Amber was, she thought, pretty lucky.
It was a thought she was having a lot recently. It certainly hadn’t been one that was on her mind much only few months ago, when she set off on her RV towards a festival that represented her last free moments before she was crushed under the weight of debt.
How different would her life be if she’d kept driving when she’d seen a woman flagging her down on the side of the road?
Viewed in a vacuum, it seemed like the smarter choice. A “helpless” girl waving down people by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere was a classic robbery set up. All alone and unarmed, Amber would have made a good target. She wasn’t even sure why she had stopped, but once she had, the rest almost seemed… inevitable. It was just too hard to say no to Marina.
That was true even now, really. When Marina really wanted something, Amber had trouble turning her down, no matter how ridiculous. She was worried that she was going to end up giving in to Marina’s desire to get a dog, as ridiculous as that would be for people living in an RV.
She still wasn’t sure that she deserved her. Marina was bubbly, loving, kind, always energetic (once she woke up all the way), and she cared about Amber. Because Marina really believed she was someone worth caring about. Even if Amber didn’t always think that about herself.
She knew she shouldn’t be thinking so negatively. Marina always told her off whenever she started talking like that. But it was still hard to believe that all this was real. That Marina really loved her, and that they really were (moderately) rich. They didn’t have Bill Gates money or anything (or whoever was richest these days- Gramps always talked about Gates) but they had more than enough to never work again, and keep the RV running until the end of time.
Of course, neither of them were totally content doing nothing forever. Marina had been the one to suggest they write travel guides.
“You’re basically a living travel guide already, Amber! We just need to keep visiting places and write down all the things you say!”
Amber had taken a little bit of offense at the return of the “living travel guide” nickname, but it wasn’t a terrible idea. They already enjoyed the travel, and Marina was very excited by the prospect of researching in dusty old libraries for some reason. And of course, with Marina on her side, interviews with locals would be easy. Writing guides could be a good thing to do.
Maybe someday, one of them would help a kid like Amber out when they rode around the country with their guardian.
A quiet grumbling at her side let Amber know that Marina had decided to rejoin the world of the living.
“Hey there, babe,” Amber said, leaning over to kiss Marina’s cheek.
Marina made a mumbling noise that sounded a little happier than the last one and wrapped her arms around Amber’s waist.
“I can’t get you coffee if you won’t let go of me,” Amber said, smiling despite herself.
Marina’s grumbling took on a decidedly less chipper air. “Meanie,” she said, nonsensically, but released her grip.
She’d already started the machine before she came back to bed to watch her girlfriend, so it was just a matter of pouring the cups. As she started to fill Marina’s cup, the woman herself stumbled out of the bedroom. “Sugar, please,” she said.
Amber raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted to acquire the taste?” she asked.
Marina looked at her blearily for a moment, processing the words. Once she finally figured out their meaning, she looked worried for a moment, then gave up. “I’ll acquire it later.”
Amber laughed and added cream and sugar to the mug before passing it to Marina, who sipped from it in relief.
A few minutes later, when Marina’s brain finished the complicated boot sequence that it endured every morning, Amber set down her mug and looked down at Marina, who had burrowed into her side under her arm as she held the coffee cup to her. The sight made Amber’s heart swell and she couldn’t quite keep a goofy grin off her face. The temptation to swoop down and steal a kiss proved too great.
“So,” Amber said, once she’d pulled away from Marina again, and stood up to put their mugs in the sink. “Where are we going next?”
Marina’s expression suddenly turned less chipper. “Ah…” she said. “Well, you remember how I said we should come here because I’d never seen it despite it being so close?” ‘Here’ was White Sands, and Amber had been shocked when Marina said that not only had she never been out of state, she’d never even been to one of the most famous places in her state.
“Well, that was true, but…” Marina looked up at her hesitantly. “Once we were in New Mexico, I sort of thought… well… I could bring you to meet my parents.”
Meeting the parents, huh. Well, it wasn’t totally crazy, right? They’d been together for a while now, and they were pretty serious about staying together.
“Are you sure it isn’t too early?” Amber asked, more to herself than Marina.
