Sakura was dead.
The news came suddenly in their link, as plain as a thought from Rubedo's mind could be. It wasn't accompanied with a scream, or a sob, but was broadcasted as simple fact, as though Rubedo didn't realize he had shared.
Maybe he didn't. He probably didn't, because he went silent soon afterwards, snapping the link shut like a door slammed in Albedo's face.
Normally, Albedo would have been offended. Today, however, it was hard to begrudge Rubedo his privacy. Albedo could understand exactly what Rubedo was feeling in this moment. He felt blank and empty suddenly, too, like he'd been carved into and hollowed out. He didn't know what to think or feel.
Albedo's world shook, quivering in place like he was seeing double. So Sakura was dead.
Albedo had never liked her. He didn't pretend to, either. Yet, he couldn't help the raw feeling that tore into him, as though clawing through his very chest. Sakura, a girl he had once known, was dead. Someone he knew had died. She was gone forever, just like that.
It was so sudden, so mundane, that it was terrifying. There was no anticipation, and no sign.
So this was death. It was a viper that struck suddenly and randomly, so lightning quick it couldn't be perceived. It was an endless abyss that people fell into one by one, never to be seen or heard from again.
How could Albedo gloat or celebrate? Even though he'd wanted Sakura gone, even though he'd always wanted Rubedo to see past her simpering and flirting, this was something too terrible to allow. Having Rubedo all to himself wasn't worth this. Nothing was.
Rubedo shutting off their link only made things worse. Just as Sakura was gone he was too, leaving only a featureless void where he once was. Albedo shivered. Without Rubedo his mind was empty, ready for the creep of anxieties and speculations.
Was this what it would feel like, one day? Would there come a time when, as easily as a switch was flipped, this emptiness would become forever?
Now Albedo knew that Rubedo and Nigredo had been telling the truth. He understood, now, what they and the standard units feared. People really did get injured and die. They vanished like nothing, like they'd never existed before. One day, Rubedo would disappear like that too.
Albedo had seen death before, but it was never like this. Sometimes URTVs were corrupted by U-DO in the training simulator and they had to be discontinued, but Sakura wasn't like them. She wasn't a URTV, or a designer child, or a soldier. She was just a normal person. She wasn't infected by U-DO, she had no enemies, and nobody had killed her.
Death came for her still.
It was inescapable. There was no way to stop it, no way to protect Rubedo. All Albedo could do was wait. He was completely and utterly powerless.
Albedo's fingers twitched, stiff. He only realized now how still he had been holding, frozen in terror ever since he had heard the news. Being in the garden felt like some sick joke, surrounded by beauty just as ephemeral as the people who enjoyed it. These flowers would wilt and die, just as the scientists and URTVs would. Everything would waste away but Albedo.
It had been an hour since the news. Rubedo had never been quiet for ten minutes, let alone an hour. Hearing nothing from their link only made Albedo all the more antsy. Panic tapped rapidly at his heart.
They didn't have another training mission until later that day. No one was looking for Rubedo, and Albedo didn't think anyone would care enough to search even if he asked. Rubedo always wandered around during their free time. He used to sneak away to watch Sakura play the piano.
Albedo didn't understand. It was so boring- she was so boring.
Now, however, Albedo had no idea where he could be. If it was up to him, he would search, pattering around the Institute and gardens. Rubedo wasn't on any of the benches, or in the grove, or in his room. Every nook and cranny came up empty, and Albedo wasn't foolish enough to ask any of the scary adults where he might be. He only got more frustrated and more alone the farther he wandered, as worry continued to gnaw at his heart.
The last room he checked was the dive room, because Rubedo hated standing in his pod and they didn't have a mission. That, however, turned out to be exactly where Rubedo was- leant back and plugged into the Encephalon.
Albedo's heard sped up. Why would he be there? He left often to visit Sakura, but she wouldn't be there anymore. He had to find out why- had to follow Rubedo no matter what, wherever he went.
Albedo didn't like the training simulator much. It was scary, and URTVs regularly got infected there, but if Rubedo was there, Albedo had to be there too.
The dive felt like falling, like Albedo would never find the right side up again.
When Albedo finally landed, returned to his own body again, he recognized this place instantly. It was something he knew too well for words, the feel and the smell and the look. He had ended up back in Sakura's subconscious domain, or at least the vestiges of it still left within the system. It was winter here, fittingly enough. Everything was dead and frozen over, and Albedo had to squint through the blowing snow to see Rubedo's red hair.
