DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: While Charity and Vanessa are tagged as a couple in this, and they very much are a couple, they are not the focus of the story. Turn back now if that's what you're looking for. You will only be disappointed. Johnny is the star of this fic.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To scotangelina[at]yahoo.com
SERIES: Part one of Here be Dragons.
Waiting to see us once beautiful and brave
He's four years old and happily leafing through the pages of a book about cars, sitting on the stairs in Dale View. It's a really big book he found in the living room and it was dead heavy to carry. He thinks it must belong to Uncle Ross because Uncle Pete likes tractors best, not cars. It's got loads of great pictures.
The words in the book are too hard. There's lots of them and they're all little and close together. But he can read some of his own books. And he can write his name. He can even spell it out loud and everything.
His Mama is really proud of him and she makes him do it for all the people in the pub. She makes them clap at the end and she kisses his cheek and says 'Well done, kid'. He loves his Mama and his Mummy and their new home in the pub. It has lots of great places to hide and Noah sometimes plays hide and seek with him. It's great.
It's great here at Dale View too. He loves visiting his Uncle Ross. He has really big muscles and he can lift a lot of stuff. Uncle Pete says he has the biggest muscles. One time he lifted Auntie Rhona right up over his head. Then Uncle Ross tried to lift Auntie Tracy but she hit him and told him not to bother 'cause he'd end up dropping her on her...and then she said a word Johnny's not allowed to say. His Mummy and his Mama didn't lift each other. Mama just shook her head and said something about hets that Johnny didn't really understand. But it made his Mummy laugh so it must have been funny.
He looks up when he hears someone calling his name. "Here I am!" His Uncle Ross barges through the door from the living room. He looks up at him and smiles. "Hiya."
"Johnny, mate." Ross puts a hand over his chest. "You nearly gave me a heart-attack. I thought you'd run off. Your Auntie Tracy'd kill me if she came back here and I'd let you escape."
"No." Johnny shakes his head. His Mummy says he must never run off anywhere without telling a grown-up. It's really dangerous to do that. He closes the book on his lap and lifts it up to show the cover. "The telly was really loud and I wanted to read this book so I came out here."
Ross comes to sit by him on the stairs. He takes the book onto his own lap and opens it up. "I like this book."
"The words are hard, but I like the pictures," Johnny tells him, leaning his elbow on Ross's thigh.
Ross laughs a bit, but Johnny can't tell what's funny. "Yeah, me too." Johnny watches him turn the pages. He stops on a red car and points at it. "That's a cracker, innit?"
"It looks fast." Johnny nods. "I like red. And yellow. And green. And-"
"Any colours you don't like?" Ross asks. "That might be quicker."
Johnny thinks for a minute. "I don't like black very much. Or white. White crayons are rubbish. You can't even see them on the paper!"
"Fair enough." Ross turns back to the book. Johnny looks at his face. He's on the side that has a red bit on it. It looks like it's bumpy, so he reaches out and touches it to see if it is. Ross pulls his face away fast and Johnny gets a fright, jumping back and bumping his elbow on the wall. He rubs it with his hand.
"Hey...hey, I'm sorry, mate." Ross takes his arm and rubs his elbow for him.
"Is it sore?" Johnny asks, pointing at his own cheek. "I didn't know it was sore. I just thought it looked nice."
Ross makes a face, but then shakes his head. "No, it's not sore. Not anymore. It used to be sore and that's why I jumped a bit when you touched it, that's all."
"What happened to make it sore?"
Ross puts a hand over the bumpy bit of his face. "It, uh...it got burnt."
Johnny's eyes widen. He leans close to Ross, to whisper. "Was it a dragon that did it?"
Ross looks at him for a bit, smiling a little. His smile gets bigger and bigger until he's showing all of his teeth. And then he laughs a really nice laugh.
"Yeah. Yeah mate, that's exactly what it was."
Johnny gasps. He knew it would be a dragon. "Where did you meet it?"
"It was up at Butler's Farm. I was out driving one night when I saw it, up in the sky." He stands up and puts his arms out like great big wings. "It was swooping down, coming to steal the sheep."
"And what did you do?" Johnny asks, in awe.
"I didn't have a choice, did I? I had to save the little sheep." He pretends to be driving a car, turning the steering wheel. "I drove right through the gate, busted it open and screeched to a halt. I jumped out of the car and-"
"And did you have a sword? Don't you need a sword to fight a dragon?" Johnny asks, nodding.