“I don’t know. How long are you supposed to wait?” Marina asked.
Amber ran a hand through her hair. “I guess I don’t really know either,” she admitted.
“So it’s fine then,” Marina said confidently.
“...It’s too bad I can’t introduce you to Gramps,” Amber said quietly. “He would have loved you.”
Marina stood up and wrapped her arms around Amber silently, and Amber buried her face in her shoulder. She didn’t cry at the mention of him anymore, but it was still hard to think about. About him being gone. About him missing the rest of Amber’s life.
The difference now was she didn’t try to hide those feelings from Marina any more.
“Don’t worry, Amber,” Marina said, patting her on the back. “You can share my family. There’s plenty to go around!”
Amber laughed. “Alright, alright. Let’s go, then,” she said, and was rewarded with a huge smile lighting up Marina’s face as she bounced over the passenger seat.
Three hours later, Amber was feeling a whole lot less optimistic.
God, what must Marina’s parents think of her? A strange woman took their daughter on a trip across the states, then almost sent her back home, but didn’t? She never did ask if Marina called her parents after Amber left the hotel.
Marina seemed to sense her despair.
“Don’t worry! My family will love you,” she said, putting a hand on Amber’s shoulder reassuringly. The two of them stood in the bedroom as Amber nervously checked a mirror to make sure she looked okay.
“Right,” Amber said, her voice filled with the helpless mirth of despair. “Everyone loves when some older girl from out of state steals their daughter away.”
Marina leaned closer, clasping her hands behind her back and murmuring in Amber’s ear. “When I tell you how happy you make me, they’ll come around. I’m sure of it.”
Amber felt herself flushing. Even now, when she’d heard it so many times, Marina’s pure expression of her feelings still made her heart race. She made Marina happy. What more could she want?
“...Dork,” she managed and Marina giggled.
As she finally her jeans and shirt weren’t going to magically start looking any more presentable by staring at them, another consideration occurred to Amber.
“You said your dad was really straight-laced though…” she said, turning to face Marina. “Are you sure he won’t take issue with us, y’know,” ‘Living in sin’? ‘Screwing like rabbits’? “Getting together so quickly?”
“Nope!” Marina said, beaming. “He’s fine with it.”
“What?” Amber asked, taken aback. “How do you know that?” Was he the kind of guy who was really open about sex? Gramps had never been too prudish about Amber’s interests, but he’d never gone as far as telling her she was free to screw around.
“Well…” Marina said, tapping her finger on her chin as she pondered. “I kind of mentioned ‘us’ when I told him we were coming to visit. He said he was ‘very eager to meet the woman who took one of his precious daughters’ virginities’. So he’s looking forward to seeing you!”
Amber’s heart stopped.
He was going to kill her. She was going to be murdered by her own girlfriend’s father.
“Amber? Amber, don’t make that face, it’ll be fine!”
Somehow, Marina managed to convince Amber that her father hadn’t been implying anything and just genuinely wanted to meet her, and so she found herself preparing to ring the doorbell of Marina’s house.
It was… bigger than Amber had expected. Given how Marina talked about how cramped it was, she’d been expecting a little cottage out of a cartoon with two perfectly square windows with crossed frames and a triangle shaped roof. Then again, when she thought about it logically, even a house this big must be small for a family the size of the Hales. Even at three stories tall and enough width to provide a nice front garden, it probably couldn’t fit the number rooms you’d need to give that many people their space.
While Amber inspected the exterior, Marina, clearly fed up of waiting, leaned past her and pressed the doorbell. Amber heard a chime echoing through the house and then a moment later the sound of footsteps. More than one pair of footsteps, in fact.
“Don’t all crowd in the hall!” a muffled voice shouted from within the house. “I’ve got the door, go wait in the living room! Yes that means you, Zachary, I don’t care about ‘a big brother’s duty’, it can wait until she’s inside.”
There was more footsteps and then the sound of the lock as the door swung open to reveal a short, friendly looking woman in a blue dress. Her hair was dirty blond with grey streaks, and a little disheveled. Amber was pretty sure there was some flour in it.
