But the Wind is Free
Spoilers. For yuri-challenge, June 2007. Prompt: 'Ashe/Fran - wind, trees - the AU in which their roles are reversed; isolation doesn't necessarily mean loneliness.'

They make Noah's armor out of piecemail.

Corpse-looting is a harsh necessity for a man escaped from prison with only the filthy rags on his back for currency: rags and infamy for his stained name. Of the two, Ashe is certain that the latter weighs more heavily on Noah's pride.

They fled first to Ozmone after their escape from Henne's prisons. From there, they ran to Giza's plains. Sixteen hours separate them now from the mines with their hidden chambers and trapped levers, and Ashe cannot help it -- she keeps looking over her shoulder, expecting guards to come boiling out of the darkness, invading the safe haven of the nomads with their tents.

Noah's mouth is sour with broken resolve as he struggles to patiently weave tattered straps of leather into a manageable whole. He'd battle-looted with the rest of them as best he could, too bitter to answer their questions; he refused Vossler's offer of a curative for the open sores on his wrists, tending to the wounds with a stiff dignity that ignored the fact that those scars were won through punishment. Now, with the dirt of the prison mostly washed off and fresh bandages wound over the worst of his cuts, Noah resembles something more rational, and more dangerous. He resembles the Judge that they saw. Only wilder.

Vaan is busy with the stewpot. His tanned dancer's hands offer a spoonful of dinner to Penelo, who sniffs it gingerly before proclaiming it to be edible. Her own deft fingers are working at repairs on her personal gear, sewing false pockets and flaps on sleeves, hook-blades in sleevecuffs concealed: the classic tools of the pickpocket.

Ashe watches them, letting no hint of her private thoughts show.

The air tastes different out on the plains, rich with the promise of rains to come. The dry season is nearly over. In the gloom far outside the safe circle of fireglow waits countless dangers to them all -- and to the last living heir of the Green Word.

- - - -

The leather of the pilot's seat is sticky with heat. It clings to Ashe's palm when she leans against it, sliding into the saddle with an ease born from familiarity. The engines are already primed. The Bogen needs only her touch, her command, and it will take to the skies like the best of hunting falcons.

(This is how she will remember their departure, she decides, while the machinery of the ship revs and hums. She and Vossler may have found an adventure with a minimum of profit and a maximum of risk, but if this is the last time she will see her home, she will remember it thus.)

Ashe still isn't certain exactly why they're staying with the motley crew that has been dumped squarely in their laps. The artificial nethicite is not jumping into her hands, and Vossler has not found a convenient opportunity to simply take it -- nor will he force the matter, not with the code of ethics he still clings to despite her best efforts to have him shed it. With theft and luck both behaving like strangers, Ashe has few other ideas that do not involve violence.

It is a mystery, what they will do from here.

Ashe assumes they'll find the answer in the course of tagging along. Should the worst come to worst -- well, she and Vossler can loot a second round of corpses, if need be.

The Bogen needs repairs by the time they took roost in Rabanastre. She and Vossler use the time to restock. She doesn't have the patience to listen to the complex series of dramas going on among their refugees -- as she has started to think of them, a collection of strays all plunging headlong into a dream that will destroy them in the end, following some mad rabbit and her insane helper -- and she certainly does not need to throw her own life away as part of the bargain.

They have the most of their arguments out over the course of the Bogen's restocking, played out in coarse extensions from the first few volleys parted out in the Henne tunnels. Ashe is not privy to them all. She does not want to be, ducking around arguments that are performed over the stewpots at evening, and spittings of distrust during breakfast. She is a pirate, not a nursemaid.

As a result, it takes some time before she begins to understand the odds a little better.

When they first collided in the mine's tunnels, Fran's ears had been shrouded -- but even the best of cloaks could not disguise a Viera's height, despite anyone's best efforts. Viera were more common in the cities than they had been, before the Blight, but those who had not been able to quietly integrate into positions of trade had all drifted away. Like Nabradia, Dalmasca did not enforce citizenship registration; still, Ashe had been curious why the Viera had concealed herself, and why she had been at Henne at all, and then why the faceted jewel had flared in Fran's grip, like a firefly finding home.

She and Vossler have taken on two of their inconvenient passengers for coin. The other two, because they carry coin, or at least can keep themselves and the Bogen's crew well-fed while Ashe and Vossler attend to the delicate negotiations of legal airspace. Noah -- Noah is kept for no other reason save ammunition against Archadia, and against Rozarria's claims that fon Ronsenburg has perished.

And then there is the matter of the weapon in Fran's possession: a crystal that had devoured the magicks thrown against them by Archadian soldiers.

A power that can destroy Imperials is not to be easily overlooked.

Ashe mulls over this as she hitches herself up and down the ramp into the Bogen's belly, lugging waterskins with both hands. She is eager to abandon Rabanastre; it is only a matter of time before someone catches her passing through the city. The conversation of her passengers is less than enthralling, though on one trip, she pauses upon seeing Fran facing off against Noah.

"It is because of you that my sisters are dead." A cold ferocity emanates from the Viera. Noah is seated upon the tiles of the airship dock; Fran towers above him, and one hand is laid upon the knife at her belt. Ashe, looking at her, wonders if it would be the same, if her own brothers lay in their graves. If their positions were reversed, she does not know if she would possess the same grief-borne strength that lurks beneath Fran's skin.

Noah bows his head. "It is true," he admits. "I was there, at Golmore. But not with intention of attack. My monks and I desired peace, and such was our greatest truth. We sought answers on what the Viera were keeping within the trees. The warnings that were passed on the trading road could afford little else. You must understand -- what we heard, how we heard. There were tales of monsters."

Ashe lowers the waterskins, crouching on the ramp. Noah's identity, of course, has been one of the greater topics of discussion among the Bogen's passengers. In the mummer's farce of mistaken faces, Ashe finds some irony in the fact that she has been introduced to them all as Amalia, and she would prefer to keep it that way.

But it is Vaan who speaks up next, injecting himself like a ball of blond anger. "And we're supposed to believe that? You were the one who ordered the attack on the Viera -- you betrayed them during what you called a peace talk! You left my brother to die!"

Noah goes curiously still. "Your brother?"

"His name was Reks."

For a moment, Noah's face goes as blank as a dead man. He swallows, and seems to have trouble finding air to speak. "I remember him. He was a traveler to Bur-Omisace. We talked a little about what he wanted to do with his life. When it came time for the guardian monks to travel to Golmore, he journeyed with us. Now you inform me that he is dead." Of all the sounds that Ashe expects next, a scornful laugh is not one of them. "I would be so lucky if I could say the same about my own brother. Humes should never have visited Golmore at all. The guardians were fed false information. My twin sent those men to their deaths. The whole of my honor has been tarnished. How can I recover from that?"

