Disclaimer: I don't own Tales of the Abyss, etc. The rightful owners, including Namco, do.

This fic is also all done: I'm just going to be going over it and posting it section by section. Enjoy. Or not.

The population of Malkuth is about 1.5 million. From there, I'd say the planet's population is 3-4 million. That's about a fifth of the population of New York City. And, what with all the monsters, the characters themselves state that travel is pretty rare, outside of trading and religious trips to Daath. Jade's response to Guy knowing about places from reading tourist guidebooks is riiiight. Only the rich would be able to afford the bodyguards for a trip to, for example, Jade's hometown, the tourist capital of the planet, with lots of nasty monsters in the vicinity.

Akzeriuth had a population of ten thousand. Take small populations (by our standards) and isolation like that and you've got the sort of situation the colonies in the Americas had. Their rulers (Grand Chokmah and Baticul, Spain and England), had nothing in common with them and were too out of touch to know the local conditions well enough to make good laws.

The Rugnica plains have very weak monsters, so it's possible for a caravan to travel with supplies (as in the one they snuck into St. Binah aboard) without any defenders but the drivers, but imagine doing that near Keterberg.

The vastly different architecture, tech levels, etc between the various cities could be put down to either bad worldbuilding or good worldbuilding. In this case, good. Of course Engave's tech doesn't match Sheridan's. The places have nothing in common and probably very few of the inhabitants of either one will ever leave their home, much less travel to the other city.

Small, isolated populations cultural drift. Over two thousand years? If it weren't for the Order of Lorelei they'd all be speaking different languages. Look what happened after the Roman Empire collapsed, and Europe didn't have monsters to deal with. Some people say that widely differing tech levels is a bad video game cliché. Those people need to study history and realize that most of the modern world still has widely differing tech levels.

The residents of Sheridan flat-out admit that they traded hands between Malkuth and Kimlasca recently, aren't exactly loyal to the crown, and have no trouble at all helping Col. Curtiss, an enemy of their 'rulers' when those rulers are being stupid. Sheridan and Belkend aren't speaking to each other. Duke Fabre deciding to secede and make Belkend independent is a very real threat, real enough to cause the king of Kimlasca to marry his sister to him and effectively make Duke Fabre's son the next king in exchange for loyalty. The highly variable prices are an example of areas' isolation.

Engave and St. Binah are close enough and it's safe enough to travel that they're quite similar. The Theor Forest is all that separates them from the capital, and note the huge cultural difference between them and the inhabitants of Grand Chokmah. The capital's citizens think Peony's the bomb. Engave and St. Binah mostly don't care about the guy, other than as the person who will hopefully keep them out of a war they don't care about. The closest thing to a cosmopolitan place is Chesedonia, and they will travel to different places but their concern is making money, the same way Engave's is food, St. Binah's is refining organic products (gels, bottles, soap…), Sheridan's is rocket fontech (military/industrial), Belkend's is medicine/Fomicry/consumer fontech… If you think having cities with such different priorities is strange, compare Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Lots of travel between them, yet still very different places. These are places with very distinct cultural identities. There's a reason getting those places connected to the outside world is such a huge side quest collection in the game, with so many titles & bonuses involved.

-

One of the many odd things about the replica is that he doesn't seem to understand physical pain the way real humans do. He feels it, yes, but it causes irritation instead of what a normal reaction would be. It's not the pain that's the issue, it's the fact that someone hit him, or he tripped, or it's one of those damn headaches again.

What Asch feels as a mental blurring, being burned away as something greater impinges on his awareness the replica feels as pain and a voice in his head. Asch doesn't feel pain when it happens because his body and everything there is feels distant, out of touch, subsumed. It's the same thing, fundamentally: the replica talked about hearing a voice when Lorelei spoke to him (lucky bastard, in this as in all things). Asch just found himself caught up in someone else's mental agony.

No wonder the replica had no idea what Asch was talking about at the Oasis.

Asch tried not to scream at first. He screamed himself hoarse hours ago. His replica is mouthing off to the torturers even though Asch most certainly did not ask the dreck to try to distract their attention from him.

Luke had retorted that Asch should just be grateful, and if he couldn't manage that then he should shut up and rest up so they have the strength to get out of here, as if there's any chance.