"Yes!" Ross points at him and nods along. "Yes. I leaned across and I picked up my sword from the passenger seat, right? But my shield was in the boot, wasn't it? And I didn't have time to get it or all the sheep would've been gone."
Johnny's hands fly to cover his mouth. "Oh no!"
"Yeah, so I took my sword and I ran as fast as I could." He lifts his hands above his head, clasped around his pretend sword. "And I'm yelling, right? Trying to get his attention on me and away from the lambs."
Johnny's eyes grow even wider. "Little lambs?"
"Little baby lambs," Ross says. "So I yell at that big dragon-"
"What colour was he?" Johnny asks.
"Eh?" Ross frowns. "Oh...uh...what colour do you think he was?"
"Red?" He's seen a red dragon in a book. It was dead scary looking and it had big claws.
"That's right. It was bright red...and it gets its big beady eyes on me and it swoops right at me and I swung my sword and I caught him on the leg." Ross swings his arms down. "And he flies away, screeching, and I'm thinking 'Phew, that was close'."
Johnny nods rapidly, relieved. Ross makes his eyes big and round. "But then, he turns back around, right? And I can see him headed right for this tiny little lamb that's standing all on its own." Ross shakes his head. "And I said 'No, Dragon, not today.' And I start running and I grab that little lamb in my arms."
He grabs Johnny up, shoving him under one arm, running into the living room. Johnny squeals, giggling when Ross tosses him onto the couch beside Moses, who looks at the two of them briefly before turning back to Paw Patrol. "And I get that little lamb out of its way, but then it's right above me, yeah? And it opens its mouth and do you know what happened next?"
"Fire came out?" Johnny asks, in a whisper.
"That's right." Ross collapses onto the floor and Johnny scrambles to the edge of the sofa to see him. "He's flying down, fire coming at me, and I've no shield remember? So I held my sword up in front of me and I turned to the side and I felt all this heat on my face." He touches the bumpy bit of his cheek. "So I just closed my eyes and swung my sword and it got him a right good hit in the chest." Ross grins up at Johnny from the floor. "And he flew away and he's never been back to Emmerdale since."
"Wow," Johnny whispers. "Were you scared?"
"A bit." Ross says, sitting up. "But that's what being brave's about, innit? Being scared and doing stuff anyway."
"I'm gonna be like that," Johnny tells him. "I'm gonna be brave when I'm big like you."
"Course you will be, mate," Ross says with a nod. He reaches over and tickles Moses. "You both will be."
Moses squirms away, shaking his head. "You're daft," he says to Ross and Johnny gasps. It's not nice to tell adults they're daft. Even when they are being daft.
"Oi, you," Ross scolds him. "You're listening to your mother far too much."
Uncle Ross's face is really close to him again, so he reaches over and runs his fingers down his cheek now that he knows it won't hurt. This time, Ross lets him.
"It feels nice," he decides, running his fingers up and down Ross's face.
He feels Ross' cheek move when he smiles. "Does it?"
"Yeah." He nods, trying to think what it feels like. "Bumpy. Like dragon skin."
"Dragon skin, eh? Well, I guess that's pretty cool."
The front door opens and they all turn to see Auntie Tracy coming back in from the shop. "Sorry I was so long. I bumped into Rodney and you know what he's like when he gets going. I'll be surprised if this milk's not gone off, the length of time I was stood there listening to him yakking on ab-" She frowns at Ross. "Why're you on the floor?"
"Uncle Ross was just telling me about the dragon," Johnny tells her, grinning.
"You know, Trace," Ross gets up, dusting his jeans off. "The dragon that I fought that burned my face. You remember."
"Oh!" Auntie Tracy looks down at Johnny and Moses and then back up at Ross, smiling. "Right. That dragon. Of course." She puts her bag down and comes over, wrapping her arms around Uncle Ross and kissing his cheek. "How could I forget about my brave knight fighting a dragon?"
Ross winks at Johnny. "Girls love dragon slayers."
Auntie Tracy laughs. "Yeah. Especially ones stuck in towers. Or stuck in their sister's spare room just after their sister gets a new girlfriend, eh?" She kisses Ross again. "You saved me from permanent mental trauma from having to listen to those two going at it like hammer a-."
