"Hey, Gaignun… Do you ever get… really angry? About everything?"
Gaignun looked up from what he was doing to find Junior in a spare office chair, playing with something Gaignun couldn't see. Gaignun cast his eyes to the cabinet against the wall – missing a glass. "Drunk again, Little Master?"
Junior sensed an attempt at levity in Gaignun's voice, but it didn't do much for him. "What, I can't be angry unless I've had a few?"
"I never said you were an angry drunk," Gaignun raised an eyebrow, "but it won't help your mood to drink alone." He closed out of his work, making to stand. "I'm done for the night now. Something wrong?"
Junior looked out over the Foundation, eyes meandering through the glittering twilit streets below. "I'm not drunk, Gaignun," he wagged the object in his hands halfheartedly, ice jingling against crystal. "It's water." His tone was subdued, downcast. "It's just been really bothering me lately. I can shake it for a while, but it always comes back." He turned to face Gaignun. "I feel like I'm the only one who feels like this. I know it's selfish to think that way, but no one understands. You're the only one I can think of who would." Junior's eyes reflected something old and deeply tormented. "Albedo would understand, but he's…"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"...Not really." Junior stirred his drink with his finger. "But I think I'll lose it if I keep trying to hold it in."
"Go ahead, then." Gaignun knew what he was in for – he'd tended to Junior's foul moods since they were children – but he walked into it willingly. "I'm right here."
Junior seemed to mellow out just a tad at that, but his attitude remained dark and brooding. "I'm just so," he picked at his sleeve, "…mad. I mean, we were trained to do our jobs. I get it," he avoided making eye contact, "everyone's got a job to do. It's a part of life. I don't care about that." He stared at the floor. "But I hate that my job is obsolete. I hate that I failed at the only thing I was born to do." Something ugly and painful roiled hot in his chest. "I hate that every skill I have, everything I trained for, is all stupid now. All of it. It's all worthless."
Gaignun knew in some way what Junior was upset about before he opened his mouth. Junior was tough, confrontational, but he was never this tense with Gaignun unless he was suffering for their childhood. He didn't say anything, but made sure Junior felt like he was paying attention, nodding slowly.
"All the injuries, the hours of pain. The slavery." Junior continued, letting his emotions find the words before his mind. "And it's not even just useless. It actively works against me. Anyone else who finds out what I'm capable of thinks it's horrible. No one wants my power for what it is." Junior trailed off, as if trying to figure out what to say. "All these years later, and I think about it every single day. It just eats me from the inside out."
That troubled Gaignun. "Every day?" Junior had spells like this on occasion, but he had seemed well recemtly. Then again, Gaignun had been micromanaging a great deal more with the Foundation, and Junior had been away more than ever with the Elsa. It didn't surprise him, but it was disconcerting.
Junior nodded. "I'm not meant to live in this world, Gaignun. I'm not fit for it. I don't know what to do to make myself fit, either. I've been trying for so long and I still screw up." He looked out the window again. "I don't even know what else there is to try. I'm just… stuck." Junior's anger returned to enshroud his despair. He knew it was pathetic to talk like this, but he couldn't help it. "Even all these feelings I'm having now," he almost laughed, "how am I supposed to know they actually belong to me? When you think about it, it makes more sense that they don't." He turned to look at Gaignun again. "But they're all I can feel. I don't feel happy. I don't feel free. All I can feel is sadness and anger."
Junior bit his lip from the inside.
"Everything I feel right now," he said, "is just one more thing artificially put in me by someone else," his voice was bitter now, "to torture me. And if I can't feel anything else, then these fake feelings are all I have. But since they come from somewhere else, somewhere real, then… then they're all more real than me. It's like I don't even exist." He did laugh then, a pathetic, dejected, angry laugh. "And I don't! I don't exist." He took a sip of his drink. "Zoze Kukai isn't real. The me that everyone on the Durandal sees isn't real. Gaignun Kukai Jr. isn't a person, he's more like a concept." Junior's face clouded further. "I wasn't a person before all this either, but there was something real in me because I had something I was made to do." Another sip. "What good is a gun if you don't pick it up and fire it?"
"Are you having a hard time figuring out what to do with yourself?"
"That's part of it," he scrubbed at his face until it went raw, "but I just can't stand being so useless." Junior clenched his jaw. "It all comes back to the job. What am I without that? There's nothing for me here or anywhere else."
