Though Rubedo panted, the breaths stuck in his throat. It was as though the air itself was choking him as he gasped uselessly, straining for relief that would never come.
His heart was beating faster than it ever had before, coupled with Albedo's beside it. If Rubedo had room in his mind for more worries, he might've been concerned his twin hearts would implode from all their stuttering.
His sweaty hands nearly slipped off the gun he was holding, taken from some corpse he didn't want to identify. It was too dangerous to use red dragon now, when Rubedo knew what it could do- what it almost had done.
Rubedo didn't have another choice. The fear was like an electric shock, keeping him so alert it was painful. It was like his limbs were moving on their own. Rubedo was trained too well to fall here, aiming and pulling the trigger as though in a trance.
He had to kill them. It rose up in him like a need, like an animal sinking its teeth into its prey. Every gunshot felt nearly like quieting the tension in his heart, like he was protecting himself by doing this.
One after another, the standard units pursuing him fell. It stung, felt wrong- Rubedo shouldn't be gunning down his own comrades- but he didn't have another choice. He could see the magenta haze of U-DO contamination wafting from them, like a stench that lingered in the air.
He tried desperately to think of anything else, as he fired shot after shot. It was like he had disconnected entirely from his body, like he was watching footage of himself after the fact. Bang. Rubedo hoped the other variants were alright. Bang. Where were they? Bang. He had to save them. Bang. Maybe they could go to the beach after this. Bang.
Rubedo's eyes flooded with tears. How could he do this so callously? He was shooting them- killing his own comrades- and he didn't even have the decency to think about it. Was he really weak enough to try and distract himself from his own crimes?
He couldn't ever truly ignore it. As he walked, he saw the blood he himself had drawn, the cries of pain wrenched by his own hands. He could hear the suffering he was causing. Sobs, groans, gasps, the cacophonous misery of pain and war that Rubedo himself was conducting.
"It's not my fault," he said aloud, to no one in particular. "I don't have a choice."
Even as he looked around, however, a creeping thought began to nag at him. Rubedo closed his eyes, as though it might change what he had seen- but there was no going back.
He couldn't see the U-DO contamination anymore- wasn't sure he had ever seen it in the first place. Were these just his fellow soldiers, his brothers? Why had he gunned them down? All Rubedo could remember was the intense urge, uncontrollable, screaming at him that he was in danger.
He felt it again now, thankfully before he could think more about what he'd done. The need for violence was like an alarm bell in his head, shrill and panicky, and his heart began to thunder again. He whipped around at the footsteps behind him, gun raised and finger on the trigger.
He was in danger. He had to protect himself. He would die if he didn't.
Rubedo pulled the trigger.
The cry of pain that followed, however, was too familiar to ignore. It pricked at something in Rubedo's brain, and the haze of panic lifted just enough for him to recognize that he was shooting at Albedo.
Shame overwhelmed him- how could he do this to Albedo, his own brother? He was supposed to protect Albedo, too small and frightened to protect himself. This was a betrayal of the worst kind.
Albedo kept advancing, and like a puppet on a string, Rubedo watched himself shoot again. It was worse than being a marionette- Rubedo was conscious, and hidden in the deepest recesses of his soul, willing. Deep down, shooting satisfied the fear in his heart, the horrible, painful tension setting his nerves alight. Albedo was contaminated by U-DO. He had to be stopped. Rubedo didn't have a choice. He didn't have a choice.
Rubedo shot again. He had to keep Albedo back. He couldn't let Albedo reach him. He didn't know what would happen if he did- something terrible, for sure. The guilt and pity melted away under the fanned flames of fear, and more fear, and Rubedo began to feel relieved with every cry of Albedo's. This kept Rubedo safe. It staunched the terror crushing his heart. The relief almost felt good, like Rubedo liked this.
Blood stained his institute clothing, and despite Rubedo's hail of bullets, Albedo was fast regenerating. Rubedo began to wonder if this was endless, and at that the fear truly threatened to take over his mind. What would he do? He could sob from how terrified he was already, like Albedo had already caught him and he was in true danger.
Through the tears, Rubedo finally heard a thump, and then silence. Albedo, mercifully, had stopped at last. He laid in a pathetic jumble on the Miltian street, covered in his own pooling blood and sniffling.
