Net

--

Awareness was slow coming to her. The very first thing Naminé thought was that she was cold. Axel must be outside somewhere, if he were next to her she would have been much warmer. Her next thought was that the floor was too hard; it felt like packed earth instead of the wooden floor of their cabin. There was water dripping somewhere, steadily, monotonously, echoingly. She realized suddenly that she was curled up on the ground.

Her eyes shot open, she sat up, and as she looked around she realized that she was inside a tall, vertical drain pipe. There was a gaping hole in the side that looked out into a red stone courtyard, and beyond that the monotonous blue of Hollow Bastian's scenery stretched out endlessly. There was a small tremor and a rumble, as though an explosion had gone off somewhere in the distance, and everything rushed back to her.

She was in Hollow Bastian.

She was alone.

Her balance deserted her, and she fell sideways into the slightly damp metal wall of the pipe. Her vision swam, her mouth was dry, she felt removed from reality.

An echo of a kiss on her lips. A faint touch against her face, gentle as a bird's wing.

Axel…

Everything in her chest constricted, she couldn't breathe, couldn't swallow, couldn't feel her heart beating. Pain… pain… too much pain. Her mind screamed with terrible knowledge and horror. Her entire being seemed to curl into itself. He should have been beside her, he was not. The empty space he had left seemed to be a vacuum, sucking her existence away. And she knew she must die, how could she not? How could any living thing survive through this?

A ragged breath tore through her throat, and she stood up slowly, as shaky as if these were her first steps. She had to find him. Had to see him, touch him, reassure herself that he was not gone, that he was still there. He had to be there, how could anything destroy Axel? Solid, dependable, invincible Axel, who had a solution to every problem, an ease for every hurt…

He had been when she was not, and he would continue to be when she was no more. The world could not exist without Axel.

As she took a slow, wobbly step to the hole in the pipe that led outward, as her hand gripped the edge and she began to climb out, his voice came back to her so strongly that she gasped and looked around for him.

"Do-not-leave-that-spot."

Her grip on the jagged edge loosened. That was right; he had told her to stay. Her entire body shook, but she pulled herself away from the exit and collapsed backward against the wall. The shaking wouldn't stop, she felt as if her body would simply fall apart if it kept trembling. She pulled her knees up to her chest and curled her arms around them, holding herself together.

She took a quivering breath, slowly, forcing herself to think about the action of taking it. And the next one, and the next.

The pain did not get easier, but her mind began to adjust itself to it. Gradually, she became able to think.

In truth she did not know if Axel was gone or not. All she knew for certain was that he had chosen to deliberately throw himself into danger to bring that danger away from her. There was still hope that he would come back to her after this was all over. Axel always came back. Always.

A faint gibbering laugh in the back of her mind wormed its way to her thoughts through her pain, and she recognized it immediately. There was no room for anger in her mind, but she did feel a vague resignation. Of course. The darkness was never quiet once it was set free; it had sensed a moment of weakness and just had to take its chances. Even after dominance over it was won. Sighing shakily, she pushed back against it until it was forced into its usual small space. It did not go without a fight, but she knew its tricks now and won easily.

Of all the times to lose control, she had to pick a time when no one was here to help her. Axel wouldn't have approved. She smiled shakily as she thought about what he would say to her if he saw her like this. His face swam up in her mind, and her chest gave a painful spasm.

He would come back. He would survive. He had to.

She buried her face into her knees and focused on breathing again, but every now and then a half-sob she couldn't stop would force its way out: no matter how hard she tried to keep them back.

--

Axel stood on a cliff, observing the heartless ravaging the town below him. His chakram were in his hands, ready and waiting, and every now and then he twirled one idly. A hasty attack without a plan would only get him killed, it would serve no purpose. For his plan to work he had to attract the attention of any nearby Organization members.

His mind strayed back to Naminé, his last glimpse of her. The boneless way she had lain in his arms as he had carried her away from the battle. He had known that knocking her out was the only way he'd be able to leave; if he'd tried anything else she would have followed him. But he had still felt guilty about it; she looked as if she might have been dead, except for the warmth of her skin beneath his fingers. Axel had chosen a spot just outside of the back entrance into the castle. He knew the place, knew that it would be safest for her now, since the heartless had already been there and left. It had taken more willpower than he had predicted to set her gently down inside that broken pipe and leave; he almost hadn't been able to do it.

But he had, and now he had a job to do.

