They could have sent someone - anyone else.

Zexion knew that full well. He knew that there had been no real need to send him or any extra person at all. No matter what the official explanation was, he knew the only real reason for being here at all was to test his loyalty - there was no need for him or anyone to keep an eye on Nine; Nine and Two were keeping an eye on him. Quite frankly, he would have preferred never returning to the Galaxy Far, Far Away at all.

Especially with Nine.

"Consequences for repeated defection or betrayal will be...very harsh," Xemnas had said, in an if-you-understand-my-meaning sort of tone. Zexion hadn't needed to ask what he meant; it was entirely too obvious. In fact, the meaning was sitting in the surgical chair next to him, trying not to move his new robotic hand for fear of damaging the unprotected sensory circuits, while they waited for the medical droid to come back with the new artificial skin. Nine was staring idly out the viewport on the far side of the room, humming to himself as he usually did when he had nothing on his mind - but Zexion knew that Xemnas had had a little private conference with him as well, and that this outwardly harmless young gentleman, who'd gone out of his way to charm the human staff of the hospital, was concealing a lightsaber that he knew damn well how - and probably would not hesitate - to use.

He could still see that lightsaber, no more than three inches away from his face, its glare almost blocking out the sight of Nine towering over him like an avenging angel come to deliver him to damnation.

Shaking his head, he turned to look out the other viewport, at the planet below the orbiting hospital station. It seemed so unreal to think that it had been on that same planet, hanging in the blackness like a grey-and-white ball, that he'd first started to really learn about this strange local magic known by the unassuming name of "the Force", and how, if harnessed in a certain way, it fed on the strength of the wielder's emotions and fed it back to them as raw power...all he'd wanted was to find a way to restore their true emotions with magic, really. He'd dug up all the information he could find on the subject, for the benefit of the Organization. He'd kept putting off Xemnas's increasingly strong requests that he return to the castle already, and eventually defied a direct order to come home in favor of disappearing in the largest multi-world complex in the known multiverse, because he'd been that convinced that finishing his research was more important than anything else. And it had been glorious, to open himself up and feel the disappointment and frustration and irritation turning themselves into anger and hatred, and the anger and hatred into pure had been as addicting as any drug, to stop feeling like a half-grown perpetual apprentice with no good weapon but his mind, and start feeling - almost as if he was made of pure power...

And like a crazed drug addict, he'd turned on his own comrades with intent to kill simply because they meant to force him to give it up. And like a drug-addled imbecile, he'd taken on an opponent just as well-armed and magically powerful as he was, only taller, stronger, and in better physical condition than he'd ever be in. For a calculating, analytical mind like his, that had been unforgivably stupid -

And for an instant, Nine's lightsaber was in his face again.

That could have been fatally stupid, he thought, trying to convince himself he really wasn't breaking out in a cold sweat. He'd assumed, with the stupidly arrogant mindset he'd had at the time, that Nine had only been bluffing about having orders to kill him if necessary. He knew better now. He also knew that the orders this time, if he were to run away again, wouldn't be "bring him back alive if reasonably possible, kill him if necessary". They would be "kill him". And he knew Two still hadn't quite forgiven him for his first attempt. Had Nine? Nine was by far the greater danger; the Force could easily be used to reflect or deflect projectiles, but Nine was as powerful in the Force as he was, capable of tracking him down anywhere in this galaxy - and Nine still had a functioning lightsaber. He'd capped off their last battle by slicing Zexion's in half.

And he was just lying there, his eyes closed now, still humming to himself, with his mechanical hand at rest, seemingly nearly asleep and totally harmless. Except Zexion could still see him with lightsaber in hand, looming over him like the angel of death.

If Nine took it into his head to kill him, his body would most likely have faded long before anyone else entered the room. All the Superior would need to know was that he'd tried to run away again, and Nine had just been following orders...

"If I wanted to kill you, I would have killed you then."

Zexion jumped and whirled around to face Nine again, to find him simply gazing at him with a mild, thoughtful expression. "You might want to try a little harder to keep your thoughts to yourself," Nine added, as if not noticing Zexion's discomfiture. "I can practically hear them like you were saying them out loud." His face flushing with embarrassment, Zexion hastily raised the mental shields he'd learned about on his first visit to these worlds - though they hadn't stopped Nine from tracking him across the galaxy before. "Anyway, like I was saying, I had all the excuse I needed to kill you when I had you pinned to the wall there, and I nearly did, just because you'd almost killed me. No one was watching; all I would have had to say to anyone was 'I had to do it'. But...I just couldn't do it. I couldn't justify it to myself. So I'm not going to kill you now."

