They had the story in bits and pieces.
The rain was a steady drum. It pelted an incessant rhythm on the warehouse roof: a million wet horses stampeding, spitting froth, pawing thunder. Even's ears ached from the pressure. If he slept, he would dream of water. He would drown in invisible nightmares and wake up lost again.
It was Dilan who found their shelter, by impulse as much as luck. The six refugees had tried all the doors they had passed, hoping for a store or home to welcome them, but nothing responded to their knocks. No lights kindled in answer to their shouts. Finally Dilan, fed up with the fruitlessness of their search, wrapped a corner of his shredded jacket around his elbow and smashed through the nearest window.
The storehouse was deep. Elaeus had discovered power switches to illuminate the small circle they had claimed, but the thin light seemed like a fragile token against the hungry dark. The storm persisted in fighting past the broken glass; a damp breeze managed to trickle through to where they sat, huddled between stacks of delivery crates. Rough wood snagged their lab coats, leaving splinters behind. The air was heavy with moisture, reeking with the heavy musk of concrete and tar.
For a time they were quiet, engaged in their own private miseries as their clothes seeped dark puddles on the floor. Braig sprawled back against one of the cartons with an audible sigh of relief, his eyes drooping closed with exhaustion. Ienzo curled into a small knot of limbs to try and warm up; the smallest of them all, he also had the least amount of body fat for insulation. Now the they were no longer walking, his muscles took their revenge by locking up in spasm, tight shivers as they tried to stabilize their inner temperatures.
Xehanort's umbrella dripped in the corner.
The man himself sat tamely on a shipping crate. His face was tight with his own private thoughts - a forced neutrality, revealing nothing of the man's original relief when he had first seen them appear out of the rain. Like the rest of them, he had changed since they last saw him in the Bastion. Gone was the calm of the researcher; this Xehanort barely looked like his former self, bangs swept forward on either side of his temples, mouth too pinched. His skin had been bleached from tan to ivory.
But there was a sharpness in his eyes that was familiar, a bitter longing that they had grown accustomed to during the last few years: a fire that had gradually overcome the easy trust of the man when he'd been younger.
Dilan was busying himself by opening the nearest cartons. Less susceptible to the damaging winds than any of them, he also recovered the fastest despite taking the lead. Within minutes of their arrival, the lancer had managed to pry the lid off one of the boxes, revealing a fluffy mess of wood shavings - the kind of pulp, Even recognized, that artisans used to cushion their works for transit. Dilan sorted through handful after handful, but each time he groped through the shreds, looking for whatever must have been stored for safekeeping, he came up empty.
Even felt as if he had been put through a flood's worth of punishment. Now that they were out of the weather, his body kept trying to sway. Fighting to keep upright against the storm had ruined its equilibrium. His stomach roiled; he was overcome with the unaccountable urge to retch. Never before had he experienced winds that strong without cease. The Bastion had magics to gentle such things before they reached the townshead, and Even had always scoffed when warned of nature's fury.
If I survive, he thought glumly, I will never make fun of Dilan's parlor tricks again.
But his body shook off the cold well enough, which was his sole advantage. Braig and Ienzo had no such elemental affinity; their training at the Bastion had led them in other directions, neither of which were helpful with enduring a storm of such primal force.
It was Xehanort who addressed the fact that they were freezing. His umbrella had sheltered him only partially from the rain; Even and Ienzo had both fought to get under its protection, gripping the edges to keep it from turning inside-out. Whatever doubts they may have had of Xehanort's presence had been dispelled; the man's shoulder had been warm when Even pressed against it.
By some miracle, the storm had left Xehanort's clothes half-dry. Without complaint, the man stripped off his jacket in brisk motions and balled it up, pitching it across the floor to Ienzo. Next he removed his shirt, wadding it up like a towel before offering it to Elaeus. There were no marks on Xehanort's body that Even could see; no wounds, no evidence of the energy that they had flooded him with during the experiments of feeding darkness into his blood.
If the Heartless had stamped him with their colors, then Xehanort was hiding it well.
The rest of them disrobed with reluctance, peeling their coats off from being plastered to their bodies. While every inch of fabric had been soaked through, the idea of removing even the scant warmth of their ruined clothes seemed worse than sitting in the damp and letting it dry on its own.