“Welcome home, honey,” she said, smiling at Marina, who ran into her arms and grabbed her in a tight hug.
“Hi mom!” she said.
“Hello sweetie,” Marina’s mother said affectionately, squeezing her daughter before glancing over at Amber. “And you must be Amber.”
Her expression was a little wary. Maybe that wasn’t surprising.
“Yep,” Amber said. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Hale.”
Marina’s mother broke into a smile. “Oh dear, you can call me Susan. Come in, come in, me and Roy were just finishing dinner. Come meet the family.”
“Yeah!” Marina chipped in, grabbing Amber’s hand and dragging her inside. “Come on, Amber!”
The entry hallway was dominated by an enormous shoe rack, accompanied by multiple coat racks and buckets of umbrellas. It must be a nightmare trying to leave on a busy morning. The decor of the house was the sort of chipper and sappy kind that Gramps would have called “suburbanite twee”. Amber found she didn’t hate it, though. The bright wallpaper gave the hall a cheerful look, and there was a little heart shaped wooden wall hanging that read “A loving home is a happy home”.
Marina kicked off her shoes and bounced impatiently as Amber took off her own, tucking them into the rack before Marina attempted to tear her arm off as she pulled her down the hall towards the loudest room.
“I’m home! And I brought a cute girl!” Marina announced cheerfully as Amber fought not to blush. Seven pairs of eyes locked onto her judgmentally. Marina’s siblings were arranged over the living room’s various chairs and couches in a way that strongly suggested that half of them were only sitting down because someone had made them.
“Hi,” Amber said. It was was met with a brief silence as the Hales continued to inspect her.
One of the girls on the left side of the room was the first to break it.
“Your taste in girls is way better than your taste in guys, sis,” she said, and Marina pouted.
“I told you that I only dated that guy because my friends put me up to it!” she protested.
“Are you going to introduce us or what?” another sister piped up.
“I was getting to that!” Marina said.
Turning to Amber, she began introductions.
“Amber, this is Melody-”
She pointed to the sister who had been the first to talk. She seemed to be younger than Marina, but not by much. She looked like a highschooler and dressed like a moody teen, with ripped jeans and a black band t-shirt for some god-awful metal band. Her hair looked brown, but given her siblings, it was probably dark blond. Either way, it was tied up in a loose ponytail as she lounged on a chair casually, clearly not particularly invested in grilling Amber. She held up a hand casually when her name was called.
Next to her was a brother, definitely younger. He looked about ten, and utterly disinterested in Amber, not even bothering to look up from his book when his name was called. His hair was, unsurprisingly, also blond, and the spikiness of it made him almost look like a scarecrow with hair made of straw, an image not helped by his primary colour shirt and jean overalls.
The next sister, on the other hand, looked at Amber with keen interest. She looked to be five or so, in a cute little pastel yellow sundress that matched her curly hair, holding a teddy bear by one arm in a way that put Amber in mind of an illustration in a children’s book about christmas she used to love.
Sarah met Amber’s eye with an analytical look, her crossed arms giving no illusions about how receptive she was to the idea of her little sister dating this mysterious woman. She had to be at least nineteen or twenty, and her fashion sense seemed like the sharpest in the room if her elegant blouse and tight fitting black pants that tucked neatly into high heeled boots were any indication. Her pose showed off her nails and they were immaculately brushed with a bright red nail polish. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun and seemed to be more on the platinum side of blond than the dirty side.
Mark and an as yet unnamed brother had clearly been in the middle of a card game when Amber had arrived, and Mark glanced up from inspecting his hand to wave cheerfully at Amber. He looked to be in his early twenties, with a patchy blond beard and short, messy hair, wearing a plaid shirt accompanied by the kind of cargo pants that furniture movers always seemed to wear. Or maybe lots of people wore them and Amber just didn’t pay enough attention to men’s fashion. It wasn’t as if she had a reason to.
