disclaimer: I do not own Tales of the Abyss.

n.b: the beginning takes place slightly after the ending scene in Tales of the Abyss.

Baby Steps

the first day

They were walking down Tataroo Valley in the dark, Anise talking nineteen to dozen and perhaps for the first time in his life Asch was grateful that the ex-Fon Master Guardian was such a noisy chatterbox. It definitely eased the pressure on him to explain as to where he had been, according to Anise, for the past two years. Besides, he wasn't sure if he wanted to divulge where he'd exactly been, not when he wasn't certain himself. It also helped knowing that the two-year-gap was probably the only thing that stopped them from questioning him too closely at the moment. Although he had the rep- Luke's memories, and by and large an intimate grasp of his personality that Asch wasn't too comfortable with, the fact remained that he really wasn't the 'Luke' they were waiting for, not if he went by Tear's reaction.

However, if they wanted to believe that 'Luke' had come back to them, he decided that he wasn't going to be the one to challenge that illusion. He wasn't stupid enough to be actively looking out for conflict anyway. Luke's friends were smart, he'd give them that.

"-honestly, Luke, we looked everywhere for you! Where exactly have you been hiding?"

He closed his eyes firmly for a moment before opening his mouth to formulate a passable excuse when the Malkuth colonel cut in.

"I'm sure we have plenty of time for Luke to answer any burning queries we have. But it's late, and as I said before, it's dangerous to be out at night. Perhaps we shall stay at one of the inns in Chesedonia?"

"Are we walking there?" It took him a moment to realise what he had blurted out, and beside him Tear laughed gently. Anise giggled and Natalia demurely hid her smile behind her hands, and Guy was chuckling and shaking his head and saying, "Luke, meet the new Albiore IV and its pilot. Me."

They walked out to the clearing, and Guy continued, almost ruefully. "Although we probably should start having new names instead of Albiores V, VI and so on."

Asch didn't laugh at that, but he couldn't help smiling faintly at that remark.

When they reached Chesedonia, the Necromancer insisted that he had to room with Luke because he had questions regarding the contamination effect and Lorelei and ten billion other boring little things that the others couldn't possibly comprehend and they'll probably talk until the dead of the night anyway.

"It's already nearing the dead of the night," Guy pointed out. Asch couldn't help suppressing a shudder when Jade smiled.

"Well, we don't have much time then, do we? Room with one of the girls, Guy. After all, you really do need to get over your gynophobia if you want an heir for House Gardios. I think Anise would be of excellent help."

And then he turned to Asch while Guy spluttered and Anise, to be precise, semi-stalked towards him. "Luke, if you please."

Asch consoled himself with the thought that the shrewd colonel probably calculated the probability of what had happened to him decades ago and inevitably, there was no way to avoid it. At least he knew the Necromancer could keep secrets. When the door was firmly shut behind them, Jade wasted no time and no words.

"Asch, am I correct?"

"Yes." No use lying or trying to lie, and Asch wasn't interested in finding out how nasty Jade Curtiss could get if he continued to be stubborn. But he didn't like the cold, speculative look that flashed across the colonel's features as he strode across the room and took one of the chairs, all the while gazing at Asch.

"What do you remember? Do you have Luke's memories with you?"

Asch couldn't help it, he fidgeted a little, disliking the fact that he was still standing and yet couldn't find an opportunity to sit down. "I-I have his memories. But I don't remember anything after I- after I died. I woke up...this morning. At Eldrant."

Jade tilted his head a little at that, and then Asch realized that he couldn't see his eyes because bastard's hiding behind his glasses. "I see. What happened after we left and he presumably went to free Lorelei?"

"Lorelei spoke to him. P-praising him. Then Lorelei left and everything went white."

That was a lie, but like hell if Asch was going to share about his final conversation with Luke. He pressed his lips together and shuffled from foot to foot.

"And you woke up."

"Yes." He barely kept the edge of irritation from his voice. Jade shifted in his seat.

"One more query," Jade said, lips thinning. "Why did you go? To the Tataroo Valley. It's obvious from the fact that you did not try to establish your identity from the beginning, that you hid under our hopes that it was Luke who returned. You could have easily gone someplace else."

Asch opened his mouth, and then shut it again as he thought about the question. "I...I don't know," he sullenly admitted. "Tear's song...called to me."

Jade narrowed his eyes. "I see." He then raised his hands, almost shrugging, "Well, I have to confess that while I'm not entirely displeased that one of the two House Fabre sons has fortuitiously returned to us-"

"You had hoped that it'd be the re- Luke."

The Necromancer smiled coldly at him. "To be blunt, yes. You died, after all. There was always that chance, no matter how slim."

It didn't hurt. He told himself that it didn't hurt. "You liked him." No response. Maybe that was the most telling of all. "Are you going to tell the others about me?"

"Are you?" Jade's eyes glittered.

Asch snorted, shifted his weight again and tried to center himself. "If the reaction I'm going to get is something like yours, I'm going to wait until they figure it out by themselves. I'm not stupid to have all four of them go at me at once. And I'm sure that L-Luke's friends aren't stupid or slow either."

"That they aren't." Jade agreed.

the second day

A message had arrived in the morning requesting for Tear's immediate return to Yulia City, thereby solving the group's temporary dilemma of their next destination. Breakfast was a rowdy affair, the group still mildly giddy over the return of their sixth member. Asch quietly nursed a headache from the lack of sleep over the previous night, and avoided making eye contact with Jade as much as possible. If anyone tried to ask him what was wrong with him he simply muttered, "Bad night, bastard talks too much."

Which wasn't entirely false, because after their little personal conversation Jade literally interrogated him on every single thing he did before he died and then some. The fact that the man serenely drank a cup of tea and looked for all the world that he had an excellent full eight hours of sleep instead of just barely two irked him greatly, and he was in no mood to do anything except sleep.

On the Albiore he managed to steal twenty winks despite the noisy drone of the engine, but the trip was altogether too short and he stumbled off the ramp when they landed, rubbing his eyes and blinking blearily. Asch wondered irritably about what they were going to do at Yulia City while Tear was occupied, and when he was going to get any shut-eye when Jade suddenly coughed and Lorelei damn it, just one night with that man and he could feel his hair rising at attention.

"It seems that I had inadvertently tired out Master Luke with my attentions last night," he said smoothly. "Tear, would you mind if Luke were to rest in your chambers? I need to return to Grand Chokmah to inform his Majesty of Luke's return, I'm sure the Emperor would be...overjoyed to hear this news."

He was still staring, stunned at Jade's audacity when Tear nodded, "Alright."

"Colonel, since we're already here at Yulia City, I think I might as well see Mayor Teodoro regarding the inauguration ceremonies of the Fon Master for the Order of Lorelei. Is that okay with you?"

"If you don't mind, Anise. I'm not sure if we can return by dusk, so you might have to stay over for the night."

"That's fine."