Rubedo looked as inconsolable as his echoes felt in the link. He was seated on a curb by the gas station, with his knees pulled up to his chest. His arms wrapped around them tight, as though he was clinging on for dear life.
Albedo had never seen him cry. Rubedo was stronger than anyone else in the universe. He didn't need to cry. He didn't even get sad or scared when things went wrong in the training simulator. He didn't cry or shake when U-DO's waves neared, and that unbearable cold nausea swept over them all. He looked into the eyes of the infected URTVs without so much as flinching. It wasn't like Nigredo's withdrawn, expressionless, stupid face, but something more. There was determination in Rubedo's eyes, a lively resolve, an unshakeable confidence. He was the leader, after all.
Rubedo's eyes were blank now, but the whites had turned as red as his hair. Albedo recognized that look. It was the painful look of someone who had only just stopped crying, someone who had plugged up tears that threatened to come flooding back already. It looked unnatural against Rubedo's eyes, bright blue like glittering crystals.
Would Rubedo really cry over this? She was just a girl. They'd known she was sick. It was scary, but it wasn't unexpected for her to die- and Rubedo knew exactly what dying meant before this had happened! What could Rubedo possibly be missing, anyways? She was always useless and boring. Rubedo didn't need her- he never had. He had Albedo.
Albedo's fists clenched at his side. That was right. Rubedo did have him. Albedo would prove it, he'd show up and be there for him now.
Albedo had never comforted Rubedo before. There was no need- Rubedo was big, and strong, and perfect. He was smarter than anyone, and he never needed anyone's help. He was the one who always took care of Albedo!
Yet now, looking at his small, huddled form, coated with ice and snow, Albedo was struck with the thought that he should comfort Rubedo like Rubedo comforted him.
Something in him leapt at the thought, the opportunity to console Rubedo. Maybe he would be as important to Rubedo as Rubedo was to him. Maybe Albedo would be the reason he smiled again.
It only made sense that it had ended up like this, after all. They were two halves of a whole. They needed each other. Albedo was the only person in the world who could comfort Rubedo now.
"Rubedo?" He asked. Rubedo could usually sense him before he even approached, but today Rubedo didn't seem to be too aware of his surroundings. He should have looked up already.
Albedo had never seen him so unaware.
"Albedo?" Rubedo asked. His voice was thick with unshed tears. He looked up through his lashes, still damp. "What're you doing here?"
"I was looking for you." Albedo said easily. Rubedo's eyes flickered back down again.
"Are the rest of them looking?" he asked.
Rubedo smiled a little, though it looked painful. Albedo could hear his thoughts, since they were so close, only muffled through the stifled link.
Figures, that you'd come looking for me.
"I always will, Rubedo," he insisted. Of course he would! He couldn't bear to be separated from Rubedo. He was the most important person in Albedo's life, the most important person he had ever met.
Rubedo didn't say anything. Normally, he would have reassured Albedo, prodded into admitting they would be together forever (perhaps with a sigh or two), but today it was like he wasn't here at all. His eyes still looked forwards, but it was like they couldn't see anymore.
Albedo wanted to reach out, to talk, to do something for Rubedo, but didn't want to startle him. Rubedo never did anything like that when Albedo was upset. Instead, Albedo sat by his side, close, but patiently waiting. Rubedo always gave him time to think.
Rubedo was quiet for a long time, but Albedo didn't much mind it. Being with Rubedo was pleasure enough. Hoping for the sound of his voice was almost greedy. He was content to sit here, even in the howling winter wind and the bite of the snow around them. With Rubedo, he could almost forget the worries plaguing his mind, the incessant thoughts of death that surrounded him.
Rubedo, however, seemed still tormented.
"We're never gonna see her again." He finally said. His voice was empty, void of all usual feeling. "She's gone forever."
That was death, Albedo realized, and people who could die feared it just as much as he did. He didn't know how they could continue to live, knowing they would stop like that too.
"I can't believe it." Rubedo finished.
Deep down, Albedo couldn't either. Even though he hadn't liked Sakura, her death still left an empty, cold feeling inside of him. He hated death, hated this impermanence, this constant threat of loneliness even as he tried to enjoy Rubedo's company.
"It's scary." Albedo said.
Rubedo finally looked at him, recognition flashing in his eyes. "Right. You didn't really know about…"
He didn't look quite so miserable now, but the feeling inside of him hadn't changed. It was a strange sort of contrast, and one that immediately told Albedo that something was wrong. Rubedo was just distracting himself, trying to take care of others. He always took care of everyone.
Of course, that was what a leader did. But Rubedo had to need help sometimes, too! Albedo would give it to him. Albedo loved him more than anyone else, so of course this was his job.