Well, that was...somewhat comforting. It also implied that Nine had realized Zexion wasn't about to be so stupid as to defect a second time, after the blazing success of his first attempt. Now if only Two could be so easily convinced -

"He's not...sensitive, sadly. He's an old soldier."

...Should I even bother speaking aloud, or will you be reading my thoughts directly?

"Not my fault. You make it easy. There's so much going on in there that whatever's closest to the surface tends to shine right on through." Nine was clearly much better at keeping specific thoughts to himself as he chose, but Zexion could practically feel his amusement with his back turned. "You need to learn how to meditate."

"And how would that be beneficial?" Zexion asked irritably, not wanting to give Nine the continued satisfaction of reading his mind.

"You learn to keep your thoughts down," Nine said, as casually as if they were discussing cooking techniques. "In a sense, you kind of...stop thinking, and let thoughts flow into you from outside instead of you throwing them out all over the place. It opens you up to the worlds around you, instead of everything being focused's like muddy water. Give it a chance to sit completely still and settle, and things suddenly become clear."

"You would turn straight to water analogies," Zexion muttered, privately thinking it sounded like a load of spiritualist mumbo-jumbo.

"Hey!" Nine snapped, with a tangible flare of irritation; Zexion realized a little too late that he'd let his shields slip again. "It's working for me, and whatever you're doing is not working so well for you, so which method is mumbo-jumbo?"

Zexion sniffed defensively and tried to shield himself again. From behind his mental shields, he did his best to deliberately read Nine's thoughts, but all he got was an image of a reflective pond. "Is that what your mind always looks like?" he sighed, frustrated. "Nothing but water?"

"It's because I don't want you reading my mind right now," Nine said with some amusement. "And apparently it's effective." Flushing slightly with embarrassment and frustration at being foiled so consistently, Zexion tried to imagine his own thoughts being submerged underwater, concealed by a reflective surface, and wondered briefly when Two would come back so they could at least end this particular farce. "Oh, this farce?" Nine continued, leaving Zexion flustered again. "You mean this is just part of a greater farce? Hey, I don't know about you, but I like having a left hand. I was starting to really miss it. And I've got nothing but gratitude for a chance to get it back. I'm certainly not about to call it a farce."

Clearly, the water was going to be no use against Nine. On reflection, it did seem rather nonsensical to attempt to use his own element against him...well, if hiding his thoughts underwater wasn't going to work...Zexion abandoned the idea of water, and instead tried to visualize his thoughts being written into a book, in Greek - a language he was quite sure Nine didn't understand. As a test, he mentally repeated his words from earlier - Will you be reading my thoughts directly?

Nine only stared at him, as if he'd heard his thoughts but Zexion hadn't been thinking in English - well, he hadn't, he realized a second later. A side effect of this particular method was that he was now thinking in Greek. "Well, that's not exactly a shield per se, but it's certainly an effective deterrent," Nine said a moment later, laughing slightly. "And that's the only part that really matters."

"I'm gratified to know it passes muster," Zexion said dryly, suddenly having to think (although not particularly hard) about how to say the words in English. "I would have thought that you would be more comfortable reading my thoughts freely..." An uncomfortable thought struck him all of a sudden - Nine had read his intentions from his thoughts in the first place, which was how he'd known Zexion had no intention of deserting again. If he no longer had the ability to do so...was a little privacy worth the potential risk?

Not Nine. Two might, but Nine simply isn't that sort of person.

I should have realized that earlier...

"I do trust you," Nine said, seemingly out of nowhere. "I don't have to read your mind to know you're not going to do anything stupid."

"If you're not reading my thoughts, Nine, what exactly are you doing?" Zexion asked, more than a little annoyed and unsettled by his seeming omniscience.

"Blessed Gods, Zexion, I already told you," Nine said, with a trace of exasperation. "Just relax."


"Relax. Do what I told you. Relax, don't focus so much on all your own thoughts. Just...try to be still. Mentally. Relax."

Nine was quite vehement about relaxing...or would be, if he was actually vehement. Unfortunately, he was too legitimately relaxed for Zexion to taunt him about irony or hypocrisy, which also prevented him from being all that vehement about anything. "How exactly do you expect me to relax?" Zexion grumbled, feeling as though he and Nine existed on such completely different planes they might as well not even try to communicate. He rather envied whatever plane Nine existed on, because it was clearly a very peaceful and mellow place if Nine could be so relaxed during what amounted to a surgical procedure with local - or possibly no - anesthesia.

