It's almost four when she makes it back to the village. Lisa had stabilised around midnight, but they'd all been reluctant to leave in case anything else happened. Zak eventually insisted they go home to their beds, promising that he or Belle would call if they were needed. She parks in her usual place, but doesn't go into the pub. Instead, she heads down the street to Tug Ghyll.
She'd been keeping Vanessa updated by text, and the vet had promised to leave the front door open for her. That would normally be an invitation to come over and have sex, but she knows that's not what it is this time. It's a simple offer to be there, to provide comfort. And Charity's too tired and worried to question how much she needs that right now.
As she approaches, she notes that the living room light is on, presumably so she doesn't trip over anything on her way in. She opens the door as quietly as she can, stepping into the small hall area. Her attention is immediately drawn to the living room; Vanessa's sitting on the couch and she turns when she hears the movement behind her, offering Charity a tired smile.
"Hiya." Vanessa places a cup on the table and gets up, walking over to greet her as she takes her jacket off and hangs it up. Vanessa reaches out and runs her hands down Charity's arms, tilting her head to the side. "How is she?"
Charity shrugs. "She's, uh, stable. That's what they kept saying. She's stable."
"Stable's good," Vanessa says, with a nod and a little smile. "Stable's positive."
"Yeah." Charity's throat feels thick and rough and she looks down when her eyes start to burn.
She'd held it together at the hospital. Zak and Belle and Sam were the important ones and they didn't need her crying all over the place. But in truth, she'd been terrified. Lisa's as close to a mother as she's ever had, and the thought of losing her, of not having that strong, loving core to their family, frightens her. It's not like Faith could simply step into Lisa's shoes as the family matriarch if anything happened to her. And Charity's certainly not ready for that role. They need Lisa. She needs Lisa. She blinks and sniffs, trying to ward off the emotions that a little bit of distance has allowed to creep in. That and Vanessa's kind eyes and gentle touch. Vanessa always makes her feel more than she wants to.
"Hey. Come here." Vanessa steps closer and pulls Charity into a hug, strong arms wrapping around her back and holding her. Charity buries her face in Vanessa's neck, her own arms tight around Vanessa's shoulders. Vanessa's voice is quiet against her ear. "If you need a bit of a cry, have a bit of a cry. Better to let it out, yeah?" A soft kiss is pressed against her temple and that's all it takes to break her open. A sob escapes, then another and another until she's clinging to Vanessa, who just holds her, stroking her hair and murmuring soothing words against her ear.
"I just...I need her to be okay," she manages to get out. "She's the nicest...she doesn't...it shouldn't be her."
"I know," Vanessa whispers, lips moving against Charity's cheek. "I know. These things are never fair."
Drawing in a deep breath through her nose, Charity tries to get herself under control. She lifts her head from Vanessa's neck, keeping her eyes on the floor. "Sorry. I-"
"What are you sorry for?" Vanessa asks, a hand under her chin encouraging her to look up. When her eyes meet Vanessa's, she sees nothing but compassion.
"For, you know-" She shrugs. "It's the middle of the night. You don't need me turning up and crying all over you."
"I told you to come," Vanessa reminds her. "I want to be here for you at times like this. Wouldn't be much of a girlfriend if I only wanted to see you when everything's rosy, would I?"
Charity's lips quirk at that word. "I suppose not," she agrees, even if part of her still can't quite believe that Vanessa - kind, sweet, wonderful Vanessa - wants to be her girlfriend. She sighs and drops a quick kiss on Vanessa's cheek. Her eyes land on the cup of tea Vanessa had been drinking when she came in and she remembers her surprise at seeing her still awake. "Hey, you weren't waiting up for me, were you?"
Vanessa shakes her head. "No. I just...I couldn't sleep. Thought a brew might help."
The conversation they had over the bar comes back to Charity and she frowns. "You didn't find the ketamine, then?"
She watches as Vanessa retreats into herself, becomes smaller somehow, before shaking her head. "No." She looks up at Charity, her eyes huge and earnest. "And I'm so sorry for...you know, earlier. Thinking that you might have-"
Charity waves a dismissive hand, shaking her head. "Don't worry about all that." She can't deny that it had hurt, though. She's done some things in her life she's not proud of, including the actual thing that Vanessa suspected her of. But she would never have compromised Vanessa's job like that.