"Why are you hurting me, Rubedo?" he asked, just as meek as ever. Rubedo's hands shook, clutching at the gun as though for dear life.
"I had to." Was all Rubedo could say. "I had to. I had to!"
"How could you, Rubedo?" Albedo sobbed, and every instinct in Rubedo screamed for him to protect Albedo, to comfort Albedo, but it was too late. He was the one who had caused this pain, the one who had pulled the trigger. "Why? I loved you."
"I had to," Rubedo repeated uselessly, now pared down to a whisper. He couldn't protest. He had done this. It was him.
He could see it clearly now. He wanted to collapse in the street the same as Albedo, clutching his head and letting the tears stream down his face. How could he have done this? Why? Rubedo couldn't remember, couldn't imagine why he had ever been so angry or so afraid- why he had liked it!
The purple flames around Albedo quieted, replaced with red. Rubedo's red. It had never been U-DO- it had been Rubedo all along, his violence, his mistakes, he had been the one to tear them apart and all of this was his fault, and he couldn't even imagine how or why he'd done it, only felt the echoes of each bullet fired from his hands, and a hand clasped around his shoulder-
Jr. jerked away as violently as he could from the touch, and he felt his stomach fly as though he were falling. Pain erupted as he slammed into a wall.
"Shit." Jr. snarled, rubbing the back of his head. He blinked gingerly. A wall, or… a floor?
It was dark, but a different darkness than had engulfed Miltia. Albedo was staring at him, but a different Albedo- taller, broader, more muscular and confident, clean and sharp in a new suit.
Albedo's voice was gentle, gentler than Jr. ever could have imagined it being. Yet, it felt right to hear Albedo like this, like he was always meant to sound so tender and caring.
Jr. supposed he sounded more like his childhood self than anything, like the Albedo he had just left in a nightmare, yet less halting and shy.
"Rubedo," he heard Albedo insist, peering down at him from the bed. He must've been the one who touched Rubedo's shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"It's fine." Jr. said, more instinct than anything else as he picked himself up. "And don't call me that. It's Jr., now."
"Don't bother distracting me, Rubedo," Albedo said, a wicked smile dancing on his lips. It looked more familiar than it should. Jr. huffed.
"I wasn't. You should practice."
Albedo barely remembered to call Jr. by his new name in public. He always had some poetic attempt at explaining it- that Jr. would always be Rubedo to him, that he would never suffer to forget their early lives together- but Jr. thought he was just lazy.
That made Albedo laugh.
"Rubedo," he repeated, the fourth time since Jr. had woken up- not that he was counting, or surprised, but it was still something to make note of, easier to think about than the remains of panic raising goosebumps on his skin. "Speak with me. I wish only to ease your burdens."
Jr. didn't want to. He wanted to bury that nightmare so deeply he never thought of it again. "You don't have to."
Albedo's smile didn't waver, as he reached out and tugged at Jr.'s earring, letting it and the hair around it slip through his fingers. "Nonsense. What's yours is mine."
"Albedo, seriously," Jr. sighed. It was too late for this kind of talk. "It's fine. I had a nightmare. Go back to sleep."
The look on Albedo's face was not what it should have been. It looked like Jr. had reached out and punched him, or hurled shrill obscenities at him. His brows knit, his eyes widened, his hand pulled back and clutched defensively at his own body.
In just a few seconds, Albedo had gone from a powerful, mature adult to the same trembling child Jr. remembered.
"Don't ask me to endure your pain."
"Albedo, that's not-"
His eyes were watery, but determined. "You are my other half. How can I let you feel this alone? We are one, Rubedo. We always have been."
He was prodding at Jr.'s mind, searching for something to latch onto. Jr.'s cheeks heated at the insistence.
More than the lingering shame of what he'd done in the nightmare, Jr. was embarrassed to be bothered by it at all. He hated the thought of Albedo seeing him like this, weak enough to feel troubled by a stupid nightmare. It was mortifying enough to become so emotional over things that were real, but this was just the icing on the cake.
Jr. was the leader. He shouldn't need to be taken care of by the others, and especially not Albedo, his baby brother. He was the one who needed help, not Jr. Jr. couldn't let himself be caught in a moment of weakness like this.
