What Choices Are Given
AU - But the Wind is Free 'verse. Post-Wind. For Motorbike, who liked the original.

She does not stop to wonder now, for wonder itself is useless. They are too often on the run. Ever since the sinking of the Leviathan, their task has taken on a note of desperation, sailing just beyond the edge of disaster, seeking to outrace it. Imperials are everywhere. Loss of the 8th Fleet had been a blow against Imperial pride; an act of war, it is being said, by Viera rebels who would bring ruin upon all with uncontrolled magicks.

Magicks, Ashe knows, which supposedly caused the Feyblight. She no longer cares. It is hard to trust anyone's blind word after the confrontation upon the Leviathan. When she looks into her morning kaaphii, Ashe remembers Zargabaath's face unmasked, its awful resignation revealed. She wonders how long he had hidden that expression behind metal ribs and folds, listening to the intrigues of Archades being crafted around him, higher and higher until he had finally relied upon his armor to protect himself from his own home. She wonders at what point he found it acceptable, to risk testing the Dawn Shard if it meant a possible freedom from his keepers.

The Bogen gifts them with speed. The increase is tangible, and not simply born from fevered imagination. The Bogen is lighter upon the air because their party has been lessened by one.

Ffamran's things remain where he had left them: in his bunk, neglected by them all.

(Ashelia, he had called to her as they departed the Bogen. He touched her face. She had let him; his fingers were hot as a brand. When this is all over, you will see what choices are given us. You will see what we do when Virtue herself has sold her children as whores.)

(She had pulled away then, repulsed by his vulgarity of tongue, even as his hand had dropped as if struck. His wrist was slack; his fingers hung heavy by his side. You should not dare, she had snarled, and he had only lifted his head, and smiled.)

At the time, she had wondered what had possessed the man -- what, other than the strange magicks which chewed upon his mind like rats to wharf leavings, nibbling holes and leaving droppings behind to fester. The plan which he had presented to sabotage the Leviathan had been full of its own risks, but it had been no worse than any of the rest of them might have conjured. Surely, Ashe had believed, Ffamran had been projecting baselessly. Such pessimism was unwarranted.

Now she knows why he spoke, and wishes she did not.

Her restlessness takes her around the Bogen as it dips low and finds a home near Rabanastre. The rest of its crew have adjourned to their own devices: Penelo and Vaan to the mess, Noah to watch Vossler pilot. Fran keeps to her own quarters. Among them all, it was the Viera who grieves the most, and who was the most grievously wounded.

Ashe raps her fingers upon the door before sliding it open. Inside Fran's small room, the Viera is tucked upon her bunk, sitting with her back pressed against the metal wall. The sheets are rumpled. Her hair is uncombed. Ashe notices these facts before she notices the dark lines around Fran's eyes; ashamed, she drops onto the sitting chair placed near the door, and allows Fran to break the silence first.

It does not take long. After a moment, Fran stirs. "It was regrettable that he was a traitor," she utters, her Viera's tongue lending the words an indifference they might not have possessed otherwise.

"He was maddened from Mist." Ashe is quick to say it. "Nethicite was his ruin. The future he imagined was tempered from insanity. The bargain he would have wrought with Zargabaath was the same. Submission to Arcadia might have saved your people's bodies, but not their souls. He was mad."

Fran turns her face away. "I fear it if he was not."

The loss of Fran's ally is hard upon them all, but most upon the Viera. Ffamran had been her guardian since the beginning, when Fran had been left with only the ruins of the Wood and the destiny of her people upon her like a doom. Ffamran had been there for her, with his contacts in many lands and his inner knowledge of the enemy, and he had claimed all along that his goals were her own. But the means differed. The means, and certain details. Certain trusts.

In the wake of the Leviathan, Fran withdraws from them all -- all save Noah, strangely enough, who comes closer to her in his attendance, as if the reek of betrayal attracts him with its familiarity. Ashe studies them together, more than once. She stubbornly decides that there is no true affection between them past that of comrades upon the road, for Noah sees the Viera as a means of restoring his honor, and Fran's thoughts are as opaque as a pearl. This is what keeps Ashe calm. This is what keeps her detached, when she is thinking too long upon the way that Fran's long fingernails feel against the skin of a hume thigh.

Too, there is more than simply Fran bothering her -- more than Fran, and more than Archadia, despite how Ashe would normally prefer to avoid such politics. The methodology of Ffamran's plans unsettles her. Ffamran had reasons to avoid his past as surely as she did, but instead, he had chosen the course of resistance. (Of rebellion, his voice chides her, lingering inside her ear like warm honey. Of rebellion -- and she wonders if she will be the one next to hear figments, to see memory, to giggle and ramble and make love to the air with her voice.) Ffamran was of notable birth. It was said that his father, Cidolfus Bunansa, held Prince Larsa's ear. To leave such circumstances, Ashe would understand, but she cannot comprehend why he allowed himself to be drawn back. She does not know why he would care.

Troubled by this, she seeks out Vossler the next time camp is staked.

The stunted trees and riverbanks of the Giza Plains are a welcome safety. The waters are low. The worst of the rains are being avoided, for now, but Ashe can smell the peculiar sharpness upon the breeze that warns of weather yet to come. As ever, she does not provide an introductory statement when she lowers herself to the stubbled grasses beside Vossler, assuming that she will not be turned away.

"He is gone," she blurts out loud. "And I do not understand him."

"Ffamran?" Confirmation granted, Vossler relaxes against the bank. They are not far from the firepit which Vaan and Penelo are deftly assembling, and any sense of guard duty can thereby be appeased. "I do not believe anyone could. His obsession with thwarting his father -- what was it he always said Cidolfus wanted, again? The hands of Man?"

"'History back in the hands of Man,'" Ashe quotes, remembering the way Ffamran would curse. Curse, and defy his father's goal. The words come easier to her than she expects. Closing her eyes as the breeze lifts, she feels the small trickle of air across the back of her neck, as delicate as dead fingers. She shudders.

"He was a true son of Archadia," Vossler says abruptly, pushing himself to his feet. The motion is rough enough to pull small blades of grass free from the ground, ruined by his boots; Vossler scowls down at the prints he has left in the soil. "A riddle and a vexation, and true to no one save himself. We are well to be rid of him, my lady."

"Peace, Vossler." It is hard for her to concentrate past his anger. Pressure is beginning to build in her temples: the warning signs of a headache. One had come upon her earlier in the Bogen, but she had blamed that one on changing altitudes. Now she has no such excuse. "He is dead now, taken by the Mist. We remain free to act. That will suffice, for now."

He grumbles, but bows, allowing Ashe to stay upon the banks as he departs for camp. The clouds above curdle and darken as the sun goes down. In the silence, insects begin to chirp their miniature sonatas to one another, unworried by the politics of giants. The wind does not stop touching her.

As the night rises around her, Ashe wraps her arms around her legs, and shivers.