"Your honor? Hey, some of us have lost actual people," Vaan lashes back. His cheeks are streaked with angry flushes of red. When Penelo moves closer to him, he flinches.

"And some of us have been betrayed by our families. Which is worse?" Noah has risen from the ground; there is fire in his voice, maddened determination giving strength enough to battered muscles and bone. "Reks perished, but he did not leave your hands bloody in the process. He did not tarnish your reputation. I do not understand how my brother can hold claim to honor after what he has done. How is it possible? The Gran Kiltias is lost. Bur-Omisace has fallen. Who knows what will come of the Light of Kiltia now that the sacred mysteries have been claimed -- claimed and controlled by Archadia?"

Ashe only pays attention to the remainder of the discussion with half an ear; it does not matter to her that Noah is raving about his brother's concept of honor, because honor does not exactly pay for docking and refueling costs. She can mourn the passing of Anastasis, but religion does not turn a profit either.

She cannot escape the debates entirely. As they are in flight across the plains, Vossler swings by the common bunk while she is tallying up their flight budget. "Amalia," he whispers, leaning down so that his breath brushes her ear. "What do you think about all of this?"

She flips the bill sheet over and notes that Nono has remembered to add extra coolant on the side. "The proof lies in the faces that we saw. In the mines, we witnessed a Judge identical. It seems for now that Noah speaks the truth when he claims his visage has been misused. Though I wonder," she muses, tipping the page just far enough that she can study Fran and Vaan over the edge, "how either of them are able to forgive him for it."

Vossler makes a show of going down the list with a finger, pausing at suitable intervals. "For the truth? Or the lie, that would have been neater to believe than this?"

"For both," she sighs, handing off the budget to him and pushing herself up from her chair. "For the possibility of doubt."

- - - - -

Peace is made without bloodshed in the time it takes for Ashe to settle their docking costs. Peace builds itself through slow forgiveness as the Bogen crosses the continent. Whatever settlement Vaan and Noah have come to seems to hold; the dancer and the monk have not quarreled since, or at least not where Ashe can hear it.

Now she and Vossler are stuck with the lot of them: extra passengers weighing down the ship's cabins. The Bogen -- already designed to fly sturdy -- wallows on the air. The walkways between the cabins groan at all hours underneath the footsteps of strangers.

Ffamran tells them where to go.

They cut sharply across the lower peninsula, skirting the Feyblight and looping around Rabanastre twice. There is dust in all the engines. The trip to the Sandsea keeps them out so long that most of their water stores end up depleted, and the vents become crusted with grit. On the Ogir-Yensa territories, Ashe discovers that the damnable Ba'gamnan is on the loose again, threatening to bring her back to her father; all this combines to leave Ashe in a record foul mood, and she comforts herself by fantasizing about dumping her passengers into the ocean.

The time from the Sandsea to Nalbina is spent largely in reflection. Ashe does not understand all that had transpired there, in Raithwall's Tomb -- the old seals broken, the solace of the dead violated. The glow of the strange nethicite as Ffamran studied it with uncommon fervency, one hand on the stone as it was cradled in Fran's grip, the other on the locking crystal that barred their way with its mischievous teleports. Eventually he had deemed the path forward to be safe, had broken the restrictions with a snap of his fingers; rambling to the air, he had cursed and crowed and laughed. Fran had looked pained the longer she held the crystal -- but neither did she relinquish it over the course of their work, sliding the chain back around her neck and letting the gem settle back in place on her skin.

Vossler had not taken it well. "These are the grounds of your ancestors being violated," he'd growled, while Ashe folded her arms and watched the spectacle from a safe distance. "How can you stand by and allow them to do this?"

"I stand by because I wish to see the full scope of their ambition," she had replied coolly back. "Is it better that I turn and run? After all, with the both of us here -- what lasting harm can they possibly do while attended?"

And so Vossler had grumbled, and he had complained, and eventually he had caved in, as she'd known that he would.

They fly on.

On the Ozmone Plain, it is the milkweed scholar who has her secret out, ironically; Ashe would have expected it from Noah, who is at least partially versed with reigning authorities, but whatever time Noah spends that is not focused on the nuances of honor revolves around the need to slaughter his brother. Ffamran does not have the look of a nobleman about him. The button-clasp neckline of his shirt is beginning to show wear at the hems. There are inkstains on the cuffs. He is eccentric enough to be brusque, and wavers between being charming with his wit, and brutal.

Early on in the course of their acquaintance, she decided he suffered from a lack of dignity.

But Ffamran surprises her over a bowl of stew, as he arranges his carrots in constellation patterns on the broth. "In some parts of Archadia, there is tell of a ship that knows the safest routes through the Estersands," he begins amiably, lapping a drop off the end of his spoon. "Its captain, errant nobility, fled from a betrothal like a thief in the night. Truly a tale to grace any playwright's lips," and here he smirks, cruel enough that Ashe feels chilled to the bone, "only I heard the girl was named Ashelia -- not Amalia."

At first she whirls upon Vossler -- Vossler, who blanches and holds up his hands in abject surrender. Fran is watching from across the campsite; Fran always watches, silent and serene, save when she cups the nethicite and shudders beneath the force of the Mist.

"Oh, don't blame him," Ffamran drawls. "You were easy to mistake as a common girl. He could not be disguised if you jammed him in rags and smeared his face with soot. Rarely have I met a pirate so self-loathing, I suspect you handle most of the business negotiations, hmm?" When countered by her affronted huff, Ffamran tilts his hand, pointing an accusatory finger in Ashe's direction. "You set a very poor example for those of us who wish to rebel against their parentage, princess."

Her lips press themselves thin, find offense first with his lettering. "To resist."


She gives a snort that is meant to sound disdainful, and only comes out like a hiccup. "It was for the best."

"Best?" Ffamran's smirk is a bastard bred from origins lewd and flirtatious. "Seems to me that even princesses can be tempted to play the rogue when the comforts of their beds are at stake."

She flushes, though from anger or shame, she does not know. "It is true, I was betrothed to Lord Rasler Heios of Nabradia. We... chose to refrain."

"And who decided that, princess? 'Twas your families? Or yourselves?"

"It was for the best."

"Convenience often is."

"The marriage would have been a tool for politicians, with the eyes of four nations upon it." Her voice is steadier than she feels. The rationales are familiar in her mouth, so familiar that they seem weak in contrast to Ffamran's fresh crop of doubt. "A game made out of us for others to play, using our figures as their pieces."

"And that is what stopped you?" Ffamran is gaining confidence; Ashe is losing it, inch by inch. "Obviously your betrothal must have meant something, for you wear the ring of a woman claimed. Did you wed in secret? Were you unable to wait?"

The implications thicken the blush on her cheeks; she cannot tell how much of her coloring is from anger. "The compact. To merge stronger ties between our two nations would have been seen as a growing force that might threaten the Arcadia-Rozarrian alliance. Regardless of our hearts, we did not dare tempt both those nations together."

