Six weeks later
Valeria pulled at the sash around her waist. The robe was soft and crudely made. She shrugged her shoulders and let it slip to the countertop. With acquired grace, she climbed over the lip of the wide basin and slipped into the bath. For Ross, it served merely as a bowl. But for her, it was a luxurious tub that even the Queen of Greendale could be jealous of. She sighed, and slipped up to her neck in the clear water.
Sunlight streamed through a window more vast than a house, embracing her behind closed eyes. She could not any longer take long walks outside on her own. Nor could she even manoeuvre the giant's own home without his help. Still, she had found a strange peace here.
Upon her insistence, he had promised to return her to human territory when they had both healed. But as the weeks flew by, Valeria found herself less eager to put his word to the test. Ross had been kinder to her than she ever could have hoped for.
She surfaced and reached for the herb-speckled soap floating on the surface. Even now, she could hear him moving in the other side of the house, each of his footsteps becoming distant vibrations that traveled for ages. The sensation scarcely troubled her now, save for the rare occasions she was set on the floor. It was a comfort to know that her friend was near, looking after her.
Humming an old tune softly, she spread soap along her arms and up her neck, adoring the aroma of pungent flowers so unfamiliar to her. Ross said they grew in abundance not far from his own village. But as of yet, she had not left the house to find out if that was true.
She submerged her upper half once more to wash it free of suds. So deep was the water, and so relaxed was she, that she let her legs float up until she was drifting on her back.
Within five minutes, those ground-shaking steps increased in severity. The surface of the water rippled as Ross strode into the room, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. The moment he saw she was watching him, he smiled, but swiftly downturned his eyes from her bare form out of respect.
“You've been too quiet,” he teased her. “Not like you. I thought you might have drowned.”
She giggled, now treading water. Splashes of her own rose against the sides of the bowl as she came to rest her elbows on the rim closest to the giant.
His transformation over the last few weeks had been startling. His wounds had all but melted away, only a few patches of stitches and some scar tissue remained in tiny quantity. His missing eye no longer looked as swollen and sore, and didn't bleed from fresh whip-marks. The pallid white sickliness of his skin gave way to a healthier tone and his cheeks were ruddy with good diet and fresh air. The effects of his freedom were bodily visible.
He went to the bigger basin of his kitchen sink, working a pump to deliver a stream of water over his hands. Valeria kicked her feet in the warm bath, sending small waves of suds to the other side.
"I did not," she called back lightly. "See for yourself."
She resumed her humming, wading back to the soap sliver to lather up her hair. She heard the water in the sink turn off, and then Ross' slow, thudding steps approaching. He moved so swiftly and surely she had no chance to seize back her words. His shadow washed over the entire bowl. With her hands still in her hair, she went very still as he lowered himself down behind her.
She heard him moving, but still gasped when his hand brushed along her back. His fingertips, smelling of that spicy soap, glided over her bare skin, smoothing swirls of bubbles over her shoulder blades. When she glanced carefully over her shoulder at him, she could make out only a part of his concentrated expression, and the sliver of his thick leather patch. Valeria chewed on her lip and released it, allowing him to continue.
"I'm still not used to you wearing that thing," she said eventually, unable to stand the quiet.
A soft laugh hit her back like a breeze. "It's not as nice as yours."
She felt her cheeks grow hot when she smiled, and quickly splashed water on her face to hide her blush, as if he was going to see it from that angle. “Mine had a certain charm,” she agreed modestly. “But it wasn't as… you know…”
He frowned, puzzled, as he dipped his hand into the water behind her. “As big?” he guessed.
“As scary,” Valeria said after a beat, scratching her neck sheepishly.
Ross blinked, considering this. “Scary?” he repeated, scooping up water and pouring it delicately over her shoulders. His good eye caught sight of his rippling reflection in the bowl. He reached up to smooth two fingers over the dark leather.
“Mhmm.” Swiveling, she tilted her head back to direct a warm smile at him. “You look every bit the giant we know from the legends.”
She had intrigued him. This close, Ross' scrutiny was more diligent than ever. "You don't look scared," he pointed out.
She smiled wider. "I know better."
