A/N: Hi everyone! Thank you for all the hits, follows, favs and reviews! And a big thank you to May03 for pointing out the typo in the story's name. (My, wasn't that embarrassing ^_^U)

Just to be on the safe side, a quick reminder that this is Asch/Luke yaoi romance. Not your cup of tea? Might wanna hit that back button once or twice then.

Also, there is some slight Natalia bashing towards the end of this chapter. Even after my second full playthrough of TotA (ps2 version), Natalia was my least used character, I think I had her at like less than 1% used, wow. Honestly, I could hardly stand her overall personality. She just rubbed offa me the wrong way. It also didn't help much that I never could figure out how to use her properly. I've seen a few videos of folks using her like a pro, but I guess that's just beyond my skill. Oh well.

Now that I got all that out of the way, here is chapter 2! Enjoy! 3

Disclaimer: I don't own Tales of the Abyss.

Summary: After the events at Akzeriuth, Luke had come to fear Asch for good reason. The original was better than him at just about everything, and made sure to point out his shortcomings at every opportunity. This hostility only doubled when Luke had failed to receive the Jewel of Lorelei. Since then, Luke dreaded any contact he had with Asch… but for more reasons than just fear at getting yelled at again and again.

~ Conflicting Emotions. ~

Dam it all. Just Dam. It. All.

It had just been one of those days, were everything went wrong from start to finish.

Asch (formerly known as Luke fon Fabre) cursed at his ever rotten luck once again. He had lost count how many times he had done that so far that day, given that after the 35th time, he reckoned that it just wasn't worth it to keep the tally up to date. Instead, he grunted even more obscenities under his breath as he made his way through the slush and snow towards Keterburg Bay for the second time that day. Normally he would have refrained himself from swearing in such a colorful and loud manner, but at the moment, his only audience was made up by robust trees and low shrubs that made up the majority of the landscapes of Sylvana, and the occasional rabbit or squirrel scurrying about, so… Asch simply could not find himself giving a dam about personal restraint at the moment.

Even though Asch was rather known for his short temper, he rarely let his emotions cloud his fighting skills, nor judgment for that matter. But today, he was in an even fouler mood that usual, which in turn made him into a proverbial ticking time bomb, ready to set off on the first unfortunate soul he comes across.

What exactly was it that placed Asch in such a mood that day?

Well, for starters, he had spent every waking moment since Van's supposed downfall to search everywhere for the remnants of the mad man's crazy schemes, as well as Lorelei's Jewel, since his damnable replica failed to receive it. Tracking down Van's plans proved to be much easier of the two, but with current events going the way they were, he feared that he would require the power of the Key of Lorelei before long. That in turn forced him to search all over Auldrant for the missing Jewel.

Painstakingly, he began to search every nook and cranny within the various remaining Sephiroth after his initial searchers at the Absorbtion Gate and Radiation Gate came up empty. After dragging himself out of the Absorbtion Gate, the nearest Sephiroth was inside Mount Roneal, so he urged Ginji to fly in that direction.

At the time, the skies had been clear, devoid of any clouds and the wind was as soft as a mother's gentle caress on a newborn babe. Perfect visibility and perfect flying conditions. Even though both pilot and former Oracle Knight knew that the mountain range was treacherous and unpredictable, the men had fallen into a lull of confidence due to the seemingly peaceful setting, and chose to attempt to land in the valley that could be seen in the middle of the mountain range. It was certainly big enough and clear of obstructions to allow plenty of room for the Albiore to land and take off properly. He should have known better, but he completely disregarded that nagging feeling in the back of his mind.

It was truly a majestic sight what laid before them; untouched by man for Yulia knows how long, the mountains looked as pristine and imposing as they had been since their creation. A small cluster of trees gathered on the southwestern side of the valley, offering a green reprieve in the otherwise pearly white wonderland. Everything else, was bathed in soft fallen snow. The ever gentle wind was causing small handfuls of snow to release their hold from the surrounding rock formations in order to gracefully dance over the even ground.

All in all, it was just too perfect. The scenery was inviting- no, it was actually more like enticing them, to come closer. Like the allure of a beautiful woman to a man that had spent months devoid of all companionship, it beckoned them closer still. Even the wind and snow sang for them, offering a soothing lullaby to erase their worries.

Caution completely disregarded, Ginji maneuvered the flying ship towards a nice even part of the clearing. With the lack of strong headwinds, keeping the Albiore nice and steady was easy. As Ginji prepared for the descent, Asch had unbuckled himself and made his way towards the ship's exit. Through a small porthole on the side, Asch could see as the ground slowly rose up to meet them, up until they were no more than a few feet away from the surface.

And then, Sylvana roared into life like the backstabbing bitch that she was.

They really should have known better. But nooooo…. They bloody fell right into it.

The first warning had been the wave of rolling thunder that began to echo through the mountainside, yet the men did not heed it. Instead, they soon found themselves caught in hurricane like winds. Those same winds, that had been singing sweet words in their ears for the last half hour, were now shrieking like evil banshees trying to drag them to their deaths. Around them, the snow rose up and flew in all directions, moving about like a school of fish in a frenzy, obscuring all view and nearly destroying any and all sense of direction. Ginji had called for Asch via the intercom, telling the red head that they had to leave while they still could, less they end up crashing the Albiore.

