~*Waltz of the Royals*~

She took his words close to her heart—and hoped.

~*X*~

The sky over Daath was vast and deep. The stars shone far away, like silver coins lost in the great abyss of the sky. The Fonstone Belt glittered a little closer to home, but even its blue-green glow seemed more distant than usual. The moon was vibrant, nearly full, but a sliver of darkness ate away at the bright disc, obscuring some of its glory.

Light stroked the surface of the great Daath Cathedral, making the ancient metallic surface gleam. The streets were mostly deserted, save for a few stragglers, and the stalls had long since been closed up. The quality of the rooms at the Inn were questionable at best, and though they had stayed here many times, Natalia had yet to figure out why the cleanliness of the place seemed to alter between mediocre to practically spotless.

Oh, well…There were more important things to worry about.

The princess of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear was awake at a most unseemly hour, finding herself unable to rest. She sat in a chair near the window, hands folded primly in her lap, green eyes as far off as the stars. Her thoughts, despite her insistence, found their stubborn way back to Lu—

She casted a guilty look at the slumbering redhead, who was sprawled on the bed with Mieu perched on his stomach.

No, not Luke, she reprimanded herself for her mental slip-up. Asch. Their faces and their lives even sometimes blended together in her head, the lines would merge and she would have to set about performing the complicated task of separating them once more. They were not the same person, no, definitely not. No matter how similar they were or how identical their voices…

A sudden sound made her start. Natalia looked at her companions with startled eyes before she realized that Tear was merely humming in her sleep. The song tapered off into nothing and the young woman was silent once more.

The princess stood up quietly, but instead of going to bed, she grabbed her bow and her quiver and left their shared room to enter the lobby of the Inn. No one was about, and the fire in the grate was nearly burnt out. Natalia padded as softly as she could towards the door, but she hesitated, unsure whether or not she should leave a note for her companions.

Fortunately, she didn't have to. She heard a noise and she turned to see the Fon Master regarding her from the entryway of their room. He wasn't fully dressed, and without his headdress and the outer white robe he typically wore, he seemed smaller than usual.

Natalia stepped partly towards him. "Ion, would you be willing to tell the others, if they ask, that I have gone out for a walk?"

Ion nodded at her request, wearing his usual serene smile. "Yes, don't worry. Please don't stay out too late; I'm not sure how Mohs will take our being here…"

"I promise to return soon. Thank you, Ion."

He yawned but inclined his head in acceptance. "But of course." The Fon Master then vanished back into the room.

She waited until there was again not a sound besides the gentle popping of the fire, and then the princess stepped out alone into the lukewarm night air.

Daath was muted, as if someone had simply stuffed all of its usual chaotic noise away, to await the coming of the new dawn. The rising sun, however, was a long way off still. Natalia shouldered her bow and walked away, gloved fingers toying nervously with the orange scarf that looped its lazy way around her neck.

Words, unbidden, echoed in her mind like old bells.

"Someday, when we're grown up, let's change this country."

"Change it so that no one has to be poor…" Natalia found herself going on. However, the syllables felt dry and lifeless coming off of her tongue. These were the words of her old promise with Lu—Asch. Their childhood marriage promise. She had taken these words and lived by them, and it was these same words that had earned her the absolute love of the people in her country. She had worked so hard to make their promise come true…

But, ultimately, she supposed it didn't matter in the end. Not the true meaning of the words, but the proposal within. She and Asch…she and Asch weren't supposed to be together anymore. But just seeing him again made her heart thump faster, but when she met his gaze, she couldn't tell if he felt the same way or not.

They weren't even blood cousins, since…since she was adopted…

As she walked past a religious monument that blazed white in the moon's radiance, Natalia repeated aloud, "Change it so that no one has to be poor..." She couldn't help but think that this was a problem she had definitely tried to correct first, back in Baticul.

The world was so quiet at night…

"Change it so that war never happens…"

Traitorous tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, and the despondent princess came to a halt just outside of Daath, the sleeping city motionless at her back. She buried her face in her hands and tried to stop the waterworks she felt beginning to flow for the umpteenth time.

"Let's change this world," a new voice said behind her. "Together."

Natalia gasped, her surprise momentarily making her forget her tears. She hastily brushed some clinging moisture from her lashes and turned around.

None other than Asch the Bloody was standing there on the cobble-stone streets, one hand in a pocket, the other tightly gripping the handle of his wicked sword. He stared at her solemnly, intensely, but his face was expressionless as always, save for the tiniest of scowls.

But he was ever a scowling person, so that was to be expected.

"A-Asch…"

He stalked towards her with his hunter's prowl, until they stood only a foot apart. "What are you doing out here so late? Are you stupid? Mohs is right down the street." He jabbed a finger down the boulevard for emphasis, gesturing at the Cathedral which looked particularly imposing as it was, silhouetted against the moon. It was nothing more than a dark outline from this distance.