His face warmed. Modesty hit her suddenly, when she noticed Ross' single eye glance down at the rest of her. Something tightened inside her, prompting her to fold her arms over her breasts. She was very small to him, but at this distance, she knew nothing was hidden to him. She glanced shyly down at her own body before lifting her eyes.
"Can… Can you help me out?"
Ross cleared his throat. “Uh, of course. Hold on, though, lemme get you a towel first.”
He rose away abruptly, almost kicking the table in his haste, and went to the hearth. The fire had almost died but the two small sheets he had left nearby were still beautifully warm. When he turned back to her she was pressed up against the side again, her hands clutching the ceramic edge.
Quick as a wink, he laid out one folded towel on the tabletop and submerged his hand in the bowl. He let Valeria position herself there before actually scooping her up. His lips parted at the sensation of soft limbs and tiny buttocks but he set her down on the sheet as quickly and carefully as he could.
The minute she was out she was shivering. Her teeth chattered until Ross bundled the second towel around her.
“Oh,” she sighed, gathering the folds up to her chin. “It's warm.”
"You humans. So sensitive to the elements."
Valeria held her breath as his face crowded close, a familiar smirk lowering into view. She gripped the edges of the towel to her chest while his hands cupped around her to towel her dry. She scrunched her face up when the movement rocked her, nearly laughing at how silly she must've looked. The towel nearly slipped as she reached out to gently bat at his hands. Despite his remarkable recovery, she couldn't bring herself to be rough with him.
Ross grinned and pulled back obediently, sitting down to pull his boots out from under the table. They were shiny and sturdy, a far cry from the ragged things he'd worn for so long in captivity.
"I'll be heading out to visit Aaron shortly," he remarked, glancing over. "Do you need anything from the market?"
“Mm-mm. No. Well…” She inched up onto her knees, watching him as he tugged one of his boots on. “What about that fruit we had a fortnight ago? The orange one with the prickly roots.”
“Sunfig,” Ross guessed.
She nodded eagerly. “That's it.”
“It should still be in season. Honestly it's been so long since I've been here I forget…” he trailed off, shaking his head with a half-smile. He sighed and reached for his second boot.
“You won't be gone long, will you?” she ventured, eyes beseeching him. “It gets awfully quiet after a while and I-”
“Not more than a couple of hours at most,” he was quick to reassure her. “Is there anything I can leave out for you so it doesn't become too dull? A book, maybe?”
She pursed her lips, disappearing to comb her fingers through her tangled hair underneath the cloth. "If you could leave the rest of that nice cloth on the table," Valeria hummed. "I might try to fix another dress or two for myself."
"None for me?" Ross teased.
"Not unless you want one you can wear on your finger."
The chuckle she got out of him made her stomach flutter. She groped for her robe while he fastened his belt, slipping into it in record time. Ross finished packing a few items into a small satchel: some dried fruits, a sealed jar of milk, and a small bit of the money Phillip had gifted him with. Valeria paced closer as he fastened the bag shut, trusting the care of those enormous hands.
"I wish I could come with you," she admitted, folding her arms across her chest.
His face said the same thing, she thought, as he looked back at her. But there was also caution there.
“Valeria… you do understand, don't you? Why you have to stay in?”
He shouldered his bag but moved closer to her, not entirely satisfied. “I hate to keep you cooped up like… like some prisoner. That's not how I want this to be.”
“No, I know,” Valeria assured him. She folded her arms tighter, paying more attention now to the seam of her robe than the giant. “I don't feel like that.”
“Someday soon maybe,” he said. “We’ll go out together.”
She raised her head, looking past his bulk to the window across the room. Gigantic trees waved their bare branches under pale sunlight. She longed to feel the sensation of that breeze, see the strange nature of Aarlith herself. But certainly not alone.
"That sounds nice," she allowed. That got a smile back to his face, the rugged, boyish one she scarcely had thought him capable of before his release.
Ross lowered on one knee then, and stretched out his open hand towards her. Valeria uncrossed her arms and approached without hesitation. As he extended a single finger in farewell, she pressed her hand to its tip. Their own secret goodbye.
"Be careful," she bade him.
“Don't go worrying about me,” he said, carefully taking back his finger. With a final, comforting smile he rose, making for the cupboard that held the little scraps of fabric and other things Valeria used to make her clothes.
