As Albedo became older, he began to notice that other children weren't frightened like he was. They didn't stand on this knife's edge, perilously close to the abyss, hoping that a stray thought wouldn't send them into short breaths and fizzling tears.
Perhaps it only took him so long to realize how different he was because it was difficult to compare. The other URTVs were worthless automatons, useless for understanding, but Rubedo, Nigredo, Sakura were all fully realized beings. They weren't like Albedo. They got scared, sometimes- not Rubedo, he wasn't afraid of anything- but not like Albedo did.
They didn't have nightmares like he did.
Sometimes, Albedo's nightmares began normally. Dreams could be as happy as reality sometimes was, when Albedo and Rubedo and Nigredo all got to play together in the gardens, the prettiest place Albedo knew. The sun that shone there was warm, the plants bloomed in strong colors like the ones in Rubedo's hair, and there were no adults lurking with syringes or humming medical equipment.
Rubedo always wanted to play games when they were outside. Albedo always agreed with him, and Nigredo was too quiet to protest. They did whatever Rubedo wanted. He was their leader, and Albedo was happiest when he smiled.
He was smiling now, a full-fledged beam as he described the rules of a game Albedo wasn't really listening to. He found it far more entertaining to simply stare, to watch how Rubedo's features moved with each word, animated. Rubedo didn't do things quietly or softly. If he was to smile, it would light up the entire world.
Albedo instantly felt cold when it faded, when Rubedo's head turned to see who had called his name.
The scientists that surrounded them were tall, like they always were, too high up for Albedo to make out their faces. They were legs and sometimes torsos, strange and alien.
Their hands came down from above and landed on Rubedo. They crowded around him until there was nothing but the flash of white lab coats, no Rubedo in sight.
"Rubedo?" Albedo asked. There was no reply. He directed his next comment upwards, at the scientists. "I need my brother."
They didn't respond either. Albedo bristled. Sometimes they were called in to have blood drawn, or get injections, but this felt different. Rubedo felt different in the link.
"S-stop it!" He protested, as they pulled Rubedo away. He wondered why Rubedo wasn't doing anything. "Rubedo!"
Albedo pushed at them, trying to find his way back to Rubedo's side, but it was little use. The more he squirmed and reached, the more he tried to worm his way through, the faster they all slipped away.
Rubedo! Albedo pressed into their link. What's going on? Can you hear me? Rubedo!
Albedo caught a glimpse of a needle, glinting strangely in the sunlight, and the response became muffled. Albedo clenched his jaw. It must have been a sedative.
He didn't know what was going on, but it had to be terrible. Albedo felt panic rising up in him, sharp and uncontrollable. What were they gonna do to Rubedo? He had to get his brother back!
"Please!" he shouted, even though they ignored him. "Give him back! You can't do this!"
A hand fell onto his shoulder. It was ice-cold, and the grip was firm.
"Number 666 is being relocated," explained the strange, soft voice of their father.
Albedo's mind froze.
"You're- you're taking him away?" he asked. His voice was small, suddenly. He couldn't move anymore.
Dr. Yuriev sighed. "It is nothing so dramatic. He is being moved to another facility. You will remain here."
The words fell into Albedo's mind like a death sentence.
That meant they would be separated. They were being torn apart again, just as they had been when they were born. Albedo's eyes flooded with tears. He could move again, suddenly, valorized by panic, breaths moving in and out of his lungs fast.
"You can't! Please, you can't. You can't take him away from me. Give him back!" Though Albedo flailed, he couldn't move with the hand on his shoulder. All he could see was the blurry shape of Rubedo, obscured in a sea of lab coats, drifting further and further away.
Rubedo was being taken from him, and he couldn't do anything about it.
His father's voice was resolute. "Stop this at once."
"No! I won't let you! Rubedo!" Albedo strained for him, hand outstretched. No one understood. He needed Rubedo. Life without Rubedo was like living without air, sluggish choking and numb limbs. They couldn't exist apart.
"Don't force us to discipline you, Unit 667."
"I don't care!" Albedo screamed. "I don't care! Rubedo! Please! Please!"
He was too small to be strong. Instead, Albedo was dragged backwards. His father was likely making good on his threat, but Albedo couldn't find it in him to care at all. There was nothing worse than being separated from Rubedo, nothing that could possibly hurt more than the emptiness inside. It was like the very ground beneath Albedo had been ripped away, like he had fallen face first into nothingness and his body stung and bled.
Albedo tried desperately to cling onto their link, to hold on to Rubedo's thoughts, the feeling of the Rubedo he loved so much.
Albedo didn't stop his begging even as he was dragged backwards, farther away from Rubedo, where his brother's warmth faded like a distant memory. The pleas left him in sobs and screams, racking his chest. His shoulder and arms burnt from the hands there, clenching hard and uncaring against him. He struggled, trying to pull his arms free, but no matter how many times they dislocated and cracked they only healed again, and Albedo was still trapped.
When Albedo was deposited in a holding cell, a small, featureless room for his punishment, he felt it like a sudden snap. His shoulders heaved. No breath was enough.
Rubedo had been taken from him for good. Their link had been severed. It was empty in Albedo's mind.
His fists pounded at the door. He called for Rubedo uselessly, his voice trembling and giving out. He didn't want to be alone. He couldn't stand to be alone. Please, if only he could have Rubedo back! He'd never even said goodbye. He needed Rubedo, he needed not to be alone, please-
Albedo's eyes flew open at the sudden pain.
He had no injuries, of course, but there was a stinging ache all over his body. Albedo rubbed his head.
This place was dark, and quiet, but it wasn't a cell. It was his room. Albedo was sprawled on the floor, tangled in his blankets.
He must have had another nightmare. He could feel Rubedo again now, the soothing presence that always dwelt within his mind. Still, Albedo's eyes welled with tears. Even the thought of that horrible nightmare, of being separated, stung. It nestled into his chest and clawed at him there, tearing him open from the inside.
He shook. He couldn't bear to lie there and think about it, the possibility that they could be separated. He couldn't possibly go back to sleep. It was just like in his nightmare- Albedo was alone, and frightened.
He needed Rubedo.
Albedo prodded at him gently, transmitting something more than words. He sent Rubedo his feelings, the anxiety and the loneliness, hoping that he would understand.
He had to understand. They were twins. They shared one mind.
Rubedo! Albedo couldn't help but yelp. He was so excited to hear his brother again, to know he was there.
Yeah, it's me. What… Rubedo nosed through their link. Oh. A nightmare.
Albedo didn't waste a second. He stole away to Rubedo's room, where his precious brother laid blinking, confused and groggy.
"Another one?" Rubedo asked through a yawn. Albedo nodded.
"It's like you're scared of everything…" Rubedo mumbled, but still shifted over and lifted his blanket. Albedo was quick to slip in beside him.
"I'm not brave like you are, Rubedo."
"Why not?" Rubedo asked, still sleepy. His eyes drooped so charmingly. "You're a URTV- a variant. You shouldn't let little things scare you."
Albedo quivered. It wasn't little. Rubedo was the most important thing he knew. Being separated even for small periods of time was painful.
The tears fell from his eyes. Albedo sniffled, pitiful, trying to swallow his misery. He wanted to be brave. This, however, was too terrible to face alone.