"Alright, alright," Ross shakes his head. "There's kids here."
"Oh, as if they know what I'm talking about." Auntie Tracy comes over and kisses his head and then Moses' head. Moses strains his neck to see round her because she's standing right in front of the telly. "I'm putting this stuff away and then I'll make a cuppa, okay?"
"Great," Ross says, sitting down on the couch between Johnny and Moses. "I'm parched from all that running around after dragons."
Johnny thinks a bit about what he's heard. That dragon sounded like a right piece of work, going after little lambs. And even though Uncle Ross stabbed him, he still got away. So he might come back one day. And if he does, then they need to be ready for it. "Uncle Ross?"
He's watching Paw Patrol now, but he still answers. "Yeah?"
"If it comes back, the dragon...can I help you fight him?" He hurries to continue because he knows that grown-ups worry about you hurting yourself all the time. "I'll be dead careful. I promise."
Ross turns to look at him and he worries he's gonna say no. But he starts to smile and his eyes go nice and soft. "Course you can, mate." He nods. "You can be my squire, eh? And we'll fight him together."
"What's a squire?" Johnny asks, thinking he'd probably like to be one whatever it is.
"A squire's like-" He scrunches his face up like he's thinking. "He's like a knight's helper. He's always by his side."
"I'll be your squire, then," Johnny decides, smiling up at Ross. "I'll make sure and bring your shield next time. So you don't get hurt again."
Uncle Ross' face goes a bit funny when he says that, but it must not be bad, because he wraps an arm around his shoulder and pulls him close and kisses the top of his head, then he does the same with Moses.
Johnny yawns and snuggles against Ross' side, feeling a bit sleepy. Dragons and sheep dance in his head as his eyes grow heavy. And somewhere, he hears his Uncle Ross' voice.
"You sleep tight, squire. I'll keep watch for dragons."
He's twelve years old and on the bus coming home from school when he realises that the story about the dragon isn't actually true. He feels a bit stupid for not figuring that out earlier, really. It's not like he's only just learned that dragons don't exist, but he never made the leap and put two and two together. It strikes him that if it wasn't a dragon, then it must have been something else. Something hurt him in the real world, and it must have been something terrible.
In pictures from when they're little, Ross' face is much redder, more fiery. There's a picture in the backroom of the pub that Johnny loves. It was taken at some picnic or other, Ross is standing with no top on, Moses under one arm and Johnny under the other. All three of them are laughing. Him and Moz are about three in the picture he thinks, maybe a little older. And Ross' face is definitely redder than it is now. Something must have happened to him around that time.
He considers asking his parents about it. Ma's his best bet. Mum might tell him, but she's the one who still thinks they're little kids. She cried on Moses' last birthday about how fast they're both growing up. Ma had rolled her eyes and hugged her and called her a silly mare, but Johnny hadn't missed the sheen that had come over her eyes an' all.
"What's up with your face?"
He glances at Moses, sprawled in the seat behind him, legs dangling into the aisle. He wonders if Moses knows what happened to his dad or if, like Johnny, he'd just accepted the story about the dragon and never thought about it again.
Moses shrugs and goes back to trying to chat up some girl three years above them. Johnny sometimes wishes he could be more like Moses. Moses never really lets things bother him. He's always telling Johnny to forget about things, let things go. Like now, Moses would probably tell him not to bother asking about Ross. And maybe he'd be right. The bus stops and they all trudge off, pushing and shoving.
"Hey!" They both look over the road at the sound of their mother's voice. She's standing by her car in the vets' drive, grinning. "Great timing. Moira just rang. Wanna come and help me deliver a calf?"
"Yes!" Moses thrusts his bag into Johnny's arms and jogs over to the car, opening the passenger door.
"Let your Ma know he's with me, yeah?" Vanessa tilts her head. "Good day at school, love?"
He shrugs. "Yeah, it was okay."
"Mum! Come on," Moses whines, bouncing in his seat. Vanessa rolls her eyes affectionately and gives Johnny a smile.
"Better go. See you later."
"Yeah. See you." He hikes Moses' backpack onto his free shoulder and heads over to the pub, waving when the car passes. Moses gives him the finger and gets a clip round the ear for his trouble. Johnny smiles, but it fades as his thoughts turn back to Ross. He enters the bar to find it's still quiet. Ma's leaning on the bar, reading a magazine. She looks up when he enters and smiles.
