Day 23
by Meimi


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 day wore on, the time practically flying by as it was spent in comfortable companionship, and sooner than any of them had realized, night had fallen. Jade smiled cheerfully as he shooed Natalia, Anise, Guy and Tear out of Ion's bedroom, following along after them, almost as if he meant to make certain that they actually went to bed. But knowing Jade, there was probably some ulterior motive intended. Perhaps he wanted to check in with Anise over the day's results, or tease her to death over something utterly bizarre, or maybe he just wanted to creep them all the hell out by being sickeningly sweet. Either way, it was probably going to be something weird and Luke was rather thankful that he would not be involved in it for once. He was more than weary of being one of Jade's most favored targets.

Ion eyed the door warily, one finger tapping nervously at his bottom lip, before shrugging and heading over to start preparing his cot for sleep. If the colonel wanted to do something bizarre, as he was wont to do, then there wasn't much that he could do about it. And besides, he was tired. Getting run around the cathedral in the morning and then around Daath in the afternoon was exhausting at best, and Colonel Curtiss kept a horrific pace. If he didn't end up with blisters all over the soles of his feet before they were through, he'd be very surprised.

But there still hadn't been any sign of Grand Maestro Mohs, and that was most worrisome. What could the man be up to?

"Uhm," Luke began uncertainly, casting Asch an anxious glance before calling out. "Hey, Ion?"

/Address him with his proper title, you ingrate./ Asch punctuated his reprimand with a moderate shove.

Luke scowled at him and then rolled his eyes. "Fon Master Ion." /There, happy now?/

/Not particularly, but there may be some hope left for you after all, miniscule though it might be./

/Shut up./

Ion looked back at the pair and couldn't help but smile. They really did almost appear like mirror images in that moment: sitting across from each other on the bed, one leg curled up, their knees touching, and the other leg hanging carelessly off the side. They looked awfully cute like that, but he would keep that observation to himself. They might take offense if he gave it voice. And... he just wanted them to be happy. "Yes?" he prompted after a few seconds spent simply enjoying the view.

"Well, uh," Luke scratched the back of his head nervously and glanced over at Asch again, then sighed and looked back at Ion solemnly, "We're very sorry for all the trouble we've caused you the past couple of days."

"Oh," Ion murmured, his eyes widening in something akin to awe. Then he shook his head, raising his hands and waving them gently, as if to ward off any further apologies. "No no no, please don't apologize. I'm glad that you came to me. That you... even thought of me when you needed such desperate help. I just... wish I could have done something more for the both of you."

Asch and Luke looked at each other thoughtfully for a moment, then they both turned and smiled gently at Ion. "You did much more than we could have hoped for, Ion. You kept us safe. Thank you."

Ion laughed weakly and reached up to wipe surreptitiously at the corner of his eyes. How silly of him, he shouldn't cry when he felt so happy. They were his friends. It was the least he could have done for them. But still... Frowning slightly, he gestured vaguely at his head as he hesitantly asked, "Are you- Are you both all right with everything that's happened?"

They both blinked curiously at that and glanced back at each other, smiling softly as their eyes met. "More than you could possibly know."

"I'm... I'm glad then," he murmured, and when they looked back at him he could almost swear that he saw a shimmer of gold buried in their gaze. Yes, everything would be fine now. He was sure of it.


When morning came, Asch woke to a rather odd sight. Anise was sitting primly at his bedside while Colonel Curtiss was busying himself by fixing her hair up for the day. The young Oracle Knight was humming whimsically to herself while swinging her feet back and forth, but her head stayed absolutely still as Jade ran the brush through her raven locks. She seemed quite comfortable like that, not even giving a twitch when the bristles snagged up on a tangle, but then again, the colonel was apparently being amazingly gentle, so perhaps the tugs were too soft to even bother her.

"Good morning," she piped up cheerfully as he lifted himself up into a seated position. Asch glanced down at her curiously, but didn't comment on her good mood. Somehow, he doubted that this was truly a random occurrence. One of them wanted something from him, but had been kind enough to wait patiently for him to wake up. He was willing to play along, it was the polite thing to do.

"Yes, good morning," Jade said quietly, not even glancing up from his work as he tied up one pigtail and then reached over to begin fixing up the next.

"So, how are you feeling?" Anise asked, her tone nothing short of perky as she continued to swing her feet back and forth.