"There's a lot you are, Junior. A lot you can be. A lot you can do."
He shook his head. "No. Nothing makes sense to me, Gaignun. I thought it didn't make sense back then, but maybe that's just because I didn't agree with it. Maybe it's just me." He set his glass down. "I'm the problem. All over again."
"We've both done great things together," Gaignun said it to assuage Junior's rising despair, but he said it for himself as well. "The Foundation has saved so many people. Try to think about all the good you've done."
Junior shook his head adamantly. "That's not me, Gaignun. That's just something the fake me did, and I didn't do any of it on my own. I never would have done it on my own, either. I did it because I had to do it to survive."
"But your actions define who you are, Junior," Gaignun realized before he finished the sentence that it was the wrong thing to say. He cursed himself, struggling to think of what to say to salve the wound, but nothing came.
Junior didn't scowl at him or lash out; he just looked at the floor again, face empty. "I know that already. I can't forget about everything I did wrong when we lived under Dad. I really can't forget what happened on Miltia."
"Junior, that's not what I meant."
"You can't take it back, Gaignun." He sighed. "I'm not mad you said it, and you're not wrong. It would make me feel better if my actions didn't define me. But they do. Everything I've done wrong hurts just as much as knowing I don't have a reason to be here." Junior turned his palm up to the ceiling, staring absently at the three sixes carved into his flesh. "It's ugly, but that doesn't mean it isn't true."
"But that's not what I meant."
"It's not really about what you meant." He looked down. "I can't do anything good because I'm not a good person. I can't do good things because I'm me. I'm not saying you can't do good things. You do really good things all the time!" He squeezed his hands shut, blue eyes skirting away to meet Gaignun's green. "But me and you aren't the same. We have a lot in common. We went through a lot of the same things. But in the end, we were made for different purposes. We did different things. I know what I did, and I know why I was born, and I can't justify my own existence. I just…" He faltered. "I can't handle being alive. I can't do it."
Junior's sense of alienation was metastasizing, but that wasn't the only thing that had Gaignun worried. "You're not thinking of…?"
Junior shook his head, but he looked all the more hollow for it. "I'm not leaving you behind, Gaignun. You know I couldn't do that." His eyes were veiled over in thin shadow, looking right through Gaignun and into something very far away. "But it's really hard." It looked like he was ready to say more, but he remained silent, eyes slowly drifting away to bore into the wall.
"The Foundation exists for people like us," Gaignun reminded him, keeping a gentle tone. "There are other people here you can talk to. They might understand."
"You know I can't do that." Junior didn't want to lash out, but Gaignun's comment etched a new layer of pain into his face. "You're not the only one who has to keep up appearances." He looked over the Foundation again with great bitterness, as if it were an ant farm. "We're in the same position there, at least."
"Isn't it good, though? That your role in all this is over?" Gaignun spoke a bit too closely from the heart, but he worried for Junior, longing to bring him relief. "What you had to do… What you were told to do on top of that," he looked away, "those were terrible things. And I remember how much it hurt you to be in the middle of it. You did the best you could do in such a hopeless place, but it was designed entirely to cause you pain. You couldn't have succeeded."
Gaignun reflected for on one of his own painful, complicated memories – Rubedo clinging to him in their youth one afternoon after Albedo was taken alone to the Institute's lower floors. He remembered Rubedo's pale, empty body hanging inconsolable off his shoulders like a lifeless cut of meat, sagging like sheets of lead beneath the despair. The only strength he had left in his body was in his arms, looped around Gaignun's neck on each side like a set of hooks. Gaignun had wrapped his arms around Rubedo and held him still, close, kept him standing – and he had privately rejoiced at the chance to hold Rubedo, to be close to him, to be something good and useful to him despite his own painful role.
"Junior…" Gaignun composed himself, shaking away the image, "there was nothing you could do. You need to understand that. You can't blame yourself for those things. Thinking about it that way will destroy you."
"That's just it, though," Junior shook his head, "I don't know if I can even really say those things were bad. I can say I hated going through them and that I hated watching it happen to everyone else, but I don't really think I can say whether they were good or bad. I don't know what I'm supposed to believe about this world next to the one we came from. Everyone treats it like it was horrible and covers it up like it never happened, but they all let it happen! I don't understand!" Junior's nails bit into his palms. "And I don't think I want to. But it makes me feel crazy. I can't take it, the fact that we live in the middle of all those people. They all know what happened, and none of them care. They don't have to care because it wasn't about them."