"Hey babes." She glances over his shoulder. "Where's the other one? Not got detention again, has he?"
"Nah. He's gone up to Butler's with Mum. Calf."
"Course he has." She shakes her head, returning to her magazine as he passes behind her, going into the hall to dump their schoolbags and hang up his jacket. He can smell food coming from the kitchen and his stomach rumbles at the thought of one of Marlon's burgers. But he's got this thought in his head now and he needs to get it out. He walks back through to the bar.
"Ma?" He begins, sidling up to her. He leans his elbows on the bar beside her, his arm pressed against hers.
She doesn't look up to reply. "That's your buttering up voice. Is it money you're after or do you want to do something your mother is going to say no to?"
"No, it's...I mean, it's not that. It's not either of them."
She looks up now, narrowing her eyes at him, as if that'll help see into his brain. Sometimes he think she can see into his brain.
"Hmmm." She looks him up and down. "So, if it's not money and it's not me having to break something gently to your mother, then what is it?"
"I've been thinking-"
"Always dangerous." She winks. "Don't teach your brothers how to do that, will you?"
He laughs and bumps her shoulder with his own. "Ma." He knows that she knows that both Noah and Moses are clever.
"Go on then," Charity says, closing her magazine. "You best tell me what this 'thinking' has been about."
He picks up a pen that's lying on the bar and pulls the magazine closer, doodling in the spaces of the lettering. He shrugs. "I was thinking about Uncle Ross and how he used to tell us that story about, you know, fighting a dragon." He glances over at her and sees understanding gather in her eyes. She nods for him to continue. "And...and that's not what happened. So I was just wondering what did happen."
She sighs, reaching over to brush something off his shirt. "Right. Go and grab yourself a bag of crisps, eh? I'll pour you a drink and then we'll talk."
Oh God. It must be bad. She always softens bad news with sweets or fizzy drinks. It drives his Mum mad. He grabs her arm before she heads off to the font. "Ma. Just tell me."
She nods and nudges him towards the stools at the bar. He climbs up on one and she does the same. Her eyes are on the bar and she scrapes at a smudge of something with her nail. "It's not very nice, what happened. I just want you-"
"I'm not a baby. I can take it."
She looks up at him now and smiles, tilting her head to the side. "You're right. You're not." She leans in and lowers her voice. "But don't tell your Mum that, eh? I'm trying to introduce her to that idea slowly. Don't want her keeling over with shock when one of you needs to start shaving."
He knows stalling when he sees it, so he raises his eyebrows at her. "Ma. Uncle Ross?"
"Right." She nods, pressing her lips together. "Well, the long and short of it is that...he got out of his car one night and...and, look, there's no nice way to say this-" She covers his hand where it lies on the bar, squeezing. "They threw acid in his face."
His free hand flies to his mouth. He's not really sure what he'd been picturing, but it wasn't that. He'd expected it to have been an accident; something going wrong with a car, or someone spilling something. Maybe even a firework mishap. But not that.
"Who would...why would anyone do that?"
"It was a mistake. It wasn't meant for him. He got out of the car and it was dark and...they thought he was someone else." She shakes her head. "Wrong place at the wrong time, babes."
"Oh my God." He can't quite decide if that's better or worse. It wasn't meant for him, so he wasn't targeted by someone who hated him enough to do that to him. But to have that happen purely by chance, by bad luck...it's awful however you look at it. He feels a bit sick even thinking about it.
His Ma lifts her hand off his and starts to rub his back. "Hey, listen." He looks up at her, needing her to say something comforting right now. "Nothing has changed, right? He's still your annoying Uncle Ross. Still Moz's Dad. You've just learned about something that happened a long time ago. And yeah, it's horrible and it's hard to hear about...but he's here. He got through it and he's doing alright." She smiles. "He's got a good thing going up at Butler's, yeah? He's managed to land himself a hot bird. He's got Moses….and you."
Johnny shakes his head. "I...I'm not-"
She speaks over his protests. "Do you know what? I think it was maybe that story about the dragon that helped him turn a corner back then."
He frowns, trying to figure out if she's just trying to make him feel better. "How's that?"