"I would have liked to stay too," Natalia said, and he couldn't help but turn his head to look at her. This was the first time he had the luxury of just watching her without worries of Auldrant vanishing crowding his thoughts, and he was startled to meet her eyes. "But I would like to take this opportunity to go to Grand Chokmah. Kimlasca has been overdue for a diplomatic visit to Malkuth, and I am getting tired of the Council's excuses to not go." Her gaze dropped from his to look at Jade. "Do you think that's alright, Jade?"

"I have no complaints."

She turned to smile uncertainly at him. "Luke, you are coming home, right?"

It caught him off-guard. "...Of course, Natalia."


He felt a hand land on his head, and instinctively he jerked away. Behind him, Guy looked surprised. "Boy, you're jumpy."

"S-sorry." He blinked, resisting the urge to rub the sleep out of his eyes. When Guy reached out to pat his shoulder Asch fought not to flinch.

"Get some sleep, Luke. You look like you need it."

He bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from snapping at Guy, and nodded instead. He really was tired.

"We'll take our leave then," Jade said briskly, and both Guy and Natalia waved to him before heading back into the Albiore IV. He blinked at them again and belatedly realized that he should have waved back as well. There was a tug on his cloak, which came from Anise when he looked, and Tear was gazing at him, a carefully blank look on her face.

"Come on," Anise said, and he went with them, not even thinking of protesting when Tear showed him her bed and he fell asleep.

When he woke up, a faint glow from the window that reminded him of the flowers in Tataroo Valley greeted him. Feeling vaguely embarrassed that he had essentially slept the day away, Asch got off the bed and discovered an adjoining bathroom, which he was thankful for, to wash up in. There was a soft knock on the door as he was splashing his face with water, and a muffled, "There's some food downstairs if you want to eat."

Tear was reading when he came down, a pair of glasses perched on her nose. A couple of covered dishes were on the table, and a place set across from her. Asch's stomach grumbled at the faint aroma. "Thank you," he muttered quickly, before sitting down and starting to eat.

Relative quiet reigned in the room for a good half hour, Tear seemingly absorbed in her book. Asch quickly realized that Anise was not around to create some noise, and, well, it was not that he missed the little girl, but...some part of him wanted the distraction Anise was liable to create. When he finished he glanced helplessly at the plates before deciding that he had better clear them, since he used them in the first place. Besides, it was something to do. The clink of glass was a welcomed break in the silence as he stacked them, until Tear closed her book and said, very quietly, "Luke's left-handed."

He stiffened, but there was just a small, sad smile on her face. "Leave them here, you are a guest," she gestured to the stacked plates. Asch reluctantly left the safety of the dishes alone.

"Come with me."

He had no choice but to follow her, up the stairs and she pushed open a door to the glow. They stepped into the garden, and Asch felt a sense of deja vu wash over him. Almost immediately, he took a step back, disliking the strange familiarity. This feeling certainly didn't belong to him, and neither did this place. Tear stopped when he did, her head turned slightly towards him.

"Is there something wrong?"

"No," he replied. "Just." He was helplessly waving his hand in the air before he could curb the action, and the sudden loss of control irritated him. "Nevermind. It's nothing."

Tear frowned, but didn't push the issue. She continued to move forwards until she was among the flowers, her face lifted slightly to the sky.

"Were you lying in Tataroo Valley?"

"About...what I said there? No."

"Your words were a little misleading, you know." Her tone wasn't accusatory, but Asch could feel his hackles rising up all the same. The words, now that he was recalling them, weren't entirely his. Tear's song had him in a sort of haze at the Valley, and it irked him now that he was being called to be responsible for them.

"I have no hold over how you interpret them."

"That's true." Tear sighed. "I'm- I don't blame you, but I wished you had been clearer, at least. It's a little painful realizing you weren't Luke, after all."

Well, he supposed he was responsible for that. It was on the tip of his tongue to try and formulate a semblance of an apology when Tear turned around, one hand tucking her hair behind her ear.

"I'm sorry, that was rude of me. I am a little angry at Luke, but it doesn't mean I can take it out on you."

"That's alright." Asch replied, and then licked his lips nervously. "Actually, I have a message for you. From him."

"What?" At Tear's curious look, Asch threw all caution to the wind and pushed forward with his task.

"He heard you," he said, trying to keep the heat from his cheeks because honestly, this was a personal matter between Tear and Luke and he had no right, no right to be a participant in this, no matter how unwilling.

"Luke and I...talked before I woke up. Well, he talked, I just...listened. He heard you say that, that you loved him. And he said," Asch swallowed heavily, disliking how much he felt that he was the unwanted third party, "he said he was sorry. That he couldn't come back. Because this was my life to live."

The last sentence he said in a whisper, gaze landing everywhere but Tear. A bitter taste flooded his mouth as he finally understood the words Luke said to him, eyes suddenly burning. He clenched his fists tight, suddenly wishing for a wall or a certain somebody's face to punch.

"Luke's a little selfish, isn't he," Tear said gently.

Asch drew a shuddery breath. "...That idiot never thinks ahead."

"He never did." There was the sound of footsteps coming towards him, and he flinched openly when Tear placed a hand on his arm. "But for what it's worth, Asch, I am glad that you are here with us. And...thank you. For passing on his message to me."

the third day

Asch only managed to nap intermittently throughout the night, determined not to spend the day sleeping again. Besides, he didn't like the idea of Tear giving up her bed for him again, even if she insisted that as a guest he should have it. He argued back that he probably wasn't going to sleep much and parked himself firmly on the chair. Persistent or not, Tear wasn't strong enough to manhandle him into her bed, so the chair was his to rest in. He slept in more uncomfortable circumstances, after all, even if the back dug into his shoulders whenever he managed to drop off.

Tear was, unsurprisingly, an early riser. To Asch's relief, breakfast was together with Anise, who immediately started off with a loud cheery greeting that seem to make up for the fact that she didn't look like she liked rising early. There was also a lot of teasing from her once she properly woke up in the face of food, and Tear's sputters and blushes at those seemed to satisfy the ex-Fon Guardian for the moment.

Asch just took the opportunity to observe the girl and determine how close she was to Luke. He scowled when he realized that he knew things about her that he never knew before, things he shouldn't know. It proved to be a mistake as Anise caught the scowl and immediately turned on him.

"Why the sour face, Luke? Did Tear kick you out of the bed?" she asked slyly. He stared at her in mild shock, cheeks immediately heating up.

"W-what are you talking about?!"

"Denial is a river in Rugnica," Anise half-sang, but was finally cowed by Asch's glare and Tear's sharp warning, "Anise."

"Boo, what's eating you guys anyway," she grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest and looking for all the world a sulky young girl. Her posture reminded Asch very strongly of the noble ladies that he saw during the times his parents brought him to royal events, dolled up and in little groups and wearing the self-same expression Anise had on now. But that felt almost a life and a half ago.

He was surprised when it was Ginji's sister who came to pick them up. The female pilot peered at him at first and remarked, "You look older with your hair long, Luke. Where have you been?"

