Braig and Dilan. Set around the start of the Nobodies. Related to Magpies.
The first night they're sent out is the worst.
So here's the thing, Braig figures. Everyone's got different concerns. Even and Ienzo are both caught up in arguing if this is a weird afterlife or not, and Dilan's still convinced they're all hallucinating in the Bastion. Elaeus is the most normal, but he keeps looking at Xehanort like Heartless are going to come out of the floor and eat everyone's faces.
Xehanort's not talking.
But food is the thing that'll kill everyone faster than ideological debates: food, water, shelter. Three points that came up highlighted on the score papers every time Master Ansem went over the basic components of providing for a kingdom. Armies came later, in the second tier. Recreational philosophy was dead last.
Water's already handled. Dilan solved the problem of where to sleep by breaking into a warehouse. But their new home doesn't come with a kitchen installed, and there's no ice cellar underneath with chilled lamb waiting to be thawed.
So. They need someone to go into the city. Two someones, because no one's got any weapons, and everyone's sick and cold, and one guy is just going to get lost on his own. Naturally, Dilan volunteers as the first. He's had practice enduring heavy storms; he knows how to turn his body when he walks so the wind rolls off him and doesn't knock him flat.
Xehanort hesitates as he looks over the other students, so Braig solves the problem by stepping forward willingly.
Because Braig is the oldest, and there are some things the oldest is supposed to do.
He's not Master Ansem's first student, but he's physically the eldest, and Braig knows how his teacher has always relied on him to keep an eye on the whole lot. It's an unspoken responsibility. Like that time Braig convinced Ienzo that marshmallows and vinegar tasted great together; he was responsible then too. He'd held the guy's hair back all night while Ienzo vomited into the moat. Afterwards, Braig clapped him on the back and helped him up to his room, and brought his homework by the next day.
It's just the way things are.
The first night is the worst. Everything's pitch black. Only the streetlights are any comfort, throwing multicolored glows on the wet road, red and yellow and green hazes that bleed brilliant halos in the rain. The street signs are all blank. Some of them are in shapes Braig has never seen before. Some of them look like they point in opposite directions at once.
Dilan keeps looking over his shoulder.
After the fifth time the lancer does this, Braig steps up and nudges him in the arm. "Relax. They've got Elaeus with them. I don't think Ienzo and Even can manage to blow up anything as long as he's there."
"That is not," Dilan replies, his voice low, "what I am worried about."
Braig knows who the lancer is talking about, and it could bother him too, if he let it.
But he won't.
"Even and Ienzo solve things their own way. Xehanort seems mostly okay, even though he's still nuts," he shrugs instead, affectionate with the last word. Crazy isn't bad. All of the Bastion loved Ansem the Wise, but Braig was close enough to the King that he knew about his teacher's habit of stirring his coffee with the same knife that buttered the toast. He can respect a guy like that, but not without smiling.
Even bears the same stamp: a kid imitating the teacher who'd become a father over the years, quirky and denying it with every breath. Ienzo has always been off in his own world. And Xehanort's the newest of the bunch even though he's older, probably as old as Elaeus, but he's never going to outgrow his gullibility, his willingness to believe.
And that's fair enough. Even rambles on and on about how Ienzo's braids are gone, like that's a crime against nature -- but no one mentions how Braig's hair has streaked almost completely grey on top, or how Dilan's voice sounds like he's been stealing Master Ansem's pipe again for weeks in a row. Elaeus's hair used to be so thick that he'd catch bees in it during the summer, tying it back with hands sticky with berry-juice from helping out the farmers.
Now it's short, and no one cares.
The first night is all about getting lost. Dilan argues about directions; the roads form a black maze, and there are four people waiting back at camp hoping for some magical cache of goods to make everything normal again. It's not easy to keep a person's courage up while being drowned by a storm, but Braig already had his moment of weakness when he first landed, and now he's got to set a good example for the rest.
Eventually Dilan breaks down a shop door, bruising his shoulder in the process and complaining mightily about it for hours.
The bounty consists of plastic-wrapped snackcakes and some bottled juice. Everyone eats like they're starving, like it's the first thing they've ever tasted in their lives.
Maybe it is.
Food, water, shelter. Three out of three isn't bad.
When Braig and Dilan finally bring back mattresses -- lugging them down the street as the weight gets heavier and heavier with rain -- it's like a birthday for all six of them. Ienzo flops down on top of the first stack, right there in the middle of the floor, no questions asked. Everyone stands around and stares at the kid, curled up like he was a little boy again, still scrawny from pinching scraps out of the market.
Braig leaves him there. Let him sleep.
Something else Master Ansem warned about: don't let your home base go unprotected. So Elaeus keeps watch over the three bookworms, and Braig consults with him after each scouting trip. How's Xehanort doing? What about Even? Has Ienzo's cold gotten any better? The usual.
Elaeus shakes his head and shrugs and Braig thanks him, because Elaeus is a good man and that doesn't have to change just because they're lacking hearts.