"I think-" She meets his eyes, her hand sliding to rest on the back of his neck, thumb rubbing over the newly shaved area at the base of his skull. "I think you seeing him as this big, brave knight who'd been through this terrible ordeal and come out the other side a hero...well, I think that made him look at things a little differently. That his scars maybe showed he was a fighter. A survivor." She shrugs. "That's what I think, anyroad."
He considers this for a moment. He has a lot of memories of Ross telling him that story about the dragon. He was always animated and proud, embellishing his bravery a little more with each retelling. He really hopes his Ma is right, and that it helped him, even just a bit, to come to terms with what had happened to him.
He nods, looking up at her. "I hope so."
She rolls her eyes, sliding off her stool and wrapping an arm around his shoulders, leaning in to kiss his temple. "Remember what I said, yeah? Nothing's changed. He's just Ross. He wouldn't want you thinking of him any differently." He nods and she squeezes him once and steps away, moving back around behind the bar. "Now, how about a burger, eh?"
He wrinkles his nose and shakes his head. His stomach still feels a bit dodgy. "Maybe in a bit."
She tilts her head at him, obviously doing her mind reading thing again. She nods. "Okay babes. You just give Marlon a yell when you want something."
She moves off to serve someone who's probably been waiting ages. His phone buzzes in his pocket and he pulls it out. It's a picture sent from Moses of him and their Mum grinning and holding a newly born calf between them. It's covered in goop and the whole thing is just Johnny's idea of an absolute nightmare.
"What's that?" He holds his phone up to let her see the picture, seeing his own disgust mirrored on her face, although it quickly dissolves into that affection she can never seem to disguise around his Mum. "Well, the pair of them are gonna reek. Brilliant."
He turns the phone around again and looks at his brother's face. "Does Moses know? About his dad?"
Leaning her arms on the bar across from him, his Ma sighs. "I don't actually know, sweetheart. He's never brought it up with me and I don't know if he's talked about it with Ross." She shrugs. "You know what he's like. Doesn't think about things as deeply as you do. Maybe it's never occurred to him."
"Yeah, maybe." He's prevented from offering any further opinion when the pub door opens and the topic of their conversation walks in. Johnny sits up on his stool, back ramrod straight. Charity widens her eyes and shakes her head subtly. He nods and leans his elbow on the bar, resting his head in it, attempting to look casual. His Ma rolls her eyes.
"Alright, squire?" Ross punches his shoulder and takes the stool next to his. "Keeping out of trouble?"
"Glad to hear it." He winks and then shifts his attention to the other side of the bar. "Pint please, Charity."
Johnny's eyes are drawn to the faded scarring as Ross talks to his Ma. He's never really looked closely at it, because that's just his Uncle Ross and that's what he looks like. But now, knowing what he does, he traces the contours of the raised, shiny skin, imagining the agony he must have felt as acid ate into his face. He blinks back tears.
"Where's Moses?" Ross asks, setting his pint down after taking a long drink. "I said I'd get him in here."
"Where d'you think? He's with his favourite parent. You know, the one who lets him shove his hand up animals?" She rolls her eyes. "How are we ever supposed to compete with that?"
"If that kid ends up going to vet school, you're paying for it." Ross shakes his head, pretending to scowl. "It's your missus' fault. I'm not supporting him till he's twenty-five so he can go off and cuddle bunny rabbits."
"Oh, shut up," Charity says. "If he goes to vet school, you'll be as proud as punch and you know it. Same as I will."
He's barely listening to them, just standing thinking about how bad it must have been to go through what his Uncle Ross had to. And before he knows it, he's launched himself at Ross, arms wrapped around his neck like some stupid kid who's grazed his knee and needs a hug.
"Hey." Ross' arm wraps around his shoulders, squeezing. "What's all this, then?"
"That's the Woodfield in him. I've tried everything I can to get rid of it but no matter what I do, he's still this soppy." There's a pause and he hears his mother clearing her throat. "Our Johnny figured out today that...that you didn't fight a dragon. Bit slow he is, sometimes. So I told him what really happened."
"Oh." Ross' hand lands on the back of his neck, rubbing it. "Hey." Johnny doesn't move and Ross squeezes his neck. "Hey, look at me." He slowly lifts his head, wiping his sleeve across his eyes. Ross smiles. "That's me rumbled then, eh?" He winks and leans in close. "Sorry I'm not a brave knight like you thought, mate."
