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 transport runes flashed brilliantly as they descended from the protected level set aside for the Fon Master, and it was with no small amount of relief that they found the ground floor of the residential wing deserted for the moment. No Kimlascan soldiers or Oracle Knights in sight. They were probably laying in wait in the entrance hall, assuming they weren't still organizing their 'capture'. The hour was quite early still. If they hurried on, they might be able to avoid any potential confrontations. Possibly.
"Well," Jade murmured quietly as he glanced around the hall and nodded, "Let's get moving shall we? I certainly don't want to be responsible for wearing out our welcome here in dear, old Daath."
The others gave him varying looks of disgust and exasperation, but didn't argue. They were just as eager as he to depart the holy city, and in as swift a manner as humanly possible. But perhaps their luck was going too well, or perhaps it was simply an inevitability that was bound to occur at one point or another. Regardless of what the powers that be might have wished for them, Score bound or otherwise, they were only a few feet away from the door leading into the Oracle Knight Headquarters, and a timely escape, when the door leading to the entrance hall opened up behind them and a voice cried out.
All the color drained out of Luke's face as he froze at that call, then slowly, ever so slowly, he craned his neck around and glanced behind them in absolute dread. A white knight stood there in the doorway, a familiar sight that he had gotten more than used to while growing up. And that was certainly one vision that, at this specific point in time, he would have been quite happy at never witnessing ever again. Because if the Fabre household guards were here, then that meant-
"Where is my son?!"
Their father was here.
Luke blanched as he turned around fully and backed up a few steps, his back coming flush against Asch's own. The God-General had yet to turn around, and perhaps it was for the best that way. The coming confrontation promised to be ugly at best even without the added bonus of that particularly shocking revelation. Luke shook his head and swallowed hard, doing everything that he could to keep from hyperventilating as he grasped behind him blindly, searching for Asch's hand, gripping it hard when he finally found it and taking some small amount of comfort when Asch held on to him in return.
He could get through this. He could. As long as they were together then he could do anything. Couldn't he? But in that moment he realized that he couldn't feel a single thing coming from Asch. No shock, no concern, no uncertainty, not even fear. It was as if he had simply shut down, and maybe he had.
/Are you-/ But he couldn't seem to bring himself to finish the thought.
And yet, his words seemed to garner some sort of reaction, because in the next moment he found himself having to fight to keep his knees from buckling under the sheer weight of emotions that Asch was experiencing. So much... almost mind-numbing shock and... was that... disgust directed solely at himself? Why did he feel so much... self-hatred? Surely he didn't- /...I can't.../
Luke's shoulders slumped in defeat. Asch did feel that way, and he didn't know how to fix this, for either of them. He had no idea of where to even begin. /You're not a monster. He won't... hate you.../
But he received no response to that. Nothing at all.
And then there was no more time for speculation or self-recrimination, because their father was there, forcefully pushing his way past his servant, a disgustingly pleased Grand Maestro trailing sedately in his wake. Duke Fabre quickly glanced over the group, his attention instantly zeroing in on Luke, most likely writing the others off as something of little concern as he strode forward, his hands reaching out towards Luke.
And then Jade was there, stepping easily between them, his weapon in hand, pointing directly at the older man as he smiled dangerously. "That's far enough, I think. Do please keep your distance, it would be a shame to ruin this pleasant reunion with bloodshed."
Duke Fabre scowled darkly, but did as instructed while eyeing the Malkuth military officer up and down suspiciously. "Colonel Jade Curtiss. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that someone as disreputable as you still has his hooks in my son. Expecting some sort of pay out for your efforts, I suppose?"
"Actually, Your Grace," Jade said flatly, his face nothing short of severe, "I am simply recalling what occurred during our last unfortunate visit to Baticul. You'll have to excuse me if I am simply unwilling to have the wonderful events of that lovely occasion inflicted upon the children in my care again."
Duke Fabre scowled in response to that and crossed his arms. "Rest assured that nothing like that will ever happen again."
Jade chuckled then, a horrible sound that sent a shiver of dread up the spines of everyone present. "You'll have to forgive me again, Your Grace, if I don't take your word for it."
It was at that point, when it seemed that a lull might occur in this particular standoff, that Grand Maestro Mohs finally decided to speak up, "Your Grace, surely you're not willing to allow these criminals-"
"Oh, do shut up, you filthy excuse for a holy man," Duke Fabre snarled, his expression taking on something almost akin to rage as he whipped his head around to pin the Grand Maestro with a heated glare, "I've heard more than enough out of you to last me a lifetime. Do not think for one second that I am willing to hear you castigate my own flesh and blood just because I was willing to heed your summons. I am only here to retrieve what is mine, not fulfill your twisted prophecy."
