Taking Alby on a walk was easier said than done.

For one, it required catching and leashing him. While Alby was smart enough to have learned the connection between his leash and a walk, he wasn't anywhere near smart enough to understand he couldn't go on a walk until he let Jr. clasp his leash onto his harness. Instead, he yipped and bounced around, enthralled at the walk he was about to go on, but none too helpful in actually making it happen.

Jr. was absolutely certain he looked like an idiot chasing Alby around the bridge like this, ducking under consoles and hoping to surprise him around corners. Alby was just too fast and too small to keep track of, and once he thought they were playing keep-away Jr. didn't stand a chance against him.

Then again, maybe looking like an idiot was just what Jr. needed. It was better than the half-concealed looks of pity he got from the crew these days, when he came to work and everyone pretended not to know how recently he had lost his brother.

Jr. chewed on the inside of his mouth. He knew it was just concern, and it only showed how much everyone cared for him, but it still stung regardless. He felt almost naked when they stared, like everyone had seen what he was trying to bury away- and instead of judging him, they only had pity to offer.

Jr. might look like a child, but he was a grown man, and the ship needed him. Of course he wasn't going to take time off. Mary only meant well when she pulled him aside and asked if he was alright, if he needed to talk about anything, but it made Jr.'s teeth hurt from clenching regardless.

The Kirschwassers on the bridge giggled at his antics, at his overblown gasps and grunts as Jr. chased his little dog. In the back of his mind, Jr. found himself hoping they would remember this, and not the moments where his eyes glazed over and he didn't hear what people said.

He couldn't stand any more concern. He'd always been declared the leader, the person who everyone else depended on. He couldn't break down now. That was why he still insisted on coming to work. What would they do without him, anyways? With Gaignun gone, the Foundation really depended on him.

Jr. liked working, anyways. It was better than thinking about the space-time anomaly. Here, he could actually help people. Here, he was useful.

Alby, however, had his little heart set on being as unhelpful as possible, slapping his paws down and wagging his tail as soon as Jr. lagged behind. He turned in a circle and dashed away, up to the controls, and Jr. was quick to scramble after him.

"Oh, Alby!"

Thankfully, Mary's appearance on the bridge was distraction enough for Alby to pause, rising up onto his back legs and pawing at her leg. It gave Jr. the opportunity to lean down and snatch him.

"Thanks, Mary!" he said. Jr. held Alby up, hands tucked behind his front legs. It didn't stop his hanging back legs from kicking, though, jostling him slightly in the air.

Mary watched with an eyebrow raised as Jr. fought to turn Alby over, finally tucking the squirming puppy under his arm and using his other hand to fight with the leash's clasp. The giggles from the Kirchwassers weren't as subtle as they thought.

"Are you two headin' down to the Foundation?" She asked, eyeing Alby's harness.

"Yeah," Jr. said. "I thought Alby would like to take a walk."

Jr. hadn't been off the Durandal since he first adopted Alby. He loved this ship more than anything, but even he got sick of it sometimes. The Foundation had its never-ending sunlight and bustle, and people who might not know they should pity him.

It'd be a nice change of pace.

"You're probably right!" Mary shook her head. "That thing's got more energy than anythin' else in the galaxy, I swear!"

"Aww, he's not so bad."

Alby was nipping at Jr.'s pants leg as he spoke. He liked to sink his teeth into it and pull.

"He's nothing but a big ol' troublemaker… and lucky Master Gaignun isn't here to set him straight!" Mary wagged a finger at him. Alby only regarded this as another target, following it with his bright lavender eyes.

He was overexcitable and active. Sometimes he was nothing like the man whose death he marked.

"I think Gaignun's scared of him," Jr. said. He almost didn't know which 'him' he was talking about. "Or nervous, because Alby doesn't really like him."

"It's probably 'cause he hasn't been around that often. There's no one he likes more than you, Little Master!"

Mary said it with a smile. It was probably supposed to be a compliment, that Alby liked him so much, but it just made Jr. remember how much time he had spent alone with Alby in his room. He'd withdrawn slightly after… the space-time anomaly. He had still worked, but he hadn't attend social functions, or sit in the park or on the bridge.

Jr. found that he couldn't convince himself to. The thought of other people and their sad eyes, thinking about him but unable to ask, made him angry for reasons he couldn't quite place. Alby was his only comfort, silent and too young yet for empathy, a distraction and a reminder of who he had lost.

Jr. looked up at Mary, who was staring. He'd been silent for too long. He needed something to say.

"Just wish he'd listen when I tried to get him ready…" Jr. sighed. Mary giggled.