Guilt was flooding through him- for the imaginary things he'd done in the nightmare, for the real things he'd done on the real Miltia, just as bad in different ways- but that was something Jr. would deal with himself.
He resisted even as Albedo pushed- gently, like the hand on his shoulder, but Jr. wouldn't give it up. So concentrated on his mental struggle, he almost didn't notice Albedo coming close, so real and warm and physical, pressing his forehead to Jr.'s.
"Let me in, Rubedo." He whispered. "Let me share your pain."
It was so pleasant, so kind, that it snapped Jr. in two.
"I can't!" He shouted, feeling something break inside of him. He pulled away from Albedo. "You're not the one who left them all behind!"
Albedo stared at him with those expectant lavender eyes, and Jr. snapped his face away. His cheeks were burning. This was awful. Now Albedo knew, and Jr. hadn't been able to hide anything from him, never could.
What a pitiful attempt that had been.
Defeated, Jr. continued anyways. "You can't possibly understand. You didn't do this. You weren't the leader. None of this was ever your responsibility."
"I was there," Albedo prodded.
"You didn't have to make that call!" Jr. nearly snarled. "I can't let you carry what's meant for me. This was my mistake."
His mistake, that had hurt Albedo more than anyone else. How could it be fair to ask Albedo to shoulder both his betrayal and the guilt he felt because of it?
Albedo's hands came around to rest on Jr.'s back, and Jr. felt his breath intake as though he'd been shocked. Albedo pulled him close, pressing Jr. into the crisp fabric of his suit. Albedo's chin rested on his shoulder, and his tall, strong body slouched in on itself uncomfortably to hold Jr.
Albedo didn't seem to care.
"I would do anything for you, Rubedo," he said so easily, as though it were a natural thing to confess.
"It's not your fault," Jr. protested, but weakly this time. Albedo was warm. He smelled sweet and homey- something that felt unfamiliar, somewhere in the back of his foggy mind, but Jr. ignored it. Jr. slumped forwards into his arms.
"Nor is it yours, my foolish darling."
"You can't say stuff like that," Jr. grumbled, finally mustering the strength to push Albedo away. He laughed, loud, hearty. He always loved to embarrass Jr. It annoyed the crap out of him.
"Tell me everything."
Jr. sighed. He supposed there wasn't another way out of this. Once Albedo set his mind to something, he was sure to get it.
It was another one of Albedo's traits that were annoying as hell, except this one made business easier sometimes. Albedo could stare down anyone with those piercing eyes of his.
"Alright, fine." Jr. sighed. He didn't like this. Albedo shouldered enough as it was- and Jr. didn't shoulder nearly enough considering all the crap he'd done. But if Albedo was gonna insist, he was gonna hear it. "I dreamt about Miltia again."
Albedo had probably guessed as much. He was kind about it, anyways.
"Oh, Rubedo…" Albedo's eyes softened. "How often it plagues you."
It made Jr. sick.
"That's the night everything fell apart." Jr. pulled his knees up to his chest- a comfort, and a defense against Albedo. It was strange. Albedo was the brother who had stayed by his side all these years, the man he had created the Foundation with and everything, but Jr. felt uneasy around him, all of a sudden. Almost like there was something he'd forgotten.
Jr. tried to focus on the real Miltia, what had really happened, hopeful it might distract Albedo from his dream. He didn't want to admit to any of that. What would it say about him?
"It feels like…" Jr. swallowed, trying again. "It feels like everything now is a dream… or everything before was. How can both be real? We were training our whole lives to fight U-DO, and then we just… didn't."
"We couldn't." A hand ran down his arm, comforting.
"Yeah, 'cause I ran. I left all the others behind." Tears burned at Jr.'s eyes, but he wouldn't let them fall. He couldn't imagine how Albedo would fret.
"Can you really regret your choices, Rubedo? We're alive." Albedo's hand moved to Jr.'s, clutching it tight and pulling it over. Jr.'s first instinct was to yank it away, for some reason, but he fought the urge, letting Albedo place Jr.'s palm on his chest.
There he felt the same heartbeat as within his own chest.
"It's because of you that we are here today," Albedo reminded him. Jr. turned his face away.
"I can't help but think of everyone else who died that day. If I was able to save you, then maybe… maybe I could have saved them."
