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i need you to know, i'm not asking for a miracle

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“Are you staying then?”

Charity looks up at the sound of Vanessa’s voice, frowning. “Here? At Barton’s Bumbling Circus?” She snorts. “Not a chance. Dropping Moses is all I’m here for.” She kicks at a bank of snow piled up next to her. “Near Christmas and he wants him every weekend.”

Vanessa glances at Ross and Pete, peering into the bonnet of the old truck as they blow into their hands. Finn is sat on a wooden pallet next to them, scrolling through his phone as he shivers. She looks out across the field where Johnny is, waving his arms in big circles to get Moses’s attention as Adam chases him through the snow. “Good job they’re so close in age, innit?”

Charity nods without meaning to, her chin jutting out. “Chas was just my age. More like a sister than cousin.”

“Moses and Johnny, too.” Vanessa smiles softly. “Attached at the hip, they are.”

Moira comes out of the house, dropping her arm across Vanessa’s shoulders. “Charity.”

“Moaning Moira,” Charity says. She makes a face at their raised eyebrows. “Harry Potter ? I read, yeah?” She pauses. “Well, Sarah does.”

Moira rolls her eyes and squeezes Vanessa’s shoulder gently. “Tell that grandson of mine that he can ride out to the sheep with me. I’m leaving now.”

Vanessa cups a hand around her mouth. “Johnny! Come see your Granny!” She pauses. “Moses as well!”

Charity rolls her eyes. Vanessa pokes her in the side gently, ignoring her yelp of protest. She’s grown used to Charity Dingle after all these years of shared holidays and Barton get-togethers. She’s snarky and snappy and usually spiteful, but she melts when Moses tugs on her trousers and Vanessa knows there a side to her that shines underneath that hard first layer.

Vanessa doesn’t mind her, really. She’s been to Barton party after party, dinner after dinner. After a while, the stories repeat and the boys play the same game of footie and Moira fights the same fight with Cain. Vanessa loves it, she does. She grew up in a world of silent dinners with only the clinking of silver on the plates; a world of beige. Now it’s her and Johnny, Tracy, Adam and Victoria, Finn, Pete, Ross and Moses, Moira and Cain, James and Emma. The Bartons are a spark of color she didn’t know she needed - craved , even.

Adding Charity is like shaking petrol over an open fire, but Vanessa thinks she adds that little extra a Barton night needs.

There are times, even, when Vanessa gets excited that she’s coming to a gathering - to rib Cain and Emma, poke at Moira, and sneer at Ross. Makes for a bit of excitement.

“Char’ty!”

Vanessa turns and puts a hand up against the mid-morning sun. The sun is brighter than it is hot and there’s a breeze that slips under Vanessa’s bobble hat and chills her ears. Johnny is running towards them, the top of his hat bouncing with each step. Adam is hot on his heels, carrying Moses under one arm as he makes dinosaur noises while Moses giggles.

“Not a bad dad, is he,” Charity says, nodding towards Adam.

Vanessa smiles softly. “No, he’s not.” Johnny’s life had started uphill and she wouldn’t have gotten through it without Adam - his perseverance and his optimism. Johnny wouldn’t be alive, she reckons. And every time she’s felt she’s failed him as a mother, Adam has been there to reassure her that she’s not. “Johnny loves the bones of him.”

“Char’ty!” Johnny shouts again, colliding with Charity’s legs.

“Oi, Johnnybobs.” Charity bends down, pulling his hat over his eyes. “Hello, Master Woodfield.”

“Woodfield-Barton,” Adam corrects as he comes up behind Johnny, panting. He puts Moses on the ground and rests his hands on his knees.

Vanessa meets Charity’s eyes and rolls her own. “Right. Go rescue Pete from being Ross’s second fiddle, would you?”

“Yes ma’am, Madam Woodfield.” He snaps a salute and turns on his heel, marching stiffly towards the broken down truck.

Vanessa looks at Charity and feels her cheeks flush.

“I thought you two were done, you know.” She makes a rude gesture with her hands that Vanessa quickly slaps at. “Or are you-”

“No,” Vanessa hisses. “He’s with Victoria.”

Right ,” Charity says, nodding slowly. “And you’re…”

“Perfectly content to be single,” Vanessa says quickly.

Charity snorts. “Of course you are, babe. Just like I’m perfectly content with my vi-”

Vanessa clamps her hand down over Charity’s mouth, smiling tightly down at Johnny and Moses. “Go on, then, darlings. Granny Moira is waiting for you. Be nice to the sheep and wish them a Happy Christmas.” She waits until they’ve toddled away after Moira before she lifts her hand from Charity’s face.

Charity’s eyebrows lift slowly, the corners of her mouth curling upward. She looks down and Vanessa quickly steps back when she realizes how she’s pressed into Charity’s side, no space between them.

“Well, babe,” Charity says, smooth as silk. “Guess them rumors were true after all. But did Rhona dump you, or...”

Vanessa steps back, eyes flashing angrily. “Right. You just can’t help yourself, can you?” She shakes her head and takes another step back. “Always taking the mick.” She turns away, stomping her feet as she storms past Ross, Pete, and Adam, into the barn.

Charity winces when the door slams shut behind Vanessa.

“What’s happened?” Adam calls after Vanessa. He turns to Charity. “What’s happened?”

Charity scowls at him. “Nothing.” She follows the footprints Vanessa has left behind, her feet eclipsing the marks.

“What’ve you done?” Ross calls as she passes the truck. “Put your foot in your gob again?”

“Sod off,” Charity spits. She pushes past Ross and he stumbles back, hands up in the air.

“Charity Dingle, ladies and gentleman.” He claps slowly.

The sound dies as Charity tries to duck into the barn. She kicks at the barrel near the door, pushing it out of her way as she tries to adjust to the light. “Vanessa,” she calls. She stumbles on a hay bale and scowls at it, giving it a kick for good measure.

There’s nothing but silence echoing around her. Charity huffs and stomps her foot. “Alright, lady.” She spins in a circle, looking for Vanessa’s hat or hair or that ugly yellow anorak she likes to wear. “That’s enough of this.” She spins again. “You know, Moses throws fit, but he’s three .” She spins a third time and jumps as Vanessa appears right behind her.

“Sorry,” Vanessa says quietly. “I thought you saw me.”

“No, I bloody did not,” Charity hisses. She presses a hand to her chest.

Vanessa frowns. “Give over.”

Charity huffs, pushing some hair back out of her face with her other hand.

“Oh, honestly.” Vanessa pulls Charity’s hand off her chest and replaces it with her own. “It’s not even…” She pauses, looking up at Charity.

Charity’s eyebrow lift in a question she can’t get herself to ask. There’s an odd look in Vanessa’s eyes that she can’t quite name, but Vanessa must see the reflection of it - she pulls her hand back and holds it against her own chest.

