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you and me, always between the lines (missing scenes)

Chapter Text

Vanessa frowns, her nose wrinkling. “You think that’ll work?" 

Charity throws her hands up. Frustration is starting to creep up her spine and dig in behind her eyelids. She knows why Vanessa is still harping on this. She understands why Vanessa is like a punter with a half-filled pint she just won’t let go of. It doesn’t make it any easier to keep having the same conversation, though - even if every other sentence is Vanessa reassuring her she didn’t do anything wrong, that she’s not to blame, that Vanessa respects her. 

"I don’t have any other ideas,” she says. “Do you?” Her eyes flash. She knows what Vanessa’s other ideas are, but god help her if Vanessa says it aloud one more time right now… 

“No,” Vanessa sighs, surprising her. She crosses the small room and sits down next to Charity, taking the pillow out of her hands. She replaces them with her own, their fingers lacing together as easy as Charity breathes out. 

“Then it’s our best shot,” Charity says. “I’ll drop a hint that he’s married and Tracy’ll scamper away so fast, his head’ll spin." 

Vanessa purses her lips, her eyes on Charity’s hands. Her finger brushes over Charity’s third finger gently as she speaks. "He’s not wearing a ring,” she points out.  

Charity shrugs, not trusting her voice as Vanessa’s fingers drift across her ring finger so lightly. “More reason for doubt,” she finally manages when Vanessa turns her hand over, their palms pressed together. 

Vanessa is quiet for a moment, the silence stretching between them like a piece of string pulled taut. Charity expects it to snap at any moment, to crackle through air like a bolt of lightning and strike. It feels like an elastic band that’s peeling away inch by inch and Charity braces herself for the snapback, her fingers already aching at the thought. 

But Vanessa exhales softly and the string between them loosens, still intact. 

“I won’t never forgive you,” Vanessa says quietly. 

Charity sits up a little straighter, her mouth open. “Babe-" 

"No,” Vanessa says firmly. “None of this is your fault. What that… that horrible excuse of a man,” she spits. “What he did to you is not your fault." 

"I took the money, didn’t I?” Charity says bitterly. 

Vanessa moves closer, her knees digging into Charity’s thigh. “I know why you did it. And I told you, I support you. No matter what." 

Charity squints at Vanessa, trying to picture what Vanessa sees when she looks at her. A project? A partner? She thinks she knows, she thinks she has a handle on Vanessa’s feelings for her, and then Vanessa pulls the rug out from under her - runs towards her, instead of away from her like everyone else. She’s messy and she’s hotheaded and she thinks she knows best, but she apologises when she’s wrong and she tries to do better the next time. She tries to do better for Charity. 

”‘Ness, I-“ 

"Don’t need to explain,” Vanessa says gently. “Not to me.” She sighs. “I know I’m being pushy. I’m just worried about Tracy. She’s an adult, I know, but I just… I care.” She shifts again, her ankle hooking around Charity’s. “And I care about you, too. I like you very, very much, Charity Dingle." 

Charity feels a rush of affection and rolls her eyes against it. "I like you, too,” she mumbles. “I suppose.”  

Vanessa smiles brightly, the whole of her face stretching wide. It makes Charity’s stomach flop softly - that smile is for her. Vanessa smiles at everyone, ray of sunshine and all, but there’s a specific lift of her lips that’s she’s noticed lately, that’s only Charity’s

“Yeah?” she asks shyly. 

Charity scoffs. “Oh, hush, you,” she says, tipping her chin up. Come here, she’s saying to Vanessa. 

Vanessa meets her halfway, her lips soft and warm. Charity feels her body relaxing, her shoulders unfurling from around her ears and her back meeting the couch as Vanessa leans in closer. Her hand curls around Vanessa’s jaw, feeling the muscle twitch under her fingers. 

“I just want everyone to be safe,” Vanessa breathes against her mouth. “I just want you to be safe." 

Vanessa says safe the way other people say love and it makes Charity’s heart beat a little faster, her hands sweat a little, her lungs burn a little hotter. 

"I am,” Charity wants to whisper. “Right here, I am." 

Then Vanessa is kissing her again and Charity forgets it all - thinking, breathing, feeling. Vanessa kisses her and Charity forgets about Bails and feeling small under the heat of his glare. Vanessa kisses her, hands sliding through her hair, and Charity feels like the biggest person in the world; like nothing can touch her; like she’s safe

 So, she’ll do it. 

She kisses Vanessa, breathing hard as Vanessa’s hands slide under the hem of her blouse, and decides that she’ll do it. She’ll face Bails one more time, to chase Tracy off him, because it matters that much to Vanessa. 

But first, she thinks as she eases Vanessa back against the couch pillow. First, I’m going to pay attention to the things that matter most to me.

Chapter Text

Vanessa slips into the darkness of Charity’s room and slips out of her shoes silently, carefully draping her jacket over the chair in the corner.

(She had set Johnny up for the night - a tub and a book and a kiss on the forehead - and left him with Tracy. She had lingered outside of Tug Ghyll, looking out into the darkness. A part of her worried to let Tracy out of her sight; what if Bails came by when she wasn’t around, when the night shadowed his intentions? She tried to remind herself what Charity told her: he had a family, a bank account, a house, a life - all the things Charity didn’t feel like she had.

She hadn’t said it, but Vanessa could still feel the words in the air, suffocating them both. Bails had everything Charity didn’t, everything he had stripped her of.

Another part of her tried to remember that Tracy knew part of the truth, now - Bails was married. She wouldn’t let him in this late. But if he forced his way in… Vanessa shook her head; she was just going to keep on this downward spiral of fear if she stood there any longer.

She had let herself into the Woolpack, nodding at Chas sitting in the kitchen, a brew in her hands.

“She went up before closing,” Chas said bitterly. “Comes in late, leaves early. Wouldn’t think she owns half this place, would you?”

Vanessa paused. “She’s-”

Chas waved her off. “I know you two have your secrets. Don’t make something up just for me.” She sighed. “She’s okay, yeah?”

Vanessa smiled half-heartedly.

“But you’re looking after her.”

Vanessa pressed her hand against her chest, feeling like it would beat clear out of her body. “Swear it.”

Chas nodded. “Oh, go on, then. I know you’re wantin’ to get up there.”

Vanessa had paused outside of Charity’s room, her forehead against the door. She waited for a long minute in the corridor. The lights were out under the door, but the handle gave when she twisted it, and she slipped inside quickly, closing the door softly behind her.)

“Just me,” she whispers as she starts on her blouse. She untucks it from her trousers and pulls it over her head.

The bedsheets rustle softly - Charity rolling over or sitting up, Vanessa can’t tell in the dark. She leaves her trousers and socks on the floor next to her blouse, padding across the room slowly, her hand on the end of the bed as she feels her way to the side she’s slowly claimed as her own.

(Might as well put a nametag on it, yeah? Charity had said one morning last week. Property of Vanessa Woodfield, Girlfriend.

Vanessa had pressed her hand flat against Charity’s chest, letting her fingertips curl into her bare skin. “Here too, then.”

Charity kissed her hard, stealing the air from her lungs and then pushing it back in with her fingers against Vanessa’s skin.)

She climbs under the covers now, feeling Charity move against her. Their bare legs slide and twist together. Vanessa shivers slightly, Charity’s body warm and her bedsheets cool. She walks her fingers up Charity’s arm, over the sleeve of the oversized top she stole from Vanessa’s wardrobe, and buries her hand in Charity’s hair.

“You’re here,” Charity says, her voice hoarse.

Vanessa’s lips rest against Charity’s forehead. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” she says quietly.

Charity’s hand curls around the curve of Vanessa’s bare hip. “Not really in the mood tonight, babe,” she admits.

“I’m not here for that,” Vanessa says firmly. She scratches lightly at the back of Charity’s head, a thin smile on her face when Charity’s body reacts, pressing into her own. She works her arm around Charity’s shoulders and pulls her in closer, until they’re flush against each other. She can feel the shallow rise and fall of Charity’s chest under her own; she knows Charity is one good cry away from collapsing into a hundred tiny pieces. “You were upset.”

“Told you,” Charity says, the words raw and scratchy. They rub against Vanessa’s ears the wrong way, making her chest tighten uncomfortably. “I’m absolutely fine.”

Charity is lying. Vanessa doesn’t need to see her eyes to know it. She can feel it in the gentle hum of Charity’s chest; in the tension of her shoulders; in the heat where their bodies meet and stick. Charity is holding something back, something she’s afraid to tell Vanessa.

It hurts, at first. There’s a flash of red-hot pain that shoots through her whole body. Charity is her girlfriend; they should be able to talk about anything. About everything. But after the hurt fades, Vanessa can rationalize why Charity is holding back.

More importantly, she knows that Charity will tell her, when Charity is ready to. She’s learned one thing these last few weeks, and it’s not to push. She won’t push and she won’t pull, but she’ll stand still and be what Charity needs, what Charity has always needed: someone in her corner. I can do that, she had told herself when she realized what Charity so desperately needed. I can stand in this corner and hold up these walls. I can shoulder the weight.

She wants to tell Charity that. She wants to remind her that she’s made the choice to help bear whatever burden Charity is carrying; that if she was given the choice a hundred times over, her answer would never change.

Whatever you decide to do, she wants to say again. I want to help you through it.

“Okay,” Vanessa says instead. “But I’m already down to my knickers and I’m going nowhere.”

Charity laughs, low, and it rumbles in Vanessa’s chest. “Course not, babe.” Her hands slide lazily over Vanessa’s backside, dancing to a song Vanessa doesn’t know the rhythm of. Her mouth brushes against Vanessa’s cheek, a dusting of a kiss. “Wouldn’t want you too, would I?”

Vanessa lets the whisper hang between them, savoring the way it feels to be Charity’s choice, to be the one Charity wants near her.

“I’d hope not,” she finally whispers back.

Charity leans away from her, cold air rushing into the sudden space between them. “Why did you come?” she asks, her voice steady, but small.

You needed me, is the first thing that comes to Vanessa’s mind. But Charity wouldn’t like the sound of that, the words too true. Instead, Vanessa winds a strand of hair around her finger slowly, letting it slide off and drift away.

“I needed you,” she says.

It’s not a whole lie and it’s not a whole truth.

Charity’s hand flex against her ribs, twitching in a way that says she knows. “Needy cow,” she rasps.

“That’s me,” Vanessa says, humoring this game between them. “Moody, needy. A regular wife, I am.”

The room gets too small, too quiet. Vanessa holds her breath, her whole body going taut. Charity is as still as a statue and Vanessa counts ten staggeringly long and terrible seconds before she barks out a laugh, like sandpaper against a cobblestone.

“Not like any wife I’ve ever had,” she says.

Vanessa exhales slowly. “I’m one of a kind, me.”

“Too right, kid,” Charity says, kissing Vanessa’s shoulder so lightly that Vanessa is sure she imagined it. “I’m sure you’re off the hooks to talk something to death right now. Don’t tell me you’re not. I can hear that head of yours turning over. But tonight-”

“Just want you near,” Vanessa says lightly. She shimmies down until she can bury her face in Charity’s shoulder. Her top doesn’t smell laundered anymore; it smells like Charity. She breathes it in and feels her eyes grow heavy with warmth. “That’s okay with you, innit?”

“Sure, babe,” Charity says quietly. “I’ll hold you, yeah?”

Vanessa smiles against Charity’s shoulder when Charity only moves closer into her, letting Vanessa’s arms tighten around her waist. She holds Charity, her grip fast, and presses kisses to Charity’s neck until the familiar soft snoring washes over the whole room.

I’ll help you through it, she thinks again. Through it all.

Chapter Text

“So this girlfriend of yours.”

Charity stills, the tap running. The pint glass in her hand gets dangerously full and she pushes the tap marker back into place at the last moment, just as the ale threatens to spill over the rim of the glass.

“What about her?” Charity asks lightly.

“Tell me about her,” the voice behind her answers.

Charity feels someone come closer, nearly pressing against her back. She smiles brightly and puts the full pint down on the bar in front of someone she doesn’t know, someone just passing the through. “Well,” Charity starts casually. She picks up a cloth and half-heartedly wipes at the small spots of alcohol dotting the bar. “She’s dead gorgeous.”

“Is she?”

A puff of warm arm gusts across the back of Charity’s neck and a slim hand ghosts across her hip. Charity shivers, her body leaning back into the hold even as her brain screams to move away. You’re on the clock, a voice in her head says. It sounds like Chas. She tells it to get stuffed.

“A bit of a know-it-all, actually,” Charity continues. The hand slips under the hem of her blouse. Charity braces her hand against the top of the bar. Everyone is drinking fizz, toasting to Frank and Megan - not paying any mind to Charity or the woman behind her, but Charity’s eyes scan the pub anyway, worried for a brief moment before the thrum of attraction pushes away the fear. “Thinks she knows best,” she says lightly.

The hand stills.

“Usually does,” Charity continues casually. “But not a word to her about that, yeah?”

Charity can feel the laugh bubble up from behind her, the body pressed against her starting to shake. The hand under her blouse scratches lightly at her skin and Charity digs her fingernails into the bar to stop from squirming.

‘Ness,” she breathes out.

“Ness? Your girlfriend is the Loch Ness Monster?”

Charity snorts before she can stop herself. “Green, yeah. Especially when she’s jealous.”

The hand dips lower, a teasing fingernail just under the waist of her trousers. “I imagine she’s jealous often, she is.” The words are muddled against her shoulder. “You’re a smart, amazing, beautiful woman.”

“My girlfriend,” Charity starts. She pauses on the words. My girlfriend. She likes the way they settle in her mouth; like her whole life, this is what she’s been waiting for. “My girlfriend,” she repeats. “Has nothing to worry about, yeah?”

“Charity,” Vanessa whispers, breaking the rules of this game they’re playing.

Charity turns, trapping Vanessa against the well. “My girlfriend is the only one who can get away with calling me amazing.”

“She should tell you every day,” Vanessa breathes out, her eyes so wide and so blue.

Charity wants to look away, afraid of the way Vanessa can see right through her. But she doesn’t. She’s done being scared of this, of the way Vanessa makes her feel. Vanessa’s hand slides up her arm, fingers tightening in the fabric of her blazer.

“Well, you two seem all right,” Debbie says as she comes out of the back.

Charity tries to take a small step away, to put some distance between their bodies. It’s a habit she’s perfected with Noah - a habit she knows Vanessa can’t stand, but doesn’t fight her on. She fights Charity now, though, tightening her grip just slightly, catching Charity off-guard. Vanessa turns and smiles widely at Debbie, her cheek pressed against Charity’s arm as she leans into her.

“We are,” Vanessa says simply.

Charity looks between the two of them, slowly winding her arm along Vanessa’s back, her hand curling around Vanessa’s shoulder. “We are,” she says, dragging the words out. “I’m sorry, have I missed something?”

Debbie’s eyes soften. “You’re not missing anything. Not anymore.”

The words hang in the quiet lull between them. Frank and Megan are celebrating just ten feet away, Frank’s voice loud and raucous and Megan demure beside him. The pub is bustling with people - some here to toast to Frank and Megan and some here just because. But the noise fades out just briefly and Debbie’s words sound like a clap of thunder next to her head, like a hand going through a plaster wall beside her.

She wants to agree with Debbie. She wants to admit that she doesn’t feel the same emptiness she felt before; that if she pressed Debbie’s hand to her chest like she did that day, Debbie would feel something this time - a heart, strong and there and beating out a rhythm that sounds a lot like Vanessa’s name.

Instead, she turns her head and presses her lips to Vanessa’s forehead, breathing in deeply.

“Oh, you guys,” Debbie says, rolling her eyes. She smiles, though, winking at Vanessa. “Go on, then. I’ll cover for ten minutes.”

Charity doesn’t wait for her to repeat herself. She grabs Vanessa’s hand, their fingers lacing together easily. “Love you, Debs.” She squeezes Debbie’s arm gently as she drags Vanessa into the corridor behind her.

“I’ll find out, you know,” Charity says as she turns and presses Vanessa against the cellar door. “Whatever went on between you two, I’ll find out. I have ways and means.”

Vanessa’s eyes narrow and a sudden spike of heat rushes through Charity’s body. Vanessa isn’t going to back down, she isn’t going to give in. Charity loves the push and pull it creates between them - an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Vanessa is the unstoppable force more often than Charity would like to admit; that the concrete in her veins keeps her still while Vanessa moves in a fury around her.

“You have ten minutes,” Vanessa says lightly, her hand back at Charity’s hip. “Why don’t you start there and see what you can do.”

Charity leans in for a kiss that Vanessa ducks, slipping out from under her arm and into the living room.

“Oh, it won’t be that easy,” Vanessa promises.

“I like a challenge,” Charity fires back. “I’m dating you, ain’t I?”

Your girlfriend,” Vanessa sighs, as if she’s saying something more.

“My girlfriend,” Charity agrees. She reaches for the collar of Vanessa’s jacket, tugging her in gently. “Ten minutes, yeah?” She winks. “Just enough time to get you out of this abomination of a top.”

Chapter Text

“If I had known Joe nearly dying would get me a hug from Noah, I’d have tried killing him ages ago,” Charity admits, breaking their easy silence.

Vanessa hums quietly next to her before the words register in her mind. “What?” She closes the book she’s reading. “Charity, you-“

“I know, I know,” Charity huffs. She softens the aggravation in her voice with her hand on Vanessa’s knee, pressed up against her side as they sit on the couch at Tug Ghyll. “I just mean-“

“I know,” Vanessa says lightly. She slips her hand under Charity’s, turning it over so their fingers lock. “I reckon Noah appreciated you letting him phone hospital.”

Charity sighs, long and suffering. “Well. He’s my boy, yeah? And I don’t like to see him upset. Even if he thinks I do,” she adds. She tries not to sound bitter, but she can’t help it. Noah thinks she lives and breathes to make him miserable. For a fleeting moment, Charity wonders if this is what her parents felt like before she left - like everything they did was never enough.

Vanessa strokes her free hand down Charity’s arm, her palm warm against her bare skin. She’d come by Vanessa’s after closing, peeling off her coat and her blazer at the door and adding her shoes to the pile near the stairs, mixing in with Johnny’s Paw Patrol trainers and Vanessa’s flats. It‘s still terrifying, the sudden calm that comes over her the moment she walks into Vanessa’s space; it almost feels like the winter after Bails, when she nabbed an electric blanket for herself for Christmas and she had wrapped it tight around her shoulders until even the spaces between her ribs, aching with hunger, were warm. Vanessa winds around her the same way, warming the parts of Charity that she was sure would stay cold for the rest of her life; filling every crack and every gap with a brightness that makes it easier to breathe.

“Hey,” Vanessa says softly. “It’s okay if you don’t magically forgive him.”

Charity lifts an eyebrow.

“Joe, I mean,” Vanessa explains. “He was… horrible to you and you owe him nothing.”

Charity sighs. “Noah wants-“

“Noah didn’t go through the things you went through,” Vanessa says sharply. Her voice takes on that edge it gets when she starts going on about the people who have wronged Charity.

A part of her wants to be annoyed; she doesn’t need Vanessa’s self-righteous indignation. She’s done just fine for herself, thankyouverymuch. she needs pity from no one, much less the woman she’s falling in-

Falling in bed with, her mind fills in. Her chest aches with another answer but Charity swallows it back for now, squeezing Vanessa’s hand instead.

The other part of her feels like she can fly when Vanessa starts ranting and raving. Her jaw clicks angrily, tensing until Charity is sure it will snap in half. She throws her arms around like she’s trying to land a helicopter. It sets Charity on fire a little - Vanessa is angry and she’s not angry at Charity; she’s angry for Charity.

Charity isn’t sure the last time someone was angry on her behalf, but it’s intoxicating.

Vanessa sighs. “Sorry,” she says. She picks absently at a long strand of Charity’s hair, twisting it around her finger. “I just can’t stand the way he treated you and Debbie.”

Charity feels her body leaning into Vanessa’s touch. It’s dizzying, the way she needs to be next to Vanessa all the time; the way Vanessa seems to want to be next to her. They’re always touching - a hand on an arm; shoulders brushing. She feels like she just can’t get enough.  

Charity feels her face flush; she’s smitten and she doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Taking on every person who ever wronged me, are you?” Charity jokes.

“I will,” Vanessa says sharply.

The words nick the breath from her lungs - Vanessa isn’t joking. Her eyes are dark and serious, that muscle in her jaw coiled tightly. Charity reaches up and presses her thumb against Vanessa’s jawline, feeling it move under her touch.

“Babe…”

“I can’t stand the way people think they can treat you,” Vanessa says over her. Her voice cracks and her jaw tightens again. “Like you’re something they, they-“

“Bought and paid for?” Charity supplies. “Babe, I hate to break it to you, but-“

Stop it,” Vanessa snaps. She softens quickly, her hand carding through Charity’s hair gently.

“Don’t want to hear about it, do you?” Charity can’t help but ask, thinking about Zoe - how Zoe hadn’t want to talk about Charity’s past, how she only wanted the shiny parts of Charity, but none of the truth.

Vanessa knows that. She knows everything, Charity realizes. Almost everything. She knows about Zoe and about Chris. She knows about Jai and Declan and Cain and something flutters inside Charity’s chest when she realizes that Vanessa knows nearly everything. And she stayed, she thinks.

Vanessa grips her hand tightly. “Say it,” she demands.

Charity groans. “‘Ness.”

“Say it,” she repeats.

Charity wants to fold her arms over her chest and pout - she knows where Noah gets his petulance from, she always has - but Vanessa has a tight grip on her hand and expectation in her eyes. She sighs instead and her shoulders slump. “I’m amazing,” she mumbles.

“What?”

Charity narrows her eyes. “I’m amazing, I am.” She purses her lips. “Amazingly crazy for sitting here reciting this.”

Vanessa ignores her. “I’m not afraid of the scary parts of you, Charity Dingle,” she says firmly. “You can’t chase me off, or push me away like that. So you do best to remember that, yeah?”

“You’re like that bulldog who couldn’t leave the Rottweiler alone, you are,” Charity grumbles. “What is it you said about if it’s teeth are bigger than yours?”

“Oh, I’m the Rottweiler,” Vanessa says firmly. She smiles cheekily. “You’re the bulldog.”

Charity’s phone beeps and she reluctantly untangles herself from Vanessa to reach for it and check the message. “Joe Tate lives to make my life miserable another day,” she mutters. “Noah’s just text, said he’s alive and breathing. Unfortunately.”

Vanessa runs a hand across her back, barely digging into the tension there, but present, reminding Charity to relax. “Maybe you should take Noah by hospital tomorrow?” She suggests lightly. “I don’t like him any more than you do, but they’re going to keep seeing each other, aren’t they? This way you can keep an eye on them.”

Charity rolls her eyes but Vanessa is right; Noah is going to continue on seeing Joe. The most she can do is be there while he does. “Yeah, all right,” she mumbles.

Vanessa smiles brightly.

“He’ll come round, Noah,” Charity says.

Vanessa’s smile just barely dims. “I should hope so. I plan on sticking around for a very long time.”

“He’s just not used to that,” Charity admits. Neither am I.

“Well, he better get used to me,” Vanessa says, sticking her nose into the air. “You both,” she says pointedly.

Charity feels her cheeks flush and wonders if she’s always been this transparent or if that’s Vanessa’s superpower - seeing through Charity. She rolls her eyes to combat the tight coil of feelings in her stomach and walks her fingers up Vanessa’s arm. “How about we talk less and… do more.”

“Mind in the gutter, as usual,” Vanessa mocks, even as she leans in to kiss Charity.

Charity smiles against Vanessa’s lips. “Isn’t that what you love about me, babe?”

Chapter Text

“And apparently,” Charity continues, her voice rising again. “Apparently, she’s - thanks, babe,” she says, taking a wine glass from Vanessa. “Apparently, Debbie is in love with him.”

Tracy gasps slightly, her own wine glass tipping in her hand. “No.” She shakes her head. “Debbie is smarter than that, yeah?”

Charity snorts softly. “She takes after Cain,” she says sadly. “And he’s about as clever as a sheep.” She shifts, making space on the couch as Vanessa settles back down next to her.

“Sheep are clever,” Vanessa says absently. She looks up when Charity’s glare heats the side of her face. “What? They are,” she says defensively. “Playful, too.”

“Well that’s Cain, spot on. “Charity rolls her eyes. “Smart and playful, he is.” She bumps Vanessa’s shoulder gently, not moving away when Vanessa sways towards her. “What kind of animal am I, then?”

Vanessa turns, tapping her finger against her chin thoughtfully. Her eyes narrow and her forehead wrinkles. 

Charity wants to reach up and press her lips to that spot, smooth the wrinkles away. She’s not sure if it’s the wine or the small loveseat, but there’s a warmth coursing through her veins and it makes her just a little drowsy with happiness. Bails has been the last thing on her mind today, replaced by Noah and Joe and NoahandJoe. She hadn’t realized she had to worry about Debbie, too. Vanessa tips her head to the side, her ponytail swishing around. Silky strands of hair curl into the collar of Vanessa’s top and Charity reaches for them, twisting them around her finger. My daughter is in love with a narcissistic psychopath who can’t swim, my son is skiving off of school four out of five days a week, and there’s a stack of bribe money sitting in my bedside cabinet, Charity thinks. 

And still, Vanessa looks at her like Charity has hung the fairy lights in the sky.

“A fox,” Vanessa finally says. “Cunning, wily. Intelligent.”

“Dead gorgeous wrapped around someone’s shoulders,” Charity adds, smirking. It fades slowly. “And cruel. Lazy.”

Vanessa frowns.

“I remember The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox, ” Charity says. “Aesop’s Fables, yeah?”

“You’ve read Aesop’s Fables?” Tracy asks, surprise coloring her voice.

Charity feels a flash of irritation rush through her - Tracy’s voice becomes Frank’s and she feels small - but then Vanessa’s hand is on her knee, thumb rubbing in a soft circle that tempers Charity’s reaction. “I read a lot,” she says, faking a smile.

“I hated those in primary school,” Tracy says. She doesn’t make any snarky comments. She doesn’t say anything about a barmaid being well-versed and well-read. She only tips her glass in Charity’s direction. “I don’t remember The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox.”

“The Lion and the Bear are fighting over something. A fawn, yeah? And they’re so busy fighting that a fox sweeps in and steals the fawn right from under them,” she recites. “Like a common thief.”

Tracy narrows her eyes, just a little hazy from the wine, and shakes her head. “Dodgy.”

“That’s me, babe,” Charity says flatly. “Dodgy.”

“I’m a lion, yeah?” Tracy throws her hair over one shoulder, lips pulled back in a silent roar.

“You’re a donkey,” Vanessa fires back, her hand higher on Charity’s leg. “And you best get to bed, yeah? You need all the rest you can get if you’re minding Johnny tomorrow.”

Tracy sighs and swallows the last of her wine, putting her glass on the coffee table. “I’m knackered anyway.” She leans over Vanessa, kissing the top of her head. “Night, sis. Charity.”

“Night, kid,” Charity says absently. She looks across the living, unconsciously pulling a pillow across her middle, holding it tightly. 

She can hear Tracy’s feet on the stairs, disappearing above her, but she doesn’t hear Vanessa put down her own glass or give a heavy sigh. She jumps slightly when Vanessa pulls the pillow away from her, leaning back against her instead, bringing Charity’s arm across her middle. She laces their fingers together, tapping her thumb against the back of Charity’s hand. Her breath hitches, like she’s working on being bold enough to speak.

“Go on, then,” Charity murmurs in her ear. “What is it?”

“Do you remember reading The Fox and the Sick Lion?” Vanessa asks.

Charity frowns. “No. The book in the library was torn and missing pages.”

Vanessa stretches her neck, the back of her head against Charity’s shoulder. She strains to press a kiss to the bottom of Charity’s chin. “An old lion grew too weak to hunt so he lured animals into his cave and ate them.”

“Not quite a love story, babe,” Charity chirps.

Vanessa shushes her. “One day, a fox comes along and the lion beckons him forward into the cave. Only, the fox hesitated, didn’t he? And the lion tried harder, calling the fox closer. ‘I’m ill’ he told the fox. ‘Come to me and let me see you, visitor’.” Vanessa pauses, turning Charity’s hand over and tracing her palm lines. “The fox told the lion he couldn’t go into the cave, because he could see the tracks going in, but none coming out.”

Charity nods. “Smart fox, he was.”

“You’re the fox,” Vanessa says quietly. “Smart, alert. You notice what other people don’t.” She spares a glance at the stairs, peering into the darkness behind the spars where Tracy had disappeared minutes ago. “With Bails. Joe. You’re the only one who sees the cave for what it is, for it being a trap.”

Charity slides her other hand under the hem of Vanessa’s jumper, touching the warm skin just above Vanessa’s trousers. “Only because I’ve been trapped before, babe.”

“You’re not trapped now,” Vanessa says softly. She moves, leaning away from Charity and twisting to the side until they’re face to face.

Charity curls her hand around Vanessa’s jawline, brushing her thumb across Vanessa’s lips. “Not trapped now,” she repeats. “No, babe. I’m…” The truth burns in her throat and everything in her rebels against speaking. If you say it, it makes it real, she thinks. And if it’s real, it means it can all fall apart. She swallows hard but the lump in her throat builds until she has to pant, gasping for air.

“I’ve got you,” Vanessa murmurs, her hands steady against Charity’s neck. She dips her head, meeting Charity’s eyes.

Charity can’t say what she wants to say - what’s been building inside of her for weeks now. Instead, she leans in, kissing Vanessa hard on the mouth. “Not trapped,” she repeats. “I’m the most free I’ve ever been, me” She nips at Vanessa’s bottom lip, trying to hide the wet glimmer in her eyes.

