Jr. didn't think he'd ever come to terms with the idea of Albedo being gone.
It still felt strange to even think- that Albedo was dead. Everything within him screamed that he must be making some mistake. Albedo couldn't be gone. He couldn't die.
Yet Jr. remembered what he had witnessed- couldn't banish it from his mind, no matter how hard he tried. He remembered Albedo slipping upwards and out of his grip, remembered begging for him to stay until his throat was raw.
He saw it every time he closed his eyes.
Today seemed just like any other day, with Jr. walking back to his quarters after work, except that nowadays Jr. felt like simply being himself was an act. He was doing his best to convince everyone he was okay, his same old cocky self, unbothered by what had happened in the space-time anomaly. It was more for his sake than theirs- he couldn't stand to lie in his room, consumed by grief, pointlessly resting like Gaignun thought he should. Jr. would rather be working.
At least work distracted him. Jr. only really thought about Albedo when he was off-duty, when his mind was unoccupied and ready to be infested with a thousand different regrets and worries.
He hated times like this. He hated this drowning feeling, like he would die without Albedo, like both of their hearts had stopped beating instead of just one.
Jr.'s room looked just how he left it in the morning. He hadn't bothered to make the bed, and Alby had taken advantage of that, curled up in the whirlpool of crumpled blankets and pillows.
Jr. sat on side of the bed, immediately slumping over. His legs were aching.
Albedo couldn't die, it was true. There was only one person with the power to tear him and U-DO apart, wrenching away his immortality, and that was the person who had come with every intention of saving him.
Jr. remembered how he would talk with Albedo, Nigredo, and Sakura, his best friends in the entire world. He'd always been the first to imagine how things could be better- that one day, U-DO would be gone, and they wouldn't have to train, and they could go wherever they liked and do whatever they wanted.
He'd gotten his wish, he supposed. He'd fought U-DO.
He'd even taken care of what he'd worried about all these years. Albedo was no longer a threat to the galaxy. They were safe. Jr. didn't have to deal with his annoying, longing calls or sudden outbursts of violence. Albedo would never hurt anyone ever again, and Jr. had revenge for everything he had ever done to Jr. and his friends.
Wasn't this everything Jr. had ever wanted? He'd defeated his enemy. Why would he mourn a murderer- a cruel, merciless madman? He'd wished to be separated from Albedo for years, had hated the beating of Albedo's heart in his chest, like a taunt, like a piece of barbed wire tying them together.
Jr.'s head hurt as much as his heart. He didn't want this. Maybe he was the traitorous one here, because all he wanted was to have Albedo back. Even after all this time spent trying to stop him, Jr. just wanted Albedo. He missed him.
It just wasn't fair. Jr. didn't understand any of it- not his feelings, or the thoughts tumbling within his mind. It was easier to ignore it, to carry on as he always had, even though he knew nothing would ever be the same.
He tried to ignore the aching, the burning, the pain buried deep inside of his chest. He shouldn't even be feeling it. He shouldn't cry. Albedo was their enemy.
Jr. was too tired to change out of his clothes, instead flopping backwards on the bed. The shifting of the mattress had Alby awaken with a little yelp, glaring at Jr. as he crawled over to the pillows. He gave Alby an apologetic pat on the head, which was enough to convince him to go back to sleep.
Jr., on the other hand, was as far from sleep as he possibly could be. He was tired- exhausted, even- his body cried out for rest, but his mind was too tormented. His thoughts just kept going, like a wheel sent spinning, and grabbing for it to stop only burned his hands.
The only thought on his mind was Albedo. It was an aching hole, a need, a yearning that Jr. couldn't control. All he could think of was how empty he felt. His chest was cold and quiet without the thumping of his second heart. It even felt lonely in his head- even though Jr. had already cut off their link long before Albedo died!
Of course, you couldn't really sever the link between two URTVs. Nothing short of death would rend them from communication- and even then, the impressions remained, an icy memory that lingered in the mind. If Jr. concentrated, he could still find the channel of every URTV he had come into contact with, including the ones who had died on Miltia.