Gripping his chakram tightly in each hand and slipping into battle awareness, he leaped down among the milling heartless below him and everything else ceased to exist. The heartless seemed to move in slow motion, waiting for him to slice them in half or scorch them to ashes. They did not even notice him at first, and by the time they had it was too late. He was a killing machine, moving fluidly and confidently, seeking out a vital point or an opening with deadly ease. Slipping away from their pitiful attempts at counterattacks, feeling the invigorating warmth of his fire flicking across his body, hearing the screams of vanquished enemies.

He was fire itself, consuming everything he touched, leaving nothing but ashes in his wake.

Another wave of heartless crashed into the small square, and he leaped forward to meet them with frightening precision. Dancing out of their way, attacking in deadly flurries. His eyes saw everything, and his body simply flowed to where it was needed.

Time was no longer a factor of his being, so he had no idea how long it took for him to destroy every heartless in the area. He stood in the center of a circle of ash, his breathing slow and even, coming down from a plane of awareness only obtained by the experts in combat. The world became ordinary and the flames inside of him died down. He allowed his eyes to become unfocused momentarily, and experienced a mild shock.

There was a twinge of pain in his chest area, an aching hurt that was part of him but… removed somehow. It was not strong enough to cause him any discomfort, but now that he focused on it he realized it had been there for some time.

Hmm. Odd.

He had no time to dwell on it, however. His senses picked up a familiar presence and his entire attention focused instantly. With a slight shock, he realized it was not Saix who was coming to meet him.

A figure slightly smaller than him but just as slender leaped down from a rooftop and stood in front of him, grinning a wide smile of welcome. Axel felt chagrinned as he stared at the newcomer, observed his dirty-blonde hair and open childish face.

"Hey! You're looking well, Axel!" The teenager said, raising a hand in welcome before running it through his carefully spiked hair. "I didn't expect to see you here!"

"Hello Demyx." Axel mumbled, looking away and frowning. Why, why, did it have to be Demyx? Of all the friggin people… "I see you're still alive."

"Yup. I've been working hard." The other male said, closing his eyes and raising a hand in a thumbs-up gesture. "We've been a bit understaffed lately, so the boss has been handing out more assignments." Demyx's face fell slightly, and he rubbed behind his head. "Actually, that's why I'm here…"

Axel sighed. He and Demyx were usually on good terms with one another, even though the younger teen's childish nature and endless energy sometimes grated on Axel's nerves. They never did much together, since Demyx usually avoided missions like the plague, but since Axel was one of the few members with patience for number IX Demyx usually gravitated to him.

"We've kinda been given orders to destroy you if we see you." Demyx finished, looking ashamed of himself. Axel sighed.

"You think you can?" He asked in a bored tone of voice. He knew that Demyx was no match for him, knew that if it came to fighting he could easily kill the boy, but somehow he didn't want to.

"Well…I have to try." Demyx finally said with a shrug. "I mean, orders are orders and all that." He gave Axel an apologetic glance. "I have missed you, though."

Axel softened slightly. Demyx was perhaps one of the more human nobodies in the Organization, which was why Axel tolerated him, and also why he chose not to fight him now. Instead, he turned around and leaped away across the square and up to the rooftops. He sensed Demyx hesitate and then leap after him.

Axel was reluctant to kill Demyx, so his only other option was to shake him off. Dodging through various heartless groups, he lazily began to give number IX the slip. The kid was enthusiastic but unskilled: it was all too easy. He sensed a portal opening, and Demyx appeared just a little ways behind him. Ha! Like that would work! The instant Demyx guessed wrong on where to go Axel could be miles away. Grinning a little, he twisted abruptly off at an angle and around a corner, running the risk of a small portal to a different location in the world; one that wouldn't require a visit to betwixt and between.

He appeared in the middle of a courtyard, one with blue and green stones surrounded by high blue cliffs, and stood silently, waiting. Huh, Demyx seemed to have guessed right; he was on his way. Sighing, Axel prepared to leap off again when something caught his eye in the distance. He turned and saw a small group heading his way, the leader had a mess of spiky brown hair… Sora. Axel smirked. That would sure keep Demyx busy.

Just before Sora rounded the corner, Axel disappeared. Demyx never followed him.

--

The world below him was plunged into chaos. Heartless swarmed everywhere, destroying anything and everything in their path. The residents were putting up a fight, but the one who was doing the most damage was the key-bearer.

