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This was nice.

This was what he wanted, more or less. At the whim of Chronos, he was allowed to keep the two people he treasured most.

It hadn't been easy. He had to see their journey through to a number of different, unfavorable outcomes before Chronos finally acknowledged his desire to protect them. It was the Spirit of Time who allowed him the opportunity to try again, anyway. It was difficult to figure out what was on the mind of someone who was able to see time in more than retrospect, so Ludger just assumed that he had a reason for his decision. Chronos had to have known that – given the chance – he would keep going, making the same mistakes if he had to, in order to protect them.

He'd looked at him so spitefully. How can a simple human remain so resilient after repeatedly experiencing such suffering, is what his expression had said. It might not've been a test of him at all. Chronos was just curious. Why won't you give up?

Ludger didn't enjoy being played with. He knew that Chronos had the ability to give him what he wanted, and he kept going, even if he knew that Chronos might never recognize his desire. Even if it meant being played with until he faded away, he wanted to keep fighting for that chance.

In the end, they didn't fight. The Great Spirit appeared bored with him. So as to end the cycle, he gave him what he wanted, and the miasma disappeared without any ceremony, sealed away by decisions already made.

It felt like ages since he'd seen them. Though it probably felt like minutes to Elle and his brother, he embraced them with the full knowledge of what could've happened to them tucked away in his heart. They had no recollection of what happened to them in those many conclusions, but they held on to him just as strongly, returning his feelings, giving him the true reward for his effort.

There were tears in the eyes of all of their friends when they reunited. It was only Milla who regarded him silently, with a knowledge in her eyes that none of the others possessed. After the celebratory cheers of the others quieted, she approached him slowly, rested a hand on his shoulder, and congratulated him. It wasn't necessary, but Ludger felt grateful that there was another person who would remember his struggle. It was important that someone remember, because he was sure that the next morning would feel like any other day, and he didn't want to forget. He always wanted to remember how grateful he felt at that moment.

He collapsed before they even left Marksburg.

Some time later, he awoke in a room at the inn. Before he opened his eyes, he recognized a familiar weight resting on his stomach, felt someone lightly stroking his hair. The moment he opened them, Rollo lifted his head and meowed loudly, pawing at his stomach. At the side of the bed, Elle cheered, nearly knocking over her chair when she shot up. Above him, Julius just smiled warmly, making something in Ludger's stomach sizzle and pop. As he moved his hand away, Ludger reached out and grabbed it. Bringing it closer to inspect, he pinched the fingers of his glove and pulled it off before his brother could tell him to stop.

Elle had leaned closer, letting out a surprised, sympathetic sound. She thought it looked painful.

She had no idea.

Judging by Julius's expression, he already realized it for himself. The darkness infecting him had been reversed. Left behind was the old faded scar that Ludger remembered from their childhood. It didn't look as painful as it had once upon a time, but Ludger still remembered how shaken he'd been when Julius was burned. Just like that faded scar, even if the darkness disappeared, Ludger was sure that he was going to remember the way it made him feel; helpless, frightened, and determined to do what he could to make sure that no other harm came to him.

As strong as Julius appeared, having been hailed among Spirius's top agents, Ludger had discovered that his brother was just as human as anyone else. He could be hurt; his body easily scarred. There were other pains he hid from him too, appearing visible in the set of his features as they looked at each other. Now, Julius had to realize that he couldn't hide anything from him anymore.

They found the others waiting for them in the lobby. They were relieved to see that he was awake and looking alright. After all of that, he was just tired. A nice, long rest back home was going to be the cherry on top for him.

Before they went their separate ways, Alvin teased him, telling him that it was Julius who carried him to the inn after he'd passed out. Ludger understandably colored, but he didn't tell anyone about the nervous feeling that returned to his stomach when he found out that he'd been in Julius's arms. There were many reasons why he wanted to save Elle, but there were even more reasons – more complicated, selfish reasons – why he needed to protect Julius. In one of the possible outcomes he experienced, Julius had come so close to telling him the words he had always been secretly longing to hear. They were common words, something he'd heard him say before, but the situation made it different, and he still wanted to hear him say it when they weren't under the threat of oblivion.

He paid for this opportunity, so he wasn't going to let it slip from his grasp. Chronos may have doubted him, but Ludger was determined to do it. He was going to make his feelings known.

It only seemed logical that Elle go with them. On the train headed back to Trigleph, Ludger took the seat nearest to the aisle while Elle sat in the window seat. Across from him was Julius, and Rollo slept in the seat across from Elle when he wasn't playing in her lap. The whole time, since before they even boarded the train, Ludger could tell that there was something Julius wanted to say, but it wasn't until Elle fell asleep that he said anything.