“Right. Sorry about that.” Vanessa takes a step back.

Charity takes her own step back. “Well, it’s whatever it is.” She runs her hand through her hair. “Listen, I’m…” She waves her hand in the air in front of her. “You know.”

Vanessa’s eyes narrow. “No, I don’t.”

Charity waves her hands in a circle again.

Vanessa sighs. “Charity, I don’t-

“I’m sorry, okay,” Charity says loudly. She frowns. “I’m not massive on apologies, but…” She shrugs. “Yeah. So. There you go.”

Vanessa softens, a small smile on her face. “Thank you.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Charity says tightly. She grabs the sleeve of Vanessa’s jacket and tugs her towards the door. “Come on, then. Ross thinks I’ve sent you to tears.”

Vanessa’s feet drag in the loose hay. “I’m not that soft.”

Charity looks back over her shoulder, winking at Vanessa. “I don’t know, babe. Them curves say otherwise.” She shrugs. “Or, they would. If anyone could see them.”

Vanessa stops, Charity’s arm jerking slightly. “Are you-”

“Kidding,” Charity says quickly. “I’m kidding.”

“Okay,” Vanessa says.

Charity pushes on the door and frowns when it doesn’t give. “Oh, honestly,” she mutters, putting her shoulder into it. She stumbles back, surprised.

“Have you gone soft?”

Charity makes a face at Vanessa. “ No . The door won’t open.”

“Move, yeah?” Vanessa sidesteps Charity, reaching for the door. She pushes at it but it doesn’t budge. “Odd, that.”

Odd, that ,” Charity mocks. She taps a foot impatiently. “Come on, Vanessa. Open it.”

Vanessa pushes again. Nothing. “I can’t.” She turns around to say something else and stops. Charity’s arms are tight around her middle, her shoulders hunched. “Charity?” She pauses and tries the door again before she turns around again. Charity’s turned in on herself even further, eyes darting around the dark space. Vanessa moves forward, touching Charity’s elbow.

Charity’s head snaps up, her teeth bared.

Vanessa steps back quickly, her hands up in front of her. “Charity,” she says softly.

Charity blinks a few times before she focuses on Vanessa in front of her. “Yeah?”

“Are you alright?”

Charity laughs, the sound hollow and choked. “Course, babe. Not my first time locked in a big box, is it?”

Vanessa knows about it - the whole village does. Charity does a good job of moving on from things, Vanessa knows that too. But there’s something about Charity Dingle, the way she’s holding herself now - still, her arms too tight around her own waist - that says maybe Charity Dingle hasn’t moved on quite as well as she’s said.

Vanessa moves slowly, her hands still up, and waits until Charity looks at them, tracks them as they move to Charity’s elbows. She pulls Charity’s arms apart and smiles hesitantly. She knows this could go two ways and Charity is most likely leading to the one way that’ll end up with Vanessa on her back.

“Charity,” she says, quieter than before. Her hands slide down to Charity’s hands, squeezing softly. She thinks, for a moment, that she sees something flash in Charity’s eyes - nothing like the fear she saw before. Something gentler this time; something she finds she likes.

Lightning in a bottle, almost. Vanessa has always liked the way that’s looked.

“Together, then, yeah?” she offers.

Charity stares at her for a moment before she nods, stepping up next to Vanessa. Together, they put their weight against the door and push, their legs straining.

The door gives under their combined effort and they stumble out into the snow.

Pete catches Charity, Vanessa clinging to one of his arms.

“Oi, Mucky Boots.” Charity pulls herself from his arms, letting Vanessa fall into them instead. “Hands to your cows, yeah?”

Pete rights Vanessa. “Right. Next time I’ll let you drop into the snow, shall I?”

Charity elbows him as she pushes past him, stomping across the mud and snow mix towards her car. She pauses just for a moment to wave goodbye to the boys, but her smile fades quickly when Moses and Johnny turn back to Moira.

“Bee in her bonnet?” Ross asks, wiping his hands on a rag. Finn looks at her curiously before he turns back to his phone, tapping out something quickly.

“Who knows?” Vanessa watches Charity disappear into her car and shakes her head. “I certainly don’t.”

 

-

Vanessa huffs, lifting Johnny higher on her hip. He’s getting heavier and harder to carry in his bulky winter jacket and when she reaches the top of the stairs, she sets him down. He runs ahead of her, into the Woolpack. She barely catches the door behind him, hurrying into the pub so that she doesn’t lose track of him.

He’s nearly halfway around the bar before she catches him, grabbing the back of his hood to stop him.

“Slow down, my darling.”

“Oi, Master Woodfield,” Charity calls. She finishes the pint she’s pulling, placing it on the bar and checking with Vanessa before she gestures for him to come closer.

“Mummy, ‘an I?” He dances on the tips of his toes impatiently.

“If you must,” Vanessa sighs. She smiles widely at him and nudges him closer.

Charity picks Johnny up, holding him easily. “Come for our Moz, have you?”

Vanessa leans against the end of the bar. “I hope that’s okay. Ross said he talked to you about the Lad’s Weekend he planned and-”

“It’s fine, Vanessa.” Charity doesn’t look away from Johnny. “He’s having a bath now, but Noah’ll be down with him in a minute.” She wrinkles her nose, leaning down into Johnny’s face. “Someone got into some chocolate, didn’t they?”

“I ‘ike chocolate.” Johnny claps his hands.

“Well, who doesn’t.” Charity finally looks up, meeting Vanessa’s eyes. “Though, I don’t think your Mummy does.”

“I do too.” Vanessa winks at Johnny. “But I like carrots and hummus more.”

“Ew,” Charity says. She laughs as Johnny pouts.

Vanessa watches the way that Johnny curls into Charity, his hands in her hair as he babbles in her ear. He’s been enamored with Charity since the moment he met her, taking to her and reaching for her every chance he gets.

“He likes you.”

Charity grins, bouncing Johnny again. “What’s not to like?”

“Why’d you think that?” she asks, more to herself. “That he likes you, I mean.”

Charity’s grin falls quickly. “Maybe because I’m not a stuck-up cow?”

“No, Charity,” Vanessa starts. “That’s not what I-”

Charity puts Johnny down gently, eyes hard when she looks up at Vanessa. “I’ll go get Moses, shall I?”

Vanessa sighs and presses her palm against her forehead.

“Not quite how a lady likes to be spoken to,” Finna says, leaning in towards her.

Vanessa frowns at him. “How’d you know?”

Finn shrugs. “I like blokes but I’m not daft.” He nods towards the back corridor. “Even Lawrence could tell you that much.”

She feels Johnny curl around her leg and reaches for the top of his head, threading her fingers through his hair. “Oh, Johnny. That Charity is a silly one.”

