"...There's something wrong here."

"What, you mean the fact that we're not chilling at home, instead of slogging our way through yet another generic medieval forest to another generic medieval town in the hopes that there may be enough Heartless around to make it less than a complete waste of time?"

"Besides that," Demyx said with a scowl, not wanting to put up with any of Axel's sass right at that moment. "What the hell do you take me for? I meant there's something wrong with the world."

"There's something wrong with your head, is more likely," Roxas said, giving Demyx a shove that was probably meant to be playful but came across as simply aggressive. "It's just another boring, same-old, outdated world. Only probably more so."

"So was Angrejar," Demyx muttered under his breath, kicking at a rock. He'd hoped to unearth some sort of interesting creature, but all he found was more dirt, which didn't improve his mood any, or alleviate his sense that something was deeply wrong. "And didn't Angrejar turn out to be just the most boring, unexciting -"

"Shut up!" Roxas snapped with real venom, giving him a harder shove; Demyx had to grab his arm and threaten to give it a nasty twist to dissuade him. "This is just another stupid, boring world! If there was anything that screwed up here, don't you think that maybe, you know, someone else might notice it?"

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence in my intelligence," Demyx growled, releasing Roxas's arm and resisting the urge to give him a shove in return. "Maybe, just maybe, I'm paying just a little bit more attention than either of you."

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence in our intelligence," Axel snarled, glowering at both of them, but Demyx slightly more so. "Demyx, you're imagining shit, got it memorized? Now both of you shut your mouths so we can actually get this damn mission finished instead of standing around bitching all day."

Demyx scowled even deeper and kicked another rock, again revealing nothing but dirt. "Something crawled up both your asses and died this morning."

The rock ended up rolling to Axel's feet, and Axel picked it up and flung it in some other direction. "Same shit that keeps coming out of your mouth, I'd say."

"Douchebag..." Feeling like this subtly screwed-up world was somehow affecting his best friends and turning them both into complete jerks, Demyx kicked over yet another rock, revealing still more dirt, and flung it deeper into the woods himself. "You wouldn't know shit if you stepped in it. Time was, the two of you actually came close to giving one about what I said and thought. What happened to that?"

"You lost your mind, is what," Roxas said, throwing a rock in Demyx's general direction. It missed by a mile, but it was the thought that counted.

"Throw another rock at me and I'm gonna make you eat it, all right?" Demyx snapped, then paused suddenly, taking a moment to think about how hostile they were all being all of a sudden. Were they all just having a bad day right then, or was this part of whatever was just not right with this world...? "Seriously, you guys weren't such pisswads before we left the castle."

"You weren't fuckin' hallucinating before we left the castle, either!"

"Yeah, if you're so utterly convinced that there's something horribly wrong with this world, why don't you do something novel like, I dunno, explain what the hell it is?"

Demyx sighed, rubbing his forehead - by the time Roxas started swearing, things were really going downhill in a hurry. How was he going to convince them...? "Look, I'm sorry, but I really don't know how to explain it," he sighed, trying to keep his own temper and vocabulary in check. "I just...ever since we got here, I've just had the sense that...something is very wrong with this world. Something subtle, but...deep. I dunno what else to call it, but something is really wrong here. And...you know what? We should just...Gods damn it, we have to get out of here. This world is...I dunno, toxic or something. The longer we -"

All of a sudden, he found himself flat on the ground with an aching face, and Axel towering over him. "Look, you stupid chickenshit," Axel ground out, jabbing a finger in Demyx's face as if it was a gun he wanted to shoot him with. "I am the senior man on this mission. Not you. And I am not going to scrub the Goddamn mission just because you decided you'd rather sit on your ass at the castle and play sitar all day than go out and do a little actual fucking work, got that fucking memorized? Now shut the fuck up."

There wasn't much Demyx could do besides pull himself to his feet and try to keep quiet, though the vague anxiety he'd been feeling all along had solidified into a cold dread. In theory, he could get the mission scrubbed by returning to the castle and saying Axel had attacked him, but not only would that actually make the bad feelings worse all around, if Axel could convince them that Demyx had been the one acting erratically, one punch could be written off as justified. And it wasn't like punching Axel back would make anything better. All he could do was grit his teeth and keep his mouth shut, knowing full well they were cruising for disaster.