“Why did you choose to save her?” he asked.

Confused, surprised that Julius even had to ask, Ludger looked at him strangely. “What makes you ask that? I thought you already figured it out. We all grew attached to her. We love Elle. Did you still think I was going to let her go?”

Silent for a moment, his brows drawn pensively, Julius then looked at him from over the rim of his glasses. “You could have met the Elle from this dimension.”

So thrown by his remark, Ludger felt himself heating up, embarrassed and surprised, and... Oddly hurt. It shook him so badly that it took him a moment before he was even able to find a way to properly respond. Considering the lengths he'd gone through to save them both, his mind didn't even want to think about that alternative. “Doing that would mean letting go of this Elle. Any other just wouldn't be the same. You know that.” He kept his voice quiet, watching her gentle face as she slept, her head resting against the window. “If I had the Elle of this world, I'm sure I would love her too, but she would be a different person, just like how I'm not the same person as Elle's father. Our memories are what make us different.”

For some reason, Julius didn't seem fully satisfied yet. His intense gaze made Ludger feel uneasy.

“What about her mother?”

Eventually, Elle might want to meet her, even if the two of them had no reason to know each other in this dimension. However, if Julius were suggesting that he should pursue the path he'd seen him take in the dimension that Elle came from, then... He wanted to be honest and say that there was someone else he loved.

“That was another dimension,” he said instead. “I'm going to make my own decisions.”

He couldn't understand why Julius looked so sad.

“What about you?” Ludger asked. “Are you going to return to Spirius now? Can you, even?”

Julius looked down at this hands, loosely clasped between his knees. His voice was distant and full of thoughts that appeared to trouble him. “I'll think of something.”

For a while after that exchange, they didn't speak. Ludger turned his head away and looked out the window, watching the landscape pass them by. As they drew nearer to the station, Rollo woke up and crawled into Julius's lap, and Ludger couldn't help smiling as he watched his brother squeeze their fat cat and play with his paws. Normally, Rollo would've been irritated by his attention, but it seemed like even Rollo knew that there was something bothering him, so he just let him do whatever he wanted, meowing hopelessly like a sigh.

Elle woke up a little while later, startled awake when she started leaning forward and her cheek slid down the window. She looked around blearily, a bit of drool at the corner of her mouth, and tried to pretend like she hadn't just been caught in a compromising position. Ludger wished that he'd had his GHS out to get a picture of her before she woke up. Even if he hadn't thought of it sooner, the great thing was that he knew he could always get a picture of her when she was asleep some other time. The three of them could be a family, just like he'd wanted.

...He only hoped that he wasn't going to be the thing that prevented them from being together this time.

Being back in the apartment was a relief. Rightfully, there was no place that felt more like home, especially when he had Elle and Julius there with him. He was all ready to go back to life as usual, but he noticed that Elle seemed nervous in the apartment, like it finally occurred to her that this was it. Their journey was over. She was home, but, at the same time, she was never going to return home again. They could be her family now, but they were never going to be able to replace the family that she lost in the other dimension.

Julius, still carrying Rollo, set him down and let him waddle around Elle. He didn't seem to know quite what to say to her yet, but Ludger knew that Julius was good with children. It wasn't going to be long before the two of them were best friends. He could see a little glimmer of it already as they went off to the living room together. If nothing else, their shared love of cats would be what would unite them.

Having been away for a while, there weren't many things at home that he could cook with. They had some instant things, but he didn't want their first night back in the apartment to be remembered by instant noodles, so he used what he could find, and he thought that his results turned out pretty well, considering. He made the world's simplest pasta primavera for himself and Julius (its ingredients consisting almost entirely of tomatoes), and used a separate pan to make pasta with butter and breadcrumbs for Elle. It was kind of perfect in how simple it was.

It looked like Julius also came to his own realization. When he took the first bite of his food, his face, which had been bent with an unspoken pain all day, was finally softened by a wistful smile. Elle asked him if he'd really missed tomatoes so much that he would cry, and he just nodded, unable to speak.

Ludger wanted him to say it. He already knew that he was capable, that the feelings were there. Even if he had to get it out of him himself, Ludger was going to hear it from him before the night was through.

After dinner, Ludger prepared the bathroom for Elle. With two brothers and one cat as its only former occupants, the apartment wasn't well suited for the presence of a little girl yet. He had to apologize if she didn't like using their soap, but she opened one of the bottles and said that his shampoo smelled like girls' shampoo anyway. Since she insisted that she handle everything else by herself, he went back to the living room and left her to it.