Not wanting to risk their only ticket to world travel, Asch made a split second call. He ordered Ginji to get the hell out of there and to fly towards Keterburg, and that he would jump off and walk his way back to the city. The pilot agreed.

Quickly, Asch opened the door and jumped off, managing to activate the closing mechanism just in time. He landed roughly, and rolled a few times in the snow. Behind him, Ginji had wasted no time in flying away from the upcoming blizzard. His navigating was a little shaky at the start, but he soon cleared the ridgeline with just a few feet to spare and then disappeared from Asch's line of sight.

Without a glance back, Asch set off towards Mount Roneal's inner tunnels. It would do him no favors to freeze to death as the now razor sharp winds and thick snow began to bite without mercy at his exposed skin.

The inside of Mount Roneal was every bit as beautiful and deadly as the frozen landscape outside, but it also had a much calmer nature. It was also noticeable warmer now that the winds no longer could hit him straight on. He allowed himself a brief respite and slowly began to head deeper inside. Despite the more peaceful appearance of the vast tunnels, he didn't let his guard down, because the inner tunnels of the mountain were still filled with numerous animated sentinels left over from an era long gone. Even a seasoned swordsman like Asch could fall victim to the mechanical fiends if he got ganged up or taken by surprised.

For the next few hours, Asch carefully combed section after section of the tunnels in search for the missing Jewel. He focused with even greater detail around the Sephiroth core itself, once again wishing that the Jewel had been coughed up near the 'tree'.

Sadly, it was all for naught. The Jewel was not there. Dismayed by another dead end, Asch had no choice but to begin backtracking and leave the tunnels for good.

He just had to run into that failure of a replica on his way out. He just had to.

Dam his luck. Again!

Not one to waste the perfect opportunity to once again drill into that reject's brain what a pathetic excuse he was, Asch gave him another good verbal scolding. He would have absolutely loved to shove the dreck off from one of the nearby cliffs or from the crystalline floating platforms to rid the world of the problem, but he had wasted enough time searching high and low as it was. Catching up to Ginji and getting a status update on the condition of the Albiore was more important than gutting a spoiled brat. No matter how much he really wanted to do just that.

Instead, he pushed aside the crybaby and left promptly. He had better things to do anyway.

The long trek down the mountain had been uneventful. The wind had still been howling at his back, no doubt angry that it had not claimed another victim that day, but Asch managed to navigate his way down carefully without much problems other than the occasional monster. He only made a quick stop at Keterburg to get a real meal before continuing towards the port to check up on Ginji.

Finding the platinum haired pilot proved to be a little tricky. Keterburg Bay was actually rather large. The city itself was rather small but it stretched out quite a bit along the water's edge to make room for the docks and other warehouses. After much inquiring, he was able to find Ginji on one of the smaller docks, with the Albiore partially held up in the air by a pair of sturdy cranes preparing it to be moved onto land, to be later moved into one of the wharfs. Even Asch, who had no real backdrop on mechanical contraptions, could discern that the flying ship had sustained a good amount of damage due to their stunt above Mount Roneal. Various metal plates had been torn off, with ice and rust eating away at the ships interior. All of the right hand side engines were covered in dark sooth, fire damage most likely. Not to mention, there was a good chunk of the rear tail missing. He might not be able to see the full extent of the damage, but he knew that it would cost him dearly all the same.

Again, Asch cursed his luck and his own stupidity for allowing himself to believe that they could best the island's savage weather.

Ginji briefly filled him on what happened after they parted ways as they watched the large matte black and red Albiore be maneuvered expertly by the dock workers. The pilot knew that his passenger was not in the mood for long explanations, so he skimmed over most of it, going straight to the point.

While he had been able to fly away from the valley, the sudden chilling winds had been too much for several of the internal sensors and mechanisms within the Albiore. Ginji had barely managed to clear the highest peaks when the main flying mechanism had completely frozen over. That led to an emergency (and bumpy) water landing. With some quick thinking and on-the-spot rewiring, the pilot had manually activated one of the backup engines and managed to keep the ship afloat. After that, he carefully made his way towards Keterburg Bay, not trusting the ship to hold under much strain. He made it, but just barely. The whole lower level of the ship had been flooded and was already starting to seep into the cockpit.

Ginji wagered that it would take a few days to get it repaired at the least. Or well up to a month if the internal damage was severe and if he needed to rebuild many of the parts from scratch. Ginji had the skills and the know-how, plus most of the tools and raw materials were readily available in Keterburg, but there was only so much one man could do on a small budget. Both he and Asch had been living off what was left of the former knight's savings… which was starting to dwindle down dangerously low. Only a few thousand gald left.

And no way in hell was he going to send a message to his parents asking for money. Nope. No. And hell no! Not gonna happen.

