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we are strong (a real bond)

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Vanessa gives Chas an apologetic smile as Johnny rounds the bar and runs past her into the back.

“He’s in a hurry,” Chas says lightly, watching his disappear into the corridor.

Vanessa stops and takes a deep breath, resting her hand on the end of the bar to catch her breath. “Noah,” she says simply.

Chas nods, understanding in her eyes. “Ah, yes. His very own hero.”

Vanessa shakes her head. “If being a moody teenager is a superpower-”

“Your lady would have been the best superhero the world has seen?” Chas interrupts.

“Ha!” Vanessa’s eyes glaze over in a way they always do when she thinks about Charity. “Charity in spandex.”

Chas makes a face and shrugs, the baby on her hip gurgling softy.

Vanessa blinks and smiles softly, reaching out to tap the baby softly on the nose. “And how are we today?”

“Only sleeping two hours at a time,” Chas says wearily. “Was Johnny this much of a nightmare?”

Vanessa keeps smiling at the baby, stroking soft cheeks. “Oh, no. Slept through the night. But that’s what happens when Tracy and Carly are singing at all hours of the day. Thought they were the long-lost members of Girls Aloud, they did.”

A small hand presses against her thigh and Vanessa looks down. Moses is staring up at her with wide eyes, his fingers plucking at his lips.

“Well, hello,” she says brightly, bending down.

Moses latches onto her quickly, his sticky fingers around her neck. “Hi, ‘Ness,” he says shyly, resting his head against her shoulder.

“Speaking of hero-worshipping,” Chas mutters.

Vanessa smiles, pursing her lips against the top of Moses’s head. She nods towards the back and Chas waves her off, turning her attention to the bar. Moses is getting heavier, but Vanessa hoists him up a little higher on her hip and heads into the living room. Charity is cleaning up after tea, stacking dishes in the sink, her back to the door. Vanessa watches her for a moment, eyes following Charity’s hands and the sway of her hips. Noah’s voice, deepening as he gets on in age, breaks her from her trance and catches her attention. He’s on the couch, his homework off to one side, while Johnny chatters on about something. Vanessa smiles; Noah might still be contentious with her - she rarely gets anything longer than a single word or series of grunts out of him when she asks him a question - but he’s patient with Johnny and never turns down an episode of Paw Patrol.

Charity turns around and sees her, eyes brightening a little. “Hey, babe. Stop for a drink?”

“Child pickup,” Vanessa says, nodding her head at Moses. “And to say hi to Chas.”

Charity brushes a hand over Moses’s head before curling it around Vanessa’s neck and pulling her in for a kiss. Moses giggles, his heels digging into Vanessa’s side. When Charity pulls away, Noah is making a face at them.

“Do you have to do that all the time?” he asks.

Charity raises an eyebrow at him and leans in again, pointedly kissing Vanessa for a long moment. “Have to? No. Want? Yes ,” she says firmly when she finally steps away. She pats him on the top of the head as she passes him, dusting her fingers over Johnny’s side in a tickle. She picks up Noah’s stack of homework and scans it over before wrinkling her nose and moving it to the back of the pile of papers. “What’s this?”

Noah looks up, his hands stilling a wiggling Johnny. “Family Night,” he mumbles. “They want people to come see our work.”

Charity continues to read the advert. “I’ll have Marlon take my shift.”

“No way,” Noah says. “We don’t have to go.”

“Oh, right. And be the only family who doesn’t go?” Charity shakes her head. “We’re going.”

Noah groans and drops his head back against the couch.

Johnny crashes into Noah’s lap. “Family Night!” He bounces up and down, Noah’s face twisting in pain. “We’re going!”

Vanessa winces. “Johnny,” she says kindly as Charity scoops Johnny up and drops him onto the other side of the couch. He giggles and stands up quickly to do it again, but Charity grabs him before he can, holding him high on her hip.

“Johnny,” Vanessa tries again. “It’s Noah’s family night, yeah? Maybe you and I can have a night in instead.”

Johnny stops squirming against Charity’s side, his mouth turning down into a frown that practically matches the one she sees often on Noah’s face. “I’m Noah’s,” he says. He looks at Charity. “Right, Char’ty?”

Charity looks at Vanessa, her eyes wide. She’s wincing a little, unsure of what to say.

“Listen, love,” Vanessa says kindly. “We’ll let Noah and Moses and their mum go on their own. Don’t you want to spend some alone time with me?”

Johnny narrows his eyes. “I’m Noah’s,” he repeats, his voice leaving no room for negotiation.

Noah sighs. “Just come,” he says.

Vanessa smiles softly at him. “You don’t need to-”

“I’m not doing it for you .”

“Noah,” Charity warns.