The Grand Maestro almost, almost recoiled from the duke's obvious fury, but simply scowled instead and shrugged, "Well then, do not blame me for when your expectations come crashing down around your ears like a house of cards."
Jade hummed thoughtfully as he studied them. It seemed as if things were not quite as cut and dried as he had originally assumed. "You do not believe what he has told you about Luke then?" he asked curiously.
"Of course not," Duke Fabre replied haughtily, "Do I look like a fool? Why would I possibly believe the words of a vile wretch who has nearly had my son murdered, not once, but twice?" After saying that, he gave the Grand Maestro one more hot, pointed glare. "You should be quite thankful that I have been exceedingly generous up to this point and have been willing to spare your life. Do not count on that generosity lasting for much longer."
Jade smiled sweetly as he watched the Grand Maestro fidget nervously under the duke's incensed gaze. Hmm. Well, this might turn out better than he had originally thought. Adjusting his stance so that the point of his spear was directed to the side, but still an obvious enough threat, he ventured, "And what of Natalia?"
Duke Fabre scowled disapprovingly. "Princess Natalia, you cur," he hissed before straightening himself up to his full height and turning his full attention onto the young woman in question. "Will you not consider coming home, child?"
Natalia shook her head in uncertainty as Tear lay a comforting hand upon her shoulder, offering her what support she could. "But I'm... not a princess. Father didn't..."
"Don't be ridiculous. Of course you are," Duke Fabre argued. "Your father has simply been completely and utterly distraught ever since we received word of your death at Akzeriuth. He could not find his way to hope when he was told otherwise, and certain unsavory individuals took advantage of his overwrought state. Do not fear, they have been dealt with or will be dealt with." These last words were punctuated by yet another glare sent towards the Grand Maestro.
Natalia shook her head again. "But I'm... not. I'm nothing like what a Kimlascan princess should be. Surely even you can see that."
Duke Fabre sighed in something akin to resigned annoyance as he reached up to rub wearily at his temple. "Does it really matter, child? You have been his daughter for the past eighteen years and there is really no way to prove otherwise. The words of one woman, no matter how truthful they may in fact be, are just one drop in an endless bucket. Will you not come home?"
Natalia shook her head once more and ducked her chin down, unwilling to believe what he was saying. Surely he was incorrect. Surely her father hated her for what had happened, there couldn't be any other possible reason than that for him to wish her death. She wouldn't hope for... couldn't hope for...
"Do not concern yourself with Princess Natalia's welfare," Jade interjected smoothly, "Regardless of any prior unpleasantness, she will always be welcome within the Malkuth Empire. We do recognize the exceptional when we run across it."
Duke Fabre snorted in disbelief. "You do not have the authority to say such foolish tripe."
"Oh," Jade purred and grinned menacingly, "But I do."
Nearly everyone in the hallway, save Luke and Asch, gave the colonel an astonished look at that. Surely not, he was just a colonel in the military, after all. But his obvious friendship with the emperor, and the tales of just how deep that friendship might run, did appear to belie those doubts to some extent. He was certainly a force to be reckoned with, at any rate.
"Very well, child, I will leave the decision in your most capable hands. It is your life, after all," Duke Fabre said sadly as he closed his eyes for a moment in pure resignation. Too much damage had been done in so short a time to garner any sort of trust, it seemed. But there was still something he could do. Squaring his shoulders, Duke Fabre jutted his chin out and demanded, "But regardless, I insist that you return my son to me at once."
Jade laughed in pure amusement as he reached up to adjust his glasses before replying, "Certainly, Your Grace, which one would you like back?"
"Jade!" Natalia cried, her head whipping up to give him an outraged glare while Tear winced beside her. Guy merely shook his head and rolled his eyes heavenward. Anise, in the meantime, scowled up at the colonel and poked him in the back with her mace. That jerk. Ion grimaced slightly at the proceedings and lay a comforting hand on Asch's arm, doing his best to not shrink back from the palpable tension hovering around both of the 'sons' in question.
"What are you insinuating, you arrogant ass?" Duke Fabre hissed out, his fury at being toyed with quite in evidence.
"My my, such language in front of the children," Jade murmured before giving the others an apologetic shrug. "It was inevitable. Best to get it over with now rather than later." Smiling sweetly, he focused his attention back on the duke for a moment and asked again, "It is as I said, which son would you like for me to return to you?" Then he flicked his eyes off to the side, towards the two young men standing back to back.
The duke glanced their way, his brows furrowing in obvious confusion as he finally noted the redheaded man standing behind his son. What was this all about then?