Surprisingly enough, all of Ffamran's bravado suddenly deflates. "Ah. Yes, that did come unplanned, didn't it. Never thought the old man would have a sudden urge for politics."

"And a ninth child in line for the throne has no need of them." Her daring surprises her. Not often has she had to defend herself of late, and it has been preferable for her to pretend no interest in global affairs, lest she be tempted. Lest she be concerned. But the words come fast, as if they never have left in the first place: "I am lucky that I've not been married away to one of the hundred Margrace heirs yet. I am equally dispensable."

She regrets speaking as soon as Ffamran's attention congeals again: the dissolution and reconstruction have caused the man's focus to become something amused and sharp. "Then give me the ring on your hand, princess, if your betrothal truly means nothing."

Trapped beneath the man's hard gaze, Ashe lifts her chin. The ring catches on her middle knuckle when she pulls on it. She has to yank at it twice, angrily, before it slides free.

She holds the ring out, and makes him take it from her.

He grins, as saucily as if he has robbed a Bangaa. "I like a girl who can give up anything -- takes after my own heart. Oh, no, don't misinterpret that the wrong way, Venat," he adds, and as Ashe's brow furrows in confusion, Ffamran glances back over his shoulder. His beatific smile is directed at thin air. "I won't become distracted just yet."

"Venat?" she begins, repeating the sound in hopes that it would provide its own answer, but Ffamran has already turned away entirely, muttering pieces of broken sentences furiously underneath his breath.

"Ffamran." Fran's voice is gentle, but firm. Her dark eyes are fixed on Ashe. "You are being unnecessarily difficult."

It is a curious interplay of understanding: Fran reaches out, touching Ffamran's shoulder, gently untangling the ring from his befuddled grasp. He lets her interfere. As simply as that, Fran retrieves the ring and places it back in Ashe's palm. Her nails draw thin trails of sensation over Ashe's skin.

"The hour is late," the Viera continues steadily, falling into place beside Ffamran and nudging him with a palm until he begins to pad in the vague direction of the campfire. "We must make haste for the Estersand."

Ashe folds her hand around the ring, largely by reflex. The metal is still warm. It has been taken from her and given back so quickly that she feels a little lost, uncertain of where it truly belongs now. She has not been without it in two years. To put it back on would be right; it would keep the ring safe, and return her to normalcy again.

Eventually, she slides it into her pocket.

- - - -

At first she does not trust how thoroughly Ffamran has planned their course. The most he gives her to start is a crude map penned out on the back of a linen rag; the ink is blotched and spread over the fibers, and Ashe gets more use out of it mopping up a kaaphii spill at breakfast.

(The sand on the edge of the Mosphoran Highwaste is gritty and mixed with dirt, with nubs of gravel. The Estersand rubs against it and loses all definition. Ashe steps carefully around each clump of scraggly grass that's fighting to find water, and thinks that this is how she will always remember her desert, if she never comes back.)

While they are in flight, she reviews the comm logs and discovers that Vossler had sent out a distress signal to Ba'Gamnan. Terminating it automatically, she sighs and wonders how long he will attempt to take care of her without her noticing. She does not have the stamina to debate the usefulness of their passengers with Vossler right now -- particularly since she is not certain how much that amount would be.

Cracking open the radio unit when they land, she pinches out half the wiring and brings it with her to the mess.

Ffamran peers up at her from across the narrow table. His ankles are hooked around the rungs of his chair. With the arrogance of a pet animal, he has managed to encompass more of the table than should physically be possible, with papers and calculations and currency that has expanded from him like a cloud.

The gil is what gets Ashe's attention. She stops in the doorway.

Ffamran does not seem bothered by her visitation. He spares her a glance as he works; the look is sober, barren of any guile. "We'll have Fran's new registration tags before nightfall. That should earn us safe passage whilst we're in Bhujerba -- assuming the local officials can also be paid to look the other way."

Ashe stares as Ffamran's nimble fingers fold coins into thick-paper envelopes, sectioning off neatly padded amounts of future bribery. "The Marquis is not an Archadian sympathizer," she spits out, but the denial rings shallow, and she feels it dying in her throat.

"Half his cabinet will be terribly surprised in the morning, then." Ffamran drawls, crisp Archadian consonants rippling like piano staccato. His fingers riff out five stacks and aligns them with a crisp rap on the table. "Very well, we'll play that charade. Purchase of fresh tags will cover us through Archadia's official territories in addition -- and I, for one, intend to get our money's worth."

"It is ill luck to take a Viera on." It rankles Ashe's sensibilities that she must parlay with a crazed man; Fran claims that Ffamran is in communication with another race, one of great power, but Ashe can recognize the vernacular used to describe the insane. "Be grateful that we dare the risk at all."

He shoves his glasses higher on his nose. "Surely you do not believe in what the rumors say."

"Rumors are the little helpers of sky pirates," she retorts back. "You cannot deny the fact of Golmore's ruin. If 'twas not a fell beast called by the Viera that destroyed the jungle, then what would you suggest occurred?"

"Oh, there is no doubt of foul action, my lady. Noah is proof of that." Clicking his tongue, Ffamran busies himself with secreting several of the envelopes in various inner pockets of his shirt. Five disappear before Ashe starts to wonder just how he plans to avoid a chafe. "But perhaps not of the kind which you would expect."

He says no more than that, however, dividing up the funds into three piles: one for the trip there, one for the trip back, and one for emergency reserves. As his hurried motions begin to slow, he pauses over the reserves, tickling one envelope with a fingertip. "Which Imperial taxes should we expect at Bhujerba? I've set aside a conservative estimate, but I would hate to be caught unawares."

Ashe blinks, shakes her head. "Bhujerba remains a free port."

He gives her a level stare. "Oh, Amalia."

"I speak the truth." Restless to get away from Ffamran's gaze, Ashe swaps the wires to her other hand, feeling noontime sweat gathering itself in the lines of her palms. "Where is Fran?"

Ffamran simply shrugs, waving an ink-stained hand vaguely towards the door. "Find her yourself, if you're that interested. She's out there somewhere, trying to listen for the Wood."

- - -

In one thing, Ffamran is not a liar: Fran is standing on the edge of the sands, looking out upon the paths they will embark upon tomorrow.

Ashe finds that to be a sensible enough decision. If they were some sort of operatic theater, Fran would be turned around and facing the desert in a bout of dramatic introspection, considering the bleakness of the past and what is yet left to be lost. Instead, Fran is considering the next step forward. Or so Ashe assumes; the Viera is difficult to interpret, and Ashe is torn between building careful estimations, and throwing out wild loops of logic that might predict the contents of the other woman's mind.