Well, seeing Asch hurt and the fact that Asch has himself half in the replica's body, the same way he stole the replica's spirit and left its body in Yulia City, because it hurts less in here. Actually, his presence is hurting the replica more than the torturers are, which lets them think they're doing their job and keeps them doing this to the replica instead of something else. Asch isn't thinking about the fact that he objects to Luke willingly suffering pain to spare Asch and is deriving a vindictive satisfaction from the fact that he's hurting Luke to save his own skin. Luke has picked up on it, though, and it's pissing Asch off even more that Luke won't hate him for it.

Luke transfers Lorelei's two thousand years of heartbreak into physical pain because it hurts less that way. Asch thinks either he's right or having those headaches for so long was good training. On the other hand, it's demeaning that his replica thinks so little of himself that someone taking one of his fingernails off causes less anguish than seeing Asch, who hates his guts and is torturing him mentally right now more than they are, try to scream but be unable to. It's also embarrassing. A pampered replica has a higher pain tolerance than God-general Asch the Bloody.

Asch knows what to do if interrogated by torture. Everyone will break, eventually, so lie. Lie and lie again until when you snap either you'll be so broken you won't remember what the truth was or they won't believe you. This, though, isn't that kind of torture session.

The premise here is that the first one who breaks and swears to help Van lives and the other one dies. This is taking place on Legretta's initiative, and the replica is soft for worrying so much about what will happen if this gets back to her former student Tear. Of course, this is the idiot that still calls him Master Van.

Asch doesn't care about the replica, but he'll be damned if he'll forswear himself yet again. Luke doesn't want Asch to die. Too bad these goons haven't figured out that they'd have a much better chance tempting Luke if they said that if he helped Van Asch would live.

What an idiot.

And Luke doesn't even hold a real grudge against Mohs' spy for bringing him here and handing Ion over to Mohs.

Love isn't worth putting up with betrayal.

Of course, Asch would like to tell himself that, but Van still has more hooks in him than he'd like to admit.

Normally Luke wants to talk to him, trying to draw out words even if they're just abuse, but right now Luke was trying to think and Asch's insults were a distraction from surviving this. Asch shouldn't feel so insulted that his replica was ignoring him. What did he care?

…it would be a distraction, at least.

Luke wouldn't even hold a grudge if Asch did swear himself to Van, long enough to find an opportunity to kill himself at least, and left Luke to die screaming. They'd do it as an example of what would happen if Asch betrayed Van.

The idea hurts Luke, but he wouldn't hold a grudge. He's used to it, and maybe it isn't so strange that physical pain isn't such a big deal when Luke always hurts. This is better than the nightmares of Akzeriuth (he deserves this because of that, in fact). This is better than finding out everything was a lie, again and again and again, that Van despised him. Not even the other side of love that was hatred: he held him in contempt. A thing, a tool, when…

Luke's trying to shield him from that. It would be nice if Luke would put that same effort from shielding him from the physical pain, but Luke doesn't think that way.

At least Luke's utter strangeness provides a distraction.

Perhaps what he saw right after Akzeriuth was the first rumblings of the avalanche. Snow comes down, idiot adventurers are crushed, and the mountain's granite is revealed. Luke's gotten used to what left him so uncertain then. The shell that tried to fight him for control is gone. Asch told him it was a losing battle, that he couldn't do it, a worthless replica, and it was gloating, Asch enjoyed telling him that, but the replica was actually listening and doesn't fight anymore.

What the replica is thinking about is that Tear, Jade, Guy, and Natalia have to have gotten out of Daath okay. They're strong (stronger than the replica, Asch tells him, and the idiot finds this reassuring, of all things). They'll be fine.

He's worried about Asch, and worried about Ion, and worried about what could have made Anise do this (money) and will she be able to live with herself, and there isn't much worry for himself in there, just that stubbornness.

Asch is of the opinion that House Fabre has very stupid genes. The replica seemingly has a will of tissue paper when it comes to most things but there are some things that are not easily compromised.

Death, for one thing, and the replica has to pit its will to live and help others against its will not to hurt others every time it fights, and it's always a pyrrhic victory.

Endurance. That's what Asch is forced to find admirable, a bit, about the replica, and perhaps it's what's really shaming him into not giving in, not a long-discarded code of honor.

And one of the torturers just told him that Mohs took Ion to read the score and he's already dead, days ago.

Eventually the camel's back will break.