Vanessa’s eyes sparkle when she pulls back. “Let’s see if we can’t free you a little more,” she says, working a hand down to the button on Charity’s trousers. 

Charity lifts an eyebrow. “You think that chat up line is going to work?” Her breath hitches as Vanessa works down the zip of her trousers. “Good thing I find smugness insanely attractive on you,” she whispers as she kisses the smirk off Vanessa’s face as the button on her trousers gives.

Freedom.

Chapter Text

The night spins around Charity in flashes: a pint here, a pound there. Face after face, G&T after G&T - Charity notices none of it. Her body moves like an unmanned aircraft through the pub effortlessly. It’s simple, really. Pull a pint, take the note, give the change. Wave, smile, wink. Moses could do it, is the one sliver of a thought she has. It goes as quickly it comes, though, and the fog swallows her whole again.

The only thing that cuts through the haze in her head is Vanessa.

Vanessa’s hand over her own; Vanessa’s thumb stroking the back of her hand; Vanessa’s gentle squeeze of her fingers. The night spins and spins and Vanessa is her May Pole, keeping her from getting too dizzy; giving her something to focus on. Everything else feels too much: Bails and the PCs who came to her door, Noah and Joe, Debbie and Joe, Tracy and her task force, even Vanessa and her worrying.

Guilt creeps into her mind as tonic sprays across the bar. Vanessa is just trying to help, she tells herself. Vanessa is helping.

Vanessa’s thumb breezes across her knuckles again, pulling her back into the pub. The crowd is chatty tonight and it echoes like they’ve plugged in a microphone to catch every word. Marlon is banging pots and pans in the kitchen, sharp snaps of metal on metal that Charity can feel around her wrists. Vanessa says her name and Charity blinks her way out of the heavy, humid fog suffocating her.

“What, babe?” she asks, putting on her best attempt at a smile.

Vanessa sees right through it. “Maybe Marlon can cover the rest of your shift and-“

No,” Charity snaps. The hand on hers twitches. “No,” she repeats, softer. “It’s my shift. I’ve spent the last few…”

Stalking Bails, she doesn’t say.

Vanessa’s eyes darken anyway. They cut to the right, but Charity can still see the anger coursing through them - not at her, she knows. At Bails. But it’s there and it’s palpable and she wants to smile; anger is easy. Anger, she can work with.

“Go on, then,” Charity sneers. “You want to scold me some more?”

A few regulars look up and she glances away from Ross’s confused and sad eyes. She skips over Debbie, too, on the other side of the bar, unable to see the look of classic Charity, sabotaging everything on her face.

“Charity,” Vanessa tries gently.

The hand in hers is tense but Charity pushes on. Anger is good, she tells herself. Anger is easy. Anger is familiar and comforting and Charity understands it. What she doesn’tunderstand is this feeling of drowning - she never did - and how it settles in her chest like water in her lungs and threatens to take her life.

“Going to tell me I’m an idiot?” She hisses. “That I was asking for it?”

“Right,” Vanessa says sharply. She looks at Debbie. “You take over,” she instructs. She tightens her grip on Charity’s hand and tugs hard, pulling her in the back and closing the door. She doesn’t stop moving until they’re in the center of the living room, her fingers still laced in Charity’s.

“Excuse me,” Charity starts.

“You wait,” Vanessa snaps. “You want to have a go at me because you can’t stove Bails’s head in? I won’t stop you. But you do it here, in private.” She holds out her free hand, stretching her arm wide as if to say, bring it on.

Charity feels her body deflate and she sags down onto a kitchen chair, their arms pulling just a little where their hands are still connected. “Vanessa-“

Vanessa sits down, scooting her chair forward so their hands rest in Vanessa’s lap. “You can be angry, Charity. You can cry and kick and scream and you can do it at me, if it makes you feel any better.”

Charity looks down and away, tears burning at the back of her eyes. She’s tired of crying, tired of being angry, tired of constantly trying to pull away from Vanessa because being too close to something like that - something she doesn’t deserve - makes it hard to breathe. Vanessa makes it hard to breathe, but she’s also the only thing breathing air into her lungs right now.

The world spins a little more and she feels herself slipping away.

“Is that what you need?” Vanessa asks softly, pulling her back in. “To have a good yell?”

Charity shakes her head silently. She feels like she’s on a tilt, sliding off to one side; as if someone took the large hourglass her life runs on and started to tip it the other way. 

“A cry, then?” Vanessa asks. Her voice is lambs wool-soft at the edges, curling around Charity like a warm blanket on a cool night. Her hand strokes the back of Charity’s hand gently, a reminder. I’m here. I’m with you. I’m going nowhere.

“I can tell you a joke? Maybe having a laugh will help,” Vanessa tries. “I know one about an angry sheep and a moody cow.”

Charity scoffs. “But rude to call Rhona that, innit?”

Vanessa swats her gently with her free hand. “How about the one about the pig and the centipede?”

“Now, making fun of Paddy is something I don’t mind,” Charity says.

Vanessa smiles at her, the soft smile Charity likes where her eyes crinkle at the corners. “There she is,” she says softly. “My girlfriend is back.”

Charity rolls her eyes, but leans forward towards Vanessa, her forehead against Vanessa’s shoulder. She breathes in as Vanessa rubs at her back, soft and soothing circles that make Charity’s whole body feel heavy.

A hand twitches in her own and Charity startles, nearly forgetting Vanessa’s hand in hers. She leans back a little, holding their hands up between their bodies and studying the curl of Vanessa’s fingers, the worn callouses on the pads of each one, the small scars and scrapes left behind from animals she’s cared for. Charity pulls Vanessa’s hand closer, pressing a warm kiss to her knuckles.

Charity,” Vanessa breathes out.

Charity kisses Vanessa’s hand again, lingering with her eyes closed, pushing the fog back again. She thinks about being out behind the bar, pulling pints with one hand so she didn’t have to let go of Vanessa; making punters come to her so she didn’t step too far away from Vanessa’s hold; Vanessa keeping her grounded, keeping her steady.  

Vanessa is still holding on now; still holding her up from sinking beneath the mess she’s made of her life.

Vanessa has her.

“‘Ness,” Charity says, a flare of panic in her chest making the name hard to get out. “Don’t let go, yeah?”

Vanessa squeezes her hand softly. “Haven’t,” she says simply. “Won’t.”

The world comes back into focus.

Chapter Text

“I come in peace,” Vanessa jokes, her hands up in front of her body in surrender. When Charity barely reacts, Vanessa’s shoulders slump. “I’m not here to check up on you, honest.”

“That other offer is off the table, too,” Charity mutters. She’s using the bar as a shield, her arms braced against it uncomfortably, looking past Vanessa instead of at her, her eyes clouded and apprehensive.

Vanessa carefully settles onto a stool, her palms flat against the sticky bar. If she inches forward, put her forearms flush agains the top, her fingers would be touching Charity’s. Vanessa knows that’s all it’ll take - she knows a well-placed touch and a small pout will turn Charity to putty in her hands, but she also knows it’s Charity’s choice to bend and she won’t take that away from her; Charity will give in when she wants to.

“I’m just here to be here,” Vanessa says lightly.

“Don’t you have a job? Can’t you be there?” Charity pulls a pint and puts it down in front of Vanessa, frowning as if she’s not sure why she did that, then waving it away with a shake of her head.

“Skiving off.” Vanessa says dismissively, only a little guilty. “Pearl has it under control.”

Pearl?” Charity asks. “Pearl Ladderbanks? Does she have anything under control?”

“Don’t gawp,” Vanessa scolds, grinning at Charity still. “What’s the worst she can do? Paddy let a snake loose. I lost a vial of ketamine. And that’s just in the last three months. Pearl can’t top that, can she?”

Vanessa watches Charity’s eyes soften, the way they always do when Vanessa makes some comment or another about being struck off. It still smarts, but she’s brushed it aside for now; Charity is her focus. Charity needs her.

“Babe,” Charity sighs.

Vanessa sighs and waves her away. “It’s no problem, yeah? I mean, I was offered the manager’s position elsewhere, recently. Might take you up on that.”

Charity stares at her for a heartbeat before rolling her eyes. “The position is in flux at the moment.”

“Anything I can do to… convince you I’m the woman for the job?” Vanessa asks, lowering her voice. She leans a little further over the bar, one hand forward, her fingers just a little closer to Charity’s. She thinks she sees Charity’s hands twitch and she fights back a smile, licking her lips. She picks up her pint with her free hand and takes a swallow, not looking away from Charity’s eyes.

“It’ll take a bit more groveling than that, babe,” Charity mumbles. She pauses, eyes narrowing as she thinks. “A night on the town, maybe.”

“A test, then.” Vanessa nods seriously. “I was always very good at those.”

Charity shudders - just barely, but enough for Vanessa to notice the ripple in her arms. “I bet you were.”

“Charity,” Vanessa says quietly, aware of the ears around them tuning in. Nothing stays secret in this village; Vanessa has learned that the hard way. “I just-“

Charity groans. “And there’s the ‘Ness I know. Making every moment into a Talking Heads monologue.” She starts to turn away from the bar.

Vanessa feels a rush of panic seize her and she grabs for Charity, her fingers tight around Charity’s wrist. “Wait,” she says, unable to keep the desperation from slipping out in her voice. Charity has been so far these last few days - stalking Bails, Vanessa knows now - and it feels like she slipping further and further back every time Vanessa gets close enough to touch her. 

She feels out of her depth and Charity is out of reach and everything is out of her control. 

“I’m not lecturing you,” she promises.

“Well that’s new,” Charity mutters. She doesn’t pull away, though, and Vanessa counts it as a small victory.

She turns her hand, smoothing her fingers across Charity’s skin. “I just wanted to know if you fancied me coming over, in a bit. Properly, I mean. I can bring my Scott and Bailey DVD set and a bottle of wine and we can-”

“Have a cuddle?” Charity finishes, an edge to her voice. She’s still holding herself like a piece of glass, fragile and breakable and Vanessa is trying to be so careful not to cut herself.

“Be there,” Vanessa corrects. “I want to be there for you.”

Charity’s shoulders soften. “So you’ve said.”

“And meant.”

Charity squints at her. “You’re sure you’re not going to go to Tracy’s big thing?”

Vanessa smiles softly at the way Charity manages to make a press conference sound like a funeral. It is, in a way, Vanessa thinks. “And risk lamping that excuse of a man on live television?” Vanessa scoffs. “I’d not last a day in prison.”

Charity looks her up and down slowly and a fire lights low in Vanessa’s belly. “I don’t know, babe. I’ve been there, yeah? You’re ripe for the picking.”

“Is that a compliment, Charity Dingle?”

Charity shrugs a shoulder. “Fact.”

Vanessa touches the tips of her fingers to Charity’s pulse and feels it beat back against her.  “I’m sure I’m right where I want to be,” she says softly. “I want to be with you and nowhere near that arsehole.” She smiles as Charity starts to give. “Tracy has enough of an audience anyway, doesn’t she?”

Something flashes in Charity’s eyes - just quick enough for Vanessa to see it and lose it again.

“Okay,” Charity concedes. “But we’re starting from the beginning of Season 1.”

“You’re only saying that because you like Amelia Bullmore,” Vanessa accuses.

“I’m surprised you stopped drooling over Suranne Jones long enough to notice,” Charity scoffs.

Vanessa presses a hand to her heart. “My second love.”

Charity rolls her eyes but her hand twists, lacing her fingers with Vanessa’s. “Half an hour, then? Chas should be done chundering soon.”

Vanessa wrinkles her nose. “I have to drop Johnny by the childminders and then I’m all yours.”

“Thought you already were,” Charity says lightly, glancing away.

“You clean them bins out?” Vanessa asks, remembering the chore Charity had been tasked with earlier.

That looks comes back again, then slips away before Vanessa can sink into it and try and sort it out. It’s a flash of something Vanessa thinks she recognizes - maybe it’s anger or maybe it’s annoyance. Maybe it’s at Chas or Tracy or Bails or her. Charity follows it with a tight smile that loosens slowly as Vanessa squeezes her hand.

Vanessa grins widely and pushes up, using the stool to balance herself as she leans over the bar. Charity meets her halfway, their see-you-soon kiss quickly sliding into something else - something hot and desperate. Charity’s eyes are still closed when Vanessa pulls back, but they open when someone whistles from the tables, cheering them on.

“In a bit, yeah?” Vanessa asks.

Charity nods, a smile that’s not quite whole on her face. She hesitates. “‘Ness, I…” she shakes her had. “Go on, kid. See you in a bit.”

Vanessa winks on her way out the door, a spring in her step. We’re going to be fine, she thinks to herself. Just fine.

Chapter Text

By the time Chas comes round to tell her that Charity has finally returned and is halfway through a bottle of wine in the back, Vanessa’s pint is tepid. She’s drawing hearts in the condensation sweating off the glass, tracing out C H A R I T Y in swooping streaks.

Chas’s eyes are wide, confused. She looks at Vanessa - looks through her - before blinking and focusing again. “Charity is… I think something’s wrong,” she says slowly. “You best go on, love.”

Vanessa is rounding the bar before Chas finishes speaking, the door crashing open with a bang as she all but sprints through it. The figure on the couch doesn’t move, a statue of solitude. Vanessa pauses in the middle of the room, her chest heaving as she takes Charity in. There’s dark lines down her cheeks, dried mascara - Vanessa is too familiar with the sight for her own tastes. There’s a bottle of wine on the coffee table, the screw top missing. The glass in Charity’s hand shakes just a little as she grips it tight. She’s folded into the corner of the couch, a pillow on her lap, her eyes glazed and distant.

Small, Vanessa thinks. She looks small.

Something in Vanessa’s chest - that tightly coiled feeling that’s been making it hard to breathe as each minute without Charity ticked on - snaps. There’s a rush of relief, then panic, then anger in such quick succession that she nearly topples over. Her hands ache with want - to hold Charity’s face up to the light and clean it off; to smooth the tension from her shoulders and down her arms; to hold her tightly until the haunted look in Charity’s eyes fades enough for Charity to breathe. 

Instead, she clenches her hand in a fist, pressing it into the muscle of her thigh. She lifts her handbag off her shoulder and puts it down on the chair, taking a deep breath to keep herself in check.

Vanessa looks around the living room and takes stock. 

She closes the door slowly, the lock clicking into place with a loud snap that Charity doesn’t respond to. She fills the kettle with fresh water, turning it on to boil. She carefully hand washes the two mugs in the sink - leftover from their brew the night before, after Moses and Noah had turned in. It takes a minute to find the right tea, the expensive black tea that Charity only uses on rare occasions. She had brewed some after Vanessa was suspended and properly plastered, tucking her into bed with a fresh cuppa, reading articles from the British Veterinarian Journal in different voices - Moira, Paddy, and what she thought Martin’s mustachioed wife must sound like - until Vanessa was crying, clutching her sides from laughter.

Charity is still on the couch, her wine glass still in her hand. She doesn’t blink, doesn’t move, as Vanessa comes closer, putting the mugs down on the coffee table. Vanessa gently peels Charity’s hands off her glass, her fingers pliant but cold around the stem. She puts the glass down, pressing a warm mug into them instead and curling Charity’s fingers back into place. The change in temperature catches Charity’s attention and she looks down, her forehead furrowing in confusion for a moment before her eyes go blank again, staring out across the room.

Vanessa had ridden back to the village with Harriet, shaking with terror in the passenger seat. Charity had disappeared, slipping out a back door somewhere without Vanessa noticing and sending her a single message: Heading home. Her whole body vibrated, swinging like a pendulum between rage - at Charity for leaving, at Bails for trying to paint Charity as insane, at everyone for being so daft - and dread - at Charity’s disappearance, at what Bails would try now, at what people would say to Charity when they found out.

She’s still now, slipping onto the couch beside Charity, her own mug in her hand. The ceramic is nearly scalding and her eyes cut to Charity, wondering how she can be holding something so hot. Charity is motionless, though, her chest barely rising and falling. Vanessa tries to make herself as immobile, taking shallow breaths to match Charity’s. She can hear the roar of Brenda’s hen do coming from the pub, Chas shouting weakly to be heard over the din. There’s footsteps above her, people coming and going in the many rooms on the second floor. The building grunts and groans as the wind kicks at the windows.

Charity suddenly inhales loudly, a sharp whistle like a tree branch snapping.

Vanessa’s mug clatters against the coffee table and her trousers scratch against the fabric of the couch as she moves across it. The pillow in Charity’s lap makes a soft thump against the ground as it tumbles off her lap. Her brew hits the carpet with a dull thud, the tea ebbing into the woven rug.

“‘Ness, I-” Charity tries, her voice hoarse.

Vanessa shushes her, letting the ache in her hands guide her. She twists her fingers into Charity’s blazer, curls her palms around the slope of Charity’s shoulders, and pulls her in close, shielding her. Charity’s grip is suffocating, but Vanessa lets her lungs burn; lets Charity do the breathing for them both.

“I’m here,” she vows. “I’ve got you.”

Charity’s body is heavy against hers and Vanessa holds tight, letting herself fall back until they’re laying against the arm of the couch, Charity draped across her, her face buried in Vanessa’s neck.

By the time Chas comes round to tell her that she’s closed up for the night, Vanessa’s tea is ice cold on the coffee table and Charity is whistling through her nose as she sleeps. She’s drawing hearts on Charity’s back through the fabric of her top, tracing P R O M I S E against her spine in swooping lines.

Chas studies them for a moment before she picks a blanket up off the closest chair, draping it over them. She pauses at the door leading to the entryway, her eyes on Charity. “You best stay here, love,” she whispers, ducking out of the room.

Vanessa purses her lips against Charity’s forehead, smiling softly as Charity shifts, exhaling noisily.

“I’m going nowhere.”

Chapter Text

“Easy peasy, Moses,” Vanessa calls, picking a chip out of the basket in the middle of the table. She points it in his direction as he toddles past. “Don’t make me come over there, mate.”

Johnny shrieks with laughter, launching himself at Moses. The two go tumbling down onto the soft mats beneath them. They roll around together, arms and legs tangled, and Vanessa gives a heavy, exaggerated sigh before she stands up and separates the two of them, sending them towards the small ball pit near the table they found just at the edge of the soft play place. 

Their pizza is getting cold, but the boys were more interested in playing than tea, and Charity couldn’t blame them. Just this once, she told Vanessa when they screamed in tandem to be put down.

Vanessa had pulled up outside of Tug Ghyll in Charity’s car, waving at Harriet through the windscreen as Charity slid into the passenger seat, ready to head for tea. She had turned around to greet Johnny - a quick tickle over the seat usually got a smile out of him - but hadn’t been expecting Moses in his car seat, his elephant in his mouth. A cowed Noah sat between the two toddlers, a forced smile on his face.

“Babe?” Charity said, turning back to Vanessa.

Vanessa shrugged casually. “I ran into Ross and asked if he didn’t mind us taking Moses out. Noah volunteered to come along, too.”

Charity glanced back over her shoulder at Noah, her eyebrow raised.

Noah’s smile thinned, but he nodded stiffly.

Vanessa’s hand had dropped over hers, squeezing softly. “Shall we, then?” She looked at the boys in the rearview mirror, her smile wide and bright. “Who’s ready for some fun?”

Charity lingers a few meters from their table now, sipping from the large fizzy drink in her hand. Noah is hunched over the table, picking at his slice of pizza with a soft scowl on his face. Vanessa pops another chip in her mouth, eyes still on Moses and Johnny for a moment before she turns her attention to Noah.

“Thanks for coming,” she says.

Charity watches Noah roll his eyes. “Didn’t give me much of a choice.”

Vanessa purses her lips. “You could have run off. Again.”

Charity takes a step forward, ready to defend Noah, but he sits up and scowls. “I-”

“Support your mum,” Vanessa interrupts.

Noah’s shoulders slump a little and his face softens into one Charity remembers, when he was younger and asking her why stars twinkled in the sky; when he thought Charity was the one who hung the moon beside them. “I do,” he says firmly.

“So do I,” Vanessa says lightly. She turns her attention to Johnny and Mises again. “We have that in common,” she says, still watching the ball pit. “We’d do best to remember that, yeah?”

Noah stares at the side of Vanessa’s face, his brow furrowed in concentration before he nods slowly. “Yeah.”

“Cheers,” Vanessa says, the corners of her mouth turning up.

“Oi,” Charity says loudly, catching their attention. Vanessa looks up, her smile stretching easily. Noah shifts in his seat. Charity ignores them both, slumping down next to Vanessa, leaning into her side. Vanessa takes her fizzy drink from her, lips wrapped around the straw as she takes a sip.

Charity clears her throat, wetting her bottom lip. “I think Johnny is missing a trainer,” she finally gets out. She points at the ball pit where Johnny is stomping around, reenacting scenes from the old recording he likes of Dino Babies.

Noah heaves a sigh and stands up. “I’ll go,” he offers.

He scoops Moses up on his way, tossing him easily onto the soft mats and diving into the ball pit after Johnny. Moses rolls off one of the slanted, blue mats and follows Noah into the ball pit, sinking beneath the plastic balls quickly. He rises up out of them, clutching Noah’s body. Johnny stares at them for a moment before catching on, latching to Noah’s other side. Noah makes a loud noise in the back of his throat, the sound cracking like its wont to do lately, and crashes to the bottom of the ball pit, the toddlers going with him.

“Flamin’ Nora,” Charity mutters. “Not a day over three, is he?”

Vanessa smacks her leg lightly, her hand lingering there. Her fingers curl over Charity’s knee and she squeezes softly. “He’s a good boy,” she says softly.

Charity smiles, a rush of something warm blooming in her chest. “He is.”

Vanessa passes her fizzy drink back. “They’re both good boys.”

“None of my doing,” Charity says lightly.

Vanessa ignores her. “Resilient,” she continues, nodding as Moses topples over again and lifts himself back up, giggling. His elephant is still hanging from his mouth and he shakes it side to side. “Kind.” Noah lifts Johnny out of the pit and sits him down on the edge, working his trainer back onto his foot. “All the same things their mum is.”

Charity snorts. “Have you gone mad?”

“Say what you want, Charity Dingle,” Vanessa says haughtily. “I know what I know.”

“And what do you think you know, then?” Charity asks.

Vanessa’s hand flexes over her knee. Charity is suddenly aware of how they must look, sitting entwined at the table together while their boys play meters away. Like a family, she thinks. Vanessa leans over, taking another sip from the fizzy drink in Charity’s hand just as Noah looks up and gives her a sheepish smile, Moses and Johnny clinging to him like they’re going to shimmy up his legs. Like a proper family.

“I know you’re amazing,” Vanessa says.

Charity sighs. “If this is some kind of wind up,” she warns.

“I know you’re brave,” Vanessa continues over her. “Considerate. Dedicated. Enchanting. Fit.”

“Now you’re just listing words in alphabetical order,” Charity says, nudging Vanessa.

“Generous. Hard. Important.”

“Shut your gob,” Charity murmurs. She leans into Vanessa’s side anyway, brushing a kiss to Vanessa’s temple. “Or… I have another idea of what you can do with your-”

Moses lets out a single wail, his lower lip wobbling as he pushes it out.

Noah picks him up quickly, bouncing him in his arms. “Oh, come on, mate. Johnny didn’t mean it.” He looks down at Johnny. “Steady on, Johnny.”

Johnny pouts, his face a mirror image of Vanessa’s. He folds his little arms over his chest and looks away. Charity fights back the sharp laugh she can feel building in her throat as Noah shakes his head sternly and kneels down, face to face with Johnny. “Listen, mate. You pushed Moz over and that’s not okay. Go on. Say sorry.”

“Sorry,” Johnny finally says.

Moses unwinds his arms from Noah’s neck and throws himself at Johnny, the two of them rolling around again. Noah hovers over them anxiously before he decides they’re playing; he lets himself fall backwards into the pit, sending up a shower of plastic balls.

Charity can feel Vanessa’s eyes on her; can picture the ‘this is what I mean, isn’t it?’ look in her eyes. Charity ignores her, putting down her fizzy drink and picking a chip up, chewing it thoughtfully. She swallows and slips her hand under Vanessa’s, their fingers lacing together.

“Thank you,” she says softly.

Vanessa frowns. “What for?”

Charity inhales deeply, feeling her lungs burn at the edges. “Debs asked why I said nothing the last time. The last time…”

“We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” Vanessa says firmly. Her thumbs rubs across the ridge of Charity’s knuckles.

Charity shakes her head. “I’m not his victim,” she says sharply, her body shaking regardless. She feels Vanessa squeeze her hand and it steadies her. “Debs asked why I said nothing the last time Bails came calling,” she says, spitting his name out. “I told her that it wasn’t the right time before.”

Moses pulls his pudgy arm back and flings it forward, the ball he’s trying to throw going behind him instead. Noah laughs, clutching his stomach. Johnny watches Noah carefully, his forehead wrinkled in concentration for a moment before he laughs brightly, clutching his stomach in the same way.

“It’s the right time now,” Charity continues, watching the boys. “Because of you.”

Vanessa leans closer. “Because of you,” she insists.

“Babe,” Charity starts.

Vanessa curls her fingers around Charity’s chin, turning her head. She presses her lips to the corner of Charity’s mouth. “Because of you,” she repeats. “Because of amazing, wonderful, brave you.”

A woman leans in towards them, smiling hesitantly. “Pardon, but…” She nods towards the ball pit. “Are they yours?”

Charity feels her shoulders pull back, her body going into protection mode.

Vanessa is calmer, smiling easily. “They are.”

“Your lad is so good with the wee ones,” the woman says. She nods at a table on the other side of the room. “I’ve been telling my Gerald to be more like your…”

“Noah,” Vanessa supplies.

Charity simply blinks.

“Your Noah is just a treasure.”

Vanessa smiles widely, squeezing Charity’s hand. “We think so too. Don’t we, love?”

“Right,” Charity echoes. She blinks again and looks back at the pit.

The woman smiles. “I just wanted to let you know, you have a lovely family.”

“Ta,” Charity says to the woman, her voice distant as she watches Noah roar and lift Moses into the air, bringing him back down into the balls. Johnny jumps up, arms out, demanding his turn.

Vanessa giggles as the woman drifts away, burying her face in Charity’s shoulder. “Your Noah is a treasure,” she repeats, laughing again.

Charity snorts softly. “The treasure of our lovely family.”

Vanessa’s eyes soften and shine in the corners, so blue in the harsh overhead lighting. She opens her mouth to say something, a truth Charity isn’t prepared to hear yet on the tip of her tongue.

“‘Ness!” Moses shouts. He claps his hands together wildly. “‘Ness! ‘Ness! ‘Ness!”

“Oh, go on,” Charity huffs, rolling her eyes.

Vanessa bites down on her bottom lip nervously before she leans in, pressing a hot kiss to Charity’s mouth. She crashes into the ball pit, taking Moses down with her. She immediately launches an attack on Noah and Johnny, pelting them with plastic, air-soft balls.

My lovely family, Charity thinks as she watches them. 

When Noah beckons her over, Johnny copying everything from the hand on Noah’s hip to the impatient set of his mouth, Charity doesn’t hesitate to dive in.

My family.

Chapter Text

Vanessa turns the page of the book she’s reading - The Secret Garden, because it’s been too long and because she thinks she may have been wrong when she thought she fancied Dickon; maybe I fancied Mary, she thinks to herself. Hard and brash at first, but soft under all those layers. She absently runs her hand through Charity’s hair, her fingers brushing the shell of Charity’s ear.

Charity mumbles something soft and tired, her eyes fluttering. Her head is heavy on Vanessa’s thigh, her cheek warm where it meets the silk of Vanessa’s dressing gown, and she bends her fingers around Vanessa’s knee, letting out a rush of hot air that breezes over Vanessa’s leg to the floor. 

Charity is weighed down with exhaustion, the last few days finally settling over her and leaving her swaying on her feet. Vanessa caught her, steadied her, and laid her down to rest.

It’s been a slow, early morning in Tug Ghyll - she called and took another day off, ignoring Paddy chattering on in the background about her coming and going as she pleases - and neither of them have moved since curling up on the couch together, trudging down the stairs after the up-too-early Johnny. Their morning brews sit, practically untouched on the coffee table. Her phone is face down on the arm of the couch and her only plan for the day is to spend it with Charity and Johnny.

“Cha’ty sleep,” Johnny whispers, kneeling in the small space between the front of the couch and the coffee table.

Vanessa smiles softly at him. “Best not be too loud, then,” she tells him.

He nods seriously, his eyes wide as he stares at Charity’s face. He reaches up slowly and presses a single finger to the space between her eyes, but Charity only mumbles and shifts away.

“Johnny,” Vanessa says sharply, wincing when she raises her voice. She lowers it again, her hands moving against Charity’s head, scratching lightly. “Leave Charity alone, love. Go on, show me your dinosaurs again.”

He slides away on his knees, back to the line of dinosaur figurines he’s fashioned across the living room, marching them across the carpet one at a time. Vanessa smiles and runs her finger down the page of her book, looking for her place.

A sharp rap at the door stops her. Vanessa frowns, turning her phone back over and checking - no one has rang her and there’s no new messages. Someone knocks again, a little more impatiently. Charity stirs, muttering something before her eyes flutter and open. They’re wide with panic before they settle on Vanessa, softening in recognition.

“Someone’s at the door,” Vanessa apologizes.

Charity’s face twists in pain as she sits up, rubbing at her neck. She rolls her head side to side, giving Johnny a sleepy smile as he scoots back over and rests his chin on her knee. “Hiya, mate.”