One of the nearby dock managers overheard their plight. This man had also heard of their earlier achievements in stopping the once Commandant from sinking the whole world into the miasma. He offered them to go to Keterburg and seek out Governor Nephry for her aid. If she gave the approval, they could move the Albiore to one of the military hangers and have a whole team of technicians help out with the repair, and the costs waved.

Asch disliked living on free handouts, but he also knew that he really had no other options. It was either suck it up and hope that the Governor agreed, or be just about stranded on the snow blanketed island while the world went to hell.

Sucking up to the Governor it is then.

Sighing in defeat, Asch made his way again towards Keterburg. In his mind, he dearly hoped that he did not need to resort to some more underhanded tactics to get the governor's cooperation, such as flirting.

To his surprise, the governor was sister to Jade Curtis. Their resemblance to one another was uncanny, save for the different color in the eyes. But unlike the coronel, Nephry extruded an aura of warmth and calm, while also being professional about most things. The way she moved about in a dignified manner and conducted business was more than enough to reveal that Nephry had not simply inherited her position from her late husband or acquired it due to close ties to the Empire's ruling class. No, far from it, she earned her way up through hard work and dedication. No backstabbing not dealing under the table involved (or it was at ridiculously low levels that was neigh unheard off anywhere else in the world). She was a natural born leader that cared and protected her people, very much unlike most power hungry bastards that tended to get into ruling positions.

Someone like that easily earned Asch's respect.

Also, Nephry being that closely related to the (in)famous Coronel was a blessing for Asch, for she knew in greater detail exactly what had happened not too long ago. There were times when it really pissed off Asch that most of the glory for saving the world was sorely received by his replica and friends. Nephry surprised him by sincerely thanking him for his efforts in helping taking down Van. He was honestly left stung, because he had not expected any kind of honest gratitude. He had truth expected the usual carefully manicured sweet words that came with politics, but here was a woman that was almost frank to the bone. It was… refreshing actually.

Not wanting to waste more time, Asch quickly brought the lady governor up to date on recent events and to his plight, to which Nephry quickly offered her help. In the span of a few short minutes, Asch had in his hand signed by Nephry and sealed in wax with Keterburg's code of arms. Written inside was the express order to move the Albiore's repair to the top of the priority list, and was to be worked on by the city's royal division of technicians.

The lady governor had also offered to book him and Ginji a room to stay in during the repairs, but he politely denied it. Ginji was the only one that had any real clue as to how repairs had to be carried so he needed to be among the technicians. As for Asch, staying in luxurious rooms tended to bring up bad memories. Plus, the letter he had in his hands was more than anything he could have hoped for. He could survive well enough at one of the inns at the port for a few days.

And best of all, he got to keep his pants on.

For the first time that day, things were starting to look up for Asch.

Wait a minute. That's too good to be true. He thought the same before he and Ginji tried to foolishly attempt to land on the mountainside. And that certainly did not come out all right.

Better safe than sorry, Asch asked the woman if there was some kind of condition or catch in exchange for her assistance, hesitant for what the she would require out of him.

Nephry then closed her eyes in concentration, interweaving her fingers under her chin. After some quiet contemplation, she gave Asch a long gaze form head to toe. The red head knew very well that he was not exactly in a presentable condition. His hair was a partial tangled mess; some of his bangs having fallen loose from his preferred hairstyle. Snow and blood stained both hair and clothing. The long day had taken a toll on him, and the urgency of the situation had forced Asch to give priority to getting the Albiore repair instead of focusing on his own appearance.

Still… was she seizing him up? A knot formed in his stomach, dreading that she would ask of him something that he was not quite willing to give. He had been scrutinized before my women before, young and old, (and a few men to his outmost displeasure) and despite his mostly stoic personality, it did unnerve him to suddenly feel like a fresh cut of steak among hungry wolves. It took every ounce of willpower he had in his body to refrain from shuddering under the woman's gaze. 'Oh hell… I knew it was too soon to celebrate. As flattering as it is to have a woman twice your age find you attractive, this is wrong on several levels. So much for keeping my pants on.'

He wasn't sure if Nephry's response was better or worse than what he feared.

"I will ask of you nothing. Your earlier heroic actions are reason enough to help you out in your time of need. It is after all, thanks to you, my brother and his companions, that the whole of Auldrant is still alive. What I will do, is tell you something. I know that you do not get along with Luke, your replica. But among the seven of you lay our hopes to make it out of this alive. However, no one can be in two places at the same time. Instead, should you work together; you can cover much more ground and cover each other's backs.

"The reason why I'm telling you this is because of something I learned from Luke. Due to his… upbringing, he is sorely lacking in some skills that he should have learned long ago. Keep in mind that he did not learn from lack of trying or from refusing to do so, but instead because no one had bothered to teach him." She paused briefly, lowering her gaze to a small picture frame on the edge of the desk. Then her tone grew colder, completely unlike the soft warmth she just seemed to radiate. "I hold no love for the Score. I know I would have lost my brother had things gone the way it was written down. But one way or another, it is thanks to Luke's ignorance that we are talking here and now.