Jr. remembered it as though it just happened- because it had just happened. He remembered the tiny corpses littering the roads, lives stolen for his own gain. He remembered wide, glassy blue eyes, open as though they were still seeing. They were the same eyes he had, the same features he had, except he had been born lucky and they had not.
Albedo's face twisted into a childish pout. "Oh, please. The standard units wouldn't know the difference."
"Albedo. They were still alive!"
Albedo sighed. Jr. knew his brother didn't like to upset him, so he would at least keep his thoughts to himself now, even if he wasn't convinced by Jr.'s protests.
"We shouldn't have to sacrifice others so that we can live." He mumbled, pressing his face into his knees. Albedo chose to be silent. If you have nothing nice to say, and all that.
Sometimes Albedo was a real shitty comfort.
"Besides," Jr. said, mouth dry. It was easier to say here, pressed against himself, unable to see Albedo's face. "I dreamed about you, too."
He didn't want to talk about this, didn't want to bare his soul and let Albedo see how weak he really was, but Albedo's prodding in his mind was starting to get through to him. Who could he share this with, if not Albedo? There was no one in the world that cared for him more- no one who understood him more. This felt more than necessary, it felt natural, like an involuntary response.
Jr. could sense Albedo's interest being piqued. "Go on."
"It was terrible." Jr. pressed his face deeper into his knees, savoring the pressure against his eyes and cheeks. Maybe he could pretend he was somewhere else, that he wasn't telling all of this to Albedo after all. "I was on Miltia, but I didn't just run. It was like there was someone controlling me."
Tears flooded his eyes. It was worse. Jr. remembered those emotions, embers that still laid smoldering within his heart. Fear and anger… he could remember how they tasted. It really had been him, his own emotions. The need to slaughter them wasn't from someone else. It had come from inside of him.
He really was the monster the standard units thought he was.
"I killed them, Albedo, alright?" Jr.'s head snapped up to look at Albedo, forcing him to look at what Jr. was- how pathetic he was. "It wasn't like usual, where I left and they died. I killed them. I had a gun, and I pulled the trigger, and it was me. I did this."
"Rubedo," Albedo insisted softly, reaching a hand out. It was a strangely delicate gesture, for him. When Jr. didn't slap it away, he placed it on Jr.'s cheek.
"Don't say they deserved it, or something." Jr. said, feeling the thoughts that bubbled in Albedo's mind. He turned his face away, letting Albedo's hand drift downwards. "They didn't. They were just kids."
"Were we not?"
"That doesn't make it any less wrong!" Jr. snapped. He took a deep breath, trying to reel it back in. "It's worse than that. You were there. I… I shot at you, too."
There was a snap. When Jr. looked over, Albedo's arm bent the wrong way.
"Ugh, Albedo," Jr. grumbled, "do you have to do that?"
Somehow, the mundanity of the concern brought him back. The tears in his eyes stopped.
"My apologies, Rubedo," Albedo said, voice smooth. "I was just thinking."
"Well, think some other way!" Jr. snapped. Albedo always did this when they were alone, absent-mindedly snapping bones like he was stretching or something. It was weird, and uncomfortable, and Jr. dreaded the day he was spotted doing it in public.
Boy, would that be a lot to explain to the press.
Albedo chuckled. "You know I can't help it. It's hard to feel, otherwise."
"Try your imagination."
"Ah, but Rubedo, it's already full." Albedo tapped the side of his head- blissfully, deciding not to tear open his head and show Jr., or some stupid crap like that.
Jr. decided not to ask, because he was absolutely certain it was a trap- that Albedo would coo full of thoughts about you, Rubedo, or something.
He was impossible.
Albedo rolled his shoulder, flexing his newly grown forearm. Jr. rolled his eyes. He really couldn't take this right now.
"Rubedo," he said, "your worries hardly matter. I cannot die. Shoot me all you'd like- I crave it, even-"
"Stop." Jr. put his head in his hands. Albedo was so strange it almost made him forget about his own problems. He was so confused he couldn't even feel the dread any longer. "You were still regenerating, in the dream, but you just… gave up, after awhile."
He heard Albedo chuckle, felt warm hands rubbing circles into his back. "That doesn't sound like me."