Loathe to interrupt, Ashe hangs back, lifting her gaze upwards in a study of her own. The air from the Highwaste mixes with the Estersand along the border near Nalbina Fortress. A trade breeze, Ashe estimates, automatically pausing to inhale the fresher winds, allowing the taste to roll around the back of her mouth and tongue.

But if she hoped to find a foreign magick there, all she can savor is disappointment. No fortune lies waiting on the air. There will be no divination made from the sky, save that the pollen count will escalate radically as they travel east, and that Vossler will likely forget to restock their Remedies again.

She gives up, steps closer. At the sound of boots on sand, Fran's ears twitch; when the Viera turns, swaying gracefully on her toes, her features are perfectly composed. She inclines her head. "Captain Amalia."

"Fran." Ffamran had not introduced either of them with a title, and Ashe feels no reason to create one. She waves towards the horizon. "Are you capable of sensing trees all the way from here?" She does not say blight; though she is no longer a princess, she can at least be polite.

If there is a flinch from Fran's part, she conceals it masterfully. "No. I had thought, perhaps, the Salikawood -- but it lies fallow to my ear. No song comes."

"Your people are not there?"

"My people are as you have seen." Fran does not evade the line of questioning, brutal though it may be; Ashe suppresses any guilt and simply watches for a response. "We have become chaff upon the breeze, to scatter and die, and become no more. Perhaps this is to be our fate. If the Wood has met its end, then nature may dictate that we perish with it."

Ashe opens her mouth to say more -- and then closes it, feeling a coil of uncertainty wind itself around her stomach. She does not enjoy the sensation. Hesitation is a child's crutch; Ashe is a sky pirate, and has been for years. She should be stronger than this.

"Noah." The name comes out before she can attribute reason to it. "He looks at you as if you are his sole hope for salvation. Do not forget that there are more than the Viera counting upon you."

Fran's mouth goes tight. Her dark eyes widen around the edges. But before Ashe can drive the point home, Ffamran shows up with a tag ring jingling in his hand, calling out his greetings with a cheer that is too heavy to be false. The discussion flees into the sand.

Fran falls silent and tilts her head, slipping the ring over one thick fold of her ear with an ease that seems as natural as if she has done it for all her life. As she does, Ashe catches a glimpse of the etched letters and numbers coiled on either side of the tag, giving Fran her new identity: V-M for a merchant class, for a piece of meat, for an accessory that has nowhere else to go save the road. It is a common pass; many creatures walk around with the classification, Seeq and Viera alike.

Not in Dalmasca, though -- not yet.

Though Ffamran pleads for patience at irregular intervals with his jester's tongue, Fran finally speaks to them all one night, directly. She dictates with the nethicite in her hands. The long loop of the silver chain gleams like ruddy mercury in the firelight. The crystal broods within her palms. She does not look at any of them directly, reserving her gaze for the nethicite alone, gentle ultimatums offered to the stone.

"The villages have been scattered. My sisters, who might have been prepared for rule -- both have been slain." Sidelong across the fire, Noah covers his face, but says nothing. "Even if my people could be gathered safely together once more, Arcadia would not ever let them rest 'till they swear their lives away to its law. No. Vengeance is the rule which I must follow. There is no other course than that."

There is a silence over the camp that is only partially uncomfortable: Ffamran does not seem particularly unconcerned by Fran's declaration, and Vaan gives little indication save a shrug. Penelo's eyes are bright. Her hands clench once, as if to still her fingers lest they twitch and give her eagerness away.

Vossler is not so sanguine. "And so we're to help you with starting a war?"

It is Ffamran who takes up the debate. "Have you no reason to see Arcadia's reach bound? Or does the imminent invasion of Nabradia," and now he is speaking suddenly towards Ashe, throwing his questions at her like hot knives, "under the pretense of safeguarding the Salikawood not stir you to effort?"

Discomforted by being put on the spot, Ashe crosses her legs at the ankles, and wishes she could use one to kick Ffamran in the face. "The Empire is content to keep peace with Nabradia so long as its soldiers are allowed to patrol the wood against foul elements." She turns her head, sneering at the clouds over Ffamran's shoulder because she cannot bear to see the condescending pity in his eyes. "Tell me something better, Ffamran. Tell me why I should risk so much on your words alone."

"Oh, princess," Ffamran chides, scooping up his books and pressing his spectacles back into place. "You'll help us simply because it's better than wasting your pedigree life away ferrying cargo, pretending to be something that you're not."

- - - -

When the time comes to leave for Bhujerba, Ashe sleeps through the transit from earth to water -- as usual, whenever they take the short route through Phon. Vossler is at the helm. Between naps, Ashe catches glimpses of their passage through the shuttered windows in her cabin, flickers of the jagged coast rising and falling in grass-coated waves.

No other vessels hail them, though once she spies the flash of sun across metal, running parallel to the Bogen. Vossler flashes the lights. The other ship does the same, peeling away in a smooth arc, and Ashe lies back down on the cot and feels the engine's hum through the blankets.

South of Tchita, they break away from cover, skimming low across the waves towards Bhujerba. Ashe feels the climate adjust around her by the humidity seeping into her bunk. She slides out, feeling like an insect unhatching itself from a woolen cocoon, and pads up to the cockpit.

Instead of an established course plotted out and locked into the controls, what she sees is a half-naked bazaar dancer sprawled across two seats.

"I think I'm dying from allergies," Vaan informs her dreamily. His vest is askew. If they were anywhere else, Ashe might suspect him of being debauched; instead, she thinks uncharitably about Vossler and impotency. "Wake me up when we're back in the desert again."

"Not on my ship," she shoots back, prodding him gingerly with a finger. It would be the height of irony to have come so far in life, only to be felled by some dancer's exotic disease.

"I don't blame him," Noah mutters darkly as he stalks past. "Bhujerba would give anyone hives."

Her temptation to forcibly evict her passengers is only encouraged when the Bogen sways into its rented dock, settling into the cradle of straps and suspension girders with a metallic sigh of relief.

She has just finished arguing with the Portmaster about prices and discounts and discretion when a pair of city guards march in, aiming directly for the Bogen's stall. The Portmaster's nose twitches. He trundles away with his pom bobbing, and Ashe fights back the urge to haul the squat moogle back by one wing until he agrees that three nights is more than fair for what she is paying in rent.

The guards come to a halt by the nose of the ship. Penelo takes one look at them and disappears up the Bogen's ramp, primed with a thief's good instincts; Vaan is quick to follow. Fran holds her ground, ears steady. Ffamran is caught in open space, with nothing convenient to hide behind, and so he looks awkward for all of five seconds before squaring his shoulders with deceptive cheer.

One of the guards clears his throat. "As is standard for all ships fitting this weight category, the Marquis has requested a search of your vessel performed, and for its captain to be personally questioned."