Halfway back to her, he faltered, turning back to gaze at the window. The table was in full view from the outside. Someone only had to walk past and…
“Almost forgot. Let's get you somewhere a little more discreet, huh?”
She steeled herself patiently as Ross swept her up off the towels and cupped her at chest level, surveying the room.
“Where’d I put you last time?” he mused.
Valeria pointed. "The lower sets of cupboards there."
The empty cupboard had been cleared of its previous contents and dusted out to be clean for her use. Ross laid everything out inside before delicately lowering down Valeria herself.
"Leave the cupboard open, please," she called as he started to stand. "All the way. I need the light."
He did just that, and even pulled over a weighty doorstop “in case it falls shut and you can't get out.” Offering her a final smile, he got to his feet.
“Have fun in there.” He shifted the bag on his shoulder and wandered to the door. “I'll be back before you know it if you keep busy enough.”
“I will!” Though she shouted, her voice was remarkably faint to his ears.
He put his hand on the doorknob, then paused as it clicked open, remembering something. “If you want to roam around on the floor, remember don't come out to the hallway, alright?” He winced at the very thought of hurting her by simply opening the door and stepping in too soon. “Just in case I'm home early.”
“Don't worry about me,” she echoed his words, and he fancied he could hear the smile in her voice. “Goodbye!”
“I'll see you soon.” With these final words, and a satisfied nod, Ross stepped out and slammed the door shut behind him.
Things were never quiet, Valeria found, living in a giant's home. The sound of the foundation settling was like a resident banshee, and that tree breezing outside sounded less lovely when its branches began to scratch against the kitchen window. She never knew how much Ross made these noises seemed smaller until he was absent.
To make the long wait a bit more endurable, Valeria would take to humming or singing songs as she worked. Some, old ones the castle staff used to sing. When she ran out of those, she made up her own.
She was halfway through the chorus of a ballad about a grasshopper when a door in the house swung open. Brightening, Valeria stopped what she was doing to look around at the front hall. The steps sounded from the other direction, from the door in the back of the pantry. She ran her hands through her hand and pushed the giant sewing kit off her lap.
"You're back early," she declared, cupping a hand around her mouth.
At the very edge of the cupboard, she realized the approaching steps were not Ross' careful gait.
Her veins seemed to flood with icy water, her knuckles were white against the edge of the cupboard. As the stranger moved closer, she began to feel the whole piece of furniture tremble with his strides.
“Is somebody there?”
The deep voice was startlingly familiar. Hardly daring to breathe, Valeria peeped around the side of the alcove, training her gaze in the direction of the pantry.
She almost screamed when the pantry door flew open, clattering against the wall with an almighty din. Then there was momentary silence, as whoever it was paused at the edge of the room.
“Ross? You home? I brought the stuff you wanted.”
Taking a deep, quiet breath, Valeria looked up.
From the first night. She'd recognise his face anywhere. The one they had called Alasdair. The cold feeling in her veins turned freezing.
He began to move again. Snapping out of her horrified stupor she whirled, darting into the shadows at the back of the cupboard. Feeling panic bubbling, she clapped her hand over her mouth and nose to stifle her breathing.
His heavy steps came to stop just outside of the cupboard and its counters. Alasdair dropped something large onto the counter directly over her head, rattling the entire cupboard around her. A whimper bled through her fingers when he stepped right in front of the open cabinet. His shin-high boots filled the opening, blocking her exit.
"If you're here, Ross, the parsnips are on the counter!" Alasdair bellowed. "And some brandy too. Cost me six silver! You're fucking welcome."
When no reply came, the giant set about arranging the goods on the counter. Every movement made the cupboard quake. Valeria squeezed her eyes shut, willing the man to just leave. Just put it down and leave!
She watched in horror as one of the parsnips dropped off the counter. It landed idly at the foot of her hiding spot, musing the corner of the cupboard.
Just leave it alone, just leave it-
Alasdair dropped to a crouch, groping around. His hand hit the parsnip at the same moment as Valeria's bright blue robe caught his eye.
"I'll be damned," he breathed. He dropped the parsnip, and reached for her instead.
“No… please - no!” she squealed.