Johnny grins. “Char’ty.”

Moses comes careening out of the corridor, crash-landing against Vanessa’s legs, pushing Johnny back a step. Vanessa holds them both upright. “Easy there.” She brushes some of the still-wet hair out of his face and smiles down at him. “Are you ready?”

Moses nods, head bobbing back and forth. “Got cars.” He holds up the bag in his hand, the metal cars moving against each other.

“Johnny, too.”

Vanessa looks up at Charity, chancing a smile. Charity rolls her eyes but looks back at her and gives her a bit of a smile; enough for something suddenly tight to loosen in Vanessa’s chest.

Noah comes in behind Charity, nodding at Vanessa as he opens a pack of crisps.

“Are you coming to Christmas dinner this year?” she asks him.

Noah shrugs a shoulder. “Depends on Mum.”

Vanessa looks at Charity.

Charity rolls her eyes. “Don’t think I could get out of it even if I wanted to. Bloody Bartons would be storming Wishing Well.”

Vanessa grins brightly. She’s had Christmas with the Bartons going on three years now; the first at Tug Ghyll and the second at Butler’s. She loves it, the large family and the noise, Johnny laden down with presents. She loves the laughter and the way Adam dotes on Johnny carefully, holding him in his lap. It’s more than she ever hoped for, long ago when Christmas was quiet and she wore her best dress. Now, she finds the worst Christmas jumper, buys them in bulk, and forces everyone into them.

Charity’s phone dings and Vanessa’s vibrates.

“Where’s Johnny?” Vanessa reads out loud.

Charity frowns at her phone. “I’m almost sure this says something about Moses, but Ross apparently never learned his letters, did he.”

“Right,” Vanessa says. She claps her hands together. “Let’s get off, shall we? Before either of your daddies come down from their smelly farm and get you themselves.” She ushers the boys out around the bar, patting Finn on the shoulder as she passes him.

“Vanessa,” Charity calls after her. “Once you’ve dropped them off…” She waves a hand. “Well, there’s a pint on me here, if you want it. For driving Moses, yeah?”

Vanessa smiles widely. “Well, then. I’ll see you later.”

Charity shakes her head and turns away, but Vanessa thinks she sees a bit of a smile as she does.

 

-

“Lad’s weekend,” Charity spits, banging a fist against the dashboard. Her hand is tight around the handbrake, white at the knuckles.

Vanessa reaches down without thinking, curling her fingers over Charity’s. Just an hour ago, she was settling in at the bar with her free pint and her phone had rung, Adam panicky on the other end. “They’ve not called 999, have they? They’ve only called us.”

“Get to the point, Vanessa,” Charity says, teeth grinding.

So , it can’t be that bad, can it?”

Charity settles a bit at that, sinking back into the passenger seat of Vanessa bug. Vanessa eases up just so on the gas, leaving her hand on Charity’s. The car comes to a sliding stop near the farm Jeep and Charity is leaping out of the car before Vanessa has a chance to turn it off.

Ross and Adam are standing in front of Moses and Johnny, the boys propped up on the bonnet of the Jeep.

Johnny points. “Char’ty!”

Charity pulls up sharply, Vanessa crashing into her back.

“What’re you-” Vanessa looks up and stops, her hands gripping Charity’s waist tightly.

Vanessa’s eyes widen as she looks past Charity’s shoulder.

Johnny grins as he notices her, the blood stained under his nose, over his mouth, and down his chin cracking as he does. Moses wipes his fingers on his face, smears of red in his wake.

“What’s happened?” she asks, rushing around Charity. She stops in front of the boys, shouldering Adam out of her way. She lifts Johnny’s chin first, peering at the darkening circles under his eyes, then Moses’s face. She turns back to Adam, glaring. “What happened.”

“Well,” Adam starts, rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. “We-”

“We were being lads,” Ross interrupts lazily. He waves a hand in her direction. “I didn’t even want to call you, but Nutter Nancy here said we should.”

“Damn right you should have,” Charity says, coming up behind Vanessa.

Ross rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”

Moses smiles widely, the split in his lip opening again. Vanessa winces and reaches into the pocket of Adam’s vest where she knows he keeps a tissue, pressing it against Moses’s mouth. “Here, darling. Hold it here.”

Johnny swings his legs happily. “Hi, Mummy.”

“Oh, Johnny,” Vanessa sighs. She rubs at the top of his head before she notices that Moses has let his hand fallen from this mouth. “Charity, can you check if Johnny’s broken his nose?” She turns back to Moses, pressing the tissue back to his lip.

“Let’s have a look, shall we, Johnnybobs?” Charity tips his head back, wincing a bit. Vanessa watches the way her hands move, careful and sure over the ridge of his nose. “This hurt?”

Johnny grins. “No.”

Charity smiles back and pokes him in the forehead. “No broken bones. Yet,” she adds, rounding Ross.

Ross puts his hands up in surrender. “Oi. I already told you. It’s Lad’s Weekend. We were just messing about and then these two here ran right into each other.” He turns, mumbling something under his breath.

Vanessa catches Adam’s eye and her shoulders sag as she feels Charity bristle beside her.

“Go on, then. Say it a bit louder,” Charity challenges.

Ross turns back. “I said, not that you cared before. About what happens to him.”

Charity’s nostrils flare and her eyes flash. “Oh, mister, you are-”

“What? You’ve ridden up here with her,” Ross says, jabbing a finger in Vanessa’s direction. “So now you think you need to put on an act? And care about him? We all know you don’t.”

“You feckless-”

Ross shrugs a shoulder flippantly. “You can’t fool me, Charity Dingle. I know what’s under them clothes, remember?”

Charity lunges forward, Adam catching her around the middle before she reaches Ross. Charity struggles in his arms but Adam doesn’t let go until he’s moved her back a few feet, enough space for Vanessa to put herself in front of Ross. The moment Adam lets go, Charity tries to surge forward, pulling up short in front of Vanessa.

“Out of my way,” she spits.

“Charity,” Vanessa tries. Charity steps around her and Vanessa moves quickly, putting herself back between Ross and Charity. “Charity , go.” She points back towards the barn, her hand on her hip.

Charity snarls at Ross. “I-”

Go ,” Vanessa hisses. She nudges Charity forward, glaring at Ross first, then Adam, before following Charity up the hill.

The barn door groans when Charity pulls it open and Vanessa hurries to slip inside after her before it closes.

“He thinks, just because I-”

“Charity,” Vanessa says calmly.

“When, really, I did it because Debs asked-”

“Charity,” Vanessa repeats.

“It’s not my-”

Vanessa claps her hands together, the sound muffled by the hay around them. “Charity!”

What ?”

Vanessa tips her head slightly, studying the rise and fall of Charity’s chest. “Are you quite done?”

