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* * *

"Back then..."

"Back then, all I knew was my name... at least, I think it's my name."

"Frey... That's who I've been since I landed here with no memory."

"I fell in love with this town and everyone in it. Venti, Mr. Volkanon, Vishnal, Clorica, Forte, Doug, Leon, Dylas, Bado... and everyone else who made me feel at home here."

"I love Selphia... but...it's the only place I know."

"I can't help but wonder what else is out there."

"And... I want to find love."

 

* * *


"Rise and shine, Princess." Clorica's soft voice announced, same as always, just before first light. Frey's eyes fluttered opened, but her mind remained blank. A dream, fading into the distance... already a long way away. A wistful feeling like nostalgia played at the edges of her consciousness. Her brow furrowed as she sluggishly tried to recall the life she'd led in that dream.

"Today is the day, isn't it?" The lady butler's sweetly polite speech interjected again, scattering the fleeting thoughts completely this time as Frey's eyes snapped wide open. "That's right!", she thought. It was really here. A nervous, fluttering feeling started up in her stomach, like panic that wasn't here just yet. A moment later excitement superseded it. She all but flung herself upright, eyes glittering as anticipation electrified her from head to toe.

"Today's the day!" She echoed Clorica, half in awe at the realness of the statement. Clorica twitched backward almost in slow motion, surprised at her sudden burst of energy. Everything Clorica did always had a dreamy slowness to it. One or two slow blinks later, she opened her mouth to speak again, her expression still surprised.

"Do you know where you're going to go yet, princess?" She inquired.

"Nope!" Frey declared cheerfully, flinging the bedcovers off herself and jumping to her feet, hands raised in the air as if she'd just stuck an acrobatic landing. "I figured I'd give everywhere a shot! After all, going just one place seems like a waste of a perfectly good adventure!" Clorica laughed softly and moved to help Frey get dressed, her practiced hands efficiently suiting up the odd princess of Selphia in the light armor she wore while adventuring in the local wilderness.

Two hours later, after a huge breakfast consisting mostly of pancakes at Ventuswill's insistence, as well as a very tearful, very LOUD farewell from Mr. Volkanon and Vishnal, Frey walked briskly toward Airship Way with Clorica by her side seeing her to the northern gate. They strode in silence through her fields to the North of the castle that had been her home these past two years. She glanced back at the towering edifice, the symbol of Lady Ventuswill's power, influence, and responsibility over the people of Selphia. And, come to think of it, of her own role in things as well. Being princess had turned out to be more work and duties than it was adulation and pampering, but thanks to her trio of butlers and the kind hearts of the townspeople, it didn't lack for the latter, either.

Upon reaching the gate they slowed and Frey turned back to her butler and friend.

"Everything has been arranged. The monsters will be cared for. Your responsibilities will go back to Arthur, much to his chagrin." Clorica added, giggling. Then her expression faltered. "We're... all going to miss you, Frey..." She said, her voice small and sad. The Princess embraced her friend, her own eyes stinging when she heard the tears in Clorica's words.

"I know... I'm sorry. This is just something I have to do." She whispered through her half-closed throat. How many times had she had this conversation yesterday, when she'd made the rounds around town, bidding all of them farewell, knowing she'd be leaving alone without ceremony early the following morning. She'd seen to all of them personally, despite a predictably over-the-top reaction from Porcoline. After all, didn't she owe them that, by now? Frey's brows furrowed for a moment as she recalled the one person she hadn't been able to find the previous day. "Hey Clorica," She said. The Butler met her eyes expectantly. "Do you think you could say goodbye to Bado for me? I didn't see him yesterday."

"Of course." Clorica replied immediately, smiling. "He was probably slacking off somewhere out of Forte's sight again." She giggled. Frey echoed the little laugh. Yeah... that sounded like him, alright. Still, something inside her twinged a little. Sure, her friendship to the town blacksmith hadn't been the deepest or strongest connection she'd made in the town. Mostly they fenced wits and exchanged teasing remarks at every opportunity. She couldn't say they were terribly close, but she'd still have liked to say goodbye in person.

"Thanks." Frey said, shaking off the moment of regret. "For everything, Clori. I'll miss you, too." They hugged tightly once more and then Frey stepped through the gate to the North, putting on her bravest face once again.

 

* * *

"Jeeze." Frey chuckled to herself, eyeing the bizarre figurehead of the airship as she prepared it to cast off, undoing all but the final mooring lines from the air dock in the northernmost section of town. "I can't believe Porcoline is letting me borrow this whole airship. What a crazy, generous guy."

Heavy footsteps, running at an exhaustive pace, suddenly snapped Frey out of her thoughts. She spun around in instinctive concern and curiosity then blinked in surprise, her mouth falling open a little as a tall, broad shouldered figure stopped in front of her, out of breath and looking as dishevelled as she'd ever seen him.

The big man bent over with his huge square-ish hands resting on his knees as he panted. Frey noted he was missing his work gloves, the bandage-like wraps around his hands to protect them from the impacts of his daily work exposed for once. His dark, always ruffled hair stuck out at odd angles everywhere atop his head. Even his dark beard framing his jawline looked mussed and untidy. He was missing his usual many-pocketed vest and the large belt he normally wore that carried his dwarven hammer at his side. the black undershirt he was prone to wearing under his work gear clung with sweat to the contours of his bulky frame, thick with muscle under all his rough edges and angular features. As he straightened up again, Frey noticed his face and delicately pointed leaf-shaped dwarves' ears were flushed. He looked for all the world like he'd bolted here from across town at a dead sprint without even throwing on a proper outfit.

"Bado!" Frey said awkwardly, not quite recovered from her surprise and his odd appearance. "Did you come to see me off?" Her big green eyes met his blue-gray ones as he looked down at her and his expression flickered through pain, shock, and finally settled into a stern, grudging mask.

"So you really are leaving, then!" He growled angrily. Then his grim expression cracked as hurt came into his voice "What's the big idea, leaving without even sayin' goodbye, huh?" He asked incredulously, still staring her right in the face. She blinked again then winced and tried to smile disarmingly.

"Sorry, Bado. I tried yesterday but I couldn't find you."

The tall dwarven man looked away, folding his arms and glaring down sidelong at the paving stones.

"So that's it, then? I just wasn't ever gonna see you again if I hadn't come runnin' out here just now?" He said quietly, his deep voice sounding insubstantial, for once.

Frey just stared at the man for a moment. What did this all mean, anyway? The imperturbable, contrary, and mischievous blacksmith of Selphia had never shown her even a hint of this kind of mood before now. She had never expected he'd react so strongly to her leaving. Fumbling for some way to diffuse the dour mood of the man, she tried a jibe in their usual style.

"Ah, come on, ya big lug." She chided, setting her hands on her hips and tilting her head at him with a smirk. "You won't miss me that much, will you?" She grinned expectantly at him, waiting for a quip in reply, but his expression collapsed into a cringe before he looked back at her, meeting her eyes once again with a long, fretful face.

"Sure I would..." He countered without a trace of humor in his voice. Frey's grin slid off her face and she felt her eyes widen again and her mouth opened in an 'oh' of surprise. He was being serious! Him!

"R-really?" She heard herself stammer, flabbergasted at the suddenly unguarded air of the man before her. Bado startled at her change in demeanor as if only just realizing he had been speaking out loud.

"Uh..." He blurted, face reddening "Well, yeah! I mean, who am I gonna test my new sales pitches on if you're not around, huh?"

Frey hung her head abruptly, sighing and smiling in spite of herself. "How did I know?" She muttered in mock-disdain. This kind of banter was more like the usual him. It reassured her. "And Forte will just deck you if you try it on her, huh?" She said, looking up at him with a grin. He returned it nervously and chuckled, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head in an unconscious gesture.

"Heh. Yeah, well... She's nowhere near as patient with me as you are, Frey." He admitted with a cheeky smile. Frey beamed at him, reassured at last.

But, that was before his face fell again. Her smile slid away once more as she saw it and she just stared, puzzled and unsure as he sighed and looked away.

They both stood silently, awkwardly. She just waited.

"Look... Frey, I..." He began, then broke off, swallowing and lapsing into silence again. Despite his substantially greater height he looked somehow smaller with his shoulders rounded and his head half-bowed. Then he sighed and began again. "I know you've already made up your mind to go, but..." He raised his head and looked her in the eyes again. The gray-blue of his eyes looked to her like a storm-tossed sea in this moment, a window to a tumult of emotions she'd hardly thought possible in him. "I wish you wouldn't."

Frey stared at the man, suddenly adrift in confusion and hesitation. Something in him looked truly miserable following the simple string of words. He looked like he would rather be doing anything else, like a good portion of him was ashamed to show so much as a single moment of unveiled emotions to her. But he was telling her this anyway... because presumably this was his last chance, she thought.

"Bado..." She began, not knowing what she intended to say next.

Suddenly she was not nearly so sure as she had been a few minutes ago that leaving Selphia was a good idea. Surely she couldn't do anything that would affect someone thus, if she could prevent such obvious disappointment and sorrow by staying. But what on earth would it mean if she stayed just for him, anyway? it wasn't like they were involved or anything. A hot little flush rose in her cheeks as the thought crossed her mind. She was pretty sure she'd never looked at the dwarven blacksmith in that light before...

Involuntarily her eyes combed over the big man from head to toe and she flushed again, abruptly looking away. Now was not the time to be noticing how fit and... butch he was, she thought with a strange squirming sensation in her belly. Embarrassment and frustration crowded into her mind along with all the other strange feelings mingling there. She'd been so certain of her course this morning! Now everything was a jumbled mess. It was all his fault. Abruptly an urge to run shot through her. She mastered the impulse, forcing it down and trying feebly at a smile. She couldn't fake it, so she just let the smile become what it was: a sad, sympathetic thing that bent her mouth upward without any real joy, now.

"Hey, now. Chin up, okay? This isn't really goodbye, Bado." She heard herself say. Was it true? She could hardly say for sure, just now, but the words flowed from her so naturally, she supposed they must be.

"It isn't?" He said, eyes searching hers hopefully. True, she'd very deliberately avoided promising anyone in Selphia, even Ventuswill, that she'd definitely return. It wasn't that she didn't ever want to come back, but she knew better than anyone how one's previous life could vanish. She hadn't wanted to make any promises she didn't know she could keep.

"Of course not, silly! I'll be back." She assured him, smiling now. Where were these words coming from? Frey braced herself to feel guilty for lying. It didn't come. Then with a pang she realized she wasn't lying. She met his eyes, unblinking, and feeling somehow responsible for reassuring him.

"Promise?" He said quietly.

She swallowed.

"Yeah."

Bado let out a big sigh, unfolded his arms and offered a hand to her. She looked at it, calloused and scarred where skin showed outside the wraps; rough from years of labor in his trade as well as his former career as a knight, occasionally alluded to in passing during their prior conversations. She grasped it with her small, slender hand and met his eyes again.

"Until then, I guess." He said reluctantly, holding her gaze. "Take care, Frey."

"You too..." She murmured.

Their hands parted and he silently reached down and untied one of the last two mooring lines, bracing a foot on the cleat and holding the rope taught. Frey swallowed, understanding, and untied the remaining rope by her feet. She hopped on the airship and took hold of the ship's wheel. The big dwarven man shoved hard on the hull of the bow and tossed the mooring rope over the railing onto the deck. He stared up at her and the airship as it floated away, almost like a statue that would be there just the same as now when she did return. Frey shifted her weight uncomfortably, a feeling like a stone in her stomach, as she steered the vessel into the clouds.

 

* * *

"I left home today, as planned."

"But, I was leaving behind more than I realized..."

"Including a promise to return."

Chapter Text

"You're going to Love the bathhouse!" Shara all but squealed as she tugged Frey along beside her on their way to the only inn the town of Sharance could boast. But, what Sharance lacked in quantity, it more than made up for in quality when it came to accommodations for travelers. It doubled as an eastern style bathhouse, something familiar to Frey thanks to the Bell hotel and bathhouse back in Selphia. Frey laughed as they approached the entrance over a quaint little footbridge built upon a stream surrounding the structure, half exasperated at her new friend's enthusiasm in showing her around town.

She'd arrived early in the morning and been immediately attracted to the sight of an enormous flowering tree, known as the Sharance Tree, she later found out. A slight, golden haired man with blue eyes had appeared from within the tree, apparently a dwelling in and of itself, introduced himself as Micah, and Shara as his wife. Upon finding out about Frey's talents as an earthmate as well as her lost memory, they'd immediately found plenty of common ground between them and hit it off right away. From there, Shara was only too happy to take Frey around Sharance to make sure she saw the best of the little town during her visit.

So far she'd shown Frey the grocery, her own flower shop, the extensive farm around the base of the Sharance tree, and now this inn.

"Welcome." A smooth, refined female voice announced as they passed inside. Frey found herself staring in appreciation. The beauty of the woman matched her voice to a tee, with long straight hair like shining black silk, and pale skin, flawless as new snow. "My name is Shino. How may I help you?" She asked serenely.

"Hi," Frey began. "I've just arrived in town. I'm looking for a place to stay." She extended her hand and the woman looked at it for a half a beat before smoothly accepting it with her own.

"We have plenty of rooms available, miss Frey." She said, making a note in a little book she carried and producing a key apparently from within the sleeve of her Kimono. "Use of the bath is included with the room fee. Please let us know if you need anything." She handed the key to Frey along with a little card detailing the pricing for the room and bowed her head courteously to her.

"Thank you very much." Frey replied, smiling.

"Mom!" A woman's voice called out, accompanied by small, tinkling bells marking the jogging footsteps approaching. A girl who might have been a younger Shino by the look of her appeared, slightly out of breath, and glared with a pout up at her mother. "You said I could greet the next customer!"

"Which you could have, if you'd been here to do so, Sakuya." Shino replied with a graceful smile at her daughter, the chastisement delivered with patience and poise, but there was something sharper in her eyes. Frey began to suspect that Shino was a more strict mother and boss than she was willing to display for a stranger.

"I was just appraising the new Ammonite shells Micah brought me." Sakuya explained, excitedly tallying unknown numbers on a miniature abacus she was carrying. "I think they're going to sell real high!" A gleam of excitement and mischief touched her garnet colored eyes and Frey felt a laugh bubble up in her throat. It burst out of her as an undeniably merry sound, utterly disrupting the slight mother-daughter argument that was underway in front of her. Sakuya and Shino stopped and stared at her blankely.

"I'm s-sorry." Frey said amidst the laughter, unable to stop herself right away. "You just reminded me of someone I know and it really surprised me." She bowed hastily to them both, thanked Shara, promising to see her the next day, then hurried upstairs to her room, still valiantly wrestling down the corners of her mouth to stop them from smirking. She found her room open, ducked inside, then slid the rice paper door shut in a hurry. She flopped down on the tatami mat and seized the pillow off of the folded futon bedding, burying her face in the thing to suppress the remaining giggles.

It wasn't that funny, really. But, it had taken her by surprise and her instant need to snuff out her inexplicable hilarity only multiplied the effect of the laughter until here she was, smothering a fit of giggles on the floor of her room like an overexcited teenager.

It died down after a minute or two, finally. She sighed in relief and felt herself smiling softly into the pillow. What would Bado have done if he'd ever met Sakuya? Frey couldn't help but imagine the shenanigans they'd get up to together via a mutual obsession with earning money in the cleverest way they could find. Something about the happily excited gleam full of mischief she'd seen in the girl downstairs reminded her so strongly of that man back in Selphia.

Frey's smile faded. The image of his long face, lined at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, came back to her. The way he'd looked up from the skyport while she drifted away via airship six weeks ago haunted her still. Was he still miserably wishing she hadn't left? Surely not, she assured herself. Why on Earth would he still be bothered about it?

"Maybe because you are..." She whispered to herself on reflex.

Sure, she'd been troubled about his forlorn behavior for the first few days of her journey, but by the time she'd finished touring Kardia, she'd thought she'd succeeded in putting it out of her mind. This was surely just a coincidence, given that Sakuya had reminded her of him.

Yes, just a coincidence...

Frey set about putting her room in order, went next door to the restaurant for a rather delicious dinner, came back to the inn, bathed, and went to bed feeling much more at ease. The odd mermaid girl, Pia, had been a delightful companion while she'd been downstairs at the bath. The woman was likely crazy by any ordinary person's standard, but that hadn't stopped her from being almost magnetically amiable. Frey had laughed almost all through her conversation with her. Now she sighed happily as she set her head down on the pillow, snuggled into the Futon, cozy as a pile of woollies. Shara had even promised to take her around town the following day to see all the different business and meet the residents. That would keep her mind on her adventure where it should be. Plus, who knew? Maybe she'd meet a handsome stranger along the way?

Frey smiled again as she dozed off, feeling hopeful. She'd managed to completely quash the little knot of feeling and memory squirming somewhere in her belly since earlier that day. Or at least... very nearly completely.


* * *


The following day proved extremely interesting as Shara introduced Frey to various residents of Shara. The town could boast a wide variety of oddities in the form of its citizenry, including a father and daughter of the De Sainte Coquille family who spoke entirely in opposites, with a third member of their family who spent all her time making 'fashion forward' clothing mostly out of perishables. There was also a honest-to-goodness witch and her apprentice living and practicing the arcane healing arts out of their own shop. The apprentice, one Marian by name, was unfortunately quite mad by any reasonable standard. That hadn't stopped Frey from liking the girl immediately, but she was also warned not to accept anything to eat or drink from Marian and advised to run or dodge if she aimed the strange syringe apparatus she always carried with her.

"Oh, and you're interested in crafting and forging, right Frey?" Shara was saying, after they'd left the apothecary. Frey nodded, smiling at her energetic new friend. "Oh, then you really must visit the blacksmith's shop while you're here. He's a dwarf, you know. And, his assistant is half-monster, just like Micah!" Shara rambled on exuberantly, but Frey hadn't heard any of it after 'He's a dwarf, you know.'

'Damn...' She thought, frustrated. Not even her best efforts could withstand such a direct parallel to the very person she was trying to put out of her mind. She pressed her lips together and sighed quietly through her nose as they entered the shop.

"Welcome..." A flat voice greeted them as they came through the door. A woman with long, fiery red hair was arranging some armor on a rack by the shop's little counter. She'd turned her blue eyes to them for a moment, given her perfunctory greeting, then resumed her task, all but aloof to her customers. It put Frey off enough for her to stop in her tracks halfway through the shop, staring baffled at the woman for her lack of professional courtesy.

"Hi, Raven!" Shara called, utterly unfazed. She trotted over to the red-haired woman and began chattering excitedly at her. Raven, for her part, stared expressionlessly at Shara and gave laconic answers to her various comments and questions. Frey felt herself making a confused face and shaking her head in bewilderment.

"Don't be fooled." A clear, kindly male voice assured from her right, where a separate room housed the actual workshop of the town's blacksmith, "They're actually very good friends." Frey turned to look at the speaker, smiling.

"Ah that's a relie-" She choked on the words and swayed on her feet as her eyes widened in surprise.

There before her stood a man only a little taller than herself with a dwarven hammer in his gloved hands. His hair was a dark, sooty shade she knew all too well, and the gently pointed ears protruding from beneath his untidy coiffure as well as the furred collar of his work gear conspired in their turn to stab at her with their familiarity. But, it was the color of his one open, unscarred eye that had really shaken her. The blue-gray of storm clouds over the ocean...

Frey stared directly into the man's one eye, transfixed by the identical coloration and other similarities to her adopted hometown's own dwarven blacksmith. The dwarf before her smiled mildly at her, unperturbed by her shocked expression and she winced as she remembered the lined face of the tall dwarf, drawn with misery as she sailed away from him. Frey's face flushed and her eyes burned. She looked aside hurriedly, babbling an apology.

"I-I'm sorry..." She said, avoiding looking directly at the man. "You surprised me is all. I'm Frey." She said, mastering herself as best she could and offering him her hand, never quite making eye contact as she did. The dwarven man accepted her hand and shook it warmly.

"Well, Frey. It's nice to meet you, assuming this is the first time we've met?" He added with a hint of whimsy in his voice. "My name is Gaius. I'm the blacksmith here."

"It's nice to meet you, Gaius." Frey mumbled hurriedly, folding her arms around her midriff and forcing a smile for him. Gaius stared at her with that one Blue-Gray eye, the other permanently shut and marred with a long blueish scar over it. His eyebrows climbed up into his mop of dark hair, and his mouth opened in a little 'ah' of understanding.

"Hey Raven," Gaius called, turning away from Frey suddenly. "Do you think you could run over to Blaise's restaurant and pick up some lunch for me? I'm starving.", he added in perfectly calm tones that described no such urgency.

