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.
It was one thing to be told that you were running out of time, it was something else entirely to not even feel the passage of it. Luke had absolutely no clue as to how much time had passed since that thoroughly disturbing meeting he'd had with a much younger Asch. A fragment, he'd called himself. He could understand how that might work, or at the very least, he could make some sense out of it. There were a lot of things that he didn't like about himself, and he'd buried a great deal of them after Akzeriuth. He'd had too. He couldn't afford the arrogant pride or the disgusting ignorance of the person he had been back then. He had gotten thousands of people killed just because he was too stupid and egotistical to realize that the world wasn't painted in black and white and that people weren't always who they seemed to be. If he had just taken the time to take a good long look at Van Grants then maybe he would have realized that the man didn't have anyone's continued wellbeing in mind. But no, thinking about that now would solve nothing. He had been a fool, an abhorrent idiot, and nothing he could do would ever change that. He couldn't change the past, no one could, but maybe he could change the future. Their future.
He just needed to find Asch. Which was easier said than done. He'd been wandering through a foggy, empty landscape ever since that boy and Choral Castle had vanished from right in front of his eyes. It had unnerved him more than he cared to admit and he had a sneaking suspicion that the brat had done it on purpose for that very reason. Even as a fragment and a kid, Asch was still so annoyingly conceited. Such an ass.
That little encounter had given him some food for thought though, but most of all it had given him a vague idea of what was going on, or to be more precise, where he was. Why he was somewhere inside of Asch was beyond him, but surely if he found the bastard he'd get an answer to that question, after a bit of mocking at his own expense, no doubt. Of course, finding him seemed to be a rather daunting task. The mental landscape, as it were, was pretty sparse, and that was probably by design. He had little doubt that Asch knew he was there. The oh so superior God-General would never let something so galling as his replica rummaging around in his mind escape his notice. There had been glimmerings here and there of activity, but the moment Luke had tried to approach them they had vanished like desert mirages. They were things he would never be allowed to see, fragments that would never welcome his intrusion. Yes, Asch was very much present, he just wasn't there.
Though, Luke did wonder a bit about why Asch would let him see that particular fragment. The child has seemed so lost in those few moments when he hadn't been a total brat, surely Asch would have viewed that part of himself with something akin to contempt. He didn't seem to be willing to show anything that might be considered as any form of weakness. Then again, maybe that was his answer. Something like that had to have been buried so deep that it would never see the light of day ever again. But it was there. Maybe it had been put there as a guidepost for him, a means for him to find his way back out again. That was, of course, assuming that Asch wasn't purposefully trying to get him lost. He wouldn't put it past him. But he doubted that, there was a sensation out there in that all pervasive fog, one of flagging strength and a deathlike weariness.
They were running out of time.
Sighing in annoyance, Luke strode forward, almost to the point of stomping, and grumbled, "I'm not going away until you talk to me, you know." And came to an abrupt standstill as a stone wall immediately solidified out of thin air right in front of him. "Very funny!" he snarled as he kicked the new wall he had almost walked straight into, which had probably been the plan. A soft amused chuckle wafted from behind him at his outburst and Luke whirled around, freezing immediately in pure shock at what he saw.
It was Daath.
The sun was shining now, it wasn't raining anymore, and the sky was clear. But even having not seen the place in the light of day, he would have recognized it. All it took was one nightmarish reality to forever brand a location in a person's memories. It wasn't a bad place really, at least not during the daytime it seemed. The stone walkways were weathered and aged, but clean. The walls were much the same and the cathedral rising behind it provided some interesting scenery. It would all probably make for some really interesting shadow play during the late afternoons. And it certainly wasn't a bad tree, all things considered. It wasn't too big or too small. And it looked healthy enough, providing ample shade for the young man seated beneath it. But all he had to do was close his eyes and he could still see that godforsaken rope and... the blood.
Shuddering slightly at his own thoughts, Luke crossed his arms and leaned forward slightly, "I hate what you've done with the place."
