Chapter 1: Family
To anyone of who had never seen it, the capital of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear was nothing short of amazing. Built within a natural crater created by a falling fonstone, the city's many levels towered above the surrounding mountains. Cobblestone streets lined the many colourful shops and the cable cars that connected the city were incredible as they zipped down their lines carrying the populace from place to place.
Yet, not a single one of these things impressed the redheaded boy who stood before the awe-inspiring heights. He watched them for but a moment, his dirty cloak billowing in the wind. Though his dress labelled him a traveller, his age left those passing by wondering where his parents were. The boy regarded their questioning stares with no more interest than he showed in Baticul's sights. None of it was important to him. The cable cars wouldn't take him where he wanted to go, and he had no use for the frivolous goods the shops were offering. All he cared about was the very top level and what he would find there. And he knew exactly what he'd find; he had 10 years of memories drawing it all out in his mind.
Racing for the lift, no one paid the 10-year old any mind, slipping on just as the machine lurched and began its ascent. He fidgeted nervously, trying to brush the dirt from his clothing, though there was nothing he could do to hide where the fabric was torn. The concern was momentary, swiftly brushed from his mind as the lift came to a stop.
The guard barely had the gate open when he bolted from the lift. Dashing up the short stairs to the stone courtyard, his gaze immediately fell upon the brilliant water fountain at its centre. The sides were lined with trees and other foliage and it all led up to the castle, the heart of Baticul, where the king and his lovely daughter lived.
The castle wasn't what he was looking for, not this time. Off to the left of the castle, sat a manor. It was large, even as far as manors went, but it paled in comparison to the castle in whose shadow it dwelt. It had exactly 56 bedrooms, 39 hallways, an entryway, two kitchens, a library, and drawing room that was used more as a dining room than anything else. At the center there was a courtyard lined with statues and flowers that the gardener carefully tended to each day and if you went around to the side you found an even larger yard that was lined with trees and more flowers. The manor could be considered many things, but right now, only one of them mattered.
It was home.
He raced past the guard who stood dutifully at the entrance, his crimson hair flying out behind him. The guard looked confusedly at the red blur that had just flown past but dismissed it as nothing, probably the young master in trouble with the young princess again. But... no, the guard shrugged off the half-formed thought. The lack of any decent sleep given the whole kidnapping fiasco could clearly dampen even the keenest senses. What games the imagination could play... perhaps it was time to consider a holiday.
The boy looked back over his shoulder; the guard hadn't even taken notice of him... good. He didn't care to deal with that right now. Following the sounds that came from the yard, he didn't even bother to go inside. His sword bounced against his back as he ran, painfully reminding him of the cuts and bruises that covered it. His legs echoed the pain that his back emanated, but he refused to slow down, not now. He was almost there. Everyone was worried, he had been gone too long, and he had no doubt they were all waiting for him. Their smiles, warm open arms reaching out to him while exuberant laughter full of relief and joy filled the air... it was a scene his mind's eye had created, the sole thought that had gotten him through these past months was finally here. They were here... they were waiting for him to come home.
When he thought back on it, he couldn't say how long he stood there. It might have been seconds, it might have been hours. Time itself became completely inconsequential standing there among the shadows of the trees that lined the courtyard. Not even a Score reading could have readied him for what he had come across when he turned that final corner.
It was him.
Only it wasn't. The boy who was sitting in the courtyard looked identical to him in almost every way. His face, his clothes... it was a mirror image that fluttered across the yard, glimmering in the sun like a reflection that danced across the water's surface. But this illusion did not vanish. Playfully chasing a butterfly as his family and a few choice servants looked on with smiles on their faces, no one had a worry in the world. The boy fell. He started to cry.
"Please don't cry Master Luke!"
He had wiped the tears from his eyes before realizing that the servants were at the other boy's side, and that their words had not been for him. How could this have happened? Why...why didn't they care? Years upon years of being told that he was special, that he was needed, it all came crashing down around him as he watched them help the boy back to his feet. The boy took a couple steps before falling again, this time into his mother's embrace.
"Honestly he's just like a baby except with a bigger body," she smiled as she pulled the boy closer and the boy smiled back.
"Yes, for him to suffer from amnesia to this extent... what he knew about being a ruler, his swordsmanship, why he doesn't even remember how to talk," her husband replied softly, with his usual emotionless façade.
"But he's safely home, isn't that all that matters?" She released her hold on the boy and he stumbled off.
"I suppose so."