“Am I…” Charity barks out something like a laugh. “Am I done? Oh, babe. I’m just getting started.” She storms towards the barn door, but Vanessa cuts her off.

“Ross was out of line.”

Charity’s mouth falls open. “Do you think so, babe?” She claps her hands together slowly. “You really did make top marks at uni, yeah?

“Ross was out of line,” Vanessa repeats, ignoring Charity’s scoff. “But you going after him, in front of Moses? In front of Johnny? That’s not how to handle your problem.”

Charity rolls her eyes and throws her hands up into the air. “Right. Because there’s etiquette for that, is there?” She scowls. “You’re not better than me, you know.”

Vanessa frowns. “I didn’t say I was. Or think it,” she rushes to add. “I’m just saying that-”

“Little Miss Sunshine here, giving me parenting advice.” Charity plants her hands on her hips. “That’s rich, considering.”

“Considering?”

“Considering you spent the first few months of Johnny’s life pretending he didn’t even exist,” Charity finishes in a growl.

Vanessa steps back, her back leg quivering.

Charity’s eyes widen for a moment before her shoulder drop. “Vanessa, I shouldn’t have…”

“Well, you did.” Vanessa half-turns, pressing her hand to her forehead. “You know, postpartum depression is-”

“I know,” Charity says quickly. She steps forward cautiously. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was bang out of order.”

Vanessa jumps at Charity’s hand on her shoulder. She tries to shake it off, but Charity moves with her, stepping closer.

“Charity,” Vanessa sighs.

Charity ducks her head, meeting Vanessa’s eyes. “I do think you’re a top mum, you know. Better than me, yeah? And Johnny loves you.”

Vanessa’s eyes narrow. “Moses loves you and all.”

Charity gives her a half-smile. “Well, he’s always going to be a bit daft, isn’t he? Half-Barton.”

“Hey,” Vanessa chides. “Johnny’s half-Barton as well.”

“Then there’s no real hope for either of them.” Charity smiles fully now, eyes twinkling.

Vanessa shakes her head softly. She’s suddenly aware of how close Charity is standing - the front of her jacket against Vanessa’s arm and her hand on Vanessa’s shoulder. There’s a heat coming off of her that Vanessa wants to sink into as the cool air of the barn slips in around her wrists. She can feel Charity’s breath against her cheek, the rise and fall of her chest against her arm, her fingers flexing against her shoulder. Her hair swings down and clouds Vanessa’s vision.

“Suppose not,” Vanessa says breathlessly.

Charity looks at her for a long moment, body swaying forward, before she blinks and moves to take a step back.

Vanessa steps forward without too much thought, something hot running through her veins and fluttering in the center of her chest. There’s a voice in the back of her mind, screaming at her to think; to stop and think. This is Charity Dingle. The village… She shuts the voice off quickly. Her hand grips the bottom of Charity’s jacket even as Charity’s hand slides off her shoulder and down to her elbow. She doesn’t want Charity to step too far back, to break this bubble around them. The noise goes out of the barn, leaving only the sound of their breathing behind. The hay crunches loudly between their feet as Vanessa shifts her weight, swaying forward and back with uncertainty.

The truth settles quickly in the pit of her stomach. She wants to kiss Charity Dingle.

“Vanessa,” Charity says softly. She steps in, the tips of her boots bumping against Vanessa’s.

“Charity,” Vanessa whispers back, eyes wide.

Charity’s mouth twitches and she leans forward, the air between them going thin.

The barn door squeaks as it opens, Adam’s silhouette tall as he stands there, searching the darkness for them.

Vanessa steps back quickly, her hand coming up to shield her eyes from the sudden light behind Adam.

Charity hisses at the light. “Turn it off, would you?”

Adam steps further into the barn, blinking at them. He looks between them before he meets Vanessa’s eyes. “Mum wants you two to come in for a brew. If you can stop.”

Charity laughs sharply. “Why don’t you run along to your Mummy and- hey .”

Vanessa grins widely, her hand over Charity’s mouth. “We’ll be along in a moment.”

Adam nods gratefully and steps into the barn, his hands in his pockets. He lowers his voice, angling himself towards Vaness. “Listen, ‘Ness. I didn’t mean for-”

Vanessa drops her hand from Charity’s mouth and holds it up to stop him. “I know you didn’t, Adam. I know you’d never put him in harm’s way on purpose.”

Adam sighs in relief, surging forward and wrapping his arms around Vanessa tightly. He lifts her off the ground and spins her in a circle. “You’re the best, ‘Ness.”

Charity snorts somewhere behind her.

Vanessa can’t help the laugh that bubbles up and out of her throat. Sleeping with Adam had been a mistake, at best, but it’s worked out okay in the end. Johnny has an adoring father, Vanessa has a family, and the friendship she’s built with Adam has been one of the best relationships she’s ever had.

Adam puts her down and grins at her. “Was a bit funny, though. That Moses of yours, he’s a brick wall. Johnny bounced right off him.” He quickly sobers. “But it won’t be happening again.”

Vanessa sighs, patting him on the shoulder. “Well, they’re boys, aren’t they? It’s bound to.” She reaches back, her hand finding Charity’s. She doesn’t think about it, her reaching back. It feels like the right thing to do and her hand has been itching to touch Charity’s again since the moment she let go. Their fingers lace easily and Vanessa tugs, pulling Charity past Adam.

“Ha!” Charity says, sticking her tongue out at Adam. She sticks it out again at Finn and Pete as Vanessa pulls her past them.

Finn makes a face, the same one he’s been making lately, and steps out of their way.

Vanessa doesn’t let go of her hand until they get into the house and even then, if her chair is a bit too close to Charity’s, she tries not to give it much thought.

 

-

Charity pushes a second pint in front of Vanessa, ignoring Moira’s request for a top up.

Moira sighs. “Did you even order that?”

Vanessa shrugs, already taking a swig off the top. “I don’t think so.”

“What’s going on there, then?”

Vanessa puts her pint back down, her frown ruined by the slight foam mustache above her top lip.

“Here, babe,” Charity says, her voice dropping to something low that boils in the pit of Vanessa’s stomach. Her fingers brush lightly across the top of Vanessa’s lip, coming back with small specks of foam. “Got it.” She winks.

“Thanks,” Vanessa breathes out.

Charity wipes her hand on a bar rag. “Any time, babe.” She looks at Vanessa for another moment before she turns her attention to the end of the bar, collecting drink orders.

“What was that?” Moira asks

Vanessa’s hand covers her mouth lightly, the back of her neck burning. “I’ve got no idea.”

Moira snorts and elbows Vanessa. “Well, get her to come back and get me a drink, will you? I’m going to die of thirst.”

Vanessa ignores her, staring at Charity as she works. “I think she was going to kiss me.”