It was a great opportunity they had. He knew that Elle wouldn't be able to hear them talking while the shower was running, but he couldn't think of what to say to Julius. With the opportunity in front of him at last, he felt all of its pressure and worried that speaking now, so soon, might make Julius run away. He already saw the way that Julius was avoiding speaking about it, and he didn't want to ruin the mood they'd achieved after dinner.

It was nice, but it wasn't perfect. It was comfortable, but there was still something bruising the moment. Sitting next to Julius on the couch, he should've been able to lean against him without feeling like he was going to break an invisible barrier. He'd made it through so much, but this was his real trial. If he broke them now, then there was no going back. If he discussed his feelings with Julius, he was afraid that the happiness he'd worked so hard for would be gone that easily, and then Chronos wouldn't be there to kindly offer him another try at it. He'd be laughing instead.

He didn't want that.

Was it really better to hold his tongue and never have what he truly wanted in exchange for a peaceful-yet-unfulfilling life? Was that what he worked for?

Elle emerged from the bathroom, her hair down, wearing one of his shirts. It was so big on her, it looked like a dress. They were going to have to go shopping to get her some new clothes. He didn't know where they'd be getting the money for it, but it sounded exciting. He really looked forward to taking care of her, to their life as a family.

Looking back at Julius who was still sitting next to him, nervously scratching under Rollo's collar, Ludger made up his mind. They couldn't remain this way – not for another minute. If they were going to be the family he knew they could be, then the tense, awkward feelings that were accumulating inside of them needed to be released. If they weren't, then they were going to burst one day. He couldn't let everything end because of their own stubbornness.

“Elle,” he said, getting off the couch, “I need to talk with Julius for a minute. Do you mind waiting here with Rollo?”

She looked confused, and Julius looked extra concerned.

He picked Rollo up from Julius's lap and set him on the side of the couch he'd just evacuated. “Don't worry. It's not about you, Elle. There's just something we need to talk about.”

Getting onto the couch, she pulled Rollo close and looked between them. “I guess I don't mind, but... If it's not about me, then what do you need to talk about? It sounds suspicious.”

Julius laughed nervously, reluctant to leave the couch.

“Come on,” Ludger said. Grabbing Julius by the wrist, he pulled him up with him and turned to give Elle what he hoped was a convincing smile. “It's nothing to worry about, I think. It's just... something about me. Me and Julius haven't had a brother-to-brother talk in a while, you know?”

He wasn't being completely honest, but she looked like she understood this time. “So it's some kind of guy thing? I get it. I probably don't even wanna know. Just give me the remote before you go.”

Julius relinquished the remote like he was handing over a part of his soul. It would've been completely ridiculous if Ludger hadn't also found it very cute. This wasn't the end of the world. Ludger knew that their feelings were mutual, so it was only the conversation that was going to be awkward. Once it was out, Julius was going to be able to relax and act like his usual self again. Ludger felt more confident about this decision with each second.

Just in case, they locked the apartment door for her before they left. Their trip down the elevator was quiet, the air rife with things that were waiting to be said. It wasn't until they were all the way outside that Julius chose to break the silence.

“Is this going to be about what I think it's going to be about?”

“Probably,” Ludger said. Despite the nervous beating of his heart, he found himself smiling. “Wanna tell me what you think I'm going to say?”

Adjusting his glasses, Julius turned and started walking toward the swings, expecting Ludger to follow him. “You're the one who wanted to talk.”

“You're sounding like a kid,” he said, amused, though he was one to talk, taking a seat at one of the swings. This was the best place for this, he thought; a place that reminded him of when they were younger. It was a nice night.

Julius looked hesitant to join him, sinking into the opposite swing like he was falling backwards into a bad decision. “Before you even say anything, Ludger, you must know what I'm going to say, don't you?”

That awful feeling returned to the pit of his stomach, but Ludger didn't let it control him. “I do,” he said, expecting any of the many excuses his brother might have to deny him. “And before you say anything, I want you to think about yourself. I don't want you to ignore what you feel because you think it's for my sake.”

This time, Julius removed his glasses completely and rubbed at his eyes. Thinking about himself wasn't something he was used to doing, and it still seemed difficult for him. His thoughts snapped right back to Ludger and Elle. “Suppose I listen. What then? Do you really expect everything to work out perfectly? If Elle stays with us, can you imagine how difficult it will be? People don't... do this kind of thing, Ludger. Regardless of how we feel about it, there will be people who judge us. I don't want that for you, and I'm sure you wouldn't want that for Elle.”

Ludger gripped the chains that held up the swing and stared out into the nighttime lights of the city beyond the fence. A feeling swelled in his chest.

Maybe it was anger.

He'd forgotten how tired he felt.