Fran is a tense line of attention. When Ashe sets her fingers on the Viera's arm in rudimentary assurance, she can feel the muscles as tight as rods. She pitches her voice with deliberate nonchalance. "Must we go through this? I'm certain we both have more important business to attend to than inventory of a simple cargo run."

The guard facing her down does not blink. "The Marquis insists."

The Marquis, Ashe thinks darkly, and scowls. She erases the expression as best she can when she turns back to address her ragtag crew, but she can feel concentrated sarcasm humming in her blood. "I'll be back. If you try to leave before my safe return," she adds, trying not to glare directly at Ffamran, though it is hard, "then I entrust you to Vossler's care."

With that, she allows herself to be escorted by the guards, one falling to either side of her like a pair of bulky, unwanted metal wings. They take the shorter roads, back alleyways that avoid the denser market crowds. There are a hundred ways to reach the estate of the Marquis, and over half of them are discreet; today it seems that speed wins out over tact.

Once past the front gate, Ashe picks up her steps, lifting her head as she strides directly for the study she knows is waiting. Her guards lag behind. She navigates the twists of each hallway without pausing, pushing open door after door until a pair of carved heartwood knobs twist beneath her hands, and she is facing the Marquis of Bhujerba from across a room that smells like paper and smoke.

"Thank you, captains. You may leave." Halim Ondore's gaze is a calculating thing. He waits until the doors are closed and privacy surrounds them both before continuing. "It has been a while since you have come, Ashelia. I was beginning to think that fair Bhujerba had lost its appeal."

She forgoes pleasantries, stepping forward until she is centered on the thick carpet stretched before his desk, her boots poised on interwoven triangles of green, gold and blue. She breaks their elegance with her presence; her heels still bear dust from the road. "Your loyalties have been growing more suspect, Uncle."

"Always have they been so." His voice holds nothing of resentment. "Buhjerba's free markets have long been an offense to larger empires -- empires who would crush the Skycity, if they thought doing so might tame it to their pockets. Without the refuge of Bur-Omisace, pilgrims and beggars have no place to go. I must walk a delicate line between Archadia and the refugees, and give Archades token obeisance without allowing them to move further south. Your father and brothers know my heart." He turns then, selecting a smoked-glass bottle from its peers on the sideboard, and pulling it free. When he slides the stopper loose, Ashe catches a sudden whiff of the cloying sweetness of honey kattoya.

She accepts a draught delicately when he pours, letting the stem nestle between her fingers like a ship finding home. "Uncle. I am being asked to help aid a war."

He is quiet, as is his custom whenever she comes to him with bad news. Ashe uses the opportunity to examine the changes in the chamber's furnishings since her last visit. She is in the middle of studying a tapestry whose fibers have been woven in what looks suspiciously like a Garif design when he speaks:

"Part of me should bid you to be glad, Ashelia, that you are in a position to be so able. Part of me demands that you stay here, where it is safe. I trust that Vossler is not allowing you to take unnecessary risks?"

For a moment -- wild, unaccountable to reason -- Ashe catches herself thinking of Fran.

Risks, she clarifies inwardly with stern discipline, and her second sip of kattoya is longer than the first.

It burns her throat and turns her stomach warm, making it easier to gather her thoughts into order. Sharing the conspiracy with her uncle would certainly grant Ashe the physical force necessary to imprison Fran and separate the Viera from the artificial nethicite; it would place the prize squarely within Ashe's dominance. She could -- perhaps, possibly, maybe -- count on her uncle to withhold the information from Dalmasca. Her uncle would never alert Archadia, and would never steal the nethicite from Ashe in an elaborate double-cross, but Ashe does know he will not let such a powerful force go easily. Saving the crystal and using it in the defense of Dalmasca or Bhujerba or Nalbina is the wise choice, the responsible one, the choice of kings -- and her uncle has always been canny.

No. If Ashe gives up the nethicite now, she will never see how the story ends. The crystal will pass into the iron grasp of Hume hands, and Ashe could use it to destroy kingdoms -- but she would do so under the auspices of her father's court and her uncle's.

She turns her stance, angling her shoulders and hips towards the balcony, though she keeps her chin poised for conversation. Her uncle knows how to read some of her lies, but not all; she is counting on the latter. "My brothers resent my decision to travel, I am certain."

He gives her a look she cannot identify, shrouded inside his weathered brow and statesman's craft. "Your brothers miss you, Ashelia. And your father -- and your uncle, who sits in his city and waits for his niece to come home."

She holds herself brave underneath his scrutiny, brave and angry, with her mouth twisted at the corners from the effort. He sighs.

"Once you were a little girl, Ashelia. A little girl, who was afraid of heights when she came to the city of her uncle, who wept at night in terror that her bed would tip over and drop her into the ocean. Now look at you run. The ground itself could not lure you to look down."

The glass is light as a soap bubble as she downs the rest of the kattoya in a brutish gulp. She sets it aside quickly, and then kisses her uncle upon his cheek.

The gauzy curtains billow when she sweeps her hand forward, exposing the room to the rich, afternoon sun. Bhujerba's contours sprawls before them like the most generous of courtesans. Ashe can feel the breeze grace her skin.

"Listen to those winds for me, Uncle," she whispers. "Tell me what they say."

From the resignation in his voice, she knows that he already has the answer, twice-over. He tries anyway. "They say it is time for you to return to us, niece."

She releases the curtain. "No. They say I should continue to fly."

- - - - -

Fran is waiting for her when she leaves the estate.

Ashe's step hesitates when she sees the Viera poised at the edge of the hedgerow gates. Already, she is beginning to regret her draught of kattoya; the sweetness bubbles and festers like acid in her gut. She was foolish to drink it so swiftly, without a meal to take the edge off first. She is in no mood for company.

She stalks forth anyway, noting when Fran falls into step beside her. The security of their conversation is better served near the grounds of the Marquis estate; Ashe comes to a halt where the shallow road intersects with one of the main market corners, and then turns onto a different route.

Only when they have strolled at ease for several minutes without encountering another pedestrian does she speak. "I am surprised Ffamran let you walk around Bhujerba without guard. He is convinced of the fealty of the Marquis to Archadian goals. However did you manage to escape him?"

Fran keeps the pace, but half a step behind; the heels of her shoes click like claws against the pavement stones. "Ffamran was swayed when Noah offered to take the watch. Out of sight, the soldier waits. I wished to speak with you alone."

"So speak."

For all of Fran's confidence, she appears suddenly loathe to begin. "Twice now have you risked yourselves for me. I am not... ungrateful."

"Keep track, so we can charge you the full amount by the end." Ashe's shoulders itch. Speaking to her uncle has left her skin prickly all over; the ghosts of her brothers' voices scratch at her ears. "You rescued my ring from Ffamran. That evens things out."

"Does he mean that much to you still, this Lord Rasler?"