"No, it was terrible of me," Vanessa argues, her hands sliding to Charity's hips, flexing against them. "You've never given me any reason to doubt you and I...I just couldn't think and I was panicking and we had been mucking around with my bag and-"
"And it was an option you had to explore," Charity says with a nod. She does understand. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt. "Ness, like I said, it's fine."
But Vanessa's still shaking her head. "No it's not." She sighs. "Look, you know what went on with...with Rhona and me."
Charity nods. She knew most of it anyway, what with village gossip being what it is. But Vanessa had told her more about the emotional side of it one night when they were tangled together, talking about their pasts.
"Well, I think that's...that's maybe what made me think...made me doubt-" She frowns, seemingly annoyed at her inability to articulate what she means. She sighs and meets Charity's eyes. "I trust you. I know you wouldn't do that and I'm sorry for thinking it even for a second."
Briefly, Charity can't speak. Vanessa's honesty always floors her; the way she puts herself out there and leaves no place to hide. But those three words - 'I trust you' - they're not ones Charity has heard often in her life, if ever. Hearing them fall from Vanessa's lips, so clear and unambiguous, is like being punched in the chest. Even the fact that they're having this conversation takes away the need for Charity to stew over Vanessa's earlier words and actions and make them worse than they were. Vanessa has acknowledged them, explained them and apologised for them. This kind of healthy dialogue is all new to Charity. Her lips slowly turn up into a smile.
"You're forgiven," she says, holding Vanessa's eyes and watching relief bloom in them. "And tomorrow I'll help you look for it, okay?"
Vanessa lets out a sigh and slumps against Charity as the tension she'd been holding leaves her body. Charity idly wonders if it had been the missing drugs that had kept Vanessa off her sleep, or worrying about this. She presses a kiss to the side of Vanessa's head and rubs her back.
"You don't have to do that," Vanessa says, quietly. "You've got enough on your mind." She pulls back and looks at Charity. "This thing with Lisa puts everything else into perspective." She shakes her head. "My problem's just a work thing. Yours is family. And that's what's important."
She can't argue with that, but she can't dismiss Vanessa's problem out of hand either. "Hey, your work is important to you, yeah?"
"In the grand scheme of things, it's just a job," Vanessa says. "And if I need to pay for my own stupid mistake, then...that's what'll happen." She smiles a little. "You need to concentrate on family. Let me worry about my stuff, okay?"
A stupid part of Charity wants to say things. Ridiculous, grandiose things like Vanessa is her family and Vanessa's stuff is her stuff too. But she knows that's at least partly because of the late hour and the way Vanessa's looking at her. And she knows for sure it's far too early to make those claims and know they're true. Even if she's fairly certain things are headed in that direction. So she doesn't say them. Instead she nods and lifts a hand to trace a line from Vanessa's eyebrow to her chin.
"Let's see what tomorrow brings, eh?" She frowns. "Well, today."
Vanessa nods and rests her head on Charity's shoulder, humming in agreement.
"Do you want to finish your brew?" Charity asks, swaying them both gently, noting that more and more of Vanessa's weight is transferring on to her.
"No," Vanessa says, turning her face into Charity's neck and smothering a yawn. She tightens her arms around Charity's waist. "I think I might be able to get to sleep now."
Charity hides a smile in Vanessa's hair, her earlier suspicions confirmed. "C'mon then," she starts walking them both to the stairs, flicking the lights off as she passes. "If we're lucky we might get three hours' kip before someone demands our attention."
"More'n you let me get some nights," Vanessa comments. Charity can hear her smile.
"Is that a complaint?" she asks.
"No," Vanessa lifts her head as they pause at the foot of the stairs. She smiles. "Just an observation."
Charity leans down and brings their lips together, just a gentle caress of skin on skin. "I'll let you sleep tonight."
"You've not got much choice, to be fair," Vanessa says, covering another yawn with her hand. "You might be carrying me by the time we reach the top of the stairs."
"Not a problem," Charity says, as they start their ascent, fingers intertwined. "You're a tiny person. Moses'll weigh more than you soon."
"Hardly," Vanessa says, with a laugh. "But it's nice that you'd carry me if you had to."
"Any day of the week, babe," Charity tells her. And she hopes Vanessa knows that she means it. That she can lean on Charity if she needs to.
Vanessa turns when they reach the upstairs landing. She cups Charity's face with both hands, looking into her eyes. "Same here." A moment passes between them, along with understanding. Charity rolls her eyes.