She glanced for a heartbeat at the threatening shape. "I know…but…"

"Then why aren't you asleep?" Asch grouched, but she was certain that there was a layer of concern hidden underneath his usual verbal barbs.

"I cannot?" She supplied in a guessing tone. "I'm not tired."

"Not tired…" He repeated in a low voice. He rocked on his heels for a handful of seconds and then announced abruptly, "Well, do you want to come with me?"

Her pulse quickened. Despite how much she longed to walk away with him and have a good, honest-to-Lorelei conversation with her old friend, she felt a relentless tugging in her thoughts that reminded her not to forget her friends.

But another, arguably stronger force was insisting that she go with him.

Sensing her hesitance, Asch growled, "I'll have you back by dawn at the latest."

Relieved by this bit of news, she nodded. "Alright, then. But where are we going?"

He didn't reply, but he stepped easily to her side, deliberated for a moment, and then continued down the dirt road that would take them up the hill and out onto the main fields and the forests beyond. Natalia endeavored to match his stride, and she inexplicably found herself nervous.

It was silly, she knew, since Asch was an old friend that she trusted with her life. Regardless she was alone with someone that had become like a stranger—so different from the Luke she had known. Different, even, from the new Luke with his short hair and endearingly nervous smile…

She shook her head. She knew in her heart of hearts that Luke wasn't the one she loved. She didn't want to love Luke just because he reminded her of Asch, and anyway, wasn't Luke in love with Tear? You'd have to be so ignorant not to notice…

"What do you think about that makes you sigh like that?" Asch spoke up out of the blue. His eyes were trained forward but she wasn't deceived. He was likely aware of every little movement that she made.

She thought about lying, saying that maybe she was thinking about Anise—why was she acting so strange as of late?—or maybe she could even say she was thinking about Guy and his true origins. But she didn't want to lie.

"You."

She expected him to stop, but Asch did not. He simply kept moving right along. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"What about me?"

Natalia twirled the edges of her scarf around one finger absently. "I was thinking about how similar you are to Luke."

The words had barely left her mouth before he snarled, "I'm nothing like that worthless Replica!"

It was so empty out on the path to the hill that there was a slight echo, though only fragmented sounds reached their ears. A lone wolf monster, frightened by the sudden shouting, sped off into the protective embrace of some nearby trees.

"…You are," she disagreed politely, and in a low tone to boot.

"Really?" His voice dripped sarcasm. "How?"

"Besides appearance, your natures are very similar. Impulsive, though always well-meaning. Not to mention you both are as stubborn as a mule and twice as bullheaded."

"What? Nothing good about me?"

Natalia smiled. "You are very kind, just I do not believe you like to show it, though I cannot imagine why. Luke simply does not know how to show it."

"The dreck doesn't know anything," Asch grumbled.

"Must you always be so rude?" She sniffed.

He smirked. "It's the truth."

Before she could reply, he suddenly put his hand out and took one of hers, ensnaring the hand that had been fiddling with her scarf. She hadn't even been aware of the motion.

"Asch…" She felt a slight blush appear on her face.

"You'll put a hole in that if you keep messing with it." He pointedly didn't look at her, but to her curious pleasure, he didn't make any movement to pull his hand from hers.

So it stayed.

"Asch," Natalia said, watching the grass cower beneath the might of the wind. "What are you doing here?"

"Following a lead on something." His reply was a bit slow in coming, but when she analyzed his tone and words, she couldn't find anything wrong with it.

"Are you sure you will not work with us…?" She knew the answer before he even responded.

"No."

"Is this just because of Luke?" Natalia accused as the concept came to her, not for the first time.

"No," he retorted sharply, with force.

There was a period where nothing was spoken as they climbed the hill and came to a stop beside the monolith that stood there. The crest of the grassy knoll was entirely deserted of life, not even a bird fluttered its wings in the shadows.

The two stood side by side, so close their shoulders almost brushed, gazing out over Daath as it lay before them in a knot of tidy clustered buildings. A cool breeze blew, stirring their clothes—one in white, the other black—and carrying with it the scent of the ocean, along with a much-needed relief from the heat.

Natalia looked down at their joined hands, and she again recollected the well touched upon memory of their promise. They had stood like this before…though it seemed like it had happened in a dream, or even the dream of a dream…

His hand was warm, even though the fabric of her glove.

"Natalia?"

She blinked herself back to the present, facing her companion with an inquisitive expression. "Yes?"

"Do you know any constellations?"

The question caught her off-guard, but following a few seconds of delay, she had formulated a reply. "Yes, I had a few lessons dealing with Astronomy. Why do you ask?"

Asch met her gaze. The green of his eyes was as familiar to her as her own. "From here, do you see any you know?"