Now Rubedo was awake. He shifted over, sighing.
"I'm so s-scared…"
Rubedo's arms circled around Albedo, patting him on the back. "What was your nightmare even about?"
Albedo's mouth felt too dry. How could he possibly explain it? The more he tried to think of it the more it dissolved in his mind, strange and intangible.
"They took you away," he finally said, the words thick and garbled in his mouth. "They wanted to put you somewhere else and leave me all alone!"
"Dad and the scientists…" Albedo shook his head, furious. "I didn't let them! I don't want them to take you away!"
"They won't." Rubedo said. His eyes were strong, but gentle. "I'm always with you. Where else would I go?"
"They could take you somewhere," Albedo insisted, "to train or… something."
Rubedo's arms wrapped around him, pulling him closer. Albedo closed his eyes, trying to focus on Rubedo's warmth, the fresh smell that always lingered around him. Rubedo's words were quiet but close, enveloping him.
"I'm not gonna go anywhere, Albedo. I'm right here, okay?"
"Rubedo…" he whispered. "Please stay."
Albedo curled in on himself. The bed was too small for the two of them, even if they were children. He had to press against Rubedo if they wanted to fit. It was something Albedo liked about this. He got to be close to Rubedo, to feel how warm and good he was.
Being close like this, it was almost like Rubedo's bravery could transfer over to him. It was like bathing in his self-assured strength, wearing him like a cape. Rubedo was here, so Albedo would be alright. Rubedo would protect him.
Albedo felt the thoughts rolling off Rubedo, like warm gusts of air.
"I'll make sure nothing bad happens. I'm like a knight."
Rubedo had been reading fairy tales, recently. He told Albedo about them with a lot of excitement, about magic and curses and royalty.
"Isn't your power the red dragon?" Albedo asked. Rubedo made a face.
"Jeez, dragons can be knights too!" It didn't sound right, but Rubedo said it with such conviction that it must've be true. "It's not like I'm a real dragon anyways. That's just a power I have."
Albedo nodded. That made sense.
Rubedo pulled Albedo closer, to meet the solid mass of his chest. "Or maybe I'm more like a king, 'cause I'm the leader… it's my job to protect all of you."
Albedo's hands stilled, held so close. There was no room anymore for them to tremble. "So you won't leave?"
"'course not. I wouldn't wanna be anywhere else."
Albedo tucked his head in closer, closing his eyes. He wanted to feel safe. "Rubedo…"
How could Rubedo be so certain? How could he be so assured, always?
"I won't let anyone separate us. Stop worrying." Rubedo yawned. "Now are you gonna go back to sleep?"
Albedo felt safer here. The tension was gone, no longer pricking at him like a frigid blast of wind. Here, he would be alright. He was warm. He had Rubedo.
Rubedo's heart slowed as his eyes closed, the shining blue replaced with short lashes that pressed into his round cheeks. Albedo could feel the beat in his own chest and in the one he was so close to, a chorus in perfect harmony.
Here, the dream almost seemed silly. Albedo could remember the terror well, but it didn't stab into his heart like it had when he had only just woken up. It was a memory now, faded, distant. No one was taking Rubedo away. They wouldn't let that happen. They would make sure they were together forever, because they were two halves of a whole. They needed each other.
Rubedo was asleep now. His thoughts were a blissful mumble, like colorful paints smeared across a canvas. Being so near to him, feeling him in the link, made Albedo sleepy too. Now that there was no danger, now that Rubedo was protecting him, Albedo felt his eyelids begin to fall. He snuggled closer to Rubedo, his protector, his older brother, and let himself drift off.
They were together. There was nowhere safer.
Tonight, Albedo was running.
It was dead silent- he could hear nothing but his own ragged, pathetic breaths. He was fleeing from something terrible.
He didn't dare look behind him to check. Instead, he poured all of his remaining energy in his legs. His feet thundered on the pavement below, and his chest began to hurt from panting.
Still, Albedo couldn't stop. No matter how tired he got, it was still chasing him- and as Albedo checked over his shoulder, he saw what he was afraid of, that massive cloud of fast encroaching darkness.
It swallowed everything it touched. Albedo regretted looking, because it was difficult to look away now. He had to keep his eyes trained on it, had to be wary.
"Albedo! Hurry up!"
There was Rubedo. He was faster than Albedo because he was better that way. He was always special, always better, always a beacon Albedo could look up to.
Albedo didn't have the breath to respond. He just kept running, despite the ache in his legs. His head was swimming. He wished he could lie down, but he couldn't. If he did, it would catch him- and it was already nearing, gaining on him, no matter how fast Albedo ran.
Albedo could see it catching up to him. The closer it got, the more he felt of it- the stench, like rotting, filling his nostrils, or the cold, as though he had plunged into an icy lake. Albedo shivered in fear, only able to take in the senses for a second before he pitched forwards.
He hadn't been looking where he was going. He fell hard, crashing on the ground.
The dark swallowed him up. It was like drowning, so heavy and so surrounding. Albedo gasped uselessly for air.
It was too dark to see. The shadows had consumed everything. It was just Albedo, alone, in this void. He trembled.
"Rubedo?" he asked, quiet and meek. There was no response but Albedo's voice itself, echoing in the vast emptiness before him.
Albedo couldn't move, but he didn't want to. What was the point, without Rubedo?
"Rubedo," he whispered to himself. He felt so unbearably vulnerable. Where was Rubedo to protect him? He needed Rubedo.
He could see the darkness advancing in the distance. He could see how Rubedo hesitated, seeing where Albedo had fallen. He could see Rubedo turning back.
Albedo's heart twisted. He wanted Rubedo, but he knew somehow that this would be terrible for him. "No! Don't-!"
It was too late. Rubedo had run back for him. It wasn't like with Albedo, however. When the void touched him, Rubedo screamed out in pain. He was weak, here, falling to his hands and knees.
Albedo felt unbearably ill just seeing it, as though he might vomit. "Rubedo!"
Rubedo was so strong. He should never be overtaken like this. It was horrible!
"Al…be…do…" Rubedo choked, reaching out for him. Albedo felt tears rush up to his eyes. Had Rubedo done this for him?
Rubedo finally collapsed. He laid there, unmoving, eyes left open.
Albedo scrambled over, released from the grip of this strange vacuum. He pulled Rubedo into his arms. It was easy. Rubedo was completely limp, pliant in his hands. When Albedo tried to lift him up, to look into his eyes, Rubedo's head lolled backwards.
"P-please. What are you… what is this?!" Albedo pleaded. It was like Rubedo was asleep, but he wasn't waking up. Albedo shook him, but he didn't stir or groan. He was like a doll in Albedo's hands.
Albedo suddenly understood. He shook. Rubedo was like a doll. He wasn't alive anymore.
He laid the body down gently. It looked so much like Rubedo, but it wasn't. It was a cruel reminder, only lingering now that Rubedo was gone forever.
Rubedo's eyes were still open, staring at Albedo uselessly. It wasn't Rubedo looking at him, happy to see his brother, studying his face like he always would. They were just eyes, dull and lifeless.
Albedo almost choked on the deluge of tears. Why? How had this happened? Why hadn't he been able to stop it? The dread was back, worse than when he was being chased, because he knew now that he had been caught.
