o-O-o-O-o-O-o

Disclaimer: We don't own Star Ocean or its Characters.

Notes: More angst with a hint of fluff.

Blue: We rushed through this so pardon any mistakes.

Dragon: Feel free to point any out. Each section is written in Luther or Sophia's point of view - besides the first section that is.

Blue: Things are progressing. I think Luther's finally coming around.

Dragon: Yeah, he's one tough cookie.

Blue: Hehehe…tough cookie. I get some of the fun-est phrases from Dragon!

Tender Kisses on a Blackened Heart

Chapter 11: Changing Hearts

Everyone at the table had succumbed to the hard silence. Each turning over the words Ryoko had said. Everyone re-evaluated the way they saw Sophia.

Fayt was the first one to shake the shattered thoughts from his head. "Sophia is Sophia. We can't forget that."

"Yes," Maria agreed. "She is still like a sister to you and a friend to us. This doesn't change that."

"That is exactly what I wanted to hear."

All eyes darted up from the table and confronted Blair. She waved cautiously at them, using body language to inform them that she had news they needed to hear.

"Blair?" Ryoko stood from her seat. "It's good to see you again. Care to have a seat?"

Blair giggled softly. "I'm not really here. I've only projected myself here to ask that you all help me."

Cliff pounded one fist into the table as he stood. "Just tell us where Luther is and we'll nab him for ya!"

Blair shook her head. "It would seem things have changed. What I'm going to ask will sound strange but I hope you will understand when you hear me out."

All ears were opened. Blair couldn't help but to hope that they would understand. "I need you to promise not to attack Luther."

Everyone seemed to be struck speechless – all but Fayt who leaned forward in his chair. "I know enough to trust you, Blair. First tell us what's going on and after that we'll be able to promise. Until then, our main concern is for Sophia."

"As well it should be, Fayt. I'll tell you what I can. The rest is up to you."

Blair waited until Ryoko and Cliff were seated before continuing. "One year ago you all fought Luther and won; only you didn't kill him as was assumed. When that battle was over the whole Eternal Sphere was re-written into a code that we couldn't breach at first. We had set to cracking that code simply to preserve the Eternal Sphere. We feared others would attempt to decode it and we wanted to monitor the activities to keep it safe. I hope you all understand that."

Various nods and grunts agreed with her, though some where more reluctant than others. She couldn't blame them. They had won their freedom but essentially were still programs. Only now they were programs with free will and a soul of their own.

"Luther made it out of the Eternal Sphere before it reformatted but he retained serious injuries. Still, he is my brother and the only family I have so I had him treated. All the events from a year ago hit the press and I made sure to cover Luther with a story of his death. He wasn't too pleased, but considering he faced criminal charges he didn't rebuke it. He stayed hidden and after six months left. I hadn't heard from him until the contest.

"You all have quite a following in my world and for your year anniversary we held a celebration in Gemity. There was a contest for the best look-a-likes and unannounced to us Luther joined. It would seem that it was at that time Sophia found her way to Gemity and got caught up in the festivities. The prize was a short stay in the Eternal Sphere, completely monitored, and we know that Luther was determined to find his way back here. But before I could stop him, he managed to get back here by forcing Sophia to bring him."

"That would be when we confronted him in the Aire Hills?"

Blair nodded to Nel. She shook her head, forcing herself to continue with a story that would install doubt within them all. "Then, Sophia somehow connected with my world and transported both her and Luther back. We made a startling, and maybe disturbing discovery. Her gene had connected with Maria's on a personal level. Her physiology had altered itself completely and she was just the same as any one of us."

"What?!" Ryoko nearly jumped out of her seat. "I didn't design the gene to do that. It was design to connect with 4D space but not directly with anything from this world. Maria and her gene aren't 4D." Ryoko paused, letting her eyes dart across the table and back to Blair. "And Maria's gene was designed only to allow them to survive in 4D space, not alter them complete to comply with it!"

Blair nodded. "I understand that, but it has also come to my attention that these genes 'grew' with the children. A growing gene is unpredictable and the, excuse me for lack of a better word, side-effects are hard to determine before hand. Sophia's gene only connected with Maria's when they entered my world. I believe it did this to give her a better chance at survival."

"You were always the smarter one," Ryoko chuckled. "I can conceive that happening. Please, continue. I am curious now how your brat of a brother fits in and what he's gotten himself into this time."

"Since Sophia was able to adapt to our world, I was able to use our laws to govern the situation. Luther has been banished to the Eternal Sphere. He is restrained and can no longer access any of the programming. He still has his symbological abilities."