Gaignun didn't protest what Junior said because he knew he was right. They both understood his feelings too well, but there was nothing left to assuage them.
The air between them was dead for a while before Junior spoke again. "Maybe I should have died back then." He turned to look at Gaignun. "On Miltia, I mean. Sometimes I really don't know if I made the right choice. I'm not talking about our comrades, either. Even Albedo, I…" Junior was quiet for a moment. "I mean the choice I made, by itself. Breaking the link. How do we know Dad was wrong? Even if everyone died, I'd be dead too, and I would have done something." He bowed his head. "I would have done the only thing anyone ever really asked me to do."
The subject of Junior's death on Miltia made Gaignun feel cold and dizzy. "I don't… I don't want you to die," he managed, unsure of how to approach it. "It's not about me," he continued, "but I'm glad you abandoned the mission. And I think you did more good than harm by it."
"Those missions were all I had, Gaignun." He realized how it sounded, so he added, "I had you and Albedo, but we all had different paths. No one was judging us as a unit, and I had my duties. I made all my own choices."
"I know you feel like you can't make the right choice no matter what." Gaignun's heart stung for Junior; he knew how Junior felt, but he also knew it wouldn't mean anything to say it like that. "It's like everything you do is wrong because you see the way out, and you can't take it."
Junior almost looked surprised. His downward spiral had left him completely imprisoned in a world he felt no one could have understood. "…Yeah. It's more than that, but…"
Gaignun moved to stand beside Junior, still slumped in his chair. Gaignun laid a hand on Junior's shoulder, and Junior sighed, emptying himself of breath. Gaignun was relievd to see this dissolve some of the tension, but he knew there was much left to do. "What can I do to help you, Junior?"
"I don't know," he muttered, "I don't think there's anything you can do, honestly. It's like you said. I can't see any way out of it." He didn't shrink from Gaignun's touch, but he didn't lean into it either. "Not one that's any good to us, anyway."
It was hard to see Junior like this, but Gaignun managed, laying aside the proud, assertive image of Junior they both projected outward. "Can you stand?"
Junior didn't answer, but he slung himself to his feet. Gaignun could tell it was hard for him, but he didn't pull him or touch him for fear of wounding his pride. "I think…" His voice was smaller than usual, uncertain. "I think I need to go be alone for a while. I don't think I can do this anymore. Talking, I mean."
"…As long as you come back in one piece tomorrow." Gaignun contemplated saying or doing something else, but he opted for silence so as not to make Junior feel patronized.
"Yeah," Junior looked at his feet. "Thanks."
Junior slumped down and collapsed into bed, body heavy against his duvet. He hadn't bothered peeling it back – he didn't have the strength for it. He curled into himself, grateful for a dark room with a closed door.
Some solider I am, he thought bitterly, getting this worked up over something so stupid.
He regretted talking to Gaignun. Not because Gaignun had said or done anything wrong, but because Junior had violated yet another fundamental law in breaking his silence. He had been born for his mission, and he was meant to keep it to himself. The first instructions given to him in life had been the most important, but he had never been able to obey them, regardless of the consequences.
I really have gotten weaker, he looked at his palm again, huh. The room was dim, but a sliver of light reflected from the Foundation's mirrors gave him just enough room to see. Each number looked black in the dark, like thin hoops of rot in his flesh. Being out of his native environment was killing him slowly, he thought, digesting him piecemeal through some disgusting acid.
He could disobey his orders all he wanted, but that didn't mean he wouldn't suffer for it.
Junior had a lot to think about, a lot to meditate on as payment for what he'd done, but he couldn't bear it anymore. He mustered the strength to pull an extra blanket up from the bottom of the bed, and he hid himself inside it, leaving just enough room for him to breathe. He contemplated what to do for a moment before resigning himself to old habits – he opened the link once again.
It was still on the other end, but he took comfort in the connection if only for a moment. G'night, Albedo. Junior maintained the link for a while, hoping for a response, but nothing came through. Just like always. Junior thought to himself – not for the first time – that Albedo's silence was just another punishment for his various failures. He swallowed the pain and closed the link, settling into the quietude that enveloped his body.
I'll see you tomorrow, he thought, telling himself the same thing he told himself on every lonely night. Promise.