"But it was." Jr. protested, mouth dry. He agreed- at first it didn't sound like Albedo, the most stubborn man he knew, but there was more to it. "You gave up because you thought I'd abandoned you. You thought I didn't love you anymore. And maybe I didn't, in that stupid dream, everything felt so-"
Jr.'s head was jerked back suddenly, pressed against Albedo's chest. He could feel every breath his brother took through the cushion of muscle, felt how strong he was, how safe Jr. was.
"Dreams…" Albedo mused, and Jr. could feel his words echoing in his chest. "The children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy."
"And yet," Jr. protested, trying not to melt into Albedo's gentle comforts, "we are such stuff as dreams are made of."
He was the same Rubedo who had abandoned his brothers, the same Rubedo who might as well have shot them down himself.
"Rubedo," Albedo said, insistent. His hands clutched at Jr.'s face, tilting it upwards, forcing their eyes to meet. "I know your heart. It is my own. I know you would never allow me to come to harm. You would not abandon me. This, I am certain of."
For some reason, the words smacked of guilt. Jr. felt awful just hearing them, like he was being taunted. It was like there was something he had forgotten, something large and terrible bearing just outside of his memory.
"Are you sure?" Jr. heard himself whisper.
Albedo laughed. "I am certain of little else, Rubedo."
Jr. could feel it in their link, an overwhelming sea of love. This was what laid in Albedo's heart, all the content it had room for- just love for Jr. It was beautiful, overwhelming, moving, suffocating.
Albedo brushed away his tears gently, adoringly, looking at Jr. like there was nothing he could possibly love more. The guilt in Jr.'s heart flamed anew, and he knew desperately that something was missing, that he didn't deserve this at all.
"I hurt you," Jr. protested. "I did all those terrible things."
He had to atone. He had to chip away at this heavy stone in his chest, weighing him down.
"Rubedo," Albedo said again, just his name, like he always did all the time, like there was nothing else he ever thought was worth saying. He brushed back Jr.'s hair, arranging each strand with patient care. "Do you really think me so fickle?"
"You're stubborn as a mule," Jr. grumbled, because Albedo was, and he would take it as a compliment. Albedo did, laughing a little.
"An immortal must be." Albedo said, pressing their foreheads together once more. "I have no choice but to wield this strength… because I know I must love you until the universe itself dies."
Jr. shot forwards.
When the frantic movement stopped, Jr. realized he was sitting up, blankets crinkled around him. His hand pressed against his sweat-drenched forehead, and Jr. blinked, hopelessly disoriented. His room looked different. The early-morning shadows looked different.
Where was Albedo?
Jr. reached for their link blindly, groping in the darkness. When he found it, however, he stopped, as though he'd crashed headfirst into a wall. It was blocked- he'd blocked it.
Was that a dream?
It must've been… a dream within a dream. After his first dream, that horrible nightmare… Jr. had somehow woken up in a second dream, the one with Albedo. Jr. pressed his hands against his torso, searching. Was he really awake now? How would he know?
He had to be. This felt too real, too dark and strange and tormented. There was a banal pain here now, a hum to the air conditioning unit, a thumping, exhausted pain behind his eyes. Jr. was awake now.
With the haze of sleep quickly dissipating, Jr. was quickly remembering what he had forgotten in that odd, clouded dream world. Jr. had left Albedo behind on Miltia. Albedo had been infected by U-DO. He was a monster, now. He attacked them without mercy and had nearly killed Gaignun.
Gaignun. Jr. pressed his hands into his eyes. Somehow, he'd forgotten all about Gaignun, in that strange dream.
There he was now, groggy. He'd almost definitely been woken up by Jr.'s extremely loud thoughts. Jr. winced.
Sorry. You can go back to sleep.
You don't sound well.
Jr. didn't imagine so. His head was swimming, trying in vain to piece it all together- what it all meant.
Why would he dream of Albedo like that? How did he have two dreams in one? None of this made any sense.
It was just a nightmare. Jr. protested, sounding so much like his dream self. He couldn't imagine Gaignun being nearly as pushy as Albedo was, but he probably wouldn't give up on this, either.
…I'll listen if you want to talk.
There it was- that passive attempt at reassurance. Jr. sighed. It was a lot easier to deal with than Albedo's grabbing hands and snapping bones, but a part of him missed Albedo.