The entire world froze in that moment. His mother's smile, the servants, the boy, the entire scene before him burned itself into his mind, and echoes of whispered words crept back into his ears.
They don't need you.
"Hey Luke!" A familiar voice rose up, drowning out the whispers of the past that were haunting him. Natalia. Certainly she, if no one else would, she would notice something was amiss. She would wonder where he was and come seeking him. The bond that they shared was between them alone, and there was nothing in the world, including that boy, that could take that away from him.
"Where have you been?" she said exasperated, "I've been looking everywhere for you." The young Princess' soft smile lit up the courtyard, but that light shattered him, leaving him beclouded as she pulled out a ring of flowers, the symbol of their promise, and placed them on the other boy.
They don't need you.
He understood now. They didn't need him. Oh sure, they liked the idea of him, but when it all came down to it, anyone who fit the description would do. It had nothing to do with him or any of his talents and abilities. The skills he had spent all these years building amounted to absolutely nothing in their eyes. Because they didn't need him.
A gentle tug on his sword derailed his train of thought. He looked over his shoulder to see the boy curiously trying to lift and examine the weapon on his back, failing to understand it was strapped on and wouldn't move very far. Panicked, he ducked behind the tree before daring to steal a glance over at the others. His parents were caught up in a conversation, apparently disagreeing over something or another; Natalia had gone off to pick some more flowers and was already in the process of lacing them together; the three maids were chatting amongst themselves, giggling about Score knows what; and the sole male servant, a blond teenage boy, sat off to the side obviously bored and staring up at the sky when not shooting a nervous glance at the three maids. No one had noticed the absence of their charge it seemed.
The other boy tried to follow him around the tree but tripped over one of the roots that was protruding from the ground. Instinctively, he reached out and caught the boy by the arm. Their eyes met.
It was like looking into a mirror.
The boy that stood before him was his height and his size. They had the same long red hair and even the same emerald eyes. No. They didn't have the same eyes. The eyes that looked back at him sparkled with a childish curiosity and hopefulness, oblivious to the pain and harsh realities of the world, something he had recently become all too familiar with. He could just imagine what this boy saw in him. Suffering, betrayal, hopelessness, sorrow, a myriad of emotions that were suffocating him, smothering him until all that remained was a shadow of the bright, ambitious person he had once been.
The boy looked at him, almost as if contemplating who he was. The question in this stranger's eyes was obvious: who could he be, looking like he did, identical to the boy's own reflection? But the problem faded as quickly as the unspoken query had come, leaving an innocent smile in its stead. The matter was inconsequential to this person who had taken his place. It was a frozen moment, neither he nor the boy said a word... yet somehow, such a thing was unnecessary.
After a moment of thought, the boy took the ring of flowers off. That sweet smile never leaving his face, the blossoms were carefully placed over him, their white petals mingling with his crimson hair. He felt his tears return.
The boy's hand was soft and warm as it sat on his cheek, feeling tears that were impossible to understand. His reflection looked at him and his tears, not knowing what they were or why they were there. Only knowing that because there were tears, there must also be pain, and pain... hurt. Gathering his remaining strength, he gently placed his hand over the boy's. His once proud voice came out sad and broken.
Luke continued to look at him for a moment, pondering the situation, but before he could do anything, Luke had stepped closer and he found himself trapped in a soft embrace. He tensed at first completely caught in Luke's unexpected gesture, but then he slowly relaxed and all the pain that he had tried to force away took over. He hesitantly returned Luke's gesture, allowing the warmth to slowly wash all the wretchedness away. He held his reflection for all that it was worth as his tears continued to silently flow.
There was pain, and the pain had to go away. When there was pain, people did this, and it went away. Special people did this and all the pain always went away.
"Family..." he answered gently.
Family did this, and it all went away.
"Master Luke? Master Lu-" The maid froze at the sight she stumbled upon. They had finally noticed his absence and she had wandered over to see what the young master was so interested in. She had no idea.
He looked up at her and Luke turned around, almost tripping over his own feet in the process. He caught Luke before he fell and steadied him on his feet. The maid muttered something that Luke certainly shouldn't be hearing at his age...well his mental state, and ran off to go get the others. Honestly, she should know to watch her tongue around children, much less her master. Well, he couldn't entirely blame her; it was a rather... unique situation. What a fine mess this was becoming.