When Luke snaps Asch gets worried, because the rays of light that Luke summons to help defend himself against the headaches started to make sense earlier, and normal hyperresonance is bad enough. He does not want to be at ground zero of a hyperresonance-based mystic arte, spawned from some strange derivative of normal overlimit.

Then he wakes up.

It would be nice to think it was just a dream, but Asch knows that people don't feel pain in dreams.

The replica wasn't answering.

-

It is, according to Ginji, five days before Asch remembers the miasma returning, and since going through what he wrote in his diary was one of the things the replica did to keep sane Asch knows that, all other things being equal, they can intercept them in Chesedonia. Only they're not there, which is yet more proof that something is very wrong. Keterberg is the next destination, the place they should have left to go to Chesedonia so Luke could get the rest of the shopping done.

They're there.

Luke isn't. Neither is their Albiore.

-

He doesn't say anything about the dream that wasn't. It sounds ludicrous. Claiming a dream is real? The replica turning back time is even worse. The Necromancer would be able to debate it rationally, though. And the others might not scoff. Maybe it was Lorelei instead of the replica, or something? What he does do is insist Anise stay in Keterberg. The replica was worried that Jade would kill Anise, and frankly Asch wouldn't care too much. The replica needs better taste in friends. Better taste in a lot of things.

Asch is just looking for him because otherwise circumstances being as they are he'll have to travel with these idiots. Jade's smart, and one of the few people who knows much about replicas and passage rings and all of that who is on their side. A lot of his excursions into Luke's head (Luke only has headaches or notices when Asch tries to get his attention) are to find out what Jade has found out. Without that recourse he'll have to cart the replica's thinking brain around.

Jade's going to be especially important once the miasma comes back.

Only the miasma does not come back on schedule.

That would be making Asch think that maybe it was just a dream, possibly caused by inhaling something questionable at Mushroom Rock Road, except that now he can feel the replica. And Keterberg Port's military base has hyperresonance detection equipment and there was just a big one somewhere near Yulia City a few hours ago.

Asch wishes he'd thought of that, destroying the replica machines that were sucking up all the seventh fonons and causing the core to shake and breaking the Tartarus' barrier. He'd thought Van had smashed the ship and that was what had done it, but it looks like he was wrong and the replica was right.

Not that Luke is happy to be right when they find him on a nearby island. He's sitting down and shaking, Noelle staying in the Albiore so she won't try to comfort him when he doesn't deserve it. Or maybe he's afraid of what happened after Akzeriuth happening again, when they all rejected him. Not that destroying a floating island populated only by replicas and Van's forces is a bad thing.

"Go away, please, just go away." The replica's shoulders are shaking, shaking hard, and he doesn't want them to see him, doesn't want to see their faces when they realize he's repeated Akzeriuth.

"Luke." Tear hesitated. She didn't want anyone to see her cry, herself, and it was good that Luke wasn't running to someone to make it all better, but, "Stop crying." Crying never solved anything. Right?

"Luke, I need you to tell me what happened." Jade's need to know overwhelmed the still-new part of him that listened to Luke's nightmares and wished he knew how to comfort him. Hearing Luke cry hurt, so he wanted him to stop crying almost as much as he wanted the information.

"Leave him alone!" Noelle? She came running over the hill, enraged.

Guy stopped her. "Uh, Noelle…"

She slapped him and Guy fell to the ground, shock added to his usual fear of women. "Can't you see he needs to cry?! Oh! You people!" Hands on her hips, she railed at them. "He just killed an entire island mostly full of innocent people to save the world and you aren't going to even let him cry himself out?! He just kept the miasma from returning, he saved you, so you can just wait until he's ready to talk about it!" She stalked over and tugged Luke up. "Come on. You can cry on the Albiore where there are comfy chairs, I'll lock the doors so they'll leave you alone." Noelle had just lost a lot of people, they remembered. Sheridan's researchers were the next thing to family.

"Okay," Luke said softly, allowing himself to be dragged along unresisting.

Tear raised her hand and wanted to reach after them, wanted to say something, but Luke just hung there and Noelle walked forcefully: neither turned to look.

When Luke was settled to her satisfaction Noelle returned.

"Were there captives on the island?" Jade asked.

"No. Just replicas and Van's guys. We scouted it out first." Why was he asking that?

"You said there were innocent civilians present."

