Flicker of Judgment

chapter 52

Epilogue: Stall

In times when things were predetermined, the best defense against destiny was to hold back, to stall and used those precious moment to compile complication upon complication. Thus, with luck and a little fumbling you may bypass the Scored date and therefore dodge the arrows shot by Lorelei to drive you to your place.

For, to be in one's place in that final moment… Well she'd seen the results of that all her own. So, waking first, she waited, and when Anise had drifted by in a snit about last night's chat (clearly Luke hadn't played along with the girl's grand scheme, or had done something rather jerkish –Anise's word, not Natalia's!-) well she snapped up that opportunity.

For what? To stall, of course. A rather diplomatic term for a plot to overthrow Score itself. And while sacrilege… well, she would do what she must, she had no other choice.

Still, while the business was all serious, the steps to it didn't have to be.

It took a little careful engineering. A quick peek into Guy and Luke's room a quicker appearance, and Guy had barreled out in his night clothes, fallen to phobia. Snapping a hand over Anise's mouth, least the girl's giggles wake Luke (though how Guy's screaming departure hadn't was a wonder of Auldrant) Natalia picked up a chair. A rather simple thing, with a back made of small wooden poles bound by a thick twine. Quaint, Luke had called it in scoffing tones. He'd taken a great deal of time in this journey to mock "quaint" things, from the help, to the servants, and his immaturity had profoundly rankled the princess.

Well, perhaps with this he'd learn some respect for… quaint things here after.

Sprawled on the edge of the bed, white night clothes rumpled, hair a crimson fall over bed's edge, Luke snored on, Natalia busy with dragging the chair over couldn't stop Anise's giggling, and truth be told all the sniggers weren't the girls. Setting the chair as close as she could, she gently gathered up Luke's hair, and with the Fon Master Guardian's help gently threaded enough of the strands to nicely obscure the seat of the chair in a wash of red.

A conference of whispers spiced with Natalia's occasional a "No, that's too cruel!" and after much effort on Anise's part she allowed herself to be coaxed to the plot's next step. So, for the bulk of the morning Anise taught Natalia some exotic weaving and complicated knots. And for any mistakes they made… well there was plenty of hair to work from so they were over looked.

As she worked, Natalia told herself time and time again, his hair was not as soft as Asch's had been. She told herself this time and time again, focused on her efforts, and for a little forgot Asch and his friends and simply focused on her own.

And the knots of course, there were plenty of those.

XXX

Drifting down for a rather late breakfast, the greeting both grinning girls got varied from person to person. Guy stared at them both with suspicion, (he hadn't the courage to go upstairs yet, with them safely downstairs he probably would any moment now) Tear with a nod and a sleepy "Good morning" and Ion with a soft "murph" (he was eating a bite of toast at the moment, so it was a rather crunchy "murph", but still he tried) and Jade with his omnipresent smile.

"Did you ladies have fun this morning?" The Necromancer drawled, setting his tea aside for the moment to grin at them both.

He knew of course, though he hadn't drifted by –no one had, at least in the guarded moments that Natalia and Anise had shot weary looks at the door- Jade knew everything so it was given.

"Yep, lots of fun Colonel!" Anise cheered, and ignoring the curious looks from Ion and Tear, she skipped to the table, holding Natalia's hand in her own, dragging the older girl behind her. "You should have joined us!"

To that Jade laughed, shocking all around the table. Laughter died to a familiar trademark smirk. "I would have loved too…" The Colonel purred, crimson eyes glimmering with delight, making his statement probably true. Considering this was Jade though… probably was about as assertive as Natalia was going to get with ascribing anything to Jade. "But these old arthritic hands you understand."

"Yada yah." Plunking herself into a chair Anise snapped up two plates and two napkins filled with utensils she passed one to Natalia. The princess, occupied with trying to take her chair with some grace simple accepted the gifts with a smile and lost some of her stiffness. Dragging one platter, one so engulfed in waffles that the designs on its edges were lost in a deluge of syrup, the Fon Master Guardian speared some waffles then stabbed at them again.

Clearly Natalia was going to have to take the second stab for herself.

So she did.

Even as Anise pulled over a bowl of fruit and plopped a massive amount on her repast Natalia tried, and failed to scrape off some of the syrup off her breakfast. The others carried on, though Guy was stil giving Natalia a long long look that promised a chat later on.

If he ever mastered that phobia of his.

Considering it unlikely, Natalia let it pass and was resolved not to worry about it. Nibbling on her meal, Natalia reached and found a pitcher of milk, pouring herself a glass the princess took a few demure sips, waiting, almost hoping that no one would…

"Where's Luke?" Tear asked. Setting down an apple pastry she'd been wolfing down.

"Murph!" Anise informed them all. Her mouth still full, she chewed quite vigorously and seemed uninclined to swallow anytime soon.

Of course no one understood that, though all were curious by now.

Lowering her glass, Natalia smiled. "He's… tied up right now." The princess informed the Scorer.

Anise nearly choked to death at that. Scenting mischief in the air, perhaps of a lethal bent, Guy stood. "Well, I guess I could go check on him."

A crash and thud, and some rather vile swearing made them all hop, well save Jade, but because this was Jade no one was surprised that he didn't hop.

Heaving a sigh, Guy closed his eyes, took a deep breathe. "'scuse me, looks like I have to check now."

Anise's howls of laughter and Natalia sniggers followed the servant out.