But discipline ruled. One by one, they each reached for buttons and zippers. Their shredded jackets looked like funeral shrouds when spread out across the crates to dry. Water had seeped into Even's boots; it had been summer at the Bastion, and he had worn thin leathers suitable for the warmer days. Yanking them off, he lined the pair of shoes underneath his coat and surveyed the results with satisfaction. All that was needed to complete the picture was a corpse.
Dilan spoke up first.
"Are we dead?" Though he pitched the question to Xehanort's direction, the lancer kept his eyes studiously fixed on the crates, as if inattention could protect him from the answer.
Even was more practical. "Are we in another world at last? That was part of our experiments," he added when he caught Braig giving him a dark glare. "We wanted to see what else was out there. Proper use of the Darkness was supposed to open pathways to other lands."
But Xehanort did not seem to care about the reminder of what had been done. "As far as I can tell," the man offered, "I arrived here not long ago. The last thing I remember was being strapped into the machine back in the labs. But I'm not a Heartless - the Darkness barely acknowledges me anymore. I've tried to summon the Shadows, but nothing's responded yet." He folded his arms; a stray drop of water tripped off his hair and onto the floor. "So, the experiment went wrong. I've lost whatever ties I had Darkness and gained nothing."
"But we saw you. Or a creature that looked like what you used to, before this." The words came out in a growl; Ienzo's jaw was clenched tight to keep his teeth from chattering. "In the labs. You were there, surrounded by monsters. You were shouting about Darkness. That's all I could hear - darkness, darkness, darkness, like a battle cry. Your feet didn't touch the ground." The youngest researcher shifted, reaching out to touch the seam of Xehanort's pants, as if physical contact could affirm what was real. "The Shadows... refused to listen to our commands. They turned on us. And there you were, in the middle of it all, laughing."
Ienzo's voice trailed off.
Dilan finished one box and reached for another lid.
"You saw my Heartless," Xehanort said eventually. "You saw my heart."
The idea spurred him to his feet. His boots squeaked on the concrete floor as he strode through small puddles they had shed, trekking marks through the center of their group. "If part of me became an intelligent Heartless, then the experiment was a success. But it must have had unforeseen consequences. My presence here must be a... a byproduct. A leftover of what happens when a heart is separated from its body." As Xehanort turned, Even caught a glimpse of his face; his eyes had widened, inspiration in full force. The man was formulating conclusions aloud, racing down hypothetical possibilities and discarding the least likely. "And that means the rest of you must have had the same fate. Neither Heartless nor Heart-filled," he declared, throwing out his hands and the theory with them. "Not a part of Light, but not of Darkness either."
"Less poetry, please," Braig requested from his perch. He had been working on removing his own boots during the discussion, and the bared right foot showed a cluster of red blisters that had broken along the back of his right heel. Judging from the way he was grimacing as he pried at his second shoe, the left foot was worse.
"Fine, simpler terms," Xehanort retorted, sitting down hard on the nearest crate. The act did little to stem his burst of energy; he fanned his fingers together, leaning forward in excitement. "We are not Heartless. We're worse."
The verdict was met with skeptical expressions. The other five students were long accustomed to Xehanort's leaps of insight, and even more familiar with how those leaps could be wrong.
"Proof," Elaeus demanded, and the debate turned from there.
There were no symbols of the artificial Heartless painted anywhere on their bodies that they could see. Ienzo, being the physically weakest, was the logical candidate for a thorough investigation. After a quick vote resulted in a 5-1 in favor of the idea, Elaeus and Dilan each took an arm while Braig grabbed the legs, and Xehanort paced around the spread-eagled man, poking and prodding as if the sigil would appear on command.
When they finally released him, Ienzo glared and dived for his pants. "I hope you're satisfied now," he threatened, voice muffled as he pulled Xehanort's jacket back around his shoulders, huddling inside its warmth.
The debate died after that. Each of the students digested new information in their own way, and their habits had not changed; Braig chewed on his lip while staring at the ceiling, Elaeus systematically cracked his knuckles. Ienzo closed his eyes.
Even touched Xehanort's arm.
"Walk with me," he requested, half-expecting the other man to refuse outright.
But Xehanort nodded, pleasantly enough, and allowed himself to be pulled along to the warehouse exit. Even pushed the door open; the faint glow of the streetlights mirrored the building lights. Xehanort's face was caught between them in a soft haze of color. The other researcher showed no signs of distress for their situation, none of the manic lust for knowledge that he had previously exhibited under the influence of Darkness.
