A/N: Another contribution to Arc 2 of the story game. Shout-out to lareepqg for challenging me to edge outside of my comfort zone and write a Pepper piece, even though I usually avoid the supporting characters' POVs like the plague. So blah blah expanding my horizons and growing as a writer, yay.

Pepper's feet carried her homeward, the noise and bustle of the faire diminishing behind her. In one hand she clutched the cloth-wrapped bundle containing Jane's gift for Gunther; in the other, a still-warm berry tart that she'd purchased right after giving Jane a playful little shove into Gunther's arms.

She giggled, remembering. It had been an impulsive and somewhat uncharacteristic action on her part… but it wasn't easy to catch Jane off-guard, and there was a side of her that was perversely pleased she'd managed it.

Besides, it wasn't as if Jane had ever been in any danger of actually falling. Even if her own innate light-footedness and grace had failed her – which was highly unlikely – Gunther never would have let her come to harm.

Pepper sighed wistfully. It was heady stuff, Jane and Gunther.

Gunther and Jane.

She smiled to herself. No one had believed her, all those years ago when she'd first seen the signs… least of all the two in question. No one had believed her, and so she'd ended up second-guessing herself… but she'd been right. She'd been right from the start.

It was wonderful. Wonderful.

Her smile faltered.

Well… It hadn't all been wonderful. The… the situation with Algernon… Pepper had to suppress a shudder. That had been awful and beyond awful. Just the waiting, the not knowing, when Jane and Gunther had been missing - it had been almost more than she could bear, almost more than any of them could bear, helpless and in the dark, fearing the worst.

Evil days.

And as bad as it had been for the people left at home, she couldn't begin to fathom what horrors must have been endured by her friend. Jane didn't talk about it and Pepper didn't press her. But there was no question that the Jane who had returned was not entirely the same as the Jane who had left to track down that miserable villain and recover the princess. The difference was subtle; Pepper couldn't pin it down exactly; but it was there.

That was over now, though; over and done. Determinedly, Pepper shook off her doldrums. She was never one to stay perturbed for very long. Jane would regain her equilibrium in time. Of course she would; she was Jane. Jane was indomitable.

And now she had Gunther.

Now they had each other.

The way it was always meant to be.

Pepper did a spontaneous twirl right in the middle of the road. It was lovely to see the pieces all fall into place, even if the catalyst had been… unpleasant. They were so right for each other, so beautifully right that even she, watching from the sidelines, was nearly bubbling over with the sheer effervescence of it.

The way he'd cut through the crowd, making directly for her. The expression on his face, the almost fierce light in his eyes. The way Jane's eyes had widened when she'd seen him there, her sharp intake of breath, body going suddenly, almost preternaturally still.

They'd been picture-perfect, like two lovers in a ballad, a tale.

Until Pepper had pushed her, that was. She laughed again, unable to help herself. Spirits high, she decided to sit by the roadside and eat her tart before it cooled.

She settled herself on the grass in the shade of a tree, but before staining her fingers with berry juice, she couldn't resist unwrapping Jane's parcel for another peek at the beautifully wrought belt within.

The embroidery was lovely, but it was the buckle that truly caught her attention; the two thistles, entwined. Could the symbolism be any more perfect? And Jane had missed it - missed it! It had been Pepper who'd seen it and drawn her friend's attention.

She felt a flush of satisfaction; pride, even. It felt good to be involved in such a grand love story, even if only peripherally.

And yet…

Slowly, carefully, she rewrapped the belt and set it aside. Slightly pensive now, she started to eat her tart, chewing thoughtfully, savoring it. Turning those two little words over and over in her mind.

And yet.

It was gratifying to watch Jane and Gunther's relationship unfold, to even play a small role in it from time to time, giving them a shove, as it were, in the right direction. Sometimes more literally than figuratively. But… but when would it be her turn?