Albedo shook his head. "It's alright. I don't need anything."
Now that Rubedo's hands had left his knees, Albedo could take one of them and wrap his fingers around it. It was cold. Rubedo was never cold.
Albedo's fingers pressed into his hand. He wanted to give Rubedo his warmth. Rubedo was terrible and unnatural like this, pale and cold, like the ghosts in the stories he read to Albedo.
Rubedo looked like he wanted to protest, but he didn't. Instead, his eyes fell once more, settling down on the icy ground.
It was the dirty kind of snow at their feet, a brown sludge of uselessly melting ice chips that soaked their shoes.
"Dr. Mizrahi's the one who told me." Rubedo continued. They couldn't hide anything from each other, after all. They were two halves of a whole. It only felt natural to explain their feelings, especially after Rubedo had blocked their link. "She said she wanted to be the one to tell me."
Dr. Mizrahi liked Rubedo, just like everyone else did. Yet, her logic was confusing. Why would she want to inflict such pain on Rubedo firsthand? Didn't it upset her to see him cry like that? Albedo wouldn't have told him. Albedo would do anything to keep him happy, if it was his choice. Rubedo deserved nothing but joy.
"There's so much I wanted to tell her… so much I wanted to do. I… never even got to say goodbye." Rubedo's voice was small, trembling terribly.
Everything within Albedo tumbled and swirled. He wanted so badly to fix Rubedo, to stop him from feeling such pain, but he was so furious at the thought of Sakura, and whatever things Rubedo wanted to tell her. She didn't deserve his affection, his thoughts, his care, because she was too terribly empty and fake, but Rubedo didn't deserve to hurt like this, either. Albedo was glad she was dead, he was so afraid of death, he wished Rubedo didn't hurt like this, he wished victory didn't have to come in a funeral procession!
Rubedo's hands pulled away. He stood up on shaky legs and looked out into the mist of snowflakes, the grey haze of the sky above.
"I don't even remember what the last thing I said to her was." He said. "Probably something stupid!"
He punctuated the word with a kick. Albedo couldn't see what he kicked, only heard the thunk with Rubedo's foot and the clang as it hit concrete. Some trash, a discarded can.
"You know what Dad said?" Rubedo said, turning back around with furious tears in his eyes. "He said I still wasn't allowed to leave the Institute. None of us are allowed to go to the funeral. He doesn't even care!"
Albedo was glad Rubedo wouldn't go. The funeral would only make him sad, and make him remember Sakura more, when he should really forget and move on. Still, Albedo didn't trust their father. Even if he had made the right decision, he was cruel, and uncaring. He was nothing like Rubedo. He was doing this just to hurt Rubedo, because the only thing he liked was hurting them.
"Dr. Mizrahi was trying to calm me down." Rubedo said. His knuckles rubbed against his eyes, trying to smother his tears. "She said that it didn't matter, that Sakura knew I cared about her… and she was grateful for me as well. She said 'thank you for letting me hear her.' Like I was some hero or something."
"You are a hero," Albedo countered immediately, sparked to life, like a reflex. It was true! Rubedo was just like the stories they read, like a knight or a prince.
Rubedo didn't seem to hear him. That, or he didn't care. He was lost in his memory, in their father's stifling hand and Dr. Mizrahi's paltry comforts.
"She said she was sorry." Rubedo sniffled. "Why was she sorry? She's the one who lost her daughter."
Albedo didn't know what to say. It was baffling to him, too. Why would anyone be sorry? Sakura died of natural causes. Nobody killed her, or failed to protect her.
Rubedo, however, winced. "I'm not sure."
Albedo looked away, flushing. He hadn't realized how loudly he'd been thinking. He hardly wanted Rubedo to see his thoughts right now, bitter as they were. Rubedo would be unhappy to see the small kernel of relief tucked away in Albedo's heart. Albedo was, after all, glad that Rubedo wasn't distracted anymore. He was glad Rubedo was all his again.
"Do you think it was our fault?" Rubedo asked as he sat back down. He crashed onto the curb in a way that looked painful, but he didn't seem to care. "We were supposed to help her. So, if she died…"
"Well, sometimes… people just die."
Albedo couldn't pretend to understand it. He couldn't ever be injured, let alone die. He didn't know which injuries took a long time to heal, or what caused people to die. It seemed random to him. He didn't even know exactly why Sakura died. She was sick, he supposed. People didn't even have to be injured to die, sometimes.
