Albedo slept a lot, lately.
Jr. would've assumed it'd be frustrating- like having Albedo knocked out in his head would make him groggy by extension, or something- but it was really much the opposite. He'd been so used to the turmoil in his other heart, that lingering emptiness, that this fullness, this feeling of boundless peace was a real comfort. For the first time in so many years, Jr. could really breathe a sigh of relief.
Even with everything that had happened- no, especially with everything that had happened- Jr. felt good. Albedo was here, with him, safe at last.
There was an added bonus with it, too: the boundless joy of getting to wake Albedo up.
Albedo wasn't lazy, not really, but he was a deep sleeper and by no means a morning person. Jr. remembered the grand fight of getting him up for training, and somehow Albedo was even sleepier than usual these days. Jr. could only assume he was catching up on the last 15 years' worth of sleep.
Mngh. Albedo said, along with an impressive series of other groans and grunts. Jr. knew, however, that no matter how much he complained, eyes bleary and movements slow, he could never turn down his beloved Rubedo.
What is it… you desire of me? Albedo mumbled, and Jr. couldn't hold back a grin. This was so far from his usual voice, energetic and commanding. Albedo felt vulnerable, childlike in this state.
I don't want anything. Just thought you might want to take a look around.
Albedo made more noises of protest, though Jr. had a hunch these were more for show than anything else. If Albedo really wanted to, he could curl up again like he'd already been doing, sleeping tangled around Jr.'s heart- but he stayed awake.
Jr. could almost see him blinking, feel it as though it was his own eyes adjusting to the sun's shine. He felt giddy with excitement now, unable to hold it back much longer.
Look, Albedo. He said. We finally made it to the beach.
The Kukai Foundation had a beach, of course, but it was long gone now, and Albedo had never made it there besides. Jr. didn't know where Albedo had spent the last 15 years, but he didn't suppose it was on planets like this one, where the Elsa's crew had made a stop for the day.
The others were nearby, of course- the Godwins, and the Elsa's crew, and Shion and Allen- but they seemed to sense Jr.'s need for a private moment when he wandered a bit away.
Oh, Rubedo, Albedo cooed, fully awake now, back to his usual untenable self. What a lovely spot you've chosen for our honeymoon.
Honeymoon?! Jr. yelped. Hey, now hang on a second-
Isn't it, Rubedo? We are one, after all, wed in body and soul-
Shut up! You just live there, that's all. Jr. huffed. He knew Albedo was just trying to get under his skin, that's why he was grinning like that in his head-
Get under your skin? Why, I dwell there already, in your blood and bones. Albedo said helpfully. I live only in your warmth, Rubedo.
Like that wasn't a weird, creepy thing to say.
Jr. decided to ignore Albedo, because that was the most effective way of forcing him to repent. It worked soon enough, with Albedo deciding to change the subject- but not to anything less mortifying.
I am glad to see you've dressed for the occasion.
Jr. sighed. The swimsuit situation on the Elsa was, predictably, not great, but making matters worse was the rapid growth he'd been experiencing ever since permanently linking with Albedo. Albedo's regeneration stopped the decay of red dragon… or his body was trying to find the average of their two physical ages… or something, Jr. wasn't a doctor… but Jr. probably looked around 17 by now. He really had to scrounge to find something that fit him, even though he'd stayed pretty narrow and skinny.
What shape could I possibly prefer, over the one you inhabit?
I'm not insecure. I looked twelve for fifteen years. Anything's better than that crap. Jr. remembered well being told to wait outside for a billion different things that Gaignun got to do- and he was technically the older one!
I would love any body in which your precious soul dwelt.
Despite the cheesy line, Albedo seemed to decide he'd had enough of teasing, lest he force Jr. into trying the silent treatment again. He could make himself look however he want in that head of theirs, so it was a simple enough matter to give himself silver swim trunks.
Jr. rolled his eyes. He couldn't say Albedo's theatrics were unappealing, but it was still a little silly to wear an imaginary swimsuit to a beach you couldn't touch. He supposed it was the little things.
I dress for your eyes alone, Rubedo.
Then put something on.
Is this better?
Albedo's cape appeared, fastened around his neck. Albedo spread his arms wide to model it, spinning around.
Jr. tried very hard not to give in and laugh.
Yeah, you look great.
Albedo pouted. Still so cruel, my beloved brother! Where's your pity for your poor, bodiless little sibling? Where's the reward for my sacrifices?
Jr. rolled his eyes. You didn't sacrifice anything, you big idiot. You've wanted this for years.
Our whole life, to be precise.
Jr. put his head in his hands. Albedo could be so embarrassing. Like, all the time.
Alright, you've got it. We're linked, and we made it to the beach. What do you wanna do?
Albedo was quiet suddenly, thoughtful. It was uncharacteristic of him- Jr. would have supposed he'd have a thousand plans, at least half of which Jr. would have to shoot down. Jr. almost wondered if he hadn't heard the question, somehow, or found some way to go back to sleep, when Albedo finally responded.