"You can hardly blame a location for the evils that man visits upon it." Asch gave him a pointed look before sliding his eyes off to the side, a wistful expression on his face. "I was rather fond of this courtyard. I did a lot of thinking here in the past."
Luke almost let himself believe that he was talking to the real Asch. Almost. But the Asch in front of him didn't quite fit with the Asch that he knew. This Asch wore a uniform similar to that of the God-General, Asch the Bloody, but there were stark differences. For one thing there was no tabard and no gloves. For another, the boots were shorter and less stylized. The cloth of the uniform was a lighter gray, as well, and the markings more of a simple red than the darker crimson he remembered. He looked younger too, less... worn by the arbitrary nature of life. In fact, this Asch seemed a bit lighter than the child or the God-General had ever been.
"Another fragment," he concluded rather grumpily after a time.
"Well, what do you know," the younger Asch smirked at him, looking creepily like Jade there for a moment, "It can be taught."
"Shut up!" Luke snapped back and stumped over to the smug bastard, doing his level best to not look at the tree he was propped up against. As long as he didn't acknowledge its existence, then maybe he wouldn't remember. And if he kept telling himself that, then it might actually be true. Wishful thinking. Glaring down his nose at the twinkling green eyes that appeared full of mirth, Luke found himself brought up short. This really was a happier Asch, or at least he seemed that way. How very strange.
Frowning at that revelation and this odd turn of events, Luke plopped himself down beside this particular fragment and muttered, "All right, I'll bite. What are you doing?"
"Thinking," was his only reply.
"About what?" Luke prodded in irritation. Of course, he'd be difficult.
"The future," again, a simple reply.
"You're going to make me drag it out of you, aren't you?" Luke grumbled in exasperation.
Asch looked at him speculatively for a moment, then smirked in amusement again. "Yes, I am."
Luke growled under his breath, then gave a sharp snort, He could play this game. "All right, let's try this again. What in particular about the future were you thinking about?"
It was as if a switch had been clicked off. Whatever good cheer Asch might have possessed instantly fled, his countenance growing somber and cold. "I have been thinking over the choices that will come in the near future. The choices that I must make."
"I'm... sorry," Luke muttered hesitantly. He hadn't meant to depress him or anything with his questioning. He just wanted answers and he was so tired of having to dig around so much for them.
"Don't be, it's hardly your fault," Asch said blankly, flicking his eyes across the courtyard before returning his gaze to Luke. He frowned irritably when it seemed that his replica might protest his words. "Don't shoulder blame that isn't yours to take, it is impolite."
Luke scowled at that, hunching in upon himself and glaring hotly at the far wall. Of course it was his fault. If he hadn't been born none of this would have happened. Not that Asch ever seemed inclined to agree with him about that, strangely enough. Glancing sideways at him, Luke was struck by how remarkably alone he seemed even in this place. But then again, Asch was always alone, wasn't he?
"I have known for quite awhile now that my fate was to die," Asch explained without a need for prompting this time. "Van made quite sure to remind me of that fact at every given opportunity once he had managed to gain access to me." He glanced at Luke for a moment in contemplation before continuing. "Make no mistake, while I was not... protected anywhere near so stringently as you were, I was still the son of a Duke, one whose life had already been arranged to lead to the throne."
"But he wormed his way in," Asch stated brusquely, then swiftly cut his narrative short, "And then came the kidnapping, and you, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"But why are you here?" Luke asked tentatively, unsure of whether he wanted to know the answer or not. He very much doubted that it would be a pleasant one.
"I am chained here by a choice," Asch responded, his eyes growing distant, "He has always given me a choice, two paths that I must choose from: follow the Score and sacrifice thousands or follow him and save millions."
"It all sounds very pretty, doesn't it? A simple choice wouldn't you think?" he remarked conversationally, though there was an obvious undercurrent of bitterness to his words, "But regardless, they both end in death one way or another. And I think you already know the problem that I am faced with, that I have always been faced with."