Moira chokes on her last sip of her drink. “She was going to what?”

Finn’s head snaps up, eyes narrowing in their direction. He nudges Tracy with his elbow, but she ignores him and keeps scrolling on her phone.

“Not now, obviously.” Vanessa angles herself away from Finn and Tracy and wipes at the small drops of beer littering the bar. Her ears feel flushed. “Last week. When the boys got hurt. We were in the barn and she was-” Vanessa stops, lowering her voice as Charity drifts by them. “She was upset about Ross and we…” She shrugs a shoulder.

Moira shakes her head. “Oh, lady, you are in trouble.”

“Trouble? Our ‘Ness?” Charity leans an elbow down on the bar. “That’s something I’d like to see.”

“I’d like to see this glass filled up,” Moira offers, sliding her empty pint towards Charity.

Charity ignores her.

Vanessa can feel herself start to smile, the tops of her cheeks start to burn, and she grabs Moira’s glass and sets it in front of Charity. “How about another?”

Charity’s hand curls around the glass, her fingers brushing over Vanessa’s. “For you, babe? Sure.” She glances at Moira as she starts to pull a fresh pint. “Could have asked me yourself, you know.”

Moira’s mouth drops open. “I-”

“It’s good job I like Vanessa, isn’t it?” Charity continues, putting the full pint down.

Moira’s eyes narrow. “Do you now?”

“Charity,” Chas calls from the back. “Help me with this delivery.”

Charity jabs her finger in Moira’s face. “We’re not done here.” The edge in her voice fades as she looks at Vanessa. “Stick around, yeah? I want to talk to you about Christmas up at Boring Farm.”

Moira rolls her eyes. “And you want to kiss that?” she asks Vanessa.

Vanessa looks around quickly. “Raise your voice, yeah? The people at the Hotten Courier didn’t hear you.”

“She’s trouble, that Charity.”

“It was nothing,” Vanessa insists. “I probably made it all up. There might’ve not even been a… a moment.” She looks away, past the bar and into the corridor. “A romantic, me. Got caught up in the…”

“The what?” Moira prompts. “The smell of cow muck and hay?”

Vanessa’s cheeks flush. “Well, when you put it that way, it sounds daft.”

“What sounds daft,” Moira corrects. “Is that you’d want to even kiss Charity in the first place. She’s…”

“What?” Vanessa asks, her voice hardening.

She knows what people say about Charity - she knows what she’s said about Charity. Before. But now Vanessa can see something else, something deeper. She saw the fear in her eyes as they drove out to Butlers. She’s seen the soft sparks in Charity’s eyes when Vanessa stops by to drop Johnny off for a playdate or the way she holds onto Moses a bit tighter when she picks him up after a sleepover at Tug Ghyll. There’s a whole other layer to Charity Dingle besides her looks.

Looks, she has in spades, after all. Vanessa’s not blind to it. Only a fool would think Charity Dingle is not attractive. And Vanessa Woodfield is not a fool.

But she’s not shallow, either. And she wants to get to the deeper part of Charity; she thinks it might be worth the risk no one has time to take.

Moira leans back, eyes wide. “Easy, girl. I’m only saying. Charity is usually running some kind of scheme. I’d hate you to be caught up in it,” she says kindly.

Vanessa frowns. “She’s not like that all the time.”

“You haven’t known Charity like I’ve known Charity.”

Vanessa shakes her head. “She’s been… different. With me, I mean. Lately.”

Moira stares at her before she takes a long sip of her pint and puts it down on the bar. “Right. I’m off. You stopping for tea?”

Vanessa’s frown fades into a smile. “Course. Johnny’s got that train station he wants to show Adam.”

Moira grins and spins off her seat, lifting onto her toes to kiss the side of Vanessa’s head. “Pass that on to my grandson, would you.”

“Well, lucky I missed out on the goodbye kisses,” Charity says flatly. She wiggles her eyebrows at Vanessa. “Unless you’re passing them out next?”

Vanessa feels her face flush and she ducks her head, staring down into her pint glass. She can feel Finn staring at her now “You wanted to talk about Christmas?” she asks after a minute.

Charity snaps her fingers. “Christmas, yeah. Me and the boys are going to spend it with the Bartons, surprise suprise.”

Something flutters in Vanessa’s chest. It’s not like Charity wasn’t there last Christmas. But last Christmas there wasn’t this undercurrent coursing through her body. “Oh,” she says, trying to keep her voice neutral.

Oh ,” Charity repeats, leaning closer. “Thought you’d be happier to hear it. Another sane person to spend your day with. Sneak a sip of gin. Get caught under the mistletoe.” She winks.

“I am. Happy about it,” Vanessa rushes.

Someone calls Charity’s name, lifting this glass - they want a top up. Charity ignores them.

Charity smiles widely. “I need to know what I should get everyone. Nothing big, mind you. Not looking to empty my till on the Barton’s.”

“Don’t they fill your till?”

“And?” Charity waves a hand dismissively. “Noah says it’s good etiquette, or whatever. He’s insisting I pick something up for all of them. You an' all.”

Vanessa smiles curiously. “Noah said that?”

Charity’s eyes narrow. “He likes you, yeah? Well, as much as a moody teenager can like anything. Goes on and on about Christmas at yours like it was some kind of dinner with the Queen.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Course it wasn’t, babe. It was the living room at Tug Ghyll with half the bloody farm shoved inside of it, but you can’t talk our Noah out of anything. Including his grand delusions.” Her hand drops over Vanessa’s, squeezing to let her know she’s just teasing.

Vanessa stares down at Charity’s carefully manicured nails, the way they shine under the pub lights. Her hands are neat and tidy, her fingers long. There’s a heat coming off of her palm - nearly sweaty, if it were anyone else, Vanessa reckons. Instead, her hand settles warmly over Vanessa’s.

“So. What do you want?”

Vanessa frowns. “What do I want?”

“For Christmas, babe. You and Johnnybobs.” Charity’s hand slides off hers. “Been spending too much time with them cows, have you?”

Vanessa rolls her eyes. “You don’t need to get me anything.”

“My company is enough, yeah?” Charity preens, her chin in the air. She looks at Vanessa out of the corner of her eye, her smile growing wider when Vanessa looks away quickly.

“Something like that,” Vanessa grumbles. She props her chin up in her hand, her other hand curled around her pint glass. “You know, I think this is the most we’ve talked. Outside of the Bartons and the boys, I mean.”

Charity’s eyes narrow but her smile doesn’t fade. “Aren’t we talking about both of those things?” She taps her fingertips on the bar. “Though, there are… other things we could talk about.”

“Why?” Vanessa asks, the words sliding out of her mouth before she can stop them. She winces. Always sticking my foot in my mouth. She sits up straighter, an apology on the tip of her tongue.