Raven blinked at Gaius once or twice, then nodded and headed directly for the door without a word. Shara watched Raven go, then cast a glance to Frey, then Gaius, and back again.

"Oh!" She said suddenly. "That reminds me! I need to run home and check on something I'm preparing for dinner for Micah tonight! Frey, I'm so sorry, but could we meet up a bit laer?"

"Oh, Uh, Sure..." Frey said reflexively.

"Thanks!" Shara chirped and just like that she, too, had vanished through the front door of the shop. Frey just stared after her friend's abrupt departure, blinking stupidly for a beat or two.

"I get the feeling, miss Frey..." Gaius said gently. She turned to him as he spoke, "That I remind you of something."

She swallowed, glancing at his eye and away again.

"Something you maybe don't want to be thinking about?"

"Um..." Frey said reflexively, kicking herself internally as she heard herself. It was as good as admitting it, after all. Gaius' gentle, knowing smile widened. It was like he could see right through her with that one eye.

"Where did you say you're from, Frey?"

"I didn't..." She mumbled, "But, uh, it's Selphia." She rubbed at her arm self consciously enduring his blue-gray gaze and registering a sureity in his manner as he nodded in reply.

"Ah," he said gently, then pulled out a chair at his work table and gestured for her to sit.

Frey couldn't have said precisely why, but she immediately moved to sit as he had indicated. Perhaps it was curiosity; Perhaps she was unravelling.

"So," Gaius said casually, sitting down across from her at the table and leaning on an elbow. "How is he?"

She blinked rapidly at him, saying nothing.

"I imagine the resemblance is a trifle hard to miss, what with how few of us there are in this region." He said mildly.

"You know Bado?" Frey said finally. After all, there didn't seem any point in denying what Gaius plainly had read in her reaction to seeing him.

"Yep." The smiling dwarf replied cheerfully. "My cousin."

"Cousin?" Frey echoed, eyes wide.

"Yep." He said again. "Same clan, hence the similar lack of fashion sense." He grinned, tugging on the furred collar of his jacket.

"He's never mentioned you..." She said without thinking, then blushed in embarrassment. "I mean-uh-sorry..."

"It's no surprise." Gaius replied easily, waving her off. "He's terrible about writing to me, too. But, we're not really estranged or anything either. We grew up together when we were kids."

"Really?" Frey found herself asking. It wasn't really any business of hers, but a sudden ravenous curiosity seemed to have taken control of her tongue. Gaius nodded.

"He lived with me and my parents as a kid. For all practical purposes, we're a bit more like brothers than cousins." Frey just stared at the man, vaguely wondering if the eager interest she felt about the information he was giving her was too plain upon her face. Gaius' smile widened as he watched her. Then he tilted his head slightly and threw her a curve ball.

"So... Just why is it that you didn't want to be reminded of him, if you're so interested in his history?" He asked, too mildly. Frey blushed and fidgeted. Damn. Too obvious as always. Why was she so bad at keeping a lid on her reactions?

"I, well... it's not that I-" She fumbled.

"You don't get along?" Gaius offered.

"We do... but..." She trailed off, looking down at the wood grain of the table, trying to think of what to say and how to phrase it. The dwarf sitting across from her remained patiently silent. She frowned at the table's surface, biting her lip for perhaps a minute, then raised her eyes to his one. "I left." she said slowly, feeling the concern showing on her face.

Gaius made a little 'ah' shape with his mouth, nodding with understanding.

"And I take it he wasn't fond of the notion?" He guessed gently. She shook her head, confirming.

"He doesn't handle rejection all that well." He sighed.

"I-It isn't like that!" She squeaked in instant protest, turning pink. Gaius raised both eyebrows slowly and merely stared at her for a beat or two. "There's nothing romantic between us at all." She insisted, shaking her head.

"You sure?" He challenged after a significant look. "I never said anything about romance, after all..." A smirk appeared on his lips. Frey felt her face grow even hotter, pointedly refusing to guess at what shade of red she was turning at the moment. She looked away and bit her tongue.

"So, why did you leave, Frey?" he asked gently, adding: "You don't seem terribly happy with the decision, if you don't mind my saying."

"I have been," She countered quietly, "Until I'm reminded of him, the look on his face when I left..."

Silence stretched for a few long moments between them as she wandered on her train of thought, eyebrows knitted together.

"I have no past, no home. I left Selphia to look for it."

Another pause.

"You know..." Gaius said, a smirk highly audible in his words. "Home isn't really a place." Frey looked up at him skeptically.

"Then what is it?"

"Well, let me put it this way," He replied, "Any road that leads to one you love leads home."

"I never said I loved him!" She protested hotly. Gaius' smile showed teeth now as it widened in amusement.

"No... no you didn't." He agreed.

"I don't." She insisted, glaring.

"Of course." He said, graciously tipping his head to her. She narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously until he spoke again, grinning a fox-like grin. "But... you do feel something for him. Otherwise," He shrugged, "we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"You're the one who brought it up." She grumbled.

"In response to your reaction when you first saw me. It's only natural for a man to wonder why a woman looks at him like she's seeing a ghost."

Frey gave a little 'Hmph' and folded her arms with a pout. Gaius chuckled and stood up, walking away for a minute or two and returning with two steaming cups of tea. He put one in front of Frey and held the other up to his lips, sipping carefully at the hot drink. Frey eyed him out of the corner of her eye suspiciously.

"You're going to tell me to go back?"

He shook his head.

"Nah. It's not up to me to decide what you ought to do. I was merely curious. It's quite a coincidence that you walked into my workshop with him on your mind."

"You don't think I should go back?" She challenged. Gaius sighed.

"I think you should do what will let you rest easy, Frey. And, try not to bury your feelings. Odds are they're there for a reason."

"This is a hell of a first conversation to have with a guy..." Frey grumbled. Gaius smiled.

"Can't argue with that."

Frey sighed audibly, drooping a bit.

"I have to go back..."

"Do you?"

"I promised him I would." She admitted. Gaius' eyebrows went up and he hurried to hide a very sharp smirk behind his cup. Frey scowled.

"Oh, shut up."

His mouth tightened as he held a laugh down and shook his head.

"I didn't say anything."

"You were thinking it." She accused. He shrugged with a guilty, self-satisfied air.
She sighed again, and picked up the cup in front of her with a resigned air. They sat in silence for a long while as she drank the hot liquid down, thinking hard and staring down into the drink as if she expected council from it. Gradually, her fretful expression loosened and she relaxed, stroking a finger around the rim of the cup absentmindedly. Finally, tea long since finished, she slumped back against the chair and sighed, looking up into Gaius' face once more.

"Feel better?" He inquired mildly. She nodded.

"Yeah."

"Good." He replied, "Can I ask a favor of you, Frey?" She blinked in surprise, then nodded.

"Sure."

"Tell him to get off his lazy butt and write to me, will you?"

She gave a tiny huff of laughter, accompanied by a reluctant half-smile.

"Yeah, alright."

Chapter Text

The voyage back to Selphia was not a terribly long one, but it still gave Frey plenty of time to grow more and more nervous. There she stood, posture proud and confident at the helm of the ship: one woman sailing alone in the sky and perfectly comfortable doing so. Her independent nature and competence as a airship pilot unfortunately did nothing to prevent the multiplying of butterflies in her stomach; neither did it prevent her limbs from feeling light, numb, and insubstantial the more she considered why she was returning and who was waiting there for her.

No matter how many times she chastised herself internally she could not help but imagine how their reunion might go at least a dozen times an hour. Her mind furiously considered the possibilities: what he would say, how she would reply, what he might say after that. What ought she wear when next she went to him? What would it be like to... to date the big dwarven blacksmith? She felt her face heat up and her mouth tighten as she thought about it. She'd always kind of liked the man but she hadn't been in the habit of appraising him as a potential boyfriend before. But, if her quickening pulse as she thought about him in that context was anything to measure it by, she certainly considered him attractive enough...

Reflexively, she pictured his big broad shoulders and heavily muscled frame, not the whipcord lean muscle of Dylas, nor the sculpted, statuesque physique of Leon. No, Bado was a different animal entirely: broad, heavy, powerful. Every individual part of him was at least twice as big or thick or both than that of any of the other, younger men in Selphia. The only one that could boast broader dimensions was Volkannon... and perhaps Porcoline, she thought with a smirk, but only around the middle of him.

Then she thought of his big, scarred, square-ish hands. the short beard framing his jawline, his deep resonant basso voice. They'd be a study in contrasts: Her small, lean stature and feminine curves next to all his bulk and masculine angles. There was something terribly appealing about that difference, she thought, her eyes blinking slowly with a pleased attitude as she imagined it. And then there was his height! How on earth was she going to kiss him without standing on a chair or something?

Frey swallowed thickly, a fresh wave of nervous excitement jolting through her. Her palms began to sweat as she gripped the ship's wheel rather more tightly than was necessary.

First things first, she thought. Before any of that kind of thing, they'd have to actually become a couple. He had come running on that morning, nearly two months prior, running so that he might see her one last time. She already knew how he felt: that look on his face, the things he'd said when it seemed those were his last moments with her. It would happen, she assured herself. Of course it would.

Frey thrust out her chin at the clouds breaking over the ship's prow, fully certain of her path now that she'd chosen it. Sure, she hadn't found love in a faraway land as she'd originally hoped, but it was thanks to her journey that she knew where to look for it, now. So, she thought, it had been the right course regardless.

'Not long now...' she thought. her heart pattering faster in her chest.


* * *

"Well! Look who's back already!" Ventuswill boomed smugly from high above as she loomed over Frey in the great dragon hall. "We haven't even converted your rooms into storage yet...", She mused with a teasing air. Frey rolled her eyes and strode right past Selphia's resident god.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, featherbutt!" She teased back, smirking over her shoulder.

"Hey, where are you running off to, so suddenly anyway? You've barely just arrived!" The dragon rumbled irritably. Frey spun around and shrugged, still walking backwards so as not to pause her momentum. If she let Venti start in on her now, she'd be stuck there for another quarter of an hour at least. She had places to be and a particular person to see...

"Sorry, Venti. I've got an errand to run. I'll be back in a bit then you can catch me up on everything I've missed while I was away."

"Hmph!" The dragon snorted. "Impertinent as always!" But, her big black eyes glittered with amusement nevertheless.

Outside, Frey strode along the paving stones of Selphia's wide roads absentmindedly straightening her skirt or pawing over her long, twin pigtails of glossy, pale green hair. Her butterflies hadn't abated in the slightest, but she was, she thought, getting a little more used to the sensation.

In another few minutes she stood before a big oak door with cast iron hinges and handle. The returned princes of Selphia hesitated, then took a deep breath and strode right into the town's smithy.

The cluttered shop bore upon its shelves and walls the same eclectic range of goods that it ever had, bearing more resemblance to a curiosity shop than a smithy. Frey did not pause to glance at any of the wares, striding instead straight back to the work area to look for the huge silhouette of the blacksmith against the fiery glow of the forge in the back.

He was not there.

Frey stopped mid-stride, her weight resting on one foot while the other's toe perched on the stone floor of the workroom. She chewed her lip for a beat, then spun on her heel and walked back out to the shop's till and counter. Her eyes scanned the room hastily but no broad shoulders or blue eyes rewarded her search. She fretted at her lip again, folding her arms and staring sightlessly in the direction of the front door, wondering where she might look for him next. She sighed loudly; her right foot tapped nervously upon the wooden floor of the shop's front room in quick succession.

"Hold yer horses, I'm comin'." A deep voice grumbled from behind a curtained doorway in the back of the shop on the opposite side as the workroom. Frey's heart leapt into her throat like a startled cat. Her head whipped around and she found her gaze locked with a pair of blue-gray eyes so wide with shock they made her own into mirrors of that startled expression.

Bado stood frozen in the doorway to his small living quarters behind the storefront, one big hand still half-outstretched to brush aside the curtain. His lips were parted, jaw half-slack, and all the color had drained from his face. He just stared at her, the moment frozen for three rapid heartbeats, pounding so hard they hammered her ribs from inside her chest. Then, a reflexive smile flashed for a beat across his mouth, creasing the smile lines around the corners. He grinned broadly in a flash of teeth, color returning to his features, his pointed ears even going so far as to turn pink. Frey felt a clenching sort of spasm in her chest that caught her breath in her throat. Was this what it meant for a heart to skip a beat? That rough-hewn face of his shed its typical weary air and bloomed with blatant, boyish glee as she'd never seen it before.

But, it was only a moment: only a brief flash of elation that vanished behind the controlled visage of a man old enough to know how to temper his reactions. As he abruptly schooled his expression into a lazy sort of smirk and hid away that bright, joyful smile, Bado shifted his weight and folded his arms in an attitude of mischief and mockery she knew all too well. Those stormy ocean eyes still glittered brightly with emotion behind the mask of control, however. Frey leaned forward when she saw it.

"Well well well!" He declared loudly, "Look what the palm cat dragged in! Our wanderlust-afflicted princess!"

"Good morning, Bado." She said evenly, eyes still fixed on his. He drew in a deep breath and sighed it out, shoulders dropping briefly as he did so, as if letting down a burden he'd carried many miles already this day.

"It's good to see ya, Frey. This town ain't half as interesting when you're not in it, ya know." He said, warmth in his deep voice. She raked a quick glance over him and noted his unkempt image, almost identical to that morning she'd sailed away, but for a pair of darker than usual circles under his wearied-looking eyes.

"Tch." She clucked on reflex, heart fluttering, "Shameless flatterer." It felt so natural to fall into that snipping banter they'd shared so many times before. This time, though, he smiled softly, dropping any edge to his voice as he countered:

"Hey, I ain't blowin' smoke. I mean it. I might'a neglected to mention that before, but what with you takin' up a notion to move on and leave this town behind lately, I see that was a bad oversight on my part. I'm sorry for that, Frey."

She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. Just as before, hearing him throw out his teasing tone and speak sincerely threw her off balance. What was she supposed to say to that? Just admit what had been on her mind ever since she'd walked into Gaius' shop in Sharance? Fear jolted down her backbone as she thought about it and she heard her mouth deflect the sentimental mood hanging in the air.

"Y-you're just a big softy, eh? I had no idea you could be so sappy." Her voice, only barely shaking, countered. The big man chuckled in a satisfied way.

"And you're always so relentless, Frey." He replied, shaking his head.

'No! What is wrong with me!' Frey hissed at herself in her mind. How would they ever get to the point of confessing love if she couldn't even handle exchanging a sincere greeting with the man?

"That was sweet of you to say, though..." She hurriedly added, half out of breath. Bado swallowed and blinked at her, slightly taken aback. She took advantage of his confusion and pushed a little further. "Selphia wouldn't be the same without you either, ya big goof." She felt her face heating up. "So, don't go changing, okay?"

The big man flushed, face and ears turning crimson briefly. He cleared his throat.

"I, uh... I'll give it my all, Frey." He said, voice rough. His eyes glanced at hers and away again. Then he seemed to shake off the temporary shyness and strode into the shop and over to a display full of small wares, adopting a much more casual air as he began arranging them. "So, what brings you to my humble shop this fair mornin', eh? Come to buy all my sale items?" He raised his dark eyebrows hopefully. She snorted.

"In your dreams, maybe." She countered dryly. He chuckled.

'Focus!' She chastised herself.

"Actually, I came to see you." She said casually. Did it sound forced? It sounded forced. Damnit. Bado frowned in suspicion.

"Yeah?" He intoned with skepticism, "What for?"

"I don't need a reason to come say hello to you." She replied, half flippant, half defensive.

'Shit. What is the matter with me?'

She attempted damage control with a smirk to accompany her next words:

"I'm the princess, remember? I could simply order you to come to me, if you'd prefer."

He smiled.

"Yikes. All that power is going to your head, Frey. Better watch out or someone will have to overthrow you."

She stuck out her tongue at him petulantly, making a show of trying to suppress a smile as she did so. He chuckled warmly and crossed the room, gesturing for her to follow as he headed for his table in the work room.

"Well, as long as you're here, why not sit for a spell? Can I get'cha somethin' to drink? Tea? Juice?" Frey padded after him, a wild streak of mischief suddenly taking hold of her.

"Got anything stronger?" She asked brightly. He cast a surprised look back at her then snorted as he spotted her wicked smirk.

"Ha ha. Very funny, princess. But I ain't gonna get caught drinkin' with you before noon." He cast a woeful glance at the ceiling. "Can you imagine all the yelling I'd get from Forte? No, no no. It's way too early for that. Pick somethin' reasonable: somethin' that's not gonna get me pummelled."

"Fine. Juice then." She replied imperiously. He gave her a half-smile and paced back out of the room, presumably to the icebox, muttering as he went:

"Should have known you'd want something sweet."

Now alone in the corner of the shop that overlapped with the workroom, Frey occupied herself inspecting the odds and ends her crush was peddling these days.

'This place is as eclectic as ever...', she thought, walking forward to a shelf that turned out to be a hand-forged shield propped on the edges of a few stacks of books and boxes. A row of little pink ornaments assembled out of fabric and ribbon were lined up in the center of it with a folded paper card proclaiming 'Love charms! 450g apiece.' She snorted, picking up one of the little trinkets and turning it over in her hand. 'Sheesh. What kind of blacksmith's shop sells love charms, anyway?' She thought, shaking her head with an inward smile.

"Here ya go." Bado's voice interjected as he offered a cup of orange juice from one of his big, angular hands.

"Oh, thank you." She murmured, hurrying to accept the cup and accidentally bringing the charm with her in her haste.

"What'cha got there?" he asked in mild curiosity, peering at the bit of ribbon protruding from her closed right hand.

"Oh, I just picked it up absentmindedly just now." She said hurriedly, shifting her hand behind her cup. He grinned.

"Come on, now, Princess. I can see from here it's a love charm." He leaned back in his chair and regarded her somewhat smugly. Was it just her imagination or was there tension behind the attitude? "So, you've got your heart set on some young buck around town after all, huh? Didn't think you were susceptible to spring fever, given you'd been livin' here better'n'a year and no boyfriend yet." Frey felt her eyebrows lift. She raised the stoneware cup to her lips and sipped at the tangy juice, glancing sidelong at him.

"Been speculating on that, have you?" She countered in careful tones, precisely measured to carry all manner of implication. He blinked and looked away, shifting in his seat.

"Nah, not really. I mean, you've come in here from time to time with Leon or Doug and I might'a wondered for a moment, but, uh..." He trailed off.

"Well," She interjected, forcing calm confidence into her voice. She tried to make her words sound offhand, as if she didn't particularly care if he knew this stuff or not. "There is someone I've been thinking about a lot lately, in fact." He paused, blinked at her, then mimicked her tactic of sipping at his own cup. His 'casual' tone was no more convincing to her than was her own.

"Yeah? Well, like I said... I figured as much... what with the charm and all."

"But it's not who you think it is." She continued as if he hadn't spoken. He bent an eyebrow at her.

"Oh yeah? What makes you so sure?"

"Just a hunch." She shrugged, smirking. He scoffed and looked away, a smile playing about the corners of his eyes.

"Fine. Keep your secrets."

"A girl's gotta have a few secrets." She countered primly.

"Heh. I suppose so." He muttered, giving in to a slight flicker of a smile on one corner of his mouth. Then, looking thoughtful, he continued: "Yeah, that's about right, actually. You're still so young, Frey. You should have plenty of dreams."

She stared at him, pursing her lips and knitting her eyebrows together.

"What's that about? You're talking like you're some old fogey." She challenged, genuinely confused. Yes, the big man was a good ten years older than her, maybe more, but by no means was he old. Besides, she was a grown woman, damnit! She wouldn't let something stupid like a number get in the way of her hopes.

"So? What's so weird about that?" He countered without any rancor.

"Well, you're not." She countered, pointing an accusing finger at him.

He raised both eyebrows. "How'd'ya figure that?"

"Well, you're still plenty fit and strong, and you haven't got a single gray hair." She explained gesturing to the whole of him with only a little blush in her cheeks. "You can't be any older than thirty-somethin', right?"

Bado blinked at her, then huffed a monosyllabic laugh.

"Good guess. Thirty six, in fact." he confirmed. "Still way too old for someone your age, though, so next to you I'm an old dog." He said almost absently, as if it were a thought he'd run through so many times it was practically unconscious, now.

Frey let silence stand just long enough that he glanced up at her eyes and away again. Then she took a breath, and a risk:

"Shouldn't that be for someone my age to decide?" She asked evenly.

"Wha-" He breathed, confusion on his features. A sudden, new fear occurred to Frey and stole away her confidence in that moment.