The person knocks again, louder and hard enough to make the front door shake in its frame.

Vanessa pauses in the doorway, a warmth in her chest blossoming into the tips of her fingers as Charity rubs at Johnny’s cheek; pressing into her toes as Johnny grins toothily back up at Charity. The knob rattles behind her and she impatiently pulls the door open, frowning at Ross and Moses on the step.

“Charity here?” he asks, pushing past her.

Vanessa frowns and pulls her dressing gown tighter around her waist, shutting the door. “Excuse me,” she calls after him. She follows him back into the living room, leaning against the back of the couch, scowling at him.

Ross sets Moses down on the couch next to Charity, picking up The Secret Garden and making a face at it. “You read?” he asks Charity.

“Oi,” Charity says, snatching the book from his hand and passing it back to Vanessa. “Do you?”

“No,” Ross says, making a face. “Mozza wanted to see you. Wouldn’t stop yammering on about you,” he explains. “I went by the pub but Chas said you were here.”

Charity pulls Moses onto her lap, wriggling her fingers up under his jumper, the one with dinosaurs on the front. He kicks his feet, giggling, but leans back into Charity’s arms. “It’s your day with him,” she reminds Ross.

Vanessa runs her hand through Charity’s hair, letting the strands slip between her fingers.

Ross shrugs a shoulder. “He wanted to see you.” He glances at Moses and then at Johnny. “I read the Hotten Courier yesterday.”

Charity lifts an eyebrow.

Ross sighs. “Fine. Pete read me the article, yeah?”

“And the truth comes out,” Charity snorts. 

Ross levels her with a look. “You alright?”

Charity shrugs a shoulder absently. “Always am.” She tickles Moses again, making him squirm in her lap. She kisses the side of his head and puts him down on the floor, leaning back into Vanessa’s hands.

Vanessa works her hands through Charity’s hair slowly, rubbing at the curve of the back of her head with hard, even pressure. Johnny and Moses are giggling quietly as they maneuver Johnny’s dinosaurs into some type of order that only makes sense to them.  

“There’re children here, you know,” Ross says, wrinkling his nose.

Charity’s opens one eye. “Then go home.” She sits up anyway, but reaches back for Vanessa’s hand, pulling it over her shoulder and holding it against her chest.

Ross opens his mouth to answer, but Moses tugs on his hand. “Yeah, mate?” Ross asks, kneeling down.

“Play,” Moses commands.

Charity snorts when Ross sits down almost immediately, taking the dinosaur Johnny hands him. Vanessa leans down, her lips on Charity’s forehead, and they watch Ross roar, marching his figurine forward.

There’s another knock at the door. Vanessa frowns. Charity tips her head back over the back of the couch, matching Vanessa’s frown.

“Come in!” Vanessa yells.

The door creaks as it open and Noah comes into the living room, Samson trailing behind him. Noah nods a hello, settling in Vanessa’s armchair. Samson drops the floor at his feet and they both pull out their phones, heads down.

“Noah?” Charity says. She frowns. “I thought I said no skiving.”

Noah looks up. “Still too early.” He thumbs at his phone. “Wanted to see you before, but Chas said you were over here. And that your shift starts at dinner.” He smiles crookedly, his face a mirror of Charity’s. “Said she wasn’t your receptionist, though.”

Charity wrinkles her nose. “Didn’t ask her to be.” She tugs on Vanessa’s hand until Vanessa gives in, moving around the couch and pressing into her side. “Morning,” she husks in Vanessa’s ear.

Vanessa fights the small shiver that ripples through her body. “Good morning to you,” she says. She kisses Charity’s cheek softly. “Again.”

Charity rolls her eyes. “Oh, give over. Makes up for all the times you’ve knackered out on me.”

Vanessa shoulders Charity gently. “There goes our quiet morning in,” she sighs as Noah shouts something at Samson.

“Sod off,” Samson grumbles. He spares a glance at Vanessa, his cheeks flushed. “Sorry.”

Vanessa waves him off with a tight smile and a glance towards Moses and Johnny. She picks up her brew with one hand, wincing as she takes a sip of the cold tea.

The front door opens again.

“What is this?” Charity says loudly. “The bloody train station?”

Debbie pokes her head into the room. “There you are.”

“Here I am,” Charity says, stretching her arms wide.

Vanessa pulls her dressing gown up around her neck. “Charity,” she whispers.

Charity’s hand rubs at her thigh. “Don’t worry, babe. It’s just Debs and the kids.”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Vanessa mutters.

Jack and Sarah come bounding in behind Debbie. Jack grabs the first dinosaur he comes across, joining the boys and Ross on the floor. Sarah stops in front of the coffee table, looking down at The Secret Garden.

“Can I read this?”

“Have at it, love,” Vanessa says.

“Budge up,” Debbie says. She pushes at Noah until he moves to the floor next to Samson and she sits in the chair, her eyes lingering on Ross - ignoring her - before she smiles at Charity and Vanessa. “You two planning on getting dressed today?”

Charity shrugs a shoulder carelessly. “Not bloody likely. And not on your account.” She drapes her arm across Vanessa’s legs pointedly.

Vanessa buries her face in Charity’s shoulder, embarrassed.

Debbie makes room on the chair for Sarah to slide in with her and Sarah spreads The Secret Garden open across both of their laps. “I’ll drop you at school, yeah?” she asks Noah.

He grunts a yes.

“V, what’s all this racket coming-” Tracy stops on the stairs, peering down at the full living room.

Vanessa gets up quickly, rounding the couch and stopping at the bottom of the stairs. She gives Tracy an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Trace.”

Tracy’s eyes move past Vanessa’s shoulders. “Got yourself a proper houseful.”

Vanessa looks back at what Tracy is seeing: Noah and Samson playing a video game on their phones, elbowing each other; Debbie turning pages while Sarah runs her finger under each word she reads; Ross on his hands and knees with Johnny astride his back, waving a dinosaur high above his head; Moses patiently watching Jack line up figurines so he can knock them down. Charity is sitting in the middle of it all, a sleepy smile on her face as she pushes her hair back out of her eyes.

Vanessa feels her cheeks redden and she ducks her head. “Want me to put on the kettle? I could do with a new cuppa myself.”

Tracy’s eyes sweep the living room again and she shakes her head. “No,” she says quietly. “I’ll probably stop by the cafe.” She puts on a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.

“Tracy,” Vanessa starts.

“I’m okay, V,” Tracy says quickly.

Vanessa reaches for Tracy’s arm. “We should talk.”

Tracy’s hand covers her own. “I’m okay,” she repeats.

Vanessa shakes her head. “Don’t say you’re okay if you’re not.”

Tracy opens her mouth, but pauses, smiling tightly. “We’ll talk later.”

Charity’s arm winds low around Vanessa’s waist. She feels her body lean back into Charity’s, soaking up the warmth between their bodies. “You okay, Trace?”

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Tracy says. She smiles, a little looser now, and squeezes Vanessa’s hand. “I best get on, though. Make sure David hasn’t run the shop into the ground.”

“I thought you were going to stop by the cafe,” Vanessa says.

Tracy’s smile tenses again. “Right.” She moves down the stairs past Vanessa, nodding at Ross when he waves to her. “I’ll catch you later, V.”

Vanessa sighs, her shoulders slumping. Tracy is gutted; Vanessa can tell. She doesn’t hold a smile, or meet Vanessa’s eye. When she came home last night and found Charity on the couch, she’d ducked into her room for the rest of the night. Charity hadn’t noticed, too tired to do much of anything but sit up against Vanessa’s side, but Vanessa saw it. She makes herself a promise; she won’t go the weekend without sitting down with Tracy and sorting this out.

“How about you come help me in the kitchen?” Charity suggests. “We’ll do a fry up for the kids. And Ross,” she adds. She kisses Vanessa’s neck, her lips dry but warm. “I might not be Marlon, but I can heat eggs, yeah?”

Vanessa snorts. “I’ve had eggs you’ve made.” She turns in Charity’s arms, lacing her hands behind Charity’s neck. “You can be in charge of the toast.”

“Oh, babe. If you insist,” Charity says, leaning in and kissing Vanessa.

Vanessa laughs against Charity’s mouth and pinches her hip before she heads back into the kitchen, a smile on her face and Charity’s kiss lingering on her lips.

Chapter Text

Vanessa sidles up to the long, swanky bar, eyes scanning the dimly-lit room. Charity had followed up her first text with an address to a bar Vanessa had never been in before. Too expensive for her tastes, really, but the lure of Charity and a dirty martini was more than enough to pull her through the door.

She pouts softly, not seeing Charity among the early afternoon clientele. She pulls her phone out of her pocket, unlocking it and finding Charity’s name in her messages, thumbing a quick ‘where are u?’ before putting the phone back down on the bar.

A body presses against her from behind, familiar hands resting on the bar, bracketing her own. The weight against her is warm and comfortable and she catches a glimpse of the smile on her own face in the reflection of the mirror behind the high-end bottles of spirits on display.

“Hey, lover girl.”

Vanessa shivers as Charity’s words ghosts over her skin. “Thought you were having me on,” she mumbles. “I’ve been standing here for forever.”

“You’ve been standing here for two minutes. And I never joke about a dirty martini, babe,” Charity says. She drops a hand to Vanessa’s waist, her thumb sliding through the loop of Vanessa’s jeans. She leans away from Vanessa’s body, humming. “You’re in them boots I like.”

“Them boots I like,” Vanessa corrects, working the buttons on her coat.

Charity groans softly as Vanessa peels her coat off. “And that beastly jumper,” she continues. “Babe, honestly.”

Vanessa turns, her mouth open in mock horror. “You told me you liked this jumper on me!”

“I said I liked that jumper on the floor,” Charity says. She nods her head towards the dark booths along the wall. “Come on.” Her hand slides down Vanessa’s arm, their fingers lacing together easily as Charity tugs her across the room.

“It’s not even tea time,” Vanessa points out as she settles on the vinyl bench, pushing her coat into the corner and her phone on the spotted table. Charity sits close, their bodies touching, thighs and hips and arms. Vanessa can feel the day melting off of her, sliding away as Charity’s thumb brushes over the back of her hand.

“And yet, you came running,” Charity says, her free hand curled around the stem of her martini glass. She lifts it to her mouth, her lips pursing around the brininess of the olive garnish. She raises her eyebrows up at Vanessa - a challenge.

Vanessa smiles softly, ducking her head so her forehead is against Charity’s, the martini glass practically against her mouth. “I’d run anywhere you ask me to.”

Charity’s eyes darken. “Oh?” she asks, her voice hoarse. “Anywhere?”

“Hotten, at least,” Vanessa says lightly, leaning back. She picks up her own martini, sipping it delicately. “And definitely for another one of these.”

Charity softens, putting down her drink and rubbing at Vanessa’s shoulder. “Hard day at the office, Ms. How Hard Can It Be Sitting At A Desk All Day?”

“Oi,” Vanessa says. “If you’re just going to poke fun at me, then-”

“Okay, okay.” Charity rolls her eyes. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

“Who says I’m wearing any?” Vanessa says haughtily.

“Vanessa Woodfield,” Charity says, dragging out each syllable. “You cheeky mare.”

Vanessa sighs. “The only mare being cheeky right now is Mr. Clark’s horse, Brian. And Pearl the Dinosaur” She sits up, slapping Charity on the arm. “Hey, a horse named Brian.”

“A lady horse named Brian,” Charity says slowly.

Vanessa shrugs. “Mr. Clark is getting a bit barmy in his old age.”

“Better than Augustus.” Charity takes another sip of her drink. “Daft rat.”

“Chinchilla,” Vanessa corrects out of habit. “Enough shop talk. I want half an hour without thinking about Paddy and Pearl.”

“Music to my ears,” Charity sings, sliding closer, ducking her head. Her eyes close as her nose brushes against Vanessa’s.

Vanessa’s phone lights up with a soft twinkle - a message from Rhona over the picture of Charity, leaning on the car bonnet with a devilish smirk on her face. Vanessa groans as she feels Charity pull away, and she curses her phone. I’ll turn it off ringer, she decides.

“What is that?”

Vanessa blames the flush in her cheeks on the room, the heat pumping through the vents, and the drinks warming her up. Or maybe Charity’s hand, she thinks as it burns through her top. “It’s nothing,” she says quickly, trying to turn her phone face down.

“Uh, it’s something.” Charity snatches the phone out of her hand holds it up. “Vanessa,” she hisses, scandalized. Her lips curl up at the corners still. “I thought you said you deleted them pics?”

“Well I didn’t, did I?” Vanessa snaps, reaching for the phone. She pouts, ignoring the growing smirk on Charity’s face.

Charity turns off the display, still smirking. “I sent them pics as a joke,” she reminds Vanessa. “Jai-”

“Took them, I know,” Vanessa says, an edge still linger in her voice. “I deleted most of them. I mean, you looked like something straight out of a centerfold, didn’t you?” She lifts her chin, her nose in the air. “Practically shoving them baps-”

“Vanessa,” Charity says suddenly, her voice just a little too loud.

Vanessa’s cheeks flush again and she drags her finger through the condensation pooling at the bottom of her martini.

Charity is still staring at her. “I’m your phone background,” she says, eyes wide.

Vanessa rolls her eyes. She plucks the phone out of Charity’s grip, putting it back on the table, out of Charity’s reach. She thumbs the button on the side, turning the ringer off. “Go on, then. Have a laugh.”

“Oh, babe,” Charity says softly, winding her arms around Vanessa’s waist. She brushes her nose in a line up Vanessa’s jaw, her teeth nipping at Vanessa’s ear. “That’s-”

Pathetic?” Vanessa mocks. She can feel her blush all the way down her chest, her stomach twisting at the uncomfortable notion that she’s a lovesick fool with an old picture of her girlfriend on her phone, one she didn’t even take.

“A bit nutty, really,” Charity says, pulling back. “But I’m also kind of… chuffed?” She leans in again, her hand sliding under the hem of Vanessa’s jumper, fingering the button of her blouse underneath.

“Charity,” Vanessa admonishes. “We’re in public.”

Charity’s lips dust across her neck. “Dark corners,” she murmurs.

“Charity,” Vanessa repeats, her hands pressing against Charity’s shoulders.

Charity drops her forehead against Vanessa’s neck. “Two phone calls all weekend,” she complains into Vanessa’s jumper. “That’s all I get, yeah?”

Vanessa fights a smile. She had spent the weekend in with Tracy and Johnny, a self-declared exile from all thing non-life threatening. They watched every Leonardo DiCaprio movie Tracy had on DVD, including Titanic. When Vanessa teared up at the end, she had held a sleeping Johnny tight to her chest and hissed at Tracy to never tell Charity what she was crying over. A weekend with her sister, and no girlfriends - that was Tracy’s rule. Despite that, she had snuck to the bathroom a few times, her phone in the pocket of the hoodie she liked to wear around the house, to send off a message or two, or call Charity, just to hear her voice.

“I called you this morning,” Vanessa says. She runs her hand through Charity’s hair, kneading at the base of her neck. “Lover girl,” she teases.

“That was hardly a conversation, was it?” She makes a face, mimicking Vanessa’s voice. “Don’t miss me too much, yeah?” She scoffs, looking away.

“Awh, you missed me,” Vanessa says, her voice just above a sing-song.

“‘Course I did,” Charity huffs. “Missed being needled and bothered all weekend.”

Vanessa laughs. “You love being bothered.”

Hot and bothered, maybe,” Charity agrees. She leans in, her mouth hovering over Vanessa’s before their lips touch.

Vanessa feels her body soften under Charity’s kiss. Her hands wind in the fabric of Charity’s jacket, pulling her closer. Work and the scheduling snafu and Pearl fade from her mind as Charity’s mouth opens under hers, a soft tongue brushing against her lower lip.

“Do you have to go back to work?” Charity asks. She moves down the line of Vanessa’s jaw. Her breath is hot against Vanessa’s neck, her tongue gin-cool as she moves it over the skin beneath her mouth.

“Prob- Probably not,” Vanessa manages, her body lighting up as Charity keeps kissing her.

“Trace out?”

Vanessa nods wordlessly. Charity’s teeth catch her earlobe again, pulling slightly.

“Fancy a bunk up?” Charity breathes.

Vanessa snorts. “What a romantic.”

“I’m a romantic,” Charity defends. “Bought you a drink, didn’t I?”

“A dirty martini,” Vanessa says flatly.

Charity laughs, hot and hoarse in her ear. “Nothin’ wrong with a dirty romance, babe.”

“Charity,” Vanessa says, pushing at Charity’s shoulder. “Enjoy your drink, yeah?”

Charity pauses, eyes narrowed as she looks Vanessa up and down. “Or…” She reaches up, brushing Vanessa’s bangs out of her eyes. “Or, we could go back to yours and… take a few newpictures? Ones that you cannot put as your background,” Charity continues. “Unless you’re looking to put Paddy in an early grave.”

Vanessa tips her head to the side. “You mean…”

“I mean,” Charity says, pointedly fiddling with the collar of Vanessa’s blouse. She peels it down, pressing her thumb against the fading love bite she left behind the week before.

Vanessa feels a sudden rush of courage ripple through her. She picks up her drink, draining the rest of the gin and vermouth in a single swallow. She picks up the toothpick, wrapping her teeth around the olive and tugging smoothly. It’s salty and briny in her mouth and she wants to wince at the taste, but Charity’s eyes are wide, her pupils blown at the edges, and Vanessa commits to her actions. The olive goes down and her tongue darts out, licking at her lower lip for any last drops of her drink.

Charity swallows hard, her thigh flexing under Vanessa’s hand.

“I suppose I could… manage that,” Vanessa husks. She shoves her phone into her pocket, pushes Charity out of the booth, and pauses for a moment, watching Charity swagger towards the door, her hips swaying side to side.

“Take a picture, why don’t you?” Charity calls over her shoulder, pausing a few meters away.

“Oh, I plan on it,” Vanessa murmurs, following Charity out of the bar.

Chapter Text

Vanessa paces back and forth across the living room, stepping over Paw Patrol action figures and tiny trainers in a variety of colors with all the delicacy of a legless punter, blathering on and on about Pearl Ladderbanks and the sabotage of the century.

“She’s out to get me,” Vanessa repeats for the tenth time since they put the boys down. She pauses in front of Charity, looking through her as she fumes. “She’s out to ruin me.”

Charity contemplates the trainers on the floor, the pair that belong to Johnny. Yellow, she thinks. Of course. She swirls the wine in her glass and finishes the last swallow. She debates pouring a second one - Vanessa is wound up and doesn’t look like she’s coming down anytime soon. But, Charity thinks, she hasn’t touched her glass yet. She picks up Vanessa’s and takes a small sip, eyes back on Vanessa as she marches to and fro. The words she’s saying are a little murky, a little far away, but she’s something to look at.

It’s the set of Vanessa’s jaw, Charity thinks. - the way it’s locked, the hard edge of the bone just below her ear that Charity’s mouth is intimately acquainted with that sends a flurry of butterflies through Charity’s stomach. It confuses her, if she’s being honest with herself. She used to be frightened of the way people would get angry around her, at her.

Vanessa is different, though, in so many ways. Charity isn’t scared of her anger; she’s thrilledby it. Sometimes, she winds Vanessa up just to see that barely-noticeable click happen. It gets her every time- Vanessa is dead gorgeous, but she’s something else when she’s angry. She’s a small flame of rage that flickers and sparks and when Charity touches her, for the first time, she doesn’t burn.

“And of course Paddy and Rhona take her side,” Vanessa continues on.

Charity takes another sip of her wine. “Is that right?” she asks absently. This room looked better painted red, she thinks. But the yellow suits Vanessa better, I suppose.

“Because she’s Pearl,” Vanessa mocks. “And she isn’t cavorting around with Charity Dingle.”

“Oi,” Charity says, sitting up. “Who said what now?”

Vanessa puts on a face. “Oh, now you’re paying attention.”

Charity takes a steadying breath. “Babe, I-”

Vanessa stomps her foot, looking for the world like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “It’s a business,” she all but shouts as she starts across the room again. “The stakes are too high to be mucking about with ‘old systems’ and the like.”

“I don’t care what your cows are smoking,” Charity mutters, watching Vanessa’s reaction over the rim of her wine glass. She pinches her thumb and forefinger together, pretending to blow smoke out of the side of her mouth.

Vanessa’s eyes widen and she comes to a full stop, her hands on her hips. “Charity, that’s not what I-”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Charity says loudly. She puts her wine glass down. “I know that’s not what you meant. I’m trying to make you laugh, buttercup. It’s been Pearl this and Pearl that since you walked in the door.” Her mouth turns down. “A girl could get jealous, you know.”

Vanessa jabs a finger at her. “Ha! Jealous! Pearl is jealous.”

Charity groans and rolls her eyes, her head following the same circular path as she rests it back against the couch. “What could she possibly be jealous of?” she asks the ceiling. “This riveting conversation?” She sits back up when Vanessa doesn’t answer. “Babe?”

Vanessa huffs loudly, collapsing into the armchair with a pout on her face. “Forget it,” she grumbles.

Charity studies Vanessa’s face. The glass edge of her jaw is gone and softened, her eyes clouded over. She slowly reaches for the filled wine glass, sliding it out of Vanessa’s reach. “Babe,” Charity says softly. “It’s just Paddy and Rhona and Pearl, yeah? And so what if they changed your way because you’re… cavorting off with me.” She frowns. “Did Pearl really say that?”

“Yeah,” Vanessa mutters, rolling her eyes.

Charity frowns. “Well, anyway. What’s the problem? It’s just a stupid system, innit?”

No,” Vanessa says, her voice rough. “It’s not just a stupid system. It’s-” She cuts herself off and shakes her head.

Charity pulls back a little, rolling her lips in as she thinks. “Then what is it? Because losing to Pearl Ladderbanks is not worth this absolute waste of our time.”

Vanessa pulls her legs up under her body, curling into the chair. She picks at her trousers, eyes on the floor for a long moment before she looks up. “When I’m with you, I can forget,” she finally admits.

Charity leans forward, her elbows digging into her knees. “Forget what, ‘Ness?”

Vanessa sighs heavily. “That I made a mess of my job? That I can’t do the one thing in the world that I love doing. That I still have eleven months before I can go back to it.” Her hand twitches and Charity reaches the last meter, grabbing for it. Vanessa’s fingers lace through her quickly and her shoulders drop like she’s been waiting for Charity to touch her. “When I’m with you… I forget that everything is wrong.”

Charity sighs and slides off the couch, perching on the edge of the coffee table. “Babe, it’s not that bad. We’ve already gotten through a whole month.”

“I spent most of it skiving off with you,” Vanessa mutters out of the side of her mouth.

“Lucky you, then,” Charity says. She throws in a wink when Vanessa looks up. “Listen,” she says, growing serious. “A month has flown by. And the next eleven will, too. And then you’ll be back to shoving your hand up cows backsides and kitten resuscitations, yeah?”

Vanessa opens her mouth but Charity keeps going.

“And you can spend every single one of those eleven months skiving off with me any time of the day,” she promises. She slides her free hand around the back of Vanessa’s neck, pulling her forward just until their lips brush. “I’m not complaining, anyway.”

“You’re not?” Vanessa asks, eyes wide with worry.

Charity shakes her head slowly. “Just promise me one thing.”

“Anything,” Vanessa breathes out.

“Put a sock in it about Pearl, would you?”

Vanessa nods slowly, her eyes on Charity’s lips.

Charity bites down on her bottom lip, feeling Vanessa’s hand twitch in hers. “Now, why don’t you let me try my hand at ruining you, yeah?”

Chapter Text

Vanessa raps impatiently at the door to Dale View, smiling tightly at Pearl as she hobbles past. She lifts a hand and gives an exaggerated wave just as the door opens, and when she spins, she nearly clips Ross in the chin.

“Sorry! Sorry,” she says quickly, shoving her hand into the pocket of her rain jacket.

Ross ducks away from her hand, scowling. “What’re you playing at?”

“Moses,” Vanessa says. Ross only blinks at her. Vanessa frowns. “I’m here to get Moses.”

The curve of Ross’s mouth turns down. “Where’s Charity?”

“Didn’t you get her text?” Vanessa asks.

Ross curses under his breath, pulling his mobile out of his pocket. “Dropped it in the loo.”

Vanessa wrinkles her nose. “She has to run into town and pick up a  plunger.”

Her mouth quirks at that; when Charity had called her from the Hotten bypass, the wind loud over the phone, to ask if she could get Moses from Ross because Chas had chucked up enough to clog the ladies toilet, and they couldn’t find the plunger, a feeling of fear had rippled through Vanessa’s stomach. Charity’s voice had dropped to a whisper, still firm and warm. 

“Honest, babe,” she promised. “I’ve not gone anywhere near… him,” she said. “I won’t.”

Vanessa had taken a deep breath, but she believed Charity. She planned to pick up Moses before she got Johnny from the childminders and to bring the boys back to Tug Ghyll for some play time together. 

“A plunger,” Ross repeats.

Vanessa smiles tightly. “I need to get Johnny, so…”

Ross narrows his eyes, looking her up and down. He opens her mouth, about to say something when a small blur flashes past him and into Vanessa’s legs. 

“‘Ness,” Moses shouts.

Vanessa kneels down, eye-level with Moses. “Well, hello. And hello, Mr. Elephant,” she says, addressing the toy in Moses’s hand. “How is your memory today?”

“I’m a sausage,” Moses says proudly. He gives Ross a wide grin. “I’m a sausage, I am.”

Ross nods seriously. “You are, mate.”

Vanessa makes a face at Ross.

Ross shrugs back at her. 

Moses tugs on the collar of Vanessa’s jacket, twisting his fingers in the fabric. “You’re a sun.” His eyes widen and he turns, toddling back into the living room for a moment. When he comes back, he has a small raincoat on, nearly identical to Vanessa’s. 

“Oh, I see,” Ross says suddenly. “I have you to blame then, yeah?”

Vanessa looks up, the bright smile on her face fading slightly. “Pardon?”

Ross points at Moses. The little boy is pulling the side of the jacket tightly around his stomach, frowning every time the snaps don’t catch. 

“Waged a bloody war trying to get him down for the night without that coat on,” Ross says. “Wouldn’t take it off.”

Vanessa smile stretches again. She can’t deny that something in her loves that Moses took to her so quickly; he’s the opposite of his brother, trusting Vanessa easily and always wanting to be around her, pitching a fit when she goes home in the mornings. 

“Smart lad,” she says. “And handsome, too.” She looks up at Ross. “Johnny has one as well.”

Ross shakes his head, kneeling down and helping Moses snap his jacket together. “Someone should have told you that us Barton boys look best in black.”

Vanessa pauses for a moment, thinking about Johnny - about who he’s named after, and who his family could have been. Moses and Johnny would have already been cousins, she thinks. If Adam has been his father.

She shakes the thought from her head and rubs her hand through Moses’s hair. “Us Woodfields look good in yellow.” She preens a little, winking at Moses.  

Ross levels her with a look she can’t name. She doesn’t know him that well; she knows what Charity has told her about him, what the village says about Ross Barton. But she also knows that Ross Barton, the Dad, is different than the Ross the rest of the world sees. Vanessa can see it - he’s patient, kind. He fastens Moses’s jacket with the type of care Vanessa shows towards wounded pups or calves - soft hands and a softer smile. 

“He’s not a Woodfield,” Ross says lightly. “Not yet.”

Vanessa feels her cheeks redden and she sneaks Moses’s elephant away from, using it as a distraction. “I didn’t, uh, mean that…”

“Give over,” Ross says, giving her a wink. “Going to become a Dingle, then?”

Vanessa’s mouth opens and closes but nothing comes out and she digs her fingernails into her thigh, relishing the soft ache. “Johnny,” she finally manages. “I have to get Johnny.”

Ross grins at her and kneels down again, beckoning Moses forward “Alright, sausage. Be a good lad, yeah?”

Moses nods seriously. 

Ross kisses his forehead softly, lingering for a moment before standing up and nudging Moses towards Vanessa. Moses reaches for Vanessa’s hand, holding on tightly as he toddles over the unsteady path leading to Vanessa’s car. She loads him into the car easily, looking back over her shoulder at Ross just in time to see him wink and slip back inside the cottage. 

“‘Ness,” Moses sings. “Johnny, Johnny.”

“We’re off,” she says. She wiggles her fingers against Moses’s side just as her phone rings. 

“Got him?” Charity asks instead of saying hello.

“Just tucked him into the backseat with Mr. Elephant,” Vanessa says, giving the toy in question a soft tug. 

Moses bares his teeth and growls at her, his eyes bright. Vanessa smiles at him and dusts her thumb across his forehead. 

“Thanks, babe,” Charity sighs. “Hey, what do you say you pick up Johnny and we have tea at one the soft play places they like?”

Vanessa does up her seatbelt, her phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder. “What?”

“You, me, the boys,” Charity says slowly. “Pizza and playtime, on me.”

“What about coming back to the pub?”

“Who _cares_, Vanessa?” Charity drags out. 

Vanessa feels a flush across her chest. She presses a finger to her bottom lip, remembering the last time Charity had asked that question. 

“I’m kidding,” Charity continues. “I already talked to Chas, the grumpy mare. She’ll have Rebecca stay on a bit and I’ll close up tonight instead.”

“Charity Dingle,” Vanessa says slowly. “How… responsible of you.” 

“No thanks to you,” Charity says, her voice clipped. “Did you work a full day today?”

Vanessa scowls softly at her reflection in the rear view mirror. “Yes,” she says shortly. “Pearl says hello.”

