Disclaimer: Characters and locations belong to Namco Bandai. As much as I wish they belonged to me...they don't and that makes me sad. So until the day I come up with a way to get Namco to give them to me, I can only play around with them in my story.
Spoilers: Up to the first visit to Yulia City.
A/N: Based on the AU scenario in Reflections, this is a one-shot I wrote for Lady Usada's Replica love contest (which consisted of writing Luke in any pairing).
Colourful songbirds flittered from tree to tree, under their feet small buds were beginning to open, revealing their new leaves to the early spring sunshine. The snow had long since retreated, leaving nothing but the odd puddle sitting along the cobblestone streets of Kimlasca's pristine capital. The air was fresh, as it was every time this season rolled around and the city was alive with new life.
"It's beautiful, isn't it Luke?" The young princess spoke, breaking the calmness of the late morning air. The redhead that walked beside her continued onwards as if he hadn't even heard her, leaving her to keep up with his pace. His black jacket flapped gently in the warm breeze that pulled his crimson hair out behind him. Natalia sighed and followed him onto the lift that would bring them down into the city. Behind them, one of the castle's guards followed; a mandatory escort for the eleven and twelve year old.
"Luke," Natalia repeated once they had gotten to the bottom, again failing to attract the young noble's attention. She let out a defeated sigh.
"Asch," Natalia gave in, no longer attempting to hide her annoyance at her partner.
"What is it Natalia?" The young boy finally answered.
"This is just ridiculous, why won't you answer me?" Natalia demanded.
"You weren't talking to me," Asch explained.
"Of course I was talking to you," Natalia replied, exasperated. "Why won't you answer to your name anymore?"
"Because it isn't my name anymore."
"But that's just silly, why should you be the one to give up your name? You're Luke, not him," Natalia argued, now visibly upset. For almost a year she'd put up with this name nonsense, but she hated it. He was the Luke she had fallen in love with, not that replica. "You're the Luke I remember; you're the Luke who made me that promise."
Asch simply smiled. Without saying a word he took her hand in his own, and placed it up against his chest. It was warm, and beneath it, she could feel the steady beating of his heart. "You're right," he said softly. "I'm the one that you remember; I'm the one that made you that promise. But I'm not Luke anymore," he explained. "Can you accept me?"
There was no judgement in his eyes, no hurt like there had been the last time she had brought up the issue, just a simple question. Could she accept him? But what was he talking about all of a sudden?
"Of course I can accept you! I've always accepted you!" Natalia stated. Did he doubt her devotion to him? Was that it?
"No," Asch answered. "You've accepted Luke, the idea of the person I used to be. But can you accept me, the person that I am, even though I'm not Luke anymore?"
Natalia finally understood. This wasn't about something as trivial as a name or even a question of devotion. It was about the person she loved trying to find an identity he had lost. "Of course," she replied. "I can do that… Asch."
"Than shall we go?" The redhead graciously bowed and offered the princess his arm. Natalia giggled but accepted his invitation and the two made their way into the blossoming city.
Asch had promised her a date, a day for the two of them to go explore Baticul together. The past year had been a tough time for both of them and she had been looking forward to today for awhile. She was looking forward to the chance to go back to the days when things were far less complicated, before Luke had shown up in their lives. Certainly Asch didn't seem to mind his presence, rather, he enjoyed having someone else around all the time, but she missed the days it was just the two of them. It just seemed like they didn't spend time together as much as they used to, and she wished for it all back again. But at least she still had today, a day for just the two of them, and no one else.
"Over there!" People on the streets moved aside as a group of White Knights hurried towards Asch and the young girl on his arm.
"What's the matter?" Asch inquired worriedly when the guards stopped in front of them.
"Master Asch," the captain addressed the young noble, seemingly surprised at the response he had gotten. He quickly turned to his squad. "Split up and keep looking!"
"What's going on here?" Asch demanded.