"Rasler understood. He knew why I had to leave, to abandon our kingdoms' talk of betrothal. If that is not love," and there is an unexpected tightness in Ashe's throat that makes her eyes narrow, "then what is?

Fran yields through silence, but not long enough. "Perhaps it differs for Humes. Because our males are so rare, we do not place such significance upon a single reproductive bond. We call the people who know us best, our friends. These, we know to treasure."

"And is Ffamran your friend, though he is not a Viera?"

If she expected for some insight into the man's behavioral quirks -- or that her skepticism would drive Fran's inquires away -- then Ashe is only disappointed. Fran's voice is serenely tolerant. "Ffamran was among the Archadians sent under the ruse of containing and studying the effects of the Mist. His father assists the destruction of my kind. Ffamran disagrees. In this, we are united. In this, he has my trust."

Skepticism rises first out of Ashe's reactions; she accepts its presence with relief, allowing scorn to restore her defenses. "Is that even possible, for an Archadian?"

"Better to ask if trust is possible at all these days. We ride with sky pirates for our company. Is nethicite not the sole reason you continue to keep with us, Amalia?"

Something about Fran's steady regard flusters Ashe and angers her: she does not want to be looked upon as if she is little better than the detritus found in Balfonheim, a predator waiting to skim marks and dump their corpses in the Estersands. "Judge not by my occupation," she snaps. "It is simple to claim, 'this was the place of my kin, and whatever occurs in the course of my staying is the fault of those who have instructed me, never my own.' But 'til you live sundered from that which was granted to you by birth, how much do you really know about your own nature, your own destiny? Nothing. You know nothing."

The words hurt as they come out. They should have sufficed. Ashe has not shared this particular logic for years -- even her uncle surrendered under its claim -- but Fran does not slow even a fraction. "It sounds as if you have practiced your defense many a time before."

They have reached the end of the promenade; further down the branching of the streets, Ashe can see Noah waiting, the lines of his face made strange by the beard that is growing in. Bitterness has spoiled the wine in her stomach. It flavors the air she breathes.

"Then perhaps you are not as understanding as I thought," she snarls, and slams that decision down hard over her own thoughts.

Broken pride is not enough warning. As Ashe comes to a halt in the middle of the road, catching her breath to keep it under control, Fran takes a step closer. The proximity is horrifying. Ashe recoils away, loathing the idea that she might appear in need of comfort, but she does not move quickly enough: Fran's fingers catch in her hair, stroking gently at her scalp, grasping like the teeth of a trap.

In a spasm of denial, Ashe pulls free and walks until the sun goes down and Vossler comes to find her at the edge of the world, pale-faced beneath his tan, mute with concern.

- - - -

Ffamran has been arguing with the air all day; trying to reel him back down to earth is a fool's affair, for he rants and raves and breaks out into wild laughter, alternately cheering and cursing his unseen ghost.

It is dinner by the time his throat grows hoarse enough to make him stop. Vaan has done the cooking again, between picking up tips performing acrobatics at the local taverns. Ashe does not question his business, just as she does not question how Penelo's wallet is always fullest when the girl is looking her most smug.

Their rooms at the inn are less crowded than they could be -- Vaan is out working the crowds, counterpoint to Penelo slipping like a wisp behind them. Their efforts double as cash and information both. Archadian Judges have been rumored to be visiting the mines, and Ashe allows them their suspicions. Her uncle is not a traitor. She knows he never will be.

"Dalmasca is close to the borders of the Feyblight," Ffamran says when he finally surfaces from his madness long enough to choose the presence of what is real over what is imaginary. Fran is across the room, cradling the wrapped nethicite carefully against her stomach; Ashe has spent the last half hour thinking furiously about anything other than the Viera. "With the wood turned and Arcadia's forces come 'round to the south, Dalmasca and Nabradia both are pinned. Should this not concern you more... Amalia?"

She makes a great show of sighting down the line of her crossbow to check it for warping. "And should there come an advance, Dalmasca has eight noble sons to guard her gates. Rabanastre has always remained a city cradled in safety. Both Arcadia and Rozarria have honored that impeccably throughout the last six years. So long as the trading routes remain open, and travelers unobstructed, the rest of the world is content to pass Dalmasca by."

"Some have whispered that Lord Larsa has ambitions for such a fortuitously-situated locale."

The name takes her a moment to recall. Since leaving home, Ashe has tried to deliberately let such knowledge pass her by; the more she involves herself with politics, the more inclined she might be to return. "Larsa? The Emperor's youngest? You jest, Ffamran -- talented though he may be, the boy is barely past his first decade. He would have been ten when the Feywood was first burned. How could he have desire for conquest?"

Ffamran makes a shrug, exaggerated with his palms turned upwards. "Whether the plans were in place before, or whether he has had been indoctrinated by another party, I could not say. But I do know that Lord Vayne has been very careful not to be seen in public without at least one Judge in tow -- and if Vayne's placid sensibilities have been ruffled, this matter cannot be a small thing at all. What we mistake for peace now simply conceals the germination of ambition. One which is long in planning, directed by the hands of gods."

He shifts on his perch, reaching for the kaaphii pitcher. He fills his cup to brimming before continuing. "I have learned more by watching the hand of my father. These Occurians wish for only the civilizations wrought by Hume to remain. They forsee a world unified under a single, chosen race, where creatures such as Viera and Garif are viewed as mere legends, fit for children's storybooks." He chews thoughtfully on his lip before glancing over his own shoulder. "What was that, Venat? Yes, yes, it may have been. But we can hardly ask the elder brothers now, can we? They're dead."

Vossler mutters, solder's superstition mixing with caution. Ashe catches his eye and waits until he gives a slight nod. They have traveled together long enough to recognize the other's signals; Vossler thinks less and less of Ffamran's reliability by the day, but he trusts his own ability to restrain the scientist, should it come to that.

"Since we are docked in Bhujerba, it is only a short hop to Balfonheim. If we wish to advance the second prototype recovered from Raithwall's Tomb, I must trade with goods that can only be found at port." Picking up his cup with arched fingers around the rim, Ffamran downs half of it in one gulp, and then grimaces before he finishes the rest. "There is a scientist of the 8th Fleet with whom I may make safe appointment to meet there. I'll be certain to send a courier to let him know when we'll arrive."

With that, the man scoops up his satchel of notes -- but when he turns to make for the exit, Noah is there, grabbing for his shirt front and turning linen into puckered folds inside a fist.

Vossler is close behind. "Are you certain you are able to accomplish this without risk?"

"Oh, fear not, Vossler." Ffamran sketches a rough bow, pulling against the prison of Noah's grip so that he can perform his mockery. "I am a son of Archadia."

Vossler grunts, containing his frown; Noah does not back down, his fingers shifting to Ffamran's arm. "Balfonheim is dangerous," he growls. "Archadian spies are everywhere. Archadian spies," he repeats, emphasizing with a narrowing of his eyes, "who may be familiar with you."