Natalia gave Jade one last, long hard glare, before reaching out hesitantly towards the two men she loved so dearly. The two people whom she had no doubt were hurting the worst from this entire debacle. "Luke?" she murmured softly and chewed nervously on her bottom lip for a second before continuing, "Asch? Are you-"
"Asch?" Duke Fabre interrupted, his eyes widening ever so slightly in surprise. "The God-General, Asch the Bloody?" But he didn't even wait for any sort of confirmation to his question before turning a thoroughly disapproving look upon Natalia and Luke. "What are the two of you doing in the company of that butcher?"
Jade's expression turned positively frigid at the duke's words, while the others mostly just winced and shook their heads in disbelief. Guy went even further though, barking out a hollow laugh as he muttered, "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black."
That earned him a few scowls, but before any of them could work up any form of rebuke, Luke finally spoke up, though his voice practically trembled as he leaned back heavily against Asch, as if he could hold them up from that pit they both wished would open up beneath them. "Please don't say that. You don't... you don't know anything about him. Nothing at all."
/...but it is true./
/No it isn't./
/You can't wash away the blood of years worth of killing./
/I didn't want to kill thousands of people, but thanks to my ignorant arrogance, they still died. You can't wash that away either. You're not any different from me in that regard, whether you believe it or not./
/You're not a monster./
Duke Fabre's eyes narrowed in outright suspicion as he watched the silent interaction between his son and the now identified God-General. There was something there... something that he couldn't quite figure out. "Luke," he said warningly, "What exactly is this man to you?"
Luke smiled cheerlessly at the obvious command in their father's question. He didn't understand, none of them did, really. But he still answered honestly as he stared their father down, "Everything."
Even the others, all save Jade, gave him uncertain looks at his pronouncement, and their father... their father just stared back at him, aghast. Asch stiffened behind him, then seemed to relax somewhat a moment later.
/...Everything?/ Asch asked hesitantly as he glanced over his shoulder.
/Yes. Everything./ Luke sent back with absolute conviction as he squeezed the hand still held within his own.
Duke Fabre simply stared at them in utter shock. When the God-General had looked back, he had glimpsed an achingly familiar face. But his son was standing right there in front of him. How could...?
"As you can see, Your Grace," Grand Maestro Mohs said silkily, seeing the moment as his chance to win back some sort of control over the situation. "It is as I told you. The son you have been so eager to reclaim is nothing more than a replica created through the use of fomicry. He is not your son, has never been your son. He was simply a tool to be used and then discarded by Commandant Grants. Such a creature is hardly worth your consideration."
"Shut up!" Duke Fabre roared, his hand reaching for his sword.
/How dare he!/ Asch snarled as he unsheathed his own sword and turned around fully, pushing a shell shocked Luke behind him. /I think it's high time someone cut out that snake's tongue once and for all./
But Jade's hand was on his shoulder before he had even taken two steps, his grip like veritable steel as it halted his progress. The colonel shook his head at the furious God-General and jerked it back towards Luke before turning a thoroughly unamused expression on the Grand Maestro and Duke Fabre. "On second thought, I've changed my mind. I believe that I shall keep them both as you obviously aren't very good at caring for them."
Asch gave the colonel a hard look, but finally capitulated and focused his attention back on Luke. /It's not true./
/Yes, it is./ Luke shook his head mournfully and looked down at the floor.
/You are far more than just a replica./
/You didn't believe that before./ Luke retorted and glanced up at Asch through his bangs.
/Oh yes, of course. Well, if we are going back to then, then I suppose I am just a mass murderer, after all, and you are really just a rather annoying piece of dreck./
Luke scowled at him and crinkled his nose up. /Fine. I see what you're getting at. But I don't have to be happy about it./
/Neither do I. But you still insist on trying to cheer me up, regardless./
Luke couldn't fight off a small smile at that. He was right, damnit. But it still hurt.
/I don't know if it will ever stop hurting./
/It sure doesn't seem that way./
"And now, I think that we shall take our leave," Jade said pleasantly. Duke Fabre was apparently having some difficultly forming words around his fury, and the colonel was more than willing to take full advantage of that. "If you'll excuse us." He bowed mockingly and gestured for the others to head through the door into the Oracle Knight Headquarters. A little surprise and perhaps the judicious use of a spell here and there should win them enough of a head start to escape upon. And if he had to kill any of them... Well, then he'd just have to kill them.
Guy shook his head sternly at himself. He very much wanted to do something, anything really, but he knew that now just wasn't the right time. Later perhaps, but either way, Duke Fabre was about to lose both of his sons, whether the man realized it or not. That was a good enough revenge as far as he was concerned. At least, for now. "Luke," he called out, continuing once his friend had glanced his way, "Let's just get out of here for now, okay?"