Why don't you take me for a walk, Rubedo?
That's all you wanna do? Walk? Jr. couldn't help but sound exasperated. What about swimming? Games?
Albedo became quiet, however, so Jr. just sighed. A walk it is, then.
He started off down the side of the beach, hands stuffed in the pockets of his swim trunks, but despite his protests Jr. was appreciative. It was a beautiful view that they got to take in- the vibrant blue of the sky above, streaked with clouds, and the mesmerizing conversation of aquamarines and teals in the waves clinging to the shore.
Jr. had wanted Albedo so desperately, for so many years, but now that they were finally here, the familiar had turned strange and foreign. Sometimes, Jr. didn't know what to say- or where to begin.
It is beautiful. Albedo said.
It's not like the one in Sakura's unconscious… that one was more rocky, remember?
Jr. smiled. He remembered the shivering. He was the only one brave enough to venture a toe into the water, before they gave up on that particular dream completely. They agreed that one day, they would travel to a real beach- a better beach, one like in the stories, with soft sand and warm water.
The Kukai Foundation had a beach, too, but that one was artificial… it didn't have stuff like animals, and you could change the weather whenever you wanted.
It sounds better than a real beach.
Nah. Jr. shook his head. I'd rather the good and the bad.
That's what made the good good, wasn't it? Good and bad were defined by contrast, one half calling for the other. That perfection was what made the Kukai Foundation beach feel fake… and why Jr. liked to show off the thunderstorm feature.
Never really got the chance to go to a real one, Jr. sighed. I was real busy.
He liked times like these- playing catch-up with Albedo, learning about everything he had gone through for all those years. He could sense curiosity from Albedo in turn, so usually elaborated on his life in the Kukai Foundation.
I have been, once… to something like this.
Really? Jr. wasn't expecting that. When?
Not by choice, but by chance… the boundary between this world and the next looks much like this.
Jr.'s breath stopped in his chest, and he stood still. He hadn't been expecting to hear that- picturing instead Albedo on some mission that so happened to coincide with a planet like this one, or perhaps crash landing after some evil plan went awry.
Like this? Jr. repeated in disbelief, turning out towards the vibrant waves. This felt as far as possible from death, teeming with movement and color.
…not quite. Colder, and emptier… still beautiful, but haunting.
Just hearing about it sent chills down Jr.'s spine.
You're such a softie. He heard Albedo chuckle. Fear not the abyss, Rubedo. When your time comes, I shall be by your side.
Jr. hadn't thought about what would happen when they died. It was clear Albedo had- really, it was all he ever did- but his vision made sense. They were together, now, linked for the rest of their lives. Maybe they really would leave this world hand-in-hand.
The thought was strangely comforting. Jr. could feel Albedo humming in his chest, appeased all the same.
I suppose it makes sense. That's how we were born, too.
Jr. pressed a hand against his hearts. It was a relief to feel the second one beating again, after a whole year of nothing but silence. This felt like his body again- like he was whole again.
He could almost feel Albedo's hand pressing against his, like they were on two ends of a window and reaching out for one another.
Ah, Rubedo. Look.
Jr. did, keeping his head still so Albedo could see. Albedo couldn't move Jr.'s body reliably, and most of the time he just refrained, but he did have access to all of Jr.'s senses. Jr. wasn't quite sure what Albedo had seen, however.
By your feet.
Jr. crouched down, only to see the expected- small fragments of rocks, sand dollars, and seashells, tousled by the small scraps of waves that made it onto the beach.
Jr. was nothing but amused when Albedo nodded his assent. It wasn't easy to picture Albedo, the same man taking up so much space in his head- strong, broad, tall Albedo- searching for seashells on the beach. It was, however, easier to picture the smaller Albedo doing so, a little ways off from the group and picking at the sand insistently.
Didn't know you liked these.
What isn't to like, my dear Rubedo? Albedo asked. Such precious little trinkets, fashioned by the hand of the sea itself… natural accidents.
Jr. didn't know why that would matter to Albedo when they were as artificially made as humans could be, but he supposed that might be part of the charm. He let Albedo guide his hand, like Albedo's long fingers had looped around his wrist, and sure enough his fist closed around something hard in the sand.
Jr. wiggled his hand a little, letting the grime wash away in the receding wave. He brought the seashell up for inspection.
It was in the shape of a fan, ridged and a little rough to touch. Most striking, however, was the color.
The red ones are my favorites, Albedo said, sounding very pleased with his crappy double entendre.
Of course they are. Jr. said.
This shell, however, wasn't just red. If anything, it looked more pinkish before closer inspection- before squinting close and seeing the chasing little stripes of red and white.
It is real pretty. Jr. acquiesced.
He could feel something insistent in the back of his mind, something Albedo was thinking but choosing not to say. They hid things from each other worse than ever in this state, so intentionally or not, Jr. heard whatever Albedo was broadcasting.
Keep it, Albedo was thinking.
Jr. understood, suddenly. This was the closest Albedo could get to giving him a gift, dwelling in one body like this.