"Away," was all he said.

She grinned widely. "Well then, hop aboard the Albiore! Guy sent a message that he would be accompanying the Princess back to Baticul since she has no envoy, but they had to stop over at Sheridan for refuelling, so I'm here to do the transportation works for you."

"I won't be joining the both of you," Tear murmured, looking down in apology. "The reason why Grandfather sent such an urgent message was because he wanted me to lead an investigation into the Radiation Gate Sephiroth. There has been some fonon disturbances there where there shouldn't be, and it's rather worrying."

Anise made a sympathetic sound, eyed the both of them and then suddenly squealed and ran forward to give the pilot a hug, babbling about how she liked Noelle's piloting better because Guy's piloting made her airsick. He felt a touch at his wrist, light and careful, and he looked up at Tear. She gave him a small smile.

"Lorelei be with you."

Asch thought of the days ahead, and closed his eyes for a moment in weariness. "Thank you," he said stiffly, and walked away.

"We'll be stopping at Daath. Though if you really like to return to Baticul by today, Luke, I think we should be able to do so, but it would probably be very late." Noelle informed him. Asch shook his head.

"It's alright. I'm...not in much of a hurry to go home anyway." The pilot gave him a sharp look and he tried to shrug and crack a smile. "I'm still trying to figure out how to explain the two-year absence to Mother and Father."

The words flowed easily from him, except he knew that that wasn't what he would have said. It was too wordy and revealed too much, like a child who had not been taught to guard his tongue. And it sounded exactly like what Luke would say.

Noelle was clucking her tongue and wagging her finger and he only caught the tail end of her chide, "...all the more you should go back to them as soon as possible, hmm?" when he finally stopped fuming internally. Immediately, he paled as he registered her words. He really should have gone back home to the mansion, back to Mother, to reassure her that at least she had one son back, that he wouldn't leave her feeling worried and sick again. Luke...Luke would have gone home immediately. Asch ran instead.

Because he was afraid, he realized. Because he was afraid in the corner of his mind, terrified that he would go home to Baticul to find Mother dead, gone in the wake of weak health and the miasma and the shock of losing both sons at one go.

The pilot seemed to sense his sudden discomfort, and tried to take back her words, "Well, what's a few days more to two years, huh?"

Asch nodded faintly, and boarded the Albiore without further comment. He didn't spare a look at Anise, just quickly taking a seat facing away from the looming city of Yulia and from Tear, eyes pressed closed tightly as he tried to quell the sick feeling in his stomach, willing himself not to cry at his own cowardice.

It was during the first or second hours of flight when he realized that Anise had somehow managed to sneak into the seat next to his without him noticing it. Given that he had been staring listlessly into the water since they left, lost deeply in thought, he supposed he could only blame himself for the lack of vigilance.

"What do you want?"

"I thought you'd like to know," Anise said, sounding unnaturally serious, the girlish edge absent in her voice. "I heard what Noelle said to you. Madame Fabre, she's okay. I saw her the day you came back. She looks...tired, that's all."

He stared at her, unsure if he was grateful or not for the precious scrap of information and she looked away uncomfortably. "Noelle's right. You should have gone home first."

Luke's memories helpfully shoved information at him, mostly details on Anise's brief (or perhaps extended) betrayal to the group and her reasons for it and why she's giving him her version of the family high code. Asch snarled at the onslaught of unwanted knowledge, and yet, Anise didn't even look perturbed by it. Rather, she had an oddly pensive expression on her face.

"I know Luke," she said slowly. "And you're not him."

Asch couldn't help it; he laughed, a harsh barking sound and he turned to face away from her, hands curling into familiar balls as he said, "Yulia, I can't fool anyone, can I. If even you can tell that I'm not Luke two days into my return, Natalia... and Guy...damn it."

He couldn't help thinking that he had more reasons to not look forward to returning to Baticul. The urge to run away and hide for a while sang in his bones again, he could do it, touchdown at Daath and disappear like he always did as a God-General, or enlist the help of the Dark Wings once more. He may not have the clout he once had but the Dark Wings made it a point to take in any...strays regardless of their history. They would probably make him suffer for it, but they would take him in.

"I'll have you know that I won't have you disappearing on my watch," Anise snarkily remarked, tearing him away from his brief planning. "Tear may have not assigned you to me but I think both Natalia and Guy will kill me if I let you get away."

The ex-Fon Guardian had her hands on her hips. "Besides, it's not like you can run far. We've been everywhere, you know. Even the Nam Cobanda Isle." But her eyes softened as she continued, "Please go home, A-Asch. I...I may not like the fact that Luke didn't come back, because I do miss him, but...your mother misses you too. Please go home."

He exhaled sharply, too emotionally tired and vulnerable to fight against her anymore. "Okay," he grudgingly agreed. She hummed in satisfaction and plopped herself down beside him, much to his annoyance, and began to update him about the important events that occured during the two years he was gone. It was only after Noelle sighted Daath that Asch realized how effective Anise was at distracting him from the anxiety and worry that had plagued him since the beginning of the flight.

When they landed at Daath, Anise thanked Noelle for her assistance, nudging Asch in the ribs to echo her. He did so clumsily, but Noelle just smiled again and shook her head.

"I'll be at the inn when you want to go home," she said, before moving back into her airship.

Anise pulled hard at his sleeve to indicate that he was to follow her before flouncing off, ponytails bouncing in the air. He walked after her at a more stately pace, mind working furiously before a memory of Luke's flashed before him.

"A-Anise," he stammered, trying to pronounce that unfamiliar name, and the little girl halted mid-hop.

"What is it?"

"I...Luke...you told Luke that you needed a patron. In order to reform the Order of Lorelei."

"How'd you know that?" She stared curiously at him, head cocked to one side.

"I have his memories," Asch quickly muttered, trying to gloss over the issue as much as possible. Thankfully enough, Anise didn't press.

"Well, yeah," she said doubtfully. "But he never made a promise to me about it, and I didn't want to approach Natalia or Guy for funding. There has been some progress made on my own but it's slow and hard. As usual. The Order is incredibly stubborn about the idea that all Fon Masters must be male, despite Yulia being a girl." She blew her cheeks out and frowned heavily at that thought.

"If Luke had returned, I think he would have agreed to being your patron," Asch said slowly. "Since he is not here," he looked away, "I will take his place. Luke fon Fabre will be your patron. It was what he would have done."

She gaped at him before scrambling to answer, "Gee, it's not as though I don't appreciate it, but, Asch. You don't have to do this. You're not Luke, and it's...it's not an obligation."

He gave her a faint, uncertain smile. "Then think of it as thanks, for telling me about my mother. And for not letting me brood about it."

Asch was startled when Anise grabbed his hands rather suddenly and firmly, so he couldn't snatch them away. "Thank you," she said simply.