Flummoxed, the princess directed her attention towards the heavens. A billion points of light burned a billion miles away. The notion was staggering. She lifted one hand and traced a complicated trail of stars that glinted just beneath the highest arc of the Fonstone Belt. "I see many that I know, but my favorite would be the Astral Archer."

He smiled. Not smirked, not scowled, but smiled. "Of course it would. I bet you like Angel's Halo and the Eye of Lorelei as well."

Natalia laughed, secretly pleased. "Yes, and I bet you like Wolf Claws and the Avenging Eagle, do you not?"

His face became serious again. "The Avenging Eagle…" He shut his eyes and heaved a sigh.

Her own smile faded. "Is something wrong?"

Slowly, Asch shook his head. "Don't worry."

"So, what is your favorite constellation?"

He gestured at a space in the black sky to the right of the moon and a bit towards the south. For a second she couldn't place the shape she was seeing, but after wracking her mind for answers, she realized what she was staring at. "Aurion?" Aurion was the name for a complicated network of stars that was said to form a warrior with wings. However it also had a lot of other names, this was simply one of many.

"Yeah." Asch looked at her again. "I wanted you to know. Even if we're separated, so long as we look at our constellations and think of each other…"

"…We'll never be apart." It was an old myth, something that only children believed in. However, for some strange reason, the words made her happy, made her feel warm inside. As if someone had kindled a flame in her chest, deep within her heart. "Asch…"

"C'mon," he interrupted, releasing her hand and marching away. "Let's get you back."

Natalia stood there, missing the sudden loss of affection, but she shook it off and hurried after him. He slowed his pace down not long after, and soon they were retracing their steps back towards Daath, and the Inn.

The atmosphere between them had changed. From nervous, almost tense to an easier, much more pleasant feeling. Natalia kept peeking sort of shyly at him past her golden hair, but Asch only caught her eye once before he refocused on the task at hand.

Much sooner than she would have liked—though admittedly dawn was staining the horizon a dull bronze—they were back outside the Inn. Asch turned to her, no longer scowling but not exactly smiling either, appearing to want to say something.

She didn't speak, merely raised her eyebrows at him in a soundless question.

Asch put his hand out and to her shock, curved his fingers so that they curled gently against her face. Their faces were close, very close, and her heart hammered furiously against her ribcage as if yearning to break free.

"Try not to think about our promise anymore if it makes you cry," he murmured quietly. Before she could object, he went on. "I might not be here next time to stop you, and I don't think I could bear it if that happened."

Natalia tried to find her voice, but she was unable to in the brief space of time that stood between his words and his next action. His lips pressed against hers, softer than she had expected and warm. She gasped a little, hands against his chest, eyes slipping closed of their own accord. For a blissful moment she savored the heat and the feeling behind the kiss—but also, it terrified her.

He was kissing her as if it would be his first and last time.

Eventually he pulled away from her, and after one more look shared between them, he veered off in the opposite direction, back towards the main road.

She found her voice. "Asch!" She called as loud as she dared.

He paused.

There was nothing she could say to convey her feelings, her love, for the man just down the road from her. Absolutely nothing, not with the limited amount of time she had. So she put all of her emotion, all of her thoughts for him, in her next two words that held in them her world. "Be safe."

He didn't turn around, didn't say he would. Instead he responded with, "You too."

Then he was gone.

Natalia was rooted to that spot for the better part of a minute, still feeling the sensation of Asch's mouth on hers. Finally, she smiled, and went back inside of the Inn.

She was greeted by a pair of forest green eyes.

"Ion!" She gasped, one gloved hand rising to cover her mouth. "What are you doing still awake?"

The Fon Master yawned immensely, and she noticed that he was wearing his full outfit this time, complete with his headdress. The Cheagle-fur tassels swung as he indicated the open door to their room with a dip of his head.

Natalia smelled smoke.

"Do you think," Luke's flustered voice was saying just beyond her line of vision. "That the innkeeper would notice if—"

"The dresser has a huge burn mark on it," Guy interrupted, sounding exasperated. "What did you do to Mieu to get him to spit fire in his sleep?"

"I didn't do anything!"

"I'm sorry, Master."

A disgruntled Anise stomped out of the room, followed by a suspiciously amused looking Jade—but that was normal—and a sleepy-eyed Tear.

No one even bothered asking where she had gone, though the Colonel gave her a knowing glance, and Natalia simply strode into the room to try and assist her friends with the state of affairs.

Her thoughts turned towards Asch, and the kiss they had shared. Drawing patience from that, she tried to remedy the situation as best she could.

"Some day, when we're grown up, let's change this country."


Author's Note: Dedicated to Kasan Soulblade, who got me into writing Tales of the Abyss at all. I highly recommend you read Kasan's stories, but especially A Flicker of Judgment if you're into AschxNatalia. Don't ask where this one-shot takes place because I don't really know. Drop a review if you want!