He didn't like thinking of it, though. They were just thoughts, but they were also more than that. It was like looking at remains. Jr. wouldn't mess with a body.
Yet… Jr. turned onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. It was different for him and Albedo. They shared one body, one mind, one heart. Their link felt less dead than the others, because Jr. was still alive. It was something private, something the two of them shared, so it couldn't truly die unless they were both gone.
Now that he was really thinking about it, curiosity was beginning to spark in Jr.'s mind. He hadn't even thought about their link in ages. He'd been so busy trying to ignore it, to block Albedo even when he felt him call, that it was sealed tightly in the back of his mind.
Was there something left of Albedo there? Was there an echo, a memory, some small trace of his brother that lived on in Jr.'s mind?
Jr. suddenly had to know. He needed to know all he could of Albedo now that he was gone. He had to turn the ephemeral into the real, to clutch onto whatever was left before it could slip through his fingers like Albedo himself.
That was the only way to combat the emptiness. Jr. had to keep Albedo alive in whatever way he could- he needed to remember him, to memorize everything Albedo was. Here was another trace of him. Here was the last of Albedo that lingered in Jr.'s body, like his still heart in Jr.'s chest.
Before he could think better of it, Jr. took a deep breath and wrenched open the link.
He was nearly overcome by the feeling of it- a crushing, near unbearable sense of nostalgia. This felt more like home than the Institute or Durandal ever would. It was familiar, unthinkingly so, something he had been born with- something he had known even before he was born. Albedo felt natural in his mind.
That, of course, only made the grief that much worse. Jr. only felt more strongly everything he had lost with Albedo, that an extension of his own self- a part of his body- had been ripped away from him. He felt Albedo like a phantom limb, something that should've been there but just wasn't.
This was grief- a feeling of emptiness, of loss, a hole where there should've been Albedo, a missing part of his soul. Jr. could scream from the ache of it all.
He didn't. Instead, he probed at the link. It was empty, of course. No messages sent to Albedo would ever reach him again. Their link would forever lay like this, incomplete, unfinished, repaired too late.
Yet, as Jr. relaxed his mental defenses, dismantling the walls he had so attentively erected, he found their connection not to be empty at all- deserted, perhaps, still, but not empty. There were remnants to be found in their merged minds, like uncovering one end of a tunnel and finding etchings on the walls.
Jr.'s breath caught. Of course. He had blocked his end, but there was no way to truly sever a link. Albedo still had access- and it was clear that Albedo had been occupying their link.
The realization was like a stabbing pain in Jr.'s chest. It hurt. He had cut off their communication, but Albedo never had. He left messages here, perhaps knowing it was in vain- but desperate to talk to Jr., his Rubedo.
That was just like him, Jr. thought bitterly as tears came to his eyes. He was always so needy, so clingy. Jr. had known how much blocking the link would hurt him- maybe that was part of why he did it, even subconsciously- but now he was confronted with it outright. Maybe Albedo had clung to hope all along, wondering if Jr. would ever respond.
Of course Jr. only had to find this out when he was dead. Of course Jr. never thought to open up the link even once in all these years. Of course he was a stubborn idiot.
Now he would pay for it.
Jr. didn't even know if he could bear to listen to Albedo's thoughts- the sound of his voice, preserved in their link, the space between the both of them and the space where they joined. It sounded tragic, horrifying, too terrible to imagine, but it had to be his duty. It was the least he owed Albedo, after all this time. He had to listen.
And, a selfish little part of him insisted, any opportunity to have Albedo back, even if it was pretend, even if it was only for a little while, was a good one.
Jr. braced himself, knowing it would hurt. He pressed further into the link, hearing the first of the many messages that had built up like a clog ready to burst in his face.
I'm sorry, Rubedo.