"Unless... you wouldn't want to be with someone my age..." She murmured, tension in her posture as it was her turn to glance nervously at him as she spoke. She let her anxiety and potential disappointment show through a little, perhaps hoping it might inspire the answer she hoped for. If that answer wasn't his, though, no amount of body language could change that, and she knew it.

"W-well, I--" He faltered, as if in a hurry to reply only to choke on his response. He aborted the sentence with a shake of his head and tried anew: "There ain't nothin' wrong with your age, little lady. It's gettin' older that sucks. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression." He added, self-consciously scratching at one corner of his bearded jawline. Then he forced a smile in her direction. "You ain't got nothin' to worry about. Enjoy it while you can, okay?"

Frey frowned at him, shaking her head. She raised her voice and spoke firmly, as if he'd gone a bit deaf: "You're not old, Bado." She said flatly. He chuckled, a little bitterly. She hadn't gotten through to him. A little sinking feeling pulled at her chest even before he replied:

"If you say so, Frey."

She stared at him, saying nothing. He sipped at his cup again, looked at her once or twice, and generally squirmed subtly in the silence.

"Well, as much as I hate to admit it, I'd better get to work for the day or Forte'll skin me for sure." He sighed after a little while. Frey's heart dropped further. No... it seemed today would not be the day anyone confessed love. He gestured to her still-closed fist. "You can keep the love charm, though. On the house... for sayin' nice things to me about my age." He winked at her with a mildly weary little smile. "And good luck with your love affair, by the way. I hope it works out."

Frey felt her eyebrows tent above a little lost expression on her features.

"I... hope so too..." She murmured. He nodded, looking down.

"Well, see ya later, I guess..." He said quietly, resignation in his voice. Frey stared right at him still.

"Yeah... Can I come visit again soon?" She heard her mouth ask without checking in with her brain first. Bado turned and looked straight at her once more, confusion and a little of the surprised delight she'd hungrily observed when he'd first laid eyes on her that morning showing in his blue-gray eyes. He swallowed, then tilted his head and gave a little quizzical half-smile.

"What's with you all of a sudden? You don't need a reason, remember?"

"Oh!" She chirped involuntarily as she jolted upright, a hopeful surge making her stomach leap upward again. "Yeah, that's right." She laughed.

She stood up, nodded to him, and turned to go.

"Soon, then." She said, waving.

"Sounds good, missy." He replied, still sporting that half-smile.

She left the way she'd come, a confused bundle of giddy numbness and nervous jitters.

"What??" She whispered to herself as the door to the shop clicked shut behind her. She shook her head, befuddled. Had that gone horribly awry, or promisingly well? Both, perhaps? She sighed out a rapid breath and looked up at the sky. Everything had seemed so certain when she'd been sailing back through those clouds. Was she any closer to the man she'd cut her adventure short to return to?

Trying to work her way into a love affair was far more confusing than anticipated, she thought with another little sigh. But, he had seemed interested by her desire to see him again. All there was left to do was to see him again. How long should she wait? At least a couple days... gods she could already tell that was going to feel like forever.

 

Chapter Text

Frey lasted exactly two and a half days before she gave into the temptation to call on her crush again. Sure, she still had no assurances of his feelings and she was being driven slowly crazy by that uncertainty, but today she had a plan...

Just as soon as she finished her daily chores and stabled her flock of woolies before the fickle weather could rain on them, the princess of Selphia went trotting down the wide paving stones toward the town's smithy.

The damned butterflies started up in her stomach just as soon as she got within sight of the place. She determinedly pushed down the feeling as much as possible and leaned back as she tugged on the heavy iron handle of the door to the 'Meanderer'.

"Afternoon." Called a familiar deep voice as she stepped inside. Bado's tone was offhand and neutral. He hadn't looked up from a pad of paper he was scratching things down on. Frey couldn't read his garbled handwriting upside down in any case, but she could see he was making a list of some kind, some items circled or underlined while others were crossed out.

"Hard at work I see?" She teased from no more than two feet away from him in front of the shop's counter. His head snapped up and he smiled at her in pure pleased reaction to her presence.

"Well now!" He intoned approvingly, setting the pencil down on the forgotten notepad at last. "I'll be gettin' spoiled if you keep visiting me so often, princess." One corner of his mouth tugged up in a smirk at her, his head tilted slightly to one side in a playful manner. She grinned at him. "Not that I'm complaining, of course." He added

"Of course not." She replied, lifting an eyebrow. Feeling emboldened, she leaned forward against the counter as she spoke to him. "How are you today?"

"Can't complain." He replied offhand with a mild shrug. "Getting close to quittin' time so that's always a plus."

Frey made an exaggerated show of tapping her chin as she looked up at the ceiling, apparently thinking hard.

"Does it count as closing up shop though, since you always leave the counter open for business?" She gestured at the everpresent sign on the shop's counter inviting patrons to leave payments for their purchases on the counter and trusting to the 'honor system' to ensure they didn't walk out with the goods without paying. Bado just shrugged again.

"Maybe not, but the important bit is I won't be forging or otherwise workin' during off hours. And that's good enough for me." He added, smiling again.

Frey bent a suspicious eyebrow at him.

"Did you actually get some work done today, to make you so ready to close up shop?"

He made a show of looking wounded at her words.

"Hey now, have a little faith in me at least, princess!" He complained, "I may not work very hard on any given day, but I always get something done, ya know." He picked up the pencil and tapped meaningfully on the notepad, eyeing her. "I even came up with a swell new idea to make some easy gold. Wanna hear?"

"I... think I'll pass." Frey replied, leaning away fromt he notepad as if it smelled rotten. "I'd rather maintain plausible deniability, after all, in case Forte questions me."

"Don't wanna be partners in crime, eh, Frey?" the big man chuckled. "Well I can't say I blame ya. That girl is terrifying and no mistake. No restraint, I tell ya." He shook his head as he mentioned his foster daughter.

Frey leaned toward him again, tilting her head curiously.

"How long until closing, anyway?"

"Oh, about twenty minutes or so..." Bado replied, tugging at his beard absentmindedly as he gazed at the waning afternoon light through the shop's front windows.

The princess sprung her plan into action.

"How about a drink afterward, then?" She asked innocently, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. He did not take it as such.

"Huh?" The tall dwarf balked incredulously, then shook his head as if he'd been stunned. "Well... after work is the right time for it, but since when are we drinking buddies, Frey?" She shrugged casually, internally screaming at the butterflies to quiet down.

"Since now if you're up for it." She said mildly.

Bado scratched at the back of his neck, eyeing her and glancing away again in a hurry.

"Well..."

A broad, playful smile spread across Frey's face, she shifted her weight and tilted her head, eyeing him playfully.

"C'mon, it'll be fun. We won't get sloshed or anything, so don't worry so much." He didn't look terribly reassured.

"As little as you are, though, it wouldn't take much to overdo it..." He pointed out.

"I'll be careful." She assured him, dragging a fingertip in an 'x' across her upper chest. "Cross my heart."

He looked at her and away again, silently tugging his beard again, this time in a nervous gesture. plainly he was fighting himself on whether to accept or not. She decided a little begging wasn't beneath her.

"Pleaaase." She whined, leaning over the counter at him a little with a hopeful look. He looked at her, smirked, then gave a huge sigh as if he were acquiescing to an inconvenient favor of some kind. The smirk betrayed his real feelings on the matter.

"Fine. Can only hold out against them puppy-dog eyes for so long, after all..." He grumbled.

"Great!" Frey chirped, "I'll go to the grocery and buy it while you close up shop."

"Hang on, are you old enough to buy it?" He asked suddenly, pointing at her.

Frey blinked at him in surprise.

"Of course I am." She said, honestly surprised. "How young do you think I am?"

'I-" he began, stopped, and folded his arms. "Well, I know better than to guess a woman's age to her face." He said somewhat defensively.

Frey shook her head, smiling and rolling her eyes.

"Whatever you say. I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere, okay?"

"I'll be here." He replied mildly, opening the register to count the til."

Frey darted down Selphia's streets to the town grocer's, giddy with excitement. The plan had worked! Now they had a setting in which to spend time alone together and talk without feeling like the conversation should be brief for politeness' sake. All she needed now was alcohol.

The door to the store chimed cheerfully and she hurried to the shelves lined with bottles in the corner. From behind the counter, his head resting on his elbows, Selphia's only other resident dwarf eyed her with silvery gray eyes.

"Hey, Frey. What's got you in such a hurry?" Doug asked in a lazy, languid voice. He'd obviously been wiling away a boring shift alone in the shop, by the look of him.

"Just running a quick errand." She replied without turning around. She eyed the bottles, shook her head slightly. What the hell did she know about wine, anyway? She grabbed one at random. All liquor tasted foul to her in any case. Up at the counter Doug raised his head, looking from the bottle she set on the counter up to her face with a suspicious expression.

"Since when do you buy wine?" He said in wary tones, "And in a hurry, too. You got a hot date or something?" He smirked. His eyes were a little more hard than gleeful, however.

Frey felt her face heat up instantly. Damnit. Why did these reactions have to be so reflexive? She steeled her resolve not to acknowledge her embarrassment, lest it redouble, and replied with a cool tone:

"That's not really your business, but no. Not a date." She took out a little more gold than was required and set it on the counter, snatching up the bottle by the neck and turning to leave.

"Oh." Doug said, blinking. He seemed to relax instantly. "Well in that case, can I come?" Frey froze in mid step, turning back to look at him apologetically.

"Sorry, Doug," She said, genuine remorse in her voice, "It isn't a date, but it also isn't something I want an extra person attending, either..." He'd just have to forgive her for being cryptic, she thought. She wasn't about to admit to the red headed boy that she was trying to wile her way into the heart of an older man, even though it was absolutely the truth.

"Oh..." Doug replied awkwardly. "Uh... It's not... It's not Dylas, is it?" He asked haltingly, pulling a slightly disgusted face. Frey felt a smirk tug sharply on one corner of her mouth. She eyed him with mischief in her gaze.

"No. It's not Dylas." She assured primly.

"Whew. That's a relief." He sighed, then straightened up sharply and added: "C-cause you really ought to be able to do better than him. That's why." He said stubbornly, blushing. Frey let her smirk become a wicked grin.

"Of course." She agreed with a gracious nod. "He's all yours." Then she was out the door before Doug could finish shouting his all-too-ready protests at her back.

It didn't take long to get back to the Meanderer. She held the wine bottle up triumphantly as she came through the door, flipping the 'open' sign to 'closed.' surreptitiously behind her back as she let the door shut. She wasn't sure, after all, that the lazy blacksmith would bother with the sign. After going to all the trouble to fetch the wine, she did not want to be interrupted or imposed on.

"Letsee what ya got." Bado said amiably, accepting the bottle with one big hand and reading the label. "Not bad. Not all that good either. But I ain't real picky when it comes to alcohol." He shrugged. She followed him back to the table in his work room that doubled as a rough excuse for a dining table sometimes. He set two mismatched stoneware cups out on the table and gestured for her to sit. She did. His blue gray eyes fixed her with a warning glance as he popped the cork with a practiced motion.

"Now I agreed to have a drink with you, Frey, but you're starting slow, got it?"

She rolled her eyes.

"Sheesh! What do you suspect me of? I just thought it'd be nice to have a drink and a little conversation with you, but I'm here more for the company than the booze."

Bado blinked at her.

"Oh." He said awkwardly, "Well in that case..." He poured her a half a mug and filled his own. She accepted the cup with a little dip of her head as he slid it across the table for her, then he held up his own and they clinked the cups together. "Cheers, Frey."

She sipped at the wine. Disgusting, as usual. But, she controlled her expression as she swallowed and set the cup down. The big man across from her took a big swig that drained half the cup and set it down with a satisfied sigh. He looked up at her with a relaxed attitude and gestured as if to tell her to proceed.

"So, wha'd you wanna talk about so badly, eh?"

She fidgeted silently for a moment. There were any number of things she wanted to ask him about, to learn about him, but just now it was suddenly extremely hard to make her voice work.

"Nothing in particular." She mumbled, averting her eyes, and tracing her fingers along the lines of the wooden table's grain in front of her. "I just wanted to spend some time with you is all."

He chuckled.

"Now why would you want to go and do that? Ain't a princess got anything better to do than pal around with a lazy dog like me?"

Frey rolled her eyes and sighed in exaggerated exasperation.

"I'm not going to argue about this. Just take it for the compliment that it is." She said, bending an eyebrow at him. He chuckled softly again, but the smile on his lips widened even as he raised his cup to take another drink of wine.

"Well alright then." He allowed.

She watched him set his cup back down and brush a stray shaving of wood from the table. Then he looked up at her eyes expectantly and she struggled to hold that gaze for more than a moment. After a couple heartbeats she did look away again. This whole thing was harder than expected. Why hadn't her plan included specific strategies for the actual conversation part of the evening?

"Actually," She said, on a sudden inspiration as her eyes fell on those ridiculous love charms she'd noticed the last time she'd visited. "There is something I'd like to know."

"Sure." He said, shrugging and pouring himself a second cup. He was a big man, after all. The wine probably wasn't equal to the task of getting him drunk if he were sharing it. "Ask away." He raised the cup to his lips again.

"Have you ever been in love, Bado?" She asked in a deliberately steady voice, her heart hammering as she heard her voice actually project the words. Bado startled in the middle of taking another sip, aspirated wine, and choked. He squeezed his eyes shut, set the cup down with one hand and covered a fit of coughing with the other.

"What in-" He wheezed, "Whaddaya wanna know somethin' like that for?" His tattered voice choked out. He was staring at her as if suddenly realizing she were more dangerous than she looked. Frey attempted to smooth over the way she'd taken him off guard.

"Just courious." She shrugged, "I know next to nothing about you aside from what you do here in Selphia now. I guess I just want to know where you're coming from."

Bado frowned at her, hesitating. He didn't seem altogether sold on her explanation. But, after another few seconds of silence he made a cursory attempt to satisfy her request.

"Uh... well, yeah. Long time ago." he said brusquely, fidgeting with the cup in his huge hands. Frey sat staring attentively at him, waiting silently for more. He glanced up at her when she made no verbal reply, sighed loudly, and leaned back in his chair, resigned not to get into a silent contest of who was more stubborn.

"It was way before I came to Selphia. When I was in the Knighthood. I was nineteen at the time, I think."

Frey blinked in surprise, only now realizing she hadn't actually expected him to share the information, even though she'd asked.

"Wow, really?" She said, perking up with interest and leaning forward. "Was she a dwarf like you?"

Bado blinked at her and leaned back slightly. He looked like he had suddenly found himself in a situation he hadn't at all bargained for. But something about his attitude also seemed intrigued at her interest. He glanced away and scratched at the back of his neck, a nervous gesture.

"Well, no, actually. She was an elf. Quite a bit older than me, too... not that that means the same thing when you live as long as elves, mind." He added thoughtfully. The story seemed to have its own momentum as he dug up the memories, glancing upward with a slight expression of effort on his face. Then he grew uncomfortable, fidgeting and avoiding her eyes again. "I was pretty darn smitten. And, I had reason to believe she liked me too." He said, almost mumbling in his hesitation. His ears turned red as he said the last bit.

Frey tilted her head curiously.

"What happened?"

"Uh..." He hesitated, leaning back and tugging at his beard, "I was seein' things that weren't really there, turns out. When I confessed my feelings she told me off and wouldn't see me anymore." His face fell into the unmistakable expression of old pain, familiar as home but still not without its bite. His tone was almost for himself alone as he continued: "She didn't want nothin' to do with a romance with me. Guess I shoulda understood that. She'd as much as told me already by then, after all."

Frey stared at him, fretting. She hadn't meant to dredge up old hurts. What was she supposed to say now?

Her silence brought him back to the moment, he glanced up at her and smiled apologetically.

"But, love can make ya stupid, ya know?" He said, shrugging one shoulder. Frey felt her lips part slighly, but she still didn't have words. Bado leaned back in his chair, took another swig from his cup, and continued in a more casual tone, the momentum of his memories carrying him through the conversation.

"Anyway, after that I had a lot of flings and such, but nothin' ever serious. I never really fell in love after that first time." He said, gazing away thoughtfully into the distance. Then his ears turned scarlet and a slight blush came into his face. He ducked his head and fidgeted, glancing a her and away again.

"Well, that is..." He said haltingly, "Not exactly never... but that's as much as I'm gonna say on the matter." He nodded with an attitude of finality.

"Oh!" Frey chirped in surprise. Now that was an intriguing reaction. What did it mean, though? What other story would he be unwilling to tell after he'd already revealed how he'd been rejected by the first woman he'd fallen for?

"Enough about me, though." He said suddenly, brushing at the air as if shooing away a fly. "But, since we're on the subject, how are things going with your little love affair? Did that charm do the trick?"

"O-oh. Well, I don't really know yet..." She stammered. He quirked an eyebrow at her.

"Haven't told him yet, huh? What on earth could you be hesitating for, princess?"

Frey squirmed under his gaze.

"Well..." She began, rubbing at one arm with the other hand. Wasn't she already as obvious as a girl could be? How could he be asking her about this? How could she still not be able to tell him?

"He's clueless." She sighed loudly, glancing up at his eyes briefly, then blushing profusely. Bado raised his eyebrows again, a silent request for elaboration.

"That is," She explained little by little, "He's pretty oblivious to my feelings, I think. And I'm not totally sure he feels the same way about me..."

"Ah." Bado said softly, looking down at the cup in his hands and smiling fainly. "Well, I know a little of how that feels, actually." Then he looked up and met her eyes again. She didn't look away this time. "But I can hardly imagine what kind of guy wouldn't be at least a little taken with you Frey. You've got nothing to worry about. You should just come straight out and tell him."

"O-oh..." Frey heard herself squeak. Her face had to be resembling a tomato by now. How on earth could he not be seeing through this? He really was dense, she thought. "You really think so?" She asked nervously.

He grinned at her.

"Yeah. Go for it."

"Okay, then..." She said, swallowing. "I guess I will."

"Do it soon though." He warned, pointing at her, "You know what they say: 'Time waits for no man'. -or, uh... girl in this case." he added, smirking again.

"If you're sure I should, then..." She trailed off, her mouth suddenly dry. Should she just come out and say it right now? It certainly seemed an appropriate moment for it, given what he'd just said to her.

"I'm positive." He assured, waving off her hesitation. "Just go for it. You've got the love charm, remember? I'm sure it'll turn out well. And, when it does, I can use you as a success story. I'll sell a million of the things! Ha!"

Frey hung her head abruptly, a reluctant smile on her lips.

"Leave it to you to say a thing like that..." She grumbled. He'd torpedoed the moment pretty effectively, alright. She'd have to build up her courage again when she wasn't reeling from one of his abrupt sidetracks to chase hypothetical riches via shop schemery. She sighed, feeling her brows fret again as she stared down at the table again. At this rate...

"Hey." Bado's deep voice, suddenly quiet and free of teasing. She looked up and he caught her eye, one hand resting halfway across the table as if he'd been determined to get her attention one way or another, even if he had to wave a hand in her face. He drew a deep breath, looking concerned. "Don't Fret, Frey. I hate to see you worry like that, so... chin up, okay?" He smiled encouragingly. "There's plenty of people in this town who love you just the way you are, so don't worry."

Frey felt her face stretch into a stunned expression. He seemed to take it as a good sign.

"Even if this one doesn't work out for you, you'll be okay, okay?"

"...Okay." She nodded slowly. "Thank you, Bado."

His ears flushed again.

"Anytime."

They stared at each other a few beats longer. Frey made one or two abortive attempts to draw words up out of her butterfly-infested stomach, but her nerve was failing fast. She decided to regroup and revisit the attempt later.

"Well, I-I'd better get going." She said a little breathlessly, "Keep the rest of the bottle, okay?"

The big man looked puzzled at her.

"You don't want to take it home or anything?"

She smiled at him.

"Nah. I really hate the taste of wine."

His face turned surprised, then incredulous.

"Then why-"

"I told you already," She interrupted, "the drinking wasn't what I was here for."

He just stared at her, pointed ears bright red. One of them twitched. Her smile widened momentarily.

"Goodnight, Bado." She said softly, and turned to leave, feeling his dubstruck stare on her back as she went.

Chapter Text

"Rrrrrgh...." Frey growled, head buried between her knees, fingers clutched around it, tangled in her hair. She sat upon her big double bed at the castle, agonizing over a choice she felt magnetically pulled toward.

'Just come right out and tell him', Bado had said.

"Tch. Easy for him to say" the princess grumbled into her knees. He, apparently so oblivious to her feelings, probably couldn't have known that he was essentially inviting her to confess her feelings to him then and there. She hadn't, of course, but now she thought she should have. Every waking moment since that conversation had been a torment of nervousness, regret, apprehension, excitement; the tangle of emotions in her writhed about so wildly she thought she might fly apart at the seams. She huffed an exasperated laugh. All of this was simply the unintended consequences of his advice to her... all this and the apparently inevitable confession she felt driven to make.