And as she smiled, and reapplied herself to breakfast, sparing a moment to pat Anise on the back least the girl choke to death, the princess mused on events. Still, she grinned, not lost as she'd been last night. She had fourteen days to stretch, and the longer she pushed beyond those days the better the hopes for the peoples about Akzeriuth had.

And not just Akzeriuth, but all of Auldrant.

So she'd push, drag each day, delay, and with hope her little acts could help save the world.

As for Luke's head though, perhaps his hair, there was no hope at all.

Not even a prayer.

"What the Hell!" Guy 's voice easily carried down the stair and all the way to the public cafeteria. "What'd you do? Sleep through like three hours of knotting!"

"Just help me!" Luke screamed. "Damn, this hurts, don't just stand there, help!"

Another thud, another crash.

"Just stay still, I'll get a knife or something…"

"Don't cut my hair!" Luke whined. "Not the hair!"

Comprehension dawned; they all looked to her in shock, save the colonel who was quietly sipping his tea. Under those looks of shock Natalia couldn't help it, she laughed, and Anise laughed with her all the louder.

To my readers,

Well, that's that. I've got a sequel in the wings, but I need to play up to Akzeriuth to get there so there will be some lag time as I take a breather to play, think up new plots, and the like. After some thought I'm going to call the sequel "Ascent; fourteen days" though it probably will stretch beyond that requisite time frame, it all depends on Natalia and Asch's success in their endeavor and… per my ideas… which are very very rough at the moment and prone to changing… it will told be from both Natalia and Asch's perspectives, mainly Natalia's though. I've an idea about breaking down each day into a chapter until... well until the final day is met. At least the chapter titles will incorporate the days and be used to mark time.

Regardless all this is very rough and I'll need to think it over. Between brainstorm sessions and consulting my Asch muse… who has been whining and whining for a breather (pulling a Luke as it were), especially after the last rush of once a day updates… I'll be editing previous chapters and other works for typos and the like.

I'd like again to thank Devine Wolfe and Azure Wolfe for their constant support, consistent reviews, and wonderful chats we had between reviews. It was an honor to meet you both while I worked on this project, and I will be back in this genre, no fears, I'm just gunna take a bit of a break but I will be back with more Asch/Natalia goodies, as well as an actual plot that should be worth the wait.

Makes exhausted noise. Sorry, this project was really tiring… I can't explain it… but I invest more than words and time on a page… I don't know what I pour out but it's absolutely exhausting

Well to other things. Somewhat stealing from Laryna here… with the whole themes explored, essayish point of it all. Unlike her though I'm just going to be mentioning them at the end of each piece, after all I figured them to be kinda obvious and all throughout...

But there were a few themes I wanted to touch on and revisit with this story and it's follow up pieces. One of them being (of course) Asch and Natalia, them actually developing a real relationship and existing as people rather than "Tales of" stereotypes. So while, their relationship follows cannon in the beginning, their meeting consisting as a few glimpses from opposite ends of the lines of the battle field, metaphysically and in reality per Zao, it also sidetracks when Asch encounters her again in Chesedonia. As one of my reviews said in a PM, "I can't see them just… meeting up like this and then nothing… that the story just carries on like it did in the game…" considering everything Natalia now knows she's going to be trying to derail the game, and this last chapter is going to show how she plans to do this.

The follow up fic will detail Asch's efforts to derail the Score, as well as Natalia's ongoing efforts, hopefully coming together in a coherent whole that gets what they want. I don't know if it'll work, but they'll certainly try…

Another thing I wanted to touch up on (and which will mainly be talked about sporadically) is Asch's perspectives. He's been through this all, and while he doesn't recall all the details and can't sort through all his failures to know exactly where he went wrong. He knows he's tried and failed many times in the "saving the world" business. How that affects him and matures him will hopefully be explained throughout this fic in a tactful, well-paced, manner.

One other thing I wanted to play with, since no one else has, is Lorelie's nature itself. They say it's good, but considering everything… well I've some doubts. I'm not going to (I think) paint Lorelei with an evil stroke. But considering the Score –which he helped create, orchestrate- he's got to be indifferent to Auldrant's fate at best. I mean it goes on to the end of the world, offering little to no hope against change, he stood back when society set up rules to destroy deviants (after al what are special ops supposed to do hmm… and why would Daath need a military but not to force it's hand) punishing those who try to alter their fate so that at best all they do is exchange their Scored death for another death in a different place. In my opinion, for this fic, Lorelei is wrapped up in his own mechanisms and nature and he can't deviate from it and is as bound to the Score as any other…

Kinda an imprisoned God/Titan/ Greek Mythology rip off but… From his actions in Akzeriuth Lorelei just wants it over, and if all Auldrant has to go with him to make it all stop, well he didn't hesitate in the Scoring never mind the "discomfort" he inflicted on Natalia and all.

The idea of a Nihilistic God… rather than an malicious or a goodie two shoe deity that's "powerless"… well it might make an interesting antagonist in its own right and I'll probably play that card for all their interactions with Lorelei, leaving the truth to be a mystery.

Well that's it for overarching themes. Lorelei's nature, Asch's nature, and the whole Asch/Natalia bit. Other characters will adjust and mature as they do per the game… except perhaps Luke… but then if they stop Akzeriuth from falling than he doesn't have his whole guilt trip for being responsible and doesn't strive to change…

That in itself might be the biggest alteration to the TOA plot of all, don't you think?

Well that's it for now, till next tale and thank you all for reading.

Kasan Soulblade