"Once again, I will not ask of you anything." Her tone softened up. "Instead I will simply suggest. Luke knows that he is lacking, and is going to great lengths to cover lost ground. My brother informed me that the two of you have a unique way of communication. You can speak to each other no matter how far away you are. This could prove invaluable to quickly inform others. Likewise, you can use this form of communication to instruct Luke in things that he needs to learn quickly.

"Whether or not you take my advice is up to you. That letter in your hands is still valid regardless, no matter what you decide.

"Should something unexpected rise up with the repairs, feel free to inform me. I might have contacts that can help out."

"And last but not least…" Nephry's soft smile turned into something much for devious, and her eyes gained an almost malicious twinkle in them. "I never had the intention of asking you to get up close and personal with me. You are quite the handsome young man, but I'm fairly sure you already have a sweetheart somewhere out there. I wouldn't dare meddle in. However, do feel free to freshen up in the restroom behind that door over there. I noticed that you were concern about your presentation so I thought I'd offer." The woman finished with a happy tone. "Now I know why my brother likes to tease Luke so much. Your expressions were just priceless." She then discreetly giggled into the palm of her hand.

W-what the bloody hell just happened?

Was that supposed to be a compliment or an insult?

By Yulia, this woman really was related to that bastard Jade! Worse still, she was even better than the Coronel at screwing with one's mind? Was that even remotely possible?

Asch's stood speechless for almost a minute in front of Nephry, as his brain tried to reboot itself, while his face invented four whole new shades of red from the embarrassment.

In the end, Nephry chuckled at the dumbstruck redhead and gently ushered him out of her office with a warm smile on her face once more, telling him not to worry his head too much, and to focus on the things in front of him.

By the time Asch snapped himself out of his stupor, he remembered what he had to do. He made good on Nephry's second offer and freshened up a bit. He would not be able to get all the snow, mud and blood out of his clothing and armor, but he could at least wash his face and get his hair tamed. Once he was as clean as he was going to get, he looked over his equipment. He groaned at the sorry sight of his armor and scabbard. A trip to an armor smith was in order.

Leaving behind the governor's office, Asch once again walked the streets of the city in direction of one of the local armor shops. Once there, he handed over his damaged gear and paid the fee to get it all fixed. He would pick it up the next day. He wasn't in much of a hurry anyway. The Albiore would need a few days anyway.

As he was about to leave the quaint little store, he came across a sight he really did not want to see so soon.

Apparently, Lady Luck was not quite done screwing with him that day, for she had deemed that Asch would encounter that damned replica again! Twice in the same day.

He really was cursed.

Both men, mirror images to each other stood frozen for a split second, neither saying a word nor moving a muscle. But as Luke's mind started to dive deeper and deeper into panic, the events from his miserable day had finally caught up with Asch.

Simply put, he lost it, and went feral on the poor replica. If not for the fact that he remembered where he was, he might have just succumbed to his impulses and killed the replica right there and then. They were alone after all, not a single soul was out in the streets. The replica didn't have any of his 'friends' there to hide behind and not many places to run and hide. Oh it would have been easy, very easy indeed, to pull out the small dagger he kept hidden on his right thigh just under the rim of his high boots and to shove it into the replica's neck. The savage, primal part within Asch would have loved nothing more than to hold onto the hilt of the blade while watching as the stolen lifeblood flowed out from the wound and see the life in his eyes fade away into darkness. And all of it with a wicked smile on his face.

It would have been glorious. Beautiful, bloody, and glorious.

However, some other part within Asch (his logical side he presumed) quelled down his impulsive urges, reminding him that at the time the replica was at least useful. Missing Jewel or not, planetary stability was an issue of great importance. Yes, he would allow the replica to live another day if only to give him more time to track down more remnants of Van's schemes unhindered.

Not that letting him live meant that he was not going to give the brat another good chewing out.

Despite the snarl in his face and the hellfire in his eyes, part of him took great pleasure in seeing that damnable replica whimper and squirm under his gaze.

He had been about to leave when the copy had apparently grown a slight backbone and tried to speak to him. Or more like beg for something. It was by no means an easy task to decipher the near unintelligible garble that escaped the younger red head's lips, but he managed to grasp a few words here and there. The copy wanted to give him back something? Ha! Nothing he 'owned' was actually his. Everything, even his name was Asch's by blood and by right. The short haired boy could keep whatever he was offering unless it was the Jewel of Lorelei. If not, then he could shove his offer where the sun didn't shine for all he cared.

At that point, he didn't trust his already slipping composure to hold for much longer, so he quickly turned away and left, while he still had control, leaving behind the cowardly copy in a jumbled up heap of nerves just off the side to the road.

Later, Asch found himself once again on the near barren road between Keterburg and Keterburg Bay. He had chosen to remain off the beaten path, so that he could take out his frustrations on the monsters that appeared within range.

Sadly, not even the cold winds that were picking or, or the various carcasses he left in his wake did anything to cool off Asch's temper. So he did the only thing he could do: hack, slash, burn to a crisp and sweat out loud at the monsters that he came across, cursing at his ever lame luck, cursing at Van for not dying when he should have, cursing at Lorelei for breaking down the Key into two parts and throwing each in a different direction, cursing at the replica for not receiving the Jewel, cursing at all this near senseless running all over the world, cursing at the absolutely horrible day he had been having, and most of all, cursing at himself for getting wrapped up in this whole mess in the first place.