"I see," Mirage spoke up. "And can you clarify what these abilities are?"

"He can use Heal, Antidote, Creator's Wrath, and Final Anomaly. Since I know you are familiar with Heal and Antidote, I'll fill you in with a brief description of the other two. Creator's Wrath is a single targeted beam of fire and lightning mix. Final Anomaly has grouped targeting that sends waves of none elemental attacks which form a circle around him. Thanks to his banishment, neither of these attacks is fatale to a person here. We had to leave them in tact, according to law, so he could fend himself against attacks from various beasts."

"Interesting," Adray mumbled. "Now, we are back to the question as to why we shouldn't attack him."

Blair moved closer to the table. "As his punishment, he has been placed into the care of Sophia. If she is able to help him see the errors of his ways then he will be permitted to return to his home. If not, she will be released from having charge of him and he will remain in the Eternal Sphere for the rest of his life. I have spoken to Sophia and she has agreed to help. He may not act like it, but she has already had a positive influence on him. He is stubborn, and he will fight it, but I feel that if anyone has the ability to help him it is her."

Fayt hummed. "I still don't like the idea of her alone with him. He might not be as powerful, but he is still Luther and I don't trust him not to hurt her."

"Only one thing we can do right now," Ryoko said. "We have to trust Sophia."

o-O-o-O-o-O-o

"You're a monster!"

The words had dripped like venom from her lips. He hung his head. If only it had been venom. There were cures for that but none for the poison infesting his heart. Despite all the things he did to convince himself otherwise, she had hurt his feelings.

Luther scanned the street; mentally retracing the steps she had taken upon fleeing from him. Peterny was big, he had been in bigger cities, but he was sure he knew where she was.

She was predictable.

He shook his head, unable to figure out what had prompted that response. It had to be the children. He could think of nothing else.

Almost a day had passed since he was sent back to the Eternal Sphere. They had battled a few times together along the way – going to the fields only to return to Peterny for one reason or the other. He couldn't control the smile a kill left him with. Killing anything inside the Eternal Sphere brought him joy – and an un-approving frown from her.

When she frowned it was…well it set him uneasy. He had thought her smile annoyed him but realized it calmed him instead. He had tried to tell himself it frustrated him to see her happy; but it didn't. Just the opposite; it lightened his mood. He caught himself gathering every giggle she issued and storing them to memory.

She had infected him. He was sure of it. Gene or not, he couldn't control it and wasn't sure he wanted to. The word sanctuary crept into his mind. It was almost sacred. But the anger she had shown him only five minutes ago stung. It bit him and threatened to eat him from the inside out.

He slumped against the wall of a house. The cool surface reminded him of his current exile. The rough texture of unpolished bricks dug harmlessly into his back. He pressed himself harder into the wall. Swaying slightly from one side to the other he felt skin under unbroken cloth burn lightly. There was a pain there as real as any and he cherished it; hoping to lessen the blow of her words.

If he had not threatened to disembowel the group of annoying children who pined over his spear, then she wouldn't have run off. Her words had pierced him deeper than any dagger.

He was confused – profusely. No longer a teenager, he thought himself above these emotions. He was two years pass twenty and all of his puberty years rushed back with a vengeance – yet with the short wisdom from a limited ageing. Lust would not define the elusive wonderments that tormented him.

o-O-o-O-o-O-o

Finally exhausted, she paused long enough to catch her breath. After battling in the field and then running half the city, she could do nothing but hold her aching side. Her eyes burned as they scanned the area. There, right in front of her was the chapel. It was as good a spot as any to regain her thoughts.

The large door moved easily under her gentle touch. Her hand shook slightly and she couldn't control the building emotions. Sitting as fast as possible, she ducked into the shadows in the back corner to the far right from the door.

Once alone in the dark, her eyes skimmed the interior and finally found rest on her knotted hands. She lifted her hands and pressed them onto her face before letting them drop into her lap. That is when the tears took her and she cried silently.

She knew time was passing and each minute was special. She had a limited time to help Luther but he made it so hard. Threatening those kids was beyond anything. Those same kids had gawked at Albel once but he only ignored them and walked away. Luther had actually threatened them, sending two away in tears and the others after them.

He was just so cold! She doubted if there was any hope for him. As uncharacteristic as it was for her, she wondered if there was any good in him. He lacked compassion, had no tact, and was arrogant beyond belief.