Compulsion toward coming clean with him aside, her butterfly-filled stomach and jittery nerves apparently didn't give a damn that some parts of her were so certain of her course.

'What if I've completely misread him?" a cruelly paranoid voice whispered in her thoughts. "What if he's just a sensitive guy who didn't want to see a friend of him and his foster kids sail away from this town never to return? What if Gaius was wrong, too?" She shook her head and whined quietly to herself.

No. She couldn't waver now. She was already in for a penny, in for a hoard of treasure, it seemed. How could she walk away now without knowing? Plus, these feelings showed no sign of diminishing. If anything, she was becoming more fixated on the big man by the day. How long could she take it before she really became crazy, anyway.

"Well, you're already pretty much talking to yourself..." She mumbled, rolling her eyes.

Always different parts of her argued with one another in the background. Her most confident self threw her hand up in the air, exasperated: 'why am I even hesitating? Who's gonna say no to me? I'm amazing.' A nervous part of her that loved only certainty, always seemed to have a counter-argument. 'Yeah, but he's already plainly said he's too old for you. Doesn't that mean he doesn't even see you as a potential partner?'

Frey's fingers dug more frantically in her hair in frustration. These thoughts had turned circles in her for four whole days now. Twice she'd even started walking to the Meanderer only to turn on her heel and stalk back away, fuming at herself but retreating nevertheless. Doubts lingered, thoughts warred, and she became more and more frazzled and impatient with herself.

Finally, a new voice, that of the part of her that was ready to throw her hands up and end this foolishness chimed in with an argument that flouted the others with a single cold rationale:

'At least once I just tell him, I'll freaking know. I won't have to sit here and wonder anymore. I'm done. This is nonsense. I have to get back to my life sometime!'

She raised her head and let out a great sigh, half relief, half resignation. For better or for worse, this new train of thought was correct. The suffering of wondering and worrying would be over as soon as she told him. If she were rejected, she could always just go back to plan A of going on a journey elsewhere in the hope of meeting someone, she thought, eyebrows quirking upward as she considered it. All in all, ending up where she started was pretty decent, as worst case scenarios went.

But, some part of her still realized she'd be no small degree of crushed by a rejection from him... Sure, Bado hadn't been the center of her attention prior to these recent months since she'd decided to leave Selphia for a time, but now that she had nurtured a very keen interest in him it seemed rather staggeringly important to hold his esteem.

She pictured his long face, haggard by worry and disappointment as she'd confirmed that she was about to board that airship and sail away. That image had never left her mind. Surely it had to mean something. She was friends with everyone in Selphia, after all. No one else had come running to quietly plead with her to stay while she had one foot on the ship, knowing the request would not be granted, but making it ayway... Surely only harboring some signicant romantic interest in her could have motivated such actions, right?

It all sounded rational, but that part of her that was never satisfied without absolute certainty protested quietly in the back of her mind.

"Enough." she said aloud, voice flat. She hopped to her feet from the bed, sighed again short and loudly, and marched out the bedroom door.

The familiar by now nervous fluttering of her heart and racing thoughts did not slow her steps or turn her around this time. Frey marched herself all the way across town to the smithy with a steady gait, even though her eyes were a little wide and frightened as she tugged on the big iron handle of the door.

She stepped into the shop and looked for the familiar outline of her crush with his broad shoulders and pointed ears. A quick glance around found him in his usual place, back by the shop's counter. He was on his feet arranging little this-and-thats on a display shelf. Aside from the big dwarf himself, the shop was empty.

"Ah, Frey! Good to see ya." Came his warm greeting.

"You, too." She replied, just a little breathlessly.

"So, what brings ya in, today, eh?" He smiled at her, "Come to buy a love potion to use on that crush of yours?"

Frey flushed deeply, heat rising in her face. She glanced away, shuffling her feet a little.

"Ah, no.... I'm hoping nothing that drastic will be necessary." She said with a nervous little chuckle. Then she glaced back up at his bue-gray eyes, their irises just a little reflective, as Dwarves' eyes tended to be. "But on that subject... I, um... I'm actually here for related reasons." She managed to say. He quirked an eyebrow at her and looked intrigued, folding his arms and looking at her expectantly.

"Oh?" He intoned curiously.

"Y-yeah. I was thinking about what you said the other day. Your advice..." She all but mumbled in a hurry. "And, well... I need to talk to you."

Bado snorted quietly in amusement.

"Well, I'm always happy to help ya, Frey, but you could do a lot better than me for love advice." He shrugged, looking slightly abashed. "I've been flying solo for about a decade, ya know." He smiled sympathetically at her. "You're probably better off talking to Nancy about it, actually."

Frey shook her head.

"No, no. For this it has to be you." She hurried to say, blushing hotly again as she heard herself say it.

Bado's dark eyebrows shot up at that. He frowned slightly, expression bewildered and wary.

"Uh, okay then, Frey. Just don't say I didn't warn you." He said slowly. She stared at him, hesitating for a beat."Go ahead, then. I'm all ears." he added.

Frey fidgeted, wringing a bit of her skirts in her hands.

"W-well I..." She began faintly.

This was it. Her heart hammered. Her confident self cheered. Her fearful self cringed, and above all the desire to end her suspense and plunge into whatever came next carried the words from her lips. All the time she'd spent on him in her thoughts of late coalesced into three words, delivered with abrupt certainty and force in her voice.

"I love you!"

One of those absolutely deafening silences followed immediately. Frey stood frozen, staring at Bado's face as his eyes widened, his eyebrows almost disappearing into his untidy hair. His mouth opened slowly, silently, in shock. His expression flickered, almost like a wince, then it changed, a sly smile on his lips and a wily quirk of eyebrows that made the bottom drop out of Frey's stomach even before he spoke:

"Well now, ain't that an interesting lie to be telling." He mused, his voice a little too deliberate to be casual. "You tryin' to get back at me for teasing you about the love charm?" Frey reeled back as if he'd slapped her.

"What? No, I-" She stammered, flabbergasted.

"I've been around the block more than once, missy," He drawled, "It's a bit too far-fetched. Try something a little more subtle next time you want to try and prank me, 'kay?" He folded his arms again and tilted his head at her, smirking condescendingly. his whole body carried a kind of tension though.

Suddenly her temper flashed up out of her. Her fists clenched at her sides. Her eyes hardened, and her voice came out as a bark of accusation.

"Y-you blockhead!"

Bado flinched in surprise at the intensity of her reaction. She continued, her voice at a carrying volume.

"I'm not playing around here, Bado! This isn't a joke, it's a confession!" She relaxed slightly, her expression turning from anger to bewilderment and insistence. "I love you!" She said again, almost urgently.

Bado's shocked expression made a comeback. He made no sound at all. He almost looked frozen. She stared at him, just waiting, just breathing. One, two, five heartbeats passed. Her face began to fall. He made no move and still said nothing. The silence stretched on and on. Her eyebrows tented above her eyes as they began to burn. Disappointment closed in on her. She looked down and fidgeted with her skirt again. When she spoke her voice was barely above a whisper:

"I just... had to tell you. That's all then, I guess..." She said resignedly.

"Frey, y-you..." She heard him fumble, his deep voice faint and weak for once. Then it burst out of him in loud protest: "You can't pick me!" he barked.

Now it was her turn to look shocked.

"W-why on earth not?" She stammered incredulously. His expression switched to something like outrage.

"Whaddaya mean, why not?!" He countered, gesturing in exasperation, "I'm too old for you, Frey! What are you thinkin'?" Perhaps the words were meant to sound like he was scolding her, but Frey registered too much pain in his voice for that to be true. He looked away, his expression a cringe. She blinked at him in stunned silence for a moment or two.

"That's not up to you to decide." She said softly after a time, suddenly feeling sure she understood what was going on, finally.

Bado looked up at her, confused. Frey took a deep, trembling breath, and continued:

"You can say I'm too young for you, if you really don't want me."

He winced.

"Th-that's not--"

"But only I can decide whether you're a good fit for me. Only I get to decide whether I want you." She smiled hopefully up at him, humble and sincere. "And, I've already decided that I do."

Bado stared into her eyes, searching. He looked lost, but hopeful. It took a whole minute or more for him to find his voice again.

”Well, I’d be lyin’ if I said I don’t have the same sorta feelings for you, too…” He said, pausing to draw in a deep breath. Frey held hers. "But if you’re a-asking me out…" He continued, voice carefully controlled.

"I am." Frey interjected, staring resolutely up into his blue-gray eyes. Her heart hammered in her chest, faster and faster.

"Then, I… I need some time to think this over." He said, voice shaking ever so slightly. A blush came into his cheeks and he looked away, adding, "This ain’t exactly a simple decision for me…"

Frey's spirits dropped, but she mastered her expression in time to mitigate the disappointment on her face. It wasn't a 'no' after all, but if she were honest, she hated waiting and was really hoping for a 'yes' immediately. She took a steadying breath.

"Th-that's understandable." She squeaked.

Bado winced, looking back into her eyes.

”I don’t want to leave you hanging, Frey, but could you give me until morning to give you my answer?" he said hopefully.

"Oh!" She piped. Having schooled her expectations for an indefinite period of suspense, morning didn't sound so bad. She smiled. "Yeah, I can wait."

The big man before her let out his breath with a relieved sigh and smiled faintly at her.

"Thanks. I'm grateful." He shoved his big hands in his pockets, body language suddenly a little more awkward. "So, will you, uh... will you meet me in front of the castle at ten o'clock tomorrow morning, then?"

"Of course. I'll be there." She replied without hesitation.

He smiled slightly again.

"Alright. I'll see you then, Frey."

The princess of Selphia nodded hastily and turned to go, legs shaky as she fled the scene.

Tomorrow morning. Less than a day to wait. There was still hope.

Minutes later her elation at having such a short period to wait had evaporated as she paced in her room, doubts gnawing at her with every heartbeat.

"It wasn't a 'no'..." She mumbled to herself, "He didn't turn me down. Not yet, at least..." She stopped in the middle of her chambers and sighed.

Well did the princess of Selphia know her own wiles when it came to waiting. She was no saint of patience, that was for sure. The only way to pass time when her mind was bent on obsessing over something was to drown out its buzzing with plenty of manual labor. The complaints of her muscles and the steady, simple tasks of farm work would give her something to focus on and hopefully tire her out enough to sleep tonight. She did not relish the thought of lying awake all night while her traitorous brain spun every possible scenario and outcome in her minds eye before she could meet with her crush in the morning to get his actual answer.

Frey sighed once more and trotted out the back door to her fields. Fortunately, there was never any shortage of work to be done.

 

Chapter Text

Oh my God m such a Bastard for leaving you guys hanging on this particular chapter so long ago!!!

I am SO. SORRY.

The good news is I'm jumping back into this project now. I hope to give you guys a chapter update very soon.

Chapter Text

Frey fidgeted with one of her twin tails of silky green hair, an old nervous habit. She stood outside the great front gateway of Selphia's magnificent castle, dwarfed by the edifice, and scanned the various entrances to the central square. Her green eyes darted from one to another, anticipating a big broad-shouldered figure, but none appeared. She sighed fretfully.

"Well... This is the place..." She mumbled to herself, glancing again at her timepiece, brows furrowed. "...And the time..." She blew a piece of hair out of her eyes and sighed, spirits beginning to droop.

"I guess if he doesn't come, that's an answer unto itself..." She murmured.

Over a few minutes the various townspeople, beginning their day and wandering to and fro about town, glanced her way as they passed through the square. She blushed and stared determinedly down at her feet, rather than making eye contact. If she were indeed getting stood up, she didn't want an audience to the event. She was so flustered by the idea of someone like Arthur asking what she was standing around waiting for, she missed the approach of a pair of big, booted feet.

"Mornin' Frey." Came a familiar deep voice, sounding deliberately cautious. Her head snapped up and she blinked, wide-eyed at the big blacksmith, color coming into her face. He'd come.

He looked.... ragged. His hair was even more ruffled than usual; dark circles ringed his blue-gray eyes, but the eyes themselves looked bright and vital.

"Mor...ning." She squeaked, a little breathlessly. He smiled apologetically, brows tilted upward.

"I'm real sorry for making you wait like this." He said, voice abashed. She shook her head.

"No, no. I just got here, too." She insisted, a little breathless. He shook his head slightly.

"No, I mean... I've kept you waiting for an answer, after you said what you did yesterday." He sighed, keeping up that sympathetic expression, "They used to call me 'legendary' in the knighthood, but you've got more courage than I ever have."

"I... didn't mind." Frey said faintly, feeling herself blush even more. Her heart pounded a jittery rhythm in her chest, "I kinda dropped it on you outta nowhere, after all." She added, shrugging.

"Yeah, you kinda did." Bado replied with a little laugh and a tilted smile.

"Sorry." She replied, wincing.

"Don't be. I'm here now." He said warmly. But then the smile slid off of his face and he looked at her rather seriously. Are you ready for me to say what I've come to say, Frey?"

The acting princess of Selphia gulped, suddenly unsure all over again.

"I think so?" She said in a small voice, looking up at him with a mixture of hope and fear. The big man before her drew in a long breath and sighed it out.

"Well, here goes..." His brows fretted together and he looked straight into her eyes as he spoke: "We've known each other a good while, Frey. What matters to me is your well-being... so I feel honor-bound to tell you..."

Frey's heart hammered, her mouth dry.

"I think you're making a huge mistake, asking me out." He said, the words and breath leaving him in a rush, a wince on his handsome, weathered features.

Frey swayed on her feet, her heart missing its rhythm, leaving a sudden hollow sensation in her chest. Bado's hand had strayed up to the back of his head, anxiously running his fingers through his already-mussed hair.

"There just isn't anything worthwhile I can offer you." He continued, apparently oblivious to her shock and disappointment. "And regardless of what you say, I ain't as young as you. That's a fact." He added firmly, with a chopping gesture of one of his big, angular hands. "So... I'm sorry, Frey..." he said, cringing at her as if he was the one about to be struck down by a rejection. Her breath stopped and her mind reeled in anticipation of the blow.

'I really thought... maybe...' her thoughts whimpered softly. Her eyes began to burn.

"...Because I'm in love with you, too." Bado said in a hurried breath, as if it had taken a surge of courage to force it out.

"Oh!" Frey's high, breathy voice shocked her own ears with her raw exclaimation. Her mind blanked. She blinked up at him stupidly and he let a broad, humble smile spread across his face, cutting deep smile lines into his slightly gaunt cheeks.

"And I do want to be with you." He said earnestly, his posture submissive, almost as if he thought himself a beggar in this situation. "S-so if you'll have this overgrown dwarf, and all my eccentricities..." He drew in one more steadying breath, "I'd be elated to call myself yours, Frey." The sweet, apologetic expression, glowing with hopeful anticipation, on his angular visage sent a thrill through her, beginning with a swelling in her heart and chasing her breath out through her lips as her eyes fluttered involuntarily.

"Bado... you..." She gasped softly.

"-Until you snap out of it and come to your senses, that is." he added with a crooked grin, his head tilted.

"Blockhead!" She barked at him, voice suddenly strong again. An exasperated laugh chased the exclamation out of her mouth. Bado echoed the laugh with one of his own, deep voice rich and vibrant with a raw, joyful quality. A rasp of breath bookended the lovely timber of his basso voice as he laughed. His laughter always had ragged edges, just like the rest of him. She couldn't help it; a broad, elated grin spread Frey's own lips as she beamed at him.

"Mostly joking, don't worry." he said, winking at her.

"M-mostly?" She returned incredulously, "Jeeze! Maybe I am crazy for loving you." She laughed, shaking her head.

"Ain't a doubt in my mind, little lady!" he beamed. Then he cleared his throat and added, eyes darting away as he blushed, "But, uh... jokes aside, It's just really hard to believe. I'd never have dared hope for this to really happen." He finished with a nervous chuckle.

"Well, now you don't have to." Frey said gently, warmth in her cheeks, "I'm yours, Bado." His broad chest swelled visibly as he drew in a a big breath, smile growing and brows rising.

"And I'm yours." He returned, eyes softening as he breathed out the words. His arms twitched, as if uncertain and then tentatively spread out a bit to either side, his expression changing to a timid invitation.

Frey lunged forward with a laugh and threw her arms around the big man. He gave an 'oof' as she collided with him and squeezed as much of his bulky frame in her slender arms as she could, holding nothing back. His thick arms found their way around her, too, after another flicker of hesitation. Then he squeezed her to him tightly, going as far as to press one side of his bearded face against her head. He was warm... warm and solid and big. A giddy little laugh fluttered in her throat, but she kept her mouth shut tightly over it this time. Finally they loosened their grip around each other and withdrew enough to give eye contact again.

"Say, uh..." He began nervously, one of his big hands fidgeting with the ends of her hair. "How do you feel about nicknames, Frey? Like, between l-lovers, I mean." One side of her mouth tugged into a smirk at the way he stumbled over the word. Here he was, well over thirty and stuttering like a teenager all because she'd agreed to be his girlfriend. She tilted her head and looked mischievously at him.

"You have one in mind for me?" She asked sweetly. A hopeful light crept into his expression.

"Well, maybe, kinda..." He fumbled, but then committed: "Yeah." She grinned.

"Well, what is it?"

"I'd kinda like to call you 'Pet', if that'd be okay with you?" he ventured, emboldened by her encouragement. She quirked an eyebrow at him. "I think it'd be a cute thing for a big guy like me to call his little lady." He explained, blushing and glancing away and back to her eyes. A wicked little spirit flared up in her and Frey decided on the spot to tease her new lover.

"Hmmm... well..." She said, pretending to consider, "I suppose that would be alright, but only if I get to pick one for you." His eyebrows rose but he was smirking in a rather pleased way.

"Yeah I guess that'd be fair." He allowed. "What'll it be?" Her grin became downright devilish.

"Big Bear." She said, with a suggestive expression she hoped would cover the way she almost burst out laughing. A crimson blush spread over his face, including his poitned dwarf's ears. He choked on his words:

"That's... really dorky, Frey." He said, laughing nervously as he blushed still redder. Then his brow tilted up again and he surrendered: "But, then again... I guess that means it also fits pretty well. So... I guess I'll answer to it." Frey finally let the laughter out, throwing her head back as she did.

"I was only joking!" She giggled, "But, since you agreed to it, maybe I will use it from time to time." She smirked mischievously at him. He grinned back at her.

"You're trouble, pet." he said, trying out the nickname.

"You bet." She returned, still smiling.

He hugged her again, lifting her off her feet a few inches and laughing happily. She squeezed him, trying her best to tell him without words how excited and relieved she was. When at last he'd set her down and they'd stepped apart from one another, he looked sheepish again.

"Well, uh... where do we go from here, Frey? I guess we oughtta go on a proper date or something, eh?" He shrugged.

"You're so romantic." She teased

"Hey, I warned you that I'm rusty at this. It's been a dog's age since I've been anything other than very single."

She laughed, shaking her head and smiling.

"Well, that is what couples do, still, right?" He teased, still laughing at his own expense.

"Yes, Bado. Couples still go on dates in this day and age." She said patiently. "Where would you like to go for our first one?"

"Uh..." He raised his eyebrows. "I'm not too particular... Did you have somethin' in mind?" He sounded nervous again. She supposed she could spare him the anxiety of choosing their first date.

"Let's start with dinner then." She offered sweetly. "At Porcoline's?"

"S-sure." He said, voice raspy. Was he that nervous, even now? "What time?"

"Well... I really hate waiting." She said slyly, "So how about 17:00 tonight?" He blinked.

"Heh. Wow, uh... yeah. Sure." He said, swallowing, then nodded as if to convince himself. "17:00 it is." Frey grinned broadly.

"See you then." She hummed, hugged him once more, and skipped off toward her fields to begin her daily chores, glancing over her shoulder and waving to him with a smile. For his part, the big man-her boyfriend-waved an uncertain hand back at her, a faint smile on his lips.

"See you then." He echoed, voice a little light, as if he still couldn't believe it.

 

Chapter Text

 

As expected, Frey already managed to grow impatient over the course of the morning. The giddiness from the earlier events lasted long enough to complete her usual chores, but once her mind had accepted that she now had a tall, bearded boyfriend the remaining hours until their first date seemed more and more like torture. Her arms remembered squeezing him in a firm hug. Her ears remembered the rich, deep quality of his voice as his answer had tumbled from his lips. Her eyes remembered his sheepish posture as he spread his arms in invitation. And all of her hungered to see and hear and touch again. Her mind was so thoroughly stuck on replaying their conversation, she didn't notice the butler in the hallway to her rooms until she’d blundered right into him. 