They walked to the huge Daath cathedral, Anise explaining that she would have to ask Maestro Tritheim for papers that Asch would have to sign, and for Duke Fabre to vet, and a thousand other red-tape related issues. There was a disgruntled look on Anise's face as she recounted some of the unnecessary problems she had run into, and Asch found himself falling into a sort of lull just listening to her talk. It was easier than thinking.

Until an strangely familiar voice rang out, calling Anise's name and immediately raising alarms in his mind. He scrambled to grab his weapon, hating how strange the halter was and how inconvenient it made to get to the Key when Anise replied, "Florian!" in a decidedly not antagonistic tone, waving her hand rather wildly.

He could only stare as Sync, no, Florian (that was what the girl had called him, and that was what Luke's memories said) waved back to Anise. Asch realized that this was probably the last surviving replica of the dead Fon Master, but it still gave him a headache to try and disassociate the genially smiling Florian from the moody Sync. Sure, he had met the other Ion replica a few times, but they were brief at best, and he tried not to notice him much.

It did help a little that Florian sported a different hairstyle and clothes from his original and fellow replicas.

"Anise, you said that you would be back earlier," Florian groused, but he was smiling and Asch was getting the distinctly unhappy feeling that he was intruding in something he wasn't supposed to. Anise flailed a little, going, "I would have, but Tear had to go to Yulia City first and since there was only one Albiore we had to follow and besides, I have some documents from Mayor Teodoro that might help my cause so it's not totally wasted and I'm only a day late, Florian-"

"Okay, okay, Anise, I was just kidding," he laughed. Asch fidgeted, drawing the other boy's attention. "Hello," Florian said, "I'm...well, Anise called my name just now, but, I'm Florian. It's nice to meet-" He stopped in mid-sentence, green eyebrows slightly pulling together in puzzlement. "I'm sorry, but you look faintly familiar. Have we met before?"

The ex-God-General looked to Anise for direction, and she shrugged in reply. He scowled heavily at her.

"I...had a replica," Asch haltingly answered. "I believe he used to play games with you. His name is...was..." He frowned hard, trying to figure out the correct verb to use. "His name's Luke," he finished lamely. "I'm Asch."

Florian's expression never changed, and he smiled pleasantly. "I...remember him. But still, it is a pleasure to meet you, Asch."

"Florian," Anise ventured, now that the moment was over, "is it okay if you keep Asch company? I have to speak with Maestro Tritheim about these documents from Mayor Teodoro, and request for the necessary documents for the acquisition of a patron, so I don't want him to run away." She threw Asch a mischevious grin. "Remember what you said, Asch!"

She sped off, leaving the both of them to stare after her. "Well," Florian coughed. "It's past noon-time. Have you eaten?"

He was given a modest meal that consisted of leftovers from the Order's mass-lunch (Florian apologised profusely for that) and he was all but dragged to the Fon-Master's quarters ("It's easier for Anise to find us here.") where he was forced to sit down while Florian puttered about for a bit of afternoon tea. It all felt faintly surreal to Asch.

"I'm sorry if I seem a bit of a rappig, but I'm always constantly hungry, even if I never manage to eat much," Florian said, setting down a plate of biscuits and two cups of steaming drink. Asch looked on incredulously.


"You're welcome," Florian interrupted cheerily. Asch flushed and peered at the tea in the cup. Eventually, he took a careful sip, and he felt himself relax at the warm, tangy aroma. "That's a blend of Oriora tea, one of my favourites."

"I used to drink the Estema blend, but... it has been a long time since I could do something like this," Asch said quietly, his hand curled around the cup. "It feels good."

They sat there, the only movement in the room being Florian periodically snagging biscuits off the plate and refilling the cups.

"Asch? Can I ask something?"

Asch nodded, just barely.

"You're Luke's original, right? What...what is it like, to be an original?"

His hands tightened imperceptibly around the cup, but to Asch's surprise the familiar rage never came. Just an overwhelming weariness.

"It's a lot like being a replica."

"I...I don't understand," Florian said, sounding confused. Asch laughed a little.

"I don't think you would," he said. "I don't think anyone would. The boy you met, two years ago, Luke, that was my name originally. He was supposed to take my place to die, though things changed and he didn't."

Asch took a deep breath, trying to steady his voice. "He took my life, just like a replica was supposed to do, except for the fact that I was still alive." (Van's voice: "Don't look.") "He took my name, and made it a worthy one." (A memory: "We'll call it the Luke fon Fabre Bridge!") "He made 'me' into someone I never could have been. And when I died, on the replica land of Hod, he brought me back, somehow, and gave me back my life." (Luke: "It's your life to live. Not mine. Never mine.")

"Except it was no longer mine," Asch said, still calm, but the tea-cup rattled in its dish and he had to put it down, clasping his hands together to still them. "It was his. Permanently, irrevocably, his. I've come to replace him, instead."

He laughed again, bitterly. "The original becomes the replica."

Florian gazed at him, and then proclaimed, "The both of you are stupid."

Asch sputtered and was glad that he had already put down the cup, or else it would have smashed onto the floor. But there was no contempt on Florian's face, just a curiously angry look.

"Let me tell you my story," Florian said quietly. "You know that I was one of the original Fon Master Ion's replicas. Anise and Luke and the rest of them rescued me from Van Grants and Mohs. Anise gave me my name, and her parents dressed me in the Fon Master's clothes.

"I grew up in the cathedral, although Anise stopped anyone from trying to reinstate me as Fon Master and screamed at all who called me Ion. All my life she told me that she wanted me to be Florian, not Ion, even though I'm a replica. Sometimes, though, even she would slip up and call me Ion. But if she realized her slip-ups she would get furious with herself and apologize. I never understood why."

Florian twisted his fingers in his clothes. "I didn't know who Ion was, until I found out in some of the Daath records. I was surprised to discover that I looked exactly like him, and I thought that if Anise missed him so much, if it would make her happy, I could play Ion. I asked Aunt Pamela what Ion was like, so I could act like him. I already looked like Ion, I wore his clothes, all that needed to be changed was my behaviour.

"Anise slipped up more often, but instead of being happier about it she seemed more upset that she couldn't remember that I was Florian, and not Ion. She had complained, once, to Aunt Pamela when she thought I was out of earshot, about her frustration with trying to keep me and Ion separate in her head. She said it was unfair to me, and to Ion, because, 'Ion is Ion and Florian is Florian and they're not each other.'" There was a faint smile on Florian's face.

"And I thought, maybe I had been doing it all wrong. So I...probably did one of the stupidest things ever. I asked Aunt Pamela to tailor an outfit just for me, and on the day Anise was due to come back from one of her trips to Yulia City I had the cathedral barber cut and style my hair in a different manner. I wanted to look as different as I can from Ion for her.

"When Anise saw me, she burst into tears," Florian's ears went faintly pink at the tips. "I thought she didn't like what I did, but she said, 'Stay like this, Florian. It makes it easier.'" He took a breath. "The point was, I was like you, and Luke, once. I tried to be someone else to make someone I love happy, to make someone who loved my...original happy. It took me a while to realize that that wasn't the point. Anise was happy with me being me, and not Ion. It hurt her a lot when I confused her, and I think it would hurt your friends too, if you tried to replace yourself with who Luke was.