Pepper was happy for her friend. Deeply, genuinely happy. Was there a small part of her, though, just one tiny little sliver buried deep, that coveted what Jane had with Gunther?

She sighed. Of course there was.

Well, not… with Gunther, per se, obviously. But oh yes, Pepper wanted that. A true romantic at heart, she'd wanted that sort of sweep-you-off-your-feet experience for almost as long as she could remember. She didn't want to take anything away from Jane, she just…

Wanted to be cherished that way too.

She was aware that her own love story, should she be fortunate enough to have one, would not be on the same scale as Jane's. No nobles vying for her hand, no balls or gowns or mountains of courting gifts. And that was fine. Pepper had already received more than her fair share of small luxuries, by extension. Her friend had been very generous, inviting - even encouraging - Pepper to take whatever she wanted from amongst Jane's piles of undesired tokens of affection. Pepper had ended up with a couple of lovely, high quality kitchen accoutrements, a finely wrought silver brooch, a comb and brush set, and several gorgeous, bright ribbons; including the yellow one currently wound through her long, dark plait.

She didn't need more baubles. She just wanted…

Her eyes settled once more on the little parcel sitting beside her in the grass. Pepper had some funds of her own saved up - quite a modest amount, of course; after room and board, her pay didn't come to very much - but a little bit set by. And how delightful it would be to have a sweetheart to buy gifts for every now and then, as Jane did.

She just wanted someone to lavish with her affection. And someone to lavish her back.

Why? Why hadn't it happened yet? She wasn't unattractive. She knew she didn't get quite enough sun, being stuck in the steamy kitchens all day, but still… she saw the way men looked at her. She'd counted several lingering glances just this afternoon at the faire. So what was wrong with her that the object of her affection seemed almost entirely…

Indifferent? No, that wasn't exactly right. But oblivious, for sure. Deeply oblivious, and contentedly so - that was what truly rankled. She was starting to despair of his ever making a move… and she didn't understand it.

Weren't they perfect for each other?

Weren't they meant to be?

He grew the castle's food; she prepared it. They worked so well together, smoothly, in tandem. They complimented each other.

Couldn't he see that? Didn't he care?

Or was she being unfair to him? Rake was shy. She understood this. He was retiring by nature, even… bashful.

Was he afraid to make his feelings known? If he even had any feelings to make known?

Should she be the one to go out on that limb? That certainly wouldn't result in the grand romance she'd been imagining - not with her doing all the wooing and courting. And the risk was even greater than just that; what if he rejected her!? Disliked her forwardness? What if…

What if Rake had never felt the same way at all? What if the only thing he harbored for her was a… a sibling-like fondness? The same sort of affectionate, but entirely platonic, love that Jane felt for Jester?

What if she ended up making a complete and total fool of herself?

Pepper licked the berry juice from her fingers, subdued once more. She didn't know what to do. She'd always been so certain, so sure. Confident that the pieces would fall into place with Rake when the time was right. Now, though…


She shook her head. Now, nothing. Now it was time to get back to the kitchens. There was work to be done. A surfeit of work, given her rare afternoon off. It had absolutely been worth it, but she would be playing catch-up far into the night. She got to her feet, trying to banish thoughts of Rake from her mind as she did so, stooping to gather her things, and -

Spinning in surprise as a familiar voice called her name.

Familiar, yes, but not Rake's voice.

Smithy stood in the roadway hailing her, apparently on his way back from the faire himself.

It took her a few seconds to recognize him, though. He looked… different. It dawned on her after a moment that it was because he wasn't wearing his heavy leather work apron. She so rarely ever saw him without it. Of course, the same thing could probably be said of her apron, too.

Was that why he was looking at her a bit… well, oddly?

Or perhaps not oddly so much as just… intently.

Hm… well, no matter. Pepper shook off the thought. Smiling, she descended the small, grassy embankment and joined Smithy on the road. Glad for the company, she fell into step with him, exchanging pleasantries as they made their way homeward together.