It was an older Albedo's voice, recent- too recent. It sounded like Albedo had just weeks ago, worn, near to breaking.
Jr.'s eyes pricked with tears. Albedo must have sent this just before he died- too proud, or too deep into his scheme to apologize aloud. Maybe he knew that Jr. would find out afterwards like this.
Jr. shuddered. He didn't know if he could accept the apology. He doubted Albedo was really sorry- for attacking them, for orchestrating his own death at Jr.'s hands, who even knew which stunt he was referring to this time. Yet, to have these as Albedo's last words- to know his last thoughts were of Jr., worry for him- stung.
Paired with the words was a feeling Jr. was all too familiar with now, the lingering stench of regret. It wasn't guilt, precisely- Jr. could feel it in more detail as he probed the emotion in their link- but something more general. Albedo wasn't repenting. He wouldn't take back any of his actions. Yet, he was sorry things had happened this way. He wished their story could have been different.
Jr.'s head swam. He supposed that was something they differed on. To him, this wasn't fate at all. A lot of their lives had been shaped for them, sure. They hadn't had a choice who their father was, or if Albedo could regenerate or not. Yet, Jr. couldn't help but think about how he and Albedo had made their own ways even through everything. Jr. had rejected their dad's orders. Albedo had found a way to die.
Sometimes it did feel like they were the playthings of some god. Yet, Jr. knew that if they wanted things to be different, it was up to them to do that. Wasn't that the whole idea of the Kukai Foundation? Here, people with nowhere else to go could make their own lives, just like Jr. and Gaignun had.
Maybe this was why Albedo's death was so painful. It was unchanging. There was nothing Jr. could do.
Hand shaking, Jr. reached out to pat Alby on his little head. It felt a little bit like smoothing Albedo's hair after a nightmare. It felt a little bit like helping.
Jr. pressed on through the link.
I'm waiting, Rubedo. Albedo's voice boomed, stronger than ever. Find me. I'll make it worth your while.
Jr. remembered that. He hadn't heard the words, exactly, blocking the link like he was, but he'd known Albedo was calling for him, loud and insistent. Jr. had heard the emotion surrounding it- Albedo taunting him, promising him that their rivalry would end at last, like a glove thrown at his feet and a secret whispered in his ear.
It was aggressive, yes, and threatening too, but intimate. This was a private promise, shared with Jr. in the space only they two occupied. It was a call for his ears alone.
Of course, Jr. knew better, now. This was no challenge. It was Albedo's plot, a lure to force Jr. into killing him. The message felt almost empty now. It was no villainous triumph. It was a pathetic, hollow trick, and Jr. had fallen for it.
Rubedo. Are you looking at it? The next Albedo said. Come… let us share our new world!
Jr. didn't remember this. He searched his mind, wondering when Albedo could have sent it, until he remembered- the Y-Data. His heart had stopped so suddenly in his chest.
Had Albedo really been thinking of him even then? A new world… for them to share? What could it possibly mean?
It was endlessly frustrating. Jr.'s fists curled in on themselves. He forced himself to sigh, to release the tension in his body.
He just didn't get it. Albedo always wanted them to be together, didn't he? He was always after Jr.'s attention. Why had Albedo gone and linked with U-DO? Why had he died? Jr. wanted to fix things- he wanted the two of them to be together again! Hadn't Albedo heard? Jr. was going to bring Albedo back to the Durandal- and make him apologize, sure, but at least they would've been together.
Jr.'s eyes misted. Once again, he was brought back to that thought- that things didn't have to end like this.
He tore open the next message, like opening another letter.
If you wish for the Realian, Rubedo, this pretty little peche… come. Face me.
The threat was almost nostalgic now, knowing MOMO was safe and well and nothing terrible had come of their meeting. Yet, Jr. could remember the cold feeling that had gripped him then- how he had felt Albedo prodding, heard whispers of the message he was attempting to send. Jr. had refused to look. He couldn't give Albedo the satisfaction.