The man was tall, dressed in black, his hood down. Blue hair fell gracefully over his shoulders and he surveyed his surroundings through golden-yellow eyes. The scar on his face gave him an intimidating air without ruining the grace of his facial features. He stood perched on a railing, an impartial observer. Behind him the ancient castle of Hollow Bastian loomed up to the sky, falling apart at the seams. Even the pipe system was collapsing.

From somewhere down in the midst of the battle, he sensed the sudden absence of one of his comrades and wondered absently if Axel was behind it.

Axel…

They had been partners for a long time, and had saved each other on more than one occasion. He had many admirable qualities: Axel was tireless, tenacious, and strong. Ruthless in battle, carefully manipulative, and had shown fierce loyalty during the events at Castle Oblivion.

But now, he was a danger to Organization XIII's plans. The Superior had ordered his execution, and Saix was determined to carry it out. He closed his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. Those who forgot the true goal of the Organization were eliminated, as was all opposition. Those were their laws, and he was the keeper of the law.

If Demyx was gone, that meant the duty to seek out and destroy the traitorous number VIII now fell to Saix. He prepared to leap down the side of the cliff, when a small sound reached his ears. He paused, his attention diverted momentarily. It had come from behind him and slightly to his right, somewhere near the wall. He looked over his shoulder and listened, trying to pinpoint it further. It came again and he realized from the slightly echoing quality that it was coming from one of the pipes. It sounded like someone crying.

Sighing, bored now, he decided it was probably one of the town's residents that had hidden away from the battle. They were all such children. He turned once more to leave, but something seemed to hold him back.

Knowing that his instincts should be listened to, he stopped and considered. It couldn't hurt to find out exactly what it was. The most that could happen was that he would lose a minute or so of his time. Saix turned around and leapt across the courtyard easily, landing with a soft tap on a pile of rubble on the other side. His ears located the source of the sound easily, telling him now that it was a young girl; probably a teenager, and he walked over to a large yellow pipe standing against the castle wall. Now that he thought of it, this was a rather clever hiding spot. Amusing, actually. There was a hole big enough to be climbed through and he glanced inside it.

He was not shocked, nothing ever shocked him. He was, however, mildly surprised.

Naminé was sitting inside the pipe. Saix recognized her instantly, even though her face was pressed into her knees. He blinked, trying to imagine a series of events that would lead her here. She had not noticed him yet, apparently, and he made no move to make his presence known.

This was something interesting. It also confirmed beyond a doubt that Axel was here. Naminé was a valuable asset, so he couldn't imagine Axel simply dumping her off somewhere. Perhaps they had become separated during the fighting, which would explain why she was crying. Saix hadn't had much to do with the girl, but he remembered her being exceptionally timid. Obviously she was frightened.

Calmly, and somewhat resignedly, he began considering his options. The Superior had ordered her retrieval. She was here, alone, and that made things incredibly easy: he had been anticipating a fight with Axel before being able to bring her back. However, Axel was also here, cornered, outnumbered. Saix was certain of it now. Once the battle was over and they pulled their forces out, Axel would be able to slip away and disappear once more.

She still hadn't noticed him, and a small smile with absolutely no humor in it slowly crept across his features. She really was utterly helpless.

Well, a bird in the net counted for two in the bush. He might as well take an opportunity when it came up. Saix took a step forward, placing a hand on the pipe, and called her by name.

"Naminé."

Her head shot up, surprise written all over her face. Her eyes were slightly red, dried tears on her cheeks. She rubbed hastily at them before edging away from him slightly, mistrust flashing across her features. They looked at each other for several long minutes. Not wanting to waste time, he reached into the pipe to grab her arm. She scooted away from him until her back was against the wall, forcing Saix to actually lean his upper body into the hole. His fingertips brushed against her arm…

And she suddenly launched herself at him. Out of sheer surprise he was caught off balance, and she managed to force her way past him; knocking him back onto his heels in the process. Before Saix had recovered from this totally unexpected attack, she had scrambled down the pile of rubble and was running across the courtyard. Frowning, annoyed with himself for his momentary lapse, he leaped after her and landed in front of her. She flinched when she saw his face and turned to run the other way, but he was faster and caught hold of her arm.

Again, Naminé surprised him. She writhed and squirmed, almost managing to loosen his grip. Rolling his eyes, thinking ruefully that he would defer this assignment to someone else next time, he turned and began to create a portal.

This time he was prepared for an assault from her, and caught her fist as she attempted to hit him. He raised his eyebrows at her, wondering at these out-of-character actions. That had actually been a well-planned punch. She had aimed for his neck; not exactly a friendly thing to do.