Jade did look up this time, frowning a bit as he sternly shook his head at Asch. The message was loud and clear: no talking allowed just yet.

Asch shrugged helplessly and tipped his head slightly at Anise.

She just smiled and made her question a bit more pointed, "Feeling better?"

He nodded his response after a moment spent thinking it over. He did feel better, but some things still felt a bit off. He wasn't at his full strength yet, but he was well on his way there.

"But you're still feeling a bit tired, right?" She asked insightfully, easily guessing at the reason for his hesitation.

Asch smiled ruefully and nodded again. Perceptive girl, it was no wonder that she had gotten the position of Fon Master Guardian. No doubt, she had more than earned it.

"Well, I wouldn't worry too much about it," Jade said conversationally as he tied up the last ponytail and gave Anise an affectionate pat on the head. "Give it a few more days and you'll be right as rain."

"Yep," Anise chirped pleasantly as she bounced up out of the chair, grabbed the brush out of Jade's hand and waved it pointedly at Asch. "Now it's your turn."

He just stared at her in blatant confusion.

"Your hair, silly," Anise explained as she crawled up onto the bed behind him. "You've been laying on it for days now, and even before that I had to wash all that crud out of it. And let me tell you, that wasn't an easy job. If we don't do something about it soon, it'll turn into a real rat's nest. You don't want that, do you?"

Asch just blinked at her running commentary, too surprised to even work up any sort of resistance as she reached up, turned his head to the front and began to methodically run the brush through his hair. Jade leaned down in front of him, giving him a mocking wave and a knowing smirk before silently heading off to commiserate with the others who were slowly trickling in to the room.

Asch just simply sat there in bewilderment as she worked her way through one tangle and then the next.

/Are they always like this?/

/More or less./

/... I see./

/Don't worry, they do actually like you./

/Oh really? How can you tell?/

/They wouldn't even bother if they didn't./

Anise was exceptionally gentle, the only way he could tell that she had discovered a snarl was a telltale grumble of mild annoyance from behind him. But soon enough she was brushing along the entire length with no remaining impediments, smoothing it out after each stroke with her hand. Asch couldn't help but relax under her soft touch, the constant overriding tension of his usual day to day life draining out of him like water.

/You're going to start purring any minute now./

/You'd like that, wouldn't you?/

/You? Doing cute? Oh, hell yes./

Asch smiled slightly at the fond teasing and vowed to get Luke back for it later. But for now... for now he felt far too peaceful to even try working up enough brain power to bother with it.

"Hey," Anise said softly, poking him lightly in the back to get his attention.

He twisted his head somewhat, glancing over his shoulder at her to show that she had succeeded.

"Would you like me to braid it for you?" She asked hesitantly, a small frown on her face. "For just a day or two anyway, until you're back on your feet and all."

Asch tilted his head a bit in thought, then nodded his agreement before facing forward again. It would be less of a nuisance that way at any rate, and he certainly didn't want to have to yank further tangles out of it later thanks to his continued enforced bed rest.

Anise chuckled lightly, but her good cheer seemed to fade bit by bit as she separated his hair out into sections and began to twine them together. A few days ago she might not have ever had the chance to do this.

Natalia glanced their way for a second, then whipped her head around in concerned alarm and started to climb out of her seat as she noticed the telltale glisten of a tear slowly slide its way down Anise's cheek. But Jade's hands fell heavily on her shoulders before she was even barely out of the chair, pushing her back down as he shook his head at her. "Don't bother them," he whispered quietly, "She's ready now."

Anise chuckled again, almost a sob now as she tied off the braid and then shakily leaned her forehead against his back. "I'm-," she murmured through her watery sniffles, "I'm glad that you're okay."

Asch peered over his shoulder at her in pure shock as she wrapped her arms around him and leaned closer, rubbing her cheek against his back.

"We all thought you were going to die," she muttered brokenly through her tears, "I thought you were going to die."

Asch looked down as her hands curled up into tense, upset little fists.

"It hurt." She hiccuped and snuggled closer. "Don't do it again. I'll never forgive you if you do."

He smiled sadly then and placed his hands comfortingly upon her own, squeezing back when she latched onto them and held him for all he was worth.

/Is this what it's like to be loved?/

/Yes. It is./