Still clinging to his sleeve and trying to steady himself, Luke met his gaze and smiled, that same heart-warming, innocent smile, and he couldn't help but smile back. Luke really was a big baby. In that last moment, he debated leaving. It was obvious to him that everyone was doing just fine without him. No one had even noticed he was missing, no had even suspected anything was amiss. He could completely vanish with none the wiser, leaving only a confused boy and a maid who'd seen too much sun in his wake, the only testimony to his existence. He couldn't go back to his old life, that life died the day he was taken away. There wasn't room in the world for two Luke fon Fabres.
He wiped away his tears, the last tears he would let himself shed. It would be a new beginning. With a deep sigh, he gathered what remained of his shattered will and turned his back on all that he loved.
Luke grabbed his sleeve again. Luke didn't want him to leave. He didn't want to leave either, not really. But what was left for him here? Nothing. No one here needed him; no one here wanted him. There was no point in staying where there was no longer a place for him. He looked Luke in the eyes, silently pleading him to let go, but Luke only clutched his sleeve tighter. And then it clicked.
Luke wanted him to stay.
Him and him alone.
There were no complex feelings, no ulterior motives, no reasoning whatsoever in Luke's actions. His feelings were so completely and utterly simple and for whatever the reason was, they were as plain as day to him. His leaving caused Luke pain, and Luke didn't want that. He was someone special. Special people didn't go away.
And then the chance of leaving was gone forever.
"Luke? Luke? Are you all right over the-"
It had been the blond, Guy, who got there first. He too froze at what he saw. T-Two of them? It was as if Luke were standing next to a frameless mirror. They were identical, completely and utterly identical, except for the clothes they were wearing but it wasn't like that made any kind of difference. More of the staff had begun to gather around, interested in the source of the commotion. The boys both took an uncomfortable step back. Damn, they even moved the same way.
"What is going on over here? Back to your allotted tasks!" The Duke's voice commanded over the crowd. Luke shrunk back at the commanding voice of their father and inched closer to him. He didn't blame Luke. That voice had the ability to scare off armies. The small crowd immediately dispersed until only the Duke, his wife, the young princess, and a few choice servants remained.
"L-Luke?" Susanne muttered hesitantly. Luke poked his head out from where he had been hiding behind his counterpart.
"Damn," Guy muttered to himself. He still couldn't get over the resemblance. It took him few minutes and even then there were no more than a couple very small differences between the two boys that stood before them, barely enough to distinguish the two. The one that they had been looking after had hair that was a few shades lighter and that almost had a golden hue when the sun shone on it, while the other one had hair that was pure crimson, a difference that would have gone completely unnoticed unless the two stood side by side. The other one wore clothes that were tattered and torn though they had clearly once been fine. Dirt camouflaged the countless bruises and cuts that covered him and it was plain as day that he was very uncomfortable in front of his onlookers.
There was no doubt in Guy's mind that this other boy was in fact the real Luke fon Fabre. Guy had spent enough time watching him to be sure of that. There was no mistaking the aura enveloping him. The look on his face, his piercing cold eyes... there was absolutely no doubt. He wasn't the bright ray of sunshine his counterpart was... no this boy was a lonely winter night, frigid and cut off from the world. He was different than he had been before though, he was sadder somehow, and knowing this only drove home the horrid conclusion that was slowly creeping its way into his mind. Could he have actually gone through with it?
"Goodness! They're identical!" One of the maids finally exclaimed after moments of tense silence.
"Yeah," Guy agreed softly to himself. "He could almost be a replica."
"Replica?" Susanne queried softly turning towards Guy, "Do you know something of this?"
Guy cursed at himself for being so careless. This was the last thing he wanted to bring into an already precarious situation. "No...it's nothing." Guy managed to mumble.
"If there is anything you know about this you will tell me at once!" The Duke's angry voice echoed across the silent yard. Guy cringed.
"I apologize Your Grace," Guy said through gritted teeth, "I was just thinking of something an old friend told me about once. It just seemed too farfetched and I did not want to worry Your Grace with such wild speculations." Guy painfully bit back the words he would have liked to tack on to the end of that statement. Now wasn't the time or the place for pettiness.
"Please." The lady of the house knelt down so she could look the young teen in the eye, smiling gently. "If you have any ideas, no matter how farfetched, please share them."
Guy stood firm for about half a second but any shred of determination he'd mustered shattered under the Lady's gentle gaze. No one could say no to her smile. If she smiled and asked someone to jump off the castle roof, they'd probably do it. He let out a defeated sigh before hesitantly beginning his explanation.
"It's a story someone told me when I was younger, about a technology that could replicate things using fonons. But when they realized it could be used on living things, it was supposedly banned."