"My apologies for interrupting you, sir," the captain replied.
"It's fine, what's going on?" Asch repeated sternly, clearly indicating he wouldn't let the captain dismiss the issue.
"It seems Master Luke has gone missing."
"He's missing?!" Asch panicked. "What happened? Where is he?"
"He's somewhere in the city," the captain replied.
"How do you know that? What if someone took him?" Asch was really getting worked up by this point.
"No, he wasn't taken by anyone," the captain explained. "The knight on duty saw him leave the manor. The guards at the city gates haven't seen him around, so we know he's still somewhere in Baticul."
Asch rolled his eyes. "And why did they just let him waltz right out by himself?"
"It seems that the young Master was wearing one of your jackets, and the guard mistook him for you. It wasn't until we noticed him missing that we realized what had happened."
Asch's hand hit his forehead and he couldn't help but laugh. Clever little bugger. It never ceased to amaze him how fast Luke caught onto things. He learnt scarily fast. Asch was leaving the manor, and Luke wasn't allowed to go with him, even though he had wanted to. So if he looked like Asch, he would be allowed to leave too. Even Asch wouldn't have thought of playing on their resemblance like that. His little brother just may have stumbled onto something there.
But as clever as his scheme had been, that still left Luke alone somewhere in Baticul, and that wasn't a thought Asch wanted to entertain. Luke was hardly in any position to be wandering around the city, much less on his own. He was vulnerable, and that didn't appease Asch's worries in the least.
"I'll help you look," Asch offered. Beside him, he felt Natalia tighten her hold on his arm. She didn't want him to go. He had promised her a day together, out of the house and away from Luke who seemed to enjoy interrupting their visits lately. They didn't seem to get any quality time together anymore; so he thought it would be a good chance to get out, just the two of them. But didn't she realize the Luke could be in trouble?
"That's alright, Master Asch," the captain replied, noticing the princess' reluctance to let her fiancée go. "You two just enjoy yourselves, and don't worry. I've got lots of men searching, we'll find him, and he'll be back at the manor for when you return."
"Alright," Asch conceded. The captain gave him one last reassuring nod, before picking up the search for the errant young noble. Luke certainly knew how to cause trouble, Asch would give him that.
"Thank you," Natalia said softly once the captain was gone and they continued along their way.
"Don't worry about it," Asch replied distractedly. His eyes constantly darting from side to side, peeled for any signs of his wayward other.
"Hm, what is it?" He still hadn't turned to look at her.
"Please stop that," she pleaded, clutching his arm tightly forcing him to stop in the middle of the street. "I know you're worried, it's only natural. But he's your replica, and you would be fine if you got lost in the city on your own. So please try not to worry, and let the guards find him. I'm sure he'll be just fine, and I don't want him to ruin our day together."
"I know, but you have to understand it isn't the same thing," Asch explained. "Luke may look the same age I am, but he's really only on the level of a three or four year old at best. He could still end up getting hurt."
"I suppose you're right," Natalia conceded. Why? Why of all days did this have to happen today? Today was supposed to be just for them… but when it came down to it, maybe Asch really did care more about Luke than he cared about her.
"How about this," Asch suggested. "I have someplace I'd like to take you. Help me keep an eye out for him on the way there, and if we haven't spotted him by then, we'll leave the rest of the search to the guards, okay?"
"And if we find him?"
"Then we'll send him home and we won't have anything to worry about."
"Okay," Natalia agreed wiping the beginnings of tears from her eyes. "I'll help you look."
The two of them continued in silence as Asch led her down some of the back streets of Baticul. There were still small booths and shops lining the streets, but there weren't any of the crowds that often existed on the main roads and plazas she more frequently visited. Natalia kept her eyes open for any signs of her newest cousin. She didn't know if she'd rather find him, or if she'd rather not. If they didn't, Asch promised to try and stop worrying about it, and leave the search to the White Knights, but she knew he would still be fretting inside. If they did find him, there was always that chance that he would end up tagging along with them, in spite of what Asch said.