"As if you'd be able to carry me, you daft mare," she says, shoving Vanessa in the direction of her bedroom.
"Oi, you. I'm deceptively strong," Vanessa protests, flexing her bicep. "And I'd give it my best go."
Charity smiles, grateful for the temporary return to normality after her hellish day. "Yeah, I know you would, buttercup. I know you would."
It feels like they've only been asleep for minutes when Charity's phone beeps loudly, announcing the arrival of a text. Charity's whole body goes tense in her arms before she moves, stretching over Vanessa to reach her phone. The events of the previous day come back all at once and Charity's panic is understandable. Vanessa pushes herself up onto her elbow, watching Charity's face as she opens and reads the message. Her face slackens in relief.
"Belle says she had a good night." Charity falls back against the pillows. "The doctors have said she's improving."
"That's brilliant news," Vanessa says, leaning in to kiss Charity's cheek. "Oh, I'm so glad."
"Yeah, me too," Charity says, finally pulling her eyes away from the text message to look at Vanessa, her smile wide and bright for a moment before her eyes drop to the quilt. She plucks at it with her fingers. "Thanks for...you know, last night. Being there."
Vanessa shakes her head. "It's part of that whole girlfriend deal we signed up to, isn't it? The good stuff and the bad stuff." She moves closer and settles against Charity, draping an arm over her stomach and placing her head on her shoulder. "All of it. Together, yeah?"
"I don't remember signing anything of the sort." Amusement is clear in Charity's voice and Vanessa doesn't have to be looking at her to know she's kidding.
"Verbal agreement," Vanessa says, sliding her hand up under the t-shirt Charity had borrowed from her to sleep in, content just to let it sit on the warm skin of Charity's belly. "Sealed with a kiss."
"Don't know what you think quoting Jason Donovan songs at me is gonna achieve," Charity says. But a kiss is pressed to her forehead and she smiles.
"What do you say I make us a quick brekkie and then I walk you home, eh?" Vanessa suggests.
"So gallant," Charity murmurs. "It's three doors down. I think I'll make it."
"I...wanted to check the living room again for that ketamine," Vanessa says, lifting her head and looking down at Charity. She still has residual guilt from suspecting Charity might have taken it, and mentioning it brings that back. "Just, you know, in case it fell out and is under the furniture somewhere."
"Oh, course, yeah," Charity nods. "We can give it a good going over. I'm not due on until lunchtime."
"Thanks," Vanessa leans down and brings their lips together in a soft kiss. "And maybe I can come and visit Lisa with you later. If she's up to it. And if you want me to."
Charity looks at her, surprised. "Yeah?"
"Only if you want me there. I know there's dozens of you Dingles and I don't want to be taking up anyone's place," Vanessa finds Charity's hand and links their fingers together. "But yeah, I want to be there for you."
A slow grin spreads across Charity's face and she lifts their joined hands to her lips, resting the back of Vanessa's hand against her mouth. "You're really good at this girlfriend malarkey. Anybody tell you that before?"
Vanessa shakes her head, her eyes drifting away from Charity's. She lifts a shoulder and lets it drop. "I haven't been many people's girlfriend before. Not really."
Charity's hand cups her cheek, bringing her face back around, making sure Vanessa's looking at her when she speaks.
"More fool them, then. Because you're bloody brilliant at it."
After a quick breakfast, they get dressed and head out to go to the pub. Just as Vanessa's locking up, Charity receives another text from Belle, with more encouraging news about Lisa's condition. Vanessa wraps both of her arms around one of Charity's as they head down the path and through the gate, murmuring encouragement as Charity reads it over again.
"Oh, you have got to be joking."
Vanessa whips her head around to find Rhona marching towards them, looking like she's on a mission.
"Good morning to you, too," Charity says.
Rhona ignores her, focussing on Vanessa. "Seriously? I've been up all night worrying about this bloody ketamine and you're playing happy families with your girlfriend?"
Guilt floods Vanessa's chest and colours her cheeks. Maybe she shouldn't have invited Charity round.
"Uh, excuse me," Charity interjects. "I'll have you know she's also been worried sick."
"Yeah, it really looked that way when the two of you were laughing and giggling like a pair of teenagers just now," Rhona spits.
