21 (Homecoming)

The rain had kept up through the morning, so, after a short breakfast and a chance to catch up on some shop work, Ross had taken Amber up to the pool at the leisure centre, to invest in a bit of light swimming and training.

"Didn't think I'd see you here today," Niall said as he twirled his whistle around his hand and back again. He grinned. "Figured you'd be all shagged out!"

Ross clicked his tongue at him, grateful that Amber was still in the women's shower area getting changed out of her costume. She seemed to like Niall, but he definitely had a problem controlling his mouth around her.

"We do more than shag, you know," Ross told him in a mutter, as he stepped out the way of a gaggle of rowdy, rushing gremlins.

Niall scolded them to slow down, then turned back to Ross with a shrug. "Yeah, I know," he said, sounding unconcerned. The grin returned. "But, I'm not interested in hearing about anything else!"

Ross just snickered, prompting his friend to press:

"So...did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Have a bang on the beach last night," Niall muttered, and gave a distasteful waggle of his tongue.

Ross scowled. "Sex on a beach is tacky," he said, which was true...not to mention, sand had a tendency to get everywhere, which also made it damn uncomfortable. He wrinkled his nose in a sniff. "My girl's got lots more class than that."

Niall laughed. "Yeah, but you don't!"

Ross answered him with a shove in the arm and a low, "Shut up."

Niall didn't stop chuckling, but he was saved from any further reprimanding by Amber's arrival from the women's lockers.

"Hello, boys," she said, pausing to tuck a lock of damp hair behind her ear. She swayed close to Ross as he put his arm around her, then smiled at Niall. "You didn't need to see us out."

"That's all right. I'm on my break." He nodded at them, smiling back. "You gonna join us for some waves later?"

"Can't," Ross said with a quick shake of his head. "Seeing Sam for supper."

Niall grimaced. "Sorry."

"I know, right?" Ross muttered, but Amber bumped him with her arm.

"Don't be like that."

Ross drew a breath, then offered her a recalcitrant nod. "All right, yeah." He looked over at Niall, brightening briefly. "Maybe tomorrow?"

"After drills," Niall said, bobbing his head. Then, he pointed over his shoulder. "I better get back. Late!" he said, shooting them a swift and loose salute before he turned back toward the pool doors.

Ross watched him go for a second, then smiled down at Amber. "Where to? Grub? Home?"

"Food!" Amber said promptly.

"Okay," Ross agreed, and he took the roll of her wet costume and towel from her hand and shoved it into their familiar travel satchel, then gave her his arm.

From the centre, they walked down the tourist strip of shops and eateries, stopping into The Mitre amid the late riser lunch crowd for some pan-seared hake and spring vegetable stew.

Reaching across the table to offer Ross a taste of flakey fillet, Amber smiled and said, "So. There's this adorable little dress I saw at Miss Ellicott's shop this morning, as we were walking past. It's got short sleeves, and a charming lace overlay, and it would be just perfect for dinner tonight; it's so cute. Do you think we could stop in, on the way back?"

Ross nodded around his mouthful. "Yeah, sure. We can do that, if you want."

Satisfied, she gave a cringe of her shoulders and said, "Thank you!" But she kept smiling, with this odd sense of portent that made him swallow, and ask:


"I was just wondering." She was silent for a beat of breath, then asked, "What were you planning on wearing?"

"Dunno. Figured I'd find something in the closet."

Now, Amber pulled her lips together between her teeth, narrowed her eyes, and hummed.

Ross knew that critical look, and didn't care for it. "What?" he said again, giving the word a sharper edge than he meant to do.

She swung her gaze away for a moment. "How shall I put this?" she murmured, then inhaled deeply and turned her head back to him with a leading look. "I've seen your closet."

He felt his brow knot. "And...?"

She turned sweetly suggestive again. "Well, don't you think it would be nice to make an extra effort, dress up a bit?"

"For what?" he asked. "It's just supper."