“Of course she did,” Charity says with a snort. “Woman can’t let a dead horse go unflogged, can she?” Charity goes quiet for a moment and Vanessa leans forward over her steering wheel, wars straining to pick up the soft, but familiar sound on the other end of the line. “Just say you’ll come, ‘Ness. I’m already here and I’m starting to make some of these-“ She raises her voice. “These bloody cows nervous, yeah?”

The Paw Patrol theme, she thinks. That’s what she can hear. 

Vanessa clears her throat. 

“Right,” Charity says in her ear. “Don’t make me tell these women with their nebs in my business that you’re not coming.”

Vanessa looks back over her seat at Moses and gives a heavy sigh. “I’ll have to get Johnny.”

Charity gives a soft cry of victory. “Just hurry, yeah?” Her voice lowers, sending a shiver through Vanessa’s body. “So we can give them something to really talk about.”

Chapter Text

“Do you want someone to hear us?” Vanessa hisses, covering her backside where Charity’s hand just landed.

Charity rolls her eyes. “Over that noise? I don’t think so.”

Vanessa pauses and straightens up, her head tipped to one side as she listens in. “They are quite loud, aren’t they?”

“Not as loud as I can be,” Charity murmurs, her hands impatient at Vanessa’s hips.

Vanessa pushes her hands away, still trying to listen to the shrieking coming from above them. “Are they-”

“Skinning a cat? Sounds like. That’d be something, wouldn’t it?” Charity folds her arms over her chest. “You know what else would be something? If we could get on with what we came down here to do.”

“I came down here to change a barrel over,” Vanessa says.

“I came down here for a snog,” Charity says flatly. “And god knows, between kids and Paddy, we haven’t had a decent one lately.”

Vanessa pouts, sliding across the floor. “But last night was…” She trails off, raising an eyebrow.

“You mean that fumble before you rolled over and drowned me in your drool?” Charity asks. “Dead sexy, that was.”

“I did not,” Vanessa defends weakly.

Charity laughs. “Babe, the only thing wetter than your pillow is my-”

A door slams above them and Vanessa jumps, colliding with a barrel. “Charity,” she hisses.

Charity throws her hands up in the air. “No one can hear us, Vanessa. Not over that.” She points upstairs. The sound of “Seasons Don’t Fear The Reaper” drifts down the cellar stairs, sticking in her ears like a bad disco song.

Vanessa winces as the microphone crackles over Faith’s voice, feedback echoing against the cellar walls.

Charity slides forward, her hips bumping against Vanessa’s as her hands move to the small of Vanessa’s back. She ducks her head, her mouth finding the spot it had abandoned only a minute ago, and Vanessa’s body picks up where it left off, arching up against her in all the right places.

“Forget that they’re killing Moira’s bloody sheep up there and give me your full attention,” Charity breathes out.

Vanessa’s gives a whisper of a laugh, the noise strangled as Charity’s hand dips under the hem of her jumper and against the bare skin just above her trousers. “Charity,” she says again, the name breaking in Vanessa’s mouth.

Charity hums contently against the column of Vanessa’s throat, moving in a jagged line down to her collarbone and across the expanse of her shoulder. She pushes at the collar of Vanessa’s shirt, exposing more skin and biting down - a small nip, barely any teeth. Vanessa’s whole body tightens and presses against her, hips angled up.

The song above them changes and Charity follows the heavy bass line, her fingertips tapping out the beat on Vanessa’s spine.

Ladies all across the world, listen up, we’re looking for recruits. If you with me, lemme see your hands, stand up and salute.

“Your song,” Vanessa manages. “Remember?”

Charity groans, pulling away just enough to fit her hand in between their bodies, flush against Vanessa’s chest. “Babe,” she says, her voice low. It rumbles in the pit of her stomach and something flashes in Vanessa’s eyes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, yeah? But put a sock in it.” She pushes - just hard enough to catch Vanessa by surprise, for her eyes to pop in surprise as she rocks back onto her heels to balance herself.

They move slowly through the cellar, Charity’s hand hot against Vanessa’s body and her eyes scanning the room to lead them in the right direction. Vanessa falls when the back of her knees hit the chair Charity has led them towards, her body dropping with a thud that is swallowed by the karaoke machine set up in the pub above them. Charity follows, knees bracketing Vanessa’s hips as she settles her weight on Vanessa’s legs. Charity leans in, her eyes closed and her mouth finding Vanessa’s easily - hot and wet and just a little messy.

“Someone is going to come down here,” Vanessa says when Charity leans away. “Paddy’ll-“

“He can go arse over tit, for all I care,” Charity hisses. She pushes at the hem of Vanessa’s jumper until it bunches just below the swell of her breasts.

“Someone will think we’re having a barney,” Vanessa says slowly, eyes lingering on the soft stretch of skin Charity exposes with each word.

“Make-up snog, then,” Charity says.

“This is more than snogging,” Vanessa whispers, finally meeting Charity’s eyes.

“Is it?” Charity asks. “Right now it’s a lot of chat, innit?”

Vanessa’s eyes narrow in challenge and Charity braces an arm against the back of the chair just as Vanessa’s fingers curl around her neck and pull, their mouths meeting in a kiss that Charity feels in the pit of her stomach. Vanessa’s other hand rubs down the length of her back, dipping under the waistband of her trousers, a ghost of a promise.

“Not chatting now,” Vanessa pants.

“Your mouth is moving,” Charity points out.

“So make it stop,” Vanessa challenges.

“Oh, babe,” Charity breathes. She feels something ripple through her body as Vanessa fists her blouse and pulls it up and over her head, tossing it on the floor somewhere behind them.

Above them, someone gives the microphone over and a Charity hears the opening notes of “I’ve Got You Babe,” followed by Paddy screeching. She leans in to kiss Vanessa and misses as Vanessa dips to one side, rising up off the chair with an angry scowl on her face.

“I wanted to sing this song!” she declares. She pulls her blouse down and puts her hands on her hips. She frowns at Charity. “Well, come on, would you?” Vanessa picks up Charity’s blouse and chucks it, the silky fabric hitting Charity in the face. “If Paddy Kirk butchers this song, I’m going to murder him and Chas’ll really be free of his curse.”

“Steady on, ‘Ness,” Charity huffs, sinking into the chair, her shoulders slumping.

“Charity!” Vanessa shouts.

Charity rolls her eyes and pushes up out of the chair and vows to make Paddy pay for this.

Chapter Text

Charity pushes blindly at the hand on her cheek, swatting uselessly at it until the fingers twitch and a set of rough nails dig into her skin for a moment and then fade away. She groans, rolling over and burrowing her face into her pillow, inhaling sharply and swallowing the thin dribble of salvia she can feel sliding down her lip.

The hand comes back, winding into her hair and tangling the loose ends. It pulls, her neck twisting uncomfortably as she tries to soften the sharp tug of her hair separating from her scalp. She winces, eyes twitching under her lids, and tries to roll away.

“Stop it, ‘Ness,” she mumbles. Nails scratch at her skin and her whole body bends. She shifts, shimmying across the cotton sheets.

“Stop what?” Vanessa asks, her voice morning-hoarse.

Charity freezes, every muscle coiled tight as her brain races to process what her ears are hearing and what her body is feeling: Vanessa’s voice on the left and hands on the right.

Her eyes snap open and she comes face to face with Johnny, his hair tousled and his cheeks a sleepy warm red.

Bloody arsehole” she hisses.

Johnny’s eyes widen gleefully. Even if he doesn’t know what she’s saying, she knows he’s knows that she shouldn’t.

Charity sucks in her bottom lip guiltily, eyes shifting past him to the small clock Vanessa keeps on her bedside cabinet.

It’s not even half past midnight, she thinks in horror. I’ve only  just got to sleep and here I am, up again.

“What’s that?” Vanessa asks sleepily. Charity feels Vanessa move closer, her hands sliding over the curve of Charity’s hip and brushing against Johnny’s arms.

He grins madly, gripping his mum’s hands and giving them an almighty squeeze.

“Whose them hands?” Vanessa asks, her mouth against Charity’s sleep shirt. She moves her own up Johnny’s arms and along his face. Charity feels the moment Vanessa snaps to attention, the entire length of her body stiffening against Charity’s and her hands still on Johnny’s head.

“Hi, mummy,” Johnny says shyly.

Vanessa pushes up, leaning over Charity. She rests her chin on Charity’s shoulder. “Johnny,” she sighs. “What have I said about getting out of your cot?”

“Not ta,” Johnny says quietly.

“That’s right, mate,” Charity rasps.

“You’re not allowed out until mummy or Charity come and get you, yeah?” Vanessa continues.

Charity rolls her eyes, meeting Vanessa’s. “How did he even get out?” she asks out of the side of her mouth.

“Ask Tracy,” Vanessa mutters. “Showed him how, didn’t she?”

“I climb,” Johnny adds needlessly.

Vanessa sighs and presses her forehead to Charity’s shoulder blade, breathing out hot air that seeps into Charity’s sleep shirt comfortably. Her hand drops from Johnny’s face and rests on Charity’s waist, curling under the hem of her shirt where it’s riding up.

Charity looks down at where Vanessa’s hand rests and marvels at how easily it fits there, how snug it feels. She’s not tied down; she’s tethered. It’s taken her some time to figure out the difference - everyone before Vanessa has tried to cage her, hold her still, keep her in a tight grip. Vanessa’s grip is loose but steady and Charity finds that she would rather hover in Vanessa’s orbit than float away. She looks back up and catches Johnny’s eye, giving him a soft smile.

“No more sleeping,” he says firmly.

“No?” Charity hums. “It’s dark out, mate. And bed is the place to sleep, yeah?”

“Snuggle,” Johnny demands, his voice firm. He shimmies closer.

Vanessa snorts against her back.

“Go on. Have a laugh, then,” Charity mutters. “One Woodfield behind me stealing me pillows and another on this side making demands. Regular smash and grab you two are running.”

Vanessa let’s out a laugh that settles low in the pit of Charity’s stomach, like a good fry up after a night on the town. Her hand starts to slide off Charity’s hip and Charity slaps at it, holding it still.

“I didn’t say I minded the grabbing, did I?” she grumbles.

Johnny presses his hands to each side of Charity’s face, pushing her cheeks towards her mouth. “Snuggle,” he demands again.

“Spoilt,” she murmurs loud enough for Vanessa to hear.

Vanessa scrapes her teeth over Charity’s shoulder blade in protest, but flattens her palm against Charity’s hip. “Be nice,” she demands.

“Oi , the two of you,” Charity says in disbelief. “Right, lady. If I roll over, are you going to be flashing them Disney Princess eyes at me?”

Vanessa snorts. “Don’t be daft.”

“That means yes,” Charity whispers conspiratorially to Johnny. She grips him under the arms and lifts him as she rolls, settling him on her waist before she drops him into the small space she created between her body and Vanessa’s. He giggles, moving so his back is flush to Charity’s front and the top of his slightly unkempt hair tickles the bottom of Charity’s chin.

“Hello, love,” Vanessa whispers.

Johnny makes a cross face, his finger over his lips. He shushes Vanessa loudly. “Cha’ty sleepin’,” he explains. “You now.”

“Of course,” Vanessa says sharply. “I must have forgotten.” She wiggles down until she’s laying back on her pillow, hair fanned out and brushing Charity’s cheek. She smiles softly at Charity, her eyes sparkling with something Charity knows the name of, but is too afraid to say aloud.

“Snuggle,” Johnny demands again, his own eyes fluttering as he surrenders to the warmth of Charity’s arms and the time on the clock.

“Snuggle,” Charity repeats, winking at Vanessa. “Master of the house said so.”

Vanessa slides her hand over the horizon of Charity’s body, moving tortuously slowly over every dip, bend, and curve. Charity remembers when that sort of attention had her peeling off her blouse and throwing herself at anyone and everyone. Now, under Vanessa’s hand, she wants to relish in the feeling of being touched and the safety she can feel radiating in each slope of skin on skin.

She’s nearly asleep again, Johnny snoring quietly in her ear, when Vanessa hums her name.

“M’sleeping,” she mutters, cracking one eyes open anyway.

Vanessa‘s fingertips still against her rib cage. “How did you ever think that was me touching you?” she asks, her lips brushing against Charity’s forehead as she leans forward to whisper. Charity angles her head up so Vanessa’s lips are pressed more firmly to her skin, relishing the warmth she finds.  

“Well, you’ve got them little hands, yeah?” Charity says, her smile pressed into her pillow and the back of Johnny’s head. “Could barely tell the difference between the two of you.”

She yelps when Vanessa reaches over her and pinches her backside, then freezes, hoping she won’t wake the sleeping boy in her arms. Vanessa gasps softly but Johnny only burrows in closer and Charity exhales slowly, her eyes drifting closed as she lets their warm quiet wash over her and lull her back to sleep.

Chapter Text

“So.” Vanessa’s voice is sharp, cutting through the fog in Charity’s head. “If you’re not staying with Debbie, fancy a sleepover at mine?”

Charity sighs into her glass. “Suppose so.”

Vanessa forces a too-wide smile and plucks the glass out of Charity’s hands. “Oh, it’ll be fun. You, me, your duvet.” She lifts her eyebrows, the toe of her shoe against Charity’s ankle.

“And two wee ones. My fantasy sleepover,” Charity says flatly.

“Give over.” Vanessa‘s foot hooks around the back of Charity’s calf muscle. “Three of your favorite people, all in their jammies, ready to snuggle you?”

“I prefer you in no jammies.” Charity shrugs unapologetically.

Brenda makes a small gasping noise behind them.

“And snuggle is not a word I’d use to describe that chokehold you call spooning,” Charity continues. “An anaconda, you are.”

Brenda gasps again, louder.

Charity grins wickedly, the corners of her mouth turning up. Vanessa’s foot slides off Charity’s calf and hits the ground with a soft thud. Charity opens her mouth to say something else but Vanessa rushes to fill the silence.

“I am not,” she hisses.

“Right,” Charity says slowly. “Rocket woman. That better, babe?”

Vanessa purses her lips, eyes narrowing. “Suppose so.” She finishes the rest of her drink and stands, offering her hand to Charity. “Shall we?”

Charity huffs but drops her hand into Vanessa’s. “Suppose so,” she echoes, letting Vanessa haul her to her feet. Their hands lace easily, naturally, and Charity marvels at it as Vanessa leads her out of David’s and up the small path to Tug Ghyll. She’s held plenty of hands, but Vanessa’s fits inside of her own in a way so different than anyone else before her.

The boys are on the floor when they get in, stretched out on their stomachs, their feet in the air and their chins in their hands as they watch an episode of Paw Patrol on the telly. Frank closes his book, marking his place for later, and stands up.

“You weren’t gone long,” he says, eyes lingering on Charity for a moment. “Everything alright?”

“At David’s prices?” Charity snorts. “It’s a wonder we even got a glass.”

“Oi,” Vanessa says. “You didn’t pay.”

Charity winks. “I’ll make it up to you, babe, yeah?”

Frank wrinkles his nose. “And that’s my cue.” He presses a kiss to the side of Vanessa’s head. “We’re just a call away.”

“Ta,” Vanessa calls after him as he lets himself out. She swats at Charity’s hands, sliding across her hips with intent. “Charity,” she scolds.

“Oh, the boys won’t notice if we nip upstairs for a bit of a fumble.” Charity mouths at the edge of Vanessa’s jawbone. “I did say I’d make it up to you, yeah?”

Vanessa rolls her eyes and ducks out of the way of the next kiss, smiling when Charity groans and drops her head into her hands.

“Right.” Vanessa claps her hands together. “Well, boys. Shall we get in our jammies and make a fort?”

Moses’s eyes light up and something swells in Charity’s chest, filling the small hole Debbie’s refusal dug out. “A fort!” he shouts. He jumps up and stumbles, landing on Johnny with an oofand rolling off him just as quickly. Charity doesn’t bother fighting a smile as Moses keeps jumping, singing the word ‘fort’ like a drinking song. He tugs on Vanessa’s blazer and then Charity’s jacket and keeps singing all the while.

My life is a car crash, she’d told Vanessa.

I’m a rubbish mum, she’d told Vanessa.

But Moses throws himself at her, smiling a smile she hasn’t seen in ages, and that voice in her head gets a little quieter for now. She tidies the kitchen while Vanessa ushers the boys upstairs and gets them ready for their adventure. She can hear them chattering away - Paw Patrolrequests and Johnny stomping his feet around like a dinosaur. Charity busies herself with pulling the couch apart, laying the cushions out on the floor at the base of the couch. She pauses; she hasn’t the faintest idea how to construct a fort.

The boys come down in matching dinosaur zip onesies, roaring at each other and jumping up and down on the cushions. Vanessa pads down the stairs after them, in tartan bottoms and a loose bed shirt. She tosses a matching pair at Charity.

“Might be a bit short, but they’ll do.” Vanessa puts the kettle on to boil and pulls some hot chocolate packets out of the cupboard, setting up thick mugs for the boys. She looks up every so often as Charity slips out of her trousers, laying them over the back of a kitchen chair, and slides into the tartan bottoms.

Charity changes into the shirt and presses in behind Vanessa, thumbing at her hipbone through the thin fabric of her sleep pants. “I have a confession to make.” She kisses under Vanessa’s ear. If she closes her eyes, she’s back in her kitchen and everything is rose-tinted, Bails-less and blissful. She feels Vanessa’s head fall back against her shoulder, exposing the line of her neck. “I’ve never built a fort,” she breathes.

Vanessa’s head snaps up. “Never?” she asks, turning in Charity’s arms.

Charity hums, her hands ghosting along Vanessa’s sides. “Never.” She leans in to avoid the pity she knows will spark through Vanessa’s eyes, kissing Vanessa softly. A thumb strokes down her cheek and Charity feels its warmth seep through her, grounding her. “Weren’t much in the way of forts, my… acquaintances.”

“Then I’ll give you a lesson, shall I?” Vanessa pulls away, scooping up Moses and Johnny and passing them over to Charity.

She staggers under their weight for a moment but steadies herself as Moses sags against her. Johnny sits up a little higher, his fingers winding through her hair. Like his mother, he is, she thinks. Always playing with her hair, always twisting it around his fingers and knotting it up. He nuzzles into her, his hair tickling the bottom of her chin, and Moses watches him curiously, leaning in the same way to mimic him.

The hole Debbie dug grows just a little smaller.

Charity watches intently as Vanessa moves around the living room, studying each move she makes so she can replicate this someday when she needs to put a smile on Moses or Johnny’s face. Vanessa moves the end table, stacks laundry bins on top of each other, and stretches a blanket from the back of the couch to the self-made columns on either side of the television. Vanessa stands back, a proud smile on her face and her hands on her hips.

“Now we just need your duvet and we’ll be all set.” She gestures at the boys. “You alright with them?”

Charity hoists them up a little higher, their tired bodies getting heavier by the second. Her arms are aching, her whole body tense, but Moses is curled into her and Johnny is humming something she’s sure she’s heard Vanessa sing a time or two and she won’t put them down for anything. She nods and whistles as Vanessa leaves the house, grinning widely when Vanessa turns back, scandalized.

“Mummy,” Moses mutters.

“Yeah, babe?” Charity turns her head and presses her lips to his forehead.

“You’re a sausage.”

Charity barks out a laugh and wiggles her fingers against his side. “Who taught you that?”

“Daddy,” Moses says shyly.

Charity rolls her eyes. “Well, your Daddy is a sausage, isn’t he.”

Moses grins.

Johnny sighs heavily and Charity turns towards him, her lips against his forehead. “Your mummy is a sausage too. And God help me if I don’t care for them both,” she adds quietly.

Vanessa comes back with Charity’s duvet and she lays it out over the couch cushions on the floor, turning it into a cloud. Charity drops the boys with a giggle, watching as they bounce together on the cushions. They settle in the middle of the duvet and stretch out, making small snow angels.

Vanessa winds an arm around her waist and leans into her side. “And that’s how you make a fort.”

“Hardly rocket science, is it?” Charity soothes the sting of the words with a kiss to the side of Vanessa’s forehead. “Looks great, babe. The kids’ll love it.”

Vanessa lifts her eyebrows. “The kids? No, we’re all sleeping here.”

Charity shakes her head slowly. “No. There is a perfectly good bed right up them stairs and I intend to make good use of it.”

Vanessa turns away from her. “Moses, Johnny. Do you want to sleep down here tonight? All of us?”

“Well, that’s not fair, innit?” Charity nods at Moses and Johnny. “‘Course they want us to kip down here. Bloody best night of their lives. And my worst.”

“Here! Here!” Moses and Johnny shout. They’re rolling all over her duvet now, noses in the fabric and grubby hands clutching at the soft downy spots.

Vanessa shrugs her shoulder. “Can’t argue with them, can you?”

“I can,” Charity points out.

“But you won’t,” Vanessa counters. She slips a finger behind the waistband of Charity’s tartan bottoms and gives a small tug. “We’ll wait until they fall asleep and then you can… make it up to me.”

Charity twists the end of Vanessa’s ponytail around her finger. “Promise?”

“Promise,” Vanessa says. “Now, let’s get some hot chocolate for the boys, and a strong brew for us. I’ve got some crisps in the cupboard and Johnny hasn’t half been dying to watch the new Sea Patrol DVD we picked up in town.” She nods at the DVD case on the kitchen table; it has Chase, Marshall, and Rubble on it in scuba gear. “We’ll wear them out and then-”

“Then I can wear you out,” Charity husks. She leans in, nipping at Vanessa’s lower lip. “You better not fall asleep on me, babe.”

Vanessa laughs softly. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

*

Charity wakes up slowly, the room dim with the blanket tarp above them. Her arm is stiff, stretched out across the two boys and wound in the front of Vanessa’s sleepshirt. She blinks, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes, and startles a bit as the room comes into focus.

“Hiya,” Johnny whispers.

“Hiya, mate.” Charity’s throat is hoarse but Johnny is close and he hears her, smiling brightly at her.

“We sleep floor.”

“That’s right.” Charity frees her other hand from under her body, pushing some of Johnny’s hair back into order. “We slept on the floor. Regular scouts, we are.”

The Paw Patrol movie they’d put in last night is still running on the home screen, the theme playing softly on repeat. At the end of their couch cushion mattress, there’s the hot chocolate and tea mugs, the bowls of crisps they’d had for snack, and the dinosaur toys they had to work out of Moses and Johnny’s hands before the boys fell asleep. She remembers being propped up on one hand, watching the two toddlers sleeping and sharing smiles with Vanessa while they talked about nonsensical things; things that didn’t matter but felt good to know and to say. She remembers reaching across the fort and lacing her fingers through Vanessa’s, feeling uncharacteristically shy when Vanessa had lifted her hand to her mouth and kissed her knuckles softly.

She must have fallen asleep like that, still holding Vanessa’s hand while the boys dozed between them.

Charity lifts her head, looking past Johnny. Moses is stretched out, a leg over Vanessa’s and his arms above his head. He sleeps like Charity does, windswept and in every direction, his little mouth open wide. Vanessa has one arm pillowed under her head, a small wet mark on the duvet beneath her mouth, and her other arm curled around Moses’s middle.

Johnny shimmies closer, his little hands working their way into her hair.

“I’m going to have to change my shampoo, yeah?” Charity mumbles. “Or enroll you in beauty school.”

“Char’ty,” Johnny scolds, sounding every inch like his mother. He winds the long strands of her hair around his fingers and she winces when one pulls a little too tightly.

Moses murmurs something and shifts restlessly. Charity reaches over Johnny to soothe him but Vanessa beats her to it, a hand stroking down the line of his nose softly even as she sleeps on. Moses lets out another noise, softer, and settles further into Vanessa’s body, the tension in his face smoothing away.

“Char’ty,” Johnny says again, her name stretched out on his sleepy tongue. “No go.”

“I’m going nowhere,” she promises him. Her eyes move past him, to the soft lift of Vanessa’s mouth.

Johnny nods, his eyes serious, and presses in against her. She knows he’s an early riser - one too many a morning, he’s climbed into bed with them and pushed his way between them. But there’s a heaviness in the air that seems to be pulling him back into slumber again, and he can’t resist it. She runs her hand through the cut of his hair, fingers swirling in random patterns that has him blinking slower and slower until his eyes don’t open again and his breathing evens out.

Charity waits until Johnny’s hands grow heavy in her hair before she slowly unwinds them from where they’re buried. His grumbles, his nose twitching, and latches onto her hand instead, pulling it into his chest and clutching it like his Rubble soft toy. She exhales evenly as his face smoothes out and he starts to snore, soft Vanessa-like noises that make her stomach flutter.

She can’t even feel the place inside her where Debbie’s words cut deep.

The blanket above her is still keeping the room dim and warm and she can feel her eyes growing heavier by the moment. Moses mutters softly every few minutes and the Paw Patroltheme is quiet enough that it’s soothing instead of it’s usual annoying. She can feel the draw of sleep calling to her and she’s not sure she can fight it off much longer. She lets go of Vanessa’s sleepshirt and settles her hand on Vanessa’s hip instead, unwilling to let go even as she feels exhaustion pulling at her.

Charity falls asleep again, Johnny’s hand in hers and Vanessa clutching her wrist and Moses between them and she thinks, maybe, just maybe, this life of mine isn’t so bad after all.

Chapter Text

“Nothing else matters,” she says, looking across the table. The words feel sticky in her mouth, the lie lukewarm against the back of her teeth. Everything has tasted like tar since DI Simmons told her the truth. Her son - Ryan - is alive. She takes another sip of her brew and swallows, wincing. The tea has cooled and gone bitter.

Vanessa pauses, half in and half out of her jacket. “Are you sure you don’t mind-”

“‘Ness,” she says wearily. She rubs at her forehead. “I said I don’t mind, yeah? Anyway, Johnny’s down now and I was just going to catch up on some light reading.”

Vanessa snorts. She picks up the book Charity brought over with her, tucked under her arm as she nervously slipped through the door, hoping no one would be watching. She’d told Debs and Noah she was going to work and they’d take the mickey if they knew she was sneaking into Tug Ghyll instead.

Skiving work for a fumble, Debs would say, rolling her eyes.

“I wouldn’t call Pride & Prejudice ‘light reading’,” Vanessa says.

Charity blinks, frowning slightly. “Think it’s above my levels?”

“Above mine, more like,” Vanessa says. She frowns and reads the back cover. “Never liked Jane Austen much.”

Charity softens. She knows she’s looking for a fight; looking for something to spark through her and make her feel like herself again. But she also knows that Vanessa isn’t the person to pick on. Maybe if Vanessa meant less; maybe if they were just a ‘bit of fun’ instead of ‘girlfriends’; maybe if there wasn’t an undercurrent of something like love rippling through Charity every time Vanessa smiled at her.

But she doesn’t and they aren’t and there is.

So Charity takes a deep breath instead and stands up, crossing the space between them and sliding her hands under Vanessa’s jacket. “I don’t mind,” she says carefully, meeting Vanessa’s eyes so she understands. She glances away as she speaks again. “Don’t know why you trust me with ‘im, though. I’m not-”

“Stop it,” Vanessa says sharply.

Charity’s heart skips hard in her chest. There’s something about an assertive Vanessa that makes Charity’s knees weaken enough so they’re at the same height.

“You’re a good mum,” Vanessa says. Charity looks away and Vanessa clicks her tongue, her hand at Charity’s chin. “You are,” she says, softer. “And I trust ya. More importantly, Johnny does. It’s not often he doesn’t want me to read him a story before naptime, but you’ve outranked me, yeah? He thinks you’ve hung the moon just for him.”

Charity scoffs. “I’m new. Just because he wanted me to put him down this time doesn’t mean he likes me. He’ll get bored of me.”

Vanessa shakes her head. “You are anything but boring, Charity Dingle.”

Charity leans in, resting her forehead against Vanessa’s. “Are you sure you have to go in?”

She’d much rather stay here, with Vanessa, trapped inside Tug Ghyll where reality has to come to them, and they can decide if they open or the door or not. With Vanessa around, the weight on her shoulders gets a little easier to carry. And when she’s gone, the rooms are just a little dimmer.

That’s love, a voice in her head says.

She tampers the voice down for now.

“I have to now, I’m sorry,” Vanessa says, her shoulders sagging.

Charity sighs and pushes out her bottom lip. “Well, you better get on so you can get back, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Vanessa echoes, leaning in for a kiss. Charity’s grip tightens on Vanessa’s hips, holding her close for a moment before she lets her go. “I’ll be back before you know it,” she promises.

“I won’t wither away,” Charity grumbles.

“Like your Elizabeth Bennet?”

Charity frowns. “Have you even read Pride & Prejudice?”

Vanessa shrugs a shoulder. “I saw the movie. Colin Firth is fit.”

Charity wrinkles her nose. “And you didn’t know you liked men, yeah?”

Vanessa makes a face her, rolling her eyes. “Oi, he’s a fox.”

Charity lifts an eyebrow slowly. “Sure he is, babe.”

Vanessa pinches her side gently. “You’re lucky I like you.”

“As blessed as the Queen, I am.” Charity kisses Vanessa one more time, and pulls away reluctantly.

The house is quiet as the door shuts behind Vanessa. She stands in the middle of the living room, soaking it in. At the Woolpack, there’s never a moment of peace. There’s punters in the pub and a hundred people in the living room. They leave her well enough alone; been giving her extra space, since the news about Bails broke. But it’s not like this: absolute stillness, absolute quiet.

Quiet is different than silence, Moira had said. Charity never had the words to put to that feeling before. Living in that apartment Bails paid for, the hospital room after she delivered her baby - Ryan - and he didn’t cry - that was silence. But Tug Ghyll is quiet. Charity likes it here; she did even when she lived with Cain and Debbie, too. But something about it being Vanessa’s now, about her being in Vanessa’s space, makes the quiet easier to manage; easier to sink into and wrap around herself and still feel safe.