 

“Goodness!” A deep, rough voice exclaimed as Frey bounced off of the sturdy, muscular frame of Mr. Volkanon. She staggered about, catching her balance even before his broad arms with neat white gloves grasped her arms to keep her from falling over. 

 

“Oh! Sorry, Mr. Volkanon!” She said shrilly.  

 

“Think nothing of it, Miss Frey.” He said, bowing graciously as he released her, “But what has you in such a distracted state, if you don’t mind my asking?” He looked at her with an amused expression on his lined face. Frey blushed.

 

“O-oh! It’s nothing interesting.” She fidgeted with her clothing and looked away. The old man grinned. 

 

“Is that so?” He returned, politely, “Well then I suppose I ought to admonish you for daydreaming?” 

 

“I’ll keep my eyes open when I daydream from here on out.” She promised with a mischievous grin. Then a thought occurred to her. “Mr Volkanon?”

 

“Yess, Misstress?” 

 

“Have you ever been married?” She asked. The older gentleman stared at her with eyebrows raised, apparently at a loss. Then he threw his head back and laughed.

 

“Ah, yes. I see now.” He chuckled, “Who is the lucky young man you’re seeing, Miss Frey?” His voice was warm as he asked the question but suddenly Frey’s insides grew cold. What would the old butler say about her  new thirty-six year old boyfriend? She’d scoffed at Bado’s reservations about the difference in their years and insisted on her right to decide for herself whether his age made a difference to her, but in this moment she found herself afraid.  

 

“Umm…” She squeaked, voice suddenly faint. She stared up at the broad shouldered butler with wide eyes. He guffawed again.

 

“How wonderful to be young and in love!” He bellowed, then burst into tears abruptly, wailing in a voice that sounded almost like a roaring bear. “WAAAAAAA!! It’s just s-so touching!” He bawled. Frey huffed out a breath, half exasperated, half relieved. 

 

“You big goof.” She said quietly, one side of her mouth quirked in a smile. At least his outburst seemed to have distracted him from prying about who she was seeing. 

 

“P-please excuse me, Mistress.” He stammered, dabbing his eyes with a lacy handkerchief, utterly incongruous in the hands of the huge, bulky man. “It’s just that you seem so grown up to my eyes, suddenly.” 

 

“Volkanon!” She chided, rolling her eyes. “I was already grown up by the time we met!” 

 

“But up to now you have never seemed interested in suitors!” He protested. “It’s so unlike you!” 

 

“Well, I just hadn’t managed to identify one I liked until now.” She said, somewhat embarrassed. Somehow this old butler could make her feel just as juvenile as how he apparently saw her. 

 

“Well please allow me to say that I wish you nothing but happiness in your romantic endeavors, Miss Frey.” The big butler offered between sniffles, still dabbing his eyes occasionally. 

 

“Thank you.” She said, nodding primly in an exaggerated attitude. The only way she could really stomach the princess treatment the castle staff gave her was by not taking it seriously. 

 

She left Volkanon to his work and walked back to her quarters for a change of clothes. She’d go to the bathhouse to clean up and refresh herself after the morning’s farm work. She couldn’t very well go to her first date with Bado covered in dust and straw, now could she?

 

Though it could not quite banish the butterflies in her stomach, the bath did wonders for Frey’s agitated state of mind. By the time she’d bathed, dressed, and prepared to walk over to Porcoline’s restaurant she was almost relaxed. Almost.

 

Unfortunately, every step she took upon the paving stones toward the Northeast corner of town spurred her nerves to further excitement all over again. 

 

‘What should I do when I see him again? Should I hold his hand? Hug him? Just play it cool? I should have asked how he feels about public displays of affection. I should have asked for us to go somewhere less busy for our first date. I should have just invited him for a walk! Why did I have to start with dinner? What the heck should I order?’ Frey’s thoughts turned relentlessly, her jitters working their way into a frenzy as her brain frantically tried to consider  every possible scenario. 

 

“Oh.” She piped quietly to herself as she realized she’d walked right past the restaurant toward the observatory tower to the East. She turned on her heel and scurried back to the front of the restaurant, blushing for no one. 

 

She stood in front of the large, and bizarre, lobster statues that ushered in the restaurant’s patrons, looking this way and that for the familiar silhouette of the town’s notoriously lazy blacksmith. It wasn’t quite 17:00 yet, according to her timepiece. So, he also wasn’t quite late yet, either. She sighed and tried to ignore the turning thoughts and her jittery nerves.

 

She didn’t quite want to believe that the people of Selphia, who had welcomed her so warmly when she’d literally fallen from the sky into their midst, would disparage her for choosing Bado for her lover. But, then again… he sure had a reputation around this town. She winced. It wasn’t just Volkanon; everyone in town spoke of the blacksmith with exasperation and bafflement. On one hand, his skills were known to be of the highest order of craftsmen in Norad; on the other, his blatant lack of work ethic and his not-quite-conman routine meant he was never taken seriously. Mostly it seemed to confuse or frustrate people, the combination of his most well-known characteristics. 

 

Frey chewed her lip. She too had not really seriously considered him before: not as a lover, especially. But that expression, so lost and bewildered, as she had floated away in the airship. No one had ever wanted her quite the way he did: enough to look at her as his heart broke in silence while he accepted her decision to leave him behind with no more reassurance than a vague promise that she’d return someday.

 

The town charlatan seemed so earnest when it came to her. But perhaps no one but her knew this side of him? Or wold they think she was merely being taken in? No one around here seemed to respect him. What would they have to say about a man like that holding the hand of their Princess? She frowned, brow fretting. ‘What on earth am I going to say to them?’

 

Just then, from inside the restaurant, a beautiful figure with long ears emerged, carrying a harp under one delicate arm. Meg stepped out in front of the entrance, across the doorway from Frey and held up her harp, ready to begin playing for passerby to invite them into the relaxing atmosphere of the dining room. Her eyes happened to pass over Frey as she moved, and she started, lowering the instrument again. 

 

“Frey?” She asked curiously, “What are you doing out here?”

 

“Me? I, um…” Frey began, twisting the fabric of her skirt in her fingertips. She felt so nervous every time someone else asked a question that invited revealing her newly founded partnership. She knew why, but  she was the one who’d asked him to have dinner with her in the busiest corner of the whole town. Having created this scenario herself, shouldn’t she be more confident about it? Why was the idea of telling someone she was dating Bado making the butterflies in her stomach go crazy now, when she was about to be on a date with him in broad daylight? 

 

“Oh!” Meg chimed, grinning. “You’re meeting someone, aren’t you? Don’t try to deny it. I can see you blushing from here.” 

 

‘Stupid.’ Frey thought furiously as she felt her face heat up, just as Meg had accused. 

 

“Heh. Well, y-yeah. I am.” She admitted, smiling sheepishly at the elven woman. 

 

“Ooh!” Meg squealed, “A hot date?” She was all but dancing in place as she pried Frey with her big eyes glittering. 

 

“Yeah, you could say that. I mean, I think so, anyway.” Frey fumbled, laughing nervously and shifting her weight on her small feet. 

 

“Heya Frey.” A deep voice suddenly sounded behind her, a little out of breath. She turned almost fast enough to wrench her neck. The tall, broad form of Bado himself cast a shadow over her as he looked down, apology in his expression. Remembering her conversation, Frey glanced sideways at Meg, who was blinking in a confused fashion at the pair. 

 

“Sorry I’m late.” Bado said abashedly. “I sure didn’t want to make you wait on the first go-around.” He sighed, looking fretful. Frey just smiled up at him. How could she have worried what others would think of her choice of partner? That earnest expression; his simple wish to live up to her hopes, despite his certainty she’d ‘come to her senses’ and choose someone else. It didn’t matter what they thought of him. She knew what she felt for this man, especially when he stood before her, all eagerness to please and awe that she’d actually chosen him. He may be a lazy slacker in his chosen profession, but no one in Selphia appreciated their Princess quite the way he did. 

 

She slipped her slender hand in between the palm and thumb of his big, angular one and grasped it gently. Bado looked down at her hand in his and back up at her. The surprise lifting his brow melted into a humble, pleased expression, a smile tugging on one side of his mouth. 

 

“Don’t worry about it. I was just talking to Meg. I didn’t even realize it was past time.” She said cheerfully, and looked back over her shoulder at the musician. 

 

Meg stood with eyes wide and mouth agape, not even trying to hide her stunned expression. Bado looked quizzically from the elf to his girlfriend and back, but she offered no more explanation than a little giggle and tugged him toward the door. 

 

“C’mon.” She said, winking at the still slack-jawed Meg on her way into the restaurant.

Chapter Text

The interior of Porcoline’s restaurant flooded Frey’s senses with familiar sights and sounds. She didn’t eat here every day but she did visit Porco, Arthur, Meg, and Dylas regularly. She blinked and smiled slightly at the smells and sights and sounds of the busy eatery full of her friends and neighbors and travelers come to visit the town thanks to her efforts as Princess to make Selphia a destination.

 

She looked about and found Dylas working his shift as a waiter as per usual. He bustled over, having noticed new customers entering, and then did a double take when he realized the particular combination of people his customers were. His yellow eyes flicked downward, lingering on the princess’ hand clasped with the big blacksmith’s, then snapped back upwards to squint skeptically at her.

 

Frey squeezed Bado’s big hand and stuck her chin out at the half-monster and all his surly attitude, daring him to say something. Dylas faltered in the face of her hard stare, and he simply ushered them to a table for two before scurrying away.

 

Bado shifted about as he settled into the chair, gingerly, as if worried it might collapse. Frey looked curiously at him and he cleared his throat and looked embarrassed.

 

“They, uh… don’t often make furniture with guys my size in mind.” He explained reluctantly, “You only have to find your rear end on the floor a few times before you learn to be cautious.” Frey smirked, letting out a tiny puff of air, just the ghost of a laugh.

 

“Anyway…” Bado continued, looking around, his shoulders rounded and hands fiddling with his fork. His eyes darted around the dining room. Frey followed them to each table and each other patron. Some glanced their way from time to time. Most were too absorbed in their own meal and company to notice the strange pair sitting nearby. She looked back to her date, noting the way his knee bounced up and down in rapid succession from the jittering motion of his foot poised with the heel raised off the floor.

 

He’s nervous.’ She thought, swallowing as a strange combination of emotions rose up. Sympathy, nervousness of her own, and an affectionate kinship with the man; it was good to know he could feel as anxious as her own inexperienced self even with the several years he had ahead of her.

 

Dylas returned, poured water, and deposited menus. He said nothing as he turned and left them again. She didn’t mind his unpersonable service in this case. Better he stay aloof than say something to rattle her or Bado even more.

 

“This is nice. I’m glad we came.” She said, trying to assuage him a little with small talk, even if it felt a little silly.

 

“What? Oh. Yeah.” He said absently, took a sip of water, and glanced off to his left again.

 

“What’s eating you?” Frey asked, tilting her head as she tried to coax eye contact out of the big man. His gaze snapped to hers and he sighed, looking down.

 

“Am I that transparent?”

 

“Well, yeah.” She said, “You’re acting like some kind of fugitive. What’s going on with you?” Her tone rang with concern.

 

He sighed. “It’s Nancy. She’s watchin’ us from over there.” Frey followed the direction he’d glanced a moment ago and bent her brow.

 

“She’s just having dinner with Jones like always.” She said, shaking her head faintly.

 

“I saw her look over at us and raise her eyebrows. Lookin’ at me like I’m doin’ somethin’ I shouldn’t be.” He glanced at Frey, expression guilty.

 

“I doubt that’s actually her intention.” Frey countered skeptically, “But even if it were, who cares? I’m here with you because I want to be. We aren’t up to anything sketchy.”

 

“Depends who you ask.” He countered, looking dejected, “Just because you’re alright with my age doesn’t mean everyone else is.”

 

“Well,” She said, pausing thoughtfully. He looked back up at her. “I’m not dating everyone else, am I?” She said with a crooked smirk. “So it hardly seems to matter what they think of my age or yours.” Finally, he cracked a smile and huffed out a little laugh, his posture becoming relaxed at last.

 

“If you say so.” He said skeptically, but his eyes softened as he spoke.

 

“I do.” She said, pointing at him, “Now what do you want to eat? I’m starving.” He looked down at the menu and blinked as if he’d only just realized it was there.

 

“Uh…” He flipped the thing over, stared at it a moment, scratched the back of his head, and then put it back down. “Why don’t you order for me, Frey?” He said finally, with a good-natured expression. “I don’t really come here ever, so… you probably know better than I would what’s good to order.”

 

Frey tilted her head at him, smirking. “You don’t?”

 

“Nah, I just forge myself meals most days. Sometimes Kiel cooks for me, though.”

 

“That’s sweet of him.” She replied, smiling.

 

“Yeah, he’s a good kid. Not much like his dad, but that’s just fine. He doesn’t need armor or a sword to be noble.”

 

“Does Forte cook for you, too?” Frey asked, pleased to have finally drawn him far enough out of his nervousness to hold up a conversation.

 

“Uh… yeah. She does, occasionally.” He said reluctantly, turning pale.

 

“What’s the matter? You don’t like her cooking?” Frey asked.

 

“Let’s just say, Forte’s cooking has proven… survivable so far.”

 

“That bad, huh?” She replied, wincing. Bado chuckled.

 

“I got an idea, princess: why don’t you judge our next town eating contest. Your constitution is about as good as Volkanon, right?” He grinned a wily, wicked smile at her. It sent a little zing up her backbone.

 

“I-I think I’ll stick to competing, instead.” She said.

 

“Oh? Smart choice, but hey, if you’re into cooking, yourself, I’d love to have a taste sometime, Frey.” He added with a hopeful little tilt of his head.  Frey smirked.

 

“Sure thing. By the way, what exactly is the difference between cooking food and forging it?”

 

“Not owning a regular oven!” Bado laughed. “It’s not so bad though. I used to cook practically all my meals over campfires in the Knighthood, so I’m pretty used to usin’ somethin’ like the forge for scraping meals together.”

 

Frey perked up with interest. He didn’t miss her excitement. He shook his head as if to say he thought her silly for finding this drivel interesting, but continued anyhow:

 

“Eating so many meals in the field has had the decided advantage of makin’ me pretty content to eat whatever’s in front of me. I ain’t particular… except when it comes to cheese, I guess.” He added in a low grumble.

 

“You don’t like cheese?”

 

“Nah. Can’t stand it. Just the smell makes me feel like I’m gonna lose whatever I have eaten.” He said, grimacing slightly. “Though… Kiel has put it in a couple things he’s made for me and I didn’t mind it as much then. Maybe you just gotta know what to do with the stuff when cooking? Still, I wouldn’t choose it at the grocers if ya paid me to!”

 

Frey made a mental note so she would not accidentally disgust him with a slice of pizza or a cheese roll someday while trying to cook for him.

                           

“Well, let’s steer clear of the fondue on the weekly specials menu then, shall we?” She said sweetly.

 

“That’d be appreciated.” He returned, quirking a smile. “So, what’ll it be? My fate is in your hands, after all.

 

“How about… a tempura bowl?” Frey asked with a smirk.

 

“Cheater.” He accused with a grin. “You asked Kiel what I like, didn’t you?”

 

“Doing your research isn’t cheating.” She said primly, stacking the menus neatly on the edge of the table to signal they were ready to order. Bado chuckled.

 

“Come to think of it, you’re always giving gifts around town. You know what rings everyone’s bells around here, princess?”

 

“More or less.” She shrugged. “It’s not actually hard if you listen. Most folks will tell you about themselves without too much prodding.”

 

Her date’s smile grew wider and warmer. Something seemed to twinkle in his blue-gray eyes.

 

“You sure are a good egg, Frey.”

 

Frey blushed, adjusting the menus on the edge of the table again, and smiling obliquely at him.

 

Dylas finally showed himself again, grabbing the menus unceremoniously and taking out a notepad. He determinedly looked at it, rather than them.

 

“One tempura bowl and one curry rice, please.” She said politely.

 

“Anything else?” He said in his clipped way.

 

“Something to drink?” Frey asked Bado. He gave a little half smile.

 

“I’ll stick with water. I want my wits about me so I can keep up with you.” She smirked in reply to this.

 

“No, thank you. That’s all.” She said to Dylas, who promptly turned and walked away with no further ceremony.

 

The pair blinked at one another awkwardly for a beat or two after their waiter left, then both attempted to speak at once, cut off their sentences, and blushed. It was like some kind of extremely odd mirror, Frey thought. She tried again.

 

“So… I don’t think I’ve told you yet, but I met someone who knows you while I was on my trip.” Bado tilted his head and quirked an eyebrow, interested. Then a look of dawning comprehension came over his weathered features and his mouth made an ‘oh’ shape without quite voicing it.

 

“You probably mean Gaius, right?” Bado said, “There ain’t that many people around who know me outside of Selphia, after all. Or, at least… not that many you’d be likely to bump into.”

 

“Yeah it was Gaius. You’ve never mentioned you have a cousin in Sharance.” He shrugged at this.

 

“Doesn’t really come up in conversation much. How’d you figure out we were connected, anyhow?”

 

“Well, the family resemblance, for one thing.” Frey said, smirking. Bado frowned, folding his arms, but the twinkle of mischief she so often saw in his eyes was back.  

 

“Aw, c’mon! I’m way more handsome than that little shrimp, don’t you think?”

 

“Fishing for compliments, now?” I already confessed to you, so you know already that I find you attractive.” Despite it all, though, Frey blushed as she said it aloud. She was understating it. She found him very attractive. So much so, in fact, that she had developed a habit of shooing thoughts along those lines out of her mind before more… intense ones started popping into her head.

 

“You can’t blame a guy for wanting to hear it again, though.” He countered, “And I don’t suppose you’d mind at all if I told you on the daily that you’re the prettiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

 

Frey’s face immediately burned red-hot. She swallowed, tongue tied, and stared at him with big, round eyes. It was hard to say if she were more embarrassed or pleased. Bado grinned a victorious—and wolffish—grin.

 

“I may be out of practice with this sorta thing,” He said, “but I still remember enough to know that a girl will never tire of being admired by her fella, and visa versa.”

 

“W-well I’ll admit I don’t mind it.” She allowed, “And…” She rallied her nerve and put together something that hopefully would satisfy him without embarrassing her too much, “I never had to stop myself from ogling a guy too much before I noticed you.”

 

Bado’s wily grin grew a few degrees more proud and he drew in a breath that belled out his broad chest a little.

 

“There you go.” He said happily, “A bit more practice and I’ll expect you to make me blush next time.”  Frey gave him a confused look.

 

“Is this a contest?”

 

“Just a little game between lovers.” He offered lightly, still sly.

 

“Well… I hope you’ll be ready to face my competitive streak.” She said finally, smirking at him. He laughed warmly, the sound filling up her chest with a confusing, giddy feeling. Several people throughout the restaurant stopped their conversation and looked around at the big man, his laughter loud and sudden enough to catch their attention.

 

Feeling their eyes on him, Bado shifted in his chair, ducking his head as if a bird had swooped low and skimmed his hair. He cleared his thought quietly.

 

“Ahem. Sorry ‘bout that.” He mumbled abashedly, eyes darting to hers and away again. Frey’s smile grew bigger and fonder.

 

“Don’t be.” She said sweetly, “I don’t mind them looking.”

 

“Thanks.” He said quietly, looking sheepish but pleased, now. Then he shifted again, standing up from his chair. “I’ll be right back. Just need to use  the facilities for a moment.” As he left, an interesting idea popped into Frey’s head.

 

He wants to play games, eh?’ She thought with a wicked smile. She waved Dylas over again as he passed on his way back from delivering an order.

 

“Yeah?” He said gruffly as he arrived at her table.

 

“I changed my mind about ordering a drink.” She said, fingertips steepled before her to make her mischievous expression a little less obvious.

 

“‘Kay. Whaddaya want?” Dylas replied, brusque as always.

 

“One glass of ‘prelude to love’ with two straws please.” She said deliberately in a confidential voice. Dylas immediately wrinkled his nose at her.

 

“Don’cha think you’re layin’ it on a little thick?” He accused, frowning. She raised her eyebrows at him.

 

“That’s not really any of your business, is it?” She said in a mild tone, eyes glinting dangerously.

 

“Fine. Go ahead and embarrass yourself.” The half-monster growled at her. “He ain’t gonna be impressed by this. You’ll just look desperate.”

