Garreg Mach is worn after five years, but still standing. Marianne is brushing Dorte's mane when she feels the intrusion: a slight presence at the edge of the stables, just beyond the reach of her vision. She immediately tenses up, her free hand instinctively trailing to the dagger at her hip.
"Who's there?" she calls, and waits. It's the monastery. It should be safe, but five years of habits are not easy to wean.
A head of grey hair pokes out from behind a tree, and a freckle-splashed face smiles with a touch of sheepishness.
"Oh, sorry," says Ashe Ubert. "Am I disturbing you?"
She relaxes and shakes her head, waving him in. Of course this place is safe. It's the monastery. "It's quite alright. These are everyone's stables."
Ashe steps in. Marianne remembers him from five years ago: he was a kind boy who'd come to the stables, taking care of the horses and writing notes and learning about equipment. The professor had been set on him learning riding, and even though he didn't understand why, he listened. Marianne had never been particularly close with him—they'd only eaten and studied together on occasion—but she always respected that about him.
Recently, they'd been back to fighting side by side, but never really had the opportunity for a longer chat. The battlefield wasn't a place for pleasantries.
"It's been a while since we've been at these stables," Ashe observes.
Marianne bites her lip. "Yes... it feels quite strange."
"I'm glad that we could meet again," says Ashe. His tone is gentle, but deepened, and there's a dry confidence behind his words that he didn't have before. The past five years did not seem kind to him. "I didn't really know how anyone else was doing. It's good to see that you're well."
His words are considerate, and they scatter pink into her cheeks. "I'm glad to see you, too. I hope you have been well."
"I've been attempting to learn how to handle horses," says Ashe with a sheepish chuckle, "but I'm embarrassed to say that... well, I haven't really improved. Even in five years."
"Oh, I'm sure that can't be true," says Marianne.
"That's quite optimistic of you," says Ashe, grinning. "Why, just the other day, the professor had me run an obstacle course on horseback—because that's what the cities are like, you know, and we'll have to fight in them. And when I was done, he only stared at me and said, 'Were you not learning anything for the past five years?'"
Marianne winces visibly. "O-ow."
"No, no, it was good." Ashe shakes his head. "I needed the critique. My run was, well, pretty terrible. I don't—I don't really manage the horse at all, I kind of just sit on it and it takes me for a ride. It's a problem."
"Well, many knights like to think of a horse as just a steed, but I suppose it's more like a partnership," says Marianne, relaxing. Talking about horses is easy and interesting. "Each one has its own quirks, likes, and dislikes. It's not quite as static as a sword, or an axe, or a bow. It's not a tool, but a creature with thoughts and feelings. But at the same time, it depends on you for guidance. It sounds like you might just need some time, because as you get more experience with riding, you'll gain confidence and knowledge on what paths to take and where to go, and it will be easier to give direction."
Ashe is blinking at her, and she flushes, looking away.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I shouldn't have given you unwarranted advice. That was very arrogant of me."
"No, it's fine," Ashe says hurriedly. "I was just surprised. That's the most passionate I've seen you.
"I know that it's strange."
Ashe laughs, and the sound is warm. "It's not strange. I just wish that I could have learned from you, or something. You sound like a great teacher."
"Oh!" She's never heard that before, and it makes her feel fluttery inside. "Would it be helpful for you to find a tutor, you think?"
Ashe rubs the back of his head. "Oh, no doubt. But—I'd feel bad asking the professor, I know how busy he is."
So, all he really needs is someone willing to tutor him?
Five years ago, Marianne would have never dreamed of doing what she's thinking of doing. She would have been too shy, or too awkward, or too scared of inflicting him with awful misfortune.
But this is five years after, and she is a different Marianne von Edmund.
She grips Dorte's saddle and easily hoists herself onto his back. Then she extends a hand to Ashe, feeling a smile stretch across her face. This is where she is confident. This is her arena.
"Would you like for me to show you?" she says.
Ashe is staring at her, his mouth slightly agape, like he's forgotten where he's standing. Then he swallows, and a light blush dusts across his freckles. "Yes," he says. "I'd really appreciate that."