After thoroughly scaring the living daylight out of every living woodland creature between Keterburg and Keterburg Bay, Asch, exhausted from his earlier actions, finally made his way towards were he has last seen Ginji. He found both pilot and dock manager busy hammering away at some blocks of ice clinging to the Albiore's lower body. The ship itself had by then been fully raised out of the water and placed on a moving trolley. There it sat still, allowing all the water inside to drain out.

Quickly he called down both mechanics and handed over Nephry's letter. The dock manager read through it and grinned.

In less than an hour, the flying piece of fon tech machinery was safely inside one of the royal workshops and being looked over by two dozen skilled technicians. Asch waited on the side while they did what they knew best. Sometime later, Ginji went over to Asch with the damage report. It wasn't pretty, the damage was quite extensive on the inside and on the engines. They were looking at the very least a full week of work.

Ginji prevented Asch from hitting himself against the wall in frustration. He then suggested that Asch book himself a room in an inn for a few days at least. When Asch made to remain within the hanger, the pilot managed to talk him out of it, mostly because machines would be working 24/7 and not allow him to sleep due to all the noise. Not to mention there was no office where he could crash out safely, out of the reach of moving heavy equipment.

Defeated at least in that argument, (and he really wanted to take a warm bath and pass out for the night in a real bed) Asch left the hanger and walked towards the inns that were in town.

Much like Keterburg, the port town had a lot of temporary traffic, so places to stay were in demand year round. With nightfall on their heels, most people were retiring for the day, making inns very busy and rather lively. The first few hours of the night were always filled with much merriment and tale sharing among travelers, and depending on the place, maybe a drunken brawl or two.

Tired from his long day, Asch decided on the first inn he came across. The main lobby was full of sailors relaxing after a hard day's of work, but Asch paid them no heed, despite various offers to join the ongoing conversations or contests. Instead, he headed up to his room for a much needed warm shower.

That shower felt like a slice of heaven topped off with chocolate syrup and served on a silver platter. Due to the events from the day, he had never stopped to really notice how sore his body was. Only after he had allowed himself to relax and soak in the warm water did he actually begin to feel his aching muscles and overall how tense he had been. The waters also soothed away what was left of Asch's anger, allowing the young man to finally let go of all the built up tension.

After drying off and putting some clean clothes on, Asch laid back on the single bed in the room. It felt really nice to just stay still and relax, letting the thick blankets underneath him nearly lull him into blissful sleep. How long had it been since he had actually used a real bed and not one of the Albiore's cots? Come to think of it, when was the last time he actually had a full night's sleep?

His memory told him well over a month.

Groaning once again at his recklessness, he flipped over until he was face down and buried his face into the nearby pillow. Sometimes he really wondered just how short sighted he really was. Or if he was just plain suicidal.

As he laid there motionless, his mind began to wonder. Various fleeting images of his past began to grace his thoughts. Some pleasant, most not. Memories of his relatively happy childhood up until his kidnapping at Van's hands of all people. His own teacher at swordsmanship for the love of Yulia.

That was the turning point. After that most of his memories and years passed in a blur, heavily tinted in rage and bitterness that had by now become an integral part of his character.

More scenes flashed in his mind. His years under the Oracle Knights, rising up the ranks. Then double-crossing Van shorty before the fall of Akzeriuth. Later, helping in the lowering of the Outer Lands and stabilizing the world.

And now… trying to rebuild the Key of Lorelei.

Looking back, some memories popped up more than others. Some that at the time had just felt off, but that he could never understand why. Such as during his early childhood, when his father had rarely interacted with him and tended to keep his distance. Now, many years later, he had come to believe that Duke Fabre (he had trouble calling him his father after so long) knew that he would have to send 'Luke' to his death one day, and tried to distance himself from the pain.

Bloody dammed Score, and everyone else that was following it down to the letter.

With that thought, he remembered one of the things Nephry had said to him that had struck quite a cord.

I hold no love for the Score. I know I would have lost my brother had things gone the way it was written down. But one way or another, it is thanks to Luke's ignorance that we are talking here and now.

As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. Had things gone as the Score wanted it to, he would have died a couple of months back, blissfully ignorant. Like the perfect little sheep walking to the slaughterhouse. And then all hell would have broken out. Calling treachery due to the death of their would-be king, Kimlasca would declare war on Malkuth. A war that would last for a year or two, until Malkuth was wiped off the map. Kimlasca would be left to prosper for some years, but only to succumb to some plague that would engulf the remainder of the world at some point in time.

'And so does the Closed Score predict the death of Auldrant itself.' Asch grumbled to himself. He hadn't been privy to the information on the Closed Score until a few months ago, when Van's plans started getting into motion. The commandant himself had blurted out bits and pieces of it over time, but Ion been the one to confirm to him the whole thing. He hadn't felt so downcast and helpless since he had ran all the way back home, having to climb the outer walls and sneak in, only to find his 'parents' dotting over the newly born replica.