A part of him always missed Albedo.
I… think I'll head down to the park.
It was a neutral enough proposition that Gaignun could take it or leave it, but Jr. had a feeling he'd come. He pretended to be detached, but secretly he was nosy like that. Jr. tugged on his coat before taking a walk through the uncannily quiet hallways of the Durandal.
There were people working, of course. It was still a battleship, so they had to be on watch at all times. Still, the Durandal got quiet at night, and seeing the hallways so dark and empty always felt a little strange, like Jr. wasn't meant to be here.
Of course, he wasn't. He was supposed to be asleep. He just couldn't, not right now, not when he couldn't trust his own mind not to betray him like that.
Jr. pressed a hand against his forehead. Gaignun had interrupted him. Now, however, he could fully wonder what the hell that was.
It wasn't a nightmare, exactly- well the dream within his dream had been. It was the type of nightmare Jr. usually had, the weight of guilt drowning him under compounding waves of pressure. He knew those bodies, those burning, blood-soaked streets. He knew the unrelenting weight of guilt, feeling as though it was his own hands that had killed his brothers. What was different was the tender comfort afterwards.
Jr. made sure to block Gaignun thoroughly before thinking about this, because replacing Gaignun with Albedo in his mind sure said something about him. Jr. knew there was a part of him that missed Albedo, a small, traitorous, detestable part, but not like this. Albedo was never like this. He had been small and pitiable once, but never this soft, comforting man. Why had Jr. invented this new Albedo- this gentle, helpful, resolute Albedo?
Jr. tossed himself down on the bench with a sigh. The fireflies around twinkled, etching soft light patterns into the night air. He was glad for the change of scenery. His bedroom would have only made him think of Albedo.
Of course, Jr. was still thinking of Albedo- that alien, sweet, kind Albedo. He hadn't seen Albedo in years, hadn't even heard of him, yet he was certain the Albedo he imagined was impossible. He had to be. He conflicted too deeply with that U-DO infected child, crazed eyes blown wide and gleaming with terrible power.
Was this something Jr. secretly wanted? To have Albedo back, older and kinder?
Jr. set his jaw. He didn't want that. He couldn't want that. Albedo had attacked them. He'd gotten infected by U-DO. Wanting anything from him now was nothing short of stupid.
Jr. balked when he heard the click of footsteps behind him, jerking upright. He couldn't afford to lose himself in his thoughts, not with Gaignun so near.
"Can't sleep either?" Jr. asked, a little sardonically. He did feel bad for interrupting Gaignun's sleep. He was the leader. He wasn't supposed to need so much help.
Gaignun took a seat beside him. "Something like that."
"Don't you ever have nightmares?" Jr. grumbled. He half-suspected Gaignun didn't, because for all they'd gone through, Gaignun was the most serene person Jr. had ever met.
"Really?" The thought, although terrible, excited Jr. "About what?"
Gaignun's jaw tightened. Jr. didn't want to prod, but he was certainly subjected to a lot of prodding, himself.
As though sensing the hypocrisy, Gaignun sighed and relented. "I dream… that I've done terrible things."
Weirdly enough, that sounded exactly like Jr.'s dream.
Jr. didn't want to pry, but he did look expectantly at his brother. Gaignun's eyes wouldn't meet his.
"I…" he swallowed, visibly. "I killed URTVs in the Miltian Conflict, remember?"
"Right." Jr. turned his head away. So many of them had gone berserk. They didn't have a choice- never had a choice- but it still stung to kill their own kind.
They had been murderers before they even knew what the word meant.
Of course, it was Jr.'s fault. Just like in the dream, he was the one really pulling the trigger, even if Gaignun had technically done it in his name. The guilt wedged deeper into him, snarling and tearing. Gaignun wouldn't have become a murderer if not for him. Albedo wouldn't have lost his mind if not for him. His brothers carried weights as well, but at the end of the day it all came back to Jr.
Was that what his dream was telling him?
Jr. pulled his knees to his chest.
"…now you can tell me about your dream." Gaignun said. Jr. sighed. He supposed it was only fair, if a little childish, to trade confessions like this.