Safe, she thinks. What all these children deserve to be.

She’s on the stairs before she knows she’s moving, down the small hallway to the door of Johnny’s room. She hesitates there, leaning against the doorframe.

Johnny is exactly where she left him, snuggled up under the Paw Patrol duvet Vanessa got him a few weeks ago, when he moved from a cot to a bed with rails. He sleeps like Vanessa sleeps, curled up one side with enough fluff under his head that she almost doesn’t see his face. He’s got an overstuffed pillow and his Johnny stuffed toy and he looks so content that Charity wishes he would never get older than this moment right here.

She used to think her son - Ryan - would never get older than the moment he was born.

She watches the rise and fall of his chest and wonders what it might have been like to do this in a different room, in a different town, with a different boy. He had a small tuft of hair, just like Johnny’s mohawk. He had been so little, too; so small that she was sure he would break if she had touched him.

She would gotten him a big duvet like Johnny’s, and all the stuffed toys he wanted. She would have scraped together the money and given up wine gums and she would have boughten him pillows so he felt like he was sleeping on clouds.

She watches Johnny breathe: up and down and up and down and she wonders what it would have been like to watch her son - Ryan - breathe, sleep, dream.

She would have been a good mum.

She would have tried.

*

Vanessa slips through the front door, an apology on her lips. She frowns as she takes in the empty living room, Charity’s mug still on the kitchen table. A ripple of fear runs through her, but Charity isn’t Adam; there’s no reason she would take Johnny and run. He must have fussed, Vanessa thinks. Or he’s awake and Charity is scooping him up. It’s been about an hour since she left for work after her lunch and his naps are getting shorter these days.

She’ll just grab the file she left on the table and be off.

But when she waits a minute, to maybe sneak in one quick kiss before she hurries back to the surgery, she doesn’t hear Charity moving around upstairs. She doesn’t hear Johnny babbling or the sound of footsteps coming. She frowns and moves to the stairs, peering up to the empty landing.

She climbs them slowly, listening closely for something - anything.

Vanessa gets to the top of the stairs and pauses again, eyes narrowing as she takes in the figure at the end of the hall, just inside Johnny’s room. Charity comes into focus as she gets closer and Vanessa’s frown deepens.

“Charity, what’re you-” She stops herself, clapping a hand down over her mouth.

Charity is asleep, sitting on the floor in Johnny’s room with her back against the frame. Her mascara is dried on her cheeks and she’s clutching the Marshall stuffed toy that Johnny demanded but never prefers.

She came up here, Vanessa thinks. She came up here to… She…

Vanessa sobs once, the noise echoing in the quiet room. She backs up out of door and into the hallway, her body heaving as she cries. She covers her mouth with her hand, biting down on her fingers to stifle the cry building in her chest and bubbling up through her mouth. Her cheeks are wet and hot as she slides down to her knees, one hand on the wall.

She came up here to watch him sleep, Vanessa thinks. She fell asleep watching over him.

Her lungs ache and her chest burns and her stomach is in knots, but she can’t stop looking at Charity’s profile; at the dip of her head and her chin against her chest; at the grip she has on Marshall. She can’t stop looking at the woman she loves watching over the only thing she’s done right in this world and she cries.

She cries for the years Charity lost to Bails. She cries for the years Charity lost with Ryan, and with Debs, and Noah, and Moses. She cries for the people who took and took and took from Charity, giving her nothing back in return. She cries for all the times Charity didn’t; all the times she couldn’t.

Vanessa hears Charity hum sleepily and she hurries to her feet, wiping at her face as she creeps down the stairs and back into the living room. She collapses onto the couch, her body folding in half as she tries to catch her breath. It comes back to her slowly and she sits up, swallowing down a fresh wave of tears.

Be strong, she scolds herself. Be strong for her.

Not that Charity needs strength; she has it in spades.

Vanessa takes a deep breath, wiping her hand across her face once more for any remaining tears, and grabs the door handle. She opens and closes the door, slamming it loud.

“Hiya!” she shouts.

She hears something thump upstairs and the sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs. She buises herself with shuffling through the file she’s come back for as Charity hurries into the living room.

“Is it tea time already?” Charity asks, her voice hoarse. She clears her throat quietly.

Vanessa turns, a bright smile on her face. “Not quite. I forgot something,” she says. She holds up the file. “Got it.”

Charity looks past her, distracted. “Okay,” she says absently. She runs a hand through her hair and shakes her head, clearing the sleep in her eyes. “Uh, Johnny’s fine.”

“I didn’t worry he wouldn’t be,” Vanessa says.

“Right,” Charity says.

Vanessa aches to go over to her, to wipe the mascara off her cheeks and hold her. Instead, she gives her a wider smile. “Alright?”

“Yeah, babe,” Charity breathes. She smiles back and Vanessa almost believes it to be real. She takes a deep breath and tries again, her smile a little more believable. “Come ‘ere.”

Vanessa meets Charity halfway, kissing her hard. Charity moans softly, tensing for a moment before kissing her back.

“What was that for?” Charity asks, her smile pressed against Vanessa’s.

For everything, Vanessa thinks.

“No reason. Missed you,” Vanessa says.

Charity husks a laugh that Vanessa feels warm the pit of her stomach, pushing away the knots. “You’ve been gone an hour, babe.”

“I can miss you,” Vanessa says defensively.

Charity leans forward, her head resting against Vanessa’s shoulder. Her hands slide to the small of Vanessa’s back, her fingers kneading into the tension there. “‘Course you can. Just… people don’t usually.”

“I’m not most people,” Vanessa whispers.

“No, you’re not,” Charity mouths against her neck.

Vanessa strokes her hands through Charity’s hair, letting her eyes close as she breathes in Charity’s shampoo. She winds the long strands of Charity’s hair around her fingers and tugs gently, humming Charity’s name.

“We might take that walk,” Charity murmurs back.

Vanessa smiles against Charity’s temple. “Johnny loves the ducks.”

“Wonder where he gets that from.” Charity lifts her head. “A little you, isn’t he?”

Vanessa smiles proudly. “Poor him,” she teases.

Charity thumbs Vanessa’s hip, one corner of her mouth turned up as she looks down where her hand rests over Vanessa’s trousers. “I reckon he’s lucky, yeah? You’re alright, you know.”

“Just alright?” Vanessa asks, fighting a smile.

Charity shrugs a shoulder. “I won’t be taking out an advert, mind you.”

Vanessa laughs. “What would it say? Vanessa Woodfield. She’s alright.”

Charity smiles properly now, wide and bright. “Get you a proper nametag and everything.”

Vanessa rolls her eyes. “What a romantic.”

“That’s something I’ve never been accused of before.” Charity leans in, nipping at Vanessa’s lower lip. “And I’ve been accused of quite a bit in my day.”

“Like amazing,” Vanessa breathes.

“That was a first,” Charity admits.

“Won’t be the last,” Vanessa promises.

Charity looks down at her hand again, curling it over the waistband of Vanessa’s pants. “What are you like?”

Vanessa shrugs a shoulder and kisses Charity again before she unwinds from Charity’s hold, smiling regretfully. “I’ve got to get back before Paddy thinks I’m skiving off to have a snog.”

Charity arches an eyebrow slowly, reaching out to wind a hand through Vanessa’s hair. “Well, if he already thinks it…”

Vanessa dances away from Charity’s hand, holding the file between them like a shield. “Don’t you dare.”

Charity follows after her, eyes dark and her smile wicked. “Just a quick one, yeah?”

“Charity,” Vanessa warns. She backs up towards the door, feeling behind her for the knob. She laughs loudly as Charity pins her to the wall, kissing her neck, nipping at the spot she knows drives Vanessa crazy. “Charity,” Vanessa says, the name stretching.

“To give you something to think about,” Charity rasps. Her teeth scrape over Vanessa’s neck and up behind her ear.

“I think about you all the time,” Vanessa admits, tipping her head back.

Charity’s mouth finds hers, two fingers pulling Vanessa’s chin down. “”Ditto, kid.” She kisses Vanessa again. “Ditto.”

Chapter Text

This follows the end of the episode and honestly, it’s a long ramble of nothingness…

Charity’s head snaps up when the door creaks open. She turns just as a white cloth passes over the threshold, waving in the air. 

“I come in peace,” someone calls. “See my white flag?”

Charity sighs and drops her head back against the couch, closing her eyes against the nausea that builds in her stomach as she stares at the ceiling.

“Can I come in?” the voice continues, closer.

“You’re already here, yeah?” Charity exhales through her nose and lifts her head back up. Her vision swims, hazy at the edges. She can see the shape of someone walking towards her but Tracy doesn’t come into focus until she’s practically standing over top Charity’s legs. She drops the cloth on the table.

Tracy wrinkles her nose. “Oi, you reek.”

Charity waves her off, her arm heavy and her hand lazy. “Why’re you here?”

Even with her blurred vision, Charity sees something soften in Tracy’s eyes, something so Vanessa. And she can’t stand it. “V said you were in a state.”

“M’not,” Charity slurs.

Tracy looks unconvinced. “Said you were on after Chas and burning your bridges. Or maybe your britches. She wasn’t too clear on that.”

Charity sits up suddenly, eyes narrowed. “She said what?”

“That’s all she said,” Tracy says. “And that you needed looking in on but she thought it best if she stayed at home.”

A part of Charity wants to get angry about that. She doesn’t need looking after; she’s not a child. She certainly doesn’t need someone who can’t even be bothered to come check on her sending someone else. But another part of Charity, the one hiding behind the two empty bottles of wine and twenty-seven years of pent up anger and grief, whispers in her ear that Vanessa is looking out for her without crowding her.

Charity could love her for that.

“So, want to watch the telly or go into town or we could have a spa day here?” Tracy asks, lifting Charity’s feet off the table and dropping them onto the floor. “Been too long since I’ve had a proper polish done. I’d go to Bernice but…” She shrugs a shoulder, peering down at Charity’s nail. “Yours could do new.”

“I bite ‘em,” Charity says absently. She sits up a little more, rubbing wearily at her forehead. “Trace,” she sighs. “Honestly, it’s not a-”

“V told me you’d say it’s not a good time,” Tracy interrupts.

Charity scowls. “Well, then, maybe you both should listen to me.”

Something sparks in her stomach, a new build of fire that she tries to harness into anger. Vanessa knows it’s not a good time, knows what she’s going through. And Vanessa knows how she’s dealing with it, how she wants to deal with it, and she’s still butting in, even though she left hours ago. She wants to be angry that Vanessa can’t keep her neb out of Charity’s business, that Vanessa doesn’t approve of how Charity is conducting her business, but sober-Charity is still whispering into her ear and she can’t muster up the strength to shut her off.

“Maybe you should give in to us,” Tracy says.

Charity stares back at Tracy, unblinking. “God, what’re you like?” she groans, sinking back onto the couch. Her head is pulsing and chest aches.

“I’m just being a mate,” Tracy says, lifting one of Charity’s hands and inspecting the nail.

Charity snorts, not making an effort to pull her hand out of Tracy’s. “Are we mates?”

“I thought so,” Tracy says sharply, her voice all Vanessa.

Something inside Charity sobers and she blinks hard against the fading haze in her eyes. Tracy comes into sharp focus and Charity inhales sharply at the look on her face.

“I’ve not had many mates,” Charity grumbles. “So I’ve had no… experience at this kind of thing, yeah?”

Tracy shrugs, picking up a cotton and wiping it over the length of Charity’s nail, peeling the polish off. “I have,” she says simply. “S’not hard. Hate my ex with me, take me into town when I need to get blattered, and tell me I look better in my jumper than my sister does when she steals it.”

“‘Fraid not,” Charity says lightly. She forces a smirk  “‘Ness in jumpers is a-”

“And don’t talk about my sister like that,” Tracy says over her.

“Not hard to do, innit?” Charity lifts her other hand for Tracy to take, curling her polish-free one around a pillow. “She’s a-”

Ladies all across the world,” Tracy starts to sing.

Charity snaps her mouth shut, scowling. “Some mate,” she mutters under her breath. “Won’t even let me get a word in.”

Tracy smirks at her, producing a nail file from her pocket. She starts filing Charity’s nails into even, rounded arcs, squinting and pursing her lips as she studies each one carefully.

“Why would I take you into town?” Charity asks suddenly. “I own a pub.”

“You’ve also drank it not half dry, have you,” Tracy says. She peers at Charity’s nail and then her selection of polishes, all lined up on the arm of the couch. She lifts up a pink and Charity shakes her head sharply. Tracy purses her lips and puts it down, selecting a deep red. Charity shrugs a shoulder; better than pink, at least. Tracy  keeps her eyes down, uncapping the polish and carefully sweeping the brush across Charity’s thumb nail. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Aye aye,” Charity mumbles.

“But,” Tracy continues.

Charity groans.

But, if you do want to talk, I’m a good listener,” Tracy offers.

Charity stays quiet, closing her eyes as Tracy looks up at her. She can feel Tracy’s fingers working over her hand, the cool tip of the polish brush as it dusts across her nail. “I’m not a good talker,” she admits. She doesn’t open her eyes, but she feels Tracy’s hand pause for a moment. “Words are hard, yeah? I was always better with communicating in… other ways.”

“Me and all,” Tracy says. “Had to learn.”

“Never a good learner, was I?” Charity mutters. “Never much of anything.”

“Careful,” Tracy warns. “Vanessa’ll know if you start slagging on yourself. Bat ears, she has. Still don’t know what means, but.” She shrugs.

“Good hearing,. They use echolocation” Charity says. She opens her eyes when Tracy goes quiet. “‘Ness told me once,” she explains. “Bloody breaking my ear off with her ‘facts of the day’.”

Tracy rolls her eyes and goes back to work, finishing the nails on one hand and blowing cool air across them.

“She okay?” Charity can’t help but ask.

Tracy snorts softly. “You two are so loved up, it makes Chas and Paddy nearly bearable.”

Charity wrinkles her nose before a wave of regret washes over her. Chas. She owes her an apology and a few covered shifts, at the very least. Probably the truth, at some point. Not just because she owes it Chas, but because she owes it to herself and to Ryan.

“She’s fine,” Tracy continues. “Bet she’ll ask the same of you when I get back. How was she?” she asks, mimicking Vanessa’s voice. “Did she get to bed alright? Were you mean to her?” Her eyes go dark for a moment. “She’s dead crazy about you,” she says softly.

“Same, kid,” Charity whispers. She leans forward, breathing out hard through her nose. “It’s a mess, innit.”

“Messes can be cleaned up,” Tracy says easily. “Just like cleaning the loo.”

Charity laughs, the sound forcing up through her body sharply. “Plenty of practice at that.” She watches Tracy work on her other hand, fanning it to help the polish dry. She watches Tracy cap the polish and put it back with the other ones she brought over and Charity leans forward, inspecting them for a moment before she pulls Tracy’s hand into her own lap.

“What’re you doing?”

Charity looks up at Tracy, “It’s what mates do, innit?” she asks Tracy.

Tracy gives her a crooked smile, offering her hand. “I’m more of a hot pink bird than your scarlet red,” she instructs.

Charity picks up the hot pink polish pointedly, shaking it.

Tracy narrows her eyes, but her smile doesn’t fade. “Can you see straight enough? Only, I don’t want it to look like Johnny painted this on.”

“You be careful not to insult me, or I’ll paint your face,” Charity threatens half-heartedly.

“I’ll tell V,” Tracy sings. “She’ll have my back.”

“She’ll have mine,” Charity fires back, the words feeling too heavy to be teasing.

“She can have both,” Tracy says softly, eyes shining. She clears her throat. “Okay, spa treatments and trashy movies. Vanessa only had Beaches and I suffered through watching that with her, and I’m so not watching it with you, too.”

Beaches,” Charity snorts. “Everyone knows The First Wives Club is the better Midler choice.”

Tracy makes a face at her. “You got a copy?”

Charity nods. “I’ll get the-” She pauses. “I’ll make us a brew, yeah? And I think Noah stashed some Curly Wurlys around here somewhere. And Chas definitely has a few Dairy Milk bars in the cupboard.”

Tracy smiles widely. “We’ll get on just fine, then.”

Chapter Text

Charity sighs again, louder than the last time. Vanessa can feel her stretch her neck and look back over her shoulder before she huffs and settles back down, her back pressed into Vanessa’s side as they share the couch. Vanessa fights a small smile and turns the page of her book slowly, reading the end of the sentence on the start of the next page before she looks up.

“Yes?”

“Forget it,” Charity mumbles.

Vanessa presses a kiss to the back of Charity’s shoulder, feeling the heat of her skin through the cotton of her sleepshirt. “How can I forget it if you’re just going to huff and puff and blow the house down anyway?”

“He doesn’t want to see me ever again,” Charity whines. She reaches for Vanessa’s arm, pulling it across her waist.

Vanessa marks her page with her free hand, putting her book to the side. “He wants to see you,” she says firmly, just like the last three times they’ve had this conversation tonight. 

Charity plays it down, whining like Johnny does when he’s tired but won’t give in to his bedtime routine, but there’s a layer of genuine despair under her exaggerated pout that Vanessa can see easily. It softens Vanessa’s frustration and she strokes her thumb across the swell of Charity’s stomach, just below her navel, trying to tell Charity that even if Ryan isn’t here, she is. She always will be.

She’s in it for the duration.

Charity scoffs. “Excuse me, but can you turn down the sunshine and rainbows for a minute?”

“Is it ruining your ‘Doom and Gloom’ aura?” Vanessa asks.

Charity rolls her eyes. “You’re not funny.”

“I’m dead funny,” Vanessa argues. “Voted funniest in my Girls’ Brigade troop.”

Charity laughs, something real that settles in the corners of her eyes. “Oh, babe. Thank god for your good looks, yeah? All that air up there makes enough room for that gorgeous face of yours.” She taps a finger to Vanessa’s forehead.

Vanessa scowls for a moment before she tips her head to one side. “You think my face is gorgeous?”

“A step up from Jai, at least,” Charity says easily. She pulls Vanessa’s arm tighter around her waist as she says it, drawing any sting out of the words. One hand flattens against Vanessa’s arm as she traces letters and shapes with the other over the bone of Vanessa’s wrist, up along the line of her muscle, and swooping down around her elbow.

There’s something she wants to say, Vanessa knows. She’s working the words over in her mind, buying time by busying her hands. She draws a heart, adding a tail and an arrowhead to it carefully. Vanessa watches Charity’s mouth open and close, her lips pulling in as she continues to think.

“He’ll come round,” Vanessa says, breaking the silence.

Charity exhales loudly, as if the sound of Vanessa’s voice has reminded her to breathe. “Irene won’t.”

Vanessa shakes her head, her nose brushing through Charity’s hair. “I know he said he didn’t want to see you anymore if it meant Irene would be mad,” she starts carefully. “But I saw the way he looked at you, Charity.”

“Like he couldn’t get away quick enough?”

“No,” Vanessa breathes. She presses her lips to the side of Charity’s neck. “Like he knew he couldn’t stay away.”

Charity looks away, her silhouette sharp and sad. “He’d do best to get as far away from me as possible,” she whispers. “Ticking time bomb, me.”

“You’re not,” Vanessa says firmly. “You’re amazing, Charity Dingle. And Ryan would be better off for knowing you.”

Charity shakes her head slowly, leaning back against Vanessa’s side, her eyes closed. “What would I do without you, babe?”

Vanessa purses her lips, pressing a half kiss to Charity’s temple. She nods towards the small end table, where their wine glasses sit, nearly empty. “Buy your own wine, for starters.”

“I bought this wine,” Charity huffs. “It’s my wine.”

“Nicking it from the pub does not mean you bought it,” Vanessa points out. “Now, you know what you need to do? You need to get on the phone and ring him. Tell him you know how much Irene means to him and you want to find some common ground.”

“Babe, stop it,” Charity says wearily “I’ve lost him, haven’t I?”

No, you haven’t,” Vanessa insists. “You-“

Something loud crashes above them and Vanessa pauses, wincing when something else tumbles along the floor. She can hear Moses and Johnny giggling like mad and Charity huffs, squeezing Vanessa’s arm gently - a signal that she’s going to get up and see what all of the ruckus is about, but Vanessa stops her, nudging her back against the couch as she slips out from underneath her.

“I’ll go,” she offers. “Need to use the loo, anyway.”

When she comes back downstairs, she settles on the couch carefully, nudging Charity until they’re both sitting up. There’s little footsteps on the stairs and giggling, but Vanessa stops Charity from turning around.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Vanessa asks. She picks up Charity’s hand, turning it over in her lap and tracing the lines of her palm.

Charity lifts a single eyebrow. “Uh, good?”

Vanessa smiles brightly, almost suddenly. “I forgot to tell you, but Pearl said the boys were angels.”

“Angels,” Charity repeats.

Vanessa nods, her fingertips swirling over the small bundle of veins nestled at Charity’s wrist before they drift up to the crook of her elbow. “Angels.”

“Maybe my Johnnybobs,” Charity agrees. “But your Moses is a right brat.”

My Moses,” Vanessa says, her mouth dropping open.

Charity shrugs and looks away, but the corners of her lips curl up. “Bloody well should be, the way he goes on and on about you. ‘Ness this’ and ‘Ness that’. He’s a walking advert on you.”

There’s something about the way Charity says it that settles low in the pit of Vanessa’s stomach, like a brew on a cold day. It warms her from the inside out and she can’t stop the smile that blooms on her face. She leans in to Charity, their foreheads pressed together, but there’s another set of giggles and Vanessa straightens, nodding sharply to herself. “Right. Well. The bad news, then. Pearl had them playing dress up all day.”

Charity fakes a horrified gasp, her hand pressed against her chest. “Not dress up.”

“Charity,” Vanessa warns.

Vanessa Woodfield,” Charity scolds. “I didn’t know you were so stuck in your gendered ideas of-”

“She had them playing dress up as you,” Vanessa says flatly.

“Oi!”

Vanessa grins. “And she’s back in the room.”

“As me?” Charity’s eyes widen. “That old-

Vanessa ignores Charity, looking over her shoulder. “Well, come on, boys. Show her what you’ve got.”

She settles back against the couch, pulling Charity with her as Moses and Johnny parade around to the middle of the room. Moses has lipstick on his face like a rugby player, under his eyes and over his mouth. He pushes his little shoulders back, drowning in one of the shirts he must have pulled from the laundry. It catches up his feet and he takes careful steps around it. Charity laughs, the sound loud and bright and perfect as it echoes through the living room. Vanessa can feel the tension seeping from Charity’s shoulders now, evaporating into the air as Johnny takes his turn on their makeshift catwalk, preening in the shirt Charity wore today, buttons done up out of order.

She kisses the side of Charity’s head, letting her lips linger as she feels Charity’s laugh vibrate through them. Ryan deserves to know this woman, she thinks. Charity’s hand finds hers, their fingers lacing together effortlessly. Ryan will know this woman, she decides. I’ll make sure of it.

Chapter Text

Johnny dutifully wiggles his fingers at Brenda as Vanessa ushers him into the cafe. She slips her phone into her pocket, easily spotting the man she’s looking for near the counter. Ross is sitting with Moses and Pete and Leo, all four of them huddled seriously around a table as Pete passes out markers one at a time. He slaps the top of Ross’s hand when Ross tries to reach into the small plastic bag for a second marker.

Johnny sees Ross first, pulling out his hand out of hers and toddling across the room. Vanessa hangs back for a moment, leaning her hip against one of the armchairs, just to watch.

Johnny comes to a stop just next to Ross, his chest as high as Ross’s leg. He leans forward, resting his elbows on Ross’s thigh and his chin in his hands, looking up at Ross with big eyes. Ross barely skips a beat in the conversation he’s having with Pete, dropping a hand to the back of Johnny’s head absently and rubbing at the soft hairs there. His hand works up and over the longer hair at the very top of Johnny’s head, reworking his styled hair back into a point.

“Hi,” Johnny whispers, his words for Ross’s ears only.

Ross looks down, giving Johnny a crooked smile. “Hiya, mate.”

Moses looks up, catching sight of Vanessa. She pushes off the armchair and meets him halfway, catching his small, hurtling body as he throws himself off of his chair at her, giggling and calling her name.

“Well, hello, my darling,” she says, smiling widely. She settles him on her hip for a moment, squeezing him round the middle. Leo looks up from his drawing, his eyes lighting up as he takes her in. Vanessa winks at him.

“You got my text, then,” Ross says, lifting Johnny up onto his knee. He jiggles his leg and Johnny’s eyes widen in delighted surprise, his hands gripping the collar of Ross’s jacket.

“Cafe. Moses. Pickup,” Vanessa recites. “Quite the wordsmith.”

“Isn’t words birds are interested in,” Ross says, shrugging.

Vanessa meets Pete’s eye and shakes her head, setting Moses back on the floor. She presses a soft kiss to the top of his head before he scurries back to his seat. Leo leans back, tipping his head so it rests against the back of the chair. Vanessa kisses him, too, smiling against his forehead when he giggles. She straightens up and Ross is there, tipping his chin up expectantly.

“Me next, if you please,” he says in a high voice.

Vanessa rolls her eyes, dropping a perfunctory kiss to his temple. She glances at Pete, the corners of her lips twitching. “You and all?”

“Oh, no,” Pete says quickly. His cheeks flush red. “I mean, you’re lovely, yeah? But no. Thank you. But-”

“We’ve got it, bro,” Ross says, shaking his head. “You’re all loved up, all moved in. No tempting you with another woman’s wiles.”

“Excuse me,” Vanessa starts.

Ross rolls his eyes. “And no tempting you either - yeah, yeah.” He bounces Johnny on his knee again. “What a couple of oldies your mummy and Peter are, eh?”

“Oi,” Vanessa says, swatting at Ross’s shoulder as she takes the seat Pete offers her. “Being in a committed relationship doesn’t make us old.”

“Committed is the word there, love,” Ross says. He tips his head in Pete’s direction. “Take this bloke. He’s one animal noise away from a trip to a padded cell.”

Vanessa looks at Pete, one eyebrow raised slowly. “You what?”

Pete’s cheeks are still red at the tops and he pushes his hands into his pockets, broadening his chest. “I’m trying to figure out what Leo is interested in.”

“It’s not you making a noise like a sheep going into labour,” Ross mutters.

Vanessa tips her head, staring at Pete curiously. Leo pushes his drawing paper in front of her, handing her a marker. She starts to draw, aimless shapes that aren’t much of anything as she continues to watch Pete. Something in him deflates as Leo perks up and grows animated; his shoulders curl inward and he kicks at the bottom of the table leg, refusing to meet her eyes. She finally looks away when her phone buzzes in her pocket; she gives Leo an easy smile and pulls it out, thumbing over the message notification from Charity.

Sarah wants to see the boys. Headed this way? it reads.

She types back a quick GETTING M. SEE YOU SOON XO and slides out of her seat, lifting Leo onto her lap and taking his seat instead.

“Our Leo is quite the lion, isn’t he?” she starts, her fingers tickling against his side. Leo giggles and squirms, his red marker making squiggly marks across the page. Vanessa spares a glance up at Pete. “A bit rough around the edges, what with this haircut,” she teases. “But quite the big gentle cat beneath that.”

Pete shrugs a shoulder. “I’m better with sheep, me.”

Vanessa waves a hand at him. “It’s no different, is it? Let the sheep come to you. Don’t startle it.” She smoothes her hand down over the unruly point of Leo’s hair. “Lions are a bit timid, yeah? But they say that once you’ve gained a lion’s trust, you’ve got a friend for life.”

“Yeah?” Pete asks slowly.

Vanessa smiles. “Yeah. Easy to tame and all.”

“She would know,” Ross interrupts. “Taming Charity.”

Vanessa feels her face burn. “I’ve not ‘tamed’ her.” She pauses. “She’s not meant to be tamed,” she says softly, her stomach turning in that way it does whenever she thinks of Charity, of what they’ve become.

Pete coughs out a laugh, clapping a large hand down on Ross’s shoulder. “Maybe that was your problem, mate. Trying to tame an untamable woman.”

Ross pulls back and looks at Moses as if to say, look at that, would you. “Uh, I think I did just fine, thank you.” He digs his fingers into Johnny’s sides. “Didn’t I, little John?”

Vanessa wrinkles her nose, opening her mouth to tell him that he’s not called ‘John’ but Johnny beats her to it.

“It’s Johnnybobs,” he announces. “Char’ty said so.”

“And what Charity says is law, is it?” Ross asks Johnny in a loud, gruff voice, his smile giving him away.

Vanessa’s phone beeps again. Hurry, babe, it says. Faith is starting to sing, signed with the emjoi that has x’s for eyes.

Johnny is nodding seriously at Ross when Vanessa looks back up and Ross is rolling his eyes. Moses is standing in his seat, directing Leo on what color he should be using. Pete is steadying Moses’s chair, offering compliments to Leo on his choice of purple boxes over red circles. The cafe is bustling around them and something warm is pulsing just beneath Vanessa’s ribs. Happiness, she thinks. It’s happiness.

Not for the first time, Vanessa imagines how different Johnny’s life would have been if he had truly been a Barton. He’d have uncles and cousins and a grandmother to dote on him. Funny how he’s found his way to the Bartons all the same, she thinks. Moses is his best mate and he tags after him like a shadow. He thinks Ross hung the moon in the sky on clear nights and he once crawled into bed between her and Charity, whispering about how Pete is like the mighty oak tree outside of nursery, just taller.

“Right. Well,” Ross says loudly, hoisting Johnny up into the air. “I’ve got a plane to catch.”

“And I’ve got to get these two down to hospital,” Vanessa adds, beckoning Johnny closer.