And yet, due to Van's twisted plans of world destruction/recreation free of the score, Asch was still alive. As Nephry had put it, Luke's presence had given them all a fighting chance.

Still, he hated the fact that he was indirectly indebted to the replica. Despite all of Luke's fumbles and mistakes, it had taken both of them, original and replica, to safely lower the lands and incase the poisonous miasma deep within the world's core. Had Luke croaked alongside Akzeriuth, Asch would have been hard pressed to save the remainder of the world on his own. He knew that he did not have the power, the resources nor the influence to battle Van, the rest of the god generals and the bulk of the Order of Lorelei at the same time without some form of help.

It really had taken all of the replica's little oddball group plus himself to pull off planetary rescue.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that deep down, he really should be cutting his replica some slack. Luke had been trying to change and improve for the better. Nephry seemed to vouch for him, and she very straightforward in what she said. He had also seen how Luke's group had come to think well of the replica and appreciate him even, which was a big change compared to the complete state of disgust he had seen the rest of the group had been in after escaping from Akzeriuth. So at least Luke was doing something right.

'Perhaps… Nephry is far wiser than her years.' Asch thought to himself. 'And maybe… just maybe… it's time I give Luke the benefit of the doubt.'

At that moment, he recalled something that the replica had managed to stutter out during their second encounter that same day. 'I... I have s-something... t-that I want t-t-to give y-y-you... '

He had been hasty in dismissing the younger red head's request, but now with his newfound revelations, Asch found it harder and harder to fully ignore the replica's pleas. And maybe… there was also a long overdue apology in order.

Asch really hated it when his mind would just not decide on what to make of the dam replica. The savage, more primal part within him compelled him to go out and kill the copy, then to reclaim what was rightfully his. His practical side told him that Luke had at least earned his keep due to his efforts in taking down Van, perhaps even gain Asch's acceptance over time.

But, there was one more part within him that he could not explain. This mystery part wanted to reach out to Luke and hold him close.

He wasn't sure how exactly that came to be, but he could recall that it had started around the time He had departed from Yulia City for the first time alongside most of Luke's former traveling mates. More precisely, it had been when he had absorbed the replica's consciousness into his own body and more or less carried the replica's mind with him for a while. After clearing out the Ortion Caverns and kicking Luke out of his mindscape, Asch found himself with an odd sense of loss, like something was missing. Not that the replica had been much company at all during that time. Save for the bitter exchange before leaving Yulia City, the replica had all but curled up in a ball, too shell-shocked to notice much else, and remained almost as silent as a grave. At most, the replica would whimper and cry silently, but that was about it.

So it was not out of lack of conversation, but something else. The only thing he was sure of was that it was related to Luke somehow, and that it had started when he ejected Luke from his mind.

He tried to think of what could have brought this odd void into existence. The only semi plausible excuse he could come up with was that he had somehow reabsorbed some of the fonons that had been extracted from him during the replication process, and he was fairly sure that was a long shot. The rest of his made up scenarios simply made no sense.

Regardless of how those feelings came to be, the effects were near maddening for Asch. It made him desire for the replica's closeness. To hold him… to smell that faint aroma of berries and cinnamon that had to come from whatever shampoo or soap the replica used… to feel his warmth… to hear his soft breathing… to hear the other's heartbeat close to his own…

A heavy contrast from the part of his brain that called out for the replica's blood.

Worse still, during the brief times were he had fallen into deep enough sleep, his dreams would sometimes be invaded by some rather disturbing thoughts. Thoughts that involved some more… intimate interactions with the replica. Asch knew that by all accounts that he should not be engaging in such actions with someone that literally was his mirror image, and that it was wrong on multiple levels. But the images would not stop!

And why the hell was the image of Luke, panting from exhaustion and with his face flushed from the throws of passion, so dam alluring?! It almost made him want to lean down and capture those rosy red lips with his own and—

Asch jolted awake and sat up, eyes wide and his own face nearly as red as his hair, recalling exactly were his thoughts had wondered off to just a split second ago. He then shook his head, trying to disperse what remained of those thoughts. It worked for the most part, so he instead focused on his breathing in order to calm himself even more.

'By Yulia, that was close.' He told himself, relieved that he had not allowed his mind to run wild.

It took Asch several minutes to fully calm down and even out his breathing. It was only until then that Asch eased himself out of his sitting position to look around him. His eyes went from the door across him, to the dresser where he had his things laying on top, to the other few pieces of furniture within the room, and lastly to the window on the side.

He stood up and walked over to the window, pushing aside thick curtains in order to better see outside. Night had just fallen. The sun couldn't have set more than an hour ago. The skies above looked gray and foreboding, but the edge of the western horizon held a lighter shade of blue. Sometime during his bath it had started to snow very softly, but the visibility was still good.

The night was still young and the weather was still fit for traveling. If he hurried, he could reach Keterburg, find out what the replica wanted, and be back in his room in less than two hours.