Asch was very devoted to his little brother. He didn't spoil him, at least not like Guy did, doting on the boy day and night, but over the past year, Luke had found a very special place in her fiancée's life. But why… was something she didn't quite understand. What drew Asch so avidly to the person that had almost erased him, the one who had almost taken him away from her? Was it his way of keeping his mind busy, to try and forget everything that happened? Perhaps that was something she would never know, something too personal for him to share, even with her.
"What is it?" Natalia inquired. Asch had stopped scanning the crowd, only stealing a glance over his shoulder every few seconds.
"Nothing," Asch smiled. "Here we are." He stopped her in front of a small booth on the side of the street. Standing behind the booth was a larger man. He seemed a bit intimidating at first, but when he turned around and heartily welcomed his newest customers, Natalia could see he wasn't nearly as frightening as he appeared to be.
"Well there, I see you have an escort today," the man commented to Asch. "Hello there little lady," he turned to her with a small bow. Natalia giggled at the man's courtesy. "What can I get for you today?"
"Two please," Asch requested.
"Sure thing, just give me a second," the man replied and put himself to work.
"What are you getting?" Natalia whispered to Asch.
"You'll see," he whispered back.
"There you go!" the man handed Asch and Natalia each a small bag.
"What are they?" Natalia inquired opening the small bag to find a bunch of strange pastry-looking things.
"They're really good," Asch replied. "Try one."
"They are good!" Natalia's face lit up after trying one. Asch smiled.
"Glad to hear you approve little lady," the man laughed heartily. Asch motioned for the man to come closer. When the man knelt down, Asch leaned in and whispered something into his ear.
"You sure about that?" he asked. Asch nodded. "Sure thing then, I can do that."
"Thank you," Asch replied and paid the man.
"They really are delicious, how did you find this place?" The young girl asked as she and her partner continued onwards, followed by their escort. Nice kids, especially the boy; he had a good heart that one. But that was an awfully strange request for him to make, it made him wonder how the boy was so sure. Oh well, better get to work; those treats didn't bake themselves.
Well what do you know, the man chuckled to himself, the kid had been right. Just a minute or so after the two of them had left, sure enough; he spotted another redheaded boy, identical to the first one. He would run down the street, just covering a block or so before ducking behind a booth, a box, an alley – anywhere he could still peak out and watch the couple that had just left his stall.
"Hey, you there," the man called out as the boy ran by his booth. The eleven year old stopped and met his gaze, his emerald eyes asking what this strange man wanted. The man chuckled, they really were identical, right down to the clothes they were wearing.
"Here," he held out a bag of sweets for the second young noble. The redhead simply stared at him.
"It's okay, it's paid for. You can take it." The boy cocked his head.
"They're for you," the man tried again. The boy approached cautiously, standing up on his tiptoes to see what was in the bag. After another moment's contemplation he snatched the bag from the man's hands. The young boy smiled, and then gave the man a courteous bow before taking off after the couple he had been pursuing, popping one of the sweet pastries in his mouth as he left.
The shopkeeper laughed and watched the young noble continue down the street, periodically ducking for cover when he thought the couple might have noticed. Apparently the brother's attempt to stall or shake off their pursuant had failed.
"Hey mister," a young voice drew his attention away from the second redhead, who was almost out of sight. He'd have to remember to ask how things went the next time he saw them. Until then, he had work to do.
The sound of the waves as they broke against docks was soothing. The two young nobles sat on the edge, letting their feet dangle over the edge and just inches above the water. From where they sat they could watch the docks and the ferry that was slowly pulling in against the blazing sunset. It was breathtaking. Natalia laid her head on her partner's shoulder; it had been such a wonderful day.
"Thank you so much," Natalia whispered, scared of breaking the serenity of the moment.
"What for?" Asch inquired.