"I think what Luke did to you, bringing you back without your permission, that was unfair. But I also think that he meant well. Regardless of what happened, you are alive now. You have a life to live again. Your life. Not his." He looked hard at Asch. "So live."

Asch broke the gaze, cheeks flaming in shame and embarassment. "It's hard," he admitted softly. "I made a lot of enemies. A lot of mistakes."

"I guess it's what people do. Originals and replicas alike." Florian said, making a fresh pot of tea. "But the point of being alive is learning from those mistakes, and dealing with the consequences, good or bad. It's...hard, you're right. But it's part of living, and part of learning to live. And you can't do that when you're dead."

He placed a new cup in Asch's hand. "Asch, or Luke, your choices are your own. But I hope you make the ones that will bring you happiness."

the fourth day

Anise and Florian insisted on accompanying him to the Albiore, one as a friend and the other to make sure that he didn't run away in the short distance between. She had given a whole sheaf of papers into Asch's hand, telling him that it was imperative that he read everything even if it would be to her benefit that he didn't, and Florian just smiled and made a small request that he would like to see the redhead again, sometime soon.

"I expect the papers, and you, to be back by next week!" Anise hollered as a parting shot.

As he bid the two goodbye and boarded the Albiore, he was surprised to hear Noelle greet him and then ask, "So, are we ready to go home now?"

And he was even more surprised to hear himself reply, "Yeah."

Asch did a lot of thinking during the flight, turning Florian's words over and over again in his head. Luke's memories pushed at him as well, events of his friends asserting Luke's identity for him, but instead of brooding upon that Asch picked through the pain and tried to learn Luke's lessons for himself. When Baticul finally appeared on the horizon Asch thought he could understand now, just a little.

He turned a lot of heads when he arrived, the whispers among the noble-folk not quite reaching his ears. For a moment Asch wished that he had the foresight to send a letter ahead when he was in Daath to inform Natalia of his arrival, or he had worn a hat of some sort to hide the brilliant red of his hair. Even the Kimlascan soldiers seemed taken aback when he stalked past them.

His steps did slow a little when he came closer to the House Fabre mansion. The desire to see his mother again, in spite of Anise's reassurances, tugged at him, but he forced his footsteps past, striding towards the castle doors.

"I would like to speak to the princess Natalia," he said to the stunned sentries. "I believe she is expecting me."

She was, as one of the soldiers quickly stood to attention and escorted him to one of the royal waiting rooms. He didn't have to wait long, having just enough time to take a cursory look around before he heard Natalia's outraged tones, "I told you, he's not a replica!"

The door slammed open before he could recollect himself, and Natalia all but stomped in, and then did a rapid about-turn to shut the door against her protesting but well-meaning attendants, turning the lock firmly. She was breathing a little hard, probably from contesting the validity of his identity, Asch thought. There was an extra loud sigh, before Natalia straightened up, hands moving automatically to adjust her hair and her clothes.

The effect was ruined slightly when she finally turned around to face him, her left cheek smeared with a bit of black ink. "I'm sorry for the wait," she said, still sounding a bit flustered.

"No, it's my fault," he said. "I should have sent a letter to inform you." Asch looked around, remembering that he saw a set of tea towels.

"The Council was furious with me for going on an unauthorized diplomatic visit, so they gave me all the paperwork and told me that since I was so intent on managing diplomatic relations without their prior approval, I could stand to complete the necessary paperwork without the assistance of Marie and Klaus." He recognised the signature stubborness laced in her frame, her tendency to focus on one abstract aspect in other to escape other worries.

Her lip curled in thought. "I suppose they hoped that by doing this they would discourage me from doing things on my own again. Well, I'm going to finish the paperwork even if I don't like it, and even understand what it means so that the Council can't use ignorance as a weapon against me."

"I'm sure you will," Asch said, holding out a tea towel. "You have a bit of ink on your cheek."

"Oh!" Natalia blushed, taking the cloth from his hand and wiping hastily at the offending ink. She only succeeded in smudging it further, and Asch restrained a fond smile as he stepped forward, cleaning the rest of it off. His fingers brushed briefly against her skin.


"Thank you," she said, and then, softly, carefully, she formed the name, "...Luke."

He had expected this moment, thought deeply about it on the flight to Baticul, and yet he couldn't help freezing a little at her uncertain tone, and had to drop his eyes (like a coward) when he muttered, "No, I'm Asch."

A sudden heavy silence hung between them, before Natalia spoke, whispering, "...I don't understand."

He took a deep breath. "I was..." Dishonest? Deceitful? Fear seemed to be a weak excuse, considering the resolutions he made that he wasn't going to run anymore. "...I should have told you immediately. It was not right of me to keep my identity from you."

Natalia managed to walk to a chair and sit in it with some grace, but her face was white with shock.


"Why?" she asked. "Why did you wait? Why didn't you tell me that night, Asch? Why only now?" With each question her voice grew louder, more demanding, and finally Asch broke.

"I didn't know how to!" he said. "You saw Luke's friends, you saw Tear, do you think I'd be so stupid as to destroy what happiness they had then? To get into a fight with Guy at first sight-"

"Asch, they won't be any happier when they find out you're not him!" Natalia cried. "Wouldn't it have been easier if you told everyone then-"

"I was afraid!" Asch interrupted. "Everyone expected Luke to come back, not me. Even you."


"Because I was dead, right, Natalia? Because I died in Eldrant! The dead don't come back!"

He suddenly sucked in a breath, trying to stop himself from beginning to scream at her. She was not the one in the wrong. He was. His nerves were fraying, Florian's wise words swirling like a whirlwind in his mind, suddenly ineffective and useless in the face of his current feelings.

"Forgive me," he said shortly. "I still see that I'm incapable of not correcting my mistakes properly. I shall take my leave now." He bowed and then started to move to the door.

"Asch, no, wait!" Natalia stumbled from the chair, reaching out to snag his sleeve. "I'm sorry, I didn't think-"

"No, I was the one who had spared no thought to the consequences that would follow my actions. You, and others, were hurt because of it. It was my mistake."

He tugged once at her grip, but she did not release him. Instead, she pressed her face to his arm, using her other hand to grasp his. "Don't leave."

"I can't if you won't let me go."

"I grieved for you," Natalia whispered. "They only held one funeral for the both of you, a month after Eldrant went down. I think Duke Fabre didn't want to explain why he had to have two graves bearing the same name at that time. Although he quietly had another made at Lady Suzanne's behest a week later. A small ceremony was held for those who knew the both of you.

"I thought I had come to terms with your death. I was happy when I thought Luke came back, that day, even if it meant giving him up to Tear. And yet, when we came out of Tataroo Valley I couldn't...I couldn't stop thinking that maybe it was you instead. But I kept telling myself it couldn't be, because you were dead. I didn't want to go through the pain again. And I didn't want to put Luke through any of it either, if it was him then.

