Flicker of Judgment

A/N: This was going to be a one-shot; however, now that I look at the opening passages more closely, I decided on dividing it up some. "Flicker" has some spoilers on the God-Generals, Natalia, and Asch. Set during, around, and after the Zao Ruins' first visit.

Sand fell; more aplenty than water was in this clime, it mimed the motions of a waterfall, slithering between crack and crevice till it hit the earth and billowed forth a cloud of dust.

It was familiar, and therefore relaxing. Drawing a breath, he sighed in pleasure. Nostalgia tickled at the back of his mind. It was all the more poignant for the recent drama, and the actors in this Score's play added just a touch of irony.

Such irony was delicious; the fare of Yulia herself. More nurturing than water, harder than any blade, it readily cut at the heart.

And all knew that the heart's blood was the most fulfilling liquid of all.

"We could always attack them while their guard is down," Sync suggested quietly, checking the set of his bronze mask with nervous fingers. Much like the falcon, the green-haired boy's hands quaked and shivered as they worked. The boy burned off excess energy with meaningless twitches and shows of fussiness. "The pit is deep; a mere shove on one of the more slender passages…"

"That would be dishonorable," Asch growled, his emerald eyes not even flickering in Sync's direction. They remained rooted on the last retreating foe.

The following silence was not punctured by an expected scathing comment about the foolishness of honor. That made the youngest God-General give pause. Curious, Sync looked up at the tallest and most powerful of the God-Generals. Largo was uncharacteristically silent on a matter he usually felt deeply about; his eyes -- like Asch's -- were fixed upon the slender girl clad in blue and white.

"Largo the Black Lion does not break his sworn word." The large man came out of his daze even as he spoke. He heralded his dropping of whatever morose thoughts troubled him by a slow shake of his head. Dredging up a rueful grin, Largo rolled his shoulders as if shucking off some weighty pack and turned away from the path their opponents had taken in flight. Cropped, graying hair coupled with a thick beard gave the man the illusion of a mane. Add the lionesque look that with the black garb he wore… It was of little wonder why he was christened the "Black Lion" years ago. "Furthermore, an attack on them might kill Ion. The boy isn't above throwing himself in the way of danger to save someone else."

"He's a fool," Sync spat. "Let him die a fool's death."

Grey eyes gleamed with amusement. Largo twirled his scythe in one hand before setting it into its sheath across his back.

"And will the Tempest become a mere Gust, resign to the fate of confinement, and be bound to the Score? For that will be the Commandant's fate for you if you cross him."

For once, Sync had nothing to say, no vehement protest in sparing the life of Ion. It was a first -- one the dazed Asch seemed not to notice.

"That girl... Put her out of your thoughts, Asch. She's a princess in her land, far above your grasp," Largo rumbled.

Shaking his head, Asch only smiled. It was a bitter twisting of the lips, illuminated by a touch of irony in the eyes. Flicking a rebellious strand of red from his eyes, Asch chuckled.

"Why... Old man, I could almost say you seem to be interested in her yourself." Though the tone was light, steel was housed in those emerald eyes. "Could it possibly be that the Lion is eyeing this Kimlascan flower for part of his pride? Rather young for you, isn't she, old-timer?"

Blood suffused the cheeks of the Black Lion. With a warning growl, the God-General gripped the staff of his weapon, looking a mere heartbeat away from pulling it free.

"Asch, Largo! Enough!" Sync barked, leaping between his peers with a feline grace.

Feigning disinterest, Asch effected a yawn and stretched. The small scratch on his check burned a bit, and a fresh drizzle of blood crept down his face. It took little effort to act as if the pain of his wound didn't bother him, since it didn't. Asch turned his back on the two of them. He looked with hunger upon the open path which led to the Sephiroth.

"The Commandant's men will be here shortly to secure the area and establish if this is the seal he needs to manipulate," Sync continued. His announcement was met with a nod on Largo's part and a grunt on Asch's. "We will wait a short span, then forcibly evict any who remain on the premises."

"Fine." Asch mounted the crumbling stairs leading to the Sephiroth and looked around the overhang that guarded the building's front from the nonexistent sunshine and elements. It was as dust-choked as the rest of these ruins. Still, that darkened corner would serve... He turned then, turned his back on his allies and leaned against a whole pillar cast mostly in darkness. Ignoring the dust on the ancient building, he closed his eyes. "I'm taking a nap. If anything comes that's too powerful for Largo to kill by sitting on it, wake me up."