Mark’s partner in the card game seemed to have completely lost interest when Amber entered, and was more concerned with giving her a suspicious look than keeping his hand hidden. His hair was the closest to Marina’s, strawberry blond and straight, although he wore it quite a bit shorter than hers. He dressed a little like her too, with an outfit of green and blue pastels. Maybe this is what Marina would look like if she was guy. And a few years younger. And less cheerful.
Zach, or “Zachary” if Amber had heard his mother right, was making no secret of his enmity. Next to him, Sarah looked positively welcoming. He was surprisingly tall, clearly the eldest (or second eldest, given that one brother was off in Utah), and dressed like he fancied himself a bit of a cowboy, with long brown boots and a button down flannel tucked into jeans. He was missing the hat, though, preferring to leave his dirty blond locks to curl freely in the wind. He was trying to look intimidating, but the fact that he was squished against the side of the couch by David and Mark ruined the effect slightly.
“Everyone, this is Amber. My girlfriend.”
‘My girlfriend.’ It wasn’t the first time Amber had heard Marina say it, but it wasn’t so common that hearing it didn’t send a tingle down her spine.
“I don’t approve,” Zach said bluntly, glaring at Amber.
“Zach!” Marina yelped indignantly.
“You don’t approve of much of anything, Z,” Mark commented as he switched two cards in his hand. “But seeing as you’re not the one dating her, I don’t suppose it’s that much of a tragedy.”
He glanced over at Amber and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Amber,” he said, laying down a card. Apparently a good one, judging by David’s sudden dismayed look.
“Nice to meet you too, Mark,” Amber said.
“Are you and Marina gonna get married?” Cassie piped up. Amber flushed and suspected that Marina had as well, judging by the strangled noises she was suddenly making.
“No, they’re not!” Zach said, but everyone seemed to ignore him.
“You can’t ask questions like that, Cassandra,” Devon said. “It’s rude.”
“But isn’t that what you do when you get a girlfriend?” Cassie asked, and Mark reached over to ruffle her hair affectionately.
“Not right away, kiddo. Gotta make sure she’s the right one.”
“Oh. Like how Abby wasn’t the right one for you?” Cassie asked, and Mark made a pained expression.
“Uh, well, let’s hope this situation isn’t quite like that,” he managed.
Melody snorted. “She’d have to be pretty bad to be like Abby. Then again, Marina, you did like Abby.”
“I didn’t like her that much!” Marina retorted.
“Yeah, but you thought she was nice. Bad judge of character, there,” Melody pointed out, and Marina frowned.
“I didn’t know Abigail very well,” she argued. “I know Amber, and she really is nice.”
She glanced momentarily at Amber. “...Mostly.”
“You haven’t known her that long,” Zach said. “Maybe she’s just leading you on.”
Sarah seemed content to stay quiet, but Amber could tell from her expression that she shared some of Zach’s worries.
“You’re all just jealous,” Marina said, sticking her tongue out.
“Not even a little,” muttered David. Amber wasn’t sure whether to be offended.
“We just don’t want you getting hurt, Marina,” Sarah said gently. Her voice was a little lower than Amber had expected, but her tone was gentle. “You don’t have a whole lot of experience with relationships, and you did meet in… odd circumstances.”
“Yeah!” Zach said, cutting back into the conversation. “What kind of person just picks up a girl on the side of the highway and takes them on a roadtrip?! She could be a serial killer!”
Okay, that was a step too far. Amber put her hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow.
“Why the hell would I drive her around for months and then bring her back to her family if I was a serial killer?” she asked.
Zach looked taken aback for a moment. “Maybe…” he spluttered. “Maybe you’re just really savouring the kill! Or she’s keeping you entertained and then you’re gonna kill her when you get bored!”
“What, is Marina Scheherazade now?” Melody droned sarcastically.
“What’s a shuhairazod?” Zach asked, confused.
“From 1001 Nights, Zach. She told stories so that the king wouldn’t kill her,” Devon said. Precocious kid.
“What’s all this about killin’?” Marina’s father strode into the room with a bowl of mashed potatoes and an upraised eyebrow. He was lean and his hair was entirely grey, combed back into a neat part that fit with his overly dressy shirt and crisp slacks.