He hadn't been surprised that Albedo was alive- that was the least surprising news he could ever hear, really- but he was startled by the feel of his younger brother. Albedo felt cold and empty, like a bottomless abyss roved around him, a black hole yanking and pulling.
Maybe Jr. had just been scared. Maybe he had plastered his own fears over their link, like a veil, and imagined how frightening Albedo must feel. Jr. didn't think so. Yet, he didn't think the pulling was a sign of Albedo's cruelty or evil, either.
Jr. was realizing now that it felt more like a need.
It probably should've been obvious. Albedo always had needed him, called for him, pulled at him, but Jr. had been so caught up in his own fear he hadn't realized. Of course it was malicious, too- Albedo had wanted to make Jr. pay, after all- but deeper than either of them had realized, this was just the feeling of Albedo.
Jr.'s head spun. Was this how Albedo always felt inside? Was this longing what consumed him, the source of the madness that had forced him towards U-DO?
Guilt pricked at him once more. It was he who had infected Albedo, after all. Albedo only felt this loneliness and longing from Jr.'s negligence.
The next message only clawed at the open wound, tearing Jr. apart. It was more hurried than the other ones, almost like a mistake- a moment of weakness.
I miss you, Rubedo. I can't bear being alone like this. It hurts.
This was a younger Albedo, almost back to his childlike tones. He didn't seem as young as in the Institute, but far from fully grown. The fear hadn't left his voice yet- Jr. remembered how it had seeped into Albedo, palpable and thick. This was where the loneliness was at its most pointed. Albedo felt trapped, alone with only the fear for company.
Jr. remembered how jarring it had been, suddenly met with only his own empty head after sharing the space with so many URTVs. As much as he would've hated to admit it back in the day, he missed Albedo, too. Albedo was a constant presence in his mind, relaxing in a familiar sort of way. Things were tense without him, like day after day coming without Jr. being able to sleep.
Much as Jr. had tried, there was no way to truly separate himself from Albedo. They were linked, tangled in each other so deeply it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Maybe that was what had hurt for so many years, biting more deeply than Albedo's betrayal. Trying to purge Albedo from his body was impossible. Treating Albedo's remnants within him- the beat of his heart in Jr.'s chest- like a poison was only self-hatred.
Now these things were gone for good, and Jr. didn't feel better. He felt empty, just like Albedo had all those years ago.
Jr. turned onto his other side as tears threatened to spring to his eyes. How had he been so stupid? Why did he push Albedo away, all these years? They could've been happy, if only he hadn't been so stubborn. Albedo could have been alive.
He kept returning to that moment, burned into his memory like a brand, when he had wrenched his hand from Albedo's. Why had he done that? Why hadn't he pulled Albedo with him, kept him safe?
Jr. wished for the millionth time that he could change things. He imagined when Albedo might have thought this- a message he didn't intend to send, a call from his heart too powerful to be suppressed. Maybe he was sitting alone, bored, ignored by the U-TIC soldiers around him. Maybe he was laid in his bed after a nightmare, pillow wet with tears, aching without someone to comfort him.
Jr. had endured his own share of pain in these last fourteen years. Still, he felt Albedo's pain like he felt his own- maybe even more so. He hated the thought of his younger brother alone like that.
You left me, and now you won't even talk to me. I hate you! I'm never talking to you again!
The irony forced Jr. into a humorless laugh, the kind that hurt in his chest. Clearly, that wasn't true- he had a series of messages to prove it. Yet, these were only short thoughts, with no response from him- hardly the contact Albedo must've longed for.
It was still painful, of course- Jr. never could have imagined he would hear something like this from Albedo. Even knowing he didn't truly mean it, that this hatred would fade, he felt cowed under Albedo's fury. He'd admitted as much when they met for the first time after so many years- Albedo had a right to feel angry. Jr. had acted in fear.
