A future with an ending he could see from just a few steps away.
A kind of sadness that pierced his heart, leaving an irreparable wound.
The feeling of his companions' hands on his shoulder and their uncomfortable smiles that didn't feel as reassuring as they were meant to.
There were things that he would give anything for. To make sure that Elle could always smile, so that he could keep holding his brother's hand – surely, a few scars would be enough to pay for things that priceless. The world was sometimes cruel, but he didn't want to believe in a world without them.
If their light were ever extinguished and that pain became too much to bear, everything would cease to exist.
He'd much rather be happily living in the moment, aware of every second, taking nothing for granted. It was easy to forget how fragile smiles could be when every day was full of them. With that many, it felt like they would never run out. That fragile yet beautiful sort of happiness was what he wanted to build the foundation of his world upon, no matter how dangerous it was to be that unguarded. His heart would always be open to attack, but it had to be that way.
If the door ever closed, then their smiles couldn't reach him. The light in his world would die, happiness would disappear, and then...
In that kind of darkness, he wouldn't just stumble; he'd fall down into the depths of himself, falling and continuing on forever until that light found its way back to him.
Even if they became separated, it was strong enough. One way or another, it would find its way back inside, crossing over time, surpassing the odds, finding him at the most unlikely moment.
“Ludger, watch your step.”
Just like that.
Stumbling over the uneven path, falling into his brother's awaiting arms.
“Ah- That was-” He looked around himself, blinking rapidly, feeling a little strange. The air tasted damp with early spring humidity. The sky behind them was a light grey, covered with clouds, and the sound of thunder could be heard echoing somewhere in the distance. Before them, the cloudless sky welcomed them on their way back home.
“Are you alright?” Julius asked, helping him up, making sure he hadn't dropped any of the things he was carrying – couldn't risk losing any tomatoes from their groceries. “You know that the rain makes the road rough here. You have to be careful.”
That strange feeling become only more apparent as he looked around, but Ludger nodded. He didn't want him to worry about him. “Yeah, I think I just got caught off guard.” Though, saying that, he had the feeling he might have said that before, or something similar. “...Huh?”
“Ludger, what happened?” Elle returned, holding Rollo in her arms to keep his paws from getting muddy. “Did you lose something?”
“No, I didn't lose anything,” Ludger said, showing her that their groceries were safe. Even so, Julius sighed and took one of the bags from him. “Actually, I feel more like I just gained something instead... I don't know how to put it. I just got a weird feeling all of a sudden.”
It seemed to become stronger every second, but it was vague, staying just along the edge of his consciousness. Elle's small round face and confused, sympathetic smile felt familiar. Even where he was standing, along the path surrounded by trees with leaves that still dripped fresh from the rain – it all seemed oddly familiar, like he had been there in that exact place, at that exact time at some other time. It was contradictory, but it didn't feel untrue even if he couldn't quite get a hold of the elusive feeling. He wanted to pin it down.
Julius gave him a similarly sympathetic look. “Isn't that just déjà vu?” he said.
Maybe he was right.
“Day... jah... voo?” Elle repeated, her head tilting in confusion. “What's that?”
“It's that feeling you get when you think you've experienced something before,” Julius explained. “There are different kinds of déjà vu, but they always leave you feeling odd because you don't know where the feeling comes from. It's like a sixth sense.”
Through his explanation, Elle seemed to become more and more confused. “Wait, so where does it come from? I don't think I've ever felt it before...” She pouted. “That's unfair! I want to know what the sixth sense is like!”
Ludger laughed awkwardly. “I'm not sure you want to experience it as much as you think you do, Elle. It's not that pleasant. It felt like I just traded places with another me. I was just daydreaming and then I heard brother's voice and it was like I got pulled out from somewhere. At least I didn't fall.”
In that fraction of a second, maybe he had lost something... But, whatever it was, it must not have been worth holding on to if he couldn't even remember what it was. It startled him so much when he tripped, he forgot everything he'd been daydreaming about, but those thoughts didn't seem to matter at all compared to the two he had standing next to him.
Suddenly, though, looking at them... He was overwhelmed with the urge to embrace them. It was too bad he was still holding one of their bags, otherwise he would've. It wasn't unheard of for him to indulge in spontaneous displays of affection, even when they were out together.