"I am going," Ffamran states acidly back, "to collect the necessary ingredients for continuation of my work. Some of these ingredients are not common. Naturally I must trade at Balfonheim, since our current company is too high-brow to provide for our needs. Marvel at our rare fortune -- who knew we would happen to find the sole sky pirates who prefer to hide behind pretenses of neutrality rather than to take a stand. Now," he enunciates, slowly, reeling back his torrent of sarcasm into something even colder, "release me."

Noah stares back with the patience of a rock. Only when Ffamran wrenches away and heads for the exit ramp does his soldier's composure break. He whirls towards Fran. "Are you certain of his loyalties, my lady? How do you know he does not remain in league with the scientists of Draklor's laboratories?"

Down the hall, Ffamran snorts. Fran's ears twitch, but she does not shy away from Noah's bile. "Ffamran holds a rivalry with his father that would make such a thing impossible. Needless is your concern." When Noah does not relent, she adds, "Is your own honor so impugned that you cannot trust that of others?"

That does the trick. Ashe watches Noah stalk off, grumbling -- not to the privacy of the personal quarters, but to the hallways near the engine rooms, as if he is expecting a second grand betrayal to come from any corner just in time for him to nap. Ashe wonders how long he will sulk there, or if she will have to kick him out herself with one of Vossler's wrenches.

"Between the two, I don't know which one of them is worse," she volunteers to the Viera, and sighs.

Fran makes a muted noise of agreement. When she moves forward, away from the wall and into the sunlight streaming down from the cockpit's glass, Ashe can see that weariness has left shadowed crescents beneath Fran's eyes.

"Walk with me," the Viera orders, and the soft authority of her tongue is so strong that Ashe finds her own body obeying without her will behind it.

Their feet makes whispers on the Bhujerba turf. The air is thick with humidity. Insects chitter. Ashe rests her hand on her sword. She can smell the winds rising, which is another reason she is fond of her uncle's city: the winds rise, and Ashe knows there will always be one for her to ride.

"At times, I have wondered if it would be different, were I of royal birth." Fran's voice drifts back to her; the Viera has come to a halt along one of the railings that divides the path from a steep fall. "Being a figurehead for a resistance born of many races... it is different from organizing my people, who are divided by camps and village, content to keep to their own borders. Never did I think I would be the one to inherit." She turns her head, exhales a breathy sound that, in better times, might have been a laugh. "It is strange. The Viera of the Wood once shunned those who left. Now, it is only because of those exiled that our kind remains. If vengeance alone will not suffice, then I must somehow win back their trust and protect them from future harm. I must repair what has been damaged, before it is forever lost."

Ashe assumes that is the whole of it -- that Fran, for whichever reason, has unburdened her thoughts to the one person who will remain markedly indifferent to them all -- but the Viera woman turns back suddenly. Her palms rest lightly upon the rail. "Why do you attend us still, Amalia?"

The forthrightness of the question causes Ashe to blink. "Because," she begins, and then falls back on the old excuse, lamely. "Because you have something that I desire."

"The artificial nethicite." Fran's fingers move upwards, stroking the space between her breasts, where the crystal hangs and warms itself on her skin. "But this is the creation of Ffamran, and is meant for my domain of use. 'Twas accident that brought it to other hands when its formation was complete. No more."

"And yet, if we had arrived first, you would be saying an entirely different story now," Ashe warns. The curl is back in her stomach, just as when she had spoken with her uncle: a worm of discontent that refuses to be drowned, that wriggles the harder it's crushed. "And if we were any more heartless, Vaan would be an accident on the ground, and the stone would be in our possession. Not yours."

Fran does not seem intimidated. Ashe wonders if anything could scare her. The Viera has faced Noah's anger, Ffamran's insanity, and Ashe should not have expected to reach past that implacable shell. To threats of murder, Fran merely looks amused. "You were not sky pirate by birth, Amalia. Vossler has spoken to me of Dalmasca, when he thinks no one else is near. He desires to return you there." When Ashe opens her mouth to protest, stung by the knowledge that Vossler has taken the argument outside of just the two of them, Fran crooks a feathery eyebrow. "Do you not yearn for your home, Amalia? Are you not lonely, isolated from your blood?"

It is with a jolt that Ashe realizes that the angle of the conversation has shifted, like water running back to the sea and taking the sand underfoot with it.

She unclenches her fists, slowly.

"Lonely? No." She flounders for dignity, finds it only through habit. "We are more than the positions we have been born to. Whether life began in a castle or in a wood, I believe we all have the right to claim our own destinies by choice." She stops, begins again, feeling truth come out stripped of its protective gloss: "How could I be lonely, when I have all the world left waiting to be discovered?"

"Fine words, those are." A fragment of a smile licks across Fran's mouth. "You sound much like Ffamran. I miss the Wood," she confesses, plainly enough that Ashe does not grasp the full of it right away; she is too doubtful to believe that the Viera would truly confide in her. And yet, Fran continues to speak. "I would have been content to grow old within its arms and die peacefully, but it would seem as if that option is denied to me now. "

"Or you could make your decision on your own -- rather than carrying out a task with shrouded eyes, only looking straight ahead to wherever you are pointed by Ffamran's madness."

Fran lets the bitterness of the words spill over her without allowing them to leave a mark on her expression, wooden and perfect. "What choice exists?" Her voice is indecisive; it swings from exhaustion to acceptance without keeping either. "Who else would assume the mantle, should I shirk the duty?"

Ashe gives a stuttered shake of her head. "There is always a choice."

She is too off-balance from the conversation to be on guard when it happens: Fran turns, and with one careless motion, lifts her hand to cup Ashe's cheek. The Viera's palm is warm, even in comparison to the summer. There is the smell of musk on her wrist. One of her long nails brushes the ridge of Ashe's ear, where a lover might bite, affectionately.

"Your freedom," the Viera says at last. "I have envy of it."

It is impossible for Ashe to concentrate. Fran's proximity has done something to gravity; the blood in Ashe's heart is rising to her face, causing her skin to prickle.

"And what would you do," she manages to say, through the hobble on her tongue, "if you were free?"


With that, the Viera leans forward, and touches Ashe's mouth with her own.

Startled, Ashe freezes. She can feel the velvet of Fran's lips, the damp flesh that is softer than anything Ashe has embraced before. It is a strange kiss, with less passion than resignation; a strange kiss, as if the experience of tasting a female Hume is the goal, rather than sparking any lust within Ashe's blood. Fran devours, and she does so gently.

Ashe jerks away, rendered mute by the gesture -- but Fran has already turned, and the long plume of her hair whispers along her thighs as she walks away.

- - - -

They dock easily in Balfonheim, paying for registration and supplies on the same ticket.