Rubedo was dead. Albedo was alone here, completely alone. There was nothing left in the universe that mattered, nothing that could possibly comfort him.
This expanse felt even emptier now that Rubedo was gone. The silence was deafening. As Albedo looked around, he started to wonder where they were- not that it mattered, not that it possibly could matter. There were tiny pinpricks of light in the distance, dotting the void. Was this space?
It seemed impossible. This was too empty. There were no planets, no ships, and every star was so far away they might as well not have been real. Albedo couldn't see any signs of life. Were they the only ones left?
Albedo looked down at Rubedo. He still didn't move, frozen in time. This wasn't Rubedo. Rubedo was gone. This was a meaningless, worthless replica.
Albedo was the only one left.
It didn't matter how loud he was, how guttural and raw his sobs were. No one would hear him. There was nothing left. He might as well have not done anything, but he had to do something for how it burned inside of him, pain and loneliness that might just rip him apart.
Albedo clutched at his face, panting. He could still hear the echoes of his scream rippling throughout the universe.
It might just rip him apart, this longing, this need. Albedo couldn't survive without Rubedo. He was Albedo's very heart, the blood that ran through his veins. Albedo was nothing without him. If these feelings didn't rip Albedo apart, he'd do it himself.
The thought sent him into a frenzy. He couldn't die, he knew that, but anything was better than waiting, feeling the emptiness that Rubedo had left behind. Every scratch he tore through himself sewed itself up. Every limb he pulled off grew back. Albedo didn't care. He just kept tearing, kept destroying, because it felt good, because the pain felt more real than the dull world with no Rubedo in it. He knew he couldn't succeed, but this cycle of damage and repair was better than nothing, better than emptiness.
When Albedo awoke, the darkness in his room was more frightening than ever. His heart jumped as he looked around desperately, but when he sat up he knew he was safe. This wasn't that strange void of space. It was his room.
Yet, Albedo was still alone.
He could feel Rubedo in the link, and hear the beat of his heart. Rubedo must be alive. Yet, Albedo couldn't trust the link, couldn't trust himself, couldn't trust anything. He still felt the remnants of his dream lingering like stubborn stains in his mind. The chill and the loneliness were still fresh there. He had to see Rubedo for himself, touch him and know that he was real.
Albedo didn't bother contacting Rubedo through the link. He had to see him in-person, face-to-face, see him alive and moving and touch him so Albedo knew he was real.
Albedo almost balked when he stepped into Rubedo's room. Rubedo was asleep, naturally- it was the dead of the night. He looked, however, exactly like the Rubedo in Albedo's dream had looked. He was still, motionless, with his jaw slack and his arm hanging limp off the side of the bed, and suddenly Albedo was overcome with the devastating need to know if that was really Rubedo, or if he was empty inside.
The mere possibility that he could be gone- that he might have died in his sleep, a possibility Albedo didn't even know to fear until now- exploded in Albedo's mind. Tears ran from his eyes, and his hands were useless to stop them, quickly drenched as Albedo sobbed.
"Albedo? What're you doing?"
Rubedo's voice was thick and groggy, but it was Rubedo. He was speaking, alive, awake! Albedo looked up to see him sitting up, a blur of red and blue through the haze of tears but Rubedo nevertheless.
"Rubedo!" he wailed.
Albedo launched forwards. He threw himself into Rubedo's arms just like he had all those days ago, when he had first learned that Rubedo would die, tears streaming down his face. Rubedo groaned in surprise.
"What's going on?" Rubedo asked, now fully awake. "What's wrong?"
He was confused. Albedo could feel him prodding at their link, searching for answers.
"I c-can't lose you… I don't want you to die." Albedo buried his face into Rubedo's institute pajamas. He knew that was a silly thing to say. There was no way to stop Rubedo from dying. It was inevitable. "I had a nightmare where you… where you…"
It was too terrible to say. The tears multiplied in his eyes, now overwhelming. Albedo didn't even want to think about what had happened. He didn't know how to describe it to Rubedo.
"Albedo…" Rubedo sighed, but not unkindly. "Don't cry like that. See? I'm alright."
Albedo took a shuddering breath. Rubedo was right. He was here, and it was a relief. Pressed up against him like this, Albedo could feel every breath passing through his lungs, hear every beat of his heart. Rubedo's arms wound around him. Albedo could feel the warmth of his skin through their clothes. Rubedo was here, alive, nothing like the false Rubedo in his dream- the empty doppelganger, staring up at him with unseeing eyes.
"But you'll…" Albedo sniffled, trying to swallow his tears long enough to finish his sentence. "Even if you're alright now, one day you'll…"
"You don't have to think about that. It won't be for a long time."
Rubedo's words should have been soothing. His hand settled on Albedo's hair, cupping the back of his head. Instead, Albedo almost felt frustrated. How could Rubedo say that? He didn't understand. Albedo had no choice but to think about this. How could he do anything else? This terrible reality loomed over him like the fast-approaching darkness in his nightmare, threatening to swallow him whole. Albedo would have to suffer that reality someday. He had no other choice.
"I don't want to be alone." Albedo said. His words sounded small, pathetic. "Please, Rubedo. Don't leave me."
"I'm not gonna. I'm right here."
For now, he was. For this fleeting moment, Albedo had Rubedo, but he couldn't possibly know how much longer this would last. Rubedo could die at any time, from any injury. They were soldiers! They were in danger every day!
After only just having dried, Albedo's tears began to flow again. He tried to hold them back, to twist up his face, but they just kept flowing. He felt Rubedo's sigh more than he heard it. Rubedo was concerned. He cared. But he was tired, and he didn't understand Albedo. He could never understand.
Rubedo's hand brushed through Albedo's hair soothingly. He let Albedo wipe his face in Rubedo's shirt, even though it got the pajamas all dirty and wet.
Albedo drew back, slightly embarrassed, wiping his face with his hand. "You can h-have mine."
"It's fine." Rubedo said. He was the most generous person ever to exist. "You can stay here, if you want."
Albedo nodded. He wanted nothing more than to stay here, near Rubedo, where he could bask in his warmth and know he was alive. Here, he was safe. Here, he had Rubedo.
Rubedo laid down on his back. Albedo followed suit, copying his position. Rubedo closed his eyes, but Albedo stole glances whenever he could, reassuring himself constantly that Rubedo was still there.
Rubedo usually looked peaceful like this, but today, he seemed troubled. His brows knitted, and his eyes moved underneath their lids. His mouth shifted around, and even if Albedo couldn't hear him thinking in their link, he would know Rubedo had something to say.
Before Albedo could ask, Rubedo began to speak, voice hoarse.
"Sometimes, it's like…" He paused, taking a breath. "I dunno."
"You're so different, now. I wanna help, but it's like you're somewhere else. I can't understand you anymore." Rubedo shook his head.
Albedo's heart twisted painfully. He felt the same way, sometimes. How could Rubedo possibly understand, when he would die and Albedo never would? He didn't know this fear, the looming threat of eternity.
"I just want to be with you, Rubedo." Albedo whispered. It was the only explanation he had. It was all he could say without screaming, trapped under the weight of the endless life that awaited him.