Asch contemplated if the trip was worth the risk. Luke had said that he was staying at the hotel, but he did not specify for how long. Asch wondered if it would be better to wait until morning and seek the replica out, but that brought a few other implications. For one, he did not know at what time Luke's group would leave, and secondly there was a higher risk of seeing the rest of the group. His standing with the rest of Luke's friends was tolerable at best.

Heck, even he did not know what to make of Natalia, his childhood friend and once fiancé. If anything, this older, more arrogant, reminiscent version of a spoiled brat collided heavily with the image he once had. Natalia might claim that she had the wellbeing of her kingdom and her people first and foremost in her heart, but her actions told a different story. She had become selfish, arrogant, and believed herself superior to others by her title and position. Skill-wise, she was easily outdone. Tear's healing arts were far superior; Jade's magic had better range and was far more dangerous. The only title she could actually clam was to be the group's best marksman (actually, she was the only official marksman—er, markswoman), but even that was up for discussion when placed side by side by the melodist's knife throwing and the necromancer's spear throwing. Her aim might be good enough, but she still lacked the precision to be called deadly and the strength in her arms to actually drive her arrows deep inside her enemies.

It was a sad day for Asch when he realized that his one-time love interest had become little more than a sheltered and spoiled little princess. A princess that was used to having her way, being waited on hand and foot, and had never really faced a hard day's work. She might have eased up on her behavior due to her travels and recent events, but her core, her very essence, had not changed much at all.

Natalia had turned into someone he could no longer love. Asch had gone through so much hell that he simply could no longer see himself in a loving relationship with Natalia. If he did have to marry Natalia after reclaiming what was his, then it would be a union of duty, not of love. Then again, how many people had been forced to marry someone they cared little for only because the Score had dictated so? He was born from one such union anyway. Even to this day, there remained a wall of ice between Duke Fabre and Lady Susanne. If not for her frail health, Susanne might have left the Duke to raise Luke on her own. The wall of ice had most likely turned into a rift at some point, perhaps at how detached the man was to his own son. There was a reason why they slept in separate beds.

Asch actually agreed with his mom there. Then again, maybe his father's perpetual bad mood was the result of years of not getting any action in bed?

He was so going to get his mom a cake when he had the chance.

But Asch was getting sidetracked again. All things considered, it would be better if he could see the dreck without the rest of the party with him. Which meant that it was going to be now or never.

With a sigh, Asch made up his mind and quickly dressed in his traveling gear. It was rather filthy from the day's traveling and fighting, but it was the warmest set of clothing he had. For good measure, he threw on a long dark gray coat and wrapped a scarf around his neck. The rarely used them, because they hindered his mobility, but without the extra layer of warmth provided by his armor, he had to improvise. Once fully clothed, the packed away the rest of his things. He wasn't going to leave them in the empty room for some crummy thief to break in and take them. He had learned that lesson young, and since then found it better to simply carry around all his valuables and personal items with him.

After a quick check around the room to make sure he didn't leave behind anything of his, he left the room, locked the door, and headed once again to Keterburg.

Asch made good time between the cities, especially since he had deliberately evaded monsters. The snowing had picked up as he neared Keterburg, going from a sparse sprinkle to a steady and moderate snowfall. The wind had remained oddly gentle, but it worked into Asch's favor because the visibility was still good, and he could see more than a scant few feet in front of his nose.

Once inside the city proper, Asch dusted off some of the snow that had started to build up on his clothes, as he took in the sight of the city in its element. Even he could acknowledge that Keterburg had a certain charm to it, it was only at nighttime and when it was snowing gently did it simply turn into the stuff of fairy tales. He snorted softly at the notion, and never would he say it in public, but he did think that the city as it was at the moment was both splendid and beautiful. It was shame Kimlaskan cities in general cared little for architecture and aesthetics, unless it was the royal castle, and often just went for practicability and whatever was the need at the moment. That was one thing Malkuth had done right; their cities were much more inviting to the public and pleasant on the eyes.

As Asch looked around, he discovered that there were not many people out on the streets. 'How odd. It's not that late, so how come everyone is already indoors?' he spared a thought before just shrugging and continuing on his way towards the distinctive hotel. 'Meh. It's probably just supper time or past store hours. Can't blame them much, it is getting rather chilly.'

Unlike the rest of the city, the area around the hotel did have more movement. There were a few people going inside the building, and he could see a few adults calling out to their children in the large playground behind the hotel, no doubt heading home for the day. Asch paid them no mind as maneuvered among the crowds, making sure not to crash into any energetic little children. He also kept an eye out for any of Luke's friends. If he could avoid an encounter with them, all the better.

The interior of the hotel was a sight for sore eyes after trekking in the snow. Asch's last trip might have taken less than half an hour, but he had spent better part of the whole day out in the wilderness so it was still a welcoming sight. Several fireplaces brought the large lobby up to a cozy temperature, and between the sound of the ongoing fire and the smell of the logs burning, it was just all that more inviting. Asch took a deep breath and enjoyed the newfound warmth, along with the overall pleasant atmosphere.