Charity pulls away, though. Just like the last time. Her eyes harden and her arms fold over her chest. “Didn’t realize I had to have a reason.”

“You don’t,” Vanessa says quickly. She lifts up out of her seat a little, already hating the growing distance between them. “I… I like it. Talking to you.”

But Vanessa can see the damage has been done - Charity is putting up her walls and backing up behind them. Someone calls her over and she listens, this time, taking a step back.

“Well, I’m a treat,” Charity says. But it’s different this time. It’s hollow and flat. She doesn’t wait for Vanessa’s reaction, turning to take Jimmy’s empty pint. She pulls a fresh one, slamming it down in front of him and ignoring his shout of protest. She pauses for just a moment in front of Vanessa, eyes cold.

Vanessa winces. “Charity, I-”

“Don’t worry, Vanessa.” Charity makes her name sound like a curse. “It won’t happen again.”

Finn meets her eye, winces, and looks away.

 

-

“Have a brew,” Moira says gently, pushing a cup in front of her.

Vanessa stares at it, her lip curling. “I’m not thirsty.”

“Oh, go on. It won’t hurt.” Moira takes the kitchen chair across from her, reaching out and rubbing her arm.

Vanessa sighs and picks it up, her hands warming instantly. She pushes out her bottom lip and slips down a little in her seat.

“I hate seeing you like this, Vanessa,” Moira says over the rim of her cup. “Especially over Charity.”

Vanessa’s head snaps up. “Don’t do that.”

Moira’s eyes widen. “Do what, exactly?”

“Say it like she’s the one who did something wrong.” Vanessa sighs. “It was me.”

Moira puts her cup down and leans forward. “You didn’t do anything wrong, love.”

“I didn’t do anything right, either.” Vanessa takes a sip of her tea, wincing at the slight burn. She knows she’s exaggerating. It’s hardly like she burned down the Woolpack, or stabbed Charity through the stomach. She just let her mouth run away before her brain could catch up, her wonderment at Charity’s attention being on her getting the better of her. She sighs again.

Moira frowns softly. “Has she been ignoring you?”

“No,” Vanessa groans. “That’s the worst part, isn’t it? She’s been perfectly… pleasant. Overly so, even.”

She thinks about picking up Moses the day before last. Charity had handed Vanessa his overnight bag with a polite smile, kissed Moses on the top of the head, and told him to behave. Vanessa is sure that a week ago, before she ruined things, Charity might have offered her a kiss goodbye as well. Instead, she’d given Vanessa the same offer as she did the last time: stop in for a pint, on her.

Finn, sitting at the bar, had given her a look of sympathy.

“She’ll come round,” he told her.

Vanessa didn’t think she would. It’s why she hadn’t gone in after she dropped the boys at Butlers; she went home and drank an entire bottle of white and watched old romance movies until she fell asleep on the couch.

She’s known Charity for years , almost six of them, and she’s never thought about her before. Not this way. But now that she has, now that she knows just how green Charity’s eyes are in the right light; how Charity smiles at her bad jokes; how Charity’s hand feels in hers. Well, she can’t go back. She doesn’t want to.

Moira studies her carefully, eyes narrowed in thought. “You like her.”

Vanessa sighs. “I do.”

Moira hums softly to herself and gets up, opening the refrigerator and sifting through its contents. “Lasagna?” she asks.

“Sure.” Vanessa shifts in her seat. “Rhona has Johnny for the night. Some sleepover with Leo.”

“For what it’s worth,” Moira says as she starts piling ingredients on the table. “I think she might like you as well.”

Vanessa eyes her suspiciously. “I thought you said she was just running some kind of scheme.”

“I said she usually is running some kind of scheme,” Moira corrects. “But she was looking at you… differently. Like she was truly enjoying herself talking to you.”

Something like hope flutters in Vanessa’s chest. “You think so?”

She doesn’t want to get her hopes up, not when she’s so sure that being wrong will hurt as bad as she thinks it will. But she can’t hide the rise in her voice and the way she sits up just a little straighter, ears straining for Moira’s answer.

“God help me, I think she does,” Moira says finally. “She’s done nothing to deserve you, by the way.”

“She doesn’t need to deserve me.” Vanessa is sure it’s the opposite; she’s done nothing to deserve Charity.

Moira makes a face into the pan she’s greasing. “Listen to me, Vanessa Woodfield. You’re not only the mother of my grandchild, you’re my friend as well.” She puts the pan down and stops in front of Vanessa, tipping her face up so Vanessa can see her eyes. “And if Charity Dingle gives you a miss, well.” Moira taps the bottom of Vanessa’s chin. “Well, her loss, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Vanessa breathes out.

Moira’s shoulders drop but she smiles. “You really, really like her.”

Vanessa sighs again. “Yeah.”

Moira opens her mouth to say something, but closes it again and steps back. She hands Vanessa a jar of sauce and nods at the counter. “Help me, would you? The boys’ll be in soon and you know how Cain is without food. A bear with a sore head.”

“Isn’t he like that all the time?” Vanessa grumbles.

Moira grins and bumps her hip against Vanessa’s. “That’s what makes him so lovable.”

 

-

“Vanessa?” Moira calls into the living room. “Can you go and check the yard for the lot of them?”

Vanessa pushes up off the couch, grateful for something to do. Adam, Victoria, Ross, and Pete had taken Johnny, Noah, and Moses outside with the little one’s new sledges. Tracy had dragged Finn along, declaring the house too boring, leaving Vanessa alone in the living room with Cain and Charity.

Even on a good day, she’d not wish it on any of her enemies. On Christmas Day, with five days of lukewarm conversations and fleeting eye contact from Charity? She’d not wish this on people who voted for Brexit.

Cain is doing his best impression of a statue, glowering moodily into the kitchen as Moira drifts in and out of sight. Charity is picking at her nails, absently checking her phone every so often. Vanessa is too afraid to move, to spark too much attention, but Moira calls her name and she jumps off the couch like a firework, over the mountains of presents and discarded wrappings, practically running into the kitchen and coming to a quick stop before she runs into Moira.

“Which way did they say they were going?” she asks, already pulling on her coat.

Moira snorts. “In a hurry to get them?”

“In a hurry to get out of that tomb of a room, more like,” Vanessa mutters. She spares a glance over her shoulder and catches Charity looking away from her. “Like an ice room in there. Cain is starting to look more appealing right now.”

“Oi, that’s my husband.” Moira holds up a fork with a piece of turkey on it. “Just be glad James and Emma decided to take a vacation this year. Now that’d be a frosty place to be.”

“He’s all yours, don’t worry.” Vanessa takes the bite, nodding immediately. “Delicious.”

Moira grins and starts setting the rest of the Christmas dinner out on the table. “She still not speaking to you?”