It's nice. Braig understands reliability, which is why he doesn't mind when he gets a tug on his sleeve one evening and looks over to see the redhead waiting there. At first it looks like Elaeus is just going to ask him about the status of the extra food supplies, but then the conversation starts off soft, and gets even quieter.
Judging by how long it takes Elaeus to pose his question, he's been thinking about it for a while. "Do you believe what they're saying, about having no emotions?"
Braig spreads his hands with affected disdain. "I think we should just go with whatever works. Keep it simple. It's not," he adds, very careful with his reassurance, "anything that worrying will fix. Y'know?"
The redhead nods and turns away. Only when he's gone does Braig exhale; half his job has always been to say over and over, it'll be okay. It's an important part about being the oldest. Ansem the Wise used to be there to bail them out of their experiments when things went wrong -- but now the king's gone, and Braig is way out of his league, except there's always got to be someone hanging around looking cool. It'll be okay. Yeah.
Otherwise, the kids will freak.
Dilan has no answer to that either. He's not openly upset -- never has been the type to make everyone else's lives a pit of misery until he gets his piece of candy -- but he telegraphs his unhappiness just as easily as any of the rest of them. It's almost impossible to get Dilan to admit to anything. The lancer just bundles himself up tighter in his personal stormcloud and lets the words come out fast and hard, a torrent of vitriol brewing behind his teeth. Works off his irritability by being in motion, just like one of his pet winds.
Despite losing his heart, he's still got the same habits.
Braig has worked with his friend for years, so he knows to be patient, to sit there and ramble about the never-changing weather and nod to everything agreeably, nod and nod and nod until finally Dilan bursts out with the truth.
"Why couldn't we have just woken up somewhere simple?" It's a blister of resentment exploding; Dilan sets his foot down hard in a puddle, and ignores the splash. They're out scouting again, this time down a road with lights. "A place where everything would have been laid out ahead of time, with rules we already know?"
Braig takes in a deep breath, just like always. "It would have been nice. You're right," he admits, because one of the worst ways to calm someone down is to dismiss what they're saying out of hand. Another Ansem lesson. "It would have been great to have the answers in our heads already. We just aren't that lucky."
Bitter laughter is the reply -- a sound that has no life inside it, like a dry memory withering on a shelf. "And yet, you'd think that there would be some parts of this that are obvious, Braig. Lacking hearts, we are only bodies. If we're merely flesh vessels, then there should be nothing complicated about our existences. And yet..."
Despite his own uncertainties, Braig finds himself grinning. "When you were born the first time, Dilan, did you come out with an instruction book in your hands? Because if so, I've got a whole new world of respect for your mother."
The lancer mutters, but the tension's already going out of his shoulders, easing through his face. He steps around the next puddle rather than striding directly through it.
Later that night, the rain gets worse. They're halfway through an apartment building when it happens -- tenth floor, going from door to door like salesmen cheerfully kicking in the locks -- and there's still over half the building left to survey. The fifth floor supply closet had yielded up plastic garbage bags that were just the right size to stuff with loot; a stash waits by the stairwells on each floor. The original plan was to toss the goods over the side and drag them home later, once everything had been collected. The reality involved more exhaustion.
They've been working for hours, flipping on lights, searching through closets when the noise alerts them. Braig groans when he hears the sporadic drumming turn into a roar; a glimpse out the nearest window shows a sheet of silver water, as solid as a river.
Dilan takes one look before turning away. "I'm not walking through that."
The windowpane is cool against Braig's forehead as he leans forward. "This is the third night in a row that we've been gone from the warehouse. We've got to get back soon."
"They will be fine." Dilan's insistence is heavy. "Nothing has killed us yet."
Thwarted in his token attempt to be responsible, Braig makes for the kitchen. The apartment is clean and warm -- two good arguments in Dilan's favor. The fridge door squeaks as it swings open. "You think that's a good reason to tempt fate?" Braig snorts as he pokes through someone else's dinner options. "Look at this. The cheese is still fresh! We get taken to a new world that doesn't have an armory, but at least the cheese isn't moldy. Man. We are all set. Army of rats attack, I am so totally prepared."
The clink of glass comes from his right, and he spins in time to see Dilan taking down a bottle of amber liquid from a cupboard. The shelf is full of ornate glassware: fluted crystal lids protect green tonics, tall rectangles encompass clear liquor that has been flecked through with gold dots. It's either an alchemist's lab, or someone's personal stash. Or both.
It takes a minute before he realizes what Dilan's doing. "Do you think we can still get drunk?"
"I don't know," Dilan replies, methodically searching through the drawers for a corkscrew, "but while we're here, I'm prepared to find out."
Neither one of them sits on the couch; Dilan sprawls against it with his legs on the floor, and Braig figures that's as good a place to relax as any. The constant humidity should have ruined the thick carpet, but for now it's pristine and soft, wrapping the apartment in a thick shell of luxury. Not a bad place to rest.
They finish the first bottle in silence. When Dilan gets up to grab a second -- and bring a third along for convenience -- he kicks off his shoes midway, abandoning them near the kitchen. Braig offers up a silent apology to the original owners of the apartment; their Heartless would probably appreciate the sentiment.
