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Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
There's more light than there should be in her bedroom in the middle of the night, that's the first thing that comes to mind. The next thing is that there's talking happening, very close to her bed. Charity opens one eye and sees Johnny and Moses standing by the bed, deep in conversation. Moses has his elephant under his arm and is holding Johnny's nightlight in his hand. His other hand is clutching Johnny's. The sight, at any other time, might have melted her heart. Right now, she just wants to get them back to bed before they properly wake up.
"Boys." They both jump when she speaks. "It's too early. Go back to bed."
"But I heared Santa on the roof," Moses confides, in a whisper. "I fink he's 'livered the toys."
"It's still too early," she murmurs. "Go back to bed for a bit, yeah?"
They just stand there, gawping at her. She rolls her eyes. "Fine, get in with us." She lifts the duvet and Moses takes a running jump, clambering over her to get in the middle of her and Vanessa. Johnny needs a bit of help getting up and over. Charity takes the nightlight from Moses and sets it on the bedside cabinet, turning to face the kids so it's not shining in her face. Vanessa's shifted so that her arm is across Moses' waist, but she's stayed asleep during the invasion, looks like.
"Right, now, cuddle in and go back to sleep for a little while. And then we'll all go down and see if Santa's been, okay?"
Moses shuts his eyes, elephant dangling from his mouth, arms poker straight by his sides, in a parody of sleep. Johnny, obedient little thing that he is, immediately puts both of his arms around her neck in what feels like a chokehold, his face pressed right against hers. She rubs his back, tickling the back of his neck gently, which usually sends him right to sleep. Not today, it seems.
"Charity?" He's trying to whisper, but he hasn't quite got the hang of it yet.
She rubs her thumb over the base of his skull. "Yes, babes?"
"What if Santa taked my toys to my old house?"
She tries not to smile at his concern, realising that it's very real. "Remember when we went to see him at the shopping centre?" He nods against her face. "Well, I gave him a little letter telling him about you and mummy coming to stay here with me and Moz and Noah. So he definitely knows this where you live now."
"Okay." There's a brief pause where she thinks he might be dozing off. But then his voice comes again. "Charity?"
She fights very hard not to sigh. "What is it, baba?"
He pulls back enough that she can see him in the dim light. His eyes are huge and worried and immediately her body is on alert to find whatever it is that's making him feel that way.
His voice wavers a little when he continues. "What if he's still here?"
She frowns. "What if who's still here?"
Pressing her lips together, she manages to keep her face straight. "Would you not like that?"
He shakes his head rapidly. Thinking back, he did hide behind Vanessa's legs for most of the visit to Santa's Grotto. Moses was right up there on his lap, rhyming off any number of toys he'd see in adverts. But Johnny hung back and it was only when both Charity and Vanessa coaxed him and held his hands that he got close enough to speak to Santa and get his little gift from him. He wouldn't sit on his knee, though. Clever lad, Charity thinks, not wanting to be forced into sitting on old men's laps just because they're wearing fancy clothes and promising to bring you expensive things.
"Right, well, Santa's magic, i'n't he?" She stifles a yawn. "So, the minute he hears a kiddie's footsteps coming down the stairs, he disappears back up to the roof with the reindeer and pops off to the next house. So there's no way he'll still be there when we go down. Okay?"
After taking a moment to think this through, he clearly decides it seems logical and he smiles and nods. "Okay." Once again, he snuggles into her arms. She holds him a little tighter than before, suddenly hit by a wave of protectiveness for this little mite who's not hers, but who trusts what she says and believes her unconditionally. She kisses the top of his head.
"And anyway," she continues, even though she should just let him settle down and go to sleep. "Me and Mummy wouldn't let anything bad happen to you, you know that, don't you? That's our job; keeping you safe. You and Moses." Unlike her own father, who not only failed to keep her safe, but actually exposed her to bigger and greater dangers. She closes her eyes and kisses Johnny's forehead. "We'll always keep you safe."
He lifts his head again, happy to keep the conversation going. "And Noah, at the park. So I don't fall off the slide."
She lets out a watery laugh, nodding. "Yeah, and Noah keeps you safe at the park."
"Can we go to the park today?" Moses voice pitches up. She sighs. She'd thought he was sleeping.
"We'll see," she tells him. "But it's time for sleeping now. We'll wake Ness and you know how scary she is in the mornings."
"Oi." Vanessa's voice is muffled by Moses hair. "You take that back this minute, Charity Dingle."
Charity widens her eyes at the boys. "I'm mainly talking about your hair, babe." Moses giggles.
"Mmmhmm." Vanessa's hand lands on her arm and slides down to find her hand, linking their fingers. "What time is it?"
"Dunno. Middle of the night, I think." Charity reaches over and picks up her phone, squinting at it in the low light. "Oh, it's just coming up for six...that's not as bad as I'd thought."