Rubedo shifted over, turning onto his side. He faced the wall, now, eyes pulled shut. Albedo tinged at the loss of his face. He loved to stare at Rubedo's features, a beautiful sight to lull him to sleep.
Albedo could sense a cocktail of strange emotions in their link- fear, guilt, confusion. Rubedo didn't know what to do. He hated not knowing what to do.
"I really care about you, Albedo. I don't want you to be in pain."
Albedo inched closer. He wrapped his arms around Rubedo like Rubedo so often did for him, curling his body around Rubedo protectively. He had come because of his nightmare, but strangely, this felt better than Rubedo's arms around him, like he was seeing clearer. Maybe if Albedo couldn't die, it was his job to look after Rubedo like how Rubedo looked after him. If Rubedo was in his arms like this, he was safe, shielded from death.
Albedo tucked his head in closer, pressing his face into Rubedo's back. His arms looped under Rubedo's, coming up for his hands to rest on Rubedo's chest.
"I'm happy as long as I'm with you," he whispered.
Albedo wasn't used to being alone.
The Song of Nephilim was achingly empty. Every footstep or cough echoed through the halls like a mockery, like some god laughed at the very idea of others occupying this space. It was just Albedo here, left to rot alone. He was too useful to be abandoned, but too unpredictable to be used.
Albedo's head was empty now, too. Now that the standard units had been murdered- now that Rubedo had killed them, had abandoned him- he didn't hear their thoughts any longer. Rubedo had also blocked their link. It was only Albedo, where the cacophony once thrummed. It was just him, alone, like he'd always feared.
It was hard to sleep. Albedo felt so tense, alone like this. There was no one with him, no one to protect him, no one to comfort him.
When Albedo did sleep, he had nightmares.
Sometimes, they seemed like dreams. He dreamt often of their Institute days. There was a longing that crept deep into him, fastening itself inside with stinging claws. Albedo wished more than anything that he could just go back. He wished things could be simple again. He wished he could be with Rubedo again. He wished he could love Rubedo easily.
He dreamed of everything- of meals with his brothers, of racing Rubedo to the beach in Sakura's subconscious, of the nights when Rubedo would allow him to cuddle close in his tiny bed. Tonight it was winter in Sakura's subconscious, and Rubedo was looking off the edge of the cliff.
Albedo pattered over to him, following like he always did. Even being near Rubedo felt pleasant, like he was a furnace that radiated goodness itself.
"Rubedo?" he asked. His brother was staring off into the distance.
"Hey, Albedo." Rubedo smiled at him. Albedo was glad to see that smile. He couldn't remember why, but he felt like he hadn't seen it in a long time. "Where are Nigredo and Sakura?"
"I don't know," Albedo said. He put a thoughtful frown on his face, but secretly, he was glad they weren't around. He treasured the time he and Rubedo spent together the most when they were alone.
"I guess we'll wait, then." Rubedo sighed. He put his hands on his hips. Albedo didn't mind. Even silence was nicer with Rubedo around.
The breeze was cool. The subconscious domain wasn't as cold as real winters were, so they didn't have to put on more equipment. It was just someone's memory of winter. That was what made it so pretty- sparkling, unspoiled snow, and the gush of water below. Rubedo told him once that the ocean didn't freeze like lakes because it was too big, and the waves moved too much. It was unstoppable.
Rubedo was just the same. He looked out with his chin held high, the ghost of a smile still on his lips. Even as he got more annoyed, it was still in an electric, charming way, with his eyes glinting as they rolled.
"Jeez, what's taking them so long?" Rubedo huffed. Albedo shrugged. He wasn't ungrateful.
"D-don't you like being here together?"
Rubedo looked up at him, almost as though he was surprised to see him. "Actually… there's something I wanted to tell you."
Albedo's heart stuttered. "Really?"
Something just for him? Any words from Rubedo were precious, but something special was really exciting. His lips quirked upwards when Rubedo nodded- a rare smile.
"Yeah." Albedo was so focused on him, on the way his bangs fluttered around his blue eyes, the way his mouth moved, that he almost didn't notice the way the clouds blotted the sky, the way the sun dimmed. "You wanna know something? I hate you."
In that moment, every word was ripped from Albedo. He couldn't say anything, watching dumbly as Rubedo began to rant, arms gesturing wildly in frustration.
"I've always hated you. You always cling onto me, and it's annoying! You always need something. You whine just to get my attention. Nigredo and Sakura aren't like that. They're normal. They don't do stuff like that!"
Albedo looked down, alarmed, to find what Rubedo was pointing to. There, Albedo's arm was gone- and quickly regenerating. Rubedo looked disgusted at the sight of it, livid.
"It's scary! It's unnatural! No one else is like that! There's something wrong with you!" He said, rapid-fire, advancing on Albedo. "The standard units think the variants are freaks, but really, you're the only freak. You can't even die. Everything dies- plants, animals, humans, URTVs- but not you! What are you?!"
"I- I-" Albedo stumbled backwards. Rubedo had never said anything like this to him. It hurt like words never had before. He couldn't possibly be rejected by Rubedo. "I'm like you. A v-variant. We were born together. We have the same h-heart-"
"Don't say anything like that!" Rubedo growled. He jammed a finger into Albedo's chest. "We're nothing alike. You hear me? You're not like me! You're something else!"
Albedo couldn't see anymore, for the rush of tears to his eyes. "R-Rubedo-"
"You're a monster. I never want to see you again."
Rubedo turned then. Albedo heard a flick in the wind, a flapping sound from the longcoat Rubedo wasn't wearing. Albedo felt like he had been pulled inside out, like he was slowly regenerating after being ripped to mere particles.
He stumbled after Rubedo anyways. The wind had become harsher. Snow was falling. It formed a thick, dizzying swirl all around him.
"Wait-" Albedo stretched his arm out, fingers reaching. He almost sobbed in relief when Rubedo looked back, but his face was still pinched, furious.
"Stop following me!"
The wind only grew quicker, howling, pressing on Albedo's body. It was like being encased in ice. He couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't feel save for the gaping hole in his heart, the steadily growing shame and anguish.
He needed Rubedo. He couldn't bear Rubedo's hatred. It hurt so badly to be separated, to be hated.
"Rubedo!" Albedo called, pleading. He was nearly certain he couldn't be heard anymore. His words were swallowed by the wind. He sank down on his knees, into the steadily piling snow. "RUBEDO!"
Albedo woke up shivering.
No matter how tightly he drew his blankets around himself, he couldn't shake the feeling of cold. The Song of Nephilim wasn't usually warm, but this was a deeper chill, something that had sunk into his bones.
His eyes were still wet. It hurt unbearably, to have Rubedo's anger directed at him. Rubedo was his protector, his brother, the one person Albedo could love and rely on. It didn't matter if the standard units thought he was a freak, so long as he had Rubedo by his side.
After a nightmare like this, Albedo's first instinct was to reach out to Rubedo. Rubedo was his confidant and his consoler. Albedo pushed on their link, ready to send his worries to Rubedo, before he remembered.
Rubedo was gone.
He had left Albedo behind, tore his hand from him and left him to die. Rubedo hadn't said any of this, of course, the day that he actually abandoned Albedo, but Albedo had seen his eyes. He might as well have.
