The expression on Jude’s face was almost unreadable. A bit surprised, maybe a little sad, a tinge of hopeful— but mostly a forced neutral.
Ludger knew Jude well enough to know that if he wasn’t wearing his heart on his sleeve, he was working hard to keep something concealed. They stood facing each other on the train platform, Jude’s honey-amber eyes cutting through the gray haze of the fractured dimension.
“Ludger,” Jude said after a moment, holding one arm awkwardly, the way he always did. His face was downcast, but he kept his eyes on Ludger. “It’s been a while.”
Been a while?
“Right. I’ve been… busy,” Ludger replied weakly, and it got a light smile out of Jude, to his relief.
“I know you’ve been.” Jude let go of his arm and reached forward slightly, like he wanted to touch Ludger— but he dropped his hand before he reached him.
“You dyed your hair again.”
Ludger reached up to touch his own dyed bangs. Was his hair just silver in this world?
“Oh— yeah. Just… felt like it.”
The neutral cover on Jude’s face crumbled away, and a warm, fond smile replaced it. “I’ve always liked that look on you.”
Ludger’s face flushed, and his heart ached. It was natural for Jude to compliment him this way— but the way this Jude looked at him was different from the Jude he knew. There was some element there that Ludger had always hoped for, but never found.
It was something that Ludger had always felt for Jude, but which Jude reserved only for Milla.
“Thanks,” Ludger answered breathlessly, and Jude visibly swelled at the reaction. His face gained color of its own, and his nerves seemed to take a backseat to impulse.
“Would you like to come to my place for a bit? It’s messy, but… I’ve missed you.”
Ludger should have said no, should have protected himself from the inevitable hurt that would find him when he left this dimension, should have said goodbye to this Jude, and continued looking for the catalyst, like his friends were.
But the possibilities taunted him. He nodded, and followed Jude out to the streets of Trigleph.
Jude’s tiny apartment was almost identical to the one Ludger was familiar with. Books, papers, and equipment scattered about, bed unmade, takeout containers piled on the counter. Jude apologized relentlessly, tidying up the living room at least enough to make room on the couch for both of them.
“What have you been up to, Ludger?” Jude asked once they’d settled, and Ludger swallowed. He didn’t have a clue what his fractured self could viably have been up to, other than evidently not dying his hair.
He shrugged a little and smiled sheepishly at Jude. “Oh, you know, just… busy with jobs, the usual.”
“Of course,” Jude said, with a note of solemnity. “I know your work is important to you.”
Was that what came between him and Jude in this dimension? Just work?
Jude tilted his head a little, just gazing at Ludger with that fond familiarity. Ludger could barely think, just looking back at him, soaking in the feeling of being wanted.
“I… wanted to talk to you, actually,” Jude offered after some time.
Jude looked a little uneasy, but continued on.
“I’ve always felt a strong connection with you, Ludger. Your companionship is irreplaceable to me, I… want to be by your side all the time.”
Ludger swallowed. He’d often thought nearly the exact same words, about his Jude— never voiced, because he knew Jude wouldn’t return them— at least not in the same way Ludger meant them.
“Do you… ever think that way about me?”
Ludger’s voice had left him. He searched for an appropriate response, but he physically couldn’t deny Jude— this one, or any other. He nodded, just once, but he hoped that made it clear enough just how much he meant it.
Jude sucked in a breath, and moved closer to him on the couch. He reached up to brush Ludger’s bangs out of his eyes with an air of quiet nostalgia.
“I’ve really… missed you so much,” he said quietly, and Ludger held his breath. Jude searched his eyes, seeking permission— but Ludger snapped, and beat him to it. He leaned forward into Jude’s hands and kissed his lips gently.
Jude’s fingers slid through his hair and tenderly held him in place, returning the kiss with his soft, beautiful mouth. Ludger’s hands reached for his waist, pulling him even closer. It could’ve been a dream, with the world around him tinted ash, but the feelings were so strong, so clear. His skin burned where Jude touched him, and set Ludger’s heart aflame.