"No! It's not-" He shakes his head. "That's not what I think. I think you're even braver. 'Cause this was real. It's not some story. This happened in the real world." He shakes his head. "I think you're the bravest person ever."
Ross looks at him for a moment, then he blinks, then he blinks again. Johnny starts to panic. Oh shit, I've made him cry. But then he's being pulled back into a tight, one-armed hug. "What are you like, eh?" Ross murmurs. "Don't ever change, soft lad."
Somehow, when his Uncle Ross calls him that, it doesn't hurt the way it does when some of the boys at school say it. He squeezes him tight and releases him, slamming his hand on the bar.
"Charity, get this man a pint."
She raises an eyebrow. "He's twelve."
"A pint of Coke, then. Whatever. Me and him are having a drink together."
Johnny hops back up on his stool, unable to stop his chest from puffing out. His Ma slides a pint glass of Coke across the bar to him.
"Proper Coke. Not diet," she tells him. "Not a word to your mother, right?"
He grins and nods, lifting the glass and taking a long drink. Ross does likewise with his beer and they set them down at the same time, wiping over their mouths with their arms. Charity rolls her eyes at the pair of them.
"Oh, one thing I was just thinking," Johnny says, turning to face Ross as he takes another swallow from his glass. "And then I'll shut up about it, I promise. But...if that scar on your shoulder wasn't a dragon claw. What was that, then?"
Ross chokes on his beer and Charity cackles in delight. She winks at him while Ross is recovering. "Ask your Mum about that one, babes. That's quite a story even without the flamin' dragon."
He's almost twenty-three when he's rudely awoken one morning by an unidentified weight landing on top of him. He groans and tries to turn over, but the weight doesn't budge. He opens one eye and sees two vibrant brown ones staring back at him. He quickly closes it again.
"Go 'way, Hope. S'too early."
She has the audacity to bounce him a little, her fingers digging into his ribs. "It's nearly eleven!"
He tries to pull the covers over his head, but they're pinned underneath his annoying little cousin. "Too early."
The covers are yanked back down and he finds Hope frowning down at him. "You're not a student anymore, Johnny boy. Gonna have to practise being an adult at some point."
"I've been up the crack of dawn the past two days taking in deliveries to let the old folk sleep in!" Johnny yawns and stretches, lifting his legs until she slides off him. She never was one for propriety.
"Don't let Auntie Charity catch you calling her old." She gets off his bed and moves over to his mirror, running a hand through her hair and tousling it as she pouts at herself. He rolls his eyes. She's one of those effortlessly stunning girls. Raven hair, dark, smoky eyes, and a body that suits whatever clothes she happens to throw on it. Charity likes to joke that there's no way she can be related to Paddy. Both Johnny and Moses have had their fair share of scuffles with idiotic boys who won't take no for an answer.
"D'you think I'm daft?" He yawns again and sits up, scratching at the back of his neck. "Anyway, why are you here? Term's not finished yet. Shouldn't you be terrorising Manchester still?"
"Study leave," she tells him, breezily. "And, as I've already said, you need to get up because they're here."
"Not who. What." She lifts her eyebrows. "A box of whats, actually. And if you don't shift your arse, your parents will have opened it before you get downstairs."
"I see uni hasn't cleaned your mouth up any, young lady." It's been a running joke between them for years. Ever since the first time she swore in front of him and he practically clutched his pearls at the thought of his baby cousin saying bad words.
She offers him a fake smile and her middle finger. "Fuck off, JD." She shakes her head. "Did you not hear what I said before?"
He frowns, thinking back over her sentence. Something about a box of-
"Oh shit, they're here?" He scrambles out from underneath the covers, only just managing to keep himself upright when his feet hit the floor.
"Is that not what I've been saying for the past ten minutes?" Hope rolls her eyes as he grabs yesterday's jeans and hops around, trying to pull them on. "I'll let you go and do the grand opening in private But while you're gone, can I-." She nods to a box on his dressing table. "-indulge a little?"
He sighs. "Fine. A little. But don't roll yourself five and pocket them this time. I'm skint!"
She smiles and draws a cross over her heart. "Promise."
"And open the bloody window," he calls over his shoulder as he heads out into the hallway, thundering down the stairs and into the back room. His Mums are standing in the kitchen, talking. There's a box sat on the table. They catch sight of them and his Ma throws her hands up.
