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part 16 of Threshold

Penelo's spiced brew should mask the smoke, where the distance between the Rift and the Mount does not. Nevertheless, Ashe still scents the remnants of Archadian attack. She ignores it. Snow and time makes all a blank slate, a whitewashed answer to a pilgrim's prayer.

Ashe delivers Basch mulled wine where he stands watch. Basch wears Balthier's fur against the cold; his hair threads through the collar, gold turned to silver by moonlight. The snow sets sparkling jewels amidst hair, fur and lashes alike, an illusion that cascades as Basch unfolds his arms to wrap bare hands around the mug's metal.

His fingers touch hers, ice to set shivers down her spine. Basch gives his thanks; his breath steams to match the mug after a mouthful. He sucks the stubble along his upper lip dry, to cough, then to smile, wryly.

'Penelo made it,' Ashe defends, swiftly, 'not I. Whatever inadequacy you find as to the spice is hers.'

'Peace, princess. It serves.'

In silence but for the sound of his swallow, they watch the entities roam below. The light the Mist-born emit is for warning only; they do not illuminate. Ashe shivers, so that Basch does not move when she burrows under his free arm, though her proximity startles him to talk. She listens, her fingers against fur and warm firmness beneath. The sky is clearing, and he marks for her the plumes of smoke against the stars, speculates as to Archadian numbers. Ashe does not want to see; smoke and speculation both signal surrender.

The next time Basch turns to meet her eyes, she kisses him to silence. Basch tastes of spice. He returns her kiss. His lips prove warmer than any mulled wine despite the chill of his nose, and for a tentative moment, she hopes.

'Please,' Basch says, 'don't do that again.'

'I think it my decision if I should do that again.'

'No. I serve Dalmasca, lady, as do you. Our loyalty is to our nation, and these games blur what is an existing clarity. Down that road Vossler's already walked. At the end of that road lies only a grave.'

'A grave? Name it truthfully, Basch: Vossler's grave.' Ashe takes the empty mug. 'Over which I doubt you even took the time to cast a single prayer.'

'Ashelia,' an apology, but Ashe walks away as swift as the slick snow allows.

Basch does not turn from his watch.

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