Pete’s face softens. “How’s Sarah?”

“Hopeful,” Vanessa answers truthfully. She sets Leo down in his seat and kisses the top of his head.

“Tell her I’m thinking of her,” Pete asks.

Vanessa rests her hand on his arm, squeezing as far around his bicep as she can. “I will.”

“Me and all,” Ross adds quietly. He nods sharply at her and makes his way round the table, saying goodbye to each boy, spending a minute with each of them. Leo shies away from his fist bump, but lets Ross mess up his hair again.

Vanessa sways into Pete slightly, bumping her elbow into his side. “Give it time,” she tells him kindly. “Leo is a mate for life. He’ll come round.”

Pete sighs heavily. “I hope so. I plan on sticking around for a while.”

Vanessa grins. “Good.” Her smile turns down, her eyes narrowing. “Or I’ll have to hurt you.”

Pete laughs, the sound slowly dying as Vanessa keeps staring at him. “Right. Yeah. ‘Course,” he mumbles.

Vanessa smiles again. “Good,” she repeats. “He likes the stream,” she offers. “Keen on catching frogs. Might even has a net back at the house somewhere.” She claps her hands together, looking at Moses and Johnny. “Come on, my darlings. We need to go rescue Charity from Faith, don’t we? And we might get some ice cream along the way.”

The boys cheer and run for the door, their hands clasped together and swinging between them. She looks back over her shoulder as she moves through the doorway, grinning as Pete sits down next to Leo and silently offers him another marker.

Leo reaches out and takes it and Pete smiles.

Chapter Text

The dull beeping from machines is lulling Vanessa into a sleepy daze, the last few sleepless nights getting the better of her. The magazine she’s reading is glossy under her hands but the words blur and she’s sure she’s read the same Inside Scoop! article more than once. She’s been quiet since she came in, explaining that Charity was on her way but Vanessa got tired of waiting for her. She glances up at Sarah, reading her own magazine, and smiles softly, blinking hard to shake the sleep from her eyes and trying to focus again.

“Do you get scared?” Sarah’s voice is quiet and Vanessa isn’t even sure she heard her speak.

“What’s that?”

“Do you get scared?” Sarah asks again.

“Oh, loads,” Vanessa says, her voice sharp and matter-of-fact.

Sarah frowns at the admission. “But you’re an adult.”

“Makes me more scared, I reckon.” Vanessa gives Sarah a soft, crooked smile and looks back down at her magazine.

“My Granny says you’re not scared of anything,” Sarah says after a minute. “She said you tried to start a fist fight with that copper who-“

“Your Granny has a big gob,” Vanessa interrupts. “And she ought to keep it shut more.” Her cheeks are slightly pink and she won’t quite look Sarah in the eye. She wonders who told Charity that - Harriet, she thinks. A bigger gob than anyone in the village. Charity’s never said anything to her about it.

“How did you do it, then?” Sarah presses on. “If you’re scared all the time?”

Vanessa shakes her head. “That’s different, yeah? I’m scared of loads of things but I most scared of losing the people I lo- care about. And when that fear comes, the rest of it just… disappears.” Vanessa finally meets her gaze head on. “Quite like your mum and your Granny, innit? We’re all scared until losing the people we care about is the cost of fear.” She curls the corners of the magazine in her hand. “It’s why your mum is so brave, when she’s here. Because losing you is her biggest fear and the rest of it is worth nothing compared to that.”

Sarah chews on her soft swell of her lip for a moment. “S’that why Granny introduced us to Ryan? Because she cares about him and didn’t want to lose him?”

“Or you,” Vanessa adds. “Or Noah or your mum. She didn’t want to lose any of you.”

“I think it was dead brave of her,” Sarah admits softly.

Vanessa grins, wide and bright. “Me too.” She reaches out, resting her hand on Sarah’s. “I think you having this transplant is dead brave, too.”

Sarah shrugs a shoulder. “I’m mostly doing it for Mum. Because I’m…”

“Afraid?” Vanessa suggests, still smiling.

Sarah nods. “That she’ll never be okay if I don’t do it.”

Vanessa smiles just a little softer. “I know, darling,” she says gently. She squeezes Sarahs’a hand. “I know. It’s dead brave all the same, though.” She sits back in her seat, the magazine forgotten. “Now, tell me about that boy a few rooms down.”

Sarah groans and sinks back into her pillows. “Granny Charity has a big gob,” she mutters.

Vanessa just grins.

“I’ve what now?” Charity asks loudly.

The magazine slides out of Vanessa’s hands and she flushes slightly, reaching down to pick it up. Charity’s hand is on her shoulder when she sits up again, rubbing at a small knot under her fingers. Vanessa can feel herself lean into the touch, soaking up all the affection Charity gives her. It’s been so free the last few days, some of weight lifted from Charity’s shoulders now that everyone knows about Ryan.

Noah is still mad, a small voice says in the back of Vanessa’s head. She pushes it down and focuses on Charity’s hand, drifting to the base of her neck instead. They managed to get Noah around once; they’ll do it again. Even if they have to use Moses and Johnny to do it.

“You’ve got a big gob,” Sarah repeats, grinning. “Vanessa said so.”

Charity makes a face, pretending to be offended for a moment. Her shock wanes into something more dangerous and she smirks, her hip bumping against the outside of Vanessa’s shoulder. “Thought you liked that about me, yeah?”

Sarah wrinkles her nose. “Granny.”

“Oi,” Charity says sharply. “I’m much too hip to be a Granny.” She throws her hair over one shoulder and winces when something makes a low cracking noise.

“Hip?” Vanessa snorts. “Might need a replacement one of those, it sounds.”

“You weren’t complaining when I-”

“Granny!”

“Charity!”

Charity looks between the two of them, one corner of her mouth twisted up. “Still got it, haven’t I.”

Sarah shakes her head slowly, picking at some fuzz on her blanket. “Vanessa is scared.”

Charity frowns, sitting on the arm of the chair Vanessa is in. “Babe?” Her eyes harden. “What happened? Did Bails-”

“No,” Vanessa says quickly. She feels her cheeks burning and she swallows hard. “Sarah asked if I was scared.” She lays one arm across Charity’s thighs. “I am, of most things. Generally speaking, of course.”

“I said she didn’t seem it,” Sarah says. “And that you told me she wasn’t scared of anything.”

“Big gob runs in the family, I see,” Charity mumbles. “I only said it, babe, because you act like a bloody superhero most of the time.”

Vanessa’s hand curls around Charity’s knee, squeezing softly. “Easy to do when I’m around you. You make me feel brave.”

Charity rolls her eyes. “I think you were brave before I met you, babe. Everyone knows how you stood up to Pierce. How you stood up to me, too, at first.”

“Wore you down, did I?”

Charity winks. “Like a proper-”

Sarah makes a gagging sound. “Mum was right. You two are disgustingly loved up.”

Charity looks down at her and Vanessa grins quickly, letting her know she doesn’t need to say anything; that Vanessa knows the truth even if Charity can’t say it yet. But Charity stares back down at her, eyebrow furrowed in thought, and then she smiles slowly, pushing some of Vanessa’s hair back over her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Charity says quietly, her words for Vanessa only. “Yeah, we are.”

Vanessa smiles, her eyes going fuzzy in the corners again, and lets Charity’s hand burrow further into her hair.

Chapter Text

“So, you’re leaving, then?”

Vanessa jumps pressing her hand to her chest, feeling her heart thud against her breastbone. There’s a gasp stuck somewhere in her throat, a hard knot of fear pressing at the back of her teeth. Noah is glaring at her from the kitchen table, scowl shadowed by the low light near the couch.

“You gave me a fright,” Vanessa finally breathes, the rush of blood in her ears fading.

Noah says nothing, eyes narrowed in her direction.

Vanessa smoothes her hand down the front of her blazer, straightening her shoulders. She’s been going head-to-head with Noah lately, and not always coming out on the bottom, either. Noah is Charity, through and through, and Vanessa figures she’s done all right with her; Noah will come ‘round eventually. She just has to show him she’s not going anywhere.

“I thought you were with Joe,” she says conversationally. She picks at nonexistent fuzz on the arm of the couch, resting her hip against the back.

“Debbie is there,” Noah says, scorn in his words.

Vanessa nods sympathetically. “They’re all loved up, yeah? Naseauting, innit?”

“Not as bad as you and my mum,” he mutters.

There’s a thrill that rushes through Vanessa, sending her pulse spiralling again. She can feel that word - love - sitting on the tip of her tongue lately, threatening to explode into something neither of them are ready for yet. She’s glad for the dimmed lighting; it hides the color and heat burning on her cheeks.

“But you’re leaving,” he continues. There’s an accusation somewhere in there and Vanessa frowns.

“Your mum asked for some space,” she explains slowly.

Noah scoffs. “Bet she didn’t. I bet she’s up there, regretting she even got in with you in the first place.”

“Noah,” Vanessa says sharply. She knows, in the back of her mind, that he’s just a child, searching for someone to put him first. But she cares about Charity and she knows Charity knows that; she knows that Charity feels the same. And she won’t have Noah insinuating anything else.

“Well, you’re leaving, aren’t you?” he challenges.

“Because your mum asked me to,” Vanessa fires back. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

Noah rolls his eyes. “Like everything else about her.”

Vanessa sighs, the flare of annoyance dying quickly within her. “Noah.”

“Spare me your pity.” Noah stands, the chair wobbling dangerously. “I know when I’m not wanted.”

“And I know when you’re trying to pick a fight with me,” Vanessa says, moving closer to him. He shrinks back, looking very small in the shadow her figure casts. She gives him a small smile, a quick twitch of her mouth. “Your eyes. They’re the same as your mum’s when she’s mad but she’s not sure what she’s supposed to be mad at.”

Noah crosses his arms over his chest and looks away. “I’m not mad.”

“And I’m not leaving.” Vanessa sighs softly. “Well, I am, but-”

“I knew it,” Noah hisses.

“I am,” Vanessa repeats over him. “Because your mum asked me to.”

Noah looks back at her slowly, eyes still narrowed. Vanessa studies his face for a moment - for all the pushing he’s doing lately, trying to move Charity further and further away while still trying to hold onto her, he’s the spitting image of her. They both have the same haunted look in their eyes, a little fear, a bit of distrust, and a lot of challenge.

Vanessa moves another step closer, her hand curling around the back of the chair closest to her. She remembers this morning, sitting at this table, her hand aching to touch Charity. She’d settled for a finger over Charity’s wrist, terrified to send Charity scattering away. Noah takes a step back, bumping against the closest counter.

“And I want to respect her boundaries,” Vanessa says softly. “I want to be here, upstairs with her.”

Noah wrinkles his nose in disgust.

“I want to support her, yeah? Hold her. Tell her brave she was. How I’m dead proud of her,” Vanessa continues. “But she asked me to go and I’m going to respect that she wants space.” She levels her gaze, meeting his eyes. “And she’s had enough people in her life pushing when they weren’t meant to be, ignoring the boundaries she’s set.”

I did that, a voice in Vanessa’s head says. I did that, too. She swallows back the guilt; she may have overstepped and got this whole wheel turning, but she’s not done it again, and she never will. Not when the price of it is losing Charity.

“Noah,” she breathes out. “You and me, we’re not enemies. We both-” She stops herself. She’s not going to tell Noah that; not before she tells Charity. “We both care about your mum, yeah?” She tries and gives him a crooked smile. “Makes us comrades, I reckon.”

“I’m not your friend,” Noah mutters.

“Not asking you to be.” Vanessa shrugs a shoulder. “But I am asking that we start acting like we’re on the same side. Because we are. And your mum…” Vanessa looks back at the closed living room and imagines Charity upstairs, clutching her pillow and a tissue. “She’s going to need us, Noah.”

“Why?” Noah asks. “He’s been sentenced, hasn’t he?”

Vanessa nods. “I know. And the trial is over…” She trails off. A part of her thinks the real struggle has just begun, but she wants to stay in her happily ever after fantasy world for just a bit longer. She plasters on something close to a smile. “She’s going to need us, is all.” She moves another step closer, feeling the tension radiate off him in heavy, suffocating waves. “Can we do that, then?”

Noah shrugs a shoulder in his infuriatingly dismissive way. He scuffs the top of his trainers against the carpet for a moment before he looks up at her. Something’s changed in his eyes; they’re softer and younger now, the cold and hard shell fading away. “Did you think he was guilty.”

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” Vanessa says firmly.

“The kids at school… They didn’t.” Noah’s mouth pulls back on one side. “And then I thought… What if he gets off? What if they find him not guilty?”

“That was never going to happen.” Vanessa shakes her head. “We would never let it happen.”

“S’not up to you,” Noah grumbles. “I might’ve…”

Vanessa frowns, her stomach sinking. “Oh, Noah. What’ve you done?”

Noah’s head snaps up. “I did what I thought I needed to do. To protect my mum.” His shoulders sag. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. Graham only scolded me, didn’t he?”

“For what?” Vanessa presses gently.

Something like embarrassment crosses Noah’s face for a moment. “I asked Graham to… you know. Put out a hit,” he mumbles, just barely loud enough for her to hear.

Vanessa’s eyes widen. “You what?”

Noah rolls his eyes. “Give over. Graham wasn’t going to do it, anyway. Says it’s above his pay grade.”

Vanessa’s nose wrinkles at the sound of his name. She’s not forgiven him for putting her dad on his back, yet. “Surprising,” she says.

“Innit?” Noah shrugs again. “Whatever. He said he wouldn’t.”

Vanessa sighs. “Ryan, arrested. For assault, no less. And you, out trying to order a hitman. What a week for the Dingle boys, eh?”

Noah opens his mouth like he’s going to argue with her, but he shuts it again, looking away. “Suppose so. Nothing Cain hasn’t done in a week, all by himself.”

Vanessa snorts. “You’re right about that.” She looks over her shoulder again. Something low and tight in her belly is telling her that she needs to go back upstairs and climb back into that bed with Charity and hold her until she does sleep. But she knows that’s what she needs; Charity needs something different, right now. And what Charity needs comes before what she needs.

She said she’d call, she tries to remind herself. If she needs you, she’ll call.

“You’re not leaving?” Noah asks, his voice small and high. It pulls her out of her head and she has to blink for a moment before the question sinks in.

“Of course I’m not, darling,” Vanessa promises. She reaches out, swallowing back the sigh of relief when Noah doesn’t flinch away from her touch. “I’m going home tonight, because your mum asked me to. But I’ll be back tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that one. And the day-”

“Okay, okay,” Noah grumbles. “We get it, yeah? You’re all loved up.” He scoffs. “You make Joe and Debs tolerable.”

“I’m in this,” Vanessa says firmly. “For the duration.” She releases his arm, holding her hand out. “Are you?”

Noah looks at her hand for a long moment; long enough that Vanessa starts to feel her confidence dwindling into embarrassment. Slowly, he places his hand in hers, his fingers curling around her own. “I am,” he says, his voice shaking. He repeats himself, a little steadier. “I am.”

Vanessa smiles widely. “Then I think we’ll be just fine, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Noah echoes softly. “Yeah, we will.”

Chapter Text

“A peace offering?” Faith prompts, pushing a newly-poured pint across the bar.

Vanessa looks up from her empty glass, scowling. “No, ta.”

Faith’s shoulders drop, her mouth turning down. “Oh, come on, love. I-”

“Was supposed to look after her,” Vanessa accuses, jabbing her finger in Faith’s direction. 

“It was an ambush!” Faith throws her hands up in the air. “I thought, if I can’t beat them, join them. And try and soften the blow a bit.”

Vanessa shakes her head slowly. “Right job you did.”

Faith fills a glass at the optic, throwing it back in a single shot. Vanessa’s own stomach rolls at the thought of liquor. She can still smell it when she turns her head too fast; can still taste it on her tongue, leftover from Charity’s kisses. Earlier, she’d felt it in the air, humid and seeping off of Charity’s clothes and hair.

“And she’s still drinking,” Vanessa continues. “She’s still crying and she’s still drinking.”

Faith chases her drink with tonic, propping her chin up on her palm. “She’s a grown woman, you know.”

“She’s hurting.” Vanessa can feel a knot building in the center of her chest, the one that always comes when the words she wants to use, the things she wants to say about Charity - forCharity, to protect Charity - won’t come.

Or worse, when they start to and she has to push them down again.

Faith sags against the bar, hands fluttering near Vanessa’s. “I know she is, love. I wish… I wish I could take it all away.”

“Seems you could have,” Vanessa grumbles into her glass, the rim cool against her burning face.

“You’re right,” Faith admits. “I mean, maybe not me. Wasn’t around, was I?” Her eyes widen when Vanessa stares at her. “I could have this time ‘round, yeah? Made an effort to be more concerned, protected her from people. I don’t know what she’s been through-”

“No, you don’t,” Vanessa interrupts, her words sharp. Faith reels back a bit from them. A part of Vanessa should feel bad, and will, later on. But another part of her is burning in anger at everyone who stood by while Charity suffered; at everyone who passed her off and never stopped to make sure she was okay.

“But you do,” Faith says quietly.

Vanessa backs down a bit, shaking her head. “No. I only know what Charity’s told me.”

Faith smiles, though it comes out more like a grimace. “A lot more than she’s told us, I reckon.” A hand snakes over the bar, resting on top of Vanessa’s for a moment. “She trusts you.”

She shouldn’t, a cruel voice in the back of Vanessa’s head says. I’ve let her down, too.

“No, she-”

“She does,” Faith says firmly. She squeezes Vanessa’s hand. “She trusts you. And you’ve shown her that she can, that she can see the good in people again. You have done that.”

Vanessa shakes her head, trying to push back the tears building in the corner of her eyes and the lump starting in her throat.

“She doesn’t trust many,” Faith continues in a soft voice.

Vanessa scoffs. “Not that you’ve given her reason to.”

Faith’s hand falls from hers. “No, I reckon we haven’t.”

Vanessa catches sight of Chas, ducking through the corridor towards the living room. She doesn’t know what Chas said, not specifically. But she could hear the raised voices as soon as she opened the front door of the pub and she followed them to the living room; to Charity with her arms folded across her chest like a plate of armor and makeup cascading down her cheeks; to Chas and exasperation in her eyes. It didn’t take much to put it all together, to see that Charity was being backed into a corner like a lion and Chas was the one holding the stool.

“She deserves better than you lot,” Vanessa says brazenly.

Something like amusement twinkles in Faith’s eyes before it sobers and quiets, the spark dulling. “Yes, she does.”

Faith drifts away from the bar, filling the few orders piling up around them. Vanessa can feel Faith staring at her, can see her in the corners of her eyes as Faith moves back and forth across the bar. She runs her fingers through the condensation pooling at the bottom of her glass, making swirls and lines that curve along the pattern of the wood it sits upon. Faith isn’t the enemy, she reminds herself. Chas and Paddy and Zak are close to making the list, but they’re not the enemy either. Bails is.

“I’ve rung her about a hundred times and she’s not called me back,” she admits as Faith moves back to stop in front of her.

Faith purses her lips sympathetically, her forehead wrinkling into lines of concern. “She’ll come back when she’s ready, love.”

Chas ducks out of sight again, moving from the living room to the kitchen and Vanessa sees red. “Why should she?” she asks bitterly. “It’s not like she has much to come back for.”

“Her kids,” Faith argues. “I’m not expert on being a mum, but Charity loves the bones of those kids. Ryan and all.” Faith pauses, reaching for Vanessa’s hand again. “And you.”

Vanessa shakes her head, her mouth opening to argue back.

Faith holds up her other hand quickly, cutting Vanessa off. “That girl cares for you.” Faith pauses. “Same as you care for her, I bet.”

There’s a snap in the middle of Vanessa’s chest that radiates through her body, lingering in the tips of her fingers. It feels like hope, like something too good to be true. She knows what Charity has said - and what she hasn’t - but she won’t dare to dream about things that might not be true.

“I hope so,” Vanessa breathes out softly, almost hoping that Faith doesn’t catch the words, but Faith just continues to stare at her, a soft smile on her face, and Vanessa can’t be sure either way.

“Now,” Faith says sharply, straightening up and clapping her hands together. “Let’s you and I figure out where our Charity might’ve gotten to, shall we? I’ve only got Burning Rod and Flaming Eric to get home to and you look like a woman who needs a mission.”

Vanessa shifts in her seat, lifting her pint and draining the last few sips in a single go. She pushes the empty glass towards Faith and nods sharply, the room spinning just a bit. “Let’s find her, then.”

“That’s a girl,” Faith murmurs, grabbing her jacket. “That’s a girl.”

Chapter Text

“Noah!” Vanessa shouts up the stairs over the sound of the shower. “Let’s go! You’re using all the hot water!”

The lump on the couch groans and turns over.

“Noah!” Vanessa yells again. “Shift it, yeah? You’re going to be-”

The shower stops and Noah pops his head around the top of the stairs, scowling as he rubs a towel over his head. “I’ve not used all the hot water.”

“Best not have,” the couch says.

Vanessa holds Noah’s eye for a moment before she nods. She moves down a step, nose wrinkled as the couch groans again. “Tracy, if you want a shower, get one now. Charity’ll need it, once she’s been released.”

Tracy sits up, her hair piled high into a knot on her head and her makeup smeared across her face. “She’s not back, then?”

Vanessa swallows back the sob building in her throat, the one that’s been lodged there since that copper led Charity through Home Farm’s too-big rooms  and into one of the many cars idling in the drive. Charity had stared at her through the back window, eyes wide and searching, but Vanessa hadn’t moved until Noah blurred past her, throwing himself at the police car. It’d taken all of her strength to hold him still until Faith helped her sit him down and keep him there.

“We need to get her,” Noah insisted. “I’ll tell them she didn’t do it.”

“Of course she didn’t,” Vanessa said firmly.

“Of course not, love,” Faith echoed.

Vanessa dipped her head, catching his eye. “But they need to work that out, don’t they?” She’d lifted a hand to his shoulder and squeezed gently, something unraveling when he leaned into her touch. “So we’ll be waiting for her when they’ve done their bit.”

Noah comes thundering down the stairs now, hair wet at the ends and a hooded sweatshirt on.

Vanessa frowns softly. “Where’s your school uniform?”

“I’m not going,” he grumbles.

“Yes, you are,” Vanessa tries. It’s what Charity would want, she reminds herself. It makes her pull her shoulders back and lift her a chin a bit, standing her ground.

Noah’s top lip wrinkles and he shrugs a shoulder. “I’m not. And you can’t make me.”

He’s right, Vanessa thinks. Of course he’s right. She backs down, curling her shoulders forward - submitting, her professor had called it, just before he approached a frightened foal. Vanessa could hear his words now: Let him come to you. You can’t help him if he won’t let you close.

Noah hovers behind the couch, keeping it between them.

“Okay,” Vanessa finally says. “I’ll call you out.”

Noah’s eyes widen for a second before they narrow again. He leans against the couch, trying to look effortless. “You think you can?”

Vanessa smiles tightly. “I’m sure they’ll understand this time, yeah?” She tries to loosen her smile, shaking her body out just a bit. “Why don’t you go sit down. I’ve made coffee, but we’re out of nearly everything else.”

“I’m not hungry,” Noah grumbles. He takes a mug off mat where it’s drying, though, and fills it to the brim with hot water before he scoops in the grounds. He winces when he sips it - the temperature or the taste, Vanessa isn’t sure. His second sip is a bit smoother and he carries the mug carefully to the couch, kicking at Tracy’s feet until there’s enough room to settle down.

Tracy, pressed into the corner, lifts her hands towards Vanessa. “Coffee,” she whines.

“Kettle’s hot, like it just was when Noah poured some.”

Tracy pouts. “Come on, V.”

Vanessa shakes her head. Tracy pouts at her, pushing out her lower lip. Vanessa huffs, pushing her hair out of her face with one hand while the other scoops grounds into a mug. She stirs it quickly, handing it to Tracy and ignoring the smug look on Noah’s face.

Tracy takes a sip and pulls a face. “This tastes like dishwater,” Tracy whines.

Noah rolls his eyes. “You snore like a dishwasher.”

“Vanessa,” Tracy complains.

Vanessa sighs, pressing the heel of her palm against the building knot in the center of her forehead. “Tracy,” she says, her back teeth grinding together.

“Tell Noah to be nicer to me.” Tracy pauses. “The ceiling is spinning.”

Vanessa doesn’t bother looking up. “That’s on you, drinking that much champagne.”

“France called,” Noah chimes in. “They want all their fancy bubbles back.”

“They can scoop it out of the bog,” Tracy mutters.

Vanessa shakes her head. “Children,” she threatens. Tracy’s words register and she looks up with wide eyes. “Tracy, you didn’t.”

“She did,” Noah says. “Was up all night, I was, between her chucking her guts up and her snoring.” He stares at Vanessa. “How’d you manage to get any sleep between her and me mum.”

“Uh, I’ll have you know that-” Tracy stops herself suddenly, a hand over her mouth as her face goes pale.

“Don’t you dare,” Vanessa hisses. “Upstairs. Now.”

Tracy staggers past her, around Noah, and stumbles up the stairs. Vanessa sighs, her eyes closing briefly.

Sleep hadn’t come, the Charity-sized space empty on the other side of the bed. Instead, she listened to Tracy snore and Noah whimper and she held the pillow Charity used to her chest, clutching it tightly. She tried not to picture Charity alone in a holding cell, cold in her party dress.

She smiles brightly at Noah now, trying too hard and dying a bit on the inside while doing it. “Cafe?”

“I’m not hungry,” Noah reminds her.

“I am,” she says. She holds up her cup of coffee. “And this really does taste like dishwater.”

Noah’s smile comes and goes too quickly for her to catch all of it, but she holds onto the small flicker of it for a while, storing it away for now. “Mum’s coffee is worse.”

Vanessa snorts. “I’ve not had a cup since the first time. Keep dumping them down the sink, yeah? I’m not looking to die over my first cup of the day.”

Noah’s smile stays a bit longer this time. He shakes his head and picks up his jacket, in it’s usual place, slung over the back of the chair near the door. It’s gone by the time Vanessa closes the door to Tug Ghyll behind them, but Noah doesn’t scamper ahead, leaving her in the dust.

It’s not smiling at her adoringly, or a family outing, but it feels real and Noah only pretends to sigh when she pushes some of his hair back into place.

She’ll get Noah to eat and she’ll call Debbie and check on the boys and she’ll get Charity back home where she belongs.

Right after her first decent cup of coffee.

Chapter Text

“Love,” Faith says gently, shaking her.

Charity’s head snaps up, even as she blinks sleepily. “What’s it? Sarah?”

“No,” Faith says quickly. “No, still stable.” She points behind Charity, towards the swinging doors. “Vanessa’s here.”

“Here?” Charity repeats. She scrubs a hand over her face and sits up a bit straighter, looking back over her shoulder.

Vanessa waves, eyes soft. She curls her fingers towards her body, beckoning Charity to her. Charity is standing before she’s even thinking about shaking her head no, her body like a magnet - pulled towards Vanessa without conscious thought.

“Go on, love.” Faith nods. “I’ll watch over her.” She looks down at Sarah, her already-red eyes welling again. Faith smooths down a wrinkle in the bedsheets absently. “Now, more than ever, is the time to spend with the people you love.”

Charity doesn’t hesitate, slipping out of the room and closing the door as firmly as she can behind her. “Is everything okay?”

Vanessa holds a hand up quickly. “Yes, of course. I stopped by to see Debbie and-”

“You did what?” Charity asks, frowning.

“I fibbed a bit,” Vanessa admits. “Said I was her mum.”

“One lie to the police was all it took, yeah?” Charity shakes her head.. “Look at you now.”

Vanessa’s cheeks flush. “I only wanted to see her. She said Sarah had a scare.”

Charity works her bottom lip between her teeth. “She’s stable, now.”

Vanessa nods. “Good.” She presses her hand to Charity’s cheek, brushing her thumb over Charity’s bruising lip. “I’m glad she’s got you.”

“She should have her mother.”

“She will, soon.” Vanessa smiles reassuringly.

Charity shakes her head. “Everything is a mess, babe. Debs is locked up, Sarah’s fighting for her life. I’ve not heard from our Noah and-”

“I’ve got him,” Vanessa interrupts.

Charity pulls back a bit, frowning. “You what?”

Vanessa nods. “Ryan called me last night. Said Noah had come round his. So I bundled him into the car and drove him home, yeah?”

“You did?” Charity asks, her words a whisper.

“Of course I did. Gave us a scare, turning off his mobile like that.” Vanessa huffs, hair fluttering away from her face. “And I told him, didn’t I. He can be angry, but he can’t be unreachable.”

Charity lifts an eyebrow. “He liked that, did he?”

“Hated it.” Vanessa smiles. “But he stayed the night. Ryan and all. Had a regular boys night in the living room. Pizza for tea and movies until they were all asleep.” She fishes her phone out of her pocket and opens it, swiping through some pictures until she holds one up for Charity.

Noah is sleeping on the floor, mouth open wide and pants that look like a pair Vanessa had worn once - soft and fleece and cow-printed. Moses and Johnny are snuggled close together on the floor by the couch, a few stuffed toys between them, Ryan’s hand dangling above them. 

“Ryan won’t be spending another night on the couch,” Vanessa says. “His back was cracking this morning. He also drank all me coffee.” She rolls her eyes. “Wonder where he got that from, yeah?”

Charity laughs, watery and broken. She pushes down the sob welling in her throat. Her boys, all safe and together and with Vanessa. Noah is angry at her and won’t answer her calls, but he still went with Vanessa and spent the night in a safe place, in their safe place.

“What’re you like?” Charity whispers, resting her forehead against Vanessa’s.