Curling into the darkness, Asch bent his knees and set his chin upon them. Wearily tucking his hands under the thick tabard he wore, he felt his hair fall about his face like a crimson screen. Gloved hands worried and twisted at the black shirt under his tabard. It was only with a monumental force of will that he checked his bad habit and made himself sham sleep.

Eventually, their eyes left him. He could feel their regard shift off him and onto other things. Largo told Sync that if the boy would use his fonic arts to heat a stone, he would begin to prepare dinner. A quick argument came up on whether or not they would feed Asch, and it was quickly resolved in favor of the negative.

At that, Asch smirked and lifted his hands. He pressed them against his chest and curled himself over his digits to hide the telltale glow of his efforts….

X

"Are we out yet?"

"No, Luke. It will take us as long to get out as it did for us to get in." Sighing, Natalia cast an annoyed look at the sulking noble. "Really, Luke, you shouldn't be complaining. Ion has been through so much, and he hasn't said a word."

Instead of shaming the Kimlascan noble into a semblance of decent behavior, Natalia's comment spurred him toward more whining.

"Whaddya mean, I can't whine? I'm not whining, I'm just pointing out what everyone else isn't." Mollified by his own gross leap of logic, Luke toned his sulking down to a grumble. "Tell me this, Nat: isn't everyone else hot, and miserable, and dusty? We're all miserable!"

"And you seem to enjoy wallowing in your own discomfiture and reminding all of us of something that we're trying to forget."

Luke opened his mouth to protest, but a strange tightening sensation on his throat made him stop. He coughed and opened his mouth to try to talk again, but the sensation got worse. He would have waved to get Natalia's attention to his strange dilemma, but his arms felt all heavy, though his legs were working just fine. So he walked on in unwilling silence, silently panicking because he couldn't even scream. As he walked, Luke's panic increased tenfold when he realized his face refused to even twitch in response to his fear. Then his mouth did open, and the words they spoke weren't what he would have ever used.

"You're right. I'm sorry."

Natalia stopped. They were already lagging behind the others due to the crisp pace set by the Colonel. The pace's purpose was less military-based and more of an effort to put some distance between the "adults" in the group and Luke. Natalia had allowed herself to fall behind, constantly casting strange, bewildered looks into the darkness behind them as if it would suddenly offer an answer to her unspoken question. Now she was completely jolted out of her thoughts by Luke's most surprising statement. She whirled on her heel, eyes wide, face slightly flushed.

"You…. What?"

"Jeez, Natalia, can't I say I'm sorry every now and then?"

Natalia blinked, her expression saying louder than words that she thought the world must be ending. Luke never apologized for anything -- not since his capture years ago. He stared at her, emerald eyes wide, guileless, but… somehow wrong. The once carefree orbs were darker, more somber, somehow…

"You once told me… that a noble never apologizes. Ever."

Luke smiled at her, then shrugged. It was a Luke-like gesture, but it seemed strained somehow.

"Sorry, but you know how Father is, and… he was right there."

And there he was, apologizing again. So unlike him, almost humble and amused at himself for being in the wrong; it was a completely alien behavior for Luke to be pursuing. Pressing her lips into a thin line, she set her hands on her hips and looked at Luke long and hard.

"Who are you and what have you done to Luke?"

"Hey, don't talk like that!" Lifting his hands as if to ward an invisible blow, Luke smiled. It was a small, guarded thing that barely curled the edge of his lips. "You'd think I was a jerk or something!"

"Well, sometimes it could be said that you are." Thoughtfully, Natalia tapped her lower lip with a slender finger. Then she smiled, her hazel eyes acquiring a wicked glint. "There are times--" She continued taking a few steps forward. He matched every one of her steps with one back, "-- spans, I should say, when you can be grossly insensitive.

Luke stepped back one time too many. His foot nearly slid over the edge of the small walkway. He froze, then his emerald eyes went wide as Natalia cupped the left half of his face with a hand. Luke cringed from the touch, as if in pain, and then relaxed as if remembering that he wasn't supposed to be in pain. Curiosity satisfied, Natalia dropped her hand and walked away. The motion was so fast that Luke looked a little dazed.

"You aren't Luke. You are that other... person. That man who looks like Luke."

Luke's voice grew hard, harsh. A mirror image of Asch's. "And if I am? Then what, Your Highness?"

"Then nothing," Natalia answered. Her voice shook, though, showing her facade of unflappable calm to be just that: a facade. "You aren't here to hurt us. You could have back there." Natalia waved a hand to indicate the god-general's current abode. "You haven't, though I must say your... subverting of Luke against his will is rather beastly."