 

“Oh? Is there something you know about him that I don’t? I had no idea you two were on such familiar terms.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully with an outstretched finger, “And here I thought you were partial to red-haired dwarves…”

 

Dylas’ face purpled with anger and he spluttered indignantly at her:

 

“Shaddup! I don’t know shit about no dwarves!” The half monster turned on his heel and stalked away to the kitchen. Frey shrugged to herself. ‘ Well, that was easy.’ A few seconds later she distinctly heard a delighted giggle coming from the kitchen. She grinned wickedly to herself.

 

‘Phase one complete.’ She thought smugly as she heard the heavy footsteps of her very large boyfriend returning.

 

“Sorry for the interruption, Frey.” He said as he sat down at the table once more, “Where were we?”

 

“Playing games.” Frey replied, looking at him with a victorious air. He raised an eyebrow at her as if to ask what she had up her sleeve.

 

Dylas obligingly brought the beverage at that very moment and set it down between them on the table. He flashed a disgusted look at her as he turned and left. She made a mental note to tease him again later for that. Meanwhile, Bado was staring at the new arrival to their table.

 

‘Prelude to Love’ was a beverage made of pink melon and strawberry. The extreme combination of sweet and sour fruit flavors hit one’s tongue without any subtlety whatsoever. So, as one might expect, it wasn’t all that popular to refined palettes. It was something only someone very young and VERY deluded by infatuation would order with a straight face. Bado and Frey both inspected the heart-shaped slices of strawberry and melon perched on the edge of the goblet-like glass. Frey suppressed a giggle. Bado frowned at her.

 

“Is this your move?” He said, unimpressed. Frey shrugged, still smirking. Bado shook his head. “Well, like I said: you need a little more practice if you want to make me blush.” He picked up the glass and sipped at the drink carelessly. Frey’s grin widened a hair as he grimaced “Yeugh. That needs a lot of alcohol to justify being that sweet.” He grumbled, sticking his tongue out as he set the thing back down.

 

“WOOOONDERFUL HELLOOOOOO, LOVERRRS!!!” A truly ridiculous voice sang loudly in their midst. Bado jumped sharply in his seat and looked up to find the extremely rotund form of Porcoline De Santa Coquille himself leaning over the edge of their table and ogling them both with huge, starry eyes. Bado leaned away from the portly chef, eyes wide, mouth clamped shut. Frey just barely stifled a laugh.

 

Porco twirled in a graceful circle, scattering fruit and vegetables from the overstuffed pockets of his apron, and cast an arm upward with a flourish, scattering a fistful of small red flower petals over the couple. Frey leaned back in her chair in a gloating attitude, arms folded, mouth stretched in a wicked grin as petals settled in her new boyfriend’s hair and beard. The owner of the restaurant spun in place and scattered two more handfuls of petals over them before leaning dramatically over the table once more, gazing excitedly at Bado from far nearer than the big man was comfortable with, judging by the way he was almost falling out of his chair to lean back away from the other man.

 

Every patron in the restaurant was staring now. Frey glanced about with satisfaction. It may be extreme, but she was certain there was no better way to extinguish their trepidation about being public with their relationship than to blow the lid off the thing with ample fanfare. Ridiculousness could be a pretty decent substitute for confidence, when you got right down to it.

 

“You just let me know if there is ANYTHING we can do to make your evening more romantic !” He said, voice gushing with delight. “We do so love to entertain newly smitten couples, you know, especially MOI.” He added with a chortle behind closed lips as he looked conspiratorially at Frey, eyes blazing like bonfires.

 

For his part, Bado looked rather speechless. And, rather red . His delicate pointed ears almost looked like more of the flower petals stuck in his hair and beard. Frey’s eyes twinkled as she stared at his mortified face.

 

Finally, having performed his duty as he saw it, Porco left them to their meal, which Dylas was setting out between them now. As he retreated from Bado’s personal space, the portly man  snatched a sip of the ‘Prelude to Love’ from one of the red straws protruding form the glass without ever breaking eye contact. He probably hadn’t even noticed he’d done it. Porco’s compulsions around food and drink were one of the more interesting aspects of dining in his restaurant. Fortunately the quality of the food more than made up for all the eccentric behavior of its chef.

 

Bado and Frey stared at one another over the steaming plates of delicious food, he speechless, her gloating.

 

That was my move.” Frey said deliberately.

 

“Well!” Bado huffed, looking at her as if he’d only just realized he’d brought a silver wolf to dinner. “You have all the subtlety of a battle hammer, Pet.” He shook his head ruefully, “But, I have to concede the point. Is my face actually on fire, or does it just feel that way?” Frey laughed a purely joyful laugh.

 

“I did warn you.” She all but sang, then added thoughtfully: “You’re very cute when you’re embarrassed, especially those red ears.” She grinned.  

 

“Yeah, yeah.” He returned, smiling with half his mouth “No one ever let’s me out of knowing my ears are too cute to be butch.

 

“The rest of you is butch enough to spare.” She assured him, blushing slightly, herself, as she eyed his broad shoulders. He didn’t miss her stare, and looked back at her with a confidence that had been altogether absent at the start of the meal.

 

“Well, shall we dig in?” She piped happily. “Wouldn’t want all Porco’s efforts to go to waste, would we?”

 

“More like we’d better eat this stuff before he does it for us.” Bado countered, picking up his fork. They shared a chuckle over the joke and began to eat. The food was as delicious as always. Periodically they dared each other to take a sip of the ridiculous drink she’d ordered, laughing at each other's disgusted expressions after the liquid hit their tongues.

 

Their conversation came easily now, and Bado’s knee no longer bounced in nervous agitation. His posture was loose and his smile and big, booming laugh came easily. Frey smiled freely, too. Sure, being in a new relationship was all kinds of uncertain, anxiety-ridden, racing-thoughts-making trouble, but this was… well, fun ! Her affection for the big man seemed to be growing before her eyes. By the time they'd finished their meal, paid (she insisted this time), and walked back to the front gates of the castle, they were talking so freely and happily together, they hardly had a thought to spare for anyone around them, or what they might think of their mutual attraction.

 

“Well, I’ve sure enjoyed our first date, Frey. I hope you’re up for another soon?” He added hopefully with a gentle smile. Frey grinned happily at the big man.

 

“Very soon. I’ll come visit you tomorrow and we’ll figure out the details. Sound good?”

 

“Sounds perfect.” he returned, grinning broadly now. They stared at each other for a beat or two, suddenly uncertain all over again. It was time to say goodnight and part ways. She knew very well they should let this lovely evening end on a high note, rather than trying to drag it out just because they didn’t particularly want to say goodbye. But… something should happen first, right?

 

She stared at him, eyes shifting to his mouth and down his broad chest. She remembered the great solid warmth of him when they’d embraced the day before. She wanted that feeling again. She leaned toward him. He had been staring too, watching her closely for clues. As she shifted her weight in his direction he mirrored the motion, moving one big foot to redistribute his weight.

 

“I, um…” Frey mumbled, suddenly tongue-tied., “May I have hug?” The smiling expression that bloomed on his weathered features shone with a humble and tender affection. His brows rose and he gave a little sigh through his nose.

 

“You can have anything I’m capable of giving, Pet.” He said, low and soft. “I still can’t believe a guy like me can be so lucky.”

 

She grinned, chest swelling with emotion, and on pure, joyful impulse she leapt at him.

 

The look of surprise that took over his expression flashed in her vision for the briefest moment as she flung herself at him, and then she was in his arms. Those strong, thick arms that caught her on reflex and held her tightly to the big sturdy frame of the man she’d unexpectedly grown to love. Her feet off the ground and her heart soaring, Frey squeezed Bado with all the strength in her. She didn’t care who saw. She wanted them to see. Her trepidation from this morning had been usurped by actual pride in her choice. She’d chosen to be happy by opening herself up to this overly tall, pointy-eared fool, and by all the Divine Dragons she was happy in this moment: as happy as she could remember ever being.

 

For his part, the big dwarf mutely squeezed her back with careful vigor, almost reverent of her smaller person. She supposed he must be used to handling others a bit gingerly so as not to harm them with his strength. He was certainly a lazy man, by his own reckoning even, but weak he was not. She’d seen him casually lift crate-fulls of merchandise that had been delivered to his store before with one burly arm. She smiled against his shoulder. Her gentle giant, she thought, warmth in her belly.

 

Eventually, he lowered her gently until her feet were reunited with the earth and smiled down at her, color in his face and ears.

 

“Thank you, Frey… for giving me a shot.” He said, looking sheepish again. She shook her head.

 

“Aren’t you the one giving me a shot? I’m the one who asked you out, remember?”

 

“Yeah but you’re clearly out of my league!” He laughed, “So it doesn’t matter who asked who. I’m just over the moon about it all. I’ve had my eye on you practically since the day we met, but I never thought I’d actually get this chance.” She tilted her head as she looked up at him.

 

“Then what was all that at the airship when I was leaving?” She asked. A pained expression overlapped his smile.

 

“Desperation, I guess.” He replied quietly. “I thought I’d never see you again. It was… just too much at the time. I couldn’t hold back.” Aching from that sadness in his voice, she wrapped her slender arms around his middle and spoke softly into his shirt:

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s alright, Frey. It was your choice. Your life.”

 

“I’m still sorry. If I’d known how you felt… I…” She trailed off.

 

“Well… that’s on me, I guess. Sorry I went to such lengths to hide it form you up until then. I just never figured you’d answer my feelings. I didn’t want to be throwing somethin’ at you you didn’t want. And… Well I guess I was afraid, too.”

 

“Afraid?” She asked, looking up at him curiously.

 

“Yeah. If I hid how I felt I could at least carry on without knowing for sure you didn’t like me. If I confessed and you shot me down, well… I’d feel quite the fool. I ain’t a young man anymore. Yeah, yeah-” He said rolling his eyes. She always argued with him when he called himself old. “I won’t be old old for a long time, thanks to my bloodline but I ain’t young either. There ain't any excuse for a man my age to be pining after someone your age and expecting something to come of it.” He smiled at her. “All that’s left to think is I’m just unreasonably lucky.”

 

Frey shook her head, but didn’t argue further. She just hugged him again, and approached the subject with her own heart on her sleeve.

 

“I’m really glad you said yes.” She told him earnestly.

 

“Me too.” He said simply, returning her hug.

 

“See you tomorrow then?” She offered.

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“Until then.” She said softly.

 

“‘Til Then” he agreed.

Chapter Text

The following morning as she awoke and recalled her first date with her new boyfriend, Frey sincerely thanked her past self for making plans to see him the very next day. Really, even waiting that long seemed like idiocy. Her desire to spend time in his company, to learn more about him, and to explore their new relationship consumed her waking mind. She kicked off her bedding and sprang upright to get ready for the day.

 

As was her morning routine, she dutifully took care of her fields and monsters and checked in with Venti and Arthur on her responsibilities as Princess. As she was combing through the harvest report in Arthur’s office, however, the prince unexpectedly commented on her new obsession.

 

“I heard something rather interesting from my landlord this morning over breakfast.” He said, not quite offhandedly. Frey felt a slight jolt go through her at his carefully controlled tone.

 

“Oh?” She replied, bracing for whatever he was about to say about her date.

 

“Porcoline seemed to think you are dating our resident lazy blacksmith.” Arthur said in an interested but neutral tone. “I would have thought it just typical Porco eccentricity, but his story was corroborated by Dylas, who I’m fairly sure could not fool me with a lie. He’s just such a transparent soul, you know.”

 

“Yeah, can’t argue that.” Frey mumbled, remembering any number of times Dylas had angrily denied any affinity for Doug. She rolled her eyes as she thought of it. Really, those two needed to just bury the hatchet and start dating, already.

 

“Well?” Arthur added expectantly after a moment.

 

“Well what?” Frey asked, playing dumb.

 

“Are you dating Bado?” He asked patiently. Frey blushed, despite her most sincere efforts to act casual.

 

“Yeah, we are dating. Last night was our first date, in fact.” She said, avoiding eye contact by scrutinizing the harvest report. Arthur said nothing, but his silence was so loud, Frey couldn’t help but glance up at him. The prince sat primly with his teacup in his hand, plainly waiting for her attention.

 

“Frey…” He said seriously, staring her in the eyes.

 

“Yeah?” She said, hoping her anxiety wasn’t showing too obviously. No one could make her sweat like Arthur. He was just too damn… professional .

 

“What game are you playing?” Arthur asked, the barest hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

 

“Game?” She echoed, genuinely confused, now.

 

“Are you doing this to get his attention? I could certainly see Bado going along with it as your confederate, but surely this kind of theatre isn’t necessary. Why not just approach him frankly?”

 

“What?” Frey said blankly, “What the heck are you talking about? Him who?”

 

“Whoever you’re trying to court.”

 

“I’m… really confused.” Frey said, pinching the bridge of her nose, “I’m pretty sure I just told you Bado and I were on a date last night. I’m courting him. I did approach him frankly, and now we’re a couple.” Slowly the smirk fell out of Arthur’s expression and he leaned back and stared at her, a subtle, but baffled expression crossing his cool, composed features.

 

“You are seeing Bado? He is your lover?” Arthur asked, scrutinizing her with his strange, garnet-colored eyes.

 

“Yes.” Frey said stiffly, resentment beginning to bubble in her belly. “I believe I already told you that… twice. She stared at Arthur, not exactly glaring, but not terribly warmly, either. The Prince stared blankly at her for a beat, then mastered himself and bowed his head ever so slightly.

 

“I apologize. That was terribly rude of me. I just never expected… that is to say, I was surprised. I should not have jumped to conclusions, though. Please forgive me.”

Frey relaxed a little at this. At least Arthur could always be counted on to maintain civility.

 

“It’s alright. I realize it might look strange, but I found he and I have a certain chemistry, and that drew me all the way back to Selphia to explore the possibilities.” She said, trying her best to be forthcoming. If anything would convince others of her sincerity, her own honest feelings were the most likely thing to do the job.

 

“Well,” Arthur began, tilting his head slightly with renewed interest, “That is fascinating. I do not wish to pry, but I’ll admit you have piqued my curiosity. What is it exactly, that you see in him?”

Frey blushed hotly, thrown by the Prince’s frank line of inquiry.

 

“W-well…” Frey stammered, “I know how he seems, and all, but Bado is really very genuine. He’s not always very direct , I’ll admit, but if you ask the right questions and get a feel for how to read him, you realize he never actually lies. He just likes to play with words, I think.”

Arthur raise his eyebrows and tilted his head curiously, patiently waiting for more. The vacuum of his silence pulled more from Frey’s lips than she might’ve wanted to share with the prince.

 

“Besides, I kinda like all his buffoonery. He never gets up to any real dangerous mischief, so what’s the harm in it?” She felt a smile bend her lips as she remembered his game of trying to make each other blush and how she’d turned the tables on him. “He’s a good sport, if you play with him.”

Arthur blinked serenely, betraying no clear emotional response to her explanation. By now, though, Frey was starting to have fun describing aloud what she liked about her new paramour. With a shrug, she threw caution to the wind and leaned into the odd conversation completely.

“I hadn’t really thought of dating him until after I left a few weeks ago. But you see, he came to say goodbye to me the morning I left, and all but told me he liked me. He was so distraught about my leaving, I ended up promising him I’d come back.” She explained plainly. Arthur continued to watch her with his tightly controlled reactions. Suddenly, Frey wanted nothing more than to disrupt the man’s composure a little.

“Plus, he’s so… butch . She added with a wicked, self-satisfied smirk, her eyes full of mischief as she pictured him with all his broad, angular dimensions and well-muscled physique. Physical attraction on its own is a good enough reason to ask someone out, right?” She added, raising an eyebrow at Arthur, who, to her immense satisfaction blinked rapidly as the slightest suggestion of a rosy color came into his cheeks. He gently cleared his throat.

 

“As you say, Princess, attraction certainly plays a role. As a man, I certainly consider it of substantial importance when considering a woman as a potential partner.  But, um… if I may, I generally do not find myself attracted to women who are half again my age.” His voice was not pointed, merely curious, by his tone. Frey just shrugged.

 

“What can I really say to that?” She offered, “Attraction isn’t exactly a deliberate thing, now is it? I like what I see in him. And I’ve had the good fortune to have my feelings reciprocated. What’s left to say about it?”

 

“Plenty over time, I suspect. But, I’m not here to judge. I was merely curious because it is, as you well understand, a bit unusual.” She only shrugged again at this. “In any case, as long as you both conduct yourself as I would expect you to with any suitor, I suppose there is no real harm in it. It helps that he’s a dwarf.” The prince mused thoughtfully, “If you end up together in the long term, his slower aging will make you two match a little more closely in appearance in your middle years, I should think.” Frey felt her face burn hotly at this.

 

“W-we j-just went on our first d-date!” She squeaked, clutching the edge of her skirt with white knuckles, “I'm really not ready to think about anything so far in the future, you know!” Arthur smiled serenely and gave her another of those slight bows.

 

“Of course. Please excuse me. I got a little ahead of myself. It is part of my role to think of how the crown is represented in all things. As acting princess of Selphia, you too reflect on my father’s administration, albeit indirectly.” She felt another little jolt of surprise, and let a tiny squeak out as she finally understood why Arthur was gently interrogating her about her new boyfriend.

 

“We’ll behave ourselves.” She said in a hoarse voice, blushing furiously.

 

“Good.” Arthur nodded graciously, “I’m glad you see what I’m getting at, here. A scandal would certainly create a world of trouble and extra work for me, you know. So, be smart, Princess. No illegitimate heirs if you plea—”

 

“GEEZ!” Frey shrilled, “I promise we’ll stay out of trouble just please s-stop! I am not ready to think about all this yet!” She covered her fiery complexion with two hands and shook her head vigorously. She’d thought she’d gained the upper hand talking about how attractive the big blacksmith was to her but now Arthur had gone and put that in her head. Suddenly she was fighting feverishly to suppress a whole series of rather inappropriate scenarios her imagination had reflexively constructed based on Arthur’s implication.

 

Gods and dragons! I haven’t even kissed him yet!’ She thought in exasperation. Perhaps the prince who sat across from her was a bit of a pervert… after all, what else could explain why Arthur had beaten her to the punch when it came to extrapolating her attraction to Bado so far as sex was concerned. She shook her head again, fighting not to undress her dwarven boyfriend in her mind.

 

“Well, this conversation has become quite embarrassing, so I think I’ll be going now.” Frey said, matter-of-factly, standing up with a decisive air. Arthur nodded graciously.

 

“Of course, you are free to go, Princess.”

 

“Thanks.” She muttered, and stalked out of the room. Upon reaching the street outside, she wondered if the early summer weather would make a sunburn a plausible excuse for her red face. She sighed. “Well, that was mortifying.” She mumbled, “Should have known better than to step into the ring with that one, I guess…”

 

She began to walk in the direction of the residential district where Bado’s home and shop were located, slowly, to give her blood a chance to cool down.

 

Geez.’ , She thought indignantly, ‘ Stupid prince. If I lose my nerve because of this I’m going to throttle him for it!’ The notions he’d planted in her head had dug their claws in and held fast. Oh sure, being attracted to Bado had implicitly meant she would like to sleep with him in theory . But she hadn’t gotten as far as really considering it or imagining it, for that matter. She’d only been back a week! And getting his attention and declaring her interest had consumed all her focus up to now. She hadn’t thought of sex as being on the agenda, even if it came along with the idea of having a boyfriend in the first place. She shook her head sharply.

Gods, I’m totally out of order! It’s way too soon to be thinking of this!” The butterflies in her stomach made a comeback as she neared the smithy. How was she going to hold up a conversation with him like this? She turned around on the spot and paced back down the street the way she’d come, glaring red-faced at the paving stones.

I know I said I’d come talk to him today but maybe I should wait until later at this point. What if I blurt out something stupid?” Suddenly a new thought came unbidden into her mind. Had he considered the possibility yet? Her face burned yet more feverish as she thought of it and her feet stopped her mid-stride. She turned around and stared back toward the ‘Meanderer’, suddenly drowning in her curiosity.

Did Bado want to sleep with her? Presumably the answer was yes, given he’d reciprocated her love confession in the first place. But… some part of her wanted to know for sure. Did he think of her that way already? Had he… she gulped… fantasized about her before? She may have only recently realized her feelings for him, but she didn’t really know how long he’d harbored his interest in her.

 

Frey fretted as she stared down the street, thoughts tangling and jumbling inside her head all the while. She just stood there, stuck for a minute or more before a devilish little idea hatched inside her mind. It brought a fresh blush to her cheeks but a smile curled her mouth at the same time. Perhaps she could get her answer without having to ask directly, seeing as how that would be too embarrassing to consider so early in their courtship.

 

A couple minutes later she stepped inside the ‘Meanderer’ with a gentle chime of the shop’s bell. Her eyes quickly scanned the room and found Bado just as he turned to see who had come calling. He smiled warmly at her, eyes bright. She swallowed, warmth in her belly as she considered her strategy.

