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Hold on to this lullaby (Even when the music's gone)
They're approaching the pub, Johnny chattering away happily to her about Moses and jam sandwiches, when she sees Noah storm round from the back, a rucksack slung over his shoulder. Her stomach drops when she catches sight of the expression on his face; it looks like he's been crying. They'd had such a nice day, too. He'd been smiling and laughing and actually joining in conversations rather than just grunting. And now he's had all this dropped on him from a great height with no warning. She doesn't blame Ryan for wanting to meet his family. It's not like he's had it easy either, finding all this stuff out about the man who fathered him. But she wishes he hadn't forced Charity's hand the way he did.
Noah's marching up towards the bus-stop when she calls out to him. "Noah. Noah!" He doesn't stop, so she scoops Johnny up and takes off at a jog. "Noah! Wait there a second."
He stops walking, his shoulders lifting and dropping in a sigh. He spins and glares at her, and there's no mistaking the tear tracks on his face from this distance. "What?" he spits, a world away from the boy who was shooting her with a water gun a couple of hours ago.
"Where you going?"
She's sure he's about to growl something about it being none of her business when Johnny waves at him. "Hi Noah," he says, smiling shyly.
There's half a second where she thinks that Johnny might get his ire instead, but his face clears a little when his eyes land on her son and he even offers him a smile. "Hi Johnny." Johnny giggles and hides his face in Vanessa's shoulder.
"Look, why don't you come to mine, eh? I know this is a huge thing that's been landed on you and you probably need time to-"
"She chose him."
Noah's trying to look unaffected, but she hears the waver in his voice. She frowns. "Eh?"
"I told her I didn't want him around, reminding us of what his scum dad did to her. And she said she wanted him to stay." He swipes angrily at his eyes and hikes his rucksack higher on his shoulder. "So I said I'd go. I'm going to stay at Joe's."
Her heart breaks for how that must have made Charity feel; to be forced to choose between her boys with everything else that's going on. She wants to go to her this second and make sure she's alright, to hold her and tell her things will get better. But she knows that if she can deal with this Noah situation, that will mean more to Charity than tea and sympathy right now. She sets Johnny down onto his feet, taking his hand again.
"Right. Why don't you come to mine and you can wash your face and I'll make you a brew. Let you clear your head a little?" She tilts her head. "And then I'll drive you to Joe's if that's what you want." If it comes to that, at least she'll be able to tell Charity she got him there safely.
"What?" He scowls. "So you can try and make me go back there? No thanks."
"No." She shakes her head and holds her free hand up in surrender. "No talking. Not unless you want to, I promise. Just some peace to give you a breather, that's all." She leans in a little. "I've had a sibling sprung on me an'all, remember? I know how it messes with your head." She rolls her eyes. "Tracy still messes with my head, if I'm honest."
One side of his mouth turns up at that, and he actually seems to be considering the offer. She has to bite her tongue to stop herself from badgering him further and putting him off. Very skittish, these Dingles, when it comes to anything that might involve them talking about a feeling. Johnny looks up at him and holds out his hand.
"You come see my train, Noah?"
Once again, his face softens when confronted with Johnny's lack of guile and she thanks whoever's listening that the babysitter chose today to fall ill. Noah rolls his eyes, but takes Johnny's hand and smiles.
"C'mon then, mate. You better show me this train."
Vanessa tries to mask her sigh of relief as the three of them head to Tug Ghyll. Johnny and Noah discuss the colours and names of Thomas the Tank Engine's various friends while she gets them both inside and wrestles Johnny out of his jacket, shedding her own and hanging them both up. Noah drops his backpack by the couch as Johnny drags him over to the box where his wooden train set is stored. She watches them for a second, noting how Noah is a completely different boy around Johnny than he is around most adults. He's the same with Moses; loving and gentle and friendly. Vanessa's sure that's the real Noah. Not the one he shows to the rest of the world. The one that's cased in armour because he's been wounded so often in the past in battles he never asked to be part of.
"Can you keep an eye on him for a minute?" Vanessa points to the stairs with her thumb. "I'm just going to change my jeans." She lifts her eyebrows. "I'm still damp in some pretty uncomfortable places."
His nose wrinkles and Vanessa's chest constricts at how much he resembles Charity in that moment. "Gross. Yeah, whatever."
"Great. Then I'll make us a brew, yeah?"
She nods and smiles at them, turning to bound up the stairs, two at a time, slipping her phone out of her pocket as she goes. She quickly calls Charity, closing her bedroom door behind her. It rings a couple of times and Vanessa murmurs 'C'mon', hoping that Charity's not so frantic that she'll ignore the call. Her breath catches when it's picked up mid-ring.
"Babe, listen, I can't talk right now. Our Noah's taken all this the way I knew he would and he's run off and I need to-"
Vanessa cuts her off. "I've got him. He's here."
"Eh? Where? At yours?"
"Yeah." Vanessa nods.
"Right, I'll be th-"
"No, Charity...I think it would be better to give him a little time to calm down, yeah?"