To her horror, his only reaction was an intrigued smile. “You’re the little thing Morgan picked up, aren’t you?” he said brightly, powerful fingers casting aside her barricade of boxes and fabrics like they weighed nothing. “Didn’t know you could talk.”
Tears sprung to her eyes. She was pressed right up against the back of the cupboard, but it was no trouble for the giant to reach that much further and pry at her waist, drawing her out into the light. The world spun as he tossed her briskly into the air and caught her again in a more secure grip, and drew himself up to his full height.
“I thought he’d have dealt with you by now,” Alasdair went on, grey eyes drinking her in as she fought against his fist. “You been hiding away from him all this time?”
“Please… put me down,” she gasped. She forced herself to meet his eyes, her own narrowed in a warning expression. “Ross, he… he’ll be angry if he finds out you laid so much as a finger on me.”
"I know, I know," Alasdair drawled. "He wanted you for himself. But what the hell's taking him so long, hm?"
Valeria choked back another cry as he brought her right up to his face, turning her this way and that.
"What are you wearing?"
She screamed as he dropped her down into the palm of his other hand. Leaned up against the counter, he began pulling at the seams, puzzled.
"St-stop it! I mean it," she cried. "You'll be sorry." Her hands were whisked away with laughable ease. The worn leather of his fingerless gloves had nearly no friction, and she found herself slipping onto her ass like a baby deer.
"Are you threatening me?" Alasdair's dropped into a lower decibel. "Have you forgotten yourself? You're not jailing prisoners in Greendale anymore, woman."
“I wasn’t Ross’ jailer,” she squeaked out, shrinking from his dangerous tone. “Well… a bit, but - it was my job to take care of him! He only told you those things so your… your friend would hand me over. I looked after him.”
“Oh, sure.” Alasdair took hold of her, flipping her onto her front and continuing his examination of her dress. His voice suggested he didn’t believe her in the slightest. “Because humans are so adept at taking care of us guys, right?”
“Ross will tell you!” She struggled to the very edge of his hand, judging the distance to the floor below. Not a survivable one. “You’d believe him if not me, won’t you? Just… he’ll be home soon. Put me down a-and we can resolve this.”
"I don't take orders from bites like you, sweetheart. Now hold still." He wet his lips and tore her robe upward, revealing pale, kicking legs to the open air. "I'm sure Ross won't mind if I just get you warmed up."
Valeria's screams were muffled effectively as he clamped his thumb down over her back. With a finger and thumb, he tugged the robe off her upper half as easily as peeling an orange. Though the hand curled round her was as unyielding as a cage, she clawed desperately against him for release.
Her stomach dropped to her feet as the hand rose up, closer to its owner’s face, and her skin prickled when a rush of air enveloped her.
“I don’t know how he’s been able to resist you for so long,” he whispered at her back. “You smell incredible.”
The pressure around her body left somewhat, but only to be replaced by the giant’s other hand grabbing her up by the legs. Sobs wracked her body as she continued to struggle. “I’m begging you,” she implored him. “Don’t do this.”
"Oh," Alasdair said with a laugh. "This will be nothing compared to what Ross will do when he finds you."
The more she fought for release, the more satisfied his smile grew. It was a pure, primal sort of enjoyment that Valeria recognized in the depths of his large eyes. She hit and struggled for all she was worth, but she couldn't stop the teeth from grazing down her bare shoulder. Something hot and wet snaked down her arm, and she was sure she could smell his last meal on his breath.
And then, as if the heavens had heard her desperate prayers, the front door swung open.
“Val? Watch out, I’m coming in.”
Her eyes fluttered closed.
More surprised than she was, Alasdair shut his mouth, eyebrows furrowed as he straightened to see the man easing in through the door. Valeria yelped, still suspended upside down.
“Ross, get in here!” she howled.
“I’m coming, hold on,” he exclaimed, sounding slightly bemused. When he strode into the kitchen, his attention was focused on the collection of spherical fruit balanced in the crook of one elbow.
“The market had sunfig,” he went on cheerfully. “Not just the orange either so I got…”
He caught sight of Alasdair, and his mouth opened. A split second later, he saw Valeria dangling there at his mercy, and the blood entirely drained from his face.