It was a thought that filled him with fear. Rubedo could die just as suddenly. He could be dying right now, and he wouldn't even know it. Albedo's fingers tightened around his arms.
"All the other URTVs died because of us," Rubedo protested. "We're the ones who had to kill 'em."
Albedo's eyes went wide. "That's because they got infected!"
What was Rubedo even saying? Of course they had to kill the standard units, they were dangerous when they were infected by U-DO- and scary!
It wasn't like they deserved to live, anyways. They barely had personalities, and what they did have was jealous and ungrateful. If they couldn't even see how obviously superior Rubedo was, why would the variants bother trying to save them?
Albedo shook his head. "We had to, Rubedo."
"I know." Rubedo wrapped his arms around himself again. "We have to fight now. I have to be the leader… I have to be a hero."
"You are, Rubedo. I think you're a hero." Albedo looked up at him, admiring like he always did. Even now Rubedo had a heroic profile, his head held high despite the tragedy he endured. He looked powerful in this desolate landscape, alive and enduring.
Rubedo's lip trembled. "I just can't stop thinking about her."
Albedo could scream. He wished Rubedo could just forget! It wasn't fair! She wasn't even here anymore! How could Rubedo still think about her? He had Albedo, now, right by his side!
"Can you feel it?" He asked, turning to Albedo. His eyes were shining, mournful. "It's like there's a big hole in my heart. Something's missing."
Albedo didn't know. He always felt that way, ever since he and Rubedo had been separated in the womb. It was stupid to compare something like that to Sakura. He shook his head.
"She was just a girl." He mumbled. He realized too late that he shouldn't have said it. It would only make Rubedo mad- and it did.
"Albedo!" Rubedo shouted, pulling away from him. The tears in his eyes fell. "How could you say that?!"
"You're acting just like Dad!"
"I'm not!" Albedo was furious now too, at the accusation. He was nothing like their dad! He only cared about Rubedo, like she couldn't. She was dead! What did it matter?
"You are! You never cared about her!"
"What does it matter?" Albedo hissed.
"You don't understand!" Rubedo snapped, before taking a deep breath. "That's right. You don't… understand."
His face fell once more. He looked defeated, now, and Albedo's stomach churned. He was trying to comfort Rubedo, but he just wasn't like his older brother. He wasn't a leader like Rubedo was.
"She wasn't just a girl," he whispered. "She was important to me. And even if she was just a girl, she was still a person, and she didn't deserve to die. But it's like I told you. Everyone dies."
The words made Albedo shake like the wind around them did. He hated the reminder. That thought never left his mind. Every time he looked at Rubedo, he remembered that one day, Rubedo would be gone.
He would be gone like Sakura was now.
"I wish this wasn't how the world was." Rubedo continued, stopping only for a ragged breath. "It's not fair that people can just die like that."
Albedo knew. He knew better than anyone else did, how strange and unfair and incomprehensible this was. Everyone could die but him. He would watch them all die, and it wasn't fair.
It meant that Rubedo, however, had at least one respite from death's ceaseless march.
"I won't die." Albedo reminded him. "I'll never leave you, Rubedo."
Rubedo didn't say anything. He sniffled, taking a deep, ragged breath, and wiped at his eyes. When they opened again they stared forwards, glassy, unseeing.
The sight hurt Albedo's chest.
He reached forwards, wrapping his arms around Rubedo. Rubedo tensed, slightly, but didn't fight as Albedo brought him closer, crushing Rubedo's body into his own.
He could hear Rubedo breathe, there, not quite comforted but still relieved. He was normally so warm, like the fire of the red dragon itself slept within him, but right now his skin felt like ice. It tore at Albedo, seeing Rubedo like this. Weakness didn't suit him at all.
Albedo's fingers clenched. He knew he was holding hard, but he didn't care. He just wanted Rubedo to warm again, to smile again, to laugh again. Would he really become so morose for her sake?
We'll always have each other. We don't need anyone else.
"I mean it, Rubedo." Albedo insisted, shuddering, suddenly breathless. "I mean it."
Rubedo didn't say anything more. He just remained there, cushioned between Albedo's arms, only just pliable enough to hold. Albedo pressed his face down onto Rubedo, onto the wet patches left on his uniform by blowing snow and salted tears.
He wasn't like Sakura. He would never leave Rubedo. He would never make Rubedo cry like this, or suffer like this. He was just better. It was only right that she should die, and he would have Rubedo all to himself. With Albedo, Rubedo would know he would never have to be alone. They would be safe together, forever in each others' arms.
That was how things were meant to be, after all. They had been born as one, pressed up against each other just like this.