(This is how she will remember Balfonheim: banners snapping, seagulls crying, wharf hands catcalling indiscriminately to travelers as they walk past. The breeze smells like buttered fish. Ashe reads five ciphers from the scratchmarks on the dock, and learns that half the fuel coming out of Archades is watered-down but at least the liquor has not diminished in potency.)

"I am not unhappy," she declares, abrupt, arbitrarily.

Judging by the half-guilty, half-relieved expression on Vossler's face, the man thinks she is lying.

"Are you certain, my lady?" His face is so eager that he looks ten years younger. "I could have the Bogen back in the sky and on course to Dalmasca in a matter of minutes. Simply give the word. I will do it."

"I am fine," she insists, because she can see the urgency of Vossler's muscles to carry out his offer. "I do not... I do not miss my home, or my family. I do not lack. I have everything I want, and yet -- and yet, I find myself impatient with what I have."

"Then this life must not truly be enough to satiate your needs," he puts forth, reasonably.

She scowls. The mystery of women's hearts, she thinks pettily, must be beyond him, so long as they are not cloaked in steel and sheath.

Vossler closes his eyes in an expression Ashe knows all too well. At times like these, she can no longer pretend that they are two ruffians who hold no allegiance to any nation.

At times like these, she regrets whatever she has done to cause them.

"Only out of duty to you, Amalia," and she can see how even now Vossler's mouth fights around that name, "do I continue this route and sully both our honors by engaging in this... disreputable business. Out of duty to you, and to Dalmasca, and -- "

"You make a wonderful pirate," she tells him in revenge, and has the pleasure of watching him fuss.

With Ffamran and Noah in competition with one another for suspicion -- Noah seems to trust Fran with the rest of the passengers, but insists on staying near Ffamran as if proximity alone will instill the man with some common sense -- and Penelo and Vaan adapting to Balfonheim as if the entire town is just another sideroad in Dalmasca, and Vossler being Vossler, the ship feels too small. Their inn room feels too small. Ashe's entire body is rebelling against itself, muscles fighting against the restless tension that has taken root deep in her bones, growling up out of her nerves like spring forgotten.

She wets her salt-dry lips with her tongue, and remembers Fran there.

When Ashe had first suggested to Vossler that they use one another to satisfy any personal needs, he had sputtered badly enough that it was close to a week before they were on speaking terms again. When she had suggested that she find a stranger instead, he'd threatened to haul her back to Dalmasca by force.

The longer she spends out as a sky pirate, the less value Ashe's physical virtue should hold; that, and she knows that Vossler reports back to her father anyway, assuring him that his daughter is still among the living. She suspects, strongly, that Vossler would never accept her offer of a bedding without asking permission from the King first. It has taken great effort to break the captain of his habit of publicly grousing about less-than-noble behavior and sometimes, Ashe fancies that this private war of concessions and rebellions between herself and her family is only possible because they have the luxury of peace to indulge in.

The contrast is all the more immediate the longer that Ashe watches Fran. Fran has a tension which Ashe lacks; Fran has a focus and an intensity which Ashe knows how to conjure in herself, except that there is no need, no reason for Ashe to push herself to the highest limits and beyond. Fran's impenetrable armor has been built up carefully, stone by stone, unwilling to trust and afraid of failure. Fran is everything Ashe could have been, if only the war had come to Dalmasca first.

They are opposites in some ways, and they are similar.

But she can't dodge Fran forever, and she is a coward to even start.

She picks an afternoon when Vossler is on his back tinkering with the engines, and Ffamran is engaged in linguistical warfare with Noah. Penelo and Vaan are off working the streets of Balfonheim; Ashe hopes they will not draw too much attention to themselves, but she cannot help hoping that they will steal something from Reddas's manse. Something very large, and very valuable, and very capable of proving the man's blackwater connections to Archades at last.

Fran is alone in the Bogen's cockpit. She is not toying with the controls, but is instead holding herself very carefully away from them, away from any of the seats in their cramped rows. Her arms are tightly crossed. Her hands are not touching the nethicite today, but are curled against her shoulders, as if she does not trust them to hold steady, or to keep within the politeness of social boundaries. Ashe recognizes the stance: she has used it herself, on occasion, but Nabradia is very far away.

Ashe's footsteps feel more intrusive than they should be, walking on the metal grating of the Bogen's halls. She is louder than she wants. There is no doubt that Fran has detected her approach -- a flick of the Viera's ear is telltale enough.

She comes to a halt when she is only an arm's length away from the frozen waterfall of Fran's hair.

"If our situation were to be reversed," Ashe announces quietly, "I would like to think that I would be as dedicated to my people as you are to yours."

Fran does not turn around. She does not move, save to offer a single line back: "Let us both hope that you never have reason to find out."

Ashe takes another step forward. The grating squeaks beneath her toes; Fran draws in a deep breath at the sound, holding it, letting her shoulders rise.

"It is attractive, what you do." Fran does not exhale all at once, keeping the tempo of her voice measured slow, letting her lungs release themselves carefully around the words. "What you are. Free to fly, fly as a sky pirate, unfettered by wars held on burned and wasted soil. Untied from your companions. I had always thought... I had thought it would have been intolerable, to be so alone. And yet, you have mastered your isolation. You have not allowed it to become your ruler. There is more than base vengeance in control."

To give a reply would grant Fran an opportunity to twist the conversation away, to deflect it neatly back into advantage and disadvantage, into distance. Rather than meet the Viera halfway, Ashe reaches out and strokes her fingers along the curve of Fran's left ear. The hairs are shorter than she expected, short and coarse. They lay flat together in one direction, and when Ashe starts to run her hand contrary, Fran makes a stilted hiss.

"Do not make me regret, Lady Ashelia." Fran's shoulders are uneven curves; her fingers are gripped hard enough together to whiten the flesh. "Do not make me think of what life might be like, were I to deny my people their due. My sisters are dead. My village is destroyed. My race is scattered. Ffamran grows stranger by the day, until I fear I do not know his thoughts any longer. Is there hope in this, Lady Ashelia? Is there wisdom?"

The name is jarring. After so many weeks of facades being shattered and rebuilt, Fran's words strike like tiny hammers against the last few defenses that remain over Ashe's resolve. The name is an invocation that strips Ashe bare more readily than any tearing of clothes; it scours her of stiffened pride, of the part of her that wears pirate as the only disguise the world will ever see. Underneath it lies Ashelia, and Amalia, and a ninth child of Dalmasca, and a woman who has spent more time in the air than on the ground, seeking to discover truth in her own determined way.

She speaks plainly. "If you cannot conquer sorrow in yourself, you will never begin to vanquish it among your people."

"Such are the words of a queen."

"Of a pirate," Ashe whispers back, stepping forward at last to bridge the final gap between them, sliding her hands over the Viera's long fingers. Fran's hands twitch once; then they clasp back, tight and yearning. "One who does not fear the sky."