Vanessa’s lips purse against hers, her words a whisper. “A crisis junkie, I’ve been told.”

“Amazing,” Charity adds. “Something special, I’ve heard.”

There’s a soft pink tint to Vanessa’s cheeks that Charity is sure she’ll never tire of. “Whoever said that must be soft in the head.”

“Soft in other places,” Charity teases. She tips her chin forward, stealing the squeak of protest from Vanessa’s lips with her own. It’s soft and warm and simple. Charity soaks it in and wonders why kissing never felt like this before Vanessa.

“Charity!” Vanessa hisses, pulling back. “Have you been drinking?”

“Just one. And it’s Faith’s fault,” she adds quickly.

Vanessa looks past her shoulder, glaring. Charity looks back and Faith is grinning, wiggling her fingers in a greeting. The tension fades from Vanessa’s shoulders into something like affection. Charity presses closer, her hair swinging forward around them, curtaining around them.

“You didn’t have to come,” she whispers.

Vanessa’s mouth twitches and Charity wonders when Vanessa started knowing all of her lines the way she does.

“I know that. I wanted to.” Vanessa’s hands press against her ribs gently. “Put eyes on you.“

Charity licks her bottom lip. “Hands and all?”

Vanessa’s hands press harder now, where they might have moved away before. “How is she, really?” she asks.

Charity sighs softly. “Fighting. Harder than any girl her age should have to.”

Vanessa dips her head, meeting Charity’s eyes. “She’ll pull through. You Dingle women are a hard lot to put down.”

Charity scoffs softly. “You’d know, yeah. Haven’t put me down yet.”

“Eh.” Vanessa shrugs a shoulder. “You’re not that heavy.”

Charity knows that’s a lie; that she’s got enough baggage to sink them all. But Vanessa says it so earnestly, her eyes sparkling, that for a moment, Charity nearly believes her. The knot in the center of her chest loosens a fraction and the next breath comes and goes a bit easier.

“I’ve got to go back, babe,” she says quietly.

Vanessa nods quickly. “I know. You focus on Sarah. I’ve got the rest.”

“I love you,” Charity says, the words easy and weightless.

Vanessa smiles widely. “I love you.” She flushes, ducking her head. “I’m not sure I’ll tire of hearing that.”

Charity isn’t sure she’ll tire of saying it, either, but she can’t admit that now, no matter what Faith says. So she shows Vanessa instead, kissing her until they’re both panting softly and Vanessa’s eyes are glassy.

“Go on, then,” Vanessa says, her voice shaking. “I’ll message you later.”

“And if Noah-”

“I’ll tell him to call,” Vanessa promises. She presses up on her toes again and kisses Charity quickly before she steps back and smiles. “Give my love to Sarah and Faith. And the coffee,” she says pointedly.

Charity holds two fingers to her temple and salutes. “Call you later, babe.” She watches Vanessa move down the hall and doesn’t look away until she slip out of the hallway. She waits until the warmth in her chest settles to a simmer before she goes back in the room and ignores the knowing smirk on Faith’s face.

She watches Sarah’s machine beep, steady and strong, and she prays that she can be that too.

Chapter Text

“Knock knock,” Vanessa calls softly. She rests her hip against the door frame, crossing her arms over her chest. Don’t appear too aggressive, she thinks. She drops her arms again.

Noah looks up after a second, eyes widening at the sight of her. He pulls his headphones down around his neck. “What?”

Vanessa smiles widely, the corners of her mouth dropping just a bit when he doesn’t return it. “I wanted to talk, if you have a minute?”

Noah looks around his room, video games and clothes stacked in various piles. “I’m busy,” he says, his voice flat.

Vanessa pauses, her resolve weakening in her stomach. She can hear Charity’s voice floating up the stairs - the animated rise and fall as she plots out moving details. It’s contagious, Charity’s smile and excitement. She’s practically bubbling at the top. It’s hard not to get swept up into it, the pop and fizzle electrifying.

She presses her lips together in a thin line, straightening her shoulders a bit. He’s just a teenage boy, she reminds herself. But he’s Charity’s boy and that makes all the difference.

“Right, it’ll just be a minute.” Vanessa nods towards the small desk Noah has in his room. “Can I?”

Noah’s mouth twists. “What if I say no?”

Vanessa lifts her hands in surrender. “Then I’ll go.”

Noah narrows his eyes, his forehead wrinkled in the same way Charity’s does when she’s staring at a problem she’s not quite sure how to solve. It’s endearing, their similarities. And if she got through to Charity, if she proved herself to Charity, she can do the same with Noah.

Noah sighs. “Go on, then.”

Vanessa smiles brightly and Noah groans, his head falling over the back of the chair he’s in. Vanessa ignores him for a beat, perching on the edge of his desk. She curls her fingers over the edge of the desk, tapping out a nursery song Johnny and Moses were signing the other day. “So,” she starts.

“So,” Noah echoes dully.

“Johnny and me are moving in.”

Noah frowns. “And?”

Vanessa hesitates again. “I wanted to come and check. Make sure it’s okay with you and all.”

Noah’s eyes cut to the door before they go back to Vanessa. “Whatever.”

“Not whatever,” Vanessa says softly. “This is your home, too.”

Noah shrugs. “Does it matter?” He kicks at a shirt on the floor. “You’d move in even if I’d said no.”

“No, I wouldn’t have.” Vanessa frowns, leaning forward. “Your opinion matters.”

“To who?” Noah pulls back, frowning at the words coming out of his mouth. He leans back again, his face blank again.

“To me,” Vanessa says.

Noah’s eyes narrow. He probably expected her to say Charity, she’s sure.

“Listen, Noah.” Vanessa inhales, steadying herself. “Moving in together is a big step. For any relationship. Especially me and your mum, with all you kids.” She gives him an encouraging smile. “But if you’re not ready for it, then we’ll put it off for a bit.”

“Even if that’s not what Mum wants?”

Vanessa nods slowly. “Even then. We all have to be ready for it. Not just me and your mum. Moses and Johnny’ll think they’re on a massive sleepover. But you’re older. You know what moving in together means.”

“Yeah,” Noah scoffs. “That it’ll just be harder for you to break up once you’ve got to split all your things.”

He looks up at her, waiting for her reaction. She knows he’ll pick up the smallest hint of backing down and try to use it for as long as he can. But she’s had practice, now, with the Dingles, and she knows how to wait it out - let them come to her after they’ve huffed and puffed and not blown their house down.

“It means we’re ready to take that step,” Vanessa correct gently. “All of us.”

Noah tugs on the cord connecting his headphones to his music player. “Mum never cared before.”

“She will now,” Vanessa says. She pauses for a second. “Noah, I love your mum.”

Noah rolls his eyes. “I know. Both of you keep banging on about it.”

“She does?” Vanessa asks, eyes wide. She bites her bottom lip, shoulders pulling back in. “Loving your mum means loving you, too.”

Noah’s nose wrinkles. “You what?”

“Eventually,” Vanessa says quickly. “And we’re still not going to like each other, all the time.”

“You’re bossy.”

“Well, you’re moody.”

Noah squints at her. “Aren’t you not supposed to say that stuff about me?”

Vanessa shrugs. “I’m not wrong. Am I?”

“No.” Noah looks down into his lap, a small smile on his face. “Me either.”

Vanessa laughs for a second before she studies him carefully, watching his face in a way that makes him feel like he needs to move. “So?”

Noah stares back at her for a long moment before he looks away again. “Guess it’s fine for now,” he mumbles.

Vanessa smiles brightly, her cheeks aching. “I’ll take it.” She pushes off the desk, standing up. “You know, I could use some help.”

Noah rolls his eyes. “This why you did this whole thing? To get free movers?”

“Actually,” Vanessa says slowly. “I need someone to keep Johnny out from under our feet. He’s been demanding to see you lately. Thinks your God’s gift. Not sure why. You’re grumpy as anything and I’m not sure you’ve washed them feet in weeks, going by the smell.” She kicks lightly at his shin as she passes him. “Come on, then. I don’t hear your mum talking anymore, which probably means she’s at mine throwing everything in boxes.” She shudders. “She won’t even organize it.”

Noah groans even as he gets on his feet. “You’re not allowed to organize my room. I mean it.”

Vanessa puts her hand on her chest and nods solemnly. “Of course not.”

Noah shakes his head and tips it towards the door. “Well, go on. She’s probably not bothering to wrap your plates before she stacks them together.” He grins at the look of horror on her face as he slips around her and into the hallway. “She probably won’t match your shoes, either.”

Vanessa gasps. “Noah!”

Chapter Text

“What is it?” Vanessa finally asks when the Christmas music playing softens into a slower song.

Marlon jumps a bit, startled by the sound of her voice. “What’s what?”

Vanessa stares at him, eyes slowing narrowing. “Whatever it is you’re looking at.” He’s been looking at her for the last thirty minutes, his mouth half-turned up and his chin in his hand as he leans over the bar. “You’re freaking me out.”

Marlon straightens with a snap. “Nothing! It’s nothing. You’re nothing.” He winces. “I don’t mean… you’re not-“

“Hiya,” someone whispers in her ear, two hands sliding down her arms and resting over her own on the bar. Charity presses against her back and Vanessa leans into it, feeling Charity’s mouth brush over her hair.

“Hi.” Vanessa turns her hand over, lacing her fingers with Charity’s. She squeezes gently, still marveling at how easy they fit - how her hand has never fit with anyone’s like this before. How she’s never fit with anyone better than she does with Charity.

Charity’s lips brush over her cheeks now. “You’re home early. I just dropped Moses off.”

Home, Vanessa thinks. I’m home. With my family.

“Pearl is covering the desk. Called it my ‘early and only Christmas present’.” Vanessa snorts softly. “As if she didn’t knit me a jumper to give me on Christmas Day.”

“Add it to the pile, babe.” One of Charity’s hands drop and an arm winds around Vanessa’s waist. “I wasn’t sure one person could own so many jumpers, babe. The wardrobe is practically bursting with them.”

Vanessa feels her cheeks flush but she lifts her chin. “Thought you liked me in my jumpers.”

“Like you better in nothing,” Charity says in her ear. Her teeth nip at Vanessa’s earlobe, just enough for Vanessa’s pulse to quicken in her chest.

Vanessa opens her mouth to say something but pauses, glaring at Marlon again. He’s draped back over the bar, staring at the two of them with a smile on his face. Charity shifts behind her, looking over her shoulder.

“Marlon,” Charity says sharply.

“What?” he asks, his voice soft and far away. He blinks a few times and looks at them properly. “I mean, yes?”

“Not that she’s not worth mooning over,” Charity starts. “Because you are, babe. But what’re you doing it for?”

“She’s not.” Marlon winces as he speaks.

Vanessa frowns. “That’s the second time today you’ve insulted me, Marlon.”

She can feel Charity stiffen at her back. “You what?”

Vanessa squeezes Charity’s hand again and Charity softens just a bit.

“I’m just…” Marlon sighs.

“It’s not April, is it?” There’s a wavering in Charity’s voice. A quiet Not another one of us down sound that Vanessa can hear in the pitch of her voice.

“No, no,” Marlon rushes out. He wrings his hands together before he pushes his cap off his head. “I’m just happy for you.”

Vanessa frowns.

“I’ve not seen you-“ Marlon stops himself, taking a deep breath. “I’ve never seen you this happy before and I’m just glad for you.”

Vanessa waits breathlessly. Charity a year ago - months ago - would have pushed. She would have slipped back from Vanessa and put more than physical distance between them. She would have laughed Marlon off and made a pass at some random in the pub, winking over her shoulder at Vanessa the whole time. Just a bit of fun, she’d tell Vanessa later when they’d meet again.

Charity presses closer now. Her hand tightens around Vanessa’s waist and her lips find Vanessa’s cheeks, her kiss more intentional than before. “Me too.”

Vanessa watches Marlon swallow, his throat bobbing. “I’m chuffed for the pair of you. You… you both deserve it.”

Charity smiles against Vanessa cheek, just at the corner of her mouth. “She definitely deserves me.”

“Oi,” Vanessa scolds.

“Reckon I’ve done nothing to deserve her,” Charity continues, her cheek hot against Vanessa’s. Her voice is soft, for Vanessa’s ears only, but Marlon must hear it - he smiles even wider and winks at Charity.

“Do you like Yorkshire puddings?” he asks suddenly.

Vanessa’s head spins, unable to keep up with Marlon’s shift in questions.

“Yours or someone else’s?” Charity asks.

“Mine.” Marlon puffs out his chest. “Mini Yorkshire puddings with Parma ham cream cheese.” He looks up, eyes glazing over. “Or cheese straws, maybe.”

“Are we running a Christmas menu I don’t know about?”

Marlon’s eyes clear and he stares at Charity, blinking rapidly. “No. Just.. curious. If you were having a party, say… a fancy one.” His eyes widen. “Or a not-so-fancy one. A little thing.Or big!” He winks again. “With lights and…”

“Mini Yorkshire puddings?” Vanessa finishes, frowning. “Marlon, have you taken something?”

“No.” His cheeks flush.

Charity sighs. “This is just Marlon, babe. Being up so high makes him a bit dizzy all the time.”

“You’d know,” Vanessa murmurs.

“Awh,” Charity coos. “Don’t worry, babe. I like that you’re tiny. A tiny, blonde-“ She yelps as Vanessa pinches her arm lightly.

“Or peanut chicken satay,” Marlon says suddenly. “If you’d like.”

Charity tips her head to the side, her hair falling over Vanessa’s shoulders. “I’d like you to maybe stop mucking about and do something.”

“Mini Yorkshire puddings.” He claps his hands loudly. “You’ll taste them. And if you like them, you can have them at your-“ His mouth snaps shut and pauses, looking past Vanessa at Charity. He winks a third time and mimes pulling a zipper across his mouth.

Vanessa frowns again. “Have you hit your head, recently?” she asks, concerned now.

Marlon takes a step backwards. “I’ll just be a minute, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”

“She lives here, Marlon,” Charity says flatly.

Vanessa squeezes Charity’s hand again.

“Right. Right.” Marlon jerks his head towards the kitchen. “I’ll just be…” He turns sharply and disappears into the corridor, pausing just a moment to wink once more.

Vanessa watches him go, shaking her head slowly. “Reckon I should go after him?”

Charity shrugs. “It’s Marlon. He’s queer, he is.”

“Do you know what he was going on about?” she asks.

“It’s anyone’s guess.” Charity presses closer still, her hand slipping down Vanessa’s leg. “Aren’t you going to welcome me home, babe?”

Vanessa laughs. “You nipped out to Pete and Rhona’s to drop Moses off for his weekend with Ross. Not traveled the bloody Atlantic. But…” She turns in her seat, a leg on either side of Charity’s body. “Welcome home, Charity Dingle.”

Charity’s hands curl in the front of her jumper, tugging her forward. Their lips brush and Vanessa feels her body lean in to Charity’s. She sighs happily. “Our home.”

“What about asparagus and puff pastry cigars?” Marlon yells from the kitchen.

Vanessa laughs as Charity rolls her eyes and kisses her.

Chapter Text

“It’s just a lot to take in, isn’t it?”

A hand slides down each of her arms, trapping her against the bar. Charity can hear the scrape of heels on the floor just over the sound of the last of the fireworks popping in the sky outside of the pub as Vanessa steps in closer, molding against her body.

“What is?” she asks, leaning back into Vanessa’s hold.

She can feel the point of Vanessa’s chin against her shoulder, Vanessa’s hair against her cheek. There’s a warmth she’s gotten used to; a warmth she’s come to expect. She’s rarely without it now, always able to reach back and find it; find Vanessa, and hold her close.

She feels the laugh bubble up in Vanessa’s chest, echoing in her own. “That,” Vanessa breathes. She drops her hand to Charity’s stomach, her hand hot through Charity’s blouse, before she presses in with her hips, turning Charity just enough that she can see past the Christmas tree to the booth there.

Ryan is sat, holding court as Noah and Sarah listen in rapt attention. Irene shakes her head at his story, but shares a smile with him. Johnny and Moses are pushing their trains back and forth to each other, Jack acting station master as he makes sure the trains get across the table. Debbie is watching them with a smile, her hand buried in Jack’s hair, absently pushing it back.

“Not thinking of changing your mind, then?” Charity asks, holding her breath.

She knows Vanessa won’t. She hasn’t yet - hasn’t even wavered. But there’s a part of her that’ll always wonder, always worry. A small, huddled, shivering part of her is always waiting for people to let her down. So she waits and she holds her breath and she doesn’t let it go again until Vanessa chuckles, low and in her ear.

“Course not.” Her lips brush Charity’s cheek, barely there. “A crisis junkie’s dream, this is.”

Charity can feel her body still, the hair on the back of her neck start to bristle. Something churns in her stomach, Ryan’s delay too fresh still. Vanessa’s hand squeezes Charity’s side lightly, the tension draining from Charity’s shoulders easily.

“And my family,” she finishes. “There’s no changing my mind about that.”

Charity’s hand covers Vanessa’s, fingers lacing without thought. “I was a… bit of a nightmare tonight,” she admits. She can feel Vanessa’s smile against her neck. “I just wanted-“

“It to be perfect,” Vanessa finishes. “I know you did.”

Charity sighs. “All for nowt, though. Missed his own party, even if we did get in the cake before the clock struck.”

Vanessa steps to the side, slipping into the space between Charity and the bar. She pulls Charity’s hands together, holding them to her chest. “He’s here now. It’s the start of a new year and we’re all together.”

Charity knows her eyes are watering again and she curses softly. She’s tired of crying, tired of this aching in her chest that comes each time she thinks of what she’s missed: birthdays with Ryan, milestones with Debbie, memories with Noah, years she could have spent with Vanessa. She tries to look away but Vanessa stops her with a hand on her chin, holding her gaze.

“It’s just a lot to take in,” Vanessa says again. “How… how happy I am. With you and the boys.” Her eyes soften. “In our home.”

Charity’s hands find Vanessa’s hips. “Have I told you how hot you look in that dress?”

Vanessa looks away, her cheeks red as her eyes clear. “Once or twice.”

“Only once or twice?” Charity tugs, Vanessa’s hips bumping against her own. “Well then let me just say, for the third time, how-“

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Irene says softly. “But your wee ones are nearly asleep and I’m afraid I need to make me own way home.” She smiles apologetically, her hands wrapped around her purse.

“Oh, no,” Vanessa says. “Stay.” She looks at Charity, wincing a bit for suggesting it. 

“Stay,” Charity agrees, smiling. She curls one arm around Vanessa’s neck, fingers slipping into her hair. “Can’t have you out on the road tonight at this hour. I’ll get you sorted, yeah?” She kisses Vanessa, lingering until she hears Noah and Ryan making kissing noises and laughing at her. 

“Oi, you.” She have her fingers at them. “I’ll bar you lot.”

Ryan boos her, a wide grin on his face.

Irene rounds the end of the bar and Charity slips out from Vanessa’s arms, promising to be back in a few minutes. 

“Sorry,” she says sheepishly as she slips into the back corridor after Irene. “We’re just… Well. We’re just a lot to take in, aren’t we?”

Irene nods into the pub and Charity looks back over her shoulder. Vanessa is holding a sleeping Moses as Noah scoops up Johnny and nudges Jack out of his seat. Ryan is leaning in towards Debbie, elbowing Sarah as he grins. 

Irene takes her hand and squeezes gently. “I think you’re just right, love. Just right indeed.”

Chapter Text

Johnny,” Vanessa says again, her voice breaking on the word. She’s breathing hard through her nose, face clammy and wet. “Why would he take Johnny? What if he hurts him too?”

“Vanessa, the blood flow has slowed back down. It could have been a lot worse,” Paddy says gently. Chas watches his hand slick with blood as it slips over her jumper. “But even so.”

Vanessa tries to push off the stone wall, her body shaking with the effort.

“No, no, no,” Paddy says quickly. “Where’re you going?”

Vanessa struggles weakly against him. “I have to find him. Paddy, I want my son.”

“You’re not going anywhere. Not like this.” He presses down against her side, trying to stop her. He winces, Chas wincing with him when he presses too hard, Vanessa’s face twisting in pain. “Sorry, sorry.”

Chas looks worriedly at Paddy. It’s not good, his eyes read. It’s not good at all.

Vanessa tries to get up again, gritting her teeth against the pain.

“No, no,” Chas says, angling herself in front of Vanessa. She hovers over her, stopping Vanessa from moving. “Don’t move, love. An ambulance is on its way.”

Vanessa looks up at her and Chas’s stomach turns. She knows that look, the haunted glaze of Vanessa’s eyes. It’s the same one she sees in the mirror most mornings; the one that says her baby - Aaron, Grace - is in danger, is slipping further away, and she’s helpless to stop it. She reaches for Vanessa’s face, pushing her hair back and off her forehead. Her fingers linger for a moment, tucking loose strands back behind Vanessa’s ear.

“Chas, please,” Vanessa whispers.

Chas shakes her head. “You need to stay here, Vanessa. Johnny needs you to stay here.”

Vanessa’s face falls, eyes welling. Tears spill down over her cheeks, mingling with the sweat and mist and sliding under Chas’s palm, down the edge of her chin. “I need him. I need to find him and-”

“Charity is going to get him, love.” Chas forces a smile. Paddy’s arm is bumping against her legs and Vanessa’s face is too cold, too clammy, under her fingers. “You know how she is. Sets her mind to something and won’t stop until she gets it.” She ducks her head, her smile a bit more genuine. “S’how she got you, innit?”

Vanessa barks a hard laugh. “She-”

“Loves that little boy. As fierce as she loves her own. As fierce as she loves you,” Chas interrupts. She tips Vanessa’s face up and panic seizes her for a moment. She shouldn’t be that pale. Chas looks at Paddy again and he shakes his head slightly.

“I- I have-”

“Tell me what happened,” Chas prompts gently. She moves a little closer. Vanessa isn’t warm against her and Chas nearly shivers.

Vanessa shakes her head. “Johnny.”

“Charity’ll get him,” Chas says again softly. “You left the pub…”

“I was so stupid,” Vanessa says, her jaw clenched in pain. “I shouldn’t have left. She-she just…”

“You came back,” Chas reminds her. “You came back and…”

Vanessa’s breathing quickens. “He was there. Petrol.”

Chas looks back over her shoulder. She can just make out the red can near the door, flames licking up the sides of it and the building.

“Lighter,” Vanessa rasps. “He had a lighter. Told me to go.”

“Should have gone,” Paddy mutters.

Vanessa leans towards him, eyes sharp for a moment before they cloud in pain again. “No. No. Charity was… She was inside.” She looks back at Chas. “Johnny is-”

Chas interrupts her, shaking her head gently. “Charity’ll get him,” she repeats. “She’s already gone after him. She’ll find him, love.” Her legs burn, aching from squatting down next to Vanessa, but she ignores it, fingers trying to loosen the collar of Vanessa’s shirt. “They’ll be back before you know it, yeah?”

Vanessa tries to wet her lips, her chest heaving. “Bottle,” she manages. “He had a bottle.” She shakes her head, barely moving. “Broke it. Broke a bottle.”

“And then what?” Chas asks quietly. “What happened next. He did this?” Vanessa nods, head jerking. “And then he…”

Vanessa’s eyes are wild. “He took him. Please. Please. He’s my boy. He needs me.”

“Of course he does.” Chas moves closer now, careful of Vanessa’s side. “But he needs you to be okay, too.”

“I can’t lose him,” Vanessa says shakily. Her eyes well with tears again. Chas’s stomach turns over a second time. Like Moira lost Hannah, Chas thinks. Like Brenda lost Gennie and Megan lost Robbie. Chas inhales sharply. Like I lost Grace.

“You won’t,” Chas vows. The words feel like a lie, like a promise she can’t keep, and Vanessa looks right through her, seeing it. Chas swallows it back down. “Charity. She’ll get him. She’ll bring him back to you.”

“Charity’ll get him,” Vanessa repeats, slumping back against the stone. “I tried. I-”

“You did good, Ness” Chas whispers. She shakes her head before she leans down, her forehead against Vanessa’s. Water gushes out of the hoses behind her, blue lights dance over Vanessa’s quickly paling skin, Paddy’s arm burns against her leg, heels clacks on the pavement, and Chas thinks, Charity, you best find that boy and bring him home.

She presses a hard kiss to the crown of Vanessa’s head. “You did good.”

Chapter Text

“How is she?”

Tracy looks up, eyes weary and face pinched. It takes a moment for her to see Rhona and when she does, her shoulders slump. “Rhona. I’m so sorry, I didn’t-“

Rhona shakes her head, sitting down close to Tracy. Her hand settles on Tracy’s knee, squeezing gently. “It’s no matter now,” she says quietly. “Marlon came to see Leo. He told me about the fire.”

Tracy sighs. “Someone - Lachlan’s dad - stabbed her. There was…” She takes a deep breath, the words still stuck in her throat no matter how many times she’s said them. “Some internal damage. Bleeding. They took her into surgery but they’ve not said anything yet.”

Rhona feels her breath catch in her throat. “Stabbed her? Why would he stab Vanessa?”

Tracy hiccups, her hand presses to her chest. “Too many coffees,” she apologies. “Dad keeps filling it up. Probably for something to do.”

Rhona squeezes her hand gently.

“Right. Vanessa.” Tracy shakes her head, something like a ghost of a smile on her face. “Well she jumped him, Chas said. Proper tackled him to stop him from setting the fire.” She squeezes Rhona’s hand back. “And he just… left her for dead.”

Rhona’s eyes well quickly. She couldn’t remember the last time she spoke to Vanessa, each of them caught up in their own worlds. What was the last thing she’d said to Vanessa? Was it something important? When was the last time she told Vanessa she loved her?

Tracy shakes her head, rubbing the back of her neck before she leans forward, her elbows on her knees.

“I hope they got him,” Rhona says, her voice hard.

Tracy snorts softly, the noise echoing in the empty waiting area. “Charity got him, more like.” Her eyes narrow. “He took Johnny.”

“He what?” Images of Leo flash through her mind. Leo, gone. Leo, right at the end of her fingers and moving farther away.

“Drove off with V’s car. Johnny was in the backseat. Chas said Vanessa told Charity to go and find him and she found him. Brought him back. Safe,” she says, her voice cracking. “She brought him back safe, just like V wanted her to.”

Rhona presses her hand to her mouth, choking back the gasp building in her throat. Vanessa, stabbed, and Johnny, driven away by the man who did it.

“Oh, Charity,” Rhona breathes. She sits up suddenly, eyes scanning the small space a nurse had ushered her towards. She spots Charity easily, sitting a few seats over, Johnny wrapped tightly in her arms before she turns back to Tracy.

Tracy looks up, eyes lingering on Charity. “They brought Lachlan’s dad in a bit ago,” she says distantly. “Head wound.”

Rhona looks back at Charity. She’s staring straight ahead, “What did she do?”

Tracy shrugs. “She wouldn’t say.”

Rhona shakes her head. “Johnny must have been terrified.” She looks at him, curled up in Charity’s arms and clinging to her like a limpet. His hands are wound into her hair, his face in her coat. They blend seamlessly together; she doesn’t know where Johnny starts and Charity ends.

“Hasn’t let go of Charity yet,” Tracy admits. “I mean, I was holding him but they said Vanessa… They said they were trying and… Charity took him and she hasn’t let go of him since. Couldn’t say no, could I? She saved him.” Rhona watches Tracy squeeze her hands into fists and flatten again like she’s itching just to touch him. “They’ve just been there. Nearly an hour, now.”

Rhona’s back twinges at the thought. “No.”

Tracy snorts softly, the sound almost lost in the hustle and bustle of the halls around them. “Yep. Reckon she won’t give him up, either.”

Rhona looks back at Charity again. There’s something in her face that Rhona can’t name right now, but she feels it low in the pit of her stomach. “You think?”

“I know.” Tracy starts to count on her fingers. “Paddy tried. Chas tried. Belle offered. Even me Dad gave it a go. She must be tired, yeah? Or want some coffee. Or just need to, I don’t know. Stretch her legs? But no, she won’t give him up,” she repeats.

“Course not,” Rhona says faintly. She thinks she knows now, that look. That fear. She straightens up a bit, slipping her bag off her shoulder. “Right, I’ll give it a go, shall I?”

“You can try,” Tracy says, voice colored with doubt. “I’m getting a coffee. Fancy one?”

“No ta.”

Rhona stands up and starts slowly towards Charity. She stops short and studies her for a moment. There’s mud caked along the back of her coat and down her sleeve and the ends of her hair. Her face is drawn and pale, circles already forming under her eyes.

“Charity,” she says quietly.

Charity doesn’t turn at the sound of Rhona’s voice, but her grip tightens on Johnny, holding him closer.

Rhona sits carefully, her knees turned in until they’re almost touching Charity’s. “Charity,” she says again. She opens her mouth to speak and closes it just as quickly, mulling her words over for a moment before she tries again.

“I’m fine,” Charity says quickly. “I’m fine. I don’t need anything. If I get asked one more bloody time if I-”

“Thank you,” Rhona interrupts.

Charity blinks, turning to look at Rhona. “You what?”

Rhona smiles softly, angling her head down a bit. “I said thank you.”

Charity’s forehead wrinkles in confusion.“Have you… What for?”

Rhona nods towards Johnny. “Saving him.”

“I just-”

“Kept her little boy safe.”

Charity swallows, eyes red at the edges. “Could hardly let him get all the way to Kenmare, could I?” Her voice comes out thin and scratchy like she’s been yelling Johnny’s name over and over again. “Vanessa, she… She asked me to.”