His hand grips hers, warm, fingers calloused from years of gardening and fishing and working the bow. She feels a thrill as she pulls him up behind her. His chest is flush against her back, and if he reached forward just a little bit, it'd almost feel like an embrace.
But oh, that's a silly thought. She is just—just like a professor, yes, and she is here to share some of her knowledge.
"I'll just take us on a ride—Dorte and me, I mean—and if you have any questions, please do ask them."
She hears him swallow. His hands are awkwardly searching for something to hold. "Yes. Dorte, questions, yes. Got it."
A light giggle bubbles in her throat. "You'll have to hold on unless you want to fall off."
"You can hold my waist, I don't mind. This is a lesson, after all."
Ashe freezes for a moment. Then his arms wrap around her, firm but gentle, thick layers and leather armguards a slight pressure on her middle. She flushes at his warmth. His face is so close to her shoulder, and if he wasn't carefully angling his head away, she'd be able to feel his breath on her ear.
"Just, let me know if I should let go," Ashe says uncertainly.
Marianne's pulse is oddly fast and she feels a little lightheaded. "Well, then you'd fall off."
"Oh, right. That." Ashe pauses. "Well, at least I'd learn how to break my fall."
That makes her giggle again. She nudges Dorte into a light trot.
Ashe is silent for a moment. Then: "You have a nice laugh."
He sounds genuine and open and serious, and she flushes deep. Is her laugh nice? She doesn't know. It's always sounded strange to her ears.
"T-thank you," she says, and quickly nudges Dorte into a canter before Ashe can reply. The mix of wind and sunshine against her face is cool and fresh. For a moment, they ride in silence through an avenue of trees, watching the monastery slowly fade into the distance.
They stop off at a peaceful outcropping over a glittering lake right as the sun begins to set, bathing the sky in gold and orange. Marianne waits for Ashe to dismount before she follows. His motions are a little clunky, but he has no difficulties, and his technique is solid. Again, it seems like all he needs is more time.
She studies him for a moment to clock his reaction. Thankfully, his face isn't looking pale or queasy. He'd listened carefully as she'd explained what she was doing, and why she was doing it. She never thought of herself as a good teacher, but he assured her that just studying her movements and her connection with Dorte had helped.
Really, he's an excellent student.
Marianne's about to settle on the outcropping, but Ashe motions for her to stop. He strips his cloak and sets it on the grass like a blanket so that her riding dress won't be muddied by the grass. His thoughtfulness makes her blush as she nods her thanks, sitting on his cloak and gazing out into the lake. Ashe settles next to her, his hands idly picking at the grass. Unlike with others, when he's around, she doesn't feel the need to keep up conversation. They're just two people enjoying nature and taking a breather.
But it has been five years... and even though she doesn't feel the need to say anything, she has a question for him.
"I always meant to ask you," says Marianne. Ashe looks up from the grass. "Before—everything, I saw you at the chapel, several times. And... especially after... Lord Lonato."
The name makes Ashe's shoulders stiffen, and she feels something quail in her stomach, Maybe she shouldn't be bringing this up. Some wounds take more than five years to heal, and some burdens can never be fully shed.
"I'm sorry," she says quickly, and turns back to the sun. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"No... it's fine." Ashe's voice is somber, but steady. "What did you want to ask?"
She bites her lip. An image surfaces to her mind: a slumped form, a limp shock of grey hair, and distant, empty eyes. "It's... far too late, I know that. But... I remember thinking that you looked very lonely and lost, and you were in such deep pain... I wanted to ask if there was any way I could help you."
There's muted surprise on Ashe's face, but he doesn't respond. Marianne quickly looks down at her shoes.
"Of course, I know... I know it's been far too long, and I should have said something when I first saw you. I suppose that I... was worried I'd make it worse. But that's no excuse. I think I'm saying that I'm sorry that I didn't reach out to you. You... must have been very confused and upset."