"It hurt, Asch. It hurt when you finally showed yourself, and it...it confused me a lot. I kept telling myself that it was Luke who came back, not you. It hurt. I didn't want to face the idea that Luke was lost too."

She let go of him, looking him straight in the eye.

"But I am happy that you are here," Natalia said, voice trembling but laced with determination. "That you...could come back. I...really missed you."

There was the beginning of tears on her face, but it seemed that she did not notice. Asch reached out to touch her cheek again. "You're crying."

He watched as her hands flew to her face, her expression that of surprise and confusion, before she started to scrub helplessly at them. Her sudden laughter was as brittle as glass. "M-my, I don't know whom I'm grieving for anymore."

Natalia's attendants were caught trying to eavesdrop when Natalia finally unlocked the door and all of them fell into the room in an untidy pile. The ensuring ruckus caused Natalia to giggle a little shakily and earned Asch glares from those who caught the tell-tale red around Natalia's eyes. Nevertheless, since their Princess didn't look the worse for wear physically, they didn't harrangue the redheaded stranger.

"Would you like to go home and see Lady Suzanne?" she asked softly as they walked to the guest quarters where Asch could freshen up for dinner (Natalia insisted). "Duke Fabre is away at Belkend, overseeing new fontech research studies. He isn't due back until Remday."

He knew what she was really telling him, but he shook his head. "Then would you like me to send a message to her?"

"No, I... I'd like to tell her myself."

"She was feeling a bit under the weather, but...she's fine, Asch."

"I know. Anise told me."

He could feel Natalia smile. "With no strings attached?"

"...I offered to be her patron."

"I see," she chuckled. "I'm...glad that you were at least able to get along with Anise. Who...who else knows?

They stopped at the door to the guest chambers. Asch swallowed hard before answering. "Only Guy is left. But...I think he knows who I really am."

Natalia uttered a soft, "Oh," before she took his fingers, and gave a gentle, reassuring squeeze. "I will see you at dinner."

They dined at one of the smaller royal rooms, Asch feeling rather strange at being served by others again. He fumbled with the cutlery, trying to remember long-forgotten lessons of dining etiquette, unable to grasp the slender stem of the wineglass in the proper form. Natalia smiled at his frustration, before telling him, "It's all right if you only use one set, it's only me and Nate here anyway."

He gritted his teeth at that, but in the end did as she suggested. It was, truthfully, easier than trying to unsubtly follow Natalia's every choice of fork and knife.

"Asch, I...what are your plans after this?" Natalia asked during one lull.

"I...have not thought ahead." He looked down at his half-eaten fish, pushing the wrong fork for it in its sauce. Suddenly tiring of playing with his food he set it down, clasping his hands together. "Natalia," he said slowly, "I'm thinking of reclaiming my name."

Natalia dropped her fork, ignoring how rude that would have been in another setting. "As...Luke fon Fabre?"


She closed her eyes and let out a weary sigh. "Asch, I do wish that you would stop springing surprises on me. It's very tiring to take it all in one day."

"I..." he wanted to hit himself. "Forget I said anything, then."

"No," she said decisively, reaching out her hand to touch his. "This is important."

When he didn't respond, she said firmly, "As- Luke, look at me. I'm sorry about how I reacted just now. It's just that I've...separated the both of you for so long, in my mind, I've...forgotten what your old name was. But you are right, to think of reclaiming your name," she curled her fingers around his again, tightening her grip, "it'll make things easier, for a lot of people. Of course, it's going to be hard for us to adjust initially but," she gave him a shaky smile, "it's your name too."

"You could call me Asch. In private," he offered, but she shook her head.

"You have to adjust to your old name too, A- Luke," she said quietly. "You're not 'what's left'. You are the sacred flame. You always have been. Just like Luke was.

"But you're different from him, all right? You're your own Luke. So don't...don't forget that."

He hesitantly gave her fingers an answering squeeze, still refusing to look at her. "I won't."

They moved on to nicer, safer topics then, Natalia talking softly about court and noblefolk matters and her tussles with the Council and her hopes for Kimlasca's future. At the end of the dinner there was dessert, despite his reluctance for sweets, some sort of coloured shaved ice topped with bits of local fruit and drizzled with honey and maple, which he toyed with after taking just one bite. He was more content to watch Natalia eat from her dish, unaware that he had a small indulgent smile on his face.

Just for this moment alone, Asch was glad that Luke had forced him to go back.

the fifth day

In the morning he found himself making his way down to the commonfolk level, mostly just to walk and re-familiarise himself with the Baticul from his childhood. He wasn't allowed to come out of the mansion often, but...his mother made excuses and often managed to arrange little trips down with the help of a few maids. It was easier to experience the true hustle-and-bustle of the Kimlascan fortress town when he went incognito instead of being escorted by well-meaning bodyguards.

Natalia had her doubts about whether Guy was still in Baticul after bringing her home, but she was sure that Guy would have informed her before taking his leave. Still, meeting Guy was not high on Asch's list of current wants.

He was looking through the wares of a very friendly and enthusiastic fruit seller when someone called out, "Luke!" Immediately, the skin on the back of his neck prickled and he turned around slowly, relieved to find that it was Noelle who had said his name. The pilot waved to him cheerily, and he started to hesitantly wave back when he spotted the person behind her, feeling his stomach drop. "Look who I found at the inn!"

Asch stared into the eyes of one Gaillardia Galan Gardios, former Guy Cecil and servant of House Fabre.

"Hey." Guy greeted, cracking an empty smile.

Noelle didn't seem to notice the sudden tension that sprung up between them, and said, "I'm heading back to Sheridan, Guy's just escorting me to the Albiore."

"Why don't you follow us, Luke?" Guy said, still smiling. "We have much to talk about, and it'll be less noisy on the plains."

He gritted his teeth, before giving Noelle a nod. "I'll be pleased to see you off."

Asch followed the two of them as they approached the border of Baticul, watching Guy intently as the blond chatted with the pilot on the topics of fontech and aerial flight techniques. Despite Guy's apparent need to talk to Asch, there was only silence between them up to until Noelle took flight.

The moment the girl was safely out of sight, Guy swung at him. But because he was expecting it, Asch already had his hands raised at the ready and blocked the punches. However, he couldn't avoid the kick that immediately followed and grunted as it connected with his ribs. He immediately backed away before Guy could do more follow-ups, although he was sorely tempted to engage in an all-out brawl with the Count of Gardios. After all, it would be a nice change from the previous dances he had with Luke's other companions.

"It's not like I had a choice," he said quietly, voice just a bit tight from the pain of the kick and arm throbbing from blocking the punch. Guy's expression was open and fierce, alive, blue eyes shining and all Asch could think of was he still hates me. Maybe even more now.

"When were you planning to tell me, huh? And why did it have to be you? You died! You were dead!"