To be honest, Roxas would have been more than happy to scrub the mission and go home. Not because he actually believed Demyx's paranoid rambling, but because he felt lazy today and wished he could go back to the castle and sleep in. But if Axel was willing to knock Demyx flat by way of saying no, Roxas wasn't about to risk his face by pushing the issue. It was just a shame Demyx was too chicken to use that as an excuse to go home and get the mission called off, because between the paranoid asshole and the violent asshole, this was not going to be fun.

They were finally coming to the first tiny little hamlet on their list, an unlovely collection of maybe ten houses and a church. If the forest they'd traveled through had been boring, the town was so plain as to be simply ugly, just dirt and mud and plain wooden houses without a splash of paint or a hint of decorative carvings, and the church was just as boring and ugly as the houses. There weren't even any flower gardens as far as he could see. It was almost as if the place had been designed to be as unattractive as possible - it would almost have been more attractive if it had been more aggressively ugly. Falling-down shacks would have been more visually interesting. "Welcome to Boringworld; please don't enjoy your stay," Axel muttered, eyeing a woman who was busy working in a vegetable garden - her face was pretty enough, for all it could use a wash, but her clothing was as bland and unappealing as the house the garden was next to. Apparently these people had never heard of dyed cloth any more than they'd heard of house paint, or for that matter, flattering clothes; she might as well have been wearing a floor-length potato sack with sleeves, tied at the waist with a piece of rope. And her hair was cut brutally short, probably to keep it out of her face; the cut certainly didn't flatter her. She was still probably the most desirable woman in town, which didn't speak well for the other women. Roxas wasn't really in a position to judge the appeal of the men, but judging from the scowl on Axel's face as he looked around, there weren't any real standouts there either. "Jesus Christ on a carnival ride, I almost wish I had scrubbed the mission."

The novelty of that particular expression might have gotten a chuckle out of Roxas back at the castle, but the bleak, bland surroundings had his temper too far on edge to care enough to comment. Since Axel was much bigger than he was, he turned his sour mood on Demyx, who was kneeling in front of the potter's house, examining a small cluster of pots that were just as bland and boring as everything else. "No smart comment from you?" he growled, tempted to give Demyx a kick in the rear just to be spiteful, except they might break a pot and get in a world of trouble. "Axel's IQ has dropped far enough that he might actually be agreeing with you now."

"Shut up. I'm thinking. You should try it sometime." Demyx set down the pot he'd been looking at and straightened up, not even bothering to dust himself off. "As far as scrubbing goes, I still think it would be the best thing to do," he said, his expression and voice equally grave. "The more time we spend here, the more convinced I am that -"

"I said almost, chickenshit," Axel said, shoving Demyx hard enough to make him stumble. "Jesus. Fucking coward. I only said that because this place is so damn boring. Not because I'm scared of my own fucking shadow."

"Absence of fear isn't bravery, you walking dick, it's stupidity," Demyx growled, pointedly turning his back; Axel only shoved him again, nearly knocking him over. "Do that again and I'll break your arms."

"And I would just love to see you try, chickenshit."

"Don't make me."

"I couldn't. You wouldn't, you fucking coward; you don't even have the balls to eat anything that used to breathe."

"If you had enough brains to stuff a walnut shell, you'd realize you're proving me right."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"That you're an idiot."

"Would you two shut up?" Roxas snapped, not having the patience to listen to those two bitch at each other anymore. "If we're not gonna call off the stupid mission, then why don't we do something really creative like actually finish the damn thing so we can ever go home, instead of just having another little bitchfight every five minutes?"

Axel turned at that, with the clear intention of rounding on him next, but Demyx spoke first. "Don't even start, Ax. You know he's right," he said in a bleak tone. "It's finish the mission or scrub it, and you didn't seem eager to scrub it. And there's not enough to this ugly little burg to hide a shrunken Shadow, so..."

