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witch hunt

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He’s still following me. I can’t lose him.

Marianne’s heart was in her throat as she stepped quickly between the people in the crowded plaza of town. Her pace was quicker than one would consider normal but she did her best not to draw attention to herself as she tried desperately to give her pursuer the slip.

It had been three years since the empire had waged war on the church and the land of Fodlan. Since the professor… Since everything.

Marianne had fled Garreg Mach shortly after the Professor was declared missing, assumed dead. She missed her friends dearly, but she couldn’t burden them in such desperate times.

She had originally returned home to her adoptive father and things had been as fine as they could be, all things considered. Until the harassment began.

Rumors began to spread about a woman with sky blue hair that brought misfortune and demonic beasts with her wherever she went. A target had been painted on her back, the people craving something to pin the blame of the rise of the demonic beasts activity on so they could ignore the fact that they had only come out of hiding because they were drawn to the blood and chaos of war.

Her father did his best to deflect the rumors at every turn. To calm the angry locals who knew of Marianne and wanted her to die by flames or leave.

It killed Marianne to see her father put under so much pressure because of her, so she wrote him a letter and fled home in the middle of the night, intending to never return.

She thought that would be enough. That the goddess would be satisfied if she disappeared to protect the only family she had left.

But that was only wishful thinking. Her misfortune has always outweighed her actions, despite the reassurances the professor and the Golden Deer had tried to give her.

A small group led by a man rejected long ago by the church had taken fervent interest in tracking Marianne. Not to kill her, but to expose her. They wanted to make a spectacle of her. Catch her in the act of evil and publically put an end to it.

She could only hide in forests and remote villages for so long. If Marianne was going to lose them, going somewhere as busy and populated as possible was her best chance.

At least, that was what she had thought.

As the man following her got closer her pace quickened, almost to the point where she was sprinting through the crowds. In her haste to get away she turned a corner and slipped into a dark alleyway, unintentionally cornering herself.

She backed up and placed a hand on her rapidly beating chest, hoping the man hadn’t seen her slip out of the crowd. Tears pricked at her eyes and her breathing became uneven as she felt her anxiety and exhaustion wash over her in a moment of stillness.

“I can’t do this anymore.” She whispered as she clutched at her chest. It was too much. Marianne was so tired. Tired of running. Tired of being alone. Tired of hating herself.

Hot tears fell from her eyes freely as she shook with an effort to stay quiet, covering her sobs with her other hand, finally letting herself admit that this wasn’t right.

The sound of footsteps made her gasp, fear shooting through her body as she froze. Her head screamed at her to run, but her legs wouldn’t listen. Wouldn't move.

She shut her eyes and prayed, expecting the worst. What she didn’t expect was to hear the sound of a familiar voice she hadn’t heard in years.

“Marianne…? Is that you?”

It took her a moment to open her eyes and turn around to confirm that it was really him. She blinked away the tears that blurred her vision and couldn’t believe her eyes as she saw him.

“Ashe…?”

He stood a few feet away from her, looking just as shocked as she felt. From the looks of things, he had just stepped out of the back door of one of the buildings that made up the alley. He had a box in his arms and flour dusted on his cheek and clothes.

She was speechless as he set down the box and brushed off his clothes before stepping closer, confusion and worry etched across his features.

“What are you doing back here? Why… Why are you crying?”

Marianne gasped quietly as his hand reached towards her, only hesitating for a moment before he placed it on her cheek so he could wipe away her tears.

Suddenly she felt like she was back in the monastery all those years ago. Her mind had been filled with such self hatred as she confessed to the goddess during the late hours of night in the chapel and then… he would appear.

She remembered the first time, when she had found his key and startled him when she came to return it to him. When he had told her how much keeping her head up and smiling could make a difference in her ghastly appearance.. It had made her a bit happy.

Of course, she had squashed down that small light instantly at the time. Running away and leaving him to wonder if he did something wrong.

Marianne had always felt awful for leaving him like that. She had wanted to apologize to Ashe but had no idea how to. So she had started to watch him.

Whenever they were both in the dining hall at the same time she would pay attention to his reactions, wanting to see what foods made him smile. That was how she learned about his prowess in the kitchen.

As her small flicker of confidence wavered, Ashe's kindness would bridge the gap in quiet moments shared between them. 

Sometimes he'd find her speaking with the birds and instead of judging her or assuming things he'd just quietly listen and ask occasional questions, genuinely curious as to what the small animals were saying to her.

Other times she would stumble across him in the library and he'd gush about the latest book he had read, stars in his eyes and an almost child-like fascination as he retold a scene that captured his interest the most.

Marianne's self loathing hadn't gone away but those few and far between moments had been precious.

"Marianne?"

Ashe's voice brought Marianne back to the present as her eyes widened and face flushed once she realized he had been waiting for an answer, still concerned for her.

"A-Ah, I'm sorry… I-"

"Hey!"

Marianne yelped as her hands flew to her chest, as if to cradle her startled heart as she spun around to see the man from earlier at the entrance of the alley.

Ashe inhaled sharply behind her as the man made his way towards them, irritation written all over his face.

"You have a lot of nerve, coming to a place like this." The man spit at Marianne's feet, looking absolutely disgusted with her as he scoffed.