"If anyone can get his energy out, it's you, Little Master!"

Jr. smiled. It felt like running a marathon. He gave her a little salute as he and Alby rode down the elevator.

In the transport to the shuttle, Jr. pressed a hand against his face. It had been so hard to talk to people ever since the time-space anomaly. Still, he couldn't second-guess his walk with Alby. He had to do something.

"Going down to the Foundation, Little Master?"

Jr. looked up. Something in his insides froze, like he'd gone outside without a space suit and felt the universe's chill.

The shuttle driver was looking at him expectantly, but not unkindly. Jr.'s head swam. What would he normally say at a time like this?

"Yeah!" He choked. It didn't feel right. Maybe he'd put too much energy into it?

The shuttle driver didn't much seem to mind, chuckling a little. "You sure seem in high spirits today! Make sure and say hi to everyone, alright?"

"'course." Jr. said. Did the shuttle always make him feel this queasy?

He waved goodbye with a smile as he got off. The people on the Durandal might know a bit more about him- Mary and Shelley knew the whole truth, and some of the staff knew he'd just lost a loved one- but as far as the Foundation was concerned, he was just some kid.

A secret immortal cyborg lovechild, but a kid all the same.

It was easier to breathe out here. Sometimes monitors and too-clean hallways reminded Jr. of the Institute, even if the Durandal was all his. He always preferred the gardens outside. That was where he and his brothers got to run around- Gaignun with his serious expression, even when they were having fun, and Albedo with his hand outstretched, trying to grab onto Jr.'s arm.

Jr. winced. Those memories weren't a comfort anymore. They only reminded him of how neither brother was here now.

It was just him, him and Alby walking along the road to sectors 26 and 27.

Alby, for his part, seemed overjoyed at the walk. He was still getting the hang of his leash, darting in different directions and pulling, but at least he was trying to keep in step with Jr. He looked up at him every so often with his massive lavender eyes, and the way they sparkled in the sunlight made something in Jr. puncture and deflate.

Those eyes were why he'd gotten Alby, after all. Jr. didn't believe in reincarnation or anything, but they were too similar to be a coincidence. They reminded him of Albedo in a way that felt good and hurt all at once, and if that wasn't true to Albedo Jr. didn't know what was.

He'd always been difficult. Clingy and whiney when they were young, then cruel and mad when U-DO had gotten ahold of him. Yet, Jr. couldn't stop loving him. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't treat Albedo like just another enemy.

Jr. shook his head. He couldn't think like this now. Talking to their citizens was as much a part of his job as managing the Durandal was. They needed his full attention, now.

The Kukai Foundation's residents were happy to see him. Normally Jr. loved the attention, waving back at them and asking everyone how they were, but right now he just wanted to shrink. He was glad Alby was with him, yipping and jumping, because he got their attention off of Jr.

"So good to see you again, Little Master!"

"What brings you here?"

"Little Master, you know where Gaignun is?"

Jr. shook his head at the last question. Gaignun had been pretty busy lately. It wasn't uncommon for him to block himself off in their link, especially when he was working hard, but this felt different. It was just beginning to edge on strange.

"Nah, but I'll tell him you asked." Jr. said. "Hope he isn't taking a vacation without me!"

It felt like the right thing to say. The others laughed, so it was probably close to normal for Jr.

The people—a group from the Iron Man and Our Treasure—seemed satisfied with that answer, but as Jr. walked away, he wasn't so sure. He pressed on the link.


Nothing. Mary and Shelley didn't have any ideas either, last Jr. had asked. It was strange, but he wasn't about to question it. Gaignun could be a pretty private guy, sometimes. Jr. wished he had as much control over his emotions.

"Little Master! Come and try the Smile Bakery Challenge!"

Jr. forced a new smile onto his face. "Sure!"

They were still doing this rock-paper-scissors thing? He knew better than to question it, instead playing against the girl who had waved him down- probably a new hire. He didn't recognize her.

He played rock. She played scissors.

"You won! How lucky."

Jr. rubbed the back of his neck, faux bashful. It felt like what he would normally do.

He didn't feel lucky.

"Here." The lady handed him a loaf of fresh bread.

"Hey! I thought it was only if I lost?" Jr. asked. She laughed.

"Well, consider this the Little Master Special!"

"Aww…" Jr. mumbled. "You guys don't have to give me free stuff, you know."

He didn't like freebies even normally- the Foundation couldn't get by if the stores kept giving him and Gaignun free stuff. Today, however, it stung doubly. Being celebrated by this many people just made him feel like a massive fraud.

They don't know about all the things he'd done wrong. There was no way they could possibly know. An intrusive part of him felt like telling them.