“I’m doing it for Johnny ,” Noah continues.

Vanessa’s smile tightens. “If you’re sure.”

Moses tugs at Vanessa’s collar, kissing her cheek sloppily. She feels herself relax a little and she puts him down, rubbing the top of his head affectionately before he toddles off towards Johnny and Noah, climbing up onto the couch with them. Noah turns on the telly and settles into the corner of the couch, hardly paying any mind to Johnny snuggling into his side.

Vanessa sighs and leans back into the arms that wind around her waist. Charity’s chin presses hard into Vanessa’s shoulder, but the lips against Vanessa’s neck take the sting out.

“Sorry, babe,” Charity murmurs.

Vanessa shakes her head softly. “It’s fine.”

It’s not , Vanessa thinks. He hates me .

Charity has talked to him again and again, but Noah won’t budge. He holds Vanessa at arm’s length, boxing her out. She stands still, though, and never backs down; she know it’s what he’s waiting for, what he expects. On the lousier nights, when Charity is cagey and snappy, Vanessa knows it’s what they’re both expecting to happen.

One day, they’ll realize Vanessa has poured concrete around her feet and made up her mind; she’s going nowhere.

“He’ll come ‘round,” Charity promises.

“Sometime before I die might be nice.”

Charity pinches her side. “No talk of dying, thank you. He’s just a teenage boy. You know how they are.”

Vanessa stiffens. “If that’s some kind of-”

“It wasn’t,” Charity says quickly. She presses her hands to Vanessa’s hips, pushing her around until their face-to-face. Vanessa loops her arms around Charity’s neck, twisting her fingers around the long strands of Charity’s hair. “But teenage boys are stroppy as anything.”

“He takes after you,” Vanessa mutters.

Charity kisses her softly. “We can only hope he doesn’t,” she teases.

Vanessa frowns. “You don’t want him to be a strong, independent, hardworking-”

“Okay, okay,” Charity interrupts, her cheeks flushing softly. They always do whenever Vanessa tries to compliment her. She kisses Vanessa a little longer, her teeth nipping at Vanessa’s bottom lip as she pulls away. “Want to help me change a barrel?”

Vanessa wiggles her eyebrows. “Is that code for-”

“What a wipe-out, Chase! Even your tail said, ‘Ow’!” Rubble shouts.

A kitten meows.

Noah looks back at them pointedly, his finger on the volume button.

“That wasn’t me, Rubble. That ‘ow’ came from out there!” Chase says.

The kitten meows again.

“Is that a kitten?” Rubble asks. “Sounds like she’s in trouble.”

“Better go rescue that... kitten ,” Charity whispers hotly into her ear.

Vanessa giggles and dances away from Charity’s wandering fingertips. “We’ll be right back!” she sings at the boys. Charity’s hands press against her back, sliding lower suggestively. “Stay put, yeah?”

Noah mimics gagging and turns the volume up a little more.

 

-

Charity’s hand slides into hers as they get closer to the school building. Vanessa looks down, smiling softly, and rubs her thumbs across the back of Charity’s hand. Charity rolls her eyes, pretending to be annoyed at the way holding hands makes Vanessa light up, but she’s fighting a smile of her own. Vanessa squeezes Charity’s hand gently, eyes on the boys ahead of them.

Noah is slouched over and walking slowly as Johnny runs in circles around him. He’s humoring the little boy, stopping as Johnny crosses in front of him and half-heartedly reaching out to chase him away. Moses trudges along after them, his little legs heavy.

There’s a ripple of nervousness in Vanessa’s stomach. It’s been forever since their first kiss in the cellar of the Woolpack, over a year since declaring themselves official, and they spend all their free time together. Johnny has spare clothes in Moses’s room and Vanessa’s favorite yellow jumper is somewhere in Charity’s laundry basket. There’s a travel cot in Johnny’s room with Moses’s second-favorite stuffed animal tucked under the covers. Even Noah has a pair of sneakers at Tug Ghyll, left behind after a night over.

They’re together and the whole village knows it, but there’s something about Family Night that makes Vanessa a little hesitant; especially with it being Noah’s Family Night. Charity wants her here, she has no doubt. Not after Charity pinned her to the mattress the other night, telling her over and over how much she wanted her to be there. “ You’re mine ,” Charity had said, sounding like Johnny the day before. And Moses had been excited as soon as Vanessa had come through the door, clinging to her and rambling on about his day with Ross and how they had frozen pizza for lunch.

But Noah had simply shouldered his way out the back door and seemingly ignored Charity hollering at him to wait for everyone else. He did wait, scowling as he sat on one of the picnic tables impatiently, but he’d barely spared Vanessa a glance as they caught up to him. She’s trying not to take it personal anymore, not after Charity told her what he said that morning months ago.