"For today, for everything," she replied. "Even though you must be dreadfully worried about Luke, you still kept your promise. Thank you."
"You don't have to thank me for that. Besides, our day isn't over yet," Asch smiled.
Natalia turned and pulled him into an embrace, a gesture Asch gratefully returned. "Let's have lots more," she whispered. "Many more days like this, you and me together."
"Of course we will, we have a whole lifetime to spend together." Asch felt Natalia hold him tighter. "Hey," he whispered back gently. "I'm not going anywhere; we have all the time in the world to spend together, okay?"
"I love you," Natalia said aloud holding him even tighter.
"I love you too, Natalia."
A huge crash, not far from where the young nobles were sitting, startled them both and nearly sent Natalia toppling into the water.
"Are you alright?" Asch inquired, helping Natalia regain her balance.
"What was that?" Both of them looked in the direction of the sound. A few dozen feet away, people were gathering around the source of the commotion: a large stack of crates that appeared to have fallen over. "Shall we go investigate?" Natalia inquired. Asch nodded. As they stood up Asch rolled his eyes and sighed.
"And here I thought we'd managed to lose him," he muttered under his breath. Natalia followed her fiancée. What did he mean by that?
A crowd had already gathered around the commotion and the young couple had to push their way through the mass of people to get to the source. Just as they had guessed, one of the stacks of crates had toppled over. Most of them remained intact but a couple had broken open, spilling their contents onto the port. The mess wasn't what surprised Natalia; that, she had been expecting. What surprised her was the cause. Sitting in the middle of the mess, sobbing, was Luke.
The palace guard who had been escorting them all day, called over a couple of the White Knights who had been searching the docks and together they quickly dispersed the crowd, leaving no one but Luke on the ground sobbing, and Asch standing over him, his hands on his hips, and a rather displeased Natalia standing behind him. Luke looked up at his brother expectantly, but Asch simply shook his head.
"Don't look at me," Asch scolded. "That's what you get for sneaking out of the manor and following us all day."
Luke sniffled and brought a hand up to wipe away the tears from his eyes. The effort was futile; new tears replaced the ones he had wiped away just seconds later.
"Come on Luke," Asch knelt down when Luke's tears wouldn't stop. "You didn't hurt yourself, what's the matter?"
Luke leapt forward, clutching his older brother and catching him off guard. Asch eventually held him back, in spite of his resolve to stay mad at his little brother. He just didn't understand…Luke had made it his mission to ruin every moment he and Natalia had together for at least the past three months now. It was becoming unbelievably frustrating. He cared about his little brother, but even he was getting annoyed at Luke's constant badgering. But this was going too far, even sneaking out of the manor to sabotage their day? He could have really gotten hurt! Or worse… Asch sighed, letting go of that thought; he wouldn't even think it. He refused to be alone again.
Luke was just too damn hard to stay mad at.
"Luke, what's the matter?" Asch asked. Luke was clutching him so tight he was almost having a hard time breathing, not to mention Luke's sobbing that had begun again with a renewed intensity. Just what was wrong?
"I don't want…" Luke trailed off.
"Well if you don't want to get hurt or get in trouble you shouldn't be sneaking out of the manor." Asch felt Luke shake his head from where it was buried in his shoulder.
"I don't want you to love Natalia," Luke sobbed.
"What?" Asch's surprised cry was echoed by the young princess behind him. Asch tried to detach himself from his sibling so he could find out exactly what the matter was, but Luke clung to him even tighter.
"If you love Natalia, that means you won't love me anymore," Luke managed through sobs. So that's what this was all about.
"Luke… No, that's not… It isn't… That's not how it works," Asch fumbled with the words. He had no idea how to explain this.
"But I thought you said… you said that you can only love one person," Luke replied, finally allowing himself to be detached from his sibling.