"Oh, you do, do you? Well, he's my son and I need to...I need to explain...I need to tell him-" Charity's voice breaks. "I just need to-"
"I know. I know you do." Vanessa feels her own throat begin to close up. "Look, he was on his way up to Home Farm when I found him and if you barge in here right now, that's where he'll make a beeline for again, isn't it?" Charity doesn't respond, so Vanessa keeps going. "I just wanted him to come here and clear his head a little bit. It's a lot to take in."
She hears a door close at the other end and when Charity speaks again, her voice is lowered. "Listen, Ness...when he left...he said...well-"
"I know what he said. He told me." She can picture Charity's surprise perfectly.
"Wow. An hour of water pistols and you're best buddies, then?" The sharpness of Charity's voice makes Vanessa close her eyes and she bites back a sigh as Charity continues. "S'probably for the best, actually. I mean, he'll need a new mum now that he doesn't want anything to do with me."
"Charity." Her voice is firm. "He doesn't need a new mum, and we're definitely not best buddies. But he told me why he doesn't want Ryan around and I...I think that maybe I can talk him round a bit." She bites her lip. "I'm gonna try, at least. Is...is that okay?"
There's a long pause and she knows the answer could go either way. Charity could lash out and insist on coming over because she's used to being everything to Noah. Vanessa holds her breath when she hears Charity sigh.
"Yeah." She sounds weary. And no wonder. This is all she needs right now. "Yeah that's...that's...thanks, babe. And I'm sorry I snap-"
"Charity, you don't have to apologise." She presses her cheek closer to the phone, as if that will somehow bring her closer to Charity. "With all you're going through right now-"
"Doesn't mean I get to take it out on you."
Vanessa closes her eyes and wills herself not to cry. She covers her mouth and swallows, nodding. "Okay. I'm going to go and make us a brew and see if he'll talk to me a bit." She wants to be able to tell Charity she loves her; she can feel the words forming on her tongue. But by some kind of silent, mutual agreement, they've decided to leave those confessions for later, when the whole world isn't falling down every five minutes. She swallows and tries to smile so that Charity can't hear the strain in her voice. "Is Ryan still there? And Debs?"
"Yeah, they're chatting away in the kitchen. Probably about me."
"Probably," Vanessa agrees. "You're their common ground right now."
"Right. Both of them have had the privilege of being abandoned by the world's worst mum, haven't they?"
Vanessa frowns. "That's not-"
"I know, babe." She can hear some warmth creep back into Charity's voice and it heartens her. "I was joking."
"You know how I feel about you putting yourself down. Even when you're only kidding." It's one of Charity's trusted mechanisms.
"S'long as you don't put me down, we're doing okay, yeah?"
Vanessa smiles. "I'll call you in a bit. Let you know what's happening."
"Okay." A pause. "Take care of my boy."
"I will." She needs to end this call, or those words are going to come out. "I'll speak to you soon."
She takes a moment to compose herself after she hangs up, her thumb brushing over Charity's face on her phone screen. Inhaling deeply, she grabs a clean pair of jeans and gets into them, just in case Noah noticed what she'd been wearing, and heads back down the stairs.
Johnny is directing Noah as to how to construct the track on the coffee table. Noah glances up as she reaches the bottom of the stairs and she gives him a little smile before going over to fill the kettle.
Her back is to him when he speaks. "I take it you called her."
She sets the kettle down and flicks the switch, turning and leaning back against the counter, not wanting to crowd him. She nods. "I did. I wanted her to know you were safe. She was pretty set on coming over to speak to you, but I said it was maybe best to leave you alone for a bit."
His eyebrows rise a little; he was clearly expecting her to go back on her word of not forcing him back to talk to Charity "Is he still there?" he asks, lip curling.
"Yeah, he is." She watches his face crease into a frown, his jaw tense. "Listen, Noah, I...I understand why you feel the way you do about Ryan, you know."
"No you don't." He scoffs. "She's not your mum."
"No. But she's my girlfriend. And I-" She can't say that to Noah without first saying it to Charity. "I care about her." Vanessa turns away again, grabbing two mugs and sorting them for tea as the kettle comes to the boil. "I hate thinking about what that man did to her. I hate thinking about how he hurt her, and how scared and alone she must have felt back then."
She pours water into each of the mugs, stirring each of them in turn. A noise from behind alerts her that Noah is moving and she stops breathing, terrified that he's heading out the door, but he comes to stand by her. She pushes one of the mugs in his direction, looking up to find that he's trying not to cry.
"And most of all," she continues, her voice low. "I hate that I can't take it all away, all those horrible memories. I wish I could do that more than anything."
"Yeah." He sniffs, picking up his tea. "But she's not gonna be able to forget it if he's there, is she?" He scowls. "She has to think about it every time she looks at him."
"No, love," Vanessa shakes her head, forcing the words past the lump in her throat. "She's not gonna forget, full stop. Ryan or no Ryan." He looks away, a sob escapes his throat and he turns his back to her. She lays a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. "Ryan isn't a reminder, because it doesn't ever go away. But she's so strong that she's built a life for herself, a good one with people around her who care about her. And that's what helps her, love. That's what gets her through times like this, really hard times when she has to think about all that bad stuff." She rubs his back. "Having you and Debs and Moses around her. And Ryan."