Ashe is still watching her with those beautiful green eyes, listening intently. He's waiting patiently for her to finish, and it boosts her confidence.
"If there's anything I could do now," she continues, hesitant and soft, "then please tell me. If it's not too late... or even if I can help you in a different way, I would very much like to."
Silence descends as the sky blazes on. Marianne ducks her head, unable to look at him. She can feel the weight of his gaze.
"Thank you," Ashe says eventually, his voice a little thick. "That's really considerate of you."
He looks away from her, watching the blades of grass dance in the evening breeze.
"I think I'm okay," he says. "I wasn't for a while, but I became okay. That's what happens over time, right? Your wounds close up and become scars. And... you never forget that they're there, but you keep on living." His face is even, but she doesn't miss the way his shoulders are tight. "I just kept remembering all the... the kind things he did. Like how he took me in when I was a thief, how he gave me everything when I had nothing, how he gave me an education so I could read... And I thought, why, why did a good man like that have to die? Should I have fought for him? He was the closest thing I had to a father, he was my family, he... Well, anyway. There's no point in lingering on it."
She reaches out, but her hand stops before it touches his shoulder. She quickly draws it back and looks away.
"I'm... so sorry," she says.
"No, I'm the one who's sorry. I can't keep thinking about the same event over and over again." He chuckles, but the sound is hollow.
She swallows. "I don't judge you. I never shall. Sometimes... that can be what it takes to move on. Forgiving and forgetting are not the same thing."
"But I don't have anything to forgive him for."
"I meant... forgiving yourself."
His eyes widen, and his head whips away. She sees his fingers whiten in the grass. Oh, no, she certainly went too far.
But Ashe speaks. His voice is low and strained, shaking ever so slightly.
"I can't forget it," he murmurs. "Of all the battles I've been in... that one haunts me the most. Not just because it was against Lonato. We... fought militia. We killed militia. Just normal men, not elite soldiers, not—not even people who necessarily wanted to kill us. And why did we do it? Even to this day, I don't really know. I know what I'm told, and I know what I'm supposed to believe. But I can never know for sure. I hate not knowing for sure. I feel like an arrow—I just need someone to point me in the direction of justice, and I'll fly. But war isn't like that, war is nothing but gray lines. I think... I think I might hate war."
The pain in his voice is raw and visceral and makes tears surge to her eyes. Just because he learned how to fight for his present didn't mean he forgot his past.
He is so, so kind.
"I'm sorry, Ashe," she whispers. "I... I'm very sorry... that you had to go through that at all."
He's looking at her now, but she doesn't have the courage to meet his eyes.
"It must be very painful," she says slowly. "But... one day... I hope that we can learn to forgive ourselves. Justice... it's hard to say if we will ever know what it is for sure. But right now, you're putting your best foot forward. You're doing the best you can with what you have for the ones you love, right? And... no one should fault you for that, least of all yourself."
Oh, she's rambling now, and giving more unwarranted advice. She quickly shakes her head.
"Um... I'm saying... the Blue Lions, we're all very proud of you... and the professor is, too. Um... we're all on your side. That's all."
A silence falls over them. She finds her hands fiddling with the grass, veins thrumming nervously. Did she say too much? Was she able to help at all? Should she have never asked about anything?
How would he react?
Ashe says nothing for a long moment. Oh, Goddess. He must be furious with her. Perhaps he's thinking of taking Dorte and leaving her here.
Then he speaks.
"Thank you," he says, his tone a little choked. He doesn't sound angry at all, and she relaxes.
He says nothing more, so she sits there in the quiet of the evening, giving him space. The lake glimmers fire. The sun is dipping into the mountains, vanishing to hail the night.
"Marianne?" Ashe says, his voice quiet and serious.
She slowly raises her head. His eyes are piercing, and she feels that flutter of nervousness in her gut. "Yes?"
There's a moment of silence, and she hears the distant song of the nightingale.
"You're very pretty." Ashe's gaze turns back to fix on the setting sun. "Both inside and out. I just hope you know that."