"Luke, I love you, and I love Natalia, but I love you both in very different ways," Asch attempted to explain. "You're family, you're my little brother, and I'll always love you." Luke wiped away his tears. "But I love Natalia too." Asch placed his arm around the young princess' shoulders and pulled her closer. "I love her in a special way."
"Come on Master Luke," one of the White Knights took the young noble by the hand. "Let's return to the manor, your mother is terribly worried about you."
Luke looked over his shoulder at his sibling before allowing the guard to lead him away. A feeling of guilt settled into Asch stomach, he recognized the look Luke gave him. Luke felt hurt, maybe even somewhat betrayed, and Asch cursed his own inability to properly explain what he meant. Luke didn't understand the difference, and Asch certainly didn't have the first clue what to tell him. How did one explain love?
Asch let out a sigh before returning to Natalia with an apologetic smile. Love was just something that was… not that could be explained. He couldn't explain his feelings for Natalia to Luke any more than he could explain the bond he shared with Luke to Natalia. All he knew is that they both were, and he was glad that they did.
Luke would understand… someday.
"What are these?" Tear examined the small pastry in her hand. She had fished the odd little confection out of a bag that Luke had bought her; she had never seen anything like it. Of all the places Luke had taken her, this was one of the most unexpected. Admittedly, their entire day had been rather unexpected, then again, it wasn't like she knew what to expect. She had never really been on a date before… Tear felt her cheeks flush, and could only hope that Luke was too engrossed in his conversation with the man who ran the small stall to notice.
Luke seemed to know all of Baticul's lesser known nooks and crannies, and Tear certainly couldn't deny that she was having fun. Of course, considering he'd been locked in this city all his life, it made sense he knew his way around. He certainly knew the places that she would enjoy, and the spontaneity and enthusiasm with which he led her around the city had made the day nothing short of amazing.
"They're good, try one," Luke replied popping one of the sweets into his mouth, reassuring her with that sweet smile of his. Tear felt her cheeks flush again. He seemed so comfortable, how was he so good at this?
Tear looked a little flustered and nervous, not that Luke could blame her, he was a bit nervous too. But it wasn't often that they got a break from their journey, and he wanted to make the most of it. And well, spending the day with Tear… he couldn't think of much else he'd rather do. Luke smiled; he really hoped she was enjoying herself too.
"Theyare good," Tear agreed, finally conceding to try one of the strange sweets.
"They were my favourite when I was a kid. I used to come here all the time," Luke explained.
"Did you explore Baticul a lot when you were younger?" Tear inquired. She had realized over the course of the day just how little she really knew about Luke and his past. He didn't seem to like to talk about it.
"I did," Luke smiled. "But I wasn't allowed out of the manor on my own. I don't know, exploring just wasn't as fun with someone tagging along, you know?"
"Sounds like Asch didn't take so well to your exploring," Tear chuckled.
Luke laughed outright. "No… no he didn't. But it wasn't just him, Guy, the guards, none of them really liked to go exploring with me."
"They were probably just worried you'd end up getting yourself in trouble."
"Yeah, I know; but it still really put a damper on things."
"So how is it you know so much about Baticul if you never got to go exploring?" Tear inquired.
"I had my ways," Luke replied with a mischievous wink.
Tear laughed. "You sound like you were quite the troublemaker."
"Oh, I knew how to stir things up."
They both laughed outright, earning them a bunch of strange looks from several of the passer-bys. But the locals quickly lost interest in the young couple and continued about their business. After a moment, Luke and Tear managed to regain their composure. Their eyes met. Tear's cheeks turned red and she looked away. Luke simply smiled at his escort's shyness and offered her his arm.
"Shall we be on our way?"
Tear smiled and accepted Luke's gesture. She held his arm close and allowed her head to rest against his shoulder as they walked down Baticul's streets. She was happy, genuinely happy, probably for the first time since her brother had started this insanity he called salvation. Tear just couldn't understand… How could Van hate this world so much? A world full of such beauty and such wonderful feelings, how could he want to throw it all away? Tear held Luke tighter. She wanted to protect it, to save all the moments like this one. Tear wanted to have many more days like this, all of them with Luke at her side.