These thoughts were more unrestrained, a stream of Albedo's consciousness. Jr. sifted through it all- betrayal, longing, anger, misery, a familiar cacophony of emotion that threatened to tear him apart. Jr. remembered these feelings. They were precisely what he had felt, so long ago.
Jr. pressed his hand to his chest. There he felt the new emptiness.
Why had he blocked himself off? Why hadn't he listened? He and Albedo had been feeling the same- surely they could have reconciled quicker if they knew that.
None of this had to happen.
Jr. ventured even further into the link now, now alight with curiosity and a lingering sense of regret. The urge he had felt earlier had become an inferno, searing hot. Now that Albedo was gone, he needed to know all he could- needed to feel what little of him remained. He had to see everything.
Even if it hurt him, he had to do this.
It was almost like being together again, venturing this deeply into their link. Jr. could feel himself fading, pleasantly joined in that deeply nostalgic way. It was almost like Albedo's presence was beside him now.
Here it was, the first message since he had blocked their link.
Rubedo, where are you?
It was just as terrible as Jr. could have anticipated. Albedo sounded smaller than ever, a mere child lost in U-DO's haze. Jr. was nearly overcome with the burning need to go back, to help, to save his little brother, even though he knew it was impossible.
He never thought Albedo would die. As far as they all knew, it was impossible. Jr. had been struggling against that for so long- Albedo's permanence. He would forever walk their galaxy, and forever linger in Jr.'s very body. Maybe Jr. had been so obsessed with separating, with getting rid of him, because he knew deep down that it was impossible.
It was a way to focus on Albedo without focusing on him.
Jr. took a deep, shuddering breath. He was right back where he'd started. He'd gotten his wish, and he was nothing but miserable. Albedo was dead, and Jr. was alone in his body.
At the other end of the link was, as Jr. expected, absolutely nothing. Still, all the mental preparation in the world couldn't make him ready for feeling nothing where Albedo usually was.
He'd always just assumed their relationship would never be over. He'd regretted things he'd done to Albedo, sure, but in Jr.'s mind, there was always time. Whether for better or for worse, he could always speak to Albedo. He would always be there in Jr.'s mind.
Now, however, Albedo was gone. They would never make up. Albedo would never come back with Jr., help Jr. improve the galaxy and be met with a better life.
A wet nose snuffled around Jr.'s fingers. He raised up his hand, and Alby's eyes followed it, alert.
"Hey," Jr. said, voice hoarse. "Look who's up."
Alby ambled closer. He always loved the sound of Jr.'s voice.
Jr. wrapped his hands around Alby's small body, lifting him up and pulling him closer. He didn't seem to mind, lapping at Jr.'s chin.
"Someone wants attention," Jr. mumbled. He gave it to Alby, of course, scratching him behind the ears just how he liked.
A part of him was glad to be pulled out of his thoughts, even if it was annoying that Alby didn't sleep through the night yet. It was better to play with Alby than to lie here and think. Jr. felt better when he was distracted, no longer pulled into the suffocating darkness where his grief laid.
Alby yipped. Just like Jr. thought, he wanted to play. Jr.'s body still ached, sore from the paltry amounts of sleep he was getting. Still, he couldn't say no to Alby. He couldn't say no to a distraction.
He sat up, turned on the lights that burned his eyes. Alby looked at him with shining, hopeful eyes, and wagged his tail. He loved Jr. in such a precious, unconditional, familiar way.
It hurt sometimes.
Jr. didn't leave his and Albedo's link just yet. It seemed wrong to leave all of these messages lingering, without a single response. That was what he had already done, of course, but Jr. knew things didn't have to be this way. Even if it was stupid, and futile, and Albedo would never see his response, Jr. knew he had to send something, even if it was only for his sake.
He had to do something.
Jr. opened the link fully again. If Albedo had been around, he would've been able to feel everything Jr. could, hear each of his thoughts as they came. It was like they were children again, without a care in the world save for each other.
Jr. returned to the last message. I'm sorry.
It's okay, Jr. said. I forgive you.