Vanessa sighs. “I’m a fool for thinking it could be a Christmas miracle, aren’t I?”

“Not a fool. Maybe a bit mad, though.” Moira picks up her bobble hat and pulls it down over Vanessa’s head, covering her eyes.

Vanessa sputters and waves an arm blindly in the direction she thinks Moira is. She can hear Moira laugh and she follows the sound, bumping into a chair and teetering to one side. Moira pinches at her side, from the back, and Vanessa swings around quickly, her body tipping and swaying.

“Does Cain know you two are having it on in here like an old married couple?”

Charity’s voice is muffled through the fabric of her hat. Vanessa quickly pushes her hat back, her cheeks burning in embarrassment.

Moira doesn’t pay Charity any attention, turning back to the cooktop.

Charity leans a hip against one of the kitchen chairs, folding her arms over her chest. Her eyes are steady and unblinking. Vanessa wants to look away, her whole body burning under Charity’s gaze, but she stands still.

“Oi,” Moira calls. “Go get them, would you? It’s nearly done. Cain’ll help me set the table.”

Vanessa salutes, pulling on her boots.

“Charity, why don’t you go with her?” Moira suggests.

Vanessa’s eyes widen.

Charity turns, her back to Vanessa and her hand on her hip. “I’m sorry, what?”

Moira fights a smile, clearing her throat instead. “You. Vanessa. Getting the rest of them.”

Vanessa shakes her head violently, dragging a flat hand across her throat. Charity looks back over her shoulder and frowns. Vanessa drops her hand quickly, tugging at the zipper on her coat. As soon as Charity turns back around, Vanessa glares at Moira, mouthing the word ‘no’ at her.

“Please, Charity.” Moira sighs. “You know how Vanessa is. She’ll let all of them get one last turn and the turkey’ll be cold before they get in.”

Charity finally sighs and throws her arms up, snatching her coat off the rack. “Fine. If she needs a babysitter, you should have just sent her out with the little ones earlier.”

“Hey,” Vanessa protests. “I’m right here.”

Charity widens her eyes, feigning surprise. “Sorry, babe. Must not have seen you there. Being, you know. Shorter than the rest of the adults here.”

Vanessa glares at her, then Moira, and stomps out of the house, hurrying out towards the Jeep. She’ll get the best view of the farm from there.

“Wait a minute!”

Vanessa can hear someone shuffling through the snow behind her and she starts to pick up her pace. She won’t let Charity catch up to her, not when her cheeks are still hot and she’s not sure what to say.

“Vanessa, just- Just slow down, would you?” Charity reaches her and grabs at her elbow, pulling her in a half circle. She’s in a white coat and a pair of ear warmers that rival the size of her own head. Vanessa pushes down the fluttering in her stomach. Charity pants heavily. “For having them little legs, you sure can move.”

Vanessa pulls her arm back, cradling it against her chest. “What do you want?”

Charity blinks. “Hey, lady. I got sent out here, same as you.”

“And when do you ever listen to Moira?” Vanessa rolls her eyes. “Listen, just stand there and I’ll go get them. Then you call tell Moira you did all the work.” She turns and starts to walk away but Charity is quicker, moving in front of her before she gets too far.

“Excuse me. If anyone should be walking off from the other, I think it should be me.”

Vanessa’s mouth drops open. “You what?”

Charity crosses her arms over her chest, sticking her chin into the air. “You’re the one prancing about wondering why I should be treated like a decent human being.”

There’s footsteps coming towards the, Tracy cresting the small hill as she drags Finn being her. “Hiya,” she calls. “They’re on their way. Ross and Adam are wrangling the wee ones.” She pauses. “Charity, you look mega fit in those,” she says, tapping her ears.

Vanessa forces a smile and Charity nods sharply, not sparing Tracy a second glance.

“Here they go again,” Finn mutters as he brushes past Vanessa.

Hey ,” Vanessa protests. “What does that mean?”

Finn doesn’t turn around, though, trudging along after Tracy until they disappear inside the house. When Vanessa looks back, Charity is still standing there, mouth pressed together in a thin line.

“Well?” she finally asks.

What , Charity?” Vanessa is tired. She just wants to make it through Christmas and pass Johnny off to Adam for all of Boxing Day so she can sulk in her bed until she forgets about this awkward day.

Charity breathes in slowly. “I’m waiting on your apology.”

“My-” Vanessa stops herself, looking around. There’s no sign of Adam and the others yet. “ My apology.”

“Any time now, babe.” Charity taps her foot in the snow. “I mean, honestly. Why does Johnny like you,” she mocks. “Why’re you talking to me ?”

Vanessa frowns. “Why do I have a Scottish accent?”

Charity ignores her.

“Maybe, just maybe, Johnny likes me because I’m a good person, hmm?” Charity steps closer, her voice louder now. “Maybe he can see that I’m not some stuck-up, overeducation, insufferable cow of a-”

Vanessa can see the others coming now: Adam with Johnny on his shoulders and Victoria on his arm, Ross carrying Moses in his arms, Pete and Noah huddled close as they talk. Noah looks up and notices them, eyeing them curiously. He peels off from the group, picking up speed as he gets closer. Vanessa can feel the panic rising in her stomach. It’s not that she’s scared of Noah, not really. But he’s protective of Charity - with good reason, Vanessa knows - and he’s got that look on his face, the same one Moses gets when someone at nursery pushes Johnny over.

She doesn’t think. She grabs the sleeve of Charity’s coat and tugs, pulling her across fresh snow to the barn. The door is heavier this time, wet with snow and catching on the piles beneath it, but she gets it open and pulls Charity inside, closing the door behind them before Noah can reach them.

“You know, I can have you charged with assault,” Charity mutters. She wipes the front of her jacket down. “Grabbing me and pulling me around like that. You’re too small to be able to do that.”

Vanessa laughs, sharp and angry. “Can’t help yourself, can you?”

“Can you?” Charity asks. “Where was I?” She snaps her fingers. “Right. You’re a stuck-up, over-”

“Educated, insufferable cow,” Vanessa finishes. “Yeah, I heard you the first time.”

Charity’s shoulders start to drop. “Well, then. You’re also a-”

“You’ve been ignoring me,” Vanessa interrupts. She clenches her hands into fists, her fingernails cutting into her palms. She tries to keep her voice even but she can hear the hint of a whine in her words, the hint of confusion.

“Well, you’re hardly the best conversational partner these days, aren’t you?” Charity rolls her eyes. “Can’t go more than fifteen minutes without insulting me.”

Vanessa sighs. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“What then? You only meant to what? Make me feel just a wee bit bad about myself?” Charity scoffs. “Sure, babe.”

Vanessa turns away, wringing her hands in front of her body. The words push against the seam of her lips. She tries to swallow them back but when she takes a breath in, they rush out before she can stop them. “I was floored, honestly.”