Luke grimaced, but nodded in agreement. There was nothing else to be said here. Not now. Maybe later...
But their luck still ran short, it seemed, because even before they had moved to do as Jade had silently instructed them to, the door leading to the Headquarters opened up and through it stepped a slim, but terribly familiar figure.
"Well," the God-General murmured as he glanced around the room, his mask hiding the majority of his reaction to what he had just come across. "This is certainly interesting."
Ion frowned sadly, wringing his hands unconsciously at this unexpected addition. "Sync."
The God-General smirked sardonically at the Fon Master, but then scowled an instant later as he cocked his head at Asch. "It figures. Always in the last place to look. I suppose you've been here the entire time?" He sighed then and crossed his arms. "How vexing."
"What the hell do you want?" Luke ground out as he reached back and prepared to draw his sword, unconsciously edging his way between the two God-Generals.
Sync shook his head in disgust, then smirked again as he noticed just exactly what Luke was doing. "Aw, feeling protective of your original? How nauseating."
Jade stepped forward, placing a calming hand on Luke's shoulder before giving Sync a pointed look. "Why are you here?"
The God-General merely shrugged his apparent apathy at the situation before simply offering, "I was asked to fetch Asch."
"Why? To finish the job?" Luke snarled heatedly as he tightened his grip on the sword's hilt.
Sync just looked at him, and from what little they could see, Luke's hostile behavior was actually confusing him. "What are you talking about?"
"Ah. Well," Jade began to explain, his tone conversational, no doubt his way of defusing the looming confrontation somewhat, "Just a few days past now, it seems as if Van Grants was quite intent on killing Asch, and did very nearly succeed. So you will understand why we are a bit reticent at your arrival."
Sync just seemed to stare at him for several seconds in something akin to shock. Then the God-General shook his head in denial. "That's impossible. The Commandant has been at the Absorption Gate for the past six days."
"Really now," Jade hummed thoughtfully and grasped his chin in contemplation. "Are you completely positive about that?"
"Well," Sync tipped his head slightly and admitted, "I've been busy searching for Asch for the past two days, but for the most part, yes, I am quite certain."
"That's very interesting," Jade murmured, turning this new puzzle over in his mind and picking at it a bit. They were all more than certain that it had been Van Grants' hand that had done the deed. But how exactly had he managed to do it and still maintain something of a presence amongst his troops? Intriguing question, that.
Luke straightened up, releasing his hold upon his sword and frowned. /I don't understand. It was Van... wasn't it?/
Asch shivered minutely at the dark memories that were being dredged up and nodded in absolute certainty. /Yes. It was him. No one else... No one else could know the things that he knew./
Luke glanced back at him in concern. /Are you-/
Asch shook his head, guessing easily at what Luke was asking of him. /No, I'm not./
Sync sighed in annoyance. "I really don't know a damned thing about what you're all going on about, and personally, I don't care. Are you coming or not?" His last question was obviously directed solely at his fellow God-General.
Asch stared up at him solemnly and slowly shook his head in answer.
"Fine," Sync said sharply and shrugged, "I guess I'll just report back then."
"You're not going to try and force him to go with you?" Jade asked curiously as the God-General whirled around and prepared to stalk his way out of the hallway.
"Of course not," Sync replied scornfully, "We've always been under orders to not harm the Sacred Flame more than absolutely necessary. I don't see any point in forcing the issue. You'll come of your own free will eventually anyway."
"Astute observation," Jade murmured, storing away that new, interesting title for later pondering as Sync the Tempest swiftly departed from their sterling company. "Well, I suppose that is that then," he said cheerfully a moment later, breaking the oppressive silence with his usual bizarre behavior. "Shall we go?"
The others looked at him in shock, but he simply smiled at them and gestured pointedly towards the door that the God-General had ever so kindly left open for their use.
"Luke," Duke Fabre called out after they had all shook themselves free of their shock and began to head towards the doorway.
Asch stiffened at the entreaty apparent in their father's voice, but shook his head firmly and continued to walk on.
Luke sighed and glanced back sadly at Duke Fabre. "I'm sorry, father. But he's not-" He stopped then, shook his head as well and looked forward. "No, we're not ready yet."
Then he walked on, following in the footsteps of the person who was more a part of his future than he ever would have guessed beforehand. And just this once, he felt no need to look back.
/Are you all right?/
/...But you will be?/
/I think so. Just give it time./
/...as am I./
As am I.
The Seventh Sephirah
Victory without Regret
The Place of our Emotions