"Fine, you stupid jackasses," Axel muttered, turning back around and pointedly refusing to face either of them. "If you're in such a hurry to go, let's go." Roxas only grunted in response, unable to even bring himself to be grateful that Axel was finally doing something not stupid. He didn't notice the fact that not a single townsperson had so much as looked up at the bickering strangers, or the deeply frightened look on Demyx's face.

Demyx was actively avoiding his friends as much as he could in the circumstances; Axel would take any excuse to hit him now, and even Roxas was getting a lot rougher and pushier. Demyx himself was having to resist the urges to start getting violent as well, and he knew there was something wrong that was making them all act like that. And it wasn't as though something was making them act unnaturally, or do anything that they wouldn't do without enough provocation in any world; it was just that they were all a little bit crankier than usual, their nerves were a little bit more raw, their tempers running a little bit higher, everything just a little bit more aggravating, and barely halfway through the mission, the effects had compounded to the point where Demyx was afraid that if he mentioned one more time that there was something wrong, the response would be a serious beating.

If only he could pinpoint what was wrong, if he could hold up some evidence and say "this is why we've been acting like a bunch of assholes all of a sudden, it's not really us, it's something about this world that's doing this to us", maybe he could convince them...

Maybe he should just go back and tell the Elders that his partners had both become inappropriately aggressive; thanks to Axel, he had the bruises to prove it. If nothing else, it would get them the hell out of here, and once out of here, Axel and Roxas would hopefully go back to normal. And it would get them out of here before Axel decided any excuse was good enough to beat the shit out of either of them, or before Demyx lost control of himself completely. But for some reason, he just couldn't bring himself to do it; not only did he not want to be seen as a coward and tattletale, some stubborn part of him demanded to find out just what the hell was wrong with this world, or at least see the mission through to its end. And try not to get killed by his own best friends in the process.

They were arriving at another town now, supposedly the largest city in this world, though it would have barely counted as a city at all where Demyx was from. As usual, he was hanging behind Axel and Roxas, watching them argue about...something; he didn't care enough to inquire what. Since he'd started making a real effort to avoid any and all arguments as much as possible, the two of them had barely been able to stop fighting long enough to eat, sleep, or kill Heartless. For the most part, Demyx was grateful that his poor hearing meant he couldn't make out most of what they said unless they got too loud, but he'd picked up more than a few bruises from intervening when things started to turn violent. It was so very tempting to let them beat each other up, except with their weapons, it was too likely to turn deadly...but they were splitting up now, to explore the city and hunt Heartless separately, which gave Demyx all the excuse he needed to get away from them for a while. Trying to pretend he didn't hear the names Axel and Roxas were still shouting back at each other, he started looking for the marketplace, thinking he might already know what was wrong.

As he went, he kept a close eye on the buildings and people he passed, looking for a scrap of decoration, a drop of paint, a splash of dye, a single glimmer of jewelry, any sign of any attempt to beautify a single building or a single person. There was no such thing. All the buildings were nearly-identical blocks of wood and plaster; doors and shutters were as plain as plain got, and there wasn't so much as a bit of carving or a pot of flowers to spruce up a single one of them. There seemed to be no distinction between the houses of the poor or the wealthy, assuming there was any distinction between the poor and the wealthy to begin with; everyone was wearing the same nearly shapeless, ill-fitting, undyed clothing, and he was willing to bet that the quality of the fabric didn't vary either. It was almost like a medieval police state, complete with enforced conformity - maybe some sort of religious law in effect - but people in police states, religious or purely political, tended to be vigilant and wary, eager to turn in their neighbors to save their own skins and incredibly suspicious of strangers. The people here...it was like they didn't even see him. Any more than they'd seemed to see him and Axel, when they'd started fighting in that first town they'd come through. Or maybe they did, but they simply didn't care. And people in police states were never so slovenly; everyone had their hair roughly chopped short, and men seemed to hack their beards something resembling off whenever they got inconveniently long. Stained clothes abounded, as if people couldn't be bothered to clean them when they got dirty, and he hadn't seen a woman yet who sported a little makeup or a bit of jewelry or took any sort of effort to make herself look nicer. It wasn't a police state - more of a no-one-gives-a-damn state. When he passed a church, he did a quick check inside just to be sure. It was not only empty, but dark, dusty, and ill-kept, as if no one gave a damn about their faith either.

