“Tag ! You're it!” Rubedo tapped Albedo on the shoulder and flashed him a cheery grin before running off. He'd delayed enough that he was almost tagged right back, but he was out of reach of the outstretched hand just in time.
“I won't make it that easy on you!” he called, running after Nigredo, who was already a good distance away, dividing his attention between the brother in front of him and the one tagging along behind, already panting with exertion as he tried to keep up with them.
* * *
So young and you were already trying to leave me behind. Even now, Albedo's voice was sharp, faintly mocking.
It wasn't like that and you know it. Old conversations, replayed again and again. With the constant exposure born of sharing a single body, Rubedo had thought Albedo would tire of the same old refrain. So far, he had not.
Is that really how you remember it, Rubedo? This happy, almost normal childhood?
“URTVs aren't normal children.” That one was from both of them, involuntarily sharing the memory of the first time they met Citrine.
But we already knew that, didn't we? We were all freaks and we had a freak childhood.
Well, how do you remember it? Rubedo was angry now, defensive in the way he always was when he couldn't quite deny what Albedo was saying.
* * *
“Hurry up, you guys! We don't have much time!” Rubedo peered around a corner, then back at the two variant URTVs behind him.
“Rubedo, are you sure about this?” Albedo was right behind him, pressed tightly against the wall.
“We shouldn't be doing this.” Nigredo's voice was calm, but certain.
Rubedo ignored that just as he nearly always did, leading the way through hallways that were as deserted as they ever got in the Yuriev Institute.
“Keep close now. We don't want to get caught.”
They ran together in a tight little group, moving in unison with the ease that came from both their training and the link between them.
Didn't you see Dad talking to those people today? Something's going on and I want to know what it is. Rubedo's mental voice was just as determined as his physical one, if less likely to attract attention.
When we need to know, they'll tell us. That was Nigredo again, predictably. He was the most patient of the three, as well as the most accepting, as willing to wait and see as Rubedo was eager to charge into action.
I don't want to wait that long. If it affects us, we deserve to know now.
Rubedo leading the way, they reached the control room in safety. The others hid while he worked on the door, using an access code he'd managed to steal from an inattentive technician.
* * *
Yeah, I remember. So?
Remember what happened when we got caught?
* * *
“I'm so disappointed in you boys. You know better than this.” Dr. Yuriev's expression was serious, but now, looking back, Jr. saw things he hadn't before, back when he hadn't yet heard of units being casually disposed of.
The way their father looked at them: he wasn't just angry or disappointed the way a normal parent would be. No, there was more to it than that. He was clearly measuring their worth, pondering if they were useful enough to continue to deserve existence.
“You're going to have to be punished. I need URTVs I can trust.”
* * *
Albedo... you knew it all along? Why didn't you say anything?
But you were so confident. And I trusted you. I thought it was all in my head. He laughed, a sound still tinged with insanity. He'd sounded that way for so long, Jr. didn't think that part would ever change. And now I'm the one in your head. Funny how it all worked out.
Bet you never thought we'd end up like this. All those years, it was just you and Nigredo. And all that time, he was a traitor.
Don't talk about Gaignun like that! He never wanted that. He tried to fight him – you saw it!
But he still served dear old Dad. Just like that girl you killed.
* * *
It was shortly after lights out in the URTV dorm, but the variants were still awake, sitting together on Nigredo's bed and talking in low voices.
“I'd heard there was a girl's dorm, but I didn't think it was real.” Nigredo's voice was thoughtful; something about meeting that female URTV today had really gotten to him. Maybe it was just the surprise of learning that such a big secret had been kept from them so completely, reduced to nothing more than rumor. Maybe it was something else, something like the connection the three of them shared – like calling to like.
Rubedo didn't know and didn't really care. “Yeah. I wonder why they don't train with us?”
“Who cares?” Albedo was drawing patterns in the blanket with his finger, clearly bored with the discussion.
Nigredo, however, took the question seriously, pausing to think it over before he answered. “I don't know. Why don't we find them and ask?”
Both his brothers stared at him, surprised. Nigredo, suggesting they break curfew?
“You want to break rules? I must've been a bad influence.” Rubedo grinned, already excited by the suggestion. “Okay. Let's go. We'll start from where we saw them today.”
It took them a couple of hours, searching hallways they'd never gone down before and dodging security. Albedo had tried to talk them into going back more than once; even Nigredo had begun to consider that they might be better off trying again another night.
But Rubedo was stubborn and he was the leader. He kept them going and in the end, they found it – another darkened room, much like theirs, but smaller.
They tiptoed inside, moving as quietly as they could, and stared at the sleeping girls. Now that they were actually here, none of them were sure what to do.
“Should we wake her up?” Rubedo looked at Citrine's bed doubtfully. Asleep, she looked younger, like the child she was instead of the miniature adult she'd seemed earlier in the day.
“Let's leave. We can come back another time.”
They'd started for the door, hurrying a little, when the voice behind them stopped them dead.
“Oh, it's you.”
Guiltily, the three boys turned back, Albedo hanging back behind the other two. Citrine was sitting up now and staring directly at them, a disapproving look on her face. “What do you want?”
“Well...” Rubedo hesitated, feeling suddenly stupid in the face of that expression.
“We have something to ask you,” Nigredo finished for him.
“Then come on. We can't talk here.” She got out of bed, arranging the covers to look as though she might still be in it, and led the way into the hallway.
“Hurry up. We all need our sleep.”
The three boys looked at each other, mentally playing rock-paper-scissors to determine who'd have to ask - which worked a lot better with people who didn't know each other this well and who didn't share a mental link. Finally, Rubedo spoke up. He was the leader; this was his job.
“We want to know why you don't train with us.”
“Oh, that.” Citrine frowned, this time thoughtfully, as she thought it over. She still looked severe, faintly disapproving of the whole venture, but in her standard issue white nightgown and bare feet, she reminded Rubedo of the first time they'd met Sakura. “I don't know. It's never been discussed.”
“Why do you think it is?” That was Nigredo, his voice and expression serious enough to suggest that, even though they'd just met her, he respected Citrine's opinion.
“Our training must be different. That's the logical explanation.”
Which it was, but that didn't tell them much. “What do you do? Are you the linkmaster?”
Citrine glanced between the three of them and finally shook her head. “I don't think I'm supposed to tell you that.”
They tried to convince her, but she wouldn't budge. Not that night, at least.
* * *
That wasn't the only time he saw her. He went back to see her, again and again.
I know. After that first time, Nigredo usually went alone. Rubedo trusted him to tell him if he got any useful information from Citrine, but the truth was, he didn't like URTV 668 very much and wasn't particularly eager to spend much time around her. As for Albedo, he followed Rubedo, like he almost always did back then.
He was a traitor. Just like you. Him with that female version of himself; you with that girl who couldn't even speak in the outside world. And later, that copy, that doll who pretends to be a real girl. You both chose them over your own brother.
Stop it, Albedo! That's not how it was! He wished Albedo would understand, yet he never seemed to. Why couldn't they have both? Jr. had never wanted to leave his brothers behind; he'd just wanted to be with Sakura, too. He'd never wanted to choose.
But I don't mind. I've got you now. And you'll never leave me behind again.
Jr. would have said something, told him that he'd never wanted to leave him behind in the first place, but there was no point. Albedo had spent too many years wrapped in his fear and bitterness; he didn't even hear the things that didn't fit his world view. Not yet.
But they had time. Someday, Jr. was sure, he would. Albedo would both hear and believe him. They'd be brothers again, like they used to be. Until then, he'd just keep trying.
Go to sleep, Albedo. We've still got a long way to go.