The night sky was cloudless and beautiful as Luke arrived arrived at the gravestones, his hands full of the selenia blossoms he and Tear had recently gathered. As was his custom, he carefully laid a fresh batch upon Suzanne's grave, but then, after a moment's consideration, he arranged a few around the one next to it, which had no flowers.
"You're wasting your time," someone said behind him.
Luke turned to greet his unexpected guest. "Yeah, well, it just looks strange when there's nothing on it. You are officially dead, you know."
"I only died once," Asch said as he limped forward, the Sorcerer's Ring gleaming around his neck; Mieu had come back to visit and lent it to him for the night.
Luke just smiled."With how many lives you go through, you should have been a cat, not a dog." Asch just snorted in response, shifting his weight from his left hind leg. He hadn't actually died from his wound, of course, but the blade had entered in such a way that some of his hip muscles had been damaged and scarred; consequently, he was now walking with a pronounced limp. Aware of his companion's discomfort, Luke stepped back from the graves until he found a good place to sit down on the grass, allowing Asch to sit next to him without compromising the setter's pride.
"What'd you think of the wedding?" he asked as Asch settled down next to him.
"It was all right, I guess," Asch replied. "It's not like I've been to any other weddings between two major world powers that I could compare it to. At least they take security more seriously now."
Luke laughed. "After the banquet incident, I don't think anyone would dare try anything as long as you're around. They're still talking about it."
"Yeah, and the rumors are just getting more and more out there. There's this crazy story going around that you're really the spirit of her first love, Asch the Bloody, come back to protect her in her hour of need."
"What a bunch of sentimental nonsense. You don't believe any of it, do you?"
Luke feigned affrontedness. "Me? Of course not."
Asch went silent for a moment. "Jade knows, though. I don't know how he does, but I can tell by the way he looks at me."
"I didn't tell him, honestly," Luke said quickly.
"I know," Asch assured him.
Luke thought for a moment, then said carefully, "The question is, does Natalia believe all of these stories?"
Asch didn't say anything for a long while. "There are some things," he said at last, "that don't need to be said with words. That's the understanding between her and me, and that's all we need."
Luke just shrugged and decided to change the subject. "Oh, did you hear? They caught up to that apothecary in Chesedonia. He took some of his own poison before they could bring him in, though, ranting about some vengeful dog spirit that tried to kill him once already for helping with the murder plot, and would come for him again now that it had gotten Murshel." He raised an eyebrow. "I don't think you've told me everything you were up to while I was gone that time." Asch didn't respond, and instead just stared at the gravestones. He could read them again; ever since being treated with Seventh Fonons during the healing process, his old human abilities had returned.
Feeling that his friend wasn't in the mood for further conversation Luke decided to call it a night. He stood, and Asch followed.
"By the way," he said, "After Tear and I are wed, Father's giving us Choral Castle- we're going to clear out all the monsters and fix the place up- it just seems fitting because that's where it all began- at least for me, it did. I just wanted you to know you're welcome to visit any time."
"Thanks," Asch said, "but it'll probably only be when Natalia and Guy come to visit- I've got duties to fulfill, after all."
"You could always hand them off to your little sister every now and then," Luke said slyly.
Asch muttered something about rappiglets as they made their way toward the manor. "That's not what I mean, and you know it."
"Of course I do," Luke laughed, "I'm just messing with you." They walked in silence to the front gate, where they said good night to each other and parted ways. Luke turned back to the manor, and Asch headed back to the castle. Asch stopped for a moment and looked around himself reflectively- at the family manor, at the castle where Natalia waited, at slumbering Baticul below him. He did have duties to fulfill here, but they were things only he could do, not just any man or dog or even a rappiglet hand-picked by the emperor. Hebelongedhere.
Finally, he'd come home.
Well, this story is finally completed! I hope you enjoyed it- thank you to everyone who read it and to all the people who reviewed it. Have a wonderful new year!