he grunted at whoever it was, hoping they might go away and let him sleep.

Whoever it was didn't try to get their wrist back. "Kingdom Hearts...he's awake. I think he's really awake..."


He blinked and opened his eyes, lying still and comfortable for a few more minutes, then sat up slightly, a faint smile on his face as he set eyes on the kantele. "Well, I hope that's the end of those dreams for a while," he murmured, settling back down again. "But I was trying to tell you before that nap...I already knew how that story would end. I knew he'd decide to live."

AN: Well.

This is the love child of two separate story ideas - "what if Demyx was having an out-of-body experience the whole time he was in a coma during Aftermath" and "let's give Demyx TB". Then I went "but I don't have the powers of concentration to write both at the same time, I have to pick one!" Then I went "I'll just put them together into one long story! And this resulted.

As with "Blood Ties", there will soon be a short epilogue to tie everything up. And yes, Demyx has his artificial hand now. And yes, I played fast and loose with the RL timeline.

Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts and all associated characters are the property of Square Enix and Disney.