"Alasdair, no," Ross uttered. He dropped the groceries in a heap on the table, marching past the fruits that rolled down onto the floor. "Give her here, now!"
Suddenly he was a blur of movement, shoving a chair out of his way in his haste to reach them. He thrust out his hands under Alasdair's with a pleading look in his eye.
"Just drop her here. Please…"
"Alright, alright, back off me." Alasdair backed up into the countertop and opened his hand.
Valeria landed with a grunt in familiar palms. Ross drew her away immediately, cradling her close. She caught a glimpse of Alasdair's bewilderment as Ross set her down on the table and gently set about securing her robe around her.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…" he breathed.
She shivered there on the table, clutching her robe around her like it was a lifeline. Seemingly unable to utter another word she just blinked up at Ross, as if assuring herself that she was saved.
“Are you hurt?” Ross demanded tremulously. “Did he…”
He straightened up, turning his scrutiny back onto Alasdair. The other man almost wilted under the fierceness of his gaze.
“How did you get in?” Ross growled.
Alasdair pointed to the pantry. “Back door was unlocked,” he said innocently. “I told you I'd be dropping round this week didn't I?”
"And was eating Valeria part of your plan?"
"Look, I just found her under the sink there," Alasdair said, pointing. "I left you more than enough to work with. And I'd be quick about your revenge if I were you. She's not going to taste that nice if you let her get all old and stringy."
Alasdair looked positively befuddled by the murderous look Ross was sending him.
"You shouldn't have even touched her," Ross hissed.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know…"
Ross softened abruptly and glanced down at the table; Valeria had grabbed hold of his sleeve as if terrified he would leave her side. He smiled down at her, stretching his hand up to pet down her wild hair.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Alasdair meandered to join them by the table. He frowned when he noticed how Ross’ hand curled just that bit more around the little human when he came to stand at his side.
“I’m not going to do anything.”
“I don’t want you even looking at her,” Ross snapped in return.
Valeria fidgeted under his touch, shakily drawing a hand back through her hair. “Ross,” she whispered. “I-It’s okay.”
“The hell it is,” he mumbled, sliding his palms under her and picking her up once more.
Alasdair cocked his head. “So… what? You’re keeping her? But you told Morgan-”
“He wouldn’t have handed her over if I hadn’t lied.” Ross didn’t look at him, still smoothing down Valeria’s hair with his thumb. “She might be human, but she deserves to live. She took care of me.”
The other giant still looked disbelieving. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. Just leave her alone, alright?” He finally looked up again, leaning in and glaring hard into Alasdair’s face. “And don’t you go telling any of the others.”
Alasdair's quiet was unsettling. "Ross… you know I trust you. I'd follow you into almost any battle. But this… it's not right."
He edged slowly, bit by bit for the door. Ross brought Valeria to his chest, shielding her from the icy daggers he glared towards the other.
"I swear, Alasdair. You so much as breathe a word of this, you'll regret it."
The stalemate was terrifying, the sort of silence that could have led anywhere. Valeria shuddered in relief, clutching at Ross' vest, when she heard the other giant reluctantly trudge for the door.
"Food's on the counter," Alasdair muttered. Glaring over his shoulder, he skulked to the door.
“Alasdair!” Ross barked, but there was no answer other than the door slamming shut.
The minute he was gone, Ross sagged, letting himself slide onto the floor next to the table. He could feel his own heartbeat drumming wildly against his chest, and knew that Valeria could no doubt feel it too.
“Fuck,” he sighed, flexing his hand around Valeria’s tiny form. “It’s alright, Val. He’s not gonna scare you like that again.”
She didn’t answer. He could feel the light buzzing sensation against his palm that told him she was still shaking like a leaf. Letting out a shuddering sigh, he lifted her up before his face.
“I’m… I’m so sorry,” he rumbled. “I had no idea anyone could-”
“You promised me no one would touch me,” she interrupted. He winced, waiting for her anger, but all that came was more tears. “You said I’d be safe here.”
"But I wasn't!" She buried her face in her hands, hiding her quickly reddening cheeks. "You… you saw what happened. It wasn't even a fight."
Ross brushed his thumb over her fingers, against her sticky cheek. "I won't take any more chances. Mark my words."