Albedo's eyes stung. Now he hated these tears, loathed the blubbery sad feeling that had lodged itself inside of him. Why did it hurt if Rubedo hated him? Rubedo was the monster here. He'd left them all behind. He broke the link. He was the reason Albedo had been infected.
Albedo scrubbed the tears from his eyes, hissing. He couldn't stop thinking about what Rubedo had said in the dream- the admonishments rang in his ears, echoey. Why did they make him feel so cold inside? Why did he care about Rubedo's approval?!
Albedo dug his nails into his cheeks, dragging. Rubedo used to get mad when he would do something like this, but Rubedo wasn't around anymore, was he? Albedo could focus himself all he wanted. This made him feel present, centered. He didn't have to tear limbs off or draw blood, just the feeling of pain was enough. It reminded him that he was something like alive.
Rubedo might hate him. He probably did. Albedo was infected, something worse than dead. Would Rubedo mourn him if he died? Albedo couldn't die, but he liked to think Rubedo would've remembered him if U-DO had found a way to tear him apart. It certainly would've been better than this.
Albedo laid back. He wanted to go back to sleep, but now his head was spinning. He couldn't stop thinking about Rubedo's cruel words in his dream. He shouldn't care if Rubedo hated him now, not after everything he'd done, but he couldn't help but remember how much he'd loved Rubedo. Somehow it was the same Rubedo who had comforted him and the same Rubedo who had abandoned him, and both of them had to hate him now.
Every nightmare sent Albedo into a kind of frenzy, a tense state where the slightest noise shot his eyes open. He was afraid. It was difficult to go back to sleep when more terrors would surely await him, more hatred and fear. Yet, Albedo didn't want to stay awake. He hated this new life. He hated the loneliness, the emptiness. There was nothing to do but think, and remember.
Albedo wiped away the tears that had sprung to his eyes now. He didn't know why he was crying. He wished everything would just stop. The loneliness, the stress, the fear… it was so much worse now. Of course he wanted his revenge, to make Rubedo pay for what he had done, but it was only fueled by this inescapable misery.
Albedo wished it could be over. He wished he wasn't alone. A small, desperate part of him wished he had Rubedo back.
Rubedo was always so gentle and caring. His arms were warm and strong, an impregnable fortress keeping Albedo safe. Hearing comforts from him made the words feel real, because everything Rubedo said came with such strength and gusto that it had to be true. Rubedo would pat his back, brush back his hair, let Albedo lie next to him after a nightmare. Albedo could still feel his brother's heart in his chest, but nothing compared to lying next to him and sleeping there.
Rubedo was incomparable. Albedo never saw anyone who looked like him, because even though they were twins, Rubedo wore their same features with a captivating allure. It was difficult not to look at him. When they shared one bed, Albedo couldn't help but stare. It was soothing just to see Rubedo, to be in his presence. Albedo watched his chest rise and fall, rhythmic proof that he was alive, the occasional flutter of his eyelashes and the expression on his face. Rubedo always felt so strongly when he was awake, a broad smile or furrowed eyebrows, joy and anger and everything else played so plainly on his face.
It was different when he was asleep. He was peaceful then. It felt good to see him rest.
Albedo trembled. He wanted to go to Rubedo more than anything. He wanted to see Rubedo sit up, mumbling to himself, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and asking Albedo what was wrong. He wanted to tell Rubedo about his nightmare and hear him sigh, explain to Albedo that it was silly and he couldn't hate his own brother. He wanted Rubedo's arms, skinny but strong, to weave around him and hold him tightly in place.
It couldn't happen, of course. That Rubedo was gone. Even if Albedo could talk to Rubedo, he wouldn't say any of that. He would laugh, and repeat everything he had said in the dream. He really did hate Albedo now. He wanted to be separate.
Albedo turned onto his side, curling up into a ball. He hugged his knees to his chest. That was fine. He was more powerful than ever, now. With U-DO's powers, there was nothing in the universe that could stop him. He was like a whole new being. Maybe he was a freak, but that only meant he could do whatever he wanted. The standard units feared him because of his power, after all. Being treated like a freak just meant he was stronger.
He would make Rubedo pay. Rubedo would regret abandoning him. He would feel every bit of pain he had left Albedo to feel.
Albedo took this feeling, the agony of loneliness and abandonment, and locked it away in his heart- just another scrap of pain to force upon Rubedo when the time came.
Albedo didn't care much for sleep. He was endless, immortal, and though he tired, he could always regenerate. He slept rarely, aware that to sleep was to invite torture of the worst kind.
This wasn't the type of pain that thrilled.
It was far from uncommon for Albedo to pass out in his mech like this, exhausted. Today, however, that exhaustion ran deeper than his employer's strenuous demands. Albedo knew Rubedo was near. He could feel it, sense it, like an object he could touch. So close, so interconnected, he knew they had no choice but to meet. Magnets could not be brought so near without calling for one another.
Perhaps that was why Albedo's dreams lingered in memories. Then again, he already dreamt of Rubedo most nights. He was parasitic, feeding on Albedo's attention, traipsing through his mind. Who else could he think of? Who else was even half as enticing?
In this dream, however, Albedo found himself alone, though in a familiar place. He had nostalgic dreams, sometimes, but they felt bitterer these days than the nightmares. Remembering how happy he once was, how every fear could be soothed in the dulcet tones of Rubedo's voice and the smooth touch of his palm only made the hole in his heart grow larger. What could it be if not a taunt? Memory was cruel.
Albedo had lived here, at the Yuriev Institute, for the first twelve years of his life. He had been smaller then, and the world far larger. He remembered even the smallest details of this space, could navigate every hallway with shut eyes. It was the site of his greatest joy, once, when he and Rubedo roamed these garden paths hand in hand. This was the only time in Albedo's life he had been carefree, blissfully ignorant to the pain and loneliness that awaited him.
This Institute, however, was not precisely as Albedo remembered. Zavarov was normally a sunny planet, with a mild climate, but what he saw now was desolate. There was a cold wind he didn't remember now catching at his cape, tousling his hair, and the Institute itself was empty and lifeless.
It more resembled the buildings on Miltia than the Institute Albedo had grown up in. The plants in the garden were long dead, with only desiccated tree trunks and crackling wilted flowers remaining in the dirt. The benches that had once lined the garden were overturned, along with the lampposts rent to mere debris littering the formerly pristine walkways.
Albedo couldn't think what might have happened here, just that he couldn't possibly belong. He was trespassing. A part of him loathed to see the Institute like this. Even if his father was a cruel, stupid man, and his childhood had seen nothing but tedious military work, this was where he and Rubedo had lived together. Seeing it in such a state brought the chill in the air through his skin, straight to his heart.
The trees whose shade protected them from the sun on hot days were long-dead. The paths where they had raced one another were painted over with shards of glass from the shattered windows.
The Institute itself was dead, silent and empty. Rubedo's voice no longer rang through these halls, his face smeared with dirt from the garden. Every moment here had been destroyed, as far from reach as Rubedo himself was.
Albedo stepped over the debris, glass crunching under his boots. He expected to see evidence of a battle, but there were no remains, or streaks of blood on the floor. Instead, he saw nothing but dust, coating the floor and every long-abandoned machine.