"You're lucky we don't just drag you off to the middle of town and get this over with. You think we like having to chase you down? That we want to be out here just to make sure you don't cause another slaughter with your beasts? You sicken me, monster."

"That's quite enough."

Marianne had been shaking the entire time, not just out of fear, but of anger. She felt humiliated, exhausted, frustrated, and for Sothis's sake she was done.

Her hands had balled up into fists by her sides as she glared at the man with a look sharp enough to make him flinch, but what ended up shocking them both was Ashe stepping forward with a frown on his face as he held out his arm protectively in front of Marianne.

"I don't know who you are or why you're harassing my friend, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Now."

Marianne's eyes widened as the man sputtered, not expecting to be put on the spot like this.

"She's not safe kid, you don't know what you're dealing with. That monster-"

Ashe moved in a flash, a small blade appearing as if out of nowhere in his hand and at the man's throat. His face was terrifyingly blank as he gazed up at the now shaking man and he spoke lowly.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to resort to this but you threatened someone I care about. I never want to hear you call her that word again. And if I find out you and the others you spoke of continue this behavior then you'll be answering to me. Is that clear?"

If someone stumbled across them and saw the short, soft looking boy holding a knife to a man's throat who was twice his size they'd probably think it was some sort of joke or that Ashe was in over his head. But with the way the man stepped back, eyes wide, Ashe was able to lower his small weapon, knowing he'd won the battle of wills.

The man looked between the two, a frown on his face. "Don't say I didn't warn you, brat."

The moment the man was gone, Ashe let out a loud breath of relief as he fell to his knees.

"Ashe!"

Marianne's eyes widened and she was crouched in front of him in an instant, worry etched across her face that only turned to confusion as a laugh bubbled out of him.

"S-Sorry, lost my nerve there a bit. I'm not usually one for threats."

Marianne shook her head, her hands on his biceps loosening their grip as she relaxed knowing he was okay.

"You didn't have to do that for me…"

Ashe looked up, looking almost offended as he protested. "Of course I did! I'm just glad that my old habits from living on the streets came in handy. I don't think he would have taken me very seriously otherwise."

His eyes drifted down to where Marianne's hands were still on his arms and she gasped, quickly pulling them back as if she had been burned, both of their faces going red.

"S-Sorry." She apologized sheepishly.

Ashe chuckled, "It's fine."

He looked at her with worry as he asked, "Marianne, how long has this been going on? Why are they following you?"

Marianne looked down at her hands folded in her lap, feeling ashamed as she admitted for the first time to well… anyone.

"My… crest. It's cursed. I bring misfortune to those around me and those people believe that it's my fault the demonic beasts attack the roads."

Ashe blinked, completely shocked. "What?"

"I'm sorry, I know it sounds ridiculous but-"

It was Ashe's turn to reach out as he took Marianne's hands in his own. "You apologize too much." He chided with a kind smile on his face.

Marianne's face flushed as she looked down at their hands. "S-Sorry."

Ashe laughed as he shook his head. "We'll work on that. But seriously, Marianne. Do you honestly believe that you bring others misfortune?"

It was hard not to bite at her lip, face hot from the mixture of shame and being flustered as she nodded quietly. "Yes…"

"Not to be rude but that's ridiculous."

Marianne's face flushed hotter and she opened her mouth to apologize again when Ashe cut her off.

"You are one of the gentlest people I know Marianne. You're hard on yourself and you try to push others away but there's so much good in you that it's always been too hard to look away."

His hands squeezed hers as spoke, every word genuine and unfaltering.

"I think you're amazing Marianne. I've.. said some pretty insensitive things to you about your Crest in the past. I'm sorry. But I don't think your Crest is cursed. Even if it is, you're worth a little bad luck."

Marianne gaped, her eyes widen and cheeks dusted pink as she looked at Ashe, who held her gaze for as long as he could before he melted into a flustered mess, taking his hands back so he could cover his face.

"Oh goddess, I said too much. Didn't I? I'm sorry, I-"

Ashe's embarrassed rambling was cut off with a snort from Marianne, the only warning before she broke into a fit of soft giggles.

"N-No. You're fine, Ashe. S-Sorry, it's just.." Her eyes, exhausted as she was, and red rimmed from crying, absolutely sparkled as she smiled warmly at him.

"Thank you Ashe. For everything."

Ashe's mouth hung open a bit as his hands fell from his face. If he thought her holding her head up back at the monastery was enough to make her cute all those years ago then the only word that could describe her now was.. beautiful.

His face flushed for the hundredth time since he'd run into Marianne as he stuttered over his own words. "I-It's not a problem."

After a while, the two finally stood and dusted themselves off. 

"What will you do now?" Ashe asked, realizing absentmindedly that he'd disappeared from his shift at the bakery and would probably have been in quite a bit of trouble if it hadn't been a slow day.

Marianne bit her lip as she considered his question. "I… think I'm going to return home. To my father. I have a lot of thinking to do…"

Ashe smiled, noting that there was a new sort of life in Marianne he had never seen before. It was a good look for her.

"That sounds like a good plan."

He offered his hand to Marianne, "If you'd like you could come in for a bit before you go. We just finished baking a new batch of bread and I can make some tea. A lot has happened in these past three years, I'd love to talk if you wanted to rest first."

Marianne's chest felt warm and another smile grew on her face as she took his hand, "I'd love that."