Duke Fabre was good at many things, however, controlling his emotions was not one of them. Unfortunately for the young blond servant, he was the easy target of the Duke's growing frustration.
"Just what exactly are you implying? And do remember exactly who we are speaking of! I'm not going to stand here as you insinuate that someone has been using fomicry on my son!"
Fomicry. He had never heard of any such thing before and made a mental note to look it up at the first given opportunity. His father obviously knew, or had at least heard of the technology in question; else he certainly wouldn't be so outraged. Or know its name. That was so like Father. He almost felt bad for Guy. Almost.
"But Dear," Susanne interjected, still sitting at Guy's eye level. "Certainly you can't deny the possibility." She looked at the two boys. Even she could scantily tell them apart. "If our enemies indeed had access to such a technology, wouldn't they-" her thoughts followed through to the inevitable conclusion of her idea and she was unable to finish.
"L-Luke?" Susanne called, on the verge of tears, obviously referring to him. He waited a moment before hesitantly shaking his head. He wasn't their Luke anymore. They had taken their Luke back; it was someone he could no longer be.
"Enough of this nonsense!" Duke Fabre took control of the situation. "You are my son, are you not?" He returned his father's gaze but offered no response. "Good then," his father said decisively, the lack of response apparently good enough for him. "Then what are we doing with that atrocious thing?" He demanded, his finger pointed straight at Luke.
"What?" The Duke's statement drew Guy's attention away from the hatred he had been focusing onto seven very specific blades of grass to keep him from doing something he'd regret. How could he say such a thing? Five minutes ago that boy had been his son! Now he was going to take him out with the rest of the garbage? Fortunately, it seemed Susanne shared his outrage at the statement. She had stood up and was ready to intervene, but as they watched the scene play out before them, they relaxed. Luke, it seemed, had an unexpected defender.
He had taken Luke's arm and pulled it behind him, adopting a somewhat defensive stance in front of his counterpart. His hesitant look had become a determined glare, matching the intensity of his father's. The message was very clear; he wasn't letting anyone so much as lay a finger on Luke.
He surprised himself by how quickly and how naturally he came to Luke's defence. Exactly why, he would never know. Perhaps it was because Luke was the last thing he had that gave his own existence any meaning whatsoever, or perhaps it was just that Luke seemed so utterly defenceless, or maybe even just because Luke was someone special.
Duke Fabre let out an exasperated sigh. "So what do you suggest we do? We can't have two Lukes running all over the place."
"Don't be silly dear," Susanne sad softly as she came up and placed her arm around her husband's with a smile. "You heard him before, he isn't Luke."
"Well then who is he?" Duke Fabre's voice was escalating along with his frustration.
"A-" The sound echoed as everyone fell silent and their attention all turned to its source. Luke hesitantly stepped back at the sudden focus of attention on him.
"Well would you look at that," Guy exclaimed as he approached Luke. "He's trying to say something. I wonder what he's trying to say?" He looked at Luke. "Well there little guy, what is it?"
Luke contemplated it for a moment. "A-" but stopped, letting out a small sigh, obviously unable to come up with whatever sound he wanted to.
"Oh well," Guy ruffled Luke's hair playfully, "I guess we'll never know."
Guy jumped at the unexpected voice that sounded behind him. For whatever reason, he never expected the brat to talk. He hadn't said a word since they stumbled upon the two of them. But he completely ignored Guy and went straight to Luke.
"Say it," he said forcibly.
"Oh come on, go easy on him, he doesn't know how to talk yet," Guy finally managed to get out.
He ignored Guy rambling behind him, this time looking Luke right in the eye. "Say it."
"A-" Luke let out another sigh.
"A..." Luke gave up and folded his arms and put on a pout, obviously unable to produce the right sounds. He smiled, then couldn't resist a small laugh. That was the saddest attempt at saying 'family' he had ever heard. Yet somehow he knew that had been what Luke wanted to say. It gave him an idea... and he liked it.
"Asch," he declared, stringing together the sounds Luke had produced and turning to face his parents. He liked it; it had certain degree of irony to it. He was once Luke, 'the light of the sacred flame,' now he was its ashes.
Luke smiled as he grabbed Asch's hand. "A-the" he said with a big grin before running up to his mother, who was now smiling back at him, at them both.
"Well then," Susanne said gently, "I think that's more than enough excitement for one day, wouldn't you agree?" She smiled at Luke and he smiled back. She gently took Luke's hand. "There is much to do now, shall we head inside?" Luke answered with a fervent nod. "Are you coming... Asch?"