It was also at that moment when his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten anything since lunch. Earlier, he had been too tired to care much and had planned to simply fall asleep, but after seeing some of the guests enjoying hot cups of tea and eating various yummy looking cakes and pies, he could no longer resist. 'Oh the hell with it. I'm already here.'

And so, with a slight mischievous smirk on his face (making sure no one saw him), he boarded the elevator and headed up to the cafeteria. He knew that the prices were a little higher than anywhere else, but the food was really good. Not to mention it had been a long time since he had splurged on anything he really liked. And they had some really good steak there.

Half an hour later, Asch was perhaps the happiest he had been in a long time. Indeed, who would have thought that hot chocolate and apple pie could make the ever frowning god-general smile? Odd enough, Asch usually went through great lengths to make sure no one learned of his little sweet tooth. And now that he was with a full stomach, he could focus on the real reason he had come all the way here, and that was finding Luke.

After paying his bill Asch left the cafeteria and took the elevator up to the 4th floor. He remembered that the replica had said that he was on the fourth floor, but he couldn't remember the exact room number. So he started to walk by the numbered doors in hopes that something ringed a bell.

'405? No… 406? Uhh, I don't think so. 407? Nope. 408? Hmm. Maybe.'

Asch debated on whether or not to knock on said door, on the off-chance he ended up meeting someone he did not want to see, and that would lead to making a scene. He had no legitimate reasons to see any of Luke's friends, so seeing any of them would only raise suspicions if not cause an uproar. He swore in his mind at not remembering the exact room number.

Standing outside the room with the small metal plate saying 408, Asch crossed his arms and began thinking of other options. He could technically call out to the dreck via their mind-link, but that tended to be painful on both sides. He knew that Luke got mind shattering headaches bordering on migraines, while for Asch it felt more like he had drunk a whole bottle of high prof. spirits and had the mother of all hangovers, even if it did then to have a two hour or so delay. Asch would rather not risk having the 'hangover' kick in during his walk back to Keterburg Bay, at nighttime and while it was snowing. He wasn't that insane or stupid.

But, there was something else he could do slightly similar to speaking to his replica through mind-link. The process of contacting Luke that way required 3 steps. First he had to open up his fon slots so that the two of them were effectively synchronized. Next he had to create a miniscule, single fonon level hyperresonance. This caused Luke's fonons to unknowingly echo back, allowing Asch to find him no matter where he was in the world, somewhat similar to how bats used echolocation to pinpoint where things were without being able to actually see them. Also, since it was so small, created no damage and passed unnoticed by everyone. The last step required Asch to focus his fonons into creating the actual mind-link. It was that last step that caused the backlashes and headaches. If Asch stopped on the second step, he could figure out where his doppelganger was without having to physically contact him.

'And why didn't I use that this morning so that I could have evaded both encounters?' Asch nearly slapped himself when he realized that, but stopped at the last second in case someone heard him.

After shaking his head clear of remorseful thoughts, Asch focused on using his tiny hyperresonance. It only took him about three seconds to have it down to the correct size and released it. Sure enough, he 'heard' it echoing back from within room 408.

With that success, Asch turned around and knocked on the door twice, with a lot less strength that he usually did. This was not the place or time to kick down the door, grab Luke by the front of his shirt and ask what the hell Luke wanted to give him. This… mission called for a more stealthy approach, hence the uncharacteristic strength behind the knocking. He wasn't sure if the younger red head was sharing the room with anyone. He hoped otherwise, or this was going to get very uncomfortable very quickly. If he did see anyone of the replica's friends so much as start to cause a disturbance, Asch would quickly get out of there.

Asch waited a few seconds to see if he heard any kind of movement from within or the typical 'coming'. He heard nothing except for a slight shifting from what he guessed was the bed. 'He's already asleep this early? What the hell? Or is he just faking it? Sonuva—'

"Hey dreck. You awake in there?" He asked just loud enough to make sure that the replica would hear him, but still low enough to not disturb the other customers. His voice came out a bit impatient, but that came from glancing both left and right to see if anyone else had risen from their sleep. So far so good.

Asch waited patiently for nearly a minute and was about knock again when he heard the door was unlocked and slipped slightly open. For the third time that day, he say his reflection looking back at him.

"A-Asch?" Luke asked in barely a whisper, hiding mostly behind the door, with only part of his face and a hand holding onto the door's side visible.

Dammit! Those big scared emerald green eyes were making Asch's stomach wrench and turn into knots. With a grimace, Asch squashed any rising feelings and put on his best bored poker face.

"Yes, it's me." He answered, keeping his voice low and void of all emotions. "What was it that you wanted?"

A/N: and that's chapter 2! In the next chapter we will see just what Luke wanted and how will Asch react.

In case anyone was wondering, Sylvana is the name of the whole island were Keterburg, Keterburg Bay and Mount Roneal are. It's sometimes a pain to figure that out when maps rarely mention the name of the continents, and even the game's map only tells ya where the towns, dungeons and search points are. I guess it can't be helped sometimes. Oh well.

Until then, reviews and constructing criticism is much appreciated. (And pointing out those devilish typos that always manage to sneak in somehow. I'll correct them asap.)