Balthier smiled, swirling the dregs of the wine in his glass as he surveyed the empty living room. Penelo had vacated the seat beside him only a few moments earlier to get Matieu ready for bed. He would join her in a few moments, but first…he had a bit of business to take care of.
"Nice try," he said to the empty room. "But I taught you that vanish spell, if you'll remember."
There was a faint shimmery glow of light as the magic faded, revealing his annoyed, sixteen-year-old daughter. A flush of irritation lit her cheeks as she crossed her arms petulantly.
"Ah, Ellie," he countered. "What are you about, sneaking out of the house at this time of night?"
She scuffed the toe of her shoe on the carpeted floor, her blonde hair falling into her face as she looked at the ground. "There's this boy, Alec…he asked me to go to a concert with him."
"And what did your mother say?"
Ellie averted her eyes. "She said no. She always says no!" Her lips pursed into a frown. "She thinks I'm too young to date, but I'm not a little girl anymore! I really like him, Dad."
Balthier sighed. "What am I going to do with you?" He motioned her over to sit on the sofa across from him. "You can't just sneak out of the house and do whatever you please, darling."
"But you and Mom did all sorts of things at my age that you won't let me do!" she replied. "You and Mom helped Queen Ashe get her kingdom back. And I can't even go out on a date. Like that's more dangerous than what you did!"
"Ellie," he said patiently. "You know your mother and I only want the best for you. You have something your mom didn't have at your age – a mother and father to look after you. And you'll soon be old enough to do whatever you please. But while you are young, we expect you to follow our rules. Not because we want to make you miserable, but because we want to keep you safe."
She let out a long sigh. "I know," she said. "But you have to let me grow up sometime, Daddy."
She was already so grown up that it made his chest hurt just looking at her sometimes. So grown up, and she looked so much like Penelo – with a little of him thrown in there, in those bright green eyes, so intense.
He stood and held out his arms, and just like she always had when she was a child, she rushed into them.
He kissed her forehead. "You're grounded for two weeks," he told her.
"Starting after you get back from your date. And I expect you to bring this boy – Alec – here, so your mother and I can meet him."
She hugged him tighter. "You are the absolute best dad in the whole world!"
"And you'll be back no later than two o'clock." He would know if she were even a minute late; he'd be waiting right there for her to return.
"Deal!" she said happily. Then her face fell. "What about Mom?"
"Let me handle your mother. You get going, before I'm tempted to change my mind." And he was, oh, how he was. She was growing up far too fast, his little girl. Just like Penelo, he wanted to hold tight to the child she'd been.
With a quick kiss on his cheek, she was flying out the door, an irrepressible smile on her face.
Penelo poked her head into the room. "Just how, exactly, were you planning to handle me?"
He gave her a lopsided grin, and swept her into his arms, enjoying her brief squeal of surprise as he carried her across the room and fell onto the sofa, Penelo still cradled in his arms. "Like that," he said.
She slid her fingers into his hair, resting her head on his chest.
"You know, you can't give in every time," she said patiently.
"And you can't refuse every time," he countered. "She's growing up, darling. And she's right – at some point, we'll have to let her. She's at a difficult age; she's no longer a child, but she's not yet an adult. We have to give her some freedom to find her own path. And it's better for all of us if we permit her to see her young man – with our permission – than for her to sneak around and do it behind our backs."
She sighed. "I worry," she said. "What if he's not good to her?"
"She's a smart girl. She knows how to handle herself. And, more importantly, she knows how to defend herself. Besides, I'm fairly certain I know who the boy is, and his parents are good people. I don't think we have much to be concerned about on that score."
"I still worry," she said.
"That's only natural. I'm worried, too." He held her close, linking their fingers, absently rubbing his over her ring – the ring he'd placed onto her finger several years before. They'd married soon after she'd asked him to stay with her, and Balthier had been a mess of nerves, absolutely convinced, until he'd slipped that ring onto her finger and officially bound them together, that she'd reconsider. Even in all the years that had followed, he sometimes still found himself amazed that she hadn't.
She touched her nose to his. "Want to wait up with me? I don't think I can go to sleep until she gets home safe."
"I'd like nothing better. I'll make us some coffee."
"I'll make the coffee; you go say good night to Matieu first. He's waiting on you," she said. She cast him a suspicious look. "She's still grounded, right?"
He grinned. "She's still grounded. I don't let her get away with everything."
"No; just enough to make you the best dad in the whole world," she teased gently.
He drew her up off the sofa and into his arms. "Are you still glad you asked me to stay?"
She rocked up onto her tiptoes to kiss him. "More than you'll ever know."