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Not of Atoms

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“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” - Muriel Rukeyser

 -o- PROLOGUE -o- 

 

He came for me.

 

I tell you, Kairi. You’ve got a lot of guts, jumping right into the darkness like that.

 

I had known Darkness before. A year earlier, when the Door opened on Destiny Islands, it had called my name and woke me up in the middle of the night. I had rowed in a little boat, half dreaming, driven by an unconscious and irresistible desire to enter the Secret Place of my childhood. I touched the Door, and it swallowed me.

 

But back then, the Darkness had consumed me. I barely remember any of it. In Axel’s arms, plucked violently from the sanctuary I’d found in a place called Twilight Town, I was wide awake. In contrast to the heat of his body, the cold Dark against my skin chilled me to the bone.

 

We emerged back into the real world with a loud thud, stumbling onto the solid ground of a cracked and warped wooden floor. I fell hard on my knees. Panting, I stayed on the ground, my head bowed.

 

Axel reached down and grabbed my chin with his leather glove, forcing me to look at him. With his free hand, he summoned a magic spell of sorts that bound my wrists together with translucent bands of golden light.

 

“I hope you can forgive me,” he drawled. “I realize with the bondage and the dragging and lack of consent and all, this seems a lot like kidnapping. But I promise I’m just trying to get to know you better.”

 

I scowled, and screamed. I screamed for help. I jerked my head around while his hand still gripped my chin. I frantically examined my surroundings. We were in a one-room house with a high ceiling. It seemed abandoned, and oddly familiar.

 

Axel let go of my face and sighed, backing away from me. He spread his arms wide, gesturing to the space around us. “You’re wasting your time. We’re high in the sky, princess. In a treehouse in Deep Jungle. There’s no one around to hear you.”

 

My knees ached from the forming bruises. I felt powerless and confused and sick to my stomach. This charming stranger had chased me across Worlds from the safe beach of my home. “What do you want with me? Who are you, really?”

 

“Really?” he said, drawing his eyes into mine. I shivered. “I’m Nobody.”

 

His cryptic response and the silence that followed made me anxious. Fear gave way very quickly to curiosity. “Fine then. Don’t give me anything. I’ll give you the same.” I bowed my head in defeat and sat on the wooden floor.

 

To my surprise, he laughed. “Well that’s cute. Hopefully that indignation will keep you entertained for awhile.”

 

“What does that--?”

 

But I couldn’t say another word. My mouth was bound by the same magic that was wrapped around my wrists. I was left sitting in the middle of that open room, silenced, while Axel disappeared. I waited for hours, left to do nothing but ponder the details of my surroundings. A dusty, ominous bassinet sat abandoned in the corner. Wildcats roared and birds sang. Broad jungle-green branches fluttered in the windows.

 

We really are in the trees, I admitted with dread.

 

I slept, and woke to a shrill whistling. Night had fallen, and as I rubbed my sleepy eyes, I took in the bizarre sight of Axel holding fire in one hand, and a kettle in the other. As steam fluted out from the spout, he casually extinguished the blaze in his palm and poured the hot water into two waiting teacups. They were white porcelain, rimmed with violet and gold baroque deco. He dropped in two silk sachets and watched them with an unexpected serenity while they steeped.

 

I had watched him so carefully, like a fly on a wall, that I was caught off guard when he picked up a cup of tea to offer it to me. I hadn’t even noticed when the gag around my mouth had lifted. I tried to summon the fear and rage that had consumed me hours ago, but like an idiot, I could only bow in thanks and accept the tea.

 

I said nothing because I had nothing to say, and he seemed content to do the same. We sipped hot tea and let the jungle bugs speak instead. In silence, I wondered at my situation. Twenty-four hours prior, I stood on a beach, an ordinary girl, suddenly recovering a year’s worth of lost memories, and now I sat peacefully captive with a strange boy in a strange place.

 

His motives for holding me captive were a mystery. It belied the notion I had about villains, that they were always spilling their plots in elaborate monologues. Axel turned out to be pretty aloof, for a villain. I was trapped with him, but he didn’t seem to have specific designs. He seemed like he was waiting.

 

-o-o-o-o-o-

 

It was the same for awhile. I lost track of time after the second or third day, examining the walls of my strange prison as my hopes of escape diminished with each uneventful hour. Axel would come and he would go. He brought me water, food, tea. He made a pallet of thin blankets for me to sleep on and one time woke me up by tossing a copy of Through the Looking Glass at my head to alleviate my boredom. I was lonely and uncomfortable, but I stopped being scared. It was clear he wasn’t going to hurt me, at least not physically. Trapped in the treehouse, I felt like I was suffering a much worse torture. My heart was starving.