"Tell me again how you got chosen as an apprentice."
The gunner blinks; watching the rain stream down the windows is hypnotizing, like molten silver or hot ice or some other poetic nonsense. "What, that old story?" When Dilan's silence doesn't allow him to escape, he sighs and clears his throat. "Fine."
A swig of the honey-smooth liquor warms his stomach. The label isn't written in any language Braig knows, but he trusts it won't kill him.
"So my family, you know, they were Fall divers." Saying the words brings back the memory: smell and touch and taste, the sounds of human voices mixing with the hungry lust of white gulls. The Rising Falls running salt to sweet -- drinkable by the time they crest the cliffs, but tangy with the ocean at their base. His parents setting up the distance markers, checking each peg for length. The gleam of fish scales in the sun.
"Every summer, we'd set up the nets across the rivers and oceans, but it was the Rising Falls that had our biggest catches. You had to have good aim with the harpoons and lines, and yourself when you jumped off to dive. Had to thread your body through the ropes," one hand comes up in a wave, an undulating snake of motion, "or else they'd catch your ankle or wrist and snap a limb right off. Happened to my uncle. One second he was fine, the next, whoosh. All we saw was this stream of red coming behind him in the air, like some kind of ribbon, or festival banner. He managed to catch himself two lengths from the ground."
A pause. "We never found his foot."
Dilan makes a little noise to show that he's not impressed, and Braig moves on. "That summer, I'd just made journeyman. Not too good at swimming, but I had the best aim of any of the kids, and that's all you really need to fish the waterfalls." Harpoon guns, hook-launchers. Distance and marksmanship and free fall; Braig knew them all.
"I took the dive. It was perfect, I knew it was perfect, but then something went wrong -- maybe the wind that day, I don't know. My course went wide. I missed the catch on the first length, so instead of getting the safety hook, I grabbed the rope directly. Burned the skin off my arm, from here to here, and the leather off my gloves. Ripped into my face going down."
The scar tissue is still numb when Braig traces his finger across his cheek. Dilan watches, and makes a dutiful grunt of acknowledgement.
"So blood's in my eyes and my skin's on fire and I can't figure out where the jump-ropes are, I can't get back to the Falls." A teenager's panic flutters dimly inside his chest; Braig takes another swallow of alcohol to drown out the reaction before passing the bottle back to Dilan. Always aim for the water, he thinks dutifully, remembering the old litany his father had drilled into his head. The Falls will catch you and bring you back to the top. You ever get in trouble, aim for the water. It'll keep you safe.
So simple, for a kid. So hard, when the waterfalls have been destroyed and there's nowhere to go home to.
"I was convinced that I was going to die, and you know what went through my head? Just that I hoped they could find all my body parts. How stupid is that?" Dilan is being selfish with the bottle, cradling it in his lap with his fingers twined around the neck. Braig tugs it away. The liquor makes a clench in his stomach when he pulls down a fresh mouthful, a familiar warning against drinking too fast without eating first.
"Next thing I know, I'm hitting sail. Ripped straight through the first couple layers -- that's what the deckhands told me afterwards. Came right out of the sky and onto the boat. Bang bang bang, and into the rigging, out of the rigging, wham."
Dilan stirs drowsily. "And that was how you met the King."
"Yeah," Braig affirms, taking another swig. "I fell on him."
The past is fresh enough now that he's talking about it: the impact that had knocked his shoulder out of socket, splinters that had taken hours to remove afterwards. Pain has a long shelf life. "The royal doctors patched me up well enough. Afterwards, Master Ansem asked if I ever thought about helping out around the castle. I figured, why not. I owed the guy one. Then I discovered he wanted me to study. I thought he was crazy." It's hard not to laugh, and Braig lets himself -- an easy smile that has never really left his face. "I was a Falls diver, not a fancy accountant in some hatshop. But the King said he wanted all kinds of knowledge, and that there'd be things a fishboy could see in an experiment that a book-reader couldn't. 'Course, I thought Even was going to strangle me in my sleep the first month. That's a whole other tale. But Master Ansem was the start of it. He taught me a lot."
Those words could mean anything. Braig doesn't apologize for them. Ansem the Wise took six different students as apprentices, and by the end, each one loved their work.
"Okay, your turn," he announces after a minute. "I played storyteller long enough, 'least you can do is return the favor, Dilan."
He turns his head.
Dilan's already asleep.
Braig smirks to himself as he pushes himself upright. His body's only a little wobbly; maybe it likes the alcohol, maybe it doesn't. Maybe it's only memory of being drunk that's affecting him. The rain is still coming down strong outside as he makes his way back to the windows, and it shows no signs of abating.
On impulse, he lifts the bottle in a private salute.
If any of the other students saw him, they'd mock -- but Braig is the oldest, and there are responsibilities he must observe, obligations that he's come to understand over the years. He pays his respects alone instead, watching the impossible weather and remembering a very different kind of water.
"Cheers, old man." The streetlights blink and buzz. "Wherever you are now, I hope the Darkness had a tough time chewing on you."