“She knew you could.” Rhona ignores the surprise that sparks in Charity’s eyes, reaching out hesitantly to rest her hand on Charity’s arm, just above Johnny’s. “Thank you for being strong enough to save him.”

Something bubbles in Charity’s chest and leaves her mouth caught between a laugh and a sob. “I wasn’t.”

“S’not what I heard,” Rhona says lightly.

Charity wets her lips. “If I was, I would’ve known she was in a bad way. I would’ve been quicker. I would’ve caught up to Lachlan’s dad and not-” She meets Rhona’s eyes for just a moment before she looks away. “He told me to go and I stayed. For what?”

Rhona knows the feeling. The fear and the anger. She knows how it boils and boils until you see red. She thinks Charity was strong. Strong enough to do what needed to be done. Strong enough to push down that fear and get Johnny, bring him back. Strong enough to stop herself from doing nothing more than a blow to the head. Strong enough to come to the hospital and wait. Strong enough to hold onto Johnny even though she looks ready to fall over, to hold him steady even though Rhona knows that Charity is falling apart.

It’s more strength than most would have.

“Send Lachlan’s dad home with a Dingle souvenir?” Rhona offers.

Charity’s eyes widen and she barks out a laugh. “Better than a postcard, yeah?”

Rhona lets her hand fall over Johnny’s and Charity flinches. “I’m not going to take him away,” she says softly.

“You’re not?” Charity asks, her voice small.

Rhona shakes her head. “He’s in the safest place in the world right now, with you.” She watches Charity’s arms move minutely, loosening her hold on Johnny just slightly. “He’s lucky to have you, you know.”

“I’m lucky, more like.” Charity lifts one hand, stroking the top of Johnny’s head. She looks up at Rhona, her cheeks flushing a bit as she realizes what she’s said. “Moses adores him, I mean. Our Noah too.”

“Ryan,” Rhona adds. “Johnny’s easy to love.”

“S’them eyes, innit.” Charity’s hand drifts down over his forehead and he looks up at her, blinking owlishly. “Looks right through you to your core.”

Rhona smiles. “He has Vanessa’s eyes, doesn’t he.” Her hand drifts to the end of Charity’s sleeve, Johnny’s fingers still under her own. “Hard not to love them, is it?”

“No,” Charity says softly.

Johnny looks at her properly now and she smiles wider at him. “Well hello there, Johnny.” He buries his face deeper into Charity’s coat but doesn’t look away. “Is Charity a good cuddler?”

Johnny nods slowly.

“Of course she is.” Rhona runs a finger over the same path Charity’s did a moment ago before she reaches forward with two hands, lifting Johnny up and moving him into her lap. “Good job you have her, isn’t it.”

“Rhona,” Charity whispers.

“I’m going to sit right here,” Rhona says quickly, sliding closer on her seat so her knees are digging into Charity’s thighs. “I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to sit right here. Together.”

“I can’t-”

“We’re going nowhere,” Rhona repeats firmly. She nods down at Johnny’s hand, still curled into Charity’s jacket. They’re shoulder to shoulder, knees to thighs, and Johnny is hanging somewhere in between them, counting on them to hold him up.

“Okay,” Charity breathes. She’s still on the edge of her seat, still wide-eyed and staring at Rhona like she doesn’t know what to do next.

She’s afraid. Rhona knows she won’t say it, but there’s terror in her eyes.

Rhona bounces Johnny lightly, careful of the hand still attached to Charity. “Has Ness told you about the time at uni when she stared down Mrs. Nibbles, our instructor’s massive cat?”

Charity shakes her head, turning her hand over so that Johnny can lace his little fingers into hers.

Rhona snorts. “When I say massive, I mean massive. As big as Johnny, at least. And claws like you wouldn’t believe.” She pauses. “Stood on by a horse, once.

“How is she still breathing?” Charity pauses, fear in her eyes again. “They would have said if… she’s got to be still breathing, right?”

Rhona waves a hand dismissively, even as her heat thumps loudly in her ears. “Course she is. She’s Vanessa. She stands up to moody cows.”

Charity rolls her eyes halfheartedly. “She hasn’t called me a moody cow in ages, I’ll have you know. Cheeky mare, however…”

Rhona makes a show of covering Johnny’s ears. “Think of the children,” she scolds lightly.

Charity musters up something like a smile.

“Anyroad, she’s a fighter. She once pointed a knife at Pierce, you know.”

“Oh, so, this isn’t her first time fighting off a psychopath, then?”

“No,” Rhona says honestly. She grabs Charity’s hand and squeezes. “She’s a fighter. And she’s stubborn.” She ignores Charity’s snort. “There’s loads of things Ness hasn’t done yet. And she’s going nowhere until she does.”

“She’s going nowhere ever, if I’ve anything to say about,” Charity mumbles. She finally slumps back in her seat a little, exhaustion in her eyes and the slope of her shoulders.

“Listen, if there’s not a moody cow - present company excluded - or a hissing cat or a snake that can bring our Ness down,” Rhona says. “This won’t either. She’s going to make it out of this. You’ll see.”

“She better,” Charity whispers, almost too softly for Rhona to hear her. She squeezes Johnny’s hand, her arm stretching across Rhona’s lap. “Because I don’t know what I’ll do if…”

Rhona shakes her head. “There’ll be no talks of ifs, lady. She’s going to get through this. And we’re going to stay here until she does. Together,” she adds, nodding between them and down at Johnny.

Charity breathes in deeply and nods back at her. “Together.”

Chapter Text

“So this is where you’ve run off to,” Debbie says as she moves into the corridor, peering into the dark corner Vanessa’s seated in.

Vanessa huffs, blowing her hair out of her face. “I just needed a moment.” Her eyes widen. “Don’t tell your mum I’m-”

Debbie holds up a hand quickly, cutting Vanessa off. “I won’t.” She pushes hesitantly at an unsteady box of bottles, leaning against the shelving instead. “She still hovering?”

“She comes and goes,” Vanessa sighs. “Practically suffocating me now, what with throwing threatening your Dad. Thinks I’m irresistible for it one minute, whispering all sorts of things into my-” She winces at the look on Debbie’s face and her mouth sours. “Then she thinks incapacitated the next.”

“I didn’t need to know that.” Debbie crosses her arms over her chest, watching the way Vanessa twists her fingers into the sleeves of her jumper. Her ring catches the light. “So you’re getting married, then. That’s great.”

Vanessa stares at her for a long moment, tipping her head to the side. “Is it?”

“Why wouldn’t it be.” Debbie looks away and then back at Vanessa.

Her eyes are cloudy, but it’s something Vanessa can’t put a name to. Secrets, she finally thinks. She looks like the Charity Vanessa first met; it’s been so long since she’s seen it that she hardly remembered.

“I’m chuffed for the pair of you,” Debbie continues.

“Your mum worries you’re not,” Vanessa says carefully. She’s walking a wire now, pushing a Dingle to have a feeling.

Debbie’s shoulders lift. “Well I am.”

Vanessa continues to look at her, searching. “Okay,” she finally says. She watches Debbie pick at the top of a bottle, peeling a piece of the cork off.

Debbie sighs loudly. “You know Mum would never-”

“I know.”

Debbie narrows her eyes, watching Vanessa carefully. “She loves you.”

Vanessa smiles suddenly, her cheeks flushing. “I know,” she says again, softer now.

Debbie looks back at the stack of bottles, almost as if she’s studying each word on the label. “When I was younger, I wanted…” She shakes her head, pressing her lips into a thin line. “They’re not good for each other. I know that now.”

Vanessa sighs, frustrated at the Cain she saw today. He’s nothing like the Cain she saw in court, standing steady at Charity’s side, the two of them supporting her. “They can be,” she tells Debbie, believing it. “In the right way, at the right time.”

“Not like that,” Debbie says, voice firm. “Not together.” She scoffs, her arms tightening over her chest. “He’s at the root of nearly every bad decision she’s made.”

Vanessa bites her bottom lip. “You know you’re one of those decisions.”

The noise that leaves Debbie’s throat is something between a laugh and a cough. “Oh, I’ve mucked it up loads of times.”

Vanessa wonders, for a moment, how she ended up here: talking Dingles off emotional ledges. Then the moment is gone and she’s looking at the daughter of the woman she loves, still a little girl in so many ways. “She still loves you, Debbie.”

Debbie’s lips twitch. “You an’ all.”

Something flutters in Vanessa’s chest, the truth warm in the pit of her stomach. Charity lovesher. Charity proposed. Charity wants to spend the rest of her life with Vanessa; she wants Vanessa to be her wife. It still feels like she’s in a long dream and she’s going to wake up any minute in a hospital bed and a morphine drip at her side.

Debbie breaks her from her thoughts. “What would you have done if Mum hadn’t shuttled you away?”

Vanessa shrugs casually, refusing to give into the fear slowly creeping up her spine. “Die defending her honor,” she jokes, the words a bit forced.

“Mum would have been in a right state,” Debbie mumbles.

“Bit romantic, though, innit?” Vanessa leans forward, careful to shift to one side more than the other. “Defending the woman you love until your last breath.”

“Not if you know what she’s like when you’re not around.”

Vanessa sighs heavily. “Debbie…”

Debbie’s staring at her clearly now, head on. “Noah, Tracy. Chas. Moira and Nan.” She counts them all on her fingers. “They all said she was a right mess. Banging on about the doctors keeping her away from you.” She snorts. “Noah said he thought she was going to take one out when he told her family only.”

Vanessa shudders. A guilty, angry, frightened Charity isn’t something most people can handle.

“Kept talking about how it was all her fault,” Debbie continues.

“It wasn’t her fault.” Vanessa’s voice is sharp, cutting off the words forming on the tip of Debbie’s tongue.

Debbie looks down again. “Someday she’ll think it wasn’t.” She sighs. “She thinks a lot of things are her fault.”

The truth of it makes Vanessa see red at the edges of her vision. Not the red she saw when Cain stumbled through the village with Charity in his sights or the one she saw every time she looked at Bails. It’s a softer red, muted now, and it doesn’t flare up. It sinks in and sticks to her ribs. “It’s what everyone’s been telling her,” she says, lips pulling back.

“You haven’t.” Debbie straightens up, her arms loosening some. “Personally, I think you gave Dad a proper what for. He deserved more, but…” She smiles at Vanessa like there’s a joke only the two of them know. “And if he’d laid a finger on you, Mum would have done the same.”

“Vanessa!” Charity yells from the living room.

Vanessa sighs, but there’s a smile on her face. “There’ll be Nurse Ratched now, come to lock me up again.” She drops her voice to an exaggerated whisper. “I’ve stayed up past my bedtime, me.”

Debbie matches her smile. “She’s worried about you.”

“I know,” Vanessa agrees.

“She really loves you.”

Vanessa’s smile widens and her vision clears and her stomach stops churning. “I hope so. Would make me swanning about the village showing off my ring a bit naff, wouldn’t it?”

Debbie snorts loudly as Charity rounds the corner, stopping with her hands on her hips. “There you are, babe. I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

Debbie lifts a hand guiltily. “My fault.”

Vanessa reaches forward, curling a finger into the silk of Charity’s blouse, watching in wonder as the soft wrinkles on Charity’s forehead fades. “Yeah, I was talking to Debbie.”

Charity looks between them for a minute. “About what?” she finally asks.

Vanessa tugs a bit harder, her mouth twitching when Charity stumbles. “About how you can’t keep your hands to yourself.”

Debbie rolls her eyes. “Or your gob.”

“Oi, we’re getting married!” Charity looks away, shaking her head as her hand drops her cover Vanessa’s. “She deserved to know.” I needed to tell her, Vanessa can hear from the breaths in between.

“I’m happy you told me,” she tells Charity softly. “I’d hate to have to hear it from someone else.” Her eyes widen. “Or worse, seen a video of it.”

Charity wiggles her eyebrows, smiling widely. “Though, if I had known, babe, that it would have turned you into the hulk, I’d…”

“You what?” Vanessa prompts.

Charity leans down over her, her hands on either side of Vanessa’s shoulders as Vanessa’s hand sticks between them. “I’d have told you a lot sooner, yeah? Little ol’ you, defending me from the big bad Cains of the world.”

Vanessa sighs softly, feeling Charity’s breath against her cheek. “A wonder I did, really. My side is screaming at me now.”

Charity straightens up suddenly. “Let me go get-”

“No,” Vanessa says quickly, grabbing at Charity’s hips to keep her close. “Just help me into the bar, would you? In case he comes back for round 2 or summat.”

Charity scoffs but doesn’t move away. “And you’ll what, babe? Glare at him from across the room. Where you’ll be,” she adds quickly. “Strapped to your chair if that’s what I have to do.” She tucks a loose strand of hair behind Vanessa’s ear.

Debbie makes a face over Charity’s shoulder.

“I thought you liked me defending you,” Vanessa says, voice low.

“Well maybe I do.” Charity’s cheeks go red at the point, eyes darting quickly to where she thinks Debbie is standing before she lowers her voice. “Maybe I like a lady in shining… boots.”

“Gross,” Debbie says.

Charity looks back over her shoulder with a smile. “Go on, then,” she says, jutting her chin towards the living room. “My fiancée and I have some… planning to do.”

Debbie groans and takes a quick step back. “Mum!”

Charity opens her mouth to fire back, but Vanessa laugh and tugs and Charity moves a little closer. Glaring at Cain Dingle can wait another few minutes.

Chapter Text

Vanessa looks up sharply as Noah comes into the room, her heart thudding her in her chest at the sudden pull of the door. He huffs loudly as he tries to wriggle his bag over his shoulder and bulky jacket before he gives up, unzipping the front and dropping them both to the floor.

She hides her shaking hands under her thighs and pastes a smile on her face. “Best pick that up before your mum comes in here.”

Noah rolls his eyes but does what she says, tossing them onto the couch instead. He stretches out next to them and sighs loudly.

“How’s school then?” she asks.

Noah lifts his head just to squint at her before he drops it again. “Boring.”

“Homework?”

“I’ll do it later,” he says flatly. “Anyway, I thought you were working?”

Vanessa shrugs a shoulder, her hand slipping out from under her thigh. It’s still shaking, she notices, but Noah isn’t looking at her. She clenches it into a fist and feels the ache in her elbow. “Just popped in for a bit. Your mum promised me a brew.”

Noah snorts. “Bet you made it yourself, didn’t you.”

Vanessa’s smile is a little less forced this time. “She forgot about a supplier coming in so… There’s that, then.”

Noah goes quiet for a long moment, and Vanessa looks back down at the magazine she hasn’t been reading. The words were blurring on the page, and she had just been about to give up - on reading and on this alone time Charity had promised her - and go back to work. But then she remembers how Charity’s hands had run through her hair as she made her promise to wait. Just five minutes, babe. I swear it. Then I’ll come make you that tea. Play nurse if you’re lucky. It’s been 15 minutes since then but Vanessa only just settled now, and the hope that Charity would be back before Rhona called had kept her here.

“I’m sorry about Jacob,” Noah says suddenly.

Vanessa looks up again. “What’s that?”

Noah sits up a bit, stretching one arm along the back of the couch. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “For not telling you about Jacob.”

Vanessa feels her cheeks flush in embarrassment. “I’m sorry for calling him a stranger. I mean, he was practically my nephew.”

Noah makes a face. “Right, he was.” He sighs. “Well, I’m sorry, anyway. Mum told me I needed to be more considerate.”

Vanessa scoffs. “Miss ‘Kicks-In-The-Night’ is talking about being more considerate?”

Noah’s nose wrinkles. “Gross.”

“It’s no matter now, is it?”

Noah shakes his head slowly. “Mum said you…” He trails off and shakes his head again, words stilted as he opens his mouth again. “If I’d known that you… well, I’d not forgotten to tell you.”

Vanessa pauses and her other hand slips, the both of them resting in her lap. They shake harder now and she clenches them both into fists. It does nothing. “What do you mean, your mum said? What did she say?”

“Nothing,” he says quickly.

“Noah,” she says. She can hear her teeth grinding against each other in her ears. “What did your mum say?”

Noah sighs. He leans forward, his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. “Only, she said you were having nightmares. About, you know.” He looks away. “Strangers being in the house.”

She thought that’s what Charity might’ve told him, but she still winces when he says the words out loud. The nightmares have subsided; nearly gone away completely. But not knowing that Jacob was sleeping over - familiar or not - had thrown her for a loop and she hadn’t slept the night before. Every shadow on the ceiling had looked like a pair of hands or a broken bottle or flames licking the walls. Charity was up half the night, running her hands along Vanessa’s shoulders and arms and telling her stories of the trouble she and Chas used to get into as kids before she gave in to the exhaustion in her eyes.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she grounds out.

“S’not,” Noah mutters. “Mum said it’s not.”

Vanessa’s stomach turns. “Well, you know you’re mum. Always a flair for the dramatic, her.”

Noah squints, his mouth tugging to one side as he stares at her. “She’s not being dramatic, is she?”

Maybe not this time, Vanessa wants to say. She forces a smile instead and winks as if it’s a secret between the two of them: united against Charity Dingle, the most dramatic of all the women in their lives.

“I sleep closest to the stairs,” Noah says suddenly.

Vanessa sits up a bit, frowning. “What?”

“I sleep closest to the stairs,” he repeats. He straightens up, meeting her gaze head-on. “So, like, if someone was… If there was a stranger, they’d go by me first.” He smiles crookedly. “Or not go by me, if you know what I mean.”

She wants to ask him what he means, what he’s trying to say, but the gravity of his words sits heavy in her stomach and she can feel the burn behind her eyes threatening to spill over and down her cheeks. She knows what he means. She knows that he means it.

“Noah,” she breathes.

“It’s not a big deal,” he says quickly. He pauses. “I mean, I’d do it for me mum. Or Moses or Johnny, so… It’s not a big deal.”

Vanessa swallows hard, her words caught in her throat before they slip loose. “No, course not.” She loosens her fists into flat hands but they still vibrate against her thighs, unable to be still.

Noah watches her for another moment before he pushes up onto his feet and picks up his bag, slinging it over one shoulder. He huffs at the weight of it, swaying slightly before he steadies himself.

“Homework?” Vanessa asks weakly.

Noah rolls his eyes. “There you go, nagging me again,” he says. He’s smiling a bit though. He eyes the door to the leading to the pub before he lets his bag fall back onto the couch. “Maybe I’ll make a brew, first.” He doesn’t quite look at her now. “Want one?” He picks up her cup before she can answer. “I’ve got biology homework this time.”

“Biology,” Vanessa repeats. “Well, I don’t know if you know. But I had top marks in biology.”

Noah groans and places a cup in front of her, careful not to spill the hot tea. “Because you’re a nerd.”

You’re a nerd,” she reminds him. She shifts her chair as he puts his books down next to her. “Now, show me this homework.”

She rests her hands on the tabletop and they’re still, now.

Chapter Text

“Hiya,” Vanessa says brightly, her body swaying into Charity’s.

Charity immediately wraps an arm around Vanessa’s shoulder, the motion thoughtless and always welcome. “Oh, you’ve remembered me, have you?” She chases away the teasing with a kiss to Vanessa’s head, squeezing her tight. “Where’d Debs go?”

“The loo.” Vanessa sighs. There are pieces of hair into her face and she pushes them back into place carefully.

Charity watches her. She can’t stop herself. It’s terrifying and intoxicating, the way she can never look away from Vanessa. Like the sun, she reckons. Bright and warm. Blinding, too. But she can’t quite manage to pull her eyes away. “You two seem to be having a good time.”

Vanessa smiles even wider. “Course we are.”

Of course they are. Vanessa says it so matter-of-fact. Like this isn’t the first time Debbie has shown a real interest in Charity’s love life. A real, genuine interest. Like this isn’t the first time Debbie has liked someone she’s dating. Someone she’s marrying.

“She’s got two left feet, if anything,” Vanessa continues.

“And you think your dancing is any better?” Debbie asks, coming up behind Vanessa.

Charity snorts, meeting Debbie’s eyes over the top of Vanessa’s head. Debbie settles on the stool next to Charity, picking up her glass of champagne. She tips it gently in Charity’s direction before she takes a sip. Something blooms in Charity’s chest, something big and soft. It spreads into the tips of her toes and the corner of her smile, pulling it wide.

“I’ll have you to know, I’m a wonderful dancer.” Vanessa pulls her shoulders back, her chin in the air. “Isn’t that right, Charity?”

Charity winces just slightly. “It’s just that I’ve told you I’d never lie to you and-“

Vanessa’s mouth drops open. “I’m a fantastic dancer,” she insists.

Debbie looks at Charity again and laughs into her glass. “Sure, ‘Ness. Whatever you say.”

“Whatever I- Noah!” Vanessa calls. “Tell your mum and Debbie that I’m a great dancer.”

Noah looks up, half a sandwich hanging out of his mouth. “Can’t lie,” he calls back, his words muffled. “New Year’s Resolution.”

“Oi,” Vanessa shouts. “Terrible. The lot of you.”

Charity squeezes her tighter. “Isn’t that what you love about us, babe?”

“Among other things,” Vanessa mumbles. She leans into Charity’s side, looking at Debbie. “Well, how’s Sarah and Jack?”

“Yeah, they’re good.” Debbie picks her phone up off the bar, checking to see if any messages have come through. “Sarah said Jack’s behaving.”

“That’s good. If I had been living with Tracy at their age, I’m sure we’d have made a mess of things.” Vanessa reaches out, squeezing Debbie’s arm. “You’ve done a great job with them, you know?”

Debbie looks down at the hand curled around her wrist. “Have I?”

“Of course you have,” Vanessa says.

Charity doesn’t think Vanessa understands the weight of those words; of the certainty she says them with. Debbie looks at Charity, eyes swirling with something Charity can’t quite put a finger on.

“They’re bright kids. Happy too,” Vanessa continues. “Healthy and safe. That’s all a mother can ask for, isn’t it?”

“Isn’t it,” Debbie repeats softly.

Vanessa squeezes her arm one last time before letting go. “Isn’t it?” she asks Charity.

“Course it is, babe,” Charity whispers, her mouth pressed to Vanessa’s hair. “Well, that, and to clean up after themselves sometimes, yeah?” She looks pointedly at Noah, brushing crumbs off his jumper and onto the floor. He frowns at a small speck of egg mayo that lingers.

Vanessa laughs at him and slips out of Charity’s hold. She picks up a napkin, dipping it into a glass of water on the bar and stops in front of Noah. She bats his hands away and starts dabbing at his jumper, saying something Charity can’t hear. 

Charity can feel Debbie staring at her but she doesn’t look away from Vanessa. She can’t. She watches her joke with Noah, shaking her hips slightly. His cheeks redden but he doesn’t move away from her; only rolls his eyes and smiles back at her.

Debbie sighs heavily next to her. “You two. You’d think you’re the ones celebrating your wedding.” Charity looks back and Debbie is smiling.

“Soon,” Charity says softly. “It’ll be our turn soon.”

“I’m chuffed for the pair of you,” Debbie admits.

“Of course you are,” Vanessa says, apparently satisfied with the job she’s done on Noah’s jumper. “We’re relationship goals. Hashtag,” she adds. “Ryan’s been teaching me, you know. How to stay hip.”

Debbie scoffs. “You’re too old to be hip.”

Vanessa gasps. “No, we’re not! Take it back.”

“Can’t.” Debbie leans away from Vanessa’s half-hearted swat. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“You Dingles and all your truths,” Vanessa mutters.

“Must be your influence,” Debbie says. Charity frowns at that. “What?” Debbie asks. “We’re not the best at telling the truth, are we?”

“Of course you,” Vanessa counters. She wrinkles her nose. “When it matters, that is.”

Debbie rolls her eyes. “You’re delusional.” She looks at Charity and points at Vanessa. “She’s delusional, thinking things like that about us.”

Charity laughs a little. “Don’t point it out, babe, or she’ll go running for the hills.”

Vanessa turns and lifts onto her toes, pressing a kiss to Charity’s check. “I’m going nowhere. And neither are you.” She kisses Charity again before she rocks back onto her heels. “Right,” she declares. “You,” she says to Debbie, “are coming with me. Think I’ve convinced Bob to put on the electric slide and I need someone who knows how to do it.” She looks pointedly at Charity.

Charity puts a hand up in defense. “Not learning is in my best interest.”

“Choosing not to learn and not being able to learn are two different things,” Vanessa sings. She grabs Debbie’s arm and tugs lightly. “Now, it’s my duty as your stepmum to make you do awkward family bonding things. Consider this a head start on that, yeah?”

Debbie groans but Charity can see how halfhearted it is. “Picked a winner here, Mum.” She pushes out her bottom lip at Vanessa. “It’ll be dead embarrassing.”

“As if,” Vanessa says, undeterred. She tugs again on Debbie’s arm, grinning widely when Debbie heaves a sigh and gets to her feet. 

“Right.” Debbie claps her hands together. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Vanessa winks at Charity. “Watch us, yeah? Get some tips on what proper dancing looks like.”

“Course I will, babe,” Charity says softly. “Course I will.”

Chapter Text

Charity looks around Vanessa’s shoulder, frowning at the empty space behind her. “Where’s Noah?”

Vanessa makes a face. “Er, what do you mean?”

“Noah. The big blonde boy attached to your side?” Charity points to Vanessa’s shoulder. “Usually just about there. Seems to be missing.”

“What’re you on about?” Vanessa picks up two empty cups on the table, putting them into the sink gently. She turns the water on, rinsing them out as she looks back at Charity. “He’s not attached to my side.”

Charity quirks an eyebrow. “Uh, yes, babe, he is. Surprised he slept in his own bed. Every since yesterday-“ She stops quickly, words catching in her chest. Ever since yesterday, when they were still celebrating. 

When Lisa was still alive.

She clears her throat and tries again. “Ever since yesterday, he’s been two steps behind you.”

“Oh, that can’t be true.” Vanessa wipes her hands on the towel next to the sink and then leaves it there. When she’s close enough, she reaches for Charity’s hands, holding them close to her chest. “I’m sure it’s just that he’s come out of that cave of a room and you’ve not seen him for so long.”

Charity scoffs. “Yeah, babe. It’s not. Debs said she told him he could stay at hers last night but he stayed home.”

Vanessa runs her thumbs over the high and low of Charity’s knuckles, her nail scratching lightly. She shakes her head, eyes bright, and kisses Charity softly. “He wanted to stay in his home, Charity.”

“He told Debbie he wanted to stay with you.”

Vanessa brushes it off. “It was a hard day. He probably just wanted to spend the night in his own bed.”

Charity shakes her head, not convinced. “Listen, ‘Ness, I’m sorry. But he’s been sticking to you all day.”

And he has, Charity thinks. At breakfast, he shifted his chair closer to Vanessa’s, sharing elbow space as Debbie and Aaron crowded in. He helped her with getting the boys fed and off for the day, tagging along on the ride. He followed her through the pub all morning. When Sam went off and stormed out of the pub, Noah slipped closer Vanessa’s side. He was just over her shoulder, hovering like a nervous mum at the first day of nursery. Where she stepped, he stepped. When she moved, he moved. Charity watched him curiously all day, unsure of his sudden change in opinion.

He’s been getting better lately. Rolling his eyes and admitting she was engaged to be married. Not shrugging Vanessa off when handed him his tea or told him to pick up after himself. But this was different. This was more.

This was a boy, worried that a stable presence in his life was going to up and disappear on him. Charity understands the feeling.

In an instant, Lisa was gone.

Just like that.

It made her hold Vanessa a little tighter last night. It made her kiss Moses and Johnny a few more times than usual. It made her smile at Noah and Debbie, her hands finding theirs to touch and squeeze. All to know they were there, within reach. As long as she kept them close, she wouldn’t lose them. Not yet.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Vanessa says lightly She says it as if she knows that Charity isn’t lying; that Noah has been an attached limb all day. She says it as if it doesn’t mean anything much, as if his easy affection today hasn’t been so hard won.

As if he isn’t worried Vanessa will up and vanish. As if Vanessa doesn’t know that.

“It’s the truth,” Charity says one last time, letting herself lean in and rest her forehead against Vanessa’s chest.

Vanessa hums and kisses the top of Charity’s head. “Now you tell me the truth. How are you?”

“A mess,” Charity says, throwing her head back. “I know she wanted me to be practical, but…”

“But you’re human,” Vanessa interrupts. “And you’re allowed to feel things, Charity. Remember, when you’re with me, you-“

“Don’t need to hide it,” Charity finishes. “Yeah, babe, I know,” she says softly. “I know.”

Vanessa kisses her forehead now, lips lingering for a moment before someone clears their throat behind them. Charity looks up and catches Noah looking away, his cheeks flushed.

“Sorry, I can come back.”

“Don’t be silly,” Vanessa says. She doesn’t step away from Charity, squeezing her hand tighter instead. “Do you need something?”

Noah looks at her for a moment, eyes flickering away before they settle on Vanessa. “No. Not really. I just wanted to see if you wanted to…” Charity watched him fidget with his hands for a moment before he settles on what to say. “Do you want a rematch? It’s alright if you’re busy.”

“I think I’ve got time,” Vanessa says, sparing a glance at Charity as she untangles from her and moves across the room. “Your mum was just saying how she can’t wait to see me trample you.”

“Yeah, alright,” Noah says. He’s smiling, already holding out a console for Vanessa. “She thinks she’s good at this,” he tells Charity. “She’s not.”

Vanessa swats halfheartedly at his shoulder. “Oi! I’m not as bad as I used to be, am I?”

Charity watches the lines of Noah’s face - too many lines for such a small boy. They shift and pull as he rolls his eyes and smiles a bit wider at Vanessa, leaning in when she squeezes his shoulder gently.

“No,” she hears him say. “You’re not.”