He looked back to the area outside. Perhaps the Institute hadn't fallen under siege after all. There was no destruction, but rather, decay. The Institute had been abandoned.
No one had destroyed it. This was the handiwork of time itself.
Albedo turned away. Here, he was met with his greatest enemy.
He continued through the Institute. Albedo was not a fearful adult, by no means as easily frightened as when he was a child, but there was something indispensably eerie about this. The silence was a terrible sort of stillness, conferring with it the haunting feeling of being completely alone.
Albedo had never seen the halls so empty. There were always people about, whether the standard units milling uselessly or the scientists nagging. The very same places that had felt so important, so powerful, once, were now worse than nothing. The only person left to care was Albedo.
Albedo left the building through the other door, only to be met with more desolate garden. It was both empty and claustrophobic, with every planting bed and plot filled with nothing but cracked dirt, yet the space around dim and colorless. He walked down the path he had followed too many times, but without the overgrowth it felt more like ceremony than anything else. Albedo could already see the old tree he had used as a mark.
The graves he had dug were still there, untouched. The twigs that marked them hadn't even moved. A gravesite shouldn't have felt nostalgic, but it did.
But Albedo realized, with a pang, that they were no longer empty. The graves were filled with fresh dirt. For a fleeting moment he wondered if it was mere coincidence, if some gardener had filled the holes or wind had swept them closed, and crashed to his knees. His trembling fingers pawed at the dirt, and Albedo felt anticipation and horror and dread rushing heady through his veins, until he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye.
His senses were well-tuned at all times, but now he felt too unbearably tense not to notice. He pulled back, instantly, and was glad he did. It was Rubedo he saw.
It seemed impossible, but Albedo couldn't possibly think anything of it. An elated sigh left his lips.
"Rubedo," he breathed. Curiously, Rubedo didn't respond.
Albedo frowned. He stepped closer.
Rubedo should have noticed something. He should have heard his name on Albedo's tongue, tasting as sweet as it always did, or seen Albedo approach. He didn't respond.
He simply stood, idle, shifting his weight. His eyes drifted purposelessly, not avoiding Albedo nor searching over him.
It was like Albedo wasn't there at all. Rubedo couldn't see or hear him.
Albedo's steps grew longer, more frantic. "Rubedo!"
There was a terrible, primal fear at this, stoked in his heart like a roaring furnace. Rubedo's eyes looked right past him, though he could see himself reflected in that glassy blue.
Albedo reached out for him- to touch him, to grab him by his shoulders and shake, for anything at all. It didn't work. His hand simply passed through Rubedo.
The heart in Albedo's chest faltered. Was this an illusion of some kind? A ghost? Was he being tricked? It looked too real. He could feel Rubedo in his link, as true as he always was. This was Rubedo. It had to be.
Albedo stepped back. He wanted nothing more than to be near Rubedo, to bask in his warmth like he always did, but he'd been betrayed. This Rubedo looked past him like he was nothing. A fearful part of him wanted nothing more than to flee. He took another step back.
Something tugged at his ankles. Albedo pitched backwards, in free fall. His back hit the ground hard, and Albedo instantly recognized the ground as dirt, crumbly and dusty on his skin.
He blinked upwards, head aching. Albedo hadn't just fallen onto the ground. There were walls around him, pale dirt encircling him. Albedo made a noise of recognition. This was a grave.
Albedo tried to pull himself upwards, but to no avail. His fingers only pulled gravelly dirt loose, slipping on the walls.
Soil began to rain down on him. It was dry and hard, impossibly heavy, tiny weights holding him down.
"No," he croaked, "wait-"
He couldn't die like they could. He couldn't die, and so there was no need to bury him.
The sky didn't listen. It continued to pour dirt on him, like chains encircling him. Albedo tried to thrash, but his muscles wouldn't move.
"Rubedo!" Albedo cried.
Of course it was in vain. Rubedo couldn't hear him. Albedo panted, fighting for breath. It was too heavy. His lungs were beginning to burn.
He was helpless. Soon he would be covered entirely, trapped here forever. Albedo couldn't die, couldn't rest, couldn't have even an approximation of death. He would just lie here awake, conscious, entombed.
Albedo's breaths caught in his chest. His heart choked and sputtered. He would have nothing but the darkness for company.
Before the dirt had fully covered him, however, Albedo caught one last look at the grey sky above. There was nothing but mist and scraggly branches scraping the air, like Albedo was in a graveyard already.
Then, there were a pair of blue eyes. It was Rubedo, looking down at him.
Could he see Albedo? His lips were curved in a sneer. His eyes were dismissive, expressionless.
"Rubedo-" Albedo choked. With the last of his strength, he stretched his hand out. It went ignored, however, as his vision clouded with dirt and his ajar mouth was flooded with dirt. Albedo choked. He couldn't move anymore, couldn't feel.
The fight for air was enough to wake Albedo, panting desperately in the seat of his craft. His fists curled in on themselves, clenching tight.
He blinked, momentarily dazed. That was right. He hadn't visited the Yuriev Institute in years. It was only a dream.
His heart still thumped in his chest, desperately fighting through the remaining fear. It lingered on Albedo like the sweat coating his forehead.
He dreamt of this, sometimes, a primal fear he only recognized as he grew older. It was the inevitable fate that faced him one day, that haunted his every step. One day, Albedo would be alone. He might be one of the last things left in the universe.
Perhaps the Yuriev Institute he had seen was an omen from some terrible future. Albedo didn't care. He pushed the images from his mind. He had only one mission now, one thing to concentrate on.
It was the very man who had so cruelly ignored him. It was Rubedo, who had abandoned him in reality just as he had in the dream, who had looked on with lifeless, uncaring eyes.
Albedo's nails dug into the palm of his hand.
He hardly needed to be reminded of Rubedo's trespass. It lived on in his mind effortlessly. Albedo could not live without remembering why he was alone, why he couldn't do so much as sleep. It was Rubedo's fault- his selfishness that had ruined Albedo.
He heard Rubedo was doing well for himself now. He had a successful company, a thriving space colony, appeared in magazines with a self-assured smile. Albedo saw his ship more and more often these days, the same gaudy red as his hair.
It seemed Rubedo just couldn't help himself. Even after his failures, he had to do more, declare himself the leader once again, amass wealth and admirers. It was disgusting. These people couldn't possibly know how much of a coward he truly was. One day he would abandon them just as he did Albedo, because he was no magnanimous gentleman- he was a selfish deserter, who would sooner sacrifice his brothers than risk his own skin.
Albedo relaxed his fist. He shook his head. The time was near. Albedo would expose him and all that he was. He would remind Rubedo of the life he had so callously cast aside, all he had abandoned in his quest for senseless glory. Rubedo would come face to face with him soon, the face of all his crimes, the sole survivor of the massacre Rubedo had caused.
Albedo had been in so much pain, for so many years. He had ached with loneliness, left in a void of nothingness. The only thing he had ever loved had spurned him.
He would make Rubedo understand. He would make Rubedo feel all he had subjected Albedo to, with the same power Rubedo had inadvertently bestowed upon him.