Vanessa tries to explain, understanding how it must have looked. "We'd just had some good news ab-"
Rhona doesn't let her finish, jabbing a finger at Charity. "And this is all your fault anyway! If you hadn't distracted her with your stupid flirting, none of this would have happened!"
She sees it happen out of the corner of her eye. Something changes in Charity. Her face hardens and her eyes hone in on Rhona like a a predator sighting its prey. She saw the same thing happen when Veronica was having a go at her in the pub that day before Christmas. And that was with Charity in a fairly good mood. This is a sleep-deprived, worried Charity and Vanessa fears for Rhona's wellbeing. She tightens her hold on Charity's arm and shakes her head.
"Rhona, that's not fair. It's not Charity's fault. I could've said n-"
But Charity's not going to be derailed. "My fault?" She tilts her head. "Correct me if I'm wrong here, Rhona, but wasn't it you that was supposed to go and see to this randy cow in the first place?"
Rhona frowns. "What's that got to do w-"
"Seems to me if you'd done what you were supposed to, none of this would have happened, yeah?" She takes a step towards Rhona, towering over her. Vanessa keeps a firm hold on her arm. "In fact, seems like you and Paddy make a bit of a habit of palming off the jobs you don't fancy onto Vanessa. And she does them, because she's a nice person and a good friend."
"Charity," Vanessa says, tugging on her arm, trying to move her away from Rhona. "Leave it. It's my fault, nobody else's."
"That's completely irrelevant," Rhona argues. "It's her job to keep track of the very dangerous drugs she carries around. Whether it was my call-out or hers, doesn't excuse her just misplacing a vial of tranquiliser."
Vanessa's face colours again, hearing it put in such plain terms. She knows she's mucked up, and badly, but hearing it over and over again doesn't help.
"Oh, and you're an angel in that respect, aren't you Rhona?" Charity says, and Vanessa's stomach freezes. She knows where this is going. "I mean, it's not like you'd ever ask someone to abuse their position to get you highly dangerous drugs, is it? It's not like you'd use someone's feelings for y-"
"Charity!" Vanessa half shouts. "That's enough."
Rhona's mouth drops open and she turns to Vanessa, betrayal clear in her eyes. "You told her?"
The flash of guilt she feels is quickly replaced by indignation. "You told Pierce! Who took great pleasure in throwing it in my face at every single opportunity." She feels Charity tense up at her words and resists the urge to roll her eyes. She's going to have to be careful what she says if Charity's going to want to fight everyone who slights her.
"That was different! He was-" Rhona stops, her jaw working. On one hand, Vanessa feels terrible for bringing him up, for making Rhona even think about him. But on the other, it did really hurt to know she'd been speaking to him.
"How was it different?" Vanessa challenges. "Charity's my partner, just like he was yours. But I'm not entitled to speak to her about it?" She frowns when Rhona shifts uncomfortably, avoiding her eyes. "Why is that, exactly?"
"Because you've barely been going out with her five minutes!" Rhona says, her incredulous laugh sounding a little forced.
"She thinks I'm going to use it against you," Charity says, shaking her head. "Or her."
"It's not like you don't have form, Charity," Rhona says.
Vanessa's heart sinks with the realisation that Rhona's still waiting for this to go wrong. She still doesn't believe it's for real. That's the real difference she sees between her situation with Pierce and this one.
"And you don't? Which of us two here has broken her heart?" Charity says, tapping her chin in an exaggerated pantomime of thinking. "Oh wait, that was you."
Rhona shakes her head, swallowing hard, finally chastened. Vanessa's torn between saying something to comfort her, and agreeing with Charity. She settles for squeezing Charity's arm. Rhona meets her eyes and holds them.
"Just...find the stuff. Then we can all move on." She turns and walks away, her pace quicker than normal.
"You didn't have to say all that," Vanessa mutters.
"Yeah, well, she didn't have to make you feel like something she'd trod in for making a simple mistake, either," Charity says, still watching Rhona walk away. "People in glass houses and all that."
Vanessa sighs, leaning her head on Charity's shoulder. "If I didn't have to go and look for these drugs, I'd be dragging you back into that house." She turns and presses a kiss to Charity's cheek. "Because you are dead sexy when you get all defensive over me."
Charity turns to her with an eyebrow raised. "Well, let's get moving," she says. "Because the sooner we find it, the sooner we can come back to yours. Or we could always nip down the cellar." She leans in and whispers against Vanessa's lips. "And we'll lock the door this time."