She merely bit her lip and drew herself into a tighter ball in his palms, scrubbing at her eyes. With increasing anguish, Ross lowered her down to chest level again, holding her close to the warm fabric there. It was then he noticed how damp her shoulders were where the robe had slipped down.
“How about I heat up some more water,” he murmured soothingly. “You’ll feel better after another bath, I’m sure.”
At her approval, he got to his feet. He kept hold of her in one hand now when he grabbed up the heavy black kettle and set it back on its handle over the licking flames of the fire. She was quiet the entire time they waited for the water to warm up, and when Ross poured the hot liquid into the bowl and added soap.
With his help, Valeria disrobed and slipped eagerly into the warm water. She shuddered and sighed, wading up to her neck. Ross folded his arms on the table to watch her. She felt no lust or depravity in the gaze that followed her, but she kept her back to him all the same. It was easier, if she didn't have to look at him.
"I can't stay, Ross," Valeria said, soft and sudden. "The others… they just don't see me the way you do."
She felt his agitation in the way the table shook beneath her when he moved. “Them? They don't matter, Val. Not when it comes down to you. Alasdair coming in was an accident. You don't have to come face to face with any one of them.”
She threw suds onto her arms and scrubbed diligently, eager to banish the awful sensation of saliva that lingered there. “Don't make promises you can't keep, Ross,” she warned him, then ducked under the water to cover her hair. When she came back up for air, she tried to force herself to relax, but it was no use. Her muscles were like tense wires beneath her skin, and she still trembled like a baby rabbit.
“Look, I just need to be more careful, Val. More than I have been already,” Ross insisted. “I won't let anyone else find you.”
“But they will. It will happen eventually, Ross.”
“Not if I keep you indoors, if I-”
“Keep me hidden away? All the time?” Valeria demanded. “Because that seems to be the only option for you. But if I go back… I have a far greater chance of surviving.”
"Do you?" Ross sneered. "Amongst those barbarians? We've talked about this, Val. You left as a criminal in Greendale. They'll have your neck if you return."
"Then I won't go back to Greendale," Valeria said fiercely. "There are plenty of other kingdoms."
Ross scowled, planting his chin in his hand. "They're all the same."
Valeria stiffened and whirled on him, a ripple churning the water. "This may come as a shock to you, but there are other humans in the world capable of decency!"
Ross was quiet, his stubbornness unrelenting. Her face fell a little, finding traces of hatred in that brown eye. It still took her by surprise sometimes, that after all his kindness towards her, Ross' abhorrence for her species was stronger than ever.
"You can't go."
"Is that an order?" There was a new sort of iciness in her voice. She pulled her long hair over one shoulder, covering part of her chest as she worked her fingers through the knots.
Ross diffused it, shaking his head ruefully. "No, of course not. But I… I owe you my life. You've scarcely given me a month to begin paying that debt."
“You think you owe me? That you need to repay me like I'm some debtor?” She gaped at him, expression torn between anger and confusion. “That's what this is?”
“Val, no, I-”
“After all this time.” A bitter smile reached her lips and she shook her head. “I didn't get myself arrested for you so I could exploit you. I did it because it was right. You don't owe me anything.”
“All the same!” He drew himself closer to her and placed his hands around the bowl, dragging it towards him. “I'll never stop being grateful for what you did. And to let you walk right back among those monsters…”
Caught up in the rocking motion of the water, Valeria struggled to stay afloat. “I don't want to! But what kind of life would this be? Shut up like a vulnerable little pet.”
"You've got to know by now you could never be just some trinket to me."
Valeria opened her mouth to reply, and got a mouthful of bathwater. She'd gone too deep, and groped for the rim. Ross pushed up his sleeves, submerging a hand into the water. With begrudging gratitude, she held fast to him to steady herself. Her chest heaved with deep breaths that scarcely seemed to calm her beating heart.
"You deserve to be happy where you choose to be," Ross rumbled, all the fight gone from his voice. "I just thought… That would be with me."
Valeria stopped avoiding his gaze and craned her neck back, lips parted. She cursed Alasdair again for bringing tears to her eyes, for now they couldn't seem to stop. She still shook her head, hating to see the pain on his face.