The thought brought a smile to Albedo's lips. Rubedo couldn't possibly know what he had done. In that moment, Albedo had glimpsed the truth- something beyond the petty humans Rubedo and Nigredo tried to mimic. While they were busy playing house, Albedo had become something more, something unimaginably greater.
Albedo was powerful now, dripping with U-DO's might. He might even be more powerful than Rubedo. Red dragon had been crafted by human hands, after all, and U-DO was beyond their petty comprehension.
And even if Albedo wasn't more powerful, that was perhaps even better. Rubedo may yet be able to kill him, infused with U-DO as Albedo was. After all, Rubedo was the anti-U-DO weapon, fashioned purely to eradicate the strength that imbued Albedo's body.
Maybe they would even die together, clashing powers that they were, a spectacular burst of light and color from them two- life and death, red and white-!
A laugh pushed past Albedo's lips as he imagined it. Now, wouldn't that be a sight to behold.
The fight was over.
Albedo knew from that snap, from the limp pull of Rubedo's body, the light dimming in his eyes, that it was over.
"Rubedo?" he asked, voice weak.
There was no response. Albedo felt his guts shrink in on themselves, crushed.
"Rubedo, please wake up."
He sounded like a child again. He didn't care. Rubedo wasn't moving- some part of Albedo knew he never would move again. He had killed so many, after all, that even if death wasn't something he could ever fully understand, it was something he could easily replicate.
Albedo knew the look of the phenomenon well. He knew how to twist the neck or pierce the chest so that its owner went still and lifeless. He could make any living being into a thing, a worthless broken doll.
Albedo's vision blurred, tear-filled. Rubedo was no different. He was fragile and mortal. He would break if bent too far. This was something he had known for years, something he had feared for as long as he had known.
It was only now that Albedo had chosen to ignore what he knew, so focused on his revenge, on the thrill of fighting Rubedo. This was what he had wanted. He had longed for this for so long- to see pain on Rubedo's face, the same pain that Albedo had endured, to see him writhe and suffer for the crimes he had committed.
He had betrayed them. He abandoned Albedo. He was their leader, and he'd left them all to die. Wasn't this only fair? He was as dead as if he had died that day. Maybe he should have. He had been sent to die, after all. Would things be better if they had all died together?
Albedo's vision wavered. He could not die. It was useless for him to imagine.
All these years, he had reasoned to himself that Rubedo was nothing. He was meaningless, worthless, to have committed such cruelty. Now, however, that Rubedo was truly nothing- a lifeless husk dangling from Albedo's arms- Albedo felt flooded with regret.
Why had he done this? He didn't feel better. There was no satisfaction in this victory. He only felt emptier than he ever had. In this moment, it was like the 14 years since Miltia had never passed at all, and Albedo was a mourning child who had lost his only protector.
Rubedo wasn't his protector any longer. He hadn't been in so many years. Yet, that was all Albedo could think of now, cradling his corpse.
"Rubedo," he whimpered. "Don't go. Don't leave me behind."
It was useless to ask. Rubedo was long gone. His body was cool and stiff, like it had never moved at all. He couldn't hear Albedo, couldn't return even if he wanted to.
That was something Albedo had stolen from him.
A ringing noise filled Albedo's ears. He had done this. All these years, he had lived in fear of Rubedo's death, but it was Albedo who had stolen his brother's life at last. He was the reason why he was alone. There was no one else to blame.
The thought had tears drip from Albedo's eyes. He hadn't cried in so long. He wasn't a child any longer, and the pains only worsened, but he was too strong to cry- until now. This was the worst pain Albedo had ever experienced, the worst he could ever fathom.
"How could you do this to me?" He asked, slamming his eyes shut, shaking his head. "Haven't you hurt me enough, Rubedo? Answer me!"
Rubedo didn't. He couldn't. He wasn't there any longer. Albedo had killed him.
It was a truth too horrible to reckon with, something Albedo could register only with a wordless sob. He hadn't meant to- or had he? It was all so twisted, so confusing, fighting and making up, their endless dance around one another. It was impossible to understand.
"I loved you." He shook his head. "I hated you. Then again… what's the difference?"
What was it those old books said of love and hate? That each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.
Albedo's object had been well withdrawn, yes, broken like a cheap trinket and rent to nothing in his arms.
Albedo's hands shook. He had practiced burying Rubedo so many times. The process was etched into his memory, into his hands. Yet, no matter how many times he had prepared, Albedo still balked in the face of Rubedo's actual death. He felt small and insignificant, like a child again, staring up into a black cloud.
He pulled Rubedo closer to him. His body was still ungrown, after all, and it fit easily in Albedo's arms, crushed against his larger body. Albedo could curl over him and shield him just as a grave would, preserved forever as he deserved to be.
Albedo couldn't bear to let go. He wouldn't let Rubedo be taken from him, swallowed up by the earth, sealed away. Maybe Rubedo had abandoned him, but Albedo would never let him go. Wasn't that the point of all this? Reminding Rubedo, lingering near him… Albedo would forever remain by his side.
Albedo drew away for a painful instant, studying Rubedo's face. It was expressionless, something rare to see on his features, just like when he slept.
As Albedo laid him down on his back, rearranging bent limbs back to a more natural position, it was almost like Rubedo was sleeping. His chest was still, and his skin cold, but this was Rubedo like Albedo had longed for him. This was what he had dreamt of every sleepless night.
Albedo curled around him. He laid his head on Rubedo's chest, wrapping his arms and legs around his fallen brother. He was too big now to rest atop Rubedo, awkwardly curved with long limbs, but he could close his eyes and imagine that he was a child again, come for refuge from a nightmare.
Perhaps it would serve as comfort for the regret, guilt, and grief threatening to ravage his heart. Albedo had no way of punishing himself, no way of escaping these feelings. He had no choice but to live with himself, and the reality of what he'd done.
As soon as Albedo's eyes closed, they opened once more.
Albedo could nearly collapse from the grief, the sense of loss flooding his body- but the second heart in his chest beat, and he exhaled, almost overcome with relief.
Rubedo was alive. It was a nightmare.
Albedo pressed a hand to his forehead, brushing away the sweat that slicked his face. He dreamed of Rubedo's death often, but rarely was it at his own hand. Albedo had never truly longed to kill Rubedo… yet now, the possibility haunted him. There were too many times he might have, in their clashes over the past year.
Now they were enemies once more. Albedo flexed his gloved hand, studying his new garments. Rubedo had all but declared himself an enemy of Wilhelm's, of his strange galaxy-spanning machinations. Meanwhile, Albedo had no choice but to serve Wilhelm if he wanted to ensure Rubedo's survival.
Albedo gritted his teeth. Even so, he wouldn't allow Rubedo to come to harm. He would monitor the other testaments if he had to. He may serve Wilhelm, but he was only alive for his own purposes- and Wilhelm knew that well. Albedo was only back to stop their fool of a father from killing Rubedo. Yuriev had become too powerful. Sealing him away would take every bit of the power Albedo had gained as a testament, but he hardly cared. He longed to die anyways. At least now his death would have meaning, a seal of protection for Rubedo's sake.
Au contraire, dream world. Albedo wouldn't kill Rubedo. He would save him. Then he could rest at last, satisfied, embracing nothingness.