Jude’s lips pulled away from Ludger’s and attached to his neck instead, trailing down to his collarbone. “Loved you… for so long,” Jude murmured against his skin. “I didn’t think…”
“Me too,” Ludger cut in, breathless. His hands slid up Jude’s back, head tilting to the side. “For almost as long as I’ve known you.”
If Ludger didn’t know better, he’d say some hurt emanated from Jude at the statement. He held Ludger tighter, and his lips stilled for a moment, pressing his whole face into Ludger’s neck and breathing deeply.
Ludger’s head spun, body tingling, heart laced with his own hurt. He shoved it down. At least for the moment, this was real. This was a dimension where Jude loved him back.
He pulled Jude’s face from his neck and kissed him again, a bit harder this time, leaning him back to lay across the couch. Jude made a soft sound of agreement into his mouth, and carefully wrapped his legs up around Ludger’s waist.
Ludger let himself indulge.
Somewhere on the floor, Ludger’s GHS rang from their pile of discarded clothes. Jude was wrapped up in his arms, soft hair tickling his chest, their skin still sticking together lightly as they each breathed.
When Ludger made no move to lift himself from the couch, Jude chuckled, and lifted his head to kiss at Ludger’s ear.
“Going to get that?”
Ludger sighed, but the reality of the situation was that he had brought his friends into this dimension with him— they could be in danger, while he was living a fantasy. Guilt seized his stomach, and it finally spurred him to sit up.
Jude shifted with him, sitting on his knees with his face against the back of the couch, watching as Ludger dug through their clothes to retrieve his GHS. By the time he found it, he had missed the call— but the ringing started up again after only a few seconds.
Ludger answered silently and held the device to his ear. Alvin’s voice came through.
“Hey, pal, where’re you at? Leia and I are pretty sure we narrowed down the catalyst’s location.”
Ludger wasn’t ready to leave. He was quiet for a moment, tearing his gaze away from the wonderfully undressed, beautifully flushed Jude of this dimension.
“Where is it?”
“The Spirius building. The CEO’s office, we’re pretty sure. Don’t want to break in until it counts, though, so we’re just waitin’ on you.”
Ludger could feel Jude’s eyes on him, so he closed his own.
“…I need some time.”
“Time? What d’you mean?”
“Just. I… ran into something. Can you guys get an inn for the night?”
“Yeah. I’m not in any trouble, I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Alright, buddy, if you say so. We’ll see if they’ve got any rooms at the seahaven.”
He hung up, and opened his eyes to find Jude still watching him. He expected questions: what he and Alvin were up to, why they needed an inn— but Jude only asked one thing.
“So you’re staying tonight?”
Ludger realized with a jolt that he hadn’t even asked.
“…As long as that’s okay. Do you have work tomorrow?”
“I… no, I don’t. Of course it’s okay.” He gestured to the unkempt bed with a sheepish smile. “…As long as you don’t mind sharing my twin.”
Ludger smiled, relieved, and set his GHS aside in favor of returning to Jude’s arms.
“’Course I don’t.”
Alvin called again in the morning, and Ludger deflected him once more. Just a little more time. Give me until the afternoon.
But the afternoon came and went, too.
Jude was cleaning his many takeout boxes off the kitchen counters so Ludger could make dinner. He gathered what he could from Jude’s barren fridge and pantry to assemble a decent instant ramen concoction.
Ludger’s GHS had rung twice more, but he guiltily ignored it. Jude had more or less done the same when his own device chimed. Ludger thought he’d caught a glimpse of Balan’s name on the screen— but Jude turned off his GHS entirely.
It was strange behavior from the researcher— but this was a fractured version of him, after all. Perhaps he had different priorities.
Ludger, however, had no such excuse.