“Aren’t you close enough to floor already?” Charity mumbles.

Vanessa ignores her. “Not about Johnny. He adores you. He always has. And I know why, honest.”

Charity eyes her warily. “Why?” she finally asks.

Vanessa smiles softly, turning back to face Charity head on. “He think you’re funny. He likes your hair. You know all the best hiding spots.”

“I’m good for a laugh, then.”

“Charity,” Vanessa sighs. She moves closer, reaching for Charity’s hands before she stops herself, dropping them at her sides. “Do you remember when he was learning to walk? And Moses was already walking, practically running, he was. But Johnny was taking his time. You spent a whole afternoon following him around and he-”

“He fell down,” Charity finishes, glancing to the side. “Thought Moira was going to have me head.”

Vanessa wrinkles her nose. “No. Babies fall. It’s what they do. But you scooped him right up and put him back on his feet and pretended like nothing happened. Every time he fell, he kept looking at you.” She takes a deep breath, gathering her courage, and finds Charity’s hands this time, squeezing gently. “He knew he could count on you, couldn’t he?”

Charity scoffs. “First time for everything, yeah?”

“He knows he can still count on you,” Vanessa continues over Charity. “He likes you because you’re funny and your hair is better than mine but he loves you because when he falls down, you’re nearly the first person to always pick him back up.”

Charity stares down at their hands long enough that some of Vanessa’s courage starts to fade quickly. She sucks in a breath and tries to keep going. She’s sure Moira is going to send someone - Adam, most likely - out to find them soon enough and then she’ll lose her window and her nerve.

“But that’s not what surprised me,” she continues.

Charity looks up. “What’s that?”

“I was surprised that… that you even wanted to talk to me,” Vanessa admits.

Charity’s forehead pulls in, her lips pursing. “We talk all the time, babe.”

“About the kids. About holidays and family dinners.” Vanessa nods. “We talk all the time. But it felt… different. Like…” Vanessa trails off, looking down and summoning the last of the tendrils of courage she’s got left. “Like we were really talking. Like you…”

“Like I what?” Charity asks softly.

Vanessa looks up and inhales sharply. Charity is closer than before, less than a meter away. Her eyes are shining in the stream of sunlight trickling through a hole in the side of the barn. “It’d be ridiculous, right?” Vanessa asks, trying to brush off the rising hope in her stomach. “That you’d…”

Charity moves closer. “That I’d what?”

“I’ve always had romantic notions, me mum always said so. And I-”

Charity presses a finger to her lips. “For all this talking you say we’re doing, you’re not making a bit of sense.” She drops her hand slowly. “What’re you trying to say, Vanessa. Because I’m not following all of these half-sentences you’re making at me. Bit like Jimmy on a long night at the pub, you are.”

“Charity,” Vanessa says. She straighten up, pulling her shoulders back, and takes a deep breath. “I like you, Charity Dingle”

Charity smiles crookedly. “Babe, if it’s a Mrs. and Mrs. White Wedding you’re after, I am so not your girl?”

Something ugly pulses in Vanessa’s chest for a few heartbeats. “Even if I was, who said you would be?” she asks, her voice harder now.

Charity pulls back, eyes wide. “Really.”

Vanessa sighs. “Charity, I-”

“Did you mean it?” Charity’s voice is softer now, more hesitant. Her smile is gone, a thin line in its place. Vanessa watches as she busies herself with the end of her jacket.

That feeling, that like in her stomach, blooms into maybe something more instantly.

“Did I mean what?” Vanessa covers Charity’s hands with her own.

“That you-” Charity looks up and stops, rolling her eyes when she sees Vanessa’s smile. “You’re evil, you are.”

“A bit,” Vanessa agrees, pinching her thumb and forefinger together.

Charity shakes her head, her hands walking up the front of Vanessa’s jacket and gripping the sides where the zip meets. “Come here,” she says, moving forward before Vanessa can, leaning down to kiss her.

Kissing Charity goes to the top of her to-do list the moment their mouths meet.

Charity lips are soft, barely moving against her own until Vanessa lifts her head. She can feel Charity’s mouth part, some heavy and warm brushing against her bottom lip and then she pushing forward, grabbing at Charity’s jacket, at her arms. She slides her hands into Charity’s hair and pulls her down, breaking the kiss to take a breath and then leaning in again. She can feel hay bales at her knees, against her back, and Charity’s hands - sliding around her waist and under the bottom of her jacket, ghosting along the top of her trousers before they disappear. She reaches up, pushing impatiently at the ear warmers Charity is wearing, knocking them to the ground.

“Wait,” Charity pants. She pulls back but rests her forehead against Vanessa’s, her palms hot against Vanessa’s cheeks. “You like me?”

“I…” Vanessa lets out a long breath, nodding. “I like you a lot.”

Charity winks. “I heard you the first time, babe, tone it down, yeah?”

Vanessa shakes her head, grinning.

Charity smiles, pulling her in again.

“Whenever you’re ready, ladies.”

Vanessa jumps, clutching Charity’s hand to her chest.

Moira grins at them. “Boys are getting a wee bit impatient. Otherwise I’d let you two finish your… conversation.” She nods back towards the house. “But maybe you can take a few mince pies after dinner. Might even find the Jeep unlocked, if the hay isn’t your thing.

Charity stands up, brushing off the front of her jacket. She huffs, picking her ear warmers and plucking straws of hay out of them.

“Though, Cain seemed to enjoy it, so maybe it runs in the family.” Moira takes a quick step back out of sight, leaving the door open behind her.

“That-”

“Is my son’s grandmother,” Vanessa interrupts. “And my friend.” She reaches out, tugging the zip of Charity’s jacket back into place. “So let’s speak nicely of her, yeah?”

“Or not speak at all,” Charity says, her voice low. Her hands curl into the front of Vanessa’s jacket, tugging her forward until their bodies are pressed together. She dips her head down again.

After dinner!” Moira hollers from outside of the barn.

Charity groans and drops her head to Vanessa’s shoulder.

Vanessa laughs and grabs Charity’s hand, lacing their fingers together easily. She tugs. “Come on, then. The faster we get through dinner, the faster we can take our mince pies to go.”

Charity wraps her arms around Vanessa’s waist, pulling her back against her front. “I was right, then. Top marks, you,” she breathes into her ear.

Vanessa twists out of her arms and grins. “Not just at uni, either.” She winks and takes off towards the house, laughing as Charity yells at her to slow down. She waits the door, trapping Charity against it before she can turn the knob. “So, you’re staying, then?”

“At Barton’s Bumbling Circus?” Charity asks. She smiles and kisses Vanessa, slow and sweet and soft. “Yeah. Yeah, I can spare a few hours for this.”