 

It was a starless night when I woke to a clap of thunder in the distance. Within minutes, the rain had found us. Water rushed in through the unfinished windows and flooded my bedding. For a few minutes I just laid there, so deprived of energy that I was resigned to falling back asleep in wet blankets. Eventually, though, the discomfort was too much. I stood up and paced around the open room, watching the deluge and occasional flashes of lightning. 

 

I was startled when I realized Axel stood at one of the windows, like a shadow, watching the rain. He heard my drippy footsteps and whipped his head around, eyes alert. He lifted his hand for a moment, as if he were going to magically bind me again, but changed his mind. He sighed, shrugged, and turned back toward the rain.

 

“It’s you,” he muttered. I was confused to consider who else he possibly could have expected. Animal noises rang in a constant cacophony, but humans were scarce indeed in this place. I had never felt more isolated in my entire life. With a shivering premonition I realized perhaps he was waiting for something neither human nor animal.

 

For a night so loud, it felt painfully quiet.

 

“What do you want from me?” I whispered. “Why did you take me? Am I ever going home?”

 

Axel did not turn around. The rain nearly swallowed his voice.

 

“You were never home,” he murmured.

 

Thunder clapped again with a deafening force. But there was another noise. Something that sounded oddly like the ripping open of the universe. Suddenly, we weren’t alone.

 

A pale, towering figure slipped out of a black portal and into the room. A mane of frosted  blue hair fluttered over his scarred, lifeless face. I would later learn his name was Saïx.

 

Axel moved from his stoic pose at the window so quickly I barely saw him. The next thing I knew, his hand wrapped around Saïx’s throat. Saïx didn’t so much as wince, even as his whole body was lifted off the ground. His threshold for pain terrified me.

 

Seemingly out of thin air, Saïx produced an enormous claymore. Its size defied all sense of physics. He swung it around easily and it smashed against the back of Axel’s head. Axel screamed in pain as he stumbled backward, and my heart jolted unexpectedly. He had given me no reason to care for him, and yet watching him take a blow filled me with fear.

 

Axel had told me before that he was a Nobody, but it wasn’t until this insane display that I fully realized he and the other Nobodies were far from human.

 

Saïx shook his head in disapproval as Axel tried to regain his bearings.

 

“Thought you could run?” He wielded the giant claymore once again, this time striking at the ankles. Axel dropped to the ground, and Saïx circled closer to him. “Thought you could hide? Pitiful. You may have eluded me longer, traitor, if you hadn’t insisted on keeping the girl.” His voice got softer for a moment. “I can’t decide whether to be charmed or disgusted. You of all people always claimed it was best to forget past lives, and here you are, burdened with the princess. Do you imagine her able to turn you into a real boy? ” Saïx’s stoic gaze was alight with loathing.

 

Axel raised his palm and summoned a fiery chakram, but he was too late to defend himself. The claymore came crashing down a final time, rendering Axel unconscious and splayed on the wooden floor.

 

I stood paralyzed until Saïx grabbed my hand. He vanished the claymore into nothingness and tightened his grip on me. He ripped the universe open again and dragged me through, leaving me too shocked to scream as yet another captor whisked me off to another prison.

 

-o-o-o-o-o-o-

 

I didn’t think about Axel again until Naminé came for me. She was dressed in white, not like the other Nobodies. She was a blonde, blue-eyed mirror of me. A more angelic version than me, I thought.

 

After she rescued me, she took me to a strange place. A tunnel of endless swirling color that was unlike anything, Light or Dark, I had ever seen.

 

“What are we doing here, Naminé?” I asked. Her eyes frantically searched the dizzying, ethereal landscape surrounding us. For some reason, I wasn’t scared when I was near her. I trusted her completely. I felt like she knew exactly where we should be, at exactly the right moment. It was hard for me to believe that she was, in fact, a part of me. She was different. Special. She had… a kind of gift. She had something I didn’t.

 

“There!” she said with a shaky gasp, pointing across the vast colored space. She jogged toward a dark figure that lay sprawled on the ground. 

 

I was startled once I recognized him: Axel, the Nobody who had kidnapped me. Black dust hovered ominously over his body. His pale skin grew faint. He was disappearing. Dying.

 

Naminé knelt beside his fading body, raking her tiny fingers through his matted red hair. I was baffled and unnerved by the desperate affection in her eyes as she watched him die. Didn’t she know what he did to me? I thought he was our enemy. How was it possible that he meant so much to her?

 

A tender smile cracked through the pain in Axel’s face. Naminé’s eyes glittered at him lovingly, but I could only clench my fists and scowl. I didn’t trust his smile. I didn’t trust Axel, or the pull he seemed to have on Naminé.

 

“The little witch,” Axel croaked. “And the princess. Glad you found each other. I got waylaid by Saix… couldn’t make it in time…” His voice dulled to a whisper.

 

“Shhh,” soothed Namine. She reached for his hand and weaved her pale fingers within his gnarled leather gloves.