He expects me to leave them , she reminds herself every time he’s short with her. He expects me to walk away .

Vanessa might be spoilt, and she knows she’s a hothead. But she’s also stubborn, and older. She can outlast a teenage boy with a chip on his shoulder.

Charity kisses her cheek, pulling her attention back around.

Especially for this , Vanessa thinks.

They reach the steps of the school building and Moses doubles back, reaching for Vanessa. She picks him up silently, adjusting him on her hip. Charity grabs her hand again, lacing their fingers and squeezing briefly before she lets go, stepping just ahead of Vanessa and Moses, her eyes on Noah and Johnny.

“Looks like everyone came,” Vanessa tells Moses. “Isn’t that lovely?”

“Lovely,” Moses repeats, eyes narrowed and focused on Vanessa’s mouth.

“That’s a boy,” Vanessa praises him. She looks up, eyes scanning the large crowd. She can see the back of Charity’s head, and just over her shoulder, Noah is letting Johnny lead him through the crowd. Each year has something on display, classroom doors open and families bustling in and out of them.

Vanessa watches with a small smile as Johnny pauses in front of a large rock display, pulling eagerly on Noah’s sleeve. Noah stops dutifully, crouching down a little to be able to hear Johnny’s excited chatter. She steps up to Charity’s side, their shoulders brushing.

“Ah, Ms. Dingle,” someone says from behind them.

Charity rolls her eyes, her shoulders slumping. She sets her mouth in a tight smile before she turns around. “Ms. Whately.”

The woman gives Charity a smile just as flat. She pushes her glasses higher up her nose before speaking. “I was hoping you had a moment to discuss Noah’s recent… attitude.”

Charity opens her mouth to speak, but Vanessa elbows her in the side, lifting her eyebrows pointedly. She knows that look on Charity’s face, the one that says she’s going to speak out of her backside and cause more trouble, and Vanessa has heard the rumors about Ms. Whately being a sour-faced witch.

“Go on, then,” she tells Charity. “I’ll watch the boys.”

Charity sighs heavily but presses a kiss to the top of Moses’s head, and then Vanessa’s cheek. “Right. Let’s talk, shall we?” she says to Ms. Whately.

Vanessa turns back to Noah and Johnny, watching as Johnny spots something up ahead. He pulls on Noah’s jumper again, tugging him through the crowds. Noah follows along, hardly dragging his feet, and crouches down in front of another display. Moses chatters happily in her ear, his fingers twisting in the collar of her blouse as he talks. Vanessa’s attention fades in and out as she follows after Noah and Johnny. Her arm goes numb and she moves Moses to the other side of her body. The stop puts her behind a group of girls, all about the same age as Noah, gossiping and holding court in the middle of the hall. Past them, Vanessa can see Noah stop, nodding a hello at a boy Vanessa doesn’t recognize.

The group of girls move glacially slow, inching up the corridor. Vanessa nearly stamps her foot, impatient and just a little anxious about the amount of distance between herself and the two boys. She trusts Noah to keep Johnny safe, but it’s late in the evening, they skipped tea time, and Johnny doesn’t like sharing Noah’s attention.

Her worst fear is coming true, though, just as Vanessa thinks it. She can’t hear Johnny, but she can see the frustration lining his little face. She can see him grab Noah’s sleeve and tug hard.

“Hold on,” Noah says kindly.

Johnny sighs. Vanessa watches his little shoulders heave up and down. She angles her body forward, trying to get around the girls in front of her.

“Excuse me,” she calls. The girl in front of her doesn’t hear her.

Johnny tugs Noah’s sleeve again. “Noah,” he whines. “The ‘canoes.” He points to a volcano display a little further down the corridor.

“Hold on, Johnny,” Noah repeats.

“Who’s the brat?” Vanessa hears the other boy say.

Vanessa feels a spike of anger cut through her. She raises her voice just a little. “Excuse me.”

“What?” Noah asks.

Johnny tugs hard again, stomping his foot down. Vanessa knows he’s one stomp away from full metldown - a show of screaming and flopping that makes Charity’s hissy fits seem playful.

The other boy nods down at Johnny. “The brat.”

Noah frowns and grabs Johnny’s hand, holding it. “What did you call him?”

The other boy rolls his eyes. “I said-”

“I know what you said,” Noah says sharply. He picks Johnny up off the floor and settles him on his side, turning his body just slightly. “This is my little brother.”

The other boy frowns. “I thought his name was Moses.”

Noah turns his body even more, shielding Johnny. “This is my other little brother.” He narrows his eyes, glaring. “So do one.”

The other boy doesn’t go, scoffing instead. He folds his arms over his chest and looms over Noah. “Oh, that’s right. You have two mums now.”