She froze as she heard footsteps, light and muffled, sweep pass her. The owner made no attempt to hide themselves as they sat in the pew in front of her.

"Tears again? I assume things are not well in the world you wish to create."

She forced her head to rise slowly, despite the sudden jerk she suppressed. That voice was Albel's. If he were here then so were the others. And…she had left Luther out there alone!

She started to stand but stopped when he reached over the pew and grabbed her wrist. She bit her bottom lip instinctively and pulled away. She tugged with a weak force to prevent him from tightening his grip and bruising her. Without words she asked to be released.

He didn't comply.

"Off to help your new friend?"

"Y-you don't understand."

He raised an eyebrow. Even in the gloom she could read his expression. Only a year ago they spent many nights talking by the light of a campfire. Back then he was on watch and she couldn't sleep. Things were rocky at first, but eventually they got 'comfortable' around each other.

"The maggot's sister explained it all. We promised not to interfere but we're not fools. Trust is gained."

She smiled as his words struck inspiration. Just over a year ago Albel didn't trust any of them; yet today he freely used the word 'we'. He was a part of the team. The changes had been subtle but they were evident.

Perhaps there was hope for Luther after all. She only prayed that she was enough. It was a group effort that helped Albel. Albel hadn't been hard to reach. Every time it seemed Luther was coming around, he slipped back. Albel had slipped too, but not nearly as far or fast as Luther.

"No one will hurt him?" she asked attentively.

He laughed sadistically. Though changed, he was still Albel. "Not unless provoked."

That didn't really make her feel better. Luther was a button pusher. Getting on someone's last nerve was no doubt a hobby to him.

She steadied her voice. "Good. I really should check on him anyway."

He released her wrist. "Always one to run to another's aid. Just be cautious, girl. A snake may shed its scales but it is still a snake."

"I understand." With that she fled the chapel with a hurried walk.

o-O-o-O-o-O-o

He had walked to the center plaza; moving his eyes around in search for her. Why did he feel such a strong need to find her? He had planned only to use her to his convenience; yet once they had set out and he was a part of the Eternal Sphere he couldn't get himself comfortable outside her presence.

He tottered on the edge of believing he has scared. Though he had made this world, it was new to him to actually be a part of it. He had to live by a whole new set of rules and in an environment he had spent more time observing and not living in.

"Oh, hey…Luther, right?"

Luther stopped to inspect the new voice rising above a scattered crowd.

A woman he vaguely remembered greeted him with a warm smile. "It's me, Misty Lear. Do you remember me from the inn?"

It came back to him in a rush. "Yes, I remember you," he responded dully. "But I do not recall telling you my name." He crossed his arms. Looking her in the eyes he challenged her to answer him.

"Oh, no you didn't. I just ran into Fayt and he told me."

His whole body tensed. "I see." He turned to walk away, determined to put as much distance between himself and the city. But the way was blocked.

"Yo! Heard you were here."

Luther scowled as he looked up at the tall man. Cliff Fitter. What he didn't need right now. Without a word he sidestepped and continued his walk. Before he could take a full two steps a heavy hand landed on his shoulder.

"Hey, why be so rude? Come on. Let's go get a drink."

He shook his shoulder free with a swift jerk. His muscles moved to take another step, but yet another obstacle moved in place. This time it was that old geezer, Adray.

"It's not custom to refuse such an offer. We'll pick up the tab, so why don't you come along?"

Cliff closed in from behind. "Just a few drinks. Just us guys."

Luther grunted. It didn't look like he had much of a choice. He could retaliate and start fighting; but both men were too close for him to draw his spear.

"Cliff? Adray?"

Luther smirked. Here she came. He knew she hadn't gone too far. So predictable.

"Oh, Sophia! What's up?" Cliff smiled a wide toothy grin at her.

"Um…" She stopped from her jog and locked eyes on Luther. "I wanted to make sure everything was okay out here."

He could hear the silent plea in her voice not to harm him. Surprisingly he wasn't angered – but relieved. He knew they would listen to her before hearing him out. Not that he planned on saying anything to them anyway.

"Don't worry so much, Sophia," Fayt said making his appearance. He gently rested his hand on her shoulder.

Luther frowned. Cliff's little shoulder grab was intended to slow him down were Fayt was trying to comfort her. It was ridiculous but he felt a bit jealous at the way she was treated over him.

"We're only barrowing him for a few hours. Guy stuff and all."

Sophia examined his expression. Luther noted it was a habit of hers to study those around her. He concluded she did it unconsciously and it was due to her own faltering self esteem.