The words stuck in Jr.'s mouth if he so much as thought about talking about it. What could he say? It felt so stupid, so weak to be stuck on this- on Albedo. The guilt was his burden to bear, the punishment he endured for leaving his brothers behind.
His fingers clenched.
"Albedo was there."
Gaignun grunted in recognition.
"He…" for some reason Jr.'s eyes were beginning to heat up with tears. He bowed his head, attempting to hide it. He couldn't let anyone see.
Gaignun, nosy but consoling, attempted to guide him. "Was he… frightening?"
"No. That's the thing." Jr. successfully blinked away the tears, now adrift in confusion and guilt anew. "He was… perfect."
It was a strange word to describe Albedo, a man who had never been perfect and never would be, a man who even in their idyllic childhood had beaten another child for daring to question Jr. Yet, Jr. couldn't think of another word that fit better, even remembering how Albedo laughed and teased and snapped his arm in two.
More than being perfect, he made Jr. feel perfect. He felt whole with Albedo, a man who knew him so readily that he could predict Jr.'s every move.
Jr. closed his eyes, wincing. Of course, that was the problem. This was what made Albedo so dangerous today.
"He comforted me," Jr. said, mouth dry. This wasn't even approaching the weirder part of the dream, something he would keep squarely to himself- the fact that Albedo had been there instead of Gaignun.
He'd acted a bit like Gaignun, tall and sharply dressed, but it was still unmistakably Albedo- more pushy, more strange, less placid. There was an energy to Albedo, a liveliness. You could tell just by talking to him that he would live forever.
Of course, Jr. felt awful for even thinking any of this. He couldn't compare his brothers. Even if Gaignun was right, and they were all at fault- or if Jr. was right, and Gaignun and Albedos' actions were his fault- Albedo was still dangerous. He was violent and unpredictable.
"How strange. I seem to remember you doing more comforting." Gaignun observed.
Jr. smiled. "Yeah."
He was trying desperately to cling onto the fear and bitterness, the sight of Gaignun's bleeding body- something Gaignun had already forgiven Albedo for, or could forgive Albedo for. He wasn't repulsed like Jr. was, never condemned Albedo like Jr. did. Yet, even though he stubbornly reminded himself of Albedo's new, violent, narcissistic self, Jr. couldn't help but remember his crybaby brother, the delicate boy who clutched onto his hand as though he might blow away otherwise.
It had been so strange, to be comforted by him, yet not unwelcome.
"Did it… work?"
Jr. didn't know how to approach the question. It was something he was trying to figure, himself, and the wince he saw on Gaignun's face told him his answer would be a scrutinized one.
"Kind of," Jr. said. "You know how he is."
Strange. Selfish and selfless in one. Simple, dedicated, single-minded, yet unpredictable and complicated. It was impossible to pin Albedo down.
"I know I'm not… an ideal comfort," Gaignun said. The wince remained on his face.
Jr. shook his head. "Hey. You think Albedo's any better? In my dream, he broke his own arm for fun."
The wince disappeared as Gaignun sighed. "That does sound like him."
"Made me stop crying because I was so damn confused!" Jr. threw his hands in the air. It was inexplicable, yes, and he sure as hell didn't understand it, but it was charming in its own way.
But that was Albedo in a nutshell, wasn't it?
"It was Miltia, wasn't it?" Gaignun asked. He didn't prod in Jr.'s mind like Albedo had, but the truth was probably clear on Jr.'s face all the same.
"Yeah." Jr. looked away from him, unable to bear concern on that face for any longer- Albedo's face.
It was only now that he fully recognized how weird that was, that his brain had supplanted Albedo in Gaignun's place. Jr. supposed it was realistic- Gaignun was the closest possible approximation to what Albedo looked like now, but it was hard to picture sniffly little Albedo six feet tall, broad-shouldered and dressed in stiff dress clothes.
What was his subconscious saying here, anyways? Jr. didn't want to hurt his brothers. He never had wanted to. He felt bad about what he had been forced to do, that was true, but why imagine Albedo comforting him? Jr. didn't want Albedo back. He'd made peace with their diverging paths.
Even if he did want Albedo, Jr. reasoned, staring down at the floor, it hardly mattered. Albedo was infected by U-DO. He had attacked Jr. and Gaignun last they saw him. They had barely escaped with their lives. They could never have Albedo back, could never have their old lives back, and entertaining a fantasy was totally useless.