Strangers didn't find anything unusual about them; they treated them like a family because that was how they treated each other. Truthfully, they weren't like other families, reality differing from what others saw on the surface, but that difference was something inconsequential to them.
He and Elle were partners.
And he and Julius were...
They were brothers. Although that word held a unique meaning to them.
They both looked at him curiously. Elle furrowed her eyebrows. “What's up? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Ludger laughed. “It's not like that!” There was no way his face could have looked like that. It wasn't that he was surprised to see them. It was more like he was seeing them for the very first time. It might've just been one of those moments where stopping for a second made him realize the value of the ones he had with him. A warm feeling entered his heart and filled it up, making him feel lighter.
“I know what it is...” Julius said, unable to suppress the grin that ruined his ability to hold a serious face. Holding the groceries in one arm, he put his other arm around Ludger's shoulders and leaned in to nuzzle their cheeks together. “You're thinking something sweet, but you're too embarrassed to say it, aren't you? I can read you like a book, you know!”
“R-really?” Elle asked. Still holding Rollo, she leaned against Ludger in what could've been considered her own half-hug. Even though they were all carrying things... Somehow, they'd found a way to make it happen anyway. “You're kind of sappy, huh?” she said, smiling up at him. Rollo meowed in agreement.
Ludger shook his head, feeling his face warming with a blush. “Th-that's...!”
They were totally right.
But, as embarrassing as they were, all of those embarrassingly affectionate thoughts came tumbling off his tongue.
“You two... mean the world to me. Really.”
Elle made a little disgruntled noise, grossed out. “I can't believe you said it,” she said, taking a step back with Rollo. Unaware of what his humans were talking about, Rollo wiggled around, struggling to keep himself in her arms as her grip on him loosened.
“Well, I can,” Julius remarked proudly, giving him a kiss on the cheek before releasing him too. “I think what Elle is trying to say is that we agree. We feel the same way about you, Ludger. You're the center of our universe.”
“S-stop, brother! Now that's definitely too embarrassing.”
“Nonsense,” Julius said, smiling warmly. “I can always be more embarrassing.” And, as if to prove his point, he held his hand out for him to take.
After glancing between Julius's hand and Elle's amused face, Ludger looked back up at him uncertainly. “I might trip and drop everything if I only have one hand, though...”
“As long as you're holding my hand, you definitely won't fall.”
Something about that moment, too, felt familiar. Something about that thought... But Ludger couldn't put his finger on it.
That gloved hand that was held out to him looked so inviting, he instinctively reached out and held on to it. Feeling as though something beyond his control might take it away, he made sure to hold it tightly.
Those little moments manifested themselves in all sorts of ways. They were so ordinary that it was easy to forget about them. The moment he took them for granted, though, would be the same moment he would lose them. Whether existing in the span of a second or an eternity, once lost, they couldn't be returned, so he had to treasure each one.
Right, that was what he'd been daydreaming about.
With no fanfare, that strange feeling simply vanished and a warm reality remained.
“Come on, you guys,” Elle said, becoming impatient. “I'm hungry...”
Rollo finally wriggled his way out of her arms, apparently feeling anxious to get home too. Elle yelped and tried to tell him to come back, but he was already running ahead of her, his paws sinking heavily into the wet ground with each of his bounding leaps, his white fur quickly becoming browner. Elle, who was closely following behind, was surely also being painted in the mud that was kicked up in his wake.
“E-Elle...!” It was too late. She was already far ahead of them and undoubtedly covered in mud. It was an endearing disaster to watch, though.
Julius gave a sigh that would've been best described as 'parental'. “She's going to be a mess.”
“Wasn't I the same way?” Ludger asked, laughing. “Let her be a kid.”
Julius looked at him, and Ludger could see the way that the fond memories of the past reflected in his eyes. “When did you grow up, huh?”
“Probably when you weren't looking,” Ludger said, but saying that made him tighten his hand around his brother's.
“I don't know when that would've been.” Squeezing his hand back, Julius said, as if to remind him, “You're all I see.”
As cheesy as that sounded, Ludger fell for it every time because he knew it was true. His brother had a kind of devotion that couldn't be questioned.
Before he let himself give in to those feelings that tugged at his heart and made him want to shed a tear, Ludger just smiled and pulled him along, toward the clear sky.