"Find yourself a happy place in your head. Make one if you don't already have one. Then just imagine yourself there." Typical mumb-jumbo, and Zexion didn't care if Nine could pick up on that thought. He had no idea what that happy place in which Nine seemed to live might look like, anyway. "This isn't about my happy place, it's about yours," Nine said with a sigh, interrupting his thoughts briefly. "This is not about me, this is about you. Find a place that makes you happy, or make one if you don't have it. Somewhere you would like to be, where you feel safe and content and peaceful." Zexion only sighed in response, closing his eyes and still thinking Nine was full of it. "For fuck's sake, Zexion. Stop thinking about me. Stop thinking about how you think this is all bullshit. Just...don't think about anything else; just do what I told you to do. If you do'll get it."

What am I doing? Beating my head against the wall, is what. He'll never get it. His mind is just not set up to get it.

Zexion twitched slightly; where had that thought come from? Were Nine's impenetrable mental shields actually weakening slightly, enough to let a tinge of frustration through, and an impatient thought to go with it? If so, it was almost a relief to know that Nine's mellow demeanor wasn't completely unshakable. Far be it from him, however, to admit that he was incapable of learning anything, no matter how esoteric, whether it be computational fluid dynamics or meditation techniques. Find or create a mental happy place for himself? Somewhere he would like to be, where he felt safe, content, and peaceful? Well, where did he feel most comfortable? In a library...

Closing his eyes, Zexion did his best to imagine himself in a library. Any library that held enough books to satisfy him would have to be quite a large room, but his personal preference for comfort would be something small and cozy...perhaps a little nook within a much larger library, then, or even a separate room, with books on three sides and perhaps a fireplace on the fourth. With a large leather chair in front of the fireplace, simply because he liked the smell of leather, but with some large, furry hide covering it for comfort, like that sheepskin in Lexaeus's chair that he envied so much. And it had to be large enough for him to sit sideways, and soft enough to sink into. Soft enough to sink into with a good leatherbound edition, and shrink the world down to himself and his chair and the book in his hands...

"It's almost ready, dude. They're just doing a little more extensive stress-testing on it to make sure it won't tear like the first one, but I thought you'd appreciate an're things in here?"

Zexion kept his eyes closed, refusing to leave his mental library room now that he'd found it; he trusted Nine to give an accurate enough report without his help. Almost as an afterthought, he made sure the door to his mental room was locked. "Eh, kinda boring," he could hear Nine say, as if from a distance. "I've been trying to teach Zexion how to meditate. Either I've succeeded or he's fallen asleep. Or he's just closed his eyes and is conscientiously ignoring us."

"...Well, he does seem awful relaxed." Hell of a lot more relaxed than I'd ever be, in the same room with someone who's already kicked my ass once and doesn't need an excuse to slice me in half, Zexion picked up clearly, which made him wish that Two was capable of shielding his thoughts just so he wouldn't have to hear things like that. The dose of contempt he picked up on didn't help things. Sighing faintly, he worked his way a little deeper into his imaginary leather chair, turning his attention back to the book in his hands. What book? He didn't feel like working his way through something heavy and academic right now; he'd prefer a nice work of classic fiction...maybe something by Dickens...

"Relaxed is a good thing," Nine said, sounding as cool and calm as ever. "Two-thirds of the problem with the worlds could be solved instantly if more people took more time to just sit back and relax once in a while. You know, Xigbar, you're looking kind of tense; you should try it yourself."

AN: I promised this to xcupidxstuntx ages ago as a contest prize; she asked for something involving Demyx and Zexion that didn't involve either of them being mutilated and was at least friendly. It's been technically in progress for...probably well over a year now, probably since shortly after I finished "By Thine Own Hand". I kept getting hung up just after Zexion demanded to know how Demyx expected him to relax, and finally got going again once I established what his happy place was like.

Incidentally, this can be considered a sequel to both "By Thine Own Hand" (and by extension "The Ride to Nowhere") and "Taken by Force", and will probably make more sense if you've read both - "The Ride to Nowhere" and "By Thine Own Hand" for what happened to Demyx's hand, and "Taken by Force" for what happened to Zexion's lightsaber, composure, and reputation.