Jr. didn't wish it was Albedo beside him now. He didn't wish Albedo had survived. He didn't wish anything, because it was a waste of his own damn time.
"He played a part in it as much as either of us." Gaignun said, even and measured, as he always did. That only brought back the picture of Albedo from Jr.'s first nightmare, a sobbing heap on the floor, covered in blood.
Jr. had done that.
"You think he has nightmares, too?" Jr. heard himself ask. He cursed internally. What a stupid, worthless thing to ask.
"Yes." Gaignun answered. "I think he does."
Jr.'s subconscious had conjured up an Albedo who didn't exist. He had dreamt of an Albedo who survived, who wasn't infected, an Albedo who couldn't even imagine what Jr. had done to him in reality.
The real Albedo almost certainly had nightmares, if he had enough consciousness left to realize what he was. He was hurt as badly as the child Jr. had shot, rent to pieces by Jr.'s own attacks- if not the physical kind.
Maybe the Albedo in Jr.'s dream wasn't nonexistent at all. Maybe it was just the Albedo Jr. had once known, so wide-eyed and loyal he couldn't even imagine what Jr. would do to him. Jr. ruffled his hands through his hair, fists clenching. It only made him feel worse.
The Albedo he had dreamt of had forgiven him. The Albedo he dreamt of loved him. Was that what his subconscious was trying to tell him? That more than anything, deep down, he wanted Albedo to forgive him? To love him still?
Jr. gritted his teeth. It was impossible. There was no point even thinking about it. Albedo had been corrupted by U-DO, and even if he hadn't, there was no forgiving Jr.
He never wanted to run into Albedo again, let alone find out if he hated Jr. Why ask a question he already knew the answer to? He hated Albedo in turn. If they did meet again they would only fight, and Jr. couldn't bear to do that.
"Jr.?" He could feel the heat of Gaignun's hand hovering over his shoulder. "Are you alright?"
Albedo hadn't asked. He clutched at Jr. with reckless abandon, prodded and poked like it was his own body- because it was his own body. They were one. Yet they no longer were, could never be again. They were two separate, forever incomplete halves.
"I'm fine," Jr. said.
"You aren't… worried about him, are you?"
That gave Jr. pause. Was he worried?
He didn't want to be. He shouldn't be. But there was a part of him that craved Albedo, the same part of him that had conjured up this stupid nightmare.
It was the same part of him that had commandeered his mouth to ask if Albedo had nightmares.
"I dunno." Jr. said. "I don't know how he's dealing with this alone. I don't know how he feels about me, after everything that I did."
It was too much information, his brain screamed even as he said it, but Jr. couldn't help but be honest.
"We could speak to him-"
"No." Jr. said, sharply. He leaned over, pressing his forehead into his hands. "I don't want to."
He could feel that Gaignun had something he wanted to add, but chose not to say. Jr. could picture it- Gaignun leaning back on the park bench, lips pressed together, arms tight at his sides.
The man never relaxed.
"We may yet run into him again." Gaignun said. Jr.'s hands pressed into his face.
He knew. He tried not to think about it. It didn't work very well.
"I don't want to," Jr. whispered. "I don't want to confront him again."
It was a dizzying spiral of emotion. Jr. didn't want to see Albedo hate him when he loved Albedo so much, but he couldn't see Albedo love him when he hated Albedo so much. He couldn't fight Albedo, didn't want to hurt him, but couldn't leave him be, leave himself responsible for whatever Albedo decided to do. He didn't want Albedo to forgive him, to forget what horrors Jr. had committed, but he didn't want Albedo to blame him either, because he never had a choice at all. Albedo was a scared little kid Jr. had abandoned, had betrayed as cruelly as he possibly could, and Albedo was a horrifying monster, a conduit for the universe's greatest threat.
What could Jr. possibly do about all that? How could he find his way out of this maze of painful emotion?
He could do what he always did. He could run.
Jr. lifted his face from his hands, clasping them together. Maybe he understood, now.
"I guess I dreamed of him comforting me because I'm just as much of a coward now as he was then."
"Dreams, the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy" is from Romeo and Juliet, though somewhat paraphrased.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made of" is from The Tempest.