Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with Namco or anyone who hold rights to Tales of the Abyss. It isn't mine, I'm just playing with it.
Spoiler Warning: Up to the search for Spinoza, with just the hint of a few smatterings of bits and pieces from later on to add flavor.
The first thing Luke realized when he woke up was that the world was no longer awash in a sea of gold. The sky was back to being a soft blue, the grass was green again, and the clouds were white and fluffy. The second thing he realized was that he was not awake at all. There were no more blue skies for Choral Castle. It had descended into the Qliphoth along with Kaitzur. And if that wasn't a good enough indicator that he was still asleep then the younger version of himself, or rather Luke fon Fabre, leaning up against a tree with his arms crossed and watching him with solemn interest would have worked just as well.
Luke blinked at him a few times, wondering if this obvious illusion would vanish into thin air each time he closed his eyes. Finally, the boy cocked an inquiring eyebrow at him and Luke decided that no, he wasn't going to just up and disappear, so they might as well have a little chat in the meantime. "You're not real."
The boy scowled at him. "That wasn't very hard to figure out."
"Hello Asch." The tone of voice was unmistakable, no one else could manage that level of haughty disdain quite so easily when it came to him. "Or is it Luke right now?" he asked with some trepidation after a moment's thought.
"I have always been Asch," the boy answered simply, his eyes growing distant as his voice turned hollow, "Ashes to ashes."
"Okay then," Luke muttered slowly as he climbed to his feet and looked around. It really was Choral Castle, though it looked slightly different from the last time he had been there, less weathered, less ruined. Huh. "If you're not real, then what exactly are you? A figment of my imagination?"
"I'm a fragment, you idiot," the boy growled before he pushed himself away from the tree and began to circle Luke, eyeing him appraisingly. By the look of it, he wasn't very pleased with what he saw. "No one is ever really whole. There are always pieces of ourselves that we bury deep inside, pieces that we don't want to acknowledge exist. Sometimes they are the darker parts of our psyche and sometimes they are what we consider weaker aspects. But generally they are the ones we don't like to admit are there, and often the child we once were gets buried right along with them. Because even if we become monsters, we never really lose that part of ourselves. It's always there."
"You don't sound much like a kid," Luke commented snidely. It figured, even as a little brat, Asch was still a total ass.
The boy blinked at him. "I don't think I ever did." Then he turned around and took a few steps towards the castle. "Why are you here?"
"I... I don't know," Luke answered hesitantly and scratched the back of his head in puzzlement. What had he been doing before he found himself here? He had been sleeping, dreaming. A nightmare. But no, it had been real. And then there had been the rain and the desperate search through the dark until he had finally found him. They had been dying, were dying still perhaps. He couldn't remember much beyond that point, just a seemingly endless stretch of time spent floating through a sea of gold. Asch had been there. They had been safe and warm. Loved. Why weren't they there anymore? "I think I was searching for you." He wasn't sure whether that was what he had really been doing before, or whether he should still be looking for him. He had found him, hadn't he? But it felt right, as if there was some truth left that he still needed to find. Something he needed to know. "Why are you here?"
The boy didn't answer him at first, and Luke began to think that he wasn't going to get one. Instead he tilted his head back and gazed up at the castle looming above them. Their family's old home, half collapsed and fractured. Perhaps it was the world's way of reflecting their own discordant existence. It would be strangely fitting. "I got lost here," it came at last, unexpectedly, "and I haven't been able to find my way back out again."
Luke winced. He could understand that. Choral Castle was where everything ended and began for them. Where everything changed. But did he have to sound so matter of fact about the entire affair, so resigned? Surely he felt something over it, anything. Asch always ran so hot whenever they met up, almost driven at times. He was more than free with the insults and holier than thou attitude where Luke was concerned, and a comfortable affection was quite obvious whenever he talked to Natalia, but even in those rare moments when he was quiet he was still alive. This Asch, while still free with his disdain, seemed so tired and apathetic, as if he had been lost here forever... and maybe he had.