But he did not apologize. There would never be enough apologies in the whole of Auldrant that would earn him Guy's forgiveness. And Asch was never one to apologize anyway.

"Answer me!"

"Do you hate me that much?" he replied instead. It looked like the brawl was turning out to be unavoidable, Guy closing the distance and him widening it by side-stepping in a circular fashion, sizing each other up.

"Hate you? You have no idea," Guy snarled, speeding up just a little and lashing out with a high-kick, which the redhead blocked. Asch was just mildly surprised that he had not drawn swords at first chance. "You and your family really took everything from me. Everything."

Luke's memories flickered through his mind again, and Lorelei he hated this, hated the fact that he had access to every single conversation, every secret Luke had managed to weasel and coax and unearth out of the tightest of human clams. It was not because he wouldn't use the information, not that he would, but he couldn't. These secrets were Luke's to keep and to Asch they were just like pearls before the proverbial rappig, precious but useless.

"My father's sins are not my own."

His hair got into his vision at the wrong moment and Asch felt pain explode at the side of his mouth, blood spilling from the inside of his cheek where his teeth had cut it. He spat once to get the iron taste out of his mouth, but the appearance of a successful injury only seem to spur on Guy's anger more instead of abating it. It also made Asch's blood burn, and he struck out as well for the first time in the fight, narrowly missing Guy's abdomen.

"Do you know that Luke's only seven years old? Seven years old and he's only started to live properly since Akzeriuth, think for himself instead of following Van. I watched him grow up. I watched him carry the lives of thousands on his shoulders and he was alive when I watched him go and free Lorelei. And now instead of Luke, you're the one who's here."

He could feel sweat forming on his brow and neck as he continued to dodge and block and attack, but Guy was getting faster and more accurate even as he spoke, and Asch couldn't lie to himself that he couldn't hear the pain in Guy's voice, or the hurt that was building in his chest as he was faced with the raw honest truth that someone wanted Luke back more than him.

"Did you think I wanted to be here?"

"Shut up!"

The familiar shout took him by surprise, and Guy was tackling him to the ground, knocking the wind out of him and to add insult to injury, even after a decade Guy was still bigger than him, still heavier. Guy's weight on his chest made him wheeze and hands jerked him up roughly by the collar of his shirt. Admirably enough, Guy didn't take the opportunity to punch him to pieces. Instead, he was growling out, "Jade knew, didn't he. That bastard knew, and not one word, not one single word he breathed to any of us-"

"He was being kind."

Gaillardia laughed. It was not a pleasant sound, and to Asch's discomfort the blue eyes never left his face.

"Colonel Jade Curtiss does not know the definition of kindness, Asch."

He was definitely going to get hit again for this. "My name is Luke."

Guy's nostrils flared and he roared, "You don't have a right to that name, you bastard, you don't-!"

He found himself shouting back in desperation, "Have you forgotten? It was originally mine, and it still is! I may not want this life but I'm here now, I'm also alive and I'm Luke fon Fabre too, Gaillardia, and don't you dare take it away from me!"

Van had once remarked that he always said the right things at the wrong time. This was no exception. But as Asch watched as the fury and the colour drained from Guy's face, the words turned to ashes in his mouth and not for the first time and not for the last he cursed himself, and he cursed Luke, and he cursed Lorelei for doing this to him, for doing this to Guy and Natalia and Luke's friends.

"I...of course, it's your name, it's..." The tension that had held Guy together rapidly seeped away, and he was putting a hand to his face, fingers threading roughly through short hair and at that moment Asch knew, Asch knew that Guy had not grieved, had not mourned, had waited two years in hope and desperation and that maybe Guy was right, maybe the Necromancer had not been so kind after all.

"Do the others know?"

"...You were the last."

Guy let out a choking laugh that sounded too close to tears. "I hope I was the hardest. Four days of this, huh? No wonder you knew I was going to hit you. It's not just your God-General instincts."

"Nice punch though."

"It felt good." Guy tried to smile at that and failed. He got to his feet, swaying a little all the while and, really, not getting very far when he sat down again in the grass, rather suddenly, his hands covering his face and one knee drawn to his chin, and Asch couldn't find it in himself to look away. Because, he told himself, he deserved to see this, to feel the deep sense of shock and shame and regret welling up in him, so foreign and foul while he watched Guy Cecil utter, "So, Luke is dead..." like a confirmation before slowly succumbing to tears.

The sun shone down on the both of them, hot and bright and it made Asch think that perhaps, it was more appropriate, and kind, if it were raining instead.

When the crying finally wound down, Asch crept up to Guy and tugged at his sleeve like he once did, a long, long time ago, in another life. "Let's get back," he said. "It's dangerous being out here."

Maybe it was because Guy was tired, or Guy didn't care or Guy just wanted a Luke, any Luke, to hold on to, whatever the reason, Guy allowed Asch to pull him up, and together they walked to Baticul.

It was around noon-time when Natalia found them at the inn, Asch vainly trying to clean up the worst of the fight (he had grass-stains at the back of his shirt and bloodstains down the front and a beautiful bruise at the corner of his mouth) while Guy sat on the bed, still looking a little lost, though he had washed up when Asch pushed him to, ableit a little mechanically. She held her tongue, but she poked and prodded Asch without much gentleness as she healed his bruises.

"Idiot," was all she said to him before she moved to Guy, and Asch felt a small spark of surprise as the blond allowed her to come in close, for her to lay one hand lightly on his arm. It seemed to jerk Guy into motion.

"Princess," he stuttered, "did you know?"

"Only just yesterday," she answered gently. "Luke is an idiot, and so are you, apparently. I obviously can't leave the both of you alone with each other."

Guy shuddered once, folding into himself before breaking into a hoarse laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess you can't."

the sixth day

Natalia spent most of that day (in between doing more paperwork and making Asch deal with some himself as punishment) trying to convince Guy to stay just a little longer, at her expense, but Guy had gently but firmly rebuffed her.

"I'm just a little shaken," he said, "but I'll be okay. Honest. Besides, you know that the Albiore IV has a new and improved auto-pilot system that'll get me back safely to Grand Chokmah, if that's what you're worried about."

Still, she had managed to delay him long enough until the ports closed for the day and he could not leave, even if he wanted to. And now they were walking him to the port, where he had docked the Albiore IV, to see him off. Asch wasn't sure if he was wanted there by Guy, but Natalia had shot him a fierce look that clearly promised ill tidings if he attempted to skip out. She seemed determined to help the both of them repair the broken and now slightly awkward relationship between them.

Asch heartily wished her good luck, not that he was going to stand in her way. For now, he just watched the both of them share words, two golden heads bowed towards each other. He was so wrapped up in gazing at her in particular that he didn't notice when Guy was suddenly too close, but the Count of Gardios just sidled up to him, hands tucked safely in the pockets of his pants.