"Finally!" She shakes her head and slaps her hand down on top of the box. "You'd think you got one of these every day the time you took to get down here."
"If you'd been another five minutes I wouldn't have been able to keep her out of it." Vanessa bumps Charity's hip with her own. "She's dying for a peek."
"Yes. I am." Charity nods and widens her eyes at him, inclining her head at the box. "So get a shift on, yeah?"
Now that he's here, he's actually a little bit scared. He's waited so long for this, worked so hard and had to believe in himself so much. And this is the end. Or the beginning. He steps up to the table, Charity moving away a little to let him in. Vanessa grabs her hand as they stand together just off to the side. He looks over at them and sucks in a breath.
"Here we go." Grasping one end of the tape, he rips the box open. He takes another deep breath and opens the flaps. Twin gasps come from behind him and suddenly he has one of them pressed against each arm, gazing into the box along with him.
His Mum grips his arm, squeezing hard. His Ma just covers her mouth and shakes her head. "It's a real book," she murmurs.
He laughs, scooping up one of the copies on top and holds it in both of his hands, eyes picking out all the details on the cover. A fearsome looking dragon rears up in front of a young man, his clothes are singed and his sword damaged, but he's defiant. Johnny runs his fingers over the man's face, scarred on one side, and then over the slightly raised lettering.
"Forged by Fire." Vanessa reads out loud, leaning her head against his shoulder. "By Johnny Dingle." She lets out a soft laugh. "Well. I suppose this means it's a proper job after all, eh?" Vanessa goes up on her toes and he bends so she can kiss his cheek. She wraps an arm around his neck, pulling his ear close to her mouth so she can whisper in it. "I'm so proud of you. We both are. Even if I'm not always the best at showing it." He puts the book back on top of the box and wraps his arms around her, lifting her up, ignoring her squawk of protest.
"I know, Mum. I know." Of the two of them, Vanessa's been the one to fret over him ever since he chose to study English at uni. Probably before that, even. Probably from when he was at school and showed no interest in science or business. For her, English was a nice to have type subject, but it didn't get you a job. He squeezes her tight and sets her back on her feet, turning to his Ma who grins at him.
"You did it, babes." He grins and picks her up as he had done with Vanessa, spinning her around.
"Thanks for being my biggest critic," he whispers. "And for believing in me."
"Oh, give over, soppy lad." She slaps at his shoulder until he puts her down. She rolls her eyes, but he can see the tears sparkling in them. "All them yarns you used to spin when you were a nipper? What else were you going to turn out to be? Thought I might as well encourage it." She throws her arms out to the side. "And now look at you, big published author. Just in time for me and your Mum to retire to Barbados and live on your riches."
"Yeah, right." He shuffles his feet. "Let's see how many copies fly off the shelves before you book the plane tickets, eh?"
"Fine," Charity says, rolling her eyes. "No selling the businesses right away. Spoilsport."
He clears his throat. "Listen, I know it's daft but...could I...have a minute? By myself?"
"It's not daft," Vanessa tells him, with a soft smile.
"It is a bit daft," Charity says, reaching up to chuck him under his chin. "But we wouldn't expect anything else from you, eh?"
"Charity!" Vanessa grabs her wife by the waist and turns her, pushing her to the door. "We'll keep the hordes at bay for a while. But Chas and Paddy'll want a look at some point. And Noah's due by. And we texted your Auntie Tracy and Uncle Ross, so they'll be making their way over."
He nods. "Cool."
He watches them head out into the hall. Charity pauses as she goes to pull the door closed after them. "Well done, kid." She winks. "Proud of you."
He suddenly can't swallow past the lump in his throat, so he nods and she does the same, closing the door and leaving him to his thoughts. He blinks a few times and blows out a breath, laughing at himself.
"Daft apeth," he mutters, swiping a hand over his eyes. He takes out his phone and snaps a picture of the box, sending it to Moses with a quick message.
Your little bro's out earning a crust while you're still dicking around at uni. Not good enough Moz.
He picks up the top copy of the book again, moving over to the counter and plucking a pen out of the thing that used to be a fruit bowl but now just collects odds and ends. He sets the book down and takes a moment before he opens the cover, turning to the page with the dedication.
To the first dragon slayer I ever met. And the bravest.
Uncle Ross, this one's for you.
He smiles. And lifts his hand, scrawling underneath the printed words.
Love from your squire.
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