 

Axel gasped for breath. “You should leave, you know. You really don’t want to watch me die.”

 

Naminé shook her head fiercely. “I won’t let that happen. I can save you.” She turned her head swiftly to me, her pale blue eyes searching desperately in mine. “I need your help, Kairi.”

 

I felt my breath get stuck in my chest, like a blitzball had pelted me right in the stomach.

 

“Me?” I asked. My voice sounded strange, echoing in the bizarre Nothing that surrounded us. “But… why me? How can I help?”

 

Naminé reached out with her free hand and took one of mine. She had me in one hand, and Axel in the other. She smiled gently.

 

“You’re my heart, Kairi,” she whispered. “I can’t save his life without my heart.”

 

As I stood there, linked by flesh to her, and thus to Axel, I felt something strange inside me. Like a stream of cold water pouring from my head to all of my nerves. Like I could feel something other than blood in my veins.

 

I was scared and conflicted. “But… why? How can you trust him?”

 

“He gave his life for Sora,” Naminé said, and I did not question how she knew that. She could see things I could not, of that much I was certain.

 

I glanced down at Axel’s fading figure skeptically. I watched as Naminé broke away from me to turn to Axel instead. 

 

“And…” she added, glancing sorrowfully at his face. “He has a promise to keep.” 

 

He chuckled weakly. I wondered what her promise was, what private joke Axel laughed at. I closed my eyes. 

 

“Fine,” I said, nervously. “I’ll help. What do I have to do?”

 

Naminé squeezed my hand. “Just hold on tight, and open your heart. Think of love. Think of warm thoughts.”

 

With my eyes still closed, I thought instantly of Sora. I could see the two of us clearly, just a year ago, sitting on the dock at sunset, talking about sailing away together. I thought of the shimmering island sun, the kaleidoscope of tropical colors, the cool, salty waves splashing over our bare feet. I thought of home, and how I longed to be there with Sora and Riku by my side again.

 

As I buried myself in happy memories, Naminé gripped my hand even tighter. Just outside the edges of my pleasant thoughts, I could hear her panting and muttering words that I couldn’t recognize. The cold trickle I felt throughout my body changed, growing warmer and warmer until I felt like there was white hot fire coursing inside me.

 

“Axel!” Naminé gasped. She let go of my hand.

 

I opened my eyes and saw Axel sit up straight, his body solid and vibrant once more. He gazed at Naminé’s face and thanked her with a silent smile. He took a deep breath, and shifted his gaze toward me. I immediately stared down at my hands, still unnerved by the sight of him.

 

“That’s some fierce brand of magic you’ve got, little witch,” Axel cooed.

 

Naminé merely nodded. “You can’t leave yet, Axel. You still have a light to shine, understand me?”

 

Axel’s lips pursed in disgust.

 

“You must go to Radiant Garden. There is so much to be done.”

 

His eyes met hers once more. They were speaking in silence, and I ached to know the secret they shared. Profound reluctance was written all over his face as he watched her, pleading silent words, but eventually, he nodded. He stood up, and only seconds later he had summoned an undulating portal of Darkness. He stepped through it and disappeared.

 

“Naminé, what…?” I said.

 

“There’s no time,” she said. She reached out her hand and, just as Axel had done, opened another portal. “Sora and Riku will be needing us.”

 

She dragged me toward the portal, but stopped herself. She turned to face me, probing me a thoughtful expression.

 

“It isn’t over, you know,” she whispered ominously. “Wars aren’t easily won, and this one is far from over. Sora’s going to need you, Kairi, if he’s ever going to win a victory for Light. It’s going to take love , you understand?”

 

“Of course,” I answered shakily. In actuality, I didn’t understand, not even a little bit. Her words were merely fragments of a bigger picture that I couldn’t see.

 

“I don’t know what love feels like, you know,” she said mournfully. Her tone was distracted, like she had momentarily drifted from the urgency that lie before us. “I could never know. Nobodies have no feelings. So I hope that… that when you fall in love, you’ll trust your heart. It will feel right .”

 

I wrinkled my brow, perplexed beyond belief. Who was this girl, this Nobody, that supposedly was a part of me?

 

“O… Okay, but what does that have to do with...?” With me falling in love, I struggled to finish.

 

Naminé smiled and shook her head. “I’m sorry, never mind… You’ll understand these things in time. Destinies are fulfilled, all in good time. But just now… we’ve got to get to Sora.”

 

With a swift yank, Naminé pulled me through her Dark portal, onward to the final battles of Sora’s long journey. The brief experience I shared with her in the Betwixt and Between was quickly pushed out of my thoughts. There were too many other dangers still to face. 

 

Only later, when our journey ended, did I have time to contemplate that somewhere in the secret Axel and Naminé kept, my destiny was waiting.