Hey, did you know I'm a massive failure two times over? It's true! First I abandoned my brothers, and now I killed one of them myself. I went to save him, but instead I watched him die.

Jr. gritted his teeth. "Thanks."

He left before she could ask about his sudden change in attitude.

He hadn't even talked to that many people, and he didn't know if any of them needed things, but he would let them email him if they had to. Jr. felt utterly drained.

It only wore on him more with every step he took. Jr. stopped by the exit, and leant against the wall. He closed his eyes, inhaling.

Alby pawed at his leg.

"Little Master? Are you feeling alright?"

Jr. pulled away from the wall suddenly, as though he'd been caught committing a crime.

"Yeah! I'm great."

It was way past time to leave. Jr. darted out of there.

He only realized while sitting numbly on the transport that he wanted to go back to his room. He didn't think he could pretend anymore, after forcing another smile for the transport driver.

It was a pity. Alby didn't seem exercised at all. He was still chasing his tail, even on the transport.

Jr. still thanked the shuttle driver, picking up Alby for the journey through the Durandal. He didn't want the puppy to tangle people up with his leash. Alby still squirmed and thrashed, trying to lick Jr.'s face.

"Hey!" Jr. protested. "I'm ticklish-"

"It's good to see you in such high spirits, Little Master!"

Jr. recognized the voice, looking over with what he hoped was a smile. "Thanks, Eileen."

"You're what keeps us all together!" She said, throwing a hand out in gesture. "Your cheerfulness, that is… it's just infectious!"

Jr. turned away. "Yeah… I'm glad."

People relied on him still, even now. Even after he had let down so many people, they needed him- and he couldn't do anything for them. He felt so unbearably weak.

He was only just able to unclasp Alby's leash before it all came crashing down on him. Jr. leaned back against the door, sliding down until he was seated.

Jr. leaned back, closing his eyes. It was quiet here, and he was alone.

There was no one to see the tears pooling in his eyes, almost slipping out.

Everything felt so much harder than usual ever since the time-space anomaly. It felt like Jr. was only pretending to be himself.

How couldn't it feel different? Everything had changed. Albedo was dead. Jr. had lost his other half.

It almost felt silly for this to affect Jr. so greatly. He'd lost Albedo before, on Miltia, when U-DO had taken ahold of him. He'd been raised as a soldier and endured tragedy after tragedy. Yet, none of them felt like this. None of them tore his very being apart. None of them left him like this, a mere fragment of his former self.

In a moment of desperation, Jr. reached out for Albedo in the link. He felt around, exploratory, but the burst of energy soon left him. It was as still as it always was now. There was nothing there.

Some days, it felt different. Jr. was half certain he was imagining it, hopeful, but he could really swear sometimes it was like Albedo was still alive somehow. It was the faintest flicker, like a tiny electric shock, but there was something there.

It had to be Jr.'s imagination. Albedo was dead. He might've thought that a silly thing to think just weeks ago- Albedo was infamously regenerating, after all- but Jr. knew for certain that Albedo really was dead. His heart was still in Jr.'s chest, like a rock there, weighing him down. His link was cold and empty.

It wouldn't make any sense for Albedo to be alive. His last words echoed in Jr.'s head like a sick rhythm. Look, Rubedo. I'm free.

It was like Ziggy said. Life was a prison for him. It was like Albedo said, all those years ago. If Rubedo would die, he wanted to die too.

Jr. never thought about what it would be like if Albedo died. He never thought he'd have to consider it. Maybe it was something like a comfort, all these years, knowing that whatever happened, he would never have to live through Albedo's death. He would never live in a world without Albedo in it.

They had been enemies, of course, but had Jr. ever wanted Albedo dead? He'd never thought about it, because it wasn't a possibility, but he certainly hadn't been meaning to kill him in the time-space anomaly. He'd said as much- that he wanted to drag Albedo back to the Durandal.

What would he do if Albedo was alive? Would they be enemies, again? Jr. didn't think so. The very thought of fighting hit him with nausea, bile rising in his throat. Hurting Albedo felt wrong, even if he was infected with U-DO. It felt like hitting himself.

Even if it seemed impossible, Jr. would try to reach out. He didn't care anymore if it would bruise his pride.

Of course, he thought bitterly, it was too late for that. He'd made his choice, and now he had to live with it.

Jr. closed his eyes. It was just like Miltia. It haunted him, standing in his steps. He couldn't do anything, because his greatest enemy, the man responsible for this, could be found only in his mirror.

Albedo was dead. Jr. had killed him. Even if he'd never thought about it before, this was his reality now.