Moses sits up immediately. "Can we go down?"
Johnny copies him a moment later. "Can we?"
Charity groans and rubs at her face. They're definitely not going to go back to sleep now. She looks to Vanessa and finds her smiling in that way she does that makes Charity's chest feel too small for all the feelings it contains. She sighs.
"Yes, we can go down and see if Santa's been."
The words are barely out of her mouth but Moses is commando crawling over her and Johnny and is on his feet, bouncing with anticipation. Johnny follows him, his little sharp knees digging into her belly as she helps him over and down. Moses grabs his hand and they start babbling to each other about trains and dinosaurs and cars. A gentle hand touches her face and she turns to meet Vanessa's smiling lips with her own.
"Merry Christmas, babe," she whispers.
"Merry Christmas to you too." Vanessa pecks her lips again and then nods to the boys. "C'mon, we better go before they spontaneously combust with excitement."
Charity sits up and swings her legs over the edge of the bed, stretching and yawning before pushing to her feet and grabbing her dressing gown from the back of the door. She gets Vanessa's down too, still getting that little tingle of excitement from all of Vanessa's things being here, and hands it over with a smile.
They head out onto the landing, Charity has to right herself after almost tripping over the boys when they make an abrupt turn, Moses dragging Johnny behind him. Vanessa comes up beside her, sliding an arm around her waist and leaning into her. Charity wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses her temple. They realise at the same time, and just a second too late, what's about to happen. Moses starts pounding on Noah's bedroom door, ably assisted by Johnny.
"Noah! C'mon! Santa's been!"
Vanessa darts forward and grabs their little fists while Charity has to stifle a laugh. Noah's going to love that.
"Uh, boys," Vanessa says, gently guiding them away. "I think Noah probably wants to sleep in a little bit longer, okay? He'll come down in a little while."
Just as they reach the top of the stairs, Noah's door opens and they all turn to find him standing in just a pair of boxers, one eye open, the other squinting against the light. He rubs his face. "What is it?"
"Sorry, love," Vanessa tells him. "The little ones were excited about Santa."
He grunts, but can't hide his smile when Johnny and Moses run to him, clinging to a leg each and begging him to come downstairs with them. He ruffles their hair and sighs. "Fine. Wait here a minute."
The boys chorus their approval and Charity turns to Vanessa with wide eyes. "Well, if ever there was a Christmas miracle, our Noah voluntarily getting up before six o'clock is it."
Vanessa takes her hand and squeezes. "He loves them boys," she murmurs. "Even if he sometimes pretends otherwise." She smiles up at Charity. "He's a good kid."
A lump forms in her throat as she nods, squeezing Vanessa's hand in acknowledgement of the constant support and encouragement she provides. It never feels false, either. It never feels like she's just saying things to make Charity feel better. Everything Vanessa says feels like the truth.
Noah reemerges wearing a hoodie and his footie socks. Moses takes his hand and tugs, Johnny latching onto the other one as they move towards the stairs.
"Happy Christmas, babe," Charity says, as they pass by.
Vanessa sways against her, reaching out to touch his shoulder. "Happy Christmas, Noah."
He rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. "Merry Christmas."
As they follow the kids downstairs, moving slowly as the toddlers clomp down every one, Charity tightens her hand around Vanessa's. "Did you ever think, this time last year, that we'd end up here?" She laughs, a little nervous of the answer. "Living together...kids clambering into bed with us…"
Vanessa pulls her to a halt in the middle of the stairs, turning to look into her eyes. "D'you know what?" She tilts her head. "Yeah, I did."
Charity's chest grows warm and she can't fight her smile. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Vanessa nods and rolls her eyes. "Even when you were telling me you'd soon be bored of me and that we were just a bit of fun...I knew." Vanessa brushes her thumb over Charity's lips and smiles. "From the first time you kissed me, I knew it was different. That you were different." She shrugs. "So...yeah, I had an idea we'd end up here." A grin breaks out over her lips. "Completely and utterly in love."
Charity shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "Come here." She pulls Vanessa closer and they meet in a warm, soft kiss and only draw apart when Noah huffs loudly. Charity looks down at him, eyes narrowed. "What?"
"If you can stop snogging for two seconds, Johnny wants you to come down and open the door." Noah smirks. "Says you're gonna protect him from Santa or summat."
Her cheeks fill with warmth which she's sure Vanessa must feel when she kisses one of them. Vanessa's eyes are dancing and she pats Charity lightly on the bum. "Go on then, Santa slayer. Go and keep our kids safe."
"Shut up," she murmurs, but she heads down the rest of the stairs, stepping in front of the boys and giving Johnny a wink. "Ready?"
He takes hold of her hand and nods.
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