"I'm not up for forgiveness yet," Guy told him bluntly. "And I'm definitely going to ask Jade about this entire replica business, make him explain everything clearly to me." He ignored Natalia's pointed cough. "I cannot forgive you now. But...if you do come to Malkuth, with Natalia, let's...talk. Instead of fight. Perhaps...we can start over again."

"Perhaps," Asch echoed. "If you will come to Baticul, as well, as a diplomatic envoy from Malkuth. And if not fight, let us spar."

Guy did not smile, but Asch could see the muscles on his face relax faintly. "I will look forward to the sparring."

He took one step closer, and Asch saw Guy's gaze turn inward, seeing someone who was no longer there. One of Guy's hands slipped from its pocket, halfway reaching out towards Asch when Guy shook his head, the faraway gaze disappearing like mist. He turned without bidding Asch goodbye, waved farewell to Natalia and climbed into the Albiore IV.

Asch moved to Natalia's side, and they watched as the airship skimmed lightly on the waves before taking to the sky. When the Albiore disappeared into the horizon, Natalia turned to Asch.

"Luke?" she said. "It's time to go home."

He sighed once, and nodded.

She followed him to the Fabre mansion, mostly to verify his identity as Luke fon Fabre. Ramdas' eyes had widened when Natalia re-introduced the long-lost heir, leading to some mild confusion and rapid queries about the validity due to the replica situation. Natalia fended them off as best as she could, but Ramdas was nothing if fastidious. The House Fabre steward was only finally appeased when Asch stepped up and began to rattle off the fon Fabre lineage, one of the few things that was kept exclusively to House Fabre and taught only to its heirs.

As much as Natalia would like to stay with Asch for the meeting with Madame Fabre, she had spent too long away from her duties as the Princess. She regretfully bade Asch goodbye, giving him a quick peck on the cheek and whispering, "Welcome home."

"Please don't overexcite her," Ramdas said as he led Asch down the short hallway to his parents' room. "Your mother's health has never quite recovered from the news of your deaths, although she is doing better in the recent months." He frowned disapprovingly at Asch. "It was rather foolish of you to let her think that you were dead."

Asch bit the inside of his cheek to avoid yelling at the steward that he had no choice in the two years of absence, that he had died and it was only by Lorelei's grace and Luke's foolish sense of sacrifice that allowed him to come back. His palms felt sweaty, and he wiped them irritably on the side of his pants, too nervous to bother keeping noble protocol. Blood pounded in his ears.

Ramdas knocked once and opened the door to his parents' room. "Madame Fabre, you have a visitor."

He heard a faint but questioning, "Who is it, Ramdas?" before the steward bowed to usher him in. Asch kept his eyes up, looking straight where he knew his mother's bed would be. The first thing he saw was that she was paler and thinner than he remembered, her long red hair now neatly plaited behind her. There was a book on her lap and pillows at her back, a tea set beside her with the teapot lightly steaming but all he could think of was she's alive she's alive thank Lorelei she's alive.

"Luke? Is...is that really you, Luke?"

She reached out one pale hand towards him and he strode, no, ran to cover the short distance to her, all pretenses stripped for the first time in ten years. Suzanne let out a small gasp as her son (her son, always her son, her little boy) crawled into her bed, fiercely but gently wrapping his arms around her, burying his face partly into her hair. Her hand trembled as she lowered it to touch the long red hair that spilled from his back, almost disbelievingly.

"Luke?" she repeated, and the man-child in her arms shifted, trembling and she heard the words she thought she would never hear again.

"Mother...Mother, I'm home. I'm sorry, I'm home, I'm home, Mother."

And there was something wet beginning to trickle down the side of her neck, the tell-tale hiccups that belonged to her first son and not her second breathing in her ear and Suzanne found herself patting and stroking the broad back in familiar comfort, tears seeping from her eyes as she crooned to her prodigal child, "Shh, it's okay, my son, you're home."

He would have cried himself to sleep if he were younger. Still, Asch was a great deal more tired when he finally calmed down, Suzanne having slowly coaxed his body to move until the bed supported his weight instead of her. She did not force him to talk, rather, his mother just seemed happy enough to just keep stroking the side of his face, waiting for him to cease crying.

"I'm sorry," he said again, but Suzanne just placed a finger on his lips.

"Shh. You're forgiven."

Asch laid there for a few more minutes, feeling safer than he ever had been for a long time. Suzanne held out a flannel towel to him, and with some afterthought put in Asch sat up and began to wipe his face in slight embarassment. His mother just watched it all with a fond eye.

"You came home."

He licked his lips once, and contemplated getting off the bed and sitting properly in a chair, but Suzanne was holding out a cup of tea and didn't look like she was expecting him to do that, so he stayed where he was. The tea had cooled a little, but it tasted of home, and that was all that mattered.

"It was thanks, to Luke, my...replica," he said. "He brought me back. I'm sorry that it took so long."

Suzanne smiled a little sadly at that revelation, but she settled back into her pillows, and almost as if no time had passed she picked up the old afternoon ritual of theirs. "Now why don't you tell me all about it, my son?"

And like a dam broken Asch began to speak, softly, slowly and clearly, of two stories that spanned fourteen years in the space of seven, and Suzanne listened as much as she could. She owed both her children that much. Suzanne's attendants slipped in and out quietly, always refilling the tea and leaving small plates of sandwiches on the table.

He would have kept on speaking and she would have kept on listening for as long as it took, but eventually Asch noticed how tired she had been getting. Even when Suzanne motioned him to continue, he stopped, more worried about her health.

"I won't disappear again," he told her, while one of the maids appeared with the evening meal and her medication. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and forehead. "I promise. I will never leave you again."

"Have a meal with me," Suzanne requested, almost shyly, and Asch acquiesced with the compromise of not continuing his and Luke's tale. After all, they had tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, stretching hopefully into forever.

When Suzanne finally went to sleep, Asch went back to the bedroom he had not used for the past ten years. He allowed himself to smirk a little when he noticed that little had changed, despite his father's practicality for things. There wasn't even dust on the bedsheets.

And yet while it looked all so familiar, there was also a strangeness to it that he couldn't place, the queer feeling that the room, his old room, belonged to him no longer. His practice weapons were still there, old schoolbooks and wooden toys, but there were some that he did not recognize. Writings scrawled in the basic symbols of the fonic language in a different hand, crayoned pictures squirreled under books where his father would have frowned heavily upon if he had seen them. Luke's memories danced in front of his eyes.

This was as much Luke's room as it was his.

Asch inhaled deeply, putting one hand over his heart. "Thank you," he said to the empty air.

He walked over to the adjoining bathroom, eying the bottles of shampoo and soap and his eyes fell on a pair of scissors. It used to be out of reach of his ten-year-old hands, but now he could pick it up from its place with ease. For a moment, he was tempted to cut his hair, start all over like Luke did.

But only for a moment. He wasn't that Luke, after all. He was...himself, as painful and harsh as that was. He'd find a way to show that, somehow. For now...

Asch put the scissors down, and turned to face himself in the mirror.

"Hello, Luke."

and on the seventh day

Asch rested.