The boy who was once Luke fon Fabre glanced back as his future replica stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He stared up at the young man in contemplation for a second before shaking his head and returning his gaze to the castle. "You won't find the me that you know in this place. He left a long time ago. You'll have to search further."
"I know," Luke said gently, but he didn't move. He couldn't quite make himself move on, not just yet. He didn't want to leave him alone here. It was so desolate and lonely. How could he stand it? How could anyone stand it? "Why don't you come with me?"
The boy shook his head again, this time more forcefully. "I belong here," he explained as he shrugged out of Luke's grasp and walked towards the castle. He stopped halfway there and turned around, giving Luke an annoyed look as he crossed his arms. "You can't change the past. You can't save me."
"I can try, damnit," Luke shot back, his hands curling into fists. Trust Asch to be a stubborn bastard even about something like this.
"Yes, I'm sure that you will," the boy remarked, his contempt at the very idea more than apparent as he rolled his eyes heavenward. "Either way, you're running out of time, so I suggest you move on now."
"I don't require your concern," the boy shook his head one final time, the castle shimmering like a heat wave behind him before it began to slowly fade into nothingness. He too began to fade along with it after a time, but there was a thoughtful look on his face just before he vanished. "He might though. Perhaps I should wish you luck then, you'll need it."
Tear sighed soundlessly as she reached down and brushed a rogue hair away from Luke's closed eyes, a fruitless gesture for it flopped back over the instant she released it. It seemed fitting, she supposed, that his hair could be as disorderly and reckless as he could be at times. And contrary, yes, she couldn't forget his contrariness. He still slept, at least, she hoped it was something as simple as sleep. If it was sleep then he would wake up. He had to wake up. She didn't think she could survive this if they both died. She wasn't that strong anymore, if she ever had been.
She hadn't been able to make herself help Anise and Jade finish cleaning Asch up or aiding them in putting him to bed. His deathbed. She couldn't help a small shudder as that macabre thought wafted unbidden through her mind. In the end, she was just a coward, too afraid to even offer comfort when hope had failed.
Tear glanced over at Natalia, who was sitting vigil beside Asch. Guy, bless him, had gone and ferreted away a stray chair here and there for their use. They'd needed it, both she and Natalia lacked the energy to stand for any given length of time. But Natalia... watching Natalia hurt. She was so... hopeful, none of them really had the heart to tell her it was a pointless endeavor. Well, Jade probably could, and would, no doubt, eventually, but at the moment he was busy helping Anise clean up the disaster area that was Fon Master Ion's bedroom.
She had been able to work up the courage to help them clean Luke up, who had been drenched in blood, blood that had dried up a great deal while they had been tending to the person it had come from. Thankfully, they'd been able to dig up a spare change of clothes for him. Unfortunately, there was no telling whether they could get his old clothes clean again, assuming he'd want them back after this ordeal was over and done with. Personally, she had every intention of burning the uniform she was wearing at the first given opportunity. Even if she could wash out the blood, she couldn't wash out the memories, and she honestly didn't even want to try. It wouldn't be right.
Luke hadn't stirred the entire time they had been manhandling him. Nor had Lorelei, which she supposed was a good thing. She didn't think it would appreciate the fact that they couldn't save the person it had been protecting so diligently. Ultimately, everything they had done would be for naught. It was only a matter of time, perhaps even just a scant handful of hours. She could only hope that they had relieved his suffering, if even just a little.
"Well, I rather think it's a hopeless cause." Tear jerked her head up, aghast at Jade's pronouncement. But no, he wasn't talking about Asch this time, he was instead staring down at the floor, with one arm propped on the deck brush he'd had brought up. He'd been using it to scrub at the blood all over said floor, but apparently it had still stained the wood regardless. "My apologies, Fon Master."
"Oh, it's all right," Ion laughed weakly as he assisted Anise in setting up the cot he would be using for the night. "Don't worry about it."