His words are quiet, but she feels as if she's been bludgeoned in the chest with a warhammer. No, perhaps that's too unpleasant. It's more like being struck by lightning: electrifying and tingly, and in that moment, your life changes forever. She sees the dying embers of the sun halo the edges of Ashe's hair, she sees reflections of the lake in his eyes, she sees constellations in his freckles. She tangles her fingers in the grass and, with effort, wrenches her gaze away.
"Thank you," is all she says.
Her tongue feels heavy in her mouth. She wants to return the compliment, to make him understand the weight of what he said—but the words don't come.
You have such a kind soul.
I really enjoy talking with you.
And you're very handsome, too.
"You're like a horse," she blurts.
Ashe's head whips to her, eyes wide.
Her face flares crimson. Oh, Goddess. She just botched it terribly, didn't she? "No, I mean, a very nice horse," she stumbles. "Like a horse, you're very nice, and it's easy to talk with you. But not—I don't actually think you're a horse. Oh, I'm sorry. I've made this a disaster..."
"No, no, it's okay!" Ashe rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "I just, I wasn't expecting it. Um, I guess it's not really what I wanted to hear..."
Oh, Marianne, you've done it. Now he feels terrible, and right after he was so very nice to you!
"I'm sorry," she says earnestly. She turns to him, gripping his sleeve. "Please tell me what you would like to hear."
His ears are flaming. "No! I'm—I wouldn't make you do that."
"You said something so nice to me. I want to do the same for you," Marianne says.
Ashe's eyes harden. "Please don't," he says firmly. "Words aren't like that, you know. They're not loans or debts. I told you that you're pretty"—she flushes at hearing it again—"because I wanted to, and because it's true. Please don't feel like they have to be returned."
He is so very, very nice.
He is so nice that it makes her chest ache, and she doesn't know why.
She wants to let him know how much he touched her, but she can't talk, she never knows what to say, what can she—
She doesn't let herself think. Five years ago, she probably would have thought and thought again and overthought, and never done anything.
But five years later, she leans in and kisses Ashe on the cheek.
It's quick and simple, but she hopes it feels tender. She hopes it conveys the gratitude and joy and nervousness flowering in her chest. She hopes it helps him understand just what a special, compassionate man he is.
She settles back, and Ashe is staring at her. She can't read his eyes. His face looks unusually calm.
"Thank you," she says again, twisting her fingers together.
He blinks. His ears look very, very red, but maybe it's just the cast of the setting sun.
"Thank you too," he says, and he quickly gets to his feet, brushing the grass from his pants. "We should probably head back to the monastery before it gets dark."
He's not looking at her, and she feels oddly disappointed, but relieved, but fluttery, but—oh, Goddess, why are her emotions always so complicated?
"Yes, of course," is what she says.
Marianne urges Dorte into a full gallop, because she really doesn't want to think about Ashe is holding her about the waist, cradling her close. No, not cradling her close, this is a riding lesson and he is probably just holding on to her for dear life. She needn't be so silly about this.
He complimented her out of niceness, and she kissed him out of gratitude. That was all.
They pull back into the stables. Ashe swings his leg over, dismounting. Marianne follows, patting Dorte on the flank and leading him to the trough.
"Thank you for the lesson," says Ashe. "Really. It helped so much."
He sounds a little distracted, so she quickly shakes her head. "You were a good student. Um. It's late, so you probably should—"
"Can we practice again tomorrow?"
Surprised, she looks up. Ashe's gaze is on her, and there's weight to it. His expression is mostly calm, but she can see tinges flashing behind his eyes—nervousness to giddy excitement to hope to, oh, could that possibly be affection?
He doesn't sound distracted anymore; he sounds like he's made a decision.
Perhaps he was thinking about... what she was thinking about.
Marianne swallows. This choice is hers. Wholly hers. She feels the gravity of the moment, like she is stepping on a new path.
"Yes," she says, a little breathless. "Tomorrow."
He smiles like sunlight, and strides out of the stables with a wave. She hesitantly waves back.
She can't wait for tomorrow.