Thanks, Albedo, he said as he slipped it into his pocket. I think I'll display it in our bunk, right? So we can remember this trip.
Whatever you see fit, Rubedo. Albedo said, his best attempt at aloofness. Jr. tried very hard not to laugh.
Now c'mon, Jr. said, let's go for a swim!
Before Albedo could respond, he ran straight into the water with a whoop, crashing into the refreshingly cool waves. They were still quite warm, but a relief to the sweat dripping down his back, and the heat of the sun turning heavy on his skin.
Albedo seemed just as entertained as Jr. as he waded through the shallows, laughing when a particularly large wave clapped against Jr. and sprayed him in the face with salty water. Jr. cussed to himself, hoping Albedo knew it was directed at him.
Always so eager.
Jr. was much taller than he had been, which made the water all the more of a pleasure to wade through. Eventually, however, the bank dropped off, and Jr. was left paddling in the shifting mass of water.
It was peaceful out here. Here, with the gentle caw of seagulls and the whip of ocean breeze in his face, Jr. and Albedo could be alone together.
Albedo seemed to enjoy the new view, gazing out to where the waves flattened at the horizon line. The sun was coming lower, making to kiss the spot where the ocean ended.
Let me show you something, Jr. offered. He took a deep breath and dove under the water.
Opening his eyes stung in an ocean with real saltwater, but this was already so much more interesting than the sterile facsimile in the Kukai Foundation. There was a whole world underneath them, a breadth of water as clear as air but tactile and soothing beneath Jr.'s moving hands. The sand at the bottom rolled with each shifting wave, solid yet dancing, ethereal, and small pieces of coral peeked out in vibrant shades.
Jr. could feel Albedo taking it all in, gazing in wonder. His presence was more pronounced than ever, here.
Under the water it was easier to see him- or imagine him, whichever the case was. Jr. wasn't sure, but he was even less sure that it mattered. This was enough- more than he ever thought he'd get. It was something like seeing, how he could tell Albedo was here with him, nearly make out how the glimmers of sun passed through the water and casted blue shadows on his face, how his silver hair fanned suspended around him in curling shapes.
He was real enough to touch here, in the safety below the waves, like how they would hide under the covers of their bed as children.
Thank you for this, Rubedo… the most wonderful sight my eyes have ever seen, Albedo murmured. Jr. hadn't been expecting him to be so in awe.
For a moment, he saw through Albedo's eyes- himself, colored by the sun and waves just as Albedo was, with his red hair floating around him like a candle's flame. Jr. felt Albedo's heart beat in his chest, reverent.
So this was the sight Albedo loved.
Jr. surfaced again, in dire need of air, and seeing how the sun sank low, decided to paddle back to shore. There he collapsed, laying back in the sand.
Today hadn't exerted him more than their usual activities- on the contrary, it had been nothing but relaxing- but Jr. still felt calmer than ever lying on the still-warm sand, peaceful enough to go to sleep right then and there. His eyelids drooped.
Albedo was right by his side, of course. Jr. could sense him as though he was real, as though he could feel the heat emanating off Albedo lying just by his side. If Jr. closed his eyes, he could imagine Albedo was right here with him, feel the phantom touches of Albedo's fingers brushing against his.
Rubedo, Albedo said, breaking Jr.'s lull- probably revenge, for being woken up earlier. Why have we come to visit this place?
What do you mean?
Were we not in search of humanity's homeland? The bastion of their hopes and dreams, or some other such nonsense.
Jr. sighed. Albedo still didn't get the whole human thing.
Yeah, we are. This planet showed up on our sensors after we'd been at it for awhile, just drifting through space… It was a little off course, but I convinced them to take us here. Everyone needed a break. And…
Jr. hadn't been able to keep the thought from leaking out. He couldn't hide anything from Albedo, these days.
And I needed to keep my promise to you. Jr. said, staring up into the auburn-streaked sky. He had promised Albedo, hadn't he? When they were younger, he had vowed that they would find better circumstances- a life where they could do as they pleased, not living under someone elses' thumb, where they didn't have to fight and one day, Jr. would take Albedo to a real beach.
He'd never forgotten about his promises, no matter how much he tried to.
I'm glad, if I have to be stuck with someone forever, that it's you. Jr. said. Albedo could sure be a pain, sometimes, but Jr. was realizing more and more just how much he'd missed his brother. And I guess I wanted to take you here not just because I promised it… but also because I wanted to do something nice for you. I want to show you I'm happy like this, together.
Albedo was silent, and Jr. panicked. He worried it might have been too much, or too little, that it could have upset Albedo in a million and one different ways because Albedo, for all his bluster, was a deeply sensitive man. Before Jr. could go back on his words, however, Albedo decided to speak again.
Rubedo. Albedo said, patiently. That sounds like a honeymoon.
Fine. Jr. sighed. I guess we're honeymooners. Happy?
He could feel Albedo's smile- no longer the sly grin he usually had, or something nearer to bearing his teeth. This was softer, gentler, closer than they ever had been before.
I could never be happier.