The marketplace confirmed his worst fears. It was exactly like a thousand other marketplaces in a thousand other worlds, except no one was actively trying to sell their wares. No one was bragging about how fresh their vegetables were or how beautiful their rugs were or how their medicine would cure all your ills, sounds that always made a normal marketplace ring; in fact, the shopkeepers barely spoke at all, just stared lazily at the passerby while making no attempt to get their attention. It was as if they didn't honestly care whether anyone bought their stuff or not. As a test, he went from stall to stall, examining everything from carrots and onions to clay jars to woven blankets to wooden chairs to carving knives; not a word was said to him, even when he "accidentally" dropped a small clay jar and smashed it. And just like with the clay pots and jars in the first little town, everything he saw was eminently useful, but no better than serviceable. It was a flaw that went much, much deeper than merely being plain and simply made; even the simplest things, made with love, were minor works of art. These goods were all made with skill, but there was no pride in any of them, no artistry, no beauty. They were just...things.

And he hadn't seen any jewelry stalls, booksellers, cosmetics sellers, or musical instruments. The stalls sold only what was necessary for life, and none of what made life more worth living. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen a single prostitute in the whole city, and there were prostitutes somewhere in virtually every city in the worlds. He hadn't even seen many children...

And out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of imminent disaster. A little boy who looked barely old enough to walk had managed to climb up onto a stack of boxes, and was now peering curiously into a rain barrel - a rain barrel that Demyx could tell from here was more than full enough to drown him. And no one seemed to be watching him. Dropping the roll of cloth he'd been examining, Demyx raced over just in time for the boy to lose his balance and fall into the rain barrel - and no one noticed, and no one cared, including at least five women who seemed the right age to be the boy's mother. But Demyx had noticed, and he did care; climbing on top of the boxes himself, he managed to lean over far enough to grab the boy and pull him back to safety, using his powers to dry him off as he started crying up a storm. Even then, no one seemed to notice or care, but once back on solid ground, the boy started toddling off towards one of the women Demyx had noticed earlier. Presuming that this was the mother, Demyx shepherded the little boy over, expecting to at least be thanked for his efforts, but before he could say a word, the woman smacked the still-crying boy. "Quiet," was all she said as she took his hand and dragged him away, leaving Demyx standing there with a cold, ugly chill running down his spine.

Come to think of it, I haven't heard a word of song or a note of music here either. Not even birdsong. It figures.

"You dumb bitch, your son could have died," he whispered at their retreating figures, feeling sick to his stomach. "And you don't care at all, do you...you don't care at all...you don't care..." Stumbling away from the scene, he tried to find a bench or something to sit on, but the most he could find were the boxes by the rain barrel. Well, they would do in a pinch; sitting down on the most convenient box, he hid his face in his hands for a moment, trying to find some way to deny what he'd just figured out. But he couldn't; it made too much sense. Too much ugly, horrible sense. He'd never heard of such a thing happening; he hadn't even known it was possible. But it was the only thing that made sense, with this subtle, horrible sense of wrongness.

"Oh, there you are. I thought you'd shit your pants and run home crying." Those friendly, comforting words were accompanied by a smack upside the head, that Demyx had to will himself not to return. "Having fun sitting on your fat, lazy ass all day?"

"Shut up, Axel," Demyx groaned, uncovering his eyes and trying to glare up at him. "I told you this world was fucked up. I just figured out how fucked up it was."

"Not half so fucked up as you are," Axel growled, yanking Demyx roughly to his feet. "If you just came up with another excuse to go home, don't waste your time, I don't wanna hear it."

"You should just send him home," Roxas said, poking at Demyx with a Keyblade. "I mean, if you want the operative definition of 'mentally unfit for duty', you're looking -"

"Shut up!" Demyx bellowed, suddenly unable to take it anymore. He'd proven to himself he was right all along, he'd found out just how deeply screwed up the world really was, and he was not in the mood to hear any more shit about it. "Blessed Gods, what the hell is wrong with you two? And get that damn Keyblade away from me!"

