Nothing feels right when he opens his eyes. His back fucking hurts and it feels like there's a hole in his stomach, aching, aching. It's so bright. The sun is a gorgeous white ball in the flawless blue sky, clouds streaking at the purple edges of the horizon, but otherwise clear. He breathes in. It smells like the sea. (He's never seen the sea before, never seen more water than a public swimming pool, but he knows it's the sea on a deep animal level. It's in his bones.)
He sits up. Sand slides out of his hair, slides down his bare arms and when he looks down there's not a hole in his stomach. He's not bleeding out slowly, hot blood gushing down his back, and he takes a deep breath for the first time.
It's a beach. The sand is bright white and beautiful, and the sea laps hot foam where it meets the shore. Not a bird in sight, not a plant or tree or fish carcass. This world is brand new and pristine, and that white sand is spotted all over his shitty worn out sneakers.
He's used to that creak in his joints, mistreated parts from his teen years groaning now that he's pushing thirty and feeling less like time will never run out. There's no creak as he pushes his hands into the sand, no groan in his knees or his aching back as he gets to his feet. His shades are on sideways and he fixes them, fixes his hat, faces into the flawlessly clean breeze that blows in over the waves; and he smiles the tiniest, most pleased smile he has in years.
"OKAY, JUST WHAT IN THE MOTHER GRUB'S DRONE-EATING CANNIBALISTIC FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?"
The kid's voice sounds like what would come out of an old cathode ray television if you packed the entire interior full of wadded up aluminum foil before turning it on.
Bro turns, and that's when it hits him that—wait—something is really different here. There's over thirty kids behind him, all spread out and littered over the flawless white sand. Most of them are asleep, passed out and breathing shallow as the blowing sand twines in with their hair. Asleep, and a lot of them are grey. A couple of them are standing in a loose group though: a girl in red clothes and pretty fairy wings, a boy in a black sweater that's three times too large for him, a girl in a green coat that's so big it swallows her, a boy in blue clothes and with a hood that falls to his ankles. And Dave, his hair ruffled by the breeze, his shades reflecting the bright sun and a broken sword clutched in one hand.
Bro's breath catches in his throat.
Dave sees him, and suddenly the kid's whole body is as rigid as if he'd been struck by lightning. He drops his sword, stares. He steps deftly around the girl in the green coat, and he walks over the sand like he'd rather be racing, each step taken like a scared bird.
He's so tall when he stops again, stands there three paces away with his eyebrows skyrocketed on his face, his eyes probably wide as damn saucers behind those Stiller shades. "Bro?" he asks after a moment, his throat dry as a desert from how badly it croaks the word. The broken hope in it is heavily palpable, and Bro can't find it in him to mess with the kid if he's that shaken.
"It's me, kiddo."
"Holy shit," Dave breathes, so so confused, but he lurches forward all the same and throws his arms around Bro's shoulders; he latches on like a kid seconds from drowning, and when he tips his shades up to bury his face in his brother's shirt, Bro isn't surprised to feel the wetness of hot tears.
It's later that it gets weird. After Dave stops crying and Bro realizes they're almost the same height. After he realizes his own body is thin as a whip and tiny, all bones and muscle and no experience—that he's physically a fucking teenager again, only shades off Dave's measly 13 years.
"I'm a fucking kid," he murmurs to himself, staring, his voice all wrong, all flutey and high again like a raptor or some other bird. "What the fuck?"
But then more of the weird grey kids are waking up, and everything goes to hell as they start screaming.