"Desperate times, Natal. I'd rather not be using this... thing at all." Luke waved to himself... no, to Luke's form, his expression one of complete disgust.

Natalia stiffened, not at the show of bitterness, but in realization. She looked upon the Luke who wasn't Luke with wide eyes.

"How did you know to call me that?"

"Natal?" Asch caused Luke's lips to curl a bit more. He shrugged. The abrupt motion was so unlike Luke's customary lazy roll of the shoulders that anyone could have told them apart. "Let's just say... I know more about you -- and Luke -- then you would probably like. I'm not here to rehash the times, though. We need to catch up."

Luke -- or more likely, the man who was controlling Luke -- nodded to the path behind them, his face grim. Catching his meaning, Natalia shivered. Darkness pierced by twisted beams of light from the surface illuminated the path ahead. It showed the princess of Kimlasca what she did not want to see: no one had waited for them. Not even Guy had bothered to linger discreetly out of earshot.

As if eavesdropping on her thoughts, Asch forced Luke's lips to twist bitterly.

"Nice group of people you're traveling with. A warm, affectionate bunch."

X

From dark to light, they ran. Anise huffed and puffed at the effort of lugging the sandlogged Tokunaga over her shoulder. Not even breathing hard, the Malkuth colonel crossed the final bend, easily outstripping the weary fon master guardian by virtue of his longer legs. Luke was in the lead, Guy right beside him, and a resolute Tear only a step behind the servant.

Perhaps it was her imagination, but Tear's immediate presence was making Guy run a little faster.

Holding the rear, weighed with arrows and a long bow that she had tripped over five times already due to her unfamiliarity with it, Natalia wondered somewhat morosely if there was sand getting into the quiver. She decided to tip the thing over and pour it out when it next became prudent.

That time, however, wasn't going to be any time soon. Three figures stood around Ion; they wore black, and the emblems of the Order of Lorelei were stitched upon their clothes. It was only when she saw them cast in red upon the black background of Asch the Bloody's it occurred to her that they looked like hearts. It was almost as if thier enemies were figures cast from the dark heart suit. The Warrior King suited the man with a lion's mane; the Jester for the green-haired boy whose odd clothes were almost comical. Comedy clashed with anger and was dispelled, for the green haired boy's rage banished all humor.

As for the man with red hair... Natalia would have picked the Lord's Son card for him.

The last was the easiest to pick, and perhaps just a touch chilling in its irony. Now that they were so close, it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

"Give back Ion!" Sword out, Luke decided to forgo any diplomatic measures and just attacked.

"Don't you ever say anything else?" Drawing the startled Ion to his side, Asch drew his black sword. "Damn it, don't let them through!"

But it was too late; Largo and Sync closed ranks a breath too slow. Guy and Luke were through. Tear's advance was stopped by the lion-haired man's downward swing of his scythe. Blade crunching into the earth a mere millimeter in front of her nose, Tear skidded to a stop and leapt off the flat of the massive weapon to put some distance between herself and Largo.

"Mistress Cantor Grants," Largo rumbled. "Put down your weapon."

From behind, the clash of steel on steel told them all Asch was taking on Luke and Guy. Dropping into a crouch, Natalia pulled a blunted arrow from her quiver. She would not strike to kill; these people were only misguided, after all, but she would strive to disarm them. Perhaps some peaceable agreement could be made...

Jade heaved a sigh upon seeing Sync slip around Largo, a knife in his hands. The Colonel drew his spear from nothingness and cast it as Sync's feet. The explosion of the spear's fonon discharge threw the lithe god-general from his feet.

Tear drew back her arm to throw, but the brunette's attempted attack -- the move was unfortunately like throwing a pin needle at a mountain -- was answer enough. Largo wrenched his arms back, and with a mighty surge of strength knocked Tear off her feet and threw her back. The knife hit the dusty ground with a muffled clatter.

That was Natalia's signal; releasing the string of her bow, she cast her first arrow into the melee. The impact jarred Largo's weapon, causing it to dip. The monumental force behind the blow plus the small interference was enough; the attack that would have sheared through Tear as if she was nothing came in too fast, too low, and its momentum carried Largo off course from his target. Blade bit once more into earth; the effort was wasted...

Save that now Tear, seeing the complete ruthlessness of her adversary, was pulling back step by cautious step, giving Largo all the room he needed to swing his scythe around.