“I did everything I could for you and Elle. This is what I wanted. It might be difficult, but we've overcome harder things." He didn't want to sound like a child who was begging his brother to give him what he wanted, but that was how he felt. It was frustrating. He thought he would be fine, but he hadn't realized how passionate his feelings were until he needed to defend them, felt the sharp sting of tears behind his eyes. “I love you.”

With the words out in the open, he felt exposed, afraid. The only one who could protect him was the big brother who sat by him silently, absorbing what he said.

He understood why it was difficult for Julius, but he'd already made it clear that he wanted him to put himself first. Making a self-sacrificing decision would only show him disrespect now.

“Maybe this is... payback for all those times I lied and hid things from you.” Julius nodded to himself, his jaw clenched, mouth quivering. He let out a sad, exhausted laugh as he put on his glasses. “I love you, too.”

Ludger stared at him, feeling like the world was coming back into focus. In his clearing vision, he saw his brother, looking like he was fighting against his fear to give him his best smile. It was weak and wobbled, but it held the strength of his feelings; the ones that triumphed over his better judgment. He had tried to refuse them, knowing how uncertain the future would be with those feelings in it, but it seemed that he ultimately decided that acknowledging and embracing them was better for them than ignoring his feelings entirely. No matter how much it hurt them, the pain would only be worse if they tried to look away.

“I guess that's it then, huh?” Ludger asked, scratching at his cheek.

Putting his feet solidly on the ground, Julius pushed back. On his swing forward, he took a deep breath of the night air and let it out as he came back down. “That's all there is to it,” he said, digging his heels into the ground to bring himself to a stop.

It was kind of anticlimactic; a lot easier than he expected it to be.

“I don't feel any different,” Ludger said, putting his hands in his lap. He took another look at Julius and found him looking back at him. That unremarkable moment reminded him of what he could've lost. If he hadn't kept trying, he wouldn't have had any of this, not even this moment. All of a sudden, he felt the tears from earlier returning, and he was unable to hold them back this time. “I'm just... Really glad that you're alright and still here. Losing you was something I couldn't accept.”

Julius looked somewhat confused. He didn't have a reason to know why he said it that way, like he'd really almost lost him. If he used him as he wanted, if the darkness had continued to consume him... Then, maybe.

He removed his glove and reached out, touching Ludger's cheek with his bare palm.

“Thank you, Ludger. I...” His emotions getting the better of him, his face crumbling, Julius shared his tears. “I never wanted to hurt you. I'm bad at it, but I still want to keep protecting you. I'll be different this time, I promise. I'll be a better brother.”

The strength in the hand at his cheek began to slip, so Ludger covered it with one of his own and shook his head insistently, smiling through his tears. “I love you just the way you are – as long as you promise you'll never go running off on your own again, leaving me and Elle behind.”

He was pulled into a tight hug, heard Julius take in a tearful breath as he pressed his forehead to his shoulder. “I promise. We're family. From now on, each step we take will be taken together. The three of us.” A little laugh. “Can I count Rollo?”

“Go on. I know you love him too.”

“The four of us, then.”

And that was all there was to it. Considering how things went, Ludger felt he couldn't be happier.

Julius stood back up and Ludger took his hands, rising with him. He was never going to reach his brother's height, but all he had to do was stand on his toes and close his eyes and he was rewarded with an unhesitating kiss to his lips. Their laughter was still wet with tears, but it rose from a warm place and bubbled out as the sweetest sound.

By the time they parted, they were both red.

“Elle's probably wondering where we are,” Julius said.

“Or she's enjoying her freedom with the remote.”

“Or that.”

On the way back to the room, they talked about which one of them would get the shower first and it felt like the old times. At least, it felt like the old times until they caught themselves giving each other some tentative, sexually-charged stares. The heat was there, but they were going to have to wait for some other time to cool off.

The moment they opened the door, Elle jumped off the couch and ran over with Rollo to see what happened. Seeing the condition they were in, she yelled and flapped her arms around.

“Wh-what the heck happened to you guys? Did you get into a fight?”

“Nothing like that,” Julius said, rubbing the back of his neck with a small smile.

She slowly put her hands at her sides and looked at them skeptically. “You really didn't fight? Then what happened? Why do you look like you've both been punched in the face? Your eyes are all red.”

Leave it to Elle to say things in the most honest way possible. It was so innocent that they couldn't help but laugh, and, even though she had no idea why they were laughing or what they had been talking about outside, Elle started laughing with them. Seizing the moment, Ludger wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight. Though he seemed somewhat unsure at first, Julius didn't want to be left out, so he came in and held them both. And Rollo was just too lazy, so he laid there and watched his three confusing caretakers.

A night in Trigleph had never felt more bright. Ludger was happy that the most difficult decision he had to make now was figuring out where he was going to sleep with an extra person in the apartment.