Luke shot the occasional glance at his partner, shyly looking away when she looked up at him. For the first time all day, Luke truly felt as if this was more than a simple outing between two friends and he could feel his cheeks redden, and butterflies take up residence in his stomach. Stupid! Luke berated himself; what did he have to get nervous about now? And yet… at the same time it made him unexpectedly happy. Luke found himself secretly hoping Tear felt the same way.
Breaking free from that train of thought, Luke noticed a third sensation. Very faint, but much more familiar. Luke didn't even notice he had stopped in the middle of the street.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?' A satisfied grin spread across Luke's face when he heard a huge crash coming from an alley not far behind them.
"Luke, what's the matter?" Tear inquired, startled by the noble's sudden stop.
'You think you're so funny, don't you?' Asch's reply came and it took everything Luke had to resist an evil snicker. He had managed to time it perfectly.
Luke returned his attention to his date. "It's nothing, let's go."
Asch grumbled as he did his best to clean up the mess he had just made. Stupid dreck… distracting him at just the right second so he'd wind up tripping over a bunch of stupid boxes. Asch had thought he'd managed to avoid Luke's detection, but apparently he had overestimated his abilities, or underestimated his brother's.
'Get lost,' Luke shot back with a mental chuckle.
Asch debated for a moment whether or not he should concede to Luke's demands, but quickly decided against it. Luke was his baby brother after all; he wasn't going to leave him alone in the hands of some woman. Besides, Luke had never been on a date, he had never been in love. He didn't have the first clue what he was doing.
"Hey there!" The man called out to Asch from his stall. Asch looked over towards the man who was waving for him to come closer.
"What is it?" Asch inquired, still keeping track of Luke in the back of his mind.
"Here," the man held out a small bag of sweets. "Your brother asked me to give you these," he explained with a chuckle. "You two really are identical…" The shopkeeper trailed off as he returned to work and Asch left the stall.
Asch stood alone in the middle of the street, staring at the bag of pastries in his hand and he couldn't help but laugh. It had been seven years in coming, but things had finally come full circle. He had wanted to watch out for Luke, to keep an eye on him, make sure he didn't end up getting hurt, make sure he didn't screw up. After all, it was a big brother's job to look out for his younger sibling.
Or maybe he had more selfish reasons than that. Maybe somewhere deep down, he just didn't want to let go of his little brother. He didn't want to see Luke off in the world on his own yet. He liked having Luke at his side, where he could keep him safe and where he knew Luke would never have to face the terrible things he knew existed in the world. Hate, betrayal, a broken heart… Asch didn't want Luke to ever know of these things. He wanted to see his little brother there with him, smiling with that innocent smile of his and reminding him that no matter what happened, everything would be okay.
Asch liked it when Luke depended on him; he liked being depended upon, and enjoyed being the one who always had the answers. It made him feel important, gave him a much needed purpose. Perhaps it was that, and not Luke, that Asch couldn't let go of.
But that couldn't last forever, and he would have to learn to let go someday. Luke had to get out and experience things for himself. Score knows, Asch couldn't teach him everything. He'd learnt that lesson more than once. Perhaps it was time to let experience take over. Perhaps it was more painful, but there wasn't any other way to really live, now was there? Because to love someone, was to know when to let go, even if they are your family.
Asch stared at the road down which Luke had taken the melodist and wondered what the future had in store for them. Maybe they would head down to the water and sit with their feet dangling just above the waves as they watched the blazing sunset. Luke would hold her tighter, Tear would cuddle closer. They might hug, maybe even kiss. But whatever was to happen, it was something Asch would never know. Because, as life seemed intent on reminding him, he didn't have all the answers.
Smiling in defeat, Asch began in the opposite direction his sibling had gone.
Love was just something that Luke would have to figure out for himself.