"I know," Amber said, in a kind of sing-song way. "But, a classy new ensemble might make an impression." She looked him up and down, as though measuring. "A slim jacket, maybe a tie-"

Ross snorted and laughed in the same breath. "Amber, I'm not trying to pull tonight!"

"Is that the only reason you ever dress up?" she asked, and made a face, affecting an exaggerated impersonation of a village accent. "To get a bit o' totty?"

"No," he replied in a low drawl, even if that wasn't the truth. To his mind, there wasn't much difference between a hoody and collars and cuffs, save for how long it took to get out of them...and maybe how they'd look next to her pretty dress on the floor. "Don't see the point, is all. I mean, it's only Sam," he said, and, as the name left his mouth, he saw Amber's mouth twitch.

"Oh," Ross said, leaning back in his chair to cross his arms in front of his chest. "So, that's it. You want to impress Sam."

"Not for you," Amber was quick to correct. "For her."

He scoffed again. "How do you figure?"

She drooped, letting out a low, whimpering sigh. "Sam has all these...perceptions of you," she said, and Ross narrowed his eyes in the same second he felt his shoulders tighten.

He'd thought, perhaps foolishly, that the posh snobs in this village would take notice that his being a carer for Amber had made a better man out of wayward Ross Finch. His friends knew it, and even old Heller saw it; what the fuck was Sam's problem?

"She does?" he asked, now.

"She does," Amber repeated, sadly, though her eyes widened again then, with a flashing purpose. "But, I want to show her she's wrong about you. I want to show her you're just as sophisticated and cultured as anyone else."

Ross frowned; that sounded like an awful lot of work, especially for a single evening. "I am?"

"You are!" Amber said, emphatic. "I want her to see you the way I do, not just as some...big, bad wolf."

He sniffed. "By playing dress-up?"

"I know it sounds ridiculous. And it goes against everything that should matter. But, I want the two of you to get on. Please, Ross. Sam's the only real family I have." She pulled her lips together, tightly, and muttered, "If you can forgive Missus Braden, I don't see why you can't do the same for her."

Ross pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth, but otherwise managed to keep it still.

The wound of Samantha Hogget was not a new one for him, but, unlike that of Susanna Braden, his time with Amber hadn't healed it any.

Sam thought him a cretin, a grunting evolutionary throwback beneath her and the rest of her posh crowd. But, while her opinion meant less than a toss to him, these days, it still held sway with Amber.

And Ross defied anyone to tell him he wasn't good enough for his girl.

So, with a deeply-drawn sigh, he let go a little of his reservation and said, "All right," to make her happy.

Amber's humour lightened immediately, and, even with her cane, she practically dragged him from lunch to Louisa Ellicott's touristy clothes shop, halfway down the strip.

Her choice of dress – green, lacy, and flouncy, a charming springtime combination – was unquestionably adorable, but that turned out to be only the beginning. With the dress set aside, she limped him over to a selection of high-end men's button-down shirts, which she considered, traded, and tested by holding them up to his shoulders.

"Now, we don't want to go too formal," she said, as she set one shirt aside for another of what seemed to him identical colour and quality. "But, darker is better, I think, for sake of the hour." Cocking her head to one side, she blinked, then smiled, apparently pleased with this last choice of subtle pinstripes against heather. "Hold that," she ordered, and when she next turned round, she lifted a dark silk tie to his neck.

"Seriously?" Ross said, unable to keep himself from sneering.

"Oh, shush," Amber told him, pleasant somehow even in her steamrolling. "You'll look charming."

"This had better be worth it," he muttered. "I don't care to pretend to be something I'm not."

"This isn't something you're not," she said, softly and with a pretty, endearing smile. Shifting close to him, she laid her hand upon his chest. "This is you, confident, and mature." She gave a grin and a wiggle of her shoulders then, to finish, "And yummy!"

This assessment was echoed by Neville later in the day, when Ross came down from the loft in the dressy ensemble:

"Whoo! You scrub up well nice, mate!"