Ahead, from the half-crumbling steps of a forgotten city there was the clash of steel on steel. Asch the Bloody was fighting Luke and Guy, and by Guy's curses the god-general was holding his own against them both.

Largo lifted his blade in a guard; one twist of his wrist allowed him to bring the blade up in time to block another blunted arrow. Yet another knife cut through the air and clanged against his armored side, doing little damage. Ignoring Tear, the Black Lion looked to Natalia and smiled.

"Mercy, Princess? Do not demean your foes with such hollow sentiments."

X

"I could say… less of… the… people you… travel with," Natalia sniffed. Or rather, she would have liked to. Her words were more like hard gasps, and the subtleties that she liked to pepper her language with were impossible at the harsh pace Lu-- no, Asch was setting. Running and talking, she was fast to learn, were very difficult to do simutaneously. Later, she would wonder if that had been intentional -- that Asch didn't want her to talk, so he forced her to keep pace with him. At the present moment, though, all she felt was exhaustion, weariness; but mixed with that was the fear he'd leave her alone in this dust-choked darkness.

Asch, using Luke's mouth, managed a weary grunt. He was clutching his side, looking chagrined, and when Natalia nearly passed him on the most recent turn of stairs, he reached out with a shaking hand to stop her.

"Have to rest..." he croaked. "Dreck... isn't as… fit... as I am."

Natalia bit her lip, but said nothing, allowing her weary legs to buckle. She caught herself before she got hurt, twisted a bit so that it was a more controlled fall so that she hit the ground in a pose more proper for sitting. Emerald eyes watched her descent, but their owner, true and artifice, said nothing.

"It must be hard on you and Luke, for you to be controlling him like this." Silence was his response to her statement. Perhaps Asch offered her a mute glare for her audacity; perhaps he was merely using the time to gather his breath. Having closed her eyes, Natalia sighed and set her chin on her tucked knees. "Why can you not tell me what you wish to say, and I will convey it to the others? Why not merely say what you wish to say through a note or some less exotic means than this rather sadistic-seeming dominance?"

"You wouldn't believe me."

"I find it difficult enough to believe you now," Natalia admitted with a weary shrug. She turned her head and opened her eyes, all to better look at the Luke who was not Luke. "To be more honest, I find it impossible to believe in your so-called peaceful intents when your methods are anything but."

"Believe as you will." Asch snarled his reply, his tone a morass of emotion. Confidence, wounded pride, faintly veiled power…

Terror, though, glimmered in those eyes, and the terror wasn't Asch's. It was Luke's. Natalia knew it. And for knowing, she shivered.

With a quiet growl, Asch forced Luke's hand to stop pressing against the side that had stitched up in pain. A few deep breaths drawn by lungs that weren't his were enough to regain some small measure of stamina.

"We have to go. Can you walk?"

Natalia managed to stand, managed a nod. She would not, dared not, appear weak against someone as ruthless as Asch the Bloody.

"Good. We need to move on." He turned then, faced her. And though the expression was amused, the amusement was forced, and the terror in from the original owner was present -- if frozen -- within the depths of emerald eyes. The unconscious, animal fear that Asch was unaware of made a mockery of whatever emotion Asch was trying to convey through Luke.

Oblivious to Natalia's thoughts and observations, Asch smiled at her.

"We've little time, so while I escort you back to your friends we will talk, and you will do what I say."

From somewhere, Natalia found her courage. Though tired, strength came to her and she gathered it about like a cloak. "And if I don't?"

"Then Sync would like that." Asch the Bloody said the last with a grim smile that suited Luke like water would a cat. "He would like that very much."

To Natalia's involuntary shiver, Asch reached out, perhaps to comfort, to soothe. Luke's hand settled on her shoulder. The gentle pressure the man's grip exerted should have comforted. Quietly, Natalia shrugged off the grip and checked her quiver, all the while pointedly ignoring Lu-- Asch...

"Yulia forefend we make this... Sync of yours happy," Natalia managed, with scarcely a stutter to betray her nerves. Before Asch could do anything else, the Kimlascan princess stepped around him, giving the man who was and was not Luke as wide a berth as she would have a rabid wolf. "Shouldn't we be hurrying?"

Stone was more expressive then Asch when he willed it, save for his eyes. For years Van had harped at him to learn some control, for "the doors to his soul" -- as some called it -- always betrayed him. Now, locked in a paralysis of terror, he could not longer give away his own thoughts, even if he wanted to.

"You're right." Luke's head nodded, driven by the will of a man he didn't know. A man who somehow knew everything about him and Natalia. "Let's go."