"Not like this, Ross," she whispered. "I'm not something to be kept."
The hand she leaned against twitched. The next thing she knew, he was cradling her in the crook of his fingers. The prolonged contact of her bare skin on his was as intimidating as it was comforting. She gripped him tighter as he leaned down to give her a crooked smile.
"You can have me too. I'll be yours."
A weak little laugh escaped her and she tilted her head to rest it wearily on his hand. “My giant.” She raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“I mean it,” he told her, smile broadening. “Just… please. I won't ever leave you on your own again if you don't wish it. Anything you need of me, I'll do it. I swear.”
He brought up his fingertip, brushing at her cheeks, but it was impossible to distinguish fresh tears from the bath water. Before he could pull away she shot out a hand of her own, gripping hold of him.
“How do I know you're telling the truth?” she whispered. And yet, with her wide violet eyes boring into him, she already looked half-convinced.
"I've never lied to you," he assured her, and pulled her closer through the water. "I never will. And that's a promise I can keep."
Valeria smiled a little wider at that, tiny teeth sparkling at him. She sighed through her nose and nestled her cheek against him again. "I'll stay a while longer."
“Thank you,” he breathed.
“And…” She sighed, pushing off gently from his hand and wading further into the water. “Thank you, I suppose. For not forcing me to stay.” She blinked up at him from the edge of the bowl.
He made a small noise and sank down to rest his chin on his arms, rendering himself level with the human. “I know what it's like to be imprisoned,” he replied, quirking a conspiratorial eyebrow. “And so do you. It's something neither of us should have to face anymore.”
Valeria nodded sagely. It seemed not long ago that she was making that daily journey down into the dungeon. Not long ago, Ross had been a waif of a giant, too weak to joke about or speak with strength as he did now. She looked over the strong angles of his face now, the colour in his cheeks. Somehow, that was enough to ease the knot of indecision in her stomach.
"What did we say about staring?" she quipped. Ross raised an eyebrow at his own words turned back at him, flinching as she sent a little splash his way. She giggled, and turned her back on him again. She felt very proud of herself until he dipped his hand into the bowl and flicked water at her, too.
She squealed as it rained down on her hair, swimming furiously to evade another little cascade of bubbly water. The table juddered beneath her as Ross caught her up gently and plopped her down in the deepest point.
“Hey!” she yelped when she surfaced again. He merely laughed, and she batted playfully at the finger that came to help brush her hair out of her face.
“You can't blame me for staring,” he said, dropping his head back on his arms. “It's not often one has a person using their dishes as baths. You'll be wanting the whole sink next, I suppose.” He grinned at her, then lifted his gaze to the ceiling while she continued to clean herself up.
“Ross,” she chirped after a time.
She paused. “Is it true that giants control the tides?”
When he looked at her again, her cheeks were pink, as though she felt foolish for asking such a thing.
“Where’d you get an idea like that?” he snorted.
She shrugged. “Just stories. A lot of people believe it. Especially the families of those sailors lost at sea every fishing season. I wanted to ask you before at the marsh but I forgot.”
"Giants control the tides no more than humans control where the moon appears at night," he told her patiently.
She hummed, lathering soap behind her ears. "I bet if you truly wanted to, you could."
"No, I wouldn't bet any money on that."
"I would," Valeria chirped. "You're certainly big enough. And you're recovering so well… I wouldn't be surprised if you could rip the earth up like a blanket within a week!"
Ross chuckled. "Now you're just being ridiculous."
She flashed him a playful smile over her shoulder, but he was still looking the other way. After carefully arranging her hair over both breasts, she waded to the rim and folded her arms on the side, mirroring him.
"You are looking well, though," she went on. "It's almost a shame I can't take credit this time."
“Yes you can,” he mumbled, inching closer. “I wouldn’t have survived if it weren’t for you. That means I never would have gotten back home. That's all down to you.”
She lowered her gaze, beaming at the ripples in the water around her. Seeing him now, she felt a warmth spread through her that had nothing to do with the hot water. Even despite the lingering scars, the unmissable crimson burn mark on his neck and the lingering leanness suggesting he had not quite reached his prime yet, Ross looked to have been reborn since his imprisonment. And Alasdair had been wrong. She could care for a giant.