The change was disconcerting. More than that - it was dangerous. Xehanort was not worried by the state of affairs, and his behavior no longer bore the marks of one possessed. He had been easier to encourage while in the thrall of Darkness; he had been predictable.
Xehanort, Even realized with a jolt, was calm now not because he had forgotten about what happened, but because he was studying them in turn.
He did not let go of the other man's arm. "Answer something for me. What is the first thing that you remember happening after your arrival?"
Xehanort gave him a faint, helpless shrug. "I told you. There was the machine - "
"No." Even gave the other man's arm a rough shake. "When you came here, Xe - Ansem," he caught himself, weighing both names and choosing the safest. "When you realized you were no longer controlled by the Darkness. What was the first thought in your head?"
Xehanort's fingers were warm; he reached up gingerly to push Even's hand away. "The truth?" When Even nodded, he continued. "I remember opening my eyes. I was alone in the city. I walked for hours." He fell silent after that, so long that Even thought he had finished, and then added quietly, "I remember opening my eyes, and seeing clearly for the first time in a long while."
"Ansem," Even started, feeling the name like a poisonous drop of honey on his tongue, but the other man cut him off.
"I'm not him. You know that as well as I." The false serenity had faded. Xehanort's expression had closed, concealing any hints of his former life beneath a veneer of indifference. "The time for those games is over now. We are playing with fresh rules, and there's no time to waste. I leave it to you to enlighten the others."
With that, he pushed away. For one moment, Even wondered if the man would return to the company of the group - and then Xehanort stepped out of the warehouse, forsaking shelter in favor of the rain. He did not go far. Only a few feet into the road, ignoring the chill drizzle that had resumed coating the city.
He stood there, alone, before finally lifting an empty palm to the sky.
Even turned away.
Despite the violence of their arrival, the six researchers adapted to their new location with little hesitation. They had always studied together, crafting experiments and theory; now they responded with the same well-oiled habits, bouncing suggestions off one another without missing a step.
Their presence in the world was a fragile thing. None of them had weapons; their magics sparked out of control, unpredictable and dangerous. At first, they planned to rest at their makeshift shelter until the rain stopped, but as time went on, it became obvious that the weather refused to change.
Without the sun, the twin needs of sleep and hunger were their only clocks - and ones which rarely matched up. Everyone operated on different cycles. Elaeus was awake for what must have been days at one point, while Ienzo kept complaining about drowsiness and dropping off for naps without warning.
Unlike the Heartless, their bodies still hungered for physical nutrition. Water, at least, was omnipresent; Elaeus set out a jug to collect the rain, sipping from it first to determine if it was clean. Food was in shorter supply. The pressure sent Dilan and Braig out to scout for supplies, stealing Xehanort's umbrella whenever they had the chance. The two of them had poor luck, disappearing for hours before returning with sparse handfuls of bread or fruit.
Some days, they found nothing. Another time, they came back with cartons of clothes in their arms, grabbed at random from the shelves of abandoned stores. Dilan had scrounged a black raincoat from someone's wardrobe, complete with silver trim. Braig, on the other hand, had ended up with a bright purple coat with a translucent hood.
The hood had butterflies.
"What, you don't think it looks good?" he challenged when he caught them staring in horror at the cheerful white-wing print. When no one spoke, he snorted. "Amateurs, all of you. You just don't appreciate high style."
"It's hard to navigate this place," Dilan pled - and then, once his partner had left the room, the lancer leaned forward to hiss, "plus Braig keeps getting me lost."
"The city does look abandoned." Xehanort touched his fingers to the rain-streaked windows. Outside, the tempest had dimmed to a slow drizzle; one translucent worm of liquid slid across his palm.
"Let's get the lights on."
One by one, Dilan and Braig began to mark where they had searched. They broke into some houses, kicking down doors and cracking windows to get inside. Other stores provided less trouble, with rear exits that had been left unlocked. At first the buildings were all universally dark, but as the two men began to explore, they left a pattern of switches behind them. A lamp here, a storefront there, until Even could look down the roads and see where Dilan and Braig had been just by following the trail of multicolored stars.
Get the lights on, Xehanort said. And they blossomed like wildfire - whole avenues of signs advertising movies, sales, stores. Most of the language was alien, but some symbols were familiar. Other buildings had letters they could recognize, but the words were all jumbled together, making nonsense phrases that refused to be rearranged to coherency.