 

“Heya, Pet.” He called, using the nickname he’d chosen for her. “You’re here earlier than I expected.” He grinned a crooked grin at her. “Already eager for another tête-à-tête?”

 

“You could say that,” She admitted, smirking at him, “But I prefer to think of it as being efficient.” He mirrored her smirk. “Unless, of course you’d rather wait?” She offered, raising her eyebrows at him. He leaned back, folding his arms.

 

“I didn’t say that .” He replied, with a tilt of his head.

 

“Good.” She smiled broadly. “Another date, then?”

 

“Please.” He said, still smirking. “If I haven’t sent you running yet, I’ll savor this as long as I can until you wise up and pick a younger guy.” Frey frowned at him.

 

“Will ya knock that off, already? I came back here for you , you big dummy! If I’d wanted some younger guy there is literally a whole world out there in which to find one. I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t want you, specifically.” She folded her arms and tapped her foot impatiently as she said it. How long was it going to take to convince him her feelings were not some fleeting fancy?

 

“Y-you what?” Bado stammered, blinking at her.

 

“I wasn’t planning on coming back to Selphia, necessarily.” Frey explained, “But you looked so sad that morning… I ended up promising you I’d return. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about you. And Gaius certainly didn’t make that any less so.” She added, grumbling. Bado laughed weakly.

 

“Well I’ll be damned! I-I’ll have to thank him for that, won’t I?” He shuffled in place, fidgeting nervously. “Y-you really came back… just for me ?” She nodded.

 

“Yeah. So quit with all that talk about me ‘coming to my senses’ and so on, okay?” She pleaded, tilting her head hopefully up at him. The big man looked abashed, but pleased, beaming at her as he drew in a long breath that swelled out his broad chest.

 

“Well, alright then.” He mumbled, eyes a little distant. He shook himself slightly and regrouped. “S-so, uh… now that we understand each other on that point… where d’you wanna go for our date?”

 

“The lake.” She said immediately. He blinked at her.

 

“The… lake?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Uh… well… yeah, okay.” He said, posture uncertain.

 

“What’s wrong?” She asked, genuinely curious. He stared at her, bewildered.

 

“I, uh… nothin.’ Nothin’.” He repeated, blushing as he looked away. His ears rapidly reddened and the left one twitched visibly. She grinned malevolently.

 

“Ah…” She said, comprehension dawning, “Shouldn’t there be a sales pitch for one of your ridiculous chain mail bikinis rolling off your forked tongue right about now?” Bado blushed still more furiously, refusing to look at her.

 

“Uh, no I wasn’t gonna—that is I may have considered—but it ain’t up to me, is it?” He shook himself. “A-anyway… uh, w-when did you wanna go? Tomorrow?”

 

“Tomorrow’s great.” She replied, a satisfied smirk on her lips. Her plan was working already. “Meet me in front of the castle at 10am?”

 

“I’ll be there.” He said, nodding.

 

“Great!” She chirped, and stepped forward to catch him in a quick hug, her slender arms wrapping tightly around his middle for a beat. He startled briefly before squeezing her back with a chuckle.

 

“Affectionate little thing, ain’t ya?” He said, smirking again.

 

“Yeah. I hope you don’t mind.” She said, smiling up at him.

 

“Not at all.” He returned warmly, squeezing her again.

 

“Tomorrow, then?”

 

“Tomorrow.” He confirmed, mirroring the broad grin she gave him.

 

Chapter Text

Frey shifted her weight on her tiny feet as she stood in the sun waiting for her dwarven boyfriend to answer his door. She’d risen early, hurried through her chores, and set out across town in a light, airy, blue dress over her swimsuit. She carried a bag over her shoulder and a basket in her other hand. In her somewhat flustered state the day before she had neglected to specify a time or make specific plans for what they might eat while they were spending time at Dragon Lake. So, to compensate for the oversight, she made a picnic lunch herself and determined to call on her boyfriend at 10am at his own home.

 

She knocked on the door for a second time, a little louder. Could he still be asleep? He was, by all accounts, not what you’d call a morning person, after all. As she waited, Frey’s thoughts ran away with her again; ever since Arthur’s inquiry the day before she’d scarcely been able to stop wondering about her lover’s more intimate side.

 

She floundered wildly between feeling certain that he, a red-blooded man who wanted her for his girlfriend, had surely considered the idea of going to bed with her already, and wondering if she were simply fixated on her attraction to him and projecting her newfound insecurity. Everyone had different appetites where these things were concerned, after all. Who was to say he was the type to look at someone that way before they’d even been on a second date, anyway?

 

Am I a pervert?” She wondered, sighing. “ Really, I shouldn’t be looking at him that way before we’ve even kissed, right?” Her imagination conjured an image of the big man in a disheveled state, hair mussed, half-unrobed, voice husky, eyes smoldering…

 

She shook her head vigorously. “Stop it!” She had to get a handle on these thoughts before—

 

“Wow, you really don’t waste any time, do ya, Frey?” A familiar, deep voice sounded behind her. As recognition shifted into place in her mind, she blushed profusely, her mind not quite free of the rather more lewd image of the very man who now stood behind her. She blinked rapidly as she turned around, trying to think of an alibi for her red face. Her mind went blank as her eyes fell upon Bado.

 

The tall man stood before her, apparently at his ease, as if all were normal… wearing a huge floppy sun hat with silk flowers in pink and yellow stitched to the band, and sporting a pair of dark sunglasses on the bridge of his angular nose. He was also outfitted in simple, dark blue men’s swim trunks and a t-shirt that would have fit her like a tent.

 

Really, it was kind of him to give her such a plausible reason to be blushing as she blinked stupidly up at him. He stared back at her through the shades for a beat or two, then raised a finger to nudge the eyewear down the bridge of his nose and peer at her over the frames.

 

“Somethin’ on my face?” He inquired, smirking.

 

“On your… head.” She replied slowly, staring up at the hat.

 

“You like it?” He asked, looking up, “Just borrowed it from Lin Fa.”

 

“I…” She began, then let out a laugh as she surrendered to it. “Sure. It’s very pretty.” She sighed, shaking her head.

 

“Thanks.” Bado replied, still smirking. “Sunburned ears are the worst thing, so…” He explained finally, shrugging. Frey perked up.

 

“Oh! Well I made sunscreen with my chemistry set back at the castle, so we shouldn’t have to worry about getting burned.” She tried not to remember that her ulterior motive had more to do with encouraging them to wear less once they arrived at the beach.

 

Bado raised his eyebrows. “Dang, Frey. Is there anything you can’t do?”

 

“I can’t reach the top shelves in the pantry.” She shrugged with a silly smile, eyes climbing up his considerable height.

 

“Well, at least I know I’m good for something.” He laughed good-naturedly.

 

“Are you ready to go?” She asked excitedly.

 

“Uh, Sure?” He offered, eyeing her bags, “You seem to have everything accounted for, by the look of things.” She blushed.

 

“Well, better to have overpacked than to miss lunch, right?”

 

“Can’t argue with that.” He agreed, holding out a hand. She un-shouldered her bag and placed the handle in his waiting palm. Then she noticed for the first time he was barefoot. She blinked down at his big feet then looked up at him quizzically. “Oh, heh. Uh… I don’t really own any open-toed shoes, y’see. Those’re a good way to lose a toe when you’re forging.” He winked at her.

 

“Oh!” She squeaked. It made sense, but the whole picture of him in his current state had bamboozled her expectations. She hesitated, not quite sure how to proceed. Her eyes settled on him but the rest of her would not quite move.

 

“Are you ready?” He asked after a breath or two as she stared absently at his chest. The t-shirt he wore might be more fabric than her whole dress, but it wasn’t so large as to obscure his broad, muscular frame completely. She started and shook herself.

 

“Yeah. Sorry.” She hurried to say, blushing again. He smirked at her. They began to walk side by side toward the western edge of town.

 

“So, what’s sunscreen made of, anyway?” He asked in a casually interested tone.

 

“Mostly fireflower, ironically.” She replied, grateful for a talking point.

 

“Huh. I’ll be darned.” He replied

 

“A lot of things in medicine mixing are counterintuitive like that.” She said offhandedly. “Some ingredients are just a lot more than they seem, I guess?” She added, glancing sidelong at him with a conspiratorial smile.

 

“You implying over there?” He asked, bending an eyebrow.

 

“Maybe.”

 

He snorted. “I like to think I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort, actually.”

 

Actually , you are really odd.” She laughed. “I kinda doubt anyone’d figure you out just based on what they see.”

 

“There’s that relentless side of you again.” Bado said with a slightly crooked smile.

 

“I mean,” She said, playfully exasperated, “That there’s certainly more to you than I’d guessed. In a good way.” She added as he eyed her wryly again. “For instance: I had no idea you wanted to date me. Could’t you have given me a hint before I made up my mind to go traipsing off into the wild blue yonder?”

 

“Well, how was I supposed to know you’d actually consider it?” He laughed. “They don’t write songs about princesses and blacksmiths.”

 

“I’m not a real princess.” Frey shook her head as they passed into the open field before the lakeshore. Bado stopped walking and Frey turned to eye him curiously. He slid the sunglasses down again and she watched his blue-gray eyes size her up, looking almost wistful.

 

“Sure you are.” He said quietly, “Certainly lovely enough to be from a fairy tale, anyway.” Frey felt her cheeks heat up again.

 

“Flatterer.” She accused. He half-smiled at her, eyes soft despite the twinkle of playfulness in them.

 

“You know I ain’t capable of lyin’ to someone’s face.” He said, voice quiet, almost intimate. “Weren’t you just telling Arthur that yesterday?” Frey’s eyes widened and a jolt of fear went up her backbone.

 

“He told you about that?” She squeaked. A big, booming laugh burst out of the tall man.

 

“He mentioned you were rather complimentary, yeah. Seems he wanted t’be sure I know how lucky I am, but he shouldn’t’a bothered. Nobody knows it better’n me, already.” A warm smile spread across his face, cutting those familiar smile lines deep into his cheeks.

 

Frey blushed still more as Bado’s dwarven eyes glinted at her with the bright, almost metallic shine that flashed from them in sunlight. That gaze, so warm and pleased… it was as likely to melt her as the summer sun growing hotter above them.

 

“He didn’t say anything weird to you, did he?” She ventured, still concerned Arthur might have mentioned the more salacious parts of their conversation.

 

“Er… Well, nothin’ I didn’t expect outta him, anyway.” Bado admitted, somewhat evasively. Frey gulped. “But that one can be weird in general, ya know?”

 

“Can’t argue with that.” Frey muttered. She gestured to a lovely spot where the trees grew near to the shore where they could sit in the shade but still be close enough to enjoy the breeze off of the lake’s surface. “Do you wanna set up over there?” She asked, eager to put her mind to work on something other than worrying about what Arthur might have said to her boyfriend.

 

“Sure, looks like a nice spot.” Bado agreed, walking just a pace behind her as they moved to the intended place. They set their things down against the nearest of the trees and Frey began rummaging in her bag. She pulled out the big blanket she’d brought and spread it out over the ground, sandy between the grass this close to the shore. She arranged stones from nearby on the corners of the blanket to keep the wind from moving it, then sat down and gestured for Bado to sit with her. He did so, leaning back on his hands and watching her continue to rummage in her bag. The big, floppy hat wobbled each time he turned his head. She mustered her resolve and began phase one of her plan as she found the bottle of sunscreen she’d made the previous evening for the occasion. She held it up to show him and pointed up at his hat.

 

“You won’t need that anymore once we get a bit of this on those ears.”

 

He reached up reflexively and touched the brim of the hat, looking suddenly nervous.

 

“Is that right?” He mumbled.

 

“Yeah. Want me to put some on them for you?” She offered hopefully. “It works really well. I used this recipe a lot last summer, too.”

 

“I…” Bado began, chewing his lip and furrowing his brow. “Well it ain’t exactly that I don’t want you to, but…” She tilted her head at him, confused. His pointed dwarf’s ears were rapidly reddening. Even his cheeks were beginning to show a rather rosy glow. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’d better do my ears myself.” He said gruffly, glancing at her eyes and away again. His left ear twitched visibly. Frey stared at him.

 

“O…Kay.” She said slowly, handing him the bottle and watching his expression for clues. “Are you ticklish or something?” She asked after a beat.

 

“Ah… no, not exactly.” He gave a little nervous laugh. “Let’s, uh… let’s just wait until we’ve been on a few more dates, first.” He looked up at her wide eyes and his expression turned sheepish. “For the ears, specifically.” He explained, voice a bit rough.

 

“Oh!” She piped, understanding clicking into place, “I didn’t realize they were—I mean, assuming you mean…” She trailed off, feeling suddenly unequal to saying it aloud.

 

“It ain’t just me. It’s kind of a dwarf thing.” He explained, seeming embarrassed but smiling at her nonetheless, “I’ve just got it particularly bad.”

 

“Good to know.” She said, smirking at his expense and feeling somewhat gratified that he could be bashful about these things, too. She handed him the bottle and he accepted it, beginning to apply the sunscreen to his legs and arms first. She did the same in turn, trying hard not to stare at him when he did get around to rubbing the mixture onto his pointed ears. She busied herself covering her shoulders, neck, face, and ears and then, when everything else was done, she moved on to phase two.

 

“Could you unzip me, please?” She asked, lifting her long hair in its usual twin tails out of the way and putting her back to Bado. He turned to her and stared, blinking for a moment. His ears, having just mellowed to nearly their usual color, flushed red anew.

 

“Uh, sure.” He mumbled, and delicately pulled down the zipper in the back of her dress.

 

“Thanks.” She said, sliding the straps over her shoulders and pulling the garment off over her head. She looked shyly over her shoulder at her boyfriend as she sat on her heels, her swimsuit—and most of her— revealed to him. To her profound satisfaction, he was ogling her with an intense gaze. His throat moved as he swallowed, eyes combing over her from head to toe. She smirked. That was a good sign.

 

“Like it?” She ventured in a light tone, “I picked it just for the occasion.” Her swimsuit was a white bikini-style with a short ruffled skirt around the rim of the bottom piece, and small white bows on the shoulders of the top. A pattern of green leaves adorned the fabric with a summery pop of color. Bado blinked at her and grinned, abashed.

 

“Sorry for staring.” He said, sounding as if he’d been holding his breath, and rubbing the back of his neck. Frey smiled a wicked little smile at him.

 

“I’ll let it slide.” She said slyly, “ If you hurry up and take your shirt off.” The big man’s eyes widened and he blinked stupidly at her, blushing. She almost laughed out loud. Three months ago she’d never have even guessed that the big, butch blacksmith could look so… cute !

 

“Uh…”, He fumbled, “I… was planning on keepin’ it on, actually.”

 

“Why?” Frey asked, genuinely surprised. Bado turned his head and looked along the shoreline. Other members of Selphia’s citizenry were arriving here and there for sunbathing, fishing, or swimming. He eyed the people in the distance and turned back to her with a slight wince on his features.

 

“Not everybody appreciates seein’ a big hairy guy like me topless.” He explained reluctantly. Frey gave him an exaggerated pout.

 

“But that just wouldn’t be fair !” She turned herself all the way around to face him and watched with satisfaction as his eyes combed over her from head to toe again.

 

“Uh…” He fumbled, shaking himself out of his stare.

 

“Should I put my dress back on?” She asked, feigning innocence rather blatantly, “So you won’t have to be the only one overdressed?” She raised an eyebrow at him as she said it.

 

“I’d rather enjoy the view as-is.” He admitted, the slightest hint of wickedness creeping into his smile as he made a point of glancing down at her top while she watched his expression.

 

Frey leaned toward him, raising her eyebrows and speaking in conspiratorial tones: “Then you’d better hurry up and reciprocate .”

 

A short huff of breath escaped him in a monosyllabic laugh. “You are trouble.” He said, smiling a crooked smile. Then his expression grew embarrassed again. “You sure you won’t mind it, though? I ain’t kiddin’, ya know. I’m like a bear-skin rug under here.” He plucked at his collar and she could see a bit of chest hair peeking up through the gap by his neck.

 

“You’re stal-ling.” She accused in a sing-song voice. He chuckled again.

 

“Alright, you asked for it, princess.” He lifted his burly arms and grasped the edge of his T-shirt, pulling it off from back to front over his hair, ruffling it into a tousled state as he did so. He ran a big hand back through the dark, mussed hair atop his head to get the front pieces out of his eyes, and consequently messed it up even more. “Now don’t go sayin’ anything to hurt my feelings,” He chided as he looked up at her, embarrassed and expectant all at once. “I wouldn’t be doin’ this for anyone but you, after all.”   

 

Frey’s eyes widened and she made no attempt to disguise her stare. Dark, ruffled hair, nearly as thick as that which crowned his head, spread across Bado’s broad chest and down his abdomen in a wide, dark row that completely obscured his skin along the center line of his body. She gripped her right hand with her left to counter the immediate urge to reach out and touch. What would it feel like to run her fingers through all that? The curiosity was almost overwhelming. She gulped, finally returning her gaze to his eyes as her face grew a fiery shade of red.

 

“Geez. You really weren’t kidding!” She laughed. He winced and his posture deflated a bit. A pang jolted her heart as she saw that sign of insecurity. She had never known Bado to seem vulnerable before; his carefree, unvexed attitude generally showed no sign he gave a hoot for what anyone thought of him. Immediately a strong urge to prop up his confidence assailed her. For all her embarrassment over the idea the day before, she suddenly wanted her new boyfriend to know just how attractive he was to her.

 

“Oh, don’t look at me like that.” She said, brushing a piece of hair behind her ear and looking as coy as she knew how to, “I didn’t say I don’t like it.” As she finished speaking she let her eyes wander over all his substantial frame again, devouring this first real look at his body with obvious enjoyment. When she’d swept her gaze over the whole of him, taking her time and smiling wickedly, she snapped her emerald eyes back up to his and gave him a look she hoped would describe how much she liked the idea of getting more physically acquainted with what she’d just seen.

 

Bado’s face slowly transformed from a tense, almost cringing expression, braced for a blow to his ego, to surprise, to an almost disbelieving smile that tugged just one side of his mouth. His ears burned red and the blush had spread across his lined face. He brought a fist up before his mouth and cleared this throat.

 

“W-well now, that’s a look that could melt iron, and no mistake.” He said in a slightly raspy voice. “You best take it easy on me with that, Pet. I dunno how long I can go without bursting into flame, especially with you wearing that .” He eyed the bikini again and gulped visibly. Frey grinned, heart swelling with pride. Her plan seemed to have worked just as intended. No longer nervous, she felt a little guilty for trying to manipulate him rather than just asking plainly what she wanted to know.  

 

“Sorry for layin’ it on so thick.” She said, smirking. “I’ll admit I had an agenda.” He looked at her quizzically. She looked away, blushing anew. “Something Arthur said to me got me wondering if… that is, I got curious to know if you’re attracted to me, physically . Bado leaned back and stared at her, dumbfounded.

 

“Frey, you…” he began, trailing off and blinking stupidly at her, “How clueless are you?” She looked back at him sharply. He let out a big laugh, tilting his head back. She waited for him to look at her again and blinked at him, frowning.

 

“Here I am, struggling to be a gentleman for you on our second date and you’ve gone outta your way to make it harder on me.” He said, the laugh still in his voice, “You ain’t ever gotta worry about that, Pet.” He said warmly, grinning at her. Suddenly, he leaned forward and reached out a big, angular hand. Her eyes grew wide and her breath stopped in her throat as he grasped one of her small slender hands in his wide, warm palm, drew it up before his face and brushed the back of her hand with his lips.

 

“If anything, you’re too attractive, Frey.” He said quietly in his deep, basso voice. She swallowed, electricity in every inch of her. “Scrambles my brains every time I look’t you in that swimsuit.” He gave her a mischievous smirk.

 

“Thanks.” She said, still blushing as she smiled at him.

 

“O’course.” He returned releasing her and leaning back on his own big hands. She watched him a little wistfully. He tilted his head and smiled at her in a plainly affectionate attitude. “You’re young, Frey. And I’m gonna last a good long while. Dwarves always do. There’s plenty of time. We don’t need to rush anything.”

 

She smiled back at him. “You really are a gentleman.” He gave another of his big, booming laughs.

 

“And that was almost a compliment.”

 

Frey rolled her eyes. “You know I didn’t mean it like that.” She said, still smiling at him.

 

“Yeah, I know.” He agreed. “It’s still funny, though.” She shook her head. Bado sat up and pointed at her, adding:

 

“But just because I’m on board for takin’ it slow doesn’t mean I’m not interested. Don’t you doubt it again, y’hear me?” He winked at her. She grinned.