“Hi dad!” Marina said, rushing over to hug him. He shifted the bowl to one arm to awkwardly wrap an arm around Marina.
“Hey there Mari,” he said. Once Marina released him he set the mashed potatoes down on the table and turned to face Amber, his arms folded. Uh oh.
“So then, you must be Amber,” he said. “I’m Roy Hale. I suppose first of all, thank you for saving my daughter when she got herself stranded in the middle of the desert. Perhaps next time she’ll take proper precautions.”
“Now then, I hear you’re dating my daughter. What’s more, I hear you’ve-” he glanced at Devon and Cassie and then leaned closer, lowering his voice. “- been intimate with her?”
This was the part where he killed her, probably.
“Uh, yes,” Amber said nervously.
“Are you serious about her?”
“Yes.” Amber said it firmly, staring Marina’s father directly in the eye. If there was one thing she could say confidently, it would be that.
“Well, then,” he said, unfolding his arms and giving her a small smile. “I suppose that’s alright then. Long as you do your best to make her happy. Seems like you’ve been doin’ a good job so far. Would you say so, sunshine?”
“Yeah!” Marina said eagerly, hugging Amber’s arm and snuggling up against her. “She’s great, dad.”
“Glad to hear it.”
It seemed like Amber wasn’t the only one surprised at how lenient Roy was.
“Wh- is that it, dad?!” Zach cried out, getting to his feet. “You’re not even gonna make sure she’s cool? What if she’s a serial killer?”
“Zach, would you drop that already?” Sarah sounded exasperated. “I don’t think Amber is a serial killer.”
Zach looked taken aback. “I thought you were on my side,” he whined.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Just because I’m worried that Marina is as bad as Mark at picking partners doesn’t mean I think Amber is going to kill anyone.”
“In my defense, Abby did a right professional job of hiding the devil horns and tail until we were already dating,” Mark piped up.
“I like Amber!” Cassie popped up in Amber’s defense.
“Hmm, Cassie never did like Abby…” Melody said, pondering.
“See? Amber must be fine!” Marina said.
“Well, I’m sure we can all get to know her better over dinner. Go wash your hands, everybody. Normal order for the bathroom,” Roy said.
“How much would you miss Zach if I killed him?” Amber asked Marina as they returned to the RV, hours later.
“He was just trying to be protective. In his dumb way.” Despite defending him, Marina didn’t look too happy either.
“You okay?” Amber asked.
“I’m fine, I just…” Marina looked distant for a moment. “I love my family, but I left for a reason.”
She paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m always going to be a kid to them.”
Amber recalled Marina accusing her of treating her like a child and flinched. Whoops.
“None of them really took you seriously, I think. Except maybe Dad.” She looked a little sad. “I think all of them assume that this is just some silly little fling they’ll be able to tease me about later when we’ve broken up. Like when I dated that guy for a day when I was twelve.”
“The one who’s mom made him break up with you?”
“Yeah.” Marina sat down on the couch and stared back at her house, still lit up in the dark. “Even Zach was just being like that because it’s ‘a big brother thing’. He’s really obsessed with being a brother ‘right’. Sarah assumes I’m just confused and wants to make sure you don’t take advantage.”
Marina went quiet and just stared out of the window.
Frankly, Amber had thought things had gone pretty well. Marina’s family seemed to mostly like her, and Amber had liked most of them. She even liked Cassie, even though she was a little kid.
But it seemed like Marina had been looking for something when she brought Amber home, and she hadn’t found it.
Amber sat down on the couch next to her and pulled her into a hug, which Marina returned and curled up against Amber, still lost in thought.
After a few minutes of just holding her, Amber spoke back up.
“If they don’t think we’re serious, then we’ll just have to prove them wrong.”
“How?” Marina asked, looking up at her.
“By staying together forever.”
It wasn’t quite a proposal. Amber didn’t have a ring, and she didn’t have a ceremony planned. But as she looked into Marina’s eyes and Marina stared back into hers, she knew she meant it. She didn’t ever want to let Marina go.
Marina smiled and kissed her.
“I think I like that idea.”