The name seemed so foreign as it escaped her lips and she was hesitant to use it, but the grateful smile that her son gave her at the sound of the name he'd chosen, of his name, was more than enough to reassure her.
Asch slowly shook his head. He wasn't going inside just yet. For a moment, a horrible idea grazed her thoughts. What if he was planning to leave? Her worries proved groundless though, as she watched him steal occasional glances at Natalia. Goodness! She had completely forgotten the young princess was even there. She was off to the side, standing with her toes pointed inwards, nervously clutching her hands, and appeared to be very interested in the four leaves that were on the ground by her feet. Susanne simply smiled, and quietly led Luke and the rest of the crowd away. She would leave them be.
Leave it to Mother. Asch watched her leave and take the crowd with her. As much as she intended well, he was rather reluctant to be left alone with Natalia. He knew he would have to confront her eventually, and while now should be as good a time as any, the pain was too close to the surface, and he didn't have the strength to deal with it now, not mentally, not emotionally.
"L-Luke?" Natalia uttered after seconds of tense silence. She waited a moment, but she got no response. He was looking off in the distance at the other boy, the one who looked so much like him. She had listened to the others talking. She wasn't quite sure she understood it all, but this was the real Luke... wasn't it? It was her Luke, wasn't it? The one with whom she had shared so many wonderful moments, the one who made her that promise...it was him...wasn't it?
"Luke?" Still no answer.
"Luke!" She finally said loudly in a very put-on manner. She would never forget the look that he gave her. It was cold, lined with sorrow and a pain that plunged without end into the very depths of his soul. He said nothing as he slowly shook his head. She saw what she thought was the glisten of a tear, but he looked away before she could be sure.
No. He was her Luke and she wasn't going to give up on him so easily. She wasn't going to let him slip away, not like this. "Luke!" she repeated again, but he wouldn't answer. He had heard her, but he wouldn't answer her. She tried putting herself in front of him, where he wouldn't be able to easily avert her gaze, but still he wouldn't even look her in the eyes.
He couldn't do it. Natalia was standing right there but he couldn't bring himself to face her. Watching Luke stumble around the other end of the courtyard was all that was keeping him from taking off. He couldn't handle this, he just wasn't ready yet. He refused to answer to Natalia, so long as she called him 'Luke'. He wasn't going to answer to Luke anymore. It wasn't him, and he wasn't going to pretend. He just wanted, more than anything, for her to accept him, to accept him for who he was. He wanted her to accept Asch, but perhaps he was deluding himself after all.
Natalia took off, returning to the castle in tears. Asch stood alone, feeling horrible. He should have said something to her, but it was just too hard. He knew it wasn't her fault, but that didn't make things any easier, it still hurt. He would make it up to her someday, once the pain wasn't so close to the surface. He would make amends, and he would see her smile again.
"Asch is it? A fitting name." A voice came from the shadows. Asch didn't need to turn around to know who it was. It would be a long time before he ever forgot the voice whose whispers still haunted him. "Look at them," the voice continued "they didn't even notice you were missing. Had they not seen you, they never would have known. And even now, some of them won't even acknowledge you." Asch was silent. "I'm sorry I had to do this, but you needed to see for yourself the lies that these people have fed you for so many years. They told you that you were special, that you were needed, and yet they didn't even notice that you were gone. But it's different for me. I need you, and only you. If it wasn't you, it just wouldn't be right. Won't you consider coming with me? We'll make a place in the world for you alone, away from this void where no one wants or needs you."
"What?" the voice said, completely caught off guard by Asch's response. That wasn't part of the plan. He hadn't taken this possibility into account.
"You're wrong," Asch said simply. "Even if everyone else here replaced me, there's still one person who needs me and only me."
And with that last sentence, Asch walked off before the person in the shadows could say another word.
Disclaimer: Characters and locations in this and subsequent chapters belong to Namco Bandai. As much as I wish they belonged to me...they don't and that makes me sad. So until the day I come up with a way to get Namco to give them to me, I can only play around with them in my story.
References: For several parts of Asch's backstory in this and later chapters, I used the Asch Gaiden as reference. The scanlation I used was the one posted by Raethes on the Tales of the Abyss community on LJ. The actual translator was a friend who wasn't mentioned by name. For lines from the game, I used the script typed by ladynadiad as a reference.
Thanks! I hope you all enjoy the rest of the story.