Jr. pressed his hand to his forehead. He hadn't grieved like this since Sakura. Maybe that was why he'd dreamed of her, just after Albedo died. They were the only people he'd loved and lost.

He remembered how Albedo reacted that day.

"Aren't you scared?" His eyes were wide, and his jaw trembled. "You're going to die, just like her. How can you even stand here?"

They weren't standing. Albedo had collapsed, and Jr. had knelt on the floor with him, his arms around his little brother.

"I won't die like that." Jr. said. "We're soldiers."

He couldn't remember why he had said that. It was a terrible thing to say. It meant he would die because someone killed him, that his end would be violent rather than peaceful.

It still seemed like that.

"But you'll die." Albedo insisted. "You'll die no matter what."

"Yeah, I guess. But still… I have to live."

"Why? Why, Rubedo?" His little hands grasped at Jr.'s institute clothes, pulling. "Why don't you just hide? Anything could make you die. Anything could take you from me."

"I can't hide," Jr. said, offended. "I couldn't. I have to stay out here."

Albedo whimpered. He buried his face in Jr.'s chest, between his fists, closed in Jr.'s shirt.

"I'm the leader. I can't just leave the others." Jr.'s expression softened. He patted Albedo's head. "…and I can't leave you."

How ironic, that Albedo had left him after all. Jr. still remembered how the words burnt in his throat, while he was begging for Albedo to stay.

A cold, wet nose brushed against his hands. Jr. dropped them from his face and looked down.

There were Alby's eyes again. Maybe the walk had worn him out a bit after all, because they were dimmer than they usually were. They looked more like Albedo than they ever had.

As Jr. stared into them, he was able to picture Albedo with perfect accuracy. He remembered the look on Albedo's face as he crashed onto the floor, gentle, indulgent, caring. His words were short and harsh, but his face and voice told a different story. They said the words Albedo couldn't.

But then again, Jr. knew Albedo loved him. He said it in every look he gave, in every word he said and everything he did, even if it didn't seem like it. Jr. supposed he loved Albedo, too. All those times they hesitated, or indulged one another, or reached out added up. It wasn't easy to conceal love.

Even if they'd tried, it was still there. Jr. felt the absence. He felt it like an open wound.

He was surrounded by people, but he still felt unbearably lonely. It was no fault of theirs's- Jr. felt like a brat for even thinking he was lonely when he was greeted so kindly- but he couldn't help it. His head felt echoey and empty in a way it hadn't since Miltia.

That was when he cut the link for the first time. It was when hundreds of his siblings' voices cut out, like a plug had been pulled.

But then, he could still hear Gaignun. He could still have talked to Albedo, if he wasn't too busy slamming their link shut. Now was the first time Jr. was well and truly alone.

He could talk to the people in his life, of course, but it just wasn't the same. What was the point of contacting them? They couldn't see his thoughts, feel his emotions, understand him on the level Gaignun and Albedo could.

Jr. realized, with a jolt, that without his two brothers, there was no one left who understood him anymore.

That was the problem with surviving, like he'd learned after Miltia. It was so damn lonely.

There were so few people who remembered what he did, who had gone through what he had, and that number was rapidly shrinking. Every time Jr. longed to talk to someone, he realized it was impossible.

That was part of why losing Albedo hurt so much. Gaignun was Jr.'s brother, he had stuck with Jr. all these years, but it wasn't the same- couldn't possibly be the same. Like it or not, Jr. and Albedo were linked. They shared the same heart.

For just a few blissful moments, they were able to connect, right before Albedo died. Jr. suddenly understood everything Albedo was going through, and he understood in turn. Jr. had forgotten how good it felt for someone just to understand, to listen and to know. He wanted Albedo back so desperately in that moment, wanted a friend, a brother, a confidant. Albedo was a part of him.

Jr. felt alone in a deeply profound way now. He bore this burden alone. Nobody else had seen what had happened in the space-time anomaly. It was his sin, nestled deeply in the heart he no longer shared.

Jr. was enduring the fate meant for Albedo, now- the burden of surviving, and remembering. No wonder Albedo had been so frightened.

Alby sat down, looking up at him with those shiny lavender eyes. Jr. wiped the half-tears from his eyes, and took a deep breath.

It was silly, but he felt like Alby might understand. He felt like he owed Alby an explanation, and that somehow, that would make things more right.

"I told him I'd survive," Jr. said. It felt so much harder now, unimaginably harder in ways he couldn't have imagined at twelve years old. Yet still, he knew he had to keep his promise. "So that's what I'll do."

Alby's tail wagged, but then again, he was always happy to be spoken to.