"You are what is wrong, you dumbfuck!" Axel roared, shoving him into the wall. "Here we are, working our Goddamn asses off, and -"

That was one step too far. Demyx had taken just a little too much abuse unanswered these past few days, and that shove was the last straw. Without even thinking about it, his fist shot out and nailed Axel in the jaw; Axel dropped like a ton of bricks, leaving Roxas staring up at Demyx with a kind of stunned fear. "What the hell are you looking at?" Demyx demanded, his last thread of patience long gone. "Here - pretend to be useful and drag this jackass back to the castle. And stay there. I'm sick of both of you. And as long as he's down, I'm senior man now, so fucking do it. Now."

He'd been expecting another fight, but apparently, and thankfully, he'd scared Roxas enough that he wasn't risking another fight. Instead, he obediently dragged Axel around the corner, into enough privacy to make an unseen portal, while Demyx stood there and glowered threateningly at them. He stood and watched until they'd disappeared, until enough time had passed that he was certain Roxas wasn't coming right back, then turned his back and made for the central square of the city. In places that had such a thing as civic pride, there might have been a fountain of some sort in the middle of the square, maybe fancifully carved and topped with a fine statue, but here, there was nothing but a communal well. Demyx went to sit down beside it, thinking he might feel better closer to water, but as he approached, that same cold, ugly chill returned, and only intensified the closer he got, until by the time he actually reached the well, he could barely take a step without cringing and shuddering. It was all wrong - there was no way a simple, ugly well should make his skin crawl like that. When he reached down with his magical senses to "touch" the water, he came very close to being sick on the spot. The rest of the world was bland and ugly, but this - this was absolutely vile.

Then again, it makes sense. If something has been sucking all the beauty out of this world...and not just the obvious beauty, but the ability to feel pride, the ability to care, the ability to love...the ability to create and experience beauty...it's even drained away all the natural beauty of the world. No wonder everything is so fucked up.

And it's something in the well. Something in the water. Well, bad luck for whatever it is.

Summoning his sitar, he cradled it close to him for a few moments, enjoying the care and craftsmanship of its construction and the beauty of its decoration - probably the first real beauty this world had seen in years. Then, gritting his teeth in determination against the ugly task ahead, and comforted by the thought that his friends were now back at the castle and safe from whatever he might accidentally unleash, he started to play.

Come to me, his song called to the water in the well - the filthy, disgusting, sickeningly tainted water. Come to me. You are toxic, you are tainted, you are poisoning this world - but this is not how you were meant to be. You are meant to cleanse, meant to nourish, meant to sustain life instead of destroy it - come to me, and I will heal you. I will make you pure. And as he played, a thin coil of water reached up out of the well, curling around his shoulder; despite the fact that it looked like normal, clear water, he nearly vomited when it touched him, but somehow he kept his composure and kept playing, drawing out whatever indescribable taint was in it and leaving it clean and pure. As he'd feared, it was a sickening task to try to purify the whole toxic well, and he feared what the process might do to him, but it was so very gratifying, to wipe that taint out bit by bit and leave the water clean and beautiful again...to finally bring back a touch of beauty to this sad, fucked-up world...even the work he was doing, trying to dispel this ugly taint and bring some beauty back to this world just because it needed doing and was the right thing to do, was a thing of beauty in and of itself...despite how vile and polluted the taint was making him feel, as the people started to pause and turn around and pay attention to the music, he started to smile for the first time since leaving the castle. When a little girl actually danced a few steps, he laughed out loud.

All of a sudden, all the vileness and ugliness and poison came surging out of the well, like a tidal wave with a mission to destroy, pouring itself into him and flooding his entire body in an instant. Everyone in town heard the scream, but by the time anyone could run over to investigate, he'd already stopped breathing.

AN: Yes, there will be more to this. I couldn't just leave him there. But if I publish the first chapter, I might eventually finish the second. Encourage me.