A/N: a little something lighthearted to OPEN ARC 2 OF THE STORY GAME. Picking up a couple of months after the events of Moonrise.
"Pepper," Jane said in exasperation, "you are being no help at all!"
"What?" the dark-haired girl seemed genuinely perplexed. "I really do think he would like a nice tart, Jane. These are beautiful, and –" she inhaled deeply – "they smell divine."
Jane sighed, surveying what truly was an intensely appetizing display of baked goods. "I do not doubt for a minute that Gunther would like a tart," she allowed, "and I will get him one on the way back. But I also need to find him something that has… a bit more permanency. Something that will not be gone in three swallows, something he can keep." She raked a hand through her hair in frustration, managing only to make the tangles worse. Shopping was so not her forte. "He has given me so many lovely things," she continued. "I have to reciprocate!"
"You do not have to do any such thing," he friend pointed out, unvoiced laughter twitching the corners of her mouth. "True gifts are given freely – without expectation of anything in return. You just hate feeling as if he has… has bested you somehow. You are far too competitive with him, Jane. This is not about gaining the upper hand… not unless you make it so."
Jane glared at her. "Not. Helpful." she repeated. "Just… keep an eye out for something, anything you think he would – Pepper? Pepper!"
The young cook had, perhaps not surprisingly, become distracted by an alluring array of brightly burnished pots; and was wandering off for a closer look.
Jane trailed after her, muttering to herself.
She had used to love faire days when she was little; back then it had all been about running through the village and watching puppet shows, stuffing herself with sweets and being carried home in her father's arms. But now that she was grown, and the whole affair had devolved into little more than a shopping expedition, she found it a lot less diverting.
Saints above, it almost felt like… work! Made all the worse by the fact that she honestly had no idea what, exactly, she was hoping to find here.
Just a vague, inarticulate notion that she'd recognize it when she saw it.
But they'd been nearly the length and breadth of the faire, and she had yet to see anything that gave her pause. Small wonder she was irritated.
Pepper, on the other hand, seemed almost deliriously happy to be out of the castle kitchens for the afternoon – a rare and glorious break in her routine. She flitted between the colorful booths and displays like a butterfly amongst wildflowers.
The sight of her friend so happy was enough to coax a small half-smile out of Jane, despite her own annoyance. Pepper deserved this respite; she worked harder than almost anyone else Jane knew. Even if her suggestions to Jane, when it came to finding just the right thing for Gunther, were rather absurdly off the mark.
Jane decided to stop pestering Pepper with questions, and simply let her enjoy herself. She followed in her friend's wake, glancing listlessly at displays that she'd already passed, examined, and dismissed. It looked as if today was going to be total loss, at least as insofar as procuring an appropriate token of affection.
Gunther was off on a five-day patrol, and she'd been missing him fiercely. Finding the perfect gift with which to surprise him when he arrived home – (probably tomorrow but possibly even this evening) – was supposed to have alleviated some of that ache.
Now, instead, the weight of her failure caused her to feel it even more keenly than she had before.
There were so many things here! How could there be nothing, nothing at all that w–"
Wait a minute, what was that?
Jane stopped walking abruptly. Here, finally, was something that might fit the bill. Something that required, at the very least, a closer look.
She understood how she'd missed it before. It was small, little longer than her thumb. A cunningly wrought silver pendant shaped like a key – a turnkey, she thought, like me. Yes, there was potential here.
The booth's proprietor was just demonstrating how the pendant was actually a locket, hollow through the center, intended to hold a lock of hair or other small token, when Pepper appeared beside Jane, looking over her shoulder to see what had caught her attention at last.
Jane turned to her, ready to enthuse with her friend, but her smile faded when she saw Pepper's face. The young cook's expression was suddenly clouded. In fact, she looked deeply – if inexplicably – unsettled.
"Not that," she said, and her voice, although quiet, was as emphatic as Jane had ever heard it.
"What?" Jane was utterly mystified, and more than a little bit crestfallen. "Why?"