When the tone of his GHS sounded a third time, Jude smiled uneasily.
“You should answer that,” he suggested softly. “They’re probably worried about you.”
He was right. Ludger’s shoulders sagged. He set down his wooden spoon, and pulled the GHS from his pocket.
A gentle hand rested between his shoulder blades, and Jude looked up at him kindly. “I’ll keep an eye on the food. You go talk to them.”
He sidestepped into the living room, and finally answered the call. Leia’s voice was loud and demanding on the other end.
“Ludger! Where are you, are you okay?!”
Ludger grimaced. He should have at least texted.
“Yeah. I’m fine, I promise.”
“Then what the heck is going on?”
Ludger hesitated, and Leia seemed to pick up on it quickly. Her voice softened.
“…Hey. Whatever you’ve found, it’s… not real. It’s just a possibility, right? It won’t do you any good to stay here and dwell on it.”
Of course. He wasn’t the only one who’d run into something he could have had, something he wished he had. Everyone had left behind dimensions that held infinite possibilities— lost friends found again, broken relationships salvaged.
“It’s time to leave now, Ludger. Let’s go home.”
It was difficult to utter an agreement, but there was no way around it. Leia was right.
This wasn’t his Jude, no matter how he wished it was.
“…I’ll meet you at the seahaven.”
“Alright. See you soon, okay?”
He held the GHS in his hand, and slowly turned back toward the kitchen. To his surprise, Jude lingered in the doorway, a solemn smile on his face.
“It’s time for you to go, isn’t it?”
His voice was heartbreakingly soft, with emotion much stronger than what should normally accompany a brief goodbye.
Ludger couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Back to your own dimension?”
Ludger choked, and his gaze quickly rose from the floor. He expected some fight— but Jude’s expression hadn’t changed.
Jude nodded, and crossed the room to him.
“I could tell right away. The Ludger of this dimension hasn’t smiled like you in some time.” His hand rose to Ludger’s cheek, then pushed gently through his dyed bangs, eyes sad and nostalgic. “And he never quite looked at me the way you do, no matter how hard I fell for him.”
So they both had unrequited feelings, and impossibly met in the middle like this.
“…What happened between us in this dimension?”
Jude’s gaze didn’t leave Ludger’s, transfixed.
“…The Ludger I know went to a fractured dimension alone, and didn’t come back. You were there for a full week, until Mr. Bakur went in to find you himself.” Jude swallowed, eyes pained. “I don’t know what you saw there. When you finally came back, Bakur wasn’t with you. You never told any of us what happened, you just… became absorbed in work, in your new position, and you… met someone else. I saw you less and less.”
Ludger couldn’t make sense of it. His brow furrowed, but Jude’s eyes finally broke away, and his forehead hit Ludger’s shoulder.
“I wish I could have been there for you more. I’m sorry.”
Ludger’s arms wrapped around him protectively. “I… don’t apologize. That wasn’t me.”
Jude laughed weakly.
“I know. And… I’m glad it didn’t happen to you, too.” He pulled back to look at Ludger again, sincere. “It’s selfish, but I’m glad… there’s at least one Ludger out there who returns my feelings.”
A lump formed in Ludger’s throat, but Jude smiled at him.
“If today is this world’s last day, I’m grateful I got to spend it with someone I love so much.”
Ludger’s lips found Jude’s while his heart erupted. A note of sorrow spread between them, but with it was an air of satisfaction, of contentment. Jude didn’t feel afraid, as his lips slid firmly and confidently against Ludger’s. Ludger threaded his fingers in Jude’s hair with a desperate need, his long, deep kisses conveying every ounce of love and affection he’d ever held for Jude Mathis.
As their kisses slowed, both of them breathing, Jude rested his forehead against Ludger’s.
“Go to your friends,” he said in almost a whisper.