"Van is very persuasive." Asch scowled in disgust and crossed his arms. "In fact, I would go so far as to say that he has many admirable traits. And I have always respected him, despite the many deplorable things he may have done. But I don't trust him. He lies."
Luke nodded in agreement, but didn't speak. He was afraid that if he said anything, Asch would clam up like usual, and he wanted to know. He desperately wanted to know of the many things that had led them to this place, to this time. If he could just understand, just a little bit, then maybe he might be able to change something, anything.
"I don't think I could ever accept either choice," Asch murmured and shook his head slightly, "At least, not in good faith. But perhaps there is another choice available to me. I just... have to be brave enough to follow it to its inevitable conclusion."
Luke blinked and had to bite his tongue to keep himself from asking about what that choice might possibly have been. It sounded important. Well, of course it was important, but what was the difference between it and the rest? There was something else there, something to his motivation that had yet to be revealed. What was it?
"I-" Asch began softly, but stopped almost immediately, bowing his head, his hair serving almost as a veil, "I don't want to hurt anyone. I never did. I... never have."
Luke's eyes widened in shock at his unexpected admission. That... He had not been expecting that. Asch would never have admitted something like that to him of all people. At least, not before this. "You... you don't sound like yourself."
"I am tired," Asch explained, his tone dull and hollow, "So very tired of having to decide who should live and who should die. No one should have to make that sort of decision. It destroys you."
Luke could only stare at him aghast. It shouldn't be him. He shouldn't be the one to hear this. It should be someone else, someone who knew what to say, who knew what to do. Someone who could offer some kind of comfort to someone who was so very painfully lost. Oh yes, he now knew why the boy, the fragment who hovered between Luke fon Fabre and Asch the Bloody, had been the first to meet him. He had gotten lost somewhere down the line and had never found his way back. Oh, he hid it expertly, even now Luke had his doubts about whether it was the real truth he had been searching for or not, but it made sense. It made a horrible sort of sense. And it was entirely his fault. If there had been no replica Luke, then they would have eventually found Asch. Somehow, someway they would have found him, and then maybe he might have been saved.
"If I could die without harming anyone," the hopeless words broke Luke free from his deepening cycle of self hatred and made him focus back on the here and now, "then I think that perhaps I would be content."
"That's why you have to leave," Asch said with finality and looked back up, his face as grim as stone, "If you stay here for much longer you might get dragged down with me." He shook his head then, his brows drawing together in something akin to pain. "I don't want you to die."
Luke shook his own head in denial and climbed to his feet, staring down at this despondent fragment of Asch in determination. He wouldn't let this go, not yet. "I'm not leaving until I find you."
Asch blinked up at him for several moments, frowning. "Fine, if you must insist," he sighed at last and stared blankly out across the courtyard, "Go to the sea. You will always find me there. But you must hurry now, the tide will begin to come in soon, and then it will be too late. Far too late for anything."
Luke nodded solemnly and turned to go, but stopped short when something utterly unexpected came from behind him.
"I don't hate you."
Luke couldn't help but look back over his shoulder in complete, unabashed shock. Surely he was hearing things. Asch loathed him, how could he not? He, a pathetic replica, had taken everything from him, and he had never even known a damn thing about the evil he perpetuated by simply existing.
"I don't think I ever did, not really," the fragment of Asch remarked as he began to fade, "Granted, I've been angry with you. Furiously angry and quite disgusted at times. But ultimately, it was never hate. At least, never genuine hatred."
"What-" Luke croaked, then cleared his throat before trying again. Why was it so difficult to talk all of a sudden? Why did his tongue feel so leaden and why were his eyes stinging? He didn't have the time to cry. He didn't have the right. "What did you finally decide to do?" He couldn't... he couldn't think about what he had just been told. It wasn't real, it couldn't be real. He would never-
"To live free," the fragment of Asch, a frozen piece of time, smiled softly before he faded from view, "And accept whatever fate may come."