Pepper shook her head slowly, eyes never leaving the key-shaped locket. "I do not know, Petal, but… not that. It just… feels like bad luck, somehow." It looked as if the brunette was actually suppressing a shudder.
Reluctantly, Jane allowed herself to be drawn away. It was just so disheartening. She'd actually thought, for a moment or two, that she'd managed to salvage the afternoon after all. She briefly considered going back and just buying the locket anyway, Pepper's odd reaction be damned… but dismissed the idea. She'd rarely ever seen Pepper so… intense… and never about anything non-food-related.
It was so out-of-character that it had sparked an answering uneasiness in her, to the point where even her frustration and annoyance had been eclipsed by it; subdued.
At this point she simply felt tired – and defeated. "Pepper," she said dejectedly, "can we just go h–" And then, with a surprised little "oof," she walked directly into her friend, who had suddenly stopped moving at all.
"Jane," Pepper said, "what about that?"
Following the direction of Pepper's gaze, Jane had to fight to suppress a groan. Really? Really? Her friend was staring at one of the few booths Jane hadn't even bothered to peruse – because it was devoted, of all things, to ribbons.
Had Pepper lost her mind?
"Pepper, if I wanted to, I could bury Gunther in ribbons thanks to all those stupid courting gifts I received in the summer; I would hardly need to buy more! But something tells me he would not exact – exactly – be… oh. Oh."
She'd finally seen what it was that had so arrested Pepper, and she knew instantly that her search was over.
If she'd looked more closely in the first place she would have realized that although it was mostly devoted to ribbons, the little stall did have a few other textiles on display as well; and it was one of these that was… just… oh… so perfect.
It was a leather belt that was embellished all the way round by a highly stylized, but nevertheless unmistakable, repeating design of thistles. The embroidery was beautiful, masterfully done; the colors muted and the overall feel masculine despite the nominally floral motif.
The buckle was crafted into the likeness of a pair of the spiky little flowers, intertwined.
She could not have conceived of a more fitting gift; it was as if it had been created just for her. Well… just for Gunther.
Just for her to give to Gunther.
"Jane," Pepper said, laying a hand on her arm, "for heaven's sake, breathe!"
Shaking herself out of the… the almost trancelike state that had overtaken her at the sight of the belt, Jane complied; and found herself smiling – truly, genuinely smiling – for the first time all afternoon.
"Well," she said ruefully, some fifteen minutes later, "I think I shall have to forego the tarts."
The belt had not come cheap, and Jane had further discovered that the merchant actually had more of the thistle-embroidered leather in the back. Consequently, after only a very brief internal debate, she had commissioned a new strap for Gunther's quiver. It would be delivered to her at the castle upon completion – at which time, Jane had decided, she'd gift both items to Gunther at once.
The upshot of all this being, she had not a cent left to her at the moment.
Pepper laughed. "I dare say you are feeling satisfied with yourself, though, Petal – such lovely presents will certainly put you back on even footing in the gifting contest."
Jane rolled her eyes. "It is not a contest, Pepper."
"Oh, of course not," her friend rejoined, highly amused. "Not so long as you are the one on top, at any rate."
Jane didn't even have a chance to frame a reply before Pepper's eyes went huge and her face flushed positively crimson. "I... er... I mean... oh," she stammered, and then dissolved into a helpless fit of giggles, laughing so hard that Jane actually reached out to steady her, afraid she might tip herself clean over.
"Pepper, what –" she began, and only then, belatedly, did the unintended insinuation of Pepper's words actually hit her.
Quite suddenly, Jane was blushing rather intensely herself... and a second later she'd dropped her overheated face to Pepper's shoulder, struggling to hold her own helpless laughter at bay.
It was a doomed enterprise.
She had just succumbed to a most unladylike snort when she felt Pepper stiffen against her, sucking in a sharp little breath. Instantly on guard, her knightly training kicking in seamlessly, Jane straightened and spun around. Her hand moved automatically to the dagger she wore on her hip, the second of two that had been given her by Gunther – only to fall away again when she saw none other than Gunther himself, striding purposely toward them through the crowd.