Ludger didn’t have a choice. He nodded once, and slowly pulled his face away from Jude’s. He took a step back, and his hands trailed down Jude’s arms, as though they were reluctant to cease contact. Jude’s eyes were still the brightest thing Ludger could find in this dimension. They squinted slightly as they looked back at him, a fond smile resting comfortably on his face. Ludger held Jude’s hands all the way to his fingertips, until there was nothing left to hold onto.
He couldn’t say goodbye. Ludger’s heart shattered as he turned from this Jude who loved him, and left the little apartment.
Smoky black tendrils burst from the CEO’s desk. As the party of three approached it, Leia leaned forward over the desktop and tapped a nameplate.
“Hey, Ludger, what’s this about?”
Where Ludger was used to seeing Bakur’s name, the plate clearly read President Kresnik.
“Oho, president, huh?” Alvin chuckled. “What happened to old Bisley?”
The Ludger of this dimension was probably the only one who could answer that.
Ignoring his friends, Ludger opened the main desk drawer. Inside, the catalyst’s fog was thick. Ludger reached inside, and found its source— a child’s hat, marked with a small blue butterfly, and stained with what was unmistakably blood.
Someone this world’s Ludger couldn’t save, inside a dimension he couldn’t destroy. Had Bisley completed the task for him?
Ludger felt caught in a similar position, now— but if lingering here meant destroying himself, destroying his friendship with Jude and everyone else, the choice was clear.
With a flash of light, he took his chromatus form, and drove his lance into the hat.
He would never stop regretting it.
Lost somewhere deep in his thoughts, Ludger had let his instant noodles go soggy. With a defeated sigh, he discarded the ruined food and opened up the pantry for a new package— but it was bare.
He couldn’t help but think of the meal he and another Jude had once prepared, in another dimension. Instant ramen, dressed up with soft-boiled egg, frozen peas and carrots, tofu, and ground ginger. It wouldn’t have been Ludger’s best meal, but they never got the opportunity to eat it together, anyway.
Ludger wondered if it had sat abandoned until the end, or if Jude had eaten it alone, his final meal while he waited for the world to disappear around him.
Ludger shrugged on his jacket and locked the door behind him. The food vendor should still be open. He’d just get another package of noodles.
Outside the apartment, the sun had set, bathing the park in twilight. Ludger shoved his hands in his pockets, but as he neared the end of the path, he stopped short.
Up ahead were two figures, both all too familiar. His own green eyes stared back at him.
If another version of himself was standing here, that meant this couldn’t be the prime dimension, after all. It seemed fitting, somehow.
This other Ludger— the real prime Ludger?— walked closer up the path. Beside him, his Jude lay a hand on his arm, deep concern in his eyes, and Ludger watched himself hesitate, clearly torn. The comfort and guidance he seemed to gather from his link partner were feelings Ludger knew well— to gain confidence from merely loving someone.
But this stranger’s assurance wasn’t just from loving Jude— it was twofold, bolstered by the idea that those feelings might not be one-sided.
It was clear on this Jude’s face, in his eyes. The way Ludger had always hoped his Jude would look at him. The way a fractured Jude once did.
As he watched his prime self approach, familiar black tendrils oozed from his own chest. He laughed at the sheer irony. For how long had he been the catalyst? Since he’d made love to a Jude that wasn’t his? Or had something else he’d done caused an even larger divergence?
His own chromatus formed in front of him, the moonlight reflecting dully off of the black armor. Through the smoke-like substance of the catalyst, he found a set of bright, amber eyes— the brightest thing he could see, beside the sharp yellow accents of the chromatus.
He understood why Jude hadn’t fought, when he found out his dimension was doomed. If he had been grateful to find a Ludger who returned his feelings, then Ludger was grateful to find versions of both of them, from the same dimension, who had requited feelings.
Ludger didn’t fight. He didn’t transform to match his prime self, didn’t take up his blades or his guns. He closed his eyes, and waited for his lance to find his chest.
He just hoped this Jude and Ludger really were prime.