He spins back around, looking more like a little boy than she can ever remember seeing him. "But...but he's part of that guy!"
She nods. "Yeah. But he's part of your mum, too, remember?" She smiles. "He's funny, and sarcastic, and clever. And if you get to know him, you'll really like him. I'm sure you will."
Rubbing at his eyes, he inhales shakily. "You've spent a lot of time with him, then?"
"Not a lot, no." She wipes a few of her own tears away. "But enough to know he's a sweet guy who's had his whole life turned upside down as well." She lifts her mug and takes a sip. "He's got to live with what his father did to your mum. He's got to live with knowing where he came from. Which is why your mum wants him to know that none of it is his fault." She sets the mug down and waits until he looks at her. "Because it's not, Noah. None of it is his fault. He was just a baby."
He nods and sniffs. "It's just...it's hard to not think about that guy."
Her heart jumps at the slightly more positive tone in his voice. "It'll be easier not to once you know Ryan as a person, I promise. Then he'll just be Ryan. Your daft big brother with really awful taste in music."
He smiles a little. "I've already got one of them."
Vanessa bumps his shoulder. "There you go, then. Joe wasn't exactly anyone's favourite person to begin with, was he? And now you all think he's the best thing since sliced bread."
"Mum still doesn't like him," Noah points out.
"Well, okay, no." Vanessa squints at him. "But she knows that you and Debbie love him and want him around. So she's polite to him." He goes to interrupt and she quickly continues. "Your mum's version of polite, at least."
He sighs. "It's weird. I started this year with one brother…"
Vanessa nods, cradling her mug and looking down into it. "And now you've got three."
"Four." Her head snaps up and she finds him watching Johnny play with his train. Tears spill over her lashes and she covers her mouth. He sighs and rolls his eyes. "Don't get soppy."
"Sorry. Sorry." She smiles, wiping her cheeks. "There. Not soppy at all."
"Yeah, right." He smiles at her, before dipping his gaze away. "She's got you an'all, you know."
Still reeling from his previous admission, she almost doesn't catch this one. "Eh?"
"Mum. You said she had us lot and that helps her." He shrugs. "She's got you to do that too. I think...I think you're maybe the best person she's ever had for that. You make her, I dunno, a bit less crazy."
Tears spring to her eyes again and she shakes her head. "You tell me not to be soppy and then you say that?"
"Whatever." He turns and pours the remainder of his tea into the sink. "S'pose I should go back up there. Meet him properly and that."
Vanessa clears her throat and nods. "I know your mum would really love it if you did."
He heads over and picks up his bag, looking back at her. "You coming or what?"
They walk to the pub the same as they walked to Tug Ghyll; each holding one of Johnny's hands. He begs them to swing him, so they do all the way around to the back of the pub, counting to three each time. Noah looks at her when they reach the door and she nods at him, encouraging him to go first.
The look on Charity's face when they enter the living room is one that Vanessa will remember as long as she lives. It's pure shock that quickly slides into confusion, and then finishes on elation.
"Babe!" She gets up from where she's sitting at the table with Debbie and Ryan, approaching Noah carefully. "I'm so glad you came back. I was gonna-"
She's cut off when he throws himself into her arms, wrapping his own around her and burying his face into her neck. He's repeating 'I'm sorry' over and over and Charity holds him tight, her eyes closed and a hand on the back of his head as she murmurs to him so quietly Vanessa can't make out the words. She deposits Johnny in front of Moses' toy box and comes back over just as Noah and Charity break their embrace. They smile at each other and Vanessa has to stop herself from crying again. Noah wipes at his face and turns around.
"So. Vanessa says you've got terrible taste in music. That right?"
Ryan breaks out into a delighted grin. "Oh she did, did she? This from a fully grown woman who listens to S Club 7."
Vanessa gasps, but Charity interjects before she can defend herself. "Oi!" Charity points at Ryan. "Now I won't have you going around telling blatant lies about people." She gestures at Vanessa, moving her hand up and down. "She's not fully grown at all, is she?"
"Hey!" Vanessa pokes her in the side and allows herself to be dragged into Charity's arms as Ryan, Noah and Debbie debate what constitutes 'good taste' in music. She wraps her arms around Charity's waist and lays her head on her shoulder, watching the three of them.
"Thank you. For whatever you said to him." The words are murmured against her ear before a kiss is pressed to her temple. "That's twice in one day you've brought him back to me. Looks like we need to add 'Noah Charmer' to your CV as well as 'Snake Charmer', yeah?"
"I didn't have to say much, really," Vanessa concedes. "He talked himself round in the end." She lifts her head and looks up at Charity. "He loves you to bits."
"Yeah." Charity rolls her eyes. "Someone has to, eh?"
Vanessa touches her thumb to Charity's chin, getting her attention. "He's not the only one who does."
Charity's eyes soften and she leans in, brushing her lips over Vanessa's in a whisper of a kiss.
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