Vanessa ignores the part of her that screams to be polite and shoulders through the teenage girls, not bothering to apologize as she pushes them out of her way. She gets through them just as Noah takes a step back from the other boy, pulling his shoulders straight. He looks like Charity , is Vanessa’s first thought. His face is blank, his jaw twitching in barely-restrained anger. His whole body is stiff, but his arms are curled around Johnny protectively.

“So?” Noah challenges. “I’ve got two parents who love me. What’s the problem with that?”

Vanessa feels her feet stumble and she stops moving forward, trying to keep Moses steady in her arms.

“It’s wrong, is what,” the other boy sneers.

“Wanna bet?” Noah asks, her teeth bared.

The other boy opens his mouth, but his eyes move past Noah to Vanessa, and he snaps it shut again. Vanessa nods at him sharply, her head moving towards the exit.

The boy shrugs. “Whatever,” he mumbles, turning on his heel and banking a sharp left down another corridor.

Vanessa’s shoulder sag in relief. She switches Moses to the other arm, watching the tension drain from Noah’s body as he stands in place, watching the other boy disappear into the crowd.

“‘Canoes?” Johnny asks quietly, pointing at the volcanoes display. Someone pours a liquid into the open spout and the crowd cheers as bubblez fizz to the top.

Noah pats him on the back calmly. “Let’s get your mum and then go, yeah?” He turns around, startling a little when he realizes Vanessa is right behind him. His cheeks flush red. “Uh…”

“Thank you,” Vanessa says softly. She reaches out and runs her hands over Johnny’s hair, growing out to match Noah’s.

“It was nothing,” Noah mumbles.

Vanessa shakes her head. “You protected him.”

“Yeah, well…” Noah trails off and shrugs his shoulder. “I like him, don’t I?”

“And he loves you,” Vanessa agrees. She drops her hand from Johnny’s head and holds it up, fingers curling into a fist.

Noah stares at it for a long moment; so long that Vanessa considers dropping her hand and tucking it into her pocket, turning around and finding Charity, and demanding they leave. She hasn’t tried this since that morning in the cafe, when Noah flat-out ignored her. She’s constantly picking up Moses, patting Johnny on the head, sliding her hand into Charity’s back pockets, but she keeps away from Noah, willing to let him make the first move. She berating herself for reaching out to him now; she should have stuck to her normal response of a smile and an extra bag of crisps the next time they go out. She finds some comfort in the predictability of being ignored, but this sudden attempt at camaraderie isn’t going her way.

Slowly, Noah lifts his fist and taps it gently against hers.

Vanessa smiles widely, ear to ear.

Noah rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling too. It’s just a hint of one, tugging at the corner of his lips, but it’s something . “Don’t let it get to your head,” he says gruffly, his words half-hearted.

“Wouldn’t dream about it,” Vanessa says quickly.

A long arm slings across her shoulders, warm lips against the side of her face. “Oi, mister,” Charity says, pointing a finger at Noah. “You and I are going to have a talk about your attitude at school.”

Noah huffs, back to being the boy she knows.

“Not tonight, yeah?” Vanessa interrupts. She looks hopefully at Charity. “Johnny wants to go see the volcanoes and then maybe we can go into town and get something to eat.”

Charity tips her head to the side. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing,” Vanessa says defensively. “It’s Family Night, isn’t it? Why don’t we spend it doing something the whole family wants to do?”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Noah says quickly.

“Of course you do,” Charity says, her eyes still narrowed at Vanessa. “If it involves food, you’re up for it.”

“Come on, Charity,” Vanessa says, nudging Charity gently.

“Come on, Mum,” Noah adds.

“Yeah, Char’ty,” Johnny says.

Moses nods.

Charity looks at the four of them and throws her hands up in the air. “Well, I can’t go four against one, can I?” She takes Johnny from Moses and gently pushes at the back of Noah’s head. “But I missed something and I’m going to find out what it is,” she warns.

“Nothing, truly,” Vanessa repeats.

“Honest,” Noah says.

Charity shakes her head. “Alright, little man. Show me these volcanoes,” she says to Johnny. She starts heading in the direction he points out, looking back over her shoulder at Vanessa and Noah.

“Not a word,” Vanessa says to him.

“I won’t say anything if you don’t,” he promises.

Vanessa smiles softly. “That’s our boy.”

Noah rolls his eyes again, walking forward a few steps as he pushes his hands into his pockets. He slouches over, looking more like the boy she’s used to. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. He smiles quickly, turning on his heel and following after Charity and Johnny.

Vanessa looks at Moses and presse a kiss to his forehead, sighing softly as he leans into her. “That’s our boy,” she repeats.