 

“Yeah, I hear you. Thanks, Bado.” She gazed at him, feeling fonder all the time.  Who would have guessed the man who always had some half-baked scam in mind, but could never behave crookedly enough to make it work, would someday manage to steal her heart?

 

Finally, Frey stopped staring at him and picked up the sunscreen once more.

 

“No ulterior motive this time.” She explained, “I just don’t wanna get burned. Could you get my back, please? I’ll do yours, too.”

 

“Sure thing.” He said, smiling as he reached for the bottle. She turned around again, sitting primly as she waited. After a few seconds of mild suspense his thick fingertips brushed across her shoulder blades and down her spine, smudging the mixture in broad strokes to start with. Then, his wide, warm palms began working the sunscreen over her skin. She smiled softly to herself, enjoying the touch.

 

That he was indeed enticed by her, as she now knew, made it all the sweeter how he carefully assisted her without any obvious desire in his movements. Not only did he want her, as she’d hoped: he was perfectly willing to set that aside for her benefit. If she were completely honest, though… her mind was always going to run away with the sensation, no matter how chaste he endeavored to be. She tucked the feeling away for now, looking forward to reliving it later when she couldn’t be there with him.

 

“There, that outta do it, I think.” He said as he finished.

 

“Thanks.” She said again and turned herself around and picked up the sunscreen once more. “Ready for me to do yours?”

 

“Sure.” He said and repositioned himself with his back to her… his broad, muscular back… Frey swallowed, chiding herself as she gathered some of the sunscreen into her hands, rubbing them together briefly. She hesitated only for a moment, hands shaking just slightly, before pressing them to his skin.

 

The sinews of his powerful physique shifted beneath his skin whenever he moved. She tried hard not to let her mind wander but with his body at her fingertips it was impossible to reign in her imagination completely. Grateful he couldn’t see her expression just now, she wondered idly if he’d struggled similarly as he’d touched her back.

 

“Alright.” She said finally after another minute or so. “I think we’re all good.”

 

“Great!” He smiled, “Thanks again for making that for us. You definitely came prepared.”

 

“No problem.” She replied. “So, are you ready to go swimming?”

 

“Swimming, eh?” He replied, leaning back onto his elbows. “You sure you wouldn’t rather lay back and relax in this great spot we got?”

 

“C’mon lazybones,” She laughed standing up and offering him a hand, “It’ll be fun.” He accepted the hand but made no effort to get up as she leaned back and tugged on it. Not an inch of him budged. She stumbled, off-balance having expected to be leaning back to help pull him up. Laughing as she glared playfully at him, he finally did shift his weight and stand.

 

Now he towered over her, looking down from his great height and smiling warmly. He gave her a nod.

 

“Lead the way, princess.”

 

She began padding down to the shore on her bare feet toward the dazzling surface of the lake. Upon arriving she dipped a slender foot in up to her ankle and stopped, tensing as the cold water embraced her. She let her breath out slowly and stepped in with the other foot, raising up her arms as she inched her way into the lake a little at a time. Behind her, Bado chuckled.

 

“You’ll face down a charging buffamoo, no problem, but can’t handle a little dip in cold water?” He teased, then lunged forward, plunging the whole of him into the water. His enormous stature displaced a wave of water that splashed against her belly, sending a shock of sensation through her. A shrill gasp escaped her lips and she stuttered “Y-ou!”

 

Bado re-emerged and shook his head vigorously, scattering droplets of shining water in the sunlight as he bobbed up out of the water and settled himself, merely sitting on the sandy lakebed in the shallows.

 

“I’ll get you for that!” She shrilled, and dipped her arms into the lake, splashing him vigorously with energetic motions. Bado turned his head, laughing as the water hit him. A moment later he swept one big arm about him and sent another wave toward her. Frey let out a shriek as the cold water collided with her chest, and redoubled her efforts, flinging water relentlessly at her lover’s face. He retreated, spluttering and smiling.

 

“I’ve got you now!” She cried triumphantly as she continued scoping water at him.

 

“Oh yeah?” He replied, and lunged for her. She squealed as he scooped her up in his great arms, gathering her up against his chest. A gasp slipped out as she felt so much of his body suddenly pressed against hers, and then she was flying through the air. Briefly she caught sight of his mischievous, grinning face before gravity plunged her through the surface of the water.

 

Bubbles tickled her sides as the cold water rushed all around her, the water dampening the sound of her boyfriend’s basso voice laughing at her expense. She stood up as her feet touched the sandy bottom and the water slid off of her in ever direction as she gasped in utterly scandalized tones.

 

“Bado!” She cried, voice shrill and incredulous. He flinched and ducked his head, still grinning but sheepishly bracing himself to be told off. “Do that again!!” She shouted, eyes blazing, a wide, silly grin on her face. Their laughter overlapped one another as she waded back over to him.

 

The two made sport of seeing how far Bado could toss her smaller person for a quarter of an hour. Then they floated on their backs and spotted shapes in the clouds. They even ended up in a game of Marco Polo with Doug and Amber who had both come to the lake on their own for an afternoon diversion.

 

Eventually Doug left to go bother Dylas, who he’d spotted fishing on the shore, and Amber climbed out of the water to sunbathe until her odd butterfly-like wings were dry. Comfortably expended from their exertions, Bado and Frey too retreated from the water to their spot on the shore to rest and eat the picnic lunch Frey had prepared.

 

Bado was delighted with the salted salmon onigiri she’d made, knowing him to be a fan of rice balls. They chatted comfortably for perhaps an hour or two, the conversation wandering to and fro, and even involving a brainstorming session for his next big scheme.

 

Finally, heart full and warm with the day’s very agreeable experiences, Frey let herself be convinced they should pack up their things and walk back to town. When they neared his home she slowed her steps, but he shook his head.

 

“I’ll walk you back to the castle.” He offered. She accepted, smiling. Far be it from her to decline another few minutes together.

 

“Thanks for everything, today.” He said, bathing her in that warm, affectionate gaze again when they arrived at her doorstep in the East wing of the castle.

 

“Of course.” She returned, looking up at him with veritable stars in her eyes “Thank you for going out with me today, and putting up with my scheming, earlier.”

 

“What kinda hypocrite would I be if I denied others their schemes?” He grinned.

 

“A fair point.” She replied, then opened her arms to him for a hug. He chuckled and bent low for a moment, scooping her up and squeezing her to him with his thick arms around her and her feet dangling at least a foot off the ground. She closed her eyes and savored the warm embrace, sighing happily. As he set her down again, their hands found one another and they stared into each other's eyes.

 

“C’n I see y’again tomorrow?” He asked quietly, speech growing rough as it often did when he felt at ease.

 

“Please.” She replied, still leaning toward him. “Want to come by the castle this time?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Noon? We could make some lunch together?”

 

“Perfect.” He replied, smile widening. He stooped suddenly, bending his neck and delivering a quick, gentle kiss on her cheek. Blushing furiously, Frey blinked mutely up at him, one hand resting her own fingers lightly where his lips had touched her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Pet.” He murmured, everything about him looking pleased.

 

“You too.” She squeaked, short of breath and burning hot. They parted, hands still grasping one another until distance required that they let go. Frey watched his back as her lover made his way across the town square toward his home, waving faintly as he looked over his shoulder at her and smiled again.

 

Finally as he disappeared around a street corner, she stepped inside, closed the door, and leaned against it, her face blazing still. Her heart pounded and her head swam.

 

“Take it slow, huh?” She mumbled, “With these feelings?”

Chapter Text

Frey awoke in the peaceful quiet of a warm summer morning and immediately furrowed her brow. Where was Vishnal? He had been so insistent on being the one of the castle butlers to give her her wake-up call in the morning. She sat up in bed and looked around, a little concerned. The excitable young man was truly a walking disaster when it came to certain tasks, cooking being the worst of them, but not once had he neglected a duty of his profession.

 

Suddenly the memory of the day before came back to her. The big floppy sun hat, convincing Bado to remove his shirt, enjoying his hungry stare at her in her swimsuit, feeling the warmth of his hands on her skin, and pressing her own hands to his broad, muscular back. Frey put her curiosity about Vishnal’s whereabouts aside for the moment and flopped back onto her plush double bed, smiling. Truly it had gone better than expected. Not only had she gotten her confidence bolstered by his forthright admission of attraction to her, he’d promised patience and assured her there was no rush.

 

How had she missed him during her first year in Selphia? She’d known for a long time she wanted to meet someone and enter into a romantic relationship. And yet, her eyes had failed to bring this diamond-in-the-rough to her attention somehow. Perhaps it was mostly to do with his errant ways as a shop-keeper? She thought wryly, remembering the first conversation she’d shared with the man.

 

He’d offered her ‘memory restoration medicine’, a gleeful air about him even though he obviously hadn’t expected her to believe the pitch. Then, as her eyes had lit up and she asked ‘How much?’ His face had fallen. He squirmed and stalled and finally chided her for believing things that are too good to be true, sheepishly apologizing for the lie and encouraging her to rely on the townsfolk, him included, if she should need any help.

 

Later he’d inquired as to whether she’d been able to recover any of her memories. When she’d told him she hadn’t with an anxious, distant gaze, he’d smiled reassuringly.

 

“Your memories are in your head, so I can’t help you get them out, but this town is a good place to start a new life. Just settle in and wait for your memories to come back on their own.”

 

Even way back then he’d encouraged her to take her time. Yes, dwarves had plenty of longevity in their ancestry, but she got the feeling that wasn’t all. Maybe he simply hated to rush anything? Or maybe Bado was simply a person who believed things would work out, given time.

 

Smiling throughout her rumination on her boyfriend, Frey rose and readied herself for the day. She dressed in light, comfortable attire suitable to the warm weather: a white button down shirt and a short, scallop-edged skirt over skin-tight, knee-length shorts.

 

Today she’d enjoy another chance to see how her new relationship would continue to unfold before her. She drew in a deep breath, feeling it fill her up and expand her chest. Then, letting the air rush from her lips, quirked upward in a self-satisfied smirk, Frey walked toward the castle kitchen to make herself some breakfast and plan what sort of lunch she’d make the two of them.

 

As she passed through the dining hall and into the kitchen, Frey suddenly had an answer for her earlier question. Vishnal zipped past her, a frilly apron—probably one of Volkanon’s—tied upon his person. He darted two and fro, arms full of ingredients, utensils, dish towels, and other culinary odds and ends. Frey blinked at the young man. Sure, Vishnal was always a high-energy sort but the sight of him now implied new levels of hyperactivity. Selphia’s princess felt her eyebrows climb higher on her forehead.

 

“What in the…” She murmured to herself.

 

“He’s in one of his moods.” A soft, sleepy voice sighed beside her. Clorica had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, beside Frey. She gave a little startle, then smiled as she recognized her friend.

 

“Hi Clori,” She said warmly, “What’s he bent on this time?”

 

“Well…” Clorica began in her slow, meandering way of speaking, “He wants to learn to cook well, as you know—butlers need to be able to, after all—so he decided today he would make lunch for Lady Ventuswill.”

 

“O-oh…” Frey replied, eyes widening. “Well… that’s quite the undertaking.”

 

“I know…” Clorica sighed, “Usually Volkanon makes Lady Ventuswill’s meals or orders them in from Porcoline’s. So, not only is she accustomed to their skill level, but cooking enough food to feed a dragon at a gourmet level is an undertaking only those two would normally be capable of.”

 

“We thought it best to indulge his excitement, this time.” Volkanon’s deep voice joined the conversation as he, too, appeared in their midst.

 

“Geez!” Frey gasped, “I know it’s part of your butler skills and all, but I wish you guys would make some kinda sound when you come up behind me!”

 

“My apologies, Miss Frey. I did not mean to startle you.” Volkanon said graciously with a perfectly executed bow, his manners impeccable as always.

 

“Sssooo…” Frey started warily, “You’re just gonna let him carry on? What happens when Venti tastes his food?” She winced. Vishnal’s abominable cooking was bested at being the worst only by Forte’s occasional culinary attempts. Volkanon released a large sigh through his nose, too polite to give voice to it.

 

“I have taken the precaution of ordering her a meal from Porcoline. If he succeeds, well… You have plenty of monsters in your barns who enjoy a good dish for a treat now and again, yes?” Frey nodded, admiring the older man’s commitment to fostering his pupil, no matter how disastrous his endeavors were. They all knew very well Vishnal was not at all likely to succeed. His abundance of enthusiasm often led him, as it had today, to biting off significantly more than he could chew. The lad didn’t attempt to run before he could walk; he attempted to tap dance before he could walk.

 

“Well…” Frey began again, “As long as there’s room for me to use the kitchen to as well…” She shrugged.

 

“Ah, as to that: I’ve already prepared breakfast for you, Miss Frey.” Volkanon said proudly, proffering a tray of spectacularly bright yellow scrambled eggs.

 

“Oh!” She piped, accepting the dish. Far be it from her to turn down one of Volkanon’s delightful creations. He gestured back to the dining table and the three sat down together while Frey enjoyed the repast. “Thank you! I was actually talking about later today, around noon.” She explained, then scooped up a forkful of egg. Delicious, as always.

 

“Oh?” Clorica turned with a mischievous expression on her sleepy face. “Bringing your boyfriend over?” She asked, smirking slowly.

 

Frey paused in mid-bite, eyeing the butlers with wide eyes as her face flushed red.

 

“Ho ho ho!” Volkanon boomed jovially, “Is that right, Miss Frey? We shall have to provide him our best welcome! Are you going to tell me who the young man is or will I just have to wait until he arrives?” Clorica’s eyes widened and she exchanged an embarrassed look with Frey. Clearly she hadn’t meant to out her friend. Frey buried her frustration. It was her own fault for obfuscating the information from Volkanon in the first place. Clorica wasn’t to blame.

 

“He’s… not.” She said slowly, looking down and moving her eggs around her plate with her fork.

 

“Not coming?” Volkanon returned, “Why Clorica, I wish you’d be more careful not to mislead me!”

 

“No.” Frey interrupted, glancing up at the older butler. “He’s not… a young man. It’s Bado.” She said finally, concentrating on preventing her face from forming a wince as a shocked expression took hold of Volkanon’s features.

 

“I—Well, I—” Volkanon stuttered, blinking. He’d never frozen like this that she’d seen before. He shook himself. The man would sooner swallow a cactus that willfully do something he saw as unprofessional . “Please excuse me. I admit that took me by surprise. Miss Frey, how, if you don’t mind my asking, did you come to find yourself in a relationship with… Bado?”

 

“He kinda gave me a hint that he was interested, so after I’d traveled around a bit, I came back and asked him out.” Frey replied, not knowing how else to answer.

 

“My word.” The butler shook his head, “I have known for some time that several of the young men about town have taken a fancy to you Miss Frey, but I never expected our resident blacksmith to number among your suitors.

 

Frey shrugged. “I don’t think he expected to, either.  He was just upset that I was leaving, so he stopped hiding his feelings as well as usual.” Volkanon stared somewhat fretfully at her. Clorica bit her lip nervously and looked sidelong at her mentor.

 

“Miss Frey,” Volkanon intoned in a patient, almost pleading tone, “I would not presume to deny our princess her dalliances , but I do hope you’ll give careful consideration to your future before settling down.”

 

Frey blinked at him, mouth falling open in a stupid, vexed expression. Dalliances? Sure, she hadn’t been thinking of her still very new relationship as leading up to marriage or anything, but she hadn’t been looking for a careless fling, either. She swallowed. Volkanon hadn’t meant to be rude, of course. His good intentions and her esteem for the man made it awfully hard to challenge his perceptions outright.

 

“I assure you,” She began carefully, “I am not being careless. We’ve found ourselves quite compatible so far.” Volkanon stared at her, wheels clearly turning behind his eyes.

 

“I only wonder if you will not find you prefer a more… reliable partner in future.” He said after some consideration.

 

“I appreciate your concern,” Frey said somewhat stiffly, “But you have nothing to worry about.” The old butler tightened his jaw as he looked at her, as if he wanted nothing more than to press the point. But, he simply nodded and rose.

 

“Well, I suppose someone ought to at least supervise Vishnal’s attempt. Good day, Miss Frey. I hope your own activities go well today.” He bowed again with his ever-perfect form, and strode into the kitchen, back straight.

 

Frey clicked her tongue and looked aside with a frown, irritation bubbling in her belly.

 

Basically, you’re saying he’s good enough to toy with but not to keep?’ She thought with a spike of resentment. The way Bado looked at her… his gentle reassurances… his own insecurities he’d revealed. How could she possibly think of him as a ‘dalliance’ when clearly it meant so much to him that she’d given him a chance?

 

Reliable…’ Her frown tightened.

 

Certainly he neglected his responsibilities when it came to work, but was Bado truly unreliable? Could she count on the man with the worst reputation in town for being a lazy, scheming slacker? She chewed her lip.

 

“Frey,” Clorica ventured, calling her attention. “Don’t take it as disparaging your judgement. Mr. Volkanon simply wants the best for you. Almost like a father does for his daughter.” She said, smiling reassuringly.

 

“I know…” Frey mumbled, her brow still knit together in a fretful expression.

 

“Besides, I understand his concern.” The lady butler added. “Bado is… not the most responsible person in town…”

 

Frey looked up at her friend, searching her eyes with a frown.

 

“You too?”

 

Clorica shifted uncomfortably and tucked a lock of her long hair behind her ear.

 

“Well, by his own admission he does not take things seriously, particularly where is work is concerned. Spending all his time on schemery instead of doing an honest day’s labor.” She ‘tsked’, eyes growing hard. “If he spent half the energy he does on trying to con people, his business would be flourishing.”

 

“He’s not actually dishonest, though.” Frey countered sheepishly in the face of Clorica’s unusual firmness.

 

“Oh, we all know that.” Clorica agreed waving a hand dismissively, “I dare say that’s why everyone tolerates his chicanery. It’s just… Frey, do you want to get married, someday?” She said suddenly, looking searchingly at her friend’s eyes. Frey blushed, eyes widening.

 

“Well yes, but—” She began, but Clorica held up a hand.

 

“And how do you imagine your future husband? You, with all your industrious efforts here on the castle farmlands and with your own shop in town’s square on holidays; would you really be happy, paired with someone who doesn’t share your work ethic and passion, Frey?”

 

Frey stared at her friend. She wanted to defend him, to insist she knew him better than they did. But the truth was she didn’t know how she’d feel in a few years. What Clorica said was true, at least as far as the difference in their personalities.

 

“I just can’t quite picture it.” Clorica said, sighing.

 

They stared at each other a long moment before Frey looked away.

 

He had all but come undone when he’d thought she was leaving forever. He’d agreed to try at a relationship despite his insecurities. He so clearly wanted her but never demanded anything of her, simply humble and grateful for her affection. Wasn’t that enough? She sighed.

 

“I don’t know the future.” Frey said finally, “I only know what I feel now.” Warmth bloomed inside her. She looked up at Clorica and held her gaze. “When I’m with him, I feel happy. There’s something about him… something I never saw before, but I think it’s always been there.” She recalled the way he’d looked at her the day before as he told her they needn’t rush anything. “I’m not sure how to explain it, but… I really like him, Clori.”

 

The sleepy butler tilted her head and looked at her friend curiously.

 

“I can’t quite understand that.” Clorica admitted, smiling gently, “But I do want you to be happy, so… “ She trailed off and shrugged, her smile growing. “I can go along with it.” Frey smiled at her friend and pulled her into a hug.

 

“Thanks, Clori.”

 

“Sure.” The lady butler said, squeezing her back. Then she leaned back and glared sternly at her. “But it’ll be a different story if he does anything to hurt you!” She said firmly in her delicate, wispy voice. Something about a stern Clorica was just adorable. Frey smiled a lop-sided smile.

 

“Okay, okay. I’ll tell him.” She chuckled. Clorica nodded, then stood up.

 

“Well, I have a lot of work to do today,” She said, yawning, “I’d better get to it.” Frey nodded and watched her go. As her friend slipped through the castle hallway and out of sight, the smile slid off of the princess’ face. She wanted to remain firm in her convictions, but these were people she trusted and admired. She could not easily dismiss the uncertainty they’d sewn in her mind.

 

The laziest man in town. A con artist without the stomach to actually con people. A blacksmith who makes dull weapons. No wonder the townspeople would be reluctant to approve such a suitor for their princess. But… She’d chosen him . He hadn’t conned her into anything. He’d even tried to talk her out of picking him. She wanted him. Wasn’t that enough?

 

It was all too much, too confusing to untangle. She sighed and shoved the thoughts away. Best to come back to them some other time. For now, she already had plans for a very agreeable day with Bado and she wasn’t about to let it be ruined by their apprehensions.