Until then, however… here Albedo would remain, a soul adrift. He longed for Rubedo still, but to contact him now would be madness. He remembered well Rubedo's expression as he had died, the tremble of his voice. Albedo hardly wished to trouble his brother, either with bitter memories or false hope.
Albedo, however, made no mistake of selflessness. He watched Rubedo whenever he had the chance, drifting close enough to see from a distance.
Rubedo was busy, as always. He was surrounded by friends and compatriots, ever popular, wearing a smile on his face. No battle Albedo witnessed proved any challenge for him. He was as captivating as Albedo remembered in his youth- beautiful and charming. He exuded life. Around Rubedo, it was easy to feel alive.
Although Albedo had vowed to keep his distance, he still felt those childhood echoes of jealousy. Rubedo still spoke often to that Realian, Sakura's copy, though she had the decency to stay away from his heart. The townspeople and staff of the Durandal treated him like a child, but Rubedo seemed untroubled, taking it in stride. He was always adaptable.
Nigredo, for all his faults, was at least smart enough to keep his distance from Rubedo. If he harmed Rubedo, Albedo's retribution would be swift and brutal, but it seemed his placid reticence was good for something. Still, Rubedo noticed the absence.
He spent a great deal of time alone. Albedo relished it, because it meant no one else was basking in his beauty, stealing away his attention for their own selfish gain, but Rubedo seemed mournful in those times.
He sat in his quarters often, doting on that excitable little puppy he had purchased recently. Albedo was not enough of a fool not to notice who it resembled. He noted that fact with a surge of pride.
Rubedo was so gentle with the puppy, too. He curled around it at night, waking it with soft, gentle strokes on its head, and even when it misbehaved Rubedo's famous temper was as muted as could be.
Today, Albedo hadn't seen him return to his quarters, but he was seated at his desk there already, hard at work. He could work with the others, and he often did, but these days Rubedo seemed to prefer his privacy.
These days were the first time Albedo had seen him cry.
Rubedo was always the comfort, when they were children. He was strong, unshakeable. Yet, now, years later, when Albedo had hardened he had seemingly softened. Just like Albedo when he was a child, tears would bead at Rubedo's eyes, and he would wipe them away.
Albedo couldn't comfort him, as Rubedo once had. Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Instead he simply watched out of view, from Rubedo's window, a place where Rubedo rarely glanced. There was nothing to be seen in space, after all, but meaningless debris, remnants of what once was.
The dog yipped at Rubedo, scratching at his legs. It rested its head on his knee, pleadingly.
Rubedo laughed to himself, picking it up with his hands tucked underneath the dog's legs. "Oh, I see. You want a hug."
He complied easily, tucking the little creature underneath his chin. The dog snuffled around, pressing its nose into Rubedo's neck and licking the underside of his chin.
"You always need attention, huh?" Rubedo asked in mock exasperation. He brought the dog down, cradled in one of his arms, and began to stroke its wiry fur. It grunted in approval.
"You're just like him sometimes." Rubedo muttered. "But I guess that's what I wanted, right?"
"Rubedo," Albedo whispered, a silent plea whispered only to the depths of space. Despite their fighting, both of them longed for one another. They needed one another to be complete. His actions had always been for Rubedo, hadn't they? Testamenthood was no different. Even when Albedo believed they were enemies, he was always thinking of Rubedo.
Sometimes, he wished their fate could be more than this.
Here, nestled between Rubedo's ribs, at home in his body, Albedo realized how long it had been since he'd last truly slept.
He had tried, of course. Even he passed out from exhaustion occasionally. Yet for years, sleep was an elusive rest, much like death itself- something he longed for, but couldn't possibly attain. Albedo had been alive and awake for so long, tortured by insomnia and nightmares, that being at Rubedo's side again was a relief and a comfort, safety at last.
They were finally together again. Albedo could finally sleep.
It was something that he had been longing for, yearning for all this time. The ache of separation had become so commonplace, so thoroughly entwined in his soul that Albedo had grown accustomed to it. He was so used to pain that now he could experience pure bliss.
And this was bliss, more heavenly than any text of Ormus could claim. Albedo could feel every inch of Rubedo's body, warm and solid, proof that he was really there- that both of them were really there, together. Rubedo's heart thumped powerfully in comforting rhythm, steady as he always was.
Albedo felt excited, exhilarated by their closeness, but not so much to overwhelm the exhaustion sinking into him. Nigredo's actions had been… incomprehensible. Albedo truly had been ready to die for Rubedo.
Anything to make him happy.
Yet this… this was something he could hardly dream of. This was life as it was meant to be, no longer hollow and futile. Albedo felt here, more deeply than he had in so long- yet also, paradoxically, he was calm. The tension that had animated him for so long evaporated. In Rubedo's arms, in his body, Albedo was finally where he belonged.
He told Rubedo he was going to sleep. He could feel Rubedo's hand pressed against his chest, reassuring, as Rubedo agreed. Rest and relax.
Albedo knew that he had left Rubedo to daunting tasks. Wilhelm and the remaining testaments were no ordinary foes, but still, his faith in Rubedo was unmatched. He worried, sometimes- his dreams had the faint flickers of nightmares, terrible moments when he saw Rubedo torn apart by any number of his enemies, their reunion ultimately short-lived. Albedo couldn't help but worry, stirring slightly. Rubedo was trying to quiet his thoughts, to let Albedo sleep in peace, but it was little use entwined like they were. Albedo could hear precisely how dangerous this was, how close he came to dying- every panicked thought that came before a dodge, every twist of his body and flick of his eyes.
Rubedo, however, was stalwart.
Don't worry. I didn't come this far just to die here. We're gonna make it, Albedo- the two of us, together.
It was a haunting sentiment. Before, Albedo never would have dared to think it possible. He had endured their separation for so long that to be together again felt like a dream.
He didn't dream, yet. His sleep was only so deep. With Rubedo conscious, Albedo was still connected to the corporeal world, and to his waking brother.
He had snippets, though, of little fantasies and memories. They were clear like they hadn't been in years, supplied by Rubedo's twin recollections. Albedo remembered every inch of the Institute's garden, Sakura's subconscious domain, Rubedo's meager bed- the various sets of their childhood. They were populated slowly, with scientists milling about in the background, discussing test results and schedules, with the other URTVs wandering around, repeating robotic phrases to one another, with Nigredo, off to speak with their father or Citrine about matters Albedo didn't have to worry about yet.
None of it mattered, though. Not the bustle of people around them, or the cries of birds above, the humming of insects, the whirs and beeps of the Institute itself. In the garden, there might as well have just been Albedo and Rubedo, seated side by side on a bench, bathing in the warm light of the sun. Albedo's head rested on Rubedo's shoulder, solid yet soft, and his eyes drew closed.
Rubedo leaned his head onto Albedo's in turn. He was at peace too.
Sometimes Albedo felt Rubedo reach out for him, present and past merged into one. It was like a gentle, cautious hand laid on his back, an exhale when Rubedo met solid warmth. Albedo recognized the anxiety well. Rubedo was checking to make sure Albedo was still there, still with him and still alive.
Albedo smiled. Of course he was here, surrounded by Rubedo, happy at last. He met Rubedo's outstretched hand with his own, linking their fingers sleepily.
We're together now at last, Rubedo. This is forever.