"I meant the replicas. You can't get much more innocent than a newborn baby." Noelle glared.

"They were making replicas there?"

"Of course. Why did you think he destroyed it? We didn't have anything else that could take out that facility fast enough, and the seventh fonons it was sucking up would have wrecked the Tartarus and brought back the miasma. We confirmed it." We being Sheridan.

"Did he have a dream?" Asch had wanted another way to say it, but that was blurted out.

"No." Noelle looked at him. "Come to think of it, the nightmares have been really bad recently."

Guy looked at the ground. "And this isn't going to make things any better… Why didn't you guys bring us?"

"I work for Luke, not any of you."

"What?!" Natalia seemed somewhat outraged. "Sheridan is Kimlascan territory, and as princess you are under my authority!"

"Well, you weren't there to order me not to." Noelle folded her arms. "Luke's the one with hyperresonance. That's why I'm with Luke and Ginji's with Asch, right Ginji?"

Asch's pilot nodded.

"So when he says he needs me to take him to Sheridan without you I go, just like Ginji takes Asch places without telling you guys anything even though you want to track him down." Noelle wasn't backing down. "They're the important ones, that's what the Classes decided. They need to be able to get places, like the passage rings, quickly in order to save Auldrant. The rest of you, no offense, are support crew, and frankly Jade would be more useful in a lab full time."

"That's one way of looking at it," Jade admitted. "I did nearly become a researcher before I decided a more hands-on approach was better."

"If I hadn't followed Luke's orders that island would still be there and the miasma would be here again. So you can take it up with the Classes in Sheridan, but I doubt they'll listen."

Belkend was technically in Asch's father's domain. The king had married his sister to Duke Fabre to cur any rebellious tendencies. Why rebel when if he stayed loyal his son would be king one day? Except that Asch wouldn't have lived that long. However, as Van had proved, Belkend's loyalty was to knowledge. Sheridan, which had changed hands between Malkuth and Kimlasca only recently, was even more independent. There was always the sense that Sheridan was aware that they were the ones who built the weaponry, they had better ones (like the Albiore was a vast improvement over Malkuth's landships), and if the Crown thought it could get in the way of their priorities then Sheridan could just arrange to go back to Malkuth.

Sheridan didn't have Chesedonia's independence, but then Chesedonia wasn't independent: it just answered to the Order instead of to other countries. Luke had no idea what he'd done by inviting Astor to the conference lowering the land. He'd essentially put Chesedonia on an even footing with independent nations. Luckily everyone had bigger problems than making sure the trade city didn't get uppity.

"I suppose it's useless to take it up with you, then," Jade admitted. "Luke, however…"

"He shouldn't have run off like that. We were all so worried!" Natalia, worried about that… Argh!

"He didn't want you to see him like that. How did you find Ginji and get here so quickly, anyway?" She looked at her brother.

"Asch had me fly to Chesedonia and then Keterberg five days ago."

"The same day Luke and I headed out?" Now everyone was looking at Asch.

"What was that you said about a dream? Could it have come across your link from Luke?" Curse the necromancer's insight!

-

What is it with me and deliberate tense confusion in Tales of the Abyss fics? As you may notice, 'usual' povs here are in past tense, while Asch is often in present, usually when something is related to what went on in the beginning. This is because while the past tense conveys someone looking back at what's going with 20/20 hindsight, Asch does not have that perspective on issues.

I was looking over this and going, you know, it's an effective style but it's a mark of a bad writer to switch tenses like that, but my Asch muse refused to let me rewrite it and lately I'd rather have the writing style I want to write in then have to tear something out and figure out a way to convey weird mental states ICly that doesn't confuse the reader.

If you just say 'someone's head was spinning' or something like that, it's telling, and showing is better than telling. If you can convey all of that in the way the text affects the reader, it's sort of demonstrating instead of showing.

Re-reading this conveys to me that Asch is sort of… trying to get perspective and live in the present (everyone else's past tense) but stuck in the past to the point where it's his present. I'd like to know how readers perceive it, because I know what the text is trying to say and that affects what effect it has on me.

Asch is not the most mentally stable character on Auldrant. If I had to pick one it might be Peony, who has an acceptable level of venting insanity & loneliness & issues that doesn't involve destroying the world. As long as he's got his rappigs and can force people to cosplay on occasion he'll be fine.