Really! The girl should have more confidence in herself. He had seen her deftly take down her fair share of foes in the field. She was a distance fighter and good at it. Not to mention she had a whole hoard of people around her ready to do what they must to ensure her safety. So much more than he ever had.

Not that he needed any of that at all.

"I don't know…"

"Trust me, Sophia," Fayt replied quickly. "No one's going to get hurt and it's only for a few hours. Mom, Maria, Mirage, Nel and Peppita are here. Maybe you girls can get together?"

Sophia gave Luther a quick and worried look. He should have known she would cave in easily. She had her moments but she would always go with the flow – a trait that peeved him to no end.

"I really don't think that's such a good idea." Her voice quivered a little as she reached between Fayt and Cliff to grab Luther's sleeve.

He gave in to her tug, smugly smirking at the men as he passed between them. So she hadn't given in. He felt a hint of pride, though he could not fathom where it came from.

"What is it Sophia? Don't you trust me?"

Now it was Sophia's turn to scowl. Luther restrained himself from snickering. He really didn't want her to point that face at him. Fayt could have it; he'd had enough of her bad mood to last days.

"Whoa, Fayt asked the wrong question. Sca-ree!"

The lines in Sophia's face softened. "No, it's not that I don't trust any of you. It's just I don't want you to make him feel uncomfortable. He's been through enough and though you might mean well I don't think it'll help."

Luther frowned and jerked his arm from her. Been through enough? Make him uncomfortable? How dare she!?

"I'll do fine with no help." His voice was harsh but hardly over a whisper.

He stalked away, leaving her to fend for herself. His keen ears picked up on the rest of the conversation.

"Luther?" Sophia called after him.

"Sophia, it's not your fault if some people are unreachable," Adray said directed more at Luther's back than the girl.

"Just let him go."

"No Fayt. It doesn't work like that."

"Oh, and why's that?"

"I promised Blair I would help him."

"You sure that's all?"

He paused and pretended to survey the street. Under the guise of choosing a direction he waited to hear her response. Was this all for Blair? She had challenged him at first in hopes of saving her friends. He didn't want to hear that, but he listened with a silent anxiety.

"Humph!"

Luther jerked his head and came face to face with a pair of crimson eyes. Of all the insects in the insolent group it had to be the one and only Albel. This promised to be interesting and he momentarily forgot his prior commitment to overhear the girl.

"What?" he asked the swordsman.

Albel just glared at him. "Don't provoke me, maggot."

"Provoke you?" he replied swiftly with an air of arrogance. "I should think you wouldn't want to provoke me."

Albel growled. "Hurt her and we'll see who shouldn't provoke who."

"Oh, and what's she to you?!"

He couldn't help it. Something about the two-toned haired man set his nerves on edge. His tongue grew sharp and he positioned himself for a fight of words.

"She's an ally. Despite her nagging, naive, irritating ways she can teach you if you listen. I owe her and I won't hesitate to pay that debt off in full."

Luther glared at him, taking note of his underlining threat. Any actions he would have taken were halted when Sophia joined him at his side. She looped her arm in his and smiled up at Albel.

"Sorry, Albel, we really must find some place to eat. It's getting late." She smiled sincerely at him and Luther had to wonder how she could be so nonchalant through this whole encounter.

He began to wonder if she was dense, stronger than she put on, or if this was a façade she hid under to deal with the stress. Thinking back of how she countered Cliff, Fayt and Adray he concluded she wasn't dense. Perhaps a bit naïve but not stupid.

Either way: she had found a way out of the whole ordeal for him and he wasn't about to complain. That was until…

"If you're hungry then join us."

She offered him, Albel, to come along? Luther couldn't suppress the quiet moan in his throat. She had done so well up to that point. Then again, he didn't have to accept.

"I think I will." Albel replied smugly.

Strike that. His appetite was fading fast.

"Hey, we'll come along too!"

He closed his eyes as the rest of the male occupants of this little entourage joined them. He'd be lucky to eat an appetizer!

"Why not make it a party?"

That was it! Now every female of this troupe – including Ryoko – were coming!? He'd be having a water only…if he was lucky.

Sophia sighed and tensed. He hoped she felt guilty.

o-O-o-O-o-O-o

Note from Dragon: We had to put Luther is a semi-tight spot and get all of 'em together to start bringing this to an end. And there's a touch of plutonic Alphia – but I had to have Albel stick up for her at least once – and I wanted Luther and Albel to bump heads.