He looked tired and dusty, windblown and slightly sunburned, and altogether road-worn. He also looked, to Jane at any rate, absolutely wonderful.
A sight for sore eyes.
She realized, in this moment of reunion, that she'd missed him even more than she'd understood.
He smiled when their eyes met, and it changed his whole face. He had a marvelous smile, really… made all the more stunning by the relative infrequency with which he wore it.
An answering smile had just begun to quirk Jane's lips when she felt Pepper discreetly pull the cloth-wrapped parcel containing the belt out of her hand. The sudden rush of gratitude she felt to her friend for ensuring that the surprise would not be ruined was tempered in the next instant, however, when Pepper proceeded to plant her other hand squarely in the middle of Jane's back and give her a playful shove, causing her to stumble directly into Gunther's arms.
"Pepper!" she exclaimed, shocked and betrayed, as Gunther caught her easily, steadying her on her feet. She twisted around to shoot a glare in the other girl's direction, but Pepper was already vanishing into the crowd with a flip of her long, dark braid.
"Your footwork is in rather poor form today, squire," Gunther said in her ear, his voice low but positively rippling with amusement, his hands lingering under her elbows even once it was clear that she'd regained her balance perfectly well, thank you ever so much.
"But… she… did you see what she –" Jane was positively spluttering in her indignation.
"No," Gunther said quietly. "I saw you. Just you."
She raised her eyes to his, all thoughts of Pepper suddenly falling away from her, the bustle of activity all around them falling away from her, everything falling away from her as she met that intense grey gaze. She frowned slightly, thinking for just the briefest of moments that she'd caught something... darker... flashing behind his eyes; a hint of suppressed anger or unhappiness, maybe? But it was gone a bare heartbeat later – if it had even been there at all – and she shook her head, quelling the disquieting thought before it could fully take hold.
None of that today. No, she refused to allow this moment to be dimmed by her own foolish misgivings. Gunther was here, reunited with her, smiling at her, and everything was lovely.
She took a minute simply to drink him in. His hair seemed longer to her, but perhaps that was just because it was unkempt from his time on patrol. After all, he'd only been gone five days, although it surely felt longer. At any rate, some of it was falling across his eyes, and she reached up to brush it gently away, tucking it behind his ear.
"You are… all chapped," she murmured, forehead creasing as her fingers skated over the wind-burned skin of his cheek. "And –" she wrinkled her nose – "ugh, you smell appalling, Gunther Breech!"
He rapped out a quick, surprised laugh, then pulled her into a brief – but breathtakingly fierce – hug. "I missed you too," he said into her hair, then added, as he released her, "and I do not smell."
"I beg to differ," Jane said archly.
"Begging now, frog rider?" A teasing light kindled behind Gunther's eyes. "That does not sound at all like you. Who are you and what have you done with the Jane I know? I was planning to buy her a tart."
Jane found herself abruptly grinning almost from ear to ear. "You do that, and perhaps I can even be persuaded to overlook the stench," she said, twining her fingers through his and starting to pull him through the crowd, pausing only long enough to yelp indignantly and swat at him when she felt him give one of her curls a tweak. "Gunther, you bog weevil!"
But she was laughing again, as hard as she'd laughed with Pepper if not harder, unable to help herself, giddy with her sudden joy.
She thought she might even like to walk the length and breadth of the faire again – for Gunther's sake, of course, since he'd just arrived.
It was amazing, really.
Half an hour ago she'd been ready to give this entire day up as a lost cause, and now...
She had despaired of finding the perfect gift, but then had found it anyway; Gunther was home and with her earlier than she'd dared to hope; and despite spending all her money in what may or may not have been a spectacular fit of impulsivity, she was even still getting a tart. This faire day had turned out fine after all, as fine as any of the ones she remembered from her childhood.
The sun was already dipping toward the horizon, but although the day was drawing to a close, Jane could tell that what remained of it would be absolutely perfect. The best faire day of her life, perhaps. She couldn't wait to get started.