Like the trash cans, Even realized one day. This world is desperately trying to resemble a city, but it's missing a basic understanding of how to be one.
The rest of them tackled the warehouse. Elaeus assisted Xehanort in searching through the architectural layout, discovering connecting pathways hidden behind stacks of crates, walk-in closets that were packed full with boxes. Every time it seemed that they had taken a full inventory of the storage rooms, new cartons appeared. Old ones vanished. All of them were empty, stuffed with packing shreds that protected nothing inside.
Their list of clues was woefully short. While it seemed as if the storage rooms had been designed for the basic luxuries of a working crew, there was no evidence that anyone had used them. The stoplights outside never faltered, but sometimes they ran long, or had prematurely short yellows. Ienzo tried to extrapolate a timeschedule off their pattern, scribbling color codes in a notebook that Braig had brought back for him, but after all the pages were filled up with no results, even he shelved the attempt.
It was, Even reflected sourly, not unlike being children again at the Bastion - building wooden forts out of chairs, skipping lessons and hiding away from the King's scrutiny, learning the limits of what would and what would not explode. Ansem the Wise had put all six of them through their paces, emphasizing teamwork and creativity.
If only their King could see them now.
After one of their trips through the streets, Braig and Dilan came back with tales of a local infestation of stray Heartless. The Shadows had peeked around a corner, slow at first - a scattering of eyes, assorted limbs - but then the road had been flooded with writhing antenna that overboiled the alleyway and crawled across the street.
The news brought all six of them outside, dressed in mismatched jackets to ward off the drizzle. Neither Braig nor Dilan had found extra raincoats, and Xehanort had the only umbrella, so the remaining researchers settled with heavy coats to keep themselves dry.
As they walked, the corners of the streets seemed to pulse. Here and there popped the head of a Shadow, but it would inevitably stop responding to their voices. When Braig snuck closer to one, it snapped mutely at his hand before squirming away. No amount of commands controlled the attention of the Shadows for long; lacking hearts, the researchers also lacked the ability to attract the creatures' hunger.
Ironic, that the Darkness that they had worked so hard to master seemed content to ignore them now.
"What are the Heartless doing here anyway?" Dilan wondered aloud one day.
"Starving," Xehanort quipped back. "Or hiding where it's dark. You haven't seen the sun come up recently, have you?"
The lancer shook his head.
Trying to use magic involved having to learn the entire language of power all over again. Deliberately calling for the Heartless earned mixed results. Once, overestimating his own strength, Ienzo summoned a handful of Shadows which were only too eager to break free from his control. Even was the first to discover his plight; Ienzo had clambered up on one of the overhanging warehouse lights and was eyeing the swarm below with mixed curiosity and annoyance.
"Please do something about these," he ordered patiently, as if he were a matron who had just discovered her child's retch-up on the floor.
"You don't have a heart!" Xehanort called out, resting his hands on the walkway railing. "They can't hurt you!"
"Let's pretend for a moment that I do, and they can," came Ienzo's retort. His body was wrapped around the thin neck of the lamp, hands clutching the metal chain that was all that kept him and fifty pounds of electrics from plummeting to the warehouse floor.
As they watched, the chain began to creak.
Ienzo refused to reveal how he had managed to get all the way up there without a ladder. No one else could think of a means of getting him down. It took Braig to mount a recovery effort, arms spread as he crab-walked across a narrow bridge of thin air. Braig had always been the best of them at ignoring the constraints of gravity; he had mastered Ansem's teacup-juggling assignments with ease, but hated using more basic elements.
Solid ground, solid ground, the gunner muttered under his breath as he inched out onto empty space, a steady plea of c'mon I really don't want to fall today, that'd be totally lame. I can do this. I so can do this. Yeah.
Finally, just after Braig had managed to disentangle Ienzo off the lamp hood, he turned back to the cluster of researchers on the upper walkway. "Hey, guys," he called out, grinning. "Think I should drop him?"
Ienzo hissed, and spat threats as he clung to his rescuer.
While Braig tried to convince the younger man that the question had been a joke, Even heard a strange noise. It resembled a soft series of coughs, like a corpse chuckling, air forced out of dry lungs dressed up as humor. He glanced over to his right, wondering if there was a new monster at the door, and saw what was making the sound.
For the first time since their arrival, Xehanort was smiling.