"Might I suggest investing in a rug?" The grin that curled his lips could easily be described as wicked as Jade glanced pointedly over at the former Guardian. "Perhaps Anise might be able to aid you on that front."
"I don't make rugs," Anise said flatly, not even deigning to look up at him.
"Really?" Jade almost purred, "But your sewing is top notch, I'm sure you could come up with something if you put your mind to it."
"Do I need to go get another jug of water?" Anise threatened as she glared over her shoulder at the older man.
"Certainly not," Jade said smugly as he adjusted his glasses, "If we have need of more water I can just cast Splash."
Anise froze, and Ion could almost say that he witnessed steam coming out of her ears. Nodding to himself, the Fon Master beat a hasty retreat, swiftly skittering over to Guy, who had been setting up Jade's cot, but was now slowly backing up in the direction of the bedroom door. A good plan if ever there was one, it might be prudent to flee in the face of the oncoming storm.
"You son of a bitch," the young Oracle Knight snarled under her breath before she whirled around and stalked over to the far too cheerful looking colonel. "Why did you have me," she stopped her tirade for a moment, then added as if in afterthought, "and Ion tromping all over the damn cathedral to get water if you could have just made some yourself with a damn spell?!" She punctuated the last few words with repeated sharp pokes to his chest.
"Really Anise," he explained, the smile he was giving her sweet enough to rot teeth, "If you think about it, you'll know why it would have been a bad idea. Do please remember the reason why it is called Splash."
Anise frowned, her eyebrows drawing together in thoughtful deliberation. "Well, I suppose it might have been inconvenient."
"Quite," Jade patted her on the head, whipping his hand back when she made a grab for it, "If I had used it as a means to procure water, Ion's bedroom would have been even more of a disaster than it already was. There would have been water everywhere, but not enough where we really needed it."
Anise scowled and blew out a sharp breath. "Fine, I won't kill you. This time." She then sniffed haughtily and stalked around him and towards the door. "I am, however, going to go change and then contemplate sleep."
"A novel idea," Jade murmured as he made his way over to the bed, leaning the deck brush against the wall as he gently grasped Natalia's shoulder, "I think, perhaps, you should all go get ready for bed now, you especially, princess. You've had a long, harrowing day and your body needs the rest."
"But, I don't... I don't want to leave," She said haltingly as she glanced up at him, then back down at Asch, her entire posture screaming exhaustion and bereavement. "What if-"
"Natalia, please," he frowned as he gave her a little shake. "Do not push yourself when it is unnecessary." As if to prove his point, he reached down with his free hand, his fingers sliding around the splint to find the pulse point in Asch's right wrist. "He will still be here in the morning," he concluded after a moment's deliberation.
"All right then, I'll heed your suggestion," she said wearily as she stood up and moved to follow after Anise, both of them glancing back forlornly at Asch before leaving the room. Guy bent over Luke, resting a hand on his friend's forehead before silently following after the pair.
After they had all departed, Tear rose to her feet and gave Jade a piercing look as she demanded, "Will he?"
Jade glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, before slowly nodding. "I think so, but probably not for very long afterwards. It mostly depends on when the organs start shutting down, once that begins it will not take very long at all, but the wait for that will be the trying part."
"So he's going to die after all then?" Both of them looked across the room at the source of the quiet, dejected question. Ion stood there, just inside the doorway, his eyes downcast.
"I'm afraid so, Fon Master," Jade answered dismally. Ion nodded sadly and was about to resume setting up the cots when Jade spoke up again. "Tear, I feel that I need to apologize ahead of time, but I am going to kill your brother the next time we run across him."
"That will depend entirely on which of us gets to him first," Tear countered, her expression instantly growing cold and implacable. Van was her responsibility, after all. If anyone was going to end his madness, then she would make sure that it was by her hand alone.
"Yes. Yes, it will at that," Ion murmured softly, no small amount of fury burning behind his own eyes.