"No more of that, now," he said warningly, giving her captured arm a threatening squeeze. She winced, resuming her tugs. "I mean it, Naminé." She froze momentarily at his tone, looking at him with both fear and resentment. He threw his arm out; the darkness responded and tore open a path for him. He would take her back to the castle, set her up in a temporary room until the Superior said otherwise. Her struggles increased in urgency when she realized what he was doing, she leaned backward on her heels and pulled with all her weight against his grip. Annoyed with her now, he simply let go. It wouldn't hurt her to take a slight fall. She tumbled backward, yelping softly, and before she had time to recover he had pulled her to her feet and walked through the portal with her.

"Let go!" she cried as they emerged into the in-between world, continuing to struggle now that she had her balance back. "Let go!"

"No," he answered simply, smoothly making an exit and dragging her through it. They appeared inside one of the residential wings at the Organization's main base, an empty one, and he strode to one of the rooms. She was making sounds of protest, still resisting with all her might, and both their footfalls and her noises echoed eerily down the empty white corridors. The rooms here all operated based on a key code, so Saix merely entered the correct numerical sequence on the touchpad next to the room he had chosen and the door hissed open. Finally using some of his real strength, she had been quite uncooperative with him, he yanked her forward and gave the small of her back a none-too-gentle push towards the room. Gasping in surprise she fell forward into it and he shut the door, entering a lock code onto the pad.

He turned, almost rolling his eyes and glad that the girl had been dealt with, and prepared to return to Hollow Bastian. There was still work to be done, and he had wasted enough time on Naminé already. For the second time that day, however, something in the back of his mind seemed to pull at him and made him hesitate. Saix stopped, considered the nagging thought. Naminé had thus far behaved very differently than she ever had before. It was possible that she had grown in ways they hadn't expected. Vague paranoia ate away at the edges of his thoughts and he decided, only as a precaution, to summon a pair of dusks to watch Naminé: just in case.

--

Naminé cried out as she fell to the floor, losing her balance completely and feeling the side of her head slam into the unyielding surface. She winced, sitting up slowly, and looked over her shoulder just as the door behind her closed. The corridor outside had been well lit, not as blindingly white as Castle Oblivion but reminiscent of it, however the room she had been shoved unceremoniously into was a different matter. The light was dimmed, it was almost pitch black with the door closed, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. While they did, she rubbed gently at the sore spot on her head and slowly got to her feet.

Who was that man? It had been plain that he was a member of the Organization, and he knew her name as well. Something about him had warned her, right from the start that it was incredibly dangerous to be near him. Despite his calm appearance, she had sensed a threat lurking close behind his face. She was slightly calmer now, but when he had first surprised her she had completely forgotten everything Axel had taught her and simply run for it. Of course he had caught her, and she felt rather foolish now.

Well he was gone and she had to focus on getting out of this place. She had to get back to Hollow Bastian, or at least to a place where Axel would think to look for her. He didn't know what had happened and wouldn't have any idea where to find her when everything was over. The man that had just left might even use that fact to trap Axel, and the thought sent a shiver down her spine.

The room was small and rectangular, about six feet long and four feet wide. There was a bed frame without a mattress in the back corner, but otherwise the room was made of blank, uniform walls, floor and ceiling. She had seen the man use a key pad to open the door, so trying to force her way through was out of the question…

Naminé laughed, suddenly, almost slapping herself for forgetting. She could create portals now, getting out would be no big deal. Smiling and feeling a little silly she raised an arm to call for an exit.

The now-familiar sound of swirling air and hissing darkness came from behind her, and she heard the faint gurgling noise of a dusk. Turning slowly, her throat seizing up and her stomach writhing, she came face to face with the creature, which was swaying less than a foot away from her. Crying out in surprise, she stumbled backward until she hit the wall. The dusk made no move to follow her, merely observed her with its blank, white face. Watching her, monitoring her movements carefully.

She stared at it in horror, realizing that it had been sent to watch her, and that it would follow her if she portalled away. There would be no escaping now.

--

OK, originally I was going to merge this chapter with the next one. However, I am anticipating a very long delay between this chapter and the next so I thought it would be better to post this now while I have time, since you all have been waiting a while already. And hey, at least the cliffhanger isn't too bad this time and the chapter is a decent length.

Ahem, in other news, Silence now has 4 chapters up on deviant art, so if you know anyone who looks at that site let them know. WE MUST SPREAD THE WORD OF AXEL/NAMINE! I really don't know when I'll be able to finish work on the rest of the story, so I apologize in advance. Love you all!!