Fussing with his cuffs, Ross only managed a half-smile. "I feel like a trained chimpanzee." Deciding the cuffs to be a lost cause, he switched to pulling at his collar, undoing the top button behind his tie. "Likely look like one, too."

"No," Neville said, his voice changing its timbre to one more congenial. "You look good." He let his gaze rove a bit, up and down, and smiled. "Chic suits you."

Ross gave an amused snort, then returned the favour. "I'd rather have what you've got on," he said, nodding at his friend's suit with the red accents. "What's it like out there?"

Neville grinned. "Five footers at eight seconds," he said, and Ross groaned.

"Remind me why I'm doing this?"

His friend's eager grin softened to a pleased-looking smile. "Because you're madly in love with a gorgeous girl who's worth more than any passing curl."

Now, Ross smiled, too, as he felt that particular wave of welcome calm roll through him. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Neville replied. He looked over at the stairs again then, where Amber was descending with delicate, one-at-a-time steps, and said, too loudly not to be heard, "Speaking of gorgeous...!"

Ross chuckled at Neville's typical friendly flattery, but Amber beamed.

"Thank you," she crooned, as she came to the shop floor with a click of low heels, and paused to show off her little green mini-dress with the puffed sleeves and layer of dainty lace. Half-turning on her hips, she looked at both men from over her shoulder and asked, "Is the back all right? The mirror's not big enough for me to see."

"Fantastic," Ross muttered, as he felt his mouth curl in a leer, especially at the way the dress ended in a flowing hem around the tops of her thighs; it was too easy to imagine the curves of her delicious arse beneath that pretty skirt.

Neville seemed to sense the path of his brain, and clicked his tongue. He offered Amber a gentler smile. "You look lovely, pet."

"Thank you," she said again, lifting her cane from the crook of her elbow. Balancing against its rigid support, she walked over to them with a smile.

"But I'm not the only one," she said, looking up at Ross. She cocked her head at him, almost puzzled, then reached up, to re-fasten his top button and tighten his tie. Smiling again, she took his hand. "We ready?"

"Just a mo'," Neville said, and he stepped into the back of the shop, reappearing a moment later with the camera they used for classes and customer photos. "I want to remember this."

"Oh, piss off," Ross muttered, but Amber countered him quickly.

"Yes, please!" she said, tugging herself up on Ross's bicep.

"Am...!" he said, fighting the urge to be snide.

"What?" she replied, fluttering her lashes at him. "You look handsome. And we don't have any photographs of just the two of us."

"Smile!" Neville said, putting an end to the non-argument as he held up the camera.

Amber gave a light shake of her head, to straighten the fall of her hair, then squeezed herself close to Ross's shoulder with an enthusiastic and photogenic grin. Seeing her so sunnily happy made him smile, too, almost involuntarily.

The camera flashed, and Neville declared, "Nice!"

Ross pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered, "Fine. Can we go, now?"

"Don't forget this," Neville told him, as he passed Ross the boxed dessert from the counter. "And, try to enjoy yourselves tonight, yeah?"

"We will," Amber answered. She nodded toward the outside. "Ride some clean breaks for us?"

Neville took her briefly in his arms, pressing his stubbly cheek to hers. "I'll do one just for you, love. You, too, darling," he added, looking at Ross and making Amber ripple with an airy laugh.

Ross just sneered at him, then nodded a farewell. Though, as he walked Amber out the door, he had to quietly admit that having her cling to his arm did feel nicer than riding any tumbling wave, especially alone.

They wound their way up through the village streets in silence, with Amber leaning her head close to his shoulder, somewhat awkwardly given her uneven gait. Then, just as they were climbing the steps to the front door of the two-storey house on Albion Street, she pulled them to a stop, as though in warning.

She smoothed her hand over his tie, flattening it against the line of buttons on his shirt, and looked up at him, her expression an odd mix of hesitant and hopeful.

"I know this isn't easy for you," she muttered. "But, I really want us to try and have a pleasant evening. All right?"

Ross did his best to return her a smile, but it didn't quite work. Because as much as he'd said and as much as he'd wanted to believe Sam was no threat to him, stepping onto her turf, into her sphere of influence, for the first time since that Christmas past – the night everything changed – was something entirely different.

Finally, he could only shrug, and say, "I'm here, aren't I?"

Amber worried her brow as she shifted against him. "Just promise me you'll keep an open mind?" And, before he could answer with protest or accord, she hooked one hand behind his neck and with the other pushed against the leverage of her cane, and kissed him, causing a pleased rumble to ripple through his core; he hugged her, not needful but just to feel her close: soft lips, warm body, and all.

He didn't get to enjoy the sensation for more than a few seconds before the door swung open with a puff of air that made Amber's loose curls blow against her cheek and his, and which caused both of them to step back from each other.

"Evening!" Freddie said. "I thought I heard someone out here." His top-heavy bulk blocked most of the stream of light from the sitting room lamps, so it took a second for Ross to even see he was smiling at them in welcome.

"Good evening," Amber replied with a smile of her own. "We're not too early?"

"Right on time," Freddie said, as he stepped aside to offer them entrance. "Come on in."

Amber said her thanks and moved past him over the threshold. Then, she nodded back in Ross's direction, at the box from Sylvans' bakery in his hand. "I hope you don't mind, we brought some dessert?"

Freddie accepted the box with a wider grin. "I never say no to Kathryn's specialities!" he said as he closed the door behind them. He gestured toward the sitting room, where Freddie's father was rising from his chair.

"Sam was running late tonight," Freddie explained, as he started toward the kitchen, "so she wanted to change. But, she'll be down in a few. Can I get you anything in the meantime? Water, wine?"

Ross shook his head, so Amber answered, "No, we're fine. Thank you."

"Make yourselves at home," Freddie said. "I need to watch the roast." Then, before heading back into the kitchen, he nodded and smiled again.

Ross watched him go with some cautious surprise; maybe this evening wouldn't be such an ordeal, after all.

"Amber, my dear!" Freddie's dad boomed, as he manoeuvered his massive form around the arm of his chair, to squeeze Amber's hand between both of his. "It's wonderful to see you." He turned to Ross then, his smile a wide curve in his round face. "You, too, Ross. We're so glad you could join us this evening."

The pink in Amber's cheeks fairly glowed. "Thank you, Mister Hogget."

The older man made a friendly scoffing noise from his gullet, and gave her hand a pat with his sausage fingers. "You know you can call me Al," he said, winking at her.

"Al," Amber corrected herself with a bow of her head. "It's a pleasure to see you again, as well."

Freddie's dad smiled, then waved at the sofa, bidding them in a lower but no less cordial voice, "Sit, sit." He lowered himself back into his own seat, with a creak of wood and joint. It didn't diminish his jolly humour, though, as he leaned over his knees toward them, affecting a gossipy hush. "A little bird has told me you two will be moving back to the village, soon?"

Amber bobbed her head. "Just as soon as I'm done with my therapy. It was the right thing to stay in Truro, but, we're excited to come home." She looked over at Ross, reaching for his hand. "Yes?"

Ross met her gaze, smiling at the sweet, thoughtful shine in her eyes. "Absolutely," he murmured, as he twined his fingers between hers and squeezed, gently.

"Well!" Al said, startling Ross a bit from his fascination. "You will have to let us know when you do." He grinned. "We'll put up a party for you, at the cafe."

"That's quite kind of you," Amber said. "But, it's really not necessary. I don't want to make a fuss."

Ross squinted at her. Since when?

Al disregarded her, too, with a rumbling, rolling scoff. "Nonsense! You're practically family, after all. And family's important in this village. Especially young families," he added, and winked at them. "Like you two need to get started on!"

Ross felt the grip of his fingers go slack, while Amber let out a rich, shocked laugh:

"Mister Hogget! We are not even married!"

Al simply snorted. "That makes no difference. My son's been married almost two years, and he's yet to give me the grandchildren he owes me. The ungrateful little sod...!" he said, and, to spite his resistance of only a minute ago, Ross chuckled; Alister Hogget might have been one of the Harbram old guard, and a member of Sam's crew by association, but he was also a damn amusing gent.

Freddie's dad didn't stop there, though, with a swing of both his attention and one wagging finger toward Ross. "And don't you snicker, young man. I'm sure your mum is thinking the exact same thing!"

Ross stopped chuckling of a second, but he couldn't stop the sudden flush he felt flood his cheeks.

"I know Maggie," Al went on. "She might not say so, and she might have raised you with a whip, but she's a mum. She wants to spoil a grandchild, too." He wagged his finger again. "That is our God-given right, you know!" he said, making Amber break into fresh giggling.

This lasted for a long moment, until she quieted with a well-drawn breath. "Well," she said. "If you were my father, I would be happy to oblige you with a grandchild or two!"

Al smiled in approval, but he looked at Ross. "You have a prize in this girl, you know. Do not let her slip away."

"I don't plan on it," Ross replied, now, unable to help his return grin any more than he could his warm if low laughter. Then, turning his gaze to Amber, he felt his blush wane, just as hers seemed to do.

It didn't make her any less pretty, though, and her smile to him became tender for a moment, before she faced Al once more. "We'll work on Sam," she told the older man in a mock-whisper.

As though summoned by the saying of her name, Sam came down the stairs at just that second, announcing her arrival with a flurry of skirts and ringlets. Sweeping over, she pulled Amber from the clasp of Ross's hand and gathered her into a firm hug of her arms like some long-lost daughter, not as though they hadn't seen each other just that morning.

"I'm sorry I took so long," Sam said, as she pressed her cheek to Amber's before sitting back again with a smile. "But it's been such a day, I just had to freshen up before supper."

"That's all right," Amber said agreeably. "I know the surgery's busy on a Saturday."

Sam hummed, and tossed a damp cluster of curls behind her shoulder. "That, plus, I had to pick up the duty roster from the station house."

That made Ross look up. "You're the primary on-call?"

For a moment, Sam only nodded. Then, the effervescence that had been so effusive with Amber dimmed, as she shot him a sneer. "You're not the only one capable of being team leader, you know."

In the abrupt silence, Amber dropped her chin. "Sam. He wasn't criticising."

"Just asking," Ross said, smirking a little at this turnabout.

Sam paused, then relaxed her shoulders with a breath. "Sorry." A stiff parody of a smile came to her lips. "Long day."

Ross returned Sam a subtle glare, but Amber seemed to accept this half-hearted apology:

"I hope you don't have any emergencies, tonight," she said, her voice turning light and cheery again.

"I hope so, too," Sam said, leaning in to give Amber's hand a pat. "We haven't had much time together, recently."

Amber gave another tiny hum. "You're always welcome at the flat," she said, as though to remind.

Ross eased close to her, now, making a show of leaning on the arm he settled behind her, even though he didn't need to do. "Just ring first," he said, smiling toothily at Sam. "You know, to make sure we're decent."

With a single blink in his direction, Sam's expression went from chuffed to snarling. But a second blink replaced her facade of geniality, as she looked at Amber again. "Well, it won't be an issue much longer," she said, and something like a real smile made her eyes soften. She cringed equally close to Amber, squeezing at both the hands in her lap. "Soon, you'll be home again, with us."

"We were just discussing that," Al said. "A little celebration at the cafe, to welcome them home."

Sam glanced at her father-in-law, that earnest smile widening. "What a charming idea! We can invite Mum, and the doc and his family. And Missus Kettering, and the Glenoldens-"

"And the crew," Amber said quickly. She giggled. "It wouldn't be a party without Neville and the rest!"

Sam made no show of faltering, but her voice did lose a level of its pitch when she answered, "Of course." She patted at Amber's hands again, and chuckled, too. "You've got so many friends, it's difficult to keep track!"

Ross just smiled to himself at Sam's reply; point to his favour.

He didn't have much time to bask in the glow of this one-upmanship, though, because just as Sam was about to open her mouth again, her better half strode in to announce:

"Roast looks done, folks. Should we move to the table?"

"Let's do," Amber agreed, then grinned over at Freddie. "I'm starving!"

Sam stood and helped Amber rise to her feet. Hovering near her elbow, she leaned in to ask with some concern, "Are you not getting enough to eat?"

"Of course, she is," Ross protested with a scoff as he took up place at Amber's other shoulder. "She had a whole hake this afternoon!"

"That was after we trained at the pool," Amber murmured, as though to excuse. Her lips curled in an elfin smile. "And before shopping."

"Oh!" Al said with a teasing chuckle, as he led the way, toward the dining table set off the kitchen. "I know how that can work up a young lady's appetite!"

"It was worth it," Amber said, giggling along. Then, she craned her head toward Ross, cooing, "Doesn't he look handsome, all dressed up?"

Ross answered her with a grin...which turned into another sneer as he looked over her head to Sam, who bristled visibly. She gave no retort, though, until she swished around them to the opposite side of the table, pausing briefly at his shoulder to mutter:

"A pig in armour's still a pig."

Ross stiffened, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as he watched her step, with smug satisfaction, around the edge of the table.

He pulled out Amber's chair for her and helped her scoot in, then leaned close to her cheek, murmuring, "Be right back; sorry. Just need to wash my hands."

Amber nodded, but Sam's jaunty call after him – "Who knows where they've been!" – made Ross grit his teeth so hard he heard them scrape in his head as he turned quickly about.

"Fuck," he muttered to himself as soon as he'd closed the door to the downstairs loo. Another quietly hissed, "Fuck," as he wrenched the metal faucet handle open, and a third as he clenched his fingers beneath the flow of water.

Shouldn't have come what are you doing here you don't belong Sam's right-

And, of a sudden looking up into the mirror above the sink, he saw the reflection of that oddly proper but still charming wave walker, with the blond hair and clear blue eyes, in the dark shirt and silk tie, and stopped.

"It's just one night," he told that man. "You can do this." He splashed some water on his face, to cool the flush of red behind his eyes, and looked into the mirror again with a determined stare. "Just keep your bloody mouth shut."

With a determined swipe of the towel across his cheeks and chin, he stepped out of the toilet with a smile, to take his seat beside Amber with the squawk of his chair against hardwood.

Freddie came out from the kitchen, to present their meal: a medium-done roast placed atop buttery fingerling potatoes, caramelised onions, and crisp, garlicky string beans. These were accompanied by warm, aromatic bread, and a rich, creamy gravy. And wine, a full-bodied red, which wasn't Ross's preferred drink but he kept downing regardless, to keep his tongue occupied between stifling mouthfuls of food.

Most of the chatter was lively reminiscing, stories about Amber and Sam as girls holidaying together in Penzance; some of it was about Freddie in similar days, and the mischief he'd got into as a boy in the village, a rather amusing back-and-forth of mocking competition. Then, Al turned to Ross and thundered:

"None of that compares to what you put your old dad through, though! I remember, clear as day, Jimmy sitting in the pub, at the end of his rope, after you'd driven his car into the water. 'I don't know what to do with him!'" Al said, his basso changing, somehow, to an eerily accurate aping of James Finch's baritone, that instantly transported Ross to being fifteen again, and made him pause over his plate.

Al waved his hand. "I told him, 'Teach him to steer a boat. If he drives that into the water, it won't make a difference!'" he said, and chuckled at Amber's tickled laughter.

At this memory of his father, Ross chuckled, too. Then, he muttered, "That was right before he died."

Beside him, Amber fell suddenly quiet.

Al, though, gave a low sigh and kept the conversation going. "Your dad was a good man." He smiled, adding, "He'd have been proud of you. Especially with everything what you've done for Amber."

Ross just blinked, dumb for a response. He hadn't expected anyone from Sam's camp to be so complimentary of him.

Now, Sam herself reached across the table, to squeeze at Amber's fingers. "We're all so proud of you, too." She smiled, wide and loving. "Hard to believe, only two months ago, you were still sitting in that chair!"

Amber's lashes flickered up, to meet Sam's gaze with an abashed smile of her own. "I had lots of help."

Ross saw Sam's eyes swing to him for a second, before returning to look at Amber. She curled her lips in another smile. "I know the doctors were important. And all your work with Julian-"

"It's not just the team at hospital," Amber said. "Everyone's been so supportive. I mean, I can't imagine what my life would be like without-"

"It's such a shame you missed the springtime, though," Sam interjected, quickly. "The village is so lovely at that time of year, with everything in bloom."

"It's not like I slept through spring," Amber replied, a short scoff in her voice. "Truro might not be Harbram, but we have enjoyed the season." She smiled anew. "Just last week, Ross took me up to Boscawen Park, for a lovely picnic lunch by the flowerbeds. It was so charming-"

"Well," Sam said, as she pumped Amber's fingers again. "The summer will be even better, with you back here, with us, where you belong. We've even saved your room exactly as you left it."

"With a change of linens, of course," Freddie said with a low chuckle.

Sam laughed, too. "Of course," she said, and fixed her gaze on Amber. "But, we want you to know, you've a real home waiting for you, right here, the minute you come back."

A warm, pink smile came to Amber's face. "Thank you. That is good to know."

Sam nodded at her, then flicked her gaze over to Ross once again, the edges of her own smile quirking with silent triumph.

He held her stare, despite the itching along his spine. If Sam thought him some big, bad wolf, then he'd be a wolf. Not to gobble his girl up, but to blow this sow's house down.

Before he could even draw a breath, though, Amber spoke again:

"But, I don't think I'll be moving back in."

Ross whipped his head to Amber so fast, he heard his neck creak. "What?"

Sam echoed him a half-second later: "What? What do you mean?"

Amber met both their looks with a shrug. "Well, my staying here was only supposed to be temporary, until I found my own place to live."

"But, how?" Sam asked. "I mean, can you do that?"

Amber straightened in her seat. "Yes, I can do that. I'm not bedridden."

Sam sat back, then shook her head. "That's- That's not what I meant. I just- Well, you don't even have a job."

"I'll get a job," Amber said readily. "Not teaching dance at the centre, of course. But, I can do lots of other things." She looked to Ross, as though for confirmation. "Can't I do?"

"Yeah," he said, without even thinking about it. He sniffed, scratching idly at a spot behind his ear. "It's not like you need a carer, any more."

Amber flashed him a quick, tender smile, just as Al gave his rumbling support:

"There's nothing to stop this young lady from making a name for herself on her own. Besides," he said, nudging Sam in the arm, "you hardly want her sleeping down the hall while you're trying to make a baby."

Freddie gave a strangled shout: "Dad-!"

"Well, it's true," Al replied in his defence. "You can't just sit about waiting for an immaculate conception. You've got to get in there and start plumbing!"

"Dad!" Freddie cried again, his face flushing bright red.

Amber giggled, and Ross chuckled, too, as Freddie tried to re-plot the course of the conversation away from the topic of his familial duties. But Sam – aside from a brief, wide-eyed blink in her father-in-law's direction – simply looked with some concern at Amber.

"Are you certain?" she asked, in a quiet, gentle voice.

"I think it's best," Amber said, equally as quiet, equally as gentle, and even a bit sad as she sat there, staring across the table at Sam.

"Dessert!" Freddie declared, sounding nearly desperate. "Who wants some?"

Both Amber and Sam looked his way, brightening with relaxed smiles.

Over sweet fruit and pastry, conversation returned to more mundane villagey gossip, and they talked no more about Amber's decision to move on on her own. Until after they'd said thank-yous and good-nights, and Ross was walking side by side with her toward Fearless again, and she said, seemingly from nowhere:

"Thank you."

"Wha-?" he said, glancing at her in a dim stupor. For the last two blocks, he'd been occupied watching his feet step beside hers – just the steady rhythm of left, right, click, left, right, click, to which he'd become so accustomed – as he'd let his thoughts tumble in his head, like breaking surf.

"Thank you," Amber repeated. "For this evening."

"Oh," he said, before returning his focus to the pavement. He gave a disinterested shrug of one shoulder. "Yeah, it was all right, I guess. Got a free meal out of it, at any rate-"

"I meant, for supporting me. With Sam."

His held his step for a second, stuttering the pattern. "Oh," he muttered again. "That." He gave another shrug. "Don't know why that should surprise you."

She made a noise he couldn't easily interpret – something like a sigh, though perhaps more like a hum; it was difficult to tell – and took one deliberate step, then another shorter one, that put them back in time. "It doesn't. But, I appreciate you not treating me the same."

"Same as what?"

She made that noise again, muttering, "Like a little girl."

He couldn't quite mask the annoyance in his snort. "The big, bad wolf likes little girls. Thought you knew that."

Now, she definitely did sigh, as her steps stopped clicking.

Ross stopped, too, turning back to find her watching him, her gaze doleful as she said:

"I'm sorry."

He blinked. "For what?"

She wilted a little, which made her look small and vulnerable, half-leaning on her cane. "You've always let me be myself. Even when being myself wasn't me at my best."

Moving toward him, she reached up with her free hand and gave a gentle tug on his tie, which he'd almost forgotten he'd been wearing, save for the welcome feeling of freedom when she loosened its knot. She plucked at the top button of his shirt, too, and pulled it open with a tiny smile.

"I shouldn't treat you any differently," she said. Then, she moved to step away again, but he took hold of her hand, to keep her close.

"That's all right." It was a comforting feeling, to squeeze even so lightly at her hand: soft, nice.

No longer vexed, he asked, "You had a thought on what you'll do?"

She tilted her head back, her gaze roving across the twinkling sky overhead; he followed it, tracing Virgo there, with the bluish glow of Spica close to the ecliptic.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, making him look back to her. "Maybe I'll see if the school needs a French tutor. Or if the council could use a programming assistant, or a translator." She looked at him, too, smiling tentatively. "Do you think I could do that?"

Ross offered her a wan chuckle. "I think you can do anything you set your mind to."

Amber hummed, as she dropped her chin and started walking again. "To be honest, I wasn't thinking at all. I just knew I couldn't go back to that."

Still holding her hand, Ross swayed close to ask, "Go back to what?"

"Living there," Amber said, then shook her head as she let out a long, weary sigh.

"I know it's a horrid double standard," she said, now. "I like being the centre of attention, but I get upset when people treat me differently from everyone else. But, I just don't want to live with someone hovering over me all the time, like I'm some...sheltered little girl." Another shake, as she clicked two more steps. "Not after everything what's happened." She raised her head again, to meet his searching gaze, and gave another tender smile. "Not after being with you."

Maybe it was the odd feelings churned by the events at supper, or the quiet dark of the evening, or maybe it was something else, but Ross felt a low but distinct knotting in his belly as he looked at her. Suddenly, she wasn't his little Brier-Rose who needed saving, but a clever, capable young woman who was very much awake and very much aware of her own possibilities.

He blinked, and chuckled again, more familiar, this time.

"You know, you don't need to sort anything out right away. We've still a few weeks left with Julian. And summer tourist season's starting soon; there's always lots to do around here, then." He shifted his lips together, in an awkward half-smile, and muttered, "I could help you find something you like, if you want."

Amber smiled, too, winning and white. "Would you do?" she asked, stopping their pace for a moment, to squeeze steadfastly at his hand.

"Yeah. I'd like this to be your home," he told her, softly, now, "even if you're not up there with Sam."

She stayed smiling, and nodded. "I couldn't imagine being anywhere else than here. And with you."

He shook with a roll of gentle laughter, as the anxious tumbling in his stomach turned calm once more. "I can't, either." Then